Sunday, July 6, 2014

All Good Things...

Yes, friends, I think you know how that one goes:  All good things must come to an end.

And here we are at the end.

This will be a bit of an emotional post, since it is the final post you'll read here at the Sisterhood. Yes, you read correctly. This is our final post.

This decision was not made lightly. We've thought about and discussed the closing of the blog for some months now. We've known since April that this summer would be our last. It had to be. The three of us, Lorena, Mary Mary, and Stephanie, have come to a point where we have to move on from contributing to the Sisterhood blog. We are all taking different directions with our writing and, unfortunately, we feel The Writing Sisterhood needs to come to a natural end.

We have loved the writing community we've connected to through this blog and will miss sharing on a weekly basis. To say good-bye, we've all decided to write a closing paragraph or two. Enjoy!

SISTER STEPHANIE

I had never intended to blog, but when my brand-new critique partners Mary Mary and Lorena invited me to join their writing blog, I didn't  have to think twice about it. I was in the midst of a novel, and the idea of writing about writing with other writers was very appealing. Writing can be a lonely business, and there aren't a lot of opportunities to get oneself into a supportive writing community. Critique-partnering was definitely one, but I loved the idea of opening it up to the world. Participating in a blog would also, I figured, give me some writing structure. The blog was on a schedule, so I had to come up with at least one idea every few weeks. Nothing teaches you about a topic more than writing about it. If I wanted to learn more about dialogue, then researching and writing a piece about dialogue would get me further than simply reading about it. I enjoyed getting feedback from other writers and hearing their ideas, too. It was a fruitful venture. 

Of course, there are only so many topics to write about; especially when it comes to a narrow subject like fiction-writing itself. Dialogue, characters, plot, yes. Commercial vs. literary fiction, got it. Why something as appalling as Fifty Shades sells a gazillion copies, check. But I have definitely felt myself digging deep for topics lately, especially since I have my personal blog to attend to as well. My sisters are moving along the path toward publication, which is exciting and time-consuming, and I've got other things vying for my own attention. I will miss the community we have built together at the Sisterhood, and all we have done for each other, but I'm happy to say I know we three writing sisters will be lifelong friends ... and I hope all of our readers will stay in touch with us, too. I will still be at my own blog, so please come on by!


SISTER MARY MARY

When we came up with the idea to start a blog with four different women discussing the highs and lows of the writing world, I loved it from the start. I have been privileged to work with not just these two wonderful writers over the last few years, but also those who have been with us in the past. I will miss the individuals we've connected with during our years at the Sisterhood blog, but I know this is the right timing for the three of us. 

For me, blogging was a new challenge, one I grabbed hold of whole heartedly. As things have changed for me over the past year or so, I've come to realize that it began to feel like more of a chore. I'd find myself searching for some topic that had yet to be discussed at the Sisterhood, when really, what I wanted to do was work on my fiction writing. Perhaps some writers enjoy the weekly schedule of putting out a new post, but for me, this is a good place to stop for now. I'm ready to move away from blogging and focus on my fiction writing and the road to publication. I will definitely be keeping busy. This summer, I started two new novels and I'm working on a play. 

I will, of course, continue to keep in contact with both Stephanie, Lorena, and others of you out there. Stephanie and Lorena's critiquing skills are indispensable, as is their friendship. And, hey, Lorena's now my agent sister! My other book review blog will still be around for a few months, but that one, too, will be ending sometime in August. When the time is right, I'll be back around, but I'm not sure if it will include blogging. Thanks for hanging out with us over the last four years!

SISTER LORENA


Dear readers and friends,

What a wonderful experience this has been! I’m thrilled to have entered such a supportive community and to have met so many of you. I’m also grateful to my sisters, both current and former, for having embarked on this project with me for the last four years. I’ll admit that when I first considered blogging, I was terrified. For one, I had zero experience writing non-fiction and second, I was afraid to open my soul to the world in such a public way. The Sisterhood blog not only helped me develop some skill in interviewing industry professionals as well as writing articles and reviews, but also made me feel comfortable about interacting with other writers online and becoming part of this community.

I don’t know what the future will bring. I may come back to blogging at some point in my life, but for now, I feel a need to close down the blinds and concentrate on a couple of new novels that have been on hold for the last four months. I’m also in the process of revising a beloved novel which has taken over a decade to develop so that my brilliant new agent can start shopping it around!  

I hope this is not a goodbye, fellow writers. I’ll still visit your blogs from time to time and you’ll be able to find me on Twitter. Best of luck to all of you in your careers and I hope we meet again soon!



We wish all of you out there working on the road to publication nothing but the best of luck! Thank you for following us through the last four years!

Lots of Love ,

Sisters Stephanie, Mary Mary, and Lorena

Friday, June 27, 2014

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: Outlander

Welcome to this month's round of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse hosted by the illustrious Armchair Squid! Pull up a chair and pour yourself a mug of coffee or tea!

This month I chose Diana Gabaldon's very first novel Outlander. This wasn't really a random choice. A little over a month ago I attended a event put on by the local library called "A Word With Writers." The featured speakers were Diana Gabaldon and George R.R. Martin. If you'd like to read about the event, visit Sister Lorena's post here.

Once upon a time I had tried to read Gabaldon's novel, but never finished. I knew why. I'd found it incredibly boring. But, after hearing her speak about her work, I thought I'd give Outlander a second chance. I dug around my bookshelf until I found my copy. The front cover was just as dated as I remembered and certainly didn't make me think that the lovely, delicate Claire was much of a beauty.




The cover of my copy. If you open the front
flap you'll find an equally unflattering
picture of Jamie with a late-80s
hairdo.

I flipped my book open to where I'd left off all those years ago, which was less than a quarter of the way through the novel. I even had an old, faded receipt I was using as a bookmark. It's from World's of Fun in Kansas City and says I purchased the amusement park ticket for $28.54 on July 3, 2000. So, yeah, it's been a while since I last cracked this book open.

What did I glean from reading Outlander this time around?

First off, although still boring for most of the story, I managed to get through almost the entire novel. I have to admit that I still have about 100 pages to go, but I've skimmed to the end and have a general idea of what happens. If you don't know how long Outlander is, it clocks in at 850 pages.

Next, I realized that Gabaldon has a certain beauty to the way she writes. I love how she describes Claire's surroundings in the novel. Or even some things that we take for granted. Like giving birth. Near the end, when Jenny, Claire's sister-in-law describes to Claire, who has never had a child, what birthing a baby feels like it becomes such an intimate moment filled with descriptions I never even thought about when I was pregnant. With scenes like that, Gabaldon has a magical touch to the way she writes.

Going back to the boring bit, I was disappointed to find that I felt like I never really got to know the main character, Claire. So many things that would be questions in anyone's head if they fell through time and into a strange world they knew nothing about are not raised. It's as if Claire knew exactly what to expect as soon as she fell through those rocks. No toilets? Not a problem. No bathing? Not a problem. Expected to wear suffocating clothing? Not a problem. Questionable sanitary practices in the 1700s? Not a problem. There were times when I wanted to shake Claire and ask, "Now, tell me how you really feel about the absence or lack of..." How do you go from having toilet paper to none at all and not feel just a bit nervous about the prospect? Claire never seems to mind not having modern-day amenities. And if the argument is because Frank, her modern-day husband, and all his historical research prepared her for something like this, I don't buy it. Simply put, she had no interest in what Frank did. That was apparent in the beginning of the novel. So, because I felt like I didn't really know Claire, all the strings of lovely descriptions, sex, and bits of adventure seemed to drag in many places.

On that note, the novel didn't pick up for me until around page 500 and the witch trial. Now, that I liked, and the next 200 pages were exciting. I didn't know what would happen to Claire. Would she be drowned just to find out if she was a witch? Would her knight in shining armor (a.k.a. Jamie) show up at the last minute? What I was hoping and waiting for throughout the entire novel was whether Claire would end up back at the ring of stones. If you've not read the novel, I won't spoil it for you. Her final decision between choosing Frank or Jamie was the right one, I believe.

Finally, there are some final tidbits that stopped me while reading. Claire spots Geillis's inoculation scar, but, again, she doesn't think one thing about it, and only on a side note brings it up to Jamie. What? I think my mind would be racing with all kinds of questions. Claire, from the modern world of 1945 knows an awful lot of older vocabulary from the 1700s. Somewhere I heard that Gabaldon wrote the time travel aspect because she couldn't get Claire to curb her modern-day tongue. Um, no. As soon as she's back in the 1700s, Claire seems to know all the lingo. I actually wanted more of her worldly tongue in the novel, and just felt disappointed it wasn't there. There's also an awful lot of spanking or talk of spanking going on throughout the novel. Just a head's up.

In the end, if you're debating about whether to read Outlander or not, then keep a few things in mind: 1) Gabaldon is truly a lovely writer, 2) 850 pages was way too long for something that could have used some extra editing, 3) Claire almost seamlessly fits into the 1700s, and 4) after all that, you may or may not be inclined to read the next novel in the series. I have no desire to read the next novel at the moment. But, who knows? Maybe I'll change my mind in, say, fourteen years!

Check out other reviews on the Cephalopod Coffeehouse bloghop:


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Postcards Tell a Story

Recently I came across this article about a postcard from the Titanic that went up for auction. The postcard was reportedly expected to fetch $140,000. Why so much? Because this postcard is a rarity, and it tells a story.

The postcard to be auctioned off.
It says:
"S.S. Titanic, April 11th, 1912. Nearing
Queenstown. Good voyage up to now.
Kind regards to all.
J.W. Gibbons."

You see, the Titanic wasn't any different than the hotels of today. They plastered advertisement on just about anything, including the postcards that served as menus for each class. In this case, Gibbons, a second-class saloon steward, dashed off a quick message to his family back home before the final leg of Titanic's voyage. This postcard offers a rare glimpse into what the second-class passengers had for their breakfast:  "Yarmouth bloaters; grilled ox; kidneys and bacon; American dry hash au gratin; grilled sausage; mashed potatoes and Vienna and Graham rolls." I don't know about you, but that sounds like a filling and hearty breakfast! Very few second-class menu postcards are known to exist, so this one is especially a treasure for any collector.

Front image of the Titanic postcard.

As you can also see, this postcard also tells a story. I bet you're sitting there, wondering whether one Mr. Jacob Gibbons survived the sinking? I'll get to that in a minute.

Postcards have recently taken me on a strange trip down the avenues of history. This postcard story of the Titanic probably wouldn't have sparked much interest in me, if not for the fact that I've been researching some of the largest ocean-liners ever built. By the turn of the 20th century, immigration was at an all-time high for the United States. More and more immigrants were leaving oppressed or violent circumstances in Europe in search of a new beginning elsewhere. The number one destination for most immigrants became the U.S. and most notably, Ellis Island.

I had created a character for my story, but I didn't know where to start or where to place this certain individual. I decided to do what is often given as the first instruction to new writers: "Write what you know." At the turn of the 20th century most immigrants came from eastern Europe, from places like Germany and Austria. There were also many Italians and Irish flooding in. But I don't have much knowledge of those countries, so I went back to the one country I know best, which is France. France was more known for trying to slip prostitutes into the U.S., but they also had many immigrants who came seeking a new life like so many others. I got tangled up in researching French history and soon found myself immersed in the Champagne Riots of 1911. And guess what? I found postcards!


Revolution in Champagne -- 12 April 1911
This is a champagne house that was burned by rioters.
It was located in the city of Äy, which is found in the
Champagne region.
These postcards present some of the best lasting images of a time come and gone. They are like gold to any writer looking for historical information on a topic. 

Yes, it seems a bit strange that someone would pick up a postcard showing a burned out champagne house and decide that it was a good choice on which to write a message back home. History is strange, though. We don't always understand the mindset of the time or why things turned out the way they did. One thing we do have, if it's well-preserved, is a photographic history to offer us some insight into what once happened. That's why I like these postcards. There aren't many photos around about the Champagne Riots, but there are these snippets that are up for sale to avid collectors. They chronicle an important page in France's history.

Speaking of chronicling history, some of the very first "news" footage was filmed during the Champagne Riots. That's the only thing police had when it came to arresting those who partook in the destruction of Äy. I have no idea if the footage exists today (I've had no luck doing some simple online searches), but if anyone does know if the film is out there, I'd love to see it!

So, back to Mr. Jacob Gibbons. You can breathe a little easier, because he survived. He ended up getting rescued from a life boat. As soon as he could, he sent a brief telegram back home that read, "Saved, well, Daddy."

Do you have an interest in historical postcards?

Friday, June 13, 2014

Then and Now

For this month’s post, I decided to participate in a fun blog hop hosted by The Armchair Squid, Suze, Nicki Elson and Nancy Mock called Then and Now, where we’re supposed to watch a movie we loved when we were younger and see what we think of it now. Little did I know that the exercise would prove to be a lot more challenging than I expected. Why? You ask. What could be so hard about watching a movie and talking about it?

Well, first of all, there was the issue of choosing the film. My first impulse was to select a movie from one of my favorite directors, John Hughes, but as you can see here, I’m pretty much obsessed with the man, so how could I rewatch his films with fresh eyes when I never outgrew them? I went through a list of non-Hughes films and there were a few that I recalled fondly that I hadn’t seen in ages, but I was confronted with another problem: FEAR.

As I mention in this post last year, I have become a lot more critical of films and books since I started to write. As my expectations have grown, it’s increasingly difficult to find stories where I can lose myself and not think about what the director or writer were trying to do. My fear when watching a once-beloved film was that I would realize that it was not as wonderful as I remembered, and that nostalgia wouldn't be enough to forgive all the film’s flaws.

I pondered for a few days about movies that I used to like but wouldn’t be overly devastated if I discovered all their imperfections and I finally picked one that:

1) I was desperate to watch when it came out, but had to wait a few years due to my age;
2) was incredibly popular during my childhood years; and,
3) I hadn’t seen in a VERY long time.

So without further ado, I bring you...


Flashdance, for those who haven’t seen it, is the story of an 18-year-old girl who is a welder by day and dancer by night. She lives in a warehouse-turned-apartment with her massive dog and dreams of becoming a ballerina. The problem is she’s a self-taught dancer who doesn’t have the education nor the references to enter the prestigious dance school of her dreams. Her best friends also have goals of their own: one longs to be a professional ice skater while another one is a short-order cook who wants to become a stand-up comedian. As Alex witnesses her friends’ dreams collapse, she must find the strength to go along with hers, even it means swallowing her pride and having to face rejection.

My first reaction when I watched the film again was excitement over the soundtrack. My friends and I used to sing these songs to the top of our lungs (even though we didn’t know what exactly we were saying) and we used to play the tape over and over again during our first dance parties. I am convinced that a big part of Flashdance’s appeal was the music.

The second thing I noticed was how young Jennifer Beals was (I'd thought the character was in her twenties, but she was only eighteen). I also questioned details I'd never considered before: Where is Alex’s family? How did she become so independent at such a young age? How did she meet her mentor, Hanna, the lady who encourages her to apply to dance school? And how and why did her elder friend die? Last but not least, how did she learn to weld (and what on earth was she building)?

 
Another interesting observation is that this time around, her love interest Nick (Michael Nouri) didn’t seem as ancient as I remembered. When I first watched the film in my early teens, I was extremely disappointed with the actor selection (my apologies, Mr. Nouri) mainly because he was SO MUCH OLDER than the protagonist, but now I realize he HAD to be older in order to be her boss and help with her audition.

The other detail that blew my mind was how many sexual comments between Alex and Nick I had missed when I first saw the film (and how I may have been too young when I watched it!). I didn’t even think it was weird that she removes her bra in front of him!  (She probably wants to be more comfortable, I thought.)
 

Plot wise, it’s not the most complex or unpredictable story, but it follows a familiar underdog/Cinderella journey that pleases most audiences. It also offers a few positive messages. One, the 80s became a turning point for women’s fitness. In Flashdance, not only does Alex ride her bike everywhere, but she also works out at her home-gym (an impressive routine which I tried to mimic once but somehow was not as graceful as she was) and lifts weights with her friends. Two, Alex is a good role model. Despite her youth, she has a clear sense of right and wrong (something her best friend doesn’t always have). She initially declines Nick’s invitations because she “doesn’t date the boss,” she’s self-sufficient, doesn’t allow men to disrespect her and saves her best friend from ending up in a strip club for the rest of her life. In addition, she has sophisticated tastes like going to the ballet with her elder friend and eating lobster (in a very provocative manner!) But the best thing is that the film sends an encouraging message about following our dreams no matter how far-fetched and difficult they may seem.

In the end, I’m happy to report that I still found this film enjoyable.

 
What do you think of it?

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Dear Adult Readers of YA Fiction: Shame on You!


Friday, box-office records were shattered as John Green fans flocked to the theaters for the premier of The Fault in Our Stars, the film adaptation of his mega-bestselling YA novel. If you haven't read the book yet and intend to, though, please make sure you are 17 or under. If not, you are an embarrassment to yourself and other adults everywhere. An embarrassment.

At least, that's the pronouncement by Ruth Graham, a writer who caused a bit of a stir with this article published in Slate magazine this week. In it, Graham wags the naughty stick at adult readers who play in the kiddie pool of YA fiction. As she bluntly puts it, "Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children." Marching straight out of Corinthians 13:11, she exhorts us to put away our childish ways and resign ourselves to our grim fates: nothing but a diet of literary broccoli sprouts for you, old readers! Fun times are over.


Some of our readers here might be surprised to find me less than sympathetic to Graham's attitude, since I've often professed my belief that reading challenging material stretches a person and reading junky books does not. I am not one who thinks reading, all by itself, is edifying. I would rather my kids sit down in front of quality television than curl up with Twilight. But I also think pleasure for pleasure's sake is a fine thing. In Graham's world, to the contrary, if you are getting pleasure from a YA book you're doing it wrong. "The very ways that YA is pleasurable are at odds with the way that adult fiction is pleasurable," she writes. One imagines Graham's "pleasurable adult fiction" existing in a lofty airless room, white and sterile, at the top of an ivory tower—with YA books relegated to a basement full of crayons and stuffed animals.

It is a measure of how parochial Graham's reading habits are that she has bifurcated the choice between these two extremes, and that she doesn't even think of other genres competing for the adult reader's attention. "If [adults] are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something," she writes. This is just silly: one imagines some serious woman with a sleek, silver bun and tiny spectacles wandering into a dusty bookshop in search of War and Peace and skipping out with aviator shades, a mohawk, and a copy of Why We Broke Up. Readers generally know what they intend to read. If they're keen on complex adult literature, they're unlikely to accidentally find themselves reading Harry Potter.



Not only is Graham worried about the bad effects on adults who read YA fiction, she is worried that teenagers will never graduate to the serious stuff. "I remember, when I was a young adult, being desperate to earn my way into the adult stacks," she writes. "I wouldn’t have wanted to live in a world where all the adults were camped out in mine ... But the YA and 'new adult' boom may mean fewer teens aspire to grown-up reading, because the grown-ups they know are reading their books." What? How does that even follow? First of all, I don't know why she was desperate (and apparently unable) to read adult books when she was young. The rest of us managed. I started reading Stephen King when I was about 13, and most of my friends were reading VC Andrews' Flowers in the Attic even before that. As for "real adult literature," that was hardly kept on a high shelf out of our reach. It was thrust upon us well before we could appreciate it—it was called "English class." Finally, Graham's entire premise is flawed: Just because an adult reads John Green does not mean a teenager will never go on to read Cormac McCarthy.


Cormac McCarthy, you say? That's not what Graham's talking about; that's not literature. Well, McCarthy won a Pulitzer for The Road, a novel as creepy as any Stephen King and as likely to be appreciate by a teen audience. Which underlines yet another problem with Graham's piece: the division between genres is often arbitrary. Salinger, with his angsty adolescent protagonists, would likely be marketed as YA today. And anyone who has read Junot Diaz (another Pulitzer winner) will have a hard time distinguishing his sex-crazed, profanity-spewing young protagonists from those produced by a YA writer. I've read dozens of award-winning adult literary books in the past few years that have caused me, here and there, to cringe. No so for Graham, apparently, who claims, "I think of John Updike and Alice Munro and other authors whose work has only become richer to me as I have grown older, and which never makes me roll my eyes." Really? Updike? The man who was notorious for writing terrible sex scenes? One example: "He loved it when she would clamp his face between her thighs like a nutcracker and come." Like a nutcracker. Not even a tiny eye roll for that one, Ms. Graham?



So I have a few guesses to make about Graham: she hasn't read Updike recently, she doesn't read much of what she's judging, and she doesn't have teenage kids. That final point is important, because most adults I know who read YA do so because their kids are reading it. It's conventional wisdom that teenagers want to be left alone, don't want adults listening to their music or reading their books, and Graham echoes this. But is it true? The teenagers I know, including my own kids and those of my friends, enjoy having cultural touchpoints in common with adults. Both my kids not only read many of the same books I do, but actively look to me for book suggestions. My oldest child, 16, reads YA but in the past year has also read The Poisonwood Bible, The Life of Pi, Oryx & Crake, Purple Hibiscus, The Kite Runner, and Never Let Me Go—voluntarily. Some teachers at her school formed an extracurricular book club, just for fun, and plenty of teens signed up. They read only literary fiction. Right now she is reading another John Green novel, but she's also reading this book by Joshua Greene.

If my kids didn't want me "camped out" in their book world, they probably wouldn't be recommending their own books to me, would they? And yet if they discover a book they love, they not only encourage me to read it, they sometimes pester me to. That's how I ended up reading The Fault in Our Stars, in fact: I was harassed into it—and glad to be. My daughter and I had a great time discussing it afterward, and now we're bugging little brother to read it. Although we might simply go to see it in the theaters...if Ruth Graham and the YA police will let me in.



Friday, May 30, 2014

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: Rebecca

I got bogged down with some difficult books this month, which slowed my reading considerably. I reviewed my actual favorite book on my personal blog, so I'm kind of covering the leftovers here. BUT! That's not to say I didn't like any of them. In fact, my second-favorite novel of the month was Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, and I liked it quite a lot.

But first, real quick, what slowed me down: I waded through Long Man, a new novel that's receiving rave reviews but which just never quite grabbed me. Possibly I needed the audiobook companion ... more and more, I find it difficult to get into books unless I have a couple solid hours with a good audiobook version. On the flipside, I listened to an audiobook lecture titled Philosophy of Mind that was not exactly boring, but was technical and difficult. I thought I was reasonably good at philosophy, in a layperson way, but no. I found a lot of the content so abstract and almost mathematical as to be nearly impenetrable. And because it was only aural, I kept losing my concentration. Lesson learned: have an audio and visual copy of most anything before jumping in. (Yay for libraries.)

On to Rebecca. Although I got a degree in English literature, I'd never read du Maurier before. Last year Rebecca kept coming up in book review after book review. It seemed every new novel was an homage in some way to this 20th-century classic. So, because a book about a haunting kept haunting me, I figured I ought to give it a whirl.

My first surprise was that it was a 20th-century novel. I was thinking... ghosts and English estates and brooding lords-of-the-manor, gotta be 1820 or so. That would be because the novel draws heavily on the Bronte sisters. However, it's actually fairly modern, more Great Gatsby than Wuthering Heights. Rebecca was published in 1938, the same year this photo was taken:


That is my grandmother. Isn't she lovely? She was 21 at the time, approximately the same age as the nameless narrator who tells the story of Rebecca. The narrator is a stand-in for du Maurier herself, who wrote the novel as an exploration of her own jealousy—her husband had a previous paramour that du Maurier suspected he was still a little in love with. (My grandmother, as far as I know, never had this issue.) Rebecca is not really a ghost story, I discovered—or at least not the story of an actual ghost. There is nothing supernatural here, in spite of the gothic setting and tone. The titular Rebecca does indeed haunt the narrator, but she does it by simply having existed and lived a huge life that the narrator, her opposite, constantly bangs into. Where the narrator is small, self-effacing, plain, uptight, moral, and a bit weedy, Rebecca was tall, extravagant, beautiful, luscious, and wicked.

Of course, the real center of the story is the truly evil Mrs. Danvers. The housekeeper steals every scene she is in. I couldn't help thinking of Frau Blücher from Young Frankenstein whenever she was described ... which made me giggle a little, which in turn took some of the creeping horror away from those scenes. That didn't stop me from gasping at one of the truly over-the-top scenes in the middle of the book, which was as delicious as it was theatrical. (For those who've read it: the bit where the narrator and Danvers are looking out the window over the paving stones.)

Stay close to zee candles. Zee stairway can be ... treacherous
Once I got into this book, I was turning pages pretty feverishly. But it took a while. The narrator is a wimp, and wimpiness doesn't sit too well with modern readers, myself included. I had to keep reminding myself that novels aren't (always) prescriptive, and protagonists are not and shouldn't always be expected to be heroes. Protagonists should be allowed the full range of human experience, and cowardly, sniveling people have stories to tell too. We may not like being inside such a person's head, but if the story is plausible and well-written, with interesting characters, it's worth sitting with a problematic protagonist. It was for me.

Want to read other Cephalopod Coffeehouse reviews, and/or participate in future ones? Visit our host, the Armchair Squid

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Starring: Tom Hardy's Face

I went to see the movie Locke this week, after hearing nothing but praise about the film from every critic I trust. It was not showing in the megaplex, but in a theater that tends toward Sundance and Cannes winners, so that gives you a notion of what the film is like. The other thing you need to know before going (which I did know, and which I warned my two companions to expect) is that the entire movie is set inside a BMW. Tom Hardy is the only human being we see, and he does nothing more than talk on the phone (and to himself) for the 85-minute duration. It's set in real time, so his 85 minutes are your 85 minutes.


When I told my son about the premise, he said, "That sounds awful." And I have to agree ... it does sound awful. And yet—it works. It certainly is a refreshing change-up from the CGI-filled, city-destroying, fire-breathing, smash-everything, superhero explody megamovies one usually finds in the theaters this time of year. (Or any time of year.) There's not much less cinematic than a dude talking into space for an hour and a half.

So how does this film work? Well, first, think of the screenplay as akin to Waiting for Godot (cited in the film, surely not by accident), in which the setting is static and dialogue is everything. Very good dialogue can carry a story forward, and the writing does about half the heavy lifting in this film. (So, writers: take note.) Tom Hardy's face does the rest of the lifting. For those who are familiar with his work, you already know what a phenomenal actor Hardy is. He is a chameleon, not a type actor. He can be the impassioned Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, the cold, evil Bane from The Dark Knight Rises, or the silky, charismatic Eames from Inception. If there is one thing that holds true from character to character for him, it's a sense that he's simmering. Hardy always a bit coiled, a bit ready to explode. He brings that panther-like impression to his Locke character in this movie, which is one way the audience's attention is held rapt. When will this Locke fellow lose his shit? You know it's got to happen at some point.

You know it's going to happen because during the 85-minute car ride, Ivan Locke's life falls apart. We begin with him at his workplace, somewhere outside of London, where he is a foreman in a construction company that is just about to undertake “the biggest concrete pour in the history of Europe, barring nuclear and military.” So this is the eve of the biggest job of his career, and in the next few hours quite a bit hinges on the decisions he makes—and that's just at work. He's been a company man, a solid man, reliable and steady, for nine years. But as everyone is about to discover, he has not been entirely responsible. Almost, but not entirely. Almost a perfect employee. Almost a perfect husband and father.


As his wife is soon to remind him, almost counts for nada. One of the first calls he takes is from Bethan, a woman who is not his wife and who, we learn, is about to give birth to his child. Bethan is "quite old, she's forty-three," and "not an oil painting." The child was begat seven months ago, on a night that included two bottles of wine, forced time away from the wife, quite a bit of stress and loneliness, and a dose of pity for poor "old" Bethan. [On behalf of all 43-year-olds out there, meanwhile, I protest.] Bethan's labor has begun two months before term, so Locke has made a sudden decision to meet her at the hospital, rather than go home to a wife and two sons who have been waiting for him, anxious to watch the big football match.

Ivan Locke is a man determined to make things right. He knows he made a horrible mistake and he's determined not to muck things up more than they already are. He is a man, above all, trying to be a man. A real man, the kind who faces up to his responsibilities. What's driving him, we soon find out, is the spectacular failure of his own father. One of Locke's most impassioned conversations in the car is the one he has with his invisible, long-gone father. I would not qualify this bit of the film as one of its successes: all three of us were convinced for a bit that Locke was raving at a body in the trunk or something. The camera picks a few stand-ins for the father, including a patch of light in the rear window, a pair of headlights, and a backseat. It's confusing and a little odd.

While he's dealing with his daddy issues, meanwhile, things are going to hell with the construction project. (Of course they are: you don't have a story unless things are going to hell, and you especially don't have a man-driving-a-car story in which disaster isn't imminent.) Locke was supposed to guide the project to completion that very night, but because of the Bethan emergency he's ceding control to his deputy, the hapless Donal. While things go sideways with scared, drunken Donal, Locke also has to let his boss (whom Locke has labeled "Bastard" on speed dial ... layers of meaning there, of course) know that he's taking off for London, and why. "Bastard" is not happy. Locke gets yelled at. A lot. By everyone.

Hardy chooses to play Locke with a beautiful, melodious Welsh accent, which helps illustrate the careful control the character is trying to maintain. As tears well up and eventually spill down Locke's cheeks, his voice remains firm, reassuring, reasonable. Meanwhile, because it is Hardy on the screen, we can see the control beginning to slip. When will he explode?




In spite of what I said about Godot, this film is not entirely static. It wouldn't make a good play. The cinematography, in fact, is key to maintaining tension. There are lights all around Locke. His face is bathed in light. Headlamps in his rearview mirror, traffic lights, oncoming headlights, brake lights ... and a lot of emergency vehicles. The audience may not even consciously notice all the ambulances sharing the road with Locke's Beemer, but these flashing lights and sirens plant the expectation of disaster. Locke is also as distracted a driver as you could get: he chugs down cough medicine, stares at his phone, reads pages of information to Donal, and argues with his invisible father in the backseat. His eyes are off the road quite a lot, and when they are on the road, we notice oncoming lights going in and out of focus, as if that's how Locke is seeing it. He looks exhausted, he's tearful, he's half-asleep. And then we get the call that the birth may not be going well, so in addition to wondering how that story is going to turn out, we're left wondering whether Locke will even survive long enough to get to the hospital. Tension, tension. It's how you keep an audience at the edge of their seat while never leaving one small claustrophobic setting.

In the end, I felt Locke was a redemption story, the story of an Everyman who has made his mistakes and is dealing with them head on. Locke is not a superhero, he's a regular hero. An ordinary working stiff and family man who's doing his level best not to screw it all up too badly. Students of philosophy won't miss the reference to John Locke, and indeed director Steven Knight says the title character's name is not a coincidence. "Although these events won’t make the paper or the local news, for the people involved it’s the end of the world and that does deserve a film, it’s worthy of drama," Knight says in this interview. "Just deciding that in an ordinary man’s life there are events that are tragedy, in the classic sense. He’s called Locke because he’s the John Locke philosopher of rationality, and he’s trying to do stuff logically." Not only that, but John Locke believed humans were blank slates, whose selves were determined by deliberate action and choice. The choices Ivan Locke makes in these 85 minutes determine what kind of man he is and will be; by his own definition, by his own will.

A few interesting facts I learned about the movie as I researched it for this piece:

• Hardy didn't learn the lines; he read them from a script that was projected in front of him, and in some scenes he reacted organically to live phone calls from the other actors.

• The whole film was shot in eight days.

• The movie was filmed in real time, as if it were indeed a play. They did not stop for reshoots. From the NY Times: "In effect, they shot the entire film twice a night, breaking only to change the cameras’ memory cards, every 27 minutes."

• Most of the time Hardy sat in a car that was itself sitting on a flatbed attached to the back of a truck. The truck was driven down a highway as the crew filmed.

Have you seen Locke? What did you think? If you haven't seen it, does the premise intrigue or repel you?

From www.rottentomatoes.com

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Word with Diana Gabaldon and George R. R. Martin

Last weekend, my writing sisters and I attended a fun event sponsored by our city library and a local bookstore. A Word with Writers consists of a candid conversation between two acclaimed authors who share experiences and anecdotes about their writing. The inaugural lecture featured none other than the beloved Diana Gabaldon, the author of the Outlander series, and George R. R. Martin, the brains behind the successful Game of Thrones. They both had a lot to say about what inspired their work and what their writings processes are like. Here are some of the evening’s highlights.



About their backgrounds and what inspired their books:

Gabaldon’s background is very interesting because she’s a scientist with degrees in zoology, marine biology and ecology. She blames her father for this copious amount of studying since when she was young, he had told her that she was a “poor judge of character” and would probably marry badly. To avoid a life or poverty, he recommended that she became a self-reliant professional. Gabaldon obediently got her PhD.

In her mid-thirties, Gabaldon decided to write a novel, more as practice than anything (she didn’t intend for anyone to read her work). Since she was so good at doing research and she liked history, she decided it would be a historical novel. Now the only question was where/when should she set it? The answer came to her while she was watching an episode of Dr. Who and spotted a man in a kilt. She was so taken by this man that she decided to write about a Scotsman. Being that a novel requires conflict (to her own admission, this was all she knew about novel-writing) she settled on the Scottish wars against England during the 1700s. Of course, she needed a woman to create some sexual tension with this beautiful man. Claire came to Gabaldon through an image of a woman in a cave full of men. She was English and very different from other 18th century women. When Claire opened her mouth, she recited her full name. There was nothing Gabaldon could do to tame her modern spirit. She fought with her throughout the novel, but eventually gave up and told her: “Go ahead and be modern, I’ll figure out why later.”  In that sense, she confesses, the time-traveling element in Outlander was an accident.

In contrast, Ser George had always been a writer and a reader. He was a Sci Fi, Fantasy and Horror fan—which used to be the same genre—and as a child, he wrote and sold horror stories to other kids. He eventually earned a master's degree in journalism. For many years, he worked in Hollywood as a TV writer in shows such as The Twilight Zone and The Beauty and the Beast, but there came a time where he wanted to work on his own stories, and so he turned to novel writing. When asked about his inspiration, he mentioned Tolkien as a big influence.

About their writing processes:

Martin offered an interesting analogy for writers. He said there are two kinds of novelists: gardeners and architects. An architect designs a blueprint, plans how he’s going to develop it and then does it. A gardener digs a hole in the ground, throws seeds and water, and hopes something will grow. Martin admits he’s a gardener. When he started A Song of Ice and Fire, he didn’t have a clear idea of where he was going with the story. All he had was the first scene and characters who kept telling him what they wanted. But characters can be treacherous, he says, and like a gardener he sometimes has to pull out weeds—which might explain why he kills so many of them!

Following the same analogy, Gabaldon also calls herself a gardener. However, her process is not linear, like Martin’s, but “organic.” She gets an image in her head and fleshes it out into a scene. Once she has several chunks, or scenes, she stitches them together into a narrative. She admits that when she started she didn’t know anything about writing novels (she had, however, written a 400-page dissertation). So she set two rules for herself: a) she wouldn’t stop, no matter what, and b) she would do the best she could.

Before she was done with the first Outlander book, she found an agent who was so taken with her story he signed her on right away and sold her book in four days. She didn’t originally plan to write so many sequels, she just knew that “there was more.” Her agent originally got her a three-book deal, but the novels kept coming.  Her writing is so accidental that her next series following the adventures of Lord John, a secondary character in the Outlander series, came about because she was invited to participate in an anthology of short stories. Since she didn’t want to interfere with Outlander’s main characters and plot, she thought of Lord John—who then took a life of his own.

Martin agreed with Gabaldon in that he didn’t plan to write such a long series either, but he was happy to do it since readers nowadays love to follow characters for 10-15 years. He says his entire series is one continuous story told in several books.


Diana Gabaldon and George R. R. Martin signing autographs

About their use of language:

Since Martin’s novels are set in a “quasi medieval world” he had to find a balance between modern syntax (so the audience wouldn’t be lost) and flavoring his text with archaic words to give the novel a proper context and avoid anachronisms. He called this the “common tongue of all fantasy novels.” He initially overused words like “mayhaps” or “forsooth,” but his editor objected. They reached a compromise by having the older characters use these terms and the younger ones employing a more modern language—as it tends to happen in real life.

Martin did not invent languages the way Tolkien did (he joked that Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings just so he could use his languages) but he made up five words of High Valyrian, and will make up a 6th if necessary. For the show, however, whole languages had to be invented since you can't just say, "She said in High Valyrian." Now when he writes a scene, he has to call HBO to ask how a character might say something in whatever language. The show hires people whose hobby is to invent languages with proper syntax and grammar to develop Dothraki and High Valyrian. As a funny anecdote, Martin mentioned that a fan once requested a High Valyrian dictionary.

Gabaldon mentioned that she has a few translators who help her with Gaelic, and she loves the sound of it.

About their TV shows:

Gabaldon announced that the Outlander series is now in production. The producer, who had previously worked in Battlestar Galactica, took two days to talk to her about the show. They decided that as a prologue, they would show a scene of Claire in a military hospital during WWII. Gabaldon had a blast inside the “Outlander world.” She admitted that at first she didn’t like the actor selected to play Jamie Fraser, but after seeing his audition she knew he would be absolutely perfect for the role (even though he accidentally said "OK" during a scene where Jamie was being pressured to marry Claire).

It took a lot longer to find Claire and poor Sam had to go through innumerable "chemistry tests.” Eventually, they found an actress who had the right chemistry with Sam and would play the perfect Claire. When someone asked Gabaldon if she would like to write for TV, she confessed she’s not a team player and likes to keep control of her writing.

Martin, on the other hand, mentioned that he writes one script per season and would love to write more, but he has yet to finish two 1500-page books. Yeah, you read correctly.

What’s interesting is that both shows will share actors. Apparently the BBC has churned out twenty or so actors, who participate in everything involving an English or Scottish accent. Every single one of them is in Game of Thrones, and, according to Martin, will appear in the Outlander series after they are killed off from GoT. (Ha!)

Anecdotes and questions:

Martin was asked which part of Westeros he'd choose to live in, if he could. He said Dorn. "It's warm, the women are warm and the food is spicy. It's New Mexico!"

Gabaldon mentioned that during an interview with a German reporter, tired to keep her tongue in check, she said she loved a man in a kilt because "you know he could have you up against a wall in 30 seconds."

When asked about their thoughts on self-publishing, neither one of them recommended it. Martin said writers are supposed to write, not publish or market books. He commented how sad it was to see writers desperately trying to sell their work in Bubonicon conferences and such, and how people often avoid them. Martin thinks that self-publishing is only a good idea for well-known authors whose names alone sell books.

They both acknowledged that it’s not easy to break into publishing, but the only thing a writer can do is keep writing.

In spite of the fans who wanted hints about how both series will end, neither Gabaldon nor Martin said a word. The only thing Gabaldon admitted to was having written the last scene ten years ago. “How I will get there is an entirely different question,” she said.



On a side note:
 
This has been a year of changes and exciting new opportunities for me. I would like to share some of them with you, my dear readers. First, I have a new agent for my generational saga (the first novel I wrote) the awesome Liza Fleissig of the Liza Royce Agency! Last but not least, my historical novel, The Black Letter, has made it to the Amazon Breakout Novel Contest Quarter Finals! If you’d like to take a look, you can find an excerpt here
 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Some of the Best (and Worst) Moms in Entertainment!

I had a completely different post in mind for this week, but the Sisters convinced me to go with a Mother's Day theme. I thought a lot about how to narrow down the broad range of mother portrayals out there, and I couldn't come up with just one medium of entertainment to use. So, here are moms you'll find in film and television and which ones I enjoy and ones that make me so glad I had my own mom raising me. It's kind of a mixed bag, so feel free to let me know about your favorites!

MOTHERHOOD ACCORDING TO DISNEY

Now, I know there are those single fathers who are thrown into the mix like Belle's father in Beauty and the Beast and Jasmine's father in Aladdin, but, hey, dads have there own day, so let's focus on the mothers.



Snow White's Evil Queen
Wouldn't you want to sit across from her
at Thanksgiving?



  • Worst mothers in a Disney film:  I'd think most of you would agree that stepmothers get a bad rap when run through the almighty Disney machine and spit out on the other side. You have Snow White running for her life and eventually living with seven little men. I can't imagine any mother wanting her daughter to live with another man at Snow White's age, let alone seven of them. But, when your Evil Stepmother is out to kill you, you take what you can get. At least they were nice little men. Snow White's mother takes the cake for horrible mothering skills, but Cinderella's stepmother ranks right up there with her. Not only does she ban Cinderella to the ashes of the kitchen, but she locks her away in the attic when the Prince shows up. Keeping a girl from her man, especially a nice man like the Prince, is like playing with fire. Last but not least is Mother Gothel and the Tangled web she weaves. Like the witchy Evil Stepmother's downfall in Snow White, I also enjoy Mother Gothel's disappearing demise in the end.


  • Queen Leah looking very worried.
  • Best mothers in a Disney film:  I don't know if all of you would agree with me, but I have a soft spot for Aurora's (Sleeping Beauty's) mother. Here is a woman who sadly gives her brand new baby over to three fairies just so her daughter can stay alive. For me, that is such a heart-wrenching moment in the film. Grant it, maybe she should have swallowed her pride and invited Maleficent to the christening, but who would've wanted such a malicious woman like that at the special event? I think Maleficent dug her own grave when she placed a spell of death on the innocent baby. Then there's the saddest mommy story of all when it comes to a Disney film: Bambi's mother. 'Nuff said.
MOTHERHOOD ACCORDING TO PIXAR

Do you see my animation theme here? Don't worry. I'll get into some harding hitting stuff here in a minute.

She's not seen very often in the films, but here's Andy
with his mom in the Toy Story 3.

  • Worst mothers in a Pixar film:  Where's Boo's mother in Monster's Inc.? This little girl is missing for what seems like days in the human world, but we never know if her mother is worried about where her toddler has run off to. On another note, I think Remy's mother has way too many children to look after in Ratatouille. There should be a limit on the number of rats a rat can have.
  • Best mothers in a Pixar film:  Worst is harder with this category. Pixar does a great job at creating kick-ass, loving, and hard-working mothers. One of my favorites would have to be Andy's mom from Toy Story. She seems to have a sense of humor, and when you watch all three films and follow her over time, you know she's always had Andy's best interests at heart. Another personal favorite of mine is Elastigirl from The Incredibles. She puts up with a lot, especially when it comes to fights at the dinner table and saving her family from imminent danger. She's one tough cookie. Finally, I don't think I could round out this category without mentioning Queen Elinor, Merida's mother from Brave. It's not my favorite Pixar film, but their story is one of sincere mother and daughter love.
MOTHERHOOD ACCORDING TO TELEVISION

I know, I know. This is a broad category and I bet many of you fear I'm going to include June Cleaver. (Ironically enough, Barbara Billingsley, the actress who played June, was a single mom off-screen.) No, my plan is to focus on samples from the last twenty years, so don't worry.



If you haven't watched it and you
love the 80s, well...what are
you waiting for!

  • Worst mothers on television:  If you're a fan of Revenge, then you've got to know that the most scheming mother in the world shows up there: Victoria Grayson. She has one of the most fantastic wardrobes, but sometimes all her malicious scheming makes my head hurt. Then there's Regina from Once Upon a Time who has an adopted son she barely pays any attention to. Why should she when she's busy taking down Storybrooke? I always find it interesting that Alexis on Castle has a mother who's consistently AWOL. I haven't been able to watch the last half of this season, so I don't know if she pops up at all. All I know is that she certainly didn't partake in many of the child rearing duties. I don't want to inundate you with too many, because I'm sure you have many other awful mothers circling in your minds. These are simply a sample.
  • Best mothers on television:  Can I just say that even though she's a bit dippy at times that I absolutely love Lindsay and Sam's mom on Freaks and Geeks? Even though she reads her daughter's diary during that one episode, she learns from her mistake. Another, more recent, television mother who makes me roar with laughter is Beverly Goldberg on The Goldbergs. She loves her "scrumptious" boys, puts up with a pants-less husband most of the time, and does her best not to cuss out the neighbors when their son breaks up with her daughter. Priceless. Another mom I'll throw into this category to round it out is Tami Taylor from Friday Night Lights. She juggles a new baby, a temperamental husband, and an irate teenage daughter. And she always looks good doing it!
MOTHERHOOD ACCORDING TO FILM

Movies are perhaps the most relatable, since many of us have viewed the same films. Again, as I did with the other categories, I'll only give a sample of the many moms who have graced the Silver Screen.
If you haven't seen Grey Gardens,
then you're missing out on a
crazy good film!
  • Worst mothers in film:  If you're a fan of films from the 70s, then you know that Joanna Kramer in Kramer vs. Kramer is the poster child (mom?) for child abandonment. She leaves the family once, only to come back over a year later to gain sole custody of her son. She gets custody, but then leaves him behind once more. Nothing like glamorous abandonment with Meryl Streep playing the role. One bad mommy role that always gives me the creeps is April Wheeler from Revolutionary Road. The woman is so hell-bent on aborting her child that she's willing to risk her own life by doing the procedure herself, but winds up botching the whole thing in the process. And, of course, the role of horrible mothers wouldn't be cemented without a little Mommie Dearest on the side for portraying the psychotic nature of Joan Crawford. Last, but not least, I want to give a shout out to Grey Gardens. If you haven't seen it, you definitely should. Just bring a strong stomach with you.
  • Best mothers in film:  In Little Women, mother Margaret (Marmee) is always there for her daughters. She lets them be themselves during a time when it was hard for a woman to step out of any role set in stone for her. At the same time, though, she makes sure to teach them about helping the poor, loving their neighbor, and strengthening their own self-worth. Stepmom with Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts is one of those films where you're glad to see the bond between two women trying to take care of the same set of kids. It's touching to see as their relationship melts from one of anger and cold indifference to an understanding that the baton will be passed and how to best go about doing it. Stepmoms don't seem as evil as they should be in this film. Finally, The Blind Side is one of those movies that makes you glad that people are willing to adopt children at any age. Leigh Anne Tuohy doesn't see only an aspiring ball player, but a young man struggling to keep his head above water enough to graduate high school.

A sweet one to watch with your
mom if you haven't done so
already!
Okay, so that's just a sampling of films to give you an idea of what I see as good mommy roles verses bad mommy roles. You may agree, disagree, or simply be indifferent to the whole thing, but whatever you do, go watch a great Mother's Day film with your mom. 

HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY!

Let me know what great mom films you like (or despise)!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Death of the Independent Bookstore

For a few years we had a real treasure in our neighborhood: a locally-owned bookshop. It was in a shopping plaza nestled between a coffee shop and a bike store. Both those businesses failed but the book store persisted. And then it expanded: from a fairly mainstream setup, like a smaller-scale Barnes & Noble, it went niche and grew. They acquired another location nearby — though not, unfortunately, adjacent — and opted to brand themselves as a children's bookshop. One location stocked mostly baby through middle-grade books, with a few shelves of nonfiction; the other concentrated on YA books and speculative fiction, although it had a healthy stock of general fiction as well. Around Christmas, when I went in to do my usual holiday shopping, I saw they were clearing a space for a coffee bar. A few months later I went in on a Friday night and a local band was playing: this was, they told me, a regular Friday event now. The YA store had become (appropriately) a hangout for teens. Only ... very few teens were actually in the store. Nobody was really in the store.
Then, last week, I saw the news on their Facebook page: "With heavy hearts we are facing the last days of our wonderful bookstore adventure. We will be closing our doors this summer." I can't say I was entirely shocked, as too frequently I was the only shopper there, but I was very disappointed. This bookstore added to the community what independent bookstores always add: a place to meet other book nerds, a warm and intellectual richness to the plaza, a shopping space that was quiet and peaceful, and a place to go and get book recommendations from real people. Knowledgable people. I had come to know the men and women who worked at our bookshop, and we'd fall into long geeky conversations about our favorite books, often excitedly running to the shelves to pull out some treasure, pressing into each other hands and gushing, "You have got to read this!" The kind of recommendations I got from these guys was totally different than what Amazon's big-data bots would tell me to buy. Just yesterday, the Bookshop Guy handed me this book to read — a quirky little delight, he said, that I'd never have heard of otherwise.

So what's killing these bookstores? I suspect one problem in this case was just a matter of sinking too much money into the store too quickly, expanding beyond what it was able to sustain. It was doing OK when it was just the one store. But in general, one cause is obvious: print books are giving way to ebooks. For a quality rant on this topic, you can read Seth Godin's grumpy-old-man screed here. Although I do find it a bit odd for a young technophile to be this curmudgeonly about ebooks, he has plenty of company. Most people, I have found, feel and think this way about books these days ... even as they participate in the new, "worse" paradigm.


Another cause, which encompasses the former, is capitalism. As much as I favor Adam Smith over Karl Marx, it's not hard to see various downsides of laissez-faire these days. Market forces are rarely going to favor tiny-local over giant-corporate, so any shop that is local and independently owned is inherently fragile. You can find lots of blogs and articles urging consumers to buy local, to support independent alternatives, to keep City X "weird," and so forth. But exhortations are unlikely to overcome the allure of cheap goods ... especially when said goods can be delivered right to your door. (Or to your e-reader.) I can't see a way out of this, myself: it seems we're on an irrevocable course to the disappearance of all things small and local and to the Walmartization of everything.

Hmm ... now I'm the one being curmudgeonly.


But wait! Rescuing me from this doom and gloom is a wisp of promise. As I began writing this piece, I googled "death of independent bookstore," because of course. Curiously, however, most of the hits I got were about the resurgence of independent bookstores. Apparently, in spite of the death of my neighborhood shop, many indie bookstores are doing all right. The key seems to be "small and niche." Of course, our store tried that tactic and it didn't work, but they may have been working against a few other obstacles, too. Expanding too quickly, as I noted earlier, and locating themselves in a shopping plaza without much foot traffic. When I've gone to successful indie bookshops in other cities, such as this one and this one, I've noticed that they're located in pedestrian-heavy areas, especially in vibrant downtowns. Foot traffic and local-indie go together. People who are out shopping as an event, like tourists, or girlfriends having a shop + coffee afternoon, are the kind of people who end up patronizing the cute little bookshop. It's not the sort of destination people build into their schedule, like trips to the grocery store.

For local indie bookstores to survive and thrive, they (and we who love them) have to think of what they offer that Barnes & Noble does not, that Amazon does not. What magical ingredients could we think of to help this happen? Combining bookshop with coffee shop? Book shop with ... wine bar? (Now that would draw me in.) Cookbookery shop with cookware and specialty foods store?

What do you think could keep these community assets alive ... or do you (like Farhad Manjoo) think it's time for these "cultish, moldering institutions" to give up the ghost, already?

Parnassus Books: author Ann Patchett's own indie bookshop

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: Waiting to be Heard


By now, you’ve probably heard of Amanda Knox. You may even have an opinion about her case and whether or not you think she was involved in the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher. My interest in the case started when Amanda was acquitted a couple of years ago, but it grew with recent developments (in January, her appeal was reversed). In addition to the popularity of the case, I became interested in her memoir as a source of research for my third novel since it also deals with an exchange student who gets into trouble abroad.

After all that has been said about Amanda on news shows, magazines, the internet and even a made-for-TV movie, Amanda finally gives us her version of the story. In a prose that is easy to follow and insightful, we meet Amanda a few months before she moves to Perugia, Italy. We get to know her parents, her siblings and her sometimes quirky and adventurous nature in her native Seattle, where she has planned in some detail her year of studies in Italy—a lifelong dream of hers.

Amanda is not very different from other people her age who travel abroad. I also traveled to Europe in my early twenties and Amanda seemed as ordinary as any other girl I met during my trip. I won’t go into too much detail about her story since: a) it’s all over the internet and b) if I tell you too much, you won’t want to read it (and if you’re interested in her story, I believe it’s worth reading. Especially because we’re so used to making quick judgments based on what the media tells us.)  I’ll just say that Amanda goes into great detail about those first months in Italy, the people she associated with, her relationship with her roommates, the boys she met, etc. She doesn’t portray herself as a saint as she admits to having smoked pot and engaged in sexual activity with two or three guys. This, she says, were mistakes the media and the prosecution exploited during her first trial.

Amanda claims her relationship with Meredith was good. According to her, they were confidents and friends who explored the city together and shared similar experiences (both were English speakers trying to find their way through a new culture and a new language). Then she describes the moment she met Raffaele—her then boyfriend and partner in this ordeal—their short-lived but intense relationship, the day Meredith died, the police interrogations, her two trials and her life in prison. She brings insight into a few things that are not explored much on the internet or news shows:
  • What, according to Amanda, happened during the interrogation where she accused her boss of killing Meredith (and later admitted to lying about it). She offers a theory as to why she lied that night.
  • During her appeal, there was an important testimony from a man who’d been imprisoned with Meredith’s convicted killer (Rudy Guede, who’s DNA was all over Meredith’s room). This man said Guede confessed to having raped and stabbed Meredith in conjunction with “a friend” (who wasn’t Raffaele or Amanda, which is what the prosecution alleges). In fact, Guede was supposedly having a moral dilemma as to what to say during their appeal. (Guede had a separate trial and conviction from Amanda and Raffaele.) This story made more sense to me than the prosecution’s theories of a “sexual game gone bad” or a “Halloween Eve sacrifice.”
  • Explanations as to why there were traces of Amanda and Raffaele’s DNA in a couple of items that the prosecution assigned as proof of their culpability.
  • Insights on the people in Amanda’s life in prison and outside. I was especially touched by three people in her life: a Catholic priest who befriended Amanda—an agnostic—during her hardest times in prison (Don Saulo); one of her best friends from Seattle who moved to Perugia to be near Amanda after she was sentenced to 26 years in prison (Madison) and Laura, an American inmate who grew up in Ecuador and became sort of a foster mom or older sister to her. Amanda’s family is also commendable as they never abandoned Amanda and during her four-year-ordeal always made sure someone was in Italy on visiting days. Her stepfather went as far as to move to Perugia for some time. Amanda’s story, as sad as it is, also serves as a testimony that goodness is sometimes found in the most unexpected places.
After reading Amanda’s memoir, I conclude that yes, she made MANY mistakes, primarily not taking the police interrogations seriously—she didn’t wait for a lawyer to be present and she never called the American embassy before answering questions in a language that she didn’t speak well. Her lying during one of her confessions, I admit, is hard to understand and made me wonder if she was covering up for something else (heavy drug use?) however, I do not believe she was involved in Meredith’s attack. It just doesn’t make sense. Our civilization has become SO reliant on technology that sometimes we drop common sense out the window. The prosecution claims that a girl like Amanda—with no prior convictions and a model student who came from a good family—is guilty of murdering (savagely) and raping her friend (when she doesn’t even have the *right* equipment, if you know what I mean). What we do know is that there is no motive. The prosecution claimed Amanda and Meredith argued over the bathroom’s cleanliness, but only a psychopath would kill over this, right? Not to mention the fact that there is no evidence of her presence in Meredith’s room. The prosecution claimed Amanda and Raffaele wiped their own DNA in the room but left Guede’s, as though it was possible to see DNA! Plus, there was no proven relationship between Guede and Amanda or Raffaele (Raffaele said he’d never met the man and Amanda said she saw Guede once or twice with her downstairs neighbors but couldn’t even remember his name.) 

I truly believe that Amanda’s problems stemmed from her immaturity and naivety at the time of her trip. Not only was she cavalier about who she spent time with (including working at a bar with people she barely knew) smoking pot on a regular basis and having sex with guys she’d just met. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon in people her age. When I moved to the US to go to college, I had the fortune of having a couple of family members here to guide me through the process of moving to a different country and start a new life as an adult. Also, my parents came with me and helped me settle in the dorms. When Amanda arrived to Italy, she had nowhere to live and found her new roommates on a bulletin board. I know, LOTS of college kids do this, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous. ESPECIALLY in a different country where you barely speak the language and you don’t know the “rules of the land.”

By the end of the book, however, you see Amanda as a different woman. Not sure this has to do with the fact that Amanda is a writer (currently studying Creative Writing in Seattle) and she knows that in every journey, the hero must show change and growth, or that she truly matured with all the hardship she went through, but her transformation was evident to me.

Have you been following this case or read her memoir? Do you believe in her innocence? What do you think will happen now that her appeal got reversed? Do you think the US will extradite her to Italy? Do you think it’s fair that she was tried twice for the same crime?

Check out these coffeehouse reviews!

1.The Armchair Squid2.My Creatively Random Life
3.Wishbone Soup Cures Everything4.Valerie Nunez and the Flying Platypi
5.Huntress6.Servitor Ludi
7.MOCK8.StrangePegs -- Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
9.Words Incorporated10.Agatha Friggin' Christie
11.Ed&Reub12.The Writing Sisterhood
13.Read, Write, Repeat14.V's Reads
15.The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: April 2014 16.Debi O'Neille, writing against the wind