Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

The History of Love is a stunning book; stunning in its complexity and in the detailed delineation of the simple, plain people who inhabit its pages. One of the ever-present characters of the book is the book within the book, The History of Love, purportedly written by one of the characters. Krauss slips back and forth between two points of view, that of an aging Jew, Leopold Gursky, in the twilight of his life and that of Alma Singer, a fourteen year old child-woman on the brink of becoming an adult.

The story opens with a self-written obituary because Leo Gursky’s own death is never far from his mind. He keeps an index card in his wallet that states: “MY NAME IS LEO GURSKY I HAVE NO FAMILY PLEASE CALL PINELAWN CEMETARY I HAVE A PLOT THERE IN THE JEWISH PART THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION.”

Leo always wanted to be a writer but this is not your typical book where the writer is writing about writers writing. It is about watching over the ones you love even if, especially if, they will never know. It is about searching. It is indeed a history of a love.

In the book Leo has written, Krauss takes us to that dreaded place of the blank page in the typewriter as Leo carefully picks out and rejects various titles. Alma is writing a notebook of survival. Her guide is a book about edible plants. Her mission is to find a companion for her mother.

Leo reveals that he spent much of his life angry and picking fights with any and everyone. When we meet him he has long since left his anger behind him. Early in the book, Leo applies for a job as a nude model for a life drawing class. Our eyes smart with embarrassment and dismay at a tired old man’s initial disrobing for a circle of disinterested young artists. Does nude really mean no underwear?

Although the point of view flips back and forth between Leo and Alma, Leo, then Alma, never is the reader in any doubt of whose voice is speaking. Both Leo and Alma are so sharply drawn, there is no mistaking one for the other. Flitting among their chapters are scattered thoughts of Bird, Alma’s brother who believes that he is one of the chosen ones, perhaps even the Messiah. Will his delusion work to bring the threads that bind Alma and Leo together, or will he be the cause of them passing one another never knowing the other was right there? Occasionally the narrator shifts to a minor, but key, player in the drama that unfolds. Alma’s mother is always on her mind but we only hear her sadness through Alma.

Writer Dorothy Gilman Butters has spoken of the cosmic playfulness of fate and how the threads and webs of the universe somehow pull and push themselves so that lives cross and are forever transformed. In the beginning of The History of Love, there is no connection between Leo Gursky and Alma Singer except, we learn, the connection of the book The History of Love. The book was originally published in Spanish. We only see it as the English translation passes from Alma’s mother through Alma to the man who commissioned the translation. The History of Love was a gift from Alma Singer’s father to her mother Alma Singer was named for all the women in The History of Love.

Chapters and fragments of an interior book, The History of Love, are scattered throughout. “The Age of String,” and “The Age of Glass” chapters provide a glimpse in the writer’s view of the poignancy and power of young love when young lovers see their love lasting forever and conquering every obstacle that comes. It also lets us see the universality of human relationships. How do we show each other or tell each other how we really feel?

The Age of Silence, the opening chapter from the interior History of Love says that, “The first language humans had was gestures.” It goes on to explain what happens at a large gathering of people when “your hands hang awkwardly at the ends of your arms--if you find yourself at a loss for what to do with them.” The Age of Silence believes in the power of gestures. “It’s because your hands remember a time when the division between mind and body, brain and heart, what’s inside and what’s outside, was so much less.”

Ultimately the book is about love; love in the here and now, love found and lost, but most importantly, love. If there had been more time, or less time. If fate had not twisted and torn lives with death and separation. The events of war have touched these people’s lives but they have survived. They have survived and continued. This book is not about war but about the very power of love and survival and the connectedness we have with each other.

The pace increases in the final portion of the book where the points of view of Leo and Alma are juxtaposed on opposite pages. We travel through both their minds wanting them to succeed and willing them to find each other. What really matters in life? What really lasts beyond our death? As Krauss says we begin to die the day we are born. What makes us human, what makes us keep going is the journey, our connection with one another, and the lives we touch on the way.

The serendipity of life and love shines in The History of Love.

16 March 2008

Gates of Excellence by Katherine Paterson

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book was Katherine Paterson’s ability to find exactly the right quote from a panoply of writers to reinforce her own thoughts and opinions. The book is comprised of various lectures and acceptance speeches mixed with reviews of other writers’ books and personal essays.

At the beginning of the book, when Paterson is asked when she wanted to be a writer, she explains that it was her love of reading that made her want to “get inside the process (Paterson, p. 2)” not that she ever wanted to be a writer at all. In this opening essay, she shares two items in her office that apparently protect her from her “terror of mediocrity.” One is a Greek quote borrowed from Edith Hamilton which also provides the title for this collection:

Before the gates of excellence
The high gods have placed sweat (Ibid, p. 3).

The other is a mounted Charles Schultz cartoon of Snoopy typing, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Snoopy then remarks, “Good writing is hard work.” I’m not sure the Greeks actually said “sweat” but the point is both remind her that she is a worker, not a part of some gifted group bestowing their words on “less fortunate mortals (Ibid p.3).”

In her Velma Varner lecture from 1979, she compares words to water. They are just as precious and necessary to life, but when both are plentiful, we have a tendency to waste them or not appreciate them. She gives the example of visiting Japan and being so frustrated at not being able to make herself understood because she did not have the words in that language. She wanted the people to know her as she was in her own language. She found a strong identification with Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker when she was “starving for words (Ibid p.7).”

Paterson personifies the dilemma of those of us caught between two cultures. She felt misunderstood in Japan but when she returned to the United States, she found that Americans did not understand or appreciate who she had become. Being entwined in two cultures changes us and makes us belong to both and neither at the same time. I thought about the many times I have been in a room full of people letting the music of Chinese wash over me, understanding words here and there, belonging and being other, or different, in the same moment.

In this same lecture on “Words,” she tries to define why humans have a need, a compulsion, for language and she quotes from Jacob Bronowski’s The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination:

The world is totally connected. Whatever explanation we invent at any moment is a partial connection and its richness derives from the richness of such connections that we are able to make. . . . The act of imagination is the opening of the system so that it shows new connections (Ibid p.11).

This could be a watchword for all of us who consider ourselves to be writers. It seems especially a propos for travel writers. Isn’t travel writing all about the connectedness among us all?

In the same essay, Paterson shares a story about how her book The Great Gilly Hopkins provided a connection for a young student named Eddie. A teacher had read the book aloud to her special reading class and when Paterson visited the school, Eddie bean questioning her about the book and the characters. Her point is that someone had to make that connection for Eddie. According to Paterson “Someone had to first give him the words.” Eddie’s “teacher believed that Eddie had a right to the words-- had a need for the words, even if no one else, not even Eddie did (Ibid p.16).”

Paterson also believes in the power of good stories and great writing. She had never read Homer’s Odyssey until she was 46 years old even though for many years she had been told she should read it. Now she was wondering did any of those people who recommended it ever read it? She says the reason Odyssey lasted for three thousand years is “because it is a simply marvelous story (Ibid, p.17).” That makes me think of the hatred most students have for Shakespeare, which can be attributed to poor or uninspired, uninformed teaching of Shakespeare, who was a marvelous story teller, at high school level.

Her article, “Dog Day Wonder” has the flavor of nature writing. She describes in delicate detail every step of a cicada shedding its skin. She quotes Rachel Carson from her book, A Sense of Wonder, where Carson says she would ask the good fairy that every child be given “a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life. . . (Ibid, p.20).” I would hope as writers we all cultivate and keep that “sense of wonder” in all of our work.

Paterson speaks about sentimentality and creativity. She attempts to identify the difference between cheap sentimentality that deliberately plays on our emotions and a deeper response that can be life changing. As a writer she admits that she doesn’t get “a perfect pearl every time (Ibid p.26)” but she strives for that sense of true characters in her writing.

She sent me to my beloved Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary published in 1953 because she says the word “creativity” doesn’t even appear in her 1971 Oxford (Ibid, p. 32). I think the word has just gone through some evolution because certainly I found “creativeness” and what really is the difference? The point is she is talking about concepts that are difficult to pin down or define, like creativity and freedom. What do they really mean? She freely admits to borrowing form her family and friends for her plots and characters even when it is unintentional.

She believes that the age range and length recommendations for her novels and others are rather arbitrary. A reading level test was applied to The Master Puppeteer and it was found to be two grade levels higher that Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying which was determined to be sixth grade level. She uses this to illustrate that she find very little limitations in her writing. Her subject matter has included death, prostitution, illegitimate birth, suicide and more, all for young readers (Ibid pp.33-34).

