Friday, December 27, 2013

Christmas Alone

The following is a guest post by Terry Robinson, a Coeur d'Alene writer. Thank you, Terry!

Photo courtesy of

Christmas Alone
by Terry Robinson

Sitting in the small laundromat, aimlessly flipping through my copy of Business Week, the full impact of decisions I had made earlier in the year came into focus.  It was Christmas Eve and I was alone, living far away from home in a small town an hour north of Indianapolis. The door opened and a young woman walked in carrying her laundry. She had a slender build, not quite blocking the doorway as she entered. I looked past her, noticing the predicted snow had started to fall and had already begun to cover the street and the town’s single traffic light. It had grown dark and with the darkness felt colder than it was.

I was in a new job and not in a position to take the time off to travel home for Christmas. So I would be alone this year. It was a lonely feeling, but one I willingly made to advance my career. The young woman sat next to me, having completed the ritual of starting her laundry. Content in thumbing through my magazine, I ignored her, though she seemed intent on having someone to talk to. Our eyes met for just a second, long enough for me to take notice that she was quite attractive, with reddish hair and blue eyes. My glance lingered just long enough that she seized the opening and wondered aloud, "Why do you suppose two attractive people in their twenties might be alone on Christmas Eve?" Her name was Chris, and in her I saw an opportunity to escape the loneliness and be with someone for a while. Even if just for the evening. As she rambled on about growing up on a farm in northern Indiana and how she wasn’t able to make it home for the holidays, I smiled and listened quietly. I had been around long enough to recognize she was showing an interest in me and I was entertaining the notion of inviting her over to my home for a glass of wine.

By now Chris had completely engaged me in conversation and innuendo. As I watched her speak and smile and move about the room, I began to feel close to her. Her warmth began to replace the empty cold of being alone and far from home. Being with her seemed to fill a void in my soul. Could spending the evening with this young woman make it better, make me feel better, or would it be just a temporary healing? As I was about to invite her over, I felt the ache in my heart once again and came to recognize that while she might have made it better for a while, being with her would not fill the emptiness in the same lasting way that family does. In that instant I wished her a Merry Christmas, gathered my things and headed home. And, I was alone.

I made my New Year’s resolution that evening: to never be alone again on Christmas.

Author bio: Attending Washington State University in the 70s, Terry enrolled in the communications program and aspired to being a photojournalist. Somehow life got in the way and he graduated from Central Washington University with an accounting degree and has been in finance and accounting ever since.  Terry has lived throughout the country in eleven states, and has traveled through all fifty states.  He enjoys writing about events in his life with an emphasis on life in North Idaho. Terry is currently the Chief Financial Officer for Kootenai Electric Cooperative. Terry and his wife Sue currently call Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, home and  have two grown daughters in Colorado. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

A Written Gift - A Treasured Memory

A friend of mine called just before Thanksgiving to ask me to write a short Christmas story featuring at least six children's characters.  She has a studio in her home and records books, so came up with the great idea to record a story as a gift for her parents and other family members that included the voice recordings of her six nieces and nephews.   Since she is not a writer, she asked three writers she knows to write a 4,000-word story.  Two of us took up the challenge.  My story, "The Christmas Glitch," is about Santa's elves.  The other is about Christmas Zombies ... just another reminder that we all think (and write) with a different voice.

Her project got me to thinking about the fact that the ability to write is a gift -- a gift we can share with others.  The Holidays offer the perfect opportunity to pick up your pen and write something you can share: a Christmas story, a Christmas memory, a song,  a quip or a poem.  Wrap it up, decorate it with a bow and set it under the Christmas tree.  

I wrote this poem a couple of years ago after setting out the nativity set from my childhood.  I read it aloud on Christmas Eve, then upon request, sent copies to my family members.  Back in the 50s, nativity figures were sold individually and families would build their own scenes, rather than buying them as complete sets.  Buying the figures, watching our nativity scene grow and setting the nativity scene out year after year are wonderful memories for me.  The set was passed down to me in 1976 and setting it out each year never loses its charm.   

Our Christmas Manger

I set them out just once each year,
   Those old chipped figures so very dear.
I arrange each one with loving care,
   This one here ... that one there.

We bought each figure one at a time,
   A family trip to the five-and-dime.
We gazed at rows of figures on display
   Knowing we could choose only one that day.

It seemed each year we would argue and fight,
   Should we add a camel with blanket bright?
Or a donkey or a cow or a shepherd kneeling?
   Each plaster figure seemed so appealing.

We would reach consensus and soon were done,
   Mom paid twenty-nine cents for the chosen one.
Home we rushed to put it in place,
   Then spread straw carefully around its base.

Then came the year we faced the fact,
   There were no more figures that we lacked.
We had them all, each figure was there,
   Our stable was full under starlight’s glare.

Still, we continued to add another sheep or two,
   And our flock of sheep just grew and grew.
They filled up the manger  and surrounded the stable,
   Then frolicked and free-ranged across the table.

As the years passed our collecting ended,
   But the set we gathered was carefully tended.
One special year the nativity passed to me,
   A special tradition for my own family.

Our wisemen are dressed in colors bold,
   Bearing gifts of frankincense and gold.
Each wears a crown upon his head,
   Standing near the infant’s bed.

Our shepherd’s nighttime vigil keep,
   Surrounded by those large flocks of sheep.
Our angels, glowing from afar,
   The whole scene lit by wondrous star …

That shines down gently on Joseph’s head
   And Mary, kneeling by baby’s bed …
And gives light for the whole world to see,
   The miracle of the nativity.

As I unwrapped the figures this year,
   I realized each one becomes still more dear.
Although chipped and cracked, I'll forever keep,
   That broken-horned cow and that three-legged sheep …

Who gazed in wonder under starlight bright,
   At the miracle of Christ’s birth that wondrous night.

MJH - 2006

NOTE:  Not all sheep are shown.

Writing North Idaho is going to take a couple of weeks off for the holidays.  We wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.  

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Anna Quindlen: On Being Enough

After all those years as a woman hearing 'not thin enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough, not this enough, not that enough,' almost overnight I woke up one morning and thought, 'I'm enough.'   --  Anna Quindlen
Anna Quindlen is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and bestselling novelist with a book list that includes seven novels including six bestsellers and eight nonfiction books. She began her career as a copy girl for The New York Times at age 18.  After graduation from Barnard she was hired as a reporter for The New York Post, then returned to The New York Times as a columnist from 1981 to 1994. 

She was only the third woman in the paper’s history to write a regular column for the Op-Ed page and won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her work in 1992.  She left her newspaper career behind to concentrate on becoming a novelist in 1995.

Like her columns, her books (both nonfiction and fiction) take a sophisticated, insightful and thought provoking look at life.  Add it all together … her background, her high profile newspaper career and prestigious, award-winning body of work ... and you would think Anna would be one of the most self-assured, competent and confident women you would ever meet.
 If success is not on your own terms -- if it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your own heart -- it is no success at all.  -- Anna Quindlen
So it comes as quite a surprise to learn that Anna Quindlen, like the vast majority of us, felt she was “not enough.”  She says it wasn’t until she turned 50 (eight years after winning the Pulitzer Prize) that she woke up secure in the knowledge that she was “enough.”   During an interview Anna said she became a “girl imitation,” acting “less than” in order to fit the expected image of a woman.  
“[I became] nicer, sweeter, less outspoken [and] less combative.  All the qualities that you need to be a good opinion columnist tend to be qualities that aren’t valued in women.  And I think that was a bit of a challenge for me when I became an op-ed columnist [for The New York Times] and has been a challenge for many of us who do that as a living.  -- Anna Quindlen 
Since reading her first book, I considered Anna Quindlen an inspiring role model, but I didn’t think we had much in common because our lives were so different.  She is a New Yorker who graduated from Barnard.  She began her career at age 18 with one of the most prestigious newspapers in the country ... and then won a Pulitzer Prize for her writing, for heaven's sake!  And I, well ... I have none of those accomplishments on my resume.
 I read and walked for miles at night along the beach, writing bad blank verse and searching endlessly for someone wonderful who would step out of the darkness and change my life. It never crossed my mind that that person could be me.  -- Anna Quindlen
But in sharing these truths about herself, her value to me increased even more because I realize that although we may have walked different paths, we do have much in common.   We share the journey of being a woman and the challenge of finding the strength to become yourself and to share your truths as a writer with candor and integrity.  I appreciate the grace and wisdom with which she continues to illuminate the path for the rest of us.  
The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.  -- Anna Quindlen
Find Anna Quindlen’s latest novel on Amazon:
Brilliantly written, powerfully observed, Still Life with Bread Crumbs is a deeply moving and often very funny story of unexpected love, and a stunningly crafted journey into the life of a woman, her heart, her mind, her days, as she discovers that life is a story with many levels, a story that is longer and more exciting than she ever imagined. -- Review.  

Visit her website at

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Joy of Prosody - Metered Christmas Poems

By Liz Mastin
The Beautiful Christmas Poems

 Many of the famous Christmas poems by poets such as Clement Clark Moore, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Robert Louis Stevenson and more, were written in meter. One of the more interestingly devised metered Christmas poems I just came across, is a poem written (except in the first stanza, in which the poet changed the rhyming pattern for her own reasons) in an aaabbcc rhyming pattern. That means the first three lines of each stanza, rhyme with each other, followed by two rhyming couplets. It is mainly iambic tetrameter with anapestic substitutions. The iambic beat sounds like “da DUM” four times across each line. The substituted feet called anapests sound like “da da DUM.”
This poem flows nicely with its graceful-sounding substituted anapests. “The Christmas Night” by Lucy Maud Montgomery has a reminiscent quality: a lovely old fashioned homage to the beauty of Christmas. Lucy Maud Montgomery, a Canadian author born in 1874, was best known for her popular series “Anne of Green Gables.”

             The Christmas Night                   
                                     By Lucy Maud Montgomery

Wrapped was the world in slumber deep,                               
The stars out blossomed in fields of blue,
By seaward valley and woody steep,
And bright and blest were the dreams of its sleep;
All the hours of that wonderful night-tide through
A heavenly wreathe, to diadem
The King in the manger of Bethlehem.

Out on the hills the shepherds lay,
Wakeful, that never a lamb might stray,
Humble and clean of heart were they;
Thus it was given for them to hear
Marvelous harpings strange and clear,
Thus it was given for them to see
The angels of the nativity.

In the dim-lit stable the mother mild
With holy eyes gazed on her child,
Cradled him close to her heart and smiled;
Kingly purple nor crown had he,
Never a trapping of royalty;
But Mary saw that the baby’s head
With a slender halo was garlanded.

Speechless her joy as she watched him there,
Forgetful of pain and grief and care,
And every thought in her soul was a prayer;
While under the dome of the desert sky
The Kings of the East from afar drew nigh.
And the great white star that was guide to them
Kept ward o’re the manger of Bethlehem.


Liz Mastin Bio
Liz Mastin is a poet who lives in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho during the summer and Bullhead City, Arizona in winter. She thrives on the study of the great poets, their biographies, the schools of poetry to which they adhered, and the poetic conventions of the times in which they lived.

While she enjoys free verse as well as metrical poetry, her main interest lies in prosody. She notices that most of the enduring poems are those we can remember and recite. Liz enjoys poetry forms such as the sonnet, the sestina, the couplet, blank verse, simple quatrains, etc. and she hopes to see modern poets regain interest in studied metrical poetry.

Liz is currently putting together her first collection of poems which should be completed this winter. The poems are a mixture of metrical and free verse poems.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Kurt Vonnegut. Do the lives of authors often reveal more than you think about their stories? His rules to Short Story Writing.

Author Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)
You might wish to look up some of your most treasured authors and check into what their lives have been like. If you can find out what actually happened to them in their youth you will often find there is a similar theme that runs through their writings. And often these themes are somehow connected to their life experiences and passions. For instance, the theme in my writing usually deals with survivors of trauma. This theme is closely related to my life with my father who was severely traumatized during war.

When I started reading Vonnegut's books I wondered what had happened to him to trigger such dark humor in his books. I imagine most of you have heard of Kurt Vonnegut, one of the most famous and influential satirical novelists and essayists of the 20th century. And most of you may know that he had a wild imagination and sense of absurd humor even though he wrote serious stories filled with social commentaries. Often he explored the human condition mixed with the fantastical and the scientific.You may even know some of his most famous writings such as Cat's Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, and Slaughterhouse-Five.

But did you know that much of his writing about war, a recurring theme in his books, came out of his own experiences?  After attending Cornell University for two years he enlisted in the army and fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. He was captured shortly after he went overseas and became a prisoner of war in a Dresden slaughterhouse about 30 feet underground. You need only imagine what the Nazi's did to him. After the bombing and liberation by the Allied forces, he was assigned to burn the remains of the dead. He was deeply effected by the war and remained depressed most of his life. Today we would probably say he had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and never received the help he needed.

So is there a silver lining to his life? Yes. Instead of being mired in his past, he became a healer in his own way. His experiences contributed much to his intense satirical, but social commentaries and stories. He influenced many, many people to think more deeply and become better humans. And humor was one of the best ways he found he could cross over into the unthinkable and be heard. That's true even today. So thank you Kurt Vonnegut for the treasures you have given us.

