Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, December 18, 2009

Book Review - Felicia's Journey by William Trevor



Note: This is a combined movie/book review, as some of the details only happen in the movie (see the comment section). The book is richer, but the movie is also excellent, and I recommend both.

Thought by many to be William Trevor’s greatest work in a lifetime of great works, Felicia’s Journey centers around eighteen-year-old Felicia (of course), an Irish girl adrift in the English Midlands searching for Johnny Lysaght, the young man who abandoned her in a rural Irish village, leaving her not only heartbroken but pregnant. Although Felicia’s very patriotic father believes Johnny’s run off to join the British Army (and Irish boys, he tells Felicia, should remain in Ireland), Felicia chooses instead to believe Johnny, despite the fact that he’s never sent her a contact address as he promised to do. Believing he’s working in a lawnmower factory in the Midlands, Felicia packs her bags and sets out across the Irish Sea. She’s convinced that once she finds Johnny, he’ll make things right - for her and for their baby.

Finding Johnny, however, is proving to be a far tougher job than Felicia counted on and her cash, never much to start with, is rapidly running out. Enter Mr. Hilditch, the catering manager in one of the factories in which Felicia goes searching. Middle-aged, a little overweight, and terribly alone and lonely, Mr. Hilditch, who seem quite innocuous at first, eventually offers Felicia his help. Although Felicia trusts him (she says he "isn't a man you can be alarmed about for long"), the reader soon realizes that being alone and pregnant is the least of Felicia’s worries.

In some ways, Mr. Hilditch seems the most mild-mannered of men. He takes great pains to make sure the food served to the workers is pleasing food, food that is more than just nourishment. As he tells a salesman who wants him to automate the company’s kitchen, "food should be served with caring hands, so that people feel loved."

The preparation and serving of food is something Mr. Hilditch knows quite a bit about. His late mother, Gala, was, in her prime, a TV chef and local celebrity. Mr. Hilditch, who has a lovely home complete with large, gourmet kitchen, routinely watches Gala’s TV show videos as he prepares his own dinner, following his mother’s instructions to the letter as he stuffs turkey and trusses up lamb.

Trevor, who loves writing about those on the fringes of society, has created a masterpiece of characterization with Hilditch. Although it slowly becomes clear to the reader that he’s so much more than the helpful, genial catering manager he at first appears to be, Trevor has given us so much of his background, and has plumbed his depths so completely that we can only hate Hilditch’s crimes. We find it rather more difficult to hate Hilditch, himself. In fact, at times, I found Hilditch even more sympathetic than Felicia, herself, who is not only naïve, but rather stupid as well. This did not mean, of course, that I wanted any harm to come to her. I didn’t. But though I was rooting for her safety, I sometimes found myself thinking how foolish and risky her actions were and how blindly she trusted Johnny and romanticized their relationship.

While Felicia’s Journey is a thriller in the sense that we’re constantly on edge, worrying about the fate of this totally clueless but rather nice Irish girl, it’s also a first-rate psychological study of the effects of child abuse, something that Trevor writes about masterfully.

Trevor’s trademark irony is also evident in this novel as well. Hilditch, a master of the lie, manages to make Felicia ashamed for the few times she didn’t trust him completely. "No one else had been so concerned" about her well-being, she muses. And shockingly, shamefully, we come to realize it’s true. People in the Midlands have been anything but concerned.

Felicia’s Journey is a beautifully layered, beautifully written, very emotionally restrained novel, like all of Trevor’s work. Yet it is profound. Trevor works his by now familiar magic in making us not only understand, but feel sympathy for a madman. We understand how and why he does the things he does, and while we certainly don’t want him to do them, we know it’s not his fault that he does. Mr. Hilditch may, outwardly, be the very personification of evil, but we see, not only that evil, but also the pain that’s causing it. He’s an incredibly complex and complicated character, one of the finest Trevor’s ever created.

Like almost all of Trevor’s work, Felicia’s Journey explores the workings of fate and chance. Felicia’s life and Hilditch’s life would, of course, have been different had fate not thrown them together. But from their initial meeting, however, it seems clear that life meant for their paths to cross. Both have something to give to the other, and both have something to take from the other. Both leave their indelible imprint on the other’s life.

Also characteristic of Trevor’s work are the marginalized characters, in particular, Miss Calligary, a "Bible gatherer," who, to a certain degree, both befriends and abandons Felicia, and annoys Mr. Hilditch. In some ways, Miss Calligary and those like her are more tarnished than Hilditch. Hilditch at least has a reason for acting the way he does, a very good one. Miss Calligary apparently does not.

Trevor heightens the suspense in Felicia’s Journey by giving us information only on a "need to know" basis. For example, we don’t immediately learn that Felicia is pregnant, though astute readers might certainly suspect it, and it’s certainly not a plot spoiler to know this information before you read the book. And though it’s pretty clear from the get-go that Mr. Hilditch has an evil card or two up his sleeve, we really don’t know for sure until the book is well underway and we’re hooked.

Trevor’s prose is as it always is: spare, unadorned, understated, and devastating. This is a case where "less" really is "more." Quite a bit more.

Felicia’s Journey is a book (and a film starring the brilliant Bob Hoskins as Mr. Hilditch) that’s impossible to forget. It gnaws at you. It begs you to read it "one more time" for the subtext alone, just to see what you’ve missed. Is it William Trevor’s very best work? In my opinion, it’s certainly among the top five, but for me, his masterpiece is still Two Lives, the book that contains the gorgeous Booker shortlisted Reading Turgenev and the very imaginative My House in Umbria. Choosing which of William Trevor’s works is his masterpiece, though, is like choosing which chocolate truffle is most delicious. All are so good, that singling one out is really an impossible task.

5/5

Recommend: Absolutely, with no reservations.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Book Review - Love and Summer by William Trevor


Whenever I pick up a new book by William Trevor, whether it’s a novel or a collection of short stories, I have to admit, I’m prejudiced. William Trevor is my favorite author. I know I’m bound to love whatever he writes. And, I loved his newest book, the 2009 Booker longlisted novel Love and Summer.

Love and Summer takes place in the quiet Irish village of Rathmoye in the mid-1950s and revolves around Ellie Dillahan, a young girl who was raised by nuns in an orphanage. When Love and Summer opens, Ellie, who left the orphanage to keep house for a lonely widower she later married, is seen by the town gossip, the middle-aged Miss Connulty, talking to a strange young man who, we later learn, is Florian Kilderry.

Florian, although a stranger in Rathmoye, grew up only seven miles from the town. Now, with both his parents dead, Florian, who’s always been a master dilettante, wants only to sell their once lovely manor house and leave Ireland behind forever. But until that happens, there’s the summer and there’s Ellie.

