Friday, February 5, 2010

Howe, Goodman, and Kostova: Three authors who know how to weave together the past and present

On Wednesday, I mentioned Katherine B. Howe's book The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, which I am now reading.

In the first chapter, the main character is sitting for her qualifying exams for her doctoral program, and Howe describes the roller-coaster emotions associated with academic trials perfectly.  As a previous doctoral student, my first thought was, "The author must know exactly how it feels to go through the rigamarole of grad school," and my second thought was, "How cool that I'm going to learn something while reading a fun book."  I went over to Howe's website and found that she had, indeed, gone through graduate school and so was writing from experience; I also found out that her family history is intertwined with the primary subject of the book: the Salem witch trials (which is a time in history that fascinates me).  As a reader, I know a book is expanding my mind when it inspires me to do research--just for fun.

One feature that I really enjoy about Howe's book is that she interplays the past with the present; the majority of the book (so far) takes place in the present, but she inserts scenes from the Salem witch trials at intervals to let both storylines (the past and present) unfold in one telling.  In other words, it's like getting two books in one.  Howe's technique of integrating past and present is to work in individual scenes from the past that will eventually form a story that will affect the present (and, thus, the main character) when all the scenes come together at the end.

Before reading her book, I hadn't stopped to think how much I enjoy books that interweave past and present all while teaching me something.  I think it's my own fascination with how the past affects the present and future that pulls me into books that integrate story lines from more than time frame.

Carol Goodman's book The Ghost Orchid is also a learning experience--Carol Goodman has a technique of writing that allows her to weave in academic information without it becoming overwhelming.

Her books often incorporate mythology and literary references, which inspires me to try to broaden my own knowledge about those subjects just so I can get the most out of those references she makes.  In The Ghost Orchid, the main character goes to an artist's retreat, where the past starts colliding with the present.  The book is a ghost story and learning journey all rolled together for a reading treat.  Goodman's technique is a bit like Howe's in that she provides scenes from the past and flips the story between the past and present, but her integration is a bit different because in her book, the past doesn't stay in the past.  She allows bits of the story from the past to creep into the story in the present to create an ethereal timeline.

Another book that integrates past and present is Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian.

Kostova's book is based on a historian who is researching the reality of vampires (of Dracula, to be specific).  The main character started her research as a way to continue her father's work and to figure out how some long-held secrets ripped her family apart.  Kostova's technique of weaving the past and present together is to have the past woven into dialogue.  At first, the past only occurs when the girl's father tells her stories of his own past; he tells her bits and pieces of his past but always stops just when the story is building to new information.  The dialogue fills entire chapters, so I often forgot I was reading a re-telling of the story but felt like I had been thrown into the past right along with the father's memories.  As the book progresses, the past story lines are woven in through letters the father left behind for his daughter.  The Historian felt so real to me that it had me glancing over my shoulder for glimpses of Dracula while I was reading the book.

These books inspire my 'joie de lire' because they bring the past and present together and inspire me to learn more, think more, and make more connections.  What books do that for you?

Happy reading, whether it be in the past, present, or future!

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