Books are a forest and it’s hard to see the trees, except the tall ones or the old ones. But when you enter the forest, it’s the new growth that emits the sunlight....

Friday, June 15, 2018

A response on child separation

Reading about children being separated from their families at U.S. borders, I was stunned to learn that the U.S. was the only country in the United Nations who had not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This was noted by the spokesperson for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ravina Shamdasani, when she was interviewed on that commission's criticism of the U.S.'s recent actions.

c Vitma1978 / Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images
Other articles told of the numbers of children already moved to Michigan and Chicago where they were to be given to foster parents. The other night, I saw network news coverage of a temporary holding building where, for some reason, the faces of the children and their caregivers could not be photographed.

The United States maintained that there might be false claims of parentage, that some adults were using children in order to gain entrance into the U.S. I couldn't understand why DNA tests weren't administered before a child was forcibly taken and admitted to a plan for food, shelter, transportation, and foster care. An individual can obtain a paternity test for about $70. At any rate, if the child was taken by an adult that wasn't its parent, then the child is someone else's, not the possession of the U.S.

c Blojfo / Dreamstine Stock Photos & Stock Free Images
In a country where children are afraid of sitting in schools because of violence, and where abuse by foster parents is a real factor, this all seems pretty atrocious. 
The United States probably has had the highest statistics for their own children being separated from parents because of divorce and foster care. Whatever the advantage of this contemporary shift, the fact of separation remains. Perhaps people in the U.S. are in a routine of callousness towards the feelings of children. 

Children are separated from parents when foster care is the decision. This seems premature if a child was indeed kidnapped, and without looking for their real parent or parents.

I fail to understand why the U.S. does not work with other nations in establishing the identities of people seeking entrance into the U.S. Because those people lived somewhere else, it would seem that the native nation should be involved.
My book Tug of the Wishbone, set out to explore the longterm affects of divorce for its protagonist and how they changed perceptions about relationships and family life. An adult book, the first chapters centered on specific events, skipping time from one chapter to the next, until Maureen was a teenager. I did not want to dwell on her childhood, but to give enough of it for an underpinning to the main story. 
In one early chapter, Maureen refers to scenes of separation from her father. Because I wanted to show how a child of divorce survives, I didn't want to milk the trauma. This was because of my own feelings about child characters in an adult novel. I attempted to write her into the story as the character she really was. The problems were adult so I chose to concentrate on the active scenes with her family at the outset. The fact is, a younger child has little power and is usually not the hinge of the family scene, especially when larger issues reign. Such a child might not be thinking of themselves. They don't know what to think.

c Paha_l /Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images
I preferred a Dickens handling of the child in an adult novel. Although I wrote from Maureen's point-of-view, I depicted the family and neighborhood scenes in a dramatic way instead of a narrative way. This fit with the idea of the novel, to show a child-of-divorce in relationship. When Maureen thought like an adult, the book shifted into her individual story with more of her interior. If there was a lasting trauma from divorce, then I decided to explore how that came out later on.

Life goes on. The story of child separation is gripping and the scenes important. The next problem is that children get past trauma and they survive as they can. They won't be coddled because of a past experience with agony, and they might deal with expectations that cannot be tailored for them as individuals, especially with displacement. Lucky children have parents who plan for them and provide an undisputed home. Unlucky children have to be heroic, too often, in order to be happy.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Reminding me of Russian literature

What are these maps?

They represent readers of this blog during the last months. I looked at my blog stats and saw that a large proportion of its readers were in Russia. When this first happened, I thought it a fluke. A blog last fall contained an excerpt from Tug of the Wishbone. Maureen, the protagonist, discussed Russia with a boyfriend who traveled there.

My book, The Swan Bonnet, has characters with mixed heritage. I arrived at that from the history of Russians in Alaska.

How interesting, was my initial reaction, to be read where there is a high standard for published writing. Though I couldn't think of any Russian women authors in that history.

The subject of Russian literature really gets me going.

