The Year of the Gadfly

A few months ago, I agreed to participate in Jennifer Miller’s attempt to visit 100 Skype book clubs in July promotion. Billed as a thrilling account of prep school mystery, The Year of the Gadfly was postured to be fun, entertaining. The week prior to the event, I collected props inspired by this novel to include: my dragonfly necklace, a multi-media Christmas tree one son made in first grade, my mother in law’s “Happy Hanukkah” banner. My fellow bibliophiles gathered to eat pepperoni pizza on paper plates with kosher Oreo substitute cookies as dessert, we met with Miller, we had a delightful time. The only problem is: I didn’t want to do it.

As I approached the day of the book club, I feel progressively more uncomfortable with the notion of a festive (kick off) of this novel. The bullying, the anti-Semitism, the one, no, two deaths made me want to jump up and down on my party hat. And the terms suicide and festive should never, ever be in the same sentence. I was ready to cancel, but couldn’t. I said I would host, so I hosted. Herein lies Miller’s hook that she embeds in every page of The Year of the Gadfly: a person’s need to belong, to please, to participate in a group will supersede an individual’s moral construct. By allowing my sense of obligation to outrank my inner hesitation, I have proven the author’s point.

By the time the Skype session started, I was bursting. I opened the Q&A session with my demanding question: how do you reconcile the festive nature of this promotion with the darkness of one, maybe two suicides in your novel? Miller’s response, full of clarity and wisdom, was essentially this: people who experience death develop a sense of humor about death. The clanging of glasses and munching on Doritos, was, in her mind, very fitting. How else do you cope?

The Year of the Gadfly fits no one category. Part comedy, part philosophy, filled with teenage discussion points and adult reflective moments, this novel offers breadth and width of material. I am passing it on to my teenage son with a good bit of anticipation. What will he see in Gadfly, and will I have seen it, too?

The Year of the Gadfly

Jennifer Miller

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Paperback:  May 2013

A Mosaic Heart

mosaicAs I scan across the room to my four children, like any other parent, I cannot imagine waking up to a day with one of them gone.  The task of carrying the family through such a loss and continuing with our daily lives of music lessons, karate, school work seems not just impossible, but surreal.  How do you fix breakfast, do the laundry, manage the homework and maintain the evening taxi shuttle when one sibling has died?  Every part of my existence that I complain about, these mundane and often irritating aspects of everyday life, seem nihilistic in the absence of one of my children.  Every apple cut, every shirt folded, would wash over the ever present gravestone in my mind.

Now:  repeat this nightmare times two.  The image of burying a second child invokes rage against the Fates, my God, your God and all of humanity.  It should not be possible, not permissible.  Unfortunately, parents of children with lethal genetic disorders see their children’s lives differently from those of us who find the coughs and colds of childhood as winter annoyances.  Reality faces these parents down with cruel certainty.  How and why are clear; when is today, maybe tomorrow, maybe not.

While touring Books in the Park, a literary festival in Norfolk last Fall, I casually asked Terry Jones-Brady, “Tell me about your book.”  With honesty and frankness, she detailed for me her two daughters’ lives, each ultimately overtaken by cystic fibrosis.  I silently wondered how horrifying it must have been for her younger daughter to wake up the morning after her sister’s funeral, knowing what genetics had predetermined for her.  Jones-Brady’s memoir, A Mosaic Heart: Reshaping the Shards of a Shattered Life, describes her life coping with this heartbreaking eventuality.  Ultimately left alone by her husband’s suicide, Terry Jones-Brady took to her computer to reshape her life.  The most unlikely of emotions emerges in conclusion:  joy. 

In sharing her experiences, Terry Jones-Brady has won the William Brenner Nonfiction Prize at the Hampton Roads Annual Writers’ Conference in 2010, a Silver Prize in the category of Grief/Death and Dying in the 2012 Nautilus Book Awards and Honorable Mention in the 2013 Great Southeast Book Festival.  A Mosaic Heart may be purchased locally from Prince Books as well as from regional vendors, Shooting Star Gallery, Page after Page and Amazon.  A portion of the proceeds from the sale of this book are donated to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation

The Third Son

Family.

A wound that never healed.  A promise never to be fulfilled.

That was family.

 WU_ThirdSon_3D_LR1I’ve been friends with people who were not spanked, but beaten, as children, others who still suffer from the memories of childhood sexual abuse and countless numbers who hear the echoes of parental verbal abuse long into adulthood.  Despite these indelible scars, I’ve known very few to permanently sever ties with their parental offenders.  There’s always the childlike hope of reconciliation, of that one last expression of love.

In Julie Wu’s The Third Son, it is just this eternal longing that Saburo, a young boy whose childhood spans Japanese occupation and subsequent Chinese Nationalist takeover of Taiwan, carries well into adulthood.  Bright and inquisitive, the five-year old Saburo is blamed for his younger brother’s death from pneumonia.  This ridiculous accusation yields years of degradation:  verbal assaults, bamboo cane beatings and deliberate malnourishment.  The notions of honor and duty snag Saburo’s emotions and tie the boy to his undeserving family for years.

While Wu attempts to contrast Asian and American familial cultures, her notions of family obligations and their accompanying guilt possess a much broader connection.  Despite being initially set in Taiwan, The Third Son transcends its veneer of an Asian novel.  Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club rendered a picture of them versus us, Asian versus Western, yet The Third Son offers more.  This nuanced depiction of the Taiwanese social and political landscape in the 40’s and 50’s lends moments of wait, this is me, too.

Julie Wu and Lydia Netzer, author of Shine Shine Shine, will be discussing their novels and signing books at Prince Books in Norfolk on Wednesday May 8 at 7 pm.  Join these debut authors at Secco Wine Bar’s The Room in Richmond on Thursday May 9 at 6:30 for wine, light snacks and conversation (ticketed event).

The Third Son

Julie Wu

Algonquin Press

May 2013

START HERE

start here

My children have played violin and cello for years using the Suzuki method.  A hallmark of the Suzuki method of music instruction is achieving good tone, a high quality sound.  Such tone makes the difference between the musician sounding like a beginner or a seasoned player.  Good tone can also make the difference between the audience liking or disliking stringed instruments altogether.  There is a certain bit of you’ll- know- it- when- you-hear-it with regards to musical tone, just as there is a broad and deep subjective measure of a good tone in speaking and writing.  Good tone ultimately makes or breaks your audience, and judgment is swift and uncompromising.

So when I picked up Start Here, a self-proclaimed field guide to finding quality literature to read, my inclination was to judge on tone.  This unsophisticated attempt to provide a literary beginning for the unread, surprisingly, has tone as its most profound strength.  Having heard Joshua Bell play Yankee Doodle in concert, I can tell you, good tone trumps sophistication in any piece, and Start Here is no exception.  This is not your older sibling rolling her eyes at your lack of knowledge, nor is it your name-dropping colleague who condescends to speak to you.  Start Here speaks like your favorite teacher, full of knowledge and convenient office hours.  This accessible voice persists despite the three-time use of the literary inner circle word:  oeuvre.

The authors of Start Here collectively address what I have found frustrating in tapping the works of alleged “good” authors.  Not all critically acclaimed writers produce fantastic works every time.  Sometimes they crap a novel.  Rachel Manwill of Book Riot describes some of John Irving’s more recent writings as “clunkers.”  Amanda Nelson, also of Book Riot, suggests to read the widely known novels by Charles Dickens but avoid his minor works “unless you’re a completist.”  Author of The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern, steers the gentle reader away from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.  These are genuinely helpful nuggets of advice.  Furthermore, the authors openly admit they are not writing to provide an exhaustive review of all literature; rather, they aim to provide friendly suggestions.  With that disclaimer, I can confidently declare:  Mission Accomplished.

While Cassandra Neace did not convince me to read anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, surprisingly, she did succeed in causing me to take a second pass at Ray Bradbury, an author I’ve neglected for decades.  My science fiction conversion continued with Steve Randolph’s emphasis on the philosophy of Phillip K. Dick’s works and the declaration that there is a “right science-fiction.”  I will probably tackle Italo Calvino at the end of my sci-fi journey, a sort of working my way up the sci-fi ladder, but his If On a Winter’s Night A Traveler and Invisible Cities (perhaps Cosmicomics) are definitely in my queue.   Start Here has convinced me, not through argument, but perhaps the exact opposite, “Hey, we liked this, perhaps you’d like it, too.”

Start Here

Jeff O’Neal and Rebecca Joines Schinsky, Editors

Book Riot

2012

Dreary Deary

Local budget cuts in Sunderland, England have put public dollars for libraries on the chopping block.  Terry Deary, beloved author of the Horrible Histories series, decided to capitalize on the country’s recession and spoke in support of closing library branches.  Deary cited inadequate compensation for authors when a library book is borrowed.  It’s pence on the pound of profit when a book is purchased.  Dreary Deary, were you not aware of this policy before the recession?  You’re not exactly a rookie author.  As we say on the other side of the pond, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”  Petition to have the cap on money paid for lending removed and the per book payout increased.  But attack universal access to knowledge?  Seriously, Deary, go back and read your own books to recall how restrictions on library access have suppressed the non-elite (not just the poor) for centuries.

My children have loved these books to include the Savage Stone Age and the Villainous Victorians.  While sticky with gross tidbits of history seldom found in a text book, this series conspicuously lacks any citation.  The reader is to take the alleged historical facts on faith. Would a trip to the library reveal this history to be fiction?   I would hate for the poor to have universal access to misinformation, so perhaps Dreary’s books should be removed from libraries on this account.  It’s a win-win.  Dreary won’t be troubled with subsidizing the poor’s education.  I’m sure his arguments will have his readership running to the nearest bookstore to buy his books.

So, I’m writing a novel…Part I

Somehow I’ve managed to be surrounded by people who write.  I’d like to trace some thoughtful evolution or attribute my position to some fluke of random chance.  Rather, I lean towards Chaos Theory, that butterfly flying in China that I’ve mentioned in a previous post.  When I withdrew one of my sons from school to be taught at home, this action created connections with other homeschoolers, followed by shared needs and experiences, and, finally, to the declaration, “You should put that in your novel!”  Life decisions for the well-being of my son have brought me to my keyboard.

The process of creating fiction is, on the whole, foreign to me.  I’ve published my statistical analyses of health data and explained variance and significance of findings.  My work has been in the concrete, the measurable, the truth.  Even reviewing others’ writing is grounded in reality:  this is how it made me feel, what I connected to it, what confused me.

Throughout this process – I’m approaching my second submission to a writing group – it has become clear that it is impossible to untangle my personal experiences with my writing.  With particular emphasis on the lows, the path that is my life has seeped into my characters and their story lines even as I attempted to conjure words that were completely new.

With certainty, I have developed a curiosity on the genesis of others’ writing.  While some clearly draw from the gestalt of their hometown or their family’s history, others could be repackaging some dark, personal truths.  I look at one of my favorite authors, Chuck Palahniuk, with suspicion.  Perhaps I don’t want to meet him now?  I wonder, after reading my novel, would my reader want to meet me?

The Plum Tree

The Plum Tree, set in a quaint, German town during World War II, keeps alive the memories that must never be forgotten.  Ellen Marie Wiseman brings to light the seldom acknowledged sufferers during this war:  ThePlumTreeGerman citizens themselves.

The ever-whispered question throughout this story of family resilience and, ultimately, love, is simple:  What would you do?  Once the government has turned on its own people, who would you protect?  It is easy to point fingers at the German homeland and judge its people for allowing the systematic isolation and extermination of the Jews.  What history does not mention is the Nazi choke hold, the rationing of basic necessities to the starvation of the Germans, the harassment and the very real, very visible threat of imprisonment and murder of any and all Germans who opposed Hitler’s will.  What does a mother do but protect her children, and only her children.  Would you fathers out there risk your sons to Auschwitz for your neighbor?

In some ways, the silence of the German people is mirrored in the silence of the peaceful Muslim living in, say, Afghanistan.  How many curtains there are closed knowing that prison, torture, death await any family member challenging Sharia law?  When the state has more physical power than its citizens, when the state has the authority to seize, control, destroy, what do its citizens do?

In my rational mind, it seems ridiculous for the average-Joe citizen to own an assault rifle.  I fail to see the purpose of an AK-47 and a closet full of ammunition magazines.  I have to wonder, though, would such resources have lowered the risk, amplified the voices of those German citizens privately raging against Hitler?  Would I bear arms against the SS at my door if I knew that I had the power to combat the first, the second, the third wave of soldiers?

Wiseman offers a painful, yet beautiful overview of the daily wartime life for Germans.  Her novel contains the whole set of wartime experiences:  the poverty and starvation, the fear of imprisonment and mandatory military service,  the allure of Hitler’s Youth and the Nazi party allegiance, the Lebensborn program, the gradual restrictions and relocation of the Jews, the politics of concentration camps, the American bombings and the Russian invasion.  While not overly literary, The Plum Tree lent itself to wide and deep discussion at my dinner table.  What would you do?

The Plum Tree

Ellen Marie Wiseman

Kensington Books

December 2012

Heading Out to Wonderful

While reading Robert Goolrick’s novel, Heading Out to Wonderful, I hadheading out to wonderful to remind myself that the characters were not real, that the events were fictional.  My blood pressure spiked after becoming acquainted with a town full of people practically re-writing the Gospels for their own convenience.  Their smug stupidity about what constitutes culpability, sin, and their mirroring of Christians as a whole, drove me to madness.

Now their idiocy does come by honestly.  After climbing the 463 steps of the Duomo, the signature cathedral in Florence, Italy, this summer, the misinformation that has been passed down the chains of Christianity was painted as a huge billboard in the dome of the main sanctuary.  A twenty foot devil devoured naked, lustful sinners:  what a sight for illiterate parishioners seeking salvation.  The only problem with this horrifying warning of the consequences of carnal sin is that it is an illustration of fiction.  Presumably Dante’s visions, emblazoned on the ceiling by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari, are nowhere in the Bible.  As I traveled from Rome, then Florence and finally Venice, I could see through the paintings, the sculpture and general iconography that the birthplace of the Church was gilded with false depictions of God.  Is there a church on the planet that has shed itself from this errant path?  I do not know.

We, as Christians, spend a lot of time talking about sex.  Church leaders across denominations deliberate on sexual sins:  what’s OK, what’s not, with whom and when.  Jesus does have some strong words about adultery in Matthew 5:27-32, but I’m going to say that sex was not his main issue.  What was?  Money.  Forget the kum-ba-ya Jesus you were taught in Sunday School.  The real deal threw tantrums and flipped tables – Jesus had a clearly defined who-what-when-where-how platform on how to handle finances.

So when the characters of Heading Out to Wonderful  shun Charlie for seducing a young, unfortunately married young woman, I became physically ill.  Here is a young woman, a child, who was by all accounts bought into slavery by the repulsive Boaty, and all the town does is snicker.  When she dabbles outside this sham marriage (both questionably legal and definitely immoral) union, the town shakes a finger, then later abandons her lover when her situation and immaturity take over her reason.  The townspeople fail to recognize that they are collectively responsible for a much greater sin:  turning a blind eye to the evils of misspent money.

Now I’m sure Goolrick wasn’t intending to write a novel indicting Christian judgment.  Rather, his purpose was probably more to take an idyllic small town and juxtapose its simple beauty against the horrific ugliness of human behavior – and this he accomplishes with artistic mastery.  Nonetheless, my first reaction was to pause and reflect on what we all know already:  much more harm is possible with money than could ever be done by touch.

Heading Out to Wonderful

Robert Goolrick

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

2012

THE PEOPLE OF FOREVER ARE NOT AFRAID

I am the shiksa of the family.  No, I don’t have blonde hair, nor do I have the stereotypical sex appeal, but I do function as the wrecking ball of my in-laws’ expectations for my husband.  For years, I clung to the notion that there should be this equality of demands.  My father-in-law was, prior to his conversion to Judaism, Christian.  He converted.  What was the big deal about our Christian home?  All choices for family religion are equal.  Right?  No, they are not.

What I am not is a member of the people of forever.  My Anglican roots conspicuously lack a history of attempted extermination, of slavery, of chronic anti-Semitism across millennia.  My ‘people’ have the stain of divorce as the crowning moment of religious identity.  Populating country clubs and ornate cathedrals across the genteel portions of the globe, ‘my people’ were never afraid.

So when reading THE PEOPLE OF FOREVER ARE NOT AFRAID, I could hear the nation of Israel echoing my in law’s reactions:  you have no perspective.  I represent the West, demanding equality in all things while Israel drums for equity.  No, the border control of Israel cannot remotely resemble those of the United States.  The Mexican army is not firing on its citizens disappearing into the Texas desert, and our Canadian neighbors at worst provide stiff competition for our entertainment industry.  Our religious zealots are swiftly pegged as crazy outliers; those in Israel’s region deliberately strive to uproot the nation’Images current existence.  Our military is all-volunteer, because it can be; Israel’s military cannot afford such Western luxuries.

Who is right in the Middle East?  Is there a ‘right’ side?  Who knows?  What I do know is that author Shani Boianjiu in THE PEOPLE OF FOREVER ARE NOT AFRAID demonstrates that I, or any member of the Western hemisphere, don’t have the perspective to answer these questions.  My daughter will go off to college: she might join a sorority, play in the school band or bury herself in the library with grad school aspirations.  The military life, while an option, is her choice and hers alone.  The daughters of Israel don’t have such choices.

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid

Shani Boianjiu

Hogarth

September 2012

FOBBIT

As Americans, we have expectations and prejudices of how a war should be fought.  We draft these preconceived notions from our perceived history of long, but not forgotten wars.  The problem is, these notions are derived from movies, from propaganda, from glory stories passed down generations.  The fictionalization of the wartime lives of our alleged war heroes has been mistaken for fact.  In the era of instant communication, we can be nothing but let down by our heroes.

The reality is that, given technology, wars are more administered than fought.  Many of our ‘heroes’ never leave relative security, never experience war as more than an extended discomfort in a foreign desert.  These so-called fobbits, the administrators of war from a forward operating base, lead wartime lives of tedium, experiencing pressure more from drafting a press release than from bullets, grenades or rockets.  For some, the pressure lies in maintaining the heroic image of the American war experience, despite the realities, the failures.

The first pass of David Abram’s FOBBIT left me screaming for a plot.  The meandering tale of a unit in Baghdad, Iraq provides more characterization than direction.  Like a rocket-propelled grenade whistling through the sky searching for its target, I was hit.  This is what deployment is like:  the long hours, the tedium, the routine, the occasional surge for a questionable goal.  Within these pages lies a very accurate depiction of the Iraqi War experience.

In mathematics, such associative precision in a function,  is called one-to-one correspondence.  FOBBIT reads as such a function.  My husband, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and former submarine officer, can assign a classmate or shipmate to every character in Fobbit.  Disturbingly, Abe Shrinkle, with his dangerous incompetence and inflated projection of self, was the easiest to identify.  I wonder if David Abrams’ former company-mates can identify themselves in his novel.

FOBBIT receives the nod of a soldier’s been-there-done-exactly-that.  Recall, relive or experience for the first time the in-country life of the American soldier.  The frustration to madness, the humor of the absurd, the every soldier experience:  it’s all there.

FOBBIT

David Abrams

Grove Atlantic, September 2012