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.