A Halloween Story I’ve Never Told Before: Alone with the Wind

Every year on Halloween night, I remember Halloween night in 1963, when I was seven years old. Our family had just moved into a newly constructed house in a new neighborhood about a month earlier. I had my own bedroom for the first time in my life. My room was on the corner of the house, and the wind (always fierce in Richland, Washington, on the Columbia River) blew around that corner so hard it whistled and howled.

My younger brother and I had been out trick-or-treating earlier in the evening. I don’t remember what costumes we wore, nor which parent took us, though it was probably our father. I’m sure it was a happy evening, as all Halloween evenings are for kids of that age.

I was in second grade at a Catholic grade school, and the great thing about my school was that we always got November 1 off, because it was All Saint’s Day, a Catholic holy day. We had to go to Mass with our parents on November 1, but we didn’t have to do homework on Halloween night, so we could stay out a little later than the public school kids. Of course, for a seven-year-old, staying out late wasn’t a huge advantage, but it became a bigger deal as I got older.

After trick-or-treating, my brother and I came home, indulged in our favorite candy, then went to bed.

In the middle of the night, my father woke me up. “I have to take your mother to the hospital. Just stay in bed, go back to sleep, and I’ll be back by morning.” There was a sense of urgency in his voice.

Even at seven years old, I knew what the problem was. My mother was having a miscarriage. Again. She’d lost one baby in February 1960, then had a miscarriage in January 1962, and now was pregnant again.

Wide-eyed, I nodded my head at Dad, and he left.

I couldn’t go back to sleep. I tossed and turned and listened to the wind rattle the windows. In addition to concern about my mother, I worried about whether the house would burn down and whether a burglar would strike and all the other fears children have when they’re alone. I thought about waking my brother up, but Dad had said to go to sleep.

Finally, I turned on my light and read a book as the wind continued to wail. This might have been the first time I ever read in the middle of the night because I couldn’t sleep, though there have been many, many occasions since then when reading has been my remedy for insomnia.

At some point in the wee hours of the morning, I did fall asleep. Sure enough, Dad was home for breakfast, and he retrieved Mother by noon. She lost the baby, but otherwise, all was well, though I don’t think we got to Mass that day.

I’ve often wondered about my father’s decision to leave my brother and me at home by ourselves. We didn’t stay home alone during the day yet, nor in the evenings if our parents went out. This was the first time I’d ever been left in charge.

When my mother lost the first baby in 1960, I was not quite four. I don’t remember that night at all—he told me many years later that he put us in the back of the car, still asleep, and took us to the hospital with my mother, where he left us with the nurses. I don’t remember the 1962 miscarriage either. We were living in a small house with good neighbor friends next door—he might have called the neighbor lady to stay with us. (I do remember the neighbor lady bringing us casseroles in the days following.)

But in 1963, in our brand new neighborhood, we didn’t have next door neighbors yet, and didn’t really know anyone else in the few occupied houses on the block. Besides, I was seven—a big girl. I remember feeling very grown-up and responsible when Dad told me they were leaving me in charge. But I wasn’t grown-up enough not to fear the wind.

What frightening memories do you have from childhood?

Haunting Books: Too Close to the Nightly News for Comfort

I thought about only including historical fiction in my “haunting books” this year, but a few novels set in current times haunted me more—because their plots are so similar to what we see in the news all too often. These novels are Luckiest Girl Alive, by Jessica Knoll, This Is Where It Ends, by Marieke Nijkamp, and Truly Madly Guilty, by Liane Moriarty.

Each of these books is haunting enough for a dark autumn night when the wind blows hard and you want to hole up inside with a wood fire. Just be sure there’s someone close by to comfort you when you finish, because the books themselves are disconcerting enough to make you rethink your worldview.

WARNING: THERE ARE SOME SPOILERS IN THIS POST

Both Luckiest Girl Alive and This is Where It Ends deal with school shootings. Luckiest Girl Alive also deals with bullying, sexual assault, and other problems teenagers face today. We know from the beginning that the protagonist, TifAni FaNelli (yes, the strange capitalizations in her name are deliberate—Yuck) survives the shooting incident, but we come to see how ironic the title is—TifAni’s tale shows she is far from lucky, though she is alive. We do know from the beginning that TifAni has somehow moved beyond what happened to her in high school, because she tells the story as a 28-year-old back in her home town to participate in a documentary about the school shooting,

I found TifAni’s high-school story compelling in an “I hate to . . . . can’t wait to . . . see what comes next” sort of way. One tragedy after another befalls poor TifAni, and some of the situations she encounters are truly ugly, which is why the book haunts me. Ultimately, she became a high-school heroine in a violent and surprising way—though it takes a long time for Knoll to tell the reader that.

I did not find TifAni’s story as an adult once she “made something of herself” (she goes to Wellesley, becomes a magazine writer, and gets engaged to an “old money” guy) nearly as satisfying as seeing her finally take command of her situation in high school. In fact, I never did like TifAni as a character—she’s the epitome of ambition and self-deception. Even though I knew she was only trying to move beyond her terrible high-school experience, it left me cold.

TifAni rekindles a former crush—I won’t say any more than that. But this relationship is likely to cause harm to others, even if it allows TifAni to “find herself.” In other words, her redemption is not without its own problems. Knoll never confronts the morality of the choices TifAni makes as an adult—it is as if Knoll believes TifAni’s self-actualization is all that matters. But even as she comes to terms with her past, TifAni is still a bitch.

Knoll’s voice in Luckiest Girl Alive is strong. I think she nails the high school “mean girl” speak, as well as TifAni’s adult voice. I just wish Knoll had built a more likable protagonist.

This Is Where It Ends was even more haunting than Luckiest Girl Alive in recounting in real time what happened during the school shooting. Any book that involves killing 39 students and wounding 25 more is bound to be haunting. The entire book takes place during 54 minutes of the shooting as terror reigns while the students and faculty try to escape.

The descriptions are vivid, which adds to the haunting nature of the book, but the characters were somewhat confusing, in that it was hard to know which brother/sister pair was which. Most of the characters wore a large V for victim sign on their foreheads, and they weren’t very deeply drawn. Of course, in 54 minutes of horror, it’s hard to give very deep backstories for the characters. But because the characters weren’t depicted in much depth, I found it hard to care as much as I wanted to when they were injured or killed. Unfortunately, Nijkamp’s book ends with the resolution of the shooting, and we don’t see what befalls the survivors. Therefore, the book mostly haunted me as I read (it’s a quick read), but the characters didn’t stay with me.

Frankly, the real news stories about the recent Las Vegas mass shooting have been more haunting than these two school-shooting novels. I cared more about the real people I never met than the characters I spent 300 pages with.

The third book I’m featuring in this post, Truly Madly Guilty, has as its theme how different people at the same event can have different perspectives on what happened. Each character at an impromptu summer barbeque sees the event through his or her own backstory and baggage—and imbues the event with the moral impact his or her experience brings. Moriarty does an excellent job of developing six very complicated adults, plus some children.

In this case, each character feels guilty about what happened for a different reason. In the end, who caused the tragedy? We aren’t certain. All the adults are somehow at fault, and yet none of them were really responsible.

In fact, it’s not clear what the tragedy is. The reader suspects what happened, but it isn’t until the midpoint of the book that it is revealed—and it’s not as bad as it could have been. And then there’s a twist at the end that shows how another tragedy occurred—one that was more serious. Who was guilty of what? Though they were all truly guilty of something. A haunting story, indeed.

I thought Moriarty overplayed her hand at delaying the revelations—what happened wasn’t as earth-shattering as I feared through the first half of the book. The novel isn’t nearly as good as Gone Girl, though Moriarty’s book also involves unreliable narrators each recounting their own version of events. Despite the book’s shortcomings, I liked how Moriarty wove together the story of three marriages (and two of the couples had children, so their four methods of parenting) and multiple friendships and other relationships among the characters. I didn’t particularly like or relate to any of the characters (though they are all believable), but I think that was because the book depicts them at their worst. Or thinking of themselves at their worst.

That’s all the space I have for haunting books this year. Maybe I’ll use some of my 2017 reads next year. Until then, . . .

What’s the most haunting book you’ve read recently?

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?

Discovering Jane Austen

Jane Austen died on July 18, 1817, two hundred years ago tomorrow. I first encountered her novels in the spring of 1970, when I was in the ninth grade and cooped up at home with the mumps. I didn’t have a bad case of the mumps, and I felt pretty healthy. But I couldn’t return to school until the swelling in my cheeks and jaw went down.

“I’m bored,” I whined to my mother.

“Find a book to read.” That was her stock answer any time one of her children said they were bored. Either that, or she told us to clean our rooms.

“I’ve read everything.” I whined some more, as only a fourteen-year-old girl can whine to her mother.

Mother went to the bookshelf in the living room, which contained mostly adult books. Other than the encyclopedia (which was educational) or the twenty or so volumes of Readers Digest Condensed Books (which were pretty well sanitized by the editors who condensed them), I was only allowed to pick a book from the living room bookshelf if I had parental approval.

She skimmed the shelves and pulled down a book. “Here,” she said. “Read this.”

It was Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.

I took it back to my bedroom and curled up under the covers and opened the book. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Well, that sounded promising. Even fourteen-year-old me got the humor in that line.

I read the whole book over the next few days. And loved it.

After I was fully recuperated and able to go to the public library again, I searched for other books by Jane Austen. I didn’t read her novels back to back, but I did read them all over the next couple of years.

I really liked Northanger Abbey (a lot like Victoria Holt and other Gothic novels I had read), but I didn’t think any of Austen’s other novels were as good as Pride and Prejudice. Sense and Sensibility was supposed to be her best—and Mother said she liked that one best—but I preferred Pride and Prejudice. Marianne Dashwood was too silly. Emma, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park were fine, but still not as good as Pride and Prejudice.

By the time we studied Pride and Prejudice in my Honors English class during my senior year of high school, I had read everything I could find by Jane Austen—all the novels she had published in her lifetime. My classmates complained about having to read Pride and Prejudice. “Oh, no,” I said. “It’s wonderful!” Not many of them believed me.

Fast forward to when I learned there was a partial manuscript by Jane Austen that someone had completed and was publishing—something new by Austen! I was a working mother, with very little time to read. But I rushed out to find a copy of Sanditon. And I did the same thing when I found a volume that included both Lady Susan and The Watsons, which I’d never read before either.

And, of course, I have watched every televised and movie version of Austen’s novels. I saw the 1940s version of Pride and Prejudice when I was in college. I was very disappointed—the costumes were all wrong, Mr. Darcy was not particularly compelling (sorry, Mr. Olivier), and they skipped huge chunks of the book. The 1980 BBC version shown on Masterpiece Theatre was much better.

In fact, that 1980s version got my husband interested enough in Jane Austen that he read Pride and Prejudice, and later took on some of Austen’s other books as well. (At least Sense and Sensibility—I’m not sure if he read them all or not.)

And then there was the very swoonable 1995 version with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth.

Sigh. . . .

I learned to like Emma, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park better from the Masterpiece and movie versions, though I still like Pride and Prejudice best.

At this point, I’ve read all her novels at least three times. I’ll probably read them all again at least once more before I die.

I look forward to seeing new film versions in my lifetime also. All in search of the perfect Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. And the perfect Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson, wonderful actress though she is, was too old for the role) and Edward Ferrars. And Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow was pretty good, but not quite officious enough for me) and George Knightley.

I have so many more contacts with Austen’s work to look forward to in life. And my interest all started because I was bored one day in 1970.

What have you done out of boredom that turned out to be a good thing?

Mid-Continent Public Library ReadLOCAL Initiative

I wrote last week about National Library Week, and I announced that the Mid-Continent Public Library was now offering my books, Lead Me Home, and Now I’m Found. This week I want to tell you about the library’s new ReadLOCAL initiative, which MCPL announced last week.

As I’ve written before, I’m a big proponent of the Read Local movement to promote local authors. I’m one of the administrators of the Read Local KC Facebook group and I’m also involved with Hometown Reads Kansas City. These groups are working to connect authors and readers in our community.

Now, the Mid-Continent Public Library has taken the Read Local philosophy one step further—they’ve curated a special collection of books by writers who live within the library’s service area.

As the MCPL website says about their collection,

“ReadLOCAL encompasses a vast range of writing styles and genres—from mysteries and westerns to juvenile nonfiction and healthy cookbooks. Books in the ReadLOCAL collection stem from various publishing backgrounds—self-published, hybrid published, small press, and large or traditional publisher (with the odd New York Times bestseller sprinkled in)—and have all been published within the past few years.”

And I’m pleased to say that they have put my two novels in their ReadLOCAL collection.

I encourage all readers in the Kansas City area to browse through books in the MCPL ReadLOCAL collection. Just one more reason to appreciate your local library.

And keep coming back to this MCPL site, because more books and more writers will be added over time!

What programs are available to support local authors in your community?

Libraries Transform—Celebrate National Library Week, April 9-15, 2017

This week, April 9-15, 2017, is National Library Week. It’s a time to celebrate libraries and library workers and to promote library use and support. According to the American Library Association website, the theme for National Library Week this year is “Libraries Transform.”

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for public libraries. I remember many trips to the library in my hometown when I was a child. When I visited my grandmother in the summer, she took me to the library near her house so I could check out a stack of books to keep from being bored between trips to the beach.

Later, I was the “library mom” for my kids when they were each in first grade—I checked books out of the library to take to their classrooms every few weeks. And I enjoy libraries now as places to meet with other writers, to hang out in between appointments when going home is inconvenient, and to write when there are distractions at home.

As for being “transformed” by libraries, I think it is fair to say that I wouldn’t be the reader—and therefore the writer—that I am today if I hadn’t spent so much time in libraries as a child. Over the years, I’ve used the books I’ve checked out of libraries to learn and to escape. Books let me experience the world as it really is, as the ideal it should be, and as the fantasy I sometimes wish it were. Most evenings, I choose to read instead of watching television—even when I can stream programs I like. There’s something about using my imagination as I read that visual experiences like television and movies can’t duplicate.

The library I use most frequently now is the Mid-Continent Public Library (MCPL).  It has many branches throughout the Missouri side of the Kansas City region. I also have library cards with the Kansas City Public Library (KCPL) and with the Johnson County (Kansas) Library, because I’m in those libraries often enough that I might want to check books out there.

All three are excellent library systems. I live midway between two MCPL branches, and the system has many other branches throughout the part of Kansas City in which I live. I’m at some branch almost every week. And I check out most of my ebooks through the MCPL Overdrive system.

Kansas City Public Library parking garage

The KCPL system has a beautiful branch in downtown Kansas City which offers excellent literary and historical programs for readers, and it also boasts an art gallery with changing exhibits, often related to Kansas City history. Another KCPL branch near the Plaza shopping that is a great place to hang out. Both branches have nice coffee bars also.

And I have regular meetings in the newly renovated meeting rooms at the Johnson County Central Resource Library. If it had a coffee bar, I might even be tempted to move to Kansas.

All three libraries, as well as the Olathe (Kansas) Public Library, have recently joined their catalogs. So now I can link my three library cards and search on one site to find books anywhere. I still have to check them out of the library where the book is located, but the combined catalog makes my searches much easier.

I’m also pleased to announce that the Mid-Continent Public Library has acquired my two novels, Lead Me Home and Now I’m Found. The Olathe Public Library already had a copy of each book, so now they are available on both sides of the Kansas/Missouri state line. I’m most pleased when readers buy my books, but I’m thrilled when people read them—however they find a copy.

So, those of you in the Kansas City area who have not yet read my books, now you have no excuse! (Unless all copies of the novels are all on hold at the library.)

How have libraries transformed you?