Blog

AN ARC, AN ARC, MY KINGDOM FOR AN ARC

LAUREN GROLL

Now, I seldom, maybe almost never, talk much

about the arc of a story. Even books I don’t much care for have one, for good or ill, and I tend to concentrate on character story in terms of reader impact. But I recently read two novels in a row that are very disappointing in the arc department. Not a frequent happening. It’s sort of liking spotting a dodo bird, then realizing it’s a mirage. Normal approach would be to treat them separately, first one, then the other, but their deficiencies are to similar, I’d rather clutch them together in my hot little fist and toss them into the nearest bin together. Unfortunately, the printed page is by nature linear, so first comes Lauren Groff,  it says here, is a two-time national book award finalist. I assume her other works are far superior to The Matrix because I respect that particular award and would hate to think the quality has sunk to this novel. I bought it because it sounded fascinating, a 12th century tale about a middle daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who became a power-wielding nun and created a fascinating abbey shorn entirely of men. Sounds like a sure winner. Prose style is good. Characters are vivid. What could go wrong? Read on.

Hernan Diaz sets his In The Distance primarily in the American west in the gold rush era. Main character is Swedish, who is shipwrecked with his brother on the coast of South America (I think) and is saddled with the task of finding his brother, from whom he became separated in the wreck. Speaking no English, the only knowledge of his new-found land is that his brother was headed to New York, so he figures he should go there to connect. Not a bad setup, especially if, like me, you’re particularly interested in that time and place. See my novels, The Maxwell Vendetta, The Second Vendetta, Bonita, and the upcoming Swindle in Sawtooth Valley if you don’t believe me. I believe all three of these are far, far superior to either of the books I’m describing here.

And that’s enough said in general about these two tales. Obviously, their settings are disparate, but what they have in common are the distinct lack of what I refer to in the title of this article. Aristotle (How often do I quote him? Once again, seldom.) said a well-told tale needs a beginning, middle and an end. The arc. Not to be pedantic about it. I can point to plenty of stories whose progression are not exactly clean. The Sound and The Fury is one sometimes-baffling example. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is anything but linear. In the volumes under consideration, we have beginnings, certainly. Perhaps we have middles, but I don’t think you can have an ending unless there’s an ending. Matrix has no end except that the main character (at last!) dies, demonstrating nothing except perhaps that all human works–male or female–are pretty much in vain by the end. Beyond that statement, which doesn’t require hours of reading to arrive at. I admit to not quite finishing In the Distance, and I don’t usually quit on a book. Being an author myself, I feel disloyal laying aside the best efforts of another toiler in the literary vineyards. But once again, the main character trundles along from one crisis to another without much sense of progress. Does he reunite with his brother? That’s probably where the book is headed, but I don’t much know nor care.

As for this piece? At least it is now coming to a stop. You judge whether the stop qualifies as an ending.

HERNAN DIAZ

 

WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE TIME TO DIE

 

       Because I could not stop for death

It was Emily Dickinson who wrote that. I thought of her lines a couple of nights ago when we gathered to remember, to laugh and pray and praise our dear friend and colleague, Peter. He was a young man who, as the phrase goes, "died too doon." And I've been pondering what that phrase means. Is there a time when we (or someone) can judge--"All right. You're old enough now. This far. No farther."
                       
He kindly stopped for me –

Surely, Peter's passing was a shock and well short of the biblical "three score and ten" we are supposedly allotted. But then, what is "too soon"? Abraham Lincoln was 56 when he was assassinated. JFK was ten years short of that. Martin Luther King, Jr. 39.We'd probably agree, on these,  but what about all those others? That guy Adolph, for example? Was he too soon or too late? But those are exemplars, not answers. 
One way to put it might be this: "Too young" means way too soon to accomplish what a person might have accomplished had they been able to continue. Or  too soon for the rest of us (jealously) fully to treasure their gifts.  
I think that's a rather poor summation. But then, I'm not qualified to judge these things even though I seem to insist writing about them. When, I ask, should you to call a halt and when should you keep things going? Beats me. All I can do is love and remember and be grateful for the time we  had with him here below.

         Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet
         Feels shorter than the Day
         I first surmised the Horses' Heads
         Were toward Eternity – 

 

AIRPORT FANTASY

 

An airport you’d think was set up as a place for transportation, and I mean the swiftest known on earth outside rockets and spaceships. But add it all up, the time, I mean, getting to and from an airport, sitting in airport waiting for a plane, for a delayed plane, a meal you’re paying 200% for, waiting for a rental or a bus or some other snailish form ground-wheeled transport, and you have to conclude that an airport is nothing more than a way station set up to block or at least delay your ability to take your butt from one place to another. Or maybe a storage locker for aluminum Da Vinci feathered creatures to rest up before or after some arduous journey from hither to yon.

Today there’s lots of glass to look through more taller and wider than anything I might need but still not enough to see what I really want which is what happened to put me here or what is going to happen when I leave. For I will have to eventually leave I think. There was a movie once about a guy trapped in an airport. I don’t remember much about it except that it wasn’t a situation a person would want to be stuck in.

But, I remind myself, I’m not stuck. I have options. I have a ticket in my pocket, which I could use to board one of those leap-into-the-sky machines. Or I could cash it in, get a refund, and walk out to somewhere else. Or I could skip the part about cashing anything in and just walk out.

But where would go?

I don’t know that any more than I knew it when I bought this ticket to—where was it again?—Boise, Idaho. Weird name Boise. Boy—see. Or is it Boyz—ee? I looked it up once, but those things never stick in my mind. The name itself has something to do with wood or trees. None of these things mean a thing to me or my life, so why would I gravitate toward this place? I must have laid down my cash because of some inner urge I was seeking to understand or to discover.

At any rate, now I don’t know why I started all this or why and figure I might as well give it all up and go back to what I was doing before.

Which was what, exactly?

And that was what she always said, Gretchen, that is. That she loved me and all and we had great times together but that she needed someone she could stick with and she could never stick with someone as aimless as I am. No goals, no direction. It’s as if she said I had no past or future, was born into the moment, whatever that moment was, and never moved beyond it.

She’s right, of course. But I always figured what was wrong with that? I love the moments, the moments of every day. What else is there to need?

Well that didn’t go with Gretchen, so she is now off somewhere else in some other moment that doesn’t include me. And as for me, it looks like I’m headed to Boise, or will be shortly, unless I cash in my ticket, or don’t, or just walk away, or just wander around the airport till someone apprehends me or interrogates me or arrests me. Then will I know why I’m here?

I don’t know. Real question is do I really care why I’m here? Or anywhere else for that matter?

These are questions to be asked as Falstaff says in some play or another as if it made or makes a difference.

I seem to recall that in that play, it doesn’t make a difference, and I seem to remember there is something about blackberries in that line, though what shakespeare was doing writing about blackberries or what Falstaff was doing talking about them I can’t imagine.

Maybe if I’d been less aimless (or more aimful?) about things, I’d know the answer. Or care.

As it stands, I am standing in a Southwest Airlines line, boarding pass number C22 and I guess I’m going to shuffle my way through this door that looks like it belongs in a bank vault and find out what I’m doing here. Or there.

I might even care.

 

BARBARA LEE SPEAKS FOR ME (AND FOR THEE)

I am just now sitting down at the computer after having watched the new film Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power, and I confess to being a bit awestruck. Lee has been my congressional representative much of my politically aware life. In 1998 She succeeded the iconic Ron Dellums as the 13th district representative to congress  and has since become an icon herself. What I took away from the film was not so much information about her life or her ideas, but a sense of the experience of the woman herself.

I was treated earlier in the week to some biographical information via Joe Garofoli’s It’s All Political podcast on the subject. Before that I knew next to nothing about her early life, about her struggles with poverty and an abusive relationship. And, happily, there was her recent joyous wedding. If anyone deserves that, she absolutely does. Certainly others will glean much from those facts; but  for me, who was here during all of her political life (though I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have), it was the  experience of vicariously reliving her growth amid enormously challenging  circumstances, that I found so compelling.

From her courageous and unique vote against the much-abused post-9/11 war powers resolution (And hasn’t that been proven right over and over and over again on that one?) to her tireless work on behalf of her constituents– especially the unfranchised (children) and the disenfranchised (women and the incarcerated) and pandemic (Aids) victims, she has been a champion of values that represent everyone and everything American.

Shirley Chisolm

When she took her seat, she was virtually the only black woman in congress past or present. Dellums had his own challenges, of course, but at least he was male, and he was not a single parent. Lee had her own (to overuse the word) iconic predecessor in Shirley Chisolm, but Chisolm was gone by the time Barbara came along, so hers was a lonely position to say the least. Not that she started from exactly zero. Her work as a staffer for Dellums gave her some Washington D.C. presence, but not at all a prestigious one.

So what we have here is a hard working politician with compassion and integrity who has become a premiere voice for the downtrodden, one who can take her remarkable life and integrate her experience into legislation and actions that benefit us all. And she did it without seeking the star-power publicity and status that could easily have been hers. But then she wouldn’t be Barbara Lee, would she? She’s almost an anti-politician in perhaps the most political of eras. How fortunate I feel to be one of her followers.

ONE LAST CHANCE

Interview time  at my virtual booth Sunday, Nov. 21 @2:00 pacific, 5:00 eastern. Here’s the link to my virtual booth. Here’s the link.

https://festivalofstorytellers.com./booth/carl-brush/The wide-ranging discussion will focus on I don’t know what. It’s a spontaneous thing, but for sure we’ll look at the six novels I brought to the festival–This next-to-last event is a 30-minute dive into THE YELLOW ROSE, A NOVEL OF THE TEXAS REVOLUTION (CO-AUTHORED WITH BOB STEWART), THE MAXWELL SAGA TRILOGY (The Maxwell Vendetta, The Second Vendetta, and Swindle in Sawtooth Valley), BONITA and its sequel, YOU CAN’T KEEP HER as well as some back and forth about my life as a writer.
Come on along. It promises to be quite a ride.
[You can catch any episode you missed at the same link  https://festivalofstorytellers.com./booth/carl-brush/Cheers and see you at the festival.

Cheers,

Carl 

TWO LAST CHANCES AT THE FESTIVAL OF STORYTELLERS

Edification and delight await you still at my virtual booth Saturday, Nov. 20 @1:00 pacific, 4:00 eastern. Here’s the link to my virtual booth. 

https://festivalofstorytellers.com./booth/carl-brush/

This next-to-last event is a 30-minute dive into THE YELLOW ROSE, A NOVEL OF THE TEXAS REVOLUTION, starring Sam Houston and Emily West (Morgan?) and their epic struggle against the Mexican general Santa Ana. It’s co-authored by me and a real native Texan, my friend and colleague, Bob Stewart.

The very last minutes of the festival happen Sunday, Nov. 21—an hour long interview about The Yellow Rose and the other 5 novels I brought to the festival as well as some discussion about my life as a writer. Come on along. It promises to be quite a ride.

By the way, you can catch earlier sessions you might have missed (Daily, starting last Saturday 11/13) at the web address above.

THREE DAYS LEFT IN THE GREAT BOOK LAUNCH

I have made five presentations at the Readers Magnet Festival of Storytellers. All virtual. I’m telling the world about all six of my historical novels (Well, five, actually. The fifth doesn’t come out till next month.

I have been presenting a book a day, reviewing all books briefly before I go into depth on one. This website was down for several days, so I’m playing catch-up here. However, here’s what’s left at

https://www.festivalofstorytellers.com/booth/carl-brush/

FRIDAY, NOV. 19 1:00 P.M. PACIFIC TIME-AN IN-DEPTH LOOK AT THE MAXWELL FAMILY SAGA–THE MAXWELL VENDETTA, THE SECOND VENDETTA, AND SWINDLE IN SAWTOOTH VALLEY

SATURDAY, NOV. 20,1:00 PM PACIFIC TIMETHE YELLOW ROSE, IN DEPTH.

SUNDAY, NOV. 21, 2 PM PACIFIC TIME–HOUR LONG INTERVIEW WITH YOURS TRULY TALKING ABOUT THE BOOKS AND MY LIFE AS AN AUTHOR

SEE YOU ALL THERE

CROSS COUNTRY ON THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY

Cross Country on The Lincoln Highway

For the uninitiated, the Lincoln Highway was the first transcontinental highway in the country, stretching from Times Square to San Francisco’s Lincoln Park, which houses the elegant Museum of the Legion of Honor, a gift of the French to America. The road was dedicated in 1913. It makes a nice symmetry, I think, that there is an iconic French gift to the U.S. on each coast. However, That’s not the subject of Amor Towles novel, so let’s switch. 

Click on the graphic to see this item on Amazon.com
AMOR TOWLES

One boy is released from a reformatory after serving a sentence for a more or less accidental death. He punched a guy who fell and hit his head. His father dead, and an atmosphere of resentment hanging over him in the small Nebraska town, He determines to start a new life. The plan is to sell everything, climb in a car which he managed to purchase pre “crime”, climb on the highway with his orphaned younger brother, and drive to San Francisco. There, he figures he can use his carpentry skills and the cash from the sales of his family farm to buy a house, fix it up, flip it, and go on to build himself a bit of an empire. Plans thwarted, of course. Two of his reform school buddies escape from the reformatory, and through some smooth talking and deception manage to turn him around and travel to New York instead of San Francisco. The rest of the story is episodic, even picaresque as we move from one adventure to the next and move back and forth among various characters. Between those people’s fantasies and various backstories, we find ourselves wound up with these vagabonds in a suspenseful, comical, and deeply moving coming of age story that is both life-affirming and rewarding to read. Towles is a story teller worth following. Those of us who have read A Gentleman in Moscow already know that. The rest of you, Go find out for yourself.

Kia and the Magnet Carter

The Castle Cross The Magnet Carter is a mouthful of a title, but it fits because this is a delicious mouthful of a novel. Corthron’s basic elements are a pair of twins, one black, one white, one from Maryland, one from Alabama. We start at their childhood, but it isn’t long before we’re catapulted across state and family lines into a tangle of adventures and relationships. The novel moves sometimes smoothly, sometimes by jerks and starts between past and present. It turns out that these families are inextricably intertwined through sets of circumstances which I won’t go into here, partly because it would take a ton of explaining and partly because it would be a gigantic spoiler for a reader. It’s enough, I think, to say that from their childhood interactions through their old age, we grow to appreciate and participate not only in the characters’ personal and family lives but into the history that surrounds them as they travel through their lives.

We start out–well not really start out because we keep going back and forth–in World War II. Then, for those of  us who know and remember, comes the Korean thing. Then on into the civil rights movement. Each period produces its own set of loves, resentments, fondnesses, and grudges. At times the injustices seemed, however, disturbing, to be part and parcel of much history and many tales I’d read before. I was somewhat upset, but not shocked–KKK stuff, children jailed and tried as adults, betrayals by people who were supposed to be friends, etc. All of these Corthron handles with admirable skill. I was particularly impressed with the intricate interactions surrounding the death of one of the mothers. There were, however, a couple of scenes made me want to scream at the injustices. One, not because it was more horrendous than some that had gone before, but because it was so immediate. Black folks waiting for hours in the heat, forbidden water and food, all not for a chance to vote, but for a chance to register to vote. I guess thing may have improved a smidgen in that now the struggle is whether to actually fill out a ballot.

The second was a different animal. I’ve read plenty of lynching narratives, true and untrue, and the well written ones always turn your stomach. My best recent example is Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. It was recently made into a tv special, and parts of it made me turn my head from the screen. Unfortunately,  I couldn’t do that maneuver with the Magnet Carta narrative without missing the whole thing. It is the most brutal and ugly piece of action I think I’ve ever read, lynching or not. wanted to scream at the injustices. Magnet Carter is a long book. So long that publishers turned it down repeatedly till it was finally accepted. Reputedly, they wanted her to cut more, but she protested that she’d already cut 400 pages, so what did they want? Corthron has earned some celebrity as a playwright, so maybe she went a little overboard at being turned loose in a medium that doesn’t normally require the whole product to be finished in a couple of hours. However, those of us who stick with it are richly rewarded with a book that is not only a tale well and truly told, but a chronicle of key parts of American history. It deserves a place in the canon of our literature.

Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead