Death… and Life

It doesn’t seem like it should be so hard to write a brief review of every book I read or movie I watch, but somehow it has been. My latest thought is to write a post whenever I have read/watched three items that are related in some kind of way. Today’s post is on death… and life.

Last week I read The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, by Alan Bradley, the second in the continuing series of Flavia de Luce mysteries (the first being The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie). Flavia is an 11-year-old amateur chemist/sleuth, with a predilection for poison. Death and murder figure prominently in this tale, at times a bit ghoulishly, but this is hardly intended to be a philosophical treatise on death. Rather, it is a clever whodunit, set in a small English village in 1950, and the strength of the story for me was in the characters, not the mystery. I’m looking forward to the next book in this series, scheduled to be released in February 2011.

After waiting about two months for it, I finally received my hold copy of Departures from our local library. I was a bit hesitant to watch it, not sure quite what to expect. I knew only that it was a Japanese movie about death. I always try to avoid reading Amazon reviews before I watch a movie, since so many reviewers feel compelled to do a book report type review, giving away the entire plot, and so I don’t want to give spoilers for the movie. I’ll only say that the main character is an “encoffiner”, one who prepares bodies for burial, and this movie was a beautiful and moving affirmation of life.

Completing the trio is the novel Hello Goodbye, by Emily Chenoweth, a Portland author who will be appearing at Wordstock this fall. In fact, it was from the Wordstock Facebook page that I learned about this novel. I have to admit that if I was hesitant about watching Departures, I was even more so about reading this novel, as it is about a teenage girl losing her mother to a brain tumor. It hit a bit too close to home, having lost both my parents to cancer two years again, and I wondered why I would want to re-live the pain of my loss.

In the end, it was an Oregonian article that made me decide I had to read this novel, when I discovered that the story was based on Chenoweth’s own life, and the novel had almost been marketed as memoir instead of fiction. I am a big proponent of “honoring by listening” and although the story was obviously sad, it was also life-affirming. I found it very powerful and moving, and extremely well written. Interestingly, the handful of reviews on Amazon are split. Those who lived through a cancer experience found it very realistic and moving, the rest thought it was unrealistic or boring. One reviewer even complained that nothing ever happened. Nothing happened? Hmm. Dealing with the impending loss of a loved one sure seems like something to me.

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Author Robin Oliveira at Powell’s

This recap is cross posted on Reading Local: Portland.

Event Recap: Robin Oliveira, “My Name is Mary Sutter” Author, Speaks at Powell’s Burnside Last Night

By: Cara Holman

[ My Name is Mary Sutter | Robin Oliveira | Viking | $26.95 ]

Friday night, Robin Oliveira spoke to a full room at Powell’s Burnside about her recently released debut novel, My Name is Mary Sutter. She described her novel as a family saga containing multiple love stories, including several love triangles, a story of the birth of modern medicine as a result of the Civil War, but most of all, the story of 20 year old Mary Sutter, “a preternaturally talented midwife”, who upon watching her father die a terrible death (before the story begins), decides she wants to become a doctor.

In real life, the first woman to be admitted to medical school was Elizabeth Blackwell, who in 1849 received a medical degree from Geneva Medical College in New York. But she was the exception, and at the time fictional character Mary Sutter was looking for a medical school, the choices open to women were slim. Oliveira described the state of medical knowledge before the Civil War. There were no nursing schools in America, physicians graduating from medical school often had never operated on a live patient, there were no IVs, no antibiotics, and the germ theory of Lister was still several years off.

Further, the development of the Minie ball for ammunition, which was deadlier than the musket ball, led to more serious injuries. Due to unsanitary field conditions and physicians not washing their hands between patients, twice as many soldiers in the Civil War died of disease as of battle wounds. Oliveira, a nurse from Seattle, traveled back to the east coast while she was writing this novel, to examine rare documents in the Library of Congress, regarding medical conditions of the day, as well as visiting Civil War sites including Gettysburg, to keep the novel factually accurate.

After reading from her novel, Oliveira then took questions from the audience. We learned that due to the Civil War, the state of medicine progressed much faster than it likely would have otherwise. When asked how long this novel took to research and write, Oliveira responded that she began the novel in 2002, but actually began teaching herself how to write 20 years ago, when her son (who was in the audience) was born. She attended the Vermont College of Fine Arts, receiving her MFA in 2006, and at that point, began rewriting her novel in earnest.

Oliveira said she had no idea until late in the writing process how things were going to end up, and that she had to “live with her characters for a long time” before making those decisions. When asked, she said she did not let her family read the book until she was finished writing it, so that they would not give her advice over the dinner table. She is working on a second historical fiction novel currently, saying only that the new subject matter is daunting, and will require a lot of research before she is ready to write it.

Women Reinvented

I just got my contributor’s copy yesterday of Women Reinvented: True Stories of Empowerment and Change. This is a project I was very happy to be a part of. The book is published by LaChance Publishing, and proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to The Healing Project, a not-for-profit organization created to support those with chronic and life-threatening illnesses.

Women Reinvented is the 9th book in the “Voices of” series. Other titles in the series deal with alcoholism, Alzheimer’s, autism, bipolar disorder, caregiving, breast cancer, lung cancer, and multiple sclerosis– tough topics dealt with honestly. Having read stories from several volumes in the series, including Women Reinvented, I can heartily recommend the series for anyone who is dealing with one of these issues, has a friend or loved one dealing with any of these issues, or who just wants to be more educated on these topics.

Thirty-one women, including myself,  contributed their stories to Women Reinvented. My story, The Best of All Worlds, deals with career decisions I was faced with, after becoming a mother for the first time. Other stories deal with the aftermath of being raped, starting again after a divorce, career changes, illness and recovery, and… well, anything having to do with reinvention!The book is divided into four sections: “Reclaiming Myself”, “Finding My Calling”, “Of Marriage and Motherhood”,  and “My Spirit Renewed”. I look forward to reading all of the stories, and I hope you will too!

Powell’s in the Rain

What to do on a rainy Sunday in Portland? Well, if it happens to be your anniversary, and it is, feed the meters, then lunch with your husband at your favorite restaurant in the Pearl, followed by browsing the shelves of Powell’s. With all those books beckoning, how could I possibly leave empty handed? I held it down to a mere 4 books this time:

Reading, Writing, and Leaving Home: Life on the Page, by Lynn Freed http://bit.ly/9lehto
–I read this once several years ago, before I started publishing essays and stories of my own, now I’m ready to re-read it. I remember it making me stop and think, as well as being entertainingly written.

Haiku Mind: 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness & Open Your Heart, by Patrician Donegan http://bit.ly/91hAv1
What particularly appealed to me about this book was that with each haiku is included a paragraph on its background, as well as a brief bio of the writer of the haiku.

Chicken Soup for the Writer’s Soul, by Canfield, Hansen and Gardner http://bit.ly/9Dp6F8
—  I am always interested in what influences people to become writers. I know I followed a circuitous enough path! This volume includes stories by ordinary writers, like myself, as well as many much more well-known, such as Ray Bradbury and George Plimpton.

and last, but not least:

Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists, By James Geary http://bit.ly/9tE1cu
I’ve always loved aphorisms, those short and pithy little sound bites that make you stop and think. My favorite aphorist has got to be Oscar Wilde, and I was happy to see he’s included in this book. I discovered a great little interview with author James Geary about this book on NPR: http://bit.ly/d5Cjgv

Book Review: Novel Shortcuts

Review of Novel Shortcuts: Ten Techniques That Ensure A Great First Draft, by Laura Whitcomb:

I heard Laura speak last month as one of the featured authors in the Northwest Author Series. I enjoyed her talk, so that lead me to read Novel Shortcuts: Ten Techniques That Ensure A Great First Draft, the book upon which the workshop was based.

I should say at the outset, that I have no novel writing aspirations for the near future. I am strictly a short story (and poetry!) writer at this point in my life, so some of what this book covers was not as relevant to me as it would be to its targeted audience, which as near as I can tell is fiction novelists actively working on drafts of their novel.

That being said, there were many helpful tidbits of information that I was able to glean from this book and apply to my own writing. Chapter One: Finding the Core of Your Novel covers discovering the heart of your story, and factors to consider in choosing the main character, setting, and story problem for your novel.

Chapter Two: Deciding How to Tell Your Story presents some of the mechanics of telling a story, including voice, tone, storytelling devices, and point of view. This was all equally applicable to the short story. Chapter Five: Balancing Scene, Summary, and Reflection has a good discussion of how to control the pace of a story through the judicious use of summary and reflection to tie action scenes together. Chapter Seven: Stealing Tricks From the Best corroborated my belief that the best way to learn about the craft of writing is to line up books by your favorite authors, and read, read, read.

The only section of the book I found somewhat troubling was Chapter Ten: Goals and Miracles, which seemed to imply that the end goal of writing a novel is to become rich and famous. Considering how few authors will ever make it to that elite status, I would say by all means write as if you will be picked up by a big-named publisher some day if it makes you feel good, but if your primary motivation isn’t the joy of the writing process itself, you’d be well advised to just hang on to that day job!

Books on Writing

I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction books on the craft of writing lately. Some are more on the inspirational side, while others take you through the nuts and bolts of creating scenes, writing believable dialogue, point of view (POV), pacing and characterization.

Here are some of my favorites that I’ve read over the past year, from most recently read, going backwards in time:

1. Novel Shortcuts: Ten Techniques That Ensure A Great First Draft, by Laura Whitcomb
2. Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, by Judith Barrington
3. Writer Mama: How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids, by Christina Katz
4. Half Past Perfect: Writing Simple, Personal Stories to “Re-Story” Your Life, by Barbara Allen Burke & Elizabeth Taylor
5. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott
6. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, by Natalie Goldberg
7. Reading, Writing, and Leaving Home: Life on the Page, by Lynn Freed