Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood is a historical novel about a woman involved in a double murder. She is spared hanging because of her age, but is imprisoned for life, although some think she is insane and should be treated. Apart from the day-to-day lives of Grace (who works in the warden’s home as a servant and goes back and forth from her cell to the house under armed guard) and the psychiatrist who is studying her (who is a resident of a shabby boarding house and also corresponds with his whiny mother about money and marriage), the narrative unfolds as Grace tells her story to the doctor. She came to Canada from Ireland with her abusive father (the mother dying during the crossing and being buried at sea) and worked in various servant positions from a very young age before coming into service for a gentleman and his housekeeper, the victims she is said to have killed. How reliable is she? That’s not clear, but she builds a persuasive case that the laborer on the farm did the killing and also that the housekeeper was something of a madwoman herself.
Intimations by Zadie Smith is a short collection of essays written during the pandemic, which, in case you haven’t noticed, isn’t over, so I’m not sure why it was necessary to publish this so soon. Except that proceeds from the book are being donated to the Equal Justice Initiative and The COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund for New York, and those are important and urgent causes, so as a fund-raising effort it’s not a bad idea. So, kudos to Smith, who is a terrific writer. I recently read her novel Swing Time, which I enjoyed very much even though it was kind of a jumbled mess. The essays in the current book are largely about changes wrought by Covid-19, but also about issues of privilege in race and class. It’s short and a quick read, so I do recommend it.
Moment to Moment by David Budbill is a collection of poems inspired by ancient Chinese writers. He sometimes calls himself Judevine Mountain, after the T’ang Dynasty poet Cold Mountain (Han Shan), and lives an isolated life on a Vermont mountainside. I’m not sure the work is great poetry, although Budbill during his life received numerous awards.
The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman is subtitled “8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life”. Despite the clever title, this book isn’t solely about plot, because everything in fiction is related. Plot, or story, derives from characterization, so the book spends three chapters on character alone. A lot of genre writers would do well to study those chapters to find more depth for their characters. The rest of the book describes tips for building suspense, understanding conflict (without which plots are weak tea), etc. It’s a pretty good summary of how to “bring fiction to life.” The book has had me thinking about characterization as I move into the final stages of writing my latest novel. In fact, before I begin another pass through my manuscript, I’m going to try to get to know my characters better. I may not use the techniques suggested by the book, though. Instead, I’m going to have the characters write me letters, in their own voices, telling me about themselves.
I like the letter writing concept…a good way for characters to reveal themselves as you write.