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.

Reading Whatever Comes to Hand

From April 13 to September 30 the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is displaying sculptures by Kevin Box. Each piece begins as a paper-inspired design. His process of turning that paper inspiration into bronze, aluminum, and/or steel requires 35 steps and takes 12 weeks. I read about it in Volume 1, Issue 1 of the new Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden Magazine. Also included in the magazine are five tips from a nature photographer and using natural enemies for pest management, among other articles.

 

reading whatever comes hand
By reading the back of the map of the Sea Pines Forest Preserve I learned that the Indian Shell Ring is 4,000 years old and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
And there you have it: I read virtually everything that comes to hand—and usually learn something from it! All last week I was on Hilton Head Island, with a day trip to Savannah, GA, for a tour of hidden gardens. The tour ticket included a “southern tea” at the Green-Meldrim House.
reading whatever comes hand
The information card about the house gave all sorts of facts about the history, construction, and ownership of the house. But it also included this bit of information: “…upon the invitation of Mr. Green, General William Tecumseh Sherman used the house as headquarters when the Federal army occupied Savannah during the Civil War. It was at this time (December, 1864) that General Sherman sent his famous telegram to President Lincoln offering him the City of Savannah as a Christmas gift.”  Who knew? Not I—in spite of growing up near Lancaster, Ohio, home of William Tecumseh Sherman, having toured his home, and having written several short stories set during the Civil War.

 

Not surprisingly, this little freebie contains an article on how tides work—always relevant to sailors—along with the legend of the Jake, the Salty Dog. I had to laugh when I read the 2-page spread on why dogs aren’t allowed at the Salty Dog Cafe these days.

 

reading whatever comes hand
Back in 1987 dogs of all shapes and sizes accompanied their owners to lunch, dinner, and happy hour. That ended when the owners realized that “If you allow several dogs of any variety in close proximity to each other, add children with cheeseburgers and ice cream cones, throw in a margarita for the dog owners, the problems can and will begin.” Duh! The info then went on to give examples. BTW, food at The Salty Dog was excellent.

 

reading whatever comes hand
I found this religious tract in a restaurant booth. Even here I found something to enjoy. I read the Bible twice, cover to cover, in my youth and memorized verses at church camp in the summers. Every page of this booklet contains a quote from the Bible, and seeing which verses were attached to which misbehaviors was interesting.

 

reading whatever comes hand
As I recall, this booklet was included with a Virginia Rep play program. I can’t imagine why, so maybe I’m mistaken. But here it is, and very interesting it is, too. Did you know that the first Civil Rights Act was passed in 1866? It gave African-Americans the right to make and enforce contracts, sue and be sued, “give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property, and to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings… as is enjoyed by white citizens.”

 

reading whatever comes hand
This publication follows the history of housing in Virginia from those earliest days through 2011, and it’s well worth a read.

 

reading whatever comes hand
My penchant for reading virtually anything and everything is so well known that one of my daughters sends clippings from her local paper that she thinks might interest me. For example, Sweet is the story of a family whose attic filled with thousands of honeybees, producing so much honey that it dripped down the side of the house.

 

reading whatever comes hand
My most recent read is the April/May 2018 issue of Discover Richmond. As usual, there are lots of good things here, but as a former college teacher, I was especially interested in the article “Then and now: new views of old textbook passages.” Virginia history textbooks in use from the mid-1950s into the 1970s presented a view of the past so warped as to be laughable—if it weren’t also so hurtful. For example, “ON SLAVERY—The slave ‘did not work so hard as the average free laborer, since he did not have to worry about losing his job. In fact, the slave enjoyed what we might call comprehensive social security. Generally speaking, his food was plentiful, his clothing adequate, his cabin warm, his health protected and his leisure carefree.”
reading whatever comes hand
BOTTOM LINE: Read whatever comes your way and you, too, could know that kites were used during the Civil War to deliver letters and newspapers, that drinking water after eating reduces the acid in your mouth by 61%, that 9 out of every 10 living things live in the ocean, that the University of Alaska spans four time zones, that peanut oil is used for cooking in submarines because it doesn’t smoke unless it’s heated above 450 degrees Fahrenheit…

Poetry Power

national poetry month
 
Since 1995 April has been National Poetry Month. I’m not a poet, but when my Creative Nonfiction teacher (Amy Ritchie Johnson) gave the class an assignment  to write a nonsense poem, I had to come up with something—and here it is!

 

SCHIZO
What’s the difference between a beet,
A round, red, sweet beet?
It must be trees—a trillion trees
With billions of buds and billions of bees.
Why that answer? Why? Why?
Because two salmon swim in the sky.
A motorcycle has no doors,
No roof, no windows, no mats for floors.
But that’s okay. It does not matter.
We’re saved by chocolate peanut batter.
And Grandma rides old lady bikes
With three tall wheels. She vaults over dykes.
And when those thoughts go bump in the night,
They leap from corners to laugh in the light.
I cover my eyes. I cover my ears.
I shake in my shoes and scald in my tears.
My brain is swollen, cracked and black.
Six special spiders sit stitching it back.

