Thursday, April 27, 2017

Review: American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

American Gods (American Gods, #1)American Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My tip for anyone wanting to dive into this book is that you have to give this one time. This was my second attempt in reading American Gods, the first being unsuccessful, but I saw the trailers for the new TV show and they looked so cool and I figured that I needed to read this one before the show. You have to stick with this book, the first 100 or so pages move slowly. Characters and relationships need to be established, the mythos of the world needs to be explained. And once it has been, once you're there this truly is a wonderful, wild ride.

Gaiman never disappoints. The man is a genius of world building as well as sentence crafting. Although, this was not my favorite Gaiman novel. I much prefer The Ocean at the End of the Lane or Neverwhere. This book isn't bad, just different from those two. And I do appreciate that Gaiman tries something different every time he puts pen to paper. He doesn't do these long series because he knows they will be a sure thing.

The thing I liked most about American Gods was the mythos, the idea that gods are brought across the ocean with the people who traveled to America and then lose power and eventually waste away from lack of worship. That idea is fascinating. I also really enjoyed the characters of Shadow and Wednesday--what a great pair! They will go down as one of the great literary relationships of all time.

But, and there always has to be a but, the book does move slowly at times. There are vast expanses of pages where not much is happening. It feels like everything is growing to a massive event, the storm is building, and then we have these sections where we leave that anticipation for walking around a quiet town, waiting for Wednesday to call. It became a bit frustrating. The Shadow as Christ figure part got pretty difficult to conceptualize too. Finally, there are so many gods in this book and it really helps if you know a little bit about their background. Who they are. Names are going to be flying by your head and you really should do yourself a favor and look them up while you are reading. It helps with the enjoyment of the book immensely.

Overall, a pretty fun read. And now I am prepared to watch the TV show. Here to hoping it's good.

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Tragedy Loves Company: 2003 Q3 Essay

A few Saturday's ago, I conducted an experiment. I the most recent prompt that my AP students had written on, set a timer for 40 minutes, and wrote the essay myself. I must confess that the experience was eye-opening. I struggled with the time. I personally felt like I had too much time and I needed to focus and really dig deep in my analysis. And I struggled with the feeling that I was simply repeating myself. I then gave my essay to a colleague, without a name, and asked him to score it--pretending it was a student paper I was struggling with. I scored an 8 on the paper, which I agree with. The essay was good, but not without its failings.

Here is the prompt:
"According to critic Northrop Frye, 'Tragic heroes are so much the highest point in their human landscape that they seem the inevitable conductors of the power about them, great trees more likely to be struck by lightning than a clump of grass. Conductors may of course be instruments as well as victims of the divine lightning.' 
Select a novel or play in which a tragic figure functions as an instrument of the suffering of others. Then write an essay in which you explain how the suffering brought upon others by that figure contributes to the tragic vision of the work as a whole.
You may choose a work from the list below or another novel or play of comparable quality. Avoid mere plot summary."

I chose Antigone because that is what my students wrote on. And without further ado, here is my essay:
Tragedy loves company. Tragic heroes in literature often cause suffering in the people around them, as they suffer themselves. In Sophocles' play, Antigone, King Creon functions as the tragic figure that causes the suffering of others. He brings about the suffering of his own family (Antigone, Haimon, and his wife, Eurydice), as well as the suffering of the common people of Thebes. This all helps the reader to better understand the theme that power blinds people to the needs of others.

About halfway through the play, Haimon, Creon's son, comes to speak with him about the sentence pronounced upon Antigone (Creon's niece and Haimon's betrothed). Creon's only thought though, his only desire, is power. Creon refuses to listen to his son, or the Choragus. His mind is made up and his stubborn pride will not allow him to change, because to change would make him look weak--and a king cannot look weak. This helps the reader understand how damning power can be. As soon as a man gets even the smallest ounce of power, he lets that go to his head and then refuses to listen to his advisers. This is the case in the real world and the case in the play. Creon refuses to listen to anyone and that prideful refusal leads to the suffering of his son, Haimon; his niece, Antigone; and his wife, Eurydice. Creon "kills" his entire family because he is too proud to change. Sophocles warns us of the dangers of power and how a tree in a storm better be able to lean, or else that tree will break.

In the end of the play, the blind prophet, Teiresias shows up to counsel Creon. Teiresisas states that he can no longer communicate with the gods, and that they aren't accepting his sacrifices anymore. Now, Creon messing things up in his own family is one thing, but now he has cursed all of Thebes with his actions. The common people (here represented by the Chorus and the Choragus) cannot speak with the gods anymore. They can't ask for blessings upon their families or their crops. Creon curses all those around him. As he says in the play, everything he touches comes to death. Sophocles provides us with a wonderful example of how not to lead, which we so desperately need in this day and age. Creon's desire for power clouds everything else in his mind. He cannot think, he cannot reason. His discussions with almost every character in the play turn into angry fighting. Creon is blind to everything else--the needs of his family and the needs of his city. And because of this blindness, Creon suffers, but more importantly, those around him also suffer. Hopefully the irony of Teiresias, the blind prophet, bringing this to Creon's attention isn't lost on the reader either. At the end of the play, the reader should see how important it is for leaders to temper their power with reason and good counsel from trusted advisers. No one can lead and be an island. You can't do the job by yourself. Those who try as we see in the case of Creon, only cause those around them to suffer. Like Northrop Frye states, "[they are] so much the highest points in their human landscape that they seem the inevitable conductors of the power about them." And that power blinds them to the needs of their subjects and causes pain and suffering.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Blurry, Muffled of Speak

A passage from Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson:

"The peanut butter locks my jaws closed. 
Emily: 'I don't believe it. Rumors are spread by jealous people. Hi, Andy. Did you bring enough lunch for everyone?' 
It feels like the Prince of Darkness has swept his cloak over the table. The lights dim. I shiver. Andy stands behind me to flirt with Emily. I lean into the table to stay as far away from him as I can. The table saws me in half. Emily's mouth moves, the fluorescent lights glittering on her teeth. The other girls scootch toward Emily to soak up her Attractiveness Rays. Andy must be talking too, I can feel deep vibrations in my backbone, like a thudding speaker. I can't hear the words. He twirls my ponytail in his fingers. Emily's eyes narrow. I mumble something idiotic and run for the bathroom. I heave lunch into the toilet, then wash my face with the ice water that comes out of the Hot faucet. Heather does not come looking for me."

This is an especially traumatic passage in the novel. Andy is the boy that raped Melinda during the summer, and this section really creeped me out when I was reading it--it still creeps me out.

Anderson's syntax is interesting here. She usually has a good mix of short simple sentences, but also complex, compound sentences. But here, because of the action of the scene, Anderson abandons compound sentences in lieu of crisp, short ones. The scene and the description gets herky-jerky like it is all Melinda can do to let us know what is going on. I also noticed that the scene begins with Melinda able to see and describe the people around her, and then it's almost as if the camera pulls in (maybe even inside her head) and the reader's vision becomes blurry and muffled. She can't understand what people are saying anymore, she just knows that they are talking and "can feel the deep vibrations in [her] backbone." This is the only sentence that has any complexity to it as well, which I think is extremely important. This is a tipping point, as we see two sentences later when Andy begins to twirl Melinda's ponytail. Anderson signals this to us by writing a more complex sentence. You may not notice it while you are reading quickly, but your brain does.

There are three instances of figurative language in this passage. Melinda compares Andy to Satan using a simile in the third paragraph; a pretty run-of-the-mill comparison. But then she says that "[t]he table saws [her] in half." Which seems like the point in the passage where the scene really becomes muffled. Almost like her head has been separated from the rest of her body, the signals no longer reaching her brain. And then Melinda compares the "deep vibrations" of Andy's voice to a "thudding speaker." It seems like a normal enough simile, but I think there is more we could consider here. When I think of a thudding speaker, I don't think of a speaker that is working correctly. I think of a speaker where something is wrong; the speaker has ripped and it has that strange vibration sound. When the bass hits the speaker hums and those vibrations spread throughout whatever the speaker is touching. Perhaps that is what Anderson is getting at with the word thudding? Which would make sense because of the effect Andy is having on Melinda in this scene. That thudding makes Melinda remember, which is turn causes her to throw up.

The passage is indeed disturbing, but Anderson does a marvelous job of composing a scene full of details that enrich further close-readings.