Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Last year, I was engaged in a search for books featuring unmarried women who nonetheless lead lives (or, at any rate, experience some events) worth the reading.  Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie made it to my list; I checked it out of the library; annnd it was promptly ignored for months and months, as I hemmed over my bookshelf and let myself be waylaid by other considerations.

Miss Jean BrodieHaving actually cracked it a week or so ago, I found it to be a fairly quick read.  Miss Jean Brodie teaches at a girls’ school in Edinburgh, and selects for herself a set of girls to be her crème de la crème: the girls who accompany her to museums, the theater, various rough neighborhoods, and tea at various houses.  Each one becomes famous for a certain trait or ability (from mathematics to sex, apparently), and the set as a whole are more devoted to this teacher and what she teaches them than they are to the school or their respective houses.  As the official summary puts it:  Determined to instill in them independence, passion, and ambition, Miss Brodie advises her girls, “Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth, and Beauty come first. Follow me.”

She doesn’t follow the usual curriculum nor the usual pedagogical methods, and is therefore something of a target for the criticisms of the headmistress and other staff – except for the men, who are rather taken with her.  As she never marries any of them, the story technically still fits my criteria…but I really wasn’t looking for someone who jumps in and out of unhealthy or adulterous relationships.

I also wasn’t looking for someone who declared “I am in my prime!” every page or two.  Miss Brodie’s prime is mentioned 57 times, without further digging into what one’s prime is or why it matters that she is in hers.

Whilst reading, I became convinced that both the book and I were missing something in turns.  I missed some shades of significance where British schooling, Edinburgh accents, and Scottish religious experience is concerned, while the book’s depiction of Jean Brodie misses the point by painting in generalities.

Or, at least, it seemed to miss the point.  Maybe it meant to outline a particular sort of person, leaving readers to fill in any gaps with their own experiences.  Or perhaps it was all an effort to portray a person of just such shallowness, the sort of shallowness that attempts (and sometimes manages) to appear profound.  If so, the effort is successful: I find myself quite agreeing with the character who eventually “betrayed” Miss Brodie (such that she lost her teaching post) that Jean Brodie is a bit of a fool – but folly being some distance from a fireable offense, she is sacked for being a fascist.

(This left me wondering how sensible or attractive fascism might have seemed to a woman in the 1930s. The fact that Jean Brodie admires Mussolini and Hitler is utterly foreign to me, having grown up in a post-world-war time when most everyone discusses Hitler as a means to talk about the worst person they can think of on short notice.)

On the bright side, the book does have a quite intriguing narrative setup.  It describes the girls in sixth form, jumping ahead to when this one dies, that one gets married, jumping back to when they were younger yet, returning to sixth form and the time thereafter. This arrangement makes for a good deal of dramatic irony, and illustrates something of how detached our understanding (of a character, a person, an event) can be: sometimes you learn how things turn out without having any idea how they got that way.

There are also some delightful turns of phrase, some particularly suggestive bits of description; it couldn’t very well be otherwise, given the sort of person Miss Brodie is.  One passage notes that “above all, Miss Brodie was easily the equal of both sisters together; she was the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle and they were only the squares on the other two sides.”  Another notes her “excessive lack of guilt” and how one girl recognizes that as problematic.

“An excessive lack of guilt” might well characterize the whole book.  Both Miss Brodie and her set are unapologetically interested in Certain Things and disregard the rest. There’s a particular instance of religious conversion which must have involved a good deal of reading, thought, prayer, and various turnings of soul. It is given all of three sentences, and presented as a psychological change more than anything.

Bottom line: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a pretty good story, with somewhat lively characterization of a compelling personality.  But I’m not sure that it compels anyone in healthy ways, and as such it isn’t the story I was looking for.

On the Poor Quality of Christian-Made Movies: A Proposition

Originally posted on The Search:

GodsNotDead

A year ago at this time, discussion of Hollywood’s “religious renaissance” began in earnest. Movies like Son of God, Noah, Heaven is for Real and God’s Not Dead were preparing to release, with more faith-oriented films set to come out later in the year (Mom’s Night Out, The Identical, Left Behind, Exodus). A year later, after mixed box office results and plenty of heated blogosphere chatter, what have we learned about what works and what doesn’t when faith and film collide?

There is a lot that could be said about this topic, and a lot that has already been written. Brandon Ambrosino’s excellent recent Vox piece, “Why are Christian movies so painfully bad?” summarizes many of the key themes. I’ve done a lot of thinking and writing about this topic over the years and hate to belabor familiar points, but the increasing ubiquity and decreasing…

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Ennio Morricone, you’re a jerk, but Plato would be proud

I went to see American Sniper last weekend. I’d heard it was good, and I really wanted to see it, even though I knew it would make me cry. Also, I nixed going to Lone Survivor, and we’ve moved so I can’t advise my husband to “go with your pals”. So I went to see American Sniper.

Now, I’m not going to venture the slog into the political ramifications. There’s more than enough to say, I’m sure, and I’m certain I have opinions, but I think some people are missing the point. The point is. *sniffle* the point. the point is that I was a very big girl and kept from *really* weeping until the credits rolled. And that is when the trumpet started to play. Now, taps, by itself, is enough to turn on the face faucets. But it’s not just taps. Oh no. No, it isn’t. That darned Ennio Morricone and his compositions.

If you are feeling brave, or don’t mind a sudden cry, here’s a link. There’s something noble about the eighth notes. Is that it? Because once I say that…I sound like a nerd, and a slightly deranged one, too. Why do a series of notes played at certain times by a specifically timbred instrument evoke nobility and high heartedness?

The solo was not composed for this movie. It was used, brilliantly, but American Sniper was not the original film.

Wading into guesswork in the youtube comments, I noticed that the Italians were getting anxious when the song was attributed to Morricone and his work for The Return of Ringo.…they seem to be saying that Morricone arranged the song from from an Italian movie, Il Silenzio. One person linked that, and I offer it here. Three movies, one song.

Maybe when I successfully wipe my face off with the world’s biggest hanky, I’ll have some conclusions on music, storytelling, and aesthetics. In the mean time, I only meant to bring to your attention the wide ranging power of certain sounds to evoke certain emotions. Plato would be so proud.

Authors: Pursue Problems; Avoid Didacticism

As Thalia has noted, she and I have worked with Athanatos Christian Ministries for some years in guiding the semi-finalists of their annual novel contest in polishing their submissions.

When it comes to editing any sort of writing project, my kneejerk inclination, which I may or may not follow, is to read it through and take a red pen to any and all mechanical errors and questionable phrasing. This can get fussy, and honestly it’s all but meaningless with regard to the unfolding of the plot – unless there are some particularly egregious misspellings!

But spelling, grammar, and comma usage are a free-and-easy fix compared to more fundamental aspects of a story. Clearing away the haze of poor mechanics reveals the soundness (or deficiency!) of its underlying elements. So writers, bear in mind a couple of basic principles:

Problems are Plot. This took me a very long while to get my head around – first because I wrote self-insertion stories wherein I could ~magically~ do anything and everything (including fly a magic carpet to Venezuela, own a house full of gemstones the size of my fist, and have my grade-school crush fall in love with me: plain ol’ wish fulfillment, nothing more), and later because I crafted characters who I hated to subject to troublesome things. It seemed unkind, creating someone just to afflict him with grief, or her with financial disaster, or both of them with romantic disappointment that could easily be avoided with a little bit of communication.

But characters exist for story, and stories are fueled by problems. This is the essential Rule of Drama.  Maybe they’re internal problems, which eventually manifest in a strange or sudden action from the protagonist.  Maybe they’re mechanical problems: the car broke down in the middle of nowhere, the plane is falling from the sky, the parachute was replaced by a live alligator. Maybe they’re failures of communication or understanding. Maybe they’re the tension between what is right and what is easy. Maybe there are triplets, not twins.  Maybe a man came through the door with a gun in his hand.

Don’t just show me a nondescript fellow carrying on his orderly life in a mediocre fashion.  Don’t just give me a flat sequence of happenstances, don’t spend the whole book describing the landscape or characters, don’t bore me with 12 chapters of exposition.  Start somewhere, add problems, work to solve the problems, add more problems in the meantime, and end up somewhere else – or as someone else.

This is also an important point.  The Catcher in the Rye presents us with a character and adds problems, or something like, but none of them are resolved.  The Holden Caulfield at the end is just like the Holden Caulfield at the beginning, except he’s a little bit older.  Which might be the idea: here, look at this teenager; behold how lame he is; don’t you just want to not be like him in any way?

It’s a long-winded, time-consuming way to teach a single lesson.  But it does follow my other main rule for writers:

Don’t Be Didactic.  What does that mean?  Well, in an earlier post I noted that “didactic” comes from the Greek word for “teaching,” and thus isn’t bad per se.  Teaching is good: but how to do it?  Show your work.  Don’t tell the reader “Well, that business was just evil” or “James suddenly behaved properly, fancy that” or “Communism doesn’t work.”  You have just told the reader about the start of the maze, then dropped him off at the end of the maze, and revealed none of the twists and turns within it.  You have held up a solved puzzle, an assembled model, a fully-folded piece of origami, and kept its inner workings to yourself.  Will it hold together?  How should we know?  Can we take your word for it, since you didn’t take us through the process?

Emily pointed out that some examples or excerpts would be helpful, and indeed, I stand convicted of doing the thing while telling storytellers not to do it.  The difficulty is that I don’t want to quote sections of Athanatos entries I’ve read, since that’s not in keeping with contest rules or a spirit of charity.

So let me take a step back and note that, as I understand Athanatos, their mission is to find and encourage Christian authors.  However, they want stories, first and foremost: well-crafted, well-told, beautiful stories, which will draw in and grip whoever reads them.  They need not be explicitly Christian, if that makes sense; in fact, a latent approach might be preferable.  Though we’ve gotten a fair few novels featuring one or more of the following tropes, it’s not always most effective to feature an altar call, full Bible verses, a conversion prayer, the appearance of angels, a discussion of various points of doctrine, or a bright shining light with a heavenly voice.  There might be occasions where one or another of these, or something like them, can be deployed to good effect; for the most part, such elements only speak to readers already on the inside of the circle.

Stories are journeys, not destinations, so let your characters and your readers travel.  Stick your travelers between a frying pan and a fire.  When difficult questions arise, don’t just answer them, straight off; let them unfurl into tension between characters who want different things, who believe different things – just like real life.  Let there be consequences to choices made, and let those consequences illuminate the nature of the choices instead of baldly stating your estimation of it.  Not that every single choice the characters make must be labored over in a welter of philosophizing – in that case, they might not do anything – but maintain personalities that are real enough to conflict with each other, in such a way that resolution of that conflict means something.

The best books have the power to change their readers.  Fashioning something with that power requires some heavy lifting and a good deal of internal wrestling (and revision, and revision, and revision).  But the end product shines like the sword Zhaligkeer:  “You have then the strength of four blades, not just one.  There is a tension in the twisting of the braid that is never undone.  This tension is what makes the sword leap to the hand and sing in the air.  No common blade forged of a rod and flattened can stand against it.”

Authors: Write with Deliberation.

For several years, Terpsichore and I have been coaching semi-finalists in Athanatos Christian Ministries’s novel competition. We spend 3 months or so working with authors on revisions, polishing and working on the art of story  telling. We work one on one with each author to provide specific criticism and advice. At the end of the revision period, authors re-submit their revised work and some hard working chap wins and has their book published by Athanatos. Pretty sweet, eh?
Well, every year I write a wrap up email with advice for how to keep working to be the best author possible, and every year the general advice is the same. Terpsichore has also found some patterns, so we thought we’d share the more universal advice. Here’s mine. Pursue your writing with deliberation and purpose. How?
Read books about writing. Style guides like Strunk and White go a long way, but a book like John R. Erickson’s Story Craft make a big difference to seeing how to apply the ideas. I’ve also heard that Stephen King’s On Writing is insightful.
Write every day. Pout. This stinks. Finding time, being disciplined, focusing on something! For pete’s sake, we’re not medieval monks! But, there is good news here.
You don’t have to write for hours, or entire chapters. Set manageable goals for yourself. Got 15 minutes? Write for 15 minutes. Can you reliably write 250 words before dinner? Do that.
Also, you don’t have to write NEW words every day. Nor must you sit down and write the very next 250 words in your current project. Re-write yesterday’s words. Plan a different plot that’s been niggling you. Write about how you’re going go berserk if your upstairs neighbor slams the door and wakes the baby one. more. time. Just remember to file everything carefully, and never, never delete anything. You never know when you’ll need those loose words.
(oh, and, this isn’t a salvific matter. you ain’t going to hell if you miss a day or 9, so just pick it back up.)
Be a picky reader, in order to train discernment. Pay close attention to what you’re reading, and if it’s not very good, stop reading it. Is the plot flimsy, or only carried along by sensational occurrences? Are the characters boring or implausible? Is the prose itself varied, interesting, and stylish? If the answer is no, the book is not worth your time. You must give yourself the very best examples so that your “ear”, and “eye” for what is valuable and good is trained to judge between good and bad. When you can trust your well trained instincts, you will find the whole process easier.
And read Egotist’s Club! We’ll turn you towards those good books and share our thoughts on writing.

The White of the Chart

You probably knew this about me (and even if you didn’t, it’s pretty standard human nature in the 21st century), but:

I am a liiiiiittle obsessed with site stats.

In particular, I am fascinated with the fact that WordPress sees fit to give us a map of the countries in which our blog has been viewed. It is super-pleasing to me that such a thing exists, and even more pleasing to see that somehow in the past year we’ve drawn someone in from Kazakhstan and Mali, and a couple more views from China:

2015-01-20 Stats MapBut mostly I wish it were possible to fill in the blank spots.

Like, how do I lure in the folks from Greenland? Technically they’re owned by Denmark or something, so how come the 68 Denmarkian views don’t fill Greenland in too? Same goes for Norway and Svalbard, and France/French Guiana.

And, despite the fact that I post nothing whatsoever in Arabic nor Korean, I find myself wondering about the fact that we’ve never been visited by anyone from Iran nor North Korea.  It’s impossible to tell whether we’re unappealing to the market, if we’re just plain irrelevant to their interests, if the area in question somehow does not have any internet access whatsoever, or if the complete and utter lack of readership reflects a greater degree of censorship and/or governmental control over the internet.

Or, okay, it’s not completely impossible to tell on that last one, at least not where North Korea is involved.

Anyway, one could characterize this desire to color in the map as juvenile.  But is that desire for completeness a bad thing?  I think it reflects a concern with universality: what I really want to write is something worth reading, no matter who you are, where you’re from, or what years you exist.  A lot of the books we read and ideas we discuss here are universal enough, but our interpretation of them comes from a very specific background.  I want to learn more about these places to determine what I’m missing out on when I lack feedback from them.

So there’s Greenland and Svalbard and North Korea, of course, plus Laos, Papua New Guinea, El Salvador, Haiti, most of the former-Soviet –stans, Iran, Madagascar, Suriname and French Guiana, Lesotho, Mauritania, Congo, Tanzania, Senegal, the Gambia, Liberia, et cetera, et cetera.

I know pretty much nothing about most of these countries. Sure, I could point to them; I could name the capital, maybe, and perhaps recite a detail or two (especially where Haiti or Iran’s concerned). But what makes Gabon different from anywhere else? What is it that I don’t know about Niger that I really would like to know, and what’s so worth finding out that someone from Niger would bother consulting me about it? What made Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan into different nations when the Soviet Union broke up?

So here’s my plan: this will be a year of those grade-school-type geography projects. You know the sort – you get assigned a country and must figure out how many people it has, what religion(s) those people believe in, how they govern themselves or are governed, their folk traditions, their dress, their crops, their livelihoods. What natural features or edifices are worth looking at if you go there. What animals you want to seek out or avoid. Local news, weather, and traffic.

There is a whole lot of world out there, and while it isn’t necessarily possible to travel to all of it…it’s certainly possible to learn more about it!

(…and then, of course, it’s worth learning more about all the places that HAVE visited us. Silly of me to shun all the other places I don’t know about in favor of their more aloof neighbors, I suppose.)

Cool Jep Stories

I think I answered most questions the average viewer might have about Jeopardy and how it operates last week.  But there are still a few odds and ends that seemed worth noting, so this is just to cover anything I missed before.

