A Hungry Lion, Or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals by Lucy Ruth Cummins

Featured

Look out, creative writers! Using a list format to tell a compelling story just fell into the capable hands of a children’s author. Cue sinister guffaw: MUHUHUHU-WHA-HAHAHA!

Cummins, Lucy Ruth. A Hungry Lion, Or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016. Print.

Genre: children’s picture book

Summary: An unassuming narrator attempts to relate the once upon a time tale of a large assortment of animals, only to be repeatedly interrupted by steady disappearances. Each time the narrator takes stock, the cast dwindles, until only the hungry lion remains…. But the tale does not end there.

Critique: Fans of the mischievous, misbehaving forms of children’s literature will no doubt root this book on their shelves alongside classic troublemakers crafted by the likes Mo Willems, Roald Dahl, E. Nesbit, and Mark Twain. Readers, after all, delight in subversion.

Writers, too, will delight in the way Cummins crafts a story around a continually revised list! Creative nonfiction writers have used this technique to great effect, but in children’s books lists tend to either accumulate or taper and the purpose is usually to assist with counting. The list in this text operates on a totally different schema. Much like Emily Gravett’s Wolves, A Hungry Lion hinges on subversion, but whereas the genius of Gravett’s work achieves its subversiveness by breaking the barriers of a complex mise-en-abyme, Cummins’s text utilizes closure.

In his seminal Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud describes closure as our natural ability to construct a whole from only the parts. Closure is how we fill in gaps in order to make sense of partial or disconnected bits of information. We rely on past experience to complete the incomplete. In other words, closure is our ability to make assumptions or leap to conclusions needing only a small diving board.

What happens to the disappearing animals? The book does not say, so the reader fills in that narrative gap. However, Cummins uses closure to brilliantly demonstrate how our assumptions can be (and often are) wrong. Truth is more slippery than soap. And injustice and justice can be easily and simultaneously swallowed whole.

The Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark

Featured

If your book club is boring, if you weary of your writing students saying only they did or did not like an assigned text, if you need better feedback from your critique group, then this book may help.

Clark, Roy Peter. The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing. New York: Little, Brown & Co, 2016. Print.

Genre: nonfiction, instructional literary critique

Summary: Using bearable dosages of 10-pages apiece, each chapter of Clark’s book teaches readers how put on x-ray goggles and see under the skin of some literary masterworks. Shirley Jackson, Earnest Hemingway, Rachel Carson. Fiction and nonfiction. Clark pinpoints a selection of techniques and illustrates how the writer deployed them, to what effect, why it matters, and how an emerging writer might adopt those techniques.

Critique: Compared to the reams of scathing or geeky lit critique I had read for both of my Master’s programs, Clark’s assessments of these masterworks are light. That is not to say his analyses were ineffective. On the contrary, about the time I’d be gearing up for some deconstruction of Foucaultian power paradigms or perhaps a feminist examination of symbolic liminal zones as they relate to Kristeva’s archetypes, Clark would wrap the chapter with a quick conclusion and list of applicable writing techniques or exercises. In other words, Clark can and will whet your appetite for rich literary analysis and then get the heck out of Dodge before you a.) get bored or b.) mount a counter argument (not because you want to but because the habit carved into your brain tissues after years of formal education).

I heartily recommend this book to book clubbers, the teachers of writing classes, and the leaders of critique groups. Wine drinkers, students, and novice writers alike can see what it is to pick apart text. To read as they have never done before. They can glean from Clark’s tutorials not just how to do that, but why. In mechanical terms, it’s like teaching someone how to first see a piston in the great tangled metal belly of an engine and then helping them comprehend how miraculous, how integral that little component is — not just in the smooth and powerful running of that motor, but also in the grand scheme of automobile history and human innovation.

Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg

If you often yearn for 26-hour days — a bit more time to get done all that life requires and maybe, JUST MAYBE, a wink of sleep — this book is definitely for you!

Duhigg, Charles. Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2016. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (self-help-ish sans the tearful journal exercises)

Summary: Duhigg maps out the strategies successful people and industries use to attain utmost productivity. Defined here, productivity is ” the name we give our attempts to [best use] our energy, intellect, and time as we try to seize the most meaningful rewards with the least wasted effort.” In other words, Duhigg sets out to teach you how to succeed with less stress and struggle.

Critique: Author of the bestselling The Power of Habit (2012), Duhigg returns to deliver a fresh set of neurological schematics underscoring how to get the most optimal performances out of our brains. As always, he does a masterful job weaving technical exposition and compelling scenes involving the many people he profiled and interviewed while researching the book.

For example, you may be right in the middle of a based-on-true-events plane crash scene when Duhigg hits the pause button and delivers some bit of crucial data on the brain in times of extreme stress. The suspense mounts and just when you think you can’t take it, he hits play and resumes the gripping drama. The result: reading this book is lot like watching The Big Short.

Students studying how to compose creative nonfiction would do well to study Duhigg’s techniques.

Besides a good craft study, Duhigg’s latest book outlines some unconventional approaches to productivity all based on the latest behavioral and neuroscience research. Evidently, there IS a wrong way and a right way to make a to-do list. Most of us do it the wrong way, resulting in scads of wasted time, incomplete projects and missed deadlines–not to mention the scree of eroded self-confidence. Also, if you want to get through that nebulous inbox of unanswered emails, you’ll have to learn to reply like a U.S. Marine. Instead of setting the usual SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timelined), set stretch goals. Finally, once you understand why fear is an intrinsic part of innovating new ideas, you can harness it to intensify your creativity and hit your deadlines and benchmarks. In other words, if you’re a writer, you’ll want this book on your shelf.

 

Upstream by Mary Oliver

Yea or nay: Humans, with all their mighty know-how, should alter the world and fix all that ails it. Yea or nay: Humans should sit back, only observe, and do their best to not interfere with natural processes, like National Geographic wildlife photographers.

Oliver, Mary. Upstream: Selected Essays. New York: Penguin, 2016. Print.

Summary: In a series of essays, Mary Oliver traces the riparian zone of our role in this monstrous, miraculous, moiling and mending world. Although some of the works were previously published, here they are recombined, juxtaposed with newer works to provoke fresh questions, perspectives, and mystification.

Critique: Whether through poetry or prose, Mary Oliver opens your eyes. Nay, she uses her arresting imagery and metaphors to perform an ocular transplant, bequeathing unto you eyes which will never see the world in the same  way. Ever. Again.

Take for instance that pendulous clock in the hall, with its white spider belly. As soon as you notice it, you realize you are and have always been stuck on time’s web, your flesh a feast in slow mastication. Or, what about that time of year when the world “smells like water in an iron cup”? Or the way egrets drink the light rays off the tops of pond water?

The world is full of splendors to be seen and felt and known. But that is not the only point Oliver is out to make. We are not just observers. We are animals, too. We hunger. We create. We destroy. In other words, we exist. But how are we to exist when all the actions centipeding in the shady soil beneath that concept threaten to sink this planet deeper into its naturally cataclysmic cycles?

I do not mean to say this collection is an open diatribe on global climate change. It isn’t. In her usual way, with her characteristic poise and grace, Oliver comes like a sunset shadow, her questions traveling a slender, irregular, delicate path over some very solid ground.

On Apology by Aaron Lazare

How successful are your apologies? Whether sincere or obligatory, do they genuinely repair the damaged relationship or do they only add arsenic to the community well? This book explores the elements of both appealing and appalling apologies.

Lazare, Aaron. On Apology. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Print.

Summary: Dr. Lazare, a former Harvard professor and leading expert on the psychology of shame and humiliation, deconstructs the elements of successful apologies while mapping the pitfalls of history’s more regrettable redresses.

Critique: I cannot count the number of times I was forced to apologize when I was young. The scenario usually ran thus: an argument or tussle broke out among the wild child tribe on the playground. Adults intervened and insisted we all make amends. So we did, eyes anchored to the ground, hands folded in our jagged elbow joints.

Of course those halfhearted atonements did little or nothing to sooth our wounds.

But even after I matured a little and could take (a little) responsibility for my mistakes, making a sincere apology either felt like those compulsory playground pardons, or else it did about as much good. But why? I said I was sorry AND I MEANT IT!

Lazare’s analysis of the act of apologizing starts off by parsing the vastly different psychological impact of saying and hearing “sorry” vs “apologize.” He then goes on to identify the four essential elements of a sincere, effective apology — which one that makes amends and heals the rift in the relationship.

To illustrate what happens when one or more of those elements is missing, Lazare points to high-profile public olive branches from figures like Abraham Lincoln (his second inaugural address), Janet Jackson (remember the nip-slip during the Super Bowl half time show?), Bill Clinton, former Senator Trent Lott (who gaffed when he voiced being proud of his votes for fellow politician and open racist, Strom Thurman), public officials or agencies apologizing (unsuccessfully) to historically oppressed minority groups, and so many more.

Image by Shereen M.

In light of our current circumstances, this may be a timely book to read. Our smartphones and excessive screen time already make us more socially inept, further limiting our capacity and ability to apologize when its needed. What’s more, the latest smash hit “reality TV show” — a topsy turvy political circus featuring a cast of Washington celebs suffering from colossal narcissism — promises to usher in a fresh array of catastrophic gaffes and scandals. Already we have heard a barrage of publicly televised apologies. Some we accepted. Others only lit the fuses on our Molotov cocktails. And with Lazare’s help, we won’t have to wonder if we’re getting a heartfelt mea culpa or an obvious pile of bovine byproduct.