Monthly Archives: June 2012

Review of My Family for the War

I love me a good WWII homefront story, so when I read the synopsis of My Family for the War, I knew it was a book for me. I should warn you that it is impossible to write about this book without spoilers, so if you want to read it, stop after the synopsis!

It’s 1938 and though the second world war hasn’t officially started, Berlin native Franziska (Ziska) Mangold, along with her friends and family, are already feeling the wrath of Hitler. Though she and her family are assimilated Jews, there are no exceptions to the rules, and Ziska and her friends are forced to attend an all-Jewish school and tolerate beatings on the way home from non-Jews that used to be their friends. The whole city is on edge, and after Ziska’s father is placed in a camp, her mother decides to put her on the list for the kindertransport, hoping it will give Ziska a safer, better life. Four days later, Ziska is on the train to London, where she is housed by her new foster family, the Shepherds. While things get off to a shaky start and Ziska is forced to leave them for a few months, the bond that grows between her and her new family makes her feel more connected to them than she ever did to her real family. As the war rages on and Ziska feels more and more that London is her home and the Shepherds are her family, she wonders whether, if her family are still alive, she’ll even want to return to them.

My Family for the War, originally written by Ravensburger Buchverlag and published in Germany under the title Liverpool Street in 2007, is a translation. It is a credit to everyone involved that the story translates almost flawlessly, making for a compelling, well-paced story. Ziska is a likable character, even moreso due to how real she is. While she is an intelligent girl who loves her parents and her friends, she also holds a grudge against her mother for sending her away and, once she reaches her teen years, deals with war better than she does her own hormones. I loved reading about her developing relationship with her foster family and watching her stand up to her temporary foster family in the country; when they treat her as a servant, giving her little to eat, stealing her belongings, and withholding her letters, she yells that she hopes one day they will know what it feels like to be separated from their family with no idea if they’ll ever be reunited.

The book also hosts some wonderful secondary characters: Gary, Ziska’s foster brother, is her first friend in England, haltingly conversing with her by poring over the English-German dictionary and helping her through her confusion of the Shepard’s Orthodox Jewish traditions. Her foster parents, Amanda and Matthew, are complex people that were abandoned respectively by their Jewish and Catholic families when they decided to wed. Watching their attachment to Ziska grow stronger throughout the book is heartwarming and amazing. Ziska’s friend Walter is a constant, if distant, presence in her life and is always a source of comfort for Ziska.

As I said, the story is well paced; the seven years covered never seems drawn out or jumpy, and we’re introduced to everything in due time. I loved how Voorhoeve used both wartime events and Ziska’s personal triumphs to mark time. Towards the middle of the novel, Gary joins the Navy and does very well, but a few years later, his ship goes down. The day, in small and world events, is a very happy one and Voorhoeve masterfully plays one off the other:

On the day Gary’s ship went down, the World Jewish Congress informed Western Governments about a monstrous document that had been signed in a villa in Wannsee. On the day Gary’s ship went down, American troops landed at Guadalcanal. On the day Gary’s ship went down, we read A Midsummer Night’s Dream in school with different people speaking each part.

I also enjoyed Ziska’s struggle to learn English, and her London family’s willingness to write letters to her mother in German. Many times, when books deal with a person speaking a new language, they gloss over the brokenness of what must be coming out of a character’s mouth, instead choosing to write something like, “Excuse me, could you tell me where the café is?” I asked with difficulty. Voorhoeve actually shows the struggles. When Ziska goes door to door, trying to find work for her parents, she tries her best to speak coherent English, but her dictionary can only get her so far, and she ends up saying things like, “My parents look work,” and “Need you a help in the house?” Much later in the book, when Amanda writes a letter to Ziska’s mother, Amanda composes sentences like “Now that you and your husband happy in Holland, want my husband and I write to say that you for [Ziska] not worry. She is a very sweet girl and every day with us a great joy to have.”

However, as much as I enjoyed the novel as a whole, it had a few shortcomings that were very distracting. First, unless I missed it somehow, the reader doesn’t find out Ziska’s age until page seventy right. Ziska speaks like a teenager but is, in fact, ten years old. While I am always supportive of child characters that speak intelligently, Voorhoeve should have mentioned Ziska’s age earlier, as I had been picturing a fifteen year old in my brain and had to put the book down for a few minuets and change all of the pictures in my head when I found out that she was only ten.

The book opens with the sentence “I would never find another friend like Rebekka Liebich” and the same words appear in the last paragraph of the novel. With that, one would expect the book to focus quite a bit on ZIska’s friendship with Bekka, and weirdly, though parts of the book were written like it was, Bekka makes very few appearances and is only sometimes on Ziska’s mind. There seemed to be a disconnect, as if Voorhoeve had written all of the Bekka-centered parts first, then the rest of the novel, and forgot to link the two. Because of this, Ziska feeling guilty for having fun while Bekka’s voice scolds her in her head and finding out that Bekka and her family have died, has very little weight. I felt nothing when I read that Bekka was killed, and that was disappointing.

Another disconnect is which religion Ziska is. She explains in the beginning of the book that when she began being taunted for being Jewish, she denied it because she wasn’t; she had been a Christian for her whole life. Upon asking her parents, she learns that she did indeed have ancestors that were Jewish. I found it believable that she and her family would be targeted even being that removed from the Jewish faith, but the rest of the novel is confusing. At any given time, Ziska claims she’s Jewish, but a few pages later will mention that she is a Christian. She doesn’t even know what Yiddish is after going to a Jewish school for years and calls on Jesus for help. I would have accepted it if young Ziska, living with Orthodox Jews, had grown to embrace their religion, as she seems to, but in the last pages of the book, she claims that she still wholeheartedly believes in Jesus as Christians do. Such constant contradictions were quite annoying.

