Book Review: The Bird Artist

What drives people to cheat? What are we looking for when we step outside our relationships and commit adultery?

Is it that we’re lacking something in our current relationship, or that we’re truly unhappy with our spouse? Or maybe it’s more animalistic than that: maybe we’re acting on a biological instinct to increase the chances of our bloodline living on once we’re gone from the earth. I know the answer is different and complex in every situation, but I can’t stop asking myself, why? Why do otherwise decent people engage in selfish, hurtful behavior like adultery? Why did I do it, myself, after my first divorce?

883420These questions kept swirling around in my head after reading The Bird Artist, by Howard Norman. And while the answers I’ve come up with are still unsatisfying, I’m at least grateful for finding a book that encourages self-reflection and honest assessment through rich storytelling.

The novel is set in a small, coastal village in Newfoundland during the early 1900’s.  It hits you hard from page one, as it opens with the narrator, Fabian Vas, confessing his murder of the lighthouse keeper Botho August. While the murder drives the story forward, it is in no way the central theme or the book. Instead, readers become immersed in the Vas family’s struggle to navigate through life as they deal with adultery, familial duty, and passion and betrayal.

Despite its dark undertones, The Bird Artist is a lovely, quick read. The language might be stark, but the storyline is quite romantic and engaging. The main character is, in fact, a burgeoning bird artist who draws and paints shorebirds and corresponds with his taciturn mentor, Isaac Sprague. Fabian struggles to keep living a  quiet, simple life as his parents try to marry him off to a distant cousin. When his father leaves to make money hunting on a nearby island, Fabian’s life crumbles around him. At this point in the book, readers will realize there’s more than one antagonist in the book, a factor that kept me on my toes as a reader and helped keep the story’s pacing quick to the very end.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading his novel, and I think it’s a testament to the strength of the writing that even after finishing reading it, I couldn’t stop thinking about its overarching themes and how they relate to my own life. I can’t wait to read more of Howard Norman’s books, either. Norman is a writer and educator from Michigan who translates Algonquin, Cree, and Inuit folklore. When I stopped to ponder that fact, I realized that over the winter, I picked up at least three books by authors who are also translators: Howard NormanRichard Dauenhauer and dg nanouk okpik. And I can honestly say I loved them  all. Here’s a bit of their work, in case you’re interested:

I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As for me, I’m off to write poetry and sip delicious coffee under the midday sun (a rare occurrence in Tacoma in the early spring). Maybe I’ll be able to come up with an explanation for making the mistakes I did when I was younger, or maybe I won’t. I can only hope to learn from it, and to ask for forgiveness not only from the person I hurt, but from myself, as well.

Happy reading, my friends.

Book Review: Story Genius by Lisa Cron

As an aspiring writer with a lot of writer friends (some who’ve published their long awaited first books and even more, like me, who haven’t), the topic of crafting a riveting story comes up all the time. We’re constantly chatting about what makes a good story, what makes characters not only believable, but memorable and what kind of voodoo magic we employ to get ourselves to sit down and finish our writing projects once and for all. We talk about it all the time, and we read about it with a constant, voracious appetite.

So when I snuggled up on the couch with my cat on one side and a freshly printed book on the other, I was ready to hear what Lisa Cron had to say on the matter in Story Genius, a newly published book that answers all of the questions above, and then some. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Story Genius is a thorough, yet easy to read guide to writing. It also delivered on a promise to explain “how to use brain science to go beyond outlining and write a riveting novel.”

sotry-geniusWithin the first few chapters, the author easily convinced me to rethink how I’ve been structuring my fiction stories. To start, Lisa Cron focuses not on pantsing (writing by the seat of your pants and seeing where the story takes you) or outlining (mapping out your entire story right from the start), but on the internal transformation of your main character and the action and plot points that will stem from her internal struggles. Cron’s method is definitely character driven, and it focuses on building extensive back story for each your novel’s characters.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Story Genius. The author does a great job walking readers through building scenes and characters based off the protagonist’s internal struggle, or “third rail” as Cron refers to it. And I especially liked that the author recruited a fellow writer to work through Cron’s prescribed method throughout the entire book. Readers can read through the “third-rail approach” and then watch it played out in an ever-developing fiction piece by a writer named Jenny.

lisa-cron

Because of its focus on internal logic, cause-and-effect driven scenes and its character-focused method, I’ve already placed Story Genius on my desk as a quick-grab reference for writing fiction. I highly recommend this book to anyone who writes fiction, if only to help you in fleshing out characters and ensuring their actions are logical and believable.

As for me and my perpetually-in-progress first book, I’ll keep plugging away, but now I have a better sense of what should drive my stories forward. I’m sure a lot of my fellow writers are way ahead of me on this one, but I’m still glad to have learned the lesson.

Happy reading, everyone.

page dividerFor more about Story Genius, click here, or learn more about the author, Lisa Cron.

Just sayin’: I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Author Interview: Midge Raymond of My Last Continent

Cover of My Last ContinentA few weeks ago, I gleefully unwrapped My Last Continent, by Midge Raymond, at a “blind date with a book” fundraiser in Tacoma. For those of you who don’t know what a “blind date with a book” is, allow me to explain:

Books are chosen and excavated from dusty piles in the dungeons of a neighborhood bookstore, then wrapped in soft, plain paper so readers can’t see the author, title, or cover. After that, unseen bookstore gnomes scribble out a short blurb about the content, hoping to snag readers with only the power of their synopsis and the strength of the book’s plot line. A small donation and a lot of bibliophile anxiety later, readers leave with a book in hand…off on a blind date.

Now! As I was saying, I was lucky enough to unwrap My Last Continent and it turned out to be one of the best fiction books I’ve read all year! I absolutely loved the plot line (the life of a female biologist working off an Antarctic-bound vessel is irreversibly changed by a shipwreck) and the hauntingly sparse narrative. I enjoyed the book so much, in fact, that I mustered up enough courage to ask the author, Midge Raymond, to chat in an author interview. And if you can believe it, folks, she graciously said yes!

So here you go, a genuine Q & A session with the award-winning author and co-founder of the boutique publisher Ashland Creek Press, Midge Raymond: 

Midge Raymond

Will you tell readers a little about yourself, maybe something readers don’t already know?

MR: I’m a complete introvert. This isn’t evident to most, since I do enjoy being with people and I appear to be outgoing, but I always need some serious downtime after being social for a while.

What brought you to this neck of the woods (the Pacific Northwest)?

MR: The New England winters initially brought me back west; I grew up in Southern California and never quite got used to the cold (and the multiple feet of snow) of the Northeast. My husband and I lived in California for a few years, and then in Seattle, and while we didn’t miss the extremes of Northeast winters, we did miss having four seasons. So when we had the opportunity to move to the mountains in Southern Oregon, we pounced, and we’ve loved living here.

Where did your love of storytelling/reading/writing come from?

MR: I grew up surrounded by books and stories—my mom has always been an avid reader, and my dad is a great storyteller. I loved the escape of getting into a good book, and since my parents were both strict about television, this was my main source of entertainment.

Do you feel that there’s a cultural value in writing and storytelling?

MR: Stories are everything—and of course this includes every medium, from television to film to radio to theater. Stories are essential for allowing us to examine history, imagine the future, and figure out our present. I love writing for the same reasons.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

MR: I was very young when I began writing stories and poetry. I then gravitated toward journalism because I was interested in telling other people’s stories, which I still basically do in fiction, albeit in a very different way. I began writing fiction right after graduate school, while living in New York, and I wrote short stories for years before attempting a novel.

What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?

MR: This probably isn’t interesting or quirky among writers my age, but I still write in longhand. I just don’t feel creative at a computer screen, so I write in notebooks, and I often print out drafts when I need to revise. I also find that, because I work at home, I need to escape to be able to focus on my own writing. Sometimes I’ll go to the university library, or a café or a park, or even the kitchen table or a different room in the house.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?

MR: I volunteer at an animal shelter, which entails both working with the animals as well as taking photos and videos to help them find homes. I’ll also spend whatever time I can reading or hiking—I’m fortunate to live within a few minutes’ walk of a national forest. When it’s too rainy or cold to be outside, a glass of wine and a book make me very happy.

Do you have any suggestions to help emerging authors become better writers?

MR: I advise aspiring authors to read as much as they can, write as often as they can, and to learn everything there is to know about the publishing industry.

What books or authors have most influenced your life?

MR: There have been so many over the years, and most recently I’ve been drawn to writers who focus on environmental and animal-protection themes—how to take better care of our planet and its wildlife has become such a big concern of mine lately. I’ve been especially taken with Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a brilliant book that examines our treatment of non-human animals, and Ann Pancake’s Strange As This Weather Has Been, which portrays devastating effects of the coal industry.

How did you become involved with the subject or theme of My Last Continent? What inspired you?

MR: I visited the Antarctic peninsula in 2004, on a small ship much like the Cormorant, and this inspired a short story, “The Ecstatic Cry,” which I wrote shortly after returning. The idea for the story came to me when I saw a passenger fall on the ice near a penguin colony. He was fine, fortunately, but seeing this happen reinforced the notion that, at the bottom of the world, you are at the mercy of the conditions and of the people who are with you. “The Ecstatic Cry” is the story in which the character of Deb was born, and in the following years, both she and Antarctica stuck with me — as well as the concerns I’d heard while I was there about the larger tourist ships venturing farther and farther south. After returning north and hearing about several ships getting into trouble in Antarctica, including one that sank in 2007, I realized this was a story that needed to be told. And the setting is so otherworldly — Antarctica is unlike any other place on earth, and it was both fun and challenging to write about.

What was the hardest part of writing this book?

MR: How to tell the story was the biggest challenge for me. I wanted the shipwreck to be the main narrative, but there was so much backstory to convey, so I decided to alternate the chronological timeline with Deb’s backstory. It was like putting puzzle pieces together; sometimes, a piece didn’t fit, and I’d have to start over—I’d realize that I’d revealed something too soon, or that I hadn’t offered enough context. So there was a lot of revision involved as I put it all together…but for me, that’s part of the fun.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

MR: I love getting to the revision stage, when I have a lot to work with on the page. Bringing what’s there to the next level is the most fun and rewarding part of the process for me.

The main character in My Last Continent is a tough, intelligent woman who researches penguins in Antarctica. Who was your inspiration for this character?

MR: Deb is an entirely fictional character, but having the privilege of meeting strong women who work in Antarctica and who study penguins helped me get a feel for who Deb could be.

Any upcoming projects that you’re working on at the present? 

MR: After finishing My Last Continent, I went back to writing short stories for a while — I was eager to finish a project in a matter of months rather than years for a change! Now I’m working on a new novel that is in such early stages I can’t yet speak intelligently about it—but already I’m enjoying it and looking forward to having some serious time to work on it.

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I am incredibly grateful to Midge Raymond for her time and generosity in answering these questions! For more info about Midge Raymond and her work, visit MidgeRaymond.com.

Happy Reading, my friends!

Literary Musings of Skokomish Valley

This past weekend I went camping in Skokomish Valley, Washington, and I was blown away by the beauty of the wildflowers peaking up through the brush. I couldn’t believe how varied they were in type, let alone the saturation of their purple and gold petals.

I kept thinking of Ann Patchett’s novel, State of Wonder, as I hiked along old hunting roads in the heat, surrounded by vibrant flora. Now, I know what you’re thinking: that book is set in South America, in the sweltering Amazonian forest. And the main character is hardly enjoying herself as she stumbles into a world of traditional medicine and company secrets. 

But it’s not about the plot here, my friends. It’s about the way the book feels. It’s about the intensity of the imagery and the delicacy of the details in Patchett’s book. It all came back to me as I enjoyed the view of tree-covered mountains in front of me. Continue reading