My Name is Red

My Name is RedIn a prior post I explained that I do not intend to write proper reviews of books. I also mentioned that for a book to receive five stars from me, it would have to be more than entertaining and well written. It must also stick with me past the final page. Some books are technically perfect but forgettable. Others are unforgettable but could do with another hard edit, or they have some niggling thing that prevents the perfect 10 in my eyes. And, as I explained, trying to review books as a beginning novelist just feels awkward.

I don’t generally read reviews either. When I choose a book (or film) I like to know as little as possible before I begin. I don’t even read back covers. Writers work incredibly hard to create a story that unfolds and reveals information in exactly the right way. I hate to miss that experience by knowing anything before the writer wants me to. Tell me the genre and the period and that you recommend it – let the writer do the rest.

However, I would like to use this blog to make observations about various books and invite dialog on certain aspects. Which brings me to these thoughts about My Name is Red.

My Name is Red appears on many historical fiction “must read” lists and is set in a time/place which is well off the beaten path. So it seemed a good candidate for a lover of long ago and far away tales. Also, although 16th century Istanbul is many hundreds of years and miles from my current period of study – for my interests, that’s really close!

This murder/mystery was written in Turkish by Orhan Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature. With all the accolades, I figured I’d better read this and was excited to find something so intriguing.

At the time I read it, I was working about 60 hours per week at a brutal day job. I think it took me four months of dozing off before bed to get through this book. At times it was only the need to finally learn the identity of the murderer, and my general reluctance to ever abandon a book, that kept me going. (Don’t worry, no spoilers here. After all of that, I can’t remember who the murderer turned out to be.)

Many aspects of the book appealed to me: as an artist, I loved that the story is set among a community of miniaturist painters; the structure, voice and non-western worldview is compelling; the characters are complex and therefore unsentimental in their portrayal. But I felt vast portions of the book were repetitive and going no where, slowly. I could have enjoyed more of this world, these characters, if it had been additional material rather than the feeling that I was going in circles.

By the time I was done with it, I was relieved. And finding out the answer to the whodunit was, meh.

But here’s additional support for why I won’t formally review this book or others. Sometimes it is only after time and distance that the true impact of a book is realized. I am now 5-6 months from finishing that slog but find the book is still with me. Something of it’s essence lingers. What is it and why? I’m not really sure. I think a large part of it is the believability of the characters. They were just fickle, inconsistent and imperfect enough to truly breathe.

One intellectual question persists – I wonder if I were capable of reading the work in the original language, would the word crafting have extraordinary merit? Is it more beautifully written in the original? Did I miss some important aspect of the work by reading a translation?

This question buzzed around my head while I read the book and resurfaced when I read the article in the last Historical Novel Review, “Translating a Genre” by Lucinda Byatt. Ms Byatt makes a great argument for more historical fiction to be translated into English (Hear! Hear!). She also notes the difficulty for publishers to be sure of their translator’s skills. I couldn’t possibly critique Erdag M. Guknar’s translation of My Name is Red, but I can’t help wondering if I’ve missed out on something in the writing?

This book is also steeped in historical references that are probably familiar to eastern readers but are well outside of my exposure. It was fun though, just today, while reading The History of al-Tabari for my own research, to come across the historical account of Shirin and Husrev, who’s love story figures so prominently in My Name is Red. I felt like I’d run into an old acquaintance.

I get the feeling that My Name is Red opened my mind to things I have yet to realize. The more reason not to rattle off hasty book reviews using the grade-inflation-tainted star system.

Recommended.

I’d love to hear from others who have read My Name is Red and your reaction to it. Is it just me? How do you feel about official/starred book reviews?

Should Writers Write Reviews?

I might have already mentioned – I do not intend to provide formal/starred book reviews on this blog. I discussed this decision with several other writers and we felt reviewing novels within our own genre could be awkward and is best left to others.

Since reviews are crucial to a book’s/writer’s success, I decided some time ago I would only review a novel if I could give the work at least four stars. Simply completing and making available a mediocre novel is a heroic feat. But a three star review could discourage and damage a writer even if they had made great strides with that piece. I don’t want to be the one to bring down someone who has worked so hard.

For me to write a five star review, a book must be not only well crafted, but also memorable. I have read many entertaining and near flawless books only to forget them the next day. A five star book had better stick with me for days after the final page.

