Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Brooklyn Arden Review: "100 Saints You Should Know"

Reality is not simply there, it must be searched and won. -- Paul Celan

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant. -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood. -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez

As I was thinking over what I admired about "100 Saints You Should Know," Kate Fodor's quietly excellent new play at Playwrights Horizons, the first quotation here sprang into my head. In searching my quote file for the exact wording and the attribution, I found the second quotation, which is relevant by virtue of its irrelevance to the question the play asks: why bad things happen and how to go on. And the third quote, like the first, underlines Ms. Fodor's and the cast's accomplishments: to have constructed a story and characters so genuine they seem to be real -- a house you can walk through and breathe in. The characters are five:

  • Theresa, a cleaner, never married
  • Matthew, one of her employers, a Catholic priest
  • Abby, Theresa's hellion of a teenage daughter
  • Colleen, Matthew's widowed Irish mother
  • Garrett, a teenage delivery boy

The play is a simple chain of conversations over the course of one night: between Theresa and Matthew in his rectory, just before his departure on a forced leave of absence (for possession of pictures of adult male nudes); Theresa and Abby in the girl's bedroom; Matthew and Colleen as they play Scrabble in her living room, she not knowing his "vacation" is mandatory; Matthew and Garrett just outside Colleen's house; Theresa, Matthew, and Colleen in the living room, after Theresa brings Matthew something he left in the rectory; Garrett and Abby as they wait outside for the adults. Then tragedy strikes -- an accident, inexplicable -- and the players are juggled round again, still always in domestic settings, rarely more than two of them onstage at a time.

There is no showiness to the play; there are no grand plots or grandiose desires. It is rather a story of people confused by their desires, for others, for goodness, or for God. They cannot escape the people they are, which leads to their lives of quiet desperation, and the situation that follows from those lives has even less rational explanation: There is neither good nor evil here (pace Dr. King), only the search for meaning in meaninglessness. But the characters' struggle to search and win a greater reality -- the possibility of redemption -- combined with their utter recognizability as people give them both dignity and poignancy.

In keeping with the spirit of the play, the performances feel restrained, letting the characters' pain carry the drama rather than overemphasizing it in the acting. (The exception was Zoe Kazan as Abby, but as Abby is a histrionic teenager, that may well have been intentional.) The scenic design by Rachel Hauck and costume design by Mimi O'Donnell is likewise elegant and in service to Ms. Fodor's themes. This is a wise and thoughtful play worthy of your time -- a marvelous portrayal of the characters' reality, and an enrichment of our own.

Writing Tips from the Presbyterians

I like the randomness of the clause after the colon and hence will not explain it: I was browsing the contributors' guidelines for Presbyterians Today magazine this afternoon (for a good work-related reason, I will add), and it included a great list of basic rules for writers from Writer's Digest magazine:

  1. Prefer the plain word to the fancy.
  2. Prefer the familiar word to the unfamiliar.
  3. Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance. (This one is slightly silly; see here.)
  4. Prefer nouns and verbs to adjectives and adverbs.
  5. Prefer picture nouns and action verbs.
  6. Never use a long word when a short one will do as well.
  7. Master the simple declarative sentence.
  8. Prefer the simple sentence to the complicated.
  9. Vary the sentence length.
  10. Put the word you want to emphasize at the beginning or end of your sentence.
  11. Use the active voice.
  12. Put the statements in a positive form.
  13. Use short paragraphs.
  14. Cut needless words, sentences and paragraphs.
  15. Use plain, conversational language.
  16. Avoid imitation. Write in your natural style.
  17. Write clearly.
  18. Avoid gobbledygook and jargon.
  19. Write to be understood, not to impress.
  20. Revise and rewrite. Improvement is always possible.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

On Writing and Faith, and Thoughts Running Free

The sermon I gave earlier today can now be read here.

At the end of the service, we sang a stout old German peasants' song called "Die Gedanken Sind Frei," or "My Thoughts Are Free." I love the lyrics (though this translation is very different from Wikipedia's):

Die Gedanken sind frei
My thoughts freely flower,
Die Gedanken sind frei
My thoughts give me power.
No scholar can map them,
No hunter can trap them,
No one can deny:
Die Gedanken sind frei!

I think as I please
And this gives me pleasure,
My conscience decrees,
This right I must treasure;
My thoughts will not cater
To duke or dictator,
No one can deny--
Die Gedanken sind frei!

And if tyrants take me
And throw me in prison
My thoughts will burst free,
Like blossoms in season.
Foundations will crumble,
The structure will tumble,
And free men will cry:
Die Gedanken sind frei!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Jane Austen Reading Calendar

Yesterday my mom called me to ask which Jane Austen novel her book club should read for October. This juxtaposition of author and month inspired me to try to match each of the six Jane Austen novels with the best time of year to read them, so I'm taking a brief break from working on my sermon (latest theme: "I Have No Idea What I'm Talking About, But God Loves Me Anyway") to post this here.

N.B.: If you're interested in Austen as a writer rather than as an author -- how she developed her style, her skills, her subject matter and themes -- the best way to read her is chronologically: the juvenilia, NA, S&S, P&P, MP, Emma, and Persuasion. (This is how I read her complete works for my Austen class in college, and it was amazingly instructive.) But if you're rereading, or just reading for pleasure, you might try the calendar below.

January-February: Northanger Abbey. The first of Austen's novels chronologically, NA is all about the pleasures of fiction -- reading it, imagining yourself into it, escaping to and from it -- so it's perfect for winter, when you want to insulate yourself against the dark and cold with hot chocolate and a hilarious book.

March-April: Mansfield Park. This most divisive and least read of Austen's novels is about purity and rebirth: holding fast to your principles in the face of temptation, and the moral rights and regeneration earned through that principled stand. If worst comes to worst and you loathe Fanny Price, you will have the pleasures of spring to help you through it.

May-June: Emma, so you can eat fresh strawberries while you read the Box Hill scene. (Mom's book group eventually settled on this one.)

July-August: Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen chick lit, the novel most likely to have hot pink type and a brooding hottie on the cover . . . because it is great fun, "light and bright and sparkling," as the author herself said. Read it by the pool with a fruity drink.

September-October: Sense and Sensibility. There is a sharp and at times almost bitter tang to S&S: For long stretches of the book, nearly everything that can go wrong for these girls does, and every person who can be cruel to one or the other (intentionally or not) is, and they are so alone and so poor against the forces of their society . . . You can feel the autumn wind blow through its pages. But S&S is also about maturation: coming to flower, learning and accepting your limits, and letting go towards peace.

November-December: Persuasion. The last of Austen's novels chronologically is also the most suffused with feeling -- with tiny moments that make all the difference -- as gentle Anne Elliot, locked in emotional winter, receives a second chance to bloom. A book to warm you in the cold.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


I am not posting a lot this month because there is not a lot of stuff to report, useful or otherwise. Working. Finished A Prayer for Owen Meany, which I found nonplussing, and Forever, which was fascinating to me as a historical document but less so as fiction. Bought my first-ever item off eBay, a pretty patchwork purse; and two pairs of designer jeans from Loehmann's (love Loehmann's) and a new duvet cover for when it gets cold. Loved "Superbad." Ran today for the first time in two weeks. Writing my sermon for next Sunday, which keeps shooting off in new directions when it needs to stay under ten minutes, and which I hope is not merely words, words, words.

The best things I've eaten recently: sweet Italian sausage cooked with chunks of Granny Smith apples, which turned soft and hot, perfect with the meat. And Cones tiramisu gelato.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Three Minor News Items and Moving Pictures

  • I spent much of today reading and responding to SQUIDs, so if you sent one in the last, um, two months, you should receive a reply by the end of the week.
  • Barack Obama -- the man who I sincerely hope will be the next President of the United States, for his vision, fairmindedness, honesty, and dedication to consensus, and because people do not actively hate him -- will be speaking in Brooklyn next week. Get your tickets here.
  • I just joined FreeCycle in order to get rid of a vaporizer that was taking up space in my apartment, and it is a very neat thing.
  • Want to watch an excerpt from a book I'm editing? This is pretty much the first six chapters, except we won't have the funky music. (Check out this awesome fight scene too.)

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Discount Theatre Tickets: "100 Saints You Should Know"

The good people of Playwrights Horizons are once again kind enough to offer a discount to my blog readers. And so:

A New Play by Kate Fodor
at Playwrights Horizons

August 24-September 30, 2007

Theresa (Janel Moloney) cleans the rectory of the local parish to support her unruly teenage daughter (Zoe Kazan). When its priest (Jeremy Shamos) leaves the church under uncertain circumstances and returns home to his protective mother (Lois Smith), Theresa finds herself compelled to pursue him. One eventful night joins them all, forcing a reckoning with the broken memories and shaken faith that divides them — and the discovery of a shared, tenuous common ground. Written by Kate Fodor (Hannah and Martin) and directed by Ethan McSweeny (Broadway revival of The Best Man, Never the Sinner), 100 Saints also features the distinguished cast of two-time Tony Award nominee and Drama Desk winner Lois Smith (The Trip to Bountiful), two-time Emmy Award nominee Janel Moloney (TV's "The West Wing"), Zoe Kazan (Sam Mendes' upcoming film "Revolutionary Road"), Obie Award winner Jeremy Shamos (Gutenberg! The Musical!), and Will Rogers.

Save over 35% when your order by September 18th!
$40 (Regular $65) for all performances August 24th through September 2nd.
$50 (Regular $65) for all performances September 4th through September 30th.
Performances Tuesday through Friday at 8 PM, Saturday at 2 and 8 PM,
and Sunday at 2:30 and 7:30 PM.

To Order: 1. Online at or and use the code SABL. 2. Call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 (Noon to 8 PM daily) and mention the code SABL when ordering. 3. In person by visiting our box office (Noon to 8 PM daily) at 416 West 42nd Street (between 9th and 10th) and mention the code SABL.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Seven Reasons Why People Love Harry Potter

There has been much discussion of late on "Why Harry Potter?" -- why did these books break through, when so many other books haven't? What makes them special? Why does everyone care? I wrote out my theories for child_lit today and cross-post the message here.

1. Relateability. In Book 1, J. K. Rowling is a genius at getting you to sympathize with Harry -- first through showing you the Dursleys, who are so awful that you automatically like anyone they dislike (and you enjoy disliking them); then through his difficult circumstances; then when things start to happen to him -- a story is gathering around him, with owls and letters from no one and giants; he is clearly someone worth following. (I've written more about this here.) Beyond that, in all the early books, Harry is such a decent Everyhero that he is hard not to like; and all the people around him generally fit into the pattern of being either people the reader likes as well (the Weasleys, Dumbledore, Luna) or else people we enjoy disliking (the Dursleys, Hermione before the troll, Malfoy, Snape).

Harry's everyday experiences are also enormously relateable: Even though he's fighting off a Dark Lord who wants to kill him, what he's really thinking about a lot of the time is his friends, and homework, and mean teachers, and girls, and the mean rich kid, and sports practice -- the everyday life of many kids, which readers recognize and connect with. His life is not all excitement; it is not all sad; it is not all funny, and that variance in tone reflects real life as well.

And then the overarching arc: Ms. Rowling traces the entire seven-year course of Harry's teenage maturation with a wise and excellent eye for real adolescent emotional development, and for narrative development too; from the simple "Yay School!" atmosphere of Book 1, to the family history of Book 3, to dealing with death in Book 4, to Harry's discovery of seemingly every single adult's feet of clay in Book 5, to his taking control of his destiny in Book 7 . . . Even though the details will be different for we Muggle non-orphans, I think we readers recognize the truth of this process in our own lives -- the unfolding of information as we grow up, and our growing with it.

2. Accessibility. The wizarding world is just like ours, with a magical twist: The staircases might move, or the clock might tell you "You're Late," or the billboards advertise magical broomsticks and cleaners in language very much like that of our Muggle advertisements for boring broomsticks and cleaners. Because it's so recognizable, it is not a hard fantasy world to enter -- much easier to fall into than, say, Tolkien's, as the settings are so comfortably domestic and there isn't another language or unfamiliar creatures to decipher; plus we have the humor and pleasure of recognizing the wizard twists on our Muggle lives ("I think Mum has a second cousin who's an accountant, but we don't talk about him much").

On a different note, there has been much turning-up of noses here about the surface of her prose and whether she is a good writer. To my mind she is very much in the style of C.S. Lewis's writing for children: brilliant -- absolutely brilliant -- at showing-not-telling -- at creating an image in the reader's mind, giving just enough details to make you intrigued and leaving just enough else to the imagination. She does not overexplain, she does not tell you what to feel (beyond the adverbs and dialogue tags, I admit -- but note there were MANY fewer of those in DH); we readers see, experience, and feel everything right along with Harry, which is partly why we come to care about him so much. And *that* is the most important kind of good writing, especially for children; it doesn't matter how beautiful the prose is if you aren't there with the character in the moment.

Finally, she is really and truly funny, with humor both highbrow (the accountant above) and low (the firecrackers that "resolutely spell out POO"), and nothing warms a reader to a book like enjoying a joke in it.

3. Complexity. Part of the reality of the series is the acknowledgement that things are very rarely simple, especially people. James Potter as a teenager was an arrogant toerag; Voldemort had an unhappy childhood; Severus Snape loved Lily Evans; Sirius Black died partly because of his own impetuosity; Narcissa Malfoy spares Harry; Dumbledore wanted to rule Muggles and death. Though the good vs. evil lines are clearly drawn here, nearly every character has mitigating factors or shades of gray. (This may just be one of MY personal reasons to love Harry Potter, but it's an accomplishment worth noting.)

4. Mystery. Has anyone since Dickens plotted like J. K. Rowling? (And even Dickens only did it in one book -- I am thinking of Bleak House here, but bow to anyone's superior knowledge.) Seven books, the keys to the climax of the seventh laid in the first, a mystery in each book feeding into the mystery of the whole; red herrings and clues in plain sight (in retrospect) and characters mentioned in passing in one book blooming into central importance later; her incredible authorial control of her backstory, and incredible restraint, in never giving away a word more than she wants the reader to know at any one moment.

5. Authority. By which I mean in this context, the reader's sense that an author is in control of the story, and we can let go and relax into it -- the sense that she knows Harry's great-grandfather's middle name, the wizarding history back to the arrival of wizards in Britain and Harry's history forward through all seven books; that she has a destiny in mind for Harry and we can trust her to reveal that destiny to us, step by step. This trust in an authority is such a comforting thing to have, especially in these uncertain days of global warming and stupid presidents and economic fluctuations, and we readers take that comfort wherever we can get it.

6. Community. Harry Potter was published in the U.S. in 1998, right at the beginning of the dot-com boom, when everyone was first making web pages or joining chat rooms or logging onto AOL. And as people discovered the books, and especially their increasing complexity as the series went on, they wanted to theorize about the mysteries and write more stories about the characters and tease out the literary and linguistic connections and, in general, play in JKR's world. All we readers got to know other people all around the world through this process; and then we were logging on not just to discuss Harry but to hang out with our friends, so we spent even MORE time discussing Harry. July 21 in New York felt like New Year's Eve or Halloween -- a gigantic party, the entire city (or my little corner of it) united to count down to and celebrate an event -- a book!

7. Pleasure. Glory, so much pleasure, from all the things I've listed above: discovering the world, hanging out with her characters, feeling and thinking through their adventures, talking about them with friends. I hope my (theoretical) kids have the chance to experience something like this someday, and I hope I get to go through it all again too.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

In Which "Shaft" Once Again Saves the Day

So I had a pretty good run in this morning's New York City Half-Marathon: one beautiful loop of Central Park -- a 10K -- in an hour flat; a thrilling lope through the canyons of Seventh Avenue and Times Square, people cheering from the sidewalks, the roads car-free and mine; a hard right down 42nd Street, taxis still streaming by on the other side of the barrier; and a long slog down the West Side Highway, four miles of bare concrete and ravelling will. I didn't train as well for this half-marathon as I did for the one last October -- I skipped a lot of the cross-training, and my longest training run was just 10.5 miles -- so by the 10th mile, I was starting to bargain with myself: "At 11 miles you can walk for a minute . . . You don't need water now, just keep going . . ." I made it through the 11th mile without walking (deals with myself are designed to be broken), but as the 12th mile marker approached, my right leg aching and my running playlist nearly complete, I was seriously contemplating giving up my goal of beating 2:09:26, my record from last year, and switching to a nice, limping stroll.

And then -- and then -- Shaft saved the day. Or more precisely, Isaac Hayes's "Theme from 'Shaft'" saved the day: tissahissa tissahissa tissahissa tissahissa tissahissa tissahissa tissahissa tissahissa tissahissa CHA bim bim bewbimawackakakuh bim bim . . . As the beat sizzled on, I started to smile, then grinned outright; for what would Shaft say if he knew I was thinking about quitting? I would lose my hard-won badass status from last year, and be a bad mother(shutting my mouth) -- and not in the good way. I picked up the pace, listened to the theme twice in that last mile and a tenth, and finished at 2:09:04, a solid 22 seconds off my previous record. (My pace also improved by exactly one second -- a 9:51 mile on average -- which means that if I do a half-marathon a year with this same improvement, I'll hit the female winner's pace of 5:23 in 2274.) So I extend my thanks to Mr. Hayes and Mr. Roundtree for their inspiration and excellent style . . . and I'm going to listen to that song one more time.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Cards and Characters

This has not been a very good week -- I lost my keys and wallet somewhere in Brooklyn, I've had a touch of post-Harry depression, and work is neverending, even though it's August. So: no posts. However, I had a great dinner at Sorrel on Thursday and an excellent coffee with author Francisco Stork yesterday, and I saw "The Simpsons Movie," so things are looking up.

  • I just accepted an invitation to speak at the New Jersey SCBWI conference June 6-7, 2008, in Princeton. I have no idea what I will be talking about as yet, so suggestions are welcome.
  • But I'll be speaking about character and possibly voice on November 10 at the Missouri SCBWI conference in St. Louis. My working question for this is "What makes a great character?" which leads me to my question for you all: When I say "a great character," who springs to mind for you? My immediate answers are Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin; Severus Snape; Elizabeth Bennet; Rose Casson; Harriet Welsch; Rupert Campbell-Black; Lyra Belacqua (in The Golden Compass); Anne Shirley (in Anne of Green Gables) . . . Your nominations?
  • On this same topic, from Living the Romantic Comedy: A great post on authentic characters.
  • I will also be speaking at my church -- giving a lay sermon, actually -- at the service on August 26, talking about the Word and the word. I'm really looking forward to thinking about this and writing this.
  • Here's an interview with Philip Pullman on something of those same topics (via Educating Alice).
  • And also on Educating Alice, an interesting discussion of race in HP.
  • I keep remembering random things stuck in my wallet: my video-rental card; a photo of my family; a gift card to UNIQLO; a Maneki Neko card from Katy, which I carried for good luck; a partially filled Subway sandwich card; the key to a file cabinet at work . . . All these things still out there in the world, waiting patiently in someone else's bag or at the bottom of a grate or trash can, much of it meaningless without me.
  • But I've been forced to realize or remember how dependent I am upon electronic networks: no credit cards, no driver's license (and you need a credit card to order a new one online), only a temporary ATM card to keep me afloat (and I'm enormously grateful for that). We are all identity-theft movies waiting to happen.
  • Tomorrow is the New York City Half-Marathon, so if you're out and about in Manhattan very early tomorrow morning, wave hello as I run by!
  • And this leads me to my favorite Internet application this year: The Google Maps pedometer, which tells you the distance and even possibly the calories burned of any route you map out. It's terrific.
  • Anyone seen "Becoming Jane" yet? I want to both gag AND hiss every time I pass a poster.
  • Finally, from the Onion, the last word in Harry Potter spoilers.