Month: June 2012

SILVER SPARROW by Tayari Jones

Please note: My “Reading Reflections” are not reviews. They are simply my thoughts in response to certain passages.

Silver SparrowSILVER SPARROW was my book club’s most recent selection. I knew nothing about it going in, which sometimes I think is the best way to read a book. This isn’t a feel-good story, so it’s hard to be like, “Omg I loved this!!” But I did really enjoy the writing, and I was impressed by the complexity of the characters and their actions.

She is gifted with language and is able to layer difficult details in such a way that the result is smooth as water. She is a magician who can make the whole world feel like a dizzy illusion. The truth is a coin she pulls from behind your ear. (5)

To me, this is what good writing does. It gifts you with impossibilities that are at once both dazzling and familiar. An unexpected and perfect analogy, a lovely turn of phrase. Images and ideas that were hiding inside you, revealed by someone else’s words. All as silky and natural as the wind. If that’s not magic, then I don’t know what is.

When did I first discover that although I was an only child, my father was not my father and mine alone? I really can’t say. It’s something that I’ve known for as long as I’ve known that I had a father. (6)

My father wasn’t a bigamist like the one in SILVER SPARROW, but he did have a wife and two daughters before my mother and me. I can’t remember being told, but I also can’t remember a time that I didn’t know. (I do remember thinking as a young girl that Phoenix, where my half-sisters lived, was just the name of the apartment complex with dark red awnings down the street from us.)

In spite of all the differences between the family in SILVER SPARROW and ours, I found it fascinating to glimpse into the mental and emotional headspace of the daughter who didn’t get her father full-time. Did my half-sisters resent me the way Dana resented Chaurisse? Did they also long to know me? Would we have been friends? And how do these complex, contradictory feelings compare to the ones that “normal” siblings have?

Whether or not I ever get the answers to these questions, it’s thinking about them that makes me grow. That’s the point and the power of fiction, after all.

(Note: Whatever issues there were in the past, my impression is that our family has done a good job working through them, especially in the past decade or so. I credit my middle half-sister in particular for opening the dialogue between everyone and pushing us all to become closer.)

(Also: She actually reads this blog. Hiiiiiii.)

This was what it was to have a friend, someone who knew exactly who you were and didn’t blame you for it. (75)

This is why people love dogs. (And cats, I guess. Although I suspect that sometimes cats DO blame us for our faults…)

But seriously, if I look at my longtime friends, this is definitely a defining trait of those relationships. And that kind of acceptance is so… essential, so priceless, so healing.

On the other hand, if I look at the friendships that have failed in my life, I can see now that they lacked this. I was blamed for who I am. But the more important thing for me to reflect upon is, Did I blame them for who they were?

And now, a few great lines to close us out:

“Love is a maze. Once you get in it, you’re pretty much trapped. Maybe you manage to claw your way out, but then what have you accomplished?” (116)

“You got to learn how to listen sideways to what people are saying to get at what they really mean.” (260)

The truth is a strange thing. Like pornography, you know it when you see it. (303)

“Just because you were ignorant doesn’t make you innocent.” (327)

People say, that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But they are wrong. What doesn’t kill you, doesn’t kill you. That’s all you get. Sometimes, you just have to hope that’s enough. (340)

A better way to fill the quiet (Or: Embracing boredom)

For years, I thought that I was “addicted” to the internet. But then I wondered, If that’s true, why do I feel so liberated and relieved every time I disconnect?

Over time I’ve finally realized: I’m not addicted, but I do use the internet as my “filler.” Whenever I’m bored, or I get stuck in my work, or I have a bit of free time, I turn to the internet. It has become an instinct. Waiting in line? Pull out the iPod Touch and see if there’s free wifi around. Can’t figure out the next bit of a story? Check email and Twitter real quick. Boyfriend is watching a baseball game you don’t care about? Hop around the blogosphere to keep up with the latest news and posts.

I think this behavior always seemed okay to me because it’s “productive.” The era of multi-tasking trained me to believe that every waking moment should be put to use. The problem with that is, maximizing my time leaves little room for creativity.

As an only child with parents who worked long hours at their small business, I learned to entertain myself. Each day after school was over, but before my parents were ready for dinner, I built houses out of cardboard, made dolls out of paper, scribbled stories in my notebook. Imagination was my “filler,” writing my addiction.

That’s how this all started, you know?

And that’s what I have to get back to. I need to learn to embrace my boredom again. To endure the quiet times instead of trying to fill them with activity. To redefine productivity as characters and dialogue, not emails and networking.

As part of that, I’ve recently instated a no-internet-between-midnight-and-noon rule. It’s only been a week, but I’m optimistic about my progress. Like with Aisha’s request/suggestion, it’s not the kind of thing that will change me or my life overnight. But I think it’s a step in the right direction.

And if I take enough of those steps, I might actually end up where I want to be.

What guys want

The other day, I read a very interesting post: “A day down the toilet, why boys don’t read fiction anymore, and the how-to of personhood.” Long name for a long post, but I’m glad I gave it the time. Here’s my TL;DR version:

In one of his books, author John Barnes writes about a teenage boy replacing a toilet to earn some extra cash. Barnes goes into great detail about the steps the boy takes to remove the old toilet and install the new one. The boy works hard, does a very good job, and receives his payment — only to have his money stolen by his alcoholic mother who wants more booze.

Barnes’s editor told him to cut the details of changing out the toilets. She said it was unnecessary and a potential turnoff. Barnes’s instinct told him that that would be a mistake, so he refused. Years later, with the help of reader reactions, he figured out why his instinct was right.

(Note: generalizations will now abound.)

Barnes found that all readers were outraged by the alcoholic mother stealing the boy’s money. But for female readers, the mother’s offense was in betraying her relationship with her son. For male readers, it was in taking away the validation of her son’s hard work.

Why the difference?

Males are drawn to “process.” They like to see and understand how things work — steps X, Y, and Z — and that gives them a sense of accomplishment. This translates to stories, too. They respect and define a character based on his/her actions and achievements.

Meanwhile, females are drawn to relationships. They like to see and understand how people interact, and that gives them an emotional investment. They respect and define a character based on how he/she treats the people around him/her.

So for young male readers (i.e., Barnes’s target audience) the details of replacing the toilet were essential. Without them, those readers might not have felt that the teenage boy earned the money, and thus his mother’s betrayal might not have had the intended impact.

(That’s the end of my TL;DR recap. For a more nuanced version, and other interesting observations/conclusions, please do check out the original post.)

All this got me thinking. About popular characters, male and female, and the ones we actually see working vs. the ones whose jobs/deeds we’re only told about. This framework — men want process, women prefer relationships — is broad, but perhaps still useful.

Examples from TV

In Sex and the City, we only ever saw Carrie working. (And barely, at that.) Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte all had jobs, but only (it seems) because it’s a requirement of Character 101. Perhaps that’s part of the reason the SATC fan base was mostly female. Because otherwise it had the right ingredients: the writing was smart, the acting strong, the women sexy. But SATC dealt in relationships — not the currency of choice for most men.

This seems to be corroborated by what happened with Big Shots, the male version of SATC. Premise: four good-looking men try to keep their wits about them in spite of all the crazy gorgeous women parading in and out of their lives. Again, the men had jobs, and high-powered ones at that, but you never really saw them working. (Mostly they were golfing. Or exchanging sexually charged banter with their wives, coworkers, mistresses, etc.) Big Shots’ fan base was as much female as male, if not more so, and the show was canceled within a year.

In Cashmere Mafia, on the other hand, the characters’ careers played a fairly large part in their stories, and I respected that immensely. The show’s ratings were fairly decent, too, but unfortunately it fell victim to the Writers’ Guild Strike.

Now, one of the notes/complaints about HBO’s Girls is that we never see the girls working. Given my new insight, I understand and agree. Yes, the girls are young and still starting out professionally, so there might not be much to show. But in a society where our identities are so often tied to our work (for better or worse) I think it’s essential that we see more of the girls putting their skills to use.

Examples from literature

This post is getting TL;DR itself, so I’ll just say that it’s very interesting for me to look back on books that I’ve read, and books that are extremely popular, and see where they fit into this framework.

Call of the Wild, with its mind-numbing details about sledding and lighting fires and staving off frostbite. Harry Potter, with its magic lessons and quidditch matches. The Hunger Games, with Katniss scheming for survival.

Versus, say, The Notebook, or the Joy Luck Club, or My Sister’s Keeper. All popular books, to be sure, but with a certain audience.

I’m not saying process is better than relationships. That comes down to taste. (Personally I’d take Amy Tan over Jack London any day.) Nor am I saying that you can only have one or the other. But I am saying that there might be a clue in all this. A technique to consider if you want your story to appeal to boys and men.

As I continue with editing my manuscript, I’ll definitely be looking at my own work through this lens.

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