Thursday, March 16, 2023

Blog 44 Wee Geordie

 When I was a young boy, I tended to see myself as puny, wished I was larger, stronger, more capable of standing up to the bullying world I inhabited. In retrospect, I wasn’t as diminutive as I imagined, but, correctly or incorrectly, our brains tell us what our eyes see and the malformations of self-perception loom.

In the midst of those formative years, I saw a movie, Wee Geordie, about an undersized Scottish lad who built himself into a behemoth through years of diligent exercise. Geordie went on to win an Olympic gold medal in the hammer throw. The movie, a thunderbolt to my heart, touched my uneasy sensibilities. I loved it. From my late teens through my thirties, I worked dedicatedly to building strength. To this day, at eighty, my exercise regimen includes resistance training.

For reasons unclear to me at the moment, I recently thought of the movie, recalling the joy it brought me at a time of self-doubt, found myself wondering if it was based on a book. It was. A brief online search revealed Geordie, a novel, was written in 1950 by a Scottish writer, David Walker. I knew I wanted to read it. More research revealed several copies were available through Biblio, a British seller of antiquated books. With the help of my considerably more computer savvy son, a copy was procured at a reasonable price. The first edition copy arrived in far better condition than I’d anticipated by Biblio’s description, down to an intact original dust jacket.

All that aside, I read the story (192 pages) in two days, the book even more enjoyable, more moving than my memory of the movie. More than the unidimensional, triumph-of-might tale I recalled, Geordie was (is) an almost magical love story, the love propelled and enabled by Geordie remaining true to himself despite worldly temptation.

Sound like a fairy tale? In some ways it came close. Today, it would probably be viewed as a YA novel, although I would demur in that categorization. I found the author’s deceptively simple writing almost poetically beautiful, his control of the story he wrote masterful.

            The wonder of books! How lucky I am!

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Watch Your Vocabulary


Blog 43

I received an unexpected letter earlier today. It was from a former colleague I haven’t seen in forty-five years though we have remained in touch – exchanged cards at Christmas, the decreasingly occasional letter, kept up with extended family developments. Apparently, Sandy had purchased and read my latest publication, the story collection, Uplift: Sunrise Stories. The thrust of her letter was to share the impact of the stories.

Her subsequent critique was sobering, leading me to reflect upon my writing, never a bad idea. As a young writer, feedback – especially unrequested – left me nervous, ill-at-ease, likely defensive and possibly even prickly. This time, I leaned into it, able to digest her feedback with minimal anxiety. An advantage of age? Maybe. Overall, her impressions were positive as she indicated how several of the stories had affected her. Knowing her, I was unsurprised at the stories she was most comfortable with.

What struck me most was the difficulty she reported with my vocabulary. This startled me. As an incipient writer fifty years ago (likely more than), I had a tendency to deaden my creative efforts with turgid vocab. My initial effort at a novel was so over-weighted, so swollen, so wordy, as to be unreadable. It has remained (and will remain) unpublished. Gradually, with dedicated effort, I’d worked assiduously to sand away the weighty words for the sake of the reader’s reading rhythm. Anything that interferes with reading comfort has the potential to flatten a story. Remove the pleasure of reading a story and you are left with what? I thought I’d put that tempo-destructive problem behind me.

It is my belief that chosen language must always be appropriate to the type or genre of writing and the reading audience. Without language sensitivity appropriate to the expectations of one’s readers, exactly who is the writer writing for? At essence, language is what it is all about, the tool for effective communication. And who decides what is appropriate? The reader. The reader decides. Sandy decided.

I plan to write Sandy, to thank her not only for purchasing my book, but for her generous feedback. I will be more closely examining my most recent efforts under the lens of her experience. I also plan to check with a few fellow writers as well as other readers to see how Sandy’s experience compares.

Uplift on Amazon

Monday, January 16, 2023

Review of The Rabbit Hutch


Blog 42

Though I still read novels to be educated, at this point in my life, the tilt is toward the element of entertainment. I want, above all, to enjoy the story I’m reading. With that in mind, though I still read literary novels (a personal requirement), I have less patience if the one I’m reading turns into a slog.

I recently completed Tess Gunty’s The Rabbit Hutch, a highly regarded 2022 release. Set in and around an apartment building in a moribund, rust belt Indiana town, time and circumstances (among them, loss of a single industry) have left the town and its occupants behind, adrift and forgotten. The dislocation of the younger adults without educations through which to advance, but still needing to find a path to a life of purpose, now idling, amusing themselves with terraced cruelty stands in contrast to the aloneness (more than loneliness) of the older adults with their peculiarities and proclivities that could slip into madness.

Through it all is Blandine, a preternaturally intelligent, seventeen-year-old, knowledgeable beyond her years, beyond the other characters, yet damaged by institutional failure, i.e. a foster care child now aged out of the system. Her planned escape from her body (from life?) culminates in insulting to rage a shy, emotionally underdeveloped boy to try to kill her – suicide by inviting murder. That she survives offers a (tiny) glimmer of hope.

My sense is that the author is sympathetic toward the plight of these characters abandoned by society and circumstance, to the waste of lost potential and what can befall individuals not part of or connected to a system, toward those institutionally failed, left to disconnected lives of loneliness without clear purpose or a sense of options, particularly the young, thrust into the world unprepared for independence and without support.

I came to this book, as I do all fiction, hopeful for a story that would filter in and linger like the aroma of warm bread. Rather, I closed the book upon completion, thinking, “What was that?” Rather than the lift of just-baked bread, a weight sat upon me like regret.

Perhaps (probably) the problem (fault, failure), if that’s what it is, lies with me. I may lack the analytic skill to appreciate, more fully, the author’s intent. In the end, I did not find myself identifying with or, more importantly, pulling for any of the characters, not even Blandine. But then, maybe that was, at least in part, Gunty’s point – not enough of us do root for the dispossessed, manifesting concern about vitalizing (or revitalizing) their lives.           

If you happen to read The Rabbit Hutch, and respond differently, please guide me to what I missed.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Blog 41 In Between Projects


Currently, I’m in-between projects following the release of my first published story collection, Uplift: Sunrise Stories. I’ve heard the expression “between projects” often. Taken out of context, it might sound a bit stuffy. Might it suggest, however, a fallow period, a time of rest or something else, some time away from writing, perhaps? But what does the term mean to me?

The closest I can come to something definitive is that I’m weighing a decision regarding ideas for a new direction and not suspended between project ideas. The former hang from my brain like ever-dripping stalactites. A mind in motion, always. Gift or curse? Depends upon the day.

As I have in the past when I’m “between projects,” I pursue two parallel tracks on an almost daily basis. The first, I view as an opportunity. I review, re-edit and update unpublished work. One might compare it to an athlete, which I once was, practicing between competitions to retain a conditioned ability. Viewed this way, it could suggest that writing, at least some aspect of writing, is an everyday activity and not just one that arrives in inspirational bursts. Whatever one might think, this is the way it is for me.

The second track is less definable, more nebulous, but, for me, just as important. I try to remain ever alert to possibility when it serendipitously offers itself. The catalysis of an idea lies all around, always, the world speaking to us in myriad ways. It might blast forward in a roar (war crimes in Ukraine) or it might shudder forth in a whisper (the wine-tinged revelation of a slightly inebriated person at a Christmas party). But it’s there, in the news, in my city or neighborhood, in something someone says, an expression (original or trite), in a single word somehow housed in an otherwise forgettable context, in a gesture (essential or familiar, or both simultaneously), in a sensory experience triggered by art whether a painting, a song or a satisfying book. When it comes, and it will, I seek to get it, to get something, on paper ASAP.

How do you manage the in-between?

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Politics in Reading and Writing


Blog 40

When it comes to politics, does contemporary fiction tend to eschew it, embrace it or land somewhere in-between? Judging from a limited (but growing) sample over the past few years, I’d say somewhere in-between. Now I’m not referring to a work whose sole purpose is to propound a political position. I’m sure they’re out there; I just avoid them, if possible.

My requirement to keep reading when I encounter a political element in fiction is that it remains necessary to understanding a character. Beyond that, I may close the book, wondering how it slipped under my radar. I’m exposed (over-exposed?) to enough politics via non-fiction books, newspapers, online information, etc.

What I’ve encountered in contemporary novels is a recent tendency for a character to express dismay over his or her perception of a negative impact of Donald Trump, whether it’s upon their psyche and personal outlook or their current sense of the state of the country. (Have I encountered an opposed position? I have not. I suspect at some point, I will.) What I’m discovering may say as much about what I choose to read as anything else. At the same time, it must be said that when I select a book, I have no way of knowing how the characters will develop or what views they may hold. After all, I’m choosing to read fiction with all the unknowns and surprises it can (and almost always does) offer. My sense is that fiction writers, human beings above all, are not impervious to a political zeitgeist, that the latter can infiltrate their thinking and emotions, no matter their intent in writing a story. Again, if the political stance is central to a character, no problem. If it’s a polemic, case (or rather, book) closed.


Last week, I finished Marrying the Ketchups (Jennifer Close), a novel about a Chicago family, disparate in personalities, but centripetally held together by the family restaurant, their love of the Chicago Cubs, and perhaps most of all, a sense of family and its importance in their lives. Powerfully from my perspective, I found myself drawn to and ultimately rooting for the characters, always a good sign for a reader. For me, Ms. Close, through her story, offered what I consider to be a quality nonpareil in leaving a reader satisfied – hope.

Strongly recommend.


Thursday, October 27, 2022

Blog 39 Reading and Writing


There are two topics I’d like to examine from this observer / participant in a reading / writing life: 1) what a writer reads during a writing project and 2) what a writer focuses on during the interlude between writing projects. Not infrequently, these are two questions asked in interviews with authors. And not surprisingly, I’ve found great variation in the answers offered. 

In considering the first query, to my knowledge, my reading selectivity doesn’t vary during or between writing projects. I’m a reader by nature, a reader who reads always. I often have two books at hand, most often a work of fiction balanced by a nonfiction work, the latter preferably narrative in structure.

During a writing project, the only alteration in my reading, by addition, is the readiness to pursue research at almost any moment. If an awareness of a need to pursue research crops up I’ll temporarily suspend the writing until I’m reasonably assured I’ve grasped a subject, especially if it is to be incorporated into a story, even if it is a single line. I like to know things, always have – knowledge for knowledge’s sake. But in addition, there is always a reader with a bent for exactitude somewhere ready to pounce on an avoidable error.

Example: I’d never heard of the animal sedative, xylazine, in the news recently. Apparently opioid / opiate addicts have begun to incorporate it into their endless search for chemical nirvana along with heroin and, more dangerously, fentanyl. An hour’s investment in an internet self-education session followed to heighten my knowledge.

As for the second query, the interlude between my writing projects, it tends to be brief. I’ve read of authors taking months or even years between major publications, for a myriad of reasons, but that just hasn’t turned out to be my way. Thus far, in my very humble writerly life, at a moment of publication, I usually have another major project roughly entered into the computer. (Not a recommendation, again it is just my tendency.) That said, the long journey of editing, for me a satisfying journey, always beckons. So, it is rapidly back at it after a quiet celebration of accomplishment.

And, of course, the reading, pleasurable and germinative, never stops.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Blog 38 Reading Choices


I’d like to return to a theme of a previous blog in which I examined reading choices, book readiness, as a factor of the age of the reader. While I cannot, at eighty, ignore the impact of age in selecting a book, that is not my purpose in traveling this path once more. My thinking is more upon the appeal of a book as a function of what a reader is seeking at a given moment across the span of their lifetime.

Once more, I recall Isaac Bashevis Singer’s dictum that fiction is to educate and entertain. In my twenties and thirties, I read a ton of what is still considered classic literature. As I recall, I was seeking an education, rather than entertainment, in reading “great” works. I was going on faith. In retrospect, it’s good that I wasn’t seeking entertainment for I rarely found it. As for the education I sought in literature, did I find it? I don’t know. I do know much of the reading was a slog.

Though I still reach to further educate myself through reading, to challenge my knowledge base, I seek it primarily through non-fiction. The authors state their intentions and hopefully live up to them.

In fiction, the weight now in reading selection is more upon enjoyment, that book I cannot put down. If the author’s intention is to explore a topic within a fictional plot, the message must arrive in a satisfying story. I’ve been disappointed too many times by a critically heralded novel in which the joy I seek is muted by a message.

All that said, I still believe fiction offers something nonfiction cannot deliver as well. Nonfiction most always produces what it promises, as it should, establishing parameters and then, hopefully living up to them. Unpinned by declared parameters from the outset, fiction gives freedom to imagine. When the imagination is set free to take flight in a good story -- reading nirvana.

            Most recently, I unexpectedly experienced this in Robert Galbraith’s (JK Rowling) 927-page Troubled Blood. I was stunned at the enormity of her talent, beyond Dickensian, to weave a tapestry of fully developed characters into an involute plot that led to a long, satisfying reading journey. In the end, for me, it was the story, always the story. Which way do the scales tip for you?

Blog 44 Wee Geordie

  When I was a young boy, I tended to see myself as puny, wished I was larger, stronger, more capable of standing up to the bullying world I...