A writer confesses, Book reviews

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid–sort of Graham Greene-ish

I took a break from Runaway, a manuscript I am reading for a writing friend, last night and devoted my reading hour(s) to finishing The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid.  I had to.  Fundamentalist was a library book and it was soon coming due.  Not that I haven’t ever been guilty of 1. returning a book before finishing it or 2. returning a book after its due date.  But when a book is so excellently written, it would be a sin not to finish it.  How else can excellent writing be cultivated if it is not read?

Funda was sort of Graham Greene-ish.  It features a young, principled man trying to make his Horatio Algiered way in the world.  Changez possesses a sharp, steel-trap mind, a soccer player’s agile body, and oceans of politeness.  He hails from Pakistan, yes, but he is the right kind of foreigner.  Not the kind to embarrass.  You can bring him home to mom and dad.  He can represent your company’s “face of diversity.”

But what happens to such a hero after hijackers of roughly his skin color, subscribing to his religion and from, approximately, his part of the world, suicide crash planes into the World Trade Center? How does he change? How does the cosmos of faces around him  change? Is he still the guy you want to represent your company’s “face of diversity”? Really? What about if he starts sporting a beard? Are you sure you’re still on board with that? And are you quite sure you want to partake of that drink he just poured for you? Oh, that’s better.  He took a sip.  It must be fine.

My big confession about Hamid’s book? It’s “spin” ending.  It caught me by my U.S. of A. centric, white-biased views and sent me skidding.  Conclusion: it’s awfully difficult not to have my so-called open-minded view of the world biased by standard issue, U.S. of A. assumptions and presumptions.  Maybe it’s impossible?

Fortunately books like Hamid’s are out there.  I can at least check where I’m at and challenge myself to keep growing.

Hamid’s book was also of interest to me in another regard: Fundamentalist worked as a sort of measuring stick against which to compare my own delve into post-911 politics with Traveling to Palestine.

 

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A writer confesses

Oh, Grammar, will I ever know you?

k-and-the-poetree-2

Pilgrimage to the Poetree.  Writer Katz asks: are Poetree and Grammar friends, frenemies, or enemies?

Dear Neighbors,

Work on T to Pal continues, aided muchly by the inspiring work of Ibtisam Barakat.  I encourage you to check out her memoirs about growing up in the West Bank.  She writes with much heart, in an unpretentious poetical style.  Meanwhile, a writing friend and I  are having trouble deciding whose relationship with Grammar is more tortured.  Who takes the “ungrammar prize,” she or I.

Oh, grammary graham-crackery Grammar, will I ever know you? You continue to vex and torment me. I try to capture you in my butterfly net, but you wriggle free or fly off, one-winged.

Shouldn’t I have you down by now?

I want to know once and for all when to use your colons and semi-colons, how to bridge your dashes and hyphens, build pyramids with your question marks and quotation marks, and fly to outer space with your paragraph breaks and dot dot dots.

 

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A writer confesses

I will not write about Traveling to Palestine

Pocketing the nettle

Nettles? Maybe this is another thing K might write about.

Dear Neighbors Northers,

I know.  Strange, isn’t it.  No posts in months, then two in one week? All these months you haven’t heard boo from me, I’ve been working on Traveling to Palestine, a novel I first-drafted ages ago in the Obama era.  The political event–disaster?–of Nov. 9, 2016 compelled me to take T to Pal out of the drawer.  T to Pal is about a young woman navigating an America she didn’t think was after her father is deported back to Iraq.  Her story intersects with three other young women impacted by war: Rachel Corrie, Jessica Lynch, and Lynndie England.  Below are musings on how the writing work is going.  Think of it as my most recent confession.

I will not write about Traveling to Palestine

For this hour I will not write of Traveling to Palestine.

I will write of other things.  Or nothing.

How my ink fades on the page.  Maybe I will write of that.

I will write of rhubarb, blindness, and the young men in sharkskin suits who shake their legs while tapping laptops.

I will write of people who go to jail for protesting wars, people who cut through chain link fencing and spill vials of their own blood.

It seems like I have so much time, when I don’t.

And I am not sure I will solve the problems in Traveling to Palestine.  Perhaps I will not.  Perhaps I will be dragged down by them and never come back up.

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Book reviews

The best response to oppression and injustice is love.

Dear Neighbors Northers,

On Saturday, I finished reading Ibtisam Barakat’s first memoir, Tasting the Sky.  A week plus earlier I read Ibtisam’s second memoir, Balcony on the Moon.  Ibtisam hails from the Ramallah area of the West Bank, but these days makes her home in the U.S.  Ibtisam’s memoirs have been stamped with the YA sticker, but they really should carry the ALL AGES sticker.  

Ibtisam

Ibtisam Barakat

On the evening of June 5, 1967, after an Israeli bullet nearly took Ibtisam’s mother’s life steps from the family home, Ibtisam’s family fled.  It was Day 1 of the Six Day War.  Ibtisam was three.  Ibtisam’s mother commanded her three children, ages three, six, and seven, to find their shoes and put them on.  Ibtisam’s mom carried Ibtisam’s infant sister.  Her father’s arms were full as well, with bedding and food. In the chaos and darkness, Ibtisam couldn’t find her shoes.  (It wasn’t a simple matter of flipping a light switch and behold, there was light!  The Barakats had no electricity.  They relied on a kerosene lamp.)

Ibtisam’s family charged off without her.  Ibtisam set off after them, one shoe on and one shoe lost.  She had no idea if she would ever set eyes on her family again.

She wandered through the night and didn’t find her family until the next morning.

Over the next several months, the Barakats sheltered in various places.  While housed temporarily in an elementary school, Ibtisam made Alef’s acquaintance.  Alef was the stick figure-like first letter of the Arabic alphabet.  With a simple scratch of chalk nubbin to blackboard, Ibtisam brought Alef to life.  On occasions when chalk wasn’t available, a stroke of stick point to patch of dirt would do.  With Alef, and eventually, Alef’s 27 friends (the other letters of the Arabic alphabet) Ibtisam could venture anywhere.  She could connect to the world.

You can sample Ibtisam’s poems and short stories at http://www.ibtisambarakat.com/

I recommend Poem 10: A Poem Made of Bread.  Click the button and listen to Ibtisam read her Bread poem aloud.

I hope you love the cadence of her voice as much as I.  Listen closely and you’ll hear the tiniest hint of an accent.  It adds a fragrance bottle’s atomizer’s worth of “other countryness” to Ibtisam’s poem.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War.  Ibtisam has a thought-provoking article about that as well as her experience of growing up under Israeli military occupation in today’s Nation magazine.   www.thenation.com.

Below are links to Ibtisam’s website

http://www.ibtisambarakat.com/

and Ibtisam’s memoirs:

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Book reviews

The Solace of Monsters

Dear Neighbors Northers,

Yes.  I know.  It’s been a while.  Months, in fact.  Work on novels continue.  Writing continues.  I find myself in a period of great editing and deep, cavernous story.  It takes events of seismic proportions to rouse me into posting.  One such recent event was reading Laurie Blauner’s The Solace of Monsters.  My apologies if I give away too much of the story in my review (below).  I hope it will not disincline you from reading Ms. Blauner’s novel.  If you read it, I would love to read your take on it here at Neighbors North.

the-solace-of-monstersSome books provide answers and facts and knowledge.  They leave the reader with a greater sense of “knowing.”  Laurie Blauner’s Solace of Monsters left me with a greater sense of “unknowing.”

Monsters is an updated Frankenstein story.  Mara, more specifically, Mara Five, is the monster.  Her creator is Father, a heart-broken mad scientist.

Mara is in a state of becoming.  She is young, on the cusp of womanhood.  Father is still tinkering, cramming her with parts and fixing them in place with Krazy Glue.

Mara learns about the world through reading.  She doesn’t watch television or listen to the radio.  She never goes outside.  Father locks her in her room when he is away at his job.  Sometimes memories of Mara’s past existences slip into her consciousness.

In the opening scene, the description of the bird on Mara’s dinner plate tingles with references to the living creature the bird once was—alive with muscle, blood, bone, and skin.

Mara hasn’t yet got a handle on her outsized strength.  In an early scene, when she wishes to show affection to Gloves, her feline companion, she overdoes the love and kills Gloves.

Gradually Mara learns why Father goes to such lengths to not only make her but perfect her.  She is the child Father lost.  The child Father cannot let go of.  The child he cannot release.

She submits to Father’s operations.  She doesn’t particularly like them.  She doesn’t like the long painful recovery period, but she wishes to please Father.

She keeps it a secret when she loses a toe.

She busts out of her locked room the morning after the dinner party with Greg, Father’s work colleague.  She makes her way to the basement, to Father’s laboratory.  Greg’s corpse is laid out on the operating table.  Father has already begun dissecting.

Mara’s veil of ignorance falls.  She flees.

A motorist takes her to the outskirts of a forest.  Others, offended by her appearance, wish to annihilate her.  Mara eludes her pursuers.  She finds shelter in a little church in the forest.  Teresa, the village laundress, takes her in.  In addition to washing others laundry, Teresa also keeps the church clean.   Mara receives a hostile welcome from Teresa’s little girl, Kat, who is surly and blind.

Mara’s adhesive bonds weaken.   Her decay accelerates.   She loses another toe, another tooth.  Part of her ear and an eyebrow fall off.

She hobbles to the city.  She is down to one kidney.  Her strength has begun to ebb.  She is more hideous-looking.

Prostitutes and other wayward people befriend her.  The normals turn away.

She has run-ins with doctors and police.  A doctor examining her excitedly alerts his colleagues.  He has never seen anyone with so much necrotic tissue.

She meets Father Bill.  He is a spirit-driven holy man, a redeemer and executioner.  He  restores sanctity by killing prostitutes.

Mara kills Bill and departs the city.  She journeys by bus back to Father in a state of great decrepitude.  She hides her ravaged face beneath a scarf.  She leans on a crutch.

She and Father fall into their old pattern of creator and clay.  Father guides her toward the operating table.  This time, when she falls under the narcotic’s spell, she understands exactly the meaning of the moaning and crying she hears coming from a distant room.

Solace left me with many questions.  How do we keep from becoming monsters? At what cost do we preserve ourselves, defend our territory, our right to exist? How much suffering and death do we allow to be done in our names? What are we willing to do and to have done to others so that we may be fixed and repaired?

What is the cost of sheltering with killers?

What do we wish to preserve of the dead? What is it we wish to remember? What do the “normals” see? What does the blind girl see? What does the lady pushing the shopping cart see?

And what of the self-proclaimed redeemers, such as Father Bill, such as Mara’s father? Is one any nastier than the other?  Both men long for the face of God to eternally shine on them.  Is that not what all of us, on some level, wish?

Lastly, what calculus allows Mara to return to Father’s operating table? Why doesn’t she choose the nobler path? Why doesn’t she lie down under a bed of leaves and wait for her decay to be complete? Would that be the nobler path?

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A writer confesses

The Beta Read Hash-out Confab

Sheldon's home base

Sheldon the Owl, wise beta reader

To think that I was going to forego the beta read.  I almost chose not to submit Emma Mulberry’s Whole Story to my writing group’s pool of beta readers.  That would have been an incalculable loss.  The beta read hash-out confab two weeks ago ranks among the best experiences I’ve had as a writer.

Yes, it was great hearing my beta readers’ takes on EMWS, what they thought the strong points were as well as where they thought the weak points were.  My beta readers were an opinionated bunch.  But also, it was just plain gratifying that they had read EMWS and were willing to devote an evening to its discussion.

Below is the low-down on what my betas thought about Emma Mulberry’s Whole Story.

They liked that I got in Emma’s head, but sometimes felt this came at the expense of getting to know the other characters.  They got that Dad was passive, but wanted more of him so they could “get him” better.  They saw a parallel between the mom’s hunger for love and attention from her father and her kids’ longing for love and attention from their dad.

They saw the character reversal—Emma becoming hard and Mom becoming soft—but thought it was too abrupt.

They thought Mom was mean and were glad when she died.

Some wondered if Jim was a pimp.  Others thought he didn’t fight for Petra enough in the Del Monico’s scene.  All seemed to think the Del Monico’s scene was key to Petra’s trajectory, but thought the scene was rushed and could be slowed down.

The betas liked the passion Emma displayed with regard to agate collecting, but wanted to know what else she was passionate about.

Some loved the Holiday Island section.  Others found it too long.

The betas wanted more on Liza.  Maybe one more scene.  They wanted more on the pregnancy thing.  They were getting Emma’s response to it but wanted more on the other family members’ response.

Several thought opening EMWS with the funeral scene gave away too much.

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A writer confesses

Looking for Agent X

The blue sweater was repaired eventually

Writer Katz asks: Is this outfit business-cadge?

The Pub Group and other “Friends of Emma” are reading Emma Mulberry’s Whole Story.  The Emma confab hash out is scheduled for June 14.  In the meanwhile, Writer Katz has been working up her query and synopsis.  She wanted both in tip-top shape so she’d be ready to pitch Emma at the big writing conference the end of July.

She was supposed to be a finalist in the conference’s lit contest.  As a finalist she would parade around  with the “Finalist” ribbon pinned to the lapel of her business cadge.  She would gush witticisms; bubble over with charm.  She’d wave and wink to the other conference goers.  She’d breeze down hallways, opening doors; in a rush not to miss the next symposium, workshop, or master class.  At the pitch block sessions, agents and editors would be mesmerized.  She would promise them to have the manuscript in the mail first thing Mon. morning.  One particularly eager agent would cajole Katz into letting her read it even more ASAP.  Writer Katz would hand her the manuscript Friday evening.  Eager Agent X would stay up all night reading, becoming more enchanted with each page turn.  Saturday a.m. the other agents would get wind of Agent X’s end run.  A bidding war would ensue for the right to represent Writer Katz.  Saturday afternoon she would sign on with Agent X to an unprecedented seven figure deal.  Champagne would be poured.  Writer Katz would laugh when it splashed on her business-cadge.

Only the readers for the contest didn’t choose Writer Katz.  They claimed her synopsis had no plot or story line.  They docked her for poor comma usage.  Did she not understand  one placed commas between items of a list? One did not write “fingers legs arms butts shoulders boobs toes heads;” one wrote “fingers, legs, arms.”

It was recommended she keep at it.  Maybe she could look into taking a writing course that covered grammar and character arc/through-line.

Perhaps it is just as well Writer Katz isn’t a finalist.  Her wardrobe is pretty lacking when it comes to business cadge.

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