Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Into the Woods, a film

Listen, I love movies. And I love Broadway musicals. In the same way, I suppose, that one can love walks in the park and also, deep dish pizza. Both are story-telling entertainments, but distinctly birds of different feathers. I was talking about the recent film, Into the Woods, with someone yesterday and she raised an interesting question: Why make a movie based on a musical? I’ve been thinking about this, and can only guess that the people behind it are like me and love both too. And it seems to me that if you’re going to adapt something from one medium to another, the focus should be on what the new medium can do that the other couldn’t. In the case of film, there’s cinematography, of course, the ability to paint a broader scene than that on a stage. And there’s editing, the honing of moments that’s impossible during a live show. And we get the actors in close-up. Characters in musicals tend to be painted in broad strokes but in a film, we’re able to get closer.

I’ve seen lots of musicals but have never seen a production of Into the Woods. And it’s only now that I’m becoming aware of the uproar about director Rob Marshall’s decisions to cut certain characters and songs and the fear that what he’d give us would be a Disney-approved dumbing-down of a complicated musical containing some dark stuff. Again, I haven’t seen the musical (but I will), so I can’t comment on that. And maybe that’s for the best. Because I loved Into the Woods, the film, and I’m glad, in a way, that I wasn’t distracted by a previous version in another medium. It seemed to me that the filmmakers used every tool in the movie-making box to translate this from stage to screen. The shots in the woods were beautifully and hauntingly done; the scenes had a continuity, one to the next, that felt like a musical. I thought all the actors did a fabulous job. And as fans of the Broadway version already know, all the songs are great. It’s funny and touching and entertaining from start to finish. I saw it with my daughter and a couple of her friends (all twelve years old). The friends weren’t impressed; they thought it boring and long. My daughter loved it but then again, this is the girl who’s seen Wicked four times. If you don’t like musicals will you love the movie? I don’t know. If you love this musical, will you hate the movie? I don’t know. I only know that it was a very enjoyable afternoon for me.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Poem for the Weekend: Jane Kenyon

Jane Kenyon was born in the Midwest but lived for many years in New Hampshire, where she was the state’s poet laureate when she died, too early, in 1995. She suffered from depression for much of her adult life; the mysteries and familiarities of home life were another theme of her work. Read more about her here.

Taking Down the Tree

by Jane Kenyon (1947-1995)
"Give me some light!" cries Hamlet's
uncle midway through the murder
of Gonzago. "Light! Light!" cry scattering
courtesans. Here, as in Denmark,
it's dark at four, and even the moon
shines with only half a heart.

The ornaments go down into the box:
the silver spaniel, My Darling
on its collar, from Mother's childhood
in Illinois; the balsa jumping jack
my brother and I fought over,
pulling limb from limb. Mother
drew it together again with thread
while I watched, feeling depraved
at the age of ten.

With something more than caution
I handle them, and the lights, with their
tin star-shaped reflectors, brought along
from house to house, their pasteboard
toy suitcases increasingly flimsy.
Tick, tick, the desiccated needles drop.

By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it's darkness
we're having, let it be extravagant.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Favorite Films, 2014

It’s actually a difficult task to make a Best of the Year film list before the year is over because many of the heavy-hitting Oscar contenders are released right at year’s end. There are several I’m looking forward to seeing before 2014 is over, or maybe shortly into the new year. But you have to draw a line somewhere, if you’re doing a list, so I’ll draw mine today. I take some comfort in the fact that I think it will be very, very difficult to top my top three, no matter which films I take in over Christmas week. As always, I include films from other years that I watched this year. Because it’s my blog, you see, so it’s all about me! First, my favorites of 2014:

1. Boyhood

No doubt you'll be hearing much about this film as awards season gets underway. It's all for good reason. Yes, there's the fact that they filmed this coming-of-age story for over a decade, but the actual viewing experience, the immersion and the depth, the poignancy and the unforgettable characters--these are the reasons why it's my favorite movie of the year. Not to be missed, a masterpiece.

2.  Whiplash

For a week or so after viewing, I actually thought this film may topple Boyhood for my favorite of the year. It's that good. The story is about the tumultuous relationship between Andrew, a driven, young, jazz drummer and his teacher at a prestigious music conservatory. Riveting performances by both leads and pacing that will keep you on the edge of your seat. In the end, a stunning look at what it takes to make the grade and the price of artistic achievement. Fantastic film-making and to say it's a very close second to Boyhood is the ultimate compliment.

3. Force Majeure

A film from a Swedish director that should be nominated for Best Picture but most definitely will walk off with Best Foreign Film nevertheless. It's been compared to Scenes from a Marriage, for all good reasons. But it's wickedly funny too. The short synopsis: "A man's selfish reaction to the danger posed by an avalanche causes cracks in his marriage and relationships with his children." Wonderful performances, much to digest in this beautifully filmed story. I wrote more about it here.

4. Birdman

Michael Keaton plays an aging movie star who's known primarily for his role as a superhero and who's now trying to salvage some respectability by directing and acting in the stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. It's an bold conceit, and this film pretty much traces Keaton's character's comeuppance for thinking he could do so. And it's an indictment of the film industry's reliance on franchises, and it's another story about a misunderstood and suffering artist, which I think is becoming one of my favorite genres (see Whiplash, above, and 2013's choice, Inside Llewyn Davis).

5. Guardians of the Galaxy

One of the best times I had in the theater this year. Funny and fun, it's sort of a buddy film meets superhero film meets comedy. I couldn't even tell you, these many months after seeing it, what the exact plot was, but I'm sure saving the entire universe had something to do with it. But I do recall being entertained throughout, and touched at times by the humanity of it.

6.  Nightcrawler

A very strange film about a drifter who becomes immersed in the world of crime journalism. Which is a nice way of saying, the world of creepy photographers who drive around during night hours, waiting to take photos of gruesome events to be sold to the highest media bidder. The world of the movie is an exaggerated, seedier version of American news culture, or is it? Jake Gyllenhaal is very good as an emotionally removed, edges-of-society type, but Rene Russo is amazing as a tough but world-weary television exec who falls under Gyllenhaal's spell. You won't be able to look away.

7.  Edge of Tomorrow

An unfortunately-titled action film that was smart and entertaining, with great special effects. Tom Cruise plays a military officer more accustomed to offices than fields of war, and he finds himself in a time loop trying to defeat a band of relentless aliens. It's funny and engaging, with all the action you can handle. Say what you will about Tom Cruise but he rarely attaches himself to a low-quality project and this is no exception. A very good movie.

Other films from other years:

The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)

Another poor choice of titles, but this Argentine crime thriller won the Best Foreign Film Oscar that year. The parallel stories trace the history between a retired judiciary employee and a judge who were coworkers twenty-five years before. They've both been unable to shake a rape and murder case from that time, and the stilted romance between them. All the loose ends are taken up these decades later, when they reopen the case.

Tim's Vermeer (2013)

Tim Jenison is an inventor, an engineer, and the founder of a computer graphics company. He becomes convinced that Vermeer must have used some sort of early technology to compose and paint his paintings, so he tries to prove this by copying one of his masterpieces. An interesting contemplation about what constitutes art.

The White Ribbon (2009)

Another Best Foreign Film nominee from 2009. A German drama about a small village in the early 1900s beset by a series of unexplained events. Suspicions rise and villager turns against villager against puritanical hierarchy. A meditation on humanity but also the nature of good and evil. Riveting.

The Skin I Live In (2011)

A Pedro Almodovar film starring Antonio Banderas as a psychopathic surgeon who's conducting secret experiments on a captive patient in his home. Peopled with bizarre characters and paced with edge-of-your-seat suspense, this film had an amazing twist that I never saw coming. Good stuff.

Elena (2011)

A Russian drama about Elena, a former nurse who has married up in life, after meeting her husband when he was a patient. Elena has a hapless son, and her husband a disturbed daughter, and the story is about Elena's efforts to secure some of her husband's fortune for her son. The actress Nadezhda Markina is wonderful as the down-but-not-out housewife.  

Finding Vivian Maier (2013)

The true story of the photographer, Vivian Maier, who was unknown until after her death, when over 100,000 of her photographs were purchased, mostly undeveloped, at an auction. The stories of the photographs, and of the woman herself, are equally fascinating. A must see.

A Royal Affair (2012)

I suppose no year would be complete without a Mads Mikkelsen offering from me. This one is a period piece in which he plays an "ordinary man who wins the queen's heart and starts a revolution." And he has a messy ponytail and a simmering look. And this film has one of the best, prolonged, first kisses ever. Really.

What have I missed? What were your favorite films this year?

Friday, December 19, 2014

Poem for the Weekend: Joseph Brodsky


Born Iosif Alexandrovich Brodsky, persecuted in his native Soviet Union for the spirit of his poetry and for his Jewish heritage, Brodsky spent five years in an Arctic labor camp, where he composed this poem. In 1972, he settled in America and eventually taught at several universities, including Yale and Cambridge. And from 1962 to 1995, virtually the expanse of his writing career, he composed a Christmas poem every year. These "Nativity Poems" often employ Biblical themes, but Brodsky saw the holiday as a metaphor for many things: rebirth, redemption, the ultimate tragedy of life. Still, there's a glimmer at the end of this poem, written when he was only in his mid-twenties and at a time when hope was hard to come by. You can read more about his life and work here.

January 1, 1965

by Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996)

The kings will lose your old address.
No star will flare up to impress.
The ear may yield, under duress,
to blizzards' nagging roar.
The shadows falling off your back,
you'd snuff the candle, hit the sack,
for calendars more nights can pack
than there are candles for.

What is this? Sadness? Yes, perhaps.
A little tune that never stops.
One knows by heart its downs and ups.
May it be played on par
with things to come, with one's eclipse,
as gratefulness of eyes and lips
for what occasionally keeps
them trained on something far.

And staring up where no cloud drifts
because your sock's devoid of gifts
you'll understand this thrift: it fits
your age; it's not a slight.
It is too late for some breakthrough,
for miracles, for Santa's crew.
And suddenly you'll realize that you
yourself are a gift outright.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Poem for the Weekend: Ron Rash


My Favorite Reads of 2014 post yesterday included a special three-book section on a new favorite author, Ron Rash, and today, I'm sharing a poem by this same talent. Maybe I'm becoming a groupie; you be the judge. Biographical insight on Mr. Rash here. And for a very special treat, watch the poet read this poem and others at this site. Really, you'll enjoy his wonderful accent, which brings a new flavor to these words.

by Ron Rash

As though shedding an old skin,
Fall Creek slips free from fall’s weight,
clots of leaves blackening snags,
back of pool where years ago
local lore claims clothes were shed
by a man and woman wed
less than a month, who let hoe
and plow handle slip from hands,
left rows half done, crossed dark waves
of bottomland to lie on
a bed of ferns, make a child,
and all the while the woman
stretching both arms behind her
over the bank, hands swaying
wrist-deep in current — perhaps
some old wives’ tale, water’s pulse
pulsing what seed might be sown,
or just her need to let go
the world awhile, let the creek
wash away every burden
her life had carried so far,
open a room for this new
becoming as her body
flowed around her man like water.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Favorite Reads, 2014

I’ve read fifty-seven books this year, one more than last year which seems strange to me because it certainly felt like I read much more. I blame the fact that I tackled a few longish books—The Historian and Wolf Hall among them—and I struggled with some, especially those two. Oh, how I struggled. In the end, I find that my list of favorites is long and impossible to shorten, so I apologize in advance. Just when I think of striking one from the list, all of its merits come flooding back. It was a very, very good year of reading. In fact, I’d say two of these novels are in contention for my personal Best of All Time list, which, of course, needs time and space to solidify. But without further rambling, here are my top thirteen, and a special three-book addendum.

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope (2013) by Rhonda Riley

The plot: When Evelyn Roe’s great-aunt dies, she is put in charge of the North Carolina farm left behind. Evelyn is the eldest of the family and the only one who’s ever shown an interest in working the land. So at seventeen years of age, she finds herself living alone for the first time in her life. During a turbulent storm, she discovers what she believes to be an injured and disfigured solider, almost completely buried in patch of mud. She nurses the stranger back to life and thus begins the love story of her time on earth. Of everything I read this year, my mind returns to this one most often. Definitely etched as a favorite for all time. Here’s the rest of what I wrote about it.

The Orchardist (2013) by Amanda Coplin

Ms. Coplin’s publisher boldly claims “At once intimate and epic, The Orchardist is historical fiction at its best, in the grand literary tradition of William Faulkner, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Ondaatje, Annie Proulx, and Toni Morrison.” I don’t know about all that, but it is very, very good. A story set in the American West about what happens when a solitary orchardist takes in two troubled young teens. Touching and sweeping, a fabulous read.

Burial Rites (2014) by Hannah Kent

My book club loved this novel about a condemned Icelandic woman in the early 1800s. Kent evokes a starkly vivid world, creates unforgettable characters, and manages a taut suspense throughout. Your book club will love it too, I promise.

Lila (2014) by Marilynne Robinson

I spent the first few pages of this book wondering if readers who were new to Robinson’s series would enjoy it as much as I was. Lila, the main character, is the same one who appears in Gilead and Home (two novels on my previously mentioned Best of All Time list), and this new novel focuses on her version of the story we already know from those novels. And then I forgot all about this question, as I became captivated by Robinson’s wonderful writing. Unsurprisingly, I loved it.

Where I’m Calling From (1989) by Raymond Carver

I’ve read some of these stories in other settings, and there’s a reason why Carver’s considered a master of the short story. Because he’s a master of the short story. This collection should be required reading for anyone considering the form. His characters are familiar and flawed, and they find themselves in situations that seem normal but often are tragic. An unflinching spotlight on the human condition.

The Golem & The Jinni (2013) by Helene Wecker

One of the few books I decided to read based, primarily, on its cover (the hardcover version is a work of art). The story follows two immigrants recently arrived to America at the tail end of the 19th century. One is a golem, a woman fashioned from clay by a rabbi in Danzig; the other is a jinni from the Syrian desert, recently freed from a copper flask. This mystical and touching saga traces the paths of both until they finally merge. Entertaining throughout, with much to chew on afterwards.

Coincidence (2014) by J.W. Ironmonger

On Midsummer’s Day, 1982, three-year-old Azalea is found, wandering alone, at an English fairground. She has blazing red hair and a small scar on her face. Ten years later, to the day, her adoptive parents are killed in Uganda while she survives. Feeling that her life has been framed by a series of coincidences, she seeks out an expert in debunking them. The novel slowly adds clues, both to Azalea’s past and present, as it weaves its story from her beginnings, to her time in Africa with her missionary adoptive parents, to her present day. The result is an intelligent, suspenseful love story of sorts.

HHhH (2013) by Laurent Binet

One of the more original things I read this year. A historical novel that traces the fatal attack on the Nazi Heydrich by two hired assassins, yet also the personal journey of its author, Laurent Binet, as he follows the historical clues. Tense, inventive and extremely smart, this book will make you rethink history and how it’s remembered and retold. A brilliant novel that engages on every level.

A Monster Calls (2013) by Patrick Ness (author) and Jim Kay (illustrator)

Thirteen-year-old Conor wakes to find a monster outside his bedroom window. It seems to want something and the story follows Conor's attempts to find out what it is. This book was the result of a collaboration between the author, an illustrator, and the woman whose idea inspired the story. The result is a perfect book, one that moved me tremendously, and one that I don’t want to say too much about because you should experience it yourself.

Can’t and Won’t (2014) by Lydia Davis

Another stellar collection of stories from a writer who’s had a big effect on me and countless other writers. I don’t mean to keep telling you what to do, but if you’re a writer, you should give her a read.

We are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (2014)

Another book that I don’t want to say too much about. It’s the story of an atypical family (aren’t they all?) and the tragic events that divert their course. It’s also about memory and humanity’s relationship to the animal world, and about love in surprising and stubborn forms. An inventive, endlessly intelligent novel.

Things We Set on Fire (2014) by Deborah Reed

Three generations of women are pulled together through a tragic event, and the past begins to unravel. Vivvie’s daughter Kate is hospitalized and she is called to help with her two granddaughters. There are implications about the death of Vivvie’s husband many years before, there are buried secrets and resentments, and there is the implosion that occurs when the family comes together. An evocative and beautifully written book about family and ultimately, forgiveness.  

With a Zero at its Heart (2014) by Charles Lambert

A collection of short “stories,” each ten paragraphs long, with each paragraph containing 120 words. If this seems gimmicky to you, don’t worry. It’s an engrossing reading experience, and you won’t be thinking about the framework once you start. In spare, tender vignettes, the author tells the story of a boy growing to be a man—the experiences and heartbreaks, the sensory, the emotional. The benefit of the form, I think, is that the forced brevity crystallizes the prose to almost poetry. Each snapshot adds to a collage of life that is both touching and affecting. A book to savor and ponder.

And finally, a special three-book addendum, featuring three works I loved by author Ron Rash:

Burning Bright (2010)

Peopled with unforgettable characters living in Appalachia, this collection of stories spans from the Civil War to present day. There is an assured calmness about his writing, and usually some sort of subtle heart-wrenching that sneaks up on you. This was my first introduction to Rash, and I was hooked.

One Foot in Eden (2002)

The second thing I read by Rash, and quite possibly my favorite book of the year. Also the second contender for that All Time list, and another book I consider near perfect. The story centers around the death of a local thug and the sheriff’s journey as he tries to discover what happened. It’s a little bit gothic, a little bit suspense, and a whole lot of human folly and the tragedy that often follows. This book made me think that maybe working my way through Rash’s books will go some distance toward filling part of the Kent-Haruf-shaped hole in my heart. LOVED this novel.

Nothing Gold Can Stay (2013)

Another stellar collection of stories. If I had to identify a common strain, it’d be the flawed but lovable characters, all trying to make their way. And always that little hook, like shining a light on something you’d forgotten about within yourself.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Poem for the Weekend: Claude McKay


Claude McKay was born in Jamaica, immigrated to the United States, and, along with Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes and many others, was part of the Harlem Renaissance, which you can read about here. A short biography of McKay can be found here


by Claude McKay (1889-1948)
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Force Majeure, a film

I have been contemplating many things about this film since watching it last week. I’ve been thinking about the title, which to an English speaker with no experience with the French language, translated in my mind to “Major Force.” And this seemed to fit the storyline, which follows a young Swedish couple as their ski vacation in France is interrupted by a perceived avalanche. I say perceived because what they witness, as they breakfast on the terrace restaurant of their resort, is a controlled avalanche. But they, and every other diner, believes the threat to be actual. It appears that the mass of snow is about to engulf them. What happens during this perceived emergency and especially what happens after is the focus of director Ruben Ostlund’s lens. With my amateur translation in mind, I’ve been contemplating which is the major force of the film: nature and its catastrophic effects on humans, or human nature itself, which often results in the same.

I have since looked up “force majeure,” which does have a literal translation but is better known for its broader meaning. Force majeure is a common clause used in legal contracts, essentially freeing both parties from liability in the case of an extraordinary event out of their control. Basically, those happenings we might call “acts of God.” The contract of the film would certainly be the marriage of Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli). They are a young yuppie couple with two adorable yet indulged children, and they’ve all come to the mountains to enjoy five days of familial togetherness. The only fissure evident from the beginning is a sense that Ebba thinks her husband spends too much time at work and too much time with his thoughts elsewhere. In an early scene, the beautiful family naps together after a morning of skiing. When Tomas’s cell phone rings, he says he’ll turn it off but moments later, Ebba catches him looking at it. They both chuckle. Soon, their troubles will be much more serious.

Because when that perceived threat comes, when everyone in the restaurant begins to gasp and grab their loved ones at the sight of the snow, cascading down the hill like a big, white wave, what does Tomas do, you ask? Well, he grabs his gloves and phone and runs inside. Alone. After the avalanche, when a white-out of mist has cleared, he sheepishly returns. The children know what he has done. Ebba knows too and while she tries, for a time, to forget it, the vacation takes a turn. Long-standing issues rise to the surface; new ones compete for air.

I loved the slow and deliberate pace of the film, the lingering shots of man’s machinery—the ski lifts, the electric walkways, the vast hotel—and the way the snow pressed in from all sides. I loved Ebba’s valiant efforts to believe something great about her husband, and I even loved the pitiable husband, self-proclaimed victim of his own impulses. All of the acting was superb and the intensity of Ostlund’s gaze into the intricacies of marriage put me in mind of Bergman, of course. And yet, there’s dark comedy in the film too, especially in the scenes with Tomas’s brother Mats (Kristofer Hivju), an alpha male who looks like a Greek god and who is vacationing with his twenty-year-old girlfriend. The movie has much to say about gender roles and the preposterousness of expectations where human behavior is concerned. And the scenery is breathtaking. But best of all, I’ve been thinking about the film and all of its nuances, for days and days. Definitely a must-see.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Remembering Kent Haruf

Yesterday evening, I heard the sad news that Kent Haruf had passed away. Earlier in the year, I had entered one of my short stories in a contest he was to judge, and I indulged myself imagining him reading the piece near his hearth. However, I soon received an announcement that he had stepped down due to health issues. So I had already imagined this, the worst possible outcome. Still, the news was crushing. I'm feeling a little indulgent for being so sad about the death of someone I don't know, and yet, I am. If pressed to choose just one writer whose work has impacted me most, there wouldn't be anyone who even comes close. But I don't want this to be about me. I want to tell you, again, about his wonderful books. They are:

The Tie That Binds (1984)
Where You Once Belonged (1990)
Plainsong (1999)
Eventide (2004)
Benediction (2013)

The last three comprise a trilogy with overlapping characters and storylines, set in the fictional small town of Holt, Colorado. Among Haruf's fervent band of followers, many began their love affair with Plainsong, which was a National Book Award finalist. It's a great place to start, if you haven't read his work. But the earlier books are good too. All three of his latter works would find a place on a list of my most beloved novels.

His publisher has announced that a final novel, Our Souls at Night, will be published next year. I'll look forward to that, but it doesn't seem like enough. Maybe there would have never been enough of Haruf's wonderful writing, at least not for me.

What I wrote about Haruf and Benediction last year here.

The author picks his top ten books here.

And here's an excerpt from Haruf's wonderful Plainsong, so that you can begin your own love affair with this talented writer.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Poem for the Weekend: Heather McHugh


The book in which I found Heather McHugh's poem states that she "believes, almost desperately, in language." As do I. McHugh was born in San Diego to Canadian parents, was educated at Harvard, and owes a bit to Emily Dickinson. Read her biography here.

The Typewriter’s the Kind

by Heather McHugh

The typewriter’s the kind
of heavy gray that’s rare these days
and good for leaning on. I sit
in front of it, with holes

torn in my meanings, or a heart
so full of complication I can’t even
start to start. And on
the radio the cello’s

unaccompanied, and on the hour
the news is entendu. I lay my arms
upon the typewriter, my head
upon my arms, and breathe and
breathe and breathe, and there

is all the cool
immutability a fevered
human needs, its current humming constant like

the speed of light or fact
of water (there is death
on earth this moment, there

is death on earth this moment … Always is already). Then
I can get up, and go about
my work, which is to love to see

the endless world’s unsavability.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Poem for the Weekend: William Carlos Williams

Of all the poems in the world, this is the one I think about most often. In a few spare stanzas, everything. If you'd like, read about William Carlos Williams here.

The Red Wheelbarrow

by William Carlos Williams (1883 - 1963)

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Places You'll Go

The daughter and I are headed to Albuquerque tomorrow for a Mom-n-me trip. I’m excited because neither of us has been there, and because we’ll get to spend the kind of uninterrupted time that seldom occurs in the rush of our regular lives. Jason and I take one trip per year with one child, alternating kids, usually to a spot they’ve chosen. Geneva didn’t have any ideas this year, other than to revisit New York City, which she loves. But the main rule of the trips is that you choose someplace new. I also wanted us girls to do something a bit different from our normal interests—shopping, seeing shows, dining out, etc. (We’re both city girls.) I suggested Santa Fe, which I have visited briefly. We thought about a train ride through the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina but seemed to have missed the best month (October) for weather and foliage. In a roundabout way, we came to Albuquerque. It has a zoo and aquarium, although the daughter says she may not want to go to those. It has an aerial tram at the east end of the city and is bordered on the west by the Rio Grande. You can see inactive volcanoes and Native American pueblos, take a ghost tour in the rustic Old Town, indulge with Southwestern fare. So.
If I’m honest, I have another reason to look forward to the trip. I’m percolating a new novel, which I believe will be set in the American Southwest. Where exactly, I’m not sure. But I’m definitely looking to soak up the scenery while I’m there, to immerse myself, to mine for sensory details. It seems that many things I write begin with the setting although it isn’t always a place I’ve actually visited. I know writers who enjoy the research phase of writing, often because it involves trips to the places they’ll be writing about. I know of books set in a certain city or country where the author has never set foot. Which is more valid? Does it matter? Some of the characters in my last finished project live in Bellflower, California. I knew nothing about the place, although I could imagine the flavor of it. Bellflower is a city at the southern end of Los Angeles County, one place name in a patchwork of similar cities. I could imagine the older, ranch-style homes of the neighborhood I wrote about, the mature trees and wide streets. I could see the strip malls and fenced-in elementary schools, the brick churches and shiny supermarkets. Maybe I had never been to Bellflower, but I’d been to many places I thought were similar. The final scene took place in a cemetery, and one Saturday when my son had a soccer game nearby, it seemed like kismet. I decided to take a look at the place I had mapped online. But when I drove towards the address of the cemetery, I found it was nestled in a neighborhood that was more modern than I’d pictured, and the burial place itself was smaller and less evocative than it had loomed in my mind’s eye. So I drove by and didn’t go in. The actual visit to Bellflower had only been distracting.

If characters are fictional and the story an author creates is a fiction, can the setting be something between truth and creation, between impressions and imagination? I think so. I suppose any place exists in a place between the tangible and our memories and impressions anyway. No matter where you go, you'll be there, the viewer, the interpreter, the lens.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Poem for the Weekend: Louis MacNeice


In honor of this week of space exploration, I give you Louis MacNeice's poem, Star-Gazer. MacNeice was Irish, a contemporary of Auden, and broodingly handsome, which you can see here. And of course, you can read about his life and work there too.

by Louis MacNeice (1907 - 1963)

Forty-two years ago (to me if to no one else
The number is of some interest) it was a brilliant starry night
And the westward train was empty and had no corridors
So darting from side to side I could catch the unwonted sight
Of those almost intolerably bright
Holes, punched in the sky, which excited me partly because
Of their Latin names and partly because I had read in the textbooks
How very far off they were, it seemed their light
Had left them (some at least) long years before I was.

And this remembering now I mark that what
Light was leaving some of them at least then,
Forty-two years ago, will never arrive
In time for me to catch it, which light when
It does get here may find that there is not
Anyone left alive
To run from side to side in a late night train
Admiring it and adding noughts in vain.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Poem for the Weekend: Charles Simic


I've been reading about the second World War this week, which is probably why this poem struck me. It is most certainly influenced by Charles Simic's childhood in war-torn Yugoslavia; his family emigrated to America when he was sixteen. He was the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2007-2008. Here is a short piece about him, which I like because it includes some of his advice on writing poetry.

Empire of Dreams

by Charles Simic

On the first page of my dreambook
It’s always evening
In an occupied country.   
Hour before the curfew.   
A small provincial city.   
The houses all dark.
The storefronts gutted.

I am on a street corner   
Where I shouldn’t be.   
Alone and coatless
I have gone out to look
For a black dog who answers to my whistle.   
I have a kind of Halloween mask
Which I am afraid to put on.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

All Things Bouchercon


Next week, the massive production that is Bouchercon will be in Long Beach, near my neck of the woods. I'm thrilled to be part of the programming this year. It'll be my first time in attendance at this mystery convention, and I wrote a little something for the Bouchercon blog about how and why this is happening. You can read it here: The Wide World of Mystery.

If you'll be there next week, please consider stopping by to see me! Here's where I'll be:

Thursday, November 13, 6:30 p.m.

Murder at The Beach "Hollywood Premiere" Opening Ceremonies Hosted by HarperCollins
Pacific Ballroom at the Arena  
Follow the red carpet and lights to the Opening Ceremonies of Bouchercon 2014 Murder at the Beach. Introduction of honored guests, Anthony Award nominees and other key people. Mystery awards will be given from other prestigious organizations. No-host Bar. Light refreshments. This should be a fun event, with signed books and opportunities to meet lots of HarperCollins authors!

Sunday, November 16, 10:00-11:00 a.m.

Panel--Mind Games: Psychological Thrill Rides
Regency BC

This promises to be a great discussion about psychological thrillers and mystery through characterization. Other participating authors include Patricia Gussin, Andrew Kaufman, Wendy Webb and Dennis Palumbo. Moderated by Ali Karim.

Author Signing 11:00-11:30 a.m.
Regency EF

And here are the panels I'm hoping to attend. When I started marking up my schedule this morning, I realize I've probably overshot, but there's just way too much of interest! I'll list the panels with minimal information; the complete Bouchercon schedule can be accessed here.


2:30-3:30 The Past Meets the Present: Past Events Yield Today's Mysteries
4-5 Short But Mighty: The Power and Freedom of the Short Story


10-11 A Place By Any Other Name: The Story Wouldn't Be the Same in a Different Setting
11:30-12:30 Living Vicariously: Experiencing Thrills and Chills Through the Character
1:30-2:30 Long and Short of It: Writing Short Stories and Full-Length Novels
3-4 The Mean Streets of Los Angeles: LA Crime Through the Ages


3-4 To Thrill or Not to Thrill: Writing Different Kinds of Crime Novels
4:30-5:30 Historical Sleuthing: Historical People Sleuthing versus Fictionalized People

These are the panels that have caught my eye but all is, of course, subject to last-minute change and whim. I haven't even included the speakers, interviews, and other types of events that I've highlighted on my preliminary schedule. Looks like I'll be kept fairly busy--hope to see you there!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Poem for the Weekend: Robert Frost


I was thinking about this poem's famous last line this week, which sent me off looking for the entire verse. Seems like a good choice for an Autumn-hued Friday.

One of our most beloved American poets doesn't need much in the way of introduction, but if you want to read a little about Robert Frost, here it is.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

by Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Does Size Matter?

Something I get asked from time to time, when people find out I’ve written a book, is how many pages it is. This question tends to come from younger adults, perhaps students who are still in the world of 10-12 page essays and 25-30 page research papers. But length becomes a consideration for writers, too, usually at the point when you’ve finished something and you have to decide what to call it.
A quick perusal of the internet and you’ll find guidelines:
Micro-Fiction (up to 100 words); Flash Fiction (100-1000 words); Short story (1000-7500 words); Novelette (7500-20K); Novella (20K-50K); Novel (50K-110K); Epics (everything over 110K).
This is an answer from one source but overall, it’s a good general sense of what people think. (And for the record, I don't think I've ever heard of a "novelette.") Of course, an instant clamor will arise, as you all think of books that are exceptions to these guidelines. Here’s an article from the Huffington Post that shows the word count of some classics. Examples: Slaughterhouse-Five (47,192 words), Mansfield Park (159,344 words)—both outside of the range.
And what about short story collections? My clicking around has revealed that they should be at least 40,000 words, but the range varies. But...what if it’s a linked collection that reads more like a novel? What if your novel is a saga? What of historical fiction? Sequels? First in a trilogy? Etc., etc.
I was thinking about this issue of size from the consumer side, the reader. Recently, I wrote about reader expectations here, in terms of the buzz and marketing that may precede something you pick up at your local bookstore. But what about the tangible considerations, the actual heft of the book in your hand (or the number at the bottom of your Kindle screen)? When you choose a slim book with widely spaced sentences, might you commence reading at a more leisurely pace, expecting dense and poetic prose and vivid, immediate scenes? When you grab an 800-page biography (with both hands), do you light up a separate, more analytical and patient part of your brain before starting Page 1? And what of the sweet spot—that 60K-80K range that probably most contemporary novels fall into? (Note: this is my unscientific, un-researched presumption.) Might this be a range where we can keep a more open mind? Using Amazon’s Text Stats feature, it’s been found that the median length for all books is about 64,000 words. This would seem to be a good goal for any project, I’d say. Playing it safe.
What’s the long and short of this? Should you concern yourself with size before firing up the word processing program or grabbing that pen? I’d say it’s much like considerations of genre—best to save your decisions for later. Then you can deliberate as I am now, about my project that came in under 50,000 words, which I like to call a story collection but which others think may be a novel (novella?). And which, no matter what I or anyone calls it, is still just what it is. Hopefully, once it’s published, a few readers will be attracted to the look of it, the feel of its weight in their hands. And of course, hopefully, they'll like what’s inside.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Poem for the Weekend: Anne Shaw

Anne Shaw is an artist, a poet, a student of sculpture at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, and the founder of the Twitter Poetry Project. Her latest collection is Dido in Winter, and you can visit her website at http://anneshaw.org/.

Small Bang Theory

by Anne Shaw
for Glen
He says, You don’t need a religion. Woman,
you are a religion, and describes how the hints of things impinge
pushing their shapes before them as they rise
slowly, as if through plaster, the wobble of an orbit
pressing itself toward sight. This, he says, is science: how data ghosts
        the edge
when the unseen starts to flicker in, trace at the cusp of the mind’s

myopic eye. For a year I went blind as a freight train, thrashed
in a wild grief, because nothing as loud
as my sorrow could be heard. Now, in the formless dark
I can’t untangle my tongue
even to know what kind of help to ask.
But he tells me I’m all flintstrike
deep in the basement’s gut: again, again, again, again

and yes, I am all stammer and all ignition switch
waiting for gas jet, horsehair, lath, for anything to rascal back
the blossom of my blue, incessant flame. Therefore let me pray
the smallest possible prayer. Pinprick
in the darkness. Please. That the ear that is turned
to silence may flick itself awake. And if
it can make no reply, may hear.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Poem for the Weekend - Maya Angelou


Maya Angelou may be our best known modern American poet. Friend of Oprah and the Clintons, writer, professor, feminist and civil rights activist, she exuded a quiet and confident wisdom and her memoirs were influential to most female writers I know (of a certain age). I was lucky enough to hear her speak at the University of Denver while I was a student there. She held the entire auditorium in the palm of her hand. Read her biography here, or view her Life in Photos.


by Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Grown-up Dreams


I had a vivid dream the other night. My minivan had broken down, and the repairman told me it would cost $3600 to fix it. I had a million places to be, of course, and there were bags of groceries in the back. I told the repairman all about the endless problems we’d had with this particular van—electrical issues, bad brakes, manufacturer recalls—and about how great our last van had been. And if you're thinking right now: WHAT KIND OF DREAM IS THIS? Well, SO WAS I, when I woke up.

Shouldn’t your dream world be an escape from your real life? I started remembering some other thrilling storylines that have graced my slumber in recent months, sometimes repeating the same themes over and over. I dream that I can’t get to the bottom of a laundry pile, no matter how many times I load the washer and unload the dryer. I dream that I’ve been away from home for a few days and forgot to feed the dogs. And this, a popular one: I dream that I’m taking a trip, my flight leaves in TWENTY MINUTES and I HAVEN’T STARTED PACKING YET! This one always stretches itself out, from the hurried scavenging through drawers, all the way to the crazy run through the airport. It’s always good to wake up completely frazzled, with the bitter taste of failure on your lips, when there will be A MILLION things to do that day, every day, of your adult life.

What happened to dreams about flying? Wind rushing through your hair as you soar over mountains, through the windows of tall buildings, over the hassle of life on ground? What happened to that dream where you’re about to go on stage and sing, because you’re an AWESOME singer??? I’d even take those pulse-quickening dreams where you’re in a car on a tall mountain, about to fall off the side. And when was the last time I had what my grandma used to call a “racy dream,” involving a celebrity?

I suppose this is the divide between childhood and adulthood. A child’s subconscious mind is still heavily involved with make believe and possibility, while an adult’s total mind is addled with reality and responsibility. You don’t have to be psychologist to realize that most of my “grown-up dreams” have to do with dropping the juggling balls of adult life. I do notice a change, sometimes, when I’ve been to a movie, or have read or heard an interesting story. New drama might be infused with the day-to-day. Last night I dreamt that one of my son’s coaches had sent some guys to rough up someone who hadn’t paid their team fees. And there was a scary subplot involving a dog, because we had watched a movie in which a woman had to shoot her poisoned dog. So I still woke up unhappy, but at least I could easily dismiss the plot as implausible. The piles of laundry, on the other hand, are entirely too realistic.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Poem for the Weekend

Lawrence Ferlinghetti has been a student, an expatriate, a political activist, a publisher, a key player in the Beat movement, and he opened the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, where he still lives and works. His life is too full of accomplishments and events to properly summarize, but you can read about him here. For now, one of his poems.  

Retired Ballerinas, Central Park West

by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Retired ballerinas on winter afternoons   
          walking their dogs
                      in Central Park West
    (or their cats on leashes—
       the cats themselves old highwire artists)   
The ballerinas
                leap and pirouette
                           through Columbus Circle   
         while winos on park benches
               (laid back like drunken Goudonovs)   
            hear the taxis trumpet together
               like horsemen of the apocalypse   
                               in the dusk of the gods   
It is the final witching hour
                when swains are full of swan songs   
    And all return through the dark dusk   
                to their bright cells
                                  in glass highrises
      or sit down to oval cigarettes and cakes   
                              in the Russian Tea Room   
    or climb four flights to back rooms
                                 in Westside brownstones   
               where faded playbill photos
                        fall peeling from their frames   
                            like last year’s autumn leaves
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka