Reading from a different angle

Lizzie Ross:

I’m a bit behind here, but have lots to share when I find the time. Meanwhile, here’s a little something from my other blog.

Originally posted on Readers Are Leaders 2014:

Courtesy Courtesy

Our class recently discussed S E Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967), considering it in the light of Erik Erikson’s views (1963) on American identity, which he believes developed under the pressures of various “polarities”: individualism vs. loyalty to the community, hard vs. soft (“better a sinner than a sucker”), etc. If you’ve read Hinton’s breakout novel, published when she was just 17 years old, you know Ponyboy’s struggles as he negotiates the embattled line between the Greasers and the Socs.

It’s a popular book, riffing off of West Side Story, The Wild Ones, Rebel Without a Cause and other outsider/insider texts. Hinton’s novel highlights the lower-class and middle-class divide: what kind of cars the members of the two gangs own, where they live, where they hang out, what they wear. To modern readers, the divide is visible, felt, continually contested. There is no DMZ, only “our turf” and “their…

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A set of Pyms

Latest books as I work through the 2015 Reading Challenge:

Excellent Women, Barbara Pym (1952) and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Edgar Allan Poe (1838)

UnknownPerhaps these two books shouldn’t be reviewed in the same post, for they have nothing in common. The first is a comedy of manners, the second a travel-adventure story that quickly moves into, and then never leaves, gruesome horror tale. The first is set in post-WWII London, near but not quite in Belgravia. The second takes place almost completely aboard three 19th century sailing vessels crossing the Atlantic, Indian, and Antarctic Oceans. The first features a mousy spinster, shy and self-deprecating, caught up in small-town (for what is that five square block area near Belgravia if not a small town?) marital rows and church doings. In the second, the eponymous narrator makes a series of near-fatal decisions, bringing doom on all around. I loved the first and had to force myself to finish the second.

I’ve lumped these two books into one review for no reason other than the convenience of two Pyms for the price of one. Make of it what you will.

The excellent women of Pym’s novel are the unmarried volunteers who run the church bazaars and thrift sales, decorate the altar and windows at Whitsuntide and other holidays, and wrestle with heavy tea urns while the men sit around and plan things. Mildred Lathbury is one of these excellent women: in her early 30s, unmarried, orphaned daughter of a clergyman, friends with her vicar and his sister, of sufficient means to not need to work, yet frugal. She may still say her prayers at night, but she isn’t beyond an observation such as “Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.

In almost no time, it seems that Pym will match up Mildred with one of four men: her new, married, downstairs neighbor, Rockingham Napier; his wife’s colleague Everard Bone; the vicar Julian Malory; or Mildred’s old friend William Caldicote. But both Julian and William are friends of such long-standing that Mildred can’t imagine either as possible husband material. Rocky, handsome and charming and generous, seems to appreciate and admire Mildred, but he is, after all, married. Of Bone, Mildred says, “His rather forbidding manner would be useful to him. I realised that one might love him secretly with no hope of encouragement, which can be very enjoyable for the young or inexperienced.”

Barbara Pym has been called a 20th century Jane Austen, and I can see why. Mildred’s astute and funny observations reveal a group of people buzzing around the hive of their church. New neighbors are seen as possible members of the congregation — until they reveal themselves as “Roman Catholics” or non-attendees. Through Mildred, Pym also jabs slyly at masculine and feminine roles in the church community. Crises arise around who takes charge of arranging the flowers donated for the altar, or whether the vicar should chair the bazaar committee.

UnknownPoe’s Arthur Pym is nowhere near as fun. I have to admit that a strange confluence of literary alerts made me curious enough to overcome my dislike of the horror genre and give this a try. First, this is one of the books Paul Theroux reads as he travels through South America on The Old Patagonia Express. He thought it a great book. Second, Marilynne Robinson mentions it in a recent New York Review of Books profile of Poe. She thought it the book that made it possible for Poe to create his more famous horror tales.

Shipwreck, mass deaths, murder, cannibalism, sea monsters — Poe holds nothing back in this tale of Arthur Pym’s adventure sailing towards Antarctica. Is this Poe’s attempt to wrestle with the American problem of slavery? Is he taking advantage of readers’ voracious appetite for adventure yarns set at sea? Is he exploring the limits on gothic fiction? Or is there something else going on here? I’m not sure, but I have to admit to hearing an echo of Monty Python in the cannibalism episode. I’m quite certain Poe wasn’t aiming for macabre humor, but he got there just the same.

Mat Johnson’s Pym (2011) recreates Arthur Pym’s adventure in the 21st century, from an African American academic’s perspective*. Evidently there’s more to Poe’s novel than just an attempt to find the southernmost continent. Maureen Corrigan, in her review of Johnson’s book, says that Poe’s story is “haunted by the specter of race.” It takes a sophisticated reader to be able to read around the gore and see the genocidal horror underneath. Like Conrad’s Heart of DarknessThe Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym requires a strong stomach for the horrors of human cruelty and stupidity.


*I haven’t read Johnson’s novel, but now that I know of it, I soon will.

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You have to give it time

Wells_pgThe Wells Bequest (2013), Polly Shulman.

In an unplanned tag-team review, I’m following up on a book Calmgrove reviewed last fall, Polly Shulman’s The Grimm Legacy (the review of which you can read here). That novel introduced us to the New-York Circulating Material Repository (note the hyphen, signaling something old fashioned and perhaps a bit stuffy), a library from which members can borrow such things as seven-league boots and magic carpets, provided they’re willing to leave something like their sense of humor on deposit. Query: what would you be willing to give up for a few days, just so that you could borrow a cooking pot that’s never empty? You can be sure that whatever you give up, you’ll need before you return the pot.

Shulman’s companion novel, The Wells Bequest, moves from fairy tale to science fiction, revealing the Repository’s collection of such objects as the submarine Nautilus from Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, death rays, shrink rays, and Wells’ Time Machine. Leo is the new page, Jaya his young mentor. The plot revolves around a lop-sided love triangle, where jealousy forces the jilted lover to commit a rash act, which he rues and hopes to correct via the Time Machine.


Rod Taylor in The Time Machine, 1960

But, of course, complications arise: is it possible to change the past without affecting the present? Any novel featuring time travel has to consider not just the “butterfly effect” or the puzzle of whether it’s possible to erase your own existence by killing your grandfather. For me, these novels also must create believable motivations for the characters to need or want to make the trip in the first place.

For instance, we first see Leo in his bedroom, startled by the sight of himself, miniaturized, riding a strange contraption with an attractive girl he doesn’t know. The small Leo orders the big Leo to “Read H. G. Wells!” and then disappears. Everything that follows arises from big Leo figuring out how he got a) small, b) on that weird contraption, and c) with that girl.

Shulman’s plot develops slowly, as we follow Leo’s progress in learning just exactly what the Repository contains. Through the tale run philosophical discussions about alternative universes, various types of time travel machines, and the delicate line between fiction and  fact. A fight scene is both comic and tense, the villain’s demise satisfying, and the hero’s reward just. Although I found the villain’s escalating threats a bit over-the-top and thus hard to take seriously, the story provided enough fun as well as a few conundrums to keep me interested.

And I’m still trying to decide what I’d leave at the Repository. How about my sense of style?

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2015 so far


Kenneth Mahood, January 7, 1991

In 1991 The New Yorker ran this art calendar on the cover. Look closely and you’ll see parodies of Dali, Picasso, Munch, Warhol, Manet, and others. I especially appreciate the sentiment for the month we’ve just started: “WHAT? January can’t be over ALREADY!”

It is. And what have I done?

Two big items: 1) I sent a query off to an agent. and 2) I’ve started my Oklahoma project. On top of that, two small items: 1) I’ve finished 9 of the 50 books for the 2015 Reading Challenge. 2) I’ve started this semester’s teaching.

Let’s start with the big stuff.

The query is my latest fantasy project, sent to an agent who responded positively to some earlier work of mine. It’s a bit like sending one’s child off to the first day of school, except that I’ll have to wait a bit longer than a few hours to find out how it went. It could take as long as 3 months NOT to hear from this agent, at which point I query the next person on my list. I know it would be more efficient to double, triple, or even quadruple my queries, but if my second choice person expressed interest before my first choice had responded, I’d be in a quandary.

