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?
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, I’d like to offer you a gift of my books. You can buy Pillow Prayers, Dreamers, Spiral and Sundagger.net in ebook form for just $1.60. That’s 40% off the list price of $3.99!
My ebooks are available on Smashwords and can be read on any device. Please note this is a limited time offer that expires on April 20th.
Buy now! Click on Smashwords.Type “Margaret C. Murray” in the Search for books, authors, or series field. Select your 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!
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.
“”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.
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.
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.