Monthly Archives: May 2012

Go Forth; You’re a Writer Now (or The First Time I Got Rejected)

I suppose I am a real writer now, readers. Why? Because four days ago, I received my first-ever real writing rejection.

Don’t mistake me, readers. I have been rejected as a writer before, but it was in a more minor fashion: plays I wrote not being chosen for school performance, losing essay contests, etc.

As I may have mentioned, I took a poetry and fiction writing class last semester, and I produced some work that I thought was fairly good. Since we only had four people in our class, I also brought in a piece I had written on my own, for critique. The class seemed to like it and gave me suggestions, and I polished it up as part of my final portfolio.

As I was working on this portfolio, I was also completing a project on a literary magazine for the same class. It’s very simple, I discovered, to submit to these magazines, and many of them don’t charge a reading fee. I decided to submit the aforementioned piece, a short play, to one of the magazines I had come across.

This was all about a month ago, and I had no idea when or if the magazine would get back to me. However, I am an actor; I’m pretty much used to putting myself out there initially and never hearing from someone again. I am prepared for this kind of thing.

Then Thursday came along and I saw an e-mail in my inbox from the very magazine to which I had submitted. The e-mail itself is very short, but while they could have written, “Thank you for submitting your piece, but we have decided not to publish it,” they actually referenced the piece itself, saying that they did find “the style, using the line breaks, effective , especially when reading drama” and wished me the best with it.

So it could be worse. No, I will not be published in this magazine this time around, but hey, at least they read it and noticed the part of the play I’d spent the most time on. I think it’s a good piece that could probably still use some revision, but I’m proud I submitted it. And now I feel like I’m officially a writer; all real writers get rejected :p

Review of Zombies vs. Unicorns

 

Let me first say that I don’t have a dog (or a zombie or a unicorn) in this fight. I bought this book for the sole reason that my two favorite authors, Libba Bray and Maureen Johnson, contributed to it. The book is an anthology, edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier, and the twelve authors involved battle it out to decide which mythical creature is best. As I mentioned, I didn’t choose a side before or after I read this anthology; I was in it purely for the writing.

 
Speaking of, the writing in this anthology is, overall, really awesome. There’s an author or two included in the count whose books I didn’t completely enjoy, but I found their short stories very enjoyable. There were other authors who I’d never heard of whose stories, I didn’t like so much. However, for the most part, Zombies vs. Unicorns is a study in good [YA] writing:

 
Carrie Ryan explores storytelling in a way I’ve never seen, dividing main character Iza’s storytelling into “Before” and “Now,” each time represented by past and present tense, respectively. The story is perfectly balanced between the tellings, and the ending is thrilling: Iza gets what she’s always dreamed of, and allows herself to savor it for a single second before deserting the dream for supreme power.

 
Scott Westerfeld’s zombie tale tackles both sexuality, desire, and the need to escape adults’ good intentions, no matter how inadvisable it seems.

 
In The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn, Diana Peterfreund writes beautifully from the viewpoint of Wendy, a girl who questions whether her ability to communicate with killer unicorns (one of whom ended the lives of her cousins) is the work of the devil and if her inability to kill a baby unicorn is her good Christian morals at work or giving into temptation.

 
My favorite story in the collection is Maureen Johnson’s Children of the Revolution. While I picked up this anthology because of her contribution, I am always amazed at Johnson’s ability to be screamingly funny at all times, but weave into that humor drama and tragedy in a way that keeps you mulling over what she’s done for long after you’ve finished. Sofie’s foul-mouthed voice is incredibly truthful, and her degeneration is artfully done and bugs me with its finality.

 
As I said, there were a few stories in the anthology that I didn’t enjoy. The first contribution, Garth Nix’s unicorn tale, failed to hold my attention, as nothing seemed to actually happen. Likewise, I couldn’t even finish Margo Lanagan’s A Thousand Flowers because I kept reading the same part over and over, unable to comprehend what was happening (then again, I was reading it during a mind-numbing graduation rehearsal, so perhaps I should give it another go.)

