Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

No, I haven't discovered the missing Larrson novel. Just by coincidence, the book I picked up next happened to have a similar title. Heidi W. Durrow's novel was recommended to me by a bookseller back in November. The novel is told from a number of points of view, varying chapter-by-chapter, but the main character is a young girl Rachel Morse who survived a fall from a rooftop in which her mother and two brothers died. She is sent to live with her paternal grandmother and to make a new life as the new girl. Fitting in becomes more complicated on a number of levels: Rachel's mother was a Danish woman who had married a black American serviceman. She inherited a mix of features that leave her father's hair and her mother's striking blue eyes. A thread of the plot addresses the way in which race shapes how we view ourselves and how others see us.

Among the minor characters is a young boy James, who changes his name to Brick after witnessing Rachel and her family's fall. He runs away from home--already an unstable environment, since his mother ignores him in favor of her Johns--when the police try to question him about the fall. Most of the characters in the novel are directly or indirectly affected by alcohol and drug addiction. The one stable adult in Rachel's life is her the fiance of her aunt who dies as the result of a drug reaction after a freak accident. This man is protective of her, giving her an opportunity to work with him and others in a rehab facility. Most of the characters, including Rachel, have many layers of character, and even the plot leaves readers questioning just what exactly made Rachel's mother Nella grow so hopeless.

Ironic, isn't it, that this particular "Girl Who" story leaves the Scandinavian region for America, but leaves a young girl fighting for her life.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Thoughts on Valentines Day or What to Do While Waiting on Your Muse

I'll admit that I've never had a knack for special holiday gifts and celebrations. I never find my cute Valentine's Day pins until about March or April. I either think of some great gift idea on the 12th but can't pull it off or I think of a great idea on the 16th of February and can't remember it for 363 more days.

Valentine's Day (like all holidays) is even more of a challenge for women than men. At least men have the no-brainer options of flowers or chocolates. But what do you get a man? A Valentine's Day tie? Please. No.

We celebrated the occasion a few days early with a trip to the mountains, and while there I read in one of the little local mountain papers some Valentine's gift suggestions. I'll admit the mix tape appeals to me, but I also liked the picture frame suggestion--maybe not a photograph but a poem.

Then this morning, heading off to work, I heard Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac on NPR, and he read a Valentine poem by Ted Kooser, rekindling an old envy. When Kooser served as the national poet laureate, he spoke at the NCTE convention (one of the first--if not the first to do so). In one session, he mentioned that he kept a mailing list of women to whom he mailed an annual Valentine's Day poem. I missed the mailing list, but two of my colleagues shared their mailing addresses, and sure enough--along came their poems on postcards, suitable for posting on the bulletin board where I could see and envy.

Evidently two or three years ago, Kooser collected and published the poems in a book called, appropriately enough, Valentines. All day I've been thinking about the gift of poetry. No one receiving a poem as a gift is likely to critique it (unless you have the misfortune of one poor well-meaning poet I encountered: spell check couldn't overcome her faux pas, leaving a reference to the "genital winds" that blew in her face in a poem submitted to a writing contest.)

What does it take to write a Valentine's Day poem (or a birthday or Christmas or Thanksgiving poem)? You already have a couple of the most important elements--a purpose and a deadline. One cannot wait wistfully for the muse to strike when a deadline approaches. For those who lack the poetic bent, there is the option of parody (unlike plagiarism in which the object is to steal, not to attribute and honor). Take a poem you love and adapt it: Shakespeare compared his love (real or imagined) to a summer's day. That leaves you three other seasons. Wallace Stevens had "Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird." You can pick your number and your focus.

Keep in mind that rhyme is not necessary (and can be a deterrent, not an asset). Keep it concrete. Avoid love, dove, above rhymes and choose objects from nature that make the abstract concrete.

Humor can be romantic. I still have a slim volume of poems I bought from the Scholastic Book order in tenth or eleventh grade. Some of the poems are sober classics; others make me giggle. You'll never know if you can do it unless you try, right?

If all else fails, pick up a volume of someone else's poems and add a romantic inscription: On my own, I don't have the words.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

End of a Series--or Not

I had read the first of Steig Larsson's novels The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo before I heard a little of the author's story--delivering the three novels, then dying. That seemed to settle the matter of sequels. I was warned not to start the second novel The Girl Who Played with Fire until the third was released, and by the end , I knew why. Even though it ends with a sense of resolution, there were so many threads begging to be tied up.

A lot of my reading friends say they don't feel drawn to read these books, and I'll admit that based on the synopsis, I might not have been drawn to them either. I didn't find myself identifying with any of the characters in the way I might in other novels, but I began the first book out of curiosity and continued reading based on the recommendation of other readers whose suggestions usually prove reliable.

This weekend I finished (listening to) The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, and I felt prepared to say goodbye to Lisbeth Salander, Mikhail Blomqvist, and the gang. I know more about Sweden, the cold war, journalism, police work, and computer hacking than I did before. I'll confess that I empathized with Salander, even when I couldn't put myself in her place. I wanted to see her warm up, trust people, develop some social skills. I'll admit that I also liked her getting away with the loot too.

Now, though, I just learned that at his death, Larrson reportedly left a finished manuscript on his laptop, in the possession of his long-time girlfriend but claimed by his family. It's going to be tied up in the courts for awhile, I imagine, but that should just build an interest in whatever the Girl is going to do next.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Just Kids

Patti Smith's memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe from the time she arrived in New York City in 1967 until his death in1989. Like other celebrity stories, I considered the playlist I would compile for the book; unlike other books that will be shelved alongside this book, it often borders on poetry.

In parts of the story Smith is an envy-inspiring name-dropper. Living at the famous (or infamous) Chelsea Hotel, she and Mapplethorpe not only crossed paths with the poets, artists, and musicians of their day; they befriended them. Encounters with the likes of William Burroughs, Jimi Hendrix, Salvador Dali, and Johnny Winters happen often enough to see commonplace--until the reader is reminded that these were two twenty-three-year-olds, trying not only to survive in New York City, but to become artists.

It is their mutual support and exploration of their artistic talents that make up the story. Robert eventually focuses on the photography that gained him such controversial attention. Patti continues to produce drawings, but becomes a rock star.

The insight Smith has into her own coming-of-age makes this her story, although I imagine she sees it as her tribute to Mapplethorpe and the enduring love the two shared until his death, despite all the twists and turns their individual lives took. Moving from a socially awkward girl who defied the stereotypes her appearance evoked to a confident, strong, successful icon as the seventies unfolded, Patti Smith develops on the pages as an honest, endearing woman, channeling her art to share her own exceptional love story unfolding as the world changes