Posts Tagged Literature

Book Review: In The Time of Butterflies

This novel by Julia Alvarez was a National Endowment for the Arts Big Read selection. From the book blurb:

It is November 25, 1960, and three beautiful sisters have been found near their wrecked Jeep at the bottom of a 150-foot cliff on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. The official state newspaper reports their death as accidental. It does not mention that a fourth sister lives. Nor does it explain that the sisters were among the leading opponents of Gen. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s dictatorship. It doesn’t have to. Everybody knows of Las Mariposas—the Butterflies.

This novel is based upon a real incident which happened four months after Alvarez’s family escaped to New York. The Mirabel sisters, known as Las Mariposas, were members of the underground resistance, along with Alvarez’s father. In her notes at the back of the novel, Alvarez says: “When as a young girl I heard about the “accident, I could not get the Mirabels out of my mind. On my frequent trips back to the Dominican Republic, I sought out whatever information I could about these brave sisters who had done what few men and only a handful of women—had been Julia-Alvarezwilling to do.” She took what she found and began to invent the characters which fill these pages.

Alvarez tells the story from the point of view of each of the four sisters, devoting alternating chapters to each. We start in 1994, with the surviving sister, Dedé, meeting a journalist who wishes to interview her about her sisters. Then we drop into the past. Dedé is a little girl living on a farm with her family. We meet the fierce middle sister, Minerva, who wants to be a lawyer, the religious oldest sister, Patria, and the shy youngest, María Teresa. Their lives seem peaceful, their father becoming prosperous. Like many girls, Minerva and Patria are sent to Catholic boarding school, where Minerva pushes the boundaries along with her girlfriends and Patria becomes ever more religious. Dedé stays home to help her papa with his store.

However, the brutal Trujillo’s dictatorship soon changes everything. Minerva and her friends, chosen to perform a skit for Trujillo, change it to make a political statement in front of him. Trujillo, known for taking pretty teenagers as mistresses, sets his sights on the beautiful Minerva. Inviting her family to a ball, he tries to claim her, but she manages to escape. From then on, the intrigue builds, yet in between the political, the sisters grow up, falling in love, having their children, and interacting with their aging parents. Their marriages have their very real ups and down.

I loved this novel. The language is rich, the descriptions beautiful, and the four sisters’ voices come across clear and distinct. I felt as if I was right there. I loved the way Alvarez combined the intimate with the political, reminding us that all warriors have parents, many have spouses and children, and every choice they make has to be weighed against the risk to those they love. I give it five stars out of five.

Note: A Wikipedia page about the Mirabel sisters states that the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women is November 25 in honor of the three brave sisters who were assassinated Nov 25, 1960.

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bungee jump

It sure looks scary, doesn’t it! Just throw yourself off something high, with only a stretchy cord to save you.
Thanks to dukesin at stock.xchng for the photo.

Book I of my serialized fantasy novel, Golden Threads, is coming to a close, with only a couple of chapters left. It’s been an interesting journey, writing a chapter or two at a time and posting them without doing a major edit. At times, I’ve really wondered if it was a worthwhile endeavor. I have to ask myself why I persevered. Was it to prove to myself that I could do it? Maybe, because I know that I have a stubborn streak, and I could feel it come out at times, insisting that I had to POST SOMETHING. IT IS WEDNESDAY, FOR GOD’S SAKE! That need of mine to reach a goal competes with the other side of me that says: but it’s lousy. No one wants to read it. Forget it. You’ve had a busy day, this story is going nowhere. I don’t know why you bother, really.

Well, I’m sure that you get the picture. You probably have those voices in your own head. Probably even Einstein had them, even the second one, with its whiny tone saying: no one will understand your general theory. It’s too weird. It’s gotta be all wrong, anyway. You’ll be a laughing stock. Luckily for the world, he didn’t listen to that voice all of the time. Instead, he listened to the first one, at least long enough to submit his papers.

Not that I’m Einstein. Far from it.

However, I have a different reason for publishing this novel, one chapter at a time: for me to grow. To grow past my fear. To extend myself just a little. Every time I put my mouse cursor over the blue button that says, rather ominously “Publish”, here on, my heart threatens to stop. I move my cursor away, lift my hand, and think no. I have to edit this. It’s pure drivel. Forget it. I’ll leave it in unpublished drafts and slink away. Maybe I’ll come up with something better tomorrow.

You know something? I read recently that one of the best ways to keep our brains healthy is to do something scary every day (I apologize, but I can’t find the link, so, instead, I give you this one: It can be physical or mental, just do it. Eventually, that thing will stop being scary (and you have to up the ante). I’ve always known this truth. So I figure that putting my stories here on this blog, where all the world can see them, is a great way to prepare for the truly frightening event of publishing a book. Right?

Here goes: the next chapter in Golden Threads is called Becoming Serious. It’s up now, and ready for you to read and comment. Or go to Golden Threads to read previous chapters.

As always, I welcome your comments. Do you push yourself into the scary zone, or ride along in comfort? Is it worth it, whatever your choice? What about those competing voices?

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Laura meets a fairy

magic wandIt’s been over two months since I posted a new chapter to Golden Threads. When we last left Laura, she was at a meeting of teenage witches, waiting for the speaker to appear, and hoping the bullies in the group would not do anything bad to her boyfriend, Matthew. The next chapter, Appeasing, has been available on the Golden Threads page since October, but I got so involved in NaNoWriMo that I forgot to write a post linking to it. So today, I’m giving you that link and adding the next chapter: Fairy Life.

She’s in the hallway, alone, when this new chapter begins. To see what happens, click Fairy Life. To catch up on past chapters, click Golden Threads, the working title of the novel.

I’ve introduced fairies in this novel earlier, but never described them. How does one come up with the powers and behavior, the look, even, of  creatures, who have been described and written about for hundreds of years? I could have copied what others say about them. There are plenty of WEB sites about fairies. But that’s no fun. I wanted to make up my own version.

I decided to tap into my subconscious memories, melding and blending things read and things imagined to serve my purpose. I made them tall and thin, with elongated limbs, much like the elves from The Lord of the Rings, but with the ability to shrink and grow in an instant. They can disappear and reappear, and transform into insects and birds. They live a long time: hundreds, if not thousands of years.

The hard thing for me as a writer is that, once those abilities are described, they are pinned down. Any time a fairy appears later on, it must behave as laid out in Fairy Life, although I left myself a backdoor: our fairy lies (for very good reasons), thus omitting a few important fairy facts. Now why would she do that? Maybe we’ll find out as the novel progresses.

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Book Review: As the Heart Bones Break, by Audrey Chin

Heart BonesAudrey Chin rocks in her newest novel, As The Heart Bones Break.*     She beautifully spins the drama of one man’s life, from his childhood in Vietnam during the war to late middle-age as a world-traveled business and family man, into a fascinating tale of personal growth, intrigue, love, and loss, while at the same time weaving bits of history, the conflict between those who supported the Communists and those who supported the Americans, the difference between traditional Vietnamese beliefs and those of children born in the United States, karma, love, what it means to be part of a family, and many other themes effortlessly into the tale.

With sentences like this:

Turning away from her friends, she flipped her long pony tail of ebony black hair over her shoulder and looked straight past Binh and at you, the large double-lidded eyes in her oval porcelain-pale face flashing with scorn.

she brings you into the scenes, breathing life into them, until you know Thong Tran’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences almost as well as he himself knows them.

Except for a chapter about his childhood, Chin begins the thread of Thong’s life when he’s already a young married man living in California, working as an engineer. But he is not finished with Vietnam or the past. His family and his career conspire to make him remember. Through his memories, we see how his youth in Vietnam shaped him, and how, only by sharing his secrets and exploring those of his family, can he grow into a person who can be loved and love in return even as tragedy envelopes him.

I adored this lovely, graceful novel about a man who survived an awful war that tore families and friendships asunder. If you enjoy learning about the human heart, and about other lands and cultures, you will love As the Heart Bones Break. Honestly, it’s so good that I’m expecting her to win awards for this work. It’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read. It gets five out of five stars, without any doubt.

*If you live in the United States, you can still order the book or read it on Kindle, even though she’s still looking for a US publisher. See Audrey’s comment for the links.

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Writing buddies on NaNoWriMo

2013-Participant-Square-ButtonOne of the fun things about NaNoWriMo, aka (Inter)National Novel Writing Month, which happens in November every year, is the opportunity to connect with other writers. There are all kinds of forums on the NaNoWriMo site, twitter connections and a blog. We had some write-ins here in Bend, where I had the opportunity to meet other writers and sit with our computers, writing and occasionally exchanging comments about our progress.

I can’t begin to say how warm and fuzzy that made the writing experience. It’s somehow a great help to know you’re not alone. I loved encouraging others and receiving, in turn, their cheers for every word I wrote (no matter how awful).

The part I liked the best was setting up writing buddies. I had a mix, from a couple of women I met at write-ins, to others I’ve met online. They live all over the world. So today I thought that I’d post links to as many as I can, just to say ‘congratulations’ to them, and thanks for following along on my journey.

First, and perhaps best, are two people I met through StoryCartel, Mirel and Alex. They were each wonderful about checking in from time to time, and sending me encouragement. Mirel lives in Israel, writes a blog about daily life, and wrote a nice blog about what she learned by doing NaNoWriMo this year: Stories Worth Sharing.

Alex Brantham, from the UK, tends to post tongue-in-cheek short fiction pieces on his blog, and he also wrote a blog about what he learned from the experience:

Plus there were others. Stacy, Kim, Sunny, The Magic Violinist (you won’t believe she’s 13 when you see her WEB site!), and M. C. Muhlenkamp from the U. S. all helped me feel supported along the way. Writing really is a lonely business.  Joy Bautista Collado, from the Philippines, has the best smile and attitude ever.

Finally, from here in Bend, Sage, who is in high school, Crystal, Matthew, and others whose names I may have forgotten.

Some made the 50K goal, some didn’t, but I believe we all got something valuable from the experience. Thanks to each and every one of them for walking the journey with me. I couldn’t have asked for better buddies. I hope you’ll stop by their WEB sites and say hello to them. We all need as much encouragement as we can get.

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Painting Class

For the past month – all of November – I participated in NaNoWriMo, a challenge to write 50,000 words in a single month. This challenge pretty well took up all of my time and energy, and now that it’s finished, and I have a very rough first draft of a novel, I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with myself. I could have continued writing, but I really did need a break, not only to put paperwork and house in order, but to refill my creative well. I read a couple of novels, watched a couple of movies, and participated in a writing group via Skype, to which I provided the flash fiction piece below.  I noticed that one of my writing buddies, Alex Brantham, posted a nice little flash piece right after he finished NaNoWriMo, too. He’s a British guy, with a droll sense of humor. You can read his story here.

Now, here’s Painting Class. Please tell me what you think of it.

Painting Class

George was certain his wife was having an affair. She had a certain glow about her that spoke of only one thing: sex. And it certainly wasn’t sex with him. After fourteen years, their romantic life consisted of a quick kiss in the morning, another right before bed, and dutiful intercourse the last Friday of every month.

She’d been radiant ever since she’d taken that painting workshop in the summer, or had it been writing? She was always going to something; he couldn’t keep track. He was pretty sure she took the writing class last fall, then quilt-making during the spring, and finally painting, because she’d had paint in her hair half the summer. She must have hooked up with another painting student, but he hadn’t asked her about it, of course he hadn’t. What if she told the truth? Would that end their marriage?

Ελληνικά: Δελτία για αποδελτίωση και δελτιοθήκη

Ελληνικά: Δελτία για αποδελτίωση και δελτιοθήκη (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And what if she lied? He didn’t want to see the quick shift of her eyes to the right the way they always did when she tried to pretend she hadn’t cheated on her diet, or spent too much money on shoes.

Instead, he snuck a look at her computer any time she left it on. He figured out her password and read her email. He peeked at her cell phone. Once he even called a number that appeared frequently, but it turned out to be her friend Caroline. He tried to listen in on her conversations, sure Caroline was acting as go-between, but never heard anything suspicious.

All of his spying turned up nothing. He’d never realized what a master she was at deceit.

Finally, he could stand it no more. He took a vacation day without telling her. He pretended to head to work, but instead went to the coffee shop. He waited, watching the first snow of the winter dust the trees, until he knew she had left for her job at the bank, then returned home and began searching the house. If she was cheating on him, he would surely find some trace of it.

He rifled her stack of purses and went through her pockets, but he didn’t find anything suspicious. As far as he could tell, she hadn’t bought any new clothes in a long time, at least none that he could find. Perhaps she kept them all at her lover’s home. He turned green at the thought of her in a sexy negligee, a gift from this unknown painter.

One more pass through the house, he thought, and he would give up. He started in their bedroom, checked the kitchen, and went into the room she used for all of her projects. Her easel sat in the corner, covered with dust. There was nothing in the sewing box, or hidden under her stash of old buttons. Then he turned and saw it: a shoe box tucked far back on the top of the bookshelf. He brought the step-stool, and carefully lifted it down.

Inside, packed tightly together, was a stack of index cards and miscellaneous bits of paper. His feeling of triumph was accompanied by a sinking sensation in his stomach. He hauled his find to his office.

For over an hour, he sat at his desk, unsure whether or not he dared read the love notes. But he had to, didn’t he? He owed himself that much. Finally, he poured himself a drink from the bottle of scotch he hid in his safe and rarely touched. After gulping half the glass, he returned to his desk with the bottle to carefully examine each slip. When he finished, he sat back, puzzled. Every single note was in his wife’s handwriting. He lined them up across his desk in the order he’d taken them out of the box and read them. The third one said: ack hubbie and Car for faith in me, lib for research. The rest formed a coherent thread.

He smacked his forehead. His wife was planning a novel! Was that why she seemed so happy? Could something creative, having nothing to do with sex, cause her skin to look ten years younger?

Carefully putting the box back together and returning it to its hiding place, he wasn’t sure if he was relieved or disappointed, but at least he knew one thing: this evening, he would ask her why she was so happy. Perhaps she would confess to the novel and his agony could end.

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Book review: Americanah, By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

For those who are curious about my progress with NaNoWriMo, I reached the 50K word goal this afternoon, almost a week ahead of time. Yeah! On to 60K in the next six days?

I often enjoy novels about other cultures, especially ones where people from those worlds come into contact with Americans. Isabel Allende, Amy Tan, Audrey Chin and Jhumpa Lahiri immediately come to mind as authors who have explored this territory in ways which both entranced me and said new things about my country. I also enjoyed Adichie’s earlier novel, Purple Hibiscus, about two young children growing up with an abusive yet very religious father. So, when I saw reviews for Americanah, I

English: Chimamanda Adichie

English: Chimamanda Adichie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

anticipated more great writing. To my delight, I found it on the new book shelf at my local library.
This novel, in which a young Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, comes to the United States to go to college and become an American citizen, while her boyfriend, Obinze, ends up in England, covers a lot of ground. I found it at times fascinating, funny, smart and tedious. Some of the best material covers their difficulties surviving in countries which are not as open to immigrants as one might expect. Neither one of them can work legally: Ifemelu, because foreign students can only do work-study, which doesn’t give her enough money to live on; Obinze because he overstays his temporary visa. Obinze’s experience reminds me a lot of Little Bee in Chris Cleave‘s novel of that name (see my review of his other novel, Incendiary, here), and sheds light on some of the less easily understood aspects of Little Bee’s experience. Both Little Bee and Obinze are caught and deported back to their home countries.
There’s also some interesting material about how difficult it is for Ifemelu’s Aunty Uju, a medical doctor who immigrates to the US, and has to redo to medical school and a residency in order to practice medicine here. Perhaps because of her financial difficulties, and also because of her age, she dates a Nigerian man. Ifemelu, who stays with her Aunty Uju when she first comes to the US, sees immediately that this man is not good for her Aunt:

“She had slipped into the rituals, smiling a smile that promised to be demure to him but not to the world, lunging to pick up his fork when it slipped from his hand, serving him more beer.”

While in college, Ifemelu begins writing a blog about being a nonAmerican black in America. The insights she has about the United States are fascinating. She picks up on many tiny things, from dress, expectations, and hair, which differ greatly between her homeland and the US. She also has two long affairs, one with a rich white man and one with a politically-engaged liberal professor, Blaine. I suppose that these affairs pushed the plot along, but they seemed to take up more time in the novel than necessary. The interaction with Blaine’s sister especially seems like a sidetrack going nowhere.
I found the main storyline, in which Ifemelu eventually returns to Nigeria, figures out how to make a living, and hooks up with the now-married Obinze, more interesting than these intermediate relationships, because that’s the real tension behind this story: how they ended apart and yet never could break the tie even when they hadn’t spoken in years.
Overall, this is a wonderful book, though I think it would have been a lot better if it had been trimmed to eliminate some of the less interesting material and some of the repetition, and added more material on what happened when Obinze returned to Nigeria, an entire quadrant of his life only hinted at. If you like reading about how immigrants react and deal with the United States and Great Britain, and some of the culture differences, you will enjoy this book. I suspect it appeals more to people in the eastern part of the US than to the rest, just because that is where it’s set.

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