Thursday, April 3, 2014

My Name is Mary Sutter


My Name is Mary SutterMy Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"My Name is Mary Sutter" is the best novel I've read in some time. A midwife who wants to be a surgeon during the Civil War - what's not to love? If you're an intelligent, educated woman, odds are you'll relate strongly to Mary. And the requisite love triangle turned out to be more nuanced than I would have expected. Life sure isn't easy for Mary - and we wouldn't want to read about it if it were - but Oliveira does a largely skillful job at weaving a compelling narrative.

Now that I'm deep into the editing process of my own novel, the discrete elements of Oliveira's book are very apparent to me. That's not to say that they aren't well integrated into a whole, I can just see what's going on.

On another note, I was really interested by the descriptions of the role that women played in establishing national standards for hygiene and nursing.  It's hard to remember a time when we didn't know that washing your hands - with plain old soap, thank you very much - was a sure-fire way to keep people from dying. Eve Curie's simply splendid biography of her astonishing mother recounts the tale of how Marie not only characterized radioactivity and built the first portable x-ray devices, she actually went around to her friends, badgered them out of their cars, modified them to be the first battlefront motorized ambulances, AND drove the cars to the front - herself! - to train nurses to operate the x-rays. Thus saving a gajillion lives. Man, there's a novel there.


"My Name is Mary Sutter" is the first book I've managed to finish in almost a month - and I could barely put it down. Definite recommend, although if you're squeamish, you might not want to read while eating (I finished the novel over lunch).

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

On Dialogue

All of the books-on-writing I've been reading recently recommend strengthening dialogue by eavesdropping on nearby conversations.

I work from home, so I don't get out much. Here is yesterday's most involved conversation:

BabyV: Mommy, I want my orange thing.

Me: Huh?

BabyV: My thing! I want my thing!

Me: What thing?

BabyV: The ORANGE THING!

Me: I don't know what you're talking about!

BabyV: ORANGE! ORANGE! GET IT!!

Me: GET WHAT???

It turned out he was talking about his toy drill. Regardless, it's not exactly War and Peace around here.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

2014 NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza: vote for Shajar!

A few weeks ago I posted an early draft of my book pitch. After 10 more drafts and feedback from my writing partner and an incisive friend in publishing, I entered it into the Book Doctors' 2014 NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza. The Random Drawing gods smiled on me ... and my pitch got reviewed!

Funnily, they misspelled "Egyptian" in their pitch about pitches. You can take the editor out of the jungle ....

Basically, they want more voice. Of course, this suggestion means that I should look for more voice everywhere throughout my novel. All 105,000 words of it. That's cool. I can do voice. Once I figure out what "voice" really means here.

What does voice mean in historical fiction? My intuition is that there's a practical limit to interpreting "voice" as "authenticity." It would be impossible to read writing that accurately reflected the 13th century. If you ever read work from the period, you know what I mean. So that can't be it.

While reading A Deadly Injustice, which I ended up enjoying quite a bit, at first I was taken aback by what I viewed as too much character voice. And I'm going for something simpler than HHhH, which was, in a word, formidable (in two words: formidably awesome). The characters in Phillippa Gregory's books have very different voices, for example Margaret Beaufort's voice is much different from that of Elizabeth Woodville, but I'm not sure what that means about Gregory's voice as the writer.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about voice in historical fiction - post away in the comments! And it looks like I have a new angle for Internet research!

While I'm sorting all this out, won't you please go vote for my pitch? Through March 31, just click on the little radio button next to Tiffany Vora and then submit your vote! The fan winner gets a one-hour consultation with the Book Doctors. Your vote says, "I want to read A Tree of Pearls and I want it to be awesome!" Or, "You know, I think Tiffany could really use some help on her novel-writing journey!"

Don't forget to vote from your mobile devices too!

And thank you so much for supporting me! And Shajar!

A Deadly Injustice


A Deadly InjusticeA Deadly Injustice by Ian Morson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really dislike mystery as a genre, but I picked up A Deadly Injustice because it takes place in the 13th century Mongol empire. I'm very glad that I gave the novel a chance - it's enormously entertaining, and Morson does an admirable job of weaving "history" with "fiction." At first I was taken aback by the narrator's ultra-modern voice, but it really made him approachable and memorable. I was less enthused about the author's choice to switch between first-person and third-person narrative. That choice always irritates me. All in all, though, "A Deadly Injustice" was hard to put down.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Salih's Tree of Pearls

Today I'm procrastinating doing some research to add a scene to my draft in which Shajar al-Durr visits the tomb she built for her first husband, al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub. Just as Shajar al-Durr means Tree of Pearls, her husband's name translates to Righteous Star of the Faith. It's got a bit of a ring to it, don't you think?

