Sunday, December 20, 2009

Feel the Thinking

My recent reading of Lisa See’s SHANGHAI GIRLS rekindled my interest in exploring the possibilities of using fiction in the college classroom to promote critical thinking. I say “rekindled” because I have previously used fiction in the classroom; a couple years ago I asked my class to read THE COLOR PURPLE (Harcourt, 1982) by Alice Walker. I selected that particular novel because I wanted a book that was complex yet accessible and thus THE COLOR PURPLE was a perfect choice. Prior to our reading, I did not tell the students to look for anything in particular; I passed out the books and said, “Let’s read.” About a week and a half later, we started discussing the book. It was obvious the students connected with the book, especially in regard to the family issues. Our discussions were lively and detailed; I recently started wondering why our reading of THE COLOR PURPLE was so successful. Why did a highly emotional story help my students think analytically? With these questions in mind, I reread THE COLOR PURPLE and continued my reading of academic articles on using fiction to encourage critical thinking.
Rereading the novel reminded me of how emotional the story is and that the turmoil is connected to the most basic human structure—the family. I’d also forgotten that THE COLOR PURPLE is written in a series of letters and that the letters are written in simple language with non-standard spellings and grammatical use. For example, from one of Nettie’s letters: “Dear God, I ast Shug Avery what she want for breakfast. She say, What yall got?...White women in it laughing, holding they beads out on one finger, dancing on top of motorcars.” (COLOR, p51). Using letters to tell the story allows the reader to be close to the characters and yet distant as the same time. I can see now that it is Nettie’s simple language and constant presence through her voice that intensifies the emotional impact of the novel. Having reaffirmed that the novel is indeed written to tap into the reader’s emotion, and with a new understanding of why that is so, I asked myself again, why did an emotional novel help my students think analytically?
As a developmental instructor, one of my primary goals is to help students pull their emotion and intellect apart. Louise Rosenblatt, in her book LITERATURE AS EXPLORATION, notes that fiction provides students the opportunity to identify their emotions, test their assumptions, and consequently reject or revise their original reactions. (LITERATURE, p215) She continues on to state that, “It seems reasonable to suggest, therefore, that in building up the habit of mind essential to the attainment of sound literary judgment, the student will also be acquiring mental habit valuable for the development of sound insight into ordinary human experience.” (LITERATURE, p215-216) In short, thinking generates more thinking and high level critical thinking generates more high level critical thinking.
But does the reading of fiction have advantages over non-fiction? Rosenblatt believes so. She pointed out that it is easy to think about complex human problems when emotions are not involved. This ease is a disservice to students as this type of setting, a non-emotional one, is not realistic. Students need the challenge that is supplied by emotion; fiction supplies that challenge as “literature offers an opportunity to develop the ability to think rationally within an emotionally colored context” (LITERATURE, p217).
As a result of my rekindled interest, I asked the leader of the writing faculty “team” if I could incorporate a novel in my composition course next semester. She requested that I make my request of the entire team at our next meeting. I did and received the go-ahead from the writing team to do a pilot using fiction as part of my composition course next semester. I’m excited about moving ahead, even though I am a bit anxious due to the fact that my team required convincing. I’ll be putting Rosenblatt’s theories to the test as I continue looking into this practice.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Character of Ilhéus

Janet Burroway starts off her chapter in Writing Fiction (Longman, 2003) on setting with Elizabeth Bowen’s maxim that “nothing happens nowhere” and reminds readers of Jerome Stern’s statement that a scene that happens nowhere often seems not to happen at all. (Writing, p198) While setting in some novels is more significant than in others, setting is an essential aspect of all stories. And, like other key aspects such as character and theme, it must be carefully woven in and dimensional. “Like dialogue, setting must do more than one thing at once, from illuminating the story’s symbolic underpinnings to such practical kinds of ‘showing’ as reflecting emotion or revealing subtle aspects of a character’s life.” (Writing, p 198)

The city of Ilhéus is the primary setting for the romance of Nacib Saad and Gabriela in Jorge Amado’s GABRIELA, CLOVE, AND CINNAMON (Vintage, 2006). The struggle taking place there between the old established cacao growers and the new growers seeking to modernize is more than a vibrant backdrop; the city itself is a character with desires, ideas, and conflicts. Throughout the novel, Amado weaves in these desires and ideas, sometimes by pulling together the characteristics of individual characters. By doing so, he accomplishes at three things at once: 1) individual characterization 2) collective characterization of the city of Ilhéus, and 3) the development of the conflict of the old and new cacao growers which echoes the conflicts Nacib and Gabriela face. The passages detailing the citizen’s of Ilhéus’s response to Nacib’s murder of his wife and her lover are an excellent example of a passage which accomplishes this.

The impact on the town was tremendous, for the shooting stimulated emotions associated with the old days. For the moment, Nacib forgot his terrible problem, the Captain and the Doctor forgot their political concerns, and Colonel Ramiro Bastos even forgot his hatred for Mundinho Falcão. The news, spreading like wildfire, increased the respect and admiration that already surrounded the planter’s thin and somewhat somber figure. For this was how it was in Ilhéus: the honor of a deceived husband could be cleansed by blood. (p104)

The tragedy of Sinházinha and the dentist was passionately discussed. Opinions varied as to exactly what had happened, there were conflicting details, but on one thing all were agreed: the colonel had done the right thing and deserved praise for performance of his duty as a husband and as a man. (p105)

This dimensional approach is consistent throughout the novel and impacts all characters to varying degrees. The more closely a character is tied to the city, the more the city affects them. This can be seen in Gabriela’s storyline.

The relationship of Gabriela and the city of Ilhéus shows how significantly the city functions as a character. In the beginning of the story she was less impacted by the city’s desires and ideas, yet as she becomes part of Nacib’s life she becomes more influenced and challenged by Ilhéus. The resulting conflict between Gabriela and the city of Ilhéus can be seen in the passage when she realizes that with Nacib’s sister in town Nacib will not agree to her dressing as a shepherdess in the pageant of The Three Kings.

Now it was all over, impossible. With his sister in town, eager to see him ashamed of Gabriela, Nacib would never consent to her parading through the streets, bearing the standard with the Baby Jesus on it. And he was right. To displease him that much, hurt him that much, she just couldn’t. (p350)

What would the people of Ilhéus say, especially his friends at the bar, the ladies of good family, and Colonel Ramiro, who had distinguished her so? Impossible, Gabriela; he never heard of anything so absurd. Bié must realize that she is no longer a poor servant girl with no family, no name, no date of birth. Can you imagine Mrs. Nacib Saad leading a street pageant, with a crown of gilt cardboard on her head? Can you imagine a woman of social distinction swinging her hips and dancing along the street, dressed in blue and red satin, carrying a banner and followed by twenty-two other shepherdesses carrying lanterns? Impossible. (p351)

Although Gabriela doesn’t seem to realize the change in her relationship to the city, it is there, guiding her actions, shaping her identity and emotions. Her response to the city’s desires and ideas is realistic because as we are all shaped by places we are a part of. “Our relation to place, time, and weather, like our relation to clothes and other objects, is charged with emotion more or less subtle, more or less profound. It is filled with judgment mellow or harsh. And it alters what happens to us.” (Writing, p202)

The city of Ilhéus not only challenges the characters in the novel to change, the city itself, like all complex characters, changes as well. This change can be seen in the final page when the trial of Colonel Jesuíno Mendonça is recounted. Here the story is brought full circle by showing that instead of embracing the murder of an adulterous wife the city of Ilhéus condemns the act.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Uncertainty of Truth

The title of Gabriel García Márquez’s CHRONICLE OF A DEATH FORETOLD (Vintage, 1982) is true to the nature of the novel; it embodies two of the novel’s key characteristics. Notably, these two distinct characteristics—its straightforward writing and its indirect, nonlinear narrative—create an ongoing juxtaposition that enhances the aspects of each and consequently provide depth to the novel. Márquez’s ability to achieve this seemingly awkward marriage stems from his practice of telling/showing several things at once and from his exploration of the contrasts and inconsistencies inherent in trying to reconstruct an event that happened decades in the past.

Early in the story the narrator, a friend of the murdered Santiago Nasar, summarizes some of the accounts he received from the many witnesses of the murder as such:

Furthermore: all the many people he ran into after leaving the house at five minutes past six and until he was carved up like a pig an hour later remembered him as being a little sleepy but in a good mood, and he remarked to all of them in a casual way that it was a very beautiful day. No one was certain if he was referring to the state of the weather. Many people coincided in recalling that it was a radiant morning with a sea breeze coming in through the banana groves, as was to be expected in a fine February of that period. But most agreed that the weather was funereal, with a cloudy low sky and the thick smell of still waters, and that at that moment of the misfortune a thin drizzle was falling like the one Santiago Nasar had seen in his grove dream.

This particular passage is characteristic of many in the novel as it demonstrates how Marquez effectively achieves the odd combination of certainty and uncertainty.     
·         Straightforward writing: It conveys basic information in a seemingly clear way, yet manages while being straightforward to also reveal the actual lack of consistency on basic points. Here the inconsistencies include characteristics of the weather and whether or not Santiago’s comments referred to the weather or some other quality of the day.
·         Indirect narrative (voice of the narrator): Concrete details are woven together with inconsistent details. In this section the concrete include the time of Santiago’s death, the matter of death, that Santiago was in a good mood, and that he spoke to many people between 6:05 and 7:05.
·         Revealing much in a few words: This short passage includes elements of the plot—when and how Santiago was murdered, that there were many witnesses—characterization—Santiago, as a wealthy successful citizen, was someone others paid attention to, Santiago was casual and “friendly” and, setting—the town was near the sea, with a nearby banana grove, the month was February, and that there was a thin drizzle of rain.

Toward the end of the novel, the straightforward writing begins to overshadow the indirect narrative as the narrator gradually sets aside contradictions and a truth begins to emerge.
On the morning of his death, in fact, Santiago Nasar hadn’t had a moment of doubt, in spite of the fact that he knew very well what the price of the insult imputed to him was. He was aware of the prudish disposition of his world, and he must have understood that the twins’ simple nature was incapable of resisting an insult. No one knew Bayardo San Román very well, but Santiago Nasar knew him well enough to know that underneath his worldly airs he was as subject as anyone else to his native prejudices. So the murdered man’s refusal to worry could have been suicide. Besides…his reaction (at impending death) was not panic, as so often been said, but rather the bewilderment of innocence. (p101)

In this passage, the narrator’s voice is stronger, more assured. Because this shift in voice from surreal, questioning, and uncertain, as it is in the beginning, to analytical and journalistic, as it is toward the end, occurs gradually it is convincing. Also, the contrast from the beginning to the end adds emphasis and power to the conclusion of the story; it adds a sense of finality that would not be as well achieved without the gradual shift.

Despite the power of the ending, the conclusion of the novel, while convincing, may or may not be satisfying to the reader. The narrator does achieve closure and the perspectives of witnesses regarding Santiago are provided and explained, but the reader is made aware of the narrator’s perception that Santiago, “died without understanding his death.” Santiago’s lack of understanding is problematic. The reader is left wondering that in life there is no certainty and pondering which matters more the quest for truth or the actual truth itself.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Theme in Sue Miller’s THE GOOD MOTHER

From the first page, Sue Miller’s novel, THE GOOD MOTHER, which explores the boundaries of love, is a great example of a work that uses each aspect of story to convey theme and in doing so lets theme rise to the surface and create its own truth. Early in the story a reflection combined with foreshadowing is tied to the theme. In Chapter Two, Anna is remembering her family’s move to Chicago from the East as it related to her relationship with her mother. “My mother set about decorating it with a passion which finally seemed to obliterate me from her consciousness.” (p49)

This single line not only relays character information, that Anna felt distant from her mother after moving to a new city, but also foreshadows Anna’s own behavior of distancing herself from her own daughter after moving to Cambridge, as well as reinforcing theme. The explorations of love’s boundaries continue, often woven into Anna’s back story. Later in Chapter Two, Anna returns to thoughts of love, this time comparing the expressions of love she learned from her mother and her mother’s extended family to that of her father’s family.

But as I lay in my lumpy narrow bed...I realized I was dreading leaving my grandparents’ farm to go home, to the East, where I was surrounded by love, by protestations of love; but conditional on so much: on being good, whatever that meant; on doing well; on making the family proud. The demands themselves, I realized, were often the clearest expression of the love. (p60)

The reflection continues as Anna ponders a song she frequently played for her grandparents while staying with them one summer, “O Love, That Will Not Let Me Go.” The title of the song provides both a confirmation of theme and an anchor for Anna’s subsequent thoughts: “That was the trouble with my mother’s family…” meaning that that they did not let go of those they loved.

Much of the early part of the novel is spent pulling together such memories, reflections, and judgments of love. In Chapter Five, about one third into the novel, Anna begins to understand that she herself has the power to create and explore love’s boundaries and Miller continues to use story elements to support theme. In Chapter Nine Anna begin to understand how her choices regarding who and how to love set boundaries. At this point in the story she is at a crossroads; she has recognized that her old life no longer exists and that she alone is responsible for her new one.

This opening of the chapter uses metaphor to convey a sense of journey and reinforce theme. As she drives Anna is moving forward, regardless of the fact that she doesn’t know where she is going. The edges of the road are boundaries and Anna’s maneuvering between those edges is a reflection her ability to define herself within those boundaries.

