Wednesday, June 27, 2012

White poppies

Just a little post about non-conformists!  I grow wild California poppies in my yard (along with a number of other native plants).  And nearly every year, a plant or two produces mutants, flowers with little or no pigment, making them white or cream colored.

Kind of makes you want to start singing "I just gotta be me."

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Potato Peel Pie

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer.

Here's another book that doesn't really need my publicity, but it's getting it anyway.  The Geurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a pleasant, enjoyable read. I don't think it's great literature, but it's not trash, either.  It may be mostly fluff, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Set shortly after the close of hostilities in WWII, the book is an epistolary novel, i.e., written as a series of letters. The bulk of the letters are between Juliet Ashton, author, and assorted residents of Guernsey, though other writers and recipients appear. Likewise, some exchanges are brief notes and even telegrams to and from other people in Juliet's life.

The overall tone of the book is light, leading me to believe that a line that struck me was no accident.  John Booker writes, in his first letter to Juliet, that he has been reading the letters of Seneca, "a Roman philosopher who wrote letters to imaginary friends telling the how to behave for the rest of their lives.  Maybe that sounds dull, but the letters aren't--they're witty.  I think you learn more if you're laughing at the same time."

That struck me, maybe because that's why I like to--no, it's not that I like to be funny, but that I can't  help seeing the humor in just about everything (including times and events when it's not convenient).  But I had a strong feeling that Ms. Schaffer agrees with Booker, that whatever you want to say, you'll be heard more surely if you say it with laughter. or at least lightness. I don't think that the book has a  "message," but it does seem to be saying that whatever you face, better to face it with whatever humor you can muster. And with friends and books, not necessarily in that order.

The underlying story about how the Guernsey islanders endured the Nazi Occupation--and how at least some discovered that, whatever evil Nazism held, individual Germans were very apt to still be humans--is strong and appealing.  Juliet's discovery of the Island and Islanders and her growing affection is also appealing, if not 100% real.  For me, the love story doesn't measure up.  It felt predictable and unconvincing. The "negative love story," Juliet's interactions with the man she is clearly not destined to marry, is pleasant and humorous, if not wholly believable.  It's part of the humor of the story and as such is worthwhile.

The story of True Love is charming and I rooted for it, but I didn't really believe in it.  I could see it coming a mile away, and never felt either doubt that it would  happen or any real belief that it made sense.  It didn't make me hate the book, but it did knock some points off.

Overall, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a grand read, taught me a bit I never knew about WWII, and feels like a book I might return to, as I do to many easy reads, when chocolate isn't enough. When other people might turn on the TV for reruns of The Wonder Years, I re-read books that are like mental comfort food. Ms. Staffer's book might well qualify for that list, and maybe that's high enough praise.  3 1/2 stars.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks

I haven't posted for a bit, because we spent a long weekend in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.  Big trees, big mountains (mostly in the distance), and a big hole in the ground (the Canyon--rivers and glaciers can move a lot of dirt and rock!).

We drove up from SF on Thursday, and toured by car and day-hike until Saturday evening, when we backpacked into the Jennie Lakes wilderness a few miles as a special Father's Day treat (otherwise known as a shake-down hike, our first overnight of the year).  Visited Grants Grove, Moro Rock, the Giant Forest, and the End of the Road in Kings Canyon.

Here are a few photos to show some highlights.

 General Grant Tree, the third largest.
Hiking into Kings Canyon, we saw this guy about 20 yards from the trail.  He was just standing under the tree panting.  Given how I felt, I figured it was just too hot to be running around in a shaggy fur coat.

 Looking up Kings Canyon.  We opted not to hike that branch, but climbed a few switchbacks toward a side canyon to get the view.

Not far off the road, Roaring Creek Falls lived up to its name.

 Moro Rock, in Sequoia, is a classic evening climb, though we hit poor conditions for it (very hazy evening).  The climb itself, fortunately, is enough of a treat!

 The Sierra high country from Moro Rock.

 Nearby, vast numbers of yellow throated gilia carpeted the gravel slopes.

 My younger son contemplates the General Sherman tree, the world's largest organism (by volume).

Sunset from the Jennie Lakes Wilderness.
And, finally--found myself a mascot at the Visitors' Center--the Skunk Corners Skunk!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Becoming a Writer

I recently got involved in a discussion on regarding the craft of writing--improving writing skills and quality--vs. marketing.  That sparked me to want to write a bit more (but of course!) on the subject.

(Query: is there any writer out there anywhere who hasn't at least wanted to write about how to be a writer?  Or at the very least, about how I, myself, go about being a writer?)

What got my attention was that the original question was phrased as "But do we need to spend as much time on improving our skills and delivering a quality product as we do on marketing?"  To me that was the wrong question, because obviously (to me, of course) you need to hone your writing and become an accomplished writer before you publish, and marketing comes later.  [Not as much later as I thought.  Since I didn't start looking into marketing until my book went live, I failed to realize that you would ideally do a fair bit of marketing before you publish.  So the question isn't a off-key as it at first sounded.]

On the topic of marketing, I'll just say that it is definitely a skill and maybe an art that requires a significant investment of time.  If I ever get it figured out, I'll share my wisdom on the topic.

To return to the question of becoming a good writer, though, I see several aspects of the process, and I don't think that any can be ignored, nor are any ever completed.

1.  Become a reader.  Preferably, from about the age of 5, or younger if you can manage it.  Read good books, well-written books, though I don't think a moderate amount of trash will ruin you (I have certainly read a fair bit of trash, especially in Jr. High and High School, as well as last week).  If it is at least grammatical, it will help you internalize the rules.  But to master the graceful use of language, I believe, you need to steep yourself in graceful language.  I don't think any amount of study of the rules of grammar will get you there.

2.  Write.  Write tons.  Then write some more.  Then toss all that and write some more.  Like any art, or craft, no amount of natural talent can make you an instant good writer.  You have to practice, and most of what we practice, whether it's scales on the piano or dance moves or prose, is not meant for nor suitable for performance.  I don't count any of the awful stories I wrote in grade school and high school as wasted, though they will certainly never be inflicted on the wider world.  Nor am I intending to share my first novel, and probably not the second and third, either.  I used them to learn how to shape a story, write a sentence worth reading, etc.  Practice, practice, practice.

3.  Seek outside feedback.  When you were in school, teachers made comments on your papers in an effort to get you to improve your writing.  That feedback is still necessary.  I don't care who you are--J.K. Rowling, Will Shakespeare, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, you need someone to read your work and let you know both if the story works and if the prose is good.  Ideally, you find someone who can manage line edits, as well, before publication (that's the nasty work of finding every typo, every slightly misused word, every misplaced comma).  Readers and editors are good to have even when you are pretty sure the work you're doing is finger exercises.  Just like those English papers, you learn more from your writing when you get some feedback.  But all levels of editing are a MUST before publication (or submission to agents and publishers).

4.  Actually, I don't think I have a #4.  Read, write tons, and get feedback.  If you do enough of that, I believe you will become at the least a competent writer.  Here's the uncomfortable part: that still might not be enough.  Let me explain.  I minored in music in college.  I played French horn, and I took lessons, practiced daily, and really gave it a lot of my time and energy.  And I got good.

But I never got good enough to be a serious performer.  I believe that I could have practiced until the sun burned out and never reached that point, because I just lack some basic abilities.  So I settled for playing for my own enjoyment, and being part of amateur ensembles.  And that was okay (I didn't want to be a starving musician anyway).  But that wouldn't have been okay about my writing, and I honestly don't know if that feeling (that I had to write and I had to find some readers) means that I have a greater natural talent for writing than for music or if it just means I want it more.  In other words, I'm not sure if the un-ignorable urge to write necessarily means that one has what it takes to be a writer.  And that's an uncomfortable thought indeed.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Book Review: The Whistling Season

The Whistling Season, by Ivan Doig

Disclaimer: I am a huge fan of Ivan Doig's writing and probably couldn't give him a bad review if he deserved one.  But that's okay, because he doesn't deserve a bad review.

The Whistling Season is one of my favorite of Doig's novels.  Set in rural Marias Coulee, Montana, the novel takes us into the lives of the Milliron family, recently bereft of wife and mother.  Seen through the eyes of eldest son Paul, the book chronicles the eventful winter of 1909-10.  Paul's father, in need of a solution to the lack of culinary skills among the four males now living together without any women, responds to a "work wanted" ad headed "Can't cook but doesn't bite".

In due time, Rose Llewellyn, widow, arrives with her brother, Morris Morgan. Despite Mr. Milliron's confidence that every woman can cook, Rose has been completely honest.  She does everything but the one thing they thought they most needed. Somehow, that doesn't prevent them from keeping her on, and it seems good cooking may not have been what they needed most. Over the course of the winter, a great deal, or nothing at all, happens in Marias Coulee. When the school teacher decamps in the middle of the fall term, Morris Morgan--Morrie--takes over, and the change in the school is as great, and as positive, as the change Rose has wrought on the Milliron home.

Doig spins his story in a rich prose where every word is well-chosen, and every turn of phrase crafted. And if you could argue that the ending is, in a way, predictable, there is plenty in it that you or I would not have thought of if we'd thought all year. Ivan Doig isn't exactly an unknown author, though I don't feel he's gotten the credit he deserves. But I'll do my bit and give him five stars and two thumbs up, and recommend his books to anyone who loves good language, and a story well-told.