Monday, March 16, 2009

The Virgin of Small Plains and Proof of God

This week I needed to read a short story by a female author. I chose Proof of God, by Holly Goddard Jones, with some crazy idea that it might have some paranormal or other-worldly content. I was coming off the reading of "Virgin" and hoped for another spirit to intercede in the story. It didn't.

1. Compare/Contrast.
I think the characters in both pieces were very clearly described and developed in the length of space/time given each. There were clearly characters I think I was supposed to connect with, like Abby and Mitch in Virgin of Small Plains and Simon in Proof of God. Each had a pretty easy plot to follow. There was plenty of rising action in both pieces, and clear climactic content. The theme of Virgin was mostly about redemption, as it was with Proof of God. "Proof" told the story of a young man's life changing relationship as he comes to terms with his homosexual feelings. Characters in both stories really had issues with relationships and being able to trust those who they were closest to. They also struggled with discovering and standing up for self, and for true happiness. I much preferred reading The Virgin of Small Plains. I wasn't too convinced that Proof was genuine. It just seemed sort of fantastical or "fake".

2. Differences due to gender of author?
I'm not sure that gender of the author had anything to do with the differences in these stories. I think they were mostly differences in the style of the writers, independent of whether they were men or women. I think as a woman, knowing that Proof of God was written by a woman, I expected the story to be more sympathetic to Simon and his predicaments. It kind of felt like Simon was being judged, which turned me off.

3. Review short story.
In Proof of God, Simon is a young man who is coming to terms with his homosexual identity. He has a father who is controlling and judgemental. Simon is dealing with his feelings and is still "in the closet" to everyone around him. He meets and befriends another young man, Marty, who Simon begins to spend all his time with. Marty and Simon become best friends, but Simon begins to become romantically infatuated with Marty. The story really confused me at this point, because it led me to believe that Marty may also have been gay. Marty, being a womanizer, really says and does some things that I felt could have led Simon on.

Marty ends up trying to "help" Simon, when he finds out that Simon is a virgin. He tries to arrange for Simon to have sex with a young lady Marty had just met and had sex with recently. I wasn't too sure about Marty's intent, and wondered if he didn't arrange all the upcoming events in an effort to convince both Simon AND himself, that they should be "manly".

Marty and Simon sneak into the Felicia's dorm room, where Marty tries to get her stoned and vulnerable. He tries to lead Simon in a gang rape of Felicia. When it all goes bad, the boys panic and hurt the girl. The story comes full circle when Simon tells his father about the whole thing, and Simon's dad tries to help him cover up his participation in the events of the night.

I just didn't really care for the story. It seemed really "fake", if that makes any sense. I just couldn't hardly accept that Simon's dad was okay with his son's participation in all of that, rather than accept that Simon was gay.

4. Reflection.
I liked Virgin of Small Plains because of the very close knit community and the suggestion of a little paranormal activity, when the cancer patient is pelted with flowers from the tornado, and when she sees the young lady in the field as she crashes and dies. It lent an air of mystery that extended beyond the story.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Mystic River and The Empty House

I read The Empty House by Nathan Oates, with this week's novel, Mystic River by Dennis Lehane.

1. Compare and Contrast.
These two readings were the most diverse of any two pieces I've looked at this session. As a matter of fact, they were almost exact opposites in everything. House was a story that unfolded in Guatemala, among communities of poverty and third-world ideals. Mystic River unfolded between two inner-city communities divided by class and by a murky river.

The characters of Mystic River were carefully described and the reader was given many opportunities to know and build opinions about each of them. Besides their depth, there was a difference in that there were lots of characters to support and contradict others. The few characters of Empty House were flat and it was hard to identify or bond with them because of that.

The entire concept of "mystery" was prevalent throughout Mystic River, in that there were questions that arose about many different issues, from marriage and relationships to murder and extortion. It seemed that the only "mystery" in Empty House was that one character disappeared. The rest of the story takes shape when the brother of the missing character goes to Guatemala to retrace his brother's steps. As the reader, one is given closure at the end of House, when we find out the fate of the missing brother. However, there is no closure for the brother, who's story just drops off.

