Sunday, May 15, 2011

Dinner at Antoine's by Frances Parkinson Keyes

Oh, dear. I thought the novel was going to be about the famed New Orleans restaurant, or about food in some way. Not so. If you want to find out who murdered the invalid Odile St.-Amant -- was it her estranged husband, LĂ©once? her sister, Caresse, who is also carrying on with him? -- I'm sorry but you will have to read further than I did. Frances Parkinson Keyes has an atrocious ear for dialogue, despite her prose being good. So atrocious is it that I had to put the thing aside in disgust. And yes, I did struggle manfully past the first chapter, where I had to read things like this (it's Orson Foxworth speaking):

" dear, the fascinating creature clinging to my arm is Amelie Lalande, the envy of all lesser charmers. I see that Odile's already made up for my negligence by introducing herself, and perhaps she's told you which is really her sister and which is really her husband. Yes? Well, I thought so. The Viking-looking chap on the other side of Caresse is Russ Aldridge -- Russell Wainwright Aldridge, Ph.D. -- a fast man with a hieroglyph, a drink, a samba, and a back-to-back pair of Jacks, in the order named! And finally, Dr. Perrault, who painted tonsils for Odile and Caresse when they were only knee-high to a puddle duck. But they don't hold that against him and you needn't either .... Have you had a drink yet? As you see, some of our guests got desperate because we were so late and very wisely started in on Sazeracs." 

And it goes on and on. The worst is when the characters are made to think to themselves, in italics. Parkinson Keyes was very prolific in a time when (and readers of Vellum will recognize a theme) the American publishing industry simply seems to have put out better books than it does now -- so I can only hope that Dinner at Antoine's was an anomaly among her works. If I discover that Blue Camellia or Station Wagon in Spain were any better, I will try to report so as soon as possible.  

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Godfrey of Bouillon, Defender of the Holy Sepulchre by Tom Tozer

This was a new experience. I turned on my Kindle -- bless its heart -- and searched the keyword Godfrey, because I had just encountered a lengthy and rather turbid poem of G.K. Chesterton's which sang, in part,
... the voice that shook our palaces -- four hundred years ago:
It is he that saith not 'Kismet'; it is he that knows not Fate;
It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey at the gate!"
The Kindle store promptly found, and offered me the chance to buy, a title called Godfrey of Bouillon, Defender of the Holy Sepulcher, for $2.99. Published in 2005. Well, why not?

I am familiar with the once legitimately-published but now out-of-copyright books hosted at Project Gutenberg, but this was the first time I had bought anything sight unseen from Kindle, only. Was it a reprint of something just as old, or might it be a recent bestseller in a genre that I was ignorant of? 

Neither. The book is a self-published short novel, put out by a vanity press or POD (publish on demand) company -- in this case, PublishAmerica, whose reputation in the bookselling industry seems to be even worse than that of most such places. Red flag to prospective authors: PublishAmerica does not accept returns, from bookstores, of its unsold product. Why does this matter? Because Legitimate Press A would do so. Legitimate Press A invests time and money in a writer because it judges the writer's content is marketable; if it turns out that new author Miss Smith's book doesn't sell, Legitimate Press A does not stick its bookstore clients with stacks of it, but takes the rotten apple back like a good merchant, writes off the loss, and perhaps doesn't deal with Miss Smith again.

Not so PublishAmerica, which has given us Godfrey of Bouillon exactly as Mr. Tom Tozer gave it to them. Godfrey inspires this interest in the workings of the publishing world because the novel itself inspires almost none. Now, to be fair, I read it, I finished it. The prose is acceptable, some passages even rather nice. But as you skim along, without benefit of any information about the book at all, no dust jacket blurbs, no logrolling, no "advance praise," the realization slowly grows that this is an amateur.

The book is very short, for one thing, probably not more than 120 pages in a print version, if that. Short books can be good, and long novels can be bad, but any professional -- no matter how many rejection slips he has gathered -- knows that to be taken seriously he must make his manuscript, for better or worse, a certain length. As to the content, there are people and there are events in the story, but the events roll by as they were culled from popular histories of the Crusades, and the people are little more than names which the writer has learned from the same. There is the battle of Ascalon, there are Godfrey, Eustace, and Ida. No character develops in any way nor has any vital relationship with any other. If this manuscript had remotely got past the first desk in the slush pile at a New York publishing house, any editor (likely a woman) would have immediately insisted at the least on many more women, and much more romance. Our author, bless him, is a man who likes the Crusades, not all that folderol. There are also some outright mistakes. Surely no character in 1096 is going to say " 'The Pope can no more turn bread into the body of God than he can turn a frog into a potato.' " And no, it's not the disrespect shown the Pope that is anachronistic here.    

And yet. There is a curious freshness to the book. I believe it must come from the author's love of the subject and from his creation of a work of art outside the sacred precincts of that New York publishing world, where talent does batter down the doors sometimes, but where a great many submission guidelines also read like instructions for candidates in the Mandarin examinations of imperial China. ("Excellence is really our only criterion. That said, however -- race, class, and gender, etc. -- if you must trumpet your religion, do it with grace and style -- racist or bigoted characters must be seen to be defeated -- children must solve a unisex problem not involving war, death, or illness," etc.) Those guidelines produce books as stale as can be, books which read like examination papers more than stories. Only last night, I tried another sample on Kindle of a new, correctly published and accredited biography of the saints Brigid (early medieval Ireland) and Genevieve (early medieval Paris). Who knew that the people of that far away time would have spent so much time thinking, in the most painfully fusty academic terms, about gender and sacral spaces? Needless to say, I didn't buy that one. By contrast, Godfrey's freshness in the end even has a  medieval feel to it. Mr. Tozer seems to have captured something of what we imagine to be the eleventh century's flaming, personal Christian passion, as well as something of a medieval chroniclers' bland, sometimes maddeningly distant and unreflective voice ("what I have told you is truly what I have seen and heard, and I have no more to add to it").  

So. Here is an example, for history's sake, of what does not batter down the doors, what does not escape the slush pile, what does not pass the imperial Mandarin examinations. We'll let Mr. Tozer end with this: does this deserve never to have seen the light of day? Ida speaks.
"It is all like a vast poem. We know how it begins, and we know how it ends, and we know that all together it is beautiful. But we live in the middle, between the light and the glory. And thus we do not know what lines we write with our own lives every day. But, with God's help, we can write lines with our  lives that deserve a place in His song."