Friday, September 30, 2011

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers is a novel rooted in the south between the first and second World Wars.  The novel is told through the perspective of five characters, one a deaf mute man who is befriended and revered by the four others—a man who own and runs a local café (really a diner), a Marxist vagrant who travels from place to place spreading his own form of gospel, a local African-American doctor, and a young girl whose family struggles to make ends meet during the Great Depression.

One of the adjectives used to describe this novel on the book jacket is “brooding” and this is the perfect description.  From the very first pages, the reader knows something is wrong and something not good is going to happen but whether it is merely a small experience or a truly tragic moment is unclear until it happens and then its impact is profound.

John Singer, the deaf mute around whom the other characters gravitate, is a sort of every man, an idealization of what the other characters expect him to be.  To each of the four, he becomes what they want and need him to be, a mirror of their own egos and desires.  He is, in some ways, the most likable and sympathetic character but, because he is so enigmatic, he is also too far removed from an empathetic appreciation that the young girl, Mick Kelly becomes the next most obviously sympathetic person in the novel as she matures and it is through her the novel feels most like a coming-of-age story. 

And yet . . .

The three other men who populate the page, who take center stage and then move off again, each offering a unique story and yet reflecting the same reality.  None of these people feel connected to anyone on a deep level.  They feel isolated and Singer personifies the only connection any of them have with the world or even themselves.  As the novel progresses, the reader can anticipate some of the losses each will experience by the novel’s end without necessarily knowing what the outcome will be.

The ending is perfect.  I simply cannot say more about it.

Why should a writer read this book?  McCullers manages to give each of her characters a voice so unique that the moment they speak you know who is talking.  Every detail from how the characters move, what they say and do, is essential and not a word wasted.  They all are so natural that even when they surprise you, you also know that what they did makes absolute sense. 

And now a personal story . . .

When I was about nine or ten years old my cousin Andrew gave me a collection of Carson McCuller’s novels and a collection of her short stories.  I tried to read them but none of them really clicked for me.  Years ago I read The Member of the Wedding which I thought was very sweet and sad.

In a way, it also reminded me very much of my relationship with my cousin because I had always felt very close to him.  He is the one who took me to the movies to see Fantasia, and King Kong, and Dr Zhivago.  He is the one who taught me to listen to the score, to appreciate the experimental and the lavish.  He was like an older brother to me and I admired him endlessly, with his boyish good looks and his love of Bob Dylan and making art. 

But he was much older than I and he fell in love and got married to a lovely dancer and he didn’t take me to movies any longer.  Then he was divorced and he married again, a woman I never felt any warmth towards.  I simply didn’t adore her the way I did his first wife.  Then she had a daughter and I didn’t know it but I too was pregnant.  My cousin’s daughter and mine were only about eight months apart in age but, by then, my cousin and I had grown miles apart.  I think we saw his daughter Amanda once or twice.  I have some photos of her one time when we were visiting my Aunt Frances and there are some adorable ones of her with Shira.  In the photos, she is wearing my sun hat and she has her father’s smile. 

With all that said, I’m glad I did not read the books when Andrew gave them to me because I could not have possibly appreciated this one at that age.  There’s just no way I could have done so.  I lacked the necessary maturity to see the beauty.  I now want to read The Ballad at the Sad Café although I don’t think I’ll reread The Member of the Wedding.  I liked it but I didn’t love it.  Not nearly as much as I love The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

This book is obviously a part of my reading through the Books I Should Have Read By Now Challenge.

Also, the n-word appears in this novel.  Although contextually apropos I understand if anyone would prefer to skip this novel as a result.  It would be a shame to do so, however, because this book has much to say about so many things and it is used in an accurate manner, not to offend or to enrage but as it would have been comfortably, if unfortunately, used at the time in which this novel takes place.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose is a collection of essays that addresses different aspect of storytelling—from structure (paragraph, sentence) to details (characterization, dialogue, gesture).  Drawing on a variety of published works, Prose frequently quotes from novels and short stories to solidify her suggestions in concrete examples. 

The title couldn’t be more perfect and Prose is obviously immersed in the literary criticism approach of closely reading the text to define its own meaning. Rather than looking at the author’s life or society’s structure or the literature of the past that influenced and informed the text being read, the text stands alone as a tool for interpretation.  So why does a character say one thing?  How does the choice of narrative voice define, for the reader, how the text will be approached?  What purpose does this word serve over another? 

It is in using examples drawn from her own recommended reading that Prose creates a remarkably useful text for anyone who aspires to write.  By first saying why something matters and then showing, by quoting (sometimes briefly and occasionally for more than a couple of pages) from an exemplary text, she shows the reader what she means.  Theory becomes practical and it stands to reason that a writer would want to consider how other stories are told even when those stories are so far removed from the one the writer is trying to create.

Naturally, the book concludes with a list of recommended reading (which Prose urges must be read immediately) and her choices are interesting as much for their bias as for their potential relevance for the contemporary writer.  One could probably debate whether her choices are even good enough to be urged upon the reader and there is certainly room for discussion about what books could be added or even replaced. 

I confess, I occasionally found myself wanting to skim and fighting not to do so, often frustrated by the “spoilers” that Prose inevitably throws out with impunity as she quotes not only from the beginning moments of a story but the endings or even climactic moments, giving away the entire plot in a dismissive sacrifice on the altar of her own demands to prove her point.  Of course, she quotes from so many stories, it can be hoped that time would allow forgetfulness to do its work and eventually even someone who read every page carefully and closely will have forgotten how much Prose gives away and approach some of her quoted and recommended reading with fresh and eager to be surprised eyes. 

I know that I will very likely find myself reading more carefully any scene or description, any character or bit of dialogue, that especially engages me, to consider what choices the writer made and how I might make similarly effective choices in my own writing. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard

Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard is a meditative memoir made up of three scant essays reflecting on her life, spirituality, and violence.  The prose is poetic and woven with allusions and metaphors making for what is possibly a profound piece of literature.

I say “possibly” because Dillard’s syntax, her writing style, eludes me.  I was so consumed with exploring how she was saying things that what she was saying escaped me.  In the rare moments I thought she might be about to bring her meaning down to earth, her prose slipped away from me again, leaving me feeling like I was grasping at grains of sand. 

When I was growing up, Dillard’s book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was ubiquitous.  It seemed everyone had a copy somewhere on their shelves and I assume they all read it.  Probably loved it.  This is why, when I heard about Holy the Firm at the Julian of Norwich one day retreat, I simply knew I had to read it.  Years later I finally get around to it and I’m disappointed because this book makes me feel stupid.  Of course I’ve ready many intellectually challenging books so I am not averse to such things.  However, I’ve a feeling that Dillard will be shuffled into the list of writer’s whose style leaves me disenchanted, which is not be confused with the somewhat long list of authors whose writings have left me so disappointed that I will never ever read another book by them no matter how many times they appear on the best-seller list.

I am on the fence about Dillard and will try to read another book by her soon to see if it’s just this book that has this peculiar tone that removed me from ever immersing myself in her words or if this is just how she writes in general.  If it’s the latter, I probably won’t finish the second book because, I know after experiencing this one, it won’t change by the time I reach the end.

As I've already hinted at within the review, this is a book I've been meaning to read for a while so it's another BISHRBN although it may be part of the list of Books I Wish I'd Never Bothered Reading.  We'll see.  

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Emily’s Quest by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Emily's QuestEmily’s Quest by Lucy Maud Montgomery is the third and final book in the Emily of New Moon books and thank goodness.  The odd thing is I think I almost like Emily Starr more than I do Anne Shirley.  Anne is almost too ideal, too enchanting as a child, and her life ultimately blessed (although there are, obviously, some sad moments).  Emily’s life also has some sad moments but Emily herself seems more real, less charmed, and prepared to make sacrifices while almost allowing her pride to ruin all hope of happiness.

With all of this said, the novel is so old-fashioned it can only be called "quaint" and the overly contrived plot is not something that would ever be published today.  Nor should it.  The stories are simply too precious and the twists too convenient for most contemporary readers to really consider them worthy of more recent publication. One doesn’t read a novel like this except to romanticize the past although we know that the past is never as pretty a picture as these novels typically present.

But I especially want to discuss the edition I read.
Bantam Books
August 1983
I encourage every homeschooling parent out there to buy this edition if they can find it and read it cover to cover.  Keep a pen and paper handy and every time you find a misspelled word, jot  it down.  If you can find even one chapter without an error, I would be frankly surprised.  I kept putting this book down because of the lazy editing, my frustration increasing with every turn of the page. 

Honestly, whoever gave the final green light to this edition’s being published should have been immediately fired.  Here is an example of what I mean:
Wasn’t there some wretched, vulgar old proverb anent locking a stable door after the horse was stolen? (121)
This is merely one of so many examples that to type them all out would be too time consuming.  In one chapter that was a mere four pages long I found three errors! 

So, dear homeschooling parent, buy this edition and make note of all the errors and then invite your child to do the same.  Just how many mistakes can they find?  Plus, there will be the discovery of words we no longer commonly use, like gooseberry and such, which a child who is reading closely may think is a mistake but isn’t.  Or they’ll find a word like “kididoes” (221) which I can’t tell if this ever was an actual word or is a mistake because I can neither find it in the dictionary nor figure out what it ought to be contextually.   

I tell you, this miserable and horribly edited edition of a quaint (albeit not much else) novel is a great teaching tool and Bantam Books should absolutely be ashamed of themselves for ever putting out such a poorly edited product. It is an insult to the author and it is even more an insult to the reader. 

This book is part of the Books I Should Have Read By Now Challenge.  It took me entirely too long to start and then finish this trilogy because I kept reading other books instead.  And in the case of this particular edition of this novel, the sheer torture of reading such a poorly edited book caused me to keep putting the book down which was kinder than my desire to throw it with great force into a garbage can. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Emma by Jane Austen

Emma by Jane Austen lacks much of the humor of Pride and Prejudice mostly because the titular character is, in Austen’s own words, unlikable.  It’s interesting that Austen would choose to write a novel about a young woman only she herself could like.  Perhaps it’s most remarkable that Austen had the patience to sit with this story for the weeks and possibly months it took to finish the novel.  I found myself eager for it to end already by the end of part two.  And it has three parts.

It isn’t that I disliked the novel, really.  I mean, the story was good, as predictable as one would expect.  Emma is meddling in the relationships of others after one successful bit of matchmaking.  But all of her following endeavors are failures and her foolishness, her vanity, become increasingly evident with each turn of the page.  There are many interesting characters and most are given enough time in the story to let each one stand out on his or her own.

Unfortunately, it really boils down to my not liking Emma Woodhouse herself.  I certainly didn’t enjoy this book anywhere nearly as much as I did Pride and Prejudice.

And this is where I am going to shift from writing a book review to sharing personal stuff.  I have a novel I’ve managed to get roughed out but have never revised because I disliked the characters so completely.  How does a writer live with characters for whom they have little respect?  I don’t know.  It’s not to say that I’ve loved every character I’ve created, but I’ve understood them. I’ve managed to think of them as wounded rather than villainous.  If I can find a reason behind why people act the way they do then even when I find their actions distasteful, I can put it all in a perspective of compassion.

These poor characters never inspired anything even close to compassion in me.  And yet the story still has its teeth in me and I catch myself trying to find some way to create one character or the other into someone I don’t want to write off the edge of a cliff and murder. 

So when I read a novel like Emma, knowing that Austen went into the writing to create a character that would not evoke sympathy, I am baffled at how it can be so effective. Gone with the Wind is another example because almost everyone dislikes Scarlett O’Hara. 

What keeps the reader reading when the protagonist is unlikable?

I know that some people eagerly await Scarlett’s come-uppance and, since we know an Austen romance must end in marriage, implying a “happily ever after,” Emma will manage to stop complicating everyone’s life, especially her own. 

I continue to ignore the story with teeth.  Either one day something will click, my talent will meet the novel’s intention and hit the ground running, or I’ll eventually forget it altogether.

In the meantime, I’ll keep reading and try to better understand how other writers do it.  Even if I never do settle down with that story, there are so many other characters with stories to tell that I’m sure something better will find its way on to the page.  If not better, at least peopled with more likable characters.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife by Francine Prose

Anne Frank:  The Book, The Life, The Afterlife by Francine Prose is an academic look at The Diary of a Young Girl.  Prose begins by outlining Anne Frank’s history including her death in Bergen-Belsen from typhus.  She then goes on to explore how her diary was eventually published, including the surprising drama of how her book became adapted for the stage and screen.

Prose has a great admiration for Anne Frank and she sees an unrealized talent in how Anne chose to revise her diary, a detail many readers do not realize.  For Anne Frank, inspired by a speech she heard on the radio, her diary had the potential to be published that others might read it and, for this reason, she begins revising the earlier entries, clarifying details, fleshing out scenes from her life, and creatively rewriting her past so that the diary we now read, a combination of both the original diary and revised versions.  It is in comparing the drafts Prose argues the reader can’t help but appreciate the young girl’s talent.

The process of publishing the diary and it’s evolution from page to stage to screen is full of further drama were publishers reject the manuscript and some versions of the script are rejected because they are too Jewish.  Her father’s editorial choices seem less obtrusive and the rationale to tone down some of the sexual curiosity is more indicative of social mores than a father’s over-protectiveness or denial. 

However, in Prose’s mind, it is reprehensible how Anne was eventually portrayed on stage and in the movie.  Her persona is reduced to that of a vapid teenager who is idealistic, an adaptation that is devoid of any of the insight and introspection of the revised diary.  She is not alone in feeling this way and an updated and more honest version of Anne’s story has been realized in a revival which has also been brought to the screen through Masterpiece Theater.

Prose doesn’t shy away from discussing how some people have tried to deny the diary is real and anyone who has read about Holocaust denial is already aware of just how vicious these attacks can be.  She doesn’t give a lot of space to this, however, which is probably for the best.   

Where the author falls short of the book’s full potential is in the final chapters where she discusses the use of Anne Frank’s diary in the classroom, both in high school classes she’s observed and in college level courses she, herself, has taught.  The potential to look at how the book has been used to teach history, tolerance, how it has come under attack and been challenged as a necessary educational text, are given very little attention.  Highlighting a few unfortunate resources for quizzes on the text, she glosses over the profound impact this book has upon nearly everyone who has ever read it.  After devoting so much scrutiny to how the book came to be published and adapted beyond even Anne Frank’s aspirations, it is unfortunate that Prose chose not to give the ongoing relevance of book for the individual reader.  Her own choice, to look at the diary of a young girl as more than an interesting document and give it the academic scrutiny reserved for literary classics is evidence of how deeply this book touches the reader. Unfortunately, Prose never really carries her exploration into the intimate which, given that she is discussing a diary, is both ironic and a disappointment. 

(One of the things to which Prose alludes (on page244) is an introduction, written by Noam Chomsky, to a book by a Holocaust denier. You can read more about that here.)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

We Interrupt This Blog for a Little Nepotism

Normally I do not cross-post between blogs but since this is my book review blog and this is sort of about writing and writers, it seemed apropos to stray from my norm.

As you all know, I'm not above sharing links to my daughter's drawings and, as you can't possibly know, I'll soon be doing something similar for one of my sons as he begins putting himself "out there," as it were.  So I'm all about the nepotism which is how I ended up over here, on Janice Erlbaum's blog.  I mentioned in a previous post (one of those "Satia Sampler Saturday" posts) that I'd written something for another blog.

Well, now you can read it.  Go there now.  Read.  Comment.  Tell Janice how amazing I am.  Or tell her how amazing she is.  Either way, let her know you were there/here/where?/I'm lost/*sigh*.

Rob pointed out the irony of my looking like I have a gun pointed at my head.  Sometimes writing does feel like that, like the only way I can make it happen is if . . . lucky for me this poster actually follows me from room to room so I always have the threat close at hand.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird:  Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott is right up there in popularity as Writing Down the Bones in writing circles.  The first time I read it, I was completely baffled by its popularity.  I would have given it a begrudging 3 stars and mostly because I like Lamott’s candor and humor.  Otherwise, I was left uninspired.  I held onto the book for whatever reason and, after reading a couple of her essay collections and some of her novels, I chose to reread this book with the intention that, should I still find it underwhelming, I would give it away.

I can only guess that when I read the book the first time, I was not interested in writing a novel.  Or perhaps I was in some other phase of my personal writing.  For whatever reason, this time when I read the book, I found it more inspiring.  It is probably no coincidence that I came up with a writing challenge while reading this book.  I also wrote a piece for someone’s blog at her request.  I even sent part one of one of my novels (I have more than one manuscript) to someone who offered to read it for me. 

This is what I look for in a book that is supposed to be inspirational.  No, this is not a practical guide that will tell you how to revise your writing.  Lamott shares her writing process, her experiences, and even pulls the curtain aside to reveal the man hiding back there, the bugaboo of what it takes to be published and what it means.  The reality of publication is not pretty and Lamott doesn’t pull punches, but she hits with humor and it is easy to accept even the most bitter truth when it comes from someone who is both humble and a moderate success.  Less successful, the reader could too easily dismiss the less joyful news as sour grapes; a too successful writer, on the other hand, would be ignored because the reader would just assume any words of caution are rooted in good fortune, dismissing the things with a breezy “easy for you to say.”

For inspiration, this book works for me.  I’ll probably read it again but not any time soon.  For those who have loved Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and who have one or more novel manuscripts waiting for publication, this book may be just enough inspiration to get you to a workshop or revise one more time.  Don’t look here for practical advice beyond the early stages of writing. While Lamott will urge you to find other writers to read your work, will insist you write daily and hold your writing time sacred, but she will not tell you how to carry a rough draft, line by line, to publication nor will she delineate how to get an agent to shop your work around.  This book is for the earlier stages in writing.  As I’ve learned, if read at the right time, this is a very good book.  If you’re disappointed in what Lamott has to say, come back to her book a few years later and see if you don’t find it more informative and amusing than you did before. 

It worked for me.  Now I’m off to get more writing done.   

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Something About Twilight

I simply have to share this link.

I've written a review delineating why I loathe this novel so very much and have refused to read any of the other novels in the series.

(I also want to point out that all of my old posts seem to have been screwed up by some glitch in the blogosphere and instead of having nice paragraphs there are massive blocks of text that are unreadable.  I had to go through the book review I wrote and try to reformat the whole damn thing.  When I think of how many other posts are probably also an unreadable mess, I want to cry.  If anyone knows why this happened, I'd love to have an answer, especially if there's some quick and easy thing I can do on my end to fix it.  The thought of going through each post individually . . . I just don't have the time, especially when you consider there's more than one blog for me to "fix."  I want to know what the hell happened, why, and what can be done to easily return all those old posts to their former state of clarity.)

Friday, September 2, 2011

A Charlotte Mason Education by Catherine Levison

A Charlotte Mason Education by Catherine Levison is a rather slender book that summarizes the Charlotte Mason approach to education far more so than even Susan Schaeffer Macaulay’s For the Children’s Sake.  Levison is not shy about stating her personal opinions and, while she espouses most of what Mason recommends for the proper upbringing of a child, she is perhaps more conservative in her own application of the educational philosophy. 

The author touches on most of the expected subjects, from reading, writing, mathematics, etc.  It is important to note that Mason’s methods were developed over 100 years ago, in a social climate very different from our own.  For the more progressive parent, her recommendations will probably be far removed from the educational goals in a liberal household.  Multicultural literature is not listed in the recommended reading and few women are represented, mostly added by followers of her method.  This is not to negate the merit of her philosophy; I mention this as a point of interest for those who may be wondering what methods of nurturing curiosity are available.

Levison, as I have already said, has a conservative approach to how she applies the philosophy, modifying the schedule to fit her needs while also choosing to prohibit her children from premature exposure to certain forms of literature and art.  She is not alone; I remember meeting many homeschooling mothers who filtered everything their children read and did. 

In the end, this book is a disappointment.  For an overview of how Mason approach the education of children, For the Children’s Sake is a superior choice.  If the reader then wishes to learn more or read further, there are the books Charlotte Mason herself wrote, in particular School Education and Towards a Philosophy of Education.  These books are available very inexpensively.  Also, they are probably better edited because I was surprised that a book on education was so poorly written that the author doesn’t understand proper grammar (she says “different than” while also misplacing commas and more).  In spite of my misgivings and even distaste, I will probably read the author’s second book.  Perhaps between writing the first and second, as she was teaching her own children the proper use of commas and other grammar rules, she managed to properly edit her own writing and publish a better book.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Montessori at Home by Heidi Spietz

Montessori at Home by Heidi Spietz is a very slender volume with large font and the occasional illustration and/or photograph that sketches how someone can incorporate Maria Montessori’s teaching methods without having to send your child to an expensive Montessori school, especially when not everyone has access to one of these schools.  What the method does wonderfully, and why it continues to be so popular even to this day, is to incorporate all of the senses in teaching.  Letters are taught not only by appearance but by how they sound, feel, etc.  

(Before I go any further, this book is out of print.  I would not recommend spending more than a few dollars on this.  Either borrow a copy from your library, a friend, or find a copy in a used bookstore.  Do not pay an arm and leg for a book that is only going to offer you very little insight.)

Pros of this book:
1)      It is very short.  I read it in a single day and a busy one so a parent can read this book in a single sitting, even with a distracting toddler around.
2)      Resources are listed in the book (although these are somewhat “dated” as no websites are suggested).
3)      All of the information is kept to a bare minimum so a parent is not likely to be overwhelmed with too much content.
4)      The examples are concise and there is not a lot of clutter of information to distract from the simplicity of Montessori’s method.

Cons of this book:
1)      Perhaps the book is too short.  The reader will have to bring a lot of imagination to the suggestions given to understand how to take what the author suggests as a way to start and move forward from there. 
2)      A lot of the resource recommendations will require an investment of some sort.  If homemade then the parent will have to make stacks of flash cards, buy many sheets of poster board in a variety of colors, etc.  As time consuming as it would be to make these resources, it could be fiscally prohibitive for some parents.
3)      This is really a bare bones look at Montesorri’s theories and methods and someone really wanting to apply how to use Montessori’s ideas will want to read more books than this one.
4)      The book is poorly edited with inexcusable typographical errors one would absolutely not expect to see in a book on education let alone find.  One such error I might have overlooked but I lost count.  I know there were more than five and possibly less than ten but given the amount of content even “so few” feel like too many.

Frankly, I don’t think the “cons” outweigh the “pros” because investing in a child’s education is going to take both time and money.  If you can find a way to make the resources for yourself, great.  If you don’t have the time or inclination, ordering online makes access to Montessori resources ridiculous uncomplicated.  However, there’s something to be said for making the items yourself, the child watching as you cut out the letters or shapes, curious about what is being done and why. 

The logic of how a parent can use the preliminary suggestions in this text to move forward into more information is obvious.  I would imagine some readers criticizing the book for not giving a better outline of where to go.  Spietz obviously didn’t intend to write a thorough resource and is justified in thinking that the reader can use a little common sense to take her bare bones or first step suggestions to begin a long list of activities.  How hard is it, really, to imagine what the next step from “The cat is fat” and “The pig is fat” to “The pig is very big and fat” and “The cat is very small and black”?  The use of a white board would reduce although not get rid of altogether many of the recommended resources.  A parent can write the simple sentence on the board, erase the one word and replace it with another or, better yet, use prepared flashcards with certain words to fill in or exchange one noun for another, one verb for another, etc. 

But this is not a book trying to offer a ready laid out plan for teaching and that’s okay.  A parent with a little imagination can easily take this book and hit the ground running.  After all, Montessori urged her teachers to allow the individual child to learn at a natural self-paced rate and were the author to create an outline too many parents would interpret this as a timeline.  For the parent who wants and needs more there are many books on Montessori but I’ve read other books that recommend far more expensive resources than this one and I would suggest that for this reason alone this book is worth looking at because expensive is not necessarily better. 

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