Sunday, October 04, 2015

The shootings are not senseless by Jim Dowd

In the wake of yet another senseless and unforgivable school shooting at Umpqua Community College, I continue to wonder why in God's name this keeps happening. In this excellent post on The Gloucester Clam, Jim Dowd presents a very excellent analysis:

The shootings are not senseless

Every time there is a mass shooting (which on average is every sixty four days) one of the key words we hear describing the tragedy is “senseless.” This would suggest the action was without meaning or purpose.
I hate to tell you this, but nothing could be further from the case.
The most recent attacker, Christopher Harper-Mercer, follows the strict pattern of highly-aggrieved men trapped in a cultural paradox from which they cannot escape. His and the other attacks like it, congruent down to sporting military-style clothing, are an attempt to call “society” to task for leaving them behind. To these men, who perceive they are not receiving the level of respect to which they feel deeply entitled, it’s nothing less than a revolution. When you read their posts online they discuss previous attackers like the Dylan Klebold of the Columbine massacre and James Holmes of the Aurora theatre shooting and now Harper-Mercer as a martyr, a hero and most disturbingly, a “warrior” for the cause.
These young men, when you read their writings (and they write a lot), are trapped in ideologies insisting on a natural order where the strong dominate the weak.  Overwhelmingly their stunning number of journals, manifestos and posts show them to be captivated by thinkers and leaders like Nietzsche, Rand and Hitler. Ironically, these typically introverted outsiders fully buy-in to the idea that there should be a ruling class over the “undeserving” in society. Yet, in each case they have come to realize through a pattern of personal setbacks and failures they themselves are not exactly the Übermenschen ole Friedrich described in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.Additionally, they all suffer from acute paranoia, developing a blind rage at those whom they feel have unfairly usurped the power that is rightfully theirs. Read the rest on The Clam

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Read-The-World: Afghanistan, France, Philippines

In the last month or so I have been reading books other than those on my #readtheworld list but I have a few books to add so here they are. You can learn more about my read-the-world endeavor on a separate page on this blog.
Khaled Hosseini

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

I had already read Hosseini's The Kite Runner but everyone told me I had to read this one and I am very glad that I did. Hosseini is a writer of incomparable power both for his use of language and for the characters he creates. In this novel we get a look into the lives of Afghan women and it is a terrible, bleak, and frightening world, yet within the world there is such strength and beauty between people who band together for mutual support. At the core of the story is the relationship between Miriam and Laila, the first and second wives of the cruel, despotic Rasheed. As the first wife, Miriam tried to do everything she could to please Rasheed and, for awhile, it seemed as though he was trying to be a good husband to her but when she failed to produce children, Rasheed turned cruel and violent. When he took the beautiful, fragile Laila as his second wife, Miriam was devastated and did everything she could to make Laila's life miserable--which was already pretty miserable. But eventually, thanks to Laila's tenderness and sweet nature, Miriam changed. It is a sad story and probably an all too common story--a glimpse into lives we are lucky to have little knowledge of. In the end, it is Miriam's love for Laila that is utterly heartbreaking and beautiful. Not an easy story to read but one that left me in tears and grateful that I'd had this experience.

Francine Prose
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose
A friend suggested I read this book and it has been a long time since I loved a book as much as I did this one. I've already read a good many books by French writers including Marguerite Duras, Anais Nin, and Colette but Francine Prose writes with an authority that is delicious and seductive. The book's title refers to the name of a photograph taken by a Hungarian photographer of the book's central character, Lou Villars, a lesbian, cross-dresser and remarkable athlete who becomes a distinguished race car driver until her career is ended by a jealous police commissioner. The book starts out in the 1920s in Paris and has much the flavor of Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, one of my all time favorite books. There is even a Hemingway-esque character, Lionel Maine, a poor, American writer who spends a fair amount of time complaining about Hemingway. As the story moves through the 1930s and then into the years preceding World War 2 much of the action takes place in the Chameleon Club, where characters of all sorts go for entertainment. Much of it had the feel of the movie Casablanca. Then Hitler's troops occupy Paris and the lives of all the main characters are turned upside down.

The story is told in alternating voices--through letters, excerpts from books, diaries, and newspaper articles. It is a story of such intensity I felt nearly breathless at times and, in the end, we are left wondering what just happened. This is a great read and one that I'm pretty sure I will return to again.

Lysley Tenorio
Monstress by Lysley Tenorio
This collection of short stories are set in both the Philippines and in Filipino communities in the United States. The eight stories in the collection are at times funny, at times tragic, and all seem to focus on the love/hate relationships that exist within families. We love the sense of belonging and long for that warmth when we are away from the family, yet feel smothered by it when we are in the midst of family. Among the stories were three that I particularly loved: 

  • Felix Starro, about two Filipino faith-healers who travel the country taking advantages of gullible immigrants
  • The View from Culion, a sad, heart-wrenching story set in a leper colony and the love of a young girl for a World War 2 American soldier also afflicted with the disease.
  • L'Amour, California, which tells the story of the author's family's immigration to America--a sort of Filipino Angela's Ashes.

Powerful story-telling with wit, insight, and tenderness.

I've acquired so many more books for this project--I have no idea when I will have time to read them but this is such an education. One of the next books on my list is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle and Mario Vargas Llosa's Death in the Andes. I am finding that some of the writers I have encountered--especially Llosa, Hosseini, and Nadeem Aslam, are so fascinating that I want to read more of their work before moving on to another country.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Winter Warmth--Win Hand-knit Cowls and Hats

I'm finally unraveling the mysteries of doing an online giveaway and I think the prizes are pretty special. All of them are hand-knit by me from Lion Brand furry yarns. All of these yarns are synthetic--no animals were harmed to make them.

At present I plan to give away six items, shown below. The first round will be announced during the last week of September and the winner will get to pick their choice from one of three items. I'll add another item for the next round and we'll keep going as long as there is continued interest in the contest or until I run out of stuff.

The contest is open in the United States only (sorry but the shipping outside the U.S. is costly.) To be eligible you must either subscribe to my newsletter by going to the contest page on my web site and signing up or by Liking my Kathleen Valentine's Books page on Facebook. I'll announce the beginning of each round in both places. Below are the items I plan to give away first. The small cowls can be used as neck warmers or head bands. The large cowls can be used over the head and around the neck. I'll post actual dimensions at the time of the contest opening.

Faux Fischer Fur Hat

Shimmering Champagne large Cowl with Double Twist

Faux Chinchilla Medium Cowl

Fluffy Indigo Large Cowl--looks perfect with jeans

Faux Mink Small Cowl

Shimmering Lilac Small Cowl

I hope you like them and I look forward to this contest. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

The 42nd Pennsylvania Reserve Regiment—The #Bucktails

I grew up in Elk County, Pennsylvania, and, as my readers know, that county is the setting for my Marienstadt books. In the past several years I've written 2 collections of short stories set there—The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall and The Bucktail Cap in the Trunk, and one full-length novel, The Christmas Daughter. I am now working on another novel. In writing these stories, I've drawn heavily on family legends, local folklore, rumors, traditions, food, colorful characters, etc. All of that was fairly easy to find and some very good people have shared some very good stories to encourage me.

But the one story I most wanted to write, the title story for The Bucktail Cap in the Trunk, got me to thinking about something—why did we never learn about this in school? I was good history student during my twelve years of Catholic education. When I started college at Penn State I exempted several freshman courses because my high school had done a good job of preparing me for college. But it wasn't until about ten years ago that I ever even heard of The Bucktails and I can't help wondering why that is.

For those who don't know, the 42nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, also called the 13th Regiment, the Elk County Rifles, Kane's Rifles and more names than I can remember, began in Elk and McKean Counties early in the Civil War thanks to Thomas Leiper Kane. Kane was a distinguished businessman who, after the war would go on to conceive of and build the Kinzua Viaduct—the tallest bridge of its kind in the world at that time. When president Abraham Lincoln put out a call for volunteers, Kane determined to form a regiment of the finest sharpshooters and most rugged woodsmen he could find. He knew there was no better place to find these men than in Elk and McKean Counties and find them he did.

The story goes that as the regiment was forming in Smethport, PA, one new recruit cut the tail off a deer hanging outside a butcher shop, attached it to his kepi cap and declared himself a Bucktail. Others followed suit and soon the cap with bucktail sewn on it was the symbol of the regiment. They were one of the most distinguished regiment in the war, fought in every major battle, and were showered with honor. And yet, as a school kid in the middle of Elk County, I knew nothing about them.

Even doing research was difficult. Fortunately, I had as a resource a couple of men who knew as much as there was to know about them. I purchased a number of books about them that turned out either to be endless reprints of old historical records, or fairly silly stories with rootin'-tootin' dialogue and nearly no character development. So, I used my imagination and the
guidance of my consultants and created the four Fritz brothers—Jacob, Bartholomew, Tobias, and Emanuel. Though the story has been out for nearly 2 months I have not received much feedback but I am patient. Late summer is not the best time for book reviews.

Having said all that, I wish there was a way to convince educators in my home area to develop and teach more about these amazing men. Many of them died when they were not yet twenty-one. They were valiant soldiers and they played a pivotal role in many battles. But most importantly—they were from our area. They were ours—their stories should be told. School children should learn about the very stock they come from.

So I decided to just put that out there. I learned so much writing my story and there is even more to be learned. I hope someone will take the challenge.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Kerouac's Hauntedness-of-Mind

Recently, I came across a wonderful quote by Jack Kerouac that has me a little unnerved. He wrote, “A scene should be selected by the writer for haunted-ness-of-mind interest. If you're not haunted by something, as by a dream, a vision, or a memory, which are involuntary, you're not interested or even involved.” BAM! Right between the eyes. I think I know why writing has been difficult lately.

Whenever a writer tells a non-writer that they are having difficulty writing, the non-writer asks if you are blocked. I suppose some writers get blocked, personally I have never had that problem. Once a reader asked Ray Bradbury where he got his ideas and Bradbury replied, My problem is not getting ideas, my problem is not tripping over them when I get out of bed in the morning. I love that because I identify with it. I always have more ideas than I have time to deal with them. And now I think I know what the problem is—lately three ideas have been competing for my attention but they are very different sorts of stories and I cannot stay focused on one without being interrupted by another one.

Stories are like children. They all want to be your favorite. They all want all of your attention. When I wrote my first novel, The Old Mermaid's Tale, that story had been haunting me, quite literally, for years. It began when I was a child spending summers in Erie, Pennsylvania, and my uncle would take me down to the docks to watch the ships come in. It grew when I was in college and working the night shift in a diner there. It blossomed when I was in my 30s and discovered that the tavern that was the object of my fantasies had been torn down. But it wasn't until I was in my late forties that I began to write about it.

This was also true for many of my short stories and subsequent novels. These ideas—sometimes instigated by something as simple as a photograph or a newspaper article—nagged at me until I finally sat down, got quiet, and let them take control. For me writing does not empty the well, it makes space for more to pour in and I think lately I have lost the ability to manage the flow.

Over the last few days I read a book, The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America's Youngest Serial Killer by Roseanne Montillo. The book did not get great reviews and yet I found myself totally sucked into it. Naturally, because it was about Boston, my favorite city, that helped. And, among the themes of the book were two of my favorite subjects—Herman Melville and the George Parkman murder. For the hours that I was reading, I was completely immersed in this haunting world in which I have spent many hours on my own. What I realized, as I finished the last few pages, was that I need to be in a state like that to get back to writing.

There is a scene in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights in which Heathcliff cries out to the dead Cathy, saying, “You said I killed you--haunt me then. The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe--I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always--take any form--drive me mad. Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!” It is wild and passionate but it is from such a place that I most love writing. I need to get back to that place in order to write again. I am so grateful that Kerouac and Roseanne Montillo and Heathcliff reminded me that I can go to a place of utter besottment and write wildly—I just have to let myself do it.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

In Praise of Porch-Sitting

View from my porch
I come from a long line of porch-sitters. My parents and both my grandmothers lived in houses with big porches with swings on them. Most of my happiest memories involve sitting on someone's porch. It's a beautiful past-time. I've written before about how my Gram Werner would spend Sunday mornings on her porch with two of her brothers. Uncle Eddie and Uncle George would come with rye bread, liverwurst (we called it braunsweiger), onions, mustard, and beer. We would eat sandwiches and drink beer on the porch while they reminisced about old times. I loved every minute of it and it made me the story-teller I am today.

The house I live in has a narrow porch that runs along the back of the house. It overlooks the oldest Universalist cemetery in America. It is a quiet, shady place where people walk dogs and come to read headstones. Most people don't even know it is there. For years I rarely went out there except to hang a towel out to dry or sweep off the leaves. The porch is very narrow and didn't offer a lot of space for furniture.

Then a few years ago I saw a nice canvas camp-type chair. I bought, brought it home, and found it fit quite nicely on the porch. For that entire summer I spent as much time as I could on the porch. It was wonderful. I read, knit, day-dreamed, bird-watched, star-watched. Ever since that aha! moment I have spent most of winter longing for porch-time.

I am now on my third collapsible chair. This one is a real beauty with lots of pockets to store things in—my reading glasses, binoculars, bird book, etc. I made some cushions covered in water-proof blue and white striped fabric, and I look forward every day while I am working to porch-time. I take my iced tea and my book or Kindle and head for the porch. This summer I have been exceptionally greedy about porch-time. I've read nearly 2 dozen books out there, plus it gives me a chance to visit with the neighbors. It's just a delight that I get to catch up with people I haven't seen all winter. When they see me out there reading, they come by to say hello and that always makes me happy.

There are quite a few porch-sitters in the houses surrounding the cemetery. I hear people talking and laughing together coming from several directions. The other day I heard one group of porch-sitters singing Happy Birthday to someone. I love the sounds of people being happy.

And we have critters—lots and lots of birds, squirrels, and this year we have a bunny. He hops out of the hedges while I am reading and spends the afternoon or evening scavenging the yard for clover. My one neighbor has been putting out Cherrios which the bunny likes and kale which he does not. Another neighbor puts out birdseed and it is always amusing to watch the birds compete with the squirrels for seed. We have lots of sparrows and wrens, some cardinals and blue jays, and this year there have been gold finches. There are also butterflies and moths. It is a wonderful place.

August is winding down but as long as I can sit outside even wearing fleece, I will do it. Sometimes I have had to brush falling leaves off my book as I read. Autumn in New England is unpredictable. There have been years when I was stilling sitting on the porch at Thanksgiving and there have been years when I had to take the chair in by Columbus Day.

There is something so beautiful to me about porch-sitting. It is part of my heritage and it nurtures my soul.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Is Publishing Paper Books Worth It?

A fellow author recently asked me if I thought it was worth it to produce books in paperback these days. She said that several of her books sell well in digital but hardly at all in paper. I had to agree with her—my experience is pretty much the same. I have an advantage over a lot of independent authors in that I was a book designer long before I was a writer so I can create my own paper books. If I had to pay someone else to do it I might not bother. Also, because several of my books series are short works, they simply would not be practical to produce in paper. However, once I have three or more books in a series, compiling them in an omnibus paperback is easy to do.
Civil War Re-enactor wearing a Bucktail Cap

That being said, I have two new paper books available from previously published e-books.

The first three Beacon Hill Chronicles—The Crazy Old Lady in the Attic, The Crazy Old Lady'sRevenge, and The Crazy Old Lady Unleashed—were relatively short works available in digital only. However with the third one I had enough to justify an Omnibus edition in both paper and digital. Sales of the paper version have been slim but, since sales in digital are good, I don't feel bad about that. So, when I wrote Volume 4, The Crazy Old Lady's Secret, a full length novel, offering it in paper was easy enough to do. Because the story is set in Boston, and is jam-packed with Boston locations, legends, history, and folklore, I decided to create a Bonus feature for the book. It is a gallery of the locations and legends in the book with more information and resources for further exploration. I recently created a Pinterest board as well for my gallery.

This whole series has astonished me with its popularity. It all began when i was trying to come up with a story in time for Christmas. I wound up writing The ReluctantBelsnickel of Opelt's Wood based on a tradition practiced in my home town for the Feast of St. Nicholas. That grew into the novel-in-eleven-stories, The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall: Secretsof Marienstadt which I first released in Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3, then in a digital Omnibus and finally in a paperOmnibus. The paperback has sold well around Christmas time. I followed that with The Christmas Daughter: A Marienstadt Story in both digital and paper. Now, after two years of laboring on it, The third book is read. It is called The Bucktail Cap in theTrunk: More Secrets of Marienstadt, which consists of thirteen stories. The title story is special to me because it is based in a very, very proud part of my hometown's history—the men who fought in the Civil War as part of the Elk County Rifles. They were one of the most feared and relentless regiments in the war, also known as the 42nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment or The Bucktails.

This new book is available in digital Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3 and now also in paper with all thirteen stories included.

It may take awhile but I have a sense there may be another book in this series—I can't talk about it right now, it is still in the planning stages—but the working title is The Legend: A Marienstadt Story and I'm excited about it.

So, ever onward. I am currently at work on a third story in my Halcyon Beach Chronicles to be called Ghost of a Dancer by Moonlight. When it is ready I will think about whether a paper book of all 3 Halcyon Beach stories is worth while. We shall see.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Read-The-World: Afghanistan, Germany, Iraq

Three more books in my #readtheworld adventure:


In 2001 shortly after the invasion of Afghanistan, journalist Anna Badkhen made the arduous journey to Northern Afghanistan. There she developed friendships with many people and fell a little bit in love with their culture and their openness and humanity. At the time they welcomed what they believed would be protection from the Taliban. Nine years later Badkhen returns to the north to see how their friends were doing. This book is a travelogue of her journey. As she reconnects with her friends she is both pleased by their happiness in seeing her again, and heart-broken over what they have suffered. Life is, if anything, worse, not better but still they persevere and live their lives with courage, fortitude, dignity, and no small amount of humor. This is a short, quick read but packed with detail and inspiration.

The Vanishing of Katharina Linden by Helen Grant

This book started out great! I loved the setting and the description of the town. I really liked the characters and the descriptions of the rituals. Much of the folklore (which I always love in stories) was just fabulous and the holidays and much of the dialog reminded me so much of my own German grandma. The town itself became a character on its own.

But then about two-thirds of the way through something happened. It deteriorated into a slightly more colorful Nancy Drew mystery--okay, but certainly a let down from the beginning!

The author is a gifted writer and she did a great job of setting up an intriguing plot. I give it an extra star just for the beautiful intermingling of folktales. But I wish she had made the mystery more compatible with the rest of the story. Plus I really liked Wolfgang and Pia seemed to adore him and he just got dropped from the story. This is a good book if you appreciate colorful settings, rituals, and mythology, but as a mystery it was rather flat.

Iraq (again):

This book is just devastating! The end had me too weepy to actually read. The story begins in a Beirut hotel where the unnamed narrator is about to carry out a mission he refers to as “the greatest operation ever carried out on enemy territory.” We learn that he was a university student from a small village in Iraq but after the invasion the university closes and her returns to his small village. For awhile life is as it has always been. He is restless and wishes he could return to school or at least find work but then reminds himself that at least the war has not affected his village. Then things change.

Following the killing of a mentally handicapped village boy by soldiers at a checkpoint and the then the bombing of a wedding party, young men from the village grow increasingly restless and begin leaving for Baghdad, hoping to fight back. The narrator grows increasingly frustrated. When his family home is invaded and his father humiliated in front of the family, he can no longer bear it and he too leaves for Baghdad. At first he tries to lead a normal life but conditions there make that impossible. He winds up on the street and after weeks of being homeless he discovers his cousin Sayed has a prosperous business selling appliances. Sayed takes him in and gives him a job. In no time the narrator discovers that his cousin's appliance business is a front for much more dangerous operations, which he is ultimately recruited into.

One of the things I found most touching about this story was the way the young men of the village, trying to make sense of the invasion, cling to the belief that sooner or later the West will understand the beauty of their culture and leave them alone. They cannot believe that technology and capitalism are any match for their long history of art, music, mathematics, and creativity. They say, “when the West realizes how much beauty we have, they will leave us alone.”

The ending of this book is just shattering. I won't ruin it for other readers but let me say that the mission he eventually undertakes is so horrible and the reason for his ultimate decision is so beautiful it just tore at my heart. I will not forget this book for a very long time.

Even though I have read a book for Afghanistan I think I'm going to read another one, A Thousand Splendid Suns, which I have been wanting to read for awhile. It is going to take an incredible book to live up to that last one. The adventure continues.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Unveiling the New

For several years my literary web site at has languished, neglected. The shoemaker's children have no shoes. So this week I decided to get serious and update it. I am not quite done yet but I think I am getting there. This is from the About Kathleen page. Please stop by to download a free sampler!

August 8, 2015

Dear Reader,

I always find it hard to talk about myself because I think the most interesting thing about me is the stuff I write. If you want to know who I am, read my work. But to give a little more context, I grew up in a Pennsylvania Dutch town in the Allegheny Highlands—now called The Pennsylvania Wilds—called St. Marys. My father was a carpenter and my mother was a the full-time mom of eight kids. Both of my parents were avid readers and always encouraged all of us to read. In fact, under the steps to the upstairs bedrooms was a large closet. My mother kept our sleeping bags and boxes of books—comic books, story books, novels, encyclopedias—in there. When one of us needed a “time-out” she would send us to the closet where we could curl up in the sleeping bags and read.

My favorite childhood memory was people telling stories everywhere we went. On Sunday afternoons my Grandmother Werner and two of her brothers would be sitting on her front porch with liverwurst, rye bread, and beer, and they would start telling stories. Everywhere we went—visiting aunts and uncles and cousins—people were always eating, drinking beer, and telling stories. Neighbors gathered in my mom's kitchen or my dad's shop and the stories would begin. I loved those times so much!

I attended Catholic elementary and high schools then went on to Penn State where I graduated with a degree in The Arts. While there I took a few courses in folklore and oral tradition. They were my favorite subjects. During my first two years of college I lived in Erie, Pennsylvania, and worked in a diner. It was that experience that inspired me to write The Old Mermaid's Tale many years later.

After college, I worked as a graphic artist and typographer in ad agencies as well as a couple energy companies and high tech companies from Houston, Texas to Camden, Maine, finally settling down in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1995 where I have lived ever since. In 2003 I started my own design business, creating web sites, advertising, and promotional material for clients. I also began to write and, when the digital book revolution arrived I was ready. Two of my short works, The Crazy Old Lady in the Attic, and Ghosts of a Beach Town in Winter, were highly successful, climbing to the top of Amazon's charts in 2011. This encouraged me to keep writing and, though the competition is far more fierce than it was back then, I keep writing.

So far, I have published three stand-alone novels, and a variety of shorter works. My special loves are my Marienstadt stories which are based on my home town and all those stories I collected on all those porches and kitchens and living rooms as a girl. I am a lover of stories and a teller of tales. That is who I am and will always be.

Thanks for reading,


Friday, July 31, 2015

Read-the-World: Mexico, Laos, Albania

Continuing with my Reading-the-World challenge, here are three more books. 

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquival 

I read this a number of years ago but reading through it again, I was reminded of what a wonderful story this is. Plus the book is graced with a number of recipes and home remedies. The story is both sad and uplifting. Tita loves Pedro and Pedro loves her back but Tita's mama is a dictator and she has determined that Tita will not marry but stay home and take care of her. So Pedro marries her older sister just to be part of Tita's family. Naturally, this is problematic for all concerned. But Tita is a wonderful cook and she pours all her emotions and passion into her cooking--which results in some powerful reactions by those who eat her food. The scene where the wedding guests eat the cake Tita has made for her sister's wedding to Pedro is classic. 

Like Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Esquival is absolutely brilliant at evoking sensuality and a sense of magic in her writing. I not only fell in love with her characters but felt the atmosphere was so rich and delicious I could almost smell and taste it. A beautiful book that I'm only too happy to read again. 

The Opposite of Hate  by Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar 

I knew very little about Laos when I started this book and found the historical background mesmerizing and terrifying. The story opens when Lao engineer Seng and his Vietnamese wife, Qui, attend a beautiful evening ritual but things are changing rapidly in their world. Communists have invaded the capital city, Vientiane, and the centuries old traditions, arts, and folk customs are being destroyed. When Qui is killed in an airplane crash, Seng is persuaded to marry the teenage daughter of a friend so that she can escape Laos. Neela and Seng escape to Thailand where life in a refugee camp is, quite simply, dreadful. As they wait for visas to America, they do the best they can to survive and care for each other.

Eventually, Seng and Neela, now pregnant, make it to America but, though life there is more comfortable, making a new life for themselves is not without problems. Seng cannot find work and prejudice is strong. Even though he is Lao, most people take him for Vietnamese and want little to do with him. He is a determined and hard-working man who eventually builds a life for himself. The problem is that once pure survival is no longer at issue, he and Neela have to confront the fact that their relationship is built on tradition and the need to survive with very little actual knowledge of each other. I loved Seng and thought he was a great character. Neela was somewhat less sympathetic in my estimation but I found this book enlightening, both historically and culturally. 

Spring Flowers, Spring Frost by Ismail Kadare

This is a strangely beautiful book with a rather dreamy quality to the writing. It is filled with folklore and unusual characters and has a Kafka-esque quality to it that I found entirely appropriate. Set in a remote mountain village at the end of a dictatorial regime, the people of the village are constantly on guard, afraid to trust in their new freedom. A bank robbery has the people of the village in a state of shock and mistrust as to how this could possibly happen. As the restrictions of the old dictatorship fall away, ancient folk traditions and customs begin to emerge unleashing terrors of their own. I loved the story of a girl who married a snake.

Amid all of this the central character, and artist named Mark, loves a girl who models for him sometimes. Their love story is tender and beautiful and, though problematic in some ways, filled with passion. The central theme that holds all the stories together is a combination of longing and the fear of being able to trust again. A very beautiful story.

And now I am on to Bahrain, or maybe Germany, or perhaps Trinidad. I'll let you know.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Family History as Story

In 1514 in Nordlengen, Donauworth, Germany, a baby named Leonard Köbel was born. In 1538 he married Anna Reyschlag and 2 years later they gave birth to a son named Klaus. Klaus married Magdalena ? in 1560 and they had a son named Nicholas and the Köbel family continued to reproduce. By 1729 the Köbels had moved to Switzerland and there a baby named Abraham was born. He turned out to be quite an adventurous young man.

By the age of 24 Abraham had moved to Somerset, Pennsylvania, in the New World and there married Mary Magdalene Bardy. He fought in the Revolution with George Washington where he advanced to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and fathered 16 children. He was an ambitious man.

Eventually the Köbels dropped the umlaut and changed the spelling of the name to Koble and then to Cable. Five generations later John B. Cable and his wife Ida Caroline Gnagey gave birth to six children including a little girl named Minnie in 1883. That's her in the photo above. She married William Valentine of St. Marys, Pennsylvania, bore eight children including my father.

Naturally, I can only imagine what the lives of these people were like (other than Grandma Valentine—I actually knew her) but, being a writer, it's not hard to imagine possibilities. As I was working on the title story for The Bucktail Cap in the Trunk: More Secrets of Marienstadt, which tells the story of 4 brothers who came to Pennsylvania from Germany as children, joined the prestigious 42nd Pennsylvania Regiment, known as The Bucktails, and fought in the Civil War, I needed a character to fill the role of their foster-father's ancestor. I decided to use my own Great-great-great (keep going) Grandfather Köbel to fill the role.

I have to say, though it is a small part of the story, it is one of my favorite parts of the book. It's a little daring to put my own ancestor in as a character but, why not? He sounds like the kind of guy who would relish the part.

The book has gone off to press and a paperback should be available soon. The Kindle version is already live. I hope people will read the book and I hope they like Abraham—he's in it briefly but he makes me smile every time I read his name.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Read-the-World: Iceland, Nigeria, Syria

Continuing with my Reading-the-World challenge--a challenge I have set for myself based on Ann Morgan's A Year of Reading The World web site, here are three more books. 

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Kambili is fifteen, her brother Jaja is two years older. To people on the outside they live an idyllic life in Enugu, Nigeria, unlike most people. Their father is wealthy, they live in a beautiful house and attend an exclusive missionary school. But both of them and their mother walk on eggshells all the time because inside their father is a fanatical Christian who rules with an iron fist—a fist that often lands in tender places.

Their father, Eugene, has no relationship with his own father because he is a “pagan” and would prefer not to have a relationship with his university professor sister, Ifeoma, but she is a force of nature who isn't in the least intimidated by her tyrannical brother. Ifeoma has suspicions about why Kambili and Jaja are such quiet, withdrawn children and she manages to convince her brother to let them come stay with her for a vacation. There a whole new world opens to them—the house is small and crowded and poor but filled with books and love.

This is a powerful story told from Kambili's perspective. For so long she has accepted her father's abuse—including her mother's many miscarriages—that trusting others is virtually impossible. The story has an ending that is both tragic and hopeful but I found it to be a reminder that families in all parts of the world often deal with the same things. And, also, that religious fanaticism is the root of much misery in this world—whether it is Christian, Muslim, or anything else—there are always people who will use “God” as an excuse to act in ungodly manners.

The Greenhouse by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

One of the most beautiful and enthralling books I have read in a very long time. Growing up in Iceland, Lobbi lived with his parents and his handicapped twin brother and worked in his mother's greenhouse. She had developed a rose of rare beauty called the eight-petal rose. When Lobbi is 20 two events shake up his life—he shares a brief intimacy with the girlfriend of one of his friends during which she becomes pregnant, and his beloved mother is killed in a car wreck. Anna, the mother of his daughter, names her Flora but makes no effort to involve Lobbi in their life. Lobbi, unhappy and desolate, takes a job at a monastery in a remote mountain village that was once famous for its gardens which have now fallen into disrepair.

Lobbi travels to the village in an unnamed location and finds a land that is strange indeed. The people there are kind but they speak their own language—a language that is dying—and there are no children that he can see. He begins work at the monastery and meets a monk who is a movie fan and who invites him to join him for his nightly movie watching. Just as Lobbi settles into a routine, he receives a letter from Anna telling him she has to go away for a month and wants to know if he will care for his now nine-month-old daughter.

The writing is lovely, the people are touching, and the descriptions of this mysterious land are positively enchanting. Possibly my favorite book so far in this adventure.

Damascus Nights by Rafi Schami

In 1950s Damascus Salim was the most popular coach driver in the city. Everyone wanted to ride in his coach because Salim was such a great storyteller. When he finally retires, he spends every evening with a circle of friends telling stories and drinking tea. Then one day an amazing thing happens—a fairy appears to him and tells him she is his Storytelling Fairy and she wants to retire. She says he has 21 words left and then he will be unable to communicate ever again. When Salim protests she says the only way he can get a new Storytelling Fairy is if he receives seven gifts. It is up to Salim to find a way to get these gifts but how can he convey that in the words he has left?

His friends discover what has taken place and, because they love his stories, they want to give him the seven gifts but what could they be? They try bringing him food and flowers but finally conclude that they must each tell him a story and so they do.

This is a lovely, lyrical, and often collection that honors the ancient tradition of Arabian tale-telling. The tales his friends spin range from ancient tales of djinns and princesses to modern tales about the frustrations of contemporary life. At the core is the age-old truth that how we communicate with one another shapes our worlds and our lives. Intoxicating in atmosphere and deeply endearing characters.

I am so enjoying this adventure--every book so far has been eye-opening. I took a little break to devour The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel by Nina George and, since she is German and the story is set in Paris and the south of France, it can count as a Read-the-World Book. Next I will be traveling to Laos!

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Guest Post by Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar: Between Literary and Chicky

Between Literary and Chicky
By Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar

I didn’t control my Muse. Not in a specific way to generate particular ideas. Sure, I sit down several times a week and force myself to produce as much as I can in the few hours I have between kids’ birthday parties and swim lessons. I go away once a year, for a week, (or longer, if I can find a place to stash the kids) to write, mingle with other writerly types, and figure out how I can get better at storytelling.

The ideas for my previous books often began with a central question. One that rolls around and around on deck, waiting for her turn at the keyboard. How a modern person with traditional values finds love is at the center of my first paperback Love Comes Later. The answer is the story.

In The Dohmestics, I explore how well we know those closest to us or ourselves. The ensemble cast in the novel is a composite of people I’ve known while living in the Middle East country of Qatar. Their tangled lives represent the ways in which expats and their domestic help support and infuriate each other.

Perhaps because my books ponder issues, rather than focus on a sequence of events, I resist categorization as a genre writer. My novels can’t really find a home like others, where stories cluster, based on common devices or types.

Yet, for the last year or so, I have been trying to get a handle on myself as a writer and channel ideas instead of letting them lead me into genre-defying projects. N

Not as easy as it sounds.

Crime is what I hoped to get into one year ago: July 2014. Not in real life, as it were, but for my writing. If you can get a believable, likable, empathetic detective type, you are golden. The books seem to write themselves.

Scandinavian writers like Steig Larrson and Henning Mankel had inspired me for years. They took the genre as a venue for social critique and pointed out the failure of Nordic utopia. I’ve seen other places struggle with the burden of wealth and a small citizenry.

I set down a nascent story during National Novel Writing Month in 2015. The premise was simple: a main character living in a labor camp in the Arabian Gulf, one of the kind present in monthly sports news about the 2022 World Cup.

The Migrant Report was my first attempt to research, outline, plan, write, and revise a novel from start to finish. The first manuscript was 50,000 word. The published version, now available at online retailers, is almost double the original word count.

I’m nervous, I’m elated. One second I worry I’ve gotten it all wrong; the next I’m telling everyone this is the best material I’ve ever written. If you’d like to review The Migrant Report and tell me your thoughts, drop me a comment below. What type of stories do you like to read or write?

Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar is a South Asian American who has lived in Qatar since 2005. Moving to the Arabian Desert was fortuitous in many ways since this is where she met her husband, had two sons, and became a writer. She has since published eight e-books, including a memoir for first time mothers, Mommy But Still Me; a guide for aspiring writers, So You Want to Sell a Million Copies; a short story collection, Coloured and Other Stories; and a novel about women’s friendships, Saving Peace. Her coming of age novel, An Unlikely Goddess, won the SheWrites New Novelist competition in 2011. Her recent books have focused on various aspects of life in Qatar. From Dunes to Dior, named as a Best Indie book in 2013, is a collection of essays related to her experiences as a female South Asian American living in the Arabian Gulf. Love Comes Later was the winner of the Best Indie Book Award for Romance in 2013 and is a literary romance set in Qatar and London. The Dohmestics is an inside look into compound life, the day-to-day dynamics between housemaids and their employers. After she joined the e-book revolution, Mohana dreams in plotlines. Learn more about her work on her website at or follow her latest on Twitter: @moha_doha.

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