Tag Archives: Literature

Red in the Words

I decided to leap back into prose by taking a look at the drafts I wrote for the flash nonfiction course I took in July. While I was searching for those in my closet, I ran across a few of my Red Riding Hood books.

As a fictional character, she’s been quite an influence on me and my writing.

But who is she?

There are hundreds of versions of the story and they come from many different countries. Some are old versions from traditional literature and some are contemporary retellings of the tale. Some are children’s stories; some, such as those that spring from the oral tradition, are for the general public; and some, usually feminist or sexualized versions, are for adults.

I’m guessing that most of us are steeped in the European tradition of red hooded cloak, little girl, wolf, grandmother, and woods. We might or might not think of a huntsman. Our Little Red might get a warning from her mother–or she might not. She might get eaten up just before the reader is left with a strong “moral.” She might kill the wolf in a gruesome manner. Or the wolf might run into the woods, never to return. Pinterest is full of images that resonate, so I started collecting them onto a “Red in the Woods” board. I’ve only got 35 pins so far, but there are some beauties. Many of the classic book illustrators have created Little Red art.

Arthur Rackham’s Little Red Riding Hood

Every culture incorporates some of these elements in their little red stories, but the most important part is that a little girl is threatened by a dangerous animal (usually a wolf, but in Asian countries, sometimes a tiger) and either she becomes a victim, is rescued by someone else, or she is victorious over the “bad guy.” The undercurrents involve a girl going out into a threatening world on her own for the first time and the possibility of sexual violation. But those are adult readings, of course.

Sometimes Little Red is a bad ass. Those are the best versions! One of my favorite picture books for children is Ed Young’s Lon PoPo where the Little Red protagonist is a smart, strong oldest sister who outwits the wolf and protects her siblings.

Have you ever seen Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Into the Woods? In this version, Little Red is definitely a sexual target for the wolf, but the question becomes: is she complicit? Does she  in some way lead on the wolf? Is the red hood to draw attention? (And where does the red garment come from? Not from the girl herself). Or is that an adult male (pervert) reading–a Humbert version of Lolita? Another adult reading is that the red hood is a metaphor for Red’s vagina/clitoris/youpick.

In this clip of the 1991 Broadway show, the lyrics say a lot about our culture’s interpretation. It becomes clear that this version is about the loss of innocence.

In the Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs’ song, the wolf leers at Red.

There are other strange bits and pieces that show up in some Little Red stories. The wolf tricks Red into eating her Granny’s flesh. Red tries to get out of bed with the wolf by telling him she has to go pee. At that point he tells her to pee in the bed, but she says she can’t and he lets her go outside tied to a long rope. Some of these elements that seem vulgar  or creepy have been edited out of the most popular versions published in the last few hundred years. The confusion between wolf and grandmother is still with us, though. And that alone is pretty strange. Dangerous wolf looks like beloved grandmother? Beyond strange.

Is the wolf a perv or is Red a Lolita? Or is that a red herring (sorry)? Is the story really about something else?

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Filed under Books, Characterization, Children's Literature, Fairy Tales, Fiction, History, Inspiration, Writing

Formula Gets a Bad Rap

As a reader, I appreciate books with unique storylines and characters. As a writer, I try to create unique stories and poems. So why am I also drawn to books that seem to be written according to a pre-set formula?

Yeah, I know, right? Such a no-no. Definitely not “literature.”

According to my buddy Wikipedia, formula fiction is described like this:

In popular culture, formula fiction is literature in which the storylines and plots have been reused to the extent that the narratives are predictable. It is similar to genre fiction, which identifies a number of specific settings that are frequently reused. The label of formula fiction is used in literary criticism as a mild pejorative to imply lack of originality.

Still, there is a lot of comfort in finding a series of cozy mysteries where I enjoy the protagonist, the setting, and the first murder–over and over again.

Formula fiction refers to a single book or a series. A book itself can be formulaic in that it is predictable. But book series sometimes are formulaic in that they set a formula for each book of the series with the initial book. Some book series are not like this. For instance, trilogies are often completely different stories, following characters over different plotlines. But a heck of a lot of the series you see on the shelves at the library and the bookstore are formula fiction.

For instance, every Agatha Christie book I read when I was in my 20s ended on page 210. Seriously. Who knew she wrote formula fiction?!

Years ago, I liked the mix of cats and murder in The Cat Who books by Lillian Jackson Braun, so when I ran out of unread books, I turned to another cat mystery series: Mrs. Murphy by Rita Mae Brown. Mrs. Murphy is, of course, a cat that solves mysteries.  Once I read the first book in a series I like, I want to keep going in this land I know peopled by characters I know.

I’m the same way about disaster movies. Don’t give me some extravagant budget movie with Denzel and Brad (am I showing my age with them? at least I didn’t say Harrison), please. I like the cheesy ones where the mom, the dad, the boy, and the girl (sometimes 3 kids) gets separated and you know they will be back together by the end of the movie. I know just what I can count on and that the movie won’t allow something strange and “unique” to happen. I want to lie on the couch, maybe eat some popcorn, and relax.

But are reading cozies and watching low-budget disaster flicks like eating McDonald’s and bonbons? Should I figure out a way to limit my reliance on comforting formula literature and entertainment? Is consuming unique literature like eating my vegetables or swallowing my vitamins?  Maybe Nancy Drew and her cohorts ruined me and gave me a taste for formula fiction when I was just a fresh young reader. I should have read that copy of Melville’s Billy Budd I got from Scholastic instead!

The more I think about this, the more I wonder how I ever stay in “balance” in my reading!

Nancy Drew collectionWhat about you? Do you balance your reading? Do you like formula fiction or try to avoid it?

 

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Filed under Books, Cats and Other Animals, Children's Literature, Fiction, Reading

A Lesbian in Mayberry

Remember idyllic small town Mayberry? Imagine a town even smaller and put it in Texas. Deep in the heart of Texas.

Imagine the small local school, a nice small town man its principal. The Baptist church where he sings in the choir. Now imagine his little blonde daughter who also sings in the church choir.

Slam on the brakes. Wait. Now imagine that his little blonde daughter is a lesbian, ogling the other little girls.

This is WordPress blogger Sheila Morris’ coming-of-age memoir, Deep in the Heart: A Memoir of Love and Longing.

Sheila writes the blog, I’ll Call It Like I See It. Her rescued Welsh Terrier, Red, writes another blog, called Red’s Rants and Raves. I read both blogs, but I admit I have a real affinity for hilarious Red and his worldview–admittedly one low to the ground.

By reading Sheila’s book I’ve gotten to know her better. I was surprised to learn that she came from such a small town–one so small I can’t even imagine living there.  Even the food seems different from what I am used to.  Take Ma’s (her paternal grandmother) fried pineapple pies. They sound a bit like turnovers, and they clearly are delicious.

This book was a comfortable and enjoyable read. The main tension was young Sheila’s attraction to other girls in the midst of that tiny town and the Baptist relatives. Three of her grandparents had a big hand in raising her, and she was obviously doted upon.

I’m not saying that there aren’t other negative elements that occasionally pop into view. The racist viewpoints of one of her grandmothers, for instance. Her disconnect from her mother, for another. The beloved grandmother she shared a bedroom with losing the last part of her life to serious depression.  But she paints the story with a loving wash that makes her childhood seem as if it’s ideal (if only there wasn’t this huge secret that she carries and doesn’t understand).

The structure of the book is different. In fact, I’d call it a book of short stories–each one in the genre of memoir, but each one holding its own as a story. Frequently the end of a chapter (or story), brings that particular story to a conclusion, then the next chapter will zip back in time and pick up just a little later than the previous story began. I thought this was interesting because I have a chapter that necessitates a flash forward, and I couldn’t figure out how to work it in with the rest of my book. But maybe it takes another “rethink” about structure.

This book is as charming as life in Mayberry.

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What If Your Father is Homeless?

If you’ve heard of this book, it’s hard to forget the title: Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Nick Flynn’s memoir is about his father who eventually became a “homeless person.”

If you’ve read this book, you can’t forget the story. Or Nick’s father. Or Nick. Reading it is a life-changing experience. Amazing book.

Although the style is lyrical, experimental, poetic, the narrative is strong because the storyline packs a punch: Nick works in a homeless shelter and meets his father there. Here’s a sample of the writing style:

Even before he became homeless I’d heard whispers, sensed he was circling close, that we were circling each other, like planets unmoored.

Nick had been living a life very separate from his father. The man was an alcoholic con man, given to grandiose fantasies. He was a convict and maybe brilliant, but he wasn’t tied enough to reality–or to his son. Nick himself went through a period of alcoholic numbness, directionless. But he turned his life around.

The story isn’t told in strict chronological fashion. But through the weaving of memory and “current” events, the reader shares Nick’s intense emotional journey.

The writing is gorgeous, the story is fascinating, and Flynn’s ability to create the “feeling of being rained upon” (E.L. Doctorow quote, see below) is superb.

Nothing like learning from a master.

Throughout the book, we hear that Nick’s father always said he was writing the Great American Novel.  There’s no doubt that Flynn has written one of the Great American Books.  He’s accomplished a lot that his father was unable to do.

Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader – not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.

E. L. Doctorow

 

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Dead People and Mysteries

I just finished reading Monica Holloway’s first memoir, Driving with Dead Peopleand I’ve been sitting here for fifteen minutes trying to figure out how to write about the book without including any spoilers.

Not an easy task with this book since the last chapters hit me hard.

Near the end of the book, I wondered how I missed it all. On reflection, I guess it’s because the book is that well-written.

You’re going to love this one as the narrator’s voice is engaging, but if you don’t like to read dark memoirs, then it might take a frightening turn for you. If you venture on, you find that your journey has value, and that Holloway is courageous.

Holloway tells the story of her childhood, growing up in the midwest. Her father is cruel, and at first her mother seems as much a victim as the four children. Then Holloway’s mother goes to college and gets the courage to leave her husband. Emotionally, she turns her back on her children as surely as if she had completely abandoned them.

Her obsession with death and dead people keeps Holloway going throughout these years. Her best friend’s father owns a funeral parlor, and she gets a job driving dead bodies for him. She haunts the graveyard.

Additionally, the passion (different from obsession) that gets Holloway through it all is her love of and talent for acting. She eventually earns an MFA in theatre from the University of California, San Diego. She builds a life far from her Ohio roots.

But the path is not without great difficulty. The family has been destroyed by the behavior of the parents. Her closest sibling, the oldest sister, has been particularly damaged. But so has Holloway herself, and it’s only at the very end of the book that she discovers just how much.

From this memoir I learned that writing a memoir can be like writing a mystery. In this type of memoir, the writer can’t give away all the critical information up front as the story needs to develop in its own time. But clues need to be embedded throughout the narrative so that when all is revealed, even if the reader is shocked, she will see how inevitable the events were. She won’t feel that the writer was playing games, withholding just for the sake of sensation. Holloway creates a suspenseful, seamless story using this technique.

Holloway has published a second memoir, about the relationship between her son, who is autistic, and a dog.  Here is a book trailer for this book:

Cowboy and Wills looks charming, and I am putting on my to-be-read list.

If you want to find out more about Holloway or about the third memoir she is currently writing, check out her website.

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Reading Politics in Literature

I actually took notes when I read Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran. The book contains so much information and so many thought-provoking quotes, I had to make it easy for me to find them later on. For what, I had no idea. but it seemed important. In reading this book, I felt as though I had entered a world foreign to me, but met a character in the form of the narrator who is someone familiar–a voracious reader and a teacher.

Nafisi’s memoir takes place when she, an Iranian moves back to Iran from the United States, where she attends grad school . She decides to go home at what turns out to be a time of change and danger–during the Revolution.

What starts out as a hopeful movement, becomes an authoritarian anti-Western repressive government. Nafisi witnesses the controls tightening as the abuse of power becomes more chaotic. She writes of men and women being tortured and killed, of women sexually abused and raped and blamed. The powerless are doomed.

Although she starts out teaching in the university, soon Nafisi is expelled for refusing to wear a veil. She comes back for a time, but ultimately, she resigns and takes her teaching underground. She teaches literature in her living room to female students. It’s very hush-hush as they are all in danger if discovered.

What did I learn from this book?

  1. The structure of Nafisi’s memoir is very unique. Because the book is about teaching literature, she gives the book shape by forming sections around the books they read:  “Lolita”; “Gatsby”; “James”; and “Austen.” She makes connections between the literature studied during the section and what is happening to the characters in the book and to Iran. Her clever structure is a good example of  a memoir structured thematically.
  2. Until I read this book, I didn’t realize how little I knew about Iranian culture and about the Revolution. I’d seen Ayatollah Khomeini on TV often in the early 80s, and it was if a dark spirit entered the room each time he filled the screen. But this made me turn from Iran and not seek to learn more.
  3. Most importantly, Nafisi shows how naive and idealistic she and her fellow Iranian students were when the Shah was in power. They believed that revolution was necessary and would help Iran and its people. But their dream turned into a nightmare. The book shows how we have to be careful what we wish for. A promising course might not lead to freedom and happiness, but to a dangerous theocracy.

Although I ended up with  5 typed pages of valuable notes from this book, I remember one passage by rote. In the Gatsby section, a character says:

[The Great Gatsby] is an amazing book . . . . It teaches you to value your dreams but to be wary of them also, to look for integrity in unusual places. “

I’ve taken on this quote as a personal mantra.

###

I’m looking forward to reading Nafisi’s recent book Things I’ve Been Silent About. She lives and teaches in the United States, and this book sounds like a memoir about her childhood, growing up with parents who told her romantic stories.  This is her website.

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[P]lucky to Survive

I remember reading Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones and thinking it was a spectacular book, but that the writer must have something very dark inside her to write it. It wasn’t a judgment, but an exploratory and rather sad thought on my part.

When I read Sebold’s memoir, I learned where that darkness originated. Lucky is the story of the tragedy that happened to her: she was raped while a freshman at college. After the rape, a police officer told Sebold about another girl who had been killed after her rape, and that Sebold was lucky. Imagine how that word lucky must have sounded to her!

The book starts right off with the rape. This hooks the reader . . . swiftly and absolutely. The rest of the book describes how this experience affected her life, as well as how the rapist was eventually captured and tried. The book has all the “high drama” elements: inadequate responses of family and friends, the emotional terrain, and the legal process.

It’s hard to isolate what I learned from this book, but I’ll go with how it put me in Sebold’s life so that I felt as I were experiencing all that she had experienced. She wasn’t lucky at all, but she was very plucky, both her immediate response to the rape and the aftermath were plucky.

I also learned something about book structure. As a nonfiction writer, I see that it can be very powerful to begin a book with the most intense scene. In this case, everything else that happens in the book is because the protagonist was raped, so it all springs from that initial event. It seems as if the book can only be structured this way, but in lesser hands, I can imagine that the writer might think that putting the rape scene first would be:

  1. “too much” (grandstanding)
  2. wasting the best scene at the beginning (how can the rest of the book hold up after the bar is set that high?)
  3. not really the beginning (after all, the fact that Sebold was still a virgin–and why–adds to the story, right?)

These are all useless worries. The rape belongs at the beginning, and because it is at the beginning, it lurks underneath every scene after it. That makes the whole book that much more powerful!

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Memoir’s Cousin

So that I can use this memoir-sharing day to talk about a biography, I’m insisting that biography is a cousin to memoir. After all, they are both non-fiction and try to examine a real life.

Where they differ is that a) biography shows the whole of someone’s life–from birth or before to death or the age the person is at the point of book publication, whereas memoir focuses on a certain aspect of someone’s life, such as coming-of-age, and b) biography is written by someone other than the protagonist, and memoir is written by the protagonist herself.

But I have an even better reason for sticking a biography in here today instead of a memoir.  I’ll tell you my reason in a sec.

The biography I recently finished is Mama Rose’s Turn: The True Story of America’s Most Notorious Stage Mother by Carolyn Quinn, who blogs at Splendiferous Everything.  You’ve heard of Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque star? June Havoc, the movie star? “Mama Rose,” as she’s known in pop culture, is the mother of those two celebrities. She herself is the inspiration for the starring role in the musical Gypsy. 

Mama Rose's Turn

 

Even if the title of the musical doesn’t ring a bell for you, there is no doubt you’ve heard the songs before. They are classics of the American songbook.  Mama Rose herself has been played by Ethel Merman, Bette Midler, Tyne Daly, Angela Lansbury, Patti Lupone, Rosalind Russell, and Bernadette Peters. Whew. I am on a mission to collect every version of “Some People” I can, as it’s one of my favorite songs.

Bette and Angela are two of my favorite versions:

And then there is Liza!!!!

Anyway, the other reason I feel that this book belongs in memoir country is that part of the research Quinn used to write this book is based on the memoirs of Rose’s two daughters.  That’s right–both Gypsy and June wrote their own memoirs! And I haven’t read them yet . . . .  But I can’t wait!

Quinn believes that Gypsy wrote her own memoir.  Additionally, she wrote two novels, a play, and shorter memoir pieces for The New Yorker. 

June, on the other hand, probably had a ghost writer for her two memoirs.

Early Havoc

More Havoc

Are you wondering if you should read Quinn’s biography of Mama Rose?  Yes, definitely! What a CHARACTER (Rose, not Quinn)!!! And if you’ve seen the musical on stage or screen, you don’t know HALF the story! Actually you don’t know a lot of the story because, as Quinn points out, the full name of the musical is Gypsy: A Musical Fable. It’s only loosely based on the true story.  I won’t give away all the fascinating facts I learned about the lives of these three women, but I will tell you that I was amazed to discover that Baby June/Dainty June (June Havoc as a kid) was a super talented dancer and performing star in Vaudeville when she was young.

Recently, Carol Balawyder, on her blog, listed the three types of biographies as mentioned by Michael Holroyd:

  1. the biographer who writes about the very famous – film stars, murderers and royal family
  2. the ambitious professor who writes historical and political  biographies
  3. the literary or artistic biographer.

This book is squarely in the #1 category. The protagonist is a notorious celebrity. You’ll have to read the book to see if she deserves the notoriety bestowed on her.

Go. Read. Enjoy.

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He Said, He Said

One of the most well-written memoirs is by the granddaddy of memoirists, Tobias Wolff. His coming-of-age memoir, This Boy’s Life, is often held up as the gold standard of memoirs.

This Boy's Life

And it deserves this place, although I think it ought to share the position with some others ;).

But if you had never read a coming-of-age memoir, and you wanted to sample one, this book would be a good place to begin.

I read this book as a woman reading the story of what it’s like to be “this boy,” and I learned what it’s like to be the son of a single mother and  to be a boy in the home of a man who isn’t his father.  It’s the sort of book I can imagine suggesting teen boys read. But I think teen girls should read it, too. And women and men.

Toby grows up in a home with his mother and sometimes with a stepfather, but his knowledge of his father and older brother (who grows up with the father) is sketchy at best. He does spend time with his brother Geoffrey when he’s a little older, but they are more like acquaintances or remote cousins.

Interestingly, Geoffrey, the intellectual brother of Tobias, has written his own memoir of his childhood and their father: The Duke of Deception.

The Duke of Deception

In Geoffrey’s book I learned of the extreme personality and antics of their con man father. But Geoffrey’s tone is different from that of Tobias who sounds fairly well-adjusted and humble. The older brother seems a bit elitist, the sort of person who is very well educated and doesn’t let others forget it. In this respect, he reflects their father’s influence on his own personality. In fact, it is up to the reader to decide at the end how much like the father is Geoffrey. Is this resemblance Geoffrey’s fear or is it reality?

While This Boy’s Life is the book read by so many, I think reading The Duke of Deception afterward makes for an enriching experience.

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Memoir or Biomythography?

This is my last blog post in the month of February. I’ve been posting what I’ve learned from the memoirs I’ve read for two months now, and I still have plenty of books to cover.

I want to talk to you about other subjects, too, but I’m reluctant to ignore the rest of my memoir books. So I think I’ve worked out a compromise. I’ll try posting about a memoir once a week, and that way I will gradually work my way through them. It’s not only fun to share the books, but writing these posts reminds me of what I learned about each book, which is such a good review for me.

Then I can write about other things in my other posts–yay!

Today’s memoir is poet Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. On the cover it calls itself a BIOMYTHOGRAPHY.

So I didn’t think of it as a memoir when I read it in grad school. I was immersing myself in the work of Lorde for a possible chapter in my dissertation. Unfortunately, Lorde passed away of cancer while I was in grad school. She was 58 years old, the same age I am now. This chapter never got finished, although my dissertation did.

On a related note, here is my favorite Lorde poem, “Coal.”

Anyway, back to how Lorde wanted to think of this book–as a biomythography. In it she writes about her origins, as a Caribbean child growing up lesbian in Harlem, and she writes about some of the women she loved in her life. She tried to create a new literary genre, by combining a personal mythology with biographical events, but it reads to me as an experimental memoir.

Does that word experimental annoy you or turn you off? It does me. But this is a beautiful book.

In its play with language and boundaries, the book is representative of feminist texts of the early 90s. You won’t notice that so much as you will fall into Lorde’s world and find out what it was like to be an African-American lesbian poet of her time period. That’s what I learned from Lorde’s book.

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