Book review: The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

 

This is a review of the book The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert, which follows the life of nineteenth-century botanist Alma Whittaker.

As one of the few women of my demographic who has not read (nor seen) Eat Pray Love, I came at this book with no preconceived ideas about it or its author. Instead, I approached it with the enthusiasm of someone who is given a book by a person who knows them, with the hope it would be a good read. And I was not disappointed.

Gilbert’s tale is told with sufficient detail and background that I wasn’t sure for a long time whether its protagonist, Alma Whittaker, was a real historical figure or not. The information about her father is just wild enough to be true, especially considering his background, and the details of her early life and the characters of her mother and father are so well developed that it was really a toss-up for a long time as to whether this was a biography or a novel. (Of course, a simple Google search would have been enough to stem that debate, but to be honest it was one I rather enjoyed having with myself. It made the story that much more interesting.)

Alma Whittaker is herself an interesting character. Given the background Gilbert provides her with, it is unlikely she would have been anything else, but even that conclusion is testament to the quality of the narrative. We are told the story through Alma’s eyes, with her prejudices, beliefs and opinions sprinkled liberally throughout, but they make the story more compelling, not less. The arrival of her sister Prudence is stated with the bluntness of an eleven year old who had hitherto been the only child; her discovery later of the outcome of some of Prudence’s decisions means that not only she, but the reader, must delve back to reconsider the sisters’ behaviour in light of this new information. As we see through Alma’s eyes, we are forced to realise the limitations that perspective contains.

Other characters, too, are fascinating for both what they offer and what they cannot. The Dutch housekeeper Hanneke de Groot is a font of information – but only if you know how to ask for it. Alma’s father, Henry, is notable for his wide knowledge and fine acquisitions, but also for his lack of empathy and tenderness. Ambrose Pike, the artist who comes to stay at the Whittaker house, White Acre, is someone who can offer Alma what she wants, but not what she needs. And Prudence, who is to Alma little more than a footnote, is capable of much greater strength and self sacrifice than not only Alma believes, but also than of Alma herself.

Running parallel to the study in characters and their strengths and weaknesses (though not necessarily delving into character studies, so to speak) is the scientific narrative of biology in the 1800s. Alma chooses to study mosses, partly because she needs something to occupy her scientific mind while acting as the matron of her father’s house, and partly because they are convenient in that she does not need to leave the property to do so. Her deductions, however, are more far-reaching than even she could have conceived. She may need to travel to reach their conclusion, but the years at White Acre with her mosses stand her in excellent stead for the research to come.

The way Gilbert links Alma’s study with the wider scientific world of the 1800s is cleverly done, and so seamless it is, again, hard to differentiate this work from biography. Sure, Alma Whittaker is a fictional character, but that doesn’t make her presence in this world any less fascinating. In fact, I was almost wishing by the end that she had existed, as it would have added an extra dimension to the scientific activity of the era.

The Signature of All Things is, all told, a very cleverly written story about a character and situation so complex it almost seems incredible they have been invented. The narrative is smooth and the story compelling. All told, I can heartily recommend this book as a worthwhile and fascinating addition to any library.

 

———————–

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert
Published by Bloomsbury
513 pages
Available as hardcover, paperback and e-book

Leave a comment

Filed under book review

An ode to independent booksellers

Image courtesy of Anusorn P nachol / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Anusorn P nachol / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

I’ve noticed something in the air over the past few years, which seems to be becoming more and more prevalent. It’s the scent of revisionism; the aroma of awareness; the whiff of responsibility, and it’s come in part from the largely global nature of commerce these days. Multinationals are omnipresent and we all support them in some way or another. Me, I had a can of Sprite with my lunch today, I read a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch, my mobile phone was made on behalf of Google, and I am typing on a Dell computer that runs Microsoft products.

What I’m noticing, though, is that despite the ever-increasing presence of multinationals – and even just national organisations which seem to have agents on every second street corner – in our lives, people are starting to realise the worth of the small corner store. They are conscious about where their money is going: sure, they want to get value for money, but they are prepared to pay an extra dollar or two in order to keep the profits local. A good example of this is the number of farmers’ markets which keep springing up, around Australia at least. Every second suburb seems to have one every few weeks, where locally grown seasonal produce is sold to eager buyers. Sure, it might be more convenient to buy your fruit and vegetables at the big supermarket down the road, but at least with the farmers’ markets you have more idea about how fresh it is, and you’re helping local producers.

Well, the same goes for books. We all buy books, don’t we? (At least, if you’re reading this, I assume you do.) And it’s probably cheaper to go to Target or Big W or Walmart or whatever your local equivalent is, but wouldn’t you rather your hard-earned money went to a local, independent bookseller rather than whatever company it is that owns Target (or Big W or Walmart)? There are a lot of people for whom this is important, and those are the people I’m reaching out to today.

Today, we’re going to plug our favourite independent bookseller. No matter where you are in the world, no matter whether you buy all your books from them or just a selection (and I admit I’m guilty of going to Amazon or Target or whatever when I’m looking for something cheap or convenient), today I want you all to link to an independent bookseller who means something to you. Who knows exactly what books they have and where to find them, and can offer recommendations based on what you’ve already selected. Who love the books they sell as much as you love reading them. Who inspire their customers to try new things and don’t mind if you sit down and start reading something off their shelves. And who get an enormous thrill out of seeing a young child empty their piggy bank onto the counter to buy a new book because that’s what they want to spend their savings on. (Be honest. Is the teenager staffing the checkout at your local discount department store going to react like that?) Go on. Give them a plug. Because the more of us who keep shopping at our independent bookstores, the more likely it is they will stay in business to inspire other people.

I’m going to start. My favourite is Imprints Booksellers in Hindley Street in Adelaide, South Australia. They’ve been there forever and they always have exactly what I’m looking for, with a smile and a helping hand if I need it. And seriously, check out the photo on the link. Wouldn’t you love to shop for books there?

I’m also giving a special mention to Annie’s Books on Peregian at Peregian Beach on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. I met Annie at Writers’ Week last week and her enthusiasm was contagious, and if she runs her shop with anything like that enthusiasm it’s bound to be worth a visit. (And checking out the photos on her website, I’d say she does.)

Right. Your turn. What is your favourite independent bookstore? Come on, don’t be shy. We’re all helping each other, and who knows? You might help someone else find a new favourite. :)

 

2 Comments

Filed under community announcement, reading

Writers’ Week, Adelaide style

writers week 1

Adelaide Writers’ Week (photo by me)

This week is Writers’ Week in my home town of Adelaide, part of the annual Adelaide Festival of Arts. It’s a week I always take off work so I can make the most of the opportunity it offers – surrounding myself with people who love reading and writing, and hearing straight from the authors’ mouths what makes them tick, where their ideas come from and how they turn those ideas into the books on offer in the book tent.

It’s autumn in Australia and this week the weather is fine and ranging from 24-34 degrees Celsius (75-93 Fahrenheit), which can be a little warm on the hotter days but there is plenty of shade to be had. And people are making the most of it – I’ve not been to other writers’ festivals but we do seem to be bursting at the seams here at times. Most of the authors offer book signings after their sessions and if you try to get into the book tent between sittings you’re fighting a hundred other people to find what you’re looking for. And you know what? It’s fantastic. While  I was lining up to meet Elizabeth Gilbert yesterday I found myself in conversation with a bookseller from Queensland who had come down for the week to see what all the fuss was about; the family days on the weekend were packed out with kids dying to hear Mem Fox or Andy Griffiths read their works aloud (and can I say there is very little more satisfying than seeing a hundred eight year olds with piles of well-thumbed books, hoping to meet the author); Hannah Kent was still signing copies of Burial Rites a good 45 minutes after her session ended; and Alexander McCall Smith was seen wandering around enjoying the atmosphere before his first session today. Yes, we have an embarrassment of riches here this week, and the best part is it’s all free. So everyone can come and enjoy a session under the trees, listening to some of the best authors the world has to offer.

(As an aside, this is Australia’s ONLY free literary festival. If you are interested in helping it stay free, then please buy some books from the book tent on site, or if you are not in Adelaide (which I expect is most of you) then please consider making a purchase or two at the online e-book retailer associated with the event, which can be found here. Funds raised from book sales are what enables the Festival to continue to offer this event at no cost.)

The west stage

The west stage

I’ll be able to offer more commentary on it next time because I’ll have seen more of the sessions by then, but in the meantime I urge anyone reading this, who has a writers’ festival anywhere near them during the year, to go check it out. It’s fascinating, it’s eye-opening, and you may just discover a new favourite author or two. :)

 

Leave a comment

Filed under community announcement, writing

Book review: Constance, by Patrick McGrath

 

Constance, by Patrick McGrath

Constance, by Patrick McGrath

Constance is an intriguing story of a young woman and her much older husband in 1960s Manhattan. Constance, the titular character, is haunted, aloof and intriguing; Sidney, her academic husband, is a divorced father of one who is still trying to find his niche.

The book is well written and draws you in; however, the fact both characters’ stories are told in the first person, with no real distinction in style between them, is a little unclear at first. While it is fascinating to read the points of view of both characters, I cannot help but wonder what would have been lost by telling it in third person, because it could have kept the limited narrative style while avoiding any confusion. The other thing that bothered me was the absence of inverted commas for speech, with dialogue indicated only by dashes. I’ve seen this a few times and it appears a modern way of doing it, but it does take some getting used to. But then again, maybe that’s just me.

The story is about two things – Constance’s need to work out where she fits, both in her husband’s life (littered with fellow academics, students, and the ex-wife and pre-pubescent son), and in that of her family, which consists of a father she resents and a significantly younger sister for whom she feels responsible. That her choices and actions can have a negative impact on her sister’s life seems to escape her; that she has any impact whatsoever on her father is also beyond her comprehension. For much of the story she is not only happy to but insistent on playing the victim, a fact which draws her wrath when her husband dares raise it with her.

Sidney, on the other hand, seems oblivious to the fact he is playing with fire when he feels an affinity and connection with Constance’s reviled father and occasionally takes his side against Constance’s. In this way he fits the stereotype of the absent-minded professor who knows everything there is to know about his chosen subject but nothing about human interactions or behaviour. He is able to offer clinical diagnoses of Constance, but seems unable to put these into a human context and deal with her in an appropriate manner; it is unsurprising that he succeeds only in driving her away.

Of course, this is a love story – or a romance, if you go with the definition that a love story has a sad ending and a romance a happy one – and our principal couple can find a way to connect in the end, even if they suffer many trials and tribulations on the way. In that sense it is masterfully told, because for much of the narrative it is hard for the reader to see any way out of this, yet when the story ends it feels like it could not have gone any other way. In another sense, though, the fact the characters are not particularly likeable and are far more frustrating than anything else means it is difficult to engage with the story. This was one I finished because I felt like I should, rather than having a need to know what happened next. From that perspective, it was not told masterfully at all.

Overall, Constance is the paradox of a brilliantly-written book which gives the impression it could have been better. It has all the ingredients of a great novel – deep and complicated characters, intriguing narrative, twists and turns, human suffering and resolution – but without more engaging characters, it seems to fall just short of its potential. I feel it could well become a classic in its own right; however, for an engaging read, I would be more likely to pick up something else.

 

—————————–

Constance, by Patrick McGrath
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
244 pages (paperback)
Available from Amazon in hardcover, paperback and ebook

Leave a comment

Filed under book review

Getting all cultural

Image courtesy of Renjith Krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Renjith Krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

As I write this today, I’m confronted with the news of the sudden and tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Rumours abound about the method and manner of his departure, and his life is being condensed into thirty-second sound-bites for the television news. And I am finding it increasingly sad that he is being reduced to the sum of his filmography.

Now, I wasn’t a huge fan. Truth be told I would probably struggle to name three films he was in. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t mourn – for want of a better word – someone who made a big impact on the industry he chose to pursue. And it’s got me thinking about the culture of celebrity and what it’s all about.

Naturally this culture goes from the sublime (as an example, the earnest, in depth discussions people hold based on the teachings of a Nelson Mandela or a Mother Theresa) to the ridiculous (an MSNBC “journalist” cutting short an interview with a US Congresswoman because of breaking news of Justin Bieber’s arrest). I would much rather hear debate about the short-sighted decision to dump dredged sediment in the Great Barrier Reef than to know what twerking is, for instance … but it would seem I am in the minority. CNN even put twerking on its front page after the Miley Cyrus incident rather than, say, Syria.

So what is it about celebrity that makes us grab hold of every word a person says, even when they have no idea what they’re talking about? Why are young Miley and Justin (and after seeing this, I’m not convinced they’re different people anyway) more important than the people who run our nations, the scientists, the mathematicians, the visionaries – the people who can’t just be replaced? Sure, they entertain us, but that’s pretty much all they do. Why so much reverence and adoration?

Of course, I don’t have an answer. I suspect a lot of it is world view, and also the fact young people use social media the most and therefore it is their interests that fuel those websites. I do wonder, though, what this says about us as a society. Is this really what we want to project to future generations? That a teenaged brat is more important than a Congresswoman? That a dance is more important than a war?

