Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Books I Read in April 2008

I got quite a bit of reading done in April, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Writing was hard. That’s not exactly true either. I got almost no writing done on my WIP, The Foundling Wheel this month, but that’s about to change.

Part of the problem was a lack of time because of work, part of it was the intrusion of some noisy and long home improvement projects, but most of the problem was my lack of upfront planning when I started to write.

I knew that there was an incident that would define the start of the story and serve to influence everything the characters would do, but I was never entirely sure where I was going to go once I got past the incident. It really wasn’t until I’d read back to back posts at Steve Malley’s and at Candy Harris’s blogs that I realized that I hadn’t defined the basic premise of the novel before I started.

To use Candy’s formula, I couldn’t definitively say, “This is a story about a __________________ who wants __________________ because ____________. But can she succeed when ____________________?”

After a lot of sleepless nights, I think I’m almost there.

I would love nothing more than to write up fascinating and insightful observations about all the books I read in April, but that would only serve to feed my penchant for procrastination about Chapter 12, so I’ve got links to Amazon that will give you the gist of what each book is all about and I’ll tell you something about how I came to read the book and my general thoughts on them.

The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith. One of the best sources for book recommendations I’ve found in the past year is Head Butler. I get daily book, music, film and product recommendations via my email subscription and Jesse Kornbluth’s book recommendations have all been right up my alley. I just blogged about this particular selection on Friday, so for more on this gem, read this.

Nina: Adolescence, by Amy Hassinger. The story begins with the tragic accidental drowning of eleven year old Nina’s four year old brother. Nina’s mother, a portrait artist begins painting nude studies of Nina. This happens as Nina approaches and enters adolescence, and during this time Nina’s father retreats into alcohol. The nude series of paintings mark the re-entry of Nina’s mother into the art world after an extended absence. They also mark the introduction of escalating problems in the family. The book is beautifully written and is a fascinating exploration of the emotion of adolescence, of grief, of guilt and of family secrets. I can’t remember how I stumbled on this, but I had it for nearly a year before I picked it up. Amy Hassinger is a graduate of The Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

Desperate Characters, by Paula Fox. Another excellent recommendation from The Head Butler and also blogger Patti Abott’s Friday Overlooked Book choice last week.

John Lennon and the Mercy Street Café, by William Hammett. This was one of the most delightful books I’ve read all year. Blogger William “Billy” Hammett’s story is set in present day New York City and begins with an encounter with John Lennon, playing guitar in a small Greenwich Village Café. It is humor and magical realism at its best. If you like Kurt Vonnegut, Tim Robbins, and if you loved The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you’ll want to read this book. William Hammett did several things that surprised me. His lead character is a woman, and I will give him his propers – I was convinced. He incorporates all kinds of Beatles lore, historical events, current events and time travel and he does it with simple, lovely prose. If you’ve read his blog and his poetry, you know what a talented writer he is. Underneath this seemingly simple tale, there are some pretty heavy ideas and themes that will keep you thinking.

Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik. One of my fellow Dickens Challengers recommended this series of essays. Adam Gopnik, his wife and infant son chose to move to Paris for five years in the late 1990s. They had a number of reasons, not least of which was because they didn’t want their son exposed to Barney the purple dinosaur! Lots of great stuff in these essays and lots of thoughtful commentary on the French, on Americans and how we’re similar, but different. This quote from Gopnik’s wife, Martha sums their experience up nicely. “We had a beautiful existence in Paris, but not a full life. And in New York we have a full life and an unbeautiful existence.”

The Empanada Brotherhood, by John Nichols. Nichols is the author of The Milagro Beanfield Wars and many other novels. This is a story set in New York’s Greenwich Village in the early 1960’s and it’s told from the first person perspective of the only non-Latino character, who we know only as “Blondie”. Blondie is, of course a writer. I enjoyed this one.

How the Dead Dream, by Lydia Millet. I’d run across discussions on this new release several times and was intrigued. What an excellent book! The story is about a man who has focused on generating wealth and who is strangely disconnected from other people and other living things for most of his life. He’s a wealthy real estate developer by his early twenties and then a series of tragic events get him thinking about the extinction of species. There are lots of reviews out there on this one, so I won’t attempt my own, but I tore through this one. Lots of big philosophical ideas that really made me think.

Now, Discover Your Strengths, by Marcus Buckingham & Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D. This is a book I read under semi-duress. The president of my company read this and decided to send a copy to all the employees so that we could take the on line “strength finder” test and we could all maximize the use of our innate talents. I’ve read dozens of leadership, management, sales and marketing books and was not looking forward to spending my precious reading time with this one. As it turns out, it wasn’t bad. The basic idea of the book is that most career development methodologies place an emphasis on identifying and addressing weaknesses, rather than identifying and capitalizing on strengths. This book identifies 34 individual themes or strengths, and an online test (accessible only through the use of a code that comes with the book) provides a report that tells you what your five defining strengths are. Naturally, I’ve been trying to decide if the test results support the idea of me becoming a published novelist and I haven’t given much thought to what they mean within the context of my paying job.

One Sister’s Song, by Karen Degroot Carter. I’m delighted to say that I read and loved friend and blogger Karen Degroot Carter’s wonderful novel. After the death of her sister, Audrey moves from the bustle of DC and a job she loves to her small, depressed upstate New York hometown to raise her thirteen year old nephew. Audrey’s mother is white and her father was black, and the story deals with race from the perspective of the biracial characters and from the perspectives of both black and white characters. Since Audrey is returning to the town where she grew up, she has to face some unresolved family and relationship issues. In addition to the multi-generational family stories that unfold, the book incorporates some fascinating historical information about the Underground Railroad and valuable insights about race in our culture. Karen is more recognizable here in the blogosphere as Sustenance Scout and regularly posts on issues related to diversity and tolerance at Beyond Understanding.

Here's to hoping I don't read nearly as much in May and that I nail down that premise and unstick my writing.

What great books have you read lately?

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Sylvia's Sentence Contest at Tim Hallinan's

Tim Hallinan has a new contest going on at The Blog Cabin. Here's a brief description:

"In response to something I wrote in the book roundup for April (about my once having eaten lunch with Cary Grant), Sylvia wrote the following sentence:

I once drank a beer in a dirt pit which had previously been Cary Grant’s swimming pool.

Lisa Kenney, who doesn’t miss much, immediately wrote to say that this was a GREAT opening sentence for a novel. I had thought the same thing; in fact, I’d figured out what the basic setup for the book would be. I’ll show you mine in a minute, but first, a contest:"

For further details and contest rules, go here.

Thoughts on the Unreliable Narrator

Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading has a great post on first-person narration. Scott says:

“Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier seems to me to possess precisely those virtues to which the novel narrated in the first-person is best suited. Often in first-person novels, the narrator is magically able to relate her story with the polish and skill of a novelist, and no effort is ever made to address why an otherwise ordinary person possesses such sharp storytelling abilities. The Good Soldier strikes me as such an accomplishment because Ford does not only provide us with a narrator whose storytelling skills are realistically diminished; he also integrates the narrator's diminished capacity into a portrayal of his character and an investigation into how the memory works and how we draw out memories by stringing them into stories.

A useful comparison: The Good Soldier very much brings to mind the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro. As with Ishiguro's novels, Ford's proceeds along the winding, backtracking path of a mind mulling over a certain period of life. This kind of storytelling might be called disorganized organization; that is, in its purposeful aimlessness, it attempts to resemble the workings of a human mind as it gives shape to a mass of memories. As such, at many points in both authors' works the entire basis of the plot changes as the narrator recalls a previously forgotten fact. We jump back and forth in time according to the narrator's whim. Revelations that would generally sit at the apex of a climax are made here almost casually.”

You can read the rest here. Several months ago, I read The Good Soldier in an experimental fiction class I took with Nick Arvin, author of Articles of War. There was a great deal of discussion about this particular narrator’s flakiness. Some found it enhanced the story and some found it frustrating.

Craft books typically describe the first person point of view as useful when the narrator has a particularly unusual voice. What I’ve never read about until now is that the narrator’s unreliability may be and possibly should be integral to the structure of the narrative. Scott’s essay clearly illustrates this point.

I recently read The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall and Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis; two books with unreliable narrators. Both stories use plot devices that alter memory and the natural flow of time. Consequently, the structures of both novels are somewhat disorienting. I think it's a matter of reader taste as to whether one enjoys this type of book or not.

Some of the most well known fictional characters are unreliable narrators, including Holden Caulfield, Nick Carraway, Huck Finn and Humbert Humbert. Who are your favorite unreliable narrators? Have you ever noticed a narrator's diminished capacity to relate a story as an integral part of the novel's structure? Do you find it enhances or takes away from your enjoyment of the book? Other thoughts on the unreliable narrator?

Friday, April 25, 2008

Friday Overlooked Book Club: The Price of Salt

I was making my late night rounds and discovered through Josephine Damian’s blog that blogger Patti Abbott has come up with the brilliant idea for The Friday Overlooked Book Club.

This is how Patti describes it:

“This is the first of what I optimistically hope will become Friday recommendations of books we love but might have forgotten over the years. I have asked several people to help me by also remembering a favorite book. Their blog sites are listed below. I also asked each of them to tag someone to recommend a book for next Friday. I'm worried great books of the recent past are sliding out of print and out of our consciousness. Not the first-tier classics we all can name, but the books that come next. Here's my choice.”

You’ll have to go here to see what it is.

This is a great way to put those books that had their three months in the sun back into the spotlight again.

So here is my Friday Overlooked Book Selection:

The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith was written in 1953 under the pseudonym, Claire Morgan. Highsmith (1921 – 1995) was known for her psychological thrillers. Strangers on a Train was adapted to film by Alfred Hitchcock and three of the five Tom Ripley novels she wrote have been adapted to film (only two have been released). Highsmith lived most of her life after 1963 as an expatriate in Europe and although she was highly acclaimed, she was never truly appreciated in the United States until after her death.

The Price of Salt was written after Strangers on a Train, but rejected by her publisher, presumably because of its lesbian content. It was published elsewhere and after its paperback release, sold over a million copies and became a lesbian cult classic.

Many reviewers consider The Price of Salt to be one of the most under recognized and under appreciated novels of the 20th century. Terry Castle of The New Republic wrote:

“I have long had a theory that Nabokov knew The Price of Salt and modeled the climactic cross-country care chase in Lolita on Therese and Carol’s frenzied bid for freedom…Highsmith was the first writer to mix roadside Americana, transgressive sex, and the impinging threat of a morals charge – and she went about it as masterfully as anyone.”
Highsmith’s prose is simple, but elegant:

“ ‘Some things don’t react. But everything’s alive.’ He turned around with a broad smile, as if quite another train of thought had entered his head. He was holding up the match, which was still smoking. ‘Like this match. And I’m not talking about physics, about the indestructibility of smoke. In fact, I feel rather poetic today.’

‘About the match?’

‘I feel as if it were growing, like a plant, not disappearing. I feel everything in the world must have the texture of a plant sometimes to a poet. Even this table, like my own flesh.’ He touched the table edge with his palm. ‘It’s like a feeling I had once riding up a hill on a horse. It was in Pennsylvania. I didn’t know how to ride very well then, and I remember the horse turning his head and seeing the hill, and deciding by himself to run up it, his hind legs sank before we took off, and suddenly we were going like blazes and I wasn’t afraid at all. I felt completely in harmony with the horse and the land, as if we were a whole tree simply being stirred by the wind in its branches. I remember being sure that nothing would happen to me then, but some other time, yes, eventually. And it made me very happy. I thought of all the people who are afraid and hoard things, and themselves, and I thought, when everybody in the world comes to realize what I felt going up that hill, then there’ll be a kind of right economy of living and of using and using up.’”

