Tuesday, October 18, 2011

7X7 Link Award!

I have been a very bad blogger lately.

The absent, not very engaged kind. I'm sorry about that.

Life just went wildly busy as the school year began. I am starting to realize I can't work full-time, commute 12 hours a week, raise 3 children, manage a farm and household (with help from Dan), belong to 2 writing groups, write/revise my 2 1/2 novels AND blog about it all too.

I'm afraid "Lesser Apricots" has proven easier to ditch than the herd of sheep. At least I didn't have to chase IT all over the yard today and back into the pasture. (grrr!)

But look!

Lisa over at the fabulous Kicked, Cornered and Bitten has sent an award my way. In this award, bloggers hold their own old posts up to the light-- maybe giving new readers a chance to check out the old gems in certain preordained categories.

So here goes:

Most Beautiful post: Perhaps "Beautiful" is not the right descriptor, but I really felt I said something kinda cool and important with "Work and the Work". It's about how my work with challenging teens relates to my work as a writer. Not exactly beautiful or even profound, but I think I said exactly what I meant to with that one.

Most Popular Post: A surprising one. "Unknowable" a post about a monkey who adopted a kitten (really) but really, there's more to it than that.

Monkey adopts Kitten: A long tailed macaque monkey adopted a kitten in Bali, Indonesia

Most Controversial Post: A One Hit Wonder post is the most controversial so far (What that says about me, the blog or my readers I just don't know...). I mistakenly labeled the group "Madness" as a one-hit wonder. ooops. I'm afraid I rely on faulty-- or Americo-centric-- sources.

Most Helpful Post: This is a two parter-- a summary of what I learned at The Muse and The Marketplace last spring (Part One/Part Two)

Coolest Post? Okay, I made this category up. But what about all those one hit wonders? Though they are neither helpful, beautiful or profound, I couldn't leave them off my list! So here they are post after post of flash-in-the-pan cool.

Most Surprisingly Successful: My review of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo". Hate to say it, but this was probably due to random Google searches.

Post that Didn't Get the Attention it Deserved: Going All Picasso about how great artists can break the rules. Perhaps even "telling" rather than "showing" when the story calls of it. No one had much to say about this. Perhaps you all just 100% agree?

And the Post that I am Most Proud of: Hmmm. Posts? Proud? It's all a blur. But I do like this one, about the mystery of the creative process, birth and "birth." I'm also pretty proud of my John Henry post (This one could be called the 'most controversial' too as the folk hero's story can be interpreted in all sorts of ways.)

I'm sending this award on to a few cool, newly discovered bloggers out there:

To Ashley at Ashely Elston

C Lee McKenzie at The Write Game

and Lea McFalls at Wanton Redhead Writing
Thanks again, Lisa. You gave me the bloggy push I needed.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Your Weekly One Hit Wonder!

Well, sort of weekly....

Anyway, its a good one today. "It's Raining Men" by the Weather Girls.

Not only is this 1984 hit one of those timeless tunes everybody (EVERYBODY!) knows, but this the best bad video ever! I especially love the trench coats.


On a whole other (less humorous) note: I love how this video reverses the traditional "average-looking male singer surrounded by beautiful, scantily clad women" dynamic. 1984 never looked so cutting edge-- well, not cutting edge exactly, but... interesting.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Random Book Review: "My Life as a Fake" by Peter Carey

Okay, I'll just say this straight off: I loved this book. It's a sort of creepy, semi-supernatural, literary mystery with roots in a historic Australian literary hoax. In short, a hard book to sum up, but one that is easy to appreciate.

Here's what Amazon says about it:

"In Melbourne in the 1950s, an arrogant young Australian poet named Christopher Chubb decides to teach his country a lesson about pretension and authenticity. Choosing as his target the trendiest of the literary magazines, he submits for publication the entire oeuvre of one Bob McCorkle, a working class poet of raw power and sexual frankness, conveniently dead at twenty-four and entirely the product of Chubb’s imagination. Not only does the magazine fall for the hoax, but the local authorities also sue its editor for publishing obscenity. At the trial someone uncannily resembling the faked photograph of the invented McCorkle leaps to his feet. At this moment a horrified Chubb is confronted by the malevolent being he has himself manufactured."

But this description is all backstory.

The "present" of the novel concerns Sarah Wode-Douglass, lover of poetry and editor of the "Modern Review" who, on a sort of whim, accompanies a lecherous old friend of her long-dead parents to Malaysia. There she finds a desperate Australian bicycle repairman reading obscure literature. The man shows her a scrap of poetry of such genius she is desperate to publish it. But in order to read the rest, she must bear witness to the bicycle repairman's strange story.

As you might have guessed by these two quite disparate descriptions, the plot of this novel is rather complicated and unconventional. The drama is almost entirely in the backstory with subplots (also involving backstory) and many interesting and not quite so interesting twists. Because of its complexity, the novel doesn't quite deliver that perfect ending I'd hoped for. It feels rushed, and much goes unexplained.

"My Life as a Fake" is ambitious beyond reason and yet, for the most part, it works. This is mostly due to Carey's beautiful prose. Although I know little about this part of the world, I felt the humid rain forest morning, the smells and narrow streets, the sense of alienation the characters seemed to cultivate.

In a way, this novel was similar to "His illegal Self" (which I reviewed a while back). But this novel touches on bigger themes: the meaning of art, identity, guilt and redemption among many other things. And, for me, it was a real page-turner.


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Your Much Delayed One-Hit Wonder

We in Western Mass are still working through the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. For such a "non event," Irene sure made a mess of the Hilltowns.

We were fine here on our slopey bit of land. But this is what Shelburne Falls looked like on Sunday:

Back in 1982, I thought Dexy's Midnight Runners' hit was "Come on Irene." Perfect, right?

Turns out, it's about some "Eileen" person. But it WAS a One-Hit-Wonder ...and a good one.

(To clarify, Dexys Midnight Runners did have several other hits in the UK. But in the US, this was it.)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Spike Driver's Blues

I'm back from the extended break of August. Thanks, everyone, for sticking with me through all that empty space. I do appreciate it, as what started out as a family vacation blogging break grew into a plain old blogging (and writing) break. A long one.

Partly, I just needed a little downtime with the kids. Partly, I needed to attend to work-work in preparation for the new school year. And partly, well, I've been a little detached from my novels lately.

You may recall my post about John Henry, the folk hero. Henry was born to drive steel and went down swinging when the team drill made him obsolete.

Mid-revisions, I felt quite a bit like Mr. Henry. I was in love with the practice of writing and with my work. I found value in it regardless of what the larger world might ultimately think of it-- whether it it was published or not.

And I do still feel that way.


But then, there are the "Spike Driver's Blues" kinds of days (or months!). Spike Driver's Blues, by Mississippi John Hurt, is sort of "the flipside" of John Henry, about a more sensible man who decides to turn in his hammer before it kills him and go back home.

This is the hammer that killed John Henry
But it won't kill me
No, it won't kill me
No, it won't kill me

Take this hammer and carry it to the captain
and tell him I'm gone
Won't you tell him I'm gone
Won't you tell him I'm gone

John Henry, he left his hammer
Laying inside the road
Laying inside the road
all covered in blood

John Henry, he left his hammer
All painted in red
All painted in red
All painted in red

It's a long way to East Colorado
Honey, that's my home
Honey, that's my home
Honey, that's my home

Take this hammer and carry it to the captain
and tell him I'm gone
Won't you tell him I'm gone
Won't you tell him I'm gone

Here's Mississippi John Hurt:

Writing--any art-- is a cyclical sort of enterprise. One day you're John Henry, the next, a lowly spike driver heading home.

What are your experiences with the your work?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Slight Blogging Break

As you might have noticed, I've been away. Vacation. Maine. Family Birthday. Lots of fun.

I thought I'd have to pry myself way from my keyboard, but it turns out, I am really enjoying the short break. I'll be back in a bit. Promise.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Your Weekly One Hit Wonder!

"Montego Bay" by Bobby Bloom

It's summertime, and this, friends, is a sunny little hit from 1970.


Random Book Review: "Still Alice" by Lisa Genova

Still Alice is the story of Alice Howland, a brilliant Harvard Psychology professor who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease as she enters middle age.

I read this book a few weeks ago, and to tell you the truth, it's taken me a while to frame my opinion of it.

