New Ways We Tell Stories

This article was written by Joseph Dante.

Independent bookstores are vanishing. Print magazines are going. Publishing itself is rapidly transforming and publishers are struggling to adapt to a very new and very strange literary culture: a hybrid beast that is finding itself trapped between the virtual world and the flesh-and-blood tactile one.

Due to the strange chimera that is the current publishing landscape, we are seeing more and more upcoming innovative projects through which writers are trying to tell their stories.

Here are some you may want to take the time to explore yourself:

Online serial novels and magazines

While episodic fiction via print publications is nothing new, the internet has attracted more writers to post chapters to blogs or magazines in palatable, bite-sized chunks. Feeds allow us to update our subscribers about the subsequent new chapters that get published, which makes keeping track of things even easier. Sometimes these stories follow some kind of collective theme in order to introduce even more relevant writers to the mix or encourage reader participation. Due to the explosion in popularity of smart phones, tablets, and e-readers, writers are also transferring their works onto mobile devices for convenience (via Wattpad, for example), which are then able to be carried around and consumed on a commute to work or whenever more busybody readers get a minute to sit down quietly and breathe.

I’ve written an online fiction collection myself, which was aptly titled Letters for Burning. While no longer available online, it all started in the form of a simple blog in order to motivate myself to write more regularly. All I really expected was a few friends to stumble by and read the pieces on occasion. Instead, it ended up turning into a novel-in-stories. By the end of the project, I’d written a hundred of these “letters” (some were letters, but many were also short stories or more experimental in-betweens) over a year and well beyond 100,000 words. What started first as a simple means of meditation ended up also as a vehicle for communication: I managed to establish an audience, find more likeminded writers, and even forge some long-lasting friendships in the process.

We also have great literary hubs cropping up that try to combine everything together by publishing essays, fiction, and interviews all exclusively online. There are places such as the Millions, the Rumpus, the Nervous Breakdown, or the online magazine I read for, Hobart. Print anthologies for newer literary magazines are now becoming the alternative, not the other way around. Literary Orphans and FRiGG, for example, also use more visual elements, blending unique multimedia experiences that only online spaces can allow. More writers are also establishing their voices via websites or personal blogs, which sometimes then turn into book deals. Writer Kate Zambreno, author of the critical memoir Heroines, is a great example of this. Many writer friends of mine recommended her book on female figures in modernism from their own blogs and I am excited to read it soon. Stories are going beyond just the page and beyond just the dusty journal we’d otherwise keep to ourselves.

Interactive fiction and games

Last month, I read Rise of the Videogame Zinesters by Anna Anthropy, a book that serves as a personal manifesto and a call-to-arms for writers and fledgling game creators. Ms. Anthropy wants people to create more video games regardless of whether or not the creators themselves know anything about the technical side of game design or programming. She wants people to experiment and get messy. She also believes it is especially important for creators to craft more personal narratives that might be otherwise overlooked in the games industry, such as experiences that are unique to women and sexual minorities.

As it turns out, there are plenty of easy ways to create your very own game online and with very little effort. There are programs you can download like Twine, which is an easy-to-use tool used to generate a “choose your own adventure” type story. If you know a little more about HTML or web design, you can also get more sophisticated with photos, audio, and other media. A recent game that has come out of this process is Depression Quest, which provides a poignant day-to-day account of what it’s like living with depression. Your choices influence the trajectory of the narrative and how characters react to your behavior. But what is even more interesting is how the lack of certain choices in the story conveys the truly paralyzing effects depression can have on a person’s thoughts and subsequent decisions.

There are also other programs such as Inkle. Check out First Draft of the Revolution by Emily Short and Liza Daly, an interactive fiction game that involves the act of rewriting letters in order to change the course of the story. You may also want to keep your eyes peeled on the upcoming project, Versu. There are a lot of exciting things happening today not only in publishing, but in gaming culture as well.

Interactive videos

Online video watching and streaming has very nearly replaced traditional television for me and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. As another means of consuming and creating media, it would make sense that creative people would also try to make use of its unique potential as a storytelling outlet as well. Just as an example, here is Haircut by Neil Cicierega, a humorous and whimsical story-in-videos. Clicking on the annotations links to other videos, which continues the story.

Listerature

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is an interesting experiment with form. Winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, one of the stories in her collection even includes a PowerPoint presentation. Similarly, another experimental story she wrote, “To Do,” is in the form of a list. Inspired by stories like these, online literary magazine Little Fiction (touting itself as the mp3s of stories) has begun publishing what it calls “listerature,” compilations of story-in-lists from various upcoming fiction writers. Listerature is just another way in which we are redefining what stories can be.

Concept albums

A concept album allows an overarching narrative to be told through music. Sometimes there are recurring themes or images, sometimes there are songs that bleed into each other. While not a brand new idea entirely, the advent of popular tablets and handheld devices has given more space for the concept album to grow. There is, for example, Björk’s latest album, Biophilia, which incorporates apps for the iPad in a multimedia collaboration. Another recent example is the very colorful and sprawling album the ArchAndroid by Janelle Monáe. Fusing elements from a wide variety of music genres, from pop to soul to electronic, we are introduced to a pulsing, futuristic world through the lyrics and unique sounds. But the story doesn’t end there: through her online presence and her music videos, we are further introduced to her fictional persona, Cindi Mayweather, an android that’s on the run because she happened to fall in love with a man named Anthony Greendown. This adds even more layers to the story she has created and truly, the album ends up feeling almost like a science fiction novel itself.

What new fiction outlets have you discovered?

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Joseph Dante is a writer from South Florida. His work has been featured in Monkeybicycle, Pear Noir!, Vector Press, and elsewhere. He keeps a blog at josephdante.com. You can follow him on Twitter @storyforburning.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Cyron.

Slow-Read Sunday: Hamlet, Final Thoughts

Previously, I proposed some questions to ponder as you read the play: Acts 1 and 2; Acts 3 and 4; Act 5. What follows are some final thoughts on the play. I recognize the exercise of saying something “final” about Hamlet is absurd because the play has been criticized every year since its creation, but for what it’s worth here is one way you might conclude a discussion of one person’s reading of Hamlet in 2013, which, of course, is subject to change upon a future reading. How’s that for a disclaimer?

Hamlet was influenced by its predecessors, but it is ultimately Shakespeare’s creation.

We tend to view reading as an activity where the “blank slate” of the reader’s mind is filled by the contents of what we’ve read. We tend to view reading as an information dump from the page to the brain. This view of reading sets us up for failure because we’re not computers. We’ll never read enough, learn enough, understand enough to make reading in this way pleasurable. There are few literary works that make this point better than Hamlet.

Think of the story–it was borrowed from Norse folk literature and then further adapted from a Spanish revenge-tragedy–but Shakespeare’s Hamlet is only related to its predecessors through basic plot elements. We’ve lost the original “Ur-Hamlet” written by Kyd which is believed to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We can’t make a line-by-line comparison. What we can do, though, is, like a good reader, imagine Shakespeare’s Hamlet as being a derivative of his intense reading, study, and contemplation of Kyd’s tragedy.

How might Shakespeare have read Hamlet’s predecessors? He would have asked a series of questions like the ones we ask when we read his play. He might have seen the play and wondered what was going on in Hamlet’s mind as the events were unfolding. He might have written some thoughts or questions and tried to resolve them from his own personal experience. He might have found that he could answer some, but others he could not. He might have studied his own internal state to try to understand what Hamlet’s must’ve been like. He might have drawn on his own personal experience to create something completely new.

Sometimes great works of literature act as scaffolds for us to use as we construct our own original works. I like to think of Hamlet as a massive scaffold.

We all have something to offer in our interpretation of Hamlet because we’ve all brought something different to our reading.

Who is Hamlet? Is Hamlet mad? What makes one mad? Are there acceptable levels of madness? Does Hamlet love his mother? Ophelia? His father? Hamlet becomes, through the questions it raises, a guide to critical self-analysis. Hamlet shows us that not all questions have certain answers, both in the play and in life. Shakespeare recognizes that our answers to these questions are informed by what we bring to our reading or viewing of the play. Hamlet is a windsock, but Shakespeare recognizes he was not in control of how the wind fills it. Neither Shakespeare nor I can control your reading of Hamlet. Neither Shakespeare nor I can control what experiences you re-live when you read it. We all bring something to our reading of the play, and for centuries people have seen enough in Hamlet to keep coming back. Why?

In Hamlet there are at least three worlds. There is the physical world, the world of external realities. There is also Hamlet’s internal reality. We see it in his soliloquies. Those two worlds are at times in harmony, but at other times they clash together like weather fronts competing for the same atmospheric space. But, the third world is the world of experience that we bring to the play. Our reading of Hamlet is dictated as much by the third world as any other. Shakespeare’s brilliance is that he leaves space for this world to exist. He creates questions and then leaves them open to interpretation. He shows us how the first worlds collide and then leaves it to us to resolve the inconsistencies, or, if we can’t resolve them, to contemplate them.

If we were content to have a play act on us and answer everything for us and fill our brain like empty beakers then we would likely have long forgotten Hamlet. Since we are not content to have our internal thoughts completely dictated to us, though, we find ourselves coming back to works like Hamlet to test how much we’ve grown, to evidence how much we still can grow, and to show us that our reading is as much a product of us as it is of the author. The best things to read are things that leave space for us to react to them and for us to inform them as much as they inform us. Hamlet proves this point to me every time I read it.

Looking Ahead to Pride and Prejudice

Reminder: In April we’re reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I’ll be using the Norton Critical Edition. We’ll discuss the first chunk on March 31st. Try to read to Volume 1, through page 89 by March 31st. If you don’t make it, don’t worry. You can always come back to the discussion when it’s convenient for you.

Are you a shallow or a deep reader?

This article was written by Andrew Blackman.

When it comes to reading, are you shallow or deep?

Don’t worry, I’m not making a value judgment here about the type of books you like to read. This is one situation where deep is not necessarily better than shallow. It’s just a different way of reading.

I, for example, am a shallow reader. What I mean by that is that I never seem to read on any particular topic in depth. I read one book on, say, the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, think it’s fascinating, plan to read more, but never get around to it. I read one book by John Banville, fall in love with his prose, plan to read everything he’s ever written, but never get around to it.

If you can relate to any of this, don’t worry: I like to think that the reason is not laziness. What it comes down to is that life is short. Sure, I’d love to read ten more books about the Mau Mau rebellion, but in the same amount of time I could read books on ten new topics that I might find equally interesting. John Banville is a great writer, yes, but I’ve also heard such great things about Adam Thirlwell, and then there’s that guy who just won the Nobel Prize, and I read a great review of Jamaica Kincaid’s new novel, and what about those five books I bought on a whim at a garage sale? There might be a gem in there.

A ‘deep’ reader would resist the allure of all those new books and authors. She would devote herself to John Banville or the Mau Mau until she’d read everything there was to read. She wouldn’t think about all the ones that got away.

I have to admit, I envy deep readers. I’d love to be able to consider myself an expert on some topic, no matter how small. I’d love to speak with true authority, rather than always being conscious of my ignorance. I’d love to stick to something, instead of always flitting to the next exciting topic or hot author. And there’s something inherently satisfying about complete sets, whether of stamps or books. The collector in me craves more than my current randomness.

But on the other hand, I’m not prepared to give up the essential optimism that underlies my shallowness: the conviction that, as good as this book or this writer was, the next one might be even better. And as a writer, I like to be exposed to a range of styles and topics, to discover new things, to stimulate my imagination.

So this year, I’m planning to acknowledge my shallowness, but take a few small steps in the direction of depth. I’m planning to read in my usual haphazard, scattered fashion, but commit to reading the complete works of at least one author by December (perhaps John Banville would be a good place to start). If I achieve it, then at least I can consider myself a completist in one author… at least until he writes a new book.

Are you a shallow reader or a deep reader? Which authors or topics or genres have you read in real depth? Would you like to change your reading habits, or are you happy the way you are?

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Andrew Blackman is the author of the novel On the Holloway Road (Legend Press, 2009), winner of the Luke Bitmead Writer’s Bursary. His next novel, A Virtual Love, is out in April.

Editor’s note: I ordered A Virtual Love from The Book Depository. Even to the US, they shipped it free.

Photo: Some rights reserved by traveling.lunas.

Slow-Read Sunday: Hamlet, Act 5

If you missed the discussion of Acts 1 and 2 you can catch up here. If you missed the discussion of Acts 3 and 4 you can catch up here.

I’ll have some final thoughts next week on Hamlet, but for now here are some questions you could ask as you read Act 5, the play’s conclusion:

1. Is Hamlet a man of action? Is Ophelia a woman of action?

The gravedigger tells us an “act hath three branches.” He goes on to say that those three branches are, “to act, to do, to perform.” Act 5, Sc. 1, lines 10-15. We can certainly see where Ophelia has acted on her grief. She appears to have taken her own life. Has Hamlet acted on his grief at this stage in the play?

2. How did Hamlet become mad?

The question is somewhat unanswered in the play. Hamlet, talking with the gravedigger, asks the same question in Act 5. Sc.1, lines160-165. The gravedigger never gives much of an answer, aside from “strangely.” If you were to have to answer that question how might you try to answer it?

3. Did Hamlet love Ophelia?

Hamlet tells us he loved Ophelia in Act 5. Sc. 1, lines 284-288. Can you trust him? Do you believe he loved Ophelia? Why did he act the way he did to her near the end of her life? Is it enough to say, he was mad, and excuse Hamlet for the way he treated Ophelia?

4. Is Hamlet his madness or is the madness separate from him in some way?

When Hamlet talks to Laertes after Ophelia’s death he takes the position that he is in some way divorced from his madness. Hamlet sets up “madness” as a kind of third-party that influences him. Act 5. Sc. 2, lines 240-258. Do you see Hamlet as separated from his madness? Is the madness acting on Hamlet or has Hamlet become his madness? Do you see madness as a parasite in search of a host?

Next Sunday, I’ll have some closing thoughts on Hamlet and we’ll wrap up our discussion. I’d love to hear your thoughts on Hamlet, whether you find this post today, or at some point in the future you find yourself reading Hamlet.

Looking Ahead to Pride and Prejudice

With our reading of Hamlet concluded we can start to look forward to our next book. We need some balance. Having read two male authors I think now is a good time to read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I’ll be using the Norton Critical Edition. This is my first time reading Pride and Prejudice, so I’m excited to take it on with any of you that have the time. Even though this is technically our pick for April, I propose we discuss the first chunk on March 31st. That will give us five Sundays to break down the text. Let’s try to read to Volume 1, through page 89 by March 31st.

For a great introduction to Pride and Prejudice I recommend you read Amarie’s post on the book. As she points out, this really is the perfect year to read Pride and Prejudice, whether you’ve read it 10 times or none at all.

Photo: Some rights reserved by KalinaSoftware.

5 Irish Writers to Read for St. Patrick’s Day

This article was written by Chris Ciolli.

Most of us know about Irish writers like Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, Bram Stoker, and James Joyce. And while these well-known writers are a great jumping off point for exploring all things literary and Irish, the Emerald Isle has produced and continues to produce riches beyond most readers’ imaginations when it comes to words. Magnificent poetry, plays, short stories and novels written by writers hailing from Ireland abound. Check out a few suggestions below for where to begin your armchair jaunt around Eire, just in time for St. Paddy’s Day.

Edna O’Brien

This Irish novelist pens stories of Irish women and their relationships with men and the rest of society. Her first book, The Country Girls was banned, burned and denounced in Ireland and is credited with breaking silence on sexual matters and social issues in repressive post World War II Ireland. The Country Girls later became a trilogy of novels including The Lonely Girl and Girls in the Married Bliss. Her 2011 book of short stories Saints and Sinners, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. O’Brien has written biographies of Joyce and Byron, and is also a winner of the Irish PEN Lifetime Achievement Award and the Ulysses Medal. Novelist Philip Roth has deemed her the most gifted woman currently writing in English and even if you don’t agree with Mr. Roth, O’Brien’s insight into the private lives of Irish women is hard to find elsewhere.

Brian O’Nolan

Fascinated by bizarre humor and modernist metafiction? Brian O’Nolan aka Flann O’Brien aka Myles na gCopaleen is your man. Start with At Swim-To Birds—-the novel works with borrowed and stolen characters from other works of fiction based on the idea that there are too many existing fictional characters and was even praised by James Joyce. Then continue your O’Nolan readings with The Third Policeman which is generally considered a more subtle proto-post-modernist work and tells the hilarious plot of a murderous protagonist let loose on a strange world peopled by pudgy policemen.

Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory

Isabella Augusta, also widely known as Lady Gregory, was a dramatist, poet and folklorist who was best known for founding the Irish Literary Theatre and Abbey Theatre with William Butler Yeats and Edward Martyn. Augusta’s collections of Irish myths and folklore are an amazing reference for readers interested in Ireland’s traditional stories. Delve into Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, a collection of Irish folk-beliefs from the late 19th and early 20th century twenty years in the making. Gods and Fighting Men, is a fun read about Irish folklore, particularly the Tuatha de Danaan, and at the time of writing, free on Amazon kindle (book title linked to purchase page).

Sean O’Casey

A committed socialist, O’Casey was one of the first Irish playwrights of note to write about the working classes in Ireland. His plays dramatized and bring to life social and political issues in Ireland. His first play to be performed was “The Shadow of a Gunman”, a drama built around the impact of revolutionary politics on Dublin’s slums and the people that live there. For those readers that like to see the plays they read performed, “Juno and the Paycock”, set in Dublin around the Easter Rising, was made into a film and directed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock. No matter it was a box office failure , “Cock-a-Doodle Dandy”, deserves a read. Darkly humorous, the play is a strange fantasy about a magic cockerel that appears in a small parish and forces the characters to make choices about the way they live their lives. Because it was regarded as anti-Catholic by many it was banned from professional public performance in the UK and suppressed in both Ireland and the USA.

John Montague

Born to Irish parents in Brooklyn, at the age of four, Montague was shipped back to Ireland to live at Garvaghey, his father’s ancestral farm. Montague’s poems (like so many poems) are highly personal, describing his childhood, and relationships, as well as travel and exile, national identity and Irish history. Poetry buffs will be interested to know his poetry is noted for vowel harmonies, and skillful handling of lines and the line break. An interesting comparison of Montague’s past and present work could be made by reading his first book of poems, Poisoned Lands and his most recent book of poems, Speech Lessons back to back. Sample some of his writing for free at the Poetry Foundation. Montague has also written collections of short stories and essays.

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A writer and translator by trade, Chris Ciolli spends her spare minutes reading, traveling and playing with art supplies. Okay, so sometimes she sleeps, eats and slurps coffee, too. Learn more about her at ChrisCiolli.com, read about her travels at Midwesternerabroad.com, or follow her on twitter @ChrisCiolli.

Photo: Some rights reserved by kkmarais.

Slow-Read Sunday: Hamlet, Acts 3 and 4

If you missed the discussion of Acts 1 and 2 you can catch up here.

In Acts 3 and 4 we see Hamlet express his grief as a rational genius when he sets up the play to catch the King and confirm his suspicions about the circumstances of his father’s demise. We also see Hamlet senselessly kill Polonius. Who is Hamlet? Is he a rational man capable of  being judge, jury, and executioner on behalf of his father? Or is Hamlet instead a vulnerable man driven by his emotions to ignore reason? Can Hamlet be both? Are we, like Hamlet, able to exhibit flashes of rational brilliance in one moment only to be swept up and carried by our emotions and forced to ignore good reason in the next?

1. “To be or not to be….”

Is Hamlet’s consideration of suicide evidence of madness? Act 3. Sc. 1 lines 64-98.

2. Hamlet blames Opehlia for his madness.

What is it that makes Hamlet say, “It hath made me mad,” to Ophelia. What of her actions have made Hamlet mad? Is it a fair statement from Hamlet? Act 3. Sc. 1 lines 154-162.

3. Is melancholy the same as madness?

Claudius uses the word melancholy when talking about Hamlet in Act 3. Sc. 1 line 179. Do you think Cladius is using the word as a symptom of madness, a cause of madness, or something else?

4. Is Hamlet “not guilty by reason of insanity” under our modern use of the defense when he kills Polonius? Act. 3 Sc.4 lines 25-35.

Imagine yourself on the jury in Hamlet’s murder trial. Would you send Hamlet to a mental institute or to prison for killing Polonius? Can Hamlet be rehabilitated? Is Hamlet a murderer? Is Hamlet a danger to himself and others? If he is a danger to others, is he a danger to everyone?

5. The Queen can not see her dead husband’s ghost.

The Queen tells Hamlet that the ghost is “the very coinage of [his] brain.” She thinks he’s made it up, but this is after he’s already killed Polonius. Does Hamlet’s mother think he’s mad before this point? Act 3. Sc. 4 line 157.

6. Would an English audience want Hamlet dead?

Shakespeare brilliantly includes the audience and draws them into the play to judge Hamlet when Claudius announces he’s sending Hamlet to England to be killed. Act 4. Sc. 4 lines 70-77. How would the English audience feel about doing Claudius’ dirty work? Would the English audience want to be responsible for Hamlet’s death?

7. Compare Ophelia’s reaction to her father’s death to Hamlet’s.

Do Hamlet and Ophelia handle their fathers’ deaths in similar ways? Do they handle their fathers’ deaths differently? Act 4. Sc. 5. What does Shakespeare accomplish by this juxtaposition?

We’re one act away from an epic finish. We’ll discuss Act Five next Sunday.

Editor’s Note: If you’re looking for more on Hamlet, here’s a good starting point. There are several free pieces of literary criticism linked there.

Reading Suggestions and A Few Reflections from a Reluctant Feminist

This is an article by Chris Ciolli.

Editor’s note: Chris informed me today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day and March is Women’s History Month.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but up until fairly recently, I made it a point not to read books about the realities of being a woman. I was doing my “ignorance-is-bliss” bit, because frankly, it wasn’t something I wanted to think about on a regular basis.

Besides, as a member of a generation of middle-class, educated American women that has never had to strike or protest for the right to vote, or work outside the home, I’ve never really identified myself as a feminist. While I wouldn’t consider myself anti-feminist either, I’ll confess to a slight cringe at being labeled with the term, during class discussions and debates with friends and family. My attitude about being a “feminist” changed somewhat after moving to Spain, a country where traditional gender roles and expectations make me want to throw things and scream my head off, but my reading habits pretty much stayed the same.

I read lots of women writers, but skipped writing about “being a women.”

Fortunately, a good friend of mine kept pushing “women’s studies” and “feminist” books at me, and like the book addict I am, I finally gave in, and consumed the words. After my first literary foray into women’s studies and feminist essays, I was hooked. These books made me stop and consider a lot of things I’d been doing on autopilot, and a lot of assumptions about myself, my culture, and other women I’d been making for years.

Even though I didn’t agree with everything I read, anything that makes you uncomfortable with preexisting assumptions and prejudices–anything that makes you stop and really think about why you do or feel something—is a good thing. Even when, like me, the cultural norms are so deeply ingrained that you can’t bear the thought of never wearing makeup, or skirts again, or swearing off tweezing your eyebrows…

So without further ado, here’s a short list of the books that first made a dent in my admittedly hard head and got me interested in feminism.

How to be a Woman by Caitlyn Moran- A British broadcaster and newspaper columnist, Caitlyn Moran reflects on the hoops women jump through to be thought of as attractive, not to mention serious topics like abortion using examples from her personal life. She also has a no fail test to see if you’re a feminist: “Do you have a vagina? Do you want to be in charge of it?” An answer of yes to both makes you a feminist—pretty simple, really.

Warning: This book has a lot of swear words, a lot of TMIs, and a lot of references to British culture that Americans may have to google, but is funny, poignant and thought-provoking.

Cunt: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Muscio – This is an interesting and extreme set of essays. While a lot of the things Ms. Muscio talks about will verge on disgusting and ridiculous for many readers and are far from mainstream, her thoughts about the origins of words describing women and their private parts, and about the culture of rape are worth contemplating. While I don’t agree with everything or even most of what Inga has to say, she provides a truly unique perspective on a lot of women’s issues. The index of women-friendly websites and institutions in the back of the book is a nifty bonus.

Warning: Lots of swear words, references to“The Mother-goddess” and hostility towards traditional medicine, mainstream culture and anything else Inga regards as coming from “The Man.”

Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism by Natasha Walter- Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls is crammed full of individual women’s stories and scary statistics about how today’s hyper-sexualized mainstream culture and especially pornography have affected men’s and women’s attitudes about the female of the species and how they should look and act, and how they can move up in the world—hint: it’s all about making the most of your physical appearance and sexuality.

Warning: This is an unpleasant read. It will make you think, and likely make you sad, as the problems brought to light in the book are not the kind that can be fixed in a matter of days or even years.

Room for thought: The Gender Divide in Everyday Life

So what? I read a few women’s studies books. Big deal? For me, yes. Ignorance might be bliss, but consciousness is a gift, and not one I’ll readily give up. Here are a few of the new and stressful things I’m thinking about on a regular basis, thanks to my new reading habits.

  • The constant media attention paid to any “perceived” genetic differences between men and women, and popular books and media about how men and women and boys and girls “naturally” think and behave differently.
  • The percentage of free-time and income that women are expected to use removing “unsightly” facial and body hair and maintaining their appearance.
  • The acceptance and glamorization of prostitution, stripping, pornography and the sex industry in mainstream culture.
  • The profitable industry that revolves around shaming women about the normal shape, size and smell of their bodies and natural bodily functions.
  • How women are made to feel ashamed of rape and sexual abuse, and how rape is eroticized in literature and cinema.

It’s not that I never questioned any of these customs and habits. I have, I did, I do. It’s that for the most part it’s not culturally acceptable to do so, not on a regular basis. Women that speak out about these societal standards or even worse, refuse to accept them, are most often labeled, ugly, dirty and/or prudish, sometimes by other women. Or worse, they’re called out as reactionary—There are women in “other” places that are treated like property. There are “less fortunate” girls that are mutilated, and not allowed to go to school. And it’s true, women’s problems in the United States and other western democracies can’t compare, but they’re still worthy of our attention.

Reading books by women that wrote passionately about these “first-world” women’s issues, analyzed them, and in some cases had data to back up their opinions (whether or not I agreed) made me realize a few things, however reluctant I had been in the past to declare myself a feminist: I’m definitely a feminist and it’s a good thing, because despite the privileges I enjoy as a woman living in a western democracy, true equality and the freedom that comes with it, continues to evade us.

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A writer and translator by trade, Chris Ciolli spends her spare minutes reading, traveling and playing with art supplies. Okay, so sometimes she sleeps, eats and slurps coffee, too. Learn more about her at ChrisCiolli.com, read about her travels at Midwesternerabroad.com, or follow her on twitter @ChrisCiolli.

Photo: Some rights reserved by ocean yamaha

What You Can Learn from the World’s Worst Writing

This article was written by Chris Ciolli.

We’ve all been there. That terrible free e-book you downloaded on a whim. Or worse still,  that awkwardly written paperback with a gripping blurb on the back that inspired you to take a $5 or $10 risk on an otherwise unknown author. There’s nothing quite so disappointing as a book that lets you down when you really need an armchair escape.

Because let’s face it. The onset of digital publishing aka, the “age of Amazon” has improved by leaps and bounds the variety and sheer quantity of reading materials easily available to us. Unfortunately, it hasn’t had the same positive effect on the quality of those reading materials. From blog posts, to e-books, there’s loads of nearly unreadable junk out there. The good news is that it may not be as worthless as we imagine: With a little creative thinking and a healthy dose of patience, a bad read doesn’t have to be a complete waste of time for writers.

Because while reading substandard writing can be terribly frustrating, disappointing and just plain boring, there is a shiny silver lining to this darkest of literary clouds: it can help us identify those nasty writers’ bugs that infect our own writing—be they dangling prepositions, banal conversations between unsympathetic characters, or a confusing and ineffective plot line.

Of course it takes more than just reading subpar books to become a better writer.  Analysis and reflection are a required part of the process. You can’t just stop at, “well, that was crap.” Beyond an initial negative reaction you have to dedicate some time and effort to what didn’t work in the book/article/blog post in question, and why.

Identifying What Doesn’t Work and Why

Is the dialogue hard to stomach and even harder to believe? Is the text chock-full of typos and grammatical errors that you simply can’t ignore? Are there huge jumps in the storyline? Is the protagonist one-dimensional? What pushes a book into your personal slush pile?

Some of my personal pet peeves are the following:

  • Excess typos (I’ll pardon occasionals but multiples on every page….I just can’t deal with it).
  • Persistent grammatical errors
  • Plot inconsistencies.
  • Poorly researched story premises.
  • Unnatural dialogue
  • Cardboard cutout characters, especially in the case of females, and villains.

Once you’ve identified what makes a book unreadable for you, it’s time to think about why, because this will help you come to terms to what’s most important to you in your reading, and how to apply it to your writing (because unhappy readers are no fun!). Knowing exactly the effect that these writing errors have on your reading experience will encourage you to be a careful writer and not make excuses for the flaws you (and others) identify in your own writing.

Do typos curb your enthusiasm just when you’re getting excited about ideas in an otherwise inspiring blog post? Does awkward dialogue keep you from falling in love with the strapping hero in that romance novel you’re reading? Think long and hard about how you want your readers to experience your writing before you talk yourself into ignoring the warning flags that you wouldn’t excuse in other writers’ work. Because here’s the deal:

Want to successfully communicate with an audience? Don’t irritate them or distract them from the ideas or story you’re trying to get across. While not all readers will be annoyed by the same things, you better believe that if certain mistakes drive you up the wall, they bug a good chunk of the other readers out there,too.

Just like identifying what works in good writing teaches writers what they should be doing, identifying what doesn’t in bad writing teaches writers what they shouldn’t be doing. So when you read something that makes you gag or gaffe, stop to think about why. Write it down, commit it to memory, and do your best not to repeat other writer’s mistakes. Your readers will thank you.

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A writer and translator by trade, Chris Ciolli spends her spare minutes reading, traveling and playing with art supplies. Okay, so sometimes she sleeps, eats and slurps coffee, too. Learn more about her at ChrisCiolli.com, read about her travels at Midwesternerabroad.com, or follow her on twitter @ChrisCiolli.

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Photo:  Some rights reserved by gudmd.haralds.

Slow-Read Sunday: Hamlet, Acts 1 and 2

To get the idea behind “Slow-Read Sunday” you can read this introductory post.

There are as many ways to read Hamlet as there are people, as there are backgrounds, as there are experiences. It is a play of infinite renderings.

I tend to read Hamlet with an emphasis on Hamlet’s madness. That’s not to say you should, too. Consider it, instead, a bit of a disclaimer. You’re reading doesn’t have to lean so far in that direction. In fact, maybe you can have me consider a new way to read the play. I’m open to it.

What is madness? Madness is a bit difficult to get a handle on because we don’t really use the term anymore. It’s a word that’s out of favor in clinical psychology, but psychology is the field that could best help us come to a definition because, if madness can be defined by limitation, then it is an internal state. Is madness the same as mental illness? Is madness the same as depression? Is madness a manifestation of anxiety?

Have you ever been accused of being mad? Have you ever suffered through the loss of a loved one? Have you ever been depressed, anxious, or felt like you couldn’t control your own thoughts? If you answered yes to any of these questions then you may see some of yourself in Hamlet.

Here is a series of questions you could use in your reading of Hamlet, Acts 1-2, and, of course, I suggest you come up with your own questions as you read.

1. In Act 1. Sc.1 does a ghost appear?

Horatio seems to be unsure at line 28: “Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy.” On the first page of the play, therefore, we are asked to consider whether the ghost is real or just in the characters’ imaginations. What do you think, is the ghost real?

You could follow up with these questions: Why does the ghost leave at dawn when the cock crows? Why does the ghost refuse to speak when asked the first couple of times?

2. What are Hamlet’s first words of the play? Act 1. Sc.2.

At line 67 we hear Hamlet finally speak and he seems clever, doesn’t he? How would you describe his first words? Are they morose? Are they critical? If so, of who? Does he seem mad to you at this stage in the play? He does talk to the King in a way that a commoner in England would not, but he is a prince after all, and related to the King, too.

3. Does the King choose an odd way to try to cheer up Hamlet? Act 1. Sc. 2.

The King attempts to cheer up Hamlet by explaining that everyone must die and that he should just get over his father’s death after a month’s time. Lines 90-100. Is it the King that drives Hamlet mad?

4. Hamlet wants to leave to go to school, but he is persuaded by his mother to stay, can you imagine how his life might have been different had he been allowed to leave? Act 1. Sc. 2 lines 120-125.

5.  Does one person’s experience encourage another’s with regard to the ghost? Act 1. Sc. 2.

Even before the ghost appeared, Hamlet admits to having seen his father in his “mind’s eye.” Act 1. Sc. 2 lines 190-195. Horatio then admits that he has also seen him, but he doesn’t mention that he may be imagining the whole thing this time. Do you think he is persuaded by Hamlet’s mention of having seen his father to believe his own experience with the ghost? Do you get the impression that madness may be contagious in a sense?

6. Laertes thinks Hamlet is mad long before the ghost ever appears, do you agree with him?

It’s interesting to play the game of trying to identify when Hamlet shows signs of “madness.” To Laertes it’s before the ghost has visited Hamlet. Act 1. Sc.3 lines 15-25. Laertes believes Hamlet can no longer control his will. What might be the cause of Hamlet’s madness at this point? Do you believe Hamlet is mad at this stage in the play?

7. Why does the ghost come at all? Act 1. Sc.4.

Can you tell why the ghost comes? Can Hamlet tell why the ghost comes? Hamlet asks this question at Act 1. Sc.4, lines 41-50.

8. Will the ghost make Hamlet mad or is he already mad? Act 1. Sc. 4. lines 77-86.

Horatio suggests the ghost may deprive Hamlet of his “sovereignty of reason” and “draw [Hamlet] into madness.” Do you agree with Horatio? Again, if Hamlet is ever mad, when does he become mad? What is the source of his madness? How does the madness express itself externally, if at all?

9. Is Hamlet’s father in purgatory?

In one of my favorite lines of the play, the ghost says to Hamlet, “I am thy father’s spirit.” The ghost goes on to describe some of the physical symptoms of continued existence. Some, including Greenblatt, have suggested Shakespeare is exploring the idea of purgatory in this play. Do you agree?

10. Why does Hamlet swear an oath to never speak of the ghost they’ve seen? Why does the ghost encourage the oath?

In Act 1. Sc. 5 lines 170-190 both Hamlet and the ghost encourage Marcellus and Horatio to swear an oath to never talk about what they’ve seen. Why is this important to the play?

11. Does Polonius believe Hamlet is mad? What does he believe to be the cause of his madness? Act 2. Sc.1 lines 88-95.

Polonius’s perception of Hamlet’s madness is different than the King’s and the Queen’s. In fact, almost every character has a different perception of what is causing Hamlet to act mad. Do any of the character’s perceptions line up with your own perception. I ask again, at this stage in the play, do you think Hamlet is mad? If so, why?

12. What is madness? Act 2. Sc.2. lines 95-102.

Polonius is convinced Hamlet is mad, but he is unable to “define true madness.” Can anyone define madness throughout the play to your satisfaction?

Polonius even attempts to describe the changes to Hamlet’s moods. Act 2. Sc.2. lines 150-160. Are you convinced he’s captured Hamlet’s madness through these outwardly appearing stages?

Polonius tries to make sense of Hamlet’s madness by finding a “method in’t.” Act 2. Sc. 2 lines 223-224. Does he succeed?

13. Hamlet admits to being mad, but only a transient madness. Act 2. Sc. 2. lines 402-403.

“I am but mad north-north-west.” Hamlet says. Act 2. Sc. 2. lines 402-403. Which means he admits to madness, but only when the wind blows a certain direction, only sometimes. As a reader, we’re left to determine at which times he is mad. We’re also left to determine what the source of that madness is. But, can you trust Hamlet to know when he’s mad? Are mad people aware of their own madness?

14. Shakespeare uses a play’s speech to wake Hamlet’s reason. Act 2. Sc.2 lines 575-605.

The play’s speech inspires Hamlet to consider his own actions and emotions and duty to his father. Hamlet seems to be awakened by the speech and put on track to exact revenge. Is Hamlet’s plan evidence of madness or is it  a beautiful logical trap and evidence of his clever rational mind? Act 2. Sc.2 lines 610-634.

For next Sunday let’s read Acts 3 and 4. As always, I’m open to any comment or discussion on the play. You need not limit yourself to the questions I present.

Editor’s Note: Here are a couple of additional posts that might relate to this one:

IS THERE ANYTHING LEFT TO SAY, HAMLET? 

[AUDIO] SHAKESPEARE – A BIOGRAPHICAL INTRODUCTION (PART I)

On Writing

This article was written by Anjali Amit.

A lady walked into a milliner’s shop. “I have this party to attend,” she said. “I’m looking for a hat like no other.”

The milliner picked up a roll of ribbon and wrapped it around her head, shaping and fitting as he went along.

“Ah! beautiful,” the lady sighed. “How much do I owe you?”

The milliner named a sum that had his customer gasping in disbelief. “But it is just a roll of ribbon,” she exclaimed. The milliner unwrapped the ribbon and gave it to her. “The ribbon, madam, is free,” he said with a bow.

Writing is like that. Letters of the alphabet. Just letters, mere pencil strokes on paper. The letters, dear readers, are free; the masterpieces they create are paid for in blood — long nights and sweaty days, the unending search for the informing thought that brings them value.

Do we, then, cut a vein and let it bleed drops of blood onto the paper, as Hemingway is reputed to have said? No. Writing is not the spilling out, but the going within. A good writer, like a great actor, loses himself in the characters he creates, and finds himself with every character, every sentence and word chosen.

To find herself a writer has to first lose herself. To put his ‘I’ before the reader a writer has to find the ‘you’. Writing is best described in paired opposites, in binary terms almost, with the caveat that the opposites are not mutually exclusive but contained in each other. “The longest journey is the journey inwards,” wrote Dag Hammarskjold in his book Markings. So short a distance, so long the journey, and we may never reach the end.

Write anyway. The truths you have within you are yours, and yours alone. Unstated, they are lost forever. The prince and the pauper look at a bird on a distant tree. “Target practice,” thinks the prince. “Food,” hungers the pauper. The professor and the student see a thick notebook lying by the roadside. “Oh, oh, looks like someone’s thesis,” says the professor. “Kindling,” thinks the poor student shivering in the cold. Both voices need to be heard.

Shakespeare, master dramatist, paired the hero/heroine with the Fool, and gave him lines that state truths often invisible to the other characters. King Lear called the Fool “my philosopher”.  Feste, in Twelfth Night, points Olivia to her excessive mourning:

Feste: Good madonna, why mournest thou?

Olivia: Good fool, for my brother’s death.

Feste: I think his soul is in hell, madonna.

Olivia: I know his soul is in heaven, fool.

Feste: The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen.

Writing requires courage. Disguise your words as coming from a fool, if you so desire. Take a lesson from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky:

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Be brave. If you hold onto your truths you may be mocked and scorned. You may be disbelieved. That goes with the territory. Tell your truth anyway.

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Anjali Amit does not subscribe to the ‘eat to live or live to eat’ debate. She reads to live. Occasionally she writes stories for children, and has been known to create a crossword or two.

Photo: Some rights reserved by erink_photography