Archive for March, 2013

Top o’ the morning, Erin go bragh, and may the road rise to meet you!  For our 50th post, we prepared a special St. Patrick’s Day Literary Quiz, celebrating Irish (or Irish-American) writers and their works.  We came up with seventeen questions (in honor of March 17th), and just so you know:  some are tougher than the blarney stone, and leave just as bad a taste in your mouth!  Answers follow…

irish writers

  1. What is the last story in James Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners?
  2. From which William Butler Yeats poem did Chinua Achebe borrow the title Things Fall Apart?
  3. Which Irish-born writer is famous for classic “chick-lit” novels such as Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married, Watermelon, Sushi for Beginners, and This Charming Man?
  4. What is the name of Jonathan Swift’s well-known satirical essay, in which he advises the Irish to sell their children for food in order to relieve the problems of famine and poverty in Ireland?
  5. He may not have won an EGOT (and for all non-30 Rock fans out there, that stands for Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony), but Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw is the only person to have won a Nobel Prize for Literature AND an Oscar.  For what film did Shaw win the Oscar?
  6. In Samuel Becket’s famous play, who are the two main characters who are waiting for Godot?
  7. How many Pulitzer prizes did Irish-American playwright Eugene O’Neill win?
  8. Which Seamus Heaney poem begins, “Late August, given heavy rain and sun/ For a full week, the blackberries would ripen”?
  9. Which best-selling Irish writer, whose sixteen novels include Glass Lake, Tara Road, and Circle of Friends, died last summer, on July 30, 2012?
  10. What is the title of Irish playwright Oscar Wilde’s only novel?
  11. Stephanie Meyer owes a blood debt to this nineteenth-century Irish-born writer, whose Dracula is the prototypical vampire novel. Who is this author?
  12. Which Irish writer was famous for his short stories, including “The Majesty of the Law,” “The Drunkard” and “My Oedipus Complex”?
  13.  I am an importance voice in the literature of the American South.    My stories (including “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find”) have influenced rock-and-roll demigods Bruce Springsteen (who allegedly read my stories while writing the album Nebraska) and Bono, of the Irish supergroup U2; in fact, Bono alludes to my story “The Enduring Chill” in the lyrics of the song “One Tree Hill.”  And while I was not born in Ireland, I do have Irish ancestry and an Irish last-name. Who am I?
  14.  The “S” in “C.S. Lewis” stands for “Staples.”  What does the “C” stand for?  (And yes, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia was born in Belfast, Ireland.)
  15.  Which Irish college houses the Book of Kells, an ornately decorated rendering of the Four Gospels, dating back to the Middle Ages?
  16. What is Gulliver’s first name in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels?
  17. Who is Angela in Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes?


What is “Bloomsday”—the date on which James Joyce’s Ulysses is set?  (a) July 2, 1902 (b) June 12, 1903 (c) June 16, 1904, or (d) July 16, 1905


  1. “The Dead”
  2. “The Second Coming” (The line is, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”)
  3. Marian Keyes
  4. “A Modest Proposal”
  5. Pygmalion (1938).  Shaw also wrote the play on which the film is based.
  6. Vladimir and Estragon
  7. Four, for Beyond the Horizon (1920), Anna Christie (1922), Strange Interlude (1928), and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1957).
  8. “Blackberry Picking”
  9. Maeve Binchy
  10. The Picture of Dorian Gray
  11. Bram Stoker (Incidentally, his actually first name is “Abraham.”)
  12. Frank O’Connor
  13. Flannery O’Connor
  14. Clive
  15. Trinity College
  16. Lemuel
  17. Angela is the author’s mother, who is a native of Limerick, Ireland.  Frank McCourt himself was born in New York, but eventually his family moved to Limerick.

Tie-Breaker:  (c) June 16, 1904

How’d You Do?

15-17 Correct: Pot o’ Gold!

11-14 Correct: Shamrock-star!

6-10 Correct: Lucky Guesser

2-5 Correct: Green around the Gills

0-1 Correct: Potato Famine


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“I know what she means. Writing, painting, singing—it cannot stop everything. Cannot halt death in its tracks. But perhaps it can make the pause between death’s footsteps sound and look and feel beautiful, can make the space of waiting a place where you can linger without as much fear. For we are all walking each other to our deaths, and the journey there between footsteps makes up our lives.”
(Reached, Ally Condie)

Last week I finished Reached, the final book in Ally Condie’s YA dystopian trilogy beginning with Matched and Crossed. This passage from the final pages of her story confirms what I believed from the beginning: Condie has written a 1,245-page love letter to the arts. And through all the drama and romance, she beautifully depicts the ways in which writing, painting, and music can uplift, inspire, and transform.

You see this in a place called The Gallery, where members of the Society gather to share the things they’ve created: pictures, poems, fashion, sculptures. Some sing, while others learn to write. The novel’s protagonist, Cassia, reflects on what makes this place so special and powerful: “I like it best when I hear the whispers of those who are here for the first time, who stand before the wall with their hands over their mouths and tears in their eyes. Though I could be wrong, I think many of them feel as I do whenever I come here. I am not alone.”

For we are all walking each other to our deaths, and the journey there between footsteps makes up our lives.

We tend to mark time by the major events in our lives – birthdays, weddings, graduations, the birth of our children. But when you add those up, the number is small. I’ve had 43 birthdays (counting the actual day of my birth), one wedding (let’s hope it stays that way!), three graduations (I’m not counting elementary school), and one experience of childbirth (twins… two for the price of one!)

Compare that number—48—to the total number of hours I’ve spent on this earth: 376,680. (I’ll pause for a minute while you go get your calculator and tally up your hours!) But more importantly, these hours are made up of moment

Relaxing with a really good cup of tea,
Meeting a friend for lunch
Throwing snowballs after a blizzard
Crying tears of shared sorrow
Laughing so hard your stomach hurts
Soaking in the beauty of a sunset

No matter how ordinary they may seem, every moment “between footsteps” makes up our journey and makes our journey worthwhile. That’s what Condie means by “the space of waiting.” And the question she so movingly poses in these final passages of Reached is: how will we fill that space?

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Wizard of OzMake no mistake: he—or she—had a brain, all right.

Unlike a certain singing scarecrow, whoever initially found the parallels between Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the film The Wizard of Oz definitely did not have a head full o’ stuffing.  Only an intellectual wizard, after all, could notice that “The Great Gig in the Sky” plays when Dorothy’s house flies in the tornado.  Or that the cash register sound at the start of “Money” is synchronized to the exact moment the movie turns from black-and-white to Technicolor.  Or that Dorothy’s listening for the Tin Man’s heart coincides with the sound of a heartbeat on the album.

It’s all very fascinating.  Provocative.  And completely impossible.  I mean, come on: are we really supposed to believe the guys from Pink Floyd were watching Wizard of Oz while recording the album? Not likely.

This isn’t a knock on the anonymous wizard (or wizards) who originally noticed the similarities.  Far from it: making these connections is a creative act in itself.  And does it matter whether or not Pink Floyd intended to connect its album to Wizard of Oz?  I don’t see why it should.  When an author puts something out into the world, he or she gives up a degree of control.   The audience takes it from there.

Of course, I can’t give props to the folks interpreting the text without acknowledging the greatness of the text itself.  If The Wizard of Oz wasn’t so rich, so paradoxical, so chock full of themes and iconic characters, could those anonymous folks have made so many connections?

That’s not to take anything away from Dark Side of the Moon, which is a trippily complicated text in itself.  I’m just saying that if you take a text as complex as Wizard of Oz and juxtapose it with an equally complex text (such as Dark Side of the Moon, or hundreds of other texts), you’re bound to find some connections.

I actually have an example of my own, regarding the similarities between The Wizard of Oz and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.  In case you never read The Sound and the Fury (or, as in my case, you read it but had pretty much had no earthly idea what was going on), the novel focuses on a promiscuous Southern woman named Caddy Compson and her three brothers: Benjy, who is mentally handicapped; Quentin, whose incestuous obsession with Caddy contributes to his suicide; and Jason, who is… just mean.  (There is also a plot in there, apparently… but I don’t think I was ever smart enough to figure it out.)

I took a Faulkner seminar in college, and in one of my papers, I made the case (only half-jokingly) that Faulkner borrowed liberally from L. Frank Baum’s original Wizard of Oz novel (published in 1900) for The Sound and the Fury (published in 1929). Caddy, Faulkner’s centerpiece character, is obviously Dorothy; Benjy matches up the brainless Scarecrow; Quentin—or Quen-Tin—is Tin Man; and Jason, the gruff yet easily frightened “king” of the Compson household, is the Cowardly Lion.

I went on to talk about how both texts involve the idea of dreams vs. reality, with Benjy’s stream-of-consciousness narration being particularly dream-like, in that he tends to collapse past and present events into one.  Admiitedly, a bit of a stretch.

Years later, as a high school teacher, I came up with a better Oz-connection; this time, I didn’t connect Oz to a text but to American history.  On some level, I was inspired by Henry Littlefield’s “The Wizard of Oz: A Parable on Populism,” which spelled out the allegorical aspects of Baum’s novel: The Scarecrow is the supposedly ignorant American farmer; the Tin-Man is the industrial worker who toils so hard for so long, he actually becomes a machine himself; the Cowardly Lion is (believe it or not) William Jennings Bryan; the Wizard is any president who doesn’t have the power to give the people what they need; and Dorothy is Everyman (or Everywoman), trying to muddle his/ her way through.

Now… did Baum intend any of this?  Henry Littlefield seems to think so, and he makes an extremely compelling case why. But again, does Baum’s intention even matter?  Littlefield’s reading is an interesting intellectual exercise, one that gives us a new way of looking at a classic text.  That’s enough for me. (I should note: Littlefield was also a high school teacher… just saying.)

My interpretation goes in a different direction than Littlefield’s.   Most significantly, I’m interpreting the 1939 film version, not the novel.  I start with the song “Over the Rainbow,” the lyrics of which were written by a gentleman named Yip Harberg.  A businessman who lost everything in the Great Depression, Harberg went to Hollywood and became a songwriter.   His work on Wizard of Oz won him an Academy Award.  Talk about an American success story (which is sort of curious to say, since he was a committed socialist).

Now, two things you need to know about “Over the Rainbow.”  First: the rainbow symbol does not appear in Baum’s novel; it was used in the film to help reinforce the innovative use of Technicolor.  (That’s why they changed Dorothy’s magic slippers, silver in the book, to ruby red.)  Secondly: Yip Harberg is the son of Russian immigrants, who emigrated to the United States before Harberg was born.

Though not an immigrant himself, is it possible that Harberg was telling the story of his immigrant parents in the song “Over the Rainbow”?  Check out some of the lyrics:

* “There’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby”…
* “Dreams that you dare to dream really do come true”…
* “Where troubles melt like lemondrops”…

Aren’t those exactly—I mean, EXACTLY—the kinds of things that someone a hundred years ago, living in Eastern Europe, would say about America?

With that as a foundation, I suggest that the entire 1939 Wizard of Oz film can be seen as an allegory for the American immigrant experience of the early 20th century.   The black-and-white Kansas portion represents their life back home, where they wistfully think about this mythical new world, America—a place where the streets are literally paved with gold. (That’s the yellow brick road.)  Filled with this hope that their daring dreams really will come true, they arrive at the new country, draped in their new home’s colors. (Dorothy, remembers, wears a blue and white dress and ruby-red shoes.)

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for many of these immigrants to realize that this wonderful new place is not what it’s cracked up to be; like the Wizard itself, the new world is an illusion.  And soon, these same wide-eyed immigrants, who risked everything to come to America, face a hard truth: “There’s no place like home.”

Granted, the interpretation needs some work.  I admittedly have some holes to fill. (Who’s the Scarecrow?  What about the Flying Monkeys?)   But it does offer a new perspective, doesn’t it, on a century-old tale?

To me, it all comes back to the text, L. Frank Baum’s original vision.  What started in 1900 as merely America’s greatest fairy tale has had so many lives, so many incarnations—from the 1939 film to The Wiz in the 1970s to Wicked in the 2000s and now to the new film, Oz, The Great and Powerful.  Why has it had such a long shelf-life?

Answer: because Baum is not like his wizard.  He’s the real deal.  He had brains and heart and courage. His vision was rich and deep, great and powerful.  And the lesson all writers can learn from him, I think, is this: the more you put into a text, the more someone else can get out of it.

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