Character

I haven’t made a post for a while now, for several reasons: I’m still finishing off Charlie Higson’s dystopian series for teens (I’m reading The End and hoping that all my many questions are answered); I started teaching my Readers’ Advisory class at UCLA this past Tuesday and have spent some of my time preparing for that (mostly cleaning up my combination office/art studio so it’s fit to be seen in the background of Zoom); and I’ve been rather caught up in the political events of the day (unhealthy obsession with Facebook posts). But I should be at the end of The End soon, and on to my next read.

In the meantime, the combination of contemplating “appeals” for readers’ advisory and doing a massive clear-out, clean-up, and re-shelving of my entire library of fiction in my four bedroom bookshelves caused me to think about the nature of “character” as a dominating force in fiction.

To explain a bit for those who are not up on librarian lingo, appeals are what we call the various reasons why people enjoy what they read. Some people are motivated by adrenalin and want something fast-paced and exciting; others love beautiful language and want to be wooed by unusual or lyrical phrasing; and one particularly powerful appeal is that of “character.” The ability to identify with or, alternatively, loathe a character or set of characters in a book is one aspect that draws people to read more. The success of the belabored Harry Potter franchise is largely due to the desire to find out what happens next to the maturing Harry and his friends, and all of us can probably think of a book or five whose characters were what kept us coming back to its pages. A few recent books in which character dominated include Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, A Man Called Ove, and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. (A major clue as to whether the book is character-driven is if the main character’s name appears in the title. Witness Harry Potter and the….)

As I have mentioned here several times, belonging to the Facebook group “What Should I Read Next?” is sometimes an exercise in patience, because most of the readers there have become caught up in the bestseller craze and all end up reading the same 12 books. So in the effort to find them—and you—other compelling reads, I thought I would spend a blog post examining some of my past favorites that are wholly about the character.

A compelling writer of character-driven works is the author Mary Renault, and although her entire oeuvre contains much to appreciate, there is not another that rivals The Persian Boy, her tale of a bed slave named Bagoas who was abducted, gelded, and sold as a courtesan to King Darius of Persia. When Alexander and his Macedonian army conquer the Persians, Bagoas finds himself in a rather untenable position and decides he will achieve safety only by ingratiating himself with the conqueror himself. Although Alexander is quick to see the appeal of this highly motivated slave, he is slow to take advantage of his utter dependency, and the courtship between the two of them is both touching and fiery.

The Persian Boy is actually the second in a series of three books Renault wrote about Alexander. The early years, when he rises from a beleaguered son of warring parents to become the master of all lands he surveys, are covered in Fire from Heaven, in which he experiences love and trust for the first time with his best friend and fellow warrior, Hephaistion. But that book is far more event-driven, whereas The Persian Boy, being narrated from the point of view of someone with whom Alexander had a solely personal connection, is limited in scope in terms of world events but much more specific about the relationships. It is, in fact, a love story, and I would regard it as one of the great ones, containing as it does not just attraction or romance but also loss and pain, desire and jealousy, joy, courage, and cowardice. It is an exceedingly intimate view of Alexander the man beside that of Alexander the great warrior, and is filtered through the emotions and psychology of a patient bystander.

At the beginning of the third book, Funeral Games, Alexander the Great lies dying, surrounded by his former generals, satraps, and wives, all competing like wolves for the prizes of power and land. Only the two loves of his life, Hephaistion and Bagoas, realize and truly mourn what has been lost. Funeral Games documents the disintegration of the mighty empire built in 20 years and brings Alexander’s saga from age 12 to 33 to its close.

There is a variability of voice in these tales that lets them be read as a series but also allows the reader to experience them as stand-alone novels. The first is told in the first person by Alexander; the second is the purview of Bagoas; and the third is written from a third-person observer stance. I discovered and read The Persian Boy first, only picking up the others afterwards, and felt no sense that anything was missing in that first reading. When people ask for an LGBTQ love story that goes beyond the contemporary meet-cute or the simultaneous struggle with coming out that invades so many of these stories, my thoughts immediately return to the yearning and transcendent happiness contained with the pages of Renault’s classic work.

Another protagonist with whom I have been in love since the first time I read the book is Shevek, the humble man and brilliant physicist at the heart of Ursula K. LeGuin’s book The Dispossessed. The book is a recounting of an existential thought experiment: The author posits what would happen to individuals in a social system that rewards conformity, although that social system in this case is based on a sort of group anarchy. Urras is a world much like our own, driven by commerce. Within its teeming millions is a group of individuals who wish to live their lives quite differently and, because Anarres, the moon of their planet, is suitable (though not ideal) for human life, they are allowed to colonize it. The two societies make a pact that neither will invade the other and, for more than 100 years, not one individual from either society has crossed the line between them except for shipments of supplies that arrive and leave the small port on Anarres.

A map I made to illustrate LeGuin’s masterpiece.

Shevek grows up in this ascetic society, a planned utopia where no one takes precedence over anyone else, where each is valued but all are expected to make their contribution to society in return for a place in it. He does his part, planting trees in the desert, drawing food service or waste management tasks for 10 days at a time, and through it all manages to find a great love, Takver, and have children; but while he goes through these tasks of daily life, his brain is operating on another plain—trying to understand temporal physics—that demands discussion, the exchange of ideas, and a close relationship with those on his mental level who are capable of understanding his brilliance. Ultimately, he makes the choice, despite the possibility of losing his home, his family, perhaps even his life, to go back to Urras to see what the scientists of that world have to offer him.

The fascinating part of the book is how the society on Anarres was originally founded as a profound act of nonconformity, and yet ends up suppressing originality and demanding obedience from a man chafing under its restrictions. LeGuin achieves her objective—the exploration of the concept of freedom—by letting the reader recognize the virtues of the system under which Shevek lives and
then realize how stifling it has become, without being either polemical or strident.

If it weren’t for the “stigma” of being categorized as science fiction, I believe this book would take its place amongst the most important of classic novels, and that Shevek would be a much more well-known protagonist in the reading world.

Some books you love for a protagonist, and some for an entire cast of characters. In the second category are the books by E. F. Benson that were latterly brought together in an Omnibus volume called Make Way for Lucia. There are six Mapp and Lucia novels in the series, and they must be read in order, for events take on importance in a specific sequence that must be appreciated.

At first glance, you might not think that a view into the social world of upper-middle class Edwardian village dwellers would be particularly compelling. But what you have to understand about the Mapp and Lucia books is the exaggerated degree of sheer triviality that guarantees a contrary fascination. Benson had a disdain for middle class people pretending to a rank to which they are not entitled, and his satires of these mushrooms trying to push their way into high society are brilliant and also funny as hell.

The books feature the feuding doyennes of Riseholme and Tilling, whose decidedly bourgeois residents get flustered in the presence of noble titles but king and queen it in the presence of everyone else. The main protagonists—or should we call them pugilists?—are Emmeline Lucas, designated “Lucia,” and Elizabeth Mapp. Though the stories begin with each of them ruling their respective roosts with total social supremacy in their separate villages, fate brings them together to hilarious effect. But the reader is not solely reliant on Lucia and Miss Mapp in these stories; Benson has created a whole cast of characters, including the dashing Georgie Pillson, aging bachelor, with his elbow-length cape and carefully trained piece of hair draped over his scalp; the drunken and slightly naughty Major Benjy; artist and naked sunbather Irene Coles; Mrs. Boucher with her daughters, Piggy and Goosie, in tow; and so many more. The tempests in the teapots that are the meat of these ’20s and ’30s comedies of manners are hilarious, witty, and slightly nasty. In other words, inspired. Auberon Waugh, eldest son of Evelyn, said,

“I might have gone to my grave
without ever knowing about
Lucia and Miss Mapp. It is not a risk
anyone should take lightly.”

It’s about time for me to read them for the third time.

I hope you have enjoyed this meander through some character-driven books, and that it will inspire you to look them up for yourself or to reflect on the characters that have come to life for you during your lifetime of reading. If any compelling ones occur to you, please share!

Setting as appeal

I belong to a group on Facebook called “What Should I Read Next?” It is mobbed by more than 53,000 eager readers who seem equally motivated to share what they like and learn what others have discovered. I joined the group for a few different reasons:

  1. I wanted to keep up with what was popular out there right now with regular readers (not librarians, reviewers, and other colleagues);
  2. I saw it as a chance to practice my own readers’ advisory skills in a social media format, to see what works best;
  3. I thought by sharing my reviews, I could find more followers for my obscure little blog!

whatshouldiread

It’s actually working quite well: I’m discovering that many readers fish in a shallow pond of popular titles and are therefore all reading a lot of the same books, which both gives me those titles and also allows me to make suggestions of others not as popular but perhaps as good or better reads. I am learning a lot about how to work as an advisor in a written online format; after I referred someone to a book by writing a short synopsis in the comments, three separate people wrote back to me and said some variation of, “I wish other people would give a little description with their recommendations so I would know whether I would even be interested in looking this book up on Amazon or Goodreads.” So now, every time I make a recommendation, I throw in either a short annotation or at the least some characteristic of the book that I think people would be interested to know (such as, “It develops slowly but the characters are so lifelike you expect to meet them on the street and invite them for coffee!”). And both my Facebook page and this blog have picked up a dozen new followers since I began this “relationship” with other online readers.

I am also discovering that, like many librarians who think they have good readers’ advisory skills, regular people also think it is sufficient to recommend a book based on what they like, rather than trying to find out what the person who is asking might prefer. I get a little impatient sometimes when a mom asks for realistic books for her 13-year-old son and someone posts “Harry Potter!” Harry Potter is not the answer to everyone’s reading needs, people!

Anyway, suffice to say that the interaction with the subscribers to this page is really highlighting and pinpointing their needs, along with how poorly they are being served when people concentrate too much on the books and not on the readers themselves.

Recently, someone wrote that her mother was about to have surgery and had asked her to stockpile some titles she would enjoy during recovery. The criteria was, “She likes books that take place at the beach. Her dream is to live in a lighthouse.”

Lighthouse

People immediately started throwing out names of authors who write books that are set on the Outer Banks, the Jersey shore, or the beaches of Cornwall. Some of them fall into the category of actual “beach reads”—that is, lightweight and frothy, perfect for a summer vacay book. Others, though, had such a wide variety of styles and stories that I wondered, “Would anyone really read books just because they were set in a preferred location?”

Then I thought about myself and the many books I have read that were set on the streets of Paris, and how some of them, though
frankly mediocre, still pulled a decent rating from me because of their evocative development of “setting.” So, as an experiment (since I also like the ocean), I am reading a few of the books mentioned, to see if the right “environment” in a book can offset such things as poor writing, shallow character development, or the lack of a cohesive
story line.

I also proposed to one reader who was a big fan of Kate Morton that she might, if she likes mysteries, also enjoy the books of Tana French. She had never heard of French, and asked me why I thought so. My reply was, People who like Kate Morton are willing to accept extremely slow pacing while Morton sets up place and characters in what sometimes lasts hundreds of pages. Tana French, although writing in a different genre, subscribes to the same style.

Tortoise and hare racing

My premise here is that people who are willing to read in multiple genres may still gravitate to the same type of book in terms of reading appeal, i.e., this slow pacing shared by these two authors, rather than picking something fast-paced in one and slow in another. I don’t know whether that reader will take me up on the Tana French challenge; she said “Thanks for the tip” rather than “I’ll rush right out and read one.” But I’m hoping that if she does, she will come back to me and confirm or deny my theory. (I realize that basing it on one person isn’t good data collection, but everything starts with a first step….)

