Smoky is taking a break while she prepares for, then has, knee replacement surgery. She will be back late January, 2011. Until then, happy reading!


A Breathtaking Journey to Post-Colonial India

Think of Pearl S. Buck, and most readers will automatically think The Good Earth.  But the prolific Buck wrote of exotic places other than China. In Mandala, she takes us on a breathtaking journey to India as the country is transitioning to independence with a story of love, the clashing of cultures, and mysticism.

This is the story of Prince Jagat, stripped of his title and most of his wealth, who embraces the new independence of his beloved country, and Moti, his wife, who is terrified of the changes that have come to her homeland and her home. When their only son, Jai, is killed in a Chinese Border skirmish, Moti, convinced their son’s spirit still lives, sends Jagat on a quest to find Jai. Along the way, he meets a beautiful, exotic American, Brooke Westley, and the pair strike up a love affair that seems destined by the fates. With Brooke, Jagat learns the difference between sex and romantic love. In doing so, he also learns cultural traditions are embedded deeply in his soul, and wages a personal war as his love for this Western woman clashes with Eastern traditions.

Moti, always timid and shy, is bewildered by the changes she sees in her husband, and seeks solace in her friendship with Father Francis Paul. With the priest, Moti becomes alive as she struggles to understand and accept love can be platonic, not sexual.

The East-West culture clash also affects Veera, Jagat and Moti’s daughter, who flirts with the idea of refusing the marriage her parents arranged for her in favor of emancipation; Bert Osgood, the American businessman employed by Jagat, whose attraction to Veera is irresistible; and Rodriguez, the servant whose loyalty to Jagat and his family affects them all in a profound manner.

Along the way we are treated to the splendor and mysticism that are India: visits to the Taj Mahal, the opulence of Jagat’s palace, and the underlying certainty that what is, was, and will be again. The intimation that Brooke and Jagat may have been lovers in a previous life is subtle yet unmistakable, as seen in the conversation the pair have shortly after meeting:

       “The night (my grandmother) died she told me to follow the man I love.”

       “But if you do not know who he is?”

       “I think she will let me know somehow, when she thinks I need him…”

       “How do you propose to find this man you love when, or if, you need him?”

       “I’ll happen on him by chance—as I did upon you.” 

Brooke’s touching encounter with a young child toward the end of the novel is nothing short of magical. Is reincarnation real? Readers are left to decide this for themselves. 

Buck’s sympathy for and understanding of Eastern traditions are evident in this gentle book. Her handling of the border skirmish with the Chinese rebukes without criticizing, a difficult task. Sex is part of this story, but is handled delicately, not graphically. We know the act is taking place, yet we are not bombarded with graphic details of who did what to whom—a trend in modern storytelling that I often find cliché and borderline pornographic. 

And if the end of the story was not what I hoped for as I was reading, what I would have written had I been Mandala’s author, it is a fit ending, and the only one Buck could have written.  I loved Mandala, and from now on, when I hear someone mention the name Pearl S. Buck, I have no doubt it is the book that will come to mind before all others.

To read an excerpt from Mandala, visit Amazon at: http://amzn.to/bMz5Mq

Leave it to Mark Twain to reach from beyond the grave and publish a book. And what a book it is!

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 is like no biography you’ve ever read before. There is nothing chronological about it. Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, dictated memoirs of his life’s major and minor events to his assistant as the mood struck him. One moment he’s chatting amiably about a humorous event in his life, the next he’s ranting about some injustice in the world. Along the way, the reader is treated to gut-busting humor as only Twain can write it; and we’re also treated to the more serious side of the man, a side rarely portrayed in his writings. It is the more serious side and the frank manner in which he speaks of people and events that made Twain dictate the autobiography not be published until 100 years after his death.

The gut-busting side: Twain relates the story of a turkey hunt he went on as a boy, where he “followed an ostensibly lame turkey over a considerable part of of the United States one morning.” What follows is an hilarious accounting of a young boy being outwitted by a bird, told in that remarkable tall-tale manner for which Twain is famous. (He never got the turkey, by the way.)

The more somber side: Twain tells the tale of the time he and his invalid wife stayed at a villa in Italy, and the nightmare he had dealing with the Countess who owned the estate. The Countess was cold, calculating, and cruel, and made life miserable for the Clemens family while they lived there. “I was  losing my belief in hell until I got acquainted with the Countess Massiglia, Twain writes.

Yet, even when Twain was speaking about political injustices, he managed to do so with humor. “…(M)y own seventieth birthday arrived … on the 30th of November, but Colonel Harvey was not able to celebrate it on that date because that date had been preempted by the President to be used as Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for—annually, not oftener—if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man’s side, consequently on the Lord’s side, consequently it was proper to thank for Lord for it and extend the usual annual compliments.”

This is a scholarly book, no doubt. It contains original notes he took over the years, photographs, and an extensive reference section. This additional material actually makes up the largest part of the book, and is why it is a whopping 735 pages. It weighs four pounds, which makes it difficult to read simply because you practically need heavy construction equipment to lift the thing. I never thought I would hear myself say this, but if I had a Kindle, I think I would have preferred this book in electronic format simply for ease of reading.

Yet, scholarly as it is, it is also very readable, because it is written in Twain’s wonderful conversational style. I laughed, I cried. But most of all, I fell in love all over again with the man who has delighted readers for well over a century with his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, and plethora of other books. How fortunate for Twain fans that 100 years have passed, and his wonderful autobiography is now available for all to read.

I used to live in Central Illinois, and one of my favorite places near my home was Allerton Park in Monticello. I loved Allerton for many reasons, but one of the main attractions was the amazing statuary in the park. Among my favorite pieces was an enormous statue called The Sun Singer. It is, of course, a statue of Apollo, his arms stretched wide, welcoming the sun.

So when I learned author Malcolm R. Campbell had written a book called The Sun Singer, I knew I had to read it. I had high expectations; the statue is pretty spectacular, and any book inspired by it would have to be pretty spectacular, too, to get my seal of approval.

I was not disappointed. Campbell has written a novel that is both wildly exciting and quietly thought provoking, not an easy feat.

The story is that of young Robert Adams, the Soothsayer of West Wood Street, who receives the gift of prophecy when he first sees The Sun Singer in Allerton. But his gift does not allow him to save Julianne, his best friend’s sister, from dying a tragic death. Distraught, Robert shoves his gift into the recesses of his mind, where it remains … until his dying grandfather extracts from him a promise to finish a quest he himself had been unable to fulfill. Robert steps through a doorway to the alternate universe of Pyrrha, where he must re-awaken his gift in order to fulfill his promise to his grandfather, uncover the tragic mistake that resulted in Julianne’s death, and undo the deeds of the man who betrayed his grandfather. In doing so, he must learn to trust strangers who, at first, threaten to kill him; battle enemy soldiers, and learn to capture and harness the magical power of The Sun Singer in order to help save Pyrrha and return home alive.

The Sun Singer, Allerton Park

I recently had the honor of chatting with author Malcolm R. Campbell about his inspiring coming of age tale:

Smoky On Books: Young Robert Adams has some pretty amazing and prophetic dreams, and his grandfather tries to teach him how to control and guide his dreams. What do you dream about? Do you have prophetic dreams? Can you control your dreams?

Malcolm R. Campbell: I have no conscious control of my dreams and have always found them difficult to interpret. Like most people’s dreams, they are an ever-changing mix of people I know and don’t know involved in adventurous to mundane situations that make sense within the dream and are baffling when I wake up. In a sense, they’re coded messages from my deeper self and, over the years, have only made more sense to me as I’ve gotten to know myself better—that is, to make the unconscious conscious.

Smoky: There are three magical staffs that play important roles in the book, and they are each made of different wood. Is there significance to your choice of wood for each staff?

While I do not mention this in The Sun Singer, the three staffs equate to the three pillars of the Tree of Life. The middle pillar, which equates to Robert Adams’ Staff of Equilibrium, is thought to be the most balanced approach to enlightenment, bringing to mind peace, joy, love and harmony. So this works well for a young man who is learning about magic. While tree and flower symbolism is a tangle of beliefs depending on the cultures and traditions involved, apple has been said to have or bring about qualities similar to that middle pillar. The Staff of Wisdom, carried by Robert’s grandfather prior to the beginning of the novel, is made of oak, a wood often seen as substantial, royal, powerful and solar. The Staff of Intelligence, carried by David Ward is made of Rowan—also called Mountain Ash, and available within Glacier Park. It was a favorite of the Druids and can be used for many purposes, including repelling lightning and predicting the future. This staff plays into the plot and theme of my novel about David Ward, Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey.

Smoky:  Ah, Garden of Heaven is in my stack of books to read and discuss in the upcoming months! ‘m eager to read more about David Ward, the man who was so instrumental in assisting Robert Adams in making his journey to Pyrrha. But back to The Sun Singer. The story is set in Glacier National Park, mostly in the alternate universe of Pyrrha, which occupies the same space. Why Glacier? Why not Yellowstone, or Yosemite?

Campbell: I worked two summers in Glacier as a bellman at one of the rustic resort hotels and, basically, fell in love with the place. Working there put me into a mountain environment from the end of April through the beginning of September. The group I hung out with wanted to hike as many of the trails as possible: we thought nothing of a 25-30 mile hike. Some of us climbed, too. After college, I did some volunteer work for the Glacier Association, wrote articles about the park, was actively involved in environmental issues, and kept accumulating more and more books, memories and trips as possible over the years. I like to balance magic with realism. Knowing Glacier as I do, I can be very precise about the trails, plants, rock formations, and wild life. This provides a stable foundation for the magic and the mystical and, I think, makes the supernatural more believable.

Smoky:  Is any part of The Sun Singer autobiographical? Is your personality infused into Robert, or Aton, or any of the characters? Which character do you most identify with?

Campbell:  Robert Adams grows up on West Wood Street in Decatur, Illinois. My grandparents lived in that house, though of course I don’t mention the address in the book!. As a child, I saw that neighborhood a lot, mostly on return visits. I have many childhood memories of that street and the style of the houses on it as well as the nearby Fairview Park. Like Robert, my grandfather took me on a day trip from Decatur over to Monticello to see Allerton Park where a statue called the Sun Singer stands. Robert’s reaction to the statue is what mine was. He felt a strong energy flowing through him from the sun and from the statue. Like me, his homeward trip out of the park occurred during a violent thunderstorm in which the lightning flashes seemed to bring the park’s other statues to life. Afterwards, he began to dream about future events involving people he know. The Sun Singer statue was a fixture of my dreams for a long time, while the other statues—including the Fu Dogs, Primitive Man, and the Death of the Last Centaur—appeared in my nightmares. Like Robert, I have been at war within myself trying to balance my logical side with my intuitive side. In the book, Robert is forced by dangerous circumstances to confront the power and magic of his dreams: that’s all fiction since I have never been forced into a fight with bad guys carrying swords and bows and arrows!

Smoky:  Is there anything else you’d like to say about the book?

Campbell: Robert Adams’ adventure is a “hero’s journey” adventure, a sequence of steps popularized by mythologist Joseph Campbell. These steps are quite obvious in the Star Wars movies, The Matrix, and Lord of the Rings. Basically, a hero or potential hero leaves his every day world and sails across a unknown sea or travels through a dark forest where he finds demons and tricksters and dangerous circumstances as well as allies. All the while, he is seeking something magical and wonderful while, possibly, rescuing a damsel from a tower or dragon, that he will bring back to his everyday world. While the hero’s journey involves physical dangers, the most important thing is what happens to the hero within himself. He is meeting the terrors of his unconscious mind, seeing his faults mirrored in the world he is traveling through, and if he triumphs, he ends up as a much better person, one who truly knows himself. In mythology, of course, heroes are equated with larger than life men and women or demigods. In the view of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, the hero’s journey is rather like a rite of passage, the process of growing up and learning that there is much more to us than our logic, our ego, and our five physical senses.

I ended the interview on that note.

The Sun Singer is indeed a hero’s journey as defined by Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, yet it is an utterly accessible read. While the protagonist is a teenager, and while teens certainly will enjoy the book, it most certainly isn’t young adult literature. Malcolm R. Campbell has created a fantasy world at its finest, and written a real page-turner that rivals the best in the fantasy genre. I have heard rumors he is writing a new novel centered around one of the characters created in The Sun Singer. I hope it is a rumor that proves true, for I long to return to Pyrrha.

The Sun Singer is from Vanilla Heart Publishing, and is available in multiple e-book formats as well as in print. To read an excerpt from The Sun Singer, visit http://www.freado.com/read/6882/the-sun-singer.

Starting a new blog is always hard. The blogger worries, will anybody read me? Will anybody comment? Will anybody care what I have to say?

 And yet, bloggers start, and slowly, they build a readership, a fan base. I have a very successful blog over on Xanga, but it didn’t become successful overnight. Everyone has to start somewhere.

“Smoky on Books” is my forum for talking about one of the great loves, great passions, in my life—my love affair with books. I come to this blog feeling pretty well qualified to comment; after all, I’ve been an avid reader all my life; have written book reviews for newspapers like the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette in Central Illinois, and magazines like SageWoman and Pan Gaia; am the author of two novels, a collection of essays, photos, and poetry on nature, and two books about writing books; and am a former community college writing instructor.

But then again, everyone’s taste in books is different, and in the end, any blog about books is the opinion of the reviewer, and nothing else. I’ve loved books others have trashed, and have hated books others have loved. Take my reviews, then, in the spirit in which they are given. In the end, pick up the books and read them yourself, and form your own opinion about them.

 Unlike many book review blogs, I don’t intend “Smoky on Books” to be solely about new releases. I also intend to write about perennial favorites of mine, the classics, and overlooked and/or obscure books written by authors famous for other works. In fact, finding and reading books in this category is one of my favorite pastimes as I scour used bookstore shelves! I also, on occasion will be conducting author interviews.

 It is with one such book that I choose to begin:

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

When you think of John Steinbeck characters, who comes to mind? Lenny and George from Of Mice and Men? The Joad family from The Grapes of Wrath? Doc from Cannery Row? Or, perhaps, young Jody Tiflin and Billy Buck from The Red Pony? How about Arthur, Merlyn, Lancelot, and Morgan le Fay of Camelot fame? No?

Me neither. That is, not until I stumbled across a copy of The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights in a used bookstore. Up until then, I had no idea Steinbeck had taken on the beloved characters of Arthurian legend. Yet there it was, sitting on the bookshelf, begging me to take it home.

Books about Camelot don’t have to beg very hard. I became enamored of Arthurian legend and lore as a tiny child, when I first saw the movie Camelot. (Being very young at the time, I even forgave the producers for casting Vanessa Redgrave, who most decidedly cannot sing, in the role of Guinevere.) My love affair grew deeper when I first picked up Marion Zimmer Bradley’s epic, The Mists of Avalon. I’ve read so many Arthurian books I’ve lost count, but I’m always game to read another. Finding one written by one of my all-time favorite authors, though, was a treat I never expected.

As a child, Steinbeck was not a reader. In fact, “words—written or printed—were devils, and books, because they gave me pain were my enemies,” he writes in the book’s introduction. But somewhere along the line, he came across Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory, the first written account of the tale of King Arthur. Steinbeck fell in love with the book, reading it over and over, despite the difficulty of reading archaic English. If not for Malory, if not for Merlyn and Arthur and Lance and Gwen, who knows if he ever would have fallen in love with books? And if that hadn’t happened … I shudder to think what American Literature classes would be like today without Steinbeck.

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights was Steinbeck’s last novel. His original plan was to modernize Malory’s story pretty much word for word. This shows in the books early stories. The flowing prose and exquisite phrasing I associate with the author are nowhere to be found as the book opens: “When Uther Pendragon was King of England his vassal, the Duke of Cornwall, was reported to have committed acts of war against the land.” Compare this to the exquisite sentence with which Steinbeck opened The Grapes of Wrath: “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.” Even Arthur and Guinevere’s wedding in chapter three is devoid of the heart-rending emotion Steinbeck was so capable of evoking. In fact, the early chapters have so much cleaving of skulls and whacking off of heads I nearly gave up reading it. This was not the Steinbeck I knew and loved, nor was it Arthurian legend as I love it.

But about midway through the book, Steinbeck obviously got tired of the stiff, formal language Malory used in his time. The inner Steinbeck broke free. By the time we get to the tale of Morgan le Fay in Chapter Five, the legends start sounding like Steinbeck. Oh, there’s still cleaving and whacking—this was Medieval England, after all. But there are tender moments, tender words. Beauty. “And only then did the knights look about them. On the smooth dark water they saw a little ship covered with silken cloth that hung over the sides and dipped into the water, and the boat moved silently toward the bank and grounded itself into the sandy shallows nearby.” Now that’s Steinbeck!

Alas, the novel is incomplete. Steinbeck gave up on writing The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights in 1959, long before the story as most of us know it drew to an end.  He died in 1968; the book was not published until 1976. I wonder how he would have felt about the book being published. He gave up writing it for a reason. Clearly he was not satisfied with what he had written, how he had translated Morte d’Arthur, the book that had such a profound effect on him as a child.

I have an unfinished manuscript tucked away in my drawer; most novelists I know do. I wonder how I would feel about my unfinished book being published posthumously. I don’t think I’d be very happy. But then, as proud as I am of my novels, I’d never be presumptuous enough to put them in the same class as The Grapes of Wrath or The Red Pony.

But as a Steinbeck fan, I’m very grateful his estate went ahead and had The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights published, if only because its creation was an act of love, his tribute to the book that instilled in him a love of the written word. I cannot imagine a world without Steinbeck’s novels. Can you?