Without even thinking about it, 2014 has just about slipped by. It’s been a pretty eventful year. Between new jobs, popping out a baby, and new writing projects I’ve hardly thought about what 2015 will bring. So here’s a list of all of the things I probably won’t do…
1. Eat Kale
2. Like Kale
3. Read many nutritional pamphlets
4. Smile at small dogs in coats
5. Disagree (loudly, vehemently) with strangers about the weather
6. Listen to books on tape (what is this? the 1980’s)
7. Grow a lady-mustache
8. Interpretive dance my way down the sidewalk
9. Grow a mullet
10. Be more accepting of loud breathers
11. Mimic loud breathers less
12. Stand in health section of book stores with a box of 12 donuts
13. Chew louder than others at food court
14. Sneeze competitively
15. Train an ant circus
16. Speak in iambic pentameter on Shakespeare’s birthday
17. Correct pronunciation of supervisor
18. Find the cure for baby brain
19. Write a 7000 word dissertation on Dr. Seuss
20. Buy a donkey
21. hyperventilate when asked to make a donation at the checkout line
22. Floss the cat’s teeth
23. Eat only purple food.
24. Sleep. HAH!
When I think about violence in literature, Dr. Seuss isn’t usually the guy who comes to mind. Recently, a man was trying to have Seuss’ classic beginner book Hop on Pop banned from the Toronto Public Library. He claimed that the book was promoting “violence against fathers” and that the library should “issue a public apology” as well as pay for any damages resulting from the book.
That’s some pretty hardcore dislike of Dr. Seuss.
But then I thought, HEY. This guy is obviously pretty upset about the whole fuzzy creatures hopping around on their dad issue. Let’s have a look from his perspective, shall we?
…Maybe our beloved Dr. Seuss isn’t so innocent after all?
Literary Indignities I Have Found
Yurtle the Turtle is a classic tale of a king turtle who is dissatisfied with his throne. Or…perhaps it is a story that encourages anarchy, being that the one sneezy turtle at the bottom of the stack ends up toppling the tower of turtles (and consequently the social hierarchy that Yurtle has been happily building).
In Horton Hatches an Egg, Horton is forced to look after Maize’s egg when she no longer wants to be a mother anymore. Endearing story of loyalty? Or does this book really promote the willful abandonment of children?
For that matter, Thidwicke the Big Hearted Moose saves his own hide from the hunters who are pursuing him at the end of the story by ditching his friends who are living in his antlers. At the end of the book, it’s not Thidwicke that ends up dead and stuffed on a wall–it’s his friends. In this way, it’s kind of like Seuss is saying “throw your friends under the bus to save your own butt!”
And of course, my favourite: Green Eggs & Ham. A fun book about trying new things? Perhaps…unless you look at the dangers that might arise from trying green eggs and ham in real life. Does Green Eggs & Ham in fact diminish the apparent dangers of consuming botulised food?
YOU BE THE JUDGE.
My Good Friend Subtext
No, really. It’s a good idea to use your judgement here. I mean, I just spent the last four paragraphs making up a lot of crazy stuff about some pretty great kid’s books. Why? Because I can.
I’ve talked a bit about the power of subtext and reading between the lines before, but I think what is fascinating about interpretation is that anyone can read meaning into a book despite what the author’s intentions might have been. That’s the thing about reading between the lines…any interpretation is possible.
What other children’s books could be read from an alternative perspective? Are there any books that you secretly (or maybe not so secretly) think should be banned?
So there’s this book that is being translated into English called Er Ist Wieder Da, or Look Who’s Back. Written by German writer Timur Vermes, it’s a satirical book narrated in the voice of Hitler waking from a coma in modern day Berlin. In Look Who’s Back, the people of Berlin assume that Hitler is a comedian who refuses to break his character. Throughout the course of the narrative, Hitler rises in popularity, becoming a TV celebrity with his own YouTube channel. He even creates his own political party. Not surprisingly, Vermes’ book is causing quite the controversy.
I’ll admit it, I’m curious. I mean, it’s a fascinating choice for a narrator. However, I have to wonder:
When it comes to serious historical events and fiction, how far is too far?
Hitler in the Media
Hitler has been haunting our collective unconscious through media outlets for years. Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges and even Disney have their own versions of Hitler as a buffoon. If you’ve ever watched “The Great Dictator,” you’ll see Hitler portrayed as a moron who doesn’t seem all that dangerous. There are actually quite a few of these portrayals–especially prior to Hitler’s death.
One Disney cartoon called “Education for Death” has some particularly interesting depictions of Hitler:
Even more fascinating: after Hitler’s death, the overarching message in the media shifts from satirical figure to satanic monster. Of course, in any media representation, we have to consider bias and context. It is impossible to represent real historical figures with complete truth or accuracy.
This steady output of Hitler representation begs the question:
If there is already so much in the media about Hitler floating around out there, why is there such an uprising in regards to Look Who’s Back?
Nobody Wants to Root for Hitler
Vermes is quoted in The Guardian as saying that “If [Look Who’s Back] makes some readers realize that dictators aren’t necessarily instantly recognizable as such, then I consider it a success.”
This got me thinking. It’s true, I think, that the message Vermes aims to promote is an important one to convey. It’s also an uncomfortable notion. This is probably why there is a lot of uproar right now about Look Who’s Back.
Reading a book that is narrated from the first person has the effect of bringing the reader close to the narrator–whether they want it or not. When that person is the one and only Fuhrer, well…things are bound to get kind of awkward when you inexplicably find yourself trapped in the mind of a guy who committed horrifying acts. Am I right?
But here’s the real kicker: while I do think that first person point of view humanizes the narrator, I doubt that Vermes is trying to make us feel any kind of sympathy for Hitler. I just think he’s trying to remind us that Hitler was human (albeit a really evil one).
The Other Guys
If we take Vermes’ notion of the dictator a little further, this humanization of Hitler takes on a whole new meaning. Edward Said has this literary theory about Otherness called Orientalism, or the representation of a person or group of people as different–and often evil–in literary fiction. The reason for this Othering? A cultural need for distancing; it is the equivalent of Us and Them and what it does is clearly show just how different that other person/group really is.
Othering is a way of creating feelings of superiority. It’s wrapped around that feeling of relief that we aren’t like that, so nothing so heinous as following an evil dictator could ever happen to us.
I think Look Who’s Back takes this idea of the Other and issues a challenge to this way of thinking. The message? By humanizing someone who was so terrible, he forces the reader to face the reality that humans can do very bad things and sometimes people get duped into following them.
How Far is too Far?
I’d like to think that there is a clear answer to this question, but there isn’t. There is the problem of translation too, being that Look Who’s Back is originally written in German. Will the story translate well across the continents? Across all nationalities? Vermes’ book crosses lines by portraying Hitler in both a comedic and potentially humanizing light. At the same time, it might just be an uncomfortable enough literary experience to issue an insight that is difficult to hear: monsters are man-made.
Would you read Look Who’s Back? Or is Vermes going too far with his comedic portrayal of Hitler?
You might have heard of my book boyfriend before. He’s got dark hair, handsome, stubborn and lives in the Anne of Green Gables series. I really can’t get enough of Gilbert Blythe. But since good old Gilbert might not tug everybody’s pigtail…here’s a little belated Valentines’ Day gift from me to you:
Because it can be tricky to figure out just who your ideal book boyfriend match is, I made a flow chart.
There are not many topics that my husband and I disagree on, but one topic in particular sends us into a heated debate:
Hermione & Ron or Harry & Hermione?
I’ll admit it. I was rooting for Harry and Hermione, although by the final book I had come to terms with the fact that it wasn’t going to happen. I wasn’t disappointed with the finale of the Harry Potter series either.
J.K. Rowling’s recent announcement that she should have paired up Harry & Hermione at the end has a lot of readers peeved (aka my husband). As a reader and writer, I have to admit that even though it’s sort of like J.K. Rowling just helped me win a 9-year debate, I’m conflicted.
Just whose story is it? Do authors have the ultimate say or should they just stay out of the way?
Something Rotten in the Potterverse
It’s easy to see why the Potterverse is churning. I get it. It’s hard to hear from your favourite author that she regrets an important plot point. Not only does it make it harder to read the books knowing that somewhere poor J.K. is kicking herself, but it also just makes the reading experience awkward.
Now that her secret displeasure is out, how can readers enjoy what actually does happen in the books?
In one article, Rowling is even compared to Dolores Umbridge. That’s a mighty big insult in the Potterverse. For those of you who don’t know about Umbridge, it’s a little bit like if someone said:
“You’re being a tad pseudo-fascist today, did you know?”
Harsh words for a lady who wrote some pretty great stories.
Death of the Author
Should J.K. Rowling leave the books to her loyal fans? Like the J.K. – Potterfan relationship, it’s complicated.
Roland Barthes, a literary theorist, would say it’s not complicated at all. In his essay “The Death of the Author,” he argues that once the book is written, the author should not factor into the meaning or importance of the story. He writes:
“The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centred on the author.”
I see his point, I do. I mean, it’s the story that should be important, not necessarily what the author thinks. And yet…the author is the first person who experiences the story and enjoys the characters. It isn’t just fans who love the Potterverse–J.K. Rowling must love it a whole lot too.
Everybody’s Doing It
J.K. Rowling isn’t the only one to express a desire to change her already published books. In fact, there are a number of pretty famous authors who have gone back and updated their works several years after publication.
Once The Lord of the Rings trilogy became successful, J.R.R. Tolkien went back and edited several parts of his earlier work The Hobbit. One of the most notable changes is the chapter “Riddles in the Dark,” where after editing, Gollum was no longer quite as eager to bet his precious ring.
Stephen King added several scenes to The Stand years later, as did Mary Shelley with Frankenstein. Even Charles Dickens changed the ending to Great Expectations some time after it had been out in the world of readers.
If Dickens is doing it, it’s kind of hard to argue. Or, maybe you never liked Dickens and this is more reason to think he is a verbose jerk. Is J.K. Rowling’s new “edit” a literary faux pas or authorial rite of passage?
Rap isn’t my favourite music, but the other day when I heard a podcast on CBC about rappers being arrested for the content of their lyrics, I was intrigued. Sure, there’s a lot of violent ideas floating around the rap-o-sphere, but the crux of the segment on Q was this: is it fair to use art as evidence of a crime? I would take that argument a little further: If we consider the old adage “write what you know,” is it okay to hold an artist accountable for what they write?
Truth isn’t Always Stranger than Fiction
It could be that using art as evidence is totally bunk. I mean, yes, Sylvia Plath was kind of loony. Her writings were creepy and she met a rather grisly end. In this way, it’s kind of easy to see how art imitates life in a real way. Way back in the day of pantaloons, Voltaire got sent to prison countless times for making fun of the government and the Catholic Church in his writings, which were used as evidence too.
But here’s the thing: not all art is representative of real events. Dare I mention James Frey and his not-so-true memoir “A Million Little Pieces?” The Oprah of 2003 was mighty peeved when she learned that Frey was stretching the truth. It was verisimilitude, he claimed (I think)–or maybe other people argued that for him.
What it makes me think is this:
Truth and fiction are kind of intertwined. So just how much do you want to read between the lines?
Marketing Gone Awry
Later in the CBC program, it came out that in many cases, those rappers whose lyrics are being used against them openly say that they have committed these acts of violence and drugs as a marketing strategy. Some of them never actually dealt drugs, but the act of spreading that “truth” gives their brand credibility. It seems a lot like a less PG version of verisimilitude–a popular literary strategy where authors imply that at least some parts of a work of fiction are true based on elements inside the text, song, what have you that are real.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s hand drawn treasure map is one prime example. When the book came out, there were even people who searched for the fictitious treasure island because of the map. Okay, so a treasure hunt is not the same as the rather violent lyrics of many rap songs today.
I still can’t help thinking that it is just a tad creepy that any artist–regardless of what they write–would have their words used against them in court.
Write What You Know
Let’s forget about the rappers for a while. What about the other side of this whole art as confession argument? Let’s say for the moment that truth and fiction are hopelessly blurred, and sometimes it backfires.
In other literary news, John Green is in the doghouse for his latest work, “The Fault in Our Stars,” because he is neither a teenage girl, nor is he (hopefully) dying of cancer. Some readers were outraged upset about this real-life detail, since it was not his experience to write about.
One reviewer writes:
Was this John Green’s story to tell? None of the readers of this novel who have not experienced the kind of loss depicted here have a right to laugh at any of it. (Read more of this review here).
…It’s a pretty complicated issue. John Green arguably hasn’t lived that experience. However, I would argue that many writers haven’t really experienced what they write about first hand. I mean, let me know if I’m wrong here, but J.R.R. Tolkien never went on a long journey to Mordor, nor did he know any trolls or wizards. The jury is still out as to whether or not he was a hobbit. And if Terry Pratchett only wrote about what he knew, Discworld probably wouldn’t exist, considering that most of the things that he writes about are fantastical (but awesome).
If writing not entirely truthfully means being disrespectful and singing or rapping about violent acts can land you in the slammer, what’s an artist to do?
What’s your take? Should art be used as evidence in a court of law? Just what should writers be writing about anyway?
I had a writing teacher in high school who refused to watch TV, read certain books or engage in any way with “stimuli” that might taint his writing process. I was thinking of what had become of him when it occurred to me that in this age of bite-sized, easily microwaveable insta-thoughts it is difficult to write only for yourself. But it wasn’t until I read Cheri Lucas’ post Writing For Me, Writing For Others that I began to really think about my own writing habits.
It made me wonder:
Should you write for anyone? Is it possible to write only for yourself?
I went back and looked at my own journals, the ones that I keep hidden under the bed. Reading through the odds and ends of my mental scribblings, I found that many of the entries addressed an unknown reader. I might just have always had a lurking twinge of insanity, but it also made me think that regardless of whether we want to write solely for ourselves, it’s hard to shake the idea of a reader. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I didn’t want to leave the reader out. Imagining a reader makes me feel like my words have been “seen,” that they are part of a larger network of ideas.
I’m not the only one who has spent some time thinking about The Reader. If you like literary theory (does anyone?), Wolfgang Iser wrote a whole crazy book on the subject. To paraphrase a very long, headache-inducing argument, Iser says that…
The Reader is as much a part of the reading experience as the written work itself, because we (The Reader) read ourselves into the story through the gaps in the narrative.
If this is true, maybe we can’t help writing for someone else? After all, we’re all readers as well as writers. This whole idea of writing for someone else might just be coming from the fact that reading and interpreting is never really a solo operation. Sure, there’s the social media factor–who we share our thoughts with after the fact–but there’s also an unspoken interaction with the writer when we read a book we love.
Fortress of Hermitude
There’s a certain amount of risk-taking involved in writing. But I think that’s what makes it worthwhile. For a while, I felt pretty shy about everything that I wrote. I didn’t want anyone to read it just in case it was absolutely terrible. I spent a lot of time writing by myself in the fortress of hermitude*
But when I think of writing as an open and continuous interaction, it’s not so scary to write and put myself out there. If The Reader is always there, engaging with the story–helping it come alive with their own imaginations–then telling the perfect story doesn’t have to rest on my shoulders.
So maybe I won’t be so quick to shut the reader out. I’ll just keep on telling stories and watch them evolve.
*Definition: a small closet-like room that often looks like one of those houses off of Hoarders: Extreme Edition.
Before I knew that I wanted to be a writer, I used to hand write out the books and passages that I loved. I didn’t keep them anywhere special–this was grade five. I kept pages of copied words in my desk. Every now and then, I would take them out and read them over. Except one day my teacher saw what I was doing and pulled me aside.
“That’s cheating,” he said. “You can’t do that.”
“I’m just trying to keep the words,” I said.
My teacher frowned. “People who copy end up in jail,” he said. “That’s just the way it is.”
Horrified, I threw out all of my copied pages and I gave up the copying game for building The Most Amazing Snow Fort Of All Time.
It wasn’t until a little while ago that I started to see what it was that I had been doing. I’d always known that there was never a nefarious scheme to steal the words that I had written down, but I’d never realized that my goal in all of that tireless scribbling had been a form of writing practice.
A little while ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Michael Winter at a local writing seminar. In person, he is affable and easy to talk to. While telling stories about his own writing practice, giving examples of writers that he likes and even singing a song, there was one piece of advice that really stood out to me:
What I realized was that all of the great writers start out by playing with the writing that is already out there. It’s not illegal to write in somebody else’s voice! (As long as you are telling your own story). If you’re feeling adventurous (or maybe just in need of something new to try) why not choose a story that challenges you? Write in the voice of that author to find out how it feels. At the very least, you’ll discover something new about yourself.
Sometimes, short stories get a bad rap. In school, we read those dark and moody stories about women who claw at yellow wallpaper and men who invariably always seem to be plotting some sort of murder-most-foul. While there are many fantastic short story collections out there, Hell Going is among the best. Irreverent and precise, Lynn Coady’s nine new stories are sure to dazzle readers at every turn.
Ranging from a nun charged with helping an anorexic girl eat again to the perspective of an alcoholic reporter, Coady captures the humour in even the darkest situations. Her descriptions are quirky, adding a playful tone to the narrative style. What I liked the most was the way Lynn Coady plays with structure in every story. In “Wireless,” she uses italics and a lack of quotation marks to denote a character’s drunken state. In other stories, the reader must work to piece together the narrative, because it skips back and forth, keeping the momentum zipping along. While some may find that the endings do not offer the reader a big surprise, they always leave the reader with something interesting to think about.
