In August, I read…

Now that we are in the last few days of August, it is time for my literary round-up of the month. This month, I read two very different but equally gripping novels. My August reading material began with a trip to Spain and then to Morocco in The Seamstress by María Dueñas.

Note: You can also find María Dueñas’s novel under the title The Time In Between (click here to see its Amazon page). It is identical to The Seamstress, just with a different title.

“Born in the summer of 1911”, Sira Quiroga grows up in Madrid. From the age of twelve, she works as an apprentice to a dressmaker in the same workshop where her mother worked. Her life is simple, predictable, stable. “My ambitions remained close to home, almost domestic, consistent with the coordinates of the place and time in which I happened to live” (p. 3). But when she is seduced by a man who persuades her to run away with him to Morocco, her life begins to change. Her suitor betrays her and steals her money, leaving her alone in a country of which she knows nothing. This is when the novel really starts to pick up the pace. The first few chapters laid the groundwork and the background for Sira’s character but the chapters in Morocco are the ones I enjoyed most.

By now, the Civil War is raging in Spain and Sira can’t go back to Madrid, as much as she longs to return home and to see her mother, who she has no way of contacting. She is stuck in Morocco, she has no money and her duplicitous lover left her with a large debt to pay. So, Sira turns to the only trade she knows: dressmaking. Her years spent sewing dresses in a Madrid shop meant that she is an expert at her trade.

Between 1912 and 1956 in Morocco, the Spanish established the Protectorado español en Marruecos (the Spanish Protectorate) and during the Spanish Civil War many expat Spaniards and their Nazi German friends lived there. Sira manages to achieve success by setting up an atelier and sewing dresses for the Spanish and German women. “Bit by bit the business began to flourish, word began to spread” (p. 173).

The novel spans a wide arc from pre-Civil War Spain, to Morocco during the Civil War and finally to Franco’s Spain during the time of World War II. The Seamstress is full of detail and at 600+ pages (609, to be exact) I read it slowly, enjoying a few chapters each day. María Dueñas has a PhD in English philology and teaches at the University of Murcia, in the south-east of Spain. Her academic expertise and research skills are evident in the novel. She includes a lengthy bibliography of the sources and texts she consulted while writing. The historical detail is wonderful and the plot is constantly developing. Despite having studied the Spanish Civil War, I knew nothing about the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco and its role during the Guerra Civil. The Seamstress made me want to find out more. Although the protagonist is a fictional character, many of the other people who appear in the novel were real people, including Rosalinda Fox, who had a fascinating life.

There are some areas where the novel dragged a little. The detail is wonderful and really sets the scene but there is a lot of it and I think some skilful editing would make a difference. On the whole, though, I can’t really fault this book. The plot is engaging, the setting is atmospheric and I liked the central character. Some reviews I read called Sira a shallow character but personally, I disagree with that judgement. She is an enterprising, resolute young woman and it is a credit to Dueñas’s proficient writing that Sira matures and develops throughout the novel. It is a great, memorable novel and I look forward to reading more from Maria Dueñas.

My second August read was Serena by Ron Rash. I have just finished reading it and it is in sharp contrast, both in setting and in characters, to my first August read. It begins in 1929 in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, where George Pemberton and his wife, Serena, set up camp. Pemberton is a timber baron who oversees a logging empire: the Pemberton Lumber Company. But the title of the novel is really the key to its contents: Serena, a determined, ruthless and ambitious woman who stops at nothing to get what she wants, is at the heart of this story. Her name is an ironic choice; she is anything but serene.

Rash’s writing hooks the reader in right from the first paragraph:

“When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child. She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton’s heart.” (p. 3)

Throughout the book, Serena and Pemberton’s story interweaves with the young woman’s, whose name is Rachel Harmon. Rachel is by far the most sympathetic character in the novel. She struggles to raise her son with almost no acknowledgement from Pemberton; he doesn’t even remember her name.

There are many reviews where Serena is called an “Appalachian Macbeth” and I can clearly see the resemblance. Serena is an extraordinary character, very similar to Lady Macbeth. Like Lady Macbeth, Serena works to get rid of those who fall into disfavor. The reader is only shown glimpses of her background; she refuses to think about the past and only looks forward to the future. Her parents and siblings died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and when asked who was managing their Colorado estate, she responds simply, “I had the house burned down before I left” (p. 55).

Neither Pemberton nor Serena are sympathetic characters and I found it very hard to get close to them. Their harsh, ruthless actions lead to violence and murder in the camp. Serena is the lead, encouraging Pemberton on in their trail of murder and destruction, but he follows willingly. What bothered me the most is that they don’t show remorse or guilt for their actions; they come across as being psychopathic. Serena appears to have no empathy for others whatsoever.

Although the craziness of Pemberton and Serena is a constant presence throughout the book, comic relief is provided by one of the workers at the logging camp. Ross’s shrewd comebacks made me smile more than once. When the fanatical lay preacher, McIntyre, tells the workers that “The only signs you need to follow is in the Bible”, Ross responds with dry humor:

“What about that sign that says No Smoking on the dynamite shed,” Ross noted. “You saying we don’t need to follow that one?” (p. 63)

I have mixed feelings about this novel. I stayed up late to finish reading it because I wanted to know what happened. It really held my attention and that is always a good thing in a book. Ron Rash writes well and I like his gritty style. But some elements of the plot irritated me because of their sheer implausibility such as the old woman who can see the future and helps the Pembertons out with her psychic powers. There is another similarity to Macbeth here: she reminded me of the Macbeth witches and their prophecy.

By the time I finished reading the novel, I felt that the senseless actions of the Pembertons became too over-the-top. They seem one-dimensional because of their sheer lack of compassion for anyone and their obsessive relationship with each other. I hoped that by the end of the novel Rash would elucidate the motivations for Serena’s unrelenting greed and ruthless ambition but he does not dwell on her motives.

A movie adaptation of Serena (Serena at IMDB) is currently in post-production. Jennifer Lawrence plays Serena and Bradley Cooper is Pemberton. At the time of writing this, there is no US release date but it will most likely be released at some point in 2014.

What did you read in August?

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Food: celeriac soup recipe

Source: Wikipedia. Author: DocteurCosmos

Photo credit: Wikipedia. Author: DocteurCosmos

Celeriac – celery root – isn’t going to be winning any beauty contests any time soon. But let’s not be judgemental. Despite its unattractive appearance, it is a versatile and delicious vegetable which is perfect in blended soups. This soup is creamy and lovely, ideal for chillier days as autumn begins to creep into the air.

Ingredients

1 large white onion, diced
2 medium leeks, finely chopped
1 large celeriac (celery root), chopped into small cubes
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 tsp paprika
Approx. 8 cups/2 litres vegetable stock
1 cup milk
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste

Step 1: Sauté the onion, leek and garlic in the olive oil, stirring frequently for 10 – 15 minutes, until they are golden brown.
Step 2: Add the celeriac and simmer on a low heat until the celeriac is tender. Add the vegetable stock, paprika and salt and pepper. Simmer for a further 10 minutes.
Step 3: Blend the soup until it is smooth and creamy, then return to the stove. Add the milk, stir and heat until it is steaming hot. Enjoy with a slice of freshly baked bread!

“When the unimaginable happens, how do we go on?”: an interview with author Eleanor Vincent

In April this year I read a book which I found immensely moving. Swimming with Maya by Eleanor Vincent is a brave, courageous and inspirational memoir. In this interview, Eleanor Vincent talks to Cultural Life about the challenges of writing non-fiction, the process of writing Swimming with Maya and healing after the tragic loss of a child.

Eleanor Vincent

Award-winning author and memoirist Eleanor Vincent

Eleanor Vincent is an award-winning writer whose debut memoir, Swimming with
Maya: A Mother’s Story
was nominated for the Independent Publisher Book Award and was reissued by Dream of Things press early in 2013. She writes about love, loss, and grief recovery with a special focus on the challenges and joys of raising children at any age.

Called “engaging” by Booklist, Swimming with Maya chronicles the life and death of Eleanor’s nineteen-year-old daughter, Maya, who was thrown from a horse and pronounced brain-dead at the hospital. Eleanor donated her daughter’s organs to critically ill patients and poignantly describes her friendship with a middle-aged man who was the recipient of Maya’s heart.

Since the initial publication of Swimming with Maya in 2004, Eleanor has been a national spokesperson on grief recovery and organ donation, appearing on CNN and San Francisco’s Evening Magazine. She has been featured in the San Francisco Chronicle, and been interviewed on radio and television programs around the country.

She was born in Cleveland, Ohio and attended the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and received an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College, where she occasionally teaches writing workshops on creative nonfiction and memoir.

Her essays appear in the anthologies At the End of Life: True Stories about How we Die (edited by Lee Gutkind); This I Believe: On Motherhood; and Impact: An Anthology of Short Memoirs. They celebrate the unique and complicated bonds between mothers and daughters, making hard decisions as a parent – whether your child is 14 or 40 – and navigating midlife transitions with grace and authenticity.

She lives in Oakland, California.

SwM cover

What made you decide to write a memoir?

The moment Maya died, I knew I would write about it. Our story was so personal and so emotional; it naturally lent itself to being told just as it happened – as a true story of loss and overcoming. It was also a way for me to keep Maya alive, because each word I wrote about her was an act of mother love. At that point in my recovery, it would have felt very artificial to tell the story in fictional form. I needed to be willing to risk revealing our family life and myself in a very deep and intimate way.

Life can be over in a moment. This is a truth we all try to defend against, but Maya’s sudden death at age 19 showed me that life could veer off in directions I had never imagined. When the unimaginable happens, how do we go on? This is the question Swimming with Maya attempts to answer. How do we get back up after life knocks us down? As a memoir, my book is a very personal account of one woman’s journey. It is not a self-help book, but it is inspirational and motivational because it shows how I became more resilient than I ever thought I could be. I should note that I had been writing professionally for more than two decades when Maya died. In addition, I was working on my MFA in creative writing at Mills College at the time. I was well equipped to take on what turned into a ten-year effort.

What inspired the title Swimming with Maya?

In the final part of the book, I recount a dream I had about Maya. She was swimming in a pool, gliding under water so effortlessly, and that seemed like a great metaphor of how she was still such an important part of me, “swimming” in and out of my consciousness. I believe the veil between worlds is very thin, and that those we love continue to be with us, and participate in our lives even after they make the transition we call death. Also, Maya loved water. She loved to swim, and she was on the diving team at her high school. Early in the book, I tell the story of teaching the infant Maya to swim. That was the first of many experiences of letting Maya go, something all parents struggle with. Her death was the ultimate letting go.

Maya

Maya, age 17

Did you find it therapeutic to write Swimming with Maya?

Oh definitely! Writing is the way I process almost everything. Certainly something as traumatic as the death of a child requires a deep re-examination of everything and writing is ideally suited to that process. But I need to emphasize that writing was only one of the many healing modalities I used. I knew I’d need to pull out all the stops to recover. So I sought peer-to-peer support through the Compassionate Friends, individual therapy, and spiritual counseling. In addition, I did tons and tons of self-care: walking, healing touch, swimming, dancing, healthy food, lots of rest and time in nature. Family and friends were also very important to my recovery. At a certain point in the process, Swimming with Maya became much less about my personal recovery and much more about telling a story readers would resonate with – I worked very hard to take my book to that next level, to turn it into a page turner.

You chose to donate Maya’s organs after her death. I think organ donation is an issue which many of us choose to avoid thinking about, perhaps because we are squeamish about thinking about our own deaths. But in the United States alone there are approximately 100,000 people on the waiting list for organ transplants. It is a sensitive topic to talk about but also a very important one. Do you think your views on organ donation changed at all after Maya’s death?

If anything, I grew more passionate about helping others – and organ donation is the ultimate helpful act. It is a great privilege to be allowed to save another person’s life, or restore their sight, or contribute to the reconstruction of their skin tissue after horrible burns. All this is possible only through the generosity of donor families, and the medical miracle of transplantation. Sadly, many thousands of people, including children, die every year while waiting for a “gift of life” and a transplant. Swimming with Maya shines a light on this process from the vantage point of the donor mother and other family members. I think it provides valuable testimony for anyone considering becoming an organ and tissue donor.

As well as Swimming with Maya, you have published other pieces of non-fiction and memoir: one about the wedding of your daughter, Meghan, and the other about the birth of your grandchild. Have you ever written fiction?

I write in all genres, including poetry. Early in my career, I published a few short stories. I’ve begun several novels but for various reasons never completed them. Writing narrative nonfiction, or creative nonfiction as it is sometimes called, comes very naturally. I get to use fictional techniques – scene, dialogue, character development, and plot – in the service of telling a true story. In some ways, writing fiction is more freeing because you are not bound by “what really happened.” On the other hand, few things are more interesting than what really happened. Truth is often stranger than fiction, as the cliché would have it.

Do you prefer to write non-fiction?

That depends on the purpose or the intention behind a particular piece of writing. I’m currently working on a book that began its life as a memoir but that is morphing into a novel. Certain stories ask to be told in certain ways. As a writer, I have to take direction from my material.

As a writer, what do you think are the biggest challenges, especially when writing non-fiction?

Writing a memoir is difficult – and satisfying – on so many levels. The writer must be both narrator and character and that is not an easy balancing act. The narrator needs to know more than the character does. Getting that perspective requires time, and willingness to dig deep.

I highly recommend Vivian Gornick’s book on writing memoir, The Situation and the Story. It helped me to make that separation between the character of the mother in Swimming with Maya and the voice of the narrator.

I also think plot is an important aspect of memoir. You can’t just tell the story exactly as it happened. You have to create turning points in each chapter, and have a major realization or turning point sometime in the last quarter of the book. In that way, it’s much like writing a novel. You have to constantly ask yourself, “What is at stake here?” If there is nothing on the line for your characters, the reader will lose interest quickly.

So writing a compelling memoir, or personal essay, requires a lot of craft, as well as deep level of honesty and ability to see from a broader perspective and convey that to the reader.

Do you have a particular routine you follow when you write?

I tend to putter before I write – do dishes, water plants, tidy up – that sort of thing. I find that very soothing and writing can be very anxiety provoking. So I try to soothe myself into alignment with the material before I begin. I’ll usually reread what I’ve already written on a given piece. Sometimes, I’ll read a short inspiring poem or favorite paragraph by another author, before I begin or if I get stuck. But mostly, it’s just about getting my butt in the chair for a certain number of hours. Doing my time.

On average, how long does it take you to write a book?

There is no average. Again, the material I’m working with is the determining factor. Swimming with Maya took ten years to write. But the material was extraordinarily difficult. I had to take frequent breaks to grieve. And, I was still raising my other daughter and working full time, so it was a long process. I completed a first draft of my current book in less than five years – so that is much faster. But revision can also be a long process. I let the writing and rewriting drive how long the process will take.

Are you working on any writing projects at the moment?

Yes. I’m working on a series of highly personal essays about my father, who recently died at the age of 92. That material is very fresh so I’m not yet sure what form it will take. I may turn into a book of linked essays, or I may decide to fictionalize it.

I’m also working on the book I mentioned which is based on my time in a cohousing community in Oakland. Cohousing is a form of intentional community where each person or family has their own house but you share meals together several times a week, and the community is self-governing, which means participating in lots of meetings. It’s a wonderful idea. In practice, I found, it was very challenging. My particular community was full of amazing people and I want to tell the story of how we interacted, what worked and what didn’t, and what I learned as a result. I ultimately decided to leave. It was a painful lesson, one I am mining for laughs, because there is something inherently funny about a wonderful ideal that turns into a disaster.

For more about Eleanor Vincent and her writing, you can visit her official website here, like her author page on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @eleanor_vincent
Buy the book and post a review at Amazon.com
Visit the publisher Dream of Things to order Swimming with Maya directly: Dream of Things

New music from The Civil Wars

The Nashville duo, The Civil Wars, released their second album this week. I first found out about The Civil Wars thanks to a song on The Hunger Games soundtrack which I heard in December 2011. I bought their début album, Barton Hollow, and for most of last spring I played it on repeat on my iPod. The music, sung by Joy Williams and John Paul White, is haunting and melodic. Joy Williams’s voice is astoundingly beautiful combined with the raw simplicity of acoustic guitar. From melancholy ballads to foot-tapping melodies, each song tells a story, combining rootsy Americana, bluegrass and country in a captivating blend.

I would love to see them play live but unfortunately last year they cancelled tour dates on their European tour, giving “irreconcilable differences” as the reason. I hope they don’t stop producing music together. It is unclear whether they will tour again or release another album. It is a real shame as they are definitely one of the most talented Americana/country duos around at the moment. Let’s hope they manage to resolve the problems.

This song from their latest album left me with goosebumps. Go have a listen!

(Video linked from The Civil Wars Youtube channel. No copyright infringement is intended. All rights belong to their respective owners)

If you enjoyed hearing this, I also recommend “20 Years” and “Barton Hollow” from their first album.

For more about The Civil Wars with music videos and other info, you can visit their official website: The Civil Wars and follow them on Twitter @thecivilwars

What do you think of The Civil Wars’ music? If you have any recommendations for other Americana and country artists, let me know by leaving a comment on this post. I would love to hear them!