Sunday, June 8, 2008

Laundry Lists

1. You have been asked to supply a list of ten political novels to which you supply annotations. Given the intense political atmosphere of the moment, this is the most desired list of ten. Others, on other subjects, will be requested. You have chosen:

Political novels are like thermometers; they reflect the temperature of the political symptoms of a given era. Here are ten novels that reveal the fevered brows of their times:

1. The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (2007). Set against a backdrop of the reign of the Dominican Republic dictator, Rafael Trujillo, this narrative moves between the Dominican Republic and contemporary New Jersey to tell the story of a family, their friends, and a Diaspora. Remarkably formatted with footnotes reflecting history and authorial commentary, this novel parallels growing up under a dictatorship with growing up in a minority in America.

2. The Plot Against America: A Novel by Philip Roth (2004). In a dystopic alternate universe, FDR loses the 1940 Presidential election to Charles Lindberg. America becomes by degrees more isolationist in foreign policy and anti-Semitic in social behavior.

3. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985). Another example of the dystopia, or utopia-gone-wrong, The Handmaid’s Tale dramatizes the subjugation of women within a near-totalitarian, theology-based society. Author Atwood demonstrates how extremism, fundamentalism, and sexist rhetoric undermine an informed and healthy society.

4. Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon (1959). In this conspiracy theory thriller set during the Korean War, an American platoon is captured and brainwashed to believe one of their number heroically saved them during combat. The “hero” has been further brainwashed to serve as a sleeper agent for the Communists.

5. Advise and Consent by Alan Drury (1959). A novel designed to show the intricate workings of the United States Senate, this narrative posits the nomination to the position of Secretary of State an individual with a background as a former Communist, currently with liberal politics. The United States Senate, with a duty to advise the President of the United States and consent to his programs, is seen in action, vetting the individual and the implications of his service as Secretary of State.

6. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene (1958). A genial-but-passive British expatriate living in pre-Castro Havana as a vacuum cleaner salesman becomes an agent for British Intelligence as a way of making more money to pay for his daughter’s convent education. This elaborately constructed satire effectively ridicules the often unseen consequences of a mismanaged intelligence program run by any country.

7. The Ugly American by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer (1958). The United States, in its attempts to topple a fictional Southeast Asian country with a Communist regime, inflicts severe physical damage on the country as well as causing moral damage to American policy. This novel is a wrenching example of well-intended help without being asked for it, and of the hubris of dealing with another country without understanding its culture.
8. All the King' s Men by Robert Penn Warren

9. 1984 by Georg Orwell

10. Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriette Beecher Stowe

Annotations on 8,9, and 10 to come, as they say.

2. Wednesday night is the final night for the short story class. You will begin by saying:
The short story is an interior fantasy made plausibly real to the point where the reader shares the fantasy and either joins or watches nervously the agenda of one or more of the characters. The more successfully the author has presented the characters and their agendas in motion, the more likely the reader is to think it was his idea, too.

The Writer Magazine wanted an apercu of your disquisition on dialog and you replied with

Dialogue is spoken dramatic information exchanged between characters in a story. It reflects who these people are, what they want, and what they are willing to do to achieve their goals. It may even suggest what these characters will do if they don’t get their way—or if they do and things were not as they expected. In all cases, it is a thermometer, reflecting emotional temperature.

Even when dialogue appears to be conversational, there is the space between what the character is saying at the moment and what the character is actually thinking or feeling—or both.
Readers should be well able to distinguish which character is speaking, not merely from he-said, she-said attributions, but because of the way the dialogue betrays their agendas.

If we want actual speech, we can consult trial transcripts and depositions. If we want dialogue, we go to characters, listening to the words and the spaces between them.

Whether it is spoken aggressively, taken the wrong way, or meant in jest, the goal of dialogue is to produce an emotional response in the reader.


Is that some apercu?

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