Lastly, though the book was, in general, well-written, I occasionally felt that I was stuck in a bad children’s novel. It may be a result of translation, but sentences such as “I kept it to myself, not telling anyone” and the constant unnecessary use of exclamation points (“I knew this vow was about more than just food!”; “…a couple hugging their son good-bye next to us glared at me. They had no way of knowing I was quoting a friend!”) made me look on Ziska as a silly little girl, which she is not.

While I was irritated by all of the disconnects in the novel, it speaks for the novel that I kept reading until the end. Though it is perhaps not as polished as it might have been, it is still a good, compelling story that you might do well to pick up.

Choice quotes:

Ruben looked at me with compassion. “You’re being persecuted and you don’t even know who you are.”

I, who had mastered the art of hiding in my earlier life, was surprised to discover how much fun it was to be found!

With every news report, I nervously scanned her face, looking for signs that would tell me whether it was a small, medium, or big catastrophe this time. A small catastrophe was good news. It didn’t get any better than that.

Ziska, master of the inappropriate response, champion of flight.

That morning, I made several disturbing discoveries. First, I didn’t have a single outfit that went together. Secondly, there wasn’t a single piece of clothing that genuinely looked flattering. And thirdly, I looked rather awful in general, something I had never noticed before. Amanda found me dissolved in tears with her room and mine looking like battlefields.

When we had to spend nights [in the shelter], this cold little tube of corrugated metal protected me from the bombs […] but there was no protection from a piece of paper.

A mother shouldn’t have to survive her child any more than one friend should live instead of another.

Review of I Know Some Things

At the end of the semester, one of my awesome professors e-mailed me and told me that there were stacks of books outside her office and I could help myself to whatever I wanted. That afternoon, I sat on the floor outside her office and pored over book after book, trying to decide which to take. In the end, I selected a few, and one of those was I know some things. I chose this book for two main reasons: it featured a story by Margaret Atwood, who Stuart got me into this past year, and it was an anthology of stories about childhood, which is a running theme in my own writing.

This collection of stories, edited by Lorrie Moore, is one of the most delicious things I’ve read in the past year. I never used to be a short story lover, but while in college, I began to really appreciate the skill it takes to compose something short that still packs a punch. I know some things is chock full of these sorts of stories; I don’t think there was a single one I disliked. A few of my favorites:

Lies, by Glenda Adams. A current obsession of mine is writing that is organized in a different, possibly non-linear way. Though Adams’ story is fairly linear, she divides the story into family members and friends: Father, Auntie Maxine, Joanne, Mother, Uncle Roger, Terence, Me. The best part about this story is that it makes one consider the truths that children tell and how adults often mold those truths into the lies they want to hear. The narrator, Josephine, tends to speak her mind, but will quickly tell an adult what they want to hear if she’s looked at with enough reproach. At one point, Josephine’s mother is sure that Josephine is being molested by her uncle. There is no evidence in the story that this is happening, and at first Josephine tells her mother, “But I like Uncle Roger. I don’t want him to go.” When her mother stops hugging her, Josephine amends, “I was kidding […] I don’t like him. And I want him to go away.” Later, Josephine composes a story about her family for school. She tells the absolute truth about her mixed-up family, but her teacher is adamant that Josephine made it up. Seeing that that’s what he wants to hear, Josephine lies that she made up every word, and her teacher is relieved.

Another writing that plays with style is Harold Brodkey’s His Son, in His Arms, in Light, Aloft. Besides containing beautifully sad statements like “A child collapses in a sudden burst of there-is-nothing-here” and “Ah, there is a large rent in the nothingness,” he also perfectly gets across his narrator’s desperation to please his father and his sureness that he never can with odd punctuation choices like “I cannot look at him, as I said: I cannot see anything: if I look at him without seeing him, my blindness insults him: I don’t want to hurt him at all: I want nothing: I am lost and have surrendered and am really dead and am waiting without hope.”
In Spalding Grey’s Sex and Death to the Age 14, Grey’s narrator marks the passage of time based on which pet he had at the time and when and how they died. Grey’s strange mix of innocence and corruption portrays perfectly the overwhelming barrage of information and experiences children get as they age. In addition to using his various pets as time-markers, the narrator uses big events like the death of one of his friends and “soon after Judy Griggs pulled her pants down.”

One of my favorites was the story I almost skipped: Catherine Petroski’s Beautiful My Mane in the Wind. It is written so strangely that even my fascination with odd notation was confused. The main character is a little girl who is not a little girl, but a horse. She is a horse, and no one can tell her otherwise. Petroski portrays a child’s absolute belief in their imagination with passages like “[Mama] pays very little attention to me actually. She thinks I just read and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t realize about the change. To a horse. She acts as thought I’m still a girl. She doesn’t observe closely” and “Sometimes it’s hard not telling her what I really think, what I know. That sometimes I’m a girl, sometimes I’m a horse. When there are girl-things to do, like read, which a horse never does, or go in the car […] I have to be a girl, but when there are hillside of grass and […] secret stables in loquat trees, I am a horse.” At the end of this story, I wrote in the margin, “MAGICAL.”

My final favorite was Sheila Schwartz’s Out-of-the-Body Travel. Laced with beautiful lines like “I had already seen nowhere the day my father drove up to New York City for a Yankee’s game, then called to say that he wasn’t coming home” and “the flurry of handprints that was left upon my skin,” Schwartz’s Suzanne deals with the departure of her father, the arrival of her depressed cousin, her overbearing mother, and her own clumsy foray into the real world. “I hated most the way I felt,” she says. “The moments that swelled between my question and her answer.” To deal with her confusion in growing up and also to defy her mother, Suzanne follows her father’s girlfriend into the girlfriend’s world of drugs. As she slowly gets far in over her head, we readers watch, unable to warn her about the things she can’t see because she’s too busy trying to achieve contentment with drugs and sex, a state she’ll never reach in her life.

What caught my attention most was the perfect way many of these stories managed to capture a child’s perception of the world. A child’s reasoning is caught in D.J. Durnam’s I Know Some Things:

Pretty soon a short bald guy walks up and smiles. Noticing my coat, I think, and I smile back until I see him wave at the guy work the cash register.
“Hey, Wally, how’s tricks?” the guy at the register says. He’s bald, too, so it’s no wonder they like each other.

Durnam also shows that even in their innocence, children can inherently know what is acceptable physical conduct:
…When she kisses him she does it with her eyes closed and her mouth wide open. But when I kiss him I keep my lips pressed tight together over my teeth and I keep my eyes open because hey, I know some things.

Toni Cade Bambara reminds us of the intense betrayal we felt when an adult broke a lie that only they saw as minor; her main character was told by an uncle that the two would be married when she got older. When he laughs, “For cryin out loud, Hazel, you just a little girl. And I was just teasin,” she cries that he’s a “lyin dawg,” though what she means is treacherous but she can’t get her tongue around the world. “And Baby Jason cryin’ too. Cause he is my blood brother and understand that we must stick together or be forever lost, what with grownups playing change-up and turning you round every which way so bad. And don’t even say they sorry.”

In her contribution, Hiding, Susan Minot makes us re-realize how we can read our parents: “Mum’s face means that it’s time to go.”

This book perfectly gets across children’s pureness in everything: their newness in every experience, their feelings of love, anger, hatred, fear, loss, happiness, and their equal ability and inability to describe what’s happening to them as they figure out life.

Choice quotes:

From The Point by Charles D’Ambrosio, Jr.
“This really isn’t a question of beauty or not beauty […] I know your husband doesn’t love you, Mrs. Gurney. That’s the problem here […] Like they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You don’t have a beholder anymore, Mrs. Gurney.”

From I Know Some Things by D.J. Durnam
The girl knows how to say fuck you real good with just her eyes.

Signs and Wonders by Max Garland
I never felt the awkward weight of that love.

You only had to read the headlines in the papers to see what could happen to a boy who wandered too far in the world.

The recognizable part of her, the Agnes, began to hide in the farthest corners of her body until it became clear to Uncle Kevin which way his prayers for her were going to be answered.

From Sex and Death to the Age 14 by Spalding Grey
My mother forbade [war games] on Sundays and discouraged them on weekdays, so Saturdays were usually pretty intense.

Tim’s death was a strange kind of relief because we’d always heard that one in four would have to die of something- cancer, tuberculosis, polio, whatever-so I always wondered who would be the ONE of the four of us who hung out together. That was often on my mind.

I used to imagine that the naked people in the pictures were very old or dead by the time I was looking at them, and somehow that added some spice to it.

From My Mother’s Clothes: The School of Beauty and Shame
The world halved with a cleaver: “masculine,” “feminine.” In these ways was the plainest ordinary love made complicated and grotesque. And in these ways was beauty, already confused with “feminine,” also confused with shame, for all these longings were secret.

He wanted, as I did, to become something he’d neither yet seen nor dreamed of, something he’d recognize the moment he saw it: himself.

Perhaps our shame derived not from our having killed but from our having created.

The Turkey Season by Alice Munro
This is the first drink I have ever had […] Except for an odd taste, and my own feeling of consequence, it was like drinking Coco-Cola.

From Out-of-the-Body Travel by Sheila Schwartz
I hated all those implications of suicide, especially because my mother tried to speak of them in fables. As we prepared dinner together, she recited from a menu of thwarted dreams.

From Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara
So the movie come on and right away it’s this churchy music and clearly not about no gorilla. Bout Jesus. And I am ready to kill, not cause I got anything gainst Jesus. Just that when you fixed to watch a gorilla picture you don’t wanna get messed around with Sunday School stuff. So I am mad.

Review of The Name of the Star

I can’t resist Maureen Johnson’s writing. I’m actually addicted to it. I know that I said this in my review of The Bermudez Triangle, but I can’t stop marveling at her skill. The Name of the Star is no exception.

When Louisiana native Rory Deveaux’s parents take a sabbatical to teach in England, she goes along with. Electing to study at a London-based college (that is, secondary school), Rory is excited to spend her senior year abroad. But after a near-death experience in the school cafeteria, Rory starts to see strange things- namely, people that no one else sees. At the same time, an unknown killer is recreating the Jack the Ripper murders: similar victims, exact dates locations, same killing style. London is in an uproar. Rory is the only one to have seen the man that police believe to be the killer, and he knows it… and plans to do something about her and her rare abilities.

The Name of the Star is Maureen Johnson’s best book to date. It’s a work of art, perfectly paced and so masterfully crafted that I can’t even imagine how she conceived everything. I don’t doubt for a second that she is a genius.

One of my favorite aspects of the book is Rory’s day-to-day life at school and in London. Having been in her position as the new American at an English live-in school (that are located in almost the exact same place), I can say that Johnson has it exactly right. While English life is fairly easy to slip into and London feels like home in no time, there are points where one is aware of just how American they are, whether it be in the way they say a word, an expectation they have, or the way they do something.

As usual, this book contains Johnson’s insane ability to combine drama and comedy, but The Name of the Star goes beyond her other books and is so scary that I cry through much of the end of the book. The climax is perfectly paced and full of tension, and there’s nothing scarier than a villain that only you can see.

Johnson also manages to inform readers that might not know anything about Jack the Ripper without infobarfing all over the book. With a mix of flashbacks, different points of view, and Rory’s Ripper-obsessed friend Jerome, Johnson slips in bits and pieces until the reader has the whole story without even realizing it.

I love this book so intensely that it’s hard to even talk about how much I love it. The Name of the Star is Johnson at her best. It’s a delicious, thrilling book that begs you to return to it so you can see all of the layers you missed the last time you read it. And there are sequels coming! CELEBRATION!

Choice quotes:

I come from people who know how to draw things out. Annoy a Southerner, and we will drain away the moments of your life with our slow, detailed replies until you are nothing but a husk of your former self and that much closer to death.

“Rory was telling me she lives in a swamp,” Charlotte said.
“That’s right,” I said, turning up my accent a little. “These are the first shoes I’ve ever owned. They sure do pinch my feet.”

When I got to the aisle, I found a guy lounging right in the middle of it, on the floor, reading […] And he was singing a song […]
“What are you singing?” I asked. I hoped he would take that as “please stop singing.”

The English play hockey in any weather. Thunder, lightning, plague of locusts… nothing can stop the hockey. Do not fight the hockey, for the hockey will win.

“This is stupid, though. Isn’t it?”
“What you need to remember is that you are doing the interesting thing and Charlotte is not. And if we get caught, I will claim I made you go. I am American. People will assume I’m armed.”

Clearly, Jerome and I had a complicated thing going on. He told me scary Jack the Ripper facts, and I had the sudden need to make out with him until I ran out of breath.

“Never kill yourself in a Tube station. Tip number one. You might end up down here forever, staring at a wall.”

“Jack the Ripper was just a man. He wasn’t magic. Even Hitler was just a man. This Ripper is nothing more than that.”
“He’s a ghost,” I corrected her. “An incredibly powerful ghost.”
“But ghosts are just people. We just seem more frightening, I suppose, because we represent something unknown […] Fear can’t hurt you,” she said. “When it washes over you, give it no power. It’s a snake with no venom. Remember that. That knowledge can save you.”

It’s not that I am extremely brave- I think I just forgot myself for a moment. Maybe that’s what bravery is. You forget you’re in trouble when you see someone else in danger. Or maybe there is a limit to how afraid you can get, and I’d hit it.

Review of The Pride of the Lion

(photo from a production done at the Adrienne Theatre in Philadelphia, PA.)

The playwright of the play The Pride of the Lion also happens to be the man who mentored me during the writing of my thesis play. While I could spend a whole post (or several) talking about Larry Loebell’s amazingness, I’ll just say that he’s one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever worked with and a totally inspirational writer and person and leave it at that.

The Pride of the Lion is about David Williamson, a man who has earned himself the nickname “The Lion” because of the way he negotiates business deals. Unfortunately, he’s also earned himself five years of jail time due to some dirty dealing, and the play opens on his final evening before he’s carted off to prison. Sadly, his night is doomed to be an unhappy one. After leaving work for the last time with the new knowledge that a waiter has been listening in on his advisement sessions and making a pretty penny off what he hears, Williamson returns home to his wife, Helen, who no longer loves him. Their college student daughter Annie rarely comes home anymore, so disgusted is she by her father’s crimes, and all in all, Williamson’s last night is looking grim. As his world and family crumbles around him, Williamson tries to mold everything back into shape, but his daughter is waiting for the right moment to give everything a final push with some shocking betrayal.

Though Larry has been my professor and mentor, I’ve sadly only read two of plays. Both pieces (this one and Girl Science, which my alma mater premiered this past February) are incredibly compelling. The plot of Pride of the Lion is intricately built, with little pieces of information being dropped along the way. One of my favorite reveals, which occurs in the first scene, is that Williamson himself started the use of his nickname. No one called him The Lion before he did, but  it was quickly picked up. It’s a perfect example of who Williamson is- a self-starter, prideful, and also unwilling to own up to his own questionable actions. In the second of three scenes, Helen remarks how proud she was of her husband when she first heard someone call him The Lion. “I loved you so much,” she tells him. “And I felt so safe, so protected. But things changed.” And even though Williamson has admitted to someone else that he made up his own nickname, he never uses the opportunity to tell his wife.

Woven throughout the play are references and sung lyrics to musicals, namely Camelot, Gypsy, and Carousel. At first, when the waiter Reese mentions to Williamson that he’s heard Williamson humming show tunes at lunch, I thought it was merely an interesting insight into Williamson’s character. After all, not everyone enjoys show tunes, and many men would never admit to it. But Williamson’s always shared his love for the music with his family, and it’s something Annie cites as a good memory of her father. But the musicals Larry chooses to feature in the play, and especially the songs from those musicals that are played during the show, are very meaningful. Reese has heard Williamson humming You’ll Never Walk Alone from Carousel, specifically the phrase, ‘When you walk through a storm…’ Later, he sings some lyrics from Camelot to his wife from the song If Ever I Would Leave You, a duet about the intoxication, albeit shameful, of an affair. And in the final scene, the same song from Carousel and Everything’s Coming Up Roses from Gypsy, both ultimately songs of encouragement, play during a mother-daughter argument.

I love Annie’s hatred toward her father. Helen’s dislike for her husband grows stronger throughout the final two scenes of the play, but Annie’s loathing is palpable from the moment she enters to the time she exits. Toward the end of the play, Annie announces that she’s seeing one of the reporters that her parents despise so much, who have been stalking the Williamson house for a long time. Not only that, but she’s going to do what her mother has refused the reporters time and time again: she’s going to be the subject of a tell-all news report. She’s tired of her parents ignoring what’s going on and tired of staying silent. “I did exactly what was expected of me,” she snaps at Helen. “The whole time. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t ask him any questions. I waited for him to talk to me. He could have said ‘I did it’ or ‘I didn’t do it’ or ‘I did it and here’s the reason’ but he never said anything. He came home as if nothing had happened and he played his stupid records and the two of you ate dinner and you talked about everything else but what was happening to him. What was I supposed to do?” It’s easy to peg Annie as the villain, but at the same time, I find her ability to make something out a bad situation admirable. “I can go around with it all pressed down inside of me […] and just ignore it when everyone looks at me with pity or disdain or I can change it into something else […] This is my way if making something okay out of this.”

The Pride of the Lion boasts a subtlety complex plot and rich characters, and it’s a piece I hope I get to see onstage.

Choice quotes:

DAVID: Have those bastards out there started opening my mail?
HELEN: Your mail.
DAVID: My mail.
HELEN: Our mail.
DAVID: Excuse me. Our mail.
HELEN: I opened it.
DAVID: You opened it? Why?
HELEN: Because starting tomorrow, it’s in my job description. Convict’s wife, keeper of the home fires […] After all these years of waiting for you to come home and open the mail, I decided not to wait, just to tick you off. Is it working?

DAVID: Can’t we let it go for tonight?
HELEN: So we can go out and put on a show? I could be like the long-suffering wife in that Michael Douglas movie. What was her name? The one Anne Archer played.
DAVID: About the stock guy?
HELEN: No. The one where Glenn Close nearly knifes him in the bathtub. I was rooting for her.

Shameless Self-Promotion

Rachel’s started a personal blog about her first steps into the real world. You should read it! Read it here!


Writing Good Female Characters: Feminism and Literature

One of the more popular methods of determining whether a story—be it literary, film, or otherwise—gives equal footing to men and women is the so-called Bechdel Test, which was first put forward by Alison Bechdel in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For”. This litmus test has three key components:

  1. There are two or more female characters with names
  2. who interact with one another, i.e. have conversations
  3. about something other than men.

While this is important not only for considering target audiences but making a story more convincing and life-like, the Bechdel Test undermines several key points crucial to making a story more egalitarian between the sexes. To begin with, how are these named women characterized? Do they always wear makeup, skirts, and heels? Do they all prefer pink, purses, and chocolate? Are they teachers, secretaries, and waitresses?

Beyond that, we must consider the situational context in which the female characters interact. Are they talking over cell phones after one of them has had a spat with her boyfriend? Or are they chatting about an upcoming conference on their way to the office after lunch? The former still forces them to rely on men to produce the conversation, the latter is the result of women pursuing careers in business and working together on the job without necessarily interacting at a male’s prompting.

Additionally, women must talk about material that is deep, insightful, and spurs the story onwards. Consider when the women are not talking about men but still playing into preconceived notions of female conversation topics—they are still being portrayed within the societal stereotype. If they only talk about lipstick and pushup bras or perhaps how terrible Suzy’s dress looked yesterday, that’s not going to cut it.

With all of these ideas mulling around, it seemed appropriate to come up with a new test. Here are more comprehensive (though by no means perfect) criteria:

  1. The characterization of the well-developed female characters should not fit stereotypes.
  2. These females should not interact in stereotypical contexts and media
  3. and must have some degree of meaningful conversation that does not include stereotypical subject matter.
  4. Within the above, the female characters must be able to act, interact, and converse without any sort of male context, framework, or causation.

My personal reasoning for this heavy emphasis against societal stereotypes is this: these molds are designed by the largely patriarchal ideologies ingrained in our Western culture for centuries and perpetuated by government, media, social, and religious groups largely led by men. These male-dominated (and sometimes phallo-centric) perspectives of women therefore need to be overturned or at the very least ignored by female characters in literature if one is to craft a truly feminist piece. Naturally, stereotypes about women and girls must be present to some degree in one’s story not only to make it natural and life-like but also to allow for one’s opinion about these misconceptions (or conceptions, if one is inclined to agree—stereotypes can stem from fact).

What I have found most compelling in my experiences writing well-developed female characters is that they add a new dimension and bring insightful direction to my stories. And, as Rachel will probably attest, it makes my stories better.

Review of Purity

Purity, by Jackson Pearce, is a book about promises, loopholes, grief, God, and sex. The story follows sixteen year-old Shelby, who lost her mother when she was ten. While on her deathbed, Shelby’s mother made her promise three things:

-Love and listen to your father.
-Love as much as possible.
-Live without restraint.

They seemed simple promises at the time, but things start to get complicated when Shelby’s father volunteers to help plan the southern town’s annual Purity Ball. For those who aren’t aware, Purity Balls are real things and though they can be carried out in many different ways, the general idea of each and every one is the same: for a daughter to promise to remain pure in all ways until marriage. Shelby is horrified at the idea of the ball in general, but the more she thinks about it, the more she sees some problems for her future. “Plenty of girls get married as virgins,” she thinks to herself. “[But] those girls get married at twenty-two, not thirty-five. And you don’t want to get married at twenty-two. You’ve got a Life List to get through. Fine then, be a thirty-five-year-old virgin. Or break Promise Three by getting married young and not living life without restraint […] Either way, a promise gets broken.”
No matter how Shelby thinks of it, she can’t figure out a way to take a purity vow (thereby listening to her father) and still love as much as possible AND live without restraint. Then it dawns on her- if she breaks the vow before she even makes it, there won’t be any problem. And the only way to break a purity vow is by having sex. Helped by her friends Jonas and Ruby, Shelby sets out to track down a guy who will relieve her of her virginity, no strings attached. But, she finds, things are always more complicated than they appear.

The thing I’ve loved through the three Pearce books I’ve read so far is Pearce’s fearlessness in discussing sex. She doesn’t get explicit or even discuss it often in most of her books, but when she does, she manages to do it in a real and sometimes very funny way. She also tackles grief with great skill, writing passages such as the following: “When someone you love dies, it feels like the ground is crumbling away, falling into oblivion. The only thing you can do is grab onto all the things closest to you and hold on tight. I grabbed onto the Promises, to Jonas, to God.”

Oh yes- God. This was one of the best aspects of the book. I loved Shelby’s confusion with her relationship with God. On the one hand, she desperately wants to believe and be comforted by God’s presence in her life, but on the other, she doesn’t understand how to love someone who took another person she cared for away forever. When thinking about God, “him” is not capitalized, a conscious decision of Pearce’s, I’m sure. “Truth is,” Shelby says after a conversation with another Purity Ball participant, “Part of me is jealous of Mona. She believes what her Bible and pastor tell her, and so everything in her world makes sense. There’s just the complete, total confidence that God loves her. I wish I knew how she found that confidence, that certainty- how God is always there when she reaches out.”

Pearce’s unfolding of Shelby’s quest to lose her virginity is a skillful one. As Ruby explains, “There’s getting laid, there’s dirty porno sex, [and] there’s making love… They’re not the same thing. You need to go into this knowing which one you’re shooting for. ‘Cause if you’re trying to make love and you end up getting laid, you’ll be disappointed.” Shelby chooses three guys from whom to pursue deflowering: an ex-boyfriend, a popular drama club member, and a co-worker of Ruby’s who harbors a crush for Shelby. None of these encounters goes exactly as planned, and at many points, Shelby curses her willingness but inability to have sex due to complications such as demanding condom and driving the boy away, or not being forceful enough to convince a different boy to sleep with her.

My one qualm with the book as a whole is possibly an unfounded one. While Shelby thinks deeply and beautifully about grief, the feelings she actually experiences regarding her mother’s death don’t seem involved enough. While I understand that there are many forms of grief and not everyone expresses their feelings in the same way, Shelby’s treatment of her mother’s death seems more appropriate for an acquaintance than the person she loved most in the world. Shelby never cried or got angry enough to show me that she really FELT sad. There was too little reaction in her dwelling on her grief, I suppose. It was intellectual, but not emotional. But again, this may be a legitimate reaction to death, so I’ll back down.

Purity is a great, funny, thoughtful book, and you really can’t go wrong with Jackson Pearce. It just came out, so you should get it while it’s still on the “new releases” shelf.

Choice quotes:

“[Jonas and I] hang out in the fine arts hallway, just outside the band room. It’s not because either of us has any musical or artistic ability, but because the asshole-to-awesome-person ratio here is way more in favor of the awesome people.”

“Sometimes I daydream about Dad the same way I daydream about Mom- only I think about the dad I would have if he weren’t torn apart by grief. I pretend he’s the kind of dad who goes to the school plays I’d be in if I hadn’t quit theater, who helps me make lame science fair projects, who glares at boys who want to take me to prom and teaches me how to drive on weekends.
I wonder if he sometimes pretends I’m a different kind of daughter.”

“I’d say most of the horn line has played the game, and the majority of the drum line has gotten hot and heavy with a girl or two- usually from the woodwind section. People always figure it’s the colorguard, but seriously, it’s the woodwinds you’ve got to look out for.”

“I just don’t want to be around the other Princess Ball attendees. From what I’ve heard at school and seen at the waltz lesson, most of them are good girls, sweet girls, girls who have ‘it’ figured out, whatever it is. They’ve got straight As and flawless make-up and whole families and probably golden retrievers.”

“[Anna] turns the music up loud and whips the car around corners like a race-car driver. This is the sort of situation that school administrators warn you about, I think.”

Tribute to Ray Bradbury

As some of you may know, Venus passed between the Earth and the Sun on Tuesday, causing a sort of eclipse called a transit in which Venus visibly moved across the Sun. This event, occurring only four times every 243 years, is rare; this is the last time anyone living will have seen a transit. The next one will not occur until 2117. One particularly visionary man imagined a fictitious rarity on Venus in a short story called “All Summer in a Day”. He wrote that “there had been a day, seven years ago, when the sun came out for an hour and showed its face to the stunned world.” The author was Ray Bradbury.

Perhaps his most famous work was his novel Fahrenheit 451, a highly critical examination of both censorship and dominance of technology in our daily lives. Many of his other works—mostly comprised of short stories—decry the penetration of technology into our society and uphold the need for individualism and dependence not on technology but rather on literature and free thought. Despite his advocacy against technology, many of his imagined gizmos have become a reality, from portable music to big-screen televisions.

But beyond his political and social criticisms are the rich and compelling stories he told with accessible eloquence. From the adventures of The Martian Chronicles to the unsettling tales of “A Sound of Thunder” and “The Veldt”, Bradbury built delectably short yet engrossing plots. His language goes unmatched by any other writer in science fiction, leading some to consider him one of the best writers of the twentieth century. Some examples:

The dark porch air in the late afternoon was full of needle flashes, like a movement of gathered silver insects in the light.


Each lower leg was a piston, a thousand pounds of white bone, sunk in thick ropes of muscle, sheathed over in a gleam of pebbled skin like the mail of a terrible warrior.

–“A Sound of Thunder”

The  psychiatrist moved in the beehive of offices, in the cross-pollination of  themes,   Stravinsky  mating  with  Bach,  Haydn  unsuccessfully  repulsing Rachmaninoff,  Schubert  slain  by  Duke  Ellington.

–“The Murderer”

When life is over it is like a flicker of bright film, an instant on the screen, all of its prejudices and passions condensed and illumined for an instant on space, and before you could cry out, “There was a happy day, there was a bad one, there an evil face, there a good one,” the film burned to a cinder, the screen went dark.


Without a doubt, Bradbury is incredibly talented, but what I find most compelling are the snatches of depth that speak of a man well-read. “The Golden Apples of the Sun” takes its name from a poem by Yeats; “Usher II” follows up on a short story by Poe. His diverse knowledge base ranging from music to science to history indicates his love for learning through reading. Perhaps even more telling of his passion for reading is Fahrenheit 451, which relates Bradbury’s horror at the notion of censorship and the burning of books.

Earlier this week, on June 5th, Bradbury passed away. While we no longer have one of the greatest science fiction authors of all time, his stories remain with us, conveying his love for words and his passion for simplicity, reminding us of the importance of free thought and ideas.

Review of The Bermudez Triangle

While I generally try to keep my blog entries centered around new books I’ve read, I couldn’t resist the siren song of one of my favorite Maureen Johnson books, The Bermudez Triangle. I’m a big fan of reading books again and again, and this is one I revisit often.

The Bermudez Triangle is about a group of lifelong best friends: Nina, Mel, and Avery. They’re al very different- Nina is the neat, focused president of the student council, Mel is the adorable boy magnet, and Avery is the perpetually snarky piano talent. When the book begins, the three are beginning the summer before their senior year. Nina’s off to Stanford for a pre-college program and Mel and Avery will be slaving away as waitresses. They don’t know how they’ll bear ten weeks apart, but the Bermudez Triangle, as they’ve been dubbed, is strong enough to withstand anything, or so they think. What they didn’t bank on was Nina falling in love with Stanford, Calfornia, and also the ecowarrior down the hall, Steve. And they especially couldn’t forsee that shy, reserved Mel would finally have her first kiss… with Avery.

I mentioned this book in a previous entry, noting that it had been banned at several schools, as well as having ban threats at even more. The reason for this is obvious: the book spends a good amount of pages discussing the experiences and reactions to two girls dating. The book was published in 2004, but still, the idea that a homosexual relationship could be portrayed a good thing was (and sometimes still is) a new one, one that makes many people uncomfortable. In fact, I’m embarrassed to admit that I hesitated to read the book because I had never read any material, fictional or otherwise, on the topic. When I did, though, I was so glad I had. I read the book towards the end of my high school career when a lot of my friends were coming out and I didn’t know how to handle it. I tried to be supportive, but Stuart and I come from a town that is pretty conventional, and these topics, on the whole, are rarely discussed and I wasn’t sure how I felt about anything.

The Bermudez Triangle did not teach me tolerance. It taught me acceptance and understanding of what my friends were going through. The book is told from all three girls’ points of view, so we not only see the spark of Mel and Avery’s relationship and their love or each other, but we also see Nina’s struggle to understand and support her friends while feeling left out because they have taken their relationship to a new level. Because of this book, I could see how my friends were feeling and what they might be going through, as well as seeing that Nina could be as baffled as I sometimes felt.

As usual, Maureen Johnson writes with effortless skill. This read-through, especially, I would sometimes stop and marvel at how well she wrote. As I always say of her, she has the incredible ability to write intense, honest drama while occasionally dropping in a wry or laugh-out-loud funny observation or comment. She doesn’t draw attention to it or make it more than it needs to be. The comment is simply there to be read and appreciated. Johnson understands better than many writers how to put people’s minds on paper. I suppose that’s why the above seems so natural- it’s the way people think (or at least it’s the way I think.) I would also like Maureen Johnson to find me a boyfriend. She writes some of the most intensely likeable male characters that make me want to climb into the book and date them. I feel like she could find someone like her characters in real life and point me in their direction.

The best thing about The Bermudez Triangle is that while the catalyst for the novel is Mel and Avery’s relationship, it’s not the only focus of the book, or of the character’s thoughts. Nina spends the novel working hard to be accepted into Stanford early decision, Avery restrains herself every day from throttling the annoying customers at the restaurant (Mel is far too timid to do such a thing) and argues with herself over whether she’s talented enough to get into a music conservatory, and Mel tries to come to terms with her own sexuality separately from dating Avery, never having officially labeled herself before now.

Johnson’s books stand out because of her way with words and her ability to see beyond the obvious. A few of her books- The Bermudez Triangle, The Name of the Star, and 13 Little Blue Envelopes, to be specific- take what, in another author’s hands, would be a basic, run-of-the-mill story even if well-written, and adds events and characters to it that make that story deliciously rich. Without Johnson’s touch, the books would end earlier and much too soon, but in her hands, they find the perfect time for completion.

So I’m not just recommending The Bermudez Triangle in this review- I’m recommending all of Maureen Johnson’s books!

Choice quotes:

“I caught Bob sitting out back by the Dumpster reading PC Gamer on his break. I had a cigarette, and he gave me one of those ‘ew, you smoke?’ kind of looks.So I gave him one of those ‘sex with your Sims girlfriend doesn’t count’ kind of looks back.”
“That was the problem with dating your best friend- you needed a really serious reason to stop. It was kind of a permanent situation. It was like she’d gotten married without realizing it.”

“There was something about the way this [conservatory] brochure was designed that screamed: YOU WILL NEVER BE THIS GOOD. GIVE UP NOW, LOSER, WHILE RITE AID IS STILL HIRING.”

“If I were this guy and I had a totally devoted girlfriend who wrote to me every day and called me all the time, I would drive out her and live in my car.”
“But he rides a bike.”
“He’s going to need a car for my plan. It doesn’t have to be a good car.”

“Fine,” Mel said. “I’m going to the bathroom.”
“No,” [Parker] said, grabbing her arm. “I know what happens in girls’ bathrooms. They’re like black holes. You’ll never come back.”
“So figure out what to do. Mingle. Turn on your charm.”
“Where’s the switch?”
“Let Nina find the switch,” Mel replied with a grin.
Parker licked his finger and marked an imaginary point in the air. “You aren’t supposed to make jokes like that,” he told her. “Bad lesbian. No Indigo Girls for you.”

“Could I kiss you?” he asked.
“We have a lot in common. You breathe air. I breathe air. You’re gorgeous and super-talented and head pf the student council. I look like I’m twelve and I’m part of a secret society that changes the letters in signs. You’re going to Stanford. I might get into SUNY Purchase. I think it could work.”

“Nina remembered the day Avery had come to her and tried to explain that she was confused, that she didn’t think she was gay. At the time, that had seemed ridiculous- not like something you could be in a gray area about. And then it dawned on her. Avery had just fallen for a friend, and then realized she didn’t really like her that way. It was actually kind of logical. It wasn’t unlike what had happened with Parker.”

“I always do this. I like girls I can’t have. It’s like the number one thing I look for- total unavailability. I liked Mel, even though I was pretty sure she was gay. I liked you, and you had a super-serious boyfriend. I’m thinking maybe next time I’ll look for someone who’s in jail or a coma.”

Review of Arcadia

Tom Stoppard is one of Britain’s premier playwrights. His work stands out because of his intellectual and witty style. His most well-known work is perhaps Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which the two of us had to read in high school. Together, we decided to embark on Stoppard’s thought-provoking Arcadia.

With a first line like, “What is carnal embrace?”, you know you’re in for something a little different, especially when that question is being asked by a thirteen year-old girl from the nineteenth century. That girl is Lady Thomasina Coverly, the daughter of Sidley Park and without question the most intelligent person in a play full of clever individuals.

One of the stand-out themes in Arcadia is, in fact, knowledge, as well as the acquisition and loss of it. Thomasina mourns to her tutor, Septimus, that the burning of the library of Alexandria is a terrible tragedy . “How can we sleep for grief?” she cries. Septimus scoffs at this. “By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles… You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe […] You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?” Septimus firmly believes that all of time and knowledge is circular. What is lost today will be rediscovered in the future; therefore, nothing is ever truly lost. Humans, for whatever reason, have a knack for trying again and again, and it is this willingness to find things out yet again that makes human life possible. “The procession is very long and life is very short,” Septimus tells Thomasina. “We die on the march.”

Spoiler alert- both Thomasina and Septimus die on the march for knowledge. As mentioned, Thomasina is an incredibly intelligent individual. While not exactly limited to learning tea-serving and practicing curtsies, Thomasina has a natural math ability that is almost unheard of for a girl of her age and in her era. In an old primer, she begins what we would call a proof and she calls a bit of fun. After her untimely death at seventeen, Septimus brings it upon himself to finish the proof, and dies decades later with a cottage stacked full of paper and no answer. Tragically (or not so tragically, as Septimus would argue), when the proof is picked up again by a present-day character, he remarks that even if both individuals had worked long entire lives on the math, they’d never have finished it: ““There wasn’t enough time before. There weren’t enough pencils. This took her I don’t know how many days and she hasn’t scratched the paintwork… Now [they]’d only have to press a button, the same button over and over. Iteration. A few minutes.”

But even with all her cleverness, there are still some things that Thomasina doesn’t get- one of them being carnal acts. Septimus is reluctant to tell her, finally saying that it is the act of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef. But as hesitant as he is to reveal the true answer, he himself has been, er, throwing his arms around many a side of beef around the estate. Sex is just as big a theme as knowledge is, perhaps moreso. At least half of the characters are in pursuit of sex in one form or another, and it’s a highly discussed topic within the text. Bernard, a present-day character, is attracted to Hannah, a scholar who wants nothing of it. Eventually, eighteen year-old Chloe, the present-day lady of the house, wins him over with some not-so-subtle hints; unlike Thomasina, she knows exactly what sex is and how to get it, and brings it up nearly every time she’s onstage.

Even Thomasina, to a point, chases sex. While Septimus is busy having relations with her mother, Thomasina is pining after Septimus. Though she does it innocently at thirteen, when we see her later as an almost-seventeen year-old, she is certainly after physical contact. After being horrified by the actual definition of carnal embrace in the first scene, in her final moments onstage, she and Septimus kiss and she asks him to come up to her room. There can be no mistake of her intentions, and Septimus resists. Lighting a candle so she can find her way up to her room alone in the dark, he reminds her, “Be careful with the flame.” But she is not cautious enough; minutes later, off-stage and off-script, she is burned to death, hours before she turns seventeen, just as her beloved library of Alexandria was. With Septimus lighting the wick of Thomasina’s candle, one can’t help but wonder if it’s symbolic of his reciprocated feelings for her. If so, it might explain why he spends the rest of his life poring over her equation which is itself a study of heat and bodies in space: thermodynamics.

It is a sad fact that Arcadia is not produced often, at least not in the States, and the reason for this might be its large cast. The play could get away with the show being doubled up if it weren’t for the pesky final scene, in which the events of both times periods happen at once, in the same room. This scene is an on-stage representation of what Septimus tells Thomasina, that time is cyclical and knowledge eternal. Though every life in the play is working, however slowly, toward its end, the knowledge that they find will outlast them because it outlasted those before them. The very same cycle that caused such bereavement in Thomasina is, in fact, the thing that keeps every human going.

Choice quotes:

THOMASINA: Septimus, do you think I will marry Lord Byron?
SEPTIMUS: For one thing, he is not aware of your existence.

CHLOE: The future is all programmed like a computer- that’s a proper theory, isn’t it?
VALENTINE: The deterministic universe, yes […] I mean, you’d need a computer as big as the universe, but the formula would exist.
CHLOE: But it doesn’t work, does it?
VALENTINE: No. it turns out the maths is different.
CHLOE: No, it’s all because of sex.
CHLOE: That’s what I think.  The universe is deterministic all right […] I mean, it’s trying to be but the only thing going wrong is people fancying people who aren’t supposed to be part of the plan.

THOMASINA: I hate Cleopatra […] Everything is turned to love with her. New love, absent love, lost love- I never knew a heroine that makes such noodles of our sex.

THOMASINA: What was incorrect [in my math assignment]? Alpha minus? Pooh! What is the minus for?
SEPTIMUS: For doing more than was asked.
THOMASINA: You did not like my discovery?
SEPTIMUS: A fancy is not a discovery.
THOMASINA: A gibe is not a rebuttal.

HANNAH: You can stop being silly now, Bernard. English landscapes were invented by gardeners imitating foreign painters who were evoking classical authors. The whole thing was brought home in the luggage from the grand tour.