Here are his 8 simple, but wise rules to short story writing from his 1999 book,
 Bagombo Snuff Box.

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character that he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things---reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your lead characters, make awful things happen to
    them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak,
    your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense.
    Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they
    could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last pages.

Of course rules are meant to be broken, right? Even Vonnegut admits this is true.

What are your rules for short story writing? Please share them with us.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

North Idaho-Winter Wonderland

North Idaho, Spokane River

As I look out the window of my cozy, warm study while I write, I see big crystalline snow flakes fall down onto the green blades of grass and Ponderosa pine trees in front of me. The mountains are already decked in white waiting for Christmas. Winter has definitely arrived.

I notice the December writing prompt on the upper left hand corner of our website and I decide that I should write something on the topic of "A hush fell over the snowy forest."

The scene through the window brings the poet out in me and that's pretty hard to do. I am definitely not a poet! But after thinking about it for a minute I say, "Nah, not today." So I revert to a previous poem I wrote on the same topic.

A couple of winters ago, our Idaho Writer's League met with a well-known poet and professor, Carolyne Wright, from Seattle, and she gave us a task that some of you might like to try, especially if you feel as "unpoetic" as I usually do. The effort and concentration on that first word in the sentence tends to help you bypass the logical left brain and settle right into the right brain. Right? See it's already working!

Here is the challenge she gave us that I am passing on to you:
Write a poem with words at the beginning of the sentences that use all the letters of the alphabet consecutively. That means you will have 26 lines. They will begin with A B C D E F G H etc.
This was the poem I wrote at the time.

A Backwoods Contemplation

And would we have ever thought
Birch trees could be so yellow?
Calls and bugling of elk ring in the
Distance through the crisp, clear air.
Elk, young ones and old ones alike
Flounder about in the new fallen and
Glistening snow on the pathway,
Heaving in breaths of sweet scented pines.
Idaho, I say to my husband as we
Jog past the scene in the forest,
Keeping as quiet as ancient Indians who walked
Light with moccasins, and inner stillness.
More light than quiet, almost weightless,
New born to a pure white world.
Oh teach me to wonder like you did
Praising each miracle around me.
Quicken my heart like your steps, and
Restore me to be who I am.
Snow baptizing me from above, I
Tremble from the womb awake.
Unlike I thought I would be,
Valiant and happy I rest. I
Weep as my cheeks touch the wind and
Xylophone like music tinkles in the birch trees,
Yielding to the bugling of elk and the laughter of
Zeus' grandchildren dancing around us.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Bridging the cultural divide without words.

Tonya with grandpa when we arrived home from Australia
No words necessary.
Yes, I realize this website is all about writing, but on the other hand, what is writing all about? For me it's mainly about self-expression and communication with others. And as a writer I love words. But is it only the words, eloquent as they may be, or is it the people who speak or put those words together who are the true communicators across all barriers including culture and language?

I am reminded of our trip from Australia back to the US when our daughter was not quite two years old. We spent time in the Philippines, Thailand, Lebanon, and many European countries, and I wondered how we would communicate not knowing their languages. But I noticed that everywhere we went Tonya made friends with other children and adults from many cultures. I was amazed at her ability. Obviously her communication was not through words, seeing as she spoke only a few words like, "Sitdown, daddyadoit, mommygoplay, and dawberdies" her favorite fruit. Yet she enthralled her companions. In the camp ground she would gather to her a gang of kids of varying ages and they would all play and natter in their native languages. Everyone seemed to understand each other. Often I sat and watched and listened to them---their tone of voice, their squeals of delight, their enthusiasm, their smiles, their tears, their laughter, their jumping up and down swinging their arms around, their gestures to each other.

Young children understand the natural language of the body of all humans before they are taught not to listen to it or are taught to change it. But as we get older we forget and we are taught that certain gestures and protocols  mean different things in different cultures. We learn to be careful of each other.We believe we can communicate with others only with words and if we don't know their language we won't be able to understand them.

We have spent several winters in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I had forgotten that language is not always words and I knew very little Spanish. I worried about communicating with the many people who did not speak English. But when we arrived we encountered few problems. The universal language there is their love for their children. As soon as we smiled and played peek a boo with the kids the adults opened up and took us places and taught us things we would otherwise never have seen or learned---like the baby Ridley's green turtles on the beach crawling from their nests to the ocean. Or the birth of a baby humpback whale.

Last night I watched Pavarotti sing several songs from different operas and I was once again amazed. I knew none of the words he sang and yet I knew exactly what he was singing. And I fell in love with him again as so many others have done.

So as I watch the grief that the world shares over Nelson Mandela's passing, now between Thanksgiving day and Christmas, I once again remember that we are all humans created the same regardless of where we live on earth. May I always remember this truth as I write.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Trailing Clouds of Glory and God Given Talent

Years ago, my neighbor looked around for summer activities for her son in our home town of Coeur d' Alene, Idaho. As a mother of four active, wonderful  boys, she knew she would have to keep her thirteen year old lad busy, and out of trouble as the dog days of summer approached.  In the paper, she read an article about a group coming  from Canada to teach a week long course in how to play the bagpipes. She hopped in the car, drove down to North Idaho College, and signed him up. He had never expressed an interest in playing and basically just showed up and did what was asked of him. At the end of the week, he was to play in a concert which would be judged by a master piper from Scotland. My friend asked me if I would like to attend, and I happily walked down to the college, sat out on the lawn in a folding chair, and heard this young man play, 'Lament for the Old Sword.' I was captivated. I was transported. Not only did he take to the pipes like a duck to water, he played with sensitivity and grace, subtle nuances, and did not miss a note. He won the competition and after the ceremony, I introduced myself to the judge.
“Is it just me," I asked, "or did I witness a display of staggering, God given talent?”
In a thick brogue, I heard the answer that confirmed my suspicions.  “Once in a hundred years,” he said. “Only once in a hundred years does it come along like that.”
“It is as if he already knows. Do you think that he may be an old soul?”
The young man quickly became a protege and his learning accelerated like a house on fire. He won contest after contest until he worked his way up to the biggest challenge of all. He would compete in Scotland. Lots were drawn as to the order of play. He was to go first.
Somewhat daunted, he went to the master with this news.“Go out there Cory and set the standard.”
He did. He was the first American and the first competitor outside Scotland to take the coveted prize.
This episode taught me a valuable lesson. Never be afraid to try something new. You never know what skills, or talents you might possess. If you are not willing to take a risk, you will never know. If you have always wanted to write, or paint, or play the piano, now is the time. Do not fear criticism nor complaint. Feed your immortal soul, and be brave in the attempt.
Being that my father was in the hockey business, he scoured the skating  rinks of Toronto and southern Ontario in search of budding stars. “Talent,” he said, “sticks out like a sore thumb.”
I start my day by looking at Facebook. Before I begin work on my novel, I need to see what everyone is doing, and there are often beautiful photographs, or words of inspiration that brighten my day. This morning I found a film clip of a young girl in Holland singing opera. Her performance moved me instantly to tears. Why? We are reminded of what we already know, that as William Wordsworth wrote, "Trailing clouds of glory do we come." It is as if we witness the hand of God.
How is that we are surprised?
 From Ode to Immortality:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,  60
        Hath had elsewhere its setting,
          And cometh from afar:
        Not in entire forgetfulness,
        And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come  65
        From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Stirring Words: Churchill, Kennedy, and King

This is not meant to be about politics. It has nothing to do with political parties, philosophies or affiliation, but rather, I wish to write about stirring words.

People running for office make a lot speeches. In a democracy, it is incumbent upon us to listen to what they have to say. We are tasked with forming a judgment, and whether we like it or not, we are given the duty of hiring that person to do a job. Without getting bogged down with the business of running a government, we expect them to be able to communicate with us, and to let us know what the dickens is going on up there in those high offices.

 As a family, we would sit down on Sunday nights and watch the Prime Minister's question and answer program brought to us from England on PBS. We valued people who could think on their feet, and though we made many jokes and indulged in imitations, our children got to witness skilled debaters in action.

Newspapers in the United States used to publish the full text of the sitting President's speeches. We read them, digested them, and discussed them at the dinner table. We did the same with our Prime Ministers in Canada, and like everywhere else in the world, we expected our leaders to be able to write.

As the broadcasters and pundits tried to make sense of the sad occasion of fifty years passing since the brutal murder of President Kennedy, I chose to spend the day reading and hearing his stirring words. Yes, the leaders of the day have speech writers. The great ones use those as an outline, but impress their own stamp, and their particular literary style in everything they do. Other people come along, fancying they are the next Winston Churchill, or Abraham Lincoln, but they fall so far short of the mark because great writers are a rare commodity.

Time magazine, as journals often do, published a list of the greatest speeches of all time. I will furnish you with a brief glimpse of from all three.

Sir Winston Churchill tops the list. This is from his speech to the House of Commons, as England prepared for war:

" I would say to the house as I have said to those who have joined this government:
"I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat."

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many, long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, by land and air, with all our might and with all the and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalog of human crime. That is our policy. You  ask what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival .
Let that be realized; no survival for the British Empire, no survivor for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal.
But I take up my task with bouyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, "come then, let us go forward together with our united strength."

From President Kennedy's Inaugural Address:

"In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I not shrink from this responsibility-- I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it. And the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Finally, whether you are citizens of America, or citizens of the world, ask of us here with the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you, with a good conscience, our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing here on earth God's work must truly be our own."

Martin Luther King Jr. ranked as having delivered the third greatest speech of all time. While I do not think one can even make a definitive comparison of such stirring words, I would say they all inhabit the same cloud. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, these are the loftiest speeches of our times.

My father-in-law traveled to Washington to participate to in the march. He had the great privilege of being present at surely one of the most pivotal moments of the last century.
Here is a brief look at the speech that erased centuries of hardship by imploring us to look at the plight of so many with new eyes. You cannot read these words without the immortal, ringing sound of King's voice, a lingering clarion call in the imagination.  It is a speech that will live forever:

"Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every mole hill of Mississippi,
From every mountainside. let freedom ring."

Monday, December 2, 2013

Novelists Are Spy Masters

Did you ever write the words, 'how true', in the margins of a great book? Have you picked up a novel in a used book shop and seen the words scratched in pencil from a previous reader? Did you mar A Tale of Two Cities in high school? I was subject to my sister's hand me down copies, so I was initiated into the 'how true' habit. Now I resort to a notebook and copy sentences that deserve this attention.

Ian McEwan is an English writer whom the San Francisco Chronicle, reviewing “Sweet Tooth,” describes as, “a thinking persons bestseller whose intelligent, tightly plotted novels, narrated in careful prose, address the pressing social and political issues of our days.”

 While visiting a charming and rustic cabin up in Bayview Idaho, a great friend whose intellect never ceases to astound me, pressed her copy of this work into my hand. As we had both read Atonement, and On Chesil Beach for the Best Food Ever Book Club, I could not wait to begin, Sweet Tooth.

A thinking person's bestseller is an apt description of Booker Prize winner, Ian McEwan's talent. Born in Aldershot England, on June 21 1948, he has enjoyed a very prolific career. He lived in Singapore and Lybia while his father, a sergeant major in the British army, worked on campaigns during the years of the Cold War. Ian McEwan's novel,  Amsterdam yielded a Booker Prize. His novel Atonement was shortlisted for the same award. The film of the same name, starring James McAvoy and Keira Knightly, was nominated for an Oscar. The story is a family saga set during before and during the days of World War II. It involves an innocent mistake with devastating consequences, and the need to 'atone' for both.

A great writer will craft sentences that are truly memorable. When lifted from their context, the sentence may stand alone,  live on, and be quoted frequently.

From Atonement:

“A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended.”

A character in the novel describes why she writes:

“A story was a form of telepathy. By means of inking symbols onto a page, she was able to send thoughts and feelings from her mind to her readers. It was a magical process, so commonplace that no one stopped to wonder at it"

On Chesil Beach was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2007. Being that it was one of our summer selections for the Best Food Ever Book Club, I had the rare thrill of reading it on vacation, on the lovely southern coast of England where the tale is set. I could open the hotel window and smell the sea breezes while devouring this depiction of a marriage going off the rails, right from the start.

McEwan writes: “You can spin stories out of the ways people understand and misunderstand each other.”

In Sweet Tooth, chapter three begins with these words:

“I didn't cancel my appointment with MI5.”

Set in 1972, during the Cold War, an attractive young woman, a bishop's daughter, is recruited and given an assignment to work for British intelligence, known as MI5. She is to meet with a writer she admires, inform him of a charitable foundation willing to support him on the basis of his talent and  promise. His early misgivings are instantly overcome with the promise of cash and sponsorship. Once he accepts, she is tasked with  holding his hand through to completion. Publication and an ensuing award banquet follow, feeding his belief in himself.  In reality, it is a clever ruse on the part of government forces wanting to steer the conversation to their desired political ends. The Cold War rages on, and certain powers that be fear communist rhetoric infecting the Kingdom. When will she be found out? When will his dream of success shatter into a million pieces? Would this not represent the worst nightmare for any writer, to be seduced into thinking your writing is good, when in truth you are being used as a pawn in a sham production?

McEwan states: “You could say that all novels are spy novels and all novelists are spy masters.”