Ghost novel review: Her Fearful Symmetry

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Review Part Two

Endings are so hard, aren’t they? At Laurie’s monthly book group, concerns about conclusions run high. When I listen to people describe a book, satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the ending always figures into the discussion, which generally falls into three categories.

The first category involves quilting metaphors. I hear, “the threads were tied up too neatly” or “not tied up neatly enough” or “story threads were left hanging.” In the second category, alimentary analogies prevail, as in the ending is too sweet, too bitter, too saccharine. A variation on the above, “It left a bad taste in my mouth.” The third group, boxing terms—“knocked me flat,” or “not enough punch,” or “packed a wallop.”

My problem with Niffenegger’s conclusion derives from character motivation. After such a meticulous job of developing character, the author must respect who that person is. It’s a little like gestation. Maybe you wanted to birth a doctor, but a welder emerged. It happens.

I remember watching an interview with Sheri Reynolds, the author of The Rapture of Canaan. Inconsolable over the suicide of one of her characters, Reynolds called her mother. (Trust me, it’s a writer thing.) Once her mother waded through enough of the tearful conversation to discover the deceased teen was fictional, she gave her daughter some simple advice: Re-write it. But Reynolds couldn’t. The character operated according to the dictates of his persona. For him, there would be no resurrection.

Without telling you where I feel Her Fearful Symmetry went astray, I will divulge that a trio of characters hatched a plot, bringing the book to a tidy close. This intricate machination makes perfect sense for two of the three characters. I just don’t buy the third character’s buy-in. Due to Niffenegger’s careful and beautiful rendering, I know him that well. The ending would still be plausible if more attention had been paid to the third character, if he had been forced into the deal against his will.

This disregard for the sanctity of one character so unnerved me, I put the book down. When I took it up again, I hurried through the last forty pages, telling myself I would return one day. But knowing how “way leads onto way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”*

For all that, the prose of this novel is breathtakingly beautiful, and those who people the pages never fail to fascinate. The story is compelling; the setting, haunting; the writing, lyrical.

It’s 90% fabulous.

The end.

*Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken.”

Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Scribner, 406 pages.

A set of twenty-year-old twins, children of a twin, receives a mysterious inheritance—a London flat adjacent to Highgate Cemetery in which the twin girls must live together for one year before assuming ownership. Soon after arrival, Julia and Valentina mix with their quirky, lovable neighbors—Martin, housebound neurotic and puzzle mastermind; Robert, cemetery scholar and leal lover of the deceased. Not to be outdone, the cemetery itself dons a quasi-character role. Into this atmospheric setting, floats a tentative but narcissistic ghost who orchestrates events to the novel’s end.

I loved 90% of this book. (Of course, we will discuss at length the 10% I didn’t love. You expect no less, am I right?)

I found the exploration of desire compelling. To me, this book is about obsession—one twin’s obsession for the other, one man’s obsession with compulsion, another’s obsession with love. Added to that, these flawed but gentle characters impact each other’s lives in complex and interesting ways. Niffenegger’s novel considers the human condition minus the time shifts and plot devices of the author’s more famous work, The Time Traveler’s Wife.

Yet I felt the foundation for the ending was not properly laid, and this profoundly affected my reading experience. To read my explanation, tune in to the next installment of Ghost Novel Reviews for Her Fearful Symmetry, Part Two.

When Disaster Strikes: Part Two

When Disaster Strikes—How Writers Can Safeguard their Work

Part Two

Hi, Everyone.

Today we sit down for a chat with author and gallant work-saver, Dan O’Connor. Our discussion will focus on what writers can do to preserve their work before that devastating earthquake (or hurricane or tornado or toddler) hits.

Welcome, Dan! We’ll start right in with questions.

Q: Can you give an overview of your writing backup systems?

A: My manuscript first goes to an external hard drive that is about the size of a small handheld calculator. It would fit in my shirt pocket. From there, it goes a couple of places, one is a 2tb external hard drive that is rotated out of my office (and swapped) to another physical location. Another is back to a partition on my main hard drive that is automatically copied in an encrypted format to Carbonite.

Note: I’ve recently discovered dropbox, a cell phone app. that may be a better offsite storage facility than Carbonite. The trouble with Carbonite is that it is painfully slow, even when set to “fast,” and never gets my system completely backed up.

Every now and then, I clone both the internal and external hard drives and rotate the clones to an offsite location.

Q: Any insight you gained the hard way that you could warn other writers about?

A: I was warned not to put my entire manuscript into one file, which was probably lousy advice, even at the time. Any decent word processing program should be able to manage a single file that contains an entire 150,000 word ms. The problem I ran into was that by having everything in one file, I was vulnerable to the file itself being corrupted all at once. That happened once, when I was in Barbados, working on Spice: An Island Intrigue and I had to go back about three days to a backup. It is the only time I know of that I lost any of my work.

What I do now is start a new file at least once every day by changing the date, when I save the file. For example, I would add a numerical date to the title (e.g., grapes_of_wrath_110405) to the name of the file for April 5, 2011. If I’ve done a lot of writing on a given day, I’ll add a series of letters to the name, e.g., 110405a or 110405b, and so on to the file name during the day.

As I think about it, I’ve never had a file corrupted again, but I have found this very helpful, when I want to see a prior version or resurrect a deleted segment, which happens on occasion.

Why use the numbers?  It will sort the files in perfect order in a computer folder. It gives me an excellent history of what I’ve done and when.

Q: Traps to avoid? Rescue or backup products that don’t perform as advertised?

A: I’d forget about Carbonite and use dropbox, if I were setting up a system at this moment. I’d also use an encryption program though to store my offsite copy. They are easy enough to find. Many are free and they work seamlessly.

Avoid Hitachi and Western Digital Hard Drives. Seagate is the best I’ve found. I’ve had plenty of the former crash, none of the latter.

Q: If you were to recommend one step or upgrade writers should begin now, what would it be?

A: I’d recommend HDClone by Miray Software in Germany. Having a usable clone has saved me tens of times and hundreds of hours by now. Other disk cloning programs I’ve tried were more cumbersome and less reliable. I use ms word and find it fine, albeit cumbersome with far more features than I’ll ever need or use.

Thank you so much, Dan. I hope your valuable insights will prod us all to protect our work.

And thank you for reading. As always, comments are welcome.

Ghost Novel Review: Saving Fish from Drowning

Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan

I so wanted to love this book.

I loved the idea—a novice ghost follows her museum friends on an ill-fated tour through Myanmar. I loved Tan’s trademark fusing of myth to narrative, particularly the satiric vignette detailing how one goes about saving a fish from drowning. I loved the comforting heft of the book as I settled beneath my Tree of Life quilt and snapped on the bedside lamp.

What I didn’t love was the book. The writing lacked both luster and momentum.

I think I made it to page fifty-two.

I made it that far only because of my friend Laurie. Once, while reading The Poisonwood Bible, I felt so discouraged and confused I wanted to chuck the novel into the nearest Goodwill receptacle. Laurie said, “Give it fifty pages.”

I did, and she was right. The Poisonwood Bible is a masterful piece of writing.*

Not so Saving Fish from Drowning, despite the diligently applied Laurie test. Reading the prose—so thickly filtered via a self-indulgent narrator—was akin to diving for freshwater pearls in congealed gravy. One could drown. Or come up empty handed.

Instead of this book by Tan, I recommend her novel The Joy Luck Club for pure reading pleasure. The intertexture of myth and reality, past and present, is so compelling, you can return again and again. You won’t find any ghosts in these pages except perhaps for the metaphorical variety.

*For those interested in the craft of writing, The Poisonwood Bible is one of the two best books I’ve found for the treatment of voice. The other is The God of Small Things.