Book Review: Meander Spiral Explode (Design and Pattern in Narrative)

I have not read Jane Alison’s work before, but her latest — Meander Spiral Explode (Design and Pattern In Narrative) — has me curious what kind of experimentation she might do in her own fiction. Here, she leads us on an inquiry into patterns and design of stories that reach beyond the traditional narrative arc.

You know, very linear. This one:

Instead, she explores the other ways that stories might develop, and in doing so, Alison surfaces not just experimentation in fiction, but insightful ways to think about character and plot, and writing. She focuses mainly on the three aspects of her title: Meandering, Spiraling, Exploding and adds in Networking and Fractals, too.

This is a short, simplified explanation of my take-away of her ideas:

  • Stories meander when the narrative zigs and zags, from different perspectives or different points of view, when the writer has a place to get to, but is content to take their time. In fact, time is a key element here, and Alison’s deconstruction of how a writer can use time was fascinating.
  • Stories spiral when a writer uses repeating phrases and themes, and circles back on ideas repeatedly, sometimes slightly hidden and sometimes not. A story that spirals either moves towards its core or center, or it begins there and then shifts outward, giving the reader a different way of seeing what is happening.
  • Stories explode (or are radials) when they move from a central point, but move away at different speeds of time and direction, so that there is something keeping the story solid, but the anchor is faint. The radial points of the narrative connect, if only slightly.
  • Networking, or cells, are designs in which the frame of the story’s parts are nearly identical in design – one echoes another — and each part builds with the others to create the larger narrative arc.
  • Fractal stories start at a single place — an idea or theme — and then slowly and then suddenly expand out with near mathematical certainly, so that the first piece was merely a seed for what comes next, and so on.

The book is packed with fiction excerpts that Alison uses as examples of her thinking, and these small pieces of writing were interesting to read and think about, particularly in context of her insights. As a writer, I am now thinking about a story I have been working on — and how I might reframe its design — and as a teacher of young writers, I wonder how I might introduce different story arc techniques beyond the traditional plot design we often use (the one above).

Peace (in text and beyond),
Kevin

PS — At a point in her book, Alison notes that a friend sometimes takes her writing and transforms it into pieces of music. I was curious. Then, I found this musical adaption of Meander Spiral Explode on Youtube, and it fascinates me to no end.

This is what the composer — Christopher Cerrone — wrote as text with the video:

In April 2019, my friend Tim Horvath, a novelist, texted me, “Do you know Jane Alison’s ‘Meander, Spiral, Explode’? It’s a book that focuses on unusual structural elements in novels.” I always trust Tim’s suggestions, and I tore through the book over the next few days, finding it unique and deeply insightful. I experienced what Melville called “the shock of recognition”—seeing someone describe your own efforts (in this case, an in-progress percussion concerto) without ever having seen a note of it.The three words of the title seemed to pertain specifically to each movement of my concerto. The first movement—while dramatic and intense—seems to meander through different landscapes, where the gunshot-like sound of four wooden slats morphs into marimbas and bowed vibraphones while changing volume, key, and context. The second movement (played without pause after the first) is structured like a double helix. A rising scale on two vibraphones slowly expands, speeds up, and finally blossoms into a sea of polyrhythms. As for the last movement (again played without pause): the explosion seems fairly self-evident. A single exclamation point ejects lines of 16th-notes into the ether which return, again and again, to a white-hot core. The propulsive patterns in this movement constantly shift emphasis but always maintain energy. The end of the work brings us back to the first three notes of the piece, suggesting one more shape that Jane Alison discusses in her book: a fractal. The simple shape of the opening turns out to have contained the entire form of the work to come.

Book Review: Song For A Whale

Wow. I was really blown away by Song for A Whale by Lynn Kelly. I bought this book on a whim, because I liked the gorgeous cover art and I am interested in any books with “songs” and music. I’m glad it caught my attention and that I read it. It’s lovely.

Song for A Whale is a beautifully-told story that centers on Iris, a 12 year old deaf girl struggling to make her way in a world of the hearing, and becoming more and more frustrated by the walls between those worlds. At school and at home. With a knack for fixing anything electrical — she can disassemble things faster than you can turn on the power and spends her hours at the junkyard looking for parts — Iris loves old radios, in particular, as she finds connections between the vibrations of sound – the way the waves of frequency move through the wires, which she senses through touch — and her own soundless world.

When Iris learns about a whale whom scientists reason to be either lost or not part of any pod due to its off-beat song (and maybe its designation as a mixed breed of whale), Iris is hooked on helping this whale know it is cared about. She decides first to write a song for Blue 55 (as the whale is known) in the frequency of his own song. Then she becomes determined to let Blue 55 hear the song she has written for him, even though it means heading out on an unexpected journey to Alaska with her mourning grandmother, without knowledge of Iris’ parents.

There’s so much to love here — from Iris as a complicated adolescent character overcoming odds through perseverance, to her passion for ocean science and mechanical engineering, to the need to connect to nature’s oddballs like Blue 55, to how sound and music might emerge as connecting points between people and the natural world.

This book is perfect for the middle school classroom, and the story gives thoughtful and emotional insights into the difficulty of fitting in, and of deaf students in a spoken world. You’ll root for Iris, and for Blue 55, and for the power of making a difference in the world. You may even sing their song.

Peace (in seas and beyond),
Kevin

PS — the story of Blue 55 is based on a real whale, sometimes called “the loneliest whale in the world” because it, too, had no pod. Lynn Kelly has a whole page of resources about whales and whale songs.

I liked this visualization, which comes from converting whale songs into manuscript music:

 

Book Review: Notes from a Public Typewriter

Now this is public writing. And a story of how an independent bookstore can be a hub of literary wonder. In Notes from a Public Typewriter, Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti tell the story of how Gustafson and his wife opened up a new bookstore in Anne Arbor, Michigan (against the advice of many) and put an old typewriter out for anyone to write on. They didn’t know if anyone would take them up on the offer.

Boy, did they.

This book is mostly filled with the typed notes, stories, poems, and snippets left by the anonymous writers who sat down at a typewriter and hit the keys on a typewriter. I loved the variety of the messages that the writers curate here, and the short narratives of Gustafson about his book store and about the typewriter project give just enough context (Uberti is an design artist who took many of the writings and created a visual wall display at the bookstore site, painting the words of the writers in the font of the typewriter).

The short pieces hint at larger stories, leaving gaps to try to fill in. There’s also appreciation in the lines here — a mix of humor and insight — and recognition of the power of the words we leave behind us.

After reading this book, you’ll want to either dust of your old typewriter (do you still have one?) or find a typewriter somewhere to remember the aesthetic feel of “before word processing.”  Hit the keys. Return. Start again. And then go support your local independent bookstore.

Peace (in keystrokes),
Kevin

Book Review: Memes to Movements (How the World’s Most Viral Media Is Changing Social Protest and Power)

I was expecting an academic examination of social media and memes with this book — first mentioned by my friend, Christina, at a National Writing Project retreat during a meme writing activity– and it was that … and so much more, too. Memes to Movements (How the World’s Most Viral Media Is Changing Social Protest and Power) by An Xiao Mina shines a light and lens on the ways that image and words, and messages, being shared over vast social networking spaces are impacting politics and more.

First, what is a meme? “Memes are pieces of content that travel from person to person and change along the way …” according to Amanda Brennan, a meme librarian, and Mina’s own definition runs parallel to Brennan’s idea. Mina makes the case, too, that memes are not just digital pieces but can have a life outside of technology.

Mina, in her book, also repeats an important assertion time and again that memes, by themselves, are not forcing cultural and social change, but that the combination of image, message, remix and virality are echoing and enhancing changes already afoot, through amplification of messaging.

Mina examines Black Lives Matter (and its oppositional movements, such as Blue Lives Matter) and the pink pussy hats (as physical memes) of the Women’s March in the United States, the Arab Spring, the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong (now suddenly back in the news), the subversive use of memes in China, and the ways the Chinese government is countering such attempts, and more, all with a close look at how memes (digital and physical) are created, spread, have impact, and — for some — have long-lasting effects.

She also explores the popular conceptions of cats as the source for memes on social networking spaces, balancing a historical approach to how memes — remixable, shareable, riffable media — tap into something rich in people’s sense of storytelling. The intersections between art, culture and politics, along with an easy way to share, have made memes a powerful messaging platform, even if memes can also be untrustworthy (see Know Your Meme for where memes originally spring from)

Some of the more fascinating sections in this book involve China (where Mina has worked and done advocacy), in which activists often use memes to get around censorship through imagery and symbolism (the llama, or grass mud horse, has political meaning, for example) and support for those imprisoned by the government.

Just as you start to think, memes might be another tool for political change, Mina shifts her focus, showing governments — autocratic and otherwise — have started to reverse course on trying to block memes and now floods the networks with its own social media, in an effort to overwhelm users and create doubt about truth and veracity in the minds of users.

The writing here in this book is lively, and researched, and global on scale. If you have interest in social media and literacy, and the way viral messaging seems to be overwhelming the way people share news, jokes and information, then this book is well worth your time.

Peace (no meme necessary),
Kevin

Book Review: Reader, Come Home (The Reading Brain in a Digital World)

You can’t be around kids at any age for any amount of time and not worry about what the extended use of small and large screens is doing to the developmental brain. But it still feels so anecdotal. Our teacher lunch room is full of stories and complaints about diminishing attention spans, student writing primarily centered on video games, lack of persistence, and more.

As someone interested in the possibilities of digital literacies, as well as a father, this shifts that seems to be moving under our feet as we move into a more digital world is unsettling, too. It feels as if we are in one of those epoch moments – like moving from oral to written stories, or the age of Gutenberg — where we don’t really know what will emerge from the digital revolution, and we’re hoping for good things but fear the bad.

Reader, Come Home (The Reading Brain in a Digital World) by Maryanne Wolf is the perfect read for this unsettled moment. It will not, by any stretch, ease your mind. In fact, Wolf, a reading teacher and brain specialist who has worked for years on reading skills, will likely set off alarms, if anyone is listening.

And if you’re not listening, you should be.

Wolf’s main premise, supported through multiple findings from emerging research, is that reading on the screen, particularly for young children, is fundamentally changing the way the brain works with the processing information, and that the drastic decline of book reading – the paper bound things on the shelves — in favor of device reading is altering the complicated way the brain develops, over time, to be able to not just process information, deeply, but also to spur comprehension and connections beyond the textural levels.

Wolf would say that my sentence in that last paragraph is too long for a screen-developed reader to read and understand, and she pulls in research showing this to be true. And she explores her own reading life, too, to show how even she (and maybe you, and certainly me) have had our reading lives changed and altered by our time with screens.

Wolf, for example, does a scientific experiment on her own reading of a Herman Hess novel she loved and found she could not attend to the book for even moderate stretches of time. Her thinking would not follow Hess’s complex sentences and ideas. However, she was able to retrain herself back to deeper reading, which informs her ideas about how to address screen reading.

I won’t share all of her scientific explanations, except to say that when a young child is learning to read, each story and each book is part of the layered growth of the brain, building on the previous. Each book is layered on the last. Each story becomes a connector point for the next.

When a young child reads on a screen, though, the pleasure motivator of entertainment — the media, the links, the ancillary information — not only encourages them to skim the surface of text, but teaches them that this is how you read text. The brain remembers and builds those skills with multiple reading. When the brain encounters text, any text, those — skimming, searching for entertainment — are the skills it draws upon.

Comic The Deep

Research has shown that depth of understanding and retention is definitely impacted by screen reading. And, worse, skills that one might develop by reading with a screen do not transfer over to the skills needed for traditional reading on paper. If anything, the screen reading skills diminish the paper reading skills. This is the counter to the argument that people are doing more reading than every these days, just in smaller segments on smaller screens. Reading on screens is not reading in books.

The implications of that are what we are seeing in our classrooms and complaining about in our teacher rooms. It’s what so many of us parents fret about when we don’t see our children reading for any extended periods of time anymore. It’s a generational shift. And it may not bode well for the future.

Wolf explains that families have many reasons for handing over a device to a young reader — it becomes the babysitter for harried parents, it might be viewed by immigrant families as a better teacher of language, it starts as a minor entertainment diversion and escalates into something larger in the lives of children, etc.