Until starting this blog those were my personal guidelines. In an era of grade inflation I’m a bit stingy with my “A”s (5 stars!). And this shows the subjectivity of reviews – who am I to withhold a five star review from a perfect, forgettable beach read?

As I begin to write I am naturally looking more closely at what I read, the same way my theatrical self notices the lighting at a live performance. I am learning from others, both techniques and pitfalls. To write a balanced review seems even more difficult now. So I have decided to refrain completely from starred reviews here, on Amazon or Goodreads, etc. I will, however, share my response to and observations about writers, books or passages that I find noteworthy. I may also link to the reviews of others. There are plenty of places to find them.

While thinking about this problem I stumbled across the New York Times Bookends column, “Are Novelists Too Wary of Criticizing Other Novelists?”. In it Zoe Heller and Adam Kirsch describe the problem but also argue the benefits of novelists reviewing novels. I see their point but will stick with my decision and defer writing formal/starred reviews until such a time that I have earned a literary voice. (What a pleasant thought!)

I would love to hear how others handle this question. As a writer, are you comfortable writing Amazon, Goodreads, blog, etc. reviews of material in your own genre?

Nine More!

As promised, I reviewed the Historical Novel Society‘s most recent reviews of new and upcoming historical fiction set in out of the way places. The following reviews are available online:

The Year of the Horsetails – R.F. Tapsell – Eastern Europe – Early Middle Ages

When the Jungle is Silent – James Boschert – Malaysia – 1964

Island of the White Rose – R. Ira Harris – Cuba – 1958

Equilateral – Ken Kalfus – Egypt – Victorian

Sword & Scimitar – Simon Scarrow – Malta – 1565

Trees without Wind – Li Rui, (John Balcom – trans.), China, 1966-76

The Twelfth Department – William Ryan – Moscow – 1930s

From the Mouth of the Whale – Sjon, Victoria Cribb (trans.) – Iceland – 17th century

The Wayward Moon – Janice Weizman – Galilee, 894 AD

So, have a look and add to your teetering stack of TBR.

28 New Long Ago & Far Away Reading Options

Yesterday I received the latest edition of the Historical Novel Review – the quarterly magazine published by the Historical Novel Society. I am always anxious to see the reviews of new historical fiction and note which ones need to be added to my To Be Read list. In this round, I found 28 books under the printed reviews which fit our Long Ago & Far Away focus. For easy reference I am posting a list of those books here.

Three books under “Biblical” fit LAFA’s (Long Ago & Far Away) loose parameters, but since this period/location gets a lot of attention, I will skip them for this compilation. There are seven in the “Classical” category, six of which take place in either Rome or Greece, again, not really off the beaten path. I did include one from the classical period because it takes place in Turkey – a bit out of the way. I’m also skipping crusader stories since the context is already popular. I have included one from that period due to it’s Spanish setting being less familiar.

The list:

The Last King of Lydia – Tim Leach – Lydia (in present day Turkey) – 6th century BC

1200 year gap!

The Secret History – Stephanie Thornton – Byzantium – 6th century AD

600 year gap!

The Corpse Reader – Antonio Garrido (trans. Thomas Bunstead) – China – 13th century

Emeralds of The Alhambra – John D. Cressler – Granada – 14th century

200 year gap!

Claws of the Cat – Susan Spann – Japan – 16th century

200 year gap. (Is this like contractions?)

The Pagoda Tree – Claire Scobie – India – 18th century

The Devil is White – William Palmer – Africa – 18th Century

And now, the 19th century:

The Corsair – Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud (trans. Amira Noweira) – Bombay, Oman, Iraq and China – 19th century

The Scarlet Thief – Paul Fraser Collard – Crimea – 19th century

Kiku’s Prayer – Shusaku Endo (trans. Van C. Gessel) – Japan – 19th century

The Prisoner of Paradise – Romesh Guneskera – Mauritius – 19th century

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent – Iceland – 19th Century

The Collector of Lost Things – Jeremy Page – Arctic – 19th century

The Family Mansion – Anthony C. Winkler – Jamaica – 19th century

20th Century:

Blood Tango – Annamaria Alfieri – Argentina – 1945

The Roving Tree – Elsie Augustave – Haiti/Zaire – 1950s

Mystery in Malakand – Susanna Bell – Peshawar/Northwest Frontier/British India – 1920

Midnight in St. Petersburg – Vanora Bennett – Revolutionary Russia

Shadows on the Nile – Kate Furnivall – Egypt – 1932

The Gunners of Shenyang – Yu Jihui – China – 1960s

The Man From Berlin – Luke McCallin – Yugoslavia – 1943

The Bride Box – Michael Pearce – Egypt – 1913

The Child Thief – Dan Smith – Unkraine – 1930

Ben Barka Lane – Mahmoud Saeed (trans. Kay Heikkinen) Morroco – 1964 (originally published in Arabic in 1970, so fits only the loosest definition of historical fiction but it is definitely LAFA to most of us.

A Question of Honor – Charles Todd – India/England/France – early 1900s

Multi-period:

Lighthouse Bay – Kimberley Freeman – Australia

The Age of Ice – J.M. Sidorova – Russia

Paranormal/Fantasy:

The Ghost Bride – Yangze Choo – Malaysia

Exciting reading ahead! Which of these interest you the most?

There are additional reviews online (294 in total!). I will peruse those as soon as I am able. There are also YA and Children’s books reviewed both in the printed mag and online. If someone else would like to glean LAFA books from these before I have the chance, just let me know and we’ll get them posted.

Hooked on History – Part II

Roman Main Street

Roman Main Street – Volubilis, Morocco – Copyright Lausanne Davis Carpenter

It happened in an instant. I’d read the last page of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, closed the book and saw this kid running through ancient streets. Who was he?

The fact of real people living their lives through cataclysmic events overwhelmed me. How do they do it? How did they do it? Who were they?

It has long baffled me that, in the midst of upheaval, famine, war, and illness, people go on. They cope. They live their lives. Somehow. Whether the British during the Blitz or a nameless dancing boy escaped from a sinking ship, people adjust and do what life requires.

I was compelled to examine this resilience; to imagine their stories. My thoughts flashed to the times and places that fascinate me most – Late Antique Syria and points further east – and I knew I had tales to tell.

That was in 1993.

My life moved on. From time to time I thought about that kid who wouldn’t completely go away. I now knew who he was and what he was doing but I was busy. I left London for the US, got married, then left the US for Indonesia. While on a much needed vacation in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, the plot spun out before me over the course of three days. But I still thought I’d never really write it. I was though compiling reference materials as I could. All that time the resources were few and expensive. I had to request an out-of-print Amazon search for the book The Early Islamic Conquests by Fred Donner. It was nearly 2 years before I received a notice that they had found it. I paid $80.00 for it in 2001. (It looks like it’s playing hard to get again.)

Life carried on. I returned to the US in 2002, ran a decorative painting/murals business for eight years and designed scenery and lighting for several professional theatre companies. In 2010, we moved to Florida and I started yet another career – this time in a cubical!

About eighteen months ago my work schedule became so crazy that my only possible creative time was the wee hours of the morning. I wasn’t going to make it to my downtown art studio at 5am, so I decided it was time to write. The story is finally under way.

What strikes me now is how difficult it would have been to write any of my planned stories back in the early 1990s. There was no WWW. And, few of my primary reference books were published in 1993, most were written much later. If I could have learned to read Arabic, Greek, Latin and Aramaic while camping out at SOAS, I might have had a chance. So, although I’ve taken the long way to it, it’s just as well.

I would love to hear the research methods of others writing about obscure times and places. Do you think you could have tackled your current projects in the pre-Internet world?

Hooked on History

Two Men in Osh

Two Men in Osh, Kyrgyzstan – Copyright Lausanne Davis Carpenter

Most people can testify to at least one teacher who made an otherwise dreaded subject come alive. I had several excellent English teachers but already enjoyed literature and drama. History required a master storyteller. I’ve forgotten his name but he made American History sound like it had happened to him. Last week. He knew all these tidbits and side stories that were not in the text book. He transformed a dull, irrelevant topic into entertainment for junior high students. This miracle might qualify him for sainthood.

But my true love of history occurred much later. Why are so many of us hooked on history only after we reach adulthood? I think it is then that we ask new life questions. It’s no longer, “Why can’t I borrow the car?” but rather, “Why do people behave this way?” Or, for me, “What happened here?”

I became interested in Christian history around 1987. I was back to church after several years of distraction (college) and wanted to understand the development of my own traditions and theology. I’d been taught the Bible since I was a child but wondered how we got from those stories to the present. At the time, I was a temp word processor for a major corporation. Work was slow so I brought in reading material. On my desk sat, Here I Stand (a bio of Martin Luther), and a stack of Puritan history books. People kept asking me if I was taking a course. They were mystified when I confessed I was reading for pleasure.

My next phase came when I moved to London. Try to walk around London for a day and not long to spend the rest of your life exploring every layer of the past hidden in each cubic inch of that soil. So, for the next few years, I devoured British history. I lived in the East End surrounded by Bengali, Pakistani and Somali immigrants and I built deep friendships with many of the women. Over time I became fascinated with early Islamic history. I asked the same questions of Islam that I’d asked of my own faith – where did this come from? How did what I saw in 1990s London come from what happened in the seventh century Near and Middle East?

Meanwhile, I had been a painter, a theatre designer, and an inner-city community worker. The accessibility of London gave me opportunities to travel; Africa, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the newly dismantled USSR – every location steeped in stories. Can you stand in the open air markets of Fez, Morocco or Osh, Kyrgyzstan without feeling you’ve just experienced time travel? Without imagining the sights and sounds of a thousand years? I found a new love for old travel books – stories of The Great Game and intrepid Victorian women – but writing, of any sort, was not on my radar.

Not yet.

Man Booker Prize Nominees

I just sat down with my morning tea, planning to review the Man Booker Prize for nominees from long ago and far away setting but Kate Braithwaite over at the Historical Novel Society beat me to it. She found that six of the thirteen nominees are historical fiction! Yes!

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton is set in 1866 New Zealand.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, I assume, takes place in 1st century Palestine which places it in a time/place nearly as popular as the US and Western Europe. (The Near East spikes again at the Crusades.)

And, The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri is set in India during the Vietnam War. I confess I’m having a hard time labeling the Vietnam War historical fiction. Nothing that happened during my lifetime should qualify. But if that’s far enough back for you – then we’ll call it Long Ago and Far Away.

Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

And it seems we’re not the only ones excited about historical fiction placed outside the normal geography. This year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction went to The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. The story is set in post WWII Cameron Highlands, Malaysia.

Mr Eng was born in Penang, Malaysia and splits his time between Kuala Lumpur and Cape Town, South Africa. His debut novel The Gift of Rain was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The Garden of Evening Mists was shortlisted for the same. That’s an impressive start to a writing career.

Score a major victory for books written of Long Ago and Far Away!

And this one just leapt to the top of my To Be Read pile. I spent four years right across the Malacca Straits in Sumatra. In fact, the outline of my novel was birthed while on a much needed vacation in the Cameron Highlands. I can’t wait to read this!

 

Blog Launch: Historical Fiction Off the Beaten Path

The Vinoy - Venue

Venue for the Historical Novel Society’s 2013 Conference,
The Vinoy, St. Petersburg, FL

This summer I attended my first Historical Novel Society conference. The speakers and breakout sessions were great, the food was perfect, the venue stunning, but the best by far was each writer’s excitement for their projects – eyes lit up and hands in motion.

Most historical fiction is set in the United States or Western Europe but there are writers compelled to explore more obscure times and places. These are the people I gravitated towards – since I am doing the same. We have to build entire worlds using fragmented and vague historical records; often extrapolating based on resources from the nearest time or place even if hundreds of years or miles off our mark. All the while we know there is some specialist historian out there who will catch us out in some small (or large!) detail. Could anything be more daunting? Or exhilarating?

The three hour drive home allowed my brain to process a dozen fortuitous conversations. By the time I reached my door, this blog seemed the obvious response to my 48 hour conference experience.

Numerous blogs focus on general historical fiction and some have specific time/place specialties but I want this one to be a hub for readers and writers of historical fiction outside the usual settings. I hope to include the following:

  • Interviews with writers
  • News and observations relevant to our niche
  • A repository of resources, thought and discussion particular to writing about the Long Ago and Far Away.

I have discussed my vision with several other writers who are going off the beaten path and am looking forward to their involvement. One new friend is a writer of historical mysteries: Annamaria Alfieri. She is in the throws of launching her new book, Blood Tango. When she comes up for air I hope she will be the first interviewee for the site.

I hope you will visit often and join us on our journey to Long Ago and Far Away!

Hotel Provisions

Hotel Provisions for the Conference
And good for any other journey!