Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The illusion of aliveness: truth and reality in O'Brien's The Things They Carried

by Mike Peeters, junior English and Information Systems Technology major at Silver Lake College

Of all the things that have advanced thanks to our evolution, our level of sentience is perhaps the most influential in the developments of art and literature. Because of it, we are able to interpret our surroundings through our senses in a way that allows us to interpret the moments in life that capture our attention. However, if you were to present a situation to a group of people, say three individuals, would they give you the same story if asked?

This question has received an incredible amount of attention with law enforcement going from handing convictions out like candy to cases where the only evidence is that of the eye-witness
testimonials going to the complete opposite where most judges and juries dismiss such evidence while demanding evidence that is physical and measurable. Now while to some that may sound absolutely crazy, the reasoning is simple and Tim O'Brien captured it in a beautiful manner in his book, The Things They Carried.

To summarize, the plot of The Things They Carried revolves around O'Brien's experiences both
surrounding and during his participation as a soldier in the Vietnam Conflict. However, rather than
publishing it as an auto-biography, O'Brien instead chose to write it as a memoir. In other words, he wrote the book as a hybrid between fiction and non-fiction where the general setting of the book is true and various moments presented are true. However, certain individuals and events are either entirely made up or modified extensively. Now while his choice to write it as a memoir was done, in part, to preserve the anonymity of those he served with, he chose this method because to him, his memories were merely fragments of a perception that failed, at times, to understand what truly happened. Within the text, he stated, "The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness."

Considering the power of this statement, one cannot help but to feel as though the beliefs at their very core are being challenged. Are the things we see truly what they are or are we seeing what we want to see or what another wants us to see? If our perception is but an illusion, can we truly say that there is such a thing as non-fiction literature sans for those books that objectively lay fact after fact on each page? Even within the realm of fiction, what does this imply when a writer tries to create a character whose identity is nothing like like their own? Is it possible to emulate or do we concede ourselves into thinking that we are capable of emulation?

Ultimately, these questions challenge the very core of art and literature. However, I find these questions to be incredibly healthy questions to ask, because they assert the need for responsibility be it in portraying an accurate depiction of a character whose persona is completely foreign to the author or in any attempt an author may make to report upon an event or idea that they are familiar with.

In regards to responsibility, if a writer or even a reader keeps these questions in mind, they should carry with them a sense of prudence that requires an attentive and observational mind. Furthermore, it should bring the question of what implications a work may have. Is this work going to make people aware of an issue? Could this work bring harm to another or rather, could this work bring a much needed understanding of another?

Ultimately, there should be no question that each individual has their own perspective. Now while technology has allowed thousands to look through a single lens, it cannot stop each, individual mind from having a different interpretation of what they see. With that said, it has to then be accepted that in comparison to the event presented through that lens, that some perceptions are going to be wrong while some are going to be right with all of the remaining being scattered somewhere in between the right and the wrong. Therefore, at least to me, it seems only responsible that when one is writing, that they either make it clear that they are speaking solely from perspective or that they are taking the time to do the research needed so that they can gain more information from the perspectives of others so that they can present a truer picture.

*The conflict in Vietnam was never officially declared a war by congress.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Bard and the Big Screen: Bringing Shakespeare into the 21st Century

by Elizabeth Fritsch, senior English Major at Silver Lake College

Friends, Romans, Countrymen lend me your ears and your computer screens!  We are celebrating a historic year – the 450th birthday of Shakespeare (on April 23rd to be precise).  After roughly 400 years since Shakespeare gifted culture with a plethora of poems and plays, he is still celebrated by many as the most influential writer in British, western, and world literature.  Few writers have stood the test of time and are celebrated with such fervor.  (My apologies to Thomas Kyd and Ben Johnson for missing out on being the scorn of high school English students and joy of English majors.)  Shakespeare has remained a constant.  Who cannot recite the first line from Hamlet’s famous monologue (“To be or not to be?  That is the question.”) or Julius Caesar’s pitiable “Et tu Brute?”  How often do we compare a modern day tragic love story to Romeo and Juliet or a ruthless female villain to Lady Macbeth?  While Shakespeare has remained a constant, how we approach his plays has changed drastically.  Theatrical productions of Shakespearean dramas have by no means disappeared, but the world of filmmaking has provided an entirely new way to appreciate the Bard’s work.  So as we celebrate 450 years since Shakespeare’s birth (and in two years celebrate 400 years since his death), I encourage you to sit back and watch one of the many film adaptations of his work.  (And I really do mean ‘sit back.’  If you saw a play during Shakespeare’s time you were likely standing during the whole three hours.)  Here are a few suggestions:

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

“Hey, nonny, nonny!”  With a cast that includes Emma Thompson, Kate Beckinsale, Denzel Washington, and Keanu Reeves this timeless Shakespearean comedy and story of betrayal comes brilliantly to life.  The acting is superb and setting is stunning.  Definitely a must watch if you’re in the mood for a happy ending.


If you are adamantly against a happy ending – fear not!  Titus Andronicus receives a pitiful lack of attention when it comes to the Shakespearean cannon and is often overshadowed by Shakespeare’s later tragedies such as Hamlet and Macbeth.  The modern film adaptation of Titus Andronicus aims to elevate the status of what could easily be considered Shakespeare’s darkest and most brutal plays.  Director Julie Taymor stylizes the violent drama and actress Jessica Lange makes Lady Macbeth look tame in comparison to Tamora, queen of the goths.  By the time you reach the end of the film, you will understand why Titus Andronicus never made it onto the high school syllabus.

The Tempest

The Tempest, one of Shakespeare’s most inventive plays has also been transformed by Julie Taymor.  The film modernizes the story by changing the gender of the protagonist to a female, played by Helen Mirren.  Prospero becomes Prospera and the slight change provides viewers with the chance to explore the ideas of gender and power.  As with Titus, The Tempest is highly stylized and visually alluring, especially with the character Ariel.  The sorcery of the play is brought beautifully and powerfully to the screen. 

Love’s Labour Lost

This adaptation of Love’s Labour Lost (set in Europe in 1939) turns the comedy into an entertaining musical.  Though the plot of Love’s Labour Lost is weaker than the previous plays mentioned, the film is cheerful and humorous and will put any viewer in a good mood.  Alas, there is no hope for a sequel -  no copies of Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labour Won remain in existence.

Do you have a favorite Shakespeare film adaptation or a play you'd like to see on the big screen?

Elizabeth Fritsch is a senior English major with minors in History and Theology. 



Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Benefits of Comical Writing

By Libby Spencer, junior English major at Silver Lake College

Last year on the morning of April 1st I woke up anticipating any jokes that were about to be thrown my way.  After being pranked by my mother the two previous years that deer were in our small city backyard, I was committed to not falling for it this year.  As I trotted down the stairs I suddenly had to stop as I heard my mother excitedly calling my older brother to the back bay windows as she squealed, “Look at the deer back here!”  You already know what came next.  His chair pushed against the tightly knit carpet as he quickly sprang out of his seat.  His pounding steps got faster as he ran over to the windows, and as I heard my mother’s light shuffle away from the windows I could just picture her face with a little smirk on it.  Her petite shoulders would be bouncing up and down trying to contain her laughter.  I can remember smiling to myself on the stairs as I soaked in the sweet success of finally not being the culprit to my mother’s harmless prank.  At that moment, I started my search for the perfect prank and found myself at a loss until I remembered that I could try comical writing.  Writing, especially poetry, can be a great way to express sarcasm and witty ideas.  A poet that displays this sense of humorous writing is Mervyn Peake.

Mervyn Peake was an English modernist writer, artist, poet and illustrator.  Although he is most known for his novel, Titus Groan, he has also produced numerous poems.  Many of them are comical.  It is said that his comic writings are full of philosophy and his serious work is full of humor.  He has this way of blending various emotions to connect to his audience.  A poem that demonstrates this comical writing is titled, The Trouble with Geraniums.

The Trouble With Geraniums by Mervyn Peake

The trouble with geraniums
is that they’re much too red!
The trouble with my toast is that
it’s far too full of bread.

The trouble with a diamond
is that it’s much too bright.
The same applies to fish and stars
and the electric light.

The troubles with the stars I see
lies in the way they fly.
The trouble with myself is all
self-centred in the eye.

The trouble with my looking-glass
is that it shows me, me;
there’s trouble in all sorts of things
where it should never be.

While reading this, I found a constant smirk on my face with every topic twist he wrote about.   At first I thought the poem to be a little pointless; it seemed to lack a purpose.  As I kept reading I realized the purpose is communicating his “peeves”.  He has the uncanny ability to turn these peeves into humor.   I believe through this whimsical poem you are able to experience the natural ability Peake has to produce poetry that really makes you think and contemplate everyday, ordinary items.  Poetry is a way for readers and writers to express creativity and uniqueness, but it is really something more.  It can even be a way to channel frustrations or peeves like Peake did with the geraniums and bread.  Comical writing can be beneficial even when going through a difficult experience or if you’re having trouble grappling serious topics.  But, best of all, comical poetry can be a way to express that sarcastic, unnerving side.  This April Fools Day I encourage you to experiment with that sarcastic side of yourself and create poetry that will question the way others think. 

Libby Spencer is a junior at Silver Lake College.  She is majoring in English (with an emphasis in Writing) and minoring in Spanish.  She enjoys spending time with her family, coaching and participating in sports, and of course, writing.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Outsiders: What's the Buzz 40 Years Later?

by Keith Neilitz, English licensure candidate at Silver Lake College
            S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders has been a cultural phenomenon since it was first published in 1967.  Many critics maintain that it is the first young adult novel ever published.  The plot is relatively simple and straightforward.  Based in an unnamed city in Oklahoma, the story focuses on two rival groups that are at constant odds with one another.  The Greasers, a brotherhood of lower-class status teenagers, are routinely at the mercy of the Socs, a group of upper-class rich kids.  Despite the uncomplicated plot, the intensity, passion, and realism of the story captivate the reader’s attention to a degree that previous novels failed to do.  Aside from being written over forty years ago, the novel continues to be read, taught, and praised by instructors and students alike.  The essential question that is routinely contemplated by critics is why the novel has persevered for so long and continued to captivate young adult readers.  
            Perhaps the most significant reason that the novel has maintained popularity for so long is the quintessential realism of the plot that a young adult reader can relate to.  For example, the story wrestles with the tension between two rival groups that are constantly fighting.  Despite the narrator including a liberal dose of violence and brutality, the reader can easily relate to the idea of the formation of cliques during adolescence.  In addition, many of the feelings and transitions that young adult readers experience in their own lives are present throughout the novel.  Themes such as the loss of innocence, struggles with identity, anger, resentment, and feeling lost in an unpleasant world all contribute to the realistic aspects that young adults typically experience. 
            Two additional features of the novel The Outsiders that have captivated young adults for decades are the narrator’s inclusion of unbridled action and the exclusion of unnecessary details.  The novel includes a variety of highly charged events that maintain the interest of the reader.  For instance, the novel begins with a violent episode that foreshadows many events of remainder of the book.   As the novel unravels, the narrator provides brief, yet seminal information about relationships between members of the two groups, family dynamics, and character attributes.  However, the narrator eschews bombarding the reader with excessive details, and thus, the novel progresses without becoming cumbersome or tedious. 
            The Outsiders has maintained unprecedented longevity within the genre of young adult literature because of the writer’s incorporation of convincing realism, description of feelings and experiences relevant to the reader, and the inclusion of rousing action.  The plot features two rival groups that exude continuous hostility, which speaks candidly to young readers as it parallels the factions that develop during adolescence.  Moreover, the narrator’s interpolation of persistent action elicits the reader’s desire to ascertain subsequent events of the plot.  And finally, the novel maintains the interest of the reader by excluding details that would hinder the continuity of the story.  

Keith Neilitz has an undergraduate degree in Behavioral Science and Law and a Masters degree in Psychology.  However, his passion for literature has led him to reenroll in academia at Silver Lake College to procure a teaching certification license in English.