For Florian, the gorgeous, sultry summer begins as a dalliance, for Ellie, it’s an awakening, leading her to a revelation and a choice she never thought possible. Central to this revelation is Dillahan, Ellie’s husband. Dillahan has been a kind husband, but one whose life is still consumed by a tragic loss he suffered years before, a loss for which he unjustly blames himself. His union with Ellie has been a quiet one, one of friendship and mutual respect rather than passion.

Slowly, as summer progresses, Florian and Ellie become closer. Their romance, however, isn’t as secret as they want it to be – or believe it to be. Unknown to the lovers, Miss Connulty – when she isn’t arguing with her brother, with whom she shares a love/hate relationship – watches from behind lace curtains, fingering the jewels she inherited from her recently deceased mother and remembering the long ago day her own father took her to Dublin – a day that causes her to form an unusual bond with Ellie Dillahan.

But Love and Summer is more than the story of Florian and Ellie and Dillahan and Miss Connulty. It’s also the story of Rathmoye, itself. Trevor has woven the tapestry of the entire village into Ellie Dillahan’s summer awakening. At first, we may feel as thought we’re looking at the tapestry from the wrong side, but Trevor is such a masterful and assured writer, that by the time we finish the book, though questions remain, we know all is as it should be.

Love and Summer is a gentle, delicate, almost fragile novel. This is vintage Trevor, writing beautiful, incandescent, and totally assured prose. Every sentence seems to be a sentence that’s needed; every word seems to be the best one Trevor could have chosen. And just when we think the master couldn’t get any better, he tops himself. Consider this sentence, which comes near the end of the book:

They sing in their heads a song they mustn’t sing, and wonder who it is who doesn’t want them.

The characters, too, are beautifully composed, not only Florian and Ellie, but Dillahan, Miss Connulty, her brother, the local priest, and even the strange and strangely amusing Orpen Wren, a man who sees all, yet knows nothing and offers a sadly comic note to an otherwise elegiac novel. Like all of the people who inhabit Trevor’s books, the people of Rathmoye are ordinary people, yet Trevor delves so deeply into their soul that they become extraordinary. They, like Love and Summer, become unforgettable.

Note: Love and Summer was longlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, marking the fourth time a work by William Trevor has been either long- or shortlisted.

5/5

Recommended: Definitely, especially to those who enjoy highly literary writing at its finest.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The World's Greatest Authors - William Trevor


William Trevor is an author who, I suspect, is talked about more in the US than he’s actually read. Not that he doesn’t have his fans here. He does. And they are fiercely loyal. I should know. I’m one of them.

Often called the "Irish Chekhov," Trevor, who was born in Mitchelstown, County Cork, Ireland on May 24, 1928 certainly shares many qualities with Chekhov, but his stories, at least in my opinion, are more scrupulously crafted. Chekhov turned his back on the well plotted story, preferring instead to make use of narratives that mirrored life, so were, more often than not, random and inconclusive. This inconclusiveness is, to me, what makes a story Chekhovian in nature. Chekhov, himself, once wrote to a friend, It is time writers, especially those who are artists, recognized that there is no making out anything in this world. In keeping with his view of life, Chekhov never judged his characters, and more often than not, he refused to explain their actions, he simply stated things "as they were."

Like Chekhov, and like Thomas Hardy, whom Trevor greatly admires and by whom he was influenced ("That’s where all my tragedy comes from," he says), the Irish master’s stories are filled with random happenings and small, dark, often violent, acts that instead of being forgotten, influence a life forever. But even with all the randomness in Trevor’s stories, the thoughtful and careful reader will see how meticulously these stories are crafted, how every event, ever word even, is chosen to make a point. No, Trevor doesn’t tie up every loose end in a neat-and-tidy package, but his stories do say something significant, something other than "life has no point" and this is, to my way of thinking, very anti-Chekhovian. It is, as author William Boyd put it, "Trevorian."

Though William Trevor has won just about every prize literature has to offer (only the Booker and the Nobel still elude him, though he’s been shortlisted for the Booker three times, longlisted once), I think he’s often given short shrift by the public because of the "quietness" of his stories. There’s no doubt that Trevor’s novels and stories "stay with" the reader and resonate long after the final page is read, but there’s also no doubt that this is an author who leaves the pyrotechnics of writing to others. Trevor’s prose is gorgeous, but yes, it is subtle, so subtle that a less-than-careful reader might not "get it." Even his descriptions of his characters are spare – Their clothes were not new but retained a stylishness: her shades of dark maroon, her bright silk scarf, his greenish tweeds, his careful tie. – but oh, so precise. With William Trevor, "subtle" does not, in any way, indicate "vague."

And Trevor’s prose is rather old-fashioned as well. Some readers have told me they find it difficult to empathize with Trevor’s characters. I understand that problem. Trevor rarely (to be truthful, I can’t recall one instance) uses the first person singular "I" so popular in modern writing, when telling a story. Instead, he takes an omniscient point-of-view, and, again as pointed out by William Boyd, this is something we’d expect to see more often in 19th century literature. But that doesn’t make it bad or wrong. In fact, the omniscient point-of-view is the perfect point-of-view for the telling of Trevor’s quiet, yet quietly devastating, works.

I remember a lively discussion that took place in one of the book groups to which I used to belong regarding the significance of the black monk is Anton Chekhov’s story, "The Black Monk." It was a very divided discussion and one I'm sure would not take place regarding the motivation and manifestations of any of Trevor's characters.

Like Chekhov, Trevor refuses to judge his characters. Also like Chekhov, Trevor seems to lavish a great deal of love on the people he creates. He understands them. He knows what makes them do the things they do. And by the time we reach the end of one of his novels or stories, we understand his characters, too. Many of them, we may not like, but it’s really near to impossible to misunderstand a character created by William Trevor or feel at least a twinge of sympathy with his plight. I’ve never read a work by William Trevor in which a reason for forgiveness, no matter how heinous his or her crime, can’t be found.

While Chekhov loved to leave much to the reader’s individual interpretation, Trevor does not. He has a point to make, and he makes it. His stories have a definite conclusion that he doesn’t want the reader to miss. Consider these two ending sentences: Time would gather up the ends and see to it that his daughter’s honoring of a memory was love that mattered also, and even mattered more. And in another, Silent, she had watched an act committed to impress her, to deserve her love, as other acts had been. And watching, there was pleasure. If only for a moment, but still there had been. Chekhov never made his point so clearly, nor did he want to do so.

