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What was the last book you read and why did you read it? Most likely it was determined by scholars to be among the best works ever written, and therefore placed on a list of "must-reads" known as the literary canon. This canon, however, changes with the times. For example, Kate Chopin was ostracized by her literary peers when she published the novel "The Awakening," in 1899, but today she is considered to be one of the foremost writers this century has seen. Changing world-views and a greater openness to subject matter greatly influence the ever-changing literary canon.
No two people are alike. Something may appeal to one person and disgust another, depending on the views and life experience of the person. When reading, each individual draws something different from a text; it is his or her own interpretation of the work. If the reader believes the text to mean something other than what the author intended, does this ruin the work? If a reader interprets the work for himself, then I say interpretation enhances a composition; if the work is interpreted by another, then the personal meaning is absent for the reader, indeed ruining it.
The character of The Duke in Robert Browning's poem "My Last Duchess" exhibits a rash of selfish traits. He is disturbingly jealous of any glance or pleasantry his wife shares with anyone other than himself, but it is not because he loves her. It is because he loves possessing her, and her looking in any direction but his incenses his rage. To prevent this, he permanently stops her smiles and has her portrait painted; this is a much easier way for him to keep his possession under wraps, for his own secret pleasure, to share only when boasting.
I responded very differently to the readings "A Secret Sorrow" and "A Sorrowful Woman." The first was an excerpt from an obviously formula-written story. I knew that no matter how bleak the situation, all would be right in the end. I enjoyed reading it, but felt no connection with the heroine; she seemed to be cut out of cardboard. I felt uncomfortable reading "A Sorrowful Woman." The wife was acting selfishly and absurdly, yet I could feel her dread at seeing her son. I may have felt happier about the first story, but I will never forget the second.
"Hazel Tells LaVerne" by Katharyn Machan is an unconventional retelling of the story of the Frog Prince. The informal use of words and lack of punctuation give a sense of who the speaker is: a lower-class maid who has no illusions of becoming a princess. Although there is no written punctuation, the breakup of the lines and the natural flow of the speech make it easy to understand and follow. This is a good example of how humor can be conveyed through not only the wording used, but through the placement and spelling of those words as well.
In the story "Enough" by Alice McDermott, we follow the path a young girl takes to womanhood and then old age by watching as she takes pleasure in both ice cream and men. Although she seeks after both almost greedily, I don?t see this as negative. These are simple pleasures, not ones that harm anyone around her, but bring her joy. She doesn't seem unhappy or distressed when these things are out of reach, merely absorbs all she can of them when they are available. She enjoys life to its fullest, as we all should learn to do.
The Way I See It...
The advantage of having a story told by two different people is that you're not limited to only one point of view. This is the case in the short story "New York Day Women" by Edwidge Danticat. The story is mostly told from the point of view of the daughter as she secretively follows her mother through the city streets, but we are given insight into the mother's character as we hear her side of the story from time to time. This creative storytelling method adds dimension to what could otherwise be a flat tale.
In the play
Krapp's Last Tape
by Samuel Beckett there is only one character, Krapp, but because we see him at one point in his life, and hear his voice from another, there are essentially two characters. It is interesting how Beckett uses these two differing versions of the same character to portray how one man's life changes over time: from an optimistic youth he spirals downward yearly until nothing is left but bitterness and regret in his old age. This is a wonderful example of how a playwright can create depth and conflict in a single character.
Every Character Counts
Mrs. Bassett, a character in Tennessee Williams' play
Summer and Smoke
, demonstrates the fact that much can be learned about a character no matter how small the part or how little information is given. Mrs. Bassett only appears three times during the play, yet we can derive a great deal about her character simply by digging deeply into each word she says and movement she makes. She is a busybody and a gossip, and Mr. Williams made no mistakes in writing any of her lines; every action she takes moves the plot along in a significant manner.
Order of Business
, a film directed by Christopher Nolan, is a work of pure genius. The plot involves a man, Leonard, who has lost the ability to make new memories after a burglar leaves him with a head injury and a dead wife. The script is written in reverse chronological order so that the audience only knows as much as Leonard does at one time. This method of writing transports the observer to Leonard's point of view, adding tension and mystery to the plot. The story would not be nearly as interesting if told in the traditional chronological order.
