Tag Archives: culture

Book Review: THE GUERNSEY LITERARY & POTATO PIE SOCIETY by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

Mary Ann Shaffer’s THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY is a wonderful quirky book, that by turns is funny and tragic.

Juliet Ashton has survived the second world war. To cheer people up, she wrote a column under a pen-name. Now she wants to do something different. One day, a letter arrives from Guernsey, from someone asking for a small favor. Kind-hearted Juliet complies, and sends a note back in response. From such small beginnings, Ms. Shaffer spins a wonderful tale of wartime hardship, post-war optimism and the shadows left behind.

This is not to say that the book is completely faultless. Some readers will be put off by the fact that this novel is actually a collection of letters, and may wonder why the author chose to cast her story in this fashion. Telling a story like that is a wonderful way of dealing with POV problems. Every character has a chance to become the narrator of his or her own story, and it can be easier to bring out voice and personality when writing in first person, rather than limited 3rd.

Casting novels in letter-format also has a distinguished history. All those eighteenth century novels like PAMELA, CLARISSA, EVELINA and CECILIA were written in this way. In fact the novel got started because Samuel Richardson was publishing a book of how-to letters for the nouveau riches. Letter number 7 or 8 of this compendium was how to tell your parents that the squire is making unwanted advances. And so PAMELA was born.

Perhaps the other biggest problem with the novel is the revelation of the death of the main character, which occurs halfway through the book. Putting this revelation later would have enabled the author to use it to heighten tension. On the other hand, this character takes up a lot of psychic space, and so getting rid of her allows other characters to flourish.

But such objections are minor. If you allow yourself not to be put off by all the letters, I think you will find this novel a surprising treat.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for HE MUST BE SOMEONE,  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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Book Review: INHERITANCE by Lan Samantha Chang

Lan Samantha Chang is a well-regarded writer who is also the director of the Iowa Writers Workshop.  Her first novel INHERITANCE is the story of one family’s journey as they navigate the vicissitudes of 20th-century china, from the rule of the Emperors, through the first republic, to the second world war, to exile and communism.

The story centers around two sisters, one fierce and strong who represents China, and the other quiet and fey, who represents Taiwan. As the story goes along, it gradually becomes clear that the quiet sister (Yinan) is having an affair with her sister’s husband Li Ang.

The story’s strength lies in its resonant descriptions. Ms. Chang begins her novel with a powerfully-described prologue that shows the sister’s mother just before her death visiting a temple to ask for help. The descriptions of the ruined pagoda, the mysterious, slightly sinister nun, and the stillness of the lake convey the spirit of quiet hopelessness that suffuses the attitudes and expectations of the sisters’ mother Chanyi.

Given that Ms. Chang is such a good writer, it follows that I should have remained engaged with her main characters. But that is not true. I don’t think this is simply because the story is written in limited 3rd rather than 1st person. I think it is because Ms. Chang’s writing style incorporates too many “tells” that have a distancing effect. To give one example:

“Junan found herself unable to speak. She opened her mouth and closed it. Despite her preparations, the news had taken her by surprise. Finally, she thought of a question: “When will the wedding be?” (Page 71, paperback edition.)

This is beautifully written, but it leaves me cold. Chang is describing the moment when Junan learns that her fey younger sister has actually landed a suitor.  Perhaps it could have been re-written this way:

“Junan couldn’t speak. She opened her mouth and closed it. Had Yinan actually acquired a suitor? It seemed impossible. The thought gave her a strange sensation in the pit of her stomach. Aloud she said: “When will the wedding be?”

I am not claiming that I write better than Lan Samantha Chang (!), but I am saying that we live in a sea of sensations, and that we have to convey that when writing about our characters as a way of drawing the reader into our stories.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED, the Richard III story told from the point of view of his mother. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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I get a free critique of the first 3 pages of SOMEONE

One of the benefits of signing up for a Writers Digest Webinar, is that you get a bonus after it has ended. The first webinar I took allowed us to send in either a query letter of the first 300 words of our manuscripts. This webinar, titled  HOW TO HOOK AN AGENT, offered to send the agent leading the webinar the first three pages of your novel-in-progress. Accordingly, I sent in the first 3 pages of my second novel, titled HE MUST BE SOMEONE.

Set in 1922, it is a coming-of-age story about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. When Dominick Rossi arrives at Georgetown University to study at the School for Foreign Services, he dreams of meeting his aunt and three half-sisters. But Rossi’s actions lead to an unexpected death, and a forced separation from the woman he loves.

To my great surprise, I received a reply from the agent about a day after I sent in my pages. She liked them, but she also told me something useful. She said that my style of writing led me to do too much telling, which had the effect of distancing the reader.  This helped me to understand what it was about my writing that the other agent “didn’t love”.

Next: I enter the Amazon novel context

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED, the Richard III story told from the point of view of his mother. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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Book Review: SIGNORA DA VINCI by Robin Maxwell

SIGNORA DA VINCI is the story of Leonardo da Vinci’s mother Caterina. Hardly anything is known about her, only that her name was Caterina and that Leonardo was taken from her arms shortly after he was born.

Out of that lack of evidence, Robin Maxwell has spun a remarkable tale that vividly portrays life in northern Italy during the Renaissance. But the novel is uneven. It begins very well, with Caterina as the young daughter of an apothecary, who falls in love with a young nobleman (Piero da Vinci), bears his illegitimate child, and then has that child snatched from her.  All of that was beautifully rendered.

The book lost me when we got to Florence and Caterina dresses as a man in order to be able to save her son, has an affair with Lorenzo Il Magnifico, and gets involved in Italian politics and heresy.  There were many reasons for this:

  1. The second part of the novel deteriorated into a data dump of Florentine politics, with not enough attention paid to character and motivation.
  2. I never quite got why Caterina needed to dress as a man to save her son.  After all, he was 16 nearly 17 when she showed up in Florence as an apothecary named ‘Cato’. In that day and age, he would have been considered an adult. And what 17 year old wants his mother hanging around, especially one who is cross-dressing?
  3. The love-affair with Lorenzo seemed contrived. If any of you have looked at his portrait (he’s the guy with the broken nose), you get a strong sense that this is someone you don’t mess with. So his characterization as a gentle, sweet soul didn’t ring true to me.

I hated the ending where Caterina sails off into the sunset on a boat headed for ‘India”, (really America), because it just seemed so corny. I would have preferred something more down-to-earth.

However, the ending shouldn’t stop you from trying this book. It is vivid, it is beautifully rendered (at least in the beginning), and if you like reading about Italian politics circa 1490, and don’t mind suspending disbelief, this is the book for you.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED, the Richard III story told from the point of view of his mother. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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Book Review: WOLF HALL

Hilary Mantel’s ninth novel won the 2009 Man Booker Prize. WOLF HALL is most of the Anne Boleyn story told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister in 1530s England.

I didn’t say that it was the story of the rise of Thomas Cromwell, because Mantel doesn’t really tell us much about his transformation from street urchin to statesman. Apart from the famous opening scene where we meet him at the age of fifteen being given a brutal beating by his father, we hear very little about the protagonist until the year 1529, when his mentor Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York, is being stripped from power.

That’s twenty-nine years that encompass his flight from England, his roaming around the continent of Europe, his marriage to Liz Wykys, the birth of his children, not to mention how he met Wolsey and was mentored by him.

Admittedly, the historical record is probably sparse. But if an author is interested in building up character, especially the motivations of the protagonist, it might have been worth while to sketch in these years, if only to show more clearly who Thomas Cromwell was.

There are some good things about this novel. Mantel has a ear for casual speech, and an eye for memorable detail. Her portrait of 16th-century England is grittily real, and I am sure these qualities impressed the Man Booker committee.

But there are some odd things about this novel, odd because Mantel is a experienced writer who had written eight novels before she started this one.

  1. Why did she write in limited third rather than first person? Why the confusing “he” that so many reviewers mention, the “he” that means that Thomas Cromwell is speaking, that could have been rendered much more clearly if it had been changed to “I”. I have never read a novel, where I have had to re-read so many of the sentences because I was so confused about who was talking. This was an easy-to-fix issue, and I am surprised that Mantel left the reader hanging in this fashion.
  2. Where is the narrative arc? This story is rife with tension, yet there is very little drama in this novel. The tone is quiet, matter-of-fact. Perhaps that is what Mantel intended, but the novel would have been much more readable if the drama had actually been dramatized.

