No Symbolism Here

With apologies to any English teachers who may read this blog…

Think back to when you were in high school. Remember your English classes? Remember how the teacher would insist that there was deep and profound meaning in something that you were taking at face value?

Let me give you an example. A character takes a walk in the woods. You thought, “Okay. So the guy takes a walk in the woods. So what?” Your English teacher said, “Don’t you see? The walk in the woods symbolizes something. It represents the sadness of the character, the character’s loneliness and self-fulfilling limitations.”

Breaking news: sometimes a character just wants to take a walk in the woods. No symbolism there. It’s quiet, it’s peaceful, it’s pretty in the woods. It’s a nice place to take a walk. It doesn’t necessarily mean someone is sad or lonely or suffering from self-fulfilling limitations.

You can probably think of a thousand other examples of symbolism being forced on a story where, perhaps, the author never meant anything more than what is written on the page.

I was thinking about this because I was helping a person-who-shall-remain-nameless with an English paper recently. It was based on a short story and the person-who-shall-remain-nameless did a great job on the paper and I told that person as much.

Long story short, that person got a pretty poor grade on the essay. I think I felt worse than the student did because I had helped with the paper. Turns out the English teacher thought certain crucial elements of the story had been left out of the essay. The student (and I) didn’t agree.

It’s an embarrassing situation because my job is writing. I didn’t just decide one day to sit down and start writing. I took countless writing classes in college, I took writing classes in law school, and I wrote daily and endlessly as a lawyer. I like to think I can take a piece of writing and pick out what’s important and what isn’t. But I know there are plenty of English teachers out there who disagree with me. Who think that if I don’t see a deeper meaning in much of what I read, I am reading it wrong.

Sometimes it’s important to read a story just because it’s a good story.

Thousands and thousands of authors write for the simple joy of entertaining, and millions and millions of readers read for the simple joy of being entertained.

I’m not saying that symbolism in writing isn’t important. It is. But sometimes that simple joy of reading can be squelched by the demands placed on the written word. I would never make a good English teacher-I’m too literal. When I read a book I want to escape into the plot, not be bogged down by a hidden meaning that may or may not exist.

I’m thankful that kids today have the opportunity to dig deep into books at school and that they have the benefit of the knowledge and experience of their English teachers, whom I respect and admire. I just want to make sure that kids don’t stop reading outside of school because they’re afraid of missing something important in a book, because they’ve been taught that books have deeper meanings that the kids just don’t understand.

Because sometimes a walk in the woods is just a walk in the woods.

Until next week,

Amy

P.S. With a little bit of luck, maybe the cover of The Ghosts of Peppernell Manor will be revealed next week!

A Review: Twelve to Murder

I wanted to give you all a sneak peak of the cover of my new book that comes out in April, but unfortunately I don’t have the cover art yet. So stay tuned! Maybe next week.

It’s been a while since I reviewed a book on my blog, so I want to do that today. Twelve to Murder by Lauren Carr is the seventh book in the Mac Faraday series. It’s the first one I’ve read, but I intend to read the rest as soon as I make a dent in my to-be-read pile. I won a copy of the book and promised that I would give an honest review of it.

Lauren Carr is a very good storyteller. Her mystery starts with the discovery of two dead bodies, a husband and wife, in their home on the shore of Deep Creek Lake, Maryland. The couple is discovered by their son, who quickly becomes a suspect in their deaths. But he’s not the only suspect, and the clues and bodies and persons of interest continue to pile up right until the end of the story, when the twists and turns iron themselves out into a very satisfying conclusion.

Mac Faraday is a retired detective who has come to Deep Creek Lake to live following his divorce and the death of his birth mother, a world-famous mystery author. Upon her death, Mac inherited a huge fortune from her as well as her estate on Deep Creek Lake. Mac’s trusty sidekick is a German Shepherd, Gnarly, who is also retired from service, though Gnarly served the U.S. Army, not a police force. Both Mac and Gnarly have love interests in the book, and both are charming and entertaining. Mac’s lady love is Archie Monday, who was the research assistant to the author who gave birth to Mac; Gnarly’s lady love is Molly, a white German Shepherd who is trained to detect and warn her master of impending seizures.

The story centers around Lenny Frost, a washed-up actor who was a big star as a child and teen and who sank into drug abuse and alcoholism as an adult. The woman who is discovered dead as the story opens was Lenny’s agent, mother of Lenny’s former best friend, and the owner of the comedy club where Lenny appears regularly, mostly in front of audiences who do not find him all that funny. When the dead couple is discovered, it’s Lenny’s name that’s written in the wife’s blood at the crime scene. Did Lenny do it? Or was he framed? Lenny swears he’s been framed, and to “prove” it, he takes a number of bar patrons hostage and threatens to kill them if the real killer isn’t caught by midnight.

I really enjoyed this book. I found the plot to be sophisticated and fast-moving, with realistic dialogue and clues that kept me guessing until the end. The romance, to me, was secondary to the mystery and that’s the way I like it. And the story is timely, too. With all that’s been in the news lately about former child stars, this story makes the reader think about many such kids and how their lives don’t always reflect the promise they held as children.

I recommend Twelve to Murder to anyone who likes a good mystery paired with a little romance and fun. Four stars!

Dog Days

One of my daughters has to give a speech this week on the topic of “something she is passionate about.” She chose dogs, and it got me thinking that I would like to write a blog post in honor of our dog. So, since I had already decided to write today’s blog post about dogs, how’s this for coincidence?

As I opened up WordPress to start writing, my dog got up and sat next to me with one paw on my leg, looking up at me with her huge dark brown eyes. She had just shifted positions- for the previous half hour she had been lying directly behind my desk chair, almost as if she knew I would rather go in search of almost anything to eat instead of being chained to my desk. But she also knew that I wouldn’t move my chair while she lay behind it, thus forcing me to get some work done.

Brilliant, I know.

There are probably thousands- no, millions- of people who feel the same way I do about dogs. That is, that their dog is the best dog in the world. In my case, I know it to be true. Sorry to all you other dog owners, but there can only be one best dog. And her name is Orly.

Orly

This is a picture of Orly, albeit a bit blurry. She likes to be near me when I write, and she follows me around like, well, a puppy dog. When I get up, she follows. When I sit down at my desk, she lays down next to me on the floor. When I sit at the kitchen table, she takes up her post there. My husband and I have a long-running debate over which one of us is Orly’s favorite, and I think we all know the answer.

It’s me. He won’t like to read this, but I speak the truth. Besides, the cats like him best, so it’s only fair.

Anyways, thinking so much about dogs this week got me wondering how many stories out there have dogs as characters. There must be too many to count. Some of my favorites are by James Herriot. I can honestly say his stories changed my life. When I was in high school, I read his books and made the decision to go to veterinary school largely on the basis of his writings. I went to college as a major in Animal Science, hell-bent on going to school to be a vet.

Alas, it didn’t work out. I became a lawyer instead. I can practically see you scratching your heads in confusion, but that’s a story for another time. The point is that James Herriot wrote some wonderful stories and if you haven’t read them, I encourage you to check them out.

There’s actually a dog in my second novel, The Ghosts of Peppernell Manor. Her name is Addie, and she’s a stray. Though there’s one character that doesn’t trust her, most of the others grow to love her.

But as much as I adore Addie as well as James Herriot and his furry characters, my all-time favorite animal character has to be the dog in Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Here’s a short synopsis: a dog shows up at the Wilders’ house around the same time as a shifty character who is there to case the joint (my words, not Laura Ingalls Wilder’s). The family feeds the dog out of compassion, wondering where he came from and where he’s headed. The dog stays overnight and as luck would have it, is there to dissuade the shifty guy from robbing the house while the family sleeps. The dog disappears shortly after the incident, just as mysteriously as he showed up.

Isn’t that incredible? The dog appears on the scene to help the family before they even know they need him. Amazing.

As almost anyone with a dog will agree, all dogs are amazing, not just the one in Farmer Boy.

Do you have a favorite dog story from a book you’ve read? I’d love to hear about it!

Until next week,

Amy