The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Carlos Ruiz Zafón takes a walk on the darker supernatural side in The Angel’s Game, his second installment in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. Zafón’s Gothic tale is actually a prequel to his successful first book in the series, The Shadow of the Wind. If you haven’t read the first book, I highly recommend you do as it is still the best in the series in this writer’s opinion.

Still, The Angel’s Game is not to be missed as it returns the reader to Barcelona, Spain, this time in the 1920s, as well as the bookshop Sempere & Sons and the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. It also plunges the reader back into Zafón’s flamboyant style of storytelling with lots of dark and shadowy nights shrouded in mist.

The novel is the classic “make a deal with the devil” tale where the protagonist, David Martín, accepts an offer from a mysterious publisher to write a book that will present the world with a new religion. In doing so, Martín regains his health and earns an incredible amount of money. Soon, however, Martín discovers that he is not the first person to undertake this offer, and like his most recent predecessor, he fears he is losing his mind to the endeavor.

The Angel’s Game isn’t deeply theological or highly intellectual.  At its heart, it’s just great storytelling. Anyone remotely familiar with the Bible will recognize the references to the angel of light (one of the Adversary’s favorite ways to deceive mankind), the 6.66 pages a day our protagonist must write to achieve his goal (does that one even need explaining?), and the character Andreas Corelli (the name Old Nick chose to use for this sojourn among men) saying he’d been kicked out of his father’s house after a disagreement (which stands to reason when one challenges God for supremacy).

However, there are some questions that arose for me while reading. One of the thoughts on my mind was whether Zafón had written himself and/or his own wishes into the story. Is he speaking through Martín when the protagonist comments on how writers sell their soul for the dream of publication? Is Zafón, a writer of successful pulp fiction like Martín, consumed with the same desire his character is to write something he believes to be more worthy? And when a peripheral character tells Martín he has seen the angel brooch Andreas Corelli wears on Martín’s own lapel, is Zafón intimating that the demons writers struggle with come from within?

Another theme that Zafón floated was God as both good and evil, two halves of the same coin. I found this reinforced at the end of the book when Andreas Corelli, usually dressed in black, appears in white and offers Martín a blessing and a curse neatly packaged as one gift. But Zafón will have to forgive me if I feel no sympathy for the devil when he says, “…for once you will walk in my shoes and will feel what I feel.” Nor do I trouble myself believing the devil would ever admit he’s wrong such as Corelli did.

All this led to my second thought in which I speculated that Zafón was either a disgruntled former member of a particular belief system or he had written under the impression of said belief system. Or maybe he chucked religion all together and just created an intricately woven story sure to keep the reader up all night. Whatever the case me be, The Angel’s Game is a good story. The slightly far-fetched portions are barely noticeable when the book is taken as a whole, there is a slump in pacing near the end of the book, and the ending isn’t quite as satisfying as The Shadow of the Wind, but none of these factors are enough to keep me from pressing on with the series.

F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Short Stories

F. Scott Fitzgerald The Short StoriesAnyone who knows me knows I adore reading. And for those who don’t know me, it won’t take much time spent in my presence, whether in real life or via social media, to discover this. Recently, I’ve been reading the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I assigned this task to myself as part of the research for my new novel. My goal was to gain a better understanding of Fitzgerald through his writing first, and then I would tackle books of literary commentary as well as biographies of the man, the author, and his life.

I’m not sure where to begin with my review of Fitzgerald’s short stories because I must admit it isn’t favorable in the least. I must also confess my amazement that he earned the money he did during the era in which he wrote. This is especially astounding considering how small the payment is among literary journals today. According to the Dollar Times inflation calculator, four thousand dollars for “At Your Age” in 1929 would be like earning $55, 327.48 in 2016. The section notes prior to the story state this was his “top story price.” I interpret that as price per story and not salary for the year. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but either way, Fitzgerald was simply not that good an author.

If you read one short story, you’ve read them all and his novels as well. Beautiful, indifferent debutantes who pick up and drop men like they’re choosing and discarding shoes; rich ambitious fellas, possibly a football hero, who undoubtedly attended/will attend either Princeton, Yale or Harvard; a sprinkling of drunks, some hopeless, some loveable; endless comparisons between the North and the South or America and Europe; and the ambitious pursuit of money, fame, and power over, and over, and over again. The most unforgivable crime Fitzgerald committed in this reader’s eyes was to cannibalize his own short stories for the sake of his novels. Worse was the fact that his agent, editors, and publishers allowed him to get away with this.

Ridiculous and cliché are the two words that came to mind the most as I read Fitzgerald. The scenarios portrayed were outlandish and unbelievable, and I’m not counting “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” when I say this. Why anyone, even fictional, would tolerate the behavior depicted among the characters is beyond me. I tried to keep in mind that attitudes and actions were different in the 20s and 30s, but my opinion of the situation often deteriorated to how stupid can one person be and how much longer before he/she quits putting up with this garbage? Perhaps this was common behavior among the rich and lovesick back then. I honestly couldn’t say.

None of Fitzgerald’s stories were memorable. As I looked back through the book, I tried to recall the storylines and characters by the title alone, but ended up cheating and reading the section notes. The only exception was “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and that was because it had been made into a movie. So, I’m left wondering who decides what makes a piece of literature a classic. The death of the author, the passing of time, the payment received, popularity with the audience at the time of publication, being made into a movie, or some combination thereof? I shudder to think how the last four delineators will make classics of some of the drivel being produced today.

I don’t know what percentage of readers would stand with me in my assessment of Fitzgerald’s writing. Hopefully, I’ll find the commentaries and biographies more interesting. From what I already know about him, I believe if he had consumed less alcohol and been more content to hone his craft than pursue fame and fortune, he would have moved beyond his narrow world, experienced life to a greater degree, and found something new to write about. In the end, I’ll give Fitzgerald credit for leaving writers a good lesson even though he failed to learn it himself.

Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 15

Two days ago I started reading a novel by an author whose previous book I enjoyed. Admittedly, I only had one book by which to judge her writing, but since I absolutely fell in love with the story, I trusted that I would like other books she wrote. The first novel I read by this particular author was set in medieval Japan, a favorite era of mine, which scored the book high marks right off the bat. I didn’t have to labor at all to find the exciting parts as the writing was excellent and the story captivated me. Again, this alone shed a positive light on the second novel even though it wasn’t about Japan.

Writer's Soul 15Many years had passed between reading the two novels, but I had high hopes for the second one. The second book started slowly with very little dialog and page long paragraphs composed of rambling sentences from multiple POVs separated only by commas. It took some effort to follow whose thoughts were being expressed. But I’m no quitter. If I could read José Saramago’s The Double which has enormous paragraphs with only periods and commas even when it’s dialog, and ended up being one of the best books I ever read, then I could finish this book.

One of the first things I checked was where in the lineup of publication this particular book stood. It’s number fourteen for the author which is quite impressive. There was a reason to keep going. If publishers believed the novel worthy of printing, then I should probably press on. I mentioned this to my husband, and it generated a question we’ve debated before. Is there a certain place in an established author’s career when no matter how mediocre the book may be it will still be published based on his or her prior success and/or reputation?

I’m tempted to read this author’s first and second books. They were published several decades ago, and I wonder how the writing may have evolved over time. Is it better, worse, different? Was the author simply trying something new, something she always wanted to do but didn’t dare attempt until she was established enough to trust that her work wouldn’t be rejected? Or does this later book reflect the change in tastes among readers?

In either case, I’m going to be fair to this author and finish the book. There have been less than five books in my lifetime that I was unable to finish. Also, I’m willing to allow an author some grace as she builds up to the pinnacle of the story. I trust that fourteen books later, this author knows how to write worthy of my attention. There are slight mysteries and questions that have been posed, and I cannot set the book down without discovering what they are.

I mention all of this to lay some groundwork for the real issue I want to discuss. It has to do with query letters, synopses, and first page or chapter critiques experienced by new authors. If the book I’m reading was a first novel, without an established reputation backing it, to be judged only on a query letter, synopsis, or first chapter, regardless of how brilliant those items may be written, it would be rejected outright.

A person simply cannot focus on a tiny glimpse of someone’s writing taken out of context and judge whether or not the entire work is worthy of publication. And yet, this is exactly what it done during pitch sessions at writing conferences and in agents’ offices on a daily basis. How much brilliant writing is bypassed because an agent, editor, or publisher wasn’t aware of all the narrative forces driving the story as it unfolds to reveal its true shape?

I fear that what I’ve termed ‘fast-food thinking’ has negatively influenced the art of writing and publication of said writing. Everything in life takes place at the speed of light so that our desires receive instant gratification. Just as quickly, we move on to seek the next tantalizing thing without ever realizing that we aren’t truly satisfied. The more we seek, the more things need to be supplied to fulfill the vicious whims of demand. And if you are the person who can do it bigger, better, faster than anyone else, you’ll probably be the one to make boat loads of money. So what if quality suffers? Well, that’s the problem I’m leading up to.

Let’s step back for a moment and analyze why this fast-paced process isn’t working. Let’s start with the writing. Great writing takes time, and if people have bought into the lie that time is money, then great literature is in more danger of becoming obsolete than even I thought possible.

There has to be a better way.

Writing is a major investment of passion and time. It doesn’t follow cookie-cutter formats and spew out copycat books, it doesn’t happen to make the writer rich, and it doesn’t exist for the express purpose of becoming a movie. Writing can be summarized for book flaps and reviews, but if that was all it took to satisfy a person, the writing wouldn’t have become a book in the first place.

It’s time to trade in ‘fast-food thinking’ for ‘stop and smell the roses reasoning.’ If anything worth having is worth waiting for, then I propose allowing this lesson in patience to be applied to how books are evaluated. Furthermore, as a society, we must no longer tolerate being spoon fed our entertainment especially where books and/or writing is concerned. Readers must also slow down and appreciate the treasures they hold in their hands when they read a book.

Of course, I’m open to suggestions on how to make this process work better, not just easier. In doing so, we’ll not only rescue writing from being destroyed, we’ll stop this process from encroaching upon other forms of art.

Write Happy!

The Standards of Prose – Realistic or Ridiculous?

imagesWho gets to decide what makes something good? Or great? I’ve often asked this question about art, books, and movies especially after I’ve read a review.

Does a critic have to possess a degree in the field they are critiquing? Must they successfully produce vast quantities of work in said field before they qualify as worthy to deliver an opinion? Or does simply earning a lot of money doing what they enjoy make them an expert in the field? And, most importantly, do we listen without question when they cast their vote for yea or nay?

These questions have been on my mind as I edited the fourth draft of my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. Admittedly, I have been (WARNING: cliché ahead) tying myself up in knots trying to predict what the agents I will query, the publishers they will solicit, and any potential readers may want out of my novel. Along the way, I may have even foolishly surrendered what I wanted from my book in my quest for perfection.

Recently, I tortured myself with chapter one rewrites until I met with my level-headed, best friend who talked me through my dilemma and put me back on track. Suddenly, writing was fun again.

But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a pea under the mattress of my brain, niggling me with doubts and fears. I reread the first lines, paragraphs, and pages of my favorite books, trying, without copying, to capture the essence of what made them great according to my perception of greatness.

About this time, I came across a brilliant essay written by Daniel Wallace titled Sentence Anxiety. Mr. Wallace eloquently stated exactly how I feel about the standards of prose to which writers must aspire if they want to be considered real writers and/or great writers. I enjoyed the entire essay, but I believe the following paragraph, my favorite, contains the spirit of the piece:

I suspect that most common readers — people who read novels but are not professionally connected to literature — simply don’t read like this. Not only do such readers lack the stylistic precision to tell actual bad writing from, say, Nabokov or Joyce amusing themselves with marginally overblown prose, such readers do not approach books with the professional reader’s exhaustion, his frantic need for newness. Few common readers, I humbly posit, read the opening pages of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and cry, “Oh, God, not another school-based bildungsroman!”

After reading the complete article, I would love to hear your opinion on the subject.  In the meantime, I’m going to continue putting all of my efforts into creating my novel. My goal is to not only write good and great sentences, but to write an enjoyable novel that readers will find hard to put down, a book that they will recommend to their friends and family, and a story that will stay with them long after its conclusion.

%d bloggers like this: