Troublesome adverbs

January 31, 2009

Announcer at the start of the American television show, Judge Judy: ‘She claims her son in law purposefully broke the cell phone.’

I admit, dear reader, this sentence made my grouchy heart cringe! That ‘purposefully’ just rubs me up the wrong way and then down the other side. So, am I just being a conservative old fuddy duddy? Well, let’s explore the issues.

For a start, was the phone broken with a goal or purpose in mind (purposefully), or was it broken knowingly, with conscious deliberation (deliberately) as opposed to being broken accidentally? To my mind, the sentence would be more precise if it read: her son in law deliberately broke the cell phone. (Yes, yes, I know that you can say I broke the phone on purpose. Used as an adverb, however, it does create more ambiguity in meaning.)

But there’s more. If you take out she claims, you have an independent clause: her son in law deliberately broke the cell phone. The verb is broke and the subject is her son in law. In general, it is better not to split the subject and verb with an adverb. Instead, the adverb could be placed at the very beginning of the clause (deliberately, her son in law broke the cell phone) or after the verb (her son in law broke the cell phone deliberately).

If I were to be generous, I would admit that the attribution, she claims, does make the first option more than a little clumsy (She claims deliberately her son in law broke the cell phone). I might also admit that if the speaker wants to emphasise that the breaking of the cell phone was no accident, then deliberately does need to come close to the front. Consequently, if I were generous, I might agree that the original construction does make sense and was probably a good solution to a tricky linguistic problem. If I were to be generous…

Anyway, dear readers, I let you be the judge.

Comparing The Great Gatsby and The Truman Show

January 31, 2009

The Penguin Classic Gatsby

Do you love teaching The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald but want to freshen up your approach? Try teaming it with a study of Peter Weir’s film, The Truman Show (starring Peter Carey). At their heart, both explore the corruption of the American Dream.

The table below provides an outline of some interesting parallels between the contemporary film and classic novel.

Obviously, the two stories are executed very differently, but the table offers a starting point for a comparative study.

The Great Gatsby

The Truman Show

Central character: Jay Gatsby Central character: Truman Burbank
The name is a fiction which he created as part of a larger re-invention of his own life. The name if fiction, granted to Truman at birth as part of a larger invention and control of his entire life.
‘Father’ dead; no contact with parents. ‘Father’ dead.
Living the American Dream, but unfulfilled. Living the American Dream, but is dissatisfied. His ‘dream’ wife is corrupt – paid to live with him and interrupts their lives with commercial endorsements.
Daisy Buchanan who lives across the bay is Gatsby’s object of desire. Wears white. Lauren who supposedly lives across the seas in Fiji is Truman’s object of desire, even though he is ostensibly married. Lauren is wearing a white top when we first meet her.
This object of desire is symbolized by the greenlight at the end of Daisy’s pier. This object of desire is symbolized by the green, tropical island of Fiji..
Everything about Gatbsy’s world is an illusion – largely of his own creation. Everything about Truman’s world is an illusion – he is part of a massive, reality television program run by a commercial media organization.
Poverty is hidden and/or ignored in Gatsby’s world. Christof’s society has no place for poverty or vagrants.
The eyes of Dr T. J. Eckleberg (God?) loom over Gatsby’s world, ever watchful. Christof (Christ?), the shows director and creator, looks down on Truman’s world, ever watchful.
Ultimately, Gatsby’s world is corrupt and crumbles. The fabric of illusion can’t be held together and reality inevitably breaks through (the accident, and George Wilson and his gun). Ultimately, Truman’s world is corrupt and crumbles. The fabric of illusion can’t be held together and reality inevitably breaks through (the light that falls from the ‘sky’).
Gatsby is unable to escape the consequences of the ‘foul dust’ that floats in the wake of his dreams. Truman eventually wakes up to the illusion and escapes.

For good measure, you might also like to throw in Peter Carey’s early short story, ‘American Dreams’. It tells the (ultimately tragic) story of what happens in a small, country town in Australia when the townsfolk’s dreams of fame and fortune come true. A copy of this story can be found in The fat man in history (first published in 1974 by the University of Queensland Press).

The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch

January 25, 2009

Who is it for? Middle and Senior school students; adults

What’s it about? Thirteen years old Miles O’Malley is small for his age, but has an encyclopaedic knowledge about the ocean and its multitudinous life forms. While beachcombing one night on Skookumchuck Bay (part of Puget Sound) where he lives, he makes a remarkable discovery – a giant squid with an eye the size of a hubcap. Marine biologists are baffled; the squid is out of its usual territory. The media is mesmerized and, overnight, Miles becomes a minor celebrity. From that point on, strange things continue to happen around Miles, he gains the attention of a local cult, struggles with his passion for his ex-babysitter and, in the midst of all this, his parents announce their separation. Everything appears to be changing.

At its heart, this is a coming of age story. However, through the story of one boy’s adolescent “stürm und drang”, Lynch explores the wonder and mystery of the natural world, the beauty of science and the limits of human knowledge. The main message seems to be: pay attention.

Is it any good? Highly recommended. An award winning first novel, this is a fast paced yet lyrical novel suitable for a range of readers. Most readers should warm to Miles who is something of a science nerd, but is also presented as a pretty typical teenager, struggling with his own identity and trying to find a place to belong. Cleverly, Miles’s innocence is balanced by the other teen character Kenny Phelps, his cigarette smoking, breast-obsessed, foul mouthed friend. In fact, the novel is inhabited by a number of well-rounded, interesting characters who add interest and variety to the story and are treated respectfully by the author. In other words, Lynch is able to shift beyond the common stereotypes you’d find in many novels and present the characters and actions in all their complexity. There are no easy morals to be drawn here. This is also one of those books where the setting is as much a character as geographical location, and it is described with a lyrical beauty by Lynch. In fact, imagery and the use of figurative language are real strengths of this novel.

Probably what really lifts The highest tide above the usual crop of novels given the young adult label is Lynch’s ability to blend the hormonal self-interest of teenagers with reflections on the natural world and the role of science in helping us understand our world. Moreover, he achieves a nice balance between the use of teen colloquialisms and much more lyrical, reflective language. This is helped by the fact that, while written in first person, the narrator is an older Miles looking back on his life from the viewpoint of age and experience.

Finally, a warning. Read this carefully if you intend using it with students. The f-word is used from time to time (especially when Phelps is around) – although it helps define his character and, in my opinion, not used gratuitously. In addition, there is an indirect reference to male masturbation, a bit of talk about the size and shape of women’s ‘hooters’ and male penises, as well as the location and function of the g-spot. All of this is handled with sensitivity and humour, and is generally less explicit than I’ve seen in some other books, such as the Lockie Leonard series by Tim Winton. There are also some drug references and one eighteen year old, bi-polar character almost overdoses. All of these matters are just a small part of a well-written, life affirming novel and wouldn’t stop me using The highest tide with students. However, some of the content may cause discomfort for some teachers and school communities.

How can it be used? By all means buy copies for the library, but this is also a novel that would lend itself to close study by small groups and even whole classes. Easy to read and yet exploring challenging ideas, it is a perfect way to introduce students to how literary novels are constructed and read. Excerpts from the book could be studied during writing workshops to model how effective descriptions and images can be composed, and how to establish and maintain characters and relationships. Finally, composing stories in first person can be a trap for the unwary – it often results in the use of very informal, colloquial language that research shows is not highly valued by markers of demand writing tasks. Lynch’s work shows how a balance can be achieved between creating believable characters who use language authentically, while also maintaining the sort of lyrical and reflective prose that is valued. Part of the trick, of course, is choosing a narrator who recounts their life from the point of view of being an adult.

The 2008 Bloomsbury paperback edition contains a useful map at the front, as well as a ‘Reading Group Guide’ at the back. The latter includes a Q&A with Jim Lynch, a set of discussion-starter questions, and a helpful list of further readings. In addition, the book’s website can be found at: