Talented Fiction Despite a Dependency on Didacticism


The Rowan Tree, by Robert W. Fuller

First novels can be exciting events. In the innocence of that initial effort, sometimes great things happen between the book covers. In the case of The Rowan Tree, Fuller creates charming, flawed, well-meant characters, characters that stick to your consciousness like postal tape.
He begins with an idealistic, young white college president named Rowan Ellway and a younger black student, Easter Blue. There’s romance afoot between the two, something that must remain hidden. Ellway is one of those intellectual types that must move from discipline to discipline, and he leaves the college presidency, eventually becoming an expert on nuclear arms and disarmament. Meanwhile Easter’s pursuits lead her to Africa.
Years later, the pair reunite, and there are children, Marisol and Adam, added to the quickly growing cast of characters. Are they the children of Rowan and Easter, or is the parentage more complex?
At this point, Fuller allows his central characters, Rowan and Easter, to fade into the background as Adam, Marisol, and their paramours take center stage. There are long passages of travel, vaguely rationalized, but quite often beautifully written. There are embryonic careers and marriages that proceed almost without conflict until near book’s end, when the characters’ subterranean complexities are bared. But that’s all right; everyone is very, very mature and these complexities are handled in the most mature manner possible.


At book’s end Fuller adds a long passage, journaled by Adam, who is now president of the U.S., in which he’s promoting a pet idea of Fuller, the dignity project and an urge to overcome something he calls rankism. But don’t worry; Fuller explains these ideas in extreme detail.
What Fuller doesn’t yet understand is that there’s an ethos to writing novels, too, and to use that literary form purely to promote intellectual and political pursuits is a bastardization of the form. However, he shows talent and native ability in fiction writing, and one would hope he learns more about the novel’s state before chancing another 500 page tome.

My rating: 12 of 20 stars

Visit my website here. Within it you’ll find more on books and events that matter to me — and possibly to you. And there’s a gridleyfires Facebook page, too, if you can find it.


The Friendship of Books


Last night I began reading the latest copy of American Scholar magazine, and came across a brief essay by one Jethro K. Lieberman, a recently retired professor of law at New York Law School. Since he’s not working, his friends are encouraging him to get rid of his books, but he’s resisting.

“What do you need them for?” they keep asking him.

“Partly for comfort, I suppose,” he writes. “I have been around books nearly three-quarters of a century…They have defined much of my life.”

No kidding. My books mark my passage through an educational process and a life experience that only began with graduation from college. Now, I’m not as resistant to getting rid of books as Professor Lieberman. I got rid of around 500 of my late wife’s since she died (No, that barely scratched the surface of her collection), and culled maybe 150 of mine. I will re-read and re-read again some of these, but I don’t keep them around on the off chance that I’ll begin at Shelf One and re-read through Shelf Fifteen.

As the professor says, they provide comfort. They surround me even as I write this (see photo above), each one whispering of insights gained, lessons learned, faraway places experienced. But why comfort, really? They bring the world to my fingertips. They’re friends. For aren’t we all questions in human form, questions answered by supplementing personal experience with the ideas and experiences of friends far and near? And what better way to go through such a life than surrounded by your closest friends?


Visit my website here. Within it you’ll find more on books and events that matter to me — and possibly to you. And there’s a gridleyfires Facebook page, too, if you can find it.


Ever read a novel or a book of short stories or novellas and wonder if the writer is really writing about herself? That no matter the subject matter or story direction, the author is simply projecting himself as a character into the book?

This is one of the peripheral tenets of post-modernism, particularly, the process of something called deconstruction. Here, the idea is that every piece of writing can only be about the author, no matter how cloaked in exciting facts and story elements.

So here’s a fun thing to try – if you have all the time in the world, and nothing else to worry about:

Put on your deconstruction hat and thumb through your favorite authors’ works (and let’s limit them to American writers). Resurrect a sense of the primary characters and consider them alongside what you know of the author. In case you have a hard time coming up with appropriate writers and their works, let me suggest a few:

  • John Steinbeck
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • Joyce Carol Oates
  • Ian Frazier
  • Paula McClain
  • John Grisham

Some books and some writers may constitute a stretch here, but I’d be interested in what you come up with. It’d make a great conversation on the blog, don’t you think?


Visit my website here. Within it you’ll find more on books and events that matter to me — and possibly to you. And there’s a gridleyfires Facebook page, too, if you can find it.

Braving the New World


The Secret River, by Kate Grenville
The Secret River is the best book I’ve read in quite a while.

Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about the book. This isn’t a new publication; it was published in 2005. Still, it’s a real find and should be talked about – a lot. Grenville, an Australian writer has hardly written anything that isn’t praiseworthy, and this book, despite a minor wart or two, is one such. Uniquely, the book is a fictionalized version of the author’s family history, although she doesn’t make her family lineage clear.

The novel is largely the story of William Thornhill, a bargeman working the River Thames in London. Like most men of that trade, the work is seasonal and physically demanding, and it pays so little that most bargemen steal from their customers to make ends meet. William does, and is sentenced to be hung. Instead, he, his wife Sal, and their child are exiled to the rustic environs of Australia. Sal continues to have children, and they begin to make a living in Sydney, but William yearns to own land, so he and the family sail up a nearby river and stake out a claim to a hundred acres, on which they grow corn.
But there’s a complication: they have settled on land favored by the indigenous black people. Soon this leads to conflicts and outright war.


Grenville’s prose is persistently elegant here, and her interspersing of dialogue amid narrative depictions of the land and people of Australia is vivid and sensory. If I have a criticism or two—and here I’m struggling—she could have done a little more in depicting William’s and Sal’s interior life. Too, the denouement is a bit overdone and repetitive. But these are very minor quibbles in a finely wrought novel.

My rating 18 of 20 stars


Visit my website here. Within it you’ll find more on books and events that matter to me — and possibly to you. And there’s a gridleyfires Facebook page, too, if you can find it.

Will We Turn The Corner?


Sometimes, for entertainment, I surf familiar territory within the Internet. News. Music. Blogs. Social media. And throughout this rather insane election year, I end up disheartened from my cyber voyages. Social media, especially, seems to bring out the worst in too many people. Everyone purports to have truth at their fingertips, and the more brazen the contention, the more vitriolic the conversation, the surer each of us is that we have a patent on truth.

Perhaps that’s my issue as well, but I do want to try here to make sense of this state of affairs. I’ve noticed that for some thirty years,  we of the developed world have become selfish. Could this be, as I wish to think, the final phase of a benign step in human evolution? One thing the developed world has offered us is the opportunity to develop our individuality as human beings. We have monetary resources and leisure time to read, to contemplate, to try new avenues of expression.

But while this is a good thing as a whole, it has a dark side. This preoccupation with self has, as above, made us selfish. Our egos get in the way of good, decent human interaction. I constantly watch drivers on the Interstate act with no consideration for other drivers. Shoppers at the grocery leave their buggy in the middle of the aisle, preventing others from passing. Just a couple of the most common examples each of us face regularly.

But human nature has a solution for this, and we seem now to be in the first stages of that wave. We’ve once again felt the urge to cooperate. To consider the needs of others. I’ve considered this to be a new tribalism and, of course, it has its pitfalls as well. Throughout history we human types have banded together for safety and for many other benefits complete individuality can’t offer. Previously, though, we’ve joined groups of similar thinkers. Those with cultural practices we find familiar. But the very act of colluding in this way has always set us apart from other, similar groups, and this has brought social animosity.

We’re at that juncture point now, I think. We’ve long since populated the world beyond our habit of wasting resources, and the only way out of our dilemma is to learn a new way of cooperating, a way the human collective tacitly begs for.

Just for a moment, consider some of the ways we now aggregate, particularly in these United States. Democrats. Republicans. Libertarians. Socialists. Military. And the social groupings: Academics. Athletes. Musicians. Even the Klan and Black Lives Matter. We’re all reaching for commonality in others, but in doing so the urge is only half done. Media of all sorts, ease of travel, near-overpopulation, and other phenomena have put us in close proximity to other, perhaps competing groups. In previous stages of history, such exposure has led us to war and other, lesser conflicts, each in its own way damaging. Now, if humanity is to turn the evolutionary corner, we must find ways to cooperate in new ways, to see beyond the “strangeness” of others. This new form of cooperation isn’t new; nation-states, cities, teams, political groups, have always found it necessary from time to time to cooperate on a temporary basis.

Now, it’s an absolute necessity to see beyond our our individualities, our select groupings, to draw on our most basic connection: that we are all human beings, that we have much more in common than the things that set us apart. If we can do this, humanity – and the planet – will survive.


Visit my website here. Within it you’ll find more on books and events that matter to me — and possibly to you. And there’s a gridleyfires Facebook page, too, if you can find it.

Edit Mode, Anyone?

Yesterday, I finished a first draft of a novel I’ve been working on for something like a year and about the ‘Sixties. Okay, I’ll quote David Crosby on that subject again.

“If you remember the ‘Sixties, you weren’t there.”

That quote sometimes confuses me; I often feel I remember too much of that era.

So I had done something in preparing to write that novel I rarely do: I’d outlined it in great detail. Usually I scratch out a few ideas and characters on a pad of paper, just to keep from going too far afield as I write. But a more formal outline for this one seemed necessary because I planned a number of characters and over a span of time, 1968-1970. It’s important in semi-historical writing to at least keep the chronological sequences right. Not that I stick religiously to an outline. As I write and the story comes alive, things change.


At any rate, that’s done, and I’m in edit mode now. Editing is different. The right brain exercise of writing creatively is where most recognize the “high (yes, a ‘Sixties reference)” lies. That’s why so many first novels end up being 150,000 to 250,000 words long in first draft. We just can’t stand to stop the high, so when he finish that great initial writing, which is sure to knock the socks off any agent’s or editor’s feet, we’re told we have a mess. Instead of a finely shaped and sanded piece of lumber, we have a piece of pine with burrs and scars, and all sorts of odd branches and stubble protruding from it – something only a squirrel could love.

But I’m here to testify that there’s a high to editing, too. It’s a different sort of high, and it draws heavily from proper syntax and grammar, as well as all those notes and underlinings you received from workshops, critique groups, and creative writing classes. Here, the reader is God. Unless you’re like Miles Davis, turning your back to the audience and playing to your band of musicians, you write to entertain and inform an audience, and you need to begin to think like them: what will surprise them, what will make them think, and on and on. What you don’t want to do is make them work too hard to figure out what your characters are about, what each sentence of creative syntax  is trying to say.

Most people who are good editors claim that the real fun is there, more so than in the initial writing. But you can get “high” from both phases of writing. Especially if you’re writing a novel about the ‘Sixties.


Visit my website here. Within it you’ll find more on books and events that matter to me — and possibly to you. And there’s a gridleyfires Facebook page, too, if you can find it.

What’s In A Character?

I just finished reading a blog post by a writer friend, who proclaimed love for (at least) one of her characters. And that set me to thinking, as most things will do. What about those antiheroes? The characters you love to hate? The deeply flawed protagonist? Is a writer to love these, too?

Long ago, when I first began to write seriously, I realized that our characters are manifestations of aspects of self. Each of us and particularly writers, I think, are complex personalities. We’re each an amalgamation of many potential personalities, and for writers they keep begging for release. And release we must, be we musicians, artists, sculptors, or writers. Picture it like this:


Ever take a piece of rope apart? Rope is generally a combination of three lesser “ropes” twisted together. If you unravel these, then you notice that each of these three lesser strands is made up of perhaps hundreds of fibers. Returning the analogy, combining these many fibers, and the three lesser strands, makes up the complexity of “you.” And what we writers do is unravel and perhaps re-twist these strands and fibers into different characters, each a piece of each one of us.

Now back to those first-paragraph questions. It’s easy to love some of the characters we construct – the strong, wise, beautiful, who act, on the whole, unerringly. But do we love the deeply flawed ones too?

Yes, I think so.

And I think we love these most of all. It’s these characters that we trust with the most serious life baggage, with the most difficult of life’s lessons to learn. Perhaps these are the strongest, the ones most likely to pass life’s tests.

Don’t EVER pass up the chance to test your characters. You’re simply showing your love for them, as my friend put it in her post, and entrusting them with the most difficult aspects of story.


Visit my website here. Within it you’ll find more on books and events that matter to me — and possibly to you. And there’s a gridleyfires Facebook page, too, if you can find it.