The Power of a Story: Ponderings on The Paris Wife

Posted on Nov 3, 2011 in reading, writing | 0 comments

This story hit me on an emotional level that I was not prepared for.

Yes, in technical terms, many of the right things were there: The writing was eloquent. The story was interesting and well-paced. The characters were developed into believable persons. (According to the author’s “Note on Sources,” she did a great deal of research–using Hemingway’s memoir and other writings–to capture the characters and circumstances as accurately as possible.)

But the most important thing is what this story left with me after I turned the last page: It brought me closer to a very famous writer and helped me care about him and understand why he is important.

I started this novel feeling about Hemingway the way I’ve felt about most classic authors: there was a cold distance between us. His world was not like my world, his writing was not like the writing I’m used to, and as such, he felt like a fictional character that I could never really know or understand.

It took a fictional story to bridge the emotional gap between me and a once-living person.

At some point in my reading of The Paris Wife, the distance between generations fell away, Hemingway became real, and I found myself wanting to know more about him: his world, his story, his struggles, the way he approached writing, the reasons behind his fame.

Even though (or, perhaps, because) the story is written from the perspective of Hadley (Hemingway’s first wife), the spark to know Hemingway was still ignited in me. And that interest continued to expand, until I felt a similar interest in other classic writers–many of whom were Hemingway’s friends.

When I put the book down for the last time, I felt feverish. For days, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It was a distraction; it had sent my mind into a flurry on all sorts of topics and emotions: from compassion for Hadley to questions about what makes a person a writer and what a writer must do to influence his or her craft.

To know where to take your craft, it helps if you know where your craft has been. I’d been missing this important piece of the puzzle because my heart couldn’t relate. Until now.

This is a powerful place to be. I continue to feel a desire to connect to the past–to other very successful writers–and I imagine this perspective can only increase my effectiveness as a writer in the months and years to come.


Should you read this story? 

Yes, definitely. I think it is worth your time. You may not have as powerful a connection with the story as I had, but even without that, I think the story is entertaining and fascinating. The writing draws you in; the relationships between the characters are complex, beautiful, and heartbreaking.

And of course, if you’ve already read The Paris Wife, I’d love to hear your thoughts!




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Review: The Thirteenth Tale

Posted on Oct 12, 2010 in reading | 2 comments

The Thirteenth Tale By Diane Setterfield


My Rating

9 out of 10


Book Summary

Reclusive author Vida Winter, famous for her collection of twelve enchanting stories, has spent the past six decades penning a series of alternate lives for herself. Now old and ailing, she is ready to reveal the truth about her extraordinary existence and the violent and tragic past she has kept secret for so long. Calling on Margaret Lea, a young biographer troubled by her own painful history, Vida disinters the life she meant to bury for good. Margaret is mesmerized by the author’s tale of gothic strangeness—featuring the beautiful and willful Isabelle, the feral twins Adeline and Emmeline, a ghost, a governess, a topiary garden, and a devastating fire. Together, Margaret and Vida confront the ghosts that have haunted them while becoming, finally, transformed by the truth themselves.


What I Loved

    1. Beautiful, almost classic writing
      The Thirteenth Tale is written in a dancing, imagery-filled prose that I just couldn’t help but love and admire. In fact, after just the first chapter, I found myself pining for more novels like this one. The words, by themselves, were enough to captivate me, and the fact that they could also create such a powerful storyline was impressive. It was refreshing to see an author that is dedicated to both story and craft.

    2. An unpredictable storyline
      The story was more cunning than I initially took it for. As always, I tried to outsmart it and predict what would happen next, but the writing directed my thoughts so naturally (sometimes in the wrong direction) that my predictions were only sporadically accurate. The elusive nature of the story captivated my interest and added suspense as I read.

    3. Powerful imagery and syntax allows you to live the story alongside the characters
      Through an ingenious use of “show, don’t tell,” Diane Setterfield helps her readers understand that they are intelligent and capable of drawing their own conclusions, without a lot of hand-holding. Fiction readers don’t always experience this kind of empowerment, so it was easy for me to snatch up the author’s clues, analyze them against my own experience, and try to work out my own conclusions alongside the characters. As in real life, there were many times when my realizations about characters or events would chill me to the bone. There were also times when I was left to wonder if my perceptions were completely off-base. Through a limited selection of information, the author allows readers to feel as though the story they are reading is reality, which adds volumes to the reading experience.

    4. Explores the book-reader relationship in depth
      Underneath the main story arc is an incredibly eye-opening exploration of the relationship between story and reader. The book captures, in vivid emotion, what it feels like to enter the world of a story, let it consume you, and develop a very real relationship with the story as a result. Several of the story’s characters are avid book lovers who work their way through their story experience. The reader watches the story experiences of these characters while simultaneously working through her own story experience. So you get to watch the characters from the outside, see the main character from the inside, and feel and observe your own personal experience—all at the same time. To be that aware of your reading experience, what it means to you, and how it relates to others is unbelievable.

What Gave Me Trouble

    1. Some of Margaret’s (the main character’s) conclusions are hard to believe
      Throughout the book, I felt the conclusions of the characters were usually spot on; yet there were a few times when the main character would suddenly jump to and stick with a conclusion that seemed so completely random to me. In those moments, the magic would disperse, and I would feel some irritation toward the author. Was this a moment of laziness or just lack of insight? In her defense, sometimes we come to conclusions like that in real life. Our minds make the connection subconsciously and the connection works, even if it seems completely random to others.

    2. Margaret’s behavior doesn’t always seem realistic
      Margaret, the main character, has led quite a reclusive life. She has a very solid relationship with her father but she has a slippery relationship with her mother and doesn’t have a lot of interaction with anyone else. And most of her time has been devoted to her books. For this reason, I assumed that she would be a bit shy and awkward with outside characters. I was okay with the idea that Margaret was a very self-assured character, but she seemed a bit too confident and practiced in certain social situations. There were moments when she said the perfect thing to defend herself or to ease awkwardness, and I couldn’t figure out how a person like her would have known what to say in that instance. I suppose it made me question whether our ability to interact well with others is gained through practice or whether it is possible to just know what to do inherently.

A Warning or Two

This story does touch on some very emotionally stirring, creepy, or difficult issues, so be prepared. At the same time, these issues have a way of sucking you in, because I for one had never seen them conveyed in quite this way before. The author was so subtle about them that I couldn’t be certain sometimes if she meant what I thought she meant. It was an absolutely intriguing story, one that makes you think long after it is over.

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Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Posted on Jun 11, 2010 in reading | 0 comments

Over a year ago, I finished the classic memoir A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Even then, I had my sights set on a blog about writing and reading, so I wrote a short book review with the hope that I’d be able to post it one day. And sure enough, I now have a blog, so here is a short glimpse of this fantastic memoir.

If you like a good memoir (a story about the author’s life, written like a novel), you should pick up A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (pseudonym for Elizabeth Wehner). The story is set in Brooklyn in the early twentieth century and reflects on the growing-up years of an 11-year-old girl named Francie Nolan. Francie’s parents are both second-generation immigrants—her mother is Austrian and her father is Irish—and as such, they are faced with enormous challenges (i.e., poverty, alcoholism) as they struggle to reach their American Dream.

Although the book has its slow points (especially at the start) and may seem a bit tangential at times (it’s certainly more character-driven than plot-driven), I was surprised at how much I fell in love with the characters and appreciated the overall message of the book. On the surface, the story presents a genuinely simple perspective on life, as seen through the eyes of a child. But as you work deeper into the book, your eyes are opened to the true character of the people you are reading about—a character that easily translates to humanity as a whole.

There is such raw emotion—of hope, truth, beauty, a desperation to live—in this story, all set beautifully against a background of challenges, suffering, and grief, that you just can’t help but appreciate the book and desire for even a fraction of the courage these characters exhibit.

It’s this kind of commentary on the human experience that draws me to memoirs again and again. After I put the book down for the last time, I was amazed at how much my perspective on life had shifted. I truly saw life in all its color! I had a strong desire to view every moment as a gift—to really LIVE life, to open my eyes to its colors and textures and smells. More than anything, it gave me a huge appreciation for the things I have and a desire to work harder and think more positively in everything I do. Who can’t benefit from a perspective like that?

I truly appreciate what I learned from this book. I would recommend it to anyone and everyone who would like a bit of honest perspective on life and what matters most.

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Review: Cold Skin

Posted on May 28, 2010 in reading | 0 comments

I’ve had to do way too much digging for interesting books lately, and it came to a head a couple weeks ago, when the only functioning computer at my local library blatantly refused to open its catalog. What is an impatient person to do with such insolent technology? Rummage through thousands of books in hopes of finding an underappreciated gem? Call me crazy, but okay!

The regular fiction section was way too daunting for this kind of risky business, so I visited the small and inviting Teen section and ended up picking out a couple books: Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin (author of The Wizard of Earthsea, a truly spectacular book) and Cold Skin by Steven Herrick (some award-winning Australian poet).

On a side note, I must say I recommend a good teen book to anyone, at least every now and again. I mean, why not? There are some pretty awesome stories out there in the wild teen section. And for those I’m-too-busy-to-read individuals, did I mention that YA novels come in concentrated form? Let’s face it: it’s a lot faster to read a 300-page book with a 14-pt font than a 500-page book with a 10-pt font.

So I took the books home with me, completely prepared for a disaster. Here’s the good news: both were definitely a fast read, manageably conquerable in just one Saturday. And the…news? I’ll be honest, I was ready to put Gifts down about every 10 minutes. There was just too much droning on about a bunch of hard-to-pronounce-or-remember people, and the slow storyline made it brutal. But the second one, Cold Skin, actually piqued my interest.

Let me just stop you right there and say that no, Cold Skin is not a vampire novel. Instead, it’s about a community of people living in a tiny mining town in Australia. You have all the “typical” small-town antics here (I’ve never lived in a small town, so I have no idea how typical they are; they just seem to show up a lot in novels about small towns):

  • The men are trying to forget the difficulties of life—and their insecurities about the part they played in the war—so they suffer through their job (in the mines, on a farm) and then drink themselves into a stupor in the evenings.
  • The high school kids are from one of two categories: they’ve either accepted where they are in life and expect to be a miner in the same town forever, or they are hell-bent on getting out, seeing the world, and creating a new life for themselves.
  • Everyone knows one another and has opinions of one another. Everyone has a history of some sort, and almost everyone knows that history.

So the whole town is just trying to deal with the qualms they have about one another, their situation, and themselves—like most of us—and suddenly, one of their most promising teenage girls is found dead. Suddenly, everyone is at one another’s throats, and you (the reader) are trying to sort through buckets of information to solve the mystery.

I don’t really consider myself a murder mystery kind of gal, but this book was super exciting. I’m also usually pretty good at guessing what might happen in a story, but I honestly had no clue with this one, which made it even better.

And then I should mention the text treatment. The entire novel is formatted as though every page were poetry, with very short line-lengths and good-sized leading (line spacing). It isn’t poetry—no rhyming or anything; it still reads like any other novel—but it looks and almost feels like poetry, which gives it a kind of natural rhythm and elegance.

The text is broken down into 8 chapters, and each chapter features a hot-potato approach to point of view—where characters take turns sharing information about what is happening and how they feel about it. I loved the switch between characters the most. I really wanted to see each character clearly, so I could see the big picture clearly, and the characters were so well-developed that it all just clicked. There isn’t a lot of flowery wordiness in this book, either. The author is very direct in his presentation of characters and information.

One other thought: For those who like absolutely squeaky clean books, this one does include a few glossed-over sex scenes—nothing too graphic or anything, but perhaps borderline. I don’t like this kind of material, but I thought the way it was presented made the characters and their situation more pronounced. At least the profanity, if there is any, is kept to a minimum.

So there you have it. A completely obscure novel called Cold Skin that has nothing to do with vampires and is actually quite worth the read. It struck my fancy, and it may strike yours, too. Check it out!

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