Saturday, January 31, 2015

Martha Jane Orlando’s “Revenge!”

Racer, the talking squirrel, is back.

I never imagined I would get attached to a talking squirrel, but I did.

Racer. Once called Gray, is one of the leading characters of Martha Jane Orlando’s Glade series, three children’s books: A Trip, A Tryst, and a Terror; Children in the Garden; and The Moment of Truth. That series began with a boy, Davy Murray, still mourning the death of his military father and resenting his mother Sarah’s remarriage to Jim, facing the prospect of an awful summer away from friends and his computer, “imprisoned” in Jim’s father’s rural home. He’s discovered by Gray, a talking squirrel no one else can see, who lives in the nearby forest with the other “Old Ones” – animals that talk and do other wondrous things.

The focus of the stories was Davy – a special kid, a “chosen one” who is the only human who can see the Old Ones.

Revenge! (Adventures in the Glade) picks up where the trilogy left off – returning home after a celebration in The Glade in the forest for Davy, his family, and all of the Old Ones. What was being celebrating was the upending of plans by Jim’s cousin Ronnie to bulldoze the forest and replace it with homes.

Martha Jane Orlando
Racer isn’t the only one who’s back. So is Cousin Ronnie. You can’t keep a good villain down. Ronnie, suspecting that animals helped Jim and his family stop his plans, takes his two sons into the forest for some mindless hunting – firing at will with aiming at anything in particular. And then things get really interesting, and dangerous.

I love these stories. They’re good in their own right, something any child would enjoy, but they are also quietly filled with Biblical imagery. They are about grace, and redemption, and about the giving of one’s life so that others might live.

My only complaint is that Orlando brings the story to a fever pitch – and then leave me wanting more. I have to wait until the second volume is published in May.

But Racer is back!

Photograph by Larisa Koshkina via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Robert Dugoni’s “My Sister’s Grave”

Tracy Crosswhite is Seattle’s first female homicide detective. Her hometown, Cedar Grove, Washington, is about two hours west. There’s no one left for her in Cedar Grove; her parents are dead, and her only sibling, a younger sister named Sarah, disappeared when she was 18. Her body was never found; but a prison felon, who had just been released for rape of a minor, was arrested and convicted.

Something was wrong, though, and Tracy knew it. Her pursuit what actually happened to Sarah destroyed her marriage. And then 20 years after Tracy disappeared, her body is found. And what’s clear is that the man convicted for her death couldn’t have done it.

Tracy is determined to learn the truth, whatever the cost. And there are people who prefer she do no such thing.

My Sister’s Grave is writer Robert Dugoni’s ninth novel and the first in what is planned as a Tracy Crosswhite series. And he’s a popular writer – My Sister’s Grave has more than 5,000 reviews on Amazon.

Robert Dugoni
His heroine is unusual – over 40 years old, attractive, and tough. She makes mistakes. She sometimes offends people, and especially her boss’s boss. But she’s also relentless, and now she’s coming close to finding the truth, even if it means putting her own life at risk. She runs into a childhood friend who’s moved back to Cedar Grove from Boston, leaving behind a successful law practice and a failed marriage. He becomes Tracy’s ally, and her love interest.

Dugoni skillfully builds the tension, and the story’s crisis begins to happen sooner than expected. He heightens the tension to the point where the reader is tempted to turn to the last page to see if Tracy will survive or not (I did not succumb to the temptation) (but I thought about it).

My Sister’s Grave is part mystery, part police procedural, part legal thriller – all combined into an extremely satisfying story.

Photograph by Junior Libby via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Legend reborn

Erupting from the sands
and scrub, friend of scorpions
and snakes, it bleats
an incessant murmur of muted
mechanization, pulsing,
feeding on electrons streamed
live and in color, coming
to a theater near you as soon
as it finishes its Broadway run

A temple, a pyramid, a ziggurat
of sacrificed doom, exerting
an incessant magnetism,

Osiris steps into his coffin
once again, confident he knows
better, this time. Isis waits,
knowing this time she becomes
the goddess of the underworld,
the sword of the caliphate,
living the nightmare
she creates

Painting: Osiris and Isis, oil and acrylic emulsion by Anselm Kiefer (1985-1987); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The painting was included in the Royal Academy of Arts exhibition "Anselm Kiefer" in London, which was shown Sept. 27 to Dec. 14, 2014.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Vicar of Baghdad

It seemed to be just another noise from the troubled Mideast, those reports of fighting in Iraq and Syria. If we were aware of them at all, they seem to be the continued sectarian warfare in Iraq and the civil war in Syria. And then an Anglican priest in Baghdad raised the alarm.


We started paying attention, and realized that was something far beyond the norm of what seems to pass for normal life in the Mideast. An army. Atrocities. Massacres. Every bit as bad as Boko Harum in Nigeria. And then Mosul, a city of one million people, fell to ISIS.

The Anglican priest was Andrew White. And he is a vicar – of St. George’s Church in Baghdad. But he’s also known as the Vicar of Baghdad. He’s seen his face on a wanted poster, has to travel with a bodyguard of some two dozen soldiers, has experienced explosions and bombings, and has seen friends and colleagues be kidnapped and never heard from again.

Few Christians have experienced that kind of call to service.

He’s written several books; I’ve now read two of them: The Vicar of Baghdad (2009) and Faith Under Fire (2011). I found the first in the gift shop of Southwark Cathedral in London, where White was ordained, and the second at St. Martins-in the-Fields.

He tells amazing stories. Many read like thriller suspense fiction. Except his are true.

Andrew White was just completing training as an EMT with St. Thomas Hospital (just south of the Thames across from Parliament and Big Ben) when he experienced what he could only describe as a clear call to the Anglican priesthood. He had been attending an Anglican church but had been raised Baptist. He’s become something that’s neither Baptist nor what we expect of Anglicans – a priest who’s seen miracles among the people of his church in Baghdad, experienced and seen angels of protection, and recognizes when believers speak in tongues.

In The Vicar of Baghdad, White describes how he came to be a priest, and the rather surprisingly short route he took from there to his first experience in Middle Eastern politics, working to secure agreement and cooperation among the various faiths represented in Israel and Palestine. Part of that short route including training and study in Israel, and it was there he came to understand the need to study and understand Islam. During this time he also realized that God had called him to mission in the Middle East. From the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, White moved to what was happening in Iraq. He was already involved in Iraq but was in England when 9-11 occurred. The war in Iraq followed in 2003.

White moved, and still moves, easily among household names – leaders in Israel and Hamas, Yassir Arafat (while he was still alive), politicians, church leaders and imams.

In Faith Under Fire, White repeats some of the framework information of The Vicar of Baghdad, but this is more about his faith and the faith of the people he cares for in Baghdad, as it plays out in the day-to-day reality of civil warfare and unrest. I’m glad I read the two books together, because the first is largely an account of what he does while the second is more about what he believes – and how his faith suffuses and motivates what he does.

And while he refers to it only rarely, his service comes with a cost. One is separation from his wife and two sons, who live in England. The other is that he has multiple sclerosis, diagnosed shortly before his first Mideast experience.

Andrew White, the vicar of Baghdad, would tell us that he’s just a man. And he is. But he’s been used by God in amazing ways.

Photograph of Andrew White courtesy of The Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Poets and Poems: David Harsent and “Fire Songs”

Last week I discussed I Knew the Bride by Hugo Williams, shortlisted but not the winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize of the Poetry Book Society, founded in 1953 by T.S. Eliot and friends. In the UK, this is the poetry prize to win, carrying with it a 20,000 pound award (about $36,000). I was so taken with Williams’ poems that I wondered just how good the winner was.

So I read it: Fire Songs by David Harsent.

It begins with what is undoubtedly a fire song – “Fire: a song for Mistress Askew” – a rather graphic account of a woman being burned at the stake, with enough Old English lines worked in to add an air of historic reality. (As it turns out, Mistress Anne Askew, a Protestant poet, was arrested several times, found guilty of heresy and, after torture in the Tower of London, burned at the stake in 1546. She was 26.

You read Harsent’s poem, and you suffer alongside Mistress Askew. And it is a long poem.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, January 26, 2015

On Being a Writer: Discovering Who You Are

When did I first decide I was a writer?

Perhaps it was when I was 10, and wrote a mystery story longhand.

It might have been the summer before I started journalism school in college, and I had to teach myself to type (it was a required skill for journalism). Or later that same year, when I received a B+ on my first class assignment with the note, “Not bad for a cub.” Or when the grader for my American history class gave me an A on a test, with a scribbled “well written essay” at the top of the first page.

I know that by the time I was writing speeches for other people, around 1975 or 1976, I was also writing short stories.

For more than 35 years of my career, I’ve been involved in speechwriting. It’s perhaps the toughest job in corporate communications (or any other kind of communications). You’re writing for another person. To do your job well, you have to write like that person speaks. That means you have to listen more than you talk.

Speechwriting is also a rather anonymous, despite the tendency of presidential speechwriters to rush out with a memoir as soon as they’ve left the West Wing of the White House. Someone else takes credit for everything you write in a speech. That is, unless the speech doesn’t go well. Then it’s all your fault.

Most people in communications hate speechwriting.

If you’re writing for the CEO, you have to keep reminding yourself you’re not the CEO’s friend, or even his or her colleague, no matter how friendly the CEO might seem. You’re there as a professional writer. I’ve seen several careers flame out because the writer though he or she was the CEO’s friend, chatting the CEO up, repeating things the CEO said, sharing the CEO’s jokes. All of those activities tell everyone that the writer has a bad self-image, and is seeking to inflate his or her importance.

I didn’t mind the anonymity. I did mind being at the CEO’s beck-and-call on nights and weekends. I did like the largely solitary work. I didn’t like the politics surrounding the CEO’s speeches. One CEO I worked for was so sensitive that he had one hard and fast rule: no one in the company could see his speech drafts unless they came and asked him face-to-face for permission.

That cut out a lot of requests from people to “just give the draft a quick read,” usually spoken with an ingratiating smile.

Speechwriting taught me to write with a voice, and that the best speeches were the ones that expressed emotion in the right way and in the right places. It taught me that the most critical part of the job was not the writing but the listening. I learned to listen, and listen hard. Speechwriting also taught me to interpret, and how, for example, to translate a rant that I didn’t know how to write into a CEO’s unspoken fear of speaking to a minority audience. And it taught me know when the time had come to confront the CEO about his abuse (you don’t do something like that lightly or without a lot of forethought about the possible consequences).

I had also been around the speechwriting life long enough to know that it is very rare for a speechwriter to write effectively for both the CEO and his or her successor. Too much baggage can get in the way, and usually does. So you have to know when it’s time to do something else.

In On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts, Ann Kroeker (co-author with Charity Craig) says that “writing is more than what I do or coach. I discover who I am.” It teaches you about how you think, how you react, what you believe is important, what cannot be compromised, and what is superfluous.

What you read on a printed page or computer screen, no matter what the subject might be, tells you more about the writer than what is written.

Photograph by Linnaea Mallette via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Better at night

Better at night
than in day that
I come to ask my question
my question to which
I know the answer
but the asking is what
is important, a parched sponge
in need of water.

And the answer comes,
obliterating the question:
I am taken down a path
I did not expect, a path
I did not know

I ask my question at night,
better at night, He answers
my question with day,
confounding the night.

Can I be reborn in the flesh,
can I be reborn in the spirit,
can I be whitened
in pale linen, cleaned,
my heart restored not
to what it was but to what
it was meant to be;
can I be reborn?

Yes, he says, the possible
is an imperative.

Photograph: Study for Jesus and Nicodemus by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937); study painted 1898-1899.