Category Archives: Class Notes

Book Review: Tooth and Claw Tears Into Social Conventions

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Some spoilers.

I first read Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw for a graduate class in children’s literature entitled Men, Women, and Dragons: Gender and Identity in Fantasy Literature.  I raved about it then to anyone who would listen, including the professor’s wife.  This January I reread it I’m pretty sure for at least the second time.  It has safely wedged itself in among some of my favorite books.  It won’t ever offer me the thrill of Riordan’s books nor the fandom and life experiences of Rowling’s, but it might find very good company among Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses series.

Jane Yolen describes Tooth and Claw as Pride and Prejudice with dragons, though I have been corrected to think of it as Trollope with dragons (in her author’s note Walton cites Framley Parsonage) and have, since being corrected, longed to settle down with an inexpensive and not too lengthy book of Trollope’s but have yet to have the pleasure.

So I can’t compare Tooth and Claw to Trollope, but I can compare it to Pride and Prejudice and odds are that more of you will understand that comparison better anyway, Austen being more often assigned and having been made into more mainstream movies than Trollope.  Tooth and Claw holds all of the romance of an Austen novel with quirky heroines who aim to find themselves a comfortable home with a man whom they love and who loves them back and run into difficulty because of their social statuses and the finicky framework of their society.  The heroines find heroes of a higher social class and excellent character.  They are exposed along the way to men of less excellent character, even an annoying parson very like Mr. Collins.  Like Austen, the story explores gender inequality, social convention and faux pas, and the differences between the upper echelons and the country estates and parsonages.  Where the story strays from Austen is in the exploration of the fixture of servitude and classism within the society, the theater of the court system, the fallibility of a church, and race relations, and in the inherent violence of dragons.  Victorian-like rules rein in the violence and supposedly give pomp and ritual to it, but Austen explored very few duels, murders, or ritual cannibalism and euthanasia.

The story ends “And there […] we shall leave them to take refuge in the comfort of gentle hypocrisy” (292).  [SPOILER] It ends with all who deserve to getting a happier ending than they could have foretold and the most villainous dragon being defeated. [END SPOILER]  It was exactly the type of novel I needed to restore me when my once romantic silliness is slipping towards cynicism (it may not have been able to rescue me entirely from reality, but it made a good case for chivalry and the existence true love and companionship).

The well-written and –composed book plays host to a complex world of politics, religion, and social conventions both mirroring and deviating from our own and accounting for the differing biologies of men and dragons (which Walton expands by creating a biological meaning to the coloration of dragon scales).  It is not a fast-paced adventure, and if the reader is seeking such, she might seek elsewhere, but it is does not read at a snail’s pace to me, the text being clipped enough and enough adventures puncturing through the tête-à-têtes to keep the story rolling pleasantly at least at the pace of Pride and Prejudice if not faster.

*****

Walton, Jo.  Tooth and Claw.  New York: Tor, 2003.

This review is not endorsed by Jo Walton or Tor Doherty Associates, LLC.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

The latest editions of the book are published by Orb Books, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers.

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Book Review: The Art of the Con: A Drowned Maiden’s Hair Magically Maintains My Interest

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, excepts, videos, downloads, and author's bio.

Spoilers.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama is a historical fiction with elements of magical realism by Laura Amy Schlitz and is outside of my usually indulged fantasy genre.  I bought it for a graduate course, quit the class, then read and finished the book despite.  That in itself is a pretty good review.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair is written from the point of view of Maud Flynn, an orphan adopted by three spinster sisters, the Hawthornes, who hold séances for rich patrons to maintain their lifestyle.  Maud lives as a “secret child” with the sisters and is asked to take part in their séances, acting the role of one particular child, Caroline Lambert.  Sneaking out the house, Maud meets Mrs. Lambert, Caroline’s grieving mother, whom she begins to like despite herself, and whom she begins to feel guilty for conning.

During a séance, an accidental fire destroys the Hawthorne’ house.  The Hawthornes and Mrs. Lambert flee, leaving Maud locked in a cabinet behind.  Maud escapes and stumbles away from the burning house, and in exchange for her honesty, is helped by the owner of a carousel that both Caroline and now Maud have become fond of riding.

At first Mrs. Lambert despises Maud along with the sisters who have conned her but Mrs. Lambert comes to realize that Maud has reminded her of her daughter, Caroline, and Mrs. Lambert forgives Maud and offers Maud the loving home that she has so desperately wanted.

This is the external plot, but its morals are of discerning truth and untruth and appearances from reality; the true plot is Maud’s confusion about whom to trust and whom to distrust and what to keep secret and what to reveal.  Perhaps as a result, the adults in the tale who are manipulating or using Maud seem significantly more interesting than Maud herself, and Maud, though she acts and acts against the orders of the adults in charge of her, seems more catalyst for their reactions and a foggy lens for the reader than she does a heroine who acts throughout the story.  Though she was nice enough, Maud didn’t leave that much of an impression upon me, and I think that I remained with her to see whether or not Mrs. Lambert would be tricked and then to ensure that the sisters got their comeuppance.

The class for which this book was an assignment is called Giving Voice to the Voiceless.  Maud is forced by the Hawthorne sisters to maintain her silence and hide her identity, not through fear of physical violence as with Sarah Byrnes in Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes but through fear of rejection, out of a belief that by behaving and doing all that the sisters tell her to do Maud can win love.  Maud’s voicelessness is what the Hawthornes require and desire, and it is a boon to them.  Her voicelessness hurts Mrs. Lambert.  Whether or not it is a boon or harm to Maud is difficult to say without a lengthy discussion.  Her singing voice first wins her the Hawthornes’ attention and they take her away from the orphanage where she’s been living.  Her voicelessness ensures her continued situation with the Hawthornes, where she is provided with better food and more elegant clothes than she has ever been allowed and more personal attention, though whether she is more genuinely loved by the orphanage’s staff than by the Hawthornes is again up for debate.  By remaining voiceless as the Hawthornes implore her to be, Maud distances Mrs. Lambert, who could provide her with an even better living situation and genuine love in addition.

Along with Maud’s enforced voicelessness, the Hawthornes employ a mute servant, whom they call Muffet.  Maud befriends Muffet and begins to teach her the words for objects and later to read.  Muffet and Maud together make the journey from voicelessness into a voiced and into a loving home.  Schlitz seems to be very firmly of the opinion that voice and truth and honesty are virtues.

Maud’s is a supremely innocent close third voice, but I think I’d have liked her better if more of her impertinence had come forward in her voice as well as in her dialogue rather than being most prominently displayed in the labels of adults.

***1/2

Schlitz, Laura Amy.  A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama.  Cambridge, MA: Candlewick, 2006.

This review is not endorsed by Laura Amy Schlitz or Candlewick Press.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Nothing Dazzling About the Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin

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In probably a rare moment of wisdom, common sense, and listening to my body, I’ve dropped the graduate class that I was taking.  I plan still on reading some of the required texts—on my own time when I feel in the mood to do so—and I will, if I review those books here, still tag them as being part of Giving Voice to the Voiceless.  I may also do some of the writing exercises.

Josh Berk’s The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin is the last book that I read on the syllabus’ schedule before my giving my notification (so to speak).  The book chronicles the extraordinary events that happen in the public high school of a small, Pennsylvanian coal-mining town shortly after Will Halpin transfers from his local deaf school because of what he describes as deaf culture politics (for wanting to be part of the hearing culture as well as the deaf, he is shunned).  On a class field trip, Pat, the star quarterback and son of a wealthy casino owner, is killed when he falls down a mineshaft.  Will’s friend Devon, the only person with which Will really communicates at a school that largely doesn’t understand sign language or the ways in which they can help Will communicate and understand, pulls Will into a Hardy Boys type investigation.

As a child, I read more Boxcar Children books than my mother cares to remember, and The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin became reminiscent of their plots—tracking down clues by somewhat dangerous means, often by defeating suspicious adults.  Written for an older audience and being a stand-alone instead of a series, Hamburger Halpin was less about kids overcoming adults than The Boxcar Children, and dealt more with the peer group and finding one’s place among it.  Hamburger Halpin also delved deeper into more adult and teen themes and ideas (I’m literally talking about sex, drugs, and rock and roll) than The Boxcar Children ever did.

[SPOILERS] As Will teases Devon when Devon comments:

“[…] I can’t believe that everything turned out exactly like a Hardy Boys book.

“HamburgerHalpin: except for the part where the quarterback had a sex liaison with one of his educationalists

“Smiley_Man3000: Oh yeah.

“HamburgerHalpin: and then the prom queen got knocked up and pushed him down a coal shaft

“Smiley_Man3000: Well there is that, but…

“HamburgerHalpin: and then the police arrested frank” (244-245) [END SPOILERS]

As Will relies heavily on technology (instant messages on computer and handheld devices) to communicate easily with Devon, The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin may quickly become outdated.  I would have said that its references to Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys would have made it feel a little dated already, being uncertain that today’s kids still read these series with any regularity, but I actually did have a giggle of three girls come to me this week to beg to be shown where to find Nancy Drew.

Will’s deafness really only served, for me, to make him a good lip-reader, and therefore a good partner to have when watching surveillance tapes.  Otherwise, Will’s deafness just gives him a reason to have a difficult time in school (any number of other reasons would have served) and a second reason (in addition to his weight, with which Will actually seems surprisingly comfortable, so props to Berk on that point) to be outcast at school.

Neither plot nor prose wowed me, but Hamburger Halpin may interest fans of kid detectives when those readers reach their teens and will be good to recommend for teen mystery readers, though the first 116 pages are given to a bildungsroman and investigation of life for a deaf teen rather than to a mystery and whodunit.

There was something more genuine and interesting about the bildungsroman and Will’s perspective on everyday life than the mystery for me, but I gave up my Boxcar Children obsession long ago and have not adopted another detective series since unless you want to include Harry Potter (which I don’t think that I would).

**1/2

Berk, Josh.  The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin.  New York: Ember-Random, 2010.

This review is not endorsed by Josh Berk, Ember, or Random House, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Out of My Mind Flies But Falls at the End

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Some spoilers.

The first book on our reading list for ENG 561: Giving Voice to the Voiceless is Sharon M. Draper’s Out of My Mind, one of the nominees for the 2014 Nutmeg Book Award and high on my mental shortlist for the award.  Out of My Mind is the story of a middle-school girl with cerebral palsy, extremely intelligent but unable to speak without the aid of a machine (which she obtains only midway through the story) and unable to complete basic tasks like dressing or feeding herself.  Out of My Mind chronicles Melody’s struggle to fit in and to express herself to a world that largely sees only her disability.  Extremely intelligent with a photographic memory and synesthesia besides, Melody enters a quiz bowl competition, surpassing her classmates in trials, providing her with the opportunity to show the world her intelligence or at least her ability to comprehend, compete, and retain information.  But because her disability makes her classmates uncomfortable, her chance is stolen, and her inability to communicate effectively, swiftly, and without aid leads to further tragedy, which ultimately is resolved happily enough, but was quite a gut punch from Draper to her readers.

Out of My Mind is written in a simple past first person.  The book reveals itself at the end to be the work of Melody, written as an autobiography for class.

Out of My Mind falls for me into one of the pitfalls of sports fiction (though I had to laugh a little when I looked over what sports fiction I’ve read): dull and plot-miring over-explanation of a sport that is a catalyst but the understanding of which is not really crucial to the plot.  Meg Wolitzer in The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman hangs by her fingertips from this cliff’s edge, but Draper teeters by that same precipice when she lists questions and answers for the quiz bowl in her fiction.  Luckily, a quiz bowl question is briefer than a list of 101 two-letter words, and I was more forgiving of Draper, who also seemed to recognize this problem and, as quickly as she could, moved Melody past inserting the questions into the text.

Otherwise, Out of My Mind is a well-written text, employing many tricks of the trade and leaning towards poetic prose without frequently tumbling into a brier of flowery language.

As a story about voice and voicelessness, Out of My Mind is fascinating, with voice and voicelessness oscillating between being voluntary and involuntary, frustrating and a defense mechanism, even for Melody, for whom for all her life prior voicelessness has been the only option.

Melody is prone to bouts of teenage-ness and this helps to make her real.  In Melody’s struggle to fit in and be understood by her peers, Melody’s cerebral palsy and voicelessness become another hurdle, but the struggle itself is a standard middle-grade trial, one to which I think we can all, at almost any age, relate, and this too helps to make Melody a relatable and real character.

[SPOILERS] Ultimately, Out of My Mind did not have the ending that I wanted for it.  I would have appreciated if it had ended when Melody and her quiz bowl team won the state competition, but Draper saw fit to increase the angst for Melody.  Left behind by her quiz bowl team, Melody feels betrayed, and her disability again becomes stark for her just when she had seemed to surmount it, but she refuses to be defeated by her teammates’ perceived cruelty (I genuinely feel that the team while they can be faulted for excluding her from their shared breakfast cannot have hoped to leave Melody behind).  She demands to go to school despite poor weather and the fraying health and energy of her parents.  In the rain and her distraction, Melody’s mother does not see Melody’s younger sister, and Penny is struck by the car.  Though Penny emerges from the accident with a few broken bones but no lasting damage, I felt that Draper’s point about Melody’s difficulties to communicate had already been conveyed, and while this was (almost) the most dramatic of ways in which her inability could be conveyed, it may not have been necessary to the plot, and really only seemed to fill the space (unnecessarily) between Melody’s disappointment and her moment to confront her class while giving Melody a second time to worry that Penny might be “damaged” mentally as Melody is.  Angst. [END SPOILER]

***1/2

Draper, Sharon M.  Out of My Mind.  New York: Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2010.

This review is not endorsed by Sharon M. Draper, Atheneum Books for Young Readers or Simon & Schuster, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Challenge: Legal Theft: Abigail Amid the Mass (828 words)

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This is actually the legal theft piece the original first line of which Gwen from Apprentice, Never Master stole from me to write her piece for Thursday, “Basilica.”  It was supposed to go up September 13.  I’ve started the piece that I was supposed to have done for Thursday (September 12) using the line that I stole from Gwen.  That will be up as soon as I have completed all the homework due by noon.

I don’t like going to my grandparents’ church.  My parents know this, but we still have to go once a month to keep my grandparents happy.

Theirs is a more traditional service with lots of pomp and circumstance.  The organ shouts out a hymn’s tune beneath trills and rills, and a choir of older voices leans strongly towards the soprano with only a few baritones and basses for support.  Dad tells me that the priests come out in flowing robes stitched with gold, a little boy carrying a cross walks before them to the altar, which is a grand affair itself.  This parade of finery is lost on me; it’s meaningless, and it seems unnecessary.  If I can worship without seeing any of this, everyone else should be able too as well.  “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  That’s one of my favorite verses.  I try not to smirk as I sit in the pew, thinking about all these people who have to see to believe, who need gold and a parade of costumed men to worship God.  No one wears robes outside of church, but worship doesn’t end on Sunday around one o’clock.

The church my parents and I go to usually is different.  Modern, my grandparents call it, and an effrontery when they think I’m not listening (which is ridiculous; I’m always listening).  I asked my dad what effrontery meant, and he told me that my grandparents think that our church doesn’t worship God right.  He told me to ignore them and worship God however I wanted to.  He told me that God wouldn’t mind as long as I did worship Him.  Personally, I get a lot more out of the blaring rock music with drums that change the rhythm of my heartbeat than I do from a priest chanting in Latin.  Who even knows what the priest is saying?  I mean, I know they know—or some of them do, the older people—some of them must—but they can’t understand it, and they can’t really think about it, can they?  Certainly I can’t.  The ave, Marias and the pater nosters might as well be Martian to me.

My mom nudges me, pushing at my forearm a bit, and I know it’s time to kneel.  I shuffle forward on the bench and lower myself towards the floor, putting a hand out to catch the pew in front of us and finding the tiny, cushioned ledge with my knees.  My grandparents’ church requires a lot of aerobics too.  Sit, stand, sit, kneel, stand again, now kneel, now you can sit.  No one likes to kneel—or I can’t think why anyone would like to kneel—but I especially don’t.

My church doesn’t care if we sit, stand, jump around, or dance in the aisles.  Sitting is easiest for me.  After coming back from my grandparents’ church, I almost want to dance in the aisle with the Abigail, who giggles and squeals as she does, imitating the amens and hallelujahs; I just want to let go and celebrate having fewer rules.

She dances every week, so her parents sit in the back near us, though seating’s not assigned.  After introducing herself to me, Abigail told me that I could dance with her anytime, but most of our interactions have been during the meet and greet moments that our church pauses for.

She says hello every week.  “Hello, Simon,” she calls, and then I hear her say, “Hi.  I’m Abigail,” and every week there’s a new voice saying, “Hello, Abigail.”

I don’t have Abigail’s exuberance, and meeting new people can be hard.

Abigail doesn’t ask much, didn’t ask much of me.  It’s why I can smile at her and call back, “Hi, Abigail.”  She’ll even come up to me when I tell her to, and talk to me if I want her to, and she doesn’t ask why I don’t go to her.

Everyone’s chanting around us now—my mother too—making their mouths move through the pattern of those foreign, Latin syllables that are just nonsense to me and memorized by them.  I catch a few words: “Pater noster” is “our Father,” and I think “malo” might be “bad” like in Spanish.  “Jesu Christ” is definitely “Jesus Christ.”  “Gloria” is almost certainly “glory.”  But for every word I can guess at, there are a hundred more that I can’t understand at all.

At the priest’s “Offerte vobis pacem,” my mother signals me to stand.  People turn towards us offering a “pax,” a handshake, a “hello,” the English a welcome relief.  I stick my hand out and allow it to be taken.  I’ve learned this is easiest.  I say “pax” when it’s taken.

I think about Abigail introducing herself to everyone, and it’s easier to smile at these strangers who don’t tell me their names and don’t stay for more than a quick, unenthusiastic greeting.

And I just want to say that this is in no way meant to insult any form of worship.  I actually really enjoy a liturgical service and contemporary rock worship music, but personally I agree with Simon’s dad:  God won’t care how we worship.

This is actually, too, an excerpt from a longer piece that I wrote for class.

Book Review: Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes Is a Bildungsroman and Issue Book for All

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Let me preface this review with a life update:  I’m back in grad school!  I’m about to embark on my first ever online course: ENG 561: Giving Voice to the Voiceless, a literature class taught by the Hillary Homzie.  We will be reading books where the writer has given voice to an otherwise voiceless child or teen, whether that child is physically incapable of speech, she is forced to be silent by adults, or her situation is such that her voice cannot be heard, and examine the techniques and forms used by these writers in trying to genuinely capture a voiceless voice to be able to emulate these in our own writing.

This class is going to consist primarily of realistic fiction, and a lot of it will be darker.

Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is not the first book on our reading list, but it was the first that I was able to get my hands upon, again, having found it at my local used bookstore.  It is a hard read.

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is narrated by Eric “Moby” Calhoune, a once fat middle school student, now a somewhat slimmer high school swim team star.  Eric’s best friend is Sarah Byrnes, a tough and clever girl who has been outcast because of the severe burns that mar her face.  Those burns she claims to have gotten when, as a toddler, she pulled a boiling vat of water off the stove.  At the beginning of the novel, Sarah Byrnes (who goes only by her full name because she is aware of its irony and would prefer others to ridicule her on her terms to her face rather than behind her back) has ceased talking and ceased responding to the world at large.  She is living in a psychiatric ward, where Eric visits her.

The bildungsroman follows Eric as he tries to negotiate the secrets that he learns and the pain that he experiences.  Apart from Sarah Byrnes’ apparent withdrawal from the world, Eric is in a new class where they discuss relevant contemporary issues (abortion and religion are the main issues to which Crutcher devotes scenes), is striving to ready himself for the state swim championships, gains a girlfriend as his mother gains a boyfriend….  Issues that arise in the class force him to reevaluate his rival, who is a legalistic Christian.

Crutcher incorporates more of a villain and more of plot into his bildungsroman than some (Salinger) have done, and I greatly appreciate that for its good-versus-evil battle familiarity.  I think that this and the broader spectrum of issues with which Crutches deals (abortion, child abuse, the dangers of a narrow worldview and a worldview that allows only perfection, suicide; issues that should be talked about, dealt with) make Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes more readable than some others and rescue Staying Fat from the casual label of “boys’ book” that I would throw at it on the grounds of it being a bildungsroman from a male perspective.  I believe that Staying Fat is readable, enjoyable, and helpful to both genders.  Another “well done” to Crutcher.

As per giving voice to the voiceless:  Crutcher uses voicelessness in two ways: first as a disability or effect of abuse (as with Sarah Byrnes, Jody Mueller, and Mark Brittain) and second as a shield against abuse or hurt (as with Sarah Byrnes and Carver Middleton).  This paradoxical dichotomy lends an original voice and complexity to the very idea of voicelessness and makes the novel both more enjoyable and interesting.

The epilogue resolves what it can and allows for a generally happy ending to a heavy and dark read, while acknowledging that high school and the beginning of college are a time of flux and it cannot be tied in a neat bow.

***3/4

Crutcher, Chris.  Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes.  New York: Greenwillow-HarperTempest-HarperCollins, 2003.  First published 1993.

This review is not endorsed by Chris Crutcher, Greenwillow Books, HarperTempest, HarperCollins Children’s Books, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

So many books… so little time….

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Dear friends, it has been too long.  My apologies.

I have been reading a fantastic book, Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton (a Welsh writer.  She would steal my heart.), which Jane Yolen calls “Pride and Prejudice with dragons,” but I have been told by both Professor Attebery and Ellen Kushner is actually closer to Anthony Trollope, whose books I think I must now find.  I finished Tooth and Claw this morning and I give it my full approval, as I’ve been telling anyone who will listen.  It will be living in my room, so those of you who live nearby I might let borrow it, so long as it returns to me; otherwise I will be sad.

Other things I have been doing….  Since I talked to you last, I’ve studied A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (a classic and I’m very interested to read Earthsea Revisioned), The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (not nearly so dreadful as I expected; I actually came to rather like it), The Giggler Treatment by Roddy Doyle (I’ve already recommended this book to my Hollins friends because I was horribly excited just by the description on the back.  Friends in Brookfield, this is a hilarious read and intelligent and very in-tune to the child.), The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams, Little House on the Prairie and The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich, written in response to Little House.  Plus, I’ve turned in my first paper!  A comparison between Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Walden Media’s film adaptation.  True test of a good book: I am not sick of typing those words.  Through this paper I came to realize that Walden Media’s adaptation is truly a call to fight–in the War on Terror as much as “the Christian fight”.  😦  Not what I was really hoping for, Walden Media.  Tomorrow I will begin work on more papers.

Now, some exciting news:  Come August 1 I will be one of the newest copyeditors of Wizardinglife.com!  We’ve all been getting to know one another via Skype and facebook and we were all on Skype one night and chatting and sharing Harry Potter youtube videos.  I’m really excited about working with Harry Potter fans and doing what I’ve been wanting to do!  Squee!

Ah, yes, and I wanted to one bit of house-cleaning: ChLA.

I went to one panel called “Drawing on that Old Magic: Writing and Illustrating Fantasy.”  The illustrations by Charles Vess were beautiful.  Amie Rose Rotruck talked about writing in other peoples’ worlds–and getting paid for it.  Ellen and Delia talked about their works as well.

Then–then came one of the best presentations all conference!  Within “Gothic Influence and Cultural Anxieties in Fiction” was a brilliant, hilarious powerpoint that made good use of the fandom and devianART that’s actually best expressed in analogy:

Tom Riddle : Voldemort :: Dr. Frankenstein : the monster.

The analogy works brilliantly: fighting death, stretching the boundaries of knowledge without any thought to the benefits to mankind that could result, plus the differences Lisa Andres, Hollins alum, was able to explain based on a shift in cultural anxieties.

Also in that talk were ways in which Tom Sawyer expresses Gothic and a talk on an intriguing book, Trouble by Gary Schmidt.

The next conference starts Saturday.

Will you play the Character Game with me?

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I just returned from a fantasy workshop class with Delia Sherman–or part of one–which she was kind enough to allow me join tonight.  She and Ellen Kushner were giving a lecture on how to make good characters.  Friends, this was fantastic!  I will try to capture its essence here.

First off, we all must learn the Character Game.  The Character Game is a theater game, much like vocalized character questionnaires, random questions, questions that don’t relate to plot, meant to get the author thinking about the character in a way that they do not inside of the text, things like “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  “Do you like animals?”  “How do you feel about small children?”  Nonlinear questions that pop into your head.  The writer answers either in third or first person as the character, first person being the greater goal.  I’ve tried bio sheets, but they don’t work for me because they seem forced.  I feel like I HAVE to have an answer and that everyone needs an answer, and then sometimes those are not the kind of questions I would ask my characters.  Vague answers, I realize, might remedy this.  “What kind of car do you drive?” doesn’t work in a Medieval-esque village, but the root of that, really, is asking about practicality, about style, so maybe I’d answer, “I don’t, but I’d like something to get me back and forth, it wouldn’t have to be flashy–actually I’d prefer it not be–I really don’t want to stand out.”  See?  Learning about character while dodging the question.

What was really stressed was making “even the guy who holds the horses” a human being and we talked about borrowing gestures and qualities from people around us, assigning characters to people to give them quirks and a way of speaking, of acting.

Another quite helpful thought was that, as the great gods of their universes and believing in a loving God, authors have to love (but not necessarily like) all the characters, which brings me back to A Wind in the Door and love not being a feeling but an action.

To quote Delia Sherman quoted by Ellen Kushner, “No one wakes up in the morning thinking, ‘Oh, today I’m going to be evil.'”  To quote Ellen’s favorite teacher, “You don’t have to murder anyone to write Macbeth, you just have to have been kept up all night by a mosquito.”  To quote Delia and Ellen quoting The Last Unicorn, (hm, I actually liked their altered quote better, so the real quote):

“I told Rukh I’d feed his liver to the harpy if I had to, and so I would. And to keep you I’d take your friend Schmendrick, and I’d—” She raged herself to gibberish, and at last to silence.

“Speaking of livers,” the unicorn said. “Real magic can never be made by offering up someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back. The true witches know that.”

What we were told was, more simply, “A real witch [insert writer] will tear out her own liver and feed it to the harpy.”

What do you know, I HAVE included everything of import.  Friends, I look to you to be willing to play the Character Game with me.  Please?

Happy July 4 and I return to ChLA notes

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For the past few years, since purchasing fireworks was made legal in CT, my sister and I have made it a tradition to go outside into our backyard and watch our slightly tipsy neighbors set off their fireworks.  I’ve come to be excited by the sound of explosions and–and this worries me somewhat–found myself actually missing the smell of gunpowder.

So I sought an alternative while far from home.

The past three nights I’ve found myself on top of Cemetery Hill watching for sparks over the tree- and hilltops, listening for the explosions, being glum when the trees or hills were too tall, and mistaking distant plane towers for distant firework displays.

July 4 I planned to meet my class there, to sit on the ground, chat between shouts of recognition, and munch on brownies.

That plan did not work out.

Instead, I passed one classmate who watched the sunset and was satisfied as I walked–almost ran with my next-door neighbors to the top of the hill.  The trees were too tall for magnificent views and it wasn’t enough to slake their hunger for firework displays.  One of my neighbors is a film student and knew that her program was meeting to put on their own party.  We followed her to Faculty Row, but missed the explosions there too.  Mostly, I ended up chatting with one of my neighbors, who used to be in editing and who is also an Anglophile, hoping someone would set off just one more cracker (we got nothing more than sparklers).  We were joined too by Rob Lynch and some of the film students popped in and out of the conversation as we talked of sports and movies.

The remainder of the brownies are in the fridge.

I’m afraid that’s the most excitement I can offer you.  I’ve spent the weekend with books and articles all around.  I’ve finished Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey and still have many of the critical sources in our edition of The Secret Garden to read, plus finalizing the sources for my paper on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which has turned into a culture comparison between the time of Lewis’ release of the book and Walden Media’s release of the recent movie.

So… I know it’s been a while, but there’s still more of ChLA to tell you about.  🙂

At “Learning to be Human,” the first paper of talked about humans made monsters, the second pre-history novels, and the 3rd seemed to be offering an anti-Christian reading of Narnia.

Then I went to “Spiritual Conflicts and Divides,” where I learned that while it might be compelling if you talk from your passion, it doesn’t help you convey a point.  But then, there were 2 papers about the meeting of science and religion in YA texts that each used the same book, Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature, which didn’t sound like a good book, but which led to some pretty lively discussion afterward.

The last talk that I attended on Friday was given by Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman and I have to say that I cheered to hear fantasy so championed at Hollins–in the science building no less.  Mostly they each talked about their paths to writing and fantasy in particular, but also fantasy as a genre.