The new project will take my mind off of waiting to hear from the agent. Picture this: a small town in 1960s northeast Oklahoma, with a “downtown” area comprising a few stores along one street. It’s just a few miles from “out in the country” that includes a dam-formed lake. Here our hero decides he will travel no more and sets out to get his mom to settle. I don’t yet know how he does this, nor even why his mother is constantly on the move, but I trust I’ll discover these as I write.

As for the small stuff, the teaching is as per usual. For the Reading Challenge, I’m recording books finished on a separate page of this blog. One thing, though. While reading Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, I came across something that made me pause. In one chapter, a character has been hired to improve the public profile of a Latin American dictator known as “the general”. The general is described as having “large dried-apricot ears.” In Carolyn Forché’s poem “The Colonel”, which I first read 30 years ago, a Latin American dictator spills a bag of ears onto a table: “They were like dried peach halves.”

Synchronicity? Coincidence? Homage? Or something more sinister? Probably not the latter, since Forché was at the ceremony announcing finalists for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Awards, a list which included Egan’s novel. And it’s a perfect simile: ears do look like dried halves of apricots or peaches! Yet the overlap troubles me.

As a writer, I worry all the time about the extent to which other authors influence my ideas. I read because I enjoy it, but also, now, to see how other writers handle plot and character and dialog. Of course I want to be original; the “anxiety of influence” isn’t something felt only by poets.

So. I take a deep breath. I go back to my writing, attentive to echoes that warn me of getting too close to someone else’s style or plot or creation. Also, I take great solace in thinking about musical composition. There are only 8 notes in a scale (12 if you count the flats and sharps in between). Yet there seems to be an infinite universe of possible melodies. With the entire English lexicon at my disposal, I ought to be able to manage this.

Three days later: These are my best guesses about the artists parodied in the calendar, in order from January to December: Picasso, Lichtenstein, Chagall, Rousseau, de Chirico, Warhol, Miro, Dali, Magritte, Matisse, Munch, Manet. So many whose names start with M! If I’ve misidentified any of these, please let me know.

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Caving in to peer pressure …

… and this time with pleasure. A couple of fellow bloggers (find their posts here and here) have brought my attention to a reading challenge for 2015 (from Goodwill Librarian on Facebook), one that requires new reading experiences that should be enjoyable rather than burdensome.

Here it is:


A quick skim of the list shows that I can already check off two of these, including the  book of 500+ pages. Some, however, will be difficult: A book with antonyms in the title. A book based on or turned into a TV show. A book at the bottom of my to-read list. (That list has no bottom!)

I’m also adding my own requirement: no books that I’ve already read will count.

Since I intend to focus more on my writing this year, my posts about the books I read for the challenge will be brief, but (I hope) tantalizing. Perhaps someone somewhere will find a way to collate the titles people across the world have read for each category — it would be a marvelous compendium. At any rate, I’ll be following the progress of (and possibly cribbing from) Calmgrove and Suffolk Scribblings throughout 2015.

Join us!

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New year: Enter, writing

Not so memorable, but better than “Exit, pursued by a bear”.

Photo: Oklahoma Tall Grass Prairie, by Dan Satterfield (

Oklahoma Tall Grass Prairie, by Dan Satterfield (

I have ambitious writing goals this year, which include completing the final editing stages of my current project, writing a first draft of my historical epic, and starting a YA novel that draws on memories of growing up in Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma project will be a shift for me: it’s set in the world we know, using first person narrative. It’ll take place in the late 50s or early 60s, when home computers were but a glint in some hardware designer’s eye, and portable phones the stuff of TV sitcoms. Those devices, although so convenient these days, make it impossible for anyone to get lost, fall out of touch with other characters, or spend time alone. I need my characters to be truly on their own, and there’s nothing so lonely as a small town in the middle of the 20th century, in the middle of nowhere.

Yet I have no plans for a dark or frightening plot. It will be a YA comedy. Male protagonist, about 14 years old, raised by his mother, who likes to travel. Quirky local characters. A love interest — possibly two. Probably a fight scene.

In addition to all this writing, I have a new course to plan and teach: “The Child and Adolescent in American Fiction.” The reading list is not as ambitious as last spring’s YA lit course, for which we read 30 books. Also, replacing the fantasy genre are articles by Piaget, Erikson, Bettelheim, and other psychologists and child development experts. This may not seem like a fair trade-off, yet it does leave plenty of ‘scope for imagination’, as Anne Shirley would say. Keep an eye on my ReadersAreLeaders2014 blog for posts about the books and class discussions.

To all my readers here and elsewhere: Best wishes for a year full of good cheer, success in all your endeavors and, of course, nothing but excellent books.

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The sea, the sea, the sea

4Before continuing, set the soundtrack for your reading here (but only if you don’t mind reading with some music playing in the background).

The Wanderer (2000), Sharon Creech

“The sea, the sea, the sea.” When she first writes these words, Sophie, 13 years old and eager to leap into adventure, is preparing to sail across the Atlantic in a 45-foot vessel (The Wanderer) with her two cousins and three uncles. Her journal entries before and during the trip often start with these same words, a repeated paean to a life at sea, but with each iteration gradually revealing more of what that life demands.

Blue Sea and Distant Ship, Courtesy Tate Images

Blue Sea and Distant Ship, Courtesy Tate Images

Their voyage starts easily, although with conflict among the crew, both across and within generations. Sophie and her two cousins, Cody and Brian, are on one side of the generation gap. Uncles Mo (Cody’s father), Stew (Brian’s father) and Dock are on the other. The three uncles are brothers, and a history of rivalries and comradeship is revealed at various moments. Cody and Brian, not much older than Sophie, are at times allied with their fathers and at other times rebelling against them. Sophie, as the only girl and with no parent aboard, tries to stay out of it all.

When they start off through Long Island Sound, Uncle Stew sets their first task: each crew member must teach the others something. Brian teaches points of sail, Cody (whose dog-log entries alternate with Sophie’s throughout the novel) teaches juggling, and Sophie teaches the stories their grandfather taught her.

Waves Breaking against the Wind, Courtesy Tate Images

Waves Breaking against the Wind, Courtesy Tate Images

Early on, Sophie learns how to kill and gut fish, repairs the bilge box, and is the only crew member light enough (and fearless enough) to get to the top of the mast via the bosun’s chair. At sea, the chair swings out over the water as it rises or falls, and Sophie loves the feeling of flying out over the waves.

As is usual for Creech, behind the tale of adventure lies an exploration of family ties and belonging. Sophie’s an orphan, and the people she’s traveling with are part of her adopted family. The stories she tells come from their grandfather. But how does Sophie know this man’s stories? He isn’t her grandfather. He had moved back to England before the family adopted her. When her cousins ask pointed questions, she changes the subject or leans over the rail to stare at the ocean. The adults know something but won’t tell the two boys.

David Morse and Ciaran Hinds, 2006

David Morse and Ciaran Hinds, The Seafarer

For me, Creech’s book sets off echoes of old English poetry, Iris Murdoch’s novels, Conor McPherson’s 2006 play The Seafarer, Turner’s seascapes (for instance, the two paintings above) and Debussy’s music (which you might be listening to right now). Creech prefaces her novel with a brief quote from “The Seafarer“, an Anglo-Saxon poem at least 1000 years old:

This tale is true, and mine. It tells/How the sea took me, swept me back/And forth …

The lines below, from the same poem, remind me of Sophie in her bosun’s chair:

And now my spirit twists/out of my breast,/my spirit/out in the waterways,/over the whale’s path/it soars widely/through all the corners of the world – /it comes back to me/eager and unsated;/the lone-flier screams,/urges onto the whale-road/the unresisting heart/across the waves of the sea.

Compare those with an excerpt from Sophie’s journal:

And still the sea called, Come out, come out, and in boats I went — in rowboats and dinghies and motorboats, and after I learned to sail, I flew over the water, with only the sounds of the wind and the water and the birds, all of them calling, Sail on, sail on.

Sophie and the crew of The Wanderer sail on, and the strength of this novel is in how each faces the challenges of their journey.

Posted in Adventure, Newbery Award, YA Lit | Tagged | 8 Comments