Novel Thoughts: The Steps Across the Water

The Steps Across the Water by Adam Gopnik is an illustrated children’s chapter book that chronicles the adventurers of a young girl, Rose, as she tries to battle evil in two parallel worlds. Rose is an adopted member of her family, and throughout the story she confronts and overcomes the limitations of the term family. Gopnik uses the city of New York as an anchor to reality while constructing for his readers the fictional realm of U Nork, a city modeled on New York but much larger in scope and vision. In the beginning.

Readers familiar with fairy tales and other fantasy literature will immediately see the influence of other popular works in The Steps Across the Water. For example, the Ice Queen is able to control people when they get a piece of ice lodged in their eye, a detail the story shares with the fairy tale “The Snow Queen.” We also see the influence of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Rose, much like Lucy, is a very sensitive girl. It is she to whom the steps are revealed at the beginning. After crossing them and learning of U Nork’s dire existential circumstances, she decides to proceed by offering whatever assistance she can. We also see the element of the Ice Queen, a woman who desires only winter and leads a very cold, hard life, a woman whose mission has become the destruction of U Nork.

Gopnik’s use of sarcasm throughout the book is successful at keeping adult readers entertained, albeit until the next page. For example, when Rose arrives in U Nork, she sees people paying for various goods and services by pulling coins out of their nose. Later after she and Louis have finished having lunch, he bites down on the check and tells her that they have his teeth marks on file. He explains, “That’s the way you charge a bill here…You either gotta pay through the nose of pay through your teeth.” Rose later learns that U Nork’s problems are its foundation and who controls it. Louis tells her, “I told ya U Nork was built on money.” Gopnik uses U Nork as a vessel of critique for New York in such a way that the cynicism is recognizable but not overwhelming.

The intended audience of the story has been obscured by both the language and the actions of the characters involved. Rose is a ten-year-old girl, but she is presented in a way that causes the reader to forget her age and focus on her maturity. For example, when she first visits U Nork, Louis takes her to a nice lunch (nice in the U Norkian sense). This lunch involves being seated in a vertical human pyramid. Rose climbs up and up and tries to comfortably situate herself on someone else’s shoulders, and Gopnik writes, “She looked down, then quickly looked back up. It was so precarious!” In this case, the narrative voice seems to have slipped from that of our protagonist to the author himself. Gopnik doesn’t shy away from incorporating minor four-letter words throughout the text, and although they are not overwhelming, they do cause confusion when trying to determine an appropriate audience.

The author’s own familiarity with New York serves to create a more realistic experience; however, for readers unfamiliar with the size and scope of that city, the over-exaggerated features of U Nork will seem less tangible, less significant.

The Steps Across the Water is a mildly entertaining story, and younger readers are sure to appreciate the illustrations, which have a nostalgic quality. However, older readers are likely to be bored by the author’s insistence on the vast difference between New York and U Nork. While the issue of family and its parameters is commendably dealt with and while Rose is somewhat a sympathetic character, The Steps Across the Water is likely to be a more poignant story to a local audience, one familiar with the setting and its possibilities.

Fiction Friday: Tough Defense Part 2

Tough Defense Part 1

“Good morning, counselors,” she lied, stepping into the conference room.

Stuart Chapman, the lead prosecutor, and his co-counsel stood to greet her.

“Don’t get up gentlemen. This meeting shouldn’t take long.”

“As you know, Ms. Malloy, our offer is very generous. We have clearly allowed more leniency than is due a client of this…kind.” Lance Rivers, the co-counsel, was the very picture of a legal parasite. He was too short for his attitude, and his face was drawn and pale. The hollows of his cheeks and the dark circles under his eyes lent him more ferocity than anything his dim intellect could have conjured.

All Charlotte could do was stare pointedly at Stuart. Why was the co-counsel doing all the talking?

“I’m very well aware of what you’ve offered my client,” Charlotte said. “But we’re not interested.”

At this, Stuart’s confidence flickered. She knew he’d not been expecting this from her.

“Now wait a minute, Charlotte,” he began. As quickly as he was caught off guard, he just as easily reassumed his composure. “Lester made that man disappear. He couldn’t pay up, and Lester, well, God only knows what Lester did with him ’cause now we can’t find him. You know as well as we do that this is a sweet deal for a guy like that.”

She cut him off, “Mr. Chapman, we have studied your offer extensively, and we find it unacceptable. End of story. What you see as a generous offer my client sees as patronizing injustice. I’m sorry, fellas. There will be no deal struck here today. See you in court.”

