30 November 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

I recently read Her Fearful Symmetry and was curious afterwards to go back and re-read The Time Traveler's Wife. For a change, I'm going to review a book based on answering the reader's discussion guide.

1. In The Time Traveler's Wife , the characters meet each other at various times during their lifetime. How does the author keep all the timelines in order and "on time"? 

I read elsewhere that the author opted to use Clare's timeline to anchor the book. Good choice and it makes sense; otherwise following Henry it would be too jumpy.
2. Although Henry does the time traveling, Clare is equally impacted. How does she cope with his journeys and does she ultimately accept them?

She has a very full artistic life, social engagements, family - and she seems widely read in philosophy. Also from early childhood she has debated determinism and fatalism and free will; so these concepts are ones she can reflect upon when her life situation is disrupted.
3. How does the writer introduce the reader to the concept of time travel as a realistic occurrence? Does she succeed?
The writer's genius is in introducing the "superpower" of time travel as a disability. The realism of the situation comes from the ordinary and mundane needs that Henry must handle when traveling. He lives most of his life as an intellectual; but with his time travels, he regresses to the base of the Maslovian Pyramid, having to satisfy basic needs of food and shelter.

4. Henry's life is disrupted on multiple levels by spontaneous time travel. How does his career as a librarian offset his tumultuous disappearances? Why does that job appeal to Henry?
The orderliness of the catalog appeals, and the job offers an environment which is comfortable for eccentrics.
5. Henry and Clare know each other for years before they fall in love as adults. How does Clare cope with the knowledge that at a young age she knows that Henry is the man she will eventually marry?

6. The Time Traveler's Wife is ultimately an enduring love story. What trials and tribulations do Henry and Clare face that are the same as or different from other "normal" relationships?

7. How does their desire for a child affect their relationship?

It stresses Henry out immensely and triggers more time traveling; and it risks Clare's life. It makes Clare more precious to Henry, and shows for the first time Clare putting her adult needs over Henry's.

8. The book is told from both Henry and Clare's perspectives. What does this add to the story?

In a He Said, She Said fashion the dual perspectives add depth and context. Although one expects that, as a time traveler, Henry would be nearly omniscient and extremely wise, through is early interactions with Clare he manages to imbue her with a sense of quasi-omniscience as well. This presents Henry as not the most powerful creature in the story - in fact, he is nearly powerless even in front of a small girl.
9. Do you think the ending of the novel is satisfactory?

No, but it did seem necessary and proper - predestined, almost.
10. Though history there have been dozens of mediums used for time travel in literature. Please cite examples and compare The Time Traveler's Wife to the ones with which you are familiar.

I drew a comparison between Time Traveler's Wife and Asimov's End of Eternity. In contrast to EoE, time travel in TTW is disorderly, chaotic, and generally purposeless. Changing the past is impossible in TTW, and the reason for the existence of a whole society in EoE. In EoE, the love interest of Harlan - Noÿs Lambent - is at first seen as a pliant and naive individual, trapped in real-time and ignorant of the larger implications of time travel, much as is Clare. Both Clare and Noÿs have attainted a larger-than-life wisdom and forknowledge by the end of the book.
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23 November 2009

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

What a strange story this is. I read it rapidly - the story pulled me in and kept me riveted. It may do the same to you, if you like strangeness - and stories like:
The story begins in a hospital, as Elspeth lies dying with her lover in attendance. She slips into oblivion, but doesn't take her secrets with her. Instead she leaves a collection of journals to her lover, and some requirements in her will involving her twin sister's brood. She's been estranged from her sister, but even so seems to hold a fondness for the children, Julia and Valentina, and has maintained a connection to them through correspondence with her sister.

With this staging, the action begins - with the sure hand of the deceased Elspeth guiding the revolutions of the girls, her lover, and even her sister into her orbit. Her writing The living take their cues from the dead; and the action unfolds with deadly consequences.

When it ends, all the characters lives are reconfigured - some drastically, some in very subtle ways. Relationships have been decimated and resurrected; cowards and heroes come to the fore. But never is the demon that drives the plot exorcised; instead, a destiny shaped of happily ever after awaits.

20 November 2009

Blog tour: a conversation with a stranger on a train

Anne Tillyer, author of An A-Z of Possible Worlds, stopped by to answer a few of my questions as part of the Roast Books blog tour. In interviewing Anne, she was quite approachable and friendly with the questions, much like a friendly stranger you might meet and like when riding the train in a foreign city. You can converse, chat, laugh, get some helpful tips and wonder if you'll ever see that stranger again so that you might have time to strike up a friendship. The seat across from us on the train is available, so why not sit down and listen in?

Many of your stories reveal a depth of researched knowledge, such as "Q is for Quayside." What was your strategy for researching as much as you needed for the story, but not spending more time than you wanted to on the research? I find I can spend a lot of time researching and run out of writing time.

I expect that's where writing on trains helps. I can't look anything up, so I just leave a gap or a question mark and carry on. Most things can be checked pretty quickly afterwards. That said, if you're enjoying the research, then why not do loads of it? It might be the start of a whole new interest! The books I read about the history of shipping and navigation for 'The Quayside' were fascinating. I still have a few to go, actually. I also read quite a bit about peat bogs for 'The Bog', even though I knew I wouldn't use much of it but again, they're remarkable places. There were things I found less interesting (road surfaces, golf, ballistics, plastic surgery...), but I only needed a few facts for each so they didn't take long to research. I suppose the trick is to keep your writing time separate from your reading time. You don't have to know everything before you start. But if you find you'd rather research something than write about it, perhaps it's time to ask why. I spent nearly a year reading loads about apothecary shops and plagues for a book I barely started. It was all extremely interesting until I realized I was trying to write something that I probably wouldn't read myself, not being particularly keen on historical fiction. So that was a mistake. I know you should learn from your mistakes, but I wish I'd learnt a bit quicker!

Your title "possible worlds" put me in mind of many alternate worlds stories, such as Neal Stephenson's Anathem and Roger Zelazny's Amber series. What kinds of alternative world stories inspired you? Who would you want to see your stories displayed with in a bookstore featuring a section on possible worlds?

Thank you for that! I've just googled Anathem and it sounds brilliant, but I'm afraid I hadn't heard of it before. Perhaps I should try the Amber stories as well, though their sheer length has always seemed rather daunting to me. I've worked out that I may have time to read just 2,000 more books in my entire life, so I'm very protective of my reading time.

'Nineteen Eighty-Four' had a huge impact on me when I read it in my early teens and I still love it. I think it's the way Orwell thinks through every aspect of his world that makes it so convincing, right down to language, the ownership of history and the effects of a surveillance society on personal psychology. I'm not interested in magic and unicorns, it's worlds that are just one or two twists away from the known that intrigue me. So if you put me on a shelf alongside J G Ballard's 'High-Rise' and 'Concrete Island', Ira Levin's 'Stepford Wives', Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451', Yevgeny Zamyatin's 'We' and, of course, George Orwell, Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz, I'd be pretty happy. Ecstatic, actually!

Some authors have written of struggles they face in writing wonderful characters who experience horrible events - there is an inclination to ease up on the character, to be more gentle and less gruesome. I can tell when an author is pulling their punches, and you don't pull any. Which characters in your stories did you face the most mental resistance in having them face awful events?

Ha! Well, I had a pretty good idea of what was in store for my characters beforehand, so their fate didn't cause me any sleepless nights. There were some that I positively enjoyed tormenting. The Queen in 'The Frontier' is one of those women who delude themselves with romantic ideas and pick the horrible guys to go out with because they think they can redeem them and they can't, they can't. So she gets what's coming to her. Likewise, the people in 'The Straits' have been ostracized by mainstream society but, when they have the chance to be accepted, they deliberately sabotage it because they have much more fun being on the outside. I'm with them on that! I did feel rather sorry for the manager in 'The Youth Hostel', who is too naive to give the tourists the ethnic charm they're looking for, but that's the beauty of short stories. He wouldn't exist at all if he wasn't about to suffer a big disappointment. Hopefully, the readers like him and that's as much as he can expect. I can't imagine changing what I want to say because I sympathize with one of my characters. In fact, if I feel sorry for them, I know I'm doing all right.

Your stories highlight the roles of individuals who are outsiders to the mainstream such as the entrepreneur in "G is for Golf Course" and the historian in "E is for Excavation". In your interview with Andy at Decoding Static you said "to be frank, I don't actually trust the public that much" but the individuals you portray don't seem trustworthy either. Where is the redemption and uplift in your stories? Does an author need to provide some positivity in a tale?

