Posted in Academic, Book Review, Close Reading

Honesty in the Unreliable Narrator of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky

The writer must be the authority of the story, whether the characters are the same is an entirely different matter. Characters, and narrators, like Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower may have streaks of unreliability for several reasons. Stephen Chbosky’s protagonist, Charlie being an introverted teenager who has trouble socializing is one. That he is writing letters to an anonymous person (maybe to the reader, maybe not) is another. Drug use and shades of mental illness also unravel some of his veracity throughout the book. But in the midst of the potential compromises of Charlie’s authority in telling his tale is unfettered honesty, which may negate the unreliability of this unreliable narrator. It is in his bluntness, born of his past and his personality, which allows the reader to understand and perhaps empathize with this extraordinary character and the way he tells his story.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an epistolary novel, with the letters addressed as “Dear friend.” In the first letter that Charlie writes, he admits to what many boys are told not to admit to—crying. Throughout the novel “friend” is never revealed, but in closing the first letter Charilie says “I don’t know why I wrote a lot of this down for you…The reason I wrote this letter is because I start high school tomorrow and I am really afraid of going” (6).

The next several letters detail his difficulty in adjusting to high school, again with blunt honesty, and how his two favorite classes are English and shop. The latter because of a student named Patrick who sometimes goes by the nickname “Nothing.” When recalling Patrick’s dealing with people who teased him, Charlie says to the anonymous recipient of his letters “I think I will stop putting quotation marks around Nothing’s name because it is annoying and disrupting my flow” (13). In the early pages of The Perks of Being a Wallflower Charlie is establishing his authority, despite the seeds of the unreliable narrator starting to show. His honesty is assured in his letters by their unfiltered content and he is making confident decisions about how he relays information to “friend” and readers.

After a football game and the homecoming dance, Charlie forges a strong friendship with two seniors, Patrick and Patrick’s stepsister, Sam. At one point in the beginning of their friendship Charlie relates the story of Patrick’s hidden relationship with one of the school football players. “They had sex for the first time that night. I don’t want to go into detail about it because it’s pretty private stuff, but I will say that Brad assumed the role of the girl…When they were finished, Brad started to cry…” (44) That Charlie would consider Patrick’s feelings in regarding what truths he reveals in his letters might add a “plus” to the column that Charlie is in fact a reliable narrator. There is not deception involved in the relaying of this confidence between friends, either between Charlie and Patrick or between Charlie and “Dear friend”/the reader. In the end though his honesty means more that Charlie is the authority of his story, not a reliable narrator.

Misdirection and mistruths are planted throughout the story as per the usual tropes of an unreliable narrator. Most of these occur when Charlie is under the influence of drugs and alcohol, when he has fallen out with his friends, or when he is looking back on memories of his Aunt Helen. But still Charlie does not dial back; he continues to draft his letters as uncensored as he can. Midway through the school year Charlie writes a letter while in the midst of a bad LSD trip. In the next letter to “friend” he says, “To tell you the truth, I don’t really remember much of it…(I) walked down the hill past the trees to the post office because I knew that if I didn’t put it in a mailbox that I couldn’t get it back from, I would never mail the letter” (98).

The main character’s penchant for honesty, whether intentionally or as a result of his introverted nature that makes him seem obtuse in some social situations, is brought to a peak shortly after his LSD experience. “Patrick gave me a dare…‘Kiss the prettiest girl in the room…’ That’s when I chose to be honest…I knelt down in front of Sam and kissed her” instead of the girl he was dating (135). Here the reader can see Charlie’s declaration of honesty is not only for the recipient of his letters, but also with himself.

In the last “Dear friend” in The Perks of Being a Wallflower Charlie’s current location may set in a reader’s mind about the state of his reliability as a narrator. Still, there is only an honest account of the truth so far as he can tell us. “…They brought me to the hospital where I stayed when I was seven after my aunt Helen died” (208) If the reader is paying close attention, Charlie repeats a grammatical choice as he did when he decided to drop the quotation marks from Patrick’s Nothing nickname. “…Everything I had dreamt about my aunt Helen was true…I realized that it happened every Saturday when we would watch television” (209). His molester no longer has the right to a proper title. The reader knows through this choice that he is telling the truth, revoking any unreliability in his letters.

There are many reasons to call Charlie an unreliable narrator. He fits many of the typical traits found in other stories, but unlike in the others he is dedicated to telling both “friend” and the reader what happened in his freshman year. Chbosky reaffirms through the intimacy of these letters, and this particular character trait of a socially awkward introvert, that one can rely on Charlie’s authority to tell his story.

 

 

Works Cited

Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: Gallery Books. 1999. Print.

 

©Ginger Lee Thomason and gingerleethomason.com, 2015-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ginger Lee Thomason and gingerleethomason.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Posted in Academic, Book Review, Close Reading

Invented Words in “A Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin


“Until tonight. Something was different tonight.”

On the second page of this brick of a fantasy novel, George R.R. Martin starts the setting for the lands of Westeros in A Game of Thrones. The book opens on someone who reader soon learns is a person of little consequence. Nonetheless he starts the initiation into this world. At the end of the prologue, the reader learns of Stark family of the North in the first chapter and a vast cast of other characters in the pages beyond.

The author has stated in several interviews and on his blog that he is not a linguist like J.R.R. Tolkien (“Klaatu…”). Martin’s modifications to the English language, or the “Common Tongue” as it is called in the novel, are very subtle. He has seemingly invented very few words and he has breathed new life into words that have fallen out of regular linguistic use.

Proper nouns are peppered through the first few pages in the first chapter of Bran Stark’s third person point of view. He tells the reader of his father’s duty to execute a deserter of the Night’s Watch, the man in the prologue. A great sword is given to Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark, and Ned performs his duty in the name of King Robert, relaying the long royal title full of proper nouns. The sword, called Ice is “spell-forged and dark as smoke…nothing held an edge like Valyrian steel” (AGOT 14). In a few words Martin has created a new word and backed it up with power and arcane feeling.

Through dialogue and point of view, and this new word “Valyrian,” the readers have entered a world that is not their own. Martin doesn’t overwhelm the reader with words of many apostrophes and hyphens. In fact, he does not even use italics to denote that “Valryian” is a foreign word. It’s not to Bran, his father, brothers, or anyone else in the chapter, and now, the reader.

Across the Narrow Sea in Essos, Martin begins Daenerys “Dany” Targaryen’s part of the story. Dany’s family once ruled the continent Westeros. After her brother Viserys tells her she is to be wedded to Khal Drogo, she recounts the war in her memory. She also gives the reader the names of places like Braavos, Myr, Volantis, and Lys. Places discernibly far from her homeland shared by Bran Stark in a previous chapter. Until this point most of what Dany reveals is familiar to her, as Valyrian was familiar to Bran. When she hears her brother and their benefactor, Illyrio, talking about Khal Drogo words like “khalasar” are singled out for their unfamiliarity in italics (34). Both the reader and Dany denote that “khal” is the ruler of a “khalasar,” which is the tribal structure of the horse riding Dothraki people.

While Viserys, and Illyrio, await Khal Drogo’s arrival for Dany, they also speak of Ser Jorah Mormont (36.) The word “ser” is unknown, out of context, to the reader and Martin, via Dany, clarifies this: “The last name caught Daenerys. ‘A knight?’” The author has transformed the well-known, but seldom presently used, title of knights from “sir” to “ser.” This adds a sense that the Common Tongue of the novel, is perhaps, as distinct from the English language as Dothraki is.

In many fantasy novels, an invented world isn’t complete without an invented religion, or even several religions. The Dothraki customs, which Daenerys marries into, involve worshiping a horse god. There is also mention of a red god in Essos. In Westeros, the Starks and others in the North follow the Old Gods. The Old Gods eventually gave way to the Faith of the Seven.“The ringing went on and on, and after a while they heard other bells answering from the Great Sept of Baelor. The sound rumbled across the city like thunder, warning of the storm to come.” (544)

The Faith has clerics called setpons and setpas, and churches are called septs. Here Martin has taken the Latin word for seven and given it to his Westerosi religion. In the way that the Trinity is synonymous with the Christian God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, the Seven are the personifications of the Gods of the Faith.

In the epic hundreds of pages of A Game of Thrones the Common Tongue presented to readers in American English, some of the words are left without translation. The reader comes to know that “khal” is equivalent to a “chief.” Martin could have called it the “Great Temple of Baelor,” but the occasional use of invented and altered words enriches his volumes. A writer need not be a linguist of J.R.R. Tolkein’s caliber to breathe new life into words and craft amazing worlds for their readers.

 

Works Cited

Martin, George R. R. A Game of Thrones. New York: Bantam, 1996. Print.

Martin, George R.R. “Klaatu Barada Nicto…” Not a Blog. LiveJournal, 12 Apr. 2010. Web. 14 Sept. 2014. <http://grrm.livejournal.com/148593.html&gt;.

 

 

©Ginger Lee Thomason and gingerleethomason.com, 2015-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ginger Lee Thomason and gingerleethomason.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Posted in Academic, Book Review, Close Reading

The Memoir Within “Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I learned to Cook” by Alex Guarnaschelli

 

Upon a first thumbing through the pages of this glossy cookbook, the reader sees the typical recipes paired with photographs of succulent looking scallops or a cake with a slice removed to expose the alternate layers of chocolate frosting and yellow crumb. There are several pages that catch the eye that are styled like a journal or scrapbook. The author has transposed drawings of parsnips and notes about duck fat and livers into these pages. Old-School Comfort Food reveals itself to be, not just a cookbook, but also a memoir of how she came to love cooking and food with such fervor. Chef Alex Guarnaschelli uses her words and experiences to guide the reader as a friend on a culinary journey through these pages and in to the kitchen.

As hinted in the subtitle, The Way I Learned to Cook, the author starts her readers in her mother’s kitchen. As a child Guarnaschelli watched her mother, a cookbook author, whip up trusty classic recipes as well as inventing new ones. We are introduced to a memory that revolves around a cheese soufflé being brought into existence. It is served as soon as a pile of manuscripts are removed from the dining table.

“ ‘Al, I just got a great book proposal for a thousand-page book about garam masala. What do you think?’ ” (8). If the reader were a layperson when it comes to the names of exotic ingredients they might ask themselves “what is garam masala?” Yet, we are in Alex’s memories right now, and it doesn’t matter that the reader, or a child, knows what garam masala is. The reader is brought to the revelation of “old school,” or as it is described in oversized font “…sometimes the very things that started it all” (9).

