I’ve been the fortunate subject of some close readings lately! Last week is was a wonderful unpacking of three sentences from a story in Box Cutters, and this week, writer Jessica Standifird does some amazing things with a single paragraph from Hagridden!
Standifird’s close reading is a “Paragraph Review,” a feature of Blue Skirt Productions. It’s a fascinating approach to book reviewing, really: the rule is, the reviewer skips to a random paragraph of a book and then writes about the book based solely on the quality of that one paragraph. While this denies the reviewer context (something Standifird comments on in her review), it also allows us to focus on the language, at the sentence level, and lets us speculate on how that paragraph speaks to the larger work. It’s the kind of thing I sometimes do in the classroom, which is to say, it turns these published reviews into excellent lessons on technique and style.
Standifird starts her review with a line from the promotional material:
“Shaded in Southern Gothic and classical motifs while written in a sharp contemporary style, Hagridden presents a strangely beautiful world where humanity plays the contradictory roles of protagonist and antagonist.” The blend of styles, and the possibilities of humanity playing both sides of the coin, left me wanting to learn more.
So she gets down to business. She had a pdf advance review copy, so she set the scroll bar spinning and fell upon a paragraph in which Buford is recounting his war days and the evils of his former commander, Lt. Whelan, a member of the feral and outlawed “Rougarou Corps.” In the paragraph, Buford is explaining how he once came upon the Rougarous playing a midnight game of “foot ball” (a kind of 19th-century American soccer sometimes played in camps). Standifird does some beautiful setting analysis, and then she breaks down the importance of the “foot ball” in ways that unlock all the depth I’d hoped to get across in the scene:
A group of “boys” playing a game together. Shaking off some stress, reinforcing bonds created in war, practicing the teamwork that during battle saved or lost lives; a moving landscape of silhouettes reaching for some sense of their old lives as their worlds are being redefined. And then, as we grow closer to this weighted image, we discover that making lemonade from lemons can be a gruesome process. Don’t have a ball to use for the game? Use a human head.
(Yeah. That happens in the book.)
Check out the whole review for the paragraph and more of Standifird’s thoughts on it. And many thanks to her for such a wonderful close reading!