The Aftermath: A Character Sketch

Inside him is a pool, black in its depth, smooth, dangerous. It is composed of the feelings he’d rather not have, emotions he’d rather not feel, that which has been relegated but remains unavoidable. Most of the time the pool lies still behind the mask of what he wants people to see, the impression he wants them to have. But sometimes a pebble of reality falls through the cracks. Sometimes something from outside wakes the deep inside and wakes that which is better left sleeping.

When small truths penetrate the surface, when he’s made to confront himself, the pool becomes a maelstrom, violent in its intensity, ready to swallow whole whatever is nearest and dearest. Then eventually the water calms. He returns to his normal state but more alone, and those of us who became collateral, that which could be sacrificed, are spat out of the vortex on a side unfamiliar to us, left to wonder where there is left to go and if we can recover.

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Reading Unpacked: How Reading Helps to Cure My Travel Envy

In his song “The Inner Light,” George Harrison wrote, “Without going out of your door, you can know all things on Earth.” I realize he adapted the idea from the Taoist Tao Te Ching and that he is actually speaking about enlightenment, but it sure does make me feel better when I see my empty suitcase shoved in the back of my closet.

The thing is sometimes I feel like everyone I know has been somewhere worth going to, and I can’t help feeling left out. Sure, I’ve been to some cool places:

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But the truth is I can’t help feeling like I’m missing out on something, like there’s this big wide world out there that I haven’t seen and everybody else has (maybe a little bit of an over exaggeration, but just go with me on this).

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Typically, when I start feeling a bit bored and blue, I turn to my books. What better way to forget your own petty annoyances than to get involved in someone else’s fictional ones, right?

Therein lies the Ah-ha! Moment when I realize I couldn’t be more mistaken about my lack of expedition experience.

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I am a firm believer that reading is the only way to get anywhere without going anywhere. Except maybe to the local library or bookstore. This one is my favorite.

Anyway, when I start getting travel envy, I think of all the places my books have taken me and feel an immediate sense of relief, not because I’m proving that I’ve been somewhere, but because my vision of what these worldly places should be is untainted by the experience of reality.

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 Take The Shadow of the Wind.

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It’s one of my favorites, a book I’ve returned to multiple times. In its pages I’ve wandered the streets of Barcelona with Daniel. I’ve seen its best parts. I’ve seen its dark parts, too, at least the way Zafon paints them. And I have to say that the Barcelona I see in my mind is one I have fallen in love with, especially the parts that may or may not really be there (like the cemetery of forgotten books—if you don’t know what it is, you should definitely find out).

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I’m sure the real Barcelona is lovely. I even wanted to go there for awhile (I still haven’t ruled it out.). Then I realized that going there would force me to sacrifice the city I’ve constructed for myself because you know what they say: once you’ve seen something, you can’t unsee it. And I’m just not sure I’m ready to relinquish the fictional city I love for a real city I honestly don’t know much about. Call it fear. Call it rationalizing. Whatever.

There are a lot of reasons for a lot of people to disagree with me about this. They’ll say it’s a cop-out, that I’m just trying to find a way, any way, to make myself feel better for being state-bound. I suppose there’s probably some truth to that. If someone handed me a plane ticket and said, “Go,” I don’t think I’d say no. But that’s not really the point, is it?

The point, my friends, is this: we are unbelievably lucky, those of us who know what it is to see so clearly in our minds something we’ve never actually seen in real life, because when resources or circumstances prevent it, we are still able to whisk ourselves away to stories, lives, and places infinitely more interesting than our own. So I’m not suggesting a forfeiture of travel in favor of the couch in the living room (although that couch is pretty darn comfy and doesn’t require a passport or a suitcase). What I’m saying is that the stories we read are both a consolation and a prize, but not a consolation prize. They allow us the pleasure of experience AND the beauty of imagination. And who knows? Sometimes what we imagine can feel as good as the real thing.

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Wonderstruck: A Review

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Several years ago, I inherited a children’s literature course from a teacher who was retiring. To make a long story short, she was generous enough to provide her syllabus since I had nothing, nada, zilch in the way of course prep. Scanning the reading list, I noticed Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and I was so stoked for the semester.

Selznick visited Memphis my last year in grad school, and I missed the opportunity to see him (darn you, stupid job). I always regretted not being able to hear him read and speak because I admire his work so much.

When he released Wonderstruck in 2011, I immediately added it to my TBR list, no questions asked. Now, here we are in 2014, and it was finally at the top of my stack.

Selznick’s books are nothing if not behemoths, but their heft is well worth the extra forearm strength it takes to tote them around.

