Tag Archives: reading

The kid-think of Room (novel by Emma Donaghue)

Many Moons Passed with the Wolf at My Door, by Angela Treat Lyon

The first book I read after fall quarter had dusted down was Emma Donaghue’s novel, Room.  I can’t avoid “reading as a writer,” and thinking about how the writer does and makes her thing, but wanted to immerse myself, so I refused the urge to take notes.

The narrative procedures used in this book are inseparable from the sensational story, which is, to quote the Wikipedia entry, “told from the perspective of a five-year-boy, Jack, who is being held captive in a small room along with his mother.”  The book is a page-turner, sure, but what kept me riveted was the grace with which Donaghue sustained the narrative told, first-person, in a young child’s words.  It’s of particular interest to me because I know it’s so damn hard to do.  (My novel, The Watery Girl, is told from the point of view of a seven-year-old, but I didn’t want to limit myself to her language.  So I used a close third person, still intimate, often imbued with thoughts and words directly mined from the protagonist Claire, but third person allows space to wiggle language.  First person really locks you in.  All writing is artifice, but if you want to convince a reader like this one, you better stick close to what a child would actually say.  And more than that, Donaghue’s Jack breathes the breath of childhood, lives out its logic.  I’m convinced her sentences are true kid-think.)

As I read Room, I kept holding my breath (not only because of the story) to see if Donaghue could sustain that thing with the kid.  She did.  There was not one moment when I disbelieved I was reading Jack’s true five-year-old thoughts.  Yes, Jack is precocious and smart, but the writer explained his particular intelligence so effortlessly when needed, and made clear that Jack’s mother worked hard to engage her son in his (albeit tiny) world.  Reading about their life in Room, I was enrapt and also exhausted, imagining how hard it would be to live in a single room with a child, non-stop, for five years.  (Putting aside the whole ordeal–the sheer exertion of the character’s work as a parent was amazing.  And yet believable.  I bought, without question, that Jack was her redemption.)

When I opened the book, I didn’t know the plot, just the premise.  As I read, I wondered how Donaghue would sustain the claustrophobia of one room for an entire novel.  When I realized their situation was about to change, the novel became “about” something very different from what I expected.  I was glad.  Thinking, as I have been this year, about brain plasticity and pinning many hopes to that idea, it fascinated me to read and consider about how Jack might (or might not) adapt to life outside Room.  And like many who have read the book probably have done, I wondered whether we each have a Room of some sort of other that’s shaped what we expect and want from the world.

I want to read more of Donaghue’s writing, soon, because anyone who can do what she did in Room is worth the time.

The hands of a storyteller

“The first sentence of every novel should be: ‘Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.’  Meander if you want to get to town.”

This is from Michael Ondaatje’s book, In The Skin Of A Lion, which I blogged about here.  When I first read this passage, years ago, I realized this is the kind of fiction I want to write, and this proclamation provides comfort.

There’s a beautiful feeling I sometimes get when I’m reading.  It’s the moment I realize I’m in the hands of a good storyteller.  I’ve had that feeling sometimes reading “great” books, and sometimes reading unpublished student work.  The feeling helps me relax and be along for the journey, and I crave it in everything that I read.  This is not to say that I want what I read to soothe me–on the contrary.  (As the fabulous Joy Williams wrote in her essay “Uncanny the Singing That Comes From Certain Husks,” “Good writing never soothes or comforts.  It is no prescription, neither is it diversionary, although it can and should enchant while it explodes in the reader’s face.”)  But that somewhat unnamable awareness that I’m in good hands as I read is always welcome.  It has to do, maybe, with an amount of confidence (and sincerity) in the writer, because I don’t get that feeling, usually, when I read an overly clever or cynical voice–a narrative stance that, to me, usually feels insincere.  I think the feeling I’m pondering can be called “trust.”  As I notice it, something changes in my body; I relax a little (even if the story is unsettling, exploding in my face) because I understand an agreement the writer is making with me, and I am making with the writer: I trust that she or he will uphold whatever rules and aesthetics the story (or poem) requires, and I trust that the writer’s choices were made in earnest, and with honor behind them.

I want to give that same feeling to my readers.  With my words, I want to craft a net, a web, or a hammock, to catch, or lull them into a place, a moment, a thought.  Myself I want to quiet down to what’s essential, and I want the reader to witness (with me) that silver drop of water on a leaf, or that strange knocking sound that’s just too far off to identify but too close to ignore.


Hugh Laurie (before “House”) and Stephen Fry

Near the end of the last century, I was traversing a difficult break-up.  It seemed the only thing that got me successfully out of my depths was watching “Law & Order” which aired incessantly (several times a day, but still not frequently enough) on the cable channel A&E.  Those gritty formulaic crimes and solutions, riding on the noble backs of wisecracks from well-worn characters like Lennie Briscoe, helped me survive my dark forest.  For an hour at a time, I was distracted enough to gain the relief called numbness–sometimes needed when real things are too hard to face.

Fast forward thirteen years or so, and I need another escape.  But we canceled cable last year, and now it wouldn’t be the classic L&O but instead one of its million children or grandchildren, the watered down spin-offs.  And I’m sure as beautiful as Mariska Hargitay may be, these pale descendents would not offer the comfort of long-ago Jerry Orbach.

So, to reading.  I’m enforcing a brief “vacation” from work-related reading.  First I picked up Animal Farm, which I  haven’t read since high school, and I love Orwell so want to read it again.  But quickly I surmised that wasn’t the right book.  Instead, on the beloved shelf I discovered a small gem called The Girl In Blue by P.G. Wodehouse.  A student had recommended it to me after a chat when we each admired Wodehouse (on whose birthday, incidentally, I was born).  I bought the book without knowing I wouldn’t have time to read it until now.  I’ve adored the Bertie Wooster stories since I read the first after watching their dramatizations with the unequaled (pre-“House”) Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry.  But I’d never ventured outside the sunny, funny confines of Wooster and Jeeves.

The Girl In Blue stands alone, that is, it’s the only book he wrote about this set of characters.  But Wodehouse’s hilarious hyperbole rings like a carillon throughout, and will sound to anyone who’s read his other books like the verbal equivalent of tucking into a good silk robe and a mohair chair before the fire, belly full of Anatole’s cooking.  The perfect escape.  A rollicking plot, and many hilarious twists, unfolding in a world blessedly unfamiliar to mine.  But it was impossible to ignore the habit of reading like a writer, and this is good because this time, I found the novel better than escape.  It’s Wodehouse’s prose.

In grandiose trappings, his sentences dance through and around what could easily turn to cliché, but he saves them just before they tumble; his facility with the shades and nuances of English spins what could be a simple fun romp into much finer stuff.  To hell with the high art/low art debate!  To hell with that lofty, sniffing disdain for stories created with the intention of (gasp!) entertainment.  (I’ve never really cared about that fight anyway, but it’s fun to officially cast it off here.)

Could I please just spend a year reading through all of Wodehouse?  Don’t they award grants for stuff like this?  For 2.3 seconds, wild-eyed and laughing, I consider applying for Ph.D. programs, dream of researching a dissertation on the women in Wodehouse, if only so I could immerse myself in the genius of this man’s words.

(Okay, just one more book…)

Now that I have stepped from the safety of Brinkley Court, I will follow Wodehouse anywhere.

In The Skin of A Lion

Cover of the first edition

I’m re-reading and pondering Michael Ondaatje’s book, In The Skin of A Lion.  I love this book. For me, this is a book to read again and again, to study and learn from.  This novel is an open apprenticeship.  Any good novel might be like that: think about which novel yours might be.  This one speaks to me.

Tonight, this passage from p. 157 seems like one definition of community:

“Alice had once described a play to him in which several actresses shared the role of heroine.  After half an hour the powerful matriarch removed her large coat from which animal pelts dangled and she passed it, along with her strength, to one of the minor characters.  In this way even a silent daughter could put on the cloak and be able to break through her chrysalis into language.  Each person had their moment when they assumed the skins of wild animals, when they took responsibility for the story.”

Writing in books

I just read an interesting article in the NY Times about marginalia.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “reading as a writer” and what that means, how interactive and not passive it can/should be… yet I have trouble writing in books, myself.  So I take a lot of notes, recopy passages, and do my work that way.  Maybe I need to rethink this, and break the water of the pristine book.

The beginning of empathy?

My daughter, who is two-and-a-half, is developing a habit of hugging books.  When we’re reading a story and someone gets hurt, or might be scared, or sad, she embraces the book for a long moment.  When Madeline gets her appendix taken out, or when Sal loses her tooth (One Morning in Maine) and makes a bitter face “almost like crying,” my daughter leans in to hug.  She does this with her parents, too, when we stub toes or drop things, or are not feeling well.  In trying to raise a child who cares about other people, we’ve talked a lot about considering others’ feelings, reminding her that it hurts the cat when she yanks his tail.

Tonight, I was reading Harold and The Purple Crayon at bedtime.

“He was tired and he felt he ought to be getting to bed.  He hoped he could see his bedroom window from the top of the mountain.  But as he looked down over the other side he slipped–And there wasn’t any other side of the mountain.  He was falling, into thin air.”

Harold is shown upside down, with his purple crayon, simply falling.  My daughter leaned in to hug Harold, and then held and comforted him (the book) for a long time.  She said, “I’m going to hold Hamold” (as she calls Harold).

The wise people who write about child development tend to discount these early displays of empathy, and certainly my child does her share of throwing her dolls to the floor so that they cry, so that she can comfort them.  (I encourage her not to throw them to the floor–“It’s better if they don’t cry in the first place, right?” but that’s not the point.  She needs them to cry so that she can comfort them.)  It is heart-warming to see her hugging a book, especially when the child protagonist is in peril, or pain, but I don’t think my daughter is unusual in this way.

I read an article recently (I wish I could remember where!) about a book that was claiming there is too much fiction in K-12 curriculum, and that children need to learn how to read nonfiction, that it helps them learn about the real world more than fiction does.  Admittedly taken out of context, this notion really bothers me.  Yes, children need to learn to read all kinds of things, and it’s crucial that they learn the nuances and distinctions between fiction and nonfiction.  But how can I say that fiction doesn’t teach children about life in the “real” world?  Even putting “issue” books aside (in my generation, there was Judy Blume) it’s not fair to partition fiction out of what is real in the world.

We learn the world from stories, and through stories.

p.s. There is truth and fiction everywhere.