Reading Paul with Children

An image of Paul thinking about what to write to the people of Corinth.

It’s relatively simple to make a picture book for children out of the stories in the Old Testament–Noah’s ark, David and Goliath, Daniel in the lion’s den, the Good Shepherd of Psalm 23. Likewise, the life of Jesus contains a wealth of simple, visual stories–Zaccheus climbing into the tree, feeding the 5,000, calming the storm, walking on water. But there’s not as much scope for child-level storytelling in the early years of the followers of The Way. Those letters from the apostles get pretty theological, and don’t lend themselves to visual storytelling.

But Chris Raschka has made a wonderful picture book out of all the letters of Paul! Each two-page spread contains a distillation of one letter along with an illustration of Paul writing, as well as some items he might typically have around him as he wrote. In some images he’s eating or drinking, in some he looks pleased and in others down,

An image of Paul reading over a letter and looking downcast.

in some he’s in jail,

An image of Paul writing a letter from jail in Rome.

in others he’s got company.

Paul sits with Timothy. They are having tea.

Usually, the messages are uplifting.

An image of Paul's advice to think about things that are pure, lovely, and good.

Sometimes, Raschka chooses one that scolds.

An image of Paul saying he's glad his last letter upset his readers because sometimes we need to be upset.

But his distillation shows something that I never noticed about Paul: how important friendship was to him. In many of the two-page spreads, Raschka takes room to note who Paul sends greetings from, and who he wants the readers to greet for him: “Greet Priscilla and Aquila. Come see me soon. Only Luke is still with me” (II Timothy). “Luke, the doctor, and Demas say hello” (Colossians). It makes Paul feel so human, and less like a Big Theologian. He was a person who travelled around and relied on his friends in this very young faith. And he was writing to friends, to people he knew and who knew him. The letters feel more intimate.

Which reminded me of listening to a friend read the entire letter to the Ephesians at a Bible study. Paul’s letters are so meaty that we rarely hear them as the early church did: out loud in one sitting. I was surprised at how positive the letter felt, and how cared for I felt after listening. The letter seemed like a long prayer, like Paul was pouring out his hopes and prayers for his friends in Ephesus, and telling them what they needed to hear in order to be encouraged and keep going. Raschka’s book inspires that same feeling.

I highly recommend Paul writes (a letter).An image of the two-page spread of Paul's letter to the Romans.

Strip Away the Weirdness and You Get Good News

I have a confession to make: I’ve never read Revelation on my own. In fact, I’ve avoided it because it seemed like a book for Christian conspiracy theorists, numbers obsessives, and end-times enthusiasts — none of which I am. All those apocalyptic images of battles, beasts, horsemen, etc., are so distracting and confusing. Not to mention scary.

The Good News of Revelation, by Larry Helyer and Ed Czyewski is an antidote to all that.

The authors do not bend themselves backwards to try to make sense of those distracting images for the contemporary reader. They get down to the story basics:

Who were the people this was originally written to?

What was happening in their lives?

What did they need to hear from God?

How did Revelation give them what they needed?

I love drilling down to the core of a story, and I’ve found it so fruitful, in my own spiritual life, to use my imagination in concert with cultural research into what life was like for the people we read about in the Bible — this book was right up my alley.

Helyer and Czyewski begin each section of the book with a short story, each of which is told from the point of view of a different person who was involved in the writing, disseminating, or receiving of this communication from John. These were wonderfully grounding: a real person wrote Revelation, and real people read it and passed it along in spite of real threats to their personal safety. The stories ran the gamut from interesting to truly moving. The final one is my favorite: Lydia, whose husband was dragged away by Roman soldiers, poring over the scroll at night:

“As the rising sun made it easier to read the scroll in front of her, she traced her finger over the small letters once again. One particular line caught her eye every time, ‘He will wipe away every tear.’ She thought of the lonely nights crying by herself and those moments before bedtime where her boys cried out for their father. They didn’t feel safe. She didn’t feel safe. She didn’t know how much more she could take. While the details were vague about God’s new home for his people, she couldn’t stop reading about Jesus wiping away every tear. As good as that sounded for some day, she needed that now. She needed God to step in and deliver her. She needed God to protect and provide for her boys” (p.84).

