Welcome to my blog Upstate Girl, (a.k.a Follow Your Bliss Part II), I am an independently published author. This blog is all about writing and the stuff that inspires me to write, the joys and obstacles that come along with the writer's life, and my fascination with the psychology of people and what makes them tick...the human condition, as is...and my love for words, playing with them and making sense of them...and I throw in a few photos from my acre of the world just to make things pretty...sometimes there are things I have no words for, only pictures will do.

Monday, June 16, 2014

My thoughts on reading "Wolf Solent" by John Cowper Powys

Powys is one of the greatest novelists that not everybody knows about—I always make an effort to press him upon receptive readers—I’m a believer, a bookish zealot—I’m always more than happy to spread the word of literary awesomeness, I do realize that not every reader is going to dig Powys. Books by Powys have a knack to haunt a reader long after they’re done. His writing is magical, beautiful, rhapsodic, breathtaking, meandering, timeless—very dense classic prose. He’s in the company of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust, Hardy, D. H. Lawrence—Powys (dubbed by some as the anti-Hemingway—which I find funny, I love “Papa” too—he is his own writing beast, Powys is another unique species of writer.) He’s a writer’s writer. With the generous spirit of Shakespearean shrewdness, he evokes an aged skepticism of everything, and yet a youthful gullibility about everything—it’s all very enchanting and lovely, and far too good to miss. In this contemporary world of instant gratification, it would be far too easy to neglect this master storyteller, and it would be a shame to forget him just because his way of writing is out of fashion.

One of the things that makes a Powys novel like Wolf Solent special is how he lays down a historical foundation that is based on legends. In all legends, there’s a grain of truth—the old hills and dells, moors and coastlines of Wales and England (in particular) have a history and mythology that have deep roots in the lives of the people who live within the covers of his books. The people—they are many and varied, the beautiful and ugly of humanity are all well represented. Pagans and Christians—philosophy and superstition overlap and separate—mingling and repelling—they co-exist with a feigned ignorance or have the willingness to overlook “the matter” out of politeness, and more times than not, they are blatant with their venom—gossiping the next chance meeting with an ear waiting to listen—creating their own legends from the bits of truth of what was muddied by their own perceptions. There’s an intensity of life that is palatable; life is complicated, yet it’s simple. The density of the writing is so absorbing, that’s what makes it so dang fascinating—he creates a sense of place and time, textured and sensual—decadent (in the best sense of the term.) The thing I love so much about his writing is that I have to be on my toes through all of it—my brain is slowly dining on every word, savoring every last bit to the end. I found it hard to put the book down some nights—and I was haunted by it until I picked it up again.

Wolf walks a lot (like the character Porius in another Powys novel of that name)—here, there, and everywhere—if I were his wife, Gerda, I would’ve slapped him silly for his random acts of disappearing—“Where the Hell have you been Mr. Solent? I gave you up as dead in a ditch somewhere along the road—get in here, sit, and have your tea.” (As it is long before the convenience of cell phones, give the nearest lad a ha’penny and have him run a message home at least! Ah, but he doesn’t think of doing that until near the end of the book.) I can’t blame Gerda at all for feeling as she did, a young wife finding herself married to this peculiar, distracted, but mostly harmless fool. He mentally wandered in a self-absorbed state, what he called “sinking into his soul”, also known as his “mythology” a secret name for his secret habit of daydreaming—it is a carryover from childhood that appalled his mother, but his father encouraged. Daydreams are a beautiful thing to have access to—they feed the creative mind all sorts of goodies, but it can be detrimental for an adult to go about in a fantasy world. Absentmindedness is quaint to a point, after a while, people can become pretty annoyed when your distracted manner is no longer entertaining as you are causing inconvenience—one day you have your head in the clouds, the next day it changes to having your head firmly stuck up your ass (there’s a time and place for everything, you see.) Wolf’s walking seems directionless, yet he follows his nose like a canine; examining his internal world and then becoming suddenly enamored by the world outside of himself— the verdant curve of a hill, the muddy stillness of a pond, the blue of the sky, and the golden meadow brimming with buttercups; body and soul, dreams and realities, within and without, life and death, good and evil—his thoughts often veering over the edge into the supernatural. The dead and buried (in particular, his father and the young Redfern) live on in memories and imaginings—laughing at the arrogance of the living.
Truth be told, the fool needed to grow up and get ahold of himself. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Wolf and his ‘mythology’, he cracked me up quite often—from the beginning, he got sacked from his teaching job in London for his “malice-dance” in which he just went off on an inappropriate verbal jaunt that had nothing to do with teaching History to the boys in his charge...

“He was telling his pupils quietly about Dean Swift; and all of a sudden some mental screen or lid or dam in his own mind completely collapsed and he found himself pouring forth a torrent of wild, indecent invectives upon every aspect of modern civilization.”p.2

This is the prevailing attitude throughout the book—he has something eating at him.

“He felt as though, with aeroplanes spying down upon every retreat like ubiquitous vultures, with the lanes invaded by iron-clad motors like colossal beetles, with no sea, no lake, no river, free from throbbing, thudding engines, the one thing most precious of all in the world was being steadily assassinated.” P.3

I agreed with him on most things, yet there were times I found his obsessive waffling over the flirtatious and sexy Gerda and the solemn and thoughtful Christie to be comical, bordering on absurd—he wanted his cake and eat it until it made him sick. The reality of Wolf’s life is invading and destroying his ‘mythology’—the being in a rut, teaching history to boys at the school for thirty years just irks him to no end—he longs to have financial independence to allow him to live comfortably and to have freedom. I certainly didn’t want to see him lose that lovely imaginativeness that was natural—instinctive, nigh innocent (yet not entirely), but it was clear that his behavior was becoming a concern by those who knew him. It isn’t every day that your father-in-law (a monument maker) indicates his concern by saying:

“Tis no comfort,” he remarked, “though I be the man I be for cossetting they jealous dead, to think that ‘in a time and half a time,’ as Scripture says, I’ll be chipping “Rest in the Lord” on me wone son-in-law’s moniment. But since us be talking snug and quiet, mister, on this sorrowful theme”—Mr. Torp’s voice assumed his undertaker’s tone, which long usage had rendered totally different from his normal one—“’twould be a mighty help, mister, to I, for a day to come, if ye’d gie us a tip as to what word—out of Book or out of plain speech—ye’d like best for I to put above ‘ee?” p. 466

As he moped around on his many walks, at times considering that maybe he should go drown himself in Lenty Pond as alluded by those who believed it to be his destiny, (I seriously felt concerned that he would!) I wished I could’ve advised him—“You should write a book of your own—you really need to.” If anything could possibly reset and settle his mind, it would be that—writing clears the decks of a busy mind that wanders. Writing is one of our most intimate acts of creativity, it can center one and it can unravel one—one can be rattled to the core by the act of writing, sometimes there’s nothing more startling than to write down the thoughts that haunt you to the point of something comparable to madness. Eventually, it does work out those bothersome bugs and gives focus. Then it’s nigh terrifying to share one’s own words on paper with anyone else because they are so personal—private. For example, when Wolf reads Christie’s writing that she had hidden away, she was pissed when she found out—his reading it ruined it for her, she wasn’t ready to have anyone read her thoughts. The eccentric poet, Jason Otter, shared his poetry with Wolf on many occasions, but when Wolf suggests that he should send them to London to be published, Jason became angry—feeling certain that the Londoners would laugh at his poetry. Anyway, I can only hope that Wolf came to writing later in life beyond the last page—that’s another thing that I love about this book, there is a sense that life goes on after the book ends. His walk through the meadow of buttercups was the most sublime event—he had changed, “grown up” in a manner of speaking—he may have lost his “mythology”, but he gained a new sight and insight. Once again, he reveled in taking notice of the smallest things such as the beauty of a snail as it went creeping along from a dock-leaf to the boards of the pigsty shed. Accepting the reality—“I am I”—“Forget and enjoy”—“ Endure or escape”—it was his body that saved him—for this, his spirit is grateful.

John Cowper Powys (I could not find a credit for the image, tho' I'll keep looking and will amend should I find it.)
“Millions of miles of blue sky; and beyond that, millions of miles of sky that could scarcely be called blue or any other colour—pure  unalloyed emptiness, stretching outwards from where he sat—with his stick and coat opposite him—to no conceivable boundary or end!” p. 10

I simply adored this book and could easily read it again—I have a few bits here from some of the many dog-eared pages, and then I’m done with my wordy testimony…

“Every time the hedge grew low, as they jogged along, every time a gate or a gap interrupted its green undulating rampart, he caught a glimpse of that great valley, gathering the twilight about it as a dying god might gather to his heart the cold, wet ashes of his last holocaust.” P. 25

“Nature was always prolific of signs and omens to his mind; and it had become a custom with him to keep a region of his intelligence alert and passive for a thousand whispers, hints, obscure intimations that came to him in this way. Why was it that a deep, obstinate resistance somewhere in his consciousness opposed itself to such a solution?”
p 274

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Thoughts about The Shadow of the Wind...and other stuff

The Shadow of the Wind is an epic, a mystery with romance, and it has just enough Gothic creepy edge to it to make it special—it’s a lovely book, read it, get lost in it, find and absorb all the good from it—and it’s got the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, what more can I ask for as a book lover?

"This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down the pages, its spirit grows and strengthens. This place was already ancient when my father brought me here for the first time, many years ago. Perhaps as old as the city itself. Nobody knows for certain how long it has existed, or who created it. I will tell you what my father told me, though. When a library disappears, or a bookshop closes down, when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians, make sure that it gets here. In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader's hands."  From page 5-6

This is the quote that caught me firmly into the teeth of this book—only because of my own life experience and emotional connection to books put me there. When I walk into antique shops, I go find their corners where there are old books and I search for ones that I must adopt—it always makes me sad to see them languishing, unread—being the imaginative person that I am, I feel these inanimate objects have an essence about them that is in a sense alive—a soul—it is the spirit of the person who wrote them, the person who bought them, the person who read them (loved them.)

I often look at all of the books in our personal library and wonder—“Will I ever get around to reading them again or reading the ones I haven’t read yet?” And then I sometimes go the extra step further to make it worse and wonder, “Who will take care of my books after I’m gone?” (Painful isn’t it?)

So...with that said...I recently went with my sister to Bouckville, NY to do antique shopping...and of course, I look for old books to "adopt" this time, I found Kipling's Jungle Books, Volumes 1 and 2, illustrated by Aldren Watson, published by Double Day & Co. 1948...they are gorgeous! Volume 2 is his collected short stories, which I was very happy to find...I mean, who doesn't love Rikki-Tikki Tavi?

He creeps up the little creeks that men think would not hide a dog...

Kaa...I always thought he was a very cool serpent...
 Of course, the books were not all that I adopted! I found lots of cool old goodies...

An iron bank (very rusty) and it's a donkey! I could not pass it up!

A compass and a scribe

A pretty yellow ware bowl, not as old as others that I have, but I like the blue stripe...

