The Afghan My Grandmother Made Me

Nanny Kay’s afghan today

The other evening my husband pulled an old throw out of the closet and settled in for a nap. We haven’t used this afghan in years—it’s a bright variegated blue and white random knit, and although we have a lot of blue in our home, this blanket doesn’t really fit in. The acrylic yarn and coloring looks very 1960s, so a half-century later, it seems dated.

But I’ve kept it around since my childhood. After all, my grandmother made it for me.

My paternal grandmother, my Nanny Kay, had many talents. I’ve written before about her piano playing. My father said she played the violin very well also. She cooked well, and she crocheted. My mother knitted and my other grandmother did needlepoint, but Nanny Kay crocheted.

After my mother died, my father found a box containing a handmade lace tablecloth with a note in my mother’s handwriting on it. The note said Nanny Kay had made the tablecloth as a wedding gift for my parents. Neither my father nor I remembered ever seeing it. The workmanship on the lace was exquisite— tiny crocheted stitches made up each two-inch medallion, and the medallions were tacked together to make a covering large enough for a table for eight. (I thought I took a picture of it after my dad died, but I can’t find the photo.)

Afghan at the foot of my bed at Middlebury, 1976

I don’t remember exactly when Nanny Kay made the blue and white afghan for me, but I think I was about eleven or twelve. I can picture it on my bed when I had a pink bedspread, which was between about 1967 and 1970. And I definitely recall using the afghan in the winters during junior high and high school, when I curled up on my bed to do homework or read. Our Siamese cat would sometimes curl up with me. One time she bit my algebra homework when she decided the paper would make a good toy. Another time she got sick on the afghan, which is why I can so clearly remember her in my room with me.

As I recall, Nanny Kay planned to make these afghans for all her grandchildren, or at least for her granddaughters. I don’t remember my brother having one (the other brother may not have been born yet), but I have a vague recollection of my sister having a pink crib-sized blanket in the same style. My afghan was a Christmas present from Nanny Kay, and I loved it when I got it. I don’t like wool against my skin, but the acrylic yarn was soft and cozy.

Afghan on my bed at Stanford, 1977

Somehow, the blue afghan made it three thousand miles across the nation to my dorm room at Middlebury College. I don’t see pictures of it in my early college years, but it is at the foot of my bed in the last room I had at Middlebury. Then it went three thousand miles back west to Stanford Law School with me also.

Later it moved to Kansas City and spent some time on my daughter’s bed during the winter months, but she never liked it. It was too old-school for her, I think. For the last decade or so, it has lived in the closet, until my husband pulled it out, reviving all the memories I recounted above. It now covers my child-sized rocking chair, awaiting another nap.

What hand-made items do you have from your past?

Haunting Books: World War I and Its Aftermath

Today’s “haunting book” post features two historical novels, Fall of Giants, by Ken Follett, and A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles. Follett’s book is a panorama of Europe and the U.S. from before World War I through that war’s conclusion. Towles’s book is an exquisite cameo of life in Russia after World War I into the 1950s.

While the first book sweeps from Russia to Germany and Austria to England and Wales, then across the Atlantic to the United States, the second novel takes place almost entirely in one Russian hotel after World War I has concluded. I liked Fall of Giants, but I loved A Gentleman in Moscow. And I learned some 20th Century history from both.

I call these books “haunting” because they depict war and deprivations. And because I keep thinking about them weeks and months after I read them.

WARNING: THERE ARE SOME SPOILERS IN THIS POST

Fall of Giants is one of Follett’s epic novels, the first in his Century trilogy. It takes place between 1911 and 1934, with an emphasis on the 1914 through 1918 war years. I’d had it on my “to be read” list for a long time, but only got around to reading it this fall, when my book club chose it.

Frankly, the length of the novel daunted me. I’d read Pillars of the Earth, an earlier epic by Follett, and liked it. But I preferred his thrillers like The Key to Rebecca and Eye of the Needle. His thrillers are taut and tense, whereas the epics sprawl for almost a thousand pages.

