Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Believe Care Invest: White Noise

Middle-aged Jack Gladney, chair of Hitler Studies at College-on-the-Hill in a midwestern town, watches the students return to campus. He lives with his wife Babette and their children from previous marriages. He and American Studies teacher Murray Siskind visit the most photographed barn in America. Foreshadowing of an Airborne Toxic Event abounds.

Why Jack might be hard to identify with: We’re hardwired to dislike men like Jack with an unspecified number of ex-wives he doesn’t get along well with. And of course, like any postmodern hero, he’s disconnected from his surroundings and his own thoughts and feelings, which risks us being unable to connect to him.

  • The book has lots of lists of brand-name objects to make everything specific. “Onion-and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn; the Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints.”
  • Complicated family situations always feel realistic.
  • They’re poorer than the students. “Not that we don’t have a station wagon ourselves.” “It’s small, it’s metallic gray, it has one whole rusted door.”
  • He’s got a vague malaise: “Things, boxes. Why do these possessions carry such sorrowful weight?”
  • We’ll find out shortly after this excerpt that he has a big embarrassing secret: He doesn’t speak or read German, and he trying to learn it in secret.
  • But he doesn’t suffer that much in the first half. He’s largely just benignly observing and sort of marveling at his world. He’ll suffer a lot in the second half, where he’ll be exposed to a toxic cloud and find out his wife is having an affair.
  • We like his odd eyes. He uses odd adjectives (his wife’s hair is “a fanatical blonde mop”)
  • He’s an obsessive observer: In the middle of a clutch with his wife, he spots a plane: “I met her at the edge of the playing field and embraced her, putting my hands inside the sweatband of her gray cotton pants. A small plane appeared over the trees. Babette was moist and warm, emitting a creaturely hum.”
  • He’s funny: Murray says: “I understand the music, I understand the movies, I even see how comic books can tell us things. But there are full professors in this place who read nothing but cereal boxes.” Jack responds, “It’s the only avant-garde we’ve got.”
Strength / Flaw: Observant / Disconnected.

Monday, March 29, 2021

The Annotation Project: White Noise

A 1985 novel that couldn’t be more timely in 2021. Download this here. BCI tomorrow!


Sunday, March 28, 2021

Believe Care Invest: Emma

21 year old Emma Woodhouse has been raised by a beloved governess Miss Taylor, but played matchmaker for her and got her married off, leaving Emma alone with her dull father. Emma decides she has a talent for matchmaking and set her eyes on new couples, but her sister’s brother-in-law, Mr. Knightley, the only person ever willing to criticize Emma, advises her against it.

Why Emma might be hard to identify with: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” Austen’s previous heroines had been in need of a good marriage, but now she tried to get us to like a spoiled rich girl. Austen invites us to judge Emma for flaws that she can’t perceive about herself, so our POV is distinct from the heroine’s

  • The boringness of her father takes the form of an object: backgammon.
  • She’s got values: “Mr. Weston was a man of unexceptionable character, easy fortune, suitable age, and pleasant manners; and there was some satisfaction in considering with what self-denying, generous friendship she had always wished and promoted the match.” But we can see that she doesn’t hold herself to the same standards she holds others.  
  • “Sorrow came—a gentle sorrow—but not at all in the shape of any disagreeable consciousness.—Miss Taylor married. It was Miss Taylor’s loss which first brought grief. It was on the wedding-day of this beloved friend that Emma first sat in mournful thought of any continuance.”
  • She feels she has to be “on” all the time around her father, which is wearying: It was a melancholy change; and Emma could not but sigh over it, and wish for impossible things, till her father awoke, and made it necessary to be cheerful. His spirits required support.
  • She’s too smart for her father: “She was now in great danger of suffering from intellectual solitude. She dearly loved her father, but he was no companion for her. He could not meet her in conversation, rational or playful.” And indeed when Mr. Knightley comes in and starts sparring with her, we can see that she’s smart and lively.
  • She has done a good thing in matchmaking for Miss Taylor, so she does have some talent in her chosen avocation, though, as Mr. Knightley points out, she overestimates her contribution. We admire her for giving up her only happiness.
Strength / Flaw: clever / too sure she knows what’s good for others

Saturday, March 27, 2021

The Annotation Project: Emma

Our oldest novel!  Do we have anything to learn from it?  Download these here.  BCI tomorrow!

Friday, March 26, 2021

Believe Care Invest: Matilda

4 year old Matilda lives with awful parents who just want her to watch TV, but she discovers a precocious love of books and spends all day at the library reading, first all the kids books and then adult books. Soon she decides that her parents are awful (“If only they would read a little Dickens or Kipling they would soon discover there was more to life than cheating people and watching television.”) and begins playing sadistic tricks on them, supergluing her father’s hat to his head.

Why Matilda might be hard to identify with: We’re not married to her POV. We flit from head to head, including in Dahl’s, who begins the book by talking about how if he was a teacher, he’d say horribly belittling things to the kids. Then the book begins and Matilda’s parents sound a lot like Dahl when they talk to their daughter! To bond with Matilda, we have to say, “I like my hero more than my omniscient narrator.”

  • She loves to read. We love readers. And we specific lists of what she’s reading.
  • We gets lots of good details of life as a crooked used car dealer.
  • She’s got abusive parents. “the parents looked upon Matilda in particular as nothing more than a scab. A scab is something you have to put up with until the time comes when you can pick it off and flick it away Mr and Mrs Wormwood looked forward enormously to the time when they could pick their little daughter off and flick her away, preferably into the next county or even further than that.”
  • We’ve all felt under-appreciated and under-protected by our parents, but her case is extreme. “To tell the truth, I doubt they would have noticed had she crawled into the house with a broken leg.”
  • Even the wonderful librarian has a hard time believing at first that she’s really reading all those books. Every precocious kid has had that experience.
  • She’s a genius: “It is bad enough when parents treat ordinary children as though they were scabs and bunions, but it becomes somehow a lot worse when the child in question is extra- ordinary, and by that I mean sensitive and brilliant. Matilda was both of these things, but above all she was brilliant. Her mind was so nimble and she was so quick to learn that her ability should have been obvious even to the most half-witted of parents.”
  • She starts playing pranks on them. “She decided that every time her father or her mother was beastly to her, she would get her own back in some way or another. A small victory or two would help her to tolerate their idiocies and would stop her from going crazy.”
  • Fascinatingly, she doesn’t discover that she has super-powers until page 100 or so, which is an odd place in a book for a genre-shift.
Strength/Flaw: Brilliant / Not much of a flaw. What do you say, do you see a flaw?

Thursday, March 25, 2021

The Annotation Project: Matilda

And we’re back! And I got the book back from my editor! Her verdict: She likes it!  But she says it needs more book examples. The problem, as always, is that there are few books that everybody has read. I imploringly ask you for examples of books that everybody has read that you’d like to see featured here. In the meantime, here’s one: Matilda!  Download this here.  BCI tomorrow.


Friday, March 19, 2021

Episode 26: The Eight Character Wheel with Lou Anders

UPDATE: I changed the title from “Beyond Head Heart Gut” to make it clear this is a stand-alone episode. 

Hey guys, it’s a new episode of the podcast! James and I welcome the delightful novelist Lou Anders who expands on Head Heart Gut with a list of eight archetypes hiding in many great stories!  Check out Lou’s site to grab his books and RPGs!

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Best of 2020 #1: Onward

Wait just a second!  When I was talking about Soul a few days ago, didn’t I say that I was tired of Pixar's “you should accept death” message?  And here I am celebrating even more so a Pixar movie about accepting death that came out before that one!  What can I say?  This movie ends on a really sad moment, but until that moment, it’s much cheerier than Inside Out and Coco, which to me made its bittersweet ending much more powerful.  

I have a long and rich history of populating these lists with popular releases that fared poorly on other top ten lists. I think I can safely say that this movie, which every critic saw, did not end up on a single year end list, and certainly not in the number one position. But ultimately this movie is here for the same reason that Nomadland isn’t: I’ve callused up a lot of thick skin over the years and I want a movie that can cut through it. Nomadland made me smile a few times and tugged my heart strings a few times, but there were no audible chuckles or actual tears. Now, if you want a movie that actually did make me laugh out loud, and then left me bawling like a baby (all three times I’ve seen it) you need look no farther than Onward. I’m starting to tear up just typing these words: When our hero realizes his brother has been a good surrogate dad to him, it hits me like a brick.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Anthropomorphize Their Favorite Object, then Force Them to Kill It

When I was writing about “Little Women”, I noted that Alcott mentions in the first ten pages how proud Jo was of her beautiful hair and realized that was said just to make it more painful later when she decides to cut her hair off later to sell it for a needed trip. Now I of course notice this everywhere, and Onward is certainly a big example. This is even more true is you anthropomorphize the object. If they give the character’s van a name, that means it’s going to get sacrificed.