Salutations July-August, 2021

I was on such a good run, posting every month…until I wasn’t. What happened? Summer should be a slower time. More time to read, more time to write. But it didn’t quite turn out that way. So despite daily reminders to POST SALUTATIONS, (yes, the reminders did shout at me) other stuff crowded out the shouting.

What stuff, you ask. A little felting, a lot of polymer clay fun, prepping to teach my youth development programs course this fall – and jumping the necessary hoops to get these courses approved by the funding muckety-mucks in our state, squeezing a sixteen-hour in-person training to eight on Zoom, putzing, putzing, putzing…

And then of course, it’s summer. With summer things to do and summer things to enjoy. Ripe tomatoes – coming in fast and furious. The joys of being in, near, or on the water. Back-yard concerts on sunny Sunday afternoons. A two-day arts festival at which my friend Pat and I made a killing – and sweat a lot. The first annual FLARE (Finger Lakes Authors and Readers Experience) conference – which was a smash hit and a privilege to speak at. And…a lot else too until holy cow, here it is September and I haven’t done half what I hoped to this summer.

But I did, as per the above photo and thanks to my friend Jody, get the great fun of seeing the Virtual Van Gogh exhibit in Buffalo last week. A big, big tent, some thirty-plus projectors, huge digitized images of Vincent’s art moving across the walls, floors, and pillars as one might imagine those images playing in the painter’s mind. A thoroughly enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. It’s no substitute for seeing an actual Van Gogh painting, of course. No matter how good a digital image, it can’t capture the depth of his brush strokes or the truth of his colors. But I can’t help thinking that part of what Vincent aimed for was to convey a sense of movement in his work – so what a treat to see those brush strokes move! And a treat to snap as many photos as my phone battery could handle. It’s a memory that will stick with me a long while. Along with the eerie feeling that perhaps…I’m being watched…???

Alas, what those eyes haven’t seen in the last few weeks is me writing. Where or where do Lee and Matt need to go next? I’ve thought that would come clear if I just kept writing. It worked that way with Come Back and Home Place. This time though, it’s felt like I’ve written myself – along with Lee and Matt – into the weeds. Tall weeds that impede the longer view to the horizon. My kingdom for a hoe. Or a bush-hog to clear a path between the weeds – just enough to show the way.

I see lots of social media where authors share exciting news – wrapping up a story, opening a newly arrived box of their books, crowing about a break-through in their writing. But I can’t be the only writer in the weeds. And since I learned from FLARE that many readers are intrigued about a writer’s process, I thought it might be useful to share my stuck-ness. It’s not writers’ block. I could write many more – and taller – weeds. But I sense that’s not what this story needs. If how I write can be called a process, it’s about answering a series of questions. But this time, I’m questioning whether I’ve been asking the right questions! So it’s time to let the story marinate a while. Hopefully I’ll come back to my weed lot soon – with fresh eyes and a sharpened hoe. Which might lead you to ask, is marinating the same as procrastinating? Hmm. Let me get back to you on that question.

Enough dithering. Let’s get to what I’ve been reading!

I liked this book a lot. So it says on Goodreads. So why did I have trouble remembering the story? Maybe it’s brain fog – though I’m grateful not to have the excuse d’jour. It took a little searching, but now, I do recall what I enjoyed about Dawson’s story. Her characters, Phronsie, her parents, her step-mom were interesting. Itchy, every one. Phronsie had good reason. Hippie mom – creative, fun, and more than a little irresponsible. Upright and uptight dad. How’d those two mis-matches get together? One word. Woodstock. Right there on Max’s farm, uptight, upright dad got…loose. Where better to try out a new way to be? Except mom got pregnant, the new parents tried but couldn’t mesh their lives, and Phronsie got severely twisted. Among other weirdness, Phronsie hears a loud tick of her biological clock – and when her best buddy from childhood argues the solution to dating hell is for the two friends to marry. Who needs romance. Friends can make a great marriage, have the kids they both want, be perfectly happy. Yeah, right. Who thinks that’s a good idea? Not Phronsie, but it does look better than dating hell. And maybe her dad will approve for the first time ever. The dad/daughter relationship is among the itchiest and therefore the most interesting. And might friendship love lead to a more successful marriage than the stuff dreams are made of? I’ll leave you hanging with that question and suggest you read the book instead. I doubt you’ll be sorry. There are big questions, sure. And lots of humor to go along with them.

