Tag Archives: literature

Book Review: David Levithan’s Every Day

3 Oct

It’s amazing how much reading you can squeeze in when you’re stuck on a plane for 9 hours. But this isn’t about how I read Breaking Dawn cover to cover–that’s for another blog.

The book that really made its mark was David Levithan’s Every Day. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow.

It’s about this teen, A, who keeps waking up in a new body. Each day, A gets to “be” this person–interacting with their friends and family, going to school, etc. But A has created a moral code to live by: don’t rock the boat and leave no traces.

The plethora of people-types he inhabits is impressive: guys, girls, jocks, nerds, druggies, gay, straight, transgendered, spoiled, abused, smokin’ hot, allergied, obese, etc. Because of this fluid life, A shows us the human potential of total acceptance. And really, how can A judge when he walks in everyone’s shoes?

Anyways, all of this switching bodies stuff is cool with A–until he falls in love with one of his host’s girlfriends.

All together now: AUGH!!!!!!!!!

Sure, it took me two and a half paragraphs to get to that revelation, but Levithan slaps you across the face with it in the first few pages. Right when you’re still trying to get used to this zany concept—SLAP.

I LOVE this trust in the reader to trust the author (does that make sense?). So often authors try to set every teeny aspect of the scenario before showing the readers why they should even care about the setup. Levithan just says, Screw it; you’re smart. Let’s get going with my clever idea already.

Levithan does an A+ job (pun intended) at keeping A from being creepy as he actively stalks this girl he loves. When A destroys all of his boundaries to blindly make the relationship work? Yep, we’re cheering him on. And despite the “magical” setup, Levithan keeps every other aspect of the story based in reality–and we cry at the desperation of it all. (Seriously. Tear-jerker. The last line of the 2nd to last chapter? Yeah. Like a kick to the chest.)

The best part, though, was the limited knowledge of A; he knows no more about his origins or purpose than we do. And really, A is asking the same existential questions we all are: Why are we here? How did this happen? Why am I me and not you? It was being behind the closed curtain alongside A that made the book come together so perfectly. We suffer A’s pain and confusion and anger inside the book–and then turn around and ask ourselves the same questions.

So. My biggest take away as a writer? Don’t explain everything. We really don’t need to know.

Check out this much more eloquent review of Every Day from Entertainment Weekly. Also, discover David Levithan’s other genius work here.

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Windy Van Hooten’s Circus Lingo

7 Aug

Matilda: the Single-O
(Art by Robin E. Kaplan)

When I named the co-owner of the sideshow Robin Marx, I felt so sly and so brilliant (and, yes, so smug). I humbly kept the breadth and depth of my circus knowledge under the radar. If readers only knew what I knew and that I knew it when I wrote it, they would shake their heads, amazed by my disciplined linguistic acrobatics.

For those of you not in the know: A mark is a person attending a circus or sideshow, looking to spend money (also known as a sucker). Robin Marx is a “utility name”; it’s what a carny uses when they want to give a false name for himself or anyone else on the show.

“Robbin’ marks” … get it????

All right, that comment about my endless circus knowledge is a big fat lie. I speak circus as well as I speak French (veuillez, veuillez tell me vous comprende la english?). I learned circus details the way a writer learns to write about everything they don’t know: The Interwebs.

My book’s most notable source? The online Carny & Circus & Vaudeville Dictionary. It’s….amazing. Going beyond simple definitions, it offers the juicy stories behind the semantics:

MarkWhen a carny spotted a towny with a big bankroll, he would give him a friendly slap on the back leaving a chalk mark so other carnies would know that this customer had lots of money. Often the ticket seller would mark the ‘mark.’ The booth would have a high counter, above the average person’s eyesight, and the ticket seller would short-change the customer, leaving the change on the counter. If the customer didn’t notice or didn’t count his change, the ticket seller would lean over to give him some “friendly” advice about the best attractions, putting his hand on the customer’s shoulder to point him toward the show he simply must see, simultaneously dusting his back with chalk from a hidden supply. If the customer instead complained about the wrong change, the ticket seller could always push the remaining change to him and say “I told you to take it.” And what do you do when you spot a mark? You “play” him – that’s right, just like you play a fish.

GOD I LOVE THAT! What a bunch of crafty grifters!

You know, I always wondered about authors who write on topics they’ve only researched, crime and medical and detective novels in particular. I can see them idly Googling “police jargon for authors”. How do they know that they’re not mangling every other piece of dialog? Then again, if I only wrote what I knew, my novels would be about my cat, oversleeping, dropping things in front of people, and abandoning awkward coffee orders half-way through (“I want an iced americano, decaf, 12 oz., 2 shots with–actually, whatever is fine.”)

Anyways. Obviously, the thought of misusing the words was scary for me..yet, with the lingo I dug up, I found myself fighting against including everything. Instead, I picked out just a few phrases to add some depth without over-doing it. Besides, circus people would never read my book, right…? Right.

…except, of course, until last month when I decided to send my book to the very people whose websites and books helped me tell the story. Because I wanted to know what they thought of my made-up circus. Because I’m a glutton for finding out problems with things I cannot change. And, yes, because I’m a celebrity chaser.

Ballycast Episode #56 – July 31, 2012:
The Man Who Taught Me to Talk

The first person to respond was none other than the author of the Carny & Circus & Vaudeville Dictionary, plus host of Ballycast (a very cool podcast about carnivals, sideshows, and burlesque), Wayne Keyser. To my delight, he actually thought I did all right, for a Forty Miler:

“What [Molly E. Johnson has] thankfully not done is what many lazy writers resort to: peppering the prose with double handfuls of trade lingo as if that were enough. It’s always obvious, it’s always insulting a little to the reader,  and I’m delighted to say that she hasn’t done that! Spartacus of shadows is a great read.”
– Wayne Keyser, Ballycast

With Mr. Keyser’s brief but welcomed blessing, I can now officially say I know more circus lingo than French. (Oui comprend solo un poco français.)

SO! When reading Spartacus and the Circus of Shadows or gobbling up that Carny lingo*, keep your eyes peeled for:

  • First of May
  • Stars and Stripes Forever
  • Mark
  • Outside talker
  • The back yard
  • Eli (as in Big Eli)
  • Heat
  • Single-O

You’ll be able to figure out some words and phrases using the context of the story while you may need to look up others–as you should always do when you see a word or phrase you don’t know. Emunctory.

*WARNING: Once you browse this dictionary, attempting to read or watch Water for Elephants will become painful.
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