Reading as a Writer: 6 Tips for reading The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam

“Are you still oblivious to everything that happens around you, just like in the old days?”

 

We first meet Percival as a boy called Chen Pie Sou in Shantou, China. He’s a flawed—and interesting—character who never seems to quite know himself. “Are you still oblivious to everything that happens around you, just like in the old days?” asks Mrs. Ling. Oblivious he might be, but in his own way, he tries to do the right thing. Percival’s good intentions and obsessions lead to intrigue and drama, as well as becoming integral to the tapestry of love Vincent Lam weaves.

Writers of fictional memoir might want to read this book with an eye as to how Vincent Lam weaves facts, second-hand memory, and fiction together. He acknowledges,

“My parents helped me with generous recollections of their childhoods in Vietnam. The specific details and anecdotes that they shared with me were invaluable in my understanding of life’s rhythms in that era. My late grandfather, William Lin, inspired the fictional protagonist of this novel.”

Reading as a writer, is one of the best ways to develop your skills. As you read “The Headmaster’s Wager ask yourself how he:

  1. Accomplishes the hook;
  2. Maintains interest;
  3. Threads a story through inter-connected problems and their solutions;
  4. Brings scenes, situations, and place alive;
  5. Develops character (not only that of the protagonist, but also others); and
  6. After the twists and turns, rewards with a satisfying conclusion (whether it’s a happy one or not).

Lam provides us with a story that not simply allows us into the world of the expat Chinese community in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, but he creates a fictional memoir that reads with a truth that is often absent from more factual or completely fictional works.

I remember Vietnam War journalism as it splashed across the pages of newspapers, as well as sit-ins and other anti-war protests of the era. Vincent Lam’s The Headmaster’s Wager takes us through a doorway into the lives of people living through the pain, upheaval and turmoil in the county. Enjoy this complex book that stirs emotions of longing, joy, and unmeasurable sadness.

 

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Headmaster’s Wager

Old Havana’s (Flawed) Maestro (A Simple Habana Melody by Oscar Hijuelos)

“I’m feeling inspired—quick, I need a drink.”

“In the spring of 1947, when Israel Levis, composer of that most famous of rumbas ‘Rosas Puras,’ returned to Habana, Cuba, from Europe… his old friends…were startled by his appearance.” So, Oscar Hijuelos’ novel A Simple Habana Melody begins: a time, a maestro-protagonist, a place, and a change.

We learn that Levis, a child protégé, grew up in a doting family with one living brother (three other childhood deaths, which explains the “doting” mother). Doña Concepción, urges her son to “pray and pray to God that He protect him. She rewards his obedience with a great abundance of food. From a chubby child, Israel grows into a big man with big appetites. Virile, Levis frequently visits Habana’s prostitutes (and later those of Paris); still, he’s attracted to “handsome young men”. He’s a man in love with Rita Valadares, but unable to declare his love for her (although he writes the famous “Rosas Puras” for the sensuous singer).

Hijuelos also describes how “The early 1930s were an especially brutal time for the arts in Cuba….” This is the time after the island gained independence from Spain, and the former general, now dictator, Machado was running Cuba, a time when Levis’ friends “vanished without a trace or had been sent to prison.” Yet Levis “lived with the illusion that the ever-growing list of crimes committed by the dictator and the intensifying oppression and mockery of the arts would pass, in time.” Somehow, Levis sees himself apart from the politics of the era, assured that God would protect him. But raids by the secret police, “porra,” intensify.

On an April evening, 1932, Levis and his friend and collaborator, Manny Cortez meet at the Campana Bar.

“Later, Levis slept restlessly, and had a disquieting dream about a raven crouching on a skull, its flapping wings and cries of caw, caw so loud and mocking that he abruptly awoke at three in the morning….”

Manny had been killed, “Traces of the lyricist’s bloodstains were to be found on the paving for weeks.” Frightened, Levis leaves Cuba to go on tour. We jump ahead to Paris. A love story is dropped into the novel and, because of his Jewish-sounding name—although a devout Roman Catholic—Levis is detained and sent to Buchenwald. ”For the next 14 months, the maestro did not believe the things he saw, nor the sounds he heard.” Levis avoids the fate of others by playing his music for German brass, but we glimpse little of that experience or his reaction, except afterward, back on the streets of Habana,  he was pained whenever he heard his music.