Old bridle bits...I wish they weren't painted black, but I guess someone thought it would make them more "decorative" that way...paint comes off (but it isn't a priority at the moment.)
I'm still slowly recovering from the shingles (it's been two months already.) The good news is, it isn't the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning, so that's progress. What a wretched illness to have...I went all day yesterday without taking my pain meds, I did very well, I hardly thought about the pain at all, but today I am, which is not a good start to the day, it is what it is...so I'm going to mellow out and not let it get me down. I do believe the rash part is finally done...one trick I learned out of desperation...use Listerine on that shitty rash! It stings like crazy, but sends the itch away with its tail tucked between its legs...there is something very satisfying about that sting, trust me on this. Other things I've done to take the edge off when the drugs seem like they're not working (there have been days when it seemed pointless to take stuff that only made me feel dull witted or loopy): gentle stretching does help A LOT, a TENS unit is also a good thing to invest in and use as needed...most of all, patience and be good to yourself, REST (I read a lot and I played a lot of Majong just to concentrate on something else.) That is my advice for shingles.

In spite of being sick and having the shittiest concentration in the world because of pain and pain killers, I have continued to work my way through my manuscript Drinking from the Fishbowl. Even if I work on a paragraph or two at night, I am happy that I've done something that resembles progress. I'm currently in chapter 36, which was once two chapters (36 and 37), but it is now only one...I've practically rewritten the whole thing, there's barely anything original left...I "killed some darlings" that came from the first draft, and I'm happy they're gone. How does one do that? Well, it's not an easy decision to make, but once I made up my mind to do it and carried it out, there was a sense of relief and the flow continued. Let's just say, it wasn't my favorite pair of chapters, and they came from a "different place" than where the book is today, it has evolved and matured beyond its initial conception. I am constantly reminded that this manuscript is only the second novel I ever wrote, and it was initially loaded with some goofy shit that no longer fit in...I'm still tweaking it, nursing it along...of course, whenever large swaths of text are cut out, there's that stone tossed into the pond thing that happens, the ripples travel into other chapters and I have to be vigilant as I travel into these final chapters. Nothing is written in stone in this manuscript...this book can continue to grow and change (evolve.) I even had a crazy thought about wiping out even more, three chapters (34, 35 and even 36)...this possibility is still being investigated (since I'm still thinking about it), but I don't think I can disentangle parts that are deeply ingrained into the structure...a fresh printing of the chapters in question and a pair of scissors might help me piece it together... it's a work in progress. (I love it!)

...[he] stands alone, a solitary tree in an open field of emotions. - from Chapter 18, Drinking from the Fishbowl

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Reading Janet Frame, The Edge of the Alphabet

I’m continuing my journey discovering Janet Frame; The Edge of the Alphabet is yet another magical book of prose, experimental and challenging, a timeless narrative about the beauty and ugliness of the human condition. She plunges right in, starting on the first page:

Man is the only species for whom the disposal of waste is a burden, a task often ill judged, costly, criminal—especially when he learns to include himself, living and dead, in the list of waste products.

The creator of the world did not employ a dustman to collect the peelings of his creation.

Now I, Thora Pattern (who live at the edge of the alphabet where words like plants either grow poisonous tall and hollow about the rusted knives and empty drums of meaning, or, like people exposed to a deathly weather, shed their fleshy confusion and show luminous, knitted with force and permanence), now I walk day and night among the leavings of people, places and moments. Here the dead (my goldsmiths) keep cropping up like daisies with their floral blackmail. It is nearly impossible to bribe them or buy their silence.
Page 3

…and it is non-stop to the last page:

The edge of the alphabet where words crumble and all forms of communication between the living are useless. One day we who live at the edge of the alphabet will find our speech.

Meanwhile our lives are solitary; we are captives of the captive dead. We are like those yellow birds which are kept apart from their kind — you see their cages hanging in windows, in the sun—because otherwise they would never learn the language of their captors.

But like the yellow birds have we not our pleasures? We look long in mirrors. We have tiny ladders to climb up and down, little wheels to set our feet and our heart racing nowhere; toys to play with.

Should we not be happy?
  Page 303

It can leave one breathless...

Janet Frame’s books never cease to fascinate me — I have dog-eared several pages of this one (like others) marking where I want to return someday to explore a word-scape of unique beauty. The entire book is loaded with the most exquisite language — precious, priceless. She created geographical territory in which the borders of social inclusion and exclusion are investigated with an emphasis on language (communication or the lack of communication). The ghosts of the past are haunting, memories of lost relatives or events linger with a zealous desire to be remembered. There are surreal essences of despair, fear, failure — fragile dreams and disquieting realities—the human condition of those existing on the margins, marginalized — to be blunt, reality sucks. Sadly, this is a generous portion of our world’s population — life is not glamor, romance, and drama — to look away and deny it is negligent. Life is gritty with filth — our manmade rubbish, self-made madness, and life-long sickness. Some people are incapable of coping with life — some just do not have the tools to cope as they are flawed by disabilities (Toby’s epilepsy) or disabled by life (Zoe’s ignorance.) They are people easily discarded and ignored — yet Janet Frame writes in a way that makes the ugliness of life beautiful — and in all the trauma, there are comic pleasures that wink with a sweet wit that isn’t frivolous, if anything, the absurdity is very grounding.

A first kiss leading to the private research of identity, which leads to the creation of a sculpture from the silver paper of a cigarette pack, and then a life ended. A novel, The Lost Tribe, left unwritten because the writer is illiterate. Paintings destroyed, talent unrealized by an artist overcome by despair. And a life spent just getting by, going through the motions of life’s expectations to the point of not truly living.

“Just how much blank paper do you need, sir, to match your blank life?” Page 278


“He’s getting above himself, going overseas.”…there is an affliction of dream called ‘overseas’, a suffering of sleep endured by the prophetic, the bored, the retired, and the living who will not admit that it is easier and cheaper to die, die once and forever and travel as dust. But being dust how can you return and have your name in the paper and yourself pointed out in the street as having been “overseas” and your conversation filled with the names of places you have visited, your words received with wonder, as prophecies… How, if you are not Marco Polo or Herodotus? Page 49-50


Shall I write a book? Everybody is going to write a book. Memoirs on writing paper, toilet paper, café wall, pavement, or stone column in a city cemetery where borders of trees provide a trip-wire into silence. Shall I write? Shall I engage in private research of identity? Page 99


And then she laughed out loud to think that she had never known, that she had always believed that people were separate with boundaries and fences and scrolled iron gates, Private Road, Trespassers Will be Prosecuted; that people lived and died in shapes and identities with labels easily recognizable, with names which they clutched, like empty suitcases, on a journey to nowhere. Page 106


The day is patched with long silences between the communication of people, give rise to dread; as if the time itself held a reserve of opinion too terrible to express. In the cracks of the silence the people’s voices grow like bright feverish weeds whose stalks are hollow and whose shallow roots are separated from the earth (or water) with one tug of a hand or breeze; now and again people’s voices disappear in the gaps that open with the continual shock of Time. Page 215


“Did you make it?” he asked Zoe. “How did you think of it?”

Everyone admired the shape once again. Zoe was not used to being the center of attention; not for something she had made—when in her life had she ever made anything? It’s only a bit of paper, she said to herself, but she throbbed with warmth. How strange that it had so affected the others, had evoked in them feelings which they could only consider and explore by sitting there, as all three were doing now, silent, staring at the silver sculpture… How extraordinary, Zoe thought, that such feeling should be roused by seeing a conventional paper shape twisted at random, in idleness, among strangers whom I shall never meet again.
Page 272

Janet Frame writes with this special vision about social identity, a textual borderland — a wonderland — an Is-land — the post-colonial experience, New Zealand and England—being an alien within one’s homeland and within one’s own skin, living in the margins — at the edge of the alphabet…

And sometimes it seemed too much like being excluded from the mystical long-division sum, like being the odd number at the bottom or at the side of the column, the mental afterthought, the carrying number put there for mere convenience and erased when the answer to the sum is worked out. Page 297

Honestly, who hasn’t spent time living on the edge of the alphabet…

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Thoughts on writing...some advice

Me with Dusty Waters at my first book signing, May, 2009
I’ve always wanted to be a writer, since I could scribble, I wanted to write something that mattered—it took a long time to get there, I had a good deal of false starts. It’s been 15 years since I wrote the manuscript Washed Glass and saw it through to the finish. (Oh, I thought I knew what I was doing, but I totally had no idea.) This effort is still unpublished and certainly nowhere near ready to have a cover designed for it. It’s a densely written monster that has everything and the kitchen sink in it, and it’s rife with first-novel-itis, but I know the story is good enough to take the time to make it right—not every first manuscript is good enough. Even tho’ I do cringe a little when I think about going back to it, but now that I know more about what I’m doing, I know what I must do, so I will revisit where I started all those years ago—someday. I will always have a soft spot for it—it was my first, from there, the rest of my work with words followed, and they nod with reverence to what happened before them because without Washed Glass, Dusty Waters and The Fractured Hues of White Light wouldn't have happened. 

My "Girls"

For what it’s worth, here’s my advice for aspiring writers (young and old):

It’s never too late to start. Just do it.

Write. Even if it’s pure nonsense, if it’s there in your head, write it. Unfortunately, we learn from our mistakes, and you’re not going to learn by being afraid of fucking up.

Read—read a lot—especially read outside your comfort zone, if you have resisted reading the classics, read them—experience them and learn from them. Keep your mind wide open to receive knowledge, grow your mind, grow your vocabulary—read the dictionary (you know, one of those old-fashioned cloth bound books illustrated with line art, get one.) Familiarize yourself with the basic rules of grammar and punctuation too. Keep a Thesaurus handy.  Honestly, you’ll need something to do during those dead zones when you’re not staring out the window thinking.

Be humble.
Write and write some more.
No, you’re not crazy, you’re writing a book. Keep writingjust let it flow.
Be brave.

Here are the Don’ts:

Don’t listen to those dissenting voices within you or from the others who are on the outside looking in—for goodness sakes, don’t let anyone tell you “you can’t do that” because it’s hard. Damn right it’s hard and don’t you forget it.

Don’t rely on spell check and grammar check on your computer to catch your errors because words like dairies and diaries are both spelled correctly and if you’re a little bit dyslexic at all it’s easy enough to screw them up. The brain has this amazing self-correction thing it does when you’re too close to your writing and you know what you want to say, so beware when dealing with words, especially when writing tens of thousands of them.

Don’t be a hermit.
Don’t forget to live.
Don’t forget to breathe.

So you finished writing your manuscript—your first book. Do a happy dance, scream, laugh, and cry. Tell all your friends and family—celebrate. It’s a wonderful thing, it’s an accomplishment, and an achievement worthy of a pat on the back.

Don’t be surprised if you feel sad—because you will. You will “miss” being there, being in your head with your characters—it can be a little scary to feel depressed like that, but don’t worry, you’re all right.

Do you think you’re done with it?

"Done" means it has a beginning and an end with a bunch of shit happening in the middle. I know it will be hard to do it, but walk away from it—leave it for months—start something new or just write nonsense. Keep reading more books to pass the time. No matter how tempting it is to fool around with it, leave it alone. Forget it long enough to “forget it” in a sense that will allow you to be objective when you read it again.

It’s nice if you can find a first reader who can honestly tell you what they think of it—it’s nice if the first reader doesn’t sit on it for months and not read it. A book, especially a raw first draft isn’t easy to hand off to someone and expect them to read it—it’s not like showing someone a drawing you made—reading is an investment of time—and first drafts can be SO ROUGH it’s not fun to read them.  When you do go back to it, be honest with yourself—is it how you envisioned it? Aim high, raise the bar for yourself, take pride in your work, OWN IT. Edit the darn thing—make it bleed red ink—be prepared, this process can go on for several drafts. If you can find an editor that you can afford—one you can trust to work within your vision, go for it. But not everyone can afford one, not everyone has access to such creatures, so it’s good for a writer to learn how to self-edit.

I do my own editing partly because I’m a control freak, and partly because I love doing it—I love the whole process of revising and editing. I will read a chapter backwards, sentence by sentence just to take it out of the flow to make sure it’s what I want it to say. Then I will read the chapter forwards again to see if I catch anything wonky. I go through it until I make no more changes. Then I leave it alone to forget it, then read it again. If I make no changes, that’s a good thing. I’ve been known to take the scissors to a chapter that I had thought was perfect two weeks ago and reorganize the paragraphs, tape it back together, make the revision, and then start over reading it in the new configuration. I read it and revise it until I make it right.

Reading hard copy is always a good idea.

It does get better—trust me on this.

Final thoughts:
Keep writing. 
Don’t settle.
Make it right. Make it perfect.
Practice, Patience, Persistence.

(For the record, I won't edit anyone's work, so don't ask...you can't pay me enough to do it.)

Friday, April 18, 2014

Gabriel Garcia Marquez 1927-2014

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time, Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.”
(the first paragraph of One Hundred Years of Solitude)

 I adore this book. It is beautiful and it became an old friend within the first few pages—sometimes books are that way, they tell their story with a voice that is familiar, yet remarkable because of its unique qualities. There is so much grace in this book—very profound. It has a playful spirit that is hungry and happily full of love, a spirit that accepts death and sorrow as unavoidable facets of life. It made me laugh out loud and at times I would tear up—it is deeply emotional—compassionate. It is still speaking to me in an enchanting way that good books do—it keeps tugging on me to come back for one more look, so it is not too far out of reach, even now. One of the beauties of such a book is suspension of all belief and going with the natural flow—it is told in a voice that is wise and older than time. It is a book about being human—humans are messy, passionate fools who tumble into wisdom after several rounds of stupidity. Sometimes there is no dignity in our existence as we scratch about making a life out of what comes to us along the way—

“Ursula wondered if it was not preferable to lie down once and for all in her grave and let them throw the earth over her, and she asked God, without fear, if He really believes that people were made of iron in order to bear so many troubles and mortifications.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that everything he had written, he knew or heard before he was 8 years old. These formative years were spent with his maternal grandparents, listening and absorbing their folk tales and superstitions—stories of which he could not tell what was true and what was invention. His novels were filled with unforgettable characters existing in a fantastical landscape; books filled to the last page with dreams and realities; life and death; war, politics, madness, truth, enchantments, and lots of love—so much love.

 “Madly in love after so many years of sterile complicity, they enjoyed the miracle of loving each other as much at the table as in bed, and they grew to be so happy that even when they were two worn-out old people, they kept on blooming like little children and playing like dogs.”

My most favorite part is when Remedios the Beauty ascended and she took Fernanda’s sheets with her, and of course, Fernanda was quite bent out of shape about that!

“Ursula, almost blind at the time, was the only person who was sufficiently calm to identify the nature of that determined wind and she left the sheets to the mercy of the light as she watched Remedios the Beauty waving good-bye in the midst of the flapping sheets that rose up with her, abandoning with her the environment of beetles and dahlias and passing through the air with her as four o’clock in the afternoon came to an end, and they were lost forever with her in the upper atmosphere where not even the highest-flying birds of memory could reach her.”
It is these moments of fantastical glory contrasted with human truths that make this book so special. No belief required—let it all go into the wind of light like Fernanda’s sheets and Remedios the Beauty, open your mind, read it and love it.

“Tell him,’ the colonel said, smiling, ‘that a person doesn’t die when he should but when he can.”

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Thoughts on reading and writing...

From my size 6 1/2's

It's another winter coming to a close, and I'm still editing my novel Drinking from the Fishbowl, it seems to be taking forever to accomplish this feat, but I'm taking my time (as I should) to make this book into what I have envisionedI love the process of writing and I love to readI'm constantly reading and I cannot stress it enough, that reading is very importantbooks are important—especially for a writer (or anyone wanting to become a writer.)

Books that have inspired me...and my two "girls" in the middle.
Reading is a transformational experience, what makes it a special experience is it’s very personal, the reader becomes immersed into another world—the writer’s construct. People who are avid readers are passionate about books—and when you’re a writer, that’s another story—it's more personal. It was through reading that I knew that I wanted to be a writer—early on, I read books that transformed my life, my way of thinking and seeing the world. I became interested in observing nature and what made people tick. I had a lot to learn, more than the mechanics of it taught in school. I had the desire to write and the aptitude to do it, but it seemed as if I did not know what I wanted to write about—I did but I didn’t—it was frustrating; there were lots of false starts. For years, I carried around lots of nonsense bits and pieces—ideas that were mere fragments, I never wrote them down because whenever I did write these things down they made no sense on their own. For the most part, they were just there in my head, as if they were waiting for me to find a use for them.

I wanted to write something that was mine—something more than “write what you know”. I wanted to write books that mattered—books with a deeper meaning. I wanted to write what I call "human documents", novels with complex relationships, communities of people with overlapping histories, books about the conflict with dreams and realities. Books about ghosts of the past and the ghosts that haunt us now, and a broad spectrum of cause and effect—what the soul is supposed to be—what it could be—Free will and Determinism—psychology and philosophy. It took a long time to get there—it was a natural progression to commit myself to writing, I just knew when I was ready to start, once I started, there was no turning back. Those fragments of ideas and bits of this and that fit perfectly in the places where I used them—even the ones I thought were impossible made sense once they were applied. At first, I was upset that it took me so long to come to this, being a “late bloomer”, but no, it was the right time, I had a few things to experience first, before I could write. I’m glad I waited.

It's so strange how the things I write about conflict with who I am. It's always a mystery to me how my characters develop and then have the audacity to do the things they do or say the things they say. I always find it odd when it’s assumed that they’re about me in some thinly veiled convolution—no, not I, I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes at all. Of course, writing is a very personal experience, naturally, personal experiences and observations are taken from the toolbox and become part of the construct, but for the most part, I’m just making it up as I go along—it’s just a story.

Goodness knows I feared that I bit off more than I could chew on more than one occasion once I committed myself to writing novels. I’ve experienced what I call a creative “sweet spot”, writing with the emotional spigots on full blast is an immersion unlike anything I’ve experienced creatively, it is a strange sort of mix of misery and ecstasy. It’s a worthwhile experience,  but just when I begin to doubt myself, I read what I’ve written and then I know I've done a good thing—I’ve followed my bliss.

Writing a book is difficult, but it is probably one of my happiest times. I have muddled my way through as best as I can with no pedigree on paper or an affluent background with names of people who could pave my way—I’m truly on my own with this. I like it that way. I will stand and fall on my own merits. I write my books much in the same way that I make art as a painter—it’s intuitive. It’s such a rush to sit down with a few notes, character studies, phrases, and brief conversations written down on scraps of paper or in a notebook and then start filling in the blanks, letting the story happen
—I'm always in awe of the creative process.

Writing a novel is not for the faint of heart, it’s a given that not everyone is going to be receptive to what I’ve done, and I’m always grateful to those who are kind enough to read one of my books and tell me they enjoyed reading it.  It’s a solitary process and very lonely at times, I think I enjoy editing my books almost as much as writing them, the fine-tuning process can take a very long time, but I know when I’m done with it, I am satisfied with what I’ve done. If anything, I’ve learned that writing requires patience, practice, and persistence—and I will always read. 

That’s my story, I’m sticking to it.

The books in the photo:

On the right, (read before 1999)

Mikhail Bulgakov, the Master and Margarita

Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

E. M. Forster, The Celestial Omnibus

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Joyce Carol Oates, Wonderland

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights

On the left, (read after 1999)

Virginia Woolf, Night and Day

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa and Shadows in the Grass
Cristina Garcia, Dreaming in Cuban

Paula Fox, Desperate Characters

Virginia Woolf, The Waves

Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

Gustaf Sobin, The Fly-Truffler

Joyce Carol Oates, Bellefleur

The two book ends are Porius: A Romance of the Dark Ages by John Cowper Powys and The Voice of England by Charles Grosvenor Osgood.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Living with a little monster for one year...he's a good kitty until he isn't...

Yes, it's been one year since the little monster came to live with us...he's a much better kitty now than he was back then...

The "little thug"

Looking out the window

Getting some fresh air

String and crinkly paper...a perfectly pleased kitty

Not everyone can say they have a little monster in their bathroom sink...

He has learned to love lap time...
He might be plotting to take over the world...or just contemplating his next move in Star Craft...whatever it is, the little wheels are turning in that little kitty head...

One year later....
When people ask me "How's the black cat doing?" I reply "He's a good kitty until he isn't." It's taken all year to get to this place with him...he's ours...goodness knows, no one else will want the little fiend, but we love him in spite of his unpredictable socio-pathic behavior issues. I can kiss the little black fuzzy face, rub his velvety soft, plump belly, but I'm always aware that he can turn on a dime. He still bites and draws blood on occasion.When he makes that "squeak" noise EEP! or OIK!  look out...

His tail is always twitchy so that is at times a false positive...or false negative...or...who knows what the fuck it means, he's unpredictable.

It makes me sad to think that someone abused him to make him the way he is...we've been patient with him, we have loved him, kept him safe, have made him fat, and spoil him rotten with lots of toys and attention...he lives in the bathroom, so he's always going to have visitors. I feel bad that he doesn't get along with the other cats (yet.) We're working on it. We transfer him to our library and to the living room alternately so he has lap time with people and there are doors with windows through which he can glare at the other cats and stick his paws out at them...and they can stare at him without fear of him jumping on their backs and coming away with a mouthful of fur...

Other people gave up on him...which is how he wound up hiding underneath our porch one year ago during a bitter cold spell in March. Hungry, cold, scared, his ear clipped by a TNR group and the fur growing back on his backside where he had recently been neutered. Cut loose to work it out on his own because he was unwanted...

I feel good that we have adopted him into our family...which means, we have saved his life.

He's a little monster, our little Monster... yes, his name is The Little Monster...or Monster for short.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

…an Unthinkable Thing happened: Rashid Khalifa, the legendary Ocean of Notions, the fabled Shah of Blah, stood up in front of a huge audience, opened his mouth, and found he had run out of stories to tell. – from page 22, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie

I came to this book via my Fred, who is taking a class in which this book happens to be on the textbook list—he passed it on to me when he finished it. From the first paragraph, I loved it—let me tell you what I discovered during my journey to there and back again. This is a book to be read with a light heart and with no set parameters—the delightful wordplay and singsong rhythm of the prose made me laugh a good deal. It reminded me of Dr. Seuss stories so much that in my mind I was able to construct a fantastical landscape, populate it with the wonderful creatures and people described, brightly colored as traditional Indian Folk Art (just Google Mithila Painting to see what I mean.) It is a story about storytelling. It is a fairy tale in the tradition of all fairy tales, an allegory full of the tallest of stories that hit home so true—ideas, freedom, the importance of storytelling and imagination. As it was written during the time Rushdie spent in hiding, it is a very revealing narrative about freedom of expression. A father losing his ability to tell stories due to upsetting personal circumstances and because of this temporary lapse in his ability and desire to do so, someone official decided to turn off his “subscription” to the Story Water supply from the Great Story Sea—my goodness, that’s worse than writer’s block.

What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?

This peculiar question is raised by an outside character of dubious intentions and is the initial cause of this situation for the storyteller. It’s always odd when I run up against someone who thinks that way—it makes my heart hurt because that’s a person who is missing a valuable resource in life—imagination—the ability to suspend belief for just a little while to enjoy a story. I could never figure out why it was such a crime to ‘make up’ a story—lying to get out of trouble is a different thing entirely, telling a story for its entertainment value is completely different, but somehow it’s believed by some to be dishonest. There have been many books over the years that have caused a fuss for one reason or another, sometimes they strike a chord in people so sharply that it pisses them off to no end—some of our greatest stories are smuggled out of places where they are forbidden. The way I see it from my size 6 ½’s, that’s somethin’ special when a story causes a ruckus—oh, well, you can’t please everybody.

When writing fiction, pen to paper, from the first word onward, out there beyond the fringe of the known world is the place labeled “here, there be dragons!” It is a magical experience to make up stories—it is a gift that an author is fortunate to have, and a gift for the reader who is fortunate to receive it.

Having some knowledge of Indian mythology and culture might be to the reader’s advantage coming into this story, but it’s not a necessary requirement to read this book, it’s accessible language has an endearing quality that is as comfortable as a bedtime story for a child—magical and surreal—exotic and dream-like. It is comprised of a good many familiar elements, classic literary references to Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, Lord of the Rings, One Thousand and One Nights, it also reminded me of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a little bit. Then there is a Beatles song I Am the Walrus happily tucked into the mix with the characters the Eggheads and the Walrus who are the inventors of the Processes too Complicated to Explain (P2C2E)—and of course, Dr. Seuss.

It’s loads of fun, it’s priceless and timeless, I adore it.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

It was a morning of the latter summer-time; a morning of lingering dews, when the grass is never dry in the shade. Fuchsias and dahlias were laden till eleven o’clock with small drops and dashes of water, changing the colour of their sparkle at every movement of the air; and elsewhere hanging on twigs like small silver fruit. The treads of garden spiders appeared thick and polished—from page 91.

What a fine encapsulation of a summer morning to read on a cold winter night — and what a fantastic little book! I had to read something short and sweet before I tackle another big book, and I’m glad I found this one! It came highly recommended by a good friend of mine, so I ordered a copy and had recently added it to the tower of TBR books on my desk—one of the towers (plural that, I do have a lot of books to read!) Anyway—

A lovely, light-hearted story from a simpler time and place — little as it is, it is still chockfull of larger themes about life, love, society, morals, the passage of time, and progress. Young Dick Dewy and his fixation on Miss Fancy Day is the centerpiece attraction (and distraction) — oy, she’s special, ain’t she? (I do love the names Hardy chooses — he really puts a good deal of thought in names and the personality of the character he’s christening.) Fancy Day lives up to her name, she’s so vain, and although she acts as if vaguely aware of her power to stop men in their tracks, she’s more enamored with her clothes and hair than with the fellows once she’s gotten their attention—she becomes so rattled it’s laughable. Fancy and Dick don’t even have to kiss to become bothered, sharing a basin to wash their hands is quite steamy for the time. “Really, I hardly know which are my own hands and which are yours, they have got so mixed up together,” (Fancy).  This is as erotic as it’s going to get — so innocent in our time, but wickedly scandalous back then.

As for young Richard Dewy, “I’m afraid Dick’s a lost man.” His father says along the way. I feel bad for the poor lad who is smitten with her and root for him to win her over, but I also feared for him, I’d hate to see the poor fellow wounded by this darn damsel because of her flirty wiles and her father’s objection. (Naturally, if they went along nicely without drama, there wouldn’t be a story, right?) Looking over his shoulder, Dick notes how the married elders have become so blind to romance, as if realizing for the first time that they must’ve gone through the emotional upheaval of passion once upon a time — but to see them undemonstrative and so dreadfully practical seems to distress him — he can’t imagine himself being so dull should he marry Fancy Day.  Oy, he’s such a nice bloke, a hard-working, solid sort of fellow who was a fine catch for any lass to latch onto, they’d consider themselves lucky to have him—seriously, a fellow who walks a mile out of his way in the rain just to see her for a precious few minutes is a dear thing, to be sure! (My mother knew when my Fred was carrying the big bag of kitty litter home from the grocery store that it was “serious”.) Fellows don’t do such foolish things without a good reason — or perhaps, their good reason has left them, they’re just bewildered and can’t help it — a little of both, perhaps.

But it isn’t just about these two — it’s much more than that. I laughed a lot through this book — it’s natural sense of humor winking as the elders watch and nudge one another about the youthful courtship of Fancy and Dick, reminisce, and then go about their business. I adore Hardy and his language, his beautiful descriptions of his fictional Wessex, and the undeniable lamenting of the loss of the old ways of doing things at the hands of the young as their modern ideas and instruments emerge to turn out the old-fashioned traditions of the elders. Honestly, the Mellstock Quire sounded like a fun bunch, more in line with the community than the contemporary contraption of an organ; but as things go, the elders will eventually die off and the younger may not fill in the gaps — it is how it goes.

In spite of its place in time, Under the Greenwood Tree is timely and timeless as a good bit of literature should be. At my current age of 51, I have seen a good deal of change take place and have concerns that the younger generations coming up are not going to care about preserving the things that I hold dear — my work in an art collection especially makes me keenly aware of this. Nothing makes this awareness come home more than when your parents pass on and you are left to clear out their house — especially when it’s the house you grew up in where the relics of childhood remain and the relics of relatives long dead. The old photographs are stunning, their depiction of simple pleasures and quiet existence in a small town documented — the wonders they must have witnessed, the progress that influenced their lives. I can only imagine how appalled my grandparents and parents were of changes that happened during their time, as not all progress treats everyone equal; changes that made them feel less able to keep up and feeling brushed aside as the youthful growth of society ran rough-shod over the simpler times.

Just last weekend, I acquired a mink coat that belonged to my mother; her initials are monogramed on the lining. We never saw her wear it, nor did we know the thing existed until I opened the garment bag that contained it. I’m assuming that her mother and father bought it for her, I can’t imagine my father having that kind of money to buy it — and in spite of her beauty queen ambitions as a teenager, I don’t think it was her taste. For what it is, it’s beautiful, in perfect condition, it’s as if she didn’t wear it (I haven’t found pictures of her wearing it.) These days, it’s an object so vilified for what it is — as an animal lover, I have personal objections to the process that created it. It is a relic from another time.

Time changes everything.

Mom's mink coat, c. 1950

Monogram on lining

detail where collar meets shoulder

Just a reminder...books are powerful.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

“—if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.” Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

Books can have this effect on a reader too, they get into your head and under your skin—make you itch in a pleasant way and they haunt you—yup, I’m joining the five star pile for The Goldfinch, okay? Donna Tartt has produced three novels in thirty years, which doesn’t sound like much, but damn they are BIG ONES. Books (in general) are like Dr. Who’s Tardis, small on the outside, big as the outdoors on the inside, then there are Donna Tartt’s books—OMG they are ginormous on the inside—more than just another world or a construct—holy crap, they’re big gorgeous monsters! You approach them not to conquer, but to understand, appreciate, to identify with—this is literature—a human document. To offer up my gut reaction about it—I loved The Goldfinch, plain and simple. Why do I love it? That’s not so simple, but I’ll try to explain it.

I read the first fifty pages at bedtime that first night and my eyes were as wide open as peeled onions from thinking about it long after I turned out the lights. The following nights, I took it in smaller bites to savor it—yes, I could’ve easily blasted through it, gobbled it up gone and done in no time, but I didn’t because I needed my sleep. In a way, I was glad that the book slowed down after those first fifty pages, I went with the flow and enjoyed the view. Indeed, there is so much detail and so much going on, it would be too easy to blink and miss something, but I didn’t miss a thing.

As an artist and a museum worker, I enjoyed the book on the professional level as well as the writer/reader part of me. As a reader of Russian Literature, I found the references made to Theo’s friend, Boris, reading Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot were appropriate in spirit (yet another multilayered psychological and philosophical study of the human condition.) I was glad that I had read The Idiot fairly recently (2008) so it was still fresh enough for me to recall it (loved it.) I’ve read reviews that compare The Goldfinch to various Dickens novels (David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and The Old Curiosity Shop.) It is, but it isn’t, more isn’t than it is—it’s Donna Tartt writing Donna Tartt, of her time and place—Dickens makes a good literary lighthouse to point to, I guess.

One potential pothole I watched for was how she handled the technology of cell phones and the Internet, because the gadgets and the access changed so much from the time she first started writing the book to its publication. She was wise enough to keep the use of these devices forgivably ambiguous enough to make it work for the span of time during Theo’s journey. (It’s a small detail, and writers do fret about these details, trust me on this.)

The Goldfinch is different from her two previous works, The Secret History and The Little Friend (If I hear one more whiner crying that it's not like The Secret History, I'll scream. Of course not! Idgit.) The Goldfinch has a personality of its own— a sibling of the other two. Like children, the first-born will be different from the second, and the third—or the last in a long line of children forming a new generation, each one different as much as they are related. They may look alike or sound alike; they are clearly from the same parents because of the color of their eyes or the curl of their hair, short or tall, blah-blah-blah. I love The Goldfinch for what it is—a long, complicated tome, intense, tragic, brutal, and heartbreaking—an unhappy tale; it’s just how things are for Theo Decker. It has an unsettling atmosphere, so finding lighter moments became restful—these were the gems of forgetfulness that arrived to make things feel “okay” and “safe” for a little while (anyone who has lost a loved one, will relate to that temporary amnesia, trust me on that too.) Yet, the nagging anxiety was always within reach, hidden in a shopping bag, or a pillowcase taped to the back of the bed, or tucked away somewhere locked. The repetitive nature of the narrative, in my mind, shed light on the mental state of Theo as he attempted to cope—obsessive and compulsive, dangerously so—the book truly had very unpleasant moments. A young man whose life was forever altered in an instant, there is no being “normal” after that sort of experience—the psychological damage is done—the kid is broken, and becomes a broken adult wearing a veneer of normality; he’s always hiding something. I admire the work, the research, the years put into it. It has everything including the kitchen sink in it—it’s well-crafted and every word accounted for—it all mattered. Tightly wound, molded, modeled, constructed—polished, polished again, and then polished some more. (The Secret History as the “first born” possesses that magical raw beauty of being the first of its kind—The Goldfinch in comparison may have been “spoiled” with too much love, but turned out just fine in spite of it—it is a work by a mature author, that’s the difference.) It is gutsy and classic—not too many write like this anymore, dang, the depth of description at times was dense—lovely. At times, I was truly amazed that it was let through at such a stunning size and as verbally extravagant as Dostoyevsky (or Dickens), yet, I could not find reason to cut it to pieces. The digressive philosophical ending at first glance felt a bit off when I waded into it, but the water was temperate, I understood it as being an epilogue, returning to the beginning—Theo looking back from a safe distance of time to review and absorb—to purge it one more time. I found it satisfying.

Books like these don’t come around often enough, I took my time with this one—treating myself to a story that I have waited a very long time to read. I was not disappointed—only that it ended, and who knows when the next one will come into being…LJWR, 2/1/2014