Thursday, June 18, 2015

The "Guilty Pleasure," Marlow-Style

This story began when I needed to do a quick consistency check for a couple of characters who are the major players in my third novel. Both characters are introduced in my first novel, His Promise True, so my intention was to simply read the sections which feature those two characters, just to make sure I wasn't giving them personality transplants or anything like that.

At some point, "I'll just read those paragraphs with these characters" became "I'm reading this entire book." It's actually the first time I've read the book as a book, meaning I'm not doing any editing, which is a completely different type of reading. I also hadn't looked at the book at all since it was published in 2013, because I've been putting my scarce time for writing/reading into finishing the second novel and starting the third. So it feels like it was time to visit Maggie and John David again.

I'm pleased to report I haven't been cringing every few pages, wondering why I made the choices I did in the final edit that was published. However, it also hasn't been a completely positive experience, and that's mainly because of the guilt I feel about reading my own book (again) when there are so many good books waiting in the to-be-read list (42 on my Goodreads list alone). It's taken me more than a month to read the book, which is less than 300 pages, and that bothers me too. My only excuse on that front is the past month included finals week and the beginning of blueberry season on the farm, so I'm too tired at night to read more than a couple of pages. Every time I log in to Goodreads, I'm taunted by the fact that my "currently reading" status is blank (because it would just be too weird to publicly announce on a site like Goodreads that I'm reading my own book).

Really, though, I don't know that I should feel so guilty. One of the adages one hears over and over about writing is, "Write what you like to read." That's exactly what I did. What I like are historical books, especially books about pioneers, with a strong, interesting female character whose skin I can slip into for a while and a male love interest who is human, meaning his flaws are real-to-life and not some kind of plot device. I like for these characters to struggle and face obstacles, but to ultimately have a happy ending.

I developed this literary taste as a teen reading Janice Holt Giles, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Loula Grace Erdman, Margaret Leighton, and Elizabeth George Speare, among others. It's stayed pretty constant as I've grown to be a middle-ager. The problem is, I'm having trouble finding those kinds of books now. Historical fiction, especially pioneer stories, is just not what agents and publishers are looking for. I guess if I want to read that kind of story, I have to write it myself, ha ha.

I'm going to give myself a little bit of a break this time, and say that His Promise True counts as the "guilty pleasure" book on my book challenge for this year. The problem is....His Promise True leads right in to A Permanent I allowed TWO guilty pleasures???

(I'm being serious right now - if anyone has suggestions for historical novels that fit the description above, I'd love to check them out. It doesn't even have to be a pioneer story...but I do really want historical more than contemporary.)

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A Definite Generation Gap

As promised, I'm reporting back on the Avett Brothers concert from last weekend. But the concert brought up something unexpected, so I'll switch gears in the middle of this post - hope you won't mind.

The concert itself allayed my fears for now. It was actually a very unexpected experience, very different from the first concert I went to in September. The venue was the Shrine Mosque in Springfield, a lovely old building on the National Register of Historic Places (a plaque downstairs said it was completed in 1923). I explored a little before the concert and found a cool fez collection.

The unexpected part was that the concert was general admission seating, no assigned seats, in a big old basketball gym that seats about 4,000 people. What that meant was we were able to sit much closer than we had anticipated, and actually, we were able to walk up and stand with the crowd in front of the stage. When I've been to events with celebrities before, I always joke that the stars were about "an inch tall" (or less) because I have to sit so far back they look tiny. For this concert, I was able to get close enough (I didn't try to get to the front row, though) to see the band members as actual people. I suppose that sounds stupid, but trust me, it's one thing to see their faces on a jumbo-tron (as at the concert in September) and quite another to be able to distinguish facial expressions in person. I didn't quite have the nerve to stay with the crowd in front of the stage for the whole concert; for one thing, I felt I shouldn't just abandon the people I came with, ha ha, and they didn't want to stand up front. If I had been alone, I probably would have stayed in that crowd; it was a nice, polite crowd, united in their enjoyment of the music.

