Monthly Archives: January 2012

Thesis: GO

I mentioned in my introductory post that I am an acting major, and as I am in my final semester of school, I have to begin working on my thesis. I am actually in a better place than a lot of my peers; I’ve had an option for my thesis since the beginning of the year, and technically even further back than that. But, as I found out yesterday, I still have a lot of work to do, and this semester is going to be ridiculous.

Let me back up a little and tell you about the project itself. Since taking a children’s theatre class my sophomore spring, I have been working pretty steadily on a play that is a prequel to Peter Pan. A few of the scenes I wrote were workshopped by classmates so that I was able to not only hear them read, but see them on their feet. The professor of that class is a playwright herself, and she gave me a ton of great feedback during the writing process. At one point during the semester, we had private meetings with her about our final projects (which, for me, was this play, partially written), and at the end, I told her that this wasn’t just a project for me- that I wanted to do things with it. She responded that she knew and hoped I would. And while I probably would have gone forward with the project anyway, because I am stubborn, hearing that from her really gave me the confidence to do so.

However, not everyone was so sure about this project. The next fall I enrolled in the only playwriting class my university offers, and when I pitched this play as my final project (this time required to be at least 80 pages), my professor responded with raised eyebrows, “Well, if you think you can make it interesting…”

Fast forward to now, and that same professor has become my biggest advocate. Quite quickly during that playwriting class, he became very supportive of me and my writing. I don’t know that it was even that I was turning out good-quality material, because a lot of the time, I wasn’t. I think he could see that I was serious and was willing to dedicate myself to a project. And dedicate I did: at the end of the semester, I handed in a 92-page completed script.

I continued to work on the script while I was abroad in England (where the play takes place), and while there, I took a class on asylums and mental health treatments in Britain, which are featured in a minor way in the script. When I returned to the US, I did another draft, and then finally another in December.

Now that thesis has officially started, the same teacher that has been my advocate is my thesis advisor. I’m really excited to be working with him, because besides being a published and produced playwright himself, he is so supportive of me and this script and, after our first real meeting yesterday, I know that he’s going to really push me to make this script great.

So here’s my plan for the next few months: my advisor and I have decided that we want to get two new drafts of the play completed by the end of the semester, when my work will be presented in a public staged reading. In order to make this happen, I need to revise twenty pages a week and there won’t be time to discuss the first round of changes until we reach the second. Twenty pages already seemed a little daunting to me, but then my advisor started giving me his feedback. Wow, is this going to be hard. As he pointed out, my play is good, but it’s not great. It has the potential to be surprising and brilliant, he said, but in order to get there, I know I’m going to have to work really hard.

The biggest challenge, actually, are the small things, of which there are many. If he kept saying things like, “Take this character out,” “Make her less of a brat,” “You don’t need this subplot,” etc., I think that would be much simpler than what I actually have to do, which is a lot of little things. Most of the notes he gave me on the first twenty pages are on very subtle things, like increasing the mystery of the first scene and having the main  idea of the scene be left unsaid, but still be present. Of course, it’s not all gloom; a lot of his suggested changes are so simple but can change things so incredibly. For instance, in the first scene, my main character Mary (the Mary Darling you meet in the original Peter Pan story) is told by her husband that she can’t speak of events in her childhood because it is evidence that she may be going crazy (possibly again). Then the scene ends and the second one begins with her children running around and playing a game before bed. “Why don’t you combine the scenes?” my advisor asked. “It’s more powerful and overwhelming if she doesn’t have time to think about the conversation she’s just had with her husband.” Of course! That makes the play so much more active already!

Working on this thesis is going to be really hard and frustrating, but I’m also really excited to see the end product. I’ll be having a private reading before spring break, reserved for people who understand the process of putting on a play, and this first new version will be presented then. I can’t wait!

Review of The Year of the Flood

“We should not expect too much from faith,” he said. “Human understanding is fallible, and we see through a glass, darkly. Any religion is a shadow of God. But the shadows of God are not God.” Enter the world of Oryx and Crake according to Adam One, a self-appointed prophet of God, preaching green and some impending doom, a Waterless Flood that will someday wipe out all of humanity. In this particular instance, Atwood suggests a religious analogue to René Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images,” in which the artist demonstrates that an image is a poor projection of reality, a mere reflection of truth (see picture below).

But she does not limit herself to one or two theological points in her commentary of religion throughout the book. Each section begins with a sermon from Adam One, which is heard by the two main characters: Toby and Ren. Perhaps her most poignant suggestion is one that pervades the entirety of the piece, which Adam One sums up here: ” ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ That is the point: not seen. We cannot know God by reason and measurement; indeed, excess reason and measurement can lead to doubt.” This demonstrates Atwood’s concept of the relationship between science and religion. Using the Biblical text of Hebrews, Atwood asserts that religion involves an element of faith that transcends our ability to comprehend. She presents a worldview, here, through Adam One that embraces a truly empirical and scientific understanding of the universe but likewise realizing a degree of mystery in the nature of religion and the belief in God. Beyond a theological standpoint, this theme of faith in the unseen (and fear fear of the unseen, for that matter, in the case of the Waterless Flood and the haunting persona of Blanco) rests beneath Toby’s service with the Gardeners and Ren’s time at school and at the Scales and Tails club.

There are, again as in Oryx and Crake, very pertinent issues in our society that Atwood addresses in the book, like women selling their eggs on the black market and corporations forcing people into perpetual indebtedness (somewhat akin to the days of factory work during the Industrial Revolution). Like its predecessor, The Year of the Flood contains a large underlying discussion of environmental issues, mostly demonstrated through the Gardeners’ religion and practices of recycling, growing organic food, and appreciating the natural world.

Perhaps one of the most compelling issues within the novel is Atwood’s commentary on civil disobedience. Adam One and his Gardeners are defiant of the ways of the corporations by means of lifestyle, a non-violent protest of the materialism, avarice, and disrespect for nature. This seems reminiscent of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience in which he wrote, “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience…” This embodies the nature of the Gardeners that Atwood develops. Whether she agrees with this perspective or not is certainly a matter of question considering the MadAddam terrorist group that branches off from the Gardeners.

Later in Civil Disobedience, Thoreau says that “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong.” And it is regarding this point that the Gardeners experience a great divide. Those remaining with Adam One agree with Thoreau’s second point while others disagree and leave, forming the MadAddam group for whom the entire trilogy is named. MadAddam attempts to eradicate the evil of the corporations, resorting to violent measures in the process. Atwood thoroughly examines the nature of civil disobedience through the experiences of Toby and Ren, providing a compelling commentary on violence, murder, and their place in the survival both of morality and of the human species.

Beyond these deep thematic elements, Atwood does something stylistically in this piece that sets it distinctly apart from Oryx and Crake. She changes voice. Not one, but three times. First, she changes voice from the limited third person perspective of Snowman to that of Toby. Then she switches person from third to first for the narrations of Ren, which is keenly distinct from that of Toby. And there are the intermittent sermons of Adam One (obviously these are in first person as they are his spoken commentary) that present not only the theology of the Gardeners but some of the nature of Adam One himself. These three separate voices serve not only to characterize the protagonists of Ren and Toby but also to develop different perspectives of the thematic issues discussed above. Each voice helps to draw you into the piece and make for a suspenseful plot. Indeed, there are cliff hangers from one voice to the next, and we are left wondering at many points if the characters will even survive.

Ultimately, this makes for an even more compelling read than Oryx and Crake and serves to further our insight into Atwood’s commentary on issues within our society.

Review of Split

 

Ira Gamerman is one of today’s up and coming young playwrights. A produced playwright since 2006, Gamerman hasn’t looked back since getting his first writing grant in 2005. After attending Towson University in Baltimore, MD, for theater performance, he moved on to earning an MFA in playwriting from Ohio University, which he will be receiving this May.  His plays have been performed both nationally and internationally, and I had the privilege of seeing two of Gamerman’s short plays read at the Region II Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival two weeks ago. Both plays were chosen as one of only three compositions to move on to the national competition in Washington D.C.

Both of his plays (Skyscrapers in Sheepskin and Actual Magic) were so awesome that I felt the need to type Gamerman’s name into Google when I got home, and lo and behold, on his website were download-able plays!

Gamerman’s play Split (voted Best Play of the Year in 2008 by the Columbus Dispatch) follows the style that many of his others do, featuring a main character who narrates the events of the play as well as taking part in them, and a considerable amount of humor. Split tells the story of awkwardly charming Adam, a twenty-four year old who, at the advice of his shrink Dr. Frankfurter, is on the verge of breaking up with his girlfriend Ellen because she’s very like his mother. However, before he can, Ellen disappears to Alaska and an old flame, Jenny, walks back into his life. With the questionable help of two imaginary friends, Adam works to sort out his feelings toward the women in his life, therapy, and his own insecurities.

One of my favorite aspects of Split is the inclusion of Adam’s imaginary friends, Mr. Eskimo and Vince Vaughn. They’re fairly ridiculous and vastly entertaining, keeping Adam’s self-exploration from becoming run-of-the-mill or whiny. While Vince Vaughn is most definitely Vince Vaughn, Mr. Eskimo is not, in fact, an Eskimo. As he explains to Adam, Eskimo is not his last name, but his slave name; he doesn’t have a real name anymore.  Mr. Eskimo arrives to help Adam save Ellen (who has not gone to Alaska of her own accord, but has been captured by the Elite Eskimo Underground, a “very dangerous group of rogue Eskimos” that killed Mr. Eskimo’s parents.)

Another fantastical element of the play occurs when Adam imagines an ideal past with his old crush Jenny. Presented as “The abridged history of Adam & Jenny as performed by the Adam’s fantasy players representing the maturity level of the characters at that time not necessarily their age,” we see an infantilized Adam piquing the interest of the young yet sophisticated Jenny, in a conversation that runs thus:

FANTASY JENNY: Guess what?
FANTASY ADAM: What?
FANTASY JENNY: I just broke up with my 32 year old,  long-distance boyfriend who I’ve been dating for the past three years. And now I can take your virginity.
FANTASY ADAM: Wow! Really? Golly, that’d be awful nice of you, Jenny.

Amidst all this craziness, however, is unfortunate reality. Adam still lives with his mother and argues with her frequently- about his relationship with his girlfriend, about washing his hands for dinner, and especially about emptying his trash can. Before she goes to Alaska, Ellen harps on Adam about getting married, but Adam is unwilling. And when Jenny reappears in his life after three years of radio silence, Adam has to decide if he wants to let someone with so much knowledge of his past back into his life.

Split portrays both the reality and the fantasy of life, and reveals that each can be both ideal and kind of crappy. Gamerman’s humorous and truthful style lends itself to unique and enjoyable storytelling, which is probably why his plays are doing so well. If you want to check out Split or Gamerman’s other plays, you can visit his website here.

Choice quotes:

“Choosing not to choose is still a choice… Stand up strong for your confusion. Wave your flag of indecision high and proud.”

ELLEN: So, you’re saying you’re not going to marry me?
ADAM: Um- are you asking?
ELLEN: No.
ADAM: Well- No.
ELLEN: You’re such an asshole.

“Common thread here? Guilt. And they come by it honestly: Mom’s Jewish. Ellen’s Catholic.”

MR. ESKIMO:  Reception is terrible in the mountain range she’s in. Our only means of tracking her will be by her footprints.  What brand of shoe does she wear?
ADAM: I don’t know.
MR. ESKIMO: You’ve dated her for how long? And you don’t know what brand of shoe she wears?
ADAM: She wears a lot of shoes
MR. ESKIMO:  IT IS ESSENTIAL INFORMATION! IT COULD SAVE HER LIFE! SHE COULD BE DEAD, NOW!

Review of The Fault in Our Stars

As it’s only twenty-one days into 2012, it’s easy to say that John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars has been my most anticipated book of the year, but it’s still true. Green’s books are some that took me awhile to get into; at first I disliked his writing, but even when his style didn’t suit me, his approach to writing an absolutely true story did. I respected him before I liked him because of his unflinchingly honest portrayal of grief in his first book, Looking for Alaska. Now that I am a fan of his books, I look forward to his new releases, and The Fault in Our Stars is the most recent.

The book revolves around Hazel Grace Lancaster, a sixteen-year-old cancer survivor who is still only doing just that: surviving. As she says towards the middle of the book, she has never been anything but terminal. When she is forced to attend a cancer support group, she meets Augustus Waters, a handsome and well-spoken survivor of osteosarcoma. The day they meet, Augustus tells Hazel that he thinks she looks like Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta and when Hazel says she’s never seen it,  insists that she come over to his house right then to watch it. From that day on, the two are nearly inseparable, their friendship sprinkled with undeniable attraction exhibited by verbal sparring and a mutual understanding that life is fragile and suckish.

Like any book that features a main character battling a real-world illness, sometimes the story is hard to read, especially when it is written by John Green. Green knows well what a child goes through when they are ill (he was a chaplain in a children’s hospital about a decade ago), and even if he didn’t, Green is unafraid to take the reader by the shoulders and make them look at what life is really like. The best parts about his books are the painful parts; they’re difficult to get through, but the reader comes out on the other side thankful that, finally, someone has thought enough of them to give them that journey.
But the book is not all about illness. As  Hazel observes, she has the full-time job of Having Cancer, but having cancer is also part of her life, which she lives as much as she can. Though we do feel her worry about what the results of her PET scan will be, we also feel the warmth of Augustus’ hand on her arm and her frustration that her parents aren’t living their lives so much as catering to hers.

Just as in his other books, Green tackles serious issues with real, smart characters. The author writes teens as very intelligent people, and that is probably why he is such a star in the YA community. With witty, provocative dialogue, Hazel and Augustus fight not only their illnesses but grief for those that are lost; the reality that they will probably soon be the lost; love for each other, their friends, and their families; frustration with those same people and themselves; and the disappointment that someone held on a pedestal might not live up to that standard in real life.

This is also Green’s first time writing from the female perspective. As with his fellow YA author, Libba Bray, I marveled at his skill at writing from the perspective of the opposite sex. Of course, what both of these authors demonstrate is that writing good characters is writing good characters; the gender of said characters is unimportant.

The best part about Green’s books in general are that you think you know what you’re getting, and then he pulls the rug from under your feet. In The Fault in Our Stars, he uses jarring single sentences that cause your stomach to drop and you to dread turning the page, sentences like “I never took another picture of him.” Green is brave enough to see past the happy ending the reader thinks is coming and give them the reality they probably didn’t want. So if you’d like a good literary wringing of the heart, you should read The Fault in Our Stars!

Choice quotes:

Look, let me just say it: He was hot. A non-hot boy stares at you relentlessly and it is, at best, awkward and, at worst, a form of assault. But a hot boy… well.

…The diagnosis came three months after I got my first period. Like: Congratulations! You’re a woman. Now die.

I think my school friends wanted to help me through my cancer, but they eventually found out that they couldn’t. For one thing, there was no through.

“I had a few good kisses with my ex-girlfriend, Caroline Mathers.”
“Years ago?”
“The last one was just less than a year ago.”
“What happened?”
“During the kiss?”
“No, with you and Caroline.”
“Oh,” he said. And then after a second, “Caroline is no longer suffering from personhood.”

“You are so busy being you that you have no idea how utterly unprecedented you are.”

“I think forever is an incorrect concept,” I answered.
He smirked. “You’re an incorrect concept.”
“I know. That’s why I’m being taken out of the rotation.”

Rachel’s Exciting News of the Day!

Today, dear readers, is the day that I pretty-much-except-for-some-medical-facts/words finished my latest novel!

Of course, I am using the word “finished” loosely; this draft is finished. But I’m still very happy, as this is a novel I’ve been working on for over two years and made a gigantic mess of during National Novel Writing Month in November. So this is good!

 

Also, side note: there will be posts that are not reviews coming up soon, when Stuart and I get into the swing of our final semester (eek) of undergraduate education. In the meantime, in mere minutes I will be posting a review of John Green’s latest novel, The Fault in Our Stars!

Review of Sweetly

Sweetly, by Jackson Pearce, is a modern retelling of Hansel and Gretel. From the beginning, though, Pearce adds her own little twists while still being faithful to the original(s). In her version, the two main characters are brother and sister, but their names are Ansel and Gretchen. It hasn’t always been just the two of them; when Gretchen was six, her twin sister was taken in the woods by a creature with yellow eyes, a creature that Gretchen has since called the Witch.

Twelve years later, things have gone further downhill; while Ansel and Gretchen are still hurt and healing, their mother died years before from grief, causing their father to turn to alcohol and eventually die himself. Their stepmother, unable to bear the sight of them, turns them out of the house.  Feeling this is best for all of them, the two pack up their Jeep and head to North Carolina’s beach, where Gretchen dreams of an open, warm, and sunny place that is free of dark forests. But when their car breaks down outside of Live Oak, Georgia, Ansel and Gretchen are forced to walk into town to try to get a tow. It’s obvious from their first entrance into the town café that the village is not welcoming to outsiders. There is one person who is willing to help them, though: Sophia Kelly, who needs assistance in running and repairing her sweet shop on the edge of town.
At first, Gretchen and her brother are wary of staying with Sophia, especially after hearing that most of the townspeople regard Sophia as the beginning of the end for Live Oak. However, Sophia is kind and welcoming, and what’s more, she understands the siblings’ feeling of loss for their sister. Soon, a week turns into a month, and then a few months, and eventually the sweet shop feels like home. Gretchen enjoys talking to their host and Ansel and Sophia soon begin seeing each other.
But as Gretchen gets to know Sophia more, it’s obvious that not everything in Sophia’s life is as perfect as the candy Sophia makes. There’s an underlying sadness to everything Sophia does, and her obsession with getting young girls to attend her chocolate festival is far beyond that of a simple nervous hostess. With the help of a boy from town, Samuel Reynolds, Gretchen begins to uncover who Sophia really is and if the town really does have a reason to fear that Sophia will bring Live Oak to its end and who- or what- the witch in the woods really is.

This is the second book of Pearce’s that I’ve read. The first was Sisters Red, and while I liked Sisters Red better than this book, Sweetly was still excellent. Pearce has a very unique style- it’s witty, but in less a snappy way than a more weighted, thoughtful way. Gretchen, like Rosie and Scarlett in Sisters Red, is able to show anger without being annoyingly angsty and thoughtful without slowing down the pace of the story.  The character of Sophia Kelly is complex- though not as much as she might have been- and she kept me guessing throughout the novel.

One of the best aspects of Pearce’s works is that she writes wonderful action scenes. Their pace is spot on and she doesn’t hold back from describing something gruesome or shocking. What’s more, her characters- be they male or female- never become sudden action heroes when faced with danger. If they have combat skills, they earn them. Gretchen, determined to defeat the monster that snatched her sister, asks Samuel to teach her to use a rifle.

In her previous work, I’ve loved the romantic relationships between characters and felt all warm and fuzzy when they got together. But in Sweetly, I didn’t feel that way about Gretchen and Samuel’s budding relationship. This attachment felt forced, as though Pearce wanted the two to be together, but couldn’t find the exact way to make it happen.  I didn’t believe that, when faced with peril, Gretchen would run to Samuel for more than borrowing his gun.

The book, as a whole, is very good. The story is intriguing and I cared about the characters. Pearce’s studies of philosophy feature largely in this book (Sophia is a fan of Nietzsche and Gretchen’s musings are often philosophical), and it makes her characters deeper. She’s not afraid to let her work be smart, and that’s one of the things I love about her writing. Definitely pick this one up!

Review of Oryx and Crake

There are utopias and distopias in literature, the former more often than not turning out to be more like the latter than we would like. Margaret Atwood hates having her work categorized as either one. Neither does she approve of science fiction despite the largely technological and, lately, environmental themes that pervade her work. She chooses to operate under the term eistopia, a term that underlines a projected future with, according to Atwood, no apparent meliorative or pejorative leanings. That being said, I am not wholly certain I agree. Perhaps Atwood was simply avoiding a direct interpretation of her own work, begging readers to determine the underpinnings of her literature.

Oryx and Crake is quite a fantastic story–we follow a disheveled character nicknamed “Snowman” who lives with genetically engineered humanoids on the beach. These humanoids, called the Children of Crake after their inventor, Crake, are, along with Snowman, the sole survivors of an epidemic that has killed off the rest of the human race. A majority of the story is told in flashback–Snowman recalls his childhood, first meeting and befriending Crake, first seeing Oryx in a pornographic movie, going to college, falling in love with Oryx, etc… The novel is left with a heavy sense of fatalism: we know from the beginning that Snowman is the only human left alive. It is this sense of fatalism that leaves the reader wanting more than finding out what happens next. Certainly, there is a degree of suspense: how did Snowman end up where he is when the novel starts? Although Atwood does an excellent job of drawing us into that mystery, there is an incredible depth of meaning to the piece that not only attests to Atwood’s ingenuity but also brings us into a contemplation of purpose and identity beyond social constructs and forces us to contemplate the nature of our own mortality.

Burdened by this heavy fatalism, we embark on a voyage of doubt through the thick and under-explored wilderness of morality. Is it right to tamper with genes? If we can eliminate disease by means of eugenics, is it morally acceptable to make all individuals smarter (an issue addressed more directly in the case of humans in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World) or to make animals more benign or livestock more productive (an issue addressed in the recent documentary Food Inc.)? And what of the environment? If we can genetically alter plants to use more carbon dioxide in their photosynthetic processes but sacrifice other species in the process, is this a moral solution to the overproduction of greenhouse gasses?

Beyond the realm of bioengineering, though, Atwood explores two specific paradigms of moral principle that some would consider black and white and other more like the rainbow. For instance, Oryx is sold by her family into slavery and eventually becomes a porn star. Snowman and Crake grow up watching porn and are thereby introduced to Oryx. They are extremely insensitive towards the objectification of women. As a reader, I found myself needing to fill in the emotional gaps left by their lack of concern for women like Oryx who were forced into such a lifestyle. I felt a considerable sense of outrage against the subtle misogyny present in these scenes, but Atwood leaves room for interpretation as she demonstrates an apparent lack of harm due to the influence of pornography on Snowman and Crake. What we are forced to consider is the impact of pornography. Snowman always treats women as objects, even the incredible Oryx with whom he falls in love. Is this simply Snowman’s nature, or is the rampant pornography a key contributor to his value of women? Crake is completely opposite–he never has a sex partner, never seeks out women. But could this be the result of an objectified view of women? Atwood leaves the answer up to us.

Beyond the nearly benign insensitivity of pornography, Atwood brings into play a more poignant subject: killing. The two boys spend some of their time watching shows about assisted suicide, a topic containing a great deal of socio-political charge today but in the context of her world considered a typical happening. This culminates later with Crake’s actions regarding the super virus that destroys humanity and ultimately the confrontation between Snowman and Crake after Oryx dies. When does killing become acceptable? When is killing just, and when is it blatant murder? Atwood blurs the lines between these areas and forces us to consider the implications thereof.

Rich with questions about morality, environmentalism, and the future, and full of suspense weighted by a distinct fatalism, Oryx and Crake is a compelling and thought-provoking read. Atwood’s beautiful yet simplistic language tops off this delectable piece of literature with compelling images:

“They seem close, the stars, but they’re far away. Their light is millions, billions of years out of date. Messages with no sender.”

Or more contemplative and sometimes religious depictions that border on theological commentary:

“Before he reconnoitres, before he sets out on what — he now sees — is a mission, he should make a speech of some kind to the Crakers. A sort of sermon. Lay down a few commandments, Crake’s parting words to them. Except that they don’t need commandments: no thou shalt nots would be any good to them.”

Overall, the novel is a compelling read and will leave you wanting to dive into its sequel: The Year of the Flood.

Happy New Year!

Happy 2012 from both of us here at Ambidexteri!

Last night was spent working on our collab novel and playing word games- warming up for some fantastic posts this year!

Coming soon- a book review from Stuart!