Friday, December 23, 2011

Special Edition! An Original Short Story

Today's post is a personal first: my first self-published work. The following is a story I wrote for my creative writing class at Vassar. The themes of family and Christmas joy are very appropriate as we all prepare for the holiday weekend. I hope you enjoy it, and please feel free to leave comments.

I wish all of you a very joyous Noel! 

Sugar and Spice
by Leanne Sowul

It was tradition: the Saturday before Christmas, the Wallaby women gathered to bake their Christmas cookies. It didn’t matter if the Saturday before Christmas was a full week before the holiday, necessitating far-flung relatives to travel twice (“Oh, stop your whining,” Granny Ellison would scoff), or if it was Christmas Eve, when they needed to begin before dawn to finish in time for the late afternoon mass. (Cousin Margaret, who was the most pious of the bunch, would rush them through the day. “Church!” she’d cry, as if God himself was clocking their baking time.) Every Wallaby woman came, from Granny Ellison down to her youngest grandchild. It was tradition, and the Wallaby women abided by it, year after year, generation after generation, until nobody but Granny Ellison and Great Aunt Marian could remember how it started. 

This year, for the first time, Leah was hosting. According to the tradition, the baking party rotated from house to house around their small suburb of Jamestown, where most of the family, including matriarch Granny Ellison, still lived. Leah and her husband Paul, newlyweds (for this is how they were still referred to among the family, even two and a half years after their wedding) had recently purchased a restored 1890s farmhouse just a few blocks away from her parents’ raised ranch. At the open house, everyone had oohed and ahed over the light, airy kitchen with the large butcher block island set over refinished oak floors, surrounded by a cast of stainless steel appliances that would make an Iron Chef jealous (or so said Aunt Caroline, who idolized the Food Network chefs like her pre-teen daughter Madison idolized Justin Bieber). Hearing their reactions, Leah and her sister Jodi had exchanged glances. It was clear that Leah would be the one to host the baking party this year, and judging by the enthusiastic cries of “Double ovens, think of how many trays they’ll hold!’ and “Look at that pot rack!” it seemed possible that the tradition of moving from house to house might be abolished in future years. 

And so on the Saturday before Christmas, which this year was neither Christmas Eve nor a full week before (thank goodness), Leah found herself rising earlier than even her weekday schedule required to make sure the house was clean, the coffee made, and the baking materials set out. Feeling a mixture of pleasant anticipation and unwelcome nerves, she dressed in loose black drawstring pants and a red plaid flannel button-down (the Wallabys were nothing if not practical about their baking attire, and Leah was grateful for this now). Leah left her still-slumbering husband and went to the living room to turn on the Christmas lights. She allowed herself a moment to breathe in the fresh fragrance of pine and admire the beauty of the Douglas fir against the backdrop of their new picture windows. The tiny white lights on the tree looked like stars against the half-darkness of the sky outside, while over the hills, the gleam of sunrise pink rose to match their brightness.

In the kitchen, Leah laid out mixing bowls, wooden spoons, baking sheets and cooling racks as the coffee brewed in the urn. The smell gave her a bad taste, like old milk, and she wondered at how much she’d loved the smell of coffee before, and how much she hated it now. She double-checked the stock of ingredients, dry: flour, white sugar, brown sugar, baking powder, spices; and wet: butter, canola oil, eggs, whole milk. (The Wallabys didn’t mess around with “healthier options” as was once timidly suggested by an in-law back in 2006. Christmas cookies were meant to be both fattening and delicious, and that was the way they would make them.)

Shortly past seven, Leah heard Jodi’s knock at the back French door, the “one-and-a two-and, and four” pattern that they had once made fun of their mother for using, and now used with each other as a joke. Leah mouthed “Come in!” through the glass, and Jodi stepped inside, immediately shedding her puffy jacket and wool gloves and tossing them nonchalantly on a chair, then at Leah’s look, retrieving them to hang on the hooks by the door.

“When’s the herd set to arrive?” Jodi asked, walking over to the iPod dock on the counter, pulling her pink Nano out of a pocket, and holding it up for Leah to see. “I told you I’d remember to bring music this year!” (It was the one thing Leah and Jodi had been responsible for since the age of fourteen, when their musical taste had surpassed their mother’s, but year after year, they had showed up to bake without CDs or iPods, and year after year, everyone had been disappointed.)

“Everyone should be here around eight,” Leah answered her. “Mama and Aunt Christy are bringing the bagels.” 

Jodi pressed play and Nat King Cole’s baritone boomed out, shockingly loud in the serene morning air. Jodi yelped and depressed the volume, but the damage was done, and a few minutes later, Paul wandered in, rubbing his temples beneath his half-spiked hair. 

“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” he sang over-loudly, and the girls laughed. Paul put his arms around Leah, kissing her neck and smoothing his palms over her stomach. “I should have known it was you, disturbing the peace,” he teased Jodi, who stuck her tongue out at him, the stud she’d pierced it with in high school gleaming in the now abundant sunshine pouring in through the windows. 

The “herd,” as Jodi referred to the gaggle of women, began arriving at eight o’clock sharp. Without knocking, they came in through every available door: the front door cross-beamed with reclaimed barn wood; the glass French doors off the kitchen; the garage door downstairs. They left handprints on the glass and smudges of mud on the wood floors. (Cousin Bea, the compulsive one, immediately wet a paper towel and went to work erasing the damage, though Leah told her not to worry.) They filled the house with a cacophony of female voices: high and shrill sopranos, oddly masculine tenors, a melodious alto or two. Granny Ellison’s brash cackle rose over all the rest, drowning out Jodi’s iPod, still blaring Bing Crosby and Harry Connick, Jr. Now Leah remembered why they’d never bothered with music in the past. 

After a bagel and a cup of coffee apiece, they all set to work. Aunt Caroline, the keeper of the recipes, pulled out the little cards and passed them around. Her daughter Madison read out the schedule. They would mix the batters that needed to be refrigerated first: the pecan logs, the Mexican Wedding cookies, the peppermint whirls. Then they’d prepare the quicker mixes: the chocolate nut-balls, the peanut butter Hershey kiss cookies, and the oatmeal chocolate chip that was a favorite with all the husbands. In the later afternoon, they’d tackle the refrigerated dough and the cut-out cookies. That was when things really got messy, Leah knew. All those rolling pins coated with flour, arthritic fingers attempting to smooth down stubborn shortbread. It would take her the entire night to clean up the kitchen. She hoped Jodi and her mother would stay to help out; she was getting tired earlier and earlier these days.

The women hit their stride after the peppermint whirls were rolled into logs (everyone agreed they were the most perfect cylinders they’d yet made) and were safely in the fridge. Their conversation, previously focused on how many cups of sugar the recipe called for and how much time in the microwave was needed to soften the butter, now turned to the usual family topics. Caroline’s oldest daughter Jessica was in the process of adopting a baby from Korea. Everyone wanted to know what the baby looked like (Jessica had forgotten to bring the one picture; she was notoriously scatterbrained, and Leah wondered at how she had been able to keep track of all that adoption paperwork) and how much longer it would be before Jessica and her husband Sam could make the trip to Seoul. 

Meanwhile, Great Aunt Marie and Cousin Sue were grilling Jodi about the celebrities and local politicians who were her clientele. Jodi worked as a freelance stylist, a venture that had once seemed risky- much too risky, if you asked the elder Wallaby women (and you didn’t have to ask; they’d tell you, just as they’d told Jodi herself nearly every day). But after the local paper printed that Jodi had dressed Amanda Seyfried for a movie on location in Buffalo, her reputation (and income) soared. Jodi now owned a stylish office with a studio apartment above. The Wallaby women had been pleased, though surprised, by Jodi’s success, but there were no apologies for their earlier doubts. It was understood by all that they had the right to speak their minds, as long as there were no “I-told-you-so’s” when they were right, and no forced eating of humble pie when they were wrong.

Leah worked by herself at the stovetop, melting chocolate with butter and mixing in confectioner’s sugar for the chocolate nut-ball topping. As she stirred, Leah listened to the rise and fall of her family’s voices amid the clatter of measuring cups and spatulas. 

Aunt Christy was arguing with her mother, Granny Ellison, about Christy’s girlfriend Chloe. Granny Ellison, who had been completely unfazed at the news that Christy was gay (“You always did keep your hair too short, dear,” she had said) was now in a towering temper over Christy’s decision to take Chloe’s last name when they married next spring. Christy argued that since they didn’t plan to have children, the Wallaby name would die out in her line anyway, but Granny refused to acknowledge the point. “Chloe’s last name is Chavez! What kind of a fool name is Christy Chavez? Stupidest name I ever heard,” Granny grumbled. 

Leah smiled to herself. She knew Granny would give in eventually. She loved Chloe, as they all had, ever since the baking party two years prior when she’d not only proved to be a pro with a rolling pin, but introduced them all to her Mexican Wedding cookie recipe, with the half-crunchy, half moist insides and topping of soft powdered sugar. The only reason Chloe wasn’t here today was because she volunteered at a children’s hospital, and they’d asked her to dress up as Santa Claus for their Christmas party. (“A Mexican girl playing Santa!” Granny had scoffed, but they all knew that Chloe, with her round chin and winning smile, would be perfect as the Giver of Joy and Christmas Cheer.)

Standing at the stove, Leah’s throat suddenly tightened with unshed emotion. She had a vision of her child, the one growing inside her, joining in with the baking in future years: tiptoeing on a step-stool to help her grandmother stir in chocolate chips; giggling as her Aunt Jodi made silly frosting faces on the cut-out snowmen; tugging at Leah’s apron with flour and chocolate-smeared hands, wanting to be picked up and cuddled. Of course, the baby might not be a girl (it was too early for the sonogram) but Leah had the feeling that a girl was almost inevitable, a necessary stake in the next generation. Being born into the Wallaby family (though Leah was now a Carter, on paper if not by personality) meant living under the jurisdiction of the Wallaby women, for better or for worse. It was best if the husbands and fathers understood this implicitly, as Paul now did and Leah’s father always had. (A few husbands along the way had not come to this understanding soon enough; they had eventually been either overpowered or dismissed, depending on the Wallaby wife in question.) Though this baby, along with Jessica’s child, would be the first of the new generation of Wallabys, Leah already knew their birthright would be the same as hers and Jodi’s, the same as their mother’s and Granny Ellison’s. 

As if in response to these thoughts, Leah’s stomach gave a little lurch, causing a brief moment of panic while she weighed throwing down the spoon and running to the bathroom against the certain dawning comprehension of all the women in the room. No one knew about the baby yet except her and Paul. She was only seven weeks, and there had been losses in her family before; she understood, from those experiences, a small piece of a women’s pain when she needed to communicate the news that she was no longer pregnant. That understanding was enough to seal her lips and give her a superstitious feeling about speaking of the pregnancy, even with Paul. 

Leah grabbed a glass and filled it with water from the tap, taking small sips and willing her stomach to stay settled. She hadn’t had much morning sickness yet, and she prayed that it would hold off until after Christmas, when she could spend the remaining few weeks of her required silence avoiding her family. She knew that only a greenish tinge, a declining of foods she once loved, a little swelling of her face would be enough to tip them off, these women who loved and protected and meddled so freely, these women who knew her so well. 

As she drank, her stomach gave another, sharper lurch, and suddenly Leah’s back was pressed against the sink, bent over in a spasm of nausea- or was it pain? She couldn’t tell, and in that moment, a flash of fear, and one word- bleeding- took over all conscious thought. 

Through the pain, she heard her mother’s voice from across the room, an edge of worry arcing it over the din. “Leah, are you all right?”

Every conversation stopped. The hush sounded loud in the big kitchen. Pull yourself together, Leah thought. The nausea, or pain, or whatever it was, seemed to be lessening. The worry that she was bleeding, that this was the start of something unthinkable, lowered itself to a dull hum, a valid worry, but one that felt increasingly unjustified. 

She raised her head and looked around the room. Every female eye was penetrating her, every female hand was stilled, hovering over ingredients and utensils. Leah could see lights going off in heads, realization dawning as the women took in her loose shirt, her fuller cheeks. She didn’t know what to do. Should she just tell them? But no, that was too risky, she couldn’t bear telling them, not yet. Then what else was she to say? 

Just then, Granny Ellison piped up. “Shortbread batter’s done,” she said, matter-of-factly.

Leah was confused- hadn’t Granny just been looking at her in that knowing way? (“I had four kids and they all had kids and I know what a pregnant lady looks like and you, dearie, are pregnant!”) She knew Granny knew. Granny always knew. Some of the women turned to Granny, though a good many pairs of eyes still rested on Leah. 

“I’ve got an announcement to make,” Granny said. Now everyone was looking at her, but she was watching Leah, speaking to Leah, who held her breath. 

“Cliff and I are moving,” Granny said.

For a moment, the words hung in the air, and then everyone started talking at once. “What?” “Where?” “When?” Granny held up her hands. “Just across town, to the Golden Age Retirement home. It’s about time. We can’t take care of that big house anymore, and most of our friends live there now. We’ll be more comfortable.”

The questions continued, and there was some crying, some arguing, some “What will happen to the house?” and “You’ve lived there for fifty-two years!” All attention was on Granny now, and Leah stayed by the sink, forgotten. She placed one hand on her abdomen. All seemed still. Smiling to herself, Leah turned back to the chocolate on the stove, which was now fully melted, about to burn. She was sure she’d seen Granny wink at her through the crowd. (“You owe me, dearie. Better name that little one after me.”) Sophie Wallaby Carter, Leah mused as she stirred, hoping Paul would like the name. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Skipping to the End

Last week I started re-reading Midwives by Chris Bohjalian. (It was part of the stack of books I had amassed from the library book sale in my post Importer/Exporter.) I'd read the book before, but it was a long time ago, and I really didn't remember it at all. In re-reading it, I discovered anew the originality of this book, a fresh take on the old story about putting a person on trial for doing her job. The story goes like this: A woman named Sybil practices midwifery in a small Vermont town. One icy winter night, after a prolonged and painful labor, one of her "mothers" dies in childbirth and Sybil does a C-section to extract the baby. Though the reader is assured that Sybil is both highly skilled and passionate about her craft, there is some doubt in the minds of the doctors and lawyers in the community as to whether the death was actually murder. She and her family are subjected to an arrest and a lawsuit, and as the trial progresses, Sybil herself starts to question whether she really did kill the mother that night.

It's all a great story, or at least I think it's all a great story, because about two-thirds of the way through, I impulsively decided to find out whether Sybil is convicted in the end.

Yes, I committed the greatest sin a reader can commit when in the throes of a gripping tale: I skipped to the end of the book. And as soon as I got my answer (which of course, I will not reveal here) I was very disappointed, because I realized I had no desire to read the pages I'd skipped, now that I knew the end of the story.

I'm kicking myself for this moment of weakness, partly because it leaves me with a vague feeling of incompleteness, but mostly because skipping was profoundly disrespectful to the author, Chris Bohjalian, who spent great effort and skill building up to that final scene where the judge reads the verdict; effort and skill that were wasted on me.

Why do we, as readers, do this? I know I'm not the only one out there who does. We're enjoying ourselves- we must be, or we wouldn't have read far enough to be curious about the end- and we know full well that skipping will only leave us feeling guilty and disappointed. My theory on this- and admittedly, it's a weak one- is that all of us, in our own lives, are desperate to know the end of our story. (Do I get the job? Is he "the one?" Will the stick turn blue?) We can never know what's in store for ourselves, but we can know what's in store for our characters. (Is she guilty? Does he die? Who committed the crime?) And so we skip ahead to the end. And then we kick ourselves.

It's also possible that some of us are like Harry Burns in When Harry Met Sally, who always reads the end of a book first in case he dies before he can finish it. I hope the number of people who do this are in a very small minority. In my opinion, if you're in the last moments of a sudden death, I'm pretty sure you're not thinking, "Damn, I wish I knew who John Galt was."

It's possible to make the argument that if I was truly enjoying the book- or if I hadn't already read it once- I would have tried harder to keep myself from learning the end too soon. I have been successful at preventing myself from doing this in the past, especially when reading mysteries or Harry Potter books. I knew I'd regret it so much that I resisted temptation and continued reading until I reached the end, which was satisfying in a way it never would have been had I gotten there in another way.

So maybe this isn't a total loss, because at some other point in time, I had known the ending, and I'd earned it legitimately. But I know I'll think twice before doing it again.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

I'm Back.... to the Future

Ahh, it feels so good to be back! I know it's only been a week, but I missed blogging. Heck, I missed writing. Between my job and all the extra Christmas chores and plans, I haven't had time to work on short stories or my novel. The only things I've written in the past week are emails and my daily journal. (I'd have to be working 20-hour days before I'd give up journal writing.)

However, my absence from this blog did not mean that the blog was absent from my thoughts. I have been thinking about the future and what direction I want to take with it. Now that I have a solid four months and nearly 40 posts under my belt, I've discovered a few things. One thing I've learned is that people most enjoy reading posts about broad topics, such as how to choose books, or opinions about a well-known author. The individual book reviews are helpful, but if you haven't read or plan to read the book, they may not be as interesting. I plan to continue the book reviews, but intersperse them with more frequent posts about general reading topics, such as the impact of technology on writing, and whether movie adaptations are always bad news. I also plan to debut a new type of post: the reading menu. Sound intriguing? You'll have to stay tuned!

So you'll hopefully be seeing a few changes to this blog over the coming weeks and months. Change will be gradual. I'll be trying out new things and seeing what works and what doesn't. I'll be using my Blogger statistics to monitor which posts are popular, how many page views I'm getting, and the growing list of countries from which the blog is viewed. But I also want as much reader feedback as possible. There has been some commenting on posts in the past, but I'd love to have more. Part of my vision for this blog was to create a forum for dedicated readers and writers to express their feelings and opinions about literature. Perhaps I haven't done enough to encourage that, and if so, I'll try to think of more ways to invite you all into this space. In the meantime, I encourage you to comment, anonymously if desired, on any post that piques your interest, and to feel free to share your opinions about the blog as a whole and what you'd like to see more or less of.

I'll leave you tonight with some of my favorite quotes about reading.

"A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it." -Samuel Johnson
"I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book." -Groucho Marx
"Reading takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere." -Hazel Rochman
"Reading without reflecting is like eating without digesting." -Edmund Burke
"To read is to fly; it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries." -A.C. Grayling
"The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who'll get me a book I ain't read." -Abraham Lincoln
"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." -Frederick Douglass
"We read to know we are not alone." - C.S. Lewis

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Brief Hiatus

Hi everyone, nothing exciting in this post- I'm just letting you know that there will be no new posts until mid-week next week. For those of you who don't know, I'm a music teacher, and this is concert week. When the performances are done, I'm looking forward to having more time to read and write. For now, please forgive my absence from this page, and enjoy your week- it's such a wonderful time of year!

All the best,


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sense and Sensibility, Part 2

If it would fit, the title of this post would read:

Sense and Sensibility, Part 2: An Homage to Emma Thompson

As I re-read Jane Austen's first novel (for more on the plot and analysis of Austen's writing, see Sense and Sensibility, Part 1) I found myself thinking about and feeling awed by Emma Thompson's screenplay adaptation, which resulted in a 1995 film starring Thompson and Kate Winslet and directed by Ang Lee. I loved this movie so much that at the time, I bought the book Thompson created to compile the script, production notes and photos from the filming.

What amazed me about Thompson's ability to adapt this novel was how little she had to work with. As I noted in my previous post, in contrast with Pride and Prejudice, which was transcribed almost word-for-word to the film script, Austen wrote very little dialogue in this book. She also did little to establish the relationships between the characters from the outset, particularly between Elinor and Edward. Thompson was able to overcome both of these deficiencies while keeping true to Austen's style. 

Without dragging out the scenes at the beginning of the film, Thompson sets up the romance between Elinor and Edward with selective dialogue, a few longing looks, and some endearing scenes between Edward and Elinor's sister Margaret. The audience is immediately invested in their relationship, and roots for them throughout the entirety of the movie- much of which, as in the book, they spend apart, as unrequited lovers. It helps, of course, that Emma Thompson herself, who plays Elinor, and Hugh Grant, who plays Edward, are so skilled at the art of subtle romantic acting. 

The dialogue throughout the rest of the script is clean and sparkling. Thompson cribs lines directly from Austen whenever she can, and invents the rest in a style so similar, she could have been a reincarnation of the famous novelist. 

Here is an example of Thompson's ability to take a brief summary and turn it into a telling scene. 

From Sense and Sensibility, novel by Jane Austen:

"Mrs. John Dashwood now installed herself mistress of Norland, and her mother and sisters-in-law were degraded to the condition of visitors."

From Sense and Sensibility, screenplay by Emma Thompson:

MARIANNE: Fanny wishes to know where the key for the silver cabinet is kept. 
ELINOR: Betsy has it, I think. What does Fanny want with the silver?
MARIANNE: I can only presume she wants to count it. What are you doing?
ELINOR: Presents for the servants. Have you seen Margaret? I am worried about her. She has taken to hiding in the oddest places. 
MARIANNE: Fortunate girl. At least she can escape Fanny, which is more than any of us is able.
ELINOR: You do your best. You have not said a word to her for a week. 
MARIANNE (truculently): I have! I have said "yes" and "no."

This is the first scene between Elinor and Marianne. In 7 lines of dialogue, Thompson has established that there is a new mistress of the house who does not trust them; that the sisters equally dislike and distrust her; that Elinor takes on certain motherly responsibilities in the family; that Marianne is obstinate in her emotions and opinions; and that all the sisters have entirely different dispositions, and may be critical of each other. That short conversation, which takes up less than a minute of film, reveals layers upon layers of character beyond "Mrs. John Dashwood now installed herself mistress of Norland, and her mother and sisters-in-law were degraded to the condition of visitors."

I'm not saying that the film is better than the book (if you ever catch me saying that, please smother me under a pile of books) but I do greatly respect Thompson's abilities, and it did teach me a lesson about writing: if you want good dialogue, ask a screenplay writer. 

Thompson did earn an Academy Award for this screenplay, by the way, making her the only person to ever win an Oscar for both writing and acting. 

(Can you tell I have a little girl-crush on her?)