The Wonderful World of Podcasts for the Stay-At-Home Mom (or Anyone!)

In my new life as a stay-at-home mom (at least until my sabbatical year is over and I return to teaching), I’ve found that podcasts have been indispensable.  It’s not that there’s not enough to do–my daughter is walking now (and dancing, quacking and mooing) and as she interacts more and more with me and the world, we’re having a lot of fun together.  But early on, when there was a lot more quiet, still time, and even now, when she’s asleep and I’m catching up on chores, I find that podcasts are a great way to let my mind play while I do something else.

Here are a few that I’ve been enjoying, in no particular order.  All of them are available through iTunes.  I’ve been using the Apple podcast app.

  1.  Selected Shorts – short stories read aloud by celebrities – perfect for the writer on the gowho needs to read!  A lot variety in the stories, but all great!
  2. The New Yorker Fiction Podcast and The Writer’s Voice – The Fiction podcast has a previously featured creative writer choose an archived story, read it aloud, and discuss it with the fiction editor of The New Yorker.  In The Writer’s Voice, the writers of current New Yorker stories read their work aloud.
  3. Dear Sugar – An advice podcast from Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond where they practice “radical empathy.”  Binge-listened to all of these when I found this podcast.
  4. Mental Illness Happy Hour – Comedian Paul Gilmartin interviews people about their mental health struggles and stories with a lot of humor and compassion.
  5. Unexplained and Lore – similar in tone, these two podcasts explore strange, mysterious occurrences in history that often seem like they could be tinged with the paranormal
  6. Real Ghost Stories Online – Just starting to listen to this one, but it’s interesting.  People share their ghost stories with the hosts.
  7. Serial and Undisclosed – The first season of Serial is the story of Adnan Syed, who was convicted of the murder of his girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.  Serial seeks to explore whether Adnan could be innocent.  I will confess that I did not listen to the second season.  Undisclosed seeks to show that Adnan is innocent.
  8. Up and Vanished – This podcast is investigating the disappearance of Tara Grinstead
  9. Harry Potter and the Sacred Text – Vanessa and Casper, Harvard Divinity students, explore the series, chapter by chapter, through themed lenses, seeking meaning and connection in the texts.
  10. Imaginary Worlds – Exploration of comics, fantasy, and sci-fi worlds, their elements, and how they are created.  Very interesting, even though I’m not quite the aficionado of Star Wars or Star Trek, I get a lot out of each episode, even those that cover topics I’m less familiar with.  Pat Rothfuss even appeared on this one, and what’s not to like about that?
  11. Hidden Brain and the Ted Radio Hour – Learning new things with NPR
  12. Modern Love – True stories of all types of love (romantic, familial, etc.) originally published in the New York Times “Modern Love” column read aloud by celebrities

Are you listening to podcasts, too?  What are your favorites?  Have you listened to some of these?  I’d be happy to hear your thoughts!  I hope to get back to being more diligent about my blog now that the baby is sleeping through the night again (Hallelujah, and please don’t let me jinx it!) and the holidays are over.  I’ve been tutoring privately during my extended maternity leave, and my tutoring schedule has been really busy too, but that is a good thing!

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“Go Set a Watchman” Book Review & Analysis – Spoilers Aplenty – You’ve been warned!

I just finished Harper Lee’s new (old?) novel, Go Set A a Watchman, published this summer.  Though we’re first encountering it this summer, reports are that Lee finished this novel first, and after it was rejected, reworked the story into To Kill a Mockingbird, shelving Watchman for several years.

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**I want to give a warning here: this review is FULL of spoilers.  If you don’t want spoilers, stop now!**

I admit not being sure what to expect.  I had heard a few mostly spoiler-free reviews from NPR and a few other sources, and knew that I was in for an older Scout, now going by Jean Louise, and a very different Atticus Finch.

While I feel there are some weaknesses in the text, and some which other reviewers have noticed as well (see some of the review links posted below), I found a lot to appreciate.  The weaknesses include awkward flashbacks which serve the narrative but are not woven seamlessly into it.  I also feel that the novel is perhaps too much in Jean Louise’s head, with little action in the present tense of the novel.

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As some of you readers may know, I’m a high school English teacher, and have taught To Kill a Mockingbird, so part of me is asking the question: What conversations could I have with my students about this?  The answer, I think, is several interesting ones, if they had read it.  I think that while To Kill a Mockingbird, at least after its initial chapter, is fairly accessible to a variety of high school readers, part of this accessibility comes from two tense and dramatic plots with concrete action.  While I, as an adult, can very much relate to how 26-year old Jean Louise feels confronting the adults who raised her, I’m not sure that as many high school students will have the patience to go along for the ride…I’ll be interested to see how conversations evolve around this book.  I do think that, were I about to do another Mockingbird unit, I would definitely bring in excerpts of Watchman for the conversation, and I’d throw down the gauntlet of this challenging read, and I don’t doubt that some students would pick it up.  Any thoughts, readers?

I was a bit taken aback by the change in plot around the Tom Robinson case, which other reviews have noted.  While in Mockingbird, Tom is innocent and was only trying to extricate himself from Mayella Ewell’s advances after being kind to her, in Watchman, Jean Louise recalls that Atticus got this man acquitted on a rape charge by proving that intercourse with the 14-year-old white girl was consensual.  Personally, I wished that this change hadn’t occurred, and I wanted harmony in these facts despite the well-done dissonance elsewhere in the novel; however, one could argue that this change functions to complicate our sympathies as much else is complicated in Watchman.

Jean Louise finds that her father, on whom she had always relied as her moral compass, is part of Maycomb’s Citizen’s Council, a group with a varied membership including corrupt and offensive people.  Atticus speaks ill of the NAACP, and while Jean Louise feels a momentary relief that Atticus says he will be the lawyer for Calpurnia’s grandson, Atticus says it is to prevent the interference of the NAACP and black lawyers using this case to further their cause.  Atticus tells Jean Louise that, in essence, black people are not ready to fully participate in society, and that he is part of a group that wants to prevent society from going downhill through their participation.  This not an uncommon viewpoint in the South during this time period, and it infuriates Jean Louise, even as she struggles to respond to it, agreeing with large parts of it, even as she is disturbed.

Jean Louise finds everyone around her seemingly changed, especially Atticus and Calpurnia.  While she (and we readers nostalgic for Mockingbird) may find past memories comforting, she is now, in her adulthood, tasked with coming to grips with the present.  Uncle Jack becomes our font of wisdom, telling Jean Louise, “it’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago.  It is hard to see what we are.  If you can master that trick, you’ll get along” (Lee 269).  In this phrase, we hear the echo of Atticus’s advice from Mockingbird, telling Scout to “learn a simple trick” about seeing things from others’ points of view.  Once again, Watchman shows us that perspective and truly seeing are important, and it pushes us, along with Jean Louise, out of the comfortable Mockingbird nostalgia.  As Uncle Jack points out, Atticus is a man, not a god, and Jean Louise must rebel against him, even “kill” him along with a part of herself, in order to “function[] as a separate entity” (so very Freudian!) (Lee 265).  Such startling diction!

I could easily relate to this–as one goes out into the world and has one’s own experiences, and then returns home, one has to to confront the nostalgia-shaped images of our childhood, appreciate them for what they are, and try to see our families and ourselves more clearly.  For Jean Louise, as for many of us, this is incredibly painful.

Things have changed in the South since Jean Louise was a child.  Black people are gaining ground in their fight for equality, and this has changed Atticus, Calpurnia, and the relationships among many of Maycomb’s citizens.  I thought that Jean Louise’s trip to see Calpurnia was one of the most interesting scenes in the novel.  Your thoughts, readers?  After the flashbacks in Watchman and reading Mockingbird, I longed with Jean Louise for warmth and recognition from Calpurnia, but not getting it leads to important realizations and growth for Jean Louise.

One of the other big lessons for Jean Louise, is that not only is Atticus not who she thought he was, and not only does he believe in racist principles she struggles with, she can still love him.  Throughout the novel, Jean Louise has struggled to imagine her future.  Will she marry Henry?  Will she return to New York, which doesn’t feel like home, but which has views she’s more comfortable with?  Will she settle in Maycomb, where she feels pressured to succumb to ideas of gender, race, and class that sicken her?  Uncle Jack suggests, nearly at the novel’s close, that Jean Louise consider coming “home,” because Maycomb could use someone like her (Lee 271).  He then tells her that, despite her instinct to run, she must go into town and pick up Atticus.  Even though their consciences have split, they don’t need to be a divided family.  He tells Jean Louise that “it takes a certain kind of maturity to live in the South these days,” and perhaps we all need “a certain kind of maturity” to see the truth, to grow with it, and not to turn our backs on those who believe differently from us (Lee 273).  Lee is trying to show us the real complexity that exists in both discovering what you believe and standing up for it, and reconciling having different viewpoints with those you love.  In other words, you can be friends or family with someone, and vehemently disagree on the shape of the world.  You can and should stand by your principles, but you don’t have to do that by clumsily cussing out your “enemy,” as Jean Louise does to Atticus (Lee 278).

This reminds me, not just of relationships with family and friends, but about recent comments about our Congress.  In the past, senators and congressmen spent more time in Washington and more time socializing.  Today, some lament that politicians of opposing views have little collegiate feeling, and that this makes it ever more difficult to come to the table for frank discussion on important issues.

I should take a moment to talk about Henry (Hank) Clinton, Jean Louise’s love interest in the novel.  I was interested to see what Jean Louise in love looked like, but this story line is certainly secondary to Jean Louise’s revelations about Atticus.  Henry helps Jean Louise to imagine what her future could look like in Maycomb if she is more traditional: married to Henry, agreeing with him and supporting him, giving Coffees like her Aunt Alexandra…but as a reader, I feel with Jean Louise that she could never really marry him.

I should also take a moment to mention Jem’s death, as Lee so startlingly does early on in the novel.  We then return to think about Jem later on, but the first mention is brief!  Though I missed Jem, and his initial absence, especially introduced so abruptly into the narrative, felt like plot device without much disguise, I can why Lee took him out of the story.  Jean Louise’s struggle, to fit with the themes of this book, had to be her own, and couldn’t be shared with a sibling.  (Though I can’t help wondering, what if?  Would Jem have believed as Atticus did?  Would the Jem that cried at injustice in Mockingbird have been just as set on it twenty years later?)

All in all, this novel made me think, and for that alone, I think it deserves praise.  It has moments which feel beautiful and powerful.  It further characterizes Jean Louise, Atticus, Uncle Jack, and Calpurnia, among others, and it characterizes the South at this time, which, as a Yankee, I always find interesting.  I was intrigued by the descriptions of the South as full of individuals, all seeing differently, all fighting for their own causes and resistant to blanket actions.  As I’ve explained, I felt like this is a very different, but still relatable, coming-of-age novel for an adult reader.  I also felt that the way Watchman complicates the characters and the struggles around race and other issues feels right for a time in our country where some of these conversations are coming (quite justly) back to the forefront.  Well worth a read, a think, and a conversation.

A Few Other Reviews:

Time Magazine

Washington Post

Telegraph

Articles on Congress

“Washington Gridlock Linked to Social Funk” – CNN Politics

There was one I remembered from NPR, but I couldn’t find the particular article–this one deals with the issue I mention briefly.

Research into the Paranormal

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Lately, one of the ideas kicking around in my brain is about the existence of ghosts, spirits, past lives, and some of the many things that may come with these.  I’ve done some reading, which has fed both my writing and my curiosity–a lot of Michelle Belanger, to start.  I read Paranormal State‘s Ryan Buell’s book, Paranormal State: My Journey into the Unknown.  I read most of the way through Sylvia Browne’s Psychic: My Life in Two Worlds.  In my fiction writing, I’m interested in exploring how traumas can shape people for better and worse.  The way that people deal with their pasts–with a haunting, either literal or figurative–is a big draw for me.

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I’ve had my tarot cards read as a walk-in in a few different stores over the last ten years, and those readings didn’t make much of an impression.  My husband went with me when I wanted to go to a local bookstore to hear Mark Anthony, Psychic Lawyer.  Last year, I had a phone reading with a psychic I knew more about, and that experience made a big impression on me.  I spent some time in few graveyards, photographing old headstones and reading the inscriptions.  My husband laughs at me when we drive by graveyards now and mocks me (lovingly), “What graveyard is that?”

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I’m following up on my interest whenever I can.  I’ve found this to be a successful way for me to stay inspired as a writer.  I remember my college writing professor urging us to give ourselves up to our influences so that we could learn what we needed to learn.  I’m doing it, to the best of my ability.  I’ve watched every episode of Paranormal State and Animal Planet’s The Haunted that I could access on Amazon Prime.  I’ve watched a fair number of Ghost Adventures episodes, and my husband always greets the sound of Zak Bagan’s voice with a joking impression: “What the f*** was that?”  I am impressed by Lorraine Warren, and researched Ed Warren, after seeing Lorraine on Paranormal State.  I learned the word “demonologist,” how dangerous it is to play with Ouji boards or conduct endless EVP sessions, that house blessings and Benedictine medals can be helpful ghost deterrents, that negative spirits feed on negative energy, and that filling one’s life with positive things can, among other things, help with a haunting.

Recently, I discovered The Haunting of… with Kim Russo.  And is anyone else watching the new Lifetime show, Ghost inside My Child?  There was a new idea for me.  I hadn’t spent much time thinking about past lives.  The young children on this show (if we have faith in the way the show presents information to us) seem to have real memories of past lives, down to specific and obscure details which match other places, times, and people–details which seem impossible for them to have known.  My husband and I are fascinated by this show (though we were disappointed they changed their hilarious creepy child singing three notes of music intro to a less hilarious piano intro).  A girl who remembers all the symbols of an ancient culture’s alphabet?  A boy who knows which Civil War regiment he served in and the little-known battle in which he died?  There’s a new parenting challenge: helping your child to make peace with her or his past life.  (At least, if we have kids, I’ll have an awareness of this, if it comes up!)

Is anyone else following some of these shows?  Any thoughts?  My research has definitely fueled my writing, though I do suffer occasionally from nighttime nervousness.  For about a week and a half in August, I woke up at either 1am or 3am (which I know, from ghost investigation shows, seems to be a paranormal time!) and felt like something was there, while at the same time feeling that it was all very likely a symptom of watching too many ghost shows.  I did try to wake my husband up one of the times, but he has the enviable gift of being able to sleep through anything….so, on the night I woke up at 3am and needed to go to the bathroom, I woke up my sleeping dog and got him to come down the hall with me, thinking: in the shows, the animals always know if the ghost is there, so I’m good.

While I’m fascinated with all of this, most of what I write I wouldn’t put in the “paranormal” box, though I don’t like strict categories for literature anyway.  I’m interested, above all, in how humans work, and for me, that’s a focus on trauma, memory, choice, and rituals.  Ghosts in literature work well as metaphors, but they can also be characters in their own right.  Only one of my short stories has a ghost.  My first novel has one.  My current novel has more.  We’ll see what happens in the future and where this will take me.  I’m still working on my beliefs.  I’ve met a lot of people who have had paranormal experiences.  It’s an interesting lens to bring to different events.  I definitely believe there are things that we don’t understand about the world around us.  I believe that sometimes, there are connections and events that seem to rely on an explanation beyond what we commonly accept as real or possible.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about these topics.  Do you believe in ghosts or spirits?  Do you believe in past lives?  Have you had a paranormal experience?

(All photos are mine, taken in the last few years in some of the cemeteries I’ve visited)

Surveys: Are you for or against? This will only take five minutes of your time…

I just participated in a phone survey.  My cell phone caller ID didn’t know who it was.  I’m waiting to hear back from a tree pruning company about cabling an old silver maple in our yard in need of help, so I answered.  I usually wait for the voicemail, but I didn’t this time.  Lo and behold, it was a political survey about Massachusetts casino gambling and my feelings on how I might vote in the upcoming election on this issue.  Political surveys intrigue me, so I decided to take it, only I wanted to ask how long it would take.  I thought the caller said fifteen minutes, and then she assured me “five–I don’t want to talk for fifteen minutes, no offense.”  I almost hung up there.  I get annoyed when the caller gets too edgy with me–you called me, right?  On a Sunday afternoon?  The last survey I took was on a Friday afternoon.  I didn’t make it all the way through that one; I actually ended up writing to the organization (of which I am a member) because I felt the caller was so rude.

I find it interesting to guess what the slant of the survey is and its purpose.  It can be interesting.  However, I think I’m often not the ideal person to be surveyed.  I don’t like picking “yes” or “no” on complicated issues.  My personality and my background as an English major always push me to look to the gray areas, to point out the qualifiers and the counterexamples.

Online surveys?  You’re shopping online and they ask you if you’d like to take a brief survey.  No, no I wouldn’t.  If they offer me a coupon or a chance to win something, then sometimes I will.  It’s just that easy, websites out there!

Anyway, I highly suspect that any time I spend taking surveys is pretty much wasted time.  Probably, I should avoid them altogether.  The chances are probably pretty low that I’ll be participating in a survey that gathers meaningful, important data.

I did, once, help conduct a phone survey when I volunteered a few hours for a political campaign.  It was interesting to be on the other end.  Mostly, people didn’t answer.  Some people were annoyed.  Some hung up.  A few took the survey.  We had pizza.  I met a few other people my age who seemed to have about the same rate of success.

Do you have any interesting survey opinions or experiences?  Take the poll below to tell me what you think of surveys (we’re getting meta here, buckle your seat belts.).

Great Shows that Got Cancelled, Installment 1: Better Off Ted

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So, sometimes shows I really like get cancelled.  In this post, I wanted to reminisce a little about one of them, Better Off Ted, starring Jay Harrington and Portia de Rossi.  In this comedy, Ted is (or was) a well-meaning single dad trying to do the right thing in a soulless corporation which builds new technological advances and tries every trick out there to maximize profit.

This show had a lot of great deadpan humor and strong writing that created hilarious situations.  Some favorites include the “Racial Sensitivity” episode, “Through Rose Colored Hazmat Suits,” and “Jabberwocky.”  The company often makes funny and devastating mistakes at the expense of its employees, showing its inability to understand people.  The show is broken up at times with commercials such as:

“Doing the Right Thing–it’s important.  What does it mean in business?  We don’t know yet.  We know what wrong is–actually, no we don’t, because we’re a successful company, not some boring ethics professor…Veridian Dynamics.  Right and wrong.  It means something.  We just don’t know what.”

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The company’s perspective is most often embodied by Portia de Rossi’s character, Veronica, who plays Ted’s boss and the supervisor of a section of the company.  After the company works its employees excessively in order to prepare for the upcoming “Relaxxxicon” event, and one employee dies, Ted protests the company’s response: a half day off for a memorial service.  Veronica explains why the company won’t change its policies, saying, “The company feels that if we ease up just because one person dies, it may encourage other people to die.”

In the “Through Rose Colored Hazmat Suits” episode of season 1, Ted brings his daughter, Rose, to work when his nanny is unexpectedly unavailable.  He doesn’t want to leave her at Veridian’s daycare when he discovers that the children in the daycare are being used for custodial work on the company grounds.  Rose has a large effect on Ted’s coworkers, Veronica included, at least once Veronica sees Rose.

Ted: “Did you even notice I have my daughter with me today?”

Veronica: “I look at people’s eyes when I talk to them, Ted, not at their waists.”

When Veronica asks Ted to go to the lab, where he cannot bring his daughter, he’s hesitant to let Veronica watch Rose:

Ted: “I have to watch Rose.”

Veronica: “I can wash Rose.”

Ted: “I said ‘watch her,’ not ‘wash her.'”

Veronica: “Hmm.  Even easier.”

Ted: “The fact that you thought I was going to go wash Rose right now makes me think you makes me think you may not know that much about children.”

Veronica: “I know they need to be cleaned.”

After some initial stumbling, Veronica bonds with Rose when she realizes that Rose is useful in helping her to manipulate her boss and employees.  People are reluctant to yell, cry, or make a scene in front of a child.

Veronica: “You are very effective at getting people to control their emotions.  That is a huge asset.”

Rose: “Um…thank you?”

Veronica: “Yes, thank you is correct.”

Did anyone else watch this when it was on?  For those Amazon Prime users out there, both seasons are available with your subscription through Amazon Prime Instant Video.  I hope you enjoy.  I had fun looking back on favorite lines and characters–this show had fantastic writing!

Unseen Connections: Art Articulating Life

When I first started tweeting (this summer), I underestimated Twitter as a medium for finding out all sorts of information and getting exposed to great art and ideas.  A few days ago, I encountered the work of Shuli Hallak, and I wanted to share it because I thought it was so provocative and current.  Perusing her work today also reminded me of the work of a close friend and fantastic artist, Gayla Martin, who is seemingly at the other end of the spectrum.

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Shuli Hallak’s “Servers that Write Text Data” from her photographs of Facebook Servers – used with permission

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A photograph of one of Gayla Martin’s sculptures – used with permission

Fast Company magazine recently featured Shuli Hallak’s work in a piece called “Invisible Networks: One Woman’s Fantastic Quest to Photograph the Living Internet.”  There are all sorts of images in on Hallak’s website.  She’s photographed all sorts of cables, panels, and electronics which look foreign to the eye, like something out of a sci-fi movie.  It is interesting to be able to see the internet, which can feel like a bizarre abstract concept to those who remember life before it began and then became so prevalent.  There is so much involved that we don’t see–wireless networks, data storage–the physical part of what connects us “invisibly” to people all over the world.

In the Fast Company interview, Hallak explains that there is a lot at stake when it comes to understanding the concrete dimension of the internet:

“There are a lot of implications. If we know what this stuff looks like, then we can actually speak about it and think about it. It’s not actually very complicated or difficult. We’re visual thinkers. And we can speak about things when we have a visual concept.”

This is certainly true.  Language has an intimate connection with thought.  This is why expressing ourselves and hearing others’ expressions is so important, for one thing.  Through expression we can learn about ourselves and others, and we can evolve and change.  By understanding more about how the internet works, we can better understand something that many of us use daily without considering how it works and its physical place in our world.  I like that some of Hallak’s photographs show the technology on its own as an alien thing, while some of them integrate technology with people or the environment.  Her work asks that question–is technology now a true part of our world?  Is there a way in which it is still separate?  Can we see it as organic and part of a system which includes humans and the environment?

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Shuli Hallak’s “Deep Sea Cable Recovery” – used with permission

Gayla Martin’s work at first seems very different.  She mostly works in thread and fabric, but lately has been making prints and paintings as well.  She has created organic weavings with variations in line, thickness, and light.  She’s created changes in space with large hoops suspended from the ceiling which have a rain of threads (ranging in length from two to ten feet) attached to them.  Martin hand dyes the thread and her work exudes personal energy.  The everyday materials, including a tea strainer (in the image above), remind one of home, and the processes involved in creating these pieces further add to their human feel.

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From Gayla Martin’s “Constructed Impressions” and “Weavings” – used with permission

For me, the common threads (haha–I’m not sorry for the pun, though!) are the way that lines are integral in defining space, as well as making something unseen visible and available for discussion.  With Hallak’s work, I see the straight lines of the data storage area and the curves of the cables and the way that space is defined by cables and rectangles.  There is an intricate apparatus that Hallak is making visible and available to us through her photography.  In Martin’s work, she’s added visual lines to articulate and describe invisible human ties to our surroundings.  Sometimes, her work shows our connection to our environment–places we grew up, or places that hold meaning for us.  Lines and weaving ask us to think about the very nature of connection: how are we tied to what we see and the people around us?  What if these lines are broken?  Are the  lines even?  Is the space around us rigid or fluid?

Both artists’ work, especially seen together, ask us to examine the line between the organic and the artificial.  Martin’s work uses organic, everyday use materials like thread, or even a strainer, to show us something unusual about our lives and make us consider them in a new way.  She often considers light and shadow, and when you see these pieces in an installation, part of the beauty and the experience is viewing them in context.  Hallak’s work shows how artificial objects which are part of advanced technology integrate with organic materials, like the ocean.  Hallak’s photographs, like “Multiple Subsea Cables” (below) can also show how these technological materials can imitate the organic: seeing the cables close up, they look like they could almost be vines, and we can see the fraying threads on them that remind us of weavings like the ones that Martin constructs.  There is a human element, even in very technological objects that we may imagine to be inhuman and abstract.

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Weavings by Gayla Martin – images used with permission

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Shuli Hallak’s “Mulitiple Subsea Cables” – used with permission

Both Gayla Martin and Shuli Hallak are exploring important and often abstract aspects of life through their art.  What do you think of their work?  What does it remind you of?

Special thanks to both Shuli Hallak and Gayla Martin for providing the images including here and giving their permission for their use in this blog post.  All images belong to them.  Please check out their websites: ShuliHallak.com and GaylaMartin.com; they have much more work than appears here!

Shuli  Shuli Hallak – You can also follow her on Twitter: @ShuliHallak

cupid3.jpg  Gayla Martin – You can also follow her on Twitter: @moxiegm

Removing the “vs.” from Genre vs. Literary

Exploring the internet yesterday, I ended up on the Electric Lit website, reading Andy Hunter’s post, “Ursula K. Le Guin talks to Michael Cunningham about genres, gender, and broadening fiction.”  Anything with Michael Cunningham’s name in the title will get my attention, and though I haven’t read enough Ursula Le Guin, I did enjoy The Left Hand of Darkness, and reading this article got me interested in reading more.

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Michael Cunningham (The HoursThe Snow Queen) says of our current literary period, “I feel like the most prominent aspect of this period is what I call ‘broadening.'”  He goes on to explain that “broadening,” for him, means “the sense of a much larger collective conviction about who’s entitled to tell stories, what stories are worth telling, and who among the storytellers gets taken seriously.”   The post, Cunningham, and Le Guin discuss the line between “literary fiction” (Cunningham, Toni Morrison, J.M. Coetzee…) and “genre fiction” (science fiction, fantasy, mystery, thriller, horror,…) and the effects of that line.

I think this is an interesting and important discussion.  I’m aware as I write this post, that even putting the parentheses above and including genre labels and authors plays into defining and supporting the line between literary and genre fiction.  I agree with Cunningham and Le Guin that this line is not always meaningful and can be harmful.  Cunningham asserts that ” some of the most innovative, deep, and beautiful fiction being written today is shelved in bookstores in the Science Fiction section.”  Many people, as this post points out, declare an aversion to science fiction and other forms of genre fiction, perhaps picturing people dressed up as Star Trek characters and imagining that aliens, ghosts, and romances offer little more than superficial fantasies.  However, literature in any genre can offer meaningful experiences to the reader, and there is a lot of variation within all of these genres.  (There’s also a lot that can be learned from studying Star Trek and the community that has evolved around it–work that I have not done, but I’m certain others have!)  Calling one part of fiction “literary” or “mainstream” tends to put other types of fiction to one side as less serious or important.  Le Guin calls this “the lingering problem: The maintenance of an arbitrary division between ‘literature’ and ‘genre,’ the refusal to admit that every piece of fiction belongs to a genre, or several genres.”

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This comment of Le Guin’s reminded me of Cunningham’s Specimen Days, which weaves together excerpts of Walt Whitman’s poetry with stories from different time periods, including a story set a future landscape with nonhuman characters.  While Cunningham is considered to be a solidly “literary” author, his work does cross these “arbitrary line[s]” and benefits from doing so.

I think Stephen King and Juliet Marillier are other authors who are often placed in genres (horror, fantasy), but whose work is character-driven and aware of the power of language.  Both of these authors explore, as Le Guin and Cunningham do, the way humanity functions under different circumstances.

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Le Guin is right that “genre” is often “used not as a useful descriptor, but as a negative judgment, a dismissal.”  Later in the same post, Le Guin says “But the walls I hammered at so long are down.  They’re rubble.”  I hope that this is true.  I think this post does acknowledge that the division between genre and literary does still exist, but I agree that there are moments of wonderful crossover.  Categories can be useful as lenses for looking at literature, but works can and do fit into multiple categories sometimes.

This is a great conversation, and I hope you’ll check it out!–though I quoted from it here, the conversation is much more in-depth on the Electric Literature website.

What do you think?  Is there a line between “literary” and “genre fiction”?  Should there be a distinction?  Are there authors whom you feel have been placed in a genre category whose work could be looked at with a “literary” lens?  Which genres would you put some of your favorite “literary” authors in?

 

 

 

Blog Title: “Unmapped Country within Us”

“There is a great deal of unmapped country within us which would have to be taken into account in an explanation of our gusts and storms.”

– George Eliot (Quote courtesy of Goodreads)

I wanted to take this post to write about where the title for my blog comes from.  I’m a fan of George Eliot’s writing, in particular The Mill on the Floss, Scenes of Clerical Life and Middlemarch.  I like Eliot’s view on the world and like that she examined the rules and norms of the world around her and wrote about her own observations.  Eliot lived an unusual life.  She was born with the name Maryann Evans in 1819, but she wrote under a male pseudonym and lived with her lover (who was already married to someone else) for several years.  (Click here for a PBS biography)

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

She wrote insightful critiques about the literature (and so, the life) of her time.  (Check out some of her essays here) She also wrote beautiful, passionate novels.  The passion in Eliot’s novels is perhaps what most appeals to me.  I love that the quote above talks about human passion in the form of “gusts and storms” as coming from the “unmapped country within” all of “us.”  We all have a psychological landscape, parts of it known and parts of it unknown, and certainly this is the source of much of our emotions and behaviors.  I liked the idea of all people having mysterious “countries” inside of us.  I think this idea emphasizes how important our humanity can be.  People are complex, and can contain whole worlds inside them.  To understand each other in moments of passion, whether positive or negative, we need to remember that all of us have a complex world inside us.

“Tom and Maggie” (public domain image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Here’s one of my favorite early passages from The Mill on the Floss:

“This attic was Maggie’s favorite retreat on a wet day, when the weather was not too cold; here she fretted out all her ill humors, and talked aloud to the worm-eaten floors and the worm-eaten shelves, and the dark rafters festooned with cobwebs; and here she kept a Fetish which she punished for all her misfortunes. This was the trunk of a large wooden doll, which once stared with the roundest of eyes above the reddest of cheeks; but was now entirely defaced by a long career of vicarious suffering. Three nails driven into the head commemorated as many crises in Maggie’s nine years of earthly struggle; that luxury of vengeance having been suggested to her by the picture of Jael destroying Sisera in the old Bible. The last nail had been driven in with a fiercer stroke than usual, for the Fetish on that occasion represented aunt Glegg. But immediately afterward Maggie had reflected that if she drove many nails in she would not be so well able to fancy that the head was hurt when she knocked it against the wall, nor to comfort it, and make believe to poultice it, when her fury was abated; for even aunt Glegg would be pitiable when she had been hurt very much, and thoroughly humiliated, so as to beg her niece’s pardon. Since then she had driven no more nails in, but had soothed herself by alternately grinding and beating the wooden head against the rough brick of the great chimneys that made two square pillars supporting the roof. That was what she did this morning on reaching the attic, sobbing all the while with a passion that expelled every other form of consciousness,–even the memory of the grievance that had caused it. As at last the sobs were getting quieter, and the grinding less fierce, a sudden beam of sunshine, falling through the wire lattice across the worm-eaten shelves, made her throw away the Fetish and run to the window. The sun was really breaking out; the sound of the mill seemed cheerful again; the granary doors were open; and there was Yap, the queer white-and-brown terrier, with one ear turned back, trotting about and sniffing vaguely, as if he were in search of a companion. It was irresistible. Maggie tossed her hair back and ran downstairs, seized her bonnet without putting it on, peeped, and then dashed along the passage lest she should encounter her mother, and was quickly out in the yard, whirling round like a Pythoness, and singing as she whirled, “Yap, Yap, Tom’s coming home!” while Yap danced and barked round her, as much as to say, if there was any noise wanted he was the dog for it.”

(Quote courtesy of Project Gutenberg – This is a link to the full text of the novel)

A little child who drives nails into a doll sh’s named the “Fetish” after being inspired by the “luxury of vengeance” she found in the Bible?  I’m in.  George Eliot makes fabulous characters.  Her books explore gender roles in fascinating ways as well.  I haven’t read them all, yet, but they’re on my mental to-read list!  Any other George Eliot fans out there?

Reading Adventures – Gone Girl, Dark Places

Don’t worry–no Gillian Flynn spoilers!  The only possible spoiler is about a long-gone episode of Nip/Tuck (see below).

After a day of recuperation after the fabulous Writer’s Digest Conference at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York, I’m reading to dive back into my blog.  Last week, I was away from home at a training, and met my friend and fellow writer, Lisa Pais on the train down to New York for the conference.  I’ll tell you more about the conference in my next post!

