Monday, December 26, 2016


After writing about Ebenezer Scrooge’s conversion from isolated miser to compassionate friend in my last post, something occurred to me.  When it comes to Christmas stories, so much of them revolve around the importance of socialization.  Scrooge is isolated, friendless, and suspicious of his fellow man.  But by the end of the book he’s going around saying hello to random people on the street. 

Could it be that the extrovert ideal-parties and music and colors and noise and movement and tons of conversation and laughter and food and basically everything in excess--has infiltrated even Christmas?

Now I agree, the holidays should be spent with reconnecting with the people we take for granted the rest of the year, showing friends how much they mean to us, and enjoying quality time with loved ones.  It’s a sort of illustration of the Nativity Story: God became flesh, He came down to earth, just to be with his estranged creation and restore a loving relationship with us. 

But there seems to be an ideal of a full house, of crowded tables and noisy malls.  These ideals are vastly evident in movies.  And as an introvert coming to grips with her introvertedness,* I now realize why these crowded, noisy gatherings always unsettled me.  Introverts are usually stimulated easier than extroverts, which makes them more sensitive to over-stimulation.  It’s draining on my energy to be in a room with tons of people all talking and moving and music piping in from the radio and lights blinking on and off.  Come to think of it, I distinctly remember that during such cramped gatherings at my Grandma’s little house, I would hide in the back room under all the coats piled high on the bed. 

This gives me a new sympathy for one of my favorite Christmas characters: The Grinch.

In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Dr. Seuss immediately explains that the Grinch hated Christmas because “his heart was two sizes too small.” But is that really the only reason?  I mean, we know the Grinch is a horrible person during the Christmas season.  But maybe he was a perfectly happy Whoman being the rest of the year. We don’t know.  All we do know is he hated Christmas, and that he lived just north of Who-ville, alone but for his dog, Max.**

The Grinch doesn’t seem to be mad he’s isolated from them in his cave.  He’s not the evil fairy that holds a grudge for not being invited to the princess’ christening and therefore gifts her with a curse.  No, the reason he is intent on stopping Christmas is:

“…All the Who girls and boys
Would wake bright and early. They’d rush for their toys!
And then!  Oh the noise! Oh, the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!
That’s the one thing he hated! The NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!”

And then,

“Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,
Would stand close together, with Christmas bells ringing. 
They’d stand hand-in-hand.***  And the Whos would start singing!
            They’d sing! And they’d sing!
            AND they’d SING! SING! SING! SING!”

From the standpoint of a fellow introvert, it sounds to me that the Grinch had a major over-stimulation issue he needed to address.  And as pretty much everyone knows, he addresses it in completely the wrong way.  Other introverts take note: Burglary solves nothing. 

Taking a breather under the coats in a guest room, however, may just do the trick.

*I know this should probably by "introversion" but that seems almost like a condition, possibly due to its rhyming with "perversion." 

** For someone who hates the Whos, the Grinch having a dog is a huge tip-off that he could be an introvert.  I too often feel a deeper friendship with furry people than the members of my own species.

***My own reaction: Ack! Physical contact! No! Your hands are clammy!  Did you wash those greasy mitts after eating the Roast Beast?!

Monday, December 19, 2016

"Story Genius" and the Art of Making the Reader Care

As 2016 A.D. nears its end, it’s probably only natural that one reflects upon the last 365 days and the events they held, and then begins to plan greater and better things for the next 365 days to come.  I am no exception to this proclivity.  Two Thousand Sixteen has been a roller-coaster of events and emotions in my life.  It was the year I finally crossed The Pond and traveled to Europe, which has always been an aspiration.  It was also a year of loss, of struggle, and of depression.  And most recently, 2016 is the year that I changed employment again. 

When I interview for a new job, the questions are probing, and (like the change of a year) make me think intently on what my goals are for the future.  And practical purposes for making a living aside, I came to the realization I cannot spend the majority of my life working at something for which I have no heartfelt interest.  The idealist in me said, “Surely God gave me a love for writing for something more than just one blog amongst a multitude.  Surely He meant me to do something more than simply write my life in a journal, and entertain myself with unpublished stories infrequently put onto paper.”

So, afraid as I am, I think that 2017 will be the year I actually try to get something published.  I’ve tried my hand at poetry for magazines before without much success.  But then, while I like to read poetry on occasion, it isn’t what I long to do with my writing abilities.  It’s terrifying, but I think that this coming year’s goal will be to publish a novel.  Whether through an agent, or independent, through a mainstream publisher or self-publishing, I don’t know yet. 

But with this in mind, I thought it would do me good to read up on the craft of writing.  There is no shortage of material on the topic, so I simply picked a book that had been on my library account’s holds queue for who-knows-how-long.  And so we come to the point of this blog entry: Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere).

Whew.  That title in itself is longer than some Hemingway short stories!  What drew me to choosing this book was the idea of “brain science.”  I’ve read tons of writing manuals in my time, including several times of reading Struck and White’s classic Elements of Style.   But when I saw that Cron’s argument was possibly based more on the science of what hooks readers onto a story and keeps them enthralled until “The End,” I thought maybe this would teach me something new.

Basically this writing manual argues that in order to tell a good story, the readers have to be emotionally invested in the main character’s struggles.  But the struggles must be more than external hardships or adventures.  Throughout the course of the plot, the main characters must undergo changes internally. 

Since it’s Christmas, I’ll use a well-known character for illustration: Ebenezer Scrooge.  At the beginning of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol he is a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!”  Over the course of five chapters he transforms from this to “as good a friend, as good a master, as good a man, as the good old city knew.”

This, Cron argues, is what makes for a good story.  Not only is stuff happening around Scrooge (because events happening to a character make them passive objects), but Scrooge himself is making changes to himself throughout the story, becoming an active participant in the story and therefore of much more interest to the reader. 

Another major aspect of storytelling that Cron touches upon is what is known as literary criticism as the Fatal Flaw.  Particularly hazardous in tragedies such as Shakespeare’s King Lear et al, this flaw is an aspect of the main character’s personality or psyche that causes them to make mistakes in judgement or action.  Cron argues that this “Fatal Flaw” should be re-named, because often the protagonist is aware of this characteristic, but due to a misconception of the reality around them they believe this characteristic is acceptable, even good. 

With King Lear, his ego is what causes his delusional behavior and eventual downfall.  But as a king, Lear thinks that having pride is part of his job of maintaining sovereignty over his subjects. 

To return to my previous example, I don’t think Dickens wrote in as psychological terms as Shakespeare.  But, from what we see of Scrooge’s childhood, my assessment of his misconception of reality is a sense of “grasping” onto material comforts.  A lonely childhood with only his little sister as a companion, and then losing her after she married for love and had a child, has made him focus on gathering material wealth rather than invest his heart into fragile, mortal relationships.  But in doing so, he’s lost sight of what really causes happiness and comfort in life.  He’s isolated or alienated himself from all humanity, including his one relative, his nephew Fred.  And as the story continues, the reader sees how Scrooge opens up (he begins to interact, albeit invisibly, with the people the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present show him), begins to care about what happens to other people (the best example being Tiny Tim), and ultimately to take the risk of engaging in friendships. 

To conclude: Did Story Genius live up to my expectations?  Frankly, no.  But that’s because I feel like my expectations were too different from what this book was really about.  I thought I was going to have to wade through various statistics, bestseller lists, and medical information about brain activity during the act of reading.  Instead, Story Genius is mostly about making sure a writer gives their character an internal struggle between their misconceptions and reality, and making sure this struggle is identifiable and sympathetic.  Cron’s challenge to writers is to ask themselves, “Why should the reader care?” and then give the reader an undeniable reason to do so.

Monday, December 12, 2016

"The Keeper of the Bees" by Gene Stratton Porter : A Review

Credits for photos: moi
I read The Keeper of the Bees before A Daughter of the Land.  My mom, who collects Gene Stratton Porter books along with several other authors, suggested it to me as a sort of peaceful, uplifting story.  In retrospect I wish I’d read A Daughter of the Land first, since that book wasn’t as satisfying, and then read The Keeper of the Bees to cheer me up. 

Although admittedly this novel is much more Hallmark-y in its moralizing and sentimentality than any of the other Porter novels I’ve read, I really enjoyed the premise and most of the characters of this story. 

James Lewis MacFarlane—Jamie to his friends and us readers—is wasting away in a military hospital in California from a shrapnel wound in his chest that simply won’t heal.  He overhears that, because of his continued illness, the doctors are going to send him to a ward for tuberculosis patients.  This will be a definite death sentence, for if he wasn’t already sick, he’d soon contract that sickness and die. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

"A Daughter of the Land" by Gene Stratton Porter : A Review

When I asked for my own copy of The Girl of the Limberlost for Christmas last year, my request was fulfilled fourfold.  I opened up a box and looked up quizzically at my mom.  Inside was not only a vintage copy of The Girl of the Limberlost, but also another copy of Freckles, and then two books by Gene Stratton Porter I hadn’t heard of before: A Daughter of the Land and The Keeper of the Bees

“It was the same price to get a set as it was to buy The Girl of the Limberlost separately,” my mom explained.  This was fine by me.   Though Gene Stratton Porter is not my favorite author, there is something comfortable and wholesome about her style of writing that I like to come back to after reading not-so-uplifting stories by Albert Camus or the like.  I’ve read a lot of reviews by modern readers who think she’s preachy or predicable, her characters too saccharine or good to be true. 

And this to an extent is justified.  Gene Stratton Porter’s books are kind of like the Hallmark movies of Edwardian fiction.  Which is why I was so shocked and uncomfortable when I read A Daughter of the Land.  
Kate Bates, the poor protagonist with a rhyming name, enters the story by passing under a church window and overhearing the minister proclaim “The Wings of the Morning.”  Not staying to hear the context of what the preacher was talking about, Kate continues on her mission to ask her older brother Adam for some money to go to school for a teaching degree.  Her goal? To gain independence from her overbearing father and unloving mother, and to earn her own wealth after slaving away for her brothers’ inheritances and her sisters’ educations.  As the youngest child, her mother expects Kate to live out her life as a dutiful daughter, taking care of her parents in their old age. 

But Kate is ambitious.  She longs for the land she’s worked for, and hungers for the education she’s sacrifices to afford.  She self-teaches herself until she’s more educated than Nancy Ellen, which causes her father to threaten to whip her. 

Since her parents are completely against her setting out on her own, Kate takes her own initiative and goes to her eldest brother.   All of the Bates children live under the iron will of their father, and Adam is no exception.  He refuses to give her the money, but his wife, the nonconformist Agatha, does it on a whim (after a little manipulation from her son).  So Kate takes the money and essentially runs away from home, taking some of her sister’s fancy clothes with her.  Even when she gets her own license to teach her father tries to control her, getting her a job near home (and nearer his influence) without her knowledge.  But Kate has already taken a job further away and with better pay, and so forces her father to break her contract—and his word. 

In the town of Walden Kate settles down as a boarder for the cross, sneaky, and greedy Mrs. Holt.  All of Mrs. Holt’s bitterness against her goes away when she finds out that Kate is the daughter of the rich landowner Mr. Bates, and suddenly her boarder seems like a prime candidate for marriage with her lazy son George.

After a bad start, George tries his best to charm Kate.  He even goes so far as to try to be a hard worker in order to impress her.  Kate sees George as a poor comparison with Nancy Ellen’s beau, the young doctor Robert Gray.  But she takes advantage of his willingness to please her and puts him to work, giving him land-investment advice and helping him turn a scrubby lot behind his house into a profit.

Just as I expected Porter to cause her protagonist to somehow overcome this would-be cad and his shrewish mother, the story instead spirits Kate into a completely different situation.  Nancy Ellen and Robert Gray get married, and Kate goes to their home in Hartley to help her less-efficient sister set up house.  Afterward, wary that the Holts had their sights set on her and believing she could do better than marry George, Kate goes to a teachers’ course in Lake Chautauqua.  For the first time in her life she splurges on a hat that is pure vanity…and immediately gets it ruined when she tries to wear it in the smog and wind of the train. 

Crying herself to sleep—she actually used credit on that silly hat, and now she is in debt over something she can’t even enjoy!—Kate suddenly realizes she’s hearing double, that some of the sobs are coming from the next room.  She peeps into the next sleeping compartment to find an older lady in pain from a heart condition.  Kate nurses her through the night and they become good friends. 

Mrs. Jardine is a sort of counterpoint to Mrs. Holt, being completely likeable, sweet and motherly.  And like Mrs. Holt, Mrs. Jardine also has a son.  John Jardine is rich and handsome and educated and devoted to his mother.  It seems par for the course for a Gene Stratton Porter novel that after a few minor misunderstandings and surmountable problems, Kate and John will fall in love and get married and live happily ever after….

Except that’s not what happens. No matter how hard John Jardine tries, Kate can’t bring herself to marry him.  To do so, she thinks, would put her under the same power of her rich husband as her Land King father had over her all her childhood.  And she’s not ready to give up her independence. 

So Kate goes back to Walden and…marries George.  I know.  I thought I misread it too. 

I won’t give away the ending to anyone who might be a complete Porter fan and want to enjoy it and draw their own conclusions.  But I will voice my own opinions in a vague, non-spoilerish sort of way:

-          Of the Porter novels I’ve read thus far, this is my least favorite.  There are a lot of things that seem nonsensical, poor decisions that just seem wrong from the get-go, and the sudden plot twists seem to come out of nowhere rather than be a culmination of rising expectations and hopes.
-          Although I didn’t really find her likeable, Kate is actually a rather complex character.  She’s filled with ambition and independence, and yet makes choices that tether her to places and people she doesn’t really care about.  Some choices seem a little against character for her, but then, in real life people make out-of-character decisions all the time.
-          There is a Porteresque romance in there, and I really liked it…except it wasn’t as satisfying as usual because it did seem shoehorned in.
-         This novel seems like a huge departure from Porter’s otherwise sweet characters and plots that revolve around characters and their love of nature.  If Porter was consciously trying to break out of her sentimental mold, I’d say she did succeed.  This story has a lot of realism in it, trials and problems that would seem brutally out of place in Freckles, and even the villains of the story (and they’re not all Kate’s father and the Holts!) are pretty three-dimensional and have some sympathetic qualities.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Puppy Dogs and Picture Books

My family got a puppy going on two months ago.  She’s a red merle Australian Shepherd, four months old by Christmas, with pretty curls at the tips of her ears and amber eyes.  We named her Ginger (for Rogers, not the one on Gilligan’s Island). 

Training her has been an experience to say the least.  House training aside, we must teach her not to jump on things, not to scratch at things, not to bite things, not to eat things like eyeglasses, not to attack our two cats, not to chew at our pant-legs, not to bark constantly, to give, to sit, to stay, to lay down, to get off, to come, and not to beg or get up on People Furniture. 

It’s exhausting, and probably the only reason we persevere is because Ginger is so stinkin’ cute.  I mean, just look at her:

Photo Credit: My Mom.  Picture Book Collection Credit: Myself

I’ve been foregoing a lot of reading of actual novels that I want to read, and researching Australian Shepherds and dog training instead.  Most of the books talk about psychological things like positive reinforcement (giving treats when the dog is good versus negative reinforcement of yelling at them when they are bad), and saying “Good sit!” or “Good stay!” whenever the puppy happens to accidentally do those things. 

The books remind humans that dogs are not born speaking human.  We are literally teaching this baby dog a new language, one that she won’t be able to speak even when she does understand it.  This made me think of that picture book, I’ll Teach My Dog 100 Words by Michael Frith (illustrated by P.D. Eastman). 

Like the story’s narrator, the boy who’ll teach his dog all sorts of things like “Jump the fishbowl, bring the bone,” we’ve started training Ginger with such lofty goals.  We don’t want her to beg for food or jump up on the couch.  But she is SUCH a handful.  And since 2017 is scampering toward us as fast as a little teething Aussie ready for her dinner, I’m beginning to think we should copy the narrator of this book and say,

“I think I’ll start next year.”

Monday, November 21, 2016

How To Read A Book: A Detailed Tutorial

Know how to read.  Since you are reading this blog, I assume this has already been completed.  Good; I like to be able to start a checklist with something all ready to be struck off.  If for some reason you are miraculously able to understand this tutorial without reading, may I suggest taking a short break to look into The Literacy Network, or perhaps make a trip to your local library and ask one of the helpful circulation desk staff for assistance.  They’d love to help.  That’s what they’re there for.  

Okay, now to the more serious obstacles.  Find a book to read.  Since this is not what to read but how to read a book, I will leave this choice up to your discretion.  Although I would like to remind you that I have some recommendations, there are also TONS of places to find book recommendations, including but not limited to Goodreads,, blogs, newspaper articles, magazines, and again, LIBRARY STAFF.  You know how I said they'd love to help you learn to read?  The other purpose of their existence is to help you find what to read. They're kind of like human search engines, and if you're a library regular, they can get to know you enough to personalize a reading material search more accurately than any online computer program.* 

Once you have a book to read it is vital that you find the time to read it.  This is a stumbling block for most would-be-bibliophiles, because what with work, school, chores, errands, bills, family, friends, holidays, hobbies, etc. it can be hard to find the requisite time to read. 
In this way reading can be similar to exercise.  Exercise is good for the body, and important to keeping it strong.  It’s hard for many people to find time to exercise at home, much less go to the gym.  Likewise reading is exercise for the mind—and, I believe, the soul—and it can be hard to make time to read in the comfort of one’s living room, much less make a trip to the library. 
One thing I remind people who tell me they don’t have time to read is that from a historical perspective our culture has more “free time” than ever.  Look at the pre-lightbulb society.  Just to survive people had to work all daylight hours, and maybe even had chores to do in the evening, all before crashing into rather uncomfortable beds made of straw in order to get a little rest before the next day’s toil began. 
We should be thankful that our society has so much free time, for social media, for television and movies, for music, for events and pursuit of hobbies.  We all have free time until we fill it up. 
So to those who hope to read more, I’d recommend this: look at your schedule, how you fill up your off hours.  Some people may reasonably have very little time to devote to reading.  There are children to parent, accounts to be balanced, dishes to wash.  But others may have lots of time that currently is spent watching television or surfing through YouTube randomly.  Imagine how much you might read if those moments weren’t frittered away.
Again, if you have a priority to read, then you will read.  You will find the time.
Alright, you have the time. Now the place.  Find a chair.  Is it comfortable?  No?  Then a) it does not belong to the Spanish Inquisition, and b) it is not a good Reading Chair.  A good Reading Chair fits the general guidelines of being comfortable: roomy enough to stretch in, but cozy enough to curl up in without feeling agoraphobic.  It should be soft enough to sustain a reader for hours without discomfort, but not so plushy that the reader falls asleep. 
            The placement of the Reading Chair is also important. In winter it should be away from drafts. Unless you are reading about Shackleton or Oliver Twist and the cold gives an additional dimension of verisimilitude.  But otherwise in winter there should ideally be a fireplace or at least a nice warm afghan (again, not TOO nice and warm.  We aren’t looking for a Nap Chair in this particular search). 
            There also should be adequate light.  Even if your book is on an e-reader that has a light-up screen, this can be taxing on your eyes after a length of time.  So if you feel yourself squinting, either from bright or dim light, find a good reading lamp to add to your reading area and adjust the light accordingly. 
            Optional pieces to add to the ambiance of reading:
- A table for snacks and drinks and to put your bookmark so that it doesn’t invariably get lost. 
- An ottoman to stretch out your feet. 

Cut out distractions.  See Step 3 for examples of distractions that keep you from reading in the first place.  These same variables may interrupt your hard-earned reading time.  If possible, let the people around you know your schedule of reading, and ask not to be disturbed.  If your friends still interrupt you, perhaps it’s time to break up with them.  Books before bros, people.**
            But the real distractions are of the electronic kind.  First, stop watching Monty Python videos on YouTube after I added that link in Step 4.  This was a test, one which both of us has failed.  Next, it's time to turn off your cell phone.  I know it’s hard.  I feel the urge, too, its little glowing rectangle calling to me to play games or check e-mail or update my facebook profile or google the production background of the MacGyver reboot.  So turn it off.  If you’re reading on a tablet this is impossible.  So turn off the internet at least.  Then when you’re tempted to search Wikipedia or text a friend, the little airplane icon will gently reproach you for your addiction, and you’ll be reminded to go back to your book.
Just read.  This is a “retrain your brain” exercise.  Our culture now is multitasking, multimedia, multipurposed.  It’s time to go back to a simpler time, when people would sit down to a task or pastime and keep at it for hours.  You’ll feel that need to get up and change the laundry, or check the score, or get something to eat.  Fight it.  Your mind is wired by truncated texts and fast-paced action shows and little blurbs running across the screen of TV and computer, so now you expect everything to move this quickly, and when it does not your mind will think of things that it can “switch” to.  If possible, force yourself to read for as much time as you’ve set aside.  Hopefully this will be a good long time.  And by the end of it, who knows?  You may have lost track of all that time, and been absorbed in a world completely created out of words.

*Yes, that was a blatant and biased plug for library patronship.  And I am not ashamed.
**I’m honestly not sure whether I’m kidding or not.

Monday, November 14, 2016

"Yes yes" Reviewing Kenneth Oppel's "Every Hidden Thing"

In continuation of my poor fortune in reading, I was recently disappointed again. I finished the book at least, which is more than I can say for many of the volumes I’ve picked up at the library over the past month. 

The book is Kenneth Oppel’s Every Hidden Thing. The selling point? Romeo and Juliet looking for a dinosaur. Sounds awesome, right?

Actually the selling point for me was that it was by Oppel, who in my past experience has been one of the best YA authors I’ve had the pleasure to read. My favorite steampunk novels are the Airborn trilogy. I enjoyed the bat-fantasy series of started by Silverwing. I even enjoyed the creepy prequels to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Yet after the rather grim and dark content of the aforementioned Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein series, I was hoping for a return to the lighter action-filled adventures of a couple of lovestruck teens in the sun-scorched Badlands looking for dinosaurs at the dawn of paleontology. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

How Profanity Shuts the Door

There really isn’t such a thing as luck. But if there was, I’d be having a rather long stretch of the bad version lately when it comes to reading.

Before I elaborate, I have to go on a rant. Perhaps it’s because I’m spoiled by literature where people—albeit created characters—tend to use language in a much more creative and distinguished manner. Perhaps I’ve read too many Victorian novels where puritanical censorship forced authors into that distinguished creativity. Perhaps I personally am prudish, unrealistic, and wishing to enforce a rigidity to language which is against the very nature of language itself. 

No matter the reason, I am sick of swearing.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Auroras of Autumn

Photo Credit: Moi.

The season changes. A cold wind chills the beach.
The long lines of it grow longer, emptier,
A darkness gathers though it does not fall

And the whiteness grows less vivid on the wall.
The man who is walking turns blankly on the sand.
He observes how the north is always enlarging the change,

With its frigid brilliances, its blue-red sweeps
And gusts of great enkindlings, its polar green,
The color of ice and fire and solitude.

~ Wallace Stevens, The Auroras of Autumn, II.6-8

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Vow of Silence in Chretien de Troyes' "Erec et Enide"

One of my favorite things to read as a teenager was Arthurian Romance cycles. In addition to the adventure and heroism found in Greek epic poetry, Arthurian mythology holds a sort of mysterious quality in its tone. These are not simply stories of battles for honor, glory, and country. These are also stories of individuals embarking into the great unknown of life, questing for legendary objects such as the Holy Grail, which they may or may not succeed in obtaining. This is the sort of thing that fascinates me, because it is a sort of allegory for life: we often embark into the unknown of the future, and our goals may or may not be realistic.

But as it says on the tin, "Arthurian Romance" cycles also include romance. This is not so much the romance of today's Hallmark movies--though perhaps both are surreal in their idealism--but that of the French court of the time. Romance had less to do with love leading to marriage and family, and more about a man's undying devotion to a lady from afar,* often proving it by beating other knights in tournaments in her honor or going on lengthy expeditions for something she requested of him.

One of the main proponents of the French courtier definition of Romance was Chretien de Troyes. Even those who don't recognize his name will have at least a passing familiarity with a character he popularized in his retelling of Arthurian legends: Lancelot du Lac. The drama of Lancelot with King Arthur's wife Guenevere is the epitome of courtly romance, and Lancelot suddenly becoming the Greatest Knight of the Round Table in all the stories ever since would normally make me detest de Troyes...because obviously that honor belongs to none other than GAWAIN!!!!!!!!!!

But that is another rant for another post.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Even Without a Biography

I'm sure of it.
That, if no one knows
The specifics of my biography,
I will be remembered.
If those who come after me
Cannot for the life of me
My birthday                        
My home
My family
My occupation or disposition
That I will be immortal as Sappho.

Who was Sappho?              A poet, immortal
Where did she live?           Lesbos, in Greece
Who were her family?       Cleis and Cleis, her mother and daughter
What was she like?  What did she do?
                                           It doesn't matter.  
                                           Like me, she wrote poetry.  
                                           And through my poetry 
                                          Those who come after will know who I am.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Suffering as a Part of Love according to Poetry of Sappho

The concept of love in Sappho's poetry is multifaceted, taking complex ideas--which other poets have written about ad nauseam--and putting them into concise, simplified form. (This brevity is of course helped by the fact that Sappho's works have only survived to this day in extremely fragmented form, but this too serves as a testament to her artistry, as it has endured and is beautiful and meaningful even in its incompleteness.)

Sappho's love is not confined tot he romantic love between man and woman, but also on the love that makes poignant other relationships such as those of mother-daughter and woman-woman. Although portions of her love poetry can be justifiably interpreted as erotic, Sappho's description of love transcends physical desire. There is something deeper, spiritual, in the way Sappho talks about people in love, and of people's love for each other. When creating the voice of a woman in love, she says:

I can't 
speak--my tongue is broken;
a thin flame runs under my skin*

This is a simple and relatable style that separates Sappho from lesser poets who have written on such a popular theme.

One facet of Sappho's love which differs from many other poetic interpretations is how she relates love to suffering. In both "It's no use" and "He is more than a hero" the speaker refers to love as nearly killing her. This may seem to be a trite description now, since many poets write about dying of love.

But Sappho relates love and suffering in a different way: suffering is not caused by love so much as it is a part of love. Instead of complaining about how much pan love has caused her, Sappho's poems speak about it as if it were a natural part of being in love, as if love required a dichotomy of happiness and anxiety, pleasure and pain. In this way Sappho's bittersweet love is different from the melancholy and melodrama of later Romantic poets.

*"He is more than a hero" lines 10-13

Monday, September 12, 2016

Who is Heroic? Achilles vs. Hector in Homer's "Iliad"

Seriously Achilles stop being such an emo. Ugh.
The Iliad portrays both Achilles and Hector as heroes with both admirable and faulty characteristics.  each represents his side of war: Achilles is the greatest warrior on the Greeks' side, Hector on the Trojan's. 

Despite the fact that both exhibit heroism and cowardice in this poem, it's always been my opinion that Hector represents the superior type of heroism. Sure, one could argue that Achilles is brave in that he does not really have a vested interest in war, and volunteers of his own volition.  But Hector is one of the few warriors on the losing side, and he fights bravely for his family and country.  Instead of giving up when things don't go well for him, he perseveres. This is in direct contrast with Achilles, who withdraws from war when he's insulted over petty matters of pride. In fact, Achilles is only drawn out of sulking in his tent by the death of his friend at Hector's hands, and returns to battle not for any greater cause than to carry out a personal vendetta of revenge against Hector.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Little Old Ladies 8: The Nosy Miss Marple

“I’m old and I have very little strength in my arms or my legs. Very little strength anywhere.  But I am in my own way an emissary of justice.”  
Miss Marple in Nemesis
Chapter 21: The Clock Strikes Three

While I love Agatha Christie’s writing, and am usually outwitted by her mastery of mystery, I am usually more of a fan of her one-off novels than of her series. I’ve read a great deal of Poirot, all of her Mr. Quin, a few of her Tommy and Tuppence, and then a smattering of Miss Marple. Of all these series, Miss Marple is next to last my least favorite (I really didn’t care for Mr. Quin, but that’s another blog for another time). 

Why do I dislike Miss Jane Marple? She’s so odd, illogical, nosing into all sorts of crimes in a very un-grandmotherly type way. I always feel that it is unrealistic when she starts questioning suspects and these people actually tell her things. If some random lady came up to me and started talking local crime while she was knitting, I would at least equate her with a sort of Madame Defargean lady, especially if she started to rant about evil and seem morbidly fascinated with murder. Also the fact that she seems less than six degrees separated from murder victims would make me paranoid; at best she’s a bad luck charm, at worst a serial killer! 

(Of course Poirot suffers the same bad luck, since every time he goes on vacation a body shows up.  This trend continues from books to television, so much that one wonders why Archie Goodwin ever leaves a client alone since they’re bound to be strangled by Nero Wolfe’s necktie, or why Jessica Fletcher isn’t banned from book tours. Really, unless a detective is a cop or a private investigator, there is no other way of having a sleuth get involved in murder investigations, and even then fictional cops and gumshoes better never take a ride on the Orient Express unless they want to be accessories before or after the fact!)

Monday, August 29, 2016

Little Old Ladies 7: Oh, Marilla!

“ ‘I will say it for the child,’ said Marilla when Anne had gone to her gable, ‘She isn’t stingy.  I’m glad, for of all faults I detest stinginess in a child.  Dear me, it’s only three weeks since she came, and it seems as if she’d been here always.  I can’t imagine the place without her.’” 
~ Marilla Cuthbert, 
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, 
Chapter 12: A Solemn Vow and a Promise

It may seem odd, but my favorite aspect of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s writing is her characterizations of “mean old ladies.”  Valancy, heroine of my favorite Montgomery novel The Blue Castle, is stifled and downtrodden not just by her egocentric cousins and ignorant aunts and uncles, but by her own mother. 

(As an aside, I do wonder whether all the “mean” aunts of fiction are a sidestepping of making the mother characters less than, well, motherly.  It could be the modern bowdlerization, just as fairy tales originally had evil mothers which over time were changed to evil stepmothers since maternal saintlihood, while perhaps not always realistic, is still put on a pedestal in most fiction and social expectations.)

Monday, August 22, 2016

Little Old Ladies 6: The Cures of “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle”


“Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle certainly knew how to make work fun and she also knew that there are certain kinds of work 
that children love to do even though they do not know how very well.”
~ Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald, Chapter 1: Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Herself

I blame Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle for many of my obsessive thoughts in childhood.  One was a constant looking up at the ceiling, trying to imagine it being the floor (Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s house is built upside-down on a whim, just to satisfy her own childhood curiosity on the subject).  While interesting, it also caused massive vertigo once or twice, and made me look a bit batty to the casual onlooker all the other times. Another was the irrational but overwhelming fear of radishes growing out of my skin.  I’ve never been able to eat radishes since.  One never knows where they came from.

Putting aside these inherent phobias, let’s talk about Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle herself.  Limiting myself to the first book, because that’s the only one I read as a child, there’s really not too much revealed about the mysterious widow in the upside-down house aside from what author Betty MacDonald provides in the first chapter.  There we learn that Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is the widow of a pirate, the ordinary housewives of the 1940’s think her strange and don’t go near her, but all their children love her and go about her house and yard as if it were a playground. 

After the first chapter the housewives start to realize something.  Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle has a cure for any childhood “disease” of misbehavior or neurosis.  Are your children Never-go-to-bedders?  Answer-backers? Slow-eater-tiny-bite-takers?  Well look no further, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle knows how to handle them

Usually her cure has something to do with letting the kids do what they want until they’re sick of it (or the consequences, or both), at which time they’ll stop of their own volition and become perfect children.  A girl who randomly decides she hates baths is allowed to get dirtier and dirtier until she has enough soil on her forehead to sprout radishes overnight.  (Yep, that explains some nightmares I’ve had about root vegetables over the years.)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Little Old Ladies 5: The Aunt to End All Aunts

“…I do not approve of mercenary marriages.  When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind.  
But I never dreamed for a moment of allowing that to stand in my way.” 
Lady Augusta Bracknell, 
The Importance of Being Earnest

I have no deep thoughts or profound themes to expound in today’s blog entry. That’s because I am laughing too hard at Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s quite possibly my favorite play, not only of Oscar Wilde, but also of all the drama I’ve ever read, including Shakespeare. 

Part Dickens, part Monty Python, part Marx Brothers, all wit and all hilarity, Earnest is a clever farce in which the boring Mr. Jack Worthing departs his dull duties in the country with the excuse that he must deal with his fun-loving and reckless brother Ernest in the city. Once in the city, though, Jack takes on the persona of this nonexistent brother in order to enjoy his young life and woo the sophisticated but naïve Gwendolen Fairfax. All the while he also keeps a secret his humdrum life—and his young ingénue ward Cecily Cardew—from his equally fun-loving and reckless friend, aesthete and idle rich Algernon Moncrieff, who happens to be Gwendolen’s cousin.

When Gwendolen’s mother, Algernon’s indefatigable Aunt Augusta, refuses to let Jack/Ernest marry her daughter, Jack/Ernest decides that it would be useless to carry on the charade, and decides to kill off his fictional brother. This, along with letting slip his actual country address, gives friend Algy a foothold into his friend’s life. Algy arrives at Jack’s home posing as “Ernest,” and of course falls for sweet Cecily. 

Of course insanity is bound to ensue when the two so-called Ernests collide…and their love interests’ paths intersect. But nothing could compare to the bombshell that Aunt Augusta drops when she drops in. 

Monday, August 8, 2016

Little Old Ladies 4: Those Meddling Sources of Civilization “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn”

“There was something about Aunt Polly’s manner, when she kissed Tom, that swept away his low spirits and made him light-hearted and happy again.”  
~ The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,
 Chapter 20: Tom Takes Becky’s Punishment

When I first read Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as a child, I took the side of the children in that story.  And so Tom’s Aunt Polly to me was the villain of the story more than Injun Joe. Injun Joe was all part of the adventure, as spectacular as Captain Hook.  But Aunt Polly is more like Mr. Darling, just wanting to spoil the fun and make all the kids to grow up. 

Now as I look back on the scenes of this poor Aunt Polly as an adult, I sympathize with her.  Here is an elderly woman, tasked not only with providing for herself—which was no easy feat for a single woman in the 1800’s, especially as the woman got older—but also for her niece and two nephews, including the troublemaking Tom. 

Put yourself in Aunt Polly’s place.  This Tom, always playing hooky to go hang out with the drunkard’s son Huckleberry and other good-for-nothing boys, always cheating or lying or stealing, every chapter into some new scrape, he’s your responsibility, but he’s also out of control.  He’s off playing in graveyards, running away to live as a pirate, faking his death, getting mixed up with robbers.  You’d be a cranky old woman, too, by the time Tom was done with you. 

And yet when all was said and done, beneath the tough exterior of a woman who seems more prone to whacks upside the head than caresses, Aunt Polly loves Tom.  She is in many ways his true link to civilization.  She’s the one that cares whether he goes to school or church or tells the truth or works hard.  These are the things that he’ll need to know as an adult, and even if it kills her, she loves him enough to instill these values in him.  And I think, by the time the book is ended, Tom does have a bit more appreciation for his aunt, to the point where he even argues for his friend Huckleberry to stay in the same situation.  Which leads me to the next example:

Monday, August 1, 2016

Little Old Ladies 3: Bertie Wooster’s Aunts

Much as I love Bertie Wooster, especially played by Hugh Laurie where he’s not quite so much of an upper-class twit as most illustrators make him, I can’t help but feel that he deserves all the trouble he gets for being such a doormat.  It’s not that he’s a doormat to one person that knows his kryptonite and manipulates his weaknesses.  It’s that he caves to every person he knows.  This includes fellow Drones club members, old Eton classmates, cousins, girlfriends and fiancées, former girlfriends and fiancées, enemies, bullies, constables, and most especially his aunts.  Of course his butler Jeeves also exerts a fair amount of influence on Bertie, but usually this is of a positive note, such as making him shave off terrible mustachios, and it is implied Jeeves would like Bertie to go to fewer parties and read more Spinoza. 

For someone who is particularly susceptible to the threats and manipulations of aunts, Bertie is flooded with more than his fair share.  Of the ones that are mentioned (and I am led to believe there might be other unnamed aunts off skulking in the wings) there are Emily, Julia, Agatha and Dahlia. Emily and Julia are aunts by marriage, and not so much problems in their own right, except their children often are off getting into trouble which of course Bertie (rather than the actual parents) is responsible for getting them out of.  To be fair, this may be less about aunts Julia and Emily feeling up to the task of reprimanding their children, and more about Bertie’s having a certain butler who has a knack for solving sticky issues.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Little Old Ladies 2: “Janet, Donkeys!”—Dickens’ Betsey Trotwood and Sundry Other Imposing Females

Did you miss me, dear Internet?

After a long absence I return to my blog refreshed and ready to return to my derailed character analysis series, “Little Old Ladies.” What started out as a comparison of all the Imposing Aunts in fiction slowly expanded to include the other non-matriarchal elder females in fiction.  And what I found when I widened this lens was fascinating. Remember, most literature written pre-1960’s—which also happens to be the majority of my reading material—looks at women from a prefemenist point of view, a perspective that women were in some way weaker than men. And the reality was not much different from that perspective: according to law and social convention, women’s property was their husband’s, their rights were constricted according to what their male relatives allowed them to practice, and their lives were not their own to control.

So although characters like Catherine de Bourgh, the various “mean” aunts with names like Dahlia, Agatha, Augusta, etc., and Miss Havisham are all “negative” characters, in one way they are positive: they show strong women standing up for themselves, exercising powers that women of their day weren’t supposed to have.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Happiness for Its Own Sake: Aristotle’s Concept of Eudaimonia in "The Nicomachean Ethics"

According to modern definitions of ‘happiness,’ it is a state of feeling some sort of emotion that results from pleasure. A happy person has a positive outlook on life, often is socially outgoing and popular with other people, and often is seen as successful or having some reason to be happy. This modern perspective on happiness predispositions readers from understanding concepts of happiness as set forth by classical philosophers such as Aristotle.

Contrasting modern definitions, Aristotle’s concept of happiness is not of a fleeting emotion, but rather a representative of the entire course of a person’s life. It is not a sense of feeling in which the subject of happiness is passive, but rather a form of action in which the subject controls whether he is happy or not. Happiness is a goal, a lifelong pursuit, characterized by the definition of its Greek word, eudaimonia, which translates not only to “happiness,” but also to “human flourishing” or “success.” 

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Pursuit of the Good and the Noble Lie in Plato’s Republic

In Plato’s Republic, a dialogue between Socrates and several other thinkers concerns itself with the definition of justice on both a personal and socio-political level.  In doing so, the discussion is sidetracked to investigating The Good.   In this discussion, Socrates states that “every soul pursues the good,” a statement that conflicts with the other Platonic theory that social order must be gained through a “Noble Lie.”  The puzzle is that if everyone pursues good, why is there any need for the Noble Lie?   
The existence of the Noble Lie leads modern readers one of two contradictory conclusions.  The first is that the desire to know The Good is not as universal as Plato infers, thus making the Noble Lie a necessity in order to keep people from deviating from its pursuit.  The other conclusion casts a more devious light on Plato’s entire philosophy, because if people really do pursue the good, then the Noble Lie implies that Plato’s ideal Republic is a façade disguising an institution of caste strictures, brainwashing, and totalitarianism.  

Monday, June 27, 2016

Variations on a Theme: The Nature of Change and its Role in the Cosmos

Change (chānj) v.t.
1, make different; alter.
2, replace by another; substitute.
3, give and take reciprocally; exchange.
--v.i. become different; pass from one condition or state to another.
n. 1, alteration; modification; transformation.
2 substitution; exchange.
3, variety; novelty.

What exactly is change, and how does it function and interact with the rest of the universe?  Since the answer affects any subsequent theories on the universe, its substance and organization, this is a question that occupies a significant part of Presocratic thought. Within the individual philosophies of Pythagoras, Heraclitus, and Zeno, theories of change and how it interacts with the universe are not so dissimilar, in that change is only a variation on a single theme.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Language, Value, and What Shakespeare Thought: The Debate between Inherent and Intrinsic Valuations in "Troilus and Cressida"

In any work, the intentions of an author influence how that text is read and applied to everyday life.  Because of this, William Shakespeare’s intentions in writing Troilus and Cressida, what his message about language and the debate between inherent worth and intrinsic value, are particularly important to how we understand the play’s characters and their actions, and interpreting the underlying meaning is perhaps the most elusive aspect of an already ambiguous text.  

Throughout the debate within the play of these two methods of valuation, Shakespeare demonstrates that language is a creative force, for good or bad.  It is a way of perpetuating certain concepts of how people are valued, and that one’s perceptions of reality—especially the reality of identity—can be made into an illusion through the manipulation of words.

“Inherent worth” refers to a method of self-valuation in which the individual’s worth is transient, regardless of outside expectations or estimations.  In contrast, “intrinsic value” is a method of valuation which relies on society’s perspective of whether an individual is useful to the community.  While inherent worth does not change without the individual’s consent, intrinsic value treats individuals as integral parts of a human stock exchange, whose value fluctuates according to contributions of society.  

Monday, June 13, 2016

Speaking Out No Matter the Cost: Chretien de Troyes' "Erec et Enide"

One of the most pivotal and mysterious parts of Chretien de Troyes’ Erec and Enide is the vow of silence.  The vow of silence is the source not only of physical conflict—Enide’s breaking her vow introduces Erec’s fight scenes—but also moral and emotional conflict between the husband and wife.  As a plot device the vow illustrates the relationship between Erec and Enide in not only peaceful, but also dangerous circumstances.  In this way the story Erec and Enide shows the conflict between true, self-sacrificing love and the expectations of fulfilling chivalric codes of honor.

There isn’t necessarily a premeditated reason for the vow of silence.  However, investigating its possible functions is important in order to understand the plot as a whole.  Although typical romance cycles are by nature cyclonical and disconnected, this Chretien de Troyes romance is atypical in that other parts of the story are interconnected with the vow of silence.  Enide’s first words are what cause Erec’s anger, and her enforced vow of silence is a consequence of this action. 

Monday, June 6, 2016

Deceitful above All Things: Condemnation of Human Nature in “Young Goodman Brown” and "The Mysterious Stranger"

The works of both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mark Twain critique the moral conventions of not only historical societies, but that of their contemporaries. Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown” and Twain’s unfinished novella “The Mysterious Stranger,” for example, make grim judgments on innate characteristics of human nature. Although their individual aspects differ, both works demonstrate humanity as naturally depraved, hereditarily corrupted, and without any hope of breaking this futile cycle of sin and hypocrisy. Despite the differences between the works, therefore, they communicate a common message about the status of human “civilization” throughout history. 

In “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Mysterious Stranger,” an ignorant young human comes into contact with a devil-figure and experience supernatural incidents. The protagonists are naïve in their preconceptions of humanity’s moral and social uprightness, while the devil-figures show the protagonists the diabolic character traits in human nature. Through interactions with these supernatural entities, both Hawthorne and Twain illustrate how humanity is so corrupt, even the devil himself “in his own shape is less hideous, than when he rages in the breast of man.”

Monday, May 30, 2016

Thoughts on Stephen Crane’s "Maggie: A Girl of the Streets"

Maggie Johnson is born into poverty and degradation, a life without hope of escape from her circumstances, and without the education or resources to do anything to better her life. It is her innate desire for a better life that drives the rest of the story. Maggie attempts to elevate her lifestyle through a relationship with Pete, a man whom she believes will help her break away from her present circumstances, but in doing so she brings about her downfall.

Written in the gossiping tone of a bystander, Crane reports life in the slums, where people are hardened until their humanity is almost unrecognizable. These people are trapped by the world they were born into and slowly assimilated into the culture so as to obstruct them from any escape. After the story’s tragic ending, Crane makes no editorial comments, preaches no possible solutions. He doesn’t have to, because if there is any remaining empathy within Crane’s readers, the story’s message speaks for itself.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Injustice of Fate in Mark Twain's "Pudd’nhead Wilson"

The dichotomy between an individual’s willpower and inherent destiny is one of the predominant themes throughout Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson. The original title, The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, implies that the ultimate outcome is somehow predestined and unchangeable by any human effort. Thus within this world some things cannot be altered; a person’s birth dictates their status rather than their individual merit. This point is evidenced by the way neither Tom nor Chambers’ identity can be hidden; no matter what they do, their fingerprints are a constant which identify them in the end. 
In addition to fate’s immovability, it is also associated with the immovability of the characters. Instead of the truth setting them free, both Tom and Chambers are subsequently entrapped by the life they were born into; Chambers is a slave, and Tom is a free and wealthy man. Twain constantly refers to racial status as a man-made “fiction” questions the strictures of his contemporaries’ society, suggesting that the “fate” of Tom and Chambers was not that of some metaphysical concept of destiny, but rather an enforcement of society’s expectations of the individual.   

Monday, May 23, 2016

Art as Imitator and Commentator on Life: Realism in Mark Twain’s "Pudd’nhead Wilson"


Mark Twain's novel The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson is an example of three methods of realist writing in this era of American literature; the use of vernacular dialogue (that is, spelling it out the way someone pronounces it, even if that is technically spelled incorrect), the correspondent-type narrative, and the writing on issues important to contemporary society. 

Twain is perhaps the most famous among the American realists for his use of regional vernacular in dialogue as a characteristic of realist style.  By spelling out the pronunciation of different dialects, Twain portrayed reality not only with the plot, but with the very words themselves.  Not only that, but Twain’s use of so-called ‘lower’ forms of English served to equalize the language
While other realists such as Stephen Crane, Rebecca Harding Davis, and to an extent Louisa May Alcott used vernacular spellings in their literature, none have done it to such an extent or with such commitment as Mark Twain.  In fact, writers such as Alcott often spelled out vernacular in quotations, as if they were foreign instead of words native to America.  As for Twain himself, he was disdainful of other writers whose vernacular writing was stilted and inconsistent.  For this reason, Twain disliked James Fennimore Cooper and Charles Dickens’ writing, which he thought unrealistic because their vernacular was not invariable.
To him, the way a character spoke was as important as what they spoke.  Yet Mark Twain’s realism was not confined to realistic portrayal of language pronunciation, but also relied on two types of real-life accounts.  Newspaper stories continued where his own experience was limited, and where the newspaper stories were mundane, his active imagination expanded upon them