Friday, March 27, 2009

Molly McCall: How to Pick a Fantastic Book Group Book, Or How I Attempt to, Anyway


Here's a view of some of our bookcases at home. These cases are mostly fiction, alphabetized admirably by my husband, the playwright Jon Brooks, but if you look closely, you'll see nonfiction titles hanging out horizontally and stacked up above. We have cases and piles of books all over our flat, including art books, cookbooks, poetry, and children's books. Was it Jorge Luis Borges who said, “I can not sleep in a room without books?” I feel most comfortable in spaces that are crowded with books.

Aggie posted a comment yesterday asking me how I pick titles for the fiction book group. That's a great question. People ask me this from time to time, and my response always comes out differently.

I'm always looking for something unique and unexpected, something that will engender a vibrant discussion and balance well with the other novels we've just read.

I look to award-winning books like “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I like to go back through old lists and find runners-up from days gone by. Last year, I spent some time lingering over National Book Award nominees from the '70s and '80s.

I also troll through reading lists from book stores or critics or newspapers. I'm especially interested, always, in The New York Times' picks for the best books of the year. I pay attention to reviews. I listen to book sellers and watch what the independent bookstores have on display – Kepler's especially, of course.

As anyone who comes to the group will tell you, we read current titles but we also spend a fair amount of time on books that are neglected or forgotten or come from real “writers' writers.” The people who come to the Kepler's Fiction Group are such amazing readers. So although I like to pick the latest Booker winner from time to time, I also know that they will find that book on their own.

Other aspects that are never far from my mind: how many male versus female voices we're reading, where the authors are from, what style they write in, what time period the books comes from, where the novel takes place, and what it's about. Plus, the book has to be available in paperback, accessible to Kepler's to get, and not too long (unless it's the January pick, which I push a little, because we don't meet in December).

Over the past 10 years, we've read a lot of fantastic books in the fiction group. Some day, I'd like to put together a really comprehensive list. Until that time comes, here's a brief gathering of titles I've always remembered as great discussion-starters.

  • The Things They Carried” by Tim O'Brien – one of my all-time favorite novels and book group books. The inventive style and complicated emotions and themes offer so much to chew on.

  • Spartina” by John Casey – Casey has too quickly become an overlooked novelist. This tale of Rhode Island fishermen won the National Book Award in 1989 and has since drifted off the literary radar. It's gorgeously written.

  • The Road” by Cormac McCarthy – hardly a forgotten book, I'm happy to say. This post-apocalyptic tale won the Pulitzer Prize and an appearance on Oprah, hah! It's a novel that stays with you for a long time, and sparks an intense conversation about humanity, our treatment of the environment, and the future.

  • The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy – we read this Booker-winner in the group years and years ago. I almost want to select it again, just to see how it's aged with us. Roy's only novel, it's a slender, masterfully done work.

  • The Man Who Loved Children” -- by Christina Stead. A lot of people hate this book, but you're guaranteed a great group, I think. It's a feral, tough, uncompromising novel. But it's worth it.

  • Desperate Characters” by Paula Fox -- a chilling, urbane novel. Fox writes with absolute surety. I recommend this one highly.

Oh man, there are so many more. If you are in a book group – or if you come to any of the groups that meet at Kepler's – I'd love to hear what books you love!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

KEPLER'S WRITING GROUP MEETING THIS SATURDAY, MARCH 28, 2009




Dear Writers,

Kepler's Writing Group March meeting will take place on Saturday, March 28, 2009 from 3:00-5:30 p.m. at our beautiful, new location, one block from Kepler's. Please email me at aggie@keplers.com to confirm your attendance and I'll give you the address and directions.

The following writers’ manuscripts are up for the discussion in March: Jeanne Althouse, Mary Jean Place and Mary Stahl.

SPECIAL NOTE: Well-Read Donkey is featuring profiles of Kepler's Writing Group members. Check out Bobbie Riedel's profile posted in March and check back for Megan Kurashige's upcoming profile in April! Don't forget to subscribe to get regular updates.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Molly McCall: One Book Group and One Brief Wondrous Novel

Many people agreed that the writing was masterful. Kristen said she wished she could write like this. Marian called the prose “amazing.” Rachel likened the style to jazz; Doug countered that it’s more like Hip-Hop.

But not everyone was cajoled by the author’s musicality. The constant drumbeat of Spanglish slowed Abby down. Susan didn’t find it lyrical at all. And it failed to delight Bobbie.

It was Monday night and the Kepler’s Fiction Book Group had gathered to discuss “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz. There were 11 of us in attendance. (Warning: Spoilers abound!)

I gave a little background on the author and the novel. Then, we started around the circle. Each person said what he or she thought of the book and, if they were feeling so inclined, rated the book on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being the worst-ever grade and 5 the highest honor.

By the time we get to the end of the circle, discussion had already broken out a few times. One 5 had been dished out, two 4.5’s had flirted with the high grade, and a string of 4’s made me nervous that everyone just liked it and the conversation wouldn’t have a spark. Ha! My needless worries.

We spent some time talking about the way Diaz riddled the work with Dominican slang and Sci-Fi references. Did it put you off? Did you let it wash over you? We figured only a small handful of people in this world could get the language and the genre stuff -- so why did he do it? One theory is that it shoves the reader into this semi-alienated space -- a place well-known to Oscar Wao. It’s certainly wildly inventive.

And what about those footnotes? Doug hated them. He found them excessive and felt they could have been worked into the novel if they needed to be there. Other people disagreed and for a moment we were off talking about the footnotes’ content (Trujillo, dictatorships, the terror of life in a place like that) and their influence (David Foster Wallace, bless him, came to mind). Kristen made the point that the footnotes were a kind of working out of the “fatherlessness” in Oscar’s family and in the Dominican Republic.

Unsurprisingly, Oscar himself absorbed a lot of our attention. Some people found him utterly unsympathetic. Marian thought he was “shadowy” and inaccessible. His death, she said, was pointless. Susan was also worn down by Oscar’s victimization. Nick, though, found it disconcerting how little of Oscar was in the tale. He wanted more. Andrea did too, I think. Oscar’s death absorbed some time -- did he die standing up for his true love? Was it suicide? Or one more pathetic act?

From there, we mulled the use of the word “wondrous” in the title, the role women played, the unusual way that Yunior, the narrator, also became a character.

After an hour and a half, we wrapped it up. We could have gone on, but the seats get hard after awhile, and our civilian lives call. It wasn’t a brief talk, but it was wondrous.

On Monday, April 13 we'll meet at 7 p.m. to discuss “The Dead of the House” by Hannah Green. Join us!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Greetings!


Hello writers and readers!

My name is Molly McCall and I’ll be contributing to The Well-Read Donkey over the next couple of days. It’s a pleasure to be here.

For the past 10 years, I’ve moderated the fiction book group for Kepler’s. This monthly gathering is free and open to the public. We meet in the bookstore, usually on the third Monday, and our discussions last about an hour and a half. Anyone is welcome!

Over this decade (decade!) of plucking books from the stacks and listening to a diverse slice of the Kepler’s community talk about them, I’ve learned some things about book groups and moderating and readers. Here are a few of them:

  • You can never predict how a reader will respond to a story. Never. You may agree with someone on eight books in a row, but on the ninth you’ll have vehemently opposite reactions. It’s the spark of that disagreement, or the surprise of being in harmony with another reader’s take, that fuels so much of the fun in our roundtable talks.
  • Tough books often -- usually -- make for the most vibrant and substantive discussion. If we go around the group and everyone likes the book okay, then I get worried. But when Doug loved it and Marian hated it and Susan gobbled up the first half but got bogged down in the second and Rachel just couldn’t relate to the narrator, then I know we’re going to have a great ride.
  • Kepler’s readers are passionate and dedicated and smart, smart, smart. When I say that I “moderate” the group, I should quickly add how little moderation goes on. I never cease to be amazed by the people who come to the bookstore on a Monday night to discuss a novel that is, often, one they wouldn’t have picked for themselves. They might not always like the book, but they want to talk. And talk we do.
This past Monday, we discussed “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz. Tomorrow, I’ll write about how Monday’s band of readers responded to it. Following that, I’ll share some of my favorite book group novels, a glimpse of one of my bookshelves at home, and a brief shout of joy for my six-month-old daughter’s bookcase. It’s already crammed, as a bookcase should be!

If you have any questions about book groups or suggestions for fantastic -- or lousy -- book group books, I’d love to hear. Leave your comments below!

Friday, March 20, 2009

DAY SEVEN: Victoria Zackheim

This is my last day on the blog and I’ve loved every minute of it. Thank you for visiting, posting, encouraging…you are greatly appreciated!

If anyone’s interested in writing personal essays, I’ll be teaching an introductory course online, for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Just click on that link and you’re there!

Today, I’d like to tell you about the second anthology, For Keeps: Women Tell the Truth About Their Bodies, Growing Older, And Acceptance.

Have you ever had a medical test and the doctor tells you, “I’m sure it’s nothing, we’re just making certain,” and you want to believe, were it not for that nagging voice? When I had the first ideas for this book, I called it Body and Soul. I wanted to bring together women writers who had faced, and then overcome, all kinds of personal obstacles related to physical and mental health. Truly, had I put out a universal call, this could have been an anthology of 500 essays. The question wasn’t Who has experienced this? It was more…who hasn’t? In the introduction, I wrote that to believe that I am healthy, to wish that I am healthy, and to live with the expectation that I will be healthy, in no way guarantees my good health. I’ve always known this at some superficial level, but this past year has driven it home. Ten days before my son’s wedding, I fell down a flight of stairs and suffered a head injury. I had the amazing luck to have hit my head against stairs that were carpeted. I remember riding in the ambulance and thinking that, unless I died, I was going to that wedding...thankfully, I walked my son down the aisle. Around that time, I read For Keeps again and had a very different take on my long-held (and foolish) belief that I had full control over everything in my life. This is also from the introduction, which I wrote. It has even greater meaning now. While many of us are able to regain that control, we cannot ignore the message that hovers out there, just beyond the coast of consciousness: Our bodies are for keeps. No matter what life brings us, we must forge ahead and celebrate life.

The approach taken by the 27 authors in this anthology is as different as the women themselves. For example, this from Abby Fruct’s essay, Holes:
Except that it costs me my whole deductible, I enjoy my hysterectomy. I find hospitals stimulating. I like the funk of anesthesia, and I’m amused by the bright blue nun, like on the wine bottle label, who stops by at pre-op to pray. I’m proud of the tumor they get out of me, and I love that my friends bring me lavender oil and that my son serves me dinner when I come home to heal.

Louisa Ermelino is funny, poignant, heartbreaking in Death Becomes Her:
My mother is dying in her bed across the street. My husband is in the hospital, defying the medical prediction that he had six months to live. It’s been ten and we’re still counting. Me, I’m going back and forth from the hospital to my mother’s bedside to my job at a celebrity fashion magazine. Is Nicole Kidman wearing Zac Posen and did she really buy her lasagna pan at Williams Sonoma? Can you fax that information please? It’s a very high-end magazine and we care about the veracity of what we print.

Susan Ito’s The Puzzle of My Body is about finally meeting her biological mother. In this passage, she writes about her daughter’s birth:

The first time my body really astonished me was when it gave birth to a fascinating, very other-looking creature known as my second daughter. Unlike myself, her father and older sister, who all have hair the color of dark chocolate, my younger girl was born blonde. With startling blue eyes. I was stunned. Here, finally, was the Other Side, emerging. I stared at her for hours, feeling so completely disoriented. I had never expected it; the surprise of my body producing such a fair child. Blue: The color of my younger daughter's eyes. Her eyes matched the fake denim on her car seat. Blue eyes like holes that went all the way through, same as the color surrounding her head. Since the day she was born, I obsessed about her eyes, thought they must be the same color as my father's. Blue eyes against the Iowa sky.

Sally Terrell was tired of feeling powerless and entered the world of competitive weightlifting. This is her take, from Heavy Lifting:
As I lifted more weight, my wrists, knees, and legs hurt the way children’s bones do from growing pains. I learned how to measure weights in kilos and was soon squatting well over my body weight. My wrists became thicker and stronger; I no longer tried to be graceful when I was lifting the bar. This new brand of grit and power paid dividends as I learned to live alone for the first time in my life. I was earning a living by part-time teaching and waitressing at a high-end Hartford restaurant. I had started to sleep through the night, with all lights off and no need for the soothing voices in the television. I even started dating a slick attorney, a regular at the restaurant who thought I needed to be better fed.

As my closing recommendations, I’m going to offer these two anthologies:

Barbara Graham has an anthology due out the first week of April. Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being A Grandmother (HarperCollins) is a collection of gifted writers exploding the myths about being a grandmother. Authors include Molly Giles, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Abigail Thomas, Judith Viorst, Anne Roiphe, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Beverly Donofrio, Bharati Mukherjee, Elizabeth Berg, and Susan Griffin.

Ask Me About My Divorce: Women Open Up About Moving On (Seal, June 2009), edited by Candace Walsh. A collection of 29 essays on the subject, humorous and bleak—though never bleak for long. Required for anyone considering a change, or in that state of flux that can be so unsettling.

Of course, I couldn’t say goodbye without introducing my own new anthology, which will be available in September. The Face in the Mirror: Writers Reflect on Their Dreams of Youth and the Reality of Age (Prometheus Books). I’m happy to say that I’m beyond the nail-biting stage. The final draft was sent last month and the editor was delighted with the essays. How could she not love it, with this list of authors: Alan Dershowitz, Barbara Abercrombie, Beverly Donofrio, Jane Ganahl, Sandra Gulland, Eileen Goudge, Malachy McCourt, Joyce Maynard, Leon Whiteson, Margot Duxler, Michael Bader, Lee Chamberlin, Laurie Stone, Richard Toon, Kathi Kamen Goldmark, Aviva Layton, Aimee Liu, Christine O’Hagan, and Nancy Weber.

I do admit to struggling with the need to “vet” each word, in order to avoid lawsuits. When you refer to a cousin as that rotten cheat, you really DO leave yourself open to all sorts of problems. Sure, you can use a pseudonym, but that cousin can still sue. You’ll probably win, but the legal fees could wipe you out and the publisher will probably cancel shipment. It’s a lose/lose situation, so care is needed. Do the authors enjoy having vital information removed or softened? Nope. Do I enjoy having to do it? Nope. It’s about either bending to the will of the publisher or having essays cut from the collection. Luckily for me, I was working with rational, mature authors. Few were happy with the changes, but everyone agreed to them.

You might be interested to know that one of the most time-consuming (and enjoyable) tasks around an anthology is deciding the order in which the essays appear in the book. You don’t want a side-splitting-funny piece coming just before or after someone’s heartbreaking story, nor do you want authors clustered together by viewpoint or similar backgrounds. An anthology is fluid, one essay carrying the reader along to the next, a journey of emotions and circumstances. I think we achieved this in Face in the Mirror. Now, I’m excited with the anticipation of seeing the cover art!

In closing, let me say again that anthologies are more than collections of works…they are living, breathing representations of nearly every facet of the human condition. Looking back, I certainly did not want to be labeled the anthologist, as opposed to the writer, but I have to tell you: after three anthologies and two more in the works, there are worse things you could call me. For now, anthologist is just fine.

Again, thank you so much for reading my posts, commenting, and contacting me with observations and suggestions. And thanks to Aggie for inviting me, for your enthusiasm, and for guiding me so patiently through the labyrinthine beginner’s course, Blogology IA.

Keep your eyes open for a possible reading from The Face in the Mirror around September or October. Six of the authors live in the Bay Area and four are in Los Angeles, so it could be a wonderfully crowded podium!

DAY SIX: Victoria Zackheim

DAY SIX
We’re coming to the end of this guest stint and there’s so much more to discuss! What I’d like to do today and tomorrow is introduce you to my first two anthologies and some of the essays from them. I’m always torn, worried that it’s too self-promoting, but I want to give you examples of what I consider to be excellent personal essay writing…and what better place to find them!

Let’s start with the first anthology, The Other Woman: 21 Wives, Lovers, And Others Talk Openly About Sex, Deception, Love, And Betrayal. I’ve already posted about some of the excitement around this book and I have to admit that, nearly two years after its publication, I still feel the thrill of those first months…and the year that followed. In addition to two appearances on The Today Show and several local and regional talk shows, plus radio programs all over the country, we had wonderful readings in bookstores on both coasts. (The Kepler’s crowd was enormous…I think there were seven contributors at that reading!) Also, I took five of the essays from east-coast contributors and wove them together into a one-act play, which was presented at The Player’s Club theater in Manhattan. (The Today Show in the morning and the theater production that night made it one of the most memorable days of my life.) Not long after, I took essays from west-coast contributors and repeated the process at a theater in San Francisco. On the stage were Jane Smiley, Ellen Sussman, Sherry Glaser, Aviva Layton, and actress Liz Mamorsky reading for Binnie Kirshenbaum. You can imagine the thrill we all felt, turning words on a page into a fluid and dramatic stage production!

The exciting elements of an anthology are many, but there are two that stand out for me. First, the story itself. How does the author approach the “theme” of the book and associate it with a personal story? Second, what is the voice of the author? Let me give you an example of what I mean by voice. In Pam Houston’s essay, Not Istanbul, she begins:

Here’s the thing about the other woman. She lives inside your head. She may live on the next street or in the next town or half way across the world; she may be 5’2” or 5’9”; she may be rail thin (never skinny) or voluptuous (never fat). But however big or small she is, however much space she takes up in the world, will never compare to the amount of space she’ll take up in your brain. It is there that she will spread herself from wall to wall, eating gift-wrapped chocolates—so many gift-wrapped chocolates that she will ooze into every nook and cranny of your cerebrum, until you won’t be able to think of anything else. And if you let her take up residence there, no matter when you cut her off, no matter how hard you try to starve her, you may never, ever, get her out.

Houston manages to remain detached by using this second-person narrative technique. We don’t get emotionally involved…at least, not yet. Now, compare that to Aviva Layton’s essay, My Life As a Muse:

Looking back at that moment, I still don’t know where that feeling came from. Since he was over twenty years my senior, was I looking for a father figure? Someone who would rescue me from my own doubts and anxieties? Or maybe it was his physical presence—stocky body, mane of black hair, blazing blue eyes radiating a force-field of crackling energy. And the words! They spilled out of his mouth with such intensity. He dominated the room, his voice booming out snatched lines of poetry: Byron, Pope, Catullus, Cafavy. I was mesmerized.

Here’s she emotionally engaged, exposed, and sharing all of this with the reader. Now read the beginning of Jane Smiley’s essay, Iowa Was Never Like This, where she pulls us in with a little shock and lots of humor:

I could have paid better attention to the signs. For example, I could have noticed that, both the first time around and the second time around, my husband Steve wooed me by detailing his exploits with other women, then flattering me by comparison—of all these women (dozens! hundreds!), I was the ultimate. Nevertheless, when he told me there was another woman, and that she was our dental hygienist, I at first didn’t believe him, because not two weeks before telling me, he had remarked, with a straight face, that, should I ever find myself in a vegetative state, he would keep me, and even cherish me, in the living room of our house, so that he could personally fulfill my every unconscious need

And that’s what I love about anthologies…all those wonderful voices reflecting such different perspectives and emotions.

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss For Keeps: Women Tell The Truth About Their Bodies, Growing Older, And Acceptance.

Now, here are more recommended books…enjoy!
I’ve been hearing exciting things about Nancy Agabian’s Me as Her Again: True Stories Of An Armenian Daughter, named this week as a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in LGBT Nonfiction. Kepler’s says: In this memoir, Nancy Agabian tells stories of growing pains, family tensions, and buried pasts.

Joyce Maynard has a novel coming out at the end of July titled Labor Day, published by William Morrow. It’s the story of a single mother, raising her son in a small town, and the strange and lonely man who comes into their lives on a Labor Day weekend and changes them forever. Maynard is one of those rare authors who can cross from fiction to non-fiction with ease, evident in her previous books, which include To Die For, At Home in the World, and Internal Combustion.

Dara Horn’s third novel is coming out in two weeks. ALL Other Nights (W.W. Norton) is about Jacob Rappaport, a Jewish soldier in the Union army. On Passover, 1862, he is ordered to murder his own uncle, who is plotting to assassinate President Lincoln. His next order is not to murder a spy but to marry one. A story of insight that questions who comes first, family or country.

M.J. Rose’s new novel, The Memorist (Mira Books) was name People Magazine Book of the Week and called “first-rate fiction" by the Washington Post. It’s the story of a woman paralyzed by her past, a man robbed of his future, and a centuries-old secret. As Rose writes on her website, “The dreads are back.”

Kim Phillips-Fein’s Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan (W.W. Norton) is a narrative history following a group of influential businessmen who fought to roll back the New Deal in the 1930s. In these economy-imploding times, it’s particularly relevant.

There’s one more author I’d like to highlight. Canadian David Layton is a brilliant young author whose work hasn’t been touted in the States. But it will…so keep your eyes open. (And yes, he’s related to Aviva, who’s quoted above…it’s her son!) His first book was a memoir, Motion Sickness. This will take you to an interview with David about the book. He followed this with a novel, The Bird Factory. If you can find his books, I suggest you read them. His reviews are superb and he’s a literary force on the move.

See you all tomorrow…and thanks again for reading and commenting!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

DAY FIVE: Victoria Zackheim

It’s Day Five of this guest blog and I’m going to propose a wide variety of books, several of them not available for months. Why would I do this? Because these writers have established themselves as authors to read in university courses, book groups, etc. and their works are well worth the wait.

Before I give you this list, however, I’d like to say a few more words about the anthology, based primarily on questions I’m asked at workshops, readings, and lectures. First and foremost: How do I come up with ideas? With the first anthology, it was something as simple as driving my car and listening to the radio. I heard someone say “the other woman,” and something popped into my mind. Would authors be willing to reveal their personal lives in an anthology about deception and betrayal? The response was overwhelming, email messages running from “Sweet revenge!” to “How could I not?” When Jane Smiley and I were guests on View From the Bay (ABC, 3PM), the host, Janelle Wang, asked me that question. Before I could answer, Jane laughed and said, “We were waiting for her to call!” So if you’re thinking of putting together an anthology, share your idea with a few writer friends and booklovers and see what they think. If they start jumping up and down, you might have a great idea!

Another question I’m asked is: What if the editor doesn’t like the essay? I haven’t had this experience yet, which I’m relieved and happy to say. But if that problem did come up, I’d go back to the writer and suggest that changes be made.

The other question I’m always asked is this: What do you love most about the anthology? That’s easy: it’s the sense of community that grows around the book. For both anthologies, readings became like a family event. We rarely had fewer than 7 or 8 authors show up. At the bookstore launch of The Other Woman in New York, there were 14 authors who came to read…some of them flying in from the west coast, one author arriving from Toronto. Every event was a happening, to be sure, and great friendships were made.

Now, here are some books you might want to read.

Manuscript Makeover, by Elizabeth Lyon (Perigee Trade Paperback). 368 pages of the guidance and instruction you need to create stories that will stand out from the competition and attract the eyes of agents and editors. This is only one of many writing books from Lyon. The consummate editor and instructor, her books on writing fiction and non-fiction, on selling novels and writing proposals, have become the guides for an entire generation of writers.


There are always authors whose new books you anticipate with joy. Here are three gifted writers with books coming out this winter…and later.
True Confections by Katharine Weber, (Shaye Areheart Books, October). This might seem to be a novel about a chocolate candy company in crisis but, like all of Weber’s novels, the layers of social and personal concerns run very deep. She explores the volatile topics of race, the dilemmas of a family business struggling with intergenerational conflict. Click on the title and look at the delicious cover! I always look forward to Weber’s next novel…she tells a terrific story and her writing is lovely. If you want more, I suggest The Music Lesson. Her novels are regularly listed among the New York Times Book Review Notable Books and have earned Weber numerous book awards.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps by Deborah Grabien. (St. Martin’s Minotaur). This is the second book in the excellent JP Kinkaid Chronicles. (The first, Rock and Roll Never Forgets got superb reviews.) When The Bombardiers' abrasive new front man is murdered, Blacklight guitarist and session man JP Kinkaid calls out the Bay Area music community and homicide lieutenant Patrick Ormand to get to the bottom of it. There are writers who churn out novels and it’s difficult to distinguish one book from the next. With Grabien, however, one of the most prolific writers on the scene today, her novels never suffer. Each one holds up in terms of story, style, character development. She’s a marvel, truly!

Breathe, by Caroline Leavitt (Algonquin Books, Spring 2010). Leavitt fans are eagerly awaiting this new novel, her ninth. The story of three lives intersecting after a mysterious car crash on a deserted, foggy road. A photographer fleeing her philandering husband and consumed with guilt; an asthmatic boy with a terrible secret; and a husband who realizes he never really knew his wife. Leavitt is one of those authors who never lets you down. She takes that little nut of an idea and builds an entire world around it, creating characters that drive the plot to what is always a satisfying and sometimes unexpected denouement. Some authors create a plot and try to fit their characters into the story. With Leavitt, it’s seamless: well crafted and always worth the read. While you’re waiting for the new novel, I highly recommend Girls in Trouble, a Booksense 76 selection.

I encourage all of you to post comments about your favorite books. I’m always looking for a new author or title―it’s an exciting discovery for everyone―so don’t hold back!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

DAY FOUR: Victoria Zackheim

I was thrilled when I signed the contract to have my first book published. Let me rephrase that: …to have my book self-published. In 2001, that was considered a near-fatal choice, but I had spent sixteen years writing, revising, deleting and self-deprecating, so it was time. And yes, editors read it, nice things were said, but nobody wanted to publish it. The publisher was small and had no budget for PR, so all expenses—including travel and advertising—fell on me. If The Bone Weaver was going to sell, I'd have to make it happen. But how hard could it be, pulling together crowds at readings, newspaper and magazine reviews, popping flashbulbs and fans lined up with my book, waiting to get it signed? Oh, silly me. But I did manage to get into the groove of self-promotion and got invited to book fairs around the country. I was thrilled whenever I boarded a plane, knowing that someone was meeting me at the airport, holding up a paper with my name. All very Isabel Allende-like…unless the driver is waiting at the wrong gate.

I landed in Seattle during the worst storm of the year. When I arrived at the reading, I was pleased to find twelve people there. I admit to some ego deflation when the bookstore's owner mentioned that a children's author had spoken that same morning—to a crowd of five hundred. I drove up to Vancouver for the final event on this tour. It went very well, great attendance, lots of books sold. I thoroughly enjoyed the funky room at the old Sylvia Hotel on English Bay, and the sushi dinner after the event was quite good, although I could have done without the food poisoning.

The last big tour for the novel in south Florida. Fort Lauderdale in November had been such a success that I decided to return during the height of the season, when sun-loving tourists and winter residents arrive from New York and Chicago to avoid the cold, get in some golf and wear Bermuda shorts in pastel colors. I had ten bookings scheduled over seven days and put 1200 miles on the rental car. The last day was a Barnes & Noble event, but the events manager was home sick and the posters were tucked away somewhere. Standing at the podium, I looked into the crowd of one, an elderly woman. I thanked her for coming and she sweetly explained that her husband was in the reference area looking for information on prostate disease. She needed a place to sit down. Taking the personal approach, I sat with her and discussed my novel. When I was finished, she took a book from the pile and asked me to sign it. “I hope you enjoy it,” I told her, filled with gratitude at her kindness. “Oh, I probably won’t read it,” she said. “I'm buying it because I feel sorry for you.”

For something a little different, check out the fun stuff at WretchedReviews!

Recommended Books
Probable Claws, by Clea Simon. This novel is part of Simon’s delightful Theda Krakow Mysteries series that always includes a cat, real animal issues, and a crime. In this novel, shelter politics, the question of euthanasia, and the murder of a shelter worker are at the heart of the story. The publication date is April 10, and it’s now available for preorder

PEP TALKS, WARNINGS, AND SCREEDS by George Singleton, illustrated by Daniel Wallace. According to Readers Digest Books, this one is Everything you ever need to know to become a real writer (meaning one who actually writes), in bite-sized aphorisms, kind of like Nietzsche’s Beyond Good & Evil meets Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Victoria Zackheim: Day Three

I’d like to continue this exploration of the anthology, a literary form sometimes overlooked by readers, and occasionally even dismissed. I implore you to take a few from the shelf, open them, and look at the Table of Contents and the introductions. You might be―I’m guessing you will be―surprised by the exciting variety of writers who contribute and the subjects they’re willing to tackle.

When I ask writers to reveal something about themselves—whether it be infidelity, contentment (or discontentment) with life, or overcoming the emotional trauma of injury and illness—I find that, while there’s that common thread—that is, men and women writing about their lives—the diversity of style and approach is startling: sardonic and biting, outright funny, heartbreaking and poignant. Like life. Whether I’m coaxing memories from a 75-year-old grandmother in Israel or a Pulitzer author about to reveal something about her cheating husband, I’m still asking them to probe into flesh-and-blood issues.

During my travels, and in the course of speaking to groups, I’ve been privileged to meet many people. I’m always moved when those of my age and older share with sadness how their parents and grandparents took to their graves the truths about who they were, who their families were. I see these as lost opportunities for us to truly understand who we are today. How many times do children ask about our history, only to be told "Why do you want to know? Life is good now, why look back?" We look back because we realize that we are a composite of everyone who came before us, every bit of tissue and blood and bone, every hope and dream and fear. I truly believe that every horror our ancestors suffered, every joy they experienced, in some way now lives in us as well. In an anthology of personal essays, authors want their readers―and yes, in many cases, their families―to know who they are. For many of the authors in my anthologies, their genre is more often literary fiction, so writing about their lives adds something special to their work….something challenging and perhaps a bit threatening. This might explain why, at nearly every bookstore reading on the east and west coasts, more than a dozen of the anthology’s authors usually show up to read from their work. That’s the power of an anthology…creating a community of writers willing to bare their souls to a community of readers. The other element of this is that writing is a lonely life and the opportunity to leave our computers and meet with other writers is great fun.

For today’s recommendations, I heartily suggest:
The Diary, by Eileen Goudge, NYT Bestselling author with more than 3 million books in print. A gifted author who writes can’t-put-them-down novels. You can click on the title and preorder from Kepler’s. It’s available April 7. Here’s part of the bookstore’s description:

When the two grown daughters of Elizabeth Marshall discover an old diary of their mother's in her attic, it comes as a shock to learn that the true love of Elizabeth's life was not their father. This is the mystery the two daughters must unravel as they stay up late reading the words penned by Elizabeth so long ago. Their mother can't give them the answers: After a massive stroke, she lies mute and near death in a nursing home. Only the pages of her diary can provide clues to what really happened.

Mistress of the Sun, by Sandra Gulland. (Paperback) Gulland always comes through with rich writing, well-developed characters, and plots that keep you reading. (Note: When you click on the title, it takes you to preorder. It says hardback, but it’s paperback.) An excellent novel for adults and young adults.

According to Kepler’s:
The author of the internationally acclaimed Josephine Bonaparte trilogy returns with another irresistible historical novel, this one based on the life of Louise de la Valliere, who, against all odds, became one of the most mysterious consorts of France's Louis XIV. (The trilogy includes: The Many Lives And Secret Sorrows Of Josephine B., Tales Of Passion Tales Of Woe, and The Last Great Dance On Earth. )

Some of my favorites
When I teach a writing course or meet with book groups, I’m always asked about the books I read. The problem with naming them is that there are so many left unnamed. I’m certain that the moment I post this, I’ll regret a book left off the list, or an author whose work I admire. Having said this:

Books that changed my life:
Giants in the Earth, Ole E. Rolvaag: I read this at age 14, and it was the novel that shot through me like electricity and made me understand the power of words.
Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner: His words sing to me. In a way, this novel dared me to write.

Books I’ll read again…
Old Filth, Jane Gardam: A novel that rivals perfection, gorgeous writing.
Horse Heaven, Jane Smiley: Unique and memorable voices, I wanted it to go on for another 500 pages.

Books That Speak To The Heart
Girls in Trouble, Caroline Leavitt: Beautifully written, heartbreakingly honest, touching on the subject of open adoption.
Book of Dead Birds, Gayle Brandeis: A moving and very important book about mother/daughter relationships and the difficult adjustments of immigrants to America, and their children to their immigrant parents.
A Stone Bridge North, Kate Maloy: Memoirs don’t get much better than this.

Young Adult
Thou Shalt Not Dump the Skater Dude: And Other Commandments I Have Broken, Rosemarie Graham. Any book by Graham is recommended.
The Musician’s Daughter, Susanne Dunlap. From the author and musicologist who gave us the lovely novels Emilie’s Voice and Liszt’s Kiss.

Non-fiction
Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight Of Jefferson Airplane, Jeff Tamarkin: Excellent writing, fascinating story, even if you’re not a fan!

In Closing
Please click on Comments and tell me your favorite books, fiction and non-fiction. I’m always looking, and other visitors to this blog will appreciate the suggestions.

Oh, and those two questions:
Victoria, is there some kind of competition and you’re running for Anthology Queen?
I swear, this was never my intention. But after The Other Woman, ideas started popping into my head!
Did you really throw up on Ann Curry, on the Today Show? No, but I dreamed of doing this, and those nightly dreams sometimes included an Exorcist-like spinning of the head! She was lovely, very kind and encouraging.

Until tomorrow!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Victoria Zackheim: Day Two

In the past fifteen months, I’ve had the pleasure of developing and selling three anthologies covering three very different subjects. The first was infidelity; the second, body image; and the third (coming out in September), the dreams we had in our youth and the reality of our lives today.

Whenever I speak at a writer’s conference, or teach a course in Personal Essay, I’m asked many questions about the process of creating and developing an anthology. It seems that these are the questions that always pop up:

What makes a good anthology topic?
Look around you. Look at photos in your home. They give you clues to all sorts of relationships: father/son, mother/daughter, father/daughter, mother/son, grandparents, step-parents, family holidays, family abuse. Look out your window: issues around the environment, streets (traffic), travel. Exotic places visited and hated; best vacations ever; nightmares away from home. Look at your hands: jewelry, gifts…nightmare experiences shopping; things lost and found (love, health, joy, grief). Look at your history: school, family, friendships good and bad; great children and nightmare events…a child’s illness, getting arrested, the death of a loved one.

How do you find the authors?
In a way, they find me, because I always invite authors whose books I love to read. The process of inviting told me much about myself. Was I up to contacting Pulitzer authors, writers who regularly made the NY Times bestseller list, little-known authors whose work I admired? Yes, and yes again. I also have to say that I’ve been turned down by some of the finest writers in the world!

How many authors do you contact?
There are two primary approaches an editor can take, in terms of inviting authors to contribute an essay.



(1) Put out a universal call for essays, cull through them, and choose the best 20 or so. This is very time-consuming―had I done this with the first two books, there could have been 500 essays for each!―and I would have had to send out lots of “thanks, but no thanks” messages…which doesn’t sit right with me. So…on to option #2, which is (2) Contact specific authors with a personal invitation to write an essay. Not on spec…that is, if they’re invited and they accept, they’re in.

What if an author sends an essay that doesn’t work?
The role of the editor is to work with the author until it does work. I’m sure that many anthology editors have horror stories, but I have none. For the most part, the essays from the three anthologies (that’s 68 essays) arrived with almost no changes required. And when there was a need to edit, or even rewrite, it was a collaborative effort between editor and author, with both of us headed toward the same goal: the perfect essay.


Recommended Books
One nice perk of hosting a blog is my right to practice unabashed nepotism. My sister, Michele Zackheim, is a gifted writer whose last novel, Broken Colors (Europa), was a BookSense pick. I highly recommend it. From Kepler’s website:



Sophie Marks' path to artistic and personal fulfillment takes her from World War II England to postwar Paris and the Italian countryside. She leaves Europe and spends the next two decades in the American Southwest. Acclaimed at last as an artist, she returns to England to confront the hidden memories of her childhood and test the possibilities of a renewed love, a passion ripened by maturity.



UC Berkeley History professor Paula Fass has a new book, a memoir exploring the relationship between history and memory. Inheriting the Holocaust (Rutgers University Press) is the moving account of the author’s journey into the stories recounted by her parents, both Holocaust survivors. I’ve just started reading and Fass’s balance of personal and historical is very compelling.

That's it for Day 2. I hope you'll come back tomorrow, when I’ll talk more about anthologies, with emphasis on the personal essay. It’s a format I avoided for decades, but now that I’m writing essays for these anthologies, I’m fascinated by the process.

Day Three will also answer the burning questions:
Victoria, is there some kind of competition and you’re running for Anthology Queen?
And did you really throw up on Ann Curry, on the Today Show?

Victoria Zackheim: Day One

This is such an honor, being asked by Kepler’s to blog…so first off, thank you Aggie for the invitation! Over the next week, I’m going to post daily on subjects varying from my own writing processes to books I love. I’m also going to share some new books coming out between now and the end of the year, and I’ve invited the authors of those books to drop in and tell us more. There’s no way to know who’s showing up…or when…so log in regularly and I can promise you some pleasant surprises. Where possible, I’ll link author names to their websites, as well as book titles to their page on the Keplers.com site where you can buy or preorder.
So…what am I doing when I’m not blogging? Plenty! The final manuscript of Face in the Mirror (Prometheus Books, September 2009) was turned in several weeks ago. This is my third anthology, so you’d think I’d be accustomed to the process. The first one, The Other Woman: Twenty-one Wives, Lovers, and Others Talk Openly About Sex, Deception, Love, and Betrayal, was my entrĂ©e not only into the world of anthologies, but also the challenge of editing some of the most gifted authors writing today. With the endless encouragement of a dear friend and one of those gifted authors, Caroline Leavitt, I was able to push aside my insecurities (okay, so I needed a earthmover, I admit it) and get to work. The book was launched in June 2007 on the Today Show. Somehow, I suddenly became the go-to woman for television programs on infidelity! I also admit that the book’s reviews were excellent, although one reviewer wrote that I had been the mistress of a married man. When I emailed and explained that this was not true, she was apologetic and gave me two choices: pull the review, which was appearing in papers all over the country (on the AP), or let it run with the error. Now listen, I may be proud of my ethics, but I’m not stupid―that was the day I chose book sales over personal pride. But the real story behind this article is how my mother and adult children responded. Of course, I contacted them at once to warn them about their almost-living-in-religious-seclusion mother who was about to be maligned coast to coast. Here are their responses:
My mother: You were always a Goody Two-Shoes, you’ve got it coming.
My daughter: Aren’t you always saying that a bad review is better than no review? (The book earned great reviews…so she must have been talking about my morals.)
My son: Let it go, Mom. Maybe it’ll help you get a date.

Now you see why I subscribe to the Rodney Dangerfield I-don’t-get-no-respect school of thinking.

I’m not sure why, but I always put myself through hell after sending a book off to the publisher. Will they love it? Will the manuscript come back with biting comments that point out my utter incompetence? The second anthology, For Keeps: Women Tell the Truth About Their Bodies, Growing Older, and Acceptance, was definitely a labor of love. And while my essay in The Other Woman was difficult to write, this one was pure hell. (One of the great things about writing fiction is that the writer can create distance between self and the characters. But in a personal essay, this just isn’t possible. Wait, I take that back: it is possible, but not if the writing is honest and the writer is willing to dig way down for the words that speak the truth.)

New Books

I’d like to tell you about two new books, one coming out late April, the other recently published.

Do you know that experience of reading a novel and the wording, the phrasing, everything hits you just right? That’s what happens when I read Lynn Freed. I’ve recommended her book of short stories, The Curse of the Appropriate Man, to many readers and have never heard a disappointed word. I haven’t read her new novel, The Servants’ Quarters, due out April 27th, but it’s preordered. (You can click on the title and preorder from Kepler’s.) Here’s what’s posted on their website:
Haunted by phantoms of the Second World War and the Holocaust, young Cressida lives in terror of George Harding, who, severely disfigured, has returned from the front to recover in his family's stately African home. When he plucks young Cressida's beautiful mother and her family from financial ruin, establishing them in the old servants' quarters of his estate, Cressida is swept into a future inexorably bound to his. In the new setting, she finds that she is, after all, indentured. She is conscripted to enliven George Harding's nephew, the hopelessly timid Edgar, to make him "wild and daring." And she takes on this task with resentful fury, leading the boy astray and, in the process, learning to manipulate differences in power, class, background, and ambition. Only slowly does she come to understand that George Harding himself is watching her. And waiting.

The second novel I’m introducing today comes from 26 year-old Lucy Silag. It’s her first novel, Beautiful Americans, and it’s in the Young Adult section. Again, from Kepler’s:

"Pretty Little Liars" meets "My So-Called Life" in this story of four American teens in Paris and the scandals that haunt each of them. There is the rich New York girl Alex; Cali-born dancer Olivia; closeted Memphis boy Zack; and finally PJ, an elusive beauty from Vermont who is hiding a dark past. Studying abroad for their junior year of high school, they run wild in the Tuileries, hold clandestine parties in their host families’ luxe apartments, take over tiny crowded cafes and generally live the glamorous life. But in the end they all must face the lies they have told and the secrets they have kept when the unthinkable happens.

Lucy will be visiting the blog, so feel free to post questions for her. I met her last week, enjoyed her reading (she gives great prizes!), and she’s a voice we’ll be hearing for a long time.

So, that’s all for today…I’ll post a new message tomorrow. And if this techno-idiot can’t figure out how to post, I’ll holler for the KBG (Kepler’s Blog Guru).

Saturday, March 14, 2009

AT HOME IN CHEEVER COUNTRY




On Wednesday, March 18th, 2009 at 7:30 p.m. Kepler's Books is very pleased to welcome biographer BLAKE BAILEY for a discussion of his extraordinary new study, Cheever: A Life

Blake Bailey is the editor of a two-volume edition of Cheever’s work, published this year by the Library of America.

His last biography, A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates , was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Mr. Bailey has received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2005, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Slate, the New York Times, the New York Observer, and elsewhere. He lives in Virginia with his wife and daughter.

Here is a starred review by T.C. Boyle, the author of recently published novel The Women:

"The most exquisite, compelling and heartbreaking life I've yet encountered. BLAKE BAILEY doesn't merely write like an angel, he is an angel–he seamlessly resuscitates the past to make it live and breathe in the present, and he writes with all the power and authority of our finest novelists."


SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT:


Victoria Zackheim, the editor of two anthologies, The Other Woman: Twenty-One Wives, Lovers, and Others Talk Openly about Sex, Deception, Love, and Betrayal and For Keeps: Women Tell the Truth about Their Bodies, Growing Older, and Acceptance , will be the guest blogger on Well-Read Donkey all of next week, March 15-22.

Victoria will be posting about writing and writers, plus highlighting exciting books being published now and through the end of the year, including the September release of her new book, Face in the Mirror: Writers Reflect on Their Dreams of Youth and the Reality of Age.

So drop in to join the conversation or in Victoria's words, "Just come by, say hello, and keep me company...it can get mighty lonely in that blog room!"

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Characters, Give Me Characters

Here's my question for my fellow writers: How do you create characters that pop?

You know, those compelling characters in a novel or story that you love and never want to leave. What are your writing techniques that draw your readers to your characters?

Aggie in her recent post wrote about the psychological landscape of a character, and asked how a writer portrays that inner landscape. My question: is that always necessary? Can you create compelling characters without this complex mental state?

This is the aspect of writing that I struggle with the most: characters, bringing them alive on the page, pulling the reader into their world. On the other hand, I find writing descriptions the easy part of the craft. I love putting beautiful words on the page, using the senses, creating images.

The rock rose high off the plains like a Hawaiian wave he ached to surf, ribbons of red coursing its grainy texture. He felt the pull of the rock, anxious to begin. Let’s go, Jeremy’s voice whispered.

Tim ran the palm of his hand along the sandpaper surface. Placing the toe of his shoe in a small indentation, barely more than a pockmark on an acned face, he started to climb. He felt like an infant navigating a grand staircase. The sun beat at this back. Warm beads of sweat trickled under his t-shirt. His flexed muscles kept him pinned to the cliff’s face. He reached the top, a landing heading off to nowhere, and looked back across the horizon, his blue pickup little more than an oddly-placed pixel in a picture against the red and beige background.

That's the start of a short-short I wrote called "The Grand Staircase." I took up fiction writing nearly three years ago as a way to use my creativity, to create balance in my life, and because I love books and literature.

Sherman Alexie's "The Toughest Indian in the World" is one of the best short stories I've read; I thought about it for two weeks after reading it the first time. John Steinbeck is among my favorite authors; East of Eden and "The Red Pony" two of my particular favorites. Willa Cather (Death Comes for the Archbishop), Charles Dickens (Great Expectations), Shakespeare (the complete works).

But I have to say my favorite book of all times is Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. I've read it cover-to-cover three times, and pieces of it five times. Of course it comes back to the characters. I love them all: Nannie, the old curmudgeon Garnett, Deanna, Eddie Bondo, Lusa. They feel like old friends. I'm always sad to say goodbye to them when I turn the last page. But beyond the characters, I marvel at the construction of the novel - three parallel yet intertwined stories told during the same summer - and the message that all life is interconnected. Most of all, I love the lush, sensuous, lyrical writing. The wonderful descriptions. The way it reads like a song.

I majored in English as an undergraduate at Stanford. After a brief stint as a technical editor, I found my way to software, going back to graduate school for a masters in computer engineering along the way.

These days, on any given work day, I can be found telling people what to do. Technically, it is not really telling. My upbringing by an ex-Air Force officer father of German descent put me off the direct approach to task masterdom. My approach is more suggestive – a Socratic method to project management. "Has the requirements document been released?" "Will design finish this week?" Team members unlucky enough to have their tasks hit the critical path are likely to hear the three dreaded words, "I am concerned."

When not keeping projects on track, I write short stories and give my time away to women's organizations pushing the equality envelope. I have dreams of publishing a book of stories, and working on a Presidential candidate's campaign. Until dreams come true, I can be seen power-walking my Palo Alto neighborhood, usually headed to the nearest Peet's for a sinfully delicious chai latte. Or hanging out at Kepler's, the best bookstore in the world.

KEPLER'S WRITER'S GROUP MARCH 28, 2009 MEETING


Dear Writers,

Kepler's Writing Group March meeting will take place on Saturday, March 28, 2009 from 3:00-5:30 p.m. at our new location, one block from Kepler's. Please email me at aggie@keplers.com to confirm your attendance and I'll forward you the address and the manuscripts as they become available (one week before the meeting at the latest).

The following writers’ manuscripts are up for the discussion in March: Jeanne Althouse, Mary Jean Place and Mary Stahl.

SPECIAL NOTE: Well-Read Donkey will be featuring profiles of Kepler's Writing group members. Look for Bobbie Riedel's profile in March! Don't forget to subscribe to get regular updates.

Twelve writers attended our February meeting. Here are Todd Pierce thoughts on it:

I attended Kepler's writing group for the first time last Saturday. As an amateur writer I was most impressed with the sense of trust and openness that group members had for each other. I have participated in a number of writing workshops at the university and found their environments rather intense because students often compete with one another for approval and recognition.

In contrast, I only experienced a supportive atmosphere with the Kepler's writing group where participants were fairly honest with their responses to each others' work while generating new insights for writers. This aspect should be the main objective for any writing group: to provide alternative perspectives so that writers can both discover their own blind spots and reevaluate their work in a much more enriching way.

I would like to extend special thanks to Diane Harrington for providing comfortable accommodations for the workshop last Saturday. Her office provided the quiet privacy that is conducive for writing groups.

Happy reading and writing to all from,
Aggie

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

NOTES ON PSYCHOLOGICAL LANDSCAPE

Some time ago, I bought the black and white postcard of the World War I soldier at an Antiques Show & Sale. The caption underneath the photo reads: A church seen through a hole made by a shell in a window of the castle. The soldier's photo was taken in Tilloloy (Somme), which is a village in the French province of Picardie (Picardy). The castle in question was destroyed by Germans in 1914 and rebuilt after the war. 


The soldier stands with his back leaning against the crumbled wall. Next to him is a shelled-in window through which one sees a church with damaged towers. Soldier's left leg is straight; his right raised, his knee slightly bent, his foot resting on the wall. His posture seems to me somewhat daring, indicating perhaps his defiant spirit. The soldier is looking at the camera, squinting as if blinded by the sunlight. I think that his expression is bold and flirtatious at the same time. I see the soldier's life-size shadow on his right and the enormous shadows of the destroyed castle walls looming above. Considering the length of the soldier's shadow, I would guess that the photo was taken in the early morning. The trees are bare in the background, so it could be the winter, but I imagine it's the beginning of the first spring after the war.
 
Shortly after I acquired this postcard, I took a book art class and used the soldier's photo to make the front page for my art book, incorporating with it three Yugoslav stamps from a letter sent in 1992 by my mother - just days before the war in Sarajevo. 



Why was I so taken by this photograph of a mustached soldier? At first, this image haunted me because that's exactly how I imagine my characters looking out at the world, from this place in ruins, with this sense of lost majesty. The soldier's postcard captures not only the single moment or day of the solder's life, but his past, present, and even future. Marcel Proust writes of "the inseparableness of us from the past" - in other words that our past is always present.

Similarly, Eudora Welty writes in her essay "Eye of the Story":
"Katherine Ann Porter shows us that we do not have to see a story happen to know what is taking place. For all we are to know, she is not looking at it happen herself when she writes it; for her eyes are always looking through the gauze of the passing scene, not distracted by the immediate and transitory; her vision is reflective.

Her imagery is as likely as not to belong to a time other than the story's present, and beyond that it always differs from it in nature; it is memory imagery, coming into the story from memory's remove. It is distilled, a re-formed imagery, for it is part of a language made to speak directly of premonition, warning, surmise, anger, despair."

"There is no such a thing as was," Faulkner remarked in answer to a student's question as why he wrote long sentences. "To me, no man is himself, he is the sum of his past. There is no such a thing really as was, because the past is...And so a man, a character in a story at any moment in action, is not just himself as he is then, he is all that made him; and the long sentence," he adds, "is an attempt to get his past and possibly his future into the instant in which he does something..."
In fiction, what precedes the story is equally important to the present story. Correspondingly, another thing that called my attention to the soldier's postcard is the image of the shelled-in window in the background. This window looks at the landscape outside, but also, as in fiction, it looks inward into the psychological landscape of the soldier, or the character. It is as if we are looking into two landscapes mirroring each other - the solder's place in the world and the state of his mind or his psychological landscape.

The questions I ask myself are: What is the definition of the psychological landscape? How do we glimpse into the psychological landscape of others? How does a writer portray the psychological landscape of the characters? How does a reader glimpse into the psychological landscape of the characters? How it is possible that this image of a single moment in the soldier's life captures the soldier's complex mental state or his frame of mind?

What are your thoughts on this? Your comments?