Monday, February 28, 2011

The Florist's Daughter by Patricia Hampl

I enjoy memoirs. It’s fun for me to read about people with more interesting lives than mine. However, I think writing a memoir poses a challenge, and also involves some risk. How many aspiring writers out there have jotted down ordinary journal entries and sent them in for publication, hoping for a big break? Where do you draw the line between personal disclosure and good storytelling? FYI: pouring your soul into the page doesn’t necessarily make for good writing.

That’s what someone should have told Patricia Hampl before she wrote The Florist’s Daughter.

The book cover, as well as Hampl’s prose, is certainly pretty. Unfortunately the old adage about looks being skin deep applies here. The contents behind the cover are pretty words, pretty prose, little substance and a lack of direction. A few not-so-pretty words that come to mind are monotonous, unexciting, repetitive and tedious.

The story begins and ends in the hospital room of Hampl’s dying mother, which in itself is an effective bookend for the narration. These scenes in the hospital room are relatively well done, as they explore the nature of grief and how the death of a parent is essentially the end of an era of one’s life. Between these bookends is one long flashback to Hampl’s childhood, and this is where she loses her sense of narration and lets the book meander with no purpose in sight.

Hampl grew up in St. Paul, where her father owned a flower shop, and where she claims to have led a sheltered life in which she and her brother were “spoiled with love.” In school I was always told to “show, don’t tell” when it came to writing. With this book, you can expect a heaping helping of telling and a small side dish of showing.

For example, the “spoiled with love” quote is a frail statement that hangs in the air; for never, at any point, does she provide examples to support this claim. In fact, that’s how she spends the majority of the book; claiming, time and again, that her father wished to preserve his little girl’s innocence, while hardly providing examples of such an upbringing; mentioning, but never delving into, her rebellious, pot-smoking teenage years. By telling and not showing, Hampl merely skims the surface and neglects to add substance to her general claims, thereby preventing the book from being interesting.

It seems as though Hampl does not know how to fill in the middle portion of the book, so she simply repeats what she has said before, multiple times, just in case her readers didn’t get the point. I found myself thinking, “Yes, we know your father wanted you to be innocent. You’ve said that already. Next?” Hampl repeats time and again that she feels a sense of duty in her role as a daughter, but hardly, if ever, delves into why or how she fulfilled that duty, or why she chose to remain living in St. Paul after aspiring to move away.

All the while Hampl portrays her parents as two-dimensional stock characters: her father as the idealist and her mother as the pragmatist. At times it seems as if her goal is to simply paint a beautiful portrait of a cutesy child’s fantasy; an idealized childhood filled with pretty flowers and populated by quirky stock characters that never develop into real people.

The novel as a whole is superficially pleasing if you enjoy poetry, particularly poetry that is art for art’s sake. No doubt Hampl has a way with words, and if she could only make the substance match the style, she’d have it made.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

You can easily tell from the first page that this is not going to be a feel-good read. The real tragedy behind it all is that it’s a true story; a memoir of, in the author’s own words, a “miserable Irish-Catholic childhood.” Frank McCourt narrates in a tone alternating between cynical, dryly humorous and childishly naïve, providing insight into both his adult and child selves, and in doing so paints a vivid portrait of lost innocence and struggles with poverty and addiction.

The story takes place during the 1930s and 40s in Limerick City, Ireland, where the McCourt family moved from Brooklyn, New York, when Frank was young. The title, Angela’s Ashes, refers to McCourt’s mother, Angela, who is essentially a single parent to McCourt and his brothers due to their father’s alcoholism. The family lives in poverty and is unaided by either side of the extended family, both of whom disapprove of the marriage and are determined to let them suffer. While her husband spends what little money they have on trips to the pub, Angela struggles to provide for her family, living in fear of where their next meal is coming from, even resorting to stealing food and begging at the local church for new clothes.

The novel chronicles McCourt’s upbringing from his birth to the age of nineteen. From a young age, he is sent on missions to retrieve his drunken father from the pub, and at fourteen, begins to work various jobs to support his family, eventually quitting school. Catholicism plays a large part in his upbringing, as he is constantly browbeaten by fundamentalist ideology that brainwashes him into a state of fear. An amusing turning point in the book is his discovery of masturbation, for which he is convinced God will punish him with an eternity in hell. However, at this point, he is beyond caring, and he experiences the thrill of rebellion as he revels in this state of sin.

Such instances of humor help move the story along so it’s more than just a plodding ballad of a downtrodden family. The subplots involving McCourt’s adolescent milestones are often handled comically, almost in a self-deprecating manner, as though to satirize the innocence—or foolishness—of youth in the days before disillusionment.

However, what also keeps the pages turning is McCourt’s literary voice, both gritty and poetic, bleak but somehow beautiful. There’s a lyrical quality to it, a subtle but deeply-felt rhythm. McCourt knows how to appeal to his readers’ emotions without resorting to sentimentality. In fact, the young McCourt’s lack of self-pity and his precocious ambition for a better life is more likely to tug at heartstrings than the one-dimensional Oliver Twist pleading for more gruel.

Personally, what kept me turning the page was the hope for a happy ending, and lo and behold, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. But it’s not the only thing that makes Angela’s Ashes a worthwhile read. In addition to tragedy and despair, there is hope, humor, and an overriding humanity in the struggle for survival, and one might even call it inspirational—though you certainly won’t find it in the “Self Help” aisle at your local Barnes and Noble. In its own way, Angela’s Ashes is a beautiful book. Just have a box of tissues handy.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Jane Slayre by Sherry Browning Irwin

I must confess, I have often done Google searches to look for T-shirts that say “Team Bronte” and “Team Austen.” I’ve been a fan of Charlotte Bronte since I read Jane Eyre in high school. I immediately fell in love with the book and became quite the Bronte enthusiast. On the other hand, Jane Austen and I have never really clicked, and I was very amused when I read that Charlotte was actually one of Jane Austen’s biggest critics back in the day—hence my desire to declare my membership of Team Bronte.

However, this has not turned me away from the relatively recent slew of fantasy rewrites that have made their way to the shelves, such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. I admit I would probably enjoy those more than Jane Austen’s originals. So you can probably imagine my excitement when I came across a copy of Jane Slayre, written by Sherry Browning Irwin, in a London bookstore. The cover, which depicted a famous portrait of Charlotte Bronte, only with a stake in her hand and blood spattered on her arm, immediately drew me in. My beloved Jane Eyre as a vampire slayer? How awesome would that be?

The best I can say about Jane Slayre is that it’s a fun, action-packed read. But I would advise fans of the original not to set their standards too high.

The transformation of Jane Eyre into a fantasy adventure is quite well done in many ways. In the original, Jane is abused by her cruel aunt and cousins and disregarded by the servants. In this one, her relatives are vampires, and one of the servants is later revealed to be a zombie. The corrupt headmaster of Jane’s school, Mr. Brockelhurst, becomes Mr. Bokorhurst—a bokor being a voodoo priest. Jane springs into action when he finds out her classmates are being turned into zombies. This portion of the book is by far the most entertaining, as Jane learns the art of swordplay from her teacher, Miss Temple, and goes on a zombie-beheading spree.

I interpreted this whole zombie angle to be metaphorical. The original book portrays Jane as a spirited, outspoken girl whom the adults in her life try to tame into a subservient drone—a zombie of sorts. Similarly, the school she attends really cracks the whip down on students, so to speak, so that they do what they’re told without question—essentially turning them into “zombies.” Whether this was Irwin’s intention or not, I found this to be an effective use of allegory.

However, once Jane leaves the zombie-ridden school and goes to work for Mr. Rochester, her love interest, the book goes downhill.

Charlotte Bronte took her sweet time developing Jane and Mr. Rochester both individually and as a couple. She gave her readers the time to know them and care enough to root for them to end up together. But Irwin here has other factors in play—the vampires, the zombies, the werewolf in the attic—so the rapport between the characters takes a back seat in favor of the fantasy elements. Irwin just wants to get back to the “good stuff”—vampire-slaying and whatnot—and does so by rushing through the relationship of Jane and Rochester, changing their characters in the process. At this point, the book becomes plot-driven instead of character-driven. Proud, steadfast Jane deteriorates into a weepy, lovesick teenager, while Rochester’s Byronic hero qualities are toned down to make him more like a white knight and less like Bronte’s complex antihero.

Furthermore, being familiar with Jane Eyre, I found that some portions of Jane Slayre were copied, word-for-word, from the original novel. Every now and then, amid demon-slaying ventures and metaphorical dream sequences, a phrase or an entire paragraph directly pulled from Jane Eyre would jump out at me, and it felt out of place. The formal 19th-century dialect of Bronte’s literary voice disrupted the rather whimsical fantasy element. In other words, Irwin and Bronte’s writing styles don’t quite mesh.

Jane Slayre is an overall entertaining read. Despite the botched characterization and inconsistent writing style, this book does deliver its share of fun. I’m sure there are diehard fans of the original out there who would want to stake themselves after reading what they perceive as a bastardization of a classic; but if you can come out of it unscathed, I would recommend this for a light read.