Thursday, May 19, 2011

Kept Awake by Literature

Like most writers these days, I have a day job. And by day, I mean it starts at 8 a.m. Not horrendous, but a daily challenge for a night owl like myself. I work at it. I use a blue light when I first wake up, hoping that it will rouse the bleary brain; I try to exercise vigorously, so the physical unit has an excuse to need sleep; I limit caffeine in the afternoon and double down on the Sleepytime tea.  Sometimes all this works, sometimes even for several weeks in a row. My undoing, though, is when I take literature to bed.

Here are three of the latest culprits that have cut into my morning efficiency and effectiveness at the workplace.

Union Atlantic, by Adam Haslett.
Good Lord, what a story, such a cast of characters! Haslett presents the world of Wall Street and high finance to us for what it is: characters of odd moral character controlled by one of most basic motivators of all, greed. What appeared to me as a story too complex, too technical, too convoluted to tackle, instead became a Shakespearean tale, comprehensible to all. And not all that fictional, as we have  come to find out.

Can't wait to delve into his book of short stories, "You Are Not A Stranger Here." It's on the bedside table, just begging to deprive me of honest sleep.

The Help – Kathryn Stockett.
So many people told me about this book that I had to read it. One of those recommenders simply pressed it into my hands saying, "Here, just read it. Then we'll talk." And so it happened.

Well, I found the story completely engrossing and compelling. Though I wasn't of the place, I am of the times; the book rang absolutely true for me.  Stockett sets her novel in 1962, in Jackson, Mississippi, during the birthing pangs of what we all hoped would be a new era. Like all births, it was very rarely pretty.

The story is told from the points of view of three protagonists: a recently-graduated white journalist, Skeeter, just returned to her home town, and two black maids, Abileen and Minny, whom she enlists in her project, writing a book that will reveal the maids' true reality. I was terrified for the maids most of the time and irritated with Skeeter for so blithely assuming everything would be fine since she, white and privileged, was involved. Slowly, Skeeter begins to understand the real risks these women take in telling their stories.

While much has been discussed in reviews and the book-blogosphere about Stockett's rendering of the maid's dialect in the book, I found her ability to capture their vernacular impressive. And I found that it located this story in its era. I do think Stockett could have also rendered the white Southerner's vernacular and voice more accurately, which I think would have enriched the book and balanced the treatment of the voices. But I'm willing to listen to opinions of others.

Meanwhile, it kept me up way after hours, leaving me to stumble into work bleary-eyed and late every day for a  week.

Blame, by Michelle Huneven – another compelling story, tautly written, that kept me up way past my bedtime. A cautionary tale from the get -go: a woman is convicted for a double murder committed during an alcoholic blackout.  The enduring consequences are well captured, as Patsy's life is forever molded by the chain of events. Huneven's prose is sinuous and flexible, ranging from the tenseness of prison life to the lyrical beauty of landscape and oceanscape, a beauty too often ignored even by those free from prison bars. There is a beacon that shines below the text of this book, much as there is in our own lives, a beacon and a beauty just waiting to be acknowledged.

Full disclosure: both Adam Haslett and Michelle Huneven will be faculty at the Napa Valley Writers Conference this summer. Those participants are so darn lucky!

Monday, May 9, 2011

About a Word, About Paul

Here is a very cool literary site you simply have to check out: aboutaword, which I discovered because I love to visit Paul Lisicky's fine blog, The Mystery Beast. Paul is one of the featured writers at aboutaword, where he talks about alligators and desire and his just-published new novel,  "The Burning House."

Paul is also out on tour, so if he's in your neighborhood, go! And tell him I sent you. Then maybe he'll kickback a copy to me. So I can review it, yeah, that's the ticket, review it, not just indulge in reading it.

(kidding!) That book will be in my bookstack sooner than Paul can whistle Ned home, or Dixie, for that matter.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Hike and Write: Plein Air Writing

The falls in full tilt boogie in
very early spring. 
Docent training, hiking every Sunday from the end of February until mid-April around the Fairfield Osborn Preserve, had become part of my routine, a high point of the week. I loved being under the trees, along the creek, skirting the marsh, looking and listening, learning to identify creatures and plants, feeling welcomed by the world. When training came to an end, I knew I'd have to find a way to continue getting my nature-fix.  I'd heard the calls of the Virginia rails, but I hadn't yet seen them. And the weather was finally starting to get better - no more slogging around in the rain and cold.  Plus I knew I'd bulk up again without that weekly straight-up, straight-down-the-hill hike.

So I concocted a plan, a plan that combined my two desires: lead hikes for writers! Thus, the workshop described below was conceived. If you are in the area, come on up the mountain and join us. If you aren't, well, then, guess you'll just have to wait for the blogposts.

Workshop: Plein Air Writing: Combine your love of the outdoors and your way with words while exploring the varied terrains and habitats of the Fairfield Osborn Preserve located on the flanks of Sonoma Mountain.  Join Lakin Khan, local essayist and writer, on a Sunday ramble, pausing frequently to observe and take field notes. Later, we'll use these notes as a basis for essays rooted in nature, writing on site at the Education Center, and continuing at home if you wish. 

This is an ongoing series of six Sundays beginning April 10th (skipping Easter) until May 25th. Meet at the Fairfield Osborn Preserve (link to directions below) at 10:30 a.m.; we’ll walk and write until approximately 2:30 p.m. Wear sturdy shoes, brimmed hat and sunscreen; bring a water canteen, bag lunch,  journal and writing implements.  Layered clothing highly recommended. $15 a session includes a donation to the Preserve. Four or more sessions, $50.

To enroll, contact Lakin at

Directions to the Fairfield Osborn Preserve, which is at the end of Lichau Road in Penngrove.