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Friday, December 31, 2010

Farewell, 2010! The Year in Review

There's a wonderful Mexican New Year's song that starts, "Yo no olvido el año viejo, porque me ha legado cosas muy buenas" (I won't forget the old year, because it's left me some nice things). The things I pledge to remember about 2010 all have to do with writing. I don't think anyone would argue that my husband and I had any luck or success with money this year. Twenty-ten is the year we avoided complete bankruptcy and living on the street solely by the grace of my husband's sister. In 2010, we sold a gorgeous deluxe fold-out desk for $100 in Pennsylvania and spent the money on folding chairs, TV trays, and an air bed in Arizona. All we're really left with for 2011 is the love we have for each other, and a dogged determination to be successful again soon.

Great Things of 2010:
1. 15 pieces published in literary magazines. Click on "Good Reading" to your left for a full list, with pictures and links! The indescribable thrill of having Fiction Collective accept my humble "Justine" has still not abated through all those other acceptances. The idea that some few people somewhere on the planet have read some small part of my work has made a lot of really awful twists of fate this year much more bearable.


2. In November, I got my second royalty check from Tree/House and Dusk Before Dawn. They wait to accumulate $20 before they send it to me, and I got it! Twenty dollars doesn't begin to compensate for the time, effort, and money I've invested in their promotion over the year and a half since I got my last royalty, but again, the idea that someone, somewhere, is reading my work makes up for a lot. Thanks you so much to anyone who purchased either book! They're still highly enjoyable, affordable, and ready to be shipped to your home in paper or digital formats.

3. I started this blog, which has had a modicum of success. Thank you so much for stopping by! I hope to see you and get your feedback in 2011!

4. I found Duotrope. I'll keep the trade secret from those of you who don't know what that is. Those of you who do know will agree with me that it's possibly the single greatest tool for a writer in the digital age. Please contribute $5 a year if you're a user and keep the dream afloat! Without Duotrope, I would have a lot of inspiration and not much else when it comes to writing.

5. I'm now a GoodReads author! Check me out!

This time of year, people talk a lot about resolutions. Resolutions are an especially handy tool for the writer, who can so easily get bogged down by anything from other demands on her time to a funny sound or a fly on the wall. So, in 2011, I resolve not to let anything get in the way. Not my exhausting temporary job and the difficulties in getting to and fro, not the ongoing job search and distracting hopes for the future, not the dire lack of furniture in our new apartment, not the worries about money. Specifically, I resolve to finish a certain story to my own satisfaction and find someone to critique it, rather than sending it out to the publisher all raw, as I've had to do with a few too many pieces this year. (My husband is wonderful, but far too appreciative of my vision to be any use as a sounding board.) I also resolve to get serious about at least one of my book projects. (Stay tuned for those!) By "get serious," I mean take a look at the all the resources I've already gathered and managed to bring with me to Arizona, and make a decision about which to do first. And then write. Come up with a concrete, doable goal and stick with it. In the land of my resolution, at least one book will be completed this year for the enjoyment of literary agents and publishers in 2012. Wish me luck!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Story Connected to a Poem

Many of my readers enjoyed my poem "Real," published in Cave Scribbles in November. Those same readers might be interested in perusing the story I wrote that treated the same theme. Here it is, in its entirety, complete with gorey details from the mid-1990's, unedited since it was written in the heat of confusion. And heavily under the influence of magical realism.
Happy New Year to everyone. Look forward to more stories, poems, videos and interviews in 2011!

"Is This Real?"

No volverás a mirar tu reloj, ese objeto inservible que mide falsamente un tiempo acordado a la vanidad humana, esas manecillas que marcan tediosamente las largas horas inventadas para engañar el verdadero tiempo, el tiempo que corre con la velocidad insultante, mortal, que ningún reloj puede medir. Una vida, un siglo, cincuenta años: ya no te será posible imaginar esas medidas mentirosas, ya no te será posible tomar entre las manos ese polvo sin cuerpo.
--Carlos Fuentes, Aura

Holding her hand and looking searchingly in her eyes, he said, "None of this is really real, you know. We are both only figments of someone's imagination, acting out our fabricated lives in a world of holographic illusions. It is not really worthwhile to continue reacting to fake situations."
Grasping his hands more tightly, she said, "I am willing to take that risk, darling. The illusion that you are real and that I must continue with this business for you is the only idea that keeps me thinking I am alive. Is this real? I don't care, because I am going to believe it is."
He held her for a moment, and then kissed her, a situation that she found not altogether believable. Surely it all was too perfect; it must be, as Alexander said, just a hologram. Really, was such perfection to be reasonably believed? She let him kiss her again and again. He shut out the reality of other people, of things to do, of politics and sports, of even the reality of the couch upon which they lay. His magic pervaded her and absorbed what it encountered, making his departure and the jump back to reality nearly unbearable.
Had it really happened? Charlotte wondered as she studied the picture of the handsome young man under the 60 watts of the desk lamp. No, it couldn't possibly have. No one could expect her to believe she had been so happy. Why, then, did the false memory evoke in her such real emotions: such a bitter nostalgia, such a tangy desire? His absence left her with a feeling of having been stripped of a vital essence— she could almost see it leave her body and fly away to Berkeley, where Alexander was.
Reading about the Protestant Reformation was not an undertakable task in this state of mind, so Charlotte climbed into bed and closed her exhausted eyes, despite the lights her room mate had left on, and the incessant flap-flap sound of the flying toasters whizzing by on her room mate's computer screen.
Early the next morning, they were still going, those toasters. The venerable people who had nothing better to do than create advanced computer graphics of toasters with wings for computer screen savers should certainly have been psychiatrically examined. She gave herself to listening to the flapping wings for a moment, but not a long one. "You know," she said, "that is actually very annoying." She only said it because her room mate was not in the room. Where was that girl, anyway? She heard a peltering of laughter from down the hall and figured she must be with the other girls watching "90210." What a thing to do in the morning.
She rose and wrapped herself in her robe and, putting her keys in her pocket, went to wash her face and brush her teeth. When she returned, she found Alexander, of all people, standing outside her door, waiting for someone to answer it after he had knocked. Unseemly as she would have felt in her bathrobe if she had given it any thought, the sight of him struck an electric bolt through her. He also saw her in that instant and each ran to catch the other before they fainted.
Charlotte would have liked to have added some dramatic words to the situation to show how glad she was to see him there, in her world and not only in her fantasy, but her gush of emotions silenced her throat. However, hot tears of gratitude found their way down her cheeks before he let her out of the embrace. He said, "'Behold, you are beautiful, my love; behold, you are beautiful. Your eyes are like doves. Behold, you are beautiful, my beloved, truly lovely.'"
"What a thing to say," she managed. She couldn't think to ask him what he was doing here or how he had arrived, and much less could she think to do anything but stand in the morning in the hallway, holding his hands and looking at him, and absorbing his every feature. He had the presence of mind to guide her out of the hallway and into her own room, where she hugged him again in a vain attempt to incorporate the two into a single piece of matter.
"Don't ever leave me again," she said.
"I won't," he assured her with a reassuring hand on her hair.
Oh, but yes he would, and they both knew it.
He had walked two miles, and sometimes jogged, from a bed and breakfast down the road, so she showed him the bathroom where he could clean up a little. She then walked to the end of the hallway, out to the balcony.  It was a very agreeable day; a little bit dark, perhaps, but the stars shone and the sun promised to warm the earth, warm the blond heads of the two soulmates as they made their way across the campus to eat breakfast. Wild geese flew over their heads and cascaded into the pond, honking happily now that Alexander was here with Charlotte.
He dipped his spoon into his grapefruit juice and stirred it around before he would drink it, despite her reassurances that it was unnecessary. "At Berkeley, the water and syrup separate out before you can take the first sip," and he sipped. He then held up his prize for her to see. "You guys have bagels. That's very good."
"You're lucky it's plain: they usually only have onion ones," she said, trying to convince him that the food really was as bad as everyone said. But he would have none of it. No matter what, he always replied, "This is much better than Berkeley."
Charlotte found it fun to at last eat with someone who would praise the food instead of condemn it. Praise always makes a more pleasant conversation than complaint, and, unlike all the very rich and privileged students who attended the New England college with Charlotte, Alexander had very little talent for complaint and a genius for praise. "It's so easy to criticize," Alexander had said disparagingly when the both had wearied of reading angry, political literature. "How beautiful he is," thought Charlotte as the sunlight exposed his full glory: even the beauty of his soul was visible in this light. Surely the sun had come out to study him, as it had never shone so pleasantly before, and certainly not when Charlotte was on the way to her 9:30 sociology class.
She wondered what was going through his mind when he saw that the class had only ten students in it. Here was a Ph.D. teaching to ten first year students, all sitting at three tables arranged in a horseshoe, when at Berkeley the Ph.D's only came out  to lecture in great arenas of 800 students or more. On Alexander's face was a look of pleasant, dumb surprise,  and Charlotte was proud. "It's not a bad little college I'm going to," she thought, self-satisfied.
"This is a very nice place," he told her when she asked at the end of the week. "It's quiet, and boring, and perfect. When I walked here from the bed and breakfast, all there was was trees, and some houses once in a while." It must have reminded him of his home town of Klamath, California, a town with more bears, owls, and squirrels than people. The town where Charlotte attended college had 2,000 people in it, and 1,500 of them were college students. There was no movie theatre, no gas station, and only recently was there a grocery store. It was a good place for a retreat from the world, but not a place to keep worldly college students from complaining. Except Alexander. The man worked so hard that he was too tired to do anything interesting the rest of the time.
"You are so boring," Charlotte told him several times, as he sat with her in the library, or in her dorm room. They had contented themselves all day Saturday just holding each other in a silence that was invaded only by someone's alarm going off in the next room and by Charlotte's room mate's flying toasters on that blasted computer screen. When was she going to turn the thing off, or finish writing her paper? The screen had been on, toasters flapping away, the other night when there had been a party while Charlotte was trying to sleep. She did not want to be rude, and because she liked her room mate's friends just as well as her room mate did, Charlotte had quietly slipped into bed, allowing them to leave the lights on and talk loudly, even though Lea was not in the room. Where was that girl? She heard a peltering of laughter down the hall and decided she must be watching "90210" with the others.
Michelle was moving all the furniture in Charlotte's room to a place completely inconvenient. Joanna was trying on Charlotte's favorite black pants and running out of the room with them on. But Charlotte tried to sleep, because she liked to get up early every day this week, because Alexander was there to share life with. She awoke to complete silence the next day. Lea was turning in her sleep, and when Charlotte went out to the hallway, she saw that the sentence Alexander had written backwards in Spanish on the message board had been erased.
In sociology class they had analyzed Distant View of a Minaret by Alifa Rifaat, considering what the short stories told the reader about the situation between men and women in Egyptian society. "The women see the way the men treat them and they take pride in themselves, saying, 'Well, at least I'm not a man,'" Charlotte had said.
"He seems to like you," Alexander told her as they were walking in the sunlight away from sociology and toward golf, where the instructor had forced Alexander to swing the clubs the same as the people who were actually enrolled in the class.
"Of course he likes me," Charlotte told him. "I actually like the books we read in that class when no one else does. Professors love it when you do that!"
"Grapefruits and cranberries: two juices that are definitely acquired tastes," Alexander said at breakfast. At lunch and dinner Charlotte proudly sat with her beloved, hoping everyone could see their happiness, and noticing that everyone stayed away from their table at a radius of at least ten feet, so astounded were they that Charlotte and Alexander were together again. He reaffirmed every time that this was indeed better than Berkeley.
They had strolled around the pond, holding hands in the darkness that seemed interrupted only by a light that seemed to come from Alexander. The wild geese slept. The stars shone. She had written him, "The tradition allows a young lady to push her beau into the pond if he does not kiss her by the time they walk around it three times."
"I don't blame her, considering the size of the pond," he had written back to her. They hadn't walked fully around it even once when he decided they had better sit on the picturesque bench in the gazebo. They watched the geese sleep. "What the heck, man? That one's going for a swim!" he exclaimed. In the light radiating from him, Charlotte could see that yes, it was, and it was waking all the other geese up.
"You have geese," he had said that other morning going to breakfast. "That is so cool."
They had been going to watch some television on Friday night, but it was not as interesting as the subject at hand. They augmented each other's spirits and tried to fill the holes inside of each of them, fill them up with pieces of the other, or at least to give of themselves in order to fill the other's hole. The phrase "I love you" had never been used so well in all of its history. They never felt so complete before, and never was there such a sense of terror at the thought that they were purposefully planning to spend the next three years of their lives apart, three thousand miles apart, while they ran after the material goals that can be earned with bachelor's degrees.
"Should I ask you this here? Right now?" he asked doubtfully.
"Yes," she said, her curiosity intolerably tantalized.
Minutes, years.
"Would you marry me?" he asked, with his eyes true and pained. The lamp took the darkness away from him less than he illuminated himself.
A tangible emotion was at her throat and collapsing her lungs with his words, which hung so heavily that she could not reply. She tore herself open and cried and said "Yes." She collapsed onto him. He lifted her up and kissed her, but all she tasted were her own tears. They were saltier than they were bitter and they came from happiness. "Is this real?" she asked herself, but her self had no answer.
The tears dried and left her face swollen, but he still said she was beautiful. Their delight went uninterrupted until Emily came and told them to come to the dance.
All they found were a few mailboxes, flung open in April Fool's Day spirit. "And, no, this is not an April Fool's Day joke," he had said.
Charlotte had not worked at all since Alexander had come, and it was fortunate that she did not have any pressing assignments. How could she work when there was someone far more important to attend to? He had carried most of his luggage from the bed and breakfast and put it in the floor of her room so that he would not have to carry it later. Charlotte thought that his four miles of walking and his 27 dollars a night were very wasteful, since he could have slept in Lea's bed, the girl not having shown herself since before his arrival. True, the computer with its toasters had been turned off on Wednesday, but Thursday it was back on. When they had come from looking at the geese, they could hear the flapping of toasters through the closed door and Charlotte was reluctant to go in and disturb them. But she unlocked the door and there was no one. Alexander followed her inside. His handsome face filled her field of vision.
"You are so beautiful!" she said, joyful with looking at the harmony of his features.
"So are you," he said, and then he was gone, out into the night with her flashlight, and tears remained on her face.
Massachusetts had never had such brilliant weather before. The light warmed the pavement and shone in his blond hair as Alexander and Charlotte walked from the library, in the depths of which they had been for the last hour and a half. In her room, they sat down at the computer together. "I installed Scheme into your computer while you were gone," he said. "Look how useful it is."
"Life is so hard," he had said when there was no peace to be found. Lea had all but annexed Charlotte's room and populated it with people. The kitchen upstairs had been a regular freeway of traffic and commerce. Even the library was full of serious people studying. He had wanted to kiss her and hold her but there was no place to be found, short of broad daylight in full view of the entire student body. "Life is so hard!"
He had written on her message board, in mirror writing so that only a select few could understand, "peligroso es divertido."
All of Saturday was gone. They had spent it on the words "I love you," and in the study of hair, eyes, and lips. Charlotte was feeling a bit ill, and she supposed it was from the pizza they had ordered and eaten as they sat on the floor, playing mambo records and thinking of high school.
Grease spilled into the bottom of the box. "It's very oily," he said.
"I like it that way," she affirmed, though she knew that he had an aversion to all kinds of oil, that any oil was an unforgivable aberration. "I love you," she repeated.
"I love you tremendously," he said. Then, "I should probably be going."
"But it's Saturday night! There is so much to do!"
"We have been staying up too late. I know that you are really very tired." It was true. He himself was very tired. "We have a big day tomorrow! We're going to the Cape!"
"You’re always leaving me!" she exclaimed, thinking of all the times he had driven away from her while she watched from the window. The sight did not always make her cry, but now the emotions were strong, without reason.
"I love you," he cooed, trying to reassure her, but words could not comfort her when his movement away from her ripped a bloody chasm in her soul.
He pulled the covers over her and tucked her into bed with her tears. He sat down next to her and told her a story in an unfalteringly soft and calm voice... "There was once a young boy who lived in a house in the middle of a huge field. Far, far away the boy could see another house, which was like his, only it was covered with jewels! The boy wished he could live in a house like that. One day, he packed some lunch and headed off across the field toward the jeweled house. He walked and walked and walked and walked. He became very tired, but he kept on walking. As he approached the house, he noticed that it looked less and less magnificent, and when he finally arrived, he saw that the two houses were identical. At the house he met a girl, and he asked her how she liked living there. 'It's alright,' she said, 'but every day I look over at that jeweled house on the horizon and wish I could live there.' The boy looked and saw that she was pointing to his own house."
Of course, it had nothing to do with the present situation, but he had intended his smooth voice to calm the raging agony inside her. However, it only caused a concern: "How come you don't cry?" she asked, wiping away some of her own incessant tears.
"Conditioning," he sighed.
"Aren't you sad?"
"Yes, very sad. Do you want me to cry?"
"At least I would know what you're feeling without having to ask. It's hard to tell."
He stroked her hair. "If I cried every time I wanted to, it would take all of my time."
Later Charlotte will ponder the physiological impossibility of stopping oneself from crying, and the rigorous conditioning — brainwashing — that must have gone into such an achievement. Now she only cries, blinding herself with bitter, salty poison. She doesn't see him leave.
She rolled over. That man has made me cry more times this week than I have ever done in my life.
Her eyes were not as swollen and hot as they should have been after such tears, and when she awoke she could see very clearly that it was 7:23 and not 7:00, as it should have been when she woke up. She was appalled. She tossed on her bathrobe and ran out to see if Alexander had been waiting for her for nearly half an hour. As she dashed out of the room she saw his suitcases and books in the floor, a fleeting vision in the corner of her eye reassuring her that he had to come back, at least to reclaim his items.
At the bottom of the stairs through the glass door she could see that he was not there. This was worse, far worse, than his having had to wait for her. Where was he? She looked searchingly down the long hallway, and there was no one at all. She went out the door and heard quacking of geese and saw parked cars, and delivery trucks delivering. She saw barren hedges, stripped by the New England winter. At each turn she expected to see him walk toward her in his red sweater and illuminate the day, take it out of this half-light. Heart pounding, she looked left and right, as though if she looked enough times, he would come out of hiding. "I can't take all this drama!" she shouted to the empty sky. And it echoed.
Tears leaped out of her as she turned back and ascended the staircase. It had been a long time since she'd had a good cry. Maybe she was due for one. "He has made me cry..." she thought. She entered her room. Her roommate's computer was turned off, and there was her roommate, trying to sleep, in the bed.
Charlotte looked at the corner of the room with Alexander's books and suitcases in it, to make sure. She went to the window and watched for him. She did not leave her post until all the books and suitcases had disappeared.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"Bones of a Story" Published in Metazen

Just in time for Christmas! "Bones of a Story," a piece I wrote in order to slyly rant about contemporary fiction is appearing now in Metazen. It had to go to Metazen, meta-lit mag par excellence, because it lacks the plot structure it seems so concerned with. The pompous narrator pretends to know everything about writing, but, given the sample, is never really in control of his/her craft. The bone element comes from an essay I was required to read in one of my creative writing courses, "Your Story's Bone Structure." Just the title rankled me, almost too much for me to read the rest of it! I felt strongly that structure would flow naturally from my own sense of narrative, conflict, and resolution as I worked out the plot. I wanted unusual, probably lopsided stories, like the overall structure of The Princess Bride. I didn't want some dry sage to make me write the same old boring thing.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of this non-story is that it mentions plot elements I was occupied with at the time, whether in reading or writing.

The old lady who eats sticks of chalk to combat osteoporosis eventually became the mysterious stranger in "Calcium-Rich," which you can read at Short, Fast, and Deadly.

I think the old lady with the switchblade comes from the spark I was infusing my characters with in Tree/House.

The man who swallows the rabbit bone comes directly from the vellum pages of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, patronized by Alfonso X el Sabio.

The woman who believes she's turning into a rhinoceros is Allie, the protagonist of one of my favorite stories ever, "Rhinoceros Dreams," recently published in This Mutant Life.

And that last bit about bones in the feet, really happened to my mother (the ever-inspiring!).

Enjoy the rant!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

An E-Reader Saved My Life

My husband bought me a first-generation Amazon Kindle for my first birthday that we celebrated together, two years ago. I had never had a chance to consider an e-reader, and the gift was a complete surprise. He knew I loved books, and he felt that the potential to cram most of my library into the size of one normal book had to be an advantage, since he moves around so much. That part of it has certainly come true. Now that my library is in storage in Pennsylvania, it doesn't feel right to add weight to the stuff we have with us, and lately if it's not available for my e-reader, I just don't buy it.

The Kindle inspired me to dust off and publish my book, Tree/House, mostly because it didn't cost me anything. I've only sold one digital copy, because it came out before anyone else actually had an e-reader, and now it's perceived as old. (It's actually perennial, ever fresh, and still available in paperback also!)

The Kindle has afforded us many hours of unexpectedly shared pleasure because I like to supplement my husband's literary diet by reading aloud to him. I already had a couple of different copies of The Princess Bride, but when I wanted to read it to my husband, they were buried in boxes without labels, and it was just easier to "whispernet" it to my Kindle. (That's a book I would buy 1,000 times if necessary.) When the local library didn't have the last installment of His Dark Materials, we had no qualms getting the e-version of that, too. Most recently, I couldn't help sharing so many delightful passages from Bill Bryson's At Home with my husband that he demanded we read the entire thing together.

Most dramatically, I happened to take my new Kindle with me on my fated trip to Spain in August 2008 (see an earlier post on this). I only had maybe ten books on it, and I couldn't download new things or even charge the battery, but thank goodness I had something to do on those couple of long nights waiting for the American Embassy to open! The fact that The Power of Now was the last book I'd bought for it was probably the decisive factor in my not having a complete nervous breakdown when my purse was taken.

I'm a bit miffed that there are newer versions of the Kindle, for much less money than before, with many more features. But these new versions, and the increasing number of viable competitors, are a sign that book technology is finally taking the next step. There is a buzz in the book community now about the meaning of e-readers and possible demise of printed books. I love books -- physical, pulpy, inky -- but I'm thankful that e-readers are an option now that my husband has introduced me to this semi-nomadic lifestyle. I can still be nearly as literary as before, and a million times as moveable. Given a choice, however, I would have access to an enormous, well-organized, beautifully architectured, physical library. Someday. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I Said I Wanted to Work With Books

I've been working the textbook buyback rush at the University of Arizona Bookstore for a week and half now. Unknown lucky sods get to do the buying and inspection. At that point, they ship the heavy, dusty books to a group of us, on dollies, or in wheeled tubs. We put those lovely stickers that say "used" on them and then try with all our might to put them in the right place. That means finding out whether it's been ordered for the spring semester or not, and tens of thousands of other variables I would never have imagined only two weeks ago.


The burden is mostly physical: standing all day, walking miles across hard floors, lifting, bending, crouching, etc. We also have a heavy burden on our memories, as we need to recall exactly where things belong or cost ourselves a lot of extra physical effort.  I'm impressed with how much I remember. I'm mostly in the rhythm of things now, so I don't feel as desperate or soulless as when I started.

The first day was really hard because all these wonderful books were coming under my nose, and yet I couldn't stick my nose into them! The pace is much too fast for a contemplative perusal of each interesting bit of course material that comes my way. When I was a cataloger at the library in Boston, at least it was understood that you could set some books aside for yourself before finishing up the records and sending them out for the public. We were all bibliophiles there, and it was an unspoken benefit of the job. In this situation, books are whisked out from between one's fingers -- to occupy their spaces on the textbook shelves so the avid students can find them, or to languish among other things that have been purchased "on spec," or in the overstock piles -- long before one can do more than get a sense that one would like to continue reading. The longing was so great that first day, I thought I might have to quit on the grounds of psychological torture.

Then there are the myriad assaults on the sensibilities of those who love the book-as-object: torn and folded covers (book drop accidents); mutilated, replaced, detached spines; excessive note-taking in margins; dog-eared-ness; signs of being dropped in the bathtub; and other scenes too gruesome for this blog. Perhaps even more depressing, we frequently see books still in the plastic shrink-wrap, sent to us as if they've been thoroughly used. In these cases, perhaps the students meant to return the books new because they weren't taking the class, after all, but didn't get around to it in time, thus costing Mom and Dad hundreds of dollars. I usually assume they were coasting, and never opened the book, all the while hoping to get an "A" anyway. I always send loving thoughts to those books, sending them on to, I hope, be truly loved the next time around.

One day, I will be able to actually start reading a book, never mind finishing one! In the meantime, please look the other way if I've developed a habit of leafing through the pages as I scurry across the warehouse. A single sentence is better than silence.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

New Short-Short Story Now Published


Notice the warning sign on each front leg.
Certified by Guiness, I have no doubt, the photo shows the World's Largest Rocking Chair. We passed by this amazing piece of welding in Missouri on our way from Pennsylvania to Arizona. It actually took a couple of tries for us to find it. I guess we weren't expecting it to be right there in the open, because we saw the sign on the chairback, and drove right by, not registering that it was the actual rocking chair until we swung back around.

We parked right in front of it, thus getting the full force of the advice painted at eye level on each leg: "Please Don't Climb." What were these people thinking? What's the point of the world's largest rocking chair if you can't sit in it and take a picture to show your envious friends? The variety store was doing a brisk business in wood carvings and local wines.

