Reading the Pandemic Part Two: Horror, Dystopia, Film, Text

Over the past week, I’ve stumbled across several essays that use slightly different words to make the same point as this aptly named article–GRIM, GHASTLY & GRUESOME–from the NY Times Review of Books. 

“Horror,” columnist Danielle Trussoni writes, “is a perfect genre for our current moment, one that offers a narrative architecture strong enough to hold the weight of America’s traumatic past, stories entertaining enough to keep our attention, and conflicts that allow us to confront our demons and defeat them.”

While I’m not a huge horror aficionado in normal times, I definitely turn to the genre at key moments and find that it offers all of these elements quite well.

During a particularly gnarly phase of my usually boring life, I devoured Zombie fiction one book after another, finding special refuge in the Young Adult series THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH.  Nothing else seemed to make me feel better than reading about the Undead.  It was both cathartic and riveting, escapist and inspiring.

More recently, during the early days of the pandemic, I didn’t turn to horror per se, but I became fascinated by stories of escape from insular fundamentalist cults—I started with the HBO mini-series UNORTHODOX and went from there—watching or reading, but preferably both. ONE OF US, BOY ERASED, LEAVING THE FOLD … while they don’t fit the horror genre in terms of slashers jumping out from dark corners, they belong in the category of real-life horror in that people are actually trapped in these systems right now.  In tale after tale, the protagonists showed that freedom can be attained but only at a heavy price and usually only with outstanding help.

And now here we are, with the 2020 ball cage spinning rapidly out of control as we are just about to fill up our apocalyptic BINGO cards.

The final days of the election are upon us.  I am in need of another horror distraction–NOW!!!! 

And what better distraction could there possibly be than THE most fitting and appallingly prescient creative work for this moment, Margaret Atwood’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE.

Since the spring of 2017, gobs of writers have pointed out the scary similarities between Trump’s America and The Republic of Gilead.  I won’t echo these other than to say that what seemed eerily predictive four years ago is screamingly evident in 2020. 

Putting that aside, what interests me most about Atwood’s story is viewing its underlying premise as depicted in the 1985 book vs. the 1990 film vs. the current Hulu series. I also can’t help but view all of these stories against CHILDREN OF MEN, another author’s treatment of the same premise, in book and film version. 

If you too are looking for a distraction, please read on for my random observations about these thematic cousins….You may find something you’d like to binge on Election Night. 

The Handmaid’s Tale: Book Version

While I read The Handmaid’s Tale quite a few years ago, I have always treasured a vivid image from the book–the scene showing Offred gazing at a pillow embroidered with the word faith and reading the word over and over.  In Gilead, women are not allowed to read and text is kept away from them, so this pillow served as a talisman to conjure up an earlier time when a woman’s value was not based solely on her ability to bear children for an infertile—virtually childless–country. I think this scene has stuck with me because some of my earliest and most profound memories are of reading and the idea that this could be taken away was something that struck a chord.

I also appreciate Atwood’s precision in naming the book’s genre.  It is not, as she points out, science fiction.  There is nothing in the book that could not happen in our world.  It is speculative fiction, a much broader genre that encompasses science fiction, fantasy, horror, and dystopian books such as this one that “merely” predict possible realities that could happen given specific circumstances.  

Atwood studied American Puritans while at Harvard and as she was writing the book she was concerned about similar patriarchal religious tendencies occurring in modern times.  She has said that the book was a response to the argument that totalitarianism can’t happen in America and is an attempt to show that yes it absolutely CAN happen and moreover here’s how it could.   

An especially good quote from the book: “Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”

The 1990 Film:

Five years after the book was published, a film version was released. While it’s relatively obscure today, it did feature several big names including Natasha Richardson, Robert Duvall, Faye Donaway and Elizabeth McGovern. An interesting side note is that the movie was filmed on the campus of North Carolina’s Duke University.

Most critics panned the movie, arguing that it focused too much on erotica and that the protagonist was too emotionally distant due to the lack of a voice over.  At the same time, the film does have a few true believers who find it offers an interesting angle.  The film stays fairly true to the novel and the lack of voice over gives the sense of something happening beyond an individual’s control.  It’s definitely worth watching if you’d like to compare artistic interpretations.  It’s also interesting from a historical point of view, to see what things were on people’s minds 30 years ago as opposed to 1985 or today.    

The Hulu Series:

The Hulu Series debuted just a few months after Trump’s inauguration, and the overwhelming consensus is that it delivers the best, most impactful version of the tale. 

My only personal complaint is that the horror aspect is a bit over the top for my taste.  The barebones of the story are brutal enough in their own right.

Much of the series’ power relies on Elizabeth Moss’s incredible performance as Offred as well as Ann Dowd’s as Aunt Lydia.  Indeed, the conflict between the two inspires much of the dramatic arc. 

Especially well done in the Hulu version are the flashbacks to life before theocracy overtook America and the seeming cluelessness and apathy of people as it was happening.  The environmental degradation, the health concerns, the trampling of rights, the civil unrest—the world was much as we know it, establishing a platform for takeover, and yet everyone seemed to be taken by surprise. 

Just for fun, here’s a mash-up of scenes from the film version next to scenes from the Hulu series. 

See what you think.

Children of Men:

An analogous story occurs on the other side of the Atlantic, in Great Britain.  The underlying theme of CHILDREN OF MEN is vitually identical to THE HANDMAID”S TALE, simply more severe: environmental degradation, disease and civil unrest have led to worldwide infertility to the point that a baby has not been born in more than 18 years.  In both stories, infertility is at once a metaphor, a distinct possibility and most of all, a catalyst for birthing heroes and villains.

With a male protagonist, CHILDREN OF MEN has a more masculine flavor than THE HANDMAID’S TALE, but the 1992 book is indeed written by a woman, English crime writer PD James.  People often say it is a one-off because it is her only science fiction novel, but again, there is little in the book that could not actually occur and I would say it fits the speculative dystopian label better than science fiction.

I watched the movie version of CHILDREN OF MEN soon after it came out in 2006 but I didn’t read the source novel until last week.  The reviews I had seen said that the movie had virtually no similarity to the novel, so I was surprised to find that they are more alike than I was expecting.  They both deal with devotion, betrayal and sacrifice as the world order completely falls apart. (In other words, they both grapple with the same meaty questions as The Handmaid’s Tale.)

The book’s villain is more of a caricature than the movie’s, and the very flawed protagonist is thrust into a completely different position at the end.  I won’t spoil it by saying how, but it didn’t work terribly well for me.  At the same time, the novel is a compelling read with a captivating protagonist, a strong plot and complex supporting characters.  It also raises legitimate issues about faith and the meaning of life in a surprisingly non-judgmental way. 

The Movie:

The CHILDREN OF MEN movie was beset with problems during filming as well as a marketing disaster at its debut.  As a result, it was a commercial flop when it was released in 2006, despite a smattering of critical acclaim. 

Its stature changed in 2016 when its relevance became undeniable.  It has experienced a strong resurgence as both a critical favortie and a cult classic of sorts. It now appears on multiple lists of Most Important Movies. 

Several of the film’s scenes have become spookily on point during the past few years—refugees in cages, civil and racial unrest, authoritarian governments, religious fanaticism on the streets.  I also find it interesting that in the film, the protagonist’s child is dead not due to an accident, as in the book, but due to a pandemic.

Both the book and the film are rich with spiritual symbolism and I would argue that both are well done, although in different ways.  Because the movie was released on Christmas Day, it is sometimes viewed as an allegory for the Nativity Story.  The director denies this vehemently, but I would argue that there is no denying what is there, intentional or not.  The most powerful scene for me was near the end when the armed soldiers spontaneously lower their weapons and kneel in awe.  The moment was perfectly captured and it’s fascinating to read the details about the filming of the scene.  You may come to believe that maybe there are a few miracles left in this world.   

Also, the ending is simply perfect.

I stumbled across many reviews of the movie as I was writing this blog.  Of special note is an article by Abraham Riesman that appeared in New York Magazine (2016) and Vulture. 

Abraham’s quote refers to the film version, but it works equally well for the book:

Children of Men imagines a fallen world, yes, but it also imagines a once-cynical person being reborn with purpose and clarity. It’s a story about how people like me, those who have the luxury of tuning out, need to awaken.”

So this brings us back to Trussoni’s quote.  Horror is indeed the perfect genre for the moment, but only horror that empowers us to rise above it.  “Defeating monsters is what horror fiction does best,” she wrote. “By creating stories about the beasts that terrify us — demons and tyrants, killers and bullies and ghosts — horror writers lead us into imaginary battles with evil so intimate and powerful that we emerge better prepared to fight real ones.”

By expanding the label of horror beyond the tropes, this commentary fits dystopian pieces just as perfectly, perhaps even better because the imagined world could easily be our own.   

I hope that we are indeed up to the task. 


Note: The one good thing about 2020 is that book nerds get to reference all sorts of apropos concepts. So many allusions! I’ve attempted to hyperlink to works quoted and discussed. Additional links of interest include:

The concept of faith in Children of Men:

How science fiction has a knack for predicting reality:

Best Dystopian books:

The resonance of that Gatsby quote:

Please share your thoughts with me!

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Indeed, not normal at all

Sometimes I wonder how I would have acted if I had been an adult during the Civil Rights era.  Or if I lived under NAZI occupation.  Or during the Civil War. It disturbs me to think that if I hadn’t had the advantage of growing up with modern, forward looking influences in my life, I could have landed on the wrong side of history.  But thankfully I did have those influences and now that I find myself facing a similar situation, I have an opportunity and responsibility to use my voice and privilege to do what is right.

An autocrat is in power in this country.  Historians are telling us that he is following a predictable and dangerous path.  If he is allowed to continue, the unrest and inequity that’s occurred in the US over the past few years will look like nothing.

To the extent that I have a voice and followers on social media, I am going to do what I can to say loud and clear that this is not a normal election in any way, shape or form.  We are not choosing between policies.  The “both sides have issues” argument is moot right now. We are choosing between democracy and authoritarianism.

The Washington Post series in the photo is just one of many unprecedented attempts to enumerate just SOME of the abuses of power that have occurred under Trump—soliciting foreign interference in an election–using blatantly corrupt voter suppression tactics–inciting right wing terrorists to commit violence for his benefit–allowing Russia to place bounties on our troops–praising dictators–bragging about assault on women–evading taxes and stealing tax payers’ and donors’ money for his family’s personal gain–slandering his opponent’s only surviving son–attacking people with disabilities and people with addictions and refugees and anyone else who is vulnerable–using religion as a cover for his power games—taking babies from their mothers at the border–abandoning our defenses against a deadly pandemic—doing everything possible to take away basic health care coverage.

THIS IS NOT NORMAL.  It will take an uncomfortable coalition to stop it.  I respect the Lincoln and Eisenhower and McCain Republicans who are crossing party lines to stop this.  I am grateful for the left-wing progressives who are voting more centrist than they’d like in order to stop this.  We need you and we need even more!

I know I will not influence many people but I am asking everyone to please vote against the criminality and corruption that has taken over our government. I could not live with myself if I did not speak out. This is not normal.  This is not right.  

Please share.

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Reading the pandemic: How fiction informs 2020

I don’t pretend that I’m capable of following all the chaotic plot twists that we’ve lived through during the last 46,000 months of the Trump administration.  I’m not nearly that wise.  BUT I am a reader and that gives me at least one advantage—while many people are tempted to join in the melee in the center of the room, I can sometimes retreat to my little corner and happily hypnotize myself with my new shiny question that is called


Yes indeed.  I have a nice little diversion going on due to the fact that fiction does double duty as a massive crystal ball.  And over the centuries various pieces of writing have somehow predicted almost every single nuanced bit of anarchy that 2020 has thrown at us. 

Plague, authoritarianism, inequality, unrest, fundamentalism, technology run amok—it has been written.

Let’s take a dive and look at a few examples. 

The literature of plague:

Regarding COVID-19, the one piece of literature that keeps popping in my head is Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, written almost 200 years ago in 1842.  This is partly because it’s awesome.  Everything Poe is awesome, of course, but the brevity and punch of this story is out of the park.  Also, I read it when I was young and it’s pretty much foundational for me.  Lastly, it’s so freakishly spot-on, it is almost impossible not to make connections to 2020 America.

Poe—who is considered the father of the short story genre—begins the story with a simple statement: “The red death had long devastated the country.”  In response, the country’s prince, Prospero, took his entourage to retreat to an elegant abbey where they idly entertained themselves while the rest of the world battled a particularly bloody disease: 

“The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime, it was folly to grieve or to think.”  (emphasis mine)

But it’s boring to stay in a castle, right? So Prospero ordered a masquerade party that flew in the face of decency: 

“The tastes of the duke were peculiar. He had a fine eye for color and effects. He disregarded the “decora” of mere fashion. His plans were bold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with barbaric luster. There are some who would have thought him mad. His followers felt that he was not.”

The party featured seven rooms, with the seventh adorned in black and red with a sepulchral clock whose chime created “disconcert and tremulousness and meditation.” At the end of the night, on the stroke of midnight of course, the party goers realized that an anonymous guest had appeared.  The figure was dressed as the personification of the Red Death itself and this outrage finally broke through the layers of arrogance and callousness.  The revelers attempted to unmask him, only to find nothing at all.  Then they fell ill until

Death held illimitable dominion over all.

I’m not the first reader who has connected Poe’s words to what we are witnessing right now.  Since March, many have written about the similarities to Trump’s handling of COVID-19.  What is somewhat surprising, however, is that the story’s prescience continues to grow stronger and stronger.  Just a few days ago, in the wake of the disastrous party for Trump’s latest supreme court nominee, David L. Ulin of the LA Times noted that “it’s almost too on the nose.” He went on to write this commentary:

“…It was folly to grieve or think.” Could any sentence better express the way the Trump administration has faced — or failed to face — the crisis of COVID-19?  …. And yet, as “The Masque of the Red Death” reminds us, the real folly is exactly the opposite. The plague is not a hoax and no one is immune, even in the Rose Garden.”

Plague literature is timeless because–while diseases come and go—death is the one certainty that everyone eventually must face.  A plague also practically begs for allegory, opening up all sorts of opportunities. 

 Thus, we have not only Poe’s work but also Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Albert Camus’s The Plague and many more.  And even a brief refresher of them shows that each has something to say about what we’re going through.

Love in the Time of Cholera is the plague book that I’ve read most recently.  It is an atmospheric, dreamy, wandering story about a life-long love triangle, filled with scenes of a lush Latin America in the past.  The Colombian author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is best known for his use of magical realism but this particular book contains very little, which I find interesting because the book somehow still carries a strong flavor of magical realism. 

The setting is a Caribbean city facing a cholera outbreak.  While one of the protagonists is intent on defeating the disease, on the surface illness does not play nearly as central a role as it does in Poe’s piece and yet the title keeps drawing attention to it as an underlying current.  A popular reading is that there is a commonality between love and disease.  “They each can infect the body, mind, and spirit, they are contagious, and ultimately they can consume people.”  (see

I think the book’s appeal for me is that it focuses on the exquisite ephemeral moments of everyday life, which is what I strive to do in my writing.  As critic Michiko Kakutani wrote in a New York Times review, “Instead of using myths and dreams to illuminate the imaginative life of a people as he’s done so often in the past, Mr. Garcia Marquez has revealed how the extraordinary is contained in the ordinary … The result is a rich, commodious novel, a novel whose narrative power is matched only by its generosity of vision.”

I would add that the book is one more reminder that life and love continue to happen even in the midst of plague.  


Boccaccio’s Decameron was written almost seven centuries earlier in 1353.  I especially like this one because it is a wonderful example of a frame tale, in the same league as 1001 Nights or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  (As loyal readers will remember, Frame Tales are my jam.) The work contains 100 stories told by a group of young men and women who have fled Florence’s Bubonic plague to hide away at a villa in the Italian countryside. 

The piece has many similarities to Poe’s story but the strongest one is that diversion from the plague serves as the source material and also provides reflection on societal issues. 

A common theme is the fickleness of Fate as illustrated by Lady Fortune or the Wheel of Fortune, echoing Dante’s Inferno.  But, as the introduction to the Florio translation explains, “the Decameron uses Dante’s model not to educate the reader but to satirize this method of learning. The Roman Catholic Church, priests and religious belief become the satirical source of comedy throughout. This was part of a wider historical trend in the aftermath of the Black Death which saw widespread discontent with the church.” 

(cough, cough, Jerry Falwell).  

Who knew that hypocrisy could lead to biting satire?  Hmmm.

I have to admit I have not read the whole Decameron.  I did look into taking Italian for Beginners in college so that I could do so, but fortunately wiser heads prevailed.  Still, I dig some of the quotes from it: 

And the plague gathered strength as it was transmitted from the sick to the healthy through normal intercourse, just as fire catches on to any dry or greasy object placed too close to it.

The deceiver is at the mercy of the one he deceives.

The foolish throng gazed upon it in reverent admiration, and they crowded around him and gave him larger offerings than they ever had before. 

But despite its cynicism, The Decameron has perhaps the most insightful and humane line you could ever hope to read, a line that would serve us very well today: 

To have compassion for those who suffer is a human quality which everyone should possess, especially those who have required comfort themselves in the past and have managed to find it in others.” 


But wait, there’s more!  We haven’t even taken a look at fiction that crosses boundaries, blending plague fiction with fantasy and science fiction and dystopian fiction.  What about the zombies?  Isn’t there a handmaid somewhere?  Or was it a handbasket?  Keep watching this space for Part Two of Reading the Pandemic.

See you soon!

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Quarantine Counselors in Residence

Pretty much everyone could use a personal therapist right about now.  The news is unsettling, quarantine is stressful, and people are anxious.  Read on to see what our Quarantine Counselors in Residence are able to provide.  Contact your closest Humane Society if you believe having a counselor in residence might be a good choice for you.

Meet Our Team

sophieSophie practices the feline method of therapy, specializing in early morning meditation with purring and gentle movement.  She also has an interest in lucid dreaming and hypnosis. She is a somatic practitioner, using a steady bilateral form of massage that often results in a trance-like state enabling the client to access the sub-conscious. Her area of research is how to achieve flow in everyday life, and she especially enjoys working with moms and helping them juggle various responsibilities in a healthy way.sophie fence

In the past year or so, Sophie has taken on the role of mentor to the youngest counselor in the group, teaching the feline approach to life in everything she does, which she views as carrying on the work of her own mentor, the famous Zen master known as Topaz. In her work as well as her personal life, she encourages people to look for and appreciate beauty and she has participated in the exploration of the emerging field of neuro-aesthetics.  Her quote to live by is from Harvard professor Dr. Nancy L Etcoff: “We are elevated and enriched by what is beautiful.”     

tuxTux also uses the feline method, but with a significantly different focus.  His specialty is evening relaxation purring, and the depth and quality of his sound therapy is well known in the field of brainwave entrainment.  He uses his signature purr to encourage release of tension and worry and bring about feelings of well-being.  This is especially important for dads who may struggle with work-life balance. Tux believes in fully savoring moments of relaxation.  He encourages his clients to enjoy small physical pleasures such as a fire and soft blanket on a chilly night or the exquisite sensation of sipping fine bourbon (within healthy limits!).  He advocates for expressing wants and needs without holding back.

Another passion for Tux is body positivity, which he promotes as a personal interest.  He strongly maintains that an active lifestyle is more important than a number on a scale and he encourages his clients to embrace their body type and celebrate their style, no matter how fancy or flamboyant.  His quote to live by, commonly attributed to Oscar Wilde, is: “Looking good isn’t self-importance; it’s self-respect.”20190428_110933

Oliver is the newest member of the group and brings a fresh perspective to the practice as he enjoys exploring a cross-disciplinary approach.  20191210_172508While he is originally trained in the canine method, he has recently begun incorporating aspects of feline therapy in several ways.  In his personal practice, he is especially interested in achieving the well known feline ease in overcoming shame and mastering self-compassion, although he considers himself a novice.

Oliver enjoys working with teenagers and making sure they receive the affirmation they need to develop a healthy self-concept.  20190216_134932As one of his teenage clients remarked, he makes people feel safe, as if they are in the presence of a very wise person. A strong proponent of the positive psychology movement, Oliver is in high demand because of his natural ability to express and convey joy to those around him. His primary philosophy, which is firmly grounded in his core canine training, is that human connections form the basis for a fulfilling life. He also believes in acknowledging and listening to instinct while also pursuing self-restraint. His quote to live by is very simple: “All you need is love.”

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Last Chapter for The Button Collector

My book is five years old now—a literary kindergartner!–but I still remember the day I got the news that a small press in Ohio wanted to publish it. Even though I’ve been a writer most of my life, publishing a novel was different.  The whole process was fresh and new.

button_final_1Fast forward to today: PageSpring Publishing—the small press that served as such an awesome midwife for The Button Collector–is following the path of many small presses and closing up shop.  It’s not exactly a surprise considering how giant publishing houses are merging to become mega-giant publishing houses, squeezing out small, creative presses in the process.

It’s not a surprise, but it is a disappointment.

I feel very fortunate that my book was in the right place at the right time to find a home with PageSpring instead of one of the other houses I had close-but-no-cigar moments with.  Few publishers would have commissioned 21 sketches of buttons so that the visual element of my book could become reality. Few publishers would have gone to such effort to commission amazing cover art by an amazing artist.  Few would have been so insightful in their advice about the structure and the title.  Few would have believed in me the way they did.  I’ll always be grateful to them for that.  sketch2sketch1

What all this means is that The Button Collector is going out of print.  If you would like a copy, it is available via Amazon through the end of the year.  If you want a signed copy, please send me an email or contact me via The Button Collector Facebook page and I’ll send you one of my stash.  They make great Christmas gifts!

Meanwhile, here are some random nuggets of wisdom from my adventures in publishing:

  • I’ve found that online data is addicting. Did you know that on Amazon, The Button Collector has 77 reviews, with an average of 4.1 stars?
  • On Goodreads, The Button Collector has 224 ratings with an average of 3.94 out of 5 and 48 text reviews and is on the to-read shelf of 1258 people! That’s pretty cool.
  • I’ve also found that some people are remarkably qualm-free about sharing their negative opinions online!! There was one review that called my pretty normal book “just weird.” They seem to have taken it down, but you can still read these choice nuggets!!!!  “This is easily one of the most boring books I have ever read.” “I haven’t finished the last chapters as it became tedious.” “My book club chose this book. … Written in too many voices and written by someone I am guessing is quite religious. Disappointing.”  (NB—I’m not that religious.)
  • On the other hand, the good reviews are the best ego boosts ever!!! I love their beautiful phrases: “…the overarching metaphor of the button jar is deftly used to illuminate the relationships between the women.” “My mom has been gone almost twenty-nine years and my wolves are not calm.” “I download dozens of books each week, skim the first pages, and set aside most of the books until I get to one that I can’t put down. The Button Collector is one of those that hooked me and kept me.”
  • In person feedback? Words can’t describe it. I feel so fortunate to have had the chance to connect with all these people who’ve read my book!
  • Because of my book, I’ve come to know other writers  and vicariously share their success. Amy Willoughby-Burle, who wrote a blurb for my book, has now been to New York and all sorts of big city places with her new novel The Lemonade Year. Brenda Sutton Rose—for whom I wrote a blurb—was just nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  Ann Ross, my amazing in-town mentor, keeps adding to the canon of Miss Julia books.  And Katie Winkler—my comrade in arms since forever—keeps having her work published and performed all over the place and has launched a literary journal.
  • I realize that I’m not sad my book is going out of print. It makes it more distinct, like a limited edition.  I like to think it’s in the company of early Hogarth Press editions, in a modern, techie kind of way. I could use the e-files to self-publish, but I won’t. Maybe The Button Collector will itself become a collector’s item one day… that would be amazing.blurbs

So thanks for reading, thanks for the encouragement, thanks for going on this journey with me!  I am very superstitious and don’t talk about work in progress, but I am always writing in some way, even if it’s just corporate newsletters and blogs.  This space will evolve, but I’ll still be here with my random thoughts, so pop by once in a while.

Until then, support your local authors.  Keep reading.

(And in case you missed it, here is the link to Amazon again. Remember: Mom’s Christmas present….)

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Travel by Book (and Film!) 2018

Summer is here and once again my daughter and husband are on a big travel adventure.  And once again, I’m traveling too – by book. 

Last summer I visited Nigeria, England and Australia as I read books by Chimanmanda Ngozi Adichie, Rachel Kadish and Liane Moriarty. 

This summer I went to Hawaii for my book vacation. I learned about all sorts of foods and history and how the locals view the tourists, thanks to Kaui Hart Hemmings’ richly crafted novel, The Descendants,. 



The Book



The Movie









But before I read the book, I watched the 2011 movie. I’m always intrigued to compare a book to its film version.  I’m not one of those people who simply say, “The book is better.” Often this is true, but I appreciate both written and filmed stories.  There are generally nuances and explorations and possibilities unique to each form. Last year, for example, I was fascinated to compare Moriarty’s Big Little Lies to the HBO version, which I had recently watched.  The contrast became a nice device to compare the way two cultures treat the same story–in this case Australian culture vs. US culture. 

The Descendants was different.  Several people had highly recommended the movie, which featured George Clooney and Shailene Woodley and which had won an Academy Award as well as two Golden Globes. It had been on my watchlist for years.  It is the story of Matt King, a Honolulu attorney who faces two pivotal and ultimately connected events in his life: a boating accident that has left his wife comatose and a legal decision about how to handle his extended family’s vast land legacy. 


My personal short take:  The movie was good but not quite great.  Its glimpses of what it is like to live in Hawaii were worth the viewing time on their own. The basic plot was intriguing.  It also captured that universal experience of family-ness–the familiarity, tenderness, irritation, comfort, etc, that is both unique to a particular family and completely common to all families.  There were moments of pure humor, sadness, and insight that I carried with me after it was over. 

On the flip side, there were a few moments where the acting of secondary characters was remarkably bad.  It also felt a little TOO true to life at times as everything was played completely straight and hands off. 

Most significantly, as with Big Little Lies, the film made me crave more of the story. When this happens, it’s such a happy feeling to be able to dive right into the book. And when I did, I had an interesting experience.  

“When you get right down to it, what fun is it to have a narrator if that narrator is completely reliable?”

On the surface, the movie and book version of The Descendants are quite similar.  There are no huge plot deviations.  Most of the characters are essentially the same. 

The surprise was that as the book progressed, I found the voice of Matt—the narrator–to be fundamentally and radically different from the movie’s narrator.  In both versions, Matt starts out rather complacent and unaware.  He then goes through a painful process of realizing the true nature of his wife and their family.  The difference is that the movie’s Matt is a steadfastly reliable narrator throughout.  The book’s narrator is not.  

I now believe that this is the reason the movie feels a little lackluster at times.  Because when you get right down to it, what fun is it to have a narrator if that narrator is completely reliable?   

SPOILER ALERT!!!!   The book version of Matt was especially intriguing to me because an unreliable narrator usually tells the story so that he or she appears better somehow—more courageous, more talented, more intelligent, less to blame.  The book version of Matt does the opposite.  He starts out desperately trying to take more responsibility than he should.  He spins the memories of his wife to her advantage: She wasn’t narcissistic; she was magnetic. She loved him even though she betrayed him cruelly.  She was a good mom.  Gradually, however, it becomes clear that Matt knows none of this is true. He is living a lie, but it happens in such a beautifully crafted way that the reader forgives him. Some of his realizations–such as the impact his wife has had on his daughters–is almost too much for the reader to bear, let alone Matt.     

The Matt of the movie makes peace with his wife’s death by realizing that he and his children will be okay despite everything that has happened.  The Matt of the book has a more difficult task.  It’s hard to admit that someone you love has used you and probably never valued you as a person at all.  It’s hard to admit that someone your children adore didn’t value them either.  It’s even harder when that person is injured and vulnerable when you realize the whole truth…and when despite it all, you still love him or her. 

It takes a book’s worth of sorting out, but in the end Matt recognizes that not only will his family be okay, they will be much better–much healthier and grounded and connected–because of everything that has happened.


With Big Little Lies, the differences between book and film were many and easy to spot.  With The Descendants, the differences were more subtle, but in some ways I found them more significant.  It made me wonder about the reason the film chose a different path. Was it too difficult to create the nuances of the book? Would there have been less commercial appeal?  Was the director’s personal interpretation of the story entirely different from mine?  

Questions such as these are why I love to compare books and movies.  I believe they enhance the story by offering two different lenses to look at the same thing.  This is why I am always looking for a good comparison.  If you have a favorite, please share!


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First Edition of Teach. Write. Receives Notice

Awesome news! I have three items in this great journal!

Hey, Mrs. Winkler!


The first edition of Teach. Write. is being featured on the North Carolina Writers’ Network’s Hat’s Off page. The North Carolina Writers’ Network is a wonderful support organization for North Carolina writers. If you live and write in North Carolina, please consider joining and supporting this fine organization. There are even some writers from other states who are members of NCWN. The conferences, residencies, workshops, communications and other services are invaluable ways for writers to meet and support one another.

If you would like to purchase a print copy of Teach. Write., then visit the journal’s page on 

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“She’s the one that has told me NO!”

WARNING: I consider this a philosophical post, but many may view it as political.



I wonder how much crap Florence had to put up with …

I don’t know why, but the recent video of a Utah nurse being roughed up for not allowing a police officer to draw blood on an unconscious patient really captured my attention. I felt compelled to look at it in more depth and watched several long versions of the video as well as versions with closed captioning. As I did, I realized there is more going on here than a quick viewing can reveal.

A whole lot more.

Here’s a rundown of 7 things that I didn’t notice at first:

1. The police officer involved—Jeff Payne–is remarkably honest.

Right before he physically grabs the head nurse of the burn unit, he is asked:

“Why are you blaming the messenger, Sir?”

Payne replies without hesitation: “She’s the one that has told me NO.”

If it weren’t for the closed captioning, the importance of those words might have slipped by me.  It was seeing them spelled out that gave me a sick feeling in my stomach. Everything that happened on this video came down to one thing:  a woman telling a man NO.  A woman was telling Payne he couldn’t “do anything” he wanted.  He had to follow the rules.

2. Being told NO makes power-addicted people angry.

In the video, the nurse, Alex Wubbels repeatedly asks, “Why is he so angry?”  It’s kind of heart-breaking to hear her say this because it’s so obvious that she is sincere.  She cannot understand why a person would be angry with her for following the law.

The answer is easy, however.  Just SEE ABOVE: “She’s the one that has told me NO.”

How many women have sparked some primal anger because they told a powerful man NO?  How many minorities have risked abuse for the same?

3. There’s a fine line between Mansplaining and Gaslighting

It was bad enough watching Payne manhandle and handcuff Wubbels, but in a way it was even more disturbing to listen as another police officer performed a textbook demonstration of mansplaining that morphed into pure gaslighting.  I don’t know the name of this guy, but I sincerely hope he is the other officer in trouble.  He makes Kaa in the Jungle Book look like a straight shooter. gaslight_1944_trailer28429

He kneels down beside Wubbels as she sits handcuffed in a police car and uses an obnoxiously oily calm and measured voice to say that while he understands what she thinks she’s doing, in actuality she is obstructing “the law.” When that doesn’t work, he says that if what the police are requesting doesn’t turn out to be legal, it will still be okie dokie so she doesn’t need to worry her pretty little head.  (paraphrasing here)

Riiiggghhhtttt.  I’m guessing this guy didn’t know about the recording in progress.

Meanwhile, I am so impressed that Wubbels never wavered.

(Question:  Will someone please give me brownie points for not using the phrase Good Cop, Bad Cop?)

4. Body cams have their place.

Wubbels is a former Olympic athlete and she is T.O.U.G.H.  I never thought for one second that she would give in, but I suspect that if there were no witnesses or camera in the room, she might think about it.

For her own safety, I hope she would.

The scariest thing about the video is imagining what would have happened if there weren’t a recording or people to witness?

This blatant abuse happened in an open area with lots of people watching and a camera rolling.  Payne knew the camera was on because the officer wearing it oh-so-helpfully told him so early on: “Just so you know, I’m recording.”

If someone feels empowered to act this horrifically in those circumstances, what are they capable of in a dark alley with nobody around?

5. The good ole boy network is alive and well.

The short video barely touches on the reaction of the other security officers and police in the room.  The longer version tells a more complete story.  While a few of them have the decency to at least distance themselves, there are also conspiratorial whispers, smiles, knowing glances and other signals of a good ole boy network in action.  A few of the men make weak attempts to stop Payne, but none come close to stepping up to the plate.  It would seem that it’s easier to watch the head nurse of the burn unit at a major hospital get roughed up than it is to speak out with a strong voice.  I mean, God forbid that one of them got put in handcuffs or shoved in a police car like a nurse. Sure, that might make a statement, but how embarrassing!  

I keep wondering what would have to happen before these people finally worked up enough courage to step in?

6. Somebody needs to invent a training course on how NOT to say the words, “Calm Down.”

Maybe it’s just me, but it could be a good thing Wubbels had on hand cuffs when the man from hospital administration said, “Calm down, Alex.”

His advice itself was probably good since people have been shot dead for less, but he didn’t seem to grasp the unfairness of advising restraint. He seemed more irritated with her, in fact, than Payne. In my opinion, he was really quite TOO CALM (Yes, that’s a thing.  The British were wrong.).

I’d like to ask him what he would have done if he had been the person who had to hold the line.

7. There’s a big picture here.

Remember Wubbels’ bewildered question?

Why is he so angry?

I understand how she felt.  The past few months, I – along with most of the people I consider my peers –have felt equally stunned and perplexed. Watching the freaking KKK and neo-nazis climb out of the woodwork in an eruption of fury has been baffling.  We are saying some of the same things I heard Wubbels say:




Here’s my best guess:

For most of our recent history, overt bigots have been told NO when they tried to use privilege and power as a permission slip to trample the rights of others. That made them angry, but they had to hide the feeling. Now, they believe they have permission to revert to a past when they could “do anything.”  This is temporary and deep down they know it.  When someone pulls the curtain away to show the truth, they get really, really mad.

But no matter how angry they get, the world IS changing.  The arc of history will indeed bend toward justice.  It will require continued turmoil and diligence, but if we can physically survive, equality and inclusiveness will prevail.  The Klan rallies and violent misogyny we’re seeing now are the last gasp of a pathetic, fatally wounded behemoth lashing out at everything around it rather than accept that the old days when they had a monopoly on power are gone.

What happened in that hospital unit is not a Utah issue.  It’s not a hospital issue either.  It’s not even a police issue.

It’s a power issue.

As common sense dictates and multiple academic studies have shown, too much power degrades people’s behavior.  This is human nature.

Power is much like sun exposure.  Everyone needs enough.  Too much is harmful.  And some people are more susceptible than others to its bad effects.

Guidelines, rules and laws – these things are sunscreen.

Good leaders don’t hesitate to use them to protect others and themselves.

The ones who don’t will eventually get burned.

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A first for me–Poetry!

Here’s a run-down of my publishing creds:

  • Non-fiction: 99 percent
  • Fiction: 1 percent
  • Poetry: 0 percent

Until yesterday, that is.

Teach. Write. Fall 2017

Yesterday, I had my first poem published in the inaugural issue of Teach. Write.  This is a literary journal for teachers of writing, and, as you’ve probably already surmised since I am included, it is amazing.

It gets even better because I actually had two poems published.  The first is The Rule of Apostrophes, which resulted from my rather awkward attempts to explain what I thought was an easy grammar rule.  Somehow I was struck by the two contrasting functions of the Apostrophe and I wondered what this might mean in the cosmic scheme of things.  It’s an exploration!

My other poem is part of the journal’s ongoing Write Your Own series in which teachers write a piece based on a writing prompt they use with their students.  I wrote Sensing Blue, a poem cycle based on the prompt:

Describe a color without using the sense of sight.

I love that prompt, but I can’t claim it as my own.  I completely stole it from my writing friend, Melody Lindsey, who died unexpectedly a few years ago.

I have to say that as special as it is to have my first poetry published in the journal, it is even more special to have the privilege of writing a tribute to Melody as an introduction to the poem.

Teach. Write. is worth your time, especially if you are a teacher of writing.  You can read it online for free or buy your own print copy.



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Summer Reading

This summer, my husband took our daughter on a three-week adventure to Europe.  Before they left, I gave my daughter a bon voyage card that said:

Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer. 

Okay.  I didn’t come up with that, but I did add my own line:

Well, that and books. 

I believe this is true.  Travel allows a person to experience another culture up close and personal, but a book allows a person to experience another culture from the intimate perspective of the author. Both enable people to gain a fresh take on their own culture and their own life.


I read four books while my family was gone.  In a row.  Without taking a break between them. While my peeps were trying new cuisines, I was eating supper and reading at the same time.  If you’re a bookworm, you know this is Michelin Star territory.

And so, not to keep the joy to myself, I thought I would share my reviews while the books are fresh in my mind.

First up:  Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:  4 out of 5 stars

I had seen a clip of Adichie speaking and moved her straight to the top of the list of authors I want to read.  (Check out her TED talk!) She is from Nigeria, so part of the attraction could be her amazing accent, but I also liked her nuanced description of her childhood and I wanted to get her perspective on the journey from Nigeria to the West and back again.



It was a good choice. I was spell bound by the characters most of the time and I felt they were sitting right beside me talking as I read. I was transported to their experiences in that magical way a good book can do. I identified with many of their experiences and felt what they were feeling acutely. I didn’t want the book to end. All these things are marks of a great book, a keeper if I’d bought it in paper form . … or maybe even a book that would make me go out and buy my own hard copy.

Still …. there were things that kept the book from quite reaching that level for me personally. Continue reading

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