Bread & Wine: Finding Community and Life around the Table by Shauna Niequist
I’m in the middle of this beautiful book about food and home and community. Shauna wants us to welcome people into the mess of our lives and not be ashamed about it. I love the writing, and I want to eat all of the food. #BuyThisNOW
Defiance by C.J. Redwine
My friend Lauren has been babbling about this book for ages. It’s coming-of-age. It’s monsters. And sword fights. And government corruption. Love and family. Romance. #HardToDescribe #ReadItAnyway #YA
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I re-read this in anticipation of seeing the new movie. I gushed about Gatsby more in this post. It deserves the gushing. #BookIsBetterThanMovie #always
Requiem by Lauren Oliver
The last book in Oliver’s Delirium trilogy. The book is well-written. I just didn’t love it. #disappointed
Simple Blogging by Rachel Meeks
I received this book in a mega-eBook-bundle giveaway this past month. It’s a great guide for making blogging manageable. #StepAwayFromTheScreen
This post is part of a link up with Modern Mrs. Darcy, where we share short reviews of books we are reading every month. Go check it out!
This post contains affiliate links. Thank you for supporting Kelly Wiggains: From Literature to Living.
Some novelists will betray your trust, and that’s part of the deal, and you just have to accept it. Novels are like people; sadly, few of them are trustworthy, but the ones that are make it worthwhile to put up with the others.
I loved this observation, and I wanted to explore the Unreliable Narrator a bit more.
Just like in building a new friendship, I tend to take narrators at their word until they start to prove me wrong. Friends start losing my trust, and I flag them. The same theory works for narrators. So, how does this theory play out in a novel?
Well, I stop investing in the narrator’s discussions. I start questioning motives. I begin to keep track of the stories told. I pay attention to exaggeration. I observe how the narrator interacts with other characters. I start looking at what isn’t said as well as what is said.
Narrators have the same complexity and depth as real people, sometimes more so. When a novel is truer than true, the narrator tends to be more flawed or more heroic or more tragic than the average person.
Not all Unreliable Narrators are criminal masterminds, trying to dupe the reader at every turn. Most unreliable narrators have no idea they are, in fact, unreliable. Many times, you have to look at their circumstances to notice their truths unravelling. They want you to know the best about them, and sometimes knowing the best means covering up the worst.
So, what do we do with the Unreliable Narrator?
For the most part, we hang on for the ride. You might get angry and want to throw your book a couple of times. You might start rereading the beginning of the book to look for early signs. You might watch for hints from the other characters. Eventually, the story becomes more clear.
Sometimes, the author mercifully gives you alternating perspectives, where the story comes from different angles, and you can piece together a patchwork of a story. However, sometimes those alternating perspectives just makes the story fuzzier.
What signs point to an Unreliable Narrator?
1. Mixed Information
Has the narrator changed up the story? Are the details of an event confusing? Exaggerated?
2. How Does the Narrator Treat Other Characters?
Is the narrator lying to other people? If so, why? To save face or to keep someone safe? Has the narrator experienced repeated trauma or emotional setbacks that might compromise the ability to think rationally?
3. Is the Narrator Speaking Logically?
Is a narrator trying to make you believe things that are generally untrue? Have you noticed a fixation or obsession? Does the narrator stumble over details (or avoid providing them) when explaining events?
When I think of complex narrators, I always think about William Faulkner. The man was a master at developing story through the minds of his hopelessly flawed characters, contorting the narrative in a dozen different ways. Faulkner once said,
“Every man has a different idea of what’s beautiful, and it’s best to take the gesture, the shadow of the branch, and let the mind create the tree.”
Good writers know how to give you “the shadow of the branch” — just enough of the story — to form the entire tree in your mind. And yes, each reader’s “tree” might look different based on his interpretation of the “shadow of the branch,” but that’s what makes the relationship between writer and reader so beautiful.
Sometimes these “Unreliables” are simply flawed humans, and we love them or despise them as the story unfolds.
Do you have a favorite Unreliable Narrator? Or maybe a narrator you love to hate?
Before you head out to see The Great Gatsby this weekend, I thought I would offer some pointers for those who have read the book and love it as well as those who have never read the book (ahem. My husband). Most of you will fall in-between: You read the book in high school and 1) You hated it. 2) You don’t remember most of it, or 3) You liked it, but high school was a long time ago. You know you’re supposed to remember something about The Green Light.
If you are unsure of where you fall, read my friend’s Facebook status from last night at the première:
I just made a joke to an intelligent-looking high schooler about the fact that it was too bad they hadn’t made the 3D glasses look like the eyes of T. J. Eckleburg. He just stared at me, so I prompted him: “You know, the ‘wild oculist’ overlooking the valley of ashes?” Nothing. Finally he just shrugged and said, “I haven’t seen the movie yet.” WHY ARE YOU EVEN AT THE PREMIERE? Go home and read a book.
If you have no idea why the joke is funny, just hang on, I’m here to help you.
Here’s what do you need to know:
The Great Gatsby is widely considered one of the best books ever written. (In fact, it’s #2 on Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century List). It’s a timepiece of the 1920s and the culture between the two World Wars. It’s distinctly American and human.
Recently, my husband asked me what makes The Great Gatsby so great. I told him, “All the characters are rich, but their lives are empty. They bank on love and dreams and ambition and ‘seeking happiness,’ and they mostly lose, but it’s worth the journey anyway.”
Still need to know more? More reasons why The Great Gatsby is great:
1. Beautiful Writing
F. Scott Fitzgerald writes with purpose and nuance. He weaves symbol and imagery throughout the novel, using specific images to point to the novel’s overall themes. Look for The Green Light as well as the billboard featuring T.J. Eckleburg and his glasses. If an image comes up more than once, it’s important. Keep watch. Setting also plays a significant role in the novel – West Egg, East Egg, The Valley of Ashes, plus the entire backdrop of New York City in the 1920s.
2. What is Said, and What isn’t Said
Fitzgerald is a master at dialogue. The characters have seemingly vapid and inconsequential conversations. However, if you notice the emotional responses after these conversations, you soon realize the heart of the conversation lies in what was not said. I’m interested to see how the actors convey this, and props to Fitzgerald for creating a book where the reader can pick up double meanings and words left unspoken.
3. Big Themes
Fitzgerald pairs the old and the new throughout Gatsby. He explores the paradox of universal truths no longer holding true, very telling of the time period. Look for the concept of the American Dream and its disillusionment. True love being everything yet not enough. The depth of a person who is completely shallow. Being surrounded by people yet feeling completely alone.
The characters are all hopelessly flawed, and it all centers around a tragic love story, an obsession with a dream and the consequences of reality. Gatsby’s people are full and empty, original and stereotypes. The American Dream is real and an illusion all at once in their lives. At its heart, we find Gatsby, a man who builds his life’s purpose around one dream, but then wonders if chasing the dream is somehow better than actually achieving the dream.
5. The Jazz Age
This term, coined by Fitzgerald himself, is another character in the novel. It permeates the entire thing. The music, the clothes, the parties, the haircuts, the cars, the alcohol, the boredom, the search for a thrill, the new money clashing with old money.
Along those lines, check out this behind-the-scenes look at the music chosen for the new film. I’m ready to be wowed. I hope I’m not disappointed:
Let me give you a secret: If you can’t understand a novel, you’ve probably packed too many bags.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, fundamentally, most people are only taught one way to read – for information. This is a grave mistake, my friends. Grave indeed. People need to learn how to read to get to the truth and how to read to experience a writer’s truth.
It’s the difference in reading expository writing and reading fictional writing. And believe me, there’s a huge difference.
When you read non-fiction (an article, a biography or other historical work, a quick blog post, or a DIY manual), the writer’s obligation is to leave no questions asked. A non-fiction writer wants to hit the bullseye and hit it with one clear truth, where the reader cannot possibly interpret the text except in the way it’s intended. The reader has an obligation to come prepared with a full understanding of self-truths and a critical eye, prepped, on the toes, ready to spring if needed.
When you read a novel, the writer needs you to do the exact opposite. You have to suspend the need to know and welcome the experience. That’s the only way you’ll learn what you need to learn. A non-fiction writer says, “This is what I mean.” The novelist says, ”Hey, how’s it going? Come sit by me. This one’s saved just for you. Shh. Don’t talk. Just be here with me. Feel what I feel.”
And you, as the reader, have to be cool with that.
When you dedicate yourself to reading a novel, you are accepting a contract with the writer. You say, “Okay. Here I am. I packed light, so where are we going?” You allow the writer to take you on a trip. You don’t offer directions or suggestions on speed limits. You don’t switch the shuffle setting on the iPod. You leave the A/C alone.
Your job is wingman. You sit. You listen. You sing along. You feel.
This is the primary reason people misunderstand novels. The readers aren’t prepared to show up. They bring too many bags with them. They get obsessed about sunscreen and packing an umbrella. They want to read the map. They bring their own value systems and presuppositions. They cannot let go of their own experiences and reality.
Can I be honest? Readers who cannot let go of all of those things need to stick to non-fiction. Non-fiction needs you on your game. Like an intellectual Swiss Army Knife, you need all resources with you, ready to go. You owe it to a non-fiction writer to be wary and watchful.
When you make a contract with a novelist, you leave all of that at the door. You put the bags down, empty your pockets, and buckle up in the front seat. This relationship between the reader, the writer, and this novel of a road trip is a matter of trust. You suspend yourself for a while with no strings tying down anybody.
Reading a novel allows you to pause, shed your own identity, and experience the lives of others without leaving the comfort of your couch. The reader simply says, “Okay, I’m going to let this writer take me on a journey, and I’ll go wherever I’m told, and I’ll experience all the intended emotions. Then, when I finish, I can get back to my normal life.” So, at the last page of the journey, the reader leaves those thoughts and feelings, closes those passions back up, and places them on a shelf.
Be careful though. The good writers?
They always have an Ace in the Hole.
The good writers create a world so beautiful, with characters who are truer than true, and a story that’s more real than anything ever experienced in real life. The reader begs for more, revisiting the journey again and again. When this happens – and writers love when this happens – the reader falls in love, allowing the experiences from the fictional world to seep into daily life.
What do you think? Do you see a difference in reading non-fiction and fiction? What books have seeped into your daily life?
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
I used to read this poem to students just before we would start looking at poetry in literature class. We would read it. Then, they would look up at me, glassy-eyed and confused, and say, “Huh? What does that mean?” Then, I would laugh at the irony of the moment, confirming my eternal devotion to Billy Collins, for he understands the plight of the high school English teacher.
If you are struggling to understand something, don’t tie it to a chair and beat a confession out of it.
Just experience it. Read it. Play with it. Enjoy it.
For your weekend, pick up a book and see where it goes. Fall in love with a story again.
My oldest son has declared on different occasions that he wants to be a farmer. (He’s also expressed interest in building.) Anyway, with our awesome set-up of planting and pulling weeds for our friends at church, we get to reap the benefits of produce (these are the first fruits – tasty young onions). My boy wanted a few plants at home, too. So, we’ve planted two pepper plants, a tomato plant, some rosemary, basil, parsley, and cilantro. Our cucumber bit the dust early, so I’ll need to replace him soon. I like having a reason to go outside and tend to something. They’ve managed to stay alive for more than two weeks, so success!
Being Outside in General
I can’t seem to stay inside these days. We are going to the park every time I get a chance, and we are spending as much of our mornings and afternoons outdoors, too. I have to declare a specific day “laundry day” or “stay at home” day just to get caught up on weekly chores.
Art Museum: My husband had a rare Friday off this month, and we took advantage by attacking SmashBurger in Fort Worth and then trying out the permanent gallery of the Kimbell. Other than the two-year-old having to be contained, it was fairly successful. We did get reprimanded by one museum employee for getting too close to the paintings a couple of times, but overall it was a fun day.
Arboretum: For Christmas, our families bought my in-laws a membership to the Dallas Arboretum, and my kids and I joined them one morning this week. The weather was perfect, and we traveled throughout the park taking in the beauty of the flowers and White Rock Lake. It was gorgeous.
Nashville: My husband and I dig Nashville. Our sister-in-law is a Nashville native, so she pointed us to this series during Christmas. We’ve become invested in most of the characters, though some seem all over the place. I get frustrated with the roller coaster story line (just take your time already), but the music makes up for it. Check out this cover of The Lumineers by Lennon & Maisy, internet stars in their own right, and characters on the show.
Life of Pi: I read the book several years ago, so I was anxious to watch the movie, too. My husband and I watched it via Redbox. We loved it. Tyler kept saying, “I haven’t seen a movie this epic in scope in years.”
Wreck it Ralph: My kids choose this at Redbox every time we pass one. They adore this movie. Tyler and I love the friendships it promotes and how it encourages individuality and the importance of a loving community. We also dig the old school game references.
42: I’m so ready to go see this movie. My friend Tiffany, one of the smartest ladies on the planet and frequent commenter to this little blog, was a “background artist” in the movie. She has that “Woman in 1940s” look about her. She shows up in several scenes in an orange and white polka dot dress. Look for her!
On the Internets
Need a Job? Invent It: I wish more legislators would get on board with this. Teachers have been preaching this for years.
The “Witching Hour” is the toughest part of my day.
It’s that crazy time when Dad hasn’t arrived home. The kids are cranky – whether or not they’ve had naps. They’ve had a snack, but they are still ready for dinner. It’s loud. It’s frantic. Complaining abounds. We have all been around each other all day, but we still have a few hours before bedtime routine can start.
I’ve learned some things about the witching hour that seem to help with the craziness:
1. Active Play Outside:
If the kids spend a good hour or two outside in the afternoon, they can come inside while I cook dinner better equipped to settle down. Their pent-up energy and screams have been exhausted.
2. Healthy Snack:
Lay out some raw veggies and dip. It’s healthy, so they aren’t exactly ruining their dinner, plus if they are truly starving, they won’t complain too much about having to eat vegetables. If they don’t like the veggies, they can wait until dinner. Don’t forget to have water available, too (especially if they’ve been outside). My sister-in-law bought water bottles for each of her kids to keep in the fridge at all times, and we adopted that plan, too. It helps to have this when the kids are begging for a snack and water while I still have to sauté the onions.
3. Reserve Screen Time for the Witching Hour:
I’m a fan of television or videos in short bursts and used sparingly. Many days, I keep the kids away from the television as much as possible until the witching hour. I can find a moment of peace, and the kids can zone out in front of the screen for 30 minutes.
4. Freezer and Crockpot Meals:
Having a meal simmering in the crockpot or ready to go into the oven significantly reduces time I need to be in the kitchen. Heating up a freezer meal with a green salad and some bread allows me to spend time helping the kids play a game or piece together a puzzle. This significantly decreases the whining for everybody.
5. 10 Minute Pick up:
If I get the kids to help pick up toys before our rest time, then, the house doesn’t factor into my mood. I feel much more frazzled when I have to deal with a messy house on top of hungry children and dinner preparation.
6. Set the Table Early:
My best friend taught me this trick, and I need to use it more. She sets the table while the kids are napping. It’s a great way to shave off some crazy time.
7. Clean as You Go:
For some reason, this has been the hardest lesson to put into practice. If I wash a cutting board, clean out a pan, or scrub out a cookie sheet while I’m waiting for the rest of dinner to finish up, I don’t have to stand in the kitchen another 30 minutes after dinner to clean the kitchen. This saves so much time, and it allows me to enjoy my kids rather than fuss at them from the kitchen.
What are some ways you handle the “Witching Hour” around your house?
Around the beginning of the year, I picked up a few books at the library for the kids, grabbing a couple about Martin Luther King, Jr. along with some Caldecott Winners. A few days later, I grabbed a couple of those picture books from our stack to read at the lunch table.
I started with The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, which is a beautifully illustrated book about the man who walked on a high wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center. My boys found the book fascinating, right up to the last few pages, where the author talks about those towers no longer standing. I found myself explaining the attacks on September 11, 2001. They didn’t have much response, other than offering concerned faces and several times asking, “Why?”
The next book I picked up to read? Martin’s Big Words, which talks about the power of Dr. King’s words, but the end of the book talks about how he was killed. My boys instantly felt concern and confusion. Why would someone want to kill this powerful man? He died? Someone shot him?
At first I felt like Mom of the Wet Blanket, worried I might have doused my children in too much sadness for the day. Explaining assassination and terrorism at one lunch is a bit ambitious. However, we talked through both books. I answered questions, and then I found speeches of Dr. King on YouTube. We listened and watched these while coloring, and I talked about how one man used his words to change the world.
I know as parents that we want to protect our children from the sadness of the world, but I also know that they need to know how other people live and feel. My children need to experience a range of emotions within a safe context, where good and evil is easy to see. I’ve never believed in glossing over the truth with my kids: People are mean. Pets die. People die. Because of my family history (my dad passed away when I was only 16), I’ve always said that I want my children to have a healthy view of death, to know how to face grief and death without being afraid of it.
Reading sad books provides opportunities to talk about real life happenings.
I want my children to experience sadness, just as much as I want them to experience happiness. Without the complexities of emotion, would they really be experiencing life to the fullest? Knowing about sadness leads to understanding joy.
Just a few weeks ago, I told my husband that I was unintentionally taking a break from school. Rather than feeling guilty about not scheduling curriculum and math lessons, I decided to embrace the spring. So I haven’t been pushing formal lessons this month. Instead, we’ve spent time outside while the weather is gorgeous. We can tackle structured learning again during our hundred-degree summer. This flexibility and adaptability has to be my favorite part about homeschooling my children. Check out our “school” activities lately:
We toured the Kimbell Art Museum. (A tour of the permanent collection is always free.)
We built a container garden in our backyard. Storm Trooper outfit, optional.
We’ve built a fire pit at least once a week.
We’ve attended our local homeschool co-op at my friend Connie’s house. (My youngest likes to help gather eggs.)
We visited the Dallas Arboretum with my in-laws. It’s a wonderful place to learn!
And, you know, mud fights.
Lastly, my boys spent their first night all by themselves in a tent in our backyard.
I love making memories with my children and learning alongside them.
Tomorrow, we are spending time with our friends, who have a large garden on their property, but they are not able to do a lot of the labor themselves. In exchange for our hands and knees, we will help eat the harvest this summer. We’ve planted all sorts of vegetables for them, and we are ready to start pulling weeds. Just another normal school day around here! Enjoy your week, friends.