The Slipperiness of Resolve: the Mid-Year Reading Resolution Check-In

But why haven’t I finished several books I fully intended to read just yet? Simply put, other books beckoned.

The Slipperiness of Resolve: the Mid-Year Reading Resolution Check-In Text by Rita E. Gould
How do your reading resolutions stack up against your to-read list?
Following weeks of temperatures in the 90s and 80s, January’s cold seems distant as I contemplate the resolutions I made in that darker month. The resolutions in question, of course, are reading ones. With more than half the year gone, I reviewed the list of books I planned to read. Surprisingly, I discovered that I read exactly two books listed, with a third started (Beloved by Toni Morrison). A number I might find disappointing, had I not read (and wrote about) several other books since the list’s genesis.

The Power of Other Books

But why haven’t I finished several books I fully intended to read just yet?[*] Simply put, other books beckoned. I belong to online book groups that discuss a few novels every month. These books tend to inspire blog posts, so I place them a bit higher on my reading queue. I also visit my local library to encourage my child’s burgeoning reading habit.[†] Browsing the shelves allows me to find fascinating books I might not have otherwise encountered (The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami).[‡] There’s also my own evolving reading goals: books I want to read for an upcoming trip, books gifted to me, and other projects that pop up (the #readingwomenmonth, to name one).

Weaker Resolve

In the interest of strict honesty, there are a few books I’ve delayed reading or finishing. Whether the book’s density or subject matter required more attention than I could provide, I returned these to the “to-read” stack. For now. Some books I forgot I wanted to read because I made the list so long ago. Other books I put aside because they didn’t suit my reading environment. When I want to read in a car or at the pool,[§] I like reading something that can be interrupted and readily resumed again. And finally, there’s a few books I wanted to see as a movie first, because I suspect I won’t enjoy the movie quite as much if I read the book beforehand (Sorry, The Life of Pi by Yann Martel).[**]

The Slipperiness of Resolve: the Mid-Year Reading Resolution Check-In
I’d like to read Les Misérables at the shore, but the splashing is too distracting.

Reading On

For all that I haven’t yet read, I’m so close enough to achieving the reading goal I set for myself on Goodreads that I will likely increase it. In the spirit of getting there eventually, I’m updating my list with the hope that I get to my unread books—along with several new additions to my list.[††] Included, too, are books I’ve read. Feel free to check links to books I’ve discussed in other posts. As always, happy reading!

2017 To-Read List

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti (in progress)

Beloved by Toni Morrison (in progress)

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett (in progress)

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Human Acts by Han Kang (Translated by Deborah Smith)[‡‡]

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Howard’s End by E. M. Forster

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawker

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

2017 Read List[§§]

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Big Fish by Daniel Wallace

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

All the Living by C. E. Morgan (read about it here and here)

Two Old Women by Velma Wallis

A Cold Day for Murder by Dane Stabenow

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō

The Snow Child by Eowen Ivey

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple

Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami (Translated by Ted Goossen)

NOTES:

[*] Ignoring the obvious difficulties involved with limited time and the need to sleep, eat, and be present for other people and activities.

[†] As I wrote here, I used to start reading my library books as soon as I sat in the car. It’s thrilling to hear my child turn pages as I drive home.

[‡] Library fines also motivate reading choices, it seems.

[§] Although I enjoyed reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin poolside, it seemed a bit inappropriate. And took longer than reading at home did.

[**] To borrow (misappropriate?) a chapter title from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, “Comparisons Are Odious”.

[††] I’ve got to January, right? And there’s always next year’s list!

[‡‡] For #womenintranslation month, which is in August.

[§§] Most books I didn’t include on this list were books I’ve read or re-read for my child, including books I’ve scouted out well in advance of his transitioning into YA books.

The Tale of the Orphan Trope: How Writers Revitalize a Common Story

When authors choose to use familiar character tropes, they either employ the trope with care, ensuring that the orphaned character’s loss serves a narrative purpose, or they introduce fresh approaches to the trope’s characterization and problems.

Among the common character types that exist in fiction, the orphaned protagonist[*] is one that readily elicits sympathy from readers. Regardless of material circumstances, both the real and perceived disadvantages of parental loss[†] make for excellent storytelling. As author Liz Moore observes, the orphaned character has a “built-in problem, which leads to built-in conflict”. Since her works feature orphans, she worries “whether it is facile to rely on this trope”. The answer to this conundrum lies in how the story is written. When authors choose to use familiar character tropes, they either employ the trope with care, ensuring that the orphaned character’s loss serves a narrative purpose, or they introduce fresh approaches to the trope’s characterization and problems. In the following, I discuss some common features of the orphan trope and provided examples that illustrate how writers make the orphan trope meaningful.