Fall of Giants follows five families, and through them informs the reader about Welsh miners, English aristocrats and suffragettes, German noblemen and diplomats, Russian factory workers and revolutionaries, union workers in several nations, and U.S. Ivy-Leaguers and criminals. From his huge cast of characters, Follett crafts the tale of how the nations of Europe succumbed almost against their will to the temptations to fight a war that engulfed their continent and spread around the world.

I’d read Barbara Tuchman’s nonfiction books, The Guns of August and The Zimmermann Telegram, many years ago, but Follett’s novel was a good refresher on the causes of the war, if on a rudimentary level. My husband read Fall of Giants a few years ago, and called it “comic book history.” I don’t read nearly as much nonfiction as he reads, so I found it about the right mix of history and story.

This is a novel drive by world events, not by character, and its plot suffers quite a bit to serve history. Most of the characters were stereotypes to serve a particular group in history. Some of the encounters between the characters in Fall of Giants were so coincidental as to be obvious constructs on the author’s part so he could depict some historical event or development. Also, because there are so many characters, it was often hard to remember who was who and what their role in the story was. Moreover, Follett resorted to telling the reader what to think, instead of letting his reader figure it out. So to that extent, my husband was right to call the story a “comic book.”

Nevertheless, the history was true enough to be educational, even when the story sagged. The opportunity to get an overview of World War I, the English suffragette movement, and the Russian Revolution, while also learning about Welsh mining, international diplomacy and its failures, and the U.S. Prohibition years made reading the novel a satisfactory experience. Call it “Downton Abbey on steroids.” Still, I’m not sure if I want to invest my time in the rest of the Century trilogy.

If reading Fall of Giants is like a 2000-mile road trip through the hell of war, then A Gentleman in Moscow is a quiet evening beside the fire.

I could curl up and be amused at the antics of Count Alexander Rostov during his thirty years of house arrest at the luxurious Metropol hotel in Moscow. He had the run of the hotel, but he could not leave the premises. The Russian authorities attempted to deprive him of all semblance of his aristocratic past, but he built a meaningful life in his ten-foot-square room with the last of his family’s heirlooms.

I thoroughly enjoyed Rostov’s transformation from a pampered aristocrat into a mensch of the first order. Despite his confinement, Rostov managed to build a family from the guests and hotel personnel he encountered, develop a sense of social justice, and outwit the Bolshevik thugs who replaced the former nobility frequenting the hotel.

The plot of A Gentleman in Moscow is not very credible. Even assuming a man would be placed on house arrest in a beautiful hotel and able to retain many amenities from his past noble life, I had a hard time believing he could foster a child and maintain a romance with a famous actress under these circumstances. Still, Rostov’s relationships were so charming and he was such a courtly gentleman, that I willingly suspended my disbelief.

Amor Towles’s writing in A Gentleman in Moscow is erudite and exquisite, unlike Ken Follett’s more clunky prose. Towles’s language illustrates his main character’s education and wit and also contributes to the charm of the book. Reading the novel was akin to having dinner with an amusing raconteur, with rich food and richer conversation. Much like some of the meals in the Metropol hotel that Rostov and his accomplices concocted despite the lousy Stalinist economy.

I read Towles’s first novel, Rules of Civility, and liked its depiction of New York society in the 1930s. But there was an ugly side to that story that A Gentleman in Moscow avoids. Perhaps that makes Towles’s second novel less realistic, but it also makes it more engaging. Not since Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand have I enjoyed immersing myself in a fictional world so much. Both Count Rostov and Major Pettigrew are true gentlemen, of the type that one no longer finds often in the real world.

What’s the latest good book you’ve read?

Impact of Shorter Attention Spans on Readers and Writers

Twice in one day last week, I encountered references to people’s reduced ability to focus these days. Our shorter attention spans are due largely to the ever-present distractions from technology—and I know this is true, based on my own behavior.

The first time this issue surfaced was during the Association of Missouri Mediators conference I attended, in which the keynote speaker, Professor Noam Ebner of Creighton University, cited the following statistics:

  • Today we spend on average three minutes on a task before we are distracted.
  • Once we are distracted, it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back on task.

Moreover, he said, humans are not good multitaskers. Contrary to what we think, every distraction detracts from and delays our ability to perform the task we were doing. The ubiquity of smartphones is the primary reason for our distraction, though other forms of technology are factors also. Think of when email first entered the workplace and dinged at us every few minutes. Now those dings follow us whenever our smartphone is within hearing range.

This photo isn’t of me. In reality, as I listened to the webinar, I played the video on my desktop, listened to the audio on my phone, took notes on my laptop, and kept my tablet nearby. No wonder I was distracted.

Later that day, while I was listening to another presentation during the AMM conference, I read an article (yes, I was distracted by technology) on The Passive Voice blog entitled “Shorter Attention Spans.” The article quoted Carolyn Reidy, president and CEO of Simon & Schuster, during the Frankfurt Book Fair:

“You have whole generations being trained for shorter attention spans than books require.”

As a writer, I had to stop and think about that statement.

I remember my childhood years when I spent whole days immersed in a book, from after breakfast until dinner, with only a short break for lunch. During summer months, I often consumed two books a day for a week.

Even into high school, when I had the time, I could read for hours on end. I read my favorite Phyllis Whitney young-adult mysteries and the like in a day. I read many classic novels (such as Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre) over the course of a few days, or no more than a week.

Even as an adult, despite working 50 to 60 hours a week and raising two kids, I escaped into books when I could. I’d take a weekend afternoon, or stay up late into the night, to read. It might only happen once every month or two, but it was a favorite respite.

But now? I still read a lot. I probably average a couple of novels a week. But  I find myself reading for a few pages, then switching my tablet to email, then checking Facebook, then back to the novel. My attention span is definitely shorter.

What does this mean for society?

Professor Epner talked about how it is harder for parties in a mediation to focus on problem-solving when their attention spans are shorter. This leads to the need to have shorter mediation sessions, and to let the parties break to seek out information and do other “homework” in between sessions.

The ubiquity of screens and digital interruptions have impacted the quality of our communications also. According to Professor Epner, we don’t interpret body language or word inflection in the same way we used to. Our intuition and empathy have changed as a result.

All this isn’t necessarily bad, because technology has added new ways of communicating as it has changed face-to-face opportunities. But technology makes communication different. And if we don’t recognize the changes and consider them in our communications, we will not resolve problems and differences as well as we used to.

Now, think about what this means for readers and writers.

I described my own experience as a reader above. I do not read without distractions as I used to. I do not think I’m unique in this regard.

If other readers have changed as I have, then writers need to consider how to grab readers in shorter bursts and how to retain them as long as possible, or re-grab them after a distraction. Shorter chapters. More reminders of setting and situation in novels. More headlines and breaks and sidebars in nonfiction. More uses of metaphors that relate to today’s readers.

Carolyn Reidy of Simon & Schuster said we need to be sure books remain “central to the discussion of what’s going on in the culture,” while at the same time using social media to reach consumers more directly. I agree with both points. The challenge is to handle both book-length writing and social media snippets equally well, for the functions that each does best.

Writers, what do you do to attract and retain today’s readers that you didn’t do ten years ago?

Haunting Books: Three Historical Novels About the West

Each October I’ve devoted one or more posts to the “haunting books” I’ve read during the past year—books that stay with me long after I’ve read them. This year, I’ve been diligent about keeping a list, so I have more than enough books to discuss. In this post, I’ve decided to focus on three historical novels that take place during the Civil War and its aftermath.

WARNING: THERE ARE SOME SPOILERS IN THIS POST

The first novel is Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry, which is probably the most haunting of the three featured in this post. I hadn’t heard of the book until one of the members of my book club suggested we read it. On one level, it is a typical Western, featuring the settling of the West and battles between whites and Native Americans. On another level, it is a love story between two men who save each other from loneliness and poverty. On yet another level, it is about how far parents will go to save a beloved child.

The story is told in the first person by protagonist Thomas McNulty, an Irish immigrant who becomes a female impersonator in a saloon, then with his friend and lover John Cole joins the Army to fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. The two men adopt a Sioux girl named Winona when the Army leaves her orphaned. After the Civil War, Thomas and John seek a peaceful life, but rejoin the Army to find Winona, who is being returned to the Sioux in exchange for white captives.

Barry is true to most of the tropes in Western novels—gunfights, war scenes, and chases on horseback (both slow and fast). Barry tells a rollicking tale, but unfortunately some of his plot twists seem forced, such as when friends and witnesses show up suddenly when Thomas is trapped.

What makes this novel is Barry’s prose. The language in Days Without End is gorgeous, if sometimes inaccessible. Barry doesn’t use quotation marks to denote dialogue, which I dislike, and which makes it difficult to interpret sometimes. Thomas’s grammar is uneducated, but his words are lyrical, and the character makes surprisingly insightful comments. I often wanted Barry to be more straight-forward in recounting the story and helping his readers along, even while I appreciated his mastery of language.

This novel “haunts” me because of its gruesome descriptions of war, and also because of the uniqueness of the narrator’s voice. I recommend the novel, if you are prepared for a violent depiction of 19th century battles ranging from Indian skirmishes to the relentlessness of the Civil War. But of the three books I’m featuring today, this was my least favorite.

Enemy Women, by Paulette Jiles is another violent story of the Civil War, though not quite as gruesome as Days Without End.  The Colley family in the Missouri Ozarks has tried to avoid involvement with either side in the Civil War. Nevertheless, after their mother dies, a band of Union militia (not the regular Army) attacks their home and arrests the father (a judge) and hauls him off to prison. When the only son leaves home, the three daughters are left alone. They head for St. Louis to try to locate their father. The oldest girl, Adair Colley, is imprisoned in a Union women’s prison in St. Louis, after she is falsely accused of being a Southern sympathizer, and her younger sisters seek relatives in Tennessee.

Through most of the first half of book, Adair is in prison and is mistreated by the matron and other prisoners. Major Neumann, the Union officer in charge of the prison orders her to write a confession so he can release her. She writes truth and fantasy (which together create a compelling explanation of how she got where she is), but she refuses to confess. Adair and Major Neumann fall in love through their discussions over her “confessions.” He helps her to escape, and although their plans go awry, she does get away and sets off for home. The second half of book describes Adair’s adventures on her way back home. Meanwhile, Major Neumann has problems of his own, but is finally discharged from the Army and tries to find Adair.

I live in Missouri and know something of the Ozark country where most of the novel takes place. But I knew nothing of the women’s prisons during the Civil War, nor very much about the violent and undisciplined militia units that supported the Union Army. The novel makes clear that there were atrocities committed by both Northern and Southern participants of that era.

Although some of what happens to the Adair family and Major Neumann was not very believable, it was a good story. Also, it was generally true to the history of the region, based on primary source material Jiles included for her readers.

What haunts me about this book is the realization of what war does to civilians caught in regions where battles rage. (I’m seeing the same theme in the Vietnam War series now available on PBS.) In addition, Enemy Women depicts the savagery of men (and women) caught up war, particularly when they are not subject to any kind of military order or discipline.

And I’ve loved the Paulette Jiles’s prose in every book of hers I’ve read.

Which brings me to News of the World, another book by Paulette Jiles that also has haunted me this year. In this novel, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, an aging Civil War veteran, makes his living by reading newspapers to residents of small towns across Texas. He is dragooned into taking Johanna, an orphaned white girl who was kidnapped by Kiowas at age six (she is now ten), back to her white aunt and uncle. She has lived with the Kiowa since she was a small child and has been so acculturated to their way of life that she believes she is Kiowa. She objects strongly to being returned to white society and fights the Captain at every step.

But along their trek across Texas in the Reconstruction Era, which is full of typical Western adventures and perils, the Captain and Johanna develop a respect and affection that is both sweet and sad. It is sweet, because it is very real, and because they are two very sympathetic characters. It is sad, because it seems there is no way their bond can continue past the current journey.

Finally, the Captain delivers Johanna to her relatives, which does not go well. It would spoil too much to reveal what the good captain does next. I will only say that the book shows the power of love, even when love is not quite enough to rid the world of its troubles. I loved the novel for its spare prose and for the wonderful characters Jiles created. I wish we all had people like Captain Kidd and Johanna in our lives.

* * *

There are parallels in these three novels. They all have Western themes. They all have beautiful prose that is the envy of any writer. They all depict love found in unexpected places and families built from circumstances rather than from genetics. Days Without End may haunt me the most, because of its gory battles. But of the three, News of the World was my favorite, followed by Enemy Women.

What is your favorite historical novel?

On THE ARTIST’S WAY and the Truth in Fiction

I’ve kept the Post-It from September 2005

I’ve mentioned before that I attended a diversity program called “Women Supporting Women” in late September 2005. When I declared to the other participants in that program, “I will write a book before I die,” one of the women in the group handed me a Post-It note. On that Post-It, she wrote a quote from Julia Cameron, “Sudden problems in my life usually indicate a need to work on my art.” She also jotted down the titles of two of Cameron’s books, The Artist’s Way, and Walking in the World, and recommended I read them.

I wasn’t sure I had “sudden problems” in my life, though I did feel I was at a crossroads. So, as a good student, when I returned home, I went to the library and checked out The Artist’s Way. It appeared to be a book that might be helpful to me as I flailed at how to become the writer I wanted to be. Its exercises were as much about self-awareness as they were about artistic endeavors.

I quickly realized I would need my own copy of the book to highlight and mark up. I bought myself a copy and worked through it in some detail. Over the next year, I also bought Walking in the World and Vein of Gold, both by Julia Cameron, and a few years later when she published Finding Water, I bought it.

In the twelve years since I attended that diversity program, I have read all four of these books at least twice (as well as a couple of Cameron’s other books). Most of them I’ve read three or four times. I’ve highlighted my copies until there is as much yellow as white on the page, and their paperback spines are all broken.

While it would be an overstatement to say the books changed my life, they certainly have contributed to my growth as a writer. First, they encouraged me to proclaim I am a writer—which is very difficult for beginning writers to do. Second, they told me to do a little bit every day—write three pages, take one small step toward my goal, do something physical or repetitive with my hands or legs when I’m stuck creatively. Third, they provided tools for me to use in examining my life, in determining where I’m on track and where I need to change.

I was already journaling before I read The Artist’s Way, but Cameron’s encouragement of daily “morning pages” made me a more faithful scrivener. When I retired from my job at the end of 2006, I made a commitment to write in my journal every day, and I haven’t missed more than three or four days a year for the last eleven years—I don’t always write in the morning and I don’t always write as much as she recommends, but I write. The exercises in Cameron’s books have provided topics to write about when I’ve felt empty. As she says in her books, when the same subjects come up over and over in morning pages, it’s a signal that area of my life needs to change. (And there are always a few areas of my life I need to change.)

I’ve been less diligent about incorporating her concept of “artist dates” into my life. These are weekly times of play, where one goes on a small, solitary expedition to fill one’s creative well—anything from a concert at the Philharmonic to browsing through a fabric store (I’ve done both on my artist dates). Even though I don’t go on artist dates regularly, I’m more aware now of when I could use a shot in the arm, when I need exposure to something different and playful in my life.

Earlier this year I read through The Artist’s Way and did many of its exercises for at least the fourth time. What amazed me was how much I’d grown since the first time in late 2005 or early 2006. The first time I worked my way through the book, I was not at all certain that I could be a writer, nor did I know how to go about making myself into one. I needed Camerons encouragement. During the years, I have become a writer, and I’m proud of myself.

This time, I focused on the spiritual aspect of the artist’s journey. I wrote the following affirmations to myself:

1. God intends me to have a writing life, to be a writer, at least at this stage of my life.
2. My stories speak of human frailty and fallibility, of people trying to do their best, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing—as such, they speak the truth.

Those statements are far too wordy to be memorable affirmations that I can use when I need to give myself a pep talk. So I shortened them:

1. I am a writer.
2. My stories speak the truth.

It may seem strange that I write fiction, yet tell myself “my stories speak the truth.” But fiction is only good if it faithfully portrays the human condition within the confines of a story with a beginning, middle, and end. As such, fiction often clarifies the truth in ways that real life cannot. After all, everyone reading this has not yet experienced the end of life’s story.

I’m not done with my journey along the Artist’s Way. As Cameron says in the epilogue to that book, “Growth is a spiral path, doubling back on itself, reassessing and regrouping.” I will probably reassess my life and my work using her exercises in the future, and I hope twelve years from now I can see that I have grown even more.

What affirmations do you tell yourself? And when have you found that fiction speaks the truth?

After Forty Years, I Wonder—Did He Ever Propose or Not?

There is one issue that I continue to debate with my husband of almost forty years—did he ever ask me to marry him or not? He swears he did, but I don’t remember it. You’d think a girl would remember something like that if it had happened, wouldn’t you? Even if it took place forty years ago.

My engagement ring

I remember that he raised the subject of marriage not long after we began dating in the spring of 1977, but I told him then it was too soon to be talking so seriously. I remember that sometime in July or August we set the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend as our wedding date. And I remember him giving me an engagement ring sometime in October 1977—we were outside on the Stanford Law School campus, when he pulled out the small box and put the ring on my finger—but that was well after we’d made the decision.

So him actually popping the question? I’m not sure that ever happened.

Did I ask him to marry me? I don’t think so. I think we just sort of fell into it.

Oh, well. It doesn’t really matter, I suppose.

Just before the wedding. If you look closely, you can see the sweat on his brow.

In my opinion, today’s practice of making a monumental occasion of getting engaged is silly. Planned spectacular events. Scenic locations. Photographers. Witnesses. Parties. None of it really matters in the long term. In the long term, what matters is the day-to-day. Who empties the dishwasher? Who walks the dogs? Who gets up in the night when a kid vomits?

In the best of marriages, you both do. At least, we have, though there have been tiffs over all these things.

The rings I’ve worn nigh on 40 years

I was going to make this post amusing. Or I was going to tell the story of how my engagement ring—the stone came from my husband’s great-aunt’s engagement ring—was almost lost in the Kansas City Plaza flood of mid-September 1977. (Thankfully, Jaccard Jewelry had the ring at their downtown location that day, rather than at the Plaza store. It was delayed in getting to my fiancé, but it arrived in California unscathed.)

But instead, this post turned serious. As I wrote, I started thinking about what makes a marriage last for forty years.

When people ask me how my husband and I have stayed married so long, I answer facetiously, “Inertia.”

The reality, however, is that it takes more than inertia. It takes work. And forbearance. And getting up at 2:00am with a sick kid. It takes knowing that, however many arguments there are over little things, in the big things of life, you have someone reliable walking beside you and holding you up.

Today my husband of almost forty years celebrates his birthday. He knows which one. I’ve bought him a few presents, but nothing that compensates for the love and support he has provided me for so long, nothing that thanks him adequately for being my mainstay when the seas of life get rough.

Happy birthday, sweetie!

Help Me With My Next Book Cover—Take the Poll

I’m hard at work editing my next historical novel, titled Forever Mine: Love Along the Oregon Trail. And I’m starting to think about the cover image for the book.

Here are five possible covers. Which do you like best? Click on this link to vote for the cover you like best.

COVER A

COVER B

COVER C

COVER D

COVER E

I will be adjusting text color, size, and placement, so this poll is mostly about the image. If you have any suggestions for changes to these covers, please leave a comment on this post, or use the contact form on this site.

Again, here’s the link to vote for the cover you like best. I’ll do a formal cover reveal later.

Thank you for your input!

P.S. If you subscribe to my monthly newsletter and voted when you received my October 1 issue, this post takes you to the same link. You can change your vote until I close the poll, but you can’t vote twice!