Recommended Reading: Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others

 

by Renee Kimball

Pat Schneider is a poet-healer, a guide and shaman who believes writing is the means to self-healing. Writing Alone and with others is a writer’s guide to forgiving and giving yourself permission to write your story that opens a way to finding the better you.

There are gems of wisdom in Schneider’s book for writers and would-be-writers. Each page speaks in a kind of firm best-friend voice. It is directed to anyone and everyone. Quoting Will Stafford, Schneider affirms: “A writer is someone who writes”—stating whether writing a letter, email, or merely a report, we all write. If writing calls to you, you must answer the call, if you do not, you damage yourself—whatever your write, it is your art—your story—and your right to write.

When we neglect the artist in ourselves, there is a kind of mourning that goes on under the surface of our busy lives.

If you are troubled and wish to heal, then the act of writing will heal you. Your story does not have to be shared in order for you to be whole. Of course, there are those who want to share, and that is a good thing. But whatever path is chosen, the medicine—writing—will heal you.

The very act of writing takes courage, it is an act exposing your most vulnerable self. You know which writers’ stories relate to you. If you share, it may be the story that irrevocably changes not only your path, but another’s path, you never know—it is a risk. Take the risk to write, whether you share or not, and you will heal.

Writing is a scary thing to do and the bad news is, it never stops being scary. Once I was at a luncheon with several writers and one of them had won the Pulitzer Prize. And he said: “What in God’s name do you write after you’ve won the Pulitzer?” And he was terrified. And I know someone else who has written book after book . . . and he’s miserable when he’s writing his next book, because he says, “I’ll never finish, I can’t do this. How did I get myself into this?” ~ Interview

Pat Schneider by Deekatherine [CC BY-SA 4.0]. via Wikimedia Commons

Schneider’s book is a firm but loving GET TO IT message, a message to GET ON WITH YOUR WRITING AND HEAL YOURSELF – Look into the dark corners of yourself, write them down, clear them out, banish them, shed them, become whole.

Schneider encourages everyone to “Write something that feels too huge, or too dangerous, to tell. Courage is not the special prerogative of those who have experienced some dramatic suffering.”

This is a hefty book, a thoughtful book, and whether you are an old-hand at writing, a beginner, or simply seeking personal solace through writing, Schneider’s book will fill you up and just may be the start towards a new beginning.

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To grow in craft is to increase the breadth of what I can do, but art is the depth, the passion the desire, the courage to be myself and myself alone.

GOING HOME THE LONGEST WAY AROUND

we tell stories, build
from fragments of our lives
maps to guide us to each other.
we make collages of the way
it might have been
had it been as we remembered,
as we think perhaps it was,
tallying in our middle age
diminishing returns.
Last night the lake was still;
all along the shoreline
bright pencil marks of light, and
children in the dark canoe pleading
“Tell us scary stories.”
Fingers trailing in the water,
I said someone I loved who died
told me in a dream
to not be lonely, told me
not to ever be afraid.
And they were silent, the children,
listening to the water
lick the sides of the canoe.
It’s what we love the most
can make us most afraid, can make us
for the first time understand
how we are rocking in a dark boat on the water,
taking the long way home.

~ Pat Schneider

For more of Pat Schneider’s poems visit her blog.  

References

Pat Schneider.Writing alone and with others. The guide that will beat the block, banish fear, and help create lasting work.

Pat Schneider – Online Interview – On Writing

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQ1ukC0KWZI Oxford Academic (Oxford University Press) Published on Apr 24, 2013

 

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A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats from shelters and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

An Interview with Elizabeth Buhmann, Author of BLUE LAKE

by M.K. Waller

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When I began Elizabeth Buhmann’s BLUE LAKE, I was–I’m ashamed to say–afraid I would be disappointed. Her first novel, LAY DEATH AT HER DOOR, was so well constructed, clues so obviously placed, that I should have been able to predict the ending—but so deftly woven into the plot that the last chapter was a complete surprise. More than a surprise—a shock. That novel was so good, I knew BLUE LAKE couldn’t match it.

I was wrong. BLUE LAKE is different from its predecessor, of course, but just as well written and just as suspenseful.  And when I reached the end, I said, “I should have known.”

BLUE LAKE does not disappoint.

Buhmann hides things in plain sight—the mark of a good mystery writer, and the delight of every mystery reader.

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“Rural Virginia, 1945. The Second World War had just ended when Alice Hannon found the lifeless body of her five-year-old daughter, Eugenie, floating in Blue Lake. The tragedy of the little girl’s death destroyed the Hannon family.

