Monday, December 31, 2012

Is It Really Time for This Again? 2012 in Review

I've always heard people say the years go faster as a person gets older, and wow, did this one fly past. There were some big events this year - I turned 50, my last living grandparent died, we had an exceedingly dry and hot summer, my son started his final year of high school, my daughter is now old enough to have a driver's permit. Between all that, I found time to read some things I enjoyed this year, including some things I wouldn't have expected to like.

Best Discoveries - Maybe this is the recency effect in action, but A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich would have to top my list this year. It was scholarly and yet created Martha Ballard as an unforgettable "character." Plus it hit several of my favorite buttons - women's history, gardening, and the drag of housework, among others.

Another discovery I enjoyed this year was an unpublished manuscript by the sister of a friend from church, about the struggle she and her siblings faced when their father began to be debilitated by dementia and they had to take control of his life. The story is dramatic and she told it well. I hope she has success in getting it published so the rest of you can read it someday.

Saddest Disappointment - When the biggest disappointment of the year was Abel's Island by William Steig, I guess it was a pretty good year of reading. That's not to say this is the worst book I read all year; I think I just had such high expectations for it that I felt unfulfilled after finishing it. I don't know what I expected....Abel to go home and reject all his "creature comforts" after a year of living in the wild?

Favorite Classic - I'm not sure if some of the things on my list that I consider "classics" would be considered so by other people, but fortunately, my favorite is undoubtedly a "classic" in everyone's book: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I say that even though I complained about the style that is part of what makes it a classic....

Favorite Love Story - It's hard for me to choose a favorite romance this year. Although the "telling" style of Pride and Prejudice occasionally got in the way (as far as I was concerned) of the love story, I was still won over by Mr. Darcy. But I think my favorite romantic moment came in Lisa Klein's Two Girls of Gettysburg; it was sweet in a young, first-love kind of way.

Favorite Historical Fiction - Ann Turnbull has another winner in this category! Seeking Eden taught me more about the history of the slave trade during the colonial period of this country than any of my history survey classes in high school or college. Not only did it give facts, but it also set those facts in a powerful emotional context, which is exactly what great historical fiction is best at doing, in my opinion.

Greatest Reading Accomplishment - I read four nonfiction books this year: A Midwife's Tale; His Excellency, George Washington by Joseph Ellis; The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum; and The Complete Guide to Successful Event Planning by Shannon Kilkenny. (Ok, that last one was for one of the classes I taught this fall, but hey, I read it, so I'm counting it!) That's not very many, I know, but I read nonfiction so very slowly that to have read as many as this feels like a big accomplishment. And I learned a great many interesting things!

Biggest Failure - I read about half of Savvy by Ingrid Law before I just decided to quit. I had seen a lot of good reviews, and my daughter liked it, but it annoyed me. And life is just too short -- those years roll past too quickly -- to read things that annoy you.

Favorite Re-Read - Hmmm. There were three things I re-read this year: The First Four Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Edge of Time by Loula Grace Erdman, and The Dark Moon and the Full, a one-act play by Joseph Hart. I enjoyed all three, so I can't really pick a "favorite." I will say that all three of them were different reading experiences for me this time than they were the first time. I'm a firm believer that although the words in a work may stay the same, what the reader brings to the work makes it different each time. Re-reading is not a waste of time.

Once is Enough (Books I Probably Won't Ever Read Again) - The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks tops this list. As part of my "market research" into what sells, I decided to check out something by Sparks, because I know he is a mega-bestselling author. My reaction? Decidedly underwhelmed. The story was ok in sort of a sappy way, but the style broke a lot of what I consider solid rules for good writing. I don't think I'll be seeking out any more of Sparks' novels. (See "Biggest Failure" above...)

Books I Thought Would Be Amazing But Were Just So-So - There are three books I would put on the "so-so" list this year: The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood, A Painted House by John Grisham, and O'Sullivan Stew by Hudson Talbot (a picture book). I was hoping Grisham's book would be good because I had read some of his other work and liked it. But it just didn't impress me much. I was really disappointed in O'Sullivan Stew; the pictures were very attractive (which is why I bought it) and it is an Irish folktale, which I thought would be cool. But it was rather predictable.

Books I Thought Wouldn't Be Much But Were Actually Good Stuff - I was pleasantly surprised by Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz. It's not my genre, so I didn't really have very high expectations for liking it, but I'm glad I read it. It didn't convert me to trade my historical fiction for science fiction, ha ha, but it wasn't a waste of my life (See "Biggest Failure" above).

Plans for Reading in the New Year - I am feeling a hunger for fiction, and lots of it! I never got around to reading Nancy Dane's final installment in her Civil War series (An Enduring Union), so I definitely want to read it this year.

Plans for Writing in the New Year - Honestly, I had hit a slump in my writing recently. I thought when finals were over, and the Christmas preparation was over, and I didn't yet have to be getting ready for next semester, that I would have plenty of time to write. But in the first few days after Christmas, I didn't write anything and just didn't feel like writing anything. It was more interesting to clean, believe it or not. Over the last few days, though, two people have out of the blue said they'd like to read my first book, which seems to have helped bring back my motivation. (Thank you! You know who you are!)

What I'd like to accomplish in the coming year would be to completely finish the revision on my second book and get it out to some beta readers. I would also like to start a first draft of a completely different story, with new characters and new things to research.

Maybe putting it in writing will hold me responsible for doing it!

Friday, December 28, 2012

What She Said

Another snippet from A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich:

Historians have written a great deal about field agriculture in early America but not enough about the intricate horticulture that belonged to women, the intense labor of cultivation and preservation that allowed one season to stretch almost to another.
One more reason I love this book.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Some Things Never Change

I've been reading A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and there have been several points at which I thought, "Oooh, I need to blog about that!" Today, that inclination and spare time coincided, so I'm hoping I'll remember some of the things I've found so meaningful as I've been reading.

I love this book. The first chapter was pretty deadly, but every one following has been very informative and engaging. What I like best about the book is Ulrich's ability to take the seemingly trivial entries in Ballard's diary and pull them together to give a picture of Ballard's life and, by extension, the lives of women during the late 18th and early 19th centuries on the American frontier (both when it was young and as it matured). As a trained rhetorician, I am dazzled by Ulrich's scholarship - the work she must have done to pull all this together is mind-boggling! As a writer, I am so grateful to have this resource that looks at the ordinary aspects of a woman's life. As a reader, I am touched by the way Ulrich brings Martha Ballard out of the obscurity of 200 years ago and creates her as a living, breathing human. I suppose that is one of the things that most affects me about this book - despite the 200-year time interval, Martha Ballard could be one of any number of women I know. Why, I may even become Martha Ballard some day!

At first, I was reading for the differences between life in 18th-century Maine and the 21st century. The first thing that really stood out to me was the chapter when Ulrich was writing about Martha's doctoring a number of people for the "canker rash." Several of those people died, despite Martha's best efforts. Martha also lost her first patient ever to childbed fever. Ulrich goes on to explain the "canker rash" was scarlet fever, caused by a variety of streptococcus bacteria that also caused the childbed (puerperal) fever. It dawned on me (don't laugh) that she was talking about what we so casually call "strep," that annoying little infection that gives sore throats. Now, I know there are still some serious consequences to streptococcus, especially the resistant strains, but for the most part, we aren't really afraid of strep anymore. We go to the doctor and get an antibiotic, and everything is fine. We certainly don't see epidemics of strep throat that kill 15 percent of the patients (which is what happened to Martha that summer). Our "victory" over streptococcus is relatively recent, though; one of the stories my mother tells of her childhood recounts a bout of scarlet fever that nearly killed her when she was very young (two or three years old). That would have been less than 70 years ago.

I also liked reading the section in which Ulrich contrasted the work Martha did as a midwife and the way the male doctors in town related to her. Eventually, as medicine became more "professional," the men who were doctors devalued the work the midwives did and pushed them to the side as "non-professional." This is another thread that is especially interesting to me as a student of rhetoric. The doctors were able to use rhetoric and influence to completely change the way the public viewed midwives, while simultaneously building up their own position as healers. Ulrich does a good job of showing how the services each type of healer provided were not necessarily equivalent; while the male doctors came and examined the patient and recommended treatment, Martha was much more hands-on. She would sit up with the patient through the night; if the patient died, she was usually involved in preparing the body for burial. The midwife was involved with the patient's life (and possibly death) in a way the "professional" doctor wasn't willing to be.

What has been most striking to me recently, though, is Martha's relationship with her family, particularly as she aged. Throughout the book, Ulrich quotes passages in which Martha laments how "fatigued" she is from her work. Of course we would expect her to be fatigued since she's getting up in the middle of the night to go off and help deliver a baby. But it seemed to me that Martha was much more likely to complain of fatigue when she was experiencing emotionally-upsetting events. One chapter discusses the reality of the proverb, "Man may work from sun to sun, but woman's work is never done." Martha seems to have had a "martyr" streak, which led her to do things for her husband while ignoring her own needs (and then complaining about no one noticing she needed something, ha ha). What's funny about it is I hear myself saying and thinking the same kinds of things today ("I never have time to do what I want because I'm always having to go to something for the husband or kids...."). It was sort of bittersweet to read that chapter. On the one hand, I can see Martha was playing the "martyr" card, but on the other, I know what was happening. She was taking care of everyone else, while everyone else was definitely taking her for granted. Poor Martha.

The sympathy I felt for her was even stronger after I finished another chapter this morning. Poor Martha was over 70 years old at this point. Her midwife career was dwindling, and her husband had been jailed for debt (because as tax collector, he hadn't collected all the taxes due for the town). Although she was still able to take care of herself fairly well, there were also ways in which she was dependent on her grown children - in getting firewood, for example. Yet her children were too busy with their own families to remember Martha as much as she needed (or wanted). Things were even worse when one of her sons and his family moved into her house. Then she was a sort of prisoner in her own way, staying in her room to avoid the large, noisy batch of grandchildren and the inevitable conflicts with her daughter-in-law. By the end of the chapter, Martha's husband had finally been released from jail (he spent more than a year in a semi-restrictive situation - he could move about most of the town during the day, but had to sleep at the jail), and her son and his family were moved into their own new house. But I still felt sorry for Martha, probably because of something I read on Facebook the other day. It was a poem that was supposedly written by an old man in a nursing home, basically saying, "You ignore me, but I used to have a life just like you do." Now, I don't know if that story is true, but the truth is, it could be. As people get older, the world rushes past them to belong to the younger generations, who are so preoccupied with their own lives that they don't often take much time to notice their parents and grandparents.

Maybe I'm super-sensitive to that theme because my son will be leaving home in the next few months to go to college, and I know the biggest part of my job as his parent will be over. I know grown people still need their parents, but he will never need us in the same way he once did ever again - the shift of the world's focus is starting. Oh, well. It's nothing new, as Martha's diary points out.

But it makes me think I should resolve to go visit my parents more in 2013!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Biology is Not Destiny - At Least in MY Story

Everyone in the family except me is heavily involved this week with the high school choir's musical production, which means long evenings of dress rehearsals, which means I get a couple of evenings this week with no supper responsibilities. Last night was the first of those, and while I'd like to say I was able to spend the evening writing, no such luck - I still have speeches to grade. As I was working on the speeches, I turned on the TV (mainly to keep me from going to sleep as I was grading, ha ha). After perusing the various channels, I settled on the Science Channel, on a program called, "The Science of Sex Appeal."

As a communication teacher, I find the research into human attraction fascinating. One of the sections of the program discussed what I'm going to call the "match hypothesis," which says people tend to choose mates who are within one point, up or down, of their own attractiveness rating. Thus, Brad Pitt ends up with Angelina Jolie, and those of us who are more ordinary-looking end up with other ordinary-looking people.

Of course, it's not quite that simple. People are attracted to potential mates for a variety of reasons, with most women apparently more attracted to men who appear to have status and stability (traits that make him a good candidate as a long-term father and protector). The program went on to discuss a number of other factors, such as a person's unique scent, that play into attraction. All in all, it was a very interesting program. (And yes, I did manage to grade a respectable number of speeches while still learning all this about attraction!)

Just because I'm not writing doesn't mean my story has been sent to its room with the door closed. I think about it all the time, and this morning it occurred to me that part of the fantasy-entertainment value of the story is that it turns the "match hypothesis" on its head. In the story, a girl of low social status who has been labeled as "homely" all her life is matched with a handsome guy whose family is relatively well-off. Originally, the girl goes along with the "match hypothesis," not seeing the guy as a potential mate. However, circumstances force them together, and one thread that runs through the story is that biology is NOT destiny - even if the "match hypothesis" says two people of different levels of physical attractiveness shouldn't be together, it can happen.

I'm not claiming to have invented this literary theme; gosh, it's probably at the heart of any number of stories throughout time (I'm too lazy to think of any at the moment, and too hurried - got to get ready for work). One thing I like about my story, though, is that it doesn't stop at that simple fantasy. In the story, it would appear that the girl has found herself a very suitable mate. After all, not only is he more attractive than she is, but he also has status and relative wealth, which according to the program, would make him a perfect choice. As the story develops, however, the status and wealth are steadily stripped away (and even the attractiveness is lessened - the poor guy ends up with a couple of scars). At one point in the story, she gets a choice as to whether she wants to keep this mate who has turned out to not be what was originally promised, who now is actually a risk because there's no guarantee he can give her any kind of stability and protection, at least in terms of physical possessions.

Well, of course she does keep him - I mean, this is a "sappy" romance, as my husband put it. And that actually leads me into one of the major themes for the second book, which I'm working on now when I'm not grading speeches or some such. That story is told from his viewpoint, and a big part of his struggle is to provide a stable home for his wife and the children their union produces.

Wow. I'm glad I stumbled on to that program. Even if my story is a sappy little fantasy romance, I'd like for it to also have some depth to it. Looking at it from the lens of this program, maybe there's something there worth thinking about, something more than "sap"!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Where Is This Going?

When I was a kid, my family liked to work jigsaw puzzles. We had several in boxes that were stored in a bedroom closet, including some that had come to us from my mother's parents. One of the puzzles they gave us didn't have a box, which meant there was no picture to guide the person who was working on the puzzle. Instead, all the pieces were in a plastic bag that had a handwritten description of the picture (I believe it was a landscape scene with a guy fishing). Actually, I never saw this puzzle because I don't remember that any of us ever tried to work it.

Lately, I've been thinking about that puzzle in a bag as I'm reading A Painted House by John Grisham. I'm almost finished with the book now, and I still find myself asking, "Where is this going?" I've even done my trademark move of peeking ahead in the story, and I still can't figure it out! It very much reminds me of the picture-less puzzle - there are many pieces, and some of them are colorful and interesting by themselves, but I can't see how those pieces are coming together into any kind of coherent picture.

For one thing, I don't get the title of the book. The narrator of the book is a 7-year-old boy named Luke, and he and his parents live in an unpainted farmhouse with his parental grandparents. However, the disabled son of the migrant hillbillies who come to pick cotton on the farm starts to paint the house. Why? I think I get it that a painted house symbolizes more genteel living, and I think I understand that Luke's mother (who grew up in a painted house) wants to escape farm living. But I really don't understand why the disabled boy started painting the house in the first place. He's a very underdeveloped character, anyway, and to put him in charge of the action that gives the title to the book just seems, I don't know - weird.

Another of the hillbillies' sons, Hank, is a terrible bully. I won't go into everything he does because I don't want to give away any spoilers. I will say he gets in a conflict with one of the Mexican workers who is also on the farm to pick cotton. That conflict does not end well, but what brings it to a head is really the last thing I would have expected. Again, it's just kind of weird. It feels like there was a missed opportunity - there were some situations that could have led to that final conflict in a more dramatic way (for example, the Mexican and the bully's sister have been romancing when they were supposed to be picking cotton!), but those don't seem to play any role.

And then there is the dirt-poor sharecropper family that has a whole passel of children, including a 15-year-old daughter who claims Luke's uncle is the father of her surprise baby. That storyline took up a significant chunk of the center of the book, but it has more or less faded into the background as the end of the book draws near.

