11/22/63 Reflection

11/22/63 Reflection

11/22/63 by Stephen King

*This reflection contains spoilers.*

What a great way to start 2018! 11/22/63 by Stephen King is the first book I finished in the year, although I read about half of it in 2017.  Despite a slow start, once I had time to dedicate to this 849 page book, I devoured it.  The premise is fascinating: if you could go back in time, would you? And if you could go back in time and change an important historical event, would you? What happens to Jake, the protagonist, goes well beyond the basic elements of those two questions.

Stephen King takes his time with this story. In my opinion the first 300 pages could have been an entirely separate novel itself as a prequel. Having heard a lot about the novel, I knew Sadie would be an important character, but I was shocked when she didn’t appear until almost halfway through the book.Regardless, over the course of 800 plus pages, a beautiful story of love, power, mystery, and internal turmoil develops. When Jake decides to embrace the past and attempt to change the course of history, he finds himself confronted by the problems of the late 1950s, early 1960s America. Race relations, the Cold War, and cigarette smoke rule the day. Not that the 2010s are perfect, but they are different and going from the modern world to the world sixty years ago, naturally takes some adjustment. Jake proceeds cautiously with how he speaks and acts, but when he falls in love with Sadie, the game changes.

Jake and Sadie’s love story is one of the best I’ve read. Each character is independent and confident, despite the baggage of their pasts. Sadie’s failed and abusive marriage, and her self-absorbed, domineering mother haunt her and dictate many of her choices. Similarly, Jake’s failed marriage and the time travel he can’t talk about put a lot of weight on his interactions and relationships with others.  Initially, their relationship is a precarious balance of lies, half truths, and meeting small town expectations. When Sadie can no longer tolerate her ignorance of Jake’s past, she ousts him from her life.  As a reader, I really appreciate King’s writing of (generally) strong female characters. Why should Sadie stick around with another man who lays a broom on the bed? Who only gives a small portion of himself and not all of himself to the relationship when she is giving everything? Although it is not an easy choice for her to make, I respect it. Furthermore, when she and Jake ultimately do reconnect, he still won’t tell her everything, but he tells her enough for her to stay by his side. It is another example of balance. Sadie didn’t need to know everything, but she needed to know enough to trust she wouldn’t be hurt. Once she does, their relationship flourishes and she stands by him through the end and even attempts to complete Jake’s task, when the “abhorrent past” gets in the way. The novel shows their relationship and dedication grow, as they each take care of eachother in a time of great need, nursing the other back to health, and providing encouragement. Aside from the terrible injuries and the time travel, it is the type of relationship most people look for and hope for with a life-long partner.

An interesting discussion would be a comparison between Jake and Sadie, and Roland and Susan. You could also add Susannah and Eddie, but there is something that sets them apart, maybe that we don’t get as in depth with their love story as we do with Jake and Sadie and Roland and Susan. The lovers in 11/22/63 are in a much more mature relationship, it is more realistic and less idealistic, but their love and passion is clear. Both male partners have a task to do that takes priority, but in the end, Jake seems to decide Sadie is more important, although both female partners die in their effort to help their lover meet their goals. I could probably write an entirely separate post about that, so I will move on for now.

Aside from the amazing characters and romance built by King, a greater question underlies the whole novel, without being too pushy or overdone. What would happen if the past could be changed? The conclusion most writers have come to is: not what you expect. King’s conclusion is the same. An act to prolong the life of J.F.K. would in theory benefit the country and aid its civil rights progression, but who really knows what would happen. King’s alternate reality is a scene out of a horrific war film, or dystopia. While it was extreme, it is the future Jake needed to see to know he could not change the past.

Jake constantly reminds himself “the past doesn’t want to be changed,” “the past is abhorrent,” and the past fights back, but it isn’t until he sees how the future can change, that he realizes the magnanimity of that fact and the calamity that occurs when it is changed. For us as readers, the past can’t be changed. In many ways, “it is what it is.” But we can never neglect the past. Saying “it is what it is” suggests that we can do nothing about it, which is true, but we can learn from it. We can acknowledge and recognize the atrocities of the past so they are not repeated and so that groups of people who have been marginalized are given the voice, respect, and positions they deserve. America is currently struggling with that, because we seem to want to forget the mistakes we made in the past or brush over them with a quick fix, but we need to recognize the systems that caused those problems, see how they remain in place today, and talk about them differently.

I’m not sure if Jake fully embraces or learns that lesson, because he is preoccupied with a love he lost and can never get back. Fortunately, King allows for a satisfying ending, in which Jake learns at least one person had a happily ever after, and a long, impactful life because of his decision not to change the past. And somehow – maybe it is the beam – she seems to recall Jake, or at least feel a pleasant connection to him, despite never having met.

-M.R. Gavin

 

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What is Literary Criticism?

Literary criticism sounds like a big, convoluted, academic, scholarly way to look at literature (short stories, novels, poems, even nonfiction).  Some people feel utilizing literary criticism and discussing text will ruin the enjoyment of it. In my opinion both of these ideas are false. The first is false for a simple reason: everyone uses literary criticism; it is how a reader responds to a text, how a reader looks at it and what they get out of, and it is often based on their life experiences. So while you may not use the term “literary criticism” how you perceive and react to a text is a form of “literary criticism.” The second statement is false because while we read to enjoy a story, discussing stories opens a reader’s mind to a multitude of new things. Sharing allows readers to grow their understanding of a text and to get greater enjoyment out of it overall. Sometimes in school a text is discussed to the point of it having no life left, but a good teacher knows when to move on, and how to guide a discussion.

As a reader and writer with a background in English Language and Literature, I understand why literary criticism is misunderstood. My intention with this portion of my blog is to explore the types of literary criticism and demonstrate how many of them are already being used while reading. In my opinion, knowledge of literary criticism is simple a tool to progress your thinking, your reflection, and your discussions around what you read. That having been said, I am not an expert. In my four years of undergraduate study, I garnered the same number of books about literary criticism for three different classes. But, with my intention being exposure and to build on things we already do as readers, those experiences should not be discredited. So let’s get started.

According to the online Cambridge Dictionary, literary criticism is the “study and discussion of works of literature.” It may be considered formal, but generally it is based on the readers’ judgments and comments of the work in question. In an academic setting, this is mostly in the form of writing, and is an essential practice for those who study literature for a living, but that doesn’t mean it has to be inaccessible for the rest of us and our knowledge of it will ultimately make us better readers, conversationalists, thinkers, and humans.

The types of criticism that I am going to talk about and write each week are widely used in the scholarly world and I encourage you to find additional articles or examples of each. You might find your reflection process leans more to one type of criticism, but don’t rule the others out. Even thinking critically in a way you aren’t used to for just a moment will bring a whole new realm of questions and possibilities.  These are the primary forms of literary criticism:

 

  • Reader-Response Criticism
  • New Criticism
  • Structuralist and Deconstructive Criticism
  • Historical & Biographical Criticism
  • Cultural & Multicultural Criticism
  • Psychological Criticism
  • Feminist & Gender-based Criticism

 

While this list is not exhaustive and many of these criticisms are an umbrella under which many other criticisms fall, they represent a good start, and many readers already engage in them.

As my literary posts continue, I will go into greater detail for each of these criticism, and offer my own example. Please feel free to correct me, to share your thoughts, or to provide additional resources for the good of fellow readers.

The books that I will be referencing are listed here, and will be cited when used.

  1. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature by Wilfred L. Guerin, Earle Labor, Lee Morgan, Jeanne C. Reesman, and John R. Willingham
  2. A Short Guide to Writing About Literature by Sylvan Barnet, and William E. Cain
  3. Text and Contexts by Stephen Lynn
  4. Theory into Practice by Ann B. Dobie

Next week’s post will take a closer look at Reader-Response Criticism, questions to ask while thinking about it, and why it is a valuable form of literary criticism.

-M.R. Gavin

“Everybody Loves a Romance”

Alphabet Game: Tell a story in 26 sentences, where each sentence starts with the next letter of the alphabet. (Prompt from: 1,000 Awesome Writing Prompts by Ryan Andrew Kinder)

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

“Everybody loves a romance,” they say.

“F*ck that,” I replied. Give me a strong character with good camaraderie, and if a romance happens, fine, but it isn’t essential.  However, when I finally found myself pouring over my manuscript, it had the gimmicky romance I was told “everybody loves.” I was disgusted with myself for abandoning my believes, and allowing a flowery romance to hijack my story line in order to be publishable. “Just you wait!” my publisher boasted, “your novel is the next Fifty Shades of Grey. Keep making those changes I suggested and you will see it in the hands of women everywhere!” Lots of good that will do me if I can’t stomach rereading the story to revise it. My dream was – is – to be a writer whose stories have more value than just something read on vacation or to satisfy the hidden sexual desires of the masses. Nevertheless, in order to become that writer I need to have some publishing credit, and this over-the-top romance puts me one step closer.

“Only well established writers get books like that published, but you have a natural talent for writing. Perhaps you could write romance to get started,” my agent informed me tossing my beloved literary fiction aside. Questioning his assumptions, I asked, “What makes you think I can write a romance?”

“Romance is already laced into your writing! See your descriptions? They move your reader and put them in the mood for something more. Use that in the genre of romance and you are golden,” he replied.

“Very well. We have a deal,” I sighed. X months later, here I am revising a romance that makes me want to puke every time I look at it. Yes, it has an unrequited love, an epic chase, and steamy sex. Zebra print undies? Absolutely has those too.

“Be aware, Mom,” I warned her, “you won’t want to read this one.”

“Can’t they print your work without making it X-rated?” she asked.

“Doubtful,” I murmured, “but everybody loves a romance.”

-M.R. Gavin

Next Week’s Prompt: Dictionary Definition Game. Open to a random page in the dictionary, point to a word, and right about what it means to you or use it as the starting point for a story.

Feel free to join me, share your creative writing prompt piece, or suggest a prompt!

11/22/63 Review

11/22/63 Review

11/22/63 by Stephen King

Rating: 4.5 Stars

What would you do if offered the chance to go back in time and change a significant moment in history? Would you take the chance?  Jake is faced with these questions early on in the novel 11/22/63 by Stephen King. This stand alone novel is 849 pages of beautiful science fiction time travel based narrative. Published in November, 2011, 11/22/63 is not considered a typical work of Stephen King, but by his constant readers is consistently a favorite.

Jake is a divorced high school English teacher until he travels through time to prevent the murder of J.F.K. in 1963. However, the rabbit hole he climbs through places him in 1958 and he is forced to wait, plan, and try not to interfere with too much of history until the fated date. Jake, who uses the alias George in the past, nonetheless finds things to do with his time and ends up in the quiet, small town of Jodie, TX. He begins living two lives, one in Jodie where he seems like a normal man of the time, and one in Dallas and Fort Worth, where he continues his plan to prevent the Kennedy assassination. Needless to say, things get complicated and “the abhorrent past” doesn’t want to be changed. The story of Jake becomes more than a time traveler come to save the past as he learns about himself and how to love again.

King uses Jake as the first person narrator for 11/22/63. The plot, and prose is easy to follow because of that decision. The reader witnesses and empathizes with the internal conflicts Jake experiences because of the secret he can reveal to no one. Jake isn’t just a golden hero, but a man with faults, desires, hopes, and insecurities, and the reader enjoys and invests in every step of his story. The other important characters in 11/22/63, like Al, Sadie, and Deke, add to Jake’s conflict, but provide him with support. The relationships Jake builds with the people of Jodie, TX in the early 1960s is the true heart of the novel, despite not being directly connected to his mission.

As mentioned above, 11/22/63 is different from the traditional expectation of “horror” from Stephen King. However, the novel has moments of dread and terror, and King builds suspense brilliantly throughout the story. In my opinion, King maintains his traditional style and narrative focuses, but emphasizes them differently in 11/22/63. For example, relationships and friendships are important components in all of his stories, be it the relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist, the relationship  between lovers, the relationship between friends, but for this book everything is about relationships, and those relationships take a front seat compared to the underlying goal Jake has. Setting up horror or a monstrous villain isn’t as predominant, but King dedicates time and details into making the villain real and building suspense and drama. Although 11/22/63 is not a “typical King,” it maintains all the elements of what enraptured readers into his horror stories, while exploring a less overtly horrific story.

11/22/63 is a beautifully written story of time travel, adventure, and love. I gave it a rating of 4.5 stars, for two reasons. First, I’ve heard readers raving about the novel for several years, and while I loved it, those ravings gave me unrealistic expectations, which it didn’t quite meet.  Additionally, it is a huge book to undertake, and while the story is enticing, there were moments when it felt slow. Once through those sections, the story flew. Any constant reader should pick this up if they have not, but also any reader. There is historical context, romance, fantasy, and suspense. If you like any of those things, I feel confident you will enjoy 11/22/63 if you give it the time it deserves.

-M.R. Gavin

Fresh Start for 2018

For those of you who have read my posts in the past, you probably already know my blog is sporadic at best. However, it is a new year, and a lot of things have changed in my life in the past year. First, in June I left teaching and took a part time job in fundraising and development for an amazing local nonprofit. Leaving teaching was a harder decision than I thought it would be. In truth, I am not a teacher. I don’t enjoy being “on” as teachers must be for eight or nine straight hours. Moreover the politics and systems in education as a whole are abysmal and took a serious toll on my mental and physical health in the three years I taught. Regardless, there are things I miss: having a full time salary and 40 hour a week job, and the kids. Although they can be a struggle, building relationships with students and seeing them grow is a feeling I have yet to put in words.

The decision came down to this: is teaching what I want to do for the rest of my life?  And after a lot of reflection, discussion, and some tears, I realized I would regret staying in teaching. I would resent the kids, the salary, everything about it if I settled and remained a teacher for my professional career. Taking on a part time job in one of the fields I was interested in seemed like a good way to make money and explore my other big interest – writing.

That’s what I’ve been doing for the past six months. Writing almost everyday, researching publishers, revising, writing query letters, and it is what I will continue to do. However, after six months of writing in private, I am reading to take the next step into the online world of writing.

I know there are millions of blogs and bloggers on the internet, and if you chose to read mine over someone else’s I’m incredibly grateful. You deserve to know the purpose of this blog, since you are giving it a chance and reading it.  

  1. To help me practice writing, revising, editing, and interacting with an online community.
  2. To help me build a plethora of writing samples and a website to give potential partners, employers, and agents.
  3. To engage in a writing and reading community in which I can learn about the world, and develop my writing skills.

With those goals in mind, I decided on the content of the blog. There will be five weekly posts with different content, for the next six months, at which time I will review what works and what doesn’t. While it is true, one should constantly reflect on what is successful and not successful, I am choosing to keep the same format for six months for me personally in order to build a habit and routine. The other primary reason relates to the purpose of the blog: to practice writing. I will absolutely accept feedback and reflect on my writing technique during the next six months, but in general the structure will be consistent.

So, the posts you will see are book reviews (spoiler free opinions of books I’ve read), book reflections (spoiler posts with points for discussion and general thoughts about books I’ve read), literary posts exploring literary criticism, and creative writing posts.  The final post will be a variety of book, writing, and life related things in order to explore different styles of writing and content.

In summary, I hope you return to my blog regularly. Maybe not everyday, maybe for the weekly post you enjoy, maybe just at random. I hope you get something out of it. I know it will benefit me personally and professionally. Please email me at mrgavinwrites@gmail.com or add a comment at anytime to provide feedback on my writing, to start a discussion, or to share your own writing and opinions. Thanks for coming on this adventure with me and I can’t wait to see what the future brings.

-M.R. Gavin

Catholic School Girls by Casey Kurtti

Rating: 3 Stars

Synopsis:  This Off-Broadway Play is a satirical recollection of attending Catholic School in the 1960’s.  Four actors each play two roles, one as a student and one as a nun.  It explores the challenges and expectations set for Catholic School students as they grow from first grade through eighth grade.

Reflection:  Catholic School Girls is a play by Casey Kurtti.  I picked it up at a used bookstore because I attended Catholic School from kindergarten through eighth grade and thought it would contain funny commentary that any Catholic School attendant could relate to.

Based in the 1960s, the elements of Catholic School are more harsh and dramatic than what I experienced in the late 1990s early 2000s, but nonetheless it was relatable.  Some similarities include how the youngest children fully embrace the words of the parents and teachers as truth and are fearful of what will happen if they sin.  Sin and following God’s rules were the classroom management techniques.  “Keep room for the Holy Ghost” lives on in every Catholic School dance.  Finally, as students age, questioning the faith and rebellion become the center of the school.  This in particular is true for the girls in the play.

Despite the comedy, several things upset while reading the play and made me dissatisfied with my religion.  The Sisters’ treatment of their students was often cruel and vicious; it was certainly not conducive to learning, growth, or self confidence. For example, Sister Mary Thomasina and Sister Mary Lucille insult the children with personal attacks on their intelligence, character, and family.  Another thing that left me disgruntled, but could unfortunately relate to was the students’ inability to ask questions.  While some of my experience allowed questions, there were some teachers you didn’t ask and some questions you never let out in fear of getting in trouble.  For Elizabeth, Wanda, Collen, and Maria Theresa, questions were ignored or caused them to be isolated, judged, and disciplined.  In Catholic School Girls, students asked almost no questions and were berated if they did.  This refusal to consider and discuss question of youth, is in my opinion one of the greatest causes of weakened faith, more so than the practices or religious doctrines.

Kurtti sets Catholic School Girls up with a simple cast: four actress with two roles each – a student and a sister.  Their shifts from student to sister happen fluidly as a scene takes place.  Initially, I thought the girls would play an older nun version of themselves, but that is not the case.  Instead it appears as though the girls are remembering the sisters and how they treated their students.  If it is based on memory that may explain some of the extreme behaviors seen in the sisters.  Each girl also receives the chance to monologue in the play.  These monologues give insight into their background and their Catholic believes. The choice of a simple cast allows the characters to develop and create intrigue.

As Catholic School Girls by Casey Kurtti reminisces and satirizes attending Catholic School in the 1960s, it exposes problems that still exist and gives any Catholic School student a laugh.  While religion is important, if it does not allow questions and treat its followers with respect, it is doomed to lose some along the way.

-M.R. Gavin

The Missing Ones by Patricia Gibney

Rating: 3.5 Stars

Synopsis: Detective Inspector Lottie Parker is struggling in her personal life and dealing with a sudden series of murders in her small quiet town.  The victims, suspects, members of the town, and cold cases all seem intertwined, but what connects them is a mystery Parker and her team must solve in order to prevent more death, and uncover a dark secret.

Reflection:  What happens when one murder unveils decades of crime and cover ups?  A lot of sorting seemingly unrelated things and putting them together.  In The Missing Ones by Patricia Gibney, Detective Inspector Lottie Parker and her team do just that.

Generally, I am not a mystery or crime novel reader, but I did enjoy The Missing Ones.  It had a bit of a slow start, despite the initial crime happening in the first pages, but once the story unfolded, it was hard to put down.  Like any good mystery or crime novel, the reader tries to make connections and predict the bad guys next more.  The book compels the reader’s need to know who did what and why.

Lottie is a single mother, having been widowed, and the detective inspector.  With three children, inner turmoil, and a massive case on her plate, the reader empathizes with Lottie.  She struggles with the same struggles many others have, job taking over, kids left to their own devices, but without the job, the kids wouldn’t be able to eat or have a home.  Her struggles paired with her tenacity toward solving this bigger problem make her not only relatable, but likeable.  In addition to Lottie, the supporting characters, especially those tied to the murder, are very interesting.  Perhaps their intrigue comes from being involved in the crime.  Because they are shrouded in mystery and the unknown, I took a greater interest in them and wanted to know more about them and their motives.  (This may be a general mystery and crime novel feature, but as I am not well acquainted with the genre, I will have to explore more to decide if it is a feature of this novel, or the genre itself.)

With these suspects and victims comes the crime.  The crime is what interested me most, of course.  While subplots of love, family, and loss played, the murders and the events surrounding them are so dark and integrated into so much, everything else pales in comparison.  So much darkness concentrated in one small town and connecting the lives of so many different people is terrifying and unbelievable.

Gibney’s structure of the novel is not what I was expected, but was well done and led the reader to draw conclusions, while further developing the characters.  I expected the entire book to focus and follow one character (Lottie), but while most chapters follow her and her investigation, it is sprinkled with sections following others: the victims, the suspects, Lottie’s family, and flashbacks.  This structure is pleasant, but I think it contributed to my biggest complaint with the book.

The cover says, “An absolutely gripping thriller… with a jaw-dropping twist.”  I am not super smart, but while the novel was gripping, I never experience the “jaw-dropping twist.”  In part, I think the structure of the novel sets the reader up to play detective alongside Lottie’s, and make connections that Lottie can’t see yet.  This happens because of the omnipresent narrator that follows more than just Lottie and allows revealing flashbacks.  With those, putting the puzzle pieces together were easy.  I kept expecting something to be revealed that the reader hadn’t read to change the way the story was going.

The Missing Ones was hard to put down.  The writing style, characters, and overall darkness of the situation had me reviewing the facts, and asking questions of the victims and the suspects.  I enjoyed trying to piece together bits of information and trying to find connections alongside Lottie and her team.  I don’t know that I will read other D.I. Lottie Parker stories, but that is based more on a personal disinterest in crime novels than on the quality of this novel.

-M.R. Gavin