This was a great book and I plan to read more of Patricia Highsmith.

What are your overlooked book recommendations?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Can a WIP Get Jealous?

I thought maybe since I'm having so much trouble writing Chapter 12 of The Foundling Wheel, I'd post part of the first chapter of the WIP I set aside for the Dickens Challenge. How do you like that Tracy? Aaron? Hmm? You don't want to tell me what happens next? Maybe I'll go back to my other imaginary friends. How would that be? If you feel like giving it a read, it would be interesting to hear how this excerpt, which I started writing nearly a year ago, compares to The Foundling Wheel, which up until now had been a much more spontaneous effort.

* * *

With her children settled into bed, Mimi led Tash to the cracked flagstone patio and they relaxed into the weathered old wooden chairs with their cold beer. He’d forgotten the sky was so black here, that the stars and the moon could create this heavenly chiaroscuro. The light from stars, some of them perhaps burned out millions of years ago, illuminated the tips of the neatly cut lawn out to the edges of blackness where a row of eastern pines began. Lilac bushes, their heart-shaped leaves the only reminder of their once heavy blooms, crowded the side of the barn, now converted to a garage. First one tiny light flickered and then another glowed, hesitated and moved on. He’d forgotten about fireflies. They both looked up at the stars and sipped from the sweating glass bottles, savoring the hoppy effervescence.

Mimi broke the silence. “Hal’s having an affair.”

Road noise from a faraway thoroughfare ripped through the quiet summer night now and then like sniper fire popping in a neighboring village; the only interruption to the bickering crickets and the pitiable croaking of a lone bullfrog.

Tash tried to view his sister with detachment, the way a stranger might. Having four children would almost certainly have wreaked some havoc on her slim, petite body but her clothed figure gave no evidence to that. She was well past forty, but she was still shapely, toned and tanned from spending time in the garden and at children’s sporting events. Her arms were tight, even muscular; no doubt the result of lifting one or another of her progeny around dozens of times a day. Her legs were strong and pretty, her feet clad in white tennis shoes, flecked with grass stains and earth. There was a nearly imperceptible thickening to her waist. She didn’t appear to be carrying extra weight, but the inevitable metamorphosis that occurs when a woman begins her transition to middle age was subtly redistributing her shape. Mimi’s hair, always thick and shiny, had lost none of its luster, but there was a vague gauntness to her cheeks and a barely noticeable looseness to her jaw line. Never one to wear makeup, she had taken some care to preserve her skin and its only betrayal to her age were the clusters of crows feet framing each eye that were destined to form sooner or later. In Mimi’s case it was sooner. An uncharacteristic vanity made her stubbornly resist wearing glasses, although she’d needed them since high school.

With some relief, Tash concluded that his older sister’s appearance was above average for a woman of her age. Maintaining objectivity when assessing a sibling was tough, and doubly so because of the years between visits. He was always startled at how much she aged between trips. He could not help thinking of her as a young woman during the years he knew her best. A quarter of a century ago, she was an object of desire for his few brainy, libidinous high school friends. If Hal was unfaithful to Mimi, it was not because she’d let herself go. They’d been married a long time. Could it be fifteen years? Could it be longer? It wasn’t news to either Tash or Mimi that infidelity was common among forty and fifty-something businessmen, but there was something disturbing about the matter-of-fact way she presented the situation to him. Mimi was rabidly territorial as a child and it was hard to believe the possessiveness she displayed toward her record collection and her first car didn’t extend to Hal.

“What makes you believe he’s having an affair?”

Mimi draped one leg over the arm of the weatherworn Adirondack chair and squinted through the darkness to look at him.

“I’m not an idiot. That’s the first thing I know.” She began ticking items off on each slender finger as she answered. “He started paying much more attention to his appearance, completely out of the blue. I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say that includes his personal grooming. At about the same time, he suddenly started working out. He got a lot more secretive on the computer. He started running a lot more errands, and taking too long to do them. When he stopped leaving his cell phone lying around, I knew something was up. I checked his sent and received calls and listened to his voice messages. It was pretty obvious.” She tugged at her thumb, the last tickable digit on her hand.

Tash stretched his legs out and crossed his ankles. This sounded bad. Any notion he had of a relaxing, low-stress escape from his own problems evaporated. In between swigs of beer, Mimi jiggled her ankle and picked at a cuticle. Given his unfamiliarity with the adult Mimi he saw through the dimness, it was impossible to know whether this was her usual antsy behavior or if she was about to unravel.

“It does sound pretty damning, but I don’t think you should jump to any conclusions just yet. Did you question or confront him about it?”

“I didn’t ask him anything, and I’m not planning to. He doesn’t ever need to know that I know. Look, I get why he’d do this, I really do. I’m pretty sure I could crawl inside his head and figure out what he’s thinking. I’m not going to see him throw a grenade into the middle of our marriage and fuck up my family, just because he’s feeling old. If I confront him, and he’s convinced himself that this fling is something serious, things could turn in a direction I have no intention of going. I know Hal. At this point in his life I’m sure he’s bored. I’m sure that by the time he’s done working, comes home to all five of us and sees me worn out from chasing them around all day, he probably thinks this wasn’t what he signed up for. No, we don’t have as much sex as we used to. Yes, I get tired, and no, I’m not always ready to worship at the altar of his penis. I’m sure this woman is glamorous, and kid-free and has nothing better to do when they get together than slip her bikini-waxed cooch into some crotch-less, expensive lingerie, pop open some Veuve Cliquot, fall to her knees and go down on him for hours in her tastefully decorated apartment, while he thinks this is what he’s been missing out on. I’m sure they’ve been dashing around New York, dining in romantic bistros and going to parties with her exciting, single, younger friends, and he’s convinced himself he’s denying himself the life he deserves. Who could blame him? I’ll tell you who – nobody, if any of that was real -- but it’s not. I mean, it may be what’s real for him right now, but it won’t stay that way.”

Tash stared at his sister while she tried to examine the backs of her hands in the darkness. He was surprised by the graphic terms, and he wasn’t sure how to react to her business-like assessment of her husband’s real or suspected philandering. He wished he knew her better. If not for Sarah, he wouldn’t make the infrequent calls to his sister that he did and he’d never think to send birthday cards to his niece and nephews or shop for them at Christmas. The sporadic communications never provided an opportunity to really talk to Mimi. If her marriage was in trouble before this, there was no reason to expect she’d confide in him. There was a lot he assumed about her, but nothing he really knew, and Hal was a virtual stranger. Tash didn’t know if Mimi and Hal had a good relationship, if they were friends, if they loved each other, or if they were like nearly every other married couple he knew who looked to be sleepwalking through life, paying the bills, caring for the kids, going to bed at night and endlessly repeating the same quotidian routine.

“Mimi, aren’t you upset?”

“Of course I’m upset.” He could barely see her hands, gesturing in the darkness like two ghostly birds.

“Just because I’m not sobbing and cramming my head in the oven, it doesn’t mean I’m not upset.” She pulled her hands back, as if trying to control their flitting, darting expressions and crossed her arms, hugging herself.

“OK, I’m just surprised you’re not more emotional about it.”

The truth was that it didn’t surprise Tash all that much. As a young woman, Mimi was unusually independent, at times even callous when it came to her boyfriends and lovers. What was disconcerting was that she seemed to want to hold her marriage together, but was employing the emotional detachment he’d seen her use to dismiss others from her life. He couldn’t recall her ever being on the receiving end of a breakup or having her heart broken.

Mimi asked, “What’s the point of getting emotional? Look, I love Hal, even though he’s acting like a ridiculous asshole right now. We’ve built a life together and he’s the father of my children.”

The symphony of crickets approached a crescendo and now the bullfrog sounded suicidal. Peeled rubber barked through the darkness, a dramatic exit from a drunken marital spat or maybe the testosterone fuelled ebullience of youth on a hot summer night.

Their own father had left their mother for a much younger woman before either Hal or Mimi left for college. Victor Lentz loved and was loved by many women and neither he nor his wife, Katherine attempted to hide it from their children. Their father’s infidelities had embarrassed them, forced them to view him as a sexual being instead of a parent; their mother’s self-imposed martyrdom made them feel helpless at first, then alternatively awkward or annoyed. Victor married his paramour, but Katherine remained frozen in time, unable or unwilling to get on with her life.

Tash began peeling away the label on his beer bottle. “Mimi, have you talked with anyone else about this?”

Mimi leaned over and patted her brother on the arm. “Of course I haven’t. This isn’t going to turn into a drama, and nobody else ever needs to know about it. Since you’re here, I take it as a sign that you need to help me. I could use your objectivity and analytical brain to help keep me on an even keel. I need you to come to New York with me for a couple of days. Don’t worry; I’m not going to do anything crazy. I just need to know what I’m dealing with. This will be fun, Tash. I promise you first-class accommodations, fine dining, plentiful adult beverages and of course, scintillating conversation.”

Her enthusiasm and her attempt to color this mission as a few fun days in the city brought on a dull aching in his temples and he could taste acid in the back of his throat. Mimi’s resentment of her mother’s role as victim had bred in her a Do something, even if it’s wrong mentality that fed her impulsive nature. He’d often envied her willingness to chase her passions without regard for the consequences. For once he wished she’d adopt his more reserved approach of When in doubt, don’t.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

What Will People Think?

The older I get, the easier it becomes to fictionalize painful feelings, awkward emotions and other uncomfortable subjects.

In my youth and young adult years, I found myself in the midst of constant drama and I wasn’t capable of writing much that wasn’t pure personal angst, but now that I am as grown up as I plan to be, the school of hard knocks is behind me. With the distance that time and growth afford, I can reflect on emotion, examine it and re-purpose it to fit fictional characters without much trouble at all.

But there is still a part of me that hesitates when I describe loss, love or humiliation. It’s not the strangers who might read my words and make assumptions about who I am that give me pause. That doesn’t concern me for a minute. I worry that the people who knew the most about me at some point in my life will believe the squirmy parts to be more memoir than fiction.

After all, we never really change all that much in the minds of those who knew us when, do we?

I’ve often wondered if writing truthfully and accessing painful emotions is easier now that neither of my parents is alive. I wonder if it would be possible for me to write some of the things I do if I had children of my own who might read me. There are things I’ve written in recent years that I might not have if I had a larger family. I think perhaps at one time I was afraid there were people who would see too much truth in what they’d read and take it personally.

Do people do that?

Maybe I assume people read more into my work than they do.

I suppose I make certain assumptions about authors whose work I find particularly brave or honest. When authors access emotion that grabs me by the throat or the heart, I just know they’ve experienced that emotion. But that author is a stranger and my perceptions are general in nature. I don’t know the facts of their lives.

What do you think? Do you avoid writing about certain thoughts, or emotions or even about sex or violence because of how you think those closest to you will see you or because perhaps you’re afraid they might see themselves? If your parents are no longer living, has it changed your writing? Does having children change the way you approach your writing?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Subliminal Subtext Contest Winners!

This was fun! I was surprised and delighted with the entries you all came up with. I may have to periodically try a “trust the reader” exercise like this. I think it was a good way to measure how much it’s safe to leave out in a scene and how much a reader can pick up from subtle clues. Unfortunately, this particular scene isn’t part of any larger story, but I suppose one day it may become just that.

I had to laugh because the immediate recognition or non-recognition of the medallion and The Big Book lends itself to interpretation with regard to the stories of the guessers and/or those close to them. Not that a person couldn’t pick this kind of insight up purely through research as Carleen Brice did when she wrote Orange Mint and Honey, but that’s usually not the case.

The actual story for the scene in question is not nearly as fascinating as what some of you came up with, but here it is.

Dick and Jeanne’s only son has just been sentenced to a long prison term. At Jeanne’s insistence, the couple spent money they didn’t have in order to secure an attorney for their son. Dick is a recovering alcoholic and has been in A.A. for quite some time. During those years, Jeanne has abstained from alcohol in order to support Dick’s recovery. Dick was still drinking when their son was very young and there has always been some unspoken resentment on Jeanne’s part and a suspicion that their son’s problems with drug abuse and in general are related to those early years. Their son, like most drug addicts is highly manipulative and his mother is especially vulnerable to this. Dick harbors a great deal of resentment toward Jeanne because as a recovering substance abuser, he believes Jeanne has enabled their son. He believes that had she made him take accountability for his actions and not continually rescued him, he might not have ended up in prison. The prison sentence is a long one, so they’ve cleaned out their son’s room to dispose of his belongings, which show evidence of his drug abuse right in their home. When the phone rings the first time, it is their son calling from prison, probably to ask for money and for additional legal help. It was confusing to some, but when my phone rings, if I press the off button, it will silence the ringing during that call, but not turn the phone completely off (comes in handy when those evening telemarketing calls start coming in). During dinner, they both knew it was their son calling and Dick silenced the ringer, although Jeanne had a very difficult time not taking her son’s call. Dick deals with this additional stress and the threat it poses to his sobriety through A.A. When Jeanne takes the first drink right in front of Dick, it is an unspoken “eff you” to him. When the phone rings a second time, it’s their son calling again because he knows eventually, his mother will answer. Dick knows this too as he walks out the door.

I like that people picked up on the sounds of the plows going by. I remember writing them during the free write, but I didn’t have a concrete reason for doing it. They probably do mean something within the context of this, but the truth is that even I don’t know what.

Since there were so many great entries, I decided to pick three names, but before I announce the names, let me tell you the two I wish I'd written.

Larramie's - In part because it was so extreme. This entry in particular actually made me gasp, mainly because of all the people in the world that I know, in the real and the virtual worlds, Larramie is the most optimistic and will always choose a happy ending. I almost fell over when I saw she'd subjected on of my characters to lethal injection. Larramie, you are full of surprises!

Billy's - Just because I thought the idea of a body being under the street being plowed was awesome. I need to ratchet my dark side up a notch!

And the three winners are:



Anonymous (if you want to truly remain anonymous, just leave a comment and I'll pick another name, otherwise please email me).

I'm copying the spirit of Bernita and Shauna's Pay it Forward Contests somewhat. Just email me with your choice of a selection of the latest release (or the book of your choice if they’ve published more than one) from one of the following author/bloggers:

Carleen Brice
Karen DeGroot Carter
Therese Fowler
Patry Francis
Charles Gramlich
William "Billy" Hammett
Timothy Hallinan
Bernita Harris
Judy Merrill Larsen

If you're one of my blog friends and you've published something that I can order on Amazon and I've missed it, please email me and let me know.


In the spirit of paying it forward, or if you've already read these books (Judy, I'll bet you've read most of them) or have something you're dying to read that's also on Amazon (preferably a debut novel), just let me know.

Please email your choice and your mailing address to: lisa at and thank you all for playing!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Hey Are They Laughin' at Us?

A few weeks ago Scott and I went up to Estes Park for the weekend with our friends, Wes and Nicole. Nicole is Canadian and we often have long philosophical discussions about politics and culture. I'm always curious about how Americans are really perceived by people in other countries, especially our nearest neighbor to the north. I just about died laughing when Nicole introduced me to these YouTube episodes of Rick Mercer's "Talking to Americans". The video quality isn't the best, but it is just hysterical.

After watching this and grilling some of my Canadian friends for a while, I've come to the conclusion that Canadians must think of us in the same way one would think of a likable but goofy cousin.

And P.S. the capital of Canada is Ottawa.

Enjoy! And if you're feeling wobbly about your Canadian geography, hop over to Seize a Daisy and check out a great virtual tour of Toronto.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Subliminal Subtext

During one of the workshops I attended this fall, we had an assignment to write a scene with no dialogue. I wrote the following, and have always wondered if anybody in the world would be able to figure out what was actually happening in the scene. I don't think anybody in workshop did, but if you're game, tell me what you think the situation surrounding this scene might be and what brought you to that conclusion. Or, if this just seems like a completely jumbled and confusing mess, tell me that too.

This is just a raw snippet from a writing prompt, so you're not going to hurt my feelings a bit if you tell me it's completely incomprehensible.

To make this more interesting, there will be a prize for whoever comes up with the interpretation closest to what I had in mind. Naturally, I haven't figured out what the prize will be, but it will most likely be something from Amazon (I heart you one-click). I will announce the winner -- oh, I don't know -- sometime early next week. So guess away and no guess is too crazy. As a matter of fact, if you guess something better than what I originally envisioned, I'll probably claim it's what I meant to say.

Jeanne folded the invoice from the attorney, pushed it to the edge of the kitchen table past the plate of congealing chicken, mashed potatoes and canned peas, and ran her hands through her hair. Gunmetal streaks dominated either side of her center part for an inch or more, and abruptly transitioned to dark brown like a bad neighborhood divided from a good one. Dick drained the last of a tepid cup of coffee and checked his watch. A pile of black trash bags and a smaller pile of boxes, labeled Salvation Army sat in the middle of the floor, an accusation, a poor man’s shrine or perhaps, just the trash that it was. One bag remained open; a torn flannel shirt coiled around a broken Walkman, the stench of an ashtray and unwashed clothing hiding the burnt kitchen spoon underneath.