Modern Library edition, from
I read Anna Karenina as an adolescent and afterwards felt that the book set up a formidable standard for adult literature. Thomas Hardy stood up to the adultery, illicit love issue but I began to class many adult books as simply being about adultery. Anna Karenina was a much bigger book than that. It had quite an effect on me, choosing to identify with Kitty in the secondary plot.

I was not so happy with film versions of Anna Karenina. I couldn’t understand why there was sympathy for Count Karenin. At thirteen, my understanding was that the government official Karenin bought the most beautiful young aristocratic woman, Anna, and made her live an austere, loveless existence until she had a son. Nineteenth century literature often challenged the compatibility of the marriage match. It questioned the institution’s integrity.

Lately, I was involved with a discussion among Facebook writers about tense. We agreed that writers these days usually write in one tense and that the present tense throughout a book could feel uncomfortable. I furnished an example from Tolstoy, his long short story, The Snowstorm, in which he moved from past to present tense in a natural way and to step up the pace during a very long sleigh ride. Dickens also used this technique, evident in the first chapters of Our Mutual Friend, where it gave immediacy in a dining room with many characters. Why these techniques are not used so much among authors today could point to the difference between the old masters and other authors, we concluded at the discussion.

Crime and Punishment, I think, was the most compelling book I ever read. However, some years ago a freshman composition student took me off-course, asking if I had read The Brothers Karamozov. She was so enthralled with it. I began reading the book and couldn’t get involved. Just before the 2016 election, I picked it up again from my used book stock. The elder Karamozov, repeatedly referred to as a buffoon, caught me this time. I struggled with the book because I felt that Dostoyevsky didn’t have the editing that he had for Crime and Punishment. It was worth the struggle. 

The Brothers Karamozov, International Collectors Edition, from

When I felt ennui at the adultery problem in adult novels, I read Cancer Ward. Solzhenitsyn had accomplished a grand Russian novel with that as the setting. Later, I read his short story work, and then looked at The Gulag Archipelago. The pages I read of that book stunned me so much that I put it off for another time.

In the 1980’s, I concluded that Sigrid Undset, author of Kristin Lavransdatter, was the only woman who had written a Russian novel. (Maybe I’ll get some blog readers from Norway now.)

I suppose I have spent more time with Russian literature than with learning about the Cold War.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Walking and writing, especially poetry

My last post, “How environmental themes entered my writing” dealt with fiction. I didn't mention my poetry writing and the “how” often happening from walking or hiking. Environment and poetry seem to have such an obvious relationship that I left it out.

Although I tried many sports, swimming and walking were my regular activities in adult life. Hiking was the term we used then but I found, living in the Twin Cities, that city hiking was stimulating too. Walking around the lakes there was a social exercise. I also liked walking to Lake Calhoun and back, clocking about four miles. In Duluth, the shoreline of a great lake, creeks and woods in the parks, and stands of trees in neighborhoods are in the walking panorama. Working with used books, I've converted to early morning walks when garage or estate sales are within my range.

I've liked seeing gardens and architectures, lawns that were allowed to go wild, the crow supervising the gathering squirrel, the expressiveness of trees, finding the woodpecker making the noise, raccoons, and does with fawns.

Once I began writing regularly, I found that walking both relieved tension and kept the creative breezes flowing. Many famous writers regularly took a morning or an afternoon walk.

These walks, though, made me more of a poet, not just an inspired poet but a poet who feels thematic and then writes more regularly. Walking a few miles opens up the awareness and associations. I tended to see my fiction from an inner view like film. Poetry was that moment a photographer catches except that the poet has their inner awareness and associations, those creative breezes that pick up images like seeds. Writing that draws a parallel, a metaphor. Nature becomes a cohesion of forces, scientific included but not the prevailing attitude.

When the digital camera came along, I often simply stopped, took a picture, and put it on Facebook. It was a moment that seemed unusual and revealing. But writing a poem usually happened within a system, from the soil of  associations. The challenge was to find out whether you made sense to a reader while giving a personal perspective.

Being out-of-doors and becoming a part of that causes a pensive mind to wonder about systems. With poetry, I liked to find parallels for human life. It was a coincidence that I was moving, my apartment emptying except for a couch, when a swarm of monarch butterflies decided to rest in the trees outside the window. It seemed like magic but then it made me more enthusiastic about writing poetry.

Ever since Wordsworth in western culture, after poets began writing on a subject rather than relating a story worthy of a novel or play, nature for the sake of nature came to the forefront. Poets have looked at the environment in a different way, and usually as a system that affects and even directs man.

I've seen in recent journals some superb poetry that, unfortunately, mourns the present situation with environment while it celebrates the naturalistic world. Many of my poems led to an environmental perspective and were published in literary journals, listed on my website. In recent years, I was proud to have poems published in  Review Americana, Cider Press ReviewArLiJo,Wilderness House Literary Review, and The Adirondack Review. Recently, a poem of mine was included in New Poetry from the Midwest 2018, published by New American Press.

Literary journals can focus on regions or what gives a sense of place, the land we live on. I continue to explore them at New Pages.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

How environmental themes entered my writing

While at the University of Minnesota, I worked as a temporary with a book manuscript about global warming. That was in 1982 so I was incredulous as I read and typed. I know it sounded like scientific gobbledygook to a few friends when I told about it.

In 1983, when I began to write longer fiction, environment as a human concern began to creep into the plot. Living in a city made me nostalgic for the agricultural prairie landscape where I grew up and for the Minnesota forest and lake region where my grandparents lived. Nature issues became part of my plots, perhaps because I felt deprived of landscape when I was writing. But they were issues.

My first children’s novel, which I have not published, was set in a Northern Minnesota town where a paper company was the main industry. It was a mystery. Paper was a big concern then. How often did we hear how many trees were cut down for a ream of paper! Environment was a sideline in the book but when I wrote it, no one really anticipated how the computer industry would solve the paper problem. A successful environmental story has happened since the 1980’s and without societal agony.

Josiah's Apple Orchard was first drafted as a fantasy, though it was based on a real pick-your-own apple orchard. I re-wrote it with more reality during the farming crisis in the Midwest. The specialty apple orchard I’d visited as a child was sold with the fate of many farms in the 1980’s. Of course its apples were the best I’d had, and the farm was organic as farms used to be. Since the 1980's, the organic farm movement has grown and succeeded, specialty apples included. When a reviewer wrote that my book had a “surrealistic feel”, I was pleased that I had accomplished for that reader the parallel realities I wanted to evoke in a children's novel.

I grew up hearing loon calls in the Northern Minnesota summer, and also watching lake activities expanding. Maintaining the environment for loons, children wanting to protect a loon family in particular, was the theme of The Wide Awake Loons. In the second edition of the book, I added vignette illustrations of Northern Minnesota wildlife and lake scenes.

Claude: A Dog of the Sixties is about how a standard poodle really must be trained, because of that breed's curiosity and independent spirit. Although Claude didn’t have an environment theme, it dealt with the keeping of a pet in an environment appropriate for its well-being.

I wasn't through with the bird protection theme. When my brother worked in Anchorage and then in Ketchikan, I thought for a time of moving to South Alaska. While reading about this region, I came across information about the swan endangerment there that affected the entire North American continent's swan population. This was a successful environmental story, the protection laws for swans increasing their numbers after they had decreased dramatically. The Swan Bonnet is a historical novel about poaching and protecting swans.

Although I grew up in a meat packing town, I wasn't much of a meat eater and later, bought mostly chicken. In the early 1990's, I saw for the first time the new poultry farming, a farm factory that is, on a PBS documentary. Afterward I went to the supermarket, looked at the chicken, then realized the price of eggs, and refused to buy those products again unless they were marked at a Co-op. That was the power of a photograph. So when I drafted Tug of the Wishbone, this environmental issue developed once my protagonist became a photographer. 

Even though novels with environmental themes weren't handled much by the eastern publishers, having to do with demand, I'm sure, such as their difficulty in publishing real animal fiction for children as they did in the past, I hope you'll join me in those concerns for our planet, the home of every creature we know.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Vintage "American Austen" author discovered: Mary J. Holmes

Working with used books in a physical store, I finally read a novel of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. - Elsie Venner. I savored its depiction of New England life so when I came across another book with Holmes on its spine, and one in bad condition, I started reading it. That book was titled Cousin Maude.

The title page was missing and after the first chapter, I said to myself, “This is like an American Jane Austen. How could the author of Elsie Venner and several more philosophical works write like this?” With internet help, I found that I was reading Mary J. Holmes, an author I had seen upstairs in our store, on shelves that were lower priced vintage. I didn’t know anything about Mary J. Holmes and had confused her with a religious author, Marjorie Holmes.

Mary J. Holmes was born Mary J. Hawes in 1825. From Massachusetts, she married Daniel Holmes who became a lawyer. They lived for a few years in Kentucky, which inspired some of her 39 novels, and then moved to New York State. She traveled extensively. Her novels were best-selling, I was surprised and ignorant to learn.

Cousin Maude was both delightful and funny. Another reason I was so puzzled at thinking Dr. Holmes had written the book was its doctor character, step-father to Maude. He was plumbed after he insisted on walking to the house of his second wife-to-be, for health but suspiciously because he refused to pay a carriage driver. The second wife died too and Maude's future was designated as domestic support to the doctor and his two children, which began the Austen-like social imbroglio concerning Maude and the doctor's daughter. I laughed many times while realizing that Mary J. Holmes had a keen sense of the barriers women experienced. And she also made the doctor's servants into vivid characters, including a black couple who were hoping someday to have a place of their own. But that wasn't the end of the doctor whose next venture topped the romance of the younger set.

The book was a treat, but what I also liked about it was the detailed New England setting and the skill of the novelist in bringing these nineteenth century scenes to life.

I had to try another of her novels, available as e-books. Gretchen was a later work and it began with a sense of mystery. The rich traveler Arthur comes back to his mansion mentally tormented, though he immediately makes plans to renovate rooms for the mysterious Gretchen, a lovely person who Arthur protests is “still a child.” Again, a male character is probed and with the same acerbity that points out the pathos of neglected women when American men could rise. Gretchen became a ridiculous suspense that made me turn the pages. Even though a baby appeared instead of her and mystified the entire community with scant evidence of a German nurse, the author's handling of Arthur still kept the mystery of Gretchen going. Arthur's escape into building and planning his grounds was fascinating. America was built quickly and this character with his vast railroad fortune shows the mania for replicating European buildings and terraces. The book has its romantic twists with the grown girl, raised by a modest family after she was rescued without any acknowledgement.

I really couldn't understand how Mary J. Holmes was forgotten as a novelist. I felt that Austen fans would enjoy her American parallels. But she isn't so finely crafted as Austen and, because she was prolific and so successful in her time, she was probably allowed to draw out scenes and digress with minor characters.

Now I'm reading Bessie's Fortune. This book has a more serious vein running through it, having to do with a terrible guilt and secret event that affects a family. The plot is different from the others in that there are connections to England and Wales. Mary J. Holmes spikes her humor here with polite barbs about lifestyle differences between her British and American relatives. Bessie's family is gentry and related to a Lady Jane but they are down on their money. Her parents are desperate enough to go to Monte Carlo, splendidly described. While they cling to respectability, they gamble with a young peer who has dressed as a woman so he won’t be recognized. It looks like Bessie will be sent to America to stay with her miserly aunt.

I noticed at Amazon that reviewers were liking Gretchen as much as I had. There are others who are reading this author because of her portrayal of women, class struggles, black characters, and slavery. Though she has been called sentimental, and outcomes can be heartwarming like Frances Hodgson Burnett, her American characters might be called Dickensian in their eccentric personalities. Her books are a trip to the America of the mid-1800's.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Violence and the Imagination

Back to thoughts on imagination, I was stirred to resume on the subjects of violence and gratuitous violence. An Australian woman, engaged to a Minneapolis man, was recently shot by a Minneapolis policeman after she reported what she thought was a sexual assault in her alleyway. The accompanying officer said she ran up to the car window of the officer who fired his gun at her. She worked as a yoga instructor.
This brought back my graduate school years in Minneapolis. The murder rate was worse per capita than New York City. Residents held night vigils because the police couldn’t control the situation. In my building one winter night, the back door window was smashed by a burglar.  A female tenant found the burglar in the laundry room and luckily fled upstairs unscathed. When the police came, they actually said, “Maybe he was cold.”
We tenants learned from each other about the neighborhood milieu while there was a lack of confidence in the police. In Minneapolis today, a foreign woman would probably still need the news and the coaching that women supplied. One instance of advice: A woman should stay put if she hears violence, and if she reports it, never to reveal her role. Besides, police attitudes during a crime wave could be corrosive.
Image Stuart Miles @
During this decade of my life, I had little interest in violence or crime as reading or entertainment. I preferred literature that reflected life as it is, usually with infrequent crimes. Good authors can show the mundane day as development and make that as interesting as the action parts. I tried to do that in Tug of the Wishbone where, in the second part, my character Maureen was neighbor to a Minneapolis woman whose mother was murdered.  My book followed another theme so loss from murder and loss from divorce were perceived.
Since high school, I wondered at gratuitous violence on television. I wrote a paper on television violence in college, inquiring whether it might encourage violence in society. There wasn’t a lot of research on the subject then.
Growing up in a southern Minnesota county, I knew of one murder. A teenager shot a teacher through her living room window. In recent years, the Mower County sheriff’s office requested additional staff because of the unprecedented numbers of gun permit applications.
Last year, I watched airings of a show I liked in the 1960’s – The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Clever plots, the humor of Napoleon Solo, the variety of locales all kept my attention. The same thing happened that happened when I was young. I tired of the torture scenes and the number of characters shot to death.
My second job after college was reporter for a suburban St. Paul newspaper. Every week in 1978, I visited the Maplewood police chief and every week, he had little to report except for domestic violence. Today, a reporter there would be much busier. A recent report numbers violent crime at 87 annually with 4 murders and 151 burglaries.
While sensationalism pervaded journalism, the rise in violence seems sensational in itself. What does it mean if sensationalism pervades creative writing where the sky is only the inner limit? And imaginations are used for sensationalism?
Image Stuart Miles @
It isn't that violence, a part of the human story, should not be portrayed. But when violence is described without attention to the victim and the pain it incurs, a story becomes only a partial reality. Although I had opinions about television violence, I wanted to watch many Alfred Hitchcock movies when the VHS's were available. Hitchcock gave a more complete reality to the crime setting. Instead of concentrating on police and criminals as star characters, he often gave attention to characters affected by the criminal and while they were oblivious of an ensuing crime. This went along with the definition of crime – that crime violates other people’s lives.
Some years ago, I read Ovid’s Metaphorphoses. He retold violent Greek legends and also a flood myth with pathos and conscience that, even though the stories were distant in time, conveyed their impact. Ovid was writing in Ancient Rome; I wondered how far he lived from the Colosseum. Oh, he was banished by Augustus while writing the Metamorphoses. Previously he wrote love and erotic poetry. I was stunned at the finale to the unfinished Metamorphoses. Ovid stated that the human race had become violent because a man killed an animal for food. He implored the Romans to become vegetarians.
Image Simon Howden @
Even if people don't associate the current crimes in America with the fabrications in our arts and entertainment industries, it certainly looks as if a parallel world of real crime has occurred.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Authors I Wish to Collect: Jane Austen & Mark Twain

Jane Austen? Why I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen.

I heard that quote from Mark Twain on MPR a few weeks ago. I thought, Twain and Austen have something in common. In more than twelve years of searching for collectible books, I have never found a copy of either of these authors from before 1900.  I’ve sold Twain in 1920’s editions but no Austen from before 1950. The conclusion is that if anyone has an old edition of Jane Austen, they are not letting go of it.

I scrolled through all of Austen’s editions from before 1900 on Abebooks. Yes, if I ever come across an edition from before 1920, the book is rare. An author I would like to collect just isn’t usually found. And Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn from before 1900?  Very few available.

Twain was an outspoken man about classic literature but his dislike of Jane Austen, which I don’t think is fair, reminded me of a feud in my college English department. I did student work there and heard a few of the frays. A professor that women warned was a misogynist believed that Austen had no place in a college English course. One of my favorite professors taught Austen, attended conferences on her, wrote papers on her, and avidly defended her place in the English department. My typical luck, I had been assigned to the chauvinist professor’s freshman composition course. Following advice, I took it as one of my few Pass/Fail's. I was to pass but after my final paper, he kept returning it to my mailbox with the note that if I didn't fix the errors, I would fail. I looked and looked, knowing it was probably the footnotes, until finally, I found a period missing there. I corrected it and passed the course. No kidding, he was hard on Jane Austen too.

My Jane Austen wishlist: (click on the book to see the listing)



Austen wrote a novel like no one else in her time, crafting her work with the elegance that was within her boundaries. Women then had to marry to have any kind of life, and she had a mission, wanting good matches for life. Her renewed popularity in the early 2000’s was at first puzzling. I thought it might be due to contemporary work situations and the enforced levels of communication between men and women. If there is interest in the modern workplaces, it usually has to occur within a careful framework.

I’ve relished stories about workplaces, from classics such as “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “The Catbird Seat” to our time. The workplace often has humor inherent which seems to be from personalities clicking and conflicting.

My adult novel Tug of the Wishbone has a number of scenes from work in it. I think they gave the book some balance from the relationship and interior sections. Maureen’s personal quest and her camera work led to many descriptive scenes. Finally, I had to do some cutting on the book. I had a goal after I researched women’s novels. I did not dare to sprawl like Charlotte Bronte. My goal was the length of an Austen novel which I accomplished, just about. In contemporary terms, I admired Penelope Fitzgerald’s well-crafted snug novels. Some of my cuts were offbeat scenarios and anecdotes about places and people of a region, part of a photographer’s viewpoint, but ideas for another kind of story, essay, or memoir.

Mark Twain might not have known of Jane Austen’s juvenilia.  I thought it hilarious and theorized that she was inspired by Henry Fielding. One of her characters planned an elopement during a wild carriage ride, another demanded a Blifel-like suitor to guarantee an extravagant floral conservatory and novelty carriage, another posed suggestively in acrobatics at a costume party where the rich host, dressed as the sun, sat a hallway away. The teenage Jane had the spirit of a Tom Sawyer. I imagined her clergyman father disciplining her to write an acceptable piece of fiction. I also thought that if she lived today, she might actually have become part of comedy team and never written a novel. After all, she went to a most popular social scene at Bath, and with freedom, might not have made it back to her father’s parsonage.

While I believe that Huckleberry Finn is an incredibly great book if only Twain didn’t write in dialect so much, I had to consider Twain’s female characters - Tom Sawyer’s aunt and the morbid female poet in Huck Finn, both satirized for their gullibility and sentimentality. In fact, American women poets of the nineteenth century often wrote memorial poems for funerals. Many American lives have been described in poetic form, I found in books by nineteenth century American women poets.

Maybe someday I will come across a collectible Jane Austen novel for my changing library. To think that Mark Twain would approve of my shelves because I haven’t run across Jane Austen much, and only editions like Barnes & Noble.