Monday, November 14, 2011

Gay Penguins: Survival of the Species Vs. Happiness

Partners for life
Image courtesy: Catherine Murray

Hello, blogoverse, it's been a while. Have I been madly typing 50 K words for Nanowrimo? I wish! No, I've been playing nursemaid to Little Bear. For the past sixteen days. She's all better from her pneumonia, thank goodness, but I've missed my writing time something fierce.

One of the big news stories to hit during my forced hiatus was the Toronto Zoo Gay Penguin Controversy. As a former zookeeper in charge of eighteen African penguins (in the early 90s), I gotta put my two cents in.

At first, I came firmly down on the zookeeper's side of things. The males in question should be separated and given a chance to bond with the females and propagate. The species needs them!

Then again, if the male pair is 'happy', shouldn't they be left alone?

While I do support gay rights (for humans), I don't think the gay community should be looking to these animals as poster-penguins for their cause. The zoo environment is not natural. It is a radically reduced population and these penguins are highly social animals--a situation that leads to some strange bedfellows (or nest fellows).

Same sex pairs are not the most shocking thing that can and does happen. Once penguins have matured, the idea of 'family' goes out the window. While I was a keeper, we had a grandmother/grandson couple. Did they mate? Yes. Why weren't they split up? The female was old, her eggs were never fertile, and her genes (and thus, her grandson's) were well represented in the population. So this odd couple was left alone.

I've blogged before about the lonely, male penguin who tried to mate with me. (Read here.) When I went back to school, I worked part-time and gave up being head penguin keeper. I would often check in on my beau from the public viewing area. It broke my heart to see him sitting by the door, waiting for me. Happily, he bonded with a young female penguin months later.

We did have a 'gay' couple. The older male's female mate left him for another guy and the younger male hadn't paired with any penguin at that point. So what made them a gay couple? When a male and female are courting, they start by facing each other, rubbing their heads up and down their partner's neck, and braying loudly. They sound like donkeys, which is why these birds are sometimes called "Jackass Penguins". Then they'll flap their wings at each other's bellies which looks like a cross between dancing and hugging. Eventually the male will circle behind the female and, well, you know.

In the male/male version, things start the same way, but both males circle and continue circling like a pair of punch-drunk boxers. That's where it ends, which is why, perhaps, the Toronto Zoo claims the relationship between their male pair is social, not sexual.

At our zoo, the public never knew about any of these bizarre pairings. But if they did, I don't think anyone would protest the separation of our 'gay' couple, because these two were father and son.

So, should the needs of a species trump the 'happiness' of individuals? Zookeeping is not a glamorous job. For me, 90% of my time was spent cleaning up poop while wearing poop-colored clothes speckled with (what else?) poop. When I quit to become a graduate student, my salary went up. Show me a zookeeper and I show you a person who loves animals more than themselves.

In that regard, I think the decision should be left to the zoo. What do you think?

Friday, October 21, 2011

My New Literary Crush

In the beginning were the howlers. The opening line to Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna refers to the monkeys on Isla Pixol off the coast of Mexico. Later the term comes to symbolize any group whose actual or metaphorical howling is meant to terrify or intimidate.

Howler Monkey
Image courtesy: siwild

Another image from the beginning is a school of fish witnessed by the protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, through a borrowed pair of goggles. He knows that if a shark were to arrive the fish would dart away as a unified body, leaving him for shark-bait. Again, this image resonates throughout the book.

school in Mexico
Image Courtesy: dchrisoh

The writing in this book makes me want to weep. Key images resurface throughout, woven through the story and its themes like beautiful strings of bright silk. If you’ve ever pondered what it means to “show” and not “tell”, the opening chapters of The Lacuna will set you straight.

The title, if you’re curious, is not a Spanish word, but refers to an underground tunnel full of water that, when the tides are favorable, “swallow the boy down it’s gullet” and deposits him in a jungle populated by ruins, strange birds, snakes, and bones. This passage does double duty as a metaphor for birth and death. It makes you want to take a trip to Mexico to see if such a magical passage exists, and if so, can you try it?

Lush Rain Forest and Green Sea
Image courtesy: Chris Diwald

The theme of this character being dragged about by forces beyond his control is played out many times as he moves from kitchen apprentice to plaster mixer for the artist Diego Rivera and then to cook and secretary for a household including the painter Frida Kahlo and the exiled Russian Marxist revolutionary, Leon Trotsky.

After Trotsky’s assassination, Harrison returns to the U.S. to settle in Asheville, N.C. There he achieves a level of fame to rival that of his former employees as a successful novelist.

Unfortunately for Shepherd, his past association with communists signals his doom in the McCarthy era. I love Shepherd’s conversation with his lawyer. The lawyer points out that the politicians don’t know (or really care) what communism is. They stand for anticommunism above all else (including common sense). Trying to view the two sides as liking tuna fish vs. not liking tuna fish is dangerous. The lawyer says it's actually tuna fish vs. Spanish influenza.

Shepherd ends up on trial for un-American activities and treason. What happens makes you want to punch through time and scream at the unfairness of it all—pure writing genius on Kingsolver’s part. But don’t fear, the unexpected ending is not without hope.

What authors have taken your breath away with their writing prowess?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Pay It Forward Blogfest

Without further ado, let me introduce you to three extraordinary bloggers who write:

First, Hannah Kincade at The Palindrome Effect. Looking for graphics (like the one above) that make you want to compose a short story in honor of their awesomeness? This is the blog for you. This week she has some outstanding vampire pictures that are not to be missed.

Plus, Hannah is a true blogger buddy. I came back to my blog after a ten-day hiatus and had nine new followers. Nine! What in the world? Turns out Hannah featured my blog on a Under 25 (followers) and Still Fly blog post. Very cool.

My second pick is L. Diane Wolfe at Spunk on a Stick. This is versatile lady of many talents infected with a crazy love for rollercoasters.

Image courtesy: Franco Folini

Diane's website is chock full of great information and tips for every aspect of writing and publishing. She comes by this knowledge from experience as the author of the inspirational YA series, Circle of Friends, and the non-fiction Overcoming Obstacles with Spunk!

Diane is also a professional speaker offering advice on publishing, promoting, and speaking. But my favorite part of the blog is the Sunday funnies featuring cats from Sunday-morning treat much more fun that reprints of Snoopy. Cats rule!

My third pick is Zoe Courtman at No Letters on My Keyboard for having one of the most original, hilarious, and unique voices in the blogoverse. She was one of the first followers to pop up on my blog, I suspect, because we both have a mad love for the King of Horror (yes, sir Stephen, of course.)

Here's a video from her latest post. I challenge you to watch it without laughing until you cry.

Curious about me? I'm a former penguin keeper who left the glitz and glamour of cleaning bird poop to go back to school. I eventually made it to the other side of the desk so I could become a (thing of nightmares) math professor. Yes, I caused herds of college students to excrete vast amounts of adrinaline with the simple phrase: Please clear your desks and get out one clean sheet of paper.

Today I can't add properly. Therefore, I write. When not composing extremely long and awkward run-on sentences chock full of unnecessary adverbs for my blog, I chase after my two cats with toothbrushes (yes, really) and scream at my children to stop fighting over tiny pieces of rubber (silly-bands are from hell) and to please, for the love of all that's holy, give me back my sanity. I need it.

Ready to hop along to the next blogfest site? Just click the Pay It Forward icon on the upper right-hand corner for a linked list of participants.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Eat Me

Image courtesy: jkblacker

I have a problem with procrastination. I can't seem to get my act together on writing book number 2. Some delays are beyond my control—my children get sick and stay home from school a lot. Sometimes I'm busy with school-related volunteer work or I break down and realize that if I don't do some housecleaning, said house will be condemned as a public health menace. Usually it's my fault. Much writing time gets frittered away reading.

Disgusted with my lack of progress, I came up with a brilliant solution to get those pages cranking. I would not allow myself to go to bed until four pages were produced. I wasn't going to let anything get in my way. This time, I was serious. I was especially serious about keeping my evening on schedule as I furiously chopped up raw chicken for dinner and sliced through my finger.

Not to be deterred, I wrapped it in gauze and masking tape and kept on trucking. The schedule—must keep to the schedule. After the kids went to bed, I knew the injury needed a more thorough cleaning and unwrapped it. Oh, ick. Instead of going to the keyboard, I went to Immediate Care nervous about the possibility of stitches.

After a Betadine bath, I got some interesting news. No stitches necessary. The tip wasn't sliced; it was gone. I got a tetanus shot, some super cool glue stuff to make the blood clot, and a spiffy, skin-colored wrap that turned my index finger into a large puffball. As I drove home, inadvertently giving other drivers the bird, I couldn't stop giggling.

Raw chicken and fingertips are about the same color so . . .

You are what you eat, especially this evening.

Wonder what I tasted like? (Well, duh, chicken!)

What goes in, must come out so—if you'll pardon my French—at some point I may sh*t myself.

I'm serious about keeping track of my sodium intake, but how in the heck do you calculate the amount of sodium in your fingertip?

Husband: What's for dinner?
Me: Chicken 'n fingers.
Husband: Chicken fingers? 'Kay, but what's with the stutter?

And last, but not least, if I'm not a cannibal, does that mean I married one?

So there you have it—the depths I will sink not to work on my book. Can you top self-mutilation?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Bestest. Ramadan. Ever. by Medeia Sharif

Today I am pleased to bring you a review of Bestest. Ramadan. Ever. written by fellow blogger Medeia Sharif. Here’s the short review: loved it.

Now for the long one:

Where does the love come from? I haven’t read much YA outside the popular Potter/Twilight/Hunger Games books. In fact I was slogging through the fourth mega-long saga of Game of Thrones when Bestest. Ramadan. Ever. showed up in the mail. I decided to put the medieval brick aside for some juicy teen angst with a culture clash twist.

BRE introduces us to Almira Abdul, a fifteen-year-old Muslim/American determined to participate in the month-long fasting ritual in which participating Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex during the daylight hours. (Wikipedia) There is a hilarious scene in which the Abdul family sits down for dinner, anxiously awaiting the sun to set so they can dive headfirst into their dinners with all the grace of a hotdog-eating contestants.

It’s been over twenty years since I was in high school, but things haven’t changed much if Almira is based on today’s teen. This girl agonizes over a muffin top tummy, dreams of her first kiss, and is continuously embarrassed by a mom who lives in exercise clothes. Okay, who stole my old diary?! Man, oh man, can I identify.

After many ups and downs including driving lessons with an accident-prone grandpa to whom all Americans are either ‘infidels’ or ‘prostitutes’, getting her wisdom teeth pulled right before a group date with her secret crush, and other adventures, I started to worry about Almira. This girl was completely consumed by her own friendships and somewhat-crazed family relations. Would she ever have a thought outside of her own life?

Why, yes. Toward the end of the Ramadan season something lovely happens. Almira embraces (part of) her religion and realizes how fasting has taught her to wait in a world of instant gratification. Going without food or water while the sun shines makes her think of those who suffer without food or clean drinking water on a daily basis.

Almira’s thoughts on fasting remind me of a chapter from Stephen King’s The Stand in which four characters set out on a hike from Boulder to Las Vegas with virtually no supplies. The character Glen Bateman says, “The casting away of things is symbolic, you know. Remove all sustenance except what (can be) gleaned along the way. It’s an emptying-out process and also a diminishing of the ego. Your selves, gentlemen—they are turning into a window-glass. Or better yet, empty tumblers.”

I've been feeling a little empty too. Bestest. Ramadan. Ever. arrived at a serendipitous time in my own life. I’ve adopted a water guzzling, low salt/low sugar diet (to avoid future kidney stones), which—at times—has felt like a fast. Having read about a character that succeeds with the daunting task of Ramadan put me in the right frame of mind to tackle my own dietary challenge.

Congratulations, Medeia! I can’t wait to read the next. I should also expand my YA reading list and/or review other blogger books. I know Diane over at Spunk on a Stick has a collection called Circle of Friends. Any other suggestions?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Stoned (And Not Enjoying It)

1-6-10  Kidney Stone Saga
Image courtesy: Patrick Woessner

Last Sunday was not fun. I woke up around 5 a.m. with a sharp pain in my side that refused to go away no matter how many times I visited the porcelain throne (sorry for the TMI) or how much over-the-counter meds I gulped.

By seven, the sharp pain graduated to agonizing pain and I woke my husband to announce that "mommy" was off duty until further notice. There was no way I could face the kids. Instead I put my face on the cold tile of the bathroom floor and moaned.

Husband asked if he should take me to "see someone." On a Sunday morning, that left one option: ER. By now my brain was in hyperchondriatic overdrive. Appendicitis, intestinal blockage, cancerous mass, oh my! I said yes and proceeded to pace around the house puffing like a woman in labor while he coaxed our sleepy girls into clothes and then the car.

Sunday morning turned out to be a great time for a medical emergency. I got into triage straight away and after answering a couple dozen questions, I got an IV, narcotics, and a bed. The painkiller didn't work for long. I ended up getting two more doses before the CAT scan. The doctor kept asking me what the pain felt like and I kept saying, "It's like a stone that just won't go away."

I was more right than I knew. While I was picturing a rock about the size of a deck of cards, the actual culprit turned out to be a kidney stone--a 4mm pebble stuck in the tube between my right kidney and bladder. They sent me home with pain meds and a plastic container to collect the stone.

Luckily the stone passed later that afternoon. It was analyzed and yesterday my primary physician called and said I needed to do three things to prevent another stone. I dropped my lunch--hotdog slathered with mustard and ketchup--and grabbed a pen and paper. There was no way I wanted to experience that agony again.

Number one: drink ten glasses of water a day.

Okay, not too bad. I can handle that.

Number two: Avoid eating foods with sodium.

Crap-snaple. I live for salt! Major suckage. I held my breath and started to pray: please don't let her say sugar next, oh please, please, please!

Number three: Avoid eating foods with fructose or sucrose.


So there you have it. If it tastes good, I can't eat it. After that phone call, I knew my diet would need a complete overhaul so I quickly scarfed down another condiment-laden hotdog.

Bon voyage, packaged meats, snack foods, and salad dressing! I will miss you and your insane sodium content. Sayonara lollipops, brownies, and Froot Loops! I can only dream of your sugary sweetness. Hello fruits and veggies! Hello plain potatoes and pasta! Bring on the bland (and the gallons of water)!

Man, I gotta pee.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Writer's Digest Writing Competitions (and a definition of 'published')

Old Man by the Sea
Image courtesy: elbyincal

Do you have any short stories of 4000 words or less kicking around? (And a twenty dollar bill to spare?) If so, there are several writing contests being hosted by Writer’s Digest with deadlines ranging from September 15 through October 31 depending on the genre. Click here for details. You will also find info on a Short Short Story Competition (1500 words or less) with a deadline of November 15.

I’m going to enter in the science fiction/fantasy contest with a story set 40 years in the future. George Lander, widower, is facing brain surgery. Afraid of losing the memories of his beloved wife, he makes an appointment at Memory, Inc., part of the emerging “brain back-up” industry.

I was going to post the first page of the story, but then a little worm of worry caught me. According to the official rules, you can only enter works that are not previously published or produced. Would posting an excerpt on this blog qualify as publishing? Hmmm.

Luckily I found this website called promptings with the answer. Posting any written work online (including blogs) is considered publishing because it is available to the public. Deleting the blog does not 'unpublish' the work either. However, you can post your work on sites protected by a password and not be considered published. This allows writers to post things on forums for feedback before they are ready to publish. Interesting.

Oh well. The good news is that I and all my fellow bloggers are published! Whoo-hoo. The bad news is that I can't share the first page of A Pain-Free Life.

Have you entered these kinds of short story competitions before?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Stumped by the Seasons in Game of Thrones

There will be no simple explanation for the unusual seasons of George R.R. Martin’s addictive Game of Thrones (other than: it’s a fantasy.) Bummer.

(Second book in the series. Not as awesome as the first, but still compulsively readable.)

In these books, “summers can last for years and winters a lifetime”. How?

Let’s start with our planet. You know the earth has a tilt, right? Summer in the northern hemisphere occurs when the sun’s rays hit the north more directly and the days are longer. Six months later earth has moved to the other side of the sun. Now the sun's rays hit the north on a more extreme angle, the days are shorter, and we have winter. Here’s a nifty graphic from Zoom Astronomy:

The earth zips around the sun in 365 days and so this pattern repeats every year. Fab.

Could we create years-long seasons by adjusting the tilt of the earth? A changing axial tilt is not out of the question. According to Wikipedia, the earth’s tilt or obliquity varies from 22° 38’ to 24° 21’. On other planets the variation is more extreme. Mar’s obliquity may vary “between 11° and 49° as a result of gravitational perturbations from other planets.

Yet there are problems with simply increasing the tilt to make the winter more harsh. The variation I mention above for earth’s tilt happens every 41 thousand years. In our fantasy world, we need the axis tilt to change from say 23° (summer years) to 25° (winter years) within a couple of years. Second, the position of earth’s tilted axis stays constant as the earth orbits the sun. If we look at the axis over the course of a year, we get a slice of penne pasta:

Yummy. So if you increase the tilt to create an extreme winter for the north, it would be followed by a sizzling hot summer six months later. What we really need is an axis that keeps the northern hemisphere tilted away from the sun’s direct rays all year long. Then the axis rotated around the sun would form a bowl (leaving the southern hemisphere with a long, long summer.) Bowl, pasta. I need lunch.

I’m not astronomer, so I can’t tell you if this is possible. Perhaps some “gravitational perturbations” from nearby planets could help. This is a fantasy world, so you could play with the solar system. Plus, the moon could become a factor by increasing its size and/or its distance from fantasy earth. But here’s the kicker. Our fantasy seasons are not cyclic. Summers are shorter (5 to 15 years) and winters longer (15 to 50 years). So putting the explanation on planetary movements (which are cyclic) is tricky.

(If you really want to stretch you brain, read about Milankovitch cycles. Besides axial tilt, eccentricity and precession of the earth’s orbit can affect climatic pattern. To contract your brain, go read up on Mila Kunis.)

So if I continue this quest, I’d study the onset of ice ages and maybe El Niño/La Niña events. But I really need to get (a life) back to writing and lock my (inner nerd in a closet) energies onto worlds of my creation.

What's distracting you these days?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Game of Thrones-My New Bad Habit

I would like to thank (curse) my good friend Dawn for (destroying any chance I had at accomplishing anything for the next month by) lending me the first in the George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series.

Game of Thrones kicks some serious chain-mail-clad booty. It is incredibly (addictive—like crack, only worse) engrossing. If you have ever considered writing a book from multiple points of view, this is your master class in that endeavor. Each segment ends with the reader panting to know what comes next. Then you’re shoved on to another scene.

Cliffhangers at chapter endings are nothing new. In fact, they may be a requirement these days. The brilliant part of Martin's writing is getting you quickly engaged with the next scene. So, even though you left your favorite character on death’s doorstep, you can let it go because you desperately need to know what the despicable villain is plotting in the current scene. For 800 plus pages, Martin leaps from character to character without dropping the reader—a feat equal to someone skipping a stone across a lake fifty-plus times.

Another talent of Martin’s is world building. Game of Thrones is rooted in medieval times with fantasy creatures—dragons and zombie-like ‘Others’—rumored to be dead for hundreds of years, but on the rise. Outside the familiar parameters of castles, kings, swords, horses, brothels, squires, and whatnot, very few things are unique to Martin. But you wouldn’t want an author to reinvent and rename everything; the burden on the reader would be too great. Small touches make all the difference from ‘Ser’ instead of Sir, to ‘lion-lizard’ for alligator, and the ‘dire-wolves’—a breed of large, deadly beasts supernaturally loyal to their masters.

One alteration, in particular, caught my fancy: winter and summer don’t come in predicable cycles or last for a few months. Teens have lived the bulk of their lives in summer. ‘Winter is coming’ is spoken with equal parts dread and reverence for an event that may last for several years up to an eternity.

As a former scientist, I just had to figure out how this might be possible. I know, it’s a fantasy. Why quibble over the length of summer when bloody dragons are sucking milk from the heroine’s breast? But still, the story inhabits a world with one sun and one moon—a world with a cold north and a warm south. The characters observe their yearly name day. Day and night occur just as they do for us mere mortals, so how could this crazy weather happen?

To be continued . . .

See, I told you cliffhangers were obligatory!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Where I Work

Today, Medeia Sharif’s debut novel Bestest. Ramadan. Ever. is released—congratulations! I’ll be ordering my copy soon.

I thought I’d take a break from analyzing books and such for a tour of the room where I write. I hesitate to call it my office because it’s a multipurpose room where the majority of our houseplants languish for water, fertilizer, or to be put out of their misery. It’s also the home of 2007’s I’ve Lost My Mind Project—the fantabulous Bear House—and a third of my kid’s books (yes just a third.)

Here’s the desk where the main action happens:

Note all the books piled in the chair. Most of those are non-fiction about all things nineteenth century. I really need to find a bookshelf for them.

Here’s my other desk swamped with a mess of kid’s art, edited drafts of my work, scribbled lists of literary agents and who knows all. Ugh, double-ugh, I’m hating the thought of going through all this. And so it sits.

Here’s my grandmother’s couch (recovered in the nineties--love that floral print). Just looking at it makes me want to take (another) nap.

Hanging above the couch is this here stained glass. The blues are so yummy; they make me want to jump in a sun-dappled swimming pool.

And last, but not least, some close-ups of a few of my paintings I did half a lifetime ago in college. Neither Monet nor Thomas Kincade need worry about these babies taking over their chatchkes market, but I still love them. Feel free to laugh or scream as appropriate. I just hope I'm a better writer than painter.

What’s your writing spot like?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Anita Shreve: Varying a Storyline’s Peak Action

Anita Shreve is the author of 17 novels plus 2 non-fiction works. The Pilot’s Wife (1998) made it into Oprah’s Book Club and Resistance (1995) was made into a film. I have read three of her novels and I find it interesting how each one places the apex of action at different parts of the story.

Testimony (2008) starts off with a bang (forgive the bad pun) when a private school headmaster gets ahold of a sex tape involving four of his pupils—one underage girl and three older boys. The rest of the story deals with the aftermath. This book was, by far, my favorite.

A Change in Altitude (2009) has a storyline whose crescendo follows the story’s main event itself—a mountain climb. One of the pinnacles—the shocking death of one of the characters—occurs right in the middle of the book. With the well-rounded characters and detailed description of life in Kenya, this book also ranks high among my recent reads.

The third, The Weight of Water (1997) received several accolades including wins for The New England Book Award, The Pen/L.L. Winship Award, and a shortlist spot for The Orange Prize. Yet, I liked this one the least. In fact, I quit in the middle and tossed it aside for several weeks.

The difficulty was the slow build of drama. We have a woman on a boat taking pictures of several tiny islands off the New England Coast—islands whose main claim to fame is hosting a double murder in the previous century. Mrs. M.C. is accompanied on this endeavor by her husband, young daughter, brother-in-law, and his girlfriend—who, by the way, may or may not be fooling around with the M.C.’s husband.

The narrative is interrupted over and over by the M.C. thinking about the facts behind the old murder case—well done, but jarring nonetheless. Later whole chapters are devoted to letters written by the sole survivor of the slaughter and that’s where I started to lose it. These letters are as dull and dreary as the 1800’s life on a rock they describe.

But I kept going. The back cover promised tragedy and I wanted my money’s worth. Finally, things got moving in the last few chapters. Boy, did they ever. It got so tense I had to skip ahead to see what happened, something I almost never, ever do.

I got my tragedy and then some. But, I was a little miffed because Shreve puts character A in mortal danger, and while the rest of the cast is distracted saving A, character B dies. Hmmm, where have I seen/read that before? Seriously, help me out here. I know I’ve seen this before.

Anyway, I do understand why The Weight of Water won those awards. The setting is a character itself and how the dual storylines of past and present complement each other is a work of art. Comparing and contrasting how unfounded jealousy leads to death in these two storylines would make an excellent term paper. Seeing as my school days are far behind me, I'll leave this as an exercise for someone else.

Where do the peaks of action/emotion occurs in your writing or favorite books?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Bad Moon Rising

A strange thing happened to me recently. I read a book by a well-known, lauded author and didn’t like it. It was Alice Sebold’s The Almost Moon. Sebold’s first novel, The Lovely Bones, was a huge success. Lots of people love that book. I love that book. It was made into a movie, which I would like to see. I read Sebold’s memoir Lucky and loved that too.

So what the heck happened? I think it comes down to characters. Both The Lovely Bones and Lucky are about young women who are raped and how they rise above the horror in an astonishing and heroic manner. These are characters (well, an actual person in the case of Lucky) that you want to stand up and cheer for.

In The Almost Moon, the main character starts off the novel by smothering her elderly mother who is suffering from dementia. It’s a kick-butt first chapter, but I had a tough time getting through the rest of the book. The writing was superb, but the pace was tedious. What a weird combination!

Now, as much as I like to think that I am unique, I know I’m not. So I clicked over to Amazon to check out the reviews for The Almost Moon and guess what? Out of almost three hundred reviews, a full one-third, yes 100 reviewers, gave this book one star. So it’s not just me. It was very interesting to read these reviews and see the same sentiments show up over and over. Here are two comments that sum up my reaction to this odd book:

Stephen S. Mills: This book is compelling and strange and never lets you off the hook for a second. It challenges your thinking, your own relationships, and that thin line between normal behavior and the grotesque. This may not be "enjoyable" but it is powerful and worthy of anyone's time.

A reply to Mills by Jeffrey: The problem with The Almost Moon is not, in my mind, the subject. It's the characters. Sebold makes her protagonist patently unlikeable. And it's hard to enjoy a book when the reader spends so much time hating the main character.

I find the use of the word ‘enjoy’ interesting in these comments. What does it mean to ‘enjoy’ a book? If you find yourself disliking a book, do you finish it or not?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Dwarf Mania?

Image courtesy: Boston Public Library

Dwarfs are not common—about 1 in a 40,000 births. (The preferred term today is 'Little People' if you meet one.) Yet I’ve read three books this year, none of which are fantasy à la Tolkien, that feature dwarfs. In fact, all three were historical novels. Is this remarkable? A new fad? Or just one of those strange coincidences?

The first was Hannah Tinti’s The Good Thief. The young hero, Ren, is staying at a widow’s lodging house when something drops down from the chimney. Not a squirrel or a bird or even a raccoon. No, it’s a dwarf. Ms. Tinti explained that the house she grew up in had many chimneys and animals often fell down them. She deliberately chose something shocking to pop out of the chimney in her novel and later had to 'fit' her choice into the storyline. The reader eventually discovers this fellow is the landlady’s brother. He sneaks down the chimney to eat his supper each night and leaves a wooden carving as a gift.

In Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, the presence of a dwarf is no surprise at all considering the story’s setting is a traveling circus. The diminutive character here starts out as a rather surly man whose only redeming quality is the tender way he takes care of his small dog. Later the novel's hero befriends the dwarf. Just when the reader has gotten good and attached to the character, the dwarf and his dog are flung from the train to their deaths by the evil circus owner. (I'm still not over it.)

So I know why these two feature dwarfs, but the third is less clear. In Robert Hicks’ A Separate Country the dwarf Rintrah is an orphan raised by nuns who eventually becomes the equivalent of an Italian mob boss with a strong streak of philanthropy toward the downtrodden black population of New Orleans. Why would Hicks choose this unusual character to be a dwarf? Perhaps it’s not so strange. People with achondroplastic dwarfism are a blend of normal sized heads and torsos with short arms and legs—a physical manifestation of the strange duality of his actions—murderer to some, savior to others.

All things considered, a dwarf is not such a strange choice after all. Giving a character such an unusual condition will cement them in the reader’s mind—much more memorably than someone who is unusually good-looking, or clumsy, or shy. I should also note that each book balances these Little People with a giant-sized character, though in Water For Elephants, that character has a trunk.

So have you run across dwarfs or other characters with rare traits in your reading?

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Walk In The Woods (Part 2)

Image courtesy: Jim Pater

(Part 1 is here if you’re interested.)

We’re through the gate. The trees rise high—a wall of grey-brown trunks. The path takes you down a hill, cut by logs set on an angle to shunt the rain aside. At the bottom starts a long series of platforms, boards on top, Styrofoam underneath. At the end is a broader section for the dock proper, perhaps twelve by fifteen feet, the edges encased in a white rubber that will crack, fade, and peel as it ages.

Image courtesy: Velo Steve

A smallish dock on a tiny inlet of Lake Hartwell, and we’re the only house to take advantage of our location this way. Ten years is a long time to live somewhere—not a record-breaker by any means, but long enough to infuse this dock with memories from every emotional hue of the rainbow.

In the beginning, there was joy. The water in those years ran high, maybe six feet or more off the end. My sister and I would run, our feet slapping on the sun-warmed boards as our white spitz took the pleasure of turning wolf, snapping at our heals while we dashed off the end and took the plunge. Back flips were perfected. Sunfish nibbled on small toes.

Image courtesy: J.W.Photography

Later, there was adventure. A small powerboat made its summer home snugged up to the dock’s side. Long rides on the lake were an evening treat. The best part was turning into the wakes of larger boats and the bone-rattling thuds as our smaller boat rode those waves. Our mother took up water-skiing.

As I grew older, the rain levels fell. Many times the inlet's water was reduced to a tiny nest of streams lost among the green marsh grass that grew high and spiky. The summer sun revealed fat clamshells. As a teenager, I would perch on the ladder, pushed by the absence of water several feet higher than the dock, and listen to the mud pop and the crickets sing and ponder my place in the confusing mess that is junior high.

Image courtesy: David Hoffman

Sadly, one of the last memories of this sanctuary is terror. I’m walking down the long platform with the August sun roasting my head. My feet are bare. The space between the boards is half an inch. I hear a rustle under my feet and look down between them.

Image courtesy: Simon Hucko

Inches below my soles, a nest of water mocassins writhe and stir, disturbed by my footsteps. I don’t know which way to run.

Image courtesy: Hunter-Desportes

Another time I’m still on the path, just about to step on the platform, when the leaves next to my feet start to churn. It’s two of them this time—big ones as thick as my arm and at least five feet long. I jump, certain their fangs will find my legs. I’m just too close this time.

In my dreams, they always get me. In real life, I managed to get away. How about you? Are there places from your past and/or childhood that show up in your dreams?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

I Done Lost My Mind (in 2011)

Hello, dear readers. I’ve been raising procrastination to an art form, literally. I didn’t mean to, at least, not at first. I blame a friend of mine who called last summer, inviting me to be a member of the board for the Montessori preschool our kids attend. Only four meetings a year, she said. I said yes. I thought it sounded easy. Plus, it was high time I did something for my community. My kids were long out of diapers. I wasn’t working. And it sounded so—adult.

Okay, first meeting. The school was celebrating its 40th anniversary. Spiffy. I wouldn’t mind being on the anniversary committee, would I? Oh boy. At the first meeting for that they started flinging out ideas—galas and golf tournaments. I started to feel nauseous. There’s only thing worse than planning a social extravaganza—attending one.

What to do? What to do? Then I seized upon the perfect escape—fix up the school’s raggedy garden plot! Perfect—no social interaction required. Someone (might have been me) suggested making garden stones the kids could press their sweet little handprints into. Fabulous.

(Little Bear's stone. No, she's not an alien; she does have all five fingers.)

Three months later? The gala invitations garnered four acceptances out of seventy-six invitations. (One was mine.) Gala cancelled. The golf tournament fell by the wayside. Now it was down to 40 Acts of Random Kindness and the garden. Neato.

While the garden was buried under two feet of snow, I could safely ignore this missive. Then spring eventually showed up and I had to face the facts. I had agreed to make garden stones with the kids—all seventy-six of them.

It took five days, four bags of Quick Crete, eight bags of glass stones from Michaels, one roll of paper towels, a Sunday paper, and two boxes of Saran Wrap. Dude, I was wiped.

That was the easy part. Next came the construction of a garden path with these puppies. You’d think seventy-six stones would be plenty, but I ran out two-thirds of the way. Screw it. We’ll make more next year once I’ve forgotten what a pain in the ass it is.

(Bright white marble. Umm, no. Clash City. Replaced with river stone--see top pic. Yes, I edit in real life too.)

So here it is, in all its muddy glory. And no, I’m not done yet. Have you found creative ways to derail your writing lately?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Authentic Nigeria

Image courtesy: talatu-carmen

On April 4 of this year, I was privileged hear Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie present a talk at RIT. Ms. Adichie is a world-renown author from Nigeria with two novels and a collection of short stories.

Sitting in the audience with her newest book in my lap, my husband and I were scouring the room to see if she had arrived. After attending a wedding featuring a groom and several guests from Nigeria, I expected to recognize Ms. Adichie by her clothes—a brightly colored gele on her head, perhaps. When we finally spotted her, the only thing to hint at her country of origin were the colors in her top. But when she started to speak, it was obvious she warn’t from ‘round here.

As a southerner, I love a crisp British accent. English from her lips is a beautiful thing. Ms. Adichie joked about reading a story as a child in which someone ate a bagel. In her young mind, she read it with the accent on the second syllable, making it sound fancy.

I had the reverse problem. I had to take the ‘fancy’ way she pronounced certain words and translate them back to boring. ‘World’ sounded like ‘wall’ and I was confounded on what, exactly, a ‘perry-fairy’, could be. Can you guess? (I’ll put the answer at the end.)

It wasn’t just the sound of her words that was magnificent, but her entire presentation. She is one of those rare people who combine high intelligence with wit—someone you could listen to all night.

One of the reoccurring themes in her talk was other people’s expectations of her as both an African and an African writer. When she arrived in America for college, she recalled the disappointment of her roommates when meeting her for the first time. Her fellow students weren’t expecting someone fluent in English or someone wearing . . . jeans. (How silly of them! Ummm—yeah.)

When she wrote her first book, it was criticized for not being ‘African enough’. It wasn’t about AIDS and starvation. Nor were there any lions, elephants, or giraffes roaming about. Instead the main character was the daughter of a prominent businessman. They had a nice, two-story house and a car. (Unfortunately, the father is abusive and scary as all get-out.)

Of all the barriers there are to getting published, that would be a kicker, huh? To have your character’s world—the world you live in—judged not authentic.

Her talk is online here. My husband asks a question around 60 minutes about a character from Purple Hibiscus.

Perry-fairy = periphery (Did you figure it out?)