On Finding Comfort in Mid-Afternoon Autumn

ON FINDING COMFORT IN MID-AFTERNOON AUTUMN  

after Rachel McKibbins

 

“Alas, daughter, you have struck me down

& brought calamity upon me. (Judges 11:34-5)

 

The maple leaf I almost jam

between the impetuous stomps

of combats and this thirsty soil trail

is a cathedral window.

Her patchy glass is stained blood orange

harvest yellow & fresh cut green

from the center veins

to the ends of her crispy arms.

 

Her back is pressed against

a clear plastic pocket

to avoid breaking into crumbs

when I store her between careful pages-

 

Her elephant skin could sand the edges

of my birch bedside table.

Licked by the sun’s noon fire.

wrinkled and rough-

she has too felt the sting of oppressive winds.

 

I had blood in my hands.

so did he.

I had blood in my hands

dripping from my own face

my face.

blood in my hands-

 

so did he.

 

I couldn’t understand

how a man with hot cocoa eyes

& the origin of my own jawline

could find my blood there.

 

He wanted to know where I’d been.

so I told him, in hushed but

confident defiance…

“with boy [x] age [y].”

 

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Review: Gone Girl

I was never one to read a psychological thriller.  Then… I read Gone Girl.

Nick and Amy Dunne are auspicious young writers who met, as many writers do, in New York City.  Nick came from a small town known as North Carthage, Missouri to make a name for himself in journalism.  Though born a city girl, Amy held similar aspirations.  Her parents had made a living writing children’s books featuring Amazing Amy, a character the “real” Amy has struggled to emulate.  The two writers are a perfect couple with the perfect life: until the recession starts to eliminate their job market.  What’s more, they learn Nick’s mother has been diagnosed with cancer.  It only makes sense to move back to Missouri.  In order to make ends meet, Nick decides to open a bar.  Amy contributes the remains of her savings to make this happen but is unable to find work herself.  They are about to celebrate their 5 year anniversary when Amy disappears.  Though Nick is the police’s prime suspect, his guilt cannot be confirmed.  In fact, it seems very few details regarding Amy’s disappearance can be confirmed. As various clues and alibis start to contradict each other.  The police struggle to build a coherent case.  The question remains: Where is Amy?  

 

Gone Girl is not necessarily a “new” release, as the original publishing date was in 2012 and the film adaptation was released in 2014, but I still feel obligated to review (and praise) Gillian Flynn for her work.  As I stated above, I was not typically drawn to her genre but then I was required to read Gone Girl for a critical reading course in college. I was totally sucked in and wrote as much about the book as possible.

 

I promptly bought Flynn’s other novels: Sharp Objects (2006) and Dark Places (2009) and was happy to find that Gillian Flynn is inventive in all her books.  She writes to achieve rumination rather than resolution and forces readers to challenge their comfortability with principal characters.  There are neither “heroes” nor light-hearted adventures.  To be crystal clear, Flynn writes for a mature audience.  

 

My favorite aspects of Gone Girl is Flynn’s use of dual and unreliable narration.  These two literary techniques aren’t always used together, but I do think they work together nicely to prove that multiple perspectives are integral to the plot of a successful thriller novel.  The point of view alternates between Nick and Amy Dunne, who recount events in a manner which protect their self-interests.  As a result, both narrators are unreliable and increasingly unlikeable.  When Amy disappears, Nick is barely fazed. He withholds details regarding his alibi for the morning of Amy’s disappearance from secondary characters as well as from the reader. 

Amy is just as murky in her diary entries.  seems like a caricature of a woman when she writes in her diary.  Her stories from when she and Nick met in NYC  read like a film script. I didn’t know who to believe or when to take either character seriously (which was great, because I don’t want predictable characters in a thriller or mystery novel).  This unreliability caused me to start thinking about how secondary characters would tell their version of the “Nick and Amy” story.  For example, how did Amy’s parents interact with her on a daily basis?  Did they actually expect Amy to use the Amazing Amy series as a literal roadmap to success, or were they simply inspired to write after her mother was finally able to deliver their only daughter?

 

I also enjoyed how Flynn confronts gender stereotypes in this book while keeping the characters realistically problematic.  For example, Amy brings forth an interesting debate on gender expectations by expressing the pressures of being “Cool Girl.”  She explains, “I waited patiently— years— for the pendulum to swing the other way, for men to start reading Jane Austen, learn how to knit, pretend to love cosmos, organize scrapbook parties, and make out with each other while we leer. And then we’d say, Yeah, he’s a Cool Guy” (301).  The idea that women should be constantly agreeable while interacting with men is still prominent.  This is why we are still referred to as “bossy” instead of “authoritative” when we establish ourselves in positions of power.  We are expected to adapt to men’s tastes and to “calm down.” To exploit our sexuality. To tolerate inappropriate jokes when we know they’re offensive and unfunny.  

 

However, women are also taught to look for an unrealistic profile in men, and Amy exhibits this phenomenon.  Though she admits to struggling with gender expectations, she shames Nick for struggling with his identity:  “You are a man,” I say. “You are an average, lazy, boring, cowardly, woman-fearing man…The only time in your life you’ve ever liked yourself was pretending to be someone I might like” (529).  This moment is interesting, as she is chastising Nick for being passive, but also for performing according to her expectations.  Again, I must stress how this novel will make you think about character likeability and complexity.  

 

The only complaint I have about this novel is the very end because the story is uncharacteristically resolved in comparison to Flynn’s other books.  I can’t elaborate too much without including spoilers, but I do feel there would be more complications to the resolution when all character perspectives are considered.  This aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I give Flynn a 5-star rating and am eager to see her on the best-seller list again soon!

*CLICK HERE* for a free sample or to purchase Gone Girl on Amazon.com

Flynn, Gillian. Gone Girl: A Novel. Crown, 2012. Kindle file.

The Future is Fruitless: How The Handmaid’s Tale Predicts a Frightening Possibility

I am left speechless by the normalcy of it all.

“We want wisdom. We want hope. We want to be good. Therefore we sometimes tell ourselves warning stories that deal with the darker side of some of our other wants.”

Margaret Atwood, Interview with The Guardian, 2005

The Handmaid's tale
Promotional Poster for HULU’s The Handmaids Tale, featuring Elisabeth Moss.

In 1986, the author, literary critic and environmental activist, Margaret Atwood introduced a work of speculative fiction which has had a lasting effect on the public.  Although written over 30 years ago, The Handmaid’s Tale maintains relevancy in a number of ways.  The most obvious, of course, is the recent television adaptation by HULU.  Before you binge-watch the entirety of season 1, I highly recommend picking up Atwood’s original piece. I have now read the novel twice through and I’m glad to have done so. This story is an important one to tell.

Let’s start with a little overview.  This story takes place sometime in America’s future; and although specific dates are not disclosed by Atwood or her characters, the reader can assume the United States has been grappling with a number of issues which stem mostly from environmental decline and social discontent.  In attempts to take control of the situation, the country slowly transitions into a totalitarian state.  Renamed “The Republic of Gilead,” the state keeps order according to unyielding religious law.  The people who were once able to take pride in freedom and individuality, have now been categorized according to functionality.  We see a socioeconomic hierarchy forming reminiscent of medieval Europe.  Even the Constitution has been suspended.   

“The chances [of delivering a healthy baby] are one in four…The air got too full, once, f chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up…sure death to shore birds and unborn babies” (Atwood, 112).

The depreciation of environmental and physical health has led to outbreaks of cancer and syphilis, to name a few health issues. However, the most troublesome problem Gilead faces is their inability to keep up its population.  Procreation has become nearly impossible, with case after case of infertility in women.  This point brings me to our narrator and the main character, “Offred.”  She is a Handmaid: a child bearer.  “Handmaid” is a confusing space to occupy in Gilead’s hierarchy. One one hand, the Handmaid is a valued member of society. They are trained and protected. On the other hand, however, this training states Handmaids have but one purpose in society: bear children for women who cannot do so themselves.

The Handmaid's Tale
Various Editions of The Handmaid’s Tale

Reflecting on the effects of this message, Offred comments, “We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices” (136).  I am struck by the starkness of this particular line.  Just like that, Offred is plainly saying “I am an object and I know it.” And at this point in the text, she is not exclaiming or complaining about this fact.  She is simply stating something she knows to be true.  There are many other times throughout the book when either Offred, her friend Moira, or even one of the Aunts who train the women comments on their condition in this way. I am left speechless by the perceived normalcy of it all.

I didn’t see too much dialogue from male characters, but when I did, I almost wish I hadn’t.  Offred’s Commander (the man with whom she has been paired to become pregnant) says the following of women in Gilead: “We have quite a collection… That one was a lawyer, that one was in business, an executive position” but will also state that women “can’t add”  (237, 186). He sees no contradiction in these two statements at all.

I start to think about the blatant objectification of women and the focus on environmental in this book and am convinced that every woman needs to read this book.  As fictional as this novel may be, I stress the word “speculative,” as the genre states. We need to remember these kinds of stories are possible and that we do have the means of writing our own future.  

*CLICK HERE* for a free sample or to purchase The Handmaid’s Tale on Amazon.com

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CANON

There are many definitions pertaining to the term “canon,” most of which are related to a pattern of formula. In terms of English Studies, the pattern reflects a biblical sense of “canon.” This type of canon is taken as rule or law; in other words, required attention to certain patterns. These laws/patterns became the biblical books we have come to know in religion. They have been revered as a form of higher truth.

Great Literature

Canonization: the selection of what are conventionally called the “classics,” selected and respected over time as a respected pattern of literature.

The original “canonizers” decided what pieces from the bible were the most beneficial for Christians to read, regardless of their universal appeal or aesthetics. The books were chosen to promote certain standards and interpretations for the religious community.  Intellectuals in the English community organized a literature canon in a similar way.  The works  commonly studied in secondary and higher education have been standardized through this canon, which begs the following questions:

Were there more writers that could have been classics if not for the focus on white males?

Were minorities literate enough to contribute to a classical canon; what are the causes and effects of this?

Could we successfully organize a separate canon for different social groups?

Could this separated canon ever be equal?

Therefore, English intellectuals of today must question the traditional canon. We must challenge the definition of what makes a piece of literature “worth” reading. For that matter, we must question our own authority over this process. Are intellectuals fit to organize a canon, and how permanent should the canon be?

Will the work of Suzanne Collins and J.K. Rowling reach the timelessness of William Shakespeare?

CULTURE

8301358-culture-globe-with-different-association-terms

 

 

The term “culture” is widely used in both the professional and personal discourse. Because the word is used so often and refers to many different aspects of humanity, literary critic and theorist Stephen Greenblatt suggests that “culture” has lost it’s meaning. In terms of literary criticism, some appropriate cultural  questions might be:

 

Why is this piece interesting?

What kinds of behavior does this piece support?

What kind of values does this piece support and do they align with my own?

Therefore, a proper cultural analysis of literature depends on the understanding a work and the culture with which that work represents. The learning is equal and dependent between the text and its context. In this way, literature and culture shift to compliment each other. Better yet, the literature is written to be a “structure of limits [and] the regulator and guarantor of movement” (228).  There is a certain social commentary in literature that depicts the many patterns of people in a culture. More specifically, “The novel had been particularly sensitive to the diverse ways in which individuals come to terms with the governing patterns of culture” (229), This justification is logical if the reader takes note of moments in history, present day and possibly the future in terms of textual interpretation.

INTERPRETATION

Image
What does it mean?

What is Interpretation? 

When one hears the word “interpretation,” what definitions come to mind? I initially assumed that “to interpret” meant “to translate” language or to break down a concept into simpler terms. In literary study, the definition is much more expansive. Rather than simplify concepts, interpretations often complicate expansively.

In it’s etymology… ‘interpretation’ [directs understanding] toward a text is to be interpreted to and for an audience in need of interpretation.”

Let translate this quotation from Critical Terms for Literary Study, edited by Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin.  An interpretation is specific to the audience seeking that interpretation. The wording above is a tad misleading, because the phrase “interpreted to and for” insinuates that a higher being should guide all translation. However, because each audience is unique to learning strategies, patterns of reasoning, and goals for interpretation, the only beings qualified to interpret meaning are part of the specific audience in question.  If the audience is using appropriate reasoning strategies as such, the interpretation gained is “correct” for that situation.

Interpretations are not limited to textual documents. Anything essence that requires one to find meaning also requires active interpretation.  Such interpretations may come from a poem, novel, political document, television show, film, commercial, or idea).  Because interpretations are personal to each “reader,” the personal strategies used to gain such interpretations then give a certain meaning to the original “text.” Therefore, a text does not have meaning until one formulates an interpretation of it.

Formalist criticism argues against this theory, giving high importance to author intention and universal meaning. For example, such a critic would support that Chaucer created the Wife of Bath to represent a particular type of woman (that she was written as a mockery of women).  The problem with this theory is that readers can’t always interview an author about his or her intentions. Furthermore, even if author is interviewed, a separate interpretation should not be considered invalid, because the reader has come to an understanding because of the writing, rather than the author’s intention.

Extended Thoughts: 

To approach the how of interpreting… you may interpret the text with history or allegory (or both). You may place the text in a historical setting to to specify meaning, or you can take the meaning as universal.

Now I’m reminded of politics after reading the Huckleberry Finn and ABM treaty excerpts and explanations. This also brings to mind discussions I’ve been having about the President’s Speech on the anniversary of the march on Washington. Past intentions can construe present meanings based on persuasion and recent events. I believe nothing can ever be fully interpreted when politics are concerned because the details are always changing.