After Columbus Day, I Ponder the Phenomenon of Super-Descriptive Prose

Beautiful prose does not make for a great story on its own. This is a personal stance of mine that I have recently been thinking a lot about.

You can see this argument elaborated on in this old-ish article from the Atlantic.

I wanted to further examine the reason why many books have very descriptive passages.

Perhaps it is because of MFA programs. A lot of professors may like the same thing and thus their students seek to emulate what their professors like without considering what effect they are going for. These writings go on to get published. Other readers read them and then go on to imitate their writing styles.

Or perhaps it is the critics’ fault. BR Meyers makes a good point about this in the article linked above:

“[Annie Proulx’s] writing, like that of so many other novelists today, is touted as ‘evocative” and “compelling.’ The reason these vague attributes have become the literary catchwords of our time, even more popular than ‘raw’ and ‘angry’ were in the 1950s, is that they allow critics to praise a writer’s prose without considering its effect on the reader. It is easier to call writing like Proulx’s lyrically evocative or poetically compelling than to figure out what it evokes, or what it compels the reader to think and feel.

If all of your prose has the same beautiful quality, there is no variety in tone, and readers may be unable to fully reckon with what you intend for them to feel. Readers may include critics, who, overwhelmed by the prose, label it “striking” without analyzing what true effect it produces, if any. Thus, writers get lauded by critics and their books sell and win prizes, and everyone is (seemingly) happy.

Another reason for the proliferation of imagery may be the proliferation of technology. Writers now have to compete with TV and videogames. Perhaps the use of consistently vivid imagery is an attempt to keep the reader off his or her phone.

I am not saying that imagery is bad. I love imagery (one of my favorite books is Thomas Wolfe’s imagery-laden Look Homeward, Angel) but not if it’s the defining feature of a book. I personally believe books should prioritize their stories. Maybe if we writers were to implement this idea in our own prose, our stories will be empowered by beautiful language, instead of merely defined by it.

This is a very interesting subject for me, so I would love to hear your thoughts. Also, due to midterms next week, I will not post again for a short while. I will miss you all!

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I Read, and Review my Homework on Rosh Hashana

Hello world! And happy Rosh Hashana! It’s been pretty hectic moving into college, but I’m back with another batch of books. They are all from my homework.

I promise next week will be more interesting, as I’m almost done with a few books I’ve started on for fun. However, because of my huge workload, I’ll probably alternate between writing advice and book reviews every week after next.

Anyway, let’s get down to business:

Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne

Favorite Quote: “‘When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,’ said Piglet at last, ‘what’s the first thing you say to yourself?’ ‘What’s for breakfast?’ said Pooh. ‘What do you say, Piglet?’ ‘I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?’ said Piglet. Pooh nodded thoughtfully. ‘It’s the same thing,’ he said.”

I had to read this for a class on the meaning of life. What can a Pooh-bear have to say about the meaning of life? Lots, if he’s named Winnie. Although this book doesn’t feature Tigger, it does feature lessons on life. It’s always better to have friends. Sometimes, we arrive at where we want to go through serendipity rather than through effort. Our minds can create our own fears. I would recommend this book purely for the delightful way it conveys all these meaningful ideas. Also, even though it was my homework, you don’t need to analyze it too deeply to be satisfied.

The Nature Principle: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age by Richard Louv

Favorite Quote: “He spoke often and wrote about the transcendant childhood experience that served as a touchstone for his future life and work. ‘It was an early afternoon in May when I first looked down over the scene and saw the meadow,’ he wrote. ‘A magic moment, this experience gave to my life something, I know not what, that seems to explain my life at a more profound level than almost any other experience I can remember.'”

Do you like nature? Do you like it more than your phone? Richard Louv argues that you should. His book describes the joys to be had in nature, how it improves us as people, and how it can be used in our lives. I didn’t find the book to be the most interesting one out there, but it certainly got me thinking about nature. Also, it was a quick read, and I actually liked it more than my phone.

Alone Together by Sherry Turkle

Favorite Quote: “For example, there used to be a point for an urban child, an important moment when there was a first time to navigate the city alone. It was a rite of passage that communicated to children that they were on their own and responsible. If they were frightened, they had to experience those feelings. The cell phone buffers this moment.”

This was another book that I read for class. It was much more interesting than Louv’s book. It read like a Nova science documentary in book form. Also, whereas Louv’s writing is somewhat redundant (he cites the same statistic three or so times as if it were new each time), this author’s concision enables her to not only discuss harmful effects of technology, but also the potential for robots to replace humans as companions. Turkle even makes an important observation that parents may spend more time with their phones than with their children. The child thus grows up to become narcissistic, to overcompensate for the neglect they faced as a youth.

I hope you have enjoyed my reviews. I prefer fiction to nonfiction, but in the interest of my grades, most of what I have read has been nonfiction. However, I expect to be reviewing some fiction sometime in the future. Stay tuned!

I Read, and Refuse to Consume Liver and Cabbage for Dinner

I have read three more books, and I have reviewed them below. One of them involves liver and cabbage, and I will leave it up to you to find out which one that is…

Native Son by Richard Wright

Favorite Quote: “He was too weak to stand any longer. He sat again on the edge of the cot. How could he find out if this feeling of his was true, if others had it? How could one find out about life when one was about to die? Slowly he lifted his hands in the darkness and held them in mid-air, the fingers spread weakly open. If he reached out with his hands, and if his hands were electric wires, and if his heart were a battery giving life and fire to those hands, and if he reached out with his hands and touched other people, reached out through these stone walls and felt other hands connected with other hearts—if he did that, would there be a reply, a shock? Not that he wanted those hearts to turn their warmth to him; he was not wanting that much. But just to know that they were there and warm! Just that, and no more; and it would have been enough, more than enough. And in that touch, response of recognition, there would be union, identity; there would be a supporting oneness, a wholeness which had been denied him all his life.”

This book is so great that it beat out all the other books on my top ten list aside from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

This book is about an African-American named Bigger Thomas who commits a crime in Chicago, and winds up confronting racism and the law.

This summary doesn’t really do the book justice. The reason Native Son is so good is because it unites emotion and ideas with this exciting plot. Also, whereas some authors make their books good just in the beginning, Native Son is uniformly excellent all throughout. It does not wimp out on any aspect of its premise and it forces its characters to deal with the harsh consequences of their actions. It does not shy away from itself, and is brutally honest, both in its situational outcomes and its portrayal of life.

It is not to be missed.

Farewell Summer by Ray Bradbury

Favorite Quote: Every time you take a step, even when you don’t want to. . . . When it hurts, when it means you rub chins with death, or even if it means dying, that’s good. Anything that moves ahead, wins. No chess game was ever won by the player who sat for a lifetime thinking over his next move.”

Bradbury wrote this as a sequel to his book, Dandelion Wine, about a kid named Doug who experiences the wonders of summer. In Farewell Summer, Doug encounters old age and metaphorically goes to war with mortality. The book was okay, but you’d be much better off reading Dandelion Wine first. You get more invested in the characters and their story that way. Also, in the afterword of Farewell Summer, Bradbury even admits that this book is just a compilation of scenes and metaphors, while Dandelion Wine had more of a story. So, if you prefer more story, read Dandelion Wine, but if you prefer super-vivid imagery, try Farewell Summer.

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” by Neil Simon

Favorite Quote: “EUGENE: Oh, God! As if things weren’t bad enough…and now this! The ultimate tragedy…liver and cabbage for dinner! A Jewish medieval torture!… My friend Marty Gregorio, an A student in science, told me that cooked cabbage can be smelled farther than sound traveling for seven minutes. If these memoirs are never finished, you’ll know it’s because I gagged to death one night in the middle of summer.”

As you can see, this is a funny play. It takes place during the Great Depression and focuses on various plot lines in the family of a kid named Eugene Jerome. For instance, Eugene’s cousin wants to dance on Broadway, and his brother may lose his job because he stood up to his boss. The version I read contained pictures from the film with captions saying that Eugene “had matured from a boy into a man” but I didn’t really pick up on that so-called maturation from my reading. Perhaps he did mature. Perhaps you should read it and see for yourself.

I hope you enjoyed my book reviews. Also, as it is summer, I am taking a hiatus to catch up with the real world. I will be back in September with more book reviews and writing advice. Stay tuned!

Top Ten Books I Read in High School

Today is my last day of high school ever. I’ve reviewed many books on this site. In celebration and commemoration of this rite of passage, here’s a countdown of the top ten books I’ve read in high school:

10: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I read this in 10th grade. This sci-fi classic is great because of its writing style, which remains consistently engaging and impactful throughout the book. Also, Bradbury’s book oozes with bibliophilic sentiment. What’s not to love?

9: “The Great Highway” by August Strindberg

I read this in 12th grade. I loved the ending to this play. It has to do with living up to one’s ideals, which I related to immensely. Also, it’s Strindberg’s last-ever play, so it doesn’t get much better than this.

8: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

I read this in 9th grade. This book was amazing at bringing humanity to war, in a way that showed war’s futility. In other words, it juxtaposed the humanity of the soldiers with the inhumanity of war–in the face of humanity, Remarque made war seem absolutely stupid.

7: A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

I read this in 12th grade. I loved the anti-hero in it. He was so irreverent, and served as the prototype for the Byronic hero, and many other anti-heroes throughout history.

6: The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas

I read this in 10th grade. It’s great. I planted three trees in my backyard. I named them Athos, Porthos, and Aramis after the characters in this funny swashbuckler. That should give you an idea of how impactful this book has been on my life.

5: Confessions by Jean- Jacques Rousseau

I read this in the beginning of 11th grade, and found a kindred spirit in Rousseau. Both of us loved life and didn’t feign apathy towards it. It makes me really wish I’d known Rousseau in person, but really glad I read this book.

4: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

I read this in 11th grade. I liked the book’s development and its complexity. Instead of glorifying war, it glorified the best of humanity. Books like that are rare, and well-done books like that are even rarer. Here’s to you, Anna Karenina!

3: Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe

I read this in 11th grade. It showed me that writers can write for full orchestra. Here is my review of it.

2: Native Son by Richard Wright

I literally just finished reading it and it is amazingly well-executed. As promised, here’s the link to my full review.

1: “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare

I read it in 9th grade and then reread it in 10th grade and then again in 12th grade. Because this book can be interpreted any way you want it to be interpreted, everyone can find something within that is relatable. Also, it has amazing imagery. Read it, and you won’t be disappointed.

Honorable Mentions

These books were really good, and would definitely be in my top 30:

Martin Eden (Jack London)

“Long Day’s Journey into Night” (Eugene O’Neill)

Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)

Seabiscuit: An American Legend (Laura Hillenbrand)

“Death of a Salesman” (Arthur Miller)

Man’s Fate (Andre Malraux)

The Tartar Steppe (Dino Buzzati)

Jonathan Livingston, Seagull (Richard Bach)

The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)

The Natural (Bernard Malamud)

The Once and Future King (T.H. White)

“The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail” (Robert E. Lee and Jerome Lawrence)

4 Plays of Chekhov (Anton Chekhov)

The Man Who Laughs (Victor Hugo)

The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand)

The Children of Hurin (J.R.R. Tolkien)

“Cyrano de Bergerac” (Edmund Rostand)

Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Ken Kesey)

Bullfinch’s Mythology (Thomas Bullfinch)

“The Condemned of Altona” (Jean-Paul Sartre)

The Lay of the Nibelung

This Boy’s Life (Tobias Wolff)

Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card)

Mortality (Christopher Hitchens)

I hope you’ve enjoyed my books. If you’ve read any books on these lists, feel free to comment below about them.

I Read, and Revel in the Fridayness of Friday

It’s Friday, and I thought I’d celebrate by giving you my review of all nine works in “Nine Plays by Eugene O’Neill.” Brace yourselves!

“Nine Plays by Eugene O’Neill” by… You guessed it (Eugene O’Neill)

Favorite Quote: (From “Strange Interlude”): All the twenty odd books I’ve written have been long-winded fairy tales for grown-ups–about dear old ladies and witty, cynical bachelors and quaint characters with dialects, and married folk who always admire and respect each other, and lovers who avoid love in hushed whispers! That’s what I’ve been, Nina–a hush-hush whisperer of lies! Now I’m going to give an honest healthy yell–turn on the sun into the shadows of lies.”

In September, I vowed to read everything O’Neill had ever written. This book was a great resource. O’Neill himself chose the plays that would feature in this book, so we get to see what works he considered his best. Also, they’re arranged in chronological order, so we get to see O’Neill mature as a playwright.

At first, he writes shorter and simpler works like “The Emperor Jones,” but by the end of this anthology, he’s progressed to complex trilogies (in the form of “Mourning Becomes Electra”). By the end of this collection, he’s experimented with using drums to increase tension, employing masks as props, and having his costume-clad characters exit the play alongside the audience and get into limousines that are waiting outside the theater (!!!).

Were the 800 pages of play worth it? Yes.

The only complaint I have about this marvelous writer is that his female characters all chase men. Evidently, there are more things to want in the world than men. Maybe his future plays will be able to do women justice.

Short Takes on Each Play:

“The Emperor Jones”: This reads like a fable–the islander challenges a Brit, and the islander loses his mind. The protagonist’s dense accent helps to obfuscate meaning rather than to clarify it, but the use of gradually-quickening drum-beats in the background effectively accentuates the protagonist’s increasingly-wild thoughts.

“The Hairy Ape”: It reads like another fable, this time about man’s descent into bestiality. It’s slightly better at its readable accents, and its ending is more impactful than that of “The Emperor Jones.”

“All God’s Chillun Got Wings”: This play is about race-relations. It has a good beginning and a good middle. However, the ending seems to lack the impact possessed by “The Hairy Ape”. You do begin to see O’Neill trying his hand at somewhat longer works of drama though (by a few acts). He also begins to write with more nuance and realism.

“Desire Under the Elms”: Cardboard female characters run rampant in this play. Although it’s more nuanced than O’Neill’s previous plays, it still seems somewhat contrived.

“Marco Millions”: This is the play that has an epilogue where Marco Polo (yes, that Marco Polo) exits the theater alongside the audience and takes a limousine that awaits him on the street outside. I don’t see how this adds to the play, other than to perhaps suggest that European colonialism was the source of American wealth. This play is much longer than any of the previous plays in the book. It’s better than “The Hairy Ape”, although the female characters remain cardboard.

“The Great God Brown”: This play incorporates masks to show the difference between a character’s public self and private self. Interestingly, characters are usually afraid of each others’ private selves. Some characters steal others’ masks, which leads to even more identity-based chaos. The play is good, but the women are still obsessed with the men.

“Lazarus Laughed”: This play has a good idea but I feel like its execution is flawed. O’Neill tells of the time after Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus. Lazarus constantly laughs, and his laugh inspires joy in others, so they form a cult around him. This cult constantly chants, “Laugh! Laugh! Laugh!” This cult chants this throughout the whole play. Because there is so much chanting, it slows the pacing, and is rather distracting.

“Strange Interlude”: This play is pretty long. It involves a woman who wants to have a child. Her husband’s family has mental health issues that may be inheritable. The woman wants a child, so she has one with another man and tries to pass it off as her husband’s. For the first time in O’Neill’s drama, each and every scene has momentum. Each scene changes the dynamic between characters and increases tension. The play is great. Just beware of contrived female characters.

“Mourning Becomes Electra”: This play parallels “The Oresteia” by Aeschylus, only it takes place during the Civil War. The best part of this play is a character named Sid who sings “Shenandoah” at various intervals throughout the trilogy, which really accentuates the changing mood of the play. O’Neill’s play cycle is better than Aeschylus’s in some parts (characters are more-fully realized, for instance). At this point, O’Neill’s writing has matured. It shows through his treatment of his content. “Mourning” combines some fable-istic aspects from “The Hairy Ape” with the more naturalistic elements of “Desire Under the Elms.”

Those are the nine plays. I hope you enjoyed my reviews, and check out the book here.

I Read and Reread, While Sick on Memorial Day Weekend

Being bedridden with a high fever has plenty of benefits, the best of which is extra reading time. Here are some books I’ve read that may be of interest to you:

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” By Tennessee Williams

Favorite Quote: “Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one’s own character to himself.”

This play is about a man named Brick who doesn’t want to get hot and heavy with his wife, who complains that she feels “like a cat on a hot tin roof.” There’s also an inheritance. I find this play interesting not necessarily for its amazing craftsmanship (the version I read had two endings), but for the insight it gives into the working mind of Tennessee Williams. The quote I gave is taken from one of his stage directions, for instance. Also, the very fact that the play has two endings means that readers can get inside Williams’ head to see what he wanted to accomplish in his play (by reading Ending #1), and contrast it with what his director, Elia Kazan thought (by checking out Ending #2).

El Capitán Alatriste by Arturo Peréz-Reverte

Favorite Quote: “Hay que ganarse el pan, zagal.” (“You have to earn your bread, kid.”)

This book taught me all the Spanish I know. I spent hours looking up all the words in it on Word Reference. It was worth it, because the story is great. It takes place during Spain’s Golden Age, and stars a kid named Iñigo Balboa, whose father was slain in battle, and who now resides under the guardianship of his father’s friend, Diego Alatriste. Alatriste is a mercenary-for-hire, and is given the task of assassinating two gentlemen with suspiciously unimportant-sounding names. This gets Diego and his kid sidekick into trouble. It’s worth a read to see how (and if) they get out. If you don’t have time to translate a lot of Spanish, check out the English-language version, called “Captain Alatriste.”

Taggerung by Brian Jacques

Favorite Quote: “Tears are only water, and flowers, trees, and fruit cannot grow without water. But there must be sunlight also.”

This is a book I first read when I was in middle school. As I lay in the throes of sickness, this book proved to be a trusty companion indeed. In this installment of the Redwall series, an otter is raised by an evil tribe, and is prized as the “Taggerung” because of his superior fighting skills. However, our otter hero is too pure of heart to live a life of murder, and so he sets out to find his true home. Although some sentences are clunky, this book is heartwarming for people of all ages, and is especially fulfilling if you’re sick in bed on Memorial Day Weekend.

I hope you enjoyed my books! If you have any recommendations for me, leave a comment, and I’ll try to write about them on my site.