“More than twenty years later, Alice’s youngest daughter, Regina, returns home after a long estrangement because her father is dying. She is shocked to discover, quite by accident, that her sister’s drowning was briefly investigated as a murder at the time.

“For as long as she can remember, Regina has lived in the shadow of her family’s grief. She becomes convinced that if she can discover the truth about Eugenie’s death, she can mend the central rift in her life. With little to go on but old newspapers and letters, the dead girl’s hairpin, and her own earliest memories, Regina teases out a family history of cascading tragedy that turns her world upside down.” 

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Where did you get the idea for Blue Lake?

A friend told me something about her family history. Her grandmother, who was born in 1910, had 12 children. By the time the last child came along, her oldest daughter was in her twenties, childless, and wishing she could have a baby. So that youngest child was given to her sister and grew up believing that her sister was her mother and her mother was her grandmother.

The way my friend told it, the situation played out without great trauma—the little girl learned that she was adopted in the usual sort of way. But to me, the possibilities for very deep emotional upheaval were striking, just depending on the circumstances. For my main character, Regina, being given to her sister was a disaster, and the feelings of betrayal, rejection, and abandonment are intense.

Why the mid-century setting?

Another friend, who read a very early draft of this story, said, “It’s great but the setting in time falls between contemporary and historical. Can’t you tell the same story set in present day?”

The answer is no. For two reasons. One: too many things that happen in the story could not happen now. Advances in forensic science, victim services, and child protection would be expected to change the outcome at nearly every stage. And yet I think that many of the old attitudes and assumptions—especially about female victims, racial prejudice, and the sovereignty of the family—are stubbornly alive today.

Two: There is a shape to that era—the twenties, the Crash, the Depression, World War II, emerging modernism—that is unique and still shapes our world experience. And I don’t think anyone disputes that the Old South continues to haunt us.

This book is very different from your first!

It is! LAY DEATH AT HER DOOR was a much riskier project, having a protagonist who was in so many ways also an antagonist. And it was contemporary. And although the crimes reached back decades, the truth about them was entirely accessible in the end.

In Blue Lake, the violence reaches back so far in the past, and in a time when the truth about an isolated incident could so much more easily slip out of reach forever, that it felt to me as though Regina would never be able penetrate the mystery. It was a challenge to lead her to the answers she so desperately needed.

Always murder! Why do you write about murder?

To me it is the ultimate drama, when human emotions result in one person killing another. I try to treat murder with respect, for the extreme and shocking act that it is for real. I love a good cozy mystery as much as the next person, but I cannot write one. Murder is a deadly serious topic—could not be more so.

I also read mysteries and thrillers that feature serial killers, though these are not my favorites at all. These murders are committed by people who fall well outside the realm of normal human emotional response. I am more interested in a murder that is understandable, so to speak.

I would not go so far as to say that we are all capable of killing another human being. I have no idea whether that is true—probably not? But I think we all recognize and experience emotions which, if we were tested to a limit and beyond, could make us really want to kill another person.

Laws are quite clear about issues such as self-defense and justifiable homicide, but our individual perceptions of these concepts, in extreme and highly emotional circumstances, can be quite elastic. And it may well be that anyone who murders has a deeply flawed character. But character flaws are universally human, too.

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Elizabeth Buhmann is originally from Virginia, where both of her novels are set. Growing up as the daughter of an Army officer, she lived in France, Germany, New York, Japan, and Saint Louis. She graduated magna cum laude from Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, and has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh. For twenty years she worked for the Texas Attorney General as a researcher and writer on criminal justice and crime victim issues. Her first murder mystery, Lay Death at Her Door, earned a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and twice reached the Amazon Top 100 (paid Kindle). Elizabeth lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and dog. She is an avid gardener, loves murder mysteries, and is a long-time student of Tai Chi.

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BLUE LAKE: A Mystery is available at https://www.amazon.com/Blue-Lake-Mystery-Elizabeth-Buhmann-ebook/dp/B07SKJ1CF4/

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FTC Disclaimer: Elizabeth Buhmann is a friend and fellow writer. When we were both members of Austin Mystery Writers, I read the first chapters of BLUE LAKE in draft form and then waited impatiently for it to reach publication. The synopsis above is quoted from Amazon. I wrote the review. Nobody told me what to think or to say, and I posted it because I wanted to tell other readers of mystery and suspense about a book worthy of their To Be Read lists.

No reviewers were bribed, coddled, or coerced in the writing of this review.

~ M.K. Waller

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M.K. Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.

PLAYING FOR PIZZA – by John Grisham

 

written by Fran Paino

The master of suspense took a break from his usual mystery, crime, and thriller books to write Playing for Pizza; a football story hatched as he researched settings for another novel.

Playing for Pizza tracks a third-string quarterback for the Cleveland Browns in what turns out to be a life lesson – the question is, will he learn?

Poor Rick Dockery. With only minutes left to play, in the AFC Championship game, Dockery comes in as Quarterback with a 17- point lead and snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. Rick ends up in a hospital, recovering from the concussion he suffered along with the loss. His agent, Arnie, and the duty nurse discourage him from remembering too much of what had happened, but eventually, poor Rick does remember and then learns that virulent Cleveland fans want to storm the hospital and dismember him – or at least run him out of town on a rail. In addition to the disaster, his agent informs him that the Browns have released him and no other team wants him – he is unemployable in the NFL, but Rick isn’t done with football – he can’t be; it’s all he knows.

Dubbed by an unforgiving and vicious press as “the greatest goat in the history of professional sports,” Rick has hit rock bottom. His agent suggests that it might be time to find another profession; Dockery, however, refuses to give up. Arnie is running out of patience and ideas, not to mention the fact that he isn’t making any money representing the disgraced Quarterback, yet he makes “one more call,” to an old buddy.

Coach Russo is looking for a QB for the Panthers—of Parma, Italy. They play at a Division 3 level – maybe. Russo wants an American QB to lead his team of tough Italians, whose professions range from truck drivers to airline pilots and everything in-between. These men hold full-time jobs and play for love of the game, and pizza! As one of the three Americans allowed on any team in Italy, Rick will be provided with a car, rent money and a very small salary – nowhere near the pay scale in the NFL.

With no other options available, feeling the pressure to get out of the States, filled with resentment and self-pity, Rick Dockery accepts the job. He flies off to a country he barely knows exists and a city he’d never heard of before.

The coach meets him at the airport and immediately realizes that Dockery is in for a few shocks. Coach Russo crash courses Rick in Italian football. The Panthers are on an eight-game schedule with play-offs and a shot at the Italian Super Bowl. At the same time, Rick must cope with stick-shift small cars, bumper-to-bumper parking, and the culture of food, wine, and opera– things about which Rick Dockery knows nothing. By his own admission, his education consisted of football, Phys. Ed., more football, and cheerleaders.

Rick begins the process of adjusting to his new circumstances and his new team. Secretly, he believes he would be hiding out in Parma for a while and would return to the States after other NFL teams forgot his humiliation and offered him a spot.

One vicious reporter from Cleveland, however, finds out where Dockery is and has no intention of allowing him any salvation in football. The reporter stalks him and reports back to the Cleveland Post on Dockery’s progress, turning anything Dockery does well into a series of “lucky breaks.”

Throughout, we watch Dockery cope with the culture shock of a completely alien environment while melding with teammates who are unlike any he’d ever encountered in the States and somehow, play his best football.

Sometimes the story feels like a travel guide through northern Italy and a play-by-play in football, but it’s told through the eyes of a lost soul on a life journey. Dockery learns that in Italy, although “it (footfall) was just a club sport, winning meant something – commitment meant even more.”

By the end of Rick’s story, we see a man emerge from the immature self-absorbed, culturally deficient boy/man who’d arrived in a foreign country only a few weeks before. Moreover, if you are a football fan, the last game is a heart-stopper.

There’s no fairy-tale ending here. Dockery has choices to make, but he finds confidence, becomes comfortable in his own skin, and learns the real meaning of playing for pizza.

It’s not a new release, but it’s still a great summer read.

Made His Mark: Daniel J. Boorstin–A Man and His World

written by Renee Kimball

Education is learning
what you didn’t even know you didn’t know.

– Daniel J. Boorstin

There are many people who have never heard of Daniel J. Boorstin. You may not know of him or his lifetime of work. Boorstin is one of a group of modern historians who rose to prominence during the 1950s.

Boorstin was born in 1914 and died in 2004, at the age of 89. He was a man of many talents, but in terms of authorship and approach he was truly unique. To study all his work would take a lifetime.

He received the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for the last book of a trilogy he titled The Americans. The trilogy included: The Colonial Experience (1958), The National Experience (1965), and The Democratic Experience (1973).

