Saturday, January 29, 2011

Building Bridges -- a Review of The Cardturner by Louis Sachar

In my on-going training as a writer, I took the day to read a young-adult book by Louis Sachar. He is the person who wrote a wonderful middle-grade novel called Holes, a Newbery winner, that was quite popular a few years ago. I read and enjoyed it greatly, so much so I bought several copies and kept them in my classroom for my students. I know it was a good book because my copies kept disappearing and had to be replaced!

His new book, The Cardturner, is delightful – an old-fashioned term that might put off young people, but somehow I think it’s just the right word for this book. Like Holes, The Cardturner has parallel stories, generations apart. In The Cardturner, the stories weave together to quietly deliver a pretty powerful message about real love, the kind that grows out of mutual respect and friendship.

Alton Richards is facing a lousy summer. His girlfriend dumped him for his best friend, he has no job, his father has been laid off, and now his mother tells him he has to spend his days driving his old, blind (but very rich, his mother reminds him) uncle, Lester Trapp, to bridge tournaments and turn his cards for him. Someone else has been doing that, and Alton’s mother thinks that person, a distant step-relative named Toni (and she’s crazy!, Alton’s mother says), is after the money. Alton has no idea what cardturning means and has never played bridge. He only knows it’s a card game that was popular back in the day. Bor-ing! His uncle is not only old and blind (and don’t forget rich, Alton’s mother would say), but demanding and not particularly pleasant. At least, that’s the way it seems at first.

Alton’s uncle seems pleased Alton knows nothing about bridge. He wants someone who will do just as he’s told and not think for himself. But Alton can’t help himself. He pays attention and begins to learn the game. He practices with his little sister Leslie, a very mellow, intelligent eleven-year-old. He also starts hearing some pretty interesting stories about the good old days around the bridge table. This is where the parallel story comes in. It’s all about the love of the game and the communication and trust between partners.

One day, the infamous Toni shows up as Trapp’s partner. She’s actually pretty good at the game and – BONUS – she’s beautiful and the same age as Alton. As the two stories unwind, Sachar builds a bridge between the two generations, and Alton and Toni see the strength and beauty of the friendship Trapp and Toni’s grandmother had as partners from many years ago. We see the parallel lives of the two sets of bridge partners – Trapp and Toni’s grandmother and Alton and Toni – and learn some things about friendship and trust and bridge.

Sachar weaves bridge lessons throughout the book and tricks the reader into learning about the game by A) giving them a way to skip those sections and B) making the sections too fascinating to skip. My only complaint is Sachar depreciates one of the great books in American literature and one of my personal favorites – Moby Dick. He uses a graphic of a whale to signal the “boring parts” that can be skipped, like the “boring whaling chapters” in Moby Dick. Maybe this is another trick. Maybe Sachar is planning on tricking young readers into reading Moby Dick all the way through. When they realize there were no boring parts in Sachar’s book, maybe they will think there are no boring parts in Moby Dick. At least I hope that’s what he had in mind.

If you’re looking for a fun, quick read, pick up a copy of The Cardturner. I recommend it. I’m hoping to see a resurgence in bridge playing after plenty of young readers discover the game through this well-crafted book.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Some Thoughts on Creativity

When I was in high school, I was cast in the play Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie. I was the old lady who would die from a “bee sting” in the second act. “It would be good if you could knit while you sit on stage. Can you knit?” I was asked by the director. Well, how hard could it be? My grandmother could knit. My mother, some cousins, some aunts could all knit. I set about learning and ended the run of the play with a long, lumpy, holey gray scarf. No point in knitting after that. I wasn’t good at it and I didn’t particularly enjoy it. But I have to say, I truly admire people who can knit.

Some years ago, when my kids were little, I decided to take up needlework. I bought a crewel pillow kit with an absolutely gorgeous picture on the front of what my pillow would look like when I finished.  I worked diligently in my spare time for, oh, probably six months. This is a very complex pattern, I told myself. I’m learning new things. It’s supposed to take time. I completed about a fifth of the pillow in that six months. My mother came for a visit and said she had forgotten her needle work. Did I have anything she could work on? she asked. I figured she could do a little work on my pillow that week – give me a little boost in completing it. She finished it that afternoon. Perhaps crewel wasn’t for me after all.

I was at Border’s a couple weeks ago and bought a drawing kit. It has a drawing pad, charcoal pencils, and a book about how to draw. I am famous with my former students for my basic stick figures. Why, you may ask, would I buy a “how-to” sketching kit at my age (approaching 65 at the speed of light)? I looked at it once on the clearance rack and nearly bought it, but knew that I would get a coupon in my email any day, so waited. When I got a 50%-off-any-item coupon the next week, I picked it up for a whole five bucks. I didn’t just buy it because it was cheap. I bought it because I was stuck in my writing, and when that happens, I decide I need to learn something new.

In the fall I got stuck in my writing – had a dry spell when I couldn’t seem to write a sentence, let alone a story or article. I headed to the fabric store to find the cure. Maybe it was time to try needlework again. This time, knowing myself, I bought the Embroidery for Dummies kit and spent several days trying to make French knots that didn’t look wads of used dental floss. I did not prevail. If you know someone who might need a barely-used Embroidery for Dummies kit, let me know. I moved onto sewing gifts for Christmas. I can actually sew, but I make sure I stick to things like pajamas so no one would ever be expected to wear what I make in any public place. I know my limits. I worked my way through that dry spell and am working again.

I think a lot about the process of creativity. Our daughter Maggie is overtly creative in many ways, something that amazes me and that I admire. She is an accomplished actor, singer, songwriter, knitter, writer, and on and on. It all seems to come so naturally to her, but I wonder if she doesn’t work as hard or harder than most people, and has great discipline, confidence, and innate talent as well.  I guess I should underline “discipline,” because I’ve come to believe that’s the real key. You have to work at it, regularly and thoughtfully. You have to study it and practice it. I want to do many creative things, but find myself perhaps talented enough only in writing to feel hopeful of succeeding in that, but the discipline isn’t where it needs to be. I need to work on that. So I think I’ll stick with writing and skip the artsy stuff – at least until I hit another dry spell, with any luck just in time for those beautiful Christmas pajamas.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

My Award-Winning Blog

My granddaughter came for an overnight this weekend, always a delightful time. She brought with her a popular video called “How to Train Your Dragon.” It’s a very clever film, follows the hero cycle perfectly, and has fabulous animation and a great deal of charm. I related to the young character, Hiccup, because he had to overcome what seemed an insurmountable challenge. That’s the way I felt when I started my blog. Okay, okay, that’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but I’m still fumbling around trying to train my blog.

I thought when I asked friends to click on the “follow” button, they would receive an email each time I posted, but that doesn’t happen. I’m not sure just what it means to follow a blog, but it doesn’t mean that! I persevered and asked questions and poked around the site. Now you can receive an email notification if you like. Look to the right and under the “About Me” section is a line that says “Subscribe to The Write Stuff by Email.” Click on that and sign up please!

I worked hard at writing things I thought might be interesting and fun. Even though I have posted only twice before this, a very kind and encouraging fellow writer awarded me the Stylish Blogger Award!
The way this works is I am supposed to tell you seven interesting things about myself, then choose blogs I think are worthy of the Stylish Blogger Award and pass it along. The truth of the matter is I don’t follow many blogs, but I do follow a few and think highly of them. So I will tell you seven things about myself I hope you will find interesting, then share the stylish blogs with those of you reading this, and hope you will check them out.

First, seven things about me I hope you will find interesting.

1. I tend to change careers about every fifteen years. If that stays the same, I only have about eleven years left to write the great American (kid’s) novel.

2. When I received my “How did I do?” questionnaires at the end of each school year, my students most often described me as “organized.” None of those students had ever seen my office at home.

3. If I had it to do over again, I would not have spent ten years in advertising. I would have skipped right to teaching, which would have gotten me to writing ten years sooner and with less mental impairment.

4. My favorite place in the world is wherever my grandchildren are. My second favorite place is Pacific Grove, California. It charges my batteries and inspires me to write. I think it is the proximity to Steinbeck’s spirit.

5. My guilty pleasure is TV crime shows. My new favorite is “Castle” – a cop show with a writer as the main character. It’s funny and smart and goes well with a glass of good bourbon. I think the best crime show is “Southland” for pure grittiness and great acting and writing. I waste far too much time on crime shows (or Murder and Mayhem, as my husband calls them).

6. I think the best American book ever written is East of Eden by John Steinbeck. If you’ve never read it, there is a great treat in store for you. I think the second best is Moby Dick. Nothing I write even vaguely resembles those in any way, and not because I don’t want it to.

7. If I won the lottery, I would still write, whether people want me to or not.

Now, for your reading pleasure, and in no particular order, the blogs to which I award the Stylish Blogger Award:

Elizabeth Varadan’s The Fourth Wish

Elizabeth (or Mitty as we fondly call her) writes about the writing process, reads voraciously, and shares her insights about what she has read. She generously awarded me the Stylish Blog Award and has given me much encouragement.

Morgan Mussell’s The First Gates

Morgan writes about so many things – interesting things he’s read, interesting places he’s been, what has inspired him, the writing process – and is so thoughtful and eloquent. It’s always a treat when I get a notice he has posted.

Maggie Hollinbeck’s Wandernest

Yes, she is my daughter, but she is also a talented writer and a woman of the world with much to say and all of it fascinating.

Margaret Duarte’s Enter the Between

Now Margaret is organized! She writes daily and once each week she writes about social media and blogging. When I begged her for help finding a way to put an email subscription gadget on my blog, she sent me to her Nov. 17, 2010 blog and there it was. It didn’t even take me five minutes. She also has some of her short stories and excerpts from her novel available for your reading pleasure.

Bud Harrington’s Daily Journal

Bud is one of the funniest people on the planet and is never shy about telling it like it is. What a treat to read. Stop by and visit the world according to Bud.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Book for Readers and Writers: True Grit by Charles Portis

One of the best things an aspiring writer can do to become a better writer is read good books. Let’s face it. That is simply a gift for me. I can sit down and read a good book (or even a not so good one, for that matter, because I will learn from that as well) and not feel guilty about ignoring the laundry that has piled up or put off going to the grocery store one more day even though we have only two tablespoons of milk and one slice of bread left. It’s work. It’s my job. It’s a way I can fulfill my potential as a writer.

True GritSo recently, after all the brouhaha about the new True Grit movie, I decided to read the book. I never had. I liked the original John Wayne movie. I always thought it was a good story with great characters, but I never got around to reading the book. I heard part of an interview with the Coen brothers who made the new film. They talked about how taken they were with the language in the book and tried very hard to respect that. I was anxious to know what they were talking about.

Let me start by saying, True Grit is a magnificent book. Great characters; a well-crafted, compelling story; but most of all, extraordinary dialogue– unlike any other you will read in modern literature. And that, perhaps, is the point. A great story often tells itself through dialogue. The story is set at the turn of the century (the last one) and folks talked differently then – much more formally. At first, the dialogue was disconcerting. It was rather like walking next to someone who was wearing new corduroy pants. There was a sound in the background that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but something was “there.” The dialogue alone is a good enough reason to read this book, but there is so much more. It’s a very “writerly” book, without being too much so.

Mattie Ross, fourteen years old, the protagonist, wants to be a writer. There is a passage in the book that may have been placed there to remind writers not to fall too much in love with their own words, a danger to all writers.

“I have a newspaper record of a part of that Wharton trial and it is not an official transcript but it is faithful enough. I have used it and my memories to write a good historical article that I titled, You will now listen to the sentence of the law, Odus Wharton, which is that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead! May God, whose laws you have broken and and before whose dread tribunal you must appear, have mercy on your soul. Being a personal recollection of Isaac C. Parker, the famous Border Judge.

But the magazines of today do not know a good story when they see one. They would rather print trash. They say my article is too long and ‘discursive.’ Nothing is too long or too short either if you have a true and interesting tale and what I call a ‘graphic’ writing style combined with education aims.” (The bolding is mine.)

This just cracked me up! First, you’ve got to love that title. I’ll bet if I dug deep enough into my box of old writings, I could find something that sounds like that. I know I still feel like screaming, “Nothing is too long if it’s a good story!”  Notice, I didn’t say too short. No one has ever accused me of writing too short. As I have often said, I have trouble making a grocery list in under a thousand words.

But I digress. Back to the story. Mattie is a character who, in some ways, should be a role-model for all girls. She is single minded, focused, purposeful, and lets nothing get in her way. That said, she takes ridiculous risks, and if I had a kid like her (whoops, maybe I do!) I would lie awake nights. Rooster Cogburn is the man we would all want as a friend. He will keep his promises, no matter what. He does have true grit and, like this good book, never disappoints.

I’ve heard the new movie is terrific. I haven’t seen it yet, but I will. Our daughter, Maggie, an actor/director/psychologist/writer/singer/songwriter and all-around bright woman (see her fascinating blog at, says the girl who plays Mattie is outrageously good, and if she says so, it must be true. Anything with the under-rated Jeff Bridges is always worth the time.

In a sense, True Grit is a love story. Not the kind of romantic love that phrase usually implies, but the deep and abiding love that grows out of a mutual respect between these two friends. At times it was a slow and easy journey. At other times it was so intense, I forgot to breathe for pages and pages. It is a powerful story and well worth your time to read. I’m so glad I took the time. Thank you, Charles Portis, wherever you are, for such a lovely read. It was out of print, but will be re-released the end of May, but like the new movie, you can pre-order a copy now. Or if you happen to have a Kindle, you can buy the e-book without waiting. Maybe you’ll get lucky and find it at your library. I’m glad it’s being re-released, and I will buy a copy and read it again. Good books find ways to get into the hands of a new generation of readers.

Monday, January 17, 2011

And in the beginning there were words...

I promised myself I would begin blogging this year on a regular basis. I’ve done it in the past for a short period when we were on a trip to Italy ( if you’d like to take a look), but that had a very specific life. Now I want to write about writing, the creative process, reading, theatre, and whatever else wanders through my brain. I also need to teach myself the discipline of writing much more regularly. So where to begin?

The basis of all writing is words. I love words, so I thought I’d begin with some interesting words. Every day in my email I receive a message from called A.Word.A.Day. You can go to their site and sign up for this service. Some people have their morning coffee. I have my morning word. It’s like a little gift waiting to be opened each day, usually teaching me something new, sometimes reminding me of a story or happening, always delighting me. But I divagate. (verb intr.: To wander or digress.) AWAD not only gives you a definition, but a veritable plethora of other engaging information as well.
I have a particular fascination for words about language, so let’s take a look at some recent words from A.Word.A.Day and all that comes with each word. I will try to avoid periphrasis (noun: A roundabout way of saying something, using more words than necessary) in my writing today, although I’ll admit that is not in my nature.  In December, I was gifted with several words about language called “what to avoid when using words.”  Let’s take a look at an entry.

noun: Drawing attention to something while claiming to be passing over it.
From Latin paralipsis, from Greek paraleipsis (an omission), from paraleipein (to leave on one side), from para- (side) + leipein (to leave). First recorded use: 1550.
Paralipsis is especially handy in politics to point out an opponent's faults. It typically involves these phrases:
"not to mention"
"to say nothing of"
"I won't speak of"
"leaving aside"
"Political correctness has breathed new life into the paralipsis, the rhetorical device whereby we make a statement by first announcing that we are not going to make it. When pundits write 'No one is suggesting...' the American eye reads 'I'm suggesting.'"
Florence King; If 'Words Mean Things', Then All is Lost; Times-Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia); Feb 19, 1995.

Now, that is a word for today. If we could only convince our politicians to rein in their paralipsis (and their periphrasis as well, for that matter).

Now here is a beauty of a word: sesquipedality


noun: The practice of using long words.
From Latin sesqui- (one and a half) + ped- (foot). First recorded use: 1759.

I just love the etymology! Can you imagine a more perfect word than one that means a foot-and-a-half long to describe the language used by that hubristic English professor you suffered with in college? Hah! You could put him in his place with that one.

Before I fall into pleonasm (noun: The use of more words than those necessary to express an idea), I will close for the day, lest this become an exercise in scatology.