Friday, November 29, 2013

Cephalopod Coffeehouse Review: Never Let Me Go

As the Cephalopod Coffeehouse review for November approached, I began weighing and comparing the various books I read this month. As I am writing two Cephalopod reviews, I think will save my actual favorite for my personal blog. For the Writing Sisterhood I'm going to cheat a little and present the weirdest book of the month for me: Never Let Me Go, the strange, semi-dystopian novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.

First, it's a book written by a Japanese-Brit, which is a little unusual. Ishiguro moved from Japan to the UK when he was five years old, and if this book is any indication, he thoroughly identifies as an Englishman. Ishiguro is best known for his novel The Remains of the Day, about a lovelorn butler, whom most of you are probably picturing as Anthony Hopkins. As with that novel, Never Let Me Go was turned into a major motion picture. I haven't seen it yet: I'm hoping the film fixes the problems I had with the novel.

Before I progress, there's no way to talk about this book without spoiling it, as mystery and slow-reveal are the driving force behind it. So if you haven't read it yet, you may not want to continue past these next few caveats: first, it's not really as sci-fi book, so ignore that description. It's not even dystopian, not in the sense you're used to. I am reviewing it as a highly-praised polemic that ultimately misses the mark; if you still want to read it, go do that. If you expect you never will, you can keep reading this review.

I read this book in less than 24 hours, so clearly I found it gripping. The setting is an modern-day English boarding school, called Hailsham, populated by "special students," which will put many people in mind of Harry Potter. But what makes these students special is left deliberately unclear, both to themselves and to the reader, for much of the book. The reader learns about what's happening roughly at the same time as the main characters, but unlike the reader, the main characters don't seem to care. And this is one serious flaw of the book: the characters don't care about their own fate.

We've gotten used to dystopian novels—especially where teens are involved—as "rage against the machine" stories where the young 'uns fight back, form a rebellion. And most dystopian novels nowadays are written expressly for a teen audience, but there is a respectable subset of dystopian novels that are written for adults, and in these, the system usually wins: the opposition is crushed or assimilated. Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Minority Report, and Brave New World are examples. Never Let Me Go seems to want to be this sort of book, although the nemesis is less speculative and more realistic than in classic dystopian works. In any event, the system appears to win in the end of Never Let Me Go. But unlike most dystopian novels, nobody even fights back in this one. As I came up to the end of the book, I began to wonder if passivity had actually been bred into the students. Humans, the real kind, have a survival instinct. Are these characters truly human? Did Ishiguro mean to be so ambiguous about that?

What drove the book forward was the unanswered question of what Hailsham is about; you don't know what's going on and you keep thinking the next page might give you the answer. So you keep turning pages. I was glued to the sofa for five hours straight. But once the majority of the questions were answered by the Hailsham's administrators (about 80% if the way through), the forward momentum was really lost for me, and I kind of plodded through the rest of it. And here it is (true spoiler alert here): Society is breeding clones for the purposes of organ transplants. The clones are informed of their purpose and know that the organ donations will result in their death; they seem all right with this. The purpose of Hailsham is not just to rear clone children, but actually to form a little rebellion: the administrators want to prove that clones aren't just vessels, but living breathing feeling human beings. Hailsham is a sort of arts school, and the art that the students produce is supposed to be a sort of Turing test: only real humans, not machines, can make art. The students dutifully churn out art, but the rebellion is quashed when something totally unrelated to the rest of the story happens offscreen, and so the school is shut down.

And so the reader is left with a big "meh." If society doesn't mind, and the clones themselves don't mind, what's the point of a rebellion? If the rebellion ends because of actions completely outside the plotline, what was the storytelling purpose of it? In the end, when the main characters "complete" (i.e., die from having given up all their vital organs) I had a hard time caring. Society didn't care about them, their protectors didn't care about them, and they don't even care about themselves. So why should the reader care? The point of the novel was not the people, but the morality tale. Morality is always a weak pillar on which to hang a story, and Ishiguro doesn't even seem clear on what his moral message is. I have to give it a certain number of stars for holding my attention, but I was left fairly unsatisfied. The whole question raised is whether these test-tube clones, raised only for their organs, are really human. The purpose of the art gallery and the whole Hailsham project was to prove the students had souls, had feelings. But do they? They seem like normal enough children and teens, but when they are asked to walk into the slaughterhouse, they don't hesitate. There's no attempt to escape. There's the barest nod to the idea that at least claiming to fall in love with another student can defer the slaughter for a few years, and the two protagonists make a halfhearted stab at this, but it's not at all convincing.

I have to say, for a book that I didn't especially love, Never Let Me Go has stayed on my mind for days and days since I've finished. Mostly I'm trying to reconcile how it was I was so gripped by the narrative and yet left so terribly unsatisfied. I felt like the novel was a long-winded way of saying, "Hey y'all, don't do cloning, OK?" Or maybe it was the more generic "Science Is Dangerous!" morality tale that much sci-fi (ironically) seems to be. If you're going to write a polemic, you'd better be very clear on your moral message and all your characterization and plot had better be in service to that message. Otherwise, please for the love of God, save us hours of feverish page-turning and just write an essay.

Did you read the novel? Have you read anything else by Ishiguro, and what do you think of his style? Are there novels with a moral message you feel work better than others, and how do they pull it off?

Be sure to check out these other Cephalopod Reviews:

1.The Armchair Squid2.Scouring Monk
5.DeniseCCovey6.A Creative Exercise
7.Trisha @ WORD STUFF8.Katie O'Sullivan ~ Read, Write, Repeat
9.V's Reads10.Bird's Nest
11.Hungry Enough To Eat Six!12.The Random Book Review
13.Words Incorporated14.Defending the Pen

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Women of Letters

Within a few short days of each other, three great women authors have just died: Barbara Park on November 15, Doris Lessing on November 17, and Charlotte Zolotow on November 19. I'd like to take a moment remembering them and what they've meant to me and to the writing world.

Barbara Park helped me raise my children. I don't think I'd be the same or my kids would be the same without spunky Junie B. Jones, who started kindergarten with my daughter. They rode on the same stupid smelly bus and were best friends with That Grace and richie Lucille. My daughter and Junie B. bonded over their loud-crying baby brothers together, and lost their first teeth together. Junie B. was not a proper girl: she used language incorrectly and got dirty and held grudges and sometimes lied. We loved her for this. And she was hilarious. I would often laugh so hard reading these books to my kids that I'd have to stop and let someone else take over. We bought the audiobooks to play in the car. I read the books to both kids when they were tiny, and when they were learning to read they turned back to the books as early readers. And while my children never developed the terrible habits critics were so sure Junie B readers would pick up (like saying "worstest" and "thinked" and getting the Pledge of Allegiance wrong), I have continued to this day to talk a little bit like Junie B. Plus also, I am glad of that. Barbara Park was wonderfully witty and irreverent, and was instrumental in teaching my children to love books. Park was only 66 when she died, taken far too soon. She died of ovarian cancer.

Also critical to me as a parent was Charlotte Zolotow, who wrote magical, ethereal picture books. She was most famous for Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, but my favorite book of hers was When the Wind Stops, which delicately touches on the issue of mortality. Using the wind as a metaphor for life, Zolotow explains that nothing ever really vanishes, but appears in another place or another form. From the book description: "Rain goes back into the clouds to create new storms, waves fold back upon the sea to become new waves, and the day moves on to make way for the night, bringing the darkness and stars for the little boy to dream in." It's almost Buddhist in its viewpoint, and the gorgeous artwork by Stefano Vitale, painted on wood, perfectly matches the lovely language and flow of the story. I must have read the book a hundred times to my kids, and when I mentioned Zolotow's passing to my husband, he got mistily nostalgic and said he, too, remembers being asked to read that book over and over. It was a perennial favorite. We still own it; I will keep it for my grandchildren. Unlike Barbara Park, Charlotte Zolotow had a good long run of it: she was 98 years old when she died.

Doris Lessing also had a good long run of it: she was 94 when she died. I haven't read Lessing yet, something I intend to remedy quickly, but she still means something to me, as she does to every woman writer. She is an author who is female but is recognized first for her work. The London Times ranked her fifth on a list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945," with no gender attribute between "greatest" and "writers." This is a perk every male writer gets automatically—when is the last time you heard of "men's fiction" or heard an author described as a "great male author?" But for women artists, it is rare to acknowledged without reference to your bits.

Lessing broke a lot of rules: she was a communist, she abandoned two of her children, she didn't attend school past the age of fourteen, she declined damehood. To prove how snobbish the literary world is, how difficult it is for new writers to break in, she tried to publish two novels under a pseudonym. Sure enough, they were rejected by her own publisher, though later picked up by another publisher. She was not especially friendly to the feminist movement, but nonetheless paved the way, merely by her perseverance and success, for other women writers to be taken seriously as writers, rather than as decorative dabblers in the arts.

So for all you did: thanks, ladies. You will be missed.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Genius of Alfred Hitchcock (and what writers can learn from him)

by Lorena

The other day an old college friend of mine invited me to the Hitchcock Film Festival in a downtown theater I thought had closed down years ago. This art-deco building (circa 1927) has been presenting some of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous films every Friday night for the last two months.

The movie we watched was Rope (1948) with James Stewart. It’s already been three weeks since I saw it and I’m still thinking about it. Funny because that same weekend I watched Gravity—an expensive display of special effects that Hitchcock could have only dreamed about—and a story that values life above all (almost the exact opposite of Hitchcock’s film).Yet, the movie that keeps popping into my head is Rope, one of Hitchcock’s lesser-known films and produced 65 years ago. Perhaps if I explain more, you’ll understand why this film impacted me.

Rope was inspired by a famous murder trial from the 1920s. Two affluent college students decide to kill one of their classmates for the simple thrill of killing. As followers of Nietzsche’s philosophy, they believe themselves to be intellectually superior to other mortals and therefore, above the moral laws of “ordinary” men. They think they can plan and execute the perfect crime and, to make it more thrilling, they hide the corpse inside a chest of books and invite the victim’s friends and parents to a dinner party. In very Hitchcock fashion, they set the dinner buffet on top of the chest. 

James Stewart plays the clever schoolmaster who inadvertently instilled this philosophy in the two murderers. Of course, one of the guys is terrified of getting caught, but the other one seems to almost want his former teacher to discover them so he can admire their “masterpiece” crime. The success of the film is in the juxtaposition of tension (anyone could open that chest since the hinge is broken), dark humor (not only in the party set up but also in the dialogue), the motive for the murder (I’ve never heard of something more original) and the Big Question of whether or not the guys will get caught.

The infamous chest where Philip (far left) and Brandon (far right) hide their friend's body

But this film was fascinating in both content and form. The entire story develops in real time, in one single setting, and the cuts are nearly unperceptive—one continuous scene with very subtle transitions (Hitchcock focuses on a jacket or an ornament to make his cuts seamless.) It’s no surprise that the film was adapted from a play. In addition to this novelty, we have another element that struck me as original: the camera tells its own story. 

Let me explain without ruining the film for those of you who’d like to watch it. Have you noticed how in children’s picture books sometimes there is the story the text tells you, but there are minor stories that you can only see in the illustrations? (this is where a very talented illustrator can thrive). Well, Hitchcock does something similar twice. While the characters are speaking, the camera is moving around them or is focused on another object, making the conversation inconsequential and the visual action what really matters. This is something I haven’t seen in contemporary film making. When dialogue is present in a film, it always supersedes anything that may be going on in a scene. 

Because I have a tendency to write complex novels with abundant characters, I always admire writers and directors who can tell simple stories. The plot here is simple: will the guys be successful at hiding their crime?

So here are some of the lessons I learned (as a writer) from this film:
  1. It’s okay to write a story that develops in a short amount of time (and how challenging that is!) 
  2. People can have the strangest motives for committing a murder (and the more original, the better).
  3. Keeping the tension in a story is key.
  4. Add humor whenever you can (even if it’s dark). 
  5. Plot twists and complicated storylines are not always required to write a gripping tale.
  6. Build a complex backstory (even if you don’t mention all the details) and the story and characters would seem more realistic and believable.
  7. For your ending, keep your audience guessing until the last possible moment.
  8. Suppress the desire to make your main characters a) always sympathetic, and b) always safe. Let them make mistakes.
And here are some of the lessons I learned (as a human):
  1. Life is extremely fragile and can end in an instant.
  2. There are a lot of crazy people out there.
  3. Never befriend someone who admires Nietzsche! 
And just for fun (and because I like lists) some of the trivia I learned about this film:
  1. James Stewart was not happy with this role.
  2. Hitchcock originally wanted Cary Grant for Stewart’s role, but he declined.
  3. The real-life case which inspired this film, Leopold and Loeb, was never discussed or acknowledged by Hitchcock to any of his writers or cast members. 
  4. The attorney who defended Leopold and Loeb, Clarence Darrow, delivered one of the most famous speeches there is against capital punishment—and saved their lives. Both got sentenced to life in prison (plus 99 years each for kidnapping).
  5. According to several online reviewers and the scriptwriter himself, there is a homosexual undertone in the film between the main characters (Leopold and Loeb were allegedly a couple). This may have been the reason why the film didn’t do so well in the box office and why Stewart was not entirely happy with it. 
  6. This film is said to have been a reaction to WWII and Hitler’s belief in the superiority of one race (man) over another. 
Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the inspiration for Hitchcock's film

Are you a Hitchcock fan? Do you think there's a contemporary director who compares with him?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Strengthening Your Prose

As writers, we enjoy that moment when we sit down to our computers and let our fingers wander across the keyboard to create that perfect story that we believe is going to be loved by all. But then, after that story or novel is out there and finished that first time through, we're stuck with the daunting task of the big "R" --

Don't you wish you looked
this good when you're
ticked off at your manuscript?

Oh, and what a difficult task it is to bring ourselves back around to that story and realize it's not as perfect as we thought it was when we were in the throes of creating our masterpiece. More often than naught, we tend to have a crazy mess on our hands that at times can sound as random as our thought process. I can vouch for more than one occurrence when I've read through a manuscript and the first thing that came to mind was, "What the heck was I thinking putting that in there?" I'm sure any writer has felt this at one time or another.

Since I'm currently in the midst of finishing up some final revisions on my novel before it goes out on the submission process, I wanted to share a few tips on how to polish up your prose, round it off until it's shiny and glowing all over the page, and perhaps help you out in the process, if not for some of the work you've written in the past, then perhaps for something you plan on writing in the future.


I say occasionally on this one because the to-be verb tends to come off a little bit like "he said/she said": You don't necessarily see it after a while because our minds have become so conditioned by its use. But, that doesn't mean it wouldn't hurt to put a little more action into your sentences. Readers want to see the action moving along, and if everything comes off in the passive voice, you can really slow your story down. Evaluate your verb use, think about if there's a better way to form some of those sentences, and think about some stronger verbs (but not completely obscure verbs that only jump out at your readers) and finally look at the flow to make sure that what you've changed is really working in your storyline.


I'm sure we've all heard this more than a time or two, but I was surprised by how often I'd put similar words in sentences following one another. And they can be the most simplest of words, like "but" and "always." Of course there are the extreme cases where you might find you have a penchant for using a strong word quite often. I found out that mine was the word "bob." I know, sounds like a strange one to repeat, but when I did a word search, I had more than one manuscript should have to hold. If you find that an uncommon word is jumping out at you when you read your story, then do a quick search and if there's an over abundance of repetition, start thinking of a replacement or rewording the phrase all together.


You know, the ones we like to call gerunds. For whatever reason, writers are drawn to writing sentences starting in -ing. You'll find them in every book you read. Okay, maybe not every book, because I'm sure there's a big hater of gerunds out there who made sure not to use a single one. The problem with starting a sentence with gerunds is the fact that they often create a sentence filled with impossible actions. Here's a bad example:

  • Kissing the dog, Alice spoke to the mailman.
So, I think we can all safely agree that you can't kiss your dog and speak to the mailman all at the same time. Well, I guess you could, but I think that would be awkward and the mailman may never deliver a package directly to your door again. In any case, keep a close eye on how you're starting a sentence.


I know I've read books where the storyline is bogged down with more comparisons than I care to read. Sometimes the author thinks "like" and "as" are her best friend, but that's when I start rolling my eyes. And you don't want to induce eye-rolling. But that doesn't mean you stay away from comparisons all the time. Sometimes it can help improve the overall length of a scene as well as offer a connection to your reader if you use something that takes a detailed, abstract description and boils it down to a simple idea. And it can help get your point across more quickly.


Taking a scene and creating a long-winded mess or being so sparse with details that your reader has no idea of setting and time can create some bad hang-ups for your manuscript as a whole. As an example, I have one manuscript where I'm describing the few belongings a character is packing away after he quits his job. I don't make a detailed laundry list of every article in his duffle bag, but instead narrow the items down to about three things that speak volumes of what will come later on in the story: A photo of a girl he was once sweet on, a Nazi pin his brother had stolen from a dead soldier and later gave to him as a gift, and the last birthday card his dead father gave him. Each item is important and each one speaks volumes of the people and circumstances surrounding the characters that gave them to him. Put into perspective what you need in a scene and why. Will it strengthen the manuscript? Or will it bog down the scene?

I could probably go on and on with other ways to polish your prose, but that's my short list for now. Let me know if there's something you struggle with, either in your own writing, or in that of something you've read!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Gravity: A New Kind of Film

by Stephanie

Last week I went to see Gravity with a friend and my son. We shelled out for the 3D experience since everyone had advised us it was essential, and we sat pretty close to the front. I'd heard it was a visual fest and you needed to be practically inside the screen to get the full effect.

Let me report that everyone was correct. It is indeed a CGI extravaganza. In fact, you could probably mute the score and toss the script and still get a lot out of the movie—it's aimed directly at your visual cortex. The term "CGI" is used almost as a pejorative nowadays, as if it's all just a bunch of fakery, but let's face it: spectacle is what cinema does best. Moviemakers only have two hours with their audience: you can't shoehorn a lot of plot or character development into that time. Novels and TV series just do storytelling better. Cinema has one thing to offer, and Gravity absolutely nails it.

Total sensory immersion can have a downside, though: I was not prepared for how hard the movie would be for me to watch. People kept telling me it was "fun," "like a rollercoaster," and "wheee!" It was not fun for me. By the end my shoulder blades were hitched up so high they'd nearly fused with my ears. My fingernails had left clawmarks in my thighs. If I hadn't been with two people I loved who seemed to be enjoying it more, I might have left the theater.

But I'm glad I persevered, because it really is a masterful film. We're used to technology in cinema bringing us films like Avatar or Life of Pi, where the fantastic is brought to life. In Gravity, reality is brought to life. This is a space drama with no aliens and nothing that couldn't actually happen. (Except for a few very minor science nitpicks.) Gravity is a reminder that space is inherently dramatic. According to Aristotle, "Man vs. Nature" is one of the four essential dramatic plots, and there isn't much more menacing in nature than the infinite void of space. For me, the blackness of space was a far more terrifying enemy than any monster or man. Within a very short time from the first shot, we are spinning into space along with Sandra Bullock, being swallowed up into nothingness, utterly helpless. I was overcome by a peculiar mixture of claustrophobia and agoraphobia during this scene, not to mention a little bit of vertigo. Movie theaters ought to stock air-sickness bags for this film.

Gravity is a triumph of camera angles. The way director Alfonso Cuarón uses point-of-view, you are attached to Sandra Bullock's character in a visceral, emotional way that makes all the drama that happens to her feel like it's happening to you. The camera starts off at a long distance from the action, slowly closing in on the spacecraft and then on Bullock over a very long uncut first take. Eventually we end up inside the space helmet, viewing the action from Bullock's POV. My son leaned over and whispered in my ear, "first person!", which told me Cuarón had, perhaps, learned this technique from video games. There is nothing wrong with this: it's an excellent choice for cinema.

Bullock has as many critics as fans, but I thought she did a great job in this movie. The obvious comparison, for me, was with Sigourney Weaver's character in Alien (maybe it's the skivvy-shots), and there is some overlap. But in keeping with the theme of "space reality," Bullock's Ryan Stone is more fragile and frightened than Weaver's Ripley. I admired Ripley from afar, but felt kinship with Stone. Her reactions to each crisis felt like they would have been my own, which is unusual in a film. Usually protagonists in action films are either impossibly brave and level-headed (like Clooney's character, and like Ripley) or they are making obviously stupid decisions that serve to advance the plot. Stone is clever and brave enough when it comes down to it, but she spends a lot of time yelping and panicking—in a way that feels natural, real, and raw. Considering how tightly choreographed this movie was, the ability to do any acting at all has to be applauded, and I won't be surprised if Bullock gets an Oscar nod for this performance.

This is not to say there aren't problems with the film, but most reviewers say they didn't really notice them at the time—they start to bug you later, when you're thinking about it. There's too much going on at the time to pay attention to the flaws, for the most part. One problem is the script. It's odd that such a meticulous, thoughtful film could have such a terrible script, but this one does. Mostly I went along with it, but a few lines were so awful I was yanked out of the movie: I wasn't experiencing it, I was watching it—and grimacing. Another common complaint is the score, which is rather heavy-handed. It didn't bother me, but others might find it distracting or manipulative. The third criticism is the sentimentality. Stone's tragic backstory seems unnecessary to the film, contrived to force audiences to care about her will to survive. The situation itself—lost in space, disconnected from Earth communication—is dramatic enough. We don't have to be manipulated into rooting for the protagonist.

Those criticisms aside, the film is a shoo-in for an Oscar. I find it almost impossible to believe it won't win at least one category, most likely one of the visual-imaging categories. Eighty percent of the film is animated; essentially, all but the actor's faces is CGI. It never feels like it. Everyone walking out of this movie says "I've never seen anything like it," and I agree. It seems groundbreaking in a number of ways that I can't even articulate. The only element that could have made this film any more immersive would have been to set it in one of those flight-simulator machines they have in museums: the kind that actually bob you around as the screen angle changes. Considering the leaps forward in 3D technology, I wonder how long it will be before exactly that kinetic technology is incorporated into movie theaters, bringing us that much closer to cinema becoming a virtual-reality experience.

Have you seen Gravity? What did you think? Do you agree that cinema has a different kind of narrative power than the long form of novels or TV shows? Is the trend toward spectacle a good one for cinema? Or do you wish we'd go back to smaller, simpler, low-tech films?