Pax Reflection

*This reflection contains SPOILERS.*

Pax is an emotional story about a boy, Peter, and his fox, Pax. It is a journey of learning, discovery, and change. While it is an enjoyable tale, it teeters on unrealistic despite being realistic fiction.

To begin, I enjoyed the characters, especially the beautiful connection between Peter and Pax. Forced to leave Pax behind, Peter sets out on a dangerous journey to right his wrong and find Pax again. Similarly, Pax ventures to return to Peter. Both boy and fox are stalled by change. Peter’s broken leg and the friend who helps him, Vola, and Pax’s need for food and desire to protect his new friends, Bristle and Runt, slow down their search for each other.  Additionally, a war is on the verge of beginning in the exact location they need to look. Sara Pennypacker, the author, uses alternating chapters to show Peter’s and Pax’s sides of the story and their gradual changes. Peter begins to understand he doesn’t have to become like his father; Pax shifts his allegiance, but still loves Peter.

In my opinion, the structure Pennypacker uses is well done and supports her main characters’ developments. Additionally, the structure is consistent for younger readers. Peter and Pax remain connected, but each learn on their own. Pax’s storytelling is vastly different than Peter’s because he is a fox. Smells convey messages; fox conversations are short and to the point. Instinct plays a key role in Pax’s chapters. Furthermore, Pax witnesses the role of humans in a way he has never seen before – in war. The animals he meets can smell the war coming, and over the course of the book, Pax develops this sense as well. Then, Pax witnesses the horrors of war on the natural world. Humans’ war and violence kills animals, and destroys their homes, without any consideration.

While the fox chapters felt plausible for realistic fiction, Peter’s chapters were harder to believe. The human characters were fine: an angry father, a disinterested grandfather, a growing boy trying to make his way, and a hermit woman working to atone for her mistakes and find herself . Peter fears he will grow up to be exactly like his father, and feels moments of rage he associates with his dad. Vola, is a disabled veteran, who separates herself from others because she lost herself and because she is afraid she will hurt someone else. The setting of Pax is fictional, but completely realistic. The problem for me was important elements of the plot, and elements that younger readers would probably question aren’t addressed. Peter runs away from his grandfather’s house; not very unusual, except, no one looks for him. When Vola takes Peter in, she makes him write to his grandfather to tell him he is safe, but the reader never finds out if Grandpa replies at all. So it seems normal for an adolescent to run away and for the adults in his life not to know about it. At the very least, we know his grandfather doesn’t tell Peter’s father. The end makes that clear (granted his father is in the army, so perhaps it is hard to communicate, but it also isn’t that far away – Peter estimates it is 200 miles). Peter ends up on the battlefield and his father hugs him, shocked to see him. Besides not knowing Peter was missing, which I will attribute to warfare and army mail, Peter then runs through the middle of a minefield following Pax, and his father barely attempts to stop him, and doesn’t follow him. Peter’s father laid the minefield! If anyone can get Peter through it, his dad can, but no his dad watches Peter crutch away. I understand that families are complicated and lots of people do things differently than what I am used to, but this just seems odd to me.

Despite my issues with the adults in Peter’s life and how they handle his running away and turning up on a battlefield, I enjoyed Pax. The characters, Peter, Pax, and Vola are beautifully written and connected to one another, as they develop through the novel. The dual story structure with alternating chapters is effective for young readers and older readers. Finally, the illustrations by Jon Klassen added to the unique style of Pax without overwhelming it.

Have you read Pax? Do you agree or disagree with my reflections? Comment below!

-M.R. Gavin


Structuralism and Deconstructive Criticism

Structuralism and deconstructive criticism are often paired together because one cannot exist without the other. However, they are two separate approaches to literary criticism with a heavy reliance on words and their meaning within a text.

Beginning with structuralism, the critic combines elements of reader response criticism and new criticism. It is the effort to find meaning within structure. That may seem like a complicated idea or a simple idea, but the best way to look at it I’ve found comes from Steven Lynn’s Texts and Contexts. He relates structuralism and a readers ability to find meaning with in structure to a person’s ability to see figures and shapes in the clouds, even though we know they are more or less random. We as people, naturally process things in this way (103). In the most basic sense, structuralist criticism is a deep reading of the words in a text to find patterns and oppositions that create meaning. Binary opposites are a common element of structuralist criticism; things like “good and bad” or “happy and sad” develop their own unique meanings within the context of a given text and ultimately, create a greater meaning for the text as a whole.

Deconstructive Criticism takes structuralism and new criticism and flips them upside down. Instead of looking for a cohesive meaning within binaries or structure, deconstructivism considers how the structure fails, how it projects the opposite meaning or no meaning, and how minute details and elements could add essential meaning to a text. As opposed to looking for a unifying element like new criticism, deconstructive criticism wants to expose the inconsistencies and gaps of a text (Lynn 22). In recent years, deconstructive criticism has grown in popularity, but it is not an easy criticism to write. It requires reading a text from a structuralist and new criticism perspective, and then using creativity to see things differently. Furthermore, deconstructivism is a little absurd; things are almost always left incomplete because that is the nature of deconstruction.

In order to write structuralist or deconstructivist criticism, the writer first needs to read a text closely from the structuralist perspective. When reading from this perspective there are several things to look for:

  1. Binaries of meaning. Not just specific words that mean the opposite, but binary characters, settings, expectations, structural elements of the writing. Consider how these elements play together.
  2. Consider how words create meaning for you and develop images for you as the reader. A simple example of this is how the atmosphere or setting is presented and whether or not the words used for this match your expectations and what happens in the text.
  3. Think of the text as its own “system of meaning” (Lynn 22). How do the words, structures, and images within the text itself develop meaning?

With those elements in mind, a critic can develop and write a structuralist criticism, but with a little more thought, they can be changed to deconstructive criticism. In order to write deconstructive criticism consider these elements:

  1. Where does the text not make sense?
  2. Where are there gaps in the writing?
  3. What background or seemingly marginal elements of the text could take on an important role?
  4. How can the perceived meaning being reversed within the text?

These questions help push the readers thinking toward deconstructivism and flipping the text. As I mentioned before, deconstructive criticism can get complicated quickly, because at its core, it is the idea that meaning can be easily contradicted, taken apart, and turned around. In doing so deconstructivism tends to contradict itself, but with practice it is nonetheless a fun, creative way of looking at and discussing a text.

Check back the next two weeks for a sample of structuralist criticism and deconstructive criticism. Are there any key elements of structuralism and deconstructivism you would add?

-M.R. Gavin

Dear Mr. Stephen King,

Dear Mr. Stephen King,

Write a Fan Letter.

Dear Mr. Stephen King,

I don’t often write someone an unsolicited letter. Actually, I don’t write letters to anyone. Do you? I imagine with all of your writing, a letter wouldn’t be challenging, but not a priority either.

Anyway, I’d like to tell you a few things, and thank you for the influence you’ve had on my life. I’ve always been a reader thanks to the encouragement of my parents, and they always shared with me what they read, and talked about reading. As a kid, “grown-up” books held no interest for me, until one day my dad started talking about a series and how he couldn’t wait for the next book to be published. He told me about The Dark Tower, explaining the premise of the story, introducing me to its characters, and cementing my desire to read it – someday. Over the next few years, Stephen King become a household name held in a place of reverence with others like Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, and Mike Royko, who my dad loved. On a trip to the bookstore, I could find my dad near the Stephen King books. I knew about all your most recent publications and the basic plot of my dad’s favorites.

When he finally let me read one of your stories, I devoured it, The Body. It remains one of my favorites almost fifteen years later. As I entered the adult world, I lost touch with reading for enjoyment, but when I found it again, I started with The Dark Tower. Since then, my dad and I discuss your books every time we speak; I update him on my “King Journey,” he recalls whatever I am reading, since his is up-to-date on your bibliography. During the 2016 election and the campaign leading up to it, we raved over your twitter commentary. Personally, Molly, AKA the thing of evil, cracks me up.

With your role in my life and in my reading journey, I admire your writing and the way you use your voice as a public figure. Many people take on neutral roles, or decide not to learn, but from what I can see, you never stopped learning and hoping. And with that I am learning from you. As an aspiring author – I’m sure you’ve heard that a million times – I value your presence in the writing community. A writer who persisted, who has written because it fulfills you, because you need to, because you see things that need to be shared. A writer who supports other writers, especially new authors (when you shared Tomi Adeyemi’s video of seeing her finished book for the first time, I almost cried), and who is never shy about the gratitude felt toward those who support you in your writing process and your constant readers. You are the type of writer I hope to be. Writing for fulfillment, writing for joy, writing for me and if someone else finds enjoyment in it and I can make a living off of it that’s great too.

So I guess all I have left to say is thank you. Thank you for writing, thank you for sharing, thank you for giving me the creeps (I’m still having nightmares about “The Moving Finger”), and thank you for giving me hope. I look forward to continuing my “King Journey,” and my writing journey. You’ve done more for me than I know how to express express.

One of your many constant readers,

-M.R. Gavin

Next Week’s Prompt: The Misunderstood Monster.

Feel free to join, or suggest a prompt.

Pax Review

Pax Review

Pax by Sara Pennypacker

3.5 Stars

Imagine being forced to leave a beloved pet behind knowing you may never see him again and that a war is coming. Imagine being that pet. Pax by Sara Pennypacker begins with those two thoughts, leading to the mutual search by boy and animal toward each other. Published in 2016, Pax is a stand-alone piece of middle grade realistic fiction.

After being seperated, Peter and Pax work to reunite with one another, but a series of problems stall their reunion, and force each character to grow in unexpected ways. Peter is a young boy, moving because of the war; Pax is his pet fox. They are connected by a bond deeper than friendship, and have helped each other through many challenging moments of youth. After being seperated, Peter decides to run away from his grandfather’s and bring Pax home. Pax similarly begins to search for Peter. As the primary characters and telling two sides of one story, Peter and Pax alternate chapters. One chapter follows Peter, the next Pax. This structure is very effective in allowing the reader to see and understand both characters’ growth and the external factors impacting their changes.

With a realistic, but fictional setting, and great characters, Pax should be a great book, but elements of Peter and his family are difficult to believe without questioning and wanting more. His grandfather is disinterested and his father is angry, but their reactions to his running away are very surprising. Pax’s side of the story is easier to believe. He relies on instinct, and learns about his new world with caution. Both characters’ change in part because of the others they meet on their journey. Pax is greatly impacted by his new fox friends, and Peter learns things about himself and life from Vola he would have never imagined previously. Despite the surprising response of Peter’s relations, the rest of the characters help Peter and Pax in valuable ways.

Personally, I was particularly fond of Pax, and Pennypacker’s writing style in his chapters. The reader was immersed into instinct, smells, and sounds, in each of Pax’s chapters. Furthermore, Pax encourage the reader to see things in a new way: how humans impact nature, and how war impacts the lives of animals. Pax’s chapters show Pennypacker’s talent as a writer and demonstrate her creativity. Similarly, Peter’s chapters involving his time with Vola offer a deeper impact for readers, as they consider learning how to be comfortable with yourself, and the possibilities of change. In these chapters Pennypacker gives her young readers a more philosophical view, but writes using observations and examples young readers can understand.

This is the first novel by Sara Pennypacker I have read. For a middle grade novel, I enjoyed it. In some respects it is similar to classics like Old Yeller, Sounder, and Because of Winn Dixie, as each of these stories is based on the connection between a child and their pet, and each story is about growth and change. However, the alternating chapters between Peter and Pax and the illustrations by Jon Klassen make the novel unique. Pax is a novel that could be enjoyed by a reader of any age. I think middle grade readers interested in animals, wildlife, and pets would enjoy Pax. I would recommend reading it with your young reader or at least being sure to talk about the book as they read it or when they finish it. There are a number of big things to be discussed in Pax and while I trust young readers’ abilities to understand more than adults might guess, it is equally important to help them process when needed.

-M.R. Gavin

Bookstore Review: Books-A-Million

I had never been to a Books-A-Million before going to write this review. However, there are over 250 Books-A-Million stores nationwide, so there is probably at least one in your state (making an assumption, so don’t quote me on that). As such, it is similar to other big box bookstores like Barnes and Noble.

When I entered I was greeted with a cheerful, “Welcome to Books-A-Million!” which I wasn’t expecting, but is always nice to enter a retailer with. Having never been to one before, it took me a minute to get my bearings, but after meandering the shelves, and layout of the store, I quickly found the sections I wanted.

Overall the store was clean, bright, and easy to navigate. They had a wide selection of books, as well as a large selection of merchandise: Funkos, puzzles, games, mugs, socks, journals, and other bookish and nerdy treasures. The children’s section was impressive. Unlike Barnes and Noble who corridor the kids into a section of the store with actual shelves separating children’s literature from adult literature, Books-A-Million uses bright pictures to lead kids straight to their section, where they can browse numerous shelves of books (although they were regular size shelves with books at the top, so there maybe some challenges for short, young readers), read, work, or play at a large kid sized table (lego’s included), or beg their adult to purchase them toys, sets, or games included amongst the shelves of books. The extent of the children’s section was impressive and carried everything from board books to easy readers to middle grade and chapter books. While I thought I saw teen or young adult books in that same general area, I found a larger section of young adult books in a different part of the store. The adult fiction section was reasonable. I was disappointed by the limited African-American Author section, which seemed to only include modern literature, but didn’t include authors like Zora Neale Hurston or James Baldwin. In my opinion representation in both classic and modern literature is important. The poetry and drama section was also very limited with a few classics like Shakespeare, and the current popular poet Rupi Kaur. This is not unusual for a bookstore, but Books-A-Million may have had even less than Barnes and Noble. The science fiction and fantasy section was well laid out, as well as the “Teen” or young adult section.

Tables were used for certain popular categories and content like women’s rights, best sellers, and books-to-movies. Like Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million has their own collections of classics, and pretty bond faux leather books. In terms of price, Books-A-Million was about average. New hardbacks were around $20 to $25, paperbacks were anywhere from $8 to $16. The sales and discounted books were decent, although there were not a ton. For frequent shoppers, Books-A-Million does have a rewards card, but for someone like myself, who predominantly buys used, or borrows from the library, it isn’t worth it.

I am happy I decided to go to Books-A-Million and give it a shot. Based on what I saw, the employees courtesy, and the feel of the store, I will definitely be going back and may make that my Christmas Shopping Bookstore instead of Barnes and Noble.

-M.R. Gavin

Water for Elephants Reflection

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

*This reflection contains spoilers.*

I admit, I saw the movie before I read the book and it was at least six or seven years ago. Regardless, Water for Elephants was an enjoyable novel, and better than I was expecting.

Picking up Water for Elephants, I was prepared for a lighter read with strong romantic elements, but it wasn’t. The story is full of action as it follows Jacob’s unexpected entrance into the Benzeni Bros. Circus. Yes, there are still moments of romance, but they blend into the story without undermining the rest of the plot. That having been said, I think if you want to read it for romance, you absolutely can and if you want to read it for an enticing plot, that is possible as well.

Additionally, Water for Elephants wasn’t the light read I was expecting. To begin, the structure of Gruen’s story deals with the sorrows and challenges of aging. Jacob tells the story from his assisted living home in a series of flashbacks and with increasing worry about his own sanity. He is lonely; he is depressed. He has aged to the point of not recognizing himself. As a young reader, that is a scary concept and having worked in an assisted living facility, it was a difficult reminder of how some people live everyday.

The other reason I consider this story not “light” is the internal conflicts Jacob struggled with as a young man. He falls in love with a married woman, but would do anything out of respect for that marriage, but after Marlena’s husband hits her, Jacob realizes the danger she is in. Therefore, many of his decisions and actions are motivated by love. Another huge motivator for Jacob is his good will toward living things. Toward the animals in his care, Walter, Canal, Marlena. His actions are dictated by a desire for all of their well-beings. He experiences a lot of remorse when things go wrong and the safety of others is at risk.

The atmosphere is interesting, and enchanting, but littered with moments of stark realism from the 1930s. Night Circus and Caraval project and enchanting magical world around the circus/carnival atmosphere, but Water for Elephants is a less enticing. Set in the 1930’s, America is struggling with the Great Depression. There is little work, and even less money.  There are racial tensions, conflict between class (performers and laborers), prohibition, and anger and fear in abundance. While the circus life may be glamorous for some, it is hard for most. The circus catches the reader’s interest and imagination, but the love and adventure Jacob experiences are the heart of the story.

Finally, a small but important aspect of Water for Elephants is human-animal relationships. Walter and Queenie, Marlena and the horses, Jacob and the many animals in the menagerie (Bobo, Rosie, the orangutan) are all just as important as Jacob and Marlena’s relationship. Gruen takes time to describe these relationships,and the build them through the looks, body language, and touch. This element, while not center stage, was an important feature that took me from liking the story to loving it.

-M.R. Gavin

New Criticism EXAMPLE

*This example contains spoilers for “The Yellow Wall-Paper” a short story by Charlotte Perkins Stenson.*

“The Yellow Wall-Paper” is a story of gradual change and shifts. The narrator changes, and the yellow wall-paper evolves to create a story questioning the narrator’s mental health. Charlotte Perkins Stenson’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” uses description, tone, and point of view shifts to culminate the narrator’s final change.

As the narrator begins her story, she writes long sections of narrative, explaining the reason her family has moved, her husband’s work, and her illness. In the first section, she briefly describes the room she shares with her husband and its wall-paper. “I never saw a worse paper in my life,” she says, describing it as “One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.” Every subsequent section of writing shortens going from nearly to two whole pages, to two or three paragraphs. As her writing shortens, she references the wall-paper more and more, with only brief insights into the rest of her day. In the second section, she returns to the wall-paper three times. First, she explains her husband’s intention to “repaper the room.” Then, her description of the wall-paper develops, “Up and down and sideways they [bulbous eyes] crawl, and those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere.” Finally, a great shift occurs suggesting a life trapped in the inanimate wall-paper. “I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly conspicuous design.” This pattern continues until finally in the sixth section, her entire writing and life is deeply entwined into her observations and obsession with the wall-paper.

Eventually, the wall-paper develops, beyond just a visible element. At night, the colors are muted, but “the faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern.” An element of movement is added to the visual sensation. The narrator diligently watches and waits for the shaking to continue each night and the “outside pattern” shifts in evening light to become bars. Then, a third sense is invaded. “But there is something else about that paper – the smell!” writes the narrator. The smell extends throughout the entire home, even attaching itself to the narrator’s hair. Finally, the wall-paper continues to take its hold over the narrator by physically attaching itself to her. Jennie, the housekeeper, complains that “the paper stained everything it touched…yellow smooches on all my [the narrator’s] clothes.”

The progression of the narrator’s descriptions and the gradual consumption of her life by the wall-paper itself parallels the narrator’s change throughout “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” The narrator begins the story tired, and hating the wall-paper, but by the third section she begins to shift. “I’m getting really fond of the room in spite of the wall-paper. Perhaps because of the wall-paper. It dwells in my mind so!” She watches the paper in all lights, memorizing its patterns, its shifts, and its changes. In section four, she writes, “There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.” She shifts, not only to liking the wall-paper and obsessing over it, but also to possessiveness. A word that helps this shift is “creep” and its variations. The narrator uses this repeatedly to describe the wall-paper, her feelings, and the figure behind the first pattern. “I felt creepy,” “It [the smell of the wall-paper] creeps all over the house.” Creeping becomes even more important as the figure behind the pattern grows clearer. The narrator sees the woman outside “creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight.” This could be attributed to an imaginative mind, but then the narrator no longer separates herself from the figure. Instead she says, “It must be very humiliating to be caught creeping by daylight! I always lock the door when I creep by daylight. I can’t do it at night, for I know John would suspect something at once.” These lines begin the narrator’s transition to becoming the woman trapped in the wall-paper. Ripping off the wall-paper to free the woman reveals more women: “I don’t like to look out of the windows even – there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did?” The narrator makes the final transition. She and the woman behind the wallpaper are now one and her realities merge.

Precise use of language, development of descriptions, and gradual shifts in “The Yellow Wall-Paper” support the mental collapse and unification of the narrator with the woman behind the wallpaper. Repeated, but growing descriptions, demonstrate the narrator’s obsession, while repeated use of the word “creep,” follow the wallpaper’s capture of her and her connection to the woman behind the wallpaper.

-M.R. Gavin