Deborah Jackson

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Real Me--A Look at the Books I Read and Treasure

If you ever want to get to know a writer, all you have to do is take a look at their bookshelves. The past few days I've been diligently organizing my shelves, taking the stacks off the floor, so you won't be able to judge how chaotic my life really is, but you will understand me better by the books I preserve.

I have two shelves on the main level, which is also my office. I have no living room, or rather I live among the books.

This is my reference shelf, for the most part.

From the top:

The top is a mixed bag, because I ran out of room. From archeology, which has always fascinated me, to China to WWII and a few classics.

Next shelf: Writing references, including Hemingway and Stephen King, my favourites. I know, I'm weird.

Egypt, geology (bet you don't know many people turned on by rocks), the Fodor's Guides, you know, the essentials.

Going down:

 More geology, geography, some haunts from my past that come in handy--Essential Human Anatomy and Medical Microbiology--Egypt, caves and NASA. If you noticed the sticky notes, I thrive on them. You'll also see the Idiot's Guides. If you're a writer, never be without the Idiot's Guides. (This is not a comment on our profession.)

The shelf below contains a few of my favourite modern novels: The Bartimaeus Trilogy, of which there is only one, because another avid reader in my family appropriates and lends them out--never to be seen again. The Hunger Games--Book One repurchased as a paperback--and, of course, Wilbur Smith classics, Cryptonomicon--one of the bulging tomes I thoroughly enjoyed (let's not discuss Ann Rand) and The Historian--vampire or not, it was excellent.

Continuing on:

This is my larger volumes' reference shelf, mostly WWII and Egypt. Are you beginning to understand where my obsession lies? And yes, it continues onto the floor. My larger volumes tend to accumulate beyond the capacity of one shelf.

The next shelving unit has a few different books. We'll start with the literary...

Wall of Shame

The left side has the books I've read, for the most part. Shakespeare, Poe, Hemingway, a Giller Prize winner, but the right side has classics I fully intend to read, someday. 

Next are my classic favourites:

Ann of Green Gables, Lord of the Rings, Anne Frank, C.S. Lewis, Dickens! and a few modern favourites: Kenneth Oppel's Airborn series, The Book Thief, The Giver. Now how did Agassi get in there? Avid tennis fan, I'll admit it.

On the bottom:

A mixed bag: The Ice stands out--for those Antarctica novels--biographies, more WWII. You might have even seen Scaredy Squirrel. Your eyes have not deceived you. On the bottom shelf: pirates, Florida and National Parks. Adventurer/romantic, that's me.

On the way to the basement: Recognize these? 

And a close up:

Remember The Secret of the Old Clock? This was my first series as a child, purchased second-hand by my parents. Can't part with it.

In the basement, beside the hockey sticks: The Adult Fiction Shelf

Do I really need to explain this one?

And across the room:

Middle Grade, Young Adult, Fantasy.
Need I say more?

Yes, you do see Twilight there. Ignore it.

My delightful magazines are on the table, the few I don't have in DVD:

I haven't found a home for them yet.

And last, but not least, the "to read" stacks, the short version:

But I'm starting a new library now.

And this is what it usually says.

Well, that's it. You might think I'm rich with all these books, but honestly, I have no furniture. Hand-me-downs. Priorities, you see. I live for story and story lives on through me, I think.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Remember . . . the courage, the commitment, the sacrifice.

In light of Remembrance Day, to honour our veterans and fallen soldiers, the best tribute is to learn their stories. I thought I’d recommend some books and movies that exemplify the trials and sacrifice, the courage of so many during one of the darkest periods in our history.

Band of Brothers.

One of the most impressive series Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks ever produced. The story of the 101st Airborne, the paratrooper division that opened the area behind the lines on D-day for the Allies to push through, were the first to begin the liberation of Holland and discovered one of Germany’s “Final Solution” concentration camps.

The Pacific is also worth looking at, but Band of Brothers is as revealing of the personalities of the soldiers and the missions they had to endure. It captures their courage and their weaknesses without emphasizing the depressive nature of war. Although it’s necessary to understand the misery and hardships, I found Pacific dragged me down too much. I want to understand, but I can’t relive.

Between Silk and Cyanide, by Leo Marks

A Codemaker’s War, 1941 -1945

In 1942, Leo Marks left his father’s famous London bookshop and went off to fight the war. He was recognized as a cryptographer of genius, he became head of communications at the Special Operations Executive, where he revolutionized the codemaking techniques of the Allies and trained some of the most famous agents dropped into occupied Europe, including Violet Szabo.

One of the most mesmerizing accounts of the Special Operations Executive and the ingenious codemakers of World War II. Not only is Marks a spellbinding narrator, he translates coding for the layman and has a delightful sense of humour. Not many events that occurred in the war were humourous, and his gift at wry wit in no way diminishes the reality, the tragedies and the blunders. I read this to do research for Time Meddlers Undercover, but I continue to pull out examples of great writing for my students.

The Diary of Anne Frank

In 1942, with Nazis occupying Holland, a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl and her family fled their home in Amsterdam and went into hiding. For the next two years, until their whereabouts were betrayed to the Gestapo, they and another family lived cloistered in the “Secret Annexe” of an old office building.

There will never be a more moving testament to the struggles the Jewish people faced during the Nazi occupation. The passion, the small joys, the constant irritation of living in close quarters and coming of age in a horrific situation, this book explores the reality of war from a persecuted young person’s perspective. It’s my hope that everyone will take the time to read this at some point in their life.

The Great Escape

In 1943, the Germans opened Stalag Luft III, a maximum security prisoner-of-war camp designed to hold even the craftiest escape artists. In doing so, however, the Nazis unwittingly assembled the finest escape team in military history, brilliantly portrayed by Steve McQueen, James Garner, Charles Bronson and James Coburn. They worked on what became the largest prison breakout ever attempted.

This is my all-time favourite. It reveals the determination and ingenuity of the Allied prisoners, but doesn’t shy away from their actual fate—some were recaptured and shot. This is no Hogan’s Heroes, but it’s still light enough not to disturb you for days on end. I think that we, kids and adults alike, should be aware of the reality of war, but still come away with some admiration for the heroism.

This a short list, but I think a comprehensive one for a week of remembrance. We have the soldiers, the spies and codemakers, the persecuted and occupied, and the captured. I could list several others, but I selected these because they aren’t designed to make you relive the horrors, only realize them. And I think that’s all we should do in this day and age. To relive is to become traumatized all over again, and I worry that our own traumas are just over the horizon.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Shoot the Writer

What could I possibly mean? Who would want to shoot a writer?

Well, I could think of a few examples, but I’m referring to an experience I had a few years ago, or perhaps it was many years ago, but I won’t let you do the math.

Many years ago, on a planet far far away, or at least I was on an existential plane that was as remote as such a planet (in other words, I was a newbie to the whole author/now-you-must-be-a-speaker way of life), I was invited to do a school visit at a local high school.

Wrestling with my inner demons and some outer ones (yes, you know who you are) I agreed and spent days in preparation, creating a riveting PowerPoint presentation, with the inevitable stick man animations (which I use to this day), flexing my vocal muscles which were rather flaccid and pathetic (and still give me trouble when I spend too many days chatting internally and ignoring the husband and kids), and sifting through my mountain of props—mostly books.

Yes, I was prepared.

Yes, I was terrified.

But I could do this. I’d written the books, now I could talk about them and talk about writing.

I entered the school, a little damp, a little quivery—picture a pale version of Scaredy Squirrel—shook hands with the teacher and followed her dutifully down a kilometre-long hallway and up the stairs to the library, sagging under the weight of my laptop and props. There she smiled and set me up with the computer and projector, and I inserted my disc (stop doing the math) and took a deep breath.

In filed the students, eager, passionate potential writers, and a few students who’d look for any opportunity to skip class. They assembled in front of me and I began.

I explained the exciting process of brainstorming, character development, research—including some examples of volcanology, NASA proposals for a moon base and the mysterious lake with unspecified life beneath Vostok research station in Antarctica. I explained how my science fiction stories were based on hard science, including the bane of my existence—quantum physics—and how essential the Idiot’s Guides were to writing (at least as a baseline). I was passionate, so I don’t imagine they noticed that I was paler than usual or that my voice cracked occasionally. Amazing. They looked . . . interested.

Then it happened. Bells ringing, loudspeakers blaring, students stampeding into the library. A lockdown.

I stopped, of course, as the students were ushered into the back of the room and thrust behind the shelves that blocked them from any view through the glass windows at the front. The doors were subsequently locked.

The teacher then smiled, shushed the students as best she could, and gestured for me to proceed. Are you kidding me? So yes, I continued, but I kept glancing at the doors and began to consider that all the students and staff were handily protected from potential gunshots, but I was chatting away in full view of any shooter who might decide to wander our way.

Might as well put out a welcome mat: shoot the writer. Or, at least, shoot the writer first.

I wasn’t shot. The shooters or whatever they were never even made it into the school. And nervous Nelly finished her speech in front of a hundred students instead of thirty, despite constant interruptions over the loudspeaker. But it always made me wonder.

Why did they not think to move me? Is it because writers are dispensable? A novelty, a bauble to place on a tree once a year, but if it shatters, oh well, there will always be others.

Sometimes we’re subjected to acid reviews when we strike the wrong chord, and once again it’s time to shoot the writer, in a little less dramatic fashion. Often people forget that there’s a human being behind that book they’ve trashed.

If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison
us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that.

That Shakespeare Guy

I know the staff at this school made no conscious effort to put me in the line of fire (and I have no wish for revenge). Protecting the kids was paramount and I understood that. And if one good thing emerged from the experience, I discovered I could speak through anything. They even invited me back this year and I had a wonderful experience.

I just ask that if there is a next time, perhaps they usher me behind a desk too.