Tag Archives: literary analysis

Great (F.) Scott!

Sooo…this is going to be one of my nerdier posts. I’ve been a creative writer since I was a kid, but it really wasn’t until recent years that I devoted substantial time and effort to it. Before I was writing novels, I was writing essays, and sure enough I think the latter is a big obstacle I’ve been working through in order to improve at the former.

I had a professor once in grad school who’d given me an A on my biographical essay on Henry James. But he’d written something to the effect of, “You are a good writer. You could be a great one if you loosened your writing a little.” So no surprise that among initial feedback on a super-early draft of novel manuscript #1 was that its language was very “erudite” and needed relaxing to appeal more to readers. My writing has also been described as “dense” where one of my short stories is concerned—not necessarily meant in a bad way, but, well, I wasn’t really sure how to take it. My years in academia and business certainly did nothing to help my writing take a chill pill, so every new story I write, every revision I make (in my or others’ work) has been an exercise in smoothing and tightening my wording—which I’ve finally learned is not dumbing it down.

Anyway, with Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby out now, I’ve been reminiscing about the ol’ days as a student and teacher. Having approached this particular novel from both sides, it’s long been on my Top 5 list of favorite books; the pages of my paperback copy are covered in my chicken-scratchings, the well-creased binding falling readily open to certain scenes.

So needless to say, I was prepared to be critical of the film. (I viewed it in the apt setting of Notting Hill’s Electric Cinema, an opulent and crazy-cozy experience on the Portobello Road—I’m talking leather chairs with ottomans and a bar in the back. I could have fallen asleep from wine and comfort if I weren’t so dazzled by the film.) I’d seen early reviews disappointed in Gatsby as yet another miss in trying to bring the story to the big screen, but I have to say that, for what I personally take away from the book, I was satisfied. My vote is that Luhrmann captured its essence–including beating you over the head with its symbolism just like Fitzgerald does (hence, why it’s such a good book to teach in high school!). I even forgive the diversions it makes. Film is a different medium that requires different approaches, for one, and just because a film can’t be perceived as the definitive interpretation of a great story doesn’t mean it can’t be appreciated as an interpretation. And I adore the timelessness it evokes in blurring past with present, akin to Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, which is yet another of my faves.

So what does this have to do with my stodgy academic writing? Well, after watching the film and mouthing along to lines I knew by heart, I went digging through my archives and found an essay I’d written about Gatsby in grad school. It compares Fitzgerald’s themes and characterization to another American novel, Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! And providing the thematic framework for this analysis is a third book we’d read that quarter: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. O’Brien when he did a reading as part of the Chicago Public Library’s “One Book, One Chicago” initiative. I also got rather intimate with Willa Cather for a literary research class, spending many hours curled up with her primary documents—many personal letters written and received—at Chicago’s Newberry Library. So for all these reasons, even ten years later, this essay still holds a special place in my heart.

Allow me, then, to share this Ghost of Writing Past with you. Below is only the intro paragraph, but the complete essay can be found at this page: http://wp.me/PLJnP-Ys

The Things Men Carry Inside

“It was very sad…The things men carried inside. The things men did or felt they had to do.”—The Things They Carried (TTTC), p. 25

The above quotation from Tim O’Brien’s novel about the Vietnam war, The Things They Carried, provides a philosophical commentary on the inner struggles of mankind that transcends the war context. Addressing the universality of the human condition, O’Brien’s tales depict soldiers who, while facing a different physical landscape than that encountered by the characters of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, nonetheless map out an emotional frontier tread upon by their Western pioneer and Eastern society counterparts. Specifically, Emil Bergson and Jay Gatsby embody all the hope and ambition characteristic of the American spirit, yet also the fear and despair that can accompany fleeting ideals in the face of unrelenting reality. Such dreams prove the torment of not only their beholders, however, but of the other men upon whose lives they encroach. Frank Shabata, Tom Buchanan, and George Wilson likewise grapple with their own vulnerabilities, and, when they are crossed with Emil and Gatsby’s parallel romantic aspirations, primal instinct conquers civilized decency. As these five men do what they feel they must in order to achieve or thwart their dreams and fears, they become a study in what brings happiness and value to one’s life. [Read more…]

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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.


