Saturday, February 21, 2015

Who Is To Blame When a Child Goes Astray?


You’ve followed all the rules: you went to school; built a reliable middle-class profession; got married; bought a nice house; created a family; made a good home; participated in your community—you’ve volunteered; supported charities; given to friends and family members in need; voted at every election—you’ve been a good son, sibling, friend, husband, father—and then one evening after a hard day’s work, you’re home with your wife and children, eating dinner, the television providing background white noise. A news bulletin catches your attention. There has been another assassination: the Democratic nominee for President of the United States, the hope of the nation, the person who is going to turn things around, has been killed, shot by an assassin’s bullet—and you hear your son’s name; your college-student son; the child of your first marriage; the child you left behind, identified as the alleged shooter, branded as a terrorist—and in that flash of mere seconds, your safe, secure, textbook life swirls off of the planet—lost forever in the utter blackness of the unknown.

                 In the wake of unshakeable evidence of his son’s guilt, including a confession, the father applies the logic of a medical diagnostician, which he is by profession, to uncover possible extenuating circumstances, and in the retracing he tries to justify his own performance as a non-custodial parent to his first-born child. In the retracing, we witness a story known far too well by many of us—one, that despite our good intentions, we have, and will, fail our children. We get caught up in some current event: we divorce and lose daily contact with our children; we are offered the career opportunity of our lives across the country and we become holidays-and-summer-vacations-parents; we get sick; our spouse is unfaithful; one of our children dies; we lose our job. Or, even if we’ve done everything right, something within the nature of the child steers him/her onto the wrong course. We have, and will, fail our children. They have, and will, fail us.

                Author Noah Hawley, in his compelling novel The Good Father, has written a father’s agonizing search to prove his son’s innocence—to prove his own innocence, ultimately. But, in the end, this is an intelligent and emotional exploration of one man’s fantasy that he would be the lucky one, the wise one, who would save his child, and in turn, the child would save him. At the dark heart of the novel, this father’s coming to terms with his fallibility as a parent is a sobering lesson to all of us.

The brilliance of Hawley’s The Good Father is that it does not try to solve the enigma of why, in the face of inadequate nurture and/or nature, some children make it and some do not. It respects the integrity of the unexplainable and tells a thought-provoking story that illustrates the impossibility of answering the question: “Who is to blame when a child goes astray?” 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Readers and Writers Have Much to Learn from Author William Styron in His Sophie’s Choice

Finding the right title for a book is often the bane of an author’s existence. One highly successful present-day author is so book-title challenged that she runs contests among beta readers to come up with the best titles for her tomes. Author William Styron (1925 - 2006) didn’t have that problem, and of all of the great titles among his published works, the absolute spot-on one is Sophie’s Choice, published in 1979. Apart from the fact that it has found a home in the lexicon as an idiom translated as “faced with a forced decision in which all options have equally negative outcomes,” amazingly, those two little words hold within themselves the entire description of this 626-page novel. This is because contained in every major theme of this masterwork, Sophie is confronted with unbearable choices—she just can’t win, a consequence infecting everyone else around her—and of course, that is the seminal factor of the story. She is doomed, as is her paramour Nathan. An adjunct to the story is Stingo’s unlucky fate, as well—Stingo, the narrator of this story about three people in three separate rooms in a boarding house in post Second World War Brooklyn and the third leg of the ménage a trios around which the novel is constructed—Stingo, the young and naive writer whose life can only be construed as a portrayal of Willian Styron himself; Nathan, the drug-riddled, brilliant and charismatic lover; and Sophie, the beautiful and embattled Polish survivor of the Nazi terror, around whom the plot centers in regard to a tragic decision she was forced to make upon imprisonment at Auschwitz Concentration Camp during the war.
            Stingo’s Sophie’s Choice, to make use of the idiom here, was whether or not to woo Sophie, for whom he suffered an agonizing passion, or to honor his friendship with Nathan. A choice between his unbearable life or release through self-inflicted death was Nathan’s Sophie’s Choice. And Sophie’s options, or lack thereof, were fixed a handful of years before, specifically on the day she came face to face with the fascists' hideous ignominy toward life—her chances ruined by the blight it continued to cast on her life, as on countless others, for incalculable years following the war to defeat Hitler's evil regime.
Despite his unrequited desire to bed Sophie, and his failed attempts at love with every surrogate female who crossed his path, Stingo/Styron did walk away with a good story that found voice in the bestselling Sophie’s Choice, a winner of the US National Book Award for Fiction and the book widely considered his greatest literary achievement. Five years in the writing, the book was, says Styron, “suggested by a mere germ of experience. I had been living in a boardinghouse in Brooklyn one summer just after the war and such a girl lived on the floor above me; she was beautiful, but ravaged. I never got to know her very well, but I was moved by her plight. Then, about five years ago, I awoke one morning with a remembrance of this girl; a vivid dream haunted my mind. I suddenly sensed that I had been given a mandate to abandon the novel I had been at work on and write her story.”
Although deemed a modern masterpiece and a profound meditation on the foremost evil of the Twentieth Century, it is not without controversy, especially among those who consider some topics so heinous as to be unspeakable. A number of his detractors found Styron opportunistic and exploitive in this choice of topic, this one especially judged the third rail of letters. Styron answered his critics thusly: “No event could be so hideous that it would defy a novelist to trespass upon it. It was an episode in history that cried out to be explored, the ultimately challenging subject for a novelist.”
Bringing history to life in fiction can be tricky business. The central dilemmas of the authors of historical fiction are how to avoid coming across as pedantic, as well as how to bypass stiff and dry parroting of statistical information gleaned through research. The best advice I can offer in that regard is to study Styron’s techniques in this book. He couched his deep exploration of the history of the Nazi’s horrendous pursuit of a "Final Solution" in his characters—the actions of his characters revealed the history. He made an untouchable and unutterable story, real and describable by having his characters sweep the floors and vomit all over themselves and pee their pants.      
An additional literary device Styron used successfully, and an effective one often employed by writers, is the suggestion of background music to set a mood or design an ambience, and in this case, to announce Sophie’s presence or absence in her room. Nathan’s phonograph and enviable collection of long-playing classical records, housed in Sophie’s room, were crucial to the story. I last saw this method used in an outstanding book I read in recent months which I will review here in the coming weeks—a novel titled Those Who Save Us, authored by Jenna Blum, another book centered on Second World War Europe. 
I would venture a guess that far more people are familiar with the Academy Award-winning film of the same name than with the book. Although an outstanding film, one of the best, do yourself a favor and read Sophie’s Choice. Savor Styron’s intricate weaving of Stingo’s story, which the film downplayed, but which is the driving force of the book, lending it a full compliment of emotions and diversity of experiences that divert to lighter places, here and there, the heavy stream this novel follows. In addition, Styron’s elaborate prose is not to be missed…but keep your dictionary handy. Styron loved his polysyllabic words. Ha Ha!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Author and Artist Dianne Lynn Gardner on Her New Book Pouraka, a Magical Sea Cavern

Author and artist Dianne Lynn Gardner talks about her book Pouraka today on In Good Company. Check out the cover on this one. This is an example of her great work as a fine artist. This is one multi-talented individual.  


Linda asked me to tell you all what is ‘uppermost’ in my mind.


Well I can tell you my projects and I think you can guess that they are uppermost in my mind. Crazy me, I’ve been working on an Indie film from one of my books (YA fantasy), putting myself in the executive producer, producer and director’s chair. Add to that editing a novel to query (a vampire comedy) and the launch of two books, I’m not too sure I even have a mind left. And if I do it’s pretty much been split up in fragments.

What I would love to tell you about on Linda’s blog is my new novel Pouraka, which will be launched officially on Valentine’s Day, but we’re taking pre orders now.

Pouraka is a mermaid story that I tag as an Underwater Romance.

Why for heaven’s sake did I write a mermaid story, you ask? After having written a long series about dragons and portals and time travel fantasies, how did I end up penning a tale about two  mers in love?

I have a passion for the sea. I grew up on the coast. Beach combing was my favorite past time and I still remember walking the sandy shores on wet foggy days, listening to the constant rumble of the surf and lonely calls of the sea gulls. There aren’t many books that I’ve written that don’t have a touch of sea breeze and white caps in them.

I love myths and legends and parables that explain the reason why things happen. Like thunder comes from an angry God or girls like Pandora can open a box of troubles with their curiosity.

Pouraka is a fairy tale about make believe sea people who could have lived. Who knows? Perhaps they, like many other species are now extinct, and only their stories are left for us to hear.

I have written a prologue to Pouraka. It’s called Sasha and its up on Amazon as a separate book(let). It’s only six pages. But it sets the scene for Pouraka. I hope you enjoy both of the stories.

Synopsis to Pouraka (Pour ah kah)

Pouraka is a magical sea cavern tucked under the rocky cliffs near Barnacle Bay. Cora, a Pouraka mer, is torn between her friends in the seaside town, and her true love Tas, a foreign mer whose people fled when men invaded their waters.

Life becomes more difficult for all mers. An arrogant oil rigger's son, Tom, finds the bay and the rich aquatic life it harbors. When Tas attempts to rescue a pod of dolphins from Tom's gill net, he is captured to be sold to a theme park. Cora hears changes into human form and travels south to find him, risking her life to free him.
Time away from Pouraka leaves the cavern vulnerable, and a new threat arises when tourists discover its magic.
I painted the cover for Pouraka and the photograph for Sasha was from our trip to CA at Ano Nuevo where the elephant seals beach.


Monday, February 2, 2015

A Tribute to Writer & Explorer Peter Matthiessen (1927-2014)


Peter Matthiessen’s, The Snow Leopard, winner of the National Book Award: It is my favorite non-fiction book, maybe my favorite book among all genres. The book cover states: "Across the most awesome mountains on earth, Peter Matthiessen went in search of the rare snow leopard. His dangerous trip became a pilgrimage, a luminous journey of the heart.”

Below are two samplings of his extraordinary writing:

“Still I sit a little while, watching the light rise to the peaks. In the boulder at my back, there is a shudder, so slight that at another time it might have gone unnoticed. The tremor comes again; the earth is nudging me. And still I do not see.” The Snow Leopard, p 114

“The two ravens come to tritons on the gompa roof. Gorawk, gorawk, they croak, and this is the name given to them by the sherpas. Amidst the prayer flags and great horns of Tibetan argali, the gorawks greet first light with an odd musical first note—a-ho—that emerges as if by miracle from those ragged throats. Before sunrise every day, the great black birds are gone, like the last great tatters of the night.” The Snow Leopard, p 216

Considered one of the greatest writers of all time, compared to Melville, Conrad, and Dostoyevsky, his lyrical and harrowing explorations of both the world and the human heart, made him the only writer to win the National Book Award for both non-fiction (The Snow Leopard, 1978) and fiction (Shadow Country, 2008).

A literary lion died last year.