Honestly, I feel like I've dumped out all the pieces of the puzzle and now have to figure out how they go together with nothing more than a brief description of what  the story is about to help me. It hasn't been unpleasant; John Grisham's writing style flows nicely, and the pace of the story clips along (except when he's describing the baseball games - ugh). But it's just puzzling to me. Maybe if I keep plugging along for these last few chapters, all the pieces will suddenly fit into place and I'll see the big picture.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

I Hate to Do This, But I Have to

In the past three days, I've had 30 or more spam comments about selling "cheap" prescription drugs on this blog. In an effort to stop that, I'm turning on the word verification for comments--at least for a while, until the spam-bot finds someone else to prey on. Sorry about that folks, I know it's a pain.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Practice What You Preach!

(This picture has nothing to do with the post; I just have a cute kitty!)

If you've read this blog very much, you know I am a big proponent of a "show, don't tell" style of fiction writing. That's what was at the heart of the complaint I had in the last post about Pride and Prejudice - at a crucial moment, Austen chose to tell us what was going on instead of letting us watch it happen. I like the "show, don't tell" style because it makes the reader a partner in what's going on. Instead of telling us someone said insulting things, let us hear the character saying the words, so we can say, "Gosh, that was insulting! I would be mad if I were Elizabeth."

Lest I be accused of being a literary hypocrite, I want to assure you I try very hard to incorporate "show, don't tell" into my own writing. Recently, I've been editing the first draft of my second novel, in preparation for self-publishing the first and having one ready as a followup. I wrote the draft nearly three years ago when I was on sabbatical from teaching, and one of the things that concerned me about it was the amount of "telling" that it used. The story is narrated (in first-person, of course) by the male main character from the first book. In trying to get the story down, I think I had him tell us everything rather than letting some of it develop by showing. So that's one of the main things I'm working on in this edit (along with trying to figure out how this story ends, ha ha).

I guess because I'm desperate for feedback, I've decided to use a couple of sections from my work to show the difference between the first draft and the second. In some cases, there's not as much difference as I thought there would be; in others, I hope I've improved the story.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Dumbing-down or Dressing-up?

As a high school senior, I was voted as "Most Intellectual" for the yearbook. I always had a sneaking suspicion people had a misinformed impression of my intellectual abilities that caused them to vote the way they did, and today I suppose I'm going to prove it, ha ha.

I just finished Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Now, I am not unaware of the immense popularity of this book, and in fact, I'm a little concerned I will bring down the fury of a devoted Janeite by the comments that are to follow. But so be it.  Here goes nothing!

While I enjoyed the book, and while I appreciate Austen's skill, I couldn't help wishing the book followed some of the rules of current fiction writing. I'm speaking from a strictly personal reader response - I think I could have felt even more engaged in the story had it had less telling and more showing. 

Without a doubt, Austen created some wonderful characters. Elizabeth is a heroine every reader can identify with, and Darcy is delightful as he moves from being a jerk to being the perfect guy. But I found myself feeling frustrated at times as I read their scenes together, especially when Austen chose to summarize what they were saying rather than letting them act it out. I'll compare a couple of scenes to illustrate what I mean.

The first is when Mr. Darcy makes his ill-fated proposal of marriage:

After a silence of several minutes he came towards her in an agitated manner, and thus began,
"In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."
Elizabeth's astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, colored, doubted, and was silent. This he considered sufficient encouragement, and the avowal of all that he felt and had long felt for her, immediately followed. He spoke well, but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed, and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority -- of its being a degradation -- of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt upon with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit."
Now, this is highly satisfying as a plot development - this man (this VERY handsome, VERY rich man) who has always been the picture of snobbery suddenly is proposing marriage to our saucy little heroine. But the way it is told is completely unsatisfying, to me at least. I want to know what, exactly, he said!!! What was this "avowal of all that he felt and had long felt for her"? But even more importantly, what is it he said as he "dwelt upon" "his sense of her inferiority"? Call me intellectually lazy if you must, but this seems to be a point in the story at which we as readers really need to hear Darcy speaking to get a sense of just who he is as a character.

Contrast that section with a section near the end of the book:

Elizabeth's spirits soon rising to playfulness again, she wanted Mr. Darcy to account for his having ever fallen in love with her.
"How could you begin?" said she. "I can comprehend your going on charmingly, when you had once made a beginning, but what could set you off in the first place?"
"I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun."
(skip a little here)
"What made you so shy of me, when you first called, and afterwards dined here? Why, especially, when you called, did you look as if you did not care about me?"
"Because you were grave and silent, and gave me no encouragement."
"But I was embarrassed."
"And so was I."
"You might have talked to me more when you came to dinner."
"A man who had felt less, might."
I love that chapter. The first part of it is a conversation between Elizabeth and Darcy, and the dialogue tells us a great deal about what their relationship is going to be. Elizabeth is teasing and impertinent; Darcy is serious and concise, but very steady and honest in his statements. I can know and love those characters! I just wish there had been more of that in the book. That's actually one of the few sections in which we see the two of them interacting without a heavy dose of Austen's narration telling us what's going on. I know, I know, I can't hold her to the writing style that's popular 200 years after she wrote the book. But, gosh, I would love to read Pride and Prejudice in today's style.

So, does that mean I want the classic to be "dumbed-down"? I'll admit, there were times when I had to think rather hard to understand just what Austen was saying (it would certainly be helpful, for example, if she had been a bit more specific with her pronoun-antecedent issues....). Is wishing I could read the story in a more modern, dialogue- and action-heavy style simple intellectual laziness on my part? I don't really think so (of course, I wouldn't, ha ha). I think it means we are reading the story in a different way. When I'm reading the second passage above, I'm still engaging intellectually in the story - but it's a different kind of engagement. Instead of trying to supply the missing dialogue, as in the first section (which I don't even know that I can do, since I'm no expert on the distinction between British social classes in the Regency period), I am making suppositions about the characters and their relationship, I'm predicting the kind of life they are going to have together, I'm putting together the pieces of the puzzle that was their history. All that's going on in my mind at the same time that I am engaging with the story emotionally and thrilling to their relationship. I don't see that as cheapening the story, I see that as fulfilling the story.

I guess my lot is cast. I just really prefer a more theatrical style of storytelling. Maybe that does make me less intellectual. Sorry, class of '80!

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Power of Perseverance, The Beauty of Hope

This was a really difficult summer. It was very hot, with many days over 100 degrees, and very dry, with few rain showers from April to August. To add to the misery of drought, we had a succession of pests that ravaged our garden - grasshoppers, blister beetles, tomato horn worms, hungry deer who finally braved coming into the yard and jumping over the garden fence.

All that seems to have come to an end in August. The temperatures cooled significantly, and hurricane Isaac gave us about two inches of nice, slow, soaking rain. There have also been some other rainy days since then.

Although it was a hard garden year, we did have a few decent crops early on (sweet corn and tomatoes), thanks to my husband's extravagant watering (before the ban on outdoor water use). By the time the purple hull peas would have been producing a crop, the grasshoppers were eating the pea pods as fast as the plants could produce them, and we could no longer water the garden. We gave up on the peas, as well as the young sweet potato slips I had been nurturing along with the water left over from canning tomatoes, the okra we planted one day when the sky teased us with what looked like rain clouds, and the collard greens with their bare stems and sad-looking leaves. We didn't plow them under; we just ignored them.

That was the right thing to do! Because with the return of the rain, all of those plants have put on new growth.

By picking the few peas that were ready, shelling them and keeping them in the refrigerator until there were enough for a meal, we got to have fresh southern peas for supper one night, along with a mighty tasty batch of sauteed collard greens. The sweet potatoes are beginning to cover the ground, just as sweet potatoes should. There's bound to be something under the plants. And the okra is finally knee-high and has a few blooms. Maybe we'll get enough to fry some one evening -- even if everyone gets only a mouthful.

I'm truly grateful for every small thing we get from this second-chance garden, and it serves as a very clear lesson in the value of hanging in there.

I was so inspired by these sturdy plants that I decided to put out a few cool-weather crops. So I've planted broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, and lettuce. I also planted a few green peas along the one fence panel we left in the garden to support the cucumber (which died pretty quickly). The peas came up well, and they are about 8-10 inches tall now.

Will they have time to produce any peas before the frost comes? I don't know. But just the sight of those fresh, tender green plants fills me with hope (especially the little cabbages, for some reason - I don't particularly like cabbage, but these are really kind of cute). What I've learned from the collard greens and the okra is, don't give up. All these crops are supposed to be able to stand some cool weather and even some frost. So maybe I will have a nice bowl full of green peas to put on the table at Thanksgiving!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

People Who Read Are Happier....

At least that's what I heard on the radio news the other day. When I decided to search for more information on the study, all I found were references to one that appears to have been done in 2008, but I thought the story on the news made it sound like the research was more recent than that. Anyway, the point was that there is a stronger correlation between being happy and reading than between watching TV and being happy. Apparently, this is true even if the book one is reading is a sad story. The radio story speculated that one reason might be that when a person is reading, he/she forms interpersonal relationships with the characters.

I don't know if that's true; after all, there have been some TV shows I watched faithfully in the past simply because I liked the characters so much. If there is any truth to this reading = happiness idea (as I tell students in Research Methods class, correlation is NOT causation), I think it is more likely to be because our brains are more deeply involved when we are reading. The effort involved is probably what makes us feel good, sort of like the feeling of well-being that comes along with the physical fatigue of working out.

So maybe the conclusion of this study is true and maybe it's not. But I would encourage everyone to test it on your own. Turn off Honey Boo Boo and pick up a novel. Keep that up for six months, and then tell me - are you happy?

Friday, September 7, 2012

An Image That's Going to Stick in My Brain

I finished Odd Thomas this morning, which is the main reason I was very nearly late for my first class.  Yesterday I had to take the car in for some service, and I took the book along with me to read while I waited. (Ah, the luxury of being able to just sit and read! I love the third week of class, when there are no papers to grade yet, and students are doing their first, ungraded speech, which means there are no lessons to prepare.) Anyway, I got far enough into the story during that wait that it caught hold of me and I just HAD to finish it. For a while last night, I considered staying up and reading until I was done. I haven't done that since I read Of Human Bondage back when I was single and it didn't matter how long the light was on. But I'm older now and don't operate as well on little sleep. So I finished this morning.

I'm not sure what I think about it. On the one hand, the plot was obviously exciting enough to suck me in and hold me. Odd himself was an interesting, compelling, and sympathetic character. On the other hand, the book, like Little Ozzie, was about 100 pages overweight. Honestly, when Odd started talking about his aunt Cymry, I thought, "what does this have to do with anything?" Sure enough, the answer is "nothing." (I assume maybe since Koontz wrote a series about Odd that Cymry may show up in a later book.) That's one thing that I've noticed about regular, "adult" books since I've been reading so many young adult novels - adult books tend to meander around with a bunch of irrelevant stuff in them; young adult books tend to stick to the point.

While Odd was a fully-developed character, many of the other characters, especially secondary characters, were stereotypes, in my opinion. The blind, black DJ...the Asian college professor...the "heart of gold" prostitute...the sassy card shark of a grandmother...I think I've seen them somewhere before. Other things didn't pass the "reality" test for me, either. [SPOILER!] Could two guys with the type of past the villains had actually pass the vetting process to get on a police force? Even if they were very discreet about their satanic beliefs, I would think something would show up on the radar.

For all that, though, there is something I'm going to take away from this book. Throughout the book, there are these shady creatures called bodachs that cluster around scenes of violence and real or potential death.  Odd and his fiancee Stormy disagree on what bodachs are. Stormy believes they are demons from hell. Odd says,
Perhaps the violence that sweeps our world daily into greater darkness has led to a future so brutal, so corrupt, that our twisted descendants return to watch us suffer, charmed by festivals of blood...the bodachs may be the shape of their deformed and diseased souls.
I'm going to take what Odd said and put a little Greta twist on it. These "deformed and diseased souls" wouldn't have to come from the future. Maybe there is something of that in us now. Here's one of Odd's descriptions of the bodachs during the climax of the story:
"...I saw hundreds upon hundreds of bodachs gathered along the balustrade above, peering down into the open atrium. Pressed one against the other, excited, eager, twitching and swaying, squirming like agitated spiders."
For some reason, that description brought to my mind the fascination with news reports of events like the shooting in Colorado this past summer, or even reality TV shows where one of the mainstays is conflict between contestants. Maybe we don't congregate at the actual site, squirming and swaying, but the fact that so many of us watch the coverage seems eerily similar to the behavior of the bodach. Sometimes we seem to be fascinated and feeding on the misery and quarreling the same way the bodachs fed on violence and anticipation of death.

In my last post about Odd Thomas, I called it science fiction, and that was wrong. I guess it's more of a paranormal thriller. Actually, I think the whole part about the black room could have been left out, especially since Koontz didn't really do anything else with it after that one section. I don't think it was necessary to try to show the bodachs coming from hell or a time travel. I think it would have been perfectly acceptable in the paranormal genre to have the bodachs be spirits that come from us - our worse natures, so to speak.

But...the story belongs to Koontz, not me. If he wants the bodachs to be twisted souls traveling from the future, I guess I can buy into it. Unfortunately, now that squirming mass of bodachs has joined the cocktail party in my head--and I'm sure it's there to stay.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

You Are What You....Read?

We have a new preacher at our church. He's from a different state, and not related to anyone in our congregation, so he's sort of an undiscovered country, so to speak. A couple of Sundays ago after services, several of us went out to eat, and I happened to end up sitting next to the  the new preacher. In the course of the conversation, I discovered that he used to have a book review blog (he talked about it in the past tense, so I think he may not be writing it anymore). So I asked about some of his favorite authors, and he mentioned Dean Koontz. I'm open to discovering authors whose work I've never read before, so I asked for a suggestion of a Koontz book I could start with. After some consideration, the preacher suggested Odd Thomas and even brought the book to me from his personal library a few days later.

I'm about a quarter of the way through Odd Thomas now. It's not really my type of book, but it's not the worst thing I've read, either. There are a number of things about the writing style that bug me, but I can live with it - no need to always be so critical, right? After last night's reading, however, I found myself wondering, what is it about this book that appealed to the new preacher?

Let me establish first that I'm not at all saying the preacher should be reading only "clean," uplifiting, religious literature. Let me also note that while there has been some innuendo thus far, that's not what caused me to ask that question. In the section I read last night, Odd had broken into the house of a man  he suspects of being about to perpetrate some great evil in town. In the course of looking around the house, he found a room that seems to be some kind of portal to a different dimension. The room is utterly dark and cold, and after he has stepped into the room, Odd sees himself silhouetted in the doorway. When he tries to go back, he's thrown out of the room, back in time to where he was before he discovered the room.

Since I don't read much science fiction, I don't really have a concept of what's going on in that room. But I do get a feeling there's going to be some kind of philosophical/psychological dimension to it, especially since one of the qualities that makes Odd odd is that he can communicate with dead people. And that brings me back to the preacher. What is it about the book that appeals to him? The action or suspense? There's going to be some, I can just tell. The quirkiness of Odd and his situation? Or is it something about this interplay between the "known" world and the "unknown" world of death and mystery?

I think the type of story a person prefers does say something about the person. For example, I know it's no accident that I like stories that are hopeful, in which things work out for the characters even if things don't work out. That's why I was disappointed in Suzanne Collins' Mockingjay; even though Katniss ends up living what looks like a good life on the surface, she feels emotionally numb and just seems to have no hope at the end of the story.

Is it that we seek out stories that confirm our way of looking at the world? Or do we impose our own mental lens on a story so that we see in it what we are looking for? I have a bit of a suspicion that as I go on reading Odd Thomas, my own worldview is going to shape what I see as I read.

Once I'm finished with the book, I hope to get to have a conversation about it with the preacher and to ask him what he saw in it. I suspect it will be an interesting conversation, judging by the level of thoughtfulness and study that are evident in his sermons so far.

One other thought: One thing that is detracting from my enjoyment as I read is my constant anticipation of the "something bad" that is going to happen in the book, ha ha. I was more than a bit upset with Odd for breaking into that house - doesn't he know it's dangerous to go into the lair of a being so obviously evil??!!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sometimes History Just Gets in the Way of a Good Story!

I'm working (very infrequently) on my second book. This morning while I was walking, I plotted out the events of the new second chapter (I decided to add some stuff at the beginning of my original draft.) A really pivotal element in what I plotted was the store owned by Walter Webber in Cherokee country in early nineteenth century Arkansas.

Tonight I finally sat down to do a little writing after finishing all my chores (although I really should be getting a sheet ready for the first day of my speech classes tomorrow). As a warmup to help me get in the necessary mindset, I searched for Walter Webber and his store on Google. And I ran head-first into a writing problem. Here's what was published in the Arkansas Gazette on March 9, 1824, about six weeks before the events of my story:

Major Webber’s Fire Loss Estimated in the Thousands
We regret to learn that the store of Major Walter Webber, in the Cherokee Nation, was destroyed by fire two or three weeks since, together with all its contents. Major Webber is a Cherokee Chief, and has amassed considerable wealth by his industry and enterprise (sic); and his loss by this calamity, we understand, is estimated at not less than ten thousand dollars.

There's no store for my characters to go to. So now instead of writing, I have to figure a way out of this hole.

I can hear people saying, "Oh, who cares? 99.9 percent of the people who read your book have never even heard of Walter Webber, much less his store." But that's not good enough - I want things to be right, even if this is a fictional story.

(Sigh. I guess I'll just go to bed. Maybe I'll dream a way out of this hole.)

Monday, August 20, 2012

My Favorite Woman in History Is.....

That was the prompt posted on Twitter a couple of weeks ago by The History Channel. Probably because I was immersed in reading Loula Grace Erdman's The Edge of Time at that point, my immediate response was, "I don't know her name."

What I meant by that is that I most admire the women who were like the ones in The Edge of Time,  the wives and mothers who helped to settle the frontier. The book focuses on the story of one woman, Bethany Cameron, a young wife who came from a civilized town in Missouri to settle a claim in the Texas Panhandle with her husband. But we meet other types of women on the frontier, as well, through Bethany's interaction with them.

There's Eva Newsome, who can't stand the Western frontier. Like Bethany, she came from a town, but unlike Bethany, she could never reconcile herself to the rough life of a frontier woman. There's Lizzie Dillon, who is the archetypal pioneer woman, always moving with her husband on the leading edge of the surge of settlers. And finally, there's Millie Finch, who is small and afraid but tries not to be. I liked the way Erdman's story incorporates all these women. Sometimes I think we tend to paint all pioneer women with the same brush and to forget there would have been many different kinds of reactions to the hardships they faced, not just brave and strong responses.

While sometimes it goes a little overboard with its metaphors (in my opinion), The Edge of Time does well in reminding us of what those hardships were. The most overwhelming one Bethany faces is loneliness. I hadn't really thought about it, but being a woman on the frontier would be a lonely thing, especially in the West, where farms and ranches covered a lot of territory. A woman living on a claim wouldn't have many opportunities to socialize with or even see other women. Most of her days would be spent with no company other than that of her husband and children, if she had children yet. For some women (like Eva Newsome), that would be a nearly insurmountable challenge. I can see how it would be easier to bear up under the other hardships like drought or having to live in a dugout if you had someone you could commiserate with.

So, yes, Madame Curie and Queen Elizabeth I and Susan B. Anthony were all awesome women in history. But I still really admire those women whose names we'll never hear in a history class. If there had been too many Eva Newsomes and not enough Bethany Camerons, this country's story would be very different.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Higher Type of "Right"

Seeking Eden was on my mind this morning. I had written a post about it earlier this summer, but that post was all about me and not about the book (shame on me). The book deserves to have its own post. 

(There will probably be spoilers below...)

I once wrote a post about another of Ann Turnbull's books, saying Alice in Love and War should be required reading for teen girls because it shows the consequences of falling for the first guy that comes along. Well, Turnbull has done it again - Seeking Eden should be required reading for teens, both boys and girls, because it says important things about doing what's "right." It's kind of like that book about raising teens' expectations for themselves (Do Hard Things, by Alex and Brett Harris), but in a narrative, which I think makes it more effective. Sort of a "stealth" lesson, ha ha!  

Seeking Eden is the last book in Turnbull's Quaker trilogy. The two earlier books, No Shame, No Fear, and Forged in the Fire, dealt with important issues, but the main focus of those two books was the relationship between Susanna and Will. I guess I expected Seeking Eden to be another love story with history as a backdrop; there is a romantic relationship at the heart of the story, but it seems to me to be secondary to the historical and social aspects. What takes center stage in this story is Josiah's journey of conscience.

Josiah starts out as a rebellious son who rejects everything about his father (Will, the "star" of Forged in the Fire), but it didn't take me as a reader long to realize Josiah's really a chip off the old block, so to speak--an honest young man struggling to find the right thing to do. For Will, the struggle was to maintain his integrity in the face of persecution for his faith as a Quaker; for Josiah, the struggle is to maintain his integrity when others around him--who share his religious faith--are accepting and even participating in the terrible institution of slavery. Josiah is faced with a situation in which he can either turn away and avoid conflict, or act to support the ideals of his faith and suffer the consequences.

Specifically, Josiah is apprenticed to a Quaker merchant who occasionally deals in the slave trade (which wasn't illegal in the early colonial period). Turnbull lets us see through Josiah's eyes and through the parallel story of Topka (a young slave) the inhumanity of the slaves' conditions (a perfect example of the value of showing vs. telling, btw). When Josiah's master brings Topka and his girlfriend back to Philadelphia and sells them to separate owners, Josiah is faced with a real dilemma: should he do the "right" thing by maintaining his apprentice contract and obeying his master, even though it means Topka will be separated from the one he loves, just as Josiah loves Kate, OR should he do the "right" thing by allowing Topka to escape, so there is at least a hope that Topka can reunite with his love and escape to freedom?

In my PR class, we talk about ethical dilemmas, and the textbook we use defines a "dilemma" as a situation in which there are definitely, unavoidably, going to be some undesired consequences. I like the way Turnbull shows Josiah struggling with the potential consequences, and I like even more the way she shows his thinking once he knows what he will do. I like Josiah's response to the consequences he faces; he doesn't try to wiggle out of them or seek an exception. (OK, here's the big spoiler...) He chooses to follow the higher version of "right," the one that stays true to the principles of God's word and affirms the humanity of the slave. What a guy of integrity. It's a powerful story.

Teens face so many situations in our society in which there aren't going to be easy answers. I think about the political elections coming up here in the US, I think of the random violence of the shootings in public places, I think of the overwhelming issues of poverty and quality of education and (put your favorite social issue here). They are going to face situations in which there will be competing versions of what is "right." How are they going to respond? I know reading a single novel can't replace a lifetime of experiences that help build integrity, but at least it's a starting place. 

If you want to read this book or to encourage teens in your life to read it, it's not going to be easy in the US--the book isn't easily available here (you can order it through third-party sellers on Amazon). I suggest asking libraries to order it or suggesting it to English teachers; they can order it through . Or contact Candlewick Publishing and demand they ask them nicely to pick it up for their young adult fiction list!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

I'm Still Here!

I realized it's been a while since I posted anything. Things have just been so, so busy! My husband started his pre-school marching band practices this week, which means the start of school is coming up very quickly.

Tonight my daughter came into the kitchen while I was washing dishes and told me she's getting ready to read Julie of the Wolves. I suggested that she sit down and make a list of what she's read this summer so she can use some of those books for her reading requirements this year. So far, she's read 14 books this summer. That means she's completed nearly all of her reading requirements for the whole first semester before school even starts. Of course, she hasn't done reading in some of the right categories; as usual, she hasn't done her historical fiction. Oh, how that hurts! ha ha

I'll say one thing - she has me beat....

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Looking for a Home

My mother grew up in a small rural community called East Mt. Zion, and the people there developed a kind of slang that was called "Mt. Zion talk." It's really interesting, but that's not what I want to talk about today. I mention that slang because one of the phrases was that something was "looking for a home," which meant (as I understand it) that something was a few steps away from the garbage can. (My interpretation may not be entirely accurate.) Here's a good example of some bananas that are "looking for a home."

This happens in our household all the time. We buy a bunch of bananas, but before we get them all eaten, they've gone from perfect to overripe. Of course, no one wants to eat them then. Normally, I make banana bread, but my family is not too crazy about it and usually I end up being the one who has to eat the entire loaf. I've been on the lookout for other ways to use these bananas that are "looking for a home."

Last night, we had a meeting of a small group at church, and I had to bring some kind of dessert. I didn't have time (or inclination) to make something elaborate, so I got it in my head that I would make something with those bananas. Originally, I looked for a brownie recipe, but when all of the recipes seemed to be calling for a box of brownie mix (which I didn't have), I modified my search to look for blondies. And boy did I find a gem of a recipe!

The recipe was on a blog that had borrowed it from another blog, so I'm not going to worry about giving credit. The recipe actually seemed like an adaptation of the butterscotch brownie recipe in the Betty Crocker cookbook. Here it is:

5 Tbsp butter (one commenter said she used only 4 Tbsp and it worked fine, so I'll try that next time - always looking for a way to trim calories!)
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 fully ripe bananas, well-mashed (about 2/3 cup)
1/8 tsp salt
1 cup all-purpose flour (the original called for half white and half wheat flour)
1/2 cup chopped pecans

To make the blondies, melt the butter in a saucepan, then remove from heat and stir in the brown sugar. Add the egg and vanilla and blend well. Stir in the mashed banana, again blending well. Add the dry ingredients and nuts and stir until everything is moistened. Pour into a greased 8x8 baking pan and cook for 25-28 minutes in a 350-degree oven.

These little bars were simply mouth-watering right out of the oven. I'm having one with my faux coffee this morning and it seems a little heavier, though - I guess it's all that brown sugar. Anyway, I've found one more good use for "homeless" bananas!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

It's been a rough summer. For the past two weeks, temperatures have been 105 degrees or hotter every day, and this is on top of a very dry season (no rain at all for the past month and little rain before that). For some reason, the weather makes me think of a couple of books I read when I was a kid and to make me want to read them again - The First Four Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Edge of Time by Loula Grace Erdman.

Even when I was a kid, The First Four Years was sort of painful to read, because Almanzo had such awful luck with his farm. The first crop was promising, but was destroyed by hail; the second crop was just mediocre because the growing season was dry; the third crop was promising, but was quickly destroyed by hot, dry wind. And through all that, he was building up debt to buy equipment that would make the work on the farm more efficient. Before they married, Laura objected to Almanzo working on the farm because farmers have such a hard time making a living.

That hasn't changed. My husband has planted a blueberry patch as his retirement project/income (he plans to quit teaching in another five years or so). The first couple of years, the patch was great - lots of big, juicy berries. The last two years have been terrible; in fact, this year, I think he estimated we sold only 40 gallons. There haven't been many berries to pick, in part because the weather has been hot and dry during the late summer when the plants set their blossoms for the next season's crop (anyway, that's what we were told by a friend who is a horticulturalist). And of course, the past two summers have been just unimaginably hot for long periods of time, meaning we are also losing some plants.

Of course, crops are dependent on weather, but raising animals has its challenges, too. There are always the normal problems like disease or accidents (last summer we had a lamb that just disappeared - we think a coyote got him), but this year there is a new challenge - feeding the animals. The lack of rain during the spring means pastures have almost no grass. Not just no green grass; there are places where the ground is literally bare. That means there also is no grass to cut for hay. Since there is no grass for the animals to eat now, we have to feed them something, so we are doing a mix of hay (not much, since we have to have it for winter) and grain ($9 per bag, but cheaper than a bale of hay...especially as hay becomes scarcer in the area). We're also trying to make use of whatever else is available. We are pulling up everything but the tomatoes in the garden and giving it to the sheep and cows. The cows love the dry cornstalks. The sheep seem partial to the grasshopper-riddled brussels sprout leaves. Yesterday, I started pulling up the lima bean plants, even though they still are green and have leaves; not only is the weather dry, but we've also had a recent infestation of blister beetles. The lima beans probably won't produce anything anyway, and I'd rather the cows have them than the blister beetles.  I feel especially sorry for the two horses. We don't give them any of the "special treats," since horses have such delicate stomachs and get colic so easily. But they stand at the fence and watch while we are giving the cows the extras, and I can almost see their depression, ha.

There is also another worry that made me think of The Edge of Time--fire danger. One of the plot events in that book is a wildfire on the Texas prairie, and I remember thinking what a scary thing it would be to be in the line of a fire driven by winds. We are under a burn ban, and fireworks were banned for Fourth of July celebrations, but there have still been several outbreaks of fire in the past couple of weeks. One fire threatened the home of some friends from church; the woman had to evacuate the house with just a little notice. Fortunately (providentially), the winds shifted as the fire reached their property line, so their home was untouched. However, I think there were a couple of other homes that were destroyed in that fire. The fire danger is not something I worry about to the point of obsessing, but it's one more nagging little worry in this whole cluster of worries brought on by this drought.

Still, I wouldn't want to live any other way. And I think that's why I'm wanting to re-read these two books at this point. Despite the hardships of living on a farm, both hardships brought on by weather and by lack of money, Laura and Bethany both come to appreciate the land and its promise. As Laura said at the end of The First Four Years,
It would be a fight to win out in this business of farming, but strangely she felt her spirit rising for the struggle. The incurable optimism of the farmer who throws his seed on the ground every spring, betting it and his time against the elements, seemed inextricably to blend with the creed of her pioneer forefathers that "it is better farther on"--only instead of farther on in space, it was farther on in time, over the horizon of the years ahead instead of the far horizon of the west.
It rained last night for the first time in over a month. This morning when I was hanging out the jeans, I thought I saw a little green in the grass that wasn't there yesterday. Maybe I'm imagining it, or maybe it's really there. But between that and reading these stories, I think I'll mentally make it through this drought

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Little Touch of Melancholy

You know how you wait and wait for something, and finally it's here, and then you go through it as slowly as you can, trying to make it last as long as possible? Well, that's where I've been the past week or so with the last of Ann Turnbull's Quaker trilogy, Seeking Eden. And as is often the case after some much-anticipated event is over, I'm suffering a little touch of melancholy, for a variety of reasons.

The first reason, of course, is because it's over. There will be no more stories about Susanna and Will or their children. That makes me sad because I love those characters and because the time period (late 17th century) is so interesting. Turnbull's books are so well-written that I felt myself drawn into the world of the book and truly invested in the character's lives. Seeking Eden seemed a little slower to get going than the other two books in the trilogy (No Shame, No Fear and Forged in the Fire), but somewhere in the middle of the book, I became so caught up in the story I finished the whole thing in one sitting. So much for my plans to make it last by drawing it out!

Another thing that makes me sad is knowing this excellent book has, as we say here in the South, a hard row to hoe to find an audience. Candlewick, the publisher that created the US editions of the other two books, declined to publish this one, even though the story takes place in Philadelphia. A quick check of Amazon's website showed Seeking Eden is not available directly through Amazon in the US; one can, however, get it through one of Amazon's associated sellers. I had to get the book through Amazon UK, which meant shipping charges were more than the price of the book (worth every penny, though). And then I see the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy as an Amazon bestseller, and I just get angry. I suppose now we're going to see a whole slew of knock-offs of that book (which is a knock-off of Twilight) on the publishers' menu for the next couple of years. It's not that I think Fifty Shades of Grey shouldn't be published; if people want to read it, fine. But it really does make me angry and sad that high-quality, substantive books like Seeking Eden are squeezed out of the marketplace and become less and less available for people like me who have zero interest in Fifty Shades of Grey and its progeny.

Finally, I have to admit that one of my first reactions immediately after finishing Seeking Eden was a sense of   depression (sort of) because I realize my own writing just doesn't measure up. One of the things I appreciate about the story is how smoothly Turnbull balances so many different elements. There is the family story of 16-year-old Josiah's conflict with his parents, particularly his father (did Turnbull have spy cams on our 16-year-old son? ha ha). There is the love story between Jos and Kate. There is a wealth of historical information, ranging from details about the persecution of Quakers in the New World as well as the old, the early years of Philadelphia, apprenticeships, the slave trade, slave auctions, and slavery, including the fact that Quakers at that time owned slaves. Then there is the overarching moral conflict Jos faces - should he break his contract with his master in order to follow a higher law? And that's not everything - the book is so rich and so jam-packed with good stuff. Yet it maintains the flow of a good story, building up to a point where I felt tense with nervousness about what would happen.

I hope I'm being too hard on myself, but I definitely had that sinking feeling that my own story was a lightweight, fluffy little love story compared to Seeking Eden. Nothing's wrong with fluffy little love stories, but my goal for writing is to go beyond that. I want to write things that are both entertaining and thought-provoking. I want my stories to say something important about humanity. (Gosh, that sounds pretentious...but maybe you know what I mean.) Of course, I must remind myself, I've written one book and Ann Turnbull has written many. Maybe I can get there someday.

But I'll never get there if I don't find a way to work writing time into my daily schedule. I thought summer vacation would free me from the grind of teaching and grading - no, it's only replaced the grind of teaching with a different grind. If I'm going to write, I'm going to have to forcibly grab some time and guard it selfishly, which won't be easy and which the family probably won't understand. Another reason to feel melancholy....

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Getting Old Sucks

In about six weeks, I'm going to be hitting the age 50 milestone. This post is not whining about that. I actually am not especially bothered by the idea of being 50; despite the inconvenience of things like reading glasses and that nagging 10 pounds that won't go away and possible hearing aids (bad, bad heredity, unfortunately), I don't feel too much different than I did at age 30.

However, a couple of things I've read recently have made me think about what is (probably) coming down the line in my life - not in the next year, maybe not even in the next 10 years, but eventually, if I live long enough. Those two converging works are The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks and an unpublished memoir manuscript I am reading for the sister of a friend.

I certainly didn't go into reading The Notebook expecting to start thinking about aging. To be honest, I wanted to read it as "market research" to give me an idea of what kind of romantic books (beyond "romance novels") are popular with readers. (And to keep being honest, I didn't particularly care for this book. If you are interested, there will be a brief explanation of why at the end of this post.)

Not to give away any plot points, but The Notebook is a story within a story, about the same people at two different points in their lives. One story is about the rekindling of their teen romance when they are in their late 20s/early 30s; the other is about their lives now that they are living in a senior care facility of some kind. Allie, the woman in the story, has Alzheimer's disease to the point that she rarely recognizes her husband, Noah, the love of her life. Noah, however, remains devoted to her, and in fact, courts her so she will fall in love with him each day after forgetting him from the day before.

I'm not going to say much about the second book, since I don't have permission from the author to talk about it. It is the story of the struggles a family faced when they had to deal with their aging father's dementia by committing him to senior care against his will when he was clearly unable to take care of himself any longer but wouldn't admit it. It's a very compelling story, and I hope the author will be able to get her story out for the public to read someday in the future.

Although we don't really want to think about it, as we get older, chances are that we are going to be faced with substantial loss. For some of us, as in The Notebook, that loss may be of our most significant human relationship, either through death or to dementia. For others, it may be loss of freedom and control of our own destiny, as in the manuscript. For some, it may be both.

I was thinking after reading The Notebook how sad it would be to lose all the memories built up during the years of a relationship (which is, of course, why there was a notebook in the first place). I suppose you wouldn't really lose your own memories of the relationship if it was the partner who suffered the dementia, but it seems to me some of the value in memories is their sharedness. I think about some of the things that have happened in the 23 years I've been married, like the year we spent together in graduate school in Kansas, or building our house, or the birth of our kids. Of course, we both have our personal memories of those things, but there are certain elements that have become so intertwined that the story doesn't seem complete unless both sides are told. Even the telling of the story is often intertwined. How lonely would it be to have one piece of that story gradually disappear so that there's only a ghost of it left?

To lose one's partner to dementia would certainly be lonely, but the manuscript tells a story that is sadder, in a way. The father in the story has always been a very independent, resourceful, in-charge kind of man; as he grows older, however, he begins to do things (like get lost while driving) that are dangerous to himself and to others. His children have to wrest away from him all the trappings of independent life - his car, his house, his ability to come and go as he pleases. (Of course, this process is agonizing for them as well.) I'm not completely finished with the manuscript yet, but I know from talking to my friend that the process was very painful for all of them. Think about it; most of us are so used to being able to direct our own daily affairs that it would be incredibly frustrating to have that taken away. In some ways, it would be to lose one's very self.

I think about my grandfather who recently died. He stayed in his own home until the end and died in his own bed, which I imagine most of us would aspire to. However, I've always told people he was able to do that because his children were all close by and worked together to make it possible for him to have that life. The manuscript author pointed out something else that is necessary: the willingness to accept the help one needs. That's something her father was not willing to admit, and that's part of what made the process for him so difficult. I also now believe that's one reason Grandpa was able to do what he did. Even if it meant losing his dignity as the "father," he was willing to pay that cost to be able to stay home. I don't know that you can have both dignity AND self-determination. In all probability, you can't have either. Getting old sucks.

As I transition into my "senior years" (I actually joined AARP the other day so we could get the discounts on hotels on our recent family trip, ha ha), I'm not going to dwell on getting old. But I think it is important to do two things to get ready for what could be coming: 1) get those memories down in tangible form somewhere (like Grandma's memory book from my earlier post), and 2) develop the willingness to recognize when I need help and to be able to swallow my pride to accept it.

As promised, a brief review of The Notebook: For all the pathos of the situation, I didn't really develop any emotional connection with any of the characters. There were also a number of things Sparks did that I see over and over labeled as characteristics of weak writing: head-hopping and "telling" rather than "showing," among others. Finally, Sparks' techniques for trying to build suspense just drove me nuts. The end of the book was especially frustrating. Did Noah die, or not? 

Friday, June 8, 2012

A Thin Connection to Life 100 Years Past

Here's what we had for supper, all from our farm - sauteed collard greens, boiled new potatoes, broiled yellow squash, fresh green beans, and blueberries. I'm not trying to gloat, honest; these  veggies remind me of something I was thinking about yesterday.

We just returned from a little family vacation down in Texas. One of the unplanned stops was at the Lyndon B. Johnson State and National Park site near Johnson City. I'm glad we stopped, because there was quite a bit of historical information there (and the countryside in which the ranch is located is lovely in sort of a desolate way). But my favorite part was the Sauer-Beckman Living History Farm.

The farm is a replica of a German settler's farm from about 100 years ago, the period between 1912-1918. The exhibit includes the barn and all the outbuildings for livestock (including a hog pen with a HUGE sow and a hen house complete with three setting hens), a garden, a windmill and water tank, and the house itself, which consisted of three parts - a working/canning kitchen, the regular kitchen, and the sleeping/living area. (My husband and I had different explanations for our daughter about why the house was in three parts - he said it was so the sleeping quarters were separated from the kitchen in case the wood stove caught fire; I said it was because the kitchen would generate so much heat. I think we are both right!)

One thing I really liked about the exhibit is that we were able to walk around and look at things as we wanted to - there was not a pre-set tour with a guide giving us a canned speech. We could lift the dishcloth over the sourdough starter and peek in on it, we could touch the pieces of harness hanging in the tack room in the barn, we could look inside the outhouse (a two-holer. I can't imagine why anyone would want a two-hole outhouse, ha ha). There was a woman dressed in period costume at the exhibit, but she seemed to be there more as a resource to answer any questions; other than greeting us pleasantly, she didn't say anything to us, just kept working with the beets she obviously had pulled from the garden earlier in the day.

As you can imagine, this was absolute heaven for a writer of historical fiction set on a frontier farm! I could have stayed for hours, no lie, looking at every tool in the barn and every dish in both kitchens. But I had to be considerate of the rest of the family, who are not quite as into this as I am.

As I walked around the grounds, I began to realize that while this was history, some of it was also simply living for me. Except for the fact that I'm using electricity rather than firewood as a heat source, I'm still doing a lot of food preservation, just like the matron of the farm would have been doing 100 years ago. With only a few exceptions, most of what I "put up" for winter comes from our own garden. We have only a couple of hens, not a whole lot, but we do get eggs from them most days. I also still have memories of "helping" (as much as a kid can do) on hog butchering day, with the big cast iron washtub rendering down lard. I also remember the bowls of fresh milk sitting out on the cabinets at my grandparents' house waiting for cream to rise to the top, I'm lucky to have those memories; in the coming years of my life, there are going to be fewer and fewer people who will have seen those kinds of things.

Of course, there are a lot of differences between the few things I do and the daily life of a farmer's wife 100 years ago. I am spoiled by the convenience and safety of pasteurized milk and by the softness of store-bought bread. But something as simple as having a meal filled with vegetables that my husband and I planted and harvested, cleaned and cooked, helps me feel there's still something of a connection with those hard-working people in the past, small as it may be.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

First in the Hearts of His Countrymen

As I've grown older, I've really come to recognize how inadequate history classes in school are. I'm not trying to be snarky; it's just that history is so "thick" and filled with so many details there is absolutely no way a person can learn much more than the basics of names, dates, and places. That's one reason I like to tackle some historical nonfiction once in a while to go along with my favored diet of historical fiction. My latest was Joseph Ellis' biography of George Washington, His Excellency.

Shortly after beginning this book, I realized I knew very little about George Washington. Sure, I knew he was the commander in chief for the Continental Army and the first constitutional president of the United States. I'd heard the story about how he thwarted the mutiny of the Newburgh Conspiracy by using his spectacles and a sentimental reference to his advancing age. But I didn't have much of an understanding of the amazing human being that was behind all those accomplishments. While Ellis' biography isn't as focused on George Washington the human being as say, The Unexpected George Washingtion: His Private Life by Harlow Giles Unger, Ellis does give some analysis of Washington's psychology. (I borrowed both of these books from a friend and while I'd like to read the Unger book, it took me 2 1/2 months - YES - to read the Ellis book. I'm ready to get back to some fiction! And I want to return the books to the friend. Maybe I'll get to Unger some time in the future.)

I'm not going to go into everything I found interesting about Washington's life (although I had no idea he was a smallpox survivor and how that played a strategic role in the American Revolution). To keep this post short and sweet, I'll just focus on two things that gave me new respect for Washington: his planned solution to the problem of frontier settlement and Indian rights to the land, and his determination to somehow, eventually free his slaves.

Probably because I am working on a story which is centered around the conflict over land between the Cherokee and white settlers, I paid special attention to the section of the book that talked about Washington's plans as president to deal with the Indians. Ellis points out Washington firmly believed the nation's future lay in expanding into the interior of the continent, which meant there had to be some policy for dealing with the peoples who were already there. Unlike many officials (especially Andrew Jackson later), Washington respected the Indians as "familiar and formidable adversaries fighting for their own independence; in effect, behaving pretty much as he would do in their place." That view led him to come up with a policy of creating Indian "homelands" that would house the tribes as foreign nations with which the United States would interact just as they would with the nations of Europe. Washington was apparently opposed to confiscation of Indian lands, which he believed would "stain the character of the nation." Unfortunately, early on, the state of Georgia ignored Washington's Treaty of New York with the Creek Nation and sold more than 15 million acres that would have been the Creek homeland to a land speculating company. As Ellis pointed out, "Eventually Washington was forced to acknowledge his vision...could not be enforced." He may have had a magnanimous attitude toward Native Americans, but not enough people shared his view - or too many were too greedy for land to care.

I also found it interesting to follow Ellis' discussion of how Washington gradually moved from oblivious slave owner (oblivious to the rights of slaves, that is) to a man who freed his slaves in his will. Ellis spends considerable time discussing the development of Washington's moral stance on slavery; although Washington came to see slavery as in contrast with the democratic principles he fought for in the revolution, he was still constrained by his vision of economic security. Part of the problem was that he didn't have full control of all the slaves; more than half of his slaves actually belonged to the dowry that came with Martha on their marriage and he couldn't free them without paying their value to the estate (which he obviously wasn't willing to do). Part of the problem was also that Washington felt strongly the new nation couldn't survive the political battles that would break out if he as president made moves to eliminate slavery. Ellis notes how complicated the slavery question was for Washington, who had a strong commitment to avoid breaking up slave families by selling slaves and who continued to support all the slaves even when it didn't work economically for Mount Vernon. I suppose we could condemn Washington's position on slavery by saying he waited until he was dead and would no longer need their services to give his slaves their freedom. However, I look  at it this way - Washington was the only one of the slave-owning Founding Fathers who actually did anything about slavery, even if it came after his death. And his will didn't simply throw the slaves as free blacks out into the world; Washington allotted funds to provide care for the older or sick slaves for the remainder of their lives, and he called for the younger slaves to be taught to read and to do some kind of trade before being freed completely at age 25. And he was serious about it; his will included the following statement: "see that this clause respecting Slaves, and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled at the Epoch at which it is directed to take place without evasion, neglect or delay."

Even though it took me a long time to read the book, it was not because the book was boring or poorly-written. I thought it hit a good balance between giving an overview of the many significant events of Washington's life and of the motivations and personality of the man who lived those events. I'm glad I read it, and I'm glad to have more flesh put on the paper cutout figure of Washington that I had from studying American history in school.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Food for Thought, or Thoughts about Food

Since the weather was cloudy and cooler when I went out to feed the cats this morning, and since I had promised three gallons of blueberries to a couple of ladies at church sometime soon, I decided to go out and pick those berries this morning. Well, the weather didn't stay cloudy and cooler for long, and the berries are very thin this year, so it took me all morning to get the three gallons. Normally, I would have to come in from the patch and get something ready for lunch, but today Lily came out around 11:00-ish and asked if it was ok if she made cream of potato soup. I was hot and tired and soup didn't really appeal to me, but I didn't want to be that mother who squishes all her child's ideas, so I said "sure." It crossed my mind that Lily has never made cream of potato soup before, but I was still about a gallon away from being finished, so I didn't let it concern me. As long as she didn't burn down the house.....

I finished my picking at 11:45 and came in to find three bowls of potato soup waiting and a very proud young cook. She had used the good old Better Homes & Garden cookbook, but when the soup didn't taste quite right, she added some pepper on her own (I guess watching all that Food Network with her father came in handy!). We supplemented with leftovers, and it was a very nice lunch. Let me tell you, I was very grateful to have lunch waiting. And I was impressed when I found she had made a white sauce as a base for the soup all by herself. White sauce is not the easiest thing in the world to make, and she had never done it before. Good for Lily!

One of the leftovers I had to go along with the soup were some cornbread pancakes I made for supper last night. I didn't even warm them up, just spread some margarine on top. They went well with the soup. But that's not why I'm telling you about them. Now don't laugh at me, but one of the by-products of writing historical fiction for me has been a desire to learn how people used to live. More than "learn" in an intellectual sense - I want to be able to learn by experience (as long as I'm not giving up electricity for an extended period of time, lol). One of the things I became very aware of while writing my book was how limited people's diets were on the 19th century frontier. Throughout the book, my characters are living on cornpone and salt pork. (I know there would have been other foods available to them, especially seasonally, but I imagine cornmeal and pork were the staples of the menu for working-class people.) Last night, inspired in part by the Hatfield/McCoy movie on the History Channel, I decided to make a batch of cornbread pancakes, also known as johnnycakes.

I had tried them before with a Betty Crocker recipe and found them to be greasy and not very good, but this time I found a different recipe online that turned out much better. They were easy, easy to make. This recipe made flat little cakes with a slightly sweet taste and enough body to them to stand up to butter and sorghum molasses. They were just as good today without being warmed up, and they were plenty filling.

The experience of making and eating these cornbread pancakes gave me some valuable insight into an aspect of everyday life in the 19th century. These pancakes were made with simple ingredients and were so easy to mix up and cook on a griddle that a busy wife or mother could throw together lunch quickly, even if she was tired from working in the field or garden. The recipe made probably 12 pancakes, so it would be enough to feed a fairly good-sized family. They could be stacked and eaten as pancakes, or they were thin and flexible enough they could be used to wrap around a piece of meat (much like a tortilla). And if the work to be done was out in a field far enough away from the house that it would take too much time to come back home for lunch, the johnnycakes hold over well, would taste good cold, and would be easy to eat picnic-style.

It's a small thing, I suppose, but I like learning that kind of information. Sure, history is about the big things like wars and treaties and elections, but it's also about the little, day-to-day things like filling one's stomach.

There was also another interesting little side path Lily and I talked about over lunch. I was putting sorghum on my cornbread pancakes, and Lily asked why I called it "sorghum" when the jar says "molasses." Well, I didn't know, so we looked it up. "Sorghum" is the genus name for the plant which has the sap that is cooked down to make the syrup; "molasses" is "a syrup made from boiling down sweet vegetable or fruit juice." So to be technically correct, we should always call it "sorghum molasses."

This was a very educational lunch!

In case you want to experiment with the cornbread pancakes, here's the recipe (from

3/4 cup flour
3/4 cup cornmeal
2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 cup buttermilk (I didn't have buttermilk, so I used the old trick to use vinegar to sour the milk)
2 large eggs
3 Tbsp butter, melted and cooled

Mix dry ingredients together, then mix wet ingredients in a separate bowl. Add wet ingredients to dry and blend well until the batter is smooth. Cook the pancakes on a hot griddle until golden-brown on each side.