The Comic Toolbox, by John Vorhaus

I am seriously unfunny. I mean, I enjoy a good joke or comedy routine as much as the next person, but fail when it comes to producing one. It’s embarrassing. I only know one joke, well, actually two but the second one is so silly it doesn’t really count: What’s yellow and not a banana? Oh, wait, it is a banana. Silly.

The only person I’ve met who was more humor-impaired than I is my friend, John. He and I were both technical trainers and decided to spice up our dry material with some jokes. I tried to memorise a few with lukewarm results. But John wrote out jokes on index cards and kept a handful in his shirt pocket. When things seemed slow in the classroom, he’d say, “Must be time for a joke.” He’d pull out his cards and leaf through them. Brilliant! The joke itself wasn’t half as funny as the whole performance of selecting it.

I don’t have any ambitions to write for a sitcom or do standup, but I would like to add more humor to my fiction and poetry. I wanted to improve my comic-relief characters. Plus, I’ve been so impressed by Shirley J. Brewer’s use of humor in her poetry that I want to experiment in that vein. But how?

What a joy and relief, then, to stumble on John Vorhaus’s book! It is just what I needed.

He takes a two-pronged approach. The first prong is to create a safe zone. He uses several techniques to ratchet down the fear of failure. One that is most helpful for me is that he breaks each exercise down into progressively more specific questions. Instead of wracking your brain trying to think of something funny to say, you are given a discreet task or question to answer, with plenty of examples. And Vorhaus himself is seriously funny; it’s hard to feel intimidated when you’re snorting with laughter.

The second prong consists of the tools implied by the title. I love tools. I was surprised to discover that what makes a joke work is essentially what makes a story work. I shouldn’t have been surprised, because of course a joke is a story. Vorhaus isolates the factors that make it funny. Using movies and television shows as case studies, he demonstrates each tool in action.

There must be a hundred tools here. The one I liked best was how to create a comic character. Amid discussion and illustrations, he boils the technique down to five elements. Boom! One minute and I had the bare bones of a comic character. Thirty seconds and I had another. Even better, I could see the gaping holes I’d left in the comic characters in my work-in-progress.

There are sections on parody and satire, situation comedy and sketches, but always tools and more tools. This book delivers on its promise: the subtitle is How to Be Funny Even If You’re Not. Finally there is hope for me! I can see that this is a book I will refer to again and again.

Have you ever wanted to write comedy? What are your favorite comic movies or shows? Who is your favorite comedian?

The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore

I was so happy to receive this book as a present. I enjoyed Wonder Woman comics as a girl, but it wasn’t until I was a frantic single mother, working two and sometimes three jobs, trying to keep up the house and be a good parent to two sensitive and feisty boys and shuttle them to Little League and Scouts and choir, that she began to haunt my imagination.

It started with a cartoon. I don’t still have it, so I don’t know who drew it and may be getting the details wrong, but it showed an overweight, middle-aged woman, fag hanging from a corner of her mouth, stirring (I think) one of a number of pots on the stove while sorting some rambunctious children. And she was dressed in a Wonder Woman costume, tiara and all. It captured my frustration but also my resolve. I was going to make this insane life work.

This was around the time that I was trying to find someone to take over my responsibilities at home while I went on a business trip for three weeks. Drawing up the necessary schedule, I realised with a shock that no one would want to live my life, not even for a few weeks.

Wonder Woman to the rescue, indeed.

So I was excited to learn the backstory of the comic, so to speak. I was not prepared for the strip’s ties to feminism in the decades before I was born. Nor was I prepared for the weirdness of its author.

William Moulton Marston, Harvard graduate and psychologist, grew up as a pampered prince in a family full of women and encountered feminism and suffragette movement as a young man. His wife, Sadie Holloway, a graduate of Mount Holyoke, was also apparently committed to women’s rights. However, she did—under protest—allow Marston to change her name to Betty because he didn’t like the name Sadie.

And that is the thin part of the wedge that gradually pries the family away from a traditional American family life, this seemingly irrational acquiescence to Marston’s whims. Marston, who believed a matriarchy was the ideal structure for society, actually lived like a storybook pasha. Even more surprising was that he didn’t hesitate to feature his kinks in the comic strips he wrote.

The delight of the book for me is the way Lepore juxtaposes panels from the strips with photographs and anecdotes, binding the real lives she is describing to the stories that made their way into comic books and newspapers. There is much here as well about American culture: the rise of comics, the emergence of psychological testing, the beginnings of censorship. It is all delivered in pleasing prose and backed by extensive endnotes.

As with so many of the achievements of the early twentieth-century attributed solely to men, one can’t help wondering how much of a role the women in his life actually played in the creation of this popular comic. These women included not just his wife, but also Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, whom Marston met in 1918 while in the Army, and Olive Byrne, niece of Margaret Sanger and one of his students. Lepore finds evidence of collaboration in both his psychological works and the comics, though the extent of the women’s input in the latter is unclear.

Lepore also describes Wonder Woman as a link between the first and second waves of the feminist movement in the U.S., between the suffragettes of the early twentieth-century and the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s, who concentrated on the connection between cultural and political inequalities. “Link” seems overstated to me, but the comic certainly kept alive the idea that a woman could take an active role in what was then still a man’s world. The factual stories about Wonder Women of History inserted into the comic books in the 1940s prefigured women’s history.

After reading this book, I find myself even more committed to my invisible friend. I know a superhero will not swoop in and save me. But even my distaste for her creator cannot make me give up Wonder Woman, my first role model. She helped me believe in my capacity for physical strength in the face of everything in my world telling me I was weak. She helped give me the confidence to work in what was then a male-dominated industry. Wonder Woman never modeled a domestic life, but for that I had that cartoon of a sloppy, disorganised Wonder Woman powering through in spite of everything.

What role model did you encounter in your youth who still influences you today?

On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-Rae Lee

I cannot imagine a more appropriate time to read Lee’s latest novel. Set in a future version of Baltimore, called B-Mor, it represents a logical outcome of the tensions currently tearing the city apart. We have the story of the B-Mor community and we have the story of one young woman, Fan, who leaves B-Mor in search of her boyfriend, Reg, who has disappeared, apparently removed by the powers that be for their own purposes.

A hundred years before the story begins an entire village was brought from New China to populate the desolate city, abandoned by all except a few “pockets of residents on the outskirts of what is now the heart of B-Mor, these descendants of nineteenth-century African slaves and twentieth-century laborers from Central America and even bands of twenty-first-century urban-nostalgics. . .”

B-Mor is now one of a string of settlements privately owned and run for profit. The B-Mor population grows vegetables and fish under strict controls, as their lives are lived under strict controls, where spitting in public is a major crime. The food they produce goes to the people who live in Charter villages. As in today’s Charter schools, residents are protected from the sordid reality of the common herd, insulated by their extreme wealth. Outside of the settlements and the Charter villages lie the Counties, a wild and dangerous place with no law or government protection.

I had to ask myself how different this was from today’s society, where first-world people like me often live off products produced under dire conditions in third-world countries, when much of government seems to abdicate its responsibility to, er, govern instead of just lining their own pockets.

The complacency of the people in B-Mor amused me, because Baltimore today is known for neighborhoods where people have lived their whole lives.

Stability is all here in B-Mor; it’s what we ultimately produce, day by night by day, both what we grow for consumption and how we are organized in neighborhood teams, the bonds of blood or sexual love relied upon equally to support out constitution. In this difficult era the most valuable commodity is the unfailing turn of the hours and how they retrieve for us the known harbor of yesterday . . .

Much of the novel is written in this first person plural point of view (we, us). For much of the book, chapters alternate between this collective voice and a more traditional telling of Fan’s adventures. Later the two become more intertwined. The collective voice holds the reader at a distance, giving us no assurance that the story told us about Fan is anything more than rumor and urban myth.

Both Fan and Reg are described as innocent. But what they really are is independent, especially Fan. She is able to walk away from the stable collective of family and work and neighborhood, able even to set off into the wild Counties, without a backward look. As one person in my book club noted, Fan’s individualism is set against her hometown’s collective uniformity, just as the U.S. culture is set against China’s. Some of us fear that just such a culture war is brewing.

How likely is the future described in Lee’s book? Very, I would say, if we continue down our current path. Cities like Baltimore and Detroit will become even more hollowed out as those who can afford it leave to get away from the crime caused by illegal drugs, in turn caused by the poverty and lack of opportunity for a huge chunk of the population: today’s ever-growing inequality carried to a logical conclusion. This country has been declining since 2000, with jobs lost overseas, financial crises caused by overweening greed on the part of bankers, and revenue-sapping wars fought solely to benefit the wealthy few.

The recent peaceful protests in Baltimore grew out of the inequities and injustices. Yes, there was a little violence initially caused by drunken white baseball fans and blown out of proportion by the media, followed the next day by a scandalous overreaction by the city that dumped hordes of scared teens, unsure of how they would get home, into the waiting arms of equally scared police.

The violent minority has been overwhelmed by the majority of citizens who immediately turned out to clean up and help affected residents and store owners. Citizens marched and congregated in flashpoint areas to maintain calm. Even my local district police captain told us, “A valuable lesson was learned for me – the deterrent from the community appeared to be greater than the deterrent of law enforcement.” Now if he can just make the rest of the police force and the city government understand that, we might see some progress.

Fan’s self-assertion causes a wave of resistance and rebellion among the people she left behind. Does it last or does everyone sink back into complacency? What will happen in Baltimore and other struggling communities? Will complacency win out or will the demand for change continue?

The Tender Bar, by J. R. Moehringer

A few years ago, I reviewed Townie, a memoir by Andre Dubus III, in which I speculated that the larger theme justifying the memoir’s publication might be issue of disappearing fathers and abandoned boys. As I mentioned there and discuss in any memoir class I teach, there are plenty of reasons to write a memoir, but only a few that justify publishing one. Unless you are a celebrity, who outside of your circle of friends and family would actually care about your experiences? One reason they might care is if the quality of the writing is excellent, such as in Angela’s Ashes or The Glass Castle. A second is if your memoir addresses some larger theme of interest to society.

Moehringer’s memoir is certainly well written. As a journalist, Moehringer knows how to keep his prose compact while creating the most impact. He has an interesting story to tell and doesn’t need any fancy flourishes to dress it up. Here’s a description of the house where he and his mother—deserted by his father and unable to afford their own place—take refuge:

The worst thing about life at Grandpa’s house was the noise, a round-the-clock din of cursing and crying and fighting, and Uncle Charlie bellowing that he was trying to sleep and Aunt Ruth screaming at her six kids in the nerve-shredding key of a seagull. Just beneath this cacophony was a steady percussion, faint at first, louder as you became aware of it, like the heartbeat deep inside the House of Usher. In the House of Grandpa the heartbeat was supplied by the screen door opening and closing all day long as people came and went . . .

Obviously, there’s a lot of humor here, too, to temper the sadness. Much of it is directed at himself, his mistakes, his awkwardness, but also the humorous approach to life that he learns from the men at Dickens, the local bar, where his Uncle Charlie is a bartender. When he first sees them en masse, they are playing softball as the sun sets. At first he sees the lumbering, overweight men as cartoon characters: “they looked like Blutos and Popeyes and steroidal Elmer Fudds,” but then he realises that they are all laughing, “they couldn’t stop laughing”. When he asks his mother why they are so happy, she tells him: “‘Beer.’”

Yet as we get to know them, each one stands out in brilliant eccentricity coupled with a deep, if flawed, humanity. Moehringer treats them with the tender dignity that Anne Tyler so reliably employs with her misfits and oddballs.

There is sadness, of course, especially related to his larger theme of the plight of a fatherless boy in U.S. society. There are the lonely dreams of a boy listening to his DJ father, a man he doesn’t recall ever seeing so he calls him The Voice. There is the desire to help his struggling mother, forced time after time to return to the house of her father, a house that is falling down filled with furniture held together with duct tape, because he refuses to allow anything to be fixed. Having given up working as soon as he accumulated enough money to provide a subsistence income, Grandpa is a curmudgeon and a bully and possibly insane. There is the self-loathing when Moehringer is unable to provide for his mother after all. However, there is no taint of self-pity here, just as there is no sentimentality in his description of the men at the bar.

And there is the comfort and safety of the bar and the men in it, a haven that we who know better fear will become a trap for the boy who hangs out there, jotting down the funny stories and witticisms on bar napkins. There is the bookstore where Moehringer gets a job at 13 when he discovers the two managers hiding in the back room reading, avoiding customers.

As a single mother, I am well aware of the pitfalls facing fatherless boys, as well as of the resiliency of the boys themselves and their ability to find surrogate fathers. It never occurred to me to look for male role models for my sons in a bar, but I would have been honored to have this collection of men help my boys learn how to be men. Moehringer’s great achievement is making these men with their beer bellies and balding heads, their drinking and gambling, their apparent aimlessness (beyond getting drunk and having a good time) into heroes.