 

It was a fun exercise.

 

poetry power
I first became aware of poetry in high school when Mrs. Fischer, my English teacher, gave us a quote for the day to memorize. It was often Emily Dickinson, but sometimes Shakespeare or Poe. I memorized “The Raven”—also “Bells” and “Annabelle Lee.” Poe has been a favorite ever since, along with Sherman Alexie, Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan.

 

poetry power
The Academy of American Poets was founded in 1934 in New York City with a mission of supporting American poets at all stages of their careers and to foster the appreciation of contemporary poetry. On their website, poets.org, you can buy books, keep up with poetry, and sign up for a poem a day—for free!

 

poetry power
If you’re not a poet, why bother? Consider the words of Tracy K. Smith, U.S. Poet Laureate.
poetry power
Who are your favorite poets?

A Wrinkle in Time Redux

tuck austin associates wrinkle time redux
(L-R: me, Christina Cox, Kristi Tuck Austin, Lenore Gay, Diane Major)
Last Friday 5 A Wrinkle in Time (Re)Readers met at Bowtie Cinema for the movie. Great conversations before and after. I’ve often said that I never met a boring writer! And frankly, socializing was the Friday night gold; the movie, on the other hand, was barely bronze.

 

wrinkle in time movie poster
[Photo Source: Collider]
In the interests of full disclosure, I admit to a bias against Disney movies. They have “prettified” great fairy tales, which I find hard to forgive. But that said, there are specific reasons I think that in this case the book is much better.
 
One expects some things to be cut when a book becomes a movie. I, for one, didn’t mind that two of Meg’s brothers were cut. They played virtually no part in the book. On the other hand, I’m disappointed that all the science was cut, limited to a few scenes showing science-looking equipment. And contrary to the book, Meg’s father uses the phrase “wrinkle in time” right up front.

 

oprah mrs which wrinkle time redux
[Source: HelloGiggles]
But my biggest disappointment was that the movie changes the characters! In the book, Mrs. Which is barely there physically, having difficulty maintaining a corporeal form. In that role, Oprah Winfrey is the opposite. She is introduced as larger than life, a giant with sparkling makeup and clothes that reminded me of armor. Even at a human size, she dominates every scene in which she appears, and I was constantly aware that I was watching Oprah Winfrey playing a role.

 

wrinkle in time redux
[Source: Cosmopolitan]
I found the performance of Reese Witherspoon very appealing. I liked her insouciance and asides. But in the book Mrs. Whatsit never doubted Meg, her commitment, or her ability.

 

evil charles wallace wrinkle time redux
[Source: Disney Wiki]
I didn’t really mind the combination of the ultimate evil and the IT. I wasn’t sure what their separate spheres were in the book. And in the movie, I liked the images of the evil snaking out into the universe.

 

Which brings me to what I liked about the movie. Disney does special effects well. I especially liked the images of Mrs. Whatsit flying through space with the children on her back—though in the book, I don’t remember that the children also flew.

 

wrinkle time redux
Storm Reid and Deric McCabe were great as Meg and Charles Wallace! They were believable, rich, and true to their characters in the book.

 

I applaud the cross-cultural, cross-race depictions. On the other hand, by the end of the movie, I felt as though making sure every couple as well as the three Mrs. were multiracial was a bit forced.

 

Last but not least, where the book is sophisticated the movie is a sledge hammer: light and love conquer darkness and evil. But I guess however one gets the message, the message is good.
wrinkle in time 1970
[Source: Wikipedia]
Read the book and see for yourself! What do you think?

Apples and Oranges in Fantasy Fiction

As you may recall from earlier posts, I recently read the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas, and I committed to reading A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle before the March premiere of the movie.

 

I’ve now started reading A Wrinkle in Time, and I’m stunned by the sharp contrasts between the two. While both are fantasy fiction, they are virtual opposites on the major dimensions. Here are a few I’ve noticed so far.

 

Age in WITMeg is approximately 13, Calvin (her love interest) is 14, and Charles Wallace is 5 years old. Meg and Calvin are typical teens in a realistic school when the story opens.

 

Age in TOG: Celaena/Aelin is approaching her 18th birthday when the series begins and ages to 20 over the series; her early love interests Sam, Cael, and Prince Dorian are approximately her age; her later love, Rowan, is hundreds of years old. Celaena excels as a trained assassin. Her love interests are assassins, warriors, and magic wielders.

 

Affection in WIT: Meg and Calvin hold hands, Calvin puts his arm around her (so far).

 

Affection in TOG: Lots of sensuality, moderately explicit, including nudity, sharing beds, and sexual union.

 

Commonality: In both books, the heroines feel safe and protected by their loves.

 

Assistants in WIT: Gentle, helpful assistants in the form of supernatural beings with names such as Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, The Happy Medium, and Aunt Beast.

 

Assistants in TOG: Fae Warriors, a shape-shifter, Ironteeth witches, assassins from the desert, armadas from other kingdoms

 

Evil in WIT: IT, a bodiless telepathic brain who controls people, making them do the same things together in the manner of robots—absolute conformity; and The Black Thing, who is the source of all evil in the universe, and that’s about all the specificity about him.

 

Evil in TOG: The ultimate evil is Erawan, who enslaves others to be his minions (e.g., the King of Adarlan) in conquering everyone, everywhere using death and destruction, torture, beings who can take over another’s skin, and a magic “key” that allows him to gather beasts from the realm beyond the portals and create animal/human hybrids.

 

Why these stark differences? I can only speculate. It may be partly that the target audience of WIT is younger than the target audience of TOG. Then again, WIT was published in 1962 and TOG was published in 2012. Maybe young adults now are older than they were fifty years ago.
Stay tuned: I’ll blog again when I finish A Wrinkle in Time.

Stories Within Stories

stories within stories h hawk
[Source: Amazon]
H Is for Hawk is my most recent book purchase—as in, I downloaded it to my Kindle last night. I am looking forward to a great read.

 

Yesterday, the teacher in my Creative Nonfiction class read aloud from Macdonald’s book as an example of exceptional nature writing—though if you look it up online, it’s labeled a memoir. The section she read revealed the process Macdonald went through before finally naming her goshawk Mabel. The writing was rich and compelling.

 

stories within stories macdonald hawk
[Source: wbur]
Several people in the class had already read the book and they all praised it to high heaven—which isn’t surprising, given that it’s not only a bestseller but also the winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction, the Costa Book of the Year Award, and the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger in France.

 

Class discussion revealed a very complex book. It’s factually fascinating, with all sorts of information about falconry and training a hawk. It has quite a lot about an earlier British falconer White. And it’s about grieving her father’s death. As Dwight Garner put it in The New York Times, “Helen Macdonald’s beautiful and nearly feral book, H Is for Hawk, reminds us that excellent nature writing can lay bare some of the intimacies of the wild world as well. Her book is so good that, at times, it hurt me to read it. It draws blood, in ways that seem curative.”
Over lunch, another long-time writing friend whose work I admire said H Is for Hawk is her all-time most loved book. Who could resist endorsements such as these? Would you care to read with me?

Helping Hands for 2018

You may recall that I am enrolled in a Creative Nonfiction class at the VMFA Studio School this spring. The first day of class Amy Ritchie Johnson distributed a page of books labeled “resources” and “writing craft.” Resources turn out to be books she considers to be well-written examples of the the variety available in creative nonfiction—ranging from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) by James Agee and Walker Evans to a couple of local blog writers.

 

Under writing craft, the first book listed is Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (1986) by Natalie Goldberg. If you’ve ever taken a writing class, pretty much anywhere, you’ve probably come across Goldberg fans. Writing Down the Bones is now out in the 30th Anniversary Edition. Yep, it’s been around that long—and is still relevant as ever, including writing advice and get-going exercises.

 

helping hands 2018 also natalie goldberg
If Writing Down the Bones is already an old, familiar friend, check out some of her other books. Consider her memoir and poetry. But if you really want to focus on writing craft, you can do that, too.

 

old friend wild mind natalie goldberg
So, I wasn’t surprised to see Writing Down the Bones on the class booklist. But seeing Ursula K. Le Guin there knocked my socks off.
 
steering craft 21st century guide sailing sea story
 
Apparently this book first appeared in 1998. This is now the 2015 edition. Le Guin labels the book “a handbook for storytellers—writers of narrative prose.” And it is just that. As you can see by the chapter titles, she’s organized it by the nuts and bolts of saying what you mean.

 

helping hands 2018
Although the topics sound mundane—if not actually boring—the book isn’t. Each section has excellent exercises and variations, and a very informative discussion of the topic. The extended sailing metaphor wore on me a bit, but the book is a very manageable 140 pages.

 

selected books ursula k leguin
Although I read some of her fiction decades ago, I never knew of her as a writing teacher. She died recently and this is her only book on the craft of writing. Buy it!
 
helping hands 2018 anne lamott
 
I’ll mention just one other book on the recommended list. I’ve had Bird By Bird on my shelves forever but haven’t read it. Maybe this year.

 

poets writers inspiration
Last but not least, consider this bi-mothly magazine for writers. This is the January-February issue and could be useful all year with the 52 IDEAS TO BOOST YOUR CREATIVITY IN 2018. You can see from the cover what the main topics are for this issue. In spite of the focus on poetry, much of the magazine is of interest to virtually everyone.

 

Lots of the contents never age, but the classifieds section is the exception. Calls for submissions and contests can be time sensitive.

 

Bottom line: there are a lot of helping hands for our craft. Take one or two—or more!