Desiderata: Monthly Book Wrap December 2019

Desiderata: things desired

A monthly review of books recently read. As a new month turns over, here’s a look back at what I read in November that stirred my soul.

The Reading Tally:
Novels: 7
Narrative Non-Fiction: 1
Instructional: 1
Internal Journey: 2

Recommended Reads

The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

Brilliant. Just brilliant. Everything about this novel, from its premise — a fictionalized account of the true plot by the CIA to thwart communism through “cultural diplomacy”— to its the multiplicity of perspectives, including the Greek chorus CIA typing pool, the haunted Olga Vsevolodovna Ivinskaya, imprisoned in a Gulag for her involvement with famed writer Boris Pasternak, the “Mad Men”-esque characters of Cold War Washington D.C., and their fashions, passions, parties — to the women who became spies, their stories all but forgotten by modern readers until Lara Prescott breathed life into their legacies — just sings and sparkles with verve and vibrancy.

Boris Pasternak, the famed Russian writer, agonized for years over his classic novel Dr. Zhivago. Part of the agony was his fear that not only would it not be published in his homeland, but he risked arrest should it ever come to life in any print form. The Soviets banned it, sight unseen. And the Americans hatched a clever plot once they realized how a banned book could take the world by storm. The manuscript, smuggled out of the Soviet Union by a clever if not ethics-starved Italian publisher, would be smuggled back behind the Iron Curtain in a Russian translation to needle the Soviets and thwart their attempts to starve the Russian people of their cultural heritage and heroes. Never mind that this mission risked the lives of Pasternak and his lover, Olga Ivinskaya, who recounts harrowing years already spent in a Siberian prison camp for her relationship with Pasternak.

Back in the USA, Irina Prozdhova, a young Russian-American living at home in D.C. with her widowed mother, is hired into the CIA’s Soviet Russia (SR) division typing pool. By day, she clatters and clacks her way through endless reports. A natural introvert, she keeps a bit of distance from the snappy, sharp chattering of the other secretaries, but she doesn’t go unnoticed. Recruited as a spy, she is trained by the irresistible, statuesque, OSS-veteran Sally Forrester. The two women, as different as chalk and cheese, bond in way that leaves Irina confused and Sally rueful. Their friendship is the beating heart of this passionate narrative.

Part thriller, part romance, all engrossing historical fiction with the ringing bell of feminism omitted from history so often written by men, The Secrets We Kept is that ideal blend of compulsively readable popular fiction and intelligent, compelling literature. I’m thrilled to learn that this debut novel went to auction, garnered Prescott an enormous advance (although that can be a curse as much as a blessing, but I think in this case she will earn out that advance and then some), and that the rights have been sold as a major motion picture. So well deserved for this young (thirty-seven-year-old) author and this outstanding, complex, original novel.

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

A debut novel that combines page-turning courtroom thriller with weighty reflections on immigration and parenting special needs children, Miracle Creek is a study on what comprises a moral compass, and the relative value of truth.

In a small Virginia country town, the Yoos, an immigrant family from South Korea, operate a hyperbaric oxygenation treatment (HBOT) facility called the Miracle Submarine in the barn beside their rented home. A questionable alternative therapy that claims to cure everything from impotence to autism, HBOT is performed in a sealed pressurized chamber that contains 100 percent pure oxygen. One terrible day, the chamber explodes and the fire kills two inside the chamber, and gravely injures four others, including Pak Yoo and his teenage daughter, Mary, who rush to rescue those trapped inside.

The fire was deliberately set and as the book opens, Elizabeth Ward, the mother of one of the patients is on trial for murder.

What seems an open and shut case of a sociopathic mother frustrated to the point of murder by her son’s behavioral imperfections becomes a twisted tragedy of lies and heartbreak.

Writing the narrative from multiple points of view, Angie Kim masterfully keeps her readers on an uncomfortable edge. We feel empathy for the many possible suspects, particularly the mothers who work to the point of exhaustion every day to care for their special needs children, hoping against all reason that they can affect a cure, or at least make things better, and for the Yoos, who came to America in hope and determination and instead face racism and poverty.

A suspension of disbelief is needed to accept how all the many loose threads come together in the end, as well as tolerance for melodrama, but as a whole, the novel is deeply compelling. The author faces so many uncomfortable truths and forces the reader to face them, as well. I have immense respect for her ability to craft an engrossing plot and layer it with substantive themes. Highly recommended.

The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell

The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell
 
Anna Klobuchar Clemencs is the 25-year-old wife of a copper miner, living in the tidy company town of Calumet on Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula. Surrounding her are first-generation immigrant families, speaking a total of thirty-three languages and suffering from the appalling working conditions prevalent in copper mining in the early years of the 20th century.

During twelve-hour shifts, six days a week, men toil deep underground with only headlamps to light their way for wages that don’t cover their expenses, no matter how much their wives scrimp, take in outside work, or share the burden within their ethnic communities. Miners are hopelessly indebted to the mining companies for equipment and supplies and when they become disabled or die, the company withdraws the lease on their house, condemning their families to destitution. Rarely does a week pass when a miner isn’t killed during the course of a normal work shift. Boys as young as fourteen are sent underground, and by the time they are young men in their early twenties, their backs are bent and their spirits broken.

The Women of Copper Country (oh what an unfortunate title for such an excellent book) chronicles with meticulous detail the 1913-14 uprising against Calumet & Hecla Mining Company, led by Anna Clement (the anglicized version of her husband’s Slovenian name). After yet another senseless death, this time of a friend’s husband, Anna forms the Women’s Auxiliary No 15 of a local union and rallies, over the course of several months, thousands of miners to join the union and strike against Calumet & Hecla, whose principals had grown fat and happy on the broken backs of laborers.

Mary Doria Russell, one of the most gifted storytellers of contemporary literature, renders a mostly-forgotten slice of history into an unputdownable novel. A few of the characters are historical amalgams, but many, like Anna herself, and the storied union activists Mother Jones and Emma Bloor, are taken from history books and given fresh, vibrant life on these pages. In a era when post-modern literature, with its forced plots and quirky stylings, seems to be the darling of critics, Doria Russell’s straightforward prose is fresh, intelligent and humane. This is historical fiction at its best.

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
Although this didn’t pack the intellectual, metaphysical wow of His Dark Materials, it is all the delicious curl-up-and-get-lost wonder of the best YA fantasy. I adored La Belle Sauvage for all its elemental beauty and sadness, rejoiced in the sheer joy of a good story told and the delight in knowing there is more to come.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
It is the early 1960’s and Jim Crow still holds sway in the South, even as monumental civil rights changes are sweeping across the land. Reform is slow to reach the Florida Panhandle and yet Elwood Curtis, a bright, shy, studious young black man raised by his officious grandmother, is determined to rise and shine, despite the heavy hands of racism holding him down. Even after he is sent away to the Nickel School for Boys for the non-crime of DWB- Driving While Black (in this case, Elwood is a passenger, blithely hitchhiking on his first day of college), he focuses his energy on achieving early release for exemplary behavior.

But the Nickel School for Boys, which houses white and black young men — separately of course — is not so easily endured. Punishment for any real or perceived infraction is torture and abuse, including solitary confinement, and even death.

Is it any wonder that Elwood Curtis struggles to understand and adhere to his hero Dr. Martin Luther King’s message of loving those who persecute you?

Colson Whitehead based his fictional Nickel School on the Dozier School for Boys, a real house of horrors whose past was exposed in an investigative series in the Tampa Bay Times in 2014. For 111 years, from its opening in 1900 until the Dozier School for Boys was finally closed in 2011, boys as young as five years old were brutalized and dozens were murdered.

We can, and should, read these same articles and the many that followed when this chapter of our shared history broke open. But as is so often the case, a work of fiction serves to break open our hearts. It is so hard to get one’s head around something this awful, an institution that endured for generations, right up to the back door of yesterday, but Whitehead distills his story to a single character, Elwood. The spotlight focus on one boy, and a few threads of others along the way, humanizes the horror. The brilliance of his clear and unsentimental prose is its controlled fury. Whitehead allows the reader to feel all the helpless rage of the observer and doesn’t offer any easy comfort or explanations.

Not far from the site where University of South Florida students continue to dig up the remains of boys killed while students at the Dozier School for Boys, a Trump rally was recently held. In response to “Shoot them!”, an attendee’s jeering declaration of war against Mexican immigrants, the tool that currently resides in the White House joked, “Only in the Panhandle can you get away with that statement.” And the rally of racists cheered and laughed. 2019. Your America. Not all that different from Elwood’s America of fifty years ago.


What did you read last month that you’d love to share with the world?

Tender Is The First Draft

Tender Is The First Draft

Eighty-four thousand six-hundred and fifty-seven words. A premise that came fully-formed during a walk through the forest on a late afternoon in May of 2018. It seemed so simple, that bright and shiny idea, just a filling in of details and I’d have it. Nearly eighteen months later, after those stolen pre-dawn moments and weekend afternoons in a café, the Julys and Augusts where I didn’t write at all, a new writer’s group that filled me with inspiration before it fizzled out from life’s demands, a five-day DIY writer’s retreat that likely saved this entire endeavor from the DELETE key, and at last, there is a first draft. 

I typed THE END late Sunday afternoon, the sun falling down behind the bony, stripped trees in our backyard, distant sounds of a football game in the living room breaking through when the classical music on the bedroom Bose paused for a breath. My goal had been to finish this draft by Christmas but as the words began to flow this autumn — I wrote nearly forty percent of the draft in the two months between late September and Sunday — I closed in on Thanksgiving as a target date. And here I am with .pdfs of Thanksgiving dinner recipes and 303 pages of THE DEEP COIL to send to the unsuspecting printer.

During the journey of this draft I spent a lot of time trying to escape from writing, until at last it became something I was able to emerge into. This was the second “from-scratch” novel I’d attempted since my marriage fell apart in the spring of 2016 when I was promoting the debut of IN ANOTHER LIFE, editing THE CROWS OF BEARA to prep for its fall 2017 publication, and revising UPSIDE-DOWN GIRL. From November of 2017 to May of 2018 I worked half-heartedly on a YA fantasy novel inspired by the research on the Cathars I’d done for IAL (I love it, actually; just not the right work at the right time). I’d underestimated the time and space I needed to do all heavy lifting of my messy life – new jobs, new relationships, moving, grieving, celebrating, gathering all the pieces and reassembling them into something that resembled a fresh start. I was hard, so very hard, on myself youshouldbewritingyourenotawriterwhyarentyouwriting until I finally gave in and accepted that when it was time, when I at last felt safe,  I would write.

