Saturday, December 27, 2008

Teaching HIstory through Fiction

Authorsnow! has passed on a Scholastic link about teaching historical fiction in the classroom. The article's author, Terry Lindquist, teaches grade five social studies. Grade five and six kids are at that amazing point in life where they want to know and they have the basic skills to engage in meaningful feedback. I was totally impressed with the engagement of a grade six class when I first 'tested' my fledgling manuscript of The Kulak's Daughter.  

Two points she addresses, especially caught my attention. First, Ms.Lindquist says "it puts people back in history." Focusing on one character's point of view as historical events unfold demonstrates the 'seven blind mice' principle. 

The other point that she mentions, and I'd like to stress, is that historical fiction can present 'the complexity of issues.'  We'd all love to have events and people clearly defined as good or bad - but the truth is always a bit more difficult to find. And in the end, we want kids to see themselves as part of an ever-developing history. After all it's ourstory and it's incredibly dynamic. 

Word of the day: dynamic-pertaining to energy or power in motion, relating to tending towards change  (as opposed to: static)

Friday, December 26, 2008

Another Christmas at the hospital

My mom fell again, and fractured her pelvis. Poor mom. She's at the stage where getting in or out of bed is risky.  

While she recovers in the hospital, my brother and I will try to get her into a nursing home which means we have to go through a 'panelling' process.  'Panelling' involves various professionals who have to assess and approve her placement into our province's nursing home system. And everyone knows the stresses involved when dealing with a bureaucracy. 

Hopefully, it'll be sooner rather than later, so that my mom will feel safe and secure. I want her to be able to enjoy the release of my book - or should I say - her book.

Thanks to all the people who work over Christmas - the paramedics, the nurses, etc. Society is a complex place and it's great when it all works. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Past


I'm stuck in history - always looking back. This time of year it's my own history I remember. 23 years ago, on a snowy December night, my husband drove into a greyhound bus. Our six month old daughter's baby seat had been just moved, the week before, to the back seat. (In those days rear-facing infant car seats were allowed in the front.) That saved her. 

I'd just come off maternity leave and was still nursing my babe. I was eager to get home from work and relieve my full breasts. And when my ride home never came, the fear that grew in my gut was powerful. 

The weeks that followed are etched into my memory as permanent history. They didn't think he'd live through the first night. But because my blood-covered baby was going to be all right, I could face his uncertainties. The coma, the rehab, the future ... it was possible because my baby was okay. She gave me such strength.

Her first Christmas was wonderful and horrible at the same time. The man who emerged from the two week coma was nobody I knew. His infantile behavior was frightening. He tore open gifts like a toddler - unable to be interested in what was inside - . But I don't want to get into the recovery process. We always looked forward and were in complete denial of the long term effects of traumatic brain injury.

It's a long 23 year story and I don't want to go on about it, but just want to say, I remember the shock of walking through a pre-Christmas shopping mall and being assaulted by the Christmas muzac, by the lights (that weren't on medical machines) and by the frivolity of shoppers. The memory of that loneliness, of not being part of Christmas, has stayed with me. 

And so I wish everyone, not a merry Christmas, but a peaceful and safe one. Drive carefully and enjoy the gift of the 'present.'  And to the 'outsiders' of Christmas 2008 ... all  I can offer is a warm, well-intentioned touch of empathy. Peace.
 

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Bookwormed

I've been bookwormed by Marsha Skrypuch  This means I'm supposed to:
1. Open the closest book - not a favorite or most intellectual book - but the book closest at the moment, to page 56
2) Write out the fifth sentence, as well as two to five sentences following
3) tag five innocents (or more)
4) Do the same for your manuscript.

So here goes.
The book is Stacy Nyikos's Dragon Wishes, page 56
      
The faint smell of roasted garlic noodles and hot sin chicken still hung in the air.
"I'll, um, I'll babysit Lori and Isa. We don't need Mrs. Chen. I can do it. Really."
"That is a large responsibility. Ah-lex. So much time. When would you do your homework" Auntie Ling asked.
Alex looked at Isa.

Ah, and now the innocent victims. I shall pass this forward to  


And here's a wip from years ago that I've dredged out of a drawer (It should no doubt stay there - but there's a publisher looking for sports stories with an end-of-the-year deadline and so I figured I'd polish this a bit and send it out - I'm totally more into the historical fiction mindset at the moment.)
page 56 from "Lost for Words"
"Hey, Keith, it's me, Dino. You remember me." Dino speaks loudly and slowly.
Keith keeps grinning.
Dino doesn't grin back. Instead, he looks over at Keith's mom. Her face looks like a happy face sticker, except for the tears in her eyes.
Smashing a soccer ball against the pink wall of this room would feel so good about now.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

Reading more books

I've added two more books to my 2008 reading list. The Unnameables by Ellen Booraem came out in October. Ellen and I were online classmates a year ago. The Unnameables is the kind of book that nourishes you for a long while. It's the kind of book you chew and mull over like dark, whole grain bread. It's fantasy and it's philosophy. It's funny and whimsical. Great read; great pondering.

Another book I've just finished is an advanced reader copy (arc) I picked up at TLA last April. Life in the Pit by Kristen Landen now has a new cover, I see. Both work for me. There seems to be a preference in publishing nowadays (especially for young adult) to have photographs on covers rather than drawings. I really liked the main character in this book and her best friend issues. Totally believable and another really great read.

As the year draws to an end, a pile of still unread books gathers dust on my shelf.  In some ways, I guess I've failed. I haven't even read all the class of 2k8 books - yet, and my one-book-a- week goal remains unfulfilled. But one book every two weeks isn't bad, either. So I'll focus on the positive, and say I've had an incredibly enlightening and mind-altering year of reading. Books are my life and it's quality not quantity that matters.

As long as there are books, I'd say, the world has hope - no matter what the economy. 

Monday, December 15, 2008

tough mom

I spent the day in the emergency ward at the Vic instead of facing -30 C. (plus windchill= -49) weather that my mail carrier job was offering me. Honestly, I'd take the weather. Bringing my almost 90 year old mom to the hospital is a reality experience that's tough. Getting old is brutal.

I haven't got the 'nursing personality'. What do I mean by that? Perhaps, that I'm a bit impatient - the kind of person who's always in a hurry and who's been lucky, so far, to have pretty good health.

My mom's been through so much - Stalin's collectivization, orphan-hood, Hitler's war, gulag inhabitant TWICE, then a new country, a new culture, etc. And when I see her body failing after nine decades of fighting to stay alive, I'm awed by her spirit, her fight to survive.

I think she has a few more years in her yet. Any person who's eaten dirt just to live has got to be tough.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

class of 2k9

I see the Class of 2k9 has launched their website. It's totally vibrant. Lots of color and a very appetite stimulating approach. (Book appetite, that is.) I wish them every success and will follow my could-have-been classmates (there are 22, I think) with interest (and yes, a bit of yearning). All that work that they've done, and continue to do, will no doubt create a bond that'll continue throughout their careers.

The AuthorsNow! website now includes a map so you can see that this is really an all inclusive site with new authors spread across North America. (Technology still leaves me totally in awe.) At last count, I heard that there are 96 authors listed (including picture books).

In spite of technology's amazing way to bond us authors through websites, blogs and such, it pales in comparison to the magic of books. Aren't they one of the most powerful ways to share ideas, to escape, and to create change? They're portable, don't need recharging and are quite user-friendly. The online world is only a tool to get to the inside-a-book world where imagination, and not technology, rules.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Launch of AuthorsNow!

Cynthea Liu is superwoman.  I'm not sure where in the world she lives -(methinks, maybe Chicago?), but in this strange new world of the internet she lives at www.authorsnow.com.

And I'm thrilled to be able to share that web address with dozens of other 2009 debut novelists. It's a place to connect with books, authors, and readers. 

As a class of 2k8 dropout (because of a change in my release date) I know that there are many benefits of collective marketing and the internet makes it so easy.

Because I'm a luddite when it comes to computer stuff, I feel so fortunate to have connected with the creator of Author's Now!  Thank you, Cynthea, for letting me particpate.

So please click on www.authorsnow.com and find out who's publishing what, where, and when.
(Including, of course, The Kulak's Daughter.)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

old music

My family background is full of Naziism and Soviet communism. (Just in case you haven't noticed, since I do blab on about it a lot on this blog.) And I've focusing on my mom's childhood, what with my kids' novel coming out and all, but this evening I got totally sidetracked with some music from my dad's youth. Here's a link in case you're curious.

My dad had a lot of 78 records that I probably listened to more than he ever did. Man, the internet is just the most amazing place. The Reeperbahn featured in this Hans Albers song is the red light district of Hamburg. I got to stroll a bit of it back when I was young and traveling through Europe. 

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Child 44

I've just finished reading Tom Rob Smith's book Child 44 (debut/adult fiction). By coincidence it pairs well with remembering the holodomor. I think it's going to get my favorite (adult) book of 2008 award.

It starts off with a horrible incident during the 32/33 holodomor when the main character is a child, and then leaps ahead twenty years to the early fifties - up until the time that Stalin dies in March of 1953.

I'll just say the obvious. What happens in childhood shapes you into an adult. And I'd like to think that children authors can have an impact in that development. Reading a book is not just a trip in the mind, books can also become friends, mentors, and help us to understand our enemies. Wow! Books are amazing, aren't they? 


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Holodomor Awareness Week in Winnipeg cont


It's been a rough week - and I'm not talking about our early winter and the ice-covered streets and sidewalks - that's just November in Winnipeg. I'm referring to the Holodomor commemoration that went on all week. I went to our legislative building - a huge, imposing structure made of limestone and fit for a king - last Sunday and heard Ukrainian choirs sing. There was even a German Mennonite choir - for it wasn't just Ukrainians and Russians who got caught in Stalin's ambitious economic vision.

There was also a display area with posters of art and facts about the famine. All we can do now is remember. It seems to be too little, too late - and yet, it's by remembering
 that we acknowledge that it happened and for survivors like these women, (fewer men are left to share these stories because they were war casualties), it must mean so much, to not forget the horrors of death by hunger.

Stalin admits to ten million deaths because of his collective farm initiative. My mom narrowly avoided death during collectivization, and then because of my grandfather's selflessness, she avoided the famine by being adopted out and leaving USSR in January, 1932 - one season before the holodomor set in. 

(My photo taking skills can only get better - I hope. Clicking on photos should enlarge them.)      

My grandfather stayed behind and survived the famine. Of course, in the end, Stalin got him during the mass shootings of the 1937 Great Terror. 

I also got to watch a Ukrainian-made movie, Famine-33 by Oles Yanchuk, based on a book called The Yellow Prince. It was a very sad film. Slow, painful, and bleak.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Holodomor commemoration

There's an article in yesterday's local paper about a week of commemoration for the Holodomor victims. I pointed it out to my family. "What's the holodomor?" they asked.  And I realized that so much still needs to be said about Stalin's atrocities. Everybody knows about Hitler and the holocaust.

Here's a few facts about the holodomor:
1. The word holodomor comes from two words meaning hunger and death or plague.
2. The time is 1932/33
3. The place is most of the grain-producing areas of the Soviet Union - Ukraine is especially hard hit.
4. The victims were six to seven million people who may have died during this man-made famine.
5. The aftermath: the famine was not talked about until 1991 when Ukraine finally achieved independence. Why? Because people were too afraid. Too afraid that somehow they'd get into trouble for doubting the goodness of the Soviet state.

Starvation appears to be such an easy concept to understand. But what is it really like to starve to death? What is it like to be a mother who can't feed her own children?

See this link for a ceremony earlier this year, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the  Holodomor  out in Toronto. My city of Winnipeg has a very large Ukrainian population, so I  expect tomorrow's ceremony to be well attended.

p.s. My own family - although my grandfather, grandmother, mother and her siblings were all born in what is present-day Ukraine - considered themselves Germans. Stalin did not differentiate between Ukrainians and Germans. To him they were kulaks - an economic, and not ethnic, distinction. I realize that this can be a contentious issue.  Let's use 'humanity' as the common link to all suffering.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

remembrance day

Went to see the movie Passchendaele last night. A made-in-Canada movie by Paul Gross about a small area of Belgium in 1917. It's a somber reminder that war might appear to be about 'big' things like freedom and nations, but it's mostly about 'little' things, like dry matches and little brothers, and relationships that never got past first kisses. My grandfather would have been fighting for the 'huns' in that war. Injured and bed-ridden,  he later committed suicide. Yup, that war never ended for some.

The day before, my daughter interviewed my mom for a college assignment about Remembrance Day. I suggested she focus on the civilian war experience.  My mom, at age 21, was forced to work in a munitions factory until the Soviet tanks were just down the road in February, 1945. Then she was taken as a POW to work in the coal mines of Ural. She asked if she was allowed to write letters home. No.  First there was no home left, and second they had no paper or pens. But what was etched into my heart, was my mom saying that she wrote in her mind, to God. And then she closed her eyes and recited a poem-like prayer that she told God. 

Remembrance Day. It's not just about the soldiers. It's about people.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Widow's House

I'd never have connected to my mom's Soviet-era roots if it hadn't been for Don Miller. When I first began the search for a village called Federofka, it was Don Miller who guided me to that sad place. (A comparison can be made to some of our First Nation reserves over here.)

Don Miller leads the Samaritan Ministries In Ukraine. He's been incredibly active not only in researching the history of the German Baptists in the Volhynia, but also in helping the broken spirits over there. 

He's helping them by providing them with the tools to help themselves. But some are so old (widows like my mom) that they can no longer help themselves. Here in Canada, we have an amazing health care system and families who are still intact. Many families over there were broken by the gulag, by war, and by alcoholism. With the Soviet state gone, there's little for the survivors of the Stalin era. When I was there in '04 the poor old women were selling flowers or a couple of chicken eggs on the street, or else sweeping the streets - trying to get some coins to supplement their paltry state pensions. 

Don Miller has built (literally, I might add) a house for the widows. It's near Zhitomir - in Pulin - and has beautiful rooms and a community center. What we take for granted: heat, plumbing, food - will now be available to these lonely old women who have seen and lost so much. 

I'm in awe of D.M.'s passion, dedication and perseverence in this project. 

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Kit Said

The Book that Kit Built
That was the name of Kit Pearson's talk in Toronto on Saturday. Sadly, I have no photos; so here's my photo in words: A slender woman, wearing a blue sweater with a white turtleneck, and whitish colored hair.  The presenter used these adjectives to describe her: honest, compassionate and beguiling. Kit said, that to be a children's writer you have to remember the emotions of your own childhood, and not see childhood through another child's eyes. 

Here's a few other things Kit said.  There's no right or wrong way to build a book, but you have to start somewhere and often using a 'manual' of some kind helps.  Then you adapt this method to make it your own.  Kit described herself as a 'fence-builder' with posts put in first, and then board by board the rest is put up, with gaps here and there to be filled. I love that image!

Her best advice came at the end.  Writing the book must be an emotional experience that changes the writer, and also, the reader. False emotions equal sentimentality. The more powerful the emotion, the less you should write about it. She quotes E.B. White from "Charlotte's Web."  He writes, "Nobody was with her when she died."

Kit suggested that the theme of her books, looking back over her career, is about how children are victims of an adult society. 

Her newest book is "The Perfect Gentle Knight" and it's based on a childhood situation from the 50s. Must read!


Saturday, October 25, 2008

CANSCAIP PYI coming up

Next week I'm going to a CANSCAIP conference in Toronto called Packaging Your Imagination or PYI (fyi).  It will include workshops with Kit Pearson, Lynne Missen, and Karen Boersma. The keynote speaker is Marie-Louise Gay.

I hummed and hawed a long time before deciding to spend the money on this. But then I reasoned - how often have I heard others say that making connections with real people is so useful for their career.  Maybe I'll really be able to make a writing career happen this late in my life.  Shoot, I only have one book contract, but I'd like to get another. So I have to keep investing in this dream, eh? Yes. Who needs a new sofa? (That's what I would have spent the money on and my old sofa is only twenty-something.)

I'm really looking forward to seeing and hearing Kit Pearson. My daughters and I have loved all her books.  I'm especially interested in how she ages her characters in her historical trilogy. Listening to a HarperCollins editor can only be enlightening; and, I need to know more about book marketing. 

Plus, I'm on a planning committee for the 2009 Prairie Horizons conference, which is a wing of CANSCAIP. So this will be good research for that.

Okay, I'm convinced. No more guilt. I totally deserve to go to CANSCAIP's Toronto event. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Feeling Good!

I've finished my copy edits - I feel free, I feel strong, I feel like I can do anything. Of course, feelings are like the weather, good today and totally different the next. The trick is not to count on feelings or on weather. The trick is to be ready for anything. So ... I am (fingers crossed). I have mittens, boots, and various layers of fleece. And I have books to read,* friends to meet, and my next WIP to polish. 
                                                                                   
Here's a toast to feelings: may the days they're UP be many, and the days they're DOWN be few!  That's why my closet is so stuffed- I have to be ready for all kinds of weather.

More positive notes: my mom's heading home tomorrow after a six week hospital stay. My son is safely back from a six day road trip and I'm off work for another glorious five days. Yes!


*Note to self: order Ellen Booraen's The Unnameables and Stacy Nyikos' s Dragon Wishes, asap.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Massey Lecture with Margaret Atwood

Last night I got to listen to one of our country's literary icons, Margaret Atwood. It was a Massey Lecture and the topic was debt - not a financial how-to, but a literary how-it-was. Dicken's Scrooge was a central character in her discussion of how the 19th century was full of money talk.  Massey Lectures are recorded for CBC radio's program called Ideas. Past lecturers have included Martin Luther King, Doris Lessing and Stephen Lewis.

I'll admit I haven't enjoyed all of Atwood's works. But The Robber Bride (1993),  Alias Grace (1996), and The Blind Assassin (2000) are up there with my favorites. I also really enjoyed reading Rosemary Sullivan's biography of Atwood called The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out (1998). Atwood became a writer through determination and lots and lots of hard work. 

I just glanced though my copy of The Red Shoes and noticed I'd underlined this statement by Sullivan in the introduction, "...I am fascinated by the mystery of artistic confidence. Where does the strength come from to believe in yourself as a writer?"  In the afterword, Sullivan writes, "Writing was a matter of discipline: of emptying the mind of everything and letting it fill with whatever fiction, poetry, or prose she was working on."  She hired a babysitter when the kids were young.  Her three priorities were family, writing and the environment. 

I'm skimming through this book, even as I write this blog and now I notice another statement by Atwood that I'd underlined.  "A family and writing is OK, even a job and writing is OK. But a job, a family, and writing is not on. Only two of the three is manageable."

Okay, so I must struggle with the three. At least my kids are growing up (ie. I'm getting old) and my job is basically a daily four hour walk - involving my body and not my mind.  I've loved being a parent, and I'm almost sad to see these years end, ... note the word almost. They'll always be my kids - even when they've moved on. (They will move on, right?)

So, yes, I got to see and hear Margaret Atwood last night. She's a pretty amazing woman. And she did it all through WORDS. So it's just a matter of arranging them in the right order ...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Someone I Admire

It's hard to pick just one person whom I admire. I could pick my mom (a true survivor) or Don Miller who's done so much for the poor in Ukraine, or some of my co-workers who choose not to get petty about ... stuff.  I could even mention my oldest daughter whose organizational skills I truly admire, or my other daughter's soccer coach who is so passionate about his chosen sport. 

But because this is a writing blog and I'm about to become a novelist (I hope I didn't just dream the whole thing) I'd like to post about somebody in the writing field who has been full of kindness and generosity and whom I greatly admire because she's also so successful. This person has published about a dozen books, has received among other awards, the Order of the Princess Olha from the President Yuschenko of Ukraine this past spring, and yet she still has time to hobnob with us ordinary folks who are just plodding along. This person makes me not only want to be a writer, she makes me want to be the kind of writer who champions causes and mentors along the way. 

 I attended one of her book launches last year and when I got her to sign my copy of Prisoners in the Promised Land, I mumbled that I was getting a book published on a related topic, and she showed sincere interest. She even phoned me long distance from Toronto, a week later and continued sharing with me her abundant knowledge. I was invited to join a listserve that she formed called 'storyfriends' and I'm continuing to learn so much by hanging out with these fellow writers.

So I'd like to share Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch with other bloggers. She's a real treasure. I feel honored to have met her and look forward to reading all of her books. The latest one is Daughter of War, and in November she's releasing Call Me Aram.

I don't know how she does it - plus she continues to be so approachable. Thanks, Marsha.

And thank you, Barrie, for letting me share. I'm adding you to my list of people to be admired.

Monday, October 13, 2008

More on Zhitomir

Follow this link for some more spellings (it's spelled with a j - jitomir) and some great historical photos.  I'm reading a book by Wendy Lower right now. It centers on Zhitomir during the Nazi occupation and is called Nazi Empire-Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine. The Jewish community was almost totally destroyed there in the late summer and fall of 1941. 

It's hard to imagine so much death in one place. After going through Stalin's Great Terror in the thirties, (which took my grandfather in 1937), the Nazis descended to do their killings. There's a good chance my dad passed through the place, too. No wonder I felt ghosts brushing my shoulder every time I turned a corner in that bloody place.

My dad - a German born on the North Sea, close to Hamburg - spent several years as a Military Police for the Nazis on the Eastern Front - or the Wild East - as Hitler liked to call it. My dad had joined the German Air Force back in 1936. He was eighteen. His ex-wife told me the uniform was a real babe-magnet.  He crashed over Prague in 1941 and then after a year in hospital he was sent to Ukraine.  But he only talked about the air force years, never about the Eastern Front years or about the five years in a Soviet POW camp.

This time of year is full of ghosts. And I feel overwhelmed by the cruelty of life.  But it's Thanksgiving and I'm grateful for the peace in which my family lives.


Saturday, October 11, 2008

Painted Nails, etc.

It's a rainy Thanksgiving weekend - perfect for indoor stuff like cleaning (blah), cooking (blah), and eating (yeah!). It's also great for writing - or in my case - the cleaning of writing, more commonly known as editing. I've had to change editors and, the truth is, I've found this to be quite the draining process. But, I shall survive! And so shall my book - because I so totally believe in the story.

I was visiting my mom in the hospital this week and she is, for the first time in her life - at age 89 - wearing nail polish. I can't stop chuckling about it. There's another old woman in the hospital who was admitted around the same time as my mom. I talked to her husband for almost an hour. The couple has a similar background to my mom and they speak German. I'll call the woman Lilly to protect her privacy.

Lilly dresses in flowers. Her pants might not match her top, but both will be a bright, bold floral pattern. Lilly has lost her mind. It's a totally scary thing seeing this slim, always in motion, flower garden struggling to find herself. She has moments of memory and her body seems to know more than her mind.

For example, she walked into the lounge area where I sat with my mom (who's losing her body, and not yet her mind) and Lilly first made sure the chairs were standing in order, then she got on her knees and starting cleaning the floor with the tissue in her hand. When she was done her housework, Lilly joined us.

I asked her how old she was. She said fifty-one. (Lilly must be in her eighties.) My mom started to argue with her. I gently moved on to another topic. A nurse walked by and gave me a grateful smile.

There are stories here. All I have to do is listen.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Names


I'm currently working on edits (again!) for my book. One thing I'm wondering about right now is the spelling of the city of Zhitomir.

Here's what I learned. Zhitomir is the Russian and/or Yiddish spelling. Shitomir is the German spelling and Zytomierz is the Polish spelling. Zhytomyr is the current Ukrainian spelling. Poor city, it's been through a lot.

I suppose, I should perhaps keep the spelling consistent with the time period of the novel, which means I'll spell it the Russian way. It might not be the politically correct thing to do now that it's a vibrant Ukrainian city once again, but it'll be historically accurate.

Even here in Canada there's issues with the names of places. Several northern communities were once named after European explorers. I'm thinking of Frobisher Bay which was renamed Iqualuit in 1987.

The photo here is of 2004 Zhytomyr. It's a beautiful place. (Those are chestnut tree blossoms.) I'll have to share some more about it later.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Winnipeg's Writer's Festival

Winnipeg's International Writer's Festival is happening in our city this week. With my mom in the hospital, my spare time is limited. I did manage to visit a 'book chat' event at our local bookstore. The featured authors were David Bergen (his new book is called "The Retreat") and Mary Swan (author of "The Boys in the Trees.") Both were inspiring. I enjoyed hearing them talk about their approach to their work. Mary is the less disciplined one and the multi-tasker, while David Bergen said that he forces himself to do a daily minimum and as a guy, he's not into multi-tasking. But do women have any choice? I think we'd all like to be able to shut the door and focus.

I do find doing a daily minimum works well for the inevitable guilt that comes if I don't write for awhile. My daily minimum is small - but it keeps me feeling like a writer. And I must continue to feel that way in order to believe in my ability to produce. (No guarantee on quality, of course.)

Now with my beautiful new toy - a pretty white laptop - I no longer have to choose between the great outdoors and the computer. Can life get any better? (Oh, right. In the old days there was the paper notebook and the pen. I remember. Trouble is, I now have trouble reading my own scrawl. Progress?)

The other thing I found interesting is how they are writing about young people - Swan's character is eleven years old, while Bergen's protagonist is seventeen. Yet both books are for an adult reader. Hmm. I have to think about this.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Time is on our side

Sometimes when you're stuck in the muck you can't focus much on anything else except on the muck. You know that somewhere out there there's a smooth highway, and you aim to be there ... but for now it's just forward/reverse/spin the tires and then for variety ... spin/reverse/forward ...

At least the sun's shining and the gold tinged leaves sure look inspiring against the September blue sky. The geese are doing their thing, honking and practicing their V formation. They're as stuck as me right now, flying around in circles, still not zooming forward.

But time is on our side.

I finished reading the advanced reader copy of Barrie Summy's upcoming release I So Don't Do Mysteries. I loved her main character, her voice and her metaphors. It won't be in the stores until December ... but I'm sure you can pre-order it. It's a great read for a grade sixer who likes funny mystery books. (And who could possibly resist that combination?) Barrie Summy's book is the last release of the Class of 2k8. They're having a very successful debut year. And it's only the beginning.

And on that positive note, I'm back to the muck. :) Rrrrr!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

One of those weeks

I'm glad it's over - this week of surprises. My mom went into the hospital after a fall. Her pain is being managed for now, but we must begin the process of finding a personal care home for her.

THEN ... trees, one of my favorite things in the whole wide world, invaded our sewer with their roots. The roto rooter people had me rearrange the basement looking for some takeup valve that I never remembered seeing before. The basement has many dark shadows in it filled with boxes of my children's past. Why did I store those? Not sure.

SO ... I decided this was the week to treat myself to that macbook I've been ogling. And my favorite store is out of stock.

BUT...

The week is over, a harvest moon will shine tonight, and I will NOT fear this last round of edits on my book with my new editor.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

In Memory of cousin Lilli,

Last week I had a phone call from Germany - from a relative I'd only met over the last winter. It was the daughter of Lilli, one of my mom's cousins, telling me that Lilli had just passed away. I have to thank Don Miller, author of several books about the Germans from Russia, for connecting me to these lost relatives.

Lilli didn't make it out of the USSR until 1988. The two cousins, my mom and Lilli, got to exchange letters and photos this past winter, and most importantly, they let each other know what happened after they were forced from Federofka back in 1930. You see, they're both survivors of Stalin's collectivization. My mom's cousin, Lilli, was sent far north - up to Arkhangelsk - until the mid-fifties and then later - when Stalin had died and Krushchev 'rehabilated' countless former kulak families - she was resettled in Kazakhstan.

This is the second time my mom has reconnected with a cousin. The other cousin, Sophie, lived her whole adult life in Omsk where she'd been exiled to in the thirties. They, too, got to exchange letters (Sophie could still speak and write German) and compare stories before, she too, passed on a couple of years ago.

My mom's 89 now. She's going blind, her hearing is spotty and walking is difficult. She tells me the same stories now, over and over again. And I let her, because, once they're gone, they're gone. And I want to get them right!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Why I love my job.

Have I mentioned before that I love my job? Here's ten reasons why being a letter carrier is the perfect job for me - an emerging writer.
1. I get to meet the most amazing people. Person of the week is this sweet, tough older woman who lent me one of her books. It's about the Russian offensive back in 1945 that she lived through. But a detail she told me the other day, was worth more than the 300 well-researched pages. She said that she had to carry a footstool for her grandmother during the rushed evacuation of her village. It was so cold that her 9-year-old-hand froze to the footstool. And she's only one of almost five hundred other calls I make daily. All with real stories.
2. I get to meet scary dogs and I either try to make friends or I learn to gulp away my fear. (I do this with some scary people, too.)
3. I get to meet friendly dogs. (Cats generally just scurry away or glare at me with resentment.)
4. I get to make faces at babies in strollers and see them wiggle their fat little toes.
5. I get to admire flower beds and learn what grows best in the sun, in the shade, and the timing of all the blossoms. Really, I've learned a lot about gardening just by admiring my customer's plants.
6. I get to walk in the rain. (A total perk - even if I look like Big Bird bouncing down the street in my yellow raingear.)
7. I get to feel the wind - warm or harsh - it's got such unfettered energy - exhilarating!
8. I get to make people happy when I deliver parcels or checks.
9. I get to commiserate with people about all those darn bills and flyers.
10. Oh, and I get time to think about my life and capital L Life, and my characters' imaginary lives. Plus I get to exercise and enjoy food without guilt and I even get a paycheck out of it. (And that's about 6 reasons all tucked into 1!)

Okay - another day after a snowstorm, or a twisted ankle or a nasty (and maybe unfair) complaint I might feel different - but today, I can say, I love my job!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Good reads

I finished reading Jacqueline Baker's The Horseman's Graves. It's a book for adults and it's about place and people and time. 'The place' is the Sandhills on the edge of the Alberta/Saskatchewan border. 'The people' are the German Russians from the old country and 'the time' is the early 20th century. It's a beautifully written book hinting at ghosts and magic. It's the kind of book that whispers, which reminds me of a favourite quote by Logan Pearsall Smith: "What I like in a good author isn't what he says, but what he whispers." The reviews she got for this book weren't whispers, though. They were shouts of praise.

I got to meet Jacqueline Baker at a geneology conference near the Sandhills of her novel back in June. She's a wonderful, vibrant person. I look forward to reading her future work. One more thing, I notice a different cover on the Amazon site. I have the haunting cover of a white horse on my copy. The Amazon cover shows the bottom half of a barefoot young woman sitting down with her hands in her lap. Interesting.

Now I'm reading a book (in German, it's called Die Flucht und Vertreibung by Werner Arndt) lent to me by a woman who was a nine year old in Dresden during the massive bombing. I deliver her mail. She lives in a tidy, not-so-little house which she maintains on her own, even though she looks frail and walks with a cane. So many little girls hidden behind the wrinkles of time.

So many stories.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

A photo to share and our new Buddy


Just got some photos from Dorene Meyer's June 30th launch of her book Meet Manitoba Children's Authors. I got to participate in this launch over at the new McNally Robinson - for which I was so grateful - because I don't really feel like an author yet. (It's just a disguise.)

But here's a shot of me hanging out with a couple of other Manitoba children's authors.

In other news ... we have a new dog! He's a reject; someone's discard and he is so sweet and lovable. His name's Buddy and our thirteen year old cat, August, hates him. But today they did actually share the living room like civilized pets and not like animals at war. So gradually things might work out.

Our dear cat - who hasn't hunted in years - actually left us a 'gift' on the front steps yesterday. She's trying to show us (I think) that she's still worth something. And she sure is. Animals are amazing. All emotion and instinct.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Halfway

It's the halfway point of summer. Why can't it stay forever? Why can't the flowers always stay in bloom? Why can't my pets live forever? Why can't my kids go from being cute, controllable kids to happy and responsible adults without the chaos of teenagehood? Why, oh why?

On another note... At a recent trip to the library (and I prefer bookstores so I can read a book at my speed, which often involves getting distracted by other books) I came across a book by Gayle Friesen called Men of Stone. I own a more recent book by her, The Isabel Factor, which I really enjoyed because of its wonderful depth of character development. Men of Stone was published back in 2000. It caught my attention because it connects with the Stalin years in Russia and since my upcoming book is about those years, I was intrigued.

Men of Stone is not historical fiction. It's a story set in the present and connects to the past through an old woman's memories. I loved the way the author was able to do this. It's very different from what I did - setting my story completely in those Stalin years. What I really loved was how the characters were not black and white. Even the guard from the prison camp was shown to have some kindness in him. I tried to do this in my book - to have kindness in unexpected places. I think that's what confuses us all - and yet it's what makes life so interesting and livable and it's what gives us all hope. I also liked how she used the various pairs of eyes in the book to give depth to the characters.

By page 212, I was blinking back the tears. Good book.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

for mary

It's July 26th and today I'm remembering the death of a dear friend. Mary and I first met when we were both struggling with the pros and cons of continuing with a Bachelor of Education degree. We had a lot in common. We were both older, committed to raising our kids, and we were both working part time as mail sorting clerks at the good old Canada Post office. In fact, that's where we met - at a job with the kind of hours (6 am until 10 am) that I thought would propel me forward to become the writer I always wanted to be. I liked working at the letter carrier depot which was right in my neighborhood with the good natured bunch of letter carriers. Trouble was, I needed a full time job (that's a whole other story) - so my writing dreams would have to wait. And so even though I was working on my education degree - so I could have a 'real' job - I had such misgivings about the whole thing.

Mary did, too. We talked a lot about our studies, our families and about ourselves. And we struggled together to get our darn education degree. We did quite well at the academics and we supported each other all the way. Mary's humor was contagious. She went on to do years of soul sucking work as a substitute teacher. What a mixed bag of fun that was. Eventually she came back to the good old post office and joined me on the streets as a letter carrier - a job that I personally continue to simply love doing.

But Mary faded. She lost weight (which is supposed to be a good thing, right?). And she got more and more tired. Still she smiled - even as she faded - always she smiled. And then the pneumonia one cold January turned into a February diagnosis of multiple mylenoma and a sudden July funeral.

She was a true friend and I miss her. Today I'll take a walk in the fields - where I can see lots of sky and feel the warm wind. And when I see a butterfly, I'll think of Mary.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

What I've been reading ...

My pile of 'books to read' grows ever bigger. I want to make special mention of a few of the ones I have read.

First of all Judy Mammay's book, Knowing Joseph, was one I long anticipated. She's a fellow Blooming Tree author and her book is based on her experiences with a family member's autism. I enjoyed this gentle book and felt that it really did help me understand autism better.

Another eagerly anticipated book was Rae Bridgman's Fish and Sphinx. This is the third in her mid grade fantasy series about Middlegate - a place sort of like my home city of Winnipeg - but sort of not. I love these books. I love how she takes the everyday and finds the magic in it. Her imagination is amazing. I met Rae at a workshop, when she was still searching for a publisher. She's full of energy, determination and cheer. Her book launches are dynamic events and I've got nothing but admiration for Rae and her work. Go, Rae, go!

A third book I want to quickly mention was launched on June 30th and I got to participate! Yes! It's called Meet Manitoba Children's Authors by Dorene Meyer. This book has generous two page spreads on almost forty Manitoba children's authors. It includes me! I was thrilled to contribute. The book should be a great resource for teachers. And I hope that it does empower kids to believe that authors don't only live in New York or other faraway places. Real authors live in Manitoba, too.

Monday, July 14, 2008

My Town of Winnipeg is ...

Winnipeg is ... (this is for Barrie!)

1. the capital of Manitoba which has the made-in-America slogan (a little of controversy there)
which is "Spirited Energy." Yes. We used to be Friendly Manitoba but that got boring. I mean
being friendly is good but ... I guess having spirited energy is better.
2. windy and cold and full of mosquitoes and sometimes the murder capital of Canada.
3. a city of contrasts. Big donut. Empty, corroding in the centre and full of suburbs where families live and work and play.
4. close to a lot of beautiful lakes and many people have cottages (but lots of people don't)
5. at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers
6. struggling to become a better place
7. alive and real and a great place to be a writer!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Rushing River - a gentle place


Spent some days recharging in the great outdoors at one of our favorite camping spots - Rushing River. We cooked over a fire, canoed amongst the islands of Dogtooth Lake and slept in a tent that managed to keep us dry during a downpour. Thunder storms sound more ferocious at night when there's only nylon between you and all that electricity.

I also swung gently on a hammock as I entered the dark, disturbing world of Elizabeth C. Bunce's novel, "A Curse Dark as Gold." It's a retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin story. I loved everything about this book. I loved the cover, the pacing, the way I had to just keep reading. I also loved the names of characters and places. It was simply a totally awesome book. The author is a member of the Class of 2k8 - a class where I was once (sniff, sniff) a student. The whole class is doing extremely well.

As their year unfolds, their energy seems to be gaining momentum with all the positive feedback each debut novel is receiving. And there's more to come - the year's only just half over. The Class of 2k8 - New Books, New Voices! I feel honored just to have once hung out with those talented and passionate debut novelists.

On to another book, another hour in the arms of some strong, leafy trees, another chance to swing gently on a hammock. This is work. After all, every writer must be a reader.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Too hot to cook

Totally hilarious midgrade author, class of 2k8 student, and fellow Canadian Barrie Summy is collecting summer recipes. So this one's for her down in sunny California. (Where she lives in a bowl of split pea soup .)
*****************************
Summer's on and I've got no air conditioning. :( That's okay - we enjoy shade trees instead. Still, we must eat and cooking involves more heat. When I was in Ukraine, I noted that 'summer kitchens' were popular. That way the cooking wouldn't warm up the rest of the house. Well, I have no summer kitchen - but we've got an outdoor fire pit to cook meat and we have a fridge - a necessary place to store this make-ahead side dish.

Here's what I remember about my mom's Kartoffel Salat - aka potato salad. Make it in the evening or very early in the morning.

Ingredients:
Two potatoes per person. (Mom always used red potatoes.)
Two big dill pickles per person.
One or two onions. (NOT per person)
Two apples.
A bunch of radishes.
One egg per person.
Enough mayonnaise to stick everything together. (Be generous.)
Some sour cream.
Pickle juice - maybe a quarter cup
Salt and pepper

Action:
1. Boil the potatoes with their skins on. (Don't overcook.)
2. While the potatoes are boiling chop up the pickles, onions, half of the radishes and the peeled apples. (Save a few pickles for the garnish.)
3. In a large, wide surfaced bowl mix the pickles, onions, pickle juice, spices and mayonnaise and sour cream together. (More mayonnaise than sour cream.) Add salt and pepper.
4. Drain the potatoes. Let them cool until they are touchable. Then peel and chop while them they're still warm.
5. Carefully add potatoes to the pickle, mayonnaise mixture. You don't want the potatoes to get too mushy.
6. Taste and adjust the spices of #3 accordingly.
7. Cover and let sit in fridge overnight.
8. Serving day: garnish with pickles, sliced radishes and hard boiled eggs.
(Pickle slices make good eyebrows and impish grin, radish slices make great rosy cheeks; while the eggs make good eyeballs plus Goldilocks-style curls to frame the face - with more pickle slices sticking out for devilish embellishment.) Garnish designs are endless.

Serve with European wieners, horseradish-powered mustard, and fresh buns. My beverage of choice would be a German beer - dark and strong.

Now I must go outside and kill a few more mosquitoes so that we can enjoy the great outdoors.

HAPPY CANADA DAY, eh?
We're having saskatoon pie for dessert - only in Canada!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

More about Leader

Rural villages in Saskatchewan - like Leader - are filled with the graves of Germans from Russia - those who escaped before Stalin destroyed the kulak families.

I did my first writing workshop at the German Russian Cultural Festival. Talking about my journey towards a publishing contract with people who shared my interest in German Russians was empowering. But just to sit at the presentation table with four very talented, experienced authors who shared my passion was the real high for me.

My fellow authors included: Ron Vossler author of We'll Meet Again in Heaven (in my own collection) and many other books about the North Dakota German Russians. He'd just returned from Odessa where he'd been researching for yet another book. He was also the Saturday night speaker and made us all chuckle about our German Russian roots. Sharon Chmielarz (her most recent release is a poetry book, The Rhubarb King, and I'm savouring it slowly) is a most eloquent and deep thinking author who lives in Minnesota. Jacqueline Baker (author of The Horseman's Graves) is young and vibrant and her writing reflects this. I can't wait to read her book. And local historian Bill Wardill author of Sand Castles, is a columnist, cowboy poet and all round understated funny guy.

I listened to a woman called Anna Fischer who shared her story of the Stalin years - of the hunger and of the war. She's a few years younger than my mom. Her story was heartwrenching.

My most intense connection was with a man called Ned Schneider. He left Volhynia (the same area my mom is from) in 1928 as a seven year old boy. I made this man cry when I brought out a piece of red granite from the base of my grandfather's windmill. He remembered helping his father build their windmill with the red granite that was common in the area. My mom and him would have attended the same Neudorf German Baptist church and possibly have hung out at the same farmer's market in Pulin - one of the bigger business centers of the area. His father - like my grandfather - was a windmill owning kulak. His father - unlike my grandfather - immigrated to North America in time to escape the collectivization process.
Here's a photo of Pulin showing a statue from the communist era.
Lots of red granite!

Just to show that I wasn't only all doom and gloom - my biggest compliment came when a woman told me she loved my sense of Prussian humour. Huh? Me, funny? I love the idea that I might actually be funny. :)

In my next post - which will be on Canada Day - meaning I get a day off work - (hurrah!) I'm going to share my recipe for writing about your roots (which I created as a handout for this geneology group) and a I'll also post a recipe for real food.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Adventure in Saskatchewan Outback



Who'd have thought that a little farming community in Saskatchewan could be so interesting? Not me. But last weekend I attended the German Russian Cultural Festival in Leader, SK (aka Prussia - really!) and was blown away - not by the famous prairie wind - but by the kindness, the good cheer, and a simply amazing wealth of stories in this small town.

The adventure began even before I arrived. Highway 32. (No, I didn't buy their bumper sticker that said, 'I survived Highway 32' - but I should have.) Check out the website. I felt like I was driving - not in modern day Canada - but in hard time Ukraine. Memories of my 2004 trip over there came flooding back as I manoeuvred around pothole after pothole in the pouring rain.

The rain slowed down as I approached Prelate - the small village 10 kilometers before Leader - where the St. Angela's Convent was offering up its dormitories for guests.

With the stopping of the rain - the amazing prairie sky revealed itself. I could see why the Germans from Russia fell in love with this area. It's simply overwhelming. More expansive than mountains, more accessible than an ocean, the sky scape does something to a mere mortal.
I breathed in the after rain air, while my eyes absorbed the land of the living skies (Saskatchewan's license tag line).

So I'll tell you more about my experiences, next post, once I forced my eyes past that sky.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

linden blossoms


Linden tree facts
1. The linden tree is also known as a lime tree.
2. Linden trees are valued for their shade, but especially for their blossoms.
3. The blossoms are creamy white, in clusters of five.
4. Linden trees can live up to 700 years.
5. In old days it was thought that merely sitting under a linden tree could cure epilepsy and related conditions.
6. Linden blossoms have a long history as a medicinal tea.
7. In June the blossoms are picked and dried.
8. Linden blossom tea reduces headache.
9. Linden blossom tea helps digestion.
10. Linden blossom tea is calming and soothing.
11. Linden blossom tea helps break a fever by causing one to perspire.
12. Some believe it lowers high blood pressure.

Wow! Who needs a doctor, if you have a linden tree?

When I was in Federofka, one of the villagers gave me a bag of freshly dried linden tree blossoms. In my novel, I have my characters pick linden blossoms and then rely on the tea to survive while in exile in Siberia.

My mother sometimes sang a beautiful song about a linden tree. I've tried to find it, but no luck so far. The words go something like this "Vor den Haus steht eine Linde. Sie weht ihr Aest im Winde. Da sitzen davor ein altes Paar. Sie sitzen als waren sie schon immer da. Sie denken zuruecke, an Jugend und Gluecke. Vorbei, vorbei. Mein Schatz, vorbei."

Translation: "In front of the house, stands a Linden tree. Its limbs sway in the wind. Beneath it sits an old couple. They sit as if they've always been there. They remember the past, they remember youth and happiness. It's over, it's over. My love, it's over."

Saturday, May 31, 2008

What is Typhus?

12 Facts about Typhus

1. The word typhus comes from the Greek meaning smoky or lazy - referring to the delirium that is a common symptom.
2. Typhus contributed to the death of Anne Frank.
3. Epidemics of typhus are caused by body lice (not head lice) bites or exposure to their feces.
4. A louse bite is itchy and then the infected feces is rubbed into the wound.
5. Typhus thrives in overcrowded and unsanitory living conditions.
6. Lice get the typhus bacteria from rodents like mice and rats.
7. Incubation period is 7 days.
8. Begins with a severe headache, then sudden high fever, chills and delirium.
9. On the fifth day a rash appears.
10. Sensitivity to light is common.
11. Mortality rate is 10 - 60 per cent.
12. Typhus has caused massive deaths throughout history (every time there was a war or a natural disaster where people were crowded together) - until a vaccination was successfully produced in 1943 and the invention of DDT.

My grandmother died of typhus is a transition camp near Yaya which is near Tomsk, Siberia. She was a young mother with four surviving children (my mother being the oldest). She was one of the many hundreds of thousands of deaths because of Stalin's vision for the Soviet Union.

I guess what bothers me most about her death is how hard it was for me to learn about it. My mother learned to ignore that part of her life (a survival technique, I suppose) and there's no grave. I wonder if the fact that the Soviets were part of the Allies has anything to do with the lack of information about these victims.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

More about small things

I'd heard about lice. Letters sent home from the schools reporting a case of head lice to all the parents had become more frequent in recent years. But it was always about other kids. Well, with the third child, we were included in this nitpicking trauma. Turns out though, it was great research for my book.

Little lice were a big deal up in the barracks of the Siberian exiles. My mother told of how a sweater moved because it was covered with the parasites. And, unlike bedbugs, lice aren't just an itchy inconvenience. Lice can carry typhus and this disease has killed thousands of people. My grandmother was killed by a louse that probably looked like this. It was a very difficult chapter to write (and re-write) in my book.

Body louse

Here are 12 quick facts about lice:
1. Lice is plural. One lice is a louse.
2. Their eggs are called nits.
3. Lice have no wings.
4. Lice feed on human blood.
5. Lice cause intense itching and red spots.
6. There are three kinds of lice - head, body and pubic.
7. Head lice attach themselves to hair, body lice attach
themselves to clothes.
8. You get rid of body lice by boiling or burning the clothes
or using insecticide.
9. Body lice can carry the typhus disease.
10. 6-12 million Americans have lice annually.
11. Lice thrive in overcrowded and unhygenic living conditions.
12. Lice thrived in the Gulag.

I'll share more about typhus in an upcoming post.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

May L...o...n...g Weekend!

This spring has been slow in coming but now that it's knocking, it would be rude of me to ignore this dearly anticipated season. The birds are singing their little hearts out and the tree buds are threatening to burst. I too, am thrilled by the magic of it all. So sitting at this computer seems wrong. There are weeds to defeat, grasses to mend, soil to get dirty with and sweet air to breathe. I have to check on the lilac buds, on the new shoots from last year perennials, and smile at the tenacity of my beloved dandelions.

However, I'll continue to read - only now it's in my garden - (okay, or at the side of a field during a soccer practice). I posted a review about Margaret Hume's book, Just Mary - The Life of Mary Evelyn Grannan - over at Amazon. It's a book about a forties/fifties CBC radio and TV pioneer in children's entertainment. Very interesting stuff. We've come a long way, Virginia!

I've also just finished Flames of the Tiger by John Wilson (Kids Can Press, 2003). I'm trying to read more of the German kids' points of view during the Nazi times. There's still only a handful. This book is set in Berlin and gives good detail about daily life and of some of the attitudes average Germans had towards the war.

Its dedication reads, "For all the victims of the Nazis: those who were damaged in spirit as well as in body." Books like these are necessary for us to TRY and understand.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Small things

I'm preparing a workshop presentation for a Germans from Russia geneology meeting next month where I'll be sharing my experiences in writing my upcoming novel. So I've been thinking a lot about the research I've done to understand Olga's world. I've mentioned some of these things in this blog - big things - like Siberia and Gulags and Stalin. But there were little things, too. And some of them were quite ugly little things. Take the bedbugs, for instance.

Wanzen - that's what my mom called them. I never bothered to figure out what they were. They just belonged to the general horror of her time in Siberia. But when I started seriously writing about her youth, I had to figure out what these 'wanzen' were. They were bedbugs.

My youngest child would recite the bedbug poem almost every night before bed. "Good night, sleep tight, make sure the bedbugs don't bite. And if they do, take a shoe, and wack them 'til they're black and blue." I had no idea of the nightmare of my mom's Siberian nights.
While they don't spread diseases, bedbugs are considered a nuisance and can be difficult to eradicate.
Bedbugs are brown oval creatures that shun daylight and that bite humans. They took over the barracks where the exiles slept. They'd fall from the ceilings or the upper beds and crawl all night over the faces of the exhausted humans. Children would wake up, unable to open their eyes because of the welts from the bugs.

Bedbugs are making the news in our city because changes in pesticide laws and increased world travel are letting these annoying insects multiply. The only good thing about bedbugs is that unlike lice they don't carry disease. They only suck your blood. Small comfort.



Saturday, May 3, 2008

Review of I Heart You , You Haunt Me

It's my goal to read all the Class of 2k8 books. The first one I've read is Lisa Schroeder's I heart you, You haunt me. My 15 year old daughter read it first and couldn't put it down until she was done. So I knew it must be a winner. I wasn't too leery of the verse format because I'd read Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse and knew that it could work with a skilled writer.

And Lisa Schroeder is obviously a skilled writer. Her story is a poignant account of love, of guilt and of being young & sensitive. It's a sensuous book, full of color, smell, sound, taste and touch. The book was easy to read because it was fresh and simple. And I mean simple in a good way - simple as in pure. It's all about emotions and I can't imagine a better way to tell this hopeful story of a young girl's pain.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Multicultural Books


Okay, I lied. I'm posting once more about TLA and Dallas. Here's the handout that was put together by our panel leader, Stacy Nyikos (Dragon Wishes). A variety of books about the cultures we discussed, including Asian American, Latino, Afro-American, and German-Russian, are included.

My own, The Kulak's Daughter, is included. And because my story happens in present-day Ukraine, I've also included Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch's picture book Enough and her young adult anthology, Kobzar's Children, as supplementary material.

On another note ... l
ast weekend at my mom's, we were going through a box of old stuff. In between favorite birthday cards and old insurance papers, I found the documents of both my parents' releases from the Soviet gulag. Their silence, over the years, speaks volumes about their suffering. They thought moving to a new country and starting a family could erase the past. It worked ... for awhile.

But memory is a powerful force.




Saturday, April 26, 2008

Last Post of Dallas


Before tucking my Dallas images into my photo folder and moving on, I'll share a couple more photos. Here's one of my new editor, Madeline Smoot, from Blooming Tree. Seeing an editor wearing a plunger on her head can mean one of two things, a) she's a tad strange, or b) she goes all out for the books she works on. Having had a chance to share dinner with her, I can say with confidence that it's b) and not a). The plunger has all to do with BTP's latest release about a penquin, called Patrick the Somnabulist by Sarah Ackerly. Cute book. And I love that big word. Kids will, too.

Here's a stock tourist photo of me and Linda proving we really are in Texas - where flowers bloom in April - like they should! Have I mentioned all of Linda's books? She's very prolific. I really enjoyed the feisty and psychic Sabine, her main character of the Seers series, published by Llewellyn.


Last but not least, here's my brush with fame. A photo of the one and only, Gordon Korman. My oldest daughter grew up devouring
all his books - especially the Bruno and Boots ones. Here he is signing his recent release, Schooled. When did he begin his prolific career? Was it fourteen? No, in fact he was twelve!
In this photo he looks totally human - I mean he doesn't look like the legend he's become. (How do living legends look, you ask? Don't know - maybe I expect this aura around them - that radiates energy.)

Back to my own writing. The grind of creating - of revising and
of polishing. Must focus.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Pigeons of Dallas


Dallas wasn't just about books. I did a lot of walking and saw a fair bit of these humble creatures - the pigeons. Here's a photo of some of them pitter, pattering down the sidewalks of Dallas. Not as photogenic as the storks of Ukraine, but I like them, anyway.

At one point I heard birds singing and I thought - isn't that nice - what a nature-loving downtown of a big American city, this is.

Then, I found out that the bird singing was fake. It was canned bird music to scare away those nasty, dirty pigeons.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

More TLA


Of course, speaking on the Cultural Diversity Panel was only part of the fun. It was nice to get it over with early, so I could relax and learn the ropes of conference-attending, with my more experienced roommate, Linda Joy Singleton.

She told me to get some mailing boxes. I'd need them. Books are heavy (even if they're light mysteries or whimsical picture books.) And since we were flying home (after my 36 hour scenic bus ride down there, an airplane sounded quite inviting), we had to watch our weight.

Free books? I like free books. It was a wonderful experience - collecting arcs from the various publishers' booths. Pens, erasers and various sweets were also available. I had no idea. I was especially excited to get arcs of my ex-classmates, the 2k8ers. MP Barker, Marissa Doyle, Barrie Sumy, Kristin O'Donnell, PJ Hoover and more. Obviously, I've arrived home before my parcel and can't remember all the books.

Free books means I have a LOT of reading to do. Plus a garden that's finally snow-free. Is there a connection, you ask? Well, I think the best way to enjoy life is to sit in a garden with a book. Life is good.

Oh, right. I have a day job to go back to and a family that loves me better when I'm looking for lost things, driving them somewhere or cooking them dinner. Ah, well. Life is still good because a good book makes the good life even better.

(And if I write the word good one more time, I'm going have trouble spelling it. Does that ever happen to you - seeing a word and suddenly really seeing it and thinking, what is this word?)

Word of the Day
good - (ME) something conforming to the moral order of the universe.
(from Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Post-TLA




I got back from The Texas Library Association (TLA) meeting in Dallas last night. It was a WOW experience for me. I got to talk about my book to strangers in a strange city. While the turnout out to the Cultural Diversity Panel was low - don't ask - we were invited back for next year's conference in Houston. So, whether it was guilt that motivated the organizers (we were scheduled at the same time as a couple of big name authors) or whether we actually were interesting - the thrill is that we get to do it all over again in 2009.

The best part of the trip was meeting my wonderful co-writers in person. In this photo, from left to right we have, the amazing Stacy Nyikos (who took the initiative and got us to Dallas), the spunky Bev Patt (now fearlessly co-leading the emerging 2k9 class), our superwoman publisher, Miriam Hees (whom we love dearly because she believes in us), the experienced Lila Guzman (with several books out about Latino history), the accomplished, bubbly seer, Linda Joy Singleton (with how many books out?) and me - still looking nervous - even though I should be relieved because ... not only did we survive, we can mark Houston, TLA, 2009 on our calendar.

More pictures to come.

p.s. In the photo, please note the green ribbons attached to our conference badges. Those ribbons identified us as 'speakers' and we wore them with pride.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Kulak's Daughter


I've been holding this close to me, just indulging in its existence for two weeks. But now, I'm ready to share. I have my cover! Yes. It's like discovering what your baby looks like. I've looked at it again and again. It's a face I know well - on that cover - my mother's face when she was an eleven year old girl. I'd not seen this photo until 2000 when a distant relative found the photo and mailed it as a gift calendar.

At first I was afraid to look at that image of my mom as a child because it was obviously too painful for her to look it. She hid it - and I respected her pain. Gradually, however, I would peak at it whenever I visited her apartment. I got to know that little girl by asking questions. After all, I had two young daughters of my own. I was very aware of just how vulnerable little girls are.

Later, I made a copy of that photo (and of another one) and hung the two over my bed. I stared at that family until those eyes were etched into my mind. And now I know the story. And it's going to be a book. And my mom's photo - that young kulak girl - is on the cover!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

German weather poem

April, April kann machen was er will.
Bald Regen und bald Sonnenschein.
Bald ist die Luft voll Schnee.

Translation:
April, April can do what he wants.
First rain, then sunshine
Then the air is filled with snow.

Just had to share that German wisdom. I'd welcome the "April showers brings May flowers" weather since it implies WARMTH.

Enough about weather - I'm leaving for Texas next Saturday where I'm sure it'll be warm, sunny and best of all, raining books! (I mean, it's a library convention, right?)

I'm traveling down there by bus and look forward to viewing the great US of A through bus windows. It's all about the journey - not the destination.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Conducting snowflakes.

It's April. Spring break. Blah weather. But it could always be worse. As I was doing my daily walk I saw a school-aged kid - maybe nine or ten - conducting the snowflakes, as they filled the air, willy-nilly around us. I just love the image of this kid totally engrossed in his make-believe world where snowflakes dance while he commanded them. The kid was totally oblivious to me, but that was okay, because I still heard the music.

It's a great time of year to be a kid -even an adult kid. The puddles are everywhere. In the mornings there's still that thin plate of crackable ice over streets and sidewalks. The breaking of ice sounds like spring. A robin was in the backyard the other day. And the crows have returned - black, strong and noisy. Even the pussy willows in my yard have finally burst from their buds.

ee cummings described this season best ... when the world is puddle-wonderful - it smells, sounds, and feels like winter is finally loosing. Hurrah for spring! Time to conduct the snowflakes out of lives - at least for awhile. Please now, bow low and exit - stage left.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Chernobyl

I went to McNally Robinson, our local independent bookstore, last night to view the most recent photos by David Mcmillan (click here to see a collection of his older photos) and also to hear a story excerpt by Larry Frolic - both were in Ukraine recently. It was shivers-down-the- spine stuff.

Mcmillan's artistic photos were of the Chernobyl area - empty of people, but overgrown with trees now - kids' playgrounds, basketball courts, hotels and ordinary streets totally immersed in jungles where wild boars roam freely. When the people evacuated, their pets had to stay. The dogs were shot en masse - but some avoided death - and so they still breed in the people-less spaces. (There must be cats, too.) Mcmillan said he deliberately goes in the fall, when the trees aren't as dense.

Most of the photos I saw last night were of Pryipat - a town of about 45, 000, two kilometers from the reactor. It's a modern town that was built in the 1970s for the workers. This still Soviet world is frozen in 1986 forever, perhaps - a kind of "I am Legend" place (okay, I only watched that movie to spend time with my son :) )

I'm blabbing on here, when last night, a picture could tell a thousand words. A fallen bust of Lenin, an empty kindergarten room, yellow walls peeling, a ferris wheel in a forest of deciduous trees, the faded flag of the old USSR, huge helicopters left to rust - all contaminated by the invisible radiation. Even people's personal documents had to stay behind.

The photographer, David Mcmillan, says he plans to return as often as possible to continue his photo essay of Chernobyl. It's just amazing stuff about how a city vanishes as nature takes over. And you know what has so far stayed bright and untouched? Plastic toys. Long live plastic. Scary.

I hear you can now take bus tours of this uninhabitable place. When I was in Ukraine, back in 2004, I did tour the Chernobyl museum - where every village that was evacuated is mentioned and children's dolls stare at visitors. That museum was a spooky place, too.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter is ...



Daffodils and bunny rabbits, puddles and pussywillows, eggs and chocolate.

These daffodils are not from my garden - they're from the city's conservatory, once known as the Palm House. The bunny cupcakes, though, were made in my kitchen by my oldest daughter.

The Germans get credit for the Christmas tree and the Ukrainians get the Easter egg. But back in 1929, Stalin disallowed any religious celebrations. What a gray world that must have been.

My own family's Easter rituals over here in the new country included a new outfit (very important for a little girl), looking for Easter chocolate, and then attending church and singing the upbeat songs about new life. Later, as a young person, Easter morning would start very early. We'd get up before dawn and drive around to the older church members' homes, find their bedroom window and sing one of the lively Easter hymns - in German!

Now my family's Easter ritual involves egg/chocolate hunt and then fresh croissants. We still have at least a foot of snow on the ground and the pussy willows aren't even out yet. Still we've got to believe that new life is coming!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Ilse Koehn

In my next book I've changed countries and moved from Stalin to Hitler. I'm just continuing the exploration of my mom's childhood. While not that much has been written about life in the USSR (at least not for children and not in English), there's been a ton of stuff written about Nazi Germany. A lot of it focuses, and rightly so, on the Jewish victims.

It is, however, enlightening to learn about the other perspectives during those incredibly mind blowing years. That's why I highly recommend Zusak's The Book Thief (based on his mother's Third Reich experiences). Another book I'd like to recommend - I just finished reading it - is Ilse Koehn's Mischling, second degree, subtitled, My Childhood in Nazi Germany (Greenwillow Books, 1977). It reminds me of a more recent book called Someone Named Eva by Joan M. Wolf (Clarion, 2007). Even the illustrated cover detail - the knotted leather clasp for the tie that the German girls had to wear for their uniforms - looks the same.

Zusak's book is, of course, unique because its narrator is Death. The other two books, by Koehn and Wolf, are written in first person. I find this interesting because when I first started writing my novel, The Kulak's Daughter I had it in third person and then my editor suggested I re-write it as a first person. I'm sure it's become a better novel because of that. The point of view is an important decision to make. And it's something I watch for all the time now when reading.

On another note, it's officially spring and I've survived another winter of walking. Hurrah! I'd like to compare my day job as a letter carrier to that of a writer. Step by step, word by word, we reach our goals.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Writing historical fiction

I've been perusing the net (ooh, I like that word) reading about agents and publishers and the books that are making it big. Lots of edgy stuff - edgy - ie. not old-fashioned. Makes me pause and wonder about the trail I've chosen to meander down - the historical fiction trail. And yet, I rationalize to myself, why can't historical fiction be just as edgy and real as the contemporary stuff?

One of the best books I've read recently is The Book Thief by Mark Zusak. Historical fiction - and it's so powerful and I'm in such awe of what he did in that book. Zusak created real magic in those pages.

And that without wizards or any super-natural hocus pocus - just words and history.

I must continue down the trails that interest me. Zusak is my inspiration! (And he's so young! - Wow.)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Cuckoo Facts

I feel more comfortable meandering in a forest, than surfing the world wide web. In Ukraine it was quite a soulful experience to traipse down overgrown trails looking for clues about past lives. It was on one such walk that I heard the cuckoo call.

Cuckoos are shy birds. You can hear, but rarely see them. So I have no photo to share. When I started researching them back home, I was fascinated. They are very interesting birds.
Here are some facts:

1. Cuckoos don't build their own nests..
2. Cuckoos don't look after their own eggs.
3. Cuckoos don't feed their own young.
4. Cuckoos will spy on other birds waiting for a chance to lay their egg in a strange nest.
5. Freshly hatched cuckoos will proceed to push the other eggs out of the nest so that they can get all the food and attention from their foster mom.
6. Cuckoos are seen as threatening and can be attacked by other birds.
7. It's the male cuckoo who makes the cuckoo sound. He's calling for a mate.
8. Cuckoo babies will often grow larger than their foster mom.
9. Cuckoo birds, unlike cuckoo clocks, can't tell time.
10. A cuckold is a man whose wife is unfaithful.

Mmm. Bird brains are simply amazing. And those Ukrainian forests are complicated places.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

"The Whisperers"

By Orlando Figes, (author of Natasha's Dance - which I'd heard of - and will now HAVE to read) I've been spending my daughter's soccer practices totally engrossed in this amazing book. It's been such a powerful experience and articulates the silence that - for years - shrouded my mom's childhood. Why stop at my mom? Stalin also destroyed my grandfather, my grandmother, three uncles and numerous other family members. So The Whisperers - subtitled Private Life in Stalin's Russia was about my family. The whispering has not stopped. Even here in Canada, my mom gets extremely upset when I talk about the truth of what happened to her father. He'd taken a false name to try and hide from Stalin's henchman, throughout the thirties, and my mother was so worried that I'd let this information out. She's been living in Canada since 1953 - and this is still a traumatic event for her.

Reading this book also let me appreciate my strained relationship with her. She was motherless from the age of 12 and her father had to disappear in order to live a few more years (until he was rounded up and shot during the Great Terror of 1937). Figes managed to get into the psyche of these damaged citizens of the Stalin regime. He got into the silence that has became their way of surviving.

At the end he acknowledges, "For us these are stories, for them it is their lives." (p.663) Earlier on he quotes Varlam Shalamov in Kolyma Tales: "A human being survives by his ability to forget."

Both my parents survived the Gulag by forgetting. That's why they came to Canada. And here I am digging, prodding and remembering.