It didn't take a lot of imagination to come up with the micro-story "The World's Largest Rocking Chair (Accident Report)." I thought about it in the context of the events of 2010, and challenged myself to keep the story under 420 spaces while including the name "Eyjafjallajöküll," and the incomparable Short, Fast, and Deadly has included the result in its "Year in Review." Enjoy it here!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Love in This Crazy World

Before we left Pennsylvania, I saw that a certain lit mag was inviting submissions on love. They recognized that there weren't a lot of love stories out there these days. What a great idea! Let's put some love back into the world! I came up woth a great idea for an allegory for me and my husband: a couple goes through disaster after disaster, but they're ever so happy, as long as they're together.

I think I wrote it in a lively, clever way, with lots of banter and crazy random sutff happening -- just the sort of thing I would like to read. At under 1000 words, it wouldn't ruin anyone's day to read it, even if they didn't like it. Of course, the lit mag in question didn't take it. I've submitted it to a couple of other places already, only to be rejected. I've gotten feedback from it that really only shows that the editors didn't "get" it, they had no idea what the point of the story was.

Maybe people don't get love anymore?

Maybe it's not as fun to read as I thought?

In the absence of a workshop (I hope to correct that very soon) or any other rmeaningful advice, I must stay true to my vision.

So, it looks like I'm left with yet another wonderful short story, floating around in the ether in hopes of finding an audience, somewhere, somehow. I won't give up on this little story any more easily than I would give up on my husband. Try, try, again.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Gila Monsters Meet You At The Airport

I was in the University of Arizona bookstore, gearing up for an interview, when I saw the book Gila Monsters Meet You At The Airport in a display of local children's books. It's the quintessential guide to gaining perspective, especially in the context of having to move to a new place you know nothing about. It contrasts the eastern and western United States, hinting that the really important things are the same everywhere. Mainly, it pokes gentle fun at people's assumptions about places they've never been and shows that you, the reader, can fit in and make new friends anywhere.

Like the main character, I was established on the East Coast and had every intention of staying there "forever." I was born in California, but through a series of choices, I have come to prefer crowded streets full of unfriendly people and piles of dirty snow as if I had always lived there. Rationally, I knew our move West was necessary, but I couldn't help facing it with some trepidation. Can I adjust to Western ways of thinking and acting? Will Arizona feel like home within a reasonable amount of time?

According to Gila Monsters author, Marjorie Weinman Sharmat, I have nothing to worry about. I wish I could just take her at her word and have done with it. I start at my new (temporary) job tomorrow. It should give me a swift sense of belonging. I will have to squeeze in time for writing between textbooks and students. Wish me luck!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Without Language in Córdoba

"Without Language in Córdoba" is one of my favorite poems I ever wrote. Now you can read it in its entirety in the amazingly high quality Apparatus Magazine! Please also see a photographic preview at YouTube.

The theme of the issue is "Translation," a theme dear to my heart. Interpreted widely, it pertains to people trying to communicate in any way they can, and so encompasses most of human experience.

The poem came to me during a study abroad experience in Córdoba, Spain. As we realized more every day after we got there, Córdoba was the original melting pot. In spite of the discomforts it implied, the blending of peoples, languages and cultures created an experience so astoundingly beautiful, it can still be felt today in the air that passes through.

My room mate (and best friend) was having a tough time. She loved Spain (I like to think I had something to do with that) but October is always emotionally raw for her. One day she just got up and went for a walk while it was still dark outside, and contemplated the serenity of the Roman Bridge in the early morning light. By the time I woke up, she was back and telling me about the adventures she'd had. Anywhere else, they might have been commonplace, but the setting made them almost mystical.

Only my friend can say what parts of her walk I made up myself for the poem. I've forgotten, because with time, the poem becomes the reality. "Without Language in Córdoba" honors her expedition: the finding of something extraordinary right there in her surroundings; the way she felt she was beginning to belong to this place she had arrived in only weeks before; and, a personal favorite theme, the inability of words (in any language) to fully comprehend experience. With that in mind, I use empty space and translations of place names that seemed comical to us at the time, and leave "madrugada" (sunrise, daybreak, etc) untranslated. I had fun dicing up words to show their origins: "break/ fast."

In workshop, the other members were sorely disappointed to hear that I wasn't writing about something that happened to me personally. I think one of them claimed she would continue pretending. That's absolutely fine. I don't think the poem is injured, no matter who the subject is. What is imagination for if not to bring vivid experiences to people who never had them?

Take a look at the poem here. I'll also add the link to my "famous publications" page.
"Without Language in Córdoba" is one of the centerpieces of my collection Dusk Before Dawn.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Things and Ghosts

The hardest part about making this recent move was leaving most of my things -- books, files, furniture, and homey amusements -- in storage, taking with us to Arizona only what would fit into our compact car.

I'm not especially materialistic, but my stuff has a way of making me feel comfortable, like I'm in the right place, and that the creativity can flow. I was terribly envious of Barbara Briggs Ward's setup when she told me about it for her November 26 interview! Imagine, a place to settle down, to have a chance to position objects to their best advantage, to remain undisturbed.

One reason objects help me feel at home is that just about everything in my household has its own story, and those are important parts of my story. For example, a slightly battered, ordinary-looking floor lamp I've left in storage in Pennsylvania came to me when I moved into a studio apartment for the first time. When I first got to Boston, I moved in with room mates from some long-forgotten listing service, and all the lighting was already in the house. A very kind supervisor of mine had agreed to drive me over to the new place because I didn't have a car and the movers claimed they couldn't bring me with them in the cab. So all four of us drove ahead of the movers that day: Margie's husband, Margie (my supervisor), me, and the lamp she no longer needed, because she didn't want me to be in the dark in the new place. So, since September 2001, that lamp has been known as "Margie's lamp" in honor of her kindness, and no way would I willingly give it up. When I look at it, I see Margie and all the good times we had at that wonderful job.

Other objects contain within them the spirit of authority. When my grandmother gave me a set of kitchen utensils for my first wedding in 2004, she said, "That is the best whisk you will ever use." No ifs, ands, or buts. That whisk still receives the utmost respect and care, and in my house, it is known as "The Best Whisk in the World," when it's not languishing in storage, that is. Thanks, Grama. I think of you every time I use any of those utensils.

I drove my husband crazy during the moving process. Every time he would pick up a seemingly worthless object, I would cry, "I got that in Spain!" or recite some more complex history, plain as day to me, and he would know that it was too important to throw away. I love my husband beyond belief, but we are opposites in this regard. He's moved so many times that he has whittled his possessions down to the utterly necessary. If it weren't for me, he could pack up and leave in a sub-compact car in about two hours. He says the memories are in his head. His past is never in evidence, and I'm sure that's one reason he's so eternally ageless to me.

His attitude seems very healthy, whereas I have always considered memory to be outside myself. Consider the wonders logged in my childhood diaries: events I would never have been able to recall, in full detail! Also, my paternal grandmother died after the protracted horror that is Alzheimer's disease, and my dad was diagnosed with early onset dementia seven years ago, practically securing a similar fate for him. I always think that if I were to meet with that demon, my things and all the memories they so obviously contain would help me recognize the world and maybe stay in it a little longer. Just a theory.

Oh, the memories embedded in my captain's bunk! It's a twin bed with two drawers and an open storage area underneath that I got to sleep in when I was very young. The construction is entirely modular, so the  biggest piece is the mattress (not the original one anymore!) and it's been easy to take everywhere. Since I've been married, I've used it as a couch/storage area in my study, a place to take naps, and a visitor's bed. It's seen every aspect of my life, except the times I lived in England and Spain. Because it's been moved around so much, the bed frame has seen better days, but I don't usually see its flaws. It has its own presence, made up of so many witnessed events.

It is this presence that brings me, finally, to a concept often talked about on Ghost Hunters. I started watching the show because the guys are from Rhode Island, a rapturously beautiful state that I miss terribly. I kept watching because they often capture amazing audio clips that suggest the persistence of spirit. The concept that pertains here is the reason for residual haunting. They suggest that certain objects, which may have been involved in traumatic experiences or just really loved and cared for by their long-passed owners, retain something of those experiences and emotions. We in the present day then witness that pent-up energy as movement, feelings, or sounds.

My stuff is probably causing at least one residual haunting at the storage unit in Pennsylvania as we speak.

I like the concept. It validates the weighty importance I feel when I walk into a medieval manuscript library. There have been few objects in the world made with more deliberation and care, and then so appreciated and loved. I positively vibrate around medieval books, but I've never been able to articulate the phenomenon to ask anyone else if they feel it, too.

My dad's woodworking projects and my mum's sewing are in the running for the title of most cared for objects. So it comforts me to think that the items my parents have crafted for me will continue to emanate their love and skill even if (God forbid!) I can never go back and get them. Even when they pass away. Even when I do.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Interview Series: Barbara Briggs Ward, Author of The Reindeer Keeper and the Snarly Sally Series

Celebrate the new season! Look no further than children’s author Barbara Briggs Ward’s writing to find that she’s fascinated by Christmas.

She has just published her first work of fiction for adults, The Reindeer Keeper. A heartwarming Christmas story, it taps back into that feeling we all experienced of truly believing in Santa Claus while dealing as an adult in an adult world. It centers around a family many readers can identify with and what happens when they are given the gift of an old farmhouse complete with 120 acres and a barn full of animals including a herd of reindeer tended to by an odd little man. What happens that Christmas is more magical than anticipated, as the couple welcomes their boys back home and comes to realizations they never thought possible. It’s who delivers this gift on Christmas Eve that gives them the strength to face their greatest challenge.

Additionally, Barbara’s short story, “In Anticipation of Doll Beds” came out on October tenth of this year in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas Magic, and she is currently working on a children’s picture book centered on Christmas.

JK: So, what’s the attraction to Christmas?

Barbara Briggs Ward
Barbara Briggs Ward: Truth is, my fascination is with snow. I absolutely love snow. To me, there is nothing more beautiful than a snowfall. So, when I put the wonder of Christmas with the beauty of a snowfall, storylines abound!

JK: Most of the snow I’ve seen has been in a city or a college campus, where it gets dirty, slushy, and troublesome to travel through.

Barbara: I grew up in the country. This was the biggest influence on the rest of my life, for it provided me a constant backdrop to explore. The more I played and explored, the more my imagination grew. There were four houses in a row, all filled with relatives -- aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, dogs, and cats. My cousins and I had fields and pastures, creeks and old barns to play in. But it was in a chicken coop converted into a clubhouse and filled with the desks, books, and chalkboards of an abandoned one-room schoolhouse where we spent the majority of our time. If you go to www.thereindeerkeeper.com you can follow my blog, which chronicles those times growing up in the country. I have two favorite authors, both rooted in my childhood and that chicken coop: Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott. And if I wasn’t reading, I was folding pieces of paper and writing books.

JK: Those are my favorite children’s authors, too! You and I seem to have had similar childhood hobbies. Was reading encouraged at your house?

Barbara: Books surrounded me. My mother was always reading, as was my grandfather. There was an amazing bookstore in the downtown of where I grew up, and I would go there with my mother. The smell of words on paper sitting on mahogany bookshelves remains with me today.

JK: And writing was the natural development from that environment?

From Chapter 20 of The Reindeer Keeper
Barbara: I started to explore writing when I used to spend hours playing in my chicken coop. There was something about it that intrigued me. Having my favorite books around me added to the wonder. One Christmas, my grandfather made me a desk, which included inside its single drawer a pad of paper with a sharpened pencil. I knew right then that I wanted to be a writer. But I didn’t understand what that meant. I kept the scribbling up as I grew up. It was just something I did. After my first child was born, scribbles turned into endless storylines. I was hooked. Intrigue turned into passion. I had to write. I started writing because I couldn’t stop.

JK: What themes started to show up early on?

Barbara: I think because my father was a funeral director I was keenly aware of how beautiful the gift of another day really is. It offers us another chance. I’ve always been fascinated by people’s obituaries for they chronicle what individuals did during their time on earth. The thought of knowing when we began and not having control of the end date inspires me to make a difference; to take each day and live it -- actually live it to the fullest while, along the way, appreciating the little things.

JK: Yes, that would make an important mark on anyone, growing up in that environment! Have those experiences influenced your latest work?

From Chapter 16 of The Reindeer Keeper
Barbara: The specific inspiration for The Reindeer Keeper was a snowfall on Christmas Eve. Watching those big, beautiful flakes float by the window with Christmas lights muted in the distance filled me with an urge to write a story of the season for adults, entwining that wonder of Santa Claus we all once felt with real life we face every day. That’s all I knew when I sat down to write the story but as words came out, the characters took over.

JK: That’s how I know when a story is important in a big way, beyond me as a writer, coming from somewhere much deeper. Do you find that, because you’re reaching so deeply, your real life creeps into your fiction?

Barbara: There is a fine line between the two and sometimes that line disappears. Looking back, it was my grandfather’s barn I was writing about in The Reindeer Keeper. That barn, stemming from my growing up in the country, played a major role in this story without my even knowing it. It was never my plan to do this. It just took over as I let the words come out. I could sense that old barn in my childhood: hear the wind come through broken windows up in the haylofts. When the scene was inside the old farmhouse it was my grandparents’ old farmhouse. I could smell cookies baking, hear the clock ticking on the mantle and the floors creak as the characters made their way through a scene. When the scene was outside, it was outside where I grew up: the pine forest and frozen creek where we’d skate day and night. I knew I was blessed with an amazing growing up but I never knew how much it was engrained in my heart and soul until I wrote The Reindeer Keeper.
     When I was older, we moved from the country into the nearby town to live over the top of an historic old home, which my father refurbished to use as a funeral home. Its character was grand: stately rooms with ornate fireplaces that looked as if they came out of a magazine. Without realizing it, I learned so many lessons about life and living, both from my father and by residing above that stately residence. All of that comes out in the pages of The Reindeer Keeper.

JK: Did such vivid memories help you change your writing from a children’s book style to a novel? After all, even though it’s geared “to anyone who remembers that feeling of truly believing in Santa Claus,” this is your first work of fiction for adults.

Christmas lights at Boston Common
Barbara: Yes. I use language to help describe a character, to set the tone and emphasis in describing settings. In The Reindeer Keeper there is an odd little man whose use of language is short and abrupt but as you read along and learn more about this character that all makes sense. A reader can feel close to a character by learning a character’s language and this adds to that feeling of getting into the book itself.
     I never thought I could sit long enough and write for adults. I didn’t think I could take characters from one place to another. Then I met another writer who told me the hardest audience to write for is children. That’s when I made the decision to sit down and write this story mulling in my mind. Once I did sit down I couldn’t get up. The characters led me from one place to another.

JK: I understand you have a lot on your plate in addition to writing.

Barbara: Besides writing, I work full-time as Advertising Director of a regional newspaper group. This position has allowed me the opportunity of getting articles published. My goal is to build my writing career to a point where I can leave the paper and write fulltime.
     I also serve on two appointed boards serving the needs and concerns of the mentally ill. This is dear to me, as I am the mother of a schizophrenic son. I also have three other children.

JK: How do you squeeze in time for writing?

Barbara: Except for early Saturday morning, the only time I get to write is later on in the evening, usually after 10 p.m. Because of my full-time job and my adult son with special needs, who lives with me, the time I have to sit down and write is limited. But when I do finally find that time I instantly plug into the writer inside of me and off I go into the wee hours. I always keep a pad of paper with me throughout the day for jotting down thoughts, scenes, characters, and changes on whatever it is that I am working on or new ideas that might zing through my head.

JK: Does your work area help you get the most out of your limited time?

Pere Noel in Epcot Center
Barbara: My home is an older-style farmhouse minus the backstairs and pantry. Because my disabled son lives with me, I’ve turned one particular room into both my area and his. My desk is my favorite piece of furniture in the house. Aged, solidly built, it has a dignity earned over the years. Its drawers are deep. One even has wooden files built into it. The top is wide -- so wide that it easily accommodates my computer, my printer, all my notebooks and reference material, and there’s still plenty of room left for my coffee mug and oodles of sharpened pencils. Having this personal zone with everything I need at hand makes it a comfortable place to sit down and write. Nearby is my art desk, full of markers and colored pencils. It sits next to one of the two windows overlooking the backfields and barn. Birdfeeders are everywhere as are poplar and maple trees. In the center of that room is my son’s table on which he puts puzzles together. Next to his table is his recliner sitting near that other window. The room is painted a warm, pale yellow. Sunrises are breathtaking.
     Actually, “morning” is my favorite word, for it offers hope and a new beginning -- a gift of another day. Watching the world wake up yet again is empowering. Seeing the sky turn from black to hints of daylight inspiring.

JK: Wow, that setup would make any writer envious! Do you have any methods that might seem unusual or inspiring to other writers?

Barbara: I scribble on pads of yellow-lined paper when I first sit down just to get the juices flowing. I used to do most of my writing on pads of paper; then would transfer it to the computer. But now I am comfortable enough to go from beginning scribbles to the computer.

JK: Writing by hand really helps sometimes! I learned at a writer’s conference this year at the Pearl S. Buck estate that people who write on paper are happier and healthier than those who only write with keyboards. I never looked up the scientific data, but, intuitively, I felt it was true. Do you do anything else “analog”?

Barbara: Getting published was a long, hard journey, not for the faint of heart. When I started searching for a publisher it was before the internet-before the computer so the information and social networking opportunities now just a click away 24 hours a day/7 days a week were not available to me. I had to go to the library and do hours of research, then come home and type my letters, mail them, and wait. And wait and wait! Sometimes it took over 6 months of waiting just to be finally rejected. Sometimes I never heard back. I decided way back then I could be depressed about being rejected so many times, or look at those cold, form rejections as their loss, not mine. I chose the latter and have kept every one of them.

JK: Rejection letters as a badge of honor! I have a few of those, too. But eventually, you got an acceptance letter.

Barbara: I was first published in Highlights for Children. I remember thinking, “This is it. I made it!” But I soon learned that while it was a true accomplishment, the road ahead remained a struggle. My first and second picture books were published by the Landauer Corporation out of Des Moines: The Really Really Hairy Flight of Snarly Sally and Snarly Sally’s Garden of ABCs, centered on my character, Snarly Sally, “the little girl who doesn’t like to have her hair brushed.” The publisher had planned a major rollout for the first title but fate stepped in, as that book was released just as 9/11 froze the country in fear. The publisher pulled back and turned her main focus to home arts and crafts books, realizing the mood of the country would keep people closer to their own homes. (My second book was published in 2002 because of our contract). Again, I had a choice: forget about all of it, or take the books on the road myself. I chose hitting the highway, and I remain thankful that I did. I met so many people who loved the books. The feedback became my grassroots marketing and inspired me to push forward. I waited for that contract to expire, and, because of the internet and what it has to offer, I’ve taken the plunge into self-publishing both The Reindeer Keeper and the third picture book to follow the first two, The Really Hairy Scary Butterfly Rescue: A Snarly Sally Adventure. It’s coming out before Christmas.

JK: How could you be sure your books would be well received?