A little tickle in my brain drove me to an old iPhoto stash, where I was thrilled to find this:


I visited Salih's newly restored mosque/mausoleum/madrasa complex during my last visit to Cairo! And apparently predicted that I wouldn't remember, which is why I took that picture.

Now I have some of my very own pictures to paint my scene, like this one that showcases the lacquered wood ceiling and the polychrome windows:


Look at the absolutely splendid stucco work here. Apparently the artisans slathered wet mud on the facade, and then frantically carved before the mud could dry:


I was especially excited when I found this next photo. Do you see what I see?

 

That's right - a tree of pearls growing out of a vase! One of my sources claims that mosaics were a post-Ayyubid entry into the Egyptian art scene. The same article says that this motif - the tree of pearls and the vase - appears in Shajar's tomb and was a later addition by Baibars al-Bunduqdari, another main character in my novel who was later Sultan of Egypt.

The article didn't mention such a motif in Salih's tomb. Unfortunately I wasn't able to enter Shajar's tomb on my last visit, so I can't compare the two representations. I could speculate that the conservators of Salih's tomb drew obvious links between contemporaneous buildings. That would be a little disappointing, though. I'd rather believe that Shajar, Salih, and Baibars left fingerprints on each other's lives that can still be unearthed with a little detective work.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Grasses Khan

According to a new research report in PNAS, the Mongol empire owed its success to (drum roll, please) ... rain.

The massive Mongol army was more like a civilization on the move. Men, women, children, animals, everything including the kitchen sink. All dragged across Asia by hardy little horses who ate grass, which may have flourished during a period of abnormal, persistent moisture.

I've been researching the Mongols because my novel takes place just before the Mongols nearly wiped Baghdad off the face of the earth in 1258. The horde is a threat lurking just off-page throughout my story, and fear of this terrifying enemy motivates some of my characters' actions.

Smithsonian Magazine connects the dots here if you're interested. The scientist in me is thrilled by the real-life implications of a seemingly simple climactic analysis. The novelist in me is kind of disappointed.

Oh, and I love the word pluvial. Will need to remember it for Scrabble ....



Thursday, March 6, 2014

Visible yet invisible

Yesterday I ran across an intriguing editorial on CNN about women in power.

Obviously the issues I'm exploring in my novel are resonant in the modern era. As a scientist - well, I used to be one, anyway - I've had first-hand experience with being roped into the dog-and-pony show but still ignored when it came to the daily issues that convince a person to stick with their career.

I found these lines from the editorial particularly pertinent:

     The duality of being hypervisible and simultaneously invisible is the latest identity quagmire that some highly accomplished women must navigate. They are hypervisible because they are often the only one of a few in their position -- thus, they stand out.
     Yet because of their gender, and sometimes their race, their presence is not the norm, and others are not used to seeing them in these roles. Those same women who worked hard to climb the ladder to success sometimes find that they are out of place and unwelcome, rendering them invisible in certain situations.
     It's almost as if they're saying, "I see you, but I don't respect you and therefore I'm not going to acknowledge you as a human being."

Gender, race, and visibility are deeply entangled in Shajar al-Durr's story. As a child, she was sold into slavery, one of the thousands of Turkic men and women who fled ahead of or were engulfed in the vicious Mongol invasion. When she entered the household of her owner - who she eventually married - Shajar was an outsider in every conceivable way: not a man, not an Arab, not a Muslim, and not a speaker of Arabic. Plus, as a woman, tradition (and in some senses the law) dictated that her life depended on only being visible to members of her immediate family. But she didn't have a family, right? She was a slave!

And yet this slave-concubine rose to be a power in her own right and, for 80 days in 1250, Sultana in her own name. By that I mean in her dead son's name, but that's just another example of visibility and invisibility.

Women today still struggle with the cultural challenges that Shajar faced nearly 800 years ago. It's just that more of us are facing them now than in her time.