On one hand, the snark in me railed against the flat dialogue and lackluster writing. At one point, I actually hollered "Please, just, please, don't go and describe the new snowfall as 'A true winter wonderland'!" I actually turned off the audiobook at "the baby's pudgy, blotchy, pink cheek," had my little temper tantrum and turned it back on. (Maybe this is not so much snark as snob. I'll admit it. As a developing writer, I work so hard to give each sentence its due. This kind of thing just.... grrr.)

Beyond this, the novel had a Lifetime Special sort of feel that also ticked me off. It bothered me that Alice was a brilliant, happily married person before the Alzheimer's. This seemed too pat, too expected. Why not write about a more complicated, interestingly shaded person? I griped.

But, here's the thing; Still Alice does what it does brilliantly.

As the novel progressed, and Alice's internal language begins to disintegrate, looping and repeating and leaching precision, Still Alice gave me the sort of intimate experience that makes this book totally worthwhile. I swear, my own internal thought process began to echo Alice's (!) I didn't just read about the terror at being lost in one's own house, I felt it.

I can't deny the simple power of my experience in reading-- and living-- this book. And so, despite its flaws, I sort of recommend it. Check it out... if you dare.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

So Now You Know

I have a somewhat obsessive personality, at least where writing is concerned. I’d like to say I’m that way about housework too, but for the last week or so, I’ve been kvetching about how my kitchen floor—all of them really—needing mopping in the worst way. But have I mopped? Um, nope. Do I plan to? Maybe today. We’ll see.

One of the obsessive writerly things I’m been doing is reading interviews from agents and writers. And there’s a lot of contrasting advice there, especially when it concerns the possible conflict between the “art” part of writing and the business part.

People say to write what you love, regardless of “market forces”, that if for example, you write a teenaged vampire story, you might find the trend has moved on to say, historical thrillers or something.

But then they also say that serious writers must know the markets and how their work fits into it, that they must consider this brand from the very first sentence.

Some lucky writers find their tastes dovetail nicely with the trends market. They love YA paranormal, write YA paranormal and look here, the market for YA paranormal is ginormous!

But my own reading tastes are all over the map. I like some fantasy (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell is one of my all-time favorites) and literary (Ditto with The Corrections, White Teeth, Lolita and Middlesex). I like some sci fi (The Sparrow rocked!) and some women’s fic, and historical too.

As a writer, I am all over the map too. When something—a character, a scene, an idea—grabs me, I go with it… whether it takes me to lit fic or sci fi or Toledo. I follow that aimless little muse (My actual muse is Julius Caesar, but that is a story best saved for some other time) and I don’t ever regret it.

But as a consequence, I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire (Wow! In this heat wave, this analogy feels more literal than planned!)

I’ve been struggling to settle down and focus on one of the projects on my back and front burners, my oven, toaster oven and campstove. So I thought, I’d list the projects for you and perhaps get a few nods in one direction or another. (Also, if you are a newer reader and wonder why the heck I have a gibbon on my header, a picture of a live oak draped in Spanish moss and keep posting all these durn One-Hit Wonders , now you know.)

So, kind readers, what do you think? Which of these projects seems a good place to put all this summer energy? Comments of any kind are soooo appreciated.

ORANGE LAKE (Literary Fiction) As children, Claudette and Leanne Taskett built houses of palmetto fronds and played at being “swamp girls” in the sulfur-smelling muck of North Florida’s Orange Lake, but as young adults they can’t hold a civil conversation. Twenty-one year old Claudette careens from one redneck boy to another. Leanne, determined to be her misfit family’s one success story is headed for college. After their father drowns and Claudette—despite all evidence to the contrary— claims responsibility and then disappears down the highway, Leanne must track down her sister, untangle the facts behind her father’s death and salvage what’s left of her tattered family. A southern sister story with a mystery at its heart.

STATUS: Complete with constant, slight tweaks

FAMILY, GENIUS, SPECIES (Quirky Literary Fiction) After a near-death experience in a motel bathtub, Rocker Roger "Zorro" Weitz, author of 1976's most forgettable One-Hit Wonder, stopped aging. Eternally 22, he’s slummed through almost three decades before a second brush with death prompts him to dedicate himself (and his prodigious, though now decades-old cool) to helping his girlfriend’s lonely, zoology-obsessed eleven year old find her own way in the world. Cool is beyond her, but the kid, a certified genius, has no trouble mastering the art of blackmail. Her quest to find and rescue a long-lost gibbon drags Zorro into theft, kidnapping, an actual car chase, and another, possibly permanent, brush with death. A rock-n-roll Peter Pan story with a touch of Pygmalion

STATUS: Complete. 3rd draft, undergoing substantial revision

FACE MOUNTAIN (Dystopian) Less than three generations into the collapse of civilization, people live in terror of The Bloom, a deadly fungus, and other new diseases. Mercenary "doctors" travel the remaining roads dispensing vaccines to those who can pay for them. Thompson Winter, a doctor, is on a mission to restore the last good place, the Face Mountain compound lost in a coup 10 years before. But Edward Whitingham, a mysteriously old man who remembers the long sunken cities of the east coast and doubts the power of The Bloom, is stranded with his family at the most tactical location. While trying to ascertain Whitingham’s questionable allegiances, Winter falls in love with the old man’s desperate young wife, Mary. With his life’s work in jeopardy, Winter must choose between love and honor in a world without much of either. FM is a bit of a sci-fi western, though based on an obscure Joseph Conrad novel.

STATUS: Working on first draft with—rare thing for this pantser-- a detailed outline!

ROADSIDE MEMORIALS (Literary Fiction/Magical Realism) Hillary Cohn, middle aged, between jobs and in the midst of an unwelcome divorce, witnesses the kidnapping of a strange baby with almost translucent skin and a touch that causes objects to briefly glow. What’s stranger, the woman Hillary assumes to be the child’s mother, denies it is hers. When Hill tracks the child, he is drawn into a strange world of religious zealots, shady detectives… and actual shades.

STATUS: Begun first draft, but still in planning stage.

FEINLAND (Literary Fiction/maybe Literary YA) Teenaged Ruth and her two brothers have grown up in isolation within the bounds of “Feinland”, their father Harry Fein’s “Jewish Amish” attempt at utopia in remote Northern New Hampshire. But when a troubled boy moves into a trailer in the field next door, stirring unexpected feelings in all three Fein children, Harry’s dictum to “protect and defend the family territory” turns deadly as Adam, the favorite and virtually non-verbal autistic eldest, takes this to the most literal end. FEINLAND is loosely based on the Yiddish story of “The Golem”

STATUS: Begun first draft, but still in planning stage.

ORCAS: (Literary/Women’s Fiction) Left alone with two young children during her biologist husband’s 4 month fieldwork, Joan grows desperate and heads across the east coast to surprise him. But along with his two specially trained moose turd-sniffing dogs, David has a hip young (female) research partner and no time for her. Stranded at his motel research base in the northwest tip of Newfoundland, Joan develops a dangerous obsession with the pod of Orcas sighted during a family whale watch and….?

Um, no clear plot yet, I’m still working out the details. This is a short story (at present), in early draft stage.

Whew! Now I'll get down to that mopping.

What do you think? Where should I invest my few writing hours?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Your (Long Overdue) One-Hit Wonder

Sorry I've been away. Summer is shaping up to be all about driving kids here there and everywhere, work and terrible crushing heat. It's all sort of fun though.

Thin Lizzie's "The Boys are Back in Town" is a great one. Doesn't it just scream long, hot summer.

Here are the guys in 1976

....and then some time later, much later

Friday, July 8, 2011

What John Henry Means to Me

John Henry is a folk character, the larger then life railroad man who challenged a steam drill to a race and won

... only to die of exhaustion in his moment of victory.

There are many ways to look at this story: John Henry is a low-skilled worker, fighting against automation on the job. John Henry (along with Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan) is one of the last larger-than life American heroes lost in the age of “progress”. You can look at his story through the prism of race, class, masculinity, history.

Leadbelly sang about him

and Woody Guthrie

Here's Mississippi Fred McDowell:

and Bruce Springsteen:

You can also look at John Henry from the writer's perspective. Here is a man who kept at it, who discovered what he loved, what he was born to do (heck, he was born with a hammer in his hand, after all) and he engaged to the fullest. He didn't just drive steel he WAS a steel driving man.

Did he succeed? Not exactly.

Even in the most hopeful of versions, it's understood that in the future, steam drills will supplant spike drivers. So, then, is John Henry's life an example of futility?

I don't think so.

John Henry died satisfied. He died doing what he loved. Here's one version of his death scene:

"They took his hammer and wrapped it in gold

And gave it to Julia Ann;

And the last word John Hardy said to her was

Julia, do the best you can."

"If I die a railroad man,

Go bury me under the tie,

So I can hear old Number Four,

As she goes rolling by."

As I slog through one revision after another, I find myself thinking about John Henry. And though I don't always succeed, I try to approach my work with this sort of despite-everything joy.

Here's a lovely song-- one of my true favorites (and not even a one hit wonder!) about John Henry.... well actually about Elvis, who as Gillian Welch implies is sort of a sad counter point, a man who lost his love for his work and died "in long decline."

It's about John Henry, too, if tangentially.

When it comes to work-- both the paid and the aspiring variety—I would rather go out like John Henry, a hammer in my hand, satisfaction rather than success as my life's measure.

What about you?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Your Weekly One Hit Wonder!


Now, Right Said Fred is a more than a one-hit-wonder in Britain (those people are Crrraaazy) but in the US, this is their one and only.

And what a good one it is, too. 1992 never looked so, well.... 1992.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Random Book Review: "What the Dead Know" by Laura Lippman

I came across this novel my accident. I'd seen Eleanor Lippman on an author panel at The "Muse and Marketplace" Conference and had it in mind to read at least something from every author that presented there. So when I saw this audiobook on the library’s scant shelves, I snatched it right up.

But I got the wrong Lippman.

This turned out to be a happy mistake as "What the Dead Know" is crime fiction, a genre I rarely, well-- never-- read and one my plot-challenged little self could learn quite a bit from.

Here's the novel's back of the book blurb:

"Thirty years ago two sisters disappeared from a shopping mall. Their bodies were never found and those familiar with the case have always been tortured by these questions: How do you kidnap two girls? Who—or what—could have lured the two sisters away from a busy mall on a Saturday afternoon without leaving behind a single clue or witness?

Now a clearly disoriented woman involved in a rush-hour hit-and-run claims to be the younger of the long-gone Bethany sisters. But her involuntary admission and subsequent attempt to stonewall investigators only deepens the mystery. Where has she been? Why has she waited so long to come forward? Could her abductor truly be a beloved Baltimore cop? There isn't a shred of evidence to support her story, and every lead she gives the police seems to be another dead end—a dying, incoherent man, a razed house, a missing grave, and a family that disintegrated long ago, torn apart not only by the crime but by the fissures the tragedy revealed in what appeared to be the perfect household.

In a story that moves back and forth across the decades, there is only one person who dares to be skeptical of a woman who wants to claim the identity of one Bethany sister without revealing the fate of the other. Will he be able to discover the truth?"

Intriguing, right?

Even after I realized I had the wrong Lippman, I wanted to read this book.

And I wasn't disappointed. The writing is lovely, clear and detailed. Though not "literary" in its exploration of character, motivation and memory, it did exactly what it needed to do …and with beauty and elegance.

Even more, this novel is a lesson in plot design. There are few details that aren't purposeful. Scenes are constructed; they don't just happen or grow organically in every which way. I was conveyed forward from one point to another with scarcely time to stop and reflect.

I mean, I wanted to KNOW who that darn woman was, what happened to those girls.

Also the setting was marvelous. Lippman’s Baltimore-- in the present and in the 1970's-- is loaded with authentic detail. No doubt she has a strong connection here. To me, Baltimore is the faceless megalopolis we drive through on our way to Florida each winter. But the city, with its quirks and every-changing storefronts is like a another character here.

That said, I didn't care much for most of the actual characters. The handsome male "lead" annoyed the heck out of me. The meek goody-two-shoes social worker and barracuda lawyer where pretty much how you'd expect them. The mystery woman (I won't reveal anything about her) was not particularly likable. But this hardly mattered.

The novel did just what it set out to-- build an intriguing mystery, force the reader to turn pages (or, in my case, drive extra slow to get to the end before I pulled into the driveway at the end of the day.)

Check this one out.

(Please excuse all these crazy font changes. I just can't seem to get Blogger to cooperate!)