Barbara: I must point out that I didn’t dive into the self-publishing arena without first researching social networking, learning and understanding how to use what is at my fingertips to market both my brand and my products. My guide through this maze has been a book by Gary Vaynerchuk entitled, Crush It. I could never have gotten anywhere without this book. I keep it by my side and refer to it daily.
     The first Snarly Sally book was printed in 2001. I’ve been waiting since 2002 for that contract to expire so I myself could publish the third book. Even with that lapse in time, I still have people ask for the third book and still have people say they love the books, as do their children. Now that I am in control, I’m implementing lessons learned into the launch of the third title. This includes a website: www.snarlysally.com. Children are computer savvy. I know Snarly Sally has to be, too.
     For The Reindeer Keeper project, response has been tremendous!

JK: So, do you have a pretty good sense of your demographics?

Barbara: Having gone on the road with the first two books, I learned firsthand how important and supportive grandparents are. They love to buy quality books for their grandchildren. That is a market I intend to court. There is a definite fan base building for Snarly Sally.

JK: What do your relatives think about having an author in the family?

Barbara: Except for my oldest child, now an adult, and the original Snarly Sally, my family sees me as who they’ve always known: a sister, aunt, or mother, not a budding writer fulfilling her passion. This is fine with me. I just have to be true to myself. The same holds true for friends, and that’s fine too.

JK: Any words for struggling writers?

From Chapter 15 of The Reindeer Keeper
Barbara: Stay with it; don’t give up. Use the internet as your agent. Don’t be afraid to delete everything you wrote the last time you sat down and start all over. Writing is a process: a long, lonely and joyful journey!

JK: Thank you so much for talking with me and spreading your inspiring message.

Find out more information about Barbara’s positive, vivid, and exciting work, perfect for the Christmas season, at www.thereindeerkeeper.com and www.snarlysally.com. She would love to hear from you at maggieosheacompany@yahoo.com

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Alfonso X el Sabio: Conclusion



Alfonso X in an eighteenth-century
sculpture in the garden of the
Royal Palace, Madrid

Vacillating regularly between his second son and his grandson as he came under different pressures to name an heir, Alfonso was unable to avoid international incidents as he dealt with recurring and worsening illness, the distrust of the townspeople and their unwillingness to provide the funds he needed for the defense of the kingdom, invasions from the south and threats from the north. In 1277, Alfonso ordered the summary execution of his brother Fadrique. Although Fadrique had probably taken the opportunity caused by Alfonso’s illness and Sancho’s minority to seize the crown for himself, the official records allege a homosexual relationship that was imperiling the entire nation. In 1278, the Courts granted Sancho enormous power, making him a virtual co-regent with his father. Meanwhile, Alfonso’s queen, Violante, fled to Aragón, probably because of mistreatment she suffered as a result of Alfonso’s prolonged physical distress. Before she could return after a year’s absence, negotiations became highly politicized because of the whereabouts of Alfonso’s grandsons. In an attempt to curb Moroccan power in the peninsula, Alfonso besieged Algeciras, but Sancho gave the money intended for the siege to his mother for her expenses in Aragón, and the siege failed. To show his displeasure, Alfonso executed the innocent Jew who had collected the funds from delinquent taxpayers. Still desperate for money, he also held all of the Jews in Castile for ransom. Using these extreme measures as evidence of his father’s insanity and inability to rule, Sancho sought and gained the support of most of the royal family, Aragón, Portugal, and the military orders of Castile. He collected funds and convoked a plenary assembly to restore traditional laws and promise to maintain the coinage from the time of his grandfather.
The courts agreed to divest Alfonso X of all his power, leaving him with only the title of king. Alfonso pawned his gold crown and resorted to the help of his former enemy, the King of Morocco, who laid waste to many important towns that had turned to Sancho. During a final prolonged illness in Seville, the last loyal city, Alfonso disinherited Sancho in his testament, although in an addendum he refused to specify exactly who would receive control of his kingdoms. Sancho’s suspicious behavior drove some of the royal family members back to Seville, and the Pope excommunicated everyone in Sancho’s camp. When Alfonso’s brother, Manuel, died while acting as Sancho’s most important advisor, both camps began to make overtures to reconcile, but they were never to meet face to face again. Alfonso officially pardoned his wayward son and asked for a papal absolution for him just days before his death. It is unknown whether Sancho ever learned of this belated blessing.
From the Cantigas de Santa Maria. The king
in the bottom center is Alfonso.
In or about 1269, it seems that a horse kicked Alfonso in the face. Although not a matter of state, this incident would influence each one of Alfonso’s subsequent actions. Poor healing of a nasal fracture resulted in repeated infections, which eventually led to debilitating pain and cancerous tumors, which disfigured and ultimately killed him. This highly intimate knowledge helps to humanize the drama of Alfonso’s life. If we consider the severe physical pressures he was suffering as well as the confusing factionalism of his subjects, his equivocation and occasional rash behavior becomes much more understandable.
Alfonso X would be remarkable in any context, but he stands out in especially high relief against the society in which he lived. Literally backwards-looking, Alfonso’s subjects demanded time and again that he return his government to what it had been during previous reigns. The king wanted the best for his people, but he was never able to fully grasp just how hard he would have to push them into a future that made no sense to them. But, even at the sad end of his life, Alfonso probably realized that his intellectual legacy would prevail and that history would (eventually) regard him kindly. In this way, Alfonso still inspires us to believe in the value of education for the betterment of society.
The figure of the Wise King first sparked my attention as an undergraduate. It has steered my entire academic career, and sustained my interest through the unexpected work in history, linguistics and law that became necessary in order to complete my dissertation on his legalistic and literary output. 
To date, the best Alfonsine biography in English is Joseph O’Callaghan’s The Learned King (1993). Students use this well-researched piece as a reference once they already have some familiarity with thirteenth-century history, but I doubt they would pick it up at the library for a bit of fun reading. Additionally, it treats only the years of his reign, leaving Alfonso’s childhood, personal life, and subsequent legacy for the reader to find out. H. Salvador Martínez’s authoritative Alfonso X, el Sabio should appear in English translation by the end of 2011. However, even if it has been cut drastically in length, that book will still require enormous patience and previous knowledge of Spanish cultural heritage. I'm dreaming of a book that would reach a wide American audience. It would be the life story of one extraordinary person, without abstruse language or unnecessarily distracting notes. It would bring Alfonso’s accomplishments and tragedies to people who might never have heard of him. Perhaps readers would then feel inspired to pursue their own useful learning. Continuing this legacy of enrichment would be the most fitting tribute to a king who wanted most of all to increase knowledge.