Category Archives: books

The longest chapter

Most weekdays I read while eating lunch.  I’ve been working on Buffalo Afternoon, by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, and have been lost in the world she has created, a real world that at times feel very otherworldly; The Vietnam War.

Yesterday, I finally finished chapter 21.  It was the longest chapter I have read in ages, partly from its length.  Mostly in how many lunchtimes it took me to get through it, which wasn’t due to overt gore, only a combination of interruptions, a road trip, the weekend falling where it did, and yes, the subject.  Schaeffer didn’t stint on details; she made sure very little was left to the imagination, prose not sparse.  Not that it’s terribly bloody, although how it ended yesterday was a bit disturbing, especially since I was finishing my bagel.  But so honest, how could she not write those things?  She wasn’t there, but conducted extensive research, and I have no doubt that at least one thing which occurred in chapter 21 was true.  And probably more were too.

I read to learn something new, live a situation I otherwise would never experience.  I read for pleasure, for knowledge, to escape.  I read for research, which was why I bought this book in the first place.  But I am reading it now because I knew it was next, just one of those things.  And in reading it, I’m on a journey through a distant country, torn and amazing.  Parts are dead, only the stray beetle scurrying across the ruined landscape.  The men there are somewhat dead too, dead to the lives they left behind, dead to themselves.  And, too often, deceased.  Schaeffer doesn’t mince her words either, which at times is a relief.  But while reading chapter 21 I needed to take breaks, I couldn’t stay in Vietnam indefinitely   Those soldiers didn’t either, their tours lasting a year or thirteen months.  But at the time, it felt like forever.

In chapter 21, I felt there was no way out.

If Ms. Schaeffer was alive, I would write and thank her for that long chapter, tell her how beautifully she described a brutal, awful, and in my opinion unnecessary conflict.  She died last year, shortly after I came across this novel, so all I can do is tell anyone willing that Buffalo Afternoon is a fantastic novel, but not easy.  Not simple, but lasting, powerful, as heavy-hitting as anything I have ever read before.  Thousands of books exist, only a tiny fraction rising to where someone might catch a glimpse; Buffalo Afternoon needs to be one of those books for the subject matter and the timeless, precious, blatant and poetic prose Schaeffer chose to translate her vision, her view.  A view through the eyes of men lost in a jungle, lost in time.  The longest year of their lives; my musings about one extended chapter has nothing on what those men endured.

Baby gonna shut you down

Writing about the WIP made me realize how wrapped up in one set of characters I have been, and while they are a vast lot of folks, since I first typed the initial manuscript in spring 2009, I’ve been inundated with the same people.  Now, they’re not real of course, but they are pretty encompassing.  Yet as those last two novels inch closer to publication, a light shines, as if I’ve been walking down a long tunnel.  There is life past Jenny, Alvin, Sam, and Tommie.

No, really…

I’ve had a few busy years, so a nice array of manuscripts awaits, once I’m clear of this station.  I can catch a new train, leave those lovely characters behind, but who will populate the next journey?  I have a couple which I’m leaning toward, a revolving door of familiar faces, voices reminiscent from 2009 and 2010.  Those were wordy years, and 2011 wasn’t bad either.  But as I’ve said, I won’t attack all those drafts; there just isn’t time and I don’t want to work that hard.  I’ve poured my heart into Alvin’s Farm, but something less demanding is preferred.

It’s also odd thinking I won’t do any more with Jenny, Alvin, Sam, and Tommie than poke through their stories like a bystander, an outsider, even if I know how it all ties together.  Once those books are out of my hands, goodness, it’s like cutting off a limb that you really thought you needed.  But guess what?  You don’t.  Or I don’t; they turn out like so many others, only alive when I happen to open that digital file.  Hence the title; like it or not, baby, I am gonna shut you down.

There’s no other choice, a writer has to move on.  The next possible project was written in summer 2009, but takes place in autumn 2013, a ghost story, a love story too.  A Scent of Heaven also examines San Jose, California, the city with the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam.  The Bay Area’s arid climate is a very different setting compared to Oregon’s damp Willamette Valley.

But for now, I’m still grappling with the Cassels, Smiths, and Alvin Harris.  I think, and it might just be that I’m still so close to them, Alvin might be one of my favorites, quickly followed by Jenny, Sam, and Tommie.  But for as much as I love them, it is time to start shutting this baby down.

A collection of short tales

Recently, I wrote my first short story.  It was at the gentle behest of Suzy Stewart Dubot, who was organizing another collaboration of Top Writers Block, a writers’ group of which I am a part.  Why Me was the prompt, and while I was intrigued, I just don’t write short stories.

I’ve written a couple of smaller novels, hitting around 55K.  But I’m a verbose author, and shorts have always seemed scary; how to condense a tall tale into less than 10,000 words?

Suzy didn’t prod, only noted that again here was an opportunity.  And to my surprise, I took up the challenge.  During a week my husband was away, I wrote in the evenings, which I haven’t done in ages.  That I was writing a novel in the mornings didn’t seem to hamper, for this story needed to be freed.  I let it sit, then started editing; 12K was brought down to just a little over 11,000 words, which is still lengthy, but not a novel.  And now my story, along with several wonderful others,  is available, with all proceeds going to Sea Shepherd.

I have another idea in mind, as the next prompt has been delivered.  I’ll get working on that soon, don’t want it bumping up against NaNo in just a little over a month’s time.  I don’t see shorts taking over the noveling, but it was a pleasant change of pace, and so much easier to revise, or at least much less to edit.  My tale is a little on the fantastic side; a woman celebrates turning seventy-two, but one gift blows her away, a face from the past not looking at all aged.  I hope I’ve piqued your interest to check out “Fifty Years Waiting” in Why Me?

As a bonus link for the weekend, I’ve just started a Tumblr page, which will consist of a photo a day.  And of course real refs are back in the NFL; no longer do we fans have to mourn why us when pondering the integrity of the game…

A little poetry in the fiction

Buffalo Afternoon is my current read, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer’s take on the Vietnam War.  I picked this up last year, after returning from The National Mall, a novel in mind.  Buffalo Afternoon was going to be research material, but every time I looked at it in my bookshelf, something said wait.

In the meantime, other books were read, a few written.  The novel I had in mind to write was pushed back some, not enough time this year to research it properly.  But last week I needed a new lunchtime read, and finally Schaeffer’s book went with me to the table, the cream cheese bagel waiting.  Now I’m enmeshed, no way out.  Not only will it assist in what I think I am going to write next (for NaNoWriMo), but the poetry of the prose won’t let me go.

My all time fave books, fiction and non, have that poetic element, and I think Buffalo Afternoon is going to join them.  It’s about the Vietnam War, but also Pete Bravado, an Italian American whose house has two distinct atmospheres, cozy daytimes with his mother, grandmother and aunt, then dark evenings with his father, a cold, ignorant man who hates books.  Schaeffer’s lyrical writing deepens a rift made apparent in the second chapter, Pete after the war, noting the gulf between father and son.  As Pete’s childhood unwinds, I’m transported to New York in the fifties, also pre-war Italy.  I’ve already spent some time in a Vietnamese village; this is the sort of novel that easily flits from here to there, all due to the language which tells many tales within one sentence.

I didn’t grow up on poetry, but my fave novelist Richard Brautigan is also a poet, and my favorite book of poetry reads like a novel; Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes recounts his courtship, marriage, and separation from fellow poet Sylvia Plath, ending with her suicide.  Plath’s poems caught my eye when I was a teen, but it was years later in England when Birthday Letters hit me, and now back in California I’ve found Buffalo Afternoon, also The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s meta-fictional account of his days in Vietnam.   It’s the poetry within these books that I am drawn to, time and again, also in Haywire, by Brooke Hayward.  I can’t adequately explain the narratives other than to compare them to poems.

In pondering my NaNo idea, I’ve been stuck at how to write it.  A sprawling tale covering several decades, do I just start at the beginning, or will flashbacks be necessary?  Buffalo Afternoon sets up the premise in the first chapter, “Two Voices”, placing the action in a Vietnamese village, then back in New York.  Then the past opens the tale, so many ways to tell a story.  That’s part of the plotting, not just what happens to who when, but in what order the writer spins out that information.  And then the how; how does the prose relay many stories, several characters?  When I read Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar or Haywire or The Things They Carried, I am inspired directly and vicariously.  I itch to convey what percolates in my gray matter; I also consider the wider scope of great literary beauty shoehorned into an older, Pocket-sized paperback with a small font.  How much poetry sits in those five hundred sixty-two pages, more than I can contemplate this early in the morning.  Not all my faves are that lengthy; In Watermelon Sugar is a slip, one hundred sixty-six pages, and the font isn’t squished.  Leisurely laid out over those pages is another form of poems, chapter by chapter noting tigers that speak while eating the locals, but those cats aren’t very good at arithmetic.  But like Schaeffer, Brautigan was an expert at challenging a reader while at the same time weaving a hypnotic magic, keeping me from setting down those books.

Yesterday when I finished lunch, I completed chapter six.  Seems I eat about half a bagel per chapter, along with carrots and dip.  If the chapter hadn’t been done, I would have sat at my kitchen table until it was.  Perhaps it seems odd that I stretch such a delicious book over the course of however many days it takes to eat a bagel and read; it’s savoring that novel, as I’ve done with other fantastic lunchtime tales.  Tomas O’Crohan’s The Islandman, Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home; some books are meant to be ingested slowly, with great care.  There is nothing like the first time a book is read, and while at times I devour a story, occasionally I want to dawdle, allowing the incredible beauty into my brain and heart sentence by sentence.  I’m learning while enjoying, a little schooling alongside the entertainment.  And when the words are poetry in motion, I can’t help but take a deep breath, letting it out so slowly, wondering how the writer managed that marvel, that miracle, that utter gift in front of my eyes.  But they did, it’s there in black and white, for as long as that book holds together

Those words, as unreal as they might seem, are forever.  As a reader, and a writer, I am ever so grateful.

Reasons to be cheerful

1. I just published The Farm at Sam & Jenny’s, fourth in the Alvin’s Farm series.  The action moves 1981 to 2004, and plenty has changed for Arkendale’s residents, not just the new generation of teens and twenty-somethings.  Releasing this novel is very exciting, in that I love these characters, and so enjoyed incorporating them into relatively modern times.  I never planned on writing a series, but sometimes a cast overtakes one’s sensibilities.  If family drama is your game, well, the Alvin’s Farm collection is full of it! (Special thanks to Julie K. Rose for the gorgeous cover!)

2. My youngest daughter turned twenty recently; my husband and I no longer have teenagers!  That’s a pretty wild realization, after years and years of adolescent strum und drang, which isn’t too unlike what the Cassels and Smiths endure in fictional Arkendale, Oregon.  It’s an odd thought, that for the rest of my life, my kids are adults.  (And very similar to what Sam and Jenny are facing with their brood…)

3A. The Green Bay Packers beat the Chicago Bears last night, making my husband extremely pleased (and relieved).

3B. We went to The Los Gatos Cafe for breakfast this morning, in part to celebrate the new book, and to toast our twenty-year-old daughter.  Banana chocolate chip pancakes are a great way to incorporate a new novel into the fold.

Books, then a little football

Last week I was given The Booker blog award from Chelsea Brown at The Jenny Mac Book Blog; thanks so much Chelsea!  My five favorite books…   That’s a tough assignment.  I’ll give two lists, fiction and non, just so I can squeeze five extra books into this post.

Fiction

1. In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan – Probably my all time fave book of any genre.  I first read it as a teenager, and I’m as stunned now as back then.  It’s a slip of a manuscript, but an entire world exists in the tigers and watermelon trout oil, as well as the Forgotten Works.

2. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien – Meta-fiction that weaves a hypnotic spell, just bumping against my top choice for fave book.  In a twist of real and pretend, O’Brien recounts  his Vietnam tour, leaving me wondering not just what’s factual, but how, why, for what purpose?  Just amazing.

3. The World According to Garp by John Irving – How many times I have reread this book, feeling inspired and humbled, vexed and thrilled; Garp and his mother Jenny, Garp’s wife Helen and his best friend Roberta, and never forget the Undertoad!

4. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee – Like a collection of short stories is how Lee presents this precious and horrendous slice of America’s past.  Gently this story is told, but not a single brutal truth is omitted.

5. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – Sprawling and rollicking, this tale of the American West brings together a motley crew taking cattle from Texas to Montana.  Along the way hearts are challenged, lives lost.  But Gus and Woodrow maintain integrity, be it dealing with killers or tag-along pigs.

Nonfiction

1. And The Band Played On by Randy Shilts – Shilts covered the AIDS epidemic for the San Francisco Chronicle, then wrote a tome explaining one of the most mystifying and debilitating diseases of the twentieth century.  Grace and truth haunt this account, leaving me staggered.

2. Haywire by Brooke Hayward – A memoir from the daughter of two early Hollywood greats, Hayward notes the piecemeal destruction of a family studded with film stars.  More that touches is the humanity of men and women playing pretend on screen and off.

3. Just Kids by Patti Smith – Together Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe rose from obscurity to fame in the New York art and music scenes.  Smith’s honesty makes this more than another memoir; love permeates, even when it seems so lost.

4. Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion by Robert Coles – Day’s role as a co-founder (along with Peter Maurin) of the Catholic Worker Movement is detailed.  I was struck by Day’s unflinching dedication to others and Coles’ ability to capture many facets of that care.

5. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by Clayborne Carson – Reading this, I was overwhelmed by a part of my nation’s history unrealized by where and when I was born.  An amazing read.

Honorable mentions (as I just couldn’t leave these out)

1. The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough – A saga for the ages.  Please read this book.

2. Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes – The poet’s love story and goodbye to his late wife, poet Sylvia Plath.

3. The Stand by Stephen King – An epic struggle of good and evil set across America.

4. Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine – Called Anna’s Book in the US, you’ll be left wondering what’s real and what’s not.

5. Don’t Mean Nothing by Susan O’Neill – Short stories based on O’Neill’s tour as a nurse in Vietnam unlike any short stories I have ever read before.

If you feel so inclined to share your fave books, please do, and let me know so I have more great reads to discover!  Now, onto footie…

A huge day for my San Francisco 49ers, beating the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, the first time SF has won there since 1990!  David Akers tied a record for longest field goal (63 yards) as the ball thumped against the cross bar, then plopped over, a ringing thud for Green Bay fans, one of which is my beloved husband.  Several times I told him I loved him, usually after screaming in joy as the Niners made another outstanding play.  One of us was going to be disappointed at the end of that game, and unfortunately it was my spouse.

Rookie quarterbacks had tough days, all but Robert Griffin III; he shined as the Washington Redskins beat the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome.  And thirty-six-year-old Peyton Manning threw his 400th touchdown pass (his second as a Denver Bronco), beating the Pittsburg Steelers 31-19.  It was a startling beginning to the season, for which I have been waiting.  As much as I love to write and read, I ADORE American football!

(And a bit of baseball, as my SF Giants beat the LA Dodgers 4-0, taking two of three games of that series.  Go Giants!)

A ninety-two-year-old book

My husband doesn’t read fiction.  He prefers rock biographies or physics tomes or obscure and ancient books about Christianity.  He’s been working on The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins for months, written by Burnett Hillman Streeter in 1924.  (Our copy is a reprint by Macmillan from 1953.)  A couple of weeks ago, within the text, my spouse came across a book that Streeter contributed to and edited, The Spirit: God and His Relation To Man.  Also published by Macmillan, this collection of essays was published in 1920.  My husband found it on Amazon, but the private seller wanted almost forty dollars.  Then he located it on ABE for five bucks.  Shipping was another four, and it arrived on Friday.  The binding is a faded yellow, but the front and back are a lovely blue, except for an inch from the top, again a faded hue; it must have sat in a bookshelf that received afternoon sun.  Being my husband has the day off, we spent a lazy morning in the living room.  He studied his new book, while I edited a short story.  He read aloud a few bits here and there, then asked if I could pause to read a few paragraphs.  By this time I had stopped revising, instead removing all the extra spaces at the end of paragraphs, easier to interrupt that, as I knew he had plenty to share.

I found the content fascinating.  But just as intriguing was the book itself; ninety-two years old and in very good shape, except for the discolored binding.  The printing jumped out at me, as if I could see the letters’ indentations on the pages.  I might publish ebooks, but I adore print books, old and new.  Another of my husband’s recent reads is How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life by John Fahey.  A paperback from 2000, the gorgeous cover is textured (which you can see on the link), and as my husband has prodded me to read a little, also very good on the inside.  I think it will be my next lunchtime read.

I will get to The Spirit eventually, but probably not at the noon hour.  (I’d be terrified of getting cream cheese on it!)  It’s the sort of book best digested while sitting on the sofa, admiring the message as well as how those words were laid onto the pages.  I would also ponder those who offered their insights.  We couldn’t find any information about Cyril W. Emmet other than he had been a vicar and the examining chaplain to the Bishop of Oxford.  Burnett Streeter has a brief Wikipedia write-up, as does Lily Dougall.  Our copy of The Spirit is from a Kentucky seminary, now will float around our house until we pass on.  I hope our kids won’t chuck it out; by then it will be well over a century old.

With all my recent considerations about legacies and such, just holding a book so ancient makes me shiver.  I don’t want these books lost.  Yes, they’ll end up on shelves, just like Big Day Coming, that Yo La Tengo bio I’ve been waxing about.  My husband just put it away, or was hoping to find space for it.  We reduced our collections when we moved back here five years ago, but print books have a way of muscling back into the house.  Ebooks are easy to store, ninety-two-year-old religious tomes not so much.

But we will find space for all these books, once we are done with them, and I hope my kids will do the same.  They might never read them, and maybe my descendents won’t ever open one of my novels.  But like me, Cyril Emmet and Burnett Streeter and Lily Dougall wrote their hearts, which became words printed onto pages.  Which became a book that languished in the Kentucky sun, but remains to this day.  Someday printed books may not exist, but I balance that with the knowledge that they touched my soul, and maybe I can carry those messages within my writing.  Not sure how I’ll squeeze musician John Fahey’s ruminations into the works, but if I can, you better believe I will.