Hodge Podge: Ordinary, Occasional, Spur-Of-The Moment

The silence on this blog hasn’t been so much due to a lack of inspiration, but rather the time — or the quiet — to put it all down on paper. A lot of what I’ve had to say comes between the lines of real-life events, catching up with friends, and spending pool side time with a book.

None of these moments are particularly revelatory. In fact, they are ordinary, occasional, spur-of-the-moment flashes of joy. Like nerding out every time the John Adams theme plays at a Washington Nationals game.

So the latest Hodge Podge is a look at 500 episodes of This American Life, A few short book reviews, and a round up of a mish-mash of things my brain stopped to examine in the last two months.

This American Life at 500

It would be funny to joke that the radio show was five-hundred years old, but really five hundred episodes of top-quality storytelling is something that deserves a few lines. When I first started this blog almost four years ago my intention was to spend every week commenting on the latest TAL episode. While that hasn’t exactly come to fruition, I still find myself listening every week and thinking about the people that are profiled, their lives and what they say about living and being a citizen of these United States.

So some of my favorites from the last two years in no particular order: Continue reading “Hodge Podge: Ordinary, Occasional, Spur-Of-The Moment”

Hodge Podge: Old Houses, Athletic Traditions, Parody, and Loss

It’s been a busy summer. I’ve ended up having a lot more vacations then expected (which is great) and not enough time to work on some upgrades to the blog that I wanted (which is not so great). I did however manage to purchase a domain name so this blog is now thisiswhatcomesnext.com. Other changes should come in early fall.

This month’s Hodge Podge is what its always been. A collection of thoughts. A sense of appreciation. A tribute. It’s also a bit random with no clear connective tissue beyond the history and links to storytelling. I end this post with a collection of links because when I haven’t been writing here I have been writing for PreservationNation.org, Fangirl, and Homespun.

Continue reading “Hodge Podge: Old Houses, Athletic Traditions, Parody, and Loss”

Hodge Podge: Aside the Fourth Wall in the Arena, the Stage, and a Hotel in Chelsea

This is perhaps a post more about narrative than anything else. As I work on another story for May I am ruminating on how to pull together disparate pieces into something coherent and meaningful. And so for this post I thought I would take a look at methods of storytelling in film and theatre. Specifically, the role of the fourth wall in narrative.

The first is a look at the recent book turned into film The Hunger Games, followed by a reflection of a recent adaptation of Eugene O’Niell’s Strange Interlude at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC. Finally, I wanted to look at the role of participant theatre through my experience at the creepy, yet satisfying production, Sleep No More, a version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

The Hunger Games

Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in THE HUNGER GAMES. Photo credit: Murray Close

A story about a world controlled by violence where children are held hostage to a Capitol determined to hold society under their thumbs through an annual gladiator style rite called the Hunger Games. By now, most of you know about this series, and there isn’t much I can say about this book that hasn’t already been addressed by others….

  • Do I see Katniss as a strong female character? Check. (Fangirl | NYT)
  • Do I recognize the stories precedents in classics such as the Lottery and to some extent Lord of the Flies (and, yes, Battle Royale) Check.
  • Do I see in the narrative a reflection of our obsessions with 24 hour news, and reality television? Check.

From a storytelling angle, I have to approach the book and the movie separately. The book looks to tell the story from one point of view. We only see and learn what Katniss understands, we know what she knows. It’s like looking at the history of a town or a place and using one person’s diary to tell the tale, sans broader political or social context. We know she is only a piece in a larger machine, but we don’t know what role she plays until later.

In the movie, this tale is approached from two or three different perspectives. We still have Katniss’ point of view—primarily in the arena, but we are also given information as a part of the viewing audience along with glimpses of the undercurrent of malevolence by President Snow and company. And here is where the fourth wall comes in (props to my friend Rob for bringing this up). In the film adaptation we’re pulled into the film primarily through the use of the “hand held (shaky) camera.” The fight scenes feel un-choreographed – and we are amidst the chaos, grappling for some purchase and an upper hand.

The fourth wall is a theatrical term that refers to the barrier between the audience and the events on the screen or stage. “Breaking through the fourth wall,” is when that audience is acknowledged directly, no longer invisible. While the Hunger Games film never directly acknowledges our presence, I did feel at times that the camera work, and the “reality” based storyline made us more than just an unwitting audience member – and made you think of how complicit we are, in our world, of feeding the unreality of reality television.

Strange Interlude

Baylen Thomas (Ned Darrell) and Francesca Faridany (Nina Leeds).
Credit: Shakespeare Theatre DC

The story starts with a man talking about his daughter, Nina. Her fiancé has recently passed amidst the fighting of World War I, and her father worries that she will never rise up from her grief and sorrow.

Over the next 3 hours and 45 minutes (a shorter version of play that is normally almost over 4 hours, and often includes a dinner break) viewers are treated with a strange tale. One of grief, manipulation, love (can you call it love?) and expectation. This is Strange Interlude.

I’ll be honest, when we first heard how long it was my friends and I made an unofficial pact (one we probably would never have gone through with, because we aren’t really like that): if we hated the show we would bail during the first intermission.

Luckily that was never necessary. It’s hard to describe Nina Leeds. On one hand she is held up as someone who will not do what is expected, refusing to listen to her father or to an old family friend until pushed. On the other, she and most of the males in her life believe that happiness comes with marriage and children, a daunting task for someone who lives her life for her lost love. When she finally does wed, she discovers a hidden secret in her husband’s family that forces her to live her life dedicated to putting someone else’s happiness above her own.

I don’t want to give away the story (especially for those who may consider attending this show), but I wanted to look at two specific elements. In terms of set it’s a blank canvas. Three pale walls that take up only half of the stage at the Harmon Center for the Arts (the rest of the stage is dark). During scene breaks, scenes of the time/mood/tension are flashed on these walls through black and white silent films.

Credit: http://www.facebook.com/ShakespeareinDC

Much of what we learn about motivations and feeling come from regular asides from each of the main characters. An aside, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, is when a character steps out of the normal conversational dialogue to add….an aside, something only we can hear, but none of the other principal actors can. In Strange Interlude we glean sincerity and a version of reality (as each of them see it). Not quite the fourth wall, but certainly insight that we would not get if this was written as a straightforward play.

Don’t want to take my word for it? Let others sway you, and then go see it yourself. (If I didn’t mention it before, this is also a comedy).

Sleep No More


She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word. —
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Mask and Ticket for Sleep No More
Credit: Priya Chhaya

Picture this. You check in your bags, and receive your ticket – a playing card that leads you up some stairs and through a narrow dark passageway that transports you from there (Chelsea, New York City,  New York) to here. You are told it is a hotel…the McKittrick Hotel, but it is also a speakeasy where suited up guides use breaks in the music to call out numbers for the much larger show. This is how we are herded, prepared for what is to come.

You get a mask, reminiscent of the masks from V for Vendetta but much more ghoulish, and are told to stop speaking. No cell phones. No outside communication at all. After all you are no longer there…you are here.

And up, up, we go and step beyond the realm of typical theatrics and into the show itself.

Have you ever watched a play and wondered what it would be like to walk on set, walk through doorways, and wander about fake libraries, dining rooms or battlefields? In the McKittrick that is what we get to do. On one floor we are wandering through a graveyard. Small crosses dotting a hallway that is nearly pitchblack. I can smell the dirt, and hear the sorrow. The graveyard turns into ruins, half built brick walls, with a statue of Jesus (or was it an angel?) raising their arms towards us. (Aside: This would have seemed less menacing had I not recently seen the “Don’t Blink” episodes of Dr. Who.) It’s a maze that ends in a wall of glass doorways, and peering through the frosted glass you are given a glimpse of a bedroom filled with other silent, masked attendees.

We walked through the glass and spotted the white, porcelain tub in the center of the room. Papers lay scattered about, and when you pick it up you see a familiar name. Macbeth, writing to his lady love.

And then, he walks in followed later by his wife – and though they never verbalize the conversation we figure out that this is the moment. When she convinces him that regicide is what he must do to achieve the throne.

Then we have a choice. To stay with the Lady, or to follow him as he runs to his fate. We stay, others go. We wait, knowing that when Macbeth returns he will have hands stained with blood. And so he does.

We are a part of the play. We are the silent observers to the madness. It is truly like stepping in, almost like a voyeur, into the play itself. The actors never really acknowledge our presence, but they react, dance and float. They fight and we are moved along with the motion, physically working to find out what comes next.


If anything comes close to truly breaking the fourth wall, this production by Punchdrunk (who champions this type of immersive theatre) does. In this play, Sleep No More, “Lines between space, performer and spectator are constantly shifting. Audiences are invited to rediscover the childlike excitement and anticipation of exploring the unknown and experience a real sense of adventure.” (www.sleepnomorenyc.com). The sets are meticulous, and successfully provide visitors with the opportunity to investigate, opening books, touching tables and wandering.

It is, however, not for the faint of heart. While I explored as much as possible, the silence is unnerving, at times frightening (especially when you are on the upper floor filled with signs of growing insanity by the inhabitants), and I was grateful to have my sister standing next to me.

Like Strange Interlude and The Hunger Games the fourth wall still exists, but it is transparent. While we cannot affect the outcome of the show, we are a part of it, and though you do not need to know the story of Macbeth, it helps to make connections and to understand motivations.

At the end of the night as we stepped from here to there—back into Chelsea, New York City, New York, and reality once again.

Sleep No More is currently being shown through the end of June 2012. For more information visit www.sleepnomorenyc.org.

Hodge Podge: On Vice, Designations, and Reviewing a Home

Happy Thanksgiving! As we head on into the long weekend I thought it would be nice to think about food and foodways as a lead in to an event I attended at Woodlawn, the importance of our latest National Monument at Fort Monroe, and a review of a book about the evolution of a particular hearth and home.

On Vice and Food

Woodlawn during the 2011 Vices that Made Virginia Event. Image from the Neighborhood Restaurant Group Flickr Page

When I was an undergraduate student I had the opportunity to take a course on foodways. We learned about the sugar and salt trade and their role in global economies while also examining objects from our kitchens to see and understand everyday life.

A few days ago I learned that my professor from this course, Barbara Carson, had passed away, and so I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what I learned from her.

Food can tell us a lot of things about the past. On one level we learn about diets—how our ancestors (or grandparents even) got their nutrition. We learn about how advances in canning and preservatives allowed food from California to be eaten in Vermont. And with more and more advances in transportation commodities like tea, sugar, salt, and spices became less of a luxury and more accessible—removing these items as limited only to the rich.

How this food was prepared gives us insight into familial roles—and the role of mealtimes in the cult of domesticity. We learned more about how that expectation changed, and the how advent of TV dinners moved families from the dinner table to the couch.

This was on my mind when I attended the second annual “Vices that Made Virginia” program at Woodlawn Plantation in Alexandria, VA. A National Trust property, this fund raiser was put on by Arcadia: Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture —a non-profit organization bringing farming back to Woodlawn while educating children and adults on how food comes from the farm to the table.

The program itself was set up to highlight Virginia vices: cigars, bourbon, wine and of course the fresh produce, while introducing visitors to the farm and the historic site where it lay. It was, in one word, delicious.

Thinking about local food, and eating local harvests is a current trend in being sustainable not only economically but also in establishing a healthy lifestyle. It is a matter of looking back into our pasts and recognizing that sometimes the best things to eat is in your backyard.

Professor Carson’s course gave me a foundation to understand the shifts in thinking about how we eat, when we eat, and why we eat…what we eat. She also provided me with the essential underpinnings on how to look at material culture and find meaning. For that, I will be forever grateful.

Designating a National Monument

A few months ago I had the opportunity to sit in on a conversation at Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, DC. This mini-conference was a brainstorming session, a place for attendees to envision a way to save a piece of history that is not often talked about: the history of the contraband.

