Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Character IS Plot

Two of the three page roster for my FOS storyworld which so far runs to 115 individuals.

I remember having read this somewhere but I'm not sure where so I can't give proper credit. But this week I've seen it in operation. As I worked on generating that list of characters from all of the WIP set in the FOS storyworld some of the blocks preventing me from from advancing individual stories began to dissolve. Not all. I'm far from there yet but I'm seeing hints.

More than hints. I have the name of the mysterious Founder of the bizarre cult that is the main antagonist for several of the novels and a major influence on nearly all of them. I know he was born during or shortly after WWII and split off from the religious group he was originally affiliated with in the mid 30s. I know a bit about his motives and temperament and a bit more about his doctrine and belief system. Not enough yet but its way more than I had a week ago.

The list of characters I harvested out of all of the story files grew to 115. After grouping them loosly by the story/novel they figure most prominently in, I printed off the list. It's three pages, two of which are featured in that screen shot above.

The next step is to created a separate topic in the WhizFolder document FOS Worksheets which I created for the express purpose of organizing and keeping tabs on all of the elements of the story world that might tend to affect the entire collection of stories. Like the roster and the time line.

As I create those Whiz topics--which are like mini documents inside the main document--I'll be dropping all relevant info regarding the characters into them and in the cases of major characters creating subtopics so I don't have to scroll thru several thousand words to find one fact.

This is where I'll do the character sketches and other exercises that help flesh out a character. Like Laurie Hutzler's The Emotional Toolbox and The Nine Character Types. I was introduced to these by Joely Sue Burkart nearly two years ago and since then have occasionally found a concept useful when it occurred to me to try it or have had an aha thought about one of my characters while reading the advice on Laurie's or Joely's sites but I've never applied myself to putting all the characters of a WIP through their paces as delineated by Hutzler. That's what I'm setting out to do now for all dozen plus WIP already in the storyworld though I will be focusing more intensely on a select few--Faye's story and Crystal's story because they are two of the most dependent on the cult thread which must be well defined before I can proceed; and Julia's story, which is tightly entwined with her twin Faye's story, because if I can solve the puzzle of the cult by the end of October than I can run with Julia's story for my NaNo novel.

I'm itching to start writing scenes again and hope to do so for Faye's and Crystal's stories but I'll restrain myself with Julia's story until November 1, doing only prep work--character sketches, time line, plot, scene lists, research etc.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What's in a Name?

Everything. For me the very names of the characters contain the story within them in the same way a seed contains the flower. Today my focus on my FOS WIPs has been to collect all the names of all the characters from all twelve novels set in this story wold into a single document. Some I discovered don't have names or have only a first or only a last. But many have first, middle, last (maiden and married for some women); and various aka: adopted; nick names, alias, pseudonym, stage, pen.

The good news is that I think I've about got them all collected. The bad news is there are over one hundred and about twenty percent have less than a full name--half of those have only a first or only a last and the other half have only a designation of relationship--spouse of, sibling of, boss of, teacher of, coach of, mother of etc. Now I wouldn't have bothered to put them in the list if they were only that roll and not something more in their own right. Many of them once had names which were lost when I lost my manuscripts and files in 2001. So much of what I'm doing is as much reconstruction as construction of these stories.

My head is swimming in names. Not just the names on the list but the names at Think Baby Names that I looked at while selecting names. And not just the names but their meaning, etymology, ethnicity, gender. Because just any ole name won't do for even the most minor of character for the name embodies the character of the character. The name is a symbol of what roll that character has for the story and I don't mean the role he plays in it (as parent, sibling, teacher, waitress, protagonist, friend, villain, etc) but the role he plays as carrier of meaning, theme and image for the story.

The next step now that I've got most of the names collected from the various story files is to start working at discovering the full names of those who still lack them while simultaneously creating a separate topic for each one in the WhizFolder file FOS Worksheets in which to collect all relevant info about them and their roles, keep track of where and when they turn up in the various novels, etc. I've discovered, and not for the first time, that playing in the character files for a story helps me develop the story. By spending time getting to know the character inside and out I have invited them to start telling me their story and most of them are eager to do so.

And while I work on fleshing out my characters with names and roles I will also work at adding relevant dates to the time line in FOS Worksheets as well. And there will be a natural progression from that to listing intended scenes for the stories. And once that builds up a head of steam....

But I know I can't expect to get far in any of the stories until I figure out who the heck is the founder of the cult and why and exactly what it's belief system is. Well, today I believe I discovered approximately when he was born and his probable name. That's half the story...


Monday, September 28, 2009

New Toy Joy

Xmind an open source free mind-mapping tool.

I'm hoping this will help me brainstorm and organize all the info in my multiple-novel story world. I am especially hoping it will help me break through the barrier that has prevented me from advancing beyond the midpoint of any of the nearly dozen WIP set in this story world.

I've identified the root of the problem. The bizarre religious cult that impacts every major character's story thread and most all of the WIP's main plots. Once I have this entity well defined I'm confident the stories will all but tell themselves.

More about this in Friday's Foray in Fiction post.

Meanwhile, I have just begun to play.


Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sunday Serenity #146

funny pictures
moar funny pictures

Sleep--one of the things a lazy Sunday is good for. Especially when one has stayed up til dawn engrossed in a novel.


Saturday, September 26, 2009

Last Home-Alone-Saturday til April

Ssh!  iz trying to reed.
moar funny pictures

Today was the last day of dirt track racing in the Rogue Valley and thus my last home-alone-Saturday until next April. I treated it like a holiday instead of a chore day as usual. It helped that it was a double race day weekend with races held Friday also so I was able to get the must-do chores done yesterday. Today I spent a full four hours reading in one novel. And it is a complete escapism novel. A near-future sci-fi possible end of the world scenario. It's Greg Bear's Quantico and it could almost be ripped from current headlines. It's a page turner and I need to start turning those pages again soon. Got interrupted mid sentence when my sister called and then spent over an hour on the phone with her and my mom.

Mom, btw, is doing quite well. She carried her end of the conversation so well in fact I almost couldn't tell the difference from how it was before the stroke last November. She was maybe talking slower than typically back then but it sounded no worse than fatigue.


Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday Forays in Fiction: Character Birth Control

funny pictures of cats with captions
see more Lolcats and funny pictures

Last week I talked about naming characters. This week I'm confessing to a problem that has plagued nearly every one of my WIP of novella length and up: out of control proliferation of characters. That is how my FOS (Fruits of the Spirit) story world grew out a single short story for a creative writing class into a projected novel length project estimated at 200 pages then 500 pages then 1000 pages then.a possible series with each book focused on one or two POV characters. Projected series length ranging from five to ten novels depending on how much doubling up of POV characters is desirable. (Doublig up would only be done when it would enhance both stories as, for example, when the plots of the two POV characters are so entwined they can't be told separately or their themes are enhanced by juxtaposition.)

With a cast of characters spanning 70 some years and five generations numbering over 100 the project got so unwieldy and intimidating, the plot lines so tangled not to mention the time lines that I keep stalling out. One of the things that torments me the most and keeps my fingers frozen over the keyboard is the fear of corrupting the stories of the characters not in focus while working on the current POV story.

Or to put it another way: Faye's twin Julia has a major role in Faye's story, being onstage with Faye in over fifty percent of the scenes. But Julia has a POV story which will likely have its own book. Faye will have as big a role in Julia's story but I chose to focus on Faye's story first and every fork in the plot line that I choose delimits not only Faye's story but also Julia's and Wilma's and Estelle's and, and, and..

I worry about spoilers for future novels dropped into the current story; about what Faye does or does not (can or cannot) know about Julia's story at any point and visa versa; about discovering that Julia's story requires her to be out of town or out of country when Faye's story has her in a crucial scene. Multiply that by a factor of ten for that's how many separate POV characters with stories strong enough to carry a novel there are.

For last year's NaNo novel I set aside FOS and designed a project that took advantage of my propensity to proliferate characters. I set my story in a trailer park and designed it to be a collection of interwoven short stories featuring a dozen or more separate households with over thirty characters including a cat and a ghost.

That plan lent itself to my weakness for character creation, turning it into a strength for the purpose of generating word count fast. But it once again left me with a tangled mess of entwined plot threads which I've barely looked at since November 30.

This year I'm trying to limit the characters in my NaNo novel to as few as possible. The protagonist, the antagonist and one or two significant supporting cast for each. I'm also hoping to have a pretty good idea of the most significant events on the plot line from backstory through beginning to middle to end before November 1st. This time I'm hoping to have something at the end of the month that won't enter my dreams like gremlins--cute and cuddly tumbling into a swimming pool and then shooting through the roof shattering the boundaries and spewing gunk--making me afraid to open the file again.

So it was perfect timing to find a newsletter in my inbox this week from Holly Lisle entitled Don't Breed Characters which addressed just this problem. I wish I could link you to it so you could read it. If you are interested drop me a line at joystory AT gmail DOT com and I'll forward it to you. Meanwhile consider signing up for Holly's writing tips newsletters. They're helpful, amusing and uplifting.

I find much of the material on Holly's website to be of the same character as her newsletter. I love hanging out there. I won her plot clinic during my participation in the first Sweating for Sven contest and it unlocked a lot of things for me. But although I also like Holly Lisle's stories I have a feeling she wouldn't be all that enthused about mine. I base that on things she has alluded to in her writing advice using examples of published stories which I have admired and aspire to emulate as 'what not to do'. But on the other hand I am confident she still has much to teach me as there must be a reason why, with almost the same number of years of effort expended, Holly has 30 plus published novels while I have only 300 plus frolicking characters trapped on the screens of my computer and my mind.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Dewey’s Read-a-Thon, Autumn 2009 Edition

The fifth 24 hour Read-a-Thon is scheduled for the weekend of October 24-25, 2009. I'm not sure yet of the starting hour but last April it was Saturday 5AM to Sunday 5AM PST .

I'm looking forward to participating again as both a reader and cheerleader.

Last October I read short stories the whole 24 hours as an exercise to prepare for my NaNoWriMo project which was a novel woven of multiple short stories. This year I plan to use the event to immerse myself in works by and about Flannery O'Connor as my NaNo novel this year features a protagonist who is an ardent Flannery fan.

Some participants have sponsors and collect donations for a charity of their choice as in other fill-in-the-blank a-thons but I don't know anyone who is flush enough to ask to sponsor me but what I can do is plug one of my favorite charities now and on the day: Reading is Fundamental.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I Need a Hiding Place

funny pictures of cats with captions
see more Lolcats and funny pictures

I so empathize with poor Templeton in the LOLcat pic above. I'm up to my eyeballs in Doctor appointments. I've had 4 appointments just this week. and am scheduled for three more next week--so far. I'm worn out.

Good news is my BP registered in the high normal range today and that while sitting in the doctor's office.

But if that holds for my primary care appointment next week they'll probably sign the release for me to start dental work. So more appointments to squeeze into the schedule.

My right eye continues to improve by the hour it seems. But at the moment both eyes are needing a time out.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Well, I'll be Jiggered

This picture was the perfect expression of how I'm feeling on day 2 post-op.
If you like it, you might like more of the offerings of My First Fail. A blog on the order of LOLcats featuring babies and small children.

Had the 24 hour post op exam at the eye-clinic this morning and results are beyond expectations. At my intake exam several weeks ago I could only read the third line on the chart with my right eye. Today I could read the fourth line on the second page! Without my glasses. And that is just the day after!! There is still blurriness and other distortion due to swelling etc. which is to be expected and why I have to wait four weeks before being fitted for lenses for close work.

Last night just before Ed went to bed I started staring at his shirt completely fascinated by something and my eyes kept going back when I tried to look elsewhere. I reminded myself of a baby who'd just discovered their hands and stare at them hypnotized. I finally figured out that it was because I was seeing the wrinkles in his T-shirt and the gape of his shirt pocket in 3D. For the first time in five years my eyes were coordinating to see in 3D. So I've been doing a lot of staring at things at the 6-10 foot range which is were the lens they put in my eye is set to focus.

Ed and his mom have both commented that I'm moving around better. With more confidence and less hesitation. I guess I just trotted out of the doctor's office today and headed for the car door and didn't need my MIL's elbow or even her warnings of or guidance around obstacles. I wasn't even aware I was doing that nor of any sense that it was abnormal and it should have felt odd since it had not been common for some time--years.

Then this evening Ed and I were sitting visiting on the front porch after dark and I was exclaiming over being able to see this and that in the light of the sodium vapor security lamp over the pool behind our yard that lights up portions of our yard near bright as day. I was describing things I was seeing that I'd not known were there or not seen in awhile and ed suggested I stand out on the end of the porch and look up at the sky and see if I could see any stars. I had to stare straight at the dark sky for over a minute before I started to see darker shapes against the dark that reminded me of trees and when I told Ed he directed me to look a tad up and to my right. I actually startled and said 'Whoa!' when this bright tiny light popped into view. I had found Venus! It was the only one I could spot even after another ten minutes of trying and not really a star but it is the first light in the sky besides the moon and landing jets that I've seen in years.

So I'm pretty pumped. I can't wait til I get my new prescription glasses so I can read and sew with my right eye again. The lenses they put in the eye to replace the lens damaged by cataracts are not able to multifocus like the normal eye so you end up with one distance for focus and need prescription lenses for the other distances--like close work. I have to wait at least a month though before they'll even issue a prescription as it takes that long for the eye to settle down to a new normal.


Monday, September 21, 2009

So Far So Good

Ai C why goggie gits away  wit so much krap
moar funny pictures

Cataract surgery this morning went smooth and my only complaint tonight is it feels like I got a whisker in my eye. It's not pain per se. Just annoying and am constantly on edge resisting the urge to rub or poke it which I'm strictly forbidden to do. There's already great improvement especially for distances around six to ten feet. Though there is still some blurriness I got a hint of 3D when gazing at something about six feet away which indicates my two eyes are trying to coordinate already and haven't forgotten how even though its been at least five years since they could.

The right eye is not up to close work yet though--reading and sewing and computer work will be carried by my left eye for awhile longer. It will be so awesome when my right eye can start doing its share with those tasks again as my left is more compromised by the RP than the right and has less field of vision remaining with loss of vision (scattered blind spots) encroaching on the center and loss of color definition. It will be about a month before the vision in my right eye stabilizes enough to have a prescription lens ordered for it so I need to practice patience awhile longer. Am ecstatic to discover that color definition not only did not worsen but possibly improved in my right eye post op. That means I can continue to enjoy needlework with a full rainbow palette.

Meanwhile, on other fronts: Ed was sent home from work early today due to a power outage that was due to a power substation being damaged by one of the two major wildfires that were threatening residential areas in Meford and Ashland. We sit between the two and the smoke got pretty intense even here. But nothing like what Ed's mom had to contend with when she got off work in Ashland.

The power was off here for around two hours. I woke up to it having finally lain down to sleep about ten this morning. I'd been chilled for some reason so had put on a flannel shirt for the first time since June. I left the fans on though did turn down the one blowing directly on the bed. When I woke up at 3:30 it was to an over-quiet, over-warm, and stuffy room. My eyes and throat were dry to the point of significant discomfort. My laptop was operating on battery and was so low that it would have initiated hibernation within a couple of minutes if I hadn't done so immediately.

So. No light to read by. No TV. No boom box. No computer or internet. And no more of the happy juice they pumped into me this morning to make me not care so much. My inclination was to got back to sleep but it was past time to put in the next round of eye drops (3 kinds 4x a day) and past time for taking my bp meds which meant I'd need to eat something. So I got up. and without the usual distractions I fretted about the people, pets and wild animals affected by the two blazes and the smoke filling the valley and the firefighters on the planes and copters and on foot. About what if this and what if that.

I was disappointed when the power did not come back in time for the start of Oprah at 4 because it was to be all about the sixties with the set and people costumed and decorated to reflect the 1960s TV era. Major nostalgia kick as that was my pre-teen years and my first exposure to TV. When the power resumed about fifteen after four though Oprah was continually interrupted with breaking news from the fire fronts. Which I was actually more interested in in spite of how into this particular show I'd been. So that's one Oprah show I'll be looking forward to catching rerun season.

As if there hadn't been enough to deal with, Merlin got off his harness outside again this evening and was gone for about half an hour. Ed tried to chase him down but there was little point to it as it was dark and there are too many cars, bushes and porches for him to hide under. He came back of his own accord but then tried to take off again when he found us all on the porch blocking his way in to his dishes and litter box. The four of us corralled him down by the car in the driveway though I'm sure he could have evaded and taken off again if he'd truly wanted to. I'm sure he was wanting his food. But it wasn't until Ed and his folks had blocked his path on three of his possible escape routes and turned him in my direction that we managed to get him. He didn't so much as come to me as surrender when he saw me. Instead of darting in another direction like he had for each of them, he crouched down and waited for me to reach down and pick him up.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sunday Serenity #145

Ed and I spent a couple hours at Lithia Park in Ashland this afternoon. I love this park. I love the whole town of Ashland. If it were up to me I would live here. And yet, though we live a twenty minute drive away it's been six years since I've been to Lithia park and until two weeks ago it had been six years since I'd been to Ashland. It is thanks to the fact our new healthcare provider's office is situated in Ashland that I got to come--twice in the last two weeks for my doctor appointments concerning my BP and then today I accompanied Ed who had to have blood drawn at the lab after a 12 hour fast. After which we headed over to the park for a picnic we'd brought along.

Ed shot the video with my little digital camera. He has a steadier hand and besides he's ten inches taller and could get the shot over the top of the bushes which I'd been trying to get around by leaning over this rickety wooden guardrail beside a steep drop-off five feet above the water and rocks. A bit of poor judgement on my part.

A few yards downstream from where we shot that video we entered the park by crossing this stone bridge. This is the down stream side of the bridge showing what used to be the wading pool. Ed remembers playing in this area on many occasions as a kid and about eighteen years ago we brought our 3 year old nephew to play here. But currently signs are posted forbidding it as the water is contaminated.

Just across the bridge on the upstream side is the children's playground.

But several children seemed more enthralled by the water even though they could only watch it.

This was our picnic spot. It is also the spot I used to come study at when I was going to college at Southern Oregon State College in 1985-87. I would walk the mile or so from the campus to the middle of the park with my huge book bag (this was before rolling backpacks) and do my reading assignments until it was time for my 45 minute commute home--25 minutes on the bus plus a 20 minute walk to our apartment. Although this spot had changed quite a bit it was still enough the same that it triggered a lot of memories of that time. One of the happiest two years of my life.

Following are three shots I took of the creek as we crossed bridges on our walk up stream.


This is the amphitheater where free events are staged throughout the spring, summer and fall. The benches seen there to the left are moved out into the grassy area seen in the picture below for performances.

This is the backside of amphitheater which Ed has fond memories of climbing to to top of with his siblings and cousins as a kid. He pointed out to me the proof that kids must still be doing it. Check out the worn off paint on the corner of the electrical box below. Ed says that's where you need to plant your foot to hoist yourself up onto the slope. The edge of the slope is about waist to hip high on an adult.

electrical box


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Book Giveaway: Supreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley

I'm authorized to give away 5 copies. Rules for entry in the drawing are below. Please read them carefully.

Supreme Courtship
by Christopher Buckley
(c) 2009
Publisher: Twelve

President of the United States Donald Vanderdamp is having a hell of a time getting his nominees appointed to the Supreme Court. After one nominee is rejected for insufficiently appreciating To Kill A Mockingbird, the president chooses someone so beloved by voters that the Senate won't have the guts to reject her -- Judge Pepper Cartwright, the star of the nation's most popular reality show, Courtroom Six.

Will Pepper, a straight-talking Texan, survive a confirmation battle in the Senate? Will becoming one of the most powerful women in the world ruin her love life? And even if she can make it to the Supreme Court, how will she get along with her eight highly skeptical colleagues, including a floundering Chief Justice who, after legalizing gay marriage, learns that his wife has left him for another woman.

Soon, Pepper finds herself in the middle of a constitutional crisis, a presidential reelection campaign that the president is determined to lose, and oral arguments of a romantic nature. Supreme Courtship is another classic Christopher Buckley comedy about the Washington institutions most deserving of ridicule.


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  • Deadline for entering is NOON PST Saturday, October 17, 2009. I will select the winners with a random sequence generator using
  • I will announce the winners in a post as well as notify by email. Winners must respond with their mailing info within two days or forfeit. In which case I notify the next entry in the sequence generated by
  • Winners must provide a US or Canadian mailing address. Hachette is unable to deliver to PO Boxes. Also, for those of you winning the same title in more than one contest, be aware that Hachette may not deliver multiple copies of a single title to a single address.


Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday Forays in Fiction: Naming Characters

ai woan antsir  to that name
moar funny pictures/center>

One of the things I've discovered (and I don't know how much it is a peculiarity of my own) but I can't proceed to writing scenes for my stories until I have settled on names for the main characters. More than once I've come across advice to just grab whatever name pops into your mind and go with it because you can always change it later. But I don't even know my characters until I know their names. Thus trying to write scenes with the wrong name feels like manipulating wooden puppets on Popsicle sticks. They are unresponsive, unhelpful, unmotivatable.

Once I have found their name they come alive and all their traits, mannerisms, wants, quirks, fears, etc. quickly coalesce. They walk on stage fleshed and dressed sans Popsicle stick and even the strings I know must be there because I occasionally feel an answering tug are invisible.

This week I've been tentatively prepping my NaNo novel and had reached the stage where going forward required names for the two main characters. I thought I would share with you the tool I've been using for this since at least 2007: Think Baby Names. This site provides several search criteria: by boy or girl, by ethnicity, by meaning, by similar sounds. They also provide the etymology (history of use) and indicate the popularity of the name over decades and whether it is a common surname.

The meaning of a name is crucial for me because my characters embody the theme of the story and thus their name must reflect that in some fashion. It's not always as blatant as Jubilee Faith Gardner nee Fairchild and her twin Julia Love Fairchild in my FOS stories but it always has to be present.

The theme of this new novel has to do with the backfiring of revenge the ensuing bitter regret and the healing grace of repentance and forgiveness.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Book Review: lost boy lost girl by Peter Straub

lost boy lost girl
by Peter Straub
Random House, New York
© 2003

Genre: Horror; ghost story; psychological thriller

It’s a ghost story. It’s a psychological thriller. It’s an exploration of family dynamics in a grossly dysfunctional small-town American family. A young boy disappears in the town of Millhaven, where there is a murderous pedophile on the loose, either the ghost of the one who terrorized the town a generation earlier or a copy-cat.

The boy’s mother had recently committed suicide, her motives seeming to be connected to the mysterious, empty and apparently haunted house across the alley from their own. His father is incapacitated by--if not grief exactly--a loss of the context that gave meaning to his carefully controlled life.

It is up to the boy’s uncle, a novelist who left Millhaven for New York years ago, to follow the leads left behind by the boy. By questioning the boy’s best friend who had reluctantly helped his buddy in his quest for an explanation of his mother’s suicide. By questioning his own brother about the state of mind his son had been in after finding his mother’s body, about the state of mind his wife had been in the days leading up to her suicide. And last but not least, the elderly gentleman who lived across the street from the vacant house and had witnessed the boy’s invasion of it, and who had clear memories of the days when Millhaven’s first serial-killer had roamed the local neighborhoods.


I read and reviewed this on Joyread sometime in 2005 I believe. I know it was still on the new books shelf at the library.

And that's the last of my reviews I'm moving over from Joyread. Now I'm going to have to work harder again at putting up each day's post. No more simple copy/paste posts. LOL.

But I've used the time productively to make that and other tasks easier going forward. I've organized my book review files and in the process found over a dozen that had been all but ready to post and several dozen more in various stages of production. I organized my record keeping both on and off the computer to make taking notes while reading easier which will, I hope, encourage more reviews.

I've also been preparing for NaNoWriMo by researching for the prospective project and reading extensively on the aspects of the craft of story building with special emphasis on that which has stymied me so many times before--the middle section of the plot and its subplots. Every one of my longer stories has gotten bogged down at about the 1/3 point.

And I've been going on a round of doctor and dentist appointments with three more coming up next week. Monday morning I'm scheduled for removal of a cataract on my right eye and am anticipating being able to read more, faster and longer than I have been able for several years now.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Book Review: The Cat Who Wasn’t A Dog by Marian Babson

The Cat Who Wasn’t A Dog
by Marian Babson
Published by Thomas Dunne Books
© 2003
206 pp

Genre: Murder mystery; who done it; cat mystery

A fun romp with the aging stage and screen actresses, Trixie and Evangeline, encountered in previous Babson novels. From histrionics to hysteria, from humor to horror it is everything a Babson fan has been led to expect. Or so I hear. This is my first encounter with a Marian Babson mystery and with Trixie and Evangeline and I was thoroughly charmed. Especially by the cat, Cho Cho San who was rescued from a burning taxidermists office in the first chapter and from that point on is embroiled in the twists and turns of the plot. She’s a mystery, she’s a clue, she’s a motive, she’s a witness. She’s a flirt and a glutton. She claims the heart of more than one. And I am among them. I’m a glutton for flirty kitties.


I read this and wrote the review sometime between spring 2004 and spring 2005 and posted it on my Joyread site. Re-reading my review just now reminded me of how fun this story was and how I intended to chase down more of Babson's cat mysteries. Somehow I never did. Am putting her name in my book wishlist now so I don't forget again. I would head over to the library catalog right now except that it's online catalog is down for maintenance for three days this week.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Book Review: Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

Breath, Eyes, Memory
by Edwidge Danticat
© 1994
Vintage Books

Genre: Literary Fiction; women in fiction; mother/daughter relations in fiction; coming of age female-fiction; multicultural protagonists-fiction

Don’t miss this! It is story at it’s most poetically powerful best. Danticat’s multi-cultural, multi-lingual upbringing has given her a rich lode of exotic image, story and metaphor to mine. This is a story about growing up. It is also a story about mothers and daughters and their vulnerability to their expectations of each other and how love can so easily be the motive for cruelty. But most essentially it is a story about being human. Setting the story in the exotic (for most Americans) Haitian culture serves to emphasize our similarities. Common to every culture that ever existed is the sanctity of traditions--the unquestioned repetition over generations of particular acts and the stories we tell to explain them. Many traditions are good and fundamental to the health of society, but many are just the opposite. It takes the courage born of pain to ask the first question that is defiance of tradition. But so often pain kills courage instead of birthing it. And oh the courage it takes to be the first daughter in uncounted generations to say no!


I read this book and posted this review on the first rendition of my Joyread website in the late 90s when it was an Oprah Book Club selection. Rereading the review today makes me want to reread the novel.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Book Review: Impulse by Ellen Hopkins

by Ellen Hopkins
(c) 2007
Margaret K. McElderry Books

Three teens' lives intersect in a psychiatric hospital after their failed suicide attempts. All three of them had been failed catastrophically by the adults in their lives. The story is told by alternating first person POV scenes from Tony, Vanessa and Conner. Tony, whose home life had been so abusive he found living on the streets preferable had resorted to intentional OD. Vanessa, raised by a bi-polar mother and an absent (military) father had long been a cutter to ease her pain had slit her wrists. Conner whose cold, unaffectionate parents obsessed about his performance in school and on the football field, had shot himself in the heart.

In the course of their treatment the three are able to forge connections of emotional intimacy that offer hope of healing and a foundation for a future.

Like Hopkin's other novels, Crack, Glass, Burned, Identical and the recently released Tricks, the story is told in verse. And as with Crack and Burned which I read two years ago, I continue to be fascinated with

...the way Hopkins weaves dozens of one or two page poems that in many cases can stand alone into an intricately plotted, emotionally cathartic and psychologically complex story. The poems are sometimes rhyming and sometimes free verse and often carved out of space as well as molded with words as Hopkins uses placement of whitespace around lines and verses to indicate mood, theme or pace.

Hopkins' books have become a phenomenon among teens in the last half decade and won a number of awards in the literature for young adults category. I have my own teen-aged niece to thank for introducing me to Hopkins and loaning me her own copies of Crack, Burned and Impulse. Now I guess I'm going to have to compete with the local teens for a turn with the public libraries copies of Glass, Identical and Tricks.

Excerpts of Impulse and the other Hopkins novels can be found here. I encourage you to check them out.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sunday Serenity #144

Oregon coast surf accompanied by serene piano music. Only better for inducig relaxation would be to be sitting a half dozen yards from the edge of the surf.


Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Breakfast Club (DVD) My Take

I watched John Hughes' The Breakfast Club for the first time earlier this week and today I watched all of the bonus material on the DVD including the feature commentary supplied by Anthony Michael Hall and Judd Nelson, which meant in essence watching the whole thing again but with most of the dialog replace by Nelson and Hall reminiscing about the making of the film.

I became interested in seeing this when I read something in one of the tributes to Hughes the week he died this summer in which someone mentioned they had heard he had written the script for The Breakfast Club in one day. Well in the documentary on the DVD someone said he'd written the first draft in one weekend. Either way I stand in awe.

The Breakfast Club takes place only eight years after my own high-school graduation so that might explain why everything about it triggered one deja vous after another. But I rather think that it is more because the themes of the story are timeless and high school for most of Western Civilization for the last 100 years has had more in common between cities and countries and decades than it has differences.

The timeless themes: The sense of isolation. The need to belong at war with the need to be free. The generational divide. The class divide. The fear of failure. The tyranny of authority vested in small minds.

The setting: almost entirely in the library of a large Chicago high school on a Saturday where five students are serving a nine hour detention.

The character I identified with the most was Alison played by Ally Sheedy. She hides behind her shaggy hair and inside bulky clothes and an armful of stuff. She exhibits socially bizarre behaviors like biting her nails and out of place vocal outbursts.

Not that I identified with every one of her eccentricities--she was a pick-pocket/kleptomaniac and claimed to be a pathological liar.

But when she told the others that she hadn't done anything to get sent to detention, she just had nothing better to do that day--I laughed along with the others because I had been thinking all along that if Saturday detentions had been held in a library like that at my school I might have either crashed them or tried to get myself sent there as then and now I can think of little better to do than spend nine hours in a library.


Friday, September 11, 2009

Friday Forays In Fiction: Book Review: Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

For this week's Friday Forays in Fiction, I'm recycling this review I wrote for Joyread in 2004 of the first volume of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' memoir. Reading memoirs and autobiographies of story tellers is a way to learn from the masters and get inspired and motivated and encouraged. Garcia Marquez is one of my all time favorite story tellers.

Living to Tell the Tale
By Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Translated by Edith Grossman
© 2003
Alfred A. Knopf
Subject: Author memoir; author autobiography

Living to Tell the Tale, the first volume of an intended trilogy, covers the years from novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s birth in 1927 to the day in 1955 on which he left his native land for Europe on assignment as a journalist. His first novel, Leaf Storm, had recently been published and he had just proposed to the woman who would one day be his wife.

Devotees of the stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez will not be disappointed by this one--the story of his coming of age as a man and as a writer. The storytelling powers, which garnered this Colombian novelist an avid worldwide audience and the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature, are as robust as ever in these pages. But that should not surprise those who know that Garcia Marquez honed his writing skills as a journalist and believed, as he reiterates on page 264 that "…the novel and journalism are children of the same mother." Progeny of a devotion to riveting stories woven from keen observation of meaningful detail and a reverence for the human spirit.

Any aspiring story teller would garner a good deal of inspiration from these pages, as well as helpful hints on how to go about their craft. Hints which are not handed out as advice or how-to check-lists, but rather embedded in this well-told story by a master-craftsman of stories, whose astute observation of all he turns his attention to loses none of its acuteness or integrity when directed upon his own life. In fact, it seems it is this very ability to attend to particulars and see the patterns of meaning rippling out from them which is the very root of his talent.

Would-be novelists are bound to be galvanized by the story of how he set about to learn his craft once he had set his mind to it. "I began to read like a real working novelist, not only for pleasure but out of an insatiable curiosity to discover how books by wise people were written. I read them forward first, then backward, and subjected them to a kind-of surgical disemboweling until I reached the most recondite mysteries of their structure." p. 367


An excellent resource for learning more about Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Gabo) and his works is this web site maintained by passionate Gabo acolytes: Macondo


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Book Review: Our Media Not Theirs by Robert W. McChesney & John Nichols

Our Media Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media
By Robert W. McChesney & John Nichols
© 2002
Seven Stories Press
Forwards by Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich & Ralph Nader

Subject: Media critique

Our Media Not Theirs is a succinct presentation of the material gathered in McChesney & Nichols previous book, It’s the Media, Stupid.

Chapter 1 is an indictment of the current state of the media and the path it is on. The authors find commercialized, conglomerate, de-regulated media a death-dealer to truth and democracy.

Chapter 2 reveals the ways many other countries have been fighting back and regaining public control and/or influence over the media by framing it as a necessary right and duty to the maintenance of a viable democracy.

Chapter 3 suggests ways to stimulate the demand in a pan-partisan, grass roots movement that could have the power to force an open debate in the halls of power in spite of current big media’s blackout of the discussion.


I first read this and posted this review at Joyread in 2004 or 2005. The topic continues to be as timely as it was then.


Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Book Review: A Widow For One Year by John Irving

A Widow For One Year
by John Irving
© 1998
Random House

Genre: Literary fiction; family dynamics-fiction; parent/child relations-fiction; loss and grief-fiction;

This is vintage Irving, a mixture of the comic and the tragic, the ribald and the bizarre, the sardonic and the hilarious. The title character is Ruth Cole and we see her for the first time at age four through the eyes of 16 year old Eddie, an Exeter student hired as a writer’s assistant for the summer by her father who is a children’s book writer and illustrator. Little did he know that he was really hired as a pawn and a witness in the final weeks of a twenty-some year marriage. Ruth was conceived in an attempt to assuage the grief over the loss, in a gruesome accident, of her teen-aged brothers. On every wall of every room of her house hung framed and matted pictures of the lost boys. Every picture had a story and by the time Ruth was four she knew them all by heart. At the end of that summer her mother disappeared and she took all the pictures and their negatives with her. She left behind the bare hooks in the wall--and of course, the stories. Ruth and her father continued to tell each other the stories. Is that why Ruth became a renowned literary writer by her mid thirties?

When we next see her Eddie, now a writer himself, is introducing her at a promotional of her latest novel. She is thirty-something and embarking on a world tour to promote her novel and contemplating the next one as she is contemplating her life--her missing mother, her philandering father, a string of bad boyfriends, a betrayal by her best friend. This part of Irving’s story becomes a reflection on the relationship between life and literary invention as Ruth attempts to research the possibilities for a scene in which her character is humiliated by a degrading experience which prompts her to make a complete change in her life. Ruth’s research creates for herself the degrading humiliation which becomes the catalyst for drastic change in her own life. She takes a hiatus from writing to marry and have a child. When her son is three, his father dies. A year later Ruth publishes the novel based on that earlier research and as a result finds, or is found by, love for the first time.

An Irving novel is not just to read but to experience. The plot and characters are complex and perverse. Nothing ever works out like you expect. You are repeatedly startled and continuously challenged to reflect. And in the end you are satisfied that it had to have happened just like that. Irving’s stories teach you that a sense of humor is an essential survival skill for life.


This is another review brought over from my all but abandoned site Joyread. I read this book and wrote and posted this review in either late 1998 or early 1999. Bear with me as I use this recycled ready-made content to see me over a rough patch in my personal life. I've got half a dozen more of these and then nearly a dozen never posted reviews sitting in my files awaiting a final polish. Meanwhile I'm hoping to have another dozen or so ready for a final polish by the time all those are posted. These plus a scattering of easy miscelaneous posts should tide things over as I tend to dental work and a cataract removal and the blood pressure issue that is postponing both of those. This week is all about adjusting to a new BP med. Bleh.


Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Book Review: The Boy on the Bus by Deborah Schupack

The Boy on the Bus
by Deborah Schupack
The Free Press
© 2003
Genre: Literary; Women in fiction; Raising ill children

There is an eerie quality to this story reminiscent of a dream. Meg meets her eight year old son’s bus but is confused by the boy who presents himself that afternoon. He looks like Charlie, almost. But he doesn’t have the habits or mannerisms of the boy she knew. He seems to have large gaps in his knowledge-base--things Charlie should know, he doesn’t seem to until he is coached by his Mother or Father or older sister. But most striking of all he no longer exhibits symptoms of the debilitating asthma that he’s had since age two. And his appetite has gone from zero to full speed ahead in the space of a day. His father, an architect, works on jobs out of state for months at a time and is of little help to his common-law wife in sorting out the identity of this mysterious boy who may or may not be his son. Charlie’s sister is similarly unable to clarify things as she is away at boarding school and had had such animosity towards her invalid brother, who monopolized their mother and seemed to get whatever he wanted with nothing but a sigh, that she had never really known the actual Charlie to begin with.

So Meg, and the reader, are left with the equivocations of her mind as she tries to sort it all out and tries to figure out how to relate to this new, healthy boy. Several interpretations would almost fit the evidence presented in the narrative but none of them quite explain everything. Could this boy be a ghost? Or is the rest of the family humoring Meg who had been home alone with him the night before when he’d had a severe asthma attack that he possibly didn’t survive and this is now a projection of her imagination created by the guilt for that night, that one time, not rushing straight to his bed to soothe and coach him though the breathing exercises and administer the meds? Or is it simply that Meg is having difficulty adjusting to her changed role in her son’s life now that he doesn’t need her undivided attention 24/7, now that he has apparently survived an extreme attack without her assistance and then gone into an unexpected remission?

Even though these questions are all left hanging, at least in my mind, it doesn’t detract from the experience of reading this story. Schupack’s exquisite handling of language and her perceptive examination of a family dynamics makes this a very rich reading experience which will haunt you long after you lay the book down.


This review was recycled from my Joyread site. I read this in 2004.


Monday, September 07, 2009

Book Review: Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

Leaves of Grass
By Walt Whitman
Genre: Poetry
456 p

Walt Whitman issued numerous invitations to me over the years of my reading. Quotations from his Leaves of Grass popped up when I was reading about writing, about creativity, about the environment, about democracy. There they were in books about psychology, about spirituality. When I read about the wonders of nature, his voice joined the chorus. On American history and civics, he had many things to say. In books discussing great love poetry his lines did not blush to snuggle up to Elizabeth Barret Browning’s, Lord Byron’s, nor even Shakespeare’s.

I put Whitman on my mental need-to-read-someday list. And there he stayed for years. Until the spring of 97 when he was mentioned or quoted in over a half dozen different sources I encountered in one weeks time, including a TV documentary and someone’s web page I surfed onto. I had recently been reading about synchronicity so this cluster of encounters took me by the shoulders and gave me a shake, saying isn’t it past time you laid your eyes on this horse’s own mouth?

On my next trip to the library I brought home a copy. I was not instantly enthralled. In fact I was dismayed as I leafed through the pages and began to realize that those small jewels (two lines, three, six, set in white space) gracing chapter headings elsewhere, were here embedded in a dense garden of verses, in poems that went on for pages as long as chapters. At first my heart wilted but as I grazed the pages with my eyes I found new jewels. Each one introduced itself with a small electric thrill and then settled in my soul with a gentle glow.

The trick in finding these is to slow down. No speed reading allowed. There are no throwaway words in Whitman. The major clue to how to read him he gives us himself over and over when he calls his poems songs. He means that exactly. Songs set to the music of language. Each one with its own cadence. Sometimes a march. Sometimes a dirge. Sometimes a waltz or a hymn.

Over the next several months, I monopolized the library copy of Leaves of Grass. Soon more than guilt over that made the arrangement unsatisfactory. I itched to pick up my colored marking pencils which only books I own may be honored with. I asked for and received my own paperback copy for Christmas. I still haven’t finished it but I couldn’t wait to sing its praises here. I read in it two ways. The usual way of advancing a bookmark from front to back--slow and steady. And the way I first learned to appreciate it, by leafing through and letting words and phrases jump out at me, waiting for he thrill of surprise that reveals itself as recognition of a true thing I always knew.


The above is a recycled review from my neglected Joyread site. It was written in late 1998 or early 1999 before our move to California. Sadly my copy of Leaves of Grass was one of the books left behind in our storage unit when we hopped a bus for Southern Oregon and so was lost with the rest of our belongings when we were unable to return for them.

I'm in the process of synchronizing the book reviews on Joystory with Joyread and then hope to start cross posting the new ones to both places at once--if I can also get the makeover of Joyread done.

Hope to do a similar thing with Joywrite as most of the poems I wrote in the last couple of years were written for Monday Poetry Train and aren't posted at Joywrite. But Joywrite needs a makeover as well. And there's too much on my agenda before the first of the year to worry about them. What with my cataract surgery this month, NaNo in November, another visit to my mom's in December and the holidays.

Meanwhile here are a couple links where more info and resources regarding Walt Whitman can be found:

The Walt Whitman Archive
Library of Congress Walt Whitman resources

The Library of Congress is where I found the two pictures gracing this post and the story regarding them. The cardboard butterfly is the one Whitman is holding in the photo at top.


Ride the Poetry Train


Sunday, September 06, 2009

Sunday Serenity #143

I can't say that this particular piece of music elicits serenity. But my Sunday Serenity posts are as much about happiness, joy, bliss, pleasure and ecstasy as specifically about serenity.

Sometimes happiness is a nap in a hammock with Enya playing softly in your earbuds; sometimes it's reading a novel on the beach with the surf itself as background music; sometimes it's doing chores with the radio playing rock-and-roll loud enough to drown out the sound of the washing machine and vacuum cleaner; and sometimes it's a roller-coaster ride with the sound of your own screams joining others in a symphonic overture.

Requiem For a Dream is more akin to the latter two. It's neither rock-and-roll nor does it cause involuntary screams like fear-for-fun activities but it does elicit a gamut of emotions including fear, sadness, anticipation, and exhilaration.

This YouTube presentation of it does not make clear who the artist is and I wish I knew so I could know how to search for it at the store. I'm not even sure what genre it is. It sounds a lot like classical symphony but it also sounds like a movie soundtrack though not one I recognize. I'm interested in having it because I think it would make a good piece to write to when I need to conjure up certain moods for certain scenes.


Saturday, September 05, 2009

Life According to Literature--A Meme

Evree ? haz antsir  if u noes wher 2 looks
moar funny pictures

I found this meme on a blog I chanced upon Fridday and couldn't resist trying it. I'm also posting this at Facebook

Using only books you have read this year (2009), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title. It's a lot harder than you think!

Others I've seen are bending the 2009 only rule. I made myself hold to it but I included books I'm currently reading or have read in this year, which might be a bit bendy of the intent in 'have read'. Oh well.

Describe yourself: The Clown in the Belfry (Frederick Buechner)

How do you feel: Impulse (Ellen Hopkins)

Describe where you currently live: Goldengrove (Francine Prose)

If you could go anywhere, where would you go: Home Safe (Elizabeth Berg)

Your favorite form of transportation: Long Quiet Highway (Natalie Goldberg)

Your best friend is: Dear Husband (Joyce Carol Oates)

You and your friends are: Hunger's Brides (Paul Anderson)

What's the weather like: A Celestial Omnibus: short fiction on faith (J. P. Maney, ed.)

You fear: The Dark Side (Jane Mayer)

What is the best advice you have to give: The Life You Save May Be Your Own (Paul Elie)

Thought for the day: God Laughs & Plays (David James Duncan)

How I would like to die: Making Shapely Fiction (Jerome Stearn)

My soul's present condition: The Gnostic Mystery (Randy Davila)


Friday, September 04, 2009

Friday Forays In Fiction: Book Review: Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Lusser Rico

Writing the Natural Way: Using Right-Brain Techniques to Release Your Expressive Powers
By Gabriele Lusser Rico
© 1983
J. P. Tarcher

Subject: Writing; Creativity; Writing exercises;

I can’t begin to measure the degree or the ways of influence Ms. Rico’s technique has had on my writing since I first discovered this book in 1987. It was her clustering technique that gave me a reliable tool for bypassing my pesky critic, the stern editor that wants to control every word before it is even written. Clustering is a way to tap into the right brain where image and metaphor and emotion weave a web of meaning to hang your words on.

To generate a cluster simply take a blank sheet of paper. Write a word or phrase in the center which represents a topic or theme. Draw a circle around it. Then off in any direction at any distance write another word or phrase that associates with the first. Draw a circle around it and then draw a line connecting the first bubble to the second. Write a third word associated with either or both of the first two words then circle it and connect it. Keep this up at a fairly steady pace without stopping to think overmuch until the page is a web of interconnected words and phrases or until something grabs your interest and you can’t resist the urge to start writing.

Now, I haven’t given away even one percent of the wealth of writing wisdom imparted in this book. Rico provides humorous exercises for developing other elements essential to the most transforming and transfixing writing, writing created from the stuff of your self that transcends self, place and time. My poem, Remembering Dandelions, was the result of an exercise at the end of Chapter 3: The Childhood Origins of Natural Writing.


That was another recycled review from my neglected site Joyread. I wrote it years ago. Probably around 1998 before I loaned out my well-thumbed, underlined and notated copy and then never got it back. I continued to use library copies since then until I bought myself another second-hand copy in late 2007.

I've given this book the credit for waking the poet in me. Before this book I had given no serious thought to poetry. But that isn't the theme of this post. Since the above review did not discuss how I used this method for fiction writing, I thought I would add some reflections on that here.

The fiction writing task I most often use the clustering method for is character creation and development. I would write the character's name in the center circle and then surround it with description, character traits, metaphors, word-images, history, friends and family, dialog snippets, wants and needs and hopes and fears, hobbies and so on and on. On a least one occasion this led me to compose a poem that gathered up the most significant results of the cluster for a character: The Woman Who Swallowed a Baby. Alas but that story remains in the planning stage. I sometimes wonder if the poem itself satisfied the story's need to be told. The character is one of the dozens in my FOS storyworld who I thought would carry her own novel but it's possible she is destined to remain a supporting character in several of the other stories.

Another way clustering has been extremely helpful is during revision when I'm looking for images and metaphors that carry the story's theme. I sift through the scenes looking for those already there, take them into a cluster and expand the cluster to see what will attach to them then and make sure that the most powerful ones are planted early and developed and deepened throughout the story. This is an important part of revision as often the best images and metaphors will show up well after the first third of the story and for them to be effective they need to show up as early as possible and be carried through. I used this process in both of the completed stories featuring Faye in my FOS storyworld: Of Cats and Claws and Curiosities and Making Rag Doll Babies and Million Dollar Maybes

Clustering is also useful for developing settings and descriptive passages. For that exercise I often plant two words in the center--one to indicate the place or thing to be described and the other to indicate the mood the scene requires.


Thursday, September 03, 2009

Book Review: Brown Eyes Blue by Carolyn Meyer

Brown Eyes Blue
By Carolyn Meyer
Bridge Works Publishing
© 2003
228 p
Genre: Literary; Women in fiction; Mothers and daughters in fiction

Dorcas, in her mid fifties and still unable to grasp the happiness she has so longed for, returns to the town of her youth when news reaches her that her eighty-year-old mother, Lavinia, who had made a name for herself with her landscape paintings that featured the local Amish community, has now exhibited several shocking nude portraits. She more than half expected to find her mother in some state of dementia but instead encounters a more lucid and self-possessed woman than she ever remembered. Or is it just easier to identify with her now that she is moving out the back end of her own middle-age and has the experience of watching her own twenty-something daughter, Sasha, moving through her young-adulthood suffering the consequences of impetuous choices. Page by page the stories of these three women are interwove. They each have secrets they have kept from each other. They each have gained a hard-earned wisdom from their passage though life. And the ever-elusive happiness seems more easily graspable when ‘convention is given a back-seat and passions are given free reign.


Another older book review I'm recycling from Joyread. I read this in 2004 I believe.

I may be resorting to these old reviews frequently this month as posting something fresh daily is a bit more than I can handle right now. In the next three weeks I've several doctor and dentist appointments and meanwhile I'm not feeling myself. Went to the dentist yesterday but they couldn't do any work on me including taking out an abscessed tooth because my blood pressure sky-rocketed--probably mostly due to anxiety but not completely. So I've got an appointment with a Family Care Provider Tuesday to have that tended to and have him sign off on the dental work. Meanwhile the infection in my tooth is affecting the rest of me like a virus.

Today I had the pre-surgery consultation with the surgeon doing my cataract removal. And although I could have gotten a date as early as the 14th he wants me to have the BP and the infection dealt with first so my date was set for the 21st. I'm still hoping that will leave enough time for me to get my new prescription lenses in time for NaNo but I doubt it will be in time for Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-Thon now.


Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Book Review: Three Junes by Julia Glass

Three Junes
By Julia Glass
© 2002
Anchor Books
Genre: Literary fiction; National Book Award winner 2002; family relationships; friendship; loss of loved ones

Winner of the National Book Award 2002

This novel is a compilation of three novellas--one long one sandwiched between two short ones. Each novella is set in the month of June several years apart.

Collies, set in June 1989, is the story of Paul MacLeod, owner of a newspaper in Scotland, on tour with a group in Greece as he comes to terms with the recent loss of his wife, Maureen, who had raised show collies with the same no-nonsense affection and pride she raised their three sons--Fenno, the eldest who had eschewed his legacy and now co-owns a bookstore in N.Y. city, and the twins David, a veterinary surgeon in the town he grew up in, and Dennis, studying in Paris to be a chef. The story see-saws between the banter and bon homie among the tour group as they move through their nearly choreographed adventure and Paul’s sometimes agitated reminisces of the years of his marriage as he fumbles and feels his way toward a vision of a future without her. Meanwhile he develops a serious infatuation with another member of the group. Fern, a young American artist studying and living in Paris. She seemed to return his regard but he soon realized he had mistaken her kindness as more than it was when he spies her in the embrace of their tour guide.

Upright, set in June 1995, is Fenno’s story. It centers on the month he returns to Scotland for his father’s funeral but ranges over the years of his childhood, his coming of age as a young gay man and the impact of the losses to AIDS of many of his friends and acquaintances among the gay men’s culture in N.Y. City. It centers also on the significant relationships in his life--his parents, his brothers, their wives and children, his friend and mentor who is also co-owner with him of a bookstore, his pet collie who is the last of his mother’s litters, his adopted exotic parrot; and Malachy, a music critic dying of AIDS with whom he has an intense though platonic friendship and who had caused great consternation among the family when he accompanied Fenno to his mother’s funeral in 1989. It is the story of his attempt to stay upright or celibate as a defense against AIDS which succumbed to a passionate and tumultuous affair with Tony, an avant garde photographer who makes his living as a house sitter all over the globe for the globe-trotter set and who was careless with Fenno’s heart.

The family dynamics are nearly chaotic during his visit. His relationship with David is strained as he thinks of him as "…workaday in his sensibilities and strikingly devoid of wit." And thinks him undeserving of the good-hearted and generous Lil, whom Fenno had known and been fond of when she was studying dance in N.Y. before she ever met David. It is just the other way around with Dennis and his wife Veronique. Fenno and Dennis share complete acceptance and affection and he sees in Dennis a sweet innocence so lacking in artifice Fenno is sure Dennis would not recognize it "…if it were a cricket bat smashing his jaw." But Veronique he sees as a snob and an imperious tyrant in the way she runs her family--Dennis and their three daughters ages six, four and three. Dennis had met her while studying in Paris and they now own and run a restaurant there.

The tensions among the siblings and their spouses and the children play out in minor and major dramas over the course of the planning for and the execution of the various rituals accompanying a death in the family. When a startling request of immense implications is made of him by one member of the family he is forced to re-evaluate his sense of who these people are, who he is and how they fit together.

Boys takes us to 1999 and its protagonist is the same Fern who was Paul’s brief love interest in 1989. She has since been briefly married and then widowed in a bizarre accident. Now, two years after the tragedy, she is pregnant by her current lover, Stavros, the Greek-American owner of the building she lives in. He had escorted the police to her door the night of her husbands death. His kindness that night and in the months following had been a comfort and over time their relationship evolved. But she is unsure if it is love. About the time she discovered she was pregnant, Stavros left for Greece with his mother and remained there with her as she nursed her own dying mother. Being unsure, she has not told Stavros of his coming son. Now she has learned his return is imminent and she is unable to envision their reunion with her visible pregnancy serving as the announcement. Panicking, she flees the city and becomes the pampered houseguest of Tony, the photographer, who was house-sitting for a bookstore owner (Fenno’s business partner. And yes, it is the same Tony who was once Fenno’s amore).

She and Tony had had a brief affair while she was studying in Paris, which she had ended abruptly when she discovered his penchant for young men. Over the years their relationship had evolved into a fond friendship. While she was staying with Tony, Fenno arrives with his brother Dennis to bury his beloved collie, the last from his mother’s litters. After a wee-hour’s heart to heart with Fenno about family, parenthood and love, in which he convinces her to "…never talk yourself out of knowing you are in love…or into thinking you are", she garners her courage and the next morning hitches a ride back into the city with Fenno. Stavros’ ultimate reaction is implied in his frantic messages on her answering machine which she retrieves with Fenno’s cell phone as they are stuck in a traffic jam on the outskirts of New York City.

The true sense of this story cannot be imparted in this bare-bones rendition of its intricately woven plot. And it must be read slowly to savor the delicate preciseness of the language which renders visible the scenes in New York, Greece, Paris and Amagansett, Scotland and palpable the lives of these people whose paths criss-cross across time and space, influencing in subtle and profound ways the ultimate destiny of each. All of this imparted via the nodal points of three separate and distinctive consciousnesses each engaged in a crisis of spirit in the month of June. A month that is emblematic of new beginnings, of flowering, new growth and the first fruits of a new season.


This is another recycled review from Joyread. I read and review it around 2004 I believe but my memory is not all that sharp tonight. But I still remember this as being one of my all time favorite novels.


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