Thursday, September 23, 2010

This is How It's Supposed to Work

My daughter is very close to finishing the Hunger Games series.  When I saw her bring the first book home from school (at the suggestion of her language arts teacher), I wasn't so sure it was such a good idea for her to read it. I mean, she's only 11 (well, nearly 12), and those books have some pretty mature themes and some pretty graphic violence.  But I know making a big deal out of censoring something makes that something even more attractive, so I didn't tell her she couldn't read it. Instead, we've been talking about it some.

She's about to finish Mockingjay now (whipped through that series FAST!); in fact, she just read the part where (spoiler alert!) Prim is killed by the two-phase bomb that Gale came up with. As we were making pizzas for supper, we ended up having a conversation about war and how sometimes people who have nothing to do with the reasons for the war end up being the ones who suffer most.  She kept saying, "But why bomb children?" Not in an "I don't understand" way, but in a "I do understand, but I don't get it" kind of way - the same kind of reaction I have. 

It was a good opportunity to talk about something that probably never would have come up if not for her reading the book.  Granted, it's not a very happy thing to talk to an 11-year-old about, but the world's not a very happy place sometimes.  Maybe talking about it now can help innoculate her to the nastiness later so she can deal with it. 

It seems that being prepared makes a huge difference in how she responds to something.  I was really worried about how she would take Prim's death - they are basically the same age, you know, they both love cats.....Well, one day her brother (jokingly) said something about Prim dying (he hasn't even read the book), and I confirmed it, thinking someone had told him. They both looked at me in shock.  Then they wanted to know how it happened, but I wouldn't tell them.  I don't regret spilling the beans. I thought maybe if she knew it was going to happen, she could build the necessary defenses it would take to keep from being devastated by the death of her most beloved character.  It seems to have worked. She wasn't bawling over it.

Anyway, I guess I'm glad she's read the book.  But I'm more glad that I've read it so we could talk about the parts that bother her, and so I can put my own spin on those parts in helping to shape her ethical development.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Quality, Not Quantity

While wasting some time trying to avoid starting to grade speeches, I discovered that Elizabeth George Speare, one of my writing idols, apparently published only four books: Calico Captive, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Bronze Bow, and The Sign of the Beaver. Of those four, two were Newberry Award winners and another one was a Newberry Honor book and won the Scott O'Dell award for historical fiction. Wouldn't it be fantastic to be so good that nearly everything you wrote was considered worthy of a major award?

Ok, enough procrastination - speeches await.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I Think We Need the "Golden Mean" Here

In the previous post, I was complaining because Katniss in Suzanne Collins' Mockingjay was so overwhelmed by her PTSD following two trips to the Hunger Games arena and playing a major role in a revolution. Well, the book I'm reading now  -- Pioneer Breed by Glenn Vernam -- swings too far in the opposite direction.

Pioneer Breed begins with the deaths of the main character's (Rance) parents at the hands of a group of rogue Indians.  Rance was an only child, so he has to deal with their deaths and with carrying on the life on their farm by himself. Later, he comes across another massacre scene while he's out hunting, and he finds the only survivor, a teen girl he calls Tenny. He takes her home and nurses her back to health.

While Katniss was wallowing in self-pity and emptiness, Rance seems unphased by the horrific events of his life. There are a couple of mentions of him being lonely and having a lump in his throat at the thought of his parents, but generally, he's pretty happy, especially once Tenny is around (more about that in a different post).  Here's about as depressed as Rance gets:

"No more did he have to work himself into drugged insensibility in order to find a sleep that was free of tortured misery; no more were his working days haunted by the double grave below the spring; no more was stark loneliness a grim specter staring over his shoulder. He need only think of Tenny to feel himself surrounded by comforting care and cheerful friendship, all the horrible emptiness of the past mercifully shunted aside."

Part of what is at issue here is "telling, not showing" as a writing style, and I'll have more to say about that in a later post. It may also be that since this book was published in 1972, there was not such an emphasis on realism. Stories seem to have a much more intimate approach now, putting readers right into the heads of the characters and letting us feel their emotions. I guess since I'm so used to that style now, this book just seems to gloss over the ugliness to the point of being almost funny.

There's got to be a middle ground between being numb with pain following trauma and being oblivious to the pain.....

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

How Should a Girl Deal with It All?

I whipped through Mockingjay in two days (including time to feed the family, although I'll admit, I wasn't doing a very good job of that at the end). For the past couple of days now, I've been trying to decide what I think about it. I don't think I liked it that much, and I'm trying to understand why. Today while listening to a student's speech, I think I might have found the answer. 

The student was talking about having strength in the face of difficult circumstances. She said she has found that hiding is not the answer, that problems have to be faced. It occurred to me that Katniss was always hiding. I know she was suffering PTSD, and it's no wonder. No doubt, she's been through some horrifying experiences.  But as a literary character, I'd like to see her fight her way through the pain to salvage some sense of hope. (Spoiler!) In the epilogue to this series, Katniss has what could be labeled a happy life with Peeta, but she still seems detached from it and unable to fully trust in it and even to appreciate it. I don't expect that the character would suddenly "get over" all the awful things that happened, but it would be nice to see evidence that she's healing. That evidence wasn't there, at least not to me.

Am I being unfair? I thought of some other characters who have faced terrible circumstances and how they've come out of it. Most recently, Ophelia. I reckon having your father murdered by your secret husband, thinking you've been cast off by that husband, having to fake your own death to escape the threat of a poison-happy, evil king, and then learning your husband and your brother have killed each other would be about as traumatic as what Katniss went through. The interesting thing is that Ophelia did the same thing as Katniss - she hid and sank into depression. For Ophelia, this happened in the convent, and she was finally brought out of it by the friendship of Isabel and by finding a purpose in working as a healer for the nuns.  When Horatio shows up, she's well on her way to being able to put the events of her past behind her and face her life with hope. 

I also thought about Sarah in The Heretic's Daughter. Being imprisoned in a 17th-century jail for months and having your mother be hanged as a witch is pretty traumatic, I'd think. Yet at the end of the book, Sarah has found a degree of hope in preserving her family's story so it's not lost to the future generations.  I even remembered Patty from Summer of My German Soldier - physically, verbally, and psychologically abused by her parents, suffering the loss of her friend Anton, under suspicion of spying for being friends with Anton, sent to a detention center - still, that book ends with a note of hope.

Mockingjay didn't seem to have any hope at the end, just a weary, distrustful sense of acceptance.  Maybe I'm naive or weak to want hope at the end of the stories I read; after all, not everything in life has a hopeful ending. But I would argue that books are not life. They are stories that can help readers, among other things, find the silver lining in the gloomiest cloud. That doesn't mean I want a "Pollyanna" ending. I know I've used the quote from Elizabeth George Speare before, so I'll just paraphrase very loosely here, but at the end of a book I want to feel that the main character can stand up to his/her life and will be ok. Maybe he or she is not ok just yet, but he/she is on the road to being ok. The book can have a "sad" ending, but still have that little glimmer of hope that keeps the ending from being "bleak." Mockingjay was bleak.

(There's a really excellent one-star review on Amazon by a reader named Suzanne G, and the follow-up comments are good, too. The review does a more in-depth critique of Katniss' character and the failings in her relationships with the other characters.)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

It's About Time....

Would you believe I've had my Kindle a month and haven't yet read a complete book on it? That's in part a function of going back to school and being dead dog tired when I go to bed (which is when I usually read). So far, I've used my Kindle in church (though I'm considering switching back to my old Bible since it's so hard to flip from place to place in the Kindle), I've used it to download a couple of books that I skimmed to help me prepare for classes (I'll read them later, really), and I've read part of a sample of a novel that a friend recommended (might get back to that one some day).

Well, that's about to change.  Since I finished Ophelia last night, I'm going to make my next book be something on the Kindle. I plan to download Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. I considered buying the hardback to complete the set for my son, but I think I won't at this point. I really want to see how the Kindle reading experience is for real reading, not passage-flipping or skimming.  I think it's about time.

Friday, September 3, 2010

It's Hard to Follow the Original

I just finished Ophelia by Lisa Klein. I liked it well enough, but as I was reading, it struck me how hard it must be to try to write something that's based on someone else's work. Or even to write something based on historical fact, as A Northern Light was loosely based on the murder of Grace Brown (which was also the basis of Drieser's An American Tragedy).

Klein did well, in my opinion, of taking the sketchy character of Ophelia from Shakespeare's play and putting credible flesh on her.  Ophelia's tale blended reasonably well with Hamlet's tale, although at times I found myself thinking the timeline seemed sort of bizarre. Of course, it's hard to tell from Hamlet what amount of time expired between Hamlet's encounter with the ghost and the eventual gory fencing match. In re-reading the play, I thought it might have been a period of even weeks, which would be one reason Hamlet berates himself so for failing to carry out the revenge his father's ghost demands.  In Klein's book, everything seems to happen in a matter of days, or at most, a couple of weeks.  It strained my suspension of disbelief a little that all those events - from Shakespeare's original and from Klein's story - could have been compacted into such a brief time.

The thing that bothered me most, though, was the character of Hamlet in Klein's work. He was faithful to Shakespeare's conception of the character, no doubt. But it seemed to me that he was missing some soul. He just seemed sort of flat in Klein's re-telling.  In Shakespeare's play, I found Hamlet quite appealing (does that make me weird?) - he's witty, with a sharp and wicked sense of sarcasm that depends on word play and nuance of language (I guess I am weird, if that's what I found appealing!). He's passionate, and yet he's detached; he's paralyzed by indecision, and yet he acts forcefully. He's disdainful of women, and yet that disdain seems to spring from a deep sense of being let down by a woman who mattered.  I'm still not convinced he was mad; not to get into Shakespearan criticism here, but Hamlet seems to be the poster boy for what happens when one is re-active rather than proactive.  Anyway, his character was very much alive and vital in the play, in every sense of that word.

In Klein's book, Ophelia naturally was the strongest character, since we're seeing the story from her viewpoint. I'm ok with that. I liked what Klein did with her. But I was disappointed in Klein's Hamlet.  He just didn't seem exciting enough to inspire Ophelia to be so caught up in him. Maybe that's part of the point. Maybe Ophelia didn't really love Hamlet, but the idea of Hamlet - the handsome, witty prince who is forbidden to her. Lots of girls fall for the equivalent of Hamlet and overlook the Horatios who would be infinitely better for them. I suppose since Hamlet was going to be killed anyway - and we all knew THAT was going to happen - Klein didn't want to waste a lot of narrative energy on him.  Or maybe she was hesistant to develop him too much beyond what we already knew from Shakespeare - the perils of using someone else's well-known character.

Another peril exists in trying to speculate beyond the bounds of the original story. Klein's method of having Ophelia escape was definitely in keeping with the spirit of Shakespeare's works. Once Ophelia was safely lodged in the nunnery, though, the story seemed to me to take a weird turn and sort of amble off on a side road filled with deep psychological and religious brambles that try to explicate the sources of all Ophelia's perceived failings at Elsinore.  Although it turned out ok, it was just "ok."

To get back to my original premise, it must be hard to take someone else's work and expand it (as Klein did) or link to it in your own story (as Donnelly did with A Northern Light). On the one hand (Klein), there's a risk that audiences won't agree with your interpretations of the original events and characters, and that they won't like your additions. On the other hand (Donnelly), there's the possibility that the original story will seem sort of "tacked on" without enough relevance to the story at hand (I really felt Donnelly could have told the story of A Northern Light without trying to drag Grace Brown back in every few chapters - the link seemed really contrived to me). It must be much harder than trying to create an original story, where you have complete control over everything.