The Changing Looks of Books

Once upon a time—and it wasn’t that long ago—books were pretty distinctive.

 

oh places youll go dr seuss
There were picture books for young children, often read to them, often teaching some life lesson.
wonder woman comics
[Source: IDW]
There were comic books, periodicals geared mostly for older children and teens, pretty much equal parts drawings and text. They were/are fast reads, typically 22 pages. Although all are called comics, many were action/adventure, super hero series. Advertisements abound.
harry potter sorcerers stone jk rowling
Then there were “real” books, hundreds of pages of text, complicated plots, and virtually never with pictures. (Oh, yes, I must give a nod to so-called coffee table books, in which photographs are their reason to be. Such books tend to be incredibly expensive. I don’t think their existence undermines my general point here.)

 

contract god will eisnercontract god will eisner
Graphic novels are cartoon drawings that tell a story and are published as a book. Will Eisner is typically credited with popularizing the label “graphic novel” after the publication of his book in 1978. By the mid 1980’s, the public was generally aware of that genre.
 
illuminae
 
Last week, at the beach, I was introduced to yet another emerging book format. Illuminae is bestselling science fiction that tells the story through a mix of realistic graphics, ships logs, text messages, lists of the dead, etc. Unlike cartoon drawings, these are ultra-realistic, from the use of acronyms and abbreviations right down to the occasional typo in text messages. Here are what some of those pages look like.
 
 
This format continues in two subsequent books in the series. Perhaps people are embracing the visuals. Th the very least, readers are not deterred. 
 
illuminae gemina obsidio
 
Another example of the changing looks of books is Night Film, touted as a gorgeously written, spellbinding literary thriller. 
 
night film pessl night film marisha
 
A friend read, recommended, and gifted the book to me. I haven’t read it yet, but just opening it at random I find large chunks of narrative and dialogue interspersed with realistic images representing everything from the results of on-line searches to purported magazine covers to newspaper articles.
 

castagnello drowning accidental

 
And just to add another little twist, at the end of the book one finds the following page. It begins, “If you want to continue the Night Film experience, interactive touch points buried throughout the text will unlock extra content on you smartphone or tablet.
 
night film
 
All the traditional formats of books are still out there. Cathryn Hankla’s lost places was published earlier this year and is completely in traditional text format. It is being very well-received.
 
lost places cathryn hanklalost places cathryn hankla
 
BOTTOM LINE: The visual appearance of books is evolving. I suspect it’s the massive moves in technology which allow such printing diversity. Readers have more choices than ever before. And so do writers!

Discover Richmond for Writers

discover richmond writers
That I am a fan of the Richmond Times Dispatch periodic publication Discover Richmond is no secret, given that I’ve written about it before. The recently published June/July 2018 issue is especially relevant for writers.

 

discover richmond writers
For mystery writers the “Back to class” article is right on target. Michael C. Leopold teaches a class at the University of Richmond titled “Catching Criminals with Chemistry”—which is a relevant bit of info in and of itself. Also, this short (2 p.) article mentions several examples of the chemistry-crime solving connection, including how chemistry reveals clues through analysis of gunshot residue and drug traces. Also, much to my surprise, fingerprint matching is still done by human experts, not computer images. AND the article raises interesting questions, such as, “Does this partial match give police the right to investigate potentially innocent family members—or collect their DNA samples—just because they are related to a felon in the database?” A short but excellent read.

 

discover richmond writers
Potentially relevant to any writer is the long article about the Joint Mortuary Affairs Center at Fort Lee, where the Army teaches those enrolled how to handle the human remains of soldiers—with dignity, reverence, and respect. These three words are emphasized in the article—which immediately leads to many possible story lines in which they are violated or ignored.

 

Most who come for training are enlisted soldiers and marines, but “officer-course attendees come from all of the military service, and from federal agencies such as the State Department and U.S. Park Police.”

 

discover richmond writers
On the other hand, if you want to know how it’s done properly, read on. For example, enrollees practice carrying a weighted casket-like case to master a dignified transfer ceremony. Interestingly, 95% of the Army’s mortuary affairs specialists volunteer for this duty. The Marine Corps requires its specialists to be volunteers. What sort of person would so volunteer? What’s the motivation?

 

Because the work is so “grisly and grueling” those working in mortuary affairs are given many opportunities for mental health and/or religious support to deal with the emotional strain. The article features real people, both trainees and teachers, and gives a concise summary of mortuary affairs in the military.

 

discover richmond writers
For those who write historical fiction and/or nonfiction—or whose plots include references to past events—this issue of Discover Richmond is a gold mine.

 

discover richmond writers
The Archive Dive is just that. It pictures interesting artifacts in various Virginia collections, from Colonial times to WWII. And speaking of Colonial times, I had never made a conscious connection between our English roots and witchcraft. And when considering witchcraft in the colonies, my mind went immediately to Salem, MA. But the earliest witchcraft charges in Virginia were made in September, 1626.

 

discover richmond writers
The article describes the case of Grace Sherwood, who did not drown during the water test, and therefore she was convicted and put into prison. Apparently Virginia courts were reluctant to kill witches, unlike Massachusetts where nineteen so-called witches were executed in one year (1692).
discover richmond writers
Having written a novel set in Bath County in 1930-1935, which included an element of bootlegging, I was particularly interested in “THE WETTEST SPOT ON EARTH” about moonshining during Prohibition in nearby Franklin County. All of this eventually led to national interest and a trial of 34 defendants, 55 unindicted co-conspirators with literally hundreds of witnesses. Much was written about liquor, jury tampering, and murder. It seems Sherwood Anderson wrote about it for Liberty magazine.

 

This article is full of interesting—and sometimes amazing—information. For example, considering the ingredients in moonshine, and equipment to make it, one expert testified that over a four-year period “Franklin—the county had a population 24,000 in 1935—imported 70,448 pounds of yeast, compared with 2,000 pound in the city of Richmond (population 189,000 during the same time frame).”

 

discover richmond writers
Similarly, for sugar, Anderson wrote, “There were said to be single families in the county that used 5,000 pounds of sugar a month.” And the county consumed more than 600,000 five-gallon cans, which would hold a total of 3,501,115 gallons of moonshine coming from this one county. Have I said enough to entice you to read this great article?

 

This issue of Discover Richmond includes many articles I haven’t even mentioned, from the Appalachian Trail to second-hand storestrumpet honeysuckle.

 

discover richmond writers
 
Read it. You’re sure to find something of interest and probably something of use for your writing.

Need Help with Summer Reading?

Last week I wrote about some of the classic books that PBS suggested people read (or love) the most. But if you’re looking for a new book or genre to read, Goodreads has a list of suggestions for you.

[Source: Goodreads]
Goodreads has brought in Lori Hettler, the founder and moderator of The Next Best Book Club, to put together a couple of curated lists of summer reading challenges. The two lists are broken up into sub-categories to help you make it through the challenge.

List 1: Beginner Level

  • Summer-related tasks
  • Tasks to stretch your comfort zone

List 2: Expert Level

  • June Reads
  • July Reads
  • August Reads
  • What to read during any month to stretch your reading comfort zones

These two lists include broader challenges (i.e., reading a book of poetry) to more specific tasks (i.e., reading a book that features a yellow, green, or “sandy” cover).

This could be a great challenge for people who feel like their reading list is lagging or that they’re stuck in a rut, reading in the same genre.

Have you started this Goodreads challenge? What list are you using and what reading task are you most looking forward to?

need help summer reading

Cathryn Hankla Returns to Richmond

cathryn hankla returns richmond
That’s an announcement I’d dearly love to see! Last night was her first reading and signing in Richmond and I, for one, want more. She read from her two newest books. She started with a selection from lost places: on losing and finding home which was released in April.

 

cathryn hankla lost places
It is a memoir in essay form. But unlike the many trauma memoirs out there, this is more an exploration of her life in relation to people and places. She uses home in both a physical and metaphorical sense, and much of what she writes speaks to all of us.I bought the book only last night, and so have not read most of it, but it’s jumped to the top of my list!

 

cathryn hankla galaxies
GALAXIES is a poetry collection published last year. She ended the reading with several selections, including “Galaxy of Virginia History”—both humorous and appalling.

 

Cathy’s writing often elicits adjectives such as droll, urgent, inventive, graceful, passionate, compassionate, unpredictable, and imaginative. She’s published more than a dozen books of poetry, short stories, novels, and now essays. Choose one and become a fan! (As you can tell, I’m one already.)
cathryn hankla published works
Among my favorites are Learning the Mother Tongue and FORTUNE TELLER MIRACLE FISHCathy is a fabulous storyteller! Both of these collections evoke her Appalachian Mountain roots—vividly, poignantly, and endearingly.

 

I actually met Susan Hankla first. I won’t go into that now, having recently blogged about Susan twice. It was in one of Susan’s classes that a fellow student suggested I attend a writing workshop at Nimrod Hall. As many of you know, I’ve been returning to Nimrod Hall since 2004, and intend to do so this year as well.

 

Main building Nimrod Hall
The main building of Nimrod Hall
That is when and where I met Cathy. It was immediately apparent that we have much in common. Besides our shared Appalachian roots, we both have been college professors and chaired our respective departments, albeit her department is English and Creative Writing and mine was Psychology.
writing workshop nimrod hall
Cathy Hankla in our workshop
Cathy conducts helpful and enjoyable writing workshops—which is why I go back year after year. No doubt she is an excellent classroom teacher as well, judging by students of hers who attended last night’s reading. She’s great at both big picture critique and detail editing.
 
cathryn hankla land between blue moon poorwater
 
If you are more inclined to novels than short stories, consider these. And  BTW, she’s poetry editor of The Hollins Critic. Bottom line: whatever your preference, give Cathy Hankla a read. Or a listen, if Richmond is so lucky as to get her back!

 

cathryn hankla returns richmond

The Great American Read

Great American Read
 
The flyer pretty much says it all. PBS has compiled a list of books—goodness only knows the criteria—and invites people to vote for their #1 between now and October 23. The list is pretty much alphabetical, which seems to be the only organizing principle.
There are children’s books, such as Charlotte’s Web, The Little Prince, and Harry Potter (the series).
great american read charlottes web
[Source: Scholastic]
Then there are sci-fi and fantasy, e.g., 1984, Jurassic ParkThe Lord of the Rings (series), and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
 
alices adventures in wonderland
[Source: Amazon]
Mysteries are well represented, including And Then There Were None, and Alex Cross Mysteries (series). It’s a mystery to me that Sherlock Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey didn’t make it.
and then there were none agatha christie
[Source: Amazon]
The list includes old books, such as To Kill A Mockingbird, Little Women, Gone With the Wind,  and The Great Gatsby.
 
And then there are really old books such as Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Moby Dick. My personal favorite in this category is Pride and Prejudice. If a book’s popularity is judged by the amount of fanfiction it’s generated, then Pride and Prejudice must be the hands-down winner, for there are literally hundreds of those out there.
[Source: Tripping Over Books]
I’ve already indicated that the list includes series. Others areThe Chronicles of Narnia, Foundation, Game of Thrones, Hatchet, The Hunger Games, Left Behind, The Twilight Saga, and (my personal favorite) Outlander. I’ve written about Diana Gabaldon in the past so I won’t go into that series here, beyond saying it’s one of the greatest soap operas ever written. And I wonder why the Poldark series isn’t on the list.
chronicles of narnia book series
[Source: Idea Wiki]
A series which is on the list is Fifty Shades of Grey, and I can’t help wondering why. The writing is dreadful, the story line is cliché, and the sex scenes repetitive. I read them all, trying to figure out why they topped the best-seller lists for so long. It got to the point that I’d think, Oh, elevator sex again, and turn the page. Or, Another shattering orgasm, and roll my eyes. I finally decided that the appeal was that of Cinderella, updated with cell phones and private jets. The couple’s apparent obsession with each other might have made readers recollect the infatuations of their youth—or the youth they wish they’d had. I can’t imagine that the real appeal was the S&M aspect. One can find better online—for free—or so I’ve been told. Of course, all this is just my opinion. What’s yours?
50 Shades
BOTTOM LINE: Peruse the PBS list and vote!

Guest Review: Let’s No One Get Hurt

Like most readers, I have my habits. In the service of exposing my readers to a wider perspective, I have invited Christina Cox, fellow book lover, to offer her opinions on a recent read. Thank you, Christina!


I first found out about Let’s No One Get Hurt because the author, Jon Pineda, teaches at my alma mater (The University of Mary Washington). I’m a big fan of his poetry, but I’d never read any of his fiction, so I thought I would give it a shot.

lets no one get hurt
[Source: Goodreads]
The premise of the story piqued my interest immediately. From Goodreads:

Fifteen-year-old Pearl is squatting in an abandoned boathouse with her father, a disgraced college professor, and two other grown men, deep in the swamps of the American South. All four live on the fringe, scavenging what they can–catfish, lumber, scraps for their ailing dog. Despite the isolation, Pearl feels at home with her makeshift family: the three men care for Pearl and teach her what they know of the world.

Mason Boyd, aka “Main Boy,” is from a nearby affluent neighborhood where he and his raucous friends ride around in tricked-out golf carts, shoot their fathers’ shotguns, and aspire to make Internet pranking videos. While Pearl is out scavenging in the woods, she meets Main Boy, who eventually reveals that his father has purchased the property on which Pearl and the others are squatting. With all the power in Main Boy’s hands, a very unbalanced relationship forms between the two kids, culminating in a devastating scene of violence and humiliation.

With the cinematic and terrifying beauty of the American South humming behind each line, Jon Pineda’s Let’s No One Get Hurt is a coming-of-age story set equally between real-world issues of race and socioeconomics, and a magical, Huck Finn-esque universe of community and exploration.

I was about ten pages into the novel when it clicked that this was the best book I’d read all year (what made it even better was that I was reading it by the river, so I really felt like I was right there with the characters). You can tell Pineda’s a poet; every line in the novel is meticulously worded and placed. The novel gets dark– and I mean really dark– in some places, but through it all shines Pearl, who has proved herself to be one of my favorite literary heroines. Consider this great paragraph:

My mother used to say that poems were never finished, that they were only abandoned. I like to take some things my mother said and flip them on their head. For instance, I think all abandoned things are poems. In this way, if this place where we live together is truly abandoned, then we are living inside a poem.

My father says I’m fifteen going on fifty.

I’d absolutely recommend this book. It’s a great size read, especially for the summer. While you’re at it, you can check out Pineda’s poetry as well!

Short Blog for a Short Book

short blog short book
Last week I blogged about Susan Hankla as a teacher. But thinking about Susan, and about the RTD article about her as a poet that prompted that blog, I decided to explore her writing. Besides ordering Clinch River, I also acquired a copy of this 1979 chapbook.

 

There are eight poems in this chapbook:

 

  1. “The Air Is Getting Thin”
  2. “Lost Glove”
  3. “Burning Your Letters”
  4. “Hours”
  5. “Pleasing Mrs. Faris”
  6. “Three Foolish Things”
  7. “A Larger Pain”
  8. “Running Home”
Each poem includes rich images, unexpected transitions, and surprising endings. You can read this book in minutes. Or hours. Or over days. But if you can get access, do read it.

 

Only 350 copies were printed, so there aren’t that many copies floating around—which is unfortunate.

 

Good luck in your quest!

Learning from Susan Hankla

learning susan hankla
Today’s Richmond Times Dispatch (5/15/18) had an excellent article about local writer and teacher Susan Hankla. It talked a lot about her Appalachian roots and includes seductive snippets from her most recent book, Clinch River. The article focused on Susan Hankla the writer. I want to talk about Susan Hankla the teacher.
clinch river susan hankla
For ten years I enrolled in at least two of her classes per year, usually three. I can just imagine you rolling your eyes and asking, “Why?” Because every class was different, even when it carried the same title. The assignments were her creations, nothing taken from the plethora of writing books and prompts out there. And unlike many writing teachers, Susan created a new syllabus for each class—typically including readings associated with the assignment.
susan hankla
Susan’s teaching covered a broad range of themes. The classes I took with her included such titles as Fiction, Magical Realism, Memoir, Mixed Forms, and Writing Fiction Based on Works of Art. She also offered classes in poetry. Per the Times Dispatch interview, Susan said she isn’t a novelist. Well, I’m not a poet.

 

learning susan hankla
I have now published more than fifty short stories in literary journals and anthologies. Dozens of my short pieces began as three-page assignments in Susan’s classes. For a sampling of some of the weirder ones, often funny, check out my collection in Different Drummer.

 

The RTD article “The World Inside Her” talked about Susan’s inner world. But she was able to bring forth the worlds inside dozens of her students, certainly including me. Many of us came back again and again, beneficiaries of her creativity as a teacher.
susan hankla
Susan’s classes were always structured the same. First day, we received a syllabus for the semester, including assignments, due dates, and class rules. We met once a week. At each meeting, each student distributed their work (3 pages max, double spaced) to everyone else and then read it aloud. Then Susan and each of the students would give feedback. Seeing how ten or so other people working from the same assignment went in ten or so different directions was incredibly enlightening.
 
Even more enlightening was comparing what readers made of my work compared to what I thought I’d put on the page.
 
From high school until my first class with Susan, I had no formal writing instruction. (I’d tested out of freshman composition in college.) I learned the basics of non-academic writing from Susan, AND I learned to give and receive helpful feedback.
 
susan hankla
 
Susan cared passionately about her students. When she “graduated” me after ten years, I felt the loss of her mentorship deeply. I shall always be grateful for the ten years I had with her.

Consider Personal Symbols

I recently read The Thorn Chronicles by Kimberly Loth. This is a 4-book series for an early teen audience.
thorn chronicles
[Source: Goodreads]
It’s a fairly familiar plot line of good versus evil, with an eventual twist of trying to mediate and balance those forces. (Frankly, the books could use a good edit to catch repetitions, omitted words and using the almost-right word, e.g. viscous when the context suggests the right word was vicious.) I’m writing about it because within this series, the two major women characters had symbolic plant connections.

 

The series opens with Naomi, a sixteen-year-old girl, running away from an abusive home. While at home, Naomi gathered strength and peace working in the rose garden her grandmother started. Each chapter begins with a rose the name of which ties to the content of the chapter.

 

The characters age slowly, but they do age. Their save-the-world challenges are so big-stage that the reader (I, at least) must readjust when there is a reference to going to school, being suspended for a week, etc.

 

I’ve read that YA fiction features protagonists who are 3 to 5 years older than the target audience. Perhaps that’s the reason for the shift in the second two books.

 

secrets kimberly loth
[Source: Goodreads]
In the third book, the focus shifts to the POV of a younger protege of Naomi’s. She was 12 or 13 when Naomi befriended her, and is now 15 or 16. The plant symbolism shifts to cacti. Each chapter starts with cactus facts, names, and/or descriptions.

 

lies kimberly loth
[Source: Goodreads]
In the latest book of the series, both women are prominent. Each chapter begins with a plant epigram, either rose or cactus, signaling POV.

 

The point here is that having signature symbols can ease transitions between/among POVs. It needn’t be plants. It could be pets. It could be something astrological, or mineral elements, or whatever your imagination suggests.

 

Bottom line: Consider some symbolic representation for your protagonist and/or other major characters.