Mrs. Crispino: A Tribute

Just a heads up: this one gets pretty heavy.

I’m sure most people had an teacher they loved while they were in school. Maybe it was an English teacher, someone who taught them to love reading, or got them interested in writing. Maybe they were just good teachers whose classes you enjoyed.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my English teacher during my sophomore year of high school, Mrs. Crispino. She was always something of an odd duck, and more than once described me as a “deer caught in headlights”, a description that isn’t entirely false. Mrs. Crispino was cheerful and friendly, and her assignments were a lot more fun to work on than most. We had to write short romance stories, our reply to the shepherd in “A Passionate Shepherd to His Love”, and research and write an opinion piece on whether or not we thought William Shakespeare was a real person, or a pseudonym.

She and her husband were killed a few summers ago in a motorcycle accident. It was a shock to me. Not only was she my teacher, her son and I were in the same year and we were frenemies. When I heard the news, one of my first thoughts was about her son, his grief, and how scared and adrift he must have felt. I haven’t talked to him since I graduated high school almost ten years ago, but I do catch myself wondering about him and how he’s doing now.

The reason, I think, she’s been on my mind is because of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I read the book last summer for the first time, and when I posted about it on Facebook, at least three people asked the same question: “How did you get out of reading that in school?”

And the answer is Mrs. Crispino.

Near the end of my sophomore year of high school, a student at another school in the area killed himself. I didn’t know him personally, but I had friends who did. Suicide has always¬† disturbed me, and did even moreso when I was a teenager. I was devastated when I heard about his death, especially when I found out that he was a year younger than me. But because I didn’t know him, I didn’t think it would be right for me to talk about him, or how I felt. I thought trying to talk this through with someone would be disrespectful to his memory.

I wasn’t the only one hurting. Most of the underclassmen were. Our guidance counselors and religion teachers offered us support, with group discussions and prayers, but I didn’t take part. I probably should have.

This was around the time we were finishing All Quiet on the Western Front in English class, and were supposed to move on to Of Mice and Men.

If you haven’t read Of Mice and Men (which I highly recommend you do), what you need to know is that it’s a very sad book. There’s no happy ending.

In English class, we’d read so many tragedies already that year, and now were going through one in real life. We were 200 students in desperate need of a happy ending. After we closed All Quiet on the Western Front for the final time, Mrs. Crispino changed the curriculum. Instead of Of Mice and Men, the last thing we would be reading as a group was Arsenic and Old Lace.

If you’ve never read it, Arsenic and Old Lace is the story of two old women who poison visitors with elderberry wine. Their bodies are buried in the basement by another man who believes that he is Theodore Roosevelt and he’s digging locks for the Panama Canal. It sounds like a grisly story, but it’s a comedy.

And it’s a really good comedy. At times, all my classmates were laughing as we read it, and more than once did I hear it discussed in the halls or at free period. Everyone seemed to be really enjoying it.

Fiction is important. Whether you read for entertainment, to learn, a way to pass the time, you get something out of it. Sometimes it changes you. Sometimes a story stays with you forever.

I can’t say that Arsenic and Old Lace was a life-changing story. What stayed with me wasn’t the old murderesses or the buried bodies. It was the kindness Mrs. Crispino gave our class. She saw how we were hurting, and helped us smile again.

I’ll remember her for many things: her fun class assignments; they way she giggled whenever she read the word “gay”, much like her students; how she helped me be a better writer. But most of all, I’ll remember her for bringing light during a dark time.

 

 

Eragon 20: Sad Resignation to Keep Reading

The first thing I wrote upon starting chapter 20 was, “This was a lot more fun when I was drunk”. Yes, I was unnecessarily angry at a fictional character during the last chapter, but at least I felt something other than sad resignation to keep reading. For awhile, I thought that might be the only note I’d write down, as this chapter is a lot of exposition, and not much else.

I’ve talked a bit about world-building in novels, and I’ve said that in general, I like it better when the characters learn the rules of the universe as the readers do. It feels much more natural, and you’re not overwhelmed with a ton of information at once. Eragon is starting to show me the drawbacks of that method. It makes sense for the story, as Eragon starts out as a know-nothing dragon rider. However, the chapters that are nothing but exposition and conversation are starting to wear on me. Eragon accidentally using magic for the first time, and Brom’s angry admonitions of him were part of the story, though. Despite my earlier criticisms, they were exciting. This chapter is just a casual conversation, written to explain to Eragon and the readers how magic works.

I guess one of the things I don’t like about this chapter is that there’s nothing that breaks up the dialogue until the end. I know that it’s important to get information to the reader, but there’s got to be a better way of doing it than this.

Aside from that, I have several questions, not the least of which is, “why doesn’t Saphira have more screen time?”

Seriously.

Other than that, the Dragon Riders apparently kept their magic a secret, even at the height of their power, so their enemies wouldn’t be able to use it against them. I guess that explains why Eragon was so surprised that he could use magic, but it seems like something like that would be hard to keep a secret. It also really bothers me that Eragon has yet to make the connection that Brom was a Rider.

Brom also mentions that Shades and sorcerers get their magic from spirits, which makes it different from the Riders’ magic. “Spirits” largely gets glossed over in this book, and the next, with the only information we get about them being that they’re bad news. I don’t know if they’re elaborated on any further in the last two books in the series. I’d like to know more, but this chapter certainly wasn’t a good place to add even more details.

It’s also revealed that every person has two names, one that they’re given when they’re born, and a “true” name, which reflects who they really are. Sharing your true name is dangerous, as anyone who knows it has complete control over you. Since I will not likely be reading the final two books anytime soon, I let my curiosity get the better of me and Googled what Eragon’s true name is. This is what Christopher Paolini had to say:

I felt that giving them to readers would spoil some of the mystery and power they hold. You could say the whole Inheritance Cycle encompasses Eragon’s true name. But its short form is a secret between Eragon, Saphira, Glaedr, and Arya.

Aw, come on! I wanna know!

 

 

Eragon 19: Goddammit, Brom.

Full disclosure: I was not entirely sober when I read this chapter. My notes reflect this.

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In my defense, I’m of legal age, was safely at home, and the worst thing that happened was I got irrationally angry at a fictional character. That last part is not so different from when I’m sober, but this time I was just louder about it.

After so recently declaring that Brom was probably the best character in the book, where did this hatred come from? Let’s find out.

Eragon finds Brom wounded and unconscious, which prompted my note, “Seriously Brom, get your shit together”. I remember Brom being mad at Eragon for using magic, but I didn’t remember that he was wounded in this chapter. It’s a bit disappointing, because Brom’s been a much better character than Eragon. As the mentor figure, I really expected him to do a lot better against two Urgals, which I’m sure he’s slayed hundreds of before. And his excuse is, “I’m old, I can’t fight as well as I used to” is kind of crap, too. Because, you know, he’s an immortal Dragon Rider.

Saphira’s ignorance on the whole matter is also annoying. She doesn’t know what happened to Eragon or why he can suddenly use magic. However, it’s been established that Saphira has some kind of ancestral memory. She fled the Ra’zac because she knew they were bad news, even mentioning a specific battle that Eragon had never heard of. But dragons have been bonded to Riders for centuries, to the point where they’re dependent on to touch of a Rider to even hatch. If Saphira does have this racial memory, why wouldn’t she know that Riders can use magic?

After that question, most of my notes devolve into complaints about Brom, and how he never intended to teach Eragon magic. That seems pretty ridiculous to me. Maybe Brom didn’t want Eragon using magic so early in their journey, but keeping it from him entirely is pretty dumb.They’re eventually going to be facing off against the only remaining Dragon Rider, who we already know is insanely powerful. They’ll need to utilize every weapon they have to defeat Galby, but without using magic, Eragon would be at a huge disadvantage.

Brom explains that using magic is a huge risk, and casting a spell takes your own strength, which is why Eragon passed out after killing the Urgals. If you’re not strong enough to cast the spell, you’ll die. It’s understandable that Brom wanted to protect Eragon, but wouldn’t he be safer if he knew the risks of using magic before he actually tried it? Keeping him ignorant about it could have been much worse.

I do have one more question about magic, and it’s one that I’ve wondered about since I first read this book. To cast a spell, you have to say something in the Ancient Language, the language of the elves. “Brisingr”, for example, is the word for “fire”. To be able to use magic effectively, you need a strong command of the Ancient Language. I do like this idea, because it means there’s really no limit to what magic can do. Much more interesting than picking out set spells from a book. Even better, Eragon’s poor grammar using the Ancient Language becomes a plot point in the sequel.

But Eragon also becomes fluent in the Ancient Language in Eldest, and regularly holds conversations with the elves using it. What’s the difference between talking and using magic? Could he be casting spells while he tries to ask someone about their day? How is everything not on fire?

 

 

Eragon Chap. 17-18: An Orc By Another Name Still Stinks

Chapter 17 is full of great storytelling and characterization, and was such a gripping read that I had a hard time putting the book down. Or, you know, the opposite of that.

A lot of this book consists of the main characters traveling from place to place to place and having adventures on the way. Essentially, it’s a fantasy novel’s version of a road trip movie. Real-life road trips are usually pretty fun. Going to new places, meeting new people, singing along to the radio with your friends. The things that make road trips appealing and fun that we forget about all the massive inconveniences they entail. Things like getting lost, or sitting cramped in the backseat piled high with luggage, or constantly getting stuck in the middle seat with your seat on the hump, and your friends uncomfortable squished in on either side of you.

This chapter is dedicated to the parts of the road trip we’d rather forget. Like when I got really sick and wound up puking in a gas station parking lot. Most of this chapter consists of Eragon and Brom being miserable as they travel the plains, dealing with strong winds, thirst, and spending hours in the saddle. Even though this chapter doesn’t really reveal anything new about the characters or the plot, I at least appreciate that it’s not a comfortable trip. It does add a sense of realism, and it would be a pretty boring chapter if everything was nice and easy.

As a student glider pilot, I also enjoyed Saphira’s demonstration of how high winds and flying don’t mix. In the gales of a storm, Saphira has difficulty landing and her open wings caused her to keep getting blown away, including somersaulting in the as she tries to land. I’m not sure if it was meant to be comical, but I was amused by it nonetheless.

As much as I enjoyed watching Saphira try to land, and fail, a lot of chapter 17 felt like padding. The following chapter is much more interesting, when Brom and Eragon arrive in the town of Yazuac. I do feel a bit bad for Saphira, though. Because they have to keep her a secret, Saphira constantly gets left behind when Eragon and Brom go into a populated area. It makes sense, but I wish she had more screen time.

Their arrival in Yazuac is eerie, and the whole town is still and quiet. This is because, and Eragon soon finds out, the entire town is dead and has been put into one big pile of corpses. I didn’t really feel the horror that I should have when I read this, though maybe it’s because I knew it was coming. Eragon, at least, was horrified, and threw up. Which is a perfectly acceptable reaction to seeing a pile of dead bodies, if you ask me. I wonder if my indifference to this slaughter is also because “one is a tragedy, a million is a statistic”. Maybe it’s the writing, or maybe it’s because I’m a bad person. Hm.

This is also the chapter where Eragon has his first run-in with Urgals. In other words, orcs with a different name. I know that every high fantasy book has to have some bland, low-level mooks for the hero to plow through, but is it too much to ask for something other than “huge men with horns”? In the sequel, Eldest, the Urgals are more fleshed out as a race with their own social order and customs. Watching humans and Urgals try to work as allies is way more interesting than having them as generic enemies. But we’re still stuck in Eragon right now, and don’t get to see that.

Eragon kills two Urgals, shooting his bow and calling out “Brisingr!” as he does. “Brisingr”, as we later learn, is the elvish word for “fire”, and Eragon has used magic for the first time.

It’s a little too convenient for me. Not that Eragon used magic without any guidance–I’ll accept that, it is a fantasy story, after all–but that he knew the word “brisingr”. He’s heard Brom say it once, and thought it was a swear. I kind of think he wouldn’t remember one word in a pretty tight spot. In high stress situations, expanding my vocabulary is not on the forefront of my mind. I mean, I had to stop writing for about a minute today because I couldn’t remember the word “inevitable” as I was about to type it. If I were fighting monsters, the only thing I might be saying is, “fuck, fuck, fuck!”

Eragon 15-16: Br’om is the Ma’in Char’acter We Dese’rve

Here we are once again, with the short chapter-long chapter couplet. The first paragraph or so is actually pretty relatable, with Eragon remembering Garrow’s death and not wanting to get up and face the world. I think we’ve all done that at some point. After a loved one has died, sometimes the hardest thing to do is get out of bed.

I also want to share one line with you.

“He jammed his cold fingers in his armpits and crouched by the fire until the food was ready.”

Does that remind you of anything?

mary catherine gallagher

Ah, the 90s. A time when the women were strong, the men were good-looking, and the children are all wondering what the hell I’m referencing.

This chapter is (appropriately) called “Saddle Making”, in which Brom makes a saddle for Saphira out of a leather apron. Except I highly doubt that Brom is able to make a saddle for a dragon – albeit a young one – out of a single apron. Never mind the extra straps he cuts for when Saphira grows larger. Also, how the hell hasn’t Eragon figured out Brom’s a Dragon Rider?

Obi-Brom Kenobi is the source for all information on dragons up to this point. He has a “mysterious” past, and knows way more than any simple storyteller should. He can communicate with Saphira with his mind, build a dragon saddle, and freaking gives Eragon an actual Dragon Rider’s sword. Why the pretense, Brom? And why are you so dumb, Eragon? How have you not put the pieces together yet?!

Sighing and shaking my head, it’s time to move on to chapter 16. The first part of this chapter is largely exposition, and I’m pretty okay with how it’s been done, mostly because it makes sense with the story. Eragon has questions about dragons, and Brom answers them. What I like about this is that it’s not all done in Brom’s dialogue, nor is it done completely as narration. It actually strikes a good balance between the two. A surprise bonus of this is that I don’t have to read too much overly-flowery dialogue. Yay!

There is something I’ve always wondered about, though. Brom says that dragons don’t hatch until conditions are right for them to be born, which usually meant there was enough food for them. Dragons that the Riders used, though, would only hatch when the right Rider touched their egg. In other words, Saphira might have never hatched if Eragon hadn’t found her egg.

What happened to the “wild” dragons that were mentioned? I also find it hard to believe that dragons – notable for being a proud race – would leave the future of their species to humans and elves. Sure, Galby (I refuse to write his full name one more time) killing dragons and Riders didn’t help matters, but eggs only hatching when the right person touches them? Yeah, you’re going to wind up with an endangered species right there.

If the Eragon-verse had tumblr, I can only imagine what it would be like. “Dragons only hatch when humans or elves touch their eggs? SO RACIST. Check your privilege!”

Along with learning about dragons, Eragon asks Brom about how he got the sword of another Dragon Rider. Brom tells him that he doesn’t want to reveal it yet, and,¬†“I don’t want to keep you ignorant, far from it.”

EXCEPT YOU TOTALLY ARE.

The sword’s history is revealed in the second book, if I recall correctly, and it would be pretty upsetting for Eragon to learn. I won’t hold it against Brom for not telling him, but…God, Brom just tell him you’re a Dragon Rider. It’s obvious to anyone who’s not Eragon.

One good thing about the book is that Eragon isn’t a total Mary Sue right away. During this chapter, he and Brom start practicing swordplay, and Eragon gets his ass kicked time and time again. He develops his sword skills throughout the book, and I like that he isn’t a “natural”. He has to learn, struggle, and get his ass handed to him. And since he’s been driving me crazy, reading about him covered in bruises fills me with a kind of smug satisfaction. Especially since Brom is a much more interesting character, and I’d be pretty happy if he lit out on his own with Saphira.

There’s also one more thing that’s really bugging me. Let’s see if you can spot it in this chapter summary.

Eragon takes his sword, Za’roc, so he can fight the Ra’zac while he’s traveling outside Utgard.

I’m not even halfway through the book, and I am so sick of these unpronounceable names with apostrophes.

Wait. I stand corrected. They’re not unprouncable.

pronunciation

But I feel like if you have to put a pronunciation guide in your novel, you’ve done something wrong.