Characters’ Arcs in Non-Fiction, and Going Beyond Mere Facts

When growing up (I can’t really pinpoint when that all changed), I didn’t really enjoy non-fiction as a piece of writing. To me, non-fiction was textbooks, informative, neutral, useable… or not. They needed to convey information to me, which they did more or less clearly, more or less completely, and that was all.

How naive I was!

I never even questioned the way a non-fiction could be written, all that mattered was content. I was very bad at figuring out the writer’s angle, what he deliberately kept out of his narrative, where he fibbed and where he just got it wrong. What I managed to see in fiction after I learnt the basics of literary analysis, I completely ignored it in non-fiction, even in memoirs.

As you can imagine, that led me to a lot of misunderstandings, a lot of mediocre grades in essays (and ah-ah moments later in life when that perspective changed). I just recently realized how skewed my view was as I reread some books I’d loved as a high-school student.

I would never have dreamt of a world where I could find a piece of non-fiction riveting per se, and where I would enjoy a non-fiction writer’s writing, like I do for Janet Malcolm’s for example.

I remembered being totally clueless about the concept of “creative non-fiction” a few years ago. Only recently did I got aware of the idea of creating your life story and how important the structure of the narrative itself is for making sense of it all (although I was drilled at university about the art of writing French-style essays, that have a very rigid and uniform structure).

When I got started on podcasts two years ago, this awareness increased tenfold. I started to get interested in story arks, because nowhere but in a “This American Life” story is more evident that those pieces of non-fiction are carefully constructed to move us listeners, to make us react and want some more. Needless to say, I was addicted to Serial from the first episode!

Today, I followed a link on the The Longest Shortest time podcast website, and it took me to “Howsound”, a podcast about radio apparently. There’s a lot of technical stuff I don’t understand and don’t care about in radio, but this audio analysis about story arc and character change in a non-fiction piece of radio is really fascinating.

As is the picture of the arc that Hillary Frank drew about a book she wrote at the planning stage (she’s a YA writer on top of her podcasting activities):

I can only dream of the day I’ll be able to draw such a chart about one of my (fiction) stories, but this is clearly a great inspiration. Have you ever tried such a chart?

Erri de Luca, Il torto del soldato (Italian, 2012)

I read far too few Italian books and I should probably be ashamed of it. The name Erri de Luca rang a bell, and the book was short, so I figured I would give it a shot.

Imagine a country inn set in the Dolomite mountains. At the restaurant two tables next to each other: at the first a writer, a translator who translates Yiddish books to Italian, not because he’s Jewish himself but because he is fascinated by this language and its history, and at the next a 40 year old woman with her ageing father, who happens to be a war criminal. The whole interaction between both tables is reduced to a glance over the Yiddish papers by the old man, and a smile from the woman. The book is built around two parts: the first told by the translator, the second by the woman.

Erri de Luca draws parallels between the Yiddish language and the Neapolitan language, both rapid and witty. The part with the writer, who may well be de Lucca himself, is very moving and relatable, full of digressions and anecdotes. You can imagine it as a snippet of a real scene.

The second part is also full of digressions, but it’s chilly and devastating. The young woman has grownup raised by her mother and a man whom she knew as her grandfather. The day her mother left them both, she learnt that this man was actually her father, and that he was a former Nazi, gone into hiding for a long period overseas, then returned to Vienna under a false name, with a new career as a mailman, but no regrets whatsoever about what he did. His only fault was to be defeated, his reasoning goes. If Nazis had won the war the other side would have been the criminals. He has kept his repulsive paranoia against Jews and it even increased to a full-fledged mania as he tried to find in the Kabbalah a justification for the Nazi defeat.

The story is deceptively simple, but full of visual, sensual details and back stories and digressions that sprout in every direction, enriching the story with so many layers and echoes and new meanings every time you pull another thread. Another writer could have made 300 pages out of it, it’s only to the writer’s credit that he kept it to 80 pages. I’m not sure what to make of it, but it was really a great experience, and I’ll make sure to visit Erri de Luca again.

The one that made me roll my eyes and clean my cupboards

Marie Kondo, the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Japanese 2011, English 2014)

Oh my, how conflicted I am about this book!

I have no previous allergies to Japanese quirks, a mix between cute, weird, naive, formal and efficient. I like self-help books and organizing books when they inspire you and cheer you up. I should be an ideal convert to the Konmari method. Like millions of people around the world, apparently.

But this… How this book has managed to make it to the New York Times bestsellers list is beyond my comprehension. Sure, the idea of minimalism is selling like hot cakes these days, and apparently it helps when the one who tells you to do it is a smiling, foreign young woman. As if there was a secret recipe. As if there was a magic trick.

But Marie Kondo soon tells it herself: there’s not one single method, you just have to follow your heart and fill trash bags. If you don’t know what to keep, throw everything out, your heart will tell you what it misses most. A few good ideas are packaged with the weirdest recommendations (balancing them out in my mind, if not cancelling them completely), thrown together with enough episodes of the writer’s memoir to convince you that she suffers of OCD.

To reach an actual book length, things are rehashed ad nauseam, otherwise the gist of her ideas would easily get into a leaflet. The promotional information you get here and there are actually a good synthesis and saves you from the weirdest parts of the book: the pages where Marie Kondo recommends that you speak to your purse and furniture, that you thank your objects before throwing them away, and to have a little thought for the plight of your socks. I’m too much of a rational Western girl here, she entirely lost me at this point.

Halfway through I figured the writer was so completely crazy that it was a comic book rather than an organizing method. There are unintended hilarious passages, especially as she takes herself so seriously (the people who have followed her cult method have a glow and everything goes well in their lives, she says). And I certainly didn’t wait long before applying her own method to this book, that I resold as soon as I’d finished the last page.

On one hand, the book made me cringe, because it seems that her method is only suitable for single people who have a lot of time on their hand. On the other hand, her method is surely appealing, because it doesn’t need much for you to start: does this object spark any joy? Yes, it stays, no, it goes. No need for complex strategies to build a capsule wardrobe or a perfect system. Still I would have liked it better if she’d talked about recycling and reselling instead of throwing all away and being proud of a number of trash bags.

The one with the Hasidic maiden

Anouk Markovits, I am Forbidden (2012)

I borrowed this book from the library and it surprised me how fast I was taken in. I didn’t put it down nor read anything else for 2 or 3 days, and it hasn’t happened to me for quite a while. Surprised I was because the subject was not really sexy (being set in a ultra-orthodox Jewish community) nor was it particularly easy (we follow the fate of a few children from this community who’d survived the war by chance from 1939 to the end of the 20th century in Brooklyn, as they grow old and have their own family).

I think that what drew me in was the writing, and especially the visual descriptions, that only needed to focus on a few details to render a whole scene vivid with emotions. The first scene might have been gruesome and full of attention-seeking, distasteful details, but Markovits chooses to focus on what a little boy of three might notice, understand and see from a hidden place. The effect is chilling and moving at the same time and I will remember it for a long time.

Now, I knew a little about Hasidism, but had never heard of this particular community, the Satmar sect from the Romanian-Hungarian border, whose rabbi barely escaped the Holocaust by embarking onto the Kasztner train (a disputed bargain with the top Nazi Eichmann to save some 1700 prominent Zionists and community leaders to Switzerland while the others were condemned to die).

The story doesn’t really focus on the Holocaust, although we see how this trauma shapes the main characters and reinforces their clinging to their faith and rules. Instead, we see how two girls grow into different directions: one to question her faith (her father accuses her of being a Spinoza) up to the point that she has to break away, the other to respect and uphold her faith’ rules, without being totally free of her own inner religious conflict. As the title tells, the main characters are all evolving within the high walls of their religious rules, that forbid quite a lot of things, but it really is to Markovits’ credit that the rules however strict and harsh are not portrayed negatively. The girl who breaks away is not portrayed much more positively than her observant counterpart. Every time possible, it’s the beauty of the rules and traditions that is shown, and not in a derogatory or vengeful way, as you might expect from a writer who has grown up in this culture and then chosen to leave (to escape an arranged marriage).

