Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Voices present and past

Who lives in your neighborhood? There are signposts in at least two languages in California. And you can find many more.
I remember being fascinated when I learned that Mexico had communities founded by German immigrants in the 1800s, and that San Francisco has a Russian cemetery dating from the same period. People have been leaving bits and pieces of themselves and their cultures all over the world for a very long time.

Every once in awhile a nudge like this sign will remind me that as a writer I need to remember the richness of culture that surrounds us. Sometimes you have to dig a little for it as in the article I linked below. It's so good.


Author Susan Straight and photographer/author Doug McCulloh (Disclaimer: They are friends of mine) are doing a series of essays with images on KCET's SoCalFocus blog. This one about a cemetery, dusty and half-forgotten in the midst of industrial buildings, is a keeper. While Susan digs into the Native American and European roots of this place known as Agua Mansa, Doug captures just the right light to portray the fading, bittersweet past.

Thanks to them, I want to reach out and place a hand on the headstones and say, "You're not forgotten. We'll remember the roots, the bones, that are all our ancestors."

Check it out:

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Adoration of The Fox Inheritance

I’ve read fiction with pretty decent mysteries, characters and adventures that somehow left me feeling like I ate ice cream for dinner and hadn’t satisfied my hunger. I think what’s missing is substance, something thought-provoking enough to stick long after the book is closed on its final page. But substance is what I get in addition to a great page-turning read from Mary E. Pearson’s THE FOX INHERITANCE, the thrilling and fulfilling sequel to THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX.
These two books raise questions about the ethics of keeping humans alive with non-human parts. How much “human” is needed to be human? Is just a mind and its memory enough? How far is it ethical to go in saving someone?
In the first book, Jenna is brought back from the brink of death but at the cost of great confusion for her. Something is being kept from her, and as she slowly unravels the mystery, her horror grows. The second book jumps ahead 260 years to a future where, Locke, the protagonist, is constantly faced with uncertainty about what he is and why his old friend, Jenna, abandoned him.
Both characters face a crisis of identity, a questioning of values and an awakening.
I hate spoilers so I don’t want to give away much about these two storylines if you haven’t read the books. Please read them if you like fantasy/sci-fi/dystopian or even if you just like stories with emotional payoff. There’s a lot of that here.
In past interviews, Pearson has said Jenna’s story grew from thoughts that raced through her mind as she faced one of her daughter’s cancer treatment. She began to wonder about what medical advances would come in the future and how far a parent would go to save their child.
In the first book, Pearson shows us that superglue between parent to child that can make some people step over ethical lines into unknown territory. In the second book, she shows how greed can turn those breached boundaries into something really ugly.
I was fascinated by the world-building, the ethical conundrum and the powerful emotional growth of the characters. Five stars from me.
And don't forget that it's Banned Book Week and time to support authors who come under attack for tackling controversial topics.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Castles of the mind

Walking along the beach, as I do, I came across this man and his mighty-fine sandcastle. He didn't mind me taking pictures.

I asked, "How long have you been building this?"

"Since noon," he replied.

It was about 6 p.m. by that time.


I considered those four hours and the more he would put in before the sun swallowed up the daylight and sent him home.

"Don't you mind that it will be gone by morning?" I asked.

"By midnight," he said, laughing and without ceasing the sculpting.

"Do you take pictures?" I asked, still curious. "Enter sandcastle contests?"

He shook his head. He did this for fun, for challenge, for joy. Nothing more.


That got me thinking. Perhaps the most pure creations are not to please audiences or achieve prizes but are simple outpourings of joy and wonder. It's a free-ing notion, don't you think?

And one more thing: I love those upsweeping castle walls he made. I'm going to draw the castle in my fairy tale, bring it to life on a sketchbook page. What fun I shall have!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The places I would go

In celebration of Talli Roland's newest book launch, WATCHING WILLOW WATTS, she's asked bloggers 'If I could be anyone, I'd be...'. A number of people chose J.K. Rowling for good reason, but I'm going venture a bit back in time and say Diana Wynne Jones for her extraordinary children's books. The list of her titles is longer than a snuggly house scarf and every bit as yummy as a chocolate frog.

I'd love to have lived inside her expansive imagination, to have her wit and skills at laying out compelling stories with twists and depth of content. And, oh, her sense of humor, how much fun that would be. But silly and wacky as her stories can be, they're dead-on serious, as well.

Her tales are never preachy but there's no doubt that even in her magical worlds there are consequences for bullying, intolerance, bigotry or other nasty behavior. Her characters are ordinary kids shoved into extraordinary circumstances, which they figure out how to handle. Sometimes even small acts of bravery are heroic and important is a message that comes through.

When she died of cancer in March at age 76, The Guardian wrote: "Her intelligent and beautifully written fantasies are of seminal importance for their bridging of the gap between "traditional" children's fantasy, as written by CS Lewis or E Nesbit, and the more politically and socially aware children's literature of the modern period, where authors such as Jacqueline Wilson or Melvyn Burgess explicitly confront problems of divorce, drugs and delinquency. "

She started writing as a child, and as a college student at St. Anne's at Oxford, she soaked up lectures from J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S . Lewis. How I'd love to time travel and drop in on one of those sessions.

Um, I have to add that if I were to pick a fictional character I'd like to be it would be Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Just sayin'.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The magic touch

Magic. What is it anyway? Is it a miracle, a wonder, to be had with the snap of fingers, the flick of a wand? Is it alchemy, a transforming power, or an elemental or mathematical equation we’ve yet to discover? Could it be metaphysical, mythological?
Sometimes I read books with magical happenings that leave me dissatisfied with the world-building and explanation of how the magic works. Other times, I romp with the author through a made-up land that feels real and plausible.
This notion of suspending disbelief is said to originate with Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817 with the publication of biographical sketches of his literary life. He wrote, rather wordily,: “In this idea originated the plan of the ‘Lyrical Ballads’; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”
In other words, get real.
How to do that? The characters must be as real as your annoying little sister or last boyfriend. Lovable but flawed, and that doesn’t mean they bite their fingernails or trip over their feet all the time. It’s the deeper psychological and emotional stuff that makes the reader say, ‘I know that. I’ve seen it. I can relate.’ Then if the characters sprout wings, the reader already has them grounded in reality.
My reason for musing on this is Lev Grossman’s THE MAGICIANS and THE MAGICIAN KING. These books are brilliant if you like smart-ass humor mixed with tragedy, which clearly I do. They pay homage to great fantasy stories of the past but with something of an attitude--a lot of wit and smarts. The characters are pretty much genius-level teens, who grow into young adulthood in the books.
Quentin is a math whiz and nerd who is fixated on a childhood fantasy series set in a land called Fillory, but once Quentin jumps down the rabbit hole he finds monsters come along with magic.
I don’t like to give spoilers, so I’m only going to say that Quentin’s character arc from the start of Book One to the end of Book Two is stunning. He isn’t just an angst-ridden teen who magically becomes a superhero. Rather, he remains annoyingly self-absorbed and flawed but increasingly stronger as though he’s been tempered by fire. Like a true hero, he makes huge sacrifices, but he’s no angel, just a human with a healthy conscience that he has to learn to use.
Quentin’s teen-age crush, Julia--whose only interest in him in book one seems to be to find out how she can get into the school of magic he attends but which rejected her—becomes equally weighted storywise in book two, which alternates between their POVs.
Julia, who already suffers emotional disorders, becomes obsessed with learning how to do magic. She discovers an underground of self-taught magicians where she rises to the top but not without paying terrible dues. As Grossman writes: Her magic had sharp, jagged edges on it that had never been filed down.
When Quentin and Julia intersect in book two worlds hang in the balance. Magic has brought them giddy pleasures and unfathomable loss and pain, but magic itself may go out of the world because of things they’ve done.
I like to give snippets to show writing style and since I love the attitude and voice I’ll give these.
If you’ve ever tried to listen to someone else’s description of their dream, here’s something from Julia’s POV: They pushed on into astrology and ocean magic and even oneiromancy—dream magic. Turns out you can cast some truly amazing shit in your dreams. But after you wake up it all seems kind of pointless, and nobody really wants to hear about it.
Here’s a great scene description from Quentin’s POV: The tide was out, and the sea was not so much calm as limp. Every few minutes it worked up enough energy for a wave that rose up half a foot and then flopped onto the strand with a startling smack, as if to remind everyone that it was still there.
Again, Quentin: He could have used someone stable to hang on to right now, but as it happened, through no particular fault of her own, Julia was not a person one could hang on to. She needed one of those warning decals that they put on airplane parts: NO STEP.