Phillip’s response to her questions aren’t entirely satisfying, but he sums up the gist of the letter:

“Well, the point of the letter is that God is already victorious. We just don’t see it yet. However, there will come a day when God visibly rules. We don’t know what this New Jerusalem will look like, but the point is that Rome’s days are numbered. While we need to persevere for today, there will come a day when God will reward us with his presence and peace, wiping away every tear.”

All (what I think of as) the weirdness is in service to that basic message, that basic good news.

There is more to Revelation than that, of course. There are specific messages to the seven Asian churches about what they’re doing well and what they need to work on or root out of their congregations. There is prophecy, which the authors connect to the prophetic writing in the Old Testament and define as “inspired speech that appealed to the listeners to repent and to put their complete trust in the Lord;” it can reveal God’s future plans, but doesn’t necessarily give us a “blueprint of the future” (p.8). There is also apocalyptic writing that communicates the fight between good and evil via visions, symbols, and images that would be able to be decoded by those in the know, but opaque to outsiders — and that assured readers/listeners that not only will God win, but God already has.

One of my favorite writing teachers, Lisa Cron, says this about story: “Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution–more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on t0” (Wired for Story, p.1). In Revelation, John is given a heck of a story to tell the seven churches of Asia, with lots of flashy elements to get them to pay attention and to help them connect this story to stories they’ve heard before, but it is, at root, a story about what and who to hang on to, and encouragement to keep hanging on.

As I read The Good News of Revelation, other stories kept coming to mind: Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Percy Jackson. Each of them, essentially, contains the message that there is evil, there will be difficultly, you will have to choose your path, evil will come at good over and over again, there will be pain and even death for you and those you love, it matters how you treat everyone, even those “lower” than you, good (and love) will eventually triumph. This is also the message of Revelation.

Please note that Helyer and Cyzewski do not make this connection; that’s on me. You see, I love those stories. Seeing echoes of them in Revelation may give me a way in to a book I’ve avoided. As will having (finally) read all the Old Testament prophets. As will having read The Good News of Revelation. At the glacial rate at which I’m reading through the Bible, I might be at Revelation by the end of the year; I’ll report back then.

The authors are running a Goodreads giveaway, or you can just go ahead and buy it: Amazon | Barnes & Noble.

On saying goodbye

This post was originally going to be about jealousy and stupidity and a long-overdue apology. You see, I like to think of myself as supportive of my fellow writers. If you are a friend, and you have a blog, I will not only read it, but most of the time, I’ll let you know I read it. I try to encourage my writer friends, commiserate with them. But I’ve been in possession of a slim volume of short stories for over a year, stories written by one of my favorite cousins, Rodney Hart. I bought it as an ebook the first day it came out, so at first my excuse was that I didn’t like reading on my iPad. But then he gave me a physical copy. Still nothing.

What’s worse is that it wasn’t accidental. I avoided them. Out of stupid jealousy. Because here I’d been writing with the dream/goal of publication for years, submitting work and getting rejected over and over, and he quits his job and within several months, self-publishes a collection of short stories.

I’m not proud of my jealousy, but I can’t hide from it, either. So I apologize to Rod, here in public: sorry I was such an idiot.

And then this week I got sick of myself (this is so often my motivator) and finally read RockNRoll Shorts: Tales From a Local Musician’s Road. Most stories are vignettes from the lives of gigging rock and roll musicians, with band fights and money woes and grimy bars and the transporting community-making power of music. There are some great moments, like in “Rednecks and Soul,” about an African-American singer-songwriter playing in a redneck bar; Marceau’s interactions with a bar customer he calls “Party Naked” (because that’s what it says on his shirt) are really great, both funny and classy. The story made me want to hear Marceau play. This is a great description from “Lost Dead and Saved”:

They grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, a sludgy river town Mark Twained to death with no music scene and coffee shops as the only venues.

Love that. And this reminds me of a hundred similar conversations with musicians, from “Lost Dead and Saved”:

“You know, ‘Reeked of Death’ would be a great band name,” Vinnie said, and Benny smacked him upside the head in honor of Mush.

But then there’s the story that hijacked my planned post about writerly jealousy, “Beautiful Night to Relive.” It details several days Rod spent camping on my parents’ beach a few months after his mother died suddenly and unexpectedly. My aunt was a bright spark of a woman, genuinely delighted in so many things, a writer of stories for her grandchildren, an encourager extraordinaire. She was only a few months from retirement and the freedom to visit her kids and grandkids as often and for as long as they all wanted. And he never got to say good-bye.

