Tuesday, April 30, 2013

(Far from a review of) Heroes & Villains by Angela Carter

There’s a book on my desk that I finished but can’t quite put away.  I want to blog about it but have not had time to be thoughtful, and the tapestry of its pages is still sinking into my soul.  It’s Heroes & Villains by Angela Carter.    My husband recommended it–he thought it would inspire me as I work on my new novel, because it’s  also about a young woman who loses (and maybe finds) herself in a world very different from the one she’s known.  (In my case, the protagonist has amnesia, so she doesn’t know what she’s known.)  And both lost/found young women get pregnant.  Reading this novel confirmed what I knew: I need to read much more Angela Carter.
As I read, I saw that my husband’s recommendation was eerily right on.  I am not comparing my work to Carter’s writing, but there are some similarities between my book and hers. How could I have known that the novel I’m working on has this kind of root source essence to dig into?  I read this novel too quickly; I didn’t give it the time and attention it deserved.  Now it sits prettily on my desk, wanting more of me, and me of it, but there’s no time right now.
All I can say is that it deserves more of me, and we will both have to wait.  But it will be worth the time, at least for me.

Reprinted with permission by Rebecca Kuder
Original post: http://rebeccakuder.com/2012/07/07/far-from-a-review-of-heroes-villains-by-angela-carter/

Robert Edric, author of The Devil’s Beat and The Mermaids (among many others)
Robert Edric is the author of twenty-two books, most recently The Devil’s Beat.  I had the pleasure of talking by phone with Mr. Edric on March 8, 2012.  Our conversation centered around Edric’s novella, The Mermaids, from PS Publishing.  (Special thanks to Peter Crowther from PS for arranging our interview.)
Here’s the first installment transcribed.  I will post more as time allows.
This spring, I’m teaching a creative writing course, and looking at a examples of well-written fiction and nonfiction, approaching reading as painters look at brushstrokes, to understand how the thing was made.  I’m assigning The Mermaids because I love it, because of its economy, and its unity of place and action.  I think it’s a great text to focus on.
With regards to the actual writing itself, it was one of those books that actually got smaller and smaller and smaller. 


reprinted with permission by Rebecca Kuder

Thursday, January 17, 2013

          The Longest Way Home
             By Andrew McCarthy
"Through travel, I began to grow up."

In this memoir and travelogue, Andrew McCarthy explores what travel means to him, how he has traveled to assuage the loneliness within, to mature as an adult, and to find meaning and connection in his life. Opening with a brief account of his rise to fame as a teenager, McCarthy then takes the reader on a journey through the months leading up to his marriage with D in Dublin. He seeks to balance his need for solitude with the responsibilities that family life and fatherhood bring. He travels to Patagonia, the Amazon, and Baltimore on travel writing assignments, and struggles with leaving his family (D and their son and daughter) behind while embracing the solitary life travel provides. He recalls the trip to Vienna with D’s family and how this trip changed their relationship and moved them towards matrimonial commitment. Atop Mt. Kilimanjaro, the final trip before his wedding in Dublin, McCarthy experiences and recognizes a lifelong longing, and later writes: “In acknowledging that emptiness, I’m released further into my own life.”
I read this book after reading an interview with McCarthy on TheRumpus.net. I remembered him as an actor from The Brat Pack years; I had no idea that he had become a successful travel writer. McCarthy started keeping travel notes and a journal after reading Paul Theroux; upon reading that, I was excited to read McCarthy’s memoir. Theroux is an elegant, evocative travel writer—anyone inspired by his books is worth checking out. McCarthy’s descriptions of Patagonia and Kilimanjaro are haunting, and he deftly and humorously describes traveling down the Amazon riverboat with quirky and sometimes nosy and annoying fellow passengers. Woven through these travel narratives are McCarthy’s personal challenges of settling down and of connecting with those whom he loves most.

It is well-written and elegantly crafted. I’ve added The Longest Way Home to my list of excellent travel writing.

Reprinted by permission of Kathy Hart
Original post: http://katherinemhart.wordpress.com/2012/10/17/worth-reading-2-the-longest-way-home/

Friday, June 22, 2012

Stitches by David Small (how to deal with eyes)

One of my students sent me a link to the ten best graphic memoirs, according to Time. David Small's book, Stitches, was included. I find graphic memoir (graphic "literature" in general) fascinating,. (There's that  annoying question of whether anything created in the comic strip format can be considered LITERATURE, to which I say hell yes, but that's another post.) Many have commented about how writers contain the unconsainable within the tight frames of comic, and how useful tha can be-similar to using tight poetic forms as scaffolding for what is huge, frightening, or unapproachable.

I was engrossed in Stitches, for many reasons, and I look forward to reading Small’s books for children. One particular greatness of Stitches was Small’s use of eyeglasses to obscure eyes. In the book, his elders who wear glasses usually have blank space behind the lenses, so their eyes are unavailable, erased, hidden. It’s not until crucial moments in the drama, when truth is being told, or when the character is suddenly vulnerable, that eyes are depicted. This is one of the things that graphic literature can do so beautifully–adding visual layers to the storytelling that cannot be done with words alone.

Among some pieces of wisdom I’ve been given by writers and teachers (and give, now, to my students) is to take care when writing about eyes. I’ve included this advice in a handout I give to students. The following may sound overly dogmatic, and in the whole document I do discuss how rules can (and often should) be broken, if broken well and with foresight, but sometimes it’s necessary to remember:


Be careful when you are describing how a point of view (POV) character looks, unless the person is looking in the mirror. However, it can be a cliché to use a character looking in a mirror just so the writer can describe the character’s appearance. Showing a POV character’s face (reddening, for instance) can sound stiff and inauthentic. If you are going to describe how a character looks, focus on more interesting details beyond the data that would be listed on a drivers’ license (hair color, eye color, height, and weight) unless those details are integral to the story. And these glimpses of characters should come naturally from the story, lest they feel pasted on to assist the reader imagine how the character looks. (Readers like to use their imaginations!)

Another note about eyes

You can get into trouble when depicting ANY character’s eyes doing things, and describing facial expressions in general. Eyes and faces, in real life, do convey nonverbal messages, but it’s difficult to translate these things into prose. Be aware of how you do this, if you choose to do this. It’s often better to let the actions and dialogue of your characters illustrate their inner states of being, rather than description from the outside. It’s always good to be careful with the actions of eyes, for instance “his eyes followed her across the room,” because such descriptions, if taken literally, can draw the reader out of the story.

Reprinted with permission of Rebecca Kuder.
Original post: http://rebeccakuder.com/2012/05/14/stitches-by-david-small-how-to-deal-with-eyes/

Friday, June 1, 2012


by Katherine Dunn 

Al Binewski inherited his family’s circus during troubled economic times. Not many people could splurge on a show for their family even after the Great Depression. The old familiar acts of the Binewski Fabulon were not enough to draw the crowds anymore. 

Al’s new wife, Lily the geek, was eager to help recast the circus as a must-see exhibition. Together, they devised a plan to grow their attractions using their love for one another. They tinkered with pharmaceuticals and mild poisons during Lil’s various pregnancies in order to produce mutated offspring that were guaranteed to bring in revenue.

Four of their experiments survive and grow up as the beloved Binewski children. The albino hunchbacked midget, Olympia, is the narrator of the story. Her twin sisters, Elly and Iphy, are Siamese twins connected at the hip. Her brother Arturo was born without arms or legs, only hands and feet like flippers. And last, boy Chick, has a specialty all his own. In the shelter of a circus, these children grow up accepted, even respected by the other workers and performers. And their parents teach them that their shapes make them highly prized.

Not surprisingly, this acceptance is at odds with what the Binewski children experience beyond the circus grounds. Laughter, sometimes horrified expressions, people staring without consideration. But the children have a core acceptance from their parents and loved ones, so they believe the outsiders or “norms” are the real freaks. 

The story develops those beliefs during the revitalization of the Binewski Fabulon. Over a period of years, each Binewski sibling discovers his or her humanity in how they react to the outside world. They learn to relate to the “norms” in their own way, causing conflict with the rest of the family. One Binewski discovers how to twist the reactions of his crowds to profit, and becomes a manipulative and abusive public figure. He attracts a cult following who mutate themselves using surgery.

Katherine Dunn’s narrative abilities are superlative, so even if you’re not the circus freak type, it’s worth a read. I consider Geek Love one of my all-time favorite books. Check it out.
generously reprinted from Denny Russell's blog:

Friday, May 25, 2012

Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives
by Robert Draper

A retiring member of Congress wrote back in 1796, “Do not ask what good we do. It is not a fair question in these days of faction.” He was venting frustration over the stagnation of the House of Representatives due to partisan bickering. Neither Federalists nor their opposition would budge on a variety of issues, thus grinding the nation’s government (and her progress) to a halt.

Draper finds many parallels in that faraway legislative body and more recent congressional leaders. After dramatic gains in the 2010 election, a tidal wave of Tea Party activists descended on the 111th Congress armed with extreme ideas about governance. The ensuing Congressional year was nothing short of a tug-of-war match by politicians for the soul of our country. It was the last thing we needed during a time of great financial instability.

Among the main characters was Florida Republican Allen West and South Carolina Republican Jeff Duncan, two freshmen congressmen who came to Washington, D.C. to radically alter the course of our nation’s spending. However, the two congressmen quickly find their extreme stances to governing at odds with the decisions they were expected to make for their congressional districts.  Extreme conservative ideologies seemed less applicable when confronted by the needs of one’s home and community.

The 111th Congress also saw one of its members critically wounded as a result of the extreme partisan atmosphere. Arizona Democrat Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head during a public speaking event. And while she survived the tragedy, she was forced to step down from Congress due to lengthy recovery time.

For me, the most useful perspective in the book comes from twenty-nine-term Michigan Democrat John Dingell, who had watched other partisan Congressional bodies break up the slow progress of our nation’s government. He’d seen many legislators on both ends of the isle, people who negotiated in good faith with one another, knocked out of their positions because of partisan maneuvering. Dingell challenges us to question what is truly important to our nation, a winning political party, or democratically-achieved legislation for all.

Review graciously shared by Denny Russell

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The 14 Forest Mice and the Summer Laundry Day

A librarian friend sent my daughter a bunch of discarded library books last year.  (I often find the best children’s books are discarded by libraries.)  Among that batch was the The 14 Forest Mice and The Summer Laundry Day, by Kazuo Iwamura.  It’s a story of a family of mice who pack up and take their laundry to the river to wash.  The mama mouse knows why her children are rushing–they’re excited for the accompanying swim.  Along the way, gorgeous illustrations walk the reader past delicately-rendered dragonflies and foliage.  Reading it feels like a hike in the woods.

My daughter loved this book almost as much as I did.  Quickly I looked for the other books in this series: there’s one for each season.  Finding affordable copies of the 1991 English translations by MaryLee Knowlton was a slight challenge.  I eventually found all three of the others, on eBay and abebooks.com.   Today, the winter book came, completing our collection.

I love how this series shows the mice making sleds and indoor games to pass the time during a blizzard, or forging a platform to watch the harvest moon in autumn, or rice dumplings for a spring picnic.  The illustrations make me feel like I’ve been out in nature: colors rich and vibrant, drawings not just of “flowers” but true species.  The wood violets look like wood violets.  I also love how the series can give a child a sense of the year’s cycles, and a focus on the natural world.  The mice create things by using curiosity and invention, and the materials around them.

The stories are elegant and simple, and illustrate how to live in harmony with nature.  The large family (grandmother and grandfather on down to a toddler) works together to do the stuff of life, the maintaining of home.  Though somewhat hard to find, if you are seeking books that show kids something other than our consumer-based culture, it’s worth the search.  Let me know what you think of them.

Reprinted with permission of Rebecca Kuder.
Original post: http://rebeccakuder.com/2011/07/02/the-exquisite-seasons-of-kazuo-iwamura/