I think the historian does redeem himself in the end. After all, his final act is pretty brave. He's a little guy who doesn't have the courage to stand up against the government, so they trust him. Yet he's prepared to hide a historical fact that would be very useful to the authorities. But you're right, I don't really trust the public that much. I think we all turn a blind eye to certain things for the sake of an easy life, and I include myself in that. The dictator in 'The Holiday Resort' gets away with human rights abuses because people want to believe that he has come round to their way of thinking, so he says what they want to hear and simply changes his tactics. It's a difficult question and, if I think about it, no, I don't think I 'need' to provide positivity in a story if I don't think it's there. At the same time, I think if an author can reveal the mechanics behind a certain situation, then they've done a good job. Maybe I'm just cruel, but I find that watching people get their comeuppance can be very satisfying. In fact, it's nice to be able to construct a world where people do get what's coming to them.

I work as an improv actor, and in that work names are hugely important. Starting a scene as a Ben can give an entirely different characterization than starting it as a Benedict. Yet in your novels, names are conspicuously absent. What fueled your decision to have nameless characters and how do you feel about that writing choice in retrospect?

That was because I wanted the stories to be destinations on a journey around your head, so I decided early on to try to avoid using any specific cultural references and, as you say, names come with their own social baggage. It was quite tricky in places and yup, there were a few times when I regretted that decision. But then, there was always a way around it. I think 'The Peep Show' has the most characters and for a long time, I couldn't see how I could write it without naming the women. But when I realized that they could be referred by their hair colour, it seemed to fit the story rather well, as if there was a 'stable' of women that worked in the club, like horses in a circus. Just think of the freedom you would have if you were told to improvise that little lot!

What's next? Do you have another work on the way, and will you be continuing with non-traditional formats?

I would love to continue with a non-traditional format, but only if it fitted the text. The box set for this collection seemed perfect because each story is a self-contained world and you can read them in any order. But I wouldn't want to do something that was just a gimmick, that would be annoying. I'm working on a full-length piece at the moment which reads like a normal book and to alter the format would feel gratuitous. However, I do have an idea for a series of stories set around a single night's television programmes and it might be interesting to do something a bit different with that...

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10 November 2009

Roast Books Blog Tour

LONDON - NOVEMBER 18:  A maintenance worker wa...Image by Getty Images via Daylife
Cherished readers, please note that my modest Evagation blog will be included in an upcoming tour of blogs by A.C. Tillyer, author of An A-Z of Possible Worlds. Check back on November 20th for the interview.

I've got a few questions that I plan to ask A.C., and would be happy to include questions of yours. So email or post if you have insightful questions. Please don't bother with silly questions, as I can come up with enough of those on my own.

Thank you to Faye at Roastbooks for setting up the tour!
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09 November 2009

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba and Brian Mealer is a no-holds-barred look at a life of poverty, dreams and tenacity.

In the beginning of the story, William is considered crazy by neighbors and others, and only his friends stand by him (one even funds his inventions). By the end, William has redeemed their investment tenfold - financially, of course, but even more so by improving their lives far beyond their expectations.

William and his family and his nation survive terrible hardship and famine in the course of his life, and he is unstinting in describing the horrors of starvation to the reader. The scene where his poor old dog Khamba dies is worthy of comparison with the story of Ol' Yeller, and to me far more gut wrenching. William is forced at one point to withdraw from school as he lacks the tuition money; but not before he spends 2 weeks basically cutting *into* class to try and stay to learn.  But being forced out of school has an up-side; in an attempt to keep up, William begins self-study at the library, finds a book describing how to make a windmill, and then he begins to scavenge parts and supplies from the local dump with which to build one.  And it works.

The story isn't ended by any means: William Kamkwamba has a blog, and his ingenuity and entrepreneurship is blossoming now that he is gaining resources to finish his educaton and challenge himself to see what he can do next.

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07 November 2009

Causing a Scene

Causing a Scene by Charlie Todd and Alex Scordelis is a detailed look at the early missions of Improv Everywhere and the interactions of their Agents on missions involving public performances "causing scenes of chaos and joy." Included are background on the Frozen Grand Central Station event, the Fake U2 concert, and the Synchronized Swim in Washington Park Fountain as well as the No Pants subway rides. For improvisers, reading about the planning and coordination needed comes off very realistically - 5 minutes stage time for the Mobius Starbuck easily stretches to hours of plotting and advance work and rehearsal. Bravo!

I would so love to do one of these in Indianapolis. We can start with the No Pants subway ride event. So, who's bringing the subway to Indy?

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