Category Archives: Books

New Country, New School, New Reality

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Here’s another true story that forms the basis of my magical realist novel, Blue Woman Burning, recently picked up by Red Penguin for publication this fall!

Reality was always being tested by my adventurous English professor parents, who couldn’t be accused of abusing us, with the globe-trotting upbringing they provided, but who might be accused of lacking empathy (My father is pictured to the right).

In 1975, our mother put me and my two brothers on a 24-hour plane ride to Santiago, Chile (just three years after a bloody military coup) alone, where my father met us with friends, Maria Ester (far left) and Rene. That’s me and my older brother in the center, and just the head of my younger brother at the door’s edge.

My father brought us that same afternoon to meet the principle of Nido de Aguilas (Nest of the Eagles), Mrs. Grover, (looking somewhat like Mrs. Partridge!), in the hills of Lo Barnechea, where we enrolled in that international School.

Finally, my father brought us to our new home in a modern, concrete development off Las Condes, Golfo De Darien, where Maria Ester taught us how to say, “Stop, please,” in Spanish and how to ride the public bus.

It was a beautiful house, unlike anything I’d ever seen, with a garden and patio at the center, red tiled floors which I later had to learn to wax, and sliding glass doors on every bedroom, opening to the little back yard. It was the first time I had my own room.

The very next morning, I donned my brand new national public school uniform (still creased from the suitcase), posed next to the lemon tree in the backyard, and smiled way more bravely than I felt at age 11…

Our father sent us off (again, alone, are you seeing a theme here?) to the bus stop on Las Condes to catch the public bus to school while he caught the bus in the opposite direction to the Universidad Catolica. Those are the snow-capped Andes in the distance, home to the Incas. This picture is from some time later, when we realized no one wore uniforms at Nido– or maybe we are going off to fly kites with the local kids.

Surviving the usual heckling and name calling that comes with being the perennial new kid, as we so often were, I eventually made friends. Hope to reconnect some day.

Most definitions of magic realism ascribe it solely to South America, and with this kind of daily scenery, it’s easy to see why a worldview might be tinged with magic. However, I think it’s spawned by the culture clash of the Spanish Catholic invaders and the indigenous people and by tyranny and political upheaval. You find similar surrealism in, say Kafka’s Europe.

Chile’s fantastical beauty, which lay casually beyond even the most banal settings, has, as I say about the children in my novel, written itself into my psyche.

(Left to right: my younger brother, myself, and my mother on a weekend hike somewhere on the outskirts of Santiago. Photo taken by my father.)

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Camping and UFO’s on the Altiplano, 1976

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Ever heard of Shirley MacLaine and the UFOs in South America? My family had its own close encounters. My novel Blue Woman Burning, where a narcissistic mother magically vanishes in the Altiplano between Chile and Bolivia, is a blend of fact and fiction. The excerpt below is a memory the adult children in the novel have narrated in the voice of their vanished mother. The event narrated here, however is pretty much as it happened in real life.

Our intrepid Dodge Dart on the way to the Altiplano

The American family began their journey on a road not marked on any map that passed from Chile into Bolivia, a road through the fabled Altiplano, a desert plateau so high that the altitude made gringos sick, a road their Illustrious Mother had learned about from the circus master.

Strange goings on had been reported there. The ancient Nasca people had carved mile long spiders, monkeys, and airplanes into the plain. No one knew how they could plan and execute such drawings from the ground, nor why. Some preferred to believe aliens had visited them rather than that they were so advanced, while others speculated that they had ridden the thermals in giant fiber kites, using the pictures as maps of their territories.

Nasca Lines in Peru

Just wait, children. You’ll see. We are going to a magical place where the ground is so high it touches the sky. The air is thinner there, so I will be able to demonstrate to you the greatest mystery man has ever achieved. It will change you forever.

The altiplano (high plains in the Andes)

The children were eager to learn the mystery their mother would impart and eager to go home. The family drove north and stopped at all the military checkpoints above Santiago, but once they drove off the map, there were no boundaries or checkpoints to tell them when they passed from one country into another. That was how they forgot to say goodbye to their beloved country, never knowing how they would miss it until they got all the way home.

As they climbed the mountains, the landscape shed its vegetation until only a few low shrubs crouched near the ground. Higher still, the ground produced nothing but stones. The air thinned and the tightness in their lungs engendered a certain queasiness of stomach and dryness of mouth. As the road deteriorated, it churned up boulders and spat out streams. All at once, the road leveled out, and they found themselves at the edge of an expansive, sandy plateau rimmed by perfectly conical volcanoes. The road before them dissolved into two sets of deep tire tracks in the sand. Walter turned off the engine and the wind sucked up its rumble. All five of them looked blankly through the front windshield at the greatest expanse of nothingness they had ever seen. The sky was gray and the sun cold as gruel. The colors of the desert might have been named vagueness or loss.

The Intrepid Explorers, facing a vast nothingness, resolved not to turn back. Instead, they launched the car onto the sand at top speed. Within a few feet, the car stopped, blocked by the mound between the tracks, and the wheels spun uselessly.

Their brilliant mother and handsome father placed stones behind the wheels and got back in the car. Their father gunned the engine. The wheels spat out the rocks, the car lurched forward ten feet and stopped, blocked by the sandy center again.

Father and young god Ovid got out to push. Mother flipped her legs over the hump and wiggled into the driver’s seat. The car lurched forward twenty feet and stuck again. They continued working their way forward a hundred feet or so in this manner, before Mother finally shut off the engine. Silence rushed in, followed by wind. Now they couldn’t go back even if they wanted to, and they couldn’t go forward either.

Walter came around to the driver’s side. What should we do?”

Something will come to us, she replied.

“I’ll walk to those hills. There might be a village,” Walter said pointing to low brown hills to the left of the volcanos. “I’m sure it’s only a few miles.” He kissed Mother on the cheek.

They watched him walk away. Vastness diminished his movement, and distance erased his height, until at last, he was only a tiny blue dash against the gray, barely discernible, blinking up and down, his movement indistinguishable from imagination.

As soon as darkness fell, the desert cooled. Mother got out of the car to set up the camp stove. The wind kept blowing the flame out, and her thin body wasn’t up to the task of shielding the flame, so the children locked arms around the stove while she lit it. They heated up some coca leaf tea, which was supposed to cure altitude sickness. Inside, Mother spread sleeping bags all around, filling the car with the downy scent of wet dogs. They sat in silence while the wind rocked the car like a cradle. Mother pulled out Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” to pass the time and teach them the truth beyond shadows. Brilliant Ovid leaned forward and listened with his whole body, interrupting her excitedly now and then to discuss an idea, but the words lulled Fallon and little Terence to sleep.

My brother, my mother and me, camping along the coast in Chile.

The wind outside rushed over the massive plain, diminishing their tiny car, whispering indecipherably into their ears, and eventually everyone dozed.

Oh look! Mother cried in the darkness. The children sat up, the air in the car warm with down and farts, tiny feathers sticking to their hair.

“What is it?” Ovid asked.

The mystery. Oh, children, the mystery!

She wiped their condensed breath off the windshield and pointed out into the absolute darkness of the desert. At first the children saw nothing. Then, far off, a bright orb or light appeared and moved horizontally in a perfectly straight line, then disappeared. The other children gasped. “What is it?

 Another light appeared above and dropped straight down.

“It must be Dad,” Terrence said. “Coming toward us with a light.”

No, no. It’s much too high and too large.

“And anyway, that’s north. Dad went off to the west, idiot,” said Ovid.

“What’s over there?” asked Fallon, trying to remember.

Nothing. Nothing but volcanoes.

“Could it be a truck driving down the volcanoes?” asked Fallon.

“No, the road would be going diagonally,” Ovid said.

Further to the right, another light moved from east to west, again in a straight line.

“Helicopters?” said Fallon.

“Why would helicopters be flying out here at night?” said Terence.

There have been reports of spaceships, Mother said. I have marked the spot they appeared on the windshield, my dears. We’ll check in the morning. Perhaps we’ve forgotten what was there.

They watched the lights in silence and drifted back to sleep.

Later, the cabin light speared a hole the darkness, and frigid air blasted in. The slam of the car door returned them to darkness. Walter was back, teeth chattering. His hands were too cold to close around the cup of tea Mother poured from the thermos. She piled a sleeping bag around him, and they whispered. It had taken him hours to reach the hills. There had been a village, but no one owned a truck. Large trucks came through daily. They would have to wait.

Mother told him about the lights: had he seen them? He had, but he didn’t know what they were. There was no village in that direction.

They never did find out what the lights were. That mystery was eclipsed by the much greater one that occurred the very next day.

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Book Review: There There by Tommy Orange

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Strong Female Protagonists in Science Fiction

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More than ever before, badass female protagonists populate book and screen.  From Lara Croft, to Black Widow, to Katniss Everdeen, they kick butt. In America, the message seems to be that true power is only gained by brute force and coercion, so women can only be powerful if they are young, beautiful, and fight like a man.