I couldn’t remember where the road had once needed, but at some point I crossed the line and was driving in new territory. Though it looked the same—the brown clayey dirt deeply rutted…I was aware that I could no longer anticipate the curves, the sudden blind rises where earlier, I’d known reflexively to tap my horn for an oncoming car…

I circled close to a swampy inlet, thick with water lilies, that I remembered once or twice trying to row through. The long stems of the lilies had tentacle around the oars, and the lily pads made a hissing sound against the wooden boat bottom at my lurching glide through them. Then I was back in woods again, the cleared road a stripe of sunlight across them.

I’d been on this part of the road before only once or twice as an adult—it had been cut through the woods during the early years of my marriage to Brian, and we had come up together a few times. But I didn’t remember it, and it seemed to me I’d been on the new part much too long. (p185)

In the pages that follow, Anna continues to work though issues and strives to establish the limitations of her own brands of love—both passionate and maternal. The results of her struggles can be seen later in the novel, very near the end:

But that isn’t what I have, nor what I can offer Molly. I’ve made do with a different set of circumstances—with our distance, our brief times together, with all that’s truncated, too little, too small in what we have. And I take a certain pride in how well I’ve done this, in thinking perhaps I’m suited to it in some way, as other, more passionate people might not be. (p309)

Also, Anna returns to her thoughts of love from page 60, when she clarified the difference between a love that holds and a love that lets go. Her preference for a love that let’s go is clearly expressed in the last two lines when she visits her daughter, Molly.

I held her tight for a long moment in out unseeing embrace. It seemed the same, her smell, her touch, the wiry density of her limbs. Then I set her down, let her go. And she turned away ahead of me to lead me to her new life, to show me everything. Her dress was rucked up in back, her hair wispy and wild from our embrace. Everything was familiar, and also unknown.

“Ah yes,” I remember thinking, as though hearing a kind of music in my head. “This is how it begins.” (p309)

While the end of the novel is not a happy one, it is satisfying. It brings the reader to a point in Anna’s life where Anna has begun to see that she boundaries of love and taken ownership of her actions.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Toy Barn or Theme in Fiction?

Eighteen years ago, when my son, Walt, was one he received a plastic barn for his birthday. The barn came with a farmer, a tractor, and some brightly colored shaped pieces: a blue triangle, an orange square, and a yellow circle. The red roof had cutouts matched to the shapes, a convenient tool for learning. Once my son figured out which shapes went in which holes, the pieces stayed in the bottom of the toy box, but thanks to the sturdy white handle on the top of the barn, it moved all around the house.

Over the next several weeks, Walt spent hours assessing nearly every toy in the house — using not only the cutout holes in the roof but also the barn doors that slid apart, a roof that lifted like a lid, and an open-topped silo. To complete each assessment he would try to fit the toy through each shape hole, inside the barn doors (and allow the doors to close), under the roof and then down the silo. On some occasions a toy would get stuck; sometimes he could shake it out and sometimes he’d seek help.

The image of his toy assessments has remained in my memory, and my husband’s and mother’s, all these years. For me it is the image of the basic elements of story theme. The barn is the theme, the constant being tested, the toys aspects of plot and characterization that explore and reveal the flexibilities and limitations of theme, and the stuck toys, conflicts to be resolved. John Gardner’s definition of theme echoes my image.

By theme…we mean not “message”—a word no good writer like applied to his work—but the general subject. Given his choice of theme…the writer sharpens and clarifies his ideas, or finds out exactly what it is that he must say, testing his beliefs against reality as the story represents it, by examining every element in the story for its possible implications with regard to his theme. (p70, The Art of Fiction)

Janet Burroway indicates that theme runs throughout every aspect of a novel: actions, characters, setting, dialogue, objects, pace, metaphors and symbols, viewpoint, atmosphere, style, even syntax and punctuation, and even in some cases typography. (p17, Writing Fiction) She continues to note that theme is not “truth” but a point of reference for possible truth.

"The value of the literary experience is that it allows us to judge an idea at two levels of consciousness, the rational and the emotional, simultaneously. The kind of ‘truth’ that can be told through thematic resonance is many-faceted and can acknowledge the competing of many truths, exploring paradox and contradictions."(pp358-359)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Thirty Days and Nights...

Waiting for a reason to get started writing? Want to be part of something bigger than yourself?

Me? I think I just need some external motivation...maybe I'll try National Novel Writing Month.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Fiction as a Springboard for Expository Writing

“Literature offers feeling for which we do not have to pay. It allows us to love, condemn, condone, hope, dread, and hate without any of the risks those feelings ordinarily involve, for even good feelings—intimacy, power, speed, drunkenness, passion—have consequences, and powerful feelings may risk powerful consequences.” (Burroway, Writing Fiction) For many readers this is the draw of fiction—the vicarious emotional experience. Yet fiction does more than allow a reader to feel; it allows the reader to connect with others and to search for an understanding of life and life’s events. In John Gardner’s classic, The Art of Fiction, he states that "the value of great fiction…is not just that it broadens our knowledge of people and places, but also that it helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations.” The key to filling the human need to explore life and connect with others is by tapping into reader emotion and then in turn to the intellect.

That meeting place of creativity and intellect is unique to fiction. It is the creative nature of fiction that makes reading novels evoke an “afferent” process—meaning students put themselves in the work. (Rosenblatt, Theoretical Models and Processes, pp. 1057-1092, 1994) Once the student is immersed in the story, fiction’s distinct capacity to illuminate the human condition by fostering the interconnection of mind and spirit provides the opportunity to pull readers through explorations of universal themes while also speaking culturally, offering glimpses into different values, traditions, and life issues. This combination of characteristics invites discussion and critical thinking, two elements essential for successful expository writing.

Using fiction in expository writing courses gives students a way to reflect on previous perceptions and gain new perspectives. Josh Boyd, in his article, A Different Kind of [Text]Book: Using Fiction in the Classroom, notes,“ Novels…provide a different reading experience than do typical textbooks, a reading experience that can lead to student critical engagement with high-order questions.” (Communication Education v. 53 n. 4). Many social issues can be explored through novels. For example, works like THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Diaz and THE COLOR PURPLE by Alice Walker touch on the universal themes of struggling for personal identity and self acceptance while dealing with external conflicts such as racism and political. Such works provide a springboard for reflection, discussion, analysis, and writing.

Fiction related course assignments can include ongoing reflective journals, identifying universal themes and issues within the novel and using them to analyze current events, and student-led discussions exploring “what ifs” in regard to character decisions.

The benefits of assigning novels in expository writing courses are many. They include not only more lively course discussions, accompanied by deeper thinking, but also the fostering of student writers who are emotionally connected to their topics and intellectually invested in their writing.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Author Intent: A Comparison of WHITE TEETH and OLIVE KITTERIDGE

Jerome Stern has suggested that self-conscious writers, “often keep a great distance from their characters, sounding as if they were writing encyclopedia entries instead of stories.” He adds that the distance created by their insecurity can prevent the reader from fully engaging in the story—from becoming transported. (p289, Writing) I would add that there are instances when the author consciously chooses to hold the reader at arm’s length thus narrowing psychic distance and preventing full immersion into the fictive dream.

