Wednesday, September 20, 2017


The Refugees

by Viet Thanh Nguyen

I noticed on the book's cover that author Viet Thanh Nguyen was the recipient of a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for his novel, The Sympathizer. I hesitated, thinking maybe I ought to start with that one, but the book in my hands, The Refugees, promised short stories written over the past twenty years, and I wanted to see how the author's style might have changed over time. 

For Readers: 
Once I began to read, it quickly became apparent that Nguyen has a firm grip on his craft. It's easy to become immersed in his stories, and easy to get pulled into the whole Vietnam thing; to my own memories of the war and its aftermath—boat people and places of refuge like Hawaii's Little Saigon. 

It turns out my perceptions were lacking, however. There actually isn't a place where a person who has lost his homeland can ever again feel part of the mainstream. It's a fact driven home in the eight touching stories that portray the lives of the refugees who fled Vietnam.

The stories are rich with vivid and complicated characters and situations that will break your heart with complexity and inevitability. Perhaps my favorite story is, “I'd Love You to Want Me,” about an old Vietnamese couple living in America. The husband has developed dementia to the point that he began to confuse his wife’s name with that of a lover he knew pre-war. He's not the sort of man to torment his wife, so it's only possible for her to lay blame on the circumstances that brought them together. Her devotion to her husband is unfaltering, even as her heart is breaking and even as she struggles to physically handle the work involved in being his caretaker.

The Refugees is a fine study on the aftermath of war, a book I'd recommend to anyone.
Reviewed by Sue Ellis.

Published by Grove Atlantic
ISBN 978-0--8021-2639-9
Buy it here: The Refugees, Amazon

For Writers:
The author was born in Vietnam and raised in America, and he obviously writes what he knows. His prose is so intelligently done, so perceptive and unobtrusively insistent that we get his viewpoint. That's where his strength lies, I think, in his humanity and capability to portray real people under duress.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Guest Author Mithran Somasundrum on Characterization

"Action is character," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a notebook, meaning that showing a person's actions, and more importantly his choices, is the clearest way to delineate his personality. But there is a distinction between character and characterization. It's one thing to make a man seem brave, petty or violent. It's something else to make him seem real. The best short description of characterization I've ever found was a quote on the back of a novel whose title and author I can't even remember. While they've gone out of my mind, the quote, by V. S. Pritchett, remains.  "[Author X]," he wrote, "knows the fantasy lives of his characters." 

When great writers look at the works of others, they often end up discussing themselves; and Pritchett's statement could just as easily have been a description of, and an explanation for, the vitality and life in his own work. Throughout the whole of his long writing career, you feel Pritchett had a direct line to the cinema playing behind his characters' eyes.  The cinema where they were the heroes and happiness unfolded.

While we judge the people we meet in fiction by their decisions, we believe in them largely because of what comes out of their mouths. Which ties good characterization inextricably into the art of writing good dialogue. "Good" doesn't necessarily mean clever or long. "You killed Miles and you're going over for it," is good because it's true to Sam Spade's hard-headed, uncomplicated view of his life. However, given that the main purpose of the pages of a novel—any novel—is to make you keep turning them, dialogue needs to be more than just true.  It needs to be interesting. 

The fuller section of The Maltese Falcon that I've just quoted is,

"I don't care who loves who. I'm not going to play the sap for you. I won't walk in Thursby's and who knows who else's footsteps. You killed Miles and you're going over for it."

This has a great rhythm and power, without moving outside the vocabulary Spade would use or the kind of ideas he’d express. Another writer of great hyper-real dialogue is Saul Bellow. His characters use ordinary idioms and phrases, but often at such a pitch of emotion their thoughts go tumbling into each other. From The Victim, when Leventhal finally decides he's had enough of Allbee leeching off him:

"You dirty phoney!" Levanthal cried huskily. "You ugly bastard counterfeit. I said it because you're such a liar, with your phoney tears and your wife's name in your mouth, every second word. The poor woman, a fine life she must have had with you, a freak like you, out of a carnival."

People reveal themselves in anger; they lose hold of the image they want to present to the world. But it's impossible to write a novel in which everyone is angry all the time. So the writer needs to find the smaller signs where people give themselves away. Great examples of these are scattered throughout Paul Theroux's collected short stories.

Theroux is a great describer of groups. Whether it's a reception at a London Embassy, the muggy heat of a Malaysian polo match, or four poets strolling through a frosty Amherst night, Theroux's group scenes bristle with life. This isn't because his characters are constantly screaming at each other—although their tempers do fray and irritations do flare—but rather because he creates the impression of separate human minds running on very different rails. Theroux's people talk to one side of each other, they enter conversations pre-armed with a view of the world, their minds snag monomaniacally on an idea and then refuse to let it go.

How much mental space an author needs to achieve this is moot.  Graham Greene often said he knew his characters had become real when they became capable of surprising him.  In contrast, Nabokov described his characters as "galley slaves."  And yet to the reader Humbert Humbert remains as disturbingly real as his desire for Dolores Haze. 

The issue of authorially-granted freedom has often led to novels being labeled as either plot-driven or character-driven; but the fact is, any wholly alive story is set moving by the hungers and self-deceptions of its people. The plot of The Maltese Falcon ticks along like a Swiss watch. But it's the low cunning and mutual suspicion of Joel Cairo, Brigid O'Shaughnessy and the Fat Man, and the almost amoral nature of the "blond Satan" (Sam Spade) they turn to who set the book ticking.

Who would you recommend as a great example of characterization, either to learn from or simply to enjoy?  Which writer and which of their works?

Mithran Somasundrum was born in Colombo, grew up in London and currently lives in Bangkok.  His short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, The Sun, Inkwell, The Minnesota Review, Natural Bridge, and GUD, among others.

Monday, September 11, 2017


Hee! Well, not really about you, but here are ten things I hate (in no particular order) that you might relate to:
1.  Someone reminding me right before I go to bed that there is no mattress on earth––no matter how clean––that doesn’t have a few bedbugs. Talk about a sleepless night.

2.  Losing anything other than weight.

3.  Cell phone bills.

4.  Scary things. Tornadoes or strong winds that get me thinking they might turn tornado any second, or rodents within 300 yards of me––and not just the furry kind.

5.  Stepping in dog do-do. Especially barefoot.

6.   Getting behind schedule.

7.   Sitting on a hard chair with no cushion, reminding me that despite the coverage I now have, there’s still some bone in my butt.

8. A picture hanging on a wall crooked, or a rug laying crooked on the floor. I have a sister whom I suspect makes sure she’s got a few things hanging off balance before I come to visit her, just to watch me squirm.

9. Hearing stories about what’s in the hot dogs I eat.

10. Choosing what to wear to work in my home office where nobody sees me. Okay, I lied; don’t hate this one. Couldn’t think of a tenth to hate. :-)

What about you? Got any pet peeves?

Wednesday, September 6, 2017



by Maylis De Kerangal

A novel translated by Sam Taylor

For Readers:

A bestseller in France, Maylis De Kerangal's The Heart is a fictionalized account of a heart transplant. Readers meet the donor first, twenty-year-old Simon Limbres, who rises from his warm bed predawn to surf a winter sea with two buddies. It's not the cold that kills him, not a surfing accident, but one of his friends, the driver who, warmed by his van's heater on the way home, falls asleep at the wheel.

The first few chapters are so intense they can almost be swallowed whole, partly due to the shock of a young, healthy man's death, and partly due to the reader’s discovery of the author's stunning prose. The language she employs (which was capably translated to English by Sam Taylor) is at once concise and impossibly descriptive, and so poetically rendered that it touches a chord perhaps unexpected. Here's an excerpt with Simon surfing toward shore:

He lets out a yell as he takes this first ride, and for a moment of time he is in a state of grace—a horizontal vertigo: he is level with the world and feels as if he is coming out of it, part of its flux—the space closing in on him, crushing as it liberates, saturating his muscle fibers, his bronchial tubes, oxygenating his blood. The wave unfolds in a vague temporality—slow or fast, imppossible to tell—suspendng each second until the surfer ends up pulverized, a senseless heap of flesh. And it's incredible but, no sooner has Simon Limbres crashed onto bruising rocks in the gush of the climax than he is turning around and heading back out, without even a glance at the land or the fleeting figures glimpsed in the foam where the sea hits the earth, surface against surface; he paddles back out to the open sea, his arms windmilling fast, plowing a way to that threshold where it all begins, where it all gets going.

The characters are numerous yet authentic. There's Pierre Révol, head of the ICU unit where Simon is taken after the car crash; Cordélia Owl, an ICU nurse with hickeys on her neck and love on her mind; Simon's family: his mother, Marianne, father Sean, sister Lou and girlfriend Juliette, all heart-broken, stunned; twenty-nine-year-old Thomas Rémige, a nurse trained to coordinate organ and tissue removal for the country, a man who sings loudly enough to make the window blinds vibrate, loudly enough for the dead to take solace; Marthe Carrare, a lonely hospital employee authorized to access national data on organ transplants ; Claire Mé jan a woman in her early sixties, desperately hanging on as she waits for a new heart, marking days in a dreary apartment she's rented in order to be closer to the hospital; Emmanuel Harfang, heart doctor, devoted cyclist and descendant of a famed Harfang family of doctors—conceited, probably, appropriately; Virgilio Breva, heart doctor, a bear of a man with a weakness for Rose, his difficult and explosive woman who has no patience with his love for soccer or the necessity of his disappearing now and then to perform surgery when she wants him at home.

When the mix of personalities converge in the operating and waiting rooms or grieve at home, the atmosphere is thick with individual tensions and distractions. These are the places where Kerangal expertly completes the story she has skillfully crafted. It's a notable book both for its realism and the author's impressive style. I'd recommend it to anyone.

Reviewed by Sue Ellis!

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
ISBN PQ2671.E64R4713

For Writers:

Perhaps author Maylis De Kerangal's greatest success in writing The Heart is the research she did into clinical medicine. Her research touches every aspect of the story and in itself is such a fascinating addition to the basically simple tale that it turns the story into art. I loved the last chapter, how it deals with the surgical teams' clean-up of the theater, mundane things like changing clothes, splashing water on their faces, heading out to grab a bite. It's shocking, almost, that one person lost his life and another benefited from the donation of his heart, all between dawn and 5:49 A.M.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Future Biker Chic of America!


                                             Video taken by Michelle and Derek Buscovick.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Analyzing Picture Books--Grandmother's Pigeon

I've read most, if not all, of Louise Erdrich’s novels. When I saw that this picture book had been published back in 1996 by Hyperion Books for Children, I scooped it right up. I have to admit, I was surprised she had a title out there that I’d missed.

Large, colorful illustrations by Jim LaMarche land on every page. Facial expressions on the characters, as well as the birds, are captivating.

It’s a beautiful story for ages approximately four to eight (in my humble guesstimation) told by a young girl who describes her strange but loving grandmother, and what Grandma left behind when she headed off for a tour by porpoise. What a thing to have on your bucket list.

The book doesn’t come right out and say that Grandma’s stuffed pigeon is responsible for the three eggs that hatch in her old bedroom, but the eggs had to have come from somewhere. With the magical aura that always surrounded Grandma, it seemed not only possible but logical that she’d have a magical stuffed pigeon.

To avoid spoiling the story, one I know adults will enjoy as well as children, I’ll leave off on the plot there. But I will say that Erdrich’s writing is just as magical as the grandmother and pigeon are in her story.

Out of the usual 32-page spread for picture books, fifteen pages have text. Some pages run anywhere from 75 to 150 words with the picture. I would guess there are around 1,200 words in all, possibly up to 1,500. To my delight, that’s a lot more than some of the 400-word picture books more commonly written today.

Erdrich does an excellent job of throwing in a few “big” words to expand a young reader’s mind, or to give a parent the opportunity to sneak in a little explanation while reading to a child. Words like pensively and ornithologist (bird expert) spring up in the book, along with ectopistes migratorius (passenger pigeons). Then, with a beautiful hand at her craft, she weaves in a little history on how the existence of these pigeons phased out.

I think she needed more words in order to tell the story the way she does. She doesn’t leave all the description to the illustrator. She could simply say “curtains” and let the illustrator decide what the curtains look like. But the author doesn’t do that. She chooses a very specific curtain, curtains made of not just lace, but of Irish lace. She also isn’t shy to tell us that there are “three” eggs in the nest found in Grandmother’s room, whereas nowadays with the illustration showing the same information, the word “three” would be slashed right out of the text. Editors would say, “Don’t waste words on what is already shown in the pictures.”

But I appreciate Erdrich’s style. After all, a picture of a lacy curtain would not tell me that it is specifically Irish lace. The added detail gives a stronger sense of Grandma, so it works. The word three isn’t necessary, but it doesn’t bother me either. In fact, taking the word out throws the beautiful rhythm of the sentence off, so I’m glad she left the word in. Maybe that was the author’s intent. You will never read an Erdrich sentence that isn’t spot on in rhythm. Also, Erdrich may have been pulling on the power of three often used in literature. It’s an effective technique.

My favorite sentence in this book is “White moonlight fell in bands through the kitchen windows and led the way out.”

I’m not going to tell you who’s following the moonlight or why, but isn’t it a lovely sentence?

Get the book.

Grandmother's Pigeon by Louise Erdrich, Jim LaMarche (April 15, 1996) Hardcover

 It’s one you’ll come back to again and again.

Happy Reading!







Wednesday, August 23, 2017



by Margot Livesey

For Readers:

After a couple of chapters into Margot Livesley's latest novel, Mercury, it's easy to lean toward thinking one is reading a murder mystery even though (so far as we know) there's no body. There's only a man trying to understand the lengths to which his wife will go to get what she wants. In this case, a race horse called Mercury.

Donald, an optometrist in suburban Boston, is complacent in his happiness. Rather than examining why his wife quit a paying job to donate her time to a local stable, he takes the passive route and accepts her decision at face value—she likes horses. But as months roll by, he begins trying to piece together the reason for her increasingly strange behavior, and wonders at his own part in creating the fissure that has opened between them.

The novel has a suffocating feel and a chapter-by-chapter escalation of questionable events that beg answers. The story is told from Donald's perspective, which we incrementally discover is actually a log of past events; he possesses all the facts of the story, dangling the carrot in front of our noses.

The novel is well written with a decidedly European flavor. No detail is left unnoticed as we become acquainted with the circumstances, but for this reader, Donald's investigation begins to feel obsessively meticulous, and his self-blame is pitiable. At some point one has to wonder if the wife's position begs more sympathy than seemed appropriate at first. It is perhaps a juncture where the author intended readers to land.

Readers will either be a bit impatient, or they'll really get into the intricacies of why people act the way they do. It's a fine suspense and an even better character study from that standpoint, and there actually is, eventually, the commitment of a crime.

Reviewed by Sue Ellis!

HarperCollins Publishers, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-06-243750-1

ISBN: 978-0-06-265372-7 (BAM Signed Editions)

Buy the book! Mercury, at Amazon

For Writers:

The book is written in first person limited, a venue that allows the main character, Donald, to tell the story through his perspective only. The viewpoints of the other characters must be prized from his descriptions and opinions, or through dialogue. It's an effective way to highlight the main character's inner turmoil and for readers to judge whether his opinions seem valid.

Friday, August 18, 2017

A Crazy, Scary Summer

I had planned on posting weekly blog articles throughout the summer. A few would be book reviews by Sue’s Reviews. She’s not behind––I am. (I’ll be posting a review soon.)
To say it’s been a crazy summer is an understatement. I’ve been gone a lot, as my sister and my very best friend have been stricken with cancer. I spend as much time as I can with them, yet still come home and work in serious catch-up mode to prepare for the craft and art shows we had already signed up for. I also managed to squeeze in taking the grandkids to swimming lessons and to a couple summer fairs, but not without some serious help from my husband.

Even with his help, I have to admit, this summer I have felt rushed through the family activities. Like I’m watching the calendar for swimming lessons to end so I can hurry back to the hospital, just in case good goes bad. Needless to say, I got as far behind on work and crafts as I have my blog and other commitments.
I don’t regret it. I want to spend as much time with these two special people as I can, though I am no way writing them off as doomed. They both have positive attitudes, and they are fighting for their lives. A lot of people are praying for them, including me. My sister Helen had surgery for her cancer, and we thought she was good to go. No sign of cancer for months. Then it came back with a vengeance. But she’s pretty stubborn (runs in the family), and she’s showing everyone just how tough she really is. Take that, cancer!

She lives a four-hour drive from me, but my husband is an understanding sweetie and has taken me to visit her. Even when I’m not at her side, we continue our morning coffee ritual via phone, something we’ve been doing for years. We laugh together, and we pray together. We hope together.
My friend Betty was diagnosed with bone and breast cancer June 29, and she was hospitalized. Prior to that I had stayed at her house a few days. She was having problems getting in and out of bed. A sore back, it seemed. Maybe too much gardening, we thought. Now we know what the problem was. Anyway, she has since had surgery that involved inserting two rods in her spine for support. Her entire spine was filled with cancer.

Since then, with cheers from her daughter, me, and other friends, Betty has learned to walk with a walker and already can manage the length of a city block. She’s improving every day and making new friends in the facility that has become her temporary home. I’m glad she has people who enjoy visiting and playing cards every day. She has always been a very social person, and people gravitate toward her because of it. The nurses and doctors have all been very supportive, as well as astonished at how strong Betty is. She eats three full meals a day and hasn’t lost any weight.
I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to spend time with my sister and with Betty during their journeys.

For four years Betty and I had been shop neighbors. My tiny sewing and alternations/craft shop was right behind her large store. We live in a small town, so I often put a note on my door during lunch break –“At Betty’s if you need me.” We had coffee together every day, Tuesday through Saturday those years. Once we closed our shops (Betty retired and I went into nearly full-time writing), we continued our coffee visits. We’ve been there for each other for ten years now.
I am missing the routines of both my coffee partners, but we’ve made new routines. I still see them, and we still share coffee and laughs.

I may not get around to visiting all of your blogs, and I do miss that part of my life, but please know I will return once my sister and friend are back to their old selves.
It’s a scary thing, because though we look toward the positive, there’s no way a person can have someone with cancer in his or her life and not have the tormenting fear of losing that special someone. I try not to look in that direction. But bad news happens. I recently lost a classmate to cancer. She will be missed. We were friends back in school, and though we haven’t kept up with each other the way friends should, I have thought of her often and will continue to remember her with fond memories. Here’s to you, Brenda! :-)

Any prayers you want to pass this way will be appreciated, and I hope to get back to visiting blogs soon. Until then, please accept my apologies for my absence.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017


The Bear and the Nightingale
by Katherine Arden

For Readers:

If ever a place and time begged for fairytales, it’s mid-evil Northern Russia. In The Bear and the Nightingale, American author Katherine Arden makes use of both retelling a very old tale. The result is stunning. 

“Peter Vladimirovich,” Arden writes, “was a great lord: a boyer, with rich lands and many men to do his bidding.”
His beloved wife, Marina, is very ill but determined to carry her last child to term, maternal instinct telling her that this child will inherit the talents of her grandmother, a woman who can see into the future and communicate with animals.

The beauty of the story after the birth of Vasilisa, or Vasya as her family calls her, is the description of her rearing, the frazzled efforts of her loving family to keep track of her meanderings and protect the headstrong girl. And oh! the winters––frostbite, chilblains, hunger as winter stores diminish, the rub of snow beneath sodden woolen boots, and window openings set with blocks of ice to keep out the cold wind. Eventually, worse challenges appear. An evil demon and a misguided priest endanger Vasya and her village, forcing her to gather her courage and confront the danger from the back of a mighty and magical stallion.

Texas born Arden’s knowledge of Russian folklore pays off in the authentic feel of the novel. She lived in Russia for a time and studied Russian and French literature at Middlebury College in Vermont. It’s always fun to analyze a writer and try to figure out the secret to their success. There are plenty of clues that she’s not so very unlike Vasya: intelligent, creative, independent, and now, successful.

Del Ray, an imprint of Random House
ISBN: 9781101885932
ISBN: 9781101885949 (e-book)

For Writers:

Katherine Arden’s use of descriptive sentences shines, as in this excerpt:

It was late winter in Northern Rus', the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow. The brilliant February landscape had given way to the dreary gray of March, and the household of Pyotr Vladimirovich were all sniffling from the damp and thin from six weeks' fasting on black bread and fermented cabbage. But no one was thinking of chilblains or runny noses, or even, wistfully of porridge and roast meats, for Dunya was to tell a story.

In that one paragraph, we are introduced to clues about the era (porridge, roasted meats, chilblains, fasting). We can guess that many of Pyotr’s household are children, and that Dunya is not only the storyteller, but likely beloved. A picture forms in our minds of “sullen” weather, sniffling children with empty stomachs—and yet their considerable discomfort doesn’t lessen their expectation of enjoying a good story. I don't know about you, but I was intrigued.