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The books’ content is mostly composed of beautifully crafted illustrations done with pencil on watercolor paper (as per the frontispiece). Selznick’s ability to manipulate light and shadow in his work is helpful to his intended audience, as light and shadow often guide the reader’s attention when it might otherwise have been lost. He also has the uncanny ability to use his characters’ eyes to radiate emotions as powerfully as real people. My favorite illustration in Wonderstruck is a depiction of Rose’s mother, who is angry that her deaf daughter has come, unaccompanied, to visit her in the city. The mother’s back is turned away from the reader in the illustration, but we are able to see her angry reflection in the mirror on her dressing table. Masterful!

Ben’s story in Wonderstruck felt very familiar to me, as I couldn’t help comparing his story to Hugo’s. There are quite a few similar elements: a young boy searching for his place in the world, trying to connect himself to family members who are no longer present, a rediscovered familial connection that might have been lost if the main characters had behaved as their guardians wished them to, a benevolent friend who provides information without realizing it and without whom the connections would never have been made.

While some readers may find the repetition story elements to be tiresome, I think the technique works really well in Selznick’s work. Children who love The Invention of Hugo Cabret will find the themes reinforced in Wonderstruck, and sometimes reinforcement acts as the equivalent of validation.

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The coolest thing about Selznick’s books (depending on who you ask and on what end of the eBook vs. pBook spectrum they’re on) is that he doesn’t make his books available electronically. That’s right. You can’t download Hugo or Wonderstruck. Read more about that here. When you consider that the illustrations make up the biggest part of both books, it makes sense for the author/illustrator to be biased towards an actual physical product. As a lover of both e- and pBooks, I find it sort of comforting that there are authors who are willing to hold out in favor of ink and paper (or, in this case, pencil and paper), and there is something intrinsically satisfying about watching a child’s self-esteem blossom after realizing he can finish the whole thing on his own.

So far I’ve loved everything I’ve ever read of Selznick’s. The stories and plot lines are tightly woven, and he doesn’t allow the reader to get distracted, an important quality in a text intended for children. His illustrations are more expressive than many similar books in the genre, and he provides his readers, both young and old, with a sense of comfort, of knowing that someway, somehow, we all belong, and we all have a purpose, accomplishing not just the goal of children’s literature but of capital-L Literature as well.

Have you read The Invention of Hugo Cabret or Wonderstruck? What did you think?

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The Group by Mary McCarthy

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This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Mary McCarthy’s The Group. Set in the 1930s, the book follows the lives of eight girls as they enter the real world after graduating from Vassar. Think Mona Lisa Smiles meets Mean Girls but wittier and with more biting social commentary.

It’s fairly easy for us to look back with mild condescension on previous generations as being stuffy and overly conservative. However, McCarthy’s depiction of life for the women in The Group is far from what we might consider prudish. McCarthy deals with birth control, infidelity, homosexuality, sex, and, of course, love in no uncertain terms. Readers are reminded of the decade in which the story unfolds only by way of the characters using graduation years as identifiers (i.e. Vassar ’31), making it easy to forget that the story was not written more recently.

One girl’s sexual awakening, another’s struggle with her tortured artist husband, and yet another’s jaunts around a much more accepting sexual climate in Europe reinforce the cliche that times change, but people don’t. We watch as the girls struggle to maintain the social class perpetuated by their parents, but we also learn that the only girls who are truly happy seem to be the ones with the simplest lives, the ones who have strived more to be themselves instead of concentrating so forcefully on being different from their mothers, which has really made them just the same.

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I don’t mean to suggest that the girls always got along well with one another. College was a tumultuous time for many of them, and cattiness, apparently, is an unavoidable biological (it seems) disposition from which even Vassar girls cannot escape. The struggle for the position of authority as well as membership in the desirable group begins early for the girls, and it never really ceases, although it does become more of an undercurrent than a preoccupation.

I first learned of The Group through the book club at Parnassus Bookstore. It was chosen for last month’s book club read because of its anniversary, and I was immediately intrigued when the hostess talked about having read it for the first time when she was in college. She then, reluctantly, admitted that she wasn’t even sure how she got her hands on it, as it was considered more than a little risqué, even in the ’60s. Call me captivated. I love a good banned book as much as the next girl. I jotted down the title and author and quickly moved on to the next book on my stack, which happened to be 11/22/63 by Stephen King. Coincidentally (or not, if you’re into that kind of thing), Jake, the narrator, also makes reference to The Group (his girlfriend reads it), though no one comments in detail on its content. It will suffice to say that King’s choice of literature for Jake’s girlfriend is deliberate and appropriate. (If you haven’t read 11/22/63, I also highly recommend that book but for completely different reasons.)  So I eventually made my way down to the library and checked out this copy:

They just don't publish books like this one anymore. This well-thumbed copy has belonged to several different libraries and has been "annotated" in crayon on the first few pages.

They just don’t publish books like this one anymore. This well-thumbed copy has belonged to several different libraries and has been “annotated” in crayon on the first few pages.

I was not disappointed.

Coincidentally, Getty Images recently launched this picture collection of women in leadership and professional positions in an effort to inspire us to change the way we think about women in general. If you haven’t had a chance to browse the photo gallery, I suggest that you wander on over to their site and do so. It’s totally worth it. But I think it’s equally important to remember that efforts to change the perception of women and their capabilities have been ongoing, that women have, for decades, been trying to overcome the obstacles placed in their professional and personal paths. I don’t mean to be a gender crusader here, but in honor of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, I think it’s relevant and appropriate to give a nod to those who went seeking change before us.

Have you had a chance to read The Group? What did you think?

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Novel Thoughts: The Girl in The Blue Beret by Bobbi Ann Mason

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The Girl in the Blue Berettells the story of Marshall, World War 2 veteran and newly-retired commercial airline pilot. Marshall returns from the war, after having crash landed his B-17 Flying Fortress and escaped to Spain with the held of the French Resistance, confused and withdrawn, content to follow the pattern established for him by society. After years of flying for commercial airlines, Marshall is forced to hang up his pilot’s uniform in favor of retirement. With the rest of his life looming in front of him, Marshall decides to revisit the site of his crash landing, hoping to find both traces of those who helped him to escape German-occupied France and traces of the person he might have been had the war not intervened.

Character development seems slow through the first few chapters. Readers may find themselves curious as to why they should invest their time and mental energy in caring about Marshall’s story. He reveals very little about himself, and more often than not seems like an old man who’s simply gotten too big for his britches. However, over the course of the story, readers will find themselves understanding and sympathizing with Marshall without their even realizing it. They will realize that Marshall reveals little about himself because he doesn’t have a firm grasp on who he really is. His lack of sense of self becomes something to be pitied, and readers will inevitably be drawn to his quest to seek out the missing parts of himself. By the end of the novel, Marshall has solidified himself as a character worthy of attention and commiseration. He seems to slowly relieve himself of the detritus of his past so that he can work towards making a better future.

Pacing, at first, seems a bit sluggish. Readers can expect several chapters of Marshall’s reminiscence both of the war and of his days as a pilot. However, Mason disguises the quickening pace of her novel beneath the mystery of a missing character. Before the reader has a chance to realize what’s happening, the story’s pace has accelerated, and readers find themselves hurdling towards the end of the story. Mason’s manipulation of her story’s pace is commendable and will keep readers engaged until the last page.

A discussion of the novel’s ending is difficult without giving away too much information. However, it will suffice to say that readers are able to choose, in a way, the ending they prefer, and regardless of which path a reader wishes Marshall to take, that reader can be satisfied that Marshall has indeed learned some things about himself as a person and about the overall cause that bound the characters in his story together: the war.

The Girl in the Blue Beretis based on a memoir left behind by Mason’s father-in-law, which lends it a hauntingly relevant and personal feeling, a feeling that lingers long after the last page has been turned. For more information, see the author’s website here.

How to Judge a Book by Its Cover

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. There. I said it. I told myself this was not my battle, that I should remain an casual observer rather than a participant. But the debate rages on, and I can’t help myself.

In what I assume (in my limited knowledge of the publishing world) to be true publishing style, the book has been re-released with a new cover, informing those of us who might not have been aware before that this is, indeed, an anniversary edition. No problems so far.

Yeah, right.

Critics, teachers, readers, and writers have latched onto the cover with steely fervor, berating it as misleading, confusing, and contradictory. Readers, they fear, will think The Bell Jar is nothing but chick lit, a “light and fluffy read.” The cover gives the wrong impression, they say. The book has nothing to do with beauty and everything to do with angst. It is an offense to Plath as an author and an offense to The Bell Jar as a literary work.

I see the merit of these arguments. However, I think we’re all being nearsighted. We are missing the point.

Shouldn’t we instead be focusing on the fact that after fifty years readers still find The Bell Jar hauntingly relevant, that despite the social changes that have occurred readers still find something with which they identify? There’s something to be said for the fortitude of such a book, published first under a pseudonym. Instead of focusing on the book’s cover, can we instead give readers the benefit of the doubt? Can we allow the unknowing to make the glorious mistake of stumbling accidentally, if that is possible, onto a work from which they might otherwise have shied away? Critics of the cover seem to be under the impression that readers today are not discerning enough to know what The Bell Jar is, that readers today cannot read the blurb on the back of the book (or inside the front cover flap) and tell that Plath’s work is not a sip-on-a-soda-and-read time killer. 

I find it odd that in a culture that so values the don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover mantra for every other aspect of life we so willingly embrace that judgement when it comes to actual books. There is a lot to be said for a cover, yes. And generally speaking it is, perhaps, the first thing to which we are drawn. That, however, does not form the only basis on which we choose what we read. It does not negate the reader’s ability to distinguish content from presentation. 

I say that to say this: given that Plath’s novel has withstood fifty years of readership and criticism, it is possible that we are allowing the cover too much importance. For some the cover will never be right; certain people will always be finding fault. And while the cover is a visual representation of the novel, it is not the novel itself. The Bell Jar can and will speak for itself, whether it is accidentally or deliberately read. 

 

In Praise of Profession

Most of us begin our adult lives with some vague optimism about the future. Even if things aren’t ideal in the beginning, we reason, surely the harder we work the better life will be. Growing up we all harbor some deep-seated hope that our jobs, whatever they may be, will in some way influence the world for good. We are told to dream–dream big, dream often, don’t stop–and we begin to believe in ourselves.

The truth is that most of us, upon being launched into adulthood, become satisfied with jobs that pay the bills. World changing? Perhaps not. Life-altering? Yeah, potentially. We trudge through each day, each week, paying the bills and wondering what all that dreaming was for. But a lucky few are able to carve out more than that for themselves. For some of us, reality and occupation are not combatants. Rather they coexist, and we are able to have one without falling prey to the other.

Arguably, no one ever goes into teaching for the money. Education is seldom, if ever, championed as a lucrative career choice. But I would argue that those of us who have chosen this profession have duped the rest of the world. Ours is a secret so delicious it must be told. 

Every day I go into a classroom where I sit with my books. Some of these books have been with me for awhile, since I was a student myself. They are worn; they are tattered and coffee-stained. They are old friends, keepers of solace. I go into a classroom with my books, and there are students there waiting for me, waiting for me to tell them what’s in the books. But instead of dryly delivering information for them to file away and regurgitate later, we have conversations. We talk about theme and plot and symbolism and all the things that make my books tick. And my students begin to know what they’re doing. When my day is finished, I find myself sitting at a desk trying to figure out when the actual work is going to begin.

Being a teacher is like being on the inside of a joke. The powers-that-be couldn’t possibly know what I do for my paycheck. Of course they don’t; if they knew how much fun I was having they probably wouldn’t let me do it anymore. I don’t mean to suggest that being a teacher is not without its problems. Anyone who has ever done it or tried to do it before will tell you that it’s tough. The grading and the grade-grubbing and the constant reminders that our work will never be done are, at times, maddening. Then payday roles around, and for one brief moment we all feel like the joke’s on us.

But at the end of the day it is my job, it is my occupation, to go into a classroom and discuss “Jabberwocky.” It is my job to watch my students develop confidence in themselves, my job to watch them come to appreciate and love the very same books that have meant so much to me, my job to help them find their own voice and figure out what to say and how to write with it. And while no job is without its problems, it’s not a bad way to earn a living.

The Wordy Truth

“Why do you like to write so much?”

An innocent question. No subtext, no implication. Perhaps a little incredulity, but I expect that from freshmen composition students. If only the answer was as simple as the question.

I haven’t written in awhile, not for lack of things to say or words to say them. I really don’t know why. I’ve noticed an ever-growing compulsion to hoard myself, to gather the thoughts and feelings that compose who I am and keep them from those nearest and dearest to my heart. No excuse for that either, except that sometimes, when she can’t belong to the one who really matters, a girl simply needs to belong wholly to herself.

And writing is a promiscuous activity.

Writing is the drug, and I am bound to it. I’ve stopped asking why, for the answer is shrouded in the mystery of addiction. My fingers itch with the sharp points of the words that jab and poke, waiting to be bled out. Hyperbolic and overly figurative? You caught me, but I haven’t done this in awhile, so please be indulgent.

The urge is easy to ignore. Most of the time. The voice in the background crying, “Write me! Write me!” is easy enough to silence when you heap upon it steaming piles of life. And perhaps mine is a twisted literary masochism, a sick predisposition to delayed gratification. Because the time inevitably arrives when holding back ceases to be a choice.

The words adopt minds of their own. They rush forward and assume places on the page without care for or acknowledgement of the one from whence they’ve sprung. They settle there, take up residence in what they (in their wordy naïveté) believe to be permanent printed bliss, while I, their careful curator, am left with less of myself.

And oh God, does it feel good!

Novel Thoughts: The Grievers by Marc Schuster

Adulthood is a wonderful thing. We evolve from pimply teenage mess into responsible, productive members of society. At least that’s the ideal progression. But for some of us, the voice of the inner child doesn’t fade as readily. For some of us, it becomes difficult to let go and face reality, so we hold onto that which keeps us innocent, inculpable. And somehow it becomes easy to maintain this childlike revery. That is until the reality of adulthood comes hurdling towards us at full steam like a bully in the halls of Anywhere USA High School.

Marc Schuster’s Charley Schwartz of The Grievers is one such individual. Throughout the novel, readers will find themselves growing increasingly frustrated with Charley until they realize that he represents the parts of themselves that they must deny in order to function as adults. In many ways, Charley behaves in a manner that we have all envied at some point. He is sarcastic, irreverent at times, and completely unsure of his adult self. This uncertainty of just what it means to be an adult is precisely what allows Charley to ingratiate himself with readers. By the time he comes to the realization that none of us is sure what it really means to be an adult, readers are already sympathetic to his plight.

The Grievers contains a number of examples of people we could all be, paths we might have taken when we reached the proverbial crossroads that separate childhood from adulthood, and it is interesting to note that no one seems completely confident of their decision. Some characters are better at faking it than others, but for the most part, everyone involved in the story is operating under some sort of pretense, a quality that lends itself to both believability and relatability. Anyone reading The Grievers will find someone with whom they can identify, and it becomes very comforting to note that everyone has uncertainties.

While the story itself is very realistic and the portrayal of the characters makes them both endearing and frightening, there are times throughout the book when the dialogue seems better suited to reading than to speaking. In other words, people don’t really talk that way. However, these instances are so few and far between that they do not detract from the novel, its purpose, or its impact.

The Grievers is an ideal novel for those of us who sometimes seek to read books with which we can commiserate, rather than books into which we can escape. It allows us to be more aware of our humanity, while learning to accept it (flawed though it may be) at the same time.

The Grievers will be available for purchase in May 2012. In the meantime, interested readers can get more information here and here.

Novel Thoughts: The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Media-painted portraits of Afghanistan are rarely favorable. What we see on the television and in newspapers and magazines exposes a war-torn country where everyday life is precarious and little to no order exists for its citizens. Over the last decade, the emotions of the American public have run the gamut from enraged to indifferent regarding the state of that country and the continued presence there of the US. In The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, however, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon carefully weaves the true story of what it’s like to live in a Taliban-centered world.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana tells the story of the Sidiqi family and begins in 1996 when the Taliban first came to occupy Kabul. Through Kamila’s story and that of her family readers are able to see the human face of the conflict-ridden country, a valuable history for those of us who aren’t necessarily well-educated regarding the history of the Middle East prior to the events of September 11.

Lemmon’s writing style allows the reader to forget, if only momentarily, that she is in fact telling a factual story. Sure, details have been changed, altered, or omitted for the sake of safety, but nonfiction is not at all infallible as a genre. The storytelling style used in The Dressmaker of Khair Khana reads as though it is fiction until Lemmon includes a detail that makes the story altogether too real.

Kamila, the “protagonist” of the story, comes to be the head of her family when her parents are forced to move north after the Taliban occupation. Through her ingenuity she is able to sustain not only her own family but numerous other families in her neighborhood as well. Her story is one of intrigue, perseverance, daring, and danger, a timeless inspiration for any reader.

Although the book seems to be ultimately geared toward a female audience, both males and females will enjoy the history related in Kamila’s life story. Through the book, we come to learn that the conflict within the borders of Afghanistan was not initiated just prior to September 11, that the conflict had in fact been raging there for a number of years, something not necessarily pointed out in media reports today. Readers are also educated as to the difference between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, an important detail since we generally tend to conflate the two terms.

By the end of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, readers will have gained a better sense of what it meant to live in Afghanistan then and what it means to live there now. While it remains certain that there are pockets of resistance (as there have been for a number of years), a sense of hope also remains, a hope that someday the country and its citizens will again assume their normal ways of life without the added stresses of war and conflict.