Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sweetsmoke, by David Fuller

This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge - Q is for Quashee.

Cassius is a slave, hardened by loss and inured to love, on a Virginia tobacco plantation: Sweetsmoke. It is 1862, and the war is a constant presence in his life and the lives of the rest of the plantation. The plantation owners have already lost one son to the war, and that son sent two of his favorite slaves to Sweetsmoke. When the beautiful Quashee arrives, the rest of the slaves come to believe that she is the bearer of bad luck, but Cassius can't help but notice her extraordinary intelligence and grace.

Cassius, though, has his own problems. He learns that a beloved friend has died, and he vows to avenge her death. Such a promise, however, is difficult for a black man, a slave in Virginia, to uphold, and the story follows his clever exploits as he manuevers the treacherous waters of the south.

Both Cassius and Quashee are interesting characters for whom I was happy to root. In fact, almost all the characters in Sweetsmoke are memorable and well-realized. My interest in them helped sustain me as I cringed, periodically, at the heavy-handed writing. Mr. Fuller describes plantation life and the war convincingly, but he often succumbs to the temptation to overdramatize his characters' thoughts, including in ways that lead to rapid reversals of heart from one page to another. For example, Cassius has a falling out with a friend, and after two angry lines of dialogue from her, Cassius is left reeling: "An invisible wall was now between them, as if the past had never occurred." A bit extreme, no? Or, when Cassius decides that General Lee will when the war for the south: "This thought depressed him more than he had thought possible."

Overall, though, it's an engaging story. If you really enjoy Civil War stories, this one is probably worth your time.

Blur ... but with a good book

These past few weeks have been really nuts ... International travel for work, a series of family obligations (fun ones, happily), and then I got sick, from which I'm still recovering. All of that plane, hotel, and resting time did have one upside - I was able to read (consume, really) a wonderful book: Possession, by A.S. Byatt. Yes, I'm a bit behind the times, as the novel won the Man Booker Prize all the way back in 1990. But better late than never, and I really loved the book! It wasn't always an easy read, and I had to resort to the dictionary a few times (which actually is pretty fun since then I learn new words, but it does interrupt things). But I loved that the novel succeeded on both the intellectual and the emotional levels - making me think about its themes, and care about the characters. The plot twists weren't surprising at all, but that didn't matter at all. Instead, I loved the experience of good writing and good thinking. Weeeeee!

As for my own writing, I've been focusing on short pieces right now, as I'm taking a short break from edits on one manuscript and don't want to continue writing the other manuscript (about 2/3 through first draft) until I can really devote all my attention to it. But I've got some good ideas for it, so I'm excited to return to it when I can. In the meantime, I'm going to try to improve my craft by writing short stories ... I think I'll leave my thoughts on those for another post, though. Until then, happy literary adventures!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh

This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge. P is for Poppies.

It is sometime during the early years of the 19th century, and tall-masted ships rule the seas. One ship, the Ibis, is a siren, drawing together misfits and heros as it travels from Baltimore to the mouth of the Ganges. Slowly, the disparate lives of Zachary, a mulatto freedman; Deeti, a brave Bengali peasant woman; Paulette, a vivacious Frenchwoman orphaned in India; Neel, a rajah fallen from grace; and so many others weave together, in and around the Ibis as she prepares to embark on her next journey.

Ghosh sets himself an ambitious task, introducing the reader to over a dozen memorable characters whose lives eventually will wind together in the belly of the Ibis, all while capturing the particular historic moment of Britain's Indian colonies just prior to the Opium Wars in China. This is a rich, rich, book, with memorable detail in every paragraph. At first, such ambition feels unwieldy, as the individual trajectories of the characters tarry in forming an overarching narrative. But Ghosh delivers on his promise, and with gusto. I dare anyone to finish this book without caring deeply about the main characters, and not hanging in suspense for the next book of what promises to be a superlative trilogy.

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma