Book Review: Goodbye to All That By Robert Graves

“This is a story of what I was, not what I am.”

– Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That

One Sentence Hook: English author Robert Graves says goodbye to England, family, friends, and a way of life after serving as a soldier in World War I.

I’ve read a few books trying to understand World War I. One of my favorites is “Goodbye to All That” by Robert Graves.

The Author

Robert von Ranke Graves was one of the most prolific poets of the twentieth century. Graves’ career spanned six decades. He was born in London, England, on July 24, 1895.  He his mother’s family was German and his father’s family was Irish. His mother’s family, the von Rankes, was dominated by clergymen, while his father’s side were intellectuals. Graves’ father was an amateur poet and an inspector of schools.

Graves was raised in an atmosphere of thoughtfulness and civility. He attended private preparatory schools until he went to Oxford. His education was interrupted when he enlisted to fight in World War I soon after it began in 1914. The horror of trench warfare was a crucial experience in his life: he was severely wounded in 1916 and remained deeply troubled by his war experiences.

Graves’s mental conflicts during the 1920s were made worse by an unhappy marriage that ended in divorce. A new acceptance of his own nature, in which sexual love and dread seemed to exist in close proximity, appeared in his verse. In 1929, he moved to the island of Majorca, Spain. He died in 1985.

Graves produced more than 140 works during his lifetime and has never been out of print. His best known works are The White Goddess, Claudius the God and Count Belisarius. Graves’s sad love poems are regarded as the finest produced in the English language during the 20th century, along with those of W.B. Yeats.

Summary

“Goodbye to All That” begins with Graves telling of his earliest memories, followed by a brief summary of what he looked like at the time of the writing of the book. Graves talks about the background of his family on both his mother’s and father’s sides. He is from a privileged background of “lower upper-class” Britons.

Graves tells about his education at the Charterhouse prep school. The majority of his memoir is his service in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, one of the most respected regiments in the British army during World War I. Graves thrusts the reader directly into the brutal experiences of trench warfare on the Western Front. Graves writes a stirring account of boredom for long stretches interrupted by horrifying, and heroic moments. The battlefield of World War I was not a place for storybook heroism. The Western Front was a morass of death and mud where huge armies grappled seeming without purpose or hope of victory.

As a young lieutenant in battle, Graves’ life expectancy on the front lines was three months, he survives for two years. In 1916, he was severely wounded and reported as dead. For more than a week, his friends and family back in England believed that Graves died. His unexpected recovery, the delayed notification to his family and “resurrection” is one of the central passages of the book. The experience had a deep and lasting influence on Graves, both as a man and as a poet.

Analysis

I’ve read a few powerful memoirs about the First World War, but Robert Graves’ “Goodbye to All That” is the most honest and insightful. The descriptions of battle are horrifying. Graves describes military bungling that is both darkly amusing and disturbing. Graves’ factual tone makes the remarkable seem like you are hearing a buddy in a bar tell you his story.

The book was published in 1929, more than ten years after the war’s end. That same year a number of powerful books came out from other writers, like Graves, who had survived the war. The most famous is “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of World War I.

Graves was still suffering from the trauma of fighting. His book tells us about his anger over the war. Graves uses disjointed methods he by combining excerpts from letters, poems by himself and others, army commands and ramblings to create a sense of the disorder he had felt in battle.

As Graves recalls, he grew up in a household that stressed the time-honored virtues of Christianity, patriotism, and progress. Along with millions of other young Englishmen, he found these virtues severely shaken, if not totally destroyed, by World War I. Graves was a brilliant writer, and his classic autobiography is an account of both his own personal experiences and the end of innocence for an entire generation and nation.

A Fractured Mind Begins to Heal

Intro

I hope all is going with you. Things have been busy here. I am sorry about slowing down on the emails. Term papers, my Army Reserve commitment, working on the outline for my first novel and trying to submit other writings have kept me busy.

My work as a writer has been going full-steam ahead. I am working on two short stories for submittals to a local writing magazine and two poems. I never really submitted anything before, but figured now was the time.

I am still taking four English and Literature classes at the local community college. Awesome classes and every one of my professors has a PhD.

At night I am taking a few “free” on-line courses in writing. I am trying to get good at writing in a hurry.

A Healing

After getting blown up in 2008 in Afghanistan I had trouble concentrating. It was the second time in three years I had hit a roadside bomb.

I could not focus my mind. For years after the explosion I had tortured, fearful and fragmented thoughts.

Imagine a car windshield that has been shattered by a blow from a hammer. The windshield fragments create small islands. Each one of those islands is a thought.  is Like a misplaced child’s jigsaw puzzle, no two pieces fit together to form a coherent pattern.

Rather the pieces of thoughts form a constant racing of random feelings, thoughts and ideas. My mind never stopped racing, not even while I slept, if I slept.

My intellectual sense of geography was off. I had acres and acres of debris of knowledge from books I’d read, old memories and conversations. All of strewn over what was left of mind and memory on a beach.

The confusion seemed to get larger as the months dragged into years. I had a sense of timelessness punctuated by moments of clarity and cohesion.

Only after meeting my wife Muna did I begin to become fully aware of myself again. Muna infiltrated my dream world. She encouraged, prodded and asked penetrating questions. She was a force of relevance who made me put one foot forward at a time.

A Realization

Then I started to write. Not just write a few lines, or a potential book but really write. I realized I had a lot to say.

What I needed was a large blank canvas. A blank canvas where my mind could wander. A place where I could pick up the debris on my mind’s beach.

Writing allowed me to take the jigsaw pieces and put them back together. Writing stimulated my mind. Writing cleared up the fog and increased my powers of concentration.

Where there was clatter was now quiet. Muna’s love was gentle and healing. She passed her loving fingers over the scar tissue of my mind and massaged me back to life.

My life is better because of writing and my loving wife.

Immersion

They say the best way to learn a language is immersion. I am trying to learn the language of writing in all its forms. These classes are teaching me not just to write, but to make words snap to life. Writing is teaching me how to wrestle with the past and to build on the ruins.

I hope you guys like the outcome.

Visiting Vermont

Intro

Muna and I went to my Annual Spring Train-Up at Fort Dix, NJ last week. We stayed there for four days. Afterwards we made our way north to Vermont. We stayed in the idyllic Vermont village of White River Junction, pop. 404.

White River Junction, was an eclectic mix of modern boutiques and cafes alongside historic buildings. The tiny historic hamlet was unique destination. The town has preserved its history while looking towards the future. White River Junction had a small town vibe filled with a youthful energy. This is life in a tiny town where everyone knows everything, and everything is everybody else’s business.

So much of Vermont reminded me of the pastoral beauty of Oregon. Vermont, like Oregon, celebrates small-town life the way it really exists in our imagination. Private and secluded farmhouses cradled in picturesque settings on top of hillsides and clinging to mountains. A beautiful, unspoiled countryside surrounded by farms, cows and nice people.

The beauty of a pristine winter was over. The time of the year was “mud season.” The time of year when winter makes its exit, and spring slowly approaches. It’s a miserable and filthy time of year. An in-between time season tinged with a glimmer of hope for greener days ahead.

The days were misty and gray. We didn’t see any billboards or big chain stores in Vermont. We visited tiny Weston, Vermont with one of the oldest continuously operating country stores in the country. We met a lot of folks from “someplace else.”

An older couple we met was into their full immersion into rural life- swapping dress shoes for muck boots, raising chickens and sheep, and fighting off skunks and bears. They told us about living in a tiny town steeped in history, local tradition, and that dyed-in-the-wool Vermont “character.” They could have chosen to live anywhere but they deliberately chose Vermont, a hard-working, old-fashioned life.

We loved it.

King Arthur Flour

Muna is many things: a great wife, an extraordinary event planner, but she is also a baker and foodie. I wanted to take her to one slice of foodie paradise just off Interstate Highway 91 in Norwich, Vermont that knows no season.

Folks outside New England might know King Arthur Flour Co. mostly by the paper bags of its signature product. King Arthur flours are sold in many supermarkets, and the company has a catalog that’s an excellent resource for bakers. The company headquarters is just off Interstate Highway 91 in Norwich, Vermont.

In spring, there is the maple syrup. In summer, there are tours of artisanal cheese makers. In fall, it’s all about the foliage. And in winter, you’d better have skis strapped to the roof rack.

As odd as it sounds, the 220-year-old company’s headquarters, you can shop, dine and even sign up for a range of baking classes with King Arthur’s experts.

This is no soulless corporate HQ. That’s obvious the moment you pull up to the sprawling but beautiful post-and-beam building that looks like a renovated barn. Waves of freshly baked goodness waft out to you in the parking lot. First, you whiff bread, then maybe scones. Or is it muffins? Definitely sugar cookies in the mix, too.

Step inside and the aromas intensify. Dead ahead is a cafe backed by a wall of freshly baked breads and pastries. To the right, an open kitchen where cavernous ovens produce heaps of carby treats. I felt like I gained ten pounds just standing in the front door.

But you need to resist and head first to the left. There a massive store offers endless baking gadgets and supplies. You have every variety of flour and baking mix a home or pro cook could hope for. If you time it right, the demo kitchen in the back corner will be showing off and sampling all manner of goodies.

Once you’ve shopped up an appetite, return to the cafe. The baked goods, of course, are the stars. There are daily soups and salads, as well as numerous sandwiches made using the artisanal breads baked on-site. Much of the produce comes from a farm down the street. And of course, there are plenty of those wonderful Vermont cheeses.

If you can afford to build a bit more time into your visit, plan ahead and check out the Baking Education Center’s class offerings. The classes, which range from quick flatbread and cookie courses to intensive, weeklong baking 101 immersions, are all taught in the beautiful kitchen classrooms right next to the cafe. Warning: Classes fill up fast.

Now that you’ve had your carb fix, you might want to wash it down with some cool and refreshing fat. Less than 2 miles away over the river in Hanover is Morano Gelato, which serves shockingly good gelato. Owner Morgan Morano spent six years researching gelato in Italy before opening the shop in 2010 on this college town’s quaint main drag.

The ingredients are local, and the gelato is made fresh daily, all of which shows. This is killer gelato. Not just killer good for New Hampshire, but killer good for Italy.

 

Many of the flavors tempt, and while you could mix and match them (as Italians love to do), consider getting nothing but the sea salt chocolate. It is rich, creamy and smooth in ways that verge of obscene. If you get a small, you will regret it.

Dartmouth Writing Program

King Arthur Flour is nestled in a rolling field just over the Connecticut River from Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, a must-stop destination.

We looked at the Dartmouth University Writing Residence Program. The program takes place in for two weeks in July. It provides aspiring writers an opportunity to get instruction by immersion.

Participants will live in a Dartmouth residence hall and attend writing workshops. The program encompasses the academic dimensions of Dartmouth with classes and interaction with our faculty from their English Department.

