Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Travels in the Interior of Africa, by Mungo Park

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First things first. I want to say, unsullied by other musings, that Mungo Park's book is a delight to read. His story is remarkable; it is his writing, though, that won my mind. He is frank and sympathetic; his eye for detail is complex and yet easily conveyed; and his spirit is (to use the inevitable next word) indomitable. (Thank you, Jenny, for giving me this book for my birthday!)
People are drawn to the "true story." I can't really understand why, to be honest. Certainly the allure has to do with the always-shocking realization that, sometimes, life itself can be as perfectly interesting and unlikely as a piece of fiction. Those three little words that sometimes follow book or movie titles are clearly meant to bring the droves a' running and make the implausible believable: "A True Story." (Or the legal-loophole version: "Based on a True Story.")

I wonder whether most folks believe that "true stories" are really and honestly true; that the portrayal of events in a book or film are precisely in the order and manner that they happened in "real life;" that somehow, because a series of events actually occurred and wasn't simply made up in some artist's head, it inherently contains more truth than a made-up piece of work.

No, even those "true stories" that are told by your favorite uncle at a family barbeque are tweaked to make the telling better, to make the implausible more plausible, and to make the mundane monumental. That's what a storyteller's job is.

Thank goodness that Travels in the Interior of Africa doesn't begin with some such declaration of veracity. Mungo Park convinces me that his story is true in the purest sense, which is not to say the literal sense.

Whether his story is true or not doesn't matter a whit. Do I believe that he could carry the entirety of his travel journal in the brim of his hat at the end of his journey? Not really. That's the romanticism throughout that makes Park's tale so appealing and appetizing. Fully true or not, his tale is the sort of vacation-in-a-book that we all need, once in a while.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Bunnicula, by Deborah and James Howe

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The pleasures of reading aloud are possibly topped only by the pleasures of being read aloud to. I imagine many of the readers of this blog spent an incredible number of childhood hours snuggled up on the couch or in bed with someone reading from the pages of a cherished book, or a brand-new library book, or an old family book finally pulled off the shelf.

The simple act of reading aloud together must trigger so many aspects of our humanity that signal to us that the world is at rights. We get the intimacy of metered voices, the vibrations of speech humming between our bodies, the shared vicarious adventures and explorations and discoveries, the naturally close physical proximity... I think there's several good reasons that my golden retriever would plop down next to us every time we read aloud as a family.

Yet we lose the pleasures of reading aloud once we grow older. Short of having another little kid around the place who deserves and yearns to be read to, why would we take the time to read a story together? Most of us read more quickly silently and alone than we can out loud, and even if you have the time and the willingness to do so, then there's the issue of what particular book to read out loud. It's just so... complicated, right?

But for just a moment, I want you to think back to those times of being read to. Think of how perfect the world was when someone held you with one arm and a book with the other. Think of how you could hear and feel the person's voice through his or her body, or through the couch cushions. Remember the change in tone that let you know just where in the story you were -- was everything lost for our hero, or was she about to triumph?

If you can recall those times in your life and not want to read aloud to someone, I'd love to donate you to science for just a while. Reading together, in my experience, is one of the most natural-feeling activities we as humans have. I highly recommend seizing someone important to you, whether it's a child or your romantic partner doesn't matter, and asking them if you'd like to read a book together. Pick your favorite book as a grown-up, find a new book at the library, or pull that old childhood favorite out from the closet under the stairs and give it a go.

My own partner and I wish we read together more often, though we're finding it easy to make time once we put a little effort into it. Our latest Halloween-themed venture -- Bunnicula -- was one of her childhood staples, and I had never read it before. After sitting down with it and three of its sequels (Howliday Inn, The Celery Stalks at Midnight, and Nighty-Nightmare), I feel like I know her and understand her a little better.

Tally one more for reading aloud bringing people closer together.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Molly Fox's Birthday, by Deirdre Madden

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(This post may be most relevant for the readers of this blog who are in or ever think they might be in a writing workshop of any kind.)

One of my two regular writing workshops this fall is with Deirdre Madden, the author of Molly Fox's Birthday and a number of other books. I've never been in a workshop at this level before this semester, so in large part I had no idea what to expect. Ultimately, while I can enjoy many aspects of the class, I notice that my classmates' most common complaint is one I can sympathize with. The teacher, while insightful in her feedback, tends to want more of the same exact thing out of each writer's work.

In short, she always wants to see a better evocation of place; in other words, she wants to see every detail of people, of rooms, of objects, of landscape, of anything that is present in a scene.

Bullheaded writers that we are, we declare that our writing doesn't need such level of detail, that our writing emphasizes other aspects than the visual. I'm as bad as the next student.

Then I read Molly Fox's Birthday. It's a lovely book, and quite enjoyable for someone just getting to know Dublin like I am. What I took away from it, though, is that Deirdre writes through the visual details. That is, she doesn't simply evoke place--she puts the place to work, and through her descriptions, the reader learns an incredible amount about the characters, their motivations, their desires, their makeup.

The solution clicked. What each of us in class was failing to do was not necessarily including enough details about place. What we were failing to do was find our own ways to evoke the essence of the characters populating our work. Deirdre distills her characters though visible physical details; no matter how we were doing it, if we were doing it successfully, she would probably never take issue with the visual in our work.

So to all workshoppers present and future: I really do recommend reading the work of your teachers. You'll likely gain an interpretive insight into their feedback that will help you decode their comments on your work and aid you in revising and improving your writing.