Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Reviewing Ruminations

Some months ago I came across a book about studying Hindi in India, and I immediately snatched it from the shelf in my local bookstore. This was my cup of tea—living and studying in India and loving every challenging minute of it. I kept the book on a table near my desk until I could settle down and devote an uninterrupted stretch of time to it. This title looked so good I was willing to wait. I liked seeing it there and anticipating the pleasure I would have when I could begin reading it properly—on a quiet Sunday afternoon without interruption. Soon thereafter I came across a review of it in one of the larger newspapers. And it wasn’t good.

The review cast a pall over my enthusiasm, and I remember in particular the reviewer’s intense dislike of a particular scene in the book that seemed, for him, to summarize all the negative points of the story and its author. The shimmering green of the cover seemed to fade, and now its placement at the top of my TBR pile (to be read) seemed a reproach rather than a promise. I put off reading it and went on to other things.

But I am a Yankee born and raised and I had spent good money on that book. It was time to read it and, if nothing else, get my money’s worth. Dutifully, I picked it up and began. And I am so glad I did. Katherine Russell Rich has written an entrancing and enchanting book about moving to India to learn Hindi. Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language is everything I look for in books about India, one of the great loves of my life, and I’m glad to recommend it to anyone interested in India, learning a second language, how the mind works with languages, writing a memoir, and any number of other topics. But here I want to focus on another lesson—that of the responsible reviewer.

As I became more and more engrossed in the memoir, I occasionally wondered when I’d come across the scene that had so upset the reviewer, and was curious to know if my take would be so very different. I read on, forgot about it, remembered it, read on. When I began to think I had mixed up the review from another book with this one, I finally came to the scene that had earned the reviewer’s scorn—somewhere near the very end of the story. And it wasn’t a scene at all; it was a brief comment about an incident that happened after the main narrative of the book. That made me pause.

The negative review that almost kept me from reading this book, and might well have kept me from purchasing it if I had read it before I discovered the title in the bookstore, bore no resemblance to the narrative I enjoyed so thoroughly. This is exactly the kind of review that brings reviewers as a group and reviewing as a professional a bad rep. It also prevents readers from finding books they will love and learn from.

This isn’t an essay on the ten characteristics of the responsible reviewer. It is a reminder to all of us who review books to stick to the book as a whole, keep the big picture in the forefront of our imaginations as we write, and make sure our review bears a close resemblance to the book we’ve just read. Take note of your jealousies (yes, I wish I’d written this book), ignorances (the information on language learning was an eye-opener for me), and all the other ways we hobble ourselves. And if you really don’t like a book, don’t review it.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Finding the Voice—Anita’s Debut

Author copies of my new book, Under the Eye of Kali, arrived the day before I left for a week’s vacation a couple of weeks ago. When I looked at the box I felt momentarily frozen. She had actually arrived. I suppose this sounds odd because it sounds like I’ve anthropomorphized a book, but I was really thinking about Anita, the protagonist of my new series set in India.

Some years back I tried writing a novel about Anita Ray but it just didn’t come together—there was something wrong in the voice of the character and the way she operated, moved through the landscape of people and the country. I had tried several times to capture Anita’s essence—and I was sure it was there, just beyond me, drifting toward me like a fragrant breeze but not quite reaching me. I was dissatisfied and I couldn’t resolve the feeling. I knew something was wrong, and in some of the reactions of outside readers I knew at the time, I thought I sensed the same lukewarm response to Anita.

Frustrated with these less than successful attempts at a novel featuring Anita, I tried writing a scene that could be the beginning of a short story. My idea was to give her exactly what she has to deal with, no distractions, no elaborations, no subplots. I did and it worked. Anita emerged at once with her irreverence, insouciance, and independence. I had her.

Without realizing it, I was using a technique that I often recommend to students when beginning a story. If you’re not sure about the protagonist, or about whose story this is, try writing the opening paragraph from different points of view—first, third, close and omniscient, the main character, a peripheral character who tells the story of another, more important figure. Each opening paragraph will be different, but one will resonate with you the moment you hear it being written or read. You have found the voice.

F. Scott Fitzgerald would have written a very different novel in The Great Gatsby if he had used a different narrator instead of the young man slightly in awe of the character of the title. And the pleasure of Sue Grafton’s series is experiencing the world with Kinsey Milhone. Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe could hardly have any other voice and be the same.

Anita’s voice sounded true the minute I heard it, but there was more. I loved the way the short story form revealed her. She reacted to the people around her but also edged past them to find her way through the crime. She pushed the other characters, defining them and their behavior. And through her I got to talk about a traditional culture in India that I admire and also deeply care about. I wrote one story and then another and another and another. The stories were fun to write and fun to read. I loved them. And, fortunately for me, Linda Landrigan at Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine loved them too.

After a while I realized this wasn’t going to be enough. Anita needed a novel, but I had tried so many times I wasn’t sure I wanted to fail again. I spent about half a nanosecond on that thought and jumped into thinking up a larger story line. I am something of a compulsive writer—I just keep at it, even if it isn’t going well, until I collapse exhausted or finished. So, I set out again.

I had tried a character, female and living in India and more or less part of the landscape and culture, in different voices—first person, close third, omniscient—none of which had worked. I had long ago forgotten about them, and concluded back then that I had tried too hard to shape her personality, but the person who emerged in the short story lived vividly every time I started writing. Would she translate into the longer form?

She did.

Anita is her own person, and when I pick up the hardcover with its perfectly thought-out cover design (I wish I could take credit for that too, but no) I feel the weight of her as a separate person, someone who can’t be forced to follow any plotline or story arc or anything else I might require of a character. I’m just as curious now to find out what she’s going to do next as would any other reader be.

So, yes, she has arrived, in more ways than one.

Under the Eye of Kali, by Susan Oleksiw (Five Star/Gale/Cengage, 2010).