Trope Expectations and Succinct Storytelling

Creating a character that comes with a problem needing resolution, one that readily generates sympathy, also allows writers to streamline their storytelling. As John Mullan explains, “The orphan is above all a character out of place, forced to make his or her own home in the world…set loose from established conventions to face a world of endless possibilities (and dangers).” Since the orphan trope includes these expectations, we don’t need the author to explain why their orphans beg or steal (Ren from the The Good Thief, the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist); we already know they must fend for themselves and possess few options for doing so. Childhood (mis)adventures, too, are more readily undertaken without parental objection, giving writers incentive to remove parents from the plot.[‡] However, such reasons alone are insufficient for orphaning a character. Julie Just points to the recent trend of young adult fiction replacing dead parents with absentee, inattentive, or incompetent parents,[§] a move that still affords young characters both opportunity and reason to adventure or “act out”. Similarly, characters can experience social isolation or loneliness without being orphaned. Therefore, employing the orphan trope must serve a greater narrative purpose than mere convenience.

  • All the Living

In All the Living, C. E. Morgan’s thoughtful approach to the orphan trope lets the story focus on her young lovers and quietly makes Aloma’s orphaning central to the novel’s conflict as it explores how varied the experience of loss can be. As an orphan (now grown), Aloma can more readily ignore social convention when she moves in with boyfriend Orren to help him run his family’s farm following the sudden deaths of his brother and widowed mother.[**] While Aloma’s childhood loss avoids uninteresting complications parents would add to the plot, it also leaves her unprepared for Orren’s grief and how it alters him. Unlike Orren, she cannot recall her parents and experiences their deaths as an absence. Because Aloma never had a home, she cannot empathize with Orren when he refuses to either reside in or rent the house he once shared with his deceased loved ones and they quarrel. Orren also misunderstands her behavior, finding her tendency to “look outward” infuriating because he forgets or fails to see that her actions reveal an orphan’s need for connection. In Morgan’s hands, sharing a history of loss prevents these lovers from finding common ground. Thus, their losses generate more misunderstanding than they provide comfort.

640px-advert_for_the_national_children27s_home_and_orphange-_wellcome_l0040571
Advert for the National Children’s Home and Orphanage. Ephemera Collection National Children’s Home and Orphanage (Great Britain). Published: circa 1920. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. http://wellcomeimages.org. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Unhappy Upbringings

Of course, literary orphans lose more than family when their parents die. For many orphans, parental loss also affects their material, emotional, and social support. However, their new “homes” rarely offer respite or welcome orphaned children—even when they are kin.[††] The orphan’s quest to find acceptance arises in response to this rejection. The trope’s difficulty here lies with the reasons the child isn’t wanted. Literature happens to be littered with cruel, prejudiced or indifferent guardians that range from rotten relations (stepparents, aunts and/or uncles) to unkind orphanage staff. Failing this (or even in conjunction with it), the other common difficulty that necessitates the child’s quest for belonging involves the guardian’s financial distress (Aloma, Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables). Of note, Jane Eyre, Harry Potter, and Aloma all lived with aunts and/or uncles before departing to a boarding school. And Jane and Harry both lived with guardian(s) who begrudged them their upkeep, even though they could readily afford their expenses. While some literary orphans manage to find acceptance through self-improvement and changing the status quo (Mary Lennox, The Secret Garden), most do not. Therefore, inventive approaches to writing these characters’ unhappy circumstances is critical when using these common themes.

  • The Harry Potter series

In the Harry Potter’s series, Vernon and Petunia Dursley’s have few qualms about expressing their displeasure with Harry’s presence in their lives. Rowling, however, complicates their distaste for Harry by rooting it in intolerance and jealousy. Vernon Dursley rather straightforwardly dislikes people unlike himself and wants to curb any magical ability Harry displays, prompting him to take extraordinary measures to prevent Harry from learning he’s a wizard. Petunia Dursley’s motivations, however, are more nuanced. Her sister, Lily Potter, is regularly described in glowing terms (beautiful, smart, kind, etc.), making Petunia one of her rare detractors. She denounces Lily as a freak but in the same scene indicates that their parents admired Lily’s magical ability, exposing her envy. Petunia obviously feels overlooked because her young sister managed to be remarkable in yet another way. She transfers her resentment to Harry, spoiling her son while denying Harry material comforts to ensure Dudley never feels as she did. Regardless of how much trouble Harry causes her, she begrudgingly allows him to stay, suggesting that some lingering duty or love for her sister remains.

Ambiguous Identity and Transformation

Mullan’s observation that orphans are “out of place” gives them the freedom to reinvent themselves and discard their old lives. Although their unfixed social status allows them to transcend their social circumstances, this ambiguity also makes maligning them easy. The same orphan can be classified as both dangerous or brave—incidentally, terms used to describe both Harry Potter and archvillain Lord Voldemort. The orphan’s ambiguous status also provides ample opportunity to create and resolve conflicts in the narrative (a boon for developing story arcs), but such volatility should have a goal (eg, revealing character). Conferring wealth as a reward to the orphaned protagonist, for example, ensures a happy ending but feels unearned when a previously unknown relation exists solely to enrich said orphan by dying.[‡‡]

After Jane Eyre endures a punishment that causes her to faint, the kind apothecary caring for her learns that her aunt’s mistreatment caused her collapse. He offers Jane an opportunity to attend Lowood Institution, a school that educates poor girls. The promise of a fresh start, however, soon sours when her Aunt Reed unjustly characterizes her as a liar to the school director. Accepting Aunt Reed’s word without question, he assures them that the staff will be told about Jane’s wicked behavior. Beyond creating conflict and generating future difficulties for Jane, Brontë’s goal here is to provide Jane with a defining moment. With this latest bit of malice, Aunt Reed finally pushes Jane into finally speaking up for herself, an ability she needs to develop since she has no one else to defend her. Jane grows as a character, no longer willing to suffer slights.

Summary

While the orphan trope has its stock characters, genre expectations, and standard plot lines, writers who make these moments purposeful transform an old story into a meaningful discussion about belonging and identity, something every young protagonist (parents or not) considers as they age into adulthood. And that conversation is an interesting one, however many times we have it, when more considered approaches make the story feel new again.

NOTES:

[*] Most orphans (by definition) are children. Adults usually do not identify as orphans unless they lost their parents during childhood.

[†] Contrary to expectation, some orphans prosper without at least one of their parents (eg, Huckleberry Finn). Being spared parental mistreatment, however, neither offsets nor lessens the child’s experience of loss.

[‡] For much the same reason, most orphan characters are only children.

[§] The trend here is also somewhat practical given that pandemics are less common than they once were.

[**] Of note, Aloma lives in a prevalently conservative area of rural Kentucky during the 1980s, where couples were discouraged from living together before marriage.

[††] Rose from Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins is a notable exception where guardian and extended family alike welcome her.

[‡‡] While one can argue that Jane needs to become wealthy to attain equal footing with Mr. Rochester, he already had no objections to marrying her without money and his injuries better serve this purpose.

Coming of Age: Writing and the Continuity of Maturation

With the exception of bildungsroman tales, however, there is no reason the age must be adolescent or the struggles pubescent when we invoke the phrase “coming of age”. After all, rites of passage (eg, graduations, first jobs, parental loss) can occur at many different ages.

Literary Connections

In one of those fascinating moments of literary connection, I stumbled upon a quote that resonated with my own writing:[*]

…“all stories are coming-of-age stories”[†]

I discovered this statement, attributed to Antonya Nelson (author of Female Trouble), in a Q/A session between Karen Russell (author of Swamplandia and interviewer) and Robin Black (the interviewee) that served as an afterwords for Black’s short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: Stories. Russell references Nelson’s remark while discussing Black’s stories, which she notes explore with intensity how characters “come of age” at various points of their life. Concurring, Black relates her view that “coming-of-age” stories are works involving the change from innocence to experience, a process that continues to complicate one’s life. I found myself nodding, as my story-in-progress sprang to mind.

Coming of Ages

But what does a “coming of age” story represent? Usually, we refer to stories focusing on a young person in the process of achieving adulthood. Examples range from a teenager gaining understanding of her mother and harm seen in Nelson’s short story “Primum Non Nocere” to bildungsroman novels (eg, The History of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding), which focus on the development of a youth into maturity (eg, moral, psychological, intellectual).[‡] With the exception of bildungsroman tales,[§] however, there is no reason the age must be adolescent or the struggles pubescent when we invoke the phrase “coming of age”. After all, rites of passage (eg, graduations, first jobs, parental loss) occur at many different ages.

In my intergenerational story, three women’s lives change, with each experiencing a “coming of their particular age”. The youngest member, of course, experiences the more typical coming-of-age moment after leaving college. For her mother, her child’s nascent adulthood revives memories of her own mistakes at that age coupled with current worries that make it difficult for her to accept her child’s choices. And for the grandmother of the group? In addition to supporting the younger women in different ways, she looks toward her own next transition: addressing her own increasingly limited ability to care for herself.

Characterizing Maturation

One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed working with this story is that I felt the characters had opportunities to grow and learn, either by succeeding in their endeavors or by failing. When I read this interview and considered “coming of ages” in my writing, I knew I’d stumbled onto an underlying theme of my story: how families deal with their continuing evolution. In this regard, I felt more kinship with Black’s notion of moving from innocence to experience. Or, as I think of it, the ways in which we move from ignorance to knowledge, learning how to be ourselves at a certain age. It’s worth considering how characters of all ages “come of age”, how they mature through their experiences, when we write. Maturity, as Black notes, may not confer mastery but it makes for a richer tale.

NOTES:

[*] And they were all women authors!

[†] “A Reader’s Guide.” Black, Robin. Interview by Karen Russell. In: Black, Robin. If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: Stories. New York, Random House, 2011.

[‡] Anne Boyd Rioux discusses female bildungsroman novels, including the contradictory nature of applying this term to female protagonists when such characters ultimately step into their expected social roles instead of pursuing their own dreams. Fortunately, she also lists several nineteenth century novels that flout these limitations here.

[§] By definition, a youth must be involved.

Weather in Writing: a Dynamic Literary Device

Although weather may properly be considered part of the setting, both its ubiquitous effects and changeable nature allows it to extend into plot, characterization and more.

Blame it on the weather,[*] but I’ve been considering the role that weather plays in fiction writing. Being informed about the weather is useful for selecting appropriate outerwear and activities. It even provides us with something to discuss about when we greet people. But when weather appears in fiction (either as exposition or dialogue), it exists to accomplish certain narrative goals. Although weather may properly be considered part of the setting, both its ubiquitous effects and changeable nature allows it to extend into plot, characterization and more. In the following, I discuss several selections that demonstrates weather’s versatility in fiction.

Plotting Weather

Weather’s pervasiveness and its effect on human lives, of course, is the primary reason it makes an excellent plot device. Stories featuring weather-related catastrophes (from seafaring disasters such as Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie to cli-fi dystopias such as Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake) are indebted to the weather for creating their central conflict: survival. These stories frequently rely upon but don’t require epic storms to create a crisis. In Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire”, harsh winter conditions are normal in the Yukon. The protagonist hikes only with his dog despite warnings to travel in company when it’s dangerously cold. Several mistakes on this frigid day turn this walk into a struggle for life. However, snowfall plays a starring role in creating a very different survival situation in “Three Blind Mice” by Agatha Christie.[†] As forecast by the wireless news, the inhabitants of Monkshood Manor are trapped indoors by a blizzard. Well prepared for the storm, their real difficulty is that one of them is a murderer. However, weather, severe or otherwise, needn’t be life threatening to be a plot point. Although alarming, a tornado’s brief appearance in All the Living by C. E. Morgan merely threatens protagonists Aloma and Orren, reminding them that they need some contact with the world beyond their farm.[‡]

Weather in Writing: a Dynamic Literary Device
The forecast for Agatha Christie’s “Three Blind Mice” is heavy snow and murder.

Symbolic and Moody Weather

In her article about the role weather plays in literature, Kathryn Schultz discusses how weather went from “mythical to metaphorical”, “with atmospheric conditions…stand[ing] in for the human condition”.[§] Schultz observes that such representations may to refer to individuals, relationships, or societies. Mary Tyrone, a woman suffering from morphine addiction in Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey into Night, declares that she loves the fog because of its ability to conceal the world. Fog, of course, represents the addicted state into which Mary escapes from unpleasant realities such as her son’s illness. The presence of snow in Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, however, works at the societal level. Through much of the novel, Bigger Thomas is surrounded snow, a subtle allusion to how his existence as a black man is circumscribed and controlled by white society.

Weather in Writing: a Dynamic Literary Device
A foggy night, such as might be seen in Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Symbolic or not, weather in fictional works help authors set the mood. How a writer characterizes the weather in a fictional account will dictate the reader’s emotional response. In the opening lines of “The Story-Teller”, we’re told it’s a “hot afternoon” and that “the railway carriage was correspondingly sultry” (129).[**] Already, readers feel the wearying, perhaps irritable quality of this journey even before we learn that the “unsympathetic” bachelor will share an hour’s train ride with three boisterous children and their aunt, a woman who is ill adept at entertaining her charges (129). Similarly, the fog symbolizing Mary’s addiction in Long Day’s Journey also establishes an atmosphere of tension early in the play. Mary remarks that that the foghorn’s warnings kept her awake and unsettled her nerves. Yet, her family (particularly son Jamie) are all too aware that such restlessness is a symptom of her drug use and check for signs of addiction, something which makes her self-conscious and more nervous.

Foreshadowing Forecasts[††]

Scrying the skies for portents of poor weather to modern weather forecasts are among the numerous ways humanity has attempted to tell the future of weather. Yet weather, often working in conjunction with mood, can hint at events to come in fiction. In The Great Gatsby,[‡‡] the warm breeze fills Nick with “the familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer” (8). Nick’s reflection suggests renewal is in the offing: Nick will reacquaint himself with Daisy and Tom just as Gatsby will restart his love affair with Daisy. In a different vein, Zora Neale Hurston presages a devastating hurricane in Their Eyes Were Watching God with several events, among them an animal exodus and the uncanny stillness of the wind. Many, Janie and Tea Cake among them, choose to remain because they think the storm will not be severe. Before he leaves, ‘Lias attempts to persuade the couple to accompany him by stating “dis muck is too low and dat big lake is liable tuh bust” (148).[§§] As predicted, the lake floods, forcing everyone remaining to flee to high ground.

Weather in Writing: a Dynamic Literary Device
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, a hurricane (likely more severe than this storm) devastates Florida.

Characteristic Weather

Using meteorological metaphors, as discussed in Schultz’s article, provides information about characters, ranging from physical characteristics to personality traits (replying icily, for example, uses weather to indicate displeasure). Conversations about weather also can reveal information about characters. In Robert Frost’s narrative poem, “Home Burial”,[†††] clashing notions of appropriate grieving coupled with an offhand remark about weather precipitate a rupture. The husband’s clumsy attempts to speak of their dead child infuriates his wife, particularly when he suggests she overly grieves. Infuriated, Amy accuses him of lacking feeling, given how casually (to her mind) he dug the child’s grave (ln71–78) and discussed his “every day concerns” (ln 86):

‘Three foggy mornings and one rainy morning

Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.’

Think of it, talk like that at such a time!

What had how long it takes a birch to rot

To do with what was in the darkened parlor?

You couldn’t care….(ln 92–7)

One can almost hear the door slam at the poem’s close.

Drawing from Weather

Weather’s profound effect on humanity is evident when we examine literary works. Beyond its humble role in the setting, it pervades mood, portrays us, and even “plots” against us, just as it does in real life. Utilized wisely, fictional weather helps underscore the thrust of a writer’s story, adding depth and complexity. And that makes weather a dynamic literary device.

What is your favorite example of literary weather? Share it in the comment section below. Also, sign-up to the Sequence’s newsletter and keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] Or that snowy scene that may or may not appear in a story.

[†] This short story was based on the radio broadcast of the same name. Ultimately, Christie transformed the radio play into the famous West End play, The Mousetrap. Familiarity with either play or story will work for this example.

[‡] They add a television to their home, a sensible decision given that Kentucky is tornado prone (925 tornadoes were observed between 1950 to 2015.

[§] Pathetic fallacy, that is attributing human emotion to inanimate objects in nature, often wears the guise of weather in literature.

[**] Saki. The Best of Saki. London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1994.

[††] I could argue that the hardworking fog in Long Day’s Journey (or at least the foghorn) also foreshadows Mary’s relapse. But, I thought I’d reward this example with the rest of the day off, since it’d already done so much.

[‡‡] Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 1991.

[§§] Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.

[†††] Frost, Robert. Robert Frost: Poetry and Prose. New York: Henry Holt, 1984.

Read it Again, Sam*: Repeat Readers

Part of writing involves the creation of a reading experience.

Goodreads recently rolled out a new feature, one that allowed you to put a “read” book back into your “currently reading” queue, making it easier to acknowledge that you’ve read a work more than once.[†] As a site user and fan of revisiting favorite books, this new feature resonated with me—as well as made me consider re-reading from a writer’s viewpoint. I occasionally think my writing (whether it’s a blog post or poem) is a conversation that I’m having through the written word. And it’s rather exciting to think that someone may well choose to re-read something I penned because they enjoyed “conversing” with me. From this perspective, I became quite curious as to why other people revisit books, stories, and poems again.

Reasons We Re-Read

Arguably, necessity is among those reasons, such as reviewing work-related texts that vary from profession to profession, some of which bears re-reading outside work hours. My education also required me to re-read several books, plays, and poems, sometimes more than once. While I’d be happy to immerse myself in some of those works again, others not so much.[‡] Appearing on multiple teachers’ syllabi, however, suggests a certain greatness of a work—or at least that it’s representative of a style—something that makes it important enough that we’ll see it again.

Most respondents to my poll (hosted here and on Twitter), however, re-read because they enjoy doing so. Fellow writer Sandy Bennett-Haber is a “re-reader of novels” because she finds “comfort in the familiar” and “sometimes because it is just a great story.” Her response dovetails with my reasons for re-reading fiction. I primarily re-read because I enjoyed the story. At other times, re-reading feels very much like a comforting routine. When I read an Agatha Christie mystery again, I know what to expect (regardless if I recall whodunnit) and look forward to that experience. Another reader I informally surveyed indicated he re-read works when he particularly liked a character. The idea that a single character is so well-crafted as to merit a re-read, too, is a compelling reason, one that inspires me to think of ways to make my characters receive such attention.

When Re-Reading Once Isn’t Enough

My poll also revealed that re-readers tend to read a book more than once. I thought briefly about books I’ve re-read multiple times. I often re-read previous book(s) in a series so I can create a seamless reading transition for an upcoming release. Anticipation often colors these re-reading experiences. Yet, certain books draw me to them in a more thoughtful way, in part because their compassion impresses me. I re-read The Last Call (which I discussed here) because it revealed how many viewpoints led to an historical event, something which is helpful thing to recall in contentious times. Still other books reminded me of happy reading experiences. I’m reading favorite books from my childhood to my child: seeing his excitement adds to my pleasure in rereading these books. Now that I’m a more sophisticated reader, I found a few things I didn’t appreciate the first time reading through.[§] As a recent article by Maria Popova reminds us, this goes some way towards the argument that Tolkien and other writers forwarded that children’s literature is just literature. And who wouldn’t want to write something that appealed to wide audience of readers?

Part of writing involves the creation of a reading experience. Whether it’s Edgar Allan Poe’s[**] idea that a short story should produce a single effect on its readers (ie, a singular emotional response) or the multiple experiences that novels produce for us, a writer’s work involves those responses. And it’s those responses, I realize, that make readers truly want to return a text and read again. When I go forward and edit, I want to carry with me the idea that I need to keep this conversation going so that my readers will want to spend time with my writing again and again.

NOTES:

[*] Trivia: This line never was said in the movie Casablanca.

[†] Or twice or who’s counting, anyway? If you use this feature, Goodreads will.

[‡] Why is it always Romeo and Juliet for Shakespeare courses?

[§] I better appreciate the wordplay in Through the Looking Glass than I did when I was younger. I also have the difficulty of explaining it to the young one while sniggering.

[**] In his case, it’s usually horror.

Book Review: All the Living

“That was what she wanted. That more than family, that more than friendship, that more than love. Just the kind of day that couldn’t be called into premature darkness by the land.”

All the LivingAll the Living by C.E. Morgan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

“That was what she wanted. That more than family, that more than friendship, that more than love. Just the kind of day that couldn’t be called into premature darkness by the land.”

Wreckage of What Was

All the Living, a novel that debates whether a young woman should “submit to love” (as the cover put it) or find her way in the world, offers readers a tension-filled love affair. When Aloma arrives at the farm Orren inherited, she sees the mountains that she hates, that remind her of postponed dreams to go far beyond them and play piano without being lost in their shadow. The house, the first in which she’ll ever live, is dilapidated just as the piano Orren promised that she could use for practice is ruined. The tremendous change in Orren, wrought by grief, surprises her. Her own orphaning occurred when she was too young to recall anything but her parents’ absence,  thus leaving her unprepared for Orren’s new emotional distance. Her ignorance of farm life and lack of cooking and cleaning skills, the duties she is preparing to take on, too suggest future difficulties.

Young Lovers at Cross Purposes

To these disadvantages, Morgan adds her characters’ youth (Aloma is around 21 or 22; Orren is three years older)—something which becomes more concerning as the details of their courtship unfolds. They met at the settlement school, where Aloma worked as the staff pianist since her graduation. Their dates consisted mostly of driving near the school and sex, which means they didn’t share in each other’s daily existence. Orren, an “Aggie” student at a college three counties away, planned to own a large farm one day and wants to marry her. She responded to his suggestion with humor, as her plans involved leaving. With their goals at cross purposes, it’s not difficult to envision how this relationship might falter over time if they couldn’t compromise on their goals. Meeting his family at the farm might have her eased into the lifestyle there—or at least given her an opportunity to walk away from that life with less at stake. With tragedy spurring their decisions, their relationship has the potential to founder badly.

Points of Confusion

But I found myself puzzled at points while reading this story. Because Orren mentioned marriage before the deaths occurred, it seemed strange that he never brought her to meet his family. Eighteen months is a long time to date a person, let alone a potential marital partner, without introductions to the other important people in one’s life. And unless he hasn’t mentioned his relationship with Aloma to his mother at all (which puts his intentions in question), I’d be surprised if Emma wasn’t interested in meeting his girlfriend. For storytelling purposes, it’s important that Aloma doesn’t interact with his family so that she cannot share in Orren’s loss or see the expectations he might have for her as his future wife by visiting the farm. While it makes sense that Aloma belatedly realizes she should have met Orren’s kin (she, after all, has no family to think of), it seems to strange that Morgan drew attention to this point and chose not explain it however briefly.

barn-all-the-living-review-artful-sequenceAnother puzzling moment involved the time period in which the story was set, something which was more difficult to decipher than it should have been. In fairness, Orren’s note and Aloma waiting for his arrival (instead of texting or calling) could suggest an era before widespread cell phone use (something which continued into the 1990s)—or just bad reception. For me, it certainly did not clearly signal the decade of the setting (1980s), which would have created the correct expectations for Aloma’s trip to the grocery store. Although the farm is isolated, the nearby community is small enough that most people know each other’s business. Since Aloma is charging her purchases to the Fenton account, the clerk mentions Emma “Sure had a lot of opinions”, which seemed odd (Heaven forbid a woman have opinions!). Her next remark was to ask whether Aloma and Orren were married. Aloma lies, but her blush betrays her and the clerk’s cordiality disappears from her face. Knowing that this story occurs in the 1980s would have explained the cultural attitudes towards women in general and marriage specifically. In a scene following the grocery incident, I eventually located one specific cultural landmark that places this story during the early 1980: the “Where’s the Beef?” posters, presumably referring to a Wendy’s ad campaign. I missed its significance in my initial reading, and I can see how somehow not familiar with this time would not understand it at all.

Mounting Tension

Were it not for Morgan’s prose (with rarely a word misplaced), Aloma’s efforts to conquer housework and cooking might have become tedious. The slow pace, however, allows the friction to arise between this disconnected couple. While submerging herself in work helps Aloma focus on Orren’s wants instead of her own, she becomes cognizant of how little she knows Orren. And the lack of piano coupled with not being married grates on her and they quarrel often. Morgan shines in making their days contentious. Although I’m not fond of Morgan’s tendency to provide conclusions about Aloma that the reader could be gleaned from the story, Aloma repeatedly shows that she’s “the girl who was always looking outward, getting to ready to leave”. Both Bell and Orren see this is in her: Orren accuses her of “fixin’ to leave”. Bell, the preacher who hires Aloma to play piano at services and who is unaware of her attachment to Orren, says she is cagey about whether she wants her freedom or to be “took in”. Her interactions with him represent that outward turn. Aloma does not intend to hurt Bell, but she’s lonely and wants the attention Orren once gave her, attention Bell now provides. She doesn’t think, however, how her behavior might affect Bell or consider the implications behind the attention he gives her even though she knows that he believes her to be single.

Once Aloma becomes the church pianist, the collision between these discontented forces seemed destined. To be truthful, I half hoped that she might call it quits with Orren, though I didn’t expect it. The book’s prevalent drift is towards submitting to love (the topic of Bell’s first sermon), which often reads to me as “the woman has to sacrifice her dreams”. I can’t say I agree with that drift under most circumstances. Here, it’s too easy to imagine Orren and Aloma unhappy together despite Aloma’s submission, even though it helps her bitterness dissipate. Still, Morgan’s conclusion doesn’t promise an easy future and is satisfactory enough. And it kept me thinking about what love requires of us in terms of selflessness over self-centeredness long after the cover closed.

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Setting the Table for Family Drama: Writing Dinnertime Conflict

When it comes to stirring the plot, the familial dining table provides numerous opportunities for writers to use this setting to do as much or as little as they need it to do.

Among the most commonly occurring and underrated settings employed in fiction is the dining table. The dinner table serves more than (hopefully) good eats: it provides both place and reason for characters to be together. Relatively few limits exist for such gatherings. The dinner table accommodates routine meals but also can expand (with a leaf or two) for a holiday party or become several tables at an awards ceremony. Locations also are flexible: I’ve recently set the opening of a story at a patio table during a birthday barbecue. Impromptu celebrations such as promotions, too, might result in an outing to a favorite restaurant. Since mealtimes can occur at any point in the plot, so long as it makes sense for people to eat, the dinner table represents one of the most versatile settings that writers can use to creates scenes, forward the plot, and/or explore the central problem of a story. While these tables can appear in innumerable story types, I will discuss how a few of my favorite authors set the table when writing about families.

Mischief Managed: Rowling’s Kitchen Table

For these stories, setting the action at the dinner table can be quite natural. After all, families often are urged to dine together: shared meals are touted for strengthening familial bonds as well as providing a host of positive benefits. And who wouldn’t want to dine with their loved ones? However, even tight-knit families experience their moments of discord. Featured prominently in the Harry Potter series, the Weasley family is considered a loving one.[*] Harry Potter’s first breakfast at their home, however, is rather tense. Concerned that Harry hadn’t replied to their letters, Ron, Fred, and George Weasley decide to use their father’s enchanted car to rescue Harry from his relations (it was a cloudy night) and sneak him into their home undetected. Unluckily for them, Mrs. Weasley observes both absent boys and car and upbraids all parties for their irresponsibility save the relatively blameless Harry. Mrs. Weasley is somewhat mollified when her sons tell her of Harry’s hardships, but she isn’t one to let them escape having any consequences because their intentions were good: they have chores to do. She sends them outdoors to sort out garden beds before they get the chance to nap. (Rowling 24–41).

Rowling accomplishes quite a lot in these pages besides removing Harry from an unpleasant situation (and thus moving the plot forward). Harry, long accustomed to his aunt’s and uncle’s tendency to condone and excuse his cousin’s bad behavior while punishing him for mere infractions, sees Mrs. Weasley appropriately scold her children for engaging in a risky activity. His subsequent meals at the Burrow, where he is welcomed at the table and in which Mrs. Weasley attempts to feed him up (the Dursleys begrudge him every morsel ), are new experiences for him.[†] Escaping to the Burrow introduces Harry to how loving families work. More telling, though, is the contrast that reader sees between Harry’s home life, which is arguably neater, wealthier, and unhappier (Rowling 1–42). Rowling underscores the point that judging people’s worth by mere appearances or their wealth is fallacious. What makes people worthy is the how they treat each other. It’s little wonder that Harry would rather spend his summers in the happy chaos of the Burrow.

Mystery, Misery and Murder at Christie’s Banquets

Manor house banquet tableFor unhappy families, however, the potential for tension at the table is extensive. Agatha Christie, a master of the manor house mystery, frequently seats her characters at a formal dining table. Since her mystery novels often involve the murder of a wealthy benefactor to various family members (money and resentment making excellent motivations), mealtimes can be quite intense. The dinner table, being an obliging sort,[‡] works as both setting and opportunity for narrative exposition. In “The Second Gong”,[§] dinner guests and family members alike almost race to the dinner table to ensure they arrive punctually because their host, Hubert Lytcham Roche, notoriously despises lateness. His tardiness is so unprecedented that his guests and butler are stunned and hardly know how to proceed. Shortly thereafter, they find Hubert dead. Here, the table works in two ways: it reveals aspects of Hubert’s character (his controlling, unyielding nature) and gathers all the principal suspects together. In A Pocket Full of Rye, however, the dining table serves as the murder scene: Rex Forestcue, a rather nasty man, is poisoned during breakfast whilst surrounded by suspects—er, family members—all of whom had both motive and opportunity to kill him. In novels such as The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Christie uses the dinner table to review the case and acquire background information: Captain Hastings, a guest at Styles Court, and Hercule Poirot discuss the murder of Emily Inglethop during breakfast on at least two occasions, which affords Poirot the opportunity to question persons present about events surrounding the murder (for which he was not present) and gather clues.

Gaiman: What the Monster Made for Dinner

Of course, not every family need be wealthy (or murderous) to be unhappily seated together at the table. From the outset of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, it seems clear that the seven-year-old protagonist’s parents don’t relate to their bookish boy. Neither mentions his kitten’s death after it occurred, not even to offer consolation. The boy doesn’t share his disappointment about receiving the unsuitable replacement cat with them, anticipating (correctly, I suspect) that his parents won’t understand that the hurt remained new cat or not (Gaiman 14–16). During another incident, his older self (who narrates the events) observes that he only consulted adults as a child when he absolutely must (Gaiman 63), suggesting that the boy already expects adults to be reluctant to help him. Understandably Gaiman’s protagonist is terrified when he realizes that his new childminder is an actual monster. He sits at the dinner table on two occasions, hungry but afraid to eat what the monster made for supper (Gaiman 82, 90–92). Beyond their immediate horror, these moments reveal a larger pattern in the novel: the powerlessness of children. It’s all too easy for the monster to portray the boy as truculent, making his protests seem…childish. The boy, already aware of how easy he is to discredit, knows he cannot expect his parents to believe or assist him. Gaiman captures this bitter aspect of childhood, its impotence, and allows it to be the force that drives his narrative by seating a child at a table.

Setting the Table for Family Drama

When it comes to stirring the plot, the familial dining table provides numerous opportunities for writers to use this setting to do as much or as little as they need it to do. It can serve as a mere setting, providing the appropriate backdrop to the story at hand or cleverly reveal information about characters. Often, scenes from a dining table allow writers to connect to larger themes they explore, both for their stories about families and elsewhere. As such, it might not be such a bad idea to set characters down for something to eat and see what happens next.

Do you have a favorite mealtime scene from a story or book? Share what you liked about it in the comment box below. Also, sign up for the Sequence’s newsletter and keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] At this point, the Weasley family’s problems lie more with financial constraints and the odd personality clash versus actual deep disagreements with each other.

[†] Harry, much like Jane Eyre before him, represents a tragic form of the poor relation: the orphaned and presumed penniless child required to live under the guardianship of uncaring relations.

[‡] Unlike the murder victim.

[§] For anyone besides me experiencing a bit of literary déjà vu with this story, it’s useful to know that Christie later rewrote and expanded this story, which she called “Dead Man’s Mirror”. I’m working with the original because I like its simpler plot. Having said that, Christie’s work can feel familiar in places because she reuses elements such as nursery rhymes (“Sing a Song of Sixpence” is one I’ve noted in a few stories), themes, and motivations (typically, money).

Works Cited

Christie, Agatha. The Mysterious Affair at Styles: the First Hercule Poirot Novel. New York: Berkley , 1990.

Christie, Agatha. A Pocket Full of Rye. New York: Signet Book, 2000.

Christie, Agatha. “The Second Gong”. Witness for the Prosecution, and Other Stories. New York: Berkley , 1984.

Gaiman, Neil. The Ocean at the End of the Lane. New York, NY: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2016.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Arthur A. Levine , an imprint of Scholastic Press, 1999.