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?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Why We Should Love Jane Eyre

An online forum charged back and forth about the virtues of young adult literature, some even going to the edge and over the cliff, arguing that classic literature needs to be retired, the canon replaced by young adult authors. Countering that argument are teachers and readers who believe that some young adult literature does not rise to the level of timeless literature, that in style and expression alone, it falls short. I’m in that camp, but I also recognize the appeal of young adult literature. I have devoted two posts to a self-published series about Noah Zarc’s adventures and four to Divergent. Other posts prove that I’ve fallen in love with television series, including Breaking Bad, and films such as 2010’s version of True Grit. So I’m not a classic literature snob, but let us not forsake the classics.

Charlotte Brontë’s nineteenth-century novel Jane Eyre was one of the classic titles cited by forum respondents, but not for the reasons I believe it ought to be offered and when appropriate, taught. Jane Eyre continues to resonate with modern readers. It also has the appeal of many young adult stories. Part waif and orphan, needy and aggrieved, Jane, like many young adult protagonists, dwells on the fringes of society, but also like many young adult protagonists, she perseveres, finding her way as a good student and teacher, letting wit and talent guide her. Why wouldn’t teachers and adults want to share Jane’s story with today’s youth?

Surely the sun'll come out tomorrow.
Photo by Al Griffin
Jane’s story inspires anyone who ever doubted her worth, was bullied, and treated harshly. She’s condemned to live with a raisin-hearted aunt who has so little control of her own emotions that she resents a child for being in circumstances beyond her control. And that’s so characteristic of the nineteenth century, isn’t it? Children were in need of the rod lest they be spoiled. They were sold into slavery as chimney-sweeps, condemned to filth, lung disease, and early deaths. They were warehoused and worked to earn their keep upon this earth if they became orphaned. So Jane Eyre’s story teaches us about a past which we’ve escaped.

Or have we? In some places on this earth, children have no childhood. They labor in harsh, wretched conditions. Children who ought to be in elementary classrooms descend to work coal mines in India. In Afghanistan, a four-year-old joins his siblings to work off their father’s debt. And countless kids end up consigned to foster care or orphanages because their parents are addicts or abusive. Jane Eyre’s story may be set in a different time and place, her circumstances different, but her story allows us to glimpse the inner heartache and countless sorrows endured when parents cannot or will not carry their children to safe harbor.

So debate not, please. Seek out titles that are timeless because the human beings made manifest in those titles are our neighbors, family, and friends no matter what sort of dress or technological advances may characterize their age.

Reading Challenge:

Read Jane Eyre and all seven of the Harry Potter novels by J. K. Rowling. He’s another orphan and the star protagonist who perseveres against overwhelming odds.

Writing Challenge:

Write a poem of tribute to the child who not only endures, but triumphs over unimaginable sorrows.