13 Books for Space Junkies

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgThe planet Mars has been in the news lately: Water discovered on Mars! Matt Damon stranded on Mars!  Some stories are true and some are fiction, but with discoveries and blockbusters comes hope for a new dawn for space-related books-to-film. That’s excellent for dreamers who look at a starry, starry night and imagine all the possibilities of travel, inhabitance, and fiction.

Space literature is not a new frontier, nor is the premise of man left behind to survive. On Earth, you get stranded on islands (Juana Maria) or on a small boat (Captain Bligh) or in an ice flow (Shackleton) or high in the inhospitable Andes  mountains (soccer team).

In literature, Jules Verne sent a group of escaped Civil War prisoners–by hot air balloon–to a mysterious island inhabited by mutant animals. The boys of Lord of the Flies were not mutants physically, but morally? I think I’d choose alone on Mars rather than a tropical island with that bunch. Edgar Rice Burroughs explored the bond between man and animals with Tarzan, who might have been a feral child reared by apes, but his humanity remained intact. Evelyn Waugh sent hapless Tony Last to the Brazilian jungle and, well, let’s just say it is indeed possible to love Dickens too much. Gary Paulsen crashed a small aircraft to leave a boy alone in the Canadian forest with only a hatchet.

Preceding all of these was Robinson Crusoe, whose adventures here and there were so beautifully presented by Daniel Defoe, people thought the stories were true travelogues.

Calling on your wits, subsisting on what’s at hand, holding onto your humanity—these themes span time and location, and never get old.

But back to space because, hey, even Robinson Crusoe when to Mars.

I’d love to see another golden age of space-related writing. Below are 13 books that became 13 movies or TV series set in outer space. I am halfway through The Martian—because my personal rule is, I can’t see the movie until I’ve finished the book—but I have read the twelve classics that follow and recommend every one:

  1. The Martian by Andy Weir
  2. Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
  3. The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton
  4. The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
  5. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
  6. 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
  7. Cosmos by Carl Sagan
  8. October Sky by Homer Hickam
  9. Capricorn One by Ron Goulart
  10. Marooned by Brad Strickland
  11. War of the Worlds by HG Wells
  12. Marooned by Martin Caidin
  13. Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger

Have you read these? Seen the films? Do you have a rule about reading a book before seeing a film based on it?

mars rover(The Mars Rover, photo courtesy of NASA)

The United States of Arts

NEA 50 years

Happy Birthday, NEA!

50 years ago this week, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, which created the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. These two independent federal agencies fund, promote, educate, and encourage communities to provide creative opportunities for projects and people devoted to our nation’s arts and humanities.

To celebrate its 50th birthday, the NEA invited artists throughout the country to share how their lives have been enriched by art. The interactive map United States of Arts shares those stories. I’m pleased to represent Delaware with Senator Chris Coons. Click on Delaware’s little icon (you can find it a little to the right of DC’s star) to see his video and read my story, or go directly to my page.

The NEA is the largest annual national funder of the arts in the country, and its support is granted to individual artists as well as through partnerships with states, arts agencies, and public and private organizations. The NEA’s grants promote dance, translation, visual arts, literature, music, opera, theatre, and media arts. Special initiatives include Poetry Out Loud and Blue Star Museums.

After I submitted my arts story for consideration, the NEA created the cool poster below using my opening quote. It was shared on social media, and I am sharing it here. I am honored and thrilled to appear on the United States of Arts map and to have a public opportunity to thank the NEA and the agencies it support for their encouragement and help. It is most appreciated.


The Deletion Graveyard

RamonaGravitarI had to get rid of a character this week. His name was Mark Rowonowski, and he was a detective with the Delaware State Police.

Rowonowski was bald–shaved head kind of bald–and he had a scar on the bridge of his nose that ran down toward his left eye. The scar had not come from police work, and he never discussed how he got it. People asked, but he made it clear he wasn’t going to talk about it.

Rowonowski was barrel-chested and tall, and he wore neat but nondescript suits. He had a habit of squinting slightly when he spoke to someone, as if he was carefully considering every word the person said, or maybe questioning it. He wasn’t. The squinting was a habit he didn’t know how to break.

Rowonowski was good at his job, but he was impatient. He didn’t think he was impatient, but his mother, his sisters, his partner, even his dog, seemed to, and Rowonowski was self-aware enough to know if that many people agreed on something, it was probably true.

And he hated his cell phone. HATED IT. He’d been around long enough to have used a clip radio. He missed being able to turn off the radio and stick it in a drawer. But his cell…he had to have the damn thing nearby 24/7. About once a week, he fantasized about boarding the Cape May Ferry and, halfway into the 17-mile trip, throwing his cell phone into the Delaware Bay. Some weeks, his fantasy including setting the phone on fire first.

In his personal life, he had a partner, Eric. Eric was a businessman of some kind. They’d met in college, and then Eric married a woman, and after that didn’t work out, he and Rowonowski reacquainted through mutual friends. And so on. They’d been together 8 years. They talked about getting married, but Rowonowski had hesitations. Not about Eric, but about the old school guys at work. And the fuss of a wedding. Rowonowski didn’t like fusses, and luckily neither did Eric, and so they figured they’d get a license and have a small ceremony in the back yard with friends. No set date, but soon.

Eric didn’t appear in the story because Rowonowski’s personal life wasn’t part of his role in the plot. Rowonowski’s role was to interview the protagonist–a teacher– about an incident at school. His weird squinting thing was off-putting, and the scar on his nose distracted her, but his questions made her worry about one of her students. After the interview, she confronted the student, which made him do something stupid, which drove the plot to the next scene. Rowonowski’s mission in the story was accomplished.

Later, because the setting is a small Delaware town, the protagonist ran into Rowonowski, and he’d heard about something good that happened to her, and he congratulated her. He was like that. An efficient guy with a few quirks and a nice side. Like a real person.

Rowonowski had two relatively short scenes in my story, but I gave him plenty of background, in part because that’s what writers do. They know much more about a character than ever appears on the page. The second reason I gave him so much backstory is that I liked him. Writers do that too. We fall for some characters more than others. I liked writing Rowonowski. I wondered about his scar. I didn’t know where it came from, either.

So with all of this background, imagine my dismay when my beta reader returned my pages with the comments, “Do you really need Rowonowski? Can’t XXX do the interview? And that second meeting, can’t that be cut completely?”

The answer was no, and then yes and another yes. I didn’t really need Rowonowski, because XXX could indeed do the interview. And in fact, it would be better if XXX did the interview because he was a bigger part of the story, and XXX and the protagonist would benefit from more time together on the page. That would make the second meeting with Rowonowski superfluous.

My beta reader was right, and so there came the painful decision: get rid of Rowonowski.

I didn’t reassign him or kill him or disgrace him. I did worse. I deleted him.

Deleting a character is rough. First, there’s all the work you put into the scene where he appears. You think that squinting thing invented itself? I had to come up with that, and use it, and make sure it made sense in the scene, and that it served the function of distracting my protagonist. And the personal background, that was gravy, but still, I put time into it because I needed to understand Rowonowski in order to make him consistent and logical as a character.

Now I don’t need any of that. No scar. No cell phone fantasy. No small back yard wedding. It’s sad. Now that I’m deleting him, I’m kind of sorry I ever invented him.

Bye bye, Rowonowski. You no longer exist. There’s a chance I’ll use you in a future story, but I suspect not. I geared you so much to this one, I’m not sure I can picture you in someone else’s plot, so I guess this is your eulogy.  If it’s any comfort, this hurts me more than it hurts you.

Have you ever cut out a character you invented, and liked, or maybe hated, for the good of the story? What does your deletion graveyard look like?

August Heatwave Reading List

RamonaGravitarEvery summer, when the doldrums of heat hit and I feel as wilted as the impatiens in my front porch planter, I think of a short story I studied in high school: August Heat by William Fryer Harvey. I re-read it every summer, as a reminder of why I fell in love with short stories.

Reading this story, you can feel the oppressive, brutal, maddening heat. You can understand the confusion of the two men—each an artist in his field—who discover one another by happenstance. Or, is it happenstance? Or, fate? Or, the heat?

Another story I remember from high school is “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell, though my memory about this one was jogged by recent events rather than the weather. If anyone believes that the short story is no longer a relevant form, this tale of hunting big game might change your mind.

Thinking about both of these stories made me remember others, and want to read others. Last week, on my Facebook wall, I asked friends to recall memorable short stories they studied in high school. I put together a list (below).

What struck me about the list was the timeliness—or perhaps, timelessness—of these classic stories.

After all, Bernice bobbed her hair because she was bullied into it. The sound of thunder warned people about being poor stewards of the earth. A woman locked in a room with yellow wallpaper went mad from post-partum depression. A man goes adrift figuratively and denounces his country, and was set adrift literally….

Maybe there really are no new stories.

Check out the reading list below. Did I miss a memorable story from your high school reading list?

“Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken

“The Fun They Had” by Isaac Asimov

The Stone Boy” by Gina Berriault

By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce

“All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury

“I Sing the Body Electric” by Ray Bradbury

“The Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury

“There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury

“The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury

The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin

“The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant

“A Rose for Emily” by Willliam Faulkner

“Bernice Bobs Her Hair” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Procurator of Judea” by Anatole France

The Dinner Party” by Mona Gardner

“The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

“The Man Without a Country” by Edward Everett Hale

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway

“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry

The Ransom of Red Chief” by O. Henry

The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

“Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes

“Rikki Tikki Tavi” by Rudyard Kipling

“The Haircut” by Ring Lardner

“A Piece of Steak” by Jack London

“To Build a Fire” by Jack London

“The Doll’s House” by Katherine Mansfield

“A Garden Party” by Katherine Mansfield

“Survival Ship” by Judith Merril

A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor

The Phone Call” by Dorothy Parker

“The Waltz” by Dorothy Parker

The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe

“Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe

“The Tell-tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe

The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter

“Leiningen Versus the Ants” by Carl Stephenson

The Lady, or the Tiger?” by Frank R. Stockton

The Catbird Seat” by James Thurber

The Dog that Bit People” by James Thurber

The Night the Bed Fell” by James Thurber

“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” by Mark Twain

Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut

“The Hat” by Jessamyn West

Thank you to my Facebook friends for sharing their stories, and to the high school teachers and librarians who introduced us to these classics.

Guest post at The Insecure Writer’s Support Group

RamonaGravitarToday I have the pleasure of guest blogging for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. This IWSG’s purpose is to encourage writers to discuss their fears and triumphs, challenges and accomplishments. It’s run by working writers and the group welcomes new and experienced writers:

“Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!”

My post is called The Sprint Method of Writing. It offers advice on how to establish a daily writing routine as well as how to use a journal to help with daily writing tasks.

Inquisitive Adventures

RamonaGravitarI took a walk on the wide side this past weekend and wrote a haiku. I also made a handmade book.

A course on haiku and micro-books was taught by my friend and writing colleague, JM Reinbold. Joanne and I go way back, all the way back to this: Continue reading “Inquisitive Adventures”

A Down the Street Writing Retreat

RamonaGravitarLast week, my neighbor, aka Walking Friend, went off to a tropical vacation. I stayed home and fed her tropical fish.

My friend is organized. She left out pre-measured cups of fish food, a bag for mail and newspapers, and an invitation to me to eat the strawberries and pineapple in the fridge; to drink any and as much of their liquor as I’d like; and to “stay a little while and write, if you want to!” Continue reading “A Down the Street Writing Retreat”