Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Sympathizer -- a review

image from

The Jaipur Literature Festival is coming to Boulder in September. I will be there -- you betcha!

I decided to read some of the presenters who will be at the JLF in Boulder. Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose debut novel The Sympathizer won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Best Fiction will be one of the presenters. During Terry Gross' interview with him on NPR, he was thoughtful, articulate, and thought provoking. He discussed his experiences in the Vietnamese community in California.

He told of his parents warning him and his brother not to open their door to unknown Vietnamese because they were afraid of home invasions by Vietnamese gangs. Ms. Gross asked why people who had fled war torn Vietnam would engage in violence here against their fellow countrymen. His eye-opening explanation was that they did come from that same war torn Vietnam. A country that taught them to stash their money and valuables in their homes. A country that taught them not to trust the police who, in Vietnam, were too often as likely to harm them as the 'criminals.' A country caught in a generation-long civil war that taught Vietnamese to attack Vietnamese.

That concept can be applied to why anyone victimizes someone like themselves. Not  because they necessarily share a background of civil war, but because they do share a common background and know their victim's habits and fears. That familiarity gives the criminal an advantage they would not have with someone whose circumstances they knew less well.

Past debut novels that won Pulitzers include Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird, two of my all-time favorites.

I was ready for a good read.

It's in first person. I don't particularly like first person. But Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible is in first person. (Read my April 13, 2015 review)  Not just first person, but first person from five points of view. An unusual structure for a novel. An amazingly difficult bit of literary art to successfully pull off. Which the author did. Admirably. It is a great read.

So I willing overlooked The Sympathizer's first person narrative. It could be good.

Nguyen doesn't use standard punctuation. Anathema to an old English Major. But Cormac McCarthy doesn't use standard punctuation. When I started his Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain. See my December 3, 2014 review.) I was particularly distressed about McCarthy's failure to use quote marks and attributions in the dialogue. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to follow who was saying what. But he wrote his characters' speech patterns so skillfully that I had no problem.

Failure to use standard punctuation need not be a deal breaker.

Stories whose plots unfold slowly featuring main characters who lack charisma don't necessarily put me off. (See my recent review of the movie The Lady in the Van.)

So I believed that if I read assiduously for as long as it might take, the book would get better.

After reading off and on for a week I'd only gotten to page 180 -- more off than on. But I felt I should give it a chance. I take the stand that stopping a book you've started is immoral. It is judgmental, ungracious, and downright disdainful of a fellow writer who has worked long and hard and done the best they could.

Then a writer friend Sabrina Fish shared a question from The Writer's Circle -- "You wake up stranded on an island with the main character of the last book you read. How does that work out for you?"

And you know what? I stopped reading The Sympathizer. I could not face the prospect of being stranded in a plodding plot with Nguyen's main character in first person. Never knowing if it was dialogue or the main character's thoughts or the author's thoughts.

Quick! Quick! Choose another JLF presenter. Done.

I chose William Dalrymple's White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in 18th-century India. Mr. Dalrymple is a Scottish historian. Even his footnotes are interesting.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Bucket List

image from baincounselorcorner

A friend shared a bucket list on Facebook suggesting that we put an X beside the things we've done. Having only recently added a fourth experience to my bucket list, I was curious about how I'd fare on the bucket list she shared. I thought there might be some things on the list that I'd like to add to my bucket list.

I discovered some things I've done that I'd never put on a bucket list and some things I'd like to do, but not enough to put on the list.  An exclamation mark indicates something that had I not done it, it would have been on my bucket list. An asterisk denotes something I'd like to do, but not enough to put on my list. A pound sign means been there, done that, don't ever want to do it again.

Been to Alaska  *                                           Skipped school X
Fired a Gun X                                                Watched someone give birth X
Been Married X  !                                          Watched someone die  
Fell in love X      !                                          Been to Canada      
Gone on a blind date X                                  Been to Hawaii  *

Been to Europe                                               Visited Mexico X
Been to Las Vegas X  #                                  Seen the Grand Canyon in person X  !
Been to Washington D.C. X                           Flown in a helicopter
Been to Nashville X                                       Been on a cruise X  #
Visited Florida X                                           Served on a jury X

Been in a movie X                                         Made prank phone calls X
Been to Los Angeles X                                  Laughed so much you peed your pants X
Been to New York City                                  Caught a snowflake on your tongue X
Played in a band                                             Had children X
Sang karaoke                                                  Had a pet X

Been sledding on big hill X                            Been to a drive-in movie X
Been downhill skiing                                      Rode an elephant
Been water skiing X                                       Been on TV
Rode on a motorcycle X                                 Been in newspaper X
Jumped out of a plane                                     Stayed in Hospital X  #

Donated blood X                                             Been scuba diving
Gotten a piercing X   #                                    Lived on your own X
Gotten a tattoo                                                 Rode in the back of police car
Driven a stick shift vehicle X                          Got a speeding ticket X
Driven over 100 mph X                                

What are the four things on my bucket list? I'd like to see the Aurora Borealis, the Statue of Liberty, the ladies room at Tiffany's in New York City, and the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Lady in the Van -- Movie Review

image from

A friend kindly loaned me The Lady in the Van on DVD. It's been years since I've watched anything but Downton Abbey on DVD. Did you know they include umpteen trailers for other movies that are apparently available on DVD. My husband pointed out that at least there were no ads for popcorn and Coke and no advisories to silence our cell phones.

And the way they choose which movie trailers to include completely escapes me. At least at the movie theater the attendant trailers are usually rated the same as the movie you went to see. You know, R-rated thrillers if you're there to see an R-rated thriller.

This movie is rated PG. All of the other trailers but one were rated R. Guess there just aren't many PG-rated films that the powers-that-be think will be of interest to adults. Or adults of a certain age. True. Maggie Smith movies tend to attract older people, of whom I'm one.

So now, I suppose I've put you younger people off. And movie reviews are supposed to encourage people to watch the film, if the reviewer liked it. Which I did. Very much.

And no, I can't in good conscience recommend it to you young people. Especially if you have close family members aged sixty and up. Or unusual characters who wander through your neighborhood. It will only frighten you.

It is, however, a wonderful movie that will make you laugh, discomfit you, and bring a tear or two to your eyes.

The Lady in the Van is "a mostly true story" by playwright Alan Bennett about himself and the odd homeless woman whom he allowed to live in her van in his driveway temporarily. Temporarily for the rest of her life.

Alex Jennings plays Bennett, a self-absorbed writer. So self-absorbed, in fact, that he is two characters -- one who writes, and one who lives. Jennings plays both parts. And they talk to each other. After all, Bennett the writer explains "writing is talking to one's self."

Maggie Smith stars as Miss Shepherd, The Lady. She is a mystery unfolding gradually as the movie goes along.

Miss Shepherd is unwashed and ungrateful. Gifts she accepts or rejects with equal disdain. She parks her van in front of this house and that in a not quite tony neighborhood in London. The neighbors don't want her there, but none is willing to be thought cruel enough to actually get rid of her. Certainly not our playwright.

Her logic? Well, it's unquestionable, albeit a bit specious. When neighbors tell her she can't park her van in front of their home she responds most reasonably with "I've had guidance.... The Virgin Mary. I spoke to her yesterday. She was outside the Post Office in Park Way."

The Lady is not attractive. She is not charming. She is outrageous. She's an embarrassment and a bother. And, yet, somehow, she's completely vulnerable. You want her to be safe. Maybe even happy.

So much about her character reminds me of people I have known.

Miss Shepherd gets Bennett to do things for her that he had no intention of doing including pushing her to the top of the street where she turned and free-wheeled back down with such joy and abandon it's infectious. You smile, perhaps laugh out loud.

photo from

(I used to work with a man in a wheel chair. He was NOT difficult in the least. He and his daughters would go to the zoo armed with lettuce. The elephant enclosure had a sidewalk running downhill outside its west fence. He would begin at the bottom of the hill where he would toss lettuce into the pen and the elephants would gobble it up. Then his girls would push him to the top of the side walk with the elephants following every step (roll?) of the way. He would turn and free-wheel down with the elephants in hot pursuit. He'd throw more lettuce into the elephants' pen and do it all over again.)

In the movie, a neighbor suggests that Miss Shepherd would be a "good subject" for Mr. Bennett.

"For what?" he asks.

"For one of your little plays."

Writer-Bennett argues with liver-Bennett. "One old lady is enough," he says meaning his mother who has Alzheimer's whom he features in his plays.

Here he is, caught between his mother's dementia and the demented lady living in his driveway.

His mother is put in a care home and The Lady gets a social worker. Two actually.

The first one is as ineffectual as the rest of the neighborhood. The second one is the proverbial do-gooder who will do good according to her own lights without regard to what their who-good's-done-to wants done good.

I used to work for the Welfare Department and believe me, I've known both kinds. Truth be told, I've been both kinds myself.

One of my favorite scenes is Mr. Bennett watching the ambulance driver who comes to take The Lady to something called a Day Center where she will be bathed and given clean clothes. The playwright watches this man treat The Lady with great respect, even putting his arm around her to help her into her wheelchair. Despite her stench.

(I understand. I once was charged with helping remove three neglected children from their filthy home. The youngest was five and hadn't had a bath in I don't know how long. She smelled so bad that when she held her arms up for me to take her it was all I could do to keep from stepping back -- a beautiful little girl who was in no way responsible for her condition. She didn't understand what was going on. She just wanted to be held.)

The very next scene is The Lady in her wheelchair on a lift rising into the ambulance -- like a queen.

Then when she returns to her van, Miss Shepherd asks "Mr. Bennett, hold my hand? It's clean."

Ah yes. Not a seven-hankie film. But Dame Maggie Smith makes it a good strong three-hankie film.

In the end there is a blue plaque with Miss Shepherd's name and the years she lived in the van parked in Mr. Bennett's drive. Thinking I would use a shot of that blue plaque, I discovered the Blue Plaque is apparently a 'thing' in London. There's a list in Wikipedia of blue plaques saying who lived in what house when -- Sylvia Plath, Sir Winston Churchill, Jimi Hendrix, etc.

It may be "a mostly true story," but The Lady's Blue Plaque is apparently artistic license. It's not on the Wikipedia list.

Saturday, May 21, 2016


Colorado sky

The only thing in Colorado bigger than the mountains and the prairies is the sky.

I know, I know. All the writing teachers that I've had the good fortune to meet tell you not to start your story with a weather report. The old "It was a dark and stormy night" bugaboo. But, you know what? Skies and their weather are facts of nature that we can't ignore no matter how we're surrounded by concrete, glass, and steel.

I lived most of my life in Central Oklahoma where paying attention to the weather can literally save your life. There, people learn early on what the Fujita Scale is. And when the television meteorologist says to get below ground, you're glad you have a storm shelter. Or your neighbor does and they are kind, generous people with whom you have a reasonably good relationship.

The nice thing about meteorologists in Oklahoma is that they have the equipment and trained personnel to track tornadoes. They can tell you what town -- indeed, what intersection -- the storm will be crossing when. So if it's not your neighborhood right now, you're free to enjoy the show. And even when the Oklahoma skies are the most threatening, they are beautiful. And exciting.

Lucky for me, I now live at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, one step above the prairie. 

Tornadoes can happen anywhere in the world. Even in the mountains. But they're small, much less damaging than the big Super Cells that grow over the open plains. Here at the edge of the mountains, storms are born and build as they move east out onto the Colorado prairie. There they can become the monsters I've known in Oklahoma.

But, not here. Lightning and wind are certainly hazards, but with reasonable precautions, the skies are not dangerous. They're just beautiful. 

The sky is a splendid distraction from my life and a balm to my spirit almost anytime I need it to be.

We had two dreary days in a row. Cloudy and a heavy mist. Not a real rain, just soggy air. The kind that collects on your glasses and you have to use the intermittent setting on your car windshield wipers. Until a truck passes you and the splash back blinds you for that less than a second that seems like forever until you can hit the windshield wiper button for an extra swipe to clear your vision. 

Makes you wonder whatever happened to those mud flaps that trucks used to sport. (You know, the ones with the buxom chrome maid on a background of black rubber who might promise more than you're interested in right then, but at least she delivered protection against what that truck's tires merrily kicked up in your face.)

And then. And then. The sun came back. It was stunning. 

I spend a lot of time with my dad. He has dementia and lives in a residential care home. Not the most pleasant way to spend the rest of his life, or even the few hours of my life that I visit there. That afternoon he and I sat out on their back patio and basked. Two turtles in straw hats just glad the sun was back.

As often happens here, the afternoon sun spawned storm clouds. 

They gathered high into the impossibly blue Colorado sky. They were magnificent. And I had my cell phone which takes pretty good pictures. BUT, I was driving in rush hour traffic. I could snag a few shots when I came to a stop light, which is usually pretty often along the first part of my route home.

Not that day. Wouldn't you know, I hit green lights all along Broadway. (When would I ever complain about green lights in rush hour traffic?) Then finally I hit a red one.That's when I got the pic at the top of this blog. There would be rain in the night. And rain on the high plains desert of Colorado is good.

Photos taken at the last stop light before the highway becomes a freeway.

The car radio was off. No bad news. The car windows were down. I noticed how many other drivers were enjoying their ride with their windows down and the air washing through their cars and their lives with light and promise.

From one day to the next, we'd gone from gray cloudy mist to sunshine blue skies to glorious life-affirming rain clouds.

Skies! It feels good to remember life ain't so bad.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Better to Listen -- Flash Fiction

Image from

"Look." He nodded toward the girl in the stacks. "She's beautiful. She's in my English Lit class, but she's never talked to me."

"Have you talked to her?" his friend asked.

"Nah. I don't want to bother her."

"Just talk to her. Give her a chance."

Leaving his friend at the head of the aisle, he wandered along looking at book titles as though for a particular book. An older woman entered the aisle and moved past him, shelving books. He waited until she left.

"Hi," he said to the young woman. "Come here often?"

She looked up at him and smiled. "English Lit, right?"

"Right." He read the titles of the books she was holding. "Tyson?"

"Your name is Tyson?" she asked.

"No, no. Neil deGrasse Tyson," he said indicating the books in her arms.

"Oh, yes. He's brilliant."

"He's got a TV show," he said sticking his hands in his pockets.

"I know, but I don't have cable," she said. "Do you watch it?"

"No. He's made some pretty controversial moves."

"Oh, yes?" she asked.

"Like downgrading Pluto to a dwarf planet."

"Yes. He was in on that. His argument seemed very sensible to me."

"Then he stirred the old religion-science pot with that tweet at Christmas time," he continued, crossing his arms and settling into his professorial mode. "You know. 'On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642.'" He was sure he'd quoted it accurately.

"Yeah. I was one of the thousands who re-tweeted it." She held the books closer to her chest.

"Next thing you know, he'll continue his crusade against astrology."

"Yes, he probably will." She arched an eyebrow.

 "My grandmother reads her horoscope every morning." He thought the girl had beautiful eyes.

 "I gotta go." She turned and left the stacks.

He went back to his friend.

"Did you see that?" he asked. "She just blew me off. It's because I'm a geek, isn't it. Girls just don't like intellectual types. I bet if I had a cool car or played guitar . . . ."

His friend shook his head. "She was in the library. In the physics section of the library. You love astronomy. She had two Neil deGrasse Tyson books. Why were you talking bad about deGrasse Tyson? You like him. And your grandmother's horoscope?" His friend crossed his arms and looked at the ceiling. "You're not a geek. You're an idiot."

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Jaipur Literature Festival in Boulder

You'll be seeing this logo several times in the next few months. The Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) will be in Boulder, Colorado, for the second year this September 23-25.

Begun in 2006, JLF is held annually in January in Jaipur, a city of more than three million people in Northern India. The Diggi Palace (now a hotel) and its gardens in the heart of the city serve as venues for what Wikipedia describes as the largest free literary festival in the world.

In 2014 the JLF expanded to London. It will continue for its third year this May in the Southbank Centre.

Last year, JLF came to the United States. Not to New York City or Los Angeles, but Boulder, Colorado. In the Boulder Public Library and and Civic Lawns. Right here on the Front Range of the Rockies. Forty-two minutes from my house. How great is that?!

Those are the Flat Iron Mountains rising behind the
Boulder Public Library

Watch for updates on The Bookwright.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Reality in Fiction

Successful fiction is built on reality. Not just the plot and the characters, but the setting must be based in reality, too.

The setting could be very like a character in the story, as a haunted house might be or a hurricane-lashed shore or a snow-bound mountain pass. In which case, a writer must be as meticulous in making it a complete vision as they would be with any major character.

Even if this setting is just a setting, it still must be believable. Descriptions and references to the real world need not be numerous or extensive. Real world minutiae will stimulate the reader to fill in the rest of the setting. 

Not every reader will be an expert in all fields, but each reader will be an expert in their own lives and worlds so a writer must be accurate in their small bits of reality. We don't want to do anything to throw the reader out of the story.

It doesn't matter what our setting is. Conformity to the real world is the place to begin. Then we can add the touches that will make our setting fit somewhere in the past or far into the future. In deepest, darkest Africa or the sunny splendor of the Caribbean. 

An easy method of research to write believable fiction is to pay attention to our world. It's a good habit to cultivate.

Yesterday, I took my car in for an oil change. 

This is the view from the parking lot of the oil and lube place. That white area at the top of the hills just left of center is actually Pike's Peak, seventy miles to the south. We can see it from my front porch, too. When I look at it, I focus on it and it is much larger in my view than it is in this photo. When I am LOOKING at it, I naturally crop all the things I'm not interested in and zoom in on, in this case, the snow covered mountain top.

Photos of the moon work the same way. A rising full moon looks huge, but try to get a photo giving the moon the same prominence without zooming in on it. You can't.

And that's the way we must bring a reader into the setting. Zoom in on the visual element that will put them firmly into the setting.

While my car was being serviced, I walked the half mile or so down to my house, paying particular attention to things around me.
Spring has finally arrived here at the base of the Rocky Mountains and the lilacs are in bloom. During my walk I passed both white and purple forms of lilacs. Guess what. The white lilacs in the left photo have no scent, while the purple ones in the right photo do. Almost to the point of being overwhelming.

Lilacs remind me: if I put plants in my scene, I must be sure to have the right plants. Lilacs and apples, don't do well in Southeast Arkansas. It doesn't get cold enough for them there. Honeysuckle does do well there and fills the air with it's own perfume. It does not do well here.

                         Columbine                                                       Irises
In May, the daffodils are gone. They bloomed a month before the last snows. And the tulips are past their prime. Columbine and Irises bloom in early summer. Roses are showing new growth and putting on leaves. Lawn mower tracks sweep back and forth over luxuriant grass.

These plants give the impression that the neighborhood is well-kept and the people are concerned with how it looks. They have enough leisure time to spend on lawn care or enough money to hire it done.

It doesn't matter what our neighborhood is really like. We can use real things about it to portray it in any light we like.

                                Dandelion                                      tiny purple Stork's Bill, leaf litter,
                                                                                         and plants run amok
In addition to the tony, well-cared-for lawns on my walk, there were Dandelions growing unfettered in cracks and along the edges of the sidewalk. Tiny, purple Stork's Bill, identified by the local Extension Service as weeds have taken over a yard here and there. (Actually, I rather like both flowers.)

Because they are generally regarded as weeds, these plants give the impression that this neighborhood is less well-off, a bit rundown, lower class perhaps.

By the mere mention of what's growing in the neighborhood, we can focus our readers' views and set the tone of the scene.

"Sorry I'm in the way, will move soon."
A house shrouded in tarps, stacks of new building materials extending onto the sidewalk, the sharp popping sounds of nail guns, people talking as they work. All signs pointing to a remodel of the house, a positive tone. Here is a home being restored or improved.

If the building materials appear to be weathered and there are no workmen on site, the sense of the scene is very different.

(In reality, this house is being remodeled. I love that the workmen apologized for their materials blocking part of the sidewalk. And only a small part of the sidewalk at that.)

Take a walk in your neighborhood and see how you see it. And how it smells. What can you hear?How does the air feel? What effort does the terrain require of you? How does the light change as you go? What else can you use to make a setting seem real?

Maybe the best thing about my walk yesterday was that my husband gave me a ride back up the hill to get my car when it was done.