Despite all the positive reviews, my experience was not positive. Although there were patches in the novel that were tremendously interesting (descriptions of Queen Katherine, Henry VIII, and Anne Boleyn stick in my mind) the whole work seemed impressionistic and grey, rather than vibrant and full of tension.

For these reasons, I would not recommend this novel.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED, the Richard III story told from the point of view of his mother. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2010. All rights reserved.

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Poem: Moonrise

Moonrise moonrise1

Sunset

Day-part

Weekend

Day-clear

Starlight

Day-clean

Sunrise

Leaf-fall

Candle-mass

Mayday

Rainfall

Moonset

Windfall

–Cynthia Haggard writes poetry, novels and short pieces.  During the day, she is a medical writer.  For more about her medical writing services, go to clarifyingconcepts.  For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories.   (c) 2009. All rights reserved.

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Music Review: Anne-Sophie Mutter’s Beethoven Violin Sonata No. 8

515Q8GVYCYL._SL500_AA240_Though it is true that Anne Sophie Mutter can get a loud sound out of her violin, she is also capable of playing with great delicacy.  Witness her performance of some of the passages of the Beethoven Sonata No. 8, Op. 30 No. 3. The opening movement is one of great contrasts and subtlety, and Mutter does not miss any of the nuances.  The slow movement requires some very quiet and restful playing, and Mutter is able to provided the sotto-voce veiled tone that is needed to evoke the mood of poignant contemplation.  The third movement is a rollicking moto perpetuo in Beethoven’s grand style, and here, Mutter plays just as her reputation suggests, with what my violin teacher used to call a “terrific sound”, i.e. a sound that can easily cut through the intricate rhythmic complexities of a concert grand piano.

Deutsche Grammaphon has packaged Mutter’s performance of the 10 Beethoven sonatas on a DVD.  At first this took me aback as I thought I had purchased a CD.  However, I soon found that if I set the DVD player on my iMac to open a small window, I could work on my computer while listening (and occasionally glancing) at the performance.  Note to Mac users:  If you just insert the disc, you will be in Full Screen view.  To get out of it, eject the disc, to get the small window to pop up, then put it back in again.  Alternatively, you can open the DVD player and set it to the small window BEFORE putting the disc in. I do not find the DVD distracting at all, as I can easily hide the window behind other windows I have open, and in the meantime I can enjoy listening to this heavenly music.  This would be a perfect Christmas gift for those discerning classical music friends who have never seen (or heard) Mutter perform.

–Cynthia Haggard once trained to be a professional violinist. During the day, she is a medical writer and owns her own business.  During the evening, she writes novels, short pieces and poetry. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories.  For more about her medical writing services, go to clarifyingconcepts.  (c) 2008. All rights reserved.

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Who Do You Think You Are?

Orphaned British Pensioner uncovers 1,500-year-old family tree

exclaimed a headline in London’s Telegraph.

Without the benefit of the web, Mr. Roy Blackmore set out to learn about the family he never knew.  He started with just one document – his birth certificate – and went to St Catherine’s House London to find out more about a great-grandfather who was born in 1825. For the past twenty-eight years Mr. 172Blackmore has spent twenty thousand pounds (around forty thousand dollars) to scour archives, cemetery records and census registers to lay a paper trail that traces his roots back 1,500 years. He has traced 9,390 ancestors and is applying to the Guinness Book of Records for the title of the World’s largest documented family tree. He can link himself back 37 generations to William the Conqueror (1027-1087), 45 generations to Alfred the Great (849-899) and 1,500 years to the Cerdick family who lived in England in circa 500 CE.

In England, genealogy has become popular due to programs like the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? In this country, genealogy has become popular due to the Internet and the great effort made to put all the US censuses online in recent years.  I myself have done some genealogy.  I was curious about my great-grandfather, called George Washington Davis who was born in Acworth New Hampshire in 1830. I am British by birth, and like many British people I have American roots.  As I now live in the US, I wanted to find out just how American I was!  I was able to trace my American family back to the birth of George Washington’s grandfather Thomas Davis, who was born in 1752 in Amesbury Massachusetts.  But I had the benefit of the Internet and all those online searchable censuses.  And even then, it took me four years of hard work and many brick walls.
Do you have any stories to share about your efforts to find out more about your family?  What techniques have you found most helpful in trying to get good-quality information?  What strategies have you found least helpful? Do you have any interesting stories you would like to share?

To get started on your own research, go to Ancestry.

