Friday, December 31, 2010

Wheels on the Bus

About fifteen years ago, I met Ken Bilderback. He worked at a newspaper in Portland, OR, and I was selling newspaper archiving software with my friend, Glenn Cruickshank. I immediately liked Ken. He was funny, dark, witty, shy, a bit awkward, very accomplished as a newspaper man. I knew there was more to the man than being the managing editor of a mid-sized paper.

Over the years, I left the newspaper archiving business, moved to Virginia and became a consultant. I lost track of Ken. And then, along came Facebook.

And along came Ken. It was nice to reconnect. Over the course of many posts, I learned Ken had written and self-published a book called Wheels on the Bus. It's a fictionalized memoir of a trip Ken took when he was 18 in 1974. It sounded interesting and before I knew it, Ken had sent me a copy. Signed, of course.

I read it over the holiday. He warned me it was "raw." Yes, what Ken talks about is hard to read, but I choose "honest" over raw. Raw for him, to be sure, but he probes the dark places with honest emotion.

The premise is simple: Teenaged boy wants to escape an abusive father and passive-aggressive mother, so he buys an Ameripass and takes off for a month on Greyhound in a trip around the States. Oh, you say, been there, read that. Probably, but I found the read to be a carthartic experience. It wasn't On the Road; it was much more personal than that.

I kept seeing the lines on an EKG chart, the ones that blip up and down with every heartbeat. Ken's account is like an EKG chart: he dips into the dark places before retreating to the brighter places. On the bus, he met a variety of people, many he thinks about thirty years later. He learned lessons that would also stay with him, too.

Ken is ten years younger than I am. If I overlay my EKG with his, slide it forward a decade, it could be my EKG. Maybe that's why I related to book. I went through many of the same things. My bus was a beat-up VW, and four of us drove or pushed it to Arizona to spend some time on a reservation. One of the four is Apache, so we decided to see what peyote, among other drugs, were all about.

Touch points with Ken include abusive stepfather, passive-aggressive mother, dreams of escape, knowledge that I would not stay in my stepfather's house after high school graduation. That was my ticket out. I've seen UFOs. My car was a Mustang, not a Camaro. One non-touch point: I always knew I was going to UCLA and that eventually I would earn my doctorate.

Ken provides vignettes about the people he met: The disfigured veteran with "rickets of the eye," the hippie chick with the tiny tits, thugs and a dead man with flesh-colored shoes, whores and kindly old ladies, a Muslim who trusted his young child to Ken's care to deliver to her grandmother in another city. And there was the lesbian stripper in New Orleans twenty years later who wrote on her website that Ken was a good guy. He didn't suck.

When I met Ken, I knew he didn't suck. Now I know why.

If you want to read Wheels on the Bus, you can buy it from Ken's website or buy the Kindle version at Amazon.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Disappointing Holiday Reading

I decided to take a holiday from research on a future Mad Max novel. Somehow, digging into gene splicing didn't strike me as a holiday activity.

I roamed through my bookself and pulled out three novels written by brand novelists. All three are early works. As a disclaimer, I grab each new book from these writers and consume the stories in guilty delight. So, I couldn't miss, could I?

Not only could I miss, but I did. Badly. Three for three earned a big :P~~~~~~~~~~~. If you don't recognize the unsmiley, it is a raspberry. Each book screamed "New York Times Bestseller" above the title. Each was by a brand writer today. Each book was either fourth or fifth published in long careers.

Each book must have been part of a multi-book deal. Had these been debut novels, they wouldn't have seen the light of day. All were suspense or thrillers, but I found myself laughing at the plots and groaning over the obvious lack of editing. I don't know why I finished the books. It was like a train wreck. I couldn't stop reading, even though I was dreadfully disappointed.

As a yet-to-be-published writer, this was a huge lesson learned: Never, ever take short cuts with your writing. If a book gets published because you have attracted a readership, and if the book, um, how do I say this, oh, yes, stinks, all the work you've done to gain a fan base can be wiped out in a single page. I vowed to pay attention to every detail, check every fact, research topics outside of my normal range of interests, get the grammar right.

Back to research.

Gene splicing.

Steam engines.

And don't bother asking. I won't reveal the authors' names. The guilty know who they are. The innocent readers should continue with latest releases. 'Nuff said.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars

I finished Obama's Wars over the weekend. Before I talk about the book, I need to make a couple of disclaimers.

First, I love Bob Woodward's reporting. I've read several of his books from Veil, to All the President's Men, to the Bush trilogy and finally to Obama's Wars. I find his reporting to be factual and understandable. He makes the complex subject matter easy to follow.

My timing for this book worked out better than I imagined. The book focuses on the decisions that went into Obama's sending 30,000 troops into Afghanistan. After months of discussion, and the President receiving approval from all the principals responsible for the decision, several of the principals immediately tried to find ways around their decision. When you have people who say one thing and then do something else, the program overall could be doomed to failure.

The main thrust of adding new military personnel in Afghanistan was a program called "clear-hold-build-transfer." This means NATO troops, mostly from the U.S., would clear a city/region/town of Taliban and other insurgents, hold the position, build support from the populace and transfer the region to the Afghani army or police.

After a year, this program is barely out of clear and hold. Few territories have been transferred to the Afghanis. Why? Think about a corrupt government at all levels. Think about Afghanis entering the army and refusing to fight. Think about our warfighters on the front line fighting the insurgents and then also having to train local police and army, who don't want to take over. Why should they do any work when we are there to do it for them?

And then there is Karzai. Unstable. Off his meds too frequently. Contradictory. Supports a corrupt half-brother. And "duly elected." Even though the election was corrupt, NATO embraced Karzai. He's "our guy," and we are stuck with him.

How I wish Woodward could have reported that the Bush team looked for an end game before committing to an endless war in a region that no outsider has ever conquered.

I now know how badly we need Richard Holbrooke. His work is done, but the job goes on. I hope that the person who steps into his shoes is half as good.

Oh my, I started to write about Woodward's book and ended up talking about the mess we are in. Maybe that's the point of the book: Get people thinking about what went into decisions, what that means to the U.S. long term, why the end-game is murky. It worked.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Naked Writers, A Critique Group

Most of you know that I'm a member of Valley Writers in Roanoke. We have between 15 and 20 active members. By active, I mean they regularly attend our semimonthly meetings and read poetry, essays, or parts of novels.

Those of us who write long-form works, e.g., novels or memoirs, found it difficult to get enough input on our work without dominating every meeting. That would have led to righteous indignation or a rebellion from the group. To encourage the long-form folks and help them improve their craft, we formed a separate critique group.

Called The Naked Writers, the group meets on a semi-monthly basis, is made up of five people, and travel from house to house for the meetings. Why Naked Writers? It's not because we write in the nude (although that's an idea for spring/summer), but that we bare our souls in our work. And we are silly enough to ask for constructive criticism.

This worked well -- until the bad weather began. We faced a dilemma: give up meeting until spring or use technology. We chose to try technology. We set ourselves on Skype, audio only, no video, hard or soft copy in front of each writer.

With five members, we learned at our first meeting that only two could be critiqued in a single evening. With around 10-12 pages, that's a lot of creativity to explore.

Last night, Skype worked for four of the five members. The fifth had his satellite Internet access die during the afternoon. We thought of him fondly as we ate cheese and crackers and sipped wine.

I was on the hot seat first. I write fiction and asked the group to workshop my second Mad Max novel. Input included grammos and typos (No, a secondary character is not named Sucks. It's Ducks, but it was a funny typo), sloppy transitions, a discussion on why a Brit would say "brilliant" instead of "terrific." Also had a discussion about doormen buildings in NYC. I don't think I'm going to explain why they are so good (you need money to live in one; they are safe for widows, etc.) Our Buck Nekkid Redneck Writer pointed out problems with voice that I hadn't seen.

The second writer is working on an allegory with strong Vietnamese overtones. Part of the problem we all had with his draft was forced use of an Irish dialect. He hates me, because every time the dialect became too strong, I kept calling for Barry Fitzgerald in Bells of St. Mary's. He didn't find it funny, but the only writer I can tolerate who writes in a sustained Irish dialect is Frank McCourt. Alas, my allegorist isn't yet a Frank McCourt.

Next time, the Buck Nekkid Redneck Writer, who writes "redneck" fiction (what else?!), the memoirist, and the YA fantasy writer are up. I know, that's three, but BNRW said his chapter would be short. We'll see. If we are virtual, I don't mind because I don't have an hour drive home after the meeting.

We still need to work out the kinks in using Skype, while at the same time working out how to provide positive criticism without putting everyone in the hot seat. Starting a meeting with a negative image so turns me off.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

When a book is overhyped, I tend to avoid it. Particularly if it is hyped as filled with spiritual insight. I become a late reader, or a not-at-all reader. I finally caved in to pressure and picked up Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Friends in book clubs told me about discussions they had about the book. Comments were: "I loved it!" "I didn't get it." "Where's the spiritual insight?" "It may have been a search for something, but I didn't see Gilbert find whatever it was she was seeking."

Well, with that kind of confusion, I had to read it.

For those of you who haven't read the book, it is divided into three parts: Eat is in Italy, Pray is in India, and Love is in Indonesia.

I get the "eat" part. If I were seeking something, though, I doubt I'd write over a hundred pages about pasta. I didn't see much spiritual growth. Waistline growth, yes, but not spiritual. I wasn't sure I could continue reading, but I stuck it out.

The book came together in "pray" set at an ashram in India. This is the part most of my friends hated. I didn't, because it brought back memories of being in a Zen nunnery in grad school in Japan. I still meditate nearly 40 years later. I could relate to the teachings, the discipline of meditation, the scrubbing of floors.

I didn't get anything from "love." Didn't like it. Thought it was weak. Okay, Gilbert goes to Bali to study with a medicine man and ends up in bed with a Brazilian. Okay, she finds love. I don't think this added to her spiritual journey, though. Not enough of the teachings of her ancient medicine man. And the ending: right out of a romance novel.

Review is mixed. I liked the center part because I returned to my own meditation discipline. The rest? Weaker than I thought it should be.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sarah's Key

Lest my readers think I hate everything I read, I don't. If I hated everything, I could work for an agent and be a robo-rejector. Only kidding.

Instead, I may be late to the party, but I loved Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. It had been sitting in my slush pile for a long time, but my mood was right this past week. I lost myself in the story.

For those of you who don't know the story, it's a pair of tales about a current era journalist who becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to a French Jewish girl swept up during the Holocaust. Set against the horrors of a round up of Jews in Paris in July 1942, the story jumps between the journalist seeking the truth of what happened, and a child who left her younger brother behind in an apartment in Paris.

The juxtaposition of the twin stories works. In too many books, this technique feels forced. de Rosnay draws a fine line between the two stories, leading to the inevitable merging at the end. de Rosnay writes with a clear and lucid prose and avoids the pathos a lesser writer might have used.

I have the reading club version and was so proud to see two friends' names in the acknowledgment section. Both Marilyn Amerson, librarian of our local Westlake Library, and Marion Higgins, member of the Lake Writers, went out of their way to spread the word about the novel.

It was a worthy read and most thought-provoking. I can't wait to read de Rosnay's sequel, A Secret Kept.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Diamonds for the Dead by Alan Orloff

Early in November, I met Alan Orloff at the Virginia Writers Club annual meeting at Mount Vernon. Alan had a table in the local writers' area. We fell into a conversation about how he came to write this book, what he was writing next, and what I was writing. I try and help Virginia writers, so I bought Diamonds for the Dead. I read it this weekend.

I won't tell you about the plot or who-dun-it, because you need to read the book for yourselves. What I will do is focus on what makes the book work for me: plot, strong and clearly delineated characters, and great zingers when they are least expected.

At first I was afraid this would turn into another book about Russian Jews, stolen Holocaust diamonds, and perhaps the Russian Mafia. Instead, I was very pleased to read a tightly written plot about Josh Handleman, the son of "Honest Abe," from whom he has been estranged for years. When Abe dies, Josh has to deal with his guilt, loss, an odd old Russian Jew living in his father's basement, hints of murder, and lost diamonds.

No cliches of Russian Mafia or Holocaust diamonds. Just a tight story that could happen to any of us.

There are plenty of Russian Jews, both good and evil, both immigrants and born in the USA. One has to be evil, but Orloff keeps us guessing until close to the end. (I figured out who was the baddie, but not until about 40 pages from the end.) Well drawn characters help the plot work. Josh Handleman isn't whiney but is lost and in over his head. Lev Yurishenko is big enough and menacing enough to keep the reader off guard. Kassian, the man living in the basement, is just odd enough to be the villian. Add a couple of women and some great one-liners ("When you're hot, you're hot. And when you're not, you're Josh Handleman, stud to dud in sixty seconds.") and the book is a satisfying read.

Orloff's second book comes out in April 2011. It's called Killer Routine and promises to be a good read. Moreover, it's the start of a new series, the Last Laff Mystery series. Interesting name. I hope I get an advanced copy to review.

All images are courtesy of Alan's web site.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Themes and Metaphors

I've been playing with themes of redemption and rebirth in my second Mad Max novel. With a working title of Shades of Pale, it takes place in a devastated landscape, devoid of color. And because Earth has a wonderful way of healing itself, I found one picture of flowers I took at Cook's Inlet in Alaska to be the perfect metaphor. I loved the bravery of the poppy, all alone in a field of white and purple.

I also saw the poppy as a manifestation of differentness. Another theme in Max 2 is racism. How hard would it be for the purple and white flowers to gang up and drive the poppy away? It stood its ground and survived. As do some of the minority characters in Max 2.

Yup, I find inspiration everywhere I look.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Writing and Editing

The old maxim is true: you never begin writing until you begin rewriting and editing. In my case, I received edits and suggestions back from my agent, Dawn Dowdle. I worked through them and sent them over for her second review after Thanksgiving.

There truly is nothing like having an agent review every page, every comma (many misplaced) and every line of your book. I'm lucky, because not all agents put in the amount of effort to make a manuscript squeaky-clean. (And from many of the books I've read lately, the fine art of copy editing is dying.)

So, when I finished reviewing every change, answering every comment, adding a few comments of my own, I realized my manuscript is in much better shape than it was.

My eternal gratitude for Dawn's close review. After three critique groups had a go at the work, and two professional editors had their say...

And now we will see what additional changes Dawn suggests to make the manuscript marketable.