A Meditation on Zazen

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Vanessa Veselka‘s Zazen was an interesting read. The title itself implies a seated meditation, which I guess could be applied to the writing, though it is not an overt theme in the book.

The construction of this novel is rather lovely. Veselka’s turn of phrase is unique and I like how she renames people and things for a more fanciful feel: fetuses in utero become bellyfish, policemen are crickets, etc. It adds to the fact that the main character, Della, is not quite in sync with our world after a mental break she had when she was just out of graduate school. Since then, she has been living with her brother and his pregnant wife, imagining she hears explosions from the far off war while covering her walls in maps tracking self-immolation around the globe. After the bombs find their way to her city for real, she decides she wants to call in bomb threats of her own. For a little while, this thrills her, but that quickly fades. However, when someone actually starts bombing the buildings she’s threatening, the stakes are suddenly real.

However, even thought the prose was beautiful, I had some trouble grasping what the book was getting at occasionally. It seemed to be a novel criticizing not only consumer/American culture but also taking a hard stance on the extreme liberal movements against the corporate world. Della is the product of two parents who revel in the activist extremes, and her brother takes to the organizing and protesting angle with grace. But Della seems trapped in the liberal extremes–interested in their ideas, unhappy with their methods. But, all of this is buried behind a very unreliable and somewhat schizophrenic narrator.

Della is a woman with issues who does not see the world the way we do. And because her filter is so off-kilter, we cannot even tell how far off her world is from ours. Now, if we had an unreliable narrator, or a slightly differing world from ours, that’s one thing. Put the two of them together and it’s virtually impossible to tell what is real and what is not. Some people may enjoy this experience. I, however, found it off-putting. I would get distracted by how pretty the prose was and then realize I had no idea what the last three sentences even meant.

This is also the first book in a while were I felt the publisher could have done a much better job with the cover design and proofreading. The cover is unbalanced, with a title that is ridiculously sized and placed. And the amount of typos in the book is excessive. The worst section was two pages near the anti-climax where there were several typos together on facing pages. It makes me feel like they just missed proofreading those pages altogether.

Anyway, I think this book is worthwhile for an examination of the prose and structure, but, ultimately, it was a bit of a confusing disappointment.

I can't help but dislike this unbalanced and hard to read cover...

Bookish Ornaments

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If you are looking for a cute little stocking stuffer for your bookworm friends or need that special something for your own tree, this is it. A mini Chicago Manual of Style!

For the grammar nazi in you...

Don’t mind how small my tree is. The ornament ends up 3.5″ tall. Just makes my Charlie Brown sized tree look that much smaller! Anyway, it’s a very simple paper folding project and takes about five minutes to put together–so what’s stopping you?! Directions can be found here: Chicago Manual of Style Ornament.

Credit, of course, goes to the University of Chicago Press. Thanks guys!

Hazel Flash

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Remember all, when I post a prompt, I’d love to see what you come up with! Post in the comments or sent it to me to post if it’s too long…

When they handed it off to her, they weren’t sure what instructions they should give. It wasn’t like this had happened before, but it was moving, and so they knew something had to be done. They had tried to get doctors in time who might have known what to do, but labor had moved too quickly and now they were left with this little being that shivered and twitched.

Hazel wrapped the wrinkled and damp critter in one of the spare surgery sheets, snug but not too firm, as if it were any regular baby. Of course she knew it wasn’t normal. Nothing about that day had been normal.

She had been woken that morning by the air raid sirens. It took her a moment to realize that this wasn’t another drill–considering it was just 5am–and to drag herself out of bed and under her dressing table. She huddled there for a while as the power flickered on and off and she could feel a faint quiver in the earth. But things calmed down fairly quickly and the siren called an all clear. All in all, it was rather anticlimactic for her first real raid. It wasn’t until she had pulled herself out, used the bathroom, and was preparing to start her day that she remembered what the sirens meant. And she wondered who would be missing that day, whose names would scrawl down the leader board of casualties, tallied by city and state.

Hazel made it into work even earlier than usual, too wide awake from her abrupt start to the day to sit around at home and pretend to like the watery excuse for coffee that was all she could find at the stores. The tired old excuses about the coffee being needed for the national efforts was a cold comfort when trying to down a mug of the dirt flavored swill.

Once in the doors at Sacred Heart, she found that it was a good thing that she had gotten there early. It was barely 6 and the hospital was in full trauma mode. One of the emergency room nurses grabbed her arm and towed her to a makeshift sanitary station.

