Of is Not a Verb: : “Days under bombardments, watching the shrapnel fl...: This is not a review or recommendation of If on a winter’s night a traveler , by Italo Calvino, one of the most surreal novels I've...
Saturday, December 27, 2014
This is not a review or recommendation of If on a winter’s night a traveler, by Italo Calvino, one of the most surreal novels I've encountered. Much of it seduces the reader in second person, making the Reader part of the bizarre quest for the ideal book. Like the film Inception, the novel doesn't make literal sense, its plot is not linear, and few people I know would have the patience to slog through it, yet throughout the story lay beautiful tidbits of prose about what it means to be a reader and writer, the dichotomy between writing and publishing, and how reading binds readers together.
Through the novel’s characters, Calvino gently unfurls what may be his own beliefs about story. According to Professor Uzzi-Tuzii, an expert on a dead language, “Reading is …a thing made of writing, a solid material object… through which we measure ourselves against something that is not present, something else that belongs to the immaterial, invisible, world….Reading is going toward something that is about to be, and no one yet knows what it will be…” The professor describes literature as, “The book I would like to read now is a novel in which you sense the story arriving like still-vague thunder…”
Ludmilla, a fellow bibliophile the narrator pursues, qualifies literary novels further by saying “the novel…should have at its driving force only the desire to narrate, to pile stories upon stories, without trying to impose a philosophy of life on you, simply allowing you to observe its own growth…”
These kinds of books such as If on a winter’s night a traveler may frustrate you at the time of reading, and you may have the desire to toss it across the room, yet something revealed in its pages stays with you, and you realize the problem is not with the book itself but you, the Reader.
Those of us who are writers are intimate with the whole writing- is-an-art, publishing-is-a- business blah blah blah. We are encouraged to ‘be original, not derivative,’ yet there is a sameness throughout the fiction section. If you write young adult like I do, you are doomed unless your hero has a superpower or is facing the end of the world. (Thankfully zombies and vampires are on the decline.) The publishing industry decides what we will read because the book business process relies largely on the popular novel, which is parodied in this passage of Calvino’s tale:
“In New York, in the control room, the reader is soldered to the chair at the wrists, with pressure manometers and a stethoscopic belt, her temples beneath their crown of hair held fast by the serpentine wires of the encephalogram that mark the intensity of her concentration and the frequency of stimuli…..to be subjected to the uninterrupted reading of novels and variants of novels as they are out by the computer. If reading attention reaches certain highs with a certain continuity, the product is viable and can be launched on the market; if attention, on the contrary, relaxes and shifts, the combination is rejected and its elements are broken up and used again in other contexts.”The narrator takes us to the publisher, “an enterprise that perhaps nobody else can understand…” because “there’s a boundary line: on one side are those who make books, on the other those who read them. I want to remain one of those who read them, so I take care always to remain on my side of the line. Otherwise, the unsullied pleasure of reading ends, or at least transformed into something else…” As a writer, I perceive how agents and editors, bombarded with thousands of manuscripts not of their choosing, suffer the loss of “the unsullied pleasure of reading,” and lose the patience and time to sink into a tale that arrives like a slow moving storm. In our techno-cluttered world, we must “hook” the reader on page one, or face the ubiquitous rejection. To quote another character, Lotaria, Ludmilla’s sister, “what you want would be a passive way of reading, escapist and regressive…”
Those of us who write fiction aspire to write the kinds of novels we want to read, yet “it would seem those who use books to produce other books are increasing more than those who just like to read books.” Publishing companies love a series. A sequel to story that pulls in good numbers, such as The Hunger Games or Twilight, whether good or bad, guarantees sales because readers crave being able to retreat inside the tale and assess life through someone else’s experiences and thoughts.
My friend Cindy S. says when she dates a man, he may be Harrison Ford handsome or as rich as one of the Shark tank sharks, but “if he doesn’t read, that’s a deal breaker.” For readers, lovers should be able to feed one another’s heads and hearts.
I can be in a room with twenty or thirty people and feel utterly alone unless I find among these relatives, acquaintances or strangers someone who reads, someone with whom “a language, a code between the two of you, a means of exchange signals and recognizes each other.”
While having coffee with my friend Cindy R, I feel heartened by sharing passages from this novel and watch her face convey recognition. In the cafe, we are two foreigners able to speak our unique language. “We need to get our book discussion group back together,” She says. Our monthly book group devolved a few months back when each of its members had personal tragedies, yet the dissolution of group could also be perceived as tragic. Just as sports fans need to yell at the television together during a game, readers need one another to dissect the fine points of what we’ve read because it “enabled me to master the forces of the universe and recognize an order to it.”
Monday, December 22, 2014
Given the precarious state of the book business, publishers appear to be reluctant to take on projects that won’t fit neatly on the shelves, so I am heartened by Crown Publishers for its publication of The Fifty Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France by Miranda Richmond Mouillot. The CIP on the verso page of the book categorizes it as a memoir, a family story, the grandparents’ story, a biography about Jews in France as Holocaust survivors and later, in the United States, a guide to France itself, a tale of divorced people, and life in France during World War II. It is all of these, and more.
At the outset, the author reveals the book “is a true story, but it a work of memory, not a work of history.” Mouillot’s intent behind the tale is to “confront and illuminate a shadow that haunts every family: the past.” In Mouillot’s family the shadow is the fifty-plus year discord between her maternal grandparents. How can they have endured the Holocaust together, but for more than five decades afterwards, not manage to acknowledge one other’s existence?
Reader, I detect an eye roll from you, and the ensuing ‘just what we need, another Holocaust story.’ The book’s uniqueness is in not only how the couple survived, but how they became a couple, and why they ultimately split apart. The saga begins long after Anna Munster, a physician and Armand Jacoubovitch, an interpreter at the Nuremberg Trials, artfully avoid seeing or speaking to one another after producing two children and emigrating to the United States. One of the few things binding them is a love for Mirandali, the author and their granddaughter.
Miranda Mouillot, born long after the war ends, has always sensed the horrors Jews endured during the war, and as a child experiences inexplicable terrors, until years later, a childhood friend explains that Mouillot “comes from a family of holocaust survivors with a lot of bad memories to cope with,” shedding light on the author’s prescience.
As a child the author imagines her mother’s parents as separate entities, not fully comprehending that they had to have been a couple at one time to produce her mother and uncle. She grows up with the mystique of knowing her grandparents’ dislike of one another, yet not knowing why.
The catalyst for the author’s search for answers comes as a result of a disagreement over ownership of a dilapidated family house in France Ms. Mouillot wishes to inhabit as she works on her thesis. She begins a long saga of dealing with French officials, digging through old records, and piecing together the puzzle that links and divides her family.
Like all good tales, the protagonist sets out on a journey, in search of what h/she hopes to find, a simple love story between her kin, only to discover a more intricate, sometimes perilous story. Along the way, Mouillot learns of Anna and Armand’s long, complex relationship, how each separately and together survived the war, and how the horrors of the war prohibited them from staying together. It is also Mouillot’s memoir, and while one love story unravels, a new one forms.
The book lists numerous primary and secondary sources, chief of which are her grandparents. The title is available from Crown in January, 2015.
Wednesday, November 26, 2014
I rarely make social commentary on this blog; its purpose is to help writers and readers make literary choices. But given the spate of news coverage from Ferguson, Missouri and other parts of the country, I offer another voice.
What causes these ubiquitous conflicts? What happened in Ferguson joins the long line of civil unrest: the bus boycotts, the assassinations of civil rights leaders, Rodney King, and a litany of black teenagers gunned down by police. It goes back to the Civil War. Are these clashes based on racism? Police brutality? A breakdown of values? They are all of the above and more.
Civil unrest is not limited to race. Granted, our white ancestors created racial issues through claiming and colonizing this country, and later through its inhumane treatment of importing people as slaves to bolster the economy. By not recognizing Native Americans and the imported Africans as human beings with viable cultures, and thrusting a “superior” set of western values on these “savages,” we set ourselves up for conflict. Yet our history of discord is not limited to race. Consider Suffragists, Kent State riots and more recently, the influx of school shootings.
The evening of the 9/11 attacks, I was teaching a class at the university. Surprisingly, all my students showed up, yet they were uncommonly sedate. One of my students raised her hand, and asked, “Why do they hate us?”
Its human nature to surround ourselves with the familiar. The known commodities, the shared values of those who think and act like us. When we step outside our comfort, the natural reaction is fear.
Officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown did not know one another, so neither had knowledge of the other man’s intent. A stranger in a uniform carrying a loaded weapon yelling at you on the street , especially when you know you have just committed a misdemeanor, can elicit fear. What is this man’s intent?
Yet the officer also does not know this young man who had the advantage of youth and standing upright rather than being seated. What is this man’s intent?
Had these men known one another, known the others’ backgrounds and merits, this confrontation likely could have been resolved peacefully. Were there community outreach programs for police officers to get to know the youth in the community? Does the community fear the men and women hired to protect and serve?
Many of you will call me naive and idealistic. And you’re right. There are no easy answers, yet we have become increasingly isolated, hiding behind our phones and Facebook postings, avoiding face to face contact.
The economic divide grows wider every day. A lot of people are pissed off, and the frontal lobes of our brains react with road rage, riots and uncharacteristic reactions. The question we need to ask ourselves now is: how can we prevent this from happening again?
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
How to Be a Good Wife
On the surface Marta Bjornstad is a lonely, middle aged woman going through empty nest syndrome. Her attentive husband Hector sees to making sure she takes her pills. “You know what happens when you don’t,” he admonishes. Yet for the past few weeks Marta has faked taking them, and she begins having visions of a blonde girl. The visions are disturbing, yet something drives Marta to refuse to medicate herself so she can solve the mystery of the girl, even at the risk of her own sanity.
Marta and Hector’s son Kylan comes home for a weekend visit with his girlfriend Katya, and the announcement of his engagement accelerates Marta’s illusions toward the sinister truth about her own marriage.
How to Be a Good Wife is a tense, claustrophobic, and ultimately heartbreaking mystery. My details are sketchy because I don’t want to reveal spoilers. If you were intrigued by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” or Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour,” How to Be a Good Wife will keep you awake for a few nights. Available Nov 4, 2014 in paperback. Picador Books
I recently received two other ARCs in the mail, yet I won’t be reviewing them because, as I said in a previous post,http://laura-moe.blogspot.com/2014/09/are-one-star-reviews-fair.html I don’t like writing bad reviews. I know how hard it is to write a novel, even a bad one. One of these I received from Goodreads. It’s a self published mystery that lacks tension. Rather than publicly humiliate the author, I will send it back to her, and perhaps she can find someone who will praise it.
The other one is from a small press. It too, is a mystery, but the writing itself is godawful. I blame the editor not to pare down the wordy sentences and the numerous misplaced similes that make this particular novel an awkward read. The book may appeal to readers who read just for plot, but I’m an unapologetic word snob. Words are like paint on a palette, and if the writer cannot paint the prose with the right words in the right order, the writing is beige.
Note to self: when entering a Goodreads contest, check out who published the book before clicking on enter.
On a positive note, a recent essay of mine got quoted on Cleveland Poetics
Meanwhile, check out the entire essay in Poet's Quarterly:
Thursday, October 9, 2014
Are some novels just too long?
In a previous post I researched one star reviews, and looked for two long books in particular: Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. http://laura-moe.blogspot.com/2014/09/are-one-star-reviews-fair.html The biggest negative criticism lies in their length. Ian McEwan, a master of short novels such as Atonement, believes “very few long ones earn their length.”
I both agree and disagree. 1Q84 could have ended after Book Two and I would have been satisfied with the tale. Gutting about 150 pages out of the center of Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers would have improved the narrative for me. And yet I was held captive throughout Donna Tarrt’s 771 page The Goldfinch and Larry McMurty’s nearly 900 page Lonesome Dove.
My former student Logan P. recently finished David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, weighing in at 1100 pages. “On the surface level, it's given me the confidence to move onto much more difficult works,” he told me. “Once you've read one of the longest books ever written not much seems too difficult. And the book is absolutely packed with information on everything from higher-math concepts (it actually helped with my calculus class) to linguistics to how Alcoholics Anonymous functions. More than anything else, Wallace has a way with the human condition, from the highs to the lows to everything in between, and he's not afraid to discuss it”.
When I asked Logan if the book could have been shorter, he replied, “Yes and no. There are many parts that don't add anything to the plot or character development and just stagnate the book as a whole, yet the, "pointless", stagnating parts add to the themes and the book's purpose as a whole.” Logan said the book is “stupidly long, but it's an amazing read.” He summed it up in a single sentence; everyone is addicted to something, from their television to drugs to their love for their country, and it all ends up being a self-perpetuating cycle. “To quote DFW”, Logan said, “’Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,’ and you definitely learn more about what that means after reading Infinite Jest.”
After initially abandoning it, I “finished” One Hundred Years of Solitude by skimming and scanning the last two hundred pages, and I came away with more insight on why this novel ranks among the greats. Yes, the book is long, and the character names are nearly impossible to follow, yet after awhile I stopped trying to “understand” the book and succumbed to some of its wonders. If you are looking for a linear narrative, this is not your book. The tale reminds me of a Salvador Dali painting, where reality and dreams entwine. The book shares elements with Homer’s Odyssey and The Iliad or The Arabian Nights, parables of how history spins its wheel and lands on the same places of love, wonder, discovery, avarice, greed, brutality, and ultimately, death. One Hundred Years of Solitude begins at a time when “the world was so recent that many things lacked names” and evolves to when “science has eliminated distance.” Melquides, the gypsy, has predicted “in a short time, man will be able to see what is happening in any place in the world without leaving his own home.” Like Ray Bradbury’s post war era Fahrenheit 451, the prescience of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ s 1967 novel has come true.
Other notable quotes from the text are:
“A person doesn't die when he should but when he can.”
“The only difference today between Liberals and Conservatives is that Liberals go to mass at five o’clock and the Conservatives at eight.”
And yet the novel could have been much shorter, because as Aureliano Segundo says, “Cease, because life is short.”
So are long books worth the time and effort? The short answer is depends on the book. On a deeper level each of us brings to a book our past reading and life experiences as well as our present. Sometimes a book find you, much like Julian Carax’s book in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Shadow of the Wind, a relatively short book at 528 pages, found Daniel Sempere.
What are some of your favorite long books, and why?
Sunday, October 5, 2014
I recently entered a contest called The Agent’s Inbox sponsored on the blog Mother.Write. Repeat. (Kristavandolzer.com) Occasionally Krista opens her blog up for up to twenty people submit queries and first pages of their completed manuscripts.
"An Agent's Inbox" came about because I felt like the blog needed a lift,” Krista said. “Also, because all the existing blog contests focused on first pages and/or shorter pitches. I hated writing shorter pitches, so I thought it would be cool to see the whole query (and simulate an agent's inbox in the process). I can't schedule them as regularly as I used to, since they do take a significant amount of time and I usually don't know when I'll have the time until the last minute, but I enjoy hosting them.”
Each contestant is asked to critique at least three other entries, and a guest agent awards an opportunity to submit anywhere from the first 250 words to an entire manuscript. Krista said she “knows of two writers who signed with the agent who judged the round of "An Agent's Inbox" they entered. “I would like to make it three.”
I recently entered one where the prizes were a first chapter (3rd place), fifty pages (2nd place), or entire manuscript for review (first place.) Posts are public, so anyone with an internet connection is free to comment. While Krista asks that people “please keep comments constructive, it’s a little like Shark Tank for writers.
We’re all experts in writing that isn't our own, yet we’re too close to our own work and need another set of eyes. I had already run my book through a group of great first readers who provided enormous feedback. I also hired an editor to smooth out repetition and fix my numerous typos. (My editor also found where I had spelled a character’s name two different ways.) Breakfast with Neruda, which had gone through a litany of terrible titles, was ready to be seen.
Putting your “baby” out there for display is like watching your son walk into Kindergarten the first day. You know he’s not perfect, but he’s perfectly yours. Will he survive? Will he be bullied? Will he bite someone back? Make friends? Learn anything? Have permanent scars? Refuse to go back?
If you do “the agent’s inbox” or any other public critique, boldly go, but wear a suit of armor under your wet suit.
The driving question for criticism is “did you keep reading? If not, why did you stop?”
Most critiques heeded Krista’s request to remain constructive. In my case everyone who commented said they were intrigued by my story and would read on. The big hitches were in the query letter. Queries are hard. I’d rather write another novel.
How many of you have written unintentionally terrible query letters? I see thousands of hands in the air. (Try writing a bad one. It’s cathartic. If you look up booksandsuch.com, under the blog posts look for Rachel Kent’s bad query contest. It’s a hoot.)
With the aid of former literary agent Mark Malatesta’s services (literary-agents.com) I learned the important steps to crafting a query, how to pick agents, and other components of marketing oneself. It’s a ton of work. You may spend as much time devising a query and researching agents as you did writing your first draft.
My query covered the following:
Short synopsis of book, 1-2 paragraphs
Word count and genre
Why I contacted this particular agent (even though this was a contest, I still researched her and found an appropriate quote)
My writing background
My contact information
Some agents ask to acknowledge if submissions are simultaneous
Most comments said my query was too long, and the agent commented “Query: I really like the premise but each paragraph can be trimmed to get to the meat. Get to the point a lot more. Even your bio is a bit long-winded. Keep to facts. Overall: Even though I think the query maybe tells me a lot but not enough in a way, I'm still intrigued. It's a different story. It stands out. I'd read on.”
Not all submissions fared so well. Some addressed the agent by her first name only. I can’t stress this enough: UNLESS YOU HAVE MET THE AGENT IN PERSON, DO NOT ADDRESS HIM OR HER BY FIRST NAME ONLY.
Others had typos in the query and/or the 250 word sample. One samples began with a long description of the temperature. There’s sort of an unwritten rule to avoid weather reports. In a 250 word sample, essentially the first page, you have no room to engage the reader if he or she is stuck in cloudy weather.
Overall, most submissions were admirably polished, and most participants were gentle in their comments to one another. I received good suggestions, and revised my query based on the agent’s and others’ minor suggestions.
So how did I do? I won second place, so I sent the agent my revised query and first fifty pages. I’ll keep you and Krista posted on whether this agent and I work together.
Labels, agents, writing contests, query,
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Two for One Reviews
Thanks to Shelf Awareness for my review copies of both books.
The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man
W. Bruce Cameron garnered a following with his lively novels A Dog’s Purpose and A Dog’s Journey, and his latest novel, The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man, will appeal to those readers. Ruddy McCann, former Heisman Trophy winning football player, has settled back into his hometown as co-owner of The Black Bear bar and supplementing his income as a Repo man. McCann’s colorful boss Milt tells Ruddy he has the requisite “nerves of stupidity” to legally steal cars back from their owners in default of payment.
McCann faces several challenges: he is hearing a voice in his head of Alan Lottner, a man claiming to have been murdered in a nearby town, an inept nephew of Milt’s who Ruddy is expected to train, a mystery behind checks a series of checks being sent to his foolhardy friend Jimmy, and numerous attempts to reclaim a car from the wily Albert Einstein Croft. While unearthing the truth behind Alan Lottner’s disappearance, Ruddy falls for the late man’s daughter Katie.
The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man, Tom Doherty Associates, LLC. New York
Available in October, 2014. $24.99
Who is Martha?
96 year old Luka Levadski learns he has terminal cancer, and he is surprised “the intimation of his imminent demise hadn't allowed him to die on the spot, but had instead stirred up a lot of dust was an enigma.” Levadski decides to leave his long term apartment in Ukraine and venture back to Vienna where he lived as a child. Since he is dying, he goes on a shopping spree and stays in a first class hotel, where he befriends his butler Habib and an eighty something gentleman named Mr. Witzturn. Having lived in the same place for nearly his lifetime, working as a professor of ornithology, the reclusive Levadski catches up on social changes in the twenty- first century. In the interim, visual, musical and other sensory cues play tricks on his aging mind, flooding him with skewed memories from his ladder of years.
It is surprising how an author as young as Gaponenko, born in 1981, captures the authentic voice of a man nearly a hundred years old.
Who Is Martha? Marjana Gaponenko (Arabella Spencer, tr.) New Vessel Press. New York. Available October 14, 2014, $15.99
Monday, September 22, 2014
We’ve all read them: novels so bad you want to heave them across the room, or you just can’t finish because the story becomes convoluted, repetitive, and or the genre changes halfway through. But is a one star rating fair? Mostly not.*
As a writer I cringe when I read one star reviews of author’s books because writing a novel is hard. Even a bad one. (I’ve written my share of terrible drafts, and am currently revising a horrible manuscript to elevate its status to merely awful.) But reading a novel is also Herculean, especially one weighing in at 600 or more pages. It takes weeks, sometimes months of commitment. None of us has to read fiction, unless we are editors, high school or college students, in which case we are prisoners to the assigned tome. Students can pay erudite friends to read it, use Spark Notes, or buy literary analyses papers online. Because I love to read, I never cheated myself from the experience of finishing an assigned novel. But I was young then, and my future slow-walked toward infinity. Time is finite, so before I commit to a novel, I often read the customer reviews, and I begin with one star ratings.
Many one star reviews are crass, and often cryptic, and sometimes customers give one star because amazon sent the wrong book or the item was mangled in shipping. Is that the author’s fault? (Note, independent book stores pack and ship items carefully. You’ll pay more for shipping, but you will get what you ordered.) I ignore the idiots, and read ratings where someone has actually read the book. Reviews say as much about the reader as the work itself.
I was curious how Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter, fared in the ratings. I loved it, and recently recommended it to a friend. I had not read any reviews before purchasing it. I was in the bookstore and the opening scene grabbed me. The novel begins in Italy during filming of Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and alternately shifts to present day Hollywood. I loved the fictional and real life characters, and like all good fiction, found the story believable. But that’s just my opinion, because J Lee has “been astonished at all the great reviews for this book” and found it “tedious, offensive and downright ugly.” Redgirl writes it was “torture to finish but did so as a model to my grandchildren that we MUST finish our homework” and Snickers88 is “angry at myself for wasting time with it.”
Another of my favorites, The Goldfinch, winner of the Pulitzer prize, received mainly good reviews, but garnered a few one stars from many ‘anonymous’ people who found it boring. George H Hedges has “never wanted to burn a book… until now” and a reader called Californica, mentioning he/she loved The story of Edgar Sawtelle, (a book I found too boring to finish,) called The Goldfinch “incredibly depressing without any creativity and beauty,” and “a total waste of my precious reading time.”
Perhaps if I had consulted the one and two star reviews of Murakmai’s 1Q84 I may have saved myself a huge chunk of time. But I had loved Kafka on the Shore and The Wild Sheep Chase. Chris Fiorillo compares 1Q84 to ruining your favorite cocktail by mixing it with “clam juice, Tabasco sauce, maple syrup, nutmeg, and vanilla.” Emmett R. Furrow, expresses how the novel “put me in a coma by the beginning of book 3 and I found myself talking back to the book as it progressed to its pointless end.” Yeah, I have to agree with these.
I’m on my third attempt at One Hundred Years of Solitude, largely because many of my favorite authors note that as the ultimate Latin American novel. I’ve made it further this time- about a hundred pages, but the reading is not effortless. Daniel claims the book as “almost incomprehensible. The only reason to buy it is you’re a poseur wanting to claim that it’s great literature.” I’m a little confused by the story, but I’m underlining passages, and I want to see what makes this a great novel.
Why do we read fiction? It’s a pack of lies, yet stories reveal the ugly and beautiful truth of who we are. Whether that truth is revealed through zombie/vampire novels, dystopia, cozy mysteries, Shakespeare’s plays, or in tomes by Brian Jacques, we search for stories that speak our name.
Which novels have spoken to you, made you feel happy to be alive? Which ones have you hurled out the window from a speeding train?
*some sequels are best left unwritten. The Streets of Laredo, McMurtry’s bizarre anti- sequel to his masterpiece Lonesome Dove, is an example. McMurtry admittedly took liberties with his original characters to reframe them in this unpalatable book. Why didn't he just write a new book with new characters? I threw mine across the room by page 48. All of my friends who also loved Lonesome Dove said they couldn’t get past 60.
Who is Martha? By Marjana Gaponenko
Repo Man by Bruce Cameron
Saturday, August 30, 2014
We hear news stories every day of people leaving pets, babies and toddlers in the back seats of cars, and we can’t imagine how someone can be so irresponsible. In the riveting new book Little Mercies, by Heather Gudenkauf, veteran social worker Ellen Moore, a woman who has dealt with countless incidences of child abuse and neglect, accidentally leaves her daughter in the back of her car on the hottest day of the summer in Cedar City, Iowa, while rushing to rescue two girls from domestic violence. It can happen to any of us.
While the drama unfolds in the house where a man is holding a young mother and two girls hostage, Ellen is oblivious to the spectacle behind her until she hears the crash of breaking glass from her car. When the limp body of her daughter Avery is pulled from the van, Ellen Moore’s life is shattered along with her the glass.
Meanwhile, ten-year-old Jenny Briard has come alone to Cedar City in search of a long lost grandmother. Jenny, a victim of child abuse herself at the hands of her stepfather, had been living with her hapless father, but after he is arrested, she has nowhere to go, and she bristles at going back to a foster home.
Ellen’s mother Maudene tries to help Jenny, but they are both inadvertently thrown into the turmoil surrounding Ellen’s mistake. Told in alternating chapters between Ellen and Jenny’s stories, their lives converge in a surprising ways.
Gudenhauf’s novel is well paced, suspenseful and well written. Occasionally the narrative lags with a few typos and areas of repetition, but these may have been ironed out between the review copies and final print. The believable characters and their conflicts will engage readers and lead to interesting discussions in a book club. Fans of Lisa Scottoline’s Look Again and Save Me or Paula Daly’s Just What Kind of Mother Are You? will enjoy Little Mercies.
Includes a Reader’s Guide and author interview. (Available now $15.95, Harlequin MIRA)
Friday, August 15, 2014
One of the many challenges for upper elementary and middle school Language Arts teachers is finding timely books with age appropriate characters and thought provoking themes, yet won’t spur parents to demand the principal to pull it off the shelf because of graphic violence, profanity or sex. Nest, by Esther Ehrlich, is a book that adults will approve of and young readers will love.
Set in 1972, the story centers on Naomi “Chirp” Orenstein. She and her father, mother and sister Rachel are year-round residents of Cape Cod, and the novel starts at the end of summer. At the beginning of the tale the Orensteins are a happy family; Dr. Orenstein has a therapy practice on the Cape, the girls get along well, and Hannah, the mother, is a former dancer who stays active in local dance recitals. Chirp, who gets her nickname because of her penchant for birds and bird watching, becomes friends with new neighbor and 6th grade classmate Joey Morell, whose parents often lock him out of the house.
Chirp’s idyllic world is soon shattered when her mother
Because the story takes place during the Vietnam War era, a time before cell phones and cable TV, it may be classified as historical, yet its themes are timeless. (Random House provides links to teaching tools.) The book stays true to an eleven year-old point of view where life hovers between childhood and adulthood, yet within that child’s lens is Chirp’s growing awareness of the world’s truths.
It would not surprise me to see this debut novel shortlisted for a Newbery or ALA award. I hope Ms. Ehrlich is working on more books for young readers so I can recommend them to my teaching colleagues. Nest is available September 9, 2014, for grades 4-8.
I would like to Thank NetGalley for my advance copy.
Friday, August 8, 2014
Painted Horses, a novel by Malcolm Brooks, takes one back to the mid twentieth century before the vista was littered with endless strip malls, where untamed horses and impetuous wranglers vied for the land. The tale centers around twenty-three year old Catherine Lemay, a young archaeology student, and a mystifying cowboy named John H who paints his mark on horse’s flanks. The land itself is a character, both benevolent, offering glorious vistas and water, and malevolent, with “a line of severe hills like the teeth of a saw blade rises massively in the distance….the stripe of clouds above the hills gathers amber then purple then blue.”
Even though Catherine has spent time on projects in Europe, the world she enters in Montana is more foreign to her. She has been raised within a country club lifestyle back east, with expectations to become a concert pianist, not a woman who chooses to dig through the earth for ancient relics. Catherine soon proves, in spite of privileged upbringing, she is tenacious and focused, and uses her instincts to compel her to accomplish her goal of finding historical artifacts to prevent building of a dam that will flood all that remains.
Catherine suspects she isn't supposed to find anything, that she was purposely hired by Harris Power and Light, the contractor for the Army Corps of Engineers to build the dam, because she is a woman and a novice. Harris and Jim Allen, the wrangler hired to help guide her in and out of the canyon, seem accommodating enough, but they underestimate Catherine’s tenacity and her growing suspicion that she is being duped.
John H, the mysterious horseman, inadvertently watches over her, and becomes her ally. Throughout the novel his back-story is gradually revealed. Interestingly, John H served in a cavalry unit during WWII because of his skill with horses. John H seems an unlikely friend to the young archaeologist, but by the end of the tale the reader cares deeply about him and Catherine, separately and together.
If the novel has faults, they derive from my own impatience with several passages bearing long descriptions of horses. (I know, duh, it’s called Painted Horses.) I don't dislike horses, but I don't know enough about them to distinguish one from another, and for me the narrative dips during those moments, but the fault is mine as a reader.
Another issue was occasionally I was unsure if a chapter was a flashback or taking place in the present. Because I was reading an uncorrected proof, this may have been resolved by labeling each chapter with a date or location.
Like most literary novels, the book does not have the stereotypical happy ending where the characters ride off into the smiling sunset; the ending has a realistic resolution. Fans of Annie Proulx or Wallace Stegner will enjoy this book. Painted Horses is an ambitious debut, a ruminative, adventurous story that resonates, and these characters will stay with me for awhile.
Monday, July 21, 2014
Recently I received a rejection from an agent thanking me for my query and wishing me luck. She added links to three websites that might help me “learn about publishing.” Does this agent perceive me as a beginner? Should I be insulted?
I looked over the sites. One site, www.PublishingCrawl.com is group blog by industry insiders such as agents, editors, sales reps and writers. In spite of its push to market each contributor’s own books, this one looks useful. The other two links, however, looked like discussion boards for “newbie writers.” Many of the questions posted are, in fact, by new writers, containing basic requests on formatting manuscripts and how to approach an agent or write a query.
The agent, I will call her Agent X, suggested one of the sites ‘as a place to post my query for critique.’ Should I be insulted this agent thinks my query stinks? That I know so little about writing I need to resort to an online discussion board comprised of random beginning writers?
Had I not already received glowing responses, albeit rejections, from several agents about the quality of my query and submission package, I might opt for seeking advice from one of these discussion boards. But should a writer, new or veteran, throw his or her work out there for perusal by strangers of dubious writing backgrounds?
I have heard of many friendships being formed by users of similar discussion sites. When I first started writing I welcomed input from anyone. I went through a series of workshops where participants shared their work with one another. Occasionally I was offered good advice, but for the most part it was the blind leading the blind down a steep rocky path.
Normally I’m not shy, but when it comes to my work I stick pretty close to my shell. I've been to enough writing circles where someone ends up in tears because others criticized her first draft of a story told through the viewpoint of a severed hand. Or when one of the participants prefaces each of his comments with “as someone who has had over thirty stories published in True Confessions,…".
Writers are solitary creatures, but there is value in attending writing conferences and workshops. Because I am in proximity of very few authors, I try to attend a conference once a year so I can discuss process and structure with like-minded people. Call me a writing snob, but I now only choose exclusive ones like Kenyon that require manuscript approval, where participants are (pardon the cliché and pun) “on the same page.”
I am reluctant to show drafts to anyone. Even Elizabeth, my number one person I select for seeking feedback, does not see first draft materials. My work has gone through the wringer at least twice before she lays her eagle eyes on it.
How does one know when his or her work is good enough? Sometimes you don’t. It takes years of writing and reading to trust when your work is good enough. And there are days when I've had yet another rejection I start to question this writing gig is worth my time.
Perhaps Agent X suggests these sites to all her rejectees, and as usual, I am over thinking her intent, so I shouldn't take this as an insult. Just say ‘thanks, but no thanks’ and submit to the next agent on my list.
Or as my fiend Myra just suggested to me, “write a trashy romance. That’s where the money is.”
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
Often my writing sucks. Big time, and I remind myself often as I am drafting a manuscript with little side bars, for example, as I write this post, I may insert (THIS SENTENCE STINKS UP THE ROOM. ) but I am not criticizing myself, just the horrible combination of words that passes for a sentence.
Elizabeth recently posted a comment on Facebook criticizing a group of her poems, and several people remarked she should stop being so hard on herself.
“I was NOT insulting myself” she said, “I was critiquing the poems. I didn't say I'm a terrible poet, I meant, these poems poems need revision.”
“One must be hard on the work in order to improve,” I said.
“You’re a good enough poet to be cognizant of when your work is weak.”
“I’m not going to apologize for myself deprecating humor,” she said. “It’s who I am. I have an excellent self esteem.
Elizabeth needled me about a posting I had shared on ‘15 things you need to do to be happy.’ “I hate when people try to tell me how to improve myself,” she said. “I like my bad attitude and imperfect life.”
I laughed, and nodded. “Our writing comes from unhappiness and suffering. We kind of enjoy our pain. Pain is a catalyst for work.
She agreed. “Just because I criticize my own work does not make mean I’m unhappy. I can write really wonderful depressing poems when I am extremely happy. Being happy is overrated. I’d rather be fulfilled”
“I once had a drawing instructor tell me when you’re content with your work, you’re dead.”
Today I saw a badge on a FB writing site that said “Write What You Like”. Depending on the interpretation, writing ‘what I like’ in the context of being free to write anything, I agree. But writing only what I ‘like’ stunts me as a writer. Real writing comes from what bothers us, what we don't understand, and what scares the bejesus out of us. If we only write about what we like, we won’t grow as writers. We won’t explore the messy layers of the human experience and its gritty ugliness. We should not avert our eyes because something is unpleasant.
When I was in my MFA program, my first mentor asked me, what bugs you? I replied, “I didn't get the whole tattoo-piercing thing.” She said, “That’s what you need to write about.” All semester I entered the foreign country of tattoo parlors, marked bodies. I even attended a three day tattoo festival where I was the only unmarked person. I spent my time asking participants about what motivated their tattoos. One heavy young man said, “I don’t fit the standard of beauty, so I find beauty in my body by making it a canvas.”
Unlike journalist Dennis Covington, who chronicles his slow seduction into the snake handling culture in Salvation on Sand Mountain, I was not propelled to cover my skin with tattoos and piercings, but I gained insight into why others do it.
Good writing comes from what we feel passionately about, either positively or negatively. What bothers you? What scares you? You might not like it, and you may not like writing about it, but your writing will improve.
Tuesday, July 8, 2014
You know the type of book I’m talking about: one of those tales tempting you to call in sick so you can keep reading, but when you finish, you’re heartbroken because it’s over. A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman is one of those books.
Ove, a 59 year-old recent widower forced into early retirement has decided to join his dead wife rather than spend his days missing her. What could have been a dark exploration of grief turns into a lively tale in A Man Called Ove. In this novel, curmudgeonly Ove, the kind of man who inspects the neighborhood each day and takes down license plates numbers of cars parked for more than the allotted twenty four hours, displays great disdain for the “idiots” who cannot seem to read signs, and for the cat who starts hanging around outside his home. On the surface, Ove appears to be a grouchy old man who people avoid, and he likes it that way. All Ove wants is to kill himself and be done with it all.
His plans are thwarted by the arrival of new neighbors: an Iranian family consisting of a pregnant Parvaneh, her hapless husband Patrick, and seven and three year old girls. They meet when Patrick crashes into Ove’s mailbox with his moving truck. It does not go well, but Parvaneh recognizes a dormant charm on Ove, and she infiltrates his lonely life and provides the catalyst to force Ove to interact with his long feuding neighbor Rune, an odd kid from next door named Jimmy, a suspected bicycle thief, and a stray cat.
Alternating chapters reveal Ove as a youth and a young married man. He was never boisterous, but when his wife was alive she tempered any latent bitterness. The reader is privy to Ove’s one time happiness, series of disappointments, and his loyalty to Saab cars. (The feud with Rune was over Rune trading his own loyalty to Volvos for a BMW.)
Told in third person, the reader is privy to Ove’s distinctive voice with its subtle humor. On one of the days when he (unsuccessfully) tries to kills himself, he still performs his daily morning inspection. “Just because he’s dying today doesn't mean the vandals should be given free rein.”
This tale serves to remind us that each of us has a unique story. One can imagine Parvaneh lives by the creed, “everyone you met is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be Kind,” and she refuses to give up on mean old Ove.
I read an author profile by the Swedish author, Fredrick Backman, where he displays this same deadpan humor, claiming his motivation to write novels, other than “surely this must be better than working,” is to feed his “major his interest in cheese-eating.” I wonder if Backman drives a Saab.
Recently I've been clearing out my bookshelves for my move to Seattle, paring them down to half. Most of my Advance Reader copies I've given away or donated to the Friends of the Library bookstore, but this one I’m keeping. It will be shelved with books I plan to reread.
Pick up a copy on Tuesday, July 15, 2014.
Friday, July 4, 2014
I’m trying to find a title for my latest novel and it’s like doing a word problem for Algebra. My initial title was Pagoda, a nickname one of the characters calls Michel, the protagonist. While it’s a catchy word, the underlying meaning and function of a Pagoda does not fit the book’s themes.
Friends have told me not to stress about the title because chances are it will get changed anyway, but I am trying to attract an agent, and a sucky title might put my query in the sucky query pile. It’s a Catch-22 (another rocking title.)
Happy writing and titling.
The novel takes place largely in summer, and Michael’s car is called the Blue Whale, but my current title, Summer of the Blue Whale sounds like a feel good beach book, which it’s not. I toyed with The Blue Whale of Summer as a nod to a line in a poem by Pablo Neruda about watermelons being “the green whale of summer,” but the reference is too obscure.
In one scene Michael gives his sister a copy of The Arabian Nights, a childhood favorite. Michael’s Tale? But the book is not just about Michael.
Kerouac already stile On the Road, so I can’t use that one. My novel isn't really a road story anyway, even though the car is a character, and one character takes a long journey.
I like From Here to Eternity. Not so much the book, but the title. The words roll off the tongue.
The Signature of All Things is another catchy title. It fits the book and has a pleasing cadence.
I like titles where you don't understand them until you have read far into the novel. The Catcher in the Rye is like that. The reader has to dig around and wait. Shadow of the Wind drives the tale on two levels: it centers around a book with the same title, and much of the tale takes place in shadows.
I don’t want my title to reveal too much, but it needs to be inseparable from with the story, almost like a tag line. Anyone who hears “yada yada yada” immediately conjures Seinfeld. When I hired Elizabeth to edit, she suggested A Whole Lot of Smirking Going On, since I had numerous incidents where Michael and Shelly smirk at one another. Another suggestion was Because Because Because as I had used the word because three times in one sentence.
Cindy S said she likes coming up with titles, such as, Tiger Lilies, Chicory and Queen Ann’s Lace. “I don’t know what it would be about, but I like the sequence of words.” I said it sounds like a good name for a cozy mystery about a gardener.
Cindy R is good at coming with titles, but she hasn't read my book, so she’s no help at all. (Note; it’s not that she refuses to read my book, she doesn't have time.)
Perhaps I will choose something simple. The Goldfinch ties this massive story together. It's a simple confluence of words, but once you read the book, no other title fits.
Happy writing and titling.
Tuesday, July 1, 2014
Friends keep asking me how retirement feels. It’s summer, and as a teacher I didn't normally work the summer months, so I have noticed little difference. Until yesterday when I saw a Back-to-School display at Dollar General loaded with notebooks, pens and other student paraphernalia. The words “back to school sale” always filed me with a combination of dread and excitement. Now? It’s just another sale.
Carl the cleaner is in my home again today, this time scrubbing the basement and garage. The basement doesn't need much other than a dusting, and some bleaching on the floor where my kitchen drain leaked on Christmas Day. I spent the holiday shop-vaccing the water until I figured out where the water came from.
One of the reasons I bought this house was its dry basement, and after eight years never had a problem. On Christmas Eve I had gone down to do some laundry and noticed the unfinished half of the basement under water. Elizabeth came to my rescue with her shop vac.
Intermittently, small pools formed at random times. I thought perhaps the water came from the melting mountains of snow that series of Siberian blasts had dumped on my yard. So all day I went downstairs, vacuumed up water, and checked each hour. The last time I noticed a puddle it had suds in it. Wait a minute; I had just done dishes. I looked up and noticed the drain pipe had separated from the ring that holds it to the main drain. I was flooding my own basement every time I washed dishes or made coffee. It pays to look up.
The garage itself is dusty and messy, but the biggest issue is the dead mice smell. Until this year I had noticed a mouse problem, but maybe winter was so frigid the mice needed a respite, and they chose my garage. On sultry summer days the odor is really strong, so I have asked brave Carl to find the bodies and dispose of them. I wouldn't want to buy a house that reeked of dead animals.
So here I am deported to Starbucks for a few hours while Carl cleans. It’s the first of the month so I need to avoid, well, just about everywhere. Because this coffee shop resides next to a check cashing place parking will become a problem later. When my house is being shown this afternoon I may just take a drive, or perhaps go to Staples and gape at all the Back to School Sale items I don’t need to buy.
Sunday, June 29, 2014
A professional cleaner scrubbed my house yesterday. It’s so clean I want to freeze-dry it to prevent cat fur, dust, and me from messing it up. I’m tempted to check into a hotel until my house sells so it always looks “move-in ready.”
This morning, rather than fix myself eggs, toast and coffee, I ate breakfast out so the egg smell wouldn't linger for the 1 pm showing. My car is starting to look like a Hoarder’s episode because I am stowing stuff that usually gets shucked onto tables and counters.
Last night, after Carl the cleaner left, I was so inspired by the pristine condition of my house I straightened closets, thus nearly filling a trash bag with dried up hand lotion bottles and half empty shampoos I forgot I had.
Rather than fold the sheets that are in the dryer, thus filling up the now tidy hall closet, I left them in there, hence leaving wet towels in the washer until I come home later. Normally the clumps of grass my mower leaves doesn't bother me, but today I raked the yard to remove the clods of grass.
I’m even sleeping differently. Since I now make my bed every day, I tucked the top sheet into the bottom of the bed when I changed the sheets last night. I like my bedding loose because I roll around a lot at night, and I want my bed clothes to move with me. But it’s easier to stage a bed if all the blankets and sheets are secured. Now I sleep like a mummy, which could explain the weird dreams. Like the one I had right before I woke up this morning where I gave Hilary Clinton the finger. In the dream I meant it as a joke, but she was not amused. Obviously I haven't established enough of a personal bond with Mrs. Clinton to make inappropriate gestures, even in jest.
I hid my favorite pillow in the closet because it doesn’t lie flat enough on the bed. It’s one of those side sleeper pillows with a dip in the center. I placed a decoy under the one of the shams. After making the bed, I also hid the ocean.
I don’t know about you, but I need white noise in order to sleep, so I sleep next to the ocean every night, except this one is from the coast of Radio Shack.
Most of the crap cluttering my dresser (deodorant, jewelry trees, and hand lotion) is stashed inside the drawers, along with the stack of books that usually forms a precarious tower on my night stand.
I didn't spray my hair this morning since Carl successfully made my unfortunate choice of white grout on my bathroom tile sparkle like new. My hair never looks great anyway, so forgoing spray won’t make a difference. I scan the floors for stray cat fur clumps and place those in the trash. I empty all the small cans into kitchen trash can and change the bag. I’ve become my own hotel maid.
Now would be a good time to invite people over, but I don't anyone in my house to mess it up. Most of my friends are like me; people who put our feet up and relax in our homes.
Saturday, June 28, 2014
My living room is now painted white, with non-offensive pictures on the walls. (Prior to painting my once terra cotta walls several nudes I had painted in a figure drawing workshop graced the walls.) The family photos are stashed in a box, random other personal stuff stowed in closets, and I now make my bed daily. I’m a guest in my own home, but soon it won’t be my mine anymore. The For Sale sign went up a few days ago, and there is a young man in my house scrubbing it from top to bottom as I sit in Starbucks and write.
I am selling this house in Ohio, with more than 1100 sq feet of living space and a quarter acre yard to move into a tiny, 1 bedroom condo in Seattle. Both properties are in the same pricing range; the three bedroom ranch with attached garage is going for 129,900, the condo is 90,000. My new home will come with an outdoor parking space, and a small patio. But I do not rue downsizing. How much do we really need to survive? 638 square feet is tight, but I regard it as a personal challenge to fit my necessities inside the new space. (Luckily there is an Ikea in Seattle.)
If you read my previous blog post, you would know that the two negatives of living in Seattle will be traffic leaving my friends behind. The traffic I can handle. I listen to books on CD to keep me from road rage. But my other con of leaving my friends weighs so much more. It almost supersedes all the pros about living in Seattle. Almost.
I recently saw this Buddha quote: “In the end only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.”
A month ago I retired form a career I mostly loved. The last two years were tough because I was beginning to suspect my position had lost relevance, and this was confirmed by who they hired to replace me. I realize now my work did not matter to them. It stung for a day or so, but my new mantra is, “Not my circus, no longer my monkeys.”
I live gently with occasional moments of bombast and unpredictability. In one of those Facebook tests that asks What Kind of Novel Are you? I am an adventure. So yes, I live a gentle adventure. I’m not starting wars and leading protests movements, but I've been known to take impromptu trips to parts of the world. And now hey I’m ripping off the Band-Aid of my staid life to move across the country with two cats and half of what I now own.
Paring down possessions is the easy part of letting go: some of what I own is not meant to be with me forever. The hard part of paring down is leaving the cherished people in my life. Many of them are meant for me. They would not be my friends otherwise. I’ll miss writing time with Cindy S and Cindy R. They provide good company, and I am able to channel creative vibes from them even as we sit across the table ignoring one another.
I will miss Olive Garden and Starbucks dates with Cindy R, and sharing a room when we go to writing conferences. We share a love of reading and literature, and a similar disdain for schlock and shallow books. I will miss our conversations about irreverent topics, such as yesterday when she told me about an article she read about how porn stars prepare their bodies for anal scenes.
I will miss Amanda and Dennis, who had a red wedding on 06/06/06 (we all survived it, though). After visiting them today, instead of waving, we gave each other the finger.
There is a litany of other friends who I will miss. Too many to list here, but they know who they are.
The hardest person for me to leave is Elizabeth, sister of my heart, my chosen family. We’ve been the best of friends for nearly twenty years. We share writing, secrets, and family. I know her daughter better than my own nieces and nephew. We have been through moments of great joy and searing depths, and take care of one another’s cats when one of us goes out of town. When my beloved kitty Lynx died she was there for the backyard funeral where she recited a Pablo Neruda poem and we tossed his ashes in the woods behind my home. She will weep alongside me when Henry, my nineteen year old tabby cat, finally goes.
When I had surgery on my foot, she and our friend Amanda were there in the waiting room. This past Christmas Elizabeth came to my rescue when a pipe burst and flooded my basement. She brought over the shop-vac and helped me toss ruined things in the trash.
Every time I get a rejection letter (which is often) and doubt my ability as a writer, she assures me I’m better than I think I am. Actually we do this for one another. Every writer I knows feels like a fraud, and criticism and rejection is part of the process. It takes nerve to put yourself out there.
Recently Elizabeth healed some wounds when I remarked that my years as a school librarian didn't matter. “Your work did matter. I saw your interaction with kids when they came to the library.” She often conducted writing workshops at my school for kids in grades 6-12. “I know what being a librarian entails, and I couldn't have done it.”
I regret Elizabeth won’t have access to me as a writing partner. All of us need that one person who shares your values and beliefs, and “gets” you. My family and most of my friends don’t mind that I write, but their eyes cross and their faces take on an expression like how I react when sometimes tries to explain football. I am hoping she can develop a writing bond with the two Cindys.
Wednesday, June 18, 2014
I came here nearly three weeks ago house sit for relatives while they travel in Germany and Austria. I came with the best of intentions: work on my novel in progress, read several books. I pictured myself like Hemingway, sans the cigarette and hangover, tapping away furiously at my cousin's dining room table, hammering out a nearly complete draft of my latest mediocre American novel. They don't have cable, so what could distract me?
(play doom music here)
They have Netflix.
Instead of being creative, or even useful, I've been binge watching Arrested Development and Louie, and when I ran out of episodes, started on Portlandia. (I watched a few episodes of Mad. Men, but it was like watching my parents’ generation devolve, and I don't Ike being reminded of the overt sexism of mid century office politics.
Here is what else I have been doing:
I drink a lot of coffee. Hey, it's Seattle. I think I know why this is such a coffee addicted city. It is nearly the end of June and it is 52 degrees outside. Coffee is a necessity to stay warm. Coffee is also needed to keep one awake. In between rare, gloriously sunny days, the skies vary in tone from sidewalk to slate gray.
I am house/ pet sitting, so I'm not totally useless. One of their three cats has bonded with me, and she sleeps with me, follows me around the house and even accompanies me partially on my daily walk. A second cat, Indy has been living up to his name; very independent. And the third cat, Negro (pronounced nay-gro) only approaches when he’s so hungry he will risk tipping past this foreign human. The first night, as I sat on the couch to binge watch Arrested Development season 1, the black cat approached, laid a paw on my thigh and studied my face, as if to say, wait, you're not Jena. He dashed off, and has been a phantom other than to dine and dash.
Jena has a lovely garden, and I have been tending it and even added a few plants to it.
I’m trying to keep the house clean. The housekeeper came the first week I was here, but she won’t be back until after I leave.
I’m also taking out the trash. So what? Everyone does that. In Seattle, trash day is an ordeal. *See notes on recycling Nazis for further explanation.
I went to the movies. Here's what a small world it is; one of my friends from high school, more than forty years ago, has been living in Seattle for twenty-five years. Her house is exactly twenty blocks south of my cousin's. Like most of us nowadays, we found one another on Facebook. The first time we met up, we walked the three miles around Green Lake. A few nights later she asked me to see The Lunchbox, a lovely independent film. See it.
My dearest friend Elizabeth has a friend here who I have met up with for lunch a couple of times. Elizabeth calls us her two favorite people in the world. Cat and I bonded right away, and we ended up spending the day together shopping, having coffee, and browsing Sky Nursery. I bought Jena another plant. Cat and I are now friends, too.
One morning I put on “my bus pants” (Big Bang Theory fans will understand the reference) and rode down to Pike Market to walk around in the rain. I discovered Left bank Books, bought an old copy of a book that beckoned me from the shelves. a thin volume called Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal. I recalled the author's name from something I read about Czech lit. The book is underlined with notes in the margins (my favorite type of book; proof someone else engaged with its text) and a bargain at $5. The woman at the counter remarked, "That’s my all time favorite book."
One cannot visit or live in Seattle without stumbling across bookstores. This is part of the reason I am moving here. Each store I ventured into displayed subtle anti-amazon signs. At Third. Place Books, a sign promised 20% off and free delivery on pre-orders of Robert Galbraith’s, (aka J. K. Rowling) latest Hachette title The Silkworm.
Each day I walk 1-3 miles, occasionally accompanied by the cat for the first few yards. The distance was dependent on weather and my right knee, which I sort of blew out on the flight here, and allergies. I'm kind of allergic to everything in the air here, so I blow my nose a lot. If I run out of tissues on a stroll, the walk is curtailed.
I met my brother and his wife for lunch in Centralia, which is a halfway point between Portland and Seattle, where they forced me to buy shoes at the Nike outlet. Okay, not forced, but their daughter-in-law’s 30% employee discount and the extra 20% sale enticed me to purchase a $100 pair for thirty bucks.
I've looked at properties. Housing is expensive here, so my standard of living will alter from a. Three bedroom house with an attached garage and large yard to a one bedroom condo half the square footage.
I drank coffee. Oh, I mentioned that already. I’ve only had two cups so far today.
I baked cookies and banana oat bread. My cousin Bob, Jena’s father, believes “buying in bulk saves you money,” and shortly before Jena and Scott left for Europe, he bought them fifty pounds of oats from Bob’s Red Mill. Guess what I eat for breakfast every morning?
I took the bus to Archie McPhee, a store where absolutely nothing is necessary. But maybe it is, because the store is filled with ridiculous items like a switch blade comb and rubber octopus appendages. I bought Shakespearean Insult Bandages.
Every day I drive Jena’s pickup truck and get lost, thus finding my way around. I know most of you rely on GPS devices to navigate new places, but I prefer the old fashioned way of getting lost and digging my way back home.
Here's what I love about Seattle so far:
Bookstores. They’re everywhere
Thus, a lot of writers live here.
People read for no reason. On the bus the other day coming back from Archie McPhee’s, I overhead a conversation between two young men about poet Charles Bukowski. We were not near a university.
Except maybe we were. There are several universities and college scattered throughout the city.
Community gardens abound. Near my cousin's house is a lot reserved for city gardeners. It's open for public browsing, but not picking. One shriveled mess of a garden had a sign posted “Please water my garden while I am out of town.” It was apparent this person had either been away for awhile, or nobody else had seen the sign. I fetched a watering can from someone else's garden plot, filled it, and drenched the thirsty patch of land. I was tempted to pick the ripe strawberries, but remembered this was not my garden.
In cafés and coffee houses, friends and strangers share tables, writing, conversing.
The city is socially and environmentally conscious.
*Some may consider Seattleites recycling Nazis, and it IS often confusing to figure out what's trash, what’s compostable and what’s recyclable. In Ohio we toss it all out. (Lately there has been a movement to recycle pop bottles and paper, but Ohio has yet to start charging for plastic bags or providing refunds on glass and plastic.) Here, one has to think about each item discarded.
People dress for comfort, not high fashion. Yes, I will admit, I have worn socks with sandals. A friend of mine recently sent me photographic proof. In Ohio, and most parts of the world, that attire is regarded with looks of derision. In Seattle? Normal.
Nobody has a tan. My ghostly skin looks normal here.
Close proximity to family who live in California, Oregon and Washington, but not so close any of them will drop over at all hours.
Jazz music. Instead of country music indigenous to where I currently live, cafes and bookshops play jazz or blues soundtracks.
No town is perfect, however. Here’s what I don't like:
Traffic. Listening to a book on CD keeps me from having road rage. I always have several handy in case I finish one.
Cost of living. I will be living in less than half the space of my current home for the same amount of money. Today I bought a book called The Cheap Bastard's Guide to Seattle. Since I am one. Retirement income, this may just come in handy.
Most of my friends don’t live here. This will be the hardest part of moving. (That, and driving two cats across the country in the back seat of a Honda Civic.) I have many treasured friends back in Ohio, relationships that have been tendered for years, so I’ll be lonely for awhile once I hit the highway. Yes, I have blood relatives here, but friends are the chosen family.
Overall my list of likes out-measures the dislikes, and Seattle feels like the place I need to live. It feels like home.