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:

Afghanistan:


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.

Germany:
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 KathleenValentine.com

For several years my literary web site at www.KathleenValentine.com 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,

Kathleen 

Friday, July 31, 2015

Read-the-World: Mexico, Laos, Albania

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


Mexico: 
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. 

Laos: 
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. 

Albania: 
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. 

Nigeria:
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.

Iceland:
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.

Syria:
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 www.mohadoha.com or follow her latest on Twitter: @moha_doha.


Saturday, July 11, 2015

Read-the-World: Haiti, Morocco, UAE

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. 

Haiti:
Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

Claire is a seven year old girl whose mother died in childbirth and whose father is raising her alone. On her seventh birthday he decides that she deserves more than he can give her and makes a painful decision—but then Claire disappears. This story, set in the town of Ville Rose Haiti, is one of Danticat's most beautiful and poignant. It reads like a series of stories about various citizens of the village but in the end they all come together. Nozias, Claire's father, is a good, loving man but he fears his daughter would be better off in a home where she had more advantages. Still he cannot bear the thought of giving her up. Claire is a good, obedient, sweet child who only wants to make everyone happy. The narrative is lyrical and imbued with an almost magical beauty.

All of the secondary characters are vividly described and memorable. The people of Ville Rose have a saying in their Creole French, fòk nou voye je youn sou lòt - we must all look after one another, and that seems to be the moral of this story. Just a beautiful book.  

Morocco:
The Sand Child and A Palace in the Old Village by Tahar Ben Jelloun

Both of these novels were fairly short and they seemed to have a similar theme—how disillusionment and disappointment can drive someone to actions that, though well-intended, just make matters worse.

In The Sand Child a man, who is the father of seven daughters, is disappointed and distraught to the point that when his wife becomes pregnant for the eighth time, he decides that whatever happens, he is going to have a son. Of course a daughter is born but he arranges everything in such a secretive manner that the child's sex is concealed and only he, the mother, and the elderly midwife know the truth. The baby is named Ahmed and the celebrations begin. A girl raised to be a boy is a familiar theme throughout many cultures—especially those in which sexism is strong. Arab folklore about other such man/women is retold in the story, but even among Christians, the story of Pope Joan persists throughout history. By the time Ahmed is a man, her father has died and she is a bewildered, alienated despot who rules her older sisters and mother while having nothing to do with them. Eventually she leaves her home, changes her name to Zahara and begins her torturous quest for identity.

In A Palace in the Old Village, Mohammed, the main character, left Morocco for France to find a job. He worked in an auto plant and raised his children in a Paris suburb but now he has to retire and he longs for home. His children, who are grown and some out on their own, are thoroughly modern children who love France and have no desire to leave. His only comfort is his beloved nephew with Downs Syndrom, who he has raised and who is a constant joy to him. Mohammed gets the idea to return to his village in Morocco and build a beautiful home—so lovely that all of his children with their spouses and babies will want to live there with him. Naturally, this does not go well.

One of the things I am continually struck by in reading these books set in North Africa and the Middle East is the luscious, poetic, almost magical aesthetic of the people from the wealthiest to the most humble. They all seem to share a deep, heart-felt longing for the beauty of the poetry, music, food, and other sensory delights of their culture. It is something I see very little of in Western literature. Both of these stories were sad but well-worth the read in my opinion.

United Arab Emirates:
The Wink of the Mona Lisa and Other Stories from the Gulf (Memoirs of Arabia) by Mohammad al Murr

I found this to be an extremely charming collection of stories. Some were sad (a man on a long flight to Dubai strikes up a conversation with the matron sitting next to him and returns from the restroom to find she has died), some are very funny (a man takes his little girl to the circus and is unprepared for the deluge of questions she asks), and some reflect the trials and tribulations of modern life (a professional young woman in Dubai wants her lover to marry her but keeps forgetting to tell him that.) The title story is hilarious about a man who has never met the right woman until he attends a relative's wedding and notices an alluring woman winking at him.

Of all the stories from Gulf countries I've read, this collection of stories was the most varied and the most reflective of contemporary life.


Thanks for reading and I am on to Iceland!

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Read-the-World: Algeria, Chile, Palestine

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.

Algeria: 
The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leila Marouane
The narrator of this strange and fairly erotic tale is a 40-something Algerian man living with his mother and brother in a suburb of Paris. He has a good job and aspires to an even better one in a Paris bank. Living at home he is under his mother's control and she is trying to marry him off to an acceptable Muslim girl but he has other ideas. He has straightened his hair, lightened his skin, and changed his name with the intention of embarking on wild sexual adventures. The book starts out quite funny. Everything Mohammed/Basile does--from selecting an apartment to buying furniture--is designed to impress his future lovers. He imagines dazzling a lover by fixing her coffee in his elegant coffeemaker the morning after. He obsesses over lamps, tables, his clothing all the while making excuses to his mother and trying desperately to persuade this woman or that to relieve him of his virginity with little luck.

In the early chapters of the story it reminded me a bit of A Confederacy of Dunces, Algerian style, set in Paris instead of New Orleans. But as the book progresses things are not making sense, something is off-kilter and it was at first hard to tell if it was deliberate or if something was missing in translation. In the final section, we realize that Mohammed/Basile is not what he imagines himself to be. Not at all.

I certainly appreciated the author's skill at building a character so filled with both desire and self-delusion. This is not a book for everyone but I found it a very worthwhile read.
Chile: 
One of the things I love most about Allende's writing is the rich mixture of characters and cultures she brings to her stories. In Maya's Notebook she introduces us to Maya Vidal, a teenager who was abandoned by her parents in the custody of her amazing grandparents, Nini and Popo, an African-American astronomer. When Popo dies, Maya descends into a life of self-destructive behavior--drugs, violence, and petty crime.  When her grandmother discovers how endangered Maya's life has become, she ships her off to Chiloé, an island off Chile’s southern coast, to live with Manuel Aria, an old friend of Nini's. She gives Maya a notebook and tells her to record her life and, thus, begins Maya's chronicle.

All the characters in this story are remarkable and equally remarkable is the very island of Chiloé which I found to be a character all its own with a hypnotic presence. This is definitely among Allende's best stories and one I'd love to read again.
Palestine: 
This is a wonderful story of three generations of Christian Palestinian women but with some excellent male characters as well. The first two thirds of the book are filled with history, culture, and food described with familiarity and exquisite detail. The last part, when the story moves to America, wasn't as rich in culture, but by then I was so hooked on what was going to happen to the characters that I stayed fascinated. There are secrets in this family--many secrets--and I was fairly breathless hoping that some would be revealed and some would be kept forever.

One of the things I most loved is that a few of the male characters were just wonderful--something I cherish in books because it seems rare to me. Nadeem, the husband of Miriam, and Samir, the husband of Nadia, were such dashing, fascinating men in their youths, who grew into the kinds of husbands and fathers we all dream of. The history, especially of Samir's early life among the Bedouins, is unforgettable. I thoroughly enjoyed this look into a culture I knew little about and I recommend it highly. 

Thanks for reading, and more to come!


Saturday, June 27, 2015

For Fiesta: A Spicy Scene from Depraved Heart!

In honor of Fiesta I am posting a selection from my novel Depraved Heart. Art curator Tempest Hobbs has been hired by convicted killer and former NFL star Syd Jupiter to catalog the art collection his daughter has inherited from her great-grandfather. Tempest knows about Syd's past but is still mesmerized by him. During Gloucester's annual Fiesta they are watching the Greasy Pole competition when things heat up between them.


He slowed the boat as we passed the point of land known in Gloucester as The Fort, where stacks of wire lobster traps were piled like a wall of green and yellow building blocks above the sea wall. As we passed a big white building with the words Cape Pond Ice painted on it, I could see the top of an illuminated Ferris wheel rotating slowly in the summer sunlight. Red, green and gold tinsel decorations strung between telephone poles glittered and the air was filled with singing and loud male voices chanting the Fiesta mantra.

Me chi samiou duté muté?

Viva San Pietro!

You and Dad should come to the carnival. Have you ever been to Fiesta?” Anjelica asked.

Lots of times years ago,” I told her. “When I was a little kid my parents always took me to the carnival, and when I was in high school my friends came every year. But I’ve never watched the Greasy Pole walk before. It’s kind of famous now.”

Syd was guiding the boat up to a float at St. Peter’s Marina. Two girls stood at the top of the ramp, and when they saw Anjelica, they began waving.

Do you need money?” Syd asked as Anjelica’s friends came running down the ramp.

No, I have enough left from yesterday.”

Okay, call me when you want me to come and I’ll meet you right here,” Syd said putting his arms around her.

I will. Love you, Dad,” she said and gave him an enthusiastic hug. He lifted her over the side onto the float. “Have fun,” she yelled to me.

I will.”

Wow.” I heard one of her friends say as they ran back up the ramp. “Your Dad is really big.”

He used to play professional football,” Anjelica said. With no small amount of pride, I thought.

Okay,” Syd said steering the boat back out into the harbor. “Let’s find a place for us.”

He guided the boat into a space close enough to see the fun but far enough away to be comfortable. We unpacked bottles of water and some of the still-warm hush puppies and settled down in the sunlight to watch.

Two hundred yards from the shore a wooden platform rose twenty-five feet in the air. What looked like a telephone pole was mounted at the top sticking straight parallel to the water. At the end of it was a vertical stick festooned with an American flag fluttering above three triangular flags in red, white and green, the colors of the Italian flag. The forty foot pole between the flags and the men crowding the platform was covered half a foot deep in a slimy, slippery concoction.

A police boat hovered below the end of the pole to keep the hundreds of boaters around the area at a safe distance. The entire harbor was packed with everything from large whale watching vessels to solitary sailors in brightly colored kayaks. All of them honking horns, screaming and cheering as each contestant waited for his turn to traverse the distance from the platform to the flag through greasy muck that fell off in clumps as the men ran, walked, slid or slithered along the pole. Most of them were dressed in flamboyant costumes from hula skirts to diapers, which was made all the more hilarious by the fact that the participants tended to be burly men with hairy chests and beards. The object of the walk through the slime was to capture the flags at the end of the pole but, despite an endless variety of techniques, they all ended up in the water, often bouncing off the pole to a chorus of “ouch!” from the crowd.