Before they could object, Charlotte retreated to her office. Small victories proudly won, she thought. She may not have a clue how she was going to defend her client, who was obviously very guilty of the crime of which he was accused, but she had won the first of what she hoped would be many small personal victories to come.

* * * *

To be continued…

Text only ©2011 Jessica Cocita. All Rights Reserved

Novel Thoughts: The Secret Lives of Dresses

Erin McKean’s The Secret Lives of Dresses tells the story Dora’s evolution from unassuming, aimless college student to self-assured, motivated small-business owner. After her grandmother’s stroke, Dora finds that her sense of responsibility, along with her sense of self, lay outside her original expectations.

One of the story’s pivotal settings is on the campus of Lymond College. McKean’s description of bulletin boards filled with student jobs and her explanation of Dora’s job at the coffee shop are accurate and adeptly rendered. It becomes clear early on that the author is no stranger to today’s college campus.The conversational tone also lends itself well to this environment. Dora’s thoughts are divulged to the reader in a way makes her relatable and sympathetic.

Mimi, arguably the most important secondary character in the novel, has a unique presence in the book. Or perhaps it’s her lack of presence that makes McKean’s depiction of her so intricate in the story and necessary for the reader. McKean does an excellent job of incorporating a character, of giving a character a voice, without that character actually speaking throughout the entire novel. We know just as well as Dora what Mimi would have to say about any given topic without her actually having to say it.

While Lymond is believable enough for the reader, the town of Forsyth, where Dora lived with Mimi, is not so precisely portrayed. The interaction of the characters with one another and the details we are given about the town itself are incongruous and create confusion for the reader. At one point, we are told the mall now houses an Anthropologie, and we are told that there is more than one Target. At another junction, however, we are told that the door greeter at Costco inquires how Mimi is faring, and everyone seems to know everyone else’s business. While they may seem minor discrepancies, they are enough to remind the reader of the fictitious nature of the story. If the attempt here is to create the feeling of a small town within a larger city, we can safely say the mark has been missed.

McKean also makes numerous references to cultural icons and events of importance during the nineties. She makes reference to the glove in the OJ Simpson trial, for example, and she makes mention of Dora’s Rachel haircut, an obvious reference to the Friends character. While most readers of today will understand these incorporations, they do reduce the timelessness of the story.

The story concludes as we could only hope it would, and McKean’s overall narrative structure doesn’t disappoint. There is adequate conflict, resolution, and reason to celebrate for the reader to ultimately be kept fully engaged.

Fiction Friday: Tough Defense Part 1

Charlotte sighed out the kitchen window. These moments in the morning were the only ones she could truly call her own. She studied the mother dove on the tree branch overreaching the deck. “If only,” she thought. She chugged the dregs from the coffee mug, took one last whiff of the fresh roses she’d cut, and slipped on her heels. The day stretched out before her, and Charlotte knew exactly what it held. It was going to be a long one. On her way out the back door, her heel caught in the spool of wire by the table. Oh Kip, she thought. Not another project.

This case had come to her in what she assumed was the usual way. Before the divorce six months ago, she never had need for cases like these. But come to her it had, and she was now the lead attorney on the case. Generally she found rhetoric thrilling; proving a point in court sent shivers down her spine. When she was with Darren, she had been able to pick and choose which cases to accept and which ones to hand down to the junior partners. She chose only the meatiest ones for herself. She would indulge herself in late nights of frantic research and early morning coffee-fueled client meetings because these things were intrinsic to who she was. And she was great at them. But this case. This was positively one for the junior lawyers, and now it was just Charlotte.

Kip had moved in with her shortly after the divorce. Not as a reaction to the split, but as one of those circumstances of cosmic import over which we seem to have no control. Ever since they were kids, Charlotte had been close to her sister, so when Kip arrived on her doorstep just days after Darren moved out, Charlotte really hadn’t been that surprised. She would never admit it to Kip, who took all sentiment as an invitation to make herself permanently at home, but Charlotte was glad for the company. In some ways, Charlotte envied Kip’s bohemian lifestyle (she’d never had that artistic wandering impulse herself), but most of the time it made her appreciate her stability. At least it had when she’d had it.

“Good morning, Charlotte,” the receptionist (was her name Elizabeth? Liz?) greeted her as she walked through the door. She mumbled something under her breath and darted over to her desk. Despite the fact that she had been at the firm for a few months, the names of the people in the office still managed to elude her. She would never admit it to anyone, but Charlotte saw her employment there as temporary, a stepping stone. It was a newer firm in one of the shining glass buildings downtown. Charlotte saw herself in one of the more established firms. She liked the heft of their name anchoring hers on her business cards, the clout they allowed her both in the courtroom and out of it. But news travels fast in the legal world, and what had happened between her and Darren had spread like wildfire. Charlotte couldn’t help reminding herself every now and then that there had been a time when she could have entered any law office in the city with her head held high. She would dole out condescending looks to lawyers at other firms as if to say, “It’s nice, your position here. At least it’s something.” At the time, her status as half of a power couple lent her a sense of entitlement. They had been featured in society magazines, every picture flawless, exuding success through the ink on the page. Little did everyone know that the relationship behind the perfect haircuts and the immaculate clothes was more porous than the paper on which their accolades were printed.

There is no time for this, Charlotte coaxed herself. Today was the day she would win. She had to.

* * * *

(To be continued…)

Text only ©2011 Jessica Cocita. All Rights Reserved.

Novel Thoughts: Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson

Anderson has an effective style that adeptly integrates historical facts, details, and nuances into her stories. In Forge, she focuses not only on the political history, but on the cultural history as well. She incorporates numerous superstitions (for example, a cow born with two heads is a bad omen. Go figure.) of the day, as well as the sense of pride and unity felt between most of the soldiers, regardless of their race or class. Notice, I said most. She is also quick to point out that unity was not necessarily the goal of everyone involved in the battles of the war. Subplots deal with disunity within the ranks because of race and disloyalty of both British and American soldiers to the cause.

This book doesn’t gloss over the atrocities of war; in fact, one of the opening scenes deals with two boys, Curzon and Ebenezer, faced with the ultimate wartime conundrum: kill or be killed. The story follows the construction of Valley Forge and serves to highlight the difficulties faced by the soldiers there, as opposed to glorifying the decisions of the officers. Through Curzon’s story she chronicles the food shortages, clothing shortages, and dire health concerns faced by those encamped in the legendary military stronghold. The story also follows Isabel, Curzon’s love interest who was also present in Chains. Isabel acts as the female voice in the story, serving to expose the different kinds of dangers faced by female slaves. While she is a strong presence in the novel, Anderson’s description of what has happened to her and what continues to happen to her is a bit vague at times. Readers get an idea of what life is truly like for Isabel, but any dangers unique to female slaves (for instance, those of rape by a white slaveowner) are merely hinted at or suggested.

Anderson’s use of dialect in this novel seems contrived at times. She does include language contemporary to the time, and she ensures the reader’s understanding of the terms by including a glossary at the end of the story. However, the narrative voice of the story seems to slip in and out of modern language, making the use of the vernacular of the time period seem forced.

As with most novels in a series (which, evidently, this one is), the end of the novel serves to leave readers wanting more via the next novel. However, Forge ends so abruptly that readers are likely to find themselves flipping through the last few pages trying to find what they missed. Cliffhangers are one thing, but when a reader is left with this much uncertainty, it seems that more information might have been helpful and, in fact, necessary.

As with her novel Fever 1793, Anderson has included a question and answer section as well as further reading in different appendices at the back of the book. The answers to the questions are thoughtful and probably intriguing to younger readers previously unfamiliar with the history related in the story. Anderson’s books never leave a reader wondering where her information came from and where they can go to discover more should they find their interest piqued. Forge serves not only to educate young readers but to entertain them as well, putting a human face on the history so often sanitized in textbook accounts.

Fiction Friday: Small Victories

The call came in at the newspaper reporter’s desk late on a Sunday. Finally, he wanted to meet.

Stanley had been waiting all week for this. He had been relentless in his attempts to secure an interview with this guy, but to no avail. No problem, Stanley thought. When I finally get my day, he won’t know what hit him.

Now was his chance. He was going to get his story (and what a story it would be) independently. The days of being marshaled by the senior reporters were over. This was the story that would prove Stanley’s journalistic mettle.

“I’ll show them,” he thought to himself. “Now they’re gonna see what real reporting looks like.”

Stanley decided not to return the call immediately. He’d waited; now it was the other guy’s turn. Stanley could play this game for a week, longer if he had to. It made him feel powerful. The ball’s in his court. He’s holding all the cards.

Two days after his office received the call, Stanley decided the time had come. He picked up the phone receiver with dampened palms. Don’t blow this one, Stanley-boy.

Stanley dialed carefully so as not to reach a wrong number. He waited less than patiently as the phone rang once. Twice. A third time.

“Good morning,” said the female voice at the end of the line. Her sunny enthusiasm made Stanley cringe.

“Yeah, I’m trying to reach your manager about doing a grand-opening piece for the newspaper. I wanted to see if I could talk to your clown…”

“Uh, his name’s Ronald,” she returned.

“Yeah, whatever, when can I talk to him?”

“Let me check.” Stanley thought he could hear the gum smacking through the phone. His sense of cut-throat confidence wavered.

“Be here tomorrow around three,” she said after a few minutes.

“Three? That’s the soonest? You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me.” Stanley didn’t have time to wait. This story could be crucial to his future here at the paper, and he couldn’t afford to bungle it.

“We’ll see you then at three tomorrow?” she asked. She either didn’t hear his question or, more probably, was choosing to ignore it.

Stanley put the phone in the cradle and sat back in his chair. After the debacle that was the high school talent show story he really needed to redeem himself.

When Stanley arrived the next afternoon, he walked through the door of the shiny new McDonalds, and the smell of French fries slammed into him. Happy meal boxes littered the tables, and children ran amuk with their little plastic toys. Now this was what journalism, real journalism, was meant to feel like.

*This writing is based on a prompt provided by Writers Digest circa February 11, 2011. For more information on Fiction Friday, see the Fiction Friday page.

Text ©2011 Jessica Cocita. All Rights Reserved.

Novel Thoughts: 13 rue Therese

Elena Mauli Shapiro’s 13, rue Thérèse deals with the history of a woman, Louise, as it is seen through the eyes of a professor working in Paris. Louise’s belongings, now mere artifacts to be consumed by study, come to Trevor Stratton via his department secretary Josianne with whom he is apparently in love. This detail, however, is fairly easy to overlook until the very last few pages.

The way the story is told can at times seem confusing. There is no continuity of time, which could perhaps be a way to suggest that suffering of the kind Louise endures knows no temporal limitations. Readers are constantly brought back and forth through time, and by the end of the book the current year, the year in which Dr. Stratton is supposedly situated, has become all but totally ambiguous.

There is an underlying theme likening the fallout of a broken heart to the fallout of war, specifically World War 1. Louise lives in Paris during the uneasy years between the first world war and the second. Stratton is an American in Paris after World War 2. As he studies Louise’s life, he begins to understand that the war permeated every conceivable part of her life, and the broken heart from which she suffered and the decisions she made because of it were the direct result of having lived and loved during the war.

Shapiro’s vocabulary sometimes seems out of place, as if she had her hands on a word too big and too slippery for her story and wanted to use it before it got away. For example, she writes, “Louise genuflects before the alter and crosses herself with holy water.” Genuflect is a marvelous word, and most of us learned context clues in the first grade so the meaning isn’t totally obscure. But I can’t help wondering if it is perhaps a bit overwhelming here. Essentially the sentence is about that word, particularly for those of us who don’t use it frequently.

Louise’s life and the people who populate it make for a very intriguing depiction of life in 1928. Shapiro devotes an entire chapter to most of them, and she includes details that don’t necessarily pertain to the story. These details make the characters all the more fascinating because they explain so much about why they function in Louise’s life the way they do, why they make the decisions they make and why they say the things they say. They are more life-like when they are written this way, although attempting to sort out who’s doing what does become confusing sometimes.

The book’s concept is an interesting one and is presented in a dynamic way. The e-book comes complete with photo images of what readers are supposed to believe are Louise’s belongings, which makes for a more interactive reading experience. The last chapter introduces a new twist that isn’t exactly well explained, a ploy that might have weakened the ending a bit, but the story in general wraps itself up nicely, and the reader can turn the last page feeling fulfilled.

*For more information about Novel Thoughts and to see a list of upcoming books, visit the Novel Thoughts page.

Novel Thoughts and Fiction Friday

In an effort to keep things fresh and to prevent growing pains, I have two new weekly blogs planned for Just Joywriting.

The first is called Novel Thoughts. Each week one post will feature a review of sorts about a book I’ve recently read. Most often they will be works of fiction (hence the name Novel Thoughts), but there are some works of nonfiction on the list as well. I’m reluctant to call them reviews or critiques; this isn’t that kind of blog. Their purpose is mainly (and hopefully) to inspire others to read the books as well. These posts will, more often than not, appear on Thursdays.

The second is called Fiction Friday. These posts will feature a short story I’m currently working on. Generally they will be episodic; it may take three weeks (sometimes more, sometimes less) to get the whole story posted. These stories are an effort to make myself accustomed with writing fiction that other people will see. They are by no means perfect. Feel free to weigh in on them, but keep in mind my novice status with the genre. These posts will appear on Fridays, as per the title.

My goal with these posts is to explore new possibilities both in reading and in writing. I hope they inspire conversation, and I hope they bring the reader as much joy as they bring the writer.

Vonnegut and The Epizootic

The ancient world was no stranger to great civilizations. Each one had its ideals; each one had its goals. And each one reached the point at which it became, as we say back home, too big for its britches. These civilizations sought to conquer all, to be the end-all be-all of world powers. And they met their demise, in large part, because of these ambitions. That’s ancient history (if you’ll pardon the pun).

What happens when we shrink these ambitions down to the microcosm? What happens when we apply them to, say, humans? One human? And what happens when we bring them forward into the twenty-first century?

Today’s ultimate goal doesn’t appear to be one of world conquest, although I could be wrong (stranger things have happened). We seem today to be caught up in a desire for more. Not a specific more, but a general overwhelming sense of ownership of, well, anything. We like stuff because stuff is an outward expression of who we think we’re supposed to want to be. We like our cars and our clothes and our access to technology, even our kids’ educations, to wreak of success, usually of the monetary sort.

Kurt Vonnegut’s short story entitled “The Epizootic” envelopes the concept of “committing suicide to create wealth.” Although I’m not sure when this story was written, it does seem to be hauntingly applicable to what’s happening today. The story talks about “one-way men.” These are the people who are born only to move up in the world. For them, there is only one direction in which to move. When that mobility becomes tenuous, they begin to panic and seek desperate measures to insure that their children will only move up. Their suicides allow their families to collect life insurance policies that will sustain them for the duration.

Vonnegut ends the story by suggesting that “the principal industry in this country is now dying for a living.” While I think that’s hyperbolic, I do see that at times we seem like a “one-way” society. We allow ourselves to be blinded to the possibility that there are many directions in life, and not all of them are up. We make progress without enjoying what it took to get us where we are. The end goal becomes a stepping stone, a brief interlude in our quest for whatever becomes our idea of the next best thing. So what happens when we get too big for our britches? What happens when we no longer see that it is what we do that helps make us who we are, not what we drive or what we wear? I’m not suggesting that Vonnegut’s Epizootic will ever become a real thing. But his story does seem to expose a certain weakness in our nature that we should no longer ignore.

A Prompt Writing

It was a strange engagement. But she had her own reasons for wanting to go through with it. And so did he.

She waited for him at that bar on Third Street. A friend of a friend had referred him. She had been assured that he could get the job done. They’d never met before, but somehow she knew she’d know him when she saw him. The bar smelled of smoke and rain and made her feel claustrophobic, and if the flourescent light above the bar kept flickering, she’d lose her nerve.

“Another?” asked the ever-attentive bartender. He wasn’t used to seeing women in his bar; he couldn’t even remember the last time he’d served one. She was a newcomer to the place and as such was worthy of suspicion. Her appearance did nothing to bolster his confidence in her. Her wet hair was matted to her forehead, and her mascara had run just enough to make the dark circles under her eyes noticeable.

“No thanks,” she said. “I’m drivin’.” Eventually I will be anyway, she thought.

She took a long drag on a bummed cigarette. She’d picked a poor day to quit. She could quit tomorrow. All this would be over tomorrow. Today was a day for a smoke. She finished sipping the gin and tonic she’d ordered over an hour ago. She shouldn’t even be here. She should have left half an hour ago. Where the hell was he? She didn’t have all evening to wait. She did have a schedule to keep, places to be, things to do…

She was seething by the time the bell atop the door jingled.

Funny, she thought. Seems kinda outta place in a joint like this.

“Did someone call a tow truck?”

“It’s about time you showed up,” she sighed. “I’ve been waiting forever. My car won’t start, and I have an engagement at a gallery in ten minutes. You know I’ll never make it in time to give my opening speech, and even if I did I couldn’t give it looking like this. Do you know what kind of important clients…”

“Will you be payin’ with cash or credit?” he interuppted. “If it’s credit, I’m gonna need to see some ID.”

*This story is based on a prompt (at the top in bold) provided by the Writers Digest website circa January 28, 2011. I can’t be serious all the time. : )