Ghost Dance (Flash Fiction)

Carrot Ranch Congress of Rough Writers prompt, November 18, 2015: In 99 words (no more, no less) write dance into your story.

Footprint paranormal dot com.jpg

Insomnia, what’s new. Still homeless. For soothing she pulls out her iPod, with some precious charge, wondering what song will shuffle up.

Johnny Cash. She is up, dancing around her sad, cold little squat. The guitars are a steady thrum, Johnny’s voice a rich rumble, ringing in her ears. Time slips, and it’s not her own feet anymore. She’s a little girl, and her father is dancing her around while she stands on his feet.


The song and the magic end, her eyes open. Those aren’t her footprints on the gritty floor. They’re too big, and she’s wearing socks.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín (Book Review)

The Testament of MaryThe Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I am, with full intent and forethought, not Christian, for reasons I won’t go into, although I do believe Jesus lived and had much to teach us. Call me a heretic; I don’t mind.

I am not surprised to see that people are not pleased by this book, specifically with Mary’s sentiment that the redemption of the world at the cost of her son’s life “was not worth it.” What mother wouldn’t feel that way? Of course she was certain it was all a mistake, a show, a construct. I personally am pleased with this glimpse of a human, non-deified Mary, her anguish and guilt, her blissful memories of her son’s childhood, her grief and solitude as she waits patiently for her own death.

At 81 pages I read it in about two hours. The use of language is elegant, the reality stark. A beautiful little book.

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2016 Reading Challenge

I know it’s early but I can’t wait. I read incessantly, and most of the time I feel not one whit of guilt for it, but having a formal challenge makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something.

“Book Worm” by Craig Sunter, Flickr/Creative Commons license.

1. A funny book.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman. I’d never imagined this as a funny book before, but it’s right there on all of the lists, and I’ve laughed my way through the movie and live performances. I hope this is another case where I love the book even more.

2. A banned book.

This book came to my attention when I was writing a post for Banned Books Week, and happened to read about the Tennessee mother who thinks she has the right to decide what everybody’s children should be allowed to read, not just her own: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.

Because you can.

By the way, ignoramus Tennessee mom, when you make a big kerfuffle about something, you just draw attention to it. This book might never have blipped my radar if not for you, so thank you.

3. A book with more than 500 pages.

I haven’t gotten around to this one yet, so it’s time: The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

4. A book with bad reviews.

Because sometimes books piss people off by jabbing at the comfort zone, and that can be a good thing: Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov.

5. A Pulitzer Prize-winning book.

From 2009, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. It’s also another exercise in stepping out of my comfort zone, since I’m picky about short stories.

6. A book that was published the year you were born.

As I pored over book lists, I was surprised at how many old favorites were on them. I guess it’s a good thing, to be a contemporary of so many good books.

I loved Lonesome Dove, book and movie both, so that will be a hard western genre act to follow. It’s possible Elmore Leonard can do it, with Hombre.

7. A book based on a true story.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Just deciding to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, with no experience and no preparation, because your life is completely wrecked — that’s the kind of thing I’d do if I wasn’t a chickenshit at heart. Although there was the time I was frustrated with life and took off barefoot for San Francisco for dinner with a man I barely knew, and almost got knifed on the Embarcadero. I guess that’s close. I learned my lesson: Wear shoes.

8. A play.

Let’s go with a classic: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams.

9. A book based on/turned into a television show.

I suspected this one would be difficult, as I’m not a fan of most television. Scanning the list of books on Goodreads, I saw I’d read pretty much everything on it: Sookie Stackhouse, A Song of Ice and Fire, Madeline, Pride and Prejudice, Pippi Longstocking, even Outlander. The Walking Dead, more paranormal, forget it.

What I was really hoping to find was Firefly, alas.

But. Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard actually looks interesting.

10. A book by an author under the age of 30.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers. It looks like she may have done all of her best writing before 30, because after 30 she was preoccupied with horrible marriages and alcoholism and various degrees of suicide and having strokes. I’m not trying to be flippant. Tortured writers often produce the best stuff, and this title has been on my TBR list for a long time.

11. A book published a century ago.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Lost Continent looks interesting. My mom loves Burroughs.

12. A book set in the future.

Lately I’ve been catching up on a lot of the dystopian classics I’d never read. I want something a little more modern now, and I’ve already loved The Hunger Games and been underwhelmed by Divergent.

Final choice: I’m in the mood for more of Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk: Snow Crash.

13. A book with a love triangle.

It’s hard finding a list of such books that aren’t 100% romance (I dislike pure romance) without also being YA/paranormal. Not that I have anything against YA or paranormal as separate genres, but the whole teeny-bop vampire/werewolf thing needs to just stop now. Like an NA member admits to having used, I admit to having read the Twilight series — but not where anyone could see me doing it, and only after I’m rehabbed and clean. And it’s like former users have told me: you know you’re being stupid for trying it the first time, but you just have to see what all the fuss is about, and after that it’s not your fault because while it has no redeeming qualities whatsoever and is horribly bad for you, it’s still just that addicting. Twilight is about as much YA/paranormal/love triangle as I can take.

But this YA/paranormal stuff is all I can find!

Fine. I’m going with City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, just for the wild disparity in the ratings. Reviewers either love love love it or hate hate hate it. I’m intrigued by a book that can stir that much feeling, either way.

14. A book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit.


I adore The Iliad and all things Troy. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is described as an alternate take on the fall of Troy, from the point of view of Patroclus.

I was recently very disappointed by The Lost Sisterhood. If The Song of Achilles doesn’t turn out to be everything I want in a novel of ancient Greece, I’m going to be so pissed.

15. A book you own but have never read.

Many years ago I fell in love with The Bridges of Madison County (yes, I dislike the romance genre, but that doesn’t mean I dislike well-told love stories; big difference), so I bought a couple more books by Robert James Waller. A few years back I read and loved one of them, Puerto Vallarta Squeeze, but I’ve never gotten around to the other.

Reading challenges can be a good way to clear things out of TBR piles. For this category, I’m reading Waller’s Border Music. Finally.

16. A book by an author you haven’t read yet.

I’ve yet to read anything by Jodi Picoult. Nineteen Minutes got my attention, with the timely themes of teen dating violence, bullying, and mass shootings.

17. A popular author’s first book.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman. I’m qualifying this one, since Gaiman’s first published works were mini-series, graphic novels, comics, and television scripts. Also, his first published novel was a collaboration with Terry Pratchett. Stardust is his first published plain-old-novel novel, written solo.

18. A nonfiction book.

I don’t know why I’m fascinated with Mt. Everest, given that I’m not the slightest bit athletic and heights terrify me and I hate being cold, but there you have it. I’m choosing John Krakauer’s account of the 1996 Everest tragedy, Into Thin Air.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (Book Review)

LolitaLolita by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading Lolita was a foray into both the land of classic literature and the land of banned books. It is as difficult to review as it was to read. Nabokov was a genius with language in ways I can’t begin to understand, no doubt partly because he was trilingual (Russian, French, English) from childhood, no doubt partly due to his synesthesia. The literary references, word games, allegories and motifs are innumerable and I’m sure most of them went over my head. No, I probably don’t really get it, and I never will, because while the writing is gorgeous, the novel itself is too disturbing for me to read again.

The rich prose pulled me in, to fascinated horror as events unfolded. Our unreliable narrator seems perhaps not-so-unreliable: he paints a grim picture of himself throughout, acknowledging his own depravity, his compulsion and lurking and plotting, his madness, his crimes against the young Dolores Haze. At all times he fully admits he is a paedophile, vile and a danger to nymphets everywhere while at the same time professing his undying love. Part of Nabokov’s artistry lies in the reader’s understanding of Humbert’s love and Humbert’s suffering. The pinnacle of ecstasy is synonymous with the abyss of despair. The brilliance of this book is that I can come away feeling sympathy for a monster and not a little impatience with Lolita herself, which of course is completely bassackward, and all of it leaves me with that uncomfortable squirmy feeling in my stomach.

One lesson here is that maybe it doesn’t matter what you write about so much as how you write about it. This is one of the things art is for: to pull us out of our comfort zones, to view the world through another lens. I can’t say I exactly enjoyed this book, but I do appreciate the experience of reading it.

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We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (Book Review)

We Need New NamesWe Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“MotherLove is singing out there. Nobody ever sings like that in Paradise, voice swinging like ripe fruit you can pick and put in your mouth and taste its sweetness. When you hear MotherLove, you know that her shebeen is now open for people to go and drink.”

Such a bittersweet tale, such evocative writing! Bulawayo does one of the better jobs I’ve seen of telling a story through the eyes of a child. Through Darling, we see that the horrible things — the hunger, sickness, poverty, political upheaval and paramilitary violence — are also the things that are home. When they are part of your daily landscape, they just are. When Darling leaves Zimbabwe to live with her aunt in America she discovers that Paradise, isn’t really.

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Paris, Ryder Trucks, and Why You Really Are the Boss of Me #1000Speak

These past several months at work I was plagued by someone with no authority constantly telling me how to do my job. Once or twice a week, I’d get an email from this woman telling me that I hadn’t done such-and-such a thing. She is a private contractor, not an a fellow employee and certainly not my superior, with zero training in what my job duties are. Irritating as hell, oh yes. “Bite me” (or worse) I’d mutter every time I received one of those emails. Delete. Ignore.

