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Seeking the Truth Behind the Image

February 13, 2017

A couple of months ago I wrote a post inspired by a quote from J. B. Priestley. That quote and others by him reminded me of The Image Men, a book I read many years ago. As I said the-image-menat the time, the book stuck with me and the quote created an itch. I wanted to visit my old friend again. So, off I went to the library. They didn’t have a copy. What! I guess I’d read it even longer ago than I thought. Is the book outdated? I had to know, so I poked around until I found a copy on Amazon.

I’ve re-read it now – all 677 pages of small print. It was a hard slog toward the end and, truth be told, I pretty much skimmed the last 50 pages or so. By that time I could anticipate what was coming and just wanted to get on with it. It’s a rare story that can justify that many words in today’s sound-bite world. However, all in all, I enjoyed the book. For one thing, Priestley is a pleasure to read. His word choices are clever, his social observations wickedly sly, and his sense of humor makes it all go down painlessly. Most of all, though, I enjoyed spending time with the delightfully quirky characters he used to tell his story. The book is satire and, like all good satire, frequently hit home. I often found myself laughing out loud, even though I knew the barbs were aimed at me.

As the title suggests, it’s about images and how superficial things influence our perceptions of people and events. All too often we form opinions based on small details without taking time to check for substance behind the style. How often have you heard someone say, “I always trust my first impression”? If you’re anything like me – very often. More importantly, how often do you judge people by the image they present?  This book pokes gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) fun at that tendency. The Image Men of the title are Professor Cosmo Saltana and Dr. Owen Ruby, a philosopher and a teacher of English Literature. Bored and down-on-their-luck, they found The Institute of Social Imagistics – and are amazed at its success.

As far as I know, The Institute of Social Imagistics doesn’t exist, but we do have that amorphous and ever-growing thing called Social Media. It’s not always easy to peel away the layers surrounding a core idea or to separate a person from the way they look, dress and speak. Human nature being what it is, this has probably always been true, but I think social media has multiplied the tendency. We are constantly bombarded by images and ideas that titillate our senses and we have the means to pass them along by a light tap on a key – a temptation that is hard to resist. Not that I’m against social media. I’d hardly be writing this blog if I were. However, I’m increasingly aware that many of my opinions are influenced by sources that have not been verified, which are, in fact, almost impossible to verify. So … shouldn’t somebody do something about this? If so, exactly who is that somebody? Much as I hate to admit it, the onus of verification is on me. The responsibility of being sure a statement is correct before passing it along or, to use the current term, sharing it, is mine. Easy to say. Hard to do. Maybe hard isn’t the right word. There’s a lack of instant gratification. Fact-checking takes time. Hitting “share” is quick and speed is the essence of social media. The lure of being the first of your circle to share a pithy statement or image is strong.

Back to the question I asked when I discovered that my trusty library didn’t have a copy of The Image Men: is this book, first published in 1968, outdated? I don’t think so. It seems to me that now, more than ever, we need to look behind images and search for truth.  How do we do this? How do we keep truth alive in the brave new world of social media? How do we stop rumors from becoming accepted as fact? Discipline? Restraint? Research? Perhaps a bit of all those?

The Good Part of 2016

January 23, 2017

The year just past was not the best for me. Things happened that I didn’t like, but that’s part of life – everyone’s life – and I know  I’m fortunate in that I have many more good than bad things in mine. One of the best of those good things is the pleasure of books.

Since I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve recapped each passing year by looking through my book journal and savoring the experiences that reading has brought to me. We’re almost through the first month of a new year and I haven’t done that yet, so …

princes-of-irelandThe first book I read in 2016 was The Princes of Ireland by Edward Rutherford, a sweeping saga of that country. To me, the most interesting aspect of this book was the way Rutherford moved though the centuries showing how various groups melted together to form the people we call Irish. We in the United States think of ourselves as a melting pot. We are, of course, but this book reminded me that all countries are, at least to some degree, melting pots. The difference in the United States is that our melting process is more recent in its inception. Every nation is composed of various groups that came for one reason or another and stayed. As the newcomers gradually, sometimes painfully, settled into their new homes, they retained some customs of their old culture and adopted some from the people they’d just joined, until the traditions merged, adding another layer to the existing culture, enriching it, making it more vital.

I started out to do a simple recap of a year of reading, but I seem to have gone off on a tangent. No apologies though. That’s the joy and value of books. They lead you down unexpected paths.

As I look through the titles in the journal, it seems to me that most of the books fall into the same category as the one that just led me astray. There’s an underlying theme of the value of diversity and being open to new ideas. That is certainly true of pearl-buck-maturethe works of Pearl S. Buck, a writer I spent quite a bit of time with in 2016.  Pearl Buck in China by Hilary Spurling, a biography, deepened my insight into the experiences that shaped Ms. Buck, both as a writer and a humanitarian. I also read (in some cases, re-read) several  books by Ms. Buck: The Good Earth, Wonderful Woman, Secrets of the Heart, The Exile (a biography of her mother), and Peony. The more I read her stories and learn about her life, the more I admire this woman. Sad things happened to her, things that could have turned her into a bitter, cynical person. Instead she became a humanitarian, creating a body of work and a foundation that carry on the ideals to which she devoted her life.

Some of my favorite books were written by people I know: Amish Born by C. K. Stein, Guilt Trip by Donna  Huston Murray,  A Blind Eye by Jane Gorman, divine-hotel-1Divine Hotel by Nicole Loughan, The Case Book of Emily Lawrence by KB Inglee, The King in the Stone by Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban, Hex, Death & Rock ‘N’ Roll (my award for best title) by E. F. Watkins, Shelby’s Ghost by Sarita Leone. Thinking about these, I am fascinated by the diversity  perf6.000x9.000.inddof my friends’ creations. Most of them live lives that, while not exactly like mine, are really not very different. Yet they came up with stories that I could never have written. Such is the power of the imagination.

Other books I enjoyed this year were: Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, White Collar Girl by Renee Rosen, Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Big Little Lies by Leanne Moriarty, The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks, Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult, All the Light We Cannot See by all-the-light-we-cannot-seeAnthony Doerr, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. OK enough. I’m not going to list every book I read in 2016, but I do want to mention how I ended my reading year: Bury Your Dead by Louise Perry. Ms. Perry is always a good choice. The world she creates is one I want to be in.

If there’s a common theme in these books, it is the value of diversity and the importance of the individual. We all have something unique to contribute. In fact, I can’t think of a single book I really like that doesn’t say this in one way or another.

How about you? Any favorites you’d like to share?

Editing

November 30, 2016

cervantes“No fathers or mothers think their own children ugly; and this self-deceit is yet stronger with respect to the offspring of the mind.” -Miguel de Cervantes

I’m reading through an almost ready manuscript before I hand it over to be edited. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read these pages. Every time I come to the end, I think the same thing: “I’ve finally gotten it right, but, just to be sure, I’ll put it aside and read it again in a week or two.”

Two weeks pass and I give it another try – and am appalled at the things I find. But that’s only half the truth. The other half agrees with Cervantes. I think my child is beautiful. But not perfect and I need to strive for perfection. Not possible, you say? I know that, of course, but still I have to try. That’s what writers do – a good thing, but we have to remember not to strive too hard. We have to recognize that some of the changes we make are just that – changes, not necessarily improvements.

Time has elapsed since we began our story and we’ve changed – no matter how short the period of time. Every day, things happen to us and to the world around us. Some are small, seemingly insignificant. Others are large, inescapably significant. All of them alter us, whether we realize it or not, and as we change, so do our stories.

The trick as a writer is to decide which is better: the younger, fresher version or the later, more thoughtful one. The thing is, we can never really be sure. At some point, we have to send our offspring of the mind into the world and hope we’ve made choices that make them beautiful to readers.

Thanksgiving Blessings – and a Hopeful Wish

November 23, 2016

I have so much for which to be thankful that I can’t begin to list everything here. I suspect the same is thanksgivingtrue for most of the people who will read this. I know some of you are going through difficult times, and to you, I send my heartfelt hope that they pass quickly and leave you wiser for having gone through them.

Blessings to all and a hopeful wish that next Thanksgiving will see fewer people on our planet living in hopeless situations. May those of us who are blessed turn our gratitude into empathy and work to eliminate the artificial barriers that separate us. May civility and understanding overcome hostility and division, and …

May all of you spend this holiday surrounded by people you love.

 

Priestly Thoughts

November 14, 2016

 “Much of writing might be described as mental pregnancy with successive difficult deliveries.” -J.B. Priestleyjbpriestley

When I came across the above quote, I couldn’t resist including it in a Birth of a Novel post. I discovered Priestley a number of years ago when I read The Image Men, the story of a couple of down-on-their-luck British professors who create a Foundation of Social Image and are astounded by its success. As I said, I read the book a long time ago, so I don’t remember much detail, but the story and the ideas it conveyed have stuck with me – ideas that seem to be more and more true each day in the age of social media. I think it’s safe to say Mr. Priestley was well ahead of his time. Though I loved The Image Men, I haven’t read any of his other fiction. I do have a copy of his Literature and Western Man that I picked up at a book sale. It’s a little intimidating to read straight through, but I keep it on my writing desk and browse through it from time to time. I always find something interesting. I like the way his mind works.

Here are a few of examples of his advice to writers:

“Perhaps it would be better not to be a writer, but if you must, then write.”

“Write as often as possible, not with the idea at once of getting into print, but as if you were learning an instrument.”

“If there is one thing left that I would like to do, it’s to write something really beautiful. And I could do it, you know. I could still do it.”

“Depending upon shock tactics is easy, whereas writing a good play is difficult. Pubic hair is no substitute for wit.” Had to laugh at this one – reminded me of a Maggie Smith line in Downton Abbey.

All these quotes contain sound advice, but my favorite is:

“If you are a genius, you’ll make your own rules, but if not – and the odds are against it – go to your desk no matter what your mood, face the icy challenge of the paper – write.”

That’s the one I turn to when I doubt my own ability and wonder if I should bother.

Happy reading (and writing), my friends.

A Behind-the-Scenes Look

November 6, 2016

Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban has allowed me to share a behind-the-scenes peek at the story told in The King in the Stone. It’s a scene not included in the book, but one I think you’ll enjoy.

The King in the Stonecarmens-locale

She takes a deep breath, and looks around. She is standing by the tomb of the king, but she has no recollection of leaving the camp or climbing the mountain. The last thing she remembers is Kelsey’s voice, so eerily clear through the phone even though she was six thousand miles away, telling her about Julián. A flash of lightning shatters the sky and, almost immediately, the deafening explosion of close thunder shakes the ground. Andrea looks up. Dark clouds, heavy with rain, have turned the day almost to night, shadowing the valley below and hiding the peaks beyond.

Andrea moans at the memory and, bent in two by the sudden pain the memory has brought, leans forward. Images of the man she has tried so hard to forget flash through her mind. Julián bleeding in her arms, an arrow through his chest. Julián by the broken arch telling her how much he loves her. Julián rejecting her, stealing the ring from her finger . . .  From the slab that covers the tomb, the lying figure of the king carved in the stone stares at her with unseeing eyes.

Another lightning flash streaks the sky and the earth trembles under her feet as thunder rolls once more over the mountains. Heavy drops fall on her face, washing away her tears.

Andrea forces her mind to reason. She has no claim over Julián. He broke their engagement and made it clear he didn’t want to be with her. That was the reason she left California these three weeks past. Whether he’s with Kelsey now or with somebody else should make no difference.

But it does. She can’t lie to herself. She’s hurting too much to pretend anymore. The truth is that moving to Spain has changed nothing. She has not forgotten Julián. His memory has haunted her dreams every night, stolen itself into every one of her waking thoughts.

Her hands clenched into fists, Andrea hits the stone, swearing at Kelsey for her betrayal. How could she? Kelsey is her cousin, her confidant. Kelsey knows how much she cares for Julián. How much she wants him back.
Not anymore. Knowing he doesn’t love her is one thing. Learning he is with Kelsey quite another. Now, at last, she will forget him.

She turns her back to the tomb, and starts toward the trail. But the rain has turned the soil to mud. Loosing her footing, she falls down.

Spitting water and dirt, Andrea scrambles to her feet. By the light of the next lightning flash, she sees the gap on the mountain, an open mouth calling to her, and dives through the sheets of water pouring from the angry sky toward the wall. The rope she remembers from the previous evening is still hanging down into the cave. She grabs it in her slippery hands and climbs down.

She has barely reached the ground­­—welcome, dry ground, firm under her feet—when the mountain shakes again. Andrea stumbles and, falling on her knees, raises her arms over her head, a weak protection against the gravel falling around her like solid rain.

When the noise finally stops and Andrea opens her eyes, the cave is in total darkness. Has she gone blind? she wonders as she fights back her fears. I’m not blind, she reassures herself. That’s absurd. But if she isn’t, why is it so dark?

She looks up, squinting her eyes. But it’s useless: no ray of light steals through the wall of rocks. The opening is gone. Of course, the thought breaks into her mind. The earthquake has provoked a slide and closed the entrance. A wave of panic washes over her as she realizes she’s on her own. No one will ever come looking for her. Why should they? She told no one where she was going when she left. She’s buried alive and this cave up in the mountains of this world that is not hers will be her grave.

Andrea screams, a name, a broken word, a feral cry for help that, as she fears, dies unheard against the cavern’s walls.

Want to know more? Here’s a link to the book: http://amzn.to/2aEhQ6M

Thanks, Carmen, for sharing this with us.

What then …

October 25, 2016

This poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge crossed my path recently. I’m not a poet, nor am I particularly adept at interpreting poetry. To quote that old cliche about art (any art), I just know when I like something – or when something touches me. And this little poem touches me. I love the way it crosses the line between dreams and reality.

What if you sleptcarmens-perfect-rose
And what if
In your sleep
You dreamed
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in your hand
Ah, what then?

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

I like the poem in its entirety. I’m intrigued by the possibilities inherent in a dream, but the words that pierce my heart are those in the last line: Ah,what then?  Those are probably the favorite words of all storytellers – and story listeners. Those are the words around which our dreams are woven and our stories are built.

So, happy dreams, my friends. May they be filled with strange and beautiful flowers.

By the way, the lovely flower photo was taken by my friend, Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban. Thanks, Carmen. As I’ve said before, you are a multi-talented woman.