Incurable Curiosity

In-cur-able: (adj.) Not likely to be changed. Cu-ri-os-i-ty: (n) A desire to know.


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The Book Sale: Supporting My Local Literacy Foundation and Building a Library for Next to Nothing

A building full of thousands of books, arranged on tables by genre, author, and type. People everywhere, moving in tides between the volumes, pulling in and out of the crowd to scour the selection. Some search for quantity, taking advantage of the cheap prices. Others look for gift potential. A great many look for school materials. But there are a few that look for that one table of books. Whether it holds classics, sheet music for mandolins, or anthologies of German short stories, it is their table; the table where they zone out the chaos around them as they search for that one book. Maybe it doesn’t even exist. Maybe it hasn’t been written yet. But if it has, surely it’s here, somewhere in the boxes, or underneath the table, hidden until more room is made. The crowd shifts again, around and behind and beside the searcher, unspeaking, their focused eyes looking only at the books. The searcher looks at every title, picking one or two or three volumes up, wondering if one might be the book. But none are. Then, as books are shuffled, something new comes into the picture. Is this it? Look at the cover, turn it over to read the dust jacket. Flip through the pages. A little bit of penciled writing, a few dog-eared pages, not bad on the whole. This is it! Look at the cover again, find the colored sticker. What does the sign say that color means? One dollar! Is that all? But there can be no doubt that the sticker is blue, and why question the sticker-placer? The searcher has become the finder, their bag one book heavier, and their day that much better.

As you can guess from that short vignette, I went to a book sale yesterday. Quite a large book sale, put on annually by the area literacy foundation. It’s really a win-win situation: you can literally build a personal library in a few hours for less than $50, all while supporting a good cause. It was the first time I’d gone in several years, and it was much bigger than I remembered. I spent most of my time hovering around the classics table, and I got 14 books in all:

To list:

  • A collection of 63 short mysteries compiled by Alfred Hitchcock ($1)
  • A book of classical music for piano (for when I finally learn to read sheet music) ($1)
  • The published journal of Philip Vickers Pithian, written in the 1770s ($1)
  • ‘The Cross Examination of Oliver Finney’ (replacement for a copy I previously had in my collection) ($3)
  • ‘Edda’, a Norse book on writing poetry ($1)
  • ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’, a classic tale of seafaring ($.50)
  • ‘Ivanhoe’, a story I only know of because of Wishbone ($.50)
  • A compilation of various Oscar Wilde works ($.50)
  • A paperback copy of ‘Wuthering Heights’ to take a heavy editor’s pencil to ($.50)
  • A paperback copy of ‘Jane Eyre’ to make notes in ($.50)
  • ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ ($.50)
  • ‘The House of Seven Gables’, because I’ve never read it before ($.50)
  • A pocket-size hardback edition of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, to replace my falling-apart paperback ($1)
  • A matching copy of ‘Jane Eyre’, because it was the only other pocket-sized hardback in the lot ($1)

Unfortunately, unlike my searcher, I did not find exactly what I was looking for (paperback copies of my favorite Agatha Christie’s). Instead, I found several books I didn’t know about and picked them up on a whim (the anthology of mysteries, ‘Edda’, the journals of Mr. Pithian, and ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’). I might not like them, but they’re worth a try, and I’ll at least see examples of different writing styles (and maybe get ideas for this year’s NaNoWriMo).

If you hear of such an event close to you, I would highly recommend braving the crowds. It’s is a great way to find new inspirations: in the books, the crowds, and in the experience.


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A Positively Negative Book Review

I don’t like the writing, the characters, or even the story – what I do like is the framework behind it all. And that might make me the only positively negative reviewer of Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games trilogy has made quite an impression in teen literary circles. Not as much as Harry Potter or Twilight, perhaps, but an impression nonetheless. I think the reason for that lies in the lack of upfront appeal: you don’t read about adorably awkward characters learning how they’ll save the world, nor do you find a story of pathetically obsessive romance starring the undead. No, readers of Hunger Games find themselves looking into a bleak future that twists past horrors into new and vile tortures.

Physical and mental deprivation at the hands of the government. Forced viewings of murder. Merciless reminders of an enslaved culture on an everyday basis. The theft of human dignity. Hope abandoned.

Not exactly a love triangle or school bully (even one with a magic wand).

And then there are the characters: you’ve got a taciturn teen with superior survival skills, yet unaware of ‘the effect she has’ on others. A blonde baker boy, shy, with a heart of gold and some stalker tendencies. An aging drunk with secrets. A slew of empty-headed but well-intentioned fashion models. And a government full of liars and demons, each one the epitome of evil.

But even they wouldn’t be so bad if they were written better. Opportunities for development as bright as a neon sign, somehow ignored. Dialogues more suited to wooden mannequins. Inner monologues to compete with soap operas. Really? And the grammar was so bad at times that I had to wonder if the editing team (or should I say prep team?) had fallen asleep.