I recently had the unfortunate experience of having to sit through one of the most awful movies I've ever seen:
. This disaster of a movie lacked continuity, believable characters, and substance. What could have been a cute story was instead, unfortunately, a series of overly long montages of good-looking girls surfing and running about in bathing suits, linked together by painfully badly written scenes in which they moan about how hard it is to make it living on their own. This is definitely one movie that would be better off left at the bottom of the ocean.
Fellowship of the King
Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
is an engaging tale, if one looks deeply, there is more to see than a simple story of one hobbit's journey. The story can also be seen as an allegory of the Christian faith. The hobbits (Christians) make a journey filled with adversities sent by Sauron (Satan), and are aided by Gandalf, who appears to die but comes back in a new form as Gandalf the White (Jesus Christ). Reading the story with this allegory in mind is more than entertaining, it is enriching as well.
A Deeper Meaning
Another story that could contain an allegory of the Christian faith is "The Chronicles of Narnia." In this seven-book series C.S. Lewis weaves an intriguing tale of four children who discover an entire world where a lion is revered and children can be royalty. The lion (Jesus) lays down his own life so that the children can be saved, and eventually become queens and kings. (In the kingdom of heaven we will rule alongside Jesus.) The story has been a favorite of mine since childhood, but in my adulthood I am able to see a deeper meaning.
Improv as Literature?
If you've ever seen the show
Whose Line Is It Anyway?
, then you've seen improv. Improv is a performance art where the actors write the story as they act it out, improvising each moment. Can this be considered literature? I say that it can, although perhaps not in the conventional sense. It may not be well thought out ahead of time, or written down after, but each scene created has a beginning, middle and end, rising action, climax and resolution. These are all basic elements used in literature, and for this reason I consider improv as literature.
No Day But Today
Some words that have grown to be a great inspiration for me come from the Broadway musical,
. In the last song of the show the cast joins together in singing, "There's only us, there's only this, forget regret or life is yours to miss. No other road, no other way, no day but today." I have found great encouragement in those words to "seize the day" and live life to its fullest. Petty arguments and grudges are hindrances to enjoying a happy life! We should all remember that there truly is no day but today.
An Unsavory Meal
In the poem
The Joy of Cooking
by Elaine Magarrell, the poet uses the descriptions of what's on the menu--her sister's tongue and brother's heart-- to describe their personalities. Her sister appears to be sarcastic and biting. The small bones and gristle indicate sharpness and toughness, and the fact that it will probably grow back tells us that she doesn't let anyone tell her what to do for long. Her brother's heart is small and dry, signifying his inability or unwillingness to care for anyone. He is also very dull and boring. What an unappetizing meal!
Shut UP, Already
While reading the poem
Sure You Can Ask Me a Personal Question
, I found myself in the speaker's position. As the conversation progressed, I became more and more annoyed with the person asking me all these dumb questions as if they really knew me or as if I knew what they were talking about! The person the speaker is addressing certainly seems to have no tact or the slightest bit of common sense. I would even say the questioner is racist, although he probably has no idea he is. All I could think was, "Shut up, already!"
In the poem
In This Heat
, Willyce Kim uses such vibrant and colorful language that I felt I was immersed in the setting of the poem while reading it. I could feel the heavy air and sense the trepidation felt by the two who are witnessing the scene. I especially liked this portion: "Outside the moon pales against the window as shadows lap across the sky." Although this poem is short, and the lines are no longer than seven syllables at the longest, so much imagery and emotion is packed into it through the careful word choices.
Animals Have Feelings, Too
There are many books featuring animals that speak and think like humans. E.B. White has given us three such stories for children.
focuses on several farm animals and the relationships that they have to each other and to the farmer's family.
lets us into the curious mind of a small mouse who sets out on the adventure of his life.
The Trumpet of the Swan
tells of a young swan's struggle to communicate without the use of his voice. With stories like these, the reader often forgets the characters are not human.
In the play
, Luis Valdez explores the stereotypes of Mexicans held by Americans in the 1960s. A white woman needs a good "American made" Mexican for diversity's sake at a presidential luncheon. She inspects several "models" as if they were pieces of machinery until she finds just the right one. Each model is an example of a Mexican stereotype: the farm worker, the revolucionario, the tough troublemaker and the Mexican-American. In this humorous play with a serious message, Valdez challenges the reader to examine more closely his own ways of thinking towards people of differing nationalities.
How many people actually sit down to read a good, honest-to-goodness classic novel these days? Not many, I imagine. I know I haven't probably since high school when it was a requirement, and I
to read. Many of us have only enough time in the morning to gulp down a half a glass of orange juice as we hurriedly scan the front page of the paper before grabbing an oatmeal crème pie on our way out the door. It's sad when nobody can remember the last book they read because it was too long ago to recall.
Classic Good Vs. Evil
Since every story must have a protagonist and an antagonist to have conflict, most stories could be considered a battle between the good guys and the bad guys, or good and evil. One such story that gives a classic example of these opposing forces is
The Lord of the Rings
. Everything good is white, what is evil is represented by darkness. Although the darkness threatens to overwhelm the light, we all know that in every classic battle of good vs. evil the good will prevail and the evil will be pushed into oblivion. So, no worries!
'Tis Better to Give…
A reader can draw any number of things out of a story, whether it be what the author intended or not. If the reader is approaching the work from a reader-response point of view, then all that really matters is what the reader thinks. To me, the book
The Giving Tree
is all about the joys of giving. Throughout the story the tree never ceases to give of itself, until almost nothing is left; but the tree is content. Where some might see hopelessness and grief, I see a story of the happiness found in selflessness.
Let's Add Some Dimension
What makes a story interesting? What is it that makes us care about some characters, and not others? The answer to that lies in the complexity of the characters. A well-developed character, or round character, will have many layers or levels. The more we know about a character, the more we care about him and want to know more. A flat character, on the other hand, is poorly developed and lacks dimension. Flat characters are mostly used to further the plot without actually being a big part of it; we don't care what happens to them.
Where Are We?
One of the most important elements of storytelling involves the development of the setting. Without establishing the setting right off the bat, how would the reader know how to feel about the characters and their situations? When describing the setting, it is important to determine in which time period the story takes place, the time of year, time of day, social norms, physical environment or anything else that helps to enhance the story and make it come alive for the reader. To me, there is nothing worse than reading about characters and not knowing where they are.
What Happens Next?
"Already we knew that there was one room in that region above stairs which no one had seen in forty years, and which would have to be forced." If we want to know what's in that room, we had better continue reading! Every author knows that to keep a reader interested, some element of suspense must be sustained to the very end. This excerpt from
A Rose for Emily
is a good example of how a writer can tease the reader with just enough information to keep him eagerly turning the pages until the climax is reached.
When reading a piece of literature, whether for pleasure or with a specific purpose, it's always important to make note of the theme, or central idea of a story. After all, why else would you read something? Some themes are easy to determine, such as in the poem
a woman is not a potted plant
. Alice Walker clearly conveys to the reader the theme that women are not to be tied down and tamed, rather women are like wild creatures, meant to be free. Almost every story has a main message; it is up to us to extract it.
Importance of a Title
In the poem
by Lisa Parker, a young woman (that's my interpretation of the speaker) comes home from college for the weekend and sits snapping beans with her grandmother. She desperately wants to share her experiences of life away at school, but for some reason cannot express herself, and so merely says, "School's fine," when her grandmother asks how things are. I feel that the title emphasizes how much this time with her grandmother means to the girl. This poem isn't about how school is going; it's about the speaker's relationship with her grandmother.
A Vision of Beauty
Some people may consider poetry dull or boring, with too many flowery words and extraneous descriptions. In most cases, however, if we were to read the same passage paraphrased into "normal English", we would find it infinitely more dull. The poem
A Beautiful Girl Combs Her Hair
by Li Ho uses colorful words to describe the subject. Which can you see more vividly in your mind: a girl with long hair, or "aromatic silk, a cloud down to the floor?" Descriptive words make it easier for the reader to envision what the poet is writing about.
Although Margaret Atwood describes her poem,
, as one about her father's death, and my father is still alive, I feel I can relate to it in many ways. I can remember spending time with my father as he made various stops to places like Home Depot or the dump. I always wanted to go, but I then had to endure waiting for him to finish speaking to some other grown-up with whom I had no connection. Now I sometimes crave the comfort of those innocent times, and wish I could place my small hand in his work-roughened one.
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