Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Less about books: More about me!

My 15 year old daughter has been bugging me to write a blog post that addresses who I am and what my life is like and what the purpose of my blog is. So that is what I'll attempt to do right now.

I am a 40 something year old woman (my birthday was just a few weeks ago: I'm a cancer) with a family who is currently a stay at home mom. That could change at any time, I really need a job! I was born and raised on Long Island, New York, in Suffolk County in a fairly small town that grew up around a rather large psychiatric center, established for the wealthy folks of Kings County, New York. Kind of a country retreat, you might say, for the less mentally stable members of the family. That town is called Kings Park, and it is set on the bluffs of the North Shore of Long Island. My parents were both born in New York City, but both families moved to Long Island when they were still children. My dad was a machinist, my maternal grandfather and and his son were both machinists, and my mom was a bookkeeper for a machine shop my grandfather and dad worked for, so that's how they became acquainted, and eventually married. They moved out to "the country" (Suffolk County) and built our house.

I went to school in that town, and despite my parents' very tumultuous relationship, and many different moves on their parts, I graduated from the local high school. I loved to read, I loved English, I enjoyed writing. I still do. My dream was to attend Sarah Lawrence, but I realized at some point I would have to be satisfied with something more attainable, so I decided I'd attend St. John's University in Queens. Unfortunately, although I was accepted and registered, neither one of my parents would step up to the plate at that time and help me pay, or even fill out the paperwork for financial aid, so I ended up reluctantly "taking a year off" after high school graduation. I moved south to Alabama, I went back to LI, but then, when my dad decided to move to California, I decided to bite the bullet and really move to Alabama, mainly because it was closer to New York.

So, I came south to Birmingham. My mom, grandfather and a lot of extended family was already in Alabama and Georgia. I attended the University of Montevallo, a tiny public university, for two years, and graduated, cum laude from the University of Alabama in Birmingham (UAB). It took me about 6 years to cram in a BA in English and a minor in Communication Arts (I actually started out as a journalism major in Montevallo). I've done a lot of stuff since then, but really never worked in my field, unless you count working in a book store for a few years as "in my field." I mostly worked in photography, developing film, first in a tiny one hour lab, then in a bigger lab and finally a custom lab. Southern Progress is in our town, so there was plenty of work at the time (1990s), and computer imaging was just getting started.

Of course, I met my husband and had my babies: the girls are now 16 and 15 and our son is 11 (I also have a stepdaughter who is now 21. She came to live with us when she was 5). My girls are currently at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, a kind of magnet school here in Birmingham, where they are music students (Zoë plays piano, Anna is a vocalist). We homeschool Wylie. So that's what keeps us here in Birmingham, and our parents and family of course (my husband has two sisters). We're busy and fairly happy.

I guess I always thought that by now I would have had a writing career of some kind. Maybe editing, or even writing for a newspaper or web site. Perhaps a novel. But somehow, that has never materialized. My kids and husband have all encouraged me to write, especially lately. I've had friends say that my life story is so complicated and crazy and  rich, I should mine it for material for a book, maybe a memoir, maybe fiction. I've often thought about writing about my maternal grandmother. But writing about my life here, and about the books I read should help me to get to that place, I hope. It's part practice and part therapy.

So I plan on writing more about my life, with my family and maybe things I remember or want to reminisce about, or maybe that I'd like to forget! I hope that if you're visiting this blog for the first time, you'll maybe leave a comment or book mark it and come back and visit again.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Orphanmaster by Jean Zimmerman

Review copy from NetGalley

I was born and raised on Long, Island, New York, so I love books about New York. One of my favorite books is Jack Finney's Time and Again, which is set in both "present day" (okay, not our present day, but the around the 1960s) and in old New York City, around 1875. I love that old NY setting, when there were still farms and Brooklyn was the country!

This novel, The Orphanmaster, is set in 1633, and New York is hardly even a shadow of the town it will once become. Petrus Stuyvesant is the Director General of the New Amsterdam colony. Little does he know he is the last Dutch director general. I like novels like this, that take place upon already well known and established histories. Blandina Van Couvering is an unusual young woman: she is a trader. But the Dutch are very tolerant of their women's endeavors. Although an orphan, her father was a gunsmith and she was raised in a household where she was encouraged to learn. Sadly, her family died on a return visit to the Netherlands. Being a little bit older and more stubborn than most of the orphans landing on the shores of the New World, she is able to eek out a life for herself, without becoming someone's servant. The Orphanmaster of the colony, Aet Visser, is in charge of these unfortunate children, but his relationship with Blandina, and with many of the children, is one of fatherly affection.

Children, all orphans, have gone missing in the colony, and some have been murdered in terrible ways. Blandina knows of these missing children, and being an orphan herself, and feeling great compassion for her fellow urchins, she is concerned. She takes it upon herself to discover what has happened to these children. People are blaming a witika, an Indian demon spirit. Blandina knows it must be a human being.

Edward Drummond is a spy/ prospector, working for King Charles II, to find the executioners of his father, King Charles I. They are far flung across the world, and this current expedition is taking place around the new colonies, around New Amsterdam. Visser asks Drummond for help, as he believes one of the orphans he placed with a family has been somehow replaced with a different child. So Drummond is well aware of strange goings on in the colony when he meets Blandina.

This is a mystery, as well as a love story.  Remember Maddie and David from Moonlighting (Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis), and their sexual tension? I could not help but think of them while reading this book...especially when Blandina tells Edwards to call her Van Couvering, and she'll call him Drummond while they're investigating these murders, to keep it professional.  Kind of amusing, and of course, you know where these characters are going to end up right from the start.  So it really had that detective story feel, in a colonial setting, of course. This is a great book for fans of Edward Rutherford (I love his books London and New York) and those who love mysteries that are not to complex, since Zimmerman gives the reader a sort of omniscient presence throughout the novel, letting us see what the participants of the story cannot. It was pretty good.

3.5 stars

Is "Literary Fiction" Real? Does it Exist? What Is It?

So, the other day on Facebook, another reading friend asked a question. He wanted to know "what is this new genre called literary fiction?" No one seemed to know, and I doubt that most folks on the forum he was asking really cared anyway. They aren't a group that is particularly interested in LF. This was my response: 

"Literary fiction does not include James Patterson, Nora Roberts, romance novels, crime novels, mystery novels (well, maybe a few, they aren't necessarily exclusive, but I'm thinking of Janet Evanovich type stuff--fun, but not literary)..., or more "popular" fiction. Literary fiction focuses more on character development than plot formula, and more care is taken with the writing. It isn't being churned out as a serial, or follow up to satisfy a demanding audience like a daily soap opera. It is more "literary"! It's more serious. It usually includes classics. That's my take on literary fiction, with is mostly what I mostly read. You may disagree, but I think there is a big difference between general fiction and literary fiction. I think historical fiction takes an actual event or person from the past and uses them in a fictional way, so they can truly cover a lot. How far in the past? That's debatable, but so are all genres"

Now, I could be wrong, but I think I have the gist of what LF is. You're never going to find a "literary fiction" section at a chain bookstore or the library, but it is a "genre" that can encompass books in other genre as well. For instance, some historical fiction is literary as well. I'd say Hilary Mantel's books are literary, as well as historical fiction. But Phillipa Gregory would be strictly historical fiction: her writing is average, nothing extraordinary, her characters are almost caricatures of well known historical figures, and she certainly borders on being a romance writer. 

I decided to do some pseudo-research (can it be real research if it's done on the internet?). Wikipedia says: 

Despite the fact that all genres have works that are well written, those works are generally not considered literary fiction. To be considered literary, a work usually must be "critically acclaimed" and "serious". In practice, works of literary fiction often are "complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas."

The article then lists some common characteristics that can help one recognize LF:
1. Primary focus on characterization
2. Plot is secondary
3. Style (elegant, multilayered, lyrical)
4. Tone (serious)
5. Pacing (slow)

So I felt vindicated that I was pretty much on target with my idea of what LF is. Especially since that's what I mostly read. There is a short discussion there also about whether LF is truly its own genre. Amazon has a "Literary Fiction" genre, I get emails alerting me to books in that "category" I might like all the time. 

A little more Google searching led me to a similarly themed blog post by Annie Neugebauer, and her contention is that literary fiction is three things: a style of writing, a genre AND a "qualifier," which is obviously where the biggest problem with people concerning the "snobby" factor. She has got some great insight on that!

You can see the original article by Annie Hamburger here.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

How my favorite author helps me relate to the world today.

I came across this quote yesterday, by my favorite author, E.M. Forster, and it just seemed to resonate with me after the horrific event that unfolded much earlier on the same day, in Aurora, Colorado. Here is that quote: “I believe in aristocracy, though -- if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but power to endure, and they can take a joke.” (From "Two Cheers for Democracy," 1962, EM Forster)

How, one may ask, does this quote have any relevance to the sad happening in a movie theater in Colorado, where a mass murder has taken place? I was with my mother today, and I was (unfairly, I may add), berating her for her harsh judgement towards things she herself does not like or care for. She can be over emphatic about things, and easily expresses a hatred for them, but perhaps I was too harsh with her in calling her on this; my main concern, though, is for my children, who can be quite uncomfortable with her crudity. Then I told her she was becoming more like her father every day. My grandfather was always one to say how bad things were getting, and how it never used to be "like it is these days." A very negative place to come from, and very negative for children. It is a lame and dying sentiment that should be put to rest for good. My mother mentioned the shooting, and I pointed out that people have been killing each other for thousands of years. I'm quite sure an individual from a rival tribe has snuck up on sleeping enemies and attacked in cold blood while they snoozed in their huts. An evilly insane member of a wagon train, or religious sect, or ship full of explorers has slit throats of unsuspecting cohorts. A mentally ill child or parent has murdered members of their family. There was Jack the Ripper. There was Attila the Hun.There was Vlad the Impaler. There was Hitler. There is Mark David Chapman. It happens, in human culture, that we kill one another; those we love, those we hate, those we abhor and those we revere. We don't necessarily understand why, and we struggle with that every day.  But if we deny the very human-ness of it, we will die.

So my point here, if you can follow my convoluted tale, is we must connect with one another, as we are commanded us to do in Forster's great work, Howard's End: "Only connect!" It is the cry of the Humanist cause, really, to somehow understand our fellow man. The hipsters in the Seattle coffee house may not seem to have much in common with the native in Papua, but they both cry when they feel pain, and smile in joy. This what makes us all, so essentially the same. If we have a brain and a soul, we can understand one another if we choose too. Which is so very much the point of Forster's work. The Italians, as different and exotic as they may seem from the English, and the same, the same species. Human beings. We must be sensitive, considerate and plucky. The xenophobe, the racist and the bigot ( which aren't we all?) must set aside their extreme prejudices and see other human beings as their brothers and sisters, once and for all. It is what makes a large human family, and what can help us to put aside the petty differences of politics and religion, of nationality and religion, and embrace our fellow humans. Because aside from the connection of being natural born killers, humans also have the thread of a great capacity for love and tenderness. If we continue to see nothing but the evil, the insane and the fearful in our fellow beings, we miss out on those wonderful unrecognized, unnoticed and undeserved moments of Great Love. Good things do happen. The heroism that resounds in the unselfish actions of those who helped others, even while under severe duress themselves, will overcome the malignancy of this tragedy. But only if we lift that cause up and recognize its greatest importance in our human culture.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

You Came Back by Christopher Coake

Review copy from NetGalley

I'm not sure what compelled me to want to read this novel, since the very thought of losing a child is enough to make me sick, but I think it was the possible "ghost" element that spurred my interest. 

I was just reading last night (in the current issue of Psychology Today) that 32% of Americans believe that spirits of the dead can return, 37% believe in haunted houses, and 16% aren't sure. They also mentioned the fact that bereavement increases the chance of a visit from beyond. This novel is rooted in that desire to believe that we can communicate with our deceased loved one. In Coake's novel, father Mark Fife is approached by a strange woman who happens to live in his former home, and told that the ghost of his son is there. His son was only 7 years old when he passed away in an unfortunate accident in the home, while under his father's watch. The tragedy eventually destroyed his marriage to his beloved wife, Chloe, who has not been emotionally well ever since. Mark is currently engaged to another woman and planning his new life, when he meets this woman who claims to have the spirit of his son in her home.

This book is really about Mark, and his efforts to deal with the possibility of the "return" of his son. Mark has issues with alcohol, and, in my opinion, a lot of relationship problems. His mother passed away from cancer a few years before, and his father, Sam, is a university professor who seems to care deeply for his son. However, his speech about what happens to us after we die really annoyed me. In fact, all these characters kind of annoyed me. Allison, Mark's fiance, seems to be very immature and needy, even though it is clear that is not how the author intends her to be. Chloe, the ex-wife, is wacko. Mark's best friend and confidante Louis also seems immature and possibly alcoholic.  It is a novel full of dysfunction. Even the family that lives in his former home is clearly dysfunctional. There just didn't seem to be anyone to relate to here.

Sam tells Mark that "The only happy death I can imagine is one that severs me entirely from this life. Annihilates me." He seems to think that if there is a heaven, everyone is waiting there miserably, longing for what they've left behind and missing everyone: "...it is very difficult for me to imagine that we die, only to go to a place that allows us to remember our lives." This view of what heaven or an afterlife or what a soul might do when separated from its body is so negative and hopeless, it really annoyed me that there was not a single character with a positive view of a happy paradise, of God, of spirit filled joy. I am not a "Jesus freak" (as Louis says in the book). I believe in God, and in Jesus Christ. But I have many atheist/non-believer friends who I respect and even understand. However, this man's world view is apparently one of extreme pessimism, where a book about the mere possibility of an afterlife, a heaven, a God, is so unthinkable, he can't even properly present that view in a book about that very subject. The ones that do believe are kooks or nuts, irrational or money hungry. I felt this was an unfair. It made the whole tone of the book very hopeless.

This story is supposed to be one of love and loss. Mark has lost his son, his wife, basically his life, but is trying to regain it, with his impending marriage to Allison. But he only has himself to blame for the mess he makes of things after the "ghost" enters the picture. He loses his footing and flies off the handle every time a new"problem" is presented. He tries to solve these problems himself and turns to alcohol and the other highly dysfunctional people in his life to deal with these issues. He never seems to have even a glimmer of hope in being proactive enough to help himself. It is annoying, he is too self indulgent and pitying to even try to feel sorry for him. The loss of his son is tragic, but it seems the only way he can view his son's death is via his guilty part in it.

I didn't enjoy reading this novel. It became a chore. The main character was so unlikable, and so closed off to actually changing, I couldn't imagine possibly knowing him or being around him. There were a few times I was engaged, but then another main character (Sam, Chloe, etc) would do something nuts, and he'd lose me again. The writing was not bad, but this novel could have been so much more. A third of the book could have been replaced with more serious discussions of belief, soul and spirit, and more importantly, how one finally learns to cope with the death of a beloved child. But it never happened. Too bad. 

2.5 stars