Monday, April 21, 2014
I just finished a terrific book entitled The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. It isn't my usual cup of tea, being a Young Adult novel. It was written in 2007 and got rave reviews. It won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature along with many other honors.
The reason I read it now is because it was recently banned by the Meridian School District SW in Idaho. It has also been banned in a few other places although when they tried to ban it in Billings, Montana, kids and teachers rose up to protest.
I was curious to know what in the world would get a book banned in 2014 when kids have access to the most crass and ugly material in movies, on t.v. and on the internet. They can watch YouTube videos of actual sex, watch Miley Cyrus sticking out her tongue while twerking, read 50 Shades of Gray, massacre bloody victims in video games,not to mention the real life horrors such as hearing about the dead bodies of first graders in New Town or seeing the corpses of children in Syria. So, I'd say kids are pretty sophisticated these days in the ways of sex and violence. I figured The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian must be pretty bad to be considered too tough a read for today's teens and pre-teens.
Diary is the semi-autobiographical story of Arnold Spirit who is growing up on a Spokane Indian reservation. Almost everyone on the "res" is poor. the majority of them are alcoholics (like Arnold's father). Indians on the reservation die young. Arnold has been to 42 funerals by the time he's 14 and alcohol was involved in most of them.
Arnold sees his future laid out in front of him if he doesn't find another path so he transfers to the white school in Reardon, 22 miles down the road from the reservation. His parents do all they can to help him get back and forth but sometimes they don't have the money for gas money and sometimes his father is too drunk to remember to come pick him up. Sometimes, he hitches rides but sometimes he has to walk the entire way.
He lives with a foot in two different cultures and both are painful. The Indians consider him a traitor who thinks he's too good for them so they beat him up and call him names. His best friend, Rowdy, turns on him. Meanwhile, the whites in Reardon treat him as if he doesn't exist.
But he perseveres. He excels in his classes and eventually, excels on the basketball court. His white classmates start to consider him one of them. When his beloved Grandmother Spirit dies, the tribe softens and quits picking on him. A short time later, his sister dies burned to death in a fire, too drunk to save herself. It only makes Arnold more determined to make something different of his life although it hurts because he acknowledges that he can only do that by abandoning his people.
Through everything that happens to him, Arnold draws funny and satirical cartoons as a way to talk to himself about the meaning of the events that happen to him. The book is enhanced by the illustrations of Ellen Forney by means of Arnold's cartoons.
Sherman Alexie did escape the res. He has won numerous awards for his writing, films and poetry in the years since he wrote the book.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is funny and sad and poignant and inspiring from one page to the next. You root for a boy for whom life has been so harsh to find the path for which he's paid so dearly. Alexie's dialogue of a 14-year-old boy is dead-on. He's irreverent and wistful and joyful and agonized by turns.
But sometimes he uses curse words and sometimes he talks about "boners" and masturbation (find me a 14-year-old boy who doesn't) and he's brutally honest, both about the way whites treat Indians and the way Indians treat themselves, as if they've been so ground down and put down so often, they've given up everything they used to be proud of in themselves.
Some people don't like the cussing and some people don't like the sex and some people don't like the honesty.
But kids love Arnold and his story. They relate to him. They have written testimonials about Diary being the first book they ever got totally caught up in.
I'm generally against banning books in schools unless they have no "redeeming social value" whatsoever but a book that encourages kids to read, that captures their their imagination, that touches their heart. No, no, you never want to ban a book like that!
Monday, April 14, 2014
Your News Versus My News
Back in the day, when I was young, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite were The Men. We all listened to them on network news and believed if they said it, it must be so. They played it straight down the middle and then it was up to their viewers to decide what they thought. That didn't mean we agreed on every issue (i.e., the Vietnam War) but at least we were all basing our opinions on the same set of facts.
I don't remember when the conservatives first began to feel that their issues and ideas were not being given fair representation in the news but the Rush Limbaugh Show began in 1988 and quickly became the top-rated show on the radio. Rush' followers were thrilled that an outspoken conservative was taking on the establishment and winning. His fans called themselves Dittoheads, never questioning his assertions. Rush, of course, made no effort to tell both sides of any story. He leaned so far right, he often tipped over into pure conspiracy.
The next conservative leap came in 1996 when the Fox News Channel went on air. In one of the most breathtakingly false declarations of all-time. Fox billed itself as Fair and Balanced. Under the leadership of Roger Ailes, Fox (like Rush) existed to push the conservative line. Fox became, and has remained, the most watched cable news channel even though neutral research organizations have shown over and over that Fox is the least reliable. I really don't even consider Fox a purveyor of news but rather of propaganda.
Naturally, liberals attempted to fight back by developing their own sources of news that leaned their way, as with MSNBC which gives liberals the news with a left-leaning bias (although I would argue, not quite as deceitfully as Fox). They also have some liberal radio talk show hosts who, although moderately well-known, never became household names like Limbaugh.
And finally, we all became consumers of the internet and along with that, came blogs of every description. Matt Drudge was one of the first to hit the big-time with the Drudge Report but a veritable flood of blogs followed, from both the left and right. Again, it seemed as if conservatives put way more passion into their submissions. Perhaps that's because liberals weren't all that dissatisfied with the mainstream (known in conservative circles as "lamestream") news.
So, here we all are now, with our very own tried and true sources of news, sources that are often in direct conflict with one another. Black is white to conservatives and white is black to liberals. Don't believe in climate change? You can find innumerable talk show hosts and news anchors and bloggers who will back you to the hilt. (Not many scientists but oh, well, everyone knows 99% of scientists are bought and paid for by, by, well I'm not sure by who, but somebody....to spout the party line.
Is Clive Bundy a patriot or a deadbeat? Was George Zimmerman a hero or an over-zealous wannabe cop? Is voter fraud the problem or is voter suppression the problem? Is Barack Obama a Christian American or a Muslim alien?
Not to worry, just seek out "your" sources and you'll be told you're right and that anyone who believes the opposite is a moron.
When I debate with my conservative friends, I try to back up my argument with what I consider reliable sources - The Christian Science Monitor, Scientific American, USA Today, Forbes, etc. - but it doesn't matter. For many of them, if it didn't come from Rush, Breitbart, RedState or Barack Obama's Dead Fly, it simply isn't information that can be trusted.
What does this mean for the future of America? What does it mean to remaining the UNITED States of America? Two completely different news streams giving two completely different sets of alternate facts seems like an insoluble problem in overcoming our problems as a nation to me.
Thursday, April 03, 2014
Karma is strange. It has always been my dream to live alone. I'm 67 and it hasn't happened yet. I've lived with parents, husbands, children, then parents and children again....but I've never lived by myself.
In November, after a couple of extremely painful years as her dementia progressed, my mother died. Her death brought both grief and freedom. For the first time, I had no one to take care of, no one to account to. There was no television playing in the background when I preferred silence. I could play my music as loud as I wanted. I could eat a bagel for supper if I chose.... I could take a cozy nap whenever I pleased. I could leave the house and not worry about getting back at any particular time.
I spent a week with my kids in Florida after Mom's death. Another week after I got back, my son and his wife separated and he came home. Now there are always dishes in the sink and screwdrivers and drills on my pristine dining room table and the television is once again is a constant in the background. The pretty little spare bedroom I re-decorated is filled with work out equipment. I cook at least once a day. Out of courtesy, I tell him where I'm going and when I plan to be back....not because he demands it but so he won't worry.
If you get the impression that I didn't love my mother dearly or that I don't cherish my son, you be dead wrong. I did and I do....just as I loved my husbands. But here is the way it is: in any human chain I'm part of, I'm the weak link. I'm the easy-going one. I'm the one who will give in first whether it's about what television show to watch or what sounds good for dinner or where to hang a picture or whether to buy Pepsi or Coke. It's not like I lose the arguments because it never gets that far. I don't care enough to argue so if you prefer Coke, I'll switch...no big deal.
I have always said that my family members are There with a capital T while I am there with a small t. And in a little secret place in my heart, I always looked forward to the time when it would be different. Mom was a hoarder and since she's gone, I have given away most of her 1,000 dolls and many teapots (keeping only a few of my favorites). Shelves now hold one special thing instead of ten items each. The oval, brass-framed Thomas Kinkaide pictures, along with the angels, have disappeared in favor of less sentimental, edgier art.
But now, instead of her stuff, there is his stuff - tennis shoes under the end table and hats and gloves on the piano and drills and tape measures on the kitchen counter and piles of jeans and flannel shirts and socks and teeshirts in the laundry basket.
No one would ever have called me an immaculate house keeper but I have found that when I'm alone, I am actually rather a perfectionist. I put things where I want them and they stay that way....no clutter allowed. Who knew?
When I was looking for a picture to illustrate this blog entry, I had a difficult time finding one I liked. It seems that when you search for images using the keyword "alone", most of them are negative. They tend toward darkness and it is often raining. The people in them all look sad, sometimes they are ready to jump off of bridges.
But to me, being alone is a happy place. Being alone is being a free spirit.
Tuesday, March 25, 2014
How many truly magical moments have you had in your life? I don't mean special moments like seeing your child for the first time, things that many of us have in common. I'm talking about events that stand out as something relatively few people have experienced.
I was lucky because I once lived in magical place. It was on the very edge of state park property. A non-maintained gravel road, humpbacked and potholed, ambled through it. All the houses had been torn down long before but there were still some teetering foundations surrounded by peonies and soaring lilac bushes and giant thickets of rambling rose. Mostly, the land had reverted to woods but there were areas of what was one-time pasture and Wildlife Management planted rows of corn here and there for the deer and other wildlife.
We walked that road often and discovered something pleasing nearly every time - a magnificent white owl that flew directly in front of us, a nest of curious baby raccoons peeking out of their hole high in a tree, a small meadow filled with spring morels, like unexpected treasure.
We had two dogs then - a black lab named Shadow and an Irish setter named Copper. They were friendly but there was an element of competitiveness to their relationship too. When we walked the road, they each took a side and didn't encroach on one another's territory. Copper was a silent dog, like a red wraith slipping through the trees. Meanwhile Shadow (who wasn't like a shadow at all) crashed through the underbrush on his side, yelping as he went. One day, we heard him whining and went to check. He had discovered a tiny spotted fawn curled up at the base of a tree, surrounded by shrubs. It looked at him with melting brown eyes and seemed not at all frightened by the slobbering giant confronting him. We called the dog off. "Come on, Shadow, Mama Deer knows where it is."
But two particular incidents stand out from that time.
In the first, we were taking our walk near evening. It was still light but the sun was setting. My husband and I both sensed that there was something different about the woods but at first, we couldn't put our finger on what it was. As we looked around, we began to notice that there were monarch butterflies on the underside of every leaf. They hung down with their wings closed, not just a few but thousands of them, maybe even millions. As far as we could see in all directions, they clustered, perhaps five or six per leaf on trees and bushes. Our piece of magical property was evidently on their migration route. By the next morning, they were gone, disappeared so silently, it was hard to believe we hadn't imagined the whole thing.
The second time, Mother Nature made me catch my breath in wonder, it was autumn. My husband had walked over to the side of the road and noticed a cluster of ladybugs scurrying to get under a loose rock. When he lifted the large stone, there was a mass of brilliant red, black dotted ladybugs beneath it, gathered together, in preparation for hibernation. Evidently the ones outside were the latecomers who had dallied awhile before deciding to go to bed for the winter. Again, I can't really say how many there were but if they had been M&Ms, they probably would have filled a 20 pound bag, at least.
I haven't seen any of those tiny crimson, black-dotted ladybugs in years, not since the nasty orange Asian beetles we have now took over.
Incidentally, the lady in lady bug stands for the Virgin Mary. In Europe in the Middle Ages, farmers were losing their crops to an infestation of insects. They prayed for assistance from heaven and lo and behold, they began to notice the arrival of clouds of ladybugs that began eating the crop destroyers. They named their rescuers in honor of Mary.
My third magical moment happened in a different time and place. We lived on a small farm. The people who owned the property across the road rented it to a horse trader. Over time, there were appaloosas and sturdy quarter horses and tall slender thoroughbreds and pinto ponies, there were Shetlands and Belgian draft horses. There were geldings and mares with colts and an occasional stallion.
The horse trader allowed a teenage boy, who I was told was part Indian, to ride the horses. (I can't imagine any businessman taking on that kind of liability now as the horses rotated in and out so quickly, he couldn't have known much about their temperament). The kid must have been a natural horseman. He hopped on them all, riding them without a saddle, only a rope bridle looped around their nose.
There was a homely red barn, a wide creek and a small pasture directly across from us. At one end, a high hill rose with a gravel road that went back to a pond.
I was sitting on my porch swing one morning when I heard a yell. I looked up to see a galloping sorrel horse come plunging down the hill with the boy on his back, unmoving, as if he was glued to the animal. He was tan and slender. He wore blue jeans and no shirt. His long black hair flew behind him as did the horse's black mane and tail. The horse was still running full tilt, when he reached the bottom of the hill and splashed through the creek. The boy raised his arms and let out an exultant cry.
I remember thinking I wished I had a picture of that scene. It was the purest example of the joy of freedom I ever saw and it made my heart sing.
Back in those days, there were no cell phones with cameras so I have no pictures of my magical moments but millions of monarch butterflies and an enormous mound of scarlet ladybugs and a long-haired boy flying on a sorrel horse are imprinted in my memory even without pictures.
Friday, March 14, 2014
I have been getting rid of books lately. I'm trying to find new homes for all the ones sitting around on the floor, only keeping enough to fill the nine bookcases in the house. I'm doing this out of consideration for my son, whose job it will be to dispose of approximately two tons of books if anything happens to me (and let's be real, eventually something will happen to me.) Giving up heavy, space-hogging books is easier to do since the invention of the Kindle. I can take one small device containing all my books with me to the nursing home if, God forbid, that's where I end up.
Someday, I will need to face doing the same with albums. I still have every album I ever bought (first one: Elvis), even though I haven't played most of them for 40 years. Some may be collector's items as far as age is concerned, but certainly not if you consider condition. The covers are faded and stained; the records are scratchy from use. Sometimes when I'm close to them, I imagine I can smell the aroma of beer and weed wafting out from the shelves. That collection of albums is also a collection of wonderful memories. I pull out a furred-around-the-edges Janis Joplin and remember a handsome man I thought I was in love with. Santana reminds me of a party at the lake. I was the most excited about music during the album era - when I discovered Bob Dylan, when I heard Led Zeppelin for the first time, when the Beatles went from pop to drug-induced creativity.
My first husband was one of those who always had to have the latest thing so he bought an eight-track tape player for the car, the first one in our town. Everyone loved that big unwieldy thing. It didn't fit into a nice little slot but had to be mounted below the dash so that I had a bunged-up left knee the whole time we had it. My husband didn't know or care much about music, he was simply turned on by the technology. He bought two tapes to go with his new player - Aretha Franklin and Loretta Lynn, two more disparate styles you could not imagine!
He was also one of the first to make the switch to a cassette player. I don't have the eight-track tapes. I think I sold them at a garage sale but I do still have all the cassettes. They are mounted above the albums. I call this wall of my bedroom the Wall of Obsolescence.
Of course, cds replaced cassettes and yes, I have them too. So, I have now bought my favorite music in four different formats. I have personally made a large contribution to Bob Dylan's fortune.
I suppose the I-pod is to music what the Kindle is to books but I don't think I'll be finding out. I don't believe I have it in me to make yet another leap into the future. My son asked me if I wanted an I-pod for Christmas.
"Then what?" I asked, "I join I-tunes and re-buy, yet again, the same music I've already bought four times before? Nah, I think I'm content to stick with cds."
Which doesn't at all solve the problem of what to do with all the unplayed albums and cassettes. Maybe I'll just let my son worry about it.
Monday, March 03, 2014
My work in progress right now is the 8th volume in the Rafe Vincennes series. I'm always happy to get back to Rafe again after getting to know another character and telling their story. Rafe is my baby and I love him the best.
Having said that though, I begin to wonder how writers like Janet Evanovich continue so long with a series. She is now coming out with her 21st Stephanie Plum novel. How does she keep thinking of new, outrageous things for Stephanie and the crew to do after all this time? How long can Stephanie balance her twin attractions to Morelli and Ranger? Will she eventually have to make a decision and choose? If she does, one of the primary plot lines of the series will disappear.
Sometimes, the answer seems to be to start a new series with one of the characters from the first. That's what John Sandford has done with Virgil Flowers. He wrote about Lucas Davenport for years in the Prey novels. Now Virgil has his very own series. Since Lucas and Virgil are miles apart in personality and philosophy, that gives Sandford something new and intriguing to write about.
Sometimes that works out better than other times. Anne Rice did the same when she switched back and forth between her vampires and her witches. I was never able to make the transfer with her. I read all the vampire books and skipped the witches.
Jack Higgins has a whole group of spies and one book will concentrate on one of them, then the next will focus on another. I only read the ones in which Sean Dillon plays a central role.
I fall in love with characters, so I hate it when an author brings a series to a close. My heart was broken when Andrew Vachss put away Burke and the family (my favorite of all). I felt let down when Charlie Huston gave up on Joe Pitt, vampire. I want to see Jack Reacher and Myron Bolitar and Richard Jury and Thomas Lynley and Jamie Fraser and ...... go on forever but with Rafe, I'm beginning to understand how difficult that can be on the writer.
Friday, February 14, 2014
My cousin and I were discussing what provides the initial spark of inspiration for a new book. I told him that mine always begin when a main character's name pops into my head. Usually, that's a man but not always. In Magic Creek, it was a woman. The name usually comes with a general sense of who this person is and as I sit down to write, more and more about him or her is revealed.
My cousin, who writes science fiction mostly, said his books begin with a "what if" question and go from there.
I told him I thought my method was preferable to his because if you stall out in finding an answer to your "what if", you're just done. He admitted that many of his ideas do peter out like that.
By contrast, with a person as your starting point, the possibilities are limitless. He can be a cop or a race car driver, a doctor or a teacher, a devil or a saint (most of my characters are some of each). He can be from anywhere in the world, be of any religion or any sexual orientation.
Rafe Vincennes, hero (anti-hero) of the Rafe Vincennes series is an actor and a race car driver, a lover and a killer. Cole McCarren, in Sticks and Carrots, is Irish. He is a wealthy businessman but his heart belongs to his racing stable, McCarren Broad Farm. Ethan Pierce (How to Build a Killer) ends up fleeing to South America to escape U.S. law. Shea Rafferty goes west as a boy, becoming a cowboy and a saver of wild horses in Eureka Spills. In my latest book, Sanctuary in the Atchafalaya, Luca Quai is half/Jew and half/Gypsy. He begins his life in Romania before coming to New York. He is an assassin who finds his spiritual home in Louisiana, with a Creole townhouse in New Orleans and his refuge in the Atchafalaya.
The key, though, is that it wasn't vital for any of them to be who they were. Cole McCarren could have been French instead of Irish if that's where my imagination had taken me. Shea Rafferty could have saved wolves instead of horses. Luca Quai could have just as easily felt a bond to the Rockies rather than the Atchafalaya.
When you build a story around a person, you begin with a shadow and fill in the colors as you go along. You can look to the far horizon and know that you're not bound by any restrictions. You can simply take off and fly to see where your creativity takes you.
Perhaps some writers are uncomfortable without a basic structure to go by. They prefer to set their original plot up as a kind of paint-by-numbers canvas so that they are working within an outline that must be adhered to.
We are all different in the way we write but if you stuck for a a direction, imagine a person who fascinates you and see if you can take it from there.