I wanted to share two of my latest reads.  I had heard a lot of buzz about Gillian Flynn’s novel, Gone Girl, so I started reading it last week.  While it didn’t grab me in the first few pages, I was soon hooked.  I loved the characters Flynn created and the way those characters surprised me.  I don’t tend to read psychological thrillers or mysteries, and it had been a long time since I’d read something with the flavor of Gone Girl.  I was impressed with Flynn’s level of detail and the way she tied everything together.  Wow.  I don’t think I could have managed to write that kind of novel!

Gone Girl

After Gone Girl, I was eager to add another Flynn novel to my Kindle for my train trip down to NYC.  I ended up deciding on Dark Places, about an adult who has grown up without her immediate family after they were brutally murdered when she was seven.  This novel hooked me immediately (although I was biased toward Flynn at this point!) and I had a hard time putting it down.  My stomach roiled in discomfort several times, but I loved the story and thought the plot and characters were again very well done.

I was reminded of the time period when my husband got me into watching Nip/Tuck.  Did anyone else watch this?  I loved and hated to watch it.  We were behind, so we were watching the seasons on itunes, episode after episode.  The characters were interesting, the plot was exciting, but during and after each episode, I usually felt like I was going to throw up.  After each episode ended, I would think to myself: Wow, I wish I hadn’t watched that.  I should stop watching this.  Then: Let’s click on the next one.  Maybe something good will happen to these characters in the next episode and no one else will get hurt or traumatized.  The arc which stuck with me the longest is probably the one with the crazy agent who had a penchant for making teddy bears…sometimes out of people…I’m shivering and cringing all over again just thinking about it.

Anyway, I liked Dark Places even better than Gone Girl.  For me, Dark Places led me into situations which were extremely enticing because they were bizarre; I had never imagined anything like many of the experiences Flynn’s protagonist, Libby has.

Dark Places

I was trying to talk my husband into fitting Flynn’s books into his schedule, and I was saying to him that I didn’t think I had such disturbing elements in my own writing, and then I realized…I actually do.  Maybe my writing isn’t as different from Flynn’s as I had at first imagined.  I have some sympathy for my own psychopaths and villains, and I know how they ended up the way that they did.  While my novels are not thrillers and don’t have the same feel as Flynn’s, there are some interesting parallels.

This reminded me that it’s important for me to read outside my usual genres and my comfort zone.  There is a lot that I can learn from top-notch writers in any genre.  Especially as a writer, it’s helpful to me to see how writers use the common elements of setting, characterization, plot, tension, etc. in telling very different stories.  In my writer’s critique group as well, though there are some connections that pop up in our writing, we are ultimately telling stories in several genres with different styles.  I love my writer’s group!

I’m also currently reading Omar Farhad’s Honor and Polygamy, which is even further from something I’d normally read.  I’m also in the middle of Kristina Riggle’s Keepsake, which is right in my comfort zone (and which I’m enjoying very much!).  Sometimes, I read books one at a time, but I do find that, especially in the summer, I have some time for reading multitasking, and my brain wants me to spread it a little thinner.

KeepsakeHonor and Polygamy

Anyone else had some recent experiences reading outside your typical genre?

(Images are linked to the sites where I got them)

“Where There’s Smoke” by Jodi Picoult – Review and Connections

While out and about in the car today, I used the Kindle Text-to-Speech feature to listen to Jodi Picoult’s new (FREE!) short story, “Where There’s Smoke.”  I loved it.  One of my all-time favorite Jodi Picoult novels is Second Glance (another is The Storyteller), and I’m excited that Picoult is again taking on ghosts and their interactions with the world of the living.  I love the way she did this in Second Glance: the novel remains character-driven and has a great plot as it incorporates elements of the paranormal.  Second Glance has a similar feel to Picoult’s other novels for me, and I think the strength of the characterization make this novel accessible, not only to those who enjoy paranormal novels, but to readers who tend to focus on commercial, upmarket, and women’s fiction which might not normally include any ghosts.

In “Where There’s Smoke,” the main character is Serenity Jones, a TV psychic receiving communication from spirits on the other side and struggling as we all do, to live life the best way she knows how.  I really enjoyed the story, finding Serenity easy to relate to despite my initial hesitation over her profession.  Though I’m interested in the paranormal (loving shows like Paranormal State, Ghost Adventures, and The Haunted), I sometimes feel skepticism when it comes to big TV psychic personalities and wasn’t sure what to expect with Serenity.  Well, I loved the story and the stakes that Picoult created for this character and those around her.  I’m looking forward to Picoult’s upcoming novel, Leaving Time.  This novel will include Serenity, and the short story definitely worked to hook me and cause me to breathe a sigh of disappointment when I saw that I’d have to wait until Leaving Time‘s October release date to find out more.

What are your favorite Picoult novels?

Do you find the paranormal interesting?