Book Spotlight: Lucky by Alice Sebold

TRIGGER WARNING: Lucky by Alice Sebold deals with the issues of rape, sexual assault, battery, trials, violence, sexual oppression, abandonment, and PTSD.

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Book Spotlight: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Here there be spoilers.

When I told the librarian who was checking the book To Kill A Mockingbird (TKAMB) by Harper Lee out to me, I told him I was doing so in prelude to reading Go Set A Watchman (GSAW). The man begged me not to read it. He said that Atticus wsa made out to be a racist. Since he’d read TKAMB as a child who idolized Atticus, he refused to believe that his hero would end up racist. I don’t think I even read TKAMB in high school. I might have seen the movie. So his spiritied dissuasion did not affect me. I wanted to read TKAMB, and I was going to read GSAW. I figured that I could read it with less dislike for it since none of my heros were being dismantled. This time.

Harper Lee is a good writer. She really is. I like the way the story unfolds in GSAW just as I did with TKAMB. Unlike with TKAMB, I had no idea of the actual plot of the book. After a while, I wondered to myself where Harper Lee was going to this story. When Zeebo’s grandson gets into trouble while driving, I thought another court case was going to be central to the story. Turns out that it doesn’t really go anywhere. The plot was an excuse for Scout to visit Calpurnia who, by this time, is old and broken at her grandson’s troubles.

In this story, Scout returns to Maycomb for two weeks to visit her now aged father, Atticus. He’s crippled by rheumatoid arthritis. His sister Zandra takes care of him. Older brother Jem long since died from the same kind of heart troubles that killed their mother. Scout goes on some dates with Hank, but she’s really not too into him. But it’s when Scout reminisces about games that she, Jem, and Dill played when they were young that I feel it.

I felt the magic in Lee’s writing. That’s when I knew exactly why the publisher, who read GSAW first because it was written first, told Lee to go back and write about Scout’s young life. All the magic in her writing is there. Lee wrapped up all the loose ends in TKAMB, like she didn’t in GSAW. That’s what makes TKAMB such a darling book. It’s about Scout’s life as a child as seen through her eyes, allowing for more innocent and open-eyed approach to the topic of racism in the South. GSAW did not have the same magic throughout. Still a good read.

And it’s really not clear to me that Atticus is racist until the end when Scout confronts him about his participation at a men’s meeting with Hank, Scout’s Maycomb boyfriend. A speaker rails against the Negroes (the word in the book and not my nomenclature). By association, Scout assumes Atticus holds those same extreme views until we get to hear from Atticus what it is he exactly believes.

Yes, Atticus is racist, but in more of a paternalistic way than in an “I hate them” kind of way. According to Atticus’ explanation, the relationship between the whites and Negroes in Maycomb County changed after the NAACP came in to try and get judges to start getting Negros on juries. Negroes started (shock! horror! dismay!) having an attitude and getting uppity. Well, hell no! That was not gonna fly with those Southern whites. They thought the right and proper place for Negroes was in obeisance to whites. Since Negroes weren’t gonna stay in their place, the whites were not gonna have that. Hence, the whites were organizing.

Worse, Atticus goes on to explain that the Negroes are like children. If the NAACP was going to come to Maycomb County to rile up all the Negroes to vote, then they were gonna vote in themselves all in a bloc (just like whites already do, Atticus, hello!!), and they had no business in goverment cuz they didn’t know anything.

Well, Atticus, now who the hell’s fault do you think that is? You enslave a people for centuries. Then you only begrudgingly free them. You try to keep them separate so you don’t have to deal with them or work with them. You don’t educate them the way you educate your own children. You keep them in grinding poverty and beat them down and kill them for the slightest social infractions. You use the power of the state, the courts, and the cops to injure and maim and kill and keep them down with impunity.

I only have one question:

WHAT DID YOU EXPECT?

If Atticus thought Negroes needed to be educated before they could run for government, then EDUCATE THEM!! TAKE SOME DAMN RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE SITUATION YOU CREATED, WHITE MAN! THAT’S what you do. You do NOT do whatever you can to keep the status quo. That’s not a real solution. And look at us! It’s decades later and not much has changed. Some, yes. But not enough. Oh, not nearly enough!

