Novel Thoughts: The Girl in The Blue Beret by Bobbi Ann Mason

The Girl in the Blue Berettells the story of Marshall, World War 2 veteran and newly-retired commercial airline pilot. Marshall returns from the war, after having crash landed his B-17 Flying Fortress and escaped to Spain with the held of the French Resistance, confused and withdrawn, content to follow the pattern established for him by society. After years of flying for commercial airlines, Marshall is forced to hang up his pilot’s uniform in favor of retirement. With the rest of his life looming in front of him, Marshall decides to revisit the site of his crash landing, hoping to find both traces of those who helped him to escape German-occupied France and traces of the person he might have been had the war not intervened.

Character development seems slow through the first few chapters. Readers may find themselves curious as to why they should invest their time and mental energy in caring about Marshall’s story. He reveals very little about himself, and more often than not seems like an old man who’s simply gotten too big for his britches. However, over the course of the story, readers will find themselves understanding and sympathizing with Marshall without their even realizing it. They will realize that Marshall reveals little about himself because he doesn’t have a firm grasp on who he really is. His lack of sense of self becomes something to be pitied, and readers will inevitably be drawn to his quest to seek out the missing parts of himself. By the end of the novel, Marshall has solidified himself as a character worthy of attention and commiseration. He seems to slowly relieve himself of the detritus of his past so that he can work towards making a better future.

Pacing, at first, seems a bit sluggish. Readers can expect several chapters of Marshall’s reminiscence both of the war and of his days as a pilot. However, Mason disguises the quickening pace of her novel beneath the mystery of a missing character. Before the reader has a chance to realize what’s happening, the story’s pace has accelerated, and readers find themselves hurdling towards the end of the story. Mason’s manipulation of her story’s pace is commendable and will keep readers engaged until the last page.

A discussion of the novel’s ending is difficult without giving away too much information. However, it will suffice to say that readers are able to choose, in a way, the ending they prefer, and regardless of which path a reader wishes Marshall to take, that reader can be satisfied that Marshall has indeed learned some things about himself as a person and about the overall cause that bound the characters in his story together: the war.

The Girl in the Blue Beretis based on a memoir left behind by Mason’s father-in-law, which lends it a hauntingly relevant and personal feeling, a feeling that lingers long after the last page has been turned. For more information, see the author’s website here.


How to Judge a Book by Its Cover

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. There. I said it. I told myself this was not my battle, that I should remain an casual observer rather than a participant. But the debate rages on, and I can’t help myself.

In what I assume (in my limited knowledge of the publishing world) to be true publishing style, the book has been re-released with a new cover, informing those of us who might not have been aware before that this is, indeed, an anniversary edition. No problems so far.

Yeah, right.

Critics, teachers, readers, and writers have latched onto the cover with steely fervor, berating it as misleading, confusing, and contradictory. Readers, they fear, will think The Bell Jar is nothing but chick lit, a “light and fluffy read.” The cover gives the wrong impression, they say. The book has nothing to do with beauty and everything to do with angst. It is an offense to Plath as an author and an offense to The Bell Jar as a literary work.

I see the merit of these arguments. However, I think we’re all being nearsighted. We are missing the point.

Shouldn’t we instead be focusing on the fact that after fifty years readers still find The Bell Jar hauntingly relevant, that despite the social changes that have occurred readers still find something with which they identify? There’s something to be said for the fortitude of such a book, published first under a pseudonym. Instead of focusing on the book’s cover, can we instead give readers the benefit of the doubt? Can we allow the unknowing to make the glorious mistake of stumbling accidentally, if that is possible, onto a work from which they might otherwise have shied away? Critics of the cover seem to be under the impression that readers today are not discerning enough to know what The Bell Jar is, that readers today cannot read the blurb on the back of the book (or inside the front cover flap) and tell that Plath’s work is not a sip-on-a-soda-and-read time killer. 

I find it odd that in a culture that so values the don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover mantra for every other aspect of life we so willingly embrace that judgement when it comes to actual books. There is a lot to be said for a cover, yes. And generally speaking it is, perhaps, the first thing to which we are drawn. That, however, does not form the only basis on which we choose what we read. It does not negate the reader’s ability to distinguish content from presentation. 

I say that to say this: given that Plath’s novel has withstood fifty years of readership and criticism, it is possible that we are allowing the cover too much importance. For some the cover will never be right; certain people will always be finding fault. And while the cover is a visual representation of the novel, it is not the novel itself. The Bell Jar can and will speak for itself, whether it is accidentally or deliberately read. 

 


In Praise of Profession

Most of us begin our adult lives with some vague optimism about the future. Even if things aren’t ideal in the beginning, we reason, surely the harder we work the better life will be. Growing up we all harbor some deep-seated hope that our jobs, whatever they may be, will in some way influence the world for good. We are told to dream–dream big, dream often, don’t stop–and we begin to believe in ourselves.

The truth is that most of us, upon being launched into adulthood, become satisfied with jobs that pay the bills. World changing? Perhaps not. Life-altering? Yeah, potentially. We trudge through each day, each week, paying the bills and wondering what all that dreaming was for. But a lucky few are able to carve out more than that for themselves. For some of us, reality and occupation are not combatants. Rather they coexist, and we are able to have one without falling prey to the other.

Arguably, no one ever goes into teaching for the money. Education is seldom, if ever, championed as a lucrative career choice. But I would argue that those of us who have chosen this profession have duped the rest of the world. Ours is a secret so delicious it must be told. 

Every day I go into a classroom where I sit with my books. Some of these books have been with me for awhile, since I was a student myself. They are worn; they are tattered and coffee-stained. They are old friends, keepers of solace. I go into a classroom with my books, and there are students there waiting for me, waiting for me to tell them what’s in the books. But instead of dryly delivering information for them to file away and regurgitate later, we have conversations. We talk about theme and plot and symbolism and all the things that make my books tick. And my students begin to know what they’re doing. When my day is finished, I find myself sitting at a desk trying to figure out when the actual work is going to begin.

Being a teacher is like being on the inside of a joke. The powers-that-be couldn’t possibly know what I do for my paycheck. Of course they don’t; if they knew how much fun I was having they probably wouldn’t let me do it anymore. I don’t mean to suggest that being a teacher is not without its problems. Anyone who has ever done it or tried to do it before will tell you that it’s tough. The grading and the grade-grubbing and the constant reminders that our work will never be done are, at times, maddening. Then payday roles around, and for one brief moment we all feel like the joke’s on us.

But at the end of the day it is my job, it is my occupation, to go into a classroom and discuss “Jabberwocky.” It is my job to watch my students develop confidence in themselves, my job to watch them come to appreciate and love the very same books that have meant so much to me, my job to help them find their own voice and figure out what to say and how to write with it. And while no job is without its problems, it’s not a bad way to earn a living.


LOL: Languid, Oblivious, and Lazy?

Written English and spoken English are two vastly different monsters. Any teacher of composition can tell you that, and most can prove it. Just because we speak in certain accepted patterns does not mean we should write in them, they say. But over the years, crafty as we are, we have developed many ways to circumvent the conventions dictated to us both by dusty grammarians and
rhetoricians whose glory days of face-to-face, interpersonal communication have faded into the realms of nostalgia.

Text messaging, instant messaging, and various other forms of digital messaging that negate the necessity for proximity have supplanted archaic forms of communication like conversation, debate, telephone use, and written correspondence. Our fancy new methods of interaction do not require us to be honest with our behaviors, our reactions; they allow us to be stingy with ourselves, giving something to the conversation without actually being forced to feel anything.

Perhaps more fascinating than anything (for those of us who fancy ourselves wordsmiths at least) is the habitual melding of written and spoken English that developed organically from digital communication media. Now, more often than not, we can conflate the way we communicate in informal situations with the way we write, causing those grammarians and rhetoricians in the musty, dusty corners of our culture to cringe and twitch and denounce us all.

A combination of this sort has its own unique requirements though. A new language, new universally accepted thought processes. Thus was born a hybrid language, one content with abbreviations and substitutions, cryptic in their trendiness: LOL, BRB, ROFL, and LMAO.

While theses abbreviations certainly serve a useful function for those of us too lazy or too busy to complete our thought processes in complete words or, God forbid, complete sentences, they do imply more emotional activity than we generally physically express.

For example, Laughing Out Loud is a wonderful sentiment. And we would probably all be better off if we did it more often. But the truth is that we don’t do it nearly as much as we say we do, creating in us the kind of emotional liars we would never be if we were communicating face to face. The truth is that more often than not we don’t even crack a smile as we LOL at our friends and loved ones. And while I’m pretty sure the sight of someone Rolling On The Floor Laughing would probably make me LOL, I have never actually seen someone do it, but there it is, all the same, in emails and text messages, floating through cyberspace, bringing feigned joy to those for whom it’s intended.

Most of this communication is harmless in its effect. We are not, as a rule, scarred by the mingling of conversational and formal speech, and an acronym, to my knowledge, has never harmed anyone. But what happens when our semantics and our behaviors don’t match up? What happens when the disconnect between what we say we feel and what we actually feel is found outl? What do we do when we realize we really aren’t as funny or clever as we thought we were? Do what we say we feel and what we actually feel have to be so exaggeratedly different? And what would happen if we reverted to honest communication, if we didn’t LOL every time we didn’t want to sound too harsh?

The truth is: IDK.


The Wordy Truth

“Why do you like to write so much?”

An innocent question. No subtext, no implication. Perhaps a little incredulity, but I expect that from freshmen composition students. If only the answer was as simple as the question.

I haven’t written in awhile, not for lack of things to say or words to say them. I really don’t know why. I’ve noticed an ever-growing compulsion to hoard myself, to gather the thoughts and feelings that compose who I am and keep them from those nearest and dearest to my heart. No excuse for that either, except that sometimes, when she can’t belong to the one who really matters, a girl simply needs to belong wholly to herself.

And writing is a promiscuous activity.

Writing is the drug, and I am bound to it. I’ve stopped asking why, for the answer is shrouded in the mystery of addiction. My fingers itch with the sharp points of the words that jab and poke, waiting to be bled out. Hyperbolic and overly figurative? You caught me, but I haven’t done this in awhile, so please be indulgent.

The urge is easy to ignore. Most of the time. The voice in the background crying, “Write me! Write me!” is easy enough to silence when you heap upon it steaming piles of life. And perhaps mine is a twisted literary masochism, a sick predisposition to delayed gratification. Because the time inevitably arrives when holding back ceases to be a choice.

The words adopt minds of their own. They rush forward and assume places on the page without care for or acknowledgement of the one from whence they’ve sprung. They settle there, take up residence in what they (in their wordy naïveté) believe to be permanent printed bliss, while I, their careful curator, am left with less of myself.

And oh God, does it feel good!


Novel Thoughts: The Grievers by Marc Schuster

Adulthood is a wonderful thing. We evolve from pimply teenage mess into responsible, productive members of society. At least that’s the ideal progression. But for some of us, the voice of the inner child doesn’t fade as readily. For some of us, it becomes difficult to let go and face reality, so we hold onto that which keeps us innocent, inculpable. And somehow it becomes easy to maintain this childlike revery. That is until the reality of adulthood comes hurdling towards us at full steam like a bully in the halls of Anywhere USA High School.

Marc Schuster’s Charley Schwartz of The Grievers is one such individual. Throughout the novel, readers will find themselves growing increasingly frustrated with Charley until they realize that he represents the parts of themselves that they must deny in order to function as adults. In many ways, Charley behaves in a manner that we have all envied at some point. He is sarcastic, irreverent at times, and completely unsure of his adult self. This uncertainty of just what it means to be an adult is precisely what allows Charley to ingratiate himself with readers. By the time he comes to the realization that none of us is sure what it really means to be an adult, readers are already sympathetic to his plight.

The Grievers contains a number of examples of people we could all be, paths we might have taken when we reached the proverbial crossroads that separate childhood from adulthood, and it is interesting to note that no one seems completely confident of their decision. Some characters are better at faking it than others, but for the most part, everyone involved in the story is operating under some sort of pretense, a quality that lends itself to both believability and relatability. Anyone reading The Grievers will find someone with whom they can identify, and it becomes very comforting to note that everyone has uncertainties.

While the story itself is very realistic and the portrayal of the characters makes them both endearing and frightening, there are times throughout the book when the dialogue seems better suited to reading than to speaking. In other words, people don’t really talk that way. However, these instances are so few and far between that they do not detract from the novel, its purpose, or its impact.

The Grievers is an ideal novel for those of us who sometimes seek to read books with which we can commiserate, rather than books into which we can escape. It allows us to be more aware of our humanity, while learning to accept it (flawed though it may be) at the same time.

The Grievers will be available for purchase in May 2012. In the meantime, interested readers can get more information here and here.


Novel Thoughts: The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Media-painted portraits of Afghanistan are rarely favorable. What we see on the television and in newspapers and magazines exposes a war-torn country where everyday life is precarious and little to no order exists for its citizens. Over the last decade, the emotions of the American public have run the gamut from enraged to indifferent regarding the state of that country and the continued presence there of the US. In The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, however, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon carefully weaves the true story of what it’s like to live in a Taliban-centered world.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana tells the story of the Sidiqi family and begins in 1996 when the Taliban first came to occupy Kabul. Through Kamila’s story and that of her family readers are able to see the human face of the conflict-ridden country, a valuable history for those of us who aren’t necessarily well-educated regarding the history of the Middle East prior to the events of September 11.

Lemmon’s writing style allows the reader to forget, if only momentarily, that she is in fact telling a factual story. Sure, details have been changed, altered, or omitted for the sake of safety, but nonfiction is not at all infallible as a genre. The storytelling style used in The Dressmaker of Khair Khana reads as though it is fiction until Lemmon includes a detail that makes the story altogether too real.

Kamila, the “protagonist” of the story, comes to be the head of her family when her parents are forced to move north after the Taliban occupation. Through her ingenuity she is able to sustain not only her own family but numerous other families in her neighborhood as well. Her story is one of intrigue, perseverance, daring, and danger, a timeless inspiration for any reader.

Although the book seems to be ultimately geared toward a female audience, both males and females will enjoy the history related in Kamila’s life story. Through the book, we come to learn that the conflict within the borders of Afghanistan was not initiated just prior to September 11, that the conflict had in fact been raging there for a number of years, something not necessarily pointed out in media reports today. Readers are also educated as to the difference between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, an important detail since we generally tend to conflate the two terms.

By the end of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, readers will have gained a better sense of what it meant to live in Afghanistan then and what it means to live there now. While it remains certain that there are pockets of resistance (as there have been for a number of years), a sense of hope also remains, a hope that someday the country and its citizens will again assume their normal ways of life without the added stresses of war and conflict.