Category Archives: reading

Happy International Literacy Day!!

The Literacy Site blog informs me that today is International literacy day, and in celebration I thought I would share my experience of the importance of literacy.

Now, I don’t remember my first book, but knowing my mother it was read to me and at a very young age.  By young, I mean before I had a conscious concept of myself much less something so abstract as a book.  I have no doubt that it was something like The Little Engine That Could, or Green Eggs and Ham, or some other childhood classic.  It is to this that I attest my obsession with growing my collection of children’s books.  That is in circles where the explanation, “Because I like children’s books” is not an acceptable enough reason for such a collection.

However, if I were to rely on the memory of my childhood bookshelves and boxes eventually given to the used bookstore, I would guess that I have read or been read, at least, the following:

  • Caps for Sale
  • How to Eat Fried Worms
  • The Velveteen Rabbit
  • Curious George      
  • Goodnight Moon
  • Charlotte’s Web    
  • The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
  • The Giving Tree  
  • Madeline 
  • The Monster at the End of this Book
  • James and the Giant Peach   
  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, but I have no specific memory of reading these or any other childhood books.  None whatsoever.  I’m sure that I’ve read them, of course.  I mean they sat in my room until I was 10, but of most of them, I couldn’t recite a single line.  

My passion for the importance of reading and advocating for literacy education comes from the books that I do remember – the books that meant something, and continue to mean something today.  Some of them were integral to my understanding of human nature.  Some of them helped me cope with the challenges I have faced in my life.  Some of them touched me so deeply that I still carry with me the same feeling that I had when I shut the cover every time I think of them.  And some of them were just plain fun!  

It was recommended to me once that I write a memoir, and I remember thinking, who would read a memoir about me?  What would I write about?  I’m not that interesting, or at least nothing of interest has really happened to me.  A straight memoir about my life can be summed up in a few words: Born in suburbs; Attended public school; 2.5 adorable children and a dog (of which I was one – the children, not the dog).  As you can see, there isn’t a lot there.  Pretty much every other kid in suburbia has had my life.  We are not the Kennedys; we are not the Jacksons; we are not the Clintons; we’re not even the Joneses – although we were the first ones in my neighborhood to own a CD player and, I think, a computer.  So you see, I wasn’t even deprived of anything, except the Power Wheels I always wanted.   And why didn’t I get the Power Wheels?  Because my parents agreed that they wanted my brother and I to have self-propelling vehicles to encourage activity and exercise.  That’s right.  I don’t even have a weight problem.  What the could I possibly write about in a memoir?

But a trip to the bookstore made me see things in a different light. As I browsed the shelves, both in the children’s section and general fiction, I saw book after book which, for me, defined a certain experience or time in my life  As I walked out, and got in my car, I started thinking of my life in books, and when I did that I found remembering a book that I read made me remember a specific event, which for one reason or another, was tied to it.  Maybe it was because the book made an event more meaningful, or maybe I read the book during a secure or happy time and it brings me a contented feeling, or maybe I had to stand in line for an hour because all of a sudden Everybody In The World has to have the latest Harry Potter.  Whatever the reason, it turns out I can associate most of the memories I have with one book or another.  Just like one song can bring you back to your high school prom, so can one book touch you so deeply that it will remain with you forever.  That is the importance of literacy.

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Short Fiction: A Weekly Dedication – Week 2

I just finished reading my short story for the day – Flannery O’Conner’s, “A Good Man is Hard to Find“. I’m surprised I made it through 12 years of grade school, and a combined 8 years of college without ever having read it.  Perhaps if I had remained in a literature program, I would have, but I don’t think it would be completely off topic to have a story like this one examined in a psychology or sociology class so my confusion remains. Just like Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, this one sets you up quietly to be dropped on your head with the ending.  That’s as much as I’ll give away for those of you who have not read it.  Those of you who have, I would think, know what I mean.

This week, I also read a fun little O. Henry story. His story was called, “Tobin’s Palm“.  The twist ending, in this case, turned out to be somewhat uplifting.  There are always those endings that are left open to interpretation, whether everything ends “happily ever after”, and when given the choice, I usually choose to believe in the “happily ever after”.  Especially since this week was rough for endings.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth was the Lovecraft this week. The Shadow Over Innsmouth is actually a novella, so it took a little longer than one sitting to finish.  This being one of his later stories, though, he had certainly honed his craft by the time of it’s writing.  The buildup was slow, but just added to the suspense and mystery surrounding the title town.  The narrator plays the cynic unbeliever, so the reader falls right in line with him believing none of this could be true.  It was hard to put this one down.

I was disappointed in Poe this week.  “Loss of Breath” left something to be desired, and required a great suspension of disbelief, so much so that I found it hard to get on board.  The title phenomenon is taken to the most absurd extreme, and it lost a lot in the telling.  The antiquated writing style indicative of the day is something I can usually ignore, or at least grow accustomed to, when reading a good story, but with this one I ended up focusing on it.  Somehow, the flowery language made the whole thing that much more absurd.

I think my favorite this week was Dorothy Parker’s, “Lady With a Lamp“.  At the beginning, we get the idea the two main characters sometimes go quite a while without seeing each other. This time one was shocked to discover the other was terribly ill. The POV was intriguing as this is one of Parker’s “monologue stories” (my own term, as far as I know).  Some of my favorite stories of hers have been told in first person as an extended monologue, usually in the form of thoughts that run through one’s mind in certain situations.  This time, the “monologue” was actually just one side of a conversation about why the speaker’s friend is ill.  And over the course of the conversation, we discover a lot.  Though the ailment is never directly mentioned, it doesn’t take long to figure out what has happened, and considering, I have to wonder if this story created a huge scandal when it was released in 1932.  Five stars.

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Short Fiction: A Weekly Dedication – Week 1

I read this article that said reading short stories is an excellent way for a writer to get examples of narrative structure in quick succession.  As we all know reading is extremely important for writers to hone their craft, but as many of us tend to delve into novel writing, we also tend to read more novels for inspiration and example.  Per the advice in this article and for the reasons given, I decided to start reading short fiction on a (somewhat) daily basis.  Lucky me, I discovered that I was unknowingly surrounded by it!  Here is what I read and gained from my first week:

I began with O. Henry’s “The Plutonian Fire”, which was somewhat of a treatise on the nature of writing – the lengths we writers must go to and the deceptions we sometimes must act for the better of our craft.

I read another O. Henry after that –  “The Princess and the Puma”; the “Princess” in this case being the daughter of a wealthy landowner in Middle America.  This story – being very similar in theme to the Poe I read today, “Spectacles” – demonstrated the folly of the vanity and pride of men. In the case of the O. Henry story, pride of masculine vs feminine roles, and in the case of the Poe pure vanity of appearance.  The end result in both cases is likely to elicit an “Oh-you-silly-man”-style giggle.

Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” – an excellent example of the feminist themes for which this author is so celebrated – is heartbreaking.  And it is an interesting contrast to Dorothy Parker’s piece, “Mr. Durant” which shames the title character indirectly for his callousness.

Finally, H.P. Lovecraft, who I have wanted to read for sometime, and for which I have my cousin and her clever idea for wedding favor to thank.  “The Beast in the Cave” was a great example of the thriller/horror genre that Lovecraft is touted for.  However, I learned a very important lesson about reading short fiction. You see, I have for years, got into the habit of flipping ahead to see how much further I have to go before the end of a chapter of\r at least a natural stopping point.  Now, this is fine when reading a novel (save for the danger of seeing a statement so enticing that you won’t put the book down anyway).  However, this is very dangerous when done with short fiction.  In order to not ruin your own reading, I will use an example to illustrate this danger.  I happen to look at the last line, which for all of it’s twisty surprise-iness is this story’s equivalent to, “He’s Keyser Soze.”

Moral:  Don’t read ahead in short fiction!!

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Reading Helps Us Empathize

As writers, we must also be avid readers.  (What a shame, eh?) Yes, we use the excuse of improving our writing to explain the constant burying of our heads in books, but according to studies from 2012 and 2013 it seems reading improves us more than we may think.  It turns out that reading doesn’t just inform us on specific subjects or improve vocabulary and grammar.  It also makes us more emotionally intelligent; specifically empathetic.

Now, if there is anyone reading this wondering how reading can improve the sense of empathy, consider some of you favorite novels.  When I reflect on mine, I realize that The Little Prince has caused me to be more attune to taking notice of the smallest pleasures – a child’s laugh, the breeze brushing through my hair, that first sip of clean cool water when you feel a deep thirst.  I think of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – how easily I recognized the story as an allusion to substance abuse and addiction and felt the chronic strain on both the addict and his loved ones.  I think of how easy it was for me to relate to Steve Martin’s Shopgirl but just as easy to see the perspective of her companion.

One of the studies conducted by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Costano explored further finding evidence distinguishing the “empathetic benefits” of literary fiction vs. “pop” fiction.  Due to the “complexity in stories and their characters”, literary fiction appears to be the clear winner here.  When I reflect on my reading of The Life of Pi, I can most certainly agree.  Not only the beautiful story of the loss at sea, which makes up the bulk of the story, but the final explanation of “what really happened” gave me such a rush of emotion and understanding of what the mind can do to compensate a horrible trauma.
But how does this inform our own writing.  Well, just as our personal experience of places and events serve to help us better describe a variety of settings and experiences, empathizing with well-written characters can only serve as a means of experience.  Perhaps there are many events, tragedies, and celebrations we will never experience, but when we read to exercise our empathetic muscles, we become better able to imagine ourselves in the minds and skins of our characters as we put them in these circumstances.

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Y – “You”, Another Pronoun

“You”

So, I spent sometime on the pronoun “one”. Now, for “you”. For this, I would like to present a challenge.

When we write, what POV do we usually choose? As a general rule, a writer will pick either first or third person. A first person narrator is almost always an active character in the story, but not necessarily the protagonist. He/she can sometimes be an outside character with information on the story and characters within, but will generally be fairly limited in his/her knowledge. In rare cases, such as The Book Thief (in which the narrator is Death) or The Lovely Bones (in which the narrator is a young girl who has been killed), the narrator may be omniscient, but usually first person operates on a limited amount of knowledge that can be reasonably known by the character who is narrating. A third person narrator has a few options that make it an “easier” POV to work within. There is the subjective narrator who can describe feelings and/or thoughts of one or more characters, or the objective narrator who focuses only on action of the characters. Alongside this element there is the knowledge of the narrator, being either omniscient – an all knowing narrator with knowledge of all times, people, places, and events including characters’ thoughts; or limited – usually focused on one character’s experience and feelings and thoughts. But the second person narrator is extremely rare in fiction, and difficult to pull off well. According to a Wikipedia article on Narrative Modes, a good example of this form is Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. (I have not read this, but it is now officially on my list, if for no other reason but that I want to see how he does this.) It is also employed by writers of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that were popular in the 80s and which I love and miss. (Every time you read it, you can make it a different story – two, three, four, or more books in one!) As this POV is so rarely used, and very difficult, I wonder how many readers may take advantage of the challenge to write your second person story. The nice thing about reading this type of story is the reader is immediately required to submit as an active participant in the story. If written well, I suspect this type of narration can be highly engaging to readers as they are literally pulled into the story from the beginning. If you choose to take part in this challenge, please share in the comments what you learn from it and your successes with your story. We are interested to hear how your experiment turns out!

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U – Utopia: The Fight For Equal Time

In recent years, there have been a surge in dystopian fiction, especially in Young Adult (YA) fiction.  Books like The Hunger Games and Divergent seem to be popping up constantly.  Dystopia is a nice plot device in that it automatically sets up an atmosphere of survival and conflict, allowing the protagonist the opportunity to become a hero.

But something we do not see as often are Utopian novels.  Granted, a state of perfection does not necessarily set up conflict, however, a clever writer could see the possibility for conflict in any setting.  For instance, the idea of perfection being too perfect.  Might a protagonist feel the wool is being pulled over his eyes, or feel threatened by an outside force that could ruin such a state?  I think of films, like Pleasantville and The Truman Show, in which the perfect world became the enemy either for being too close-minded or being a false world.   It seems to me, for all the terrible worlds we make for ourselves, could we not have a counterpoint of perfection, and find what struggles that may create?

 

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R – Recipes, And Other How-To’s: Entertaining NonFiction

Okay, I’m not usually one to put recipes on this site. That’s not what this is about, but as I was trying to come up with an “R” word that had to do with writing, I started thinking of another one of my favorite writers, Anthony Bourdain.  Some of you may be familiar with his former show on the Travel Channel, No Reservations.  Others may know him by his current show on CNN, Parts Unknown.  And some may know him best by his bestselling book, Kitchen Confidential; a (hate to tell you this) very realistic portrait of life working in restaurants.  But one of his books you may not have heard of is called the Les Halles Cookbook.  This is a book that he wrote which includes a number of french dishes that he cooked while working as head and executive chef at the New York Brasserie, Les Halles (a restaurant I am determined to dine in myself one of these days).

Now there may be some out there who are still thinking, “Okay, great.  What does this have to do with writing.”  Well, as I say, Anthony Bourdain is a writer, and he has a great gift with words and imagery.  And his cookbook is like none I’ve ever seen before or since.  He does not simply list ingredients and steps.  He tells you about the dish you are making, and gives you hints and secrets about the best way to cook it.  And he does all of this with a talent for the use of language.  If you can get it, I highly recommend you pick up the book.  This is the only cookbook I have ever sat down to read for entertainment.

So here’s a challenge: (Completely stealing this from a public speaking assignment I had in college.) Write a recipe, or other seemingly doldrum instruction oriented piece, but do so with not only the purpose of informing, but entertaining as well.  Instruction manuals, how-to guides, and cookbooks do not have to be boring to read.  As a matter of fact, they shouldn’t be.

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