In short, in May 1861, a little over a month following the shots at Fort Sumter a trio of slaves ran away to Union lines at Fort Monroe in Hampton, VA. When they arrived, the general, Benjamin Butler,chose to hold the runaways (Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker, and James Townsend) as “contraband” rather then honor the Fugitive Slave Law and return them to their owner in the Confederacy. By the end of the war half a million formerly enslaved people had looked for freedom in the same way. Their legacy, which included camps in and around Washington, DC hastened Abraham Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and bring an end to slavery. [Learn more]

During the brainstorming session a key suggestion from those attending was to urge President Obama to use his powers under the 1906 Antiquities Act and designate Fort Monroe, or “Freedom’s Fortress”, a national monument.

And guess what. this past month, he did.

Political affiliations aside, this is a “win” for everyone. I know that we are in turmoil—that finding common ground between the left and the right is a place that our politicians can’t seem find. In designating Fort Monroe as a national monument, President Obama (in my opinion, of course) emphasized how important our cultural heritage is in our identity as Americans—not merely as liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans. That is, finding common ground may involve taking a risk that will make our country stronger.

Forty years ago, historians came together to look at American history through different eyes: the eyes of women, immigrants, and African-Americans. Today, we are still working towards that goal—looking at “the forgotten” and telling their story. This National Monument at Fort Monroe is one more step in the right direction–recognizing the wide breath of stories in the American past

Reviewing At Home

From http://www.randomhouse.com

Finally, I wanted to say a few words about Bill Bryson’s At Home. It’s a book that came out a few years ago that looks at a particular home, his home to be exact, and searches for the histories of particular rooms. I’ve read Bryson before (A Walk in the Woods), and have liked his meandering tales. However, this wasn’t quite what I expected.

It’s not that it wasn’t in the same style as his other books. He uses the house—an old rectory in England—as a touchstone in telling broader stories about social changes in European architecture, family life and industry. But I had hoped for something a little bit more….structured.

I know, I know. Having read Bryson before I should have known better—but it was a little disconcerting at times to go from talking about a bedroom or a kitchen to the history of bedbugs and then to a discussion on funerary arrangements and graveyards.

That minor disappointment aside, At Home is one example of how a broader story can be told through a particular structure. Certainly not the first to use this mechanism, however it provides insights into how rooms can spark interest in the unexpected.


And with that I would like to wish everyone a very happy Thanksgiving. Eat well, be merry, (shop local), and live large.

Hodge Podge: On Memory, Weddings, and Original Recipes

I have been working on this post for a few weeks, but alas the post-wedding catch up has taken over, plus every time I think I am done something else comes up that I want to add to it. But sometimes you just have to hit publish!

We will start with a quick word about weddings. Historically speaking weddings are the bringing together of two families and thus creating a new path of history. Two stories become one thus creating a new narrative.For those who love genealogy these events and the documentation of these events will one day let our great, great, great, great, grandchildren trace their own ancestry.

In addition to the immaterial the actual physical landscape of a marriage reveals heritage and culture, an opportunity to show the more recent past of the bride and groom. For my sister it was the trappings off India mixed in with with the quintessential American rituals (the first dance, cutting of the cake). My friends Mary and William embraced their inner Irish and love of fantasy for a ceremony filled with beauty and heart a week later.

For this hodge podge I’ll talk about This American Life episodes, a play on memory by Harold Pinter, a short conversation about fictionalizing the past through Geraldine Brooks’ work People of the Book and Year of Wonders, and finally a pop culture meets history link.

This American Life

There are actually three episodes that I wanted to talk about here. The first was an episode about Kid Politics. Where reporter Starlee Kine describes a program at the Reagan Library which asks kids to reenact the invasion of Grenada. While the show looks to see if kids make better decisions than adults, I found myself reacting to the subtle cues the library educators used to emphasize that the presidents decision was the “right one”. The kids who spent some time learning about Grenada before arrival are divided into three groups “the president and his cabinet”, “the military”, and “the press.” Than whenever the student makes a decision that Reagan did not make a light flashes along with a loud buzzer and a red light. On one level it is one way to indicate that the President made a different decision, but I think that by painting other options as wrong or right pushes kids away from critical thinking/analyzing presidential history as a series of decisions rather than because it happened this was the only course we could have taken.

