Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Plenty of New Friends

When I sat down to do the year-end review of my reading for the past couple of years, it's been a little disheartening that there were so few books that I felt good about. This year is completely different. I look at the list and nearly everything on it is something I am happy to have encountered this year. There are a number of new characters I'm glad to welcome to the chaotic cocktail party that is my mind.

With no further introduction, here's the year's wrap-up!

Best discovery: There were several books I really liked this year, but the one that I feel was really the most fortunate "discovery" was A Drowned Maiden's Tale by Laura Amy Schlitz. It's a book I borrowed from my daughter, who had checked it out of the school library, and it turned out to be great fun to read, as well as a rather deep study of what a person will do to "earn" the love of others.

Saddest Disappointment: I had always heard good things about Patricia Wrede's writing. My daughter loves her Enchanted Forest Chronicles (which I've not read). But I found her retelling of Snow White and Rose Red to be quite tedious, just to be blunt. Maybe trying to build around a story that already exists is not as conducive to good storytelling as starting from scratch is.

Favorite Classic: I read four books this year that are "classics": The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare (winner of the Newbery Medal in 1962). Of the four, The Bronze Bow would probably be my favorite. I actively disliked Wuthering Heights; I can't count how many times I said aloud as I read it, "This book is full of despicable people! I don't like any of them." As far as I'm concerned, Heathcliff and his whole crew can sit in the corner of the mental cocktail party and pout.

Favorite Love Story: Hmmm. This is interesting, because I read several stories with a love story as part of the plot, including two romance novels (Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke and Starry Montana Sky by Debra Holland), but none of the love stories caught me up and swept me away. I liked Atonement by Ian McEwan, but that's pretty depressing as a love story. It will sound self-serving, I suppose, but my favorite love story this year was my own novel, His Promise True. Hey, they always say, "Write what you love to read," so I did.

Favorite Historical Fiction: This is going to be a hard category this year, because I read several really good historical novels this year, including An Enduring Union by Nancy Dane and In the Shadow of the Lamp by Susanne Dunlap. But my two favorites (yes, I can't decide between them) were Under a War-Torn Sky by L.M. Elliott and Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher. Both books were about a period of history I didn't know much about, and both had characters who faced pretty challenging circumstances. Just very satisfying.

Favorite Re-Read:  The Great Gatsby, I suppose. Definitely not Wuthering Heights!

Once is Enough (Books I probably won't ever read again): I read a self-published biography by a friend of a friend, and while I'm glad I read it, I know I'll never read it again. I also know I won't read Graceling by Kristin Cashore again, because I was so annoyed by the narrow definition of "success" in terms of "girl power." Oh, and Wuthering Heights would fit in this category, too. (OK, now I'm just being a jerk, ha ha!) (But I'm serious....)

Books I Thought Would Be Amazing But Were Just So-So: In some ways, I ended the reading year on a down note, because the last two books I read fit into this category. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card was just too preachy and too much of a stretch of suspended disbelief for me. And I was similarly disappointed by Or Give Me Death by Ann Rinaldi. Rinaldi has written a whole slew of historical novels, and I was sort of counting on being able to work my way through them when I couldn't find new historical fiction. Unfortunately, I thought Or Give Me Death was just a mess. (Sorry that sounds so harsh!) And it was messy in important ways (in my opinion), not just that I didn't like the way the story went. I really doubt I will be looking up any more of Rinaldi's books, sadly.

Books I Thought Wouldn't Be Much But Were Actually Good: That's really not a good way to categorize the next book, but I left the title because people have such low expectations of self-published novels. One of my friends, Mary Schaffer, self-published three novels this year, and so far I've read only the first, Chance Encounter. People are often really disparaging about self-published books, and some I've read really are pretty bad. But others, like Schaffer's book, get unfairly lumped in with the ones that are just slapped together and thrown on Amazon as a more-or-less first draft. Schaffer's book had memorable characters and a good mystery plot that kept me guessing until the end. One of my goals for the next year is to read her other books, which continue on with the same characters and setting (I believe).

I would also place Soul Work: Confessions of a Part-Time Monk by Randy Harris in this category. A friend from church gave me a copy of this book, and I'll confess, I'm not much of a fan of "spiritual" non-fiction. I read it just because I knew the friend would ask if I had. What I found was that it was NOT stuffy, as I had expected it to be; I actually found some ideas that made me look at and think about prayer in a completely different way. This book will probably go on my "read this once a year" list.

I'm choosing not to include the categories of Greatest Reading Accomplishment and Biggest Reading Failure this year, because it was just a good, steady year of reading. I did go through a slump during the spring semester, but that's balanced by a voracious period of reading that began the year. One thing I did notice in looking back over the blog entries for this year: I didn't write much about what I read. I'd like to change that for the coming year. Which leads to....

Plans for Reading in the New Year: I have several books on bookshelves that I'd like to read to find out if I want to keep them or take them to the used bookstore to open space in the house. Some of these are non-fiction, which is always a slow read for me. I also have several novels on my Kindle that I should work through. First, though, I have to finish an "edit read" of a novel manuscript my daughter wrote. Yes, she's only 15 and she's written a novel - I'm proud of her (although I'm giving many, many notes of what she might want to fix, haha).

Plans for Writing in the New Year: As mentioned earlier, I want to be more faithful in blogging about books on this site. I also am within a couple of scenes of finishing the manuscript for my second novel, so I'll need to start an entirely new project. That is both exhilarating and frightening. The characters in the first two novels have been my focus for nine years; letting them go and becoming in love with new characters will probably be a challenge. But it's one I look forward to!


Thursday, December 26, 2013

An Addiction Is Born

It's going to sound ridiculous, I guess, but in the last couple of weeks I've become obsessed with the Avett Brothers. I'm serious - obsessed. I woke up in the morning with one of their songs on my mind, and throughout the day I would find myself longing to hear their music. I "rewarded" myself for finishing grading some set of papers by allowing myself to watch one of their performance videos on YouTube. Seriously, it's ridiculous.

My son is the one who introduced me to the band last summer while we were on our trip to California. He had a couple of playlists that we used as a compromise when he got sick of the songs that my husband and I had on the car's stereo. I liked them ok, but I never really paid much attention until I started grading papers for the end of this semester. I've found that having music playing low in the background helps me focus and be more productive. In the past, I've used Pandora's Film Scores radio as the standard, but honestly, one can only listen to the music from Lord of the Rings and The Dark Knight Rises so many times over the course of a couple of days. So I plugged in the Avett Brothers as an alternative. And now I'm addicted.

Part of the reason, I think, is because some of their songs hit exactly the mood I'm in for writing the last portion of my second novel, and in fact, voice some of the themes I've been trying to pull together in the book. Like this one, which is an eerily accurate summary of the first half of the book.


I also have reasons that don't have anything to do with my writing. One of my friends posted this link on Facebook, which is a pretty damning critique of the road country music is taking these days. Those songs come off looking mighty shallow when compared to this one:


Finally, in one of my "grading reward" sessions, I found this little gem, which I thought was going to be a cover of a good old gospel song. It is that, and much more.


Seriously, how can you not love the guy after watching that video? Fortunately for me, my son gave me two of the Avett Brothers' albums for Christmas, so I can now listen wherever I go instead of having to be tied to YouTube. You win the gift-giving contest this year, Roger!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Speaker for the ... Writer?

Once upon a time, several years ago, I had a student in speech class who was a HUGE fan of Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. He spoke so highly of it that I recommended it to my husband, who read it and also liked it. Since sci-fi is not really my genre, I never read it until recently, when the movie was coming out. (Because, you know, it's always better to read the book before seeing the movie.)

Well, after reading the book, I've decided I'm going to save my money and just wait for the movie to come out on pay-per-view. When I said that to my husband, he said, "Well, science fiction's not your kind of book anyway," like that explained everything. Actually, it's more than that. I can enjoy just about any kind of story that is well-written. My problem with Ender's Game is that I think Card tried too hard to make a "statement," and the story suffered as a result.

If you're not familiar with the story, the premise is that Ender Wiggin is a six-year-old boy who is sent for training as a warrior in the battle against humans' dreaded enemy, the buggers, which seem to be a highly-advanced race of ants (or maybe bees). Ender was monitored closely throughout his early childhood and was selected for training partly because of his intelligence, but mostly because of his ability to deal with his psychopath of an older brother, Peter. The officials who run the Battle School are convinced Ender is humanity's last best chance against the buggers, so they accelerate his training. I actually mostly liked this part of the story; there was something rather Harry Potterish about this story that preceded Harry Potter by about a decade. Ender quickly masters the skills needed for battle and rises to display innovative leadership. That part was fun. The concept of having a gifted young hero who is being trained to save the world makes for a good story.

As the story wore on, though, I began to feel my suspension of disbelief was having to strain a little too hard to keep me in the story. I didn't have any trouble accepting that Ender was super intelligent and able to reason and/or intuit solutions to the ever-more-difficult and often unfair situations in his training. What began to bother me rather quickly was Ender's level of emotional maturity. By the climax of the story, Ender is only 12 years old, yet his emotional responses seem more like those of a 40-something. Card wanted us to believe Ender was predisposed to genius because of his heredity. I'll grant heredity could explain his intelligence. But maturity? A person's not born with that. One can't inherit maturity. Emotional maturity comes through experience, and while Card might argue all Ender's experiences at Battle School served as the crucible for maturity, I couldn't buy it. Especially not when Ender's life experiences were generally negative (he was often bullied, and the school officials purposely isolated him from his peers and even actively tried to set them against him). It's been a long time since I studied any psychology, but I seem to remember that rejection and disconfirmation are more often associated with low self-esteem and social impotence than with the kind of strong leadership Ender displayed.

But even that I might have been able to forgive, if I hadn't started to get the feeling Ender was being used as much by his author as he was by the school officials. There was definitely a subtext of "it's wrong to manipulate the innocent, even if for noble purposes" that Card seemed to want to make sure came through the story.  Even the big climax of the story seemed to me to have less impact than it should have because Card wanted so badly to make sure that we got the message of how wrong what happened was, using Ender as a tool to show us the toll that winning at all costs can take. In the last chapter, the sermonizing through the story was so blatant I had to force myself to finish reading the book.

I'm not saying a story shouldn't have a heavy message. I love it when a story has deep things to think about for days after I've finished the book. But that message shouldn't ever take precedence over the story. The story must come first. After all, I'm reading a novel, not an essay on ethics. And I know from other things I've read that it is possible to do both - create characters who "live" and who also bring to life ethical principles, without hammering the reader over the head with them.

When I finished the book last night, I told my husband how much I didn't like the last chapter, and he said, "You won't want to read any of the other books about Ender, then, because they are mostly like that last chapter." Thanks for the heads up!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Confessions of a New Author

Tell me I'm not alone on this. Not long after my son (my first child) was born, there came a day when I was just simply overwhelmed by the realization that my life had changed forever. It wasn't that I was depressed about that; I was certainly happy with him, but there was a part of me that was a little shell-shocked by the change.

It's been nearly three weeks since His Promise True hit the world, and while the impact is not as momentous as the birth of my son, there has still been a bit of a learning curve for this "being a published author" thing. So, in true writer fashion, my natural inclination is to try to process everything by writing it down. Here are a few observations from these first weeks.

1) I didn't realize how much business was involved. That sounds really naive, and yeah, I was really naive. I mean, I knew publishing is a business, but I didn't understand what that meant, things like applying to be recognized as a business by the state so I can pay sales tax, or getting one of those little readers that attach to a cell phone so people can use credit cards to pay for the books. Thank goodness for Nancy Dane, who is shepherding me through the maze. Honestly, at one point, I was so overwhelmed by the "business" end that I was asking myself, "If you knew then what you know now, would you still publish the book?" (Of course the answer is "Of course".......)

2) People don't seem to care whether the book is self-published; they treat me like a "real" author. The thing that has most freaked me out about this whole experience so far is that people want me to sign their books. I'm not really very good at that yet -- I mean, I can write my name (ha!), but I'm having a real struggle coming up with something clever/appropriate to put with my name. There are a couple of inscriptions I've put so far that I would just as soon were written in disappearing ink!

3) Social media is an awesome way to get a message out. I've not been really aggressive in pitching the book. My approach has, for the most part, been to post a few notices on Facebook. But what amazes me is seeing a comment posted by some friend of one of my friends, someone I don't even know, who is talking about the book. Networking is the name of the game, and social media makes it so much easier.

4) The scariest thing is the Great Silence. Several people on Facebook have sent me messages or comments that say something like, "I'm halfway through, and I love it!" (which is wonderful to hear). Then I don't hear anything else, which makes me nervous that the second half failed to uphold the love. The reasonable side of me points out that people just get busy and move on to something else, and that I shouldn't read anything in to the silence. Still, as one friend (who has also self-published a book) said, "I don't think people realize how much a writer needs feedback." It makes me appreciate even more the little fan letter that came in the mail one day, which said, "John David comes across as a fine man, but since money is so scarce, I wish he wouldn't waste it on drinking." And I'm grateful to the lady at church who catches me after services and tells me the specific part she's reading right now and what it makes her think of from her own life. This experience has made me determined to write a review or leave some kind of comment for everything I read from now on.

5) Having one "Book Baby" has made me eager to make another. I'd been in something of a slump with my writing for quite a long time. But the energy generated by the process of getting this first book out and by knowing people are reading it has brought me out of that slump. This week I started writing new sections of the second book, and it's been coming to me rather naturally. I can see the end of the first draft (though I'm still not entirely sure how it will end). I guess putting that line at the back of His Promise True that the follow-up story was "Coming in 2014" was a great motivator! I always did seem to work better with a deadline--part of my journalism training, I guess.

Anyway, I've learned a lot in the past three weeks, and there have been some genuinely thrilling life moments, like finding out one of my favorite authors was reading the book (I still squeal internally when I think about that!) and seeing the book on the shelf of the local Hastings store (the picture with this post, which has kind of a funny story). 

This will probably be the last post about the book on this blog. I've set up a separate blog for my publishing business at www.emzpineypublishing.com if you'd like to read more about the historical background for the book, as well as book-related news. My plan is to try to maintain both blogs; wish me luck!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Happy Birthday, Book Baby!

Just as a human baby takes nine months to emerge into the world, my "book baby" has also taken nine increments of time--only it's been nine years rather than months. But I'm happy to announce the new arrival is finally here! As of today (11-12-13), His Promise True is available in paperback and for Kindle through Amazon.com and in paperback at the Createspace eStore.

It's been quite an incubation. The idea for this story first came to me nearly 30 years (yes, you read that right) when I was working in the public information office at the University of Arkansas. This was during the Arkansas sesquicentennial year, and all the newspapers I was scanning for articles about the university had interesting features about the state's history, including a number of family histories. I thought it would be fun to write a story about pioneers like the people in some of those newspaper stories, so I sketched out a couple of characters. The character of John David McKellar (his name was also stolen from the newspaper) might or might not have been inspired by the good-looking doctoral student living in the apartment above my sister's apartment, whom I might or might not have been trying to meet.....

That's as far as it went for a long, long time. Then one night as I was driving my children home after some school event, I was listening to Irish music on the CD player and thought, "Hey, I think I'd like to try writing that story." So I started. Approximately 270,000 words and two years later, I had a finished draft. That's when the real work began. For the next seven years, I revised and edited until the book is now down to less than half its original word count. I threw away about 65 percent of the original manuscript (and that's probably a good thing!).

During this time, I also submitted to several editors and agents, not a lot, because I was trying to be smart about who might be interested in historical fiction with a love story. Although no one was interested, I got several polite and helpful rejection letters, which helped in reshaping the book into its final form. I also owe thanks to a number of friends for their reading early drafts of the manuscript and giving key comments: Christopher Moss was ever so encouraging in the early stages; Susan Burden Parks gave me the idea to play up the "little mule" theme; Mary Schaffer pointed out that the middle of the manuscript wandered off the plot path into no man's land; Nancy Dane gave me the business advice that made me quit procrastinating and take the final step to self-publish rather than to keep holding out for a traditional publisher. I especially want to thank my sister (the one with the good-looking neighbor) for being such a great "first reader"; she was always ready to talk "book," and if this book has any basis in realism at all, it's because she would ask the perfect questions to make me think more deeply about what was really happening in the story.

I also want to thank everyone who read the book and gave me feedback along the way, but there are a few readers who said things that gave great encouragement. I was really afraid to let my mother read the book because, you know, there are a few people who cuss and drink and stuff.....but she has always been a very strong advocate for the book and even shared it with a number of ladies at her church. Maggie Taylor Ashburn confirmed that the characters hit the mark when she said she hoped to find her own John David someday (and I believe she did, and she married him last summer). Diane Walters said that after she finished the book, she went back to re-read her favorite parts, something every writer loves to hear. And my most recent reader and proofreader, my daughter, made my writer heart happy, happy, happy when she said (in her enthusiastic teen-aged way), "I nearly cried twice."

The final thanks go to my husband, who has teased me a lot (a whole lot!) about writing a romance but has also been supportive of my dream of writing and has tolerated dust bunnies under the furniture for ten years. (Not the same dust bunnies - I have vacuumed a few times in the past ten years!) My sister's cute neighbor made a good start for John David, but I'm pretty sure a lot of how the character developed is thanks to the husband I got. And that's definitely a good thing.

Monday, October 7, 2013

That's Good

Things are whirring along this semester. It's hard to believe it's already almost midterm - today was the first day of real (meaning "graded") speeches in speech class and the first exam in PR class. I've also been busy with my book since making the decision to publish it. I've finished the interior layout with InDesign and am now creating the cover in my spare time. Who knew there were so many decisions to agonize over, such as whether Adobe Garamond Pro or Californian FB is the better font, or whether a small drawing I made for the title page will make the book look "homemade," as my mother says? It reminds me of a line from a song on Barbra Streisand's Broadway album - "Every minor detail is a major decision...."

While all that's going on, I've also been trying to figure out exactly what to do with the ending of my second book. One morning I sent my sister (who is a wonderful sounding board for ideas) an email that began, "I need you to help me kill someone." I needed a believable way for someone in a rural setting to die in the early nineteenth century - disease? Accident?

I won't go into what we decided. But the conversation with her led me to another conversation with my husband in which he helped me work out the specifics of how this death could happen. Between the two of them, I have a pretty good idea of how this character is going to meet her demise.

The whole experience made me remember one of my favorite scenes from Shakespeare in Love:


Many thanks to my two incarnations of Kit Marlowe for all their inspiration!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Bad Selfies, Part 2

Wow, has it really been so long since I put up the first post about my bad selfies? I've got to get us back home on that trip!

When last we checked in, the hardy travelers were in San Francisco. That wasn't our penultimate destination, however; we had been dreaming of Yosemite since last December. What awesome scenery--this is a case when the word "awesome" is not an overstatement.

I call this one "Two Half Domes."

We camped for two nights at Yosemite. Originally, we had reserved three nights, but we decided to leave a night early for a couple of reasons--one, it was pretty darn chilly to a bunch of Southerners! and two, a family with a toddler boy camped beside us (and the campsites were practically on top of each other). The toddler boy was not a happy camper, let me tell you. So we packed up and drove over Tioga Pass Road. The big tourist attractions are down in the Yosemite Valley, but I believe I was more wowed by the starkness and immensity of the landscape going over the mountains. Incredible.

This picture is from a case of serendipity. When we were thinking about leaving Yosemite early, we asked a guide at the pioneer village on the southern end for his advice as to whether we should go to Glacier Point. He suggested if we left Yosemite early, we should go a little out of our way to see Bodie State Park. After going over Tioga Pass, we took a jag to the north and east into some pretty desolate countryside to the state park, which is a true ghost town, not a commercialized site. Bodie was a gold mining town that apparently had a very rowdy reputation. In the mid-twentieth century, it just dried up and everyone left. The state of California bought the town site years later and just left things the way they were. For our family, it was a stop worth making. You can't really get in any of the buildings except a small museum, but it is cool to wander around and peek in windows and see the stuff people left behind (and some of what they left was surprising).

We drove along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada, then spent the night in a hotel in Lone Pine, CA, a little town near the edge of Death Valley. Our plan was to hit the road early in the morning and cross Death Valley before it got hot. I suppose we were successful; it was only 107 degrees when we got to the visitor's center on the eastern side.


Death Valley was really not what we had expected it to be. I think we had visions of a huge, sandy desert, something like the Sahara. Instead, there were lots of really stark mountains. I keep using that word "stark," but that's what it is.

We hit two of the national parks in Utah, Zion National Park and Arches National Park. The scope of the arches is unreal.

Our last major stop along the way was Mesa Verde National Park. We really wanted to go back here because we had visited Mesa Verde in 2000, when my daughter was only 18 months old. Back then, just as we got to the highlight of the tour (the Cliff Palace), Lily got fussy, and I carried her out of the area to keep from ruining the tour for everyone else. How on earth did I carry a toddler up those narrow, steep ladders?? Anyway, she was much better behaved this time. 
This last picture is not a selfie, but it marks one of the most memorable moments of the trip. Another of the sites we visited in 2000 was Clayton Lake State Park in New Mexico, which has some dinosaur footprints that were uncovered when the lake was being built. We had taken a picture of the kids by the prints, and we thought it would be fun to recreate that picture 13 years later. Well, as we were driving to the middle of nowhere to get to Clayton Lake, a big storm was building. We had driven through some hail and extremely heavy rain earlier in the afternoon, so we knew this was a severe storm. We got to the park and started trying to find the footprints. They were about 3/4 of the way around the lake on a nice hiking trail--nice, that is, if you're not watching a severe storm get closer and closer. We finally got there, hurried up the picture, and headed back around the lake. That's when we started seeing streaks of lightning. Lily and I ran most of the way back around the lake--not an easy thing for a 50-year-old woman, let me tell you, but definitely preferable to being caught out in a storm! The landscape out there is so huge, though, that we got back to town, got some food, and headed out of town to spend the night in Oklahoma before the storm arrived. But as we drove across that extremely flat landscape, my husband and son swore they could see a funnel cloud dangling out of the front edge of the storm. 


I hope you enjoyed the selfies, and I hope you will take some of your own and share them with me!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

I Did It - I Jumped Off the Cliff

If you've read many posts on this blog, you know that I've been writing a book for a long time now--the nine-year anniversary is coming up next spring. That doesn't mean I've been writing it for nine years; for most of that time, I've been editing and trying to find something to do with it once it is "finished." I've submitted to carefully-targeted audiences--publishing companies, large and small, as well as agents--with no real success (although some people wrote very nice rejection letters mixed in among the great number of people who simply didn't respond). I finally decided if this book is ever going to see the outside of my flash drive, I'll have to publish it myself.

Even knowing that truth, I procrastinated. "I don't know enough." "I'm not sure the book is good enough." "I don't want to take money away from the family to do this." And the big one--"I just don't have time." But some events have come together in the past month that are wiping out my excuses. Someone in the publishing industry read the manuscript recently and advised me that she believes the book is "good enough" and people will actually want it. I ended up with a small stipend for some work I did this summer that was twice what I had expected, and, oddly enough, is just enough to cover the costs of getting the book out to the public. I've ended up with an unusually small speech class this semester, which means grading time is cut in half.

I think Someone is trying to tell me something.

So....I just jumped off the cliff. I bought ISBNs. Ten of them.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Bad Selfies on Vacation

This past June, my family took "The Last Great Family Vacation." That's what I called it anyway, mostly in jest, since our son would be starting college at the end of the summer and may not ever go on vacation with us again. Since it was "The Last Great," we made it a big one--two weeks on the road, with Yosemite National Park as our ultimate destination before we started back home. However, since it was the first trip into California, we hit all the major spots along the way, both on the way west and on the way back home.

I've had a sort of running joke with my Communication students. When we talk about symbols in Intro to Rhetoric class, I use my vacation experience as a way to explain indexicality. Every time the family goes on vacation, I tell the students, I have someone in the family take one picture of me to prove I was actually on the trip. The rest of the time, I'm behind the camera, being the "journalist" of the vacation.

One of our first real stops on this summer's trip was at El Morro National Monument in New Mexico. I love the pool of water at the monument--it is the first good source of water pioneers had as they were crossing the desert, and a number of them left their names carved into the relatively soft stone of the huge mountain above the pool. It's just a cool place, and I decided to take my one picture there. Except everyone else in the family had already moved on. I didn't want to call them back just to take a picture of me. Hey, everyone is taking selfies these days, right? So I took a selfie in front of the pool.

It was awful. I think I cut off the top of my head or something. So I deleted it and took off to catch up with the rest of the family.

At some point riding through the desert, though, I came up with what I thought was a great idea. What if having a bad selfie was the point? That it didn't matter what the "selfie" part looked like as long as the attraction showed up well in the picture. It would still act as an index proving I was on the trip, and it might be kind of funny to see how bad my selfies could be.

So I started taking bad selfies at every stop. My daughter finally started helping me line them up so the attraction looked good and I wouldn't have to take a dozen pictures to get the best of the bad. It was fun to document the trip this way. Usually I hate being in pictures, but who cares what I looked like in these? They were supposed to be bad, anyway!

I've been meaning all summer to share a travelogue of our trip through an exhibit of bad selfies. Now that we are at the "official" end of summer, Labor Day, I present.....

BAD SELFIES ON VACATION!



I wish I had thought of doing this before we visited the Grand Canyon, but my first bad selfie was at the Hoover Dam. Not a bad place to start, I guess.


This picture doesn't begin to capture the awesomeness of the Trail of 100 Giants in the Sequoia National Forest.



First view of the Pacific Ocean at Sunset State Beach near Watsonville, CA. There were a lot of clouds that evening, which I suppose "ruined" the sunset, but which I thought made for some rather dramatic pictures.


San Francisco was cool. We were there for only an afternoon, so we went to Fisherman's Wharf.


Of course, we took a ride on the cable cars. It was a really memorable experience - I didn't realize the cable cars share the streets with regular traffic, ha ha.

Well, the computer won't let me upload any more pictures for some reason, so I'll have to continue tomorrow.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Is This a Great First Line or What?

Friday night after the matriculation ceremony at my school, I met my husband and daughter at a restaurant for dinner. The whole time, my daughter hardly said two words because she had her nose buried in a book, which turned out to be A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz. She finished it today and was raving about it, and since I was between books, I asked if she could keep it out of the school library long enough for me to read it too.

I started it tonight, and I was hooked from the first line.

On the morning of the best day of her life, Maud Flynn was locked in the outhouse, singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

What masterful technique! This sentence foreshadows what's going to happen, hints at backstory, introduces the protagonist, and gives us an idea of her personality. Plus, it makes me so curious I must read on.

Ah, but therein lies the problem! This is really not a good time for a book that grabs me by the imagination and won't let go......I should be writing syllabi......

Saturday, August 24, 2013

What a Contrast!

I've finished two books within the past week, which is kind of unusual. I guess I'm procrastinating on putting together the syllabi for my classes (yes, school starts again on Tuesday, sniff, sniff). The first book, 10 Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher, is one I've had on my to-read list for quite a while after finding it during a browsing session on Amazon; the other, Love Comes Softly by Jannette Oke, is an ebook I checked out of the local library when I was trying to figure out how to check out books with my Kindle app. Both of them lean heavily on romantic elements, but that's about where the similarities end.

I have to admit, of the two, I much preferred 10 Cents a Dance. Much. It's the story of a half-Polish, half-Irish girl living in Chicago at the verge of World War II. Ruby's widowed mother is suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and so can no longer work to support the family. That means Ruby has to drop out of high school and work in the local meat-packing factory, which she hates, of course. But Ruby loves to dance, and when someone tells her she could make a lot of money at the Starlight "dance academy," she quits her day job and begins working at night as a taxi dancer for a nickel a dance and tips. (That's the only thing that bugged me - why is the book called 10 Cents a Dance when Ruby's salary was 5 cents a dance??? But anyway....)

The problem is, there's no way Ruby's strict Irish Catholic mother is going to go for her daughter working as a taxi dancer, which most people viewed as one step away from prostitution. So Ruby concocts a web of lies that her mother doesn't try too hard to pierce through, especially once Ruby is bringing in enough money to buy groceries and winter coats AND pay off the back rent.

This story was challenging. Some unpleasant things happen to Ruby, not the least of which is (SPOILER!) being beat up by her boyfriend. There's portrayal of racism and interracial relationships. There's the struggle Ruby faces between going far enough to get good tips and crossing the line into going too far. And all the way through, there is the tension of whether Ruby's lies will be found out and what the cost of those lies will be to her family. It's the kind of book that had me thinking about it for a good couple of days after I finished.

Love Comes Softly....well, granted, it's a different genre, Christian fiction, so Marty, the heroine, doesn't deal with life the same way Ruby does. Marty was on her way out West with her husband when he is killed in an accident, leaving her alone and pregnant. A local man who helped with the burial comes to Marty and makes a very forward proposition - his wife has died recently and he needs a mother for his young daughter. If Marty will marry him and be that mother, he will provide a home and food for her, with no expectation that she will be a "real" wife to him. Not having a lot of choice in a land of strangers, Marty agrees.

The remainder of the book shows how "Love Comes Softly" to overtake Marty, healing her loss and giving her a chance at a good life with a happy family and a loving husband. It's a sweet story.

So why do I much prefer the challenging story?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Waste Not, Want Not

Just about the only thing that is doing very well in my garden this year is the squash, both yellow crookneck and zucchini. For a while, I was diligent about getting rid of the squash bug eggs on the leaves (I've not been so good at that lately). The result is that I've accumulated quite a bit of squash, even with giving some to a couple of people at church. As of yesterday, I had four shopping bags' worth of squash in my refrigerator, which doesn't leave much room for other food! We've been eating a lot of squash, too - fried with a light cornmeal breading, crusted with parmesan cheese and broiled, raw in a salad, in a skillet sauteed with other veggies. At one point, we had squash of some kind for four of five meals (breakfast was the exception, ha ha).

Last night when I was making the rounds to check the garden, I found the zucchini in the picture above hiding discreetly under a couple of big leaves. The picture really doesn't do justice to the size of this squash. It it 15 inches long and probably four inches in diameter. It's definitely what my family refers to as a zucchini "club."

I always joke that I "grew up in the Great Depression," so I just couldn't stand to just throw it away. Because it will have big, more mature seeds, it won't be suited for frying or broiling. I've seen recipes using shredded zucchini, though, including one for brownies. So I made a batch this afternoon, without telling the family. (My daughter came in and caught me making them, so I had her help out and share the secret.) They are actually pretty good - the zucchini is not obvious.

It was priceless when my son realized these weren't ordinary brownies. I said something about "Mom's special brownies with an organic ingredient I grew myself," and he got this incredulous look on his face and said, "Zucchini? You put zucchini in them?" We all got a laugh. He says he's going to take some to band camp with him tomorrow and share the fun.

But can they compete with the return of Twinkies????

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Delightful Summer Diversion

(Finally! Something to say and time to say it coincide!)

After taking a couple of weeks off from reading while the family was on vacation, I decided on Eva Ibbotson's Journey to the River Sea as my reading re-boot for the summer. This is a book I knew nothing about when I picked it up as a "bargain" book during a visit to a mega-bookstore about two and a half years ago. The cover art is lovely, and I've always meant to read it (especially after trying to get my daughter interested in it). So far, it's been a great choice for summer reading.

In some ways, the story draws on what are definitely cliches in literature for children: the main character is an orphan; she has to deal with relatives who are hateful and borderline abusive. Harry Potter, anyone? But there are other ways in which I've found the story to be delightfully fresh, including the characters, the plot situation, and the setting.

Friday, April 26, 2013

I'm in a Slump

I used to be a big fan of basketball. One of the things I remember is that every now and then, some good player would go through a period of time during the season when he wasn't playing well. Maybe the problem would be he couldn't hit free throws, or maybe his overall shooting percentage went down.

Well, I'm having one of those, both as a reader and as a writer. I just don't have any drive to do either one, really. I blame it on the end of the semester, when the deluge of things to be graded by the end of the term overwhelms me. But this particular slump has been going on for a long enough time that it can't all be due to my workload. It distresses me a little, because to be a writer, a person has to write -- and I'm just not doing it lately.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Maybe This Shouldn't Bother Me - But It Does

My daughter has turned out to be quite an avid reader. Just before spring break, she finished reading Graceling by Kristin Cashore, and she had been going on about how good it was. Since I was finishing up The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare, I decided Graceling would be my next book.

I don't really regret that decision, but I'm not entirely happy with how it's turning out. I'm 20 chapters into the book now, and while I normally wait until I'm finished with a book before writing about it (so I'm not making snap judgments about things that work out in the end), a couple of things bother me about this book and I just need to sort them out by thinking on paper (or pixels, in this case).

Monday, March 4, 2013

A New Perspective on "Vanity" Publishing

One of the phrases that people always use as a derogatory term about self-publishing is "vanity publishing," as if the reason someone wants to publish a book is to get attention and praise. I'm sure there's an element of that desire in publishing any book, whether it goes through the traditional channels or is self-published. I recently read a self-published autobiography that on the surface would seem to be a perfect example of publishing for "vanity"; however, there's a reason for publishing the book that goes beyond simple vanity.

The book I read was written by an older man who was looking back at his life and recounting his career in the Air Force. It doesn't really have a narrative structure - no rising plot action, no climax, just a series of anecdotes and year-to-year chronological events. At first, I was sort of frustrated by it and counting how many pages were left. It seemed so pointless and a true exercise in vanity. Why should I care about the type of equipment some guy worked on during the 1980s? But a friend at church who knows the man had given the book to me to read, and I didn't want to lie to a church friend and say I'd read it when I really hadn't, so I kept going.

Eventually, though, I began to look at the story differently. Sure, there was no "plot." Sure, there were plenty of trivial details. But that's true of life, too. Although it may not have what we would normally see as literary merit, I don't think the story is without merit altogether. Ernst (the author) says in his preface, "I would highly encourage everyone, especially those over about 50 years old, to generate a similar book to document their life experiences...it helps future generations from your family to better understand their ancestry."

His point is a good one. What better way is there to learn about our history and our culture than by reading the stories of people who really lived that history? I've learned enough about the publishing industry to know not every story is going to get the financial support it takes to get published; only those stories that publishers believe will sell plenty of copies are going to be published. That gives us a limited range of stories to tell our history and to teach us about our culture - and that is our loss!

So I'm glad I read this book, all the tedious details about radar sites and the disconnected anecdotes about his friends and his work with the Boy Scouts. And I'm glad he published it, and I agree with him - I would highly encourage everyone, especially those who are older, to put together the story of their life and times and to find a way to publish that story, at least for family, but even better, for all of us. I would also encourage the rest of us to seek out and read some of these stories.

I've got a good one you can start with - my mother wrote a memoir of her childhood during the 1940s in rural Arkansas. She has a much better sense of "literary merit" than Mr. Ernst, so her story fits together as a story, along with being a good cultural record. The story is called In the Shade of the White Oak. She didn't publish it to a general audience, but I bet I could set you up with a copy if you want to leave a reply.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Heroes Come in All Sizes

There seems to be a theme developing in my reading this year - every book I've read so far (except The Little Prince) deals with war. They've all been touching, but I think the one I finished this morning - Under a War-Torn Sky by L.M. Elliott - may be the most emotionally-affecting yet.

The protagonist of this story is a young (very young - the age of my students) American pilot, Henry Forester, who is shot down over France while on a bombing mission. Fortunately for Henry, he's landed among people who don't support the Nazis, and thus begins an effort by French Resistance workers to help him escape from France back to England via Spain. The story builds tension as Henry goes from one contact to another, always in fear of being discovered by the Nazi soldiers who seem to be everywhere.

Once again, fiction has taught me something about history I didn't know before. (I'm beginning to wonder - did I learn ANYTHING in school???) Maybe I had heard of the French Resistance, but I knew nothing about them. This story, based on the true story of Elliott's father, gives me a great deal of respect for the danger these people put themselves in to rescue and smuggle stranded American and British pilots through France, as well as their tenacity in harassing the occupying Nazis. There is one section of the book in which Henry has finally been captured by the Gestapo and is being "interrogated." Now, this is a young adult novel, so nothing is too graphic, but the cruelty of Henry's captor is chilling. Imagine people who would willingly make themselves targets for that kind of cruelty in the service of a cause rather than taking the easier path of simply bearing up under the occupation and waiting for it to be gone.

Something I appreciated about this story was that the French Resistance heroes came in a variety of forms. Of course, there were the maquis, the men - well, usually teen boys, since their fathers had been shipped to Germany and forced to work in munitions factories - who did the fighting and blew up the railroad bridges. But I was surprised by how many women were heroes in this story - all kinds of women. There was the young woman who pressed a passionate kiss on Henry to hide his face from Nazi soldiers at the train station. There was beautiful Madame Gaulloise, who flirted and sweet-talked her way past border guards. There was the widowed housewife who hid Henry - and contraband weapons - in her barn. There was Claudette, who had the spirit to be a maquis fighter herself if her sex hadn't prevented it. Besides the women, though, there was even the smallest of heroes - 8-year-old Pierre, who came walking up to claim Henry when he had no idea who his next Resistance contact was supposed to be. As Elliott points out in her author's note, all these characters - even little Pierre - are based on real (although usually nameless) people involved with the Resistance.

One of the things that was most affecting about this book is that the characters disappear out of the storyline just as they disappeared out of Henry's life when he went to his next contact. Yet he doesn't forget them, and neither can we. But there's no neat literary resolution of the tension, like an epilogue, that tells us what happened to Madame Gaulloise or Claudette. And that's reality. I did see that Elliott has written a sequel that has Henry returning to France to look into what happened to the people who helped him. I guess I know what my next Amazon purchase will be!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A Silver Lining to the Cyber-Cloud

There's been some angst lately over the newest feature of Facebook (the Graph Search), which some people say is a major invasion of privacy. Regardless of how you feel about the whole issue of data mining, there's no doubt that much of what we do online is being followed, sometimes under the guise of "helping to improve your experience."

One thing that always seemed a little creepy to me are the recommendations from Amazon, based on my search history and purchases. Sometimes the things I search for on Amazon are not necessarily things I personally want to know about but are things I need to look up for classes, and it is kind of creepy to think all that is being blended into a profile of my interests and likes. Really, I am not THAT into books about marketing, haha!

Every now and then, though, Amazon's industrious little spider (is that the right term?) hits the jackpot. Recently the "suggestions" section has included a number of books that I've found interesting--with several of them at a price I can't refuse. One of those is the book I finished this morning, In the Shadow of the Lamp by Susanne Dunlap.

In the Shadow of the Lamp is the story of a young girl in London who joins the contingent of nurses going with Florence Nightingale to the Crimea. Molly is really too young and too attractive to be the kind of woman Miss Nightingale wanted as a nurse, but she promises to follow Miss Nightingale's strict rules and so is kept on. Of course, through no fault of her own, she breaks a few of the rules, putting her nursing career in jeopardy several times. The rule that seems hardest for Molly to keep is the one about having no friendly contact whatsoever with men - the nurses were to be strictly professional at all times (I can understand why, since this was a pioneering period for women as nurses). Molly's friend Emma, who is also young and attractive, likes to flirt, and Molly herself is the object of the romantic attention of a young doctor. Add to the mix Molly's love interest from London who has joined the British Army in hopes of seeing her again. His wish is granted, of course, when he's shipped to the Crimean front.

That sounds like a lot of romance. But the most important relationship in this story is the one between Molly and Miss Nightingale. Although Miss Nightingale is strict and sometimes even harsh, she recognizes Molly's gift for nursing and serves as a mentor to help Molly learn and stretch. (Spoiler Alert!!) Ultimately, Molly goes too far against the rules, leaving Miss Nightingale no option but to dismiss her from the nursing service. But even then, their parting is not as hostile as one might expect.

I enjoyed the book. I knew only the outline of Florence Nightingale's story. I probably read a juvenile biography of her when I was a kid (I went through a phase of reading every biography I could get my hands on). But I didn't know enough about the Crimean War to even be able to date the story; I had to do a quick check on Wikipedia (the date was 1854, by the way, which surprised me - I thought it would be the 1880s or so). So I learned something, which always raises a book's value in my eyes. And it was fun to read in a light-hearted, innocent way, which I definitely needed after my speech class yesterday (Grrrr......still mad at them). And I have to admit, the plot events at the end really caught me off guard.

Actually, the ending was the only thing I would complain about. (More spoilers!!!) I felt the story wrapped up too quickly and that it would have been better to have at least one more chapter. For example, I don't even know what was wrong with Will - had his leg been amputated, or was it simply a temporary lameness? If his injury wasn't pretty serious, why did he get to come home from the battle when other men were patched up and sent back to fight? When did Will get his injury, anyway, in the big scheme of the ending events of the story? Would he really have had time to get to London before Molly? Then there is the whole issue of their feelings about each other. Their last meeting hadn't really gone so well; I think even if he loved Molly, Will would have needed a little time and a little more reassurance to get over what sure seemed like a jilting.

In light of my last post, I was also divided in my reaction to the ending. On the one hand, there is the "feminist" side that thinks Dunlap copped out by having a traditional happy-ever-after ending, in which the girl gets the guy, when there was a great opportunity to have her be an independent woman making her own way in the world. But the other side, the "romantic" side, simply says, "Ah.....how nice." And smiles.

So, I'll forgive that creepy little Amazon spy-der, because it pointed me toward a good story I wouldn't have found on my own. And now I suppose I should go leave a review on Amazon, in hopes of feeding the spy-der so it will know I like historical fiction more than marketing texts, and it can give even better choices in the future!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Another Round in the Gender Wars

One of the pages I follow on Facebook is Pigtail Pals, Ballcap Buddies, partly because Melissa Wardy is good at rooting out information I'm able to use in various communication classes. (Yeah, I'm lazy, too lazy to find these things on my own.) Lately, she's been on a tear about Disney princesses and how media messages aimed at girls emphasize that a woman's greatest ambition should be to grow up to marry the handsome prince. She is a big fan of the movie Brave (which I haven't seen yet) because it shows a girl in an active, heroic role, and she argues we need more of those kinds of role models for girls so they have something to aspire to.

I wouldn't argue with her point. The world of women I see on the screen is much more limited and limiting than the world I live in every day, which is limited and limiting in its own way. However, I still love a "happily ever after" love story, and that makes me feel a bit like I'm in collusion with the "enemy."

Let's take Shannon Hale's Book of a Thousand Days as a case study. Basically, the book is the diary of a lower-class girl (Dashti, a "mucker") who is the handmaid to Lady Saren, a princess (or whatever the equivalent term would be for a princess in medieval Mongolia) whose father has imprisoned her in a tower for refusing to marry the ruler of a neighboring province, Lord Khasar. When young Khan Tegas of a different province (whom the princess has promised to marry in their exchange of letters for the past several years) comes to check on them, Lady Saren orders Dashti to impersonate her and talk to him. Dashti does, and they develop a friendship and connection, despite being on opposite sides of a thick stone wall.

(Rats, I have to use spoilers again....)

Eventually, Dashti finds a way for the two girls to escape the tower and starvation, and she gets them to the safety of Khan Tegas' province. By this time, though, Lady Saren is so tower-addled that Dashti knows she can't take the princess to her betrothed just yet. Meanwhile, Dashti is called in to sing the healing songs when the khan and one of his top generals are wounded, and although it is impossible, given their differing social status, they begin to fall in love (though she doesn't admit that).

While Lady Saren is recovering, the province is threatened by Lord Kashar, who has annihilated at least two other provinces and has come to claim his bride. Dashti saves the day by telling everyone SHE is Lady Saren and going to face Lord Kashar alone. Everyone then thinks she's really Lady Saren, and the khan plans to marry her--until her true identity is discovered. Then she's sentenced to death--until the khan pulls some pretty slick legal maneuvers and saves her life, as well as clearing the way for the two of them to marry. So we have our happily ever after ending.

I liked this story. It has some important digressions from the standard romance story. For one thing, Dashti has a red birthmark on her face and arm, so she's not the typical "beautiful" heroine. For another, she and the  khan clearly fall in love through talking to each other, not through superficial, physical attraction. And probably most importantly, Dashti is the one who saves the whole province by taking down Lord Khasar.

Yet...there are many of the same conventions of the regular fairy tale. Dashti defeats Lord Khasar by using her sexual appeal (I'm not going to say how - at least, I can save one surprise for you!) In the end, it is the khan who rescues Dashti from the death sentence. And the happily-ever-after ending is that Dashti and the khan get married--totally traditional.

I suppose hard-core feminists would trash the book for those conventional elements. They might argue that even though Dashti rescues the province, she does it for the love of the khan and that her ultimate goal, even if she thinks it can never happen, is to be with him. And once again, we have a story for girls that emphasizes the most important and satisfying thing that can happen to a woman is getting the handsome prince.

Why can't we have it both ways? Can't we have heroines who are brave and strong but who also fall in love? Does hoping she'll find a true love to marry automatically disqualify a heroine from being an acceptable role model?

I'd like to think instead that Dashti is the kind of role model we DO want for girls. Unlike the Disney princesses, who are passive and beautiful and only living for the prince, Dashti is developed as a real person (she wanted to smack Lady Saren a few times, but controlled herself), and falling in love is just one part of that. Sometimes she is the one who is doing the saving, sometimes she's the one who needs the help. I don't see that as a bad thing.


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Blistering Pace!

This morning I finished reading Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, my fourth book for this month. I don't know when the last time was that I've read so many in one month. I guess a big part of it is that everything I've read has been a novel, but they've all been good ones, and I feel eager to pick up another one right this moment and keep reading! Of course, I can't do that -- real life and a day job, you know. I may have finished the novel this morning, but I'm only marginally prepared for class. As Dashti would say, "Ancestors, help me!"

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Sexual Politics and "Atonement"

(Let's use a different cover image to match today's topic, shall we?)

After finishing Ian McEwan's Atonement, I was perusing the reviews on Goodreads just to procrastinate doing the dishes or some other household task. Near the top of the list was a one-star review that blasted McEwan for, among other things, being on a "tireless crusade against little girls. Little girls who tell on men." The reviewer argues that McEwan has portrayed the young girl in the story (who has the nerve to call Robbie on his sexual misdeeds) as the villain, and that constitutes one more step in the long journey to villify women who resist or speak out against male sexual dominance. In a comment added to the review, the reviewer goes on to say, "The story is very much about sexual politics...Briony represents something that ought to be defended more in literature. What Robbie and Cecilia represent never really needed defending at all."

I think this reviewer is looking at the story through a particular set of glasses, and that is distorting what she sees. As the saying goes, "When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Let me say right off the bat that I'm not anti-woman and I'm not an apologist for male dominance. But I believe the reviewer is making the same error Briony made in interpreting Robbie's behavior--she begins with the assumption that Robbie is a "maniac."

Sure, during the chapter in which Robbie writes his infamous note, he is thinking a lot about sex and about Cecilia. But there is more in the narration of his thoughts in which he is concerned about what Cecilia thinks about him and in which he is thinking about her mind and personality than there is narration of his thoughts about her body. I don't read that section as describing a man obsessed with sex; I read that section as a man in love with a woman, body and soul. The draft of the note in which he put his fantasies into words was not meant for anyone to see. How many of us have written an email message in which we tell the boss exactly what we think about him/her, just to get it out of our system, and then delete it? Robbie rewrote the note in a more socially acceptable form, and that was the version he intended to deliver to Cecilia. The fact that the wrong version ended up in Briony's hands was simply an accident, just as it would be if one accidentally hit "send" instead of "delete" on that email to the boss.

So what is the reviewer condemning Robbie for? Is the reviewer saying Robbie is wrong to have passion for Cecilia? That natural sexual desire is wrong (because what Robbie thought and wrote wouldn't seem to fall within the parameters of deviancy)? I find myself more upset with Briony for interpreting everything she saw as signs for a "maniac" (which wasn't even her word - Lola supplied the label) and for choosing to "tell on" Robbie in a setting with such high stakes and that gave him no opportunity to refute the accusations. If Briony was so concerned that Robbie was a menace, why didn't she mention any of her concerns earlier in the day to someone - if she didn't trust her mother enough, why didn't she say something to Cecilia? Part of me believes it's because Briony wanted the power that comes with watching and knowing and with being able to use the information to suit her purposes at the right time. Remember, she felt Robbie was a male threat who was going to disrupt the order of her family, so she felt entirely justified in stretching the truth a bit to eliminate the threat. I'm convinced Briony knew Paul Marshall was the man she saw at the scene of Lola's attack - how would she later know he was the one when Lola is marrying Paul? But Briony wanted the blame to fall on Robbie. "Suddenly, Briony wanted her to say his name. To seal the crime, frame it with the victim's curse, close his fate with the magic of naming." There's sexual politics for you.

Yet I can't entirely blame Briony. She was a child, and a sheltered, indulged child at that. Her only vision of love was the fairytales and weddings that made up the stories she wrote about. And yes, Robbie was a male threat who would have disrupted her family had he wooed and eventually married her sister. Briony's peeks at the note and at the scene between Cecilia and Robbie in the library were glimpses of something she didn't know anything about, and like any normal human, she tried to make sense of it by labeling it. Unfortunately for Robbie, the label Briony ended up with - "maniac" - had connotations that became all too serious, given the events of the evening.

Speaking of the events of the evening, was Paul Marshall's attack on Lola (for which Robbie was blamed) definitely rape? I'm not saying that because I'm trying to blame the victim or excuse the attacker. I'm genuinely curious because there are things that don't make logical sense to me. First - what happened in those five years between the attack and the wedding between Paul and Lola? Where did Lola go? If Paul raped her, why would he come back around and allow himself to get in a position to marry her? If Lola knew Paul was the one, how did she get him to marry her? By blackmailing him and threatening to expose the truth? But why would there be a five-year interval? And would the courts have believed her, when such a big deal is made of the unlikelihood they would believe a retraction if Briony made one? I can understand why Lola and Paul might have married later if their encounter was consensual and Lola said nothing at the time to spare herself the shame of being discovered. But the story calls it rape and I have to trust it, although, in my opinion, this is one of the weakest points of McEwan's plot.

I don't want this post to be taken as an excuse for the mistreatment some women suffer at the hands of some men. And as a rhetorical critic and teacher of media criticism, I see plenty of ways in which the mass media subordinate women and try to belittle or silence their voices. I read a good blog post the other day about a film festival that focuses on women as leaders, since there are so few mainstream films that give women any substantive role at all. But I think we are making a mistake when we allow our sexual politics, like our governmental politics, to become so partisan that the normal attraction between lovers is seen as another sign of the political struggle.

Friday, January 25, 2013

On Writing and Playing God

I sure do like it when a book leaves me with mental puzzles to think about for days after I've finished. Just now, I've hit the end of Atonement by Ian McEwan, and my mind is just buzzing with all kinds of thoughts.

First, I have to say there will be numerous spoilers in this post, because I can't talk about the things I want to say without revealing most of what happens in the book. You were warned!

Where to start? I guess I'll take on the most obvious thing first, the title theme, the atonement. As we find out at the end of the book, the whole story is a draft of a novel written by Briony Tallis to try to atone for something she did when she was 13 that drastically altered the lives of her sister and a close family friend. Briony falsely accused the friend, Robbie Turner, of raping her cousin, and because Briony was so adamant in her insistence that she had seen Robbie leaving the scene, he was wrongly convicted and sent to prison. Briony's sister (Cecilia) and Robbie had only just come to understand that they loved each other, so of course Briony's accusation makes their budding romance even more difficult. The fallout of the accusation is not all on Cecilia and Robbie, however; as she grows up, Briony's guilt pushes her into a lifestyle of self-inflicted punishment and penance. She goes into training as a nurse rather than attending college, putting herself into circumstances in which she will be forced to do nasty and humbling things (like cleaning bedpans). At some point, Briony decides the best way to make atonement for ruining Robbie and Cecilia's lives is by confessing everything in writing, through a novel.