Sunday, February 22, 2015


I'm (still) auditing this class on black women writers, and one of the best things about doing so is that I have a reason to take copious notes. I really have no idea, now, what my note taking looked like in college—class notes, yes (in the rare class that threatened to put me to sleep—usually because of time of day rather than subject matter—my notes tended to wander, ever more illegibly, almost off the page...I do remember hiding Uncle Tom's Cabin under my desk during Horticulture so that I could stay awake, with the added bonus of getting my reading done), but not reading notes. I'm sure I didn't highlight my books. Did I underline? I have no earthly idea. Most of the students in the class seem to highlight and/or underline, though.

But I'm reading library books, and, well, I couldn't write in those even if I wanted to. So instead I'm taking note after note. Quotations for preference (especially useful if I ever need to cite a given book for a paper...or a Goodreads review, for that matter), but also thematic bits and the like. For Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, I (very) briefly summarised each chapter. But for Ghettoside, which was supplemental reading of a sort (to what end, I do not yet know, although I've already sorted out one way to connect it to Incidents—clearly I am desperate to write a paper), it's mostly quotations, because they explain the book so well.

Being in class again is wonderful. I miss taking notes and arguing points in class (though, as an auditor, I am keeping my mouth politely shut) and being told by the professor that I'm wrong. (Or right. Right is just fine too.) When I read just for myself, I still take down lots of quotations, but...this is a different kind of fun.

Monday, February 16, 2015


I've been thinking a lot about POV and, in particular, unreliable narrators. It started with What We Hide, in which the story is told from a large number of narrators; none of them is unreliable per se, but each of them sees events slightly differently. I didn't love the multiple-narrator thing—made it harder to get into the story sometimes, and to sympathise with any given narrator—but that was also, I think, kind of the point. Hard not to respect that.

But then, also, it's books like A Perfect Ten: The protagonist, the POV character, could just as easily be the antagonist if the story were told from another character's perspective. It would be an interesting writing exercise—write a story from one perspective, and then flip it around and write from another perspective. A third. It's not the newest of ideas, but it does make one think.

I'm taking a creative writing class at the moment—personal essays. The focus is on 'risky' essays, which tends to (though doesn't always) mean hard topics—abuse, sex, lies, etc. Some of the essays we've workshopped in the class have been really good, and hard, and complicated...and I'm reminded of something (I think) Dorothy Allison said of Trash and something else that (I think) Alison Bechdel said about Fun Home: The former, that she'd never expected it to have so wide an audience or to be so readily available to, say, people in her hometown; the latter, that her mother was less than thrilled with Bechdel airing out the family skeletons.* How much of our stories is our own? How much belongs to, or is shared with, other people? The books I mentioned in the first two paragraphs are fiction, so the authors can craft the characters any way they please...but in memoir it's trickier; you can tell a certain slant of story, but you can't rewrite history or know exactly how somebody else experienced the same things you did.

I'm quite keen on unanswerable questions, I'm afraid...

*I believe I have the gist right in both cases, obviously, but suffice it to say that I am paraphrasing heavily.

Saturday, February 7, 2015


I'm auditing a literature class right now—believe it or not, I miss homework—and one of the first readings is a selection from Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mother's Gardens. And oh, gosh. What a reminder—I read a ton (more than is 'normal', or so I am led to understand), but much of it is...not of great quality. That is, I read a lot of good or excellent books, but also a lot from which I derive entertainment but don't really learn much.

And here's Alice Walker, tossing out names of authors and books that I should be reading instead—feminist writers, writers of colour, books that are political and have a point...or at least books that you could write a college-level paper on. (I mean—I guess you could write papers on 80s teen 'issue' lit, but it would be a very different kind of paper.)

I take no issue with the way I read and feel no (or at least very little) shame/guilt for reading a lot of meh stuff along with the high-quality stuff. But gosh, it feels good when I get into the deeper stuff—definitely more complicated, slower reads, but so many kinds of worth it.

The only trouble is that I took four pages of notes, and I've been out of class long enough that I'm not sure if any of those notes will be useful in class...

Monday, February 2, 2015

Odd Narrative Choices

So. Last week I read Jantsen's Gift, which made me think of However Long the Night (same ghostwriter), which in turn made me think of King Peggy (because...ghostwritten memoirs about West Africa? I guess?). And that made me think of odd narrative choices.

In King Peggy, what felt off to me was that it was not actually a ghostwritten memoir—rather, the writer talked about the eponymous King Peggy in the third person, narrating what she did and said and thought. The story was absolutely fascinating, but the writing took me out of that story and out of King Peggy's voice.

Then there was Volunteering in Ethiopia ( you can't guess what that one was about...). I was unable to glean much info about the publisher, and it's possible that this one was self-published (read: less editorial action), but the narrator—i.e., the writer, as the book is a memoir—managed to drive me up the wall and right back down again (and then across the room and up the other wall) by constantly referring to himself in the third person. Not I did this and "Oho," I said, but Skelton did this and "Oho," Skelton said.

And lastly, there was A Room with a Pew. This one was written jointly, with its two authors contributing (presumably) roughly equal weight. That's not an uncommon model (or a bad one, or an odd one) in and of itself, but in this case the authors wrote as one: one I in the book, not two. Not Richard and Miriam but I. For the sake of the narrative—and they do address this, briefly, in an Authors' Note—they...consolidated their experience.

It makes me wonder. That narrative choice in A Room with a Pew was intentional, measured. It didn't work terribly well for me, but a quick look at other reviews on Goodreads suggests that I am in a minority; in any case, I imagine they considered other options before landing on this one. I am not so certain about Volunteering in Ethiopia—that author went to law school after his time in the Peace Corps (the PC being the subject of his book); it's impossible for me to know whether he took writing classes or anything like that, but there is no evidence that he is a trained writer. In his case I suspect that he found it easier to get a bit of distance when writing about himself in the third person.

And in King Peggy...well, again, it's all supposition on my part, of course. There I imagine that it was just a poor fit between writer and book: the author has written other books (without the memoirish twist), which have good reviews on Goodreads (as does King Peggy, for that matter, so perhaps* I am a cranky reader).

There are plenty of other, perhaps odder, narrative choices—especially in fiction—that I don't question. Books where the narrator isn't named until the last page, or isn't named at all. Books where the main character is something of a pathological liar, and the reader can't trust anything they say. (In all three books I'm thinking of there, it worked out just fine, as far as I was concerned.) And I can't say that I'm much of a purist. I mean, I'll read the words on a cereal box ten times in a row if I don't have a book on hand. But...I guess I'd be curious to see an outside-the-box narrative choice in nonfiction that...well, that worked better for me. (Suggestions, o nonexistent readers?)

*'Perhaps?' Definitely.