Monday, September 19, 2011

Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam, A Review

Bonnie Nadzam in her debut novel, Lamb, has created a complex and disturbing story. David Lamb is a fifty-something-year-old man whose life is falling apart. His father has died and his wife has left him. With nothing solid to anchor himself to, Lamb is cruising, mentally, emotionally, physically. One day, cruising on an unfamiliar street, he’s approached by an eleven-year-old girl, Tommie. A couple of her “friends” have dared her to ask him for a cigarette. Lamb realizes the situation immediately. That it’s a dare and it raises something inside him. He’s incensed that Tommie is being used in this way. She begins to look like a cause to him, like a project that maybe he can fix up since he can’t fix anything in his own life, in his own head. As the reader you want this child to be all right. You really hope Lamb is going to be the good influence he’s striving toward, that he’s going to improve this child’s circumstances. Tommie wants this too; she’s yearning for it, for something, anything. But that’s what adolescence is, an ache, a gigantic, exquisitely painful, joyful hole inside that demands to be filled.

Looking back, I guess it could be said that adolescence is the yearning for experience, the longing to be master of one’s fate, but whatever it is, this is Nadzam’s forte, the way she makes you feel inside, like this eleven-year-old-lost child. You pray that Lamb is going to do the right thing by Tommie when he goes back into her neighborhood multiple times to feed her, to bring her gifts, to talk to her. But the whole time you know, you sense this relationship is not conventional. This man and this child have strayed into unknown territory and when Lamb takes Tommie, when he basically kidnaps her and drives her from Chicago west into the Rocky Mountains to some remote cabin ostensibly to teach her about the wilderness, to introduce her to a more organic connection to life, it is scary. It is a rude ride through a mountainous setting that is vividly beautiful and ruthlessly painted.

This novel reads like a rising heartbeat. It is a tale that knots your stomach. You want to put it down, to put it out of your mind, but the writing is so taut, so compelling and haunting that you can’t. At least I couldn’t. Nadzam is a master at point of view. At times, it’s hard to know from what position the story is being told. In a way you might be seduced into believing you are telling it to yourself, Nadzam takes you that far into Lamb’s mind. Not a comfortable place to be. And as intimately as you are there, you are also in Tommie’s mind and emotions, but this is no Lolita redux. There is nothing overtly sexual and yet . . . and yet. . . .

Readers and authors will often say that books should be entertaining, that people don’t want to be reminded of their very human condition, their frailties, vulnerabilities--weaknesses. They don’t want a story about which they have to think. But sometimes a book can do both. If you are drawn to gorgeous writing, disturbed characters, a plot that could stand alone as a taut thriller, Lamb does do both. In a manner that is reminiscent of Lionel Shriver’s, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Lamb is an unsettling journey as hard to put down as it is to forget.

For more about this wonderful author, visit her website.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Discipline, the four-letter word that isn't


Experienced sort of....

I’m new to the indie publishing venture and I don’t mind admitting I’m a little overwhelmed in combination with being excited to see what happens and enthusiastic to be part of something new and innovative. I love that I’m engaged at near the ground floor level in an endeavor that seems to square the playing field for all who care to enter the game. My author story isn’t different from dozens of others. I’ve written for a number of years and placed first in numerous contests. I’ve queried an inordinate number of agents and received increasingly complimentary and ever-more detailed--so-called positive rejections and invitations to rewrite and resubmit.

No walk down the aisle.

I once had an agent who, while she was new to the profession, was also wonderfully supportive and believed in my work. She actually sold a novel of mine only to have the deal fall through. A second novel she represented made it into committee at one of the big-six houses. That didn’t work out either, and, anyway, as the saying goes, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. A rejection is a rejection regardless how glowing the terms and a bridesmaid is not the bride! So, what a joy to have this indie avenue open, to take into my own hands the fate of a novel I’ve authored. The only difficulty was (and remains) how ignorant I am of the process, how it works, the best way(s) to go about it.

My brain doesn't have an app for that!

 So I researched. I read everything I could find. It took me several weeks to feel confident enough to start. I garnered inspiration and encouragement, too, from Joan Reeves of Slingwords fame and successful indie author Karen McQuestion. Still, it required patience and diligence. I’m not the most computer literate person. Nor did I understand the intricacies of social networking, a purportedly major key to the marketing success of e-books. I’m still struggling to get the hang of it and determined to overcome my resistance, my heartfelt belief that my brain doesn’t have an app for that--the likes of Facebook and Twitter, I mean!

When The Ninth Step finally went live, I emailed my mentor, who is also a many-times successful author and creative writing professor and my first publisher. In the note I told her that as the result of my indie publishing experience, I had conceived a new respect for what she did for me and many other authors when she founded a small regional press and took us on, authors whom she believed in. She gave us our first opportunity, handling acquisition and editing responsibilities, as well as contracts, book cover design and hundreds of other details. In short she oversaw what I now know is a complicated process and she did it not just for one book but for many--by herself. This seems incredible to me now.

Dreams require devotion.

As with any new process, I’m sure this one, too, will get easier with practice. Right now, I’m struggling to find a balance--that social networking thing against the need, the desire, the resolve to write. I can see how the networking can become addictive especially if one is a bit obsessive. Which leads me to the point of this post, that being a writer requires a bit of obsession. Paraphrasing Goethe, building a foundation underneath a dream requires devotion. You have to be a little crazy, I think, a little single-minded. You have to be persistent, stubbornly persistent. And you have to be disciplined. The d word. Few like it. So few in fact, it ought to be shortened to four letters.

Help along the way.

 What got me thinking about this was a post last week from Joan Reeve’s blog, where she shares some advice that was given by well-known author Robert (Dick) Vaughn during a workshop she attended, that the bridge between talent and success isn’t networking (I’m paraphrasing again), it isn’t even talent. It’s work discipline. Discipline with a capital D. I was relieved when I read this . . . that it wasn’t social networking skills I needed but discipline. I might not like it, but discipline is something I understand, over which I have control. Imagine, the d word--something so simple can be so effective. For a really terrific kick in the discipline pants, I suggest reading a little book written by Steven Pressfield called Do The Work. He nails it. And for some great tools, check out this blog post at Boxing the Octopus from author Colleen Thompson. Getting the work done is sometimes really difficult. I'd love to know your thoughts, to hear whether you have any tricks that work for you. Who knows, maybe they'll help someone else too!


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Language of Flowers: It isn't all romance....

Sometimes called floriography, the language of flowers was a Victorian-era means of communication in which various flowers and floral arrangements were used to send coded messages often in the form of a small bouquet of blooms called a tussie-mussie. Being a lover of gardens as well as a lover of language, I found the idea of conveying meaning through flowers intriguing. At some point a while back my sister gifted me with a small book titled The Language of Flowers. Written in 1913, it was the golden anniversary gift of one husband to his wife. It lay about for years afterward and was finally unearthed from a drawer and reproduced in England with the family’s permission and it is an absolute treasure. The pages are sepia tinted just as the original book’s pages must be by now, and the names of the flowers are hand-scripted in ink the color of well-steeped tea in one column with the meanings painstakingly inscribed on the facing page. Many of the pages are awash in the delicate renderings of water-colored blooms and plants. What a lot of work this husband did to convey his love to his wife. And all we know of him are his initials and his affection. “To Mother,” he inscribed. “Wishing you many happy returns of the day - from Father,” and then he has written the date, August 8th, 1913. And beneath that he wrote:

There is a language, “little known”,
Lovers claim it as their own.
Its symbols smile upon the land,
Wrought by nature’s wondrous hand;
And in their silent beauty speak,
Of life and joy, to those who seek
For love divine and sunny hours
In the language of the flowers.

His initials follow, F.W.L.

Who wouldn’t treasure such a gift? But lest you think the language of flowers is all about love and romance, look up the meaning of foxglove, one of my favorite flowers. When I first was working on The Ninth Step and realized Livie was fluent in the language of flowers, that she was receiving mysterious gifts of flowers, I wanted her to have a bouquet of foxgloves. Their tall stems are regal and elegantly lined with flowers shaped like small bells or fairy hats or one leg of the tiniest ruffle-edged pair of pantaloons. Their throats are speckled as daintily as a bird’s egg and their colors are a sweet range of the softest pastel shades. I was certain their meaning would be something wonderful, something suited to my purpose and Livie’s. But no. A gift of foxgloves is meant to convey insincerity. At least according to Mr. F.W.L. So Livie never got a single one. I thought of narcissus, too, but their meaning is egotism. And it’s funny because the close cousin to narcissus, a gift of daffodils, translates to regard. Doing a quick Google search, I could only find the book, authored by Margaret Pickston, on for a rather steep price--around what it costs to purchase a beautifully-done bouquet of roses, say--if it is purchased new. But a used copy can be had for one cent and the book is well-worth many times that. I truly treasure mine for all the many hours of pleasure it has given me, never mind what it provided in the way of research for my story. I have to thank Livie for the idea though. She’s the one who told me she knew the language, who helped me learn it too.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Ninth Step: It’s arrived and is now available for downloading from Amazon

I have heard other authors compare having a new book come into the world to the birth of a child, but for me, it feels more like sending a child off to their first day of school. At two different times, I left each of my sons at the kindergarten classroom door wondering what if he’s dressed wrong? What if the other children make fun of him? What if he’s missing something vital? What if no one likes him? When my second son, David, was born, Michael, his older brother, suggested quite strongly to me an hour or so after we brought David home that his visit had been long enough. I could return him to the store now, where I got him, and put him back on the shelf. I’m remembering that today, and smiling, I think: What if readers have the same reaction to my new novel? What if they just want to put it back on the shelf?

So it is with some new-mother anxiety and a lot of joy and excitement that I announce the arrival of The Ninth Step, a story of love and betrayal, of revenge and forgiveness.

Thank you readers and book lovers everywhere and thank you to Amazon Kindle and other Indie reader venues. You’ve opened the door to what seems a limitless horizon!