What book have you read recently with an unexpected hero?

Amy and Isabelle, by Elizabeth Strout

Like many others, I was blown away by Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I thought it a remarkable set of linked short stories that came together as a portrait of a peculiar and—to me—fascinating woman. So I went looking for her earlier novels, including this, her first novel.

Isabelle and her 16-year-old daughter, Amy, inhabit an uncomfortable edge of the small town of Shirley Falls, Maine. On the eastern side of the river lies Oyster Point, the part of town where the professional classes live with its simple Congregational church. The western side, known as the Basin, is dominated by the mill and the Catholic church. Although Isabelle works in the mill’s office, she chose to live in Oyster Point, with dreams of moving up in the world, but in essence stranding herself and her daughter between two worlds.

As the story opens, Isabelle’s desire for quiet and order and respectability, as well as her close relationship with her daughter, have been ruthlessly thwarted. Amy, who is working in the mill’s office for the summer, is in disgrace and it has something to do with a Mr. Robertson coming to town.

The opening is actually quite interesting. None of the characters appears on the first page. Instead, it is a description of all the strangeness of that summer: the terrible heat that dried up the river, leaving the stench of the mill’s effluence; the crops that didn’t grow right; the UFOs that had been sighted up north. It’s a different sort of in media res opening: we immediately know that the time is out of joint, with no one to set it right.

While Amy’s actions seem to have been the cause of the disruptions in her and Isabelle’s lives, the story takes us deeper into the pretenses and fantasies of all the characters as we move backward and forward in time. Amy and her new friend Stacy have banded together as outsiders at school, sneaking into the woods during breaks to smoke cigarettes. Amy envies Stacy her boyfriend, but doesn’t recognise her friend’s morning sickness for what it is. Her solid world is rocked as Amy tries to come to terms with her emerging sexuality and to find a place for herself other than the one her mother has prepared for her.

I am tired of glut of novels about middle-aged and older men falling in love with teenaged girls. Oh their joy and heartbreak. Oh their cruel, middle-aged and boring wives. How refreshing to have here, for once, the story from the girl’s point of view. And it is brilliantly done. So many details took me back to my own teen years, my confused and inchoate yearnings.

I love the portrait of Isabelle, hamstrung by her own yearnings, trying to break out of her narrow world. The portraits of the other women in the office, Fat Bev and Dottie and the others, are equally superb. I knew women like these when I worked in a factory. I love the way they rely on each other and the competitions and kindnesses they offer each other. As Avery Clark’s secretary, Isabelle sits among them but is in a superior position, isolated and stranded at work as at home. Strout occasionally soars up to the 10,000-foot level and gives us an omniscient view of the townsfolk as a whole, as in the first page. This unusual tactic isolates Isabelle and Amy even more, denying them even the empathy of the reader.

Although I’ve not lived in a small town, I recognise the way lives are intertwined, the way you cannot hide from your mistakes. I recognise the feuds and the friendships, the shifting alliances. I feel as though I’ve lived another life.

What book about small town life have you read?

A Poetry Handbook, by Mary Oliver

Oliver has produced an excellent introduction to poetry. Although it is written for the beginning writer, the book is also tremendously useful for the beginning reader, someone who would like to read poetry but would like some guidance on what to look for. Many of us were persuaded by grade school English classes that poetry was complicated and difficult to understand. Even if we thought we understood a poem, it turned out there were all kinds of hidden meanings that we’d missed.

Oliver lays it out clearly with plenty of examples to illustrate her points. She covers the use of sound, not just of words but of their components. She goes into detail, explaining semi-vowels, aspirates and mutes. She takes Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening apart to show how the sounds work, but then reassures the despairing beginner, that these tools of alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia are things anyone can learn and then, once confident, forget. You will be able to use them without consciously thinking of them.

In an extended chapter on the line, Oliver explains how meter and line length contribute to the emotional experience of the poem. She reviews all those pesky terms like dactyl and spondee and anapest, showing how they are used to imbue the poem with movement and emotion. Even for an experienced poet, reviewing these basics can be helpful. I appreciated being reminded of patterns I rarely use.

