Vacation Reading – It’s a Mood Thing

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Early in September, I asked Facebook friends to recommend books to read on vacation. My husband and I had two weeks planned and I wanted something good to read. But what is ‘good’? And is your ‘good read’ the same as mine?

A day or two before leaving, I checked the recommendations, looking at Goodreads to see what others might have said about them. Several went by the wayside: a period that didn’t interest me; too fluffy sounding; just read one like that; and so on. Two stood out: March by Geraldine Brooks and News of the World by Paulette Jiles. A few clicks later and they were on my iPad.

Sidebar – I used to have a Kindle. In fact, I have had four Kindles. Lost each one of them on a plane so I’m using a mini iPad we received as a promotion from a bank we are no longer dealing with. Moral of that story: don’t put your Kindle in the airplane seat pocket.

I was eager to read March as I’d heard Geraldine Brooks speak at the Historical Novel Society conference in June and I’ve read three of her novels and loved them. A sure winner, I thought. And News of the World with its premise of a crusty old man returning a young girl who’d been taken by the Kiowa to her family sounded intriguing. I was sure I could get lost in them.

Writers read a ton – and I’m no different. Sometimes when I read, I underline passages that seem particularly meaningful to me because of the language, the description, a particular thought that might be relevant to a character I’m developing. It’s a great way of continuing to learn the craft of writing. But vacation reading is different.

Vacation reading is about relaxation, about enchantment, about fun and about powering through a story because the pacing has me turning the pages to find out what happens next.

I began March with great excitement. The writing is beautiful, the emotions powerful. But, sadly, I couldn’t connect with the main character, Mr. March. And with a Civil War setting, it wasn’t right for vacation reading but I will definitely return to it.

So, I flipped to News of the World. Perhaps I was still mulling over why March hadn’t worked for me or still feeling the effects of the brutal war it depicted (ever wondered why the word civil is used in conjunction with war?). At any rate, News of the World begins slowly and by that time I wanted something lighter and perhaps present day rather than historical (shocking, I know).

With the kind of glacial Internet speed that comes from being in a more remote part of France, I checked out Amazon for best sellers and found Kristin Hannah’s Nightingale. I’d already read that and loved it so I found another of her novels – Winter Garden – and downloaded it. After fifty pages, the story took off.

The novel “illuminates the intricate mother-daughter bond and explores the enduring links between the present and the past.” But it does much more than that. Winter Garden tells the horrifyingly true story of the siege of Leningrad. Very powerful. Definitely a page-turner. And from my point of view, a great vacation read.

What vacation reads did you enjoy this year?

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

 

On Violence – Steve Wiegenstein

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Curious how an idea for a topic comes about.

Steve Wiegenstein and I exchanged emails on topics for a guest post. After checking out my blog, he had this to say: “how about a post on the use of violence in historical fiction? Obviously, a lot of historical events involve violence, sometimes ghastly violence, but I am challenged by readers’ expectations versus the portrayal of reality …” Read on for more of Steve’s thoughts.

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A beloved aunt once told me that she preferred one of my books over the others because “it doesn’t have so much blood and guts in it.”

And there in a nutshell is the writer’s dilemma. I want to please my readers, honest I do. But in order to meet the needs of a story, sometimes I have to write scenes that disturb them, unsettle them, perhaps even make them want to put down the book.

The portrayal of violence has been a concern in literature ever since Oedipus poked out his eyes. Aristotle’s notion that the ending of a tragedy provides “catharsis” for its viewers has served as a justification for violence, legitimate or not, for nearly as long. But writers and readers need to reexamine their assumptions regularly and question the proper uses and the potential effects of violence in a literary work.

For me, both as a writer and as a reader, the question always comes down to “What’s the function of the violence here?” All too often, the function is simply to heighten the drama or tension of a scene. I don’t find this type of violence useful or, ultimately, interesting. Some of the scenes of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket are insanely tense without a hint of violence in them. Tension and drama rise from our involvement in a situation, not from the degree of violence it contains; the more we care about the characters and what might happen to them, the greater the drama.

And yet, ghastly things happened in history, and we must write about them. How much is too much? How much is not enough?

