I confess, I’m not sufficiently young to attend book discussions limited to young adult readers, and here I am in deep January, jonesin’ for some booktalk. So for next week’s library discussion group [not limited] for adults, I just finished Ann Patchett’s latest novel. Young adults would be a great addition to the discussion, of course, but regardless of anyone’s age, I am still interested to hear how people other than myself respond to the story’s themes, and to the author’s craft.
This book reminds me how many stories benefit from some blindness in the viewpoint character, whether that is a naiveté in a young person who hasn’t yet secured the worldly experience to become cynical, or in this case, an adult scientist still in thrall to an exceedingly confident former college professor. Where an author needs readers to ‘suspend disbelief’, a character capable of doing that can certainly ease the way.
With this book, I also experimented with a practice someone recommended on a blog post recently. Pen in hand, I copied out lines that struck my fancy for one reason or another. Shall I share? First, a couple that gave me a wicked grin, both spoken by lead scientist Dr. Annick Swenson.
“He refused to let his misery inform his actions.” And
“All of the energy they could have put into their intelligence they had used to develop their tenacity.”
Um, hmm. Confident well on the way to cocky, aye?
Here’s one from a particularly adventurous moment on the Amazonian Rio Negro.
“…the smell of a furious reptile, an oily stench of putrid rage that sunk into the membranes of their nostrils as if it planned to stay there forever.”
Uh, yuk. Glad to be an armchair traveler.
And this, which simply disarmed me.
“In an instant the veil of insects lifted and Marina saw nothing as she’d never seen nothing before.”
Is it because I can actually see the end of my own story coming at me, and I’m drawing out my time in High Piney? It isn’t like I don’t have tons of work and more drafts to play with. Maybe it is just some insecurity about the story–will it really serve an interest for others? Is my craft up to my topic, up to my vision?
And so, on a gray and snowy long weekend, I stack up the library books for reading, rather than writing. What can I learn from what is being published, about the reading interests of people other than myself? What can I learn from other characters in similar situations–what about their responses move me the most? Where do their actions ring false? Where might I be missing a scene where emotional intensity might count more than simply moving the plot forward? How has the author handled the story’s theme–blatantly or subtly, boldly or awkwardly?
Here’s a few of my responses to books in the pile.
Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is another library book club selection that I might not have picked up myself, but I did suggest we get something of interest to guys, so that might have influenced our leader. As a murder mystery, I found some plot parts a bit weak or sometimes even askew, but in the end, that mattered little, because the story really was more about the relationship between a community’s (innocent) white outcast and the black cop who turns out to be his half-brother. So the murder mystery almost feels like a cheap plot device to keep men reading, which I hope is an underestimation of their interests. Danger does keep the pages turning though, and the descriptions of the auto shop thrum with authenticity.
In general, I tend to shy away from violence as a plot driver, and I wanted to see how others pull it off. Greg Kincaid’s Christmas with Tucker and Ron Koertge’s Strays were two examples I found. While the first deals with a young man’s coming of age in 1962’s rural Kansas, and the second is set in modern L.A., they both keep danger on the outskirts, allowing the protagonists to make wise choices in avoidance. The dilemma of how they might make their way forward under suddenly changed circumstances was sufficient to keep my curiosity going. Why? Because the narrators’ voices gave us their vulnerability, without turning maudlin, and invited us along as they sought the skills they needed to keep going. Both of these stories also highlight the strong possible connection between people and animals, another place where men are allowed to share their sensitive side even in today’s hyper-macho social environment. Hopefully that can play out stronger yet with horses than with dogs–even though they’ll be less familiar to many readers, the size, speed and power of horses all seem to hold potential attraction.
The final one for this post is the first book of the Caretaker Trilogy by David Klass, called Firestorm. While this reaches into the fantastical future by bringing it back into today’s world, the author uses the classic unwitting superhero model in showing readers the super-threats of their very own age. Environmental destruction in its many guises is the threat that led to the Turning Point, and the close-up of life on a bottom trawler fishing ship was a well-chosen example from the many possibilities the author could use. Unlike most superhero stories of good versus evil, this story depicts the way that small acts, not evil in themselves, can lead to outcomes that allow evil to flourish in the long-term. While danger and [not too graphic] violence are of course, part of this narrative, and keep its pace on the run, it seems a helpful balance for the dense themes of environmental stewardship. Those themes are delivered, for the most part, by two characters from the future–a large dog who communicates telepathically and a sexy Ninja chick–which makes them seem more palatable in many ways. Interesting. I might want to read the end of the series, just because.
“Many adolescent boys fail to see real life applications in what they read. Literature read in Language Arts classes tells “stories” rather than providing useful information. Some boys stop reading because they think there is no practical value in reading.” (Reading.com)
Though I love the admonition that there’s as much difference among boys, as there is between boys and girls, as there is among girls, it still stands as statistically significant that high school guys tend to read less. Searching the YA stacks, I’d have to say a significant predominance of authors is female, and at least in realistic fiction, protagonists lean toward the female as well.
Like my disinclination to write in the fantasy genre in this hyper-vampired age, I also find myself leaning away from what feels like a majority as I seek a small space to be useful, to serve what may be a gap. My imagination feels freer in this less-familiar role, more willing to admit I just need to ‘wing it’.
And interestingly, I’ve found a lot of stories I wouldn’t have been drawn to if I weren’t seeking out that ‘something’ that might specifically interest a male reader. After all, most ‘literature’ of the old school was decidedly male, so my original backlash reaction had been to seek out women authors, balancing worldviews. Today I snagged a book with younger teens than my usual, but an Irish protagonist meeting a self-sufficient Tunisian orphan seemed like a great journey away from the unseasonably sloppy slushy country of western Wyoming. Benny and Omar, by Eoin Colfer, started sporty and snarky (sarky, in Irish street slang) and slid imperceptibly toward the responsibilities of family when one is thrust early into adulthood. Despite the younger characters, the realities of Tunisia brought this story crashing right into that ‘coming of age’ ecotone where all the juice flows.
The mere mention of ‘identifying structural problems’ in the description of the pre-conference (Jackson Hole Writers Conference) workshop ‘Truly Richly Deeply’ made me quiver. Yup, definitely something I thought about as I set up my present story, but I’m not sure how well I stuck to my original thoughts on the matter.
So when I stumbled across the book How to Build a House (Dana Reinhardt), it struck me as a great lesson in structural ideas. The story is set during a 12-week summer break before the protagonist’s senior year. She is engaged in a volunteer house-building project in Tennessee, far from home in Los Angeles.
Rather than chapters, the breaks are laid out as Step One, etc., in the fashion of a non-fiction instructional piece. Within each Step, the scenes vary back and forth between pre-story pieces labeled Home and present-time pieces labeled Here.
And yes, the past does catch up to the present in the end. Doesn’t it usually?
Being of a metaphorical mind, I loved that the Step titles steep themselves in double entendre. ‘Put Up Walls’ is a classic building term and a cliché of psychoanalysis, and ‘Insulate Yourself’ as well. Slightly more obscure is the ‘Windows and Doors’ step, but perfectly apropos of the scenes the author chooses: in the Here sections, new experiences that open the protagonist’s mind; in the Home sections, those moments that slammed doors on how her life used to be. The ‘Roof’ pieces show the story’s main characters grappling with their central dilemmas and reaching out for the successes that form their coming of age.
Ash, by Malinda Lo
Jeanette Winterson, describes her book Weight, which re-members the myth of Atlas in this way:
My work is full of Cover Versions. I like to take stories we think we know and record them differently. In the re-telling comes a new emphasis or bias, and the new arrangement of the key elements demands that fresh material be injected into the existing text.
And so has Lo re-rendered Cinderella, inserting Artemis (in the form of Kaisa, the King’s Huntress) to offer our protagonist an option not often surfaced in our majority-first culture. Ash, the lead character, has the inner strength to provide readers of all inclinations a non-judgmental view of the potential alternatives available to the young women of her day. She sees, for example, the happiness open to the working class as well as the oppression. Hopefully this open approach can be mirrored by the librarians, teachers and parents who make book suggestions for young people. Yes, for those questioning their own sexuality, or already certain that heterosexuality is not for them, this can be a compassionate myth to embrace. That doesn’t make it any less compelling of a read for those who don’t personally wrestle with that particular difference in their lives.