How’s the holiday season treating you this year? I’ll admit that I’ve struggled. Didn’t we lose a week between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day this year? I’ve had so much travel and other obligations this fall that I’ve felt the season rush by in a frantic scramble.
It dawned on me a couple weeks ago that I hadn’t heard my favorite album all season: A Christmas Together with John Denver and the Muppets. (I usually play it on LP at home, but I’m not working at home anymore, and I’ve been mailing most of presents unwrapped to Florida, where I’m spending Christmas, so I haven’t had much wrapping time.) No wonder I was feeling so stressed! So I got it (free?!) on my phone and plugged in my headphones.
You know that feeling when you’re lying in savasana or when your favorite tree is still standing after a storm or how your dog looks when you come home or when someone rubs your shoulders or when you step outside during the first really warm day of the year or when you bite into your favorite Thanksgiving dish? Yes, that was the feeling.
It reminded me of the whole point of the holidays. …a time to come together, a time to put all differences aside … a special kind of way … a time for gifts and giving … if you believe in love, that will be more than enough for you to come and celebrate with me…
And that reminded me of the most popular post on this blog: Why I Love the Holidays. I stand by it. If you’d like, go read it again.
And happy holidays.
Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation skims across the surface of history by taking the reader on third-party tours of historic sites. The book focuses on the assassinations of presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, but almost all of it is about Lincoln. (In my paperback, Lincoln gets 98 pages, Garfield gets 62, and McKinley gets 46.) Which may be fair--there are probably a lot more sites to visit related to Lincoln’s life and death than anyone else’s. But if you’re looking for a history lesson on any of these men, this is not the book for you.
Lincoln gets not only the most real estate in the book, but he also get the most sentiment. The author begins by catching a play at Ford’s Threatre and walking down to the Lincoln Memorial afterward. She admires the monument and reflects on the meaning of Lincoln’s words engraved on the walls. She draws comparisons to modern history and thinks about how Lincoln’s actions and death have influenced our world. From here, she gives a brief account of Lincoln’s assassination and the actions leading up to it, interspersed with conversations with tour guides. The tour guides seem to be authorities on the little patches of land that they represent, but Vowell doesn’t cite any other sources and doesn’t mention fact checking anything these first-name-only guides say.
Vowell does find some pretty obscure Lincoln sites to visit. She goes to his home, the place of his assassination, the house where John Wilkes Booth stopped after fleeing, even the prison where that house’s owner was condemned, and many other places. But the information she gleans is all pretty shallow. Even in the “I didn’t know that!” moments, I felt hesitation, like I needed to Google it before telling anyone else about it.
When she moves onto Garfield, the biggest point she makes is, “Who cares about Garfield?!” I actually just read a wonderful and in-depth biography of Garfield, so my response was a full-throated, “I do!” This was the most frustrating section for me because I have a higher-than-average knowledge and appreciation of Garfield after reading Destiny of the Republic, and Assassination Vacation brings no new information to the table. In fact, it’s so scant on details, that if you can already name Garfield’s assassin off the top of your head, then you probably don’t have much to learn here.
The Garfield section blends directly into the McKinley section so quickly I didn’t realize we were done with Garfield yet. I don’t know nearly as much about McKinley as I do about Garfield (or Lincoln), but I still thought this section was too light. Maybe the nation was so exhausted by the time McKinley was assassinated that they didn’t feel it necessary to dedicate a bunch of tourist sites to him? Maybe. That would explain why this section is so short and light.
Sarah Vowell can be very funny (and, yes, a bit humble-braggy), and some of the characters she encounters on the way are quite interesting. But this is neither a history book nor a biography, despite being shelved that way. This is a travelogue or a humorous travel memoir. It reveals a lot more about the author than about any of the presidents, and I think her larger point has more to do with the quirks of American culture anyway. I think if you know that going in, you’ll probably like this book--especially if you have a plane trip or beach vacation coming up. It’s light, at times silly, and very softly macabre, but it’s not historic.
If you have a day job, like I do, then you’re pretty limited on the time you can set aside to focus on writing. But if you’ve surrounded yourself (virtually or physically) with a solid community of writers, like I have, then one option is to go on writing retreats together.
I’ve gone on the Naked Wordshop’s annual retreats for 5 or 6 years now--since the inaugural retreat--and it’s one of my favorite events all year. We’ve largely ironed out the logistical issues we stumbled over the first year or two, and now it’s just unadulterated quiet writing pleasure with around 7 or 10 other writers. I’ve also taken a solo retreat and recently took a weekend retreat with a long-distance friend and a new friend.
Out of this "vast" experience, I’ve obviously become the expert on all things writer-retreat-y. Rather, I have Opinions! on what works, and I’d like to help first-timers skip the learning curve. Everyone’s process is different, of course, but I find that with a little planning you can accommodate a lot of different styles and keep everyone happy.
Do I expect you to read this post straight through just because it’s here? No, but I do hope that next time you’re planning a retreat, you’ll come back and use it as a reference. Happy writing!
Do not bring:
Above all, a writing retreat, like the rest of life, can succeed or fail based on your attitude. Whatever happens, enjoy your time. This is YOUR retreat, so do what you need to do to make it work for you. Enjoy yourself!
When I was a little less than half-way through Doctor Zhivago, I mentioned it casually to a thoughtful and well-read friend. “Ugh,” he said without hesitation and rolled his eyes. I was confused by this--I was enjoying it so far. Sure there were a million characters, each with multiple names, but the Internet helps with this a lot. And the author does a pretty good job of reminding you who’s who as you go along.
Granted, I expected to have trouble with this book. I have a pretty shaky grasp of Russian history. It wasn’t taught in my grade schools, and I didn’t pursue it in college. My 9th grade English teacher taught us Animal Farm as an Aesop’s-Fable-type story about the importance of knowing your place. I expected to get lost in some of the “who’s fighting who, when, and ostensibly why” details of this novel, which stretches from the early 1900s through World War II–a pretty active time in Russia. And I did.
But I kept reading (rather, listening; I got it on CD for my commute). I read without an unusual amount of eye rolling until chapter 13, “Opposite the House of Sculptures.” And then it lost me; I turned. Glancing through other reviews on Goodreads, I’m not the only one who turned at this point. It’s a ginormous chapter in which two characters who are supposed to have the most pure, passionate love ever known to existence speak to each other in impersonal monologues, explaining their feelings and large sections of the plot that the reader has already witnessed.
The chapter probably shouldn’t feel so ridiculously long and boring and forehead-slappingly unbelievable. The reader is supposed to understand the intense passion that these two feel for each other. The problem, obviously, is that we don’t. And this was the point in the book when I realized that there wasn’t going to be any further character development. The characters were fully formed, but they were wooden. The only other explanation for their reactions, emotions, and absences we’d get would be delivered in monologue--either by themselves or the narrator.
I felt and understood this great and perfect love exactly once: [SPOILERS!] Yuri is headed home to confess his affair with Lara to his pregnant wife, Tonia. On the way, he convinces himself that he really didn’t end things right with Lara and should probably go back and talk to her again. (Eye rolling, because you want him to be better--this poet/philosopher/physician--but it’s realistic.) He’s so overjoyed at the prospect of seeing Lara again, even if it’s just to break up with her. But then, on the way, when the reader is anticipating a beautiful love scene, he gets kidnapped by partisans. And marches around the woods with them for about 2 years. And then, when he finally escapes, he goes to Lara’s house first so that they can give speeches at each other for hours. Ugh. [/SPOILERS!]
After that turn in chapter 13, Doctor Zhivago wasn’t able to win me back. The coincidences get ludicrous. Reading this, you’d think there are only about four houses in Russia, because everyone keeps appearing at the same places. They walk straight across Siberia and end up at the same house. Really.
(All of that said, Pasternak comes up with some of the more beautiful nature descriptions I’ve ever read. His scene descriptions are the strongest part of the novel. And the relationship between Lara and Komarovsky in part 1 is, oddly, the most believable and human relationship in the book.)
Once I finished Doctor Zhivago, I read the Wikipedia page and a few other online resources. Maybe, I thought, I missed something. Maybe each of these characters is a metaphor for some aspect of Russian culture or history that is lost on me in my ignorance. Maybe that would explain the way they all interact with each other, fade and reappear, go to their fates. But no. At least, I didn’t find an interpretation that supported that theory.
So, the question remains: Why is this Nobel-winning novel such a drag? Maybe it’s because it’s written in a style that modern (American) readers aren’t familiar enough with--like trying to watch Lawrence Olivier act and wondering how anyone could ever have tolerated him for a whole movie. It’s not very old (smuggled out of Russia and published in Italy in 1958), but it’s a bit old, and it’s Russian. Or maybe the reason for its popularity and critical success during the Soviet era had a lot more to do with what it said about the Soviets and less about its plot and characterization. Are the readers or the book to blame?
I don’t have enough information to answer the question. But if you’re a student of Russian history, I encourage you to read Doctor Zhivago and tell me what you think. Let’s talk about it. Because it’s very possible I just missed something obvious, and you have something to teach me.
Let me start by saying that I hate the I’ve-been-neglectful,-but-it’s-all-going-to-be-better-now blog post. It almost never is. But I also think, even though my readers aren’t exactly chomping at the bit for more posts, I owe you an explanation for my absence.
In addition to that, I’ve been reading some really boring books lately. Since most of this blog is book reviews, that really cuts into my pool of resources. I’ll review some of them eventually, but ones I don’t intend to review include one on the natural history of Ohio that read like a text book. By the time I wrapped up the ice ages and progressed to weather patterns, I couldn’t keep my eyes open for more than a sentence.
My own novel continues, slowly but surely. Certainly, the travel interrupted things, but I’ve been trying to take myself out for lunch once a week to just work on the novel. When I actually stay in town for most of a week, this works nicely.
The next series of The Outbreak is more imminent than the novel. Michael Neno is finishing up the last few panels of “The Hunter” now. Then, I just have to prepare them for the website and launch the pages. I’ve been wrong before, but I’m hoping to have it ready for you by the end of December. Also, my laptop recently died, and I replaced it with an Android tablet. I only bring that up because I just discovered that I can’t actually view Prezis on my computer now, which means I can’t see my own comic! (Prezi, if you’re reading this, get on that Android app. I’m your biggest fan, and this is not cool.) Now that I know about this restriction, I’ll be releasing a PDF version of both “Monster at the Institute” and “The Hunter.”
And now for the obligatory I’m-going-to-be-better assertion. But really, I am. I have a couple other posts nearly drafted, and I’ve been reading much more interesting books lately. I have two personal trips to Florida planned for December, but that’s all the travel on the horizon at the moment. I’ll be doling out posts over the next few weeks, and I hope you enjoy them. But really, isn’t this a time to be thankful for RSS feeds? I know I am.
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