Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Resonant Truths in The Name of the Wind

The first time I read Patrick Rothfuss's masterful epic fantasy The Name of the Wind, it took my breath away. My friend Daniel recommended it with the highest sort of insistence that I absolutely must read it. It clocks in at over seven hundred pages--a tome, to be sure--but length has never been problematic for me. I was living in Japan, working as an Assistant Language Teacher, and I had the time to spare.

In short, for those unfamiliar, the framing narrative starts with an unassuming red-haired innkeeper in three kinds of silence--a silence interrupted first by strange happenings in his town and then the arrival of the Chronicler who knows him for who he truly is, the legendary Kvothe, the Kingkiller, who is presumed dead and now in hiding. The Chronicler  convinces Kvothe to tell the story of his life, and that's when the story begins. It's the story of how a boy whose parents are killed by a myth becomes a legendary hero. It's a story that explores the nature of the human being behind the legend.

(It's a story that needs a conclusion, even if the three books are intended as a mere prologue. Come on, Rothfuss, please finish Day 3 soon!)

I wanted to end my summer with something familiar, something comforting, before I started my second year as a teacher. (Anyone who's been a Year 1 Teacher will undoubtedly understand.) So, on friend Daniel's advice, and with an audible credit to spare, I snagged the audiobook version narrated by Nick Pohdel.

Excellent decision.

Two things stood out on my second time through this epic tome:

For the second time, again, the truth of the text resonated deeply. The boy Kvothe takes three years to mourn the death of his whole troupe at the hands of the Chandrian and still grieves even as the innkeeper he is in the framing narrative. His experiences in that grief-stricken fugue state as an orphan on the streets of Tarbean shape his decisions and his reactions. When he makes his way at last to the University, it is feels like higher education with all its weird politics and ivory towers where find you that all the magic of your desired career is achieved through a whole lot of mundane-yet-challenging tasks and seemingly arbitrary hurdles that might actually be safeguards. Plus, come on, student loan debt! How many fantasy epics have you read where student loan debt hangs over the head of your legendary hero?

Just on and on and on, the truths resonate.

But this time, I already knew Kvothe's story. I knew when Denna would appear, and disappear, and appear again. I knew the many ways in which Ambrose would be a jackass. Even though I knew how Kvothe got his Eolian Talent Pipes, I still got swept away in his performance. I knew Kvothe's story as well as one who has only read it once can know it. So I paid way more attention to Scheherazade-ian folklore within the story (within the story, if you count the framing Waystone Inn narrative).

And, boy howdy, am I not even the least bit surprised that Patrick Rothfuss has said that he wants to tell more stories besides Kvothe's in this world because the world-building thought that has gone into that folklore is intense. Centuries if not millennia of history that has become myth distorted by zeal within a particular religious sect that minimizes, trivializes, and outright punishes any belief besides belief in their god's greatness. (Sound familiar?) I found myself comparing Skarpi's tales in Tarbean with the other pieces of folktale that sometimes trickle and sometimes stream out from Kvothe's narrative, as well as the realities currently at play in the framing Waystone Inn narrative, seeking out the truth in the tale. I mean, I wouldn't want to abandon the worlds I have taken even a fraction of the amount of time and energy to build that Rothfuss has after just one story in them, regardless of how epic the tale or how many years it takes to write. The complexity here is dazzling.

Not only that, he doesn't let his world-building overshadow his story. The world is where the story takes place, but the story always takes precedence.

One last note to truths in the tale. In the end, Kvothe's companion-apprentice Bast in the Waystone Inn has an interesting conversation with the Chronicler. One point Bast makes is how Kvothe has taken on the identity of an innkeeper to the point that he's losing himself behind the mask he meant to simply hide behind--becoming the mask.

Names matter.  The things we call ourselves matter. We become who we believe ourselves to be.
In the weeks since I've started calling myself author in my heart of hearts, I've stripped away layer after layer of self-doubt and denial. As I call myself teacher and embrace the things I've learned last year, I've started off this new year with greater confidence in my classroom.

I fear if I start listening to Wise Man's Fear too soon, I'll be distracted when I need to work on memorizing my students' names, building classroom community, and planning lessons. I'll likely hold off until December for that, and cross my fingers that maybe, possibly, some day soon, Rothfuss might announce even a release year for Book Three...

Friday, August 10, 2018

Beatrice Zinker--and Stories of Friendship

A few grad school friends and I continue our passion for children's literature by having a monthly book club. We read everything from picture books and early readers through young adult fiction--generally focusing popular titles that have been published in the last few years. One of this month's selections was the chapter book Beatrice Zinker, Upside Down Thinker by Shelley Johannes.

Quick Plot: Beatrice is an unusual middle child who does her best thinking upside down. At the end of second grade, she and her best friend Lenny agree to wear their ninja costumes to school on the first day of third grade to begin a top-secret operation. But, Lenny goes to the Philippines to visit family for the summer and comes back to school with a new friend Chloe--who definitely does not think upside down. Beatrice and Lenny's top secret operation and their friendship seem to be on the line, and it takes some deep thinking and clever planning for Beatrice to pull everything all together.

Of all the chapter books we've read thus far, I enjoyed this one the most. The protagonist Beatrice had a spunky off-kilter personality that reminded me a lot of another chapter book favorite, Clementine by Sara Pennypacker. Johannes's illustrations do what great illustrations should do--they compliment and enhance the text. Adults were present in Beatrice's world, loving and full of personality but never pedantic. Beatrice used her knowledge of Lenny, her own quirky interests, and a little bit of thinking time to come up with solutions to her problems independently.

Near the end of the book, Beatrice recounts her school day to her neighbor Mrs. Jenkins, Mr.s Jenkins says this about friendships: "Life's like that. It's always shifting and changing. That's why most friendships last only for a season. But occasionally you find a really special one--and you grow with each other, instead of apart."

And that, naturally, got me thinking about my friendship with Rachel and the whole premise of this blog. It also got me thinking about the nature of friendships.

A lot of chapter books, generally aimed at lower elementary school students who are moving up from tiny early readers and developing their reading endurance skills, deal with issues of friendship or family. It can become a little bit formulaic--predictable for an adult reader--but these are real issues for kids in second and third grade.

What age do we stop talking about friendships as a central focus of the plot? I'd hazard a guess that it happens around the time when first crushes come stumbling out in middle grade fiction (and in real life). Life's seasons move on from "Kissing is gross" to "Huh, this kissing thing sounds interesting, and maybe I should investigate it firsthand," and suddenly friendship seems to matter less.

I can honestly think of more instances in modern movies of male friendships that endure long-term than female friendships (but that's probably at least in part because I watch more action flicks than any other genre). So often, the female character's romantic relationship seems to be the central focus of her life. See also: The Bechdel Test. How often are two women in conversation about anything other than a man? The Best Friend is the person who has the Female Protagonist's back when she is trying to decide what to do about her romantic relationship.

I would love to see more, and more, and more female characters who get to be friends and face friendship challenges that don't have to do with romances. I'd love for more friendships in fiction to be the really special ones instead of the ones that last only for a season. Not only female friendships, but also enduring female romantic relationships would be spectacular <3

In that spirit, here's one book I'm looking forward to: EK Johnston's The Afterward. Just take a look at all the epic fantasy ladies in practical armor on this cover:

Then go read the excerpt!

This transformed from a response to a chapter book to a tumble into books I'm excited for, so it's definitely time to sign out. Got any favorite books or movies where friendship is a central focus?

Friday, August 3, 2018

Making It Ain't Faking It

When I learned that Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman were teaming up to bring a crafting competition show to NBC, I knew I'd have to watch it. I mean, Parks and Rec is one of my favorite shows of all time, and I love DIY crafts. Match made in heaven, friends. In episode one, Making It has exceeded all my hopes and desires.

The premise: Six contestants are placed in a barn full of crafting supplies with challenges to complete inside a time limit. Every episode has two challenges, and in the end, one contestant gets eliminated, until one winner receives a big shiny cash prize.

It's... pretty standard for a competition show of this nature.

But, where other elimination competitions use screen time highlight tensions between competitors, let the camera dwell extra-long on that eyeroll, and hold confessional interviews where contestants provide commentary on how horrible that other contestant is, Making It gives us Poehler and Offerman with pun-offs. (In Poehler's own words, "Y'all thready for this?")

The episode is packed with gems and heartfelt moments as makers pour their souls into their crafts in a time crunch and our hosts sing their praises. I connected with maker Jemma when she commented on how much time people waste on their phones, and how they could spend that time to make things.

In general, I get a bit rankled when people blame technology for society's woes. This one rang true for me, though. You see, a little over a year ago, I knew I was spending way too much time on puzzle games. For me, they're repetitive, low-demand, but engaging enough that they hold my attention. Playing a puzzle game is meditative and relaxing. I decided I wanted to find something that would allow me to flow into a similar mental space but feel less like I was just wasting time on nothing, and that was why I picked up crochet again. Same feeling of repetition, same low-demand on the mind, but still with unique challenges that make it engaging.

And now, because I spent so much time over the last year doing crochet instead of playing quite as many puzzle games, my teacher desk has buddies:

Each maker on the show shares a piece of themselves, not only in what they're making but in the conversations they have with the hosts and the judges. Making things takes time, practice, and dedication to learning from mistakes. The exchange value on that time, though? The joy as each maker shares their creations demonstrates that perfectly.

It's a show made by people who understand DIY is more than Pintrest Fails. I can feel this undercurrent of desire to inspire people to try making something. I agree with Poehler: I wish that instead of eliminating a maker each week, they could bring in a new one.

I look forward to seeing where the competition goes and what crafts and challenges get brought to the worktables.