Archive | May, 2010

Like Bees To Honey by Caroline Smailes

31 May

 

What happens when you can’t let go of your grief? What happens when it consumes you? When it becomes all that you have left? What do you do? Where do you go? What do you become?

Nina has left her husband Matt and her daughter Molly. She is going back to Malta with her son Christopher to visit her parents one last time. But she is also going home to Malta to confront the ghosts of her past.

Ostracized and cut out of the family when she became pregnant out of wedlock, Nina seeks to mend her relationship with her parents; and if she is lucky, she will be able to mend her heart.

But Nina carries with her more than just hope and grief over her past. Nina carries with her a secret that, should she choose to acknowledge it, will shatter her world even further.

When she arrives in Malta, there is more than just her past waiting for Nina. There are also the dead.

Malta has always been a stomping ground for spirits; and Nina has always been able to see them. A seer from a young age, she has always seen the dead that come to Malta to heal. But now the dead come to her so that Nina can begin her healing.

Can Nina let go of her past to embrace the future? Or will her grief swallow her completely? With help from the most unlikely of beings, Nina might have a chance at redemption…

There is so much I want to say about this novel, but I don’t have the right words to do the novel justice. Not only the novel a beautiful story about love and loss, grief and circumstance, it is also a haunting reminder to live life to the fullest every single day we can.

Smailes, who is no stranger to delving into the darker side of the human psyche, has given us a multi-faced heroine in Nina. Here is someone we can ache for, someone we grow to care about and grow to know over the course of a novel.

You would think that someone obsessed with her grief would grate on your nerves, but that is not the case here. Smailes juggles Nina’s emotions with a deft and subtle grace that leaves the reader not only empathizing with her but sympathising with her as well.

Everyone has done something they regret. Everyone has lost someone they love. Smailes manages to tap into that vein and give us a novel that is filled with real, true emotion captured on the page. Like Bees To Honey is so good that it took my breath away.

I was surprised by how funny the novel was. You would think a novel about the darkness of grief would be hard going, but that’s not so. The novel is full of emotion, yes, but it is such an incredibly human novel. It reminds us of what matters, of the simple things that bring joy. Like Bees To Honey is beauty captured on the page in words.

Like Bees To Honey is also a novel about language. Much like Smailes earlier novels, language plays a big part in Nina’s unfolding story. Nina feels that she has lost her language, that she has lost her home. She tries to find it again in speaking her mother tongue. Maltese is sprinkled through out the novel with handy translations for those who don’t speak it.

The language is almost like the music of the novel. Each time I found a Maltese word, I found myself repeating it, wondering at is shape and it’s sound. Smailes, who is conscious of every word on her page, has placed these words notes, this word music, through out the novel, giving it perfect pace and perfect pitch.

I think the thing that is so delightful about Like Bees To Honey is that everything about it is so completely unexpected. Nothing is as you think it is and the story will not go at all how you think it will. Surprises wait for you, and for Nina, around the turn of every page. I was surprised by Like Bees To Honey constantly and each surprise was a lovely shock to my system.

It’s been such a long time since I’ve been so emotionally affected by a novel. Like Bees To Honey not only touched my heart and my emotions; it touched my spirit.

And it refuses to let go.

Beautiful, funny, moving and haunting, Like Bees To Honey by Caroline Smailes is no mere novel. It is a gorgeous, life changing experience, just waiting to enthral you with its beauty.

Let Like Bees To Honey cast its spell over you. It will haunt you well after the last page is turned.

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The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

24 May

“This is a Story…”

 

We’ve already heard The Greatest Story Ever Told right?

We’ve seen it in movies, in books about Jesus Christ, in novels that retell his story again and again. Anne Rice’s recent books Christ the Lord Out of Egypt and Christ the Lord The Road To Cana come to mind.

The Greatest Story Every Told, that of Jesus and his birth and the miracles he performed has been told and retold so many times that there’s no possible way to give it a new spin for a modern age. Or is there?

Philip Pullman is best known for the His Dark Materials trilogy and supplemental books, featuring Lyra Belacqua (or Lyra Silvertongue). The books received a lot of notice when they were first published as they are very anti-religion, very anti-God. This should come as no surprise to fans of Pullmans. Pullman himself as admitted that he is an atheist.

When I first heard that The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ was being written by Pullman, I wondered why an atheist had chosen to retell The Greatest Story Ever Told. I wondered if Pullman would colour the narrative with his own negative views on Christianity.

Thankfully, he keeps his views to himself. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is an incredible new retelling of the life of Jesus…and his brother.

Pullman sets up the story in the very beginning. Mary gives birth to two baby boys, twins. One, she names Jesus, one she names Christ. Christ seems to be a bit sickly and thin whereas Jesus seems strong and thriving.

When the three Wiseman come, following the star, they see two babes in the manger. When they ask Mary which one is the messiah, which one will be their saviour, she points to Christ. He’s a little sickly and can use the attention, she thinks.

This sets in motion events that no one could have foretold, not even the angels. As Jesus becomes more and more well known, and his miracles become more and more exaggerated, Christ begins to receive visits from a stranger who seems very interested in him.

Who is the mysterious stranger? Will Christ ever be out of Jesus’ shadow? And when Christ begins to write down Jesus’ doings and exaggerating them beyond all truth, the consequences for Jesus and for Christ will be dire indeed…

I’ll admit, this book surprised me. I didn’t expect a book about the life of Jesus written by a well known and vocal atheist to be any good. But it wasn’t just good; it was fantastic. Not only did Pullman give us a new retelling of the life of Jesus that seemed entirely plausible, he kept the story historically accurate.

Pullman has obviously done his research and has written a story that is at once historical novel and modern parable. Though a lot of people will and have react badly to the idea that Jesus Christ was actually two children, Jesus and Christ, it makes the reader stop and think about the history of the story.

It makes us stop and remember.

That, in the end, is the true power of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. You remember it long after you’ve turned the last page. Though it is written in very simple language, though it is written in a style much like a fable, it makes you stop and remember.

I found myself remembering pieces of scripture as I read it, remembering the commandments I had been raised on. It also helps to make you remember what it was like when you were a child and the whole world was at your fingertips. All you had to do was reach out and grasp it.

Though this is the greatest story ever retold, you’ve never ever read it this way before. The ending is cataclysmic and the book will leave you breathless. Told in simple, lyrical prose, The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ is indeed The Greatest Story Every Re-Told.

Briefs: Stories from the Palm of the Mind by John Edgar Wideman

23 May

 

“An unwritten story is one that never happens…”

In recent years, how writers tell a story has begun to change.

When stories began, they were told orally; can you picture voices rising into the air, words floating on the breeze?

Then stories were told with pen and paper, the ink making the paper bleed the story that it wanted to tell. Writers could finally keep their stories, hold on to them, as if they were talismans against the dark.

Today, the way we tell stories has changed once more. No longer are people content to tell tales that are long and rambling. No, story has once again gone through a metamorphosis, changing itself from a caterpillar to a butterfly, shedding words as it would shed its cocoon or a snake sheds its skin.

This shorter than short fiction is called Micro Fiction. Stories can be anywhere between thirty words to three hundred words, from five hundred words to a thousand. Generally, Micro Fiction stories are no longer than two pages or so. Each, though short, has a beginning and an ending. Though it may not be the ending you are looking for.

What is so wonderful about Micro Fiction is that it challenges our ideas of the norm; it goes against what has already been established by a long line of writers and establishes norms of its own.

Like every discipline within the craft of writing, there are some who think they can write Micro Fiction and some who actually can write it.

Thankfully, John Edgar Wideman is one of the latter.

A two time Pen/Faulkner Award winner, Wideman wanted to explore and discover words in a different way. Rather than writing another collection of short stories, Wideman wanted to explore a different side to his writing. To see if he could write even shorter stories. Micro Fiction stories. And he succeeds brilliantly.

From the brief explination behind the title, which serves as the first story in Wideman’s new collection of Micro Fiction, you know that you are in for a treat. The writing is crisp, the words are haunting and there are no stories longer than a page or two; perfect for our fast paced society that is constantly on the move.

The collection is actually a hodge podge of many different genres. Some stories are fiction, some are non-fiction and are indeed about Wideman’s own life such as the short and very private Divorce or the aptly named short story Writing.

Some stories in the collection are dark and haunting like Hit and Run, Haiku and Shadow; they explore the sides of the human heart that none of us want to look at. But at the same time, there are funny stories here too. My favourite called Dear Madonna, a litter to the Queen on of Pop herself.

All through out this collection, Wideman makes sure to use every word to its fullest potential. Some of the stories don’t make sense; but they don’t have to. The rambling stream of consciousness stories are essentially a very private look into Wideman’s mind that leave us wondering, and wanting, once the brief story is finished.

Briefs: Stories From the Palm of the Mind is really like a patchwork quilt. Each story is like a patch in that blanket; all sorts of textures and fabrics and colours blending together to make a whole. Though at first you may be put off by the colour scheme or the use of gold lame next to red corduroy, after a while it doesn’t matter anymore.

Because after a while, you realize that one story would not work without the other.

Since finishing Briefs, I’ve been haunted by Wideman’s words. Especially by the stories I didn’t care for. The words come back to me at moments when I should be thinking or doing something else. That is the true power of story: to take you away from the moment you are in now and take you somewhere else.

Do yourself a favour and take a moment or two to read and enjoy Briefs: Stories from the Palm of the Mind by John Edgar Wideman. He is truly a master of the Micro Fiction short story. You may not understand or like all the stories in the collection.

But you’ll have a hell of a journey going from beginning to end.