Monday, May 26, 2008

Beach Book!

Check out How the Other Half Hamptons (5 Spot, June 2008) by Jasmin Rosenberg. Rosenberg, a former NY Post Hamptons columnist, has written a slight, humorous novel about summering in the Hamptons; although our three heroines share a house with some forty others and have to deal with filth, drunks and no bathroom space. If you want a true beach book, this is it!

Writing Contest!

The Warren Adler Short Story Contest – Summer 2008 –
Theme is HUMOR
To enter see:
Suggested by the recent publication of Warren Adler's latest novel, FUNNY BOYS, the theme for the Summer 2008 Warren Adler Short Story Contest is humor. We're looking for humorous stories in all their varied forms. From satire to farce, from the whimsical to the uproarious, all writers looking to get a laugh (in a good way!) should enter. We are looking for the subtle and the pungent, the black and dark, the sporty, the salty, the waggish, or whatever can spark a knowing smile, a sly chuckle, or a hysterical belly laugh. In other words, anything goes, just as long as it falls into this category, however one stretches its elastic boundaries.
Entries must not exceed 2,500 words, and there is a minimum length of 1,000 words. As in the previous contests, all stories will be judged on the basis of character authenticity, plotting, narrative drive, and the skillful manipulation of the short story literary form.
Submissions will be accepted from May 1st to August 15th. Entry fee up until August 1st is $15. After August 1st, a late entry fee is $20.
Five cash prizes will be awarded.
The winning story will be awarded the $1,000 grand prize and a personalized first edition of FUNNY BOYS. Mr. Adler will also choose his top five for a People's Choice award that will also be awarded personalized first editions.
Although Mr. Adler will have already chosen the winner, five finalists' stories will be posted on the Warren Adler website on September 1st and the People's Choice winner will be determined by public voting. Warren Adler's top choice, along with the People's Choice winner, will be announced 15 September. Prizes will be as follows:
1st Prize: $1,000
People's Choice Prize $500
Remaining finalists receive $150 each

Interview with Jim Bowen, Author of Just Another Mzungu Passing Through (Parthian Books, 2008)

Explain for our readers what a mzungu is? Definition.

A mzungu is a term for white person in kiSwahili which is the tongue most commonly used in East Africa. Mzungu is used in a slightly dismissive way, like gringo in Central America or honky elsewhere.

Tell us a bit about the semi-autobiographical nature of the book - how did a nice Welsh boy end up in Kenya?

I was working as a part time cricket coach for the London Inner City Schools cricket project about 13 years ago for want of anything else to do. I didn't want to come back home to my family's farm at that stage and didn't feel driven to do anything very much. I was living in a tent in a friend's garden in Eastbourne on the south coast using the cricket coaching to pay the bills and having a jolly old time. A friend showed told me that the Nairobi Provincial Cricket Association were advertising for a development officer with the help of the VSO, which is the British equivalent of the Peace Corps. I was lucky to be the only person to apply for the job in over a year so, got the job and off I went in January 1996 with a two year contract to teach cricket in Kenya.

My novel is based upon my experiences there, the things I saw and the things people told me, but it is very much about Kenya rather than about me. I wanted people to know about Kenya--that is why I wrote the book. I wanted my friends and family (and later, the readers) to understand why Kenya is as it is, what the average people face, what we in the west have imposed on them and really quite how incredible the people and the country are. It is a novel, and I hope a good read, but it is informative too, I hope, like The Grapes of Wrath is a good read and is also a fantastic way of learning about what the Great Depression meant to the US and people then. Steinbeck could have written a factual account of what he witnessed, but I'm glad he didn't. I wrote my story from the first person 'Griff', and the general narrative follows his time there, but Kenya is really the main character in the story.

What do you think is the biggest issue facing Africa today and how can literature help to educate people about same?

Wow, I've tried answering this question about twenty times but deleted them all as can't seem to get it down right. I don't want to claim I know any answers.

The issues are vast and numerous. Open any international paper and you can read about HIV, famine, corruption, genocide, poverty... These are all massive issues in Africa today and one would hope the rest of the world knows about them and that we are REALLY trying to help instead of taking advantage and using their suffering to boost our own worth.

Literature has a place today, as it always has done, in letting people know about social injustice everywhere. Chinu Achebe, Charles Dickens, Harper Lee, Laurens van der Post, Mark Twain, George Orwell, James Baldwin, Ngugi wa Thiongo... Many writers have helped educate and bring about changes through their writing. They tell important stories brilliantly.

Today we are so clever that we can cause massive injustice to many people from many thousands of miles away, and we can then close our eyes to it, think about something else without ever having to face what we have caused ourselves. There are many, many examples, and one could mention the people who are still suffering from the Union Carbide industrial disaster in Bhopal, India. Over twenty thousand people were killed after that explosion and children are still born seriously deformed over twenty years later. Union Carbide were bought out by Dow Chemicals in 2001 and Dow Chemicals say they have no duty to clean up the mess as the plant is on government land and while the legal battles over who is responsible go on, the shareholders forget all about it and the poor still suffer as a result.

To the north of Cardiff, here in Wales, over twenty years ago, seventy five different toxic substances were brought from a Monsanto factory near Newport and dumped in a quarry on the Brofiscin Farm . 80,000 tonnes of contaminated produce were buried there. Chemically unstable, non-degradable carcinogens that no one would take responsibility for leached out of the quarry, contaminating the local area. Polyaromatic hydrocarbons and acrylonitrile, dioxins created during the production of PCP which had been banned in the US years before were knowingly dumped by one of the US's most bullying companies. A vast number of cattle on neighbouring farms started aborting shortly afterwards . Some lost muscular control while others became lethargic, sterile and suffered from flaccidity. Local people now have highly toxic, unusual pollutant substances in their fatty tissue. They are very ill. And yet no one will take responsibility. Monsanto have fourteen similar dumping sites around the UK all full off dioxins and virulent toxins that they claim are safe but which the Environment Agency consider far too dangerous to open and analyse. And what happens...

I go on too much, and I'm sorry. These are the sorts of stories that are in the newspapers one day and then forgotten about the next.

Some could say that writers have a duty to write about these sorts of stories, to bring them to the attention of the general public who will hopefully one day bring to account those that have benefited through the suffering of others.

To me, good writing should be attractive and inclusive but educational too and if it can make a difference, like the writers I've mentioned earlier, then I believe it can be world changing. Big Business is clever enough to slip free through the courts, but a truthfully told story is always there to point the finger of guilt. I think writers, musicians, artists in general have an important role to play in this. Let's not go softly softly. Pen is stronger, and all that!

Writing coming out of Wales right now is truly extraordinary (same amazing young writers) - why do you think this is so (if you agree, of course)?

Wales has always been a heartland of artisitic expression. We feel affinity with our land and our place in it more than people in many other parts of Britain, I believe. People of my generation were brought up listening to amazing music from people who were proud to be Welsh and who were keen to demonstrate their art through their Welshness. The Super Furry Animals, Catatonia, The Alarm, Manic Street Preachers, even Shakin' Stevens and Bonny Tyler are all proudly Welsh first and foremost. We also have a massive back catalogue of Welsh writers to inspire us. Dylan Thomas, of course, Raymond Williams, Alexander Cordell, Dannie Abse, Bernice Rubens, Gwylon Phillips, WH Davies, RS Thomas and so many others that I really don't know enough about. If only there were more hours in the day...

I think the past has given our generation the courage to be active in our creativity now, and we are lucky that there are publishers willing to give our jottings air. I was very fortunate to have my first story taken up by Parthian Press who are based in the small town of Cardigan just down the River Teifi from where my family farm. Parthian is an excellent publishing house--the stories they have produced over the past few years speak for themselves, stories by young writers like Lewis Davies, Cynan Jones, Rachel Trezise, Tristan Hughes, Lloyd Robson and many others too, are set in a Wales the writers know of as home. The stories are not always that flattering of the place, but that doesn't mean we don't love it! Stories can be more powerful when they are constructively critical of things we care greatly about.

Being Welsh is important to me. My family have farmed this piece of land for over 250 years and we have lived within twenty miles of here for over a thousand. I am not alone in this feeling rooted. It means a great deal.

Do you believe there is a difference between Welsh authors and American authors? If so, what is it?

I don't know. There are links with some writers in both places writing of a sense of pride and love for their plot of land.When America was opening up the writing seemed to wow about the place and the wilderness and the adventure. Writers like Stephen Crane and Jack London... That seems to have changed a bit now maybe. We don't have the vast spaces here in Wales in the same way, though we do write lovingly about the wild places that we have.
I'm afraid I don't know enough about either to have much of value to say.

Influences? Why?

My grandmother wrote stories. She had nine novels published in the 1940/50s under the name Parr Cooper. She is an influence even though she died when I was a young child. She let me know that it was possible to write long stories. She did it, so so could I! Why not? I still love her writing. I can hear her voice in the words. She wrote about India during the war and what it was like coming back to Wales afterwards. Very powerful stuff some of it but she had such humour and decency in what she wrote.

Other influences include:
-John Steinbeck for his clarity, focus and lines like (in East of Eden) 'her smile flashed and disappeared the way a trout crosses a knife of sunshine in a pool' which make me go yeah, that's it! That's why people write!
-Jack London and Jack Kerouac meant a lot to me when I was younger and travelling. London published too much, but a lot of it is brilliant in its simplicity, its brutality and, boy, did he have good material to write about. As for Kerouac, I loved On the Road, Maggie Cassidy, Dharma Bums and one or two other, while the long wibbly ones went over my head a bit. I had a first edition Maggie Cassidy but somebody sole it.
-As a child I loved London, Twain, Victor Canning, Tolkein. Stories with things happening all the time. There were so many others--Richard Adams, William Horwood...
-Graham Greene, William Golding, Dervla Kirwan, Solzhenitsyn, Conrad, Hemmingway, Achebe. I read them when I was in Kenya and unable to go out all that much especially after dark when it wasn't safe. They took me away from the present like a teevee never could have. Good stories, simply told. Something to say. And then there are the Les Norton stories by the Australian Robert G. Barrett who is occasionally worth a read when you're a young fellow with the blues!
-I love East of the Mountains by David Gutterson.

Future Plans?

We have a one year old daughter, I am farming and running a holiday centre for people with disabilities so there isn't a lot of time for writing at the moment. I'm working on a story called Welshrats which is about a horrible man who is the director of social services in a Welsh coastal city which I think might be quite good when I finally get it done. Apart from that I have a bunch of short stories that need a good polish and... well, if only there was more time.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Mrs. Perfect by Jane Porter (5 Spot, May 2008)

Urgh...Jane Porter made me stay up all night, yet again. And how does she always know exactly what I am thinking? Porter, in a sort-of-sequel to her last work, Odd Mom Out, has continued to delve into the world of modern day women in suburbia as they deal with the conflict of being good mothers, working mothers and perfect mothers.

Taylor Young is a woman defined by her looks, her house, her volunteerism and her high-class friends. Coiffed and coutured, Taylor is so afraid of being exposed for the real person underneath (one that is fragile, fearful and bulimic) that she treats others with disdain; including Marta, the main character of Porter's former work. When Taylor's life suddenly and swiftly falls apart, she soon realizes that she has always been stronger than she has believed and that life can not be defined by things but by those who stick around when the chips are down. Marta, someone Taylor once viewed as "strange," becomes the person that Taylor learns to rely upon in economic and emotional ways.

Porter has an uncanny knack for getting to the heart and soul of the modern American woman. Her ability to tell it like it is without judgment but with a sense of compassion and honesty makes her writing leap from the page and into our hearts. Jane...I am so tired today because of you but I am thankful for the read!

Beautiful Children by Charles Bock (Random House)

I have a new favorite author and it is Charles Bock. His new work, Beautiful Children, is a tour de force, a novel that is not only literary (in the best sense of the word) but important in its topic matter. Bock writes with a combination of grace and force that each word stands alone; his ability to paint a visual story of present day Las Vegas and its residents is remarkable and signals the debut of a brilliant writer.

Newell, a young boy growing up with the trappings of upper middle class, has disappeared after a night out with Kenny, his much older friend. This story of his disappearance (but not the tale of his discovery) is told via flashbacks of numerous characters - Newell's father, runaways living on the streets of Sin City, a downtrodden comic book artist, a stripper with a heart of gold. Each character is suffering with their own past and a future that seems to be headed nowhere; their lives are filled with the lights of the casinos and the sounds of slot machines but have little meaning or focus. A story of such heartache that the reader can actually feel the pain and suffering of the storytellers.

Even when the book is heavy handed in its delivery, Bock has the ability to bring words to life. One can see the scenes play out, can become one with the people described even if one's experience is very different. This is a tale of 21st Century decay and loneliness that we can all relate to.

The Host by Stephanie Meyer (Little, Brown, May 2008)

I am not a huge fan of sci-fi/futuristic novels (although I have to say that I do love my friend, Orson Scott Card's work); so when I was given Stephanie Meyer's newest work, The Host, to review, I was a bit reticent. The first fifty page left me confused and ready to walk away from the book. However, I always finish what I start and continued on; soon I found myself unable to put down this interesting, well written book.

In a futuristic America, human beings have been invaded by souls who are only able to love and act peacefully. When the Wanderer invades the body of Melanie Stryder, the two beings are in conflict. Melanie, leaving behind her brother and her lover, is stubborn and refuses to fade away causing the Wanderer unbearable pain and suffering. When Melanie convinces the soul to run into the desert to find the remaining family members (the remaining human beings now hidden underground), the Wanderer is forced to confront what it means to love, what it means to be human. Meyer, best known for her YA vampire series, has crafted a compelling and humane story with a plot that asks the reader to think, to feel and to question.