I’m trying to figure out if it would be better to go fast or slow,” Syd said as he unscrewed the lid on a water bottle and handed it to me. “I’ve seen guys try both methods but it’s hard to say which is better.”

Would you ever do that?”

He laughed. “Not a chance.”

Not even when you were younger?”

I don’t think so. My center of gravity is too high, I think being built low to the ground would be an advantage in that sport.” He leaned back in his seat and stretched his legs. He wore a pair of battered leather moccasins and his legs were well-tanned and muscular. I caught my breath.

Did you always want to play football? I mean when you were a little kid.”

Oh, sure, of course I did. What kid doesn’t? I also wanted to be a priest.”

I couldn’t help laughing. “Really? A priest?”

Well, I was an altar boy at the time at St. Louis Cathedral, and I was so in love with that church I wanted any excuse to be there all the time. Plus...” He looked sideways at me. “...I thought it would be a lot of fun to hear Confessions. I kept imagining all the terrible things I’d hear.”

I giggled. “That’s very funny.”

Yeah, well, I was a little kid. Then for a long time I wanted to be a fisherman like my Dad. He was a good athlete when he was young. He played baseball on a minor league team but never made the majors. I think that was tough on him. He got to see me play football at A&M but he died before I was drafted into the NFL. I’ve always been sorry about that.”

Loud cheering erupted from the crowd. We both looked up but the flags still fluttered at the end of the pole. Whatever happened, we missed it. I turned back to Syd and saw that he was looking at me, not at the festivities on the platform.

Do you mind it if I tell you that I think you’re very pretty?” he said in a low voice.

No.” I looked down at his hands holding the water bottle in his lap. I had admired the size of his hands before but now I noticed how brown and calloused they were. Between Miles’ boat and the gardens around Hathor he had been working hard and his hands showed it.

He kept his eyes on me. “You’re pretty but you also have a lot of warmth. That’s something that I’ve found to be surprisingly rare in young women.”

Well,” I said, “I guess you haven’t been around too many women lately.”

He gave a short laugh. “Good point.”

I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sound dismissive.”

You didn’t. You sounded like someone who has a hard time accepting compliments.”

I nodded. “That’s... well... yes, that’s true.”

I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

You’re not... well... no more than I ever am.” I looked up at him and wished he wasn’t wearing the sunglasses. I wanted to see his eyes. “I haven’t had very good luck with men in my life.”

Why?”

I shrugged. “It’s this crazy way I am with people. The way I sense what they’re thinking...”

He smiled. “A woman wouldn’t have to be psychic to know what I’m thinking right now.”

No...” Another roar went up from the crowd and I turned in time to see a young man in a
Batman costume crashing into the water clutching his groin.

Ouch,” Syd said. “That had to hurt.”

What happened?”

He fell straight down straddling the pole. It looked really painful.”

Oh.” I glanced down at his hands again and, as though he knew my thoughts, he lifted one and touched a strand of my hair letting it curl around his finger tip. “So, were you surprised when you got drafted by a football team? That’s the word, isn’t it, drafted?”

He nodded, smiling. “Yes and no. Sure I was as surprised as anyone would be, but there was a part of me that sort of knew it was destined to happen. I’d always wanted to be a Steeler.”

His body was almost unbearably close. I found myself straining forward almost against my own will, just wanting to connect. “Not the Saints? You didn’t want to be drafted by the Saints?”

He was watching me and smiling slightly. “No, I wanted to be a Steeler... Actually,” he said. He put his water bottle aside and moved his other hand to pick up one of mine. He held it, caressing the back of it with his thumb. “Actually, what I wanted to be was Franco Harris.”

I looked up at him. Chills were running up and down my back and I was having a hard time staying still. “I don’t know who that is.”

He was their fullback, great big guy. Really, really powerful and really, really fast but so graceful. When he had the ball it was amazing to see how a guy that big could weave in and out without getting knocked down. But the thing I secretly loved most about him was he was mixed race, African-American and Italian.” He was lacing his fingers through mine and I was shivering.

He was mixed race...”

Mm-hmm. Back then there was a lot of racism in this country. I was lucky to grow up in New Orleans where being mixed wasn’t that big a deal, but when I was in Texas with my Dad I was always aware that I was different. So I wanted to be like Franco, a big, tough, good-looking, mixed-race football player.” He grinned. “At least I got to be big, mixed-race, and a football player.”

I think you’re pretty tough. How would you have gotten through everything you have if you weren’t?” I lifted my head and tried to see through his sunglasses. “And I also think you’re good-looking.”

He cupped my chin in his hand. “It doesn’t bother you that I’ve been in prison for fifteen years?”

It bothers me but not in the way you think. It bothers me that you had to go through that.”

Another huge cry arose from the crowd, boat horns began to blow. The cheering was deafening. I turned to look and the flags at the end of the pole were gone.

Somebody won,” I said.

And we missed it.”

He slipped one arm around my waist and lifted me closer to him..... Depraved Heart




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