11/17/2017 Character Traits and Personality Types
In my 90s Club series, the 90-year-olds sometimes use stereotypes of the elderly to mislead their quarries into thinking they are harmless. My characters are able, alert, and active—as many 90-year-old and 100-year-olds are nowadays. In my writers’ critique group, I was appalled to hear my fellow writers push for the stereotypes as more “believable.” Most of us today avoid and dismiss the stereotypes of African-American, gay, Italian, Greek, Scandinavian, blonde, etc., I hope we’ve all gone beyond the use of eyeglasses to show an intellectual, studious, or nerdy person, a person who when she or he whips off the glasses, suddenly becomes sexy or strong. Think Superman. It still happens in the movies and television, though, where the elderly continue to be the victims of demeaning and sometimes vicious stereotypes.
Where I am most at fault for bias is when I see a man riding a motorcycle. I become wary. Brutal Hell’s Angel? Foolhardy kid? Whatever, definitely low end. Yet I know men and women who are avid motorcyclists, thoughtful people, sometimes a bit rebellious. A Libertarian might ride a motorcycle wearing a business suit. A student might ride one to cut down fuel costs. A couple of men might stop at a restaurant to discuss poetry. As a writer, I could describe a motorcyclist with a lot of surprising characteristics.
In developing characters that have some complexity, I hope, I have used enneagrams to put together personality traits, but I recently came across a book called Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein, Ph.D. It provides a better and more extensive listing of personality traits that characterize various types of people,
The 2016 novel News of the World by Paulette Jiles is beautiful, poetic, and riveting, and takes you to a world that’s familiar but full of mystery, all in just 240 pages. It fascinated me so much that I immediately sought out information on the history behind the fiction — the lives of children captured by Native Americans in mid-nineteenth-century Texas.
News of the World tells the story of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a seventy-one-year-old widower and Army veteran who travels the towns of North Texas entertaining audiences by reading selected articles from national and international newspapers. After one reading, an acquaintance, Britton Johnson, asks him to return a ten-year-old white girl to an aunt and uncle, her nearest living relatives, who live hundreds of miles away, near San Antonio. The child had recently been freed after spending four years with the Kiowa Indians, who’d captured her during a raid in which they’d killed her parents.
To the Kiowas, the girl was known as Cicada, but Captain Kidd calls her Johanna, the name her white German-speaking parents had given her, though “She doesn’t know the name Johanna from Deuteronomy,” he tells himself.
The task facing Captain Kidd is overwhelming. Johanna is a feral child. “I am astonished,” Kidd says. “The child seems artificial as well as malign.” But Kidd believes it is adults’ duty to protect children, and he is the only one at hand to help her.
The child’s fears, sorrow, and anger are sensitively drawn. Jiles researched the lives of children captured by Indians and uses the words of her characters to explain the young captives’ struggling emotions. Britt Johnson, for example, understands the plight of captured children because his son had been in captivity. “…[He] came back different,” Johnson says. “Roofs bother him. Indoor places bother him.” (Jiles patterned Johnson after a historical figure also named Britt Johnson, a former slave who had rescued his wife and two daughters from Indians.)
Doris, another character, says, “You can put her in any clothing and she remains as strange as she was before because she has been through two creations.” Birth is the first creation, and the second tears the first to bits.
Kidd describes Johanna’s torment in a few heart-wrenching paragraphs after she tries to escape and return to the Kiowa people. He comes upon her during a torrential downpour as she stands at one side of a river, appearing to beseech Indians on the other side to rescue her. “What could she think would happen,” Kidd asks himself. “She was shouting for her mother, for her father and her sisters and brothers, for the life on the Plains, traveling wherever the buffalo took them, she was calling for her people who followed water, lived with every contingency, were brave in the face of enemies.” If the Indians notice her at all, they see a white child with blond hair. They ignore her.
And so Johanna stays with him.
As Kidd and Johanna travel together, they begin to understand each other. It seems at first that they have no common language, but then she makes the sign for fire. He knows a little of the Plains Indians signs, so he can respond. He can say a few words in German, and she shows recognition of that language. She tries out English words. They grow to trust and respect each other. She realizes that he is taking care of her, and he recognizes her intelligence.
Kidd holds readings as they arrive in new towns. He carefully chooses his topics so that they entertain as much as they inform, while avoiding contentious topics that could disrupt the crowd. He tells the audience about the Fifteenth Amendment, which extends the right to vote to all men regardless of race, warning, “That means colored gentlemen. … Let us have no vaporings or girlish shrieks.” Then he astounds them with stories from as far away as Chile and from a polar exploration ship, “trying to bring them distant magic that was not only marvelous but true.” How Kidd selects his stories and the audiences’ reactions are fascinating and, to me, in our own days of instant news, make the 1870s seem very long ago.
Just as Kidd transported his audience, Jiles transported me.
She surely knew that some of her readers would want to know more about children captured by Native Americans, and indeed I did. In a note, she recommends The Captured: A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier by Scott Zesch. I immediately checked my library for the book and saw that I had to put it on hold. (Perhaps all Jiles’ readers go from her book to his.) It was worth waiting for.
Zesch profiles six children who had been captured and subsequently “rescued.” Like the fictional Johanna, many of them seemed to live between two worlds. It’s a fascinating story of a not-so-distant and troubling time.
My advice: Start with News of the World and continue with The Captured. They work beautifully together.
I don’t normally use this space to review twenty-year-old books, but for Richard Russo, I’ll make an exception. Regular readers know I’m a huge Russo fan. He’s been a big influence on my own writing, and I thought I’d read everything he wrote. But last month a friend recommended one of his novels that I’d missed: Straight Man, published in 1997. It’s the funniest serious novel I’ve ever read.
The narrator, William Henry Devereaux Jr., is heir to a famous name and not much else. He’s a writing professor and temporary chair of the English Department at a third-rank state college in a small fictional town in Pennsylvania. Hank’s father, who looms large throughout the book, was a hugely successful academic and literary critic and a hugely unsuccessful human being. An ice-cold man—at least when (and maybe even when) bedding his female students—Deveraux Sr. walked out when Hank was young and is now poised to return so his ex-wife and son can care for him in his senility.
Hank has plenty of hangups from that childhood, yet he’s chosen to follow in his father’s footsteps, just without the success part. At 29 he wrote his first and only novel, meaningfully titled Off the Road, a book that got good reviews but failed to sell (one of many details in the novel likely to resonate with aspiring authors). Now he’s tenured but trapped, stuck in a nonfunctioning academic world, ruling over an unruly staff of miscreants, and leading a writing workshop for angry and oversexed young adults. (His best advice to one: Always understate necrophilia.)
Russo surrounds Hank with a hilarious, perfectly drawn group of colleagues, almost all of whom have filed grievances against him. There’s Orshee, a nickname resulting from his habit of correcting anyone who uses only the male pronoun; Teddy Barnes, a close friend despite the fact that he’s in love with Hank’s wife; Finny, who claims a PhD from a university whose only asset seems to be a post office box in Texas. And then there’s Gracie, a feminist (and don’t you forget it) poet who hits Hank in the face with a notebook, puncturing his nose with the end of the spiral she’s teased out of place,
Being stuck in this stale and dreary situation and now pushing 50, Hank is in the midst of a midlife crisis he’d rather not recognize, suffering from a bladder problem that is either a kidney stone or cancer or all in his head. The stress is high on every front. The state legislature has slashed the school’s budget and Hank’s faculty revolts over rumors he’s offered up a list of dispensable staff (he’s actually refused to do a list, but he’s too stubborn to deny the rumor). The uproar prompts a vote to yank Hank’s chairmanship, a meeting Hank observes from above—trapped in the ceiling with an uncontrollable urge to pee. The school showdown comes to a head over a long weekend, which also coincides with Hank’s medical crisis, the breakup of his daughter’s marriage, and news that his father is coming back to town. To make matters worse, it just happens to be the weekend that Hank’s wife, the rock in his life, is out of town job hunting. When she leaves, she tells him, “I have this fear. I can’t decide where you’re going to be when I get home. In the hospital or in jail.” In fact, he ends up in both, though only briefly.
As funny as the novel is, it’s deadly serious. Plot is secondary in Russo’s novel, and that is certainly the case here. Instead he focuses on relationships and people and the things that make life what it is. His novels specialize in unmanageable middle-aged men (or, more accurately, men who don’t want to be managed), and he understands them better than anyone. Hank is not quite as complex as Sully, the unforgettable protagonist in Nobody’s Fool and Everybody’s Fool, but he’s a close second. Different, but complex and perfectly drawn. Hank’s relationship with his father is not one I identified with, but many men will, and Russo makes sure I understand it even if I didn’t experience it. That’s Russo at his best. And so is this book.
Several years ago I combed my bookshelves and gave my teenage son some old paperbacks I thought he’d enjoy. Recently, while hunting for a book he asked me to send to him in college, I found the books neatly stacked next to his bed. I wondered if he had ever read any of them.
Some people seek comfort food, but I tend toward comfort books. Comfort books are the ones I return to when the problems of the day become too much. They’re my macaroni and cheese without the calories.
A few weeks ago, as Americans seemed at war with Americans, I turned to one of my comfort books, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains by Owen Wister. This 1902 novel was required reading when I was in junior high school. I loved it then and loved it again when I reread it in 1980, 1991, and late this summer. The book belongs near the top of any list of great American novels.
I feel almost apologetic for enjoying the book. There’s much in it to make 21st-century Americans shudder, including racial epithets, vigilante justice, and sexism. But with its depiction of a noble (if flawed) American hero, its virtuous (if flawed) schoolteacher, and the unspoiled American West, the reader sees a grand country, where possibilities seem endless, and a good man can prosper. The Virginian is just the man to succeed.
Narrated by an Eastern tenderfoot whom the Virginian is taking to visit Judge Henry in Medicine Bow, Wyoming, we see the wild country from the eyes of an outsider, just like us. The contrasts between the natural West and the constrained East come quickly. The West proves the winner, but both Westerners (particularly in the person of the native Virginian) and Easterners (the narrator and the schoolteacher and her family) learn and grow.
A Writer Reads Elizabeth Strout
Writing fiction will change the way you read it. I often make a point of reading like a writer (to borrow Francine Prose’s book title), examining what the author is trying to do and how she’s doing it, determining what works and what doesn’t (and why), and looking for how this can help improve my own writing. It doesn’t stop me from reading as a reader—enjoying good literature and losing myself in fictional worlds—but I rarely lose sight of what the author is doing to and for me.
And when I read really good fiction—the kind that strikes a chord deep within—the writer in me usually has two reactions. First, I’m inspired and I want to rush to the computer to try to create a similar gift for my readers. But often the inspiration gets deflated by a feeling that I’m not a real writer, not the kind of author who wields magic—who not only understands people and the world they live in, but also has the tools to effectively convey that.
Such was my reaction to Elizabeth Strout’s new collection of stories, Anything Is Possible.
J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (HarperCollins, 2016)
Book buyers have made J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy the nation’s number one non-fiction bestseller in part in search of answers to Donald Trump’s upset victory in the November 2016 election. My guess is that many will draw the wrong conclusions. Some will call for increased federal spending on social programs, while others will see Vance’s story as supporting an emphasis on individual responsibility. Vance would reject both.
Though she loves to read novels, author Desiree Cooper found that her fiction comes from her in a much shorter form. “If there was no such thing as flash fiction, I would have had to invent it,” says the 2016 debut author of the collection of flash fiction titled Know the Mother. If you’re not terribly familiar with flash fiction, which works to tell an evocative story in a very compressed space, this lovely, haunting collection demonstrates just how effective and affecting this genre can be.
Mother’s stories have a strong common thread of dreams delayed or abandoned — suppressed under the weight of obligation — and of how identity is tied to those dreams. Who are we, really, if we’re never allowed to be who we want to be? Can anyone really know us if our true selves are hidden behind society’s expectations of us or the demands of roles we did not freely choose?
Most novels that include an assault in the plot feature that assault as the main event. One of the beauties of M.O. Walsh’s debut novel My Sunshine Away is that the rape described on page one is not the main event, no matter how much the young narrator wants to think it is.
At age 14, the narrator, who remains nameless throughout the story, is infatuated with his 15-year-old neighbor Lindy. So, when she is attacked coming home from track practice one summer night in 1989, he thinks the world as he knows it is destroyed. Through his remaining adolescence, he sees life through the prism of the rape and how it affects Lindy’s relationship with him, while all around him so much else is happening that belies the idyllic quality of his southern neighborhood and that will shape him into the adult he becomes.
A Morsel for the Armchair Traveler
Planes are crowded, hotels are booked, and families are streaming to their vacation destinations. Those of us staying put in these sultry summer days can do worse than read the adventures of people lucky enough to travel abroad.
Victoria Twead’s hilarious memoir, Chickens, Mules and Two Old Fools, more than fits the requirement of an armchair getaway. Twead takes readers from her Sussex home, on England’s southern coast, to a tiny mountain village in Andalucia, on Spain’s southern coast.