 
Whether you care or not about zombies and/or unicorns, this is an anthology you should pick up. It’s hard to review an anthology, I’ve discovered, so I’ll just leave you with a ton of awesometastic quotes:

 
From Love Will Tear Us Apart by Alaya Dawn Johnson:

 
So, he smells like the best meal you’ve ever eaten, but you kind of want to bone him, too. Can’t have it both ways. You aren’t a necro. But a boy’s got to eat- maybe you could just nibble a bit at the edges? A part he won’t miss, and then fuck the rest of him. Eat an arm or something. He can still fuck with one arm. Not that well, though. Probably wouldn’t like it. Okay, a hand. Who ever needed a left hand?… A pinky? Damn, you might as well starve yourself.

 
I had a sister. She was younger than me and dumb in that dumb little sister way, which means that she’ll probably grow up to be a neurochemist and invent the cure for spongiform encephalopathy.

 
Bougainvillea by Carrie Ryan

 
Iza smiles just a little. Her father has barely spoken to her in a month; she hears his words only through others. Iza wonders if she should make it a game: How long can she go without speaking to him?

 
Iza nods her head, deciding it’s not lying if she doesn’t say the words.

 
He swallows, his throat pushing against the blade. Iza can hear the desperation in his voice, but that’s nothing new. The entire world is desperate.

 
The Children of the Revolution by Maureen Johnson

 
When trolls cut classes, you think they are losers. When the beautiful and/or reasonably erudite do the same things to sit on the library steps and read poetry, you think they are on to something deep…You never stop to think that it shouldn’t take half a semester to read one book of poems… that maybe he’s not so much reading as getting really high every morning.

 
We met when I basically fell over him on my way out of the library, which led to three weeks of I-fell-for-you jokes that he laughed at every time. (This is because he was very, very high and had no memory of my telling them before, and also he laughed at everything, including sneezes and radiators and doorknobs and long silences.)

 
Justine’s preface to The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn:

 
Of course, the unicorn obsession with virginity remains a concern. Some of us nonvirgins are quite lovely, you know.

 
The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn by Dana Peterfreund:

 
[Yves] on the stoop, and there’s a space the size of [his crush] Summer between us.

 
Justine’s preface to Inoculata:

 
The job of every generation is to discover the flaws of the one that came before. That’s part of growing up, figuring out all the ways your parents and their friends are broken.

 
Inoculata by Scott Westerfeld:

 
Dr. Bill claims it was all about safety and sustenance. But he also says that the wire will last forever that chocolate can grow in Mississippi, and that one day we’ll learn to inoculate for zee bites, or maybe even cure the six billion.
Dr. Bill is generally full of shit. Just like the rest of them.

 
I lie to the grown-ups and say I haven’t been anywhere near the wire, and they decide it’s food poisoning. With no airplanes to bring us new flues, it’s all food poisoning these days… Someone’s always with me, forcing me to drink water that I’ll only puke up. They keep me in the isolation hut where Mrs. Zimmer died, even though food poisoning isn’t contagious, and they try not to make a big deal about the pistol on the bedside table.

Review of Little Platoons

This play by Steve Waters is another play I wanted to see while in London and sadly didn’t get to. It premiered at the Bush Theatre, a tiny 34-seat space that premieres some of the UK’s top playwrights, as well as supporting new material.

Little Platoons is, above all, about the English school system. It’s almost impossible to explain the way schools work over there briefly, and not all of it is important, so here are the basics*:

-In England, public schools and private schools are the opposite of what they are in America, e.g. an English private school is one that is free and open to the public, and a public school is paid for and the students often board at their place of academia.

-At the age of eleven, students take an exam that will determine whether they will attend grammar school. The internet defines English grammar schools as “one of the remaining fully selective state-funded schools.” The school a child gets into is important- not necessarily a status symbol, but it does mean that if a child is unhappy in the grammar into which s/he was accepted, there are a lot of hoops to jump through to go to a new school.

-Another option for children is an independent school, which is just what it sounds like. Like America’s charter schools, these institutions do not have to follow the National Curriculum, and teachers do not need to have official teaching qualifications.

In the play, Rachel, a school administrator, is trying to get her eleven year old son Sam into grammar school. She herself teaches at an institution that she claims is “a miracle,” but her ex-husband Martin argues that Sam will be excluded there due to being white and middle-class, as most of Rachel’s students are from different countries. Rachel and Martin are recently separated, and Martin proposes that Sam come with him and his girlfriend to the small town of Bichester and attend the local grammar there. Initially, Rachel resists the idea, but when it becomes plain that there are no other options for her son, she gives in.

This incident is the catalyst for Rachel approaching a group of strangers who have been posting flyers around London about a new “free” school in Shepherd’s Bush (an area of London), parent-run, open to all. She sees it as an opportunity for Sam, but her conversation with the school’s creators, Nick, Lara, and Pav, doesn’t go as planned. When they find out Rachel is an educator, they quickly become defensive and she returns the gesture, until finally she breaks down in tears and tells them that she is desperate for a place to send her son. They ask her why she can’t take him at her own school, and when she grudgingly lists her school’s shortcomings, they ask her on a whim to be their head teacher.

Though Rachel does not say yes to this offer right away, the new school trio take her “maybe” as such, running off to get their school approved. This in itself is a large and arduous process, and is personified in Little Platoons by a young professional named Polly. Polly is the play’s version of The Man, despite being young and pretty, and though she understands how hard the new school group is working, she refuses to bend the rules for them.

The main issue that the group finds is that however adamant they are about being like Rachel’s old school, they can’t really help it. Once their school is approved, their music-centered curriculum proves surprisingly popular: they can accept a hundred students and get eight hundred applications. In order to be fair, they have to fall into the trap of usual grammar school selectivity, choosing a fraction of the applicants and rejecting all the others. And the creation of the school is not the only stress- Rachel and her new collaborators also deal with relationship and family problems, racial issues, and trying to stay true to themselves throughout all of it.

The thing I most enjoyed about reading this play was the way it was written. The dialogue is extremely realistic: “[Youth] is such a subjective thing, isn’t it? Yes, yes you are, yes you really are, I am the horse’s mouth. Sit, sit down, sit down. As I say, I have the free school, er, brief, and wow- we are so delighted, excited, that so many of you, an all over the country, too, so many fabulous applications, and you guys are way ahead of the game, I mean terrifically well done, really impressive good stuff. Okay.” Each person has their own way of speaking, and they’re all very, very British. Even having lived there for a short time, there were some references that I didn’t understand, and I feel that the script might alienate unfamiliar readers with mentions of Primark, TK Maxx, Tesco, The X Factor, A-levels, and GCSEs.

Occasionally while reading this, I felt that the arguments got too long. There are also four teenagers from Rachel’s old school that are onstage for ten minutes, and while I appreciated hearing their style of speaking, I didn’t understand what more they brought to the play.

Little Platoons is a play I’d very much like to see. It’s well-written and interesting and it gets to the hearts of the characters, as all good plays do.

*Apologies to any British citizen who is looking at my explanations and seeing all the errors; this was the best I could do.

Choice quotes:

MARTIN: So. Here’s the situation. They can fit him in next term.
RACHEL: Oh. Great. What luck.
MARTIN: Of course, term doesn’t start til mid-September-
RACHEL: Well, that’s public schools. Work-shy masters with scholarly hobbies. Mid you, they must be itching to get back into full-time pederasty.
MARTIN: You know this, this is… below you.
RACHEL: Oh, there is no ‘below me,’ Martin. Believe me, I’ve checked. By the way, is that as stud in your ear?

NICK: One day soon, Michael, every child in this country will once again know who Miss Havisham is, how to locate Belgium on a map, and the historical impact of Bismarck.

Review of Einstein’s Dreams

First and foremost, Einstein is not a major character. He is the major consistent character, but we see him little. We are, in fact, left to explore his dreams.

