Its always a bit of a challenge to include all 5 senses in my writing. Personally, I am always heavy on sight and slacking in taste, scent, and sound. Even with that knowledge of myself, the senses still slip my mind when I’m writing.
All the Light We Cannot See has opened my ears in a way no other fiction has. One of the main characters is deaf, forcing the author, Anthony Doerr, to rely on the other senses for description. Instead of physical features to describe a character, Doerr describes the quality of their voice or their typical scent.
Read a few quotes from the book and then challenge yourself with the writing prompts below!
“Madame Ruelle, the baker’s wife–a pretty-voiced woman who smells mostly of yeast but also sometimes of face powder or the sweet perfume of sliced apples–…”
“They smell of stale bread, of stuffy living rooms crammed with dark titanic Breton furnishings.”
“The cross a seething thoroughfare, then go up an alley that smells like a muddy ditch.”
“Always there is the muted rattling of her father’s tools inside his rucksack and the distant and incessant honking of automobile horns.”
“From outside comes a light tinkling, fragments of glass, perhaps, falling into the streets. It sounds both beautiful and strange, as though gemstones were raining from the sky.”
“Marie-Laure hears the fsst of her father lighting another match.”
2) Write a few sentences including as many senses as possible. Sight. Sound. Smell. Touch. Taste.
With an ice cold glass of bitter lemonade freezing my hand, I close my eyes, sink into the cushioned lawn chair, and smell my neighbor’s freshly-washed bedsheets that look like ghosts unafraid of the sun.
I scrape the heels of my once-white tennis shoes along the pavement, sending echoes of clattering pebbles up and down the dark, rancid alley.
The musty closet smell that lingered around her like smoke didn’t help her olive-corduroy-and-faded-t-shirt look that alone made me want to gag on my first bite of grilled cheese.
As piano music drifted into the room from somewhere far, far away, he took in the shine of her lipgloss that tasted like cheery pie, the familiar scent of a perfume he would never know the name of, and ran his finger along the thin scar on her wrist.
2) Create a character description using NO visuals.
I kept my eyes focused on the book in my lap as I heard the whisper of swishing pant legs and the quiet crunch of shoes on gravel approaching. My bench gave a gentle jerk as the stranger sat on the bench back to back with mine. Deep, soft grunts accompanied the thud of a dropped bag on the ground and the sinking into the bench. The stench that followed sent a lump into my throat that I forced back down with a swallow. I held my breath until I was able to open my mouth again, refusing to breath through my nose. When I was in high school, my dad bought brussels sprouts in attempt to add variety to our diet; they sat in the back of the fridge for weeks until my friends and I decided to fill a pizza box with the most disgusting things we could find and leave it on a friends doorstep as we rang their bell and ran. The smell of the rotten brussels sprouts and the green face of my friend as she opened the pizza box has never left my mind. I have never smelled anything as horrid as those rotten brussels sprouts but the stranger who sat on the bench behind me came in a close second. As I continued to read my book, the smell became palpable; I began to breath through my nose again because the stench began settling on my tongue with a texture like honey. As the sun beat down on our shoulders, the stranger began to snore. Quick, growling snores that came irregularly and without warning. I slipped my book into my canvas bag and rose from the bench, trying and failing not to look over my shoulder as I walked away.
I read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury for the first time in middle school. I remembered it had a futuristic story and big meaning. Other than that, I didn’t remember much so I decided it was time to read it again. Especially after I picked it up at a book sale for $1. :)
Setting novels in the future takes a lot of creativity but also a lot of knowledge. A great futuristic setting will be believable, with specific or vague science/theory to back up the created reality. Ray Bradbury certainly had the vision in 1953 when he published Fahrenheit 451.
Wall-sized, interactive TVs. Fireproof homes. Robot dogs. And of course, a society that limits the public’s ability to think freely.
Thankfully our society hasn’t stooped to book burning yet, but some of his imaginative predictions are not so far off.
I remember Fahrenheit 451 having a strong affect on me in middle school. Growing up in a country where free speech is encourage at every corner and individuality is praised, it was strange to think of a world without those things. Thankfully, the magic of books helps us think outside our tiny little worlds.
