Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lessons from Orwell

A few weeks before Richard Holbrooke unexpectedly died, the veteran U.S. diplomat called a few members of his staff into his office for an important lesson. According to staffer Vali Nasr, Holbrooke gave them copies of George Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language." He praised Orwell's instruction to avoid convoluted language and passive voice, and Holbrooke noted writers ought to value clarity above all.

Prompted by Nasr's story, I read Orwell's essay. The lessons are not new to those who have taken professional writing classes but one point in particular struck me as useful for those writing literature. "Let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them." He goes on to admonish writers to first think about their meaning, and get the meaning clear through pictures and sensations, before finally choosing words.

Fiction writers are just as vulnerable as political writers to the tropes of our language - they're called cliches and sloppy writing. We can let our pens and fingers run away from us before we've figured out in our minds what, exactly, it is we are saying. I can easily think of a few examples from my own recent writing. It's a lesson I'm working on right now: trying not to get intoxicated by the lovely sound of a fun word but rather focusing on my clarity of expression. That's not to say that we can't play with the words. But let that come second. Jayne Anne Phillips is a wonderful example of the beautiful balance between art and clarity. She is a poet and said she took ten years to write her recent Lark and Termite because she was choosing the words one by one. I know I can't achieve her brilliance, but I can work on knowing better what is in my head before I try to find the words to express it.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

My Enemy's Cradle, By Sarah Young


This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge: Y is for Young.

Cyrla is a young Dutch-Polish girl sent to Holland by her Jewish father, who hoped to hide her from Hitler's new laws. But after a few tragic twists of fate, Cyrla ends up hidden in a program that advanced some of the Nazis' most cherished ideals.

Germany's occupation of the Netherlands makes it increasingly dangerous for Cyrla to hide her Jewish background, even with her blond hair and Christian aunt's family. She finds escape by impersonating her pregnant cousin Anneke and taking Anneke's place in a Lebensborn - a home for pregnant women. The Lebensborn are intended by their founder Heinrich Himmler to advance the Aryan bloodline: when applying, Anneke had to prove, to her disgust, her Aryan purity. When Cyrla takes her place she is surprised to find herself sent to Germany, away from the Jewish lover who promised to save her. As Cyrla's belly grows with her unborn child, she must keep herself and her baby alive by hiding the secret of her identity.

My Enemy's Cradle takes its greatest strength from the unusual setting of the Lebensborn. The facility is a beautiful prison for mothers-to-be, both wed and unwed, where they fill their waiting days with lessons on sanitation and nutrition. The babies who are unwanted are given to SS families that promise to raise them as faithful Nazis. It is a chilling and fascinating chapter of history. I was less fond of Cyrla, who often seems petulant and unperceptive. But in spite of her shortcomings her story is capitvating and moving, even with a tear-jerker finale. It is definitely a worthwhile read.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Spider King, by Lawrence Schoonover


This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge: X is for Louis XI.

It is easy to forget in today's age of well-known boundaries that so many nations were once jigsaw puzzles of competing fifedoms. When Louis of Valois was born in 1423, both France and England were warring to determine who ruled the ancient and divided Gaul. When Louis was crowned, becoming Louis XI of his realm, both nations were split internally, England mired in the War of Roses, France still subject to the medieval feudal power of its dukes. But Louis fought against the tide of his era, consolidating control and cementing France's boundaries. His story is a fascinating one.

In The Spider King, we begin Louis's story before the moment of his birth and then watch as the spindly, uncertain young man becomes a master warrior and statesman. He earns the honorable affection of two wives and the merited fear of his enemies. But Louis faces the treachery of France's nobility and his rivals' ever insatiable appetites for power. He must contend with, at various times, his father, his brother, his cousin, and the king of England. Whether or not he can succeed in building a modern, united France, one that advances the science of learning under a fair rule of law, is dependent upon his wit, his loyal but scheming advisors, and his luck. With a ring of lead saints' medals pinned upon his hat, Louis XI is rarely unwilling to test all three.

Lawrence Schoonover's Louis is a compelling character, a complicated man weakened by illness and pride but strengthened by his intellect and heart. Louis becomes known as a spider for the complicated webs he weaves, and his morality is not without stain, but his is a great story to follow. Even more so in Schoonover's talented hands, for he spins a masterful story filled with colorful characters and well-realized settings. A delight to read!

Map: France under Louis XI.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Opening Up

I started practicing yoga almost two months ago and I am totally hooked. I love the part that I thought I would enjoy - the physical challenge, the alignment and the improved flexibility. But I'm also struck by how much I'm enjoying the emotional (or spiritual?) side of it. I was skeptical about the idea that a bunch of body twists could put me in touch with something, anything more than my muscles and tendons, but it seems that there's something to the supposed mystique of yoga. This morning, at the end of practice, one of the teachers helped me push back my shoulders - opening up my heart. Then, another teacher read a passage from Hand Wash Cold by Karen Maezen Miller. It was a portion I had heard before, and appreciated: about the inevitable suffering that life entails and how we can choose to turn towards the glimmers of beauty available to us in our ordinary lives. This same teacher had read it only two days before, so this was nothing new. But this morning, something about the story and, I think, having physically opened my heart, made the passage far more poignant. I found myself crying. Wow!

I came home and, after a quick breakfast, used the opening I had found to return to my novel-in-progress. This novel and I have had a contentious relationship, and recently, I've been a little mad at her. But I resolved today to overcome that. We sat down together, thought a little bit, imagined a little bit, and then I wrote more in one sitting than I've written in weeks.

So, do you have writer's block? Maybe try yoga! What else works for folks?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


The Romanov family was murdered in the height of summer, but there's still something about that tragedy that is reminiscent of winter - maybe it's the long, cold years that their bodies spent in their shallow forest graves, or maybe it's just that murder mysteries somehow echo the harsh cold of our darkest season. November's issue of Smithsonian Magazine has a very interesting article about Czar Nicholas II, Czarina Alexandra, their five children and four attendants. It's a topic that numerous historical fiction authors have plowed so I thought perhaps some of you would be interested.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Happy December!


We're having a holiday party today, which means mulled brandy, hot apple cider, coconut macaroons with cranberries, cheese cheese cheese and other yummies. I'm getting in the mood for chilly, wintry stuff, and so although the book I'm currently reading (Mrs. Dalloway) has nothing to do with winter, I'm hoping to add some seasonal reads to my pile. Any suggestions? Maybe I'll reread Ethan Frome. Or the Master and Margarita!

Photo: Nuublay would like to help us prepare for the party please. Especially in the taste-testing department.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Russian Winter, by Daphne Kalotay


This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge - W is for Winter.

Nina Revskaya was once a petite, powerful ballerina wowing the Soviet audiences of the Bolstoi Ballet, including even Stalin himself. But time and bitterness have allied to stiffen her body, leaving her wheelchair-bound and alone, living in Boston in the new millenium. Nina has decided to auction off her large jewelry collection, ostensibly to benefit the Boston Ballet but truly, as the reader comes to learn, to rid herself of painful memories.

The novel leaps back into Nina's memories, painful and otherwise, with the grace of a ballerina and provides a convincing and harrowing depiction of Soviet Russia in the 1930s through 1950s. These flashbacks are interspesed with the connected narratives of Nina, Drew - the young woman handling the auction, and Grigori - a fifty-year-old professor of Russian literature who owns, via mysterious family connections, a necklace that appears to be a part of Nina's set. These four streams gradually move together, revealing mysteries from the past and lessons for the present.

Kalotay writes best when she's looking back at Nina's years in the Bolstoi. Those pages are rich with research and sympathy. The mystery itself is not terribly difficult to divine, but it's still a pleasure to watch unfold. In all, this was a charming book, and I look forward to Kalotay's next.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Bookshop report from Spain

Madrid, apparently, is a city of art. Its three most prominent and popular museums are art museums. But I noticed when I was there last week that it also seems to be a city of books. I was visiting for work so did not have a whole lot of free time, but we had some evenings to wander the streets. And in doing so I was thrilled to see a great number of bookstores (almost all of which were independent or perhaps small chains). According to UNESCO data, in 2008 Spain published 86,300 new titles, or 1 new book for every 533 Spaniards. The same year the US published 275,232 unique titles, or about 1 new book for every 1089 Americans (or so - I guesstimated the 2008 US population). Not too bad for Spain.

In that bit of research, I also found this headline:

AMERICANS ARE BECOMING SMALL BUYERS OF BOOKS; Per Capita Production of Volumes Here Less Than That of Other Leading Nations --- Poor Methods of Distribution and Modern Amusements Blamed in Part.

Printed in ... 1914.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A different form of storytelling

I've long loved stop-motion animation movies, starting from when my dad made "Attack of the Bunny Monster" (a lost classic) with us when my sister and I were in elementary school. Since then, I've only done a few quickies, most notably a fork crawling out of a drawer. Compelling. (Hey, it was post-college and we were on vacation.) But today, all that changes! I've finally gotten around to making another one - this one complete with tweaks courtesy of video-editing software, yay! The movie is intended as a part of an invitation for a holiday party my husband and I are hosting next month.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Passion of Artemisia, by Susan Vreeland


This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge. V is for Vreeland.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Renaissance had gifted its tremendous artistic outpouring to the people of Italy. Artists in particular benefitted from this boon, the accumulated greatness of the masters that came before them. Michaelangelo, Donatello, Botticelli, and all the other greats had left their mark to inspire those who came after them. But they were all men, and Artemisia Gentileschi, daughter of a great painter, aspires to be a master herself. The burden of her gender, however, may make her dreams impossible.

Artemisia's trials begin in a court - in a case brought by her father against his friend and partner, who raped her. But in the end it is Artemisia's honor that is in question, and the humiliation she endures in court will haunt her for life. Scorned, Artemisia leaves Rome for Florence, a city she hopes will nourish her ambition to be a reknowned artist.

Vreeland writes with tremendous sympathy for her characters and draws a compelling tale. The story rarely lets up, although from a distance, the drama may appear slight. She deepens the narrative with themes of forgiveness and the cruelty of choice, even if at times her discussions of these become a little heavy-handed. Nonetheless, this is a beautiful book, rendering brilliantly the dynamic Italian world at the time of Gallileo and Cosimo de Medici, and enshrining in the reader's heart the brave and talented Artemisia Gentileschi. (The painting here is a self-portrait completed by the real Artemisia Lomi, or Gentileschi.)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bookstore Love


Last weekend my husband and I traveled up to Cape Cod to visit some beloved family and attend a wedding. Neither of us had been to the Cape before and we were quite charmed. The Parnassus Book Store played no small part in that - this photo explains it all (look at the ceiling!). The first floor of a wooden-frame house is filled, literally top to bottom, with used and new books. They are organized in sections but have no labels, nor any clear order. The cookbooks are next to the poetry books, which are across from the military hardware books. Which makes for fun, and often serendipitous, browsing, while walking on creaking, about-to-collapse wooden floors.

I bought a book I plan to use for research for my next writing project (well, the one after I finish the one I'm in the middle of now, which still has a long way to go). I love the research phase of writing, when I'm filling the attic of my mind with all the details and facts and people that, someday, I'll hope to pull just a few treasures from.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Jumping into the fire - again

I've decided to start submitting query letters to agents again. I took a nearly six-month hiatus from seeking representation for my historical fiction piece because I realized, unfortunately rather belatedly, that it needed some serious editing. Now I think it's ready. I think my query letter is polished. Of course, I have some mammoth-sized butterflies about the process this time, since my assessments were so off previously. (I certainly thought my manuscript was ready over a year ago, but with the help of some readers, I learned how wrong I was!) But I've edited and edited and edited, and I feel good about what I've got. I also feel at peace - if this doesn't work out, well, I'll keep trying with something else. One of the best lessons I've learned this year is to avoid setting artificial goals and to focus on the writing, not the publishing. It's difficult to hew to, but rewarding and liberating.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Land of Marvels, by Barry Unsworth

This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge - U is for Unsworth.

By the early twentieth century the world had already been referring to the Ottoman Empire as the "sick man of Europe" for over fifty years. So as the widely-anticipated Great War loomed on the horizon, competing nations jostled to position themselves to seize the bounty expected when the Ottomans finally fell. Barry Unsworth sets his novel at the fringes of Mesopotamia, a seemingly desolate corner of this fragile Empire, but one that holds hidden wealth for those who are poised to take it.

English archaeologist John Sommerville has staked his fortune on this bit of desert for a more romantic reason than wealth or strategic advantage. He has bet his fortune on a few hills and hopes that excavating them and finding signs of lost empires will finally make a name for him as a professional archaeologist. But the money is running out and discoveries are scarce, prompting a desperation that his wife of only a few years senses, and disdains. When plans for a German railroad progress, Sommerville fears the line will cut through his camp and end any chances at success. In a desperate gambit to slow the railroad's construction, Sommerville sets in motion a chain of events that will affect not only the lives of those at his camp, but the ambitions of nations watching the weakening Ottoman lands.

I found the beginning of Land of Marvels less than engaging. The stakes were difficult to grasp at first and Sommerville is initially unsympathetic in his paranoia and waffling ambition. But the plot gathers speed, just like the steam engine Sommerville imagines hurtling past his camp, and the book becomes far more enjoyable. The book is at its best when drawing delicate comparisons between empires, different ages, and man's ambitions. I used the gendered word there advisedly - I found Unsworth's renderings of his three female characters to be the weakest parts of the book. But overall, this is an enjoyable read, and certainly thought-provoking.

It pairs well with another book I'm reading - The Idea of Decline in Western History. Unsworth's novel reminds us that all empires eventually fall, while the other book, a sort of history of political theory from the past 200 years, points out that the pessimism and predictions of the "end" have always existed. I suppose that each human enterprises will eventually change beyond recognition or end, but our ability to foresee that end is extremely limited.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Grand Cayman and Gateway Drug Books


We spent the holiday weekend down in Grand Cayman, celebrating a family wedding (for whatever reason Columbus Day is still a holiday! I'll take it though). It was the second time we had been there and it was still just as lovely. With less than 50,000 people in all of the Cayman Islands, it's a pretty quiet place, especially in off-season, which early October is.

I spotted two bookstores, which might be the only two on the main island, based on the population density and a guidebook I read. Which makes me wonder, is one bookstore per 25,000 horrible? It sounds like it to me. But there are probably other places to buy books, at least for beach reading. I was pleased to see a lot of the people we were traveling with reading, and many of them reading some quality books. Yay for that. Before arriving on the island, I had given my reading-reluctant sister The Hunger Games, hoping that the book would prove to be the literary crack that the twitter-verse seems to think it is. She devoured it. Double yay. So if anyone out there has other books that might serve as similar crack, I'd really love to hear the recommendation! Christmas is coming up and I must proselytize the religion of reading!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Turquoise Ring, by Grace Tiffany


This is part of Historical Tapestry's blog challenge - T is for Turquoise (and Tiffany)

Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice begins with Antonio, who will famously owe the Jew Shylock a pound of flesh, stating, "And such a want-wit sadness makes of me, That I have much ado to know myself." To know oneself is a challenge, and even moreso to know another. The Merchant of Venice paints of harsh picture of Shylock but Shakespeare scholar Grace Tiffany takes us beneath the surface, delving back into his life and the lives of the women around him to reveal a sensitive and mournful man. In doing so, she asks us how much we really know about ourselves and each other.

The Turquoise Ring begins with the story of Leah, the headstrong young Spanish woman, half "Old Christian" and half Jewish, who captures the heart of Shylock, or Shiloh as Ms. Tiffany tells us he was first called. Leah gives Shiloh the turquoise ring, gifted to her by a Moorish swordmaker, as a token of her love. That love is dangerous in Inquisition-era Spain, but Leah persists in her affection for the pious Shiloh and marries him, against her Christian father's will. She will pay the greatest price for her embrace of the Jewish faith, leaving Shiloh deeply wounded and the single father to a young girl. Horrified by his fate, Shiloh flees Spain for Venice, hoping to find a tolerant home for himself and his infant.

Shiloh's hopes are to be disappointed as his story winds through Venice and the Terra Firma provinces in Italy, picking up the tales of the various characters who populate Shakespeare's play. His daughter's own rebellious love introduces us to women representing the various wrinkles of faith and character in sixteenth century Europe, as they all struggle to gain control over their lives against the bigotry of their time. Their efforts drive the novel's plot and reveal the humanity lurking behind the scowling face of Shylock the moneylender. This was a rich, beautiful read - I highly recommend it. (And no knowledge of Shakespeare is required to enjoy it!)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Freedom to read

As you have likely heard, this week through Oct. 2 is Banned Books Week. Sponsored by the American Library Association, the week heralds the importance of maintaining access to thought-provoking and controversial literature.

The list of frequently banned or "challenged" books is astonishing - see here for examples of some of the banned classics. Then maybe pick a book that's unorthodox or unpopular - even better if it's something that makes you uncomfortable - and read it. I read Lolita this year; that addresses a topic I could not find more repugnant, and yet my life is far richer for having read it. Can anyone recommend something new for me to try? I am working on pushing myself outside of my political and cultural comfort zone.

In that vein, blogger and author Zetta Elliot has pointed out that the lack of diverse voices within published books is its own form of censorship. If authors of color and those who are otherwise marginalized (lower classes, queer, whatever it is) aren't able to get their books to the marketplace, what are we, as a society, missing? As I pointed out before, the ghettoization of black writers into the "African American Interest" section of bookstores limits their exposure to readers and readers' exposure to their ideas. I hope we can continue to work to overcome that.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Empress, by Shan Sa

This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge, S is for Shan. (and Sa.)

In the seventh century, Chinese emperors were building towering pagodas, designing meritocratic administrative systems, and consolidating an empire of about 50 million people, among many other advances. One of the emperors responsible for that flourishing progress was a woman - China's first and only empress to rule in her own right. History has been unkind to Empress Wu, condemning her as a conniving child-murderer and tyrant, even while admitting her accomplishments. In Shan Sa's Empress, Heavenlight, as we come to know her, has a chance to tell her own story.

Heavenlight is born to a commoner father who, through his service to the first emperor of the Tang dynasty, gained noble status and a noble wife. He is a good man, but when he dies from shock at learning of his Emperor's death, he leaves his wife and three daughters to the unkind mercies of his merchant family. Twelve-year-old Heavenlight achieves escape by impressing a general with her quick with and unique charm, as he arrangers for her to earn a place in the royal household.

Heavenlight finds herself among ten thousand "beauties" vying for the attention and the bed of the new emperor. Her path from there to Empress, ruling in her own right, is astonishing and engaging. She falls in love with both men and women, she contends with plots swirling around her, and she tries to stay true to her convictions and her country.

This book is translated from the Chinese, and as it is from a culture I don't know, a language I don't speak, and a period in history I am completely unfamiliar with, it is a little difficult to judge. The narrative does not unfold seamlessly, but that could be a cultural difference. Sometimes I had trouble differentiating between Heavenlight's desires or dreams, and what actually happened to her, but that could be a translation error. In sum, this was a fascinating book that exposed me to a rich culture and history that I knew nothing about, even if it was not always a compelling read. I would recommend it, though, as Heavenlight is an unforgettable character and her world is mesmerizing.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Lovely, just lovely

What a pretty weekend! It's been so pretty that I haven't been productive at all. I was going to work on a stop-motion film (finally bought some video editing software, am super excited!), and always hope to write, but I didn't do either. What I did do:

- Watched The Triplets of Belleville, an animated adventure in awesome craziness
- Ate delicious Malaysian food on a roofdeck
- Went to the Textile Museum
- Discovered a lovely secluded park where I read (working on my next Historical Tapestry book :) )
- Sawed off one of those really annoying security tags from a skirt I bought (2nd hand, and the tag was still on). This might be the greatest victory of the weekend.
- Watched my husband jump out of a plane and wished I had done so too. Maybe we will ...

Now I'm drinking chai (just a little bit of honey!). Really, does it get any better? I might squeeze one more outdoor activity in ... or maybe I'll just write. Choices.

Could the weekend not be over yet, please?

The intro to the Triplets of Belleville, provided with the warning that the Josephine Baker "cameo" is creepy.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Gardener to the King by Frederic Richaud

This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge - R is for Richaud

The cover and title of Gardener to the King might lend a prospective reader to assume this slim novel is a light-hearted court romance, but Frederic Richaud's debut novel pulls far more weight than a first glance would suggest. The story of Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie, gardener at Versailles to King Louis XIV, turns out to be not a lace-edged ode to royal glamor but an earthy exploration of individuality and existentialism.

La Quintinie is an appealing figure, a modest man who prefers his gardens to the courtier's balls, though he is kind-hearted enough to give the courtiers the benefit of the doubt and to love his King. When not spending time working the rows of his cabbages or pruning his fruit trees, La Quintinie wanders the French countryside, learning the peasants' wisdom and sharing his own. But when international and domestic events bring difficulty to the French, the King's response and the peasants' hardships make La Quintinie re-evaluate his loyalties - at a time when even a whisper of treason can, and does, send the King's subjects to the rack.

This was a charming read, executed in clear, crisp prose (much of this credit, I imagine, goes to translator Barbara Bray). Richaud is gentle about reminding us of the time period, resulting in a sense of gradual immersion rather than rich historicity. For such a short book, it works perfectly. His light touch on the descriptions also leaves the reader with time to contemplate the political and philosophical questions the author raises. I don't know if Richaud's subsequent novels (all historical, I believe) have been translated yet; if not, this is good motivation for me to work on my French!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Cemeteries and memory

I visited a few cemeteries this Labor Day weekend - three, in fact. I love old cemeteries because they are a tactile reminder of the richness of humanity and history. They remind me how many lives have been lived all over our world, some short, some long. Each of those lives memorialized holds a story, even if it's an ordinary one. I suspect, though, that each name carved into a headstone had a secret or a powerful moment, and I love imagining them. Even the infants' and the children's graves tell a story, one of their parents' mourning and of the difficult times they were born into. I read this morning in Scientific American that as recently as 100 years ago, a quarter of children died of infection before their fifth birthdays. The cemeteries we saw over the weekend bore this out, with family plots sometimes half-filled with tiny tombstones memorializing young children.

For a storyteller, cemeteries are both symbolic and a source of inspiration. How do we remember the stories our lives told? Who were these people? What does death mean for us? I have a book of Parisian cemeteries, with entries on the lives of the noteworthy, famous, and talented buried there. I love flipping through it and reading the entries; it's like an abbreviated social history. And each glimpse of a life makes me want to learn more.

This morning, I learned of a newish development in "death care" and tombstones (hat tip - Husband). One can now insert a barcode onto the headstone, and when a smartphone or other scanning device reads the barcode, they will be directed to a website with stories and photos. That's certainly more effective as a memorial function (at least for the short term, as long as society has the technology to read those barcodes and the websites to display the information). From a storyteller's or a romantic dreamer's perspective, such a function is much less provocative. And it is hard for me to avoid the sense that putting a barcode on someone's headstone commercializes them, makes their life into a commodity, even though that's just by association.

If that takes off, or if we develop other ways of memorializing ourselves, with videos embedded in mausoleums or 3-D holograms leaping from grave sites, I wonder what cemetery-wandering in the future will be like. Will it be harder to stretch our imaginations? And does it matter?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sweetsmoke, by David Fuller

This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge - Q is for Quashee.

Cassius is a slave, hardened by loss and inured to love, on a Virginia tobacco plantation: Sweetsmoke. It is 1862, and the war is a constant presence in his life and the lives of the rest of the plantation. The plantation owners have already lost one son to the war, and that son sent two of his favorite slaves to Sweetsmoke. When the beautiful Quashee arrives, the rest of the slaves come to believe that she is the bearer of bad luck, but Cassius can't help but notice her extraordinary intelligence and grace.

Cassius, though, has his own problems. He learns that a beloved friend has died, and he vows to avenge her death. Such a promise, however, is difficult for a black man, a slave in Virginia, to uphold, and the story follows his clever exploits as he manuevers the treacherous waters of the south.

Both Cassius and Quashee are interesting characters for whom I was happy to root. In fact, almost all the characters in Sweetsmoke are memorable and well-realized. My interest in them helped sustain me as I cringed, periodically, at the heavy-handed writing. Mr. Fuller describes plantation life and the war convincingly, but he often succumbs to the temptation to overdramatize his characters' thoughts, including in ways that lead to rapid reversals of heart from one page to another. For example, Cassius has a falling out with a friend, and after two angry lines of dialogue from her, Cassius is left reeling: "An invisible wall was now between them, as if the past had never occurred." A bit extreme, no? Or, when Cassius decides that General Lee will when the war for the south: "This thought depressed him more than he had thought possible."

Overall, though, it's an engaging story. If you really enjoy Civil War stories, this one is probably worth your time.

Blur ... but with a good book

These past few weeks have been really nuts ... International travel for work, a series of family obligations (fun ones, happily), and then I got sick, from which I'm still recovering. All of that plane, hotel, and resting time did have one upside - I was able to read (consume, really) a wonderful book: Possession, by A.S. Byatt. Yes, I'm a bit behind the times, as the novel won the Man Booker Prize all the way back in 1990. But better late than never, and I really loved the book! It wasn't always an easy read, and I had to resort to the dictionary a few times (which actually is pretty fun since then I learn new words, but it does interrupt things). But I loved that the novel succeeded on both the intellectual and the emotional levels - making me think about its themes, and care about the characters. The plot twists weren't surprising at all, but that didn't matter at all. Instead, I loved the experience of good writing and good thinking. Weeeeee!

As for my own writing, I've been focusing on short pieces right now, as I'm taking a short break from edits on one manuscript and don't want to continue writing the other manuscript (about 2/3 through first draft) until I can really devote all my attention to it. But I've got some good ideas for it, so I'm excited to return to it when I can. In the meantime, I'm going to try to improve my craft by writing short stories ... I think I'll leave my thoughts on those for another post, though. Until then, happy literary adventures!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh


This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge. P is for Poppies.

It is sometime during the early years of the 19th century, and tall-masted ships rule the seas. One ship, the Ibis, is a siren, drawing together misfits and heros as it travels from Baltimore to the mouth of the Ganges. Slowly, the disparate lives of Zachary, a mulatto freedman; Deeti, a brave Bengali peasant woman; Paulette, a vivacious Frenchwoman orphaned in India; Neel, a rajah fallen from grace; and so many others weave together, in and around the Ibis as she prepares to embark on her next journey.

Ghosh sets himself an ambitious task, introducing the reader to over a dozen memorable characters whose lives eventually will wind together in the belly of the Ibis, all while capturing the particular historic moment of Britain's Indian colonies just prior to the Opium Wars in China. This is a rich, rich, book, with memorable detail in every paragraph. At first, such ambition feels unwieldy, as the individual trajectories of the characters tarry in forming an overarching narrative. But Ghosh delivers on his promise, and with gusto. I dare anyone to finish this book without caring deeply about the main characters, and not hanging in suspense for the next book of what promises to be a superlative trilogy.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Knowing when you're done, or knowing when you're dead

How do we know when we're done? Obviously, there's no good answer to that, not when it comes to life's complicated projects. I've finished a recent stage of edits on my manuscript, and that seductive little voice has slipped inside my head - "Maybe you're done now, my sweet." It could be true. But, I've listened to this voice before, and boy, was I wrong. It was like pulling out a tray of brownies with batter running down the edges and trying to sell it at a bake sale.

In tangentially related news, the President of Venezuela decided earlier this month to disinter the bones of South American independence hero, Simon Bolivar. That's kind of like digging up George Washington and Moses all at once, for Venezuelans/Colombians/Ecuadorans. Theories behind Chavez's motives abound, but whether he was hoping for evidence that the dastardly Colombians killed Bolivar or hoping to prove that he's got some of the old man's DNA in his Chavista veins, either way, Chavez took something that was most definitely done and, well, resurrected it. (Or tried.)

And a sort of flip side of that ... The Japanese government apparently didn't know when to call it quits, for the man they had been deeming the oldest man in Tokyo was apparently dead for decades. Government officials found his mummified corpse when they went to check on him.

So do I risk over-doing it by working my manuscript more (shaking the dirt off bones that were resting peacefully), or do I throw in the towel (and deceive myself into think I've accomplished something when all I've got is a mummifying manuscript)?

I think I need a second opinion. Cue - husband?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Far Bright Star, by Robert Olmstead

This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge - O is for Olmstead.

In 1916, the frontier of war for the American Army was not across the ocean but south, in the burnt deserts abutting Mexico. In Far Bright Star, a weathered soldier who has served in countless campaigns, heads out into the desert on what he imagines will be just another patrol. But he and the five men who accompany him, all mounted on the horses that the soldier loves almost more than the men, find themselves caught in a trap that they can only end with death - either their own, or that of the enemy.

The story has less of a historical feel than I expected, since so much of the action takes place out in the timeless hell of the desert. That said, history haunts the book in a subtle way, for the soldiers are all aware that a new war in Europe awaits them, and that their cavalry way of life is already extinct. The resulting book almost as the feel of a fable, with its terse prose reminiscent of Hemmingway, and its taciturn characters known by little more than their simple names - Extra Billy, the General, Xenophon. It was an unusual read for me and, given the difficult scenes it describes, not always comfortable. But it was interesting, and Olmstead does not shy away from showing the whole of his main character, moral failings and all, which I appreciated.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Museum Guard, by Howard Norman

For Historical Tapestry's blog challenge - N is for Norman.

The Museum Guard is set, mostly, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a city that seems circumscribed into a tiny world by the limited existence of DeFoe Russet and his uncle Edward, both guards in a three-roomed museum. But the year is 1938, and the outside world is rumbling like a threatening volcano, the danger of which is transmitted through the courageous radio broadcasts of Ovid Lamartine. As Edward becomes increasingly obsessed with Lamartine and his warnings about Hitler, DeFoe wallows in his largely chaste relationship with the beautiful but enigmatic Imogen Linny, the curator of the local Jewish cemetary who can't, it seems, quite decide who she is.

Often, literature paints unrequited love as a noble, if tragic, state. Othello, the Phantom of the Opera, A Long Long Time Ago and Essentially True, etc. But for DeFoe, the narrator of The Museum Guard, however, it is a much less ennobling relationship. Which is kind of poignant, as Imogen becomes obsessed with doing something "ennobling" - leaving her to pursue an idealized identity while DeFoe embraces his faults.

I found this book to be both engaging and frustrating. It's well written, in precise prose that evokes DeFoe's tidy personality and Halifax's cold atmosphere. But the relationship between Imogen and DeFoe is aggravating, as he lavishes patient affection upon her and she seems to only notice herself: her headaches, her thoughts and her worries. Mr. Norman also sets us up from the very beginning to question DeFoe's judgment - in the first sentence of the book, DeFoe tells us he stole a painting for Imogen. So, as the book progressed, I was ready for the theft to happen, and despaired when I thought he would commit this breach of his principles at the worst moment, in a desperate bid for Imogen's affection. I'm glad I didn't throw the book down halfway through, as I was tempted to do, for DeFoe proved himself to be a slightly better man than I had feared. In the end, The Museum Guard raises interesting questions about what it means to define yourself, and what happens when those definitions clash with the outside world.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Cheepy wins a fan

This weekend I traveled to my alma mater for a casual reunion with some dear college friends. It was the first time I'd been back to campus for more than a drive through since graduation, and I was astonished at all the memories that tickled their way into consciousness at the prompting of passing a certain building, or walking a particular path. I was, to my surprise, moved.

But the best part was something that prompted an older memory, with hints of future dreams. We were killing some time after dinner and wandered into a comic book store - a new addition since we graduated. I was enjoying the imagination that's on full display, the bright colors and vibrant artistry, when a threesome of small, black and white, xeroxed comics caught my eye. Scribbled in a childish hand was "Cheepy Learns to Read" and its sequels, populated by a small chicken who was little more than a circle, a triangle for a beak, and some scrawled appendages. Inside were a few pages of charming simplicity and, to my surprise, wit. I bought two. The clerk told me they were drawn by a local seven-year-old girl, whose dad is a regular customer.

That probably makes my week. Imagination, small-town relationships, and a little girl's dreams realized, even as those dreams are probably growing as we speak (or read). All the better. Happy Independence Day, all you aspiring authors! Keep writing, dreaming, and writing.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

And the truth was revealed

In early May, I traveled to my first writing conference. It was, in a word, phenomenal. I attended sessions, met wonderful writers, and even rubbed elbows with some charming published authors and literary agents. I came away energized and, most importantly, with a sense of mission.

At this conference, to be a bit melodramatic, the scales fell from my eyes. I learned, through the critique of disinterested but kind observers, how much work my writing still needs. I also learned, thanks largely to the effervescent Ann Hood, a little bit about how to approach that work. (If any of you writers out there have a chance to attend a conference session with Ann, particularly on revision, I highly, highly recommend it. If this book I'm working on now ever gets published, it will be in great part due to her lesson on revision.)

I had wondered before how to figure out what wasn't working, how to determine if and where my writing was falling short. Though I'd had feedback from family and friends, I wasn't sure that they could be as honest as I needed. (Truth in publishing though - I think what I most needed from them was support and encouragement, which was amply provided. Thank you!) In two personal sessions and numerous group sessions, I realized how far I have to go.

So that's where I've been. Not on this blog, not on Twitter, but digging deep into my novel. I'm loving the experience, though I can't say I'm not a little appalled at how much work it needs, particularly since I've already passed it around to a number of people (and agents, ack!). Opportunities lost - but lessons learned. So it's back to the grind, now. How have others learned the truth about their writing? How did you take it? I feel like I've found religion, but I suspect, unfortunately, that I have more nasty surprises waiting for me ...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel

This review is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge - M is for Mantel.
This novel about the French Revolution and its famous protagonists begins well before the fighting starts - at the birth of its main characters, in fact. This seems, at first, to be a flaw, but as the story draws on this prolonged beginning turns out to be a boon, for by the time the conflict boils over, the reader is deeply enmeshed in Parisian politics and, more importantly, the lives of Mantel's characters. Camille Desmoulins is a brilliant, fragile lay-about and seducer of men and women; Georges-Jacques Danton is a bulldog of a lawyer with passions he is sometimes willing to compromise; Maximilien Robespierre is a sickly, socially timid man whose personal conviction far exceeds his physical frame; Lucile Duplessis is a young girl who develops a crush on Camille, the dashing young man wooing her married mother. Together, they are caught in, and make, the political storm that overtakes their country.

I picked this book up at the bookstore after a long period of anxious browsing. I wanted a book written by a woman, but not one about sisters or mothers or long-lost-loves; in other words, not just about relationships and inner lives, but about action and history and stories. Finally, I found this. I'd never heard of Mantel before reading this book, but A Place of Greater Safety has assured her a pedestal of honor in my heart. This book was everything I'd hoped when I bought it, and more.

Mantel's special skill is combining the details of history with the flesh-and-blood characters that she creates, often sketching them right over the outlines of historical people. Even though we may know the fates of Danton, Robespierre, and Desmoulins, Mantel has a lot to teach us about their lives, loves and passions. As she does so, she sweeps us into the tumult of 18th century France, and I can't imagine finishing this book without a deep respect and affection for the people who inhabited that world. As with Wolf Hall, Mantel is a bit self-indulgent (though less so than in the later work): not attibuting dialogue, shifting perspectives and verb tenses. But she's so damn brilliant, she gets away with it.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Line, by Olga Grushin


This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge - L is for Line.

The line, a shuffling, sighing, gossiping organism starts hopefully, populated by people who aren't sure what exactly will be sold at the other end, or even when, but they all have their dreams. Anya hopes for a cake, an airy, sweet cake to color her drab existence. She lives with her husband in a loveless marriage, watching over their 17-year-old son and her mute mother, all caught in a tiny apartment but utter strangers to each other. As it becomes clear what the line does sell - tickets to a concert by a composer now banished to the West - the line becomes their family's life, the visceral representation of their government's wrongheadedness and repression, and then it transforms them.

This story is historical in the most magical way, blending the Soviet Union of the 1930s, the 1960s and the 1970s into a strange, timeless place never precisely identified (though the model is clear to the reader). Olga Grushin's language is similarly magical, as she brings both the characters and the stark, dim city where they live to sparkling, brilliant life. I first fell in love with Grushin's The Dream Life of Sukhanov for her skillful blending of language and theme, and she does almost as well here. Sukhanov is a tough work to beat, and I highly recommend it, particularly to artists or those who love art (which sould be everyone, right?). The Line is a little more universal in its tale of human disappointment and hope, and perhaps just a touch less sharp for being so universal, but overall it's an excellent, excellent book.

If you're interested in learning more about Ms. Grushin (a Washington local, by the way), check out this interview with the great independent bookstore, Politics and Prose. Ms. Grushin came to the US in her teens, and (amazingly), English is not her native tongue.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge - K is for Known.

I am willing to bet you have never read a book like this before - unless you've read this one. The Known World is the story of black slave-owners in a fictious Virginia county, but it's also the story of the web of relationships that slavery built and destroyed. There's Caldonia, the newly-widowed mistress of the plantation her husband, a freed slave, built and populated with people still condemned to bondage. There's Moses, the black foreman who helped create that plantation and isn't sure where his heart lies. Plus Fern, the black woman who could have passed for white but never contemplated it, and Mister Robbins, the white slave owner who's both harsh overseer and racial diplomat, and many, many more. As all these characters move through the turbulent antebellum and Civil War periods, it's impossible not to get caught in their wake.

Written in a unique style that dips back and forth between attentive, tuneful omniscence and detached, anthropological chronicling, this book is a wonder. By just the first 7 pages the reader has experienced both:

"He paused before leaving the fields as the evening quiet wrapped itself around him. The mule quivered, wanting home and rest. Moses closed his eyes and bent down and took a pinch of the soil and ate it with no more than if it were a spot of cornbread. He worked the dirt around in his mouth and swallowed, leaning his head back and opening his eyes in time to see the strip of sun fade to dark blue and then to nothing."

And,

"In 1855 in Manchester County, Virginia, there were thirty-four free black families, with a mother and father and one child or more, and eight of those free families owned slaves, and all eight knew one another's business. When the War between the States came, the number of slave-owning blacks in Manchester would be down to five, and one of those included an extremely morose man who, according to the U.S. census of 1860, legally owned his own wife and five children and three grandchildren."

This is a great book, written by a fascinating (and local!) man. I won't be giving away my copy - this one's a keeper.

Monday, April 19, 2010

An infusion of fresh blood - yum

Our writing group meets tomorrow and we'll have three new (or probationary, technically) members joining us. Two of the three are men, which we are all pretty excited about. Not because our writing group doubles as a dating pool/occult ritual cult, but because in our group of about 8 people, one of them is a guy. And while most fiction readers are, reportedly, women, all of us as writers value the perspective of that other chromosomal combination.

In spite of our desire to have some male feedback, it's been a little difficult to recruit and retain men for the group. I don't yet have a year with it, but in the time I've been with the group, we've added just 2 men, only one of whom stayed and is now the lone standout. Until tomorrow, at least. I suspect some affirmative action was involved in getting these latest two gentlemen, but I'm happy to remain guessing on that one. It's mysterious that writing, which is often dominated by men (see, for example, last year's controversy over the Publisher's Weekly top books list) seems to be filled with women at the lower rungs. I have no idea if that perception is correct nor do I feel informed enough to venture an explanation, but it's curious to me. I'd be interested to hear if anyone else out there has a similar dynamic in their writing group.

The numbers game aside, I'm looking forward to hearing from some different voices in our groups. Last week, two avid reader friends of mine, both women, were talking about how hard we thought it was for men to write female characters. (Norman Rush's fascinating but ultimately appalling Mating prompted the conversation; Tolstoy got major props for pulling it off.) We noted that we found female author's male characters far more believable, but then laughed at ourselves when we realized of course we had no idea if the men were truly authentic, or just appeared so to our minds, sympathetic to the female authors. Which is all to say, I'm excited to have some real live men (aside from my wonderful, real live husband) to sound test my male characters on.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Ines of My Soul, by Isabel Allende

This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge - I is for ...

My fondness for this book might be colored by its presence (though imperfect) in a particularly ego-stroking moment: There I was, in Santiago, Chile, hunched over local favorite Isabel Allende's latest book in a hip coffee shop, and the server delivers my cappuccino with "Viva Espana" written in the foam of the cup. I blush as I realize that the four words I uttered to request said cappuccino were still tinged with the accent lingering from a college study abroad and this guy thought I was actually Spanish. I have rarely been so excited. I didn't say another word and I tried to cover up English on my book's cover. That is, so long as I remembered to do so, which was briefly because I quickly fell back into the book's gripping plot.

Ines of My Soul is the story of (real-life heroine) Ines Suarez and her 16th century journey from Spain to the New World, where she eventually became involved with Pedro de Valdivia, a leader in Pizarro's company. Together they and a tenacious bunch of settlers crossed the Atacama desert to found what would become Chile. They battle thirst, disease, other Spaniards and, most interestingly, the local Mapuche Indians. While I'd argue that Allende makes Ines a little too modern in her respect for the Mapuche - I suspect Allende didn't have the heart to make her beloved character Ines as bigoted as she probably was in real life - it's most likely a more comfortable stance for the modern reader to watch. (At least this reader was grateful Ines wasn't a total jerk to the displaced and abused Mapuches.) That aside, it was a charming, educational and really fun read. I definitely recommend it, even if it weren't tied to that particular cup of cappuccino!

And for those interested in Isabel Allende's writing habits and personal life, she was featured in the NY Times just this weekend.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Trying something new

I have long been a secret writer - my fiction closely held to my chest, priable away from only my dead fingers, I imagined. But over the past couple of years I've been "coming out" - first admitting that I write fiction, then, gasp, sharing it with other people. Eventually these people included folks other than my husband.

But, aside from the short fiction I publish here, it's still been pretty close-hold. Then I joined a writing group. Strangers? Reading my pathetic little scribblings? Gulp. However, since I've been purged in the fire pit known as Work and The Review Process, I got used to it.

Lately, I crossed a more vertigo-inducing bridge: showing the first chapters of my work-in-progress before I had written the whole thing and edited the heck out of it. It felt a little strange to even consider the first chapters, since as I don't currently know how the book ends I can't be sure how I want it to start. But, wisely or not, I'm submitting those chapters for professional review at a conference I'm going to (another first!) and the deadline was approaching. I needed feedback, I knew it, so I gulped and sent out a few pages.

Well, I didn't die. The experience was actually a bit encouraging - people liked where I was going with the story, liked the characters. That was good to hear. I'm still not sure I won't scrap the whole thing, and it feels a little weird to have people (including my husband) know what my story's about while I'm still writing it, but I'll deal.

How do other people handle this? I imagine it has to do with how private you are in general, and how much about yourself you share in any category. But if we take the icy plunge to show early material, is it more helpful or hurtful? Could it end up being writing by committee or a guiding hand when you most need it?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Snow Mountain Passage by James D. Houston

This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge - H is for Houston.

I say, "Donner Party," and we all know what you think, right? Reading or writing about the infamous settlers and their harrowing five months caught in the snow is bound to entail a certain amount of gut-wrenching horror, and James D. Houston's Snow Mountain Passage is no exception. But we are in the hands of a very capable author, and this story is about far more than the inhumanity those settlers had to resort to. Houston makes the wise narrative choice of focusing on one of the fathers and co-organizers of the party, exiled early in the trek and thus spared from the trap set by massive blizzards and a high mountain pass. Instead, James Frazier Reed is on the other side of those mountains trying to find a way to rescue his family and the eighty others snowbound with them.
It is 1846 and California is still contested, its people caught in the back-and-forth between Mexico and the United States. War threatens, impunity reigns, and it's unclear who even has the right to grant the land the settlers came to occupy. In the midst of all this are, of course, the native inhabitants, watching warily. Our hero, James Reed stumbles into this chaotic world with one mission, to save the wagon party he knows to be caught behind the Sierra Nevada ("snowy mountains"). But this is a story about what makes us human, our errors and all, and the path to rescue is circuitous - whether necessarily so or not.

One of the most compelling aspects of the book is its depiction of a people and a land in total flux. We often talk today about how rapidly change occurs, but at least we in the United States know, generally, who owns the land we walk on, what state it falls in, and what country governs it. We can see, more or less, how the future will unfold. This was not the case for the settlers in mid-19th century California. One of Houston's characters is Captain Sutter, an entreprenuerial Swiss who set himself up as ruler of a tiny corner of California. But that success is slipping away: "The future is crowding him ... What next? There was a time when he thought he knew. These days who can know anything, with the world transforming itself at such a pace. He grows weary of these unforeseeable changes."

Whether it's being caught in a succession of blizzards or drawn off to war against the Mexicans, this book is about unforeseeable changes. I think we can relate.

(For those interested in the author's take on his subject and some fascinating historical background -- visit here.)

Friday, March 19, 2010

On the boss encouraging reading at work - or something like that

After a great weekend trip to New York, risking an instantaneous addiction to NYC brunch, I'm starting to think I have a thing for that second city to the north. So, for those of you who are fortunate enough to live there (meaning you are unfortunately not living in DC, but that's alright), you might be interested in this event on March 25. It's a reading from a history of the cigar factory in Latin America and the role played by "readers" - people hired just to read literature to the factory workers.

What a lovely idea, that factory workers' humanity was sufficiently respected for the managers/owners to hire readers. I wonder what professions we could expand that to today. Think, for example, if there were people who read to the perennially grumpy department of motor vehicle employees as they snap horrible mug shot after horrible mug shot. Maybe our visages would improve! Or maybe we could read to people washing dishes in restaurants. I guess a lot of jobs today require thought, which a reader would distract from, but it's nice to think about what engagement in literature would add to the workplace, not just leisure time.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Read a (good) book! Save the world!

I don't blog about newspaper articles - I don't write here enough to keep up with that sort of thing and plenty of others can do it better. But I can't resist highlighting this wonderful NY Times article. Elias Khoury, a Palestinian, has suffered at the hands of both Israelis and Palestinians in their intractable conflict. When the latest blow came, the murder of his son by Palestinians who mistook the young man for a Jew, Khoury responded. He paid to have a famous work of Israeli literature translated, believing that the more we read about each other the more we understand, and the better our chances at co-existence.

Separately, I read a report today detailing a study of tolerance in the Western Hemisphere. The authors attempted to determine the people's willingness to accept gay candidates, to recognize their right to go to office. In the end, the authors concluded that the one factor that made the greatest difference towards promoting that tolerance was not wealth, gender, or even age - it was education.

So - save the world. Read a book. Challenge yourself!

(To take my own advice: I recently won a contest where I received 3 free books. Those books arrived one by one at our house, and only after opening the third did I figure out the trend. They were all written by people of faith and were about their religious experiences. My diabolical heart sinks - I am not religious. At all. BUT, I have resolved to read at least one of these. I will get to know these people better!)

What books are you reading or have you read that have challenged the way you thought about others? Either fiction or non-fiction.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway

This is for Historical Tapestry's alphabet blog challenge. G is for Galloway!

A mortar attack during the siege of Sarajevo kills twenty-two people, people who were waiting in line to buy bread. Their lives were ended during such a mundane and humane moment, and so a cellist decides to honor them, or heal himself, by playing Albioni's Adagio in the crater of the attack for twenty-two days. Or at least as long as he can.

In the course of his effort to do so, the cellist and his music weave across the lives of three other of Sarajevo's beleaguered residents. The stories of these three other people are largely separate but joined by their individual revelations of humanity in the face of grueling war. The story of Arrow, a sniper who wants to keep her hands (and morals) clean, is the most compelling of the three, but all are lovely. I would not be surprised if the book's structure, intertwining the three stories, reflects the structure of the Adagio, but unfortunately I am a musical ignoramus so can only guess.

I am probably cheating in calling this book historical fiction, but I am quite willing to do so for two reasons: one, this was a historically significant war, even if it's modern, and two, the book is beautiful and worth touting wherever I can. The writing is clear and musical, and the characters come to life with resonance. I hope you read it!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Remembering How to Ride a Bike

They say you never forget how to ride a bike, but that isn't true. Sure, the mechanics of foot-push-glide-steer remain, but that's not riding. It's the balance, the body poised over the bicycle's frame, leaned into a curve, or weaving around an obstacle that is forgotten. Forgotten so that what remains is a clumsy, mechanical imitation of bike riding.

Steve didn't know any of this, though, when he bought the bike with the flat tire for $10 at a yard sale. It didn't occur to him that he could forget, and in that moment of hopeful weakness, he didn't want to entertain doubts. He was emerging, he thought, from the throat-gripping darkness that had cloaked his life. After two (or was it more? he could hardly think of it) years of desperate misery, Steve was ready to consider the possibility of something other than pain. The bike seemed like a good start.

But it huddled, injured with its flat tire, in his front hallway for weeks. Every time Steve walked past it, he grimaced, both at the reminder of his unfinished task and at the bike's pathetic silhouette.

The decision came, as they often do for those who are healing, without any warning. He woke up, dressed, and took the bike to the shop, where he bought a new tire. Before putting the renovated bike back in his car to drive home, Steve swung a leg over the frame. He bruised his knee against the seat, but ignored it. He lifted himself onto the pedals, and with an anxious breath, pushed off.

Then he realized how much he had forgotten. He wobbled around the parking lot, and nearly strayed into the street as he turned onto a sidewalk. His body felt foreign as it stumbled to execute his biking commands.

But as the breeze flowed past his cheek, his hair, and as his hands flexed against the breaks, he realized what else he had forgotten. That there had been a time when he bicycled. When he had moved from place to place in the open air, or simply traveled for the sake of the journey. That he had once grinned so widely he had inhaled a large bug. That he'd skinned his knee but hopped up again to finish racing down a hill, just to see how fast he could go. He had forgotten those things too. He smiled, just a little, as the memories trickled in. Oh. This is who I was. Am.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald

This is a part of Historical Tapestry's blog challenge - F is for Fitzgerald (and Flower, and Fritz, and ...)

Fritz, son of an pious, proud and poor nobleman in late 18th century Germany, is clearly destined to be a poet, though he tries to force himself into a more practical, and pecuniary, profession. From the start, the reader realizes Fritz is flighty and pensive, even if his thoughts are rather impentrable. The opening chapter introduces us to Fritz's family on laundry day, when their underclothes are billowing in the air as a friend comes to visit. Fritz admonishes his friend, "Gentlemen! Look at that washbasket! Let your thought be the washbasket! Have you thought the washbasket? Now then, gentlemen, let your thought be on that that thought the washbasket!"

I have no idea what he means by that. I can guess, though, what Fitzgerald means it to reveal about her character - that he seeks the essence of the universe in individual things, that his thoughts do not often untangle themself well when aired to others. The richness of the personal interior is one of the key themes of the book, which has a relatively simple plot. I hate to write this, as it doesn't happen until nearly a third into the book, but it's on the back flap ... Fritz falls in love with the young (12!) Sophie, and the rest of the book is an examination of his love as he waits for her to age, to catch up. This strange love is confusing to those around him, some of whom regard Sophie as a halfwit, although there are others who become equally caught in her spell.

The crux of the book, though, is not Sophie but a story Fritz has written about a blue flower. A young man remembers a blue flower a stranger showed him, and he says, "I have no craving to be rich, but I long to see the blue flower. It lies incessantly at my heart, and I can imagine and think about nothing else. Never did I feel like this before. It is as if until now I had been dreaming, or as if sleep had carried me into another world." After reading the story to a young woman who is in love with him, though Fritz is ignorant of it, he asks her, "What is the meaning of the blue flower?" It is a question that haunts the reader for the rest of the book.

Overall, this is a quiet, strange story. It is written in a romantic style reminiscent of Goethe, who haunts the edges of the story as a character himself. I suppose it's better to think of it as a poem, one that Fritz would eventually write when he fulfills his destiny, with a lovely collection of images, people and feeling that reveals meaning after contemplation.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Great Gatsby - the Ballet?


This might end up being like either a spork, a liger (see illustration, via Napoleon Dynamite), or a mule. (Respectively: Fabulous combination, A great idea but fails in execution, or Stubborn and sterile.) But, in anticipation, I'm very excited. The Washington Ballet is world-premiering The Great Gatsby at the Kennedy Center - the book turned into an original, full-length ballet. Since part of the appeal of The Great Gatsby is the brilliant use of language and the specific, pithy insights into human nature, I'm not sure it will translate. But I'm quite willing to give it a try! And in the meantime, I get to reread the book (which I have - ack - never actually finished), which is most enjoyable in and of itself. If you're in Washington, check it out! And who knows, if this succeeds, perhaps they'll take it on the road.

Monday, February 15, 2010

What is it with England?

I can feel the addiction building, lingering at the edge of my vision and threatening to pounce on me. It's an addiction that seems to take nearly every white American (and many others) who are interested in history - that fascination with England, and particularly medieval/Elizabethan England. (Am I wrong here? Is my addiction already so full-blown that I'm seeing legions of fellow addicts when really we are few?)

Part of this is timing - I am planning, in the future, to set one my my next books in medieval England. (Ack, another book on mud and knights and kings? I can't help myself ...) But part of it is the particular cultural diet I've had recently. First, the Shakespeare Theatre's incredible, stunning, and strangely sexy Henry V. If you're in DC, check it out. Second, I'm reading Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, and in addition to being among the most unique reading experiences I've had, it's getting me hooked on Henry VIII. (Yes, different time frames, but I think romantically they are all linked.) Next, I bought Bernard Cornwell's Agincourt today. I'm slipping down the hill!

Now, I have not yet sewn a Renaissance Festival dress. I swear I will not go that far! I swear! (Though I would probably cave if I could shoot a recurve bow, or even a longbow. Man, I want one of those.)

A note - I just came upon this wonderful Database of the Soldier in Medieval England. You can search by name! I searched for Bell, my mother's mother's family, and found many Bells. Who were archers. Hmm.
A second, completely tangential note - For anyone else interested in the moral value/role of fiction, something I've written on in the past, D.G. Myers does a much more eloquent job than I in examining some recent thoughts on the topic.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On a book with a great title and distinct voice

The snow machine currently whirring over the DC area has given me a number of things, not least of which is time to sit home reading and writing. The first book to succumb to my snow-induced reading crusade was Brigid Pasulka's A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True. I'm not going to write up each book I read, but I wanted to highlight this one for two reasons: one, it was really good; two, it has a tremendous voice.

Voice, as writers know, is that often-elusive, ever-touted sense that the words on the page come together with a certain personality. Pasulka's book is a great example because she has two distinct voices alternating. One is a sort of magical realism tale-teller's omniscient POV voice, and the other is the first-person voice of a twenty-something single woman languishing on the edge of Poland's new, post-Soviet modernity. The first sparkles with fairy tale glitter, even when it's diving into the bloody horrors of war, and the second resonates with the repressed hope of a serious young woman unwilling to recognize her dreams, much less embrace them. I strongly recommend reading it just for the interesting study in contrasts.

That said, it's also a really good story. Not necessarily a page-turning, thrilling adventure, but still an engrossing depiction of love, sacrifice, and the search for meaning. Yes, that sounds cliche, but I'm trying not to spoil anything. And, distilled, just about any life-affirming story sounds cliche (even calling it "life-affirming" is cliche). Maybe it's better to phrase the question in the way the first-person narrator does - is she on the shelf, put away from life, or off the shelf, circulating? Get to know her, and her answer might surprise you.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The ALF in my house

Maybe it's the result of being cooped up in the apartment for four and a half days (tomorrow makes that five and a half). Maybe it's that I over-think things (just ask the husband :) ). But I can't stop staring at the cats and thinking What alien life form are you and why are you living in my house?

Really, why do we let these small creatures with their impenetrable thoughts in our homes? Ok, yes, I love them to pieces, but I'm convinced that it's some sort of spell they cast on me. I am certain that the female kitty (K1, for those who recall) regards me as simply a giant walking lap that once a day pours food into the bowl. When the lap is sitting, it must be sat upon. When the lap is standing, it must be begged for treats.

I feel so used.

Yet, I love them! Can't get enough of them! Just want to snuggle my face into their furry little bodies til I sneeze from all the fur up my nozzle. And anyways, I'm just guessing that's that what she thinks. Because, unlike with dogs and husbands and houseguests, cats usually keep their thoughts to themselves. (Why are you sitting in that cardboard box even though it's too small for your bottom? Why is the appearance of a laptop bag cause for intense investigation and much chewing of zipper?)

Maybe this is some sort of alien reality TV show ... I wonder how I could leverage that for 15 minutes of Xordox fame.

Or maybe I should stop staring at the cats and get back to writing that novel.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Flame Spirit's Choice

Each night the company performed, which was at least thrice a week when times were good, the little flame spirit crept from her lantern to watch. She left a fire spell, mirroring her own energy to cast light upon the magical stage, so no one would notice her absence. It was a risk, she knew, flitting from her hanging lantern like a loose spark to fall upon the stage. If she weren't careful, she could set the whole beautiful theatre ablaze. But she was careful, for she loved the plays.

Her favorite was Shakespeare. The playwright's words seemed channeled from her deepest essence, grown into a bonfire or condensed into smoldering ashes upon the stage. Crouched lightly, dimly, on the edge of the stage, she folded her little knees upon herself and drank in the words.

Henry V: We must bear all. O hard condition, Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath Of every fool whose sense no more can feel But his own wringing ...

She remembered little of her life before the theatre, although dimly she knew it to have been long. She supposed she had been born from the death of an old flame spirit, grown so great in his power that he splintered like a log burning, shedding dozens of sparks that would become her brothers and sisters. Such is the balance of the world, and she knew that was her fate too, so she had tried to keep herself modest, her feelings limited. That was how she remembered so little, for she had truly experienced very little.

But the theatre tested this. The actors conjured a broad world, igniting a passion within, and it was all she could do to constrain herself, to keep from inhaling the contagious passions and releasing them, doubled in strength.

Lear: Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones! Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone forever.

She did once, it was true, singe a curtain. Fortunately a stage hand glimpsed the smoke and tossed a bit of water upon it - the flame spirit was out of range of the splash, happily. But the blackened curtain, which the company could not afford to replace, just as they could not repaint the cracking gilt upon the walls or reupholster the worn velvet seats, reminded her of her choice. That she had decided to live, to experience the magic that this stage produced, reflecting - she guessed - the magic of the world, even if that choice, that life, meant that her own was eventually to end. She revelled in her choice as she crouched at the edge of the stage, watching, the dim flicker of her light reflected in eyes of the theatre's patrons, who leaned forward, absorbed in the drama.

Image is of the Princess Theatre in Dunadin, 1876, courtesy of Down Under in the 19th Century.

The Farming of Bones, by Edwidge Danticat

This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge. E is for Edwidge!

A brief note: I drafted this review before the earthquake in Haiti, and now it seems even more important to advocate for this fabulous book. In a testament to the power of fiction (and perhaps the weakness of the human mind), reading the story Edwidge Danticat unfolds makes Haiti's current tragedy a little more real, as her tale grants Haiti just a bit more human depth for those who live so far away. Or at least for me!

This book is beautiful. Stunning. It's a simple story - a woman on the wrong side of a border, at the wrong time in history. But Edwidge Danticat tells the tale of Amabelle, a Haitian orphan working in the Dominican Republic, with such intricate beauty and passion, that it's a page-turning thriller you wish you could slow down to enjoy but can't, not quite. There are a number of themes and motifs that make reading a discovery, a delicious uncovering of meaning and beauty.

The book opens with Amabelle's description of her lover and how he brushes away her nightmares. It's a touching scene, with the vulnerability of her naked body foretelling the danger that lurks, but also promising an amulet of protection. From there Danticat alternates between chapters where Amabelle tells her harrowing story and chapters where she touches her dream world - worlds that, almost inevitably it seems, begin to converge by the end.

The story takes place in 1937 but it doesn't feel that distant - unfortunately, I suppose. The passions and violence that fly into the characters' lives feel too much like something we could read about in the news today. But that is part of the book's appeal. Are we reading about something dead and buried, or a living cowardice? And how do we bequeath the knowledge we have?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Because there's nothing more satisfying than confirming your own conclusion

I work in a place where we (hold on, this is shocking) have to make decisions. Then we sit back and see if those decisions were correct. (Completely fictional example: "Yes, I think unicorns will be widespread this year, so I think we ought to buy unicorn-protection gear for our people." Six months later, "Wow, did you see Bob survive that unicorn attack? I'm glad we got him that unicorn-proof umbrella.")

So, as many of you can likely affirm, finding information that proves you're right is incredibly satisfying. The risk, of course, is that you search for corroborating information and ignore dissonant information. But, disregard that, because I'd like to share a lovely little tidbit that made me feel even more secure in the conviction expressed in my last post! (Quick recap: Reading fiction makes you a better human.)

My current living-in-the-purse book is Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian, translated by Grace Frick. It is a fictionalized letter from the Emperor Hadrian that's ostensibly about his life but is really a series of beautiful philosophical musings. (So does it count as fiction? Of course!) It's great bus reading, sucking me away from the humdrum existence of public transit. Today I reached this gem:

"Grammar, with its mixture of logical rule and arbitrary usage, proposes to a young mind a foretaste of what will be offered to him later on by law and ethics, those sciences of human conduct, and by all the systems wherein man has codified his instinctive experience."

I love it! It got me thinking about other tidbits that have reaffirmed my conviction (remember, we're ignoring dissonant information today). Anyone out there have good examples of your own?

Friday, January 29, 2010

From The Department of Irrelevant Plans

I have an unfortunate pre-sleep habit. Maybe it's my worrying nature, or over-active imagination, or that last cup of tea I drank, but, whatever it is, it plagues me. I often find myself planning intricate contingency plans - "just in case." When I was a child, the plans I developed ranged from the mundane (how I would escape from the house when it caught on fire) to the, hm, excessively heroic (what I would say to Saddam Hussein when I captured him - yes, I was a child during the first Gulf War). In a more recent example, I tossed and turned for forty-five minutes as my brain refused to relinquish consciousness until I had planned out the *entire script* for the toast I would make at my sister's wedding. Mind you, she is not even engaged. I was pretty irritated at my brain for that one.

The latest spawn of the Contingency Planning for Really Unlikely Scenarios Division stemmed from this panicked thought: What if I had to speak at the National Book Fair?? Obviously, the ego and presumption implied by that scenario is quite impressive, and I hope (but doubt) you will believe me when I say that the same ego (or lack thereof) has asked me to prepare for What If I Had to Prevent Pre-Teens From Mocking Me Incessantly on the Metro?

So, mental wheels a-whir in their unstoppable processes, I determined that I would speak (at the National Book Fair, that is, not the Metro, that would be a FAIL) on Why Reading Fiction Makes You a Better Human. Those of you (mostly my father-in-law and that one other guy I bribed) who read this regularly are familiar with my thoughts on this topic. (In brief: the empathetic value of shifting a perspective, the exposure to a broader realm of shared culture, the flexing of imagination, the primitive satisfaction of narrative.) Now, I've recently met a number of people who have told me they don't read any fiction. As a policy. They do not feel it's worth their time. I am astounded. I am appalled. I am wondering if it's possible to convince them that they are withering their little human souls by not reading fiction. Now, this might be a distinctly Washingtonian phenomenon, or perhaps I continue to make the wrong acquaintances (cue: pre-teens on the Metro contingency). But I'm interested in the question nonetheless - can we convince people to read good fiction? (And does it Make You a Better Human? I need to know before I have to make that speech!!)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Secret Power Ring and Other Hints to Yourself


I have a secret. A ring of mine, the precise nature of which I will not disclose, serves as a hidden source of power. Ok, I thought about lying here and saying that when I put it on, I lose ten pounds and write amazing stories. But you might call me on that one. In truth, its powers are a bit more prosaic, though arguably more important to me. The ring serves as a private reminder to me of who I am. So, when I'm sitting in some high-falutin' meeting where people are arguing about the minutae of international affairs as though the stakes were our own livers lying in the teeth of a rabbit trap, I look down at that ring. I take a deep breath and smile. I'm more than just facts and details and who's right and who's wrong. I'm someone who loves art, who reads literature, who writes for the joy of creation, who secretly wishes the meeting were being conducted with hand puppets. Maybe no one else at that meeting table knows it, but I do. Now that's zen.

Does anyone else out there have a secret power item? Or a secret tattoo? Or an imaginary mouse that lives in your pocket and squeaks to remind you of who you really are? (I'd like one of those, please. Complete with matchbox home.)

(Photo is from the ever-awesome etsy and the great person who made that lovely ring.)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Structure is Important in Kitty Life

Our kitties are as regular as senior citizens on bran muffins and prunes - each day has the same rhythm and pattern, often down to the minute. They asked me to share, as they'd like to know if there are other kitties out there that prize their scheduled habits as much as these.
But first, some introductions.
Because the kitties' names are awful (yes, my fault), we'll keep it simple. We've got the Black Cat, our first kitty and therefore K1, and the White Cat, the newcomer and therefore K2. Since you can't have too many cat pictures:













We can identify which is which, yes? Good, moving along.
Our kitty morning starts bright and early, at 0630. This is approximately 15 minutes before Carrie's alarm goes off.

K2: Enough of this sleeping and treasuring your last few winks of sleep. Let's go! Meow!
K1: Sleeping.

After Carrie takes a shower and moves into the kitchen for breakfast, the kitties follow. They beg for food, they are denied. When Carrie prepares to leave, K2 takes up his customary position by the front door. This is similar to the position taken by one of those draft stoppers.

Repeat 30-45 minutes later, when husband departs. Then sleep. Also take advantage of humans' absence by doing things normally prohibited: prancing on countertops, running across the dining table, chewing any hardback books available.

But the day really gets going at 6pm when Carrie or husband returns home.
K2: Dear god I'm hungry I'm hungry I'm dying feed me!
K1: Dear god I'm hungry I'm hungry I'm dying feed me!

Food is given. Peace ensues.
* Once a week exception:
K1: I'm so so hungry I've gotta eat and eat and eat and eat and ... oh lord, here it comes, gag, gag, PUKE.
K2: Oooh, warm food too!

Exactly 30 minutes of peace ensue. Then the switch is thrown.

K2: Meow, meow, meow. (this happens preferably in front of the door to the HVAC, for some mysterious reason. Likely mouse ghosts behind door.)
K1: sleeping
K2's incessant meowing means one of three things. None of these are immediately apparent and only trial and error reveals the solution. 1) He is playful and would like to be entertained. 2) He is lonely and would like to be pet. 3) He is bored to tears and would like to be held against his will under the faucet so that he gets soaked and then can occupy himself with grooming.
K1: sleeping

Peace ensues.
When it's bedtime, K2 revs up the action again. This may include: meowing by the HVAC, chasing K1 as she howls in agony, or hunting. Hunting involves finding a door mat, sliding oneself under it, and remaining perfectly still so as to best catch unsuspecting prey (ie, K1). Hunting also requires complete focus, meaning that even if one is poked, spoken too, or laughed at in one's face, one maintains a stoic and impassive expression, gaze focused keenly at an unspecified point in the distance.
Immediately prior to bedtime, K2 takes up his sentry watch - under the bed. Should Carrie go to bed before husband and need to shut the door, K2 will refuse to abandon his post. That is, until ten minutes after lights-out at which point K2 crawls out and commences whining at the shut door.
Finally, sleep and the opportunity to share a bed with warm human bodies call.

K2: Sleeping on left side of human.
K1: Sleeping on right side of human.
Until 3:30am.

K2: Sleeping on right side of human.
K1: Pawing frantically at the closet door like a fat kid trying to climb a greased wall when pursued by a t-rex.
K2: Realizes it must be play time. Meow!
Fortunately, from 4:00am til 6:30am, peace ensues.

K2: Sleeping at stomach of human.
K1: Sleeping at feet of human.

And then it starts all over.

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma