Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Historical Fiction: When the Questions Take a Different Track

pioneer cemetery along October morning walk 2014
"Every age has a keyhole to which its eye is pasted." --Mary McCarthy

I kinda' went on a binge my last visit to the library. A historical novel binge.

Here's how it worked. Instead of going through the library doors with a list of book titles or authors that I wanted to check out, I just walked up and down the shelves looking for the words "historical fiction" on the spines of books. I do this occasionally since this is one of my favorite genres to read, has been since I was a teen.

I stopped myself this time at seven books. They included:
The Girls of Gettysburg, Bobbi Miller (Civil War)
Maggie's Door, Patricia Reilly Giff (mid-nineteenth century Ireland)--sequel to Nory Ryan's Song which I read last month
R My Name is Rachel, Patricia Reilly Giff (Great Depression)
Willow Run, Patricia Reilly Giff (WWII America)
Ronnie's War, Bernard Ashley (WWII London)
One Shining Moment, Gilbert Morris (post WWII)
Motherland, Maria Hummel (WWII Germany)

Two observations: I enjoy Patricia Reilly Giff's books (can you tell?) and Hummel's book, Motherland, posed an approach to writing historical fiction that I'd not given thought to before, a position the author herself embraced only after a time of thoughtful searching and story development. This approach came with a shift in the kinds of questions she asked herself.

First of all, from Goodreads: Motherland is inspired by stories from the author's father and his German childhood, and letters between her grandparents that were hidden in an attic wall for fifty years. It is the author's attempt to reckon with the paradox of her father--a product of her grandparents' fiercely protective love and their status as Mitläufer, Germans who "went along" with Nazism, first reaping its benefits and later its consequences.

This page-turning novel focuses on the Kappus family: Frank is a reconstructive surgeon who lost his beloved wife in childbirth and two months later married a young woman who must look after the baby and his two grieving sons when he is drafted into medical military service. Alone in the house, Liesl must attempt to keep the children fed with dwindling food supplies, safe from the constant Allied air attacks, and protected against the swell of desperate refugees flooding their town. When one child begins to mentally unravel, Liesl must discover the source of the boy's infirmity or lose him forever to Hadamar, the infamous hospital for "unfit" children. The novel bears witness to the shame and courage of Third Reich families during the devastating last days of the war, as each family member's fateful choices lead them deeper into questions of complicity and innocence, to the novel's heartbreaking and unforgettable conclusion.

The story is haunting, troubling, and heart-wrenching, centered as it is on a stepmother's devotion to her three stepsons, trying to keep the family together in the absence of her husband during the travesties of war. But here's where it impacted me. In the author's Acknowledgements, she writes: 

             "My father is a good man, who has always expressed clear love and devotion for his parents and his children. My grandparents died when I was young, but they also struck me as generous and kind, and my grandmother, rather courageous for single-handedly raising three small kids at such a harrowing time. When I started working on this book, I obsessed over the idea of complicity, how ‘good’ people could nonetheless participate in one of the most brutal regimes in contemporary history. The questions What did they know and when did they know it? were key to this investigation. How was it possible that my grandfather worked so close to Buchenwald and still insisted he had no knowledge of the crimes committed in that camp? How could my grandmother be such a loving mother to her stepchildren and not teach them what the Germans had done? My father claims he learned abut the Holocaust only as a teenager, at an exhibition...in Frankfurt, half a decade after the war.
            “Hindsight is always a delicate issue in historical novels. The author and the reader often have a distilled set of facts about an era that the characters do not possess. Perhaps no era is more traveled and judged by readers than World War II, and so we collectively assume that all books about Germans in the 1940s will be books about complicity or resistance to their government’s murderous practices. In fact, most books are. The narrative we get is the one we expect.
            “Yet the more I thought about my grandmother’s letters, the more I realized they weren’t about Naziism. Or rather, that Naziism shadowed her world, but it was illuminated by the antics and accidents of three small boys, by conveying through code that she was sending secret supplies to her husband for his imminent desertion. Yes, she was afraid—of denouncement, of the ever-increasing air raids, of enemy invasion. And yet her narrative was not about totalitarian law, the bloody battles, the Jews and the camps. It was about family, and, paradoxically, it was about protecting her new sons’ innocence in a time when the sky was literally falling.
            “The more I wrote, the more I knew I had to change my fundamental questions. I could not use hindsight as a knife to slice through the past and find anything but what I expected to find. Instead of asking, What did they know, and when did they know it? I began to ask, What did they love? What did they fear? And in place of a prefabricated fable, a complicated human story began to emerge..."

A simple shift in questioning. From What did they know and when did they know it? to What did they love, what did they fear?

Here the emphasis is not on trying to explain history but to experience history. Not to examine and dissect reasons and motives but to invest in lives and struggle with them.

We'll never have all the answers but maybe if we start with different questions...?

What questions do you ask when you start a story?
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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A Love Affair: 14 Quotes on Books and Reading

photo courtesy of pixabay.com

Oh, this love affair with books. It will endure for some of us for a long, long time. Never-ending TBR piles, recommendations, classics, favorites. Why are they so special to us?

I decided to explore what others say about books and reading. Some of my discoveries:

1. "If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking." --Haruki Murakami

2. "There are many little ways to enlarge your child's world. Love of books is the best of all." --Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

3. "The books you don't read won't help." --Jim Rohn

4. "There is a great deal of difference between an eager man who wants to read a book and the tired man who wants a book to read." --Gilbert K. Chesterton

5. "It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it." --Oscar Wilde

6. "Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?"-- Henry Ward Beecher

7. "I divide all readers into two classes; those who read to remember and those who read to forget." --William Lyon Phelps

8. "You know you've read a good book when you turn the last page and feel a little as if you have lost a friend." --Paul Sweeney

9. "A book is a device to ignite the imagination." --Alan Bennett

10. "A good book has no ending." --R.D. Cumming

11. "Books have that strange quality, that being of the frailest and tenderest matter, they outlast brass, iron, and marble." --William Drummond, Bibliotheca Edinburgena Lectori

12. "Modern writers are the moons of literature; they shine with reflected light, with light borrowed from the ancients." --Samuel Johnson

13. "I would rather be a poor man in a garret with plenty of books than a man who did not love reading." --Thomas Babington Macaulay

14. "Novels are sweets." --William Makepeace Thackeray, Roundabout Papers: On a Lazy Idle Boy

And we thought sugar was addictive? Ha!

And now for the big announcement, the winner of my 300th post celebration giveaway...drum roll please....Catherine Winn! Congratulations, Catherine, and thanks for celebrating with me :-)

Have a great rest of the week, everyone.
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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Reach: 300 Posts Celebration and Giveaway!

"When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won't come up with a handful of mud either." --Leo Burnett

on Badlands Trail, Miami Whitewater Forest
September 2014
I can't believe it. I hit a milestone and almost missed it. This is my 301st blog post.  Recognizing the big 300 almost passed me by.

But it's never too late, right?

Who would have thought when I started this blogging experiment almost five years ago that I would stay the course and still be here today? That's not to say I'm projecting forever. The day may come when the journey takes a fork in the road, energies are diverted in a different direction, but I do know that the reach has already gone further than I ever thought it would. And I don't believe I've come up with a handful of mud either!

The idea has made me consider the idea of reach--and reach's cousins: dream, desire, and risk. A little googling (isn't it amazing the new words that are added to our vocabularies each year that we'd never have considered before?) I came up with the following inspirational thoughts:

"Nothing is impossible. The word itself says 'I'm possible'." --Audrey Hepburn

"Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." --T.S. Eliot

"Sometimes you just have to jump out the window and grow wings on the way down." --Ray Bradbury

"I haven't failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." --Thomas Edison

"Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world." --Harriet Tubman

"You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream." --C.S. Lewis
(my personal favorite :-)

"The desire to reach for the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise." --Maya Angelou

'It's impossible,' said pride.
'It's risky,' said experience.
'It's pointless,' said reason.
'Give it a try,' whispered the heart.' --Unknown

"You had the power all along, my dear." --Glinda, the Good Witch, The Wizard of Oz

To celebrate the number 300, we'll do this:

1. Share links of 300-lists. (Considered coming up with my own list of 300-somethings, but reality set in and I nixed that idea--too big a reach right now!) Some lists from others to consider:

300 Things to Do Once in a Lifetime (The Ultimate Bucket List)

2. Sponsor a celebratory give-away! Kicked around different ideas here, too, but settled on this: to one lucky commenter a $30 Amazon gift card will be sent your way! $3 wasn't a big enough celebration. $300 (as in 300 posts) was...ummm...too much of a reach! So 30's a good compromise.

Like previous giveaways here, all you have to do is comment along with a contact email address, and you will be eligible for the drawing. Deadline is this time next week, Tuesday, October 7. (I considered Monday, October 27--since that will be the 300th day of the year!--but that's too long to wait.)

300 posts of fun, of meeting people, of stretching, reaching, learning, engaging. That's what I'm celebrating. Hope you'll celebrate with me.
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Friday, September 19, 2014

Spider Web Whirligigs


spider web whirli-gigs along the highway 2014
"On occasion grassy fields are filled with banded garden spider webs. Scores of dew-covered webs create a spectacular sight at dawn on a misty morning." --Common Spiders of Ohio Field Guide

Forgive me for the poor quality of the above photo. And forgive me for doing yet another post on spiders (first one, here), but I can't resist sharing.

First, the photo. What you see is a picture taken from the open window of a speeding car, us going down the interstate at 70 mph. I almost lost a helium-balloon out that same-said window when I rolled down that window in an attempt to record what we were seeing.

And what we saw was truly spectacular. We were traveling north, hubby and I, on I-71 from Cincinnati to Columbus to celebrate my mom's 91st birthday. (I shared about her 90th here last year.) The day started out foggy, especially near the bridge crossing the Little Miami River. At times the sun broke forth, other times we hit more patches of fog.

At what mile marker did we first notice them? Not sure, but the sight caught the attention of both of us at about the same time. All along the roadside, and I mean everywhere--in the grasses, on the fences, in the gullies and on the rises--were what I could only describe as (for lack of a better description) feathery whirligigs. Delicate, filmy, ethereal, silver, glistening whirligigs. Fairyland.

"What are those??" we said, not knowing yet what would eventually dawn on us.

On and on the phenomena stretched. Mile after mile. Multiples and multiples of filmy designs. Thousands of them dotting and wavering everywhere. Could we count them? Impossible.

And then it hit us. We were looking at wind spinning spider webs. For nearly a hundred miles, one after another after another. Can you imagine?

Lucky for me I had the camera. I rolled down the window (that's when we almost lost the balloon, but hubby saved the day, driving with one hand and grabbing the balloon with the other), and started snapping away. Sorry, not much to show for it, but maybe you get the idea.

Later we stopped at a roadside rest. Picture two (ahem) not-so-young people dressed for a birthday party traipsing across the grounds of a highway rest stop headed to a fence row that bordered a field of overgrown weeds and dry corn stalks. Hubby puts up with a lot when I carry a camera! Traffic whizzed by, a groundskeeper trimmed, birds squawked. But who cared? We were on a mission. Here's an up-close shot of one web.


And here's a glimpse of the spider herself. Isn't she beautiful? I later learned she's a banded garden spider who, as an adult, spins her art from August to October, so we timed it right. Obviously, Ohio has a lot of banded garden spiders! And the spiders, hardly noticed until time and circumstances wove themselves together, created a most spectacular display and memorable experience. We still talk about what we saw.

That's my spider story of the week--and my inspiration. It has all the elements of good writing--timing, design, wonder. What's your story for the week? Anything inspire you or spark a sense of wonder for you?

p.s. Spider trivia: The spiders' insect-eating habits are extremely helpful to humans. "Every year, billions of spiders do away with a large number of disease-carrying and crop-destroying insects. If every spider ate just one a day for a year, those insects, piled in one spot, would weigh as much as 50 million people... (What??? Is there a way to verify this claim?)...Spiders are, by far, the most important predator of insects in our world." (This from Elaine Kalantarian, here.) Oh, the things you learn!

p.p.s. Would the banded garden spider be subject to the burden of unrealistic expectations in her work? I think not, but writers are susceptible to such pressure. A great article on just that, The Crushing Weight of Expectations, by Robin LaFevers at Writer Unboxed, addresses the idea. You might find it interesting as you seek to spin your own web of words.
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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

And The Winner Is...

sample of flowers from hubby's garden 2014

"Just living is not enough," said the butterfly. "One must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower." --Hans Christian Andersen

If asked what we might add to Mr. Andersen's list of must-haves, what would be your answer? I suggest "friends"!

And with that lead-in, I announce the **winner** of my recent give-away contest of Jessica Lawson's delightful debut MG novel, The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher (review found here)--blogger friend, and author in her own right, Karen Lange! Karen blogs over at Write Now, "exploring the adventurous writing life."

Congratulations, Karen. The book will be on its way to you here real soon. 

Thanks to all who entered the drawing--may you all have a great rest of the week!
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Saturday, September 6, 2014

Being Open to Inspiration

on a September morning walk 2014

"The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place; from the sky, from the earth, from a scap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider's web." --Pablo Picasso

Just a bit of weekend musings after discovering the treasure pictured above on my walk.

Ever thought of yourself as a receptacle? What sparks emotion and inspiration for you? Might I suggest pausing for a moment to take in the intricacies of spiderwebs as a start?

p.s. There's still time to enter the drawing for Jessica Lawson's debut book, "The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher." Check out the link and details here.
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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Give-Away: The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher


"Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words." --Mark Twain

I think Mark Twain would like to have met debut author and talented writer Jessica Lawson. He would see that she has a way with words, picked a lot of right ones and crossed out the wrong--and did it all while telling Becky Thatcher's story!

I am pleased to give a shout-out for Jessica, someone I "met" (not in real time yet, but that would be fun, too) when I started blogging, and her newly-released MG novel, The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher (Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, July 1, 2014).

The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher promises to be, well, a great adventure!

From Goodreads: "In 1860, eleven-year-old Becky Thatcher is the new girl in town, determined to have adventures like she promised her brother Jon before he died. With her Mama frozen in grief and her Daddy busy as town judge, Becky spends much of her time on her own, getting into mischief. Before long, she joins the boys at school in a bet to steal from the Widow Douglas, and Becky convinces her new best friend, Amy Lawrence, to join her.

"Becky decides that she and Amy need a bag of dirt from a bad man's grave as protection for entering the Widow's house, so they sneak out to the cemetery at midnight, where they witness the thieving Pritchard brothers digging up a coffin. Determined to keep her family safe (and to avoid getting in trouble), Becky makes Amy promise not to tell anyone what they saw.

"When their silence inadvertently results in the Widow Douglas being accused of the graverobbery, Becky concocts a plan to clear the Widow's name. If she pulls it off, she might just get her Mama to notice her again and fulfill her promise to Jon in a most unexpected way...if that tattle-tale Tom Sawyer will quit following her around."

There's some great buzz about The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher going around in blogland, along a number of great author interviews that give insight into the heart of the book and how it came to be. Some of the things I learned:

Why Becky Thatcher? In answer to the question "Why did you feel Becky Thatcher was the one who needed a bigger story?" by Mike Grosso over at Fearless Fifteeners, Jessica responded, "Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a classic and I love, love, love the book exactly as it is, so I would never say that she needed a bigger story. I think it was a matter of me always relating more to Tom and Huck, and thinking that it would be neat if Becky Thatcher got to have a little fun as well."

On Becky Thatcher and Voice: In an interview with Jessica at Literary Rambles, Natalie Aguirre said, "I just totally fell in love with Becky and her voice. She's such a character that makes me smile every time I think of her. Share about her and how you got her voice so perfectly right." Jessica: "You are so sweet to say that! She was one of those lucky characters who just showed up fully formed and had a lot to say. The accent and vernacular I gave her probably came, at least partially, from the time I spent as a child in a very small southeastern Missouri town, visiting with my grandparents. My version of Becky T. was also influenced by my love for Twain, Junie B. Jones, Anne Shirley (from Anne of Green Gables), and Mattie Ross in the new version of the movie True Grit (such a great character!)."

Point of View: Tara Dairman, in her interview with Jessica (here), said, "Please tell us about your book." In Jessica's words: "The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher is part origin story, part retelling of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, written from Becky's point of view. Though much of the plot is fun/adventure/cherry-spitting/bacon-eating based, there is an internal thread that deals with grieving and loss."

Why Middle Grade? Read about this in Jessica's own words in a post over at Middle Grade March. In the post she tells of her own 'middle-grade' years filled with her childhood adventures--hideaways under porches, planted treasures, night-time games of Ghost in the Graveyard and Cops and Robbers. Nothing better than the story of a tomboy written by a self-professed tomboy. Check this one out and you'll see why Becky Thatcher's character was pegged so well.

Where Did the Idea for Becky Thatcher First Come From? Ha--this is a good one. Dusting. Yep, dusting, as in dusting the bookshelves. Tavia Gilbert in her interview with Jessica asked, "What inspired you to place Becky Thatcher center stage and to tell a well-loved story from a new perspective? From Jessica: "One day, while I was pretending to do a thorough dusting job on my bookshelves, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer caught my eye. I hadn't read it in years and found myself thinking about Tom and Huck and all the adventures they had together. And I thought about Becky Thatcher, the nicely-dressed, finely-coiffed young girl who represented all that was good and pure to Tom--a girl who was distraught at discovering that Tom had been 'engaged' to someone else. At Becky's age, I was more likely to start a game of let's swipe cookies from the cabinet and make a secret hideaway under the porch than to wear dresses and play at being engaged. Being a tree-climbing, mischief-making, cops-and-robbers kind of girl, I always related more to Tom and Huck than to Becky. The novel takes place during a time when things like adventure and mischief were often delegated to and expected of boys. I think a part of me wanted to give Becky a chance to have a little fun as well."

What's exciting about this last link is that Tavia Gilbert, talented audio book narrator, has narrated The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher, now available for book-on-tape lovers everywhere. I'm especially tickled about this because I was the lucky winner of this audiobook in a give-away that Jessica sponsored over at her blog Falling Leaflets. And in that particular post, Jessica interviewed Tavia. The interview is another treat--giving great insights into the life of a professional book narrator. You won't want to miss this one either!

And so, having been introduced to The Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher by audiobook (which I am thoroughly enjoying), I'm off to order a hard copy, too, for my collection of books by favorite authors. At the same time I'm ordering a second copy--this one for one of YOU. I can't wait to share in the celebration of Jessica's debut and start to a great writing career.

All you have to do is post a comment here (along with your email address where I can contact you) by Monday, September 8, 2014, and your name will be included in the drawing. I'll announce the winner soon after the entry deadline.

So what do you say, are you ready for Becky's adventures? She's ready to tell you about them!
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