Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Collected Works of . . .

“We are not quite novels. … We are not quite short stories. … In the end, we are collected works.”--A. J. Fikry to Maya in The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Facebook and Buzzfeed often ask us about our favorite characters, comic book heroes, songs, lyrics, novels, and films. Those surveys are fun. They are also ways to hone marketing pitches for us.

All that data. All that information. Sifted. Sorted. Chaff set aside for another campaign; wheat ground into a tasty bread for our social media feed.

Still much truth lies in both baskets of wheat and chaff. In the end, we are collected works, an accumulation of not only our DNA, but our experience, in books and outside of them. Who then are you? Who am I?

I am rhyme, oft repeated from cradle and beyond: 

There was a little girl
With a curl in the middle of her forehead
And when she was good,
She was very very good,
But when she was bad,
She was horrid. (Longfellow)

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear
Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair
Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy, was he?

I scream. You scream. We all scream for ice cream. (Waring Pennsylvanians, 1925)

Scoops Banana Split, Camdenton, MO

Starlight, star bright,
First star I see tonight
I wish I may, I wish I might
Have this wish I wish tonight. (Anonymous)

* * * * *

The sounds and music intriguing enough to inspire a desire for more and more complexity, more solemnity, more exquisite beauty. I found all I desired in Robert Frost, W. H. Auden, Rita Dove, Donald Hall, and Shakespeare.

* * * * *

I am also drama, oft read, less often performed:

The Spider and the Fly, one of the poems Mother performed for elocution contests. She loved the sly nature of the spider, the fun of building suspense, and the metaphor leading to a moral.

Hamlet, another of Mother’s favorites. There is method in my madness found its way into our common, everyday language at home, and when I discovered the origin of the phrase many years later, I began a life-long journey to read, re-read, and understand the poor afflicted fellow. Such complexity in a single character helped me appreciate ambiguity, nuance, conflict, and sorrow.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, experienced first as a member of a New York audience, then later as a reader, and again later on film. The wit, the scholarship, the fresh retelling of Hamlet’s plight, the existential angst--all these struck harmonious chords and spoke of truths.

Jesus Christ Superstar. Irreverent. Permission to be gobsmacked and irreverent simultaneously. Plus rock and roll.

The Serpent with The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” as the score. Story without words. Words in the service of story.

* * * * *

I am short stories--never my first, go-to reading choice, but always a pleasure:

In no particular order: J. D. Salinger, Eudora Welty, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, William Faulkner, William Styron, Jhumpa Lahiri, Roald Dahl, Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Penn Warren, James Joyce, Saki--those authors are just the first to come to mind.

* * * * *

 I am novels--too many to list--so many from each decade of my life:

Wuthering Heights. Who knew the class divide could be so cruel, love so controlling and bitter? I didn’t until this book imprinted on my psyche.

Old School by Tobias Wolff. I read this one on the advice of a colleague. I read it reluctantly. I was wrong to hesitate. Wolff delivers compelling characters and felicitous prose.

Coming Up for Air by George Orwell, We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, and so many more move toward endings ripe in ambiguity and wisdom. They are as complex as Hamlet and as lyrical as fine poetry. With the exception of Orwell, these are but the more memorable titles from the last few years in the life of a reader.

Reading Challenge:

Read the titles included in this post.

Writing Challenge:

Explore who you are and what you know by listing the poetry, plays, short stories, and novels you love.