In any case, I think Atticus racism is besides the point of the book. The point of Atticus being racist is so that Scout can have a major blowout with her father who she has idolized. Scout learns that even her father, her idol, is a human being who is flawed with flawed views. They had it out. Now they can move on together as two adults instead of father and daughter. Sometimes, we have to accept that someone we love has a view that we hold anathema. If we do not idolize them, then we are more likely to do that.

And here we are back at my librarian friend who did not like that Atticus, his self-professed idol, ended up having some views that flew in the face of his prior knowledge of him. I find it interesting that he and Scout were in the same position. Yet only one of them was able to change, accept Atticus as a flawed figure, and move on.

Book Spotlight: Down the Rabbit Hole by Holly Madison

As part of my memoir writing diet, I have been reading memoirs about medical and mental illness. However, I saw that Holly Madison had written a memoir about her time living at the Playboy Mansion with Hugh Hefner. I figured it would be a fascinating read, even though not strictly related to the type of memoir I was writing. When my library request came in, I ran to get it and devoured it in two days, staying up past my bedtime to finish it.

I found Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny by Holly Madison to be fascinating and boring. Part of the reasons why it was fascinated me are inextricably linked to the reasons why I simultaneously found it boring until it became fascinating again, but for altogether entirely different reasons. Let me explain. As I have never been interested in either fame or being a Playboy bunny, I felt a deep interest in wanting to know what would make a person want those things that are foreign to my way of thinking. What would drive a person to want those things? I was hoping that I would find out, but I was disappointed.

What makes a story gripping is getting to know how a person’s life drives them to do what they do. Holly glosses over her childhood and fails to explain why her need for fame is so deep. She wants fame because she wants it, as if that is enough a compelling enough basis for a story. I don’t think it’s too much to ask of a writer, even when that writer is a former Playboy bunny. If you want me as a reader to care about your story, then I need to know how life has shaped you into needing fame to the degree that you do, especially when faced with adversity in the pursuit of that goal/need. I’m not sure that I got that. I think the phrase “lack of depth in the main character” applies here. As a result, I kept feeling bored even as I had to keep reading it. Even though it’s two days later, I am still annoyed by this. I also did a bit of eye rolling near the end when she exclaimed, more than once, about how they wanted “me!” for a show or a part. I mean, that’s all great for Holly as it is personally meaningful for her, but not necessarily for me, the reader.

Initially, the fascinating parts of the story are what you might expect in a tell-all biography and memoir: the he said, she said; the gossip; the name dropping; the partying; the inter-girlfriend fighting; the backstabbing; the inside peek to life at the Playboy Mansion as one of Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends; the clothing; the clubbing; the alliances made, then broken, and remade; the jockeying among girlfriends for status; the publicity and the fame. Even so, I kept yearning for more. Eventually, I do get it.

One piece of feedback I have heard as a writer is that your heroine must take action. She can’t just sit back and do nothing. Holly repeatedly describes herself as timid and meek and, throughout, seems to take a lot of verbal and emotional abuse from Hefner as well as the other girls, abuse that I am not sure I could have taken on the way to my dreams. In one jaw-dropping scene, Holly describes Hefner screams that at her that she is a cunt. She lets it slide, but my anger would have gotten the best of me. I could not imagine myself giving any other response, but to tell him “Fuck you, Hugh”, to pack my things, and to walk out the door. I have too much a sense of pride, a quick temper, and an arrogance of belief that I deserve to be treated well by others, just as I ought to treat others.

To me, the most exhilarating part (and the real story) of the memoir begins when Holly begins to say NO. She finally says NO to staying on as Hugh Hefner’s girlfriend; NO to attempts by others to capitalize on her fame as Hefner’s ex-girlfriend after she leaves the mansion; NO to letting her boyfriends’ attempts to control her; and NO to turning over Peepshow to another Playboy ex-girlfriend simply because of their shared past. She also says YES to being treated with respect, YES to a boyfriend who is shares her goals and dreams,  and YES to motherhood. Her daughter Rainbow is adorable.

If you’re a lover of entertainment and gossip and Hollywood, then you will likely find Holly Madison’s memoir less boring than I did, notwithstanding the writing itself, which is quite good. If you want a memoir where you need the heroine’s internal life and character to be a meaningful driving force in the unfolding of her life, then maybe you should put this one down and pick up another one.

Why I Read The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I tend to read a lot of YA fantasy and not a lot of mainstream books. Although I read a lot of fiction as a child, I found a fiction I read as an adult to be disappointing. As a result, I eschewed a lot of books that have been hawked by Oprah and/or made their way onto the New York Times bestsellers lists. I’d made a couple of attempts to read David Foster Wallace and Neal Stephens, but I simply couldn’t get into their writing style.

Now that I’m digging into writing as a field, I decided that I wanted to try and read more widely. Since I’m writing a memoir, I started with reading a few memoirs. I had bought two books earlier in the year by Larry Brooks, author of many books and owner of Storyfix.com, Story Physics and Story Engineering. I haven’t a degree in creative writing, and, after going back two times, I think I’m pretty much done with that. But I need to learn and I want to learn, so I’m trying to learn from those who have gone before.

After reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (twice), I began to read Story Engineering. One section is dedicated to breaking down The Hunger Games; the other, to brekaing down The Help by Kathryn Stocktett. I decided to read The Help before I got to the section on it so that I could understand better why Brooks says it works. I had picked it up, along with The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare and Watership Down by Richard Adams. I knew I wanted to read The Help last so I could then pick up Story Engineering  and learn from it better.

Yesterday, I started reading The Help. I could not put it down. I mean, I did put it down so I could do things like eat dinner, write in my journal, and get ready for bed. I continued reading in bed until it was done. The pacing was phenomenal and continuous level of tension kept that story moving right along. The racial tensions were nail biting, as you know the consequences of breaking racial barriers and speaking against the bigoted norm, especially in the South, against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Era, the murder of NAACP Secretary Medgar Evars, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, were murderous. Those kinds of racial tensions continue to exist between the police and the African American communities todays, even if the social community has tampered down some of its racism. I will leave it to African Americans to determine how and to what degree it has gotten any better.

I particularly liked how, instead of a third person viewpoint, we it from the first person perspective of three characters: Aibileen and Minny, two of the African American help, and Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a white writer who wants to write more than she want to appease the bigoted society circles through which she runs. Skeeter’s own nanny, Constantine, disappeared while she was in college, and no one will tell her why she’s gone. Each woman’s chapters have a unique voice. You feel kindly towards Aibileen, the peacemaker, riled up and rooting for Minny, the back-talker, and biting your nails over Skeeter’s to cross over the racial lines, meeting with Aibileen and Minny secretly in Minny’s kitchen. Skeeter risks her own life to meet and gather the maids’ stories, along with the stories of about 10 other maids who have worked for white families all their lives and the struggles that resulted. The root of Skeeter’s desire to write is not simply a desire to write, but a way to heal the hurt that has come with her maid’s disappearance, whom she loved and missed deeply. For me, this is the emotional pin that makes the white woman’s story believable. All the women put their lives at risk to get the stories onto paper, edited, and out the door in time to meet the New York editor’s pre-Christmas holiday deadline and so that maybe it will go into print and change the lives of them and everyone in Jackson, Mississippi.

I loved all these characters, and I highly recommend The Help by Kathryn Stockett to anyone who hasn’t read it yet. I may just go reread it again myself.

Buddha Wisdom in Bugs Bunny

Would you like to shoot me now or wait til you get home?
Bugs Bunny to Elmer Fudd

In this Bugs Bunny cartoon, Bugs demonstrates the perfected art of deflection by reframing questions, hooking Daffy Duck’s anger, and then watching Daffy enable his own destruction: Elmer Fudd shoots Daffy Duck at Daffy’s insistence while a self-satisfied Bugs Bunny looks on.

Let’s pretend that Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd are not present. Only you, Bugs Bunny, remain, and you are confronted with a question about how to handle your distressing events. What would your answer be? Would you want to address the situation as it occurs? Or would you wait and push it away, hoping to dealing with whatever problem confronts you? This is not a pedestrian question, but one that the Buddha explored.

Feeling stuck occurs when you perpetually elect going home, but then never arrive. You walk around the same rotary of thinking without ever taking an exit. You retrace your steps to the beginning and then walk the same path, hoping it leads you to another destination.  You try running through the solution, but you are ejected backwards by the invisible fence of your subconscious. Injured and bruise, you get up and scratch your head.

The only way we can ever truly be free of our old habits is to face our problems where we are, or go home and face them there. See your efforts of perpetual avoidance for what they are: an effort to protect yourself. From what? Only you know what it is.  What are you afraid of? Write it down. As Charlotte Kasl, Ph.D., writes in her book If the Buddha Got Stuck, “If there’s no story, there’s no fear.” (If you need help charting your fear-filled waters, I highly recommend this book.)

What’s the story of your fears? How do they hold you back? How do you benefit from these bad habits? What is truly at the core of your fear? If you take the time to write down your story and to honestly examine how you got where you are, you might just be able to finally exit out of your unhappy rotary and embark on a new path.

Then, it will no longer be a question of whether to take the shot now or later; it will be about accepting what is, figuring out how to address it, and moving on.

Virtual Unreality

On my ride home from the gym, I listened to a segment on NPR called The Takeaway. One part asked the question, Is Technology Dehumanizing the Workforce? The featured guest was Simon Head, author of Mindless: Why Smarter Machines are Making Dumber Humans. Mr. Head tells about the part of his book where he interviewed a former Amazon employee who worked in their fulfillment warehouse. 

In Amazon’s fulfillment center, employees wear machines that time them on exactly how long it should be taking them to perform tasks. If you are late, even by seconds, the machine beeps at you incessantly and records your lateness. Multiple latenesses can earn you demerits and termination.

I think I would rather hang myself with a sheet. Gave me pause about my Amazon Prime membership. 

During the same segment, they discussed the news that Facebook bought Oculus VR, a virtual reality gaming company, for $2 billion. The product draw was Oculus’ Rift, a virtual reality headset, that Zuckerberg sees as a communications platform. In discussing the application of the headset to gaming, cofounder Palmer Luckey (I think it was him) talked about the Rift allowing gamers to be in an immersive gaming experience. And I got to thinking about that.

Why do we keep calling it virtual reality? Isn’t the point of these devices is to allow us to see things that are not there and to have experiences that we could not otherwise create? There’s nothing real about virtual reality. If you ever saw Star Trek, the starships had rooms called Holodecks, which allowed someone to enter a completely fake world and experience it as if it where real. But these things are not virtual reality. For us, when we enter these spaces, it becomes our reality. 

I never really thought about it, before but I think that we should be calling it unreal reality because these experiences are simultaneously both unreal and real. 

Have you ever seen the anime Serial Experiments Lain? If you enjoy anime, I highly recommend it because it is related to this subject and handles it in a very interesting way. It’s not a true to life demonstration, as virtual reality itself is not, so don’t hold me to this. 

 

 

 

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Artists Way Cover ArtLast week, I decided to crack open a book that I have owned twice, The Artist’s Way by artist and writer Julia Cameron. I bought the book the first time when I was in my early 20’s. Back then, I was terrified by my desires to be an artist that I let the book sit on my shelf untouched for many years. I even gave it away at one point.

Sometime last year, I bought another copy. Between graduate school, packing, and moving, the book remained unopened and unused.

Back to last week: I decided that I would start adding practice writing in a journal in addition to my daily blog posts. I figured I would never get anywhere editing my novel if I tried to sit down without any kind of warm ups. I also decided to start reading the book.

Ms. Cameron is a 12 week, theme-oriented weekly course where you tackle your creative obstacles one by one. She recommends two things: first, daily writing practice that she calls morning pages because you are supposed to write them first thing in the morning; and, second, taking yourself on an artist date wherein you go and have some fun to feed your creative side and keep your creativity burning.

Both of these basic tools are easy enough. I already planned on doing the first suggestion, and I am thrilled to consider implementing the second. What shall I do next? What are your suggestions? Ideas?