alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions

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Cane River, by Lalita Tademy

CC_coverCane River tells the story of 100 years of Lalita Tademy’s (mostly) female ancestors in Louisiana, from roughly 1830-1930 . It’s a novel, but all of the people really lived when and where she says they did.

Before choosing it, I read a lot of reviews that said this was a page-turner, and up-all-night-until-you-finish kind of book, and they were right. All of these women, from slave-born Elisabeth to independent Emily, confront their situations differently according to both their in-born personalities and the changing social environments in which they operate. Some have affectionate relationships with their white French lovers, and some are in it for what they can get (actually, for what they can keep), and some have no choice about whose children they bear. In a situation where they cannot call their bodies or lives their own, they struggle to keep family together, to hold on to this one tangible thing.

As I read, I did find myself wondering which bits of the stories were real events in the lives of the people who lived, and which were emotions and attitudes made-up by the author, which just made it more intriguing. Even in the case of the double murder (!!) for which newspaper articles and coroner reports are reproduced, you still don’t know what really happened.

I found myself utterly fascinated by the photos. Except for the very earliest, there are good photos of every one of the main characters. There is the basic pleasure of scrutinizing their faces for the personalities they show in the novel. Then I kept looking at this family, in their suits and dresses and carefully pinned hair, and wondering how the society of rural Louisiana could justify denying them basic rights –like marrying their white lovers, inheriting the property of their white fathers, and riding in the front of the bus –because they were black, when they were so obviously white. The impossibility of looking at these pale faces and chestnut hair and seeing an obvious ‘other’, reveals the history of racist rationalization as so completely batshit crazy.

Recommended reading:

Kindred — Octavia E. Butler

Passing — Nella Larsen

The Cazalet Chronicles – Elizabeth Jane Howard

Wench –Dolen Perkins-Valdez (coming Jan 2010)

(Color Me Brown is an August challenge by Color Online)


Wife of the Gods, by Kwei Quartey (Color Me Brown challenge)

map-ghanaWife of the Gods is set in Ghana. For those of you who don’t know, Ghana is a coastal country in West Africa. The President visited there recently.

Detective Darko Dawson lives in the capital city, Accra, but is assigned to the murder of a young health worker in the small town of Ketanu because someone there doesn’t trust the local police force. Dawson speaks the local language, and his Aunt Osewa lives in a nearby village. Twenty-five years ago, Darko’s own mother journeyed to the same village to visit her sister, and  never returned.

Various suspects–the faith healer, the AIDS activist, the local priest–represent a conflict between traditional and modern ideas. Darko himself is disgusted with the priest who keeps young girls in concubinage as ‘wives of the gods’ but cannot help but feel that he himself may be have been cursed.

The mystery is competent, but Quartey shines at showing-off modern-day Ghana, vivid and alive. It is classic country-as-character and it is well done. Quartey, who was born and schooled in Accra, and has since lived in the US for many years has both an insider’s and an outsider’s perspective, which is wonderful for making a reader feel like the aforesaid insider.

He contrasts the speeding  capital with the more traditional village life, but remarks on how Ketanu has sprawled and the forest has shrunk in the years since his last visit. He shows the tension between supernatural/religious belief and medical/technical knowledge without denying the value of the superstition. He describes the people, the public and private lives, and the culture of the country, for which he clearly has great affection and understanding.

For more contrasts, check out Quartey’s blog that reports on his research trip to Ghana. He has lots of great pix, like the pair below.


Recommended readings:

Aya of Yop City – Marguerite Abouet

The Silence of the Rain – Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

The next Inspector Dawson mystery – Kwei Quartey

(Color Me Brown is an August challenge by Color Online)


What I’ve Been Up To

I’ve been busy making myself really tired.

First was the IUWC, which involved early morning classes, afternoon workshops, evening readings, lots and lots and lots of manuscript reading, and regular mortgage-paying, catfood-buying work somewhere in between. My story was discussed on the only day when there were 3 people on the schedule (other days were just 2) which made me a bit cranky, but my workshop leader Manuel Munoz was kind enough to discuss my piece one-on-one afterwards, and that’s where I got the good idea for revision. It’s a big idea and it’s going to involve ripping out huge, essential chunks of the narrative but I’m so sure it’s right that I’m almost excited to do it.

