Tag Archives: Figurative Language

The Bookish Baboon

Cover of "The Book Thief"

While I feature the books I’m currently reading in the right margin of this blog, I don’t often comment on them. But as I have book club tonight, I’m in the spirit to do so.

First off, I was never one to join a book club before. My to-read list has always been infinite, and to have someone else choose what I read and dictate the time I read it within always seemed too constrictive. Why I joined this one, however, was a no-brainer: it’s a group of my friends who I’d want to hang out with anyway and who share my love of wine and low-key attitude. There’s no sense of penalty if you haven’t read more than 5 pages of the book, there’s no set list of questions we must answer, and the time-frame has been pretty wide open—so far, a couple months, which leaves me enough time to read something else of my own choosing in between.

Tonight is only our second meeting, and the book is The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. I am lazy, so allow me to just copy the notes I already jotted in my book journal:

Liked it. Took a while to get into it (one-third of the way through), largely because of language and structure/style—its very unique descriptive and figurative language is striking, but perhaps would prefer such in a short story vs. novel-length. Unexpected similes for sake of originality sometimes barred actual envisioning (e.g., “Her wrinkles were like slander.”), which opposes the aim of that literary device. A lot of characters introduced right away, too, so took time to feel acquainted with main ones, but ultimately did connect and sympathize. Interesting perspective of non-Jewish German suffering, and I did appreciate the dehumanizing effect achieved by repeatedly describing people as inanimate objects and inanimate objects as living beings (anthropomorphism)—e.g., “There were shocked pyjamas and torn faces.”

Overall, I give it 4 out of 5 stars. In the end, I was moved.

Our first book choice, on the other hand, was sheer disaster. It came highly recommended as a bestseller, and I have zero idea why. Here’s what I had to say in my little journal about Victoria Hislop’s The Island:

Boo! Premise was interesting (history of the leper colony on Greek island of Spinalonga), but story was poorly written and developed. Over-described, redundant, simplistic, 2D characterization, ridiculous head-hopping (three times in one paragraph at one point!), and spent too much time away from present-day story-line to give a crap about its main character. Secondary plot surrounding sister in the past story thread was absurd (her affair was drawn out too long to believe in its continued passion, and the way it comes to an end is very unoriginal melodrama). Climax was too abrupt with little resolution of interest. Nothing of literary merit to discuss.

Overall, I gave it 2 out of 5 stars per Goodread’s rubric (“It was okay”). I’m tempted to change that to a 1 because I hate it more with every recollection, if not for the fact that I did find the history interesting. A shame it couldn’t have been conveyed more powerfully.

And to round this out as a literary trifecta, the book I just completed out of non-book-club-related pleasure was The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. I just dropped 5 out of 5 stars on that baby despite understandable limitations as cited by other readers. One Goodreads reviewer says, “The Night Circus will be a 5-star book for a certain reader. This reader likes a lot of descriptions, doesn’t mind a very slow story and has a soft spot for circuses. I am not that reader.” Fair enough. It all the more reinforces how there’s a reader out there for every book (plenty of folks just loooved The Island, after all), so those of us who write and aspire to have readers of our books one day need to keep the faith.

Because—with the exception of the “soft spot for circuses,” as they generally creep me out—I am that reader described above. I hated the amount of description in The Island because it was redundant; I loved the amount of description in The Night Circus because, for me, it was immersive. Yes, plot was rather thin, I expected there to be more action-oriented warring of the magician’s magic, and even at the end I didn’t grasp the point of the whole magic competition and why its stakes had to be so high. But this book in itself had a magical quality that made it an exception for me; the whimsical, decadent, candlelit, and velvety descriptions are abundant but so lovely. More so than a story, the book was an experience, a stroll through the black and white tents of a circus echoing the surreal artistry of Cirque du Soleil. For that reason alone, it’s a 5 for me, and I’m seriously contemplating reading it again from the start as I already miss the warmth, illumination, and caramel scent to be had inside those tent flaps.


Same Difference

The Prompt:

Page 39 of Room to Write asks us to draw at least 25 comparisons between 2 different things:  something that’s around you right now, and something else that’s either an object, person, or concept.

I’m going to compare the old Victorian church outside my window to marriage 😉

Response:

1.  Soulful, can inspire

2.  Houses both joy and grief

3.  Immense, sometimes imposing

4.  Intricately constructed; always something new to see from a different angle

5.  What appears outside is not always indicative of/relevant to what’s occurring inside

6.  Wears with time

7.  Built one brick at a time

8.  Requires faith and commitment

9.  Can be alive with song and community

10. Is empty when neglected, hollow and echoey

11. Fundamentally the same structure throughout time, yet must adapt the way it operates to change

12.  Needs to be scheduled into a busy life

13.  The lushness surrounding it periodically gets chopped away, but does grow back, and more lushly for it

14.  Is a vessel of new life, on varying levels

15.  You get out of it what you put into it

16.  Can house hypocrisy

17.  Can’t please everyone all of the time

18.  Needs constant maintenance

19.  Provides sanctuary

20.  Provides education

21.  Requires attentiveness—not just hearing, but listening

22.  Requires reciprocal communication

23.  Requires an open heart and mind

24.  Cannot operate without thankless hard work

25.  Comes around collecting, making you pay now and then

Reflection:

These were the first 25 things to come to mind, and I’m sure that some of them are redundant with each other—I found it getting really hard by around 18 or so!  A very fun and brain-flexing activity, though, when trying to assess all that is similar between things otherwise so dissimilar to one another.  Writing involves an abundance of comparisons, after all, as such devices as metaphor and simile help us communicate more vividly and stylistically, drawing parallels within the universe to illustrate the connectedness of all things.


Fire Walk With Me

The Prompt:

Given the prevalent symbolism of fire across centuries of story-telling, page 30 of Room to Write asks us to share “a personal story, memory, or belief about fire.”  Or, we can conduct a freewriting beginning with the word “fire” and let it spread from there.

Response:

FIRE.  It takes life and sustains life.  It guides our sight through darkness or blinds us to what else we might find in shadow, revealing and concealing.  It illuminates our romance and dances upon the page.  Fire attracts the moth and repels the mosquito; it swallows the air and laps up the tinder that shelters us, spiriting it away in climbing smoke, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  It licks our bones clean and sterilizes the needle, preens the prairie grasses and purifies the water.  It  casts menace upon our faces when lighting us from beneath, yet shrouds in angelic glow when lighting us from behind.  Fire converts raw food into nourishment for our bodies, or consumes nourishment for our souls into raw emotion.  It is an exclamation that will clear a room within seconds or signal a gathering to share stories round its warmth.  It thaws, it soothes, it burns, it chars; it can fuel our hope or ignite our dread.  It can whisper to us in crackles and snaps, promising safety and comfort in a cold, barren landscape, or it can hiss at us like wind against our eardrums or a stampede rumbling down the hillside to crush us.  Fire is an element embracing our passions, sweeping exponentially in our lust or our anger until it sizzles into dowsing foam or, when there’s nothing more upon which it can feed, coughs its smoldering death rattle as glowing cinders close their eyes on a bed of black.

Reflection:

Ah, this prompt brought me back to my teaching days, when fire was so often imagery to analyzeI’ve actually used this exact same activity in class so that students could reflect on what connotations fire held for them.  And, as I can see above, I personally muse over the dualities of fire in all its functions and figurative implications.

This dichotomy is evident in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, in which fire goes from being a symbol of a romantic love to that of recklessness:

“O! she doth teach the torches to burn bright.” – Romeo commenting on Juliet’s beauty

“These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume.” – The Friar commenting on R&J’s impetuous actions

In just writing about it above, I found how naturally anthropomorphism came, describing fire in terms of carrying out human/animal actions—e.g., “laps up,” “licks,” “preens,” “whisper,” “coughs,” etc.  This immediately brings to mind the figurative and descriptive language William Golding employed to depict fire in Lord of the Flies:
“Smoke was rising here and there among the creepers that festooned the dead or dying trees.  As they watched, a flash of fire appeared at the root of one wisp, and then the smoke thickened.  Small flames stirred at the trunk of a tree and crawled away through leaves and brushwood, dividing and increasing.  One patch touched a tree trunk and scrambled up like a bright squirrel.  The smoke increased, sifted, rolled outwards.  The squirrel leapt on the wings of the wind and clung to another standing tree, eating downwards. Beneath the dark canopy of leaves and smoke the fire laid hold on the forest and began to gnaw.  Acres of black and yellow smoke rolled steadily toward the sea.  At the sight of the flames and the irresistible course of the fire, the boys broke into shrill, excited cheering.  The flames, as though they were a kind of wild life, crept as a jaguar creeps on its belly toward a line of birch-like saplings that fledged an outcrop of the pink rock.  They flapped at the first of the trees, and the branches grew a brief foliage of fire.  The heart of flame leapt nimbly across the gap between the trees and then went swinging and flaring along the whole row of them.  Beneath the capering boys a quarter of a mile square of forest was savage with smoke and flame.  The separate noises of the fire merged into a drum-roll that seemed to shake the mountain.”
The similes and anthropomorphism above create such vivid sensory detail; this is the kind of descriptive writing to aspire for.
Okay then, your turn.  Does fire bear a personal meaning for you?  What images, emotions, or beliefs does it represent?