There’s ample time for meaningful conversation with successful local writers and staff on how to improve your writing.

In addition to attending scheduled classes, you attend special sessions led by featured faculty members about how his or her writing experience. Additionally, faculty show the relevance of writing classes and fiction to the great issues facing us in the world today.

We toured the campus, to help us gain a general orientation of the Dartmouth campus. The program helps aspiring writers to decipher the vocabulary of “fiction” “short stories” “creative nonfiction” and other writing genre terms. This course empowers a new writer to make a smart choices while navigating their first book through the hectic publishing process.

I am not sure I am going to sign up yet, but I sure am thinking about it.

We had a great time.

Short Story Review “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff

Intro

“Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff is another fantastic short story. It’s a favorite among literary professors. Wolff does a lot in a few amount of words.

Background of the Author

Tobias Wolff is an American writer. Wolff was born June 19, 1945 in Birmingham, AL.

Wolff grew up in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington State. He attended the prestigious “The Hill School,” a private boarding school in Pennsylvania. Wolff wrote about his time there in the semi-autobiographical novel “Old School.”

Wolff served in Vietnam as a member of the Special Forces (Green Berets). He wrote about his life two wonderful and powerful memoirs, “This Boy’s Life” and “In Pharaoh’s Army.”

Snapshot: An unpleasant book critic named Anders is at a bank during a robbery. He gets shot in the brain. In Ander’s dying seconds he sees a perfect memory of a childhood baseball game.

Summary

Anders is an offensive book critic. He shows no redeeming qualities in the story. He is dislikes he comes into contact with. Anders is rude to the bank teller and makes snide comments to people waiting in line.

Suddenly there is a shift in action. The bank is being robbed. He insults the robbers. One of them shoots him in the head.

Wolff describes the damage being done to the brain by the bullet. Wolff describes a number of things that Anders might have recalled, but doesn’t. An unhappy marriage, how he was mean to his loving kids, and his inability to find any happiness in his life despite have lived a life of privilege.

Ander’s last nanosecond before death his memory jumps back to his childhood. It is an episode in his life of no real consequence.

He replays the scene of a pickup baseball game on a hot, perfect summer afternoon. Anders is getting ready to play a ballgame. There is a new boy joining them, a friend’s cousin from Mississippi.

Shortstop,” the boy says. “Short’s the best position they is.” Anders turns and looks at him. He wants to hear Coyle’s cousin repeat what he’s just said, but he knows better than to ask. The others will think he’s being a jerk, ragging the kid for his grammar. But that isn’t it, not at all—it’s that Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music. He takes the field in a trance, repeating them to himself.

In two simple, ungrammatical words is all that Anders remembers- “They is. They is.” We learn even the most miserable man was once a young boy, full of wonder.

Analysis

“Bullet in the Brain” is the perfect imperfect short story. It’s very short, less than 2,000 words. Wolff violates a lot of the rules of craft in this story.

It begins with a comic tone. It shifts dramatically when the bank is robbed and Anders is shot.

Reading about Anders’ final memory makes you view his character in a different way. Only at the end of the story, and the end of Anders’ life do we see the humanizing character of Anders.

Anders is the only name we get. We learn about more about him only the last part of the story through the narrator telling us about several rough details of his life.

The story is told in a third person point-of-view. The entire story takes place in the lobby of a bank and in Anders’ last memory.

The story is savage, simple and brilliant. Wolff is a master at keeping us in suspense until the very end.

Book Review: “Homage to Catalonia” by George Orwell

Intro

Snapshot: British writer George Orwell goes to Spain to fight with the Loyalists/Republicans against the Nationalists led General Francisco Franco. Orwell sees little combat but is wounded. Orwell describes the political situation in Spain and Europe two years before World War II.

“Homage to Catalonia” by George Orwell is a fun and fascinating book.

George Orwell

George Orwell was an English novelist, journalist and social critic. He is famous for his two best novels “Animal Farm” and “1984.” George Orwell was the pen name of Eric Blair. Orwell was born on June 25, 1903 in India. His father was a middle-level civil servant.

A year after his birth, his mother brought him home to England. In 1911, he was sent to boarding school at Eton. After Eton, his family didn’t have the money for a university education.

Orwell spent the next five years in Burma as part of the Imperial Police Force. In 1927, he returned to England, intent on becoming a writer. Orwell lived meekly among the poor. He published a few books with little success. In June 1936, he married Eileen O’Shaughnessy.

In 1936, he traveled to Spain. He joined a group fighting against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. His adventures in Spain form the basis of “Homage to Catalonia.”

In 1945, he wrote “Animal Farm”. The book was anti-Soviet satire in a pastoral setting on a farm with animals.   In 1949, he published his masterwork of “1984.” It’s a chilling glimpse into a world where the government controls our lives.

Orwell died on January 21, 1950 in a London hospital from tuberculosis.

Background

Elections in 1931 made Spain a republic. The King left Spain and the Second Spanish Republic was established.

The Liberal Party came to power. Women gained the right to vote and the power of the Catholic Church was diminished. The wealthy, the Church and other conservative groups rallied against the newly elected government.

Finally, members of the army rebelled. The “Juntos”, a group of rebel generals, named Francisco Franco, as head of state. From Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy came money, more than 50,000 troops and equipment in support of the Rebels.

