Sunday, January 25, 2015

TCWT January Blog Chain: Meaning and Magnificence

Oh, you thought you were done with me this month. You were wrong. Thanks to Teens Can Write Too! I’m participating in the blog chain AGAIN because John was kind enough to say it was okay.

Our Marvelous Hosts

This month’s prompt was suggested by me, and goes thusly:

“What is something you feel is generally written well in fiction? What is something you feel is generally written poorly?”

Obviously, every author brings everything they can to their work. It’s an agreement of our trade, and no strange one at that. We write because we must, but when we publish something, it is also something we tend to take pride in.

I’m not a huge fan of the phrase ‘labor of love,’ just because it sounds like an excuse. “I didn’t really learn how to use exclamation points or a spell checker before I published this, but, hey, I really put my heart into it!” Um, no. I’d rather read book from people who’ve learned the craft and can write a good story.

Anyway, authors want to write good stuff. The books that are famous and the books that we adore have something in common—they are artful, somehow. Sometimes it’s symbolism, or archetypes, or thematic elements. Other times it’s character arcs or certain plot devices that enamor us.

Either way, every book is going to make an assertion, and every book brings something to the table, however small.

Nor does art fail to breach genre or era.

A book like The Handmaid’s Tale talks about human rights, religion, and the role of women in society. It was published in 1985.

But then you’ve got Jane Eyre. It talks about individuality and duty, religion, and the role of women in society. It was published in 1847.

And then you’ve got The Unwind Dystology. The last book just came out, but Unwind came out in 2007. And it talks about human rights (especially to one’s own body), religion, and the role—no, the power—of teens in society. And the nice thing is, Neal Shusterman writes about the girls and the guys (so in a way, he’s just saying that the role of women is up-close-and-personal with that of men).

via Goodreads
(Also, I talked about women’s role in fiction a few weeks ago, so look at me following up on my own ideas.)

Every book brings something, and the books that last tell us is that writing is full of incredible meaning and power. A writer will never cease to write until a point that matters has been made, and well made at that.

It isn’t enough, though. Not for me.

Yeah, I like books that are symbolic (blatantly so, because that’s not my forte) and have thematic elements. Sure, sometimes it’s necessary we use these ideas so that everyone understands our point.

via Goodreads
Other times, I think authors can write the heart out of a good book—they’ll talk about life and its meaning
and our purpose and mankind, and then they’ll forget to give the story a soul.

The soul of a book is imperative for it to resonate with me, more than I can say in words.

Part of the reason that I love Neal Shusterman is that I feel what he wants me to feel. I know what those kids feel. I’ve never been that desperate, and I have never once thought my parents would think my life worth more in a divided state than whole. But I feel and know that anger, that resentment, the grief of the betrayal and the shame that comes with it all.

Like that, but with every book. My reaction. The memory. The feeling when you’re laying on your bed at
via Goodreads
three in the morning with tears in your eyes and a pit of despair in your heart—but just enough hope to see you through ‘til the morning. There’s joy and pain. Not too much, but enough. There’s a soul in books, that makes you remember them and makes you believe that this isn’t fiction at all—this is real life.

And like Elie Wiesel said, “Some stories are true that never happened.”

More than anything, books are a relationship. A contract, if you will, between the writer and reader.

We never read alone.

That is, unless the book doesn’t have a soul. And I think soul is different for every person. I didn’t have much a feel for "Fences" by August Wilson. I do not think I’m going to rush to read a book by William Manchester in a hurry. And I got bored reading The Hunger Games.

I was bored, but other people fell in love. Our taste in souls varies from person to person. It’s amazing.

Yes, we’re good at tackling the important stuff, the fragments imbued with meaning. Bring it to life and making it last? Well, we all need something to strive for.

Flickr Credit: Aaron Moraes

What do you think is written well, or poorly? And, if you’re in the blog chain, drop your link so I don’t forget to come by on your day!

Be sure to check out the rest of the chain!

5th While I Should Be Doing Precal

6thJasper Lindell's Other Blog

7thThe Upstairs Archives and Against the Shadows

8thMiriam Joy Writes

9thThe Ramblings of Aravis

10thSometimes I'm a Story

11th – Kira Budge: Author

12th – The Little Engine That Couldn't

13th –

14th –

15th – literallylovely

16thHorse Feathers

17thJulia the Writer Girl

18thButterflies of the Imagination

19thGalloping Free


21st –

22ndThe Road Goes On

23rdClockwork Desires

24th –


26thA Note From the Nerd

27thInsanity, Inc.