Did Smith consciously do so in TEETH? In 2005, five years after TEETH was released, Smith responded to a similar question with, "As I get older," Smith reflected, "I think I'll be clearer about what it is I'm trying to do. At the moment, I just sort of stumble through." Did Strout consciously seek to connect emotionally with the reader?

In a 2006 interview, Strout was asked what book most influenced her writing. She responded with The Journals of John Cheever and added, “…there was something about the honesty found in Cheever's journals that gave me courage as a writer. And his ability to turn a phrase, to describe in a breath the beauty of a rainstorm or the fog rising off the river... all this arrived in my life as a writer at a time when I seemed ready to absorb his examples of what a sentence can do when written with the integrity of emotion and felicity of language.” (p18, Olive)

The relationship between the fictive dream and the degree of intellectuality or emotionality of a novel as shaped by the lack of or use of sensory detail is inevitable. An effective writer may make a conscious choice to not engage or engage the reader in the fictive dream; on the other hand, the decision may be made de facto. But does it matter if the writer made a conscious decision? Perhaps not.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Psychic Distance: A Comparison WHITE TEETH and OLIVE KITTERIDGE

While it is obvious that novels are written by people, the presence of the author may or may not be “felt” by the reader. Burroway describes this distance, is “the degree to which we as readers feel on the one hand intimacy and identification with, or on the other hand detachment and alienation from, the characters in a story.”1 It is the writer’s task to, based on the needs of the story, choose and control psychic distance.

There is a relationship between the degree of intellectuality and emotionality of a novel and the psychic distance found in the novel. In novels with a higher degree of intellectuality, there is a shorter psychic distance; in novels with a higher degree of emotionality, there is greater psychic distance.

In TEETH the author’s presence is keenly felt by the reader. This is due to the constant intellectualism and frequent author judgments of characters and situations. By contrast, in OLIVE, the author is farther away from the reader. This distance is the result of frequent and various sensory details which encourage the reader to feel, experience, rather than intellectualize.

In TEETH, Smith intentionally inhibits the emotional response of the reader and thus inhibits total immersion into the fictive dream. By withholding the emotional connection she forces the reader to be dependent on her. Smith’s characterization and detail selection demonstrate this. The following is a turning point passage in which the author is making a judgment about character, Samad, who is striving to get meaning out of life. As a result of the details, which require thought rather than emotion, the reader is not fully transported into the fictive dream and psychic distance limited.

"Samad has decided to “cement his friendship with Archie. Often this is done by passing on a singular piece of information: some sexual peccadillo, some emotional secret or obscure hidden passion that the reticence of new acquaintance has prevented being spoken. But for Samad, nothing was closer or meant more to him that his blood. It was natural then, as they sat on holy ground, that he should speak of what was holy to him.” (pp83-84)

Samad’s subsequent realization is the result of thinking and having knowledge which is brought on by “white dust” (morphine) that could be found like, “…hidden eggs on an addictive Easter trail.”

"Then every nerve in his body would be alive, and the information, all the information contained in the universe, all the information on walls, would pop its cork and flow through him like electricity through a ground wire. Then his head would open out like a deckchair. And he would sit in it a while and watch his world go by. Tonight, after just more than enough, Samad felt particularly lucid. Like his tongue was buttered and like the world was a polished marble egg. And he felt a kinship with the dead dissenters…he wished he could speak with them about the mark they made on the world. Had it been enough? When death came, was it really enough? Were they satisfied with the thousand words they left behind?" (pp85-86)

While there is a simile that engages the sense of taste, again the majority of the details require thought rather than emotion and again limit psychic distance.

On the other hand, in OLIVE, Strout intentionally encourages the emotional connection through use characterization and detail selection. The following is a turning point passage in which the author invites the reader to make a judgment of the character who is striving to get meaning out of life. To accomplish this, Strout has included sensory details that promote an emotional response from the reader. As a result of the sensory detail, the reader is further into the fictive dream; there is greater psychic distance.

“…smaller rocks could be heard moving as the water shifted them. Also there was the twanging sound of the cables hitting the masts of the sailboats moored. A few seagulls gave squawking cries as they dove down to pick up the fish heads and tails and shining insides that the boy was tossing from the dock as he cleaned the mackerel. All this Kevin saw as he sat in his car with the window partly open…He was as much a stranger up here now as any tourist might be, and yet gazing back at the sun-sliced bay, he noted how familiar it felt; he had not expected that. The salt air filled his nose, the wild rugosa bushes with their white blossoms brought him a vague confusion; a sense of sad ignorance seemed cloaked in their benign petals.” (p31)

Kevin’s subsequent realization is the result of a conversation with Olive.

“What he began to want was to see his childhood house—a house he believed, even as he sat in his car now, that he had never once been happy in….That house where the sweat-shirts and woolen jackets stank like moist salt and musty wood—the smell made him sick, as did the smell of a wood fire, which his father sometimes had I the fireplace, poking at it in a distracted way. Kevin thought he must be the only person in the country who hated the smell of a wood fire. But the house, the trees tangled with woodbine, the surprise of a lady’s slipper in the midst of pine needles, the open leaves of the wild lilies of the valley—he missed it.” (p44)

As in the previous OLIVE passage, the majority of the details are sensory and again widen psychic distance.

In both TEETH and OLIVE the psychic distance has been carefully controlled throughout. This deliberate control is emphasized by the running heads of the novels. Although both TEETH and OLIVE are a collection of stories linked to tell one story, the running head layouts are not the same. In TEETH, “ZADIE SMITH” appears on the verso page and “WHITE TEETH” on the recto page. In OLIVE, “OLIVE KITTERIDGE” appears on the verso page and the title to the individual story on the recto page. Since putting the book title on the verso page is no longer common practice and putting the author’s name is2, it is reasonable to conclude that not placing the author’s name on the verso page of OLIVE was a conscious decision done in support of the intent of the novel.

1-p287, Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction

2-1.81, Chicago Manual of Style

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Chocolate Cake is Always the Right Thing

I've had a couple requests for the chocolate cake recipe from my Let Them Eat Cake post back in August.

Chocolate Farm Cake

Ingredients for cake:

1 cup flour

½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

¾ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon baking powder

6 tablespoons soft butter

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

¾ cup milk


Preheat oven to 350’

Grease bottom of 8 x 8 pan, line with wax paper, grease and flour.


In medium bowl, stir together dry ingredients and set aside.

In large bowl, beat butter for 30 seconds. Gradually add sugar and continue beating until well combined.

Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each one, then beat in vanilla.

Alternately add dry ingredients and milk, beating until just combined after each.

Beat on medium to high for twenty seconds more.

Ingredients for frosting:

3 ounces unsweetened bakers chocolate

4 ounces soft cream cheese

2 tablespoons soft butter

2 cups powdered sugar, sifted

1 to 2 tablespoons milk


Coarsely chop bakers chocolate, melt, and cool to room temperature. Set aside.

Beat cream cheese and butter until well combined.

Beat in powdered sugar, ½ cup at a time.

Add cooled chocolate until smooth.

Beat in milk, as needed, to create desired texture.

Do not overbeat.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Beyond Times Roman and Courier New

While doing some research for my next piece of literary analysis I came across this awesome website. For the Love of Type features great pictures and odd pieces of info on type setting.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Intellect and Emotion: A Comparison of WHITE TEETH by Zadie Smith and OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout

It is the nature of humans to experience emotion first and then respond intellectuallyA , therefore, tapping into reader emotion, as far away from intellect as possible, will make the fictive dream more effective. It is my opinion that sensory detail is particularly effective because it taps into the non-logical part of the brain—that part that was first to develop, that part that does not question as much as it accepts. Therefore, if a writer aims to reach the reader emotionally, it is essential that sufficient sensory detail be provided. This theory of mine came to mind while reading Zadie Smith’s WHITE TEETH. I was not particularly engaged with the story or characters and began to wonder why. Upon closer reading, I realized that the large majority of the details are factual or visualB . Take, for example, the opening passage of TEETH; a place it would seem the author would most want to engage the reader emotionally:

"Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway. At 0627 hours on January 1, 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat in a fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer Estate facedown on the steering wheel, hoping the judgment would not be too heavy upon him. He lay in a prostrate cross, jaw slack, arms splayed on either side like some fallen angel; scrunched up in each fist he held his army service medals (left) and his marriage license (right), for he had decided to take his mistakes with him. A little green light flashed in his eye, signaling a right turn he had resolved never to make. He was resigned to it. He was prepared for it. He had flipped a coin and stood staunchly by the results. This was a decided-upon suicide. In fact, it was a New Year’s resolution." (p3)

The reader sees the fumes, the character’s body position, and the items in his hands. While there is opportunity for the author to provide details that would allow the reader to hear, smell, touch, or even taste Archie’s demise, these details are not provided. As I continued to read, and found that the opening was not an exception but a rule, I determined this lack of sensory detail had a significant impact on the novel. While I did find the novel intriguing on an intellectual level, and was interested, I did not feel emotionally connected to the characters. I was not experiencing the story with them; I was not empathetic; I was not transported.

The opening of Elizabeth Strout’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE, is quite different in regard to reader engagement as a result of sensory detail.

"For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summer-time roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging through the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold." (p3)

Here the reader is provided with less factual detail and a wider variety of sensory detail. For example, the reader can hear and feel the car tires. I believe the sense of smell is especially important to engage; because it the first of the human senses to develop it is the sense farthest from our logical thinking.

Relying heavily on sight and factual details prevents the reader from engaging emotionally with the story and its characters. This statement is not meant to imply that such writing is ineffective or undesirable. In fact, it may be the writer’s intention to limit the reader’s emotional response because by doing so the writer is compelling the reader to engage with the text primarily on an intellectual level; I believe this is the case with Smith’s WHITE TEETH. By contrast, Strout desires that emotional connection and relies on it to deliver the promise of the novel OLIVE KITTERIDGE.

End Notes:
A To be realistic, fiction should imitate reality. (p54, Techniques)

B In my opinion, visual detail is close to factual detail. Vision is the last of the senses to fully develop; it is the one humans rely on most. For those two reasons it is the sense most closely linked to the logical, critical, area of the brain.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Fictive Dream

The Draw of Fiction: Emotional Human Connection

“Literature offers feeling for which we do not have to pay. It allows us to love, condemn, condone, hope, dread, and hate without any of the risks those feelings ordinarily involve, for even good feelings—intimacy, power, speed, drunkenness, passion—have consequences, and powerful feelings may risk powerful consequences.”1 For many readers this is the draw of fiction—the vicarious emotional experience. Not only does fiction offer the reader the opportunity to select, via book selection, which emotion to feel—love, hate, fear, courage, jealousy—as Burroway points out fiction offers the reader the opportunity to feel intensely without doing any more than turning a page. Yet fiction does more than allow a reader to feel; it allows the reader to connect, to search for an understanding or meaning from life and life’s events. “…the value of great fiction …is not just that it broadens our knowledge of people and places, but also that it helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations.”2 The key to filling the human need to explore life and connect with others is by tapping into reader intellect and emotion.

The Importance of Details on Reader Response: Intellect vs. Emotion

As any magician knows, details draw attention. Details aid in the illusion. And as a magician controls the audience’s attention by way of carefully placed details, the writer can also use detail to direct reader attention and control reader response. The audience member, as does the reader, goes along with the illusion knowingly, asking in return the delivery of a promise. The magician uses sleight of hand to deliver that promise; the writer uses description.

Description is accomplished by providing details; however, to be effective details must be carefully selected and effectively placed. The writer must focus on the goal of the detail and determine the best details accordingly. Intellectuality is one concern. A detail is “…significant if it also conveys an idea or a judgment or both.”3 This is not to say that the writer should use details to insert their own judgment but to offer details in such a way as to allow the reader the opportunity to make a judgment. Burroway clarifies for writers how to effectively weave intellect and emotion. “Much of what you (the writer) mean will be an abstraction or a judgment—love requires trust, children can be cruel. But if you write in abstractions or judgments, you are writing an essay, whereas if you let us use our senses and form our own interpretations, we will be involved as participants in a real way.” Emotionality is another concern when selecting and placing details. “A detail is ‘definite’ and ‘concrete’ when it appeals to the senses. It should seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched.”4 Consequently, if the writer wants the reader to be engaged both intellectually and emotionally, sensory details are essential.

The Fictive Dream: More Than Descriptive Detail

“Fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind.”5 Detail is the basis of that dream. “…in good fiction, it’s physical detail that pulls us into the story, makes us believe or forget not to believe or accept the lie even as we laugh at it.”6 This total immersion is the result of a response that takes place within the reader as a result of effective detail “that…creates for us a kind of dream, a rich and vivid play in the mind…In great fiction, the dream engages us heart and soul; we not only respond to imaginary things—sights, sounds, smells—as though they were real, we respond to fictional problems as though they were real.”7 Details alone are not enough to accomplish this; James Frey takes the concept of the fictive dream a step further than a singular focus on details. “As a fiction writer, you’re expected to transport a reader. Readers are said to be transported when, while they are reading, they feel that they are actually living in the story world and the real world around them evaporates.”8 When in this transported state the reader’s subconscious—the area where sensory input is processed and decoded—has been engaged and is the primary source of response. Tapping into the reader’s subconscious requires more than carefully placed details; it requires a delicate linking of details to story components.

Frey noted three stages that enable the writer to reach the subconscious and thus fully transport the reader into the fiction dream:

Sympathy: “Sympathy it is the doorway through which the reader gains emotional access to a story.”9 It requires that a character be placed in a situation which will evoke an emotion so intense—loneliness, repression, danger, embarrassment—that the reader will feel sympathy for the character.

Identification: “Identification occurs when the reader is not only in sympathy with the character’s plight, but also supports his or her goals and aspirations and has a strong desire that the character achieve them.”10 In order for the reader to support those goals and aspirations the writer must make clear what the character does or does not want to happen.

Empathy: A writer can “…win empathy for a character by detailing the sensuous details in the environment: the sights, sounds, pains, smells, and so on that the character is feeling—the feelings that trigger emotion.”11 Empathy is a much stronger emotion than sympathy, and it is through empathy that the reader will feel what the character is feeling. This is achieved by using sensuous and emotion-provoking details that suggest to the reader what it is like to be the character and to experience what the character is experiencing.

1-p74, Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction
2-p31, Gardener, John. The Art of Fiction.
3-p76, Writing
4-p75, Writing
5-p32, Art
6-p30, Art
7-pp30, 31, Art
8-p6, Frey, James. How to Write a Damn Good Novel II: Advanced Techniques for Dramatic Storytelling
9-p8, How
10-p10, How
11-p13, How

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Island of the Lost Girls: Lyrically Lost

Childhood is typically filled with stories; among them are adventure tales from books, family histories adults pass down to children, and fantasy stories children make up themselves. Each of these stories serves a different purpose; stories from books fuel the imagination and spirit, family stories passed down connect the child to those who came before, and stories children make up themselves provide an outlet for individual expression. The ISLAND OF LOST GIRLS by Jennifer McMahon intertwines these three types of stories, playing the present against the past, in order to bring a series of events full circle.
The defining plotline of the story, which is told through a series of flashbacks which eventually fold into the present, is the main character’s, Rhonda, discovery of the abuse of her childhood friend, Lizzy, and the cause and perpetrators of the unsolved murder of Daniel, Lizzy’s abuser. The supporting plotline is the kidnapping of a very young girl which Rhonda witnesses. Although the resolution of the novels connects the two plotlines; the story events alone are not intended to give the book its full impact.

The significance of the book comes from the reader’s interpretation of and reflection on story events rather than from observing character growth. While it is evident that as a result of the story events, Rhonda has answers to questions that lingered from her childhood, she changes little from the beginning to the end; there is modest, if any, “actualization of the potential that exists in character and situation.” (p185, Art of Fiction by John Gardner). For example, one event that would have been highly likely to produce character transformation was the loss of Rhonda’s virginity. When Rhonda makes love for the first time, there is no real change in her; she does not reflect on how the experience has impacted her as a person or, more specifically, as a woman. Later, when she learns that the man she made love to accidentally killed the little girl he was paid money to kidnap, she does not experience any significant sense of regret, loss, or confusion.

Although Rhonda does suffer self-imposed guilt for not interrupting the kidnapping when she observed it, she did not suffer any consequence that increased as story events unfolded. Whether the lost girl is found or not has no real, long-lasting, consequence to Rhonda. Furthermore, none of her loved ones are threatened by the kidnapping of the girl either. The same holds true for the events revealed from the past. The discoveries she makes, learning that her father had been previously married to a family friend, for example, involve events that occurred to others.

These observations are not given to imply that LOST is lacking, but to indicate the actualization of character is not the goal of the novel. In fact, having the character remain fundamentally static strengthens the book’s intent; it encourages, requires, the reader to respond emotionally. Consider if the novel had been written differently and Rhonda’s emotional reactions were the focus. If that were the case, then the emotional impact would have been diluted as the reader would have been experiencing them through Rhonda rather than directly.

LOST is what John Gardner refers to as a “lyrical novel”, one in which “What carries the reader forward is not plot,,,but some form of rhythmic repetition: a key…cluster of images (and) group of events, to which the writer returns repeatedly, then leaves for material that increasingly deepens and redefines the meaning of the events.” (p185, Art) Gardener observes that, “Such a story can be interesting, even brilliant, but it can never achieve the power of an energeic action because the control of action is intellectual, it does not rise out of the essence of things…It does not capture process.” (p166, Art) While I believe it is up to the reader to determine whether or not LOST compares positively to energeic fiction, I would agree that LOST does not capture process. It defers to the impact of outcome; it reveals and invites examination. The outcomes of the characters’ discoveries are the responsibility of the reader to determine. To accomplish this, McMahon employs the use of allusionary themes.

As the title, and backstory involving Rhonda, Lizzy, and other characters performing a play of Peter Pan, suggests, LOST relies heavily on an understanding and consideration of the story Peter Pan for overall impact. LOST is not simply about how a woman learns of the sexual abuse of a childhood friend; it is an examination of the effect of the premature loss of childhood, how as one learns the truth of the world, one loses innocence, and when that innocence is pulled away too soon a person will continue to feel that loss as an adult. This theme is echoed in the use of allusions and direct references to the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. Rhonda, Lizzy, and their childhood friend Peter, are each cast into a world beyond logic and reason, a world where they do not belong. Additionally, each of these characters have experiences with a white rabbit that cause them to wonder if they are in fact the same person they were just before the rabbit crossed their path.

By tucking the past into the present, McMahon creates a lyrical novel that does more than simply tell a story of one girl’s lost childhood. ISLAND OF LOST GIRLS artfully steers away from victim exploitation as it explores the tricky territories of sexual childhood abuse and the burden of secrets between friends and family. As a result of careful crafting, the reader is not weighted down by sentiment but instead lifted up with understanding and appreciation for the importance of childhood.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Irishman, Book to Movie Interview with Author and Agent

By Roberta M. Gubbins, Ingham County Legal News

Lawyers write. They write briefs, opinion letters, memos, contracts of all sorts and sizes, wills, trusts—I could go on forever. Many write fictionalized stories based on events that happened during the course of their careers. Some of those stories are published and some are made into movies. How does that happen?

Recently I met with Rick Porrello, author of “To Kill the Irishman, the War that Crippled the Mafia” and his agent, Peter Miller, of PMA Literary & Film Management, Inc. They were in Detroit to assist with the filming of the action movie based on Porrello’s book, the true story of mobster, Danny Greene, a violent Irish-American gangster who competed with the Italian mob in 1970’s Cleveland--a competition that provoked a country-wide turf war.

Code Entertainment is producing the movie, which stars Ray Stevenson as Danny Greene, Christopher Walken as loan shark and nightclub owner, Shondor Birns, and Val Kilmer as the Cleveland police detective who befriends Greene. Jonathan Hensleigh directs the film. “They plan to release it by St. Patrick’s Day,” said Porrello.

Porrello, now Chief of Police in Cleveland, wrote his first book, “Superthief,” about his mobster grandfather and uncles who were killed in the early 1930s by opposing factions of the mob. “I started “The Irishman” immediately after my first book. My wife and I opened a bottle of champagne when we got the author’s copies, and I said I would never, ever do this again. But once I got those books in my hands, I thought ‘I’ve got to do this again, very soon.’

I self published “The Irishman.” I couldn’t come to terms on a deal with my original publisher so I decided to self-publish the book.” When it came out, two movie companies got in touch with Porrello, wanting exclusive movie rights. “I had no idea how to decide between them. I contacted Peter (Miller). He read the contracts, negotiated for me, and advised me which deal was best.” Code Entertainment bought the movie rights. “That was eleven years ago.”

“Where we are now,” said Miller, joining us after one of his many phone calls, “with the movie in production, and the book going to be published by Simon and Schuster, and I’m now going to auction it off in England and Ireland, is where we want to be.”

“It is not easy getting a movie produced. It has gotten much more complicated. There are two ways to make movie deals. One is you work with a studio, sign a contract with them, and you are at their complete mercy. On those deals, I get a fee as an executive producer and they buy the movie rights. That is plan A.”

“Plan B is an independent deal. Code Entertainment has five investors. We wanted to do it as a bigger movie, but the actors wanted a bonus package to be able to bring their entourage. You would not believe what these actors bring to the table—‘an extra non-accountable one million dollars for their chef and their barber and their baby sitter and on and on.”

“This is very important to Rick, I am proud that we worked for a long time to accomplish this. And the script is dynamite. This has been a long road for Rick, but it is a good road, and it will give him gravitas in his world. He will sell more books.”

“My first edition of the “Irishman” had lots of errors in it,” said Porrello, laughing. “I didn’t have a professional editor or proof reader, but the book was selling so well that after the third printing, I got almost all of the errors sorted out. It still needs work but we never got to that point. Now we will, because the book is being published by Pocketbooks and they will work with me to polish it.”

“I promoted it by starting a web site called It is the biggest and most comprehensive organized crime history on the net. We are eleven years old, and we get several thousand hits per day. And everything is archived—we have many original feature stories. Several authors who have written books about organized crime started with”

Miller and Porrello are executive producers of the film. After our meeting, they were off to the film set to watch as Porrello’s book was made into a movie. With luck, we will see the final result next spring.

Cutline for photo: Peter Miller, PMA Literary & Film Management, Inc. and Rick Perrollo, author of “To Kill the Irishman,” celebrate the filming of a movie based on Perrollo’s book.
Article and Photo by Roberta Gubbins, Ingham County Legal News

Monday, August 31, 2009

Comfortable Seats at the Theatre

...are what you may be needing if the script writers aren't up to the task. When I found out NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro (see previous post about re: literary analysis) was going to be made into a movie, starring Keira Knightly, my first thought was cool - second thought - what will the characters be doing the whole time?

I did what any intelligent person would do, zipped off to google, did a search, and checked out what other intelligent people thought about this. I found someone who agrees; the success of the movie will have a lot to do with the script.

The success of the uncanniness I wrote about in my analysis (previous post) depends greatly on reader, in this case audience, patience. What do we know about movie going audiences today? Not so patient. Perhaps things are different in England, where the film will be released in April...

And the lack of ending? Now there is a whole 'nother problem.

**spoiler alert**
In addition to the fact that there are no kick ass moments when Kathy, the main character, does something awesome, the end is a bit of a downer. And its not like the audience can be set up for NEVER LET ME GO 2 - because everybody dies. And they don't die trying to get away for the bad thing that's going to happen, they die because its what they were meant to do.
Hmmm...have fun, script writers, making that sympathic.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Human Clones: The Ultimate Uncanny

Understanding the theories and concepts of the uncanny can be extremely beneficial to the writer. By knowing what causes humans to be emotionally distressed, a writer can craft a story that will trigger anxiety at strategic times and in ways that support the intent of the work, heighten the fictive dream, and enhance the overall story experience. Ernst Jentsch, credited with being the first to identify the state of the uncanny in a 1906 essay, “On the Psychology of the Uncanny,” defines the state as a person’s “doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might be, in fact, animate.” He was quick to note that awareness and understanding of such a state is important to the writer.
“In telling a story one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton and to do it in such a way that his attention is not focused directly upon his uncertainty, so that he may not be led to go into the matter and clear it up immediately.”

Sigmund Freud, in his essay, “The Uncanny” later expanded this concept of the uncanny state being linked to the relationship between the animate and the innate. Additionally, he examined concepts of human development in regard to maturation as having a key relationship to a person’s perception of what is uncanny. For example, in childhood humans enjoy repetition. This appreciation begins before the child is old enough to desire, or even understand, control. As the child matures, and begins to understand the advantage of control and thus desires it, the child takes less pleasure in repetition. Therefore, continued, undesired, and uncontrollable repetition is disturbing because it represents a lack of control and thus regression and is therefore potentially alarming. Freud asserted that the state of the uncanny is linked to the subconscious in additional way. He stated that a person experiences something as uncanny because it reminds the individual of the conflict between their repressed desires, desires which the individual presumably struggles to control, and feared punishment for deviating from societal norms.

The clone characters in NEVER LET ME GO by Kazou Ishiguro are human and yet not; this juxtaposition of truths makes them particularly uncanny. They are human in that they contain human genetic material, yet they do not possess several key qualities often considered to be distinctly human characteristics or rights. The most concrete example of this is that characters (clones) in NEVER are unable to reproduce. While it is true that not all humans are biologically capable of reproduction, much of human culture, the structure of family for example, is centered on the ability and innate desire to reproduce. Ishiguro draws attention this aspect of the uncanny in chapter six when Madame (the woman who appears to be in charge of the school where the clones are housed during childhood) comes across Kathy, the main character, clutching a pillow to her chest and singing to it as though it were a baby.

“Madame…was out in the corridor, standing very still, her head angled to one side to give her a better view of what I might be doing…and the odd thing was she was crying. She just went on standing there, sobbing and sobbing, staring at me through the doorway with that same look in her eyes she always had when she looked at us, like she was seeing something that gave her the creeps.” (p 72, all page numbers paperback)

When Kathy mentions that moment to a friend, Tommy, a couple years later, the friend responds, “Madame’s probably not a bad person, even though she’s creepy. So when she saw you dancing like that, holding your baby, she thought it was really tragic, how you couldn’t have babies. That’s why she started crying.” (p 73) There are very few passages as direct as these; Ishiguro is more subtle throughout the majority of the book. This subtly, as Jentsch suggested, is even more effective as the reader’s uncertainty lingers in an almost unconscious way, heightening the tension of the story.

The exchanges above, first between Kathy and Madame and then later between Kathy and Tommy, are an example of Freud’s expanded analysis of the uncanny. It is apparent that Madame is repulsed by those she is charged with caring for; she finds the clones uncanny. Seeing the clones in person reminds her of the conflict between her repressed or uncontrollable desires, her motivation for doing what she is even though she is repulsed by it, and her fear of societal reproach for deviating from the accepted norms. More simply put, because Madame desires something for herself she is taking part in something the knows is wrong; when she sees the clones she is reminded of that conflict and projects the “uncanniness” onto the clones thus being repulsed by them rather than by her own actions.

As with Madame, the reader is forced to accept the existence of the clones. Ishiguro ensures this by using uses a very intimate first person point of view; the narrator, Kathy, directly addresses the reader, using “you” to refer to the reader several times in the beginning and then again several times throughout novel. For example, “If you’re one of them, I can understand how you might get resentful—about my bedsit, my car…” (p 4) and then again, “I don’t know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham we…” (p 13) These passages serve two purposes. One, disallowing the reader the opportunity to deny the clones’ existence and two, forcing a comparison between the reader, a true human, and the character, a human-like non-human. This forced comparison reinforces the sense of the uncanny.

Ishiguro’s exploration of the uncanny in NEVER is directly acknowledged. One passage in particular seems specifically crafted to capture the idea expressed by both Jentsch and Freud. “We could see hills in the distance that reminded us of the ones in the distance at Hailsham, but they seemed to us oddly crooked, like when you draw a picture of a friend and it’s almost right but not quite, and the face on the sheet of paper gives you the creeps.” (p 119) Another passage, less direct occurs later in the novel when Tommy is showing Kathy some animals he drew. “…and he showed me three separate sketches of a kind of frog—except with a long tail as though part of it had stayed a tadpole. At least, that’s what it looked like when you held it away from you. Close up, each sketch was a mass of minute detail…” (p 214). Although this passage is less direct, the focus on a creature that almost is what it is expected to be is evident and serves the same purpose.

Ishiguro’s exploration of the that hazy area between what is human and what is not human is more than an exploration of the physical but also of the spiritual, moral, and ethical. NEVER LET ME GO places a spotlight on the uncanny and challenges the reader to not look away.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Know About YA Trends? Amy Alessio Does

I recently met Amy Alessio when she joined the still forming YA Chapter of Romance Writers of America. When I found out that she is both a YA writer and YA librarian I knew I had to hit her up for an interview.

As a librarian who works with young adults, you must talk with teens a lot. What is most surprising about young adults as people and/or as readers?

I help run monthly clubs at the library including a Teen Corps volunteer group, a Gamers Group, writing and drawing groups and more. We also have three to five programs a week in the summer including swordfighting, CSI, scavenger hunts, after hours, video game tournaments and art classes. I also had the pleasure this summer of bringing five teens to the American Library Association conference, where they spoke with me at a Young Adult Library Services Association preconference.

So I do indeed have the pleasure of talking with teens a great deal. What surprises me is that anyone would want to work with any other age group! Honestly, I love my work. Teens today are extremely sophisticated about their activities and their future, and they are passionate about helping improve the world. I can barely keep up with my volunteer group's ideas about helping the community. Also they are very technological, but that's no surprise. A big surprise came when we realized that the library book circulation of teen materials went up 70% each year after we started getting their input about all services for their own age group. Taking their advice continuously brought in more teens in droves.

Do you see a strong relationship between teen trends in say, clothes and music, and teen trends in reading?

The public library is an equalizer. All types of teens come in. So I may not see trends in clothing and music as much as someone who works in retail or food which may appeal to markets within teens. As downloadable music became so popular in the last ten years, though, I notice teens do like more action packed books. Their attention needs to be grabbed from page one to hold them. They are used to everything instantly, from chatting to getting their music and more. And they are more interested in the larger world and cultures than perhaps before, as they are so connected to the entire world online.

While these trends are more immediate and prevalent in teens, I think both of these things resonate with adults also. I see adults with more interest in Indian/Asian or African American authors with books like The Kite Runner staying in book clubs years after publication. Also, adults want their action sooner now too; why else would we see so many Prologues in books?

How long will vampires be *hot*?

(grin) I see no end in sight with the vampires. I have 40 copies of each of the Twilight series which still circulate constantly, plus many more of The Vampire Diaries and more. The Vampire Diaries will be a new show on the CW this fall, too, heightening the genre. Really, Vampires have been around for several years, with Anne Rice, Buffy and Laurel K. Hamilton changing the faces of the genre. Charlaine Harris certainly kept momentum going and is more popular than ever with her TV show, too. An interesting vampire book will always find teen readers.

Predictions about upcoming trends?

Definitely I see more types of paranormal. I have to review some Zombie books; that seems to be the new creature du jour. I have also seen werewolves aplenty in adult books lately, which means they will hit teen soon too.

Steampunk is hitting teen now too. Kenneth Oppel really started the trend for teens, and now I'm seeing lots more variations with time travel into Victorian and Regency periods, too.

To my delight, I am finding many more teen mysteriers and thrillers, though still only a few teen traditional amateur sleuth series. Mysteries are my passion, and I review teen ones for Crimespree magazine. (I review all types of teen books for too.) It used to be hard to find teen mysteries. Now I'm seeing a lot more. It's the CSI effect - many teens watch those shows, too. How could they not, with the series being on every night in some form?

Amy has an awesome blog that covers vintage cookbooks. Here's what she had to say about where that interest came from.

Good question. My mother had great unusual cookbooks, though she was not a huge fan of cooking. Both Grandmothers were, and I have recipes from one. The other wrote nothing down. When I was younger I was fascinated with the crazy Jello recipes in an old Jello cookbook and made several of them. I took Square Meals by the Sterns from Mom and read it like a novel. That one discusses vintage cookbooks and funny trends in them.

My husband and I have always been into antique malls, and usually spend birthdays and anniversaries touring several. I was drawn to the vintage cookbooks over and over, and before I knew it, I had over 100. They are inexpensive and fun, from the Pillsbury Bake-Off collections to the Betty Crocker cooking/lifestyle guides. By the time I had 200 I was learning new technologies for my work at the library. It's not easy trying to keep up with teens technologically, but I do try. I wanted to teach myself blogging three years ago, and needed a topic. I started writing about the cookbooks, and my attempts to make some of those recipes.

In January of this year, I took an online class on blog book tours, and got serious about it, blogging much more often, inviting guests, promoting the blog on food sites. The traffic has grown exponentially and I've been invited to nine libraries this fall to talk to people about holiday traditions in the vintage cookbooks. I have publications planned from it too for folks who attend the programs. I use all this as an excuse to get more cookbooks, of course!

Amy is the author of "Missing Andy" a story in the MISSING anthology. Here's what she had to say about that:

The Missing Anthology was created when I asked Echelon Press CEO Karen Syed if she could publish an anthology benefiting missing persons organizations. There were several high profile ones in Chicago especially two years ago, and I wanted to do something. Karen agreed if I would edit it. I was happy to do so, and the stories in there are amazing. No one made a dime from that project; all monies were donated to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. I do have a story in there as well, "Missing Andy", about an antiques store owner who collects cookbooks and tracks down a missing teen...

Amy Alessio is a regular speaker at BEA, ALA, and Boucheron.

And you can follow Amy on Twitter.