Literary Tropes

It bothers me quite a bit when, in order to make a female character interesting, writers make her some sort of damaged goods.  She’s been raped, beaten, her father never loved her, her mother never loved her, she’s an orphan raised by wolves/hateful relatives/on the streets, she had an affair with a prominent member of society and his bastard baby was stillborn, she murdered her abuser and buried his body in the garden, etc.  And from the pain of this backstory she manages to pull herself up by her bootstraps and carry on and this makes her beautiful/desirable/interesting.  It makes me a little ill that writers resort to this sort of storyline.

Are they really telling me that a woman can’t be interesting without being damaged in some way?  She can’t be interesting because she’s smart?  Because she reads?  Because she invented something?  Because she made a scientific discovery?  Because she’s really good at fixing cars?  Because she’s spent twenty years studying ballet and is now considered the world’s greatest dancer?  Is a woman really only interesting because of her sacrifices, because she’s overcome some sort of diversity?

I say all this because it’s true: but also because I’m a little annoyed with myself.  The story I’m currently crafting, which I really like, involves my protagonist’s (somewhat) dark past.  She never talks about it, and I don’t really want it to come up at all, really.  But I want it implied that she left America, in part, because she was leaving something [someone (a man)].  But she also leaves America (and this man) for herself.  I want that to be abundantly clear.  But she was also leaving someone and that is actually important.

The real trouble I’m having is plot.  I don’t know what causes the rising action or the climax.  I’ve had a number of ideas that bring her past into the story, but I don’t like that idea.  I don’t want to dredge it up because I don’t want her to only be interesting because of something she’s done before the story starts.

I think I really need to flesh out the rest of the characters.  Maybe something will develop there.

I also don’t want it to be a romance, or about the “friendzone” even though it sort of is.

I’ll keep working.

Advertisements

This Holiday Season I am Grateful for: Library Book Club

Or, that time I crashed the Library Book Club Social Hour.

My sister loves reading.  She loves reading in the nicest, purest, most normal way possible.  People of my generation, you, me, lovely book bloggers on the Internet, we love to read in this weird, exhibitionist sort of way: we take pictures of our bookshelves and post them online, we Instagram the books we’re reading, we write essays and post them on our blogs about the books we’ve read, we keep digital lists of the books we’ve read this year, we buy tee shirts with book covers on them, and artistic prints made from the entire text of a beloved novel.  Let’s face it, we are a lovely group of weirdos.  We are over the top in our expression of love for reading, our love for books, storyline, and plot.

My sister, however, is the Unexpected Reader.  Just by looking at her, talking to her, following her social media one wouldn’t think she devours stories, it certainly might surprise some people who know her very well, but she loves books.  And she recently chanced her arm at the public library’s Book Club.  I was flooded with texts about how much fun it was discussing a book with a group of people, how someone told her they were glad she came, that the group needs more “young people”, she saw people there she hasn’t seen in years!  She went back the next month.  I was super proud of her.

December, there was no book.  Instead the book clubbers had a social gathering scheduled.  Even though I’d never been before, my sister invited me and I’m so glad I went.  The woman who runs the book club brought snacks, coffee, tea, and had a fun (nerdy) activity planned for the book clubbers.  She selected newly acquired books from this year, wrapped them in fun paper and wrote their genre on the paper.  She had us each select a couple of books and we went around the circle unwrapping and sharing the book description.  We got a little silly, well, a reserved silly since we didn’t all know each other, and had fun discussing what we thought of the book based on the description.  We chatted a little bit about the ones we knew more about (I had just read about Welcome to Night Vale and what book did I pull?).  Overall, it was a lot of fun.

My sister checked out the book club book for January and we’re planning on both reading it so we can both attend the January meeting (assuming I’m still in the area then).  I am ever so grateful that a) the library has a book club, b) my sister was brave enough to go on her own, and c) she invited me to the party and got me interested.  I’m always complaining that since I left college I have no one to talk books with, and, yet, every month there’s a group of people gathering across town talking books!

Things I Really Like:

  • Rainy days, when I don’t have to go anywhere
  • Coffee, always
  • Taylor Swift’s latest album
  • Paintings by Vincent Van Gogh
  • Snuggling
  • Comic book movies, esp Marvel
  • Pirates, Ninjas, Witches, Robots
  • 19th Century European Literature, primarily British
  • Colorful flowers
  • Baking sweets for others
  • Writing
  • Mysteries of most descriptions: books, movies, TV shows
  • Ocean beaches
  • Being silly
  • Kittens
  • Reading really captivating books
  • Loving; Being in love
  • Vodka, Honey Whiskey, Red Wine
  • Arts and Crafts
  • Bringing joy to other people
  • Experimenting
  • Jane Austen

Seattle, Washington: looking for vampires and sociopaths!

My visit to the Pacific Northwest has finally brought me to Washington.
I’ll let you know if I have any Edward Cullen or Christian Grey sightings!

_________________________________________________________________________

UPDATE:  I found him!  Christian Grey, creepily lording over Pike Place Market…..

wpid-snapchat-7850451483747478586.jpgWhat a fuckin creep!

Today’s Entry

I am currently working my way through Amanda Palmer’s book The Art of Asking:

So far, it’s very, very worth reading.  Reading about someone else creating, and struggling to create, has me doing creating of my own, and that, alone, makes reading this book a good decision.  But it’s also a good decision for other reasons.  You should read it.

.

Today’s Entry

Amanda keeps coming back to this concept: “On a good night, you couldn’t tell who was giving what to whom” (Palmer, 104). She writes it specifically about flowers. Flowers she gives as a thank you for dollars in her hat as the Bride, flowers at Dresden Dolls shows. She’s writing about the back and forth appreciation between artist and patron; and recycling that love: giving the flower to a third party, someone in need of that rose, or petunia, or daisy.

My senior year of college my American Literature professor, an extraordinary Polish woman with whom I am still in awe, invited a writer she knows to come speak at our school, a woman named Suzanne Strempek Shea. As with everything at my college, it was a small gathering. My professor suggested (in the same manner my mother “suggests”) I stick around afterward and speak with her since she is a writer and that’s what I wanted to do.

We had been assigned one of Suzanne’s books the previous semester. I’d read it in the way I “read” many books in college: read the first fifty to one hundred pages, skimmed some, paid close attention during discussions in class (can you believe I have a degree in English?). I felt weird about speaking to an author (one with actual published novels), let alone one for whom I hadn’t had the decency to finish the one book of hers I’d encountered.

But I had won one of her novels in a raffle that afternoon so I could use asking her to sign the damn book as an introduction. I cannot tell you what we talked about. I remember we both had somewhere else to be. She was very gracious in telling me I could email her whenever I wanted. Her email was on her website, she said.

Right. Like I’d ever have the confidence to do that.

About a year later I was working as a teacher in a seasonal outdoor school program. Which meant, amongst other things, that I was unemployed half the year. One of those bouts of unemployment occurred from Thanksgiving to Easter. I spent that first winter out of college drifting around my parents’ house while harrowing, frozen gales wailed without (I don’t like winter). To occupy myself I began writing a modernized version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion set in America with the full expectation it was going to be terrible.

At some point I thought maybe my story could go somewhere and I panicked about some of the concepts and language I was using and, dear gawd, what if my mother read it one day… or my grandmother? Gawd, what then?

That’s when I remembered something Suzanne had said at Caz. She said, as a writer, you can’t let what someone else might think hold you back. You’ve got to write it anyway. It’s your story, your voice, your authenticity. Forget about what would please your mother or your grandmother and just write. I was so overwhelmed remembering that piece of advice that I immediately, at one in the morning, looked up Suzanne’s email and wrote her to tell her my exact epiphany as it had happened.

She’d tossed a flower into the crowd that afternoon in New York, and I was handing the one I’d caught back to her to show my appreciation.

Little did I know just how much.

Some time later Suzanne’s book Sunday’s In America came out. I’d known of the project. Either she had mentioned it at my school, or else I’d read about it on her website (or both), I knew the book was out and that she was doing readings in the area. My sister, K, had heard NPR’s interview with Suzanne about the book. I mentioned to K wanting to figure out if I could get myself to one of the readings.

Excited, K was on board.

The only one we could both attend before I had to return to my teaching job in the woods was in an area of south central Massachusetts where no one goes unless they live there. In reality, it was probably only a little over an hour’s drive. It felt like K and I were driving forever. We eventually found the combination library/town clerk’s office/auxiliary firehouse/town municipal building, parked, and filtered into the library.

There were, maybe, twenty people there. Thirty, tops. K and I were clearly outsiders. All the (mostly older) ladies seemed to know each other. Many seemed to know Suzanne. But, as she grew up in the next town over and still lived there, it wasn’t surprising.

I don’t remember any of the reading.

