Monday, April 26, 2010

There's Nothing You Can't Do

The other day, a song on the radio inspired me. I wrote about it here.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Caspian Rain

I just read one of those books. You know the kind—one that stays with you and inspires you to read many lines more than once, just to savor the prose. One that forces you to question your writing ability. It’s Gina B. Nahai’s Caspian Rain, a novel which will haunt me forever.

From her Web site:
A young Iranian Jewish girl, faced with her own impending deafness, must also struggle to prevent the breakup of her family.
In the decade before the Islamic Revolution, Iran is a country at the brink of explosion. Twelve-year-old Yaas is born into an already divided family: Her father is the son of wealthy Iranian Jews who are integrated into the country’s upper-class, mostly Muslim, elite; her mother was raised in the slums of South Tehran, one street away from the old Jewish ghetto.
Yaas spends her childhood navigating the many layers of Iranian society. Her task, already difficult, becomes all the more critical when her father falls in love with a beautiful woman from a noble Muslim family. As her parents’ marriage begins to crumble and the country moves ever closer to revolution, Yaas is plagued by a terrifying genetic illness that is slowly robbing her of her hearing. Facing the prospect of complete deafness, Yaas learns that her father is about to abandon her and her mother, and so she undertakes a desperate, last-ditch effort to save herself and her family.

Chitra Divakaruni, author of Mistress of Spices and one of my other favorites, Sister of My Heart, has this to say:

“Gina Nahai’s beautifully written novel Caspian Rain is evocative and poetic, with striking images that remain in the mind long after they are read. It is also a heart-wrenching examination of the tragedies of women caught in the net of gender, history, family secrets and the unbending laws of high society. But ultimately it is a celebration of the human spirit — the moments of joy and courage and risk-taking that make all our lives worth living.”

Caspian Rain is filled with many brilliant, memorable lines, but the following words capture both Yaas’ desolate situation and her fierce spirit.

"It is true that I have tiny bones—thin ankles and wrists, a face and body that look more like a pencil sketch of a child than a complete picture—but I’m a girl, and this alone makes me indestructible: every woman I know, even the ones who refer to themselves as 'thinking people,' which means they understand more than most women but not as much as men, believes that girls are like weeds; they grow anywhere, survive any illness and misfortune, even if you don’t want them to."

“It’s strange, how a person carries around the shadow of those that matter most to her. You can always see it—that presence, or its absence—in the eyes, in the movements of the hands, in a person’s laugh. You can see it—if an old woman had a father who loved her when she was a child; if a middle-aged man lost his first love; if a teenage girl has a best friend she knows she can run to. You see it in the way people move and speak, in the subjects they choose and the things they avoid, in the way they appear solid or hollow, certain or plagued with doubt.”

I've often thought I'd one day go for an MFA in Creative Writing. Maybe even at USC where I can learn from Ms. Nahai. Meantime, I'll be reading her backlist of three books! No doubt I will find those equally memorable.

What novel remains in your mind?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Conquering Fear

It’s no secret I’m not exactly the outdoorsy type. In fact, I’ve admitted it here and here.

We push our kids—stretch yourself, try new things, be brave, don't be afraid of change! There are things about me I’d like to change: I’d like to be more active, to connect with old friends. I’d like to be less judgmental, more charitable with my time, less frightened about potential intruders. But one thing I never thought I’d say is this: I’d like to be more outdoorsy.

This weekend, a dear friend invited me and another friend to an outdoor adventure in the woods, where we each had our own cabin, a view of the lake, and morning caffeine delivered by the coffee fairy.

I didn’t know what to expect, even when I followed the gravel driveway deep into the private woods. Our host warmly greeted us and made me feel instantly welcome. He mentioned no electricity, and I thought it was a joke, like the jackalope head mounted on the wall of one of the cabins. But no, the candles in my room weren’t decorative, nor were the neck flashlights he issued us later in the evening, with a warning to remember their precise location when removed.

Upon our arrival, our gracious host toured us around the property in an open jeep, past fields of blue bonnets and Indian paintbrush, with tales of armadillos, pigs, coyotes, and snakes. We climbed a three-story lookout and found a vulture feather I initially thought was fake, until one of the creatures soared overhead hoping to land on one of the dirty white wood posts where he’d obviously stood before.

We hunkered down from an evening storm under a wooden canopy and ate al fresco guacamole, campfire-cooked salmon and baked potatoes. I branded a coaster with a red-hot iron as the rain played tunes on metal tubs and the cows crept ever nearer, threatening to join us under cover.

Earlier we’d chosen our cabins, the others indulging my fears by offering the “Martha Stewart” cabin, centrally located and outfitted with the cushiest of rustic accommodations. Our gracious host even offered Lexi the guard dog as protection.

Later in the dark room, with Lexi sleeping on the floorboards by the unlocked door and a cool breeze wafting through the window screens, I marveled at my lack of fear. Even at 2 a.m. when I saw a little girl appear at the top of my stairs, only to be gone a moment later, I closed my eyes and fell asleep, wondering if anyone would really believe I’d seen a ghost.

In the morning, while we ate tortilla-wrapped salmon, potatoes, and egg, I told them about my night. Our host, noticing me shivering, place a skillet with coals from the fire under my metal chair, a rustic version of heated seats, which was engineered after at a previous guest’s suggestion. If I’d been staying at Martha’s house, I wouldn’t have felt more welcome.

Earlier in the day, one of the other women chose the cabin over the garage away from the immediate cabin area. While I thought, glad it’s her and not me !, I had no idea I’d later escort her home, navigating by neck-light with the threat of killer cows and snakes at my heels.

I can’t lie and say I wasn’t frightened at all, like when I was certain a snake leered from a nearby branch over our hot tub, but I’m so thankful for the opportunity to stretch myself. In the morning I saw that the snake in the trees was really an outdoor shower head, but I’m not convinced our host wasn’t a figment of my imagination or a hospitable ghost, sent to help me conquer my fears.

(Blue bonnet picture provided by Barbara Johnson.)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Victorian London

Last Monday on What Women Write, I blogged about taking a break to research. Over the last week, I’ve pored over numerous books, including some quirky long-out-of-print titles I nabbed at Half Price Books. In searching for an 1850s map, I came across this wonderful site: offering details of the period’s housing, clothing, slang, transportation, money, you name it.

On the site, I noticed an advertisement for a book, The Diary of a Murder by Lee Jackson and a note to click to read for free. Well, why not? I felt sure I’d learn more about the period and I love a dark murder mystery, particularly a Victorian one. Mr. Jackson had published six novels and two non-fiction titles before deciding to publish this online. All he asks is that if you feel compelled, as I have now, either buy another of his books or send a payment via PayPal for the pleasure of reading his book. Fair stipulations, to be sure. Especially since I later realized the very useful site is his own creation, clearly his passion and the work of many years.

For the second time in one week, I devoured a book in one day. The first, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, was decidedly shorter. (Diary is 497 pages!) But I reminded myself that I was also researching and pushed my guilt at taking a day where I could have written on my WIP.

Mr. Jackson cleverly weaves a tale by alternating diary entries and chapters in which a murder is being investigated. He finesses the Victorian details into the story, not by dumping information as in many historicals, but by painting a vast canvas of London during the period, its smells and sounds, its divergent classes and neighborhoods. He also leaves you never quite sure if the narrator is reliable or not. The ending twist unravels perfectly, completely unexpected yet totally believable. I highly recommend you check it out.

By the way, I heard from Mr. Jackson that a small publisher plans to publish his book in the fall. Good news!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Jim McCarthy Told Me What to Read

So the other day I scrolled through my Google blog reader and opened agent Jim McCarthy’s post. Jim (of Dystel & Goderich) offered a book suggestion to those who commented with a list of their five most recent reads. Now, I know Jim is a nice guy, from my correspondence with him when he read three of my manuscripts. (So close!) So, I jumped right in.

Thanks to Elizabeth, who reads more than any of us, I have been on a mission to keep track of my reading. I’ve done this over the past few years, but I’d guess some titles never made the list—maybe they were forgettable books or maybe they truly slipped my mind. Anyway, I’ve read a lot so far this year and the last five books actually showed a good representation of my interests.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton
Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle
Shannon by Frank Delaney
Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin
Angelology by Danielle Trussoni

Jim wrote: “Taking a cue from the wonderful spookiness of two of your books, Joan, might I suggest an oldie but a goodie: Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle.”

A few days later after reading it in one night, here's what I wrote to him:
I loved it from the first page: “Everyone else in my family is dead.” And the magic continued throughout the book where she’d drop in little bombs like that... To me it felt like a mix of two of my favorites, Diane Setterfield’s Thirteenth Tale and Sarah Waters’ Little Stranger. I’m sure you’ve read them, but if not, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. (I never miss an opportunity to tell others about those two titles!)

Jim gave me a mention in his blog today which was very exciting! (Here’s the post)

I told him I’d pulled out four more of his suggested titles I’m sure I’ll enjoy and others will likely do the same. He probably didn’t count on that one post taking his whole day! I think he was still responding with recommendations long after the end of the work day. It was a big hit though. Let's hope he does it again sometime!

Jim wrote on his blog today, “For me, reading is a great individual pleasure, and there’s something exceedingly exciting about finding a novel on your own that you just tumble head over heels for. But there is something equally invigorating about finding yourself in a community of readers.” I agree!

If anyone has any recommendations, feel free to send them in. And I’ll offer a title back to you.