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Archive for March, 2012

This is supposed to be the week I write about things I love and so I held off on writing a Hunger Games post. Besides, the rest of the Internet has covered the topic pretty well. I’m quite certain that somewhere out there another little family of mice has written what I’m thinking on the topic.

But, you know, I DID love the first book in spite of my huge reservations. A book where kids are killed?!? What could be fun about that?? I resisted for years, then read them to kick off last summer. I laughed, I cried, I breezed through the first two and clunked angrily through the third.

When I first heard about the movie I assumed I’d go. Not only did I enjoy the story, but it also had Lenny Kravitz whom I also enjoy. Then I started to see the previews, and I’m wondering if the movie really is for me. After all, what I loved about the book was the spirit of hope and perserverence in the face of insurmountable odds. When you’re reading you are as free to imagine the setting as you want. In a dystopian (and boy am I tired of that word) book like this one, you can dial back the imagination if the setting becomes too grim. I had to do that in several places, and I’m realising I won’t be able to do that while watching the movie. It will all be there and all be inescapable.

I’m leaning more and more toward waiting for video, when I can watch it surrounded by the comforts of home. Also, there’s the issue that whenever we see a movie in the theatre lately I find myself wanting to volunteer other audience members for a Hunger Games event of my own. If we ever start Hunger Games in my lifetime it will be as a way to punish kids for texting during movies and church.

As usual there are a lot of other Christians weighing in on What Hunger Games Says About Us As A Society, how Christianity is the answer to Hunger Games and other such things. Those articles tend to bug me a lot of times because they liken the Jews of Jesus’ time to the bloodthirsty mobs of this story. I get really uncomfortable when Christians start throwing Jews under the bus. It happens a lot, especially around Easter. With Sunday being Palm Sunday I’m expecting that we’ll get more than a few posts about The Jews Who Killed Christ, even if they are said obliquely. We’ve got this thing in Christianity where we like that we’ve seen the light and the Jews haven’t. Like we’re so much better than they are because we “get” Jesus. I cannot express how much this disturbs me. Because it’s like we have nominated the Jews as our own Hunger Games victims. Obviously throughout history we’ve had a grand time scapegoating them.

I suppose that’s what makes me the most uncomfortable about the Hunger Games story itself and the commentaries surrounding it. People talk about how awful, how dystopian the story is. Then they write a post about the Jews demanding Jesus’ blood that scapegoats the Jews. Or they write a post about Trayvon Martin that scapegoats young black men. Or about George Zimmerman that scapegoats gun enthusiasts. Or there’s something about Santorum or Obama or…. you see where I’m going, I guess. We love to create outsiders and pillory them, even now. We aren’t that much better, if we’re better at all.

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Into The Woods

There would be little point in talking about the things I love if I didn’t take a little bit of time to explain just exactly what it is I love about writing. As often as I grumble about it or speak of it as a compulsion I’m sure there are many of my friends and acquaintances who wonder why on earth I pursue such a thankless activity. In the past I’ve lauded it as a way for my childless self to reproduce. I often speak of it as a process of magic from God, and that’s all true in an abstract way.

But then there are the guts of the thing, the experience of the grit of doing. That’s what I long to express to non-writers and to see if other writers have the same sort of journey.

It starts with just sitting down at the workspace and staring at the blank page. Writers complain about this but I think we do so not because of the page or the blankness but because of what happens next–what we are scared to talk about.

So there you are–I am–sitting at my iMac and staring at the purple words in MSWord. I do that for a few minutes, wondering if it’s time yet. It’s the same feeling I get whenever I swim, as I stand at the edge of the pool and watch the impossibly blue water shot through with ribbons of light and steel myself for the shock of immersion.

It's not a wardrobe, but this is where I enter the other realms


Then I read back over the last words I wrote in the story. Where were we when we broke off and helicoptered out of that landscape? The characters insert themselves back in my head even as I insert my head back in their world. Tennessee recedes. My basement office becomes the place where my body sits while my mind goes to a Welsh lake, an Irish pub, a garden at the edge of the sea.

It is like going into the woods where no path is marked; you take your first steps hesitantly upon the bracken, bracing yourself against the mossy bark of a nearby tree, a tree you know. Then you walk on. You go further and further, expecting trees and deadfall and finding them there as you knew they would be. Then the forest takes hold of you. While you walk under your own power you are continually surprised by the things that you didn’t expect but are wonderful to behold. Shafts of sunlight break through the trees, water from the last rainfall drips from leaf to leaf in a mild music.

It’s like that once you go into the world of your story. You are someplace else surrounded by familiar things but there are unexpected happenings all around you. You are there and not here.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Why do I love this? I do not know. I’ve been telling myself stories as long as I can remember, mildly hypnotising myself with music and rhythm so that I could go to a world of my own making. I suppose it might be an illness. Lord knows it’s a compulsion. But it’s also so very wonderful, an utter joy. It is perhaps my favourite thing to do by myself and it is usually when I’m happiest in my skin.

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Big Fellah

Irish Freedom Fighter Michael Collins was known colloquially as “Big Fella”. There’s even a song about it. He, along with Eamon De Valera* is one of my Historical Admired Gents. I realise I’m a bit more than a week late for waxing loving about sons of Eire, but since this is my week of writing about things I love, I guess Mick and Val fit here as well as any other place.

Every time I hear folks refer to Collins as ‘Big Fella’, it reminds me of someone else I love even more.

He doesn't like to be photographed and I hope he doesn't get mad at me for sharing this one. But it captures him so well! And since I only have 500 words, this should add about, you know, a thousand more.


My husband is built like a tree. At 6’2″ he towers over me in a pleasing way. He’s solidly strapped with muscle from years of hard work in construction, dishrooms, and his beloved bicycling.** He can fit two of my freakishly small hands in one of his large ones. He’s descended from the giants who themselves descended from the Scottish highlands to fish in the icy brine off the Yorkshire coast. They built special boats for the purpose, and then started calling themselves after the watercraft. When the sea proved too harsh, they moved inland and grew crops; eventually they moved to America where they did the same.

My husband carries these legacies–farming and building–deep in his blood. It’s obvious in the gentleness and diligence he displays. Those overlarge hands can dig a hole the size of three graves to fix our sewer line and then turn to patient precision for the exacting craftsmanship of wheelbuilding and stained glass work. Somewhere in the soup of his self lingers a gene or two from a pythagorean monk that shows itself in his love of mathematics as an artform. His first self-designed stained glass piece was a Golden Rectangle with its distinctive spiral. The rest of our house is laid out with a mathematical precision and detailed attention to ratios and placement. It takes a patience that I lack, but the results are magnificent.

I don’t know for sure which gene has programmed him to love me, but I am grateful. Because I am truly and deeply loved by him, and he expresses that love in a thousand ways, each of which makes me strive to be the person who is deserving of such devotion. When I tell people that I am in a Complementarian Marriage they often have trouble reconciling that with my feminism. I don’t at all; I chose a man and chose to be his submissive partner. In return he loves me with an unconditional and sacrificial love. A love I return to him. It’s a delicate dance for two strong-willed people, but it works.

Out of all the things in this world that I love, he is mine alone. Unlike books and dogs and sodapop other people don’t get to experience the specific love that we have; they don’t get to see inside the quiet intimacy of these two souls who have been merging for twenty-three years. Part of me regrets that simply because I want to be able to show people what love is like when it’s not just about sex or selfishness or infatuation or the other me-first versions of love that the world sells us all. But a bigger part of me is just grateful to have found this one rare treasure and this one wonderful person who makes it all possible.

*I’m a bit freaked out to finally make the connection I’ve been trying to make for years. Every time I see him I know my Rheumatologist reminds me of someone, but I can never place it. In linking up this article I realised finally that Dr. Gore looks like a famous photo of De Valera. Whew.

**(Yet another thing we were into before the hipsters.)

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I haven’t written because I’ve been preoccupied by things that I don’t wish to record for posterity. Besides, I’ve said it all before. It can be reduced down to a thick bitter gravy of “ouch, I hurt, I dread what’s coming next and I have valid criticisms of these various institutions that people keep writing off.” No sense dragging it out over 500 words or so.

I also realised that my last weeks’ blog entries have been overwhelmingly skewed toward “I dislike this thing.” Whether it’s whining about my expensive e-Reader that I’m lucky to have or whinging about a book that was someone else’s hard work, I’ve been on a critical jag. The world needs constructive criticism and that’s what I try to do; but it also needs pointing out the good things. Today I’m going to do that. Today is a list of things that are wonderful. My list does not include girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes, though, because that’s not so much a “wonderful” thing as a “why did they put that in the song?” thing. I always wonder why a nun sings about loving little girls. It’s not really a good idea, I think. Anyway…

Books that make you stop everything else

There are bad books and okay books and good books and great books. Then there is this other class of book that exists outside the world of Books and are something else altogether. When you find one you just know you’ve hit upon something so special it can’t be disregarded. It’s like finding your true love or the perfect meal or the greatest vacation you ever had–and finding all easily fitting in the palm of your hand and their whenever you want it. Sometimes large groups of people agree on which books these are (I have yet to meet someone who isn’t thoroughly drunk with pleasure by Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name Of The Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear) and sometimes you’re the only person who is so captivated. (I am completely in love with Deborah Smith’s The Crossroads Cafe) It doesn’t matter. If the book swallows you, it’s a grand thing and one of those nuggets of gold in the streambed.

Hammocks in the Sunshine
Lying suspended and cradled, gently rocking in the breeze, sheltered by the trees planted by an unknown farmer decades past…this is one of those things that proves a God to me. That you can be anchored by time and experience the soul of the wind in a calming way, that’s a sort of message from God that I Am.

Coca Cola
Yes, society is trying to make this wonderful thing into the next class-action lawsuit. Trial lawyers intend to take it the way of the cigarette and the trans fat; they look at the fizzy drink as a sort of carbonated pot of money for the taking. I don’t care. I KNOW the calories are empty and the caffeine is a drug. It doesn’t matter. Because every now and again when the mood strikes there is nothing quite so perfect as an icy Coke sipped from a cold glass. Other folks are scholars of wine and students of coffee. I have always been a soda girl, ever since I was small. My life could be structured as an ode to the great sodas I’ve drunk and especially to the role Coke has played in my life. Cold cans on camping trips, two-litre bottles in the back of the van as we drove through Europe listening to the Cats soundtrack, the 500ml bottles I kept cold in the flower box outside my London window during January…Coke has been part of my life as long as I’ve had skin. I love it.

There are other things for this list, but these are the biggies today. Just thought I’d share.

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$57.64

That’s how much I need to buy all 7 Harry Potter eBooks now available at

shop.pottermore.com

!! !!!

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ImPounded

Over on Facebook I made a throwaway mention of a musical about libertarians who knit a noose for hanging Ezra Pound. (It’s Down With Pound week, I guess)

Now thanks to my stupid pain meds I can’t get the concept out of my head. I’m actually writing a song AGAINST MY WILL. See, this is what people don’t get about being a writer. We writers say things like “I can’t not write” that sound all twee. But it’s the shortest way to describe this phenomenon where a germ of an idea gets stuck in the right side of your brain (I swear I can actually feel it) and cranks on and on. It won’t be ignored. I’m trying to read but now all my mind wants to do is write songs for an Ezra Pound musical.

So far we have two songs–the Finale, which is “Can’t Finish That Canto Now” and the song the Company sings while working on the noose, “Higher Than Haman”.

Here’s the chorus of Higher Than Haman:

Higher than Haman
He’ll swing for his hate
His loathing of Jews and
His fascist embrace
Of Hitler and Italy
That wicked expatriate!

Now maybe I can just go back to reading.

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Novel Conflict

A young man from the wrong side of the tracks aspires to be wealthy. He strives and strives some more; just when things seem to be falling into place he finds out that he’s gotten a girl pregnant. Not the wealthy daughter of the factory owner, the girl he’s been courting to secure his place, but the girl who is (like him) from those down-at-heel neighbourhoods.

That is but one of the conflicts at the heart of An American Tragedy. Although it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read I don’t know if I can read it again. The depictions of American life were painfully honest and real. The depiction of the dark soul of American success was both galling and honestly beautiful. That is a book, and the conflict that drives the narrative is an earnest one.

A few months ago, author Patrick Todoroff (quoting someone else) said that the best stories are of the human heart in conflict with itself. As I think back on my favourite books I see that most of them fit that bill.

I’m going on about this concept now because there is another type of conflict that shows up in a lot of novels I read. Granted, I think it’s mostly in “romance” novels* and certain types of horror. But it’s common…and I am so sick of it that I’m ready to gather a bunch of writers in a room and feed them some tender, rare pieces of my mind.

I am so tired of the major conflict in a story resulting from one character withholding information from another. Maybe it’s because I prefer directness in my own life or because life is short or I’m just generally getting cranky. For whatever reason, when the whole story revolves around Person A not telling Person B that he’s the father of her little boy or the king of fairy warriors or the hotel is haunted I become a seething ragemonkey.

In good books there is occasionally a time where you see one character withholding information that could swiftly resolve a bulk of the mystery but you don’t mind because it makes perfect sense in the character’s makeup and it doesn’t SEEM that big a deal until after the story ends. In the Harry Potter novels this frequently comes up as Harry hides (unbeknownst to him) crucial information out of a misguided stubbornness. When you re-read the books you see several points where things would have gone a great deal more easily for the kid if he’d just spoken up. As life lessons go, I like this a lot.

It’s a different thing altogether when the “conflict” is simply the immaturity of an author’s worldview passed off as either romantic or scary. In real life people tell each other things. Well, in my real life at least. I don’t groove on passive-aggressive people and I am sick of seeing whole novels be festivals of passive aggressive manipulation.

*This is a whole ‘nother topic, as we Hoosiers say

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When you date somebody for awhile, the starry-eyed infatuation wears off and you’re either left with the realisation that there are a lot of other people you could be dating or that you do still love the person but the way they pronounce the word “orange” (“aahrnge”) is massively irritating. Usually after a few months at this stage (one hopes it’s only months–or, better yet, weeks) you either divest yourself entirely or invest yourself fully.

Doesn't it look so wonderful?

My Kindle Touch was that fateful lull.

I have loved Kindles ever since my husband forced one upon me for my birthday and I figured I owed it to him to at least try the thing out. Even though I was a Book Person who Just Loved The Feel of the Paper and Couldn’t Imagine Life Without Actual Books, I bravely downloaded Dan Simmons’ Drood and started in. The fact that I loved it so much while trying it out with such a mediocre book speaks volumes for the near-perfection of the device. A Kindle is one of those devices that divides life into Before and After.

Since that very first one (named Quinndle after my dog) I have had a new one each time a new one comes out. Not because I’m so very tech-snobby but because each new version has been a vast improvement. When the Kindle Touch was announced I became a laser-focused beam of Covet. It could be held and operated in one hand! It had all-touch operation, just like the iPhone! It displayed books by cover art! I could at last be free from the wonky keyboard and all its little sticky buttons that just dangled there under the books like a vestigial tale. Best of all I would at last be shot of the two major annoyances–the 5-way controller and the pop-up number keyboard.

Well, the thing got here in November and I have tried to keep silent. I wanted other people to buy and enjoy Kindles and not be put off by how this one said “aahrnge” in so many different ways.

The picture thing was a classic shell game. The only place you could select books by cover art was when shopping in the Kindle Store. The rest of the time you’re left with the old text-only menu that looks like a table of contents. The same one everyone else gets..

–That “hold in one hand” depends fully upon your gender and size. Since that claim was made I’ve looked at pictures. The only “one hand”s holding it belong to men. Since I already have cartoonishly small hands that was a non-starter. Even if the arthritis hadn’t left me very swellish and unbendy, I can only hold the K-Touch in one hand if I don’t ever want to turn the pages. Yes, it IS light enough to hold in one hand while turning pages with the other…but every other Kindle was already that light.

–The on-screen keyboard is great. It’s the rest of the touch-controls that are abysmally wonky. See, they’ve decided to divide the screen into “zones. There are theoretically three Zones–page back, page forward and Menu. Already that’s complicated enough, since like the Equator the lines are wholly imaginary. Then they’ve thrown in these other hokey-pokey style moves such as “slide up for next chapter, slide down for previous chapter.” These little tricks aren’t available in all books, but in the books that do have them it becomes “accidentally touch in the wrong place and find yourself suddenly miles away from where you want to be.” Over and over and over again. For someone with occasionally-poor fingering, this is dreadful.

It’s been about four months now, and I’m growing used to all of these things. I know to bookmark frequently so that I can find my way back to where I should be. I know to respect the invisible boundaries and to deal with disappointment. I’m at last reading on it nearly as much as I read on the previous iterations, even though I sometimes have to steel myself first.

But I will say this…If you haven’t gotten a Kindle yet, I’d suggest you pick pretty much any other model.

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Author’s Note: It’s chemo day here. So instead of being wholly original I’m going to reprint something that was initially a comment at another blog. I added and subtracted, but the starter for the loaf is there.

I read a book called The Selkie’s Spell on Saturday. It was in some superficial ways very much like my Welsh book, and I thought to myself as we sat over our plates of Scotch Eggs that if all I do is reinvent the wheel then why do I keep bleeding into the qwerty anyway? I was saying all this aloud to my other pair of ears and just as he was telling me encouraging things our waitress came through the kitchen door and set two plates down in front of the people at another table.

And then it hit me…

Just in this country alone there are 300 million people, and hopefully 90% of them ate one meal yesterday. Even if only half ate a meal that’s 150 million.

But you still feed yourself, right? And presumably your family….

If God has called you to write–wherever God has called you to write–you are preparing a meal meant for someone. Someone who has eaten before and will eat again but will at least once need to taste your food.

I’m done arguing against the prejudices about where the book is published. I want to lift up the books that are finished, are published wherever they are published and say “God, you saw to it that this meal was prepared. Now I trust you to see to it that the people who are hungry for it can find it and enjoy.”

Literacy is magic both profound and ordinary. It’s one of God’s most generous gifts to humanity and allows us to momentarily transcend the bounds of mortality and place by letting us travel inside the heads of others to times and spaces otherwise barred. For anyone to take the time to write and to finish a story is a token of honour in praise of that gift.

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In what will come as a complete surprise to almost no one, I read a book this weekend. Because I spent all of Friday passing another kidney stone and the first part of Saturday recovering, I had settled on a light, chick-lit sort of read. Unfortunately for me it was also part of my “get over my prejudice against Christian Fiction” reading plan.

It backfired.

One of my oft-repeated complaints about Christian fiction is that the books are always carved up into pieces which become marketed as “series”. The world of most genres right now is plagued by the marketing device of series fiction and there’s almost no escaping it.

(I actually wrote a version of this same blog post a few months back. I’m repeating myself largely out of frustration, but also because I don’t hear many other people saying it and as a book consumer AND producer I think it has to be said.)

There is a difference between writing a series and chopping up a single story.

True series are like starfish and earthworms. When you carve up the main story, each book grows into a complete body. The best example I can give you is the series I know the best–Harry Potter. (And you KNEW I was going to say that.) Each Harry Potter book is a stand-alone story. This means characters are introduced and developed fully, plotlines are begun and brought to conclusion. The “series” comes into play with the overarching story of Voldemort Vs. The World and the Bildungsroman of Harry Potter himself. Those elements are intriguing and keep the reader coming back to subsequent books. But if you pick up, say, Chamber of Secrets, you could read that book and only that book. All the main questions–Is there a Chamber of Secrets? If so, who opened it? Who is petrifying the students? Why is Harry hearing voices no one else can hear? What is written in the diary? What is to be done about Professor Lockwood?–are answered completely.

The book I read on Friday did no such thing. It’s about four girls living together and remodeling an old house. I started to get concerned when I looked at my Kindle Indicator and saw that I was at 68% and we were still introducing story elements and character dilemmas. Generally the introductions don’t take more than 40% of the story–and that’s being generous. So when the book just stopped after a birthday party I was befuddled. Do any of the girls end up dating the men who have crushes on them? What happens with the one girl’s dreadful boss? Does the Christian girl convert any of the other girls?* Does the mean girl’s bulimia get treated? A bit of research on Amazon and Wikipedia reveals that if I DO want the answers to those questions I will have to buy THREE MORE BOOKS at $10 apiece. When I read the synopses of the other three books it became painfully clear that this was actually ONE book, carved and padded to look like four. The Christian publisher (in this case David C. Cook) is asking me to pay $32.99 for a basic chick lit novel that would have sold for $12.95 through Red Dress Ink.

These books are tree stumps. You’ve got the basic bit of wood upon which you can sit for awhile, but there’s nothing to climb.

I know a lot of writers and I implore you–if you want to write a series, fantastic. Just please write a starfish and don’t let your agent talk you into turning your story into a bunch of stumps.

*I really despise conversion as a plotline because it implies that become a Christian is just getting converted. It’s the same reason I dislike weddings as a whole plotline. Both events–a wedding and a conversion–are the beginning, not the culmination. In addition, a lot of stories which use conversion as a plotline imply that the main character is heroic for converting the other people. It’s sort of like saying the mailman is a hero for bringing you a check for $1,000,000 and totally ignoring the fellow who actually paid the money out of his account.

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