Monthly Archives: March 2017

The Help

Having seen the movie first, I knew that I wanted to read the book, The Help. (I swear I’m not just reading books that have been made into movies, even though that’s how it seems.)

The book was as good as the movie, per usual. As I read, I confess to picturing all the actresses from the film, and I believe Hollywood did a good job at capturing the nature of the characters Kathryn Stockett imagined.

The story follows the lives of several people: Skeeter Phelan, a college graduate and writer who is looking for something more out of her southern belle life; Minnie Jackson, an outspoken maid; and Aibileen Clark, another maid, though much less outspoken than her friend Minnie.

Skeeter first comes into contact with Aibileen at her friend’s house, for whom Aibileen works. When Skeeter comes upon the idea to write an anonymous book about the lives of maids in Jackson, Mississippi, Aibileen is the first one she comes to. Aibileen then enlists the help of Minnie, and the three set out to chronicle what it’s like to be the help, eventually getting several other women to share their stories.

Along the way, the three run into various kinds of drama. Early on Minnie is fired from her job and gets a new one with an eccentric outcast of good Jackson society. Skeeter is trying to find love, but she’s having a hard time, and when she finally thinks shes found a catch, the inevitable drama comes up.

The Help is a heart-warming story, full of love, of all kinds, friendship, and justice. And in the climate of today’s world, Stockett’s themes throughout the book are relevant still. Her words ring true, “We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I thought.”

Stockett’s book is about standing in opposition to society’s injustices. The quote, “stand up for what you believe in, even if you’re standing alone” just about perfectly sums up Stockett’s message, and it’s one that will ring true forever.

Advertisements

The Town

With April bearing down on me, I find myself less prepared than I had anticipated for my writing project. In my defense (excuses), I was on vacation for a week with family, and now I’ve been busy working and trying to sleep, so…

My working title is “The Town.” Nothing fancy, but it helps me remember what I’m writing about, and spending time on a title before a book is written is a little presumptuous, I think. I never do know where my stories will end up.

I had expected that I would have a synopsis and detailed chapter outline done by now so I’d be completely ready come April 1, but, all I’ve got is the synopsis. So, with no more ado, here it is.

A young man is facing pressure. In his isolated mountain town, if a person isn’t married with kids and given society (or working on) something brilliant by 27, they are shunned. After the age of 27, they should not be having fun but raising successful children, then simply waiting to die. No one makes it past their 50th birthday.

The young man is approaching his 25 birthday, and has no girlfriend, no interest in one, and hasn’t thought of what he can contribute to society. Most men have settled by 25, giving up adventures around the age of 23 to get a head start in life.

The town believes you start dying at the age of 30, but he doesn’t buy it. He feels fine and has no interest in business or science, but he is seen as too wild to be allowed to teach the younger generation how to conform to society.

Now that it’s typed out, it doesn’t seem like that much to go on. Not nearly as much as it seemed when I wrote it. But, I’ve got a few days still to outline (if I can put down the book I’m reading, anyway).

I did, however, write some possible first sentences a few weeks ago, when I was doing Franz Kafka’s writing exercises, so I’ll share those with you now.

  1. It boggles the mind to feel so full of life when everyone around you tells you you are dying.
  2. [He] felt as vivacious as ever, despite everyone telling him he only had months of quality living left.
  3. As we grow into our mind, we take for granted certain ideas planted by society, and even if we don’t believe them in our hearts, our minds shout that they must be true.

I’m not sure I’ll use any of these options, or even the ideas, but I’d be interested to hear from you, my readers, if any of these sentences, or even just the gist of them, would entice you to keep reading (if there were more to read, anyway. Also interested in your thoughts on that last one, because I can’t remember now if I wrote that as a possible beginner for this story, or for something different).

Son of a Witch

I finally got around to reading the second installment in the Wicked Years series by Gregory Maguire, and naturally, just enough time had passed for me to forget what had happened in the end of Wicked, the first book.

I’ll recap for those of you who want it.

In the beginning of Son of a Witch, we find an unconscious Liir brought to the mauntery from whence Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, had set out with him years ago. As a young may-be maunt takes care of him, Liir’s mind relives everything he has been through since Dorothy tearfully and regretfully killed the witch.

During this time, Liir has visited the Emerald City and searched for Nor, his maybe half sister who was kidnapped when they were young. He joined the army and did things he regretted.He rediscovered Elphaba’s cloak and broom, the latter of which allows him to fly.

Throughout the story, Liir is wrestling with several questions; was Elphaba his mother? What should he do with his life? Are any of the things he has done meaningful, or did they just seem that way in the moment?

This second installment was very much about developing Liir’s character. He is showing himself to be, to a degree, complacent and cynical, allowing events to happen, even participating in them, but with no motivation or conviction. Yet, when he goes to the Birds’ convention, when he takes on the dragons, and when he returns to Apple Press Farm to find Candle, the young not-maunt who nursed him back to health, he shows signs of changing that character. He is aware of his limp nature, and knows he wants to be something more. At the end of the book, he is primed to pursue that path, with a (his?) green baby at his side.

Son of a Witch is a fun book. It’s got some adventure, and even if you kind of look back and think the book didn’t have anything particularly huge or groundbreaking in it, it’s still well worth the reading. And leaves the stage set for a lot in the third book (which I don’t have, so by the time I read it, I’ll have forgotten everything pertinent in this book. Series are a love-hate thing.).

If you’re looking for something fun, something new, something with character development and growth, the Wicked Years series is the place to go. You’re not likely to be disappointed.

The Shadow Land

You know when you’ve started a book, and you’re committed to finishing it, but as you’re chipping away, your thought process is mostly along the lines of, “aghhh!”?

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova was like that for me.

Now let me say this: it was not a bad book. In fact, it was a good book. But it could have been better. Like, 200 pages less, better. It really wasn’t until around page 350 (out of 477) that the story really picked up and got a move on.

Alexandra Boyd is an American teacher who had just arrived in Bulgaria. One of the first things she does is help and elderly couple and a man get into a taxi, and in so doing, accidentally keeps a piece of their luggage–soon finding out that it is actually an urn filled with human ashes. Imagining these strangers must be distraught at losing something so precious, Alexandra commits to finding the family and returning the urn.

As she and her new Bulgarian friend/taxi driver set out on a search for these people, they get hints and clues that these ashes, belonging to one Stoyan Lazarov, hold a history and story that, to one man in particular, is worth killing for.

The story explores grief, atonement, and hope in the setting of¬† Bulgarian history, setting the scene amid the country’s tumultuous years after World War II (think post-World War II Russia).

Kostova tells a compelling story and develops her characters well; it was easy to feel the anxiety Alexandra experienced, being alone in a new place, suddenly in possession of something that isn’t hers, her mind racing through extreme possibilities, uncertain of how authorities and the urn’s owners might respond to her having it.

You also relate to Stoyan Lazarov, whose history is related throughout the course of the story, understanding the guilt he feels for an ill-considered comment and the difficulty he faces not only surviving a labor camp, but trying to hold on to himself in the process.

No, the difficult part of the story was that the bulk of the first 300 pages was Alexandra and Bobby, the taxi driver, going from place to place, asking after the family and being told they haven’t been seen. And because the book is nearly 500 pages, you know that they aren’t going to find the family in the first 100 or even 200 pages, so you know it’s going to be a lot more fruitless asking.

Kostova uses her pages to set a detailed scene, each place Alexandra and Bobby visit is described minutely and it does come to life, but those descriptions also slowed down the pace of the story.

The other difficult part, for me, anyway, was the jumping from first to third person. Not that it was difficult to follow, she did very well to make it clear whose perspective it was, and in some instances it was a good technique, allowing for the ramblings of an old woman, ramblings that would otherwise be hard to depict, and yet are crucial to that character. The jumping that I didn’t care for was the diary, if you will, of Stoyan Lazarov. I understand that Kostova is trying to draw out that narrative and entwine it with the narrative of the story’s present day, but there is no relation. Snippets of the journal are interspersed with the main story without any seeming rhyme or reason.

The snippets began when the journal pages were first discovered, and to me, it would have made easier reading to have it all together, or weave it in to the story more. Maybe they only read a few pages right off, and they read a few more later. Or perhaps the pages were hidden in other places, so they were continually discovering a few more. Or perhaps they were just returning to them and rereading them. Alexandra seems the type of person who would do that. I liked having that story drawn out and woven in, but, the stickler inside of me wanted some little transition to tell me why I’m getting another snap shot from 50 years ago now, instead of after the last chapter, or after the next chapter.

All in all, The Shadow Land really was a good book. It’s good for people who enjoy history, good for those who enjoy a little intrigue, good for those who just enjoy a well-written story. You just need to be prepared to commit to it, because it gets a little slow in the beginning.

Keep and eye out for The Shadow Land, set for publication April 25.

Creative Writer’s Notebook: Franz Kafka

This week I returned to my writer’s notebook for some more exercises.

First up was practicing writing killer first lines for a project. I can’t claim to have written anything totally killer, but it was fun to try. I decided to work with the idea I’ll be working on in April, as well as writing a line for my November project.

Next was juxtaposition, which was a little harder. This exercise was more about challenging yourself to be paying attention throughout the day and making notes of interesting or weird things. In the midst of my working, sometimes this is hard to do, but definitely something I’d like to practice.

Finally, there were two exercises for writing character descriptions. Each exercise provided a short list of character traits and I wrote them into a description that shows rather than tells. Instead of simply saying a man was tall, divorced and has a bad back, I wove these details into a paragraph that moves the story along (if there was a story, anyway).

These exercises were fun, and give me something to work on for my next projects, both to pay attention during the day and even keep a diary of things that may be useful, as well as making a detailed outline of my characters.

If I make an outline of my characters, I can better weave description into the narrative because I know the important details that I want to include, and I’ll be able to use this in my April project.

Paths of Glory

I’ve seen Jeffrey Archer’s books all over our store and always was interested in reading one. So I’ve been trying to keep Paths of Glory at the top of my to-read list.

Paths of Glory is a historical fiction book about George Mallory, a mountaineer in the early 1900s whose dream was to conquer Mt. Everest. This may sound like a spoiler, but it isn’t (it’s on the back of the book): Mallory died on Mt. Everest in 1924, and no one really knows if he made it to the top, though he made it within 600 feet of the top.

Archer takes creative liberty with the story and begins with a young George Mallory who climbs everything in sight, simply because it is there. Archer narrates Mallory’s life through his school and college years, through romance and climbing adventures, before focusing in on the final years when Mallory’s obsession with Everest became a reality.

Mallory made two excursions to Everest, and three times attempted to reach the summit, promising to place a photograph of his wife at the summit once there.

According to Archer’s rendition of the story, when Mallory’s body was discovered on Everest in 1999, no photograph of his wife was found in his wallet, which could suggest that he and his partner had, in fact, reached the top.

The one thing I felt was missing from this book was a historical note at the end that explained where the lines between history and fiction were crossed in Archer’s story. For example, did he really climb several national monuments in his travels abroad (and get arrested for it)?

In any case, it was a thrilling read and I’m glad I made a point to keep it at the top of my list, and I’m more interested now to explore his other work, even if it isn’t about mountaineers.

Camp NaNoWriMo

It’s a little wild to think it’s been nearly a year since I planned and wrote my children’s book. And yet here we are, with Camp NaNoWriMo coming up again in April, less than a month away.

When I got the reminder email a few days ago, I started thinking, am I going to participate this year? It certainly would be nice to have that extra motivation to get my creative juices flowing. And if I participate, what will I do? The beauty of Camp NaNo is that you can do whatever you want. Work on an unfinished project, edit a draft of something, or start completely from scratch. So the question for me, since I’ve basically decided to do it, is, what exactly do I want to do?

I’ve got a list of un-fleshed-out ideas to choose from, some are merely a beginning with no inkling of where it might go, others are an overview with holes that need patching, and still others are literally one or two sentences that really give very little other than kind of a general theme or character trait. Example: “living in the memories through photographs instead of enjoying life and the present.” Although, this particular story has, in fact, been written, by me, successfully the second time.

So even though I’ve got a list of ideas, I’ve had to look through it to find something that catches my attention and seems like something I want to spend this month planning and next month writing. What I’ve selected falls a little into the dystopian genre, I think (which, honestly is why I’ve avoided it for a while, I just don’t want to hop on the bandwagon, muchless a bandwagon for a genre that isn’t my first choice to begin with). But it gives me ample opportunity to look at various themes that are relevant to my life right now, which is why I write to begin with. Each story is a little part of my life, each character a little reflection of myself. And when I’m writing, I can sometimes understand my own world a little¬† bit better.

So, the glorious synopsis of my new project that I’ve got to work with is as follows: In the town you “live” until you are 20 (now that I’m past 20, I’ll probably bump that age up, maybe 25 or 30), then you start counting down the days and years until your life expires, AKA, do everything you want before you are 20, because after that you must settle down, raise a family and wait to die.

OK, so even just typing that I added a little, but that’s all right. To me, it has a little bit of a giver-type feel. Or maybe it’ll be a little bit like the movie The Village. Either way, in my mind, this town is kind of on its own, it doesn’t interact with neighbors, it doesn’t even have them. So maybe a protagonist will have to leave to discover the truth, or perhaps buck the system and start some kind of resistance. I’m not quite sure yet. I don’t even have a character yet, just an idea. But I’ve got 25 days left to figure it all out, and then I’ll be ready to write.