At this point, you might wonder about my particular interest for gated communities. After the Amish, the Satmar, what’s next? will you think. Small communities are a perfect little world, like a snow globe, just at the right dimension for a book. You don’t need to look for religious minorities either, just look at Agatha Christie and her perfect British villages! They have their own rules and own vision of the world; on one hand it’s exotic and interesting to discover (especially as they live in the midst of our mainstream culture) and on the other hand many plots revolve around the classic coming-of-age model where the main character finally chooses our culture over her own limited circle.

“I am forbidden” has a lot to offer: good writing, complex characters, deep moral questions and a long view of history. She doesn’t fall into the clichés of the genre. Highly recommended.

The Book Fair

It all started when my son refused point-blank to even try a book because he didn’t like the cover art and the title.

We got into an interesting (read: heated) discussion about author and illustrator each doing their part of the job to produce a book, and if one is more important than the other, and what happens if one does something you might like and the other not so much, then you would miss out on something great.

I tried to plead the author’s case but my son remains unconvinced to this day, so I’m not going to jinx it by naming the book in question.

Soon after I noticed that the City hall of our district hosted a small Children book fair with some twenty authors and/or illustrators signing and selling their books that afternoon. I thought that it was a good opportunity for him to see that books were made by real people.

We ventured into the normally-closed-on-weekends City hall like tourists in a haunted palace. It was a rather small affair, with just a few tables and a few cookies and sweets hastily offered on plastic plates. Nothing comparable with a major international book fair. The musical ambiance was dominated by the next function hall that hosted the end of year show for parents of the local dance school (5 years old in blue tutus running to and fro to the tune of Frozen). The authors were trying hard to stay friendly and positive in an almost empty hall. Of course, the district mayor had her photo taken with a few smiling writers, and the closeup shot ensured that it looked like a hugely successful event.

The weirdest participant of all was a man-size mascot in garish plush fabric, a person in full-fledge costume with a huge head of a huge mouse, that was the hero of a commercial book series. I cannot even imagine the heat and the humiliation inside that costume. All I hoped was to avoid having to buy one of those books from the poor man trapped into a mouse.

My son was pretty intimidated by the setting, and when he is, he just stares and whispers to me. The limited number of people browsing made it difficult for me to continue speaking about authors and illustrators anyway. I retreated to the back of the hall, let him fill up on sweets, and told my son that we were going to buy a book, but one only, and that he wasn’t supposed to say to the writer’s face that he didn’t like the cover art of the book he’d written or created, because it would be rude, so he could look around until his choice was set.

Was I too strict? Everyone was gracious, but I thing it was torture for everyone involved, from my son (“why did she say only one? how am I going to choose?”), to me (“oh my, we’ve already looked around at each table twice, I feel like I am the ball rolling inside a casino roulette before stopping at any number”), to each writer who got visited twice (“I have explained everything to this little boy the first time around, and he stares without saying a word, what am I going to tell him this time, please don’t come back a third time!”). My son was dead serious, as if he was going to choose the one book for his entire year (he’d already forgotten that library day was the same afternoon, where he could stock up on dozens).

Eventually I got into a nice conversation with a writer who not only writes for kids, but also for adults with a different pen name, and I happened to have heard of her. If possible, I felt even more awkward by then. Obviously she had come for her kids books, and she was probably disappointed by the poor turnout. She was around  my age, and during a brief instant I wondered if we could have traded sides, she with a kid in tow, explaining books and trying to instill love for them, and me with some published books on the table, waiting for some kid to choose the book I had spent so much energy and love into creating, over the next person’s book on the next table.

We ended up buying her book, of course. And I promise I didn’t influence my son. I’m not really sure if it’s the writing, the cover art or the extra friendly writer who won him over. As for me, the odds that I will one day be a published writer is about the same as the casino roulette, I guess. I was so relieved that we didn’t need to strike up conversation with the giant mouse, and I bet my son was too.

The Writing Resolution: May Status

I’m not going to find myself some excuses, but it was quite hard to write every day in the merry month of May, where there are so many public holidays, family gatherings and vacation days to finish off (by May 31st, any vacation day not taken is lost in French complex benefits system). I thought I was firmly into the habit by now, but the truth is that it’s still a daily struggle.

Strangely enough, I have a lot more difficulty to write when I am at home and with some “free” time than when I’m at work, with a fixed schedule and a lot of interruptions by phone calls and urgent demands. Well, that’s not so strange after all. A boss and dozens coworkers and suppliers are a lot more predictable than a toddler and a 7 years old, aren’t they?

Anyway, the result is that I wrote 26 days out of 31, leaving 5 days on the side. I experienced a bad case of startitis, starting posts and stories in every direction, but having little energy to finish stuff.

All these unfinished business is weighing on me and inducing a sort of guilt and anxiety that is all but positive for the creative process.

In the meantime, as we were driving from one place to the next for family gatherings, I was reminded how traveling can be meditative (if the kids are sleeping, that is) and very positive for thinking up new stories. I suddenly remembered a draft of a few pages I’d started years ago when I was in the Cotswolds, and I am considering taking this one up again.

The one that was so terribly short it got lost

Balzac, An Episode under the reign of Terror (1830)

I just realized I totally forgot to write here about a terribly short book I read… back in March (awful pun, I know, but I have a 7yo who laughs at the mere mention of fart and a toddler who laughs at anything his brother does… yeah, boys…).

I just realized it as I did a small spring cleaning of my Kindle, deleting finished books and transferring a new large bounty from (ah, free books…!)

I read this novella by Balzac after I read the account of the royals fleeing Paris during the Revolution. Back then, I was kind of curious to learn more about what normal people went through during that very disturbed time. Balzac’s story is not really about normal people, but about people from the clergy who have been forced into hiding by the new regime, because it required them to swear obedience to the state (and basically renounce their faith, later on). The new regime forced the convents open and disrobed nuns and priests.

Not to excuse anything, but you’ve got to know that the new state deeply distrusted religious establishment because they sided with the nobility, the king and the traditionally God-approved old structure of the country. It was civil war, and it’s never pretty. But things got out of hand in France because of a bunch of extremists, and during a number of months there were massacres and lots of nobility or any suspect people were beheaded (I never understood everything in details, because their interpretation is very much influenced, still today, by the historian’s liberal or conservative stand).

Anyway, the novella starts with a very suspenseful scene where a frail old woman walks in a snowy street and thinks she’s being followed. It’s really a modern stalking scene! The paranoia is very well portrayed, people couldn’t trust each other and it’s an atmosphere akin to that described in books about the Stalinist regime or the Nazi regime, where people guarded their words, their looks and gestures in order to avoid betraying any genuine thought or emotion.

Of course, Balzac being Balzac, it can’t be all contained, and there’s a grand finale full of emotion at the end, centered on the trauma and guilt for the king’s death.

But how was life for ordinary people during the French revolution? I have made little progress in my quest.

I’m not even sure whether the memoir or book I’m looking for exists at all. Maybe people didn’t write about their own thoughts and feelings during historical events with such a modern sensibility, the kind that would make me understand “what it was like”. I’ve heard recently about Abigail Adams’ letters during the American revolution, perhaps I’ll try in that direction. What do you think?

The one with the weirdest anatomic trivia

Fred Vargas, Dans les bois éternels (French 2006), This night’s foul work (English 2008)

Did you know that a stag is the only animal to have a cross-shaped bone inside its heart (which is a muscle)?

Did you know that a tomcat is the only animal to have a bone in its penis?

Did you know that the pig has a heart-shaped bone inside his snout?

Well, me neither, but if you’re like me, you’ll be shrugging and muttering “so what?” under your breath (or any less polite variation thereof).

Now that you have stored somewhere in your brain these very important pieces of trivia, that you probably won’t be able to drop into any dinner conversation ever (if you succeed, let me know!), you are well equipped to follow the quirky plot of this Adamsberg mystery.

Do you want to know how Vargas was able to weave a story including a tomcat, a stag and a pig? Well, me too.

Do you want to know this story? You’ll have to read it yourself. The added challenge is that the story starts with a very standard, probably drug-related murder of two thugs in a poor Paris neighborhood. Adamsberg refuses to give up the case to the drug unit, because both men had mud under their fingernails, and everybody knows there’s no mud in Paris, duh. Highly suspicious.

Every single time I get to wonder how Vargas gets to learn those quirky facts in the first place. Does she spend her days reading the footnotes in dusty encyclopedia? Does she have a network of informers who report to her every time they find some funny, bizarre, really unplaceable fact? Is is a challenge for her to come up with weird, weirder and weirdest information in each book? Because the standard here are pretty high already.

Some of the events in this book refer to earlier episodes, but you know me, I’m genetically unable to read in order, so I’m here to confirm that it doesn’t matter, the main mystery being easy to follow, if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief. Why does it work for Commissaire Adamsberg while it didn’t work for Inspector Gamache? Yes, I know, life’s unfair, but I guess it has to do with the writing. Vargas’ voice is strong and recognizable, it peppers every sentence with fun words and literary tour de force (one is that Adamsberg’s lieutenant speaks in rhymes, and more specifically in alexandrines in the style of Racine).

Highly recommended, but I’m already a convert.

The one I found tepidly cold

Louise Penny, Dead Cold (UK), A Fatal Grace (US) 2006

Find me grumpy or just your typical French killjoy, but I have to say upfront that I didn’t enjoy this book, however hard I tried.

My reasons for trying hard were that it came recommended by Marina Sofia, that I have never read a mystery set in Quebec (Fred Vargas’ doesn’t count) and that I’d love to discover a comfortable new crime series (I have just finished Broadchurch Season 1 on DVD, and part of my grumpiness may be attributed to withdrawal symptom).

My reasons for disappointment were probably linked to a faulty translation, because the French voice of the story sounded clunky and dry. Sometimes it used French-Canadian words but it was not written in French-Canadian, which made it neither fish nor fowl. It stopped me from really enjoying the setting, a quaint little Canadian village with suitably quirky characters. I found the narrator’s voice too explanatory and the red herrings rather fat.

After a rather long setup, the murder scene is quite convoluted: an insufferable snobbish woman dies electrocuted while watching a curling game on a frozen lake. How is it only possible? I had a hard time to suspend my disbelief and I couldn’t get past that bad French aftertaste. Another stumbling block is that this book is the second in a series (it was the only one available), and a lot of characters and circumstances seem to have been introduced in the first book, so it seems almost a must to read the series in order.

One very nice point to the book was the atmosphere of coziness and warmth, and the funny jokes underlying the difference between the English-speaking and French-speaking communities. Maybe it might be worth a try in the English version.

Too bad, Inspector Gamache! I would have loved  to love you. Maybe our paths will cross once more…

The one starring Mary Pickford in black and white

Miriam Michelson, In the Bishop’s Carriage, 1904

I didn’t know at first that Mary Pickford played the heroine Nancy Olden in a 1913 silent movie from which only a few pictures remain. Apparently it was so popular that it was remade in 1920 into yet another silent movie that got lost too. On my part it was pure luck: I just picked this title up from the Librivox free audiobook library because the writer was a woman and I thought it a bit unusual for the adventure/mystery genre.

Once I knew about Mary Pickford, an imaginary movie started playing in my mind. The heroine would have a slightly stilted walk, her long blond curls rolling around her and bouncing at her every move, all the more as Nancy Olden gets to run away from the police a lot at the start of the book. She would wear those nice shoes and dresses we all admired in the first season of Downtown Abbey. She would make exaggerated hand gestures and facial expressions, her mouth open (oh my good I will be discovered!) and her eyelashes fluttering (can I flirt my way out of prison?).

It was a nice discovery. The plot is a fast-paced, first-person account of a cute, sassy, spunky girl who grew up in a harsh, miserable orphanage. She has become a professional pickpocket, using her beauty and apparent innocence to play tricks together with a young crook, Tom Dorgan, whom she loves. Despite her dark background and her controversial choice of career, she’s not one to whine. She has a quick tongue and lots of nerve. Nancy Olden grabs every life line that gets thrown towards her by chance encounters (the eponymous bishop is only the first, she enters his carriage under disguise to escape the police and plays a schoolgirl in full breakdown).

It has gotten a bit outdated at times, and the writing is clumsy at other times, but by most accounts it has well stood the test of time, as the heroine is quite resourceful and independent-minded, making her a very modern American girl.

No wonder that Mary Pickford made a huge success with it. Nancy Olden is an unconventional girl. She doesn’t wait for the Prince Charming, she even saves her own very Charming Prince!