28thUnikke Lyfe

29th – (We’ll announce the topic for next month’s chain.)

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Becoming the Audience

Flickr Credit: Brett Sayer
There is something about being in an audience that I love.

Maybe I’m watching Les Misérables, and falling in love with the story all over again. Maybe I’m watching my high school’s production of “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Maybe I’m sitting next to my dad at “The Importance of Being Earnest” and enjoying my time with him.

Here is the tally.

5 Musicals: Wicked (twice), Les Mis, The Addams Family, Jekyll and Hyde, and Evita

1 Play: “The Importance of Being Earnest”

5 High School Productions: Annie, “Strange Boarders,” Legally Blonde, “Arsenic and Old Lace,” Pirates of Penzance

1 College Production: My Fair Lady

And I’ve been in many other situations where I’m in the audience. Recitals, concerts, talent shows, church, classrooms, an interactive mystery performance, movie theaters. From them I’ve learned one thing.

Being in a live audience is AWESOME.

For the sake of brevity, we’ll use two of my favorites: The Addams Family and “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

Flickr Credit: Eva Rinaldi

What is awesome about The Addams Family is that the audience gets so involved. They put in jokes that everyone laughs at, and you are compelled to laugh along. You’re part of a bigger body. Whether you’re a pair of sisters out for an afternoon or a pair of strangers in Hawaiian shirts and cowboy hats (we played I Spy, and yes, three rows apart just below us, it actually happened) there are parts of the musical that almost bind you to the cast.

My favorite part, though, is at the beginning and the end, when they play the Addams Theme: dun-dun-dun-dun—SNAP SNAP! Everyone joins in. Like, everyone is helping add to the music. And if you’ve never snapped with a couple hundred other people at a musical, it is great fun.

Flickr Credit: Kurt Magoon

“Earnest” was a little different, because rather than the theater downtown it was the cultural center in the city over. You could see everyone’s face in the crowd, and because the theater was so small we strangers were more tightly bound. Again, Wilde’s attempt was to make us laugh, and the actors can milk that. They did.

And my favorite part was when Gwen’s mom forgot her lines and we just kept on going, because we were up-close-and-personal.

At Wicked we all said, “Oooooh,” during the cat fight, and laughed.

During Legally Blonde, the sexy UPS guy drew cheers from the audience as he looked on and smiled.

Even when we got stuck in line during the break at Les Mis, I found myself being part of a larger audience as I listened to opinions and ideas of productions that came before.

When you’re in an audience, you are one with the people around you. Their reactions incite your reactions, and their tears become yours. You act as a functional unit, almost, and even though you will never learn another person’s name and may very well go on oblivious to their existences, you are sharing emotions, thoughts, and feelings with these people as one, and that creates a greater connection, even if for a single moment, than any fangirling experience could give you on the Internet.

Yes, being in an audience is wonderful. It’s great to go with friends and to experience it as a group. And admittedly, one has to dream of a currently nonexistent boyfriend who might enjoy The Lion King or Fiddler on the Roof or “Othello” in equal measure.

But despite the familiarity, it is the parts that make the whole that make the audience special and unique.

What has been your favorite audience experience? (And, what productions would you love to see someday?)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Glow from the Silver Screen

Hello, dear Reader. Before we begin my semi-monthly essay on Life, the Universe, and Everything, I'd like you to go over to this link (opens in a different tab) and listen to this song. It's about 11 minutes, but it helps you better understand the topic I will discuss. You don't have to listen, but you should. It probably won't make sense, but after this post it will.

*     *     *

Last year (by that I mean my sophomore year), I became obsessed with what the genre-ists refer to as noir fiction. The "hard-boiled", crime detective novels from the 1930s, classic movies from Hollywood's Golden Era, with tough-talkin' detectives with trench coats and square jaws, like Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre!

Crime noir is a weird genre. The dialogue is very different than what you might expect. It's very sparse, like Hemingway, but it's vivid, lurid and lusty (as lusty as 1930s standards can get you. It's all good, though.) Consider the first sentences from my favorite noir novel, The Thin Man:

"I was leaning against the bar in a speakeasy on Fifty-second street, waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping, when a girl got up from the table where she had been sitting with three other people and came over to me. She was small and blonde, and whether you looked at her face or her body in powder-blue sports clothes, the result was satisfactory. "Aren't you Nick Charles?" she asked.
I said: "Yes".
She held out her hand. "Dorothy Wynant. You don't remember me, but you ought to remember my father Clyde Wynant. You-"

Reading crime fiction, especially by the two masters of the genre, Raymond Chandler (who's best known for The Big Sleep and his Phil Marlowe stories) and Dashiell Hammett (who wrote the above novel, The Thin Man, and perhaps the most evocative of them all: The Maltese Falcon.) Everyone knows about these two, and people usually enjoy Chandler's stories more. But I'm a Hammett fan and I always will be. Chandler portrays the pointlessness of it all, the hard rugged life, and Hammett does too, but he makes it more witty and glamorous. Not too much, though. But The Thin Man, for example, has characters going in and out of speakeasies faster than you can turn the page.

Hammett does a good job of recreating the stereotypes and fantasies we have of the era. You watch Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, His Girl Friday, all these great classic Golden-Age films with the greats: Douglas Fairbanks, Clark Gable, Maureen O'Sullivan, Lauren Bacall (who just died last year), Ingrid Bergman...If you're like me, you want to enter the fantasy. You want to become a Prohibition era detective, like Hammett's "blond satan" Sam Spade, who's always digging for the truth, if you'll pardon the pun, or or a sweet dame who's in a spot of trouble but turns out to be a traitorous beauty, like Brigid O'Shaughnessy.

*     *     *

The film poster to the right looks like something from the '30s, am I right? Nope. The movie was made in 1974. It is perhaps one of my favorite movies, not just about gangsters and detectives, but of all time. I mentioned before how I really didn't focus on the pointlessness and despair of crime noir, but Chinatown does an excellent job of showing it to people. The life of Detective Gittes is hard, from tracking down murderers to dealing with dead people and an unstable woman. In the end, nothing matters: justice can never be served but with blood and revenge. "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
The point is this: crime noir gets to show us two sides of an era: the glitzy, svelte allure of speakeasies and Humphrey Bogart, and the harsh, rough and tumble lifestyle of Jack Nicholson getting his nose slashed up.
Overall, crime noir is a good genre if you enjoy history and classic movies, and gangsters, and trench coats. As I said before, it's a hard genre to get into. There's codes and jargon for everything. It was a hard life to live back then, and sparse dialogue and snappy comebacks are a result of that. (As was heavy drinking and excessive smoking, but that's neither here nor there.) XD
*     *     *
The song I had you listen to was full of sound clips from The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart. There were numerous other references to silent-era films and Golden Age greats. Yes, it may have seemed odd and confusing. The song is a good one, though, especially the ending: the ending shows how movies are powerful. If you've seen Hugo Cabret, you know this: the fantasies and delusions of actors on the silver screen are inspiring. We go to the movies for release, to see characters who may be like ourselves, or ones who live completely different lives than our own. We go to the movies to indulge our curiosity, to experience the thrill of seeing scenes that make us go "What if?" What if we met our lifetime love on the Titanic? What if we were all connected to a computer matrix mainframe? What if we were silent-era movie actors who were replaced by the "talkies"?
Movies are amazing things. They really are. Like books, they can show us so much more than what we know, take us to worlds afar. This is what is so amazing about media.
Fantasy would fill my life, and I love fantasy so much...

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Cyclical Nature of Things

Recently, I was forced to lie abed for almost a week. I had a cold, which developed into pneumonia. It was horrible, and uncomfortable, and all the adjectives that you can use to describe the condition of having your lungs fill with fluid.

I'm much better now, but one of the (very) few benefits that came out of being ill was that I got to spend some time reading. And one of the books I came to read was my favorite one, Cloud Atlas. I've read Cloud Atlas a good four times by now, cover-to-cover. And one of the things that always strikes me is the cyclical nature of the book. It ends where the story begins. (It's actually far more complicated than that, but let's just say that for now.) This idea of a "symmetrical" and "cyclical" narrative is not new. It's actually used by a lot of authors and singers and creative types. We seem to be so drawn to the idea that everything is a cycle, that everything's connected.

One of my favorite games is Six Degrees of Separation. I usually play it with myself, in regards to my thoughts. I'll be thinking about something, and try to relate it to another topic as quickly and relevantly as I can. The idea of everything being connected fascinates me.

*      *      *

We tend to think of time and space as linear. As Walter Bishop will tell you, that is wrong. It is an illusion. Of course, it's quite easy to imagine why we tend to think of time as linear. Our lives are, for the most part, linear. Everything happens in succession to the thing before it. 2014 turns into 2015, summer turns into autumn, morning turns into night.

Many religions and culture actually viewed time as cyclical, however. You'll remember the infamous 2012 doomsday predictions, said to have come from the Mayans' calendar ending. Their calendar did a way. For them, 2012 was but the beginning of a new age. The world would not turn around, at least I don't think so. (That idea of a serpent eating the sun whole is a bit excessive, in my not-so-humble opinion.) For the Mayans, it would be like following the year 2012 with the year 0 or 1. For them, the universe was cyclical, and everything would repeat itself, slightly different from before.

Surprisingly, many cultures follow this idea, that time is a mutable "boomerang" that can repeat itself. It can manifest itself in different ways: Buddhism and Hinduism have the idea of reincarnation, that one can be reborn into a new life and live several lifetimes. For them, an individual does not die, but rather go on to a new life. There is no clear end date. Time simply marches forward, in cycles.

But even more interesting is a theory that has manifested itself in a book by an author named Thomas Cahill. Cahill submits that Judaism, and later, Christianity, are actually responsible for our view of time being a "straight arrow", from the Creation of the universe to the end times. Judaism and the religions that derive from it, as you'll remember from world history, have been very influential and so radically different from the rest of the world's ideas of traditional religion, with only one god, no death sacrifices (that I know of), and much more. We can chalk the idea of linear time to them as well, according to Cahill. Interesting theory, isn't it? I'm not a new-ager or someone that readily submits to new religious ideas at the drop of a hat (or at the dawn of the Age of Aquarius, ha ha) but it's something to think about.

*      *      *
Back to books and lucre (which, incidentally, is a quote from Cloud Atlas. Talk about returning to the beginning!) There's not much else for me to mention, except that as a modern society, we're returning to this idea of a cyclical wheel of time. We love the idea so much, it's found in our movies and books and creative consumptions. Cloud Atlas, as I mentioned above, topped the bestseller lists ten years ago. Movies like Inception challenge our ideas of what is happening, and when, and in what pattern. The Harry Potter series has several instances, most notably with Hermione Granger's Time-Turner. Overall, time-travel and time mutability has become commonplace in our culture.
Before this ends, I leave you with two final quotes to think about.
Strip back the beliefs pasted on by governesses, schools and states, you find indelible truths at one’s core. Rome’ll decline and fall again. Cortés’ll lay Tenochtitlán to waste again, and later, Ewing will sail again, Adrian’ll be blown to pieces again, you and I’ll sleep under Corsican stars again, I’ll come to Bruges again, fall in and out of love with Eva again, you’ll read this letter again, the sun’ll grow cold again. Nietzsche’s gramophone record. When it ends, the Old One plays it again, for an eternity of eternities. Time cannot permeate this sabbatical. We do not stay dead long. Once my Luger let me go, my birth, next time around, will be upon me in a heartbeat. Thirteen years from now we’ll meet again at Gresham, ten years later I’ll be back in this same room, holding this same gun, composing this same letter, my resolution as perfect as my many-headed sextet. Such elegant certainties comfort me at this quiet hour.   ~Robert Frobisher, Cloud Atlas

And the second quote is, "Recently, I was forced to lie abed for almost a week. I had a cold, which developed into pneumonia..."

Everything ends where it began. :)


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Problem with Literary Ladies

I am not quite a literature junkie. I’ll read it for school, and maybe even pick up a recommended novel, but literature is a tricky thing to read, especially when you want to read about girls.

I usually read regular old not-literature novels—and in terms of female characters, I’m a lot happier with the spread I read. I get girls who are fighters and diplomats and complex and dynamic in positions of respect and power.

I struggle with literature because more often than not, this is not the case.

As I just said, I’m not a literature junkie, but I’ve done a little research and dug out a few titles to support my point. They're either ones I've either read or recognize—and I am by no means an expert, which means you are welcome to challenge me. But in what I've read, I notice a few things.

Flickr Credit: r8r

Women face SO MUCH OPPRESION (socially… economically… politically… religiously…)

The Awakening—Edna Pontellier cannot self-actualize or be with the man she loves because societal standards say she must stay at home and be there for her husband and kids.

A Handmaid’s Tale—Offred is the possession of others and is basically an object kept for her reproduction value alone.

Pride and Prejudice—some idiot based his financial security and retirement on having a son, which didn’t happen, which means that in order to guarantee future security the Bennett sisters must marry because they are inadequate economic heirs.

The Scarlet Letter—Hester is publicly humiliated and despised because of her adultery and her baby daddy’s anonymity, and faces the threat of having her daughter taken away from her, and is only ever remembered as an adulterous instead of a really good seamstress and decent human being.

Jane Eyre—Jane longs for liberty and morality at the same time but by nature of those things the way she wants her life to work out doesn’t always; also, many people like her aunt and school and boyfriends try to take away her liberty, which is also a problem.

(Okay, I still love Jane Eyre, and it’s a decent struggle. But if we look at the group, it’s still a pattern.)

Flickr Credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões

Or their own story is overshadowed

To Kill a Mockingbird—to be fair, there are some other ladies in this book, but the real story is about Atticus and Tom Robinson and Boo Radley; Scout isn’t exactly her own protagonist.

Flickr Credit: janwillemsen

Women sometimes don’t even feature in literature, or their presence wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test.

Lord of the Rings—Gladriel, Arwen, and Éowyn are the main female characters (not that Lobelia Sackville-Baggins doesn’t count) and none of them ever meet; it’s a story almost exclusively about guys.

Lord of the Flies—a group of boys on an island; no girls exist.

Of Mice and Men—if I recall correctly, there is only one female character, Curley’s wife (she doesn’t even get a name), who “exists as a symbol of temptation to Lennie.” She dies.

The Name of the Rose—takes place in a medieval monastery, the only girl is also nameless and the love interest of the narrator. In the movie the cracks against women made me want to punch the screen. Ugh.

Flickr Credit: Boston Public Library

Even if they do pass the Bechdel test it doesn’t indicate that the women are particularly well-written or complex.

Catcher in the Rye—there’s a conversation between Phoebe and her mom that allows this book to pass the test; all the same, the fact that it’s the only example of female bonding (even though Holden goes to a boy’s school and spends a lot of time alone, blah, blah, blah) doesn’t exactly redeem the story.

The Invisible Man—there were a few women in the story, I guess, it’s just that they didn’t get much attention. Just homemakers, proprietors of rooms to rent, plot devices. There’s nothing memorable about them.

Flickr Credit: Adam Mulligan

I haven’t read any of the following books, nor looked them up—but I can tell you what I know of their reputations. 

Moby-Dick—the actions of a vengeful [male] captain (Quigley? I can’t remember if that’s from Sherman’s Lagoon or not) result in a dead white [male] whale .

Don Quixote—a would-be [male] knight and his short and useful [male] friend go about trying to be chivalrous in Spain.

Frankenstein—a [male] doctor creates a [male] monster with his [male] henchman, Fritz or Igor or something. BUT I do recall that Dr. Frankenstein has a fiancé, who I think dies.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—I’ve seen the musical, and there are like three girls (not counting other prostitutes) that don’t pass the Bechdel test (I think?) BUT in terms of what I know about the book another [male] doctor tries to mess with the forces of good and evil and makes another [male] monster that kills many people. Most of them are male.

The Old Man and the Sea—well, there’s a male old man. I seem to recall he gets baptized or is a Christ figure, some kind of religious significance. And possibly there is a male boy.


DO YOU KNOW HOW DEPRESSING THIS LIST MAKES ME? Sure, they have literary merit. Sure, they say a lot about the human condition. And sure, they’re probably not the books that everyone is going to pick up.

It’s just that they do have reputation and respect, and if the question in literature is “should we write women who bond under the chains of repression or women who do nothing at all?” THAT IS NOT THE RIGHT QUESTION.

And that is my problem with literature.

To compare, these are the books that sit on my Favorite Bookshelf, the majority of which are MG/YA novels. The number in parenthesis indicates the number of books in a series that I own.

This is the key:

* Female Protagonist
* Plot-significant female secondary characters
* Passes the Bechdel Test
* 3+ Female Characters
* Female Bonding Present

And these are the stats:

The Grisha Trilogy (2) *****
Artemis Fowl (10) ****
Ranger’s Apprentice (12) ****
The Scarlet Trilogy (2) *****
The Princess Bride **
The Pandora Series (3) *****
The Outsiders *
The Odyssey **
To Kill a Mockingbird *****
The Ever-Expanding Universe Trilogy (2) *****
The Lunar Chronicles (2) *****
The Twilight Saga (5) *****
The Things They Carried *
The Unwind Dystology (4) *****
Earthfall **
The H.I.V.E. Series (10) ****
The Importance of Being Earnest ****

Basically, literature has a lot to answer for. Maybe they want to describe what it’s like, and showcase what life is for women, but I think what is nice about novels is that they describe the way it should be.

And guys should not be the only ones who get to screw up big time in literature.

Flickr credit: Laura

What do you think? Do women receive enough attention in literature? Or, do you have any examples to show that there's a better side of literature I haven't found yet?