The em dash is a marvelous thing—a cool pool of pause in the middle of a heated dialogue. An ounce of pensive silence in the disquiet of a teaming brain. A hiccup in the rush. It allows you to do so many things and—let’s face it—it just looks good.
With an em dash, you can pause—and then continue. You can also insert a list of things you want to include—ideas, thoughts, images, whatever strikes your fancy. There is the appositive—a noun or phrase that renames another noun or phrase right beside it—and there is also the aside—yes, that thing where I begin talking to you directly—to the audience. It can also be used to leave the reader hang—
The excellent Emily Dickinson is perhaps the most famous fan of the em dash, though her uses were anything but conventional. One might even say she “Dips—evades—teases—deploys” this thin little airborne line with effortless artistic efficacy (quote from “The Nearest Dream Recedes, Unrealized”).
Some people are not such fans of the em dash. In fact, I found quite an abundance of blogger hate for the thing. Granted, it can be overused—which is easy to do (as I have demonstrated above). The em dash should only be served in dollops. It’s like a rich bit of dessert—more than a bite will make you sick. But compared to the value it holds when wielded well, I find its misuse really a paltry price to pay.
(And, somewhere in there, I got carried away with alliteration—happens when I think about poetry!)
A couple of weeks ago, as part of a side project I’ve been working on with a parenting magazine, I happened to be collecting data from a website that prompted me to stop and think about the 5 books that have influenced me most, or my “bookprint,” as it was called.
This will be easy, I thought. So, I settled in to my couch cushion, and began what I assumed would be a quick process of popping in a few titles and moving on. One hour and one sleeping leg later, This is really hard, was going through my mind. And, I think most people who have read consistently throughout their lives will probably have a similar experience.
However, it was totally worthwhile. So worthwhile, in fact, that I wanted to take a few minutes to share my results and encourage others to do the same. What the exercise did was twofold: it not only made me stop and remember all of the wonderful books that have made an impact on me throughout my life – those little explosions of awe that were bright enough to still be echoing around in my mind – but also caused me to see myself somewhat differently, to understand myself better. You see, the process of elimination (because you can only have 5), really made me stop and think if I’m being honest, truly, transparently honest, then which books, which reading experiences really define me? and why?
Some of the results were expected. A couple of them surprised even me.
What didn’t surprise me all that much was that all of the books that ended up on the final list were ones I read as a young person (before 15). After all, that’s when we’re most impressionable, it’s when the basis of our personalities, outlook, and worldview are formed. It’s also an era of books I have yet to let go…and may never. I am what I read, then and now.
The website was Scholastic’sYou Are What You Read. It’s a part of their “Read Every Day, Lead a Better Life” campaign, which is in turn coupled to their very unique Reading Bill of Rights document. “Literacy – the ability to read, write and understand – is the birthright of every child in the world…” meant a lot to me before this little exercise. But, having had the opportunity to think more deeply about how books have shaped who I am today, I find it now means a whole lot more.
Think about it: Who would we (as human beings) be without books?
The Harry Potter books (my own love of them and their phenomenal success worldwide) inspired me to think – and write my masters thesis – about the ways in which literary society is forming and reforming around and apart from postmodernism, expanding into something new. I think that the HP books have shaped our culture irrevocably, and for the better. They’ve opened us back up to “positive possibility” (as opposed to the “negative possibility” promoted by much of theory in the last 100 years) and that is saying something.
2) Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
I saw (and subsequently developed) a lot of myself in Anne: using big words, being feisty and independent, doing everything “to the max,” and loving wholeheartedly. She helped me understand that those were good qualities, and that I should always be true to that piece of my nature.
On a humorous side note, I asked for the films for Christmas last year, and got Anne of Avonlea from my sister. We (my sisters, brother, husband, and I) stayed up all night watching the 4-hr, 2-disc classic, most of which I was convinced my husband would miss. I just didn’t think it was his kind of thing. However, when the closing credits came on, he was still wide awake, staring thoughtfully at the screen. Then, he turns slowly toward me and studies my face for a moment before saying, “Hhh. Now I understand you,” and stands up to head to bed.
3) Gone With the Wind by Margarett Mitchell
This was actually a last-minute substitution. It bumped The Chronicles of Narnia (*gasp!*), which I did not think was possible. However, when I stopped to examine myself more closely, I realized that a lot of Scarlett – like Anne – lives on in me. She taught me that women can be strong, brash even, and still be desirable; make mistakes and recover from them; march on through the difficulties that life, society, and a patriarchal system have handed her, and be ok enough to look forward to “tomorrow.”
4) The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper
Another surprise for me, though perhaps it shouldn’t have been. I can still, very clearly, recall my mother reading this book to us. She, through this book, provided me with a mantra (and philosophy) that has lasted a lifetime. “I think I can,” has gotten me through some of the toughest times of my life, and I am definitely a different person for it.
5) Wynken, Blynken, and Nod by Eugene Field
Finally, this book (or, poem, I really should say), though it might surprise some that I included it, didn’t surprise me. At least not this year. I actually realized that this work belonged on my list many years ago during an undergraduate course that was partially on children’s literature. First introduced to me in an elementary school spelling book, Field’s elegant poem opened my eyes to the world of beautiful text and the power of metaphor. It helped shape the books I read thereafter, and is an important piece of the reader, writer, and editor that I am today.
Finally, because it’s really just not fair to leave them out, here are the books that didn’t make it in, but really should be up there, too:
The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swam by E. B. White Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle Green Eggs and Ham and Dr. Seuss’s ABC by Dr. Seuss Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nihm by Robert C. O’Brien Matilda by Roald Dahl Mother Goose The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley Where the Wild Things Areby Maurice Sendak The Wind the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
. . . and many, many, many more.
[Let me preface this by saying that this will not be a 5-paragraph essay with a very structured body or a
repetitive intro and conclusion. What I started out writing has turned into anything but!]
Today while I was watching The Avengers trailer below, courtesy of @YABookNerd‘s Trailer Thursday post, something dawned on me that I, at least, find really intriguing.
I usually don’t think of superhero comics as having particularly strong ties to the PLAYA movement (Paranormal Literature Addicts Young & Adult – yes, I just coined that, and yes it is totally awesome), though I know that the audience is similar if not the same: people of all ages who revel in thinking outside the box of the everyday, thrive on a good shot of adrenaline, and aren’t concerned with what anyone else might think of their literary/film preferences.
In other words, people who know what they like and they know that it ROCKS.
But, maybe because I was utterly lost in @CaraghMOBrien‘s uhhhmmm-azing book Birthmarked this morning on the train, or because I just read a rock-on article in this month’s @VOYAMagazine (go to pp. 48-49 to find Tough Girls Don’t Accept &$%!# From Anyone by Rebecca A. Hill)…or both, I started thinking, well, what are the differences? What separates dystopia from the comic-born superhero story?
My conclusion? Not much.
The primary differences I find between, say, Katniss’ tale and that of Batman or Captain America are that 1) the latter’s “powers” are magnified and embellished, and 2) that the superhero’s actions are usually preventative, while the dystopian protagonist’s tend toward the revolutionary.
Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games)
I think that second point is the more significant: Superman, Spider Man, Wonder Woman, and the like are fighting to stave off an impending-but-not-yet-fully-realized takeover by the dictatorially-minded villain. Gaia, Deuce, Meg, Tally, and Titus, on the other hand, awaken to injustice from within an already established regime, and have to fight their way out.
Some might also cite natural disasters as a difference, since they are usually the cause for the negative setting of a dystopian universe, but isn’t that what the Green Goblin (lab accident), Poison Ivy (attempted murder), and Magneto (mutation/racial discrimination and violent) are? Of course, there are exceptions, but in general, I think that all of those things can be summed up as a similarity: human-caused disasters.
And, the more I thought about it, the more I was intrigued by such similarities.
First, if you think about it, many of the paranormal (outside of the everyday) elements in comics are close to those in the alternate realities of dystopian fiction. Really, what separates a Pretty or a Special from Captain America? Or an anti-gravity suit from a dress that catches on fire and flakes away without burning anybody? Then, in both genres, there are also genetic advancements/alterations occurring in people (Peter Parker; the Scriven) and/or animals (tracker jackers; Ninja Turtles). There are advanced forms of weaponry, transportation, and medicine/science in both genres as well. Etc.
Poison Ivy (Batman)
However, above and beyond such decorative items, there’s also the deeper plot lines and themes, which are almost identical:
A) these are all narrative stories B) set in an adjacent though somehow different (whether ahead of, behind, or alternatively developed) version of our world, C) in which said world is threatened (or overtaken) by seemingly insurmountable, evil forces of a paranormal (not of everyday experience) nature, which have some totalitarian motivation, D) to which a (somewhat) ordinary citizen takes a disliking, decides to stand against, E) and, by some unforeseen force of nature (be it simple or extraordinary, human or extraterrestrial, mutant or constant, mental or physical), manages to overcome, F) thus securing the equitable, harmonious, and enjoyable future of their (and by implication, our) civilization.
Tally Youngblood (Specials)
Once I had collected these different points in my head, the next question for me was, What does this mean? Why are we creating these very similar stories right now, and why are they so popular? Huge questions, I know, but the items that seem to answer this for me are C and D, which in turn linked back to a problem I’ve had with the academic world. We PLAYAs and our beloved literature have been accused of and marginalized in “literary” society because of many things, but probably most notably on account of our supposed unwillingness to live within the confines of reality. Just for the record, this is something that I readily admit to (a different conversation altogether), but I would argue that it’s not a complete picture.
What I saw in the trailer for The Avengers today – the element that got me started thinking about how it is, in its way, a form of dystopia – was a deeply rooted love for our reality, a fervent desire to keepit the way it is by thinking of all the ways it could be destroyed. From oil-virus crises that lead to plastic-surgery-based communism, to homicidal environmentalist redheads, we are constantly thinking about the ways in which our (very earthly, very human) thoughts and actions could (will?) affect our (very earthly, very quantifiable) world. And, just as importantly, we’re thinking about the strengths we have within us to combat that negative potential.
It seems to me that, whether it does so via a poor, scrawny huntress, or a roid-raging, genetically-empowered green dude, or a mixture of the two (dare I suggest Harry Potter?), paranormal literature is at heart very similarly focused right now. (I purposefully avoided throwing sci-fi and fantasy into the mix, but you can probably pick out for yourselves that, underneath the very superficial differences, the same parallels are present.)
We’re not escaping to enter a “better” reality somewhere “out there.” We’re doing it to bring one back home.
Much of human art can actually be boiled down to the same motivation. If so, you might ask, what’s my point in all of this?
Just that, well, perhaps we’re not all so different after all.
Just realized that I am going to miss George R. R. Martin’s appearance at the Union Square Barnes and Noble on Thursday @7pm because I will be attending a twofer viewing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (parts 1 & 2, back-to-back)…!!
On the one hand I am cruelly disappointed: authors don’t often visit the same place more than once in a tour, which means I’ll have to wait until the next book comes out to meet Martin.
On the other, I’m ridiculously excited: I mean, c’mon, it’s Harry. I was inspired to spend a year researching and writing an academic paper (bleechhh!) by the boy (or…at least his effect on our culture…ok, so I am a nerd…). My point is, he’s got prior claim.
Still, though the choice is clear, I feel somewhat conflicted. An odd string of thoughts for a Tuesday morning…
So, I’ve noticed a recent trend in YA lit titling, and, I must admit, I’m not really sure what to make of it.
On the one hand, these titles lend a kind of resounding grandeur to the stories they represent.
On the other hand (or perhaps the other side of that same hand?), one can only take seriously so much resounding grandeur…
Of course, it would help if you knew what I was talking about. Should I say? Yes. I’ll say.
As I was thinking about this post, I got curious to see just how many there were. I finally stopped when I got to 100 (below). I recommend reading them aloud one-by-one in the very serious kind of voice you know they’re supposed to inspire. It’s kind of fun – if you’re into that sort of thing.
Now, it’s not that I have anything at all against one-word titles. In fact, when I ran across it for the first time (Maggie Steifvater’s Shiver, as it happens), the cold, quiet, lonely word on the cover was actually one of the things that piqued my curiosity about the book. And, in my research, I discovered a few others that I find really enticing: Incarceron, Sapphique, Evercrossed, Paranormalcy, Demonglass. (Not that I’m advocating these books, btw – I haven’t read them, or many of the ones below – just pulled titles from a quick survey of Amazon).
Maybe it’s the originality of the words above, or the use of two words to make one (demon + glass, ever + crossed) that makes those five stand out from the others that I found today. The rest just feel like loaded words, and really familiar ones at that…(it’s like a shortlist of important YA paranormal-world concepts.) The first three or four might sound grand, but after a while, they kind of drone on. I just can’t help feeling that there is a…well, lack of creativity happening here. Why not give a fan more context to go by? Make a title stand out with its eye-catching cleverness. It’s not like we can’t handle compound-complexities……right?
I dunno. I’d love to get some authors’ takes on this. Where do these titles come from? How are agents/editors involved? Is it by author choice?
More importantly, what do you (fellow readers) think?
Just noticed that Meg Cabot will be at the NYU Bookstore next Tuesday, which inspired me to investigate whether any of my other favorites are going to be around NYC over the next 2 weeks. I found two few more that look positively scrumptious. (I’m so excited about George R. R. Martin, I can hardly stay in my seat!!) Any that I’ve missed?
Who: Meg Cabot
What: Insatiable Series, Insatiable and Overbite (July release)
When: July 5, 6:30-8pm
Where: NYU Bookstore
(726 Broadway @Waverly Pl)
Who: Lisa Desrochers (Original Sin)
—Cortney Allison Moulton(Angelfire)
—Leah Clifford (A Touch Mortal)
What: ‘Twixt Heaven and Hell Event
When: July 5, 6-8pm
Where: Books of Wonder
(18 W. 18th Street)
Who: George R. R. Martin
What: A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Dance With Dragons (#5; July 12 release)
When: July 14, 7pm
Where: Barnes and Noble, Union Square
(33 E. 17th Street, Union Square north)
What are YOUR top 100 children's books? How about YOUR #1?
Click here to read about 100 Greatest Books for Kids countdown by Scholastic's Parent & Child Magazine and enter your choices for a chance to win a copy of one of the titles in your preferred age group.
influential book of the month: December ’11 – January ’12
The Iliad by Homer
Written around the 8th Century BC, this epic Greek poem about the Trojan war has influenced countless classic authors with its tragic and quintessential tale of hubris, love, and war. With hunks like Achilles and Odysseus, hotties like Helen, and powers that be like Ares, Apollo, and Aphrodite, it's no wonder this book is also prime inspriation for today's YA otherworldly writers.
Goddess of Yesterday by Caroline B. Cooney Nobody's Princess by Esther M. Friesner Nobody's Prize by Esther M. Friesner Troy by Adele Geras Starcrossed by Josephine Angelini The Memoirs of Helen of Troy by Amanda Elyot Achilles: A Novel by Elizabeth Cook
peter and the starcatchers
a web of air*
the last werewolf
there's no such thing as dragons*
the light fantastic*
pride and prejudice and zombies
the book thief
down the mysterly river
the princess and the goblin*
the iron king/daughter/queen*
the name of the star*
the picture of dorian gray
the name of the star*
the 11th plague*
the last little blue envelope*
rip tide (dark life)
city of ember
*s denote books I own, but just haven't gotten to (yet!)
To Be Read!
Here are some titles that I highly recommend, but haven't had a chance to review (quite) yet.