At this point, your guess is as good as mine.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Grad School Reviews: Tuck Everlasting

Tuck Everlasting
By Natalie Babbitt
But it on Amazon

I ended up reading this book (a $2.99 bargain buy at yet another Borders "going out of business" sale) in pretty close proximity to my picking through of Charles Portis' True Grit (yet another read I'm not focusing on as I'd like because of "work" reading), so there's a small chance I'm making a few more connections between the two than I need. Still, there were some commonalities I thought the books shared both in how they worked as a piece of writing as how they worked culturally. Because I'm a glutton for looking stupid, let's start on the former.

To begin, I'll admit to being a super novice on both works outside of knowing their names as basic premises. I've seen the original "True Grit" film about ten or so times over the years with my mother, but I was totally unaware of its origins on the page. My experience with Tuck came when its most recent movie version came out and the previews teasing the plot of a timeless family in the 1800s somehow made me recall that I'd heard of the book at one point. I'd never read it though. The real connection between first sitting down to tap into these books though was how surprised I was when I realized how relatively modern both books were. Grit was written in 1968 and Tuck in 1975. And no, I wasn't alive in either of those years, but I think in my head I so often think of period fiction as coming much closer to the period its set in. At least, with these specific genres I had a vague sense that Westerns were more written in the era of the pulps and then into the '50s more so than they were the latter half of the 20th Century. And that kind of mystical storybook novel category that Tuck fits well enough in always felt like a product of sort of post-Victorian lit like The Secret Garden or some such.

Now, I mention this not just to make me look dumb (because, let's face it, about five minutes of clear-headed though could have dispelled my assumptions about when these were written without the aide of Wikipedia) but because the writers of each novel draw a certain strength from the distance they have from their setting. And I don't even mean than in the traditional "fly in amber" kind of specificity that a lot of historical fiction tends to carry with it by dint of being written by history heads. In a very direct story sense, both these books use the passage of time as a real reflection of who their characters are and where they travel in the course of the novel.

In True Grit we see this change in Mattie Ross' eventual tracking down of Rooster (or his grave) at novels end and the glimpse of how what we now canonize as The Wild West was always a bit more created by drama and hucksterism than it was by history. Mattie's reaction to this romanticized idea betrays the toughness at her heart – the grit if you will – that made her so stubborn at 14 and through to the 1900s much as it did Rooster. In Tuck Everlasting, the entire story is imbued with a certain sense of fragility. Even though the events addressed in the novel take place over generations, that wide stretch of time allows Babbitt to see the lifespan of more than single people or small moments. This is best embodied in the wood where the eternal spring of the Tuck family hides. It was born of a full forrest, saved by the stompings of a frightened cow heard and the bonds of magic and in the end eventually eaten by the hand of development -- something that could only be seen from a vantage point like the '70s. But that balance of life and death plays out in every major moment in the novel from the speech old Tuck gives Winnie on the lake full of bugs and fish through the sudden (and unavoidable?) murder of the man in the yellow suit on through to the final scene where the Tucks – obviously the only things allowed to stand outside time – find Winnie's grave.

The number two thing that really drew these books together in my brain is that they both had a construction that struck me as very filmic. Zero surprise after reading the books that they've both been made into films twice. And yeah it's for different reasons that they're so easily adaptable. Portis' story is driven not just by a classic film genre (which the Western had been for decades when he wrote it) but by humor and dialogue and things that stay out of the way of a director's lens.

Babbitt's book, on the other hand, took an approach to point of view and pacing that gave it a more traditional structure which moved the personal story easily to an ensemble drama. Thought a lot about this after all the talk of psychic distance at residency, but really the only character we see truly from a third person limited perspective is Winnie, whose thought we sit in for most of the book as she's our true POV heroine. But early in the first chapters and later as the action swings back to Winnie's home with the horse-thieving man in the yellow suit, the "camera" shifts to other characters without ever really getting into their heads. We somewhat see what the Tuck's think and feel in their opening chapters and the end, but that's all revealed through action and dialogue rather than in the prose itself. In a way, Babbitt serves two masters in the book by bending the rules – never really fudging the voice away from her protagonist while also working in the necessary plot devices to drive a textbook "most important three act-structured day in your life" chain of events.

Point of view and voice are some powerful stuff when you get 'em right. Both these books nailed it in their young protagonists. Trying to keep that front and center in my brain.

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Grad School Reviews: Skellig

[NOTE: This one is less a review and more of a semi-structured ramble as I wrote about Skellig for the "Critical Essay" portion of my Hamline application. I'm writing more and better critical essays with a real thesis to argue for (or from as the case may be) in the months ahead, but as this is on my list of required reading materials, I figured I'd post my thoughts here.]

By David Almond
Buy it on Amazon

David Almond's Skellig is a deceptively complicated book. I throw the adverb in there because any book that traffics in the fears, anxieties, doubts and dilemmas we go through when faced with the potential loss of our youngest, most innocent loved ones should be understood as emotionally complex and complicated without modifier. However, the moments in Almond's narrative that give his young protagonist Michael the most room to breath and live as a character – the moments that are most complicated in the best way – grow out of some of the simplest, most straightforward passages in the text. And the effect that Almond creates comes almost entirely thanks to his control of the repeated imagery and language that surrounds the novel's three most important supporting players.

Skellig's plot is surface simple as well. Arriving in a new house just after the birth of his younger sister – a birth that was (wait for it) complicated – Michael discovers the eponymous angel/creature/myth/person trapped and defeated in the back of the ready-to-collapse garage on the house's property. As Michael forms a bond with Skellig over leftover Chinese food and stolen beers, the angel's tepid growth back towards caring about survival mirrors the peaks and valley's in the babies struggle to cling to life in a hospital miles away.

The more nuanced and almost intangible portrait of Michael's understanding of love and death that develops as this story ping pongs back and forth comes at the heels of three key relationships: his secret conversations with Skellig, his worrisome watch over his sister and his flowering friendship with Mina, the home-schooled girl next door. In the central Skellig scenes, Almond zeroes in on a number of images and turns of phrase that imbue the titular creature with a sense of mystery and attraction despite his decayed surroundings. From his earliest appearance, Skellig is always introduced by the sound of scratching – more specifically "scratching and scuttling across the floor" – a sound that creeps up on the reader just like the vague shape Almond sketches in of the character.

As he lies immobile on the floor, Skellig's world takes shape thanks to a specific set of repeated themes. The flies he consumes for his wretched survival are never flies but always "bluebottles" ¬– a more colorful phrase that brings a bit of lightness to his situation. As Michael feeds the creature a constant stream of Chines food, the meals are always, almost comically, referred to by their menu numbers: 27 and 53. And perhaps best of all, Skellig's sparse, often biting dialogue is peppered with a playful clicking of his tongue. Like a favored musical theme, these phrases and the images they bring to the readers mind make the unknown and macabre seem comforting just as Skellig becomes for Michael (with the possible exception of the ominous blackbird who hangs over the proceedings as a constant reminder of how far the angel has fallen). They make a character that could be frightening or unsettling very much relatable and endearing. It never comes into doubt why Michael returns to help Skellig time and again.

In contrast, the descriptions of Michael's sister's struggle to survive her first weeks on earth are stripped of lightness or poeticism and held in an almost cold series of sobering images. While we never get given an advanced medical reason why they prematurely born child is on the brink of death, our every glimpse of her comes through glass as she's framed "by wires and tubes" again and again. It may seem somewhat counterintuitive to elicit sympathy and concern from the reader by backing away from describing the baby in full (only rarely do we get a hint of her reactions, her smile, her skin), but the constant focus on the unnatural, alien nature of her treatment in Michael's eyes reinforces the idea of a life at stake. It makes the child seem as helpless as her brother fears as we should never think of babies as wires and tube.

Finally, Michael's friend Mina helps split the difference between they boy's constant draw to understand, help and be helped by Skellig and his constant emptiness at the thought of losing his sister. Mina and her friendship draw Michael out from the shadow of death. Just as the edge of death Skellig and the baby struggle to escape is represented by the blackbird, Mina's bright, living spirit find a counterpoint in a pair of white Tawny owls the children spy on in an abandoned house owned by her mother. This isn't a representation brought about by a stale reference to the owls existing here or there on the fringe of the story. Mina and Michael communicate across their yards at night by mimicking the owls hoots – a call which always follows the same sing-song rhythm: "Hoot. Hoot hoot hoot." Again, that image and the language and the way both are repeated specifically yet playfully in the story enrich the bond between Michael and Mina and give the reader a welcome rest from the broader issues of life and death while also offering a new prism for Michael to see his dilemma through. Mina serves a purpose in the story, but she's more than just that purpose. She's a character – a strong one – who's personality grows thanks in part to Almond's subtle wordplay.

Cumulatively, the strangely inviting decay of Skellig's garage tomb, the unnatural mechanical life lived by Michael's sister and the charming, hooting friendship brought by Mina all enrich the reading experience first and foremost. Yes, Skellig is a complicated novel whose questions about life and death, evolution and faith push the reader to think about big life issues. And yes, the repeated imagery and common language surrounding Michael's most important relationships draw out these big questions in strong, yet subtle, fashion. But most importantly, they bring the story to life. Finishing Skellig doesn't cause the reader to say "I thought so much." It makes them care about the characters with every scratch and scuttle, every bluebottle, every tube and wire and every hoot.

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4,723 Words...

...that's how much my combined required reflections of my first ten-day residency at Hamline added up to. That's eleven pages in Word. I don't even use word, but I put the reflections in there to see how much it counted up to. That was probably a waste of my time.

But really, I'm not sure if there's much I have to expound upon in terms of the actual educational value of the workshops, lectures, readings and such and such. It was a fun time full of interesting work and cool people. I'm super pumped to get on the stick and start sending stuff to my new advisor and getting chapters completed.

There are a few things I'll remember from the trip that are worth putting down, or at least a solid warm-up to doing a lot more reviews today:

* I surprisingly went on way fewer rants about James Frey's Fiction Factory than I thought I would while I was there. Mostly just one with a solid guy named Riley Conway, though we had a better time talking about "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" so it was all good.

* Speaking of Riley, I could find no web presence for him, but as I looked for one, I found this Facebook photo for some other Riley Conway, and it's pretty great:

* Other rad people who I will mention that DO have websites to link to: Naomi Kinsman Downing, Jill Davis, Tracy Pagel Wells, Georgia Beaverson, Christopher Campbell, Jamie Kallio and Polly McCann. I'm sure there's more, but I'd have to keep digging on Facebook to find them, and I'm trying to do less of that stuff these days, you know?

* Games were big that week, and not always drinking ones. My roommate/"Buddy" (those aren't sneer's what the school calls the people who show up a day early to show the news kids where the bathrooms and stuff are) Peter brought this game called Dixit which became a minor sensation and caused me to gain a new catch phrase:

Yeah, it's probably better you didn't ask any questions.

The other big thing I hadn't heard of yet is Zumba. This is popular now? My pal Alicia was teaching it in the mornings, but I wasn't getting up at 6:30 for God Himself let alone aerobic booty dancing. But now I'm seeing commercials for this on TV, and it's like a bunch of women participating in some kind of synchronized rave. Do you think E makes you lose weight? I'm only half kidding about that.

* The other big news of the week was that Gene Yang coming to speak to the class. I feel pretty safe in saying that his appearance kind of blew the minds of most of my classmates. I mean, I'd almost go as far as saying it was like some kind of revival although there were less organ solos and people fainting and more PowerPoint slides of ROM Spaceknight

Anyway, I'm going to go off on all the stuff I observed on the comics side of things this week over at The Cool Kids Table, but in the meantime I thought I'd share the list of comics (ten kids comics and five more adult ones) I wrote up for the rest of the people in the program after about the fifth person came up to me and started asking "Are there any more of these 'graphic novels' I can read?" Here we go:

1. Blankets by Craig Thompson
2. The Comics of Hope Larson
3. Owly by Andy Runton
4. Smile by Raina Telgemeier
5. Selections From The TOON Books Line Edited By Francoise Mouly
6. Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi
7. Mouse Guard by David Petersen
8. Saltwater Taffy: The Seaside Adventures of Jack And Benny by Matthew Loux
9. Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane by Sean McKeever, Takeshi Miyazawa & David Hahn
10. Runaways by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona

1. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth by Chris Ware
2. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
3. It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken by Seth
4. Wilson by Daniel Clowes
5. Love & Rockets by Los Bros. Hernandez

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Saturday, January 01, 2011

Grad School Reviews: Joey Pigza Swallowed The Key

Thus begins the highly informal, highly suspect reviewing of books I'm asked to read as part of my grad program at Hamline University. Shall we?

Joey Pigza Swallowed The Key
By Jack Gantos
Buy it on Amazon

When I was in undergrad, I had a series of playwriting classes with the great Arthur Athanason I'll never forget. As I'm moving on in my own writing career, it really strikes me not just how much I remember from those lectures but how many of the other works written by my peers have continued to rattle around in my brain.

At one point in the first year, an Acting grad student named Jay turned in a scene where a mother is told by her elementary school son's counselor person (do they even have counselor people in elementary schools?) that her darling little boy is ADHD or some such condition. Mr. Counselor Man says that the tests are conclusive and that the kid needs to be put on behavioral meds right away...much to mom's shock. She asks all sorts of expository T-Ball questions, allowing him to give a rote listing of basic clinical excuses for medicating kids. She comes off as totally shocked for about three pages.

Then suddenly, mom not only finds her confidence but also a shit ton of specialized knowledge. The previously timid and stupefied lady turns herself into an AP news feed about the dangers of medicating kids and the oh-so "Dateline NBC" premise that plenty of children with totally normal little kid daydreaming tendencies are put on medications by school employees under the thumb of Big Pharmaceuticals. This happens every day in America apparently. But not to her son! With decisive finality, she storms out having stunned Mr. Counselor into silence.

Ultimately, the scene wasn't a piece of drama. It was a didactic. Jay was anti-meds for most kids and (as he explained to us after the reading) anti-meds for a specific kid who they'd tried to drug up who was a part of his family. But Jay knew better. This kid was an amazing dreamer/artist/snowflake and should never be pressed under the thumb of Adderall.

Jack Gantos' Joey Pigza Swallowed The Key strikes me as a kind of counter-argument to that scene. I mean, to be fair, Gantos is a much more polished and entertaining writer whose point of view I agree with much more than Jay's declarations, and the novel has plenty of bits and bobs which are funny or dramatic or emotive and which I'm sure would strike a number of young readers as engaging. But still, the novel is ultimately a mission statement arguing for an understanding of the point of view and predicament of children who need the help of psychotropic medicine more so than a story about a character who attempts to take control of his world and life. So it lost me in the end.

The book revolves around the titular Joey – a nine or ten-ish spazoid who was for many years left in the care of his emotionally if not always physically abusive grandmother for many years. Eventually, Joey's former boozehound mother comes back into his life and attempts to take control of getting him on a solid path as he continually wigs out, acts out and shouts out in school. Joey is a teacher's worst nightmare type – a kid who not only can't force himself from paying no attention to class but who also can't stop himself from constantly drawing attention to his antics. From field trips where he steals pies and falls out of barn lofts to classroom shenanigans like swallowing his house key only to regurgitate it, he's a bit of a loose cannon.

But despite the constant buzzing in his brain drawing his attention anywhere but where it's supposed to be, Joey knows in his heart of hearts that he's a good kid. And he displays an uncanny amount of understanding for his plight and his teacher's frustration and his mother's struggles to keep him together. In fact, he seems to be a SUPER observant and knowledgeable narrator for someone who's constantly reinforcing for the reader the idea that he's always checking out on reality to dive into any bright and shiny distraction that presents itself. And that was my first real problem with the story.

Over the first chapters of the book where Joey and his mom are introduced amongst a thread where the boy has a trial run part-time in an in-school special ed program, the feeling I couldn't shake was one of...I guess you'd say "unrealness"? While I know that a certain suspension of disbelief has to be applied to a narrator with mental illness, I never quite connected with the Joey I knew I was supposed to be seeing in the story and the one who seemed very aware of all the bits and pieces of social work case study notes that were floating around him. It made for a lack of authenticity even in scenes where there was cute, believable business between him and his mom or the school nurse or whoever.

This all came to a head at the book's turning point: a scene where Joey – attempting to do his best by cutting up some "save the world" bumper stickers with teacher's scissors – trips and accidentally cuts the tip of the nose off a little girl in class. The scene came suddenly with it being one of the few examples of where Joey's distraction really gave us no details on how the hell he actually could cut a girl's nose off. (And I'm sure that's possible, but what I'm saying is that it felt very improbably here as the writing suddenly shifted to "and then there was blood everywhere...oh gosh!").

From there, we dive straight into a second half where Joey gets six weeks at a special ed center in town. He's taken through a series of tests to determine what the right medicine is for him along with a few threads about him being afraid of the truly handicapped kids but then ending up liking them because he just sort of realizes they're normal too (*snore*). The book's most compelling but ultimately fruitless thread is introduced here as well: the underlying conflicts between Joey and his mother over how complicit she is in his problems and how she'd rather avoid big issues like where the hell his dad is. There's honestly some compelling character work and well-written back and forth in these scenes, but they're too little too late. For one, the real conflict there is passed off to be dealt with in a second book (which I'm ACTUALLY supposed to be reading for the program but I can't read a book two without a book one first done). But more importantly for two, the whole drama of the situation is nuked by the fact that Joey's happy end as a well-adjusted good kid comes thanks to a nice patch of mood alterers applied by a kindly doctor.

Seriously, Joey thinks smartly on his plight a lot and butts up against potential conflicts here and there, but in the end, the agent of change for his life is almost literally "a pill you take that makes your problems go away." There's nothing I hate more than a character who makes no active choices, and Joey doesn't have a one by books end. In fact, here's a key passage from one of the last chapters that shocked me in some ways:

"I just stood there thinking that I was finally going down the right path to being better. That getting better was really happening to me. That it was my turn for everyone to help..." - pgs. 142 - 143

Can you believe that?!?! The main character of the book "just stood there" while the thing he really wanted "was happening to him" and that through no action of his own people would come to help him. That fails the core dramatic need of a hero in almost every conceivable way.

So yeah. Like I said of Jay's scene, this was a didactic. A mission statement story. A term paper novel.

Good that there's a book out there to make kids with attention and emotional problems feel like their not sub-normal I guess, but Joey Pigza is ultimately no one I'm looking forward to reading about again. Fingers crossed book two shapes up.

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