“Suppose time is like a circle…”

“In this world, time is like the flow of water…”

“…time is not a quantity but a quality.”

“…cause and effect are erratic.”

These are the beginnings of Einstein’s dreams. In them, we explore different worlds with different structures of time, how that sort of time changes the perceptions of the people in those worlds. Each world begins and ends in the frame of a short story. Lovers meet. Spouses fight. Business men haggle. Schoolchildren play. Sometimes people age, others fail to age at all.

Beyond this curious exploration of time, however, Lightman explores much deeper into human nature. He examines the tendencies of humans to want to be young, to preserve happiness, to live longer. Throughout the book, he seems possessed with the concept of human mortality. Most compelling on this matter is the short story in which people are immortal, where Lightman states that, “Over time, some have determine that the only way to live is to die. In death, a man or woman is free of the past.” Certainly, Lightman is not a proponent of suicide, but he poignantly demonstrates that our appreciation of life, our purpose and identity, stem in part from the fact that we will ultimately pass on.

What is more subtly intriguing is the underlying plot of Einstein’s meetings with his friend, Besso. During the course of his dreams, Einstein is developing the Theory of Special Relativity, which did indeed change people’s perception of time. Einstein and Besso do discuss Einstein’s ideas about relativity, but Lightman uses Besso to discuss more subtly the nature of Einstein’s marriage and disregard for the everyday, common necessities. Einstein doesn’t eat enough, doesn’t sleep enough, doesn’t experience emotion. Lightman’s characterization of perhaps one of the most intelligent people in the past century is somewhat harsh, albeit realistic. And this persona lays the foundation for the short stories depicting Einstein’s ideas about time, his “dreams” about the true nature of the enigma that is time.

Creative and compelling, Einstein’s Dreams will leave you reconsidering your perceptions of mortality, memory, entropy, and the natural forward flow of time.

Review of Burnt By the Sun

When I went to London for the first time in 2009 and toured the National Theatre, we saw the amazing set of one of the plays that was being put on, Burnt By the Sun. The set was a fully-built house, which was turned this way and that depending on what needed to be seen. I thought that such a wonderful set much be for a wonderful play, but it wasn’t until I lived there two years later that I finally got a copy of it. Finally, an additional year later, I’ve read it.

 
The play is based on the 1994 Oscar-winning film of the same name. The play script is written by Peter Flannery and revolves around Kotov, a general who has finally returned to his young wife and daughter for a summer in 1936. He’s a hero of the Russian Revolution, and from the first scene, his influence over his family and town, as well as the military, is obvious. His power over the latter is such that he doesn’t have to be unkind or even raise his voice to completely turn plans to his liking. But Kotov’s idyllic life is turned over when his wife’s former lover, Mitia, returns after ten years away. Suddenly, Kotov finds himself in competition with the charming stranger who may know more about Kostov’s past than Kostov wishes his family to know.

 
Burnt By the Sun starts out slowly; Flannery takes his time in laying out who everyone is to one another and how lovely Kostov’s life has been since he returned to his family. For viewing purposes, I think the opening might dawdle a bit, but it makes for good reading. Just as in Chekhov, the Russian characters have several names, all long and unpronounceable, and the more time we get to know the individuals, the easier reading becomes.

 
Almost all of the characters themselves are quite intriguing. While there are some, such as the grannies, without whom the play would get along just fine, the others are colorful and complex. Kostov has great love for his family and a great many secrets… but the reason he keeps those secrets quiet is because of the love for his family. Maroussia, his wife, spends most of the play being pulled between her older husband and the younger former lover. However, she is not the typical ingénue being charmed against her will. When she feels herself being pulled in either direction, she takes herself away until she can fully assess the situation. Their daughter Nadia is observant and funny, but still believably a child. Mitia’s objectives change in every scene; sometimes he seems to be after only Maroussia, in whatever way he can get her, and in others, he longs for the simplicity of life outside of the army, which is what foiled his plans of life with Maroussia in the first place. While he can be despicable, the reader thinks how painful it must be to have Maroussia’s (but not his) child call him “Uncle Mitia.” And then there is Mokhova, the maid, who is constantly teased because of her “middle-aged virginity;” the poor woman spends the entirety of the play expressing pride in her virginity while longing for a driver who keeps coming back to the house. He explains later that he wishes to marry her, only to be shot dead by a soldier minutes later. There seems to be a theme in Russian plays that no one must be happy; the only constantly cheery person is Nadia, and even she is arrested at the end of the play for being the daughter of a traitor.

 
Flannery (or perhaps the writers of the screenplay) gives the reader some wonderfully full moments in his script. About halfway through the play, Mitia and Maroussia finally get a moment alone. Maroussia asks him why he’s come back after a decade of being away. He never sent her a single letter while he was gone. “What’s the point of it now?” she asks. Mitia answers by telling the story of their first night together, after Maroussia ran away from home and he found her and comforted her. “I talked to you for hours. About your father. You didn’t know how you would ever live without him. And how could death have taken him so unfairly? And I read you Aeschylus. Do you remember?” He recites a beautiful passage. Maroussia listens, but responds only with, “You went away.” “Nothing has changed for you at all,” Matia tells her. “You’ve obliterated me, Maroussia… taken me out of the picture. Forgotten me.” The moment that follows is electric even on the page, a difficult thing to do in a play. I was completely drawn into the story, wondering if they were going to kiss, unable to decide if I wanted them to or not.

 
The play also manages to be of its time as well as stretch into all eras with the study of romantic relationships. Though Kotov wishes himself above Mitia’s power games, he knows he has to play along or risk losing his wife. So for every time Mitia encourages Maroussia to dance as he plays the piano, Kotov counters it by showing that he knows her physically. These kinds of power struggles are timeless and Flannery plays it out well. He also ends the play with proof that winning such a battle does not mean winning all of the battles; though Mitia succeeds in having Kotov arrested for being a traitor, it still doesn’t get him Maroussia’s love or the easy life, and the final scene of the play is him doing shots of vodka and playing Russian roulette.

 
I wish I could have seen Burnt By the Sun; it’s the sort of play that is so alive on the page that it must be even better on the stage. Check out this play- it’s pretty awesome!

Choice Quotes:

 
NADIA: Will today go on for ever?
KOTOV: Would you like it to?
NADIA: You’ve no idea how good it feels to be with you.
KOTOV: Each day must end, Nadia. But more days come after. Remember that. And those days make a path. Follow your path. Follow it well. Work hard. Respect your parents and teachers. And above all, Nadia, cherish your Soviet motherland.
NADIA: I adore you.
KOTOV: With you, everything is calm. And easy. Perhaps this day with just drift for ever. Like the boat on the river. Would you like that?
NADIA: Yes. As long as we can have Mamma in our boat.
KOTOV: Of course. We wouldn’t leave her behind.

 
KOTOV: Tell me what it’s like to lose all the time.
MITIA: Who’s losing?
KOTOV: You told me. You lost the war. You lost the good life. You lost Maroussia. You became a sad man. Lonely, eh? Sad. Life didn’t raise you up as you thought it should.
MITIA: Those who fly too high up get burnt by the sun.
KOTOV: That can be true, Comrade. But at least I know who I am and what I am. Here. Inside. I’m sure.

Review of Don’t Judge a Girl By Her Cover

The Gallagher Girls series is one that caught my attention right away when the first book came out in 2007. The series revolves around Cameron Morgan, a fifteen year old girl who attends an elite boarding school that exists to train female spies. I’m all about girl power and uniforms and spying, so I was drawn in right away. I devoured the next Gallagher Girls book that came along, but then it took awhile for this one, Don’t Judge a Girl by Her Cover, to come along.

In that time, something happened between the Gallagher Girls and me. Perhaps It was that Ally Carter wrote a few other books, some for adults, others just for a different teen spy series, in between and it made her lose touch with the Girls. Perhaps her teen voice isn’t as good as it was before. Or maybe I’ve just grown out of these books. Whatever it was, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’ve enjoyed the others in the series.
In the book, Cameron (a.k.a. “Cammie,” or “Chameleon,” due to her incredible skill in disappearing into crowds and other identities) visits her roommate Macey in Boston. Macey is a politician’s daughter, and as her father is close to getting the vice-presidency, his teenage daughter is being closely watched. But then Cammie and Macey find themselves alone and being attacked by people bent on kidnapping Macey, and though the girls manage to fight their way out of that situation, security tightens around Macey, as well as the entire school. Cammie is determined to find out the identity of the people who tried to kidnap her friend, but that’s not easy when you have to get past obstacles such as high security, your mother (who’s also the headmistress), and pop quizzes that involve speaking three different languages while fending off bad guys.

 
While I find Cammie’s life very exciting, I felt that the author had difficulty writing about it in this book. Carter is a fan of cliff-hangers at the end of sections (not just chapters), and believe it or not, when used too often, cliff-hangers can get boring. Eventually I got tired of reading sentences like, “And I read the words ‘Be careful,’” “…and I knew that nothing about Sublevel One had prepared me for Sublevel Two,” and “And she’d heard everything we said.” (Notice the use of “and” to begin all of those statements. It’s a trademark of Carter’s, but one that doesn’t always fly.)
From what I remember of reading the other two GG books, Carter had a way of slipping shocking and important information into scenes in a way that made my stomach drop, but this time around, I only experienced that once, and I was disappointed that that was the case.

 
In the book, there was one thing that Carter seemed to be continuously trying to prove: that Cammie and her friends/fellow spies in training were just like every other girl. This is a running theme in the GG books, and it’s worked in the past; Cammie’s father was killed when she was young (albeit on a spying mission) and she deals with her grief over that, as well as her confusion over boys and general teenage insecurity. But all of this was handled clumsily in this installment. Rather than point out once or twice that perhaps the girls of Gallagher Academy may be a tad out of touch with the real world, she constantly has Cammie tell the reader that her “everyday” (non-uniform) outfits are shamefully out of date and state and restate that “we may look like normal girls, but we’re not.” And where in the last two books, Carter managed to sprinkle an appropriate amount of “like”s and “totally”s into her teens’ vocabulary, I felt that in this book, she was trying so hard to prove that her teens were teens that they sounded unrealistic.

 
But I have to admit that even though I thought the end came too slowly, I cried like a baby when it did. The end was where Carter regained her ability to reveal events in perfect time, whether it was bit by bit or with an big explosion. The end was surprising and convincing. The events that transpired were scary and even more so because Cammie’s reactions sent her into hysterical confusion, allowing the reader a few pages of delicious confusion as well. The last two chapters of the book are Carter at her best, and even after dragging myself through 95% of the book, the end was good enough that I’m considering reading the next one (especially because it takes place in London. I can never pass up a book about London.)

 
I hope that Don’t Judge a Girl By Her Cover was a fleeting moment of confusion for Carter’s writing and that she’ll be back on track in the next Gallagher Girls book, Only the Good Spy Young. The series began too well for it to go downhill now.

_________________________________________________

On a different note, hello, readers! I’m happy to be back in the blogosphere after taking some (okay, a lot) of time off from reading and reviewing books to complete my undergraduate degree. Hopefully I’ll be able to review at least one more book before graduation on the eighteenth! I went to a bookstore today with a few of my friends, and showing an amount of common sense that I generally do not possess, I left my wallet at home. Had I not, I would have come home with a stack of books, which would have made me happy, but not my parents. Nevertheless, I did jot down a few titles. Let me know if you’ve read any of them!

 
The Anatomy of Death by Felicity Young
If I Stay by Gayle Foreman
The List by Siobhan Vivian
My Family for the War by Anne C. Voorhoeve
You Have Seven Messages by Stuart Lewis