If I Could Talk I’d Tell You…

Sometimes what is really worth saying is what is most difficult to say.  Perhaps anyone can tell a story, but it’s the unsayable that charges the tale with compelling if not conflicting emotion.  Writers write because they have something within that is urging to be said; the challenge, though (and the reason why I think not just anyone can tell a good story), is articulating what we feel so strongly when there may be no direct means of doing so.  This is why people use metaphor and simile or play off the sounds of words themselves to recreate an experience that is otherwise unrelatable.

The Prompt:

To help us say the unsayable, page 23 of Room to Write asks us to “choose a feeling, idea, or experience that you haven’t been able to express to anyone no matter how hard or often you have tried.”  In trying to convey this, we are encouraged to use any of the following writing strategies:

1. Comparison – compare the sensation to a similar feeling that it reminds us of;

2. Juxtaposition – describe conflicting aspects of the sensation, side by side; and/or,

3. Rhythm – structure the words/syntax of our sentences to audibly mimic the sensation.

Response:

At times, it felt my eyes would propel from their sockets, or splash out of them with the popping burst of a water balloon breaking against blades of grass…as if I might literally ‘cry my eyes out.’  My heart felt it might split open my chest cavity like a crab leg gripped in the toothed metal of a lobster cracker; holding my heart back from rupture, however, was an opposing anvil of pressure at my sternum, compressing my breast as though I’d plunged into ever deeper waters.  The dulling of other senses was likewise like treading below the water’s surface, looking up to see the pool of light above while deliberately sinking myself toward what was cool and black, obscuring my perception of life as it actually was through the dark and refracting depths and clogging my ears to reason.  At other times, it was like being strained through a sieve, dispersing the atoms of my being into the broader environment, a melding into the background as I soaked into the carpeting or evaporated into the walls, becoming more and more transparent from my own sight.  A water-logged cadaver deadened by apathy alternating with the quick-pulsing, hyperventilating, lurching engine of emotion that, either way, spun me off the road and left me paralyzed in the ditch, tangled within the weeds where no one could see or hear me.  This is what depression felt like.

Reflection:

Yeesh, I feel like gulping for air after trying to re-feel the sensation of a dark, momentary blip in my life.  Thank goodness this experience was temporary, triggered by a few too many life changes that occurred at once—good changes overall, granted, but changes nonetheless that entailed adjustment and sacrifice.  Ah, the bittersweetness of life…but as I learned in Istanbul’s bazaars last autumn, it is good for their elaborately woven Turkish carpets to be trodden on, as it only makes the knots stronger.  And thus we all strengthen into something of more beauty just when we may want to pity ourselves for being stepped on.

In any case, while I don’t have any issues talking about it (I prefer to, actually, as being able to speak of it in the past tense makes me revel in the happiness of my present and optimism for my future), I never feel I can adequately get the experience across.  And I can’t say for certain I’ve done so here, nor really approached it in the way that Bonni Goldberg has asked; all I can say is that I wrote what came to me most readily, and I know I could rewrite it through various other lenses.

I didn’t deliberately attempt rhythm, but if I want to grasp for sound effects, I detect some unintended assonance and alliteration in the penultimate sentence:  the repeated “aw” sound in “water-logged” that draws out the words like the slowed feeling of trying to run under water, the interspersed “a” and “eh” sounds in “cadaver deadened by apathy” that sound listless and whiney, then the “d” sound in “cadaver deadened” that falls with dull thuds.  The action words with strong, snapping consonants and short “i” sounds that follow (“quickpulsing, hyperventilating”) seem to then speed up the sentence a bit.  At least that’s my take on it…or maybe I’m just making this all up as I go along 😉  But seriously, though, although my little analysis here might be stretching because I didn’t try to strategically embed devices like this, I point out these examples just to show how the sound of language could be used for certain effects, and obviously more effectively when done on purpose.  I think this is at least the 2nd time I’ve bypassed rhythm as a writing technique in my responses, so I really need to start challenging myself more in this area.

But enough about me.  How might you say the unsayable?


%d bloggers like this: