cricketmuse

a writer's journey as a reader

Handily Written: A Lost Art?


Another TBR item has floated up to my attention. This one is dated December 2012 from the Wall Street Journal. Actually, I did read it, but kept it because it so resonated with me. “The Lost Art of the Handwritten Note.”

a handwritten letter is indeed becoming a rare commodity image: jppi/morguefile

 

I remember my elementary day struggle of learning to write cursive, and to this day my cursive is problematic. My students are continually asking me, “What does this word say?” when I hand back their work. I wish I could tell them.

Cursive is getting kicked to the curb these days. I wish it wouldn’t. I wish I had lovely handwriting. My mother has beautiful handwriting and it hasn’t changed in its precise simplicity in all the years I’ve known her. She laments, though, how she approaches her late eighties that she can’t write like she used to, blaming it on various ailments like arthritis and eyesight. I encourage her to keep up on her keyboarding. Emails and texts are great for instant communication, and yet I still appreciate receiving her snail mail as there is something truly lovely about receiving a handwritten letter.

The article’s author, Philip Hensher, starts out asking a rather private question: how many Christmas letters did I send out and how many did I receive. The MEPA keeps track of those statistics, and lets me know each year we receive less, so he sends out less. We usually get into a bit of a discussion of “Well, maybe we should keep sending them out in good faith” versus “Cross ‘em off.” There are no easy answers or solutions on the Christmas card questions, which is not the point of Hensher’s opening lines. He simply is nudging the reader to remember the last time receiving an actual letter that contained a handwritten missive in a personally addressed envelope. Hmm, I’ll have to ponder on that. Beyond Mom, the only actual mail I receive at the PO box are bills or ad flyers. None are handwritten..

Hensher briefly covers the practice of handwriting and its implications for career placement and personality detection, along with its ability to bridge direct and intimate communications between people. A pause. Here I reflect on those moments in books and film where a letter plays an important part of the plot. Cyrano’s letters to Roxane are practically one of the leading characters of Rostand’s play. What about William’s group letter to his lovely “mark” in Knight’s Tale? Perhaps this is why tomes of correspondence remain popular reading items. Although I think it’s only polite to read someone’s letters if deemed permissible. I did turn away from reading Willa Cather’s letters, once I found out she never wanted them published. It seemed voyeuristic.

I have inherited a hefty box of letters from my great aunt, affectionately known as Auntie. These represent her time spent in New York when she attended the Julliard Institute on scholarship back in the heydays of the twenties. She wrote once, sometimes twice, a day to her mother back in Seattle. No handy telephone calls and definitely no Twitter communique in the twenties. She later traveled all around Europe on tour and penned her insights and reflections upon the changes the Fuhrer created upon the landscape. I began the arduous process of typing out her letters with the idea of creating a memoir of New York in the days of yesteryear since she gave such amazing detail. This might become a retirement project. Her handwriting is so fine and spidery it wears on my eyes and fingers to decipher them. There is also the fact that something is lost when transforming them from the loops and scrawls to the neat precision of typing. Now and then I will peruse them. Mostly I derive pleasure they are sitting in the box on my closet shelf. They are a bit of history and a bit of treasure.

 

Readers: Do you have a few treasured handwritten letters? What makes them so special?

 

Clowning Around as a Kid


I feel fortunate to have grown up in the golden age of television. Walter Cronkite fathered us through the news. Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore broke ground for weekly family shows, Carol Burnett entertained us, and Captain Kangaroo and other grown ups clowning around got me giggling.

Here are some of the TV babysitters I remembered. For that’s what they did while Mom did what she had to do around the house.

Captain Kangaroo

It was like having a trusted grandfather telling me delightful stories… image: Wikipedia

The show ran for nearly thirty years, from 1955 to 1984. I don’t remember much except Mr. Greenjeans and something about ping pong balls and a moose.

Soupy Sales

I have since learned Soupy Sales was a bit of a bad boy, always pushing those censor buttons. But, hey, as a kid, did I know this? I remember lots of pies and Fang.