Returning once more to William Boyd’s article on William Trevor, Boyd stated, "Trevor is not the Irish Chekhov." This is true, and while the appellation is certainly meant as a compliment by those who bestow it, it’s really unfair to both masters. Chekhov was Chekhov, and he was one of a kind. Those who come after him and resemble him in several ways are Chekhovian. Trevor is Trevor, and, like Chekhov, he’s an original, and he’s created a very personal and unique way of telling his stories. A way of storytelling that’s so good he’s often referred to as "the greatest person writing in the English language today," a statement I totally agree with. William Boyd got it right: Those writers who come after Trevor, if they are talented enough, and lucky enough, will no doubt be known as "Trevorian."

Friday, October 23, 2009

So Little Time!

When I agreed to take over this blog from a friend, I thought I'd have more time for it. I was wrong. However, I'm going to try to make time.

Today, I was browsing books, looking for something new to read. God only knows why as I have more than enough books on my shelves right now to last me until I reach the ripe old age of 100, maybe 110. However, Cutting for Stone caught my eye. So, I decided to read some reviews of it and this review on about.com made me decide to steer clear of the book no matter what:

Don't judge this book by its cover. Cutting for Stone is a masterful first work of fiction by Abraham Verghese. Not since Khaled Hosseini debuted with The Kite Runner has their been a novel that could and should capture the hearts of people around the world.

Poor Adam Verghese! To have his first novel judged against the horrid and horrendously written, The Kite Runner, is, well, punishment in the extreme. Verghese may have written a perfectly wonderful book (and I rather liked the cover), but if it bears any resemblance to The Kite Runner, I want nothing to do with it.

I hope when Mark's and my book is published, no one compares it to something that was, to put it charitably, just plain awful.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Never Will Order From Amazon Again

What is amazon.com thinking? I have Amazon Prime, and my packages have always been sent two-day UPS. Never any problems. If I wasn't home, the UPS driver left the packages inside the first door or in the back, on the patio.

Well, last night I WAS HOME, for goodness sake, when the UPS driver came, but this morning I found a sticker on my door saying UPS had attempted delivery, but did not leave the package because "The Sender Requested a Signature." The instructions say that I can't even sign the slip of paper and leave it on the door. I can't authorize a neighbor to accept delivery.

Well, I think amazon.com is trying to destroy their own business. I know that I'll now order from Barnes and Noble ONLY. A lot of people work full time and can't be home to sign for deliveries. You'd think I ordered a $20,000 diamond ring from Amazon, but it was only a DVD worth about $19 and a $10 book.

WHY is Amazon trying to make it so very, very difficult for its customers? I know I, for one, will NOT be ordering from them again. I live in a very safe community. No one steals packages from our homes. I'm just going to be ordering from Barnes and Noble from now on. Amazon has always had superior customer service, but if they think keeping someone a prisoner in their home just to receive a $19 DVD and a $10 book is customer service, they have truly "jumped the shark."

Barnes and Noble, here I come.

P.S. A P.S. to this story. Amazon "fixed" the problem. They remain a good online store, but Barnes and Noble is great for browsing and they have that wonderful Starbucks section! :)

Saturday, May 9, 2009

I'm in Love With Short Fiction - Again

I've rediscovered my love for short fiction over the last year or so. After taking a writing workshop on the art and craft of the short story, I fell in love with writing short fiction as well as reading it. I wasn't too happy with my voice, though, but constant, day-to-day writing has cured that problem.

My writing mentor and writing partner encouraged me to submit one of my stories to a major literary publication, so I did. I hope for the best, but expect nothing at all. I have two other stories entered in two contests, so we'll see if I even make the top twenty-five! LOL You never know what someone will like. A different judge would probably choose a different story. One of the great things about literature is its subjectivity. What concerns me most about writing is that I gain the ability to produce a really first rate story, and I think I'm getting there. My two most recent stories are excellent. If the competition judges don't like them, then they don't, but I'm happy.

I'm also very engrossed in reading short fiction again - when I have the time. (My new clothing line, which pays the bills, has been taking nearly all my time.) I'm rediscovering Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce, all my favorites. Life is good!

Monday, February 2, 2009

PEN/Faulkner Winner Mark Spencer Talks to LCC About Literature and the Writing Process - An LCC Exclusive


Author Mark Spencer lives in Monticello, Arkansas, with his lovely wife and their two children. Besides being an award-winning author, Mark's a Professor of English and Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Arkansas. His books include the novels The Weary Motel (Backwaters Press) and Love and Rerun in Adams County (Random House) and the story collections Wedlock (Watermark Press) and Spying on Lovers (Amelia Press).His work has received much critical acclaim, including the Faulkner Society Faulkner Award for the Short Novel, The Omaha Prize for The Novel, The Bradshaw Book Award, The Cairn/St. Andrews Press Short Fiction Award, and four Special Mentions in Pushcart Prize.

Mark was gracious enough to give Literary Corner Cafe the interview below. I'm sure any aspiring writer can learn much from his words, and any reader will be fascinated with what he has to say.

Maya Angelou once said, “There’s no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I once read an interview in which you said you’d be happier and more prolific if you had thirty minutes each day to write. You’re an award-winning author, but you’re also a professor of English and the Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. What made you decide to pursue a career in academia? If writing is what makes you happy, why not write fulltime?

When I started working seriously at my writing in undergraduate school, I thought of myself as a short-story writer and had my doubts that I would ever write a novel. Making a living as a short-story writer was a real possibility back in the 1920s and 1930s, but I knew that in the 1980s I’d starve doing nothing but writing stories, especially literary stories. Fortunately, I discovered that I loved teaching college. I loved it in large part because I learned so much about writing and literature by teaching writing and literature. If you want to learn a lot about a subject, the best thing you can do is teach it. I learned far more after I started teaching than I ever did as a student. I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to make a living as a college professor—it’s a very fulfilling occupation and affords a writer a flexible schedule and an environment in which he feels appreciated.

Even novelists usually don’t make much money, so even after I published a novel with Random House, I found I needed to keep teaching, but by that time I had decided that I always wanted to teach—even if the time came when I didn’t have to, simply because I’d become as addicted to teaching as I was to writing. The teaching helped my writing, and the writing helped my teaching. Because of my publications and awards, I was able to get tenure and promotions. I also believe that being a creative writer helped prepare me for administration. My background as a creative writer helps me see a range of perspectives on issues and makes me inclined to think “outside of the box.” Early in my academic career I thought I would loath administration if I ever got forced into it, but as a department chair and as a dean, I’ve discovered that it really helps to have long experience imposing order upon chaos.

I know you believe writing is a discipline anyone can master if he or she only works hard enough. But do you really believe anyone who desires to write can do so? Do you believe that with the desire to write also comes the necessary depth and sensitivity? Do you feel there are any special qualities a successful writer must possess?

I do believe that success as a writer can result from 99 percent hard work and 1 percent talent—but there does have to be that 1 percent. It’s hard to imagine a truly good writer who is not capable of some depth of thinking, some sensitivity, some ability to appreciate the small details and nuances of language.

You’ve written novels, novellas, and short stories. Do you feel more at home with one form than another? Why or why not? Do you ever have the desire to expand your writing into the field of stage plays, teleplays, or screenplays?

I actually think that much of my best work has been my novellas. I strain to make a story long enough to be called a novel, and I feel my short stories often could do more. It’s somewhat unfortunate to excel at novellas—they’re difficult to place (too long for magazines, too short to be books). I’ve never consciously tried to write a novella. I simply end up expanding a short story into one or shrinking a novel down to one after cutting out all the lousy parts.

I’ve written a couple of screenplays. They turned out okay and I almost won a couple of national contests, but I’m not naturally inclined to think in terms of screenplays. I probably would be more inclined to work on screenplays if I saw more of a chance to have them made into movies. If you have any movie connections, let me know.

You’ve said it wasn’t easy for you to become the excellent writer you are today. Many writers feel that a book, as a human document, should be flawed. Given that you’re human like all the rest of us, do you now ever find yourself struggling with any issues of craft or reading a finished work and feeling there was something you just didn’t capture exactly as you wanted?

Like most writers, I’m never really satisfied with my work. Given the opportunity, I would revise a work endlessly.

The setting for your novels and some of your short stories is southeastern Ohio, an area where both you and I grew up. Your characters seem to feel a real sense of home and attachment to that area, yet they also seem to feel smothered and held back as well. Would it be accurate to say that this is autobiographical in any way? Can you comment on that, and is it fair to say that growing up there shaped you as a writer? Like some authors, do you see place as a distinct character in your work?

I don’t think I wrote anything that was any good until I discovered the importance of place. Early on as a writer, I avoided setting stories where I grew up because that setting didn’t seem very “literary.” When I started writing stories set in Adams County, Ohio, I found my voice. In a way, all work is autobiographical. Mine isn’t in terms of experiences usually, but in terms of observations and emotions, yes.

I use the landscape of southeast Ohio—all those hollows—to reflect the way characters feel restricted in what they can make with their lives. You can’t see far in that part of the country—too many hills and trees. I think most people, regardless of where they live, feel the limitations of their lives, especially as they get older, as life becomes a diminishing number of possibilities. When you’re eighteen, you can dream about being a professional baseball player and a millionaire. When you’re thirty-five, you’re probably not dreaming the same dreams.

You have a very distinctive, uniquely American voice. As distinctive and uniquely American as Mark Twain, and, I think, one that will prove to be as important and lasting. I think I could be given 100 different manuscripts, written by 100 different authors, and I could pick yours out almost immediately. Yet that unique voice is always a perfect fit. It’s never intrusive and always adds to, rather than detracts from, the overall charm/atmosphere of your story or book. Are you conscious of this distinctive voice when you’re writing? How did it develop and evolve?

I think my voice grew out of my discovery of place because when I discovered my setting I discovered my characters, and once I discovered my characters, who were very much a product of their setting, I discovered a voice that went with those people, their hopes, their fears, their desires.

I identify with your characters so easily. I find most of them very endearing. Two instances that come instantly to mind are when Scar in “Independence Day” crosses her hands over her breasts and thinks how cool it is that the sheriff just wanted a date with her rather than showing up to arrest her. Another instance is when Jo Rene in The Weary Motel receives a chain letter and her first inclination is to chuck it out, but not wanting to tempt fate, she distributes all the copies she made by putting them on the windshields of parked cars, instead. Your characters are often what some people would describe as quirky. Given this quirkiness, how universal do you feel your writing is? How well do readers seem to relate to your characters and empathize with them? Do you feel the characters you create are quirky, or do you feel you’re just illuminating the quirks all of us possess?

There’s a lot of me and my relatives and friends in my characters. As for my writing being universal, I hope that it is by being particular. One of the paradoxes of fiction is that the universal is derived from the particular. The best way to make a character a universal figure is to make him truly distinct. And I see no conflict between quirkiness and truth. Life in general is full of quirkiness—absurdity. A character can be quite quirky yet be very “real.” TV shows and Hollywood movies are, of course, full of quirky characters, but usually they’re just stupid and boring because they’re flat and incoherent. The quirky characters I like and try to create are complex, have emotional depth. To a certain extent, we’re talking about humor. There are two kinds of humor. One depends solely on exaggeration for its effects. The other—the superior form of humor—combines exaggeration with truth.

A recurring theme in all your work seems to touch on our existential aloneness and the fact that many of us try to run away from our problems and hide rather than staring them down. Is this something that you’ve consciously chosen to explore? How did this theme evolve?

Yes, I think it’s hard for people to connect, and when they do, it’s hard to feel confident that the connection will last. My characters, like most real people, know the devastation of a relationship or some other aspect of life changing in the blink of an eye. We all have our personal bomb shelters we go to at times in an attempt to save ourselves.

Another thread I see running through your work is your characters’ acceptance of their fate. Your characters aren’t passive people by any means. In fact, much of the time, they’re very active. And yet they seem to have accepted a fate that usually isn’t a very good fate. They seem resigned to their destiny. What draws you to people like this? What makes you want to tell their story?

I guess I just see something very poignant in that “giving in,” especially early in life, to limitations. It seemed to me that within five years of graduating from high school most of my classmates had settled into minimum-wage jobs, rapid weight gain, and domestic strife. Wrecks are always compelling.

As a reader, I feel many writers are less skilled at dialogue today than writers of say, twenty – even fifty – years ago. I often encounter dialogue that’s clumsy or imparts exposition in a clumsy manner. Much of the time, it just doesn’t ring true. Yours, however, is always dead center perfect. Scar’s exchanges with her young son in “Independence Day” are one example. Can you tell us how you developed an ear for dialogue that’s so pitch perfect?

Dialogue is the one aspect of writing that came to me naturally, I think. Coherent narrative was harder, and writing good descriptions about killed me. Regardless of how else a reader might feel about Ernest Hemingway, there’s something magical about his dialogue in his early stories and in The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway was an early influence for me.

How has your work evolved over the years? What qualities are present in your writing today that weren’t there ten or fifteen years ago? When your novel, Love and Reruns in Adams County was published, “The Dallas Morning News” called it “grimly funny, to be sure, but funny nevertheless.” To me, your characters seem to be less darkly comic in the more recent “Hungry Dogs, Wild Pigs” and “Independence Day” than they were in Love and Reruns in Adams County and The Weary Motel. In your very recent writing, the characters seem to be more gritty and raw. In some of your stories, I can even feel an undercurrent of violence. Would you elaborate a little on the evolution of your work?

I like to think that I have more depth as a person as I get older, and I hope that greater depth informs my writing. As for the violence, I think I’m just more comfortable taking chances with risky material, material that might come across as melodramatic. I’m a braver writer than I used to be.

You’ve won many prestigious awards. The Weary Motel won the 1999 Omaha Prize. You’re a PEN/Faulkner winner. You’ve won the Patrick T. T. Bradshaw Book Award, the 2003 St. Andrews Press Short Fiction Prize. You’ve been nominated for the Pushcart Prize many times. Did winning these awards change your outlook on your writing, or how you approach your writing?

Winning a few awards has been really nice, but I don’t think it’s changed my writing. Even if I hadn’t ever won an award of any kind, I’m sure I’d still be writing, simply because I love the writing. The work itself is the reason we write and all the reward a writer needs. Publication, prizes, money are just extras.

Ann Patchett once told me that she knew very little about opera when she began writing Bel Canto. That surprised me a little because so much of the book centers on an opera singer. Is there anything about your novels, novellas, and short stories that you think readers would be very surprised to learn?

I don’t think so.

When I was a student in one of your workshops, we talked about some of the stories we both consider great – Katherine Mansfield’s “Prelude” and “Miss Brill,” D.H. Lawrence’s “The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter,” Chekhov’s “The Kiss,” Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” and Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” just to name a few. What, for you, distinguishes a great story from one that’s merely good or adequate? What gives a story the “wow” factor? Can it even be pinned down?

I don’t think it can be pinned down. It’s not something the writer has complete control over. You would think, for instance, that a writer would get better and better as he got older and learned more about his craft and about life, but it doesn’t always work that way. I don’t think Hemingway got better with age—or Faulkner or Steinbeck. A writer might be very fine, and his work might be pretty consistently good, but only occasionally will he or she create a piece possessing that “wow” factor, which results from all the various elements—beauty of language, depth of character, pacing of action, evocation of image—meshing in just the right way.

I’ve read your novels and quite a few of your novellas and short stories. I like all of them, but for me the one that really stands out is the short story, “The River.” It really moved me. It still moves me when I think about it. The ending line gives me goose bumps. I keep thinking the day will come when the main character won’t step on the brake. The story stays with me. It moves me and it unsettles me, and because it does, I love it. Do you have a personal favorite among your work, and if so, what makes it special to you?

That’s a tough question. I suppose I feel a special fondness for my novel The Weary Motel. I spent a long time with the characters, getting to know them well. And some of my fondness for Weary Motel probably has to do with winning two national awards for it. Most important, I feel it has some truth to it—the characters and their lives. I like it that it’s both funny and sad. When I first started writing it, it was a very somber novel. About 50 pages into it, I decided I didn’t like the narrative voice and stopped working on it for at least a year. When I went back to it, I wanted to create a voice that would allow for effective tonal shifts, a movement between the very sad and the very funny, and the meshing of pathos and comedy. I definitely feel that certain works of mine are better than others. I’ve written and published some stories I will probably never read again. Reading them would be too painful.

Do you get much feedback on your work from “everyday readers” (those who are not writing or studying writing)? Do you find this feedback helpful? Has a review or a comment ever changed your perspective on your work?

Years ago a story of mine was being taught at the University of Illinois, and a student there wrote to me and asked me what I thought of his interpretation of some symbols in my story. What was interesting was that until that student pointed out the range of symbolic meanings, I was not consciously aware of them, at least not fully. Of course, it’s not necessary for a writer to articulate a full interpretation of his work the way a critic would; the writer just needs to have some certainty that each element in a story works in some way.I don’t think a review has ever made me change my perspective on my work. I’ve gotten some reviews that made me happy, and I’ve gotten some that didn’t make me so happy. Although it wasn’t thoroughly glowing, a review in Boston Globe was in a way my favorite because it compared me to Bruce Springsteen. I just thought that was cool.

Do you have an “ideal reader?” What kind of people do you envision reading your short stories and books? Do you write specifically for a certain type of reader, or do you write simply to please yourself?

I like the idea of appealing to both sophisticated readers and less sophisticated readers. I certainly appreciate readers who discern the subtleties, and of course I’m writing for those readers, but I’m glad when a reader of limited abilities enjoys the lively surface of one of my stories.

What authors have had the most influence on your own writing? Are these the same authors you enjoy reading?

Bobbie Ann Mason, Jayne Anne Phillips, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, Katherine Mansfield, Alice Munro, Ernest Hemingway, Nathanael West, Flannery O’Connor were all early influences. I’m sure they influenced me largely because I did enjoy them so much. More than when I was younger, I enjoy reading all kinds of things that I don’t think really influence my own writing. For instance, I don’t want to write like Bram Stoker but I enjoy reading Dracula.

Writers who really want to write their best, who are really serious about their writing take criticism gracefully and thankfully. However, it’s still so gratifying when we receive a sincere compliment. What do you consider the highest compliment you’ve ever received regarding your writing?

A lot of people have been kind and generous in regard to my work. A newspaper reporter interviewing me a few years ago said something that has stayed with me. He had read one of my books, and he said, “The thing about your book is that I can still smell it.” He meant it as a compliment, as a reference to the sensuous qualities of the fictional world I created.

If you could leave your readers with one legacy, what would you like that legacy to be? What would you like readers to take away from your work and keep?

I hope that readers are moved, that they laugh a few times, that they get the sense they’re not alone.

What questions are you never asked in an interview, but wish you had been?

I haven’t really thought much about what I wanted to be asked, but I do want to take this opportunity to thank you for your wonderfully insightful and intelligent questions.

Thank you.

I can think of some questions I’ve been asked that I thought were odd or unnecessary. A reporter once asked me how many sisters I had. And when I won the Faulkner Award, a TV reporter said, “Now about the word ‘Faulkner,’ what does that word mean?”

Do you have anything new we can look forward to reading soon? Is there anything special you’d like to share with us?

A story is coming out online in Clapboard House. And I have stories in recent issues of other online journals: Storyglossia, Contrary, Istanbul Literature Review, Ramble Underground, Tattoo Highway, Amarillo Bay. There are some pieces about my haunted house on Associated Content.

And now, for the question I ask all authors: If you were a character in Fahrenheit 451 and had to memorize one book, a book other than one of your own, which book would you choose and why?

It would be terrible to have to limit myself to memorizing only one book. I’d have to tell the leaders of the rebellion that I was flexible and give them a list that would include the following: The Catcher in the Rye, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Catch-22, The Shipping News, As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, Lolita, The Sun Also Rises, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill A Mockingbird, Madame Bovary, Rabbit, Run. I’d be willing to memorize a collection of short stories in lieu of a novel: Dubliners by James Joyce, "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" or "Flowering Judas" by Katherine Anne Porter, "The Garden Party" by Katherine Mansfield, "Men Without Women" or "In Our Time" by Ernest Hemingway, "These 13" by William Faulkner, "Cathedral" by Raymond Carver, Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger, The Complete Stories of Anton Chekhov.

I love fiction that gives me memorable characters, that evokes the complexities and ambiguities of life in the telling of a story that I don’t have the sense of having read before and that gives me the sense I’m being told the truth. One of the great pleasures of reading literature is that we feel we’re being told the truth—for a change. Every day, politicians, advertisers, teachers, preachers, parents, cab drivers, lovers and lunatics lie to us. It’s wonderful to read something or watch a play or a movie and get the sense that someone is being honest with us about life. I also love fiction that mingles pathos and comedy. After all, life is both funny and sad. It seems to me that any story attempting to be true to life will possess the elements of both comedy and tragedy.

Literary Corner Cafe thanks Mark Spencer for this insightful and illuminating interview, and we look forward to more of his work.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Book Review - The Classics - The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo "What makes a monster and what makes a man?"


The year is 1482 and the location is Paris. The Festival of Fools is in progress and Quasimodo, a poor, hunchback who lives in the great cathedral of Notre-Dame, the very heart of the great City of Light, has been selected the Pope of Fools. He is carried around Paris on a throne, amidst shouts and jeers, and proclaimed to be the ugliest person who ever lived. Archdeacon Claude Frollo, who has agreed to care for Quasimodo, intervenes by ordering Quasimodo back to Notre-Dame. Although all eyes are focused on Quasimodo and the Parade of Fools, Pierre Gringoire, a poet and playwright, is also active that day, attempting, unsuccessfully, to entice people to watch his play, rather than the parade. Of course this is Victor Hugo’s enduring classic, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.

As Frollo and Quasimodo return to Notre-Dame, they encounter three more people who will play major roles in this tragic story of undying love and betrayal. The first is La Esmeralda, a gypsy street dancer so beautiful she causes women to hate her and men to renounce even God. When Archdeacon Frollo and Quasimodo attack her, Gringoire tries to help, though he is as unsuccessful in his role as hero as he is in his role as playwright, and Frollo manages to escape. It is Phoebus de Chateaupers, the Captain of the King's Archers, who captures Quasimodo.

Gringoire is saved from death by hanging by La Esmeralda, herself, when she agrees to marry him for four years, but nothing can save Quasimodo from the rack in the Place de Greve, that grim place of shadows where death is ever-present. His pleas for mercy go, not unheard, but unanswered, until La Esmeralda brings him the water he craves. From this moment on, the lives, and the souls, of Quasimodo and La Esmeralda will be forever entwined. As this Romantic novel progresses, Frollo will turn to black magic in an attempt to cause La Esmeralda to love him; Phoebus, enchanted by La Esmeralda's beauty and passion, will want to seduce her; Quasimodo will go to any length, commit any selfless act, to save her. The ending of the novel is tragic, though beautiful, and shows us that love, though unable to overcome all of life's obstacles, refuses to relinquish its grip even in the midst of death.

Victor Hugo was born at the dawn of the Napoleonic Empire in 1802 and was an ardent supporter of the Republic. His writing is profoundly affected by the historical and political overtones of his time as well as by social reform. Hugo saw Notre-Dame as the very heart of Paris and both Paris and its great cathedral play a role so integral in this story that one could, quite justifiably, call them major characters as well. Until he encounters Esmeralda, Quasimodo loves nothing so much as he loves the bells of Notre-Dame. From its towers, he can see all of Paris, a city that is growing, changing, forever in flux. And just as Notre-Dame is the heart of Paris, Notre-Dame is the heart of this novel. Hugo writes about it in prose that is complex and flowing, and both haunting in its beauty and disturbing in its horror:

The restless light of the flame made them move to the eye. There were griffins which had the air of laughing, gargoyles which one fancied one heard yelping, salamanders which puffed at the fire, tarasques which sneezed in the smoke. And among the monsters thus roused from their sleep of stone by this flame, by this noise, there was one who walked about, and who was seen, from time to time, to pass across the glowing face of the pile, like a bat in front of a candle.

Hugo was a champion of the Romantic movement in literature, a movement that was, in great part, a reaction against classicism. Romanticism, rather than finding itself in the subjects of antiquity, stressed the importance of individual interpretation and the profound marriage of imagination and emotion. Although Hugo embraced the major tenets of Romanticism, he still believed that the Romantics could make use of the past. A student of medieval Christianity and a passionate lover of Gothic art and architecture, Hugo chose to set his tale of tragic romance in the Middle Ages rather than in his own time and chose to make his beloved Notre-Dame the center of all that happened. Most of the action of the novel takes place in or around Notre-Dame and from atop its towers. In fact, it might be said that the gargoyles of Notre-Dame are representative of Quasimodo, himself, or he of them. It should be pointed out that Hugo title his novel Notre-Dame de Paris - 1482 in French and he hated the English translation title; he felt it detracted from the emphasis on Notre-Dame and put far too much emphasis on Quasimodo.

Just as Hugo was a champion of the Romantic movement, he was also a champion of social reform. He was profoundly affected by differences in class, by the wide division between rich and poor. He strongly supported a Republic rather than a monarchy, and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame contains many scenes of incompatibility between the Clergy, the Nobility and the Third Estate (artisans, craftsmen and intellectuals). Every character is this book is either an orphan or has been raised as one. In this, and in the storming of Notre-Dame, itself, by a band of vagabonds, the novel foreshadows the great division that rends the very soul of France in the revolution of 1789.

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame is also a novel of fate and of destiny. Its characters do not believe in free will, but in a guiding power, a destiny that, for good or for ill, they cannot escape. Poor Pierre Gringoire believes that it is fate that led him to Esmaralda; Archdeacon Frollo believes that he is fated to love her. The characters' great belief in fate over the exercise of free will is epitomized in a beautiful, but horrific, scene during which Frollo watches a fly as it is ensnared in a spider's web.

