Wednesday, September 29, 2010

To Kill A Mockingbird

Fifty years later, To Kill A Mockingbird, remains one of America's most beloved and worthy books ever penned. From the smooth Southern prose filled with lush descriptions to the deep weath of moral and racial issues it unveils, this story goes far beyond the typical bildungsroman, asking the reader to look deeper, to walk a while in another's shoes, to really see others, not as we are told to, but as they truly are.

That's part of a larger challenge we should all rise up to meet and the novel does shine light on all the social constraints and misperceptions that can clog up the works and make it difficult for us to look without prejudice, without preconceived notions, to really see each other.

While the book exposes the blatant racism of the time through Tom's trial and ultimately, his demise, in this reading I was struck by how many people were also critical of Atticus, particularly of his parenting and his willingness to take Tom's case to court. Atticus hears time and time again from his nagging sister how neglectful his parenting style is. Likewise, many residents of the town criticize his willingness to defend Tom--as in actually defend him!--so much so that Atticus finds himself in potential danger because of it. Throughout, we hear Atticus repeat that he could not look his children in the eye if he did not do what he felt was morally correct--to stand up to intolerance and ignorance, to defend a helpless man against insurmountable odds.

Atticus remains the embodiment of the moral code we should all strive for, a father who is patient, willing to gently guide his children to the truth, rather than force the typical social and moral codes of the day on his children. He sees the bigger picture and is willing to put everything on the line for his beliefs. Even at the novel's end when he thinks that Jem is guilty of murder, Atticus remains true to that code; a lone man who sees truth, feels what is right, and can walk in another's shoes.

There are so many parallels one can draw from the symbolism of the mockingbird--Tom, Boo, and of course the loss of childhood innocence--but one I've not considered before was Atticus himself. From his moral code to the quiet way he ends the novel by echoing Scout's discovery about Boo being anything but the monster they thought he was; all of this leaves me with a lasting image of a man calling out. It's part of a mockingbird's purpose, to echo the sounds of other birds, to mimic what they hear until it is indistinguishable from the cries of the masses. Perhaps that is Atticus's final and best gift to us, that by passing on his ethics, his song, we will all repeat the cry, until the echoes finally break through, until we all sing the mockingbird's song.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Cracked Up To Be

So, I just recently finished reading Courtney Summers' book, Cracked Up To Be and it got me thinking about how the idea of chasing perfection can really be the ultimate in unattainable goals.

Which is certainly one point the book hones in on, but it really does go deeper than that. To me, part of the real magic of this story is the lengths people will go to in order to hold on to what they think they need or to keep secrets they believe will destroy them.

Of course, I'm old and wise and as a reader, it's easy to say to suggest that everything will be better if you just spill your guts and admit that you AREN'T the model of perfection...BUT what I think rings true in this story is that it isn't always that simple. In fact, it is almost never that simple in real life.

And, that is what I liked so much about this book. One, it was so real. Even though all the other characters could see how much Parker needs help, in her own mind, she wasn't worth saving. Who hasn't had a dark secret or two that we hope and pray will never see the light of day? And, even though we'd feel so, so much better if we spilled, anyone who has ever had a secret or a weak spot, can relate to how tightly Parker keeps everything locked up tight.

To crack can feel bad, but sometimes it's the only way to let people in.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Dream Big

As a kid, I was often told that my dreams were impossible. You would think that would have made me stop dreaming altogether, but not so. Instead, it only made me think I need to be more selective who I share my dreams with. I learned to keep them close to my heart, to protect them from that metaphoric foot that wanted to squash them flat.

As a dreamer, you tend to recognize this quality (or affliction, as it sometimes feels when the road is rocky) in others. I certainly picked up on it in my brother-in-law, Kevin, who was often embroiled in some fantasy contraption, enthused by the mental high of planning such possibilities. Often, he lacked the motivation to get started on seeing his dream to fruition and later, due to a horrible accident that left him partially disabled, he was stymied by his physical and emotional limitations, issues that led to sadness and substance abuse.

It didn't stop Kevin from dreaming, though. He still thought big, even if that is where it ended. To me, in the wake of his untimely passing, I see a message of hope there to not let our dreams get away from us, to fight harder even when we're not sure we can. We can and we should. Because if we do not nurture our dreams, we run the risk of them frittering away.

So, today I honor dreamers. Writers are dreamers. We experience a thrill when our work is requested for review. Our heart pangs with rejections that tell us we're close. And still, we keep up the fight. We wrestle with our stories, with our emotion, with our dream of someday seeing that work in print.

I will remember my brother-in-law, Kevin, as a boy who would always tell me that I was the right fit for his brother and I will honor him as a man who liked to dream.

Whether it was a windless windmill or solar power energy, or some visionary project that surely lost me in the technical details, I remember how often his conversations would begin with the words: “I know this might sound crazy, but…”

I like dreamers. They remind us to be fearless. For what is a dreamer but an individual that isn’t afraid to have their head in the clouds; a person that has the courage to dwell in the possibilities that might be? Dreamers remind us of what can be, if we aren’t afraid to take the leap.

What I take from this loss is that to honor Kevin’s life means that we can’t forget to feed our dreams. I have to believe that Kevin would want us to take the leap towards life, to do a metaphoric backwards flip off the swings. To live today; learn today; love today like you have forever. And to dare, as he did, to dwell in possibility and to dream of what can be.

So, Kevin, I say to you now: I know this might sound crazy, but…not really. It never did. Not to me.

"Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don't bother to just be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.
~William Faulkner

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Tricks by Ellen Hopkins

I'm reading Ellen Hopkin's ( brilliant verse novel, "Tricks" and I have to say that my first gut reaction was: I have to hug my kid. Like right now.

Because that's what is missing for the kids in this book.
The comfort of knowing it really will be fine.

I can give that to my kid. And I will. But, what "Tricks" makes us aware of is that not every parent will step up to their duties. Some will fail and fail miserably. What you have to wonder is who will step in to fill the void left behind for a kid that is emotionally starved?

From my experience of being on my own at the age of sixteen, I can tell you first-hand that the reality is that there are always those who will be there, waiting in the wings, hoping to take advantage. I was lucky. I had a job and a brother and sister to help me get on my feet. But, I would be remiss if I didn't think back on that time and not admit that there were dangers, people that were pitfalls that made me stumble along the way. It's just a different world out there for kids on their own. What is acceptable, what is normal...suffice to say things get blurry.

Hopkin's demonstrates what I'm talking about so skillfully that my heart was breaking for each of the characters in "Tricks". The things that lead each person toward a downward spiral were all things that could have been and should have been entirely preventable. And, that is the beauty and tragedy of the book; how ignorance or neglect can be so damaging. Though "Tricks" is a fictional novel, each one of these characters could be plucked from reality and I can safely say that I won't soon forget their stories.

Fact is, there are real kids out there working the streets and I want to thank Hopkins for drawing attention to the fantastic work that the organization Children of the Night ( ) has done to help address this issue. What they are doing to help turn lives around is amazing and so very necessary. I'll be making a donation to this year in memory of my big brother, Michael, who always did his best to look out for me and for my sister, Louise, who opened up her home to me when I most needed a place of refuge. I may have been out on my own, but because of them, I was never alone with no place to go.

Please consider a donation so that these kids have a place to go, too.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Ponytail Play

After a month of stage fright, one heartfelt plea to bow out and a week of griping over the costume choice that was deemed "too geeky" ... Ethan made his stage debut!

The play featured a trend-setting girl who isn't afraid to wear her hair he own way, no matter how many people pick on her or how hard her peers try to get her to conform. Moral of the yourself and you might just be surprised how many people want to be like you.

Ethan was the "Dad"--that's him between his "wife" and the "school principal"--and he thought his costume was too boring and geeky because he didn't get to wear crazy hair like everyone else. I think by curtain call he was beginning to see that it's just a costume and that he might as well have fun with it.
Besides, isn't geeky the new cool? Personally, I thought he rocked as the "Dad". Very straight man funny. The entire ensemble was fantastic, though. A job well done!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Commercial V. Literary

Lately, I've been giving a lot of thought to what makes a commercial book more appealing than a literary one.

I think the key is accessibility. Let's face it, 100 years ago people didn't have instant access to things the way that we do today. We twitter one-liners, catch up via time-saving modes like Facebook and texting. Few of us have time to savor language, linger over a beautiful passage or gush over the romanticism of a turn of phrase.

Of course, there are exceptions. But, let's face it...literary work is harder to read. It stretches our mind muscles, makes us work for the story in a way that commercial fiction rarely does. NOT that I'm a reading snob. Nope. Not me. I believe there is room for all of it. I'm just wondering if we are tweeting and texting our minds away from the simple beauty of language.

Here's the thing. Back in college, a constant for me would be how often my professors would say: "Your writing is eloquent and poetic." Good things, right? (Especially when we're talking about term papers...if you can make that stuff sound pretty, you must have some writing skill, right? Pretty please say it's true!)

But lately I've been thinking about ways to mash literary finesse with the immediacy of commercial appeal. Here's were I wish I were still in school and had a wise mentor guiding me. (Is there a writing Yoda? Need him, I do.)

I did have an agent write me a lovely letter once cautioning me not to lose hold of the poetic quality of my language in favor of a faster-moving plot. I've thought on her advice and her kind comments often; tried to apply whereever and whenever I could--be it a freelance article or my current work-in-progress. It's certainly true that you run the risk of losing something when you try to mold your story into something more marketable, more high-concept, more likely to sell. But, I'll keep the faith that both are possible.

As a reader, I can appreciate both literary and commercial work. In fact, as an English Major, I was trained to appreciate literary works and feel some guilt if I don't reach for a classic from time to time, as if someone will rip away my diploma because it's been too long since I read Austen or Faulkner. But, I casual readers feel the same?