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.

 

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.