Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Puppy Smell

Happy Wednesday! Today's story is not what it seems, and I'm very excited to share it with you. All I'll say is, don't let the oh-so-cute title fool you. The author, Nicole L. Rivera is a YA writer from "sizzling-hot" South Florida where she lives with her husband Manny. Her stories look at the serious side of the teenage struggle, while adding a dash of humor. Nicole looks for the jokes in life and details it on her blog, Driven…The Journey. Nicole is also awesome because her love of Reese's peanut butter cups was worth adding in her bio, which means there is another person in the world who eats as many Reese's as I do. Enjoy her story!

Puppy Smell
Nicole L Rivera

Ugh. Monday. School.

I slapped the purple alarm clock on my beach-wood nightstand. I rolled back and covered my eyes with my right forearm. Though my shades were drawn, sunlight found its way through the cracks and blinded my tired eyes. Why can’t we have three day weekends every week?

I tossed my legs over the side of my bed, determined not to dwell on depressing issues such as the “why’s” and “what if’s” of life.

What if my dad wasn’t a total jerk? What if my mom ran away instead of being a doormat? What if my family wasn’t filled with compulsive liars, hell-bent on driving me mad? Why do I care?

I slogged over to the light switch and flicked it on. I gazed upon the disaster that was my room. No matter, Mom will clean it up in a few days.

I walked over to a pile of clothes stacked high on a rocking chair I couldn’t use – except on days Mom cleaned. I felt bad, but I wasn’t going to stop her. I like the way my room feels when it’s clean – fresh and light. I hate to clean.

After pulling on a pair of khaki uniform pants, I sniffed a few blue button-down shirts till I found one that still held its fabric softener essence. I put it on and then reached for my worn and torn book bag.

“Peanut.” My white and brown Shih-tzu pup was curled up on top of it. His scent drenched the cloth in puppy odor – grass, chow, and baby shampoo. I didn’t mind.

Peanut raised his head, glanced up at me, and then went back to sleep. If he were human, I’d swear he was depressed.

“Peanut.” He opened his eyes and shut them again.

I didn’t want to disturb him, but the first bell would ring in ten minutes. I reached for the back pack. Peanut jumped to life and snapped at my hand. I pulled back. “Peanut.”

I tried again. Same result.

Peanut and I went on like this until I was sure the first bell had rung. I slouched down on the ground next to him and leaned against my bed. He didn’t seem to mind. I reached out and he let me pet him, but didn’t move.

My iPhone chirped and vibrated in my pocket like a gremlin about to explode if not answered.

I rolled my eyes. “Mom,” I told Peanut.

I answered. “Man administration’s fast these days.”

“Lisi… what are you talking about? Why did you answer the phone? Aren’t you in school? I was just going to leave you a message.”

“I thought the school called you because I was late… well I haven’t exactly left yet.” Explanation-time, and fast. “Peanut won’t let me have my backpack.” Ok, lamest excuse award goes to: Lisi.

“Huh? What? – Oh, it doesn’t matter. I was going to call you out of school anyway – Lisi?” Mom’s tone switched too quick from mom-talk to something else. Not sadness – remorse? Either way it was new to me – freaky.

“Yeah, Mom.” Please don’t ground me – again.

She took a long deep breath. “Dad’s been shot.”

I rubbed my ear with my free hand. “What?!”

“He’s dead, Lisi—” Mom’s voice cracked. The sound was heartbroken – scorned, but heartbroken. Tears flowed through the wireless connection.

Silence. Dead.

“There were terrorists at the airport. He tried to stop them, and they—”

“Shot him.” The phone dropped out of my hand and clattered on the hardwood floor Dad installed two weeks ago.

“Peanut,” I whispered.

He left the bag and filled my lap. I pulled my knees up and wept into his fur – grass, chow, baby shampoo, and tears – puppy smell.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Speak Loudly

It is unfathomable to me that there are people who walk among us who still try to ban books. And yet, just this past month, someone-whose-name-doesn't-deserve-another-Google-hit tried to ban Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson because he thinks rape is akin to pornography. (Remind me never to go on a date with that guy, by the way.) Ms. Anderson eloquently responded to the matter here.

This dirt bag caused the literary world to shake its head in annoyance, anger, and a little bit of laughter since, after all, the irony of trying to ban a book is that the minute you state your intentions, that book immediately becomes more widely read than it would have without the extra attention. He also has good timing because what better time to pick up a copy of Speak and other banned books than this week, the beginning of Banned Books Week?

There's a good NY Times article about ways to celebrate this week, and of course reading books that cause controversy are worth reading any time of year. Banned books are more than just sex scenes, even though the people who try to ban them are often too dense to understand that. Books that are questioned by the "authorities" are those that speak to a larger truth. Truth, obviously, is something that should be kept hidden from young minds so they grow into the world unprepared and, as a result, end up just as closed-minded and ignorant as book banners.

Banned books not only spark conversation and debate, but they are also the ones that usually go down in history labeled "classics." You can support these important titles by buying them and reading them, but as writers, you can support what they stand for by producing them yourselves. It should go without saying that no one sits down to write a novel with the intention of getting it banned. Scenes of violence or sex might cause controversy, but gratuitous or heavy-handed devices won't get you very far. Plus, readers see right through those flashy "look at me" tricks.

Instead, focus on the heart of these books. Don't shy away from topics that are difficult to write about and don't sugarcoat life's harsh realities. Sexual identity and orientation, racial tension, religious conflict (internal and external), domestic violence, and degradation are all important issues that teens and adults face. Use your words for issues that matter and support others who refuse to adhere to simply what is safe. If you can write, then you should speak.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Entitled

"And I am a writer, writer of fictions, I am the heart that you call home; And I've written pages upon pages, trying to rid you from my bones." - The Decemberists, The Engine Driver

In a recent writing session, I asked former colleague/YA writer/all around awesome person, Tracy Marchini, when she gave her novels their titles. The answer: "right away." Under normal writing circumstances, I wouldn't have even asked because obviously the title comes first. But this wasn't a normal writing circumstance for me - I was writing fiction.

As most of you know from following the blog, I'm (painfully slowly) writing some YA fiction at the moment (again, a painfully long moment that will someday lead to a finished novel, I hope). I'm enjoying the process immensely, when I find the time for it, but in my mind, I still would not refer to myself as a writer of fiction. To me, I'm still a personal essayist who simply ran out of (true) things to say for the time being.

With my non-fiction, which includes these blog posts, I think of a title first. Sometimes that's all I have. I either think it sounds clever or captures the spirit of what I'm writing about. With essays, themes are layered, but they usually revolve around the same central issue. Novels rarely can be wrapped up so tightly. Their titles range from encapsulating an idea to a particularly good line of dialogue to a one-word, thought-provoking concept. The endless possibilities make my brain hurt, which is why the file currently frowning at me from my desktop reads "UntitledYA.doc."

How do you all think of titles? Do they come first or do you, as the quote above says, write pages upon pages before you can rid title-block from your bones?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tiger in the Plum Blossoms

One of my favorite things that happen on the blog is when we get a repeat offender for Story Time. It doesn't happen as often as I'd like, but it does happen. Today is one of those times! It comes from Marilyn Peake, who was one of the early contributors to Glass Cases with her story Bright Moon back in October 2009. 

Today she is sharing another dark fantasy short story called Tiger in the Plum Blossoms. Marilyn writes fantasy and science fiction for children and adults. She was one of the contributing authors in BOOK: THE SEQUEL, published by The Perseus Books Group in 2009, and her short stories have been published in seven anthologies.

Enjoy her story and hopefully it inspires other contributors to send more of their work!

Tiger in the Plum Blossoms
By Marilyn Peake

Japanese Heian Period
Early 11th Century

Kyuzo traveled by night through the vast countryside. Hoping to surprise the Lady of the Plum Blossoms, he rode on horseback without a large retinue. His two best friends, Kamatari and Ajari, accompanied him on their own horses, black and gleaming under the pearlized luster of a full moon.

Stars twinkled against the black silk sky. Clouds played like dragon’s breath across its surface. The horses’ hooves pounded into the dusty earth, as the men pursued their goal. The sweet scent of spring flowers danced upon the wind.

Kyuzo’s breath quickened with the heat of anticipation. He had heard many stories about the Lady. The daughter of a military officer, she was reputed to write poetry with talent and elegance. Her hair had been described to him as long, dark, and twinkling with the light of fireflies. Ajari had heard from one of his sisters that the Lady was shy, but not so shy as to avoid conversation.

The men followed the dirt road through forests and shadows until it approached the ocean. Then they turned to the left, onto another road that skirted the ocean like a ribbon. The air smelled faintly of seaweed and salt; the crashing waves whispered of watery depths.

***

The Lady of the Plum Blossoms, confident that no one was outside, stepped onto her porch to view the silvery moon. Its effect on her garden was magnificent. The plum blossoms glowed white against the darkness. Flowers and trees sprouted mysterious shapes and sprinkled perfume on the honeyed breeze. The Lady took a deep breath, then went back inside.

Hidden behind her blinds, the Lady played a game of Go with her women. Quiet and well trained, she played seriously, but wasn’t prone to outbursts or mean competitiveness against her women. After winning at Go, she decided to play the koto. Several of her women joined in with accompanying instruments. The music floated out past her porch, providing counterpoint to cricket song.

***

Kyuzo waved his arms in the air, as a signal to his men, and pulled on the reins of his horse. All three men stopped below a gnarled, weathered tree with thick, wide branches and a solid trunk. The horses snorted and pawed at the ground after the men hopped off their backs.

Ajari cupped his hand around his right ear. “Ah, what is that I hear upon the gentle breeze? The heavenly sound of women’s music? Ah, what did I tell you? We find these women entertaining the gods.”

Strikingly handsome with his intense dark eyes, black hair, and tall stature, Kyuzo smiled. “And are the gods not tired? Perhaps these women will play for us.”

Kamatari’s eyes twinkled, as he ran his hand through his thick dark hair. “Compose a poem for the Lady of the house, and I will find a servant to deliver it.”

Ajari, with his deep brown eyes, dark brown hair and muscular build, also stood out among men. He tethered his horse as he laughed quietly. “And I will rest.” True to his word, Ajari sat at the base of the tree and closed his eyes. “This music is like a baby’s lullaby. Quite soothing.”

Kyuzo laughed. “You could write your own poem, you know. It sounds like there are several talented ladies within the house this night.”

Without opening his eyes, Ajari answered, “I’m not interested in wasted work. If you are admitted to the house, I will write a poem to delight even a princess.”

Once again, Kyuzo chuckled. “A practical man, I see.” Then, looking toward the house, he sought inspiration for his poem in the soft golden light that filtered through the blinds, illuminating the soft white blossoms of the plum tree. Kyuzo pulled out a textured sheet of lavender paper into which the scent of plum and spice had been burned. In deep blue ink, he wrote the following poem:

Streams of golden sunlight pour through bamboo, quenching garden flowers.
Ice crystals grow colder upon my sleeves, but do not freeze my heart.

Kyuzo studied his work. He was pleased by the gentle curve of his handwriting, in that it suggested education and refinement. He debated about mentioning ice crystals on his sleeves. Was it too much to suggest shedding tears for a woman he had not yet met? Finally, he decided that it was nothing more than a perfect allusion suggesting a contrast to the warm golden sunlight pouring into the garden. He folded the paper and secured it with deep purple ribbon and a sprig of flowering plum. He chose a flawless white flower, as bright as the glistening moon, with a bright yellow center.

Before asking Kamatari to deliver his message to the Lady within, Kyuzo quietly approached the house. The shutters were open and he strained to see behind the blinds. At the very bottom of the blinds, he discovered luxurious silk sleeves embroidered with turquoise designs of Japanese gardens. A delightful almond perfume mixed with the music of the talented women and increased Kyuzo’s desire for the Lady of the Plum Blossoms. He returned down the hill to Kamatari and handed him the folded note.

“It’s about time. The moon will soon be replaced by sun. I’m surprised that the plum blossom has not yet wilted.”

Kyuzo laughed. “Then you’d better hurry, before the seasons themselves change.”

***

Kamatari sought out a servant. Finding an old woman, stooped at the shoulders with pale gray hair and several missing teeth, Kamatari entrusted her with the perfumed note and explained about Kyuzo. The old woman bowed and disappeared into the inner rooms of the house.

From the yard, Kyuzo saw the women scurry away from the outer edges of the room. As they retreated inward, he briefly saw the hems of silk kimonos and long, dark hair flying gracefully around the ankles of several women. He drew in his breath and waited.

As he lay down on the wet, dark green grass, staring up at the twinkling stars, Kyuzo heard someone approaching. Sitting up, he saw Kamatari returning from the house.

“This is your answer.” With a flourish, Kamatari handed his friend a note.

Unfolding crisp white paper, gently scented with spice, wrapped with a sprig of wisteria, Kyuzo read the poem written in a delicate, almost fragile, hand:

The moon will slip away; golden sun will melt the ice.
Beneath snow and frost, the plum blossom sleeps and waits.

“She won’t see me?”

“Not tonight. An old servant woman told me that her Lady is feeling faint and not herself tonight. She suggested that we come back another time.”

Kyuzo kicked the ground. “This was a long, difficult trip.” He realized that he had the right to break into her house and force himself upon the Lady. He entertained the idea for a moment, then decided against it. “All right. Let’s get the horses ready. See if we can get some refreshment for ourselves and our animals.”

***

The Lady of the Plum Blossoms whispered furtively to the old servant woman, “I cannot see him. I’m not ready for this. I feel faint. Let me lie down. I feel ill.”

As the old woman followed her Lady into an inner bedroom, she tried to change her mind. “You could find no better suitor. It is Kyuzo, a cousin of the Prince, who is interested in you. I looked through the bamboo blinds at him. He is tall and strong, with dark black hair. His laugh carries on the wind and is quite pleasing. You should speak to him this night before his attentions turn elsewhere.”

The Lady sighed in exasperation as she ran to her bedroom, her long black hair flying out behind her, almost touching the floor. When she arrived in her bedroom, she threw herself onto her futon. Wearing a light pink kimono, decorated with golden stars and pictures of Japanese gardens embroidered in turquoise thread, The Lady of the Plum Blossoms swept her long, flowing sleeves across her forehead.

“My sleeves are wet, but not from scent of pine.

The weeds choke out the fledgling blossom.”

The old woman’s clouded eyes grew large. “I will tell Kyuzo that you are ill; but you should send him away with gifts.”

The young women surrounding their Lady agreed. “If you send him away with gifts, he might come back.”

“Yes, you should give him gifts that will remind him of you.”

The Plum Blossom Lady uncovered her face and sat up long enough to give instructions. “Very well then, give every man in his group two cloth robes embroidered with white plum blossoms, and give each of them almond and spice perfumes. That is enough for now."

“Very well,” a young woman with luxurious black hair, deep brown eyes, and tiny features replied. “We’ll take care of this. Just rest.”

Leaving their Lady with four women to care for her, the others left the bedroom to prepare gifts for the men who had traveled so far.

***

Kyuzo and his men were delighted with the gifts, although Kyuzo felt annoyed that the Lady wouldn’t see him. She could hardly do better than him for a suitor and he felt angry that she was so ungrateful. Nevertheless, Kyuzo was mysteriously attracted to her. Her poetry was beautiful, her handwriting dignified and fragile. He felt excited by the brief glimpse he had had of long hair and silk kimono hems. He knew that he would return to this house.

After packing up the gifts, the three men headed for home. The sky had deepened to an even darker shade of black. The moon hung upon the air like a large white pearl surrounded by iridescent halos, each swirling rainbow orb larger than the one in front of it. The stars glittered like diamonds.

As the horses’ hooves beat a rhythmic drum song into the road skirting the ocean, the waves pounded hard with their ebb-and-flow attraction to the moon. Kyuzo felt fire in his heart.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Write a Paranormal Bestseller W/out the Paranormal

So you wanna write a bestseller...

Only trouble is you don't even like vampires, let alone want to write about them. I feel your pain, realistic fiction writers. Don't get me wrong, I love a good paranormal story, but there's a certain timelessness to realistic fiction whose story remains true generation after generation. I'd love to see a strong return to the realistic, adult or YA. There are some great realistic titles on the bestseller list now, but the charts are still largely dominated by paranormal romance, urban fantasy, and post-apocalyptic sci-fi. Again, not that there's anything wrong with that... but for those of us who think real life still has an important place on the bestseller list, here are some tips for cashing in on that paranormal success without ever mentioning the V-word:

1) Write a vampire/werewolf/zombie/angel novel without using vampires, werewolves, zombies, or angels. There will always be people who cling to these creatures, whether they're biting people, romancing people, or being comically self-referential. But when these novels reach bestseller status, it's safe to assume they are being read by more than your typical genre fan. What "the masses" are responding to within these characters are not their supernatural abilities or folklore, but rather what they represent. Vampires seduce us, yet suck us dry. Werewolves are wild and have the power to make us just like them. Zombies are mindless followers out to destroy those with free will. Angels are our saviors in whatever crisis we face. We all know people like them in our lives, and they don't always come from another realm of existence.

2) Get adult/YA crossover fans without being creepy. Twilight Moms freak me out. Taken literally, these desperate housewives lust after teenage boys who can literally tear them apart with their teeth. That's wrong on many levels. However, Twilight Moms, much like adult fans of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, are not to be taken literally. To the crossover fans, these novels are more than just cool spells, hot teens, and kickass heroines. They're about choices and battles and taking on more than you're ready for. They speak to our senses of responsibility, memories of falling in love, and feeling as if the fate of the entire world is in our hands.

3) Want artistic recognition? Think Kafka. Gregor Samsa woke up one morning and found himself transformed into a giant insect. Hilarity does not exactly ensue. Instead, his family hides him and he slowly loses his humanity. The question on every English major's mind is, "what does it mean?" and it should be the question on yours when you go to write. Addiction? Sexual identity? Divorce? Death? Insanity? What is your character hiding, and what has he become?

4) Buffy Doesn't Always Have to Stake Things. Your female lead doesn't need a man to kill things for her, whether those things are vampires or spiders. She's vulnerable, yes, and sometimes she makes really poor choices, but don't we all? Write a heroine who's realistic and fallible, but who can still completely hold her own in a so-called "man's world" without resorting to cheap flirtation or playing the damsel.

5) You Don't Need an Apocalypse to Prove that Life Sucks. The world is going to end in a fiery blaze of concentrated evil and we will all be left to face the consequences, possibly resort to cannibalism or turn into a zombie, and finally we'll be forced to form a small band of survivors intent on saving us from ourselves. Or, in other words, we are going to go through some serious shit at some point in our lives, stuff that could potentially destroy our very essence if we allow it to consume us. So, let's not do that and learn to live again, maybe with the help of a close friend or love interest, but not necessarily.

Go forth and write the next bestseller... and get real.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Fine Line Between Book Love & Hate

We are book lovers. The written word is what we're passionate about. We can spend hours upon hours upon hours discussing our favorite titles, under-appreciated authors, overrated novels, and what we love about writing our own stories.

If you love something as much as we love books, you have the ability to hate it with the same level of passion. Now, there are plenty of books we just don't like. Not our thing, don't read a certain genre, we're not the intended audience, etc. But I'm not talking about those gray areas. Maybe it's because I didn't get much sleep last night and woke up a little cranky, but - let's talk about books we loathe!

I think the first book I ever truly hated was Johnny Tremain. My 6th grade class had to read this in some sort of combination English and Social Studies lesson. Now, I've heard Johnny Tremain referred to as a classic and it even won the Newbery Award in 1944. To my 11-year-old mind, however, this was the most boring thing I ever had to read ever. And I read a lot! Maybe I should return to it with my mature, adult eyes, but whenever I think of this book, I can't help remembering how much I wanted to throw it across the room and how much I hated my 6th grade teacher.

A novel that comes in as a close second on the hate-scale is another that I was "forced" to read in my youth. In A.P. English, we had to read Bartleby the Scrivener, which might have been the first time I wrote a mini-rejection letter in my head: "Dear Herman, I love the idea you're going for here, but the execution is god awful. Sorry, I'll pass."

But, like I said, the story of Bartleby still intrigued me; I just "preferred not to" read it. It wasn't until my teacher then suggested Billy Budd by Melville that I knew true hate, and it's the reason I'll never read Moby Dick. Two examples of an author's long-winded, incredibly dull storytelling skills are all that I need, thank you. Sorry to any Melville fans; I'm sure there are things to admire about his sentence structure, style, and command of language. I just don't see it. I ended up telling my teacher about three-quarters through that I just couldn't finish. She seemed sympathetic to my cause and still gave me credit for reading it.

The reason these terrible-to-me books were read at such young ages is because after high school, people stopped forcing me to read things I might hate. In college I didn't love everything I read, but I certainly didn't hold any violent grudges toward them.

You tell me: what's the one title you can't barely think about without feeling enraged?

Just Say No to Bad Books! 
(but respect other people's opinions about them because everything is subjective!)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Monday, September 13, 2010

No Sleep Til: Part 2

Yesterday was the Brooklyn Book Festival, which is a massive gathering of literary folk in Brooklyn Heights. It's sort of like a mini-BEA, or like a literary state fair. This is my third year going to the BBF, and like last year, there were lessons to be learned:

1) I am even older this year. Like last year (see link above), there was a party to attend in Brooklyn the night before the BBF, but unlike last year, I opted for a quiet night in instead. Likewise, I ended up leaving the festival earlier than planned because I was too tired to go on. I hope both of these decisions are just signs of an oncoming cold instead of the alternative - being spent by 3:00 at the age of twenty-six.

2) Book nerds are like happier postal workers. Rain and wind are no match for them. The weather at the BBF this year was pretty dreadful, but hoards of people still gathered at Borough Hall, ready for literary fun.

3) Children do not grow up any faster in NYC, except when they do. In a YA panel called "Concrete Jungle Where Dreams Are Made Of" (!), three YA authors discussed setting their stories in NYC. Rebecca Stead (When You Reach Me) grew up in New York, and assured a Q&Aer that kids in New York don't grow up any faster than those in the suburbs. This completely contradicted a point she made earlier, which was that one of the things she loved most about growing up in a city was that it forced kids to mature earlier. Despite the conflicting messages, I know what she means. Certain sensibilities, such as being cautious and aware of your surroundings, are slightly more beyond-your-years than children who know all of their neighbors by first and last name. However, the nature of being a child - unsure, trusting, ideological - remains intact. The city doesn't take that away from them.

4) Air Supply is terrible. As Steve Almond pointed out in a "It's Only Rock n Roll (but I like it)" panel, a true music snob is able to completely de-lust himself or herself after discovering the object of their affection listens to, say, Air Supply, un-ironically. I feel the same about others' literary tastes. Also on this panel were Jennifer Egan and Colson Whitehead, both of whom I enjoyed tremendously.

5) I didn't hear or see the word "Franzen" once. OK, this isn't so much a lesson as it is something I found reassuring. My love of Freedom and appreciation of Franzen aside, it was nice to know that literary people are able to talk about something else. Then again, I did leave early.

6) "No Sleep Til" refers to Astoria (Queens), not Brooklyn. The Beastie Boys must have never slept.

Sadly, I did not get to see two panels I had been looking forward to. One featured Ben Percy, whom you should all be reading. He's like a Gen-X version of Cormac McCarthy and his new novel (The Wilding) is just as amazing as his short stories. (And I'm not just saying that because he's a CB author.) The other panel was a humor discussion that involved John Hodgman. "Discussing" humor, in general, is not funny, but anything involving John Hodgman usually is.

Lastly, my client Feliza-Rose David is awesome and so is her blog, which is where I found this jem of a Ke$ha parody called Writer's Blok by author Jackson Pearce over the weekend. Enjoy, writer-friends!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Happy Anniversary, Me!

Little known fact: this week marked the one year anniversary of Glass Cases publications.So first and foremost, THANK YOU for keeping this blog alive and for supporting me and for being all around amazing!!!

Technically, my first blog post was August 28, 2009, which you can view here - please don't mock my formatting issues. I like to think I've stayed true to my original idea, even though I guess I never did the theme weeks. Oh well. Maybe some other time. As you might be able to piece together, this blog started when I was a wee assistant, not really sure if I'd make it in this crazy, mixed up world of publishing (OK that's only half true). But, as my position with Curtis Brown changed, the blog did become a little more industry-related, but only in terms of writerly education; I still leave the business side of things to be explained by those who are far superior at it than I.

The first Glass Cases publication did not get posted until this week in September 2009. Such an innocent time, back then. Hard to believe we once lived in a Snooki-free world.

Anyway, this post today is just my chance to look back at the blog that I still can't believe people read, and to express my thanks to all of you, particularly those who have contributed stories. Appropriately, celebrating my one year milestone means you have to buy me paper, or something. Instead, I'll settle for e-paper... in the form of submissions! Guidelines are still on the side of the blog and I hope you all continue to support the blog by sharing your work with us.

Thanks again for everything, readers! Have a great weekend.

(this symbolizes my leap into a new blog season)

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

I'm Here to Save Your Day

I'd like to think that the title of this blog post applies to all of my posts, but it is today's awesome title for this week's story. Today's featured author, Jared Larson, is giving us something a little different to enjoy. For one, it's a middle grade. Two, it's a middle grade version of an epic poem! Three, that epic poem is Beowulf!!

But first, a bit more on Jared. In his words, "he has a job that if he revealed to you, he'd endanger his family." (I'm not entirely sure if he's joking.) But, when he's not endangering his wife and three kids, he writes. He's written journalistic piece and short stories for local publications, and now he's giving middle grade a try. Hope you all like it. 

I'm Here to Save Your Day: The Adventures of Bo Wolf
By Jared Larson

Chapter 1: It's Go Time

My name’s Bo Wolf. I’m twelve years old and I never lie. Never. I’m all about telling the truth. There once was a man named George Washington who told his dad that he could never lie and then became President of the United States. I’m exactly the same way. If I lived way back then, George and I, we’d be best bros’ forever. I’m sure of it.

That’s why when I tell you about my totally crazy story– I’m going to tell you everything, the good and the bad. I’ll admit it, I’ve been bullied. I’m sure George had been too.

So there I was, standing in the boys' bathroom at school. The last bell of the day had rung and I knew they were out there.

Rufus Durfus and Brutus Strunks were the meanest bullies in Los Angeles. I think if you tallied the wedgie count they inflicted on other kids, by the end of the day it would have at least reached thirty-nine, and that's an average.

Trust me, I've had the underwear go up the butt crack plenty of times, but these boys... they were professionals. They ripped plenty of pairs of my coolest Fruit O’ Looms underwear. And it never felt good.

The noise of screaming kids and banging lockers filled the hallway outside the bathroom. No one came in here when school got out. It’d be a good time to check out my almost-incredible physique before attempting my escape.

Some people have said that my arms look like flexi-straws. I didn’t think so. They'd have some big muscles in a year or two.

No matter what people said about my arms though, my face was on the verge of spectacular. Sure, it was still kind of baby soft, but it’d be manly in no time. My dirty dishwater hair could change into a cool brown soon enough. And my green eyes... they were the lady catchers. I could steal the heart of any girl with my smoking hot eyes.

Okay, so I had glasses. Not a big deal. They helped my right eye from going bonkers. I even wore a patch once when I was eight. Mom said I looked like a cool pirate, but some of the kids thought I looked like, well, how’d they put it? Oh yeah, “Hey Bo! Go back to your home on Dweeb Island.”

My mom called it a lazy eye, but it’d get better. Just last month she’d said the doctor told her I could take the glasses off in a couple months, so that was cool.

The hallway started to get quiet, and my heart raced way faster. I did a few kung-fu moves in front of the mirror to warm myself up, just in case Rufus and Brutus caught me. But hopefully this time I could manage to sneak out of here wedgie free.

I stopped flexing in the mirror, breathed in deep, and then checked my awesome digital Timex wristwatch. Crap! 3:15 p.m. already? My adoring fans were waiting. (That’s right, I have a fan club. Jealous? I’d be).

Due to my savvy awesomeness, and with the stealth of a young ninja, I snuck out of the bathroom and down the hall. There were no signs of life. I bolted down the stairs, rounded a corner, and came to one of the school’s back exits.

It was go time.

I pushed the door open and a gush of warm air hit me in the face. There they stood in front of a blinding sun, Rufus and Brutus. I don’t know how they did it, but I think they could smell my potential greatness or something, because they always seemed to know exactly where I’d be.

Brutus cracked his thick knuckles. Rufus had a big grin spread across his fat face. His teeth were all covered with braces that looked like a silver railroad track.

“Ith about time you thowed up,” growled Rufus. He smiled big, and then sucked up all that extra spit inside those storage bag cheeks of his.

“My knuckles feel like pounding your puny face in,” said Brutus.

“Get over here thquirt,” Rufus said, pointing at the ground.

I tried to run. It was no use. Before I even started, Brutus thrust his arm out, clothes-lining me in the throat. I fell like a rock. I don’t know who it was– Rufus, I think– who turned me over and grabbed the back of my underwear.

RIP!

A pair of my nicest Fruit O’ Looms had died.

My awesome Timex wristwatch had 4:00 p.m. on it when I walked into fencing class with torn undies. I was half-an-hour late. My dad, the owner of the place, stood by the door. He was a retired pro at fencing, so he ran the business as a part-time job. He had a full-time job as a doctor, working on peoples’ blood that got all clogged up.

Dad didn't have a happy look on his face when he saw me. “Bo, get over here.”

“Yeah, dad?”

He looked at the clock. “You’re late. What happened?”

“Nothing important,” I said.

His eyes narrowed. “Go get dressed. Everyone’s waiting for you in the gym.”

My dad seemed pretty grumpy, and I didn't want to make him any grumpier, so I hustled to the locker room.

Now, if you don’t know what fencing is, it’s a pretty cool sport. I’m talking dang cool. Only studs like me can really pull it off. When it comes down to it, I got skills, and I’m not talking about any skills, I'm talking about totally-awesome-mad-ninja skills. Rufus and Brutus wouldn’t stand a chance against me if I had a sword in my hand to school them in the ways of the ninja.

And this is where my fan club comes in.

I’d gotten dressed in my white fencing uniform, with my sabre (that's my fencing sword) in one hand and my mask (it looks like one of those hats that bee keepers wear when they go collect honey), under my other arm. I was strolling down the hall, just chillin’ ya know, minding my own business, when suddenly the gym door burst open and my fan club charged me.

I was like a rock star. They were shoving one another for a chance to touch me. But instead of it being hot young girls, it just happened to be seven to twelve-year-old boys, all with stinky breath and sweaty hair plastered to the sides of their heads. A few even had the beginning scents of B.O. that smelled like rotten salsa.

“Settle down, boys,” I said.

They parted, and I put on my mask.

"Oooooooh. Aaaaaaaah," said a couple of the younger kids. You know how seven-year-olds can be. They followed me into the gymnasium where the instructor, Mrs. Wolf, (my mom), was waiting for us.

“Boys!” she shouted. “Contain yourselves. Stop acting like a bunch of wild monkeys.”

"Come on, mom," I said, flipping up my mask. "They can't help themselves."

"Wipe that stupid smile off your face, young man."

I wiped it off in .06 seconds.

Mom put her hands on her hips. “Now everyone put those masks on.”

All the boys sensed her mood and obeyed pronto.

"En-garde!" she yelled.

Every boy dropped to an on-guard stance.

"Lunge!" she cried.

We all took a big step, thrusting our weapons forward into midair.

"Again." she said. "Again. Again."

We did this for a good fifteen minutes with a few other drills, and then we all took our places in line for dueling.

Two parallel lines ran across the floor about two feet wide. We had to stay inside of them while we fenced, otherwise points would be docked. Half the boys lined up on one end, the other half on the other. One by one we fought each other, and then finally, my turn.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Release the Franzen

This week has been officially claimed in the name of Franzen. In case you hadn't heard, he wrote a new Great American Novel, as has been talked about at exhausting length by journalists, bloggers, and other authors. On Tuesday, when his latest opus dropped, I ran out to buy it, partly out of obligation, partly out of curiosity, and mostly because I thought that even if it's not brilliant, it'll probably still be good. I started reading it on the subway ride home, and thought to myself after reading the first page, Damn you, media. This might actually live up to your crazy hype! I haven't opened up the book since Tuesday, but its sitting on my coffee table, looking smug... and waiting.

Lev Grossman wrote a really great profile on Franzen in the now-famous Great American Novelist cover story. The article was written well enough to make me think that Franzen is like most other writers: socially awkward, reluctant to new technology, and is his own harshest critic. The underlying message of the article, of course (once you get past the heavy-handed bird metaphor), is that while Franzen is just a regular guy, he is a better writer than you will ever be. Ever. So why are you still trying?

Another story to come out of Franzen Mania Week that I found particularly important took a different approach in addressing the Franzen Is Our New Literary Master theory. Jason Pinter's interview with commercial authors Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult spoke to a larger problem in what is considered "great," at least commercially, which is that women writers are usually out of the running. While I didn't agree with everything they claimed, I thought they made a valid point in saying writers like Nick Hornby and Carl Hiaasen, who write what I consider the equivalent of "dude lit," are generally more respected, reviewed, and receive more media attention when their books are published. (This seems especially true in the case of Hornby; maybe because he's British.) Women who write commercial fiction, meanwhile, are subtly denigrated by labels like "chick lit" and "beach reads." In other words, books you wouldn't mind seeing taken away by the tide. 

To me, the double standard in commercial fiction is blatant sexism and it degrades women by saying that if a large number of women buy something (hello, Elizabeth Gilbert), it must not be very serious or of high quality. Yet, while this occurs in the commercial world, how does it translate to literary writers? No one would call Toni Morrison, Lorrie Moore, Jhumpa Lahiri, or Mona Simpson "chick lit," or try to downplay their abilities as serious writers. Even so, the literary world is still very much a boy's club. Surprisingly, with my identification as both a feminist and a writer, I'm not too offended by this.

Would I love to see a pensive-looking Lorrie Moore on the cover of TIME with a Franzen-esque boastful headline? Of course. It is undoubtedly appalling that white men are still leading this fray. (Where's Colson Whitehead, TIME!?) However, it makes sense to me that Franzen is being chosen as the natural successor to literary "lions" like Updike and Mailer. They're just picking the next great white guy the same way the media used to call Denzel Washington the next Sidney Poitier, and not, say, the next Jimmy Stewart. This is one of those dumb realities that I've come to accept. The emphasis, obviously, is on the word dumb, but to me there's no point in getting up in arms about it. Still, if anyone tries to call Toni Morrison's next novel a "beach read," I'm going to have to fight someone.

What Jonathan Franzen did more than simply writing what Mr. Bransford called a "blockbuster" is he got people talking about what it means to be successful. With great power comes great backlash. The Twitter account @EmperorFranzen and the hashtag #franzenfreude are evidence of the real Jonathan Franzen's relevance. Personally, I'm just happy a literary writer is finally being hated and talked about as much as a commercial writer. (Take that, Dan Brown!)

Will Freedom change my life? Probably not. Will it change the way literary fiction is received by the masses? I'm going to say no. Will women ever get respect as writers without having to settle for gender-specific labels? Sigh... I'll leave that one for another time.

Hope you all have a good Labor Day weekend. Anyone going to see what the Freedom buzz is about on your day off? Or maybe you'd like to pick up Emma Donoghue's Room or Mona Simpson's My Hollywood instead... you'll probably be going to the beach anyway, right?

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Place Called Home

Some non-fiction, nostalgia, and family history for Story Time today. (Side note: I'm not sure when exactly I started referring to my weekly publications as "Story Time," but I sort of like it.) Today's essay comes from Jonathan Sturak, a writer from the Pocono Mountains who now lives in Las Vegas. He is the author of a romantic thriller, Clouded Rainbow, which he is currently promoting in his local bookstores and libraries. After you read his essay, The Place Called Home, check out his website at www.sturak.com.

The Place Called Home
By Jonathan Sturak

It was a long journey into the unknown. The floors rocked. The smell of salt lingered. Food disappeared. Some wouldn’t make it, yet everyone was willing to try. This is not the plot to some fictional suspense story, but rather the real life voyage my great-grandparents made from the former Czechoslovakia to America in the 1910s. Many Americans can cite a similar story of their ancestors’ trip to the New World greeted by the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. My great-grandparents continued a little farther, finally stopping in the beautiful Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Northeast Pennsylvania has an eclectic mix of Eastern Europeans who had settled only 90 miles west of New York City.

Growing up, I can remember my grandmother fixing pierogies, haluski, and babalki dishes for family get-togethers on holidays. This was my life in Hazleton, Pennsylvania as I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s. Life seemed straightforward, with familiar faces around every corner in this old coal-mining town populated by about 20,000 people from countries that were a part of the former Soviet Union.

But things quickly changed as I moved away after graduating from Penn State. I witnessed a world vastly different from everyday life in Northeast PA. Eastern Europeans were the minority in most every other city I lived in. Gone were the Byzantine Catholic churches, mailboxes with names ending in a hard sound, and of course, the many meals made with starch.

Other cities in America have their share of diversity with small sub-communities making up their population. New York's "Little Italy" and San Francisco’s "Chinatown" are just two examples of these slices of culture, but towns and even cities in Northeast PA are communities of complete cultures. A neighboring town just five miles away from Hazleton is Beaver Meadows. About 1,000 residents put Beaver Meadows on their return address, and about 20% are my relatives! The Catholic Church, recreational hall where my grandmother took me to play Bingo with her, and even the elected officials all have the same roots. It's as if a small Slovakian town was removed from Eastern Europe and placed in the Northeast PA mountains. And to a certain extent, it was—100 years ago. The main difference is that English is the spoken language, but Slovak can still be heard echoing off the stained glass windows in the Byzantine Catholic church.

In Hazleton, there is an annual September festival called "Funfest" where the city shuts down its downtown street for one weekend. Gone are the cars and engine sounds, replaced by the community's residents and their laughs. Church groups band together to sell authentic food, a classic car show revitalizes memories, and homemakers who were busy during the year making crafts have a chance to sell them. And you might even catch a glimpse of a celebrity. No, “Funfest” hasn’t seen Tom Hanks or Nicole Kidman, but a local newscaster or weather reporter provides the same rubbernecking from the area residents. The festival culminates with a parade filled with high school sports teams, fire engines, and of course, the mayor. This celebration has been going on since before I was born and continues year after year.

Tradition is something that Northeast PA is known for. I was one of the few in my family to actually leave. I didn't move down the street as several cousins have. Rather, I moved to other states in the US. I spent one year living in Florida. In just twelve months on the calendar, I saw the street where I lived change in demographic, and therefore, culture. One of the biggest changes I noticed when I first moved away from Northeast PA was breakfast. Growing up, local farms such as Pecora’s and Farmer’s Dairy lined the grocery stores with fresh milk from homegrown Pennsylvania cows. The milk from these cows tastes cleaner and fresher than any other milk that I’ve tasted. Since I’ve left, my breakfast cereal has never tasted the same!

Another area of tradition is higher education. While farming corn and raising milk cows have been family businesses for decades, many four-year colleges are within commuting distance. Wilkes, Kings, and Penn State branch campuses are all within 30 miles. I started my four-year degree in my backyard at Penn State, Hazleton. This just proves how much Northeast PA provides its residents with everything needed to stay for generations.

I currently live in Las Vegas, one of the most transient cities in America, where I have embraced the culture and diversity. But there still exists something inside me that yearns for the gem nestled in the cold, snowy Pocono Mountains, something that craves the simple seclusion the mountains provide. I visit home every now and then and nothing changes, which I welcome in an ever-changing world. While Hazleton is less than 2 hours away from America’s oldest and most populated cities, including Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York City, it might as well be 200 hours away with its concealed culture, distinctive dishes, and gracious grins of Eastern Europe’s children.

If you do make the trip to the Pocono Mountains for some skiing, relaxation, or just a break from the bustle, make sure to stop and talk to the locals. You might be surprised who you meet and the journey their ancestors had made. And don’t forget to have a glass of milk!