The characters in this novel are complex and possessed of much depth. Quasimodo, himself, is a study in contrasts. Although he epitomizes purity and innocence, Quasimodo is deformed beyond all semblance of anything human. And though the bells of Notre-Dame are his greatest love, he is also deaf. Despised by the inhabitants of Paris, Quasimodo is the one who rings the bells of Notre-Dame, a sound its residents love to hear. Quasimodo might be said to representative of both Paris and of Notre-Dame, itself. At the time of the writing of this novel, Notre-Dame was very different from the great cathedral we know and love today. It was literally falling apart; the citizens of Paris cared little for it, and outwardly, it certainly wasn't a thing of beauty, though its core, like Quasimodo's was purity and beauty, itself.

Archdeacon Claude Frollo, the antagonist of the novel, is not, at heart, a bad person. He has many moments of true compassion and humanity. An orphan, Frollo cares deeply for his brother, Jehen, and he shows enormous patience when attempting to teach Quasimodo to read and write. His weakness is Esmeralda. Until she comes into his life, Frollo could be a good man, a respectable man, a man of charity, but his love for Esmeralda is so boundless it dehumanizes him, causes him to be less that what he was, while at the same time, transporting him to a place he thought existed only in dreams.

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame is an exquisite novel that can be read and enjoyed for nothing more than its tragic story of love, but it is also a novel that shows us the possibilities of weaving Romanticism with the events of the past, of the power of imagination to create a thing of beauty and passion that will live forever.

5/5

Recommended: Definitely.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

LCC's Exclusive Interview With Author Alan Brennert - The Conclusion


I loved Moloka'i, I found it so human, so touching, so real, and I'm so looking forward to Honolulu, but my very favorite piece of Alan Brennert writing is "Ma Qui." That was just a "Wow" piece of writing for me, and while I like many books and stories, not much makes me say "Wow." "Ma Qui" definitely did. I found it utterly unforgettable. Do you have a personal favorite among your work, and if so, what makes it special to you?

My favorite short story is one I wrote when I was in college: “Queen of the Magic Kingdom.” It was based on a real incident—told to me on my first visit to Disneyland by a friend who worked as a security guard on Tom Sawyer Island (!)—about a woman who claimed she wanted to live in the park. I think I wrote it in one sitting in my squalid but fondly-remembered little studio apartment in Long Beach, California. I still think it’s my best written short story, which is a bit depressing considering I wrote it when I was twenty years old; I don’t think I changed more than a comma when I reprinted it in my collection Her Pilgrim Soul and Other Stories.

Almost every review of Moloka'i (and I'm including reviews such as Amazon reader reviews here, not just reviews from the professionals) has been outstanding. Has a review or comment ever changed your perspective on your work? Do you read what others say about your work? Do you take it to heart? Have you been pleased with it?

The majority of reviews I’ve received on Moloka’i weren’t from professional sources—you can count on Mickey Mouse’s hand the number of newspaper reviews the book got upon publication—but from readers, either on Amazon or book blogs. And I’ve spoken with nearly a hundred reading groups as well, so I’ve been fortunate to have gotten a great deal of reader feedback, some of which I could never have anticipated. One book club brought up the fact that Rachel’s husband Kenji, though eligible for “temporary release” from Kalaupapa, chose not to take it because Rachel would have had to stay. “And he never told her,” one woman chided me. “Rachel never found out what he did for her!” She appeared to take it almost personally, and she wasn’t alone. I’d written the scene that way because it seemed like sound irony to me and it underscored the idea that in life we don’t always learn about all the things other people have done for us. But it never even occurred to me that a reader might find this upsetting.Sometimes this tension between what readers want to happen in a story, and what an author gives them, can create the most memorable fiction: no one, for instance, would remember Flowers for Algernon today if Charlie had retained his intelligence at the end (as one magazine editor, by the way, actually wanted). I’ve done this myself: the ending to my novel Kindred Spirits was consciously designed to confound readers’ expectations. But I’d never before done it accidentally! And yet withholding that knowledge of Kenji’s actions from Rachel ultimately provoked a greater emotional response from these readers than if had she known—got them to examine what they were feeling, and why—and so, to my mind, it more than justified the choice.

Moloka'i was a big hit with reading groups and book clubs, and deservedly so. Do you feel Honolulu will lend itself to group discussion just as well? Are there any tips you want to give book club readers to better navigate their discussion of your new book?

I think there’s just as much to interest reading groups in Honolulu as there was in Moloka’i: the role of women in Korean culture, the rich history of Honolulu in the 20th century, and most of all the relationship of Jin and her fellow picture brides, the way they support each other in forging new lives and new careers for themselves. And there’s a dimension to the book that it didn’t possess prior to November 4th: Honolulu is also the story of Hawai’i’s multicultural society, which has given us our new President, and how it came to be. The story of Honolulu is in many ways the story of Barack Obama, and the story of America as well.

Do you have an "ideal reader?" What kind of people do you envision reading your short stories and books? Do you write specifically for any type of reader, or do you simply write to please yourself?

Rod Serling was once asked this, and his response was that he envisioned an audience made up of people exactly like him. I think that’s all you can do, as a writer—to write about what intrigues you, and hope that there are enough readers out there who share your own inclinations and tastes.

Ann Patchett once told me that she knew absolutely nothing at all about opera when she decided to write Bel Canto. That surprised me a little since so much of the book revolves around an opera singer. What might surprise readers of Moloka'i or Honolulu?

Oh, I knew just as little about leprosy and Korea before starting those projects! But I don’t think it’s unusual for writers to be attracted to stories that expose them to new ideas. As somebody once said, after two or three novels an author runs out of autobiography, and unless you want to endlessly rehash old themes, a good writer seeks out new subject matter. Who wants to write only about things you know? The pleasure is in learning new things, then sharing them with readers—along with, one hopes, a compelling personal story.

What authors have been most influential in your own writing? Are these the same authors you enjoy reading in your spare time?

As a hatchling writer I was imprinted upon by a wide, some might say bewildering, range of writers. As a teenager I loved F. Scott Fitzgerald, especially The Great Gatsby, but an equally powerful influence on me was Daniel Keyes’ aforementioned novel Flowers for Algernon. Nathanael West made a big impression: Miss Lonelyhearts and Day of the Locust. Ray Bradbury in his entirety. Dramatists like Rod Serling, James Costigan (Eleanor and Franklin), and Robert Anderson, whose play Silent Night, Lonely Night was made into a poignant TV-movie in 1969 (and which inspired my novel Kindred Spirits). John Knowles’ A Separate Peace and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Edward Lewis Wallant’s The Tenants of Moonbloom. Anything by Gerald Kersh, a prolific British writer of the last century who could write absolutely anything—comedy, mystery, fantasy, war stories, historical fiction—with equal dexterity. One of the most important books in my development as a writer is one you may never have heard of: Ourselves by Jonathan Strong. I stumbled across it as a student, and though its cover—a stark silhouette of black trees and a small figure against a white background—appealed to the gloomy young man in me, the novel itself was a delightful, charming coming-of-age story with immensely likable characters and sweet, clear, evocative prose. For years afterward I would periodically go back and re-read the book, each time holding it up to myself as a standard of excellence against which I judged my own work (and in those early years often found myself sadly wanting). Jonathan Strong has written nine other books, all of them beautifully written and well worth reading.More recent books I’ve enjoyed and admired include Larry McMurtry’s The Desert Rose (a perfect cameo of a novel); Harriet Doerr’s Consider This, Señora, which was indirectly responsible for me writing Moloka’i; Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay; David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars; and Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. And a few less familiar titles: Michael Cassutt’s Red Moon, an excellent historical thriller about the Russian space program; Julie Phillips’ extraordinary biography James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon; and a brilliant collection of short stories by Carter Scholz, The Amount to Carry.

Are there any upcoming appearances/events you'd like to share with us?

I’ll be doing a West Coast book tour when Honolulu is published next March: Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Honolulu. A full itinerary will be posted on my website when it’s been finalized. And as always I’m happy to chat with any book club with a speakerphone or a Skype connection.

What can we expect to see from you next? More novels? And will they be set in Hawaii, too?

More novels, yes, though not another Hawai’i book, at least not immediately; I want to do something different for my next book, though it will also have a historical element. But I am currently working on a short story set in Hawai’i—one that uses Hawaiian mysticism as a template, even as “Ma Qui” used Vietnamese religion—for an anthology I’ve been asked to contribute to.

If you could leave your readers with one legacy, what would you like that legacy to be? What would you like readers to take away from your work and keep?

The characters. I can only hope that readers might remember Rachel and Jin and my other characters the way I still remember—still live with—Charlie Gordon from Flowers for Algernon, or Xavy and Jeff and Susannah from Ourselves.

And now, for the question we ask all authors: If you were a character in Fahrenheit 451 and had to memorize one book, a book other than one of your own, which book would you choose and why?

That’s a great question. I can’t help but envision the final scene in Francois Truffaut’s film version of Fahrenheit, with the snow falling on the Book People, including the young man who runs up and declares, “I’m The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.” The critic Pauline Kael lambasted Truffaut for that little touch, sniffing that Ray Bradbury was hardly deserving of such posterity. Well, to hell with her: I’d be proud to be Bradbury’s The October Country. So many unforgettable stories in that one volume—“Skeleton,” “The Dwarf,” “The Jar”—and such luminous prose; memorizing those words would be a pleasure.

Read more about Alan Brennert and his books at his Web site: http://www.alanbrennert.com/.

This ends Literary Corner Cafe's exclusive interview with author Alan Brennert. Look for his new novel, Honolulu in stores in early March or preorder it from amazon.com.

Copyright, Literary Corner Cafe, all rights reserved. Copying without express permission of Literary Corner Cafe is prohibited.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Book Review - The Classics - Dracula by Bram Stoker - "...how sweet the morning can be."


When the dry leaves of autumn began to crumble into dust, when the winter wind began to howl through the bare branches of the giant maples on the front lawn, and when the first snowflakes began to fall, I wanted something really different to read, something very atmospheric and in keeping with the dark, gloomy days and long, seemingly interminable nights. I pulled one book after another off my shelves, but nothing filled the bill until I started reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

I’ve seen so many movie versions of the Dracula legend and none of them, absolutely none, begin to do this book justice. It’s so rich, so haunting, so tragic, so supremely human that once I picked it up, I just couldn’t put it down. Even though I knew how things would work out, I didn’t know how we’d get there, at least not in this book, and I got totally caught up in the story, totally involved with the characters.

Surprisingly, Dracula isn’t Dracula’s story. In Stoker’s book, the Count spends most of his time “off-stage.” This book really belongs to a small group of courageous victims who band together to defeat the forces of darkness.

Told in a series of letters and journal and diary entries, with the occasional newspaper clipping, the book opens when Jonathan Harker’s small law firm sends him from London to Transylvania to complete a real estate transaction at Castle Dracula. Although the Count, on the surface, seems to be a charming and most accommodating host, Jonathan soon becomes suspicious, and after a long and unscheduled delay, follows the Count back to London.

In London, Harker and his bride, Mina, are drawn into the quest to end the Count’s bloody reign of terror when Mina’s dear friend, Lucy Westenra, falls victim to Dracula’s inevitable bloodlust. They’re joined by Lucy’s fiancé, Lord Godalming, Godalming’s friend, the psychiatrist, John Seward, and Dr. Seward’s friend, the fearless Dutch vampire hunter, Abraham Van Helsing. Rounding out the group is a brave and gallant Texan, Quincey Morris, also a friend of Lord Godalming.

The story belongs to everyone in this group, and the point of view constantly shifts from one to the other depending on whose letter or journal we happen to be reading. Stoker really didn’t work hard enough on giving each of his narrators a distinct voice (other than Lucy and Mina), but this didn’t stop me from enjoying the story thoroughly. The one exception to this was Van Helsing. Van Helsing’s extremely broken English, though easy enough to understand, started to grate on my nerves a bit once I passed the book’s halfway point. By the time I reached the end, he started sounding just plain silly, and though he was good and brave and honest and kind, I began losing sympathy for him. Occasionally, other minor characters speak in an almost indecipherable dialect, but fortunately, their appearance in the book is limited to a paragraph or two, and their speech does nothing to stop or slow the book’s momentum.

Dracula is, of course, a 19th century book, and because of that, some people are going to find the language stilted. For example, Lucy begins one of her letters to Mina with “Oceans of love and millions of kisses….” I doubt any woman would write to another in this manner today, but rather than feeling stilted, I felt it enhanced the book’s atmosphere. It really gave me a terrific sense of time and place, and without that sense of time and place, the Dracula legend, at least for me, would have suffered.

So many people think of Dracula as “just” another horror story, or “just” another vampire legend, but nothing could be further from the truth. For me, this book was more of an adventure story, a very atmospheric adventure story. It was, of course, quite Gothic, something I really loved, and something I was really looking forward to. It certainly did not disappoint.

Bram Stoker was a prolific writer, but only one of his works, Dracula, is still widely read today. There’s a good reason for that – the book is truly superb.

4.5/5

Recommended: Yes