Approaching the Speed of Light by Victoria Lustbader – What I’m Reading Now

VickyRight up until the last moments of the book, Approaching the Speed of Light leaves readers wondering what will happen to poor, broken Jody. The author, Victoria Lustbader, draws the main character with such precision that any person who has ever been hurt or watched someone hurting can identify with some of his story. Somehow none of the options laid out for him seem precisely right, and Lustbader helps the reader come to terms with the varying array of hope and hopelessness so that the ending, which should be explosive, seems just right, almost sedate, – in the best sense of the word.

The inner life of Jody, the protagonist, comes through in several different ways, including first-person narration, but also in third person stories written by the character about his childhood.  Jody’s childhood was anything but normal, however.  There are elements of great kindness in it, but the kindness comes from an evil source. Somehow, the author evokes pathos for such evil by highlighting Jody’s starved boyhood and his craving for love, a craving that never quite leaves him, despite his protestations to the contrary. After all, don’t we all crave love and kindness at the most basic level? The variation of voice and style, as readers drift through and around Jody’s vision, does not impede the flow of the work, but instead adds variety.  When grappling with point-of-view issues, Lustbader keeps the reins tight, not wanting to get lost in other voices.  Make no mistake, however, the other characters are as deep and rich as Jody, as seen from his lens.

The plot of the book is not always straightforward, and readers have to have patience with the way it unfolds.  It is worth the wait.  What I found most interesting about the plot is the way Lustbader convinces me to mildly “suspend my disbelief” when a story takes a particular turn or something happens that seems too unreal to be true.  I didn’t mind “going there” with the prose.  Coincidences happen when they shouldn’t, and there seems to be something mystical afoot that the author does not address directly, but allows the reader to find for himself.

This book is one I will be recommending to my book club since it is rife with possibility for discussion. In addition, I will be looking at it further to learn how to create characters with such depth and emotion, painted with a few spare words.  There are so many ways to approach the story that I’m looking forward to sharing it with others – and to further make meaning of it for myself.


The Big “C” – Control

C“Come on, you need to go to the bathroom. Let’s go.”

The command came from a compact woman with a set mouth and a helmet hairdo.  I was standing somewhere between the gurney and the hospital bed, supported by my husband and I could only stare at her.  I just arrived in a hospital room on an oncology floor that would be my existence for 5 more days. Between 6:30am and that moment, somewhere in the 3pm area, I had had a port for chemotherapy inserted, a bone-marrow biopsy, a CT scan, a PET scan a chest x-ray and an EKG.

I paused for a moment, gathered a little strength and said, “I’m sorry, could you ask me that a little more nicely please.”

Thankfully, six weeks later, I can tell you that awful woman was the only person I have met on my cancer journey so far who has been anything less than wonderful and loving.  And I only saw her for a few hours that day until she went off duty by 7pm.

But what happened next proved apocryphal.

Another woman in the room, a young-ish nurse named Jennifer, told the horrid woman that she’d help me get settled and she should check in later.  The horrid lady left.  As Jennifer gently helped me change a dressing and get a new hospital gown she said very quietly, “you have to give up control.  From here on out, you don’t have control.”

The words slammed into me like an out-of-control truck on a rainy night.  She is absolutely right.  From a medical standpoint, I have had to lie back a thousand times and let someone else DO something to my body.  Sometimes it hurts; most of the time it doesn’t.  Most of the time the inflicting nurse or doctor or technician is so apologetic and careful.  But it doesn’t change the fact that I am the object – my body is the object being acted upon and the actor in this situation is not me.  It’s all in the name of healing and getting well again, but it’s still completely out of my control.

I am only six weeks into this treatment plan.  I have a minimum of three months to go.  I go through all sorts of motions to grab control of what I can – which lab I use for blood draws, which chair I like in the chemo room, or even voicing that I prefer cranberry to grape juice, but it doesn’t change the fact that my control over my own body is all but gone.

As I came home from the hospital, I realized that there were other things over which I had no control as well.  My kids were being taken care of by other people; I was at the mercy of airlines in allowing or not allowing us to change around all of our summer plans; I relied on other people for meals.

In case you don’t know it, I am one of the most control freaky people I know.  I arrange my kids’ schedules within an inch of their lives. I am always the go-to person for the PTA or my pet charities if there’s something to be done. I don’t sit back and just take things – I dish them out. I have always said that I’m the good type of control freaky: at least I am aware of it.  Now, however, I am learning to let go of all control.  Most days I can do it gracefully, but there are some times when I just get so blasted mad about the whole thing.

So to me, “The Big C” as they say, means so much more than just cancer.  It means control.  I don’t know if I’ll ever accept it completely and I don’t know if I will emerge (God wiling) from this experience as a different type of person, but in the meantime, it’s interesting to think about as I sit in my chair in someone else’s home, reading a book generously put into my hands by someone else, and waiting for yet another person to tell me what’s for dinner tonight.

I’ll explain more as we go along. Come join me on my journey.

Writing, Editing and um… Cleaning Up The Mess.

clock“There’s a blog post in there somewhere,” said my writing partner, A, after a lengthy and funny conversation about time management, drafting and editing.

Of course she’s right; she’s always right.

The whole discussion started because we both receive the daily email from a group of female writers called “The Girlfriends Book Club.” Some of the entries are truly great –ranging from tips on publication, traditional publishing vs. self-publishing, and various other topics including the work/family balance thing.  And then some of the posts are mediocre. But I’m always glad I get them and have the choice to read and learn, or to press the delete button.

The post that really struck A and me was by a woman named Maria Geraci, who discussed her “Secret Time Management Weapon.”  Well what woman wouldn’t want to know about a weapon for managing time??  Geraci, like most writers, has a “day job” – one that she loves. She says that writing completes her as a person, but nursing is part of who she is.  She is lucky to be able to juggle both careers, and she doesn’t take that for granted.  The big piece of advice Geraci offers is that there is value in the fifteen-minute pocket of time.  If you have 15-minutes, she says, you can write one sentence or maybe edit two. Even that little bit counts as progress. It’s all how you take advantage of the increments of time you’re given.

Much of what A and I do with and for each other follows this principle.  With writing, there are no bosses to answer to – no one cares if we spend one hour or one minute on the writing. So we hold each other accountable. Weekly, we each set goals and check in with each other pretty much every day to see if we’ve met the goals or not.  There’s accountability to each other which makes goal setting worthwhile, but we don’t have penalties for each other if goals aren’t met.  Both of us are able to follow this system because one personality trait that we share is how hard we are on ourselves.  Not meeting the goal of the day causes both of us to engage in more self-flagellation than we could ever envision inflicting on each other.

Time management is something A and I also discuss ad nauseum because I am a teacher in my “other” life and she is very active in Japanese/English translation, as well as journalism and other writing-related pursuits, including a recently debuted text book.  We both have kids. So our time is precious and valuable to us and our families.

What was funny about the conversation however, is the different tack we take for writing.  A is a wonderful writer, but she is also a crackerjack editor.  She can labor over a sentence until its perfect, with the result being these beautiful sentences that flow magically into each other to weave a story or article.  I, on the other hand, can spew out 1000 words in an hour without blinking – sometimes more, but when the story is done, so am I.  I don’t mean to denigrate my own writing or anything, but let’s face it: editing and revising are not my strong suits.  I would rather write a great story and hate taking the time to really refine it for the public.  A would like to refine and refine and refine – though she has great ideas, getting them out of her head isn’t always so simple for her.

What that means for time management is that she needs to spend her chunks of time committed to initial writing and I need to schedule dedicated time for editing and revising.  A different type of time management for both of us.

“Yeah,” says A, “Maybe we should pair up.  You puke out the mass and I clean up the mess!”

And this is why I love her.

Fifteen minute chunks of time.  We’re trying it – without the blowing of chunks, of course.  But hey, if you can’t have fun when you’re writing and holding each other accountable, then what’s the point??

What Can I Do About Uncooperative Characters?

writingpicI have an idea for a story.  Well, more accurately, I have a great character and interesting situation for him and I even have an idea of what he should be doing – a story arc.  So with all that clearly laid out, the writing should be a piece of cake, right?  WRONG!  For some reason this kid is not cooperating with me.  I’ve tried writing from the kid’s point of view and writing from a third-person point of view.  I even aged the kid thirty years and tried it via flashback.  Three times now I’ve written over 1000 words, been dreadfully unhappy, and erased the whole thing.

I’m answering a prompt for a short story contest, but the deadline is three weeks away, so I don’t feel any pressure; that’s not the issue.  I am invested in the character and I’d like to make it work, but I’m not sure how.  This hasn’t happened to me before.  In general when I get an idea, I sit down and write it.  Boom.  Done.  That’s it.  I can write more than 1000 words an hour and finished NaNoWriMo before the deadline.  (This is just a comment on volume, not quality – I need a LOT of editing when I write at that pace)  So you can see why I’m stumped here.

My plan going forward is to sit down with a pen and paper and flesh out more details about the character, the supporting cast, the situation and even some of the action.  Perhaps I’ll take out my computer to do it, but sometimes my best thinking is done when I use my hand effectively.  Research has been done about the strong connection between the hand and the brain and that it does not translate to typing and I follow this pattern: writing in my journal is more effective when I think about a story than when I just type.  Lastly on this topic, my NaNoWriMo was the easiest and the best ever this year and I can pinpoint the one reason why: planning.  While I didn’t write at all in October and tried very hard to follow the rules to the letter, I did do a lot of planning.  I had a sketch of each character and an idea of his or her motivation for every scene in the story.  I am going to apply that principle here.  I’m not going to move forward on writing until I have the ideas fully fleshed out.

If anyone out there has a better method, or other advice, I’m open to it.  Please let me know!

Great Reading – With A Dictionary

The book, complete with my bookmark in it!

This month’s book club selection is The Hare With The Amber Eyes.  It’s a wonderful piece of nonfiction by British author Edmund De Waal, who inherited a large collection of netsuke (small, carved, Japanese curiosities) from a great uncle.  He traces the netsuke from their initial purchase in the late 18th century and then through his family line until they come to him.  The greatest part of it is that he is from a prominent Jewish family who were involved with Renoir, Proust and the like in 19th century Paris, and then the Hapsburgs in early 20th century Vienna.  The author, who is also a sculptor in his real life, paints the landscapes of upper class Europe with broad strokes and meticulous attention to detail.  The interiors of the homes and the luminous cityscapes come alive almost as characters in the narrative.  I am almost halfway through the book, and I can say with certitude that I’ve never been able to “see” a scene as well as De Waal helps me to do.  It really is as if he is painting with words.  I can’t tell you if the book ends well, or what happens to the family – or the netsuke – during the wars in Europe (yet) but I can tell you that it’s a beautifully written book.

To that end, I admit that I am doing something that I have not done in years and years: I’m reading with a dictionary.  The author uses sweeping sentences and high language that sometimes require a second read.  Somehow, though, I’m not bothered by it because the prose is so beautiful and rich.  I don’t mind pausing to look up a word, and have indeed installed on my iPhone for that purpose.  Here’s a few of the words I have looked up:

  • feuilleton – the part of a European newspaper devoted to light literature and/or criticism
  • incunabula – The earliest traces of something, particularly a book in the 1500’s , before movable type
  • imprimatur – official sanction or approval
  • bibelot – small object of curiosity, beauty, or rarity
  • fiacre – a small, horse-drawn carriage
  • orotund – characterized by strength, fullness, or richness

Those are just a small sample of what I’ve found.  Ask me if you want a few more.

I am enjoying every second of this novel, from the story, to the characters and settings, right down to the opportunity to increase my vocabulary.  What a gift.  I’d highly recommend it.

My Tokyo

My Tokyo isn't just about tall buildings; it's about small shrines and temples, too.

I took a run this morning, and of course, listened to a podcast.  This one was on the Selected Shorts show – it was an essay by Colson Whitehead (author of 2009’s Sag Harbor and Zone One which comes out next week) called “Lost and Found.”  The entire essay focused on New York city, and how each person recreates the city for his or herself. He gives examples like the dry cleaner on the corner or the favorite Chinese food place that has closed or moved, and how it will forever be the spot you remember as the dry cleaner or Chinese restaurant, no matter what else might move into that space.  He discusses how the city knows you like no other person on earth – only the city has seen you alone.  It sees you spit gum into a bush. It sees you flinch when  drop of water drips out of a window air-conditioner onto your head.  It has seen you on your midnight ice-cream run when no one else has.  Whitehead mentions the Twin Towers, and how they exist in “his” New York, but for the new New Yorker who is just moving into the city from somewhere else, his or her New York will contain the specter of “Ground Zero” while someone moving to the city, or coming to awareness in the city, in five years might have a new building on that very site as part of “his or her” New York.  Whitehead speaks of New York City so reverently, and notes that once a person has lived there, they never truly live anywhere else.  It’s a beautiful piece, and it was read by the incomparable Alec Baldwin, so the whole experience of listening was a treat.

I feel similarly about “my” Tokyo.  Oh, I admit that my Tokyo isn’t the same as a Japanese person’s.  But then again, it isn’t the same as any other expat’s Tokyo either.  My Tokyo includes the little shrine on the hill where they ring sets of bells around 6am every morning.  My Tokyo includes the adorable security guard who works at the wedding chapel down the street from me every weekend and never fails to bow and say “Konichiwa” to me.  My Tokyo has the memory of the Mediterranean food restaurant that used to be down the hill from my house and is no longer in existence, but the building remains and that’s how I think of it.  My Tokyo contains several hairpin turns on streets that have no business being two-way.

What’s great about living in a large, dynamic city that lives and breathes is that My Tokyo is always changing.  Since I’m working now, I’ve learned of new restaurants that are near the school.  I’ve gotten a bicycle, which has changed my point of view of the city immensely. It’s all part of the process, it seems.

What about you? What about “your” city?  I love the idea that yours is different from mine, and I’d love to hear about how you feel about it.

The New Yorker Fiction Podcast

As a writer myself, I often tout the benefits of reading as a way of improving one’s writing.  Not only do I read a lot, but I also listen to a lot of podcasts that have short stories read aloud to me.  One of my favorites is the the New Yorker Fiction podcast.  The reason it’s my favorite is that the fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, asks a different writer to pick and present his or her favorite story from the magazine, so not only do we get the story read, but we also get discussion about it both before and after the reading.  Ms. Treisman is excellent at getting discussion going and asking pointed questions about why the story spoke to the writer.

Yesterday’s treat was writer Lauren Groff reading Alice Munro’s story, “Axis” which was published in the magazine somewhat recently – January 2011.  Ms. Groff pointed out that Munro has a particular talent with the structure of the story and an amazing ability to use that structure to play with the idea of TIME – to move in and out of it in various ways – so that the reader is always aware of the time-frame, but in such a way that it’s not an intrusive or obvious reference.  “Axis” is definitely such a story.  In it, the reader moves seamlessly from two girls sharing secrets in college in the ’70’s, to what happened to those girls in modern times.  The story arcs beautifully and sets the reader down so that he’s not precisely sure of what happened, but knows enough to make educated guesses.  It was masterful and the surrounding discussion brought out some interesting ideas that I might not have discovered otherwise.  The whole thing made my walk seem very short indeed.

Given the discussions last week of the elderly couple in the restaurant and the cemetery scene, perhaps I should take in some of those lessons given by Alice Munro and presented so ably by Lauren Groff.

Last Week, Franzen’s _Freedom_ and Now Nothing

The pic of the novel

I’m not reading this week.  That’s it – I have officially put my foot down.  Last week I spent an inordinate amount of time reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and this week I can’t seem to pick up anything.

Freedom was pretty good, though.  The book tells the story of a marriage – a thoroughly modern marriage, with all of the ups and downs – pitfalls and peaks.  Using various writing techniques, including a changing point of view, a person to whom everything must be “taught” so the reader learns, and long, yet satisfying descriptions and conversations, Franzen manages to take his readers into a politicized and polarizing world and manages to sound only a little bit preachy.  I learned a lot about dialogue and how characters can share ideas – whether or not they agree on them.  The reader can read the dialogue and not get turned off, even if he doesn’t personally agree with the character’s viewpoints either.

That bugger is HUGE though! It’s 576 pages and a lot of it is one of the main character’s autobiography.  So we do see more of one character than the others.  The story gets a bit unbelievable in parts – like since when can a nineteen-year-old buy and sell arms for a foreign country? – but on the whole I was engaged in the story and what was going to happen with these nutty, self-absorbed, and mildly neurotic people.  Make no mistake – they’re all like that.  Every character has a serious neurosis.

So maybe, after the strong dose of Franzen’s prose, I don’t have to read this week.  I feel a little weird about it, but perhaps a break from reading will make me miss it, and I will be caught up in the next book.  I guess I’m giving myself permission to slack off on reading when I know how important it is to a writer.

So tell me, since I’m not reading this week? What are you reading?? What should I pick up next?

Lessons Learned from Reading _The Imperfectionists_

I just finished reading The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman.  My writing group recommended it to me because it is like Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, (which incidentally won the Pulitzer) in that it is a series of loosely strung-together short stories that feature the same people in them.  The novel I’m working on writing will hopefully function the same way.  (Ambitious, I know)

Whenever I read something, I learn.  I’m a writer; my job is to read read read so that my own writing shines.  Here are a few lessons I learned today:

  • If done properly, you can tell a lot about a character in one, succinct sentence.  “The editors gave him a tryout as a proofreader, and he had a knack for it – finally, arcane knowledge and pedantry came in handy.”  From this, you know that the guy was formerly rootless, fell into a good job and made a life for himself.  You also know something about his personality with the quirks mentioned, and that brings up a host of stereotypes, which is good.  Even if the stereotypes are not 100% right, they give the reader an idea.
  • Two people can be in the same room talking to each other and have completely different conversations – almost like they’re not speaking the same language – or speaking “at” each other.  In the chapter about Craig Menzies, he and his live-in-girlfriend Annika are NOT fighting about her affair.  She’s talking about how she can’t bear that she humiliated him, and he’s talking about how she shouldn’t have applied for a patent for him without his permission.  They misunderstand each other’s needs, but in one, beautifully conveyed conversation.
  • Sometimes the other character in the story – not the main one – is the method for the personality of the main character to show itself.  Winston Cheung is in Egypt vying for a freelance stringer job.  A seasoned reporter comes in and takes total advantage of him.  Beyond hating the seasoned reporter, the reader also gets a sense of Winston as a very fearful, easily trod-upon person.
  • You can grow to like a character over the course of several interactions with her, even if you get a bad initial impression.  Initially I thought Ruby was horrid, but then I grew to understand her as she touched the lives of several characters, and I grew rather fond of her.
  • Not every story has a happy ending.  Sometimes the endings are sad, and even characters who you like – despite their ridiculous faults – can get a comeuppance.  I didn’t particularly like Abbey, but I rooted for her, and in the end, she gets hers.
  • Sometimes the quirkiest characters are the best ones!
  • I really love it when a character does something unexpectedly kind for another character.
  • The best part of the multiple points of view is the chance to see a character in a different light.  To you, the reader, a character has certain personality traits.  But when you see that character from the point of view of someone else – daughter, mother, etc. – then the character becomes richer, fuller, more diverse.  His or her actions can be unexpected or different from the varying point of view than when the reader is in his or her head.

There are other things I learned today from just finishing this one book, but I’m going to leave it at that for now.  I hope I can take these lessons and apply them.

Happy reading!!

Sports, Reading and Belonging

First of all, let me start with the confession: I did not watch the Superbowl.  Okay, stop throwing rotten tomatoes at me – I know plenty of people who didn’t.  But, I do hope that those who watched it had a great time.  More power to you! My husband is a maniacal sports fan, as is my dad, so I’ve been exposed to sport my whole life.  I admit that sometimes I shake my head at their fanaticism and wonder why it all matters.  I think my husband’s dedication to his teams borders on the insane sometimes, but he insists that he’s no different from any other fan.  It has been an ongoing discussion for our entire marriage, the same way he shakes his head at my desire to read a novel in a day.  He’s a big reader, too, but he savors books while I tend to inhale them.

To that end, my husband pointed me toward this article on a site called the Volokh Conspiracy, which is normally one of his favorite law blogs (he’s a lawyer) but sometimes tackles other topics as well.  This particular post  compares sports fans to fans of literature and posits that one is not crazier than the other, and in fact, perhaps they have a lot in common.

My grandmother, who I called Grammy, was an educational psychologist and she always said that a human’s strongest need is to belong.  She said it didn’t matter to what you belonged – but belonging itself is a fundamental need.  She, personally, wanted her family to feel like they belonged to each other, and went to great lengths to ensure that we are all firmly tied together, but that’s not the point.  Clearly the undercurrent in this posting is that humans come together over sports – they belong to/in the city of the team and therefore root for it.  It’s the same for literature, I’d say, based on this posting.  Humans identify with the characters in novels because they yearn to fit in – to see themselves in a bigger context.  Sports fans cross barriers of race, class, and other characteristics.  So do literary figures.  The Walmart employee without a college education has just as much of a possibility to adore Jane Eyre as I do – the same parts of it might not speak to us the same way, but we could both love the novel – and the heroine.  Grammy would love this posting, I think – especially since she loved sports so much.

If nothing else, I understand my husband a little more.  And perhaps he can relate to me a little more, too.  We may not have a shared passion, but we have passions we can share.