The phone in the middle of the table rang, ripping through the silence in the house that had until now been interrupted only by the sounds of the plow blades grinding against the street out front. Jeanne’s hands stopped ruffling and froze, still, as though she considered pulling her hair out by the roots. They both looked at the Caller ID. Department of Corrections. Jeanne’s right hand extended up and at an angle, hovering over the table and giving her the look of an uncertain student, offering the answer to a difficult question. Their eyes met and Dick picked up the phone and pressed the off button to silence the ringing. He set it down precisely, checked his watch again and pushed back from the table. He carried his plate and the chipped mug across the kitchen, stopped to scrape the chicken bones and cold peas into the open trash bag and then placed the dishes in the dishwasher.

Jeanne stared at the phone and dropped her hands to the table top. Dick pulled a heavy parka from a coat rack beside the back door, put it on and began gathering keys, wallet, and cigarettes and pocketed a heavy metal medallion with a triangle and Roman numeral inscribed in the center. He patted down his coat pockets. Jeanne stood, moved her chair to the front of the refrigerator and hesitated, staring at the snapshots of smiling faces held on with magnetic fruits and vegetables, a heavy magnet that said Korn, and one that said Visualize Whirled Peas. She reached out and touched a yellowing photo of the three of them and then climbed up. Dick stopped to watch as she took a dust covered bottle out of the cabinet above and stepped back down. He jammed his hands in his pockets and dipped his bearded chin inside the front of his coat. Her back turned to him, she filled a glass with amber liquid, took a long swallow, wiped her lips with the back of her hand and planted both fists on the edge of the counter in front of the sink. She tried to look beyond the reflection that stared back at her from the dark window. The sound of the clock ticking was interrupted by the compressor in the refrigerator, and the smell of roasted chicken lingered in the tiny kitchen.

The phone rang again as another plow passed by. Jeanne turned to face Dick and he looked away. He reached into his pockets and pulled his keys out, tucked the Big Book under his arm, grabbed the trash bags and walked out into the snow.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Remembering Kurt Vonnegut

April 11th marked the first anniversary of the death of Kurt Vonnegut. His death marked the end of something significant in American culture and maybe in our collective consciousness.

Vonnegut was a literary and cultural icon and when he died, television, newspapers, magazines and the internet carried tributes for days.

Bill Henderson was a student of Vonnegut’s at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Bill is a novelist, screenwriter, coach, editor, musician and teacher and he blogs at TrueVoice. I found out that he’d been a student of Vonnegut’s through a post he did about the publishing business. I found this especially funny:

“I remember years ago, in college, complaining to my teacher, Kurt Vonnegut, that I had no connections, so how the hell was I ever going to get published?

Ironically, I didn't consider Vonnegut a connection; his apotheosis and transformation into an icon of popular literary fiction hadn't happened yet.

"The thing is," he said, pausing before adding a second "is" (Vonnegut was the first person I ever heard do that) " that if your story's good enough, you won't need connections."

I was dumbfounded. How could he say that? Didn't I know full well, at age 22, how the world really worked? Contacts were everything.”

There were a lot of interviews and movie cameos in Vonnegut’s later years that seemed to have morphed him into a caricature of himself. Bill has written a wonderful reminiscence about the Kurt Vonnegut that he knew. If you were a Vonnegut admirer, I hope you'll check it out.

The embedded video recalls a Vonnegut that is most like the one Bill remembers.

Bill's piece reveals the Vonnegut that I’d like to remember.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

One Year Later

I always believed we have some notion of who, or what we're meant to be from the time we're eight or nine. A few people stay the course and they become that person. Most of us stray from the path, sometimes due to bad choices but most often because of fear and the need for security. Every once in a great while, we find the path again.
That was the first paragraph of my very first blog post and I still believe it and I’m still on the path. My first post was a sort of public declaration (not that I had a public) of my commitment to fiction writing.

A kind stranger commented on that very first post. Amy, from The Writers’ Group said, “For me failure means never trying. See? You've already succeeded. Best of luck...”

She was representative of the many interesting, kind and generous people I have come to know through this blog. I frequently read discussions about whether or if writers should blog and if there is any benefit to doing so. Generally, the question is raised within the context of whether it does a published, or about to be published author any good in terms of sales. I don’t know if it does or not. I doubt that in that case it makes much of a difference most of the time.

It’s made a difference to me as a writer and as a person.

When I started Eudaemonia I’d been pecking away at something I had tentatively called Ice Flowers. There was some good stuff there, but I had no idea how to structure a novel and by the time I’d gotten 32,055 words into it, I was frustrated and stuck. I’d been reading blogs and lots of books on craft and I knew I didn’t know enough to keep working on it.

I looked back on my posts at that time (it was May of 2007) and all of the helpful advice came from those of you who are still reading and who I’ve been able to share this year with. Everything that all of you said was right and I took your advice.

In June I started working on a new story and I called it Strings. I’d signed up for a weeklong writers’ retreat that would start in July and I needed at least the start of a first chapter to take with me.

The retreat was life changing for me. I attended many sessions on craft, I met some amazing Colorado based writers and despite having to fortify myself with a beta blocker and a beer before doing so, I read something I’d written in front of the whole group.

After I got back from the retreat I signed up for an eight week novel writing workshop and I got more help, learned to critique and met more great people. Then I did a second eight week workshop and it helped me to be a good critical reader and a fair editor.

I was 23,399 words into Strings when Tim Hallinan sent me an email about a crazy idea he had to start writing a novel from scratch and post a chapter a week, Charles Dickens style. I told Tim I’d do a post about the Dickens Challenge and share the information, but I had no intention of participating myself. I had a decent word count going with Strings and two heavily critiqued chapters. I was adding word count steadily, but I wasn’t entirely sure where I was going with it.

Then two days before the first small group of Dickens Challenge writers were due to post first chapters, I couldn’t get the premise of a story out of my head. I kept thinking about it and turning the characters over in my mind and finally I started to write a first chapter and I was in.

The Foundling Wheel now sits at 29,496 words and I’m midway through the first draft of chapter 12.

Are you sensing a pattern?

On the surface it looks like I’m completely incapable of finishing anything and that may be true, but for once, I’m going to give myself a break. In the last year I’ve learned a lot. Ice Flowers put me on my path, Strings helped me to hone my craft further and the weekly posting format of the Dickens Challenge has helped me with structure and it’s helped me to write less from my head.

Last weekend, I met with a new critique group. A writer from one of the two eight week work shops I attended invited me to join a new group and at this point, it feels like just what I need.

This is my 165th post and in looking back at where I started and where I am now, I know that Blogging has had a huge impact on me. I’ve met so many great people online, spoken with some on the phone, exchanged emails with many and even met a few in person.

And did I mention that I got a dog and a cat?

Thank you to everyone who has made this year such a turning point for me.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

So Far Behind!

This week is going by just as quickly as last week did and I feel like I get farther behind all the time. I'm working on Chapter 12 of The Foundling Wheel and I plan to get a full writing day in this weekend if it kills me!

Tonight I got back from another trip to the Washington, DC area and of course that means I have lots of work that's piled up.

I feel like I'm missing out on so much when I can't check in with everyone every day and I want to apologize to all of my fellow Dickens Challengers for not being able to keep up with your latest chapters. I plan to remedy that by the weekend also.

On a positive note, I found that Marian, the musician who did such a lovely rendition of Here Comes the Sun has posted a second and third video while I've been away. I was surprised to find that Marian is German and lives in Munich.

Here's an original song he's got up on YouTube called, Waiting for the Rain.

I'll have a more reflective post up by the 10th -- which marks a full year of blogging for me.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

In the Blink of an Eye

I’ve always considered myself to be part of a strange in-between sort of generation. I was born in 1961, so I was too young to be part of the sixties and too old to be part of Generation-X. There was no cause that my generation was excited about. We were at the tail end of the baby boomers and the start of the me generation.

The music my friends and I listened to in high school was the stuff playing on the FM stations, not the top 40 disco that was popular. We listened to rock and roll from the late sixties and early seventies, as if we were disappointed in what our own era had to offer. Most of my high school friends got married and had kids right away and those that went on to college were intent on professions most likely to guarantee the highest income possible.

I don’t remember any artists, poets or saints.

I went into the Air Force when I was nineteen. I was in the San Antonio airport, waiting to get on a bus to basic training when all the television screens went live to New York City. It was December 8, 1980 and John Lennon had just been shot. It was the quietest I’ve ever seen an airport and it seemed that the world stood still.

I took it as an omen.

President Reagan was sworn into office the following month and when I think of my thirteen years, seven months and twenty-three days as an airman, my time was defined by those Reagan years.

I’m a cold war veteran.

Lots of people I’ve met over the years have been surprised and occasionally stunned to discover I was in the military. I guess I don't seem like someone who would have enlisted. They see what’s happening in Iraq now and they wonder why anybody would enlist.

I wonder the same thing.

Those were different times. People like me joined the military because we didn’t have a lot of other options and it was a way to pay for college – at least that’s what they told us. There were guys who joined because that’s just what the men in their families did. There were guys who’d run into trouble and it was either the military or jail. There were a lot of us who didn’t know what to do with our lives. We just knew there was nothing for us where we were.

We never thought about the possibility that we could be killed. We talked about it now and then in hypothetical terms, but the reality was that we had a lot of years where the United States didn’t get involved in any significant military actions. Now and then we got reminders that life could be a little more dangerous for us than for civilians. There were terrorist threats and bombings, but that was the kind of thing that those of us in our twenties knew only happened to other people.

There was one thing we were afraid of that most people have forgotten and younger people never experienced. We were afraid of the Soviet Union. We were born afraid of them. It’s strange when I think back on a lifetime of that fear of the unknown and the idea that at any time, a global nuclear holocaust might happen and end life on this planet as we know it. Our culture was obsessed with the possibility.

I was stationed in Europe for the better part of the 80’s, and we couldn’t travel to Eastern Bloc countries. We had to report contact with anyone we ran into from one of those countries to the Office of Special Investigations.

Not much chance of that happening in those days.

I had just moved back to the states when the Berlin Wall came down. I couldn’t stop watching the news. I cried. I was jealous that I’d left too soon because I felt like I should have been there. I never believed it would happen in my lifetime and then it did. It seems like a nearly forgotten part of our history now, but to that point, it was the biggest thing that had ever happened in the world as far as I was concerned.

Everything changed overnight.

I never met a Russian until a year ago. Irina moved to Denver from Moscow six years ago. She’s twenty seven years old and after the first time we talked, I realized that she has no concept of how people my age were raised to think of Russians – well, we called them Soviets – and how her parents’ generation thought of us. We thought of the Kremlin and Soviets ready to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles at us and we thought of Soviet people standing in lines for toilet paper. I have no idea what they thought of us.

I watched our fifth year in Iraq pass us by with no end in sight and I wonder what event will mark the end of this for the generation fighting this war. I hope the day will come when those kids too young to remember life before the first Gulf War can experience the feeling I had when the Cold War ended.

It didn’t take long for us to forget about it, but it was a nice feeling while it lasted.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Here Comes the Sun!

Patry Francis had a great post about singing yesterday and today, on this first day of April with the Sun streaming through my windows I couldn't help but think of her. The sentiment of this song feels so significant with regard to Patry, where she's been and where she's going that I wanted to post a video of it to share with everyone.

Naturally, I was looking for something Beatles or George, but something made me watch this one.

I think this musician is fantastic and on a site dedicated to the pursuit of my literary dreams, I thought that posting this particular rendition of the classic song was especially apt.

Books I Read in February and March 2008

The Fourth Watcher, by Timothy Hallinan is the second in a series set in Bangkok. Travel writer Poke Rafferty and the cast of characters I became so fond of in the first novel, A Nail Through the Heart return in this crime thriller when a ghost from Rafferty’s past re-enters his life and places his new family in danger. Tim continues to astound me with his deft handling of multiple story lines and with his interesting and nuanced characters. I again found myself drawn into the underworld in Bangkok and I continue to learn bits and pieces about eastern attitudes and culture. The Fourth Watcher has a scheduled release date of June of this year. Yes, that’s right. I had an Advance Reader Copy (ARC)! I had two back to back business trips while reading The Fourth Watcher and took every opportunity to flash my ARC around and show it to people so I could tell them that I know real, live published authors and only very important people get to have an “unedited proof”. I showed it off to Patti on my trip to San Antonio and she was appropriately inspired by the coolness of it all. Or at least she humored me.

Gang Leader for a Day, by Sudhir Venkatesh is a the non-fiction account written of the decade this self-proclaimed “rogue sociologist” spent conducting research in one of the most infamous public housing projects in Chicago. Venkatesh became acquainted with a gang leader and his associates, as well as an intricate cast of characters that included prostitutes, Chicago Housing Authority building managers, Housing Police, clergymen and tenants. The book reveals a fascinating picture of the hidden economy and organization found within a society immersed in urban poverty. This was an impulse purchase from my local independent bookstore. I was trying to understand gang culture and I thought this book might provide some insights. This was a fascinating book and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of a world most of us know very little about.

Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee. Coetzee is a Nobel Prize winning South African ex-pat who has been living in Australia for a number of years. To call this novel bleak would be an understatement. I wanted to read Coetzee because I kept running into references to his work. He’s undeniably a gifted writer and I found this novel, set in post-Apartheid South Africa disturbing, to say the least, but also strangely compelling. I’ve got another Coetzee novel on my TBR stack and I’m sure I’ll want to read it before the year ends.

The Double Bind, by Chris Bohjalian. Two things led me to this one. The first is that it was a selection from the Odyssey Book Store signed first edition book club that I belong to so it was already in my TBR stack. Then I read an interview with Chris Bohjalian at The Writers’ Group blog and he was so charming, I wanted to read the book, and I’m glad I did. There are a number of elements that make this an especially innovative novel, but probably the biggest is the incorporation of characters from Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby. A very interesting premise and an ending I didn’t see coming. Warning: Ello, I’m talking to you – do not read the last few pages of the book until you get to them or you’ll ruin the book for yourself!

Torch, by Cheryl Strayed. I first read about Cheryl Strayed at Kate Hopper’s blog. I subsequently ordered the “Best of” collections in order to read her essays and liked them so much that I ordered her debut novel, Torch. The book follows the path of a family in a small town in Minnesota from the terminal cancer diagnosis of Teresa through the year or so following her death. The separate journeys through grief for Teresa’s husband and two children are genuine, honest, painful and at times, funny. Strayed is one of the most honest writers I’ve ever read and her prose is simple and beautiful.

The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall was a recommended read from The Electric Orchid Hunter when I posted my January reads. The nice thing about book recommendations from friends in the blogosphere is that it’s pretty easy to guess whether or not you’ll like the types of books they do by looking at their profiles. The EEO has several books that I loved listed, so I was anxious to read this one. You either love this type of book or you don’t. It would be easy to pigeon hole this with the growing category of stories that begin with a young amnesiac trying to piece together his past, but that would be a vast oversimplification. This book is Memento meets Fight Club meets the movie Jaws, taken to the next level and all written in flawless prose. Still confused? It’s part sci-fi, part literary thriller, part love story, part adventure story. I really enjoyed the book and expect to see a lot more from this talented English writer.

How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, by Pierre Bayard. I picked this up because how could I not? I’m a sucker for books about reading. Somewhat tongue in cheek at times and occasionally a little heavy handed with references, Bayard’s assertion is that one doesn’t need to actually read a book in order to have a good grasp of it and in order to intelligently discuss it. In fact, he goes so far as to say that reading the book may even be an impediment to doing so. He refers to the “collective library” and our own “inner library” and the significance of understanding where a particular book fits in the collective library. It was a pretty good read, but I’d only recommend it to the nerdiest of book nerds.

Meyer, by Stephen Dixon. Somewhere I stumbled across an online article about Stephen Dixon and his latest novel, Meyer. Dixon has written close to thirty novels and has been described as “a hipper Saul Bellow”. How could I not be intrigued by that? Dixon writes the kind of novels that I love, but that a lot of people do not. It’s difficult to describe his style and rather than try, I’d recommend the article I’ve linked to. Meyer is about a writer enduring an episode of writer’s block. He explores a series of episodes in his life and imposes a series of "what-ifs" that change the outcomes and give him story fodder to consider. I often say that I’m tired of novels about writers, but the truth is, I can’t seem to resist them. I’d almost describe what Dixon does as experimental fiction.

My TBR stack continues to grow at a faster rate than I’m able to get through it, but so far I haven’t found a twelve-step program for what ails me. What’s always is a surprise to me is what I’ll read next and I wonder if anybody else is as flaky about this as I am. I have TBR books piled on top of book cases in my office and I tend to stack a half dozen of them on my bedside table. These are the primary candidates for what I’ll read next, but I won’t always even stick with these. I guess it all depends on what I’m in the mood for when I’m ready to start a new book. Before I started Meyer (the last book I read), I literally lined it up with Saturday, by Ian McEwan, The Fall of Rome, by Martha Southgate and How the Dead Dream, by Lydia Millet and re-read all the book jackets before I chose Meyer.

Before I start the next one, I’ll glance over the entire stack and then at the short stack on the bedside table, but I have no idea what I'll start.

What was the best book you read recently?

How do you decide what book to read next?

And a final note: Don't forget to celebrate National Poetry Month!

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf