Archive for the ‘My Novels’ Category

Never the Same

never_the_same_cover_for_kindle

In my latest novel Never the Same, I sketch  the shift in societal norms from the generation born during the 1930’s to the beginning of the twenty-first century. I view the omnipresence of mass culture through the media of radio, television, and movies as fueling these changes. The entertainment industry and advertising inexorably shaped tastes and stimulated consumerism. Frugality gave way to conspicuous consumption; unwed motherhood eventually lost its stigma. None of these social changes are entirely detrimental as some doomsayers would claim, charging that  all society’s problems stem from the decline of the family and rampant materialism. The openness has also given space for diverse opinions and tolerance of differences.

I see the decade of the 1930’s as a turning point in American history. It marks the end of the insular farm and the beginning of the stark realization that the rugged individual determining his own fate by hard work is a myth. Economic depression taught us that other forces are at work that make or break a family, a community, and a nation–social, intellectual, economic, and geopolitical factors–beyond a single man’s control. The radio best symbolizes the penetration of the outside world into the consciousness of the average American. The music, the soap operas, the commercials, the variety shows, and news broadcasts all would coalesce as taste and opinion makers over the next decades whether we were conscious of its impact or not. Television advertising exploited subliminal messaging. Both the programs and the commercials gradually grew more sexually explicit and employed less wholesome language, making it difficult to decide if they reflected societal mores or were actually creating them.  In any event, the phenomenon seems to work as a reversible chemical reaction–in either direction the results are the same.

The novel is cultural history in that the ups and downs of Ellie Finnegan’s life reflect the changes that are occurring on a national and global scale. They penetrate her story at every turn, although she may be barely conscious of their impact as they happen. She is that Depression era girl who experiences a World War II childhood, comes of age in the 1950s, marries, lives her middle years in comfortable suburbia, develops a career later in life, and has to come to grips with her past. This is a story about America and its heartland. I have synthesized in this novel everything I have witnessed in the course of my own nearly seven decades.  I see my own mother in the Bachmann family–a mother who loved ballroom dancing, who could not miss her soap opera, who loved the stars of stage and screen of the 1930s. As her daughter, I am part of that legacy. The American idol dominates our popular culture–inescapably plastered on billboards and forever gossiped about on talk shows, photographed and written about in the tabloids. This is our reality, too, as 2017 dawns.

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Ideas Behind My Novel Giselle

Giselle is a different kind of story about a murderess who for a time stifles remorse for the terrible crime she has committed and successfully eludes arrest. I sought to explore two main ideas that persisted in my mind from my study of the metaphysical work A Course in Miracles, which purports to be a spiritual path to inner peace. An individual possessed by a horrendous guilt cannot achieve inner peace; neither can an individual obsessed with an insatiable desire for revenge. Justice in the common way of the world connotes with vengeance. In A Course no human being can render justice or even know what justice means, because that requires unimpaired knowledge and the ability to know everything, clearly not humanly possible. Healing, according to A Course, is attainable only through atonement, or forgiveness, essentially interchangeable terms.  Furthermore, it puts forth the notion that every attack is a cry for love and to respond to attack with counterattack perpetuates the illusion of separation.

Giselle kills her lover and escapes from the scene of the crime in Chicago to live a peaceful life in Canada, but slowly through experience of nature and a loving small mountain community she yearns for the inner peace that acknowledgement of her horrible crime will bestow. A mauling by a bear provides the catalyst for Giselle to unmask herself. She devises a plan to reveal to the mother and the fiancée of the murdered man that she is the killer and to submit herself to whatever retribution the two other women will demand.  While examining whether justice is humanly possible, I wanted to juxtapose that forgiveness is the only route to so-called “closure” for victims of crime. The path of vengeance is a self-destructive death trap and paves the way to an inner hell. Under the right circumstances, it is conceivable that however righteous a person considers himself to be, he could yield the knife that kills another person.  The soldier does that in war, because it is murder that the state legitimates.

Granted, my novels are not plot-driven or propelled by non-stop action-packed scenes.  Psychological exploration drives my novels. I am more interested in character development, intricacies of the personality, and spiritual depths than weaving a complex, suspenseful plot. That spells doom for an author aspiring to write a bestseller. I have enjoyed writing my novels too much to let that dissuade me. I give this background on Giselle to forewarn readers who prefer plot over character and to invite other readers more interested in psychological and spiritual themes to read it.

Satire

Those who take themselves too seriously will not like satire. Those who cannot laugh at themselves will not understand satire. Those who believe they have a hotline to truth cannot appreciate life’s ambiguities and absurdities as well as individual foibles, inconsistencies and peculiarities that make up human personality. The human condition is a carnival. This is the way cartoonists, who above all are satirists, view men and events.  Laughter is healthy for body and soul.

Although they claimed to kill in the name of the prophet Mohammed, the fundamentalists who murdered the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris on January 7, did not comprehend the essence of the religious spirit inherent in all cultures. On top of their lack of understanding of the religion they claimed to profess and the religious impulse in general, they lacked a sense of humor. Satire uses comedic techniques such as irony, parody, caricature, and exaggeration. Hypocrisy is one of satire’s favorite targets. Consequently, satirists lampoon politicians, celebrities, clerics and anyone else who needs his mask uncovered. When others are too afraid to expose deceit or corruption, satirists state the emperor wears no clothes.

Writers such as Chris Hedges (American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, 2007) and Susan Jacoby (The Age of American Unreason, 2008) have pointed out the danger of fundamentalist thinking (or rather I should say non-thinking) to democracy. Authoritarianism, intolerance, xenophobia, and self-righteousness characterize fundamentalism. These characteristics undermine democracy. With the rise in fundamentalism a virulent nationalism can flourish in which no value is seen in other societies or ethnic groups. From that can flow racism and ethnic cleansing. In short, fundamentalism is unhealthy in the way the inability to laugh at oneself is unhealthy; or indeed, the inability to self-examine, to examine one’s premises, to scrutinize one’s society so that real change is facilitated. Satire does this. Satire forces us to examine our cherished beliefs and perceptions. Satire must jar sensibilities and shake perceptions. Those who cannot abide having their cage rattled stick to material that supports their prejudices and preconceptions.

In the past few years fundamentalism has been a subject of my fictional writing. In my novel Delayed Reaction I satirize the Christian brand of fundamentalism. When I wrote it, I feared it would offend Church-going friends. In poking fun at fundamentalism I aimed to illustrate that the examined life is worth living. Is it any wonder that the terrorist deals death and then chooses death for himself?  The life-giving choices are to love and to forgive.  These choices set us free and grant us peace.

 

 

Cats and Writing

The unobtrusive presence of a cat is conducive to writing. They respect the long periods of silence and intense concentration their owners require for composition. A cat has been an ever-present muse in my writing room. However, if neglect extends to not refilling her bowl for a long time, she will gently remind the writer by walking back and forth across the computer keyboard.

Molly, my rag dolly, born a cradle Mormon in Utah, converted to Catholicism upon my adoption 3/28/13

Molly, my rag dolly, born a cradle Mormon in Utah, converted to Catholicism upon my adoption 3/28/13

My long-held supposition that cats are the preferred pet of most writers needed evidence. I set out to test this hypothesis. Selecting authors I like, I began my research into whether they were also cat lovers.

The first writer I selected was Anne Rice. Lo and behold, she is the proud owner of a furry white cat. Next I selected Joyce Carol Oates. My suspicions were confirmed there too. She owns a lovely cat Cherie, the subject of her children’s book. With Daniel Halpern she edited the anthology The Sophisticated Cat: A Gathering of Stories, Poems and Miscellaneous Writings about Cats. Oates, one of the most prolific writers,  attributed her legendary productivity to cats, stating “I write so much because my cat sits on my lap. She purrs so I don’t want to get up.” May Sarton, best known for her journals, wrote twenty novels and seventeen poetry books. She lived with her cat Bramble by the sea in York, Maine. Her novel The Fur Person attests to her affinity with cats. I have written elsewhere how I regret that Sarton’s novels are not more widely read. Sarton said, “Time spent with cats is never wasted.” I have to concur.

Women writers may have a predictable proclivity for cats, but what about male writers?  Certainly, T.S. Eliot is well-known for his fondness for the feline as evidenced in his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, basis of the Broadway hit musical Cats.  I was pleasantly surprised to learn that a macho man like Ernest Hemingway owned twenty-three cats. I expected the avid hunter to be a diehard dog lover. On the contrary, he respected highly cats and is quoted as saying: “A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.” Hemingway called cats “purr factories” and “love sponges.” Another prolific writer, Stephen King, is a cat owner whose cat Clovis fingered in his screenplay Sleepwalkers, continuing the role cats have played in his work since the unforgettable cat Church in Pet Sematary.  My delight was unbounded when I discovered that Neil Gaiman (I much admired his American Gods)  is the owner of not just one but several cats. The prolificness of these writers and the presence of cats in their lives must be correlated.

In Memoriam Nutmeg, my beloved calico 1998-2013

In Memoriam Nutmeg, my beloved calico 1998-2013

Clearly, cats have served both as muse for writers and as characters in their writings. I have also used them in my work, first in the creation of Odette, the Persian cat in my novel Gerontion and the Maiden. She is the pet of main female character Felicia, a young ambitious woman who marries a rich, much older man for security. I have Felicia give this analysis of the cat’s personality:

The cat slinked into her lap and she stroked Odette’s long cream-colored coat. The pudgy feline purred smoothly like a fine-tuned motor in a just audible murmur. Felicia appreciated the cat’s satisfaction, poise and control—qualities she not only admired in animals but also in people. Not surprising cats were revered as sacred in some ancient cultures. Unlike the slobbering manner of dogs, they carried themselves with considerable dignity. And in their fashion faithful. They demanded affection without cloying, and in return, conferred respect. Odette required space in the same way Felicia set parameters on friendships.

Now as the Persian nestled against her stomach and accepted her attention, Felicia appreciated once more her pet’s uncanny intelligence. Odette understood her moods, only imposing her presence when she knew her mistress was completely relaxed, taking the cue from Felicia’s position curled up on the sofa with the tea cup. Her habits were imprinted on the cat’s brain. At the appointed time she awaited Felicia’s arrival home from work, poised upon the windowsill watching for her. When it was time for bed, all Felicia needed to do was whistle and Odette leapt into bed, settling into the small of her back as she lay on her stomach. The cat’s eyes shone like runway lights, guiding Felicia to the bathroom at night. Understandable that men preferred dogs. A good match, the dog governed by a need to serve and man to receive undivided attention. But woman desired a clean, unobtrusive, undemanding but comfortable companion, or at least, Felicia was one woman who did.

“Odette, sweetheart, you’re woman’s best friend,” she murmured to the contented feline. “More stable and kind than either a man or a woman. I don’t get your cast-off toms, do I?”

Cats assume a major role in my novel Delayed Reaction.  The hero in the novel owns seven cats. Jake, an aging Vietnam veteran, names them for key players during that period of American history: Ho Chin Minh, a grey-pointed Siamese; Madame Nhu, a fluffy, cream-colored Persian; Melvin Lard Butt, a black Manx; Kiss-Ass Kissinger, a tortoise-shell with white patch over one eye; Miss Saigon, a tawny Burmese with black paws; Wacky-Macky McNamara, an orange tabby; and Buddha, a three-legged grey tiger.  Cats are the catalyst for a drastic change in Jake’s outlook on life and trigger a series of events in which he becomes the mentor and friend to a teenaged boy.

Cats have traits that account for this compatibility with the writing life and writers’ fondness for them. They are solitary, independent creatures just like their owners. They are discriminating and do not suffer fools gladly, preferring to isolate themselves instead of socializing with nincompoops. Prolific writers are ones who are content to spend long hours alone. Solitude does not bother them. In school writers are rarely voted most popular. Popularity is not their goal nor is a cat concerned if it is liked or disliked. If anything a cat likes to rub against the leg of a person who dislikes him. Similarly, a writer will not shy from offending those of contrary opinions or debunking the majority viewpoint for the sake of opening up a larger vision of the world. Cats are nonchalant.  Cats are low maintenance. They have dignity and a quiet intelligence. Their respect must be gained. The fawning, licking, rambunctiousness, yapping and sycophancy of dogs are not conducive to the writing life or the typical writer’s personality.  A cat, I conclude, is the pet that prolific writers pick for company in the solitary art of writing.  Molly has been curled up on my desk while I wrote this disquisition on cats and writing. I’ll sign off with a long mee-ee-ee-ow-ow-ow.

Muse and Rag Dolly Molly on Writer's Desk

Muse and Rag Dolly Molly on Writer’s Desk

Where THE WHEELS OF BEING Turn

Wheels of Being 5x8The Wheels of Being is my latest novel. It may be my last as I am not now gripped by any new conception, and continued years to write more are an uncertainty.  However, that could change at any moment of the day or night, and upon the screen of my mind will flash a mural of action, as boisterous with character and plot as a work of Diego Rivera.

I am fond of this story, because it was culled from my childhood growing up in a town called Wheeling, the same name I give my fictional town, although not located in the same area of Illinois as the real town. I wanted to add magical elements to my story because childhood there partook of magic, the magic that the imagination of a child experiences to the fullest. My twins Morgana and Merlin are magical; their mother once a hopeless romantic in young womanhood, as once I was, brings some practicality into her life, as it is incumbent she do so with the responsibilities of single parenthood.  I juxtapose science and arts in the story, suggesting the two fields do not have to be mutually exclusive, for both depend on the imagination. Great scientific inventions and discoveries and great works of literature are created by individuals whose minds can conceive beyond what is visible with the naked eye. They must use the mind’s eye to imagine realms and objects beyond the normal. They are abnormal as are many of the characters in my novel:  Hugh Deforest, Amber Fields and Johnny Deforest are not your ordinary, materialistic Americans. Hugh is a wanderer who returns to Wheeling to take his place as the town’s eccentric, or if you will, mad scientist beloved by the twins who are enthralled with his design of a hovercraft. They accept the fantastical along with the realistic as does Uncle Johnny and Amber. Counterpoised against the Fields and Deforests of the earth is Edwin Musgrove, the ambitious corporate head of the bicycle plant that he wishes to transform into something bigger and better; for in America bigger has always been viewed as better–bigger shopping malls, bigger parking lots, bigger cars, bigger everything.

In the background hovers the real possibility that the drive for ever more development, which I witnessed growing up in the Wheeling of my childhood, will completely destroy our forests and beautiful wilderness areas, those secret groves where children love to play.  Trees were not worshiped in ancient Celtic times for naught. The sacred tree yet exists in isolated preserves around the world. In their branches, children play and imagine, build their hideaway and conceive the ideas that will change the world. In many ways, this book was born of my aversion for suburban sprawl and all that in suburban life is anathema to creativity, expansion of the imagination and preservation of nature. Suburbia is a cookie-cutter life with so many houses the same, so many three-car garages, paved over rich black soil, the mad rush for more material possessions, and the purchase of the latest gadgets.

These are some of the ideas I try to capture in The Wheels of Being. Those wheels form the circle of life, the symbol in many cultures, that life in the wondrous round of the seasons is interconnected, that each part is one with and serves the whole. We see it in the native-American medicine wheel, in Celtic symbolism, and in the Indian tree of life.  The book envisions what I see as both the positive and detrimental sides of American culture and the prospect that a man like Edwin Musgrove could set aside crass materialism for the welfare of humanity. There is always the possibility of insight, of epiphany, for even the most benighted individuals.

But if the reader finds more than this in the novel, I will be extremely gratified.

From Conception to Realization: Jacob Wherly in Delayed Reaction

There are individuals who from an early age know exactly what they want to do with their lives and pursue it without deviation from their plan. They amaze me. They single-mindedly follow a career path to achieve their goals. They don’t change their college major five times before they finally decide what they really want to do.  They amaze me because I am not one of those people. My character Jacob Wherly is not one of those either.

A large part of the value of a higher education is to discover there are multiple world views other than the one we grew up with by virtue of being born in a particular time, place, culture, or religion.  When we leave the bosom of the family, we discover other ways of thinking and undergo experiences that call into question the givens of birth. Jake follows the norms of his society until an event in later life triggers his awakening.  Young men have always marched off to fight the wars older men claim are necessary. Jake was one of those men who blindly followed the expectations of society. Until age 32, I was one of those who let things happen to me instead of consciously making choices.  Jake wants to instill into the teenage boy Lenny a desire to pursue knowledge and to form a philosophy of life free of the prejudices, xenophobia, and narrow-mindedness into which he was born. He wants Lenny not to delay a genuine spiritual awakening until later life. He prefers that Lenny not have his coming of age at the butt end of a rifle in a jungle as he did in Vietnam.

I created Jake as a counterpoint to the religious fundamentalism that I believe poses today the greatest danger to a democracy. I did not want my novel to be a heavy-handed, vitriolic diatribe against fundamentalists, but to poke fun in a lighter manner at the absurdity of their teachings and the simple-mindedness of their adherents who abdicate their power to think, letting “fancy-pants” preachers who are more showmen than men of God hand them a pre-packaged belief system devoid of logical thought.  To allow demigods to do our thinking for us is to pave the way for a Nazi-like leader who will waste no time undermining the underpinnings of democracy: religious and ethnic toleration, free elections, freedom of speech and the press. This Nazi demigod/haranguer will tell the masses that multiculturalism is a danger; he will preach “fear your neighbor; don’t love your neighbor as yourself. The Other is your Enemy.”

These are a few of the concepts that were operating consciously in my mind when I wrote Delayed Reaction. I wanted to explore what wisdom my generation–people who came of age and had been forged in the furnace of the Vietnam War era and the civil rights movement–could pass on to their grandchildren. It is that leap over one generation where the wisdom is stored and handed down. That communication link between grandparents and grandchildren is where the lessons are told and where they are listened to. Parents are too close to their children to always have the time or the courage to tell them the truth.  Their emotional investment in their children interferes sometimes with communication. In contrast, a grandparent is removed enough to know that the welfare of the world is at stake and not just the success parents usually understand for their children in terms of educational, financial, professional and social achievement.

In Delayed Reaction I created Jacob Wherly as a comic character, a bit of a buffoon, who could evince these themes in a light-hearted manner while serving as a grandfatherly mentor role for Lenny Dickerson. He is the non-conformist juxtaposed against the conformists in a materialistic society. The women in the novel, Shelley and Gloria, do not question their assumptions; and therefore, they do not change. The male characters do grow and develop. I thought this is a refreshing change from the denouement in many of the contemporary novels I have read.  In writing Delayed Reaction I wanted men to be drawn into the story and to identify with the characters.  Although it treats of serious themes, this novel was fun to write and was also meant to be fun to read.  Writers must leave the judgment to the juror–the readers.

Cover Delayed Reaction: Jake Wherly & his Harley Davidson

Automatic Writing: Aspasia in Gerontion and the Maiden

Pearl Curran (Feb. 15, 1883 – Dec.4, 1937) Medium for Patience Worth Writings

By automatic writing I mean messages a channeler receives from a spirit and records in writing or dictates to a transcriber.  This definition distinguishes it from simple stream of consciousness techniques or trance-like states writers may induce to inspire creativity. I was introduced to the subject in 1972 when my neighbor, an older woman, gave me the book Singer in the Shadows,  the story of a St. Louis housewife, Pearl Curran, who received during the period from 1913-1937 proverbs, poetry, plays, and novels from the spirit of Patience Worth, a New England housewife of the 1600s.  Although many theories have been advanced, there is no satisfactory explanation for how Mrs. Curran, who had an eighth grade education and was not widely read, could have composed the writings in archaic English and with historical details of the period. Five of Patience Worth’s poems were anthologized in 1917 along with the respected poetry of Amy Lowell, Vachel Lindsay, and Edgar Lee Masters.

Reputable authors have dabbled in automatic writing. Among them are James Merrill and W.B. Yeats. Merrill claimed that his poetry collection The Changing Light at Sandover resulted from messages through a Ouija board. Although Pearl Curran’s first contacted Patience Worth when she and a friend were playing with a Ouija board, Pearl eventually abandoned its use when the communications came too quickly.  The September 2010 Smithsonian Magazine contains an excellent article on Pearl Curran.  More recently, Jane Roberts received messages from the entity named Seth that she recorded in her Seth books.

Helen Schucman (July 14, 1909 – Feb. 9, 1981)

Helen Schucman, a Columbia University psychologist, scribed  A Course in Miracles  through what she called a “Voice” over the course of seven years from 1965-1972.  An atheist and a skeptic, Schucman could not scientifically explain her dictation that reached in excess of 1000 pages of metaphysical thought.

The experience of reading Pearl Curran’s story remained with me until in the late 1980s when I came to write my novel centering around the young, ambitious Felicia Mendive who marries Augustus Walsingham, a wealthy man old enough to not just be her father but her grandfather. I set my novel in St. Louis, in middle America to suggest the balance, the golden mean, that fine equilibrium between reason and passion, which is Felicia’s quandary. Felicia and her three women friends visit a channeler who receives messages from the spirit of Aspasia, an actual woman of ancient Greece.

Marble sculpture with Aspasia inscribed on the base found in Rome now in Vatican Museum

Aspasia, a learned courtesan and skilled rhetorician, associated with Socrates and other philosophers in ancient Greece, became the mistress of the Athenian statesman Pericles. Central to my theme was a May-December marriage and conveniently Aspasia and Pericles represent a pairing of a young woman with a prominent old man.  I use the phenomena of channeling to advance the theme that some truths are unseen, that the spirit needs nourishment as well as the body. Living in affluence, wary of giving way to emotion, Felicia cannot realize happiness.  Likewise, Mrs. Curran had all the comforts of a middle-class life in 1913, yet still was drawn into a supersensible realm.

St. Louis is also the birthplace of T.S. Eliot.  To evoke his memory, I wanted Aspasia to speak her messages in blank verse.  After all, Gerontion (a pseudonym for Augustus Walsingham) is the title of  Eliot’s poem in the persona of an old man.  The etymology of the word is from the Greek geront meaning old age. Not until the end of the novel does Aspasia switch to prose when she speaks directly to Felicia, but always Aspasia’s tone is elevated.  Here is a taste of Aspasia’s poetic lines:

She shall not grieve the lost of taste or touch

or stop the cough in an old man’s cracked throat

with cushions or coins stacked in palace halls

but bend her mind to the young body’s will,

nor shall she rue aught in a dry season

when ambrosia brewed of Zeus she’s sucked.

Socrates Seeking Alcibiades in the House of Aspasia, 1861 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme