Book Review: THE SNOW LEOPARD by Peter Matthiessen, and THE GLASS BEAD GAME by Herman Hesse

It must have been an act of supreme universal goodness that delivered each of these books into my hands at differently similar times when I needed them for differently similar reasons.

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen I half-borrowed, half-stole from my sister almost two years ago when I was re-embarking on a journey I began almost a decade ago: a journey into an understanding and perhaps undertaking of Zen Buddhism. I’ve flirted with Zen, and more vaguely with meditation, for ten years now, never with much persistence or dedication. The Snow Leopard leapt back into my life shortly after I had picked up a dense but rewarding book called Essays In Zen Buddhism from a local used bookstore. With these two books in hand, between February and May of 2015, I reconvened learning about Buddhism, an experience I’d nearly forgotten since my freshman year in college.

snow-leopard

Speaking of “dense but rewarding,” The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse perfectly fits that description. It similarly came into my life from the hands of a friend. Gifted to me in exchange for my promise that I would pass it along after I finished, just as my friend was doing right then, I agreed to take the book with me as I traveled from California to Oregon in the hopes of making my new home there.

Both books are about the struggle of two men who devote their lives to introspection, meditation, and the cultivation of one’s spiritual garden, to understand this spirituality in the context of a worldly experience. Both books are, in some sense, about the struggle to achieve enlightenment on the top of the mountain, and retain it even as the holy man descends down into and is corrupted by the town, the village, and the sweat, rot, and dirt of humanity.

The Snow Leopard is an outward and inward travelogue, recorded from Matthiessen’s intricate journal entries about his unforgettable trip to the heart of Nepal. Along with his friend the scientist George Schaller, Matthiessen ventures into an age-old civilization, untouched by modern conveniences, at Crystal Mountain in the region of Shey, a tiny village nestled above 17,000 feet in the Himalayas. Schaller, or G.S. as Matthiessen refers to him, is there to study and observe the mating habits of the extremely rare blue sheep. Matthiessen has decided to accompany his friend in pursuit of a more spiritual quest: to meet the Lama of Shey who lives at Crystal Mountain, and seek enlightenment in the frigid, rarefied airs of the mountains. The two men dream of seeing the even-rarer snow leopard while they’re there, which becomes a metaphor for Matthiessen’s quest for enlightenment.

Although Matthiessen makes a great show to himself and to the reader of not expecting anything, of not expecting to achieve this spiritual triumph while on this journey, it’s clear throughout that he is hopeful, that he is dedicated and earnest in his quest, and that it is this very earnestness that will hold him back from true achievement.

 

The Glass Bead Game depicts the entire life and times of a fictional man named Joseph Knecht, an inhabitant of a future world where an entire city, called Castalia, has been set aside for a monastic-style dedication to the life of the mind. Hesse simultaneously mocks the biographical genre with his overly-detailed, obsequious biographical style, while also critiquing both fascism and the descent into pop-culture journalism he saw in contemporary culture. But it is also the careful study of a fictional man whose growth and development is mirrored in so many of Hesse’s other works, and the book morphs towards the end into this second kind of novel.

At the center but also the periphery of the whole story is the Glass Bead Game itself, whose rules are never fully explained, but which is described as a synthesis of many different kinds of studies, from math to music to physics to literature to philology and more. The Glass Bead Game, which Knecht excels at and dedicates his Castalian life to, is depicted simultaneously as the pinnacle of academic synthesis and a beautiful, almost spiritual exercise to witness and participate in, but also as a symbol of the tipping point into futility, uselessness, and moral decay.

The tension between the monastic/academic and the political/worldly lifestyles are reflected throughout, as Knecht as a young schoolboy is set up as the defender of Castalia, those hallowed grounds where the life of the mind is cultivated intensely and purely, without distraction. His antagonist is Plinio, the son and heir of a wealthy politician, who argues that the life of the mind must only be used for the benefit of the worldly, and that the cloistered academics at Castalia are spoiled and dependent upon those who they disdain as uncultured and unrefined. As Knecht’s “biographers” emphasize Knecht’s lifelong admiration for Eastern cultures and his dedication to meditation as a key aspect of his academic lifestyle, it becomes clear that Hesse sees spiritual meditation as a way to bridge the gap between the worldly and the monastic. Throughout the book, Knecht is described as having certain “awakenings” which could be compared to Zen moments of satori, awakening to the true meaning of his life.

Towards the end of his book, when Knecht has come as far as he can within the world of Castalia and the Glass Bead Game, and perceives himself to have achieved the pinnacle of his development within this world, he begins to experience another awakening, which leaves him thirsty for interaction with the outside world, a society he has barely known since his early childhood. He reconnects with his old friend Plinio, relinquishes his post as Magister Ludi of the Glass Bead Game, and departs the city of Castalia with hardly a backwards glance for the opportunity to put everything he’s learned into practice in the outside world. The master has achieved enlightenment, in other words, and seeks to descend back to the world with lessons and wisdom to impart to the people there.

The story of Joseph Knecht of Castalia ends shortly thereafter, and three short stories begin. Supposedly they were written by Knecht in his younger days, imagining three of his previous lives in various forms and disparate parts of the world. These three lives show Knecht always living as something of a holy man, from a Rainmaker in a primitive tribe to a penitent confessor on the outskirts of society to a young prince deprived of his rightful rule who opts instead for a life of quiet meditation.

Somehow, despite having started The Snow Leopard almost a year and a half before The Glass Bead Game, my experience of these two books converged onto the same timeline. I picked up The Snow Leopard again just two months ago while hiking in Joshua Tree National Park, when I was already halfway through with The Glass Bead Game. I began reading them simultaneously and eventually ended up finishing them both on the same day this past weekend, on a lazy Sunday morning in bed. Although the books are worlds apart in style and structure, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the similarities between the two narrators, both brilliant men thirsty for spiritual awareness but ultimately unable to find contentment and give up their worldly ambitions and attachments. Torn between two worlds and two lifestyles, Knecht’s various incarnations always seem to find a way to true spirituality, but not without great cost and some form of worldly self-sacrifice. Matthiessen, similarly, finds moments of enlightenment in his meditations at Crystal Mountain, but struggles to retain that inner peace on the journey back down. He is irritable, impatient, and unhappy to be leaving, unable to revel in the simple joy of the moment he found in the high snows. Too late, Matthiessen realizes that one of the sherpas who accompanied them throughout the journey was the quiet mentor in patience and presence he needed all along.

Both books were humbling and inspiring. Both are incredible examples of writing prowess, in entirely different styles. Both are living proof that you can seek for a lifetime and still not truly find.

I’d recommend The Snow Leopard to anyone who is a thinking, feeling person, as it is a magificent piece of writing that I would think would be accessible to anyone who meets the above description. I’d recommend The Glass Bead Game more carefully, as it can be austere and unapproachable at times, although there’s a vein of humor that runs throughout, which gives it a little more lightness and ease. It can be overly academic, which is great if you’re into that kind of thing, but vastly less so if not. The second half of the book, in my mind, vastly made up for the first, but the first half is necessary to tell the story properly. Only read if you’re prepared for an in-depth, challenging journey that might take you months to work through.

What To Drink With What You Read (Political Resistance Edition)

Are you a #NastyWoman who has recently joined the Resistance movement against Trump’s fascist administration? Are you a long-time political activist with a renewed call to duty? Are you an ordinary citizen trying to figure out how to turn your Facebook activism into political activism?

Well, you’ve come to the right place. In this post, I recommend five fantastic books for new activists and experienced organizers alike, along with drink pairings for each one, because God knows we all need a stiff one about right now. Just remember to stay hydrated and don’t get too tanked, because self-care is critical to your involvement in the Resistance, and tomorrow your skills might be needed to protect the unprotected. Sit back, crack open that book, and indulge with a hefty pour!

[DISCLAIMER: This post is not intended to be an actual pairing guide. Please do not take these pairings at face value – they are not necessarily meant to be consumed.]

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches – Audre Lorde

Pairing: Grain alcohol

“What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?” – Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider

Although Audre Lorde wrote many books of poetry, Sister Outsider is widely recognized as her most defining contribution to feminist thought. As a black woman and a lesbian, Lorde’s work pioneered a new critical social theory that sought to use different identities as a form of empathy and political unity rather than division, which would in turn contribute to the liberation of all women from patriarchal society. Pair Lorde’s seminal work on intersectional feminism with a drink that is as tyrannical to your body as oppression – so tyrannical, in fact, it will literally kill you. Coincidentally, so will oppression.

Resistance – Agnes Humbert 

Pairing: Alt-Right White Supremacist Tears

The thrilling account of a natural leader who was an integral part in the formation of the French Resistance movement in the immediate aftermath of the Nazi invasion of France, Resistance tells of one woman’s dedicated pursuit of truth and freedom in the face of dire consequences and horrific conditions. Humbert’s story begins after the Nazi invasion as one of the key organizers of the publication and dissemination of subversive pamphlet Resistance, which was meant to keep the truth alive and circulating in Paris in spite of Nazi propaganda. When later she was sent to a German labor camp, Humbert, like Penelope, Odysseus’ wife in The Odyssey, opted to sabotage all the work she was forced to do. Pair Agnes’s extraordinary story with a rich and contemplative brew made from the horrid, resuscitated Nazi-era philosophy, now carried on by extremist white men who rebrand themselves as “Alt-Right” and “white nationalist.” These terms try to hide the fact that they’re STILL literally espousing the extermination of an entire ethnic group. (Multiple, actually.) Give one of them an alt-handshake, harvest their tears, and remember Agnes’ fierce devotion to truth and justice even in the face of incarceration, torture, sickness, and tragedy as you drink.

Freedom Is A Constant Struggle – Angela Davis 

Pairing: Tap Water

Speaking out passionately and persistently since the early 1970s against such diverse yet interconnected themes as racism, sexism, the prison-industrial complex, capitalism, the military-industrial complex, and more, Angela Davis contributed to and helped define a generation’s worth of resistance theory. As one of the honorary co-chairs for the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, it’s clear that her resounding influence still rings on today. Freedom Is A Constant Struggle is a connecting work that analyzes similar themes of resistance from the Jim Crow south to South African Apartheid to the Ferguson riots to the plight of the Palestinians. Most recently, Davis has traveled to Flint, Mich. to express solidarity with the citizens there who have been deprived of clean water for over three years now. This book, her most recent full-length publication, updates her theories on the interconnectedness of oppression and the need for total liberation. Pair this incredible book with fresh, clean water straight from your tap as a way to acknowledge your privilege and remind yourself that not everyone has the same privileges you do – and that we can all do better at supporting the marginalized communities in our home country and in our world.

Strength To Love – Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Pairing: A vegan milkshake

Honor the sit-ins, bus strike, and marches conducted with endless perseverance and dedication inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the people who worked with him, as you sip on a delicious beverage that simultaneously celebrates the liberation of all beings from oppression. While I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know as much about MLK as I should (his writings are on this year’s to-read list), I know that he fought long and hard for the right of all people, whatever color of skin, to enjoy equal privileges and protections under the law and in civil society. While MLK wasn’t a vegan (although his son, Dexter, is) and I certainly won’t put words in his mouth by claiming he would be if he were alive today, I do think that celebrating a lifestyle that refrains from oppression of all kinds is a great way to celebrate MLK’s commitment to throwing off systemic oppression in our society.

An Indigenous Peoples’ History Of The United States – Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Pair With: A barrel of oil

A similar book in idea to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, this American Book Award winner retells American history from the perspective of the many tribes of Native Americans. Describing in vivid detail how Native peoples actively resisted the colonizing onslaught of white Americans, An Indigenous People’s History retells the American founding mythology from a new and illuminating perspective. As a part-Indian, a historian, and an activist in the international Indigenous movement for over forty years, Ortiz approaches the tale with an eye for the truth no matter how brutal, and with a sincere desire to amplify Native voices and stories. As the struggle continues today with such politicized projects as the Dakota Access Pipeline and the opening of Native lands for oil drilling, it’s more important than ever to understand our country’s oppressive and imperialist history. Read Ortiz’s brilliant retelling with a barrel of unrefined petroleum near at hand, and ask yourself, why would I want that shit near my water, in a drinking glass, or in my bathtub? And if I wouldn’t want it near me, why would anyone else?

So, there you have it! Five books for new activists and Resistance members, along with five quintessential drink pairings to enhance your appreciation for their lives and works. Get your hands on these books, start reading, and then get out there and start marching!

Four Ways to Ease the Transition from Writing Fiction to Non-Fiction And Vice Versa

Melk_-_Abbey_-_Library
The ideas in your brain could fill an entire library, amirite?

So you’re a writer. You’re creative, right? You’re multitalented, right? You’ve got loads of ideas spinning around that ol’ brain of yours, and you want to bring them all to fruition. Whether as short stories, poems, novels, or creative non-fiction, you’re a writer with a lot to offer, and it’s time to turn all those ideas into cash dolla dolla bills. Right?

Unfortunately, it isn’t always so easy. Fiction and non-fiction writing are different enough from each other that they might almost be separate crafts and separate industries. From writing your book to querying agents to getting published to coming up with a marketing plan, the process of publishing a novel is vastly different from the process of publishing a book of non-fiction. For example: it’s true that creative writing often requires research, but unless you’re writing military thrillers or historical fiction, the work is much less exacting than in a work of non-fiction. Rarely does fiction writing demand a high level of expertise – instead, it’s much more important that you be vivid in your descriptions, that you know your characters inside and out, and that you’re able to construct a compelling plot. Non-fiction, by contrast, requires research, exhaustive references, and, depending on the field you’re writing in, a lot of expertise. And while some of the writers who dominate the non-fiction bestsellers lists are also excellent at crafting sentences, great writing isn’t a prerequisite for a great book of non-fiction.

 

So what happens when you’re a novelist with a brilliant idea for a work of non-fiction – or a non-fiction author who’s ready to make the switch back into creative writing? Here are a few ways to get your head in the game as you prepare to enter your new field.

1. Whether switching to non-fiction or fiction, do your market research.

Before you start diving into your project with wild creative abandon, read some writer’s blogs, study the publisher’s marketplace, and attend a writer’s conference or two to learn a little more about your new field. Are vampire novels on the out and out? If they are, what are you going to do to make sure yours stands out – so you don’t waste a year of your life on a project no one is going to touch? Are self-help books selling particularly well right now? Then write quickly and pitch early and hard, so you don’t miss the trend. Are cookbooks going down in a flaming ball of fire because so many recipes are available online now? Maybe consider starting a blog to build your audience before you compile your neighborhood-famous recipes into a book to pitch it to agents. Doing your market research before diving heart and soul into a project will save you a lot of headache in the long run.

2. Read similar books in your new field.

An extension of the ‘do your market research’ theme, this is a critical stage of mental preparation before you jump feet first into a new project. No matter what happens, once your book is ready for publication, you’re going to need to know about the competition. If you’re pitching a book of non-fiction to agents, your book proposal will include a comprehensive analysis of competing titles in the field. If it’s a novel you’re pitching, you’re going to need to prove that your story has precursors in the field that have sold well, or that yours is a genre-busting tale that will redefine the market in a compelling way. And if you’re self-publishing, you’re going to need to know what to compare your book to. For instance, my dad is self-publishing his book on analyzing numerical models from a layperson’s perspective (called Painting By Numbers) , and he’s selling it as a modern update on the timeless bestseller How To Lie With Statistics. This is a great way to sell his book to professionals and consumers – by using a famous and bestselling book as a straightforward reference point. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, you’re going to need to familiarize yourself with your competitors in your new field.

3. Practice your new craft.

Writing a book on the historical significance of the Bay of Pigs in the Cold War is a totally different beast than writing a military thriller about the agents and government officials involved in the Bay of Pigs. If you’re getting into fiction for the first time since you took that creative writing class in college, start stretching and training your creative writing muscles by writing short stories. And if the last time you did any research was when you last tried to educate your friend-of-the-opposite-political-leanings on Facebook, it’s time to reacquaint yourself with your public library and get familiar with how to cite a reference. Practice by doing background research on your new subject and looking up how to cite each source. Write clever and witty summaries of each book you use in your research to work on your turns of phrase. Writing is writing, but fiction and non-fiction both call for different aspects and different skills.

4. Get familiar with how the process of publication differs from your old genre.

When seeking publication for a novel, you query agents with a letter and sometimes a plot synopsis or the first few chapters of your book, which you are expected to have completed and polished, nearly ready for publication, at the time of querying. With a non-fiction idea, you don’t have to have the whole book written – you just have to have a compelling book proposal, more like a business plan, that outlines the market need for your book and how you plan to sell it. If you’re coming from the non-fiction world, you might be tempted to start querying your new novel before it’s finished; don’t do that! In reverse, you might waste a lot of time writing your whole book, when an agent might look at your book proposal with interest, but only if significant changes are made. And if you’re self-publishing, your marketing plans are going to vary dramatically if you’re promoting a novel versus a book of non-fiction. A business-minded writer will start learning about all these differences before jumping into a new project in a new field.

Although it’s tempting to see fiction and non-fiction writing as more similar than they are different, it’s important to pay attention to the differences both in craft and in business. With a better awareness of how these two aspects of the publishing business differ, you’ll be set up for success when it comes time to dive into your project.

Writing As Political Resistance

On March 24, 1933, the Reichstag of the Weimar Republic passed the Enabling Act, which gave the German Cabinet the ability to enact laws that bypassed the Reichstag, essentially conferring dictatorial power upon Adolf Hitler.

On October 27, 1917, the October Revolution by the Bolshevik party established the Soviet government in Russia, a government that under the leadership of Josef Stalin would be responsible for the deaths of between ten and twenty million people through political executions, mass slaughter, and preventable famines.

When George Orwell published his dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949, he knew exactly how devastating a totalitarian government could be, especially if it were successful in controlling every arm of the media, because he had just seen it in action. Had technology been a little more advanced—had the internet been around—Hitler’s vision of complete control might have been realized. When Orwell was writing, the shadow of Nazism had passed, but the dark clouds of U.S.S.R. communism were gathering. By the time Orwell’s book was published, Stalin and Hitler together had already been responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people. His bleak vision of the future might have been fictional, but it was written as one of many possible realities that could have played out over the next forty years as the specter of totalitarianism spread to other nations across the world. In writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell was protesting the dictatorial actions of foreign leaders. It was also a call to action for ordinary citizens and powerful politicians to take up active opposition to authoritarianism. His book was an act of political resistance.

On December 18, 1865, Secretary of State William Seward proclaimed the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery on a constitutional level in the United States.

On July 2, 1964, almost a hundred years later, Lyndon B. Johnson ratified the Civil Rights Act, a piece of legislation that restored voting rights to African Americans and ended Jim Crow forced segregation on the basis of race, which, despite abolition, had pushed former slaves back down into servitude and subservience to their former white masters.

When Richard Wright published Native Son in 1940 in between these two critical dates, his portrayal of race relations in the northern city of Chicago devastated both white and African-Americans. His depiction of a young black man caught up in an inevitable web of racism, lies, violence, and guilt laid bare the systemic forces, both visible and invisible, that all black men and women were faced with at the time. Bigger Thomas was a fictional character who represented the struggle of black Americans at large. The publication of Wright’s novel was an act of political resistance that changed American race relations forever.

Writing is political. Orwell’s dystopian novel about a totalitarian government with perfect control over its citizens helped convince ordinary citizens in the Western world that authoritarianism must be resisted long before it ever got to that point, and that democracy had to be protected at all costs. Wright’s contemporary protest novel about a young man falling victim to forces of systemic racism helped convince Americans, especially white Americans, to act politically to end institutional discrimination on the basis of race. (Black Americans were already hard at work.)

Even writing that seems innocuous on its face is political. Harry Potter, a children’s/young adult series which is ostensibly about a boy with magical powers attending wizard school, doesn’t seem on its face like a political series. But look deeper into the narrative and you’ll find themes of political resistance, subversion, defending minorities and fighting discrimination, and combating evil that doesn’t always look, act, and talk like evil.

Even romantic comedies, such as Bridget Jones’ Diary or The Devil Wears Prada, which seem as far afield from politics as you can get, are political. They present a vision of romantic love that conform to or defy traditional notions of love. They define gender roles. They assign values to certain types of relationships, and they give cues as to when and how women and men should behave in their careers, in their friendships, and in their relationships.

Writing, by definition, is political.

Let’s get back to some important dates.

On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump was elected to the presidency of the United States of America.

On December 19, 2016, the electoral college confirmed the votes of the states and certified that Donald Trump will enter our nation’s highest office.

On January 21, 2017, he will be sworn in.

He brings with him a host of cabinet members who, taken together, have more combined wealth than the bottom one-third of America’s entire population. They range in personality from ignorant buffoon (Rick Perry) to white nationalist fascist (Steve Bannon). His platform consisted of little more than “Build A Wall,” “Lock Her Up,” “Drain The Swamp,” (ha ha, very funny) and “Make America Great Again.” He has promised to alter libel laws so that journalists cannot write negative things about him, he plans to institute a national registry of Muslims, he has a Supreme Court pick available to him, and he is poised to implement legislation that will tangibly affect the rights of women, immigrants, minorities, and LGBTQ folk.

It is hard for me to see how his proposed policies will help any of the people I care about. To the contrary: I fear, based on his stated policies and ambitions, a concerted effort to suppress freedom of speech, access to information, civil liberties, and human rights.

We need to resist his proposed vision of the world with all our might.

Now more than ever, our writing is necessary. Now more than ever, our art must be political. Now more than ever, we as writers must bring to bear the power of words to bring the facts to the people, to show them the dangers of conformity and toeing the party line, the value in speaking out, the importance of protecting all citizens, all people, all humans from harm and injustice. Through journalism, through narrative fiction, through poetry, through essays and opinion posts, our writing must be an act of political resistance. We must speak for the voiceless. We must defend the defenseless. We must protect through words and ideas the rights of those who cannot protect themselves.

We are writers, and writing is political. Writing has never been more important, as we are now the voice of the resistance.

Think. Write. Tell stories. Tell the truth. Resist.

Your freedom depends on it.

Building Up The Bones

I am ready to build my house, now
I have bones to to build my walls
Feathers to put a roof over my head
Stories to lay as my foundations.
My windows will be made of eyes
So that when I look out of my house, I will see souls
The fences around my house will be made with words I’ve wasted arguing
The doors, with keys
That do not belong to locks.

In the garden no flowers will grow
Instead I’ll plant unsent love letters,
Missing pages from unknown journals,
Unpublished first drafts culled from drawers.
Notes passed between schoolchildren will grow like weeds between the rows.
I’ll build a trellis of salt and dragon’s teeth
Where myths will snake like grapevines,
Wild and unpruned.
Lost and drunk on the fruits of their leaves,
I’ll wake in the morning lying in a fountain
Of ink.

Inside, treble clefs and concertos will paper the walls
I’ll build my stairs of boleros
My chairs of cellos
My floors of jazz and waltzes.
The lights will flicker constantly
Powered by lovers’ quarrels
Against a scratch of vinyl
Extinguished as they fall into bed
And the saxophone breathes its last.

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Image: Cornelia Konrads installation Passage. Photo credit to the artist. 

Book Review: “The Awakening of David Rose” by Daryl Rothman

In 2013, I met a friend. His name was Daryl.

We met at a writing conference, and he told me he was (unsurprisingly) writing a book. Several, actually. He was editing one, a young adult fantasy novel, and was pitching that, along with an adult literary fiction novel, at the conference. He seemed cool.

We traded numbers. We got coffee on the pretense of writing together. We wrote together several times, on the pretense of getting coffee. Sometimes we wrote more, sometimes we talked more. Sometimes I insisted that he keep quiet while I write because I really had to finish what I was working on. (Which was my debut novel, The Sowing, and we were on a deadline: it really was important.) Sometimes he didn’t care and kept talking anyway, and I’m very grateful for those moments when he didn’t care that I had work to do, because out of those moments of stubbornness I got one of the best friends I’ve ever had.

I’m sorry. You thought this was going to be a book review, didn’t you? Don’t lose hope. It will be, I promise, but it has a little ways to go yet.

Daryl and I became friends on the pretense of being writers first. He asked me if my mom, who owns a small independent publishing company in St. Louis, might be interested in publishing his YA. I read it, and then politely declined, or he didn’t care to properly submit, or something similar, for reasons I’ve forgotten, so they must have been unimportant.

We drank more coffee.

Coffee, it turns out, is very important to Daryl. But not as important as writing.

Daryl has dreamed of being a writer since he was in high school English class, a dream he nobly and tragically postponed, first for a marriage, and then for kids, and then for the way that life can get in the way. But the dream never died. It was just postponed.

A few months ago, Daryl had his first novel published by Booktrope, which, quite literally one week later, went under.

It seemed an odd stroke of luck for someone who had just achieved something he’d dreamed of for over two decades. That, within the first week of his debut novel being published, his publisher should fold.

Nevertheless, because by this point Daryl was one of my best friends, I bought his book, downloaded it onto my Kindle, and promised that, once I was through with my obligations to other friends and my intermittent attempts at self-improvement through reading self-important works of literature, I would read and review his book.

Here is the promised review.

Daryl’s first novel is excellent.

Not “OH MY GOD I NEARLY SHAT MYSELF WHILE READING THIS IT WAS SO GOOD” excellent.

Not “I’m just saying this because Daryl is also one of my best friends” excellent.

Just, excellent. It’s well-written, a good story with endearing characters, with a quick pace and a steady heartbeat..

I can objectively say this. You might challenge me. I challenge you: read the book. It’s quite good. Excellent, even.

Fine. I will get to the review.

ROTHMAN_FRONT COVER

Daryl’s first novel is called THE AWAKENING OF DAVID ROSE, and it is a story quite similar, in some ways, to one of my childhood favorite books, THE DARK IS RISING series, by Susan Cooper. It also has similarities to the Nickelodeon TV show AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER. (Which, if you haven’t watched it, is quite literally one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life. Go watch it. Now.) THE AWAKENING OF DAVID ROSE is about a fifteen-year-old named David Rose, who comes to discover, to his great surprise, that he is the heir to a reincarnation cycle thousands of years old, and with it, a conflict thousands of years in the making.

Beginning with a strange encounter with a nymph a single day before his fifteenth birthday, David is plagued by what might be called a series of unfortunate events that all lead up to him and his family taking a trip to Kane Manor, built close to the famous Tintagel Castle in England, where David reluctantly discovers that he is the heir to the Lancelot side of the ancient Lancelot-Gawain duel for the love of a fair maiden (Guinevere? We’re never told), and a long tradition of good vs. evil style battling for the fate of the world.

In between, David is torn between  his duty to his younger sister Rachel, to whom he has promised to try to find out what really happened to their mother when she disappeared (died? David refuses to believe it) in an explosive car accident a year and a half ago, and his schoolwork, real life, and relationship with his father. Meanwhile, there is Donovan, the son of David’s father’s new love interest. Donovan and David develop a terse rivalry, in which they both pretend to be friends (and actually seem to be genuinely trying to be friends) but keep coming unexpectedly into conflict – primarily over girls. From Rachel, David’s sister, who has an uncanny dislike of Donovan, to David’s high school crush, Amanda. David likes her, but Donovan asks her to the school dance, violating the unspoken ‘bro code’ between guys of all generations – thou shalt not ask a girl to the dance when your friend has already told you he likes her. Duh. Come on, Donovan. Even I know that.

The writing is excellent. Daryl alternates well between a mature, literary style, most clearly exemplified during the moments of reflection and in the scene-setting descriptions, and a more young-adult-ish style, which comes across in the dialogue. The nonchalant teenager repartee is almost perfectly depicted, as is Rachel’s character, whose bright, tenacious innocence makes her a foil for David’s skeptical, stolid nature. I’ve been told Rachel will have a larger role in the books to come, and I look forward to seeing how she grows.

THE AWAKENING OF DAVID ROSE is to be a four-part series, I’m told, with three more books to come. I hope the next ones do not take as long to appear as the first one did, but I trust now that Daryl has launched his first book into the world, the rest will not be so far behind. I will, of course, be following his journey – as a friend first, a fellow writer second, and now, most recently, as a fan.

Highly recommended, for all those who enjoy children’s or young adult fantasy.

Book Review: “H Is For Hawk” by Helen Macdonald

“H is for Hawk” is currently causing an uproar in the British literary world, achieving mountains of acclaim from critics and fellow writers on both sides of the pond. I first found out about it through BrainPickings, a weekly digest of assembled blog posts that thematically explores famous thinkers and works through the use of quotes, relevant artwork, and a lot of cross-posting. I have an on-again off-again relationship with BrainPickings, which I find by turns astonishingly profound and helpful, and by turns trite and repetitive. But Maria Popova’s praise for “H is for Hawk” caught my eye. She writes of the book:

“Every once in a while — perhaps thrice a lifetime, if one is lucky — a book comes along so immensely and intricately insightful, so overwhelming in beauty, that it renders one incapable of articulating what it’s about without contracting its expansive complexity, flattening its dimensional richness, and stripping it of its splendor.”

High praise! Naturally, I set about finding a copy.

The cover features a quote from the Economist, which describes the book as “one part memoir, one part gorgeous evocation of the natural world, and one part literary meditation.” It’s really impossible to see the book as anything other than a three-fold exploration. Ostensibly, the book’s beginning is the death of Macdonald’s father, a journalist and photographer. Certainly that is where the conflict begins: Macdonald falls into a deep depression, and finds herself inexorably drawn to the wildness and wilderness involved in training a young goshawk.

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But in some sense, the book began long before that. Macdonald writes of her childhood fascination with falconry of all kinds. She obsessed over falconry the way I obsessed over horses: learning everything there was to know about bird anatomy, caring for and training the creatures, hunting with falcons, and the history of falconry as told through myriad British men through the ages.

One such man happened to be T.H. White, famed author of The Once And Future King. He wrote other books, of course, one of which happened to be a narrative about his own retreat into nature via an ill-fated attempt at taming a goshawk. A young Macdonald obsessed over this book. And when her father died and her internal world was abruptly thrown into chaos, she felt some connection with White, and was drawn to his story.

And so the book is a three-part tale: Macdonald’s trauma and her attempt to use the goshawk – Mabel is her name – to heal herself; Macdonald’s insights, both intuitive and laden with scholarly precision, into the world of hawks and falconry, from historical and etymological information to detailed notes on how hawks perceive and relate to the world; and finally, White’s relationship with his own hawk, Gos, and why White’s journey inspired, and ultimately diverged from, Helen’s.

I think in part BrainPickings set me up for failure: the book was excellent, but it was five-star excellent, not seven-star excellent, not once-in-a-lifetime excellent. The book is never boring, but I did not race through it as other reviewers said they did. I walked through, stolidly, enjoying the moments of light and of cheer, the moments when Helen describes playing catch with Mabel, surprised and delighted at her hawk’s playful side, and pausing at the darkness and moments of weight, the passages when she cries herself to sleep on the couch and cannot seem to speak to other human beings. Astonishingly unsentimental for a book that is, essentially, a meditation about life and death, it was an introspective book, not one to be rushed through, not a page turner. And while there are countless moments of quiet beauty, and Macdonald’s descriptions of the English countryside she and her hawk hunt and train in are exquisite, it never quite lifted me into the transcendental, the tactile connection between man and earth that other authors have achieved.

One thing I loved was the author’s impressive command of vocabulary. I admired this in the same distant way I admire Cormac McCarthy for the same ability, and Hemingway for his spare prose. Her use of uncommon words never felt overbearing or verbose for the sake of it. She also uses words in new ways – as descriptions I never would have thought of – and they fit perfectly, never detracting from the flow.

This summer lunch feels deeply unreal. Shadows of damask and silver, a photogravure in an album, something from Agatha Christine, from Evelyn Waugh, from another time. But the wasps are real. They are here, and they are present. So is the hawk, the sun at their centre. And me? I do not know. I feel hollow and unhoused, an airy, empty wasps’ nest, a thing made of chewed paper after the frosts have murdered the life within. (130)

Her scholarly background and childish imagination also gives her an approach to the history of falconry that connects us to a larger tradition, an expanse far greater than just her and Mabel and White and Gos.

I had, as a child, bought into that imagined world of tweed-clad Victorian falconers, where death was visceral and ever-present and hedged with ceremonial formalities. When I watched those men with goshawks put the dead pheasant in the bag all those years ago I saw a kind of ease that bespoke centuries of social privilege and sporting confidence.

I loved these lines of connection, lines Macdonald brings to light effortlessly throughout the book, partly because of the obvious symbolism in falconry: her hawk is literally bound to her by creances, lines like leashes that keep the hawk close at hand in the early stages of training, if I’ve got it right. Lines that Macdonald illustrates by drawing parallels between hawks and war planes in the World Wars, by talking about falconry in America and Kazakhstan and Arabia. Lines she illuminates by noting the etymology of the word game as in game bird, and poaching, and comparing her love of hawks to her father’s love of airplanes. In everything there are lines of connection, if only you remember to look – a theme that runs throughout the book and is perfectly encapsulated in a moment when she and a friend are flying Mabel, and he points out the lines of gossamer threads in the grass at their feet, which Helen has neglected because she is blind to everything but the hawk.

But the connections are always there, even when we ignore them or cannot see them.

This will certainly draw comparisons to Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. Both memoirs by women in a largely male-dominated field, both born out of grief and trauma and depression, both taking place on the knife’s edge of the line drawn between man and animal, man and wild, man and earth. I haven’t read Wild yet, but it’s soon up on my list. I’ll let you know my thoughts.

I am not usually a reader of memoirs, but this one might have turned me to the genre. Usually I find my stories in more vivid, hallucinatory, imaginary worlds, but this one is clearly drawn enough to bring you into England’s ancient forests and dark mythologies, while rooted firmly in this century. The way each personality interweaves through the narrative – Gos, White, Mabel, Helen, and, towards the end, Helen’s father, too – has reminded me of the power of real life stories as well as fictional ones.

Recommended for: anyone who enjoys great writing, anyone who enjoys memoirs, anyone fascinated by the crossroads of wildness and humanness.

Get your copy here:
Amazon Kindle
Amazon UK
Hardback

 

On Fantasy

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away…

Just kidding, it was only twenty years and three thousand miles away. Hang on…that’s a suspiciously long way from my current location in the space-time continuum. Let’s try this again.

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, a young girl named Amira Makansi was taught to read novels by reading The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. Her mother read aloud to her and her sister every night, spinning tales of whispering forests, adventuring dwarves, mysterious wizards, and deadly dragons. From goblins to orcs to gollums to elves, the young girl fell in love with this magical realm and by the end of the battle of the Five Armies, she wanted more.

Lord of the Rings Tryptich by Marko Manev

So her mother kept reading. They quickly moved on to The Fellowship Of The Ring. She read to the girl and her sister every night without fail, as the hobbits and their companions wandered through bogs and taverns, marshes and mines, over hill and under stone, battling Nazgul, cave trolls, and Uruk-Hai, making friends with ponies, free men, elves, and large talking trees.

Fantasy was how a young Amira Makansi, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, learned to read. Fantasy was how I learned to LOVE to read.

It’s been a long time since I’ve found a fantasy novel that has captured my imagination as vividly as J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic tale of good vs. evil. I think in some ways, I’ve spent the rest of my life chasing that high. The first book of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, The Golden Compass, is still on my top ten favorite books of all time.

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I fell in love with Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, and then graduated to R. A. Salvatore’s archetypal antihero Drizzt Do’Urden. I loved almost equally Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, although C.S. Lewis’ Narnia never enchanted me the same way it did others. It almost goes without saying that Harry Potter was my bread and butter throughout much of my own coming-of-age story – Harry was the same age as I was, and we went through our teenage years together. In more recent times, I think the closest I’ve come to that sense of epic, fantastical drama has been Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, which redefined for me what one could do with the idea of magic. Both Neil Gaiman and Patrick Rothfuss have tried, though neither has quite succeeded, to do for me what The Lord Of The Rings did so long ago.

Science fiction is a close parallel, so much so that the two genres are often lumped together. Both involve immense amounts of speculation and world-building, creating worlds future and past, or at the crossroads where other worlds meet our own. Dystopian fiction fits into that category – one must extrapolate how our world could end up like the one described in the future. Same with urban fantasy, where we are required to imagine how magic or special abilities could be hidden from sight for most while others run in dark underground worlds filled with shadowy demons and strange new forms of magic.
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But none of these have the same peculiar, magical appeal of high fantasy, which spirits us away to foreign lands with rich foods and strong mead and enchanted swords and dangerous evils lurking behind every rock for the valiant adventurer to defeat.

As George R. R. Martin writes, “There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.” That peculiar call of the wild is true of historical fiction, too, though perhaps to a lesser extent. We are drawn back into the magic of a simpler time, where we lived closer to nature and died more honestly.

Game of Thrones Targaryan

What is it about fantasy that calls to us and haunts us, that drives us to escape in it and wish for it?

What are your favorite fantasy books? I’m eager for recommendations. What will sing to me the same way J. R. R. Tolkien did? What hole will I fall into and never want to return from?

Writer Wednesday: Author Interview with Daryl Rothman

Today for #WriterWednesday I introduce you to Daryl Rothman, a great writer and a better friend. Daryl is the newly published author of THE AWAKENING OF DAVID ROSE, a young adult urban fantasy novel in the style of  Susan Cooper’s THE DARK IS RISING series. My admiration for his writing style and his determination has never waned, which is why I asked him to speak with me about his motivations and inspirations on this blog. . 

Daryl

Anyone who’s gone through the struggle of writing a full-length novel must love literature. How did you discover your love of reading and writing? 

I remember our father reading a variety of stories to us when we were very young, including Edgar Allen Poe and O’Henry. I recall being on a family vacation when I was six and the urge to write a story suddenly swept over me. I was in the far back of the old station wagon, no paper, so I began a story on the back of some big, glossy baseball card type thing. I don’t recall the story, only that it was one of the earliest occurrences of me being imbued something I felt to my bones: namely, hey, this is something I am meant to do. This is something I love.

How did this childhood love of writing translate into your current path as a published author? 

I thought about teaching English but harbored no delusion that the degree would translate automatically into becoming a published author, and so I set about pursuing some other passions that portended a more feasible vocation. But always within me did the writing dream remain, and when the David Rose idea germinated around a decade ago I guess that conferred to me at least something more of a frame and motive for moving forward. It truly was a dream deferred. Four to five years ago I become much more serious, and dug in and got some drafts completed. I know that seems far-flung, a four-decade trajectory linking my incipient passion to where I sit now. But it’s the truth and I reckon whatever your passion, once it takes hold, it’s got you, it IS you, no matter the road or the years upon it.

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Your debut novel THE AWAKENING OF DAVID ROSE, is the culmination of that passion taking hold. Can you describe some of the inspiration for this book?

After seeing one of the Harry Potter films with my eldest child, David, around ten years ago, I was struck by the sense of wonder these films and stories engendered in audiences of all ages. We talked about what he liked about them and I asked him if he’d like me to write a story for him perhaps with some of those magical and fantastical themes and he said yes and I promised that I would. A storyline fell to me one day at work and I would write in fits and starts over the next year, partly because I was working full-time and life, you know, happens. But the main holdup, looking back, was that the story lacked a heartbeat, that certain oomph without which no measure of magic or fantasy or could overcome.

David had always been good to and protective of his baby sister Rachel, but around that time we were at a park for a birthday party and he and I were watching Rachel as she played and what happened next was one of those surreal moments. David was standing closer to Rachel than was I, and I saw him look at me with what later I would realize was a “are you gonna do anything” expression, before springing  forward, scooping Rachel up in his arms and backpedaling quickly away.

An enormous bee had begun dive-bombing her and both she and I were oblivious but not David, who had assiduously avoided bee stings, but in that moment none of that mattered—all that mattered was removing his sister from harm’s way. Protecting his sister was in his DNA, and in that moment was found the heartbeat of my tale. The Awakening of David Rose.

So the relationship between David, your protagonist, and Rachel, his younger sister in the books, is ‘based on a true story’?

Yes, the David and Rachel in the story, and the bond between them, are absolutely based upon the real deal. As time has passed it was Rachel who became my literary soul (she read all Potter books cover to cover years ago), but the book represents a promise to my children and though it will be a series and I hope it is well-received and will help launch my authorial career,  at the end of the day it begins and ends with that promise, a small way to thank them for being not only the heartbeat of my tale, but of my life.

The first David Rose book reads a bit like Harry Potter meets Edgar Allen Poe – a young protagonist surrounded by dark and suspenseful action, all of it heavy with meaning. What are your thoughts about writing dark fiction that appeals to kids? 

My inclination writing for any audience is somewhat toward the dark side. I am far more in my element when mining more angst-filled territory. But life will throw kids curves and yes some pain and I think it’s okay, and sometimes even emboldening for them to take that journey with characters facing great challenge, facing the darkness, and to discover—with the characters and perhaps within themselves—those trusted places where  we can in our darkest moments, make safe harbor and find a little light.

Spoken like someone who knows the value of safe harbor and a little light. What personal experiences, ideas, or themes do you draw on most in your writing?

For David Rose all themes derived ultimately from the primary one, which was the love and protection between David and Rachel. Then, my plot delving into fantasy and a bit of world-building I tried to imbue it with some of the themes you might expect – darkness and light, time, the blurred lines between good and evil, blurred lines between worlds.
But for other works…my literary work-in-progress Cucariva, some short stories, pieces I’ve had on my blog, I’ll call upon that reservoir of experiences which shapes me just as each of ours shapes us in its way. I usually offer some flicker of hope, of light in the darkness, but these reservoirs, even the painful ones, maybe especially the painful ones, help me inhabit my characters more fully.
What was the first thing you started working on after David Rose? 

A literary-suspense turn called Cucariva. My writing voice tends toward the literary. I am about 50K words in and hope(perhaps ambitiously) to have a draft done and to betas by end of July. While they have it, I hope to make inroads on the next David Rose book. I notched 3-4 chapters on that while the first one was in the editorial and publication process, and am pretty excited about the possibilities.

Daryl is the author of THE AWAKENING OF DAVID ROSE, the first in a series of what will eventually be five books. He spends his spare time either in libraries and coffee shops writing with his daughter Rachel, entertaining his youngest son Daniel, or trying to sneakily take photos of his picture-shy oldest son David, who is the primary inspiration for his first published novel. He enjoys barbecue, donuts, cigars, and Seinfeld, all with equal fervor. If you are interested in learning more about him, click over to his website, or follow him on Facebook