A Review of “The Arsonist” by Sue Miller

Sue Miller is the best-selling author of such novels as The Lake Shore Limited, The Senator’s Wife, Last in the Forest, The World Below, While I Was Gone, and The Good Mother. Her short-story Inventing the Abbotts became a major motion picture starring Jennifer Connelly, Liv Tyler, Joaquin Phoenix, and Michael Keaton.  The Arsonist is Sue Miller’s eleventh novel. I was drawn in by the line, “Later, Frankie would remember the car speeding past in the dark as she stood at the edge of the old dirt road. She would remember that she had been aware of the smell of smoke for a while.”

It’s interesting to note that The Senator’s Wife and Lake Shore Limited took place during very complex times, in urban settings, where The Arsonist is set in Rural New Hampshire where everything is supposed to be about neighbors and closeness and safety. Pomeroy is the type of town where they hold an annual gathering called The Fourth of July Tea. Grown-ups dressed in their church clothes. Children made to dress up too. For Pomeroy, the event was the official start of summer.  Frankie Rowley has come home from Africa where she was relentlessly involved in relief work. After 15 years, she’s exhausted by the moral implications of how relief work is brokered, and brokenhearted by the end of a relationship with a married man. Craving time to re-calibrate her life, Frankie imagines she’ll enjoy “an easy and very American happiness.” She’ll eat long meals with her retired parents and sleep late in the bedroom “she’d had every summer since she was a child.”

But she has come home to a time of trouble.  Someone in the community is setting fire to houses belonging to “summer people.” The arsonist incinerates more than a dozen houses in this small town, burning away a sense of tranquility and trust along with buildings and furniture. Townsfolk soon feel divided. There are the homestead folk who live in Pomeroy year-round, then there are “those others” who come to town once a year and stay for a mere four months, but who want an equal voice in the town’s business. Are the fires being set by someone who despises the seasonal dwellers? Or are the crimes being carried out by a volunteer firefighter who loves the thrill of fire. Miller isn’t dogmatic on the theme of class, and she ultimately leaves it unresolved, but she’s interested in the friction between modest folks who maintain the town and “chatty, self-assured summer people” who expect it to remain an accommodating setting for their leisure.

Miller explores the way illness strains a relationship and exposes cracks that happier times kept hidden. Frankie’s father, Alfie, is a retired college professor and lover of books. As Alfie drifts into dementia, Frankie’s mother realizes that her loveless marriage is becoming a different kind of prison — one constructed of burden and guilt. Frankie must figure out the ways her parents still need her, or, maybe they don’t.  Miller excels at portraying the manner in which people connect and fail to connect. By contrast, her resolution of the arson mystery — which is really no resolution at all — is less than satisfying. On a thematic level, though, “The Arsonist” boldfaces its points. Miller captures all the complicated nuances of a family in crisis. The book provides a setting that allows us to watch the internal crumbling of Frankie’s family against the backdrop of a typical, quiet New England town in the grips of terror, realizing that times are changing. Distrust of one’s neighbors has come to small-town America.

The Arsonist tells a compelling and intriguing story that is well worth your time.

 

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The Desert

You know, sometimes we poets feel so strongly about a piece that we get swallowed by the emotions it causes, and we rush to publication, wanting to share it with others so they too can swim in the deep feelings it causes. Then, after some time, we read the poem again and realize it wasn’t ready at the time of posting. Well, after much rewriting, and after identifying “Him” as “Jesus,” the poem seems to flow much better. I loved being caught up in the Spirit and composing this piece. Now I can be somewhat proud of it. I hope you enjoy reading it, and I welcome any feedback you may have.

The Accidental Poet

He stood, sweating, gazing over the vastness
of what looked like nothingness; hot, glaring,
monochromatic landscape, broken only by an
occasional dune. His eyes batted against the
stinging bits of sand encircling his head as He
tried to catch His breath. He was, after all, Jesus
in a mortal body.

He was hungry. He had not eaten for the past
forty days. He caught sight of an approaching
figure surrounded by piercing light. The desert
floor began to vibrate. The figure was enormous
in size, and seemed to exude tremendous power.

As if reading His mind, the figure said, “Tell
these stones to become bread.” In response,
Jesus took a confident breath and said, “It is written:
‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every
word that comes from the mouth of God.'”
Although Jesus stood his ground, the figure reached
toward Him and whisked Him away.

Now…

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Sometimes We Just Can’t Seem to Write!

There are days when I can’t wait to write. I wake up just minutes before the alarm, clicking off the switch before the piercing sound busts my ear drums and puts me in a 1984 sort of mood where everything is thought for me. Everyone tells me when to get up in the morning.

So I grab a coffee, black, and head to my writing area. You know, that place where you feel most comfortable and were you meet your muse. (Especially on a good day like I’m having right now.) I am working on a project that I hope will become a young adult novel. The main protagonist, a sixteen-year-old girl, has been hanging around with a boy who has really gone of the deep end with addiction. He is part of a group that seems to love drugs and street crime. This young man is Brad. He loves her very much, but he has been been trying every substance and drug he can get his hands on. He smoked a lot of Spice one weekend and ended up taking all his clothes off and running around the neighborhood. The cops took him to the hospital for evaluation.

So my muse and I have been going all out. I haven’t slept much in the past three weeks. When an idea hits me, I turn on my laptop and start banging away. It’s really a kind of banging at the keys. This, of course, is the first draft. It isn’t too much of a mess though. I think I’ve been writing this story in my head for over ten years. Maybe more. I lived most of it. I felt changing the main character to a female would improve the story line and give everything a different viewpoint.

Sometimes, however, when we’re writing, we get stuck. Writer’s block! It will cause doubt. It will fill us with fear. We writers have an internal editor that shows up during the first draft and tries to tell us it’s all crap. It will never sell. This is not the best seller you were hoping to write. In fact, you will never finish anything worthy of being published. So, we sit there staring at the blank screen, listening to all this non-existent criticism and prediction of failure. Trust me, this is when it’s time to turn off the laptop, put on a bathing suit, and go swimming. Stay for hours. Think about the story, but in a non-exposition manner. In other words, don’t think about writing it. Instead, think about the girl. Her situation. Who will save her? Feel the emotion of the situation. Don’t think about being stuck. And whatever you do, don’t us the phrase “writer’s block” at all.

When you’re stuck, your only job is to relax. Let the tension seep out of your neck and shoulders, and run down your back, into the pool water. Float on your back and look up at the sky. Take in all its wonder. Settle your breathing. Feel the sun on your body. Don’t picture yourself sitting at your laptop. Too soon to go back there. Get out of the pool, dry off, and sit in the sun reading a book. What? You didn’t bring a book? What kind of writer are you? Go to the library and take out a new novel. Come back to your lounge chair and read. Oh, I don’t know. Read till you fall asleep. (Sunscreen, my friend!) Then go home. Read some more. Perhaps something other than the novel you just got. Put on an album. You do still own vinyl records don’t you? A good recommendation? Hall and Oates. Abandoned Luncheonette. Listen to the whole album. Sing along. Go to bed. When you get up tomorrow and have free time to write, try it again.

Welcome to writing!

 

 

 

 

An Introduction to Life Recovery

1n 1990, Stephen Arterburn and DavidStoop partnered with Tyndale House Publishers to create The Life Recovery Bible, a unique combination of a study Bible and a devotional Bible, for fellow strugglers who were involved in 12-Step recovery programs and wanted to integrate the 12 Steps with the Bible. They studied the Oxford Group movement, which essentially birthed Alcoholic Anonymous. Both Bill W. and Dr. Bob, the originators of the 12 Steps, were deeply involved in those groups. They were living out the four Oxford Group Absolutes of absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love as they helped others find the sobriety they were experiencing.

In the beginning, there were no 12 Steps. The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous eventually emerged from hours of discussions between Dr. Bob and Bill W., from studying portions of the Bible that supported their Oxford Group experiences, and from their own recovery experiences.

The three portions of Scripture specifically identified as foundational in the development of the 12 Steps were the Sermon on the Mount (which includes the Beatitudes); the Book of James (which focuses on several 12-Step fundamentals, such as confession); and 1 Corinthians 13 (also known as the love chapter). All three of these portions of Scripture from the New Testament clearly establish the Christian and biblical roots of Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 Steps.

In the early days of AA, when conservative Christian values and truths were unapologetically used to help others in recovery, the success rate was quite amazing. One documented study revealed that 93 percent of the people in a group in Ohio never relapsed. For a problem that had resulted in hopelessness and helplessness for centuries, this was truly amazing. Even more amazing is how long it has taken to establish a movement back to those original Christian truths and values. That is the purpose of the Life Recover Bible and other resources that accompany it, including the newest publications: The Twelve Gifts of Life Recovery and The Twelve Laws of Life Recovery.

Where are you?

We have found that people come to these materials from very different places and with varied expectations. You may be someone who has been in recovery for a while and wants to integrate biblical wisdom into all aspects of your recovery. Maybe you’ve come to understand what it takes to get better, and now you want more insight into the how and why of the changes you have experienced. With The Twelve Gifts of Life Recovery and its companion text The Twelve Laws of Life Recovery, not only will you gain a better understanding of the Life Recovery process, but you will also be guided toward a more intimate relationship with God and will become much more effective in helping others.

Perhaps you are brand new to the concept of recovery, and you’ve begun to work the Steps in a Christian group, such as a Life Recovery group. The Life Recovery materials will strengthen your recovery and keep your focus on Jesus as your “higher power.” As you experience this with other believers, or with those still searching for what to believe, you will most likely find this material a unique, proven, and effective way to live a Christian life that grows deeper and produces richer results in all results in all areas.

You also might be a person who is just curious about Life Recovery. Does it complement or conflict with AA? Can I use these principles if I’m not an addict? Are they necessary, or can I just take one step to believe in Jesus as Savior? If you are curious, you are looking in the right place. When you see others totally transform their lives, it will validate the power of Life Recovery. When you follow these Steps and incorporate these materials into your life, the transformation you will experience will allow you to live with a peace and freedom that too few ever experience.

 

A Day I’d Like to Forget

December 28, 1979. A day I’d like to forget. The state trooper asked me if I’d like to call anyone. He asked me this at the conclusion of a three-hour interrogation. I’d been accused of a serious crime. A felony. Something I denied repeatedly during the first two hours of questioning. Somewhere around the beginning of the third hour, I felt my defenses shifting. The “wall” started to crumble. No doubt the trooper could see it happening. I was sweating. I could not stop trembling. And I was about to start crying. I ultimately confessed to burglary and arson that day. I was sentenced to three years in state prison as part of a plea agreement.

I could not believe I was in this situation a mere eighteen months after graduating from high school. I was a good student. Loved high school. I was involved in a lot of extracurricular activities, including drama, AV, photography, yearbook, radio broadcasting and the debate team. I played on the high school tennis team. One of my more favorite projects involved local history. I loved to write, had a flare for photography, and was fairly comfortable with public speaking. I came from a Christian family, and had accepted Christ as my Savior when I was thirteen.

How in the world did I end up abusing alcohol and drugs? Where did this obsession come from? I drank alcoholically from the very first drink, finishing my first-ever case of beer by myself in two days. Marijuana became my best friend. I smoked so much weed that I had trouble distinguishing reality from fantasy. Somehow, I convinced my family doctor that I needed Valium to combat severe anxiety. I came to find that mixing alcohol, pot, and Valium leads to impulsive behavior and a complete lack of care for God, parents and the law.

I have not had a drink or a “hit” of marijuana since 2008. Unfortunately, I struggled with an addiction to narcotic pain medication for several years after that. It took being entirely honest with myself that I was an addict as well as an alcoholic in order to get clean. I started attending NA meetings in addition to AA meetings. Through improving my relationship with Jesus, I was able to stop obsessing over getting high on oxycodone to escape severe back pain. Truly, I was using the medication to escape everything. Not just physical pain, but spiritual unrest, anxiety, depression, feelings of personal failure, and a past history I’d just as soon forget. I had a lot of shame and guilt. I felt truly lost.

Today, I see my past history not as a liability, but as an asset. It is only through experiencing what I did that I’m able to reach out and help others who are wrestling with the demons of addiction and mental illness. After much prayer, and speaking with my pastor and several Christian friends, I was able to hear God’s call on my life. I have returned to college to complete my undergraduate degree in psychology in order to prepare for a career in addictions counseling. I will be working primarily with teenagers and young adults. As much as I’d like to forget December 28, 1979, it is a part of my past that has led to me finding my purpose. What a joy it is to get out of bed each day and be grateful for life. To love being clean and sober. To understand why I’m here.

“The two most important days in your life are the day you were born, and the day you find out why.” (Mark Twain)

 

Monthly Book Review

I am adding a new feature to my blog. Beginning July 25, 2016, I will post a summary and review of a book I read during the previous four weeks. I am currently reading The Arsonist by Sue Miller. She is a novelist and short story writer. The film “Inventing the Abbotts” is based upon her short story of the same name. I look forward to sharing my thoughts on The Arsonist when I finish it.

Salt

Salt. That’s what I remember most. It seemed to cling to my lips the entire summer. It rode the wind. It crystallized on my car, dulling the shine, and it caused a haze on my sunglasses. Salt was so inescapable at the beach that by mid-July I stopped putting it on my boardwalk fries.

In the fall of that year, I bought a bag of salt and vinegar chips. I tore the bag open and immediately started to salivate. The aroma brought me back to the shore, summer wind gently dancing across my face. Can’t wait til next summer.

The Desert

He stood, sweating, gazing over the vastness
of what looked like nothingness; hot, glaring,
monochromatic landscape, broken only by an
occasional dune. His eyes batted against the
stinging bits of sand encircling his head as He
tried to catch His breath. He was, after all, Jesus
in a mortal body.

He was hungry. He had not eaten for the past
forty days. He caught sight of an approaching
figure surrounded by piercing light. The desert
floor began to vibrate. The figure was enormous
in size, and seemed to exude tremendous power.

As if reading His mind, the figure said, “Tell
these stones to become bread.” In response,
Jesus took a confident breath and said, “It is written:
‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every
word that comes from the mouth of God.'”
Although Jesus stood his ground, the figure reached
toward Him and whisked Him away.

Now, Jesus and the figure were at the Holy City,
standing on a steeple. The figure said, “If you
are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is
written, ‘He will command his angels concerning
you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that
you will not strike your foot against a stone.'”

Jesus answered,”It is also written: ‘Do not put
the Lord your God to the test.'” The figure was
persistent in his provocation, reaching toward Jesus
again, spiriting Him away to a very high mountain,
where he showed Him all the kingdoms of the world
in all their splendor and beauty and majesty.

“All this I will give you,” said the figure,
“If you will bow down and worship me.”
“Away from me,” Jesus said, “For it is written:
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.'”
Jesus could not be tempted or drawn away by the
figure, nor did He lose His faith in God, as a result
of his encounter with the devil in the desert.

“I Can’t Tell if Procrastination Kills Creativity or is Essential to it.”

Grant Snider’s Twitter comment @grantdraws raises an interesting question. Does procrastination kill creativity, or is it essential to it? I’m certain Grant is thinking about that part of creativity where the artist or writer “mulls it over.” Chews on it a bit, allowing it to resonate with them. Puts it to a vote before the committee in their head. (Note: The chairman of this committee is your Internal Editor. The one member of the panel who tells you to re-write, re-write, re-write, then says it’s still no good.) A story, for example, often takes a long time to develop. It might begin with a single word, or a particular character. It might be totally subject-based. It could be inspired by a recent tragedy.

It is important to note, however, that procrastination has many highly descriptive synonyms. Could it be said that loafing inspires creativity? One of my best poems did come to me while loafing. What about delaying? How can delaying a project provide any positive outcome? Delaying is, well, simply not doing. Reminds me of the comment, “I’m going to try to write a poem.” According to the intergalactic wisdom of Yoda, there is no such thing as try. There is only do and not do. Some writers dabble in storytelling. Dabbling is akin to playing around, poking at a few words, trying to put them into sentences. Of course, puttering is another name for procrastinating. Doesn’t sound very productive. My favorite synonym for procrastinating is dilly-dallying. Takes me right back to my father’s admonishment: Stop dilly-dallying and get something done out there! You’re not going to the pool until the hedges are cut and the yard is mowed!

We cannot leave the definition of the word creativity out of this discourse. Creativity is the use of imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work. When we create something, we turn new and imaginative ideas into reality. It involves the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, or providing entertainment. I’m sure you’ve heard that creativity involves “thinking outside the box.” Consider the comment, “a great artist is but a conduit for an expression that resonates with something that is greater than him.” There is participation here. Willingness. Openness. Procrastination is the antithesis of creativity. It basically shuts down that which is possible. And because all creative ideas are fleeting at best, putting off even the simple act of writing an idea down in your journal or notebook is almost a guarantee that the idea will be lost to you forever the minute you think of something else. Groceries, for instance.

Kurt Vonnegut said, “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”

There is nothing in Vonnegut’s statement that even hints at procrastination being good for creativity. Vonnegut is talking about leaping forward, immediately, leaning in to it, obeying your muse, grabbing a pen and paper, or sitting down at your laptop, and working. Creativity is work. Creativity is spontaneous. It is not achieved by sitting around, delaying, dilly-dallying, or puttering. Sentences, paragraphs, chapters, indeed entire books, get written by being written. Ruminating or mulling something over does, indeed, occur in the embryonic stage of creativity. This is the germination phase. Then there’s sprouting. After that comes pruning and watering and feeding, and then the harvesting.

I don’t see how procrastination can do anything but kill creativity.

The Space to Write

I’ve been asked the question Where do you write? many times. Lately, I find space to write wherever I am. When I first noticed I had an ability to write, I gave it too much celebration. What I mean is I tended to make the whole process into ritual more than practice. I needed just the right chair, with exactly the right degree of lighting. I considered feng shui to be vital. Obviously, I had to stop writing and research the meaning of feng shui before I could get any work done! I was all about the atmosphere, man! I used the word conducive a lot. As in, The temperature of the room and the muffled noise of neighbors having sex were hardly conducive to an atmosphere of concentration.

Writing is process more than atmosphere. In her wonderful book Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg brings together Zen meditation and writing, claiming the practice of writing is no different from other forms of Zen practice. Writing is a form of meditation. When we write, we create. We become one with The Great Creator. We’re made in His image. The best honor we can give to Him is to create as we were created.

Writers don’t simply read about writing and hope to wake up tomorrow able to write. Writers write. Certainly, eliminating distractions will foster longer periods of writing. It’s advisable to avoid Internet “research” while writing an initial draft. Background music might be helpful if you aren’t listening to songs you are likely to sing along to, or that take you back to that magical night when you went ice skating at the municipal rink with the homecoming queen, spinning round and round to “Kung Fu Fighting.” Television is a huge distraction. Oh, and consider making your writing space a phone free zone.

I spent some time in New York City in the mid 1990s. I was having lunch on the mezzanine level of the Paramount Hotel. My order was apparently making itself. So while waiting and waiting and waiting, I started people watching. I saw a rather wide swatch of society, from busboy to television executive. (I was working in the legal department at MTV Networks at the time.) I grabbed my journal and started writing. In this instance, the physical location I was in greatly contributed to what I wrote, complete with a comment about trickle-down economics running past my feet in a river of dirty dishwater from the kitchen. It seemed I blinked twice and my food was being served.

Typically, I can write wherever I am. I have been so overwhelmed with a story idea or a thought about how to handle a particularly troublesome spot in a rewrite while driving that I had to pull off to the side and grab my notebook. (I refuse to text and drive, and so should you!) I try to keep a pad and pen with me everywhere I go. I recently spent an hour sitting on a swing along the Susquehanna River in my home town working on a personal reflection piece about hatred in America. The space was very conducive, as I was able to recall having only one African American in my high school graduating class of 347 students in 1977. All I could think of was how out of place he must have felt in my small, 99.99% white town. Fast-forward to 2016, and I don’t see much progress vis-a-vis this evil thing called racism.

I have also written in a prison cell. In the dark. Lying on the floor, facing the bars, so I could grab some of the lighting from the tier. In fact, I did a lot of writing during that horrible experience. It is because of writing that I turned three years of incarceration into an oasis of discovery, spirituality and creativity. I was able to enroll in a two-year college program and start earning credits toward an undergraduate degree. Writing introduced me to inmates who were also writers. I had the privilege of reading a publication put together by inmates called “Notes From The Greystone Hotel,” which contained flash fiction, personal reflection, poetry and prose. It was then that I learned, at least for me, to write is to grow. (The State Correctional Institution at Rockview was nicknamed The Greystone Hotel.)

I write because I have to write. Space to write? If I’m serious about my craft and driven to get what I’m thinking and what I’m feeling out of my head, down my arms, and onto the journal page or laptop keyboard, then I will consider everywhere to be “The Space to Write.” Stephen King wrote Carrie on a card table in the laundry room of his house. I truly never know when an idea will grab me and refuse to let me go. I recently wrote a poem called “I wrote a Poem Once While Sleeping.” You can read it by clicking on the link: https://theaccidentalpoet.net/2015/09/18/i-wrote-a-poem-once-while-sleeping. I would love to hear what you think about it. Anyway, I look forward to reading other posts on The Space to Write.