Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Literary Inference and Negan’s Victim in The Walking Dead

by Guest Blogger, Megan McClendon

I'll start by assuring readers there will be no spoilers from either the comic series or from the upcoming Season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead (TWD), but (Warning!) for those not yet caught up on previously aired episodes from Season 6 and before, you may not want to read on.

For avid fans of the TWD television series, the frustrations that accompany each mid-season and season finale may be anticipated, expected even, but that doesn’t mean they grow any less frustrating, accustomed as I may be to the inevitable cliffhanger. Who lives? Who dies? Who goes to a darker place than viewers ever imagined possible? Remember, “Look at the flowers, Lizzie…”

The desire (or the desperate need, in my case) to predict what’s to come leaves viewers meticulously sorting through the evidence presented through the season’s storyline and binge watching previous seasons in hopes of identifying patterns that may allow us to infer even the smallest detail or predict the next tragic outcome.

Inference as a literary device is about drawing conclusions from evidence in the text. Likewise, the same method should be  employed to draw conclusions in TV and film. As far as TWD is concerned, fans of the show know that in the spring, showrunners left us hanging from the highest cliff yet with the new Big Bad in town, Negan, promising to “Beat the holy hell…” out of a member of our dearly beloved band of survivors.

The finale episode left watchers inches from their televisions, agog, only to watch the screen go black in front of our very eyes with a six-month wait ahead of us until the show’s return. Now, here we are. With only days to go until the Season 7 premiere, let’s take a closer look at my prediction as to who Negan’s ill-fated victim will be based on literary inference.

While showrunners have promised a departure from the storyline in the comics, they’ve also been known to toy with our emotions in the past. Despite the sound bites, the clear inference is that our hearts will break right along with Maggie as Glenn falls victim to Lucille, Negan’s souped up baseball bat and weapon of choice in the Zombie Apocalypse. Here’s the evidence to support it.

In the second half of Season 6, we saw Glenn grappling with the morality of slaying another group of survivors in their beds. [Side note: The fact that this played as an internal morality war should be a fairly good indicator of how far our protagonists have fallen.]

Glenn’s internal struggle between adhering to the loyalty he feels for his comrades and for Rick and his fears about raising a child in a world where such actions are acceptable regrettably allows us to infer that Glenn can no longer survive in this post-apocalyptic world and must hereafter exist only in our hearts and memories as the most recent moral martyr.

Indeed the source material predicts Glenn’s death, but stepping outside the universe of the comic books, the show has provided patterns and evidence for us, foreshadowing Glenn’s death as well. Essentially it comes down to one major problem with the character: Glenn is the last remaining moral compass from the original members of our group of survivors.

Photo Credit:

1) Time and again, TWD has shown us that being good equates to being dead. Such deaths are more often than not conveniently timed to pull the other characters back, if only slightly, before they lose the last shred of their humanity. We saw this with Dale in Season 1, Andrea in Season 2, Hershel in Season 4 and Reg in Season 6. As soon as a character begins to question aloud what it means to be human and what it means to be ‘walking dead,’ it’s essentially time for them to be among the latter.

2) The show is exploring the question of whether Rick and team are the good guys or the bad guys, and Glenn was just too clearly good. Taking the Grimes squad down the rabbit hole to a point where even the most loyal viewer questions whether our protagonists are inherently good or bad at this point in their journey lays the groundwork for a fabulous juxtaposition between Negan’s clan (with the addition of Rick’s group) and The Kingdom (the group that rescued Morgan and Carol).

3) New sources for morality have been introduced. Last season we saw the reintroduction of Morgan and the introduction of Jesus. Both characters, while they can see the underlying good in the people and the ends espoused by Rick and his team, question the means the Grimes’ group uses to find the safety they seek. The end of last season also portrayed a desperate Carol who would rather meet her end than go on living and killing as she had. Developing these three characters as moral compasses and a part of the seemingly still moral Kingdom community sets up Season 7 nicely for a storied battle of good vs. evil and may leave us all wondering where our beloved antiheroes will ultimately end up.

The challenge with inferences from evidence in both literature and film is you just never know whether you, as a reader or viewer, have plucked out the right tidbits, especially if the end is not yet in sight--as it surely will be on October 23rd.  As a fan of Glenn myself, I can only hope I’m inferring all the wrong things from all the wrong evidence and that the most beloved of our band of flawed protagonists lives to see yet another day. Literature, including film and television, is, after all, ambiguous, subject to multiple interpretations, but reasonable conclusions can be drawn from evidence within text, and I’ve just provided some. Let’s see what Season 7 brings, shall we?

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Allusions in “For Mama Who Loved Words”

For Mama Who Loved Words

Long before your shrill panting breath ceased
Words whispered and stuttered, then died.

Frost’s ice storm should have pelted windows,
Coated trees, bent them as low as my wounded heart.
You should have ridden that tree into Spring,
Rising quick--heavenward, into Infinite Love.

Instead, on the night of your passing,
Folks kept to their calendars, their Friday night lights.
It was Dickinson’s ordinary night--except, of course,
The dying, undertaken alone--the rest of us free to come, to go
With soft footfall, stepping to the rhythms of machine and pulse

Your sights, dear Mama, an undiscovered country,
Your thoughts undisclosed, gripped first by aphasia, now death so near.
In solitude, we travel to an unknown, our place of origin,
Tennyson’s depths, beyond the bar, beyond breath, beyond touch.

May my words by Wordsworthy, drawing comfort
From this Prelude to my own passing and another beginning
Where others shall not grieve--as I do not.

My solace is in what remains, in memories
Of a woman, tiny, as I, eager to go, let myself be held
In her arms, in her silence, where she spoke of 
Love. Of gratitude. Of raw need.

In that embrace, I feel them all. I feel them still, here, now.
And in them I remember her sharp intakes of breath, the
Sound of recognition in a poet’s truth laid bare on the page.

This is her legacy, her last will and testament:
Lightning flashes upon a dark landscape
Where she is no more.

By Connye, A Daughter, October 7, 2016

Reading Challenge:

Read the hyperlinked poems to understand the allusions to works that have gone before, honed and perfected by four of poetry’s masters.

Writing Challenge:

Explain how one of the four poems alluded to in “For Mama Who Loved Words” functions.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Sully, Starring Tom Hanks, Of Course

The nation fell in love with Captain Chesley Sullenberger at first sight. Something in his eyes conveys the soul of the man, and that soul seemed then--and now--genuine, honest, responsible, and compassionate.

Sully’s voice also soothed the nation as he recounted the events on the day a U. S. Airways jet struck a large flock of Canada geese, knocking out the jet’s engines and rendering it impossible to return to airport runways. Sully judged his best option was to land the jet on the Hudson River, and he did.

The rest of us had no idea what Sully was going through behind the scenes. We didn’t know how much he cared whether all his passengers survived. We didn’t know the pressures pilots experience as investigators try to determine what happened and who’s liable. Clint Eastwood’s film titled Sully reveals what happened, including what happened in the mind of Sully.

Such an accessible and easily shared film allows for a quick lesson in tropes providing glimpses into the minds of characters. They could, for example, as Shakespeare’s protagonists do, step center-stage and speak their thoughts in a soliloquy. That’s rare, especially in the modern era when realism is in vogue. Thus, we might see characters speak their minds to a mirror, rehearsing what they might say in another setting. They might also read aloud from a diary or write notes and letters revealing their thoughts.

In Sully, Eastwood chooses flashbacks. As Sully runs, so do his thoughts, and they run to the seconds from take-off to landing in the water. As he tries to sleep, his thoughts intrude and steal his peace; the director shows us those intrusive thoughts.

The flashback is an effective tool for film. It’s used often and well in literature of all types.


Reading Challenge:

Read Sully starring Tom Hanks. You’ll like it, not only as a review of flashbacks, but also as a study in heroics without flash, crash, or dash.

Writing Challenge:

For further review, read more about the flashback here and more about soliloquies here. Choose one or both writing tasks from those earlier blog posts to complete.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Words Matter: Felicitous Language

One characteristic that distinguishes literary fiction from other fiction is felicitous language. Many writers tell good stories. Many more weave together suspense and character, keeping us entertained while delivering low voltage shocks to the backs of our necks. Others inform us, writing clearly and convincingly.

A few tell good stories, weave together suspense, character, entertainment, and information with exquisitely formed phrases. These write the books we read and remember well; these write the books that win prizes.

What makes the words of literary fiction different from words in other genres and sub-genres is the beauty of the language. It sings, dances, and resonates. It feeds a need for us. As A. J. Fikry says to his adopted daughter Maya, “The words you can’t find, you borrow.” (The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin)

And what are those words? They are words that teach us, that trigger recognition, that help us understand.

  • “A devil’s sick of sin” (Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est”) describes the horrific final moments of a soldier who fumbled his gas mask, breathed in toxic mustard gas, and died slowly, suffering. A slight five words that endure, that give me words for what I’ve seen in the eyes of those lost, words I could not find alone. 
  • “…The sea glides along far below, spattered with the countless chevrons of whitecaps. . . .Deliberately, almost lazily, the bombers shed altitude. Threads of red light ascend from anti-air emplacements up and down the coast. Dark, ruined ships appear, scuttled or destroyed, one with its bow shorn away, a second flickering as it burns. . . .” (Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See) describes the beauty found in acts of war, translating man’s darkest moments into poetry.
  • “For now, while he breathed and moved, while he felt and thought, there was still, between this moment and the one of his dying, the interval allotted to him, and there was so much to live for in it: the citrus snap of fresh black tea; the compression and release of a warm stack of folded towels carried to the closet between two hands; the tinny resonance of children in the distance when heard through a bedroom window; the mouth-fullness of cannoli cream; the sudden twitch of a horse’s ear to chase a fly; the neon green of the outfield grass; the map of wrinkles in one’s own hand; the smell and feel, even the taste of dirt; the comfort of a body squeezed against one’s own.” (We Are Not Ourselves, Matthew Thomas) These words capture the reasons we cling to life and the joys to be found in living. Such an epic task delivered succinctly.
We read to know. We read to belong. We read to understand.

Reading Challenge:

Read for felicitous language.

Writing Challenge:

Write felicitous language.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Hell or High Water’s Details Delight

Delight is often found in details: a bird’s trill on a misty morning, a Monarch sipping nectar from a bright flower, or an infant’s tiny hand wrapped around a calloused finger. Hell or High Water is rich in details that tell so much story.

Photo Courtesy of Al Griffin Photography

Signs are great details in Hell or High Water.

As the Howard brothers drive Texas roads, the camera lingers on road signs reading Foreclosed, For Sale, and Closed. Without setting the film in a particular year or referencing the 2008 economic collapse attributed to banks, Hell or High Water provides a rich socio-economic context.

A different sign tells of wide open, empty spaces on the Texas prairies. It's a road sign pockmarked with bullet holes, a country pastime for young fools and drunk drivers. It’s a show of disrespect and of misplaced marksmanship.

Vigilante justice is another great detail used in Hell or High Water.

In fact, Hell or High Water features plenty of firearms, not just those used by the bank robbers, but those carried every day. Tanner Howard, one of the bank-robbing brothers portrayed in the film by Ben Foster, says “conceal carry permits” sure complicate bank robbing. Every Texan is ready and most are armed to see justice done.

In that environment, the Howard brothers are pursued by a pick-up truck posse, and they fire at the bad guys while they run. They only turn back when Tanner Howard confronts them with a bigger, automatic weapon with a big magazine.

Nature is another terrific detail in Hell or High Water.

One of the finer scenes says even more about tough men surviving an unforgiving, vast land. A huge prairie fire stalls the progress of two Texas Marshalls. Thick black smoke boils above simmering flames marching across the plains toward the Brazos River. Riding parallel are cowboys herding cattle toward the same river.

One Marshall asks if he shouldn’t call in the fire and bring some help for those boys. The old marshall, played flawlessly by Jeff Bridges, says “no,” as there’s no one to call and even if there were, the fire is too large, too powerful for nearby brigades to beat it back. Only the Brazos River will decide. It will smother the fire or save the cattle in such big, empty country where resources are few. A man must rescue himself in such country. And that is an excellent metaphor for the law-breaking protagonists waging war against the banks that beat them.   

They live on hard ground exacting hard consequences, inspiring dire deeds. Just details that open whole stories for our consideration.

Reading Challenge:

Read the excellent Hell or High Water.

Writing Challenge:

Write details that unfold whole stories.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Hell or High Water: The Power of Myth

Every nation has had its share of greedy, arrogant leaders. Some of them have given birth to folk heroes like Robin Hood. Whether in the guise of a mischievous Disney fox in forest-green clothes or rendered by Kevin Costner and Sean Connery, Robin Hood has the face of a friend and a spine of steel.

Chris Pine’s contemporary portrait of a Robin Hood figure is no different except, perhaps, in something behind the eyes. In other films, they are open and as blue as the heavens. In Hell or High Water, those eyes are sometimes slits, often averted, and always flinty. He is a Robin Hood called Toby Howard, born in lowly circumstances, a child of poverty, his family’s legacy, passed down generation after generation “like a disease,” he says.

Hell or High Water’s Robin Hood, like the folk hero, is smart, daring, and quick. He steals only from those who stole from him, a Texas bank that loaned his cancer-stricken mother just enough money on a reverse mortgage to die and leave debt to her son, Toby.

Out of work and divorced, Toby cannot make the payments or pay the taxes. The bank will foreclose and lay claim to land once used for farming and ranching until drought laid prior claim to those human activities. The bank will also acquire a house in need of repair and a good purging.

Pettis County Barn by Al Griffin

Both land and home are priceless to Toby. They are his inheritance. They are his sons’ future, especially after an oil company finds wealth below the dry, dusty surface. That oil could vaccinate Toby’s sons against the disease of poverty. Toby will, by any means possible, buy the vaccine.

Toby asks his brother, Tanner, to help him. Tanner is a felon, convicted of killing the brothers’ father, despised by the brothers’ mother, and paroled with little hope or desire for a job. He agrees to help Toby because Toby asked.

Together, the Howard brothers rob banks, careful to conceal their faces and reveal themselves to no one until Tanner’s rash decision to rob one while his brother finishes lunch in a café across the street from the bank. The locals connect the dots and realize they can identify the thieves, but they don’t; they won’t because Toby is a man broken by the banks. He’s down on his luck in unlucky times. He’s a man out of time to work his way out of debt, and he’s generous to a fault. He leaves a $200 tip for the café waitress because she’s kind. She sees his sorrow, and she wouldn’t add to it--as a bank did.

That waitress not only refuses to identify Toby when later shown his photo, she also refuses to surrender the $200 until forced to do so by a Texas Marshall. Another diner also refuses to identify Toby’s photo as the robber who broke bread in town. He offers that the true criminals are bankers with Texas Midlands.

In scenes when the brothers drive highways and dusty backroads, they pass signs announcing homes for sale, businesses closed, foreclosures. Times are bad. Jobs are scarce. The 99% is afflicted with empathy for each other and antipathy against the 1%.

Even a professional who helps Toby pay off the bank debt with the banks’ own money refuses to turn in the Howards. He knows how little the bank offered to a desperate woman with malice aforethought so he helps Toby claim his true inheritance, his boys, and the oil.

Hell or High Water packs a terrific political commentary on economic hard times. The movie is also a good heist story with plenty of action. Audiences root for the Howard brothers, even glossing Tanner’s brutal acts: dragging a bank teller by her long hair and shoving her down, striking an ugly blow across the nose of a bank manager, and killing bystanders in one bank. (Spoiler Alert!) Tanner pays for his brutality with his life.

Toby’s hands set it all in motion, and they are bloody as a consequence. The crusty old Texas Marshall who knows Toby is the puppetmaster, but can’t prove it, says Toby will be haunted all his days because of what he’s done.

Toby is just fine with being haunted. His cause was righteous. He set out to cure the disease of poverty for his boys. He fought the evil in his land--not the Sheriff of Nottingham as Robin Hood did--but the Texas Midlands Bank.

Reading Challenge:

Read Hell or High Water. Apply the five conflicts, but especially man against society as your read.

Writing Challenge:

Re-tell the Robin Hood tale using modern locations and circumstances.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Words Matter: Reading

“We read to know we’re not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone. We are not alone.”
A. J. Fikry to Maya in The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Lady Mary Montagu shared her advice with her daughter in letters, as was expected of her. She was a lady of title and some acclaim in the eighteenth century. She had brought back news of a smallpox vaccine after visiting Turkey and has been credited with advancing the defeat of that disease.

Montagu advocated teaching girls to read, a minority opinion in her time. She believed that knowledge is a solid foundation for a moral life. She also believed that girls without beauty needed reading skills so that they could occupy themselves quietly and meaningfully while they lived at the mercy of any relative who might given them shelter.

Unattractive girls were not expected to land a husband--unless, of course, she could bring great wealth to the marriage, and thus, she would have to depend upon the kindness of a relative for home and security. Montagu’s granddaughter had neither great wealth nor beauty so Lady Montagu advised her daughter to teach her child to read as a blanket protecting her from chilly loneliness, a balm against sorrow.

Gabrielle Zevin, through her titular character, A. J. Fikry, also believes in the benefits of reading. In The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, reading transforms several lives. A. J. Fikry is less alone because he reads. A book even prolongs his life. The Police Chief becomes a friend because of books and evolves into an avid reader because of that friendship. Love appears a second time in Fikry’s life because of books, and an orphaned toddler grows rich in thought and understanding because she lives surrounded by books and readers.

That little girl becomes a writer, affirming what Stephen King and a long parade of writers have said through the ages: writers read. From reading, they acquire knowledge. From reading, they acquire words. From reading, they acquire community while laboring alone with blank pages and ideas glimpsed. From reading, they acquire a life that, with a bit of luck, extends far beyond their own.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin and/or Lady Mary Montagu’s advice to her daughter. Zevin’s book is also rich in references to other works, especially short stories. Make a list and read them all.

Writing Challenge:

Characters in Zevin’s book believe that asking people what they read or last read reveals something about their natures. It also helps people separate acquaintances from friends and a coffee date from a potential life partner.

What are your top three reads? Don’t agonize over the choices. List quickly what comes to mind first, second, and third.

For me--and I surprised myself because it’s so hard to choose--they are:
  • Anything by Kate Atkinson
  • J. D. Salinger’s short story, “For Esmé--With Love and Squalor”
  • George Orwell’s novel, Coming Up for Air
  • Carol Shields’ novel Unless