Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lessons from Orwell

A few weeks before Richard Holbrooke unexpectedly died, the veteran U.S. diplomat called a few members of his staff into his office for an important lesson. According to staffer Vali Nasr, Holbrooke gave them copies of George Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language." He praised Orwell's instruction to avoid convoluted language and passive voice, and Holbrooke noted writers ought to value clarity above all.

Prompted by Nasr's story, I read Orwell's essay. The lessons are not new to those who have taken professional writing classes but one point in particular struck me as useful for those writing literature. "Let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them." He goes on to admonish writers to first think about their meaning, and get the meaning clear through pictures and sensations, before finally choosing words.

Fiction writers are just as vulnerable as political writers to the tropes of our language - they're called cliches and sloppy writing. We can let our pens and fingers run away from us before we've figured out in our minds what, exactly, it is we are saying. I can easily think of a few examples from my own recent writing. It's a lesson I'm working on right now: trying not to get intoxicated by the lovely sound of a fun word but rather focusing on my clarity of expression. That's not to say that we can't play with the words. But let that come second. Jayne Anne Phillips is a wonderful example of the beautiful balance between art and clarity. She is a poet and said she took ten years to write her recent Lark and Termite because she was choosing the words one by one. I know I can't achieve her brilliance, but I can work on knowing better what is in my head before I try to find the words to express it.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

My Enemy's Cradle, By Sarah Young

This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge: Y is for Young.

Cyrla is a young Dutch-Polish girl sent to Holland by her Jewish father, who hoped to hide her from Hitler's new laws. But after a few tragic twists of fate, Cyrla ends up hidden in a program that advanced some of the Nazis' most cherished ideals.

Germany's occupation of the Netherlands makes it increasingly dangerous for Cyrla to hide her Jewish background, even with her blond hair and Christian aunt's family. She finds escape by impersonating her pregnant cousin Anneke and taking Anneke's place in a Lebensborn - a home for pregnant women. The Lebensborn are intended by their founder Heinrich Himmler to advance the Aryan bloodline: when applying, Anneke had to prove, to her disgust, her Aryan purity. When Cyrla takes her place she is surprised to find herself sent to Germany, away from the Jewish lover who promised to save her. As Cyrla's belly grows with her unborn child, she must keep herself and her baby alive by hiding the secret of her identity.

My Enemy's Cradle takes its greatest strength from the unusual setting of the Lebensborn. The facility is a beautiful prison for mothers-to-be, both wed and unwed, where they fill their waiting days with lessons on sanitation and nutrition. The babies who are unwanted are given to SS families that promise to raise them as faithful Nazis. It is a chilling and fascinating chapter of history. I was less fond of Cyrla, who often seems petulant and unperceptive. But in spite of her shortcomings her story is capitvating and moving, even with a tear-jerker finale. It is definitely a worthwhile read.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Spider King, by Lawrence Schoonover

This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge: X is for Louis XI.

It is easy to forget in today's age of well-known boundaries that so many nations were once jigsaw puzzles of competing fifedoms. When Louis of Valois was born in 1423, both France and England were warring to determine who ruled the ancient and divided Gaul. When Louis was crowned, becoming Louis XI of his realm, both nations were split internally, England mired in the War of Roses, France still subject to the medieval feudal power of its dukes. But Louis fought against the tide of his era, consolidating control and cementing France's boundaries. His story is a fascinating one.

In The Spider King, we begin Louis's story before the moment of his birth and then watch as the spindly, uncertain young man becomes a master warrior and statesman. He earns the honorable affection of two wives and the merited fear of his enemies. But Louis faces the treachery of France's nobility and his rivals' ever insatiable appetites for power. He must contend with, at various times, his father, his brother, his cousin, and the king of England. Whether or not he can succeed in building a modern, united France, one that advances the science of learning under a fair rule of law, is dependent upon his wit, his loyal but scheming advisors, and his luck. With a ring of lead saints' medals pinned upon his hat, Louis XI is rarely unwilling to test all three.

Lawrence Schoonover's Louis is a compelling character, a complicated man weakened by illness and pride but strengthened by his intellect and heart. Louis becomes known as a spider for the complicated webs he weaves, and his morality is not without stain, but his is a great story to follow. Even more so in Schoonover's talented hands, for he spins a masterful story filled with colorful characters and well-realized settings. A delight to read!

Map: France under Louis XI.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Opening Up

I started practicing yoga almost two months ago and I am totally hooked. I love the part that I thought I would enjoy - the physical challenge, the alignment and the improved flexibility. But I'm also struck by how much I'm enjoying the emotional (or spiritual?) side of it. I was skeptical about the idea that a bunch of body twists could put me in touch with something, anything more than my muscles and tendons, but it seems that there's something to the supposed mystique of yoga. This morning, at the end of practice, one of the teachers helped me push back my shoulders - opening up my heart. Then, another teacher read a passage from Hand Wash Cold by Karen Maezen Miller. It was a portion I had heard before, and appreciated: about the inevitable suffering that life entails and how we can choose to turn towards the glimmers of beauty available to us in our ordinary lives. This same teacher had read it only two days before, so this was nothing new. But this morning, something about the story and, I think, having physically opened my heart, made the passage far more poignant. I found myself crying. Wow!

I came home and, after a quick breakfast, used the opening I had found to return to my novel-in-progress. This novel and I have had a contentious relationship, and recently, I've been a little mad at her. But I resolved today to overcome that. We sat down together, thought a little bit, imagined a little bit, and then I wrote more in one sitting than I've written in weeks.

So, do you have writer's block? Maybe try yoga! What else works for folks?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Romanov family was murdered in the height of summer, but there's still something about that tragedy that is reminiscent of winter - maybe it's the long, cold years that their bodies spent in their shallow forest graves, or maybe it's just that murder mysteries somehow echo the harsh cold of our darkest season. November's issue of Smithsonian Magazine has a very interesting article about Czar Nicholas II, Czarina Alexandra, their five children and four attendants. It's a topic that numerous historical fiction authors have plowed so I thought perhaps some of you would be interested.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Happy December!

We're having a holiday party today, which means mulled brandy, hot apple cider, coconut macaroons with cranberries, cheese cheese cheese and other yummies. I'm getting in the mood for chilly, wintry stuff, and so although the book I'm currently reading (Mrs. Dalloway) has nothing to do with winter, I'm hoping to add some seasonal reads to my pile. Any suggestions? Maybe I'll reread Ethan Frome. Or the Master and Margarita!

Photo: Nuublay would like to help us prepare for the party please. Especially in the taste-testing department.

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma