I finished the manuscript of Against the Grain. But it’s never finished. I’m still reading it aloud cover to cover, getting feedback, tightening things up. Here’s my third stab at the dreaded jacket copy. Let me know what you think in the comment section, please. Cover still under construction.
AGAINST THE GRAIN
By the time they reached Logan’s tree, Diana had lost all sense of time and proportion. The sun hovered eight feet off the ground, a tiger’s eye shafting orange light between redwood giants. She was an insect suspended in amber as Logan clipped her into a harness. He was explaining how to climb, but amber suffused her ears, her throat, her mind as if the trees were talking to her.
Later, wrapped in a sleeping bag on a platform two hundred feet off the ground, they surveyed an ocean of luminescent mist pricked by treetops, saplings pushing into a new world. Her privileged world fell away like an empty husk. The only thing that mattered was this palm of earth offered to the sky. People didn’t have to choose between life in square houses and star-pierced infinity. They could have it all, an Eden, right here. All they had to do was choose.
But her father threatened it all.
Atlas Jamison, a Wall Street financier with a mysterious past, staged a hostile takeover of Pacific Lumber and tripled the cutting rate, reducing these ancient beings to lawn furniture.
Diana joins forces with Logan who believes Pacific Lumber killed his father, Zeff, the surfer-dude turned monkey-wrencher, and unstoppable indigenous lawyer for the trees, Jessica Wild, as they risk their lives to save the redwoods, the planet, and themselves.
Based in part on the true story of violent clashes in Northern California between corporate raiders, loggers, and activists during Redwood Summer 1990, Against the Grain is an action-packed Overstory and a mystical Damnation Spring.
Available in bookstores and Amazon by Earth Day.
The Truth Behind the Story
Here are just a few of the resources I relied on when researching the novel.
When you write about family, publishing your first book isn’t always the happy occasion you think it should be. My first novel Blue Woman Burning will be published by Red Penguin Books on November 23rd. Instead of excitement and joy, I’m riding a see-saw between dread and numbness. It has been SUCH a long and confusing journey with so many stops, starts, revisions, and reinventions. Though excellent work can be written in the thick of emotional turmoil, I had to grow a few decades to write mine. When I began it (34 years ago!), I was too stuck in its emotional backwaters to understand and complete it.
The novel started with a short story I wrote after I had been accepted to a graduate creative writing program at the University at Albany in 1988. It was about an 18-month family stay in Chile during my childhood. I wrote in a charming, humorous voice, which I later figured out was only to protect myself from pain caused by family dynamics. I used magical realism to externalize my perceptions.
I had no idea how to end the story because I was angry with the main character, Eustacia, based loosely on my mother. I didn’t know the main character angered me, though. It was so charming how she didn’t know how many children she had; how she accidentally packed a child into shipping container and blithely congratulated herself for her brilliance when it was discovered; how she named them all after her own body parts. When I discovered my anger, the ending came with an explosion.
Long story short, autobiographical material confused and distracted me. We really did drive from Santiago, Chile to Upstate New York in a Dodge Dart as the novel depicts. We really did get stuck in the altiplano, a high desert plateau. But that wasn’t what the book was about. It took me a long time to realize the novel was about me being trapped in a Bermuda triangle between my mother, my brother and myself. Yet, I wasn’t even the main character in the original version!
Huge revisions later, I cobbled together something presentable in 1999. I found an agent, and she sent it to all the best publishers. Somewhere in my basement lurks a copy of a very complimentary rejection from Grove Press.
She asked me to revise. There was clearly something wrong with it. I and my writing style had changed so much in those twelve years of writing the novel, that it felt like I had jammed two different bodies together. The bones just didn’t match up no matter how much I massaged the skin. I was sick of it, I had just had a baby, and I didn’t know how to fix it.
I needed a few more decades of growth to get past the emotional pain of the autobiographical material. That’s when I was able to ask myself the real question all writer need to ask to complete a novel: “What do my characters need?” Not, “What do I need?” The latter is a great question for therapy and for getting started. But it doesn’t end there.
So, many more revisions later—and I don’t mean mere edits, but rather, throwing out half a book and writing a new half, then throwing out half of that, and reorganizing and trying new points of views— Blue Woman Burning is both my first novel and my tenth novel, all rolled into one lifetime of learning. I also just learned it is the first book in a new imprint for Red Penguin Books. I’m honored.
And now? I want people to read it…and I don’t want people to read it. I want it to be wildly successful…and I also know that the chances of that are slim. I’ve been working hard to promote the hell out of it, but I still have a day job, the task is endless, and I have a secret fear that the publicity gods just don’t like me. Maybe I enjoy the secondary gains of obscurity too much: protection. Will obscurity continue to protect me? Probably.
I have warned my family about the autographical content. I was worried about my mother reading it, as I knew she would recognize herself and also the places where I fictionalized. There’s a death in the novel that I know would wound her. Sadly, at the age of 98, she doesn’t remember much. Yet, it is sadly fortunate that my novel is being released now: I can share my accomplishment with her, AND I know she won’t be able to read it.
Speaking of which, at her insistence and against my better judgement a few weeks ago, I agreed to read the prologue aloud to her. Not surprisingly, cherubic and charming narcissist that she is, she interrupted me twenty times to tell me how it really was, and how I should revise. I explained that the book was finished, and she told me she was trying to help me improve it. I said, for the first time in my life, “It doesn’t need improvement.” Though I had to take a restroom break, I marveled at how little the exchange hurt. Twenty years ago, it would have cut deeply and lastingly. Whew. Growth!
But there’s the rest of my family. I worry about that my two older sisters, who are not in the novel, will feel exposed by having the family in the public eye. I wonder do they feel bad about being left out entirely? Then there’s a fictional version of my younger brother. Will he mind how I characterized some of his surface attributes?
I am most worried about my older brother’s feelings. The character based on him, Ovid, is a major character in the novel. I have spoken with my brother about it, and he has graciously applauded my publication and told me not to worry about how the character is depicted. Still, will friends call and ask, “Did that really happen?”
I told him a writer can never capture a whole of a human being on paper (at least, I can’t). I’m also hugely aware of how unreliable memory is and how biased we all are. That is my defense. He is okay with me noting that he is bi-polar in real life. But I clearly took it to a more dramatic level in the novel. It made a better story. It was not wish fulfillment. A writer says to themselves, “What is the worst possible thing that could happen to this character?” and then they do it. I won’t spoil it for you.
Let me just end by observing that there is a huge danger to having a writer in the family. More books are more autobiographical than most authors let on. They expose family and friends even when cleverly disguised. There is also a huge danger in being the (published) writer in the family The writer dares to shape the family narrative how they see fit. The writer gets the last word. But do I?
So let me be clear, as the acknowledgment of Blue Woman Burning says, “Thanks also to my family of origin for adventures in distant lands, arguments and inspiration, and for your forbearance, as I borrow family stories and likenesses, and change them wildly” to make a better story. There will be some fallout, no doubt, but I will endeavor to embrace the learning that will follow.
Meanwhile, friends and family will be joining me at a launch party on December 9th in Saratoga Springs, NY, and expect I will feel the joy, then.
In the early 20th Century, third person and first person central became the only point of view that was acceptable for fiction. Omniscient was reserved for children’s books and spy/thriller genres. To my thinking, it was the only authentic point of view, acknowledging the inescapability of our subjectivity.
Editors, teachers, and writers generally contended that omniscient narrators are authoritarian, and we’d entered a non-authoritarian, post-modern age where readers didn’t want to be told what was going on. They wanted to be the protagonist of the book and figure it out on their own. Omniscient narrators were so 19th century.
But some of my favorite 20th C. books are omniscient, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude.
With the advent of hybrid genres, more people are breaking out of the mold and mixing narrators like complex cocktails. I’m seeing shifting third person and first person, changing narrative point of view with each chapter, as with There, There by Tommy Orange (about Urban native Americans in Oakland California) and The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi (about bi and trans people in Nigeria).
Jess Walter wrote The Cold Millions nimbly from multiple points of view, starting with first person narration from a minor character who dies before the book proper even starts, but whose death sets a wheel in motion. The rest of the novel is subjective omniscient narrator with some occasional first person narratives. The omniscient narrator and multiple perspectives seem better designed to give us a bigger story about people in a time and place. It asserts that people are part of their society and their landscape.
How to do it, though, without ill-timed info-dumps?
Walters did it seamlessly (after first person preface) with Chapter 1:
They woke on a ball field, bums, tramps, hobos, stiffs. Two dozen of them spread out on bedrolls and blankets in a narrow floodplain just below the skid, past taverns, tanners, and tents, shotgun shacks hung like hounds’ tongues over the Spokane River. Season work over, they floated in from mines and farms and log camps… (11).
As we see above, we get an areal view of a whole crowd of which the main characters are a part, as well as the landscape where the novel takes place. Walters has tucked backstory into the setting, which sets the stage the class warfare of 1909 in the logging, mining, and farming industries. The second paragraph introduces us to one of the two main characters, Rye:
The sun was just beginning to edge the mountains when Rye Dolan sat up, halfway down the first-base line. He looked across the field of sleeping humps, his older brother, Gig, beside him, curled a few feet from the pitchers mound (11).
Instead of action, we next go to backstory on Gig, his connections with labor unions, and a flashback to the night before that explains how they came to be sleeping on a ball field. This goes on for five pages, before we come back to the the ball field where his brother, Gig wakes up. That’s all the current-day action for the first chapter. The rest of the first chapter is backstory with flash back. It’s not until chapter two that we get real present day action with the cops descending on the hobos with “billies and bats and the handles of axes.”
I was taught the structure of chapter 1 is “a bathtub story,” (character get into a tub, thinks about stuff, and gets out. The term comes from Canadian writer Doug Glover, I believe), and that this was a boring and unacceptable way to go, yet it was the opening of what was called “one of the most captivating novels of the year” by Washington Post reviewer Ron Charles. Also– I was taught that the first person appearing in the book should be the main character. Instead, it’s a peripheral character who dies. What it did for me was set the stage: here was a book where first person narrators could die. Here was a world where you thought you were the center of it, and it turned out you weren’t, which historically, is much more accurate than the traditional 21st century first person central novel.
Orange, Emezi and Walter’s narrative structure gave me permission to explore subjective omniscient and multiple narratives in my own novel-in-progress Against the Grain, about an extreme environmental activist who falls in love with the daughter of the logging tycoon clearcutting the redwoods in northern California in 1990. As I navigate this story with a huge cast of characters (including the trees themselves) and various conflicting human interests, I keep returning to Walter’s book for guidance.
So back to the question. How to give historical and biological background without creating an intrusive and unrealistic info dump such as the ones we’ve gotten used to in the TV series Bones and the various incarnations CSI?
Standout Books reminds us not to give information until the reader really needs it, when it’s relevant, or when it’s central to an immediate conflict between characters. Certainly the backstory we get in the first chapter of The Cold Millions helps to explain why hobos are amassing and sleeping in fields, but until Chapter 2, we don’t know why that matters.
More to the point, when does my reader need to learn that giant redwoods have can live 2000 years and respire 500 gallons of water a day? In my rough draft, I’d thrown it down at the beginning of chapter where we meet the heads of Pacific Lumber out in the forest. After much deliberation, I moved it to the chapter where the main character’s father is caught in a mudslide while trying to save the trees he loves. We shall see if it works.
The adventure continues. My first novel, Blue Woman Burning, is an internal narrative, mostly third person point of view, and mostly about the life of the emotions. It feels like the right place for a novelist to start. Now, I’m enjoying the learning curve as I branch out into a novel takes place in the external world with a larger cast of characters, a broader perspective, which is not just about the internal emotional growth of my characters, but about an environmental movement, the trees, and the most important issue of our time: human caused climate change and the battle to save us and the environment from ourselves.
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Lâle Davidson’s novel Blue Woman Burning about a woman who’s mother magically disappeared on the Altiplano between Chile and Bolivia, will be published by Red Penguin Books in November of 2021. Her collection of short stories Strange Appetites won the Adirondack Center for Writing’s People’s Choice Award for 2016 and is being re-released in October via Amazon. Her stories have appeared in The North American Review, Eclectica, and Gone Lawn among others. She was a finalist for the Franz Kafka Award issued by Doctor T.J. Eckleburgh Review as well as the Black Lawrence Chapbook Contest of 2015 and The Talking Writing Award for humorous writing advice. Her story “The Opal Maker” was named top fifty of 2015 very short fiction publications by Wigleaf. She is a Distinguished Professor who has taught writing for 27 years at a community college where she recently received the Chancellor’s Award for Scholarship and Creative Activities (2018).
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.
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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.
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.
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 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.
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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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
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
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…”
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”
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.
When 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.”
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?”
Though 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.
I 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 Marquez. I 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.