The second episode had a segment that examined a television show, “This Is Your Life.” The premise interviewing individuals, and then surprising them with a carefully constructed vision of their life. Two separate episodes brought on a Holocaust survivor and a Japanese man who survived the atomic bomb-introducing these very sensitive subjects to the American audience in a way that they had never been discussed before. Each person also had a “surprise” guest–in the case of the Holocaust survivor it was a fellow camp mate, while the Japanese man (who was in the United States getting operations for girls who had been disfigured from the blast) was presented with one of the pilots of the Enola Gay. “This is your Life” seems almost like a modern day reality show. In both cases described above the individual being profiled used the show to bring awareness to what had happened to them, despite the shows structure feeling a little intrusive and voyeuristic.

And finally, for a light-hearted turn. Ira Glass believes he found the original recipe of Coke. While it is possible that it is a version of the drink we all know and love, this episode is a testament to the power of the document. Of finding things in boxes years from now that can tell a missing story. Above all else this episode showed that history is fun…especially when it involves an element of food ways and a little history of an American industry, regulation history and pop culture all at once.

Shakespeare Theatre: Old Times

The second to last show of the 2010-2011 season wasn’t a traditional tale by the bard but rather a reflection on memory written by Harold Pinter. The two leads are a married couple Kate and Deeley (played by Stephen Culp, of West Wing Fame, and the Tracy Lynn Middendorf who played Bonnie in LOST), who are expecting an old friend of Kate’s named Anna. In the course of the show, the play becomes less about a visit, and more a battle of remembrances between husband and guest. It is stark full of imagery that asks the audience to question, what is real what is true, did that really happen. It’s at times funny, yet equally gloomy as tension rises. Yet the woman at the center of each memory, Kate demands no attention. She seems content to live merely as an object of this memory, trapped in her own thoughts, often letting her husband’s former friend memorialize her as if she does not exist. The show ends in a bizarre parody leaving us to wonder about what memory really is.

I know that we see things one way in the moment, and that with time that vision shifts and is colored by the receding years. Collective memory works the same way. This play fiddles with the past, and illustrates in an evocative way about how even what we believe to be true can change in an instant. Old Times is playing at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC through July 3.

Of the Book: Two Titles by Geraldine Brooks

I’ve been doing a lot of reading, as usual. From fantasy, to catching up on my Public Historian, I find reading to be incredibly cathartic. Occasionally you come across a text so engaging that you feel inspired. This is so with books by Geraldine Brooks. Best known for winning the Pulitzer Prize for March which follows the father in Little Women through his wartime journey, I picked up People of the Book and Year of Wonders. Both books use history as the backdrop for remarkable examples of storytelling. Year of Wonders is the story of a town hit by the plague, and how it voluntarily closes its boarders to keep those outside safe. People of the Book follows a book conservator and narrates her story and that of the object she is trying to save–it is the Sarajevo Haggadah, a real book with a really engaging past. It is an amazing piece of writing–in that as we step back in time with the book’s history we see fragments of the world, of Europe during times of intense upheaval before being brought back to our guide’s life. For anyone who is not convinced that material culture tells us more about the past than anything else–I would pick up People of the Book immediately.

.…and finally

I took a moment for fun and went to see the latest X-Men movie. It was fairly well plotted and takes place during a particular part of the cold war (1962 to be exact). However, like most movies–it gets some things wrong. Ta-Nehisi Coates went to see the movie with his son and tells us about it in “You Left Out the Part About….“. A good opening for a discussion….so tell me what you think in the comments.

Hodge Podge: Going to the Theatre, Television and the Future of History

I thought I needed a post that sort of cleaned out the attic. Something that talked about all the little random things that I’ve been thinking about in the last two weeks, but don’t really fit into a larger post.

All’s Well That Ends…..

Meh. Well, that’s not being entirely fair. As usual the Shakespeare Theatre Company did not disappoint. Beautiful set, great acting, however I do think I may have found a Shakespeare play I didn’t love. At first glance the show seems to turn the usual Shakespeare woman on her head–Helena is forward, a little bit manipulative-while Bertram is weak and less…realistic (as loosely as the term may be applied). An argument can be made that my dislike is grounded in the fact that this is one tale of the Bard’s that I have never read, but there was something about the way Bertram had to be tricked into loving Helena that just seemed wrong.

But I guess I’m looking at it from a “today” perspective–but apparently in Shakespeare’s own lifetime it was not well received due to the break from the expected “role” of  a woman of Helena’s class–and maybe that is what makes this typical Shakespeare. Changing role’s, identity switches, all a commentary on established norms of the time. Maybe, but I don’t buy Bertram’s one line switch from hate to adoration for his wife–just because she managed to fulfill the two impossible conditions he had put before her (get his family ring, and have his child).

On a random note I was listening to this episode of Radio Lab and was surprised to find out how many words and phrases that are now part of day-to-day speech that are all a part of Shakespearean Lexicon. Cool.


So my dad taped two segments of the CBS show 60 Minutes for me from this past week. The first was on the archaeological dig at what is believed to be the City of David in Jerusalem. In short, the story was about the meaning of the City of David to the Jews in the city, and how the current political situation and peace talks will effect the dig. The story also emphasized the difficulty and the role of the past in the identities of the Jewish and Arab people in that region–along with the volatility of the conflict between settlers and the Palestinians. As I’ve said over, and over, that the connection of people to history is alive and well–and you could see the passion for that history in the eyes of both sides in the dispute.

The second story was a detective story surrounding an 11 minute reel of film that depicts the trolly ride down Market Street in San Francisco. What’s remarkable about the story, aside from seeing all the pieces come together, was just how a film historian pinpointed the date of the film by looking at the water on the ground, the construction levels of the building–the license plates on the cars in each frame to narrow the time frame of the film down to early April 1906. Having just been to San Francisco I knew the meaning of this date before the story actually told us–that just days after this film was shot the city, this street, was destroyed by the earthquake and subsequent fire.  What this segment really illustrated for me was just how a piece of the past, an object or a filmstrip can evoke wonder and awe–especially when that last connection is made, that glimpse pack to a past on the brink of catastrophe, a world that would no longer exist in the same way again.

Then there was this week’s episode of How I Met Your Mother entitled “Architect of Destruction.” The episode as a whole was hilarious, as usual, but the storyline that dealt with the destruction of a New York City landmark hotel (that had fallen to hard times) with a new construction (though well designed) bank building. I hated how the one who wanted to protect the building was depicted as a crazy activist loon, and that the idea of incorporating the existing structure into the design was merely a ploy for Ted to get the girl…and when he couldn’t he didn’t consider it worth his time. I know, I know its a sitcom and shouldn’t be taken seriously, but really?

Not to mention that during the whole episode no one used the words historic preservation even once. Food for thought.

NaNoWriMo: The Future of History

So this year I am participating in National Novel Writing Month for the second time. Unlike last year where I jumped into the process on November 1 with no planning, I’ve been thinking about what I want this year’s project to be about. It’s a bit complex (translation–not completely formed) so I won’t bore you with details, but I am aiming to mix my two loves science-fiction/fantasy and history and am looking for ideas for what futuristic historical tools might look like. One of my characters is a sort of an archaeological detective, and is trying to suss out the past using updated digital versions of what we use in the historical trade. For example–archaeologists look at stratigraphy as one way of dating the objects they find in the ground–would a future version of dating a midden, or a series of objects be as simple as a fast, instant scan? Is it going to be about getting information faster, or would it be a flashier version of ground penetrating radar–just dressed up differently? Anyway–just looking for some ideas from fellow historians to kick off the brainstorming.

Note: In the next week I’ll be at the National Preservation Conference in Austin, Texas. Check out the virtual attendee page to keep track of what’s going on, and check back on the blog to see what I’m up to!

Hodge Podge: Books that Changed A Life

One of the reasons I started this blog has to do with my love of a particular NPR podcast/radio show known as This American Life. Every week I would listen to Ira Glass and think about how much I wanted to talk to someone about what happened or I wanted to put pen to paper and write about a particular episode that moved me in some remarkable way. A lot of people I know listen to this and we’re always asking each other—did you see the one where the woman got rabies and couldn’t find vaccine (I can’t for the life of me remember the episode name)? Or in Switched at Birth where those girls are switched at birth and the mother who knew didn’t do anything about it (we always get angry when we think about this one). One of my favorites is the story of the Iranian couple who divorced and then two years later, found each other again (Reunited (and it feels good)). Don’t even get me started on the awesomeness that is The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar.

Anyway I’m a few weeks behind and finally heard an episode that originally aired on August 20, 1999. and was re-aired on October 2nd. This episode was called The Book That Changed Your Life. Made up of four acts this episode took a look at the ways in which a particular book touched and of course changed lives. I think the episode is best summed up by a quotation in Act 1 which looks at how playwright Alexa Junge used a book from her grandfather’s library to feel closer to him. She says that

“When you read a book and something speaks to you and you feel understood and it makes the world a less lonely place.” Books can be powerful things and I’ll be first to admit that sometimes we read things that aren’t quite so intellectual or highbrow because they make us feel comfortable and at peace. Others challenge you to look beyond your normal scope of inquiry to see worlds beyond your wildest imagination.

It is to their credit that the power of the written world sometimes trumps other storytelling mediums (one example from the last decade would be the translation of the Harry Potter series to the big screen.) There is also something about books that reflect on the simplicity of expression. In Act III we learn about Roger a construction manager who becomes obsessed with collecting every book about Lewis & Clark known to man. At first he doesn’t read the texts, but once has the final piece (I believe it is a copy of the two volume first official printing of their journals) he opens up and begins learning as much as he can about these two people he has spent years of his life on. The magic is in his voice as he describes reading about the moment when Lewis and Clark reach the ocean, and how he would have been screaming and dancing but for Lewis and Clark their excitement is summed up in the simple text “ocean in view. Oh the joy.”

So it got me thinking about the fiction books that have changed my life. If I included nonfiction this could be a very long list, since there are many, many non-fiction books that inspired me. To some extent these five books are the ones that made me think about the construction of a story, but also made me think about the choices characters are forced to make and how powerful those choices can be as a reflection of reality.

  1. The Giver by Lois Lowry
  2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  3. The Lord of the Rings (fine three books not one but I’m counting it as one) by J.R.R. Tolkien
  4. Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austin
  5. Atonement Ian McEwan

The Giver, the story of a boy living in a colorless world was perhaps my first introduction to the idea that maybe not everyone can see the world the way I do. What could I live without? A Tale of Two Cities is perhaps one of Dickens most quoted books and while not necessarily his best (I may say that Bleak House might be that) his ability to take his many story strands from incoherency and then pull them back together is just one of the reasons why I love this. It might be the vivid picture of the dirt, the gritty grime of his London/Paris that says it all. As for Tolkien it is the classic hero’s journey, and one which has parallels from all parts of life. Pride & Prejudice has more to do with Jane Austen and what she could do in the middle of 18th century England, but also the way she uses the story to provide a glimpse into all walks of English society. Lastly, Atonement…..really its because Ian McEwan has created a character who is both morally ambiguous and for whom I can never decide whether I would like to feel sorry for or just hate.

As always though as I put together this list other books started popping out at me so instead of me talking about myself—tell me about what books you guys love.

A few related notes:

  1. Claude Levi-Strauss: Levi-Strauss was a French structuralist anthropologist, who formulated theories on how and why so many myths from around the world seem to have similar structures and ideas. He died at the age of 100 last week and his writings were one of the first to push my mind beyond looking at things in one particular way. Levi-Strauss also had a big role in the creation of UNESCO race policy. Learn about his work at UNESCO here.
  2. A few weeks ago during one of Gene Weingarten (a columnist for the Washington Post) humor chats he asked us to take a look at a newly surfaced video that provides a single three second glimpse of Anne Frank prior to when her family went into hiding. He wanted us to decide if it was powerful and to explain why—so I’m asking you. Is it just a video of a girl watching her neighbors go off on their honeymoon, or is it powerful (as I found it) to finally catch a glimpse of someone whose words symbolize some of the acute horrors of the Holocaust.
  3. You might not get another long blog post from me until after November. I’ve decided to write for National Novel Writing Month (50k words in 30 days.) For more information visit www.nanowrimo.com.