Comic The Experience

Wolf does not advocate a “head in the sand” philosophy nor a complete shut-down of all screen reading. Instead, she suggests a path forward, acknowledging the likelihood that devices and screens will continue to dominate the lives of young people (and she does tackle some digital access issues and socio-economic disparities in our communities).

Her central suggestion to addressing the problem of screen readers is to first educate more parents and families on the benefits of “read aloud” between small child and adult — the benefits are many and complex, and all research indicates that reading aloud to infants through teenagers (good luck) has immeasurable impacts on academic performance and success in later years. She notes how many pediatric offices now provide books for all families visiting for check-ups, and use the interaction in the doctor office to teach about the importance of reading aloud.

But Wolf also suggests that our educational system needs to make a significant shift in how we approach the teaching of emerging readers. She lays out three tiers of her approach — but the main element is that we explicitly teach both reading of books and reading of screens in the early elementary years (each requires different reading skills.) By teaching skills in how/when to read digital texts and also how/when to read traditional texts, a young reader begins to develop what Wolf calls “a Biliterate Brain,” trained to understand that we read on the screen in one way for a specific reason while we read books in another way for another reason.

Her hypothesis — based on her work in childhood brain research — is that eventually, the adolescent brain will merge those two skills into a solidified reading approach and will instantly toggle between skills needed for a certain kind of text — reading as code-switching on auto-pilot.

This would require pretty significant shifts in how we teach literacy in school, of course. While many classrooms have devices or computers or access to mobile phones, the curriculum around explicit teaching of reading digitally for comprehension is not a significant part of the educational landscape. It should be.

Even Wolf doesn’t claim to know if this approach of “biliteracy” will work, but she argues that we can’t just sit by and watch a generation of young readers learn to read on screens. The altering of our brains from our devices is real. So is the altering of the brains of our children, and our students, and our future. It’s not enough to shrug our shoulders and hand another device into small hands. We need to recognize the issue and begin to something about it.

It’s up to all of us.

Peace (on paper),
Kevin

Book Review: Vacation

I only picked up Vacation by Blexbolex by chance at the library. I was wandering through the children’s section and saw it on the shelf. Something about the girl beckoned, and I listened. And this wordless novel of illustrations is a beautiful example of how lush illustrations, and overlapping narratives, can tell a story.

The story revolves around a young girl who is visiting her grandfather (according to the text on the back of the book) and it must be a vacation of sorts (deduced from the title), and as the girl and her grandfather spend their days, she takes on a small elephant as a playmate and dreams grand adventures.

The art is just lovely, reminiscent of old-time picture books from long ago and yet it feels fresh in the telling, too. There is something about the movements of the girl — and the vividness of her wonderful dreams — that bring the pages to life. Words are not necessary.

Vacation works on the level of storytelling, merging the ideas of a picture book with the idea of a short novel. And in that intersection, the young girl’s story surfaces and blooms.

Peace (without words … oops),
Kevin

Book Review: The Journey of Little Charlie

Once you get Charlie’s voice in your head — and it takes a few pages for the rhythm to settle in, for writer Christopher Paul Curtis pulls you right into young Charlie’s vernacular speech of the South during slavery, where Charlie is a poor white child whose father has just died and Charlie is left to cover his father’s debt — you’ll never lose Charlie again.

In The Journey of Little Charlie, the story centers on the boy, as big as a man but still learning about the meanness of the world, as he accompanies a slave catcher to the north on a mission to find and return some runaways. Charlie does not want to be there but his hand is forced by his situation.

And time and again, we see the world through the boy’s eyes, a world full of injustice and cruelty, and Charlie’s own discomfort with things, but also, his inability to do much about it. He’s a boy, after all, in man’s world, and the man he is following — Cap’n Buck — is not one to be trifled with.

Without giving the story away, Charlie is faced with a moral choice, a tangled situation in which the boy must become a man, sooner than one would hope, and the decision Charlie makes impacts many in the Cap’n’s orbit. Curtis, a master storyteller, pulls it all off by diving deep into the head and the heart of Charlie.

Once you’re with Charlie, you won’t ever forget Charlie.

Peace (in the escape),
Kevin

Book Review: Pop Charts (100 Iconic Song Lyrics Visualized)

This is a nifty and fun book of visual information. Artist Katrina McHugh began creating one-page visualization of pop music songs, with a nature theme, as a side project to keep her artistic spirit going. The result became this book — Pop Charts: 100 Iconic Song Lyrics Visualized, with the tag of “A Collection of Diagrams for Music Lovers.”

She even offers up the idea of making her charts a readers’ guessing game — can you identify the song from her art? I may have got about 60 percent of them correct, but each of her pieces of art are pretty interesting, as she uses a collage style method to layer in visual cues to iconic lyrics.

Can you guess this one?

Or how about this one?

This book is a great example of how visuals can project information in interesting and meaningful ways. Connecting the visuals to memory of pop song melodies (for your brain starts to sing songs with identification of the lyrics) and writing is pretty nifty conceptual art.

McHugh explains in the liner notes that she chose the nature theme for all 100 of her diagrams because she began noticing how lyric writers use nature in different ways, as metaphor and story and more. Animals, landscapes, water all run through these pieces, connecting the 100 to the whole.

Peace (in the way pop looks),
Kevin

PS — The answers: Fire and Rain by James Taylor and Sitting on the Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding.

PSS — I lent this book to my band and no one liked it as much as I did. Just a heads up.

Graphic Novel Review: All Summer Long

Any book dedicated to “the weirdos and the part-time punks” and features a guitar-playing kid on the cover has my attention.

Hope Larson’s All Summer Long lives up to the dedication, focusing in on 13-year-old Bina, whose friendships are changing as summer vacation begins and who must navigate those changes while staying true to herself. In graphic novel format, the story unfolds over the course of the entire summer. The graphic story format works best during the boring moments, when Bina is alone, listening or playing music. The art captures the quiet moments in ways a traditional novel might not be able to.

Punk rock helps the summer move along, if rather slowly for her, and Bina is never far from either her headphones nor her guitar. Often, both. Her best friend and neighbor, Austin, has been acting strangely this summer, putting some distance between their friendship as he, too, navigates the world of being a 13 year old boy becoming influenced by peers and attracted to girls, but not Bina (maybe), and needing some space from their year-long close friendship.

When Austin goes away to soccer camp, Bina connects with Austin’s older sister, in a complicated friendship, and home life for Bina is unsettled, too, as an older brother is about to adopt a baby. The story told through the long weeks of the summer show Bina struggling to stay true to her passions even as adolescence and teen-hood begin to put pressures on her to conform.

Luckily, she’s confident enough in herself to resist the conformity and to be herself, and visiting a show to see her newest favorite unsigned band, where the lead player tells Bina to drop everything and just start a band, is the advice she needed. The book ends with Austin and Bina finding a friendship balance, laughing together. As the new school year begins, Bina begins to put up posters, seeking other girls to rock out with.

Think Bikini Kill or Sleater Kinney or L7. That’s what I heard in my head as Bina played her guitar.

This graphic novel is geared towards upper elementary, middle and high school readers. And, of course, to all of us weirdos out here. Maybe that’s you, too.

Peace (in the muse),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Just Write: Here’s How!

So you want to write novels? You’d be hard pressed to find a better guide than novelist Walter Dean Myers, and here he is, with Just Write: Here’s How! to give you some advice.

Interwoven with his own story of growing up poor in Harlem and finding a way out of poverty through the power of writing, and of using his stories to find his own voice, Myers provides plenty of helpful tidbits here about how to approach writing a novel.

In fact, his “six box” outline for fiction (focused on character) and “four box” outline for non-fiction (focused on research) are as good as a design as I have seen, particularly as Myers shares examples from his many powerful books for teenagers, and how he goes about doing both research and daydreaming about story and structure.

The book is written for a young audience, with Myers being realistic about the life of a writer — the amount of rejection one gets, the work of revision, the abrupt shifts in story construction, the ability to take criticism and feedback — and also extols the virtues of telling stories for others.

In fact, as would be clear if you dive into his vast bibliography of fiction, Myers seeks to give voice to teenagers in difficult situations, often facing long odds and even often, facing difficult choices. And he walks the walk — often working with incarcerated youths, helping them find their own voice as writers in hopes that writing forges a path forward for them.

This book is helpful in many ways, making visible the architecture of stories, and always focused on the development of characters that a reader might believe in and root for.

Peace (in stories),
Kevin