Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Best Indie of 2012? It's up to you!

Would you be kind enough to vote for my three books, When Pigs Fly, Little Mountain, and Getting Lucky on Goodreads? It shouldn't take but a minute or two.

1. Go to www.goodreads.com.
2. In the search window, enter the name of the book.
3. When the book page displays, scroll down to the section called "Lists with This Book."
4. Select "Best Indie Books to Read in 2012." This takes you right to the book.

As of December 18th, When Pigs Fly is up to #36 out of over 600, with the other two books not far behind. With your help, maybe one of these can finish as #1.


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Book review: You Can't Make This Stuff Up

Today, Dennis Rizzo reviews You Cant Make This Stuff Up for us. Thanks, Dennis!

You Can't Make This Stuff Up:
The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction
By Lee Gutkind
270 pp. Da Capo

Reviewed by Dennis C. Rizzo

Lee Gutkind is founding editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine and Writer in Residence at Arizona State University. It follows, then, that he has some experience with the genre.

You Can't Make This Stuff Up brings his cumulative insights to the public in an easy-to-digest and well-structured presentation. Gutkind's narrative style embodies his experience with storytelling. It offers you a seat in a cozy parlour, where you sip wine or tea while listening to the author's casual remarks and anecdotes; not at all like the authoritative text on writing it is.

Creative non-fiction may sound like an oxymoron, but it is reflected in the pieces we read almost every day. Journalism, magazine articles, memoirs, autobiographies; all are non-fiction pieces which can be massaged to read like fiction.

Despite the controversy over its name – or perhaps because of it – creative non-fiction has become the most popular genre in the literary and publishing communities. In the academic community generally, creative non-fiction has become the popular way to write.

Gutkind tells us it is the 'story' that is paramount in all writing, including non-fiction. You Can't Make This Stuff Up is true to his philosophy. In it, he develops our view of creativity within the framework of honest non-fiction writing and skewers those who manufacture or avoid the facts in an effort to build a better story. He speaks of creative non-fiction as a process which one must acquire through practice, and provides examples both from renowned authors and scalawags to illustrate his points. He consistently points to the push and pull between getting a good story and telling the facts.

Truth is personal – it is what we see, assume, and believe, filtered through our own lens and orientation. Although it may revolve around the same subject or issue, the truth as one person perceives it may not be the same truth another person sees. – Because a blurry line exists between fact and truth, readers will usually make a judgement about the veracity of the stories being told and ideas presented based on their faith in the narrator. – Making stuff up, no matter how minor or unimportant, or not being diligent in certifying the accuracy of available information, endangers the bond between writer and reader. ...you must be trustworthy and your facts must be right if you're going to be a credible writer of non-fiction.

The book is divided into two sections. The first deals with defining and explaining “creative” non-fiction, as the author sees it. The definition is certainly definitive, since Gutkind was one of those who defined the genre. The second section provides a series of “how to” exercises and explanations. It offers insight into writing phenomenons, such as the “creative non-fiction dance”; seductive juxtaposition of story and fact.

You Can't Make This Stuff Up provides key elements of the craft of writing creative non-fiction for the professional and amateur writer alike. Professionals may see some of their traditions and sacred cows skewered – or not. Newcomers will find a series of exercises of graduated difficulty which offer a path to honing their craft. Either way, Lee Gutkind gives us the material with which to build our reputations as serious, writers of creative non-fiction.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Review of Midnight Rising

Here is a review written by Sue Ellis, a frequent contributor to the Internet Review of Books.

Midnight Rising:
John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War
By Tony Horwitz
365 pp. Picador

Reviewed by Sue Ellis

Click image to purchase
A Photoshopped likeness of John Brown stares from the cover of Midnight Rising. He appears stern, determined, and weary. After reading Tony Horwitz's biography on the man, I think the only thing the photo doesn't reveal is a touch of lunacy.

John Brown was driven to a purpose from an early age by the mentoring of his father, who taught him that it's wrong for a person to own another human being. That credo firmed up in  his mind as he aged, coming to fruition when he was an old man—a man who was deemed a failure by the standards of the day. He was a dreamer and risk-taker who fathered a large brood whom he then had trouble supporting, and he was the probable cause of his second wife's fragile mental state, neglecting her as he did for the cause of abolition.

At nearly sixty, maybe he figured he'd go all out and try to do one thing right in his life, to fight for the thing most dear to his heart. But he didn't limit his ambition to himself; he recruited three sons and a daughter to the cause. In his usual grand, impractical style, he set upon a plan to lay siege to the nation's armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. And he didn't let the fact that he was only able to recruit twenty-one followers discourage him. 

Ten men were killed in action, including two of Brown's sons. Brown and six of his followers were later tried and hanged, and five of his followers escaped, including one son, Owen.

There's no question that the old man was brave. There's no question that his motivation was pure, but the fact is, he martyred himself, his young followers and his family, was responsible for several murders along the way, and instigated a war between the states whose terrible toll still resonates in the  American psyche, regardless of the fact that it set the wheel of racial equality in motion. As Horwitz points out, his actions pretty well fit our current definition of terrorism.

As with any martyr, Brown gained more fame after his death. The court trial and subsequent news stories paid tribute to his clearly spoken, unwavering statement that he was willing to die for his cause. And then he did, without complaint.

After having read Midnight Rising, I'm not sure I perceive Brown the same way the author does, but maybe that's the best thing about biographies that are as well written as Midnight Rising—that we are left to draw our own conclusions. Brown's daring attack on the slave-holding south was so ill-planned as to be considered daft. That it succeeded, at least in the broadest terms, speaks to the idea that, for a few of us, our destiny is preordained.

In the end, I admire the man and his vision for a constitution unmarred by the blight of slavery. Not all heroes are successful businessmen, or born with a pedigree. Brown was an ordinary man who lived his beliefs, treating blacks as equals and welcoming them into his home. It didn't matter that he arrived to meet destiny threadbare, a loser whose military strategy was laughable--he had nonetheless arrived.

From now on, when I run across mention of John Brown in another venue, I'll remember who he was. Not long after reading Midnight Rising, I read Rick Bragg's excellent memoir, All Over but the Shoutin', where he used Brown to describe himself and his wild brothers as children: 

To say we were rotten little children would be like saying John Brown was a little on the impetuous side.

I liked that sentence a lot, and thanks to Tony Horowitz, I understood exactly what it meant.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Two short poems

Here are two poems I entered in a recent contest for members of the El Paso Writers' League.

Canalis dripping
Creosote scent fills the air
September rains fall

A canali on my house

Funny Words
Funny words tickle my head
Like kumquat and doodad
And stuff best left unsaid.
But words I like best
Love, friend, and the rest
Keep me cozy and warm
As I sleep in my bed.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

When the Lings came to Lowell

It's been a good day. The El Paso Writers' League holds an annual writing contest for its members, and prizes were given out today. I won a second prize for Children's Poetry, a first prize for Reminiscence, and a first prize as well as a Best of Best for Fiction. One great aspect of the contest is that the outside judges return critique sheets to the entrants.

Here is my Reminiscence essay:

When the Lings came to Lowell

We met the Ling family at Boston’s Logan Airport in January 1980.  They were a Cambodian family of four that had just arrived from the Site 2 refugee camp in Thailand. The man clasped his hands together to greet my wife and me. Cambodians call the gesture sampeah, which is both a greeting and a sign of respect. He introduced himself and his family: Song, his wife Sceur Ly, their infant Es, his ten-year-old sister-in-law Tong. Only Song spoke, using halting English. He wore a short-sleeved shirt, wrinkled pants, and sandals. Sceur Ly wore a dirty sampot, or sarong. She held Es in her arms. Tong’s clothes looked like rags. Both sisters wore blank expressions on their faces. All their belongings were in one bag of tattered cloth attached to a stick.
As their sponsors, we took them to our house near Lowell, Massachusetts, and showed them their bedroom next to ours. We introduced them to our six-year-old son Jeff and our dog Divot, then showed them around the house. Song marveled at the toilet.
That night we heard constant moaning. Sceur Ly’s teeth had all rotted, and her agony kept her awake. Song’s body shivered. He had a circular welt on his forehead where he had treated himself for a headache—Asian suction cup therapy involves a small cup and a flame to cause a vacuum against the skin. My wife gave him Tylenol and placed her hand on his forehead. It felt like a hot skillet.
The next day, a dentist removed all of Sceur Ly’s teeth, and a doctor diagnosed Song with the first case of malaria the doctor had ever seen. In the next several days, all the children came down with colds, and I contracted double pneumonia. My wife stayed healthy.
Why did the Lings come to America?
In 1975, silence had descended on Cambodia, which shut itself off from the rest of the world. For four years, nothing but stray rumors escaped the Southeast Asian nation. In 1979, communist Vietnam invaded Cambodia and toppled the Khmer Rouge regime that had murdered more than a million of its own countrymen. A mass exodus of refugees followed, with hundreds of thousands of people walking through the jungle to makeshift camps in Thailand. There they huddled and received humanitarian aid from many countries and organizations. But the camps were meant to be temporary, and many refugees found homes in France and the United States.
Lowell, Massachusetts became a major destination for many Cambodians. One reason was the presence of Wang Laboratories, a major employer in the city during the 1970s and 1980s. That the company’s president was the Chinese-born Dr. An Wang may have helped convey an aura of openness to foreigners. Wang Laboratories employed many of the newcomers, who earned a reputation as diligent workers. Massachusetts also provided benefits more readily than some other states, and the growing number of refugees fed on itself and attracted more.
The Lings were one of the first refugee families in the area. Outside of the usual milestones every family faces, sponsoring them was the most momentous experience of our lives. We learned about human generosity and prejudice, cultural conflicts, our country, and ourselves. Friends and strangers donated clothing, dishes, soap, food, and a little money. We also received a couple of anonymous letters and phone calls suggesting that we and the Lings should all go to Cambodia and stay there. A letter addressed to Tong contained a newspaper photo of her face, marked in ink with horns and sharp teeth, like Satan. We never told her about it.
They spent seven weeks in our house, far longer than the few days refugees spent in other sponsors’ homes. We should have let them go their own way sooner, but we all bonded, and the crises seemed to come one after another. We also wanted to make sure they found jobs so they wouldn’t need charity.
America was an alien land. Song looked around at New England’s bare trees and asked my wife, “Missy. Why all trees are dead?” One day he said, “Dogs taste good. In Cambodia, dog number one.” That worried me, because they spent plenty of time alone with Divot. So I looked him in the eye and said, “You hurt my dog, you number ten!” He got the message, and Divot was safe. But Song’s biggest difficulties came with his family. In America, women had too much freedom. Sceur Ly and Tong learned that they could make many of their own life decisions and have the support of their American friends. In time, Song came to see me as weak because I often deferred to my wife’s choices and never hit her.
Tension simmered inside their family when my wife, son and I were away at work and school. Song quickly saw his authority eroding in a new society where women were not subservient. Thus he was happy to finally get his own apartment, where he expected to re-assert himself with force. We broke up more than one altercation, telling Song that wife-beating was illegal.  When he protested that it was a “Cambodian custom,” we made it clear that such “customs” would land him in jail. Sceur Ly came to us privately to ask for help in obtaining a divorce, but when given the chance she never followed through.

Song’s rapidly growing English skills made him important among the newer refugees. He translated many conversations and documents for them but gained a reputation for cheating his own people. Rumors began to circulate among both Cambodians and Americans that he had been Khmer Rouge. As angry as his wife and her sister were with him, they denied the charge. He was a bad man, they said, but not that bad.
Nothing could ignite Song’s anger more quickly than his young sister-in-law, who defied him whenever she could. Tong went to public school and excelled, becoming ever more eager to stay away from him. We stayed close to the women of the family for years, meanwhile learning about the rest of the family left behind at the Site 2 refugee camp in Thailand. Among them were Sceur Ly and Tong’s parents and siblings. Their attempts to reunite were met with continual failure. They asked us and other Americans to help.
It took community involvement, filling out immigration forms, speaking with the State Department, and engaging local Congressman Chester Atkins, but eventually the entire family was reunited in Lowell. That doesn’t mean an entirely happy ending, though. Atkins’s high-profile efforts stoked resentment among many of his constituents who felt he wasn’t paying enough attention to their concerns, and he was defeated in his re-election bid. Some citizens felt that the government was giving too much to the refugees. One man complained on the local TV news that Cambodians were being given new cars, which was untrue.
For the most part, the Cambodians assimilated reasonably well. Many became citizens, and some migrated back to Cambodia once it became a safer place. Some became doctors and lawyers in Lowell; one became a city councilor. Tong earned a bachelor’s degree from George Washington University. Song became a landlord. Tom Brokaw produced a nationally televised feature about the family. One night, we watched Song on television, telling Brokaw that he worked hard but that his fellow Cambodians were lazy.
In time Song and Sceur Ly moved to Rhode Island, and we began to see them much less often. But every few months our doorbell would ring, and there would be Sceur Ly with a warm smile on her face. In one hand she would be holding her son Es, and in the other a box of jelly donuts from Dunkin’ Donuts. We never knew she was coming, and she never showed up without a gift.
We lost track of them a decade ago, and perhaps it’s just as well. They have an extended family within reach now, with all the joy and pain that can bring. Now we live in New Mexico, over two thousand miles away, but we will always have the rich layer they added to our lives.