Saturday, August 28, 2010

Mockingjay (A Review Without Spoilers)

I got my review copy of Mockingjay on Tuesday morning, since they didn't send out any advance copies. I took it on vacation and read it between hikes, finishing it Friday morning, three days after I got it. If I had been home, I would've finished it sooner.

I was partly slowed down because I read The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, the first and second books in this trilogy, back to back in March. (I blogged a very little bit about The Hunger Games here.) I remember that a major complaint about Catching Fire was that so much of the beginning of it was summary of The Hunger Games, and while that was frustrating, I think Mockingjay could have used a little more summary. I was grateful for The Hunger Games Wiki when I started Mockingjay; it helped fill me in on some of the details that had slid out of reach. There are so many characters in these books, and I didn't remember who Beetee or Plutarch was, or what happened to Cinna. In fact, as I recall, we don't quite learn what happens to Cinna, though it seems clear what probably happened--but then it's assumed in Mockingjay that we know.

Anyway. Although I don't think this book really stands on its own, it's a great ending to a fabulous trilogy. So read The Hunger Games if you haven't already, and I'll be surprised if you don't want to keep going and see the story through. I think these books are so realistic in their fantasticality: nothing happens that feels impossible. I do take issue with how Collins settles the question of whether Katniss will end up with Peeta or Gale. I love how it isn't clear throughout the book which way she'll go, how you can see her questions and feel how much she values each relationship. Also, Peeta has changed so much, and really, Gale has too. But when you get there, I think the end feels too easy. I don't want to say more, it would be too much of a spoiler, but this is the one thing that feels pat: the answer to Peeta or Gale? which is a complex and interesting question, until it's resolved. Not like I have a better idea for how it could end. I expected one of them to die, and I guess that would have been more irritating in many ways.

In her acknowledgments, Suzanne Collins thanks her late father, "who laid the groundwork for this series with his deep commitment to educating his children on war and peace." This series does closely and thoughtfully examine war and human motives for violence. It's interesting to see how different characters, raised in different ways and essentially in different cultures, though in the same country, have such variant views of values, inequity, the world.

At one point, Plutarch, one of the key leaders of the rebellion, observes, "Now we're in that sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated. But collective thinking is usually short-lived. We're fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction." But he adds, "Who knows? Maybe this will be it... The time it sticks. Maybe we are witnessing the evolution of the human race. Think about that."

But this is a realistic revolution in the sense that many of the revolutionaries have their own agendas, beyond equality, beyond a better world. And they have their own yearning for power at the expense of anything else. We see the ways in which the personal intersects with the political, and each person brings their own worldview and their own experience into every decision made.

This is a thoughtful, captivating story, and I'm happy to have it in me. At one point, reading alone in my room, I called out, "Good! Good. That's what you were supposed to do, Katniss!" I hadn't been sure she would, but I was hoping so hard. And later in the story, I burst into tears, shocked with grief. Not all good books need to do that to me, but it does usually mean something when I start yelling at a character. I cry more often than I yell, but even that is a signifier: when I cry and I  have to calm myself down by reminding myself, "Elissa, it's a book. She's not real. It's not happening." But I still cry, because it is happening.

Friday, August 27, 2010


I just finished a fabulous book, Lamb by Christopher Moore. It was so good that I had to restrain myself from putting all his other books on hold at the library (school is about to start and I already have thirty books checked out--teachers can get a special library card that allows them to renew stuff over and over and over and over and over if there's no hold on the book).

I seem to be one of the few people who hadn't heard of Lamb until recently. Rachel loaned it to me saying, "You have to read this." Emily was talking about it and saying how great it was. So two good recommendations by smart thoughtful people with complementary senses of humor--I went for it, as unappealing as it seemed.

Lamb is the story of Christ's life, told from the point of view of his childhood friend Levi, known as Biff. Biff is brought back to life in modern times, taken to a hotel room by an angel, and told to write the story of Christ as he knew it. The irritating angel guards him closely, not letting him leave the room, watching soap operas on TV while Biff writes.

Biff finds a Bible in a drawer (thanks, Gideons!) and sneaks it into the bathroom, where he reads the gospels and is irritated--by their inaccuracy, by the huge gap of time left out,* and by the omission of his own self and his importance to the story. (There is a Levi in the New Testament, a follower of Christ, but he is a very minor character.)

In the course of the story, during those missing years, Levi a.k.a. Biff and Joshua ("By the way, his name was Joshua. Jesus is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Yeshua, which is Joshua. Christ is not a last name. It's the Greek for messiah, a Hebrew word meaning anointed.") go looking for the three wise men. They find the first one in Afghanistan just outside Kabul, the second in China, and the third in India. They spend years with each man, studying Buddhism, kung fu, and yoga, among other things. Biff also learns about sex, from various concubines and prostitutes and the Kama Sutra, knowledge he shares with Joshua, who is celibate at his fahter's request. After many years away from home, traveling, they bring their Divine Spark thing back to Jerusalem and turn it into the Holy Ghost. (I think I understand the Holy Ghost a lot better now, actually. Thanks, Christopher Moore.) Then Jesus starts preaching, gathering followers, and doing the stuff we all know about from the bible.

There were many things I loved about this book: how much research Moore clearly did, for one thing. But I also loved the references, most of which I'm sure I missed. But they celebrate Jesus' birthday "with the traditional Chinese food," and even Hans Christian Andersen makes a guest appearance, when a demon they meet outside Kabul has "dinner-plate-sized cat's eyes," just like one of those dogs in "The Magic Tinder Box." Appropriate in what could be viewed as one of the greatest and most enduring fairytales our world has seen.

I love that Joshua has a sense of humor, even laughing so hard at one point that he sprays tea out his nose. In his afterword, Moore notes, "It's more than a small anachronism that I portray Joshua having and making fun, yet somehow, I like to think that while he carried out his sacred mission, Jesus of Nazareth might have enjoyed a sense of irony and the company of a wisecracking buddy. This story is not and never was meant to challenge anyone's faith; however, if one's faith can be shaken by stories in a humorous novel, one may have a bit more praying to do." His "Author's Blessing" at the beginning also reinforces this so nicely:
If you have come to these pages for laughter, may you find it.
If you are here to be offended, may your ire rise and your blood boil.
If you seek an adventure, may this song sing you away to blissful escape.
If you need to test or confirm your beliefs, may you reach comfortable conclusions.
All books reveal perfection, by what they are or what they are not.
May you find that which you seek, in these pages or outside them.
May you find perfection, and know it by name.
I think this really illustrates what a thoughtful book Lamb manages to be. While managing to be funny.

And Moore does right by Mary Magdalene. As he notes in the afterword, it doesn't say anywhere in the Bible that she was a prostitute: "No whore references, period." She's an important, thoughtful, well-drawn character in the book, smart and interesting and convincing.

There are too many apostles to keep straight, which is the same problem I'm having in my novel about the fourteen daughters of Ed. But that's not Moore's fault, and since the apostles don't even start to show up until the last fourth of this novel, it's not the biggest problem. I can see how any more focus on them would derail things.

So yeah. I liked this book so much. Do unto others..., and all that.

*As Moore notes in his afterword, "Of the time from Jesus' birth to when he began his ministry in his thirties, the Bible gives us only one scene," which is Luke 2:46-7, Jesus at the age of twelve "in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My hundred most influential writers (for now): the final list

1.     Dr. Seuss
2.     Russell and Lillian Hoban
3.     Maurice Sendak
4.     Tomie diPaola
5.     Laura Ingalls Wilder
6.     Horatio Alger, Jr.
7.     Shel Silverstein
8.     Hans Christian Anderson
9.     The Brothers Grimm
10.  Bible authors and editors (including King James)
11.  Virginia Hamilton
12.  The d’Aulaires
13.  Roald Dahl
14.  Natalie Babbitt
15.  Louis Sachar
16.  Frances Hodgson Burnett
17.  Robert McCloskey
18.  E.B. White
19.  Louise Fitzhugh
20.  Betty McDonald
21.  Astrid Lindgren
22.  Beverly Cleary
23.  Carol Ryrie Brink
24.  Booth Tarkington
25.  Lewis Carroll
26.  C.S. Lewis
27.  Lynda Barry
28.  Louisa May Alcott
29.  Katherine Paterson
30.  Scott O’Dell
31.  Shakespeare
32.  Madeline L’Engle
33.  Lois Lowry
34.  Paula Danziger
35.  Judy Blume
36.  Lois Duncan
37.  Antoine de Saint Exupery
38. Anne Frank
39.  Mark Twain
40.  The “anonymous” author of Go Ask Alice
41.  Dylan Thomas
42.  George Orwell
43.  Ray Bradbury
44.  Charles Dickens
45.  Charles Baxter
46.  Tracy Kidder
47.  James Baldwin
48.  Douglas Adams
49.  J.D. Salinger
50.  John Steinbeck
51.  F. Scott Fitzgerald
52. Flannery O'Connor
53. Sandra Cisneros
54. Oscar Wilde 
55.  Tom Stoppard
56.  Samuel Beckett
57.  Sophocles
58.  Gabriel García Márquez
59.  Alice Walker
60.  Tom Robbins
61.  Erica Jong
62.  Franz Kafka
63.  Margaret Atwood
64.  Grace Paley
65.  Jamaica Kincaid
66.  August Wilson
67.  Kurt Vonnegut
68.  Joseph Heller
69.  Tony Kushner
70.  Sherman Alexie
71.  Cindy Crabb
72.  Toni Morrison
73. Sarah Schulman
74.  Maxine Hong Kingston
75.  bell hooks
76.  Louise Erdrich
77.  Rebecca Brown
78.  Junot Diaz
79.  E. Annie Proulx
80.  Raymond Carver
81.  Stuart Dybek
82.  Ron Hansen
83.  Angela Davis
84.  Audre Lorde
85.  Alice Munro
86.  Walter Dean Myers
87.  Thomas Kuhn
88.  George Saunders
89.  Lucille Clifton
90.  Octavia Butler
91.  Andrea Barrett
92.  Charles Simic
93.  Jacqueline Woodson
94.  Yusef Komunyakaa
95.  Chris Crutcher
96.  Lisa Delpit
97. Neil Gaiman 
98.  Joan Didion
99.  Anne Carson
100. Jonathan Swift
I am finishing up issue #1 of a real-life paper zine about this list, entitled The Hundred Most Influential Writers in My Life to Date, As Best I Can Remember and Mostly Not Including Zines. Blogs are great, they do their job, but I think a paper zine is the ideal format for this project. If you'd like a copy, please email me for more info.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Writing Dialogues: Jolene!

I made a CD to use with my summer students, thinking we'd write from it, imagine different songs as background music in different scenes--they turned out to be really into dancing (except the second graders, but that's another story) so we ended up dancing a lot, and the three hits of summer 2010 in my classroom turned out to be "Supersonic," by J.J. Fad; "The Love You Save," by the Jackson 5; and "Jolene," by Dolly Parton. All three of these were, "Can we hear that song again?" hits.

My students were having conversations about "Jolene" as they were leaving class, as in "That's messed up, Jolene needs to get her own man," so this seemed like a good opportunity for an exercise driven by student interest.

So we wrote plays, and I ended up passing out the lyrics to "Jolene" so we could talk about them, and write the play of "Jolene"--what happens next? Does Jolene leave the singer's man alone, since he's the only man for her and Jolene can have any man she wants? We discussed who the characters were in this play, gave names to everybody who isn't Jolene, brainstormed some potential settings, and got to work.

Jolene #1, by the third grade class

Jolene goes to Maba's house and rings the doorbell. Maba opens the door.

Jolene: I really want your man. Can I please get him?

Maba: N-O. No.

Jolene: Yes I can.

Maba: Come in.

Jolene: Can I have a drink of water please?

(Maba brings her water.)

Jolene: Thank you for the water. And where's Jack?

Maba: Jolene, Jolene, please don't take my man just because you can.

Jolene: Let's split him.

Maba: Split him in half? How do we split him?

Jolene: You can be his wife, and I'll be his girlfriend.

(Maba gives Jolene a wedgie. Jolene jumps out the window.)

Maba: Sorry?


Jolene #2, by the fourth graders

Michaela sees Jolene at the mall.

Michaela: Jolene!

Jolene: (looks back) It must be my imagination.

Michaela: It's not your imagination, it's me. You can't take my man, because he's the only one I love. Let's have a deal. Let's let John pick who he's gonna be with.

Jolene: It's a deal.

(John comes over.)

John: I don't know who I want to be with.

Michaela and Jolene: PICK ME! No, pick me! Pick me!

John: Stop saying pick me! I have an idea. You could both have a race. The winner gets the man.

Jolene and Michaela: (They shake hands.) Deal!

The fourth graders had to go write their own endings in their journals.

Marente's end: They ran to the tall building and ran back and Michaela won.

Kristine's went like this: Michaela and Jolene become friends, they both dump John.

Jolene: You can have the man.

Michaela: No, why don't you have the man.

Daquani got off to a slow start, but I left him alone after I asked him, "What does Jolene say when Michaela says that?" and he said "I don't know. I gotta see." I totally know how that is.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Lifetime goals

I used to want to be Alice Munro, who didn't publish her first collection of stories until she was 37 (which used to seem very old, but doesn't seem so old anymore at all). But then she started whipping them out, these complex and incredible stories masquerading as boring rural historical type things. She's 79 now, and still going strong, writing more and more amazing stories. I'd still love to be her. And that can still be a goal. A lifetime of writing and living and paying close attention to things others don't notice. I'll have a lifetime of this, even if it isn't eighty years' worth--which is not to say that it won't be. Going strong.

But I'd settle for being Toni Cade Bambara, who was 56 when she died. That would give me another twenty-two years. I could do a lot in twenty-two years. I'd be so happy to settle for that, if that was what I was given.

"Settle for." Don't take that the wrong way, Ms. Bambara. I am not implying disrespect, not in the least. Your stories full of joy and love and so much power... note the sarcasm in "settle for." I'm sure you would. You knew a few things about sarcasm. And know that while I'm pretty sure my students wouldn't appreciate Munro's stories, they get "Raymond's Run", and I love reading it with them. They connect with it, get pissed about it, and they love it.

But anyway. You take what you can get, and you do the most you can. I am writing, and teaching, and living my life.

From the porch

I'm on my porch reading with my coffee when a young family bikes by: mom with the baby in the bike seat, hipster dad with a cool hat and a ridiculous moustache, and a six- or seven-year-old trying to keep up with his parents. As they move past my house, this is the segment of the story that I hear:

Mom: "It's a light rain, it'll dry fast."

Little boy:, "I'm tired, mom! It hurts!"

Mom: "I know, honey. We'll get there."

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Steinbeck today: summer reading

I'm reading East of Eden, which I've never read, and I tend to be the sort of reader who loves one book by an author so then reads all the others. Steinbeck has been one of my most influential writers on the basis of The Grapes of Wrath and Travels with Charley, two very different books that I read for the first time in high school. I've read The Grapes of Wrath four or five times, and Travels with Charley more times than I can count.  I still have the copy of Travels with Charley that I stole from the Washburn branch of the Minneapolis/Hennepin County public library, and I didn't steal many books from libraries. Sometimes I took them without checking them out, usually because I had too many fines on my card, but I usually returned those. I only kept them if I needed them. I've been carrying this copy of Travels with Charley around for twenty years now.

So why didn't I ever read all of Steinbeck? He's written a lot of books, but that doesn't usually stop me. It's probably partly because I didn't like Of Mice and Men (though I should give it another shot) or The Pearl (which I'm still not sure I need to revisit). I might have read Cannery Row. I also might have read The Red Pony. So I didn't read all of Steinbeck because while two books knocked me flat, others bored me. He's no Horatio Alger.

I'm about a fourth of the way through the 600-page East of Eden. Published in 1952, set at the turn of the last century ("You can see how this book has reached a great boundary that was called 1900"), Steinbeck ruminates on how people then must have felt about the century just ending, and from this vantage point, he is so clearly looking at it from the middle of that next century. Smack in the middle of the Cold War, back from WWII where, according to that estimable source, Wikipedia, he "served as a World War II war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and worked with the Office of Strategic Services (predecessor of the CIA)," Steinbeck--okay, Steinbeck's narrator--tells us:
And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.
And now we return to our regularly scheduled programming, the story of Adam Trask and his evil monster wife.

I don't read many novels that have such a visible author/narrative voice. I'll keep reading, but I wish Steinbeck would put himself a little more in the background and just tell his damn story. Though I do love how much it's about place, and how much he loves that Salinas Valley he came from.

I could keep going on. About the women characters--I don't remember the women in The Grapes of Wrath feeling so two-dimensional, and he was fifteen years younger when he wrote that. What happened? But this is enough for now.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Portland style

The girl next to me at Ristoretto is so specifically Portland styley. Gray sleeveless jersey dress, knee-length, with a plaid flannel shirt unbuttoned over it; brown cowboy boots; a cute hat over her short tousled hair.