Underneath it all, if you mentally correct the questionable writing style, wipe through the grime of dusty character stereotypes, and silence the burning question of Gale vs. Peeta, you can wander your way through a very interesting framework of imagination. There’s just enough history to set up a believable time frame for the major cultural shift, just enough similarities to our own world to make a personal connection, and enough of an idea of a political system to play with.

Inside these boundaries, hundreds of stories could be written. There are plot holes and loose strings to tie up, back stories and empty history books to fill in. Kind of like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but the reader has the opportunity to supply the information. Not that that’s actually suggested by the author, publisher, or general public. But the editing team might just be nodding their heads and cheering wildly – hey, you never know. Why did the people submit to slavery after the destruction of District 13? If the people were smart enough to send phony messages by jabberjay, why couldn’t they come up with a means of secret communication among themselves? What happened to religion? Had anyone tried to infiltrate the government? Had anyone tried to escape the country? Did foreign governments know what was going on? Had the country become entirely self-sufficient? How could such small districts supply an entire nation? If Ms. Collins won’t answer these questions, I’ll have to do it myself.

Final thought: Have fun with what you’re reading. Odds are, the author didn’t think of everything. Since there’s no rule saying you have to take the book as it is, why not re-write, revise, even reinvent?

Do you agree, disagree, or have something you’d like to add? May the comment moderation be ever in your favor!


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Vampires: Not the Only Villains in the Story?

Author’s Admission: I haven’t read too many vampire-based books, but reading The Vampire Defanged  by Susannah Clements piqued my interest. Now I see why the blood suckers are so controversial as instruments of literature. Maybe vampires don’t need mirrors because they are reflected in the darkest parts of ourselves.

“Vampires represent something to us as humans. They represent our fears and desires. ….[They] are rich enough a metaphor to adapt to our culture’s changing worldview and interests. We can make a vampire mean what we want it to mean.” – Susannah Clements, The Vampire Defanged

Originally, vampires were symbols of evil incarnate. Not just ‘I-serve-the-devil-and-want-to-drink-your-blood’ evil, but evil in all of its distorted beauty, seductiveness, and temptation. Traditional vampires are revolting and alluring all at the same time, displaying all manner of immoralities while offering power, wealth, and an eternity in which to enjoy and despise it all. More recently, vampires have taken on a whole new definition: that of the tortured hero, torn between what they know of right vs. wrong and their natural inclinations. But no matter their literary context, they are tied to us in their very natures: they live on the blood of humans, live out our most base desires, and are (nearly) eternal. As such, they give rise to a myriad of questions morally, socially, and personally:

Is an eternity on earth worth giving up heaven? Why are vampires traditionally feared, and do I fear them myself? Can we judge another being’s motives/origins? What is our basis of labeling something as ‘human’? Can a being have a heart without a soul? What makes something ‘good’ or ‘evil’? Is is ok for something to survive on the lifeblood of humans?  If a bite from death can make something dead, what does it take to transfer life? 

And the ultimate question: Would I give in to the vampire’s bite?

The answers to these questions, especially that last one, can be awfully telling. If vampires are a metaphor of how we see ourselves, then they speak to our souls, our minds, and our culture. By reading about such reflective creatures, we are forced to confront the darkness in their characters. Their characters, which are based on us. And so the metaphor of the vampire reveals the monsters inside ourselves. Our fears. Our desires. Our hatred. Our lust.

And yet, that may not be a bad thing. Only light can cast a shadow. If there is darkness to be found in a vampire, somewhere a light is shining. Perhaps instead of looking only into the darkness, we should begin looking for that light – and early vampire literature is a good place to start, I think.

Just as culture has altered our view of darkness, it has also changed the way we perceive light. Looking at the same examples, good has moved from religious to social context. Originally, the evil of vampires was counterbalanced by the goodness of God. That goodness was represented symbolically, in familiar icons of the Church – priests, crosses, holy water, etc. – and was utilized to combat evil on a personal level. Over time, the good has been secularized, leaning on cultural norms and social expectations rather than religion. It is up to the individual to judge what is good, and if it is indeed preferable to ‘badness’.

Without a standard source, the light has dimmed as society’s definition of good as opposed to evil has changed, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions. If the light isn’t too bright, then maybe our darkness isn’t so dark after all. And if culture is wrong, the metaphor changes again.

So how will future authors and readers interpret the vampire metaphor? Add your thoughts and opinions in a comment below!


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Waiting In the Park

During NaNoWriMo last November, I went down to the local park to write for a bit. I didn’t get very far on my novel as I was distracted by everything going on around me. The weather was lovely that day, so there were plenty of people at the park to watch. I noticed that no matter what they were doing, they all seemed to be waiting for something. I wrote a short sketch of my observations as I waited for inspiration. (Note: I wrote in present tense as I looked around, and it didn’t feel right to edit into past tense.)

At the park entrance awaits a bride-to-be, looking all around for her tardy entourage. Her single attendant smiles nervously, assuring the bride that they will arrive soon, even as she glances up and down the street, then down at her watch, then back up the street. As long as I’ve been at my little table in the sun, no one has shown up yet.

Two tables to my right, in the shade, a lone band member waits for his teenaged companions to join him and reclaim their instruments, of which he has been appointed guard. Several minutes later two of his friends arrive, though the day’s plans appear to have changed. The musician’s expression is one of well-known disappointment, though he wears a practiced smile at the girl’s not-entirely-heartfelt appreciation for his patience. They walk away.

Meanwhile a trio of adults – one younger than the other two – walks to a table in front of me with two honey-colored spaniels. No member of the group looks accustomed to the walk it takes to reach the park, and so they sit and wait for energy to return as they enjoy the sun’s warmth.

Behind me wanders a group of black-clad young adults. They loiter around the coffee shop entrance, sending one person in to find something. After a few minutes the searcher reappears empty-handed. The group descends to wander the walkways, their dark attire in stark contrast to the vibrant, sunlit surroundings.

Below me on the green at the foot of a hill stands the leader of a hula hoop troupe. He arranges his materials and attempts to engage passers-by as he waits for the rest of his group to join in entertaining a transient audience. A few pause to watch, but no one is brave enough to let go of their time and take up the fun.

I can wait no longer for inspiration here; it’s time to pack up and go home.


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MBTI and Writing

There are lots of ways writers connect with readers. I’ve been experimenting with the use of MBTI theory in writing, though the way I utilize it depends on whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction. With fiction, it’s all about the characters. With non-fiction, it’s all about the audience.

When I’m writing fiction, I like to assign MBTI types to my characters. It helps me flesh them out, to figure out their quirks and how they interact with the story. It adds a realness to the characters and keeps them consistent. A story about music, for example, may have an ENFJ composer, an ISTJ orchestra leader, an ESFP lighting director, and an ENTJ audience member. Their personalities help me determine how they would react if some not-too-tragic-tragedy (like the second violinist dropping her bow) occurred during a performance. The composer might silently reassure the violinist from his seat in the front row, while the orchestra leader will be freaking out and frantically signaling the cool-headed lighting director to dim the lights as the calculating audience member writes a scathing twitter update.

But anyway……

With non-fiction, I like to have a specific audience in mind, be it one person or a group of people. It helps to have an idea of their type group so that I can communicate ideas more clearly. If I’m writing to concretes (SJ’s or SP’s), I’ll use mostly concrete terms and language. If my target audience is more abstract (NT’s or NF’s), I might use more conceptual language like metaphors and analogies. If I don’t know who will be reading my work, I usually write with a friend or family member in mind – whoever I’d be most likely to discuss the topic with.  This keeps me focused and less likely to drift from style to style.

In my own writing – what won’t be read by anyone else, that is – I tend to hold a line between two different (but very similar) types.

Have you ever experimented with MBTI in writing?


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A Blank Notebook

There is a lovely mystery about a blank notebook –

What words will fill it, what ideas it will hold and be held by.

Where it will go and where it will lead.

Unstained by ink, but brim-full with potential.

The finite pages to represent a unique place in time,

an almost-photograph of thought.


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The World Was More Interesting Then

“The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder.” – G. K. Chesterton

I’ve been reading a lot of old newspapers recently. This past November (Nov. 11, to be exact), I looked at microfiche of the local newspaper published on 11/11/1911. Honestly, nothing much was going on. The most interesting event that day was a public interest lecture on how certain fungi was affecting local agriculture.

But I was determined to find something worthwhile, so I asked how far back the archives went – amazingly, the library has film of newspapers dating back to before the turn of the 19th century, meaning I could search a Charleston paper from 1811. Let me say, that was far more interesting. Books by Jane Austen and Percy Bysshe Shelley were coming into port on the next British trade ship. The groundwork of the War of 1812 was being laid. Sabrina Island had just been formed by volcanic lava in the Atlantic Ocean. So yeah, there was a lot to talk about that day.

But it wasn’t the content of the articles as much as their voice that captured my attention. There was a wonder and curiosity about what was happening in the world that came through the block lettering. A sense of discovery in the reports of expeditions. I’ve found the same in newspapers from eras of war and scientific exploration.

World War I and II newspapers are fascinating, with their unyielding optimism despite uncertainty. Articles written during the Great Depression show an America looking outside herself for distraction. Papers of the 1950s and ’60s reveal the excitement of the space race and nuclear arms missions.

Something changed after that. It must have seemed like we had discovered all there was to discover. As travel became easier and medicine more refined, the world became smaller and safer; the romance and danger of the unknown was now outdated. The sense of wonder disappeared further with every advance of technology. Discoveries and breakthroughs became routine.  Now we demand something new with each day’s headlines.

But surely our sense of awe is not dependent on finding a new island to claim, or a revolutionary invention, is it? Is it possible to reset our perspectives to find wonder again? To regain the magic of the unknown?

Maybe it isn’t about what we know, but how we perceive what we don’t know that shapes our perspective.