Caleb’s Crossing: A Glimpse of Martha’s Vineyard in the 1600’s

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Well this week has proven to be sufficiently busy for me. But in all the craziness I did manage to find the time to finish my book, Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks. I bought Caleb’s Crossing on Martha’s Vineyard a few years ago, and it has been sitting on my shelf ever since.

I came across it late last Friday night, the beginning of Memorial Day weekend, when I was looking for a good book to curl up with in the cold. (It seemed more like Columbus Day weekend with all the rain and the cold than the beginning of summer, but the weather this week has made up for it).

Caleb’s Crossing proved to be an excellent curl-up-by-the fire book. Set on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1600’s, Caleb’s Crossing tells the story of a young girl Puritan girl named Berthia Mayfield, who comes across a young Wampanoag Native American boy. She and this boy, who she later calls Caleb, strike up a strong friendship that lasts throughout the book. Caleb, who is inducted into Puritan society, ends up being the first  Native American to graduate from Harvard. The novel is based on a true story, and tracks Berthia and Caleb’s journey through the years.

This is not what I would call an action packed book, but it is well written, and tells a good story. From the beginning of the novel, Berthia makes the point that she is not the average well mannered Puritan woman that her mother is, and that is the ideal for the society she grows up in. At a young age Berthia began listening in on her older brother’s school lessons that she was not privy to herself. It is clear that she has more interest in education and schooling than her brother does, and furthering her knowledge proves to be a driving force behind her decisions throughout the book.

I particularly enjoyed this novel for its descriptions of Martha’s Vineyard, which is a place I know well. Even in pre-Revolutionary America Martha’s Vineyard acted as a get away from mainland life. Berthia’s grandfather moved there from The Massachusetts Bay Colony when he had a disagreement about the ways of life with the other members in the colony. Even in the strict Puritan days, the Vineyard has a more relaxed feel to it than the lifestyle of the mainland peoples. This contrast is made abundantly clear when Berthia travels to the Boston later in her life, and describes the strict practices she sees there. Her own family has a fairly rigid way of life, but Berthia is allowed more freedom because of their island lifestyle than she would be as a young woman growing up elsewhere in the colonies at this time.

Berthia clearly loves Martha’s Vineyard has a close connection to the island which becomes stronger when she is introduced to Caleb and the Native American ways of life. This introduction also has an interesting effect on her faith, which as a Puritan is a huge part of her life. At a young age she grapples with the contrast between her strict Protestant upbringing, and the freer, more nature-based practices of the Wampanoag Native Americans. The result, although she is constantly grappling with it, turns out to be a more fleshed out picture of God’s plan that she was seeing otherwise, especially in terms of the beauty of nature on the island.

As I said before, Caleb’s Crossing is not a fast paced book, but Brooks does weave suspense throughout her story. Berthia proves to be a strong character, and I enjoyed seeing how she carved a life for herself in an unconventional manner for a Puritan woman of her time. Throughout her life she chooses positions for herself that allow her to further her learning and happiness, which were not aspects of life women tended to focus on in this time period.

I thought that some of the more minor characters, such as Berthia’s mother and grandfather could have been developed more fully throughout the book, but as a whole I enjoyed reading Caleb’s Crossing. I enjoyed seeing Martha’s Vineyard, Boston, and Harvard through a different lens. As a new school in Cambridge, Harvard at this time had about 30 students who studied with private tutors in two buildings – very different than college today.

Geraldiine Brooks does a good job of transporting her reader into a world of the past of Native Americans, Puritanism and education. The contrast between English and Native American life is well depicted, and the complexities of the relationship between these two groups of people, which defined so much of American history, is looked at from multiple angles. Brooks does not stereotype this relationship, and encompasses many different views in her story.

I tend not to gravitate toward Pre-Revolutionary fiction, because I have studied that era so much in school, and was never as interested in it as I was other periods of time in American History. But, despite all this, I really enjoyed Brooks’ story, and liked seeing a world that I know so well as new and unfamiliar. All in all it was an enjoyable Memorial Day Weekend read.

My Great Gatsby

GreatGatsby423x630Well, The Great Gatsby movie has been out for over a week now, and I must say that I haven’t heard too many rave reviews. What I have heard about it is a mixed bag. While I have heard that the casting was well done, I have also  heard that the movie is simply over the top and does not stay true to the original novel in ways that  viewers were hoping for.

People seem to have one of two opinions on The Great Gatsby. Either they love it or they hate it – I have not seen much in between. Gatsby was one of my favorite books that I read in tenth grade, and I reread it over the summer in college. In my rereading, I did find the descriptions to be somewhat over the top – more so than I had remembered – but that did not change my opinion of the book too much, and I still enjoyed it.

I think maybe the reason why I enjoyed it so much was because it was such a visual read. Fitzgerald really emphasizes description, setting, and colors in his writing, and while that did slow down the narrative at times, it gave me a very specific image of Nick Carraway’s world, and his opinions on that world.

What’s more is that I feel like I have been there myself. The story is set in the imaginary Long Island town of West Egg and New York City. Long Island is one of my favorite places, and I know it well as I have been going there since I was little. I also grew up in New York, so both of these locations are familiar old haunts of mine.

I feel like it is pretentious to say that The Great Gatsby hits close to home for me, because that is not true. I do not live the extravagant life of Jay Gatsby in a disillusioned Jazz Age like era – thankfully I am much more low key than that. That is not what is familiar to me while reading The Great Gatsby. Instead it’s the settings themselves, not the people, that stick with me the most when reading this book.

When I imagine the setting, I think of the air and the light of Long Island in the summer and even some of the specific places on the island. I picture the famous glasses billboard and The Valley of Ashes to be somewhere on the L.I.E. Many years ago when I was little, there was a fire off of the highway that we could see in the distance from our kitchen window. We passed the remains of burned trees for a long time after that while traveling back and forth to the city. For me, that is where the billboard and the gas station are in Gatsby.

Even though the last time I read Gatsby was a few years ago now, there are still certain scenes that stick out to me when thinking about the book. The city, of course, is easy for me to imagine, although it is a different New York than the one I live in now. Another scene I have constructed for myself is where Daisy is introduced for the first time in a whirlwind of breezes and white. I don’t know if, for me, this is based on any specific house I have been to in my life, but I feel like I can imagine what it would be very well. And Gatsby’s parties I imagine to be on one specific lawn that leads down to the water.

I remember watching a scene from the old Great Gatsby movie with Robert Redford while reading the book in school, and even then the settings in the movie interrupted the setting I had built for myself in my head. I can only imagine what seeing the glitzy 3D Gatsby film would do to my personal Gatsby world.

I also have some issues with the way the film was approached. I have heard that the soundtrack is done by modern artists such as Lana Del Rey and and Jay-Z. According to director Baz Lurhmann, he was looking to modernize Gatsby to today’s audience. In an interview, Lurhmann says,

While we acknowledge, as Fitzgerald phrased it, ‘the Jazz Age,’ and this is the period represented on screen, we—our audience—are living in the ‘hip-hop age’ and want our viewers to feel the impact of modern-day music the way Fitzgerald did for the readers of his novel at the time of its publication.

Who knows, maybe 100 years from now people will look back on 2013 and call it ‘the hip hop age’, but I personally don’t think that we are in ‘the hip hop age’ in the way that the 1920’s was The Jazz Age. And while I am all for statements on the impact of music on today’s generation, I don’t know if The Great Gatsby is the place to do that. I personally would have liked to see more of the Jazz Age, since that is an era we do not see on a daily basis, or when we turn on the radio.

Also, the narration of the movie comes from Nick Carroway years later in a sanitarium where he is a recovering alcoholic. In my opinion, that is a nice “what-if” situation that certainty fits in with the turn of events from the 1920’s to the 1930’s. But I am not 100% sold on the idea. There also must be a more subtle way to fit in lines of Fitzgerald’s text other than physically writing them out on the screen. I have also heard that there are many subtleties to the book that get lost, or overly exposed in the film. But then again I have not seen the movie, so I don’t feel like I can comment on that element of the film as much.

Yes, The Great Gatsby is known for its elaborately descriptive writing, so it makes sense that an elaborate movie would come from the novel, but I think I am going to stick with my own personal scenes that are now etched in my mind, thank you very much. Each reader has a different idea of what the inner world of a book looks like, which is a great thing! I would hate to see my personal inner of Gatsby wither away to be replaced by hip hop and 3D golden glitz. I can find that elsewhere.

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Everyday Moments Caught in Time: Billy Collins’ Poetry

Well, it is Wednesday and time for another TED Talk, although I know Ted Talk Wednesdays doesn’t have quite the ring that TED Talk Tuesdays has, as I mentioned before.

I don’t know who my favorite author is – that is a very complex question for me, and the answer changes depending on my mood, the season, or what I have just read. But I would say that my favorite poet is Billy Collins. I know that’s not ground breaking in the poetry world – he was Poet Laureate of both the US and New York State after all. But I enjoy his work.

In 2012, Billy Collins talked at a TED conference about the process some of his poems went through as they were paired with animation. Collins explains that originally he was against poetry being paired with another medium, that it would simplify poetry to much, and would dissect all the analytical content for the reader. But his love of comics and animation won him over (he claims that Bugs Bunny is his muse) and he decided to undertake this new project.

One of the pros of the animation project, Collins says, was that it got “poetry off the page and into modern life.” As a poet he is a fan of poetry on cereal boxes and subway cars (such as the MTA’s Poetry in Motion initiative, which has recently featured Collins’ poem Grand Central for the centennial celebration of the train station).

Collins claims that seeing poetry in this form makes it more accessible. “It happens so fast,” he says, “that you don’t have time to activate your anti-poetry shields that you developed in high school”.

I found some of the animations to be a bit strange, but one that I particularly liked was Budapest (probably because it talks about the creative process): 

I particularly like the way that, as the title of the TED talk states, Billy Collins can take ordinary elements of life, and prolong them in his poems into something meaningful.

I will never forget studying for my AP English exam junior year. I had bought one of the standardized test review books and was pouring over it the night before the exam, analyzing stanza after stanza of hugely complex metaphysical poetry. It was not going well, and I went to bed that night panicked for the exam the next day.

When I sat down to take this dreaded test, and got to the short answer section where we had to analyze a poem, I was unbelievably relieved to see a Billy Collins poem staring up at me. So much more pleasant than some complex metaphysical jargon. I actually remember enjoying myself as I wrote my response to the poem, and that was while I was taking an AP. Who knew?

I liked Billy Collins before this as well. I first became aware of him in tenth grade and devoured his books that year, but when I think Billy Collins, that memory is the first one to come to mind. Billy Collins will always hold a special place in my heart as my favorite poet.

Some Thoughts From a Native New Yorker

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Growing up, I never really gave a second thought to my hometown. I grew up in New York, but all my friends did too, and that was what was normal for me. I didn’t have anything else to compare it to.

So I was somewhat surprised at how frequently I have participated in the “Wow you grew up in New York?” conversation in the past year. Honestly I was expecting more of that in college, since I left the city for college, but no – most of those conversations have happened in New York. For example:

Person A: So what do you do in the city?

Me: I have been freelancing and networking in the publishing industry. What about you?

Person A: Oh I [insert job here]

Me: That sounds cool.

Person A: So how long have you been in the city?

Me: Well, I grew up here.

Person A: Really?

Me: Yup

Person A: Wow, that’s so strange? What was that like?

It’s understandable. So many people come to New York to start their careers, and it is definitely a destination spot, but until I went to college all of my friends had at least spent some of their life, if not all of it, growing up in New York. So it’s not weird to me. I also don’t have anything to compare it to. If I had moved from the suburbs when I was 10 for example, I would have a frame of reference. But instead college was my frame of reference. I knew I wanted to leave New York for college, but I also knew that I wanted to return afterwards, and I am definitely glad that I did.

So how is my life different than the average American’s? I don’t know. I was probably younger than most people were when I started to go to school by myself, because I didn’t have to drive there. The first words that I probably learned how to read were Don’t and Walk, way back when before the crosswalk signs had the little walking man and red hand to give directions. I don’t remember anyone telling me specifically not to go into Central Park at night when I was little, it was just kind of a known fact. And instead of a back yard I played in playgrounds in the park.

One of my favorite “you grew up in New York” conversations happened last weekend. I was waiting for a friend of mine (who also grew up in New York) at church, and I was standing off to the side eating a bagel. A woman walks up to me and we started chatting, and when my friend and I said that we grew up in New York her response was “But you’re both so nice!”

I appreciated the compliment, but it also got me thinking about New York’s image. It is definitely a tough city with a competitive streak and lots of intensity to it. But if you look around every now and again you will see some very nice people. They are out there. Even in some of the tougher industries New York has to offer (Wall Street etc.) they are there. So don’t let New York scare you off, because you never know who you might meet or what will happen.

Why I am Still a Child at Heart, or Why I Read YA Books and Watch Kids’ Movies

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After my freshman year of college a group of my high school friends and I celebrated the end of the year by taking a trip down to Disney World. We had a blast (I had never been before), and it was a great chance to catch up after a year apart, to unwind, to not worry about papers or exams, and to welcome summer. We are all Disney fans at heart and it was a great way to end off the year.

About a year ago, an article came out in the New York Times. “Adults Should Read Adult Books.” The article starts off,

“The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter.”

Now, in my opinion the best kind of plane book is one that is not too dense and has a good plot – preferably one that will transport you to another world and will help you forget the crying baby that is sitting behind you, or the guy next to you who keeps leaning his head on your shoulder while he sleeps (and drools). And a good YA or fantasy book would be a perfect example of this.

A few months ago I saw someone (an adult) reading The Hunger Games on her Kindle on the subway. I noticed because I saw the word “Katniss” on her screen as I was looking down to change the music on my ipod. And I was not embarrassed for her. Instead, I looked over her shoulder to see what part she was on. Yes, I was that person reading over her shoulder. If I remember correctly, she was on the third book, Mockingjay.

Yes, there are many great works of fiction geared towards an older reading audience that are fabulous reads, that tell great stories, and that capture language beautifully. I will be the first to agree with that. Everyone should read books like that. As many as they can. But that does not mean that we should write off books written for the younger set as not worthy of our time.

As a 23 year old who majored in English in college, I am a huge fan of young adult fiction. I am not embarrassed by it and you shouldn’t be either.

Young adult stories are huge in the book world right now, and there must be a reason for that. There are so many stories out there aimed at the young adult, or even a child that are fun and worth while, and I would prefer not to pass them over. I am including movies in this as well. After all, the majority of the young adult market is in fact adults. 

I believe that everyone should read what they want to, and I have definitely been enjoying that privilege over the past year. I have deffinitely gotten something out of each book I have read, whether I liked it or not, no matter what the genre was.

“Books are one of our few chances to learn”, the NY Times article states, and I agree with that whole heartedly. Books give readers a chance to see the world through a different lens, whatever that lens may be. I have learned a lot from the books that I read over the years, but that learning did not suddenly switch on in full force when I made the transition to “adult” books. It is a constant stream, no matter what I read. Even if I dislike something (like Twilight). I look at it and ask myself what I don’t like about it, and go on from there.

So why are YA books so popular? And why is it a “concern” that adults are so taken by them? This is going to sound uuber corny, but I believe that there is a universality to YA books that readers relate to. Sure, none of us have gone to Hogwarts, but we have all dealt with evil, conflict, sadness, and hardship in our lives. Or, we don’t live in a dystopian society where our children are forced to kill each other on live TV, but we have all done things for the people we love, or worked to figure out what motivates us and thought about why we do the things that we do.

Every book has those underlying themes and truths that drive the characters and the story into existence. So why discredit some and not others just because of their intended audience? Is it the use of language – that YA books tend to use simpler prose and vocabulary? Yes, that is generally true, but I have read a few young adult books that blew me away with their use of language.

Variety, after all, is the spice of life, and I, for one, need variety in my reading life. I can’t just read only the David Foster Wallaces, Charles Dickenses, or the Don DeLillos of the world. I have to read the J.K. Rowlings and Suzanne Collinses as well or else I will be missing out on some great books.

Frequently after I read a great tome of a novel, even if I have enjoyed it; even if it has changed my life, and I am going to make all my friends read it now so they can understand what they have been missing, I still will want to turn to a lighter (YA) book afterwards (yes, lighter, this however does not mean there is nothing there). I have a friend, for instance, who read Les Mis for months on end and then followed it up with The Hunger Games for a little reading variety.

Personally, I can’t just read one type of book or else I would go nuts. Maybe that is why I tend not to read a series of books one after the other. Whether it is YA or adult literature, I need variety in my life.

So, what do we get when we read YA novels, or watch kids’ movies? Besides understanding “the power of true friendship” and other themes yada yada yada. I believe that there is more to it than that. Frequently, since young adult media is geared towards a younger audience, the underlying message of the movie/book is at the surface of the story and is not buried under layers of sub-context.

Now, as an post English major, I am one of those people who will enjoy analyzing sub-context, but sometimes I’m just in it for the story and I want the sub-context handed to me on a silver platter – one that is well written and not too in your face while still being a good read..

I recently watched Rise of the Guardians, the ultimate kid’s movie, starring characters such as The Easter Bunny, Santa, and Jack Frost. Corny and aimed at your five year old niece, I know. I originally wanted to watch it because I saw that Hugh Jackman played the Easter Bunny, which made The Rise of the Guardians and Les Mis the two movies that he worked on in 2012. What a guy. But in the end I really enjoyed Rise of The Guardians. It’s cute and has a fun plot that adds a twist to well known childhood characters (Santa is a large Russian man with tattoos who throws knives). It’s also pretty funny.

In a way, the movie was kind of like the show Once Upon a Time, in that it remade well known stories, traditions, and characters. Elementary and Sherlock have done that too with the character of Sherlock Holmes. As I writer and a reader that interests me – the process the creator of a story must go through when dealing with a character that already exists. There has to be enough familiarity within the character for the audience to know who it is and to relate to them, but at the same time the creator has somewhat of a liberty to do what they want with them and make them their own.

All in all I enjoyed Rise of the Guardians. And I would say that I got something out of it.

The underlying message of the movie is a question: What is your center? Now, this is not a ground breaking question in any sense of the term. But, as a Christian and a recent college graduate, this question is one that I think about fairly often. Why am I doing what I am doing? What am I looking to get out of it? What is my motivation? Like I said, nothing new, but important none the less.

Motivations are pretty basic, and they lead us to do some pretty complex things. In any crime investigation show (Castle, Bones, CSI, the list goes on…) there are only so many excuses that arise from the killer when he is accused of his crime. Jealousy, Greed, Love, Lust etc. It is how these motivations played through in the crime that is the interesting part of the story, the part that ties the whole episode together.

These motivations can be found in any movie, tv show, or book, whether it is for young or old adults. How the movtivations portray themselves in the emotions and decisions of the character, that is the interesting part of a story.

Which brings me to my last point. I am the person who analyzes a movie for plot and character development as I watch it, and I enjoy doing it. Yes, I know, I belong back in school where I can analyze the heck out of anything, but bear with me.

Frequently, as I said before, the motivations and basic elements of plot, style, and storytelling, are seen more “on the surface” of a young adult novel than in the Great American Novel, where more analysis might be necessary. So, as a writer, when I am looking to see how a story is constructed, I frequently turn to YA novels. Really, I turn to any novel, but like I said, the underlying narrative structure tends to be more apparent in YA books.

The summer after my junior year of college, I had just finished exams and a crazy hectic year, and I was in desperate need of a light read. It was late at night and I wasn’t about to go to a bookstore, so I turned to a bookshelf that I hadn’t looked at in a while, and pulled The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen off the shelf. It was the ultimate chick-flick-YA-girly read, but it was late at night and I needed something, so I started reading.

I ultimately decided that I didn’t really like Sarah Dessen’s books, but I did get a lot out of the two that I ended up reading that summer. Sarah Dessen does an excellent job of portraying real issues to her readers. In The Truth About Forever, the protagonist, Macy’s father just passed away, and the book shows her dealing with that loss. I was impressed with how Dessen tackled this heavy subject and made it real, and I even enjoyed her writing style.

Overall, I found Dessen’s books to be very formulaic – girl has problem, girl meets flawed boy who seems just perfect, flawed boy helps girl solve her problems, they live happily ever after in the flawed world. Repetitive. But, I had just finished a semester of Advanced Fiction Writing, and I really enjoyed seeing how Sarah Dessen constructed the plot of the story, and how the character’s motivations were molded by their actions and the issues they faced in the story.

So, even though Sarah Dessen is not my favorite writer, I am glad that I read those two books, and I would say that I got a lot out of reading them. Yes, I could have gotten the same information out of different, more mature books, and I do all the time. But this time it was from Sarah Dessen.

Books like Dessen’s aren’t afraid to tackle real issues either. Because teenagers go through real issues. Not all YA books are fun and games – a lot of them go real deep real fast (I’m thinking The Book Thief here among others). Yes, there might be fighting or fantasy or magic or boy drama, but that doesn’t make it not real.

We can’t only read those hugely impressive academic top 100 books of all time books. We can read them, and love them, and discuss them ad infinitum, and believe me, we will. But every now and again we need to curl up with a Hunger Games, or a Harry Potter, or The Truth About Forever. Every now and again we need a trip to Disney World.