Afterward, we were invited out into the hallway that ran the center of the municipal building where we could meet Suzanne, buy her book, and have it signed. When it was our turn, which was almost immediate — I think the nice town ladies were being polite giving the out-of-towners the chance to go first — I, very nervously, reminded Suzanne that we had met before, that her friend was my professor, that I had emailed her a few months back.

That’s when she said: “Rebecca?”

She stood and came around the table. I remember her being very tall. I don’t know how tall she is, but she felt tall; and I felt young. Very young. And insignificant. There was no reason for a locally known, published author to remember a recent college graduate/aspiring writer with severely limited Life Experience who was, at that moment, on a day trip with her Big Sister.

“I’ve been meaning to thank you for your email.”

What the fish?

She went on to tell me, when she received my email, she’d been struggling with the exact same thing. She was working on Sundays In America and was having trouble. She’d gotten stuck worrying what Other People would think of what she was writing. Then she read my email that parroted back the words I’d heard from her only a year previous.

“I printed out your email. It’s taped up over my writing desk. I look at it whenever I start to doubt myself.”1

At this point I was completely speechless.

Suzanne hugged me, repeated her thanks. I left amazed that my small, seemingly insignificant action, one done impulsively and spontaneously, had a very large, very real impact. My email, in part, gave a woman back the state of mind she needed to finish working on her book.

The one we were there to purchase and hear her read.

The flower was back in my hands.

That summer I finished my story. Not awesome. But finished. For me, that alone, was cause for celebration. And while that particular story has gone nowhere (it’s been on a bottom shelf for six years), the lesson I learned while writing it made the act itself worthwhile: The smallest act (poking a child’s nose, mailing a card, handing a stranger a flower) can do volumes of good.

It was a good night.

.

1My recollection of her words are approximate, but I am confident they capture the spirit of what she said to me that day.

The Books I Considered While Making the Previous List of YA Fiction

“Contemporary” (1950-present)

  • Holes
  • Harry Potter Series
  • To Kill A Mockingbird
  • The Giver
  • His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass; The Subtle Knife; The Amber Spyglass)
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower
  • An Abundance of Katherines
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
  • Tuck Everlasting
  • The House on Mango Street
  • A Wrinkle in Time
  • The Phantom Tollbooth
  • Coraline
  • The Westing Game
  • The Graveyard Book
  • The Witch of Blackbird Pond
  • Harriet the Spy
  • Freaky Friday
  • The Fault in our Stars
  • The Hunger Games Trilogy
  • Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series
  • Stargirl

“Classics” (Time Immemorial-1950)

  • Little Women
  • The Hobbit
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • The Chronicles of Narnia
  • Anne of Green Gables
  • Treasure Island
  • The Secret Garden
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  • Peter Pan
  • Little House on the Prairie
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
  • Through the Looking-Glass

5 YA Novels Grown People Ought to Read

A writer called Ruth Graham has recently received a lot of flak for voicing an unpopular opinion in her Slate article ‘Against YA’.  In it Graham argues that Adults ought to be embarrassed to read books intended for children.  The Internet Book Community, a community largely comprised of individuals who believe as long as your reading you are awesome, responded with the expected Outrage.

I would be a lying liar-pants if I said I wasn’t peeved when I read Graham’s piece.  Mostly, however, I was shaking my head at Graham’s Susan Pevensie-inability to see the magic anymore; and I was reminded of C.S. Lewis’s letter to his goddaughter in which he wrote that “some day” she’d be “old enough to start reading fairy tales again”.  I was also struck by Graham’s admission that she wasn’t too keen on stories meant for young people when she was a teen.

After sharing this article with my real-life Avid Reader Friends, I was asked by one of them what YA novels I would recommend Adults read.  While I do sometimes read, and enjoy, YA novels, I, like Graham, as a kid sort of jumped over books meant for teens, bypassing them for Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, and other books that were above my understanding.  I’ve never been anti-books-meant-for-teens, however, and I do admit I primarily read them because they are the books my students are reading.

That being said, if you are a Grown Person who, maybe was too old for these books when they were first published, or unaware of them, here are, in no particular order, five books intended for teens that you ought to read:

  1. The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.  Written as a series of letters from protagonist Charlie to an unnamed peer, this story follows approximately one year of the teenager’s life as he makes new friends and discovers girls, drugs, and sexuality.  In his letters, Charlie gives an honest report of why being a teenager is terrible.  Many Grown People can probably read this and see some of their own adolescence in Charlie and his friends.  The book offers grown readers an opportunity to look back and see how much they have changed, and to consider what they learned from that time in their lives.
  2. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.  Green is a wildly popular author amongst teens and young adults, and, while I liked An Abundance of Katherines better than TFiOS, I include it instead because, while it also shows why being a teen sucks, it’s also a story of an often unseen demographic: kids with cancer.  A whole lot of people will go their entire lives not knowing a single kid with cancer, but they are out there and dealing with something most of us won’t have to even consider until adulthood.  The story is a little silly at times, but it is also important: Green shows the healthy majority that sick kids are Kids.  They have the same hopes and dreams and anger and excitement and wonder and cynicism and idealism as every other kid out there.
  3. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  I read AWiT as an adult and I did not understand the physics even a little bit.  What I did understand, and probably what most children understand, is Meg’s sense of alienation and ostracism.  Feeling like an outsider is not limited to middle and high school.  It is a feeling that can, and does, crop up well into adulthood.  What Meg Murray learns on her adventure is a lesson we all need to be reminded of throughout our lives.
  4. Coraline by Neil Gaiman.  The Victorians are my heroes.  They had no problem scaring the pants off their children to get them to behave.  Influenced by a Victorian story for “middle readers”, Coraline echoes this tradition.  Evoking the adage ‘the grass is always greener’, Gaiman shows a world that seems wonderful, but once Coraline looks past the surface, she discovers something sinister.  In my experience children are straightforward; it’s adults that are often not what they seem, and this story reminds us of that.
  5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.  Like Green’s novel, TATDoaPTI, shows a ‘hidden’ population.  Unless you live near a reservation, or you seek them out, few non-Indians are exposed to the lives of the American Indians.  Alexie gives us their plight growing up on Reservations and what happens when they try better their circumstances.  This concept is not limited to American Indians, but found with any disenfranchised individual who attempts to change.  Results of which vary from what happens to Junior in the novel, to what happened to Malala Yousafzai in real life.  Nor is what happens to Junior, and what happened to Malala limited to children.  Grown People ought to be aware of these issues and Alexie’s novel is a fun and thoughtful way to learn more about them.

I agree with the Online Book Community that no one ought to be embarrassed to read any book that is available in a library or for purchase in a book shop.  If you are a Grown Person reading books intended for Teens and you are annoyed, or feel uncomfortable about it, remember: you are not the target audience.  But that doesn’t mean a Grown Person cannot enjoy or get something out of a novel meant for younger people.

Teen novels, like Grown People novels, are not always good.  Some, in both categories, are downright bad.  (For example, I’d say you can skip the Pretty Little Liars books and Something Borrowed without a second thought.)  But most popular contemporary literature is not going to stand the test of time anyway.  The ones that do will be revered by future generations and the ones that we enjoy because they’re easy beach reads will be replaced by other, equally vacuous-yet-entertaining tales relevant to the times.

I had a literature lecturer in England who declared he wouldn’t read the Harry Potter books because he is, and I quote, “an adult”, and that’s OK.  Some people are not interested in teen novels.  If you are, I recommend the above listed books, as well as many more.  There are plenty of YA novels I have read that I have not alluded to because I read them once and my life is neither better, nor worse, for having read them.  I might never read them again, I may have read them repeatedly, but the overwhelming feeling is mostly ambivalence*.  The five books I’ve listed, I chose because I have read them and I feel they are Worth Reading.

Also: I deliberately excluded older novels from consideration for this list because any novel older than the 1950s that is still popular could be considered a “classic” at this point.  Anything that is considered a “classic” is, by definition, Worth Reading, no matter your age.  

*For example: The Hunger Games Trilogy.  I’ve read them all at least twice.  My favorite was Catching FIre, but your life will continue as it always has whether you do or do not read it.

 

Annoying Childhood Books

My niece is reading the last chapter of a book I read when I was her age (and loved) out loud and it is super annoying.  I remember my oldest sister being somewhat annoyed when I read those books (out loud) but I didn’t understand why.  I loved them… until I didn’t.  A fast reader I sped through the series probably a lot faster than the author or publishers ever intended.  I would be finished with a book in a day or two and move on to the next one.  That one done in the next day or two, I’d be on to the next.  I read so many of those damn fucking books in such quick succession that I started to hate the protagonist.  She was such a pushy know it all, I couldn’t figure out why she was such the darling.  Why were those other kids friends with her?  Why did all those adults put so much trust in her?  Why was that boy so devoted to her when she treated him like crap and flirted with other, wealthier boys?

Reading that series was like reading the soap opera of Christian tween mysteries.  The series would be as if Encyclopedia Brown and Sally Kimball were dating, but Sally was seeing Bugs Meany on the side; however they all put their differences aside once a week at Sunday School.  That was this book series.  And if that were the premise of the Encyclopedia Brown stories, they would be just as tedious as the other (with the female protagonist – lest anyone accuse me of finding her tiresome because she was a girl).

All that aside, it’s amazing to me that I read and enjoyed over thirty of those books when I was eleven and twelve.  They were my favorites, I wanted them for Christmas and birthdays; when I finished the ones I had I cried out for “More!  More!” and was forced to wait until either I could buy more for myself or the next gift giving holiday rolled around.  But now, seventeen years later, I listen to another eleven year old reading the stories aloud and I am amazed these books were so enjoyed.  Meant for young readers, yes, sure, they are, but, come on, so was Little Women and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and those are books that can be enjoyed as much by adults as they can by children.  The writing in those books and stories are interesting and funny and the writing is easy for young people, but doesn’t belittle their comprehension, like many intended for young readers.

The mystery book series about the twelve year old girl who is smarter than everyone around her in 1900 North Carolina IS written for young readers, and it, clearly, is engaging (I read over 30 of them!), and they should remain in one’s youth.  Right there alongside the American Girl books, The Baby-Sitter’s Club, and, yes, Encyclopedia Brown.  Some books intended for young readers transfer well into adulthood (Phillip Pullman, Suzanne Collins, Madeleine L’Engle), but some do not.  This is what I have learned while visiting with my niece this week.

That’s your favorite book? I’ll have to check it out!

Image

Rachel Sugar over at The Date Report wrote this piece: All the Books I Lied About Reading to Impress Guys (And Then Read Anyway).  It’s pretty funny.  And: who hasn’t read something because the person we like said they did?  I’ve done it.  Dudes have done it for me.  And it’s always weird.

Although, if you’re lucky, you can get a good read out of the situation.  Unlike Sugar, I’ve had an OK reading experience when I’ve read a book because a dude told me it was his fave.  Not on my top ten.  I haven’t read either book a second time.  But they weren’t bad.  The first one was Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut.  The Dastardly Pirate who recommended it to me wasn’t aghast when I said I hadn’t read any Vonnegut, but he claimed I would like him.  After that conversation I went out and bought Bluebeard and read it immediately.  I didn’t hate it.  I didn’t love it.  I still haven’t read anything else by Vonnegut, but it was an interesting read and I appreciated it.  I also found it extremely interesting that the Pirate’s favorite book is a story about a cantankerous artist who did the art that everyone else was doing because everyone was doing it until it started falling apart.

The other book I’ve read “because it’s his favorite book”, he actually gave to me as a Christmas present.  We were barely dating and I didn’t think presents were necessary, but he showed up days after Christmas with a pair of earrings he made for me and a copy of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.  For our relationship, this wasn’t promising.  The TMM wanted me to give Steinbeck a second chance (because I hate him more than the overturned turtle hates crossing the road).  I think the vehemence in my speech concerning Steinbeck made him sad.  He assured me I “didn’t have to read” the book, and certainly not “right away”, but he fucking gave me his favorite book as a present: of course I had to read it.  I didn’t hate it nearly as much as I hate both The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men.  I understood his point about the language being beautiful (I even cried at the end, it was so lovely), but I knew our relationship was doomed as I started to see the TMM in both Doc and Mack (or vice versa).  Even though my eyes were beginning to open, I held onto that relationship for far longer than I ought to have.

Sugar’s life lessons learned from reading books for dudes were: “be yourself” and “you are not Charles Bukowski’s target audience” (amen).  Mine is: don’t read his favorite book unless you’re sure you want to know these things about him.  At the time we all thought it was super sexy when Jess Mariano wrote margin notes in Rory Gilmore’s copy of “Howl”, but now that we’re grown and more experienced we all know it was fucking punk move.  Any dude who wants to color your experience with a text is a thoughtless doofus.  As Sugar points out: “…identical reading lists are not the key to romantic compatibility”.  Neither, as it turns out, is being from the same area or playing the same instrument (which I already knew from high school: I never found the boys who played the same instrument as me attractive – unless he was Brazilian).  It takes more than liking the same books, or music, or movies, or comic book villains, or ethnic food, or historical era, or African songbirds to make a healthy relationship.