books, reviews, Writing

Heading to Canada with Howard Norman

No, the trip wasn’t physical. I haven’t met the author Howard Norman although he did send me a nice note. I’ve just finished his Canada trilogy.

I found the first, The Bird Artist, in a secondhand book storebird artist cover when I was traveling back east. White Square Fine Books and Art in Easthampton, Mass., has a quality selection. It’s good place to find an author or book I had somehow missed. That was the case with Howard Norman and The Bird Artist.

The book begins in 1911. Fabian Vas, who draws and paints birds in a coastal Newfoundland village, admits in the first paragraph he killed the lighthouse keeper named Botho August. Of course, he has a compelling reason. A lot goes on in that little village. I was taken by Norman’s writing voice and his oddly enchanting story.

cover museum

In other words, I was hooked.

It’d been a while since I found myself stealing away to pick up a book. That was the case with The Bird Artist, which was a 1994 National Book Award finalist for fiction.

The second in the trilogy is The Museum Guard. This one is set in the late 1930s in Halifax. DeFoe Russet is the museum guard. He works with his uncle, who raised him after his parents were killed in a zeppelin crash. A woman DeFoe loves is fixated on one of the paintings, Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam.

Again Norman creates an absorbing world although the depth of the woman’s obsession seemed far-fetched. Then again, this is fiction.

I almost didn’t read the third — The Haunting of L. The reviews were iffy, but a trilogy is a trilogy. Peter Duvett leaves Halifax in 1927 to work for a photographer in Manitoba. Naturally, there is illicit love. (Peter takes up with his employer’s wife on their wedding night.) Then there is the darker side of photography with so-called spirit photos and images taken of staged disasters. Intriguing concepts, but hauntingI will admit at times my attention waned.

Although The Bird Artist is the best of the trio, I am happy I read all three. I enjoy Howard Norman’s absurd choices for characters, professions, and living situations. His main characters are young men who appear a bit befuddled by life and love. Canada, at least how Norman portrays it, is not what I imagined.

Then there is Norman’s own story. He is an American, who dropped out of high school and lived in Canada for sixteen years. He became interested in the folk lore and culture of the Cree Indians. He eventually got his high school diploma and other degrees. Besides being a prolific author, he is a college professor in the U.S.

Howard Norman is also a cordial person. Using my snooping skills, I tracked him down to email (with an apology for intruding) a fan letter about The Bird Artist and how I found it. His reply was gracious, thanking me for “your generous, heartening note. I like being in a secondhand bookstore.” Me, too.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: The beds along the fence are teeming with flowers and bees. Here is one of the large plantings of Echinacea aka cone flower.

PEACE, LOVE, AND YOU KNOW WHAT: My debut novel is available in paperback and kindle. Here’s the link: Peace, Love, and You Know What on Amazon

 

 

 

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Screen Shot cover
Taos, Writing

My Writing Companions

I am lucky to have two offices. One is a room inside our home where I write in the early morning, usually with a large cup of coffee. The other is outdoors in the ramada.

ramada

Three years ago Hank, with help from our son Zack, built the ramada, which by description is an open shelter. But being a skilled woodworker and a bit of a perfectionist, Hank built a ramada that is timber-framed wood with a tin roof. The floor has slabs of sandstone. It comes with views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains and the sage-filled mesa, plus a nice breeze and wi-fi from the house.

What more could I want during this spell of hot weather?

But I am not the only ones who feel that way. A bird has built a nest beneath the eaves in a spot that’s inaccessible unless you can fly. (Last year, a bird built a nest in another part of the ramada, but that didn’t work out.)

I am not a birder but my best guess from checking a bird book is that it’s a canyon towhee. The feathers are light gray and there’s some buff color.

Things must be getting serious because mother and father don’t like it when I — or anyone else for that matter — sit in the ramada. The father perches somewhere above in the ramada’s beams or on the house to sound a warning chirp. Sometimes he puffs himself up. He is relentless. The mother chirps too when she’s not sitting on the nest. (I can only see her tail when she does.)