In the story, he’s sitting on the deck when he first hears her voice:

“Is this the place that’s going to save me?” she sang, and the wind was her mirrored symphony, and for the first time since her funeral, I wept.

The next time, it’s when he can’t sleep, and he’s counting “the seconds between the waves”:

“It’s a beautiful night to relive,” she sang.

I opened up the tent to look around. I started back toward the steps, and there she was, slowly descending without walking, a light behind her and a sound of a symphony in front of her.

“It’s a beautiful night to give back what you get,” she sang. She got near the bottom of the steps, and her face had a wide goofy grandma smile, and her arms were extended. “Beautiful,” she sang, and the chorus behind her intensified.

I started to walk toward her, and she held out her arms, and I was just a few feet from her.

Then she was gone, and the silence thundered in my ears, and I stood motionless for what seemed like hours.

I can see this.

There are more sightings, more singing, some words of wisdom. There’s a conversation that I loved between him and my brother. Even some humor at the end about her directional impairment. But mostly, it’s a deep and good story about grief and loneliness and facing loss — and how amazing a place a Lake Michigan beach is.

The thing is, he’s not the only one in the family who’s seen a loved one after they died.

Given that we grew up in the rather heady Christian Reformed faith and, as a clan, are not generally given to emotional displays, we’re not who you’d think would be open to seeing those who’ve passed on. But we are.

When I was 9 or 10, I saw my Opa (Dutch for grandfather) who’d died the previous year. I was sleeping over at my cousin Esther’s house and woke up some time in the very early morning, when there was a haze of light coming through the curtains — her pink curtains, in her pink room, with the pink shag carpeting. And then there was my Opa, standing at the foot of my bed, canted forward slightly at the waist, as was his way. He made a calming gesture, not quite a wave. It was weird, but I wasn’t afraid. I was comforted.

I mentioned it to Esther in the morning, and when she said she’d seen it, too, I got huffy about her wanting to be a copycat, and not wanting me to have an experience she didn’t. (Those of you with a same-gender cousin almost exactly your age might recognize the competitiveness that can coexist with cousinly friendships.) I hadn’t even been particularly close to my Opa. I’d been living in Australia for the 3 years before he died, although I’d seen him the month before when we’d flown back to Canada for Christmas.

In fact, I forgot about the Esther-aspect of the story until she was sick with cancer and started talking to others about having seen Opa. We were much better friends as adults, so we could talk about it as a shared experience. A warm and loving experience. Made extra poignant because Esther was, herself, dying. This viewing became so widely known and openly discussed in the family that just a few weeks ago, Esther’s father was telling a story about something else that happened at that house, and my dad said, “You know, that house where you and Esther saw Opa.”

At least one member of my father’s generation has seen a departed loved one, as well, but that person hasn’t told me the full story (although I’d love to hear it some day), so I can’t detail it here.

And I know that at least one person was hoping that Esther would take inspiration from her Opa and visit those who ache from missing her. But to my knowledge, she hasn’t.

While I’m not generally into paranormal stuff (I didn’t even go through a ouija board phase as a teenager), I can’t deny my experience. Nor can I deny Rod and Esther’s experiences. Sure, one could say that my aunt’s appearances were manifestations of his need for closure after her death, but plenty of people say belief in God is irrational and ridiculous, and I believe in God with my whole heart and mind.

So I’m left loving that story of my aunt on the beach, encouraging her grieving son, and I’m glad he could be with her one more time.

How about you? Any good ghost stories? I’d love to hear them, whether comforting or confusing.

Also, I would like some kind of credit for not using the phrase, “I see dead people,” anywhere in this piece.



What’s Your Superpower?

What if you were normal and all your friends were superheroes? And at your wedding reception, your superhero wife’s superhero ex-boyfriend (the Hypnotist) hypnotized her into not being able to see or hear you. He went a step further: when you tried to touch her, her reactions ranged between muscle spasms all the way to stopping breathing if you tried to hold her in her sleep. How would you get her to see you? To know that you didn’t abandon her?

This is a different take on the issue of invisibility in relationships than I’ve written about here and here, more malicious and focused (because everyone else can see the main character except his wife), but just as devastating. Thank you to a blog reader for alerting me to Andrew Kaufman’s marvelous novella, All My Friends Are Superheroes.

Woes of the newly married

The situation in the novella is unlikely, but it got me thinking. How common is it, shortly after being married, to stop truly seeing our spouse? Maybe the rest of you had a glorious honeymoon period, but I did not have a smooth transition to the married state. The actual living with another person was fine. The having someone there to send out to the store when I had an ice cream craving at 10 p.m. (we were living in the Bronx without a car, and I didn’t walk around by myself much after dark) was great, although I gained back the weight I’d lost my first year of graduate school. And other stuff was … enjoyable.

The tough part was the mental adjustment to being married. Being married put me in a different category than my fellow graduate students, none of whom were married. Professors were married. Students lived together or had long distance relationships, or none at all. I was a feminist studying to be a philosophy professor. What was I doing, under 30 and married?

The conventionality of being a wife bothered me. I didn’t think of myself as a conventional person, but there I was, doing the conventional thing. It was odd to feel simultaneously unusual and conventional. I was a little embarrassed to be married. That changed in time and as we got to know other young married couples. But it was an adjustment.

My poor husband. I burst into tears once because he bought whole milk. Was he trying to kill me? Didn’t he care about my family’s history of high cholesterol? How could he be so insensitive? I became obsessed with what patterns of behavior we might be establishing, inflexible about him doing the dishes when I cooked and folding the laundry when I washed, about me never ironing his shirts (back when he still wore ironed shirts), not even to act “wifely” in a self-aware yet ironic way.

All this is to say that I spent much of the first year of marriage wrapped up in my own internal drama (deciding to quit graduate school during that year didn’t help). I don’t know how much I truly “saw” my husband, how much I thought about his experience of our marriage. After 18 years, I think I’m better about that now. And I’ve come to terms with my conventionality — for goodness’ sake, I’m a Midwestern stay at home mom who drives a minivan.

Unusual superpowers 

Even though All My Friends Are Superheroes got me thinking about the heavier stuff above, it isn’t a heavy story. It’s warm-hearted, and charming, and sweet and funny. I loved the superhero names and descriptions. Most of these superheroes can’t fly, and they don’t have superstrength. Their superpowers are ordinary things magnified. Here are a few of my favorites:

If you arrive at a party and suddenly find yourself completely relaxed, there’s a good chance the Stress Bunny is there. Blessed with the ability to absorb the stress of everyone in a fifty-foot radius, the Stress Bunny is invited to every party, every outing.
Her power originates from her strict Catholic upbringing (p.33).

All through her youth, the Battery had two things: an overpowering father and an over-rebellious mind. In combination, these forces gave her the ability to store great amounts of emotional energy and release it in one blinding bolt. But beware: the Battery’s allegiances aren’t to good or evil, but simply against whatever stands in her way. Friend, foe or innocent bystander — the Battery’s emotional energy bursts are unpredictable and she will strike at will (p.32)

Mr. Opportunity knocks on doors and stands there. You’d be surprised how few doors get answered (p.75).

The main character even talks about the difficulties this style of superhero has:

Try it, right now; boil down your personality and abilities to a single phrase or image. If you can do that, you’re probably a superhero already.

Part of the problem with finding your superhero name is that it may refer to something you don’t like about yourself. It may actually be the part of yourself you hate the most, would pay money to get rid of (p.71).

The Big Question

What is your superpower? What is mine? It’s easier to come up with someone else’s superpower first, so I’ll do my husband.

I’d call him Mr. It’ll Work Out, because he lives as if things are going to work out. This superpower only works in ordinary life situations; i.e. it doesn’t prevent people around him from getting or dying from cancer. But he doesn’t get stressed or anxious, not even about new things or experiences. And the thing is, things usually work out. It makes him a great person to have around, and a great leader. I both rely on this calmness and security, and get irritated by it (because it makes my anxiety seem so meaningless).

As for myself, I could be some combination of some superheroes in the book: Mistress Cleanasyougo, the Dancer, with a bit of the Battery thrown in. But I’m going to go on a limb and call myself The Presence. I have a strong physical presence; people always think I’m taller than I am. I have a strong presence on stage when I’m dancing. My face and entire body will radiate my emotional state, which will affect those around me. If you’ve known me awhile, I reveal myself as very passionate about many things, and I can express myself quite forcefully. I’ve got an effective “don’t you even think about doing that” parenting look I can put on. I don’t know if it’s as true these days, but people used to find me intimidating. A few people have told me that, before they knew me, they were scared of me.

There are mitigating factors, of course, but if I’m looking for a trait that has both positives and negatives, I think that’s it.

So, sharing time. What is your superhero name?

Cures for Invisibility?

I shouldn’t write this tonight. I had a nap today. This may sound like a lovely way to spend an afternoon, but when I nap, I wake up queasy and (there is no better way to put it) bitchy. In other words, a terrible time to write a thoughtful blog post, but it’s been over a week since my last one, and that’s way too long.

But I want to put the invisibility thing to bed (since I probably won’t be able to sleep tonight, something needs to go to bed).

Not so fast

I was talking about Calling Invisible Women with a woman in her 70s, who was surprised by one of the themes of the novel (that women in their 50s feel invisible and powerless), because in her experience, women in their 50s were often at the height of their career, powerful in their organizations, courageous in speaking out.

True. I can think of lots of women who fit that description. And that’s part of the solution for the women in the book. They treat their invisibility as a superpower, making life better around them, but at least Clover’s family still doesn’t notice. At the end of the novel, one invisible woman (a Russian mail order bride) travels far to meet Clover and deliver one of the best pep talks ever. I had to bring the book back to the library, so I don’t have the exact quote, but it essentially goes like this: we’ve been acting like we’re Chechnya, but we’re not little victims to be squashed by big, bad Russia (aka pharmaceutical company). With the power of our voices, our stories, our media savvy (or that of our children), our insistence on being heard, we are Russia.

And, indeed, the invisible women get cracking and the ensuing media blitz brings the pharmaceutical company to its knees, many women get their jobs back, and they have lives more vibrant than before they became invisible.

So the woman at the height of her courage and powers is one part of the story of women in their 50s. But so is the woman who drifted along, cutting everyone else slack, making excuses for everyone, and found herself doing all the drudge work and getting no recognition for everything she gave up for the sake of others.

Maybe this is a particularly lively fear for me since I’ve mostly been a stay-at-home mom for 14 years. Yes, I’ve done freelance work, and in-office work for a couple of years, not to mention the novel writing. But it’s so easy to make excuses for everyone else’s stress and not insist on things I might’ve insisted on in the past. To let things slide. Sometimes, this is a kind thing to do, but it can get to be a nasty habit that I can see leading to accepting invisibility.

Invisibility might not always be so bad

My older friend also remembered when men in general stopped noticing her — it was a relief. Freeing, even.

I can see that, and celebrate that, eve. But it’s complicated for me. I no longer get catcalls and rude suggestions from idiots driving by, and I don’t miss them one bit. I no longer have the internal debate: am I in a public enough place to be safe to give that guy the finger? I don’t have to think about what I’m wearing to try to minimize attention. But I’d miss the occasional moment of recognition of me as an attractive woman by cashiers, waiters, etc. Those are nice little moments.

However, I can’t stop myself from growing older. Those moments will go away and I’ll have to rely on my friends to tell me how amazing I look in my turtleneck (which we’re all wearing because we feel bad about our necks). When it happens, I’m sure it’ll be fine. It already is fine. I’ll remember to treat it as something freeing.

We’re back to seeing

I’ve written about seeing before, both the power of being seen and allowing yourself to be seen. I’ve even thrown God into the mix. That’s what this book comes down to: seeing. Making sure that I pay attention, both to my own life and to the people around me. Looking cashiers in the eye when I thank them. Making sure I keep handing over household chores to the kids. Nudging the grandkids to help with dinnertime chores (even though my mother slips up the stairs from the beach so quietly and does almost all the work before we get up to the house). Thanking my husband for doing his regular stuff around the house. Not giving up so easily on relationship issues. Showing what’s really behind the mirage of omni-competence. Paying attention.

Real invisibility

While anyone of any racial or socio-economic group can be taken for granted in their family unit, the novel mostly focuses on middle class, mostly white women. They are a couple of nods to women who the characters recognize are possibly more invisible than they are: hotel maids. Hotel maids here stand for all those people, mostly minorities, often immigrants, who do the crappiest, most thankless jobs, who work long hours for low pay, who are easy to ignore, who many people often prefer to ignore. If I decry invisibility for myself, I have to decry it for them, too. If I pay attention to my own life and my friends’ and families’ lives, I have to pay attention to their lives, too.

One more person to pay attention to

Thank you, Jeanne Ray, for writing this dystopian novel for the middle-aged woman. I don’t think it’ll take off as a subgenre like the YA dystopian novel has, and I’m not sure I’d get into it if it did, but Calling Invisible Women gave me a lot to think about while entertaining me. And that’s always a good thing.


Are You Testing Your Invisibility?

I’ve been avoiding writing about this book (Calling Invisible Women, by Jeanne Ray), but there’s too much in there that hits too close to home. Clover is a fiftysomething mother of two (1 college student, 1 recent college graduate), married to a crazy-busy pediatrician, a dog owner, and writer of a gardening column for the local newspaper. She has one little brief blip of invisibility before becoming completely invisible: voice still there, body still there, but she cannot be seen. Her family doesn’t notice. For several weeks. As long as she does all her regular tasks (including sex with her husband), they don’t know anything is seriously amiss.

I picked up the novel in the library because of the cover and title, read the blurb and put it back. “No,” I thought, “that’s way too depressing to be as funny as the blurb implies.” I walked two steps away, pivoted, and picked it up again. Read the first line: “I first noticed I was missing on a Thursday.” Loved the off-hand tone of it, so I gritted my teeth and got it. I was going to read it like it was medicine.

And it was. The book is truly funny and the tone is comic throughout, yet I was on the verge of tears, if not actually crying, almost the entire time. Luckily, it’s a fairly short book (246 pages), and a fast read, so it wasn’t a terribly long time. But still.

The best parts of the book were when we meet the other invisible women and go along as they discover how to use their invisibility like a superpower. An ex-teacher goes to school on the bus (naked, so nobody can tell there’s a person there), whispering in the ears of bullies as their conscience, making sure shunned kids have a place to sit in the lunch room, interrupting cheaters, and generally making life at school better, fairer. Another slips off her clothes in the middle of a bank robbery and foils it. They hold naked meetings so they don’t have to pay for the hotel conference room. They learn how this happened to them (there is a physical reason, it isn’t magic), band together, confront the problem, and achieve a pretty good level of victory.

But Clover’s interactions with her family and the world at large made me so sad. Even a little panicky. I’ve got tears pressuring behind my eyes right now just thinking about it. As long as she’s wearing clothes, the vast majority of people don’t notice that the clothes are floating in midair. Even her doctor responds to her statement, “I am invisible,” with a bland, “We get a lot of that in here,” not even looking up at her from her chart as he talks. The only one who notices and didn’t know other invisible women first, was her best friend.

This is a nightmare that is too easy for me to imagine being real. The first time it happens, Clover panics and wakes up her son to ask whether he sees her. There’s some silly back and forth, including this nugget, “If you feel like I don’t appreciate you, well…it’s because I don’t. I will again, but not until at least ten, okay?” She’s visible by the end of the conversation. Next time, it’s permanent. She didn’t plan on testing her family, but the first time, when she stood in front of her husband as just a nightgown floating in air, and he didn’t notice, but kept up an ordinary conversation, she dismissed it as her own mental illness. And then it becomes a test, a dare.

Aren’t there tons of ways you test the people who love you? If I don’t change the toilet paper roll, how long will it take for someone else to do it? Will anyone notice that I cut/dyed/changed my hair? If I do job X that person Y usually does, will they thank me for it if I don’t mention it? If I don’t plan a night out with the husband, how long before he suggests it? If I don’t hand the camera to someone else and ask to have my picture taken, will anyone notice that there’s little evidence that I’m part of the family? Or that I’m sometimes part of the fun? Maybe it’s just me, but I bet I’m not alone.

What does it mean when they fail the test? It might mean that they don’t love you, but not necessarily. It might mean that they’re wrapped up in their own dramas and anxieties, with some tendency to take you for granted on the side. No matter what, it sucks for you. You feel crappy when they fail. After the first interaction with her husband, Clover cries out, “‘He didn’t notice!’ A pure grief washed through me. It was bigger than the problem at hand” (p.27).

But you also feel kind of crappy when they pass, because you’ve expended time and energy scheming and imagining both scenarios and every one of your interactions is fraught with suspense and expectation. And all the negotiating with yourself to explain every nuance. Clover does this, too: “The next morning when he leaned in and kissed my shoulder, my neck, I started to think about it all another way. Maybe Arthur didn’t see me because he knew me so well and his vision automatically filled in all the things I was, based on the slightest hint of shape or scent. Maybe when you’ve been with someone so long you don’t so much see them as you project them onto things. Arthur could have been making love to my twenty-year-old self, my forty-year-old self…Anyway, this morning, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt” (p.48).

But it’s also kind of irresistible. Another character asks Clover why she doesn’t just tell her family. She admits that it would be better if they knew, “But after awhile it just becomes a point of pride. You start to wonder just how far it can go” (p.151).

Yet it isn’t only pride, it’s also fear. Fear of being unloved. Fear of being unlovable. And hurt. Hurt from all the times your loved ones have failed you in the past. Not to mention humiliation. It’s humiliating to feel like you’re begging for attention. Clover puts this messy soup together this way: “Maybe because we were timid and hurt, having already spend so many years feeling invisible before the truth of the matter kicked in. If we didn’t have the starch to tell our own families that no one could see us, then how could we be ready to tell the world?” (p.157).

Not to mention the mingled guilt and anger in those who’ve been tested. Anger at the person for putting them in that position, but also guilt at being neglectful and clueless. Hurt that the tester didn’t trust them.

It ends pretty well for the characters in the book, and Clover does apologize for testing them, but reading this has convinced me of the stupidity of testing. I’m going to stop it. In fact, I already have stopped it. I changed a door in our kitchen yesterday, and instead of waiting to see who’d notice, I told everyone that I did something big in the kitchen. My daughter wanted to know so she could anticipate it. My son didn’t want me to tell him what, so he could see whether he noticed right away — he did. And I tagged my husband in the Facebook post that had the picture of what I did. When I see that the toilet paper roll needs changing, I’m going to change it. I’m going to open curtains (while teasing my family about really being vampires). When we’re having people over for brunch and I’m busy cooking, I’m going to ask my husband to make the bed instead of wishing that he’d notice that the bed needed making and being hurt when he doesn’t. There’s more, some silly, some deeper, but you get the picture.

And there are more convictions to come because of this book, but I’ll save that for a future post.


How Do You Feel About Sarcasm?

In two YA/MG books I’ve read this summer, the female protagonist is sarcastic, both in her own head and with others: Hourglass, by Myra McEntire, and Kepler’s Dream, by Juliet Bell. (Gorgeous covers, both.)

They are very different novels, but Emerson (from Hourglass) and Ella (from Kepler) both use sarcasm as a protective shield. In Emerson’s case, she’s 17, so she self-consciously uses it to keep people distant from her because she sees dead people, spent time in a psych ward, and has secretly gone off her meds — she wants to protect others from her crazy.

Ella has been stuck at what she calls Broken Family Camp with her severe grandmother (who she’s never met) in New Mexico while her mother undergoes a stem cell transplant for leukemia in Seattle. She takes refuge in her sarcastic observations about the people and the place she’s stuck in.

Wisecracking, sarcastic, kick-butt heroines are “in” now. I support the trend to have strong female protagonists, but I wish they didn’t always have to be so sarcastic. Because the thing the character does to keep everyone else at arm’s length or as a sign of her disaffection, keeps me feeling distant from the character I’m supposed to be attaching to. It does to me what it does to everyone else in the story. Being party to the character’s interior talk rarely helps, because they seem so distant from their own emotions. And in the 11-year-old character, it made her seem a little old for her age.

I kept reading both those books, despite feeling an initial disconnect with the point of view characters, and they turned into wonderful stories. Emerson and Ella grew on me as their situations got both better and worse, and as they showed more vulnerability and connected to the people around them. Hourglass is a fast-moving story with loads of tension and strange stuff happening and secrets and paranormal business. Kepler’s Dream is a quieter story, not as flashy and not at all paranormal. But as Ella got to know the people and the landscape at her grandmother’s, the sarcastic names she gave them became more affectionate. At the end of the book, when she slyly clues her grandmother (Violet Von Stern, which is an awesome name) in to the nickname she calls Violet — the GM, for General Major of the Good Grammar Correctional Facility — I got teary, because it was a sign of comfort and security in their relationship, especially when Violet gets the joke on herself.

Another book I read this summer, The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, had multiple characters who were sarcastic and disaffected and kept everyone at a distance, and I could barely finish it. I found almost all the characters unpleasant, distasteful, whiney, bratty, and mean. I have not picked up the sequel, and I won’t. I don’t want to spend any more time with those people.

But it’s an interesting thing to think about as a writer: what do you do when your character’s coping mechanism keeps the reader distant as well? How do you keep them reading until your character starts to mature? Do you show a core of sincerity behind the sarcasm to tide the reader over until the character grows? Some other positive character trait? It brings home to me how difficult sarcasm is, as a voice, to balance. How much is too much?

I tried it, once, in a romance manuscript. I love a wisecracking romance heroine, and I’m pretty snarky in my own head, so I thought I could pull it off, but it didn’t work for me, didn’t sound right. I had to rewrite it with the character generally being more sincere and only very occasionally sarcastic (and even then, the ms. isn’t seeing the light of day). Now that I think of it, there aren’t any sarcastic characters in the first David and Saul manuscript: David is made fun of for being so honest and upright, Saul is sometimes cruel and closed-up and sometimes open, Samuel can be cryptic but with a sense of humor, David’s oldest brother doesn’t hide his meanness. So they certainly aren’t all pleasant, but no sarcastic wisecrackers.

As David matures through the next two books, he won’t be able to remain so honest and upright: he lies to priests, pretends to be crazy, has to figure out how to survive on the run, becomes a mercenary while lying to his host king. He has to learn how to be diplomatic, which is all about maintaining an aura of sincerity while twisting the truth to your purposes. But no sarcasm. I seem to have a problem with it.

How do you respond to a sarcastic main character?

Review: The Mighty Miss Malone

Books like this are why I love to read and why I want to write. Miss Deza Malone is a diamond of a character. It isn’t just that she is bright and has a sparkling personality (both of which are true), but it’s also that she is so clear. Christopher Paul Curtis has given us a child who is clear about who she is. She knows herself, her family, her community.

What a pleasure to read about a child who has been loved and known and encouraged by an intact family for her entire 12 years. I adore the Malone family — not perfect, but real and loving and firm and funny. Deza’s compass for truth and nonsense come straight from what her parents taught her and what she observes of how the world works. The family has a hand signal to warn each other that they know someone is trying to string them along: they put their hands on the imaginary steering wheel of the Manipula-Mobile. The father often speaks in alliteration, and has long alliterative names for everyone. They so clearly love each other. So often, main characters in children’s lit are orphans, or one parent has died, or they have at least one terrible parent, so it’s a testament to Mr. Curtis’s skill that he crafts such a dramatic story for this great family.

Deza is intelligent and curious and asks for an explanation when she runs across something she doesn’t understand. That last thing is a great personality trait in a character, because the author gets to explain things that would be beyond a child’s normal understanding or experience. It is a regular refrain in the book that she will become a writer, that she’ll go to college. Deza lodged herself in my heart and I’m dying to know whether any of that happened. PLEASE, Mr. Curtis, write a sequel some day.

She’s also self-aware. I loved how she’d talk about her reactions when things didn’t go her way or something really bad was happening.

I’m different from most people and one of the main reasons is, I think I might have two brains. Whenever I get nervous or mad or scared or very upset, I have thoughts that are so different from my normal thoughts that there isn’t any way they could be coming from just one brain (p31).

She usually grits her rotting back teeth until the pain stops the bad brain, because she is a child who values truth and honesty. But the couple of times she takes the bad brain’s counsel are fantastic.

 The Mighty Miss Malone is, akin to the Newberry-winning, Bud, Not Buddy, a road book for part of the time. The book takes place in mid-1930s Gary, Indiana and Flint, Michigan, cities that were devastated by the Great Depression, even more so for Deza because she and her family are African-American. She and her mother and brother ride the rails and live in a shantytown — where she meets Bud. Deza appeared in Bud, No Buddy, so here we get the same scene from her point of view. (I didn’t remember this. It had been years since I’d read Bud, so I had to google it.) It’s a sweet little moment.

I won’t tell you all the stuff that happens, but, in many ways, it’s typical of other stories about the Depression: the father leaves to find work, promising to send money, and then doesn’t. Things get really tough. Here’s how Deza describes it.

If somebody came along and saw us walking they’d mistake us for a very quiet parade instead of what we really were, a river of people who didn’t know what city we’d be in tomorrow, or what we’d be eating, or even where somebody would let us stop and rest (p227).

Hoping is such hard work. It tires you out and you never seem to get any kind of reward. Hoping feels like you’re a balloon that has a pinhole that slowly leaks air (p232).

And I won’t tell you how it ends, either, but it makes you root for them to get to where their family motto says they’re heading: “We are a family on a journey to a place called Wonderful.”

Well, this novel is wonderful, and the cover is killer good. Along with being a good, dramatic story, it’s accurate history. I highly recommend it.