Civil War

The Spanish Civil War was from July 1936 to April, 1939. The Spanish Civil War was a dress rehearsal for World War II. German soldiers fighting in Spain refined their tactics and plans later for the invasions of Poland, France and Russia.

Volunteers from all over the world surged into Spain to aid the ailing Republic in its fight against Fascism. Among the volunteers were more than 3,300 Americans. Many sacrificed their lives.

The American volunteers made-up the 15th International (Lincoln) Brigade of the Spanish Republican Army. Their aim was to stop Hitler and Mussolini from using Spain as a springboard for their invasion across Europe.

Oliver Law, an African- American, communist, was selected by a committee of three white officers to lead the brigade. Law was the first African-American commander to lead an integrated military force in the history of the United States. Law was killed in the fighting.

Summary

In late 1936, Orwell went to Spain to cover the war as a journalist. He got caught up in the revolutionary spirit. He joined a Republican militia. He fought in Northwest Spain in the Basque region of Catalonia.

He spent three months in the trenches at the front. He saw little combat. He was mostly bored, hungry and exhausted.

Orwell went on leave. He went to Barcelona to see his wife. In Barcelona, fighting breaks out between rival Republican groups.

Orwell returned to the front. He was shot in the throat and arm. He was evacuated to a hospital. He partially recovers.

The group he was fighting with (POUM) is suppressed. Members were arrested, jailed and sometimes killed.

Orwell, his wife, and a few comrades escaped to France. He returned to England. Orwell wrote the book in 1938, before the war has ended.

Analysis

“Homage to Catalonia” is written with a first-person, limited, point of view. Orwell is candid and straightforward about his wartime experience. You get the feeling, “he has been there and done that.”

His writing is enjoyable and engaging. Orwell uses imagery and themes throughout the memoir. Short words and phrases are used as a straightforward as possible.

He uses lots and lots of detail to paint an image in your head the scene he is describing. The book is written in standard journalistic prose. Facts, scenes and events are presented in a professional manner. Often times you feel like you’re listening to a war story from a buddy at a bar over a beer.

Orwell presents the political situation in Spain. He gives you his perspective on-the-ground in Spain fighting against the Fascists.

Impression

I really enjoyed this book. It was an excellent introduction to Orwell.

George Orwell the man, fascinates me. He is a complex mass of confusions.

He is pro-English, but anti-establishment. He is a proud graduate of Eton College, where the English ruling class sends their sons to school, but he is anti-authoritarian.

Orwell loves the idea of equality, but is sentimental and nostalgic about the class system in England. He was a socialist who was an anti-communist and anti-fascist.  He was anti-war but pro the Second World War.

There seems to be a disconnect between the man of Eric Blair and the writer George Orwell. He is a brilliant writer.

 

Learning About Poetry

“I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”

― William Faulkner

Poetry

I love poetry. I am taking a great class about poetry. Here is what I have learned.

The Tools

Poets need to possess two talents: one is imagination, the other is a mastery of language. There’s really only one reason that poetry has a reputation for being so “difficult.” Poetry demands your full attention and won’t settle for less.

It’s not like a novel, where you can drift in and out and can still follow the plot. Great poems are brief, intense love affairs whose memories are meant to last forever.

Aside from its demands on your attention, there’s nothing too tricky about reading a poem. Like anything, it’s a matter of practice. But in case you haven’t read much (or any) poetry before, I’ve got a short list of tips that will make it more enjoyable.

Lesson One: If you don’t make room for the experience, you probably won’t have one.

A great poem is a slow-building tour de force that sounds fresh and different every time you hear it. Once you’ve gotten a taste of the really rich stuff, you just want to listen to it over and over again and figure out: how’d the poet do that?

Lesson Two: Follow Your Ears. It’s okay to ask, “What does it mean?” when reading a poem.

Lesson Three: Read It Aloud. If you’re embarrassed, read the poem in the faintest whisper possible. Do whatever it takes, because reading even part of the poem aloud can totally change your perspective on how it works.

Additional Thoughts:

  1. Don’t Skim. Unlike the newspaper or a textbook, the point of poetry isn’t to cram information into your brain. I can’t repeat it enough: poetry is an experience.

Understanding poetry is like getting a suntan: you have to let it sink in. Each line of great poetry is loaded with ideas and emotions.

  1. Be Patient. You can’t really understand a poem that you’ve only read once. You just can’t. So if you don’t get it, set the poem aside and come back to it later. And by “later” I mean days, months, or even years. Don’t rush it. It’s a much bigger accomplishment to actually enjoy a poem than it is to be able to explain every line of it.
  2. Think Like a Poet. Go through the poem, one line at a time, covering up the next line with your hand so you can’t see it. Put yourself in the poet’s shoes: If I had to write a line to come after this line, what would I put?

Poetry is about freedom and exposing yourself to new things. In fact, if you find yourself stuck in a poem, just remember that the poet, 9 times out of 10, was a bit of a rebel. Poets try to make the reader look at life in a completely different way in a few short, powerful sentences.

Favorite Poems

Some of my favorite poems written in the trenches to elegies for the dead, these poems commemorate the World War I. The horror of the war and its aftermath altered the world for decades, and poets responded to the brutalities and losses in new ways.

My two favorite poems:

“Nineteen-Fourteen: The Soldier” By Rupert Brooke

 

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England. There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;

A body of England’s, breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

 

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,

A pulse in the eternal mind, no less

Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;

Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;

And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,

In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

“In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, May 1915

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

 

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

 

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Story behind “Flanders Field”

During the Second Battle of Ypres a young Canadian artillery officer, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed on 2nd May, 1915. An exploding German artillery shell landed near him. He was serving in the same Canadian artillery unit as a friend of his, the Canadian military doctor and artillery commander Major John McCrae.

As the brigade doctor, John McCrae was asked to conduct the burial service for Alexis because the chaplain had been called away somewhere else on duty that evening. It is believed that later that evening, after the burial, McCrae began the draft for his now famous poem “In Flanders Fields”.

 

Dreamers By Siegfried Sassoon

 

Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,

Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.

In the great hour of destiny they stand,

Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.

Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win

Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.

Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin

They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.

 

I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,

And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,

Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,

And mocked by hopeless longing to regain

Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,

And going to the office in the train.

Along with Wilfred Owen, Sassoon was among the most celebrated of WWI poets and one of the sharpest documenters of what Owen called ‘the pity of War’. Sassoon even played an important role in helping to inspire and encourage the taut style of Owen’s poetry. This sonnet is not his best-known, but it’s a moving depiction of the longing the ordinary soldier felt for home, his loved ones, and the normal life he’d left behind.

 

 

Short Story Review- The Yellow Wallpaper

Intro

Imaginative and engaging writing is a fairly straightforward two-part harmony between the writer and the reader.

Some people are born with a knack (talent) for writing and acquire the skill with practice. The knack can be freed and developed (this is the fun part of writing). The skill needs to studied and honed with practice.

The knack wants wild, flight. The skill needs to be harnessed with hard work, study and discipline (this is the hardest for me).

Writing Advice

William Zinsser was a legendary of writing. His book “On Writing Well” is a must-read for any wannabe writer. He gives timeless and priceless advice. Zinsser stressed simplicity and efficiency, but also style and enthusiasm. My favorites are are posted above my computer:

  1. Write in the first person: “Writing is an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper, and it will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity.”
  2. The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. “The mantra is: simplify, simplify.”
  3. Writing is hard work: “A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”

The Yellow Wallpaper

This short story is a great one. It is a popular short story that a lot of beginning classes of American Literature use.

Background of the Author

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a 19th century American writer and lecturer about gender.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born on July 3, 1860, in Hartford, Connecticut. She published her best-known short story “The Yellow Wall-Paper” in 1892.

One of her greatest works of non-fiction, “Women and Economics” was published in 1898. Along with writing books, she established a magazine, “The Forerunner” was published from 1909 to 1916.

Gilman committed suicide on August 17, 1935, in Pasadena, California. She discovered she had inoperable breast cancer.

She was a writer who believed in using literature to advance her ideas about women equality. She was a feminist who encouraged women to gain economic independence.

Summary

Snapshot: “The Yellow Wallpaper” describes a woman’s descent into madness as a result of inadequate patriarchal medical care. Gilman’s story is based on personal experience.

The time is the late 19th century. The narrator and her husband John have rented a beautiful, secluded estate for the summer.

The narrator has some sort of breakdown. She is ordered to “rest.” She is told what room in the house she will stay in on the second floor. The narrator prefers a smaller, prettier room on the first floor. She feels uncomfortable in the house.

She wants to spend her time writing but she is told by husband doctor to do “nothing.” Everyone in her family thinks her need for writing or reading is a terrible idea. She can’t do anything she enjoys.

The narrator becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper in her room. She starts to trace the pattern of the wallpaper. She becomes convinced there is a woman trapped in the wallpaper.

She strips the wallpaper off to free the trapped woman. She declares herself free and starts crawling around the room and peeling the wallpaper. The narrator declares herself free of the prison of the yellow wallpaper prison.

Her husband sees her and the state of the room and he faints. The narrator continues to creep around the room.

Analysis

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a gothic horror tale. The story is told in strict first-person narration. All the writing is focused on the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of the troubled young woman narrator.

All her thoughts are filtered through her sporadic emotions. She is at odds with other characters in the story. She is in a state of anxiety and stress throughout the story.

We see flashes of sarcasm, anger, humor and depression. All her thoughts are in the present tense. All the action of the story takes place in one bedroom of a large summer home.

The narrator has just given birth to a little girl. She is suffering from postpartum depression. She feels is not a good mother. She has failed to meet the expectations of motherhood and society.

This realization is driving her crazy because it conflicts with her desire to be independent of her husband and be a writer.

The narrator sees the yellow wallpaper as prison bars. The wallpaper of the room is a prison inside the domestic sphere of marriage. The woman trapped in the wallpaper is her true self. She wants to escape her husband, her life and society’s expectations.

If she can get out of the room than she can escape her depression.

Impression

Gilman is a master of imagery. She gets her point without you knowing what she is doing- the sign of a master storyteller.
 

 

 

 

Short Story Review: The Open Boat by Stephen Crane

“To teach is to learn twice.”

– Joseph Joubert

Intro

Writing is an art form. Writing is also a labor of love. Learning to write is one of the most exciting things I have ever done. I want to share my love of writing with you and what I’ve learned.

Being a Writer

I choose fiction writing as a career because of a compulsive need to write. Others choose writing as a way of expressing themselves. I was drawn into writing at an early age because I loved reading.

It was one of the few things I enjoyed in school. Writing was the only thing in school, I wasn’t intimidated by. I felt it was the one thing I had control over. I could create any story I wanted, and the only rules I had to follow were those of English grammar.

At the time I was a voracious reader of anything from combat memoirs and horror to literary classics. These stories would help spawn ideas for stories of my own, and I would write them in my spare time. My problem was that I was a closet scribbler. I never tried to write anything except in secret.

