Saturday, April 30, 2011

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

Mennonite in a Little Black DressMennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There's a 1988 Amy Irving movie called Crossing Delancey. When I started to read Mennonite in a Little Black Dress I thought this book would be similar. I pictured a story of Rhoda Janzen's personal conflict between the culture she grew up with and, for lack of a better term, mainstream culture. I imagined I would spend my time with this book watching Janzen come to terms with her background. That isn't at all what this book is about. In fact, there was so little in the book about the Mennonite culture, Janzen needed to add "A Mennonite History Primer" as an Appendix for those of us who "may still have some pressing questions about Mennonites."

The author suffered through some personal hard times. Her marriage ended and she had some health issues. Those problems pushed her back to the home of her parents and gave her a chance to think about the people in her life: her husband, her parents, her sister, and her friends. For the most part this thought process didn't lead Rhoda Janzen to an understanding of the people around her. There were some moments when she expressed an appreciation for them, but she spent most of her time laughing at them. Her father was too cheap. Her mother talked too graphically about bodily functions. She had friends who didn't discipline their children enough. And Nick, her ex husband, left her for "a guy he'd met on"

At one point in the book Jansen mentions that one characteristics she would appreciate most in a man would be a sense of humor like her own. I think she also needs readers who share her sense of humor. For the most part Jansen uses humor that shocks and mocks. I didn't find it particularly funny, but a friend of mine said she found it hilarious. Like any book, this one needs to find the right readers.

Although there were aspects of this memoir that I didn't like (and have already mentioned), there were also parts I found inspiring. I loved the way she dealt with her health issues from a botched operation. She handled them with humor and strength. I was also inspired by the honest way she wrote about her relationship with her abusive husband, who was bipolar and did not stay on his meds.

This book was a selection for my book club. We will be discussing it this Thursday. I'm looking forward particularly to hearing the opinion of one of our members, who was raised as a Mennonite. I think it should be an interesting discussion.

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Past Lives as a genre

I'm currently reading two books: The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis and The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean. I noticed they shared a plot feature with my own novel Motherless Soul which started me thinking about aspects of a book that connect it with other books. In this case all three novels switch the readers back and forth between multiple plots.

In the case of The Doomsday Book there is a young historian named Kivrin who is sent back in time to observe the middle ages. Things go wrong on both sides of the time divide so readers are left wondering how the team in modern times (2054 AD) will deal with their problems while we're also following Kivrin's adventures in the 1300's.

In The Madonnas of Leningrad Marina, Debra Dean's main character suffers with Alzheimer's so she spends her time switching back and forth between the life going on in the current time and the memories of the life she led during World War II. Nicholas Sparks used a similar device in the The Notebook although he was writing for a very different audience.

In my own novel, Motherless Soul, the characters experience multiple lives through regressions into their past life memories. There is a plot going on during the American Civil War while there is also a plot going on in modern times. Each one of my characters has a presence in both plots, with different roles. The past influences the course of the future.

There are many other cases of novels with this plot feature. The first one that comes to my mind is A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain, but there are many others. Sometimes in novels such as The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje the plot exists almost entirely in the second life, but the idea is the same.

Although I like to call my book a “Past Lives Mystery,” there is no official title for this genre. Since most books I enjoy mix mystery, adventure and romance rather than existing exclusively in one category, I believe “plot features” would be a better system for categorizing fiction.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Blue Orchard by Jackson Taylor

The Blue Orchard: A NovelThe Blue Orchard: A Novel by Jackson Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Blue Orchard was a choice by my bookclub. It lead to one of the most interesting discussions we've had with the group. The book is set in Harrisburg, Pa, which is a place a few of our members are familiar with. It deals with race relations and abortion, topics about which people tend to have strong and emotional opinions.

The book spans most of the life of Verna Krone who is the grandmother of the author. Her stories have been documented by Jackson Taylor in his book, which he calls a novel but is probably best described as a cross between a novel and a memoir. Verna was young during the depression and, when she was fourteen, had to give up school to help support her family. Her father was much older than her mother and died very early in the book.

There is a distance that I feel in Taylor's writing, particularly in the way he handles dialogue. But the stories he tells are so fascinating that I still got caught up in them.

Despite the poverty of Verna's background, she managed to get an education and had a career in nursing. She worked in a few positions before ending up with the job where she spent most of her years. She worked for a prominent, African-American doctor named Dr. Crampton whose practice included sports medicine with a local high school and abortions.

Dr. Crampton was wealthy and politically connected. He delivered votes to Harvey Taylor and to the Republican machine that dominated Pennsylvania politics at that time. In exchange for those favors he was able to improve the lives of the African-American residents of Harrisburg by bringing money into their community for projects such as sports teams and a local Y. Sometimes when we look back on race relations from the thirties and forties we forget how complicated the situations were. Dr. Crampton couldn't eat in the same places as the whites, but in many ways he was more powerful than most of the people of all races.

Taylor's characters are intricate and interesting. For example, Verna seems to oppose abortions until the money becomes too difficult to resist. After that she rationalizes what she's doing by telling herself she's keeping the women away from the "butchers." Taylor doesn't seem to take a position on abortion. He tells the story and lets the readers draw their own conclusions.

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Saturday, April 9, 2011

Mortals, Gods, and a Muse by Suzette Vaughn

Mortals, Gods and a MuseMortals, Gods and a Muse by Suzette Vaughn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Suzette Vaughn's Mortals, Gods, and a Muse is the perfect book for readers who are looking for a fun read. The writing is light with an emphasis on dialogue and wit. It feels as informal as emails or journal entries. The characters, especially the narrator, Sherry, are fun, likable, and a little insane. The plot pulls readers along with a comfortable level of predictability that suddenly changes into a wild ride loaded with surprises. It's a romance, a fantasy, and also a page turner that's hard to put down.

The book is written from the point of view of Sherry Duncan, a romance writer who has taken a trip to the virgin islands to give herself a break from her muse. There's a new one in her life, a young woman named Star. Like Cosmo Topper and his ghosts, Sherry is the only one who can see and talk to her muse. The situation is complicated because Star is trying to find a leading man for Sherry's next book and for her life. Star brings Lysander Eros to meet Sherry while she is sunbathing on a picture perfect beach. Lysander is a handsome, blue-eyed Greek with an enormous yacht and an apparent attraction to people with imaginary friends.

The first part of the book is a slow and enticing seduction that draws the readers into the personalities and desires of Sherry and Lysander (or Xander as she calls him). The second half is an adventure that is filled with exciting twists and turns. I enjoyed it all.

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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Motherless Soul Reading

I had a reading at a local retirement village this past week. I won't mention the name of the establishment because I learned that there appears to be a retirement home circuit among writers. Authors attempting to market their books can be a bit overwhelming to some of the staff. The Activity Director told me, “My name must have gotten out there somehow. I get about six calls a day.”

The reading went very well. I had eight people in attendance, which is a perfect amount for the type of reading I like best. We sat in a circle. I read three excerpts and between the readings I talked about some of the concepts in the book and about the process of writing.

My book doesn't appeal to everyone because its plot deals with past lives and that idea conflicts with the religious beliefs of some people. (I've heard that from a couple of reviewers who declined to read it.) At first glance a North Carolina retirement home seems to be a poor choice for an appearance, since most are associated with churches. But my book is a novel and I think the majority of people recognize that novels are places where readers can get lost in fictional lives.

This particular home is Moravian, but that doesn't mean the residents are all members of that church. Retirement homes are no different than any other large groups of people. The residents have a variety of backgrounds and interests. In the group that attended my reading there was a former chaplain, a woman who had once been hypnotized, and a writer who had spent her career as a journalist. The writer had lost her sight, but still enjoyed audio books. She also had a finished novel she had never sent out. I think she liked my reading. Of all the people in attendance she was the most involved in the conversation.

I always enjoy hearing the opinions and stories of the people who attend my readings. The reason I enjoy doing readings is because they are give and take events where I can learn as well as share my experiences.