I wanted to like this book. After all, it had won a lot of awards, and even had a movie made based on it. More importantly, it tackled a very touchy sI wanted to like this book. After all, it had won a lot of awards, and even had a movie made based on it. More importantly, it tackled a very touchy subject, and I can imagine it would be very empowering to any woman who experienced the terrible events revealed in this book.
Because I was assigned to read this book for a Master’s class in Creative Writing, I based my review less on the subject matter and more on how the story was told. I’m not talking about grammar and the like—I’m referring to the way Anderson conveyed the message.
For most of the book, I felt like I was watching a train wreck. I didn’t find the main character interesting or likeable or relatable. Some may argue, “Of course not! Not after what she had been through!” But that’s the thing. We don’t know what she’s been through for quite some time. We just know that something is terribly wrong in her world—something has changed. I found that I didn’t really care for the character—but I had to keep reading because it was assigned to me, but also because it was like driving by a train wreck, knowing something bad happened, but not able to look away.
For the most part, the adults in the book were pretty extreme in their behavior. Granted, I can imagine some teens may see adults that way, but I had a hard time with the parents, I couldn’t honestly believe all of their reactions. Dysfunctional doesn’t even begin to describe the family. Same with the faculty at the school—aside from perhaps the art teacher.
Minor spoiler here: I found that at the end of the book, the protagonist’s defining moment to be a bit quick of a change based on everything we’d experienced thus far.
I applaud Anderson for being brave enough to write a story that brings to light a dark subject, but I found the format to be gimmicky and the vast majority of the book to be depressing. Lastly, I found the note on the front cover: “The groundbreaking book that changed everything” a bit pretentious. An important book on an important subject? Yes. But did it really change “everything”? ...more
I tried. I really tried to like this book. Yeah, I know--it's a "classic". Still, I didn't like it. Had it not had such a buzz, I wouldn't have finishI tried. I really tried to like this book. Yeah, I know--it's a "classic". Still, I didn't like it. Had it not had such a buzz, I wouldn't have finished it. I kept hoping it would get better. It didn't....more
In my opinion, I feel Annie Dillard is rather pompous. Need proof? One need not look further than the title of her book, "The Writing Life." I recogniIn my opinion, I feel Annie Dillard is rather pompous. Need proof? One need not look further than the title of her book, "The Writing Life." I recognize that Dillard is writing primarily of her experiences, yet she applies them broadly to everyone. Since so much of the book is personal in nature, as is writing to individuals, wouldn’t a better title be "A Writing Life?"
I attended a writer’s conference where Kevin J. Anderson was the keynote speaker. Anderson is an extremely prolific writer. He’s written over 100 books, including over 40 bestsellers. Anderson made the point that in order to be a successful author, you need to be a productive writer—one book a year is not nearly enough.
I remembered Anderson’s comment while reading Annie Dillard’s "The Writing Life", especially her following comment: “Out of a human population on earth of four and a half billion, perhaps twenty people can write a serious book in a year.” (13) That would mean one of three things (or maybe a combination of some of these): First, Anderson is one of the twenty of which Dillard spoke. Second, Anderson doesn’t write serious books. Or third, what Dillard suggests should be taken with a grain of salt.
Personally, I’m opting for the third choice. To be clear, I found several things about her writing really hit home. Granted, the main one was when she quoted someone else, Graham Greene, who made the observation, “the author is not the same man at the end of the book as he was at the beginning.” (14) I also found myself nodding in agreement when Dillard stated, “Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence.” (11)
These statements connected with me because as a writer of five published novels, they rang true. I tell people all the time that writing a book is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Also, I recognize that the books that have taken me the longest to write reflect how I’ve changed over time, and the characters change with me—or maybe it is the other way around.
In my conversations with other authors, there are those who are considered “plotters,” meaning they plan out everything that is going to happen in a book before they write it. I, personally, can’t relate to that. Part of the joy of writing is discovering they story as I go, or as Dillard states, “You go where the path leads.” (3) The term some writers use is “pantser,” meaning writing by the seat of your pants.
I also connected with Dillard when she stressed that revision and editing were part of the writing process—and also the idea that it takes time for a writer to find their “voice.” That’s what I took from her statement, “It is the beginning of a work that the writer throws away.” (5) I, personally, always go back and rewrite the first few thousand words of my book once I’ve finished because I’ve found my voice by then and I can see that what the story started out to be changed, and thus the beginning needs to reflect that.
The biggest revelation I had when reading Dillard’s book was just how hard it is to edit out or completely trash something that I’ve invested a lot of time and effort into that just, well, doesn’t work. As Dillard related in a story, I don’t want to get rid of the work “Because I had to climb a mountain to get it.” (6)
So, what did I struggle with when it came to Dillard’s book? In the margin, I wrote the word “Disagree!” next to her statement, “The written word is weak.” (17) She goes on to try to qualify such a bold statement, but I don’t feel her all-encompassing claim is justified because “Many people prefer life to it.” (17) I take her message here to be a warning that just because you think something you’ve written is outstanding, doesn’t mean everyone will as well. At the same time, books I’ve read have evoked emotions as strong as I’ve felt when living life.
But the biggest issue with which I struggled was how Dillard came across pretty strongly that basically no one will care about what you write. Okay, that sounds a bit harsh, but so is her statement, “Your manuscript, on which you lavish such care, has no needs or wishes; it knows you not. Nor does anyone need your manuscript; everyone needs shoes more.” (11-12) This quote contradicts my personal experience. When I’m in the middle of writing a book, I feel like I’m returning to spend time with a dear friend when I resume writing. In addition, I have had people asking me when my next book is coming out. Sure people need shoes more than they need books, but it isn’t as doom and gloom as Dillard portrays it.
I could argue that due to Dillard’s approach, credibility is lost because she is so wishy-washy. She contradicts herself, or makes sweeping statements that couldn't possibly apply to all writers. Or I could take the “broken clock” approach, meaning she is going to be right at least twice a day.
One of these moments where Dillard and I agreed on the time was when she states, “The sensation of writing a book is the sensation of spinning, blinded by love and daring” (74). She prattles on for a bit with an uplifting analogy of how writing is like wrestling an alligator, and then shares a story of how one of these alligator wrestlers lost and was killed. Inspiring! Yet Dillard and I come together again when she describes how in the process of writing, wonderful ideas can come to you. “If it were a baseball, you would hit it out of the park. It is that one pitch in a thousand you see in slow motion (75).” When I was younger, I played baseball. To this day, I remember a specific moment when I experienced exactly what Dillard describes. I recall the rotation of the ball as it came out of the pitcher’s hand. My body seemed to react on its own as I watched my bat connect with the ball creating a satisfying crack. I rounded the bases, feeling elated at hitting a home run.
Later in my life, I was in the middle of writing my fourth novel. I had written myself in a corner—creating a situation that seemed impossible for the characters to overcome. And then, as I was writing a scene, the answer came to me. It was beautiful. It was elegant. It was perfect. Just like the pitch I’d hit over the fence.
One thing I can attest to is that my best ideas come to me while I’m in the act of writing. Dillard encourages writers not to ignore these moments of inspiration or save them for later projects. To the point of holding onto an idea for a later work she writes, “Something more will arise for later, something better” (78-79).
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out where my experiences and those Dillard differ. She claims basically writing is writing, regardless of the type of writing you do. Specifically, she states, “It is no less difficult to write sentences in a recipe than sentences in Moby-Dick” (71). Horse hockey. Personally, I find writing a ten page research paper for an English class much more difficult than a 100,000 novel. All writing is not the same.
Yet the biggest point where Dillard and I disagree, at least in chapter five, is when she once again makes a bold, all-encompassing claim: “The writer studies literature, not the world” (68). Phhhhhhhhhhh. She tries to back-peddle by pointing out people live in the world therefore, “he cannot miss it” (68). (Side note: she switches between using the pronoun “he” and “she” when referring to people in general for no apparent reason.) While I agree that a writer should study other writers, it is the study of the world around me which drives my desire to write. Often my writing is a way of me trying to understand the world, and perhaps, just perhaps, help other people on their journeys as well. Yes, I read other writers and take classes to learn how to better express my ideas into words, yet that doesn’t (and I would say shouldn’t) have to be a writer’s sole focus. A writer has to write about something. Excluding a study of the world around us and what makes people tick in lieu of focusing only on literature could create some rather disjointed and random writing; perhaps even a book like Dillard’s "The Writing Life." ...more
I had to read this book for one of my Master's in Creative Writing class. I found the thematic elements of self-identity versus the desire to fit intoI had to read this book for one of my Master's in Creative Writing class. I found the thematic elements of self-identity versus the desire to fit into a larger group very well done.
It also gave me a wider view of the current Native American culture.
I felt there were parts that were not appropriate for younger readers--and frankly added nothing to the story. That's what kept the book from getting 5 stars from me....more
The book was a terrifying look of slavery life told in a non-conventional manner. I had a little trouble suspending my disbelief on the basic concept-The book was a terrifying look of slavery life told in a non-conventional manner. I had a little trouble suspending my disbelief on the basic concept--which is never explained. Certainly it is a personal preference, but because I couldn't buy into the major events, I had a hard time engrossing myself in the other elements.
It is well written and has my respect because the author dared to break tradition with her subject matter....more
**spoiler alert** Kicking Against The Pricks Hannah, a fifteen-year-old from New Mexico explains why she doesn’t like to read teen novels. She said, “**spoiler alert** Kicking Against The Pricks Hannah, a fifteen-year-old from New Mexico explains why she doesn’t like to read teen novels. She said, “All teen books seem to be the same to me. They all have similar themes and plots.” (17) This quote is taken from K. L. Going’s book Writing and Selling the YA Novel. When considering what makes a novel influential or exemplary, it makes sense that it isn’t enough to write what every other author is writing—there needs to be something different about a book that makes it stand out among its peers. With this in mind, I deliberated over the novel The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier and why some would consider it to be influential and possibly exemplary. My conclusion was that Cormier elected to write a novel that purposefully went against the grain of young adult novels in that the moral of the story conflicts with the notion that young adult novels should be tools to teach young readers a positive life lesson. Instead, Cormier creates a tale of the negative consequences of “disturbing the universe.” Written in 1974, The Chocolate War is set in a private Catholic high school. A secret society run by students called The Vigils is nothing but a glorified gang whose members initiate acts of defiance and disturbance. The book is told in third person omniscient—something not often seen in today’s young adult novels. Using this tool, Cormier uses several primary characters to tell his story: Jerry Renault, a freshman who wants to be quarterback on the school’s football team. Archie Costello, an upperclassman who is in charge of inventing and assigning the various tasks given by The Vigils. Brother Leon, the Assistant Headmaster who takes over when the Headmaster becomes ill. Brother Leon decides that a school fund raiser of selling twenty thousand boxes of chocolates (double the number from the previous year) is needed to keep the school afloat financially—or so he claims. Leon is aware of The Vigils and coerces Archie to get behind the sale. Archie agrees, yet in his malevolent manner assigns Jerry the task of refusing to sell the chocolates—much to Brother Leon’s vexation. Jerry’s assignment for refusal is for only ten days, but he refuses to sell the chocolates even after the ten days had passed. Jerry is possibly inspired by a poster with a saying from T. S. Elliot which hangs in his locker that asks the question, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” Jerry’s actions inspire other students not to sell the chocolates, which infuriates Leon. The assistant headmaster then forces Archie to make the selling of chocolates the “popular” thing to do. In the end, all the chocolates are sold, except for Jerry’s quota. Archie gives Jerry a chance at redemption in participating in a fight against another student, Emile, who Archie is blackmailing, in front of the rest of the student body. One twist that Cormier adds is a counter balance to the Vigil’s assignments: a box with marbles in it, five white and one black. When Archie gives an assignment, he blindly selects a marble from the box. If it is black, he has to do the assignment himself. For the fight between Jerry and Emile, Archie pulls out a white marble, twice, and therefore doesn’t have to fight. Jerry gets beat up and sent to the hospital, Archie isn’t held responsible for his actions, and Brother Leon basically gets all the chocolates sold. The ending of the book is really the starting point of why this book is considered influential. Other books have tackled the notion of pseudo gangs, like Hinton’s The Outsiders, but Cormier’s story ends in a surprising, and tragic, manner. Good doesn’t triumph over evil. The “hero” in Jerry learns the lesson that he should just go along with everyone else instead of standing up for what he believes in. The “evil” headmaster isn’t punished for the way he intimidates students into selling a questionable amount of chocolates. Justice isn’t served with Archie pulling a black marble from the box before the fight. All of these elements differ from the norm, and therefore the expectation of the reader. In K. L. Going’s book Writing and Selling the YA Novel, she writes, “By the 1970’s books for teens had taken on a new realism that reflected the socials issues at the time.” (26) Cormier infers this when Jerry is confronted by a hippie. The hippie notices Jerry in his school uniform of a shirt and tie and tells him, “Square boy. Middle aged and fourteen, fifteen. Already caught in the routine. Wow.” (20) This notion of living a middle aged life at a young age is underlined with the daily ritual where Brother Leon calls out student’s names and wants a report on the number of boxes of chocolates they sold. It is not unlike many sales positions where an employee’s worth is based solely on his sales results. In order to avoid ridicule while at the same time seeking praise, some of the students turned to unethical behaviors. During one of the role calls, Leon notes that a student named Hartnett sold fifteen boxes, which he hadn’t. “It was ridiculous, of course, because Hartnett hadn’t sold any chocolates at all.” (202) Hartnett doesn’t object, because the consequences of admitting he didn’t actually sell the chocolates he deemed as worse than lying about the sales. The message Cormier sends is clear: go along with what the people in power tell you to do—don’t question it or fight against it, or you will lose. It seems that even some of the characters in his book can’t believe this notion, as when a boy named Obie tells Archie, “Someday, Archie, you’ll get yours.” (263) But Cormier dismisses this notion when he writes, “…but the words were automatic, Archie was always one step ahead.”(263) A possible meaning? If you are clever enough, you won’t have to deal with the consequences of your actions. In many ways, Cormier advocates the notion of “might makes right” and “the ends justifies the means”—ethical subjects debated for centuries. He uses the craft of third person omniscient to reinforce this by letting the reader inside the head of many different people, each coming to the same conclusion: there’s no use fighting against the tide. One of the characters, Goober, initially fights against the notion of selling the chocolate, but caves in by telling Leon he would sell them. He thinks, “Fifty boxes was a lot of chocolates but he was glad to say yes and get out of the spotlight.” (82) This concept challenges not only traditional young adult literature, but basic storytelling going back as far as Aesop’s fables where each story had a moral, something to be learned to better the person or the world. Cormier openly defies that notion, as well as using elements in The Chocolate War that were controversial; specifically, some subject matter and his portrayal of females. One of the major plot points involves Archie pretending he has a picture of Emile masturbating which Archie uses for blackmail. Later, Archie is trying to convince Jerry that what The Vigils are doing isn’t personal. To prove this point, Archie asks another student named Johnson, “How many times do you jack off every day?” (170) Cormier acknowledges the act of masturbation has one student, Emile, ashamed enough to force him to do what Archie wants, yet he includes references to the act casually in a forum where many of his readers may have the same feelings as Emile. There aren’t any major female characters in this book, of which to speak, but when they are mentioned, they are usually noted as objects for the boys to lust after—and it’s portrayed as a natural, accepted behavior. “Watching girls and devouring them with your eyes—rape by eyeball—was something you did automatically.” (141) This line was proceeded when one of the boys, Richy Rondell is described as “watching a girl approach. Fantastic looking. Tight sweater, clinging, low-slung jeans. Jesus.” (140) In both the cases of masturbation and female objectification, Cormier focuses his attention on the base needs of human behavior. In fact, much of his book does the same, using the “seven deadly sins” (wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony) as normal, and acceptable behavior—these behaviors are the way of the universe, and anyone who disturbs it will fail. It is this basic, tragic, and horrific view point of mankind which makes The Chocolate War stand out among other books of its time. Cormier manipulates the reader to thinking the end will be as many Christians believe: living good now—fighting and resisting the seven deadly sins—will result in a heavenly reward. Instead, he portrays the opposite. It is an irony considering the setting is a Catholic school. In some ways, The Chocolate War paved the way for books to challenge the status quo—to do something different than anyone else—and therefore cements itself as a trailblazer of sorts. Yet, upon reviewing the manner in which this was done, whether the book in and of itself is exemplary is questionable. Influential? Certainly. The fact that it is a book recommended to read for a Master’s level class almost 40 years after it was first published is a showing of its influence. Yet, the book has been put on challenged and banned lists for years. It seems because Cormier kicked too hard against the pricks, his novel comes across as purposefully negative—there isn’t a redeeming moment nor is there any indication that any of the students will have a positive consequence for making a morally right choice. Some people find this objectionable. April, age not given, from New Mexico gives this quote in Going’s book, “My biggest pet peeve is that authors don’t have many positive things to say about teenagers. Usually they will write about the things teens do wrong, instead of the positive things teens do.” (146) Melody, age seventeen, from Michigan notes about one of her favorite characters, “I loved her because she stood up for what she believed in and did what she thought was right. She didn’t let the pack change her mind.” (69) This is evidenced further when the movie version was made based on the book. In the end scene, Archie pulls out a black marble and justice is somewhat served when he is forced to fight Jerry. Jerry goes on to win the fight, instead of losing it. Archie also loses his standing in The Vigils as Obie takes over as The Assigner. The ending was no doubt altered to have more of an uplifting, “Hollywood” ending—making it more appealing to the masses. While Cormier’s book resonated with some people for his unapologetic story in The Chocolate War, there is a reason why the majority of written novels have a so-called happy ending, or at the very least a moral. Teens, as well as people in general, need something to hope for—that pain now will mean gain later. Cormier’s book shuns this notion, which certainly isn’t the same as every other novel out there, but neither does it make it exemplary.
Word count: 1,872
Works Cited Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War. Dell Laurel Leaf Books, 1974. 263 pages. Print. Going, K. L. Writing and Selling the YA Novel. Writer’s Digest Books, 2008. 214 pages. Print. ...more
Another book I had to read for my Master's in Creative Writing degree. I feel the book is fresh in its honest approach of how a young adult would tellAnother book I had to read for my Master's in Creative Writing degree. I feel the book is fresh in its honest approach of how a young adult would tell a story, compared how an adult would write a cautionary tale to youth.
It's a bit dated, after all it was written in 1968.
Don't plan on cheering for the anti-heroes or hoping for a happy ending. This isn't a spoiler because everything is revealed at the start of the book....more