Here is a recording of the father I saved on my phone:

I’ve tried talking in soothing tones to the birds. “I come in peace,” I tell them. But they don’t believe me. I resist trying to see if the eggs have hatched although last night the mother had a worm or something in her beak as she was returning to the nest so maybe they have.

It’s a dilemma. I enjoy working outside. Hank built the ramada because we need shelter and shade from the strong sun. But I don’t like stressing the birds.

I once had an agent who wanted me to join writing groups, because he once heard a famous author say he had been a member of one. I told him I am not a joiner of any group, that I’m a solitary writer. I don’t like sharing my writing until it’s done or close to it. But these days, alas, that’s not true.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: That’s the ad for my novel Peace, Love, and You Know What that is running on the website of The Taos News, which is taosnews.com. Designer Jason Rodriguez created the ad, which takes anyone who clicks on it to Amazon. Thank you to my former colleagues, especially publisher Chris Baker, at The Taos News for their support.

Here is the link Peace, Love, and You Know What on Amazon

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book review, Taos

The Write Stuff: Two Books on Life and Death

Here is my first book column, which appeared in the May 19 fiber edition of Tempo, the arts and entertainment magazine of The Taos News. I was away at the time, so here it is.

The two books have common themes about life and death. A Taos artist, known for using images of death in her works, reflects on having a life in full in her food-infused memoir. Meanwhile a psychic shares interviews she collected of people whose lives were never the same after undergoing near-death experiences.

Coyota in the Kitchen: A Memoir of New and Old Mexico

Artist Anita Rodríguez aims to nurture readers with recipes and stories about her life in the two Mexicos.

First, an explanation about the book’s title is in order: coyota is a term for a female of mixed heritage — half-Hispanic and half-gringa.

Rodríguez’s father was a Taoseño who worked as a druggist on the Plaza. Her mother, who had a genteel Southern upbringing, came from Texas to study art.

She recalls classmates taunting her for being a “coyota,” which inspires her to create stories in which the animals are her real relatives.

“Don’t pay attention to those two-leggeds. They’re stupid. Come with me. Let’s go steal chickens and howl at the moon!” she imagines a coyote saying.

Such cruelty makes one sad for that little girl.

But then again, Rodriguez’s own opinions about outsiders come through with such observations as: “A person doesn’t exist in Taos without an identifying family. Until you have lived here for two generations, you are transparent.”

In her take on the food-based memoir, Rodríguez recalls good cooks and some really horrible cooks such as her paternal grandmother Hipólita Ramírez Trujillo. Grandmother’s food had one constant ingredient: rancor.

“Occasionally, Mother’s food was good, but mostly it was just so-so. Once in a while, it was a disaster,” she writes.

Likewise Rodríguez gives unflinching descriptions of her relatives.

Her life story thus far includes working in a California restaurant, where she learns about good cooking from its owner. Later, as a single mother in New Mexico, she raises a daughter under harsh living conditions. She searches for gainful employment and finds it as an enjarradora creating mud plaster for adobe structures and building fireplaces, hornos and mud floors. She lives in Mexico for 15 years before returning home.

Rodríguez is an artist whose paintings and illustrations typically contain images of death — skeletons enjoying what the living do. “Besides, death is so deeply a part of the human story that omitting it diminishes life, takes away its wholeness. If that’s not enough, you can blame my love of painting skeletons on a near-death experience, after which I became an artist, hiding in plain view the knowledge that life is eternal.”

“Coyota in the Kitchen,” a paperback published by the University of New Mexico Press, contains her illustrations and several paintings, including “Pie for the Dead” featured on its cover. Unfortunately the plates inside the book are not large enough to do her art justice.

Now about the food: Rodríguez includes numerous recipes throughout the book from Biscochitos to Frijoles con Chile Colorado to Chicos from the Ground Up. Several recipes were discovered during her travels.

Her advice for making Chile Caribe begins: “If you are going to make a lot of chile caribe, use rubber gloves. If you handle enough of it, your cuticles and hands will begin to burn.” Readers certainly will be grateful.

Life After Near Death: Miraculous Stories of Healing and Transformation in the Extraordinary Lives of People with Newfound Powers

lifeDebra Diamond left behind a successful career as a Wall Street money manager and university professor after discovering her psychic and clairvoyant powers during a transformational experience in 2008.

Diamond, who is a part-time Taos resident, shares first-person accounts of “science-based, cognitive and physiological near-death aftereffects.”

The people she interviews developed such new skills as heightened musical and artistic talents, spontaneous healing and electrical super-sensitivity. A man she meets in Taos has enhanced hearing among other gifts.

Given the subject matter, this should be a fascinating book. Perhaps it will be for those involved in the field. But as a layperson, I wanted to know far more about the people Diamond interviewed and less about her psychic abilities.

Do we really need to know she took a sip of lemonade while talking with a subject or that she put two crystals beside her computer before she did a Skype interview? I wanted to read about the transformation her subjects underwent.

Life After Near Death, published by New Page Books, is available in paperback.

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books, reviews, Writing

The Write Stuff

In my new life, I am a book author and a book reviewer. I will be writing a twice-monthly column called The Write Stuff in Tempo, the arts and entertainment section of The Taos News.

For those just catching up, my last day as The Taos News’ managing editor was May 5. After nearly an eight-year run in that position, I felt it was time for a change. Now I will concentrate on writing fiction, promoting it — such as my newly published novel Peace, Love, and You Know What now on Kindle — and doing freelance gigs, including this column.

I presume most of the books I review will be ones that arrive at Tempo Editor Rick Romancito’s desk. From the pile he’s already given me, I envision books, non-fiction and fiction, published by university and museum presses. There will be books by writers lucky enough to get a contract with a publishing house and those who have taken that on themselves. Many will be local writers, which given Taos’ creative energy won’t surprise me.

I’ve already sent Rick the first column with reviews of two books. I reviewed an album of black and white photos taken during the early ’80s. A newcomer to New Mexico, the photographer turned his camera’s lens on a few of the state’s Hispanic communities.

An academic wrote the second book about author Jean Toomer and his unfinished play about Taos. Toomer, part of the Harlem Renaissance, came to Taos in the ’20s at the invitation of Mabel Dodge Luhan, the grand dame of the arts.

I have always been a big reader. As a kid, I was holed up in my bedroom with a pile of books from the library. My favorites are the ones that make me forget that I am reading. My bookcases at home are filled with them.

I don’t anticipate every book Rick hands me will have the same effect. But my goal is to read them through to the end before I give a thoughtful but fair review. If the book has faults, I will point them out. I won’t gush.

Of course, reviews are subjective. Someone might love what I don’t and visa versa.

I’ve already read the next two books. I’ve taken notes and used pieces of paper to mark the pages that contain something significant I might want to note or quote.

Writing about writing: I like the idea.

This is a link to my farewell column in The Taos Newshttp://www.taosnews.com/news/article_b94efa7c-1245-11e6-a0c2-fbf2f6e1f94e.html

And here is the link to Peace, Love, and You Know What (soon to be out on paperback) on Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/Peace-Love-You-Know-What-ebook/dp/B01E03WMQC

PHOTO ABOVE: This is the first year since I planted our lilac bushes eight years ago that they’ve bloomed. (Maybe there is something symbolic.) Each spring I would cheer on the buds but then a cold snap would take them. This year we had cold but also snow, which might have insulated the buds. The bushes are outside the door we use the most. I plan to clip a few buds to bring inside because they smell so damn sweet.

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I am sitting in somebody's car while wearing big, pink sunglasses.
books, friends, hippies

From One Who Was There

At first, my friend Fred Fullerton was going to hold off reading my novel Peace, Love, and You Know What until it came out in paperback. But then he couldn’t resist. After all, he makes a cameo appearance.

Fred is one of the party-goers at the three-day graduation bash held at a slummy, college apartment. Joey, a brainy but nervous guy who loves poetry, is one of the roommates. It’s the first night of the bash. Here is the excerpt:

Joey sat several feet away, talking it up with another heavy thinker, a guy who returned to Westbridge on the GI Bill after being stationed in Europe. He was into that expat thing, wearing a beret and smoking a pipe. The two were deep into William Carlos William’s Kora in Hell Improvisations. Joey rushed to the attic to get his copy, dog-eared and filled with his notes. The two passed a joint and read the best passages aloud while the expat’s foxy German wife chain-smoked unfiltered Gauloises.

“Read that line again. I think I heard something new there,” Joey told the expat.

Fred attended Bridgewater State College, now a university, in the sixties. He went into the service and was stationed in Germany before returning to finish his degree. He moved back to Germany after he graduated, but now lives in the U.S.

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Fred shortly after he moved back to German in 1974.

I met Fred during his second go-round at the college. We have remained very good friends since, keeping in contact via letters, emails, and visits when I am back East. Yeah, he’s a heavy thinker with a great sense of humor. He’s also a reader and writer. And, he’s also one of the few people I used directly as inspiration for this comedy from the seventies.

So, although Fred read earlier drafts of the novel, he downloaded the Kindle app to his computer April 18. Then, the emails began.  I am going to quote from the less personal messages.

Here’s the first: I downloaded the Kindle edition of Love, Peace & You Know What and want to read the final version since the last time I read it was while you were still editing it. I chuckled at the party scene where Joey and the expat are discussing and read William Carlos Williams Kora in Hell: Improvisations. I guess I’ll have to read it so I can discuss it with “Joey.”

Yup, Joey is another of my characters inspired by a real person. But this is fiction, not a memoir.

Then, I asked Fred to check the acknowledgements at the end of the novel. He’s in there.

The back and forth began. Fred would read a little. I would find a question in my email, several times a day.

Curious …who was the gay prof at the 3-day party at 221 Winter St.?

He asks about other characters. He recalls dear friends from our tribe who died. I let him know which characters are total fabrications, which are most of them.

I’m having a ball reading this book. Even though I read earlier drafts, this is much improved and really funny! It’s also bringing back lots of memories … the coffee shop (I lived in the boarding house above it my freshman year), and other places. I spent many, many evenings at Westbridge Apartments, which you accurately rename the Roach Motel!

Yes, it was an apt description of the row of apartments that resembled more of a motel than student housing. It’s no longer there. Also, 221 Winter Street is a variation of an actual address. The layouts of the campus and town were as I remember it then. (I haven’t been back since I graduated but I am planning a field trip soon.)

I’m reading your book as if I were drinking a fine wine or whiskey in small sips. At this rate, I might have a review for you by this weekend.

The emails sped up.

I also like how the music at Ned’s [Professor Ned Burke AKA Professor Groovy] memorial service is Edith Piaff’s “Non, je ne regrette rien.” It’s as apropos as his dying “in the saddle,” so to speak.

I listened to her sing that song a few times while I wrote the scene.

On April 22: I love the part where Joey teaches Beowulf to Mack’s class. Yes, Beowulf is a terrific tale. I can’t remember when I first read it, perhaps in high school, but I’ve read it a few times since.

I tell Fred I had to teach Beowulf to high school freshmen when I was a student teacher. I don’t think I was very successful. I only got a B.

You rascal! You put your dad in there as Coach Tony Madrid! 😀

Yes, I used my father for the character of the man who was retiring after coaching generations of high school students. Tim, one of the main characters, is covering his retirement sendoff for a newspaper.

I’m almost done. Your book is laugh-out-loud funny. I especially cracked up when Manny said, “I feel like I’m in somebody’s acid trip.” You’ve got so much going on in the book. It’s not only a roman à clef but also a Bildungsroman with a good dose of Sturm und Drang!

I tell Fred I still find the book funny after reading it a zillion times.

And on April 23: The review is “alive” on Amazon. It was fun to do!

Yes, you can go to Amazon and see it for yourself. Fred gave the novel five stars. Thank you dear friend.

Here’s the link: http://www.amazon.com/Peace-Love-You-Know-What-ebook/dp/B01E03WMQC/ref=la_B01E1HKIDG_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1461508808&sr=1-1

Peace, Love, and You Know What will be out in paperback hopefully soon. I am going to attempt audio, even with my New England accent.

PHOTO ABOVE: I used this photo once before for my piece about my obsession with Bob Dylan’s music. My sister sent me this photo. I am sitting in somebody’s car while I am wearing big, pink sunglasses. I don’t remember who took it or the occasion. But I like the stray curl.

 

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