The reader experiences the continued childlike wonder of cooking and food through the eyes of young Alex. She then takes the reader from the culinary encounters in her mother’s kitchen to those of high-end professional establishments in the US and Europe. Her journey is the reader’s as she uses present tense to describe things that started happening in New York City in the early 90’s. “I bop into the kitchen….and explain I am there to work for free– to stage. He (the head chef) looks up and gives me a once-over. ‘I’ll see you here tomorrow at 9 a.m. sharp’ ” (13).

When Guarnaschelli transitions from her memoir to recipes the tense transitions as well. The author goes from the present tense of honing her skills and palate into past tense and concrete gastronomic authority. She gives the reader a lesson in a well-stocked kitchen, emphasizing not just the pantry, “my motto: buy imperfect, buy what you love” (30) but also on tools “outside of the Knife Bag and on to the Kitchen Counter” (28).

The featured photography goes from old family photos to those familiar in most cookbooks. Recipes captured in perfection by the test chefs and food photographers. The journal/scrapbook style continues though with sidebars of information and images of handwritten notes. One sidebar, an “Old-School Tip” reminds the reader of a less than pleasant experience many have had with meatloaf. “Ever bite into a meatloaf and end up with a piece of undercooked onion (or garlic)….adding them to raw meatloaf sometimes results in steamed (read: tasteless) or even crunchy bits of vegetable…cooking them on their own first, the garlic and the onion meld into the meat” (105).

This cookbook is organized like many others organized chronologically through a meal: snacks and salads to the main dishes of meat, poultry and seafood. In the second to the last chapter she covers dessert. As dessert is the ending of meals, and many cookbooks, she writes:

“While I believe dessert can take many forms– big or small, simple or complex– it should always be something you absolutely crave…it should take me back to my childhood and bring up all kinds of taste memories” (217)

Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I learned to Cook embraces a multi-layered approach to cookbook writing. By using both memoir writing and food writing Alex Guarnaschelli is able to create a new experience of reading food. Then the reader can open up their pantry, take out the ingredients and tools they love to either recreate the recipes, or go “old-school” and return to their own taste memories and comfort food.

 

 

Works Cited

Guarnaschelli, Alex. Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I learned to Cook. New York     City: Clarkson Potter/Publishers. 2013. Print.

 

 

©Ginger Lee Thomason and gingerleethomason.com, 2015-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ginger Lee Thomason and gingerleethomason.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Posted in Academic

Mise en Place: Where World Building Starts with a Feast


“First we eat then we do everything else.” – MFK Fisher, American food writer

 

The feast is a grand tradition in speculative fiction. The journeys of both the characters and the reader often begin with a gastronomic spectacle. In speculative fiction, writers often start their mise en place[1] not just with plot and characters, but also a niche of setting- world building. World building is the crafting of a physical and social world for a work of fiction. Writers either carve their characters and story into the world we occupy, or they craft entirely new universes for their narrative.

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction says: “World building is the one aspect of writing science fiction and fantasy that makes them more challenging to write than most other genres of fiction. A richly realized world is not more important than compelling characters, good writing, or creative, well balanced action, but its creation can be more complex” (Athans 66).

Adding to the complexity of this venture is an analysis of one of the most basic needs to sustain life: food. Writers of speculative fiction have often highlighted gastronomy in their world building craft for the reader. Taking something that is commonplace for everyone—food and eating—and making it a critical part of the writer’s craft. This engages the reader’s sense of taste vivifying the story and bringing a new world to life.

When asked to think of a work of fantasy or science fiction many people today will name J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire Series, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, or Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games Trilogy. These examples are among the most popular speculative fiction titles, having been adapted to the big screen and television, but still were highly successful before their cinematic adaptations. These works are distinguished by their fully realized worlds in addition to their vivid stories and characters.

Some worlds come from almost complete imaginative scratch like Martin’s Westeros or Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. In these novels, before we are given the details of the setting, there are maps showing the lands conceived by these authors. These new worlds are enriched by their invented lands, languages, and creatures we can only fathom through their works.

In some novels, instead of being given maps, we are given clues to locations in the text. Rowling’s wizarding world exists alongside 1990’s Britain where Muggles are dependent on computers and wizards on magic. Harry Potter grew up in a fictional town, Little Whinging, in Surrey, a real county in southern England. Hogwarts, the school for British witches and wizards, is a day’s long journey north by train and is surrounded by mountains.

Collins’s trilogy takes place in a dystopian future nation called Panem, built on the existing landscape of North America. After the narrating heroine, Katniss Everdeen, gives us the feel of living in constant fear of starvation, she tells the readers “In school, they tell us the Capitol was built in a place called the Rockies. District 12 was in a region known as Appalachia” (Collins 41).

The journeys to the Lonely Mountain and Mordor begin in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring with meals. Hobbits build their entire day around their half-dozen or so meals. Devout fans of Martin’s books counted more than one hundred and sixty different dishes described in the first four novels of the “Ice and Fire” series (Rosenberg). The contrast between the Muggle world and wizarding community for Harry Potter is most prominent when the reader vicariously encounters the meals Harry has with the Dursleys versus those at Hogwarts (and later in the series with the Weasly family). Katniss’s experiences between settings are also contrasted by the ingredients in the meals she consumes at home or in the Capitol. Not only does Collins use food like silent characters in her trilogy, but almost all of Katniss’s social interactions are based around food.

In all four examples readers open their book, or power on their e-book, and while they are swept away to places where there are castles, swords, magic, authoritarian or monarchic governments, and magical creatures (some anthropological, some not) they are also greeted with food.

The first chapter of The Hobbit is titled “An Unexpected Party.” One day while Bilbo Baggins of Bag End is sitting lazily and enjoying pipe weed a wizard appears. This wizard, Gandalf, had appeared in the Shire before, and Bilbo recognizes what this means. Gandalf is stirring up something that would lead to an adventure, something no respectable hobbit like Bilbo would partake in. After their conversation though leaves Bilbo flustered, he ends up inviting Gandalf tea. “‘What on earth did I ask him to tea for!’ he said to himself as he went to the pantry. He had only just had breakfast, but he thought a cake or two and a drink of something would do him good after his fright” (Tolkien 8).

Bilbo’s confusion is expanded as a company of dwarves come into his house one by one and tea expands into supper. The party of dwarves call for ale, porter, and coffee and cakes from their unexpected host. After Thorin Oakenshield “an enormously important dwarf” arrives the menu expands even further with red wine, raspberry jam, apple tarts, mince pies, cheese, pork-pie, salad, eggs, cold chicken, and pickles. “‘Seems to know as much about the inside of my larders as I do myself!’ thought Mr. Baggins” (12). After supper Thorin initiates a song that stirs Bilbo with descriptions of the lost home of the dwarves. “…the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce jealous love, the desire of the hearts of the dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking stick” (16).

After only a few pages the reader is lulled into vicarious food coma with Bilbo. Of course we will keep reading to follow the hobbit, wizard, and dwarves on their mission.

The second chapter of The Hobbit is titled “Roast Mutton.” The dwarves spot a light and send Bilbo, their “burglar” to investigate and it turns out to be the feast of another party. “Three very large persons sitting around a very large fire of beech-logs. They were roasting mutton on long spits of wood, and licking the gravy off their fingers. There was a fine tooth-some smell. Also there was a barrel of good drink at hand, and they were drinking out of jugs. But they were trolls. Obviously trolls” (33).

Bilbo is caught by the trolls as he tries to burgle some of the mutton and beer. When the dwarves try to rescue Bilbo they are overwhelmed by the massive trolls and soon the hobbit and the dwarves are about to become additions to the menu of the trolls’ next meal.

Here in Tolkien’s world the first two chapters are concerned with meals and food and the start of an adventure. The Hobbit was written before the epic “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The reader first meets three strange creatures with an affinity for the epicurean – hobbits, dwarves, and trolls. Gandalf is clouded in a puff of pipe weed, but his push to start the journey begins with getting Bilbo Baggins to invite him and in a sly turn the dwarves, for afternoon tea.

For Tolkien food is about communal experiences. The first two chapters are not only about launching the story but reigniting the idea that while reading is a solitary experience, what we take away as readers (and writers who start cooking up their own world) can start a conversation anywhere, but especially at the dinner table with loved ones.

Two different feasts in two different continents begin the epic series in Martin’s first “Ice and Fire” novel A Game of Thrones. In the cold North of Westeros, Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell, greets his old friend King Robert Baratheon and the royal family after the death of their mutual friend. Food is served and eaten in the hot springs heated cavern-like room. “The Great Hall of Winterfell was hazy with smoke and heavy with the smell of roasted meat and fresh-baked bread” (Martin 49). Jon Snow, the bastard son of Ned, enjoys his newly refilled cup of summerwine, his excess intake of alcohol exceeding his half-siblings who are only allowed one cup of wine.

Another royal feast is taking place in Pentos, a city of the neighbouring continent, Essos. Princess Daenerys Targaryen, whose father was usurped by King Robert, is to be wedded to Khal Drogo, the leader of the nomadic Dothraki. “They gorged themselves on horseflesh roasted with honey and peppers, drank themselves blind on fermented mare’s milk and Ilylryio’s fine wines, and spat jests at each other across fires, their voices harsh and alien in Dany’s ears” (101).

The two feasts show contrasts between the two different lands in this new world of Martin’s creation and that of the reader’s own world. The welcoming feast of the king takes place in a candle lit grand castle where the winter never quite goes away. Whereas the princess’s wedding feast is one in the open of a Mediterranean-like climate.

The courses don’t end in the first chapters though. Martin continues to introduce dishes with a foreign and historical flair. Daenerys eats more horsemeat while Sansa Stark, the eldest Stark daughter, discovers a love for decadent lemon cakes in King’s Landing, the capital of Westeros. “Later came sweetbreads and pigeon pie and baked apples fragrant with cinnamon and lemon cakes frosted in sugar, but by then Sansa was so stuffed that she could not manage more than two little lemon cakes, as much as she loved them” (300).

During the climax of A Game of Thrones the Stark family is separated in King’s Landing when Ned is arrested. Arya, his youngest daughter, finds herself trying to survive in Flea Bottom, the slums of the capitol, hiding from the false king. “In the Bottom there were pot-shops along the alleys where huge tubs of stew had been simmering for years…Arya would have given anything for a cup of milk and a lemon cake, but the brown wasn’t so bad. It usually had barley in it, and chunks of carrot and onion and turnip, and sometimes even apple, with a film of grease swimming on top. Mostly she tried not to think about the meat. Once she had gotten a piece of fish” (719).

The “bowls o’ brown” Arya eats in hiding is the feast that starts a new journey for the Stark family, which will continue into subsequent novels. Martin’s descriptions of food may seem a bit superfluous. Many reviewers and readers have commented on this particular attention to detail in his world building throughout the publication history of “A Song of Ice and Fire.” He gave a rebuttal in the introduction of A Feast of Ice and Fire: The Official Companion Cookbook:

“When I read, as when I travel, I want to see the sights, smell the flowers, and yes, taste the food. My goal as a writer has always been to create an immersive vicarious experience for my readers. When a reader puts down one of my novels, I want them to remember the events of the book as if he has lived them. And the way to do that is with sensory detail…

“And the meals I describe do other things as well. World building is part of what gives epic fantasy its appeal, and food is part of that. You can learn a lot about a world and culture from what they eat (and what they won’t eat). All you really need to know about hobbits can be learned from ‘nice crispy bacon’ and ‘second breakfasts.’ And orcs…well, no one is likely to be doing The Orc Cookbook anytime soon” (Monroe-Cassel ix-xi).

For American readers there are two strange worlds in J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter Series.” There is the wizarding world that unfamiliar to Harry, and to an American reader the British world is also a different. Tasty and delicious food may be a homecoming sign for Harry, but for some readers kippers might seem as fantastical as Bertie Bots’ Every Flavor Beans. In the end what matters the most about the tasty morsels in Rowling’s prose is that not only are characters transported to magical realms via magical meals, but the reader is as well.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone big events happen after or in congruent with meals. The second chapter is about Harry’s cousin Dudley Dursley’s birthday. Harry describes him as looking like “a pig in a wig” (Rowling 21) and food is the center of Dudley’s life. Bacon and eggs are served for the “massive” Dudley’s birthday breakfast and then the family is off to the zoo. Uncle Vernon buys Dudley and his friend, Piers, “large chocolate ice creams” and Harry is given a “cheap lemon ice pop. It wasn’t bad, either…” (26). The smorgasbord continues with lunch where Dudley complains about not having enough ice cream in his sundae and Harry gets to finish it when Dudley gets a second. The zoo trip ends in disaster when Dudley and Piers find themselves falling through vanishing glass into a boa constrictor’s tank.

After this strange happening Harry ponders the odd events that have happened to him throughout his ten years at 4 Privet Drive. During another breakfast Harry receives a strange letter that is taken from him but more and more letters arrive. Uncle Vernon then attempts to flee the mass of letters and tries to hide the family on a rock off the shore. A great half-giant named Hagrid arrives to tell Harry the truth about his parentage. Before he even gives Harry his Hogwarts acceptance letter, Hagrid first gives Harry “a large, sticky chocolate cake with Happy Birthday Harry written on it” (48) and he cooks him some sausages over a magically conjured fire. Harry’s introduction to his true identity, the transportation from Muggle to a student at Hogwarts, is not conducted on a broomstick or scarlet steam engine train, but in the treats and feasts.

Over the next several chapters Harry’s experiences with magic are highlighted with a new appreciation for food. New magical sweets are the first thing he shares with his soon to be best friend Ron Weasley, on the Hogwarts Express. The boys enjoy an array from the trolley cart that includes “Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans, Drooble’s Best Blowing Gum, Chocolate Frogs, Pumpkin Pasties, Cauldron Cakes, Licorice Wands…not wanting to miss anything, he got some of everything…” (101). Arriving at Hogwarts the students are sorted into school houses during the Sorting Ceremony by the magic Sorting Hat. Harry is welcomed into Gryffindor and seals his new camaraderie with food that magically appears before his eyes.

Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games” trilogy has a relationship to food that is different than many of those who read her tale. Martin gives a picture of starvation in his series when he speaks of the contrast between the extravagant royal meals in the Red Keep and the bowls o’ brown in Flea Bottom. The same contrasts are highlighted in Collins’s trilogy between the Districts and the Capitol.

The author immediately challenges her readers to imagine what a life is like with the constant and looming menace of starvation. It is one thing to say that Katniss, and her friend Gale Hawthorne, are the central breadwinners of their family, but Collins takes it a step further. She challenges most of her readers to contemplate wild dog as perfectly delectable and edible meat for the poor miners from the Seam in District 12. “We don’t hunt (wild dog) on purpose, but if you’re attacked and you take out a dog or two, well, meat is meat. ‘Once it’s in the soup, I’ll call it beef,’ Greasy Sae says with a wink. No one in the Seam would turn up their nose at a good leg of wild dog, but the Peacekeepers who come to the Hob can afford to be a little choosier” (Collins 11).

When Katniss volunteers to take her sister Prim’s place in the annual Hunger Games, almost certain death is preceded with several feasts. This journey on the train to the Capitol from her home consists of a gastronomic exhibition of several courses. Then Katniss has a lunch the next day and she contemplates what it would take to make a hunted-and-gathered version of a meal of chicken in an orange cream sauce with wild rice, tiny onions, and peas. “What must it be like, I wonder to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol…” (65)

While everyone alive has a natural and cultural relationship to food, few of the readers of Collins’s trilogy have a relationship to food and eating like Katniss. Many have never had the threat of hunger and starvation over them, so the notion that all of Katniss’s personal relationships connect with gathering and eating is a hard one to envision. Her hunting and gathering skills feed her mother and her sister. Her best friend Gale started as just a hunting partner. Peeta gave her two loaves of bread when she and her sister were starving in the wake of their father’s death and mother’s catatonia. An alliance with Rue from District 11 is bonded over roasted groosling (a wild bird). Even her newly established friendship with her mentor Haymitch is centred on survival in the Hunger Games, and when Peeta and Katniss need it the most, Haymitch sends them food. Katniss’s connection to the world and surviving in it, whether in District 12 or in the Hunger Games, is dependent on where she is going to obtain her next meal, and so the reader keeps turning the page to find out.

With the importance that writers like Tolkien, Rowling, Collins, and Martin place on food it is surprising that cuisine is only addressed in a few paragraphs in The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction. In section four of the book under Defining Culture, “diet/cuisine” is listed as the fourth defining criterion of what helps define a culture. “Some cultures don’t tend to identify as strongly with their cuisine as do, say, the French and the Italians. Their regional dishes are matters of extraordinary nationalistic pride. Not only what people eat, but how they eat it– with forks, their hands, chopsticks– when they eat, and where they eat, can be of vital significance to a culture…the kind of detail that can move a story forward, using customs to show readers where the characters stand in relation to each other and the plot” (Athans 104).

We readers are reminded as follow along that we are all eaters and the feast allows readers to follow characters on their journey. Food is a connection to the literary world we have chosen to immerse ourselves in for a time. As Martin wrote in A Feast of Ice and Fire, “sights, sounds, and scents– those are things that make a scene come alive…Sense impressions reach us on much deeper and more primal levels than intellectual discourse can ever hope to” (ix).

World building can be a daunting task for the writer to undertake. J.R.R Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, J.K. Rowling, and Suzanne Collins have given us recipes with complex characters and beautifully rendered landscapes alongside hundreds of inspiring dishes. The feast invites readers to join in an adventure and the writer keeps the story’s energy simmering as the meal goes from appetizer, to entrée and then to more than just a few lemon cakes for dessert…why not pick something of everything from the Hogwarts Express trolley cart?

[1] Mise en place is French for “putting in place;” this refers to the practice in professional kitchens of having ingredients prepped and organized before beginning to cook a dish.

 

Works Cited

Athans, Philip, and R. A. Salvatore. The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction: 6 Steps     to Writing and Publishing Your Bestseller! Avon, Mass.: Adams Media, 2010. Print.

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic, 2008. Print.

Martin, George R.R. A Game of Thrones. New York: Bantam, 1996. Print

Monroe-Cassel, Chelsea, and Sariann Lehrer. A Feast of Ice and Fire: The Official Companion Cookbook. New York: Bantam, 2012. Print.

Rosenberg, Alyssa. “Food in Fiction: How Cooking Brings You Closer to the Characters.” The     Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 21 June 2011. Web. 27 Jan. 2015.   <http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/06/food-in-fiction-how-  cooking-brings-you-closer-to-the-characters/240777/>.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1999.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. New York: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print

 

 

 

©Ginger Lee Thomason and gingerleethomason.com, 2015-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ginger Lee Thomason and gingerleethomason.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Image taken with iPhone 6 in January 2016, London, UK by Ginger Lee Thomason.

Posted in Academic, Book Review, Close Reading

Transgressive Imagery in “The Casual Vacancy” by J.K. Rowling

 

Pagford is a picturesque, and fictional, town in the quaint English countryside. The citizens however are less than ideal. Many of the people in this wide cast of characters are downright unpleasant, but J.K. Rowling demands that the reader pay attention to their stories. The darker characterizations of the town’s inhabitants in The Casual Vacancy are revealed through Rowling’s use of transgressive imagery. The death of a beloved (though this particular descriptive word depends on the character) community figure acts as a catalyst that causes many secrets to come to light.

While many of the adult characters are shaken by the death of Councillor
Barry Fairbrother, some are delighted; others are teenagers who are affected in other ways. Andrew Price, who is in the throes of late adolescence and cowers under the shadow of an abusive father, has several musings about sex when he reflects on the appearance of Krystal Weedon at school the day after Fairbrother’s death. He admires her boldness in eschewing the school uniform that day. “The string of her thong was clearly visible above her low-slung tracksuit bottoms” (26). He muses on the time that he saw her “bare pink vulva” when she dropped her underpants as kids teased her about her name in primary school.

For many readers, contemplating the sexuality of a sixteen-year-old and the memory of the “Christmas”-like gift of seeing Krystal’s genitals when she was five would be an
uncomfortable musing for adult readers. But Rowling does not shy away from the fact that her teenage cast has carnal desires; she subverts idyllic expectations in the setting with this early foray into Andrew’s thoughts. The concept of late-teenage sexuality as transgressive is also somewhat cultural since eighteen is perceived as the age of consent in the United States. Sixteen or “Legal,” in the United Kingdom, as it is pointed out by another character, the fortyish Samantha Mollison, who kisses Andrew in a drunken state later in the book (445).

Another character’s observations are likely to make a reader recoil. Kay Bawden is a social worker adjusting after relocating from London to Pagford. She is a complete outsider, but not in the way that the reader is. She is given extra work because of a coworker’s illness, and she is given the Weedon’s case. Many readers can already surmise from Andrew’s observations of Krystal’s wild nature that Kay should be in for a surprise. After a casual survey of the garbage and unkempt front lawn of the Weedon house, she notices “a used condom glistening in the grass beside her feet, like the gossamer cocoon of some huge grub” (65). Rowling leaves the readers in a state of slight revulsion with this contradictory visual. There is little follow up to the simile; Kay recalls her early nervous days of being a social worker, but nothing in regards to the presence of the condom. Greater emotion is coaxed out of Kay when she meets drug addict Terri Weedon and her other neglected child, Robbie, a three-and-a-half year old wearing a diaper that has not been changed for some time. When she takes on the task, her heart breaks when she sees the sores on his body.

Besides writing of teenage sexuality, drug abuse, and familial neglect, Rowling continues to play on her readers’ revulsions and sympathies simultaneously. Sukhvinder Jawanda is the miserable, youngest child of two doctors. She is not an academic achiever like her siblings or a beauty like her elder sister. Andrew Price’s friend has taken to tormenting her and the way that Sukhvinder deals with her depression is with self-mutilation. In vivid and unnerving detail the reader is right next to this character one night when she engages in her ritual. “With a slight shiver of fear that was a blessed relief in its narrow, immediate focus, she placed the (razor) blade halfway up her forearm and sliced into her own flesh…The blade drew the pain away from her screaming thoughts and transmuted it into burning nerves and skin: relief and release in every cut” (149).

A lot of readers cannot, or will not, empathize with the action of cutting into one’s own flesh and finding “relief and release.” It is a difficult concept to grasp, but not an isolating one as readers may clutch their own arm in vicarious reaction to the prose on these pages.

Rowling dares to challenge her readers to see the world through everyone’s secrets. These revelations are not pretty but they are a revelatory magnifying glass on the human condition, which is often the goal of more typical transgressive literature. The residents of Pagford are not unabashed sexual sadists and serial killers like American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman or anarchistic, underground fight club participants a la Chuck Palahniuk. Yet the many transgressive moments, which are likely to unnerve J.K. Rowling’s audience in part or whole, electrifies the narrative and the characters of The Casual Vacancy, leaving lasting imprints on the reader.

 

Works Cited
Rowling, J.K. The Casual Vacancy. New York: Little, Brown, 2012. Print.

 

©Ginger Lee Thomason and gingerleethomason.com, 2015-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ginger Lee Thomason and gingerleethomason.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Posted in Academic, Book Review, Close Reading

Narrative Breaks in”American Gods” by Neil Gaiman

In works of speculative fiction the reader relies on the authority of the author to convey the truth of the fantastical world, plot, and characters. In American Gods the main character, Shadow Moon, is caught in a war between the Old Gods and the New. As the story progresses, the reader is treated to asides within the pages of the novel concerning the seemingly separate interludes of “Somewhere in America” and “Coming to America.” With these narrative breaks, Gaiman is introducing his reader to the “truth” of this work of low fantasy, converting the reader before the protagonist. Because of this, we will begin to believe before Shadow does.

“‘Bilquis,’ she tells him, raising her head. ‘With a Q’” (28). Less than thirty pages in to American Gods the story changes from Shadow and a bar in the Midwest to “Somewhere in America Los Angeles, California 11:26 P.M.” (27). This first aside comes out of nowhere for the reader as they turn the pages where a prostitute, with an unusual name, devours her john. Literally. Although, this is not exactly a cannibalistic act, as it turns out it is one of utter religious devotion. “He feels the lips of her vulva tight around his upper chest and back, constricting and enveloping him…He wonders why he is not scared. And then he knows. ‘I worship you with my body,’ he whispers…” (30). Later it is revealed that Bilquis was one of the historical names given to the Queen of Sheba.

Gaiman has just revealed the first seeds of the magic to be discovered in his novel. Since the reader is the proxy of the author and characters, what happens in the text is vicariously happening to us. There have been several mystical happenings with protagonist Shadow by the time we meet the Salim and the ifrit (a djinn).

Another “Somewhere in America” takes the reader to New York City where Salim, a closeted Omani salesman is having an unsuccessful week peddling his brother in law’s copper trinkets. When he takes a taxi back to his hotel the cabdriver turns out to be a legendary creature from the Middle East. The driver claimed to have been to a long forgotten city in Oman that had only been recently rediscovered. “‘My grandmother swore that she had seen an ifrit, or perhaps a marid, late one evening, in the edge of the desert…its eyes, like yours, were burning flames’” (188). Salim invites the ifrit back to his hotel room, they have a sexual encounter and when Salim wakes in the morning his possessions have been stolen. Like the john who was consumed by Bilquis, Salim seems to shake off the encounter. He assumes the ifit’s assumed identity “Ibrahim bin Irem…the photographs on the (taxi) license do not look much like Salim, but then, they did not look much like the ifrit…New York is very simple…how hard can it be?” (191).

Just before Gaiman introduces us to the mysticism of the ifrit of the ancient lands of Oman, Shadow is in his hotel room when Lucy Ricardo on I Love Lucy starts to talk to him. She professes to be one of the New Gods, the god of the boob tube. When her offer to entice Shadow over to their side fails, the narrator relates some of Shadow’s thoughts to us. “…He guessed he would take a roadside attraction, no matter how cheap, how crooked, or how sad, over a shopping mall, any day” (177).  The reader has already read of the origins of some of the cheap roadside attractions in the “Coming to America” segments. These are additional breadcrumbs left by Gaiman, persuading us to believe in these American Gods and their mythology.

Coming to America A.D. 813” reimagines the first Vikings that touched North American soil. Once they settled in to their new surroundings, drinking and singing songs of Odin, the All-Father. Later on a Native American came upon into their party and the Vikings hung him from a tree. “And, the next day, when two huge ravens landed upon the scraeling’s corpse, one on each shoulder…the men knew their sacrifice had been accepted” (69). The reader is learning before the main character that the gods of the old world came with the people who worshiped them as they crossed the seas. When Lief, son of Erik the Red came to America, because of the sacrifice of the scraeling, “his gods were already waiting for him when he arrived…They were there. They were waiting.”

For American Gods, Neil Gaiman interweaves a lot of established mythology regarding these Old and New Gods. Not only is the main character caught up in a war amongst these figures, many of which are still powerful and dangerous despite being mostly forgotten, so is the reader. The interludes of “Somewhere in America” and “Coming to America” give more depth to the complexity of the story than Shadow’s third person limited narrative can provide. It also lays the clues for the final battle in the end where the reader, like the old gods, has already arrived. Though we are more versed in this world than Shadow by the end, we will still wait for him, and follow in his journey with him until the last page.

 

Works Cited

Gaiman, Neil. American Gods. New York: Harper Perennial, 2001. Print.

 

©Ginger Lee Thomason and gingerleethomason.com, 2015-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ginger Lee Thomason and gingerleethomason.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

©Ginger Lee Thomason and gingerleethomason.com, 2015-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ginger Lee Thomason and gingerleethomason.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Posted in Academic, Book Review, Close Reading

The Love Letter in “Cooked” by Michael Pollan

 

“Cooking is one of the more beautiful forms that human generosity takes…the very best cooking, I discovered, is also a form of love (415).”

At the heart of many of Michael Pollan’s books, are kinds of letters to his readers. Cooked doesn’t begin with a salutation and end with “Yours Truly” or “Sincerely,” but Pollan’s style of writing is more like correspondence between reader and writer that is unlike other novels and books out there. Cooked is filled with a long love letter about cooking, food, and history. It is a letter from writer to reader. Pollan has taken another nonfiction foodie subject and mixed it with his journalistic roots while adding in flavors of humor, poetry, and memoir. Like the subtitle A Natural History of Transformation, Pollan has transformed the love letter.

In the introduction and the afterward, upon reading the text, you would think with the way Pollan is addressing his audience, that he is having a causal conversation. As this is a book, it comes across as a letter. The text is then divided into four sections grouping cooking styles into the four classical elements: fire, water, air, and earth. Its no coincidence that his text evokes passion, sensuality, sexuality, and friendship, as that is how cooking translates for so many people.

He starts his cooking journey chronicle with fire. Pollan immediately addresses the passion that can come in a love letter. As barbeque is discussed he puts his masculinity on display for his readers. While going over the basics of huge fire pits, and whole hog roasting, he gives us a travelogue of southern pit cooking. He does it in a way that is similar Julia Child’s letters and recollections of first tasting and experimenting with French cuisine, when her husband was stationed in Paris. Pollan writes of his first taste of whole hog roasting, “So this was barbecue. Right away I realized I had never before tasted the real thing, and I was converted…the most rewarding $2.75 I’d ever invested in a sandwich (45).”

Family is the center of cooking with water, Pollan contends in the second part of the book. Much of what he invokes here is family and friendship imagery: cooking long braises with the help of his wife Judith, his son Isaac or his chef friend Samin. Pollan recalls during one Sunday his son answering the phone and speaking to his grandparents.“‘It’s cold and drizzly here, but really cozy inside,’ I heard Isaac tell them. ‘Dad’s cooking and the house smells so good. This is my perfect kind of Sunday.’” (195)

While in this chapter a reminiscence of childhood memories concerning a casserole dish are shared with the reader. After all cooking pots became a part of the center of the home when fire moved indoors. “The symbolic power of the pot—to gather together, to harmonize—might begin in the home, but reaches well beyond it… (158).” This is similar to how we view letters from loved ones; especially love letters. Their power to harmonize emotions extends beyond the written word.

Cooked takes a sensual tone in the air part when Pollan describes the best bread he’d ever tasted. It (the bread) “was so powerfully aromatic that, had I been alone, I would have been tempted to push my face into it. But I was at a dinner party in Oakland with people I didn’t know very well…(212).” He describes an act that could be conceived as sexual, like nuzzling one’s face in a woman’s bosom. It is a tender exchange between lovers. How the bread was so delicious, it was symbolically arousing and stimulating.

In the section on earth or fermentation addresses alcohol, forever associated with revelry and gods like Dionysus. The earth is where new life forms from old. It is through the love of life that the god of wine has brought mankind back down to the earth.

Pollan takes the bacteria that transforms milk into cheese and juice into wine and has eroticized it. He discusses with a Catholic nun how “cheese is all about the dark side of life (360).” What is a love letter but hidden messages and double meanings about something as everyday as cheese? Because of the dance between using fire, air, water, and earth in the kitchen, Cooked has fully transformed from a book into a love letter.

 

 

Works Cited

Pollan, Michael. Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. New York City: Penguin Group  US, 2013. Print.

 

©Ginger Lee Thomason and gingerleethomason.com, 2015-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ginger Lee Thomason and gingerleethomason.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.