So many books I read take an entertainment approach to violence. Either it is portrayed as heroic, with sympathetic characters dispatching villains in oh-so-many creative ways, or it’s portrayed as an element in the creation of the hero’s character. Authors seem to compete for new ways for their maniac-villains to torment other characters, as if coming up with original means of maiming or killing people is a high demand of creativity.

Personally, I don’t enjoy watching violence in movies or reading it in novels. But I recognize that it can serve important plot and thematic needs, so I grit my teeth and read. It troubles and offends me, though, when I sense that an artist is using violence simply to rev up a tired scene, or to cheaply buy an emotional reaction. That’s often the moment when I stop reading.

We all remember the shower scene in Psycho. What we may not remember is that we never see a knife enter flesh in that scene. As shocking as it is, it’s not especially violent, viewed shot by shot. What shocks in that scene is how unprepared we are for it, how sudden and brutal the attack is, just when we had begun to care about Marion and were readying ourselves to follow a story that had looked like it was going to be about a young woman’s difficult road to moral redemption.

And that’s the point, I think. The violence in Psycho is disturbing because it’s so much like real-world violence: unexpected, life-altering for everyone (the victim, most obviously, but also everyone around the victim), and horrifying to witness. In my mind, it’s a perfectly justified use of violence in a story. In Hitchcock’s later movies you see a turn away from the aestheticized movie violence that seems somehow acceptable and a turn toward the portrayal of violence in a much more upsetting way. The oven murder in Torn Curtain, the terrifying attacks in The Birds, and the ghastly strangulations in Frenzy. It’s as if Hitchcock is rubbing our face in the entertainment value of the very type of movies he was famous for making: “You think murder is fun, eh? Take a look at this!”

There are violent moments in my novels. In Slant of Light, there’s an axe killing, a hanging, and a fair number of gunshot deaths. This Old World keeps up the shootings, along with some stabbing and arson, and The Language of Trees, just out, actually contains a little bit of a murder mystery along with some dreadful—and morally ambiguous—killings. I try to make those moments surprising, repellent, and true to their characters and contexts. I never want my readers to enjoy those scenes, but I do want them to feel that the scenes are necessary. Violence is a part of human existence, so we can’t write away from it. But if you enjoy those scenes, I’m doing it wrong.

When I see news photos of American civilians strutting around supermarkets with guns on their hips or rifles slung over their shoulders, I fear that they have fallen prey to the mythmaking power of violence-as-entertainment. They see the imaginary role of violence as a problem-solver, not the real impact of violence on the people it envelops. I wish every instance of heroic, retributive violence in our popular books and shows would be balanced by a moment of severe reflection. But since that’s not going to happen, the best I can do is make sure the violence is my own books is justified, realistically portrayed, and significant enough that readers might just turn their gazes away and think.

Steve Wiegenstein’s most recent novel is THE LANGUAGE OF TREES (Blank Slate Press) – The inhabitants of Daybreak, a quiet 19th-century utopian community, are courted by a powerful lumber and mining trust and must search their souls as the lure of sudden wealth tests ideals that to some now seem antique. And the courtship isn’t just financial. Love, lust, deception, ambition, violence, repentance, and reconciliation abound as the citizens of Daybreak try to live out oft-scorned values in a world that is changing around them with terrifying speed.

You can find The Language of Trees on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound. You can reach Steve on his website or on Facebook.

Many thanks for such an interesting post, Steve. As someone who has written four novels with war as a backdrop, I find your perspective most helpful.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

History and beauty in the Loire Valley

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More photos from our trip to France, which is sadly almost over. Back to porridge and old clothes as my husband’s grandmother would say.

Chateau Villandry

Doesn’t everyone have gardens like this?

Lovely fireplace inside Chateau Villandry

Chateau Azay-le-Rideau

Chambord – built by Francois I

Overall, we saw chateaus built from the 10th century onward. Chambord was the most extravagant. Villandry’s gardens are beyond compare. French nobles certainly knew how to live! And yesterday, Ian and I had the pleasure of lunch and some sightseeing with author Alison Morton and her husband.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.