Description Written by Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult is one of my favorite authors. She has a talent for addressing difficult topics in her fiction writing that makes the reader wrestle with a moral issue. In her most recent novel, Great Small Things, she tackles race relations in America.

Great Small Things focuses on a nurse of one race and a couple of another race whose baby is in a life-or-death situation. If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend that you do.

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Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult

In Small Great Things, Turk Bauer is a white racist. Ms. Picoult could have written pages of prose to describe Mr. Bauer’s personality and demeanor, but she was able to sum it up in the following sentence:

“Turk Bauer makes me think of a power line that’s snapped during a storm, and lies across the road just waiting for something to brush against it so it can shoot sparks.” – Jodi Picoult in Small Great Things.

What a vivid picture! If you read nothing else about Turk Bauer, that one sentence would tell you pretty much all you needed to know about him. I hope I can write character descriptions like that some day!

More and more I’m learning that in order to be a good writer, a person needs to read a lot. I’m so absorbed in reading books this year that I have spent very little time writing. I need to strike a happy medium and make time for both, but the public library has so many good books and a number of my favorite authors have new books being released in October. As the saying goes, “So many books, so little time!”

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m listening to a novel on CD, The Saboteur, by Andrew Gross. I read The One Man, by Andrew Gross, last year and blogged about it (What I read in November.) I’ve wanted to read some of Mr. Gross’s other books ever since.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I generally don’t like to listen to books on CD. The waitlist at the public library for Mr. Gross’s latest novel was shorter for the CD than for any other format, so I decided to give it a try.

Listening to a book on CD usually gets on my last nerve; however, I’ve worked out a routine, with The Saboteur. I listen to one disc each day, which takes a little more than one hour. I use that time to do my physical therapy exercises for my shoulder. I like being able to get two things accomplished at the same time, and I’m finding that the length of one disc is about my attention limit.

What about you?

Do you prefer to read a traditional paper book, listen to a book on CD, or read a book on an electronic device? There is no right or wrong answer. Aren’t we fortunate to live in a time when there are books available in many different formats?

Janet

Bookmarks Festival of Books and Authors

The 2017 Bookmarks Festival of Books and Authors in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on September 9, 2017 was fantastic! This free event included more than 45 authors. It was well-organized and supported by a large number of friendly and knowledgeable volunteers.

As is stated on the http://www.bookmarksnc.org website,

“Bookmarks is a literary arts organization that fosters a love of reading and writing in the community. Our programming connects readers and authors and includes:  an annual Festival of Books, an Authors in Schools program, and year-round events in our community gathering space and nonprofit independent bookstore.”

My sister and I have wanted to go to Bookmarks Festival of Books for years, but this was the first year it worked out for us to get there. The festival is held annually, usually on the second weekend in September. Make plans to attend Bookmarks next year!

We got to hear seven authors speak at Bookmarks! Seven authors in one day! Each one of them took questions from the audience after making their remarks.

Author events were going on throughout the day in six different venues within walking distance, so you could pick and choose which ones you wanted to attend.

Jamie Ford, author

Jamie Ford was the author we got to hear first. He was a very entertaining speaker. He regaled us with some of the comments teens have made on social media as they are required to read his novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet in the state of Washington.

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Author Jamie Ford @BookmarksNC. (Photo by Janet Morrison.)

Mr. Ford also talked about his new novel, Love and Other Consolation Prizes, and the true story that inspired it. He had arranged to autograph and have for sale copies of this new book even though the official release date wasn’t until September 12.

The book sales tent

After Jamie Ford’s presentation, we had time to visit the Bookmarks large book sales tent to purchase books by the authors participating in the festival.

Authors Kathleen Grissom, Lisa Wingate, & Patti Callahan Henry

I was especially excited about the opportunity to hear Kathleen Grissom speak. I wrote about her novels, The Kitchen House and Glory Over Everything in earlier blog posts –  What I read in October and What I read in January 2017.

Ms. Grissom, Lisa Wingate, and Patti Callahan Henry had a panel discussion about Southern Fiction. Although none of them were born in The South, that’s the genre they have written. When we arrived at their venue, it was almost standing room only.

We strained to hear the authors’ remarks and their answers to questions from the audience, but we enjoyed the bits and pieces of the panel discussion that we could hear. They each talked about some of their books and their works in progress. Be on the lookout for future novels by each of them!

Kathleen Grissom, Lisa Wingate, & Patti Callahan Henry – book signing

We split up to take advantage of the book signing by these three writers of Southern Fiction. Patti Callahan Henry was signing copies of her latest novel, The Bookshop at Water’s End. Marie was excited to meet Lisa Wingate and get her to autograph a copy of her new novel, Before We Were Yours, and I was thrilled to meet Kathleen Grissom and get her to autograph a copy of The Kitchen House.

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Janet getting Kathleen Grissom’s autograph @BookmarksNC. Author Patti Callahan Henry is seated to Ms. Grissom’s right, and author Lisa Wingate is seated to Ms. Henry’s right. (Photo by Marie Morrison.)

Lunch

A variety of food trucks were on hand to offer several options for lunch or snacks. My burger was delicious, but holding onto the Styrofoam tray it was served in was more than a challenge in the beautiful but blustery day.

Margaret Maron’s book signing

After lunch, we went to the Forsyth County Public Library booth for Margaret Maron’s book signing. She was very gracious. When she saw me taking a picture of Marie at her table, she asked if we were sisters and insisted that I come get in the picture, too. Marie is a big fan of Ms. Maron’s Deborah Knott series of mystery novels, so it was a thrill for her to get to meet the author.

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Author Margaret Maron @BookmarksNC. (Photo by Janet Morrison.)

It was a thrill for me, too! I’ve read Bootlegger’s Daughter, the first book in the Deborah Knott series, which means I have 19 more in the series to read.

Bookmarks – an independent bookstore

After getting Margaret Maron’s autograph, we visited the literary arts nonprofit and independent Bookmarks bookstore. It is located at 634 West Fourth Street #110 in Winston-Salem, so please make an effort to support it the next time you’re in that city.

Beverly Tatum and Marc Lamont Hill

Beverly Tatum and Marc Lamont Hill spoke about “The Race Divide: Then and Now” for an hour in the afternoon. This event was very well attended and enlightening. Those of us who are white have much to learn about “white privilege” and all it entails. The more I learn, the more I realize I have not really appreciated or understood in the past. I strive to be more cognizant of it and to do better.

Dr. Tatum and Dr. Hill’s remarks and discussion centered around race relations in the United States in the 1990s as compared to race relations in 2017. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of Dr. Tatum’s nonfiction book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race.

A new edition of this book has been published this year to include some updates and to cast more light on the fact that although Brown v Board of Education was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, little real racial integration takes place today in the lives of most Americans. Schools are racially-integrated, but churches, neighborhoods, and friendships are still very much one race or the other.

Margaret Maron, author

Hearing Margaret Maron speak late in the afternoon was a highlight among many highlights of the day, especially after meeting her and seeing how gracious and friendly she was when Marie got her to autograph Long Upon the Land: A Deborah Knott Mystery. Those of you who are Margaret Maron fans will be sad to learn that she does not plan to write any more novels. She said she might write some short stories. Her new novel, Take Out, marks the end of her nine-book Sigrid series.

Ms. Maron was an entertaining speaker. She talked about living in Johnston County, North Carolina and enjoying how her Deborah Knott series allowed her to travel around the state as Judge Knott was assigned to court cases in various locations.

Diana Gabaldon, ending keynote speaker

Unfortunately, I was unable to return to Winston-Salem on September 10 for Diana Gabaldon’s keynote address. I’m a big fan of her Outlander book series, so it would have been a wonderful to have heard her speak. Perhaps she’ll participate in the Bookmarks Festival of Books again in the future.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman. Published in 2012, this was Ms. Stedman’s first novel. I’m also enjoying getting back into some quilting.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.

Janet

A Thriller, Hatteras in WWI, and Appalachian Memories

I had more to say about the six books I read in August than reasonably fit into last week’s blog post, so today’s post is about the three I didn’t get to last week. I’m a bit put off by long blog posts, and I doubt I’m alone in that. Without further ado, I offer my thoughts about the other books I read in August.

Here and Gone, by Haylen Beck

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Here and Gone, by Haylen Beck

If books have a demeanor, Running on Red Dog Road and Other Perils of an Appalachian Childhood, by Drema Hall Berkheimer is at one end of that spectrum, in many ways Here and Gone, by Haylen Beck is at the other end of that spectrum. While Ms. Berkheimer’s book was a relaxing read, Mr. Beck’s thriller grabbed me by the throat immediately and never let me relax.

I thought I’d done well to read Ms. Berkheimer’s memoir in three days, but I read Here and Gone in 48 hours.

Wow! What a book! I made the mistake of starting to read the book late one night. I read until my vision blurred to the point that I could literally read no more without getting some sleep.

Audra Kinney fled New York with her young son and daughter to avoid her children being taken away by Children’s Services. Her husband had tried to prove she was an unfit mother.

The book begins in Arizona where Audra thought things couldn’t get any worse when the Elder County Sheriff pulled her over and discovered a bag of marijuana in the trunk of her car. Audra and the reader could not imagine all that would transpire over the next four days. What a thriller!

By the way, I thought I had picked up a debut novel by Haylen Beck, but it turns out that is the pen name of Stuart Neville! You may recall that I wrote about one of Mr. Neville’s Northern Ireland thrillers, The Ghosts of Belfast in my January 3, 2017 blog post (What I read in December.)

According to the author bio on the back inside flap of the book jacket, Haylen Beck’s books are set in the United States whereas Stuart Neville’s books are set in Northern Ireland. That tells me there will be more Haylen Beck books in the future. I can’t wait!

Hatteras Light by Philip Gerard

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Hatteras Light: A Novel, by Philip Gerard

Hatteras Light, by Philip Gerard, took me to the beautiful Hatteras Lighthouse on the Outer Banks of North Carolina during the tense days of World War I when German U-boats and submarines trolled the Atlantic coast of the United States. This book was the August selection for the Rocky River Readers Book Club.

Hatteras Light follows the lives of the few residents of Hatteras Island in the early 1910s, particularly the people associated with the maintenance of the Hatteras Lighthouse and their efforts to rescue people in peril on the sea.

This was hard and lonely work. It took a special kind of person to acclimate to the demands of the job. The waters off Cape Hatteras are known worldwide as “the graveyard of the Atlantic” because the treacherous clashing of the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the warm Gulf Stream (from the Gulf of Mexico) cause constantly changing conditions that have resulted in the sinking of hundreds of ships.

The Germans had already torpedoed an oil tanker, the resulting blaze literally getting the attention of everyone on Hatteras Island. The US Navy was too busy protecting the more densely populated Mid-Atlantic coast to come to the aid of the keepers of the Hatteras Lighthouse who did double duty of going out to sea to try to rescue anyone in peril.

Tensions were coming to a head at a community meeting when Ham Fetterman said the following:

“ ‘ I have lived longer than ever I hoped or wanted,’ Fetterman said. ‘I have seen Yankees and pirates and bootleggers and a good deal worse. And now I’ve seen this, too. And I tell you:  this is different. This murderous lurking Teutonic bastard is hunting by the Light – our Light! He navigates by it, he ambushes by it, he kills by it…. With that Light, he is damn near invincible.’ ”

Fetterman was a true Hatterasman, meaning he was born and had lived on Hatteras Island all his life. He was someone others listened to because of his age and his experience as a Hatteras Islander.

Someone else in the meeting spoke up and suggested they rig up a false light like had been done at Nags Head years before. Then, Fetterman said their only choice was to turn off the Hatteras Lighthouse Light.

Did they? I suggest you read Hatteras Light, by Philip Gerard, to find out.

Running on Red Dog Road and Other Perils of an Appalachian Childhood, by Drema Hall Berkheimer

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Running on Red Dog Road, by Drema Hall Berkheimer

I need to start jotting down where or how I hear about a book I want to read. I can’t recall how I learned about this one, but I’m glad I did. I found it at the public library and devoured it in three days. It is just 200 pages, but I’m a slow reader. Any time I read a book in three days, take it as a compliment.

The author grew up in West Virginia and writes humorously but lovingly and respectfully about her childhood there in the 1940s. Although I grew up in the piedmont (not the mountains) of North Carolina in the 1950s, I could identify with many of the things she wrote.

I never had a grandmother, though, and Ms. Berkheimer writes a lot about the grandmother who pretty much raised her while her mother was off in New York helping to build airplanes for the World War II effort.

Ms. Berkheimer and I grew up in a simpler time than the one we’re living in now. Home-canned produce from the garden, lightning bugs, playing Red Rover, church being the center of one’s social life, and many old sayings used in the book – all these rang true with me and brought to mind fond memories of my childhood.

I loved her memory of church fans:

“Paper fans always stood ready in the wooden rack on the back of each pew, along with the hymnals. Each fan was the size of a small paper plate and had a flat stick attached as a handle. Sometimes you got a fan with a picture of Jesus on one side and Scripture verses on the other, while another time your fan might advertise a bank or a furniture store.” ~ Drema Hall Berkheimer

The church where I grew up always had those same fans, but the back side advertised one of the two funeral homes in the county. Hence, they were always referred to as “funeral home fans” at Rocky River Presbyterian.

If you’re looking for a book that harkens back to rural and small town American life a few decades ago, this is the book for you.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.

Janet

Holocaust Survivors and Osage Murders

August brought with it a host of good reading. The problem is, when I’m distracted by lots of good books to read, I don’t spend as much time as I should spend writing. The two go hand-in-hand. I’ve read from many sources that you can’t be a good writer if you don’t read a lot. Of course, you can’t be a good writer if you don’t spend time writing. Maybe this month I’ll strike a good balance.

 

Among the Living, by Jonathan Rabb

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Among the Living, by Jonathan Rabb

Among the Living is a novel about a 31-year-old Jewish man, Yitzhak Goldah, who survived The Holocaust and came to live with his cousin, Abe Jesler and Jesler’s wife, Pearl, in Savannah, Georgia in 1947.

The tone of the book is set early on as the author reveals Mr. Goldah’s sense of humor and ability to take life in stride. For instance, on the way home from the train station, Goldah’s cousin and his wife inform him that they are changing his name to “Ike.” Yitzhak doesn’t like the idea, but he accepts this in an effort to not cause a rift with these generous cousins.

It quickly become obvious that Pearl Jesler is going to treat “Ike” like he’s a child. As if that’s not enough, she smothers him with kindness. And she talks all the time – many times saying the wrong thing.

This is by no means a humorous book, but there are constant undertones of “Ike” knowing exactly what the Jeslers are doing but choosing not to confront them about his treatment.

Abe Jesler is in the retail shoe business and is well-connected in Jewish circles in Savannah. Much to Pearl’s chagrin, though, they are not in the uppermost crust of Jewish society. The book does a good job of depicting the social and business lives of Jews in post-World War II Savannah.

There is intrigue as Abe gets involves in some shady business dealings at Savannah’s port. Ike’s profession before the war was that of a journalist, so he gets acquainted with the local newspaper editor and starts writing for the paper. This had the two-fold benefit getting Ike into the profession he loved and out of Abe’s retail shoe business.

Ike also became involved with the newspaper editor’s daughter, which lends a bit of romance to the book. When Ike’s pre-war thought-to-be-dead fiancée suddenly appears in Savannah, Ike’s life gets quite complicated.

The book also addresses the feelings of guilt held by American Jews because they weren’t directly faced with the horrors of The Holocaust and the guilty experienced by the survivors of the concentration camps because they survived.

After reading an article by Jonathan Rabb, “Trigger Warnings in Historical Fiction,” (http://www.readitforward.com/authors/trigger-warnings/) I sought out his latest book, Among the Living. I’ll definitely read some of his other books.

One of my takeaways from Mr. Rabb’s online article about history and writing about history is the following:

“But history is offensive. The past is filled with oppression and murder, rape and slavery, torture and madness, often celebrating each within its own context. And, as painful as it might be, there is something valuable to be learned when we confront who we have been, and who we continue to be. We cannot be so arrogant or naïve as to think that we have somehow stepped beyond our baser instincts or that by avoiding them we prove they no longer exist.” ~ Jonathan Rabb

 

Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann

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Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann

This nonfiction book was a real eye opener for me. I knew that Native Americans have always gotten the short end of the stick from the US Government, but I knew nothing about the history of the Osage Tribe in Oklahoma until I saw the author, David Grann, interviewed about his book on TV. The story was fascinating, so I immediately got on the waitlist for the book at the library.

In a nutshell, this book is the story of how the lives of the Osage were turned upside down in the early 1900s when oil was discovered on their land. They had wisely purchased land and acquired all mineral rights. Unfortunately, their wise decisions became their undoing when they became wealthy. The government deemed them incapable of handling their own finances and assigned each headright holder a white guardian to oversee their spending even for the most mundane personal hygiene items.

This had trouble written all over it from the beginning. Unscrupulous guardians not only stole their ward’s wealth, but in many cases killed them or had them murdered. Most local government authorities in Osage County were either complicit in these murders or turned a blind eye to them. Two local physicians were even involved in the poisoning of some of the Osage. Cause of death records were falsified, and most of the deaths were not investigated.

This is a sordid tale of a horrible and little-known chapter in American history. Integral to the story is the fact that the US Bureau of Indian Affairs investigations arm came in to try to get to the bottom of the matter. It became such a big deal that the Bureau of Investigation grew in stature to become the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI is incredibly well researched and is written in such a flowing way that it reads more like a novel than a history book. In case you haven’t guessed it already, I highly recommend this book.

 

Dog Songs:  Poems, by Mary Oliver

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Dog Songs: Poems, by Mary Oliver

My sister found this book at the public library and recommended it to me. If you’re a dog lover, like I am, you need to look for this little book. It’s a quick read but chock-full of delightful poems and memories of dogs and how they bless our lives.

What’s next?

I will blog about the other three books I read in August in next week’s post. No one wants to read in one sitting thousands of words about the books I read, so check out my blog next Monday to find out what else I read in August.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’ve just finished reading State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett, and I’ve started If the Creek Don’t Rise, by Leah Weiss.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have productive writing time.

Janet

Total Solar Eclipse!

Last Monday, August 21, 2017, I had a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I saw a total solar eclipse! My sister and I traveled several hours from our home to the mountains in southwestern North Carolina in order to see the eclipse in the band of totality.

Anticipating heavy traffic later in the morning, we left Canton, North Carolina (just west of Asheville) at 6:45 a.m. It was a scenic and pleasant hour’s drive to Bryson City, North Carolina where we had reservations on a steam train to Dillsboro at noon.

After a hearty breakfast at The Iron Skillet and a tour of the Smoky Mountain Trains Museum in Bryson City, and armed with NASA-approved solar eclipse viewing glasses, we boarded a train for the 75-minute ride to Dillsboro, North Carolina. Pulled by a diesel locomotive for the trip to Dillsboro, the train was pulled by a steam locomotive on the return trip to Bryson City that afternoon.

2-8-0 Class Steam Locomotive No. 1702

The 2-8-0 steam locomotive No. 1702 was built by The Baldwin Locomotive Works in Eddystone, Pennsylvania in August, 1942. Intended for military service in Europe during World War II, it was sent instead to Fort Bragg, North Carolina to perform domestic wartime service. According to the information on the back of my souvenir ticket, “The engine is one of two remaining in the U.S. 120 2-8-0 class oil burning engines built.”

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2-8-0 Steam Locomotive No. 1702, owned and operated by Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

After being owned by various railroad lines, in 1992 the locomotive was purchased by Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. It gave passenger service in western North Carolina until 2004 when mechanical problems took it out of service. Restoration work began in 2014 and today the steam engine is a thing of beauty in great working order.

During the two-and-a-half-hour layover in Dillsboro, we were able to sit and watch the progression of the eclipse.

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That’s me, watching the solar eclipse in Dillsboro, NC, August 21, 2017.

The people on the train and in Dillsboro were all in a jovial mood and excited about the experience. There were people there from many US states, India, and Japan. The ladies from Japan had traveled to China to see a total eclipse. They brought with them solar eclipse viewing fans. They reminded me of the cardboard fans on a wooden stick that we used in our church before the days of air-conditioning.

The fans from China had a strip across so one could hold the fan in front of the face and look at the eclipse through the strip. One of the women let me try it out. I thought it was more convenient and sturdy than the flimsy eclipse glasses we have in the US. Afraid my glasses would slip and expose my eyes, I found myself holding them in place.

Eclipse projected on the ground

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Image of sun just minutes before total eclipse as projected on paper through a telescope and binoculars

An engineer from Conyers, Georgia set up a telescope rigged with binoculars just a few feet from where we sat. It was fascinating to watch the progression of the eclipse, which started at 1:06 pm and ended at 4:00 pm, as his setup projected the image of the sun onto a piece of paper on the ground.

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Tiny solar crescents being project through a round disk with tiny round holes in it.

He had a round disk containing a myriad of tiny holes. Everywhere the eclipsed sun shone through the holes, we could see tiny crescents of light on the paper underneath. He also showed the women from Japan how to hold they hands palms down, crossways of each other at a 90-degree angle and somehow the tiny crescents of light appeared on the ground beneath his hands. I never got the hang of that.

Total Solar Eclipse!

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Photograph of total solar eclipse in Dillsboro, NC, August 21, 2017

When the partial eclipse transitioned into total eclipse at 2:35 pm, we could take off our viewing glasses and look at the sun unprotected for the minute and 50 seconds of totality. Nothing was visible of the sun during that time except its spectacular corona. I could see one star to the left of the sun. Everyone cheered and applauded when totality began and again when it ended. The birds started singing again as totality transitioned into partial eclipse.

The street lights came on during the twilight of total eclipse. If I had it to do again – which I don’t expect to – I would go to a place far away from any source of artificial light, and I would go the a place in the center of the total eclipse band. Even so, I have no regrets and feel fortunate to have had this opportunity. The last eclipse that could be seen in the Dillsboro area was July 20, 1506. The next one will be October 17, 2053. Since I’ll be 100 years old then, I don’t expect to see it.

When the eclipse was at about 50%, we could see what we thought to be a sunspot on the sun as we looked at the half-moon image on the paper under the telescope/binoculars setup. Unfortunately, the sunspot was too tiny to show up in the photograph I took.

Traffic!

It had taken less than an hour that morning to drive from Canton, North Carolina to Bryson City. After the steam train returned us to Bryson City after the eclipse, we enjoyed pizza at Nick and Nate’s Pizza across the street from the train station and headed back to Canton.

It wasn’t long before we caught up with bumper-to-bumper traffic. It took us three-and-a-half hours to drive back to Canton, so we were glad we’d taken time to eat supper in Bryson City.

A nice surprise

A nice surprise that morning in Bryson City was visiting O’Neil’s Shop on the Corner and finding a copy of my vintage postcard book, The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, prominently displayed near the bookstore’s entrance.

One of the shop’s owners, Tom O’Neill, asked me to autograph it and the other copy on another shelf. I was thrilled to find my book still available there! (I wrote about my first experience meeting Tom and Cynthia O’Neill in my December 30, 2014 blog post, O’Neill’s Shop on the Corner)

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That’s me, proudly standing beside my vintage postcard book, The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, on display at O’Neill’s Shop on the Corner, Bryson City, NC.

It was a really nice day. We’d had such a good experience all day, the long drive back to Canton wasn’t so bad. We regretted that we were missing the NOVA program about the eclipse on PBS that night, but it turned out that we got to see it later in the week after we returned home.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’ve almost finished reading Hatteras Light, by Philip Gerard, for tonight’s meeting of Rocky River Readers Book Club.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have productive writing time.

Janet

Photo credits:  Marie Morrison

 

Race in America, and The Dry Grass of August

Today’s blog post highlights the first paragraph of The Dry Grass of August, Anna Jean Mayhew’s debut novel. That paragraph is a great hook, for it draws you in and conveys that there’s bound to be a good story in the coming pages. Here it is:

“In August of 1954, we took our first trip without Daddy, and Stell got to use the driver’s license she’d had such a fit about. It was just a little card saying she was Estelle Annette Watts, that she was white, with hazel eyes and brown hair. But her having a license made that trip different from any others, because if she hadn’t had it, we never would have been stuck in Sally’s Motel Park in Claxton, Georgia, where we went to buy fruitcakes and had a wreck instead. And Mary would still be with us.” ~ Anna Jean Mayhew in The Dry Grass of August

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The Dry Grass of August, by Anna Jean Mayhew

The Dry Grass of August is a novel that takes you to the American South in the days of  lawfully-mandated racial segregation. It is written from the point-of-view of a 13-year-old white girl from Charlotte, North Carolina. It sheds light on how it was in the 1950s for a black maid, Mary Luther, traveling from North Carolina to Florida with her white employer, Mrs. Watts, and the four Watts children. Mary couldn’t eat in restaurants, couldn’t sleep in motels, and couldn’t use public bathrooms because they were the legal domain of white people.

Mary Luther is in constant but often subtle danger. She was, no doubt, apprehensive and in danger even when the members of the white family she was riding with were unaware. That unawareness is today referred to as “white privilege.” When one lives his entire life as a member of the predominant and ruling race, he enjoys privileges and advantages of which he isn’t even conscious.

The Watts children witness things along the way to Florida that open their eyes to how differently whites and blacks are treated in the United States. They cannot return home to Charlotte unchanged.

In light of the August 12, 2017 violence

I chose the opening paragraph of The Dry Grass of August as my blog topic for today many weeks ago. When I selected it and put it on my blog schedule, I had no idea I would be writing it in the aftermath of the tragedy in Virginia of last weekend. I did not anticipate writing a 1,000-word blog post around that paragraph.

Although published in 2011, The Dry Grass of August speaks to us today as, in light of the murder of Heather Heyer and other violence in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017, Americans are having a conversation like never before about race relations. That conversation is long overdue and painful. It will not and cannot be a short conversation.

For all the progress that has been made between the races in my 64 years, it is abhorrent and repulsive to me that in 2017 there are Ku Klux Klan members, white supremacists, and Neo-Nazis not only living among us but being emboldened by the words, actions, and inactions of President Donald J. Trump. It is Mr. Trump’s lack of moral leadership that has added fuel to the fire and given bigots a green light to publicly spew their hate.

I had hoped to keep politics out of my blog, but I cannot remain silent. This is bigger than politics. This is morals and humanity and freedom. Freedom to live without fear. My blog is not a huge platform, but it does give me an avenue through which to speak. My blog has 1,300 followers from all over the world. I don’t want my blog followers in other countries to think Americans are vicious and at each other’s throats. That is not who we are.

Whereas the people who doggedly hung onto the myth that white people were a superior race used to cowardly hide their faces and identities under white hoods and robes, they now demonstrate and march with torches in regular street clothes. When they marched in Charlottesville last weekend, some of them were outfitted with helmets and shields, making it difficult for the anti-Nazi protesters to tell the difference between police officers and the white supremacists.

There is no room in the United States of America for Neo-Nazis and other hate mongers. The good citizens of this country cannot allow the current occupant of the White House to lead us down this destructive road by his lame condemnation of evil and his attempt to equate the people carrying Nazi flags with the people who were there to protest their hateful agenda.

Three of the founding pillars of the United States are freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom to assemble. I’m glad I live in a country where people can voice their opinions; however, no American has the constitutional right to threaten, terrorize, or murder other people simply because of the color of their skin or the way they choose to worship God.

The United States is in a watershed moment. We will come out a better people on the other side of the current self-examination and soul searching because we are a good and decent people. We are not who Mr. Trump would try to make you think we are. We are so much better than that.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. If you’re a writer, I hope you have a good book to read while you write your next good book.

Janet

 

Anne Lamott’s Gems for Novelists

My blog post on August 7, 2017 (Late July Reading) was about the three books I read during the second half of July. I wanted to share more words of wisdom I gleaned from Anne Lamott’s book, Bird-by-Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

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Bird-by-Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott

As I stated in that post, as someone learning the art and craft of writing, I enjoyed Bird-by-Bird, by Anne Lamott. The following quote from the book also sums up how I feel about good novelists.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve thought that there was something noble and mysterious about writing, about the people who could do it well, who could create a world as if they were little gods or sorcerers. All my life I’ve felt that there was something magical about people who could get into other people’s minds and skin, who could take people like me out of ourselves and then take us back to ourselves. And you know what? I still do.”  ~  Anne Lamott

Ms. Lamott waxes poetic about what makes a book a good book. I cannot say it any better than she does in the first chapter. She writes about all the things books do for us.

She has some words of wisdom for people like me. One takeaway I took from the book was that I need to get over being a perfectionist.

Ms. Lamott talks about characters and gives tips about how to get acquainted with a character before you write about him or her. However, she cautions that you won’t really get to know your characters until “you’ve started working with them.”

My interpretation of one of her recommendations is for writers to focus on character and the plot will fall into place. You have to know what means the most to your protagonist so you’ll understand and can convey to the reader what is at stake in your novel. To quote her again:

“That’s what plot is:  what people up and do in spite of everything that tells them they shouldn’t,….” ~ Anne Lamott

Ms. Lamott writes about the parts of a novel and the importance of the writer paying attention to those details. If no one is changed in the course of the novel, it has no point. She writes about dialogue and how it must be written as real people talk. It’s essential to get voice right in order to get character right.

She writes, “We start out with stock characters, and our unconscious provides us with real, flesh-and-blood, believable people.” (I hope she’s right. I hope the unconscious part of my brain kicks in as I rewrite my manuscript for The Spanish Coin!)

All this is just the tip of the iceberg. She writes about a writer’s self-confidence and the importance of a novelist deeply knowing the setting for their novel. She says that a writer needs to recapture the intuition they had as a child and let that lead their opinions.

I could go on and on, but I’ll leave you with two more quotes from the book:

“Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.” ~ Anne Lamott

“Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you are a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act –  truth is always subversive.” ~ Anne Lamott

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. If you’re a writer, I hope you have productive writing time. I also recommend that you read Bird-by-Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott.

Janet