by thea marie
A journal of items that I am reading/ have read: a personal commitment for 2008
I have comitted to reading at least one book a month in an effort to become a better writer. Too much of my time is spent surfing the net, and it is affecting my ability to concentrate on print material. I notice I don't read nearly as much as I used to, so this is my effort to reverse this situation.|
I have also decided to keep track of articles I read, especailly those that have to do with personal self-improvement and improving my writing.
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston
Harper Perennial Modern Classics
New York, London, Toronto, Sydney
Originally published by JB Lippencott, Inc
Finn, a Novel
As a kid, I was introduced to the works of Mark Twain. My favorites at that time were, of course, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. I loved both characters for their strong, indomitable spirits and for their longing to be who they were and not what society tried to form them to be. As a girl growing up in times where society's ideals of what a "good" girl should be took precedence over who she might really be or who she desired to be, I took refuge in reading about and identifying with characters who fought hard against society's restraints. I took delight in those characters who tried to live up to being decent people, but who did so without giving up their true selves. I identified strongly with Tom, but Huck Finn was my favorite.
After years of putting it to the side of my life, I got back into writing through fanfiction. I developed a character for an old television program that I fell in love with years ago. I have written a series of stories based on this character. In reading a book club preview blurb, I learned that Clinch had essentially done the same thing in this novel he’s built around Finn, Huck Finn’s father. Clinch didn't create this character, but in his novel, Clinch considerably fleshes out Twain's original character.
In Huck Finn, it is revealed that Huck’s loathsome father met his demise in a house along the river. The reader is relieved that Huck will no longer have to be harassed and threatened by Finn. In Clinch’s book, the story begins with the discovery of Finn’s body in that house, but then it backtracks to tell the story of Finn himself.
In this novel, the reader learns who Finn is and how he came to be the despicable lowlife he is depicted to be in Twain’s novel. Clinch fills us in on how Finn’s life took the surprising turn that it did from what it could have been. In the telling, Finn is utterly disgusting, but at the same time sympathetic as he is very much a victim of his upbringing and the times in which he lives.
The reader also learns more of the boy, Huckleberry Finn. With an unexpected but logical boldness, Clinch fills in a lot of the gaps about Huck's background that were left open in Twain’s novel. He ties up loose ends in a manner that is ingenious, believable, and quite sad, especially for one character. I can’t say more than that because then I would be giving the story away.
I can say that this novel took me through a gamut of emotions: disgust, surprise, outrage, exasperation, satisfaction, and more. The book itself was at times a tedious read, as Clinch is long on description and the story makes jumps that are sometimes confusing, particularly if it is read in interrupted segments, as I tended to do. When picking it back up to continue, I often found myself forced to go back and reread to retie the threads of time frame and locations.
I am not sure if die-hard Twain fans would appreciate Clinch’s take on this extension of one of Twain’s characters, but for me, it was a fascinating supposition, an interesting "might could be".
Tonya Lewis Lee
Crystal McCrary Anthony
I came across this book on yet another of my Dollar Store runs.That venue is an excellent source of overlooked literary gems. The attractive book jacket first caught my attention. Then the blurb in the upper left corner attributed to E. Lynn Harris made me pick it up:
" A richly absorbing tale of Manhattan's upper crust packed with sex, lies, and backstabbing."
I skimmed the inside jacket covers and decided to read it mostly because of the setting, but also because of the posh. wealthy characters. As one of my own main characters occasionally spends time on the upper east side of New York with her affluent publisher godmother, I constantly mine novels, articles, and whatever for details to help realistically craft my stories. It wasn't until a friend pointed it out to me, that I realized one of the authors fo this novel is the wife of director, The Lees co-authored the delightful children's book, Please Baby, Baby Please. I then vaguely recalled having heard of Gotham Diaries back when it was released and all the hoopla that was made over it.
Perhaps it's the cynic in me, but when it's announced that a celebrity is coming out with a book, I always wonder how much play and promotion the book would get if the person were not already famous. As I read this novel, that question played in my mind.
The main character, Manny Marks, is a Manhattan real estate broker who happens to be black and gay. Successful in his career, Manny desires even more to join the social and economic ranks of his wealthy and prominent clientele. Manny is careful to wear all the right clothes, say all the right things, and be seen in all the right places with the right people. He cultivates his professional and personal relationships based upon who can help him achieve his goal of being a legitimate major player among Manhattan's African American Elite.
One of these friendships is with Tandy Brooks, an iconic fading beauty on the wealthy African American philanthropic scene and elite social circuit. Tandy is an established powerful player in Manhattan and on the east coast. Her husband’s recent death; howvever, is a major financial setback that Tandy desperately needs to keep secret if she is to maintain her social foothold. At the same time she has to seek out a new revenue stream to keep up appearances.
Manny’s other important friendship is with Lauren Thomas, the privileged and somewhat sheltered, but accomplished daughter of wealthy, east coast, black parents. Lauren was on a positive track, establishing an identity and career of her own before meeting, being seduced by, and becoming the young second wife of Ed Brooks. Ed, much older and eperienced than Lauren, is a self made man of power and prestige. His ego is huge as is his taste for art, music, travel, and other women. Tandy Brooks, as it happens, is a friend of Lauren’s mother and has known Lauren all of her life. Lauren has grown up respecting and admiring Tandy, although unbeknownst to Lauren, the feeling isn't mutual.
The plot centers around the doings of Manny, Tandy, and Lauren, their professional and personal relationships and the problems they incur in them. Their personal problems directly and indirectly lead the three of them into an illegal real estate transaction that along the way lays bare painful truths and reveals people for who and what they really are. In the end, it destroys trust, disintegrates friendships, and disrupts ways of life. The major themes running through this tale is one reaps what is sown, and what goes around will indeed eventually come back around.
In my opinion, this novel does what it’s supposed to do, tell a story, but I did not find it exceptional in terms of plot, characterization, or writing. I did enjoy the reading of how the upper echelon operates. I also got some laughs out of the descriptions of Manny’s disdain toward some of his nouveau riche, hip-hop clients, while at the same time he kisses their behinds and goes to all kinds of ridiclous lengths to make the sale. In one weird transaction involving the use of a psychic, Manny goes so far as to risk his own health and sanity for the sake of the deal. I also enjoyed reading of Manny's pathetic interactions with his conniving, social climbing lover, Trenton.
However, even with the good details and the funnier moments, I found the plot easily predictable. There were few, if any twists, except for one character’s transformation at the end of the story. But for me, even that was somewhat problematic.
The characters were flat or at most, two-dimensional. Manny is portrayed as greedy and self-serving. Tandy is snobbish and devious. Lauren starts out as too trusting and naïve. She was the only character that I was not able to accurately predict. But even in that, her actions as a result of her betrayal by her husband and her so-called friends didn’t quite ring true for me, although I have to say I did wind up rooting for her when she grew some balls and "wo-manned up" after all that was done to her. In my opinion, though, not enough prep work was done to build her character up to react in the way she does. She goes from wimpy and being in denial to suspicious, calculating, and retliatory without enough transition in between.
Even the minor characters in this novel are largely stereotypes. The other woman is a flat -out classless hoochie. The Feng Shui guy and the psychic are airy and flaky. The one white woman Manny has dealings with, who is going through a divorce and trying to unload a property through Manny, is portrayed as smart, but shallow and vindictive.
The writing itself was weakened by Lee and Anthony's telling rather than showing. A line of dialogue would be often be followed by qualification, as though they don’t quite trust that what they have the character saying will be enough for the reader to get the picture.
For example (Lauren answering her mother's suspicious questions about her errant husband):
”No, Mom, I don’t know exactly when Ed will be home. He isn’t Daddy. He doesn’t leave his printed itinerary by my bedside every week,” Lauren responded, dripping with sarcasm.
Another example (Manny catching Ed with his other woman):
”Ed,” Manny said uncomfortably. He had every intention of ignoring the young woman and returning to the apartment for his briefcase, but she shoved her hand at him, not going to be overlooked.
As I was reading, the almost constant pattern of dialogue tagging and describing became distracting, tedious even. I wanted to scream, “I get it!”, and wondered if the authors thought their readers too stupid to figure things out for themselves or too clueless to form images on their own. There was also an overuse of verbs of being (has, had, was, etc.) that made the writing seem more passive then active.
I took this book with me to read on the flight to and from Europe a couple of weeks ago. It made for an adequate time-filler, but as I stated before, it wasn’t an especially intriguing or well-written story. I definitely wonder how much media attention this book would have gotten if I or some other unknown had written it.
Laurie Halse Anderson
Puffin Books 2001
As I was cleaning up my classroom, getting ready for summer break, I found this book on the floor. It was part of my classroom library. I had seen it several times, but had never read it. The cover art; howver, had always intrigued me, Instead of putting it back on the shelf with the others, I tossed it over into the box of things I was taking home. That night, I sat down with it and began to read. I didn't want to put it down again until I reached the end of it.
Speak is a fictional account of a young girl's ninth grade year, spent as an outcast by her friends and a stranger to her family. Nobody knows the terrible secret she has been keeping silent about, the secret that lead to her being shunned by her peers and that drives her self-defeating behavior.
Although I figured out what her problem was fairly early in the story, it was fascinating to watch how Anderson has the girl work her way through to finding her "voice" again. This is a book meant for the adolescent reader, but I can see the benefit in adults reading it, too. It is an excellent lesson in what you see in a difficult or depressed person, particularly a child or young person, is not necessarily what you're dealing with. It's a lesson in paying attention, asking the right quesstions, being patient, and in having compassion.
Melinda's real problem aside, I was able to reach back and empathize with her teen angst, the feeling of not quite being a part of things, having disdain for the cliques and the wannabe's and the geeky teachers. The secondary characters that Anderson employs to help Melinda tell her story are real people, not caricatures. Her parents are normal people, concerned about her, but too busy, like a lot of parents, to dig underneath the surface to find the real reason behind her low grades and sullen demeanor. They fuss, they punish, they argue between themselves, and we get to see how Melinda views them because she is telling the story.
In any high school hallway, you might run into Heather, who in the beginning latches onto Melinda because as the new girl, she too is an outcast. But once she thinks she's found her niche, she drops Melinda only to come back and try, unsuccessfully, to use Melinda to gain favor with the "Martha's", the "preppy" group of girls she's trying to fit into. There are former friends who snub her in a way that I've seen adolescent girls do others and that I remember doing and having done to me. There is the teacher with issues who gets challenged by the bright student who can see through him and prejudices. And then there is the inevitable Big Man on Campus/ bully.
The scenes, the situations, and the basic problem, when it's revealed are all written very realistically and build up to the point that Melinda is able to triumph over her emotions and confront the thing that has been stifling tongue and her life. This is a book I will be encouraging my students to read for the plot, the writing, and for the lesson it teaches. I can envision some pretty interesting book talks and discssions coming out of it.
Night by Elie Wiesel
Hill and Wang
Translation copyright 2006 by Marion Wiesel
(Reading completed 5/27/08)
This is one of those titles that has been bandied about for years as a recommended book for young people who have studied The Diary of Anne Frank in their Language Arts and Literature classes. I finally got around to reading it when it was given to me as a freebie at the International Reading Conference in Atlanta last month.
I read Anne Frank's diary when I was a young girl myself, and became morbidly interested in the Holocaust, how such a thing was allowed to happen, how things like religion, skin color, gender, sexual preference, etc. can bring out the ugliest behavior in seemingly otherwise decent and rational people. I think reading Anne Frank was the beginning of my fundamental personal philosophy of the importance of live and let live,
I have always loved reading about history, preferring non-fiction to fiction, but it wasn't until I was grown and those before me started dying off that I really realized for myself the importance of oral history. My father's sisters and my maternal grandmother did a pretty good job of filling me in on the family history by sharing their first-hand accounts of events in their lives, events that would one day color and shape mine. But now that they are gone, and I am an 'elder' now, there is so much more that I wished I had asked when I had the chance.
In the book, NightElie Weisel shares his experience as a prisoner in German concentrations camps during the Holocaust. He bears witness to the disruption of his tranquil life in Transylvania with his parents and three sisters, to being segregated into Jewish ghettos by invading German soldiers, and then finally being rounded up and taken away to suffer the indignities of a world gone mad. As the females were separated from the males when they were taken away, Wiesel never saw his mother or sisters again. He and his father managed to remain together until circumstances mercifully released his father and him from the responsibility and burden of helplessly watching his father's slow and humiliating demise. Wiesel was the only member of his immedediate family to survive until liberation by the Allied Forces.
The great merit of this book for me was that it was told by someone who had actually been there, and was a direct victim of the atrocities, not just a witness to them. Wiesel begins his tale as a teenager, describing his deep, unquestioning belief and involvement in his religion. Then, as events unfold, he movingly depicts his gradual loss of faith. He describes with great detail and rich support, how he begins to challenge principles to which he had blindly lent his faith before his whole world, as he had known it, was cruelly ripped apart.
I also found it interesting that although this book was first published in 1958, in the preface, Wiesel speaks of his reasons for writing the book, and of how so much was lost or misreported over the years as his popular manuscript was translated for international audiences. His wife, Marion, who translated many of his other books, completed this last translation of Night for him. He says,"... Marion, my wife, knows my voice and how to transmit it better than anyone else... as a result of her rigorous editing, I was able to correct and revise a number of important details."
Chalk it up to my naivety, but I hadn't ever considered the translation aspect of storytelling, although I am very much aware that languages don't mirror each other in meaning. How much of an original story really is "lost in translation" when it is originally written in one language and moved to another?
In the preface, Wiesel gives several examples of how the book actually changed based upon the language in which it was presented. It is interesting to see how one editor considered certain details important, while another put emphasis somewhere else, and another switched things around entirely. Night won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, and the Prologue of this edition of the book is a copy of the acceptance speech delivered in Oslo.
This is a powerful and disturbing book. In 2006, I visited Belsen-Bergen while on a trip to Germany. Most of the original structures of the concentration camp are gone, burned to the ground by the Liberation forces to wipe out typhoid. While I was reading, I was envisioning those huge burial sites I saw, commemorating the thousands of unnamed individuals they held and wondering how many wonderful contributions to the world were wiped out along with Wiesel's family, neighbors, and friends.
| Sweet Land Stories
by E.L. Doctorow
A collection of five intriguing short stories about people caught up in unusually trying circumstances. Three of the tales were written in first person, a perspective that I find very hard to tell a story from when I write. Doctorow doesn't seem to have any trouble with it. His characters are genuine in their narrations.
It was interesting and educational to observe how Doctorow gets down into his characters, their emotions, dialects, mannerisms, grittiness, craziness, flaws, and the way each one views his world. He writes a young person being influenced by his conniving mother (who at one point he is instructed to refer to as "aunt") as convincingly as he does a saavy, but burned-out FBI agent.
I also noticed that Doctorow dispenses with the use of quotation marks and speech tags when writing dialogue, but not once was I tripped up or confused about which character was speaking. Talk about style and being effective with it.
This book was a good style and use of perspective study for me as well as an entertaining read.
Michael Lee West
Originally published by Longstreet Press
I came by this book through Amazon.com as I was ordering Fried Green Tomatoes. It was one of those "Readers of this book have also selected...", so I went for it and got the super savings on the shipping. I wanted to compare Fried Green Tomatoes, the novel to the movie. Of course the novel was much better. Crazy Ladies sat on the shelf for ages before In recently finally decided to take it down and read it.
Crazy Ladies chronicles forty years of the lives and times of five Tennessee women, three generations of the same family. West allows the five women to tell the story, and then we also get occasional glimpses of the group from the unique perspective of the matriarch's black maid, Queenie.
In 1932, where the story begins, Miss Gussie is home alone with her infant daughter, Dorothy when an event occurs that although Miss Gussie manages to bury it away, it continues to quietly thread its way through the lives of her children and their respective daughters. It comes to light again near the end of the story, but winds up once again fading away, as do similar problems in the lives of these women who go on to make their own way, in their own way.
The story line itself isn't as provocative or profound, as it is entertaining. West has a writing style that is comfortable and engaging, much like someone sitting down with you and telling you a story you really want to hear. I found his use of first person fascinating. Having Miss Gussy, her daughters, Dorothy and Clancy Jane, and their daughters Bitsy and Violet giving their perspective of events as they unfold through the years was a lot like getting several sides of an interesting conversation. It was fun to see the different takes each character had on the same events. For me, I was able to better appreciate the characters since I was allowed to know what they were thinking at the time.
For example, even in third person, it would have been very easy to tell that Miss Gussie was a strong and determined woman and why she preferred her younger child, the independent, outgoing, freethinking Clancy to her older, emotionally fragile, attention-seeking daughter, Dorothy. But it wouldn't have been so easy for me to not find Dorothy's daughter, Bitsy, flighty and shallow had I not been allowed to see what was happening in her head. It was also very real how Miss Gussie and the youngest granddaughter, Violet, formed the strongest bond, being that they were so very much alike in their ways and their viewpoints. Kind of a life comes full circle sort of thing.
The characters live through what was probably the most turbulent period in recent American history, WWII, the nostalgic 50's, the 60's, with the story ending in the early 70's. By that time they have gone through the respective changes each of those decades brought about in women's lives, each of them with differing levels of success and failure. Bitsy, Miss Gussie's oldest granddaughter has had a child of her own by this time. I was left wondering what was in store for her daughter.
The Kite Runner
Had it not been for one of the girls in our circle suggesting this title for all of us to read and discuss, I might never have given this novel a second look. The title wasn't one that would have drawn my interest, and if it had, the jacket blurb wouldn't have either. Not that it was poorly written or anything, it was just that everything about it seemed to be outside my normal scope of interest. Now I'm wondering how many other gems I might have missed by not stepping out of that invisible fence.
The setting of the story starts out in Kabul, Afghanistan prior to the country being ravaged by war. The main character is Amir, the pampered but emotionally neglected son of a wealthy widower, whom he calls Baba. As part of his privileged upbringing, Amir is attended by Hassan, the son of his father's lifelong friend and manservant, Ali. Although Ali and Hassan are in their employ, both also share a personal relationship with Baba and Amir.
Amir's mother died in childbirth, so he is raised by his father who provides handsomely for his material needs, but does not, in Amir's eyes, seem to appreciate him on a personal level. Consequently, the boy's self-esteem and confidence are compromised. This is further complicated by his more sensitive nature and his scholarly interests, and by his father's more nurturing attention to Hassan.
Amir, although he loves Hassan, is conflicted by his deep-seated resentment toward him. This comes out at times in his cruel treatment of Hassan, who never wavers in his loyalty and devotion to Amir. Amir's social position over Hassan also serves to distort Amir's ability to fully appreciate Hassan. Ultimately, Amir betrays Hassan in the worst sort of way, which sets off a tragic chain of events, the shame of which Amir will live with for decades.
In his late teens, after war breaks out, Amir and his father flee to the United States, leaving the world they knew, and all they had behind in Kabul. The two men find themselves in a strange land, having to readjust their lives to a new culture while trying desperately to hold on to the parts of their own culture that make them who they are. Amir, being young, adapts more easily, and he goes about setting up a new life for himself. He tries to move on despite the lingering guilt he continues to feel over his lost friend until he is called upon to return to Afghanistan and complete a task that finally allows him to somewhat redeem himself in his own heart.
This is a story of friendship, allegiances, betrayal, and trying to make things right. Hosseini's scenes are at times stark, cruel, and repulsive. I found myself having to stop reading because I was so angry, or so outraged, or because I was crying. Most of the time; however, I couldn't put the book down. The settings, the interaction between characters (specifically that it was so male-dominated), and the culture were foreign to me, but the story line reinforced for me that people are people. Despite our backgrounds, economic levels, ethnicity, the things we do to each other and for each other- human behavior is universal.
Kind of like same stuff, different continent, but it was interesting to see how backgrounds, economic levels, etc. can color and shape the details.
I love learning about people, what and how people other than me do what they do, which is why I so enjoy traveling. When I read the last lines of this book and closed it, I felt as if I had just returned home from a very satisfying trip.
The Kite Runner was Hosseini's first novel, and wound up a #1 New York Times Bestseller. How good does it get?
|Here Kitty Kitty
A novel byJardine Libaire
Little, Brown and Company
New York, Boston
This was one of my dollar store acquisitions, and it was another with which I was pleasantly surprised.
The book is fiction and written in first person. It chronicles a young woman's difficult and, at times, shameful journey from near fatal self-destruction and isolation, through self-discovery and self-actualization, to facing her demons and taking control of her life. In the end, she places the responsibility for her survival squarely in the hands it should be, her own.
Set in New York, the story is told by Lee, an irresponsible would-be artist attempting to cope, in various negative ways, after her mother's death. We learn of her life in short segments, or "jerks" as Ma Joad called a woman's journey in the Grapes of Wrath.
Each brief segment is a snapshot of Lee's existence, where Libaire creates images so vivid and precise that I was in them, looking on, feeling the cold, smelling vomit, sweat, and reviling the filth and disorder of her life. I was appalled by the lines of cocaine casually arranged on the coffee tables and counters like after-dinner mints. I heard them being snorted, and I watched bodies liquefy into the back of the couch, the eyes glazed and jaws slack. I tasted the alcohol being consumed, the bitter pills being dropped, and suffered the dizzying, sickening after effects.
As I consider myself a strong, sensible woman on most fronts, I was disgusted by what I first perceived to be Lee's irresponsibility, her weakness of character, and her willingness to use and depend upon others, her friends, but most especially men. I was glad when she finally hit bottom and to see that she realized she had. I was right there for her, cheering her on, when she began pulling herself back up.
In the end, I was a little disappointed that things didn't work out as I thought they would, but then that would have been a sort of failure for Lee, too. A cop-out. I had to be happy that she was finally who she should have been all along and that she was satisfied with herself.
Like most good books I read, I was left wondering what would happen to her, what would she do with her art, the rest of her life, etc., etc.
I most enjoyed Libaires skillful use of imagery and the manner in which she moved the story along in short segments rather than long, tedious chapters. That is definitely a skill I need to hone in my fiction writing.
Another enjoyable read.
|Write From Life: Turning your personal experiences into compelling stories
Writer's Digest Books
This is a book I would recommend to anyone specializing in writing personal narratives or who might be having diffculty writing from the inside out. Letting go and writing what I really would like to say has become a real personal problem for me as a writer, hence my choice of this book. Can't really say what caused me to purchase it while on one of my Barnes and Noble runs. It must have been the book jacket blurb and the mood I was in, but I'm glad that I followed my mind last summer when I picked it up.
Yes, it took me a while to finally get around to reading it. I'm an admitted procrasinator. "If My Name was a Verb"
The book is set up so that the reader can skip around and read the parts that apply to a particular concern. I opted to read through on the first pass. Now I'm going back to review the parts on which I really need to focus. Files has assigned each of the nine chapters a unique name, but underneath each chapter title is a subheading that explains what is contained within that section, making it easy to pick and choose.
The chapters that were most useful to me were Chapter One, "Truthtelling" and Chapter Two, "Facing Down the Monsters". Both dealt with recognizing the things that hold me back from writing it exactly how I'm feeling it. I worry too much about being seen through and about hurting someone I love with what I have to say. It has been inhibiting to my growth as a writer. I appreciated what Files had to say on these two topics, which to me, can be broken down to "Just do it".
While that is the basic message of the whole book, in each section, she provides doable actiivities to facilitate the advice she gives. It has been my experience with some how-to writing books that while good advice might have been given, the practice exercises provided were too abstract for me to do on my own without having someone else there to assaure me I had "done it right". For the most part, I found Files' practice activities easy and fun and of a nature that allowed me to critique myself or at least to feel as if I had stretched my writing muscles. The activities I chose to complete were also immediately applicable to my personal writing.
The last chapter, "Knowing What's True" deals with methods for reviewing other writers' work. I would highly recommend this chapter alone for reviewers on this site or any writing review forum. Files provides very practical advice and sound objective techniques for constructive reviewing. After reading this chapter, I came away with a clearer sense of what I should be doing, looking for, and commenting on when reading for the purpose of providing feedback. Using the techniques that she suggests, I can more clearly see how effective, thorough reviewing can have the added effect of improving my own writing.
Write from Life is definitely a book I will be keeping at hand, not putting up on the shelf. I can see myself consulting these pages time and again for writing practice as well as for motivation and inspiration.