First off: John and his pink-shirt-Friday friend Adam, as well as Adam’s brother Aaron, did a podcast concerning John’s run on the show.  After watching the January 15 show, we listened to part of it and tracked down the 4 youTube video segments (from 1984) of the first Jeopardy! show hosted by Alex Trebek.  It’s much the same in essentials, but Alex gives so much more detail about how the show works; there’s much more applause from the audience; and unless I’m much mistaken, it was possible for contestants to ring in before the question was over – a “hack” buzz that isn’t possible today.

1984 Alex Trebek

I’ll take “mustaches” for $1000, Alex.

Reading through Ken Jenning‘s second AMA reminds me that oh yeah, Jeopardy doesn’t normally cover travel costs – so if you register and make it to auditions/the show, be reading to pony up for the flight, car rental, and/or hotel stay.  The second- and third-place contestants get $2000 and $1000, respectively, but that doesn’t necessarily cover everything.

Ken also noted that he’d been blackballed from game shows, “like the card-counters who get kicked out of casinos.”  This isn’t the case for everyone, as Jeopardy is probably the biggest stickler where its contestants are concerned.  The registration page reads “You are not eligible to be a contestant on JEOPARDY! if you have appeared on a nationally broadcast game show/dating show/relationship show/reality show in the last year or three game shows/dating shows/relationship shows/reality shows in the last 10 years.”

Another perennial point of interest is the stories that the contestants share right after the show’s first commercial break.  Sometimes they manage to be fascinating, often they come across a little dull or strange, and sometimes they’re just random.

Cool Jep StoriesWell, not without reason.  It’s a bit difficult, we (family and friends) decided, to tell a story of any significance to a nation of strangers when you’ve less than a minute to do so, context and all – and any time taken on storytelling is time taken away from answering questions on the board.  So it’s best to be brief, especially because Alex spends some 5 to 15 seconds introducing the story.  Moreover, you can’t be not-boring without attempting to be unique, or at the very least uncommon; you can’t do that without some people finding you very strange, or a jerk, or a very strange jerk.

We learned from John that contestants give the show 5 topics or fun facts or tidbits (free of any sort of promotion or advertisement), highlighting the one they find most interesting to discuss.  But Alex gets the list, and he’s the one who picks which story goes on the show.  During John’s week of play, a lot of different people ended up discussing how they met their spouses; someone joked during a post-game discussion that Alex should write a book concerning all the meet-cutes he’d heard about.

Since I have no meet-cute of my own, this leaves me wondering: what stories would I tell?  What 30-40 second-story could I share with the country without feeling weird about it?

Anything posted here, I guess, edited accordingly.  Perhaps I’d relate details about my ongoing project of fashioning a liturgical calendar of cocktails, or volunteering as Boswell for every trip I go on, or confess touching the manuscript containing the LeFay Fragment.  Maybe I’d discuss my affinity for parodies.

But maybe I’d just say “Well, my brother got on the show, and it was so much fun I wanted to do it too.”

What story would you share on Jeopardy?

Concerning Things Categorical

It being the start of a new year, there have been a very few minor changes here.  Specifically, the tabs at the top – “Egotists Create,” “Muse-ings,” and “Reviews” – have been updated, and a few items shifted around.

The process of so doing, of course, prompted the question “Is this useful?”  On one hand, if there aren’t that many new posts, well, then perhaps organizing or re-organizing the older content is moot.  But then, if there aren’t additional new musings, it might be more important than ever to render old posts easier to find.

“Creative Writing” also seemed a somewhat problematic subcategory, as any somewhat-intentional stringing together of words could qualify for it.  So that list has now been trimmed to certain stories and monologues, while original poetry – be it high-brow and allusion-rich, pattering doggerel, sonnets, parodies, or song – has been filtered out into its own section.

Muse-ings, meanwhile, remains a bit more elusive; it’s partly broken down into the quasi-academic, the humorous, that concerning the sexes, discussions and analysis of poetry, language usage, translations, and the seasonal, but there remains a goodly chunk of Uncategorized Whimsy.

Do you have any thoughts on this?  Do you just utilize tags or categories?  By all means, let us know what would make for easier reading or searching; we’ve love any feedback.