As I moved through high school, guidance counselors tried their best to focus me on a career path. I found none that really sparked my interest except writing, even after I joined the army.

Now I am writing my first novel,

Teaching to Learn

I wanted to start sharing with you some things I have learned in class about literature and literary techniques for better writing. I want these emails to act as a sort of Master’s Class for writing.

I am not an expert on English grammar, writing or books. I am an aspiring author learning how to write.

My aim is quite simply the same as with any creative writing course: to upskill, inform and inspire. By giving you writing advice, tips, and techniques I will become a better writer, hopefully you will too.

I will give you useful insights and concrete examples of great writing by literary heavyweights. I will discuss, critique and talk about books. I will express my opinions about what I am learning, reading and most important what I am writing.

These instructive emails are very much about talking shop. I really enjoy sharing what I am learning.  I will share my observations on the craft: for instance, dialogue is important because it clearly displays the interactions between your characters.

Another tip is knowing what genre you are writing for (each one of them has “rules”), not so you can imitate what’s been done, but so you can avoid imitating. The importance of choosing what point of view (whether first or third person) you are writing in. Point of view makes a scene more interesting.

I don’t think I will ever be a writer of immense success and fortune or even a lot of skill. I do think good advice is important to any writer or reader. I hope you find this information enjoyable and most important, useful.

The Short Story

A short story is a piece of fiction that can be read in one sitting. The short story features a small cast of characters. It focuses on a self-contained incident with the intent of evoking a “single effect” or mood.

Short stories make use of plot, resonance, and other dynamic components to a far lesser degree than a novel. You have a small amount of room to do a lot of work. Authors of short stories generally draw from a common pool of literary techniques as writers of novels.

Short stories have no set length. In terms of word count there is no official demarcation between an anecdote, a short story, and a novel. The rule of thumb is usually 1,000 to 6,000 words makes a short story.

The short story is considered an apprenticeship form preceding eventually to more lengthy works like novels. A well-crafted short story is an art form in its own right.

Stephen Crane

Many literature professors think Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” is the perfect short story. Crane was a 19th Century American writer and journalist.

Crane came from a line of strong-willed men who helped found and build America. He was born in 1871 in Newark, New Jersey. He was a bright and busy student who studied literature and science.

At the age of 22, he wrote “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.” The story is about the underbelly of New York City. It was a declaration of enslavement of the poor trapped by poverty.

Two years later, in 1895, “The Red Badge of Courage” was published. It is a naturalistic novel set during the Civil War.

Crane told the story from an infantry soldier’s point of view. There is the constant threat of the unknown, the feeling of helplessness of someone else’s plan, the suppression of identity and self-doubt.

These themes are in all of Crane’s fiction.

Crane was a war correspondent. He was on the frontline of some of the grimmer scenes of his time. He covered the Greco-Turkish War. He traveled to England and became friends with Henry James, H.G. Wells and Joseph Conrad- we’ll talk about these literary heavyweights later, I promise.

He went to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War. It was the war that made Teddy Roosevelt and his “Rough Riders” charge up San Juan Hill famous.

On his way to Cuba his ship sank. He spent 30 hours adrift at sea in a lifeboat off the coast of Florida. This experience forms the basis for “The Open Boat.”

After Cuba, he returned to England. In Germany, he died of tuberculosis. He was 29 years old.

Crane’s Style of Writing

Crane’s writing style is committed to Naturalism and Realism. A “naturalist” writer approaches the subject they write about scientifically, almost detached. A ‘”realist” strives to portray their subjects as realistically and truthful as possible.

Crane’s writing was characterized by his naturalistic perception of man caught in conflict with some other alienating force (war, weather, depression) that defines the human condition.

Crane lived by the proverb “The nearer a writer gets to life the greater artist he becomes.” This maxim killed him at the young age of 29.

His story is truly one of the most tragic of American Literature. He produced an amazing body for such a young writer.

The Open Boat

Snapshot: The story is about four men on the open sea after a shipwreck. The men are the narrator- a war correspondent (Crane), an oiler, the ship’s cook and captain. They are in a lifeboat the size of a bathtub in a stormy sea with sharks.

Themes-

Man Vs Nature

From the start, the boat (and the men in it) and the ocean are described as adversaries. Not really enemies, but playing for rival teams. The boat is representative of man, and the ocean is symbolic of nature.

Crane is commenting on man’s relationship to the natural world. The story is told from a human perspective. The ocean’s actions are indifferent to the plight of man.

Brotherhood of Men at War

There is an “us against them” vibe in the story. The “us” is the four men on the boat. The “them” is everyone and everything else: the ocean, the birds, the shark, and the imaginary rescue teams that are not rescuing them.

The relationship of the four men share is profound. They feel a “subtle brotherhood,” being out there at sea together. They don’t talk about it much, but they feel it just the same—it makes them feel strong, safe and it gives them a unified sense of purpose.

The narrator admits that before the shipwreck, he had never cared much about other people. But after his lost at sea ordeal- being terrified, vulnerable, and soaking wet with three other men he was forced to work and get along with- he comes to realize he really does love the people around him.

Strength and Skill

This theme is sort of a red herring. The narrator really focused on strength and skill. For example, the oiler is strong and stoic and the ocean is strong.

The correspondent is impressed by these qualities. As you go through the story, you start to think that this story is all about the importance of strength.

At the end of the story the four men swim toward shore. The oiler swims ahead of the others, strong and brave. He’s going to make it, we know it.

The cook clumsily tries to row himself to shore. The correspondent gets ungracefully washed to the shallows by a rogue wave. Suddenly, the oiler is face down in the shallows, inexplicably drowned. We thought his strength would save him—so what went wrong?

Impression

The narrator’s ideas about fate, however, take a decidedly different turn in the story. I wonder how I would respond in a situation like this.

Some questions I asked was: Would I consider it all part of some divine plan, or instead decide it’s all just chaos? Would I even have a choice in the matter?

These are all pretty heavy questions to grapple with, and Crane manages to discuss them all in this incredible short story.

Crane is a great writer. He keeps you guessing until the end.

Book Review: Fortunate Son by Lewis B. Puller Jr.

Intro

I am trying to get caught up on the Boon Reviews. I love reading a good book and then writing about it.

Lewis B. Puller’s 1991 book “Fortunate Son: The Healing of a Vietnam Vet” won the Pulitzer Prize for biography.

This book hit close to home. I know what’s like to go to the war the son of a military legend. I know what’s like to be wounded and to suffer through years of rehabilitation, depression and attempt to live up to a father’s one-sided legacy.

My own story is nothing compared to Lewis B. Puller Jr.’s. My writing is not as wonderful. This is a brilliant, painful and important book.

Like Eugene Sledge, Puller, is a proud veteran of the 1st Marine Division. Like Sledge, Puller deals with his demons through writing. The outcome of his story is heroic and tragic.

The story of this brave Marine made me proud and broke my heart. His journey is one of the best I’ve read about the nightmare that was Vietnam.

Muna and I listened to this book on audio. The book was narrated by Puller. He is a measured and intense narrator. The last ten seconds of the book made us both cry, you’ll find out why later.

Biography

Lewis B. Puller Jr. was born in Camp Lejeune, N.C., in 1945. Puller was the son of Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, the most decorated Marine of all time.

Puller served in Vietnam as a Marine Infantry Rifle Platoon Commander. He was awarded the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts, the Navy Commendation Medal and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry for his service.

He graduated in 1967 from the College of William and Mary, where he also earned a law degree. In 1978, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress.

In 1979, Mr. Puller worked as a senior lawyer in the Defense Department. He died in 1994.

Summary

Puller’s autobiography recounts his tragic life, a Marine who lost both of his legs and part of both hands while serving his country in Vietnam.

Lewis B. Puller was the son of Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller, the most decorated Marine in American history. Puller recounts from the time he was a boy, there were unspoken assumptions about the course his life should take.

Puller felt a certain obligation to be a Marine because he was Chesty’s only son and heir to the Puller name. Puller joins the Marine Corps while still in college. Puller meets a beautiful woman named Toddy.

Puller becomes a Marine Officer. Just before going to Vietnam he finds out that Toddy is pregnant. They get married just before Puller leaves.

Puller is sent to Vietnam as an Infantry Platoon Commander. Within three months he returns home to the States missing two legs and most of his hands.

In the book, he told of stepping on a booby trapped howitzer round while he was in Vietnam. “I felt as if I had been airborne forever,” he wrote. “I had no idea that the pink mist that engulfed me had been caused by the vaporization of most of my right and left legs.” Wounds That Never Healed.

His body was mangled. Puller was is in endless agony during his painful physical recovery of years of surgery and rehabilitation.

His wife stays by his side through it all. His son is born while he is the hospital.

Puller fights to regain a purpose to his life. Puller nearly succumbed to relentless pain, depression, alcoholism and a father’s unrequited legacy. Against all odds, he survives his wounds and goes on to earn a law degree from the prestigious William and Mary College.

Puller feels bitter about how America treats Vietnam warriors, veterans of an unpopular and “lost” war. He runs for congress and loses. To his disgust, he loses to a man who was elected on the strength of his pro-military stance, even though he avoided service in Vietnam.

Puller helped to organize and build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982.

Puller’s amazing book is an account of his journey from alienation to reconciliation with a nation that had sent him to war.

Analysis

Even the cover demands your attention and respect. On the cover of the book is the image of Puller’s shrunken body perched on a wheelchair in front of the Vietnam War Memorial. The book is beautiful, haunting and tragic.

Lewis B. Puller is a wonderful writer. He is intelligent and caring. He writes with a clarity and accuracy that makes reading about difficult subjects (war, trauma, and suffering) easier to absorb.

His prose at the sentence level is devastating and haunting:

“I listened in on my father’s conversations with his colleagues and acquaintances while I was growing up, and I unconsciously adopted his politics and philosophy as my own. Most of the admirers who came to share his wisdom were already predisposed to accept his words as gospel; Father’s personality was so strong and his delivery so forceful that I saw very few people who ever seemed to express disagreement with his stands on issues.”

Puller sees his emotional wounds and the country’s emotional wounds over Vietnam in a larger context in the book. His father’s long heroic shadow haunts him throughout his life.

Puller gives an open and graphic description of his pain and trauma after Vietnam. He talks about his pain-filled struggles with alcohol and addiction.

In the war Puller lost his legs, most of his hands and some of his self-respect. He felt he lost his future, half of his body and dreams to a war that his fellow Americans thought was a mistake. Vietnam destroyed his life.

Puller paid a high-price to make his father proud. Puller admired and loved his father deeply. Puller felt he made an honorable sacrifice for an uncaring country that treated its Vietnam veterans like dirt.

His grisly physical and traumatic emotional injuries were almost too big for any one man to overcome, but overcome them he did.

He graduated from law school, was married to an amazing women with two wonderful kids, and ran for public office. Puller helped to organize the Vietnam Veteran Memorial.

His book is a chronicle of a man who needed to be a kind of different hero, one who overcame his enormous physical and psychological scars to find a courage- and a victory- all his own.

Final Statement

On May 11, 1994, Lewis Puller Jr’s victory in his ongoing battle ended, when he took his own life. His death maybe another casualty of the Vietnam War due to his long-suffering from his wounds.

This last part of the book devastated me. After hours of wonderful listening to Puller tell his heroic tale, another narrator cuts in and tells us how he died. I learned a lot from this book.

His wife Toddy Puller said in a statement: “To the list of names of victims of the Vietnam War, add the name of Lewis Puller. He suffered terrible wounds that never really healed.”

His death could serve as reminder and obituary for the war itself.

The World Boiled Down

Intro

I know it has been awhile. Things have been busy. Last week Muna’s Program kicked off.

Entrepreneur Bootcamp for Veterans (EBV)

Twenty-four veterans from all across America come to Purdue University. For twelve hours a day for eight days, they learned to be entrepreneurs.

It was a great week. We made a lot of new friends, saw some old ones and learned a lot. I’ve been involved in three EBVs as a student and volunteer. This one was the best one yet.

A Revelation

The biggest thing to come out of this week for me was looking inward. Watching the student-veterans turn their concepts into business plans got me excited. It made me want to write again.

Not to just write, but to write well and often. I tried other things. Going back to school for a Computer Technology degree was a mistake.

I knew it was a bad fit after the first two weeks. I only did the homework, just barely. I never took off. I never spent extra time in the material. Going to school was a job. I punched a clock, but there was no real passion.

It was not like writing. I love to write. It’s something I do even when I am not aware of it. I’m always turning new material over in my head. I’m a constant scribbler.

I’ve always been a reader. I’ve only dabbled in writing in the past few years. I always knew it was what I wanted to do. Now I know it’s what I need to do.

The idea of being able to express thoughts, feelings and pictures in words excites me. Using that gift to share experiences and change someone’s life for the better is a vocation.

Being a writer is what I was born to do.

The World Boiled Down

I am obsessed with writers and writing. I am not a literary fanatic, but I do have one writer I really admire, it’s Ernest Hemingway. Actually, truth be told, I am obsessed with Hemingway.

I am retyping his stories. I do this to practice writing. This idea is an old model of apprenticeship in the arts. In the Renaissance aspiring painters copied great works of art. Classical musicians work with other composers’ works to rework themes.

I love Hemingway’s style. His prose is uncomplicated and clean. He uses plain grammar and easy language to explore complex themes. Short, rhythmic sentences that concentrate on action are his trademark.

To make this work you have to be an obsessive reviser. It’s a careful process of selecting only the necessary elements of a story. Everything else burns away. The idea is to unclutter your prose to make it direct and easy to read.

Some of it sneaks into my emails and everyday speech: That is, your bed, and it is a good bed. To be happy you must make the bed well. Or: Muna made meatloaf last night. The meatloaf was good, but better with mash potatoes. It was good, but when it is gone the not-having meatloaf will be tragic. The mash potatoes will be alone, waiting to be eaten, alone.

Lol, you get the idea.

Learning from the Master

It really grows on you. Above my writing place I have a picture of Papa at his typewriter.

I use a laptop. Using my hunt-and-peck speed I feel the sentences form. I try to feel the sentences as Hemingway wrote them. Like a carpenter feeling out a piece of unfinished wood, I lovingly pass my mind over his words.

I concentrate on the shift in tone or focus. As I finish each page I take a thoughtful pause and I read what I typed. I know this seems ridiculous or maybe obsessive, but I am happy.

I think of learning to dance or to cook. You practice until it comes naturally, until you form instincts they were trained from devotion. The result is freedom and happiness- two things that eluded me until I started writing.

The Hemingway Way

I’ve decided to devote myself to writing and to writing to like Hemingway. I’ve pulled out all the stops. I’ve dusted off all my books on writing as a craft. I’ve signed up for writing classes at the local community center.

I’ve joined a writer’s group. We meet once a week to discuss writing. We read and critique each other’s work.

I’ve decided to stop the reasons and the distractions. I cobbled together everything I could think of to make myself a happy and productive writer.

I’m going to dive underneath my mind’s noise. I am going into the deep unlit shafts of my memory to be the writer I was born to be. Hemingway will be my guide.

I am going to strip away my macho façade of the wounded veteran and explore my sensitive and vulnerable mind. A mind of pain, joy and memory. A mind full of contradictions.

I am going to turn the spotlight on myself. I am going to explore myself and expose all my fears, my strengths. I am going to look at my old, ugly warts through writing. I am going to take my sentimentality, romantic notions of manhood, sympathy and empathy and turn it inwards.

I want my readers to feel my emotions, for the action in my writing to give them excitement, so they can see and feel what I did.

I felt pain, love and joy. I’ve been to exotic, faraway lands. I am good friends with amazing people. I have lived times others may say were best forgotten. I have cried, felt pain and hoped.

I am married to the most extraordinary person I know. I love her more than anyone I’ve ever known.

My goal in the Hemingway Project is direct, personal writing that is full of rich imagery. I have lots of material.

Stephen King said this about writing, “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”

Let’s get happy together, let’s write!

Dom