Monday, August 30, 2010

A Glimmering At Last

Several months ago I made the decision to enter a national short story competition. There is a small cash prize for the winning entry, which would certainly be nice, but even more attractive is the publication of the story in a major magazine. In addition, the magazine would pay the author its going rate for a short story. I have approximately 6 months to submit something.

Between you and me, I realize I have very little chance of actually capturing the prize. I've read past submissions and the entrants are obviously professional writers. Nevertheless, I've been wanting to embark on a new challenge, to jump head-first into something a little over my head (which, incidentally, is also how I learned to swim).

That was May. It is now the end of August. Obviously, I realize that if one is to write a story - any kind of story, even a disaster - it helps if one has a topic. A Theme. In my spare time, I've spent the last few months "writing" as follows: I sit, pen poised, waiting for genius to strike. It does not. I stare, blankly, at the wall, at the paper, out the window. I get up and stretch, arms overhead, arms back, bend this way, then bend that way. Sit back down, pick up the pen, and stare blankly.

I believe I can speak a good story. Funny things have happened to me quite a lot all my life. Even if something wasn't particularly funny (or even pleasant) at the time, I've found that with a few embellishments and the right dramatic flourishes I could turn a ho-hum event into a fairly good yarn. But a written story isn't helped by slapstick and pratfalls, so it was useless to pull them from my ditty bag. And let's face it, it's difficult to write about dead air...white space.

My first hurdle, then, was pretty basic stuff...come up with an idea for a story. It sounded easy enough, complete novice that I am. I'm sure there are writers who have heads like treasure chests - filled with an abundance of sparkling gems...ideas of all shapes and sizes that snap, crackle and sizzle with brilliance. Sadly, I am not one of them. My ideas, when they came at all, were more reminiscent of wet cotton wool than of richly brocaded tapestry.

After months of listening to those ideas falling with a solid thud, I sat down and wrote a letter to a friend of mine. As I finished it, my son Charlie stopped by to borrow my lawnmower and he asked me what I was doing. I told him I was just finishing a letter, and I also told him about the competition. "I can't think of anything to write about," I said (in full gloom). He stopped a second, patted me on the back, and said brightly, "You will." And he was off with my mower and gas can. I stared down at the letter. I realized I didn't have my friend's address. I wrote 6 pages of a letter that I could not mail.

I sat at the table, drumming my fingers with one hand and holding my chin with the other. I stared out the window. I hoped Charlie wouldn't kill my lawnmower by running it in the rain. I looked at the state of my own lawn. It was finally green, but it was sadly in need of a haircut. I should have used the lawnmower myself first, and then leant it out. Why didn't I think of that? I looked down at the letter - at what seemed like a complete waste of time. Obviously, the place to start would have been securing the address. Doing it the other way around made no sense at all. Blink...blink...blink...I had it! Just like that! Only three months, four days and a few hours. Just like that!

Strange how the mind works. One thought leads to something else completely unrelated, and that unrelated thought leads on to another unrelated thought, and before you know it, you've arrived at the place you were seeking - no map, no compass, no night sky to guide you.

And so, it's one foot in front of the other.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Thursday At Random

  • Although I promised myself "No More Books," I cheated. A box arrived last Friday with four new ones and I set out immediately to read Becoming Queen Victoria by Kate Williams. The only review I had read about it was by someone who stopped at page 80 because s/he was already one-fifth into the book and no Victoria had as yet appeared. Sometimes I just have to shake my head at people - and wonder. That Victoria should have become queen at all was an unforeseen event that sat on the shoulders of other unforeseen events, i.e. but for this...that. The unfolding of how her reign ever saw the light of day is one of the major themes of the book. I doubt anyone keeping bets in 1796 would have placed favorable odds on the way things ultimately worked themselves out. The first half of the book concerns itself with those twists and turns of fate and establishes Becoming as the operative word in the title. I spent a wonderful weekend reading and enjoying it. Nevertheless, it had a few flaws. I found two typographical errors which jumped out at me like a warts on Mona Lisa's nose. One word "compained" which should obviously have been "complained" would have been easily found with Spellcheck. In addition, there was a very poignant episode that Williams only touched on briefly that I think deserved to be covered in more depth. Victoria (an only child) and her mother, the Duchess of Kent, had a strange and estranged relationship. The Duchess, obviously power hungry, struggled to maintain control over her daughter; Victoria rebelled and tried to push away from her domineering parent with even greater force. Williams spends a great deal of time documenting their troubled relationship. When at last she became queen, Victoria snubbed her mother in small but significant and often cruel ways. Upon the death of the Duchess of Kent, Victoria told her eldest daughter that she never felt her mother loved her. How sad. But as she sorted through her late mother's belongings, she discovered the duchess had kept every little keepsake, every note, every piece of clothing, every lock of hair, every snippet of handwriting which was Victoria's. Obviously, her mother cared very deeply for her. Victoria was such a prolific journal keeper and letter writer, I have to imagine she revisited her relationship with her mother and expressed more fully some feelings of remorse. There's always a human story behind history, isn't there.

  • After finishing Becoming Queen Victoria I jumped right into The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. What fun! I am severely miffed, however. Another great story idea not conceived by me. My copy has a little ribbon bookmark bound into it...the second recently purchased book with such a feature. Is this the rebirth of an old trend in bookbinding? If so, I like it. Until now, I think the only book I have with ribbons in it is my old and obsolete Daily Missal. I can understand why it needed so many ribbons. They were there to keep your place during Mass as you jumped from the Ordinary (which itself is further divided into the Mass of the Catechumens and the Mass of the Faithful) to the Gospel to the Epistle and back again. There's a lot of jumping around in a Catholic missal. The ribbons in my missal are red, yellow, green, black and white but I could never remember which color belonged where, so I was always on the wrong page notwithstanding ribbons. Now most parishes use monthly throw-away magazine-y type things cloyingly called "missalettes." I find them totally unappealing and irksome - much like a ball point pen that gets thrown away when the ink is used up. But, having a ribbon in a novel is lovely. That's something I can get behind. And since there's only one - no confusion.

    • Is there anything more joy provoking, more warmly welcome in the kitchen than the smell of the spice cupboard? Mine is slightly narrow and three-shelved and filled with all sorts of exotica: cumin and cinnamon, sage and rosemary, garam masala, smoked paprika, bay leaves. Thrown together in a pot, all at once, no doubt they would be locked in mortal combat - the culinary equivalent of cacophony in a barnyard. But residing in the cupboard, they live in peaceful harmony: Tellicherry peppercorns rubbing shoulders with coriander...ginger and oregano and nutmeg all getting along. Sometimes I open the spice cupboard solely because I want to inhale. Oh! the evocative smells - of the summer sun, and burning leaves, and Christmas, and the mystery of far-away places all at once. When the mood to organize strikes, I try to coerce them into alphabetical order. It never lasts, though. The dried garlic insists on sitting next to the pumpkin pie spice, and the marjoram always hides in the corner. Just the a wonder. When we seek the spice of life we invariably mean that which makes us happy, which brings us joy. We spice up our love lives, and sometimes use spicey language when angry. Open your spice cupboard and breathe in its warmth. Go ahead. Take a moment. Be transported. As I rummage around to search for just the right flavor - hard on the trail of that elusive chord - the bottles clatter softly in a muffled promise of happiness to be experienced in the perfect dish. But it's the perfume that gets me. Every time - it's the perfume.

    Friday, August 13, 2010

    Perfect Ten

    Bibliophiliac posted an interesting meme the other day which I think I'll borrow, seeing as it's Friday and I have little thought for anything other than getting through the pile of work on my desk, and then falling headfirst into home repair projects this weekend - none of which seem very interesting. Without further ado:

    Award Presentation for Ten Characters From Literature I Love Or Love To Hate (In Random Order):

    1. Best Change Of Character By A (Um..) Character: Jean Valjean, Les Miserables, Victor Hugo. Since I've always imagined him to look like Louis Jordan, I've been smitten with him from the very beginning. But, he is also such a redemptive and ultimately unselfish character how could I not love him?

    2. Best Character In A Bit Part: Monseigneur Charles Francois Myriel, the bishop of Digne, Les Miserables. Considering the heft of the book he is a minor character and yet a pivotal one. Without one particular act of human compassion by this priest there would be no story, no Monsieur Madeleine, no factory in the town of Montreuil, and no home for the orphaned Cozette, no stage upon which Jean Valjean can play out his selfless love. He certainly made the most of his limited page space.

    3. Most Single-Minded And Relentless Villain Who In The End Is More Pitied Than Despised: Officer Javert, Les Miserables. Since Les Miserables is my favorite book out of all I've ever read, this post must necessarily be top-heavy with it. Poor inflexible Javert. He is so wedded to his belief in the law he does not fathom that laws can be unjust. This inability to reconcile justice with mercy is his undoing and in the end, there is nothing for the reader to do but pity him. He also brings much of the suspense to this party.

    4. Most Unsinkable Heroine: Scarlett O'Hara, Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell. Yes she's willful. Yes she's spiteful. Yes she's a little selfish. But we love her nevertheless. Perhaps it's her buoyancy. We're left with believing she will eventually have it her way. Her determination is a little reminiscent of the aforementioned Javert. We hope hers is a happier ending.

    5. The Crazy For Love Award: Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy. What was she thinking? Abhorrence to fakery is one thing. Devotion to love is another. But wasn't there a saner alternative? I read Anna Karenina right after finishing Gone With The Wind. Both heroines were bright lights to which others were drawn. Both were haunted by love and desire gone awry. But whereas one struggled (albeit selfishly) to survive intact, the other simply crumpled. These two would never have been friends. Scarlett would probably have described Anna as "mealy mouthed." If I was asked who I'd rather have a drink with it would most certainly be Scarlett. But I loved both books.

    6. Best Friend Award: Winnie The Pooh, A.A. Milne. I can't even find the words, so I'll simply quote: "Some people care too much. I think it's called love." "Wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing."

    7. Father Of The Century Award: Atticus Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee. It isn't always easy to do the right thing. But there are times when one person, standing for something good and true, is stronger than an entire crowd in opposition. (Also bestowed Lawyer Of The Century Award.)

    8. Best Lead In Tragedy Of Lost Dreams: Nick Romano, Knock On Any Door, Willard Motley. A large and gritty book, I can't think of a character I've more wanted to save than Nick. It is the story of a young Italian-American (although the author Willard Motley was African-American) growing up in Chicago's Skid altar boy with hopes of one day becoming a priest. How different his life played out. It is quite simply a crushing masterpiece. First published in the 1940s, I'm not sure if it is still in print. If you can find it do not let it slip through your fingers. It is just one of those books that will still be with you years...decades...hence.

    9. Best By-The-Book Detective: Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett. I love Sherlock Holmes. I love Hercule Poirot. I love Miss Marple. But Sam...Sam is a bad boy. Sam is a tough guy. Sam was fooling around with his business partner's wife. Sam doesn't like his partner, Miles Archer. But when your partner gets killed "you gotta do something about it." And when you fall for a murderess, well, you gotta do something about that too. 'Cause no matter ain't gonna take the fall for nobody. "All we've got is maybe you love me and maybe I love you. Maybe I do. I'll have some rotten nights after I've sent you over, but that'll pass." By the book, Sam, all the way. After finishing The Maltese Falcon I talked like a gangster for an entire week.

    10. Best Coming Of Age Award: Huw Morgan, How Green Was My Valley, Richard Llewellen. Huw's voice is perfectly pitched as he recounts the elegance, beauty, drama, tragedy, desire and majesty of simple lives in a Welsh coal mining town. It is one of the most beautiful novels I've ever read, and even brushing by it in thought makes me feel as though I will cry.

    I am certain that once I hit the "send" button, all the other characters I know and love, and know and hate, and know and love to hate will be jamming the lines demanding to know why they were excluded. So let me just say to them here and now, before they get rowdy and belligerent, before they attempt keep me up all night, this was not an exhaustive list. There will be other lists, other opportunities to shine. After all, what's that line, Scarlett? "Tomorrow is another day."

    Friday, August 6, 2010

    Dropping In

    Well, hi there. No - no you didn't come at a bad time at all. I was just about to make myself a fresh pot of Gunpowder Green if you'd care to join me.

    What's that? You'd like a good stiff drink instead? I think that can be arranged. Let's see. I have vodka in the freezer...a-a-and some brown stuff in the bar. Oh! There's a little bit of rum left over from when I had house guests in January.

    No, I don't have wine. I find that if I keep red wine in the house I drink it. Did you know that a small bottle of wine has over 700 calories?! A small bottle of wine has only 5 glasses in it, and 5 glasses of wine is nothing as far as I'm concerned. (Rummaging noisily.) There's a little sherry. (Calling over shoulder from built-in bar cupboard.)

    Yes. I have olives but they have pits. Calamata I think.

    Well, if you don't mind I don't either. Shaken or stirred?

    Please, sit. You can use that small pillow for your back. The one that says, "I cannot live without books....Thomas Jefferson." John got that for me from the Smithsonian. All Jefferson's books are preserved there. Don't you just love Old Tom?

    I'm sorry I don't have any munchie snacks to go along with your drink...although I do have some unsalted almonds in the freezer. I should have something tucked away for "when guests drop by unexpectedly." You know, like articles in women's magazines suggest. Only I never have unexpected guests drop by...until now that is.

    Oh no no no. I didn't mean to suggest...I mean, it's perfectly fine...Uh...(I should have vacuumed the carpet this morning instead of playing Nintendo.) Have a nut? They're thawed out by now.

    These? That's my reading stack. I just finished Someone At A Distance by Dorothy Whipple.

    Well, I never heard of her either until recently. It's a shame she disappeared; she's making a come-back though. Persephone Books has republished some of her work and made them available again.

    No, the Greek goddess...Haides' wife. The one who ate the pomegranate seeds. They have a bookstore in London - not Haides and Persephone the goddess -Persephone Books has a bookstore.

    Apparently, there is a Persephone reading group and the book they are discussing this month is Someone At A Distance. Luckily for me, it seems to be the one Persephone book in the entire Live Oak Library system.

    No, I didn't mean I'm lucky they only have the one. I'm lucky they had that one since that is the one I wanted to read. Something really should be done about it.

    About what? About the fact that they only have one Persephone book.

    You know, I checked this one out on Wednesday and already finished it. Two days. Less than that, really, since I checked it out at noon.

    Fast read indeed. Even though it was over 400 pages it took no time at all. You see, the thing is it's a very simple yet well-told story. For the life of me I couldn't tell you what made it so difficult to put down. It has no action, no suspense. And almost from the beginning there is an inevitability to it. The dialogue between the family is cloyingly sweet throughout much of the book. And yet I simply could not put it down. I read it when I should have been working. I read it when I should have been sleeping. I just read it until I was finished. And then I thought about it quite a lot. Odd for such a simple story, don't you think?

    Definitely. I would read another by Whipple if I could find one; but, I am on a very tight book budget and am using the library more and more these days.

    Well sure I could order it directly from Persephone Books, but shipping costs from England would make that pretty pricey. How much is 10 pounds in dollars these days? The rate of exchange changes so much, it's hard to keep up. I just usually double it in my head and figure I'll be in the ballpark.

    I doubt you want your glass re-filled this early in the...oh, you will. Delighted. I'll be back in a tick.

    Here you are. Slante. Oh dear, my fault. I shouldn't have filled it so close to the top. Not to worry. Vodka doesn't stain the carpet. Another good reason not to keep wine in the house.

    What's that? White wine? I don't like white wine. No, really. I don't want to try to acquire a taste for it. It's either too sweet or tastes like an oak tree.

    Well, right now I'm reading O Pioneers! What did you say? That exclamation point that appeared over my head just now? That one? It's part of the title. Yes, very clever. It's very short and I'll have it finished by today. I drove out to Tybee to pick up Death Comes For The Archbishop also by Willa Cather and Middlemarch by George Eliot after work yesterday only to find out they are closed on Thursday! Excuse me? That exclamation point? Oh. No...that time I was exclaiming. Yes, I understand. It can be confusing.

    What a strange day to be closed. Thursday. Which reminds me, I have finished the first four of the Thursday Next series and have the fifth, First Among Sequels, sitting on the stack.

    That's what I thought, too, but I was wrong. The next one doesn't come out until March 2011. Fforde is supposedly calling it, "One Of Our Thursdays Is Missing."

    To be honest I wasn't all that upset to find the library closed. I mean, when the library is across the street from the ocean even a closed library is a nice place to be. I'll go back to get the books today. I might even stop and get an ice cream at that little shop.

    Uh, no I don't think I'll join you in one - it's a little early for me. But I'll be most happy to get you...right...right away. I'll just put it in a fresh glass while I'm at it.

    (I better re-think the Vodka Lime Chicken I planned for dinner tonight.)