Remote Control

Today’s post comes to you via my new netbook, my new key to freedom!  Or is it… 


When my first iBook laptop went kaput after 5 years in 2007, I have since been desk-bound with my newer  iMac.  Yes, I am on Team Mac, but unfortunately don’t wish to shell out the quid on another iBook.  But this is beside the point…

My new lil’ Sony netbook is liberating me from my hybrid home office/guest bedroom.  So far, I’ve made it all the way to the living room.  Baby steps, baby steps.  What I’m getting psyched about is the ability to work on my writing project remotely in London cafes, pubs, parks, and even cemeteries, such that I can still get out and about and explore this city in the newly-turned gorgeous weather without the eternal guilt over neglecting my writing.

The guilt…oh, the guilt.  I am wondering if other writers out there will gasp at what I’m about to confess or own up that they sometimes feel the same way.  When I speak of liberation, this applies to writing as well, as, along with reading, it is the ultimate way to escape into the free life of the mind at any given moment, taking me into other locations and minds and hearts. 

Yet as of recently, I’ve been more conscious of the limiting effects of indulging this pasttime.  Rather than free, I can feel trapped…for one thing, there is the guilt I mentioned above when I heaven forbid do something else with my free time after work or on the weekend and have not planted my bum in my desk chair to crank out at least a couple more pages or revise what has already been written. 

Adding to this, I once thought it freeing that I could work through my plots and characters even away from my computer and pen and paper, as ideas and revelations will come to me in the shower or during my commute. 

“The best time to plan a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”   –Agatha Christie

“What no wife of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out of the window.”  –Burton Rascoe

This has had the effect, however, of overwhelming my thoughts, exhausting me noggin when it’s set in hyperdrive and I find myself trying to figure out how to get a character into or out of a situation while I simultaneously need to get my work done…my brain needs to be in on that, too, after all, and my high levels of distractibility ever since I took on writing as a primary and ongoing endeavor are leading me into some embarassing situations. The other week, I was working through a plot line in my head as I was exiting the Notting Hill Gate Tube station, and, realizing I should probably top-up my Oyster card—my prepaid public transport pass—I walked up to a kiosk touch-screen and cancelled a stranger’s transaction, not realizing he’d been standing there and about to finish adding £50 to his card!  I’d never felt so foolish and kept apologizing profusely from the adjacent kiosk as I saw him restarting his transaction all over again in my peripheral vision. 

“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”  –E.L. Doctorow

Even when I try to escape into reading to calm my overworking mind, I find I’m not enjoying it in the way that I used to—reading as a writer, there is the tendency to analyze the character and plot development, the descriptive detail and overall style and construction, not in analysis of the text itself (which is perfectly okay and necessary to truly engaging with it), but in comparison with my own style and approach, which is maddening.  Yes, reading can inform our writing, but what if I just want to read for reading’s sake?  Can I recover this ability at some point, or in taking on writing have I forever altered the relationship I have with other people’s stories?  And most importantly, should I feel bad to be feeling this way, or is it natural?  Writers of the world, please advise 🙂

In the meantime, I’m hoping that I haven’t just substituted a ball and chain with a house-arrest bracelet that permits me more mobility, but still holds me prisoner to obligation and guilt. I think instead my wee netbook and I will have many happy travels together as we get back out there to resume control of my everyday and observe life for it’s own sake—and, sure, if it provides good material for a story, that’s not too shabby either even if it does serve to feed my aforementioned neuroses.

“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”   –Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 19 August 1851


The Story of Moi

In my last post, I referred to a pop-up book I had created at the beginning of a graduate school course.  At the time I was pulling a 180 in my career path—after a few years in Finance, various signs pointed me in the direction of teaching, so I quit my consulting job outright to become a full-time student again and earn my masters in Secondary Education to teach English.  The actual book I made for the project is an ocean away in storage, so I can’t include photos here of my lame attempt at the craft, but I did scrounge up the brief reflection I’d written for it and thought I’d share it here since my mind is on it, and I’m still grateful for the perspective it reinforced within me:

As a child, I adored Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand for Robert Lawson’s lovely ink sketchings of Ferdinand, the bull who did not like to romp and fight, but, rather, sit under his favorite cork tree and smell the flowers.  As an adult discontent in my former Finance career, I randomly recalled this book a couple years ago and consequently became aware of how much the corporate bull-fight in which I was participating ran contrary to my nature.  My resultant epiphany prompted by this simple picture book centered on the realization that books have always been my way of smelling the flowers whenever the world seems artificial and harried.

The literature I read has the capacity to provide emotional, spiritual, and intellectual stimulation (denoted in my project as a heart, cross, and brain, respectively), as well as contributes countless other aesthetics that enrich my daily life such that I am better able to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.  Among the flowers blooming within [my project’s] pages are:  keys to understanding new knowledge or ideas, keys that open doors to other ways of thinking or to various corridors within my soul; airplanes that transport me to imaginative, enchanting lands and experiences when the everyday becomes mundane or challenging; the music of poetic, figurative expression as issues of life are harmonized (or made dissonant) in the sounds and rhythms of words; telescopes that foster awareness as I am enabled to see distant worlds and plights beyond my own backyard; and mirrors that force me to confront who I am and muse in self-reflection.

The multi-faceted impact that reading continues to have upon me is perhaps as infinite as the varieties of flora, rendering a library a virtual garden.  Just as Ferdinand left the bustle of Madrid to reside once again beneath his tree, so I left my job to pursue a teaching career that would let me read as much as I always wished I could (and then some!) and try to inspire the same passion in others.  Thus, The Story of Ferdinand has become that of my own.

And since then, I’d devote the last day of each school year with a read-aloud of this book (yes, to an audience of teenagers), leaving my students with the message to not go against their grain in life—“Find your way of smelling the flowers, and be very happy.


Fresh Air, Fresh Faces, Fresh Ideas

Ahhh…as I expel the diesel-perfumed air that I inhaled all day today in London, my mental lungs proceed to gulp in the intoxicating purity of the breezes breathed in this past weekend in the Northeast England countryside.  I mentioned in my previous post that I was venturing out of the city for a writing-focused retreat sponsored by the organization Room to Write.  I truly don’t think that I can duly convey what the experience came to mean to me and will not attempt to do so–rather, I will hold that close to my heart and simply say that I had the privilege of being brought into the fold of some of the loveliest, most accomplished, talented, yet modest and genuinely good-natured  folks with whom I could have ever interacted.  Sipping tea with them in the conservatory of a Victorian country estate amidst an endless supply of sandwiches, scones, and fruit on a day colored by blue skies, green gardens, and brown deer was sheer heaven…it’s so me (in my dreams), and I could have pinched myself.  Hopefully my Midwest American accent was not as piercing on their ears as the sun was in our eyes 🙂

As I tuck that sweet and shimmering memory in my breast pocket, I shall tend to some matters of business.  I promised that I’d share some valuable advice learned over the weekend, and I’m a lady of my word.  As I’m heading Stateside in the morning for a week—and consequently going to subject myself to 7 days of my parents’ torturously slow dial-up internet connection that I truly think would run faster if a hamster generated it by running in its wheel—I’ll break it up into smaller bits written in advance, but to be scheduled to post across subsequent days.  Fair enough?

All right then, I’d like to start simply with some gems of quotations that I picked up.  I will repeat them as direct quotations here, though most are probably just my close paraphrases of the actual content, and I apologize in advance to the plagiarism gods for not specifically citing their speaker of origin (as the facilitators may have been quoting from elsewhere in at least a couple cases) .  Whatever…you’ll get the point, capiche?

“80% of the meaning of a novel comes from the reader and 20% from the writer.”

“Writers taste life twice–once when they live it, once when they write it.”

On revision:  “Kill your darlings–if you love it, delete it.”

On research:  “Write, don’t research.”

I will follow up in a later post with a bit of elaboration on these…I have an early flight and had better catch some sleep.  In the meantime, keep writing!


Resurfacing from the Dive

It’s been a few days since I’ve tended to the blog, not because I continued to sink into the despair I was feeling when I wrote my last entry, but quite the contrary.  I’ve been inspired!  One little tangible gratification that came my way since I last posted was an unexpected email regarding a contest submission I’d entered last year…I took the lack of response as a rejection, but no, I was selected for an anthology of letters.  So, not a nod toward my creative writing yet, but I take this as encouragement in my writing in general.  I have always been told that I write a nice note… 🙂

Anyways, riding on that positive bit-o-momentum, I’ve been writing a new short story over the last couple days to enter into a fiction contest.  Making decent progress on that so far, but presently taking a break by shifting gears over here in the blog so that I can refresh and dive back into my story.

The Prompt:

Page 14 of Room to Write asks us to revisit a previous “diving” (freewriting) session and pluck out a phrase, passage, or metaphor/simile that we ourselves still don’t fully understand.  Goldberg is operating on the belief that sometimes our writing is ahead of us—no, not that we’re psychic, but that we’re “tapping into a stream where imagination and intuition meet.”  What may initially sound like nonsense might contain a nugget of truth and understanding that further writing can help unlock and deepen.  To do this, we should roll this passage around on our tongue and practice any or all of the following strategies:  a) apply it in dialogue; b) list associations with it; c) create an acrostic using a key word from it; d) draw it; and/or e) verbalize it out loud using variations in tone, pitch, or accent

On revisiting a previous freewrite, then, I’m torn between these two passages (the most peculiar parts to me are highlighted):

1.  “playing at children’s games mild lost to tea and egg pie and muddle gunk and tomfoolery wizened but not wise enough”

2.  “I catch my breath and try to inhale the purity calmness gaseous extremity that I can believe in the cool quake calmness of din and then I reach the apex of snow and glide and glisten along my way the sunny fresh extremes of hilltops glossed in icing and glint and free falling to a furry escape

Response:

To address #1, I believe I meant that the benign naivety of childhood gives way to an adulthood confined by more rigidly self-imposed rules of living, like proper afternoon teas or other modes of conduct that are considered refined but may be even more nonsensical foolishness (i.e., “muddle gunk and tomfoolery“) than the ways children approach life through their innocent, natural perspectives—adults kidding themselves that they’ve learned through years of experience yet still have so much more to understand.  “Muddle gunk” sounds like something very inspired by e.e. cummings, a way of making up one’s own words that somehow capture an idea through their sounds.  On re-reading the passage, “egg pie” really sounded strange to me at first, but now that I conceptualize it more, there’s nothing odd about it at all; it’s just a more silly, casual-sounding (indeed, more childlike) way of saying “quiche.”

As for #2, as I repeat “cool quake calmness” aloud, the alliteration of the hard ‘c’ sound instantly clacks against the roof of my mouth, creating a crisp, clean connotation (look, I did it again!) that suits the image I presume I was trying to create at the time.  How “calmness” can coexist with a “quake” or “din” is confusing, though, so let’s see if I can work it out.  I associate the last two words with the two senses of touching and hearing, “quake” being a violent shaking or shuddering like an earthquake beneath one’s feet and “din” being a ruckus, a commotion of sound (for some reason I hear someone clanging on a pan with a spoon, perhaps simply because “din” first makes me think of “dinner” by virtue of its spelling, not meaning).  It could be that the tremors and cacophony somehow respectively meld into a steady vibration and white noise, within the hum of which one actually can drown out distraction and disturbance to find peace.

As to why I would describe the escape from all the clamor as “furry,” I’ll use that for my acrostic:

Friction-free

Underbelly

Refreshing

Relief

Yielding

It seems I meant that it would be a soft landing that would only bring tickling, warming, soothing relief as it breaks the fall from the more putrid, rotting, artificially-created existence described earlier in the freewritten piece.

Reflection:

This was a useful exercise for revisiting my own words.  It’s wild to think that we can write things that we don’t ourselves even understand at the time–even more so that we can extract meaning from it eventually, and something that actually does make sense!  It’s a testament to the power of writing and how it helps us to unearth truths and propel us forward into the realization of them.


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