Thursday, May 29, 2014

Shrews and Curmudgeons: Vocabulary to Inspire Story Ideas

A scold is a person who disturbs the public and private peace, one who criticizes others all too often using an angry tone. The online dictionary is careful not to attribute a gender to scold, but since the word’s debut in the Middle Ages, scold is a word often used to describe a wife, woman, nag, fishwife, fury, harpy, shrew, vixen, termagant, and virago.

I saw a scold today, but this one had feathers. She was a Mallard hen, and she had plenty to say to and about the two sleek males trying their best to claim her. She hopped in and out of the water, onto and off the dock, evading them. She preened and fluffed her feathers when her suitors distracted each other, one swimming furiously behind the other in an attempt to run off the competition. Once plenty of water lay between the two boys, the trailing bird turned to swim back to the lady of his affection. She set up a complaint once more. She just hadn’t made up her mind and said so in loud duck language.

Mallard Hen
Photo by Al Griffin
The boys couldn’t be called curmudgeons exactly, a word used to describe men who disturb the peace both public and private, the ones complaining about the neighbors and the world going to Hell in a hand-basket. You know the ones. They stand on their porches or in their driveways and shout about basketballs thumping against houses, children squealing and giggling in play, lawnmowers droning too early and too late. Curmudgeons complain about pretty much anything in the belief that they know better and deserve better.

According to online dictionary resources, curmudgeons may also be called bears, bellyachers, complainers, crabs, cranks, fussers, gripers, grousers, growlers, grumblers, grumps, mutterers, sour-pusses, and whiners. They are the most unpleasant companions, but those Mallard Drakes were doing all in their power to ingratiate themselves before the female. They strove to be pleasant companions, but I swear, in my opinion, they seemed non-plussed and befuddled by the female’s lament. They just didn’t know what else to do to please her. They seemed to believe that just being Mallards Drakes should be sufficient.

And therein lies the problem that literature adores. Is it enough to be yourself, or should we struggle toward higher standards in order to make ourselves worthy? The scold thinks so. She demands more and better of her mate. That’s probably why curmudgeons are so often alone.

Reading Challenge:

Read Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew or watch 10 Things I Hate about You. Does the male protagonist amend his curmudgeonly ways in order to win the shrew? Does the female protagonist become different in order to win her curmudgeon?

Writing Challenge:

Noah’s wife, Uxor, and Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, both characters from the Middle Ages, were often depicted as shrews. Explain the reasons each woman might have complained as that Mallard Hen did.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Fairy Tale to Please: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Remember that moment at the end of Pretty Woman when Richard Gere as the handsome prince asks Julia Roberts as a modern-day Cinderella what happens after the Prince rescues the Princess? “She rescues him right back,” Julia says.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is a contemporary fairy tale with plenty of people in need of rescuing and princes of both genders on hand to save the day when all may live happily ever after--as long as Fate allows. We are mere mortals, you may recall.

Fikry, like Cinderella and so many other fairy tale characters, has lost the person upon whom he depends for happiness and joy. He’s a widower, confined to a business of his wife’s making, a bookstore on an island hard to reach even with a fine boat. He lives alone, unrepentant about being a curmudgeon, occasionally worried about drinking himself to death.

Into Fikry’s life comes Maya, a toddler with thoughts and understanding well beyond her age. She adores books--the smell of them, the images in them, and the feel of them. She adores hearing books read to her, especially the soft voice of empathy that Fikry soon cultivates for her. She, like fairy godmothers and magical creatures in the forest and serendipitous wood cutters in Grimms’ world, saves Fikry from his suffering. He stumbles into sleep without the aid of alcohol and into a new awareness of the deep, universal caring that binds strangers together--all thanks to a little girl in need of parenting.

The police officer who takes Fikry’s report about Maya’s sudden inexplicable presence is also in need of rescuing. He’s divorced and lonesome. Fikry’s sister-in-law, married to a philanderer and quasi-talented writer, needs release from her misery, too. These too stumble and falter, but find each other, each one rescuing the other with forgiveness and selfless understanding.

A quirky bookseller needs a hand up as well. She’s engaged but to a man unsuitable. He’s not a reader, and she is an avid reader, a lover of words, just like Fikry. He needs an adult to love, too. A toddler’s love may restore him to a state of well-being, but the love of a woman enriches his life immeasurably and that of Maya’s.

These characters enjoy a Cinderella ending, one that readers anticipate with smiles on their faces as they read of conflicts, complications, misunderstandings, and denouements. Practiced readers will also enjoy the prelude to every chapter: a short story that ties to the events in Fikry’s life by a thread so delicate that it’s nearly invisible. These stories are Zevin’s device, but they also become a reading list for little Maya as she grows. From them, she will learn much about fiction and people--just as Zevin’s readers do.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. It’s a must!

Writing Challenge:

Choose a short story of which you are especially fond. Recommend it to others in a short essay just as Fikry does for Maya.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

John Steinbeck's Winter of Our Discontent

I read a lesser known Steinbeck work, Winter of Our Discontent, when I was about fourteen, far too young to comprehend the spurns and turns that can bring a man to unleash greed and trade his good name for material return. Now, after fifty more years of experience, I still don’t comprehend wholesale self-slaughter for short-term, personal gain, but I’ve witnessed plenty of it. The lives of Ken Lay, Bernie Madoff, Jordan Belfort, President Richard M. Nixon, and a few less famous folk attest to the Siren’s Song of money and fame.

Photo by Al Griffin
Time and winds that blow chill had to mark me before I could fully appreciate the sorrow explored in Winter of Our Discontent. Let that stand as a lesson to us all: we encounter stories and tales before we need them, and we may need to revisit them in order to receive their gifts.

As Gabrielle Zevin observes through her character, A. J. Fikry, in The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

“…me-also-thinks my latter-day reaction speaks to the necessity of encountering 
stories at precisely the right time in our lives. Remember, Maya: the things we respond to at twenty are not necessarily the same things we will respond to at forty and vice versa. This is true in books and also in life” (Zevin, Gabrielle. The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2014. Kindle Ed.)

So read and read again. Choose favorite works and return to them in every decade of your life. Let them live anew through the new perceptions you have acquired in the intervening years.

Reading Challenge:

Read one book you haven’t read in at least ten years.

Writing Challenge:

Compare and contrast the insights you had about a book when you first read it to those you now have upon re-reading it.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Kate Atkinson Explores Deja Vu in Life after Life

I’ve often walked into a room or simply spun 180-degrees to find myself in a familiar place where I know the people and what they are about to say. Those brief glimpses into an unknown past or unseen future are unsettling. Time and reality have somehow become supercharged.

These moments are best known as deja vu, a French phrase meaning already seen. Such moments are inexplicable. Some believe they are trace memories of past lives, and this is the belief that informs Kate Atkinson’s excellent novel, Life after Life.

Ursula, the protagonist, lives and dies and lives again many times through the course of the novel. The character’s name, derived from the Latin word, ursa, meaning bear, is a diminutive form and means Little Bear, the term of endearment chosen by Ursula’s father, Hugh. More important, perhaps, are the traits attributed to people named Ursula; they are thought to be intuitive, contemplative, with “a desire to understand and analyze the world they live in, and to learn the deeper truths.”

Image of Buddha
Atkinson’s Ursula is indeed intuitive. She’s often called an old soul in a child’s body and just as often, senses the hazards that carried her into the darkness in a previous life. To the great delight of readers—at least, this one—Ursula strives to understand her world and others in it. She lives, life by life, toward deeper truths. But in one of those incarnations the truth of déjà vu is terrifying, described by Atkinson with the following words:

“…suddenly the terror descended, swift as a predatory hawk. An anticipatory dread of something unknown but enormously threatening. It was coming for her, . . . . She felt dizzy and there was a veil of fog in front of her face. Like bomb dust, she thought, yet she had never been bombed” (Atkinson, Kate. Life after Life: A Novel. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2013 Print. 504.)

Fear not, however, Atkinson’s novel is not dark and fraught with trauma. The drama therein involves the sorrows and woes that exist in every life, but it never oppresses or feels too heavy to bear. We learn Ursula will live again and anew, each time perfecting herself, each time growing in her understanding.

Ursula does not survive infancy until she does. She almost never has children of her own, and when she does, she lives as an outcast. She is always one of the smarter people in the room, but sometimes emotional needs prey upon her, rendering her vulnerable. Usually her companions and lovers are worthy of her. Often the work she does has value. And in all these incarnations, she reminds us of the questions that plague our dreams: What if I had taken that job, not this one? What if I had not turned from him? What might my life have been then?

Ursula slowly discovers, as we all do to one degree or another, that she is a witness, one charged with the duty of discovering one’s purpose, and for each of us, that includes how we might serve the greater good. Ursula arrives at her purpose, embracing it with love and in the knowledge that “…the practice of it makes it perfect” (Atkinson, Kate. Life after Life: A Novel. New York: Little, Brown, & Co., 2013. Print. 509.)

Reading Challenge:

Don’t fail to read Life after Life: A Novel. It will satisfy your desire to imagine different outcomes and endings for beloved characters.

Writing Challenge:

Write a different outcome for one of your favorite characters.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Sister Heroes: Tris and Ripley

Ellen Ripley, the protagonist of the 1979 movie, Alien, and its sequel in 1986, Aliens, may be unfamiliar to contemporary readers and movie-goers, but I assure you, Ripley is one of the all-time favorite female heroes and an ancestor to Tris, the protagonist of Divergent. Both women are exemplary dystopian heroes, and both should inspire young women everywhere.

Ripley, you may remember, is the tough Science Officer who could have saved the Nostromo and her crew if only they had followed protocol and Ripley's advice instead of Captain Dallas's. The Captain had good intentions, but he allowed the agent of his crew’s death to board his ship and stalk them. Ripley, in a story featuring each of the five types of conflict, survives by thinking on her feet and overcoming fear.  

Ripley’s antagonists include an Android loyal to a profiteering Company willing to sacrifice a crew in order to retrieve a living, breathing weapon. Ripley also faces that terrifying potential weapon: an alien monster seeking living hosts to nourish its larvae. It exists for no other reason than to propagate itself.
Equally important, Ripley faces outer space where she cannot survive without a space ship, one free of monsters and alien predators. Ripley must fight Nature itself for a safe haven. More important, perhaps, is Ripley’s struggle to transform herself from an ordinary human, endowed with fitness and strength, but neither equal to an Android nor supernatural beast, and summon extraordinary gifts in order to survive.

Tris also faces each type of conflict, beginning with her struggle to know her own nature and choose the path right for her. To do so, she must also reject her parents’ faction and fight for a place within a new one. Her personal struggle takes place within the context of strife between the factions. This strife reshapes Tris’s world into one unfit for most humans, causing many residents to question their purpose and to rely upon faith for comfort and direction.

Like Ripley, Tris works from her head and her gut. She’s resourceful, stronger than she ever imagined she could be, and capable of facing down her fear in order to survive. She loses those who are dear to her as does Ripley, and neither woman has the luxury of time to grieve. Both must move on; their own and the lives of others depend upon them doing so.

Tris, however, escapes in the arms of the man she loves, the man who loves her. Ripley returns to stasis with only a cat for company on her long, long trip home. Neither woman is sure of her future. Each one ventures into an unknown, but they do so with eyes clear and spines straight.

Reading Challenge:

Read Alien, Aliens, and Divergent, book and film. Note the conflicts each female protagonist faces and the similarities in the characters.

Writing Challenge:

Write a character sketch for a female protagonist whose ancestors are Ripley and Tris.