But none of that really has anything to do with what I was so worried about in my last post, that the Brothers are becoming commodified. Or maybe it does, because there were several moments when the concert seemed intimate, like the crowd and the band were sharing something. One of my favorite moments (which also happened to be while I was standing in the crowd up front) was at the end of "At the Beach." Seth ad-libbed several little riffs (the guy has impressive falsetto, btw), and the crowd repeated them back. It became almost like a game, with Seth altering the "words," the rhythm, and the melody like he was trying in a friendly way to trip us up (as I recall, it didn't work). And the final song before the encore, "I and Love and You," was really, really nice. The gestures I feared were "canned" didn't happen in this concert, and once again, the band seemed to be giving full effort into the show. So I'm going to push those worries way into the back of my mind.

The thing that most struck me as something to talk about from this concert didn't actually have anything to do with the band. We made this a family trip to the concert, taking our college-age son and our daughter, who is a high school sophomore. It was the first real rock concert for both of them. Our son disappeared into the crowd in front of the stage and we didn't see him again until the concert was over. Our daughter stayed with us in the seats. Part of that may be because she's only 5-2 and wouldn't have been able to see anything if she had been in the crowd, but she also didn't want to be so close to the other people. Now, don't get me wrong - she enjoyed the concert. When they started in on "Distraction #74," she screamed (in my ear), and she did it again when Seth came to the front with just his guitar for "The Ballad of Love and Hate" (probably her favorite of their songs). But after the concert had been going for about an hour, I came back from standing with the down-front crowd, and saw this:

WHAT??? She was TEXTING during an Avett Brothers concert???? I asked her who she was texting, and she said she was talking to a couple of her friends, one of which is an Avett Brothers fan. She said she was telling them about which songs the band was playing.

At the time, I just shook my head and turned back to the stage to enjoy the music. But later, I got to thinking about it, and I wondered if this is a sign of a huge difference in our generations. For my generation, being AT the concert and participating and singing along and standing in a crowd of like-minded fans is the reason a person pays the price of a ticket. For my daughter's generation, is the experience only real when it is shared on social media? I saw a lot of cellphones aimed at the stage, recording the performance for later playback - or for publishing to YouTube. Now, I'm personally glad for those videos on YouTube, but I do know from years of trying to record my kids' performances in the halftime performances for their high school band that you can't really watch and be in the moment when you are recording something at the same time. Being in the moment - that's the key thing. I've gradually come to see it's more important to be mindful and truly live the moment rather than to only halfway live the moment in a quest to preserve it so I can re-live it later. Lately, I've decided to take a quick snapshot of my kid and then put the camera down and actually watch the performance as it happens in front of me, live.

Maybe my daughter would have been more engaged with the concert if "her people" had been there to share it with her. Or maybe they all would have been live-Tweeting or posting selfies with the stage and the band in the that a bad thing? Maybe that's just their new method of being "in the moment."

Thursday, April 30, 2015

For Love or Money?

(I actually started writing this post about a month ago, so please forgive the outdated reference to the time change.)

I feel a little melancholy this morning. One reason may be that it's a gray, misty morning the second day into Daylight Savings Time. But the thing that really seemed to trigger my melancholy was seeing a new email message pop up in my account, one from the Avett Brothers. I joked with myself - "Oh, they are sending me a message!"- though I knew very well it was a message alerting me to a pre-sale for tickets to concerts in my area.

It wasn't until a little later, when I was driving to work in the gray, misty morning that the melancholy really set in, when a sort of melancholy song by the Avett Brothers ("All My Mistakes") came on. And it occurred to me that the band whose music I so love has become a commodity, a brand, sending marketing emails just like Best Buy and Hancock Fabrics.

Now don't get me wrong - I totally understand why it has happened. The music is how these guys make a living and support their families, and I don't begrudge them being able to do that. I also realize that if not for commodification, I would never have discovered these guys and had all the pleasure their music has brought me. So I feel a bit like a hypocrite to even start to analyze their "brand" (but I'm going to do it, anyway, ha ha).

I show a PBS Frontline video called The Merchants of Cool in some of my classes. One of the points made in the video is that popular culture is always on the hunt for something "cool," which generally (to me) seems to come down to something authentic, something that hasn't been packaged by the big companies and sold to us as "cool." The video points out that while a lot of us are satisfied with the "cool" sold to us, sometimes we hunger for real "cool," something that hasn't yet been touched by the finger of corporate America.

The career path of the Avett Brothers could be a case study for an updated version of this video. The band started with two brothers playing acoustic music as a side project to their main gig of being in a rock band. You can't get much more authentic than that - brothers sneaking off to play the music they love, not the music that will "sell." The story gets even better - they met and auditioned their bass player in a parking lot. That was followed by years of building audiences for their music, one concert at a time. They earned a reputation for themselves as having a killer live show, and they put out five studio albums, three live albums, and two EPs on the independent record label Ramseur Records before their album Emotionalism caught the eye (ear?) of mega-producer Rick Rubin. To make a long story shorter, they signed with Rubin and since then have put out three major-label albums.They now play to audiences in the thousands and are one of the top draws at the big music festivals like Bonnaroo. They are going to be musical guests on one of David Letterman's final shows. Their story is the dream for anyone who aspires to be a performer.

Yet, I fear that success has come at a cost. One of the songs from an early Avett Brothers album articulated what some view as the band's mission statement:
They may pay us off in fame
But that is not why we came
And if it compromises truth, then we will go
As far as I can tell, the brothers have tried to stay true to their pledge to present truth as they see it; some of the songs on their last album, like "Good to You" and "Part from Me," are almost painfully honest glimpses into the cost chasing success can take on a relationship. I believe the band also tries to be true to their roots in their live shows. I went to a concert back in September of last year, and the impression that stuck with me is that those guys worked HARD for two and a half hours to entertain the crowd. They sang 27 songs, including five or six encores, and there was no "dead" time or dull "let us catch our breath" moments; they were "on" in every way for the whole show.

And yet....I sense commodification is weaving its fingers around them, insidiously, of course. For a few days after the concert, I had withdrawals (ha ha), so I tried hunting up footage on YouTube (the band has also been very smart in their generous use of online video). As I found concert footage, I began to notice some of the moments from the show I saw live were also reappearing in videos taken at other shows. Seth doing the solo at the end of "Kick Drum Heart" and throwing his arm into the air dramatically following a hard chord. Scott running/skipping around the stage during that same solo and coming up to give Seth a chop-massage on the back while Seth was shredding. A lineup of the band members doing a little waltzing sway to "Down with the Shine."

Why should that bother me? Hey, as a teacher, I have certain little gimmick phrases I use in the lecture on a particular topic semester after semester - if something works, keep it. But I couldn't help feeling a little - I don't know, taken for a ride, maybe? - to find out what I thought was the enthusiasm of the moment in the concert was more like a script. And now I'm getting marketing messages in my email.

I suppose what makes me melancholy is something else from The Merchants of Cool. The narrator makes the point that once marketers find something genuinely "cool," they exploit it, mass-produce it, sell it, until they kill it and it's no longer "cool." Then they move on to the next "cool" thing. One of the Avett Brothers' songs, "Famous Flower of Manhattan," has what I consider the perfect line to describe this:
And people don't ever let you down
Forever find a way to kill whatever life they've found
I guess that's what I'm afraid of - that the merchants of cool will take these brothers and their sincere, honest songs and use them up until nothing real is left and they are just a brand. I've seen it happen to other artists - I used to love Brad Paisley's music, and now I can't stand to listen to his recent stuff because it just seems to be more of the same old "popular" crap that is country music these days. I can't stand it to think that might happen to my precious Brothers.

It's not inevitable, I remind myself. There are artists who have been part of the big music machine and yet stayed true to themselves, and these brothers seem to be pretty grounded. And, darn it, I don't have to be such a rhetorical critic, reading deep meanings into every little thing (ha ha). I'm going tomorrow night to do some more field research - the band is going to be within three hours of home, so I'm bookending this hard year on the job with a concert in September and one in May. I'll see what I can observe, and maybe I'll report back. In the meantime, here's the song that got me started on all this:

When Does Violence Go "Too Far"?

In 25 years of teaching speech, there have been only two speeches that I wish I hadn't heard, not because the speeches were all that bad, but because the subject matter really disturbed me. In both cases, the problem was violence. The first speech was a detailed discussion of different methods of torture throughout history, and the second was a persuasive speech against wearing fur in which the student used a video of small animals being skinned alive because it's easier to skin them when they are struggling. (Still haunts me....) I don't know if I'm hyper-sensitive to violence because I have such an empathetic mind (I think I talked about that in a recent post), but certain types of violence really, really bother me.

I came across a couple of passages of such violence while reading Nancy Dane's latest novel, A Reasonable Doubt, over the weekend. The novel is a continuation of Dane's series about the Civil War in Arkansas; this book picks up the lives of the characters several years later, during the period of Reconstruction. It's a violent period of time. Government is corrupt, especially local government, and tempers flare over injustice. Local officials are murdered in both Johnson County (the setting for the story) and Pope County (the neighboring county). Ms. Dane does meticulous research for her novels, so I'm sure these murders happened, along with the popular designation of "bloody Clarksville" for the town in the novel. The defeated former Confederate soldiers are frustrated in their efforts to have any measure of control in politics or business, and frequently, that frustration boils to the surface in violence of some kind - whether it is simply threatening someone or actually shooting and killing someone.

But there were two specific acts of violence in the story that disturbed me. (SPOILER ALERT!!!) The first is when two very corrupt officials come out to levy an exorbitant tax on Bill Tanner's (the hero of the story) sawmill operation. Bill is understandably upset, and he attacks one of the officials, knocking him to the ground and beating/kicking him. (I hope I have those details right; I've loaned my copy of the novel to a friend who is reading them aloud to her husband.) The other official pulls out a derringer and grazes Bill's arm. What comes next is the part that bothers me. Bill grabs the official, pulls him over to the fire, and brands him with the poker. Then, for good measure, he also brands the other official (the one he had beaten/kicked before - named Harvey, for later reference).

The second incident comes at the end of the book. Abigail (Bill's love interest) is being threatened by Harvey, who also claims to have kidnapped her son. Harvey wants Bill's stash of money from the sawmill business, and it's clear he is a pretty nasty character who will do whatever it takes to get the money. After a bit of a chase scene, Abigail and Harvey end up by the chopping block, where Abigail grabs the axe and disables Harvey with a couple of chops to his arm and leg. He's not really a threat to her at that point, but Abigail raises the axe again, and as Harvey is pleading for his life, sinks it into his skull.

OK. Both of those acts are pretty high on the "bother me" scale, I guess because the victim of the violence is suffering and pleading. But what really bothered me, more than the violence itself, was the attitude of the characters toward committing the violence. Keep in mind that the two characters who did the branding (Bill) and the skull-smashing (Abigail) are the protagonists of the story. Those acts are pretty despicable things for protagonists to have done, even to nasty antagonists. When I read the scene about the branding, I expected Bill to be somewhat remorseful after the fact, realizing that his temper and his frustration got the best of him and that he needed to listen to his better nature and keep his violent tendencies in check. But that's not what happened. Instead, Bill tells Abigail he should have killed Harvey instead of simply branding him. Bill's attitude is that the best way to deal with a problem like Harvey is the "final solution" - to eliminate the problem by ensuring Harvey can never bother him again. At no point does Bill show any remorse. Even when he's on trial for assaulting Harvey, Bill isn't sorry for what he's done, only that he may have to go to jail for what he's done. In Dane's earlier novels, I liked Bill. I don't think I like him very much anymore.

Bill's attitude rubs off on Abigail. When she witnesses the branding incident from the kitchen window, she is appalled and for some time resists her growing attraction to Bill. How can she love a man who is so readily and easily so violent? But when her own "moment of truth" comes and she's standing over a wounded man who is pleading for his life, she adopts Bill's solution to the problem - she brings the axe down so Harvey will no longer be a threat.

Sure, Harvey is a nasty character who kidnapped and threatened Abigail and her son and who was trying to steal Bill's hard-earned money. Did he deserve what he got? Maybe. Probably. But I just find it hard to relate to protagonists who choose to view and dispense violence as the best solution to their problems.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A "Theme Poem" - Doesn't Everyone Have One?

Photo credit: Mayfly1963
It's National Poetry Month, and one of the items on my reading challenge list is a book of poetry. So I went to the shelf of books from my good ole' days as an English major and pulled down the thinnest volume, 100 selected poems by e.e. cummings. I've been reading four or five of them each night. At first, I was maintaining good "English major" form, trying to analyze the figurative language and appreciate the depth of allusions and analogies, and so forth. But honestly, I'm kind of tired at the end of the day, and that kind of analysis takes a lot of mental energy. So the last few nights, I've just been reading the poems and letting them say whatever they will to me, whether it is "deep" or not.

One thing I've noticed is that these poems mean things that are entirely different than they did 30 years ago, ha ha. That in itself has made the experience worthwhile, and it actually makes me motivated to go get the fat yellow Norton Anthology of Poetry off the shelf and revisit some of my favorite poems now that I actually have some life experience.

The other night, I decided to look at poem #53 in cummings' collection, since I'm going to be 53 years old this summer. "It will be my theme poem for the year," I told myself as I flipped to the page. And here it is:
may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it's sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young

and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there's never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile
Not bad, eh? I think I will make that my theme poem for the coming year.

Note: The beautiful bird picture above is from my sister's Flickr stream. She has posted many, many lovely pictures of things we sometimes take for granted, like insects and wildflowers, as well as birds. You should visit it!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Some Very Morbid Musings for the Last Night of Spring Break

I'll admit it, I'm a bit of an odd person. One of the ways in which I'm odd is a very highly-developed sense of empathy, to the point that I seem to be able to feel what someone else might be feeling in a particular situation or to be able to sense what they might see or hear. (Or maybe it's just a very active imagination instead of empathy.)

Here's an example: I live near a major cross-country interstate highway that is the scene of many an accident. In the past year or so, there have been three fatal accidents on that highway that I mentally latched on to for some reason. One was the accident I wrote about in an earlier post, the accident that killed my son's friend. The most recent one is an accident about three weeks ago that killed a young man who was in one of my classes at the university last semester. And the third is an accident I heard about on the radio, in which a woman lost control of her car during a heavy rainstorm and went over a bridge into a river and died.

Here's the part that makes me odd. I have to drive on that interstate highway pretty frequently, and every time - every single time - I pass the spot where one of those accidents happened, I think about the accident. More accurately, I think about the moments leading up to those accidents, how this was just an ordinary trip that started on an ordinary day. When each of these people got out of bed that morning and ate breakfast and got into the car, they had no idea they were starting the sequence of events that would bring them to the end of their lives. I actually sort of freaked myself out the other day. I was driving toward the spot where the student was killed, and as I got closer and closer to the spot, my heart started racing because I knew I was almost there, almost to the point where everything ended for him. It was almost like I could measure the distance in my mind between where he was living and the point where he wasn't, and I could feel how frightfully fast he was moving through that distance. Weird, I know.

So I felt a little better when the two main characters in John Green's Looking for Alaska did the same thing. (SPOILERS AHEAD!) Pudge and the Colonel had been trying for weeks to put together the sequence of causes and effects that put their friend Alaska on the road that ended in her death. They finally give up on being able to find out exactly what happened to put her on that road, but they decide to do one last thing - try to re-enact it (without the dying part, of course). They are coming up to the spot, they accelerate, and then
And POOF we are through the moment of her death. We are driving through the place she could not drive through, passing onto asphalt she never saw, and we are not dead. We are not dead!
OK, I'm never as dramatic as that when I come to one of the accident sites on the interstate. But I did have an epiphany one day as I passed one of the sites - we are all in the sequence of causes and effects that lead us to the moment of our death. For some of us, that may be years away, passing quietly and painlessly in our sleep; for others, it may be much, much sooner, as we are doing something completely ordinary, like driving home from work (as my son's friend was) or going to watch a child's soccer match (as the student was). We just don't know when each day begins where it might leave us.

Sorry, I don't mean to be morbid. Blame it on the "end of spring break, back to school blues."

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Real Tragedy of Beloved

I recently finished Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved. Sethe, the main character, escaped from slavery after sending her three children ahead of her (and delivering another on the way). But when her former owner tracks her down, Sethe is desperate to save her children from being returned to a life of slavery, so desperate she tries to kill them to keep them "safe." She succeeds in killing only one of them, a nine-month-old girl. When the book opens, the spirit of the dead baby girl has been haunting Sethe's house for years--until another former slave, Paul D, chases the spirit away. But after a short time, the spirit is back--in physical form, as a young woman who moves in Sethe's house and disrupts everyone's life.

In general, I'm not a fan of magical realism; I guess I'm just too grounded in practicality. So I didn't especially care for this book, although I recognize the quality of the writing. However, I am taking something away from my reading that is rather sobering, and that is a new sense of how profoundly slavery disrupted the family structure for African-Americans, even after emancipation. (NOTE: The following will have some spoilers.)

Except for Denver, Sethe's youngest daughter, no one else in the book seems to know who their parents are. The point is made several times that families are broken up at the will of the slaveowner. Sethe knows her mother only as a distant woman working out in the rice fields, since Sethe herself has been given to another woman whose "job" is wet nursing to raise the slave babies. When Sethe was still very young, her mother was one of a group of slaves hanged for trying to escape. It's a common theme throughout the book. Sethe's mother-in-law had 8 children by several different fathers (by the will of her owner, not by her own choice); all of them were lost to her except Sethe's husband, Halle, who eventually was lost to her when he bought her out of slavery, never to see her again. Paul D had the fortune to be sold along with two of his brothers to the same slaveowner, but when that man died, the new owner splintered the brotherhood; one brother is killed while trying to escape, and the other two are sold, to separate owners. Another of Paul D's fellow slaves, Sixo, has been sneaking off the plantation to meet up with a woman from another plantation; eventually, Sixo is killed as a result of the failed escape attempt, but not before he has begot "Seven-o," who will never know his father (assuming his mother survived the escape attempt). A secondary character, Stamp Paid, lost his wife for some months when the slaveowner's son decided he wanted her for his mistress; she is eventually returned to Stamp Paid, once the "young master" has tired of her. It's just a miserable pattern that, sadly, is not fiction.

Sethe and Halle are the only characters who appear to have had a "normal," nuclear family life at any point in the book, and that was while they were living as slaves. Sethe was bought when she was 13 and allowed by her new owner (who was an unusual slaveowner in many ways) to choose her own husband. She and Halle were allowed to raise their children together, until the owner died and one of his relatives took over. The new owner is unbearably harsh, so Halle and Sethe (along with Paul D, his brothers, and Sixo) decide to make an escape attempt. The attempt fails, and that's when Sethe's family is fractured; she manages to get the three children to the woman who is running the Underground Railroad, but she can't find Halle. She finally decides to leave on her own without him to try to join the children in Ohio at the home of her mother-in-law, whom she's never seen. Her escape is successful; she's reunited with her children and lives with them for a month before the fugitive slave hunters find her, and she makes the choice that changes her family forever. (She never sees Halle again - we are left with a mystery as to what happened to him.)

Sethe becomes, in my opinion, a symbol of what happens to a person who has no social ties. She is gradually being consumed by the guilt Beloved embodies, when her younger daughter, Denver, finally makes the desperate act of reaching out to others. And there's the hopeful message that lies in Beloved; the natural family may have been destoyed by "whitepeople," as the book calls them, but the blacks create their own communities that provide them with the support the family would have given. For Paul D, that community was the group of slave prisoners, all chained together, who have to coordinate their movements to escape from the (terrible) prison in Alfred, Georgia. For Denver, it is the people who donate bits of food to keep her and her mother alive once Denver has made the move to step out of her isolation to be part of the community. For Sethe, it is the congregation of women who come to her house to exorcise the evil spirit rumored (rightly) to have taken over. I read one review that said Sethe was freed from the guilt Beloved represents once she tried to attack the white man who rode into her yard (she killed Beloved the last time white men rode into the yard). I prefer to think it was the community of women who took Sethe in and made Beloved disintegrate and disappear (this is where that magical realism part gets a bit confusing to me - what, exactly, happened to Beloved?). I think it's worth noting, though, that Sethe didn't really return to herself until Paul D reached out to her in love - the start of a new family, chosen and created by themselves.

I'm no sociologist, but I can't help thinking Beloved makes a very powerful statement about the value of family and community - and the dangers that haunt us when family and community are absent.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A (Small) Matter of Life and Death

Today, one of my son's friends died. I don't know for sure how old he was -- probably 20 or 21. He died in a car accident that apparently happened while he was answering a text message as he drove home on the interstate Monday night after work. I didn't personally know this young man, but it's really sad to think of a life of potential brought to such an abrupt end.

The reason I'm writing about this on the blog, though, is because of something else that happened recently, and the combination of these two events really drives home to me how much our fragile human lives depend on the smallest of things.

My parents are farmers. They are around 74 years old and still very active with taking care of their beef cattle and their commercial chicken farm. It is quite inspirational, actually, to see how healthy and active they still are when so many people their age are having serious health issues. I'm sure a big part of that is because they just keep going.

One day last week, they were trying to load a cow into a trailer so they could bring her to the barn and monitor the birth of her calf (she seemed to be having trouble). My dad was chasing her around a small pen, trying to get her to head into the chute that would force her into the trailer. He said he could tell she was getting agitated (as is understandable, I suppose, if she had been in uncomfortable labor all day....), so he headed for the fence to get out of the pen and let her calm down a little. He was able to climb up onto the metal tube fence before she caught up to him, but she butted him hard enough to lift him off the fence. Fortunately, he managed to hang on to the fence, so he didn't fall (which would have been very serious). The back of his right leg was very bruised and sore for several days. Last night when I visited with them, he said it was feeling better, so that's good.

Here's what ties those two incidents together in my mind: in both cases, one small detail made all the difference in the outcome.

In my father's case, suppose the cow's head had been angled so she hit his leg straight on rather than at an upward angle? His leg would have been crushed between an unyielding metal rod and a cow's hard skull moving at rapid speed with a bulk of at least 1,000 pounds behind it. I can't calculate that force because I am a writer, not a physicist, ha ha. (My dad can figure that one out - he taught physics and math for 25 years before "retiring" to be a full-time farmer.) Anyway, I know it's a lot, certainly enough to break the leg. Since it hit him on the back of the thigh, that would have meant a broken femur, the biggest bone in the body. A broken femur would be hard for a 74-year-old person to recover from -- and that's assuming the shock and pain from the break didn't make him fall under the cow's feet to be trampled. But all that bad outcome was avoided because the cow's head was moving upward rather than forward when she hit him. An amazingly small difference.

For my son's friend, the amazingly small difference went the other way. I don't know the details of the accident. But I've heard lots of speeches (LOTS) about texting and driving and how far a car travels at certain speeds in the brief time when a person's eyes are on the screen rather than on the road. From just a split second of distraction, a car traveling at 70 miles per hour (the speed limit on the interstate) can lose control and spin or flip or crash into something. Within just that one tiny bit of time, a person's life can be irreversibly changed, or as in the case of my son's friend, ended.

I guess that is a sort of morbid way to look at the world, and certainly, we wouldn't be able to function if we went around second-guessing every tiny detail of our lives. But it always amazes me to think how our future - for good or for bad - may hinge on something small, something that we wouldn't even notice in other circumstances.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Sometimes Less Is More

I finished the first book of my "Monthly Motif" reading challenge today (just in time). The motif for this month was "Book to Movie." Since the last installment of the Hobbit movie was still in theaters, and since everyone in my family has read The Hobbit except me, I decided to make it my book for the month. The reading challenge also encouraged going to see the movie as a bonus, which we did one evening. My husband, sort of out of the blue, said, "Let's go see The Hobbit tonight," so I abandoned all my plans for cooking supper, we ate scrambled egg sandwiches, and we made it to the theater just as the previews were starting.

I have to admit, I wasn't too impressed. My husband and daughter, being Tolkien purists, were outraged at the liberties Peter Jackson took with the book in making the series of three movies. They kept leaning over to me and saying (in the middle of the movie), "That doesn't happen in the book." Now that I've finished the book, I see what they mean. I'm not upset the same way they are upset, but I do think making three movies from this book was pretty ridiculous.

This character never existed in the book;
in fact, there are no women in The Hobbit!
This may sound like a dumb reason, but honestly, I couldn't remember some of the plot points from one movie to the next. When we saw the movie, I hadn't yet read the part about the Arkenstone, which is introduced in the second movie. So I spent part of the time in the third movie trying to remember what the big deal about that stone was. Is there something about reading the information that makes it stick in the mind (at least my mind) better than seeing it presented visually? Is it that so much else was going on in the movie that the Arkenstone becomes less important than it is in the book? For example, I could remember some of the details about the elf-woman and Legolas from the second movie - but they aren't even in the books! (That's one of the things that burned my husband the most.) In some ways, the narrative emphasis switched from Bilbo's "theft" of the Arkenstone as the key plot element, to the intrigue and doomed romance of the elf-woman (sorry, I remember her name, but I don't want to spell it wrong) and the dwarf Kili. (Another thing that my husband hated). As an author, I wouldn't be ok with it if someone made a change of such substance to my work.

Another thing that bugged me was the blatant commercialism of the movie. I like to think I'm a person who pretty willingly suspends disbelief to give a work a chance, but there were several times when I found myself scoffing during the movie and saying, "This is just ridiculous." Usually that was during some particularly "exciting" part, with impressive special effects and high-action stunt performances -- all the things that make a movie a holiday-season blockbuster.

To borrow a phrase from the book, I think the studio and Peter Jackson were struck with the "bewilderment of the treasure" and created the three installments of the movie to maximize their opportunities to cash in on Tolkien mania one last time. As a result, I think they, like Thorin, lost sight of the integrity of their commitment to the hobbit. Thorin managed to redeem himself before he died; I'm not so sure that's possible for the makers of this series of movies.

On to next month's challenge: An award-winning book.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

BINGO! Reading Review 2014

(I started this on Dec. 31, thus the "this year" refers to 2014.)

At the beginning of this year, I signed up for a reading challenge put out by Random House publishers, "Reading Bingo." (I guess I didn't actually "sign up" - I just printed out the sheet.) I'm proud to say I BINGO'ed two different directions, although I didn't make my original goal, which was to fill in the whole sheet.

Instead of listing the books for each BINGO, I'm going to go back to my standard categories for the year-end review.

Best Discovery - It's hard for me to choose a book for this category this year. I guess I would say my best discovery was The Public's Health by Sam Taggart, not because I particularly enjoyed reading it (it was OK), but because I learned so much from it that ought to be helpful in my writing (who knew syphilis was such a killer in the 19th century? And people died from mumps!) . The book was a history of the public health service in Arkansas from the Territorial days to now, which was truly interesting. The book, however, really needed a good, stiff edit.

Saddest Disappointment - Hands down, the book that disappointed me most this year was Morning Is a Long Time Coming by Bette Greene. This is the sequel to Summer of My German Soldier, which is so, so good. The sequel, however, was draggy and whiny (in my opinion) and the climax was a real let-down. Really disappointing.

Biggest Reading Accomplishment - This was the year I finally read We Speak No Treason by Rosemary Hawley Jarman. My sister has been recommending this book for years, but I've always been a little afraid to start it because it is a mighty hefty book (it was the "book with more than 500 pages" entry in my BINGO sheet). I'm a bit embarrassed to admit it, but it took me about five months to read this book. But I did finish it!

Once Is Enough (Books I Probably Won't Ever Read Again) - There were several books that fall into this category for me this year. I definitely don't want to read Ethan Frome (by Edith Wharton) again, or The 21 Balloons by William Pene du Bois. I also don't want to re-read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (I know, I know....people think that one is a classic, but I just didn't care for it). I read a book recommended by my new boss, How College Works by Daniel Chambliss and Christopher Takacs, that I doubt I ever read again. But the definite winner in this competition is, again, Morning Is a Long Time Coming. That was just painful reading.

Books I Thought Would Be Amazing But Were Just So-So - I had really looked forward to reading True Grit by Charles Portis, but the actual reading experience was not as enthralling as I had anticipated. Maybe the problem was that I had seen the (original) movie and already knew what was going to happen. I also had great expectations for The Book Thief, and instead found it to be rather self-consciously "precious," if that makes any sense.

Favorite Re-Read - Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene is the only book I read this year that I had read before, but it would have won this category anyway. It was really interesting to read this book as a grown woman, not having read it since I was a teenager. It meant something entirely different to me this time.

Favorite Historical Fiction - Oddly enough, I read two books about Richard III this year, with rather similar premises (that an unknown young woman had a love affair with Richard and bore him a child). The two were Roan Rose by Juliet Waldron and We Speak No Treason. Of the two, I much preferred We Speak No Treason; it was interesting to read this book, published in the 1970s, that anticipated the discoveries from just a year or so ago when Richard's skeleton was found.

Biggest Reading Failure - The biggest failure this year is that I didn't find anything that I really loved reading. There were some pleasant reading experiences; I enjoyed The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan. I'm glad to have read On the Rez by Ian Frazier. But the only book that truly moved me this year was one I had already read years ago, and that's kind of sad.

Maybe 2015 will have better results - I definitely hope to read more books this year (only 14 in 2014 - pretty sad). The BINGO idea was kind of fun, so I hunted up another reading challenge to guide my reading in the coming year. I found one on Bookmark to Blog that I plan to participate in, called the Monthly Motif challenge. The motif for January is Book to Movie - any good suggestions? I was thinking Alan Turing: The Enigma since the movie version stars Benedict Cumberbatch, who my friend Carol says is the best. But I just saw it has 768 pages....not sure that would be the smartest way to start my new year of reading, ha ha.....