Boredom and oversharing on the frontier

Like many people, I loved the Little House series growing up, and read the books many times. I even read a number of the ephemeral books, like The Little House Cookbook, A Little House Sampler, and On the Way Home. Thus, I expected to enjoy this book too.

Was I wrong.

What didn’t I like about this book? Let me count the ways.

1. It moved SO slowly! This is one of those books where 200 pages feel more like 800. This wasn’t an engaging, gripping page-turner.

2. Ms. Miller needs a lot more practice writing third-person. Her previous novels were first-person present tense, so the classic third-person past tense is quite a departure for her. I never felt fully in Caroline’s head, because the prose was so emotionally detached and distant.

3. Overdescribing the dullest things, with the same detached prose. How does it either move the story or character development along to know every little detail about rope burn, fording rivers, drying the wagon canvas after a storm?

4. Over half the book depicts the journey from Wisconsin to Indian Territory. Apart from a few people the Ingallses encounter along the way, the only four characters are Ma, Pa, Mary, and Laura. Books about, e.g., the Oregon Trail work best when there are many other people besides the main family.

Those books also feature gripping emotional, dramatic events, like disease, drought, exhaustion, childbirth, quarrels with other pioneers. This is just a boring, long-drawn-out travelogue.

5. I REALLY did not need to read sex scenes with Ma and Pa! I feel so uncomfortable reading sex scenes with real-life people. Unless we’re talking about someone like Casanova, how do you think they’d feel knowing a total stranger, 100+ years later, would depict the imagined details of their most private, intimate moments for the entire world to read?

6. Ditto reading about Pa tasting Ma’s breastmilk!

7. I’m not sure what the point of this retelling was. This is little more than a direct retelling of Little House on the Prairie from Ma’s POV.

8. Enough already with the excretory scenes! Reading about real-life people relieving themselves squicks me out even more than reading about them having sex! I did not need to read so many scenes of Ma and the girls using the necessary, digging holes and squatting over them, and emptying chamber pots!

9. Lots of purple prose and weird metaphors. Enough said.

10. Was the real Caroline really that dour, serious, depressing, and joyless? I get that Laura wrote the books from her POV, and didn’t have personal insight into her mother’s feelings, but Ms. Miller’s Caroline seems really off the mark. Pioneer women had difficult lives, and were the product of a much different society and culture, but there were still moments of joy!

It also feels like stereotyping of Victorian women in general, who were anything but prudish and repressed.

11. Spending way too much time describing things that don’t move the story along. Not every single day, week, month of a story needs detailed!

12. Ms. Miller doesn’t use enough commas. Where was her editor?

Overall, I’m tired of the trend of hist-fic about real-life people. So many of these books would work so much better were they about fictional people with similar circumstances. Then there’d be more leeway to stray from established history and personalities. At least in alternative history, there’s a reason for characters to do things they never did in real life!

At least Ms. Miller accurately depicts the Ingallses as voluntarily returning to Wisconsin because the man who bought their cabin reneged on his payments, instead of, as Laura depicts, being forced out by the government.

WeWriWa—1841 begins

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This year’s New Year-themed snippet comes from probably the only book I’ll ever write in first-person, Anne Terrick: A Bildungsroman. I created Anne’s original incarnation when I was 5-6 years old, eventually made her into a 19th century diarist, and then shelved her in 1992. In 2017, I finally resurrected her.

For different reasons, Anne and her sister Abigail really stand out in 1840s Congregationalist Boston, and in a home ruled over by their petty tyrant of a father. After a series of extremely dramatic events, the sisters find their freedom in Oregon Country, along with a bunch of other black sheep in their family and circle of friends.

Dave is an orphan whom Mr. Terrick took on as an apprentice to his general store when Dave was twelve years old. Anne has had a crush on him for a long time, but since she’s six years younger than Dave, he doesn’t notice her in that way yet.

This has been slightly tweaked to fit ten lines.

January 1, 1841, Friday,

Last night’s Watch Night service left everyone quite tired, but we weren’t allowed to sleep past 8:00. Except Father, that is. His store isn’t open on New Year’s Day, but he briefly woke up to bang on everyone’s door before going back to sleep himself. He’d know if anyone else went back to sleep too, so we had no choice but to dress and go down to breakfast.

Alice and the other servants had a festive meal waiting for us—apple pie; spiced apple cider; balls of sweetened dough stuffed with currants and fried in hog’s fat; toasted bread covered with melted butter, cinnamon, and sugar; applesauce; fried eggs in tomato sauce; and Herb’s very favorite, mincemeat pie. Much of our food comes from our modest garden and farm, and is stored in our smokehouse, larder, and pie safe during the months when the land is dead; other food is acquired through store customers trading in exchange for goods.

After breakfast, Dave’s current young lady came to the house. I was afraid Father might awake and punish him for daring to admit one of his lovers in broad daylight instead of keeping her in the barn for the usual few hours under cover of darkness, but Father remained asleep.

“I really wanted to walk to the pond together,” the young lady announced. “Meeting there isn’t as romantic.”

A complicated woman who deserved better

I was quite excited to stumble across this thick historical novel about Mary Todd Lincoln. I’ve been deeply interested in the Lincolns since age eight, with the interest waxing and waning over time. So many books focus on Pres. Lincoln and his youngest sons Willie and Tad, but not too much attention has been paid to the long-suffering Mary.

Overall, I think I’d give this a 3 out of 5. I read every word, and overall was held by the story and Ms. Newman’s writing, but there were a number of things which disappointed me.

1. While the wraparound segments in the mental hospital were an interesting idea, I don’t think they fit so well with the main text. I personally don’t like being jerked back and forth between past and present. There needs to be more balance with such a structure. I’ve also found out there were no bars on the windows, and no records of patients being killed by overdoses of medication like laudanum.

2. It was jarring to see the R-word used several times, even as a medical term! That word wasn’t even used in that way in the 19th century. Did Ms. Newman not think we’d understand a bygone classification like feebleminded, moron, or imbecile?

3. Robert Lincoln is portrayed as the antagonist, a complete villain, with no human emotions or sympathy. From birth, he’s depicted as cold, unfeeling, distant, antagonistic towards his mother and later wife, cruel, etc. In real life, two recesses had to be called at Mary’s insanity hearing because Robert was crying too much to testify. He also stayed by his baby brother Tad on his deathbed, and was very grieved to lose his final surviving sibling.

4. Speaking of, the wrong age is given for Tad at one point.

5. I obviously know the focus isn’t supposed to be on Pres. Lincoln, but some rather important events of his life are left out. Why wouldn’t his wife mention he started growing a beard, for example? Or how about him sneaking into Washington in disguise, on another train, for fear of assassination during the final leg of his journey to the White House?

6. Based on what came before, I honestly didn’t realise at first Ms. Newman was actually describing the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. I thought Mary was having another drug-induced hallucination or dream!

7. I was quite disappointed such short schrift was given to the Lincolns’ White House life. How about some descriptions of dinners and teas with important dignitaries and generals? Mary’s young friend Julia Taft, the older sister of Tad and Willie’s friends Bud and Holly, all of whom were regular visitors?

8. This is one of those books where so many pages are devoted to the subject’s early life, not much room is left to properly delve into the middle and later years.

9. I don’t want to read sex scenes with real-life people! I’ve zero problem reading or writing sex scenes in general, but I don’t want to picture Pres. Lincoln of all people getting it on! Forget the famous or heroic aspect; what person wants complete strangers, 100+ years later, writing about her or his most private, intimate moments for the whole world?

For that matter, I don’t want to read about anyone (real people or fictional characters) relieving themselves either! Both of these things are trends that need to go away!

10. Is there any evidence Mary seduced her husband before marriage to force him into marrying her, and her family into accepting the relationship? I’m well-aware premarital sex has always existed, but the way this storyline was handled seemed so unrealistic and bizarre!

11. Ms. Newman depicts Mary as sex-obsessed and Pres. Lincoln as frigid and undersexed, with this imbalance of passion deeply affecting their relationship. She even has Mary thinking about sex when her husband’s on his deathbed! In an earlier chapter, she depicts Mary having an affair when she’s shopping in New York.

Overall, I did enjoy a good portion of the book. I truly felt for this woman who suffered so much, and lived in a time when there wasn’t much recourse but a mental hospital and “medicine” that made her condition worse. It’s just that the execution was lacking, and I felt like a voyeur reading the sex scenes.

2017 in Review (Writing and life)

My wordcounts were in the toilet for much of this year. I’m shocked I got just under 81K for NaNo, even as a rebel working on several different things. 47K of that came from my WIP about my long-shelved character Anne Terrick. After about 25 years, it’s very surreal to write an entire book in first-person again, but diary form just feels right for this story.

I managed to get some decent work done on Part II of The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, even if I lost the roughly 2,000–5,000 words closing the penultimate chapter and in the rewrite of the final chapter. Baruch Hashem, I didn’t lost as much as I’d feared, and a number of things came back to me in the ensuing days.

I also have excerpts from those lost words in my Twitter feed, from all the themed weekly writing hops I do. It won’t be the first time I’ve had no choice but to go back from scratch and memory to rewrite and reconstruct something.

Though I waited till four days before the deadline, and almost gave up on the second day, I’m glad I went for it and wrote a story for this year’s IWSG anthology contest. Sci-fi is my next-fave genre, though I don’t give it nearly as much attention as I give historical. It ended up a bit over 5K.

I also got some good work done on my fourth Russian historical, A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University. A lot of great secondary characters and subplots introduced themselves this year. I’ve just had to accept that this volume isn’t one of the ones which has been writing me more than I’ve been writing it, and that it won’t be finished as quickly as normal.

I’m surprised to see I wrote a bit over 90K on Dream Deferred this year. It felt like much less, giving my depression and lagging wordcounts.

I’m now back to working on the book formerly known as The Very First, which I’ll write more about in my January IWSG post. I’d thought I only had to finish up the chapter I’d belatedly added about the 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast, but I saw a great opening to add two new chapters concluding the year, and an Epilogue in January 1939, at Barry’s bar mitzvah.

I’ve lost about 30 pounds since June. The weight I’d ballooned up to made my UMass weight look healthy. I still can’t believe I was that heavy and lived, even with my bone structure!

I’m not happy at how I was shanghaied and blocked from moving home to Pittsburgh like I’d been excitedly planning to, but I remain hopeful I’ll be there by the end of 2018 and resuming my master’s program. I know I’ve been out of school for a few years, but I was far from the only student who was very unhappy with UAlbany’s library science program.

My 17-year-old leafy baby, Kalanit, started the year just as depressed as I was. Her leaves were dull and drooping over the sides of her pot, and she hadn’t had any new growths for a few years. After she survived her longest car ride ever, 900 miles, and was put into a new pot for the first time ever, she came back with a vengeance.

Kalanit’s roots had started to become impacted, but a larger pot and fresh soil worked miracles. She grew and grew like crazy, with a new baby almost every time I turned around. I’ll have to have a future post with pictures of Kalanit to show just how amazing her recovery has been.

A lot of people have expressed astonishment when they find out I’ve kept a spider plant alive for 17 years. She’s been on a number of car rides and in a number of residences, including the four different rooms I lived in during my two years at UMass.

Kalanit may soon need a larger pot, and possibly to be split up for the first time in years!

IWSG—A new lease on my writing life

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The Insecure Writer’s Support Group convenes the first Wednesday of every month, and lets participants share their worries, insecurities, triumphs, hopes, and fears. This month’s question is:

As you look back on 2017, with all its successes/failures, if you could backtrack, what would you do differently?

I can’t change the fact that my depression and other mental health issues created much lower than usual wordcounts for much of the year. I do wish I’d backed up the most current version of The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees before the shocking disaster of August. At least I “only” lost maybe 2,000–5,000 words and a week or so of research, not the entire document.

I didn’t think I’d get anywhere close to 50K this NaNo, given how dismal my wordcounts have been for much of the past year. I felt the only way I might get there was by being a rebel working on several different projects.

This represents blog posts, my last day of work on my IWSG anthology story, my 29 November journal entry on George Harrison’s 16th Jahrzeit (death anniversary), the list of 2018 blog post topics I put together, and a WIP.

Because I gave myself permission to fail, and decided to have fun doing whatever I wanted, I won with my quickest speed ever. My final wordcount of just under 81K still isn’t the best I know I’m capable of, but given my wordcounts during most of the past year, I’ll happily take it.

Writing and researching my blog series on The Jazz Singer at 90 gave me back my writing mojo. The infectious charisma and personality of Al Jolson, which was responsible for making the film such a wild success, worked that same magic on me. So thank you, Jolie!

I only started my IWSG anthology story on 29 October, and almost gave up on the second day. I’m glad I found the willpower to push through, even if I don’t win. I really enjoyed researching projected far-future developments, and finding sci-fi-sounding names.

I titled it “Birkat HaChamah,” after the Jewish blessing of the Sun which takes place every 28 years. It’s happened twice in my lifetime so far, 1981 and 2009. I’ll have a future post re: how to write about this rare ritual.

47K came from Anne Terrick: A Bildungsroman, which starts in September 1840 and is told in diary format. I thought I’d shelved Anne forever in 1992, but she was meant to be if I never forgot her all these years. She was created (as Ann-Ann) when I was all of 5-6 years old.

Going back to the 19th century after so many years is like learning how to write historical all over again. It’s also strange to write in first-person again, but the diary format of yore just seemed right. This story wouldn’t work in third-person.

I came up with so many great ideas for characters and storylines from the previous final form of Anne’s story (which is in storage 900 miles away). I also moved her from Plymouth to Boston. Now, only her double-cousins and grandparents live in Plymouth.

I’m delighted with unplanned secondary character Pastor Winterbottom, her minister and catechism teacher at her hated boarding school. He’s not a sympathetic character, but he’s such great dark comedy, and keeps getting better.

The local writing group was neither as active nor interactive as my writing group back home (which I’m still officially registered with). I’m used to much more chatter at write-ins, several write-ins a week at fixed locations, and weekly write-ins the entire year, not just in November.

For my 29 November journal entry, I counted my handwritten words (499) and entered them into a lorum ipsem generator. Also in honor of George’s Jahrzeit, I made a desktop picture with his last words (right) and one of my favorite lyrics (left).

392279 01: (FILE PHOTO) Beatles guitarist and singer George Harrison performs December 3, 1963 during a concert. It was reported November 8, 2001 that Harrison is undergoing cancer treatment in a Staten Island, N.Y., hospital. The 58-year-old ex-Beatle was diagnosed with lung cancer and a brain tumor earlier this year. (Photo by Getty Images)