The best part about the conference is geeking out with other writers, and this year was no different. I got to know some local writers better, and met some cool new ones. I’m always canvassing for new members for my regular writing group, so at times I feel like I’m doing a PBS fund drive without the free coffee mugs and Michael Flatley DVD. Julia Glass was completely hysterical at the final night’s readings — not what she read, but the stories she told beforehand. British writers are mean to American writers, apparently.

After that it was jet-setting away to NYC for green-tea margaritas (sounds appalling, actually delicious), riverside walks in the pouring rain, and chole bhatura on Oak Tree Road (drool). I even saw the crazy clouds in Manhattan on Friday night. They looked like low-hanging cotton balls, round and individual, textured and full of weight. Everybody was stopping in the street and taking pictures up between the buildings with their phones.

'Mammatus clouds over Manhattan' by bears rock on flickr

'Mammatus clouds over Manhattan' by bears rock/flickr

Now that I’ve had enough adventure in two weeks for the whole year, I’m going to go to sleep.

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More Twins

I’ve been away for a while. I have things to say, but not enough time to type them out coherently. Hopefully that will change, maybe by July.

In the meantime, visit this slideshow about a village in Kerala (India) that has an unusually high incidence of twinning.



There were twins in my elementary school for all of six weeks–I remember them getting on the school bus in matching dresses. I “dated” an antipodean guy who was a twin–or said he was–but his twin was back home; 12,000 miles is too far to go for fact-checking (are you still a twin when you’re that far away?). I know a pair of identical twin sisters who–due to post-birth factors–don’t look at all alike (I think there was even an Oprah show about this. Or Sally Jessie?).

I like books that run with the twin idea. West Africa has the highest rate of twinning in the world, and a culture that reflects that. Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl tells the story of a young girl from London who travels back to Nigeria with her family and meets her twin sister who died shortly after their birth.

Twins are a sort of naturally occurring doppleganger, a living representation of other possibilities, of paths not taken, and yet to take. Maybe I’m fascinated because I find other people so hard to get along with that I wish I had another me to be my friend.


Recommended Books about California

California is not a place well-known to me. I once went to San Francisco in August and took only summer clothes. From the daze of my hypothermia I remember burritos in  Berkeley, mopeds downtown, and worrying that the wind on the Golden Gate Bridge would blow my glasses right off my nose.

Right now I am reading April Smith’s North of Montana, set in LA. There is a real feel for place, which is 50% of the reason for reading any mystery. Today I came across a list of books chosen by author Lisa See that illuminate different aspects of the Californian geo-character. Except for the James Ellroy, I’d never heard of any of them before, and now want to read all of them. That’s a darn good book list.

Also check out See’s books, if you haven’t already. I really enjoyed her ‘Red Princess’ mysteries, featuring Lui Hulan, an agent for China’s Ministry of Public Security. I’ve been a bit disappointed with her swerve into book club territory with Snow Flower & the Secret Fan and Peony in Love, but admit to having an ARC of Shanghai Girls on my to-read pile right now.

I wanted to include a See’s slideshow of ‘Shanghai Girls’ here as a bonus, but making that work is giving me more grief than I feel I deserve on a Friday afternoon, so if you’re interested, you’re going to have to mosey over to Flickr all by yourself.

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A new leaf

I’ve been gone a long time. Tri-state visit to the East Coast: MD, PA, & NY. I learned that a backyard in Brooklyn on a Saturday night can seem like a quiet Pennsylvania town, but there’s still sugarcane for sale 6 blocks away.

It was turkey hatching season in PA and it seemed like everyday we scared out a turkey, fifty feed ahead jerking down the path like a robot jogger. One day there was a cracked turkey egg, all speckled brown and leaky embryo.

I had some bad writing news (rejection) and some good writing news (scholarship). The rejection hit me pretty hard. I took the dog out for a walk up the mountain, and among the gnats and ferns, thought it was probably really stupid of me to ever have thought I could write anything and I would probably write and write for my whole life and still just be an embarrassing, boring mess. Rejection still feels the same, but I recover quicker. 24 hours instead of 6 months.

Being away from home is a good time to plan your wholesome new life. I plan to go back to Fang-Fang. I plan to read more short stories. I plan to be a better person, have a cleaner house, be kinder to the leper cat (Squeaky, you know who you are), work less, write more, eat fewer chocolate chips straight out of the 10-pound Sam’s Club bag, and pull the weeds in my garden.

It’s a long drive from Indiana to Central PA. I am thankful for audiobooks and vegetable roll sushi from the Kroger in Athens, OH.