In the essay “A Song of Innocence and Experience,” she explains that, “Art has the power to change life (Ibid p.44).” She further says that, “this is what my intent has been and must continue to be.” She finds this to be a terrifying concept. When she has been asked who she writes for, she has often explained that she writes for herself. What she means is that she has inside of her the “weird little kid (Ibid p.100)” she once was. Apparently she has the gift of remembering that child inside her and gives us a little bit of that child in every book she writes. She is qualified to write for children because she still carries the child that she was inside.

She is kind and generous when she reviews other writers’ books such as All Together Now by Sue Ellen Bridger, Ramona and her Father by Beverly Cleary, The Disappearance by Rosa Guy, Children of the Fox by Jill Paton Walsh and Absolute Zero by Helen Cresswell. Maybe I am in the wrong time frame but I was not familiar with any of these books and her critique made me want to explore them. But of much greater interest to me was her evaluation of her own books that I have become familiar with including Bridge to Terebithia, Jacob Have I Loved, The Master Puppeteer and Lyddie. I felt that I knew her characters even better and that I knew Katherine Paterson much better.

Much in this collection of personal essays carried me back to my own childhood when I was also a “weird little kid” who lived in the library and devoured every book that came my way. Even her inspiration for writing The Master Puppeteer crossed over my past. She mentions Bunraku puppetry coming to the Kennedy Center (Ibid, p. 83). I thought that can only be a magical production they did years ago of The Tale of Peter Rabbit where Peter was played by a man on pointe and Farmer MacGregor was a giant towering to the top of the proscenium arch.

We cannot always identify that moment in time that inspires a new story in us but how wonderful it is when that spark comes and delivers a new idea, or as Paterson explains it, a seed that germinates and we hope will grow to be a full plant.

Paterson was asked by a child, “Is your story true?” and she replied, “I hope so. I meant for it to be true (Ibid, pp. 56-57).” I hope that is so for all of us who aspire to write for children. Every book that begins with “once upon a time . . .” or a hand clapping griot who gives us “a story, a story” is opening a door for children and it should be meant for true.

China Homecoming by Jean Fritz

China Homecoming by Jean Fritz amazed me with its impact. I had not realized that Fritz was the author of several books about American history on my son’s shelf. I had been familiar with her books for years and am embarrassed to admit that I paid no attention to the author’s name. I was extremely moved by this autobiographical book and I feel an affinity and connection with Jean Fritz now.

The most remarkable thing for me was her feeling of “otherness.” She worked so hard from adolescence on to feel like a “real American” (Fritz, p. 7), but always behind her was the connection with China. It is unbelievable that she waited fifty-five years to travel back to the country that had been her home. I cannot imagine going to China as a senior citizen after a lifetime in the United States. It took bravery and courage for her to fight for this trip to China, especially at a time when China was not really open to foreign visitors.

I have a similar feeling of otherness. Our household is more Chinese than American, ethnically and by choice. We eat with chopsticks. Our first choice for travel is China, not so much for vacations, but to visit family. But my son and I look white, so we don’t fit the norm that other people expect of us.

Fritz finished her first autobiographical book, Homesick: My Own Story, after the death of her father who had kept the memory of China alive for her. Her family had practiced what they remembered by speaking the language regularly. His death was a painful loss but it also meant the loss of a last connection with China and her memories. She found she could not write “The End” as usual (Ibid, p. 19). I loved the transition from her time in China being a “closed book” (Ibid, p. 13) to, “I knew now I had to go back to China . . . . to find out if at last I could call it my hometown (Ibid, p. 19).” So her trip back to China became a search for her beginnings.

China for me is a homecoming, too, but from the other end. I grew up on a farm in rural Kentucky. Now past age fifty, I have places in China that are more home to me than the places of my childhood. Reading about her homecoming brought my own homecoming into sharp focus. I wanted to call her on the phone and say, yes, I know!

Mao Zedong is a difficult and complex figure to understand. I found it fascinating that as an American in the 1980’s Fritz recognized the good in him and his good intentions toward China. John Acton first said, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Mao is a perfect example of this, but Fritz is generous in acknowledging his vision for a new China and what he tried to accomplish (Ibid, p.33). She has extensive knowledge of this time and a sensitive perception of both Mao and the evils of his Cultural Revolution. This must be unique in American writers, especially from this era.