I will report back on these ponderings!

 

Faerie tale magic

Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novic, is so exquisite, both in the writing and in the telling, that after having spent three days reading at breakfast, lunch, and bedtime, I stayed up from 2:00 until 4:00 a.m. this morning to finish it; and when I got up at 9:00 and made my breakfast, rather than starting a new book I opened Spinning Silver
to page one and began reading again, to remind myself of all the reasons why.

SpinsilverI purposely used the alternate spelling of “fairy” in the title because, although this book is billed as a fairy tale retelling, it is light years away from most of those. It borrows a couple of basic concepts from “Rumpelstiltskin,” turns them completely on their heads, and goes on with a story nothing like that mean little tale. There are actual faerie in this book, but they have more to do with the fey creatures of Celtic lore than with any relatively prosaic fairy godmother from the Grimms’ tales.

This is, above all, a character-driven story, and so you have to be patient as a reader for the first little while until you are sufficiently acquainted with the three protagonists. As a readers’ advisor, I am always one to tell a reader that if they aren’t enjoying a book in the early chapters, by all means drop it and find another. I’m not saying that this book isn’t good from page one—it is. And things begin happening from fairly early in the story; but it takes about 120 pages (which is a pretty big commitment out of 480) to complete your introduction to the pivotal characters and provide some action that really moves their joint story forward in a significant way.

As a person who loves character development, that didn’t matter to me in the least, because I was so fascinated with the way the first protagonist, Miryem, morphs from a cold, hungry, desperate girl into a tough, confident one who, once she decides that she is the one who will have to take care of her family, shows no hesitation.

Miryem and her parents, the Mandelstams, are Jews living on the outskirts of their little village near the forest. Miryem’s mother’s father is a moneylender in the larger town of Vysnia, and a hugely successful one; but Miryem’s father, who decided to take up the same profession based on the dowry from his wife, is too gentle to make a living the same way. When he attempts to collect on the money he has lent, his customers jeer at him, shout racial epithets, and chase him from their doorsteps, or else make excuses that they know will touch his soft heart and cause him to give way. All around the Mandelstams, the other people in the village are benefiting from the money they have borrowed, with their investments in more livestock, better farm tools, warm clothing, and fields of crops, while the Mandelstams starve. Finally, with her mother ill and her father helpless and discouraged, Miryem decides that she will have to be the moneylender of the family and, taking up her basket, she treks from door to door insisting on her just desserts. Soon there is a new thatched roof, warm clothing, and meat in the pot, but her parents weep that she has become cold inside from this “unladylike” profession.

Meanwhile, six miles away, Wanda lives with her Da and her brothers, Sergey and Stepon. Her mother is dead, buried in the yard under a white-blossoming tree with her six miscarried baby boys, and her father is a drunkard and a wastrel who has borrowed six gold kopeks from the moneylender, more than he will ever be able to repay. When Miryem comes calling asking for payment on the debt, he reviles her and tries to drive her away. She knows that if she lets him win she will confront the same problem at every turn, so she tells him that his daughter, Wanda, may pay off his debt a half cent a day by working for her and her parents. Although Miryem believes this will be a hardship, Wanda is secretly delighted, since it gets her out of the house and away from her father’s constant abuse; so Wanda becomes a fixture in the Mandelstam household, and soon becomes the debt collector in Miryem’s stead, while Miryem pursues other business.

Finally, after an ill-advised boast by Miryem about being able to turn silver into gold attracts the attention of the king of the Staryk, who comes to her with a bargain she is unable to refuse, we meet the third leg of the stool of this story: Irina, daughter of a duke and a quarter-breed Staryk “witch” and, up to this point in life, a plain and silent girl with no expectations. But the advent of Staryk silver alters her worth in the eyes of her ambitious father, and she suddenly finds herself betrothed to the dashing Tsar Mirnatius, who is both less and a lot more than he seems, with dire effect. Although the men in the book play pivotal roles, it is this triad of women whose thoughts and actions control the progression of their layered, interwoven lives, and who end up saving the kingdom of Lithvas from powerful enemies.

The themes in this book—agency, self determination, pride, empathy, duality, the embracing of family wherever you find it—are pervasive, and poignant but also raw. Watching each protagonist rise to her challenges with ingenuity and quiet determination was a joy. And the best praise I can give is that the quality of the character development, the language, the scene-setting, everything you would want from a story like this were maintained from beginning to end. The final sentence was as satisfying as all the rest, and was the perfect ending to a gripping and entertaining tale. It’s been a long time since I read a book that I loved with as much fervor as this one. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to read it after I heard about it. I was and am thoroughly beguiled.

ADDENDUM: I must address one issue with this book that was brought up to me by a friend on Goodreads. Although the author otherwise goes out of her way to be inclusive and expansive in her representation of characters of different religious and economic status, she is not similarly sensitive when it comes to the one gay character in the book. There is a courtier who makes it obvious that he is smitten with his cousin the Tsar, and Novik has the protagonist Irina scheme to marry him off to a woman for her own political gain, and is mocking and dismissive of his true preferences, actually threatening him to get him to comply with her plan. Novik needs to recognize that gay people merit the same sensitivity of treatment as her other represented groups. She should know that bad gay representation is worse than no gay representation. Yes, it’s two pages out of 480, but it continues a precedent and a prejudice that should not be present in this jewel of a book. I’m sorry to see it here.

 

Reasons to re-read

On impulse, after finishing Once Upon A River,
I picked up and re-read Jenny Colgan’s The Bookshop on the Shore, which I reviewed here when I first discovered it. Since I thoroughly covered all aspects of the book in my first review,
I wasn’t going to bother to bring it up again; but re-reading it set me thinking on various tangents that I thought might be worth discussing from a readers’ advisory standpoint.

The first tangent was Colgan’s treatment of Zoe’s son, Hari, in the story. Hari is a four-year-old boy, perfectly delightful in every way according to his mother, except that he doesn’t speak. There’s nothing physically wrong with him, and all the doctors consulted by Zoe say it’s a psychological thing and will “probably” resolve itself eventually when something shifts and he simply starts to talk.

This is small comfort to Zoe, who has to live her life explaining something big about her child. Everywhere they go, people bend over and say “Hi, little guy, what’s your name?” and are at first offended at the lack of response and then pitying when they discover the reason why. At every daycare, at every school, with every new acquaintance or stranger in a shop, both Zoe and Hari are called to account for his not being able to do what many parents probably wish their children would do less of—speak, shout, cry. In all these aspects, happy or sad, Hari is silent.

Even Hari’s father, Jaz, judges him by this lack of ability. While he loves his son, Hari’s inability to speak is a constant nagging flaw that Jaz seems unable to get past. Colgan evokes a genuine sense of compassion for Hari and for Zoe for having to deal with all this heavy expectation every time Hari is given the opportunity to open his mouth.

LambDaffodilsWhen the pair move to Scotland and Zoe becomes an au pair at a “big house” with three children, for the first time Hari is accepted for who he is, by the five-year-old Patrick. Patrick is, by his own estimation as well as everyone else’s, incredibly clever for his age, and with that quite outspoken.
In short, he’s a talker. Their first encounter:

Hari put down his tablet, got up and padded over to the newcomer.

“Who are you?” said Patrick.

“This is Hari,” said Zoe. “He’s living here too.”

Patrick regarded the boy with some suspicion. Hari glanced over at Zoe worriedly, but she smiled at him as if to say it would be all right.

“Hmmm,’ said Patrick eventually. “You don’t talk too much. I like that. I like to talk A LOT. Do you like dinosaurs?”

Hari nodded.

“Okay,” said Patrick carelessly.

And just like that, Hari’s situation was normalized. Later, when Jaz visits, Patrick steps up to him and says, “I am absolutely Hari’s best friend.”

“Oh. Well. Good,” said Jaz. “Can you teach him to speak?”

“I absolutely like Hari how he is,” said Patrick.

This was such a simple and beautifully done example of both the hardships encountered by the differently abled and the potential for them to be loved no matter what. I realized, upon re-reading this book, that one of the things I enjoy about Colgan’s writing is her evocation of a sense of empathy with all her characters. This is a key element in readers’ advisory—does your reader want to identify closely with the characters in their book? Some people enjoy being alienated by the protagonists of their stories, but there have been books (notably, The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling) that I have refused to finish because I found the characters so repellent and so totally lacking in any redeeming qualities that I simply didn’t want to spend another minute in their company.

By contrast, I love reading about people who are different from me, whether that means significantly older or younger, of a different race and country, gay, male, extraordinarily gifted or limited in some way—as long as I can somehow identify with them through the agency of empathy. When I ran my high school book club, I remember some of the parents being puzzled by why all the girls in the club seemed to consistently choose books with gay male protagonists. The reason was not specifically that they were gay or male, but that the author had done a good job both highlighting their differences and conveying their similarities.

19WWMsunnysky

The second tangent that came to mind upon re-reading this book was place. Colgan’s books are, at least six of them, set in the wilds of Scotland, up among the hills and the lochs and the sheep, with the wind whistling in off the ocean and the weather subject to change by the hour. If someone asked me objectively if this was my ideal locale to put down roots, I would most likely say no, since I hate wind, don’t like being cold, and greatly value the close proximity of my Trader Joe’s. But I live a comfortable, mostly middle-class life, with a (small) house to myself, a driveable car, and enough income (most months) to keep me going. If I had lived (like Zoe, the protagonist of this book) in a small, dark, stuffy bed-sit in a bad neighborhood of London with my little son, worked two jobs just to maintain that life, and had to drop off my kid at a questionable daycare while I did it, those same hills and lochs and freezing but beautiful views might seem like heaven. In fact, if I lived here in Los Angeles in a grotty little apartment, sharing walls with noisy neighbors who smoked and fought loudly, and had to take the lousy public transportation system to two jobs to get by, Scotland would be a dream come true for me, as well.

This is the talent of the author who can evoke a palpable sense of place for the reader, whether by contrast as in this example, or by the use of lyrical language and detailed description (also employed by Colgan). Since one of the reasons many people read is to be transported out of their everyday lives to another time and place, to a lifestyle they may have dreamed of but never dared to attempt, or even to a lifestyle they wouldn’t voluntarily choose but might wonder about, the sense of place is a powerful tool when advising people on what to read.

The talent of the writer is to make wherever the reader lands more palatable, or at least more fascinating and foreign or perfectly homey. For instance, while none of us might want to live in the bed-sit in Edinburgh or in London, where Colgan’s characters Nina and Zoe originated before embracing Scotland, that’s partially because of the way the accommodations, and their surroundings, are described: Dim light, dirty streets, noise, confusion, traffic, bad air, crowded buses and trains, the pervasive smell of takeout drifting up from the café downstairs—a thoroughly unappealing situation.

On the other hand, what if the bed-sit you were living in, just as tiny, were at the top of an old house in the Latin Quarter of Paris? What if, even though it was small, and you had to climb four flights of stairs because the elevator was always broken, once you arrived at the top and entered your little space you could see out the dormer windows to a perfect view of the dome of the Sorbonne? What if you painted your tiny flat a beautiful shade of seawater green, and put up diaphanous sheers at the windows, and hung a few favorite pictures, painted by talented friends, and had a cozy little stove to keep it warm? What if outside your tiny room and down four flights of stairs was Paris?

30xFrenchVignette

The quality most closely related to a sense of place as an appealing quality of a book is the desire (or need) for escape—to experience something different, somewhere else, and live there for a while. Try out your readers’ advisory skills by describing the setting of the book you are suggesting and see if your readers’ eyes don’t light up at the prospect of going there.