Those were the national shows I remember. I was fortunate enough to have had  several local talented hosts to kept me amused. If you grew up in the Greater Northwest area you might remember:

Wunda Wunda

She was calm and reassuring and she did indeed add a bit of learning to every show.

Stan Boreson

Memories of a guy playing the accordion, a catchy theme song, and a basset hound.

Brakeman Bill

Trains. I mainly remember trains and his sidekick donkey. Oh, here’s a fun fact. Brakeman Bill was invited to my wedding reception. I’m still not sure how and why I would have known him. My mom invited a lot of people. My brother was ecstatic having been a Brakeman Bill Booster when a youngster.

My personal favorite…

JP Patches

I was not just a fan. I was a Patches Pal. image: jppatches.com

 

Did I say this was my favorite show? I still get girlish gigglish when I think how I stood in line with all the other kiddos to meet my favorite clown. I even have a photo of me with my morning/afternoon icon (yes, I got doses in the morning and afternoon–two hours of fun everyday!) As you can see JP collected buttons. I remember my last visitation as a preteen and standing in line to shyly hand him a button for his coat collection. I felt a little embarrassed since I was a bit older than the other kids there. But a dedicated fan is a dedicated fan.

The show’s format featured Gertrude, a loud obnoxious “woman,” as in the Shakespearean sense, who was JP’s girlfriend (the Gertrude actor actually played a total of about 18 roles). Even though JP lived at the dump he had class. He had great rapport with the TV audience and owned an ICU television set. He would tune in and personally wish that viewer a happy birthday. I remember wishing my birthday would be called out. Never happened *sniff* He also had a villainous counterhero on the show named Boris S. Wart, whose sole goal was to takeover the show. I believe he did once. Boris tried appearing with JP once; however, some overzealous Patches Pals beat him up. Honestly, I was not part of that particular Patches Pack. Other memorable non-human characters: Tikey Turkey, Griswald, Grandpa Tik Tok, Esmerelda. Even if you did not grow up in the Puget Sound (I’ll try not to feel sorry for you) I’ll let you partake in Patches fun by clicking to the best ever website I spent most of my Saturday morning watching bits and clips of my childhood.

So–what great children’s programming did you grow up with?

 

Author Snapshot: Lois Lowry


Sometimes a novel is similar to a wave in how its impact builds momentum, breaks, recedes, and begins the cycle all over again. The Giver by Lois Lowry is such a book. First published in 1993 it pushed societal paradigms, gathered a following, and is once again building another following due to the film adaptation. It’s still considered controversial some twenty years later. The story is deceptively simple, yet profound in its impact. There are so many issues presented: government control, euthanasia, loss of innocence, and dystopia versus utopia. Lowry presents these heavy issues with a light hand and leaves reader with hope in its ambiguous ending. It deservedly won the prestigious Newberry Award.

For many years The Giver remained a standalone title. And then Gathering Blue came out in 2000; however, it wasn’t a true continuation of The Giver and frustrated many readers looking for answers, because it teased a bit, alluding only slightly to Jonas’s world. Readers had to wait until 2004 for Messenger, which served as a bridge between The Giver and Gathering Blue. Alas, answers still weren’t totally available and finally in 2012 closure arrived with Son.

Having read The Giver when it first came out, I was impressed with its message, although a bit dissatisfied with its ambiguity at the end. “That’s it?!?” I felt like shaking the book to see if I could render out the last drop, maybe find the missing resolution or at least find a denouement of sorts. I wasn’t aware of the succeeding books that formed the quartet and had the distinctive pleasure of reading the quartet in succession after watching the 2014 film adaptation of The Giver. Due to the sizable waiting list for The Giver (could it be the movie stirred people to seek out the original?) I began reading the other three and saved The Giver for last. Glad I did so, because the library (love my library) bought the newest edition, which is a twenty year celebration of the novel, and it contains an introduction, a reflection, by Lois Lowry. Her humor and unique outlook is prevalent and added a dimension to the reading I wouldn’t have probably gained reading the standard paperback issue. A bonus section (special features?) included interviews of different actors from the movie including Taylor Swift.

Yet, there is more to Lois Lowry than The Giver. Her talent extends to comical middle reading found in the Krupnik series which is about the plucky Anastasia and her rascally brother Sam. Another notable book, her first Newberry Award, is Number the Stars, which covers the Danish Resistance in WWII. Lowry’s diversity is evident when scrolling through her impressive book list of thirty plus titles which range from picture books to historical fiction, and include young adult reads. I have been exploring other Lowry titles and I am amazed by her diversity. For instance, I just finished an audio reading of  Silent Boy, which reminds me of Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird recalling her childhood memories from an adult perspective. Another audio novel, The Willoughbys is radically different from any of her other works. This a parody of all those long ago old-fashioned tales starring orphans who make good after much travail. Think Lemony Snicket meets Pollyana. The reading was enhanced by the reading talents of Arte Johnson, best remembered by his Laugh In days. The humor varies between lampoon and subtle, the vocabulary rivals SAT prep exercises, and there is a constant anticipation of “What next?” right up there with “This is a kid’s book?”
Lowry is one of those authors who provides the reason why adults peruse the kids’ section when searching for a good read.

Interesting bits about Lois Lowry:

  • she’s been a contestant on Jeopardy
  • traveled to Antarctica
  • had The Giver turned into a play, opera, film, and musical
  • she’s been a clue in a New York Times crossword puzzle
  • has owned numerous dogs, cats, and horses
  • has a great little author website

A Murdered Austin


As a confessed Jane Austin fan, I find myself searching for more of her books. Yes, I know that isn’t happening. I doubt Cassandra had a “lost” manuscript squirreled away in the family bank vault like sister Alice did for Nelle.

But one does hope for finding at least a satisfying pastiche.

I have tried a few, and quite frankly, I find them annoying. There are liberties taken with the characters that simply aren’t at all Janish, in either style or intent. If one doesn’t live in the time period, trying to write it and pull it off successfully is about as satisfying as a diet Dove bar. Exactly. They don’t exist because what would be the point?

Sigh. I do keep trying though.

I’d heard PD James had tried her hand at Austin with the Death Comes to Pemberley. Not having read any of her mysteries, I still decided to add the title to my TBR list, because James is a respected author and who can resist a mystery attached to the P&P gang?

I should have resisted.

But it looked so promising… image: BBC

 

Spying the DVD adaptation on the new release shelf I snagged it quickly. I don’t know why I sequestered it away under my arm. Perhaps I envisioned some maddened JA fan descending upon me screeching “I saw it first!” Decorum before drama. This became the byword as I settled down for an evening of what I hoped to be a lost in Austen evening, for drama versus decorum permeated Pemberley. Yes, death indeed came to Pemberley, but it wasn’t the murder in the woods that was so terrible. So much more damage had been rendered.

I had a prepared list of all that I found oh so wrong with this BBC rendering. Taking the a Thumper path of reviewing practice instead, I will say this one nice thing: At least they used the Pemberley estate from the Kiera Knightley version.

I now need to read James’ novel and see how badly they adapted it, because surely a respected author couldn’t have committed so many travesties to Elizabeth and crew, especially if she is the devotee she is supposed to be. The Amazon reviews aren’t promising. Any thoughts on James and her pastiche of Pemberley? Are there any decent Austin homages out there at all?

Why We Say: #15


Watercooler chatter: “That new CEO doesn’t do much, does he?”
“Yeah, bit of figurehead, I figure.”

Today’s lesson involves some sailing knowledge. First, it’s important to know the front, the bow, from the back, the stern. The bow would be decorated with some sort of figure which actually is fairly interesting (go on–have a peek). They didn’t serve any real purpose, but they sure made the ships look imposing, important, regal, at times intimidating. There is also the thought that a figurehead, as in politics and business, can be controlled by other forces, much like the figurehead on the ship is controlled by the sails or other power. Hmm, is there a connection between these two figures in terms of being figureheads?

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA  Elizabeth II greets NASA GSFC employees, May 8, 2007 edit.jpg (I think highly of the Queen, BtW)

Any Laurel and Hardy fans out there? You might recognize this saying, “This is a fine kettle of fish you’ve gotten us into.” If you recall, this was flustered out by Oliver Hardy to Stan Laurel after some frustrating incident. But why a kettle of fish? Maybe Ollie had some Scottishishness about him and was recalling how fishermen thought they could coax the best flavor out of the fish by cooking them right on the spot in a large kettle. They must have known the secret of cooking up a fine kettle of fish, since no one else could replicate it. Hence, from then on “a fine kettle of fish” is actually referring to a mess instead of success.

 

Singing in the Rain is a personal favorite, especially all those great song and dance numbers by Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. How about this one:

Why “fit as a fiddle?” Kelly and O’Connor might not have realized they were referring to boxers, the fighters (not the dogs) in their ditty. Apparently the original expression was “fit as a fiddler” because boxers had to be in top condition in order to go a few rounds in the ring. Wait, a minute, Gene and Donald must have known that to be “fit as a fiddle and ready for love” they would have to be ready to fight for their love. Makes sense…

 

(images from Morguefiles and Wikipedia)

 

ReReReReally Rejected


Starting the month of March with four rejections shadowing me from the last week of February prompts a bit of reflection.

1. Perhaps I should check my email more often. This would prevent rejections from multiplying if left unattended.
2. One rejection is par for the course, two rejections is irritating, three rejections is laughable, four rejections is laughably ridiculous.
3. Repeating “It’s not me being rejected, it’s my writing,” is great only in theory because me I wrote it, right?
4. I’d rather have one big punch than several smacks. A bruise is a bruise.
5. Cheery demeanor: “Well, at least I know now and can move on to submit the piece elsewhere.”
6. Bad attitude: actually I don’t have one–rejections are part of the landscape of writing.
7. Overall takeaway: just one more story I get to store up for when I am keynote speaker at my award acceptance banquet.

Okay–back to updating my submission ledger…

Blog Spotlight: Mustardseed


An encouraging word. A bright spot. A story of motivation and encouragement. All this and more is found by following MustardSeedBudget. Pastor Mike Ashcraft provides faith memes and positive messages on his blog. He will also regale readers with his appreciation for soccer. And he especially likes to pass on to others his special love for the church he left behind in Guatemala.

I look forward to his frequent postings and I appreciate how he takes time to visit my blog. I can’t really say how I found his blog, but I’m ever so glad I did. I must be in good company because he has over 4,500 followers. I must not be the only one who knows that something as small as a mustard seed has a way into growing into something big.

Thanks, Pastor Mike for your words of faith.

Overbooked


I have become a victim of over booking, and I have only myself to blame. No, I didn’t get postponed at the airport, or delayed at the restaurant. Actually, it’s all my fault I got caught in this dilemma. Life just happens sometimes, you know?

For the first time since fifth grade I am conscious of how many books I am reading this year. In fifth grade Mr. C, my fifth grade teacher, challenged us to read over the summer and bring him the list in fall. I think I read a 100 books–memory tends to fade the accuracy of details. I do recall the look of surprise when I trucked in my list on my way to sixth grade next door. I’d like to think I was the only one who took up his challenge. I would have read all summer anyway. Too bad I didn’t keep the list. It would be fun to revisit what I was interested in reading at eleven years old.

This year I have taken up the GoodReads Challenge and I am diligently marking off my books with reviews. My goal is 50 books, because I think I can manage that amount. I now realize how idealistic that amount might actually be. Therefore, my dilemma. I calculated I will need to read at least 4 books a month to hit my goal. And for honesty sake (former Campfire Girl) I will double or triple up on children’s books because they are so much shorter. Then again, does a 400 page plus book count as double? War and Peace count as triple? I’ll figure it out.

This is why I am currently reading 4 books 3 books (just finished the newest this morning).

  • In the car I’m listening to Lois Lowry’s Silent Boy, a mesmerizing story of a young girl, Kate, remembering back to the time she befriended Jacob, who everyone in town referred to as “touched.”
  • On the living room side table is Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt. I have been gnawing away at this one for a while because it is so fabulously rich in content. I should just buy it, since I put a sticky marker in every other page. If you are interested in the texture of Shakespeare and his times, this is THE book to read. Probably explains why it earned National Book Award Finalist.
    • By the bed, and in the bookbag, and at school it’s a rereading Jane Eyre. As long as I teach it, I tend to read it. JE is one of favorite heroines, so it’s a pleasure, not a chore. In fact, there are times that I miss my Jane time because I get so busy I can’t sit down and relish her story. I am involved with this novel. I’m studying it, analyzing it, researching it, and most of all enjoying it. Again.
    • Back to four books. Make that five. Both holds came in: Way of the Peaceful Warrior (saw the movie and I’m curious) and The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller–a recommendation from one of my many book review blogs.
    • Actually six–I picked up Number the Stars by Lois Lowry as a reread.

Sigh. Anyone else overbooked this week?

The movie definitely got my attention… image: amazon.com

Will I be able to NOT think Brad Pitt as I read this? image: GoodReads

I have to read a Lois Lowry I haven’t liked image: Wikipedia

 

 

 

Good Taste, Good Reading


Is YA too angst driven? image: The Scream by Edvard Munch/wikipedia.org

 

In my stack of reading material I came across a 2013 Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College, entitled “The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Books” by Meghan Cox Gurdon, Children’s Book Reviewer for The Wall Street Journal. The MEPA had flipped it my way, and I thought it would be interesting enough for reading, later. Later has arrived, a year and a half later. Does anyone else have an overwhelming TBR stack?

The article is a speech delivered at Hillsdale College on March 12, 2013, and Gurdon hits upon a sensitive issue: the dark topics found in current YA titles. She starts her speech by mentioning the two hot topics on Twitter on June 4, 2011 were the Anthony Weiner scandal and her article “Darkness Too Visible.” Her article discussed how in the four decades that YA has existed as a separate genre, it has become increasingly “lurid, grotesque, profane, sexual, and ugly.”

Books show us the world, and in that sense, too many books for adolescents act like funhouse mirrors, reflecting hideously distorted portrayals of life. Those of us who have grown up understand that the teen years can be fraught and turbulent–and for some kids, very unhappy–but at the same time we know that in the arc of human life, these years are brief. Today, too many novels for teenagers are long on the turbulence and short on a sense of perspective.

Gurdon continues to express her concern over how the first person perspective is the narrative choice, which means the immediacy of “I” and “now” is present in YA novels and keeps readers in “the turmoil of the moment,” creating a sense of wearing blinders to the current hormone-laden environment in which they live. To this I agree, to an extent.

Many YA novels focus on the immediacy of choices, or lack of them, the trauma and drama that teens live in. However, it is momentary. I recently switched from teaching ninth grade English to instructing seniors–talk about paradigm shifts. I had to almost reinvent my style of teaching because there is very little drama with 17 and 18 year olds compared to the 14 year olds I’m used to dealing with. And so it goes with what they read. Everything is so much more to a fourteen year old because so much less is happening: they don’t drive yet, don’t hold a job, barely have started dating, maybe barely have started puberty. Less is more. The books I hear them talk about, and see on their desks, reflect their need to read about the amplication of their feelings.

Gurdon related how she was charged by YA book writers JudyBlume and Libba Bray of “giving comfort to book-banners.” However, Gurdon argues that she doesn’t want books to be banned or instill fear into writers; she only wishes there would be an exercise in discretion.

What I do wish is that people in the book business would exercise better taste; that adult authors would not simply validate every spasm of the teen experience; and that our culture was not marching toward ever-greater explicitness in depictions of sex and violence.

In the remainder of the article, Gurdon provides examples of lurid YA content, and the results of recent studies conducted at Virginia Tech. Her point is well-taken how media, particularly books, can establish a norm. Federal researchers, Gurdon pointed out, remained puzzled about the anti-drug/tobacco campaigns directed at elementary and middle schools and the actual use of the substances by the students. Apparently the conclusion is that the children were learning a paradox: adults must think you are using if they are telling you the dangers of doing so. Does this same logic apply to novel content?

Gurdon points out that “problem novels” normalize and validate the horrendous experiences of teenagers. She affirms this idea with Emily Bazelon’s book on about bullying, how schools are beginning to use a method that promotes the idea that cruelty isn’t the norm. The idea becomes estabished that there isn’t as much bullying going on as everyone says there is. The proclivity to be cruel isn’t justified, simply because it isn’t as big of deal as everyone is making it to be.

There is the tendency to gravitate towards the sensational. The gruesome, shocking, and disgusting make viral headlines and get repeated enough to establish an acceptance that if it’s in the news it must be what’s happening. Gurdon obviously riled a few people with her plea for discretion–authors, librarians, readers all reacted as if they were being vilified. And it is here that I feel Gurdon’s frustration.

I don’t hear her banning books or rebuking YA content; instead I hear her dismay. She emphasizes that she doesn’t believe that the vast majority of 12 to 18 year olds are living abject, miserable lives, and she doesn’t understand the purpose of providing material that emphasizes that life for those who are. She encourages the book world to seek out books that embrace wisdom and beauty, those books that provide answers to hard questions found in life. Perhaps that is the distinctive between what is today’s bestseller and tomorrow’s classic.

Gurdon closes her article with St. Paul’s words found in Philippians 4:8:

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.

She then asks the audience to think upon those words when shopping for books for children.

As I sign off, I am given pause about promoting more of the lovely, excellent, and praiseworthy when I provide literature choices to my students. As William Wordsworth once wrote:

What we have loved
others will love, and we will teach them how.

 

 

Author Snapshot: Daphne du Mariuer


Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…

 

One of the more famous opening lines for a novel is Daphne Du Mariuer’s first sentence of the eponymous character recalling her days at Manderley. Rebecca, a gothic romance, if there ever was one. No wonder Hitchcock snapped it up. I’m not sure which is the bigger hit: the novel or the film. They are both memorable, eerie, and suspenseful. Whenever I reread the book, I immediately want to view the film again. The novel leaves a legacy found in a variety of mediums:

Literature

  • Stephen King alludes to Mrs. Danvers, the troubled housekeeper, several times in Bag of Bones, and again refers to her in “Father’s Day.”
  • Jasper Fforde creates an army of Mrs. Danvers clones in his  Thursday Next series.
  • Danielle Steel nods to the novel in her Vanished, since the plot is similar to Rebecca.

Film

  • The Man with Two Brains, a Steve Martin comedy, acknowledges the novel as his character consults the portrait of his deceased wife, Rebecca.

Television

  • Dark Shadows, the original 70s Gothic soap opera (not the Johnny Depp film) relied on Rebecca’s sinister setting to create its creepy plotline.
  • Carol Burnett lampooned the novel with her “Rebecky” skit.

And if Rebecca‘s Gothic romance plot line isn’t your cup of tea, perhaps you remember The Birds? It was a short story before Hitchcock got ahold of it and produced a movie that still freaks me out. I found her short story in an anthology of animal uprising stories including Animal Farm. Watch out for pigs and birds–they pack a punch when they take over the world.

While Daphne Du Mariuer might not be in vogue as much as she once was, she definitely left on impact on the literary world with her contributions of novels, plays, and non-fiction. She often wrote ahead of her time, as evidenced in her House on the Strand, which alluded to the mind-altering drugs used in the sixties. There is some controversy about plagiarism, which I choose not to dwell upon. And some aspersions about her personal life, which I won’t delve into either. What fascinates me is her diversity as a writer. Though labeled as a romantic novelist (a label she disliked), she proved she could write beyond what critics’ and the publics’ labels. She wrote historical biographies, chilling mysteries, science fantasy, and wrote them well.

Some trivia which isn’t trivial:

  • awarded the Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
  • daughter of actor parents: Sir Gerald du Maurier and Muriel Beaumont; granddaughter of George du Maurier, Punch cartoonist.
  • cousin to the Llewelyn Davies boys, who were the inspiration for J.M.Barrie’s Peter Pan.

    Daphne du Maurier in her later years image: BBC news

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