Sparked by Words

Archive for September, 2016

The Day of a Small Hurdle

Didn’t know if I would write this but realized I must.

Last Friday, September 16, I slipped off a curb. Sun in my eyes, loose sandal, in too much of a hurry.

Fell hard onto the pavement on my right side. Did not black out at all, no bump to my noggin, no shiny stars. Just a swollen right arm. A misshapen swollen right arm.

Folks at the place where I’d just left – the residence where my mom lives – extremely helpful and kind. Careful not to let my mom find out – might have upset her  – or might have whooshed beyond her comprehension.

Ambulance to hospital. No siren but what a bumpy ride. Travel on a freeway with an injured body part and you feel every jostle along the way. Yes you do.

Kaiser – great hospital care. Thanks, Kai. Wonderful medical staff at every juncture.  Lots of x-rays. The technician was so kind and worked quickly because he realized my pain. He even put on a protective vest to help hold me as I was close to fainting. A few bruises all along my right side, but most importantly, a dislocated right elbow, two parenthetically shaped fractures around the elbow, one on ulna, the other on humerus. Nothing humorous about this however.

Elbow relocated in socket (under lots of codeine – no pain from the reset – yay!) CT scans to make sure the reset was correct – it was. CT machine a very strange halo apparatus. Arm fitted with  temporary brace. Kaiser staff professional, compassionate, and knowledgeable to a man and woman.

Permanent cast appointment for Tuesday. Then on to full healing. At my age, could take a while. Maybe physical therapy.

Much love and assistance from older son who stayed with me through entire hospital camp out (not nearly as much fun as Scout camp outs were when he was younger) and visited every day once I was home; from hubby who came as soon as he could (had been working other side of another county) then brought red roses to cheer me, and continues to do everything possible to help; from daughter-in-law who brought food, sympathy, offered all help, and will take me for cast appointment; and from grandchildren who remind me how incredibly special they and their parents are. Everyone very loving – I am so lucky.

I’m right-handed so this is a pain in the as… no, a pain in the arm. Typing with left hand – I’m sloppy and hitting buttons that make a mess out of my writing.  Making corrections is so annoying – tend to make more errors – ugh!

Working on a large desk top so it’s uncomfortable for right arm which I can’t support correctly. Don’t own a small laptop I can prop on my knees while in a comfy chair. And drugs making me a bit sleepy and dopey.

All of this to say – please forgive me. This will be the last post on this site for a month or two. And I may not read or reply to your posts as often either.

I will return. This is only a small hurdle. I have many big ones I intend to conquer. I intend one day to publish, I have much more to write, and hope you will return to see what I’ve discovered along the way.

Thank you for your support, friends.  See you in the break room.




You Don’t Talk So Good


“You don’t talk so good.” My toddler grandson inadvertently complimented me although I’d accidentally insulted him. My face blushed, I checked my grin. I’d caught his speech pattern accurately and pitched it back to him so well that he heard the clumsy language structure I’d heard in him. He didn’t recognize himself in my speech but he heard it. An authentic voice, caught on the fly, lodged in real time. A bit like glancing in a mirror and wondering who the hell is that stranger then realizing it’s the real me, without makeup.

That’s what we want when we write dialogue, a voice so accurate we recognize the speaker, whether it’s ourselves or the transplanted Southerner who works down the hall, spoken with  a drawl, “The new gal’s showing too much of her religion.” (Her skirt is way too short.) The VISA employee in India who answers the customer service line, in sing-song style with clipped consonants, “I would be veddy pleased to assist you, may I have your credit card number, please, as well your name and address?” (I’m going to pretend to help you but your question is above my pay grade, please do not ask for my supervisor.”) The teenager who only speaks rap, sort of sung while sort of dancing with hand movements that mimic catching toads, “I’m comin’ on extreme strong cuz my shadow is crazy long, you ain’t got no common sense to be gone, I know you is damn bogus wrong.” (Your guess is as good as mine.) The old lady who gestures when my dog poops on her grass, wheezed with the anger of self-righteousness, “I’m calling the dogcatcher on that filthy cur.” (Needs no translation.) What we don’t want to lasso is the perfect elocution of the English professor. Formal diction played out in actual conversation is phony – unless an English professor is talking in our book. My goal: making myself blush with recognition at the language I write.

Who knew that cleaning up could mean messing things up, scrambling perfectly good sentences into something I’d never say? I’m pretty good at dialogue but sometimes it’s too perfect. My English lit background gets in the way of my stories by being too essay-correct. You’d never catch me saying, “Her and I went shopping,” so I never write in this colloquial context. Yet I hear that kind of error all the time and have consciously returned to a scene to write it in street speech, the way that real People speak, even if that People isn’t me.

I often speak in perfect past tense: “I would have gone shopping had it not been for a car accident.” Is that accident in a parking lot or in my brain? Real world, more publishable: “I would’ve went shopping but Ralph busted up the car.” Two grammar screw ups in one sentence, a verbal feast common to real speech, though the sentence wouldn’t earn high marks on a school essay. Still, it’s the one to come out of a character’s mouth. Here’s another I’ve been heard to speak: “Behave yourself appropriately.” (Not only the English major here, but also the mommy/teacher – sheesh! My kids never had a chance!) Likely a better choice in a book: “Don’t do nothing bad.” Not only does this have more street cred, but it has the muscle of a real mother with its double negative threat, finger pointing in the kid’s face.

Slang is a whole other exotic pet, one that’s as difficult to potty train as a Siamese fighting fish. You have to get yourself not only down on the street to listen to people speak what is often a local dialect but also one that’s transient and fickle – It ain’t gonna be ‘round long, bro, and by the time you get the hang of it, it’ll be long outta use. Klutzy? Probably. I haven’t been hanging out at the local hot spots where young people congregate. Use slang craftily, minimally, to house your story in a specific place, at a particular moment in time. Avoid it otherwise or it will sound like ragtime at the opera.

Diction is our choice of words to express how our characters speak, both the style of language and the words themselves. Great dialogue shows off how close we are to our characters’ true personae and how tight we are with the culture that produced them. Of course we writers create the cast of our story. They are our virtual babies, but we have to write ourselves out of the scenes. Like sending our babies off to kindergarten, we don’t get to climb aboard the bus. Whether it’s the use of slang, dialect, garbled speech, accent, or idiom, our characters have to be true to the ducklings we’ve hatched. Even the ugly ones.

Perhaps the most difficult part of conveying honest speech in our writing is to say less, implant a red herring, or imply more. This is where the most highly skilled and insightful writers win top awards and earn loyal audiences. Clever dialogue reveals the worries, understanding, or ambitions of one character, and the evasion of the other who is listening but perhaps feigning sympathy or leading the first speaker astray. For examples, read Shakespeare, especially Hamlet. (Really, for examples, read Shakespeare. He was a playwright and a poet, but his use of dialogue to convey the whole world – I don’t care who the guy really was, he was brilliant, and a more dynamic and talented example you’d be hard pressed to find.)

For my own writing, I make progress when I slash the formal speech typed into my manuscript and replace it with something a reader can believe. I keep hoping even if readers think I talk funny, they still believe in the characters who say those words. To be successful, I have to know the character in my book. I built him from the keys on my keyboard and the drifting nimbus in my head, and I have to know his history, quandary, and motivation, to know more about him than I write in order to make him authentic. Maybe just getting a single line of his dialogue absolutely right is worth a whole day’s effort fiddling with my manuscript.

I’ll run this idea by my grandson.


Painting courtesy Google public domain images:



C Is for Cutting for Stone


Cutting for Stone, written by Abraham Verghese, enthralled me from the first page with this paragraph:

After eight months spent in the obscurity of our mother’s womb, my brother, Shiva, and I came into this world in the late afternoon of the twentieth of September in the year of grace, 1954. We took our first breaths at an elevation of eight thousand feet in the thin air of Addis Ababa, capital city of Ethiopia. The miracle of our birth took place in Missing Hospital’s Operating Theater 3, the very room where our mother, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, spent most of her working hours, and in which she had been most fulfilled.

A dedicated Indian nurse who is also a nun gives birth to conjoined twin boys in Addis Ababa. It wasn’t really meant to be Missing Hospital – it was Mission Hospital, but Ethiopian tongues couldn’t pronounce it correctly, and it was transcribed as it was spoken, so Missing it became. Their mother dies during their difficult labor, the infants are surgically separated only minutes after birth, their father flees in distress of  the mother’s death. The lives of the boys began with a chance meeting of surgeon and nurse aboard a doomed ship traveling from India to Ethiopia, a clerical error, a sin, a miracle, or all three, depending upon point of view.

The story is told from the point of view of Marion, the more serious and focused twin. at odds with each other, as Shiva’s rebellious impulses antagonize their relationship. The boys grow up under the tutelage and care of two other Indian physicians who have immigrated to Ethiopia. Marion and Shiva are often at odds with each other, as Shiva’s rebellious impulses antagonize their relationship. Fascinated by medicine, each pursues a different track, Marion’s the more traditional medical school route, Shiva’s an organic, intuitive learning curve. As children they played with Genet, daughter of a hospital servant, forming a threesome of inquisitive youngsters. As teenagers, they both fall in love with her, accelerating brotherly jealousy. Eventually Marion, betrayed by his own brother, flees to America, where he learns the true measure of the Hippocratic Oath.

Against the backdrop of rebellion of Haile Selassi’s long rule over Ethiopia, where allegiances confound the pursuit of conflicting ideals, the boys wonder about the mysterious life of their mother and the abandonment by their father. Eventually Marion, betrayed by his own brother and the girl they loved, flees to America, where he learns the true measure of the Hippocratic Oath. He faces a live changing decision that may destroy him with either outcome and forces him to turn to the two people he has come to despise – his father and his brother.

This is a long book, written by a man who was born in Ethiopia, and is now a physician and a writer in the U.S. It impressed me on many levels. Verghese’s lyrical writing and medical expertise authenticate the experiences in the story. The title of the book comes from part of the Oath, that one must not cut for stones, meaning gall bladders stones, as such surgery often led to the agonizing death of the patient. It is a lesson Marion must learn under difficult circumstances.

My own father was a physician. He always regretted that he didn’t become a surgeon, but I’ve often met people who tell me what a wonderful family doctor he was. I sensed a bit of the dilemmas my father may have met in his professional life in this book.

Two of my favorite quotes from the book illuminate some of its complexity and foreshadow future events. In the first, Matron, who helped raise the twins talks to Marion about doing his best:

“No, Marion,” she said, her gaze soft, reaching for me, her gnarled hands rough on my cheeks. “No, not Bach’s ‘Gloria’. Yours! Your ‘Gloria’ lives within you. The greatest sin is not finding it, ignoring what God made possible in you.”

In the second quote, Marion is tested by his father, a revered surgeon:

“Tell us please, what treatment in an emergency is administered by ear?”….I met his gaze and I did not blink. “Words of comfort,” I said to my father.

The words in this book made me wonder and gasp on every page. Each night was a contest to see how late I could stay up to read it.


Other books that were serious contenders for C:

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

The Cider House Rules by John Irving

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole


 I look forward to learning about your favorite C fiction books.



Book cover image courtesy Google images and Vintage Books



It’s the Best, the Absolute Best


Laughter – still the best medicine. The biddies from the Old Wives Club had it right all along. It protects my heart because it makes my blood get up and flow throughout my system, and blood pumping into and out of those bellowing chambers is better than the gridlock some folks suffer. It releases my endorphins, the giddy little proteins inside our bods that suppress pain and make us feel good, or at least better. And who doesn’t want to feel better? It gives a wake-up call to my hormones by nudging my immune system into overdrive, producing anti-bodies that fight the good fight – against the bad grunge like illness and disease and sour temper.

Who can laugh without relaxing? Isn’t that why some of us (not me of course, and certainly not you, but other unnamed folks) pee their pants when laughing raucously? Losing all control is not a bad thing, even if you must change your whitie-dities, because when you’re having that much fun – who cares about all the rest? Oh, and it’s contagious! In a good way, not like the flu, but like having enough cup cakes for everyone in the world. So now I not only feel good inside my own world weary bod – I feel good because everyone around me also feels good. Motto for today: Spread cheer – laugh out loud.

My physical health improves. My bod doesn’t ache any more. Not as much anyway. Laughing that hard must have worked the kinks out of the system, kind of like untwisting the hose and letting the water spray all over the yard. Or sitting in a giggle spa while warm bubbles tumble all over achy joints until the pain realizes it isn’t welcome.

It’s the perfect size for my emotional health, a one-size-fits-all remedy. I can do what I must, even all the miserable tasks I dislike, and I’ll be fine. I’ll just make a list like the Lord High Executioner in The Mikado and mark off each accomplished task until I can’t do any more until tomorrow. Laugh! Now I feel good about myself. What was I afraid of in the first place?

My social life gets a boost, and heaven knows I’ve been a bit lacking in that deportment.  The stranger next to me is grinning big time, now she’s leaning over, telling me how much fun it was to watch me laugh, and now she’s laughing, spreading the good news that something out there is fun-nee! We’re not strangers any more – we’re two goofettes laughing about something so funny we can’t even remember what it was – but it made us laugh.

Laughter – find it in your grocery store in the chocolate aisle where you can decide on extra dark or milk, or be like me and take both. Then a third because it’s buy two, get one free. Dessert for the whole week. Yippee!

Or in the ripe veggie bin where the bananas have been pinched by every shopper with opposable thumbs and have brown marks looking just like thumbprints. Gonna be someone’s banana bread by tonight. (Yeah, that was me too.) Gonna be someone’s banana bread by tonight.

Or by the checkout line next to the guy with a full cart unloading on the stand clearly lit up with the “15 items or less” sign.  OK, so he can’t read but he sure does like his beer and his microwavable dinners. Whoopee – the guy doesn’t have to cook tonight. Whoop-de-do.

Or at the magazine stand whose well thumbed pages of multiple brand new issues assure you are not buying a new magazine should you indulge but a well loved one, even if previous lovers left bent pages and wrinkled covers. Grandkid’s getting a present sent by mail and cushioned in old magazines. Hooray!

If you can’t find anything to laugh about, search for comics and jokes online or replay the opening monologues from the late night TV shows. A bit of computer navigation, and voila: a guffaw explosion. Cat, dog, and baby videos are good for a giggle. Speaking of, pet your pet, and if you don’t have one, find a neighbor’s pet. Give Rover or Tuna Breath some finger play behind the ear, a hand smoothie down the back. Homes for the old folks are letting in animal residents free of charge because the Cottage of Furries relieves stress in the Kingdom of Worries.

You can be a grump all day and go to bed wrestling with every demon, identified and improvised, known to the human body. Or you can laugh all day and go to sleep relaxed, content, ready to take on the night with sweet dreams and the morrow with delight.

Better yet – go write a book. That’s what I did. I wrote three, a fourth well on its way, and three earlier children’s books. All of them have moments of funny. Just a spoonful or maybe a whole gallon – good medicine just as the doctor prescribed it. And the biddies from the Old Wives Club.


A thank you to my dear friend Judith Westerfield, whose wisdom, guidance, and friendship inspired this post.


Baby laughing courtesy Google images public domain:



B Is for Bel Canto


Bel Canto, the title meaning beautiful singing, begins like some musical pieces, with an unassuming opening that leaves you wondering where you might go with this piece, but still engaging enough you want to stay. Then comes the crescendo measure that crashes through your tranquility and startles you so urgently you remain on alert for every delicate nuance, every individual solo, every puncture of cymbals and drums because you cannot close your ears for a moment. Bel Canto made me focus on the spaces between words, because even they seemed to have merit.

Ann Patchett has long been recognized for her mastery of writing craft. In book after book, she explores unusual worlds with cognizant detail and intuition. In Bel Canto, she contrasts the structured beauty of opera with the impulsive passion for social justice.  The story takes place at the opulent home of the vice president of a Latin American country where a group of dignitaries have been invited to listen to Roxanne Coss sing a famous opera. Her guests are carried into their own dreams as they listen to her. After her perfect performance, terrorists invade the home and hold everyone hostage, demanding that the country’s president show himself. They present an ultimatum, they will kill everyone, and they expect the government to acquiesce. The cymbals and drums measure.

But the president isn’t at the performance and so begins a siege, a standoff between the ill-considered plan of the terrorists and the absent, indifferent government. Weeks and eventually months elapse, the mansion enveloped in a fog so thick that nothing seems able to puncture it.  The terrorists are armed with guns, the guests are at their mercy, and even the ability to talk to each other is impossible – nearly everyone speaks a different language, a melting pot of cultures without the melt. Opera brought the guests together, but longing for power and recognition motivates the terrorists.

Two characters play key parts in the story. Watanabe is a man whose genius facility for learning languages makes him essential to every conversation, between guests, and between hostages and terrorists. Messner, a Red Cross volunteer, is the only person from the outside world to get into the mansion, as he attempts to negotiate a resolution to the crisis. Both characters are a bit of literary contrivance but are necessary to allow the plot to progress. However, Patchett integrates each into the story by giving them roles beyond their gimmicky contributions.

Locked into a tiny space, hostages and terrorists begin to see each other as human beings with similar needs for interaction and relationships. The guests realize that except for the few angry and armed leaders, the terrorists are children and teenagers, hungry for attention and opportunity that their rural roots will never provide. With a growing need for physical and mental outlets, guests and terrorists teach each other to play, sing, and create. They fall in love with each other, hostage to hostage, terrorist to terrorist, even crossing the lines. One of my favorite characters is Carmen, a beautiful young and idealistic terrorist whose facility for speech belies the fact that she cannot read, until the reserved Watanabe begins to teach her and falls in love with her.

Within the fog that surrounds the mansion, a fog of misinformation and mistrust as much as an environmental condition, everyone starts to listen to everyone else. The terrorists represent the impoverished indigenous tribes whose kids are hungry and who have no future. The guests represent the wealthy and privileged gentry who do not see the eyes, hearts, or laboring backs of the people who make their luxurious lifestyle possible.

Like opera, like sieges, like hostage events everywhere, the story ends…well, I’ll let you read it for yourself.

Patchett’s facility for language makes every page sing with truth and insight but one of my favorite lines sums up the story. In love only with her art form and her skill in opera, Roxanne Coss says, “If someone loves you for what you can do, then it’s flattering…but if they love you for who you are, they have to know you, which means you have to know them.” This is the crux of the story: talk to each other and lift the fog that smothers communication.

Bel Canto made me realize that every story is a way to connect and share, and how well I achieve that in my own books is dependent upon how well I pay attention.

The book was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Orange Prize for Fiction.



Other books that were serious contenders for B:

The Bee Season by Myla Goldberg

Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions by Daniel Wallace

The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner

The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos


I look forward to learning about your favorite B fiction books.



Book cover image courtesy Google images and Perennial, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers




A Is for All the Light We Cannot See


Written by Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See is the story of the siege of Saint-Malo, the citadel used by pirates at the farthest edge of north-western France where the sea crashes against its enormous stone battlements. It had survived two thousand years. Yet American military, facing Nazi refusal to surrender their ground advantage, attacked it relentlessly from the air and burned nearly the entire city to the ground before the final rout of Axis power.

The history of Saint-Malo unfolds from the perspective of two teenagers whose trajectory toward each other is so unlikely that even though I knew they would eventually meet, I was startled when they did. Marie-Laure is a young blind girl who lives with her father, a locksmith at the Paris Museum of Natural History. After the siege of Paris, they flee to presumed safety in Saint-Malo, where they stay at the home of her recluse uncle and his devoted housekeeper. Her father has constructed a small wooden model of the city with such meticulous precision that she can find her way around the real town by walking her fingers through the model. Uncle Etienne, emotionally damaged by the Great War, broadcasts science lessons from his treasured ancient radio to the children of France while hiding on the top floor of the house. On his calmer days, Etienne is able to allow a companionable relationship to develop with his niece.

Werner is a German boy who lives with his beloved sister in an orphanage for children whose fathers died working in the city’s coal mines. The boy’s brilliance with mathematics and mechanics makes him a valuable asset to the Nazis and saves him from being forced into the mines. He is sent to a school where the brightest of young German boys are rigorously trained to be soldiers, inured to sympathy for the enemy and for the weak. Conscripted into the army, he distances himself from the horrors of war by concentrating on the pure science of triangulation algorithms to locate the secret radios the French are using to communicate with the Allies.

Von Rumpel is a German officer as sick in mind as he is in body. Assigned to find and confiscate the great treasures of occupied France for Germany, he is in pursuit of the mythical Sea of Flames, an enormous blue diamond with a fire red center that is said to promise everlasting life. Von Rumpel is convinced the rare gem is hidden in Saint-Malo.

The story is told in short chapters that alternate between Marie-Laure and Werner, and occasionally from the point of view of von Rumple. With a fluid chronology unbound to the calendar, it addresses themes of personal determination versus blind obedience, of courage and redemption. It employs the symbols of blindness (what we choose to see; what we refuse; how visual blindness conveys a comprehensive view), culture (music; Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea), communication (mysterious and forbidden radio broadcasts; reading Braille; hidden, coded messages), keys and locks (Marie-Laure’s father is a locksmith; keys and locks show up in many places, including the hearts of people), and fire (the flames of rebellious acts against the Nazis, of the red heart of the diamond, and of the burned city.) The most boundless image is of light, what we see, what we imagine, the inner light or darkness of our souls that guide us to our ultimate fate.

I loved the book for many reasons and have read it three times, though the third was not the last. Doerr’s lyrical facility with description and his mastery of relating a complex story engaged me even when reading difficult chapters about reprehensible acts and the consequences of war. He doesn’t romanticize but he does find beauty in unexpected places. Though I knew the outcome of Saint-Malo, I was still surprised by the depth of reflection of Marie-Laure and Werner as they face their circumstances, by details that made vivid every aspect, and by the choices people make under duress.

My favorite line is first spoken through the radio, heard by Werner at Children’s House, “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”

Doer wrote the book in present tense, a format I usually dislike, but he is so accomplished a writer I didn’t even notice until I’d read a significant portion. He spent ten years researching and writing it, which included visiting Saint-Malo and other sites mentioned in the book. His intimate knowledge of the places as well as information about radio transmissions, whelks, birds, German mining towns, the German schools for youth during the war, subversive efforts by common citizens to confound the Nazis, and other subjects make reading the book a revelation on every page. Doerr won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction as well as other awards for the book. It is a book that haunts and lifts me, reminding me how to remain human.


Other books that were serious contenders for A:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone

All Other Nights by Dara Horn

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg

Atonement by Eon McEwan


I look forward to learning about your favorite A fiction books.


Book cover image courtesy Google images and Scribner