2. Author gender differences.
Between the novel and the short story (both written by men), I saw no connections nor any major discrepancies that should be attributed to gender of author. However, I would like to note that I've begun to see a little difference between the six weeks of short stories and author gender. It seems to me, that the short stories written by women are appearing to pan out with more full descriptions of characters. There appears to be more intent by the female authors to have readers emotionally connect with the characters of the stories.

3. Review of short story.
I really didn't care much for The Empty House. Although it began as an interesting story about the mysterious disappearance of a journalist in Guatemala, it soon dawdled off with telling another story about the journalist's brother who comes to Guatemala to try to find out what happened or at least come to terms with it all. The story then shifts back and forth between the journalists' last few days (in third person omniscient) to the brother's search (in first person). Once the fate of the journalist is finally apparent, the brother's story is abandoned. I couldn't tell if I was supposed to assume that the brother ever found out anything, or if he was just going to return to the U.S. frustrated. There was just no challenge for the reader; no "wow", nor even a "hmmmm".

4. Reflection.
Having nearly reached the end of this session's readings, I've begun to figure out that I have specific tastes in the stories that we have read. I guess one of the things that I can specifically say that I enjoy those stories which have characters of true personal conviction and strength, yet who demonstrate some endearing human weakness. I always assumed that I would prefer the "larger than life", superhero type good-guy. But I'm finding a pull toward more realistic human behaviors in characters.

I had seen the movie some years ago, and had hoped for some big differences between the text and the film. I think the most glaring difference between the two (considering it's been many years since I saw the movie) is that I don't remember there being much emphasis on Celeste and her relationship with Dave. The book really spent a lot of time with those two characters, and I think it made a difference in my reaction to Dave's demise.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Eleven on Top/A Different Road

What's with the new website at Baker? I can't find a link to the blackboard or to email! I'm sure I'm overlooking something, but my goodness, I've searched until I'm seeing double...

Anyway, my readings this week were the novel Eleven on Top by Janet Evanovich and the short story A Different Road by Elizabeth Strout.

1. Compare/Contrast. The novel became an instant favorite, and I plan on reading the rest of the series...someday. Even though I was dropped into the middle of a series, I thought the author did a good job easing the new reader into the life of the main character, Stephanie Plum. The novel begins with a random explanation of a memory from one of Stephanie's past jobs, and then ties into her current job. The development of the characters begins right away, with brief but succint descriptions of each character. The figurative language was extremely helpful in getting me to "see" the environment and the characters of the story. Not once did I feel that I was missing some key information, which is what I feared when I learned that this was the eleventh in a series.

On the other hand, the short story was extremely vague with immediate ennuendo about some past event in the lives of the main characters. I felt that I got a full description of the physical natures of the characters, but that the personalities of the characters were purposely hidden and only unfolded in little increments along the way. The vagueness of the characters and the implications that "the past event" had real significance in the development of their personalities kept me reading to find out, just what in the world was going on with the Kitteridges. Henry and Olive were likeable enough, but I think this is because the author was careful to reveal that any odd behaviors in these two should be excused because of "the event".

The plots of these two readings were wonderfully scripted. Being a continuation of a series, Eleven on Top was a situational episode that a reader could identify and follow to conclusion within the single novel. Evanovich gave a fulfilling and complete story so that any reader could pick up the book and enjoy it, without knowledge from the prior novels. There was plenty of description to help me identify with the characters and to clearly understand how the mystery of Stephanie's stalker was carefully interlaced with ongoing relationship developments. As the plot unfolded, so did my understanding of Plum, Moretti, and Ranger. Each development in the case brought new insight and a renewed intrigue to keep me reading further. I had a hard time putting the book down.

The plot of the short story was completely weaved through a memory, with only a very small portion in the "current" state of the situation. The development was circular, in that we are introduced to modern day Olive and Henry, and are taken immediately from Olive's car into a memory where "the event", and therefore the story, unfolds. Then, once the reader is given a full understanding of the event and how it changed the lives of the Kitteridges, the plot circles back to the "current" state and Olive's car, where the reader is treated to a whammy of a surprise ending. Olive's character, and her life to date had come full circle.

2. Gender differences.
I think a man or a woman, either one, could have pulled off the writing of either of these. However, I think the fragility of the nature of both Stephanie and Olive were handled by the authors in such a way that, my being a woman made it easy for me to "trust" that they were going to give me everything I needed eventually. It felt like some unspoken bond between the author and myself was there when I opened the pages and began reading. I never felt frustrated about the mysteries, only invigorated. I really feel that the vulnerabilities of these two characters was pointed out clearly, and that if a man had done the "pointing out", I would have felt like it was judgmental and that these vulnerabilities were weaknesses.

But having a female pointing out these same features, I was more relaxed. I felt it was more a revealing of the vulnerabilities of all women, and that I was free to feel sympathy for these characters. When Stephanie fixated on donuts and sex in some really stressful times, I felt sorry for her and felt that she really needed some release from the craziness around her. When I found out Olive's big secret at the end, I wasn't repulsed. Rather, I was sympathetic to the "poor dear".

3. Review of A Different Road.
This short story is about the change that one major and stressful event can cause in the lives of people. The reader is told that the big event changed the lives of everyone involved, but focuses primarily on the effects it had on Olive Kitteridge.

The story opens as Olive has just come from a shopping trip to buy material for some project. Henry and Olive Kitteridge are in their sixties, and live a somewhat normal and civilized life in a small community. Their lives seem fulfilling, except for their son's unexpected marriage and moving to another state. They appear to be caring and loving to one another, after many years of marriage.

Then, through the memory of Olive as she drives home from the store, we are transported back in time to one evening in June. On their way home from an evening out with friends, Olive ends up in an emergency room with what could be food poisoning, but is most likely (and more believably) just indigestion. Due to some wierd exchanges between Olive and the medical staff in the ER, she ends up in a hospital gown in a treatment room. It is here that "the big event" happens. Two masked men enter the ER, taking hostages, apparently seeking drugs. Olive identifies the two men as Pig Face and Blue Mask - Pig Face being a large, scary man, and Blue Mask seeming confused and perhaps even frightened. While Pig Face conducts the business out in the ER, Blue Mask is assigned to sit in a closed room with the hostages.

The scenario is punctuated with moments of terror and rage, as the nervous Blue Mask and his hostages become more agitated. In Olive's mind, Henry reacts rather poorly to it all. Although her disappointment in Henry is subtle, it is present several times throughout the night. The event ends with a flurry of armed police and the capture of the two criminals.

The reader is given a little insight into the distance that now seperates Olive and Henry, in the aftermath of the event. Both seem to have changed personalities, and their relationship with each other has become strained, and at times, uncomfortable. They do not often discuss what happened that night, and they seem to be shutting down, both individually and as a couple. Near the end of the story, Henry and Olive have tried to have a discussion about the event, but to no avail. The only things they can focus on are the little annoyances they had with each other throughout that night, instead of the grave danger they had been placed in. Henry says, "Olive, we were both scared that night...We were both scared. In a situation most people in a whole lifetime are never in. We said things, and we'll get over them in time." But it is clear that neither one of them has yet been able to let go, and there is no probable recovery in the near future.

The big surprise ending comes when the reader finds out that Olives trip to the store had been to purchase material for something she is making for Blue Mask who is now in prison.

I liked the story format. There was no real mystery throughout it, other than some blanketed feeling that something signficant has changed about Henry and Olive's relationship. The big reveal is just how severe their relationship, and Olive's psyche have been damaged. I thought it was a worthy ending, and justified the way the author provided all the data in a memory.

4. I really liked both reading this week. I had taken Eleven on Top with me everywhere the week I read it. It initiated a discussion with my mentor, at a basketball game of all things. She recognized the cover and told me she has read the whole series. She jumped into a major discussion about which man Stephanie should end up with, Moretti or Ranger. It was fun to discuss generalities with her, but she was unable to recall the specifics of that one novel, because each novel has its own story and plot.

I am puttingEvanovich's series on my read list for "someday" when I have time. I really liked it.