I am not trying to denigrate the professional lives of people like Miley and Justin, who I am sure work very hard and are very good at whatever it is they do. They have contributed enormously to the public sphere. And Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose passing inspired this reflection, was a great actor and another great contributor. The film world will miss him, I know. There are probably thousands of people, most of whom never met him, who have been brought to tears by the news. But he was an actor, and while he was a very good one, there is little he did that someone else couldn’t have done.

It’s sad when someone leaves this world before their time. Anyone. But celebrity for celebrity’s sake is meaningless in the long term. Let’s celebrate these people for the good they have done, not the puerile newspaper headlines they generate while they’re here.

Farewell Mr Hoffman, and may you rest in peace.

 

 

Disclaimer: Yes, I am in my own way seeking fame – as an author. Having said that, though, I can’t think of anything worse than being ridiculously famous. It’s a paradox and one I’m trying to get my head around as I ready novel #1 for distribution to agents/ publishers.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Feedback, glorious feedback

 

Photo from Girl with computer emerging technologies social media by Walton LaVonda, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Girl with computer emerging technologies social media by Walton LaVonda, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

 

Today is a big day for me. Today, for the first time, I read the first feedback I have received for my completed novel draft.

Okay, I admit it, I received said feedback weeks ago. However, what with the Christmas rush, holidays, kids running around my feet and a very real fear of what the document said, I put off reading it. It was from someone whose point of view matters to me and who is in the novel’s target audience. I was terrified they would say they hated it.

Today, though, I forced myself. Found the email. Opened the document. (Okay, I’d opened it before now, and given it a quick glance. But that was it.) And read the whole thing through, word by word. And do you know what? They didn’t hate it.

Sure, they picked out a few things that need working on. Some, I already knew about (or suspected). Some I hadn’t realised were weak spots. But they also pointed out a few things they really did like, and which they thought worked well. That, my friends, was amazing to read. Yes I’ve had reviews before, but this is the first novel I’ve ever thought of trying to get published, so it felt more important.

Naturally, all this pressure was self-inflicted. We are all our own worst critics and we are convinced that every error we see will be magnified tenfold by others. The truth, though, is that this person who is in my target audience liked my story. Said they would read it again. Said the characters were real and vivid and engaging. And that the story flowed and – generally – worked. And that, my friends, is a huge load off my shoulders.

I still have some other betas who have not yet got back to me, and I’m okay with that. The Christmas period is one of the busiest for pretty much everyone and it can be hard to find time to spare to critique someone’s novel. This first one, though, is like manna from heaven. It means the novel isn’t crap, and I haven’t been wasting my time for the past couple of years. Sure, there are a few tweaks that need to be made, but overall it shows promise and potential. And that, I think, is the best Christmas present I could have received.

 

3 Comments

Filed under writing

A NaNo-ing I will go

nanowrimo.org

nanowrimo.org

It has only recently occurred to me that November will soon be upon us again, and that means NaNoWriMo is on its way.

I have had mixed success with NaNo. I’ve completed it twice and failed dismally (at Camp NaNo) once, and I generally avoid it unless I have something pressing that I want to get out. This year, due to my ignoring most things writerly, I had completely forgotten about it until I saw it referred to on a website that I look out for very different reasons. NaNo? Already? I checked my calendar and it is indeed only a few days away.

My first reaction was that I’d ignore it this year: I’ve finished my novel and the short story I wanted to write, and was thinking of taking a break. But then I thought about Novel #2, which has been festering in my mind for over a year now. I’ve got about 10K words written for it, but I’ve done exactly nothing with it for longer than I care to think about. I have, however, started dreaming about its characters again, which is a sign I should probably get back into it. So, with NaNo coming along, I have decided to do the obvious.

Yep, I’m signing up again. The whole kit and caboodle. Fifty thousand words in a month.

I have no idea if I’ll be able to do it. I don’t know if I have 50K words of this story in me at the moment. But I figure it’s worth a try. And if I do, the more I write then the more I’m likely to want to write, as delving into that world is likely to give me more ideas, more tangents, and more scope than I’m thinking about now. In other words, writing is cumulatively addictive, and there is no better way to get new ideas for a story than to immerse yourself in it.

Am I stupid? No. Over-reaching? Quite possibly. But hey, the fun is in the attempt, and who knows? I might actually do it. You never know until you try.

3 Comments

Filed under writing

Getting there … kind of

Matej-writing

Yeah, yeah, I know. I said I’d be back blogging once a week, and that was three weeks ago. But my excuse is that it was school holidays and I was busy. I could perhaps have timed my comeback better, but so be it.

Anyway, I’m here today with my random update of how things are going. School holidays were MAD, but in a good way. I’m kind of glad I’m back at work this week so I can have a rest! We did a huge number of things and had a really good time doing them, but it’s so exhausting. But not to worry. The madness is now over and I can concentrate on other things.

So, what other things, I hear you ask? Good question. I’ve given my novel to a few beta readers already, with some more waiting in the wings until I can give them a hard copy. (I have to print it out at work so I’m doing it 10 pages at a time. It’s taking a while.) I’m giving them until Christmas to get back to me so hopefully by the end of the year I have some very constructive advice as to what I need to do to improve things.  (My offer from last time still stands, by the way. If you want to see my romance novel as a beta reader, let me know.) I’m also preparing to write a short story (10K maybe?) in a completely different genre, in order to enter a short story competition my local writers’ centre has going. It’s going to be a kind of dystopian thing, and it’s based on a rather strange dream I had a couple of weeks back, so we’ll see how that turns out. After all, there’s only one way to find out if it’s going to be any good, and that’s to get started on it.

Other than that, I may have mentioned a while back that I’ve been writing a collaborative action/adventure/fantasy piece with some writer friends, so that’s a lot of fun. I’ve also done about 10K of my next novel, and I’ve been thinking more and more about that story lately so we’ll see how that goes when I actually pick it up again. I’m in no hurry with that – I find it good to break from my normal genre entirely for a while sometimes, so it might be a couple of months till #2 gets going again. I figure that so long as it DOES get going again, it’s okay. Some things you just can’t rush.

So yeah, that’s me for now. I’m hoping to post a book review next week so it may be a little while before you get any more incoherent rambles from me. ;) Either way, I hope that your writing / other creative project is going just as well as mine is.

Leave a comment

Filed under writing

O Blogger, Where Art Thou?

Yes, I know. It’s been several months since I posted, and then it was a book review. You’ve heard nothing from me in simply ages. Why? Well, I don’t really know. There are a number of reasons that come to mind, so I’m going to share them with you. Put your hand up if you can relate to any of them.

  1. Lack of material/time. I was finding that blogging twice a week was draining my mind of ideas and cutting into my writing time. I work almost full time and the pressure of coming up with material for two days each week, as well as trying to keep up with other blogs, comments on my blog, and the rest of it was leaving me with next to nothing for my creative writing.
  2. Competing priorities. Update my blog or spend time with my kids? They won’t remember having to muck around the house waiting for me to do my computer stuff, but they will remember me taking them to the zoo. Or the pool. Whatever.
  3. An overall sense of cutting out what was less important. This is an extension of #2. I blogged earlier in the year about cleaning out my cupboards at the same time as I was cleaning up my manuscript, and that attitude still stands. Things that were less important were jettisoned in favour of those items higher up the list. And maintaining my profile as a budding author, while important, felt less so than putting my life in order, spending time with kids (as above), and just generally getting myself in a position that I was happy with. You only get one shot at life so why waste it doing things you don’t want to do?

I know I could have just cut down on the blog frequency, but like a lot of people I suffer from procrastination, and there was also a very real fear that if I started it up again then I might drop back into old habits, which was what was draining me in the first place. And I was drained. I didn’t write a thing for two months, and nor did I do any editing. Nothing at all. My brain just needed a break from all that, and I obliged.

So, what’s changed now? Well, my novel is now at the point where I am happy to send it out to my beta readers for their feedback. I could tinker and fiddle till the cows come home but I don’t think that by myself I’m going to get it much better than it is now. It’s time for new eyes and new perspectives on it. So I’m sending it out for comment, and putting it down till Christmas at the earliest. Then in the new year I can take everyone’s ideas on board to improve it even further.

As such, I’m ready to get back into the world of writers. I won’t be blogging as frequently – once a week will do me, on Mondays like now, with the occasional interview or book review thrown in instead of commentary. It’s a scenario designed to keep me involved, yet help take the pressure off, and to give me more time to devote to novel #2, or the kids, or anything else that seems important at the time. One less post per week will help with my whole-of-life de-clutter that I’ve been undertaking for most of this year.

So yeah, that’s me. Sorry for the long blackout, but fear not, all is good. Oh, and if anyone reading this would like to have a look at my novel in a beta capacity, leave a comment or send me an email at Emily[dot]wheeler02[at]yahoo[dot]com. I’d love to hear from you.

 

2 Comments

Filed under blog, writing