Last month I published a poll asking for tips about summer and travel reading (READING ON THE ROAD). I had an ulterior motive. I was hoping someone could save me from lifelong habit of lugging books around the world that I ended up neglecting or destroying, sometimes both.
Reviewing Stuart Rojstaczer, The Mathematician’s Shiva, Penguin, 2014
The Mathematician’s Shiva is a feel good novel that doesn’t require the reader to be Jewish or a mathematician to enjoy. In fact, learning a little about both is a side benefit to this very readable journey.
The death of a parent can be a traumatic time for any person no matter his or her age, but when the parent is a world-renown mathematician and the son is, in terms of his career a lesser light, on top of which he has to entertain a sometimes rude band of academic geniuses and near geniuses for a week in his mother’s home, well then we have the basis for a potentially very interesting story.
I’m not a horse fancier but after reading Alyson Hagy’s Boleto I look curiously when I glimpse a horse. The novel’s young cowboy protagonist drew me to it (I am a fancier of young cowboys). The filly he’s training for polo is the reader’s window into Will Testerman’s soul. I fell in love with the book and its Everyman protagonist, and I’m delighted Alyson Hagy let me ask a few questions about it.
Reading The Ludwig Conspiracy, an historical novel by Oliver Pötzsch, opens up dark passageways into the side notes of history. The book itself is a fast-paced thriller with unexpected and persistent villains, both past and present. Published in 2011, eight years after Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Pötzsch’s book also draws on secret codes and byzantine intrigues and superficially seems to ride Dan Brown’s wave.
You know King Ludwig II of Bavaria as “Mad King Ludwig,” who commissioned the building of Schloss Neuschwanstein, famous as the Disney World castle. He also built Schloss Linderhog and an imitation Versailles known as Herrenschiemsee. Ludwig was born in 1845 and crowned king in 1864. He was a Roman Catholic who struggled with his homosexuality and he was a patron of the composer Richard Wagner. In June 1886, his body and that of his psychiatrist were found drowned in a Bavarian lake.
Summer is the time for road trips, and one of the best traveling companions is a phone or iPad full of audiobooks. If I’m driving alone, I get antsy if I have to go very far without one of these lively passengers. They’re also great for sharing if you have one that everybody in the car likes. I find the best books for travel are lighter fare because it’s hard to keep up with complex plots when traffic takes your attention.
One of my favorite series of books for listening in the car is the Miss Julia series by Ann B. Ross. Miss Julia is a clever, opinionated, and lovable woman of a certain age who has a knack for getting involved in thorny circumstances, sometimes by her own actions, but usually not. She’s weathered many a surprise in her later years, not the least of which is the arrival on her doorstep of a young woman claiming to be the mother of Miss Julia’s late husband’s son. How Miss Julia handles this development is both funny and touching.
This is a strange time for journalism—confusing both for the people who practice it and those who consume it. The Trump administration has cast a lifeline to mainstream media like The New York Times and The Washington Post, which have seen circulation surge as old-time investigative reporting kicks into high gear. At the same time, rumors, lies, and complete fabrications get almost equal treatment in certain less reputable media sources, with a huge impact in unfortunate ways. For journalists of the old school (including me) it’s a time of head scratching.
Commonwealth: A Review for Writers as well as Readers
My apology to non-writers. This review of Ann Patchett’s 2016 novel, Commonwealth, focuses primarily on the writing, but in doing so perhaps readers will come to understand some basic writing techniques and how they influence story.
Unlike many contemporary novels, Commonwealth is written from an omniscient viewpoint. That means from the very first sentence there’s an always present story narrator telling us what people are doing and thinking. “The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with a bottle of gin.” That’s the narrator talking, not one of the characters.
“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
—Jorge Luis Borges
I had the distinct pleasure recently of being on a panel at the Washington Writers Conference with Tom Shroder—author, ghostwriter, journalist, and long-time editor of the Washington Post Magazine—and Michael Dirda, even longer-time book critic at the Washington Post and elsewhere. We were discussing the fuzzy lines that separate memoir, family history, and fiction.
Derek Walcott, 1930-2017
I used to read a lot of poetry. That thought hit me on March 17, when I learned of the death of the Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright Derek Walcott on the island of St. Lucia, where he was born.
It has been years since I’ve read Walcott, but his work was once a constant companion of mine. As I think now about the pleasures of meter, rhyme, and the soaring imagination that good poetry generates, I realize what I’ve missed.
When I heard of Derek Walcott’s death, I recalled a day in 1980 when I opened The New Yorker and excitedly read the title “Jean Rhys” above a six-stanza poem. Only a short time before had I become acquainted with the Dominica-born author Jean Rhys, but I’d been devouring her novels Wide Sargasso Sea, Good Morning, Midnight, and Voyage in the Dark and recommending them to every book lover I knew. And here was an homage to her in a poem by Walcott. I calmed myself and read:
Paula Fox died on March first, although I didn’t know it. I happened to be reading Desperate Characters at the time. I didn’t know who the author was or why I was reading Desperate Characters. My best guess was that a Goodreads friend had recommended the book and I’d downloaded it, with so many others, to my Kindle. Because Kindle doesn’t give copyright or original publication dates for books – an unforgivable sin, to my mind – I didn’t even know whether Desperate Characters was an older book or a recent one set in the sixties. What I did know, or realized as I got into the book, was the fact that I was reading not just good but great fiction. He wasn’t a seducer. He was remote. He was like a man preceded into a room by acrobats.
At first read, you might think Fling! by Lily Iona MacKenzie is a delightful story with endearing, charming characters—which it is. But look a little closer, and you’ll find it’s also a probing story picking at deep layers of family love and resentment. Just below the characters’ zest for life lie feelings of aloneness and abandonment. Once those feelings are laid bare, can they ever be subdued?
Fling!’s main characters are mother and daughter Bubbles and Feather. Ninety-year-old Bubbles is still full of enthusiasm and looking for laughter wherever she can find it. MacKenzie tells us Bubbles’ motto is fun. “Life was too short; you needed to have a little fun. … Money didn’t matter that much to her, as long as she could have a good time.”
A Review of Hillbilly Elegy
In my last posting, I discussed three books of non-fiction that touched on topics of empathy, compassion, and a shared social contract, and that together, I felt, made some illustrative commentary on the events of that day, January 20th, 2017. One book that I had hoped to include—but which landed on my reading stack a bit too late to make the cut—was another unexpectedly successful work of non-fiction. It, too, highlights some of the themes of my earlier discussion.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is a memoir by a young Yale-educated lawyer named J.D. Vance. He beats his readers to the punch in offering his own wry objection to a 31-year-old’s writing a memoir, but he has much to offer us as he relates his own experience in what is arguably the most forgotten and dismissed segment of the American population.
Elegy has variously been described as the book that explains to liberals the inexplicably successful candidacy and then election of our 45th president; a shameful sellout that feeds into the conservative myth that the poor are poor by choice; and a fresh and welcome new voice in support of right-leaning philosophies. The literary equivalent of a chameleon, Elegy is being used as a sort of shorthand by commentators of every stripe to support whichever underlying philosophy is being argued or promulgated.
That’s a lot of baggage for one slender volume to drag along with it. My recommendation is to jettison all that and read the book entirely for itself, because it is worthy and thought-provoking on its own. More than that, it is a wonderfully engaging story of a family we come to care about and wish the best.
Ever since The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd was released in 2014, I’ve heard it described as the story of the relationship between a white girl and the enslaved black girl who is given to her as her personal maid on her eleventh birthday. The novel is that story, but its deeper story is the evolution of the white girl, Sarah Grimké, into not only a leader of the abolitionist movement but also one of the first proponents of women’s rights.
Sarah Grimké was a real person who was born into Charleston aristocracy and grew up there in the years before the U.S. Civil War. Kidd used diaries, letters, newspaper accounts, and Sarah’s own writing as well as biographical material to learn the facts of Sarah’s life and many of her desires, struggles, and motivations. But the beauty of this novel comes from the rich inner life that Kidd imagines for Sarah, even as a child.
Last year when the Nobel Prize in Literature went to Bob Dylan, many people responded with the question, Why? Two years earlier when the Nobel Prize committee named Patrick Modiano the recipient of its literature prize, another question was often asked, Who?
Though Modiano had published about thirty works in his native France, he was almost unknown in this country. Only a dozen of his novels had been translated into English, and the publishing house David R. Godine, which had published three of them, sold only about 8,000 copies.
Why do I call Emily Mandel’s Station Eleven a utopian dystopia? Her story echoes the tradition of dystopian novels from 1984 and Brave New World to more recent books like McCarthy’s The Road and Veronica Roth’s Divergent by positing a pandemic that wipes out the vast majority of the earth’s population in a matter of days, but the ending, which I will get to, is more optimistic than most.