Wednesday, December 31, 2014

This Year, I Resolve to Read More Books

While resolving to be thinner, kinder, and more loving in 2015, resolve also to read. Writers read, and readers grow wise, evinced by Max, a student in North Carolina. His words appear below.

Happy New Year, Baby!
“In the modern world, the only access most kids have to violence, like rape and torture is exploited and extorted through sensationalized media. Education is where we can change our path, and learn to view these events, past, present, and future, through an educational lens that allows us to learn and grow from the experiences that others have been forced to endure.

As long as we live safe and peaceful lives in a developed country, the least we can do is learn to respect and honor those who are less fortunate. We cannot close the blinds to real history and real events, and real pain just because it makes us uncomfortable. If reading about rape and torture is unnerving, imagine what it must be like to live it. It’s a scary thought, but sadly one that too many people are familiar with.

If this generation wants to make a mark on the world as one that is inclusive and supportive and one that reaches out and holds up those who suffer, if we want to be a generation that reaches the highest standard we need to open our minds and discover the real world we’re living in. And we need teachers and authors and everyone in between to support our youth in that journey. We need The House of Spirits. . . ” (Whitaker, Mary K. ""Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition"" Council Chronicle 24.2 (2014): 22. Print.)

Max was one of several students who spoke before a Boone school board during hearings about one parent’s determined effort to protect her child from The House of Spirits, a novel taught by Mary Kent Whitaker to tenth-grade students on an Advanced Placement track. Whitaker inspired Max to speak against censorship and in favor of education through literature.

Max recognizes that fiction opens doors to worlds he may never experience. He understands that these worlds enrich him. He is an advocate for reading as a path to empathy and understanding.

Writers who read understand Max. They also know that reading enhances their own use of language. So make a reading list for 2015.

Reading Challenge:

Read Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits. As you progress through the novel, return to Max’s words, reminding yourself about the lessons he drew from the novel.

Writing Challenge:

Use this blog to make a reading list for 2015. Each weekly post includes a reading challenge. Or write down the books you would recommend to a book club in search of titles for their entertainment and instruction. Making such a list will help you recall why you admired the book, what you gained from it.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

An Evergreen at Christmas

Now is the season of the holly and the mistletoe; the days are come in which we hang our rooms with the sober green of December and feel it summer in our hearts.

--Saturday Evening Post, December 29, 1866

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Lesson in Tone from Dickens' A Christmas Carol

Writers labor to create a tone that reveals meaning. They do this by selecting appropriate words, details, and images. Still, readers may misunderstand tone, and if they do, they misunderstand meaning.

Charles Dickens does not lead his readers astray with A Christmas Carol. He signals that the ending will be a happy one with his first words. The December 1843 Preface to A Christmas Carol reads:

I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book to raise the Ghost of an Idea which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their house pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

As you can see, Dickens warns his readers that his purpose is to instill in them an idea without the tremors or long-lasting effects of a nightmare. In fact, readers will be haunted pleasantly, he hopes. But should a reader skip past the Preface or forget about it quickly, the opening lines of A Christmas Carol will set him straight.

Stave One, “Marley’s Ghost,” announces and repeats that Marley was as dead as a door-nail, a sobering detail made light by the narrator’s puzzling over door-nails as living or dead:

I don’t mean to say that I know of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the country’s done for. You will, therefore, permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail. ((Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. New York: Weathervane Books, 1977. 3-4)

With these words, Dickens establishes that his narrator ponders the meaning of things, including clichés, that he yields to the wisdom of ancestors, and that he has a sense of humor by his use of litote in tying his country’s safe future to upholding tried and tired clichés. None of these remarks would be appropriate in a sober treatment of one man’s death and that man’s ghost returning to haunt the living. These remarks signal that what will soon unfold is not a tale with which to terrify children, but one that will simultaneously entertain and enlighten.

Reading Challenge:

Read the opening paragraphs of a story you love. Upon reflection, do those words suggest the final paragraphs?

Writing Challenge:

Review your own writing. Have your opening paragraphs misled readers about meanings?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Enduring Legacy of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

I read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol each December. As a testament to resurrection, the tale is a fitting archetype for the season. The Christmas story is about a child who resurrects mankind from his lowly state and opens the door to a better life on earth and in heaven. For Scrooge, Marley is the instrument of his resurrection, but Tiny Tim figures prominently as well.

Ebenezer Scrooge, we learn, endured loneliness for years at school. Still he had a kind-hearted, generous sister and a gregarious, giving mentor, Old Fezziwig. Scrooge could have drawn from them and kept Christmas in his heart, but he did not. A love of gold imprisoned Scrooge’s heart. He was stony and judgmental, proclaiming “Humbug!” when approached to give for charity or release his clerk for Christmas.

The ghost of Marley, Scrooge’s former partner, offers Scrooge a last chance. As Beatrice interceded for Dante, Marley intervenes so that Scrooge may escape the ravages of hell. Marley directs three more ghosts to unlock Scrooge’s stony heart.

The first ghost evokes feelings of regret by showing Scrooge his Christmases past. One year includes Old Fezziwig’s holiday gifts, and Scrooge feels a pang. He wishes he had spoken more kindly to his clerk; Fezziwig made all, from the lowest to the high, feel appreciated, especially at his Christmas party. Scrooge recognizes his own omission in that regard--a first step in becoming human once more.

The second ghost previews the present for Scrooge, a Christmas Day when shops close, and Scrooge, ever the businessman, accuses the ghost of harming mankind by requiring that on the seventh day and for Christmas, all must rest. He reasons that such a scriptural mandate prevents those who should work from putting bread upon their tables. The Spirit is sharp in his retort:

“There are some upon this earth of yours . . . who claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us, and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us” (Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. New York: Weathervane Books, 1977. 79-80).

Thus admonishing Scrooge not to presume he understands, the ghost shows Scrooge a celebration in honor of Christmas in his clerk’s home where Scrooge bears witness to the Cratchit’s efforts to be cheerful in spite of the poor health of one child, Tiny Tim, and in spite of their meager means. Scrooge also sees them struggle with their own spirituality in thinking about him. They resent him and his hard heart, but strive to overcome, to be charitable.

Scrooge also witnesses his nephew’s compassion for Scrooge himself. The young man, whom Scrooge had refused to visit, notes that the gold Scrooge seeks brings him no joy. He simply hoards it, lives a meager existence, and will profit not at all from it in life or death. The experience moves Scrooge, especially because the nephew’s guests still drink to Scrooge’s health in spite of Scrooge’s “Humbug!” upon them.

The final ghost presents the future to Scrooge. He sees that he is neither mourned nor honored in death. He understands that his life has meant little to others, and he resolves to redeem himself. He becomes a prime example for the Christmas spirit. He learns to love his fellow man even if there is no reciprocity--just as his nephew does. He understands that Ignorance, Want and Doom are mortal enemies for all mankind when he glimpses starving figures under the second ghost's cloak. Scrooge resolves to rescue as many as possible from those enemies. His first stop is, of course, his clerk’s home. Tiny Tim Cratchit thrives because Scrooge’s hard heart thaws. Saving Tim is, of course, an invaluable gift to the Cratchits and to Scrooge himself for Tim’s heart is good, his powers of forgiveness pure.

Reading Challenge:

Read or re-read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Writing Challenge:

Write a letter to Ebenezer Scrooge about the meaning of Christmas.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Showing AND Telling in All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Anthony Doerr’s novel, All the Light We Cannot See, is one of five novels nominated for the National Book Award for Fiction in 2014. While it is not the winner, it is a winning novel to read and from which to learn. I have written about the poetic language of the novel earlier. Today, I will use Doerr’s novel to illustrate the difference between showing and telling, a difference that continues to puzzle many would-be writers.

From “Key Pound” (Doerr, Anthony. “Key Pound.” All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel. Kindle ed. New York: Scribner, 2014. 323-24. Print.)

“At home, in the evenings, her father stows their shoes in the same cubby, hangs their coats on the same hooks. Marie-Laure crosses six evenly spaced friction strips on the kitchen tiles to reach the table; she follows a strand of twine he has threaded from the table to the toilet. He serves dinner on a round plate and describes the locations of different foods by the hands of a clock. Potatoes at six o’clock, ma chérie. Mushrooms at three. Then he lights a cigarette and goes to work on his miniatures at a workbench in the corner of the kitchen. He is building a scale model of their entire neighborhood, the tall-windowed houses, the rain gutters, the laverie and boulangerie and the little place at the end of the street with its four benches and ten trees. On warm nights Marie-Laure opens her bedroom window and listens to the evening as it settles over the balconies and gables and chimneys, languid and peaceful, until the real neighborhood and the miniature one get mixed up in her mind.”

Doerr’s narrator specifies the actions that Marie-Laure’s father takes to help her navigate her surroundings. The narrator shows us what it is to be blind and how we might learn to see without sight.

But what is Marie-Laure’s experience as a young blind girl? For this, the narrator tells the reader.
Sunlight sets the building aglow.
Photo by Al Griffin

From “Take Us Home” (Doerr, Anthony. “Take Us Home.” All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel. Kindle ed. New York: Scribner, 2014. 370-71. Print.)

“For a long time, . . . his [Marie-Laure’s father] model of their neighborhood makes little sense to her. It is not like the real world. The miniature intersection of rue de Mirbel and rue Monge, for example, just a block from their apartment, is nothing like the real intersection. The real one presents an amphitheater of noise and fragrance: in the fall it smells of traffic and castor oil, bread from the bakery, camphor from Avent’s pharmacy, delphiniums and sweet peas and roses from the flower stand. On winter days it swims with the odor of roasting chestnuts; on summer evenings it becomes slow and drowsy, full of sleepy conversations and the scraping of heavy iron chairs.”

The narrator tells us that Marie-Laure experiences the world through other senses. She recognizes places, seasons, and times of day by their scents and sounds. Both passages are specific, detailed and vivid. Neither one lacks for concrete details. The first passage full of actions demonstrates how blind Marie-Laure learns to see in the apartment she shares with her father, and we readers infer how simultaneously challenging and comforting her lessons may have been. The second passage is reportorial as the narrator tells us how Marie-Laure experiences her neighborhood; readers need not infer.

Reading Challenge:

Read this beautiful novel: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

Writing Challenge:

Show a person in action, then tell us how that person thinks and feels about the action.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Let Us Give Thanks for Louise Gluck, The National Book Award Winner in Poetry 2014

Faithful and Virtuous Nightthe latest collection of poems by Louise Gluck, is a National Book Award winner in poetry for 2014. A Pulitzer Prize honoree, Gluck dwells in the beautiful ambiguity that is poetry. She often contemplates loss, grief, and death. Her speakers suffer and endure. Here is one from a prior collection, one that may perhaps remind us to be grateful on this day.

April by Louise Gluck

No one's despair is like my despair--

You have no place in this garden
thinking such things, producing
the tiresome outward signs; the man
pointedly weeding an entire forest,
the woman limping, refusing to change clothes
or wash her hair.

Do you suppose I care
if you speak to one another?
But I mean you to know
I expected better of two creatures
who were given minds: if not
that you would actually care for each other
at least that you would understand
grief is distributed
between you, among all your kind, for me
to know you, as deep blue
marks the wild scilla, white
the wood violet. 

A wise, somewhat dispassionate speaker lays claim to despair that supercedes all others and their despair. This speaker, perhaps endowed with divine power, seems inclined to evict a man and a woman from the garden. They simply “have no place” there, “thinking such things” as they think, “deforesting” entire forests, “refusing” to demonstrate self-awareness and pride in clothing or hygiene.

The speaker declares that his or her expectation for those in the garden was greater; after all, they were “given minds” with which to understand, to comprehend that grief is a shared burden, not an isolated indulgence. Grief is as natural as the colors of flowers on the earth.

Naked Ladies, also known as the Belladonna Lily
So today, let us grant our shared humanity, our shared burden. Let us show compassion for one another even if we cannot speak to each other.

Reading Challenge:

Read any one of Louise Gluck’s poem, but take special note of those in her latest collection.

Writing Challenge:

Write an answer for the question: what might a god expect of his creations?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Toss Together a Cup of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a Teaspoon of Rizzoli and Isles, a Pinch of X-Files and Moriarty: ABC's Forever

Last week, I lamented the dearth of fresh, original programs. A Fall 2014 entry in the race to a complete first season on ABC is Forever, and after two episodes, I have set my DVR to “Record Series.” In other words, I was interested enough in the characters that I will commit to a once a week serving. Here’s why: the program is made of iconic stuff, but it has been stirred and brewed to something novel.

First, Dr. Henry Morgan has the mental acuity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock. Second, the series is not a standard police procedural with partnered detectives unraveling crimes; Forever is like the Rizzoli and Isles novels by Tess Gerritsen. A medical examiner and police detective forge a partnership.

The two recognize each other through a shared grief. Each has lost a beloved spouse. They also find life’s meaning and purpose in discovering the truth.

Detective Jo Martinez judges Dr. Morgan as honest, if eccentric, proving her own perspicacity, and her good judgment allows her to trust him. As Scully trusted Mulder in spite of agency derision, Detective Jo trusts Dr. Henry even though her own police supervisor warns her against doing so. 

Another nice twist in the program is the squad room supervisor featured in Forever. Like the menacing, political animals in The Wire, Forever’s police captain is all about data. Clearing cases is the Litmus test that leads to praise, positive evaluations, and promotions so Lieutenant Joanna Reece wants solved cases erased from the squad room board, but she doesn’t rant. Instead, she’s firm. She doesn’t threaten either because she’s not easily threatened herself. When Martinez pursues and solves a case that her Lieutenant warned her against pursuing on the basis of an odd medical examiner’s conclusions, Lieutenant Reece praises Martinez for trusting her instincts.
A Crypt in Georgia from 2011.

Forever even includes a nemesis like Doyle’s Moriarty, the criminal mastermind and foil to Sherlock. Dr. Morgan’s is apparently a kindred spirit whose knowledge of Dr. Morgan’s secret may endanger him. And that is the fifth element given a bit of a spin. Dr. Morgan has a supernatural talent. He cannot die. That is his secret and his purpose: to discover why he cannot die as he uses his many years on this earth to accumulate more knowledge about life and death affording him the genuius to solve crimes as if he had a sixth sense.

Forever boils all those elements together to deliver something borrowed, but not at all dull or cliché--at least not yet. (The episode airing November 18, 2014 tested me, however. I hope others are not as formulaic.)

Reading Challenge:

“Read” ABC’s Forever, the first two episodes, then sign on for more, if you like.

Writing Challenge:

Spin together some borrowed elements to invent something fresh.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

USA's Late Summer Series, Satisfaction

I try to watch as many first episodes of new programs as my time allows. I record them, often deploying the “Stop” button to delete after ten minutes. I have no tolerance whatsoever for recycled plots and characters. Even if the crime scene investigators set up shop in a new urban area or the stock uptight cop in the squad room is a woman, I’m just not interested. I seek fresh and original, not tired, old, and stale.

The Wire may have been, at its core, bad guys versus good guys, a TV staple and literary archetype, but just who were the truly bad figures and who the truly good? David Simon pulled complex, dynamic characters from different sides of the law and order paradigm, peeled back their artifice, and revealed their common humanity as well as their common criminality. In doing so, he elevated an old storyline into art.

The Wire’s great success and its staying power prove that viewers have not tired of compromised characters. We still enjoy stories featuring ordinary people beset by extraordinary circumstances, even if those seem far-fetched; we assess their choices as they try to overcome their circumstances. We cheer for those who triumph and wince when some cannot.

My search for another Wire has been in vain, but I’ve found other HBO programs that capture my imagination, and I loyally follow them. I’ve also noticed non-premium cable channels recreating themselves in the image of HBO. In a very unscientific study, I’ve considered the public’s taste, noting blue language and bare bottoms in prime time. This study led me to this summer’s USA series, Satisfaction, the tale of a man in the throes of a mid-life career crisis exacerbated by the sudden gut-punch knowledge that his wife has taken a lover.

Each episode put Neal in conflict with himself as he tried to navigate murky moral waters and rise above the baser instincts that can pull any one of us under. But Neal will, of course, triumph. His name, a Celtic one meaning champion, is our first clue. His desire to find peace through meditation, conversation, and humility is another. He may demean himself when he acts and reacts impulsively, but he self-corrects, changes course, and renews his quest to be a giving man, loving husband and understanding father.

The woman he married, the adulteress herself, in jeopardy as a consequence of feeling inadequate and having lost herself to domesticity and motherhood, is named Grace. How can any viewer doubt that she is the gift, the one who can lead Neal to what he may not deserve?

But Neal and Grace are impure. They’ve taken liberties with their duties. Neal is absent often in the pursuit of career, money, and himself. Grace leaves her teen daughter to fend for herself without a mother’s close supervision or guidance. Both Neal and Grace betray their marital vows. They’ve set in motion events that could have tragic outcomes, and as the series closed its first, and perhaps only season, the consequences of their actions is a man with a gun walking toward Neal and Grace who are standing in their empty swimming pool, a nod, perhaps, to another improvident character from film, Joe Gillis, the deceased narrator for Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard or to Fitzgerald’s improvident Gatsby. The twist, if intentional, is that dry pool. It cannot be Neal’s catharsis. His body cannot float as a warning to all men who make love to another man’s wife, a temptation Neal surrendered to and turned from, once more in the direction of Grace standing beside him, resurrected by her husband's forgiveness and love. Their hands are clasped, their backs to the harm coming for them. Will they triumph, or will they pay for their sins with blood? I just hope the network allows me to see the answer that the writers imagine.

Reading Challenge:

 “Read” USA’s Satisfaction.

Writing Challenge:

Consider other characters whose names are significant to the nature of that character. Make a list of character names that allude to character traits because of the stories in which they first appear. Here’s a start: Rachel, Ruth, Jezebel, Scarlet.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Writers, Trust Your Readers to Think Critically and Imaginatively

Tana French’s The Secret Place offers one more lesson for writers: trust your readers.

Photo by Al Griffin
Early playwrights did. They believed that audiences would willingly suspend disbelief, forgiving and forgetting that the fourth wall or any walls for that matter were absent. They did not demand absolute realism. They agreed that the mind is capable of leaps and bounds, of imagining those walls and props.

Early fiction writers were more reluctant. They strove to add realism. Chaucer, for example, created a cast of characters on a pilgrimage, each one charged with inventing a story to win a steak dinner at journey’s end. This Prologue to the Canterbury Tales was his solid fourth wall—his excuse for a string of stories to follow.

Emily Brönte, several hundred years later, followed Chaucer’s paradigm. She added Nellie and Lockwood as a frame for her tale about love and revenge on Wuthering Heights. These two witnesses told Catherine and Heathcliff’s story, and like most fiction then, told it chronologically.

Several decades later, James Joyce experimented with internal and external dialogue interwoven in a coming-of-age story about artists, titled A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He was but one who pushed the boundaries of conventional fiction.

Today, writers trust their readers to be critical thinkers—well, some writers do, and for the most part, they are not writers producing popular fiction. They are not the Dan Browns on anyone’s best-seller list, but they are successful writers with their own set of devoted readers. They are Michael Chabon, Kate Atkinson, Dave Eggers, Cormac McCarthy, and Joy Kogawa.

Tana French reminded me of a writer’s faith in readers when she leapt from one place to another, one time to another, late in her more recent novel, The Secret Place. Holly Mackey is at home for a weekend away from Kilda’s, enjoying the camaraderie between her parents, reflecting upon friendships as her mother recounts meeting one of her closest pals from her own days at Kilda’s thirty years earlier. In the next paragraph, Holly is back at Kilda’s herself. French needs no transitional paragraph, no row of asterisks to delineate a change of scene within a single chapter (at least not in my electronic text). She doesn’t provide a narrator or break for a new chapter. She simply transitions from place and time into another place and time, and we follow.

Reading Challenge:

Read one or more of the National Book Award for Fiction finalists. Study the author’s techniques.

Writing Challenge:

Be clear, but trust your readers.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Lesson in Point-of-View Found in Tana French's The Secret Place

First-person narrators are frequent and common choices when authors tell stories. Seeing the story unfold through the eyes of one person intrigues readers who weigh and evaluate the trustworthiness and perspective of that narrator as they read. They participate in discerning truths.

Third-person omniscient narrators are also common. These allow the author to know the thoughts, histories, and desires of all the characters. Readers receive comprehensive information as they observe events unfolding, characters interacting.

Recent novels I’ve read violate what was once a writing-class rule to choose a narrative point of view and be consistent throughout the work. In Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon moves between the minds of one character after another as jazz moves from a core riff, one jazz musician after another embellishing upon that riff before withdrawing to allow another musician center stage. Consequently, the experience of reading Telegraph Avenue can be dizzying.

Two recent novels employ first and third person narration throughout. In Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, Middlesex and Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum. In each, the protagonist tells her own story but has the ability to see through the eyes and into the minds of other characters.

Tana French also uses both third and first-person narration in her recent novel, The Secret Place. An omniscient narrator tells the girls’ story, set in the recent past. The detective’s story is in first-person, told by one of the two detectives trying to solve the case.

Chabon, Eugenides, Atkinson, and French skillfully handle the narrative shifts and perspectives. Beginning authors may struggle to do so, but they should be thrilled to know their story-telling options have outstanding role models.

Reading Challenge:

Read the four books referenced in today’s post: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson, and The Secret Place by Tana French as studies in narrative technique.

Writing Challenge:

Select a sample of your own fiction. Write it from third-person point of view, then rewrite it in first person.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Tana French's The Secret Place: Two Tales for the Price of One

Amazon let me know the release date for Tana French’s newest novel, The Secret Place. Unable to wait a day or even two, I pre-ordered so that on that first day in September, the novel whispered through the air and landed. Bathed in the glow of Kindle’s light and French’s art, I let the dark fall as I read, enjoying parallel tales.

One tale opens the novel as a Prologue set in the crucible of a girls’ boarding school where four teens confront the dark and themselves. The first chapter introduces the second tale featuring detectives who re-open a case gone cold. What ties the two tales together is Holly Mackey, a girl determined to save her friend, one of the four teens bound by friendship and misguided oaths.

Al Griffin Photography
The novel unfolds with each chapter revealing more about the characters and the events that bring them together in The Secret Place. There the past transforms girls into adults because, too soon, they are penned in the consequences of their choices. Their truth stands stark under the moon’s soft light. And there, the detectives uncover another truth about the human heart, infinitely puzzling, a phantom not easily detected by facts in evidence or instincts dulled by the mask of civilization.

Unlike those British school boys imagined by Golding, alone on an uninhabited island, these British school girls still have the chains of society, the judgment of nuns, and the prison of peer pressure to restrain them, but it is the nature of youth to chafe, scoff, and dare. These girls do. They become criminals—just small time, risking little more than expulsion. They sneak out at night to revel in the night air and the freedom found in friendship. They retreat to their secret place, a place that shields them from view, a verdant place with the heady scent of hyacinth in the air, a place that bears silent witness to a senseless death, a boy sacrificed on the altar of idols, not gods.

The adult detectives are different from the girls, not in obvious ways such as age or self-awareness. Moran and Conway eschew the tight binding that friendships impose. Moran believes that close friends not only define a person, but confine him. Conway believes that friends are best kept at some distance from the work place; she has no interest in becoming pals with her co-workers. Both detectives are also from working class families, their schooling and youth far removed from the privileges afforded girls at Kilda’s.

In other ways, the detectives differ, one from the other. Conway expects something rotten at the core of privileged teen girls and finds it. Moran is more reluctant to believe in their rotten, petty little plots and machinations until he spends a day among them. He learns that even young girls are capable of schemes and careless behaviors. Even teen girls can set in motion events that end in murder.

French deftly moves between the girls’ past and the detectives’ present, chapter by chapter, until the two converge in the killer revealed. French sustains suspense by laying down tight stitches in an intricate embroidered design. We readers wince and cheer simultaneously in our understanding when that design becomes clear. Misunderstandings, misplaced loyalties, secrets, and raw need have conspired to end a boy. We readers hope his loss has not been in vain, that the survivors will not waste what understanding they’ve gained.

Reading Challenge:

Read Tana French’s novels: In the Woods, The Likeness, Faithful Place, Broken Harbor, and The Secret Place.

Writing Challenge:

Move from past to present, revealing antecedent action and flashbacks in chapters separate from chapters about the present.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

F. Scott Fitzgerald's Top 1%

Headlines and news pundits often refer to the 1%, a tiny slice of the American Pie granting flavors and satisfaction beyond the dreams of all other Americans. In fact, an online article by Peter Coy in BloombergBusinessweek, reports that a mere 16,000 Americans who enjoy the 1%-status and hold $6 trillion in assets, an amount equal to the total wealth of the bottom 2/3 of America’s other citizens. 

The 0.1% of those 1% enjoy the same unimaginable wealth as did the Ruling Class and Robber Barons of the 1920s. According to the same article in BloombergBusinessweek, “The richest 0.1 percent of the American population has rebuilt its share of wealth back to where it was in the Roaring Twenties” and, not surprisingly, if any one of us wishes to be richer than the rich, filthy rich, some might say, then we need to begin life with wealth. Indeed, this decade of the twenty-first century is a new gilded age, making Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, timely.

Tom and Daisy Buchanan are Fitzgerald’s versions of the 1%. Tom inherited wealth, and Daisy married it. They live in what some might call a palace set on Long Island’s East Egg, Fitzgerald’s fictional version of the North Shore or Gold Coast where grand homes allowed the upper crust to flee the stifling city in favor of sea breezes. They had the freedom to live apart from the huddled masses, and they did.

Tom is not averse to mixing it up with those masses. He has a common mistress who lives above her husband’s auto repair garage. She lies beside a husband with grease under his fingernails, but her true intimate partner is Tom who pays for less sooty residence in New York City where they can see each other and party.

Myrtle can pretend that she belongs to Tom and his class except, of course, when she slips, letting pretense inspire her to assert her will and desire. Then Tom puts her in her place, feeling empowered to slap her into submission, a privilege that derives from his gender as much as his wealth. Myrtle is a toy, an object of sexual desire; she is prey.

Myrtle longs to escape the filth of her circumstances. She longs to be free of common George and trade the life into which she was born and married for the one Tom Buchanan could offer. Her longing makes her vulnerable and stupid. She behaves as if Tom would depose Daisy and raise up Myrtle.

The sun sets before those who wish to climb the ladder to wealth attain
the top rung whereas for those born to wealth, the sun never sets.
Photo by Al Griffin
Jay Gatsby makes a similar error in judgment. He behaves as if money itself purges him of the sin of being born into humble circumstances, and thus, having acquired money, he presumes to think that Daisy will forsake Tom and the Buchanan name for Jay Gatsby and his dodgey reputation. He’s wrong.

The 1% make the rules, and one of those rules is that opportunities for admission into their company closed long ago. They alone reserve the right to grant temporary passage and camaraderie, but these are fleeting. Only those born to wealth may remain, and only those with inherited wealth deserve their regard.

Tom Buchanan’s politics could be taken from a right-wing playbook written today or from a European in the late nineteenth century when the common man had the daring and conviction to assert his will, tearing down old institutions and demanding a living wage as well as rights to vote and hold office. Tom, like most powerful people, worries that he and his kind will one day be overrun, and this worry makes him a bully.

Buchanan bullies Gatsby, emasculating him by showing him where Daisy’s loyalties lie. He bullies Myrtle by striking her, then failing to mourn her when her foolish notions put her in the path of an oncoming car. Tom callously and cleverly assigns blame for Myrtle’s death to Gatsby, thereby eliminating him too.

Fitzgerald reveals the ruling class to be irresponsible, undeserving, and blind to the needs of others, exactly the same charges leveled against them in 2014.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Writing Challenge:

Respond to these words from The Great Gatsby: “Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can!”

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Debauchery Then and Now: Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby on Film, Starring Leonardo DiCaprio Who Also Starred in the The Wolf of Wall Street

The more things change the more they stay the same. (French Proverb)

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill brought to life on film the world painted by Jordan Belfort in his book, The Wolf of Wall Street. Purported to be a true account of Belfort’s rise and fall on Wall Street, the book recounts Belfort’s devotion to sensual pleasures and the mind-numbing, conscience-crushing Siren Song of drugs.

Belfort’s ability to drink so much Christal and snort so much cocaine relied upon a stock scheme that made fools of buyers while enriching the con men who pitched the stocks. Belfort simply used, manipulated, and abused others, then applauded his own games of deceit with wine, drugs, and philandering.

Jay Gatsby, first envisioned by F. Scott Fitzgerald in a novel published in 1925, is similarly derelict in his duty. He too fulfills his American Dream by breaking laws. He has acquired great wealth in the service of criminal benefactors.

What redeems Gatsby, to some degree, at least in Fitzgerald’s book, is his detachment from debauchery and his motive. Gatsby doesn’t participate in hedonistic parties; he just pays for and stages them in order to establish himself as a wealthy man so that he can compete for the hand of Daisy Buchanan whom he adores from afar, first from his low station by birth and later, as a nouveau riche resident on the wrong side of the Long Island Eggs.

Economic inequality may be as perennial as flowers
and its allure just as fleeting.
Photo by Al Griffin
Gatsby’s selfless love for Daisy makes him less guilty even though his pursuit of Daisy, now a married woman, is adulterous. In his imagination, she has settled for Tom Buchanan because she thought Gatsby was lost to her. He believes they can reclaim their lost love and find immeasurable happiness together at last.

Gatsby’s tragedy is his belief in wealth as the ticket into society and Daisy’s arms. He has, as we readers know, chosen the wrong god to worship and emulate. His fate must end badly because he is wrong. Money is an addictive god, one not easily forsaken; Daisy, at least, will not, cannot forsake her god, and we pity poor Jay for being so naïve, so foolhardy, and so mistaken.

Belfort, on the other hand, makes wealth a god, then becomes that god because of his wealth. He wields power that impoverishes those who answer his call to fast money and greater wealth. He hurts all who come into contact with him and his minions.

Written 82 years apart, the books could have been published in the same year, a year when inequality shaped the nation and made people desperate for the Golden Ticket to prosperity and happiness. Both books have ties to Wall Street’s industry, and both reveal the baser instincts within us all. Most important, the books reveal the same lesson: money stains us; it alters our better natures, making us vulnerable to our own undoing, our depravity. The only character who doesn’t know this is Gatsby himself. He’d be shocked to learn that Daisy gives him up to a tragic end because the power and wealth that Tom Buchanan wields is relentless and seductive. For Gatsby, wealth is a means; for Daisy, wealth is a necessity. 

Surely it’s not coincidental that DiCaprio chose both characters as men he’d like to portray, and surely, the film versions of these books in a post-2008 world is intentional.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” The Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street as brought to life on film--although I warn you that Wolf is graphic and among the most R-rated films I’ve seen. I found it difficult to endure.

Writing Challenge:

Using a film or book you’ve enjoyed, explain how that film or book reveals the predatory instincts brought to life by greed. There are so many from which to choose. The first challenge will be to choose one. From the Bible to Chaucer to Aesop, warnings about the harms of money and greed are old and universal.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Felicitous Language in All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

What draws me onward when I begin a book? Sometimes it’s a touch of wry humor when I least expected to encounter it. Now and then, a character deftly drawn and sharply chiseled compels me to learn more. Often, it’s how the writer conducts the music of language. Consider this brief, early chapter in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See

From “The Bombers” (Doerr, Anthony. "The Bombers." All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel. EBook ed. New York: Scribner, 2014. 22. Print.)

“…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. . . . To the bombadiers, the walled city on its granite headland, drawing ever closer, looks like an unholy tooth, something black and dangerous, a final abscess to be lanced away.”

How could I refuse to read on? How could I not pause to savor the excellent use of rhetoric breathing life into nonhuman form?

The sea glides. Threads of light ascend. The walled city draws closer, resembling an abscess in need of a surgical strike.

Reading Challenge:

Read All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

Writing Challenge:

Transform (arguably) inanimate objects, animating them and giving them character as Doerr does.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

"Kill Your Darlings," says Stephen King

I began last week’s post with a reference to King’s nonfiction book about writing: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. In it, King offers his own take on Arthur Quiller-Couch’s advice:

"Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings." (Stephen King)

Photo by Al Griffin

King applied his murderous advice to flowery prose passages, to self-conscious applications of rhetorical devices. He meant that writers should not deploy tropes for the sake of appearing gifted. Writers should write in patterns and with language that jars the imagination, appeals to the ear as much as the mind, and sometimes is quite plain and as common as conversation.

In his latest novel, Mr. Mercedes (2014), King kills one of my darlings, an adorable character, a love interest, and the possibility of a future less burdensome. Like Annie Wilkes, I’d like a word with the author.

But I get it. Ideals are ethereal. Love is rarely easy or kind. Heartache is the more natural state and a powerful inspiration when one has some terrible work to finish.

So kill your darlings may also apply to beloved characters. After all, nothing gold can stay, can it?

Reading Challenge:

Read Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and Mr. Mercedes.

Writing Challenge:

Re-read an essay or piece of fiction authored by you. Be ruthless. Execute your darlings, your phrases and felicitous expression much beloved. Now how does the passage read?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Many writing teachers and online mentors have recommended Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I am one of them, and I’ve written about several of King’s novels over the years, in part because King has a sentimental place in my heart. My husband and I enjoyed talking about The Stand while sharing a picnic on a grassy knoll somewhere between wide, open wheat country and urban America. We’d spent several hours riding his BMW motorcycle from the city where we worked to a tiny place barely there. The contrasts between such places wound around to the contrasts in King’s book, and we talked and talked and talked until we had to use the headlight to see the road and hurry homeward.

We married later in the Fall, before Winter pushed the motorcycle into a garage, and we kept talking. Our lives took root, grew complicated, and King was present. His publishing dates aligned with our celebrations: Father’s Day, our birthdays in the Fall, Christmas. A new release often matched our gift-giving so we’ve acquired quite a King library for sentimental reasons.

Mirror Images in a Ford Super Deluxe 8
Al Griffin by Al Griffin Photography 

I just finished reading King's latest, Mr. Mercedes (2014), and I must recommend it, first because it fits into a niche of which I’m fond: police procedurals featuring a rumpled, case-weary detective who’s smarter than the average cop or criminal. Bill Hodges, the protagonist, is retired, and like many, isn’t sure what to do with his time. He eats too much, drinks now and then, watches more TV than anyone should, and contemplates ending it all out of sheer boredom more than deep despair.

A deranged killer rescues Hodges from his own mess by pricking both his conscience and his complacency. The killer from one of Hodges’ few unsolved cases writes a letter and lays down a challenge Hodges can’t refuse. The detective finds new life by renewing his purpose to find the man who drove a Mercedes through a crowd of people lined up for a job fair.

King delivers a sidekick in the form of Jordan, a high school boy bound for an Ivy League education. High-performing geek when he needs to be, Jordan is also a Regular Joe, full of humor and humility. He’s a man of action and daring in spite of his youth, and he’s a good son, thoughtful brother, and loyal friend to Hodges. He has all the qualities of a likable character and hero.

Eccentric, clever women are also a necessity in many crime-solving formulas, and King delivers her, too. Battered by bullying and broken signals to her brain, poor Holly proves to be invaluable in solving crimes and fighting evil. She becomes more whole by overcoming some of her own fears and protecting others more vulnerable than herself. And she completes the triumverate so often seen in books and movies where a few save the world for the rest of us. Luke, Hans, and Leia; Harry, Hermione, and Ron; Rooster Cogburn, LaBoeuf, and Mattie; even Bella, Edward, and Jacob team up to stop evil from taking root and more lives just as Hodges, Jordan and Holly do.

Although there be monsters that haunt the mind, predators that stunt the future for some, and killers that stalk those least able to defend themselves, there is little of the supernatural in this novel, and I like that. Intuition, instinct, and investigation are the powers that transform these characters.

But King must be King so he gives us a classic horror genre ending. Evil rises again and speaks. Just like in real life.

Reading Challenge:

Read Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King.

Writing Challenge:

When you’re taken to the woodshed, the best thing you can do is wait out the whipping and shut up (King 432).

Write your own advice, using the same word order as the sentence above.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Longmire's Cliff-Hanger Ending

I love movies and television! I watch great movies and mediocre programs; I watch documentaries dry and crackling, Westerns, action-packed Yippee Ki Yay films, celluloid noir, rom-com, dramedies, tragedies, high-brow, and slip-on-a-banana-peel low.

My mother is to blame. When we were young, she gave us twenty-five cents to spend almost the entire day every Saturday at the movies. Mid-morning, the cartoons and serials started. Feature films followed. Then it was time to wait for Mom who’d finished cleaning and buffing the house until it met her exhausting standards.

Watching the season finale of A & E’s Longmire, Summer 2014, reminded me of those serials and of Westerns in general. The program also caused me to reflect upon why I like the series so much and to add Craig Johnson’s Longmire series to my reading list.

Even though A & E has lost its way, in my opinion, by relying upon a series of reality shows featuring odd people, many of them exaggerated stereotypes, more scripted than real, I have enjoyed the rare and original programming that requires a narrative and art. The Glades, for example, canceled on a cliff-hanger, featured an ensemble cast that seemed to click, to like each other; that was its charm. Longmire, on the other hand, may be a fictional world populated by actors who despise each other at the end of the work day, but none of us would guess. These actors seem to have become the roles they portray; it’s easy to forget that they wear masks for the show.

Besides great performances, especially by Robert Taylor in the title role, the series relies upon good stories about flawed people stumbling and staggering through grief, misunderstanding, and crimes both venal and mortal. They speak words that sound natural and occasionally poetic. The thread holding them together, the one that is taut and admirable, is a moral one. Each character strives to live up to a standard and holds himself accountable.

Except for three consistent and stone-hearted villains, characters both minor and major confess in order to free their souls from wrongs committed by accident or with malice, and each acts to be different, better, and excellent. Thus, the story is a classic and one of my favorites: sin and redemption. Longmire sets sinners on the road to redemption through justice even as he struggles to find that road for himself.

Photo by Al Griffin
Aren’t most Westerns moral tales wherein a character longs to stand for something greater than himself? Perhaps this is his nature because he experiences that something in long stretches of prairie, plain, and peak, under “majestical skies fretted with golden fire” (Hamlet 2. 2.). He knows that he must somehow measure up to the grandeur that surrounds him.

As this season closed, however, Longmire stands at a crossroads. How he will proceed is the cliff-hanger. If he turns left, he will forsake the moral ideal; if he does not turn, he must close the door on a personal quest to right a wrong. Longmire's troubled deputy, Branch, also stands at a crossroads: bitter sorrow and the truth straight ahead or a soulless future to his left. Both men, however, seem able to fight demons from within and dangers without because both, above all else, strive for that something greater than themselves.

Reading Challenge:

 “Read” Longmire in Craig Johnson’s books or by streaming A & E’s Longmire.

Writing Challenge:

Defend the cliff-hangers used to bring in audiences. It worked for the film version of the final book in both the Twilight and Harry Potter series. It worked all those years ago to keep movie-goers coming back each week for the next installment. It’s how this season’s The Walking Dead ended and how Longmire closed its recent season. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

My Music

I love the music of the second decade of this twenty-first century almost as much as I love the music of my twenty-somethings well on into my thirty-somethings and beyond. My inner dancer comes alive with the beat, and she can move. She spins moves from R & B, from line dancing, Bollywood, and Britney as her inner demons find release as they always have, as she becomes another, the one she was then.

Country Joe and the Fish lobbing that fine old Anglo-Saxon word for plowing transports me. I shout back that oh, so common, multi-purpose F-word. I feel frayed denim under my heel, pressing between huararches and flesh. Beads bounce against unrestrained breasts, and my hair falls almost to my waist. I feel wasted and cynical and a child in the garden with Joni Mitchell’s friends singing of Woodstock (1970). I wait with the crowd in the Village for Joni to appear at Fillmore East or Albert King uptown at Columbia, and I sway in jubilation when Neil Armstrong walks on the moon.

In the next decade, Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive (1979) and Donna Summer’s She Works Hard for the Money (1983) inspire a strut within me. I feel my step lengthen, my chin lift. I’m proud to be rising from oppression, standing shoulder to shoulder with fellow feminists, our new choices and guaranteed freedoms before me.  Some of that freedom is the freedom to rock, and I grow antic, even frenzied when the 90s dawn in Thunderstruck. So animal, so primal. My hands adopt the posture of a poised cobra, my legs powerful and loose at the same time. I shake my locks and turn my face to the sun.
Music stitches the fabric of our stories.
What music tells your story?
Photo by AlGriffin
Loom on display at Camden County Museum,
Camden County, Missouri 2014

As the 90s grow older, so do I, and my listening library now includes Raffi’s Baby Beluga and Tom Chapin’s sweet lyrics to wish someone a happy birthday. But my daughter grows quickly into a fan of Matchbox 20. Together we attend a Matchbox 20 and LifeHouse concert in St. Louis. Later, listening to Rob Thomas sing with Santana, I add a Latin rhythm to my inner dancer, remembering the cha-cha at The Pink Barn and Skilly’s, two must-have experiences for budding teenagers in early 1960s Tulsa, OK where we learned to dance the Fox Trot, waltz, cha-cha, and swing; we also learned to hold sweaty hands and overcome our dread of the opposite gender.

When my daughter asked for the first and new CD by SmashMouth, I hesitated, wondering if the lyrics of Walkin' on the Sun and music video would prove too provocative. I tried to convince myself that images from Britney Spears’s sexualized, pigtailed school girl in a short-skirt over knee-high black boots singing Baby One More Time would not burn themselves into her psyche, but, of course, they did. Britney’s dance moves surely play within her when she hears that song from her past. How could she resist being transported back to that time, that place, that song as I am transported into different selves when music from my past plays?

I suspect that each of us rests inside Russian dolls of music. The largest doll is this decade, and the smallest is the early music that seemed to tell our stories, the ones that evoked angst and sorrow, the music that made it impossible to keep our feet and heads still.

Reading and Writing Challenge:

Peel back your musical layers as you listen to music from your past, and as you do, try to describe the dance you dance.  Or “read” You Can't Always Get What You Want. Write a poem revealing the images and emotions that the song evokes. Then "read" Kelly Clarkson's What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger. Write a second poem revealing the images and emotions evoked by this theme song.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Stories Break Down the Walls that Imprison Us

Florida’s Governor Rick Scott reversed himself on the subject of Medicaid expansion after losing his mother. He said the experience of her death provided him with new insights.

Republican Senator Rob Portman changed his mind about gay rights after his own son came out to him. Like Governor Rick Scott, personal experience had a profound effect upon the politics and perspective of this man.

Our minds, when struck by the lightning of new ideas, when jarred into seeing with fresh eyes, assimilate the new and expand. We can no longer cherish the old when the new insinuates itself into our consciousness. And we should fling open the doors to our minds to allow literature to strike as lightning does--suddenly, brilliantly, and blindingly.

Literature invites us to step upon a path,
trusting that at the other end, we will find light.
Step upon it again and again.
Enlightenment awaits.
Photo by Al Griffin
The work of Khaled Hosseini, about which I have often written, is lightning for me. I had never imagined seasons or snow in Afghanistan. I never dreamed that kite flying could carry such weight or be so beautiful. I couldn’t comprehend Shia and Sunni Muslims in Afghanistan or as immigrants in the U. S. I dared not think about the harsh injustice that Afghan women experience. Now, having read his novels, I understand more, I sympathize, and I empathize.

James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Eldridge Cleaver, Toni Morrison, and Ralph Ellison have a similar effect upon my heart and mind. How could one read of suffering and injustice, of rage and longing without being moved, forever changed.

I can wade into the deep waters of nationality, of race, of ethnicity, of cultural differences with and through literature. I can embrace the human condition, common across time and distance. I can appreciate differences as well. I can learn that grief emboldens some of us, breaks many of us, and for all of us, tries our spirits. I can guess that no family is without some degree of dysfunction and that few among us can resist the Siren’s Song of power. Literature allows me to grow wise beyond my years and provincial upbringing. Read, writers. You must read.

Reading Challenge:

 “Read” the Ted Talk linked here.

Writing Challenge:

Identify the book that struck you like lightning. Briefly explain how you were changed by it.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Scenes Behind at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

Thimble on a Spinning Wheel
Camden County (MO) Museum
Photo by Al Griffin

In Life after Life, Kate Atkinson, the author, considers the past lives lived by Ursula, reincarnated as herself again and again; each of her lives intersects with the same family, but detours onto different career or character possibilities. In Atkinson's debut novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1997), a Whitbred Book of the Year winner, Atkinson also explores the power the past has over the present and future through the life of Ruby Lennox.

An Early 20th-Century Dress on
Display at the Camden County (MO)
Museum, 2014
Photo by Al Griffin
From her conception to her mother’s death, Ruby seeks to know and understand Bunty, her mother, as flawed as the mother in D. H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking-Horse Winner.” Bunty Lennox does not deprive or deny her children, but they are her burden, especially poor Ruby, labeled as the pariah in her family, a role that shapes her character and stunts her growth.

Ruby is one of four siblings, all girls. The oldest, Patricia, rebels and finally leaves home without telling her mother or her sisters where she is. In fact, by breaking free of her family and remaining apart, Patricia overcomes her need to strike out or against her circumstances, especially being the oldest daughter of Bunty. Patricia emigrates to Australia, becomes a veterinarian, marries a fine man, and raises a family of her own before she reveals her whereabouts; even then, Patricia contacts Ruby, not Bunty.

Another woman, Lillian, one of Patricia and Ruby's ancestors, also escapes and stays away from her family for the rest of her life, only once re-connecting to tell the family she left behind not to worry. Both Patricia and Lillian flee angry, bitter adults. Both seek more of themselves, for themselves, and of life, of the few days we’re granted on this earth.

After Bunty dies and the surviving sisters, Patricia and Ruby, oversee her burial, they part once more. Patricia hopes to find the daughter she gave up before emigrating; Ruby plans to return to the Shetlands, a place that calls to her, in part because of ancient family roots there, but more because her own daughters have grown and gone on to their own lives, granting Ruby the freedom at last to live apart, to contemplate, and to write.

Before the sisters separate, Patricia advises Ruby to leave the past in the past, but Ruby counters, saying, “The past’s what you take with you.” And she’s right, of course. All the lives and choices and sorrows and triumphs that precede our own shape and define us, limiting our own options and opening up paths unavailable to others. How these lives shape us is the enigma, one that Ruby resolves as writers do. She says, “words are the only things that can construct a world that makes sense.”

A 19th-Century Spinning Wheel
on Display at the
Camden County (MO) Museum
Photo by Al Griffin
That declaration is the basis for the novel as Atkinson switches from the present to the matriarchs and world events from previous generations. Flashbacks and antecedent action are given the status of extensive footnotes, intruding upon the present narrative to give us insight into the actions and reactions of those in the contemporary story. Thus Atkinson unravels the histories of a family. She invents dioramas through which we stroll in order to glimpse the past that has made them who and what they are today.

Reading Challenge:

Read Scenes Behind the Museum by Kate Atkinson.

Writing Challenge:

Tell a story imitating Atkinson’s technique. Use footnote chapters to reveal significant antecedent action and/or flashbacks.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Fiction Features Crashes and Collisions

Even the best fall down sometimes
Even the wrong words seem to rhyme
Out of the doubt that fills my mind
I somehow find you and I collide
("Collide" by Kevin Griffin and Howie Day)

Photo by Al Griffin

Another of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories put me in mind of collisions and convergences--those stories that feature one person stumbling across another in a place with a pulse, a history, and energy to change both. The movie Crash does thatPeople stumble across one another, converging in Los Angeles places both electric and fragile. They crash, often leaving humanity crouching in fear.

Fitzgerald lived during a time of convergences and collisions that began in the last half of the nineteenth century when Russia, the Balkans, Austria, France, England, and Germany jostled for influence and power, each trying to defend its domestic and foreign ground while expanding its colonial ground and imperial might. Simultaneously, national and socialist forces tried to stake claims on the politics, economics, and hearts of people. World War I was a result. Fitzgerald’s story takes place after those WWI soldiers have come home, relieved to be alive, stained by the brutal truths witnessed, and surprised to find themselves unsure of their ground, of where they belong.

Fitzgerald’s "May Day" brings together Gordon Sterrett, a lost and penniless veteran once voted Best Dressed at Yale; Rose and Kelly, soldiers just looking for a place to belong and failing that, a drink; and Gordon’s old girlfriend, Edith, a debutante ready to marry and sister to Harry, a socialist newspaperman. These people collide through a Gamma Psi fraternity ball at the grand Biltmore Hotel near the newspaper office where Harry works into the early morning hours.

Sterrett has been reduced to begging money from men who were once his equals, and they despise him. His state is unseemly, unmanly, and unfamiliar. Only his paramour, Jewel, has any pity for him, and he’s ashamed to be with her.

Rose and Kelly, cut loose from service, simply don’t know what to do with themselves. They drift, hungry and thirsty, without employment or direction, flirting with a group of anti-Bolsheviks bent upon beating the socialist out of anyone.

Edith has the same distaste for penury as Gordon’s former classmates. She doesn’t like mess, and she doesn’t like being touched if the touch hasn’t been solicited or worse, if it endangers her perfectly powdered skin and perfectly coiffed hair. She finds the mess that is Gordon even more offensive than being touched. Like others of her class and breeding, she turns her back on his want and raw need, preferring to dwell in an illusion of gentility and plenty. She still hopes her brother Harry will come to his senses about his true place in society.

Two die as a consequence of Fitzgerald’s convergence, and both as a result of falling from a great height, one figurative and the other literal. The fatal collision of classes on another May Day when workers rose to stake their claims upon the lands and when anti-socialist fears transformed men into mobs is re-told well by Fitzgerald.

Reading Challenge:

Read “May Day” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Pay close attention to the story threads stitched together deftly.

Writing Challenge:

Ask yourself what if three very different people bumped into each other. What might be the result?