Book to Read, Events, General, Readings

A President to Wish For

“The Greatest Hero,” —Walt Whitman

In this time of California fires, the Coronavirus quarantine and Trump, I’m desperate for revelation. When my son, Chris, lends me his voluminous biography of our 18th President, Ulysses S. Grant, written by Ron Chernow, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Hamilton and Washington, I open it and begin to read. Why not?

I get no further than the very first page when I realize I’m hooked, eager to learn what’s in the 1073 pages remaining.  It’s a bygone era, true, a vastly different life, yet familiar too. Reading about this American president I vaguely recognize from my high school history class, I’m surprised, excited even, to see that here’s someone, strangely enough, I can identify with now.  Someone I wish I knew.

Historical textbooks have portrayed  Ulysses S. Grant’s terms in office as marked by rampant corruption presided over by a president who spoke only on occasion, had  an alcohol problem, little charisma, and was simple-mindedly loyal to duplicitous “friends” in politics.  Reading GRANT however, I discover a singular, sensitive man born in the Midwest of pioneer stock, the “son of an incorruptible small-town braggart” and a silent, beloved mother, an expert horseman, a failure at business while brilliant at military maneuvers, who resigned from the army in disgrace. A foe of slavery.

The very first sentence introduces me to Grant who has just left the office of the Presidency.  It seems Ex-President Grant is unlike so many other presidents who rushed to publish their memoirs as soon as they departed the White House.  No, two-time President Ulysses S. Grant, High Military Commander of the Union Army, who defeated the renown Confederate General Robert E Lee to win the Civil War for Abraham Lincoln, “refused to trumpet his accomplishments in print” and was, in fact, too modest and unpretentious.  As Chernow describes it, Grant was a hero in spite of himself. He hated boasting about himself and his wartime accomplishments.

In the middle paragraph, Chernow fast-forwards to 1883 in post-Civil War New York City, where Grant, no longer president, has a crippling accident getting out of a taxi on a snowy night and ends up being a lifelong invalid with “excruciating pain” and the “agonizing onset of pleurisy coupled with severe rheumatism.”

And still on Page 1, Chernow hints at the financial success Grant longed for finally being realized at the end of his life. Ex-president Grant has partnered with a young brash swindler, Ferdinand Ward, and imagines himself a millionaire who will be able to at last provide support for Julia after he’s gone.  But then . . .and then . . .while. . .after.

Deep into it now, I experience a small, unassuming man who never wanted to go to West Point, who could fall asleep in the middle of a battle and wake up refreshed, and who had the love and loyalty of the huge Union Army of Lincoln. Who Frederick Douglass called, “the protector of my race.” Grant who sought freedom and justice for newly emancipated slaves both as Commander in Chief and later as President, fighting carpetbaggers and the newly formed Ku Klux Klan. There’s been recent controversy around Julia who grew up in a slave state, in a family with slaves, and Grant keeping one slave, William, for a year, which led to Grant’s statue being toppled in San Francisco. But, as I discover on p. 106, “when it came within his power, Grant . . . filed papers, to “hereby manumit, emancipate and set free said William from slavery forever.”

It was revelatory and comfortingly satisfying to me to learn intimate details of this far-sighted, faithful, loving husband and father whose lifelong love affair was with his four children and his wife, Julia, a fascinating, vivacious woman in her own right, who flourished even at the very end of what became his torturous life.

GRANT, a cliff hanger. And it all happens in fascinating detail, written in pristine language.  Somehow it became my life too, embodying my wish for a real president. Now.  For the time being, I’ll settle in with Ron Chernow’s GRANT, imagining the man behind the book. And I’ll vote for the next president on November 3rd. So much for wishing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book to Read, General, Journal

My book in a little, free library?

It’s raining (rare in California in May). I’m in Coronavirus quarantine, bleary-eyed in front of my computer. If I could just get away! I click on a Nextdoor post about a little, free library. I’ve enjoyed looking into these tiny libraries on corners in Palo Alto and Berkeley, in front yards in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa, but never saw one in my neighborhood.

Lily’s Little Free Library in Green Hills, Richmond, Ca

The Nextdoor post is an invitation by Sarah and her daughter to come by Lily’s Little Free Library, leave a book and take a book. Take a tiny succulent plant too. How generous, how inviting.

I consider all those boxes of books I have stacked in my office closet. I could easily gift one of those novels. But which? I begin to talk myself out of it. Would Jane Austen have left Pride and Prejudice at a little, free library? Would Charles Dickens leave Oliver Twist? Stephen King  Shawshank Redemption?  Maya Angelou and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?  Besides all my books  can be purchased at any bookstore and on Smashwords, Bookshop and my Writewords Press website.

Nevertheless, it’s an adventure into the unknown and an opportunity to take my dog, Laurel, for a walk. I’ll take a drive to this little, free library on Hilltop Green. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll find a good book to read.  I’m feeling better.

I’ve stuffed Spiral, An Epic Adventure in the Ancient Southwest in my purse and Laurel is looking at me eagerly from the back seat of my Honda Civic as I drive off in the rain to 1203 Greenway Drive,  Richmond, CA. The GPS says it’s 8 minutes by car.

Despite the GPS, I get lost in this housing development in the Richmond hills, quarantine-quiet this afternoon. Okay, just one more turn, one more dip in the road. There it is, perched on its pedestal across a manicured green park.

Holding Laurel on her leash, I open the little library doors and look through the books. A inconspicuous, grey-toned paperback catches my eye, a coming of age memoir, Ticket to Exile. The title is intriguing, ironic, unforgiving. I see the publisher is Malcolm Margolin of Heyday Books whom I greatly admire for his histories of Native Californians. The author, Adam David Miller seems familiar to me.

“Murray Library” is stamped on the cover and spine. That’s my last name!  Inside I discover “Murray Library, 166 East 5300, South Murray, Utah 84107”.  Is this an omen? A message? Serendipity?

The cover shows a man’s  silhouette  in front of a dark house shaded by looming trees; across the bottom is an image of a torn page from a notebook. I’m getting the feeling I know this writer.

Then I remember Adam David Miller, the African-American poet I met at the National Writers’ Union we both attended during the 1990s.  I recognize his photo in the frontispiece and am impressed with his bio. I remember Adam as a friendly face at numerous NWU writing events. Paging through his non-fiction story of growing up in the South during the Depression era, I note the quality of the careful prose, the formatting where each chapter is prefaced by a singular poem.

Suddenly the day turns brighter, the grass greener in the rain and I no longer am alone.

Lily’s Little Free Library Close Up

I squeeze Spiral between the other books on the top shelf of Lily’s Little Free Library.  Adam David Miller’s Ticket to Exile is in my purse now and a tiny succulent in my hand.

Laurel wags her tail, sniffing each tuft of grass as we go through the park.  I wonder how a little, free library might work out in my own front yard.

 

 

Concerned about the Quarantine? Click on Best Practices at Little Free Libraries During the Coronavirus Outbreak

 

Book to Read, General, Uncategorized, Upcoming Book

Writing in the time of Coronavirus

Elm Creek Doe photo by Rick Cavalieri

Reading is a gift to yourself. Writing is a gift too. I’ve been struggling to rewrite Deer Xing, a novel I began in the early ’90s, even before the Coronavirus quarantine overturned my daily life.

At my computer today, I experience deep silence and unfathomable time, feeling more pressure and less inspiration than ever to work on Deer Xing. I constantly interrupt myself to check updates on COVID-19, putting off editing the pages stacked in piles all over my desk.

At present Deer Xing is a long, knotted rope of words tied to an old vision. Frustrated by my old story, I imagine a new one shaped by this fearful epidemic, upending us all everywhere. I slash whole chapters, Xing-out characters, freeing me up to see everything—differently.

I take notes looking out my living room window at the four-way crossing on the corner of my emptied street, a concrete desert of unmoving silence, no one driving or walking by.

How to begin again? What would a deer see at a deer crossing?

Hungry Doe photo by Rick Cavalieri

I think of how my novel Dreamers starts in the green hills of Pittsburgh, PA seen through a young woman’s eyes who imagines Dad loves this city more than he could ever love her.

How Sundagger.net begins when a middle-age, single mother enters a sweat lodge in the Oakland Hills and grapples with Silicon Valley while making peace with ancient spirits in the Anasazi Southwest.

Spiral, the prequel to Sundagger.net, begins in a desert canyon in the Southwest, 12th century A.D, with a teenage girl searching for a hunter she cannot bear to lose.

And my latest, Pillow Prayers, that begins with a photo and a prayer: three women posing in a zen pillow stitchery with its brand new owner, Beth, who imagines a  star-twisted prayer, the first of many that follow.

 “Every book is a world.” says Gabrielle Zevin, author. In this time of quarantine and isolation, books open our minds and nurture our souls . You can buy Pillow Prayers, Dreamers, Spiral and Sundagger.net in ebook form on Smashwords.com. They can be read on Kindle, computer or another device. 

Buy now! Click on Smashwords.  Type “Margaret C. Murray” in the Search for books, authors, or series field to select ebooks.

 

Not satisfied with ebooks? Give yourself the gift of a physical book you can hold in your hands and turn the pages!  It’s so easy.
Buy here!

Book to Read, From Heart to Paper Writing Workshop

Are we all “Enemy Women”?

Enemy Women
by Paulette Jiles

I picked up Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles because of the intriguing title. The cover shows a photo of a woman on a horse photographed from behind, her long black hair flying. I wondered if this was a Native American story. Perhaps a fantasy adventure? In the first pages I discover these “enemy women” were mainly white and poor, living in the southeastern Ozarks of Missouri during the American Civil War.

I couldn’t put the book down because of Adele Colley, eighteen years old and first person narrator.  A Huck Finn type character, Adele speaks her mind, is eager to know her future. She shuns domesticity, knows she’ll likely be imprisoned by marriage, and worried it might be to the wrong man.

Adele’s father gives her a dun horse she names Whiskey, of mixed straw color, grey and gold with black legs, tail and mane. Whiskey is Adele’s beloved familiar, her best friend and true companion. Adele’s mother died of the fever five years before and her brother, with his withered arm, has fled to the hills to avoid being arrested and shot as the Federal Militia arrest Southern men they consider to be “weeds in the garden of humanity” and punish anyone with Southern sympathies.

Even though the Colley’s are officially “non-partisan”, with regard to the North and South, her father, a justice of the peace, is arrested by the Militia as Adele and her two little sisters watch. The Militia then set their house on fire, burning everything, even food and valuables, and beat her father up before taking him off along with Whiskey, who looks back at Adele as he is led away.

It’s hard to read Enemy Women  and pass it off as “just a story” because author Paulette Jiles prefaces each chapter with factual, primary source documents from the Civil War era, thus magnifying the power (and horror) of Adele’s story.  I experience every woman’s grief during the American Civil War as if it were happening now, in present time, and not a just as a subject of history. Are we all still stereotyped as “enemy women” now?

This book deserves the five stars I gave it on Goodreads.

 and MORE . . .

Like to know more about my writing?  Read my Smashwords’ profile and interview. 

My latest novel, Pillow Prayers, Love ruined, love reborn after the Summer of Love, is now available as an ebook as well as in paperback.

Buy the eBook of Pillow Prayers!

Read a sample and purchase the ebook of Pillow Prayers on the Smashwordspage.  Pillow Prayers is available in epub, mobi, pdf, lrf, pdb, txt and html formats. Buy the eBook of Pillow Prayers!

You too can be the calm cat writing on a red chair.

Live in the San Francisco Bay Area? Here’s your chance to write your heart out.

 Check out my  upcoming  Summer 2019 From Heart to Paper Workshops. There’s a place waiting for you.

 

 

 

Book to Read, General

Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart

Traditional Art of the Congo

Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken HeartBlood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart by Tim Butcher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“”A masterpiece,” famed novelist John Le Carre writes about Tim Butcher’s journalistic travel memoir and I agree. Prepare for your heart to be wrenched when you read Blood River, A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart. But you may not notice it in the excitement and danger of the ride. There’s the magnificent and ominous Congo River landscape, the present terror, the valor of the victimized native people, the greed of the exploiters of the river’s resources (native and colonizers alike) and the intrepid European explorers who struggled to tame the river.

In Blood River, Tim Butcher attempts to recreated Henry Morton Stanley’s journey of the 1870s. Sponsored by the New York Herald as an advertising stunt, Stanley is famous for having found the mythic Scottish explorer, David Livingstone, who went missing in Africa the late 1860s while looking for the origin of the Nile River. Stanley wanted to be the first to chart the Congo from its origin in the heart of Africa westward to the Atlantic and he ultimately–and at great cost–succeeded.

In 2004, Tim Butcher, likewise a professional journalist (Britain’s Daily Telegraph), is determined to take that same journey. After extensive, obsessive research, he set out from the Congo’s eastern border in a spirit of adventure and calculated misgivings, ignoring the fact that everyone he talked to told him he was crazy. He describes his travel by motorcycle, dug out canoe, steamboat, helicopter, plane and on foot with a precise, detail-rich journalist’s eye.
Through his research, Tim Butcher was well aware of Africa’s terrible legacy of slavery and exploitation of its riches, but he wasn’t prepared for the day-to-day fear, the terrorist attacks forcing the Congolese to flee to the bush as a way of life, a jungle that ate up the railroad tracks, thriving riverfront cities of the ’50s collapsed in corruption and decay, and a country–maybe the only country on the earth– going backwards and retreating from progress into the primitive where there is “no memory for justice”–all punctuated with cell phones, abundant ammunition, jets and extravagantly wealthy internationals in gated communities rising out of the rain forest.

Along with Butcher, the reader tries to make sense of his life-threatening encounters where he is saved by local Congolese, foreign missionaries, and UN workers. We learn much about how the Congo played a dominant role in the slave trade on the west coast by the Portuguese and even earlier on the east coast by the Arab traders, how the colonizers tried and failed to harness the huge river full of cataracts, how Joseph Conrad and Barbara Kingsolver memorialized the river’s heart of darkness, how Katherine Hepburn kept a journal during the filming of African Queen, and how the UN functioned in an ivory tower of antiseptic efficiency.

Tim Butcher writes about disease, murder, enslavement and the onslaught of the encroaching jungle. Ultimately his experience is “relentlessly punishing”. Traveling on the Blood River, the reader too experiences the breakdown of civilization, with human suffering beyond what we can imagine living our First World lives. Truly, this is a terrifying vision of the “Last World”, where no one can survive.

View all my reviews

Book to Read, General

To be or not to be: A writer in the world

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt

You might think that a book about the most famous writer in the English language would be boring: trite, repetitious or full of pompous academic abstractions, especially if you researched and wrote your master’s thesis on “Murder and Honor in Hamlet and Othello” like I did at Hunter College. But you’d be wrong.

With impressive credentials and superior narrative ability, Stephen Greenblatt in Will in the World unearths and illuminates Shakespeare in the Elizabethan world in ways I could never before consider, especially given that facts about Shakespeare’s life are, according to the author, ”abundant but thin.”  I couldn’t put the book down. The thing is, I was learning so much about myself, how to be a writer in my world.

Greenblatt writes: “We know all about the property Shakespeare bought and sold, the taxes he paid, the theatrical companies he worked for. We have his baptismal record, his marriage license and his last will and testament. But what he felt in his heart, what dreams he nurtured, what beliefs he himself had…..”.

What lover of words isn’t fascinated by the mysterious, brilliant William Shakespeare, aka “Will”? Who was Shakespeare really? I was hooked when Greenblatt sets up Shakespeare, at 18, marrying Anne Hathaway, age 26, in Stratford six months before their first child was born. What, if anything, did it mean that soon after–the exact date is vague like so much else–Will left it all to spend the rest of his life in rented rooms in London, two days ride away? Did he love her? Was he forced to marry her? Did he marry her for her money? Did she love him (But he was Shakespeare. How could she not?!)

Greenblatt speculates how Shakespeare may have been wanted for deer poaching, a 17th century theory. Was Shakespeare down and out, stealing venison and rabbits for food? With many credible details, Greenblatt explores and then discards this possibility with great authority, while being cautious about claiming any other hypotheses as certain either.

I was impressed by how masterfully Greenblatt lays out Shakespeare’s world—and mine too. Maybe Shakespeare left Stratford for the same reason I left my hometown, Pittsburgh, PA, to seek my fortune in the big world.

The artistic, political and religious intrigue is both detailed and gruesome, with beheadings at the bequest of Queen Elizabeth as common as parking tickets today. The victims, many of whom were Roman Catholics, are believable and very sympathetic. Greenblatt explores the possibility that Shakespeare may have been a Catholic too. That could explain the secrecy around his life. After all, it was dangerous to be Catholic in Elizabethan England.

Then there’s the mystery of the love sonnets, seemingly addressed to a man, but who? And did Shakespeare actually write the sonnets? Ah, but Greenblatt shows us how we moderns no longer understand the game of sonnet-making, so popular in Shakespeare’s world, where the trick was to be naked while revealing nothing, and tell revealing secrets to only a few chosen intimates.

So much is speculation! Did Shakespeare even write those plays or was it Marlowe for that matter? Was he a fraud as the feature movie, Anonymous (2011), claims?  No, Stephen Greenblatt doesn’t buy that theory.

What really kept me reading Will in the World was that I felt supported and encouraged by Shakespeare as a writer in the world.  Greenblatt convinced me to identify with this ”amazing success story,” of a bright young man from the provinces who took on the hard, yet exciting game of writing great plays for a popular audience in a tumultuous, changing, exploding world.

I might have guessed that Shakespeare too had problems I have as a writer: daunting competition from establishment writers (e.g., Marlowe), lack of funds, absence of entitlement, spotty, non-existent publication, pressing family responsibilities, in fact, “an upstart crow” in the literary world as the contemporary playwright Robert Greene called him. But that’s beside the point as Will in the world pressed on—and succeeded. Not just for his time but for all time.

Greenblatt’s astute analysis of the playwright’s characters, so modern in their angst, confusion and daunting dreams, illuminates Shakespeare’s own evolving understanding of the world. Will in the World  challenges me to understand our world now, four hundred years later, through my writing.

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became ShakespeareWill in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
by Stephen Greenblatt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
View all my reviews.

Book to Read, General, Uncategorized

Holding my violin, watching the movie

A character can haunt you without you even knowing it, even when the story is finished, even after you’ve written it off! That’s what happened to me with Annie, the main character of Dreamers, after I saw The Late Quartet, a masterpiece of a movie about a string ensemble.

I wish I still had my violin. I just want to hold it.

The “late quartet “of the movie title is Beethoven’s Opus 131, String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, composed in 1826, one year before he died. In the movie, it is being prepared for presentation by the world-renown (fictional) Fugue Quartet, now in their 25th year playing together.

If the first violin part is the heart of the piece, the second part is its nerves, its soul. Robert, the second violinist, played brilliantly by actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, offhandedly explains to a woman he’s soon to seduce that it’s not a competition thing between him and the first violinist, Daniel, just different. But in fact Robert lusts after the First Chair. He’s tired of Daniel, played by Mark Ivanir, calling all the shots for the Fugue’s performances. I can understand that.

I too played the violin, taking lessons from 4th through 9th grade.  While pretending to practice diligently, I was actually reading novels. Up in my bedroom, my door closed tight, I sat on the edge of my bed mindlessly and repetitively sawing on my violin while reading books, looking over the moving bow, turning the pages one after the other between scales. I never was part of a string quartet, but after being stuck in the second violin section of the Wilkinsburg Junior Symphony for three years, I was thrilled to move over to the first violin section in 8th grade.

This all comes back to me now with Beethoven in the background. Watching the movie, I experience the grief of the cellist, Peter, the oldest Fugue member, played by Chris Walken, upon learning he has Parkinson’s Disease; the anger of Juliette, the violist, played by actress Catherine Keener, discovering Robert has betrayed her; the longing of Daniel for young love (who just happens to be Juliette and Robert’s daughter) and the passion of Robert for his marriage and his art. All together the quartet unleashes amazing, ferocious and yet gentle music in the high artscape of New York City, a place that Annie would have understood. After all she fled there like I did too.

But Annie would not have blown off her practice sessions. And she would surely not have remained with the second violins as long as I did. I loved the music, but honestly, it stayed in the background while I concentrated on fashion and style. Before each junior symphony concert, I spent hours getting ready, ironing my short, tight, black wool “orchestra” dress with the pearl buttons down the bodice, attaching my stockings to those cold metal clasps hanging from my new garter belt, slipping into my black, pointy high heels. I couldn’t wait for that moment when we all walked on stage holding our instruments, when the audience became silent and the conductor, Mr. Reichenfeld, put up his baton. Out came the elegant soloists, young musicians like myself, whom I envied for their inscrutable, focused faces and those perfect notes they played.

In his glowing review, the late, great movie critic Roger Ebert comments that A Late Quartet is a unique movie in that it actually shows professionals at work. And the way I imagine it, Juliette is the professional musician Annie would have become.

Forget Annie’s painful, confusing family, her star-crossed love affair with Thomas. Forget the fear and racial upheaval of the Civil Rights era in Pittsburgh and New York City. It’s her possibility for success as a professional violinist that excites me now, a possibility I gave up all thoughts of achieving myself.

I can see Annie playing Beethoven’s late quartet, Opus 131, on that grand stage. Annie does the work, stays the course. After all, she’s a graduate of Julliard, the same prestigious music school Daniel graduates from and where Peter teaches.

When you meet Annie in Dreamers, it’s during Christmas break. She’s practicing in her room when her father interrupts her to listen in. But who else listens?  Who hears her play other than her family through her closed bedroom door? These are the thoughts I was having in my bedroom while I read my books.

Who’s listening to Annie? Not her embittered, dissolute teacher in Dreamers. Not Thomas, the actor she falls so much in love with. Only rich, addicted, openhearted Lana, Thomas’ ex-girlfriend, befriends Annie and demands to hear her music.  I want to hear her music too.

Holding my violin, I will now open the door of my bedroom.