Boorstin’s gift was his laser-like insight and unrivaled ability of connectedness. He was adept at evaluating trends and society, as well as history, and combining both into highly readable chronologies. His writing details historical events, social change, progress, and scholarly viewpoints including the history of America and the world. To say that Boorstin was the consummate researcher is an understatement.

Not only was Boorstin adept at interconnecting facts, people, places, inventions, and abstract concepts into a smooth and interconnected whole, no one that I am aware of has written with the same clarity or ability as a historian – Boorstin has no equal. He was also such a prolific writer; a published annotated bibliography was produced comprised solely of his work in 2000.

Daniel J. Boorstin is what is called “a place keeper.” He is the type of historical and social writer who sees the essential in the mundane, marks it, explains it, and knows the effect the event had at its inception as well as the impact it could or would have in the future. Boorstin was one of the first to literally name certain social conditions. He was the first to coin, “image”, the “non-event” and the “celebrity”, all concepts either invented, or first dissected, by him.” (Hodgson, 2004).

But who was this man?

Boorstin was born in 1914 in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of Russian Jewish Immigrants. His father was an attorney who represented Leo Frank, and despite being found innocent of the rape and murder of a young girl, Frank was later lynched by The Ku Klux Klan. Anti-Semitism forced the Boorstin family to relocate to Oklahoma.

After completing his early schooling, Boorstin went first to Harvard Law, graduated, then studied at Balliol College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. During 1938, he joined the Communist Party for one year. He dropped his affiliation when Russia and Germany invaded Poland. He never returned to the Communist Party, and fully denounced it when questioned in later years.

He received his doctorate at Yale and was hired as a professor at Swarthmore College in 1942. Later, Boorstin became a professor at the University of Chicago, holding that position for twenty-five years. He later attained the position of “Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions,” at the University of Cambridge. In 1974, he became the Librarian of Congress upon the nomination of then President Gerald Ford, and retained that position for a full twelve years.

He married Ruth Frankel, in 1941. Their marriage was a solid and lasted the rest of their lives. Ruth was also Boorstin’s editor. “Without her,” he was quoted as saying, “I think my works would have been twice as long and half as readable.”

Boorstin is known best for the trilogy, The Americans, however a second well-known trilogy spanned an all-encompassing study of man and the world in which he lives. That trilogy included  The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself, The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination and The Seekers: The Story of Man’s Continuing Quest to Understand His World Knowledge Trilogy.

These works are maps from where man began, his discoveries along the way, the curves and changes that mark his historical progress, and the effects these had upon society. They are important because Boorstin is a place finder and a place keeper who shows our progress as a country, society, and habitants of this large world that we all are a part – and guides us to something better in ourselves. These works are lasting works. We can all learn something from Boorstin’s achievements.

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Image of Daniel J. Boorstin, public domain, via Wikipedia

Images of book covers via Amazon.com

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Renee Kimball loves books and reads widely–literary and genre fiction, autobiography and memoir, humor, psychology, philosophy,  and religion among them. She has a master’s degree in Criminal Justice and is involved in rescuing, fostering, and finding forever homes for homeless dogs. She’s working on a novel set in the southwestern United States.

How Did She Think of That? And How Did Adamsberg Figure It Out?: Thoughts on Fred Vargas and her Policiers

by Helen Currie Foster

Fred Vargas by Marcello Casal/ABr, licensed under CC BY-3.0 BR. Via Wikipedia

Her sheer imagination, her complex and nearly crazy—yet convincing—plots, have won Fred Vargas three International Dagger Awards from the Crime Writers Association for her policiers, or police procedurals. Vargas is the nom de plume of Fréderique Audoin-Rouzeau, a French medieval historian and archeologist (born in Paris 1952) who worked at the Institut Pasteur. Vargas provides a vividly unusual police environment with her Paris-based Serious Crime Squad, headed by Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. I immediately fell for her idiosyncratic protagonist—Adamsberg is Pyrenees born, left handed, a water-colorist who paints in order to puzzle out murder inquiries, and who alternately frustrates and mesmerizes his staff through his unconventional thinking. Vargas has steadily added a cadre of interesting characters to Adamsberg’s team, each quite odd in his or her own way (not forgetting the large white cat which sleeps atop the copier and must be carried to its food bowl—a cat which demonstrates great heroism in This Night’s Foul Work) (tr. 2008).

Aside from some rare omniscient inserts, Vargas tells her stories primarily through the eyes of the police characters, primarily Adamsberg. We see Adamsberg’s chief lieutenant, Commandant Adrien Danglard, through Adamsberg’s eyes. Danglard is OCD, possessed of nearly photographic memory, a polymath with vast knowledge of science and history, subject to anxiety attacks. At the beginning of An Uncertain Place (tr. 2011) Adamsberg is racing for the Eurostar to meet Danglard and board the Chunnel for a conference in London when he gets Danglard’s text:

“Rdv 80 min GdNord Eurostar gate. Fckin tnnl. Have smart jkt + tie 4 U.”

In this abbreviated text Vargas telegraphs Danglard’s character and his relationship to Adamsberg. We instantly see that Danglard is clock-bound, controlling in his insistence on proper attire for Adamsberg (correctly predicting his boss’s over-casual packing), and terrified of traveling under the Channel.

Vargas develops her protagonist and his foil by giving us each character’s point of view on the other’s mental processes. In An Uncertain Place, Adamsberg sees Danglard like this:

Adamsberg imagined Danglard’s mind as a block of fine limestone, where rain, in other words questions, had hollowed out countless basins in which his worries gathered, unresolved. Every day, three or four of these basins were active simultaneously.

On the other hand, Danglard often despairs of Adamsberg’s unconventional mental processes:

It was less easy to seize hold of him when his mental equipment was dislocated into several moving parts, which was his usual state. But it became completely impossible when this state intensified to the point of dispersal…Adamsberg at such times seemed to move like a diver, his body and mind swooping gracefully without any precise objective. His eyes followed the movement, taking on the look of dark brown algae and conveying to his interlocutor a sensation of indeterminacy, flow, non-existence. To accompany Adamsberg in these extremes…was like swimming into deep water…

Indeed, the members of Adamsberg’s squad are split on his intuitive approach, which they call “cloud-shoveling.” Many in the squad would frankly prefer a more Cartesian, rationalist approach. An Uncertain Place begins with the discovery of severed feet (i.e. from corpses) lined up in pairs of French shoes at the entrance to Highgate Cemetery in London. (I told you the plots are wild.) Back in Paris, when Adamsberg eventually connects the severed feet to a Serbian legend tinged with vampirism, part of his squad rebels:

At this point, the antagonism which divided the members of the squad resurfaced: the materialist positivists were seriously annoyed by Adamsberg’s vague wanderings, sometimes to the point of rebellion, while the more conciliatory group did not object to a spot of cloud-shovelling from time to time.

Adamsberg tries to convince the magnificent woman lieutenant, Violette Retancourt—a positivist irritated by Adamsberg’s vagueness—that there is indeed a connection:

“We’re not looking for a vampire, Retancourt,” said Adamsberg firmly, “we’re not going out into the streets to search for some creature who got a stake through his heart in the early eighteenth century. Surely that’s clear enough for you, lieutenant.”

“No, not really.”

Vargas highlights our variation in mental processes—how we each investigate, , how we think—in Have Mercy on Us All (tr. 2003), which draws heavily on Vargas’s own research into the Black Death and bubonic plague (published as Les Chemins de la peste or “Routes of the Plague”, 2003). Someone in Paris is drawing a symbol like a backwards number four on apartment doors in highrise apartments, leaving inside each apartment ivory envelopes which contain fleas, with messages inside that draw on medieval Latin texts about the plague’s arrival, first in Paris, later in Marseilles. And, yes, the fleas are nosopsyllus fasciatus, connected with the plague. These details draw us from Paris highrise apartments to the itching swollen bites in Danglard’s armpits and the image of the anglophile commandant leaping out of his I-love-the-English tweeds into déclassé black jeans and a baggy t-shirt—confounding the other members of his squad.

Meanwhile, dead bodies appear in the streets. Modern Parisians become terrified when news outlets report that the last arrival of the plague in Paris, in 1920, was hushed up by the authorities. Adamsberg vainly points out that the dead bodies being found were each strangled and the black splotches on their bodies are merely powdered charcoal. With the investigation stymied, he senses that he himself missed a step, missed a clue. He decides to spend the afternoon in a Paris square waiting for the local Breton newscaster—a former sailor named Joss whose gig is to read aloud to the waiting audience the “news” envelopes submitted by various listeners:

Adamsberg enjoyed listening to the harmless small ads in pale sunlight. An entire afternoon spent doing bugger all except letting body and mind wind down had helped him recover…He had reached the level of animation of a sponge bobbing about on a stormy sea. It was a state he sometimes sought specifically.

And at the close of the newscast, as Joss was announcing the wreck of the day, he jumped, as if a pebble had just hit the sponge hard. The bump almost hurt physically, leaving Adamsberg nonplussed and alert. He could not tell where it had come from. It was necessarily a picture that had hit him while he’d been drowsing with his shoulder leaning on the trunk of the plane—a fleeting frame, a split-second flash of a visual detail of some kind.

Adamsberg straightened up and scanned the whole scene in search of the lost image, trying to recover the sense of shock.

Haven’t we each sometimes waked up with the sense we missed something, something we heard, something we saw? And tried to retrieve it? No spoilers here as to what Adamsberg will recall.

Of course we need logic and intuition, visual and auditory memory, history and scientific analysis. Vargas’s hypercreative plots, often rooted in French myth and history, require not only Danglard’s enormous historical knowledge and ratiocination, but Adamsberg’s “swimming into deep water.” What initially looks like ordinary murder in Paris, or Normandy, becomes, at Vargas’s hands, a mythic quest, a trip down the rabbit hole where, finally, an unexpected mystery is solved. We think we’re just cloud-shoveling, but suddenly all the threads come together and we see the whole picture—far more complex than we’d dreamed—at last.

The Adamsberg books are a treat, but anyone who has ever been a grad student will also relish Vargas’s unlikely trio of graduate students and their roles in solving murders: The Three Evangelists (tr. 2006), Dog Will Have His Day (tr. 2014), and The Accordionists (tr. 2017). A new Adamsberg will arrive in August. More cloud-shoveling!

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Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. She earned a BA from Wellesley College, an MA from the University of Texas, and a JD from the University of Michigan.

Having grown up in Texas surrounded by books and storytelling, she taught high school English and later became a prize-winning feature writer for a small Michigan weekly. Following a career of more than thirty years as an environmental lawyer, the character Alice and her stories suddenly appeared in Foster’s life. In her writing, Foster explores the interaction between history and the present and the reasons we tell the stories we do.

Married with two children, she lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She works in Austin, and she’s active with the Hays County Master Naturalists and the board of Austin Shakespeare.

One Pebble in a Shoe Can Change the Universe

 

It happened again.

An author killed off a character I love.

I hate that. I hate the author. I continue to like the book, but the author I despise.

This time it’s Anne Tyler. I love her novels. The Accidental Tourist. Breathing Lessons. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. My favorites, if I have favorites, are Back When We Were Grownups and Saint Maybe.

Tyler’s plots are rather loose. Instead of going directly from here to there, they detour, turn corners you didn’t see coming, abandon the now for backstory that might take you a generation or two into the past before returning to the main narrative.  “[C]haracter is everything,” Tyler said in an interview. “I never did see why I have to throw in a plot, too.”

She writes about families: ordinary, quirky, dysfunctional families–dysfunctional as ordinary families tend to be. They’re humble people, living in ordinary houses, working at ordinary jobs; their furniture is often mismatched and their carpet runners often worn from someone’s pacing. Her families stick together; children and grandchildren don’t stray far, come home often, and sometimes don’t leave at all.

Even their extraordinary problems  are ordinary, the kinds of problems real people experience.

Her characters’ days are filled with matters of little importance. “As for huge events vs. small events,” says Tyler, “I believe they all count. They all reveal character, which is the factor that most concerns me….It does fascinate me, though, that small details can be so meaningful.”

She loves to “think about chance–about how one little overheard word, one pebble in a shoe, can change the universe…The real heroes to me in my books are first the ones who manage to endure.”

If her plots meander, it’s because they reflect the common, insignificant, everyday events that are the most important, because, taken together, they form the essence of life.

Tyler cares about her characters. “My people wander around my study until the novel is done,” she said in another interview. “It’s one reason I’m very careful not to write about people I don’t like. If I find somebody creeping in that I’m not really fond of, I usually take him out.”

And therein lies my problem, and the reason that Anne Tyler is, for the moment, on my bad list.

She’s not the only one who likes her characters. I like them, too. Some of them, I love. And when one dies—or, as I see it, when she kills one—I take it personally. The character’s family stand around in the kitchen saying all the plain, simple, often awkward, frequently funny things that real people say when someone they love has died.  They crowd together in pews to hear a sermon by a minister who didn’t know the loved one and might not know how to pronounce his name. They return home to refrigerators stuffed with casseroles and play host to friends and neighbors until they’re so tired they’re about to drop. Left alone, they get on one another’s nerves and offend with, or take offense at, the most innocent remarks. Then they pick themselves up and go on with their lives.

But I don’t. Because even though I stand outside the novel, reading about people who don’t exist, never have, never will, I know them. I’ve been where they are, said what they say, done what they do. And when I have to go through it one more time, with them—that seriously messes up my day.

Tyler always manages to redeem herself, though. One of her characters says or does something so remarkable, so absolutely right. And the world of the novel shifts. And so does mine.

In the book I’m reading now—I won’t mention the title so as not to spoil it for you—Tyler gives that role to the “disconcertingly young” minister who conducts the funeral. After a friend and a sister-in-law and a fourteen-year-old granddaughter wearing “patent leather heels and a shiny, froufrou dress so short she could have been a cocktail waitress,” have paid tribute to the deceased, he approaches the lectern and does what the deceased wanted–to “say something brief and—if it wasn’t asking too much—not too heavy on religion.’”

He starts by saying he didn’t know their loved one and so doesn’t have memories like they have.

But it has occurred to me, on occasion, that our memories of our loved ones might not be the point. Maybe the point is their memories–all that they take away with them. What if heaven is just a vast consciousness that the dead return to? And their assignment is to report on the experiences they collected during their time on earth. The hardware store their father owned with the cat asleep on the grass seed, and the friend they used to laugh with till the tears streamed down their cheeks… The spring mornings they woke up to a million birds singing their hearts out, and the summer afternoons with the swim towels hung over the porch rail… and the warm yellow windows of home when they came in on a snowy night. “That’s what my experience has been,” they say, and it gets folded in with the others–one more report on what living felt like. What it was to be alive.

And so Anne Tyler performs her magic. Once more I start bawling. I reconsider. My hostility passes into nothingness. I forgive her. We’re friends again.

I leave the church and go home with the family to a refrigerator stuffed with casseroles, and visit with their friends, and watch them give and take offense but then quickly, or perhaps slowly, repair their relationships, and pick themselves up and go on with life.

Now I have to read the second half of the book. That’s a lot of pages to cover without the character I love. But, like the others, I pick myself up and get on with it.

If I can’t have the character, I can still love Anne Tyler. And I will. And I do.

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A film adaptation of Breathing Lessons starring James Garner and Joanne Woodward appeared on the Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1994.  Very funny.

The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996.

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0109335/

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Of Tyler’s novel Searching for Caleb, John Updike wrote, “Funny and lyric and true, exquisite in its details and ambitious in its design…This writer is not merely good, she is wickedly good.”

What a fine thing to be–wickedly good.

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In writing this post, I relied heavily on “Anne Tyler” from Wikipedia. More information can be found at

http://www.nytimes.com/topic/person/anne-tyler
https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/457.Anne_Tyler
http://www.npr.org/2015/02/10/384112113/cozy-blue-thread-is-unabashedly-domestic
http://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/arts/bal-book-review-anne-tyler-s-vinegar-girl-a-clever-riff-on-shakespeare-s-shrew-20160622-story.html
http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/04/19/specials/tyler.html
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/15/anne-tyler-interview-i-am-not-a-spiritual-person-spool-of-blue-thread
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/event/article-2931435/Anne-Tyler-began-writing-idea-wanted-know-like-somebody-else.html
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/apr/13/anne-tyler-interview

Find her on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Anne-Tyler/e/B000APV4K0/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1466827414&sr=8-2-ent

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This review first appeared on Telling the Truth, Mainly, June 24, 2016.

M.K. Waller blogs at http://kathywaller1.com. Find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kathy.waller68/

A Book Review: The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

Marcus Zusak published The Book Thief in 2005, and despite his initial personal misgivings, it was an instant success.  It is a story of ordinary people trying to survive under extraordinary conditions, and a girl who loved books.

It is also a mournful story, and not one that you can simply close the cover and walk away from, it follows you.  It seeks answers to thorny questions – it forces uncomfortable responses.

What is immediately clear is Marcus Zusak is a sensitive writer.  His idea for the book began in Zusak’s childhood – his parents of Austrian-German descent grew up under Nazi rule.  After having a family, they told their stories to their children around the kitchen table.  Zusak remembered those stories, and they became the soil in which The Book Thief grew.  (Random House, 2009) (Book photo, Amazon.com)

Zusak provides a surprise on the first page –we meet the narrator — Death.  Not the arrogant Death of John Donne, or Milton’s incestuous Death, or even a specter with sickle.   Zusak’s Death is sympathetic, beyond this, there is something more, it is in his voice, he cares.

Death is the observer throughout the life of the main character, 10-year-old orphaned Liesel Meminger, her foster family and their village.  Liesel is the real book thief.  Liesel’s first theft occurs when she deftly pockets a fallen book at her brother’s grave, it is a copy of the Gravediggers Handbook. While watching this petty theft, Death’s interest in Liesel is piqued. It is Liesel’s first, but not last, theft of a book.  When she stole the book, Liesel did not even know what it was about, because she could not read. (Ghetto: photo courtesy of Pixaby).

Liesel arrives in Molching, a fictional German village not far from Dachau and the setting of the novel. Both Liesel’s mother and father have been deported, and Liesel is left in the care of foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann.    A cast of characters appear, loving Rudy the next-door neighbor, and Max Vandenburg, a Jew seeking refuge in the Hubermann basement.  Ultimately, it is Hans’ patient tutoring and encouragement that teaches Liesel how to read using the Gravedigger’s Handbook as a primer.  At once, Liesel’s love of reading takes over her life and her desire for more books overtake caution.

In one instance, Liesel risks her life and the lives of her foster parents when she boldly removes a still smoldering book from a pile of burned books in Molching’s square.  Had she been caught, the possible punishment was deportation and death, not just for her, but Max and the Hubermanns as well.

Yet in spite of the ever-present danger surrounding her, Liesel continues her search for ever more books, all the while blithely ignoring the risk of being caught.  The danger and fear of everyone increase along with threat of more Allied bombings.

Zusak drew this tale from ordinary people’s real experiences living under Hitler’s rule.   It was the ordinary people who hid, fed and clothed frightened Jews in their homes, in basements, attics, and whenever possible, somehow, managed to keep their precious books safe.

Yet, the story of Liesel’s is not an isolated one, there are still many real-life stories that have not been told.  What we do know, thanks to Antonio Iturbe, is the story of  The Librarian of Auschwitz.  Dita Kraus, was the actual Librarian of Auschwitz.  At 14-years of age, Kraus risked her life to protect a scanty library – a collection of tattered and disintegrating books – mere pages—so that there could be a type of school for the children of Auschwitz. It was their only opportunity to learn and so they might hear a story before they too disappeared.

Other European Jews, while fleeing for their lives, managed to find the means to protect and preserve their books. In Aaron Lansky’s Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books (2004), hundreds of people did just that, and in doing so, preserved their history and saved a dying language, Yiddish.

Lansky spent over 25 years searching for Yiddish books and in the end, he found a million.  Before WWII, Yiddish was the common language among European Jews. The books stood as the record of their history, their lives, and their language.

When Jews were forced to abandon the only countries they had ever known, these books were what kept them together. Knowing they might never return they took their books and in doing so, saved their culture and their language.

While Liesel may be a fictional character, the time and events in which Liesel lived were real.  Of the many others who took great risks to save their books, we may never know, but we can acknowledge their sacrifices and be grateful for the books they saved.

The hard question is, if pressed would we do the same?

 

References

Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. New York :Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW | ‘THE BOOK THIEF,’ BY MARKUS ZUSAK  Fighting for Their Lives Review JOHN GREENMAY 14, 2006. https://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/14/books/review/14greenj.html

The Literary Traveler. Book Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (January 22, 2013). Katy Kelleher  https://www.literarytraveler.com/books/review-of-the-book-thief-by-markus-zusak/

Markus Zusak Markus Zusak’s compelling appointment with Death BookPage interview by Linda M. Castellitto March 2006 https://bookpage.com/interviews/8341-markus-zusak-teen#.XO_Z-YhKiUk

It’s a steal. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Ardagh The Guardian.Sat 6 Jan 2007. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/jan/06/featuresreviews.guardianreview26  Philip

The failurist: Markus Zusak at TEDxSydney 2014   Ted Talks 2014 TEDx Talks Published on Jun 14, 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-_8QIdm4hA

Interview with Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief  Random House Kids Published on May 1, 2009 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m7B8ioiZz7M

World Over – 2016-04-07 – ‘The Book Thief’ author, Markus Zusak with Raymond Arroyo   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFSxzc12y6A

Iturbe, Antonio.  The Librarian of Auschwitz translated by Lilit Thwaites Henry Holt and Co. (BYR) (2017).

Lansky, Aaron (2004). Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. p. 289. ISBN 1-56512-429-4.

 Milton’s Satanic Trinity in Paradise Lost by Dr Taylor Marshallhttps://taylormarshall.com/2007/11/miltons-satanic-trinity-in-paradise.html

 A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and foster for homeless animals.