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A friend said about American Dirt, “I learned things I never wanted to know – and really need to know.” Yup. That pretty much sums it up. Except that Cummins is a terrific writer who tells a story that grips hard and makes you grieve with Sylvia and her son Luca, be terrified for and with them, and hope they’ll be among the few – despite how it may seem along our southern border – who survive their escape to El Norte. The central theme to this novel? Immigrants don’t leave their homes and make the treacherous journey from Mexico and Central America unless they’re certain staying will mean their death. Most likely with a world of suffering first. Since Cummins’ story begins with the massacre of every family member but Sylvia and her young son Luca, she leaves little doubt they too will meet the same fate at the hands of a drug cartel – if they even stop to breathe on their way to our border. With all the controversy surrounding immigration in today’s political climate, I find it surprising that the controversy this author found herself embroiled in is about an entirely different issue. Hispanic authors resented that a white woman got the book deal when they might not. Do they have a point? Absolutely. Publishing, like every other industry, is rife with implicit bias. Did Cummins write an important and powerful book? She did. The good news is that the controversy likely means more people read it.

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I started reading Higgins some months ago – because she was slated to be a featured speaker at FLARE and I’d never heard of her. Now I’ve read five or six of her novels and I’m a fan. Certified. I even wrote her a fan letter – and because of what she said at FLARE, I knew she’d answer. I even knew what her face looked like when she read my letter because she showed us her ‘fan-mail-face’ – the heart-clutching ‘Awwwww…’ expression we all get when something deeply touches us. What fun to imagine that face when she saw my email! She told us at FLARE what inspired her latest novel, Pack Up the Moon. She saw a man staring out to sea on a cold, cold Cape Cod beach. ‘He looked like the loneliest man in the world,’ she said. Her leading man was that guy. Not good with people, Josh never expected to find a miraculous love. But he did with Lauren. And then she died. The novel traces the months before her death – when they met, when he proposed, the depth of their love, her diagnosis and decline from a rare, terminal condition that could take one so young. Just twenty-eight. Higgins follows Josh through a debilitating slog of grief lightened only a little and briefly by the twelve letters Lauren left for her husband – to be opened one a month for the year after her death. It’s a heart-wrenching tale – one I heartily recommend not for the pain, but for the hope that’s embedded in the love these two shared and in the possibility for healing, no matter how unlikely it can often feel for any of us.

Another featured author on FLARE was Mary Buckham who writes in fiction genres that don’t often appeal to me. Sci-Fi? Fantasy? Romantic sci-fi and fantasy? Yeah, not really my thing. But Mary also writes for writers as in this volume in her Active Hooks Series. I anticipate that I’ll read her other books on writing – when I’ve pondered deeply enough on this one – because it is a book to ponder. The concept? To engage readers, to ensnare them so thoroughly that the notion of putting down the book you’ve written is unthinkable. What writer doesn’t want that kind of response? She’s got solid and detailed advice along with many examples, and I found myself wanting to spend a whole day – or week – considering, dissecting, thinking about each one. Isn’t that an irony? She writes about not being able to put a book down, and I found it necessary to put hers down. But only because each nugget is worth fully absorbing. I need to do that slowly, so I can think about and try out her ideas for myself as I construct my story. Indeed, hers are some of the questions I’m marinating for Lee and Matt in that angsty novel-in-progress.

The Matchmakers of Minnow Bay

Here’s a ‘married in haste’ tale that while a tad predictable, is nonetheless a fun read. Not that anyone ‘repented at leisure.’ Lily and Ben met, got drunk, got married in LasVegas one wild weekend, and then forgot all their wedding for ten years. Or if they didn’t all the way forget, it got put in a drawer. Lily’s junk drawer. Which she doesn’t sort through until her impending eviction. Broke, evicted, left-hanging by her best friend and her lover/gallery owner/agent, Lily decides – finally – she needs to sort out the hundreds of loose ends in her life. Voila le unattended annulment application. Ben is a definite loose end whom she finally tracks down in a small northern Wisconsin town. In January. The town and the friends Lily makes unblock more than one way she’s been stuck. In Minnow Bay, she learns it’s okay to stand up for herself and tackle her problems head on. Oh sure. Ben is one of those problems, and the road to annulment is predictably rocky. And fun. Sorting out all the other briars and brambles in her life makes the romantic predictability worth more. Is it the best book I’ve read this summer? No. But good entertainment. You bet.

School's Out: Challenges and Solutions for School-Age Programs by [Tracy Galuski, Arlene Rider]

Part of the preparation for teaching this fall, included checking out this new textbook for my course. While fiction is my first love, this book was a pleasure to read, partly since I know and have worked with Tracy Galuski and Arlene Rider for many years. More, their experience with non-formal education in before- and after-school programs makes this text far more useful than other texts I’ve previously used. My students will find the content practical and useful, posing challenges that many experience along with creative solutions that address the needs of children, families, and the staff who run the programs. I particularly like how Tracy and Arlene addressed current topics like emerging sexuality, inclusiveness, and trauma-informed care. Good work, my friends!

Here’s an instance where my reading got quite personal because the author of Dawn of a New Day was a dear friend from my writers group and the one member of that supportive crew I credit most for pushing me into writing actual novels. Shove might be a better word! Mike was never shy about expressing his exasperation when I seemed content writing little caricatures of people I observed. ‘What HAPPENS to them? What do they DO?’ he’d say. Huh. So description wasn’t enough? These characters I described needed a story? Mike’s exasperated nudging is what moved me from writer to novelist.

Mike was himself a character. A big man with a big laugh. A man eager to buy you a drink and spin out a colorful story. A man with rituals like buying the Saturday Buffalo paper to get last Sunday’s NY Times crossword, writing in the morning, reading in the afternoon, cocktail hour, promptly at five! A man generous enough to slog through eighty-thousand words when he wanted you to cut it down to sixty. A really, really good guy!

Mike’s love of Dickens led him to his own novels by way of two minor, minor characters from Oliver Twist, Blathers and Duff. Mike’s first novel, Tales of the Black Lion introduces these two somewhat blundering, yet successful detectives in a London bar where Dickens might have tippled. In Sons of the Fathers, the progeny of the original Blathers and Duff get embroiled in ‘the troubles’ of Ireland. And Dawn of a New Day carries another generation of the pair forward to provide security at New York’s 1939 World’s Fair – and solve mysterious murders while they plot with out-of-work actors to help Jews escape from Europe.

What’s great about Mike’s series is that Blathers and Duff of any generation retain the lovable quirks and attitudes of the original pair. A Blathers loves a drink and operates on instinct; a Duff eschews all things pleasure and favors logical lists to solve a crime. ‘Alone, they’ve each got half a brain; together, they figure things out,” Mike would say. And yes, they do, whether in London, Ireland, or New York City.

Blathers and Duff have become as dear to me as their author was. I smile to hear Mike’s voice on every page. Will you like these guys if you didn’t know Mike? I think so. You’ll like the way Blathers appreciates Duff’s talents and vice-versa, the contrast between them, the sly references to Dickens, the authenticity of the settings, the humor. By all means, the humor. As you enjoy Blathers and Duff’s predicaments, imagine best, most boisterous laugh you ever heard. That’s Mike, and as you laugh with him, you’ll have the privilege of knowing him too. And you’ll wish, like I do, that Mike lived long enough to tell the stories of future iterations of Blathers and Duff.

And now to transition into fall. I’m never ready to leave summer behind and feel fortunate that I can ease into my the fall semester. I plan to soak up as much sun, warmth, and light in the next few weeks to carry me through our cold, dark months. While I extend my hopeful energies into the atmosphere with wishes for deep breaths free from smoke, Covid, mold, hunger, and fear for all the peoples of the earth. May starry skies fill all your nights.

Join me and other local authors at this cool event put on by Vineyard View Winery! A book, (signed by this author!) a glass of wine, and thou… My Sunday will be replete!

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