Monday, June 29, 2009

Mega-book-reviewer Jake Chism and a couple of friends have launched, to "help you find your next fiction fix." There's a big introductory book giveaway to help publicize the site. I saw the first reference on Twitter a few days ago, and then checked it out this morning.

In addition to Chism, the main writers include novelist Frank Redman and Ted Dekker co-author Kaci Hill. The site includes review, book and author news, interviews, links to booksellers and contests. The author featured in the spotlight is Robert Liparulo, the author of Comes a Horseman, Deadlock and a young adult series, the latest of which is Timescape. features thrillers, suspense and mystery, all in a one-stop shop. Cool.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Bonnie Grove's "Talking to the Dead"

Talking to the Dead by Bonnie Grove is one of the best novels I've read -- not only this year but in recent memory. I've posted a review at Amazon, in which I praise the book, and I'm still thinking through what I finished reading this morning.

Wow. Grove is one talented writer.

It's a story about grief -- the unexpected loss of a young husband -- but it's also a story of how the mind and emotions deal with grief, which can include blocking out reality. In the case of Kate Davis, the young heroine, the loss of her husband Kevin is stunning and ravaging -- but ultimately not for the reasons she and the reader think. It becomes even more complicated when she begins to hear his voice talking to her, and he tells her she's forgotten too much. And he's right.

Slowly, as Kate descends into a kind of madness, she begins to grasp the monumental betrayal by her husband, his friends and business associates, and even her own family. She comes to understand that this betrayal includes her own memory, a memory gutted by grief.

As the healing comes with love and faith, Kate's pain gets worse. And the moment is approaching when she will have to surrender what has become a grief-driven anger.

For a long time, I didn't know how big a role anger could play in someone's grief. And then I saw a loved one engulfed by it, and how the anger could manifest itself in different ways. The grief of loss, accompanied by anger, profoundly changed the person, the relationships and the family.

That's the story Bonnie Groves masters in Talking to the Dead.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Leif Enger's "So Brave, Young and Handsome"

Leif Enger’s first novel, Peace Like a River, puzzled me. I couldn’t decide what it was – a western, a contemporary version of Huckleberry Finn, or an exploration of good and evil and how sometimes “good people do evil things,” Or maybe all of these things and something else, too, something out there just beyond my grasp.

I wish I had read Enger’s second novel, So Brave, Young and Handsome, first. I understood the first one better after reading the second, and I liked the second one better, in fact, which surprised me for some reason. The first novel even has a cameo role in the second novel, and that was my tip-off.

Both are novels about the nature of story and storytelling. They’re all of those other things, too, but they are essentially about story and storytelling.

Long ago and in a galaxy far, far away, I took a course called “The Nature of Story” for a masters program. We read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which most of the class found rather odd if not bizarre but which for me seemed like growing up in New Orleans. We read Twain’s Roughing It, Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, Nabokov’s Pale Fire and a lot of works that are, consciously or unconsciously, about story and storytelling. Enger’s two novels, although published considerably later, would have fit perfectly into the syllabus.

So Brave, Young and Handsome is a story told by Monte Beckham, who’s had a spectacular success with his first novel, a western, but fails to write anything that might work as a second novel. Glendon Hale comes rowing down the river by Monte’s house, and life will change forever for Monte and his family. Monte accompanies Glendon on a trip to Mexico to find Blue, Glendon’s first and possibly only love. Early into the trip, Monte learns that Glendon is an outlaw, and the authorities are still looking for him. It’s 1915, far enough away from the Wild West but still close enough for outlaws to be hanging around.

So Enger takes us on a road trip, and gives us a western, a novel about the odd interchange of good and evil (and heroes and villains), a love story, a history lesson or two, and considerable, if subtle, discussion about stories. Because that’s what the characters are actually talking about. Stories.

While So Brave, Young and Handsome is not a sequel, seeing Enger’s first novel through the prism of his second helps explain both.

And the man is a storyteller.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What I'm Working On

I’ve occasionally referred to writing projects I’m working on. I’m writing novels. (Yes, that’s plural.) I’ve actually written two, each about 90,000 words, and one being a sequel to the other. I’ve done some half-hearted marketing with agents but I don’t think I’m ready for that yet, at least with these manuscripts. Not yet.

I’ve been collecting lots of information on agents, publishers, advice, etc., and I’ve been mapping out who I want to target. I know who my intended readership is. I’ve developed drafts of pitch letters and even tried out a few on various agents. Polite turn-downs, generally. But rejection is 99.9 percent of this business. And it is a business. Don’t ever think that book publishing is anything but a business.

So I read, study, ponder and write. I developed a whole series of ideas based on the first two manuscripts, and could continue the saga through several books. I’ve written extended treatments of all of them.

Lately, I’ve been working on a completely different manuscript from the earlier ones. It’s a contemporary novel about a family that’s torn apart and then gradually brought back together, at least partially, in spite of awful circumstances. The catalyst is a child. The characters have names like Sam, Danny, Rafe and Joanna.

Joanna didn’t start out as a main character. In fact, she wasn’t even supposed to be a character. But she showed up at a Christmas tree lot, and I had to do something with her, because she wouldn’t go away. She’s now become a major character in the story, and a major part of the story. I had to go back and rewrite stuff to accommodate her, but not much, as it turned out. It was if the story had been waiting for her.

Sam, on the other hand, was the main character from the time the idea of the novel first entered my head. And he still is. But he’s gotten deeper and more complex than he started out. He’s picked up a kind of clipped accent. He became a carpenter. Through no fault of his own, he has a history that’s horrible and unjust, one that is never explicit and only imagined, but more real for the imagining.

There was another character who played a major role, and represented a whole section of the story. But then it made more sense to remove her and let the reader imagine what happened. She’s real, but she exists only in the reader’s (and writer’s) imagination now.

Interesting how the writing process works.

I’m about two thirds of the way to completion. I define completion of the novel the way the agents and publishers do – word count between 80,000 and 100,000. I’ve got about 62,000 words done. I know how it ends; I know what I have left to write.

This is the one I’m going to get aggressive with marketing to agents and publishers.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Hush Puppies Box - Part 3

The remaining memories my father placed in the Hush Puppies box date from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s. Of note is a photo of a scene from the play “Bus Stop” by William Inge – a production at a little theater company in New Orleans, probably about 1957. Look closely at the actors, and you see the bus driver standing by the counter at the cafĂ©.

The bus driver is my father. My father was an actor in a play. And this wasn’t the only one.

When I was young, I can remember my parents taking me to see plays at little theater companies. The last one was “The Music Man,” staged when I was 8. I remember it because I was in third grade and had accidentally taken home a textbook that was supposed to stay in the classroom. And I was horrified, certain I was to meet my doom when I arrived at school the next day. It hung over me all through the play.

That was the last play my parents attended. My younger brother was born two years later; my father was caught up in his printing business (we wouldn’t see him for days, sometimes; he’d be gone in the morning before I got up for school and home after I’d gone to bed at night). But there was a period in which my parents enjoyed theater.

The Hush Puppies box also contained a March 1955 copy of The Fisherman magazine. Before he started his printing business, my father worked as a ciculation manager for a publishing company in New Orleans that printed magazines like Work Boat and Shrimp Boat and Southern Bottler – trade publications for various industries and associations. He traveled (by train) to conventions and trade shows all over the country. There are a couple of photographs of my father at trade shows, and he looks so much like my younger brother that it’s startling.

A feature story in The Fisherman is about fishing for croakers. One of the four fishermen is my father. Another is a long-time friend of my father who died some years after he did; they worked together at the publishing company. A third is the man who with his wife founded the Bon Ton Restaurant, still on Magazine Street in downtown New Orleans (and still a where the locals like to eat; tourists rarely hear about it, like other well kept secrets in the city).

The interesting thing (to me) about this story is that my father hated to fish. Absolutely hated it. He was drawing upon some of his acting ability to get through that story, and probably had to do it because of the company he worked for.

But he liked going to trade shows. Once, and this is likely my earliest memory of my father, he came home from a trip to New York City with a jack-in-the-box for me. You turned the handle, and the box played Pop Goes the Weasel, a clown’s head popping out when the music reached the “Pop.” I remember sitting on the living room floor as he came in the front door. He was wearing an overcoat (so it must have been wintertime; he had worn it in New York and was still wearing it when he came home). If I have the time right, I would have been about 3 ½ years old, possibly a bit younger.

The shoebox contained little else. It’s as if the memories stopped sometime in the 1950s. Perhaps he got too busy. But he never placed anything else in the Hush Puppies shoebox.

I added a few things to the shoebox, things connected to my father, like a photo of me and my mother. I was about 2; she would have been 30. With her 1953 hair-do, she looks elegant. She always looked elegant in her photos, especially those from the 1950s. I also added my father’s business card for his printing business – Direct Mail Enterprises, Inc. My mother never called it Direct Mail or the office or even the business; she always, always referred to it by its current address – 424 Gravier, or 501 Baronne – streets in downtown New Orleans. “Where’s Dad?” I’d ask. “424 Gravier,” she’d reply. There was a lot packed into that short response, far more than a child, even a teenager, could understand.

And I added his driver’s license. His last one. The one he had in his wallet when he died of a massive stroke in 1987. Driver license photos are notoriously bad, but he doesn’t look well in the photo.

We weren’t close, my father and I. My childhood coincided with “424 Gravier” and a lot of time was lost, or never made. I remember spending part of a Saturday with him in New Orleans’ French Quarter and having my picture drawn in pastel. It’s dated February 1960; the artist’s name is Lee Stallings. It would have been near the time of "The Music Man" production. I remember it because time spent with my father was rare, and my parents had had a fight about it that morning – he needed to go to the office, yet he had promised to take me to the French Quarter. My mother won the argument. But we all lost.

I don’t doubt that he loved me, my brothers and my half-sister. It was difficult for him to show it, but it was something common across my parents’ generation. Surviving a depression, even if it killed your dreams; surviving a war; surviving two divorces before he met my mother – experiences like that can keep a lot of emotions permanently submerged.

Last year, I bought an archive-quality box with acid-free wrapping paper, and emptied the Hush Puppies box. There was a lot of sentimental value in the shoebox itself, but the contents needed better storage. The Young family Bible, dating from the 1840s, went into another archival box.

I’ve only added one thing since then. A Caravelle wrist watch, circa 1964. My first watch, a present from my parents. The band has a slight break, but the watch still works.

Like the memories.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Hush Puppies Box -- Part 2

By far, the greatest number of items in my father’s Hush Puppies box came from World War II. He joined the Navy fairly late in the war – early 1944. He once explained the reason – his parents didn’t want him to go. They convinced him to use the “only son” deferral until he couldn’t stand it any longer. He enlisted and then told them.

He was eventually assigned to the USS Pondera as part of the original crew. The shoebox contained a “Plank Owner’s Certificate” identifying him as one of the originals. Seeing this as a child, I was more impressed by the topless mermaids framing the certificate and the drawing in the center of a city being bombed as ships stream toward it. The caption reads “Destination Tokyo!”

What I missed was the rank designation after his name – “S2c(RdM).” Radar Man, Second Class. He completed radar operating training at the Naval Training School in Point Loma (San Diego) on July 4, 1944. That certificate was in the shoebox, too, signed by Captain (Ret.) E.L. Vanderloot, along with the small New Testament of the Bible given to all servicemen. My father received his on April 30, 1944, from the chaplain at the Naval Training Center, M. DeWitt Safford.

Shortly after becoming a radar man, he was assigned to the Pondera and shipped out. There is a photo album entitled Shipmates. It contains several pictures of the first stop out from California – Hawaii. The photos are small, black and white shots that appear to be ones he bought and wrote captions for on the back. But there's also one of my father in his Navy uniform, standing against a backdrop of trees and bushes. He's smiling, and he's skinny. I never knew him to be skinny, yet there's the evidence.

The album also contains the names of five shipmates, written in my father’s fine handwriting: Michael Pania of Chicago, Ill.; Virgil Coon of Pennyton, Texas; James Orand of Marfa, Texas; Richard Weir of Fremont, Nebraska; and Harlan Haas of Victoria, Texas. These were the five he was closest to, the ones whose names and hometowns he wrote down, yet he never talked about them. The Greatest Generation was also the Silent Generation.

There is a one-page, typed “Radar Security Watch List” covering the dates from Nov. 26 to 29, 1944. It’s a schedule of who is on watch duty, typed by the radar officer, Ensign B.J. Chartier. The watches were to be secured when the ship left the dock, and they “are to be stood with loaded pistol.” My father’s name is listed for 0700-1200 on Nov. 27 and 2400 to 0700 on Nov. 29.

There were a gaggle of loose photos as well, showing other places the Pondera docked – Manila, Hong Kong and Shanghai. These photos as well look like commercial or tourist photos that one might buy.

Judging by number of photos and artifacts, the Philippines seemed to have made the greatest impression on him. Or it may have been the first international stop for the young man from Shreveport. There is a bracelet made of Philippine coins, a knife in its leather sheaf, a dried seahorse, and one item too large for the shoebox – a small carved chest, with a lock and key. The lock fell off at some point – I never saw it attached to the chest but always inside of it. The box now sits on my bookshelf, close to one other artifact my father bought in Shanghai – a three-legged, brass Chinese wedding cup.

There are other items: a membership card for the Order of the Golden Dragon, given for crossing the equator; an official discharge letter from Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, dated February 1946; and the Durham Duplex straight razor that he used to shave (portable and compact, with a folding handle).

For me, the most intriguing memory from the shoebox is a printed newsletter, The Attack. It’s the ship’s newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 1 (and possibly the only edition published; who would have time to do a newsletter once the ship moved into the war theater?). It announces the official commissioning of the Pondera and includes profiles of the captain, Lawrence J. Hasse, and the executive officer, L.M. Fabian. The back page lists the crew, and my father’s name is at the very end (the curse of alphabetical order). He’s listed on the masthead as the circulation manager – a nod to the job he left behind at the Shreveport Journal. But he also wrote one of the stories – about the ship being named for Pondera County, Montana, which was being honored for all the work done in war bond drives.

My father was a writer.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Hush Puppies Box - Part 1

I always called it "The Hush Puppies Box," because that's what it was -- a shoebox with a photo of the iconic bassett hound on the top. But what was inside wasn't shoes. Instead, the box contained artifacts of a life, as if everything about a person could be contained in something the size of a shoebox. Artifacts of a life. My father's life. He kept treasures in this shoebox.

The Hush Puppies Box disappeared by design a year ago or so, replaced by a proper, archives-quality storage box. The jumble of articles has been replaced by each item being carefully wrapped in acid-free paper or, in one case (a knife in a sheath from the Philippines), a silversmith's cloth.

He was born in 1916 in Jena, Louisiana. He had three sisters, all also born in Jena. A fourth sister died in childhood -- a vastly more common occurrence then than it is now. His father had been a land surveyor, at a time when you didn't need much training to do that. He had landed in Jena with his surveying crew, and stayed at a boardinghouse owned by my tobacco-chewing great-grandmother. Her 16-year-old daughter worked there, too. My grandfather was 26 at the time. They would be married for almost 46 years.

My father had been nameless for three months after his birth, because my grandparents couldn't agree on a name. My grandmother finally came up with "Glynn," reflecting either some Welsh heritage or the name of the county in Georgia rumored to be where the family landed from England. "Landed" might be too gentrified a word. "Dumped with the rest of the inmates from the debtors prisons" might be more accurate, if less romantic.

After a few years in Jena, the family moved to Shreveport, where my grandfather operated a small grocery store. Shreveport in the 1920s and 1930s (and well beyond) was a highly structured class society. My father's family fell into the part of the structure that might be called "lower middle class," a group that nearly fell out of the structure with the Great Depression. My father started Byrd High School in Shreveport in 1929 and graduated in 1933, likely the darkest year of the Depression. That he stayed in high school was nothing short of a miracle. And a dream.

He clung to this dream in high school, even as economic conditions worsened. The dream was this: he wanted to be a doctor. And he took Latin, which was something aspiring doctors did back then. But at Byrd High School, Latin was a class for the wealthy kids -- and here was this boy from the wrong side of the tracks memorizing amo, amat, amare with the rest of his class.

For Thanksgiving one year, the Latin classes organized a food basket drive for poor families. The baskets were delivered to every house on the block where my father lived.

Including his.

I can't even imagine what he must have felt. But the memory remained with him for the rest of his life.

The Depression ended the dream of college and medical school. After high school, my father went to work in the only business hiring at the time -- the oil business in East Texas. It was a dirty and often dangerous business. And there was this wannabe doctor becoming a real-life roughneck.

From the oilfields, he got a slightly better but still potentially dangerous job with the Shreveport Fire Department, helped, no doubt, by one of his brothers-in-law who worked for the department and would eventually become Shreveport's assistant fire chief. He left the Fire Department and joined the circulation department of the Shreveport Journal. This was a time when radical career changes seemed to be the norm, at least for my father. He stayed with the Journal for several years, even through the early period of World War II. And then he joined the Navy.

From this early period of my father's life, the Hush Puppies box contained only three items.

One is a 1941 copy of his birth certificate from 1916. His parents' names were James Lafayette Young and Martha Ann Valentine.

The second item was a big metal souvenir penny from Galveston Beach, a remembrance of a family vacation from 1921 when my father was five. The self-described "Lucky Penny" is dark gray, with an Indian head on one side and the inscription "Souvenir Penny of Galveston, Tex." on the other. My grandfather bought this for my father, and he treasured it, as much for the souvenir value as for the fact his father had bought it for him. More than 40 years later, his own family would take the same vacation, a pilgrimage of sorts to one of the happiest memories he had as a child. Galveston Beach was a lot dirtier and in no way resembled the memory of that vacation in 1921, but my father loved it anyway. Nothing could take away the magic of the Lucky Penny.

The third item was my grandfather's pocket watch. The crystal is cracked; the watch stopped at 5:25. On the back is a flowered engraving surrounding a small shield. Inside the shield is a "Y" for Young. The one time I can remember my father showing me the watch, he said it was one of his earliest memories of his father -- pulling the watch out of his pants pocket to check the time.

It's hard for me to think of my father as a child. Except when I hold the Lucky Penny and look at the pocket watch.

Monday, June 15, 2009

J.M. Hochstetler's "One Holy Night"

My review of J.M.Hochstetler's One Holy Night is up at Amazon. It's a tearjerker, and as I say in the review, it's like watching a Hallmark Hall of Fame production on television. But I generally like Hallmark Hall of Fame -- I'm a sucker for stories about families (even dysfunctional ones) and a romance told well.

One Holy Night does have a romance in it, although it's not part of the main story. The first meeting and gradual courtship of the McRaes' daughter Julie and the young pastor Dan Christensen are possibly the best parts of the book. There's a tenderness and innocence that reminded me of the first meeting and courtship of that young woman who is now my wife and the mother of my two sons.

Next on the reading list: Leif Enger's So Brave, Young and Handsome; Charles Martin's Where the River Ends; Athol Dickson's River Rising; Talking to the Dead by Bonnie Grove; and The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.

Somewhere along the way I have to work in Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Painter of Battles. Perez-Reverte is one of my favorite authors, and this is his latest novel. I found it Saturday at Big Sleep Books during a stroll in St. Louis' Central West End. Big Sleep is an all-mystery bookstore, and my wife and I stopped in during the Art Fair and Food Fest held in the area. It was a perfect day for a stroll, too. Finding the book was a real (and pleasant) surprise because it wasn't supposed to be available until September.

And while I was there, I also found three other mysteries I wanted to read...Too many books, so little time.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner

For the past few days, a discussion thread with the American Christian Fiction Writers has been discussing and debating what men might like in Christian fiction. One post, naturally from a man, bemoaned the number of books with a cover containing a young woman in a gingham dress standing in a field. He made a heartfelt plea for stories with exploding helicopters, stuff that guys are supposed to like. I had to laugh.

But he had a point. There are a lot of Christian novels with covers depicting a young woman in a gingham dress standing in a field. Sometimes she has a cap on her head, so you know there's an Amish connection. Sometimes she's bareheaded. The color of the hair changes, as does the color of the dress (and sometimes it's not gingham). But it's almost as if a lot of Christian novels share the same book cover designers, if not the same story lines. The stories do change, but you woudn't think so by looking at the book covers. (Go to a Barnes & Noble or your local Christian bookstore, and see for yourself.)

I was following the discussion thread while reading what would, at first glance, fall into the cartegory of "fiction for women." I've posted a review of Susan Meissner's The Shape of Mercy at Amazon, and I won't repeat it here. I liked it; Meissner is a good writer who tells a good story. In this one, she mingles a story of Salem witch trials with a modern-day college student and an aging woman who's trying to forgive herself for something she did more than 60 years before.

There were no exploding helicopters, secret agents or antiChrists taking over the planet, all that stuff that's supposed to appeal to guys. But there was a good story, and that's what appealing to all readers, be they men or women. Tell a good story, and tell it well, and even guys won't miss an exploding helicopter.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Miracles Happen

It took three months before I could write about this.

In March, I received the kind of phone call that chills the heart. My brother called -- his middle son had been in a terrible car accident. He asked me to call our then-85-year-old mother and my older brother in Louisiana. My nephew and the friend riding with him were at the hospital. It was a one-car accident; it was a stormy Saturday night and, coming to a stop sign, my nephew braked -- and the car hydroplaned, hit a curb and went airborne, finally hitting a tree.

That, and not much else, was what was known at the time. The police called my brother, who rushed to the scene and then the hospital. Both boys had been trapped in the car, and the top of the car had to be cut off to get to them. They spent a few days in the hospital; my nephew had a broken arm that needed physical therapy. But they were generally okay. (I saw a video of the car, and nearly got sick. How could anyone be okay coming out of that?)

A couple of weeks after the accident, my brother was called by a woman who had actually been the first to arrive at the scene. And she was there because my nephew's evasive action after the car hydroplaned likely prevented a head-on collision with her car. Police were called almost immediately, but no one showed up for almost 30 minutes. (This explained some of the time discrepancies; in the mad rush to the scene, my brother didn't ask why it took the police so long to call -- the accident was five minutes from my brother's house.)

The lady who called said this: for some time, she had been learning how to pray out loud. She was uncomfortable doing that, until this accident. Another lady stopped and checked the boys' pulses and couldn't find any. The first lady climbed into the back seat of my nephew's car, put one hand on each boy, and prayed out loud until the emergency medical people arrived. The paramedics took one look and said both boys had to have massive internal injuries. But they didn't.

Miracles don't happen today, right?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Rupert Brooke's "The Soldier"

Many years back, I haunted used bookstores. Maybe it was the smell; all used bookstores smelled (and smell) exactly alike -- old paper, mold, mustiness. I generally looked for anything by G.K. Chesterton, poetry, old mysteries and speeches.

I was close to being a full-time speechwriter at the time, and I would look and generally find old books and textbooks from the 19th and early 20th centuries on speaking, elocution, rhetoric, and topical collections of speeches. Once I picked up a speech textbook from the 1960s -- precisely the one I had in my speech and debate class when I was a sophomore in high school. In a single moment, it all came back -- speech and debate tournaments, my speech teacher Mr. Summers and his bassett hound Clobule (the dog went with us to tournaments), standing up in class and giving speeches. Yes, I bought the book. It was 60 cents. I still have it.

Today, I was looking for a book on my shelf at work and spotted The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke, another one of those used bookstore finds. I first read Brooke during my high school senior English class, when the focus was the literature of Britain. Freshman year we did grammar and what was then called rhetoric; sophomore year was world literature; junior year was American literature; and senior year was British literature.

The curriculum was designed by someone who clearly believed that students ascended to British literature. Miss Shorey, my teacher, saw British literature as the gateway to heaven. Much to her chagrin, the school board required us to read one major, non-British work of world literature that year, and I chose Don Quixote by Cervantes -- but that's a story for another day. But it was mostly British that we read -- Beowulf (sort of British), Chaucer, Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, Milton, the Romantics and the Victorians, the moderns -- all of it, or at least a good representative sample of all of it. Miss Shorey required us to memorize one Shakespeare soliloquy, "because every educated person can recite at least one soliloquy by Shakespeare." Memorize we did, and recite we did. I still remember the dagger speech from Hamlet -- and Rupert Brooke, whose poetry made perfect sense to me in 1968 and 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War.

I'd forgotten I had brought Brooke's poetry to work. I opened the small volume, published in 1926. Brooke was born in 1887 and died in 1915 during the Dardanelles campaign of World War I. (If you're cinematically inclined, think of the movie "Gallipoli" with Mel Gibson.) Brooke didn't die from a battle injury but from an infection from an insect bite -- a reminder of the time when more soldiers died of disease than battle wounds. He was buried on the Aegean island of Skyros.

Brooke is best remembered for two poems that people associated with the Great War, "The Dead" and this one:

The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

All I can say is -- lovely.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

"Peace Like a River" Update

I've been mulling over Leif Enger's Peace Like a River for off and on for hours today. Finishing a novel like this one, if there is another one like this one, is like coming to the end of a race but you want to keep on running. So what is this? A simple story with lyrical writing? Deconstructed western? Coming-of-age novel? Postmodernist interpretation of a western?

I want to accept it for what it appears to be on the surface -- a well-told, beautifully written coming-of-age novel that is ultimately about faith. But Peace Like a River won't let you do that. There are too many other things -- hints, wisps of something or another, shadows darting at the corner of your eye -- that suggest something else is going on here. At times, it almost seems that the author himself is barely maintaining control, much like the main character, 11-year-old Reuben Land, barely keeps breathing during asthma attacks.

In some ways, it's also a meta-western -- a western novel about western novels. But that explanation alone isn't sufficient. The closest I'll be able to come to the answer I'm searching for is that I think the novel started out as one thing and became something else. That's not a bad thing. But Peace Like a River isn't giving me much peace right now.

Leif Enger's "Peace Like a River"

I read James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer in January of 1988. I remember the date, more than 21 years later, because I was doing the 2 a.m. feedings with the one-month-old while reading the book for a class. Baby in the left arm, bottle held by left hand; book in the right hand; toothpicks trying to hold the eyes open.

The class was called "The West in the American Imagination," and it was my final course in a master's program. The idea of the course was to study how the West (the American West, not Western civilization) and the idea of the West had been viewed and developed in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Cooper book was the first in the syllabus, and would be followed by Owen Wister, Mark Twain and even Norman Mailer, among many others (lots of reading that semester). Not coincidentally, the St. Louis Art Museum had a major exhibit of Frederic Remington's sculptures and paintings -- the exhibit had inspired the creation of the course.

Highlight of the course for me was Twain's Roughing It, the humorous account of life in the Nevada Territory in the 1860s. Lowlight was the subject of my paper for the course -- The Journals of Zebulon M. Pike, of Pike's Peak fame. The journals seemed to be mostly about Pike being surprised at how cold it gets in winter in Minnesota and being captured as a spy by the Spanish in Colorado and taken back to Mexico before he did any real spying.

All of this came back to me in sharp detail while reading Leif Enger's Peace Like a River. Published in 2000, the novel received a lot of well-deserved acclaim and best-seller status. It's the story of the Land family, and especially Reuben Land, the 11-year-old asthmatic middle child and the story narrator. It's 1962-63 in western Minnesota, and the oldest child, 16-year-old Davy, has killed two bullies who'd been tormenting the family. And killed them in what turns out to be a planned, calculated way. He goes on trial, but before a verdict can be rendered, Davy escapes from jail. The family -- the father, Jeremiah, Reuben, and the 9-year-old daughter, Swede, eventually go after him.

Jeremiah ultimately becomes the counterpoint to his son Davy. Jeremiah Land is something of a prophet, like his biblical namesake. He labors in prayer over his King James Bible. He performs occasional miracles, like willing life into a dead Reuben at birth and, once, walking on air. Jeremiah will wrestle with God about Davy's fate, and God will win.

It's a coming-of-age story, but it took me a while to realize that Peace Like a River aims for something more than that. My clue was Davy's affectionate name for Reuben -- Natty Bumppo, yep, the main character in The Deerslayer.

That's what set me to reading the book more closely and see that Enger had produced not only a coming-of-age story, but also a western, and a commentary on westerns. Nine-year-old Swede is even a writer of western stories and poems (and they're mightily impressive for the work of a 9-year-old, even for 1962). A large part of the story is set in the North Dakota Badlands, where all the old outlaws hung out at one time or another. And there's enough discussion about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that even I could see some rather obvious parallels to Davy and the people he ends up hiding with.

So this novel leaves me with something of a dilemma. Is it a good story, or is it something of a postmodern deconstruction of the western? Or is it both? Or something else entirely? My conclusion is that I don't know, but the fact I still have these questions makes me wonder if it ultimately succeeds at any of these things, or if I'm just not smart enough to figure it out. I'll think about it some more and post an update soon

But this I do know: had Peace Like a River been written in the 1980s, it would have definitely been included in my course syllabus; postmodernism already reigned supreme in my university's English Department. And I would have had something more interesting to write about for my paper than Zebulon Pike's winter temperature readings at the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Jane Smith's Birthday Pitch Party

Jane Smith is a writer/editor/researcher in the UK who writes a blog I follow via RSS feed -- How Publishing Really Works. It's a wonderful resource for writers -- links, book reviews, blog posts on writing and publishing, guest bloggers -- everything a writer could want in a single site (except, of course, the list of publishers dying to publish you; even there, though, there's a lot of great advice and insight).

Today is the first anniversary of Jane's blog, and she celebrated with a "Blog Birthday Pitch Party." Writers had the opportunity to pitch their own blogs, and about 60, including me, jumped in. I explored a lot of the linked blogs and found the diversity to be mind-boggling. Even among those 60 alone. It was great fun.

I was also proud of the fact that I figured out how to post the name of my blog in html so that a reader could link directly. Since I'm html-impaired, all it took was reading the comments and finding one where one writer was struggling to do exactly that and couldn't figure out what he was doing wrong. Jane gently pointed out the simple mistake he was making and fixed it. I plagiarized the instructions, substituting my own blog's name for my post, and voila! It worked!

I've now got four additional writing blogs that I'm following via RSS feed:
  • Dan Powell Fiction Dan is a writer in the UK who used to be a teacher and is now writing full-time and caring for his two young sons full-time.
  • Help! I Need a Publisher (And Maybe An Agent...?) Nicola Morgan is a self-described "crabbit old bat" who's published about 90 books.
  • Isaac Espriu's Place Isaac is a writer who says he exists in sepia tones and vague descriptions and sometimes in brown shirts and broad smiles.
  • Jonathan Pinnock's Write Stuff Jonathan runs a software company; writes fiction, non-fiction and poetry; creates some pretty cool cartoons; and also writes serious music. And he does this blog.

So Happy Birthday to Jane Smith's blog, and thanks for the opportunity to find these writers.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Didn't Quite Make the Century Ride

Well, I almost made it, the Flat As A Pancake Century bike ride, that is. I did a relatively short training ride last night (20 miles) and was feeling fine. But about 1:30 this morning, I woke up, turned on my side, and had to grab the bedpost because of the pain on my left side.

I made it to work this morning, but had to give it up after an hour. Making a left turn in the car was agony. Getting out of the car was agony. Walking was okay for the moment, but sitting or standing was no fun. A member of my team came into my office to talk, and as I turned from my computer, it was all I could do to keep from yelling out loud.

The doctor checked me out, and even had a chest xray done. My wife kept glaring at me for not telling her about the pain in the first place. Diagnosis: something torn/strained/pinched with a muscle that wraps from my left shoulder blade around my left side. Treatment: Aleve, tylenol, heat, ice -- and no century ride. I had to listen to the doc on this; he's more of a biking fanatic than I am.

So instead of getting up before dawn tomorrow and going for a long, long ride with a group from the YMCA (wearing those great jerseys, too), I will be finishing Leif Enger's Peace Like a River and rereading an interview with author Dale Cramer in the latest edition of Christian Fiction Online Magazine. I love Cramer's writing. The interview is good, but the interviewer didn't ask half the questions I would have (okay, so they have space limitations). This edition of the publication also has an article about my online friend Mike Dellosso, author of Scream and The Hunted. Mike and I have never met face-to-face or even talked on the telephone, but we've become friends via the internet. His books scare me silly. He's working on a new one, tentatively entitled Darlington.

So no century ride tomorrow. Instead, I'll be reading and working on a work in progress, a novel I'm calling (for now) Plain Sam.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Flat As A Pancake. Almost.

I'm registered to bike the "Flat As A Pancake" century ride on Saturday. It begins in New Baden, Illinois, about 35 or so miles east of St. Louis, and moves in roughly a square to the west, north, east and south. As far as long bike rides go, it's fairly easy, but it's not quite flat as a pancake. I'm supposed to be riding with a group from the Kirkwood-Webster Groves YMCA (we even have snazzy red, black and white jerseys), but they may leave a little later than I do. If a ride starts at 6: 30 a.m., then by golly I'm going to start when I'm supposed to.

I biked most of it three years ago. That is, I made it until lunch, which took me about 72 miles. I decided to call it a day at that point, or actually, my legs decided to call it a day. My wet legs.

You might think that biking on the back roads of farmland would be rather dull, but it was anything but. The first hour of the ride was in the rain -- a cold rain (and this was early June). Century rides go forward regardless of the weather. Biking is not for wimps. Then the sun came out, I put my glasses back on, and kept cycling. The countryside was beautiful, and not exactly flat.

I expected to see the beginnings of corn and soybeans in the fields, but all I found was wheat, of all things. I learned later that this part of Illinois is the biggest wheat growing section in the state.

There was a rest and snack stop at 25 miles, and again at about 50 miles, and the people at the Gateway chapter of Hostelling International were well organized. At the 50-miles stop, they warned us about a little water on the road about two miles ahead. Two miles came and went, and no water. Four miles, and no water. I happily assumed it had drained off.

I went up an overpass over a highway, and coming down I could see it: definitely water in the road. A lot of water in the road. Stretching across the road from fields on either side. It wasn't a couple of miles from the rest stop, but more like six. And it was more like six to eight inches deep. Well, there was nothing for it except to plow right on through, for almost a quarter of a mile (I kept on the center yellow line in the road, which was the shallowest part).

I was drenched. I was still drenched when I wheeled into the New Baden Lions Club for lunch about 30 minutes later. I think it was part of the reason I called it a day at that point.

The weather forecast for this Saturday is isolated thunderstorms, high of 85 and low of 68. The temperatures will work fine. But I'd like to avoid the water this time.

Monday, June 1, 2009

"Peace Like A River"

I'm reading Leif Enger's Peace Like a River. It is part coming-of-age story, part western -- and all glorious novel. It deserves all the acclaim it's received since it was published in 2000.

It's 1962 in rural Minnesota. Reuben Land, an 11-year-old who's asthmatic, tells the story of his family, his father and two other siblings, who sometime before were abandoned by their mother. The oldest, Davy, 16, kills two local bullies who've been terrorizing the family. He goes on trial, but before it ends, Davy escapes from jail. And the family goes after him.

The writing is achingly beautiful, so beautiful, in fact, that I'm deliberately reading slowly, to savor the language and how Enger has constructed his story. The characterizations, the descriptions of the setting and even the expressions the characters use are incredibly well done. And Enger even weaves in a few miraculous elements of magic realism. I'm going to hate to see the story end.

An author friend of mine told me he wishes he had written it. It's easy to understand why.