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  • What I’m Reading: Survived by One: The Life and Mind of a Family Mass Murderer

    Well, I’m reading something rather dark, which is what I usually go for anyway. I was asked by Gapers Block Book Club to review Survived By One: The Life and Mind of a Family Mass Murderer by Robert E. Hanlon with Thomas V. Odle.

    Thomas Odle killed his parents and three siblings at the age of eighteen in 1985 and is now serving life in prison. This book is both from Dr. Hanlon, a neurologist’s, perspective and Tom Odle himself. Tom reflects on his childhood in a first person point-of-view, while Dr. Hanlon assesses Tom’s life experiences and how they led him to murder.

    This book is haunting. Tom Odle’s childhood was hell. His mother abused him, chained him to his bed, made him raise his three younger siblings, and constantly told him how much she hated him and how she wished he’d never been born. He wasn’t allowed to go anywhere other than school and wasn’t allowed to have anybody over, so his social skills lacked heavily. In kindergarten, Odle went to school with a shirt soaked in blood from the whip marks on his back. It wasn’t until he was strong enough to fight back that she stopped the physical abuse, but the emotional and verbal abuse never ceased. Tom never had confidence or self-worth. His dad stood by and did nothing, as if he too feared Tom’s mother.

    I won’t be ruining the rest of the book for you, however, I can’t put this book down, and I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s unsettling—this feeling sorry for or sympathetic toward a murderer—but Odle’s story is told very well, and makes you think, “Well, I can see why he would do what he did.” It’s terrifying. He even recounts the day of the murders and it’s absolutely horrifying.

    This happened to me once before – this feeling sorry for a criminal – when I read the graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf. It covers Dahmer’s teenage years, up to the first time he committed murder. His mother was also absolutely insane and he was alone. Of course, when I then think about all of the horrifying and unforgivable things they did, I can’t feel bad, can I?

    The writer in me can’t stop thinking, “What if?” What if these men had been raised with love like every kid deserves? They would have turned out so much differently and that may be what saddens me the most about these stories.

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    Calling Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

    After reading tons of work from students and submitters, I’m coming down with a terrible case of arc ache.

    I ache to read a short story.

    The best short stories have structure, an arc. Do writers pen effective pieces that lack classic structural patterns? Sure. However, when I settle in to read, I prefer a story with solid structure. Yes, I also want an interesting protagonist, effective imagery created by evocative language, believable dialogue, and figurative language so fresh it makes my insides shimmy in recognition of truthful comparison. But what satisfies me most as a reader is the ride I take on the arc of a good story. I’m growing weary of sketches, vignettes, scenes, and excerpts. Such pieces can possess lovely qualities, but typically leave me unfulfilled.

    I long to read a piece with an arc! I want to read a story with structure!

    Many classic stories follow a simple map. To write a story, include these seven parts:

    1.  An interesting character

    2.  In a particular setting

    3.  With a problem to solve or a need to feed

    (Classic exposition calls for 1-3 to be presented in the first page or two)

    4.       An attempt to solve the problem or feed the need

    5.       Failure

    (The writer repeats steps 4 and 5 as necessary to build tension)

    6.       A final attempt (climax or crisis)

    7.       A satisfying resolution.

    Although following the above pattern will help in crafting stronger stories, a good companion strategy is to read short stories voraciously. Reading excellent models helps to develop a strong internal sense of structure (among other essential skills). The web positively pullulates with resources for finding great stories. Try the following links as a starting point:

     American Literature, 100 Great Stories

     50 Best short stories of all time

     Greatest Short Stories

    Expand the study of story structure by seeking out the advice of the greats. One of my favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut, offers an enlightening and humorous explanation of three classic story structures: “Man in a Hole,” “Boy Gets Girl,” and “Cinderella” (the most popular structure ever). If you struggle at all with structure, you’ll like his clever visual representations of common story patterns.   Enjoy Vonnegut’s charming lecture here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oP3c1h8v2ZQ.

    The art of short story writing requires practice as well as complete surrender to the character and his/her tribulations. I want writers to trust their abilities and instincts, but I also challenge them to develop those abilities in the first place by doing the difficult work of writing pieces with solid structure. Experimental pieces, though interesting, too often become lazy diversions from the real work of writing.

    I’m reading two great short stories (probably by Vonnegut) and calling it a night. It’s only a home remedy for what ails me, but I think riding an arc with Kurt is just what the doctor ordered.

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    Stuff I’ve Been Reading

    I kind of wanted to write my first blog post for 3ER about something important, but I’m still not so sure what is going on in Syria since I was without the internet or cable for two weeks. I moved into a new place and it’s been a nightmare—it wasn’t clean when we moved in, it had to be repainted, and they still have work to do on the place before we can be fully unpacked.

    But, that doesn’t mean this 3ER staffer can slack. It just means he has to get creative! In unpacking, I found some old issues of The Believer. Nick Hornby does this “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” every issue and tells you what books he bought that month and what he actually read. I thought this could be a cool first blog post from myself. I mean, writers should be readers, and I always think it’s interesting to know what people are reading and why, so I hope you’ll find my personal reading choices interesting.

    In addition to reading some really wonderful submissions to 3ER, I’ve been reading Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts. I’m usually a big fiction reader, but this heavily researched book about the American Ambassador to Germany in 1933 Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power is all kinds of amazing. Larson’s arguably most famous work, Devil in the White City, was novelistic in scope. This book doesn’t disappoint, either. I’m still in the first 100 pages, but I’m devouring 15-page snatches on my train ride to and from work (and once my new apartment is all put-together, I will likely read it in a day or two).

    It is amazing to me to see how the world reacted to Hitler’s rise. It seems like no one could fathom the level of evil Hitler was, so they just didn’t believe the horror stories they heard. This is a time period that fascinates me and is a subject that leaves me sick every time I think about it, but still, it is so important to know about it and to understand it. Anyway, enough preaching—the writing is great, the research is impeccable (at least, to my standards and going by the notes Larson provides), and it is a great read.

    Also, I’m reading Three Cups of Deceit by Jon Krakauer. It was a Kindle Single that I downloaded a long time ago and never read. I read Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea in 2009 when the school I taught at used it as their First Year Reading Project book. I thought it was an interesting book (though I didn’t care for the writing style), but Krakauer’s short single exposes the lies Mortenson perpetuated in his book—he wasn’t nearly as heroic as he made himself out to be. This can be read without knowledge of Mortenson’s book, but it is better if you have read that. I’m halfway through this, and it reminds me why I love Krakauer’s style so much.

    What about you? What are you all reading? Let us know!

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