Thursday, April 23, 2015

Rediscovering Nevil Shute

A few months ago I was browsing through the stacks at my local library when I came upon several books by author Nevil Shute.  I remembered Shute from many years ago as the author of On the Beach, an Armageddon-themed story of worldwide nuclear destruction.  On the Beach was subsequently made into a film with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner.  For a long time, this frightening novel and movie was all I knew about Nevil Shute.  And then a few years later, my parents loaned me a book entitled In the Wet, a story about the Australian outback during the "wet" season that dealt with the mystical-religious theme of reincarnation.  Wow, I thought.  This guy Shute digs into a lot of different and interesting subjects.  I was intrigued, yet somehow got distracted by other writers exploring themes in the current mainstream. Now, at my library many years later, I am catching up with Shute's other books, with themes ranging from those dealing with bridging social barriers and race, to characters surviving life-threatening episodes to build productive lives for themselves and others. 

Shute, whose full name was Nevil Shute Norway, was an aeronautical engineer who at one time formed his own aircraft construction company and worked on dirigibles before World War II.  A number of his novels contain aviation and engineering as backdrops (An Old Captivity, Trustee from the Toolroom).  Shute's books offer a "comfortable" read, written in an easy, storytelling style, sometimes with a first person narrator—a character sitting with someone over a drink recalling a life-changing episode he or she has experienced, or describing an incident involving someone they know.  For instance, A Town Like Alice explores the travails of a woman and man caught in the Japanese occupation of Malaysia, how they survive, and ultimately reunite in the small Australian town of Alice Springs.  Pied Piper tells the story of an old man who rescues seven children from German-occupied France and brings them to England and America.  The Far Country describes a young woman who is frustrated with post-war socialist England and travels to Australia to seek a better life.   I could go on and list his other works, but I won't.  Shute wrote a total of 24 novels and novellas in his lifetime.  I haven't read them all, but those I have have been very engrossing. 

I know there are many current works that offer more compelling stories than those of a writer who died over fifty years ago.  But as we know, literary themes never really change.  Characters always find themselves in conflict with each other, with society, with the elements, government or religion.  If this weren't the case, Charles Dickens wouldn't still be as popular as he is today.  Nevil Shute is one of those subtle perveyors of social/cultural issues who is able to wrap his themes in a good story.  So, if you haven't discovered him already, visit your library or book store and pick out one of his titles.  You may like what you find.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Good Walk Can Ease the Mind

The other day, I got caught up thinking about too much at once.  I was irritated and worried and disheartened all at the same time.  Things were getting to me, and I was doing what is often called over-thinking. 

As a writer, I can frequently put distance between myself and pesky real-life problems by sitting down and putting words on paper.  I enter the imaginary world of my story and characters, and usually, I can escape.  But on this occasion, not even the muse could silence the internal fuss I was having.  Pressure was building, and I was getting frustrated.  So, I looked out my office window, saw the line of distant hills, and decided to go for a walk.

I started out on a familiar route along the pedestrian/bike path near my house.  It was a day of mixed cloud and sun, on the cool side, but comfortable enough to set out at a brisk pace.  At first, I continued to think about all the stuff that had driven me outside.  Worry and irritation dogged me.  But I kept moving, one step at a time.  By the time I had gone a mile, perhaps a little more, the troubling thoughts began to fade.  And then I began to take in my surroundings.  I saw fluffy white clouds on a mountainous horizon.  Smelled freshly-turned earth and wet grass; heard birds in trees, high schoolers on a nearby playing field.  I was surrounded by a physical world I saw too little of, and the more I walked, the more reassurance I felt that it was still there.  It was an immediate connection, like I was bonding with nature.  I wondered why I didn't walk more often.

We are often told that a change of scene puts things in proper perspective.  I believe it does.  In many cases, worry and confusion can be left behind by simply leaving the house.  Finding harmony doesn't have to be a time-consuming exercise in soul searching.  It can be as simple as opening your door and going outside.   

Take a walk in the great outdoors.  It's fresh, invigorating, and therapeutic.  And it's free!




Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Writer in All of Us

We are all writers. 

We look at the world through our own special lenses.  There are things we see as individuals that nobody else sees.  People, places, events—nothing looks the same. We call it perspective. 

As a fiction writer, I do a lot of visualizing, picturing scenes of high drama as well as the very ordinary.  Sometimes these scenes make it into prose; sometimes not.  But it is all part of the process of composition.  I survey the landscape of reality and transform it into one of story and characters.  And through this journey, I am transported to a time and place of my own creation.  It's what fiction writers do, and in a sense, it's what all of us do, whether we formalize the process as writing or not.

Those of us who do not capture our world view on paper nonetheless "write" the stories of our times.  Each day is another composition about people and problems, and the way we would like things to be—the day to day experiences we all have that become our personal stories.  Unlike fictional creations, however, these stories often do not tie up neatly into organized plot lines.  They are sometimes messy, unsatisfactory accounts of challenge and heartbreak, with endings that taper off without any meaningful resolution.  These are our personal histories, biographical sketches of how the world succeeds or fails within the confines of our lives.  And the events and characters are very real.

The vanity in those of us who write believes we can draw on the compelling aspects of our lives and that of the world around us to make a story that holds the reader's attention.  We shape our plots and polish our prose to create something entertaining.  It is a work of faith.  We don't know how the end product will be interpreted.  But we do it anyway because somewhere deep down, consciously or unconsciously, we believe our story may strike a familiar chord.  Why?  Because some readers have lived something similar to what is in the story, or they know someone who has.  After all, fiction contains truth, no matter the genre—literary, romance, mystery, fantasy—it all reflects some aspect of life. As people leading real lives, we contribute to that truth. 

We are all writers.


       DREAM TRAVELER - Book One


Friday, April 19, 2013

The Stoic Victims of Dysfunction - A Short Story Review

I have never been drawn to short story fiction, but I have recently had the pleasure of reading a work that may change my mind. 

 S.A. Williams’ short story Parable reveals the festering wounds of children of dysfunction. The narrator is Sam, a boy who has been forced to act as mediator and pacifier in the household of an abusive father. His close friend J.C. is a girl who has watched the corrosive effects on him of his family challenges, and by way of storytelling tries to open his eyes to the personal disintegration he is suffering. Although Sam considers himself the strong, stoic force in his household, J.C. realizes he is blind to what is happening to his life. She attempts to open his eyes through parable, spinning the tale of two uncles living separately in foundationless houses on the beach. One uncle is blind; the other is not. A storm comes up and damages both houses irreparably. The blind uncle doesn’t see the storm’s destruction, and tries to live on in his unstable house. The other realizes the futility of trying to fix the damage, and leaves. The metaphor is clear. You can’t fix what you can’t control.

The author provides stark imagery of Sam and J.C. walking along the cliffs above Lake Michigan. We feel the chill and stormy nature of the water as they talk and argue. They are both on the edge, “looking over”, struggling with demons. A mutual friend, Owen, a victim of child abuse, has already dealt with his own demon by committing suicide. Now, Sam and J.C. must decide how to deal with theirs. The resolution is deftly handled.

Williams has written a compelling story that is timeless. The reader is drawn into the conflicting emotions of the dialogue, the denseness of the theme. Childhood traumas are often hidden by quiet suffering. Our young can grow into adulthood shouldering invisible baggage. Occasionally, something unexpected reveals this baggage — sometimes with tragic results.

S.A. Williams is a writer to watch.  I believe readers will likely hear more from him in the future.  Visit his website at

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Friday, December 14, 2012

Christmas in Combleux

When I was a boy, my family lived in France.  Dad was an officer in the Army, stationed at a base in Orleans, a mid-sized city in the Loire Valley about fifty miles southwest of Paris.  This was in the early 1950s when American troops were still welcomed in France after the war to assist with the rebuilding efforts and to provide rear-area security against any possible Soviet aggression.

As a nine-year old, I had very little idea of the impact of the war to the people of France, other than noticing the bombed-out buildings in certain areas of Orleans.  But since we lived in Combleux, a little village on a canal outside of Orleans, we didn't see the rubble of war on a regular basis.  Our lives were confined primarily to making ourselves as comfortable as possible in a rundown old villa we rented, and trying to stay warm in the damp chill of winter.  At one time, the villa had been someone's country home, designed only for summer visits by its owners from Paris.  It was never meant to be occupied in cold weather, and consequently had no central heat.  There was a fireplace in the drawing room, but someone had bricked it up, making it useless.  So my dad got a local man named Couchard to build a new fireplace in an attached room once used as a stable, but he did such a poor job that the fireplace never drew properly.  Instead of going up the chimney, smoke poured into the room whenever we had a fire, and Couchard couldn't seem to fix it.  So it ended up another room without heat.  Finally, Dad got the Army to provide us with some old unvented kerosene space heaters.  We had to place them by cracked-open windows so we wouldn't asphyxiate ourselves.  Because these heaters were smelly to operate, we normally used them just long enough to heat up our bedrooms before turning-in each night.  Then we'd shut them off, close the windows, and go to sleep under a pile of blankets.  The only really warm room in the house was the kitchen, which became our family gathering place.  We would cook and eat there, play games, listen to Armed Forces Radio, do homework, et cetera.

Christmas of 1953 was very special to us.  Not only were we in France, we also had a new baby in the family, my little sister Jane, born earlier in the year in May.  She was round and happy, and lighted-up our lives.  When we first moved to the house, because of my mom's pregnancy, a local woman from the village was hired to help do the cleaning and cooking.  Her name was Andrea, and we liked her right away.  She in turn liked us, but when little Jane came along, she fell hopelessly in love.  Andrea became a second mother and more-or-less took over, which ended up leaving my mom more time for other things.  Needless to say, baby Jane grew very attached, and as she got older, would often spend the night with Andrea and her family when my folks got the chance to get away to Paris.     

That first Christmas with Andrea, she made a special potato-vegetable soup for us.  I remember watching in the kitchen as she boiled all the vegetables together - potatoes, carrots, onions, lettuce and celery.  After that was done, they went through a vegetable mill, or moulin as the French called it.  Andrea would pile them in, then crank the handle to mash them up over a large pot.  The result became a thick, nourishing soup called potage.  It was good on its own, of course, but was often accompanied by great chunks of crispy baggettes, buttered, along with swiss cheese and thinly-sliced ham.  Andrea pointed out that the soup's flavor was enhanced by washing it down with a good Bordeaux.  Mom provided her a glass, and she happily demonstrated.  The whole family ended-up loving potage.  It was the only thing we ate that Christmas eve, and it became our traditional Christmas eve meal from that time on.

After we finished dinner, and mom and dad had their requisite coffee and cognac - and baby Jane got passed around for goodnight kisses - we all bundled up to go to the local village church for midnight mass.  Andrea stayed behind with Jane.  The church was an old, stone structure that had probably been there a century or more.  It was located next to a canal that ran behind the village and emptied into the Loire River a few miles away.  The church's stone walls seemed to soak up all the moisture from the nearby water, and like most old churches and cathedrals of the period, body heat was all there was.  The sanctuary was like a refrigerator.  By the time we arrived, all the pews were filled, and we were forced to stand at the back.  I remember spending that long service stomping on the hard floor to keep my feet warm.  As the priest droned on in French and Latin, my mom and dad would take turns hugging me into the lining of their coats.  My older sister was just as uncomfortable, I'm sure, but she didn't complain, and stood miserably silent next to us.

When mass ended, we shook hands with a number of the villagers we recognized.  For the most part, they were friendly people, pleased to have Americans attend their church.  I noticed a few who appeared sullen, however, and in retrospect wonder if they resented our intruding on their services.  One of them, however, was Couchard, the fireplace builder.  He had his own reasons for being sullen, still angry with my dad because he never got paid the last installment of his fee.  He claimed he had been cheated, and this after witnessing for himself the malfunctioning fireplace.  I guess his view was my dad was expected to pay in full for shoddy work.  We greeted him in a yuletide spirit, but he turned away from us with an arrogant scowl on his face.  Les Americains vilains!

After church, we walked back home in a stiff wind, went into the stable room and sat around our Army-issued kerosene heater to open one present each before going to bed.  Months before, I had picked out several items from the Sears-Roebuck catalogue, as had my older sister, and hoped they would be delivered in time for Christmas.  As they were mailed directly through the Army post office, I wasn't aware when they arrived.  My dad had probably snuck them into the house one day when I wasn't looking.  Anyway, I watched patiently as my sister opened up a package containing a new cashmere sweater.  She tried it on, and paraded around in silly fashion to receive the obligatory compliments all teenage girls expect from their folks.  Then it was my turn.  I tore open a wrapped box about eight inches square, and found inside what I'd been wanting for a long time - and I hadn't seen it at Sears-Roebuck.  It was a ViewMaster, with about a dozen wheels of films.  Ecstasy!  I was overjoyed, and immediately began looking at 3D pictures of faraway places - jungles and mountains, full of color and drama, up close, like I was there - all the wonders of the world.  It was new entertainment.  It was escape.  And I was happy.

Mom and Dad smiled as my sister kept looking at herself in the mirror and I stayed glued to my ViewMaster.  Peace was at hand.  All was well in the family.  Christmas was a success.  And then - as was inevitable - came the smoke, this time not from the fireplace but from the kerosene heater.  A smelly cloud began covering the room.  My dad uttered a favorite four-letter word and threw back another cognac.  Damned Army, he muttered.  Mom laughed, and shook her head.  At least this time, she pointed out, he couldn't blame Couchard! 

We gave up on the stable room, turned off the heater, and rushed through the frigid house to our beds.  For awhile, I looked at more 3D pictures under the covers, then fell asleep thinking of Christmas and jungles and mountains ...and smoky old kerosene heaters.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The House of Blue Lights

It sat alone in a field outside the city limits.  There was a porch running around two sides, buckled front wooden steps, a warped porch swing hanging by one chain.  It was an old house, a single-story, turn-of-the-century Victorian with missing windows and weathered siding. 

Like all old dilapidated houses, it seemed a perfect host for a legend, which went like this.  The house belonged to an elderly woman with scraggly hair and no teeth.  Her husband died mysteriously in one of the rooms years before. but no one came to remove the body.  The suspicion was it was buried somewhere on the premises.  The woman was said to wander aimlessly from room to room talking to the walls, trying to contact her dead husband.  She also kept a herd of feral cats, vicious things that would attack if anyone approached.  At night she would wail hideously, her screams echoing throughout the house.  That was the story, told and retold by every teenager in town.  It was gospel, irrefutable as far as kids (and some adults) were concerned.  Yet even as people described this old woman, over and over, no one claimed to have ever seen or spoke to her.  And how could they?  The house was vacant.  It looked abandoned.   Nothing moved - inside or outside.  People who lived on neighboring properties dismissed the story.  No one lived in the house, they said.  It had been deserted for years.  There was no old woman there.  There was no one there.  How could there be.  Because anyone living in the house would eventually be seen. 
They'd have to come and go, get groceries, pick up mail. 
They couldn't live there and stay hidden.  It was impossible.   

But the story of the scraggly-haired, toothless woman persisted.  True enough, there were never any signs of life.  Never, ever.  No old woman.  No cats.  No screams.  Well...not during daylight hours, anway.  But at night... so the story went...things were different.  At  night, something happened which no one could explain.  People had seen it.  Young people especially (of course).  And it was always on a dark night...moonless and cloudy.  Gloomy.  There was no old woman, or cats, or screams, but there was something else.  Lights.  Strange lights.  And they seemed to move mysteriously on their own, suspended in air, floating.  Blue lights moving inside the house, flickering eerily from window to window.  Blue lights, unnatural glowing orbs nobody could explain.  And so, over time the place became...the house of blue lights. 

I was eight years old when I first heard about it.  And it was all because of my sister and her current boyfriend.  He wanted to take her for a drive in his car.  My mother wasn't sure this was a good idea.  So being cautious, she forced sis to take me along as insurance, to prevent anything from happening in the car that
shouldn't. (I guess I was the 1950's version of birth control)  Much to my sister's irritation, I was the unwanted passenger, and I jumped happily into the back seat for my big adventure.  The boyfriend, as I recall, was some cocky teenager doused in after-shave who, for some reason, didn't seem too worried about having me along.  So, with my sister gritting her teeth, off we went on our drive.  It ended just out of town at the house of blue lights. 

Once there, the boyfriend told the story everyone but me seemed to know.  The old woman, the cats, the wailing, and the lights.  Then he instructed me to sit in the front seat (while he and my sister got in the back) so that I could watch closely for the lights.  I was told to never take my eyes off the house, or I might miss something.  It was very important, he said, that I keep looking, and never turn away.  And so I watched...and watched...and watched...and never did see any blue lights.  Saw no cats, and heard no wailing either.  But after what seemed hours of waiting to an eight year old (more likely less than thirty minutes) I did see something... a light, a very bright, white light streaming in through the back window, and I yelled excitedly, "I see it!  I see it!"  The boyfriend and my sister jumped apart like they'd been tasered.  I noticed they looked scared, and it made me scared too.  "Is it the light?  Is it?" I asked, nervously.  They didn't answer.  My sister began straightening her blouse.

A face appeared at the back window of the car.  "Looking for the blue lights?" asked the cop.  I nodded eagerly, and said I thought I saw one.  He smiled as he glanced into the back seat.  "Good for you, buddy.  Maybe you can tell these two all about it on your ride home."

The cop waited until we drove away.  I was disappointed.  I never actually saw the blue lights that night.  I just fibbed.  I wanted the cop to think I had.  But as I got older, driving out to see the house or the lights didn't seem all that important.  The legend had faded.  Other things had become more interesting to me, things like driving a car somewhere to park with a pretty girl - and not look for lights.

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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Feeling Fall in Smalltown, USA

I was at my favorite coffee place today, and everybody was talking about the cooler weather.  Well, it is October, and we do live in the mountains of North Carolina, so I suppose it's obvious that we're going to feel a chill in the air.  But that's not the point.  People always talk about the weather no matter how obvious the change.  It's what we do as humans, particularly as small-town humans.  We have opinions and observations about everything from weather to politics to who bought the old farm off Crab Creek Road.  It's who we are.  Inquistive, sometimes prying, but always interested in people and events around us.

Now if you've read any of my earlier blogs, you know I haven't always lived in a small town.  I'm a recent transplant from a big city - recent going on eight years, that is.  And although I'm not part of one of the local families who go back ten or more generations, I feel I'm fully vested in my town, and can speak with authority on what makes us locals tick - that is, what inspires us to live where we do and be who we are.  It's no mystery, of course.  There's no cipher to work out. You see, we just plain LIKE ourselves here.  We enjoy each other.  And when I say enjoy, I mean it in a sincere way, in a community way that speaks of commitment, fellowship and support.  Do I mean we are churchgoers?  Sure, many of us are devout, and some are closely defined by religion.  But the above qualities also reside outside of church membership.  Our commitment to each other can be found everywhere - in our local government, our music and arts community, our small businesses, our college and schools, and our many volunteers who donate time and money to sponsor activities for the library, the hospital, and most particularly, the children.  We are small enough to know what needs doing and to fill the gaps where we can.   

So, as Fall breaks out, bringing brisk temperatures and reminding us that Winter is on the way,  living in a small town is a good place to be.  And I especially like how people get into the spirit of the season: visitors coming in from surrounding states to enjoy the explosion of color across our mountains; corn stalks decorating Main Street for Halloween and costumed shopkeepers passing out candy to the kids; people gathering under a profusion of twinkling lights to enjoy our Christmas parade and all the food and camaraderie of the season.  It is this time of year when I feel happiest living where I do, feeling a spirit of a place much more profoundly than I did during my urban years. 

Do I miss the cultural diversity of big city life - the dining opportunities, entertainment venues, major league sports teams?  Not really.  Life is full of stages, isn't it?  We pass through the years and soak up what we want; discard what we don't.  Choice is a big part of living, after all, maybe the biggest part.  In the early stage of my life, big city life was important, brought me a career, marraige and family.  It was where I needed to be.  But my perspective shifted, and everything changed.  BIGness was no longer important.  SMALLness took over...and I'm very happy it did.

Happy Fall, everybody!