Image shows an old inn near Cullompton, Devon, where many of Mr. Blackmore’s ancestors lived.

–Cynthia Haggard writes short stories, novels and poetry.  During the day, she is a medical writer and owns her own business.  For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories.  For more about her medical writing services, go to clarifyingconcepts.  (c) 2009. All rights reserved.

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What’s In a Name?

TreesInAusterlitz

How many of you have a name you dislike?  How many of you wished that you’d had the chance to change your name when you were growing up? Many cultures in the world had initiation ceremonies that herald the start of adulthood, and at this time, a new name was bestowed upon the young person.  But we don’t have this custom in countries with European traditions.
Sometimes it is obvious why someone might want to change their name.  How would you feel if your parents called you Zowie Bowie, Dandelion, Dweezil or even Talulah Does A Hula From Hawaii?  Others of us are stuck with names that, on the surface, seem fine.

“I hate my name,” one pharmacist told me.
“What is it?”  I enquired, as I took my prescription from him.
“Jim,” he replied, investing that one syllable with all the loathing he could muster.

In my case, I was called Sally.  I started hate that name when I was about eleven years old.
Why?
I still think Sally is a pretty name for a little girl, but that’s just the trouble: To me that name has little-girl all over it as if it were outlined in cute little blinky-blinky lights.  At the age of eleven, I knew I hated my name, but had no idea what to call myself instead.
So I put up with it.
Several years later, when I married again, I had the opportunity to change my name.  By that time I was going around with my first husband’s family name and my second husband-to-be naturally wanted me to do something about it.  Faced with the opportunity of changing my name, I decided to change ALL of it. But what to call myself?  I agonized over this during one night of insomnia finally deciding that the name had to start with an s sound that mimicked the way my original name of Sally had started.  But of course, it didn’t have to be spelled with an s.  I finally settled on the name Cynthia.FarmInVirginia

Why?
As someone who was turning into an older woman, I really needed a name that conveyed dignity.  The three syllables of Cynthia give it a gravitas that Sally can’t possibly have.

I had no idea what a burden the name Sally had been until I stopped using it.

–Cynthia Haggard (formerly Sally Bogacz) writes short stories, novels and poetry.  During the day, she is a medical writer and owns her own business.  For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories.  For more about her medical writing services, go to clarifyingconcepts.  (c) 2009. All rights reserved.

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The Storyteller

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“I’d run a mile for a bar of nougat,” my grandmother proclaimed.  “In those days I could run like the wind.”
My grandmother was in her eighties when she told me that story.  She was not tall and not slim, her comfortable plumpness belying her words.  Grandma Stephanie became a grandmother late in life at the age of sixty-six.  Perhaps this was not surprising since she’d not become a mother until she was thirty-four, and her only child was a son.
“How I loved to dance,” she declared.
“What is it like to be a ballerina and dance en pointe?” I inquired.
“As light as a feather,” she assured me, beaming.
Even at the age of ten, that statement didn’t seem very probable.  I had never heard anyone else say that grandma was a ballerina.  But then, my grandmother was a great storyteller.  She had a natural gift for it.

I remember a picnic we had once:  She and I, my sister, my father and a friend.  It was a beautiful early summer day and we had come to see the racing at Goodwood in Sussex.  1151I remember lounging on the woolen blanket we had spread out in my cotton summer dress, leather brown sandals and white socks as my grandmother told her stories.  When she was on form, there was no one funnier.  Oh how she made us laugh!  And she was only talking about something that had happened to her the week before.  Her tales were not light and fantastical, but grounded in the realities of being a widow in 1970s Britain:  A person with a small income, who never learned to drive a car, and as a consequence had many interesting encounters at bus-stops.
But my grandmother’s storytelling abilities knew no boundaries.  She would repeat her stories so many times she was no longer sure what was true.  And when I realized that at the age of fifteen, I was scared.  I wanted something to hold onto in my life.  So I try to have it both ways, like controlling a chariot driven by two horses, with one hand on stories and the other on the truth.

Top image: My grandmother in 1975 at the age of eighty.

Bottom image: My grandmother as a young woman.

–Cynthia Haggard writes short stories, novels and poetry.  During the day, she is a medical writer and has recently opened her own business.  For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories.  For more about her medical writing services, go to clarifyingconcepts.  (c) 2008. All rights reserved.

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