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A Not So Lonely Path

February 24, 2018

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We writers often talk about what a lonely path we travel, but is it? Are we really alone with our keyboards and our blank screens? Well … yes … and no.

It’s true we spend a lot of time staring at a blank computer screen, but we have the company of the voices in our heads – voices that sometimes refuse to speak to us. That’s when we feel truly alone. Not just alone, but abandoned. It’s not that the voices have gone. We know they’re there, a knowledge that makes their silence ominous. Have we done something to offend them? A terrifying thought. Even more frightening: will they come back? “Yes,” we assure ourselves. “They will. They must!” For without them, we cannot write. Nothing can come from a vacuum.

Then, there are times when the voices speak, but they say something we don’t want to hear. Should we listen to them? Do we have a choice? I think not. There have been instances when I tried to ignore a character who told me I’d never do that!  Big mistake! Characters have a way of developing beyond their creator’s plan. They stretch the imagination in unexpected ways. Sometimes one of the voices in my head shouts: Oh, come on! Challenge me. Give me a chance to grow! The longer I write, the more I’ve come to understand that when I allow my characters to step out on their own, that’s what happens: they grow. And when they grow, I grow.

For me, the most delightful part of writing is when a character surprises me. I’m talking about those rare flashes of inspiration when a voice bypasses thought process and takes off on its own. I’ve learned not to argue. I let my fingers fly, not sure where the voice will lead, but eager to find out. Rare is the word I used to describe that sensation. And rare it is. But so satisfying. It’s that top-of-the-mountain feeling that makes the loneliness worthwhile.

Ironically, humans being by nature social creatures, we can’t wait to share what we’ve conceived in loneliness. With whom? A reader, of course. The prospect of someone reading our words is the ultimate fortress against loneliness.

 

 

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Happy Valentine’s Day

February 14, 2018

The internet today will be filled with images of hearts and flowers and chocolates.

Restaurants tonight will be filled with people celebrating with their special someone.

Children, shy and giggling, will be exchanging Valentines with their classmates. 

The poets among us will be striving to come up new ways to express the greatest of all emotions. 

I think maybe that’s my favorite part of Valentine’s Day – we celebrate our poets – those geniuses who know how to distill great thoughts into a few memorable words. In celebration of this special day and in honor of all who love, I’ll borrow a line from a poet:

“The best portion of a good man’s life is his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love.” William Wordsworth.

Could there be a more perfect reminder of what love really is? 

So … to everyone, I wish a day filled with love and kindness.

Moving On … What I’m Reading Now

February 8, 2018

Enough about last year’s books. The book I’m reading now is The Townsman by John Sedges. Don’t recognize the name? What if I said Pearl S. Buck? I’m pretty sure you recognize that name. Some of you may be surprised to hear that the two are one and the same. John Sedges is the name Ms. Buck used when she first began writing stories set in America.

In her foreword to American Triptych, a volume containing three books attributed to John Sedges, Ms. Buck explains that after spending time in America, she wanted to write stories set in this country, but felt she had been cast in a mold and known as someone who wrote only about China. In order to break out of that mold, she chose a pseudonym, picking a masculine name because, in her words “men have fewer handicaps in our society than women have, in writing as well as in other professions.” (My Sisters in Crime friends will nod when they read that.)

About the book: Up to now, I’d read only books by Pearl Buck that were set, if not in China, at least in an Asian country, so I wasn’t sure what to expect – except, of course, a good story, one with strong characters. She did not disappoint. Her characters are strong individuals and are recognizably human. Nor did the change of setting limit her descriptive power. The Townsman is set in Kansas, which in the minds of most Americans, is about as far from China as you can get.

Her impression of that setting:

“The sky was infinitely more important here than the earth. For the earth was unchanging. Nothing stopped the eye for mile upon mile of even green grass. The handful of houses that made a town were meaningless and passing. The sky was the pageant. The eye went to it again and again. Stars were of enormous size and shining color.”

willa cather - prairie

I grew up in a landscape filled with trees and will never forget the first time I drove across the vast, flat land in the middle of the country.  I love “The sky was the pageant.” So true. I remember feeling as if I were seeing the sky for the first time. Imagine the impression of a young Englishman, unwillingly transplanted from his home overlooking the Irish Sea, to this seemingly endless, mostly unsettled, land – or of his proper British mother, who was terrified savages would attack them and kill her children.

I won’t go into a lot of detail and spoil the plot for you, but will tell you that I found the story particularly interesting because this young man did not become a cowboy or move further west in search of gold or other adventure. Instead, he stayed put and helped to build a thriving community. When he discovered so few of the children could read or write, he founded a school, one that included girls, Native Americans, and children of recently freed slaves. It may not sound like much to us, but at that time, in that place, it was revolutionary. In some cases, the inclusion of girls was against the wishes of their fathers who were afraid educating their daughters would give them ideas and upset the balance of family life. (I’m imaging another nod here from my Sisters in Crime.)

I’m about half-way through the book now and am enjoying it immensely. I’m pleased that wherever Pearl S. Buck set her stories, she was consistent in her belief in the necessity of education and the importance of diversity.

In some ways, this story reminds me of another woman who wrote about life on the great prairie – Willa Cather. Both are well worth remembering and reading.

A Quick Look Back

January 11, 2018

At the beginning of a new year, I can never resist a look back over the year just past. One of the ways I do that is to review the books I read that year. Was 2017 a good year for BOAN booksbooks for me? Oh, yes! Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad year in that respect.

The first book I read in 2017 was The Image Men by J. B. Priestley. I posted a review of that here (Feb. 13, 2017) so I won’t go into details, but will reiterate how much I enjoyed re-visiting this old friend. Next up was The Question of the Missing Head by E. J. Copperman & Jeff Cohen. Don’t worry, I don’t intend to list every book I read in 2017, but this was an especially good one. The protagonist is a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome and the author handled the subject with a deft wit, creating a mystery that is engaging and puzzling, a character you will admire and respect. This was the first book I’d read by an author I’d been curious about for a while. Recommend.

Moving on: Stories from the Hearts of Harmony, compiled and edited by Cindy Louden,  is a collection of stories by individuals with special needs who participate in musical productions. To say it is inspiring doesn’t begin to cover it. Equally inspiring A Woman of Worthbook is A Woman of Worth, a memoir by Laura Mitchell Keene. Ms. Keene is an African American woman who lived through an ugly period of American history and relates her experience without bitterness, but also without sugarcoating the ugliness. Another book that takes a hard look at racial prejudice is small, great things by Jodi Picoult.

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester is about the making of the dictionary. As I writer, I love dictionaries, but had never thought about how complex it is to actually make one. I was fascinated and will never take these remarkable volumes for granted again. (Actually, I probably will, but not for a while.)

I re-read a couple of Agatha ChrisitiesThe Murder at the Vicarage and Murder on the Orient Express.  Another re-read was Pearl S. Buck’s Peony (an interesting look at the Jewish population in China). I also read Ms. Buck’s biography of her father, Fighting Angel. I’ve never read about a more complex person than he was. I defy anyone to invent a more complicated character. The book provided real insight Pearl Bucks’s life and her writing. Truth truly is stranger than fiction.

This could go on forever, but there are a few outstanding books I have to mention: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towels, The Street of a Thousand Blossoms by Gail Tsukiyama, The Snowchild by Eowyn Ivey, The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. You’ve probably heard of  all these books. If you haven’t read them, they are well worth your time. They could not be more different in subject matter or setting, but all offer insight into the human condition.

As usual, I read books by some of my friends: Classic Death by Beate Bouker, A minor Deception by Nupur Tusten, Dry Spell (Two Southern Shorts) by Ellis Vidler, The Sense of Death by Matty Darymple, Wrong Beach Island by Jane Kelly, The Last Heist by Polly Iyer. I enjoyed them all and love that I have friends who write in such a variety of styles and genres.

Forgive me, but I can’t resist mentioning my own latest release, An Uncertain Path. I don’t even know how many times I read that one. Sometimes I loved it; sometimes not so much.

I hope all of you had a great reading year in 2017 and an even more exciting, enlightening one in 2018.

Happy reading!

ALL IS CALM

December 22, 2017

All is CalmI set the last candle, swirled a little frosting around its base, and stepped back to inspect my handiwork. A tad lopsided. Otherwise, not too bad. A leaning tower of love. That’s what I’d call it. In my family, we like sentimental, hokey things. In that, we’re in agreement, if not much else.

My father is Timothy Connell, grandson of a proud rebel who left Derry in 1920, three short hops ahead of the Black and Tan; my mother, the former Naomi Herskovitz, is the child of Jews savvy enough to get out of Babi Yar six months before the arrival of the infamous killing squads.  So you can see why I treasure small points of agreement – and why parties including both sides of the family are not, for me, an everyday event.

“Sarah! The balloons are up.” David’s voice, from the basement rec room. “Come have a look.”

Doesn’t he know how busy I am?

“You’re going to be impressed.”

Doesn’t have a clue.

“Sarah?” Swift footsteps, then, “Here you are.”

“Where’d you expect me to be?”

“I was calling you.”

“I heard”

“Well?” He looked genuinely puzzled. “Something wrong?”

It was impossible not to respond to his innocence. “Nothing wrong,” I told him. “Just a lot to do. I want everything perfect.”

“Benny’ll thing it’s perfect – no matter what.”

Benny has Downs Syndrome. I guess that’s why I think of him as my little brother even though he’s two years older than I am and why I always try to make his birthday perfect. Falling on December 20, it would be easy to lose in the holiday madness of disparate celebrations, but we don’t let that happen – another area in which both sides of the family are united.

David put his arms around me and rested his chin on the top of my head. I leaned into him, trying to absorb his confidence. When the doorbell rang, he held me close for a brief moment before we moved apart. No need to answer the bell. We knew who would be first to arrive and that she would come on it.

“I came early to help,” Aunt Judith announced. She set a platter of latkes on the counter with her usual flourish, then turned a blush-enhanced cheek to be kissed. A former ballerina, her smallest action always seemed a statement, a statement that I found impossible to ignore. Aunt Judith is my mother’s twin, and one of the pillars of my life. “There’s more in the car,” she said, tilting her head gracefully in David’s direction.

He jumped to attention. “I’ll take care of it.”

“Be careful of the goose.”

“Aunt Judith! I told you not to. I made lasagna. Something everybody likes.” I looked at the large pans fresh from the oven, still bubbling, an aromatic compromise.

But my aunt is not by nature a compromiser.

I was saved from reprimand by the clattering appearance of my sons. Childless, Aunt Judith dotes on the young of each generation as they come along, and Daniel and Patrick were special favorites, a mixed blessing for them, since to be a favorite of Aunt Judith’s meant meeting her rigorous standards. “I love little boys,” she was fond of saying, only half kidding, “There’s so much room for improvement.”

Each boy, in turn, kissed Aunt Judith and stood tall for inspection, just as I had always done.

“Somebody get the door,” David called from the front porch.

Daniel opened the door for his father, and we all took a minute to admire what was surely the world’s largest goose, skin crisp and brown, glistening with fat, swelled with the chestnut and apple stuffing that nobody makes like Aunt Judith. David set it on the counter between my cake and the lasagna, where it rested, massive and proud. The little tower seemed to lean more, and the bubbles on the lasagna to deflate. Oh well, I told myself, it doesn’t matter. Anything that makes Benny feel important is good.

“I couldn’t carry everything,” David said, “Danny, why don’t you run get the bag out of the trunk.”

“Where should I put this stuff?” Danny asked when he came back with a bulging shopping bag. Aunt Judith turned to me and, with only the slightest lift of a dark, perfected-shaped eyebrow, asked where the presents should go.

“Basement. On the ping pong table.”

I watched David and the boys take the presents downstairs and took a couple of deep breaths.

“That’s right. Relax.” Aunt Judith put both arms around me. As always, I was awed by the strength that emanated from her diminutive form. “Stop worrying. Everything will be fine,” she said. “It always is.”

The commotion at the front door was a welcome distraction

My father pushed open the door and, convivial as always, sang out, “You can start the party now,” then stepped back to let Mom and Benny come in ahead of him before he added, “We brought the birthday boy.”

Seeing Dad and Benny together, it’s hard to believe they related at all – much less father and son. Dad is tall, straight-backed, has about him an air of go-to-hellish elegance. “Handsome as a Cossack,” is how Grandma Herskovitz used to describe him. Benny is stubby, hunched, and always seems to be trying to keep up.

Dad’s two widowed sisters drove up before he made it into the house. He went to help Aunt Meg out of the car and up the three steps, then came to gather me up in a bear hug. “How’s my princess?’ he asked, rubbing his face against mine.

I knew the exact instant he became aware of Aunt Judith’s presence. I felt his tight hug go slack and he stepped back at precisely the moment his sisters stepped forward – Sin Feiners closing rank.

I winced at the look in Aunt Judith’s eyes when she saw that Aunt Meg now needed a cane and that Aunt Betsy had put on weight. Please, I prayed silently and vaguely to the God who surely watched over both Connells and Herskovitzes.

“It’s been a while,” Aunt Judith said, her voice absolutely level, too polite.

“Too long,” Dad answered, though he must have known her comment had been directed to his sisters. Aunt Judith’s eyes narrowed. I held my breath. Neither of my other aunts spoke. They just stood there, flanking their brother, vigilant.

Then everyone started arriving at once, another aunt and uncle, cousins, spouses, kids. Of course, everyone brought food: a huge tureen of Russian vegetable soup, hearty enough for a main course; an whiskey cake, redolent of the degeneracy my mother had been warned against when she married into the Connell family; butter cookies decorated with blue sugar; tree-shaped cookies iced in green; Uncle Walter’s to-die-for rye bread; a sinfully-creamy potato casserole.

Greeting, kissing, admiring the food, everyone talked at once, creating a collective good will. Amid the jumble of voices, I heard Aunt Betsy ask David if he’d get the ham out of her car.

Not her too! “Aunt Betsy, I told you not to go to any trouble.”

“No trouble,” she said.  “It’s just a ham. Same old, same old.” She lowered her eyes with becoming modesty.

“Loaded with salt,” Aunt Judith said, just loud enough.

Aunt Meg looked ready to respond, but Aunt Betsy chimed in, “With all these hungry mouths to feed, I’m sure a ham won’t go to waste.”

Aunt Judith’s eyes flashed, but her lips remained curved in a smile.

Thank you, God, for favors, large and small.

One of the cousins asked, “Did you bring your guitar, Benny?”

“It’s in the car.”

“You going to serenade us later?”

“Yet bet.” Benny’s slightly slanted eyes squeezed shut in pleasure before he remembered his manners and added, “If you insist.” He loved playing for an audience, but Mom had taught him that he had to wait to be asked.

“We insist.” Herskovitz and Connell voices united.

David came in with Aunt Betsy’s ham, its surface studded with fragrant cloves nestled among delicate flowers fashioned from bits of pineapple and cherries, a mouth-watering work of art. It was worth of a moment of silent contemplation, but Aunt Judith’s wrinkled nose and the lineup of expectant faces reminded me to keep things moving along.

I sent Benny to get his guitar and took Aunt Meg’s arm to help her down the steps to the rec room. Her tentative shuffle almost broke my heart. It didn’t seem that long ago she had been helping me – demonstrating the fine art of the belly flop – shining tangles of red hair streaming behind her, running through the snow, throwing herself and the sled at the earth, gliding to a stop and looking up at me, laughing, daring me to follow.

Everyone pitched in to move the food downstairs. Aunt Judith composed her face and picked up the platter with the ham.

Cooperation. My heart surged with love. How could I have doubted these people? Flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone.

“Oops!”

I turned in time to see the ham slide off the platter, hit the floor and bounce down the steps – an obese blob, spewing a trial of clove-dark pellets, mingled with bright bits of red and yellow.

“I don’t know how I could be so clumsy!” Aunt Judith, who had never made a clumsy move in her life, said. Her mouth was arranged in a contrite, solemn line, but the look in her eyes was pleasure, pure and unadulterated, a mouse who’d just sprung the trap and stolen the cheese.

Aunt Betsy, the most ladylike of my aunts, glared at her the merest half second before she looked at me and said, “Don’t worry about it.”

I sent up a silent thank you that there was only one Aunt Judith.

A dramatic sweep of Aunt Meg’s cane cut short that prayer. Fat exploded from crisp brown skin as Aunt Judith’s goose left the table in a spinning trajectory, orbited by particles of bread crumbs, apples, chestnuts, and raisins.

Radiant innocence lighted Aunt Meg’s clear blue eyes as she placed the fat-glistened tip of her cane firmly on the floor, managing, just, to find a clear spot. “We’re none of us as graceful as we used to be,” she said, and smiled angelically at Aunt Judith.

I heard a quick intake of breath, then a barely-repressed chuckle – my mother and my father respectively – I knew without looking.

When Benny appeared, guitar in hand, his eyes went immediately to the greasy mess on the floor, then to our mother’s face. She signaled something to him in the secret language the two of them share. I didn’t know what Mom’s message told Benny, but I knew I would never forgive my aunts – and vowed that next year David and I would take Benny to a nice restaurant to celebrate his birthday among civilized people

I cleaned up enough to make the rec room usable and we all filled our plates and found places to sit: Dad, Aunt Meg, and Aunt Betsy on the west side of the basement with the Connell cousins, Mom and Aunt Judith on the east with the Herskovitz tribe. David and I sat with Benny between the two, hoping to keep the twain from meeting.

I guess it’s true that good food maketh good fellows because we made it through the meal without incident – also without much conversation, but, at this point, I counted that a blessing.

Benny opened his gifts to the appropriate oohs and ahs, and I breathed a little easier. We’d almost made it, but I knew his birthday celebration wouldn’t be complete if he didn’t get to sing. At least a song or two. Surely the aunts could tolerate each other that long.

“Ready to serenade us, Benny?” I asked.

No need to say more. “Any requests?” he said as he picked up the guitar.

We answered in chorus – different words, diverse tones, overlapping, braiding themselves into one sentiment: “Anything you like, Benny.”

I watched his face, shining and pure, as I listened to the familiar words:  How many nights … his stubby fingers caressed the strings, some instinct telling him that a minor key was needed to contrast the festive message  …’til we light the candles? He continued to sing, far beyond the one or two songs I had dared hope for him and no one seemed anxious, or even willing, to end our time together. Silent night … His voice was harsh, with a hint of a lisp, not pleasant, and yet, it was the voice that united and soothed and healed us. All is calm.

(For now.)

A Gift from A Writer

December 11, 2017

“You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.”  -Naguib Mahfouz, writer, Nobel laureate (11 Dec 1911-2006)

I subscribe to a site called Wordsmith and this quote came up this morning. It reminded me of a writer I admire and prompted me to re-post this from several years ago.

Many wonderful writers have taken me to exotic locales, but one who has been in my thoughts a great deal lately is Naguib Mahfouz. Thanks to this man, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, I feel a kinship with the people whose lives are very different from mine. They are more than the TV images of a street filled with an angry mob. I don’t mean to say that those images don’t tell a story in their own right, but rather that, having read Mahfouz’s Cairo trilogy, it’s easy for me to empathize with the individuals who make up the crowd.

The first book in the trilogy, Palace Walk, set in the period during and immediately following World War I, introduces us to the family of a successful merchant, el-Sayyed Ahmed Abd Gawad, his wife, Amina, their two daughters, and three sons. I found it both fascinating and frustrating to spend time with Amina as she waited for her husband to come home after an evening out drinking with his friends. Here’s how the book begins:

“She woke at midnight. …Habit woke her at this hour. It was an old habit she had developed when young and it had stayed with her as she matured. She had learned it along with the other rules of married life. She woke up at midnight to await her husband’s return from his evening’s entertainment. Then she would serve him until he went to sleep.”

Mahfouz goes on to describe Amina and her home, making the reader a silent companion as she goes out onto the balcony to watch for her husband.  We accompany her into the “closed cage formed by the wooden latticework” and stand beside her, watching her turn her face “right and left while she peeked out through the tiny, round openings of the latticework panels that protected her from being seen from the street.” When, finally, she hears “the tip of his walking stick strike the steps of the stairway, she held the lamp out over the banister to light his way.”

It would be hard to imagine a life and attitude more different from mine than Amina’s. Yet, due to the skill with which Mahfouz drew his setting, I vicariously live her life and respect her attitude, even if I only partially understand it.

Palace of Desire, the second book of the trilogy, takes place mostly in the 1920s and shows the effect of modern influences and political turmoil on the various family members. Kamal, the youngest son, goes to college and falls in love. He meets people whose ideas challenge the orderly world in which he grew up.  Sugar Street covers the period from roughly 1935 through the end of World War II. As in the Palace Walk, Mahfouz draws his setting with exquisite detail, so that I absorb the culture and feel a part of this household.

Over the  course of the three novels. I take vicarious part in the rapidly changing social and political climate of Egypt from World War I through the 1950s. I watch as the old ways disappear and a new world, seemingly without rules, takes its place, bringing unique challenges to each family member. Perhaps the most poignant for me was the plight of Amina. I turned the pages of the first book, longing for changes to occur that would give her some freedom, some control over her own destiny, only to realize that, after a lifetime of knowing exactly what was expected of her, freedom was a bewildering concept. Taken as a whole, the three books helped me understand a little better why change does not come easy in that part of the world (perhaps in any part of the world). Having been given a glimpse into the life of one Egyptian family, I look into individual faces of the crowds on the television screen and wonder where each member of that family would be in this situation.

As Mr. Mahfouz himself said, “Events at home, at work, in the street – these are the bases for a story.” These are the things that make up setting and give creditability to our characters and their actions.

Willa Cather – A Strong Woman

December 7, 2017

BIRTH OF A NOVEL

Willa CatherIn the summer of 2013 I set aside a month to immerse myself in the work of one writer and chose Willa Cather. It was a good choice. Note: this is a repeat of a post I wrote a little over a year ago, but since I’m now engaged in a similar reading experiment, I decided to re-visit and re-post my thoughts about this exceptional woman. If you’ve already read this and want to skip it this time, that’s okay – you’re excused – but I do hope you’ll come back.

Why was Ms. Cather a good choice? For me, reading is all about characters. The books that I love and go back to again and again are those with strong characters – people with whom I fall in love and cheer for, or sometimes hate and jeer at. Either way, these people real to me. After I…

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