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Bad Blogger

What can I say? I took one little holiday excursion to Kentucky and got all relaxed. When I came back, real life was waiting for me in some of its more irritating costumes. It’s been hard to get back here.

I meant to do a Short Story post on Monday; I actually did read a book of short stories over the weekend, Danit Brown’s Ask For a Convertible. I was reading it because Brown is going to be teaching at the IUWC this summer. I was just sort of going to browse it, and do my duty, and take it back to the library. But I ended up reading the whole thing. Mostly because it was funny right away. I like funny. I kept reading because the grandmother was crazy, because Osnat was whiny and liked to make out with Sanjay in the C corridor, because she had to get advice on how to tuck her jeans into her slouchy socks just so. (I remember this; I used to wear two pairs of socks just so I could have the maximum coordination with my two-color eyeshadow and humongous dangling earrings.) I did get tired of Osnat’s whining and indecisiveness by the time she was grown up and I was 3/4 of the way through the book, but by then I wasn’t allowed to quit (tyranny of personal reading rules.)

They’ve put up some performances from last year’s IUWC on the main page. I’m including here a clip of Ross Gay reading. I had maybe the teensiet little writer-crush on him. He’s all young and charming and doing his good-looking best to completely rehabilitate the modern poet’s loathsome image. Watch him read ‘Bringing the Shovel Down’ (at about 9:50) and tell me your heart’s not in your throat.

Follow that with a chaser of Donald Antrim, reading from his (unpublished) novel, and you will snort milk out your nose laughing. Even if you’re not drinking milk. I swear.

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Lost Story Found

Thanks to a nudge from Robb, I tracked down last week’s missing short story.

It is (drum roll, please)…’A Little Place Off the Edgeware Road’ by Graham Greene. (1939)

A man named Craven is walking the streets of London. He wears a cheap mackintosh. He is seedy and alone. Soldiers and girls pass him on the wet pavement and he tells you that he hates the thingness of his body. He tells you that he dreams of caverns under the ground of a graveyard, where all the uncorrupted bodies lie, waiting and quiescent, in their little interconnected pods. (I’m pretty sure a capsule hotel would freak him right out.)

He goes into a cinema to get out of the rain. It is nearly empty, showing a program of silent films about the Roman empire. A piano plays in the darkness. A man shuffles past his knees and takes the seat next to him, brushing Craven’s face with his large beard. On-screen, a woman in a toga stabs herself. The newcomer objects that there is not enough blood.

The bearded man and Craven nearly get into an argument, ‘an absurd and meaningless wrangle in the dark.’ The newcomer continues to talk, and lays a hand, ‘sudden and confidingly’ on Craven’s. It is damp and sticky, and Craven hopes it is treacle.  The newcomer announces that he has forgotten his umbrella, and scrabbles out past Craven’s knees.

…I don’t know why this story made such an impression on me the first time. Maybe because I was reading it alone in my apartment before sleep, instead of over a bowl of soup at a brightly-lit dinner table with company just beyond the ketchup bottle.

Maybe because of contrast. I read it towards the end of an anthology of ‘Ghost Stories’; given the typical fare of such collections, Greene’s spare modern prose must have stood out:  Banal, urban setting. Repressed. Short, tight, story. No Lovecraftian furbelows.

Reading experiences are made up of at least 50% of the ‘experience’ portion – the experience of the reader, rather than the words on the page. A story isn’t fixed until it is read and intersected. This explains not only why some books are loved by some and loathed by others, but also why I have read books and failed to feel them, or hated authors until I came back to them with a new idea of what I wanted. Just as a bad day can be vastly improved by a good book, I’m pretty sure that a good book can be wasted on a bad day.

(“Edgeware Road” appears in Twenty-One Stories, by Graham Greene, 1954.)


My Book Cover

City of Shadows, 1992-1994

City of Shadows, 1992-1994, by Alexey Titarenko

A popular game with, well, pretty much everyone I’ve ever known, is “When I Have A Band It’s Gonna Be Called____.” Fill-in anything from “Dog Turd Minefield” to “Kung Pao Chicken.”

This is my pathetic writer’s version. When I have a book, this is going to be the cover. I love this so much it makes me want to write a book just so it can deserve the cover. My other book cover (the good thing about books is that you can have more than one, it just makes you cooler) is going to be something custom by Irina who did the header for this blog. What is it about Russian art? Why is it so good?