Kij Johnson’s poetic The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe shows female power in a refreshingly different way. It’s not every day that you read a sci-fi adventure novel with a sixty-something-year-old female protagonist. Vellitt Boe, is quiet, careful and wise—and her body aches after a long hike. Nevertheless, her goal is achieved, and her strength is expressed in her mentorship of a younger woman. That which has been stereotyped as feminine weakness is revealed in this novella as revolutionary power.

In the mystery genre, there is slim precedence for elderly protagonists whose only weapon in the apprehension of criminals is intelligence. Take Murder She Wrote on TV and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series.  However, I can’t think a single elderly female protagonist out for adventure in science fiction. Let me know if you can.

Johnson, who was born in 1950 and is a professor at the University of Kansas, explains in an interview for The Geeks Guide to the Galaxythat this novella was written in response to  H. P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which has no women in it at all. She asked herself, “What happens to [the male fictional] world if I put females in it? Does it break it?”

Kij Johnson

Some of my students didn’t want to read the book, fearing an angry feminist critique of Lovecraft and all men, but what we found, instead, was a gentle assertion of female-centered conflict and a main character who uses other forms of power: intelligence, kindness, and patience.

The premise of the novella is that a gifted female college student in Dreamland has thrown away her future to run off with a man to the waking world. Because the education of women is threatened in this male-dominated world, her teacher Vellitt Boe and her Dean determine she must be retrieved before it causes a scandal and the college is shut down. When the Dean proposes to send a man who has the advantage of being both young and—well—a man, Vellitt Boe convinces the Dean that her own knowledge and her power of persuasion are more important to the success of the mission than physical prowess, “We need her to listen, to understand what is at risk…” (27)

The plot thickens when Vellitt discovers that the girl is the grand-daughter of a god. The gods in this Lovecraft’s Dreamland are cruel, petty, and beyond random. If he discovers she is gone, he might raze the entire city in which the college resides.

Though she has to use a machete once or twice, it is primarily the power of patience, wit, clear sight, and compassion that save Vellitt from the murderous shantak birds and ghasts. In a feat reminiscent of the Greek myth of Psyche with the ants helping to complete her insurmountable tasks, Vellitt’s tears when she is trapped are tracked abroad by millipedes, and this draws to her rescue a monster gug whom she saved when it was an infant. Thus, Velitt’s compassion in the past bears fruit in the form of an enormous life-saving gug (134).

If great power comes in subtle forms, so does great danger. In the climax before she breaks into the waking world, Vellitt’s greatest obstacle is not Dreamland’s violence, but doubt, which arrives in the form of a violet-eyed god who tells her that her city, Ulthar, has already been destroyed and her quest failed (142). Again, Vellitt’s power is not brutal strength, but strength of character as well as reason: “You cannot stop me,” she tells the god. “If you could, I would be dead already…and if Ulthar were truly destroyed, you would have brought me visions and shown me relics.  You are just a shadow here. You have no power” (143).

Turning yet another stereotype on its head, Clarie Jurat, the object of Vellitt’s quest, has already fallen out of love with the man she followed to the waking world by the time Vellitt catches up to her. Clarie has discovered on her own that she really didn’t crave the man’s love but rather the expansive world to which he belongs. Women have historically been associated with the unconscious and intuitive – i.e. the Dreamworld, whereas men represent the active, external world, so Clarie’s realization of her own true intent – her desire to leave the interior realm of the unconscious and live abroad in the active realm shows a woman in true possession of her power.

Johnson continues to highlight a subtler form of power in the last turn of the plot. Vellitt convinces Clarie to return not by forceful argument but by providing Clarie with the facts and then just…waiting (160). Awfully passive for a heroine. However, her waiting is really trust of her student’s higher nature. Rather than coercing, she respects the independence and intelligence of her student. This form of power is based on mutual respect and has a revolutionary effect.

When Clairie realizes that the fate of an entire city rests on her decision, she vows to return. Not just another woman sacrificing herself for others, Clarie vows she will change Dreamland and fight the capricious cruelty of the gods: “I have seen a world without gods, and it’s better…I will return and fix our world…I am one of them. I can do it” (162). “Do you doubt me?” she asks Vellitt. “No,” Vellitt says. “No” (163). Transcendently, Clarie laughs and “for a moment it seemed as though the little house was filled with thunder and the earth beneath them shuddered” (163).

Thus, Kij Johnson’s feminist approach doesn’t tear down Lovecraft’s world but augments it by adding women to it. While she points to how women are ignored and disapproved of in a man’s world, her protagonist shows how women are powerful on their own terms.

“Interview: Kij Johnson.” Geeks Guide to the Galaxy with David Barr Kirtley. Lightspeed Magazine. January 2017 (Issue 80). http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/authors/geeks-guide-to-the-galaxy/

Johnson, Kij. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. A Tor.com Book Published by Tom Dhoerty Associates, LLC. 2016.

One Hundred Years of Solitude 50th Anniversary

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Yellow ButterflyWhen I grabbed Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude off the shelf to re-read, I didn’t realize it was the 50th anniversary. Stifling my academic urge to write a long literary analysis, I’ll just tell you a few things that struck me the second and third time through.

There’s very little dialogue in the novel. It’s almost all narration, more like a vivid summary rather than a series of scenes. He’s taking a leaf from his grandmother’s storytelling oral tradition, in which the beauty of the story is in its shape rather than the individual characters’ progress. Add to this the narrative’s digressive tendency and spiraling treatment of time, and you get transported.

The narrative describes event after event, covering years in a paragraph, pausing to provide half a scene, then galloping twenty years into the future, then spiraling back to whatever the present was, and twirling off in a different direction following another character’s trajectory. Sometimes, he’ll be talking about one character and he’ll digress into other character’s life and follow them up to their death, then return to the original time period, but not necessarily the original character, and then follow the line of another character, like he’s tracing the branches of an enormous tree, which of course he is, the Buendía family tree.

He doesn’t use the past perfect tense to make clear when he’s going into flashback, or the subjective tense to flash forward,  or any other signal when he returns to the main time period, as the famous first sentence exemplifies, encompassing three time periods, the first of which is never clarified: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aurelian Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice” (1). It isn’t until the middle of the book that we get to the rest of the firing squad story, and then it’s almost a side note.

This tendency casts the reader awash in time, and develops the novel’s theme of time’s circularity and stagnant pockets, much like the mythical book Jorge Louis Borges wrote about in “The Garden of Forking Paths.”100 Years

The novel traces 100 years in the town of Macondo, from its founding by the Buendía family, through 32 civil wars lead by Colonel Buendía, through the arrival of capitalist enterprises in the form of the banana company with the attendant immigration of white foreigners, prostitutes and gamblers. The arrival of the capitalists culminates in a massacre of thousands of labor union protestors which the government hushes up. Then the town is washed away by “four years, eleven months and two days” (320) of rain, ending in the wildly decadent but transcendently pure lovemaking of the last Aureliano with his own aunt.

Having just recently traveled to Ecuador and studied Ecuador’s history and modern novels, I see better how the absurdity and circularity of the novel is shaped by Colombia and South America’s history.

Just like Ecuador, Colombia was invaded by the Spaniards who imposed an oppressive feudal system on the indigenous people, and it was both oppressed and liberated by the Catholic church. While Ecuador had 17 different constitutions since its independence, Colombia had nine civil wars between its independence from Spain in 1810 and 1850. Then there was the war of 1000 days from 1899-1903 in which 120,000 were killed, and then another civil war, “La Violencia” between 1848 and 1957 in which another 300,000 were killed, all between the liberals and conservatives (Britannica).

This is what much of the novel is about, and perhaps explains the theme of solitude that is the clear center of the book, though I must confess I don’t quite understand how. In what way is/was Columbia any more cut off from the world than any other Latin American country? Was he implying that Columbia is somehow more inbred and isolated than most countries? Is the rise and fall of Macondo an analogy for the whole country or just for Columbia’s rural past? Or just a certain kind of family? Why does he say that the Buendías were a “race…condemned to one hundred years of solitude” with “no second opportunity on earth?”

Garcia MarquezThough there are characters in this novel, they keep repeating, as do their names, so there are many Aurelian’s and José Arcadios, and after a while they all get mixed up in your mind, underscoring the circularity of time.

I love the character of “active, small and indomitable” Úrsula, Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s mother, who lives to be more than 100, running the household and family business until she is blind. I love the story Remedios the Beauty, who ascends bodily to heaven, and I love Úrsula’s great granddaughter Amaranta Úrsula who has a genius “for erotic mischief” and arrives home from Europe “leading her husband by a silk rope tied around his neck” and who shouts with laughter rather than alarm when she finds the family home is total chaos.

Though I can’t pretend to grasp it all, I adore this novel because of the whimsical blend of history, farce, passion, and magic typified in this winding sentence: “Jose Arcadio Buendía…gathered the men of the village… and he demonstrated to them, with theories that none of them could understand, the possibility of returning to where one had set out by consistently sailing east. The whole village was convinced that Jose Arcadio Buendía had lost his reason, when Melquíades [the traveling gypsy] returned to set things straight. He gave public praise to the intelligence of a man who from pure astronomical speculation had evolved a theory that had already been proved in practice, although unknown, in Macondo until then…” (5).

I think I’ll have to read it again.

Gabriel García Márquez. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Harper and Row. 1970.

How to overcome reading resistance

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IMG_2880I never afford myself enough time to read. Yet it’s integral to good writing.  Guilty confession? Netflix is my nightly addiction.

However, when you truly give into an addiction for a good 25 years, it finally gets boring. I noticed this when I began to eat while watching… clearly the watching experience just wasn’t filling me up, so I was seeking other ways to connect.

So, why do I persistently resist reading when my bed is surrounded by stacks of books that I genuinely want to read?  I often buy a book thinking I’m buying the time and dedication to read it also. During the school year, I need most of my time to read for school, but I have no excuse for not reading in the summer. Actually, I have a long list of excuses.

First of all, reading is harder work than watching. The eye muscles have to do a complex activity of focusing, tracking, converging and using peripheral vision. The brain has to do a complex decoding process, then you have to create the images yourself, all the while managing your inner dialogue in response to the reading.

For some people, this process has become so rote that they don’t even notice they are doing it, like the way you can touch-type without knowing where the letters are on the keyboard, or shift gears in a car without thinking, or feed the cat and forget you did it.

For others, there is a cognitive or eye muscle coordination glitch somewhere along the complex process that creates a hardship of varying sizes. I suspect I have a slight eye muscle glitch, so that I have to apply myself and reapply myself whereas my avid reader friends do not. For others, it can be an information processing issue or a slight or severe dyslexia.  It’s important to note that dyslexia is a developmental issue that can be corrected over time.

Then there’s the problem of focus. If all goes well, you get into a dialogue with the thing you are reading, but that can take you a million miles away. Fifteen minutes later, you find yourself in the middle of a paragraph you thought you were reading but totally failed to absorb. You have to backtrack to figure out where your mind trailed off.

Then there’s emotional reactions. Sometimes, you decide you don’t like the author or the main character, and that makes you angry at the book, unwilling to slog through and glean what you can or figure out what it’s really saying.

Then there’s the problem of a physical reading position. Reading in bed sends me to sleep, and I’m always amazed at people who sit in straight chairs and read with head bowed. Add to that, I’m a naturally fidgety person, and sitting still too long literally hurts my bones.

I think the biggest problem, however, is that I unconsciously regard reading as wasting time. I don’t know where I developed that idea, coming from a family of two English professors who read constantly. I worry about reading taking over my writing time. But we all know that reading is essential for life – for being a responsible citizen of the United States, and for writers especially, to learn how others have done it, to enrich our creativity pool, and to avoid cliché.

So yesterday, taking a page from my mother’s book (I’ve taken a lot of her pages from her book), I set up one of those zero gravity chairs in the backyard. Feet raised, back raised, head supported, I pulled out One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia MarquezI enjoyed every minute of it. When I needed to take a break and rest my eyes or brain, I’d stretch my neck and look up at the teardrop birch leaves or cast my eyes over daisies and purple cone flowers.

I have been re-reading One Hundred Years over the past month. I have a copy on Audible that I listen to while driving or walking the dog, and then at night, when I pull out the physical book, I have to reread passages to find my place, discovering I’d missed things while I was listening. The next day, I’d re-listen to passages to find my place in the recording, and in doing so, I pick up all the things I missed while reading it on the page. It’s a great way to read the book twice as you go, which helps with keeping things straight, perceiving patterns, and remembering.

The sun faded from the sky as I read last night, and my cats came to sit quietly around me, one underneath my chair, and the other nosing the flowers and contemplating a blade of grass. My dog appeared beside me, and I calmed her whenever she began to bark. A slight breeze stirred the humid air, the last Aureliano made crazy silent love to a woman he later found was his aunt while the world of Macondo whirled into oblivion.

Even after the sun went down and I came inside, I had the satisfying feeling that I had done something deeply beautiful for the last few hours.