Rereading the novel now, I was not impressed. I thought it lacked substance, emotion, and depth.
2.5 stars. Unfortunately, I found a lot of the characters to be dull. The pacing was inconsistent, slow and first then too fast at the peak of the action. That being said, I still believe this is an excellent book for middle age readers. It will open their eyes to a world different than their own without too much violence or depression. The reading level is also perfect for the middle school kid.
Did you know Fahrenheit 451 was originally published in a shorter version and titled The Fireman?!
Okay, okay, so a 15-year-old Indian boy didn’t actually survive on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific for 227 days with a full-grown tiger but Yann Martel certainly makes it feel that way. Journey. Expedition. Adventure. None of these words quite capture the magic felt while cruising the Pacific’s current with Pi Patel, a zoo-keeper’s son who practices not one, not two, but three religions.
Pi Patel’s father decides to sell off the the remains of his zoo and move his family to Canada. As the Patel’s are crossing the Pacific with dozens of animals being sold to America zoos, their ship unexplainably sinks. Pi safetly gets to a lifeboat, only to find he shares it with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a Bengal tiger. Every one of the next 227 days will threaten Pi’s life.
Although the book is often referred to as “fantasy adventure” or “magic realism”, Life of Pi fights those bindings of genre. This is a story of love, faith, companionship, humanity, and nature. Its a story about believing what you cannot see, believing exactly that which is hard to believe. Readers firmly planted in reality may have a hard time enjoying this novel. But to those who enjoy opening their mind to fiction will cherish it, as I certainly do.
***Check out my previous post for some great Life of Pi Quotes!
Life of Pi was included on Arts.Mic’s list of 11 Twenty-First Century Books Our Kids Will Be Taught in School.
Martel structures the novel to encourage the story’s reality. It begins by the author, Martel, having a chance encounter with an old man who tells him about a story that will “make him believe in God.” After the old man tells the narrator about Pi’s story, he seeks him out and “interviews” Pi as an adult in order to write his story.
The middle and majority of the book is written in Pi’s first person perspective as he struggles to survive with a tiger on a lifeboat in the vast Pacific.
SPOILER AHEAD: The end of the novel also ends with an interview; Pi being interviewed by two Japanese men investigating the sinking of the ship. This creates the full circle plot as well as
I don’t like to talk about theme in my book reviews because I think theme too often shrinks the imagination of the reader. To put a story in a neat, themed box (Example: The Harry Potter series is about how love conquers evil.) is too simple. Every novel has layers of meaning and every reader should be able to interpret it how they see fit.
So, without cramming Life of Pi‘s theme into a single word or phrase, it is about… Humanity. Peace. Storytelling. Faith. And how we interprets these things. What we choose to believe and how we push away the improbable as impossible. Every reader should have fun deciphering these themes for themselves. You may not discover the same things I did in this book, but I doubt you will come away empty handed.
The author of Life of Pi, Yann Martel, said the following was part of his inspiration for the story:
“The idea that life is an interpretation, that between us and reality lies our imagination, which shapes our vision of reality…” – Yann Martel in a Q&A on ABCnews.com
Life of Pi will likely make my list of favorite books read in 2015. The inspiration and humanity this novel exposes feels as real to me as the keyboard I’m typing on.
This entire novel is a good quote but here are a few I picked out that specifically pleased me. Enjoy!
“I wish I could convey the perfection of a seal slipping into water or a spider monkey swinging from point to point or a lion merely turning its head. But language founders in such seas. Better to picture it in your head if you want to feel it.”
“When you’ve suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling.”
“…Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims.”
“Ten thousand trumpets and twenty thousand drums could not have made as much noise as that bolt of lightning; it was positively deafening.”
“I cannot think of a better way to spread the faith [than leaving sacred writings like the Bible where weary travelers might rest their heads]. No thundering from a pulpit, no condemnation from bad churches, no peer pressure, just a book of scripture quietly waiting to say hello, as gentle and powerful as a little girl’s kiss on your cheek.”
“It was as unbelievable as the moon catching fire.”
“At moments of wonder, it is easy to avoid small thinking, to entertain thoughts that span the universe, that capture both thunder and tinkle, thick and thin, the near and the far.”
“There were many seas. The sea roared like a tiger. The sea whispered in your ear like a friend telling you secrets. The sea clinked like small change in a pocket. The sea thundered like avalanches. The sea hissed like sandpaper working on wood. The sea sounded like someone vomiting. The sea was dead silent.”
“Life on a lifeboat isn’t much of a life. It is like an end game in chess, a game with few pieces. The elements couldn’t be more simple, nor the stakes higher.”
“If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams.” -from the Author’s Note
Even to the most die-hard sic-fi/fantasy/mystery/genre-loving readers and writers, its necessary to occasionally read a novel that is simply real. Real characters, in a real setting, dealing with real life issues. If you can convey the truth of human nature with crisp writing and clear intuition, the plot doesn’t matter, it will be a great story! These real stories (especially if they’re fictional) are the ones that nurture the soul in a way no genre fiction can.
Driftless by David Rhodes nurtured my soul.
Driftless dives into the lives of several characters, their stories interweaving like any small-town neighbors’ would. Rhodes builds each story with quick glimpses, each chapter jumping into the perspective of another character. We view the life of a lonely cripple who bets it all in hopes of finding new life; a mourning farmer who finds new love; a female priest that experiences the truth of the world; and my favorite story, a young family who finds themselves in the middle of a giant milk corporation scandal. Weaved into these stories are dog fights, car chases, deadly snow storms, and musical adventures. Although the story is largely philosophical and descriptive, these short bursts of adrenaline offer a great balance.
Nothing if not beautiful, the writing is descriptive and meditative. Lengthy at times but also heartfelt and comforting. Here are a few glimpses into that beauty…
Like primeval cathedral bells his mother’s voice called…
The color of the [cougar] impressed him…this kind of bright black. It drew all other colors to it, like water to a drain. The animal possessed a darkness even beyond black, with two glowing eyes as yellow as stars.
Gail, in her red coat, and surrounded by a sea of flowers, looked like a cardinal in a spring apple tree.
For more, check out my previous blog, The Outstanding Similes and Metaphors of David Rhodes.
Many of the short chapters in Driftless hold their own miniature but full stories. A few sections could be read out of context and still satisfy a reader. Its a beautiful thing that takes a talented writer. These stories help the reader feel fulfilled even when the long, slow plot seems exhausting at times.
I strongly considered 5 stars but the slow pace of the novel made me drop. If I was the editor I wouldn’t cut a single chapter, but still, the slow pace was a bit of drawback.
Presented by EpicReads! These are just my favorites, click on the link above for more!
A heartfelt tale that brings its readers real Dominican-American culture and history, as well as fictional struggles of an overweight nerd that feel just as real. Junot Díaz’s first novel mixes magic realism, comics, and sex-obssessed young men into the all-so-important family history of our main character, Oscar. Díaz’s novel questions how our family history molds our present as well as what is means to be an American. And in Oscar’s case, the two questions are endlessly interwoven.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has been named the best novel of the 21st Century so far by The Guardian and was listed as one of 11 21st Century Books Our Kids Will Read in School.
Narrator – Far from the story, Yet close at heart
I love the conflicting personality of the narrator. He is a typical, cocky, sex-driven college kid who tries and fails to hold a relationship with Oscar’s sister. Yet, he sees something in Oscar, something he can’t properly explain, that makes him befriend Oscar, when others seems disgusted by him.
The narrator, Yunior, is also an outsider with a distant yet curious view of the family. Most of the book is written in a “3rd person” perspective because Yunior was not present for most of the action. The parts he is present for are clear 1st person perspective. A tricky balance that Díaz pulls off well. Still, like any 1st person narrator, the reliability comes into question.
Junot Díaz balances the big and small, the love and hate, the real and magical, the American and Dominican with intricate precision. We view stories of many different time periods, in drastically different settings, and hear from different voices.
“It is Mr. Díaz’s achievement in this galvanic novel that he’s fashioned both a big picture window that opens out on the sorrows of Dominican history, and a small, intimate window that reveals one family’s life and loves.” – New York Times Book Review
A truly wondrous book that I recommend to all and I fully support teaching this book in schools. Why didn’t I give it five stars? Because it just failed to pull at my heartstrings. I was unable to relate to the characters, their struggles, the setting, therefore I didn’t get emotionally attached to this book.
The Story of Owen follows a teenage boy following his family tradition of slaying dragons. Set in a modern world, where dragons feed on carbon emissions, E. K. Johnston weaves the history of dragons into the history we read in our textbooks today.
Surrounded by normal high school kids, Owen finds himself somewhere between being an outcast and a celebrity. The narrator of the story, Sibohan, is Owen’s best friend and a musical prodigy. Together the duo, along with Owen’s famous family, wants to change the way the world views dragon slaying.
Things That Worked For Me:
- History – Johnston incorporates a lot of history (real and fictional) into the story. This is a great choice by the publisher, who focuses on educational-based children’s books. The history, although long-winded at times, was interesting and appropriate for the story. Johnston does a great job of weaving the story’s fictional history into the history we believe in our world. Its a great way to sneak a little history lesson into your child’s fun reading!
- Another creative twist of real life and fiction is the fact that these dragons feed on carbon emissions. We know its a danger in our world, but image if every time you drove a car or worked at a factory, you had a serious chance of being attacked by a fire-breathing dragon.
- Rural Canadian setting – The setting worked well for the story, keeping the reader grounded to reality in an unrealistic world. Growing up in rural Minnesota, the setting was familiar to me but also differed in interesting ways.
- Music, Dragons, History – What a mix!? The narrator is a musical prodigy and her best friend is a dragon slayer…where else will you find a duo quite like that!?
- Characters – Johnston incorporated a good mix of characters. Some are quiet and reserved, others are loud and outgoing. Some are athletic, others musical. Some past their prime, others growing into it.
- Dragons in a Modern World – Just plain cool.
Things That Didn’t Work For Me:
- History – Ironically the thing I liked most about the book (the interesting mix of real and imagined history) is also my least favorite. The history lessons, with a great mix of real and fictional, made my head feel like a bong getting hit over and over and over again. Especially in a book aimed for children and young adults, the story needs to move quick; the author can’t afford to waste a single page with useless backstory and, unfortunately, Johnston wasted much more than that.
- Over Simplified – Emotions were often over simplified and saw drastic, unexplained changes.
- Too Slow – Even at the height of action, the story moved too slow. This could have been helped by staying in the present and avoiding long “what might happen now” explanations.
Overall, I give The Story of Owen 3 stars.
The Story of Owen is a series. If interested check out the second book in the series, Prairie Fire.
Ordinary Grace. The title is only the first perfect thing about this novel. The story follows a family of damaged characters, rooted in faith, through the summer of 1961, when typical and extraordinary events occur in their rural Minnesota town.
My Favorite Point of View
Our main character and narrator is Frank Drum, currently 53-years old, who tells us the story of the summer he was 13, a summer filled with death. This removed-by-time 1st person perspective is one of my favorite points of view! One of my favorite novels, Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, and one of my favorite short stories, “The Man in the Black Suit” by Stephen King, both share this perspective of an older man looking back on his childhood. When done right, it strikes the perfect balance of emotionally connected to the story but removed enough to not let the emotions rule the storytelling.
The Heart of the Novel
“And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” – Aeschylus, Greek playwright
The phrase “the awful grace of God” appears in the beginning of the book and is fully described near the end of the book in the full quotation, explained by Frank’s father, the local preacher. The author, William Kent Krueger, said the originally titled of the book was Awful Grace but he realized Ordinary Grace was a “more gentle and more appropriate title. Much more inviting to the reader.”
An enriching story about real life and untimely death. Filled with memorable, flawed characters. Written is a clear, comforting voice. Set in a world that feels far away yet so close to the heart. Ordinary Grace is a story well worth reading.