Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sunday Stills: First Signs of Fall

With temperatures in the 80s in the Willamette Valley it's a little difficult to believe it's Fall, even if the calendar dictates it. However, I managed to capture the following during Indy's morning walk.

First foggy morning.

Spots of red.

Splash of color.

To see more early signs of Autumn, visit Sunday Stills.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Book Club: "The Blind Assassin"

This month's selection was Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin. Not quite the simple 1930s murder mystery that the cover indicated for one of our members. This is a story within a story within a story. Two of our members had not completed the book and as we described the events of the story it sounded much like soap opera intrigue, yet the structure of the story and quality of writing was anything but simple afternoon escape.

Iris Chase Griffen recalls her life and that of her immediate family in a memoir for her estranged granddaughter, Sabrina. The story alternates between Iris' observations of her daily life in old age, the chronological tale of the Chase family, and excerpts from her sister Laura's novel (The Blind Assassin) published posthumously. The Blind Assassin is the scandalous story about illicit lovers and the science fiction tale they contrive during their stolen moments together.

We all loved the book and praised Atwood for the interesting structure of the novel, her descriptive language, and the suspense sustained throughout. We enjoyed Iris' insights on decades past in addition to the challenges of old age.

WARNING, the following contains spoilers for anyone who hasn't yet read the book.

One of the first questions raised was the purpose of the science fiction story imagined by the lovers in the fictional novel. One readers' guide suggested it paralleled the story of the Chase family. We agreed that we could see the Chase sisters as the sacrificial virgins, Alex (the fugitive unionizer) as the assassin who rescues the virgin, and Richard Griffen as the powerful wazir granted his way with the virgin before her sacrifice. The virgin's tongue has been cut out. She has no voice -- much like the Chase sisters have no voice in their lives. The assassin was once a child weaver of fine tapestry gone blind due to the intricacy of his work. Alex (a representative for workers' rights) was blind to the discord he created between the sisters who both loved him.

The Blind Assassin was considered quite racy at the time of its publication following Laura Chase's death in 1945. Laura drove her sister's car through traffic barriers and off a bridge under construction. Suicide? Or a tragic accident on an icy Toronto road? The mysterious Laura (described as "different" by many) became a cult figure and her followers speculated about the real identity of the lovers that inspired her novel. They hounded Iris as the only living link to Laura. Only at the end of Atwood's book do we learn that Iris wrote the novel attributed to Laura.

Why did Iris write the fictional story of her affair with Alex? Revenge against Richard Griffen, said one of our members. The man who "bought" young Iris as his youthful bride (in exchange for investment in the struggling Chase Button Factory) and molester of young Laura. Although the lovers in The Blind Assassin were fictional, it would be clear to Richard who they represented and that Alex fathered Iris' child. We also interpreted publication of the novel as Iris' emancipation from her dysfunctional marriage.

Why did Iris publish her novel under Laura's name? Perhaps to preserve Laura's memory for more than her suicide. Or as contrition for the affair with Alex, whom Laura also loved and protected by allowing Richard to molest her.

How did the fictional novel end? We'll never know. The affair between Iris and Alex ended when he left for World War II and died in battle. How Iris concluded the novel within a novel is up to the interpretation of the reader.

Atwood's novel also raises the issue of women's role in society (addressed in The Handmaid's Tale as well). Iris and Laura are a disappointment to their father who wanted sons to join in the family business. Following the death of their mother he abandons them to the household help and a series of ineffectual tutors. Not until Iris reaches puberty does their father take notice of his children, and then it is only to prepare Iris for society and a suitable marriage. Richard and his widowed sister Winifred treat Iris like the child she is (a sheltered 18 to Richard's 35) and manipulate her to appear like the proper wife for a successful man with political aspirations. Neither Iris nor Laura is prepared to make their own way in a world that offered women few suitable opportunities. As Iris describes her life she is little more than an object passed from one person to another (father to husband, housekeeper to housekeeper, attorney to attorney). Laura is "in the way" when their father dies and she comes to live with Richard and Iris. Later she becomes a liability when pregnant with Richard's child. Following the publication of The Blind Assassin, Iris has value only as the "gatekeeper" to Laura for cult followers of the novel. Iris and Laura have little to no power over their lives. Winifred exercises power through Richard, having none herself.

We barely touched on the book's Fantasy theme during our discussion. Like Rapunzel, Iris and Laura live like pampered yet captive princesses in a tower. Laura waits for "the happy ending" following the death of their mother -- as if real life was a fairy tale. Alex arrives like a knight in shining armor into the dull lives of the naive sisters. The fictional Alex relates a fantastical story in The Blind Assassin to entertain the fictional Iris. Iris' daughter Aimee devises a fantasy story about her parentage (Laura and the man from the novel) and thus denounces Iris. Winifred wins custody of Aimee's daughter Sabrina and tells her tales about Iris. Cult followers of the novel and its author fantasize about Laura and the real identities of her fictional characters. Fantasy within fantasy within fantasy.

In summary, our group admired Atwood's ability to maintain reader interest in a complex story we loved her descriptive writing.

Our next selection is Alexander McCall Smith's Corduroy Mansions. Tentatively to be followed by Amor Towles' Rules of Civility.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Life Happens

I'm still plugging away at The Curse of the Blood Stone, but I was sidetracked big time when my mother broke her hip and ended up in the hospital. Needless to say, the whole episode changed my priorities and diverted my energy. I'm beginning to get back on track with the novel and approaching Plot Point I, the scene that will kick off the real action of the novel.

Which brings me to the oft-debated Outline. As I've mentioned before, I'm using Larry Brooks' "Six Core Competencies" and Randy Ingermanson's "Snowflake Method" to guide my development of the characters and story arc. This resulted in 8 pages of sketched scenes. Basically, an outline.

Some writers claim an outline is too restrictive. They want to discover the story organically. For them, an outline restricts creativity. Other writers construct long, detailed outlines nearly as long as the finished novel. And there are many writers that approach novel writing somewhere between these two extremes.

All I can say is -- without my scene list, I wouldn't have the foggiest idea where I left off the story when "life happened." Whether it's a serious event, like my mother's surgery and recovery, or minor interruptions to the writing schedule -- I don't know how others do it without some sort of outline.

So, place me in the outlining camp. Rather than restrictive, I find my scene sketch freeing. I have added and deleted scenes as the novel progressed. I have deviated from the original concept for the scene. Yet, like a bookmark, the outline has helped me find the place where I left off writing. It has launched me into the next scene immediately on returning to the novel in progress. Works for me!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Northwest Author Series: Jeff Baker

Jeff Baker, The Oregonian
Qualities of Critically Acclaimed Books:
How to Write for Raves

The Northwest Author Series kicked off its fifth season yesterday at the Wilsonville Public Library. The presentations are sponsored by the library and Friends of the Wilsonville Library, with coffee provided by Starbucks and cookies from the fabulous Lamb's Thriftway bakery.

Jeff Baker, book editor for The Oregonian, opened the season with a discussion of how he selects books for review, the use of freelance and wire book reviews, and the qualities that attract him to a book.

Baker, who once had a full-time assistant and a half-time helper, is now a one-man department. He receives about 500 books a week that he winnows down to 4-5 book reviews for print. In supplement his own reviews, he assigns and receives reviews from freelance writers in addition to using wire services.

How does he sort through so many printed books and pre-distribution galleys (advanced reader copies)? Baker prioritizes as follows:

  • Eliminates categories not reviewed by The Oregonian (including romance novels, self help books, travel books, etc.).
  • Emphasizes local connections. That is, local authors, publishers, or settings. This includes Oregon and Washington, as well as (to a lesser extent) Idaho and Montana.
  • Focuses on author appearances in the greater Portland area. He may extend coverage of readings outside the metro area but seldom mentions appearances beyond Salem.
  • Considers everything else -- which may include books getting a lot of buzz in the publishing business, books recommended by authors/publishers, etc.

According to Baker, you can read a book by its cover. At least when it comes to sorting through 500 a week. As writers hear over and over from agents and editors, Baker indicated he can tell within the first paragraph/page whether a book is well written. Books of limited quality don't improve with further reading. Baker does keep books/galleys from his "maybe" stack for 3-4 weeks in case he changes his mind about reviewing them for the newspaper.

What attracts Baker to a book for review?

  • He loved the author's previous work.
  • The publisher's pitch interests him.
  • The book is receiving a lot of industry buzz due to its quality and/or concept.
  • Word of mouth recommendations from friends and authors
  • It's short. (Tongue not so firmly in cheek. Shorter books make his job easier.)
  • #1 = the quality of writing.

Electronic publishing has tremendously changed the publishing industry, as readers and writers are well aware. Amazon states 40-50% of its book sales are ebooks. Any more, traditionally published books are simultaneously made available as ebooks. E-publishing has made it easier for writers to place their work before an audience. However, self-publishing and e-publishing lack the quality control of traditionally published books.

Avid readers who want to freelance as book reviewers for The Oregonian can expect to be paid $150 for first rights. Reviews are limited to 500 words in which the reviewer must explain what the book is about, whether or not the reviewer liked the book, and why. Reviews are printed within 3-4 weeks of book publication. Baker plans and lays out his reviews several weeks in advance; however, freelancers are welcome to contact him for assignments/proposals. Regrettably, in addition to staff reductions Baker's budget has also been cut. As his freelance funds dwindle toward the end of the year, he relies more on the wire services for book reviews.

What northwest authors currently have Baker's attention?

  • Brian Doyle, Mink River
  • David Guterson, The Other (author of Snow Falling on Cedars)
  • Tim Egan, The Big Burn
  • Denis Johnson, Train Dreams
  • Craig Thompson, Habibi (graphic novel)

Finally, the question aspiring authors always ask:  what does it take to get a book published and then reviewed?

  • Persistence. Don't just talk about writing a book, complete it and pitch it.
  • Talent. Someone will publish a well-written book.
The next installment of the Northwest Author Series is scheduled for October 23 at 3:30 p.m. in the Oak Room at the Wilsonville Public Library. Emily Chenoweth will discuss "Memoir or Fiction? Make the Most of Your Choice." Cost is $5.00. Coffee and cookies are free. Copies of the speaker's books will be raffled off and signed copies are always available for purchase.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Frustrated, Part Two

I shared the arena with Gen and Pam yesterday who observed my ride on Phantom. Now we're thinking he may be harboring a deep abscess in his right front. Pam sensed a slightly elevated warmth in Phantom's right hoof -- I never seem to be able to feel these things.

So -- I'm still sticking with the "wait and see" approach. Either something treatable will become more obvious and the plan of action will be clear. Or Phantom will improve on his own. Right now it doesn't seem worthy of a vet call. That may come later, however.

For now, I'll get my saddle time at a walk (as long as Phantom is comfortable) and do some lateral work to keep both of us going.

And I'll watch the weather for the next good day to give Phantom a bath. He's quite the dust bunny right now. Although -- all he'll do is roll and coat himself again following the bath. *sigh* But I know he'll enjoy the sudsy scrub regardless.

As Gen said:  "Horses!"

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Phantom seems to have been on pasture vacation most of the summer. I worked him lightly or not at all while clearing up his girth galls. A new, longer string girth seemed to have solved the problem and I was ready to resume our work when my mother fell and broke her hip.

I pretty much "abandoned" Phantom for a couple of weeks while my mother was most critical. I knew he was in good hands, and I did make once-a-week trips to the barn to give him a zoom groom and treats.

Once my mother was settled into the care center for rehab I figured I could resume my previous riding schedule. But when I arrived at the barn I was informed that Phantom appeared lame when turned out that morning. :-(

Sure enough, his trot was "off" on the longe line. Trainer Julie had me trot him down the aisle and indicated it was his left front. But darned if there was any obvious reason. No swelling or heat. No elevated pulse. No tender spots. His walk was fine, but his trot just wasn't right. With no apparent dire need for medical care, we agreed that the best thing was to give it a few days to see what developed.

Since I needed saddle time and Phantom's walk wasn't affected, I tacked up for some walk work. 

Then Phantom developed a deep, hacking cough for a few days in response to the dust. Yes, believe it or don't, western Oregon has a month or two of hot, dry, dusty weather each year when the webs between our toes become crackly from a lack of moisture. So Phantom had a couple more days of little to no work.

Fortunately, the cough was short-lived. So I continued lateral work at the walk and experimented with the trot. Phantom seemed to be better. He was no where near as gimpy as he'd been with the girth galls. To the right he felt normal. But to the left, not so much.

Last Friday the geldings were "in a mood" and racing all over the pasture -- Phantom among them. When they finally settled down and I was able to catch Phantom, I figured I'd push the trot during my ride. If he was capable of a full gallop across the pasture I could give his trot a thorough test. After a sticky start, Phantom finally settled into work and once again felt pretty good to the right but not quite right to the left.

Yesterday he played keep-away when I went to bring him in. Hmmm. Just being naughty or didn't appreciate our last workout? I made careful observation when Phantom trotted away from me and he did look a bit off. Was he sore? Or was it the hard, uneven ground? When Phantom finally deigned to let me halter him, I promised him walk work only. I slathered him with liniment from withers to fetlock (since I don't know where the problem site is) and did a lot of leg yields in the arena.

As the King of Siam said, "Is a puzzlement." Phantom still has no physical signs of lameness -- his leg is cool and tight. He doesn't flinch when poked or probed. He gallops around the pasture with the rest of the geldings. I suspect he may have wrenched his shoulder, since he doesn't avoid planting his hoof like horses do when they have an abscess or lower leg injury. 

No, I haven't called the vet. I keep hoping that whatever Phantom did to himself will heal with time and I can prevent an expensive vet bill. 

Meanwhile, I am frustrated, deflated, and depressed after all that's happened over the past few weeks.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sunday Stills: Potluck

We were left to our own devices this week, so I wandered around the living room in search of interesting vignettes.

I liked the texture of this little basket.

The old iron and sewing book seemed a good combination.

Gears from a sausage grinder.

A different angle.
I have no idea where the little basket came from. I remember the old iron from my childhood home. The sausage grinder was one of my father's finds -- he was forever poking around second hand stores for "cool stuff."

The globe is part of our family history. I was told that my grandfather bought it for my grandmother during World War II. My father fought in the South Pacific, while his brother was sent to Europe. My grandmother could use the globe to keep track of her boys. Although, their correspondence was censored so I'm not sure my grandparents really knew where their sons were until both came home safely to tell their stories.

To see what others captured this week, visit Sunday Stills.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


Waiting to maneuver into the car.

Help from physical therapist Roxi. 
Almost there.
Three weeks after breaking her hip and undergoing a surgery we weren't sure she would survive -- my mother rehearsed getting into and out of the car so I can take her to medical appointments.

She is amazing everyone.

And I wonder where my stubborn independent streak comes from.  ;-)