Saturday, September 19, 2020

Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. A Novel by Joyce Carol Oates—a book review


Tuesday, September 8, 2020

This Summer I made a Greek Alley in my Own Backyard—newsletter

 

This summer didn't go as planned for anybody. It reminds me of that essay about planning a holiday in Italy and winding up in Holland.
Only in our scenario there is some pestilence there too, in the form of a pandemic.
Holland isn't flashy like Italy, but it's a nice place. Kind of like being home for months and months isn't a bad thing, and since I couldn't take my writer trip to Greece, I built my own Greek alley at home. Lemons to lemonade, right?
My big thrill recently was getting a refund from United. Remember they're the airline that dragged that doctor off a flight? Fly the friendly skies my eye. I've spent many hours on the phone with them. They're not my favorite people, so I felt a bit like Rocky doing his victory laps when I finally wore them down.

Hope, patience, and low expectations are my superpowers this summer. Okay, hope and low expectations are. I'm still working on patience (and I'm sick of waiting for it). Let's be real here. I only have low expectations when it comes to housework and paperwork. But I've got hope! I definitely have hope! Yeah, hope is my superpower.
Recipe for an at-home Greek alley: Use farm stand plants and the sad remnants of last winter's grocery store herbs. Get ALL the clearance sale lavender from Lowe's, potting soil, and new pots. Voila. 
It was fun until I got tired of watering everything. So I found them new homes with better plant parents this month, and picked all the herbs. 
What's your answer when someone asks you how're you doing? Are you in the It-Could-Be-Worse column? Couldn't-Be-Worse column? Mr. Brightside one? All of the above within a ten minute time-frame? 

ME TOO!

That said, I don't think anyone's eye is going to stop twitching until we admit at least to ourselves what we're really feeling. For instance I'm feeling anxiety, frustration, fear, disappointment, discouragement, and contentment all at the same time. Can you tell I've discovered the Dr. Marc Brackett/Brene Brown podcast about Emotional Intelligence?

If you're struggling (and who isn't), I wanted to share how much it's helped me to carve out time and space to sit quietly. (Away from the news.) Maybe it'll help you too. There's also the classic Oatmeal comic take on why all the conflicting data is driving us nuts. Matthew Inman has a great way of getting to the root of the problem.  
When reality takes my words, another thing that helps me is sketching and making collages in my journal. I also do it during ZOOM meetings. Don't tell.
This summer I read through old journals. It's been great for spotting bad habits and reminding myself how wonderful life is.
My phone has 63,192 photos on it. I take pictures of beautiful things. That helps too. As Louis Armstrong said, "What a wonderful world." He never said it's an easy world.
My little olive tree. An evening walk. A postcard I sent. A sunset here in the shire. It helps me to document every bit of wonderful.
Playing helps too. Sometimes I find a kid to play with and make art with. It justifies all my water balloons, stickers, chalk, and the kaleidoscope collection. 
This summer I've rediscovered the library. It makes me read faster because I have to return those books. I also share my books and am gifted more in return. Life is good.
My favorite reads this summer have been the often mentioned book Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates,  Madeleine L'Engle's collection of short stories The Moment of Tenderness, and War with the Newts by Karel Capik. I put my reviews on my blog and cannot recommend them more highly.
A couple summers ago I discovered Eugenia Gerontara. I love her uplifting whimsical world. This year I ordered a couple more pieces of her art and sent her so many I LOVE YOUR WORK messages that she invited me to visit her studio in Athens!
Believe me I will visit ASAP after COVID. When I can get there. If her work speaks to you, check it out online. She has an ETSY store too. I had my pieces personalized.
The Little Red Riding Hood pieces are wonderful. I love Little Red swallowing the Big Bad Wolf. I love him sleeping with Grandmother. That one reminds me of Hubby and me. Don't tell.
I'm making myself stop with all the photos. We didn't even get into me feeding gluten-free bread to the chipmunks Hubby caught in his catch and release traps. Apparently hundreds of chipmunks are a problem. They like gluten-free bread and I'm pretty sure they run all the way back to my house when he releases them a few miles from here.
Hail to the bird using my hanging flowers to build a nest on my front porch. Hail to the hummingbird who sits in my tiny olive tree. Hail to ZOOM classes, books, and summertime. It's not what I planned, but what's not to love? So, how you doing? 
"You're only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with." ~Austin Kleon
Writer: Stephanie Karfelt/S.R. Karfelt/Saffi Karfelt
Specialty: Seeing the bright side 
Aspirations: Backing up all my photos

Monday, August 31, 2020

Midnight Sun by Stephenie Myer—a book review

 



On Goodreads Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer has approaching 30K reviews with an average rating of nearly four stars. That's not so shabby. Do you remember that Meyer began writing this book back when Twilight was popular and the partial draft got stolen and posted online? She stopped writing it and said she wouldn't pick it up again until someday when we'd all forgotten about it. Despite having read the online excerpt, and enjoying it, that was so long ago I'd definitely forgotten about it. 

In fact I had no idea this book was out. Once I did, I tried to get a copy but there were none to be had. (I wanted a hard copy.) A kind reader mailed me one. I took it to a local lake house for my one and only vacation this year, and read it sitting by the lake. It took me all week to finish the whopping 658 pages. 

It wasn't just the size that slowed me down. It's that throughout the entire book I kept drifting into the realization that I'd read this book before. It's the entire first Twilight book from Edward's perspective and I mean it's that entire book scene by scene. Sometimes I'd stop reading to hunt down a young adult and quiz them about the Twilight world. I couldn't figure out why I knew so much about the vampire's perspective in Midnight Sun as I read it. Why were the rare bits of new information that weren't in the original Twilight books still so familiar to me? 

The young adults told me because it's the same book, with the haughty disdain of people who don't want to admit to their teenage obsession. A couple of them told me that the Twilight books are popular with women "my age" and not theirs. Years ago I wrote a review for Twilight, admitting I liked the books. I don't entirely believe that millennials don't plan to read the latest book. Thirty thousand women "my age" didn't leave all those reviews on Goodreads. I know this because many of them don't even know how to leave a review on Goodreads.

One of the reasons I've defended Twilight to my serious reader/writer friends is simple. If a book sells millions of copies and spawns fan clubs and movies, it has succeeded in taking readers into another world and is an undeniable success. Picking on the writing or characters feels like sour grapes to me. If you want a higher brow book, read one or better yet, write one. I read a bit of everything—fiction to non-fiction, literary to Twilight. Sometimes I want to be educated and sometimes I want to escape.

All that said, I wasn't crazy about this book. I plodded through the last couple hundred pages, muttering to myself. I had a copy of Glennon Doyle's book with me too, Untamed.  I didn't want to finish it on vacation though because it makes me yell at my husband. I thought there would be more new information in Midnight Sun, but the greater bulk of the book is Edward's feelings and they're not all that different from Bella's. There was also what seemed like some justification of Edward's actions—you know his stalker behavior. Not to mention some justifying Bella's wimpier moments. I didn't care, but sometimes it made me chuckle because he did stalk her (and I'd bet most stalkers feel their actions are justified), and sometimes we're all wimps and we justify those times to ourselves too.

It didn't matter to me. Though there were also times I enjoyed the mental gymnastics of all the justifying. I write and it's great insight to really dig into your characters. But it didn't forward the story for me. It didn't matter. Sure, I could have stopped reading it, but what if I missed something interesting?

The beginning is fun, though I couldn't tell where the stolen online excerpt info ended and the new book began. It seemed like halfway in. The pace is slow. There is some new information, but it felt like panning for gemstones in all Edward's feelings and they can be a bloody mess. The ending gave the greatest amount of new information, yet even the part where the Cullen's are tracking down James the tracker didn't really tell much that was new. I did enjoy the details of the car race through Phoenix to the ballet studio. I enjoyed how Alice's vision works. I would have liked to know more about Jasper's brilliance. Emmett is a great side character, and Rosalie's cussing out Edward at the top of her mental lungs was probably my favorite detail.


Despite my criticisms, if Stephenie Myer's writes all the books from Edward's perspective, I'd probably read them. It's fun. You can only put so much detail into a book without slowing it down and boring your readers, but doing it like this does enrich a story with it's depth. Yes, I said Twilight and depth in the same sentence. Midnight Sun is a nice enough summer read and I enjoyed some COVID escapism. Kudos to the author on that accomplishment alone. We all need to go somewhere these days. If it's a familiar neighborhood we all used to like, what more could you want? Hopefully you'll read it too and come argue your perspective with me. Especially you millennials. Read what you like, and like what you like, no apologies. That's advice from a woman "my age". 








Saturday, August 15, 2020

The Moment of Tenderness by Madeleine L'Engle—a book review

 



The Moment of Tenderness by Madeleine L'Engle is a delightful anthology of short stories she'd written throughout her life. Most readers know L'Engle from A Wrinkle in Time. She brought Science Fiction to the YA world and introduced many of us to tesseracts for the first time. 

L'Engle's grandaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis, went through her papers after her death and read through her short stories. This book is a result. It contains eighteen of them. Some were from college complete with grades (A- for Gilberte Must Play Bach). It's a brilliant collection and I enjoyed every story. They inspired me to spend more time writing short stories myself. 

It's difficult to pick which stories I enjoyed most. That Which is Left stunned me with the selfishness of the narrator (that's the same reaction Voiklis had when she read it), but the truth of that story also left me reeling because we have only to look around to see examples of such horrible selfishness. The Foreign Agent, Poor Little Saturday, A Sign for a Sparrow, and the story that the book is named for The Moment of Tenderness, are all works that leave no doubt about the author's incredible talent. Much as I want to say more about them, I won't because I don't want to spoil the stories for you.

Let me just say this is a collection of many types of stories, spooky, non-fiction, small town life, big town life, and fantasy. All of them are good and it's short, quick, escapism just when you need it. 

If you haven't read L'Engle, don't let the YA (Young Adult) label on her most popular books fool you. All of her books are for anyone who enjoys good story. They're fast, concise, and brilliant. As popular as A Wrinkle in Time is, and as much as I loved Charles Wallace and Meg, I think my favorite book was Many Waters (it's about the Murray Twins with a touch of Noah's Ark thrown in), at least it was until The Moment of Tenderness. Now I only wish for more of her writing. I hope there will be another collection.


Monday, August 3, 2020

War with the Newts by Karel Čapek—a book review and recommendation







This book by Karel  Čapek (pronounced Chap-ick) came highly recommended by a Czech friend. In fact she sent me a copy with the best English translation she could find. Imagine my surprise to see a blurb on the back cover from none other than Kurt Vonnegut
"God bless Catbird Press for calling the attention of Americans to a great writer of the past who speaks to the present in a voice brilliant, clear, honorable, blackly funny, and prophetic." ~ Kurt Vonnegut
War with the Newts is about a Sea Captain who finds salamander-like beings who help him harvest pearls. I love the way it's written. It's fast-paced with the help of newspaper clippings that one of the characters collects about the newts. 

It stunned me to realize how absolutely relevant this book is in today's world. I didn't get very far in before the Sea Captain was deep into racial slurs for pretty much the entire planet. He hits up a lawyer he remembers from the old neighborhood as a "pimply Jewish kid". Captain J. Van Toch had bullied Bondy in school and now he asks for his help with his newt enterprise. They're old men at this point and both remember the old days fondly, which both made me roll my eyes and chuckle a little. 

Blacky funny it is, but also horribly prophetic in turn. Mankind enslaves the newts. They're used in medical experiments, treated with no regard other than economic needs and help in underwater engineering endeavors (something they're profoundly brilliant at). This book made me see on yet another level how absolutely inhumane and disgusting slavery was.

My first impression of the book was knee-jerk judgement for the racist language and the stereotyping comments about Czechs, English, Americans, and pretty much every nationality. That quickly gave way to the realization that this author knew exactly how to get his point across. What blew my mind was that this book was published in 1936, after World War I, but before World War II, yet it foreshadowed the Second World War at every turn. Another thing that shocked me was that the stereotyping in this book is precisely the same kind still espoused about countries and peoples now.

It even had people in the southern half of the United States trying to give the newts religion and occasionally lynching them. What I think you get from this book is how little the world has changed in nearly a hundred years, how selfishly cruel humanity can be, and how exceedingly short-sighted and stupid we can be when we look at everything first from an economic standpoint. 

If I could have one wish after reading this, it would be that everyone in the country would read this book. Karel  Čapek was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature seven times. He introduced the word Robot into our language. He and his brother, Josef, were famous for their work. When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) Karel was considered Public Enemy Number Two. They weren't aware he'd already died of pneumonia, but his brother, Josef, died in a concentration camp. They weren't Jewish, but were well-known to be anti-fascist. 

War of the Newts is a short book and a brilliant read. I'm already hunting up more of his work. It's absolutely that good. I cannot possibly recommend a book more. No amount of stars can do it justice. Read it. You will be blown away. 



Friday, July 24, 2020

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates——a book review and recommendation






Between the World and Me is written by a black man, Ta-Nehisi Coates, for his adolescent son. It's a National Book Award Winner and a #1 New York Times Bestseller. The book is Coates' experience and advice to his adolescent son on what it's like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live with it. This book is visceral and deep, painfully beautiful, and will climb inside you. 

To say it's five stars doesn't go far enough. It's brilliant. It's a short book of a mere 152 pages yet you need to pause and catch your breath throughout it. There are no chapters. It begins with:

    Son,

From there the pages are blocks of words with few paragraphs and no white space. White space is a writer term for what's considered "breathing space" within a book. This book is only broken up by a rare photograph or a quote. It struck me as I dove into Between the World and Me that there was no escape from Coates' words. There was no space to rest and no room to breathe. The entire time I read, George Floyd and "I can't breathe" weighed on my soul. 

Coates is a brilliant writer and there are quotes that I found particularly profound, painful, and perfect. In discussing his friend, Prince Jones, who was killed by police, this has been burned into me:

"Prince Jones was the superlative of all my fears. And if he, good Christian, scion of the striving class, patron saint of the twice as good, could be forever bound, who then could not? And the plunder was not just of Prince alone. Think of all the love poured into him. Think of the tuitions for Montessori and music lessons. Think of the gasoline expended, the treads worn carting him to football games, basketball tournaments, and Little League. Think of the time spent regulating sleepovers. Think of the surprise birthday parties, the daycare, and the reference checks on babysitters...Think of checks written for family photos. Think of credit cards charged for vacations. Think of soccer balls, science kits, chemistry sets, racetracks, and model trains. Think of all the embraces, all the private jokes, customs, greetings, names, dreams, all the shared knowledge and capacity of a black family injected into that vessel of flesh and bone..."


It's the first thing I've ever read that seemed to come close to what I think of as the fathomless loss of losing a child. 

Another story that struck me with particular severity was this one:

"One afternoon your mother and I took you to visit a preschool. Our host took us down to a large gym filled with a bubbling ethnic stew of New York children. The children were running, jumping, and tumbling. You took one look at them, tore away from us, and ran right into the scrum. You have never been afraid of people, of rejection, and I have always admired you for this and always been afraid for you because of this. I watched you leap and laugh with these children you barely knew, and the wall rose in me and I felt I should grab you by the arm, pull you back and say, "We don't know these folks! Be cool!" I did not do this. I was growing, and if I could not name my anguish precisely I still knew that there was nothing noble in it, that a four-year-old child be watchful, prudent, and shrewd, that I curtail your happiness, that you submit to a loss of time. And now when I measure this fear against the boldness that the masters of the galaxy imparted to their own children, I am ashamed."

Coates' feeling that his son would be rejected is familiar and possibly relatable for most parents. What drop-kicked me was the last line about measuring that fear against the boldness that the masters of the galaxy impart to their own children. What hit me was that I am one of those masters of the galaxy. I imparted boldness into my children, or tried. What hit me was what an immense privilege that is. What hit me was the realization that that could sometimes be a dangerous thing. What hit me was the brutal sadness of that. 

This entire book will hit you. Let it. I could not recommend a book more. 


Friday, July 10, 2020

P.S. Yes, I Quit Social Media and Forgot to Tell You




Why?


It's been about five months now so this is old news. I quit social media before COVID-19 first locked us down in the USA. Can you remember back then? 

Leaving Facebook/Twitter/Instagram had been on my mind for about two years. I'd delete the apps from my phone, and promptly put them back on. I liked seeing what everyone was doing and its an excellent diversion from things I should be doing—like really writing. It's extra tough to stay focused on work when you always work at home. You all probably know this since so many more people now have experience with working at home. 

There was an inciting incident. Someone stole photos of a preschooler in my family and used them online. It was the straw that broke the camel's back for me. I thought who knows how many other seemingly innocent interactions happen online everyday that someone takes advantage of? Plenty, I'm sure. 

How?


As a writer I've been told countless times that I have to have an online presence. My online presence helped me promote my first published book back in 2013 up to the more recent  memoir on Alzheimer's. It helped me interact with other writers. Many good things have come into my life online. As far as an online presence helping to sell books, I kept track of my sales and my online social media posts about my books for nearly a year and found absolutely no correlation. So I deleted Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all my YouTube videos despite losing my blue checks. I've kept my monthly newsletter,  this blog, and my website

After I left social media behind, COVID hit and I worried about people. I did some online stalking. I wish I could say I spent less time on my phone. Total hours on my phone dropped some. It dropped even more when I deleted my YouTube app and stopped entertaining myself with those via my phone.

What? 


What I can say is that by being off social media I've gotten more productive. I've taken online classes, webinars, and attended countless ZOOM meetings. I've written an entire book since then. It's in its third draft and will head for story edits soon. Every day I walk for miles. Most days I talk to real people, social distancing but still. Not to mention: writing letters, planting herbs, yoga, language and diction lessons, and I make art. 

Recently a friend asked if I miss Facebook and when am I coming back? I miss people I'd gotten to know online but I definitely don't miss Facebook—not even a little. I've never been a good fit on Twitter. I'm entirely too happy and it reminded me of mobs with pitchforks long before we started talking about Cancel Culture. Instagram, dang, I do miss Instagram. What's not to love about Instagram? Do I feel more in control of my life? Hah, I don't think anyone can say that in these times. I'm content and productive. It feels good.