She gives examples of ways to vary the rhythm of the line for different effects, adding that “Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures.” She also notes something that has interested me lately: that different readers may find different rhythms in a poem, stress different syllables. To illustrate, she provides four ways to read Keats’s line “Bright star! would I were as steadfast as thou art—“.

Because of my interest in individual words, I especially enjoyed her chapter on diction or word choice. She notes that the factors one considers as one selects or discards a word are sound, accuracy and connotation. I also found her chapter on form and free verse to be exceptionally useful for those recurrent discussions of whether a particular poem is really prose broken into lines.

Imagery of course lies at the core of my poetry. I like the way she brings in sensory detail. Also, this strikes home: “The poet must not only write the poem but must scrutinize the world intensely, or anyway that part of the world he or she has taken for subject.” She says that if a poem about flowers is “thin”, it is most likely because the poet “has not seen them in any fresh, exciting, and valid way.”

I highly recommend this book to beginning readers and writers, as well as to experienced poets who would like a refresher.

What book would you recommend to someone who wants to learn how to appreciate poetry?

Kinder Than Solitude, by Yiyun Li

I thoroughly enjoyed Li’s collection of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, and looked forward to reading this novel. It begins with the death of a woman, Shaoai, who has been incapacitated since being poisoned 21 years earlier. Boyang, a prosperous businessman and friend of the family, is handling the funeral arrangements. He has emailed news of the death to his childhood friends Moran and Ruyu, women who are now living in the U.S. but expects no answer from them. There has been no answer to any of his regular emails about Shaoai’s condition.

Ruyu, an orphan brought up by two Catholic great-aunts, had learned to hold herself aloof from others. She had God in her life and needed no one else. She is sent to Beijing for school, to live with Shaoai’s family. Boyang and Moran, inseparable friends, live in the same courtyard and adopt the peculiar girl, including her in their normal childhood pursuits, such as biking and swimming, hoping to bring her out of herself and making her more like them: warm and open and happy.

However, as we get to know the three as adults, it becomes apparent that just the opposite has happened. Moran and Boyang, like Ruyu, shut themselves off from others. And from the past. The “coldness of silence” holds each of them in an icy fortress.

The story moves back and forth in time as well as alternating between the three former friends. It has elements of a murder mystery: who poisoned Shaoai? The chemical was traced to Boyang’s mother’s lab, which the three friends had just visited. It also has elements of a political allegory: Shaoai’s poisoning occurred just after the Tiananmen Square protests. A little older than the three friends, her radical politics had cost her a place at university. Her silencing, gradual decline, and death reflect the fate of the protestors and their dreams of democracy.

While I wanted to learn who poisoned Shaoai, I struggled with much of the book. Their sad and drab lives do not make for the most enjoyable reading. There are no large events to spark the long stretch between being introduced to these peculiar people and learning the truth. Or something like the truth. I enjoyed Li’s prose, though some of the philosophical bits made me stop and reread them several times, koans that only reluctantly yielded up a semblance of meaning.

I kept reading because I wondered what would happen to these three people, so damaged by a single event in their childhood, their lives warped and left empty. Or rather kept empty, by constant and ruthless exercise of the will. We all find our own balance between solitude and society, but these three represent something quite new to me. That to me is the real mystery, more urgent than knowing what actually caused Shaoai’s death.

What novel have you read that contains a mystery, yet is not a traditional mystery novel?

The Virgin of Small Plains, by Nancy Pickard

Through swirling snow Abby Reynolds catches sight of her elderly neighbor, Nadine Newquist , struggling through drifts on the old cemetery road, dressed only in a deep rose bathrobe. Abby brakes, which sends her old truck into a spin and then long skid, backwards towards town, picking up speed and making her stomach drop as if on a roller coaster, back the way she’d come, backwards in time.

And we’re off. Pickard’s story of small town lives, the tangled life-long friendships, the secrets and lies, careens on with the reader, breathless, racing to keep up.

Abby owns a small Lawn & Landscape business outside the Kansas town of Small Plains. Nadine is the mother of Abby’s long-lost love, Mitch, who left without a word seventeen years earlier, on the frigid January night a teenaged girl was found murdered. The girl was never identified, and the town buried her. Since then, some people have claimed miraculous and healing powers for the girl they call the Virgin of Small Plains.

The story moves around in time, taking us back to that night when everything changed and then into the present again with the search for Nadine. Abby’s best friend, Rex, the sheriff, son of the former sheriff, watches with dismay as Abby seems to have settled into a relationship with his brother, Patrick, the town’s bad boy. Mitch debates whether to return to his hometown.

I wanted to study this book, which was recommended to me as one that compelled you to turn the pages, one that got a grip on you and wouldn’t let you go. I wondered how that could work without car chases and ticking clocks, but I certainly wasn’t going to find out, not on that first read anyway. No, I just wanted to pry out all the secrets and understand, not just what had happened, but why.

Only when I finished was I able to go back and find some of Pickard’s techniques. There are many truly wonderful scenes, set pieces almost, that call out our own memories, making us sympathise with the characters. There are mysterious moments, like the woman in the rose bathrobe in the snow, that make us read on to find out the story behind them—why was she there? Pickard expertly withholds information until you can’t bear for her not to reveal it. Even if you guess at some of what happened, you want to know why. Plus she’s not afraid to go big: often novels seem to drag a bit in the middle as authors save their good stuff for the climax, but Pickard doesn’t hesitate to throw it all at us, and then do it again.

There are flaws to the book, though I could only see them in retrospect. The multiple points of view, many of them unnecessary to the story, keep the characters at arm’s length. I discussed this book in two different book clubs and both were unable to decide who the main character was. I went with Abby because she was the first person we met, but a strong case could be made for Rex, Mitch and a couple of others. After the mesmerizing first part of the book, the plot seemed to take over and characters relegated to the back seat.

We also struggled with genre. The story has some elements of a mystery, a romance, and even magical realism. It includes some of the conventions of each, but not enough of any one to satisfy expectations. I settled for calling it a small-town drama. It probably says more about me than the book, but I interpreted all the supposedly magical elements as realistic, somewhat unlikely but not outside the bounds of possibility. I love out-and-out magical realism like Borges, Marquez and Allende write, but this kind of teasing maybe-it-is-maybe-it-isn’t didn’t work for me.

The ending disappointed almost everyone, with things tied up a little too neatly, a little too quickly and conveniently.

Still, the book is a wonder. Pickard captures the Kansas landscape, its weather and prairie flowers. She also captures the rhythms and relationships of small-town life—or so I am assured, being a city girl myself. Used to relative anonymity, I have trouble imagining the comfort and claustrophobia of a small town where everyone knows, not just your name and everything you’ve ever done, but your parents and theirs before them.

I never fail to be fascinated by the damage caused by secrets and lies. Perhaps they are even harder to avoid in a small community. Most of all, though, I was fascinated by the way people elevated the unknown, murdered girl into some kind of saint. I remember visiting Althorp, where Princess Diana is buried, and being shocked by the busloads of sick and injured people who expected her to heal them. One of my friends said that desperate people look for solace anywhere they can. She added that when you know nothing about someone, you can attribute any qualities to them—something we’ve seen happen all too often with celebrities and athletes.

Have you read a book recently that you could not put down?

A Swiftly Tilting Planet, by Madeleine L’Engle

It’s always a bit dangerous to reread books you loved when young. Recently I reread A Wrinkle in Time and enjoyed it perhaps even more than I did back then. However, this third installment of the series featuring the Murry family dragged for me. Perhaps it was the weather or my mood, but I struggled to pay attention to it.

Thanksgiving has brought the Murry clan together. Ten years have passed since A Wind in the Door, the second book. Charles Wallace is fifteen and still in touch with his mysterious abilities. Meg is not only grown up and married to Calvin, she is expecting a baby. Calvin himself is away at a conference in Britain, but his mother has joined them, much to the Murry’s surprise. An inarticulate and apathetic woman, Mrs. O’Keefe has demonstrated only dislike for Meg and the Murrys and indifference to her son.

The somewhat overly idyllic (other than Meg’s mother-in-law) family get-together is interrupted by a phone call from the President, who often consults with Mr. Murry, warning that nuclear war is about to erupt thanks to a South American dictator, “Mad Dog” Branzillo. Mrs. O’Keeffe rouses herself to recite an ancient rune and insist that Charles Wallace must prevent the catastrophe.

Charles Wallace heads out to the star-watching rock, asking Meg to remain at home and kythe with him, i.e., communicate telepathically. Although he does not know what to expect, a unicorn appears who is able to put him “within” other people. The unicorn cautions him that he must become the other person, forgetting himself and his own thoughts so as not to confuse the person.

At this point, Meg and Charles Wallace essentially disappear from the story, which instead follows the succession of people whom Charles Wallace goes “within”. Most of these people are found at the rock itself; I loved thinking about the various people who have inhabited a small plot of land over the centuries. However, I found the similarity of names confusing and eventually tiresome. We meet Madoc, Madog, Maddux, and Mad Dog; Gwydder, Gedder, and Gwen; Zyllie, Zyllah, Zylle; plus two Branwens. I was also jerked out of the story late in the game when Mrs. Murry suddenly realizes that the names Madoc and Mad Dog may be related. She’s supposed to be a brilliant scientist. The whole family is supposed to be super intelligent. Yet no one thought of this before.

The idea that an individual and his or her choices can change the fate of the entire world inspires in me equal part happiness and fear. Since my choices have almost never turned out the way I expected, I tend to approach them with trepidation. But I did appreciate that the way to foster change is first to listen, as Charles Wallace is ordered to do.

I had some other issues with the story. One is the relegation of the women characters to a role that has no opportunities for intelligence and is limited to wife/girlfriend/mother. Another would be the racist implications of the constant injunction that you could tell the good guy because he has blue eyes, not to mention the whole South American thing.

The loss of Meg and Charles Wallace as characters leaves a huge empty space in the book, but there is still much to like. The unicorn is given a pretty good personality and escapes being treacly. And then there’s the whole business about the space-time continuum which I find endlessly fascinating.

One of my two favorite parts is the title, a quote from a Conrad Aiken poem. I just love the phrase and appreciate how it captures the essence of the story. The other is the emergence of an unexpected hero. I think the part in the Harry Potter series that moved me the most was when Neville Longbottom—well, no spoilers, though I can’t imagine there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know the story. Similarly, here my heart lifted and I forgave L’Engle everything when I came to that part.

Did you read Madeleine L’Engle’s books when young? Have you reread them recently?

How Fiction Works, by James Wood

I have sometimes heard this book pronounced the only craft book that a fiction writer needs. Indeed, it has much to teach the writer. But it is even more valuable to the reader who wants to understand a bit more of what goes on behind the curtain: why some stories are more compelling than others, why some sentences bore you or take your breath away, why some characters seem as real as the person sitting across from you.

Have you ever wondered how in the world black letters on paper can make us feel as though we’ve lived through an intense experience? What makes us believe some characters are real and others are not? How do writers make us see what the character sees, feel fear when she is in danger and grief at her loss? Why do some books work and others don’t, and what do we mean by a book “working”.

Wood is a critic whose work I’ve enjoyed for years. The breadth of his reading is apparent in the number of diverse examples he gives to illustrate his ideas, using books ranging from Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings to Henry James’s What Maisie Knew.

He starts out talking about point of view:

So-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking a speaking. A novelist’s omniscience soon enough becomes a kind of secret sharing; this is called ‘free indirect style,’ a term novelists have lots of different nicknames for–‘close third person,’ or ‘going into character.’

You can also see from this excerpt is what a joy it is to read his prose. Lucid yet intriguing. And it illustrates something he brings up later in the book: how a detail or a single word can open a space that excites a reader’s curiosity and interest, a technique Stephen Greenblatt called “strategic opacity” in Will in the World, his 2004 study of Shakespeare that I learned a lot from. Look at that phrase: “narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character”. It is “bend” that is both surprising and so right; it is that image that draws us in.

Having long enjoyed James Wood’s reviews in the London Review of Books and the New York Times, I was thrilled to immerse myself in this book. And I’ve reread it several times, not to mention dipping into it when struggling with some writing task. The more I write and read fiction, the more value I find in this book.

He has chapters on creating characters and how to make their dialogue work. He talks about how to make these characters engage our sympathies and ways to move back and forth in time effectively. Most delightfully for me as a poet, he examines how the very sound of words and phrases can intensify meaning. And all with an extravagance of examples.

But this is less a craft book than it is an analysis of how to read fiction. Yes, it is useful for writers, but even more so for readers. If you want your book club’s discussions to go a little deeper than I liked/disliked the book, then give them this book. It will give you the language and ideas to explore what causes those reactions.

Are you in a book club? What book prompted your most interesting discussion?