The trajectory of Levis’ life is fraught with his blindness, which I accepted until he reaches Paris and then Buchenwald during WWII. The Paris relationship felt out of character and the Buchenwald experience shallow. Hijuelos, author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (a Pulitzer Prize winner) fails in A Simple Habana Melody to fully engage and sustain belief to the end. If  Hijuelos intended a somewhat degenerate maestro and his fall as metaphor for Cuba, he fails.

What drew me to A Simple Habana Melody—and what kept me reading—were Hijuelos’ descriptions of Habana before the malecón had been built, a time when “the sea crashed freely against the rocky shore.” He writes of the city’s history, how Habana derives its name from “an Indian chieftain, Habaquanex,” and of how the city of old “bustled with the energy of an old European capital.” In a later period, with Levis, we wander the streets of the city and we see the majestic buildings that graced the neighbourhoods and glimpse the very different life of Habana after independence from Spain and dictatorship of Machado.

Oscar Hijuelos gives readers a complex, conflicted and flawed character during a political era and context that should make for page-turning-late-into-the-night reading. But the story often falls flat. Nevertheless, if you are curious about Cuba’s marred history and want to glimpse Habana during an exciting artistic period, A Simple Habana Melody provides a portal into those times and place.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: A Simple Habana Melody

Writing Your Book’s Synopsis

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“Alison Williams Writing” addresses a stumbling block to getting our manuscripts (or books) read.

What is it about a synopsis that has so many writers struggling? It doesn’t seem to matter how great a writer you are, there’s just something about condensing your masterpiece down into one or two sides of A4 that strikes fear into a writer’s heart.

Williams’ blog provides key suggestions that will make your synopsis stand out.

via Writing the dreaded synopsis! #amwriting #writingtips

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Guest post by Nicholas C. Rossis

Self-editing your writing is one of the most challenging steps before sending your work off to a publisher. In his post Rossis writes:

I don’t often have the pleasure of hosting guest posts by editors, so I am particularly pleased with this one. Liam Carnahan looks at editing from the editor’s point of view, explaining what you need to do before you submit your manuscript to an editor. Liam is the founder and chief editor at Invisible Ink Editing. The team at Invisible Ink work with independent authors to help them prepare their manuscripts for submissions or publication. You can follow them on Facebook or Twitter.

Sending clean, error-free copy gives your submission a boost when it hits an editor’s desk. If you don’t want your writing to be quickly tossed aside, you will want to do a final check. Follow these 7 steps to success:

7 Steps to Take Before Submitting Your Writing to an Editor

Journey through love (The Whetting Stone by Taylor Mali)

…all the ways that love can come undone

The Whetting Stone by Taylor Mali is as piercing as the knives whetstones sharpen. The poems in his collection  – each in its own way – are stunning and not in the least sentimental. Together, they take readers on a breath-taking journey through love, grief, suicide, loss, and finally back to love.

“Grief Moves,” the first poem introduces a sensuousness and intimacy that leads readers through the eighteen poems that follow.

…before falling into sleep,
how we came together, loss now
a moving thing between us.

It also introduces the “other” of the collection whose “grief…become a kind of need.”

Perhaps the most powerful poem is “Six Stories.” The first stanza reveals the suicide, followed by six short verses, each enlightening the backstory lurking behind the act. Like others in the collection, this poem has been honed to the fine precision of a chef’s knife. There’s not a word out of place; all excess has been cut. The language is precise and concise.

We travel inward with Mali, glimpsing 10 years of marriage, but the focus of The Whetting Stone delves into those that come after. In “Twelfth Anniversary,” Mali shares a light, almost humorous – but extraordinarily insightful – moment that marks (perhaps) the beginning of forgiveness: “And what is more, that I loved you as best I could while you were alive.”

Mali’s skill is as sharp as the knife that surfaces in many poems. One poem I found particularly moving has the longest title: “Things We Both Know / That I Still Have to Tell You.” It ends with a two-line stanza:

You are none of the things
you think you are. Or even alive.

Pain and healing are equally present in the words and what is written between the lines.

The Whetting Stone offers readers an insightful, honest journey through trauma until Mali has a crucial awareness and a shift occurs. He’s ready to let go and writes:

Lover, at last, please leave me, after all these years.
You have cried enough. Leave me to these tears.

Eventually, he recognizes:

She was
not mine
to save.

Taylor Mali’s The Whetting Stone won the 2017 Rattle Chapbook Prize. I highly recommend this thin, extraordinary chapbook.

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Available through the publisher: The Whetting Stone

or from the author: The Whetting Stone (where you can learn more about him and his writing).

Two Landscapes (The Cave by José Saramago)

Cipriano Algor is “A lover of proverbs, adages, maxims, and other popular sayings, one of those rare eccentrics who imagines he knows more than he was taught, would say that there’s something so fishy going on here, you can even see the fish’s tail.”

To say The Cave by José Saramago is brilliant would be mimicking others, as would saying it is a magical allegory, a unique story by a master storyteller (Nobel Prize for Literature winner), an insightful commentary on society’s shifts and the changing values placed on creators and those of commerce. It’s also an intimate story of one man’s life and dreams and the things he loves: his pottery; his daughter; his son-in-law; and a run-away dog called “Found;” his late wife; and (he has trouble admitting it) a widow he meets in the cemetery. The novel is witty and wise, brimming with aphorisms and wisdom; it made me smile and feel deeply for Saramago’s characters and the situation of their lives.

On the surface, we have a simple story about a generational pottery where utilitarian tableware is made using traditional techniques, where a drying rack and stone meditation bench stand in the shade of a mulberry tree on the outskirts of a rural village. The pots that Cipriano Algor creates are transported in an aged van to “The Center,” a walled full-service complex (residents never have to leave) beyond the rural village and a no-man’s-land of crime-riddled shanties, an industrial belt, and a so-called “green belt, which is not green but a wasteland of greenhouses. An artificial place cut off from nature. Saramago presents readers with two opposing landscapes.

Cipriano Algor does not want to move to The Centre, although circumstances weigh against him. But there are people who want to live in the spreading and towering complex where Cipriano Algor’s son-in-law, Marçal Gaucho, works as a security guard. Marçal’s parents are among those scheming to live in The Center. Tension develops as his promotion as a resident guard looms and the family’s move to the shopping-apartment complex becomes imminent. But other themes beyond the family’s dilemma—a socio-political-philosophical vein—runs through the story.

In The Cave, José Saramago explores—through the lives of this small group—what it means to create in a world that prefers plastic over pottery, a world where appearance is accepted as reality. It is a story of beliefs and humanity, of knowledge and feelings and how village values and life differ vastly from the narrow rigidity, the blindness of those we meet in The Centre and the impact of advertising and commercialism. Inside, reality is simulated. Residents find the artificial landscapes and “experiences” better than reality. As in Plato’s story of the same name, shadows are what people see and accept. Our protagonist, Cipriano Algor, ponders this blindness:

They say that landscape is a state of mind, that we see the outer landscape with our inner eye, but is that because those [citizens of The Centre] are unable to see these factories and these hangars, this smoke devouring the sky, this toxic dust, this never-ending mud, these layers of soot, yesterday’s rubbish… .

What we see (or don’t see), where and how we live, influence values and actions.

Saramago shares clues as to how complex and totally believable characters are created. He gives us a narrator to love and characters that experience contradictions, especially those contradictions between feelings, thoughts, and actions. This becomes clear when Cipriano Algor faces the widow Isaura Madruga, a distressing situation for both where time stands still and neither character speaks. Here, the narrator enters:

Something must be done. Yes, something, but not just anything. We could and should violate the orderly logic and discipline of the story, but we must never ever violate what constitutes the exclusive and essential character of a person, that is, his personality, his way of being, his own, unmistakable nature. A character can be full of contradictions, but never incoherent, and if we insist on this point it is because, contrary to what dictionaries may say, incoherence and contradiction are not synonymous. A person or character contradicts himself within the bounds of his own coherence, whereas incoherence, which, far more than contradiction, is a constant behavioural characteristic, resists contradiction, eliminates it, cannot stand to live with it.

The silence between the couple is broken and we are left with an enigma. For those “reading as writers,” we can enjoy a few clues to apply to our own thinking and stories from a master storyteller.

36 The Cave

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Cave

A Woman’s—South Africa’s—Seasons

Ben believes their marriage was a failure. Vera sees it as a stage on the way, along with others, many and different. Everyone ends up moving alone towards the self.

Ostensibly, None to Accompany Me is a political story, a story of the unraveling of white South Africa and the turmoil that spreads from the black townships, a story toward integration (of a sort), and toward the time when Nelson Mandela will become president (although his name is never mentioned). But, at the heart of the story, is a woman called Vera when she is at home and with friends, Mrs. Stark when she’s in the context of the Foundation. In this way, we see her as lover, mother, wife, friend and as dedicated, driven, compassionate, and fearless.

The trajectory of Vera Spark’s life parallels the militants’ passion during the long period between the official legislation (1991) and the actual creation of the new government. It is during this period of often violent change that the narrative unfolds giving readers an intimate look of the ups and downs of political life as the exiles and prisoners return and the personal toll of shifts and accommodations. We share Vera’s story as we weave through this morass toward change and freedom and the impact on lives.

At one point, on a trip into the townships, she and her black co-worker are shot, she in the leg. Ben, her husband, fears losing her, and says, “I couldn’t live without you.”

She could not see the violence at the roadside as evidence of her meaning in his [Ben’s] life. She could not share the experience with him on those terms. She was not responsible for his existence, no, no, love does not carry that covenant; no, no, it was not entered into in the mountains [where their affair began], it could not be, not anywhere. What to do with that love. Now she saw what it was about, the sudden irrelevant question, a sort of distress within herself, that came to her from time to time, lately.

Gradually, she comes to a realization (or admission) of what propelled the love affair with Ben and other “indiscretions.” The fallout of that creates a schism between them, as other holes develop between the politicians—old guard and new. In None to Accompany Me we find both personal and social transformation.

Nadine Gordimer (1954-2001), winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (1991) among many other awards, knows of what she speaks, having been an activist and member of the National African Congress (ANC). Her lyrical—and at times poetical—writing focuses on apartheid and South Africa without a trace of the tract that slips into the stories of lesser writers. Although she takes on a political cause, her stories are literary, giving us fully realized characters that we care about and whose journeys keep us turning pages. None to Accompany Me is prefaced with the words of Bashō: “None to accompany me on this path:/Nightfall in Autumn.” Gordimer takes us through the seasons of a woman as she demystifies South Africa’s political transition from apartheid.

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Available through many libraries or through your local bookstore or online; this link is for the audio edition: None to Accompany Me

A Cultural Portal: Windows & Doors

Travelling provides a portal between cultures, a bridge between what’s known and what’s unknown.

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The hot colours of Baracoa, Cuba.

Travelling makes me foreign; my perspective shifts from that of an insider to that of an outsider.

While I love the adventures and the hikes, exploring historical sites and the art world of the places I visit, it is people that intrigue and engage. One thing that soon became clear, as I wandered the neighbourhoods of Baracoa, is that people don’t shut themselves inside—even when home or at work—they peer out from windows and doors. Often, I was greeted with a dias (abbreviating the more formal buenos días/good morning) or simply hola (hi).

This collection of photos called “Windows & Doors” taken during my March-April 2018 trip to Baracoa focuses on people. Each photograph records a mere moment in time, capturing the liminal space between public and private, between personal and social. Each photograph documents spontaneous, transient moments, none were posed.

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These little boys lived near my casa and often popped into the window as I walked by. Gotta love that impish look.

Travelling, I become an observer of people’s connections with each other, and at times with people engrossed in their phone, newspaper, or thoughts. Sometimes—especially with the children—there’s awareness of my intrusion. The children, like me, are observers.

 

 

 

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Taller Mirate, Casa de la Cultural: young artists work in this studio.

Outside Baracoa in the little fishing village of Boca de Miel on a day when the rainforest earned its name, I captured this man who rode quickly down the muddy road. He took refuge under the awning of the park’s booth (entrance to Elemento Natural Destacado Mara-Majayara). I’d taken refuge with my friend “Alber the Hiker” on a cafeteria’s bougainvillea-verandah. (More of this later and about the Oriente’s rainforest where it poured proverbial buckets.)

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Also for a future blog: Excursion along the Toa River, seen here through the kitchen window where we enjoyed a visit with Alber’s relatives and a feast.

To be notified of future posts, click on “follow” and fill out the form;  you’ll receive email notifications.

 

 

 

Been traveling: Cuba’s Oriente

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One of my sketches showing the area of my recent visit where many adventures unfolded.

 

I’ve just returned from nearly a month’s stay in the eastern tip of Cuba where I explored nature, history, the unique Baracoa style of art and its many studios, and so much more. It was my third trip to the area and each visit opens doors to new experiences and insights.

Cuba’s eastern tip, known as Oriente, offers

  • one of the few rain forests in North America (although most of us think of Cuba as Caribbean, and it is that too) where Hurricane Matthew left a path of destruction but didn’t dispel the indomitable spirit of the people;
  • the tallest waterfall in the Caribbean (the 20th tallest in the world) and many lesser ones with their own special beauty;
  • a semi-desert in the region of Maisi (say My-see) and the Terraces that step up from the lowlands to the sea with breath-taking twists and views (and for geography buffs, the Maisi lighthouse on the Windward Channel is only 80 kilometres from Haiti);
  • the Farola Highway, which creates passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean Sea, is known as an engineering marvel, not to mention an adventurous ride (and on the south shore where I set off on foot to the site of poet-revolutionary José Marti’s famous landing in 1895, which set off a revolution that aimed to free Cuba of Spain’s rule);
  • Baracoa — a provincial city with a two-kilometre-plus-long malacon, that brims with art galleries, parks, and the friendliest people you will ever meet. It’s the biggest city in the area and the starting point for numerous day-trips to places like Rio Yumuri, Rio Toa, Rio Miel, each providing its own unique experience and ambience — and Alejandro Humboldt Nation Park, a United Nations designated site to touch on only a few places to enjoy a boat ride or to hike.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting photos and stories; click below to follow my many adventures in one of the most varied and beautiful landscapes in the world (and this is not hyperbole).

 

The Last Journey (East of the Mountains by David Guterson)

Underfoot, a fine sand shifted and confounded his progress. A strange apprehension haunted his limbs. He changed his direction twice, three times. Low, barren mountains appeared on the horizon. A lunar barrenness, the topography of dreams, stones strewn artfully down an arroyo as if laid by a Japanese gardener, a sinuous bend in the dry bed of stones, one, stone, two, a stone carved in runes… .

Like David Guterson’s award-winning Snow Falling on Cedars, East of the Mountains, is dense with description that uses all of the senses to draw us into place and experience. Besides the extraordinary detail, the end-papers provide a map of the mountain journey to help us traverse the route taken. East of the Mountains is an Odyssey, except we cross mountains rather than sea.

In Snow, Guterson explores relationships between Japanese Americans and their Caucasian neighbours along the northwest coast of the U.S. during WWII. East of the Mountains moves inland but remains true to place, although in this book the relationships involve Mexican migrant farm labourers. Here, the major conflict is within his protagonist Dr. Ben Givens and between Givens and the orchardists and other residents of the area. But East of the Mountains is essentially a character study that reveals one man’s journey toward death and acceptance.

The story is raw with pain: of bereavements; of terminal cancer and dying; a particular gun and the hunting of small birds (with two Brittany spaniels); and Italy during WWII. Balancing the emotions these themes elicit are tranquil orchard scenes from Givens’ youth; love and sensuously drawn passion; and his openness to life’s surprises.

The doctor plans suicide to protect himself from the pain he knows lies ahead and to protect his family from witnessing it. He goes off toward his childhood home among orchards to see it one more time. He hasn’t reached it in this scene where he’s arrived at a rough town. He feels like “a transient pauper, a graybeard drifter, a derelict or vagrant.” He’s on a quest, which he’s beginning to recognize:

Sitting there with his jug in his lap he thought of those Hindu wanderers he’s seen on a public television documentary, mendicants abroad with begging bowls, dressed in rags and clutching staffs, divested of all other property, seeking to meet the world unencumbered, aspiring, always, toward—what did they call it?—atman, the self, God. 

Soon, Givens will wrangle a ride with a trucker. As they share their stories, he comes to another kind of realization:

Ben’s heart recoiled. The lean, spare life of the wanderer, which had held some attraction an hour before, held no attraction now.… He tried to embrace some other end than the one he’d chosen for himself—he thought of dying in a hospital room, imagined languishing in one. He fell silent and stared out the window. There were no good answers to important questions. He tried to picture the shape of Stu Robinson’s [the trucker’s] final days, but he couldn’t even begin.

Throughout, Ben Givens is pulled by his moral centre. Haunted by memories and a promise, he seeks—what? answers to the big unanswerable questions, but he tries. He becomes caught up in others’ lives and surmounts his pain (both the memories and the physical, which run a parallel course).

Inevitably, there was no other subject, and he forced himself to muse on death as though it were simply a form of sleep, warm and full of dreams.

His musing finally gave way to sleep, and Ben dreamed he was traveling in the desert. On a journey whose purpose he couldn’t guess.

The inevitability of death and the bigger questions of meaning and memory, and of promises, thread through East of the Mountains. At times, I thought the detail would overwhelm me, but I’m very glad I read to the end in order to experience the epiphanies of personal discovery. Guterson is a writer who isn’t afraid to probe the big questions, and I’m glad I journeyed through waste- and lush lands sharing the loves and fears and coming to acceptance of Ben Givens.

33 East of the Mountains

Available through your local bookstore or online: East of the Mountains