“Quick, scrub up. I know you’re an anesthesiologist, but we need to you to help triage.”

Hazel complied, running through the familiar motions as she took in the chaos. “What happened? Did an outage cause an accident? They take a bus driver?”

“You don’t know.” The other woman shook her head. “They didn’t take anyone. They brought some back.”

Hazel paused while drying her hands as her brain finally accepted what she was seeing. The people lying in beds all around the emergency waiting area were there, but wrong. They all seemed, well, the only way she could think to describe it was out of focus, almost as if their bodies were no longer in symmetry. She shivered as she realized they weren’t making a sound–the only noise was the clatter of carts and the rapid fire patter of the doctors and nurses as the tried to figure out whether they were all even still alive. There seemed to be some dispute over the matter.

“Where did they go?” Hazel murmured. “Does anybody know?”

The other nurse finished washing again and pulled on a fresh set of gloves. “They aren’t talking. We’re not even sure they can. Go start at the other side of the room, see if you can get responses from them.”

“How many are there?”

“They just keep coming in.” And she left Hazel on her own.

It wasn’t five minutes before Hazel found the pregnant woman. She seemed unmarked, unlike the rest of the people there. Everything was in its proper place and looked about as symmetrical as nature had intended. As Hazel checked her vital signs, she saw the ripple of a contraction convulse the woman, followed not a minute later by another.

“Doctor!” She hollered over the chatter of the other care-givers in the room “I need a Doctor! This one’s in labor!”

Hazel quickly checked under the woman’s sheet, wondering briefly at the fact that all of the people appeared to have come back naked. The woman was nearly fully dilated, but was not responding to any of the woman’s attempts to get a response. This was going to be a difficult delivery if the woman wasn’t responsive enough to push.

A doctor finally appeared at her side. “How long?”

“Her contractions are too close for comfort, and she’s nearly dilated, but she’s not responding at all.”

“Big surprise, none of them are.” He gave the woman a quick once over. “Alright, let’s get her into one of the operating rooms, see how this goes.”

They rolled the woman into one of the open theaters. Thankfully, they hadn’t figured out what was wrong with most of the reappearance cases to even begin to work on them. The doctor called upstairs for an ob-gyn and then got to work setting up a birthing table. They got the woman over and propped up, her contractions coming almost without pause at this point.

And she still gave no indication that she was aware of anything going on around her. But, despite Hazel’s concerns about the woman being able to help push, the delivery itself was fairly routine. It wasn’t more than a half hour from the time they got her into the delivery room till the time she had pushed out the afterbirth and once again lay still.

The delivery room had become crowded with staff, a good portion of their jobs in the emergency room now taken over by governmental doctors setting up quarantine rooms and sealing everyone into the building, including all the ambulance drivers and technicians who had brought in the reappeared.

The doctor turned to the crowd of sightseers with a bundle in his arms, obviously flailing arms and legs, but still not making a sound. No one would take it from him and he needed to go back to making sure the woman was alright after the birth, so Hazel stepped forward. She held out the folded over sheet she had found on one of the side table and he gently placed it in her arms.

It was too small, really. Probably only about 7 months all told, but it was robustly alive. As she wiped away the birth matter, it’s skin glowed an almost too-healthy pink. It seemed to have all its fingers and toes, things seemed to be where they were supposed to, but it wouldn’t cry out. It was the first live birth that Hazel had attended, but she thought for sure that babies were supposed to start crying in their first few breaths in clean air.

She laid it down on the mother’s old gurney which was still in the theater and dragged a stool over to sit and watch over it. It looked like a healthy, if small, baby girl. Hazel glanced over as the voices around the mother became frantic and machines started crying a warning tone.

The flat-line tone sounded and there was wild cursing, shouted questions about bleeding and tachycardia. Eventually they quieted down and pulled the sheet over the nameless mother.

Hazel turned her attention back to the child in front of her to find it had opened it’s eyes. They were a wild, bright green, more vibrant than eyes had any right being. She hiccoughed and then sighed, turning her head slightly to nuzzle against Hazel’s arm beside her.

Hazel wasn't sure what to do when they handed her the child.

Writing Prompt #2

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Our prompt for this week:

Below is one of several pictures that will be appearing over the next few weeks; they were found and purchased from a shady antique store under a bridge in Seattle. What is the story behind this photo? According to the ornate handwriting on the back, this is Hazel. Hazel, meet your biographers…

What is she thinking?


Did You Know Twain Wrote a Murder Mystery?

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I had no idea, but Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) wrote a murder mystery. Kind of. It’s titled A Double Barrelled Detective Story and it is a novella in which there are two unique revenge stories and he makes great fun of Sherlock Holmes. It’s structured around letters written by a young man to his mother as he tries to track down his father who was quite the scoundrel.

Beautiful embossed red cloth, and I love the quote.

It was a unique little tale and did not take much time at all to read, but I was particularly struck by the beauty of the original printing. The red cloth cover with the fancy gold embossing is a pleasure to hold. And that quote is something else–“We ought never to do wrong when people are looking.” It epitomizes a lot of the story in a one sense, but it subverts it in another. The murder (which doesn’t even take place until about 2/3 of the way into the story) is covered up explicitly by disguising the setup for the murder with regular actions in front of Sherlock Holmes. And it would have worked, too, if it wasn’t for the meddling kid and his super-human tracking abilities. Sherlock Holmes had gone on the completely wrong path…

But the beauty of the book doesn’t stop at the cover. Take a look at these gorgeous end pages. They make sense as the majority of the story takes place in mountainous gold mining camps. I was wondering if I could take a page out of this book and create end pages for my novel that are cascades of falling letters…or stamps…

Endpages depicting the forest and mountains around the mining camp.And the pages themselves are gorgeous. They all have a red frame with an accent in the corner. It was a two color job, which must have gotten expensive in 1902 because that meant they had to run each page through the press twice. But just look at how pretty it is! And I love the little annotations in the margin there. They run throughout the book and there are up to three on a page. Sometimes they were simply a note on the text and at other times the way they were phrased was a snarky bit of commentary.

Look at all the gorgeous detail on the page...

And there were several stunning plates throughout the book. The detail and clarity of each of them was just astounding. If you can’t read the caption, this one is, “He proceeded to lash her to a tree.”

The plates in this book were gorgeous, here is "He Proceeded to Lash Her to A Tree"

Anyway, an amusing little story, but a gorgeous presentation. This is a true gem of Twain’s that I didn’t even know existed until last month. It’s worth it to read a copy (it’s available in modern paperback and for the Kindle) but if you can get your hands on one of the 1902 printings, that’s even better.

The Aftermath of Our Decisions

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With a title like Aftermath, one might expect Scott Nadelson’s new short fiction collection to be full of tales of devastation and chaos. To some extent, this is true; each of the stories deals with hard emotional and physical realities, but the aftermath of the character’s decisions is not wholly dispiriting. Hope abounds in these tales–unlike Nadelson’s previous collections–and you are left with the impression that, regardless of the current story’s unhappinesses, things will get better. They have a chance for a happy and fulfilling life or love and it leaves you as the reader with a pleasant satisfaction.

I have been a fan of Nadelson’s since I picked up his first two short collections when I registered for a course of his in undergrad. I make it a habit to read an author’s work before working or speaking with them, which I think is only polite and it is advice that not enough people heed. I found myself pulled into the simple and evocative prose in a way that I hadn’t found before in realistic literary fiction. I was particularly interested in his work as his stories do a wonderful job of working within the Jewish American culture while remaining open and inviting to gentiles such as myself. I feel welcomed into the families and cultures of his stories and they are enriched by the depth and intimacy with which they are woven.

Nadelson’s first two works (The Cantor’s Daughter and Saving Stanley) were stunning in their own right, but Aftermath is definitely surpassing them as my favorite collection. Partly due to the more hopeful nature of the stories, but moreso for two particular stories that appear here: “If You Needed Me” and “Backfill.”

“If You Needed Me” is a Rashomon style telling of a grandfather that looses control of his car and accidentally sends it crashing through the wall of his daughter’s house while the grandchildren are watching Saturday morning cartoons. The varied viewpoints are handled with finesse; they each reveal just enough information and the change to the next viewpoint is seamlessly carried out. Not an easy task in a short work, but beautifully crafted here.

In “Backfill,” a rocky marriage and a bad construction assignment are playing havoc with Robert’s life and sanity. The junk filled old quarry that is the site he’s supposed to be preparing for overpriced McMansions is a wonderful scene to juxtapose against the failing relationship. The most powerful part, however, are the beautiful lines that close the story, and no, I’m not going to give them to you. Go read it!

While these two stories stood out in particular to me, all of the stories are expertly crafted and evoke a wide range of emotion. Definitely my favorite of Nadelson’s work thus far, though I’m now eagerly awaiting Nadelson’s collection of autobiographical essays due out in March of 2013 from Hawthorne Books!

Emotional devastation with just a dash of hopefulness...

Trash Flash

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If you decided to write on yesterday’s writing prompt, feel free to post your work below! Here’s a short flash piece I wrote on the topic of the darker side of the green movement…

Trash Flash

I checked my watch again, trying not to be obvious. The whole point was to blend until just the right moment. It was a thrill, not knowing who in the crowd was with us, who against us. Fingering the Guy Fawkes mask in my pocket reminded me that I was about to make a decision I couldn’t reverse. Once my data went out over the net, I was going to be labeled for life–but we had all agreed, this was a necessary demonstration.

The watch beeped and I pulled out the mask and put it on. It was useless against the medical scanners that littered the city, informing the populace of impending waves of rhinovirus or elevated sodium levels. They interacted with the biochips in your hand and sent you email updates on your blood pressure. The same biochips tracked your carbon footprint across the city and you were taxed for every kilowatt of energy you consumed. But it made us feel a little better, faceless youth to represent all of us.

I shrugged off the long jacket I wore to expose a dress made entirely of trash I had pulled out of the dump, the last things we hadn’t found a way to recycle or re-purpose. It’s mostly styrofoam packing peanuts sewn carefully on to trash bags. I thought it was rather stylish and set off the white and black mask well.

Our generation never had a choice. Our grandparents fucked up the world and our parents tried to fix it the best they knew how. No, that’s a lie. Our parents tried to fix it the best way that made money. Thus the biochips, and the medical scanners, and the children named after brands, the taxes and the industrial Roomba style ‘bots that are both street sweeper and air scrubber.

Out entire lives were monitored, measured, decided before we even cried our first breath. If you used too much electricity at work and overclocked your processor, you were likely unable to turn on your lights at home because you had exceeded your energy quota for the day. If you ate too many calories at breakfast, you would have to skip lunch. If you were backed up from all the regenerated soy protein you were fed in the cafeterias and hadn’t taken a shit in a day, you received an email informing you a prescription for laxatives had been placed for you at the local pharm’.

Around me, all of the youth my age in the square had ditched their coats and pulled out the masks. They were dressed in rags and take out food containers and duct tape. Someone set up a retro boombox and the song “Alice’s Restaurant” blared from the speakers. I had practiced the routine so often that I slipped into it effortlessly, all thirty of us moving in sync, working our way to the fountain (pouring out recycled rain and grey water) at the center of the square. We knew that all over the country, other kids were doing the same thing. When we reached the fountain, we started climbing until we were hanging off of it’s five tiers, the chlorinated water soaking our trash.

An alarm started beeping at the center of the fountain and its maintenance ‘bot came out to collect whatever rubbish had drifted into the basin. No one threw coins anymore…we didn’t use coins anymore. I sat at the top of the fountain, grinning beneath my mask and trying to remove some of the excess water from my hair. The adults stopped what they were doing, in their re-purposed fiber suits, some filming us with their phones, most standing idle for the show.

The song came to a stuttering end and segued into an electronic dubstep beat. I stood up and let out a yell, starting a cascade of noise and movement down the fountain. When the music hit a break, we froze until it hit the double time and went nuts, ripping at each other’s costumes–shreds of plastic and styrofoam and the odd bit of cloth dropping soddenly into the water or being flung at the observers, most of whom were now leaving as fast as they could. It was one thing to climb into a fountain. Another thing entirely to…they wouldn’t even be able to bring themselves to say it. Litter. We were littering, litterers, letting things fall were they may, unconcerned with the consequences of our actions, for once. Free.

They were bound up and restricted; their entire lives were dictated by their allotments of carbon and electricity and calories. They rationed everything so carefully. The few who were left standing around were on their phones now, calling the tip line about the youth committing horrific acts in the water in hopes that they might get a little extra in their rations next month for being conscientiousness citizens.

We were mostly bare now, stripes reddening our skin from the fingernails of people we had never met, the water getting cold around our ankles. When the music finally stopped, we scattered, some pausing to grab their coverings, others reveling in the freedom of the wind drying their skin.

I slipped off my mask and left it in the fountain and saw the one maintenance ‘bot choking on a particularly large piece of plastic. I pulled it out and dropped it on the ground and the ‘bot sped to the next piece of rubbish, trying to force it down into it’s overflowing trash receptacle. The whisper sounds of more ‘bots was getting louder and I watched five of the larger street sweepers come into the now empty square. Within minutes, all of the trash was gone and I was left sitting on the edge of the fountain, my recycled pop-bottle fiber coat wrapped around me to stop my shivering.

Anyone want a writing prompt?

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So, in an effort to spur my own creativity and to give all of you a reason to sit down and write now that NaNoWriMo is done, I’ve decided to give all of you a weekly writing prompt on Sunday morning. Nothing huge, nothing strenuous, just something fun to get your juices flowing and spur some new material. I, of course, will be joining you on this adventure, and I hope we can share some of it with each other.

So, for this first ever Sunday Writing Prompt (if you can come with something more witty, I’m all ears) try this on for size:

Green technology. It sounds like a great idea, it’s helping the environment and sustainability. But what dark sides could be lurking behind it? What future dystopias could emerge from its eventual dominance?

Happy writing!

Un Rêveur

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The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern was quite a fantastical adventure. I don’t want to classify it as fantasy because it feels too real. Too approachable. It felt as though one was truly wandering through a traditional circus, watching the sideshows, and asking yourself if it is really possible for a person to bend themselves in that direction.

Quick plot summary: two magicians (for lack of a better term) who have been competing through the ages are once again pitting their students against each other in an exhibition style competition. This time, the competition arena is a circus, Le Cirque des Rêves (Circus of Dreams), where Celia and Marco must create new attractions and tents, constantly trying to outdo the other. At the same time, we get glimpses into the lives of the magicians, a set of twins born into the circus during it’s premier, the founders and supporters of the circus, and a young boy named Bailey who is a Rêveur or a dreamer who loves and follows the circus.

What the magicians could not have known is that they picked two ideal competitors; they complement and challenge each other so perfectly that they fall in love. The tents that they create in the black and white circus are gifts for each other and they dream about escaping the game and spending the rest of their lives together, but only one can win the competition…

The Night Circus was a beautiful and engaging love story; love of a man and woman, love for the circus, for dreams, for life. Love of imagination and story.

And not once did it get trite or cliche. Since I spend a lot of time looking not only at a story, but at the writing, I must admit I was a trifle worried at times. But I was always pleasantly surprised at the treatment given to aspects that could easily become melodramatic. For instance, there were (I thought) three options to end the game. Either one of them loses or they somehow find a way to break the bonds tying them to the game. When the time came for the game to end, however, my reaction was, “Wait…Oh! Oh that’s good.”

I myself am definitely a Rêveur now; I fell in love with the circus and the people who create and live in it. If you are looking for a wonderfully satisfying fantastical love story, then this is the next book to put on your list.

I have the sudden urge to wear only black and white with a red scarf...

The Regulars are on the March!

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I thought I’d take a short break from writing to share a recent sewing project of mine and my mother’s. Together, we were working a Girl Scout event here in the city that involved nearly 200 girls wandering around with GPS’s attempting to find the history geocaches where volunteers like us were waiting with a bit of history and team building exercises.

Well, those of you who know us, know we don’t do things half measure. So when mom got the assignment at the Paul Revere monument on the Prada in the North End, we decided we wanted to do something special. Thankfully, the weather cooperated enough that these outfits were actually pleasant most of the time.

We were high class women, hiding from our loyalist men and helping the rebellion.

We started with this pattern and, of course, mixed and matched the actual bits to our satisfaction. And yes we’ve got petticoats, and no, we don’t have corsets. We do each have mop caps and kerchiefs, and I made two aprons but Mom decided not to wear hers for the occasion.

When the girls arrived, they were given a nutshell version of the actual events of that evening, trying to dispel some of the more common myths. No, Revere wasn’t the only rider, nor were there just three. There were a lot of people out riding about awakening people once Revere and Co. got them started. Also, they would never have shouted the British were coming as they were all British. Instead, they declared “The Regulars are on the march!” or “Town-born turn-out!” Much more accurate.

Anyway, the reason I’m telling you all this is, of course, the justify the use of this next picture, which is us with stick ponies.

Our horses even galloped and neighed...which once the girls found out, we couldn't shut up.

The girls’ task after their history lesson was to organize a relay around the Prada to alert the towns. It was quite hilarious and fun.

All told, I think there was about 16 hours worth of work between the two of us to sew two dresses, aprons, caps, kerchiefs, and petticoats as well as one green velvet cape (I already had my black one). Not too shabby, though it would have been way worse had we stuck to period and done it by hand.

And the parting shot: Paul Revere Fan Girl

I just can't believe I'm actually at his monument! He's such a pillar of history, a true paragon, a man above all others...

Cause who doesn’t swoon over a man who helped ignite the revolution?