Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Childhood Redux

My name is Katie and I am a reading nerd. As far back as I can remember, I have been more likely to stay in on a Saturday night with a thick book rather than go out dancing or some other such nonsense. After my parents put me to bed, I would lay on the floor and read by the light coming from the door crack. At family gatherings my relatives only saw the cover of whatever book I was reading at the time, my face firmly inserted between its pages for the duration of the festivities. Therefore, I am fully qualified to tell you about Three Books from Childhood that You’ve Forgotten About. I, of course, have not forgotten them, and still pick them up when I am feeling particularly nostalgic, when the challenges of reading “adult” writers like Don Delillo or John Irving get to be a little too much for me, and I crave something simpler, or when I want to curl up under the blankets and disappear for a while.

1. The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin. My copy of The Westing Game is wrinkled and warped, as a result of being dropped in the tub. It’s not that kind of book, though. The story is a classic murder-mystery in the tradition of CLUE or Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians: a group of strangers in an apartment building all find out they are heirs to Sam Westing’s fortune, but only the winner of the Westing Game, a twisted, secret-clue-laden maze whose rules are outlined in Westing’s will, will get the money. Of course, you the reader have all the clues in front of you, so you have a chance to “win” before any of the characters do… I couldn’t do it my first read, so I wish you luck. The characters themselves are fascinating: a Polish secretary who fakes a wasting disease, a beautiful young bride-to-be who looks eerily like Westing’s dead daughter (oooh…chills), a spastic delivery boy who turns out to be a … wait, I’m not going to give it all away, you’ll have to find that, and the rest of the secrets, out for yourself.

2. My Side of the Mountain, by ¬¬¬Jean Craighead George. For a long time, I dreamed of living like Sam, the protagonist. Fed up with his boring suburban life, Sam runs away to the Catskill Mountains. He lives in a hollowed-out tree trunk, befriends a hawk, and survives through his common sense (along with a couple of trips to the “wilderness” section of the closest library). The book describes in intricate detail how to tan leather, which plants are edible, and what it is like to live through a winter without the comforts of heat and insulation. Having just gotten the electric bill, I am thinking that this might not be such a far out idea. Although I have not read the other two books in the trilogy (On the Far Side of the Mountain, and Frightful’s Mountain, in order), the effect of this book was strong enough to have me dreaming of living alone in the forest well into my teenage years, when I should have been dreaming of boys and makeup. So go ahead, escape suburbia, expand your world, and get wild…maybe even turn off the heat.

3. The Wonderful O, by James Thurber. I’d suggest you find a copy of this book, whether from the library, used book store, Ebay, or yard sale (unfortunately, it’s out of print) and read it right away. While it may seem like a child’s fantasy book, rich with wordplay and rhyme, this story has a deeper political and cultural message that is important in today‘s unstable society. And it has pirates! Consider this: what would you do if you were outlawed to use the letter O? For one thing, “outlawed” would be “utlawed,” loses it’s power, doesn’t it? And that’s just a letter…consider the loss we’d feel when other things might be (or already have been, perhaps) taken away. This is the question Thurber presents in his book, and his answer is a stunning one: we can live without opals, owls, or oaks, but we will not allow a tyrant to take away our hope, love, valor, or the most important “O” of all…and if you don’t know what it is, you’ll have to read to find out.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Under My Skin

We have been battling mice in our house. The ubiquitous traps are tucked under cabinets, behind dressers, or in closets. I can smell peanut butter and mice pee in every room I enter, and I have already lost a couple purses to the mouse that decided to bed down in them. Though we have caught a couple--one died instantly, while the other had to be drowned--I find myself wondering if this is a losing battle. We are, after all, living in the country, surrounded by fields, and nature is tenacious in its efforts to get inside.

Which makes me think, of course, of poetry. I once wrote that a good poem was much like an infestation. Be it living things (ants, spiders, mice, etc.), weather (cold, heat, wind, rain), sensations (a loud sound, a piercing light, the way dust makes your nose tickle), something is always trying to get in, to make us feel uncomfortable or vulnerable in our little private havens. Similarly, a good poem won't just make you think, "Oh, how nice," as you snuggle deeper into your comforter. Rather, it will break you open, pierce you intellectually, emotionally, or aesthetically, and wriggle its way under your skin. Gross, but true. A great poem will leave you itching and raw, wondering how it got past your defenses.

Jane Kenyon was just such a writer. Her poems, lovingly collected by her husband, Donald Hall, in the volume titled Otherwise, often employed stream-of-conscious leaps from image to insight, eliciting a physical effect that was jarring and expansive despite her subjects: small birds, short walks with a dog, a pond, a window, things found in a drawer. She wrote about loneliness, depression, and love in a way that was both deeply individualized and, because of those quick leaps, all-encompassing. Using those small moments, she perfected the art of infestation through poetry.

There are other reasons why Kenyon's words were able to wriggle under my particular skin; like me, she followed her husband to a small town where she knew no-one, like me, she fought against isolation and familial pressures, and like me, she became intimately entwined in her environment. Unfortunately, Kenyon battled depression until her too-early death from cancer. But within her graceful leaps of language, she expressed a childlike wonder and an unflinching steeliness, both of which allowed her to gaze into the deepest wells of humanity. It's no wonder, then, that her work is so affecting, and so timeless.

I will continue to think of Jane as I battle the mice brigades, and any other strange thing thrown my way--squirrels, wasps, ashes, musty smells. I will take it all in, as Jane did, and try to understand it from the inside out.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Joining the Circus

Many authors can craft an exciting plot, but there are only a handful of writers who possess the ability to capture the sound of their environment. Peter Hoeg is one of those writers. His style, like the rugged beauty of driftwood, commands a reader's attention, both to the story and to its underlying musicality. His most recent novel, The Quiet Girl, is no exception.

The novel has a similar plot-line as the best-selling Smilla's Sense of Snow—an adult on the borders of society searches for a missing child—but with better results. The main character, a Cirque du Soleil-type clown named Kaspar, is written with more texture and depth. In addition, the major motif is music as opposed to snow, a change that warms the story and expands its emotional impact.

Kaspar has an extrasensory hearing ability, a result of a childhood accident. This ability allows him perform seemingly magical tasks: he can identify anyone based on their unique “chord,” pinpoint their location from miles away, read into their past, or predict their future. These abilities help Kaspar in his search for a little girl who possesses amazing abilities herself, and who is spiritually connected to the clown. This girl has been abducted from the orphanage where she lives, and Kaspar seems to be the only one who cares enough to find her.

In his search, Kaspar encounters dogmatic bureaucrats, mystical nuns, cold-hearted businessmen, and beautiful scientists. He enlists the help of fellow circus-folk, including a legless driver, a bird-woman with an infallible memory, and his former lover, the formidable female boss of the circus. Hoeg leads his reader on a mad, twisting adventure through the streets of Copenhagen, and brings to life its stunning architecture, Nordic history, and stark landscape.

This is a finely-tuned, mature novel from one of Denmark’s most artistic writers. Hoeg is at his best here, having produced a hybrid of mystery and magical-realism with a decidedly attractive and arresting Danish voice.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Mr. Sandman, Bring Me a Dream

I am often asked how I figure out what to write about. I hate this question. It's like asking someone deep in thought what she's thinking about--as soon as she tries to pay attention to her thoughts, her mind goes blank. Because, in fact, the act of writing is so often an intuitive, or subconscious, act--at least at the initial composition stage--it is impossible to answer that question without making some crap up.

But maybe I have my metaphor wrong, because the images and thoughts that surface in my writing often can be traced to something in real life. Maybe we writers are more like dreamers, chewing the cud of our days' experiences and spitting out some really fantastic, almost unrecognizable dream loogy. But take that loogy to a forensic's lab, and I'm sure a white-coated scientist could tell you what it was made of. Ah, mixed metaphors!

The premise behind Shakespeare in Love, and, I believe, the reason for its popularity, is similar to this dream-cud idea. Young Will Shakespeare (the dreamy Joseph Fiennes) composes one of his most famous works, "Romeo and Juliet," in a semi-conscious cloud of new love. What happens to him in real life inevitably makes it into the play, explaining away the non-appearance of Rosaline (Will was rejected by the real Lady R.), the lengthy musings of Mercutio (Ben Affleck wanted more lines), and the reason for the tragedy at the end. It's all wrapped up in a neat little package (a.k.a. Gwyneth Paltrow) and sailed off to America. Oh, now we get it.

What this version of the play's origins fails to do is address some of its deeper, more interesting aspects. For instance, Friar Lawrence plays a big part as the reasoned counterpoint to the frenzy and unthinking passion of Romeo and Juliet. Will and Lady Viola are similarly frenzied and unthinking, but any voice of wisdom is lacking. Rather we have Geoffery Rush opining that things will all work out in the end...he doesn't know how, they just do. This is by no means meant to knock Mr. Rush's performance. His playing of a harried, lovable theater-owner is one of the highest points in this film. But the plot on a whole is much lighter and sugary than the play it purports to give birth to.

My hope is that the continued success of this movie, and others like it, will bring a new audience to Shakespeare's works. But to say that the play is merely the result of a failed love affair is to miss the point. We writers may not know what we're writing when we first sit down, but by the fourth or fifth draft, we tend to get a handle on it. This movie? Wonderfully entertaining dream-cud. The play? Complex, complicated, and worthy of much deeper study.