Fritz does an excellent job of sprinkling valuable information about Chinese history without sounding pedantic. Most Americans are not familiar with Chinese emperors and eras. She obviously wants her readers to understand and appreciate China. I thought it interesting that although she had sympathy and understanding for Mao, she had none for Mao’s wife and the so-called Gang of Four after Mao‘s death (Ibid, p. 35). Perhaps this was the influence of her friends who lived through this time. She sounded like a true Han who had experienced the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath.

I loved the section where one of her Chinese friends informs her that she is a Hubei-lao (Ibid, p 37) and explains the old Chinese joke about people born in Hubei Province. It is a wonderful set-up for when she later arrives in her hometown and identifies herself as a Hubei-lao to the locals (Ibid, p. 53).

Her excitement when she recognizes the Chinese characters in Hankou, her hometown, mirrored my own. My knowledge of written Chinese is very limited and I too am thrilled when I can read something without a translator. The “kou” that means mouth is one that I know, so it seemed just as wonderful to me (Ibid, p. 44).

My favorite section was when she accidentally discovers her old house after a particularly discouraging day. Meeting the people who lived there was a gift. I listened to them meeting like old friends. As she looks at her very own staircase and hiding place from her childhood, she brought tears to my eyes (Ibid, p. 98). To be given this opportunity to reclaim a lost part of her childhood and to be able to share her life with the lives of the current residents was beautiful. There was a profound feeling of completion, an unbreakable link with her own past, her parents and their past and future of her new acquaintances.

As Fritz and her husband explored the streets of China, I felt like I was waking with them. Even when she visited schools, I found myself calculating and realized that we have friends from Wuhan who might have been students in those same schools while Fritz was there (Ibid, p. 65). This only enhanced my feeling of identification with her experiences. She remembered lace antimacassars on the train seats and wanted to tell a neighbor who had wondered how she could possibly recognize anything after so long a time, “Fifty-five years and the antimacassars are still here (Ibid, p.41)!” I thought of our train trip this summer and wanted to call Jean Fritz to tell her that twenty-three more years have passed and the antimacassars are still there!

Near the close, she visits a pavilion built in the fifth century to celebrate a friendship. Next they go to a museum in Wuchang where she sees a cannon she remembers hearing in her childhood during the siege of 1926. Touching the cannon, the memory brings her to tears and she realizes, “China was not only, as it had always been, part of me. I was part of China (author’s italics) (Ibid, p. 128).“

At a banquet for her, she was given her own personal “chop,” a stone seal with her name engraved, and she was made an honorary citizen of Wuhan (Ibid, p. 132). Chinese tradition is that women retain their surname so the chop is a Chinese rendition of her maiden name, Guttery. An ink stamp from her seal ends China Homecoming “just as any Chinese would do at the end of a story (Ibid, p. 133).” China Homecoming appears on the spine but her “chop” is the only title on the cover of the book. It also decorates the end papers front and back of the book.

Before her mother passed away, Jean asked her if she had gone to China “out of a sense of duty” to her husband or did she “go for the adventure.” Her mother’s answer was, “Oh, I went for the adventure (Ibid, p. 40).” I am thankful that Jean Guttery Fritz also had the sense of adventure to return to China and the generosity to share her adventure with us. Her own daughter, Andrea, asked Jean long before the trip to China, “Do you miss the Yangtze, Mom?” She answers, “Yes, I miss the Yangtze (Ibid, p.13).”

I do, too, Jean. I miss the Yangtze, too.

24 October 2008

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King

This text is an invaluable guide that has earned an honored place on my shelf beside other excellent craft books. Browne and King provide honest straightforward guidance to becoming more objective and competent at editing your own work. Editors at publishing houses may be too busy to give a book the time and attention it may need, so it is in your best interest to present the best product you can to a publisher and to your readers. They do not disparage the value of having readers or working with a writers’ group, but they do say that teaches you what other critics may want you to write. They point out that some excellent writers may not be very good editors. Besides, “you want to write the book you want to write. The best solution is still to learn to edit yourself (Browne p. 3).”

The first chapter is devoted to “Show and Tell” in which they explain how to show your readers the action rather than resort to expository paragraphs. Telling can be useful for getting across the nature of your characteristics but writers should “RUE, or resist the urge to explain (Browne p. 16),” too much. RUE is the typical margin notation warning of not enough action. Character action is a much more effective method of demonstrating emotion. They advise to include “beats” which are physical action instead of describing. Using beats helps to vary the rhythm of the narrative and helps to “remind your readers of where your characters are and what they are doing (Browne p. 8).”

Browne and King provide “Checklists” to help the writer review their own manuscript and determine whether there are too many narrative passages. Read your work to see if you are “telling” or describing feelings instead of “showing” by using action scenes. Some writers may make the mistake of not using enough narrative writing. They may be “bouncing from scene to scene (Browne p. 20).” Try for a successful balance between action and narrative. These checklists at the end of each chapter are a concise tallying of points every writer should be using to review and revise their manuscript.

In describing characters, the novice writer must be careful to not confine the development of the characters by too much detail. Characters should be allowed to develop within the plot. Too much detail and definition can “box in” your characters and influence both how they grow and readers’ expectations. You do not need to write character summaries. Let the reader get to know them gradually (Browne p. 26).

The authors spend several chapters on point of view and the use of dialogue and later in the book they discuss voice which is, of course, related. The writer must determine which point of view works best for a particular work and characters. They reference William Faulkner as a master of voice and point of view but he chose what was appropriate for each story (Browne p. 219). Regarding dialogue, “Your characters come alive – or fail to - when they speak (Browne p. 83).” Writers must resist using too many explanations or mechanical tricks in dialogue if they wish to sound authentic. Telling how a character feels is “lazy writing.” Tighten your writing by cutting “virtually every ‘-ly’ you write (Browne p. 87).” Dialogue is an effective way to include action in place of, “he said.” Make an effort to have your dialogue sound like real speech. This is particularly important when your story includes foreign-born people. Stilted words sound like stiff characters. It is important to “capture the rhythms of real speech” and “to give a sense that the words you write are words real people would actually speak (Browne p. 112).”

I began reading the original first published edition of this book. I liked it so much that I decided to buy the new revised edition published in 2004. There were some elements I missed from the old version, particularly their examples from classic literature, but the authors included many newer more modern references that probably have greater appeal to younger writers. All illustrations are cartoons by George Booth of The New Yorker Magazine fame. They add a delightful and whimsical sense of humor to the text. An extensive section in the back, gives answers and responses to the exercises throughout the book making it a great tool for someone teaching the craft of writing as well as for writers. Browne and King also include an excellent index and a reference section that recommends other writing books.

In conclusion this book is a great resource every writer should own. It is written in a lively entertaining prose that keeps the reader’s attention while teaching them the basics of editing and revision.

Browne, Renni and King, Dave. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. HarperCollins. New York. 2004.

18 February 2009

Monday, February 9, 2009

Writing for Children & Teenagers by Lee Wyndham

I was concerned that some of the material in this book might be dated, and indeed some should be revised, but as far as advice or providing a guide for writing for young readers, this was an excellent beginning. As I read the book, I attempted to use Wyndham’s guidelines to assess and evaluate my own manuscript.

Early in the book, Wyndham discusses certain taboos in writing for young people. Some of those hold true, but with the market expanding and trying to lure new readers, especially older teenage readers, I think the taboos are flexible depending on which age group the writer is targeting. I have read young adult novels that were pretty racy including topics such as drug use, crime, and sex to name some of the topics that were forbidden years ago. Wyndham says that teen romance is a difficult field (Wyndham, p.12) but my observation is that it is a growing segment of the market today. It would pay to research the market and the publishers to determine what was appropriate.

I would have liked to see an updated edition that included more modern techniques such as using the web to research submission guidelines and when it is appropriate to make enquiry by email. But after getting through this early material, most of the book was very helpful and relevant. I liked he section where she advised to let “housekeeping slide” (Wyndham, p. 20) and make time to write. I don’t have a problem with that!

Wyndham advises to use both male and female character so that there is appeal to both. This vindicated my choice to have my secondary character in Lin Hua go back to being a boy as he was originally. She gives excellent information on average word count for children’s manuscripts which I thought extremely helpful (Wyndham, p. 23). With novels ranging from 30,000 to 60,000 words, I find that I am probably about a fourth of the way through my novel (8,500 words/4 chapters) assuming that mine will be in the mid-range of 45,000. That feels about right to me. She discusses the need for books with current themes that are authentic and realistic. There is also advice on the inclusion of foreign-born characters and including foreign words and phrases. She points out a need in the market for ethnic themes and stories, which my novel is.

Chapters 5, 6, and 7 specifically deal with characters and dialogue which I found valuable. Much of Wyndham says, I learned in studying drama such as the need for the characters to drive the plot (Wyndham, p. 31) and that dialogue and every scene must advance the plot. Later (Wyndham, p.88) she goes through plot structure which is key to a strong story. The character determines the action which drives the plot. Very true. There is a great deal of advice on complexities of character development and avoiding “cardboard” characters that are totally good or evil. She warns about staying true to your characters so that they don’t make mistakes that sensible people wouldn’t make (Wyndham, p.122.

I spent a lot of time in the section on viewpoint. She recommends utilizing first person viewpoint. I find that first person viewpoint is wonderful when done well but many people do not sustain it effectively.

Wyndham spends four chapters on actual writing (Chapters 14 through 17) the novel from beginning to end. She advises not to over-analyze in the first draft, just write (Wyndham, p. 105. Within plot structure, she notes that the reader may know choices at the climax of the story before the character. This is one way of building suspense (Wyndham, p. 121).

The following could be useful advise for any Hollywood scriptwriter in addition to those who write for children. She says:
The reader should be left with a sense of completion, a sense of rightness, instead of with restless questioning in his mind. It is the writer’s job to finish the story, not the readers (Wyndham, p. 122).In the conclusion, be brisk, be brief, and be gone (Wyndham, p. 126).”

Regarding first drafts, the author warns they are usually too wordy and need cutting. An enforced cooling-off period before re-reading your first draft can sharpen your critical facilities (Wyndham, p. 127). I find this to be true of my own work. I can be much more objective if I leave it alone for a while before attempting to do rewrites. It is easier to come at the work with a fresh viewpoint.

In the chapter on revision and polishing, there are word count guidelines that I found useful on what is the average number of words per sentence. Easy readers should have 11 - 14 words per sentence; sixth to eighth graders should have 17 - 20 words per sentence and over 20 is considered more difficult reading level (Wyndham, p. 128).

Wyndham offers a “four-step plan for revision” which provides an excellent recipe for polishing a book. First, do a quick read and second analyze your initial reactions to character, conflict, and dialogue. Third, take a careful look at your plot structure including beginning, middle, climax and end. Last, read again for word polishing and editing (Wyndham, p. 129).She warns that absolutely nothing is sacred on paper. In other words, be prepared to be brutal when editing.

She strongly recommends a good thesaurus. I completely agree. Roget’s has been my companion for many years. It is especially helpful with what she calls “word weeding (Wyndham, p. 134).”

I had some questions about the recommendations on submissions. This was another section of the book that seemed somewhat dated. Most other writer’s guides advise a query letter and a cover letter with your submission, which she does not. The information provided on copyright and contracts for beginning writers was good and has not changed much over the years since original publication of this book. The book also includes really helpful information on being a good business manager for yourself and keeping good records for tax time. This is something that new writers often don’t find out about until they have wasted a lot of time and money by not keeping good records (Wyndham, pp 162-163).

Rejections are always difficult for any writer. This chapter includes typical statements that might be included in a rejection letter and it includes the kinds of things that writers should be aware that staff readers say that they don’t see. This section should be read before doing the four-step editing process so that the writer is aware of what they should be avoiding.

The chapter on working with editors is excellent. Many beginning writers seem to view editors as adversarial and my experience is that a good editor is solid gold. They are a partner in the process of getting your work published and can provide a valuable objective opinion especially when it comes to polishing your work. Wyndham gives helpful advice on what the novice writer should expect when working with an editor.

The final section of the book breaks down and discusses various sub-genre in children’s literature and includes research, biographies, mysteries, picture books and the “hi-lo” books. I was disappointed that she did not include a section on historical fiction for young people.

In conclusion, I found the Wyndham book to be an excellent guide. My copy has many pages flagged and marked for future reference. This is a book that should be on every person’s shelf who plans to successfully write for young readers.

14 September 2008

I am the Messenger by Markus Zuzak

In the world of literature for young adults, Markus Zusak is a literary writer. His book, I Am The Messenger, is a book that stands above typical young people’s fare. Zusak is a master of writing in first person. His characters are watchers, observers. This is true in I Am The Messenger and was especially effective in The Book Thief which I read earlier this year. The protagonist, Ed, in I Am The Messenger is the most ordinary of ordinary people. He is nineteen years old. He has nothing. He has done nothing. He is not a hero at all. Readers must trust Zusak in the early chapters of his books. He likes to start out slow and paint a detailed portrait of the people he wants you to know. Some complain that it is hard to get involved in the beginning of his books. But once he captures the reader, his books are impossible to put down.

After reading I Am The Messenger, I am reminded of the poet Basho’s "The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton." Similar to Basho’s style, Zusak is trundling along through his narrative when, suddenly, there is a phrase or a passage that stops the reader. You stop with a catch in your breath at the profound beauty of a particular passage. You’ve been moving along through the book as the distant reader and, in a heartbeat, you realize that he is speaking directly to you, to everyone. You read the passage again, and again, just to savour the absolute perfection of that moment. Zusak uses this technique sparingly and each time the poem is brief and simple. No flowery words or descriptions. Stripped down and sparse, in a few words he looks into our souls. One such passage in Chapter 6 of Part Three (Zusak p 224) says:

Sometimes people are beautiful.
Not in looks.
Not in what they say.
Just in what they are.

The main character, Ed, has just witnessed a moment of happiness between a couple. These two are also not heroes. They are an immigrant family with a houseful of kids but this is a gem of a moment. There is a perception shift in Ed where he appreciates the true beauty of the love this man and woman have for each other. We, as voyeurs, experience this moment with Ed and we are transformed along with him.

Zusak is sparse with his prose too. His language is simple with few descriptive terms but he wields his chosen words so that there is no mistaking the atmosphere, the mood and the tone of each section. He chops his words. Sentence structure is of no importance especially when his character is upset or disturbed. Words and thoughts blurt out the way they do in our heads. Ed describes his feelings in staccato sentences of one word. “Cowardly. Meek. Positively weak (Zusak p.45).” His dog, Doorman, however, converses with him regularly, in italics, mostly regarding food.

Ed begins a mission, later it becomes more of a quest, when he receives a single playing card with three street addresses on it. He knows it’s important but he doesn’t know why or how. He must go to each address to watch and wait and discover what is needed there. He chooses the easier ones first. Wouldn’t we all? He accomplishes his mission of the first card, the ace of diamonds, only to receive a second playing card, the ace of clubs. The second card gives only names, not addresses and so it continues. As Ed brings each mission to completion, he becomes more real to us.

Gradually he is transformed from a rather colorless, plain young man into a sympathetic supporter, a kind friend and an avenging angel and that is only from the first playing card. Each of the addresses on the ace of diamonds contains a “diamond” of a person who must be protected, cherished.

Who is the person behind the playing cards? Who is the person sending Ed on these missions? Zusak maintains tight control over Ed and every moment in this book. The plot is as spare as the language but any more would be fluff. Everything is there that should be there. The story is told in this same tight terse fashion but it does not seem rushed or forced. The interspersing of the brief snippets of poem-like prose create moments where the reader can take their time. By then we are tied to Ed’s fate.

Zusak makes it clear from the beginning that this is not a book for very young readers. The opening line is, “The gunman is useless.” Ok, we have a gun. The word “bastard” appears a few lines lower and there are some rather stronger words within the next few pages. Interestingly, the rough language does not continue throughout the book. The book opens with everyone under considerable stress. He is setting a scene and I think by choosing this language from the start, he is saying something about the characters, the plot and the subject matter. Later in the book most of the time the strongest word is “arse.” Zusak is Australian. That explains the pronunciation.

Although I think his Book Thief is the stronger book, this one was a treasure. Zusak has something to say about how people treat people in both the best of situations and the worst. His books seem to feature people who have friends who are incredibly important in their lives and he takes us into the lives of people who are living in abject despair and hopelessness. But Zusak always delivers. When you close the cover of the book, after perhaps reading the ending three or four times, you are left with an uplifting sense of hope. Hope for the characters. Hope for the human race and hope for more books by Markus Zusak.

Zusak, Markus. I am the messenger. Alfred A. Knopf. New York. 2002.

14 September 2008