In one word, Hell Going is contemplative. It challenges the reader to connect with characters that might at first seem odious, but like an onion (to borrow from Shrek) they are multi-layered. This, I think, is the fascinating part of Coady’s stories. She opens up several worlds and allows the reader to explore unusual situations. Even if you don’t traditionally read short stories, the quick and witty narrative will draw readers into the unusual and deeply fascinating stories.
In Honour of Fall and some really sweet SHORT stories…
Pumpkin shortcake with Apple & Pear Compote:
1/2 cup pumpkin puree
1/2 cup milk (I used 1%)
1/4 cup water
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pinch ground nutmeg
1/4 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
Cooking spray or butter
1 teaspoon granulated sugar mixed with a dash of cinnamon
Apple & Pear Compote
1/2 cup water
½ tsp vanilla extract (or to taste)
1 tablespoon honey
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1 apple, sliced & peeled
1 pear, sliced & peeled
How to Make It:
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Strain your pumpkin puree to get rid of any extra moisture—this can be done with a strainer over a bowl or by using cheesecloth, or paper towel (if extra thick).
Combine in a medium bowl: pumpkin puree, milk, water. Stir until fully integrated.
In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, brown sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg in a large bowl.
Add the cubes of butter until they are nicely ground up.
Combine pumpkin mixture with dry ingredients and stir until smooth (ish).
Space dough approximately 2 inches apart on your buttered baking sheet (about ¼ cup of dough per shortcake).
Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon.
Bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown.
Devour awesome shortcakes with fantastic short stories!
Going Home Again is equal parts a journey across the world—from Spain to Toronto—as it is an odyssey of Charlie Bellerose’s memories. What starts out as a murder quickly dissolves into a trip through the attic of Charlie’s mind, where he dredges up ghosts and old lovers past. If it weren’t for Dennis’ Bock’s well-developed prose or his ability to draw me in through an easy, conversational narrative tone I might have set the book down. Going Home Again evokes the question: can we ever go home? Perhaps. The real question is this: is this a place that readers will want to go?
In many ways Going Home Again has the feeling of a stream of conscious journal, with the added benefit of clean, polished prose. The story follows Charlie, who is recently divorced, to Toronto and spans across a year as he tries to rebuild his life across the world from his lovable daughter Ava and his ex-wife Isabel. When Charlie delves into his past love affair with Holly, there is the sense that the original vein of the narrative has slipped away and entirely new story is beginning. Luckily, this jarring departure from a linear narrative only serves to deepen curiosity, as the pacing is quick and lively.
Despite the sometimes-meandering plot, I was captivated by Bock’s attention to detail in his scenes. Describing the sun in Madrid as “orange sherbet,” or the way he establishes so clearly the changing seasons in Toronto make it easy to step into the setting of the story. Charlie’s characterization is comprehensive and though we don’t learn much about the supporting characters, Charlie’s love of his daughter and brother as well as the struggles that he faces makes him relatable—and readable.
“Instead of stepping back into the safety of the past, I stepped out onto he streets…” says Charlie in an early scene. I’m not sure that I believe him, given that the journey we take with Charlie is not only back home to Canada, but also into the realm of memory. For some readers—notably those who get frustrated with an overload of exposition—this book will be a challenge. If you are like me, and stubbornly read through the frustration, Going Home Again does prove itself to be humorous, endearing and a journey worth taking.
…Since Charlie goes home to Canada, I thought my favourite butter tart recipe might be in order (since butter tarts are a pretty Canadian dessert).
What you need:
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 pinch of salt
1/2 cup corn syrup
1 egg (whisked)
1/2 tsp vanilla
How to make them:
1. If you have already made pie crust or bought pre-packaged pastry, roll your pastry out and fit it into muffin tins. (If you don’t have a recipe for pastry, see below for my favourite pie crust recipe.
2. Mix together butter, brown sugar, salt and corn syrup in a small bowl. (Note: if your butter is still cold, it is best to let it sit on the counter for a few minutes to let it soften).
3. Add egg and vanilla to brown sugar mixture.
4. Pour yummy butter tart mixture into tart shells equally.
5. Bake at 400 F for 15-20 minutes or until the filling is browned and bubbling. If you are like me and enjoy runny butter tarts, be sure to take them out right at 15 minutes.