This went on for months, and it grew. Her emails to me became more terse and condescending. Tired of it, I was figuring out ways to replace her with another contractor. Until I had a flash of inspiration, and checked something out. Turns out, she wasn’t being paid by my company in a timely manner. Payment for her services is not part of my job duties at all. But she thought the failure was connected to a function I routinely perform, assumed I must not be performing it correctly, and started trying to tell me what to do.

I did a little investigation, confirmed my diagnosis of the problem, and put her in touch with the office that handles private contractor reimbursement. Problems solved. She’s being paid as she should, and I don’t have someone trying to order me around.

Yes, she made incorrect assumptions, that her payment issues were my fault. But she’s not the only one. I incorrectly assumed that she was being an insufferable know-it-all. Both problems were compounded when neither of us communicated what our issues really were: “Gimme my money!” “You’re not the boss of me!” What it came down to was that each of was being threatened, and neither of us was responding appropriately, not solving and even escalating the situation. She could have lost a source of income, and I could have lost the services of a contractor who performs well.

Incorrect assumptions abound. Our only defenses are to think about what the problem really is, communicate what it is, discover the facts as we can, and do our best to find equitable solutions. When we don’t, we lose.

I am reminded of this in the wake of the ISIS attacks on Paris and the flood of pro- and anti-refugee and pro- and anti-Muslim sentiments everywhere.

No, I’m not going to talk (much) about the issues of refugees or Islam, per se. But oh my, the fur is flying, along with insults and xenophobic propaganda on a level with that perpetrated against the Jews by Nazi Germany. Social media have become cesspools. You’re a racist hate-mongerer. Yeah? Well, you’re a bleeding-heart terrorist-lover. It sucker-punched me, though, when I saw ugliness being posted by people I thought I knew, people I hold in high regard, people I love. People that I believed thought like I did. I was surprised at how much it upset me, as if what’s going on in the world wasn’t upsetting enough. I’ve unfollowed a few people, and a few have probably unfollowed me. They’re probably as disappointed in me as I am in them.

And what’s being solved? Nothing.

I took my upset to a group of bloggers I am privileged to know, souls more contemplative and level-headed than I. I listened to their words, and read their words. I stepped back from the shitstorm and allowed things to just percolate in my mind and my heart, and I was able to gain some perspective.

And I remembered the non-boss trying to boss me around. What had I learned?

When we operate in the face of threat, we don’t think clearly. Yes, people reacting from a position of xenophobia and hatred are operating from fear, but so am I. I am also afraid of more violence being perpetuated against my own country, whether from terrorists disguised as refugees, or from terrorists already hiding here, or from someone out there somewhere else who decides to fly another plane into another skyscraper, decides to detonate another explosive-laden Ryder truck by an office building. But I am also afraid of what will happen to us as a race if we don’t do the right thing and help our fellow humans when they need it. I am afraid of how horribly divided this country is becoming on issues that are central to our collective identity. That, I think, is the biggest victory the terror machine can have, when they drive a spike into the collective soul of America, turning us against each other and getting us to do their work for them.

I am reminded not to assume I know what others are thinking, just as they should not make such assumptions about me. I am reminded to avoid labels, especially when tags like “conservative” and “liberal” carry more invective than they ever have.  I am reminded that each of is coming from a different, secret place with dreams and nightmares no one else can truly know. I am reminded that actions do not always reflect motives. I am reminded that we all have feet of clay at times, myself included, perhaps even now. I am reminded that when I despise others for their thoughts as they despise me for mine, I am being as big a bigot as they are.

I am reminded most of all that the world is hurting, and all of this conflict, words and bombs, is symptomatic of massive change and healing that are essential if we are to survive and evolve, as individuals and as a species.

That won’t start until we start having real dialogue, using facts and reason instead of generalization and speculation and outright lies. When I allow you to be the boss, and you allow me to be the boss, we work together. When we work together, we stop yelling at each other and start listening. Listen to the fear, the worry, the pain, and treat them the only way they can be treated – with compassion, love, healing.

Huddled Refuge (Flash Fiction)

Carrot Ranch Congress of Rough Writers prompt, November 11, 2015: In 99 words (no more, no less) write about a place of comfort that is a refuge.

cindy47452 Flickr/Creative Commons

It’s been a long day, selling newspapers on the corner. Cold temperature, cold people. “Get a job,” she kept hearing. Hello, I’m trying, and meanwhile I’m hawking newspapers, not dealing drugs or breaking into your house.

Back at the dank abandoned house she did break into, she struggles with damp shoelaces and slides into her sleeping bag fully clothed.Troubles whuffs and curls up beside her.

Pretend there’s a campfire. She’s not homeless; she’s camping. Camping is temporary, voluntary, fun. Arms around the warmth of the dog’s neck, sleeping bag slowly warming, she drifts into the haven of sleep.

Stieg Larsson, the PLR, and Money-Grab Books in General (Book Review: The Girl in the Spider’s Web)

The Girl in the Spider's Web (Millennium, #4)The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is another book I hesitated over reading. With this and with Go Set a Watchman, the biggest issue at the outset was my own curiosity. More books from writers of the caliber of Harper Lee and Stieg Larsson! But I’d read of the controversies, and I didn’t want to put any money into the pockets of the unscrupulous. I figured I’d just borrow them from the library. Problem solved.

Go Set a Watchman was absolutely no To Kill a Mockingbird, but I could at least tell that it had been written by Harper Lee. I could also tell it was not a finished product. Whether she really did want it published or was taken advantage of my money-hungry people newly in charge of her affairs, we’ll probably never know.

Moving on to The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Taking the novel on its own merits, it’s not bad. It’s decently written and decently plotted, and it kept me entertained and turning pages. It was no The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but even Stieg Larsson couldn’t pull that off twice. The problem is that Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist are Stieg Larsson’s characters, not David Lagercrantz’s. Lagercrantz does not have the intricate knowledge, the feel, the love for Blomkvist and Salander that their creator did. That’s not his fault. I’m not bashing Lagercrantz as a writer, and I have not read any of his original work, but in this book, it feels like Larsson’s style is being imitated. It is not exact, which is of course impossible, because this isn’t Larsson’s writing. It’s just his characters and his world.

So although I didn’t completely adore either book, I was still feeling a bit smug about satisfying my curiosity without ringing up any sales for the unethical. Then I remembered my disc jockeying days. Way back when, artists and record companies sent their singles to radio stations for free, to promote their music and generate public interest and sales, and DJ’s could play whatever they wanted. I even used to take in my records from home, to complete a particular set I thought would sound good. Many years later, back at work for the same station, I learned that now royalties are paid based on an estimated number of times a song would be played given a computer-generated rotation, and for that reason we couldn’t take requests, couldn’t come up with our own playlists, certainly couldn’t bring records from home. So much for the artistry of the radio disc jockey. Yes, I understand the principle of intellectual property. But still. If you want to know why broadcast music radio sucks these days, that’s one of the reasons right there.

That made me wonder if authors collect royalties on their books in library collections, so I Googled it. I learned about the PLR, or Public Lending Right, that provides for royalty payments to authors in several countries, including Scandinavia and the United States, for books owned by libraries for public borrowing. Sometimes it’s a flat fee per book, sometimes it’s a pittance every time the book is checked out, but either way it’s capped at not very damn much, certainly not compared to actual book sales and possible movie rights. It’s still something though.

Yes, it is perfectly possible to continue a series after the creator’s death. With the Wheel of Time books, Robert Jordan knew he was dying and might not live to finish writing the series. He had enough drafted and outlined that another writer could finish them, and that was his express wish. Brandon Sanderson is not Robert Jordan, and he didn’t try to be. I appreciated that. He had a tall order to fill and he did an admirable job, bringing a satisfying close to a series I loved and that its creator wanted his readers to have.

I’ve seen nothing about what V.C. Andrews’ wishes might have been about her heirs hiring a ghostwriter to write under her name after her death, but it’s very unsavory that the ghostwriting was kept more or less secret until that whole nasty tax evasion thing put it into the public eye. The nature of the Internet makes it pretty much impossible to trick the reading public into buying another Stieg Larsson book because they don’t know he died, and it’s widely known that Larsson’s estranged father and brother commissioned Lagercrantz to write this book. It was written from scratch, with no access to Larsson’s notes, and — this is where I finally get angry — very likely against what Larsson’s wishes would have been.

And that’s the only way I can look at these now, with both Harper Lee and Stieg Larsson, that these new books are about nothing more than cashing in. Making money. Not art. Money.

I now apologize to both Harper Lee and Stieg Larsson. No more money-grab books for me. They leave a bad taste that has nothing to do with the writing.

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Toward Freezing (Flash Fiction)

Carrot Ranch Congress of Rough Writers prompt, November 4, 2015: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a frozen story. Is the weather the source of freezing or is a character frozen by emotion or lack of it? It can also be a moment frozen in time. What does it reveal?


She wakes resentfully with the realization that winter has arrived. The calendar may say autumn; the weather gets the last word.

She  shivers and sits up.  Thin light fingers around the boards on the windows. Troubles raises his head and whines hopefully: “Kibble? “ At least she can’t see her breath. Yet. But it’s November. The heavy leaf coverage, her camouflage as she sneaks in and out, is nearly gone.

You can have a sleeping bag, insulating pad, the comfort of a dog beside you on the floor. But when you’re homeless and squatting, you can’t have warmth. Not truly.