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.

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma