Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hiatus, for a good reason

I won't be posting much in the coming weeks ... But I think I have a good excuse. Her name is Aria.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sixteenth Century Thought Experiments and Kittens

We're lucky today to count Death as an infrequent visitor, but in the 16th century, Europeans had a much closer familiarity with such loss. Infant mortality was extremely high, life expectancy over all was less than half what Americans can look forward to today, and illness or accident could slay anyone at the slightest glance. Thus Michel de Montaigne found himself in his mid-30s and mourning the death of his best friend, his first-born infant daughter, his younger brother, and his father, all while expecting his own life to end within a few years. Such a cacophony of loss drove him to retire to his Bordeaux estate and resolve to steel his will with stoicism, the reigning philosophy of the day.

But this late Renaissance humanist found that he uncovered not stillness but endless curiosity when left alone with his mind. He turned to experimenting with the world - having himself woken while in a deep sleep so as to try to know slumber, traveling across Europe to "polish" his mind through contact with others, and musing about the meaning of his cat's play. These trials he turned to essays, from the French verb "essayer," to try or taste. And the result was a tremendous contribution to Western thought and literature.

In When I am Playing With My Cat, How do I know That She is Not Playing With Me? by Saul Frampton, we learn about both Montaigne's life and his essays. I've never read the originals, so I can't speak to Frampton's scholarship, but the story his writes is both compelling and edifying. Montaigne, at least by Frampton's account, is a charmingly human man, eager to learn about himself and his fellows through close contact and observation. He's also intellectually daring and honest with himself, and comes to some conclusions quite different from the mainstream of his time. I really enjoyed this book - devoured it in just over a day - and now look forward to trying (tasting, as Montaigne might put it), the original essays.

By the way, Montaigne lived during a fascinating period of French history, including the religious civil wars and the death of Henry II. Does anyone know of a good novel about him and his life? I'd love to read it. If it's not out there though, maybe I'll add that to my long list of projects I'd like to write some day!

Cover image from World Literature and Philosophy Rochester Public Library blog. Once again, what a neat cover, no?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise, by Julia Stuart

It is, contrary to this visitor's expectation, a little difficult to feel the full weight of history when visiting the Tower of London. Maybe it's the conveyor belt they make you stand on to see the Crown Jewels, or maybe it's the hordes of other tourists blandly staring at yet another suit of armor. The complex can feel just a bit silly, belying its almost millennium of weighty history.

So perhaps it is appropriate that Julia Stuart's novel is quite silly, filled with a frolicking bearded pig, a tail-less centenarian tortoise, and an erotica-writing clergyman, among other oddities, but still drenched with history and emotion. Stuart takes us into the almost-cloistered lives of the Beefeaters who care for the tower and its ghosts, where we meet Balthazar Jones, a Beefeater stumbling through a thick depression after the death of his only child. Balthazar lives with his beloved wife and Mrs. Cook, a family heirloom who claims descent from Captain Cook's own tortoise and carries her home with her as she makes her slow trek across the Tower Grounds.

None of the Tower's inhabitants seem to have life figured out. Balthazar and his wife Hebe Jones are each drowning alone in their grief. The owner of the Tower's occupants-only pub suspects that she earned more than just a disappointed heart from her fling with a Spaniard. The chapel's reverend fears he will never free his dwelling from the evil occupation of yellow-toothed rats. And, worst of all, the Queen worries that visitor numbers at the Tower are down, just as she is in need of a new location for her personal menagerie.

The juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy is one of Stuart's greatest strengths here, and the result is a touching, if light, novel. She also sprinkles in fun bits of history - like the story of Ranulf Flambard, the Tower's first notable occupant and first escapee. This is certainly an enjoyable and charming read, particularly if you're a fan of British history and quirks.

Isn't the cover just adorable? Image lifted from Book Covers Anonymous, where you can also see the UK cover.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Once Upon a River, by Bonnie Jo Campbell

The one upside of sitting around and waiting to have this tardy baby is that I've been able to do some reading. I happily finished my stack of books from the library - Toni Morrison's Jazz, Virginia Wolff's To the Lighthouse and Bonnie Jo Campbell's Once Upon a River, most recently. The latter book is an excellent treatise on what not to let happen to your daughter, at least in the eyes if this one expectant mother.

Margo is nearly 15 when the book opens, a beautiful young girl in love with the river and her family's simple, grubby existence along it. She experiences a traumatic event yet, as she is slow to decision and action, she takes a long time to even classify it as such. But once she decides that she has been wronged, her revenge sets off an unforeseen chain of events that sets Margo adrift on her beloved river, roaming up and down it in search of herself and a life that fits her independent spirit.

Margo is, in some ways, a tough character to love. She seems to have completely misplaced her self-preservation instinct, particularly when it comes to dealing with men. She is so casual about her sexuality as to be almost unbelievable, but I suppose it is intended to be a reflection of her inability to value herself. I found it tough to care about a girl who doesn't seem to care about herself, but she has enough hard-chewed charm to make her story worth following. And if, like me, the last time you skinned an animal was in a previous life, you'll likely find the world she lives in to be exotic and captivating, filled with dreams of Annie Oakley and the mysterious ways of stalking herons.

The best thing about the book is Ms. Campbell's writing. She manages to be both stark and evocative, and creates vivid characters. A number of those characters are mothers, and this mother-in-waiting is grateful to learn from their mistakes and their grace.

Monday, October 31, 2011

That Crazy Love for Writing

The other night, when I was in one of my periodic "my writing stinks I don't know why I bother with this madness and I'll never get a novel published" moods, my husband ventured that he thought I enjoyed writing for the sake of writing, regardless of whether or not I had an audience. Well, not exactly, I tried to explain, without sounding like a raving egoist. Writing is about communication, fundamentally, and storytellers want their stories shared. He parried with the counterexample of diarists, who write for themselves. I admitted he had a point, but conceded my weakness - that's just not me. I guess I do want the validation of publication and someone else's approval. Isn't that embarrassing.

But now, thanks to Betsy Lerner's wonderful, funny, and instructive The Forest for the Trees, I can feel justified in being in good company! Lerner's book is the second of two I've read recently about the more personal, intimate sides of writing. She and Bonnie Friedman (in Writing Past Dark) explore the knotted mess of fear and ego that both propels and hinders writers. As Lerner reminds us, writers are people who write. She says, "When writers say they have no choice, what they mean is: Everything in the world conspired to make me quit but I kept going." Yes, that sounds about right.

Friedman and Lerner both urge writers to dig deeper into themselves, to use writing to express those burning emotions that are doing everything to evade our thoughts and our pens. That's a good reminder, I think -- encouragement to take risks with our characters and our readers. I know that my tendency to want to be nice to people bleeds into my writing and subverts my efforts to build tension. Thanks to my writing group and authors like Lerner and Friedman, I'm at least aware of the weakness and know to press myself.

Most importantly, I've been reminded that writing is hard work and slogging through the emotional roller coaster is a natural part of the process. As Lerner notes, "Writing is nothing but a long distance race. The same kind of hubris that can cripple a runner who doesn't properly train can also derail a writer from reaching his goal." With that in mind, it's nose to the grindstone. With a periodic pat on the back for seeing my first published story hit the streets. We'll all keep working at it!

Isn't the cover of The Forest for the Trees just beautiful??

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Doc, by Mary Doria Russell

Doc Holliday is one of those characters that we're surprised was actually a man, a flesh-and-blood human living in the 19th century and not just a spit-fire, charming consumptive dealing deadly hands of poker in legend after legend. John Henry Holliday was born in Georgia in 1851 and, as Mary Doria Russell tells us in her first sentence, he began to die only 21 years later. But the Fates, as she has it, had a lot more in store for the southern gentleman cum dentist before that death caught up with him. Fleeing the tuberculosis that killed his mother and had already settled in his lungs, John Henry fled west, where he met Kate, the woman who would change his life, and the Earp brothers, the men who would draw him into the history books.

Doc tells John Henry Holliday's story before the fateful showdown at the OK Corral. The book is a strange beast, with a heaping of omniscient narrative overview and relatively little real-time story telling. For this reader, that took a little getting used to. But the story picks up as the novel progresses, and by the time Doc is coughing blood into his handkerchief while Morgan Earp reads to him at his bedside, I was hooked. Russell does a wonderful job of humanizing this legend, apparently aided by an impressive amount of research, and I'm very glad to have met her version of Doc.

The photo here is of John Henry Holliday at age 20, upon graduation from dental school. It is one of the few authenticated photographs of the man.

Side note: Apparently Paramount bought the rights to a script for an action adventure film about Doc Holliday. Cool. Though I'm willing to bet Mary Doria Russell's version of the man is far more interesting.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Zookeeper's Wife, by Diane Ackerman

Jan and Antonina Zabinski filled their bright house with laughter, scampering baby animals, and tinkling piano music. Beyond the house stretched the Warsaw Zoo, where Jan was the caretaker, and every day the sounds of elephants, monkeys, macaws and other exotic animals drifted through the air. But the Nazis brought war to Poland, and the zoo was devastated. The Zabinskis reacted with unusual courage, drawing upon their conviction that both humans and animals deserved more than the occupiers believed. The Zookeeper's Wife chronicles the true story of their brave efforts, which would ultimately help more than three hundred people survive the Nazi horrors.

Diane Ackerman is an author of both non-fiction and poetry, but I think it is her poet's sense that most strongly imbues this book. If you're looking for a straightforward narrative, this is probably not your story. Ackerman leaves out key details (like how old the Zabinski's son Rys is at the start of the war), and sometimes neglects to follow a storyline to the end. But if you're looking to learn more about the people that experienced the cruelties of Nazi occupation and the depth of strength they brought to bear in their resistance, this is a great read. Ackerman clearly loves Antonina, the title figure, and brings her to life for us with deft prose. She and her husband were remarkable and inspiring individuals, and I think we are better off for knowing them.

Image is of an elephant from the Warsaw Zoo in 1938, courtesy of WikiCommons.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Confident writing

It's fun to enter contests. There's the element of surprise and a sort of carefree, what-the-heck release that comes from tossing your hat in the ring. Just like that silly carnival game where you flip over a random rubber duck. Yeah, you probably won't win but hey, those duckies are cute. Bayou magazine sponsors annual prizes in fiction and poetry that include the added benefit of a subscription to the journal for your $15 entry fee. (So check it out and throw your 7,500-word-or-less hat into their ring!)

The first piece in Bayou's latest issue (#35) is titled, unappealingly, "Shitstick." Against my natural inclination, I started reading anyway. It did not take long for the author to grab my attention, and he held it, in spite of the fact that the essay is about young boys I didn't have much sympathy for and a childhood experience I could not relate to. It was the writing. Hans Burger, in his first publication, has some damned confident prose. And just like with dating, confidence is attractive.

As a result, I've been thinking about what exactly makes writing confident. The easy answer is "doing everything right" - displaying the right details, choosing the most fitting words, and balancing between description and action, among other things. But that answer seems like a cop-out to me. Perhaps confident writing is nothing more than the intangible sense a writer gives when she knows what she has to say and says it with the most perfect economy available. But perhaps confidence is a mirage, the result of layers upon layers of careful editing. I suspect that no amount of editing can make uncertain prose gleam with confidence, but I'm open to being convinced.

Photo from the Rubber Duck Regatta, a program to benefit prevention of elder abuse.

Monday, October 3, 2011

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

When a pharmacologist working for a major drug company is declared dead from a fever in the Amazon while on a work reconnaissance trip, his colleague Marina journeys to the jungle to learn what happened to him. A reluctant
Marina arrives in bug-ridden Manaus only to learn that her destination, a mysterious research lab run by her former professor, is more difficult to both find and understand than she had ever anticipated.

While this story does not sound like a likely candidate for a lyrical, moving book, in Ann Patchett's amazingly talented hands the novel simply soars. Marina is a complicated character and, though it takes us a little while to get to know and care for her, her journey is ultimately worthwhile. And Patchett's writing is a joy, as she brings us to the sticky, oppressive heat of Manaus, the mind-numbing terror of the monotonous jungle, and the simple beauty of the Minnesotan plains. Take the following excerpt, for example. I will never think of opera in the same way as before.

... But when the house was dark and the overture rose up to their third-tier balcony she understood completely. Suddenly every insect in Manaus was forgotten. The chicken heads that cluttered the tables in the market place and the starving dogs that waited in the hopes that one might fall were forgotten. The children with fans that waved the flies away from the baskets of fish were forgotten even as she knew she was not supposed to forget the children. She longed to forget them. She managed to forget the smells, the traffic, the sticky pools of blood. The doors sealed them in with the music and sealed the world out and suddenly it was clear that building an opera house was a basic act of human survival.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Personality types and characters

This week I've been in a leadership class. You know, one of those mandatory ones that everyone groans about and drags their feet on signing up for. Well, to my surprise, this course has ended up being interesting. Even useful. Hey, who would have thought. In addition to the useful stuff I've learned for work, I also enjoyed the discussion of personality types and Myers Briggs. We took the tests, confirmed our types, and talked about what that meant. I'm an INFJ - someone who needs to recharge her batteries alone, lives in the abstract, places a priority on feelings and subjective decisions, and is highly comfortable with schedules and programs. What about you?

Aside from the personal and relationship value (like understanding why my husband forgets to shave or immediately jumps into picking apart a news article I thought was "neat"), I found the exercises also useful for my writing. What personality types are my characters? I think my most recent character is an ENFP - she's definitely into the abstract, and does not need to have things planned out. In fact, being willing to fly by the seat of her pants gets her in considerable trouble, when she follows someone else's lead into a very dangerous situation. I like the idea of using this framework in my writing in the future, particularly for helping me understand the conflict between my characters. I know folks out there use character worksheets - what are some of the other tools you use?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Anyone writing about 19th c. farming communities?

I was recently in Canada and visited a sort of Colonial Williamsburg for 19th century farming. They preserved a pre-existing farming community in Orwell, Prince Edward Island, complete with a general store, one-room schoolhouse, shingle mill and graveyard. 

These pictures are of the merchant's house attached to the general store, so a sample of what the richest person in town lived like, and below is the blacksmith and another workshop. (Isn't that dress just darling?) I figured I'd post them here just in case anyone out there was doing research on late 19th-century agriculture, as I know I've relied on others' photos for my own far-flung imaginings!
And if anyone out there knows about the fashions shown here, I'd love to hear about it. Would this be pretty typical for late 19th-century merchant class clothing? 
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Sunday, September 11, 2011

The upside of self-publishing for a reader

A few months ago I blogged about how frustrating self-publishing can be for readers. Without the filtering provided by agents, editors, publishing houses, and stores, we readers are faced with practically unlimited choices and extremely limited information about the quality of what's available. That's pretty daunting, and I'm still wary about how readers are supposed to negotiate that difficult and time-consuming terrain.

But recently I was reminded of the upside to self-publishing from a reader's perspective. Davin Malasarn, of the Literary Lab blog, published a collection of stories titled, The Wild Grass. A good number of the stories had already been published in literary journals, but by pulling them together, Davin created a lovely immersion into his writing and imagination. In "Rivers," we meet a Thai woman who's proud of her newly-electrified house yet so uncertain about its function that she takes care to dry her hand before using the switch. In "Bohemian," Malasarn writes with pitch-perfect precision about the pettiness and joy of a fledgling writer. Who knows if this book could have gotten this published the traditional way - it's certainly possible - but by short-circuiting that route, Davin forged a direct connection with readers and is able to offer his writing at a very affordable price. Since the fragmentation of publishing seems to be with us to stay, I was glad to be reminded of one of the benefits. Now we just have to figure out how to identify all the gems out there.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The beauty of language

I've already blogged about how much I enjoyed The Elegance of the Hedgehog, but given my interest in brevity I didn't get a chance to delve into why. Barbery's love for language and beauty are really inspiring, especially for writers and aspiring writers. Take this quote, for example:

"Language is a bountiful gift and its usage, an elaboration of community and society, is a sacred work. Language and usage evolve over time: elements change, are forgotten or reborn, and while there are instances where transgression can become the source of an even greater wealth, this does not alter the fact that to be entitled to the liberties of playfulness or enlightened misuse when using language, one must first and foremost have sworn one's total allegiance."

(Emphasis mine)

Isn't that lovely? Doesn't it make you want to pore over a dictionary, or at least crack open a book of poetry?

In that spirit, I'll take the liberty of a second quote, this time from Langston Hughes, who taught me that I could like poetry.

Midnight Dancer
Of the jazz-tuned night,
Sweet as purple dew,
Like the pillows of all sweet dreams,
Who crushed
The grapes of joy
And dripped their juice
On you?

Excerpted from Selected Poems of Langston Hughes.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

The concierge, Time Magazine tells us, comprises a special class in France. They come from a single mold, cast with pulled-back hair, grey skin and grey souls. (Circa 1964, at least.) They were once the ubiquitous keepers of French apartment buildings, living in humble apartments on the ground floor and tending to the needs of the residents. Invisible and uninteresting, presumably.

Such is one of the heroines in The Elegance of the Hedgehog. The concierge Renee describes herself as ugly and afflicted with bunions, but we quickly learn that her invisibility is a well-crafted mask. Behind her frumpy, cantankerous exterior lies a woman of great intellectual curiosity who is captivated by the beauty of Art, if dismayed by the shortfalls of the world, particularly those of her residents.

One of the residents is twelve-year-old Paloma, a brilliant child who manages her own masquerade as she hides her intelligence and sensitivity from her family and schoolmates. Disappointed by the world, Paloma tells us that she intends to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday, lighting her family's luxury apartment on fire as a final farewell.

But the world still has some magic, both transformational and tragic, to work on these women. The story is mostly the record of their observations, their musings on life, art, beauty, and disappointment. Little happens in the sense of a traditional plot, but much is revealed.

I had checked this book out from the library and I wanted to return it today, before it was overdue. But I had not yet finished reading it so I stood in the library, which was crowded with patrons fleeing the downpour unleashed on the world outside, and I read the final pages. I completely forgot where I was - forgot that I was standing in a library, forgot that I was on my lunchbreak and needed to get back to work promptly, forgot that I was even in the United States. Barbery's characters are beautiful and her writing is a joy. (Which means that proper credit is due to Alison Anderson and her crystalline translation.) I love that I live in a world where a strange, philosophizing book like this one becomes a best seller.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

John Ames, the narrator of Marilynne Robinson's unusual Gilead, knows his life is coming to a close, that his heart is counting down to its last beat. So this seventy-six year-old small-town preacher pens a letter to his seven-year-old son. His letter, the novel, meanders from philosophizing about life and religion to telling family history. Fortunately for the reader, John Ames is a very pleasant man to spend some time with. He's the sort of fellow you could sit with on a porch on a warm summer's night and listen to him while away the time as you sip tea and watch the fireflies blink.

The first half of the book is not much more exciting than that porch chat. It takes a long time for Robinson to introduce any tension, and once she does it's pretty slight. But, in the end, the beauty of her language and Ames's observations make the time spent worthwhile. For example, take this gem from the end of the book: "There is no justice in love, no proportion to it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality."

Ames is a humble, thoughtful man who recognizes his follies (sometimes) and is wise enough to acknowledge his mistakes. He shares the lessons learned and not learned in a lifetime, and it's a pleasure to share the journey with him. Particularly if you're not in a hurry to be entertained but can sit back and savor the conversation.

(Apparently this book won the Pulitzer in 2005.)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Virgin's Knot, by Holly Payne

In mid-century Turkey, a beautiful young woman has grown up crippled by the legacy of childhood polio. But her father, her only parent, told Nurdane that when Allah takes something away, he gives something in return. So the loss of her legs, and the treasured ability to run and dance, is replaced by a legendary skill for making beautiful rugs. These prayer rugs are given to brides, which Nurdane will never be. Her latest creation is almost finished when the intrusion of a few strangers to their tiny village makes Nurdane question her deal with Allah, just as her father has made a mysterious bargain for the recipient of the remarkable rug.

Holly Payne writes The Virgin's Knot in an almost self-consciously "literary" style, forgoing quotation marks around dialogue and demanding a lot from the reader in terms of plot comprehension. The punctuation I found pretentious but the thought required to follow Nurdane's development was rewarding. I wouldn't have minded a little more explicit explanation at the end, but Payne introduces some interesting themes and, for readers willing to be patient with her, I think it's a memorable story. (Here's a nice interview with her.)

Monday, August 1, 2011

Fun contest

The folks over at Literary Lab always have interesting discussions on craft and storytelling. To add to the fun, they've just announced their third story competition. Check it out. They've titled it "Variations on a Theme" and it's designed to be based (even if quite loosely) on inspiration from one of the two linked stories. Even if you don't submit a piece, it's a neat way to work your imagination a little bit and see what magic the muses bring to your writing desk.

The Literary Lab Presents...

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Books in the vault - and on the walls, and the floor, and ...

I love checking out quirky independent bookstores when I travel and this past weekend's trip to upstate NY was no exception. The treat this time was Lyrical Ballad Bookstore in Saratoga, NY. The store unfolds across various rooms - turn a corner, and there's another hidden nook holding a different category of books. The main room is rimmed with tall bookcases that are themselves topped in dozens and dozens of bookends, haphazardly displayed and apparently designed to tempt book lovers into thinking they're for sale (they're not).

The store used to be a bank, and you can still see the old bank vault door. (Yes, it's locked! I wonder if the books behind it are special ...) The store has a lot of first editions, also some neat old prints and of course shelves upon shelves of random treasures. I bought an old copy of Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and a 1915 Arm & Hammer Baking Soda bird trading card (like one of these but without the frame).

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A taste of Wharton society

Edith Wharton, the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, spent ten crucial years of her life in Lenox, MA at her custom-built estate, The Mount. Wharton designed the house as both a congenial home for guests (like Henry James) and a retreat for herself. She wrote some of her most important books there, including Ethan Frome and House of Mirth.

Before traveling to Albany this weekend for my pilgrimage to Lenox, I read some of Wharton's classics. I re-read Ethan Frome this winter and was thrilled to rediscover how cold and stark the story is. A great winter read. Then I read House of Mirth and Age of Innocence just before traveling, and they were both beautiful experiences (man, could that woman write) and wonderful introductions to Wharton's life in upper society New York. Given all the frivolous class preoccupations that she skewers in both novels, it's easy to see how Wharton treasured her time at The Mount, away from the brass materialism and snobbish distinctions of Fifth Avenue society.

Wharton did all of her writing in bed (posed pictures at her desk notwithstanding), and obviously made the most of her life of leisure. But she was also a divorcee in Paris when the Great War broke out, and she worked tirelessly to promote relief efforts and to publicize the civilian cost of the war.

Right: Wharton's bedroom

Thursday, July 21, 2011

What you do while you're waiting

In Venezuela the other day, a reporter recorded 117 people standing in line outside a government building. Waiting. Like so many Venezuelans they were starting (or spending) their day waiting in a line. This line was to use the only working elevator in that building. There were, of course, other lines after reaching the correct floor.

This NYT article about waiting in Venezuela mentioned what the people were doing as they waited. Waiting is interesting - it's an inescapable part of life, even with all our hustle bustle. I wait for the bus in the morning, wait in line at the cafeteria, wait for the water to boil so I can make pasta.

How do we spend all that time waiting? Stephen King says he keeps a book on him always, so whenever he's slogging through a line, at the grocery store or waiting to pick up his kids from school, he can pull out his book and read a few lines. I've tried to adopt that habit, and having a book in my purse certainly makes me a lot more patient when the bus is running late or when my lunch appointment gets lost. I don't have a smart phone (nor do I want one) so I can't check the internet, but that's often what my husband does when he waits.

Some people seem to do nothing while they wait. No books, no newspaper. Part of me thinks that seems like a horrible waste of time. But part of me thinks that maybe my imagination could stand to be let loose a bit when I wait, or that I could work on "being present," as they say.

How do you wait? Is that a good place for writing?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Doodle Stitching

Inspired partly by Rowena's amazing sewing skills and partly by distant memories of sewing/cross stitch/etc. when I was in high school, I decided to try some embroidery. I'd previously bought embroidered gifts for friends having babies, but with one of my best friends due to have her first, it seemed time to up the ante. I bought Doodle Stitching, by Aimee Ray (such pretty stuff she does!). With Aimee's help I learned a few basic stitches, got inspired, and set off!

The photos here capture the results. (For those unfamiliar with baby gear, these are burp cloths.) I'm pretty excited to have picked up a new hobby! Not that I needed one, what with the writing and the cooking and the gaming and the friends and, oh right, a baby on the way ... :)

So this is a different sort of book review than my usual, but if you're interested in getting a little artsy-crafty, I definitely recommend Aimee's book.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Season's Bounty

I love the Farmer's Market at this time of year. We joined a CSA this year to help ease our shopping trips, but I still can't resist the lure. I slogged through the thick-as-butter humidity this morning to make it out to the market and was amply rewarded. Check out the beautiful flowers I bought!

I also snagged some sour cherries, one of my favorite seasonal treats. I think this may have been the last week to get them in our part of our woods, so I'm grateful I made the hike. I made a cherry pie filling with them today - just added rum, vanilla, and sugar. (My theory is that every cooked fruit dish is improved by some sort of alcohol - rum, brandy, or vodka, usually.) I'm going to have to really exercise restraint to avoid eating these for a week so they can survive until next weekend, when I'll plop them into the pie crust I made ages ago and just need to bake.

Have fun enjoying your summer bounty! I'll be tucking into a homemade zucchini bread shortly - fuel for the work I'm doing on my current manuscript-in-progress.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Summer reading on Parade

I'm glad the world has the capability to surprise me, especially in pleasant ways. I'll admit to being a bit of a snob sometimes, and I usually ignore the Parade Magazine that comes with my Sunday paper inserts. ("Did Amanda Bynes really quit acting?" asks a reader on the first page. Me - who's Amanda Bynes?) But this week the cover caught my attention. Summer Reading, it promised. I wondered what Parade, which I assume is popular since it's been around for ages and still has columns by Marliyn vos Savant, would recommend to readers. What popular, commercial fiction would top their lists?

Well. I shouldn't jump to conclusions, now should I. Turns out their fiction list looked to me to be all literary, and it included a number of books I'd already added to my wishlist. Check it out for yourself. Fun to be pleasantly surprised! Fun to be reminded that there are lots of great readers out there.

(Also, the essay by Pat Conroy is charming and worth reading.)

It's been a long time since I had a long, relaxing summer vacation, so I tend to forget that summer reading can, for some lucky folks, have a special feel from the rest of the year. But I have a few short vacations coming up and I hope to make at least one of them a sitting-on-your-bum, watching-the-world-go-by sort of get-away. I haven't yet decided what books I'll take, but it will be fun to do so! Anyone else there have a special summer reading list?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Stolen Child, by Keith Donohue

I'm trying to get back into the normal flow of life, now, a few weeks after my father-in-law's passing. Reading, as usual, is a great balm and balancing force for me. Fortunately, the book I first picked up off my to-be-read pile was Keith Donohue's enchanting The Stolen Child.

In Donohue's debut work, he takes a fresh look at an old fairytale by following two sides of the same changeling swap. The chapters are written alternately by the boy who was taken from his family and the changeling boy who becomes human in his place. There's magic and creativity, and at first the book draws you along as you learn the fabulous world of the changelings and the lore that structures their lives. But then the story becomes deeper, a more profound examination of the universal search for self-confidence and authenticity. The two boys, in this story, continue to be fascinated with each other, building tension as the story progresses. No spoilers here, so I'll just say it's a fun read.

He's got a new book out that I'll have to pick up - Centuries of June. Happily, I suppose, the TBR pile never seems to diminish. That's the sort of comfort I'll take.

Friday, June 24, 2011


Returning to this blog is painful. I can't post anything else before I acknowledge this: my first reader, my most faithful reader, is gone. Last week my father-in-law passed away. The beloved father of my husband, the grandfather to our daughter-on-the-way, died at age 66. I miss you, Gary. I miss you.

How do you write a letter to someone who can't read it? This blog was always, in some way, written with Gary in mind. He encouraged me to write stories, and always wanted to hear ones with happy endings. I tried. Like Gary, I believe in happy endings. But I don't always have the courage to write them. I will always think of him when I write, wishing that he could read what comes next. I will wonder if he would have liked it, and I will try to be worthy of him.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Bronte Sisters' Society

I used to have a sense of propriety when it came to my reading. There were places to read and places not to read. The Lord of the Rings threw all that to the dogs when I re-read it in college. I couldn't bear to put the book down, even as I hurried to class afraid to be late, so I learned to read while I walk. The magic of an entrancing narrative makes the journey practically invisible -- probably contrary to my yoga-related efforts to cultivate mindfulness, but that's a sacrifice I'm happy to make.

Now that it's summer and I don't need clumsy gloves to warm my fingers, I am again reading while I walk the 1.7 miles to and from work. This morning I read (rereading) Wuthering Heights. As I stopped at a traffic light, I heard someone speaking to me.

"I absolutely love the Bronte sisters. That is one of my favorites!" I looked up to see a professionally-dressed white man in his mid-40s or so. I agreed that it was a wonderful book, and went back to reading it.

"All the Bronte sisters are excellent. Have you read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Bronte?"

I admitted I had not.

"She's underappreciated, but it's really great."

I looked up from my book again and smiled. I thanked him for the recommendation and he strode off, jaywalking just before the light turned.

How lovely to hear a man admit his unabashed love for, not just novels, but novels written by women well over 150 years ago. And he wasn't hitting on me, either! So nice to be reminded that a love of reading lurks beneath many surprising facades.

Photo is of a sketch of Anne Bronte drawn by her sister Charlotte. Taken from Wikipedia, sourced to The Poets' Corner.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Creativity, the non-writing kind

As I've posted before, I love making stop-motion animation. This started with childhood projects done with my dad's Betamax camcorder (ok, he did most of the work, we watched the giant bunny demolish the doll house) and took a hiatus until college. I've only managed two now since getting my cool video editing software, but here's the latest. It also explains why, in a little while, my life is going to get very busy and I'm not sure how much time I'll have for writing. (Which means I need to get as much done as possible soon!)

Note, this is best with sound on.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Some literary travels

Busy busy! But look what I found in the meantime.

Charlotte Bronte's traveling writing desk, on display at the NY Public Library.

Eighteen beautiful miles of books at Strand.

And a perfect reading perch in the Shenandoah's.

Next trip - up to Albany with a pilgrimage to Edith Wharton's home, "The Mount." (And if I'm lucky, maybe a side trip to check out some charming used bookstores.) So I'm reading House of Mirth and (time permitting) Age of Innocence to prepare myself. Turn-of-the-century gentility, here I come!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Into the great blue yonder - or New York

Tomorrow night we leave for a quick one-day trip (about 24 hours exactly) to NYC. My husband is there for work, I'm there for the free hotel room and the chance to do touristy things on a Wednesday. Of course, I'm already overbooking and being over-enthusiastic. In addition to doing two dinners and a breakfast with friends, I also want to tour the Metropolitan Museum of Art, visit the holy of holies Strand Bookstore, have scones at Alice's Tea Cup, have lunch at the vegetarian Candle Cafe, see the play Arcadia at the Barrymore Theatre, and swing by the New York Public Library's exhibit of treasures from its collection. Surely I can fit all that into a short day ... right? right? ::sigh:: Or maybe I'll stick with a literary walking tour of Greenwhich Village ... Hrm. If only I didn't need to be back at work on Thurs!!

Photo from Strand Bookstore.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Everyone's got a background

We had a vigorous discussion at my last writers group meeting, prompted by two long submissions group members had given us to work on. One, from a member I'll call Kelly, was the beginning of a very creative novel with all sorts of weird things going on. Well, in actuality, "going on" is not the right term, since 80 percent of the submission was background. Where the characters came from, how they met each other, what they thought about their various provenances, how they related with their parents. I found it frustrating. Just get on with the story, already!

To my surprise, not everyone in the critique group agreed. And Kelly seized upon the dissent to disregard the comments of those of us who felt there was too much background, not enough present story time. Well, I'm biased, but I'm pretty confident I was right that the story felt like it was stuck in sludge. But I guess she'll either find out the old-fashioned way (rejection - hey, we've all had our share) or prove me wrong.

But in the meantime, I've been paying attention to how published authors kick their stories off and how much background they incorporate. I finally read a novel that I enjoyed (after a bit of a dry spell) and although Khaled Hosseini starts A Thousand Splendid Suns at nearly the beginning of his character's life -- she's five -- the story itself starts right then. He's not looking back and giving us background on Mariam's childhood, he's throwing us into the tumult from the beginning. An extended quote:

"Mariam was five hears old the first time she heard the word harami.

It happened on a Thursday. It must have, because Mariam remembered that she had been restless and preoccupied that day, the way she was only on Thursdays, the day when Jalil visited her at the kolba. To pass the time until the moment that she would see him at last, crossing the knee-high grass in the clearing and waving, Mariam had climbed a chair and taken down her mother's Chinese tea set. The tea set was the sole relic that Mariam's mother, Nana, had of her own mother, who died with Nana was two. Nana cherished each blue-and-white porcelain piece, the graceful curve of the pot's spout, the hand-painted finches and chrysanthemums, the dragon on the sugar bowl, meant to ward off evil.

It was this last piece that slipped from Mariam's fingers, that fell to the wooden floorboards of the kolba and shattered."

Hosseini has started to feed out information about Mariam and her world, but we're already caught in dramatic action. No overbearing narration.

A note on the book, by the way. I wasn't enthusiastic about reading it and was doing so out of obligation to the person who lent it to me. If you've read The Kite Runner, you know Hosseini pulls no emotional punches. And a novel about women in Afghanistan? Sure to be heart-wrenching, right? Well, it is. My face was bathed in tears when I was finished. But, still, I really liked it. The story takes a while to really grab you but when it does, it's unforgettable.

Has anyone had a similar discussion in their writing group? I'd be really interested to know what other people are going through with this.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Tulips oh tulips!

So it turns out tulips aren't from Holland.* But once, almost four hundred years ago, they so seduced Dutchmen that for a few hot months, trading tulips was the fastest way to a quick buck and then, suddenly, the surest path to a quick ruin. I'm finishing up reading Tulipomania by Mike Dash, and it's fascinating. He details the "tulip boom" of 1636-1637 and the evolution of both commerce and horticulture that led to it. I picked up the book because it might, tangentially, be related to a future writing project of mine. But it has ended up having the unexpected result of making me fall in love with tulips!

Today, tulips are spring's bright but, well, common handmaid. Wide beds of red or yellow tulips pop up at spring's arrival, just after the hardy crocuses and the cheerful daffodils. In years past I had not thought much about tulips, but after learning about how much they were once valued I've started looking at them in a different light. The traders of the 17th century did not value all tulips the same, and they were likely almost as indifferent to the plain red varieties as I am today. But the more delicate, rarer types fired the lust of collectors and the greed of traders. The highest reliably-recorded price for a single bulb during the boom was 5,200 guilders. For some perspective: a typical middle-ranking merchant would earn 1,500 guilders a year, and seven years after the boom Rembrandt would rake in 1,600 guilders as his fee for his masterpiece, The Night Watch. After the bust, one trader tried to solicit a lawyer's help to recoup his losses, including 6,000 guilders paid for four pounds of Switser bulbs.

Nature conspired with my reading to bring us a beautiful crop of tulips here in the city, just as I was reading the book. So now I'm hooked on tulips. I even love the way they die -- with exuberance. Many of them just keep blooming, giving it all they've got, til they can't handle it anymore and just fall off. Such a great way to go.

It's past tulip season now but here are some photos I took last weekend.

I love the double tulips -- they're my favorite.

* Wild tulips are originally from the plains of central Asia.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

In other words, be human

An unshaven man approached the podium, nervously shuffled his papers and took a deep breath. He looked out at us and admitted he had never given a keynote address before. "So, in other words, you're all busting my cherry."

Yesterday's Conversations and Connections literary conference yesterday was rather like Steve Almond's hilarious yet depressing keynote address -- filled with enthusiasm for writing and yet a little disheartening in the reminder of how hard it is to be human, particularly the weird humans that writers tend to be. A strange but ultimately inspiring combination, for if we weren't so strange and conflicted, there wouldn't be much to write about! And it was certainly exciting to discuss writing with some talented, charming people. I figured I'd share a few highlights:

- A 79-year old Greek immigrant who is a retired engineer and has written a fictionalized memoir asked me if I worked aside from writing. I said yes and he replied, "Good. You have to go out and live." I thought that was a nice reminder, if not universally applicable.

- Give yourself a break and be kind to yourself. As Steve Almond put it, "Set the bar a little lower." You don't have to be a superstar to be a success - making good decisions about your writing is hard enough.

- With regard to point of view in a story, once you as the author have established it, get out of the way. No need to say, "she thought" or "she remembered" because the reader is already with that character.

- A quote from Steve Almond's book, "This Won't Take But a Minute Honey," which is really cool and he only sells in person:

... Readers are drawn to stories not because of your dazzling prose, but because they wish to immerse themselves in a world of danger. More precisely, in the heart of a particular character on the brink of emotional tumult. It doesn't especially matter what your heroine cares about, as long as she cares a lot.

- Oh, and for goodness sake, follow directions when submitting to literary magazines. Editors are human too and with all the demands on their time they can use all the kindness we can give, starting with accomodating their individual submission systems.

I bought The Calligrapher's Daughter at the conference yesterday because the author, Eugenia Kim, is a local and was participating in a panel. I'm excited to read it!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Good news!

First bit of good news - I'm going to have a story published! The kind people at the Silk Road Review have accepted my bribe, er, story and I expect it'll be in their Summer/Autumn issue. I learned about this just a week or so before one of my writing partners found out a poem of hers will be published, so I think there's something in the air! (By the way, the Silk Road Review is having a Flash Fiction Contest so anyone interested in winning $500, check it out!)

Second bit of good news - tomorrow is the Conversations and Connections literary conference here in DC. I've heard that it's a fun group of people and I'm really looking forward to mingling with writers and learning!

Anyone else have good or exciting news?

Monday, April 11, 2011

On wanting to like the narrator

To label someone an "unreliable narrator" is, in a certain sense, to understand that the narrator is human and neither omniscent nor objective. Unreliable narrators run the gamut - from the charming but mischevious Huck Finn to any number of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's old, lacivious men. Often unreliable narrators display a crucial human flaw in their unreliability, be it pride or shame or incurable optimism. I love how fiction shows humanity in its rich complexity and so I like narrators that aren't afraid to show their bias.

But it gets complicated when the person narrating is completely despicable or utterly detached from reality. Hubert Hubert in Lolita was pretty appalling but he works hard to make us like him, or at least understand. The books I've been reading lately, however, don't even try. One is about a rat who reads literature and loves books more than food. Sounds like a good premise, right? Except that he's so insecure about being a rat that he is constantly whining and completely pretentious. Not someone I want to spend 200 pages with. So I put that book down and tried another, one I had high hopes for. But that narrator turned out to be completely, off-the-wall insane, without the advantage of realizing it. Why should I want to read the narrative of a crazy person, why spend my time sifting through his madness to find what's relevant and what's not? I know some people think we should be able to learn from narrators we can't stand and I'm willing to admit that that's true. I am certain I could learn something about humanity by spending time listening to the unhinged rants of the mentally ill. But neither exercise sounds pleasant so I'm going to pass.

Which means that I am in a really dry spell for books! I'm dying for a sink-right-in-and-immerse-yourself-so-you-never-want-to-take-a-breath book. Any suggestions?? A historical epic would be wonderful, for example.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Quickening Maze, by Adam Foulds

In the mid-19th century a middle-aged poet was consigned to a progressive mental institute just outside London. The man, known as The Peasant Poet, believed he had two wives and alternated his delusions of having other identities (like Byron and Shakespeare) with moments of piercing, brutal clarity. John Clare suffered greatly in an era when mental health treatment had progressed little beyond the releasing of "humors," even in Matthew Allen's relatively progressive institue.

This institute, nestled in a forest shimmering with Midsummer Night's Dream dew, is home to a number of other tortured souls, a count soon increased by the arrival of Alfred Tennyson, who stays on the property to support his depresssed brother. Clare, Tennyson, Dr. Allen, his daughters, and the other inmates struggle to reconcile their inner worlds with the harsh reality of a changing, modern life, one that lies both beyond and within their enchanted forest.

The Quickening Maze does not have a plot, so to speak, but draws its strength from the trials of its fascinating characters and the questions about life that they raise. It is a book in which very little is explicit, even the settings and the characters, but it manages to be quite haunting. This would be an excellent choice for a book club -- it raises questions about poetry, love, mental health, modernity, craftmanship, and, most poignantly, the constant tragedy that comes from human yearning. I wouldn't say I loved it, as the writing was too impressionistic for the book to seize onto me, but it was definitely interesting. Has anyone else read it?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A 79-year-old's "Confessions of a Young Novelist"

Umberto Eco, let's admit, is a bit quirky so I guess he can get away with calling himself a young novelist at age 79. The man has a tremendous imagination and idiosyncratic intellect, as any reader of his novels can tell you. He has recently published Confessions of a Young Novelist, a set of four essays about writing and/or fiction. It is an engaging and stimulating work and I recommend it. One of the highlights for me came right at the beginning and, in the interest of spreading the joy, I'm going to quote it.
When interviewers ask me, "How did you write your novels?" I usually cut short this line of questioning and reply, "From left to right." I realize that this is not a satisfactory answer, and that it can produce some astonishment in Arab countries and Israel.

Now I have time for a more detailed response. In the course of writing my first novel, I learned a few things. First, "inspiration" is a bad word that tricky authors use in order to seem artistically respectable. As the old adage goes, genius is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspriation. It is said that the French poet Lamartine often described the circumstances in which he had written one of his best poems: he claimed it had come to him fully formed in a sudden illumination, one night when he was wandering through the woods. After his death, somebody found in his study an impressive number of versions of that poem, which he had written and rewritten over the course of years.

Eco later talks about the preparatory work he did for his novels, including drawing a precise map of the monastary where In the Name of the Rose takes place, and sketching out the faces of the characters in The Island of the Day Before. (He also traveled to the South Pacific and spent days learning about the oceans and the night sky on one of those islands - obviously a research technique better suited to an author who has earned money from previous books.) For Foucalt's Pendulm he spent evening after evening wandering the museum where much of the action takes place and then walking Paris streets at night. The result is a verisimiltude that has earned the awe of legions of obsessive fans.

I love books rich in learning, observation and thought. I am extremely wary of books written quickly - Eco's quickest writing was two years, for In the Name of the Rose, since he could rely upon a lifetime of medieval research. (That's one reason I've never been even remotely interested in participating in NaNoWriMo, although dear friends have convinced me that it has its place.) Do you think you can tell the difference between a novel written on the fly and one that took its author years to plough through? Do you have a preference?

Friday, March 25, 2011

The downside of self-publishing for a reader

A friend of our family published a book last year. In the spirit of solidarity, I bought a copy and read it. The first warning light went off before the opening paragraph - the book opened with acknowledgements. Ok, unconventional, but fine. No mention of an agent. Ok, maybe I just couldn't pick out the agent's name, or maybe the author sold directly to the publisher.

Within pages I could tell that this was not prose that would have passed muster with my writing group. Too many commas, too many adverbs, and, most damningly, too many fluctuating emotions on the same page, paragraph, or even (the horror!) sentence. I read about 50 pages before loyalty could compel me no further. And I was grumpy all that morning about the wasted time - time I much would have rather spent reading a good book. I found out later that day that the book was, effectively, self-published.

Obviously readers often find books they're disappointed with. But I think the vetting service provided by agents and publishers often - not always - helps narrow the field. I recognize that there are exceptions and that some self-published works are quite good, while many (many!) traditionally published books are horrible. But as the floodgates open, how is a reader to defend herself and her precious time? I sure hope interpid book bloggers more brave than myself will do some winnowing and recommending for the rest of us.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Useful Writing

The Washingtonian Magazine's recent issue includes a lovely interview with author/journalist/teacher/grandfather Roger Rosenblatt. It's clear from the interview that not only does Rosenblatt have an impressive resume but he also has a thoughtful and kind heart. The interview is worth reading if you can get your paws on it (the Washingtonian only posts content after its subsequent issue hits newstands), but in the meantime I'll take the liberty of quoting one bit.

[The Washingtonian] Your writing book ends with a letter you sent to your students. In it you say, "For writing to be great ... it must be useful to the world." Can you talk about that?

By "useful" I don't really mean practically useful, although I'm sure there are practical applications. There are only four reasons for writing that I can think of. I didn't put this in the book, but I've thought about it since.

First, writing makes suffering endurable, and it does this by making it beautiful. Marsha Norman writes 'Night, Mother about suicide. That play is unrelenting in its sadness, and it ends in suicide. Someone might say, "Why do this?" The answer is because art made it endurable, made it beautiful.

Second, writing makes evil intelligible. If we ever think evil is beyond our capability, we're kidding ourselves. Look at Iago -- Othello's sort of a stiff, but Iago's the one we really remember. If you know that evil is intelligible, that anyone is capable of it, then you can make moral use of that.

Third, writing makes justice desirable. I can't imagine anything more important to you, me, or any people we know and like than justice or injustice. Every time there's an injustice, your fists clench. The Winslow Boy fights England, and when that barrister's motto, "Let right be done," is said, tears well up and it's just wonderful.

Finally, writing makes love possible. All these things--suffering, injustice, and evil--one can still love above these things, love the animals we are and wish them well. That to me is the sublime use of writing.

What more is there to say than that? Rosenblatt's book about writing Unless it Moves the Human Heart just moved to the top of my wishlist. Check it out!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Turtle Catcher, by Nicole Helget

In a remote corner of Minnesota, shortly after The Great War, three sons of German immigrants force their slow-witted neighbor backwards into a lake. They train their rifle sights on him as he protests, flails, and eventually trudges backwards. They have sewn his pockets full with rocks. He violated their sister, they say, although two of them tremble to hold the rifles pointed at a man they previously knew as only gentle and dull.

The Turtle Catcher opens with this gripping and tragic encounter, and in so doing gives us a snapshot of each of the lives involved - the three brothers, the man wading into the pond, the sister sitting in shock and dismay at home. The scene concludes with horror and a bit of magic, leaving the reader anxious to know what happened to those complicated people.

Ms. Helget answers those questions by launching backwards in time about thirty years. The bulk of the book, about eighty percent, is an extended flashback detailing the lives of those characters and their families. This, unfortunately, has the effect of diluting quite a bit of the suspense, since from the very first chapter we know a great deal about the lives of those five individuals and their families. Fortunately the writing is good enough to keep the reader engaged and the descriptions of pre-war Minnesota and its immigrant German community are probably new territory for most readers. Personally, I would have preferred to know more about what happened to these characters after that evening at the lake, and how it affected them, but the story told is still thoughtful and memorable. I'd be interested to know if anyone else has read it and has thoughts - this is certainly a good book for discussion.

Monday, March 7, 2011

My dress would have screenprinted Emily Dickinson quotes

Sometimes I really wish I lived in New York. Or at least could afford to head up there more often. Today I got a save the date from One Story literary magazine for their 2nd annual "Literary Debutante Ball!" They are celebrating the five One Story authors who published their first book in the past year, and honoring author Dani Shapiro for her work mentoring young authors. And just in case you thought it was all business, they have a featured cocktail named after Ms. Shapiro's One Story issue: The Six Poisons. Mmm! I feel like Cinderella, wishing a magical coach could take her to the ball ... Maybe I'll just make one of these at home to make me feel better.

The Six Poisons Cocktail

2 oz. BULLDOG Gin (I guess Bulldog is sponsoring - I prefer Citadelle gin. Pretty much the best thing ever.)
2 1/2 oz. Cranberry Juice
1/2 oz. Orange Juice
Orange Slice for Garnish
Club soda
Shake first three ingredients with ice.
Strain into an ice-filled cocktail glass.
Garnish with orange slice.
Top with a splash of club soda.

Separate note - personal DIY writing retreat today was fabulous. I met my goals AND squeezed in some 50 percent off vintage shopping! (For anyone in the area, visit It's Vintage Darling this week!) One of the things I bought was this purse. If only I could take it to the Debutante Ball! :)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A mini writing retreat

I'm taking tomorrow off work to seclude myself and my notebook in a cozy cafe (or three) somewhere in my neighborhood and, with the help of coffee and scones, hold a personal, one-day writing retreat. I hope it continues to rain here - what could be more lovely than a cozy cafe on a rainy day??

One of my writing friends sent this link along, on how to construct your own writing retreat. It's pretty straightforward if you're already working on a project (I am), and if you're not, it has some good advice on how to structure it.

I know I won't be bringing my laptop -- then the temptation to scan the real estate postings looking at cute little houses, or etsy looking for adorable little puppets would be too much! So I'd better do some of that now ...

Photo is from "Two Sad Donkeys" etsy page.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Is that a book in your purse, or ...?

I get panicky if I'm caught in a situation where I have to wait (riding a bus, standing in a long line) and I don't have a book. The need to carry a book has been the single greatest factor contributing to my increasing purse size.

When I do have a book (usually) and I manage to pull my nose out of it (not often), I marvel at the people who aren't reading. How is all that waiting time not driving them totally insane? And I feel a warm kinship with the people who are reading. This morning I was especially tickled to see a woman carry her open book into our office building. She continued to huddle over it while in the elevator, and then dawdled outside our office hallway door, still reading. I guess she had reached a good part. What a nice inspiration to start the day!

A totally separate point - a quick flag for you writers. The Glimmer Train bulletin has a nice short essay on the crux of short stories from Melanie Bishop, a writer and professor. The core element, as she puts it, is "a happening" - ie, something happens.
"One can't, for instance, just describe what he/she had for breakfast and call it a story, even though eating breakfast is a human experience."

John Gardner suggests that short fiction should have a transformative experience that illustrates a revelation; Flannery O'Connor says that all writing is ultimately about the mystery of the human experience and our unique manners that bring us there. I'm sure both would agree that something has to happen. It seems obvious, but crafting a narrative arc in a short space is a challenge.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Kitty Kupcake and a recommendation

We've had a busy week and weekend, so I haven't had time for a real post. But in the meantime, I'll post a cute picture of our boy kitty. (Previously referred to in this blog as K2.) He loves baked goods. Who doesn't?

A quick reading/writing note - I finished reading Granta's Issue 113, The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists. I had mixed feelings about the selection, but man did it end with a bang. I definitely recommend checking it out, if only for the last story by Patricio Pron. Beautiful.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Frontier Blues

Today we walked down to the Mall to see Frontier Blues, an Iranian film shown by the Freer Art Gallery as a part of its Iranian Film Festival. Babak Jalali directed and shot this film in northern Iran, near Turkmenistan, the flat, desperate land of his childhood. The absurdist comedy throws together a number of strange characters, each lost in his own dreams and struggles: a young man who eats only dried apricots and whose only companion is an unnamed donkey; his uncle who owns a barely-stocked clothing store; and a traditional Turkmen musician whose wife was stolen years ago by a man from Tehran in a green Mercedes Bendz, among others. There is precious little dialogue in the movie -- most of the comedic moments come when the characters are staring awkwardly at each other, or in the sparse absurdities that sprinkle their speech.

I mention the film here because it's an interesting example of a story relying heavily on place and with practically no plot. The flat, windy, poor land dominates the lives of these characters and seems to have a flattening effect on their dreams. I'm not sure that it was a great movie, but it was intriguing. I know that the three traditional focuses of stories are either plot, characters, or place, but I've had trouble thinking of a book that relies primarily on place. Frontier Blues seems to fit the bill.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Leaving Rock Harbor, by Rebecca Chace

Life is a choice. It is filled with decisions about how we live and, even, the decision to live. The characters in Rebecca Chace's sweet Leaving Rock Harbor rarely forget that the choice to live is in their hands, for death haunts them closely. The story takes place in the first decades of the twentieth century, when young Frances Ross, or Frankie as she prefers to be known, grows up. We meet Frankie when she is an insecure but charming 14-year-old and she meets the two young men who will come to define her life.

Joe Barros is the son of Portuguese immigrants, a marginalized community in New England Rock Harbor, but thanks to his winning smile and basketball skills, he manages to rise above the racism. Winston Curtis is the youngest son of the richest family in Rock Harbor, but his easy grace and lighthearted attitude make it easy for those around him to forget that is father runs the town. Frankie falls in with Joe and Winston, at first hesitantly in her tight-laced corset, but then with more and more abandon, as her friendship with the two young men parallels the changing social mores of the era.

The war and the subsequent labor disputes threaten Frankie and all those she loves, and the choices each of them makes ricochet amongst the tight group of family and friends. Rebecca Chace writes with a confident hand and Frankie is an interesting, complicated woman. The historical setting here is drawn with a light touch, so those looking for a richly atmospheric piece on WWI and the Depression are likely to be disappointed. But readers seeking a compelling story about memorable characters will enjoy Leaving Rock Harbor.

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma