Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: September 2006

Review: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
10/10, a delicate, poignant story in a well-crafted modern alternate reality

From the first paragraph, in which Ishiguro’s heroine identifies herself as a “carer,” it’s clear that we’re in a slightly different world. That is the first and one of the best examples of Ishiguro’s lovely language telling you many things in one. There is indeed in this world an occupation called “carer,” distinct from “caretaker,” but in addition, our heroine Kathy is a carer in life.

She introduces us slowly to the basics of her profession without anything that feels like needless exposition. Ishiguro reveals his world at just the right pace, allowing us to discover what Kathy already knows, so that by the time she dives more deeply into reminiscing about her childhood at school with her friends Ruth and Tommy, we have a context into which to place these memories. School brings up more questions: the children are educated in Hailsham, an isolated boarding school with some secrets that they are as ignorant of as we are. Kathy, from her adult perspective, lets us know that the secrets will be resolved with lines like, “Of course, if we had known then,” and narrates her past with an affectionate melancholy, whose cause becomes clear as we read.

The dynamic between Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy forms the core of the book, carrying the book from the point at which we know what the secrets of Hailsham are. They are never exposed in a dramatic reveal, but after a certain point it is just assumed that you understand, just as Kathy says the children figured it out, but never talked about it. It’s just not as important as the relationships developing between the three of them. The synergy between the world and the characters kept me engaged, turning pages all the way up to the end.

The narrative voice, though subtle, is one of the strengths of Ishiguro’s work, and here it is beautiful, artfully rendered. I picked up my copy of “The Remains of the Day” (another brilliant book) to compare, and was amazed at how, upon opening to a random section, I was immediately immersed in the voice of the butler. It was really only that contrast that made me go back and think about how perfect the voice in “Never Let Me Go” is done. Kathy really is a carer, explaining at every turn how she felt and how she supposes other people feel, in an authentic and entirely sympathetic way. She is the perfect character to carry the story and message through the book.

Lovely language, a touching story, and characters so real you feel like you used to know them, once upon a time. What more could you ask from a book? If you are unfamiliar with Ishiguro’s work, you are doing yourself a disservice. Remedy that immediately.

Review: Assassination Vacation

Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell
8/10, a funny, educational tour through the tragic history of the country’s most dangerous job

Sarah Vowell is probably best known at this point for her work as Violet Parr in the Pixar movie “The Incredibles.” Before that, and since, she has been featured on NPR (“This American Life”) and has written several books. “Assassination Vacation” is the first thing I’ve read of hers, but I was immediately enamored of her wry manner, which is not quite self-deprecating, but more unabashedly self-revealing. Like David Foster Wallace, her quirks and foibles take center stage from the first anecdote, in which she regales an older tourist couple from Connecticut with her gushing review of the musical play “Assassins,” about the three men who killed the President of the United States in 1863, 1881, and 1901.

These three men form the core of her book, in conjunction with the men they killed. She says that the hubris required to kill a President is almost as much as is required to actually run for the office, which links the men together. Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s son, is the other link between the three assassinations, having been present at all three. That and other fascinating facts, like the existence of a free love colony in upstate New York in the late 1800s, make this book a quick, engaging read, and Vowell’s voice is an entertaining companion throughout, though I admit I didn’t really imagine Violet reading it aloud until I listened to a sample of the audio book.

Describe what you see

In our workshop this past week, we read a story in which the characters were anthropomorphic, but apart from the lines in the story where the species were specifically noted, we didn’t feel that the anthropomorphic nature of the characters came through in the description. This likely leads to the “humans in animal suits” criticism leveled at some furry fiction.

As an exercise, we tried a technique stolen from a previous workshop: writing a piece or description without using the verb “to be,” so you can’t just say, “Martin was a fox.” You have to describe the character in action, letting his or her characteristics come through in activity rather than in passive description. Overall it was a success; the trick is to remember that through your writing. Sometimes, I know, I focus more on the characters and let the descriptions lapse, but on an editing pass through, you should definitely be aware of the unique way each character acts and moves. For me, that’s part of playing the story as a movie in my head, so I watch them and then write down what I see. I don’t know whether that technique will work for you, but give it a shot!

Review: The Story of Lucy Gault

The Story of Lucy Gault, by William Trevor
9/10, a beautifully told story of a girl’s life in Ireland

I was introduced to William Trevor in my first fiction workshop, with a short story “Death in Jerusalem,” about an Irish priest who travels to the Holy Land with his brother. In that story, the brother is reluctant to leave his ailing mother, as he’s her only companion; the priest is more carefree and pushes him to come along.

“The Story of Lucy Gault” has the same rich sense of character and place, set in a small village in the hills of Ireland where the Gaults have lived for years. Their time has been peaceful, if not prosperous; Trevor recounts a stretch over which a good portion of their fields were lost to neighbors in “a series of disastrous card games.” This sounds like an amusing throwaway detail, but it is more than that. The history of the Gaults, and of Lucy, is shaped by tragicomic events like this one, and Trevor has a magnificent, gentle touch in his rendering of the characters who grow from that history.

The events of the book are set in motion when the Gaults’ home is attacked by local youths, because the captain served in the British army and took a British wife. This was just before the Irish Civil war, when tensions were high. A number of other families have already left Ireland, but the Gaults stubbornly remain–until their daughter, Lucy, wanders into the surf and is drowned. Grief-stricken, they leave for England but decide to wander Europe, leaving no forwarding address.

Lucy, however, did not wander into the ocean but the woods, where she broke her ankle and nearly starved to death before being found, a day after her parents left. The two servants left behind to tend the estate bring her back and raise her in her family home, while various parties attempt in vain to contact her parents. Lucy grows up with a sense of guilt at the pain she’s caused them with her foolishness, in desperate need of forgiveness. How she attains it, and what she does with it, are at the core of this lovely, sad book.

Trevor’s writing is beautiful and gentle, evocative of the beauty and poverty of Ireland and the people who inhabit it. His vivid descriptions and just slightly larger than life events and personalities make the book a pleasure to read; while you ache for Lucy, you can’t help but envy her life, as she makes the best of her predicament. Subtly, Trevor takes us through the ages and the changes in Ireland, which have little effect on Lucy herself, but serve as backdrop to the constant life she crafts for herself.

More "fuzzy" words…

…and not in a good way.


I found my copy of “The Ten Percent Solution,” which goes (in my thinking) a bit overboard in its pursuit of fuzzy words, but which is a useful guide, and reminded me of the above. My thoughts on the above words:

VERY. I’m proud of the fact that I didn’t use this one too much in the manuscript. I check for it while writing now, because I’m aware of it. I leave it in when people are speaking, because it’s more a spoken modifier than a written one–we want to convey an amplification of something in speech. In writing, there’s almost always a better way to do it, unless there’s a rhythm you’re going for. For example, “Something was very, very wrong” doesn’t have the same ring as, “Something was wrong.” But you could say, “Something was drastically wrong.”

ALMOST. I use this one a lot. Almost too much. Here’s an example: “a faint scent that disappeared almost as soon as she noticed it.” That’s a colloquialism; wouldn’t it be better as, “a faint scent that disappeared as soon as she noticed it”? What does “almost” do there except take up space?

ABOUT. This isn’t in the sense of “I asked her about the movie,” but in the sense of, “it was about three feet long.” Other ones like this I use a lot: “a few,” “a couple,” “some.”

The joys of editing! These little things don’t make a huge difference in the individual cases, but I do think the overall cumulative effect makes your prose sharper and easier to read.