This draft is, well, it’s a Shitty First Draft, as first drafts tend to be. I got it in my head that because this is a genre novel — crime fiction — not to mention the start of a series, I ought to come up with a solid outline. That never happened- it’s not the writer I am. I write by feel. I write to find out where I’m going.

“Stories are agile things. So the containers they go in should be pliable. You should have a grand vision, of course, an eventual endpoint, or at least the dreams of an endpoint, but you must be prepared to swerve, chop and change direction at the same time. The best journeys are those where we don’t exactly know what road we will take: we have a destination in mind, but the manner of getting there should be open to flux. … the structure is forever in the process of being shaped. You find it as you go along. Chapter by chapter. Voice by voice. You have to trust that it will eventually appear and that it will make sense.”                                                                                                                                                             — Colum McCann, Letters to a Young Writer

Last spring I realized that this first draft would be my outline. So here it is, an 84,657 word outline. There’s a beginning, a couple of them, really. A bunch of words stuffed in the middle, and some possible endings. There are subplots and backstory, landscapes and dialogues. There are great characters whom I can’t wait for you to meet, shadows of beings who may stay or may go, others I’ve lost track of along the way. There are scenes that even now I know I need to write. I have a number of law enforcement officials to interview regarding who does what in a territory that covers two small cities, two large counties, and a vast national park in between. Several hikes to take, a shooting range to step into, and a gun expert friend to run key scenes by. 

Revision. Where all that gorgeous raw material is shaped into a story. 

But today I hold the story that will be in tender respect. The magical first draft, with all its promise and potential, is complete. 

“How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect? Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish? Where are the suburban infidelities, the promiscuities, the convulsive divorces, the alcohol, the drugs, the lost weekends? Where are the hatreds, the political ambitions, the lust for power? Where are speed, noise, ugliness, everything that makes us who we are and makes us recognize ourselves in fiction?”
― Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety

Desiderata: Monthly Book Wrap

Desiderata: things desired

This is the first in what I intend to be a monthly review of books recently read. As a new month turns over, here’s a look back at what I read in October that stirred my soul.

Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick

Lights All Night Long

It’s not lost on me that I consumed most of this book in the lonely clutches of insomnia, my internal lights on deep into the night. Sometimes I think I embrace this torture, for it offers the opportunity to do the thing I most love in life besides writing: reading.

And this was one worth having insomnia for. One of the year’s most moving (trembling, shaking) reads for me. I gasp in wonder and humbleness that Lights All Night Long is Lydia Fitzpatrick’s debut.

The lights of Fitzpatrick’s novel refer to the harsh and constant glare of the massive oil refineries that light the frozen plains of the small northwestern Russian town where Ilya Alexandrovich Morosov grew up and the steaming bayous of Leffie, Louisiana where he is spending the year as an exchange student.

The two landscapes and cultures couldn’t be more different and the story opens as Ilya arrives at the airport in Baton Rouge, walking deliberately past the smiling, plump, eager host family that awaits him, holding high the sign with his name. He walks past the Masons not once, but several times, only meeting them at last at the car rental kiosk where they have him paged. Fitzpatrick captures the moment they register Ilya’s face as one they had seen walk by, ignoring them, so perfectly —a moment’s mixture of embarrassment, hurt, confusion, and then kindness. No one mentions the gaffe and Ilya is welcomed into the Mason family: Papa Cam, Mama Jamie, two young daughters, and the misplaced, reclusive teenager, Sadie, who becomes his guide to American high school and eases his cultural transition.

Ilya packed very little for his year abroad, but he comes laden with a terrible secret. His beloved older brother, Vladimir, is in prison, having confessed to the murders of three women shortly before Ilya left for America. Vlad is a drug addict, a petty thief, a high school dropout. But a murderer? Ilya knows his brother, knows his optimistic, fun-loving heart. He may have mired his life in terrible choices, but Vlad is not a killer.

The chapters alternate between America and Russia, between the present and the immediate past, the year leading up to Ilya’s departure, when things were going so right in his life, and so terribly wrong in his brother’s. Fitzpatrick crafts a murder mystery with a slowly-tightening circle around the truth as Ilya sets puzzle pieces in place each night in his basement room at the Mason’s, surfing the net after he completes his daily homework. He reveals his secret to Sadie and together they work to prove Vladimir’s innocence.

Lights All Night Long is beautifully written, with characters cast in tenderness and compassion, landscapes that crackle with ice and throb with humidity, and an intricate, carefully woven plot that will leave you gasping at the end. But it is the relationship between the brothers Ilya and Vlad that will burrow into your heart, and break it, over and over.

One of the year’s best. Now, let’s all get some sleep.

Letters to a Young Writer by Colum McCann

Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice

I need a new category/shelf: Books That Make Me Cry Because I Think The Author Sees Into My Soul.

I’ve been reading this slowly these past few weeks, just a short essay or two in the morning before turning to work on my novel-in-progress. It’s served as a devotional, an inspiration, a kick in the ass, a point of focus, permission, forgiveness, scolding, hope. I think it will remain on the coffee table beside my morning writing spot, and I’ll return to the beginning and keep rereading through to the end, rinse-repeat until McCann’s nuggets of wisdom, tenderness, and no bullshit advice on the writing life are ingrained in my brain. It doesn’t matter how much one has or hasn’t written, published or not published, Colum McCann writes to our deepest fears and hopes, with the solid conviction that we must write on. Rage on.
 

The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks

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A gorgeously-penned novel that is nominally about real-life composer Erik Satie, but at its core is the story of the death of a possibility. Not of Erik Satie’s, whom Caitlin Horrocks shows to be an occasionally inspired, oft-petulant and paranoid genius, but of his sister Louise’s, whose gender made her own career as a gifted musician a risible intention.

Satie’s rise to fame as a composer in fin-de-siècle Paris occurred within an inner circle of family and fellow artists, and his ambitions reveal both the genuine struggle and the patriarchal privilege artists in all mediums faced or benefited from then, and now.

The Vexations has a multitude of narrators, including Satie; his siblings Conrad and Louise; his companion, painter and artist’s model Suzanne; and collaborator, lyricist and poet, Philippe. I found this literary choice vexing at times, for it distanced me as a reader from Erik, and I felt it distanced the author from the character she most wanted to spend time with: Louise.

The Saties’ mother died when the siblings were young. Their father left Conrad and Erik with their grandmother; Louise was taken to a great-uncle and raised to be a docile, lightly educated Catholic young woman, devoid of any ambition other than to marry well. The boys are eventually reunited with their father in Paris and allowed aspirations. Conrad is drawn into respectable business. Erik’s pursuits land him in bohemian Paris, ascending the steep streets above the Pigalle to the wilds of Montmartre, where the avant-garde and the tawdry rub elbows and raise goats in sprawling, meadowed backyards. Horrocks immerses the reader in this landscape, deliciously evoking the circles of artists, composers, poets, writers, and painters who created the stylized dilettantism of La Belle Epoque Paris.

But this is Louise’s story, as evidenced by the first person perspective given to her character, the only one who is allowed such closeness to the reader and her own agency. Louise takes us from the Satie childhood home in Normandy to post WWII Buenos Aires, where she retreats for safety, privacy, and employment like so many Europeans during and after the war. The reader is left to wonder, had Louise been given the opportunities afforded her brothers, which Satie would we be celebrating and remembering via Spotify playlists and movie soundtracks? There is no denying Erik’s genius, but we must recognize the genius denied in Louise.

A powerful, engrossing novel. Highly recommended.

The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld

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I entered adolescence at the same time Gary Ridgeway, aka the Green River Killer, murdered his first victim, a teenager he’d abducted from a foster home near Seattle.

Through my teenage and early adult years, Ridgeway killed dozens of women in south King County and in Portland, OR. Nearly all were sex workers and runaways, compromised by poverty, drugs, trauma. They were the most vulnerable among us, forgotten and easily discarded.

Author Rene Denfeld lived homeless in Portland as a teenager at the same time as the Green River Killer was beginning his two-decade killing spree. She may even have narrowly missed becoming one of his victims, as she chronicles in this recent article for Crime Reads: The Green River Killer and MeThe Butterfly Girl is Denfeld’s gift to those abused, forgotten street children. She gives them voice, rage, tenderness, humanity, and in Naomi Cottle — the child finder— she offers them hope.

We were introduced to Naomi in Denfeld’s haunting 2017 novel, The Child Finder. In this second thriller, Naomi puts her external investigations on hold to focus on finding her sister, who was held captive with Naomi after the two were stolen from their families as little girls. Naomi escaped when she was nine, running naked through strawberrry fields into the arms of migrant workers, who delivered her to safety in a distant Oregon town. Young Naomi fled with nothing. She had no memories of her captivity, only that she left behind a baby sister. Rage and guilt propelled her into a career finding the children everyone else has given up on. Even if all she can offer the grieving families is a body, her mission is to bring closure to the devastation of the missing.

The Butterfly Girl of the title is twelve-year-old Celia, a Portland street kid who escaped repeated rape at the hands of her opioid-addicted mother’s boyfriend. Celia sleeps in the bushes and digs through restaurant dumpsters, avoiding roving bands of marauding frat boys and the slimy clutches of preying men. Occasionally she sells her body to make some cash when things are most desperate. It is a terrible existence, but better than the one she left. She finds refuge in the city library, where volumes of books about butterflies capture and release her imagination into a world of flight on beautiful wings.

But a new horror has entered the streets where Celia lives: someone is murdering young homeless women and dumping their bodies into the city’s wide, industrial river. Naomi’s quest to find her sister draws her into Celia’s life and into the hunt for this monster. The two investigations dovetail into one breathless race to catch a killer before he can strike again.

Naomi’s own trauma renders her distant and cold from her husband, from the beloved friend who takes them in, and even from the reader. She seems to serve, uncomfortably at times, as an empty vessel through which all the rage and despair and sadness of the victims pours through.

Bleak and beautiful, The Butterfly Girl offers a moving and distressing portrait of street life, of those who live it and those who seek to provide relief and retreat from it. It’s a heartpounding thriller with a lyrical and humane soul.

A Door in the Earth by Amy Waldman

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My ex-husband and I served briefly as Peace Corps volunteers in Chad in the early 90s. We were young newlyweds— 24 & 27 — but we’d lived abroad, we were fluent in one of Chad’s official languages (French), we were trained as educators, he as a K-12 certificated teacher, me as an instructor of ESL. We left Chad after a few months, heartbroken, disillusioned, angry and bewildered.

We quickly realized that as members of a well-intentioned but grinding government bureaucracy we were likely doing more harm than any possible benefit we could offer to a country imploding into civil war. We were essentially taking jobs away from Chadian teachers, who were on rolling strikes to protest not being paid by their own government. Into the vacuum stepped the “education” volunteers to take their place. It was a moral dilemma that we chose not to be a part of.

Misguided, even harmful, development projects are dirty not-so-secret aspects of NGOs and goodwill government organizations everywhere: foreign-funded projects often center on making the foreigners look good by creating physical structures to show donors back home the good things that come from their money. These projects are initiated not by local populations who understand best what is needed in their communities, but by outsiders desperate to spend the monies they’ve been awarded. It’s a tangled mess of convenient compassion, “white savior” mentality, and nefarious politics centered on “winning hearts and minds” that we had the intelligence to recognize and distance ourselves from, even if leaving hurt our potential careers.

Humanitarian superstar Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools is perhaps the most infamous example of development projects gone bad. Mortensen perpetuated his NGO fraud in the post 9-11 bewilderment of the war with Afghanistan to the tune of millions of dollars of donations from compassionate and guilt-laden Americans, two bestselling and nearly completely fabricated memoirs, and a foundation that served as his own money laundering network. He was exposed at last in 2011, several years after the publication of his first book, by writer Jon Krakauer and the team at 60 Minutes. It’s absolutely worth looking up Krakauer’s articles and the 60 Minutes episode to see in real time how far Mortensen led astray not just well-meaning donors, but the American military, for whom he served as a guide and advisor.

Amy Waldman, who spent several years in Afghanistan as a journalist in the fragile and frightening era immediately after 9-11, mines the rich ridiculousness of Mortensen’s rise and crash to create the premise of her latest novel, A Door in the Earth. Set in 2009, the novel tells the story of young Afghan-American woman, Parveen Shamsa, who travels to a mountain village in northern Afghanistan to conduct anthropological research. Like many Americans of the era, Parveen has fallen under the spell of a book entitled Mother Afghanistan, written by an American humanitarian Gideon Crane (our fictional Greg Mortensen) who found himself in Afghanistan after 9-11 and became a superstar philanthropist by building women-only medical clinics. Parveen traces Crane’s footsteps and secures an introduction to members of the village where Crane established the first clinic. Parveen arrives with a vague academic plan and a small grant from UC Berkeley, where she is a student. Her Afghan roots allow her family in distant Kabul and solid knowledge of Dari, the primary language spoken by the villagers.

The story is the awakening of Parveen to her own idealism, the disaster of military intervention to instigate regime change, the faulty logic of many humanitarian assistance programs that try to solve problems first and ask questions later, and the very devastating consequences that can result when outsiders intervene in places they don’t bother to take the time to learn about or understand.

I struggled with the sheep-like plodding of Parveen; her naïveté made a caricature of her character at times, and kept her from developing into a fully-realized being. She was more like a mirror upon which the truth was reflected.

Rather, it was the richness of the Afghan human and physical landscape that held me fast to the page. Waheed, the patriarch of the family which takes in Parveen, plays a central role in the fictional memoir he’s never read; the tragic death of his wife, Fereshta is supposedly what galvanized Crane into humanitarian action. He is written with nuance and compassion, as are his wives, Bina and Shokoh, and their children. I felt the urgency and warmth of the woman doctor, Yasmeen, who makes a perilous drive once a week to the village with her son, Naseer, to treat its women; the fallibility and vulnerability of interpreter Aziz, whose limited knowledge of English and selective translations imperil villagers and American soldiers alike. Most importantly, the many voices given to the Afghan village women are the heart and soul of this complex and nuanced story. The setting, which reads like an Edenic oasis in the midst of chaos, was intoxicating and revelatory.

Waldman uses Parveen’s dawning realization that she has been taken in by a terrible fabrication illustrates the very real tragedy of America’s presence in Afghanistan, and the greater context and consequences of foreign assistance projects everywhere. It is not that foreign aid and humanitarian assistance aren’t needed; they are, desperately. It’s that unless these projects are initiated, led and assessed by local populations, even the best intentions can do irreparable harm.

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Joining the Attention Resistance

Every rare once in awhile a Facebook friend announces their imminent departure from Facebook. Or simply quietly slips away, leaving behind a shadow profile in my friends list. I send up a silent cheer when I realize they have deactivated their account, knowing in my belly they are better off without this ubiquitous social media overlord.

For a long time, I’ve felt a sense of disquiet about social media (here’s a post from 2011: The In-Between Times), but the disturbance has become a growing alarm and a deep sadness in recent months, feeling like we, all of us who are connected, have just lost our way.

Then two things occurred almost simultaneously, one horrific, one glorious. First, The New York Times ran a feature on child pornography, a hideous crime that’s exploded in volume because of social media. The wretched creeps who exploit and abuse children have multiple platforms that make it harder to track their behavior and make it all the easier for children to be preyed upon. The social media companies, like Facebook with its Messenger platform, are complicit in these crimes, just as they were in the travesty that was the 2016 election. They want users, regardless of the consequences.

Second, a friend fulfilled a lifelong dream, which also happens to be one of mine: hiking the Camino de Santiago. She chronicled every day of her trek via photos and anecdotes posted on Insta and Facebook. As much as I treasured joining her journey from afar, I also wanted to plead with her to put down the phone, forget all of us, and be there, in her head and body and heart, and just walk. Walk for the sake of it, not for the Instagrammable moments. Being disconnected from the world is natural, healthy, necessary. I imagine my own Camino and know that I want it to be private, meditative, transformative. Not shared, liked or retweeted. Pure.

Into all this walked Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, giving me yet more reasons, and now a strategy, to reframe and redo my relationship with social media.

Cal Newport isn’t a Luddite. He’s not against social medial or digital technology. He does throw down the gauntlet, however; challenging his readers to look their use and habits squarely in the screen, to recognize and deeply register the power Silicon Valley has in nearly every aspect of our lives, our time, our children’s brains, our attention, our pocketbooks.

Few want to spend so much time online, but these tools have a way of cultivating behavioral addiction.

Newport demonstrates throughout Digital Minimalism that, while some of these addictive qualities are accidental, many have been exploited by tech and social media companies whose driving purpose is to keep us online as often, and for as long, as possible. Through intermittent, unpredictable social approval (likes, loves, retweets), we become dependent on the feedback that shows someone, somewhere, has noticed us.

I’ve moved around so much as an adult; social media has offered an easy way to keep in touch with friends from whom I’m separated by oceans and lifetimes. Facebook and Twitter brought me into communities of writers crucial to the development of my career. I might never have started writing if it weren’t for Goodreads. Writing thoughtfully about the books I read became a DIY MFA. I learned story structure, narrative depth, character development, and how to construct a beautiful sentence not only by reading great (and not so great) books, but by being a part of a community that discusses them. Instagram brought visual arts into my life. I know nothing about the technology of photography, but I’ve got a great eye, I love taking and sharing my photographs, and being inspired by others.

It’s not that any of these tools is bad. To be fair, they can bring pleasure and satisfaction. It’s just that they are too much. And we, no matter how professional, intelligent, disciplined, have been manipulated to respond like rats to a sugar drip. Our brains are tired. We’re overstimulated, over-connected, over-info’ed. It’s not natural to have hundreds of “friends,” to share not only the minutiae of our daily lives, but its most intimate details, with people we wouldn’t recognize if we passed them on the street, to constantly seek social approval, not to spend time in solitude, not to look up and observe the world around us.

Newport, and his co-frères/sœurs James Clear, Atomic Habits, Jenny Odell How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, among others, are part of the emerging Attention Resistance, a loosely-knit group of educators, researchers, artists, and business professionals who are decrying the outsize role digital technology and social media play in our lives.

‘Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, has called the platform a “social-validation feedback loop” built around “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” Tristan Harris, who worked as a “design ethicist” at Google, has said that smartphones are engineered to be addictive.’

“What It Takes to Put Your Phone Away,” by Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker April 22, 2019.

This just isn’t right. I don’t want to play the game anymore. Or more accurately, I don’t want to be played anymore.

I am accepting, moving toward embracing, that time spent on social media is “low quality” time. No matter how much I appreciate the connections, the sharing of fun moments or commiseration over the bad, I am coming to accept that I will be happier, more focused, productive, and peaceful the less time I spend on social media. I already take periodic breaks, employing various tips and technologies to reclaim my time and attention, but as Newport states, “willpower, tips, and vague resolutions are not sufficient by themselves to tame the ability of new technologies to invade your cognitive landscape.”

Social media isn’t that big a part of my life. I have a full-time + day job and rarely check social media during the day, even though my actual job requires that I post on both Facebook and Instagram. I am finishing the first draft of my fourth novel; I am in the yoga studio, the city pool, the gym, on forest trails; I read copiously. I’m busy, engaged in the real world. But still. I think social media is compromising my—and our society’s at large—mental, intellectual, physical, and communal health. It’s time to start doing things differently. Hey, there’s an app for that! (actually, quite a few: Moment, Forest, Freedom, Focus, and one new to this Mac user: Ulysses, which looks an awful lot like Scrivener).

Seriously, Cal Newport has a plan. Detox for thirty days, And then, once your 30-day detox is over, rebuild your relationship with digital technology from the ground up, with intentionality and minimalism, where technology serves you and what you deeply value.

“The goal is not simply to give yourself a break from technology, but to instead spark a permanent transformation of your digital life.”

Newport recommends that you spend your time away from optional technology by discovering, or rediscovering, what you enjoy. It’s the Marie Kondo approach to a digital life: if it’s not useful or doesn’t bring you joy, it needs to go, as much as is reasonable. Most of us have aspects to our jobs that make some of these technologies, including emails or texting, inevitable.

There are engrossing sections of this book that discuss the beauty of solitude- a beauty we’ve all but lost with the constant presence of our phones in our pockets, by sharing the carefully curated moments of our lives or reading about others’. He argues that we are suffering from Solitude Deprivation – A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds. There are also alarming looks at younger generations who’ve never known life without iPads or smartphones: the stunted growth of empathy, focus, motivation, and observation. It’s not just terribly sad and weird, I believe it’s a public health crisis.

So in a couple of weeks, beginning November 1, I will be starting my 30-day digital declutter. For me, that will be Facebook, including Messenger, Twitter, and Instagram.

I’ll journal my detox. I won’t force myself to finish this first draft of my novel by the end of November, but at the rate I’m going even before I begin my detox, I just might! I look forward to all that I will add to my life as I let go of the ubiquity, the artificiality, of “connection.” I want to learn to be better connected to and more present in my real world life.

The Lesson of the Falling Leaves

“the lesson of the falling leaves

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith

such faith is grace
such grace is god
i agree with the leaves”

Lucille Clifton

I celebrated my 50th birthday two weeks ago. Well, celebration is a stretch. It happened, I was in attendance by default, but I spent the day and several that followed otherwise occupied in the cardiac unit of a regional hospital. My heart was safe, at least physically, but entwined with that of another’s whose own was at risk of failure.

I’d made vague plans to do something epic to greet this milestone birthday: a hike in Ireland or a week in Paris went as far as bookmarking airlines and clearing my work calendar. But my sweetheart, who paints houses during the spring and summer and canvases during the autumn and winter, was still in full work mode in early September. So we tried on plans for Hawai’i, New York or a Highway 1 road trip in October, instead.

September is a crazy quilt of changes that elicits such emotion. It is the calendrical beginning of so many seasons that ruled my life, from the schoolgirl years through professional careers in higher education and the wine industry, where September is the busiest of times. The month of my birth. Once the month of my marriage. A month of renewal, transformation, anticipation. It’s long felt like the year’s beginning, with such a palpable change in activity and air, temperature and energy, rather than January, winter’s dark, secretive core.

Yet for the past several years, since returning to the Northwest — where summer is a shimmering, spinning carnival of gold and blue, forever days, and dusks that burn out long after I’m in in bed — I’ve mourned the end of sundresses and freckles, resented the sudden descent of dark mornings and the melancholic echo of foghorns, warning of the thick, wet blanket wrapped around the bay. I dread the cold and rain, such a shock after months of dry and gentle warmth. It takes me a few weeks to grieve, accept, and at last embrace the gorgeousness of wood fires and close-toed shoes, of frost and wool.

 

This year, however, as suddenly as the transition from summer to autumn rumbled in on a Saturday night, bundled into a rare thunderstorm, I welcomed the blustery days that followed. My nesting instinct pinged loudly, my internal gears shifted down. Bring On The Night, I thought. I’m ready. 

The eve of my birthday, my sweetheart and I bought a washing machine, and then I drove him to the ER (not related, although I get how purchasing a major appliance could be a trigger for some men). A few hours later, I followed an ambulance through the warm summer’s night an hour south, where a larger hospital had a heart and vascular unit that could provide the acute care he needed.

We checked him out five days later, on his birthday. The next day the skies opened, washing away summer’s dust and lazy heat.

He’s resting, healing, getting his head and soul around all the many changes required to restore his heart. There will be no epic getaway to fete my fiftieth; there is another surgery in the weeks to come. Instead, we settle into a season of rest. Of books and writing, naps and painting, bare feet entwined under quilts as we lounge on opposite ends of the sofa, reading.

A truck just rolled into our driveway, bringing two cords of maple and fir. I can’t wait until it’s chilly enough for the first woodstove fire of the season.

I agree with the leaves.

No Longer Knocking from the Inside: A Writer on Retreat

September 2016. The last time I spent time alone, and away. My divorce would be final in a few weeks, I was starting a new job in early October, my first since becoming full-time writer three years earlier. I was moving forward, on my own, accepting that I could not sustain myself as a writer without the financial support of a steadfast and generous partner.

But first came a long-planned writer’s retreat in the south of France. I knew then how precious the opportunity was, how very long it would be until my situation — financial, emotional, logistical — could support another stretch of time to devote to my work.

Earlier this year I could at last begin thinking about traveling again. I had built up so much vacation (two jobs removed from the one I began in October 2016) that I was in danger of losing the chunk I couldn’t rollover to the next year. I renewed my passport and determined I would be lacing up my hiking boots to tramp on foreign soil while my 50th birthday raced along above me, dissolving like a cirrus cloud high in a late summer sky.

But I just couldn’t seem to hit confirm on the reservations.

At first, the excuses were circumstantial. I perform myriad roles at my job, a non-profit with two and half employees: the thought of two or three weeks away was crushing. My partner and I are saving to buy a house: an extended overseas vacation felt indulgent and short-lived when we are planning a future. And we’d had that month apart last fall, which was so hard. Time apart is vital, and healthy, but weeks simply didn’t feel good to my heart.

 

Yet, I was craving a change of scene. Craving to go for days without talking to anyone more than shop clerk. And when I listened, deeply, to what I really wanted, it was simple: time alone to write.

I booked a week at an AirBnB not all that far as the crow flies from where I live, but a world apart. Immediately, my ambivalence about when and where and how to go disappeared. This. This was the thing.

On Father’s Day I shoved random clothes into a duffel bag, packed my laptop, iPod and a bag of coffee, filled the gas tank, and on a bright, warm Sunday after yoga, soon after his daughters arrived to fête his Hallmark holiday, I kissed my sweetheart farewell and set forth.

And I wrote. After months of dipping in and out of this story, feeling the frustration of moments stolen to devote to its unfolding, I had hours, days, to focus. After five days, I emerged with half again as many words as it had taken me thirteen months to write. I discovered new characters, wrote new opening, jotted down threads of ideas for the next installment, filled a crucial plot hole I’d been circling for months, and regained the momentum I’d given over to mourning the endings of an old life and falling in love with a new present.

Of course, in the weeks since my return, life has pressed in again, with its urgencies: weekends away, or filled with events, houseguests and family dramas, insomnia and fatigue. The new possibilities of my narrative threaten to overwhelm me, but I manage words here and there, a slow moving along.

My new passport is locked away, cover stiff and shiny, pages smooth and blank. It’s there and I’ll come back to it. In the meantime, I look ahead to September, to another week of writing on my own-not far, mind you-just far enough for the words to flow, unencumbered, in the blissful silence of away...

“I have lived on the lip
of insanity, wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door. It opens.
I’ve been knocking from the inside.”

― RUMI

No Turf of Strangers: Literary Citizenship and the Author Platform

We haven’t quite settled on a name yet, though I love the suggested Guild of Dangerous Writers. We’re a new writers’ group on the Olympic Peninsula penning mystery and crime fiction; some of us cozy, others procedural, one writing YA, another romantic suspense.  A handful are published authors, others entering the fray for the first time. But whatever our experience or category, inside the covers there is Murder & Mayhem.

Deciding that we have other avenues for critiques, this group isn’t exchanging work and feedback. Instead, we’re exchanging resources, advice, and planning genre-related excursions (e.g. touring a jail; visits to the local gun range) and lectures by experts (current police detectives, a former county sheriff), as well as monthly accountability check-ins. It’s the motivational shove this writer needed; since our inaugural meeting, I’ve doubled my novel-in-progress word count. Doubled in two months what took the previous eight to achieve. We shared our premises and trouble spots, and I received suggestions that gave me traction to jolt my work from the mud where it was spinning. It’s the best thing that’s happened to my writing since the Chuckanut Writers’ Conference in June 2012, where I finally took IN ANOTHER LIFE from vague idea to print on a page.

For our next meeting, I volunteered to present on the frightening topic of Building An Author Platform (or, How to Develop A Marketing & Promotion Plan Without Losing Your Mind & Breaking Your Bank). Forget chilling thrillers that have you triple-checking the locks before to bed or clever whodunits that find you second guessing every possible clue, wondering which is the key to unlocking the mystery… the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma that is book marketing and promotion and building a reader base elicits blood-curdling screams from most authors.

I’ve spent weeks poring through the wisdom I’ve collected about author platforms and book promotion since 2015, when I prepared for the launch of IN ANOTHER LIFE, and combing through favorite old and new sources for details on the ever- and rapidly-changing world of book marketing. When I began building my strategy four years ago, Facebook Author Pages were must-haves, writers were expanding their Google+ circles, author newsletters were published faster than you could say “MailChimp”, and #bookstagram was just about to become a thing.

Much has changed in four years (Google+, anyone?). New Facebook algorithms have all but made author pages irrelevant. Twitter use has exploded, thanks to the Twit-in-Chief, but savvy authors know it’s a place for conversations, NOT to announce the $.99 sale of your e-book. Facebook bought Instagram; Amazon bought Goodreads. Tiny Letter folded. Kirkus is now charging $495 for a review. Print publications are cutting back their arts sections, book reviews are getting harder and harder to score, and virtual blog tours seem sooooo 2016.

It’s hella daunting out there. This author knows she didn’t do enough to promote her first two novels. Spend enough, focus, plan, anticipate, enough.

ENOUGH.

Success in publishing—if you define success as bestseller, or even pretty good seller—is largely a matter of luck. If your publisher selects your novel or memoir as that season’s “Big Book”, you are a rare and fortunate bird, indeed. Realize now that you have very little control over the publishing process; even if you choose to self-publish you cannot predict what will happen after your book is pushed into the world. 

What you can control, however, is your visibility and your voice. Your author platform. Building an author platform is not about garnering likes or retweets. It is about broadcasting your voice—and building relationships with those who listen. 

Two elements of a solid author platform remain constant in the constantly changing publishing industry: quality writing and literary citizenship. And what could be more rewarding for a writer than to focus her time and energy on becoming a better writer, and to celebrate the achievements of others? Never has it been easier to join communities of other writers, to reach out a hand in support or to raise one in need. Frankly, literary citizenship is one of the few reasons this writer remains on Facebook and Twitter; my virtual writing communities are endless sources of inspiration, support, and friendship.

You owe it to your books to do all that is reasonable—given your resources of time, money, and emotional energy—to find and engage readers. But this is not a race against the thousands of titles that threaten to push yours aside on the shelf. It’s a long walk shoulder-to-shoulder with other writers. Understanding that a collaborative, open-arms approach to publishing will become the deep inhale that propels you up the steep slopes of publishing.

Suggested Read: Are There Limits to Literary Citizenship? and subscribe to Jane Friedman’s blog while you’re there. 

We can walk into the world of business feeling we are on the turf of strangers, possible enemies. Or we can enter that world in a way that brings our own turf with us, so that we no longer feel defensive but expansive. With the realization of the power our art wields, we can become generous. When we do, we become compelling, enviable, impressive, and we have the ability to change things.

Elizabeth Hyde Steven, from Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career

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