Bad Reviews

First bad words, now bad reviews. I’m not going to use any bad words about my bad reviews. A writer can learn from a well-thought-out bad review. The two bad reviews I got for the books I published on Amazon weren’t thought-out at all.

Whether a writer is traditionally published or self-published they’re bound to get bad reviews. A writer knows that any review is better than no review. Anything that will bring attention to your books.

“Bad” is in the mind of the reader.

Even better is for the book to be banned. Banning a book can be good for sales. There was a recent article in The Washington Post by an author who was highly indignant that his children’s book had not been banned. More than thirty years after it was first published Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel, Maus, hit the bestseller lists after it was banned in Tennessee. Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko humorously demanded that his book, Boss, about controversial mayor Richard J. Daley, be vilified and banned. These two writers understood the lure of forbidden fruit.

Books can be dangerous. They can open minds.

Dictators and wanna-be dictators understand the power of books. Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was arrested and expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974 because his writing displeased the Politburo. He was allowed to return home only after the fall of the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn’s experience is almost the ultimate bad review. The ultimate bad review is getting executed for your writing as happened to Russian writer Isaac Babel.

This post wasn’t going to be about these writers, it was supposed to be about my experience with my own reviews. I’m nowhere near their class and the one-star reviews of two of the books I published on Amazon have done nothing to improve my sales. People have to know about a book before they buy it or demand that it be banned. I’ve done very little to publicize my books so poor sales are mostly my own fault.

The person who gave my books bad ratings is someone named Jennifer. She used the exact same words for both books: “I find it hard to understand why the author sympathizes with fascist leaders who spread baseless propaganda.” I copied her exact words from her one-star rating.

One of the books Jennifer rated is “The Dissident’s Wife” which is set in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) during the mid-1980s. My story is about a dissident Russian poet who has been accused of sedition and anti-Soviet slander. Valery Mironov goes from being a respected and beloved people’s artist to a pariah who’s been diagnosed with “creeping schizophrenia” ( a mental illness recognized nowhere in the free world) and incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital. I don’t mention any leaders in my book, let alone defend them.

The Dissident’s Wife is no longer available on Amazon. I unpublished it because it is now under consideration by a traditional publisher.

It’s obvious that Jennifer never read the book. She saw the hammer and sickle and had a knee-jerk reaction. It’s also obvious that she is ignorant of the difference between communism and fascism.

For Pete’s sake! They’re Christmas stories for children.

Beats me who Jennifer thinks is the “fascist leader” in this book. Santa? The grandmother whom her family brings from Latvia to the United States? Or perhaps the mother who thinks a piano would be a fine Christmas gift for her family, a gift they could all use. I suspect that the word “Latvia” is what triggered Jennifer’s one-star rating. Darn it, she didn’t even demand that the book be banned. Rats!

Fortunately, not all my reviews are one-star.

Love at First Sight. For Real?

Love at first sight, followed by happily ever after, is a popular trope in romance novels but is it something that can only happen in fiction?

The two main characters, a World War II Latvian refugee and an American fighter pilot, in my novel, A Home for an Exile’s Heart fall in love at the first touch of their hands as they gaze into each other’s eyes and sparks fly. My Latvian beta reader thought that was unrealistic. In fiction, it happens all the time but can it happen in real life? I told my reader my favorite anecdote about a true life love at first sight story. This is how I remember hearing it so my words may not be exact but the facts are.

They made beautiful music together may be a cliche but it can happen.

Internationally famous Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was being interviewed on a radio show about his marriage to opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya.

Host: “Mr. Rostropovich, I understand that you and your wife married a week after you first met.”

Rostropovich: “Yes. It was a big mistake.”

Host, taken aback, stammers, “A m-mistake?”

Rostropovich: “Yes. We wasted a whole week.”

I love this story. Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya were married for fifty-two years, until his death. Though it may be rare, love at first sight, followed by a happily ever after does happen in real life.

The flowers may fade but not the love.

Most of the time, it seems to me, a declaration of love can be premature. Some guy I once dated said that he loved me way too soon. I was not enchanted or bowled over. I said that he hardly knew me so how could he possibly love me? We hadn’t had any deep discussions or revelations of the secrets of our hearts. But he kept on declaring his love. Ove and over and over. Bleh. Maybe if he’d been the right guy I’d have been more receptive, even delighted. My advice, don’t date someone just because you’re lonely, bored, or depressed. Under such circumstances a “happily ever after” ain’t likely. If you meet a gem like Rostropovich or Vishnevskaya, go for it. Don’t settle for a rhinestone.

Life’s a bowl of cherry pits but at least the beer’s not flat.

How do the love birds in my novel know they’ve found someone they can love forever? There’s an immediate sense of familiarity as if they’ve known each other forever. During their first evening together, they spend hours just talking. They open their hearts, tell each other things they’ve never told anyone else, things that reveal character.

As Shakespeare said, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” It certainly can’t in a novel, so it doesn’t in A Home for an Exile’s Heart.

A toast to love.

“Plink,” A Short Story”

A story of abandonment and loss. A broken family. An uncertain future.

When I published “Plink” on Amazon, I had to pick categories to describe it. Amazon decides whether a story is a “short read,” so I didn’t have to worry about that. But what other category would “Plink” fit in? Even though the story’s told from the Point of View (POV) of a blue, blue shirt, fantasy doesn’t really fit. No swords, no sorcerers, no dragons. No fairies, so it’s not a fairy tale. Like “Plink,” surreal fiction takes place in the “real” and “sane” world. (The latter is a debatable description for our world) but the story is shocking, psychedelic, twisted, even macabre. That’s not my story at all.

I finally settled on Magic Realism. Fans of the genre may argue that “Plink” isn’t Magic Realism, either, but it’s the closest fit. Magic Realism according to Wikipedia “paints a realistic view of the modern world while also adding magical elements.”

I love this sort of weird little story. I’ve read quite a few. They’re fun to read and fun to write. I hope you’ll enjoy “Plink.”

99 cents.

A Home for an Exile’s Heart

An excerpt introducing a new character.

American P51D Mustang fighter plane

“Intense Blue Sky”

Intense blue sky. Innocent white clouds. Pristine clouds out of which killing machines suddenly emerged. The drone of his engine as Cameron’s squadron flew over Germany. The relentless rattle of machine guns. Flashes of light. A Focke-Wulf 190 came right at him, spitting bullets. A buddy’s plane going down, trailing a billowing plume of orange flame. Heart pounding Cameron maneuvered his aircraft out of range. Roared up into the sky. Made a sharp turn. Dived at the enemy plane. Firing. Firing. Firing.

To clarify, this is not a war novel. The story takes place in 1952, in the USA. The excerpt relates Cameron’s background so readers know what kind of person he is.

A Home for an Exile’s Heart

An excerpt from my novel about a widowed.Latvian refugee who finds refuge in Seattle. But where is there a home for her heart?

Chapter One

Seattle. November 28, 1952

Snow everywhere—the ground, the sky, the air. Evening light cast a bluish tint over the city. Swirling flakes turned trees lining the street into blurred silhouettes. Snow clung to the tops of branches, the leaves of ornamental shrubs, and the concrete retaining wall which supported the embankment from which large houses loomed.

Līvija Galiņa walked home from work in a soporific state. She hadn’t slept well the night before. Shrieking sirens had startled her awake. For a few moments, she’d sat bolt upright in bed, her heart pounding, straining to hear the drone of approaching bombers. Silence reigned. She looked around, saw her mother, a dark mound in the next bed. Across the room, her daughter slept in her little bed. Only then did Līvija realize she was safe in Seattle. The same dream had haunted her for nearly a decade. Like a hangover, it always lingered all day the next day.

An icy gust of wind pelted tiny flakes into her face and blew away the tattered remnants of the nightmare. A poor night’s sleep hadn’t kept Līvija from going to work on this day after Thanksgiving. To save bus fare, she trudged the two miles home through half-frozen slush; it crackled under her feet. Seattle’s rain had taken its time changing to snow. At home in Latvia snow would have fallen weeks ago. Latvia—her beautiful, lost homeland. Stolen by Communists. Would she ever see it again? It didn’t seem likely. Moscow was not about to let go of its captive nations.

When she wasn’t as tired as tonight, Līvija still marveled at being in America, even though she had lived here nearly a year. America, land of dreams, freedom, and opportunity. Even though she’d lived here nearly a year, at times she still felt like a stranger.

She shared a big house here on lovely Capitol Hill with her mother, daughter, and six other Latvian refugees–her friends and relatives. Nevertheless, there were times when she experienced excruciating loneliness. How could that be when she was surrounded by so many people? Her own people. Did she still miss her husband, Hugo, who’d been killed in action while fighting in the war eight years earlier? She hardly remembered what he looked like. Showing their seven-year-old daughter, Dzintra, photographs of her father was the only thing that kept his memory alive. How sad that Hugo’s only child would never know him. He’d died months before their little girl was born.

It was useless thinking about any of that. For the sake of her daughter, Līvija must think of the future.

Cold air stung Livija’s cheeks. Her wool scarf was tied behind her neck; the ends tucked into her up-turned coat collar to keep snow from falling down the back of her neck. She carried her handbag over her arm. Thick mittens, knit for her by her mother, in an intricate ancient design on the long cuffs, kept her hands warm.

In Latvia, snow didn’t worry her, not just because she was accustomed to it, but because the country was mostly flat. Here there were steep hills everywhere. Last January she’d been on a bus going downtown when it skidded on an icy hillside street and slid through an intersection. Fortunately, no cars came out of the side road and the driver stopped the bus safely. Līvija’s stomach didn’t unknot for hours afterward.

She put thoughts of Latvia out of her mind. Thinking of her stolen country and the life she lived there until the second invasion by Russia’s Red Army forced those who were able to flee to safety in the West, made her heartsick.

After years drifting through Europe, like a piece of flotsam on the tides of history, this land of hope is my home. I will always be grateful that America took me in. She is not my land of birth. She is my adoptive mother.

How long would it take for her to stop feeling like an alien? People unintentionally reminded her of her foreignness by commenting on her accent. To avoid offense, they complimented her on how well she spoke their language. When she was in school she’d studied English as an elective language. It made sense, although she’d never expected to wind up in America. English could open a new world to her. She loved English literature, wanted to read it in its native tongue. Her parents had tried to dissuade her, to convince her to study another of the European languages they felt would be more useful. Līvija was glad she’d stuck to her guns. English would eventually allow her to leave behind her current life as a cleaning woman.

Lost in thought, Līvija failed to pay attention to her surroundings. A fog of exhaustion blurred her senses. She had walked this street many times since early in the year; she knew it by heart.

Today, she’d started work at eight in the morning cleaning up Mrs. Gray’s house after the previous day’s feast for sixteen guests. Līvija vacuumed carpets and mopped linoleum floors. She washed dishes, shined silverware, and polished crystal. She laundered damask tablecloths and napkins, ran them through the wringer, and lugged the laundry to the basement where she hung it to dry. Her last chore of the day had been to iron linens.

At noon she paused in her cleaning to make lunch for Mrs. Gray. Līvija didn’t have to cook; there were plenty of leftovers from the day before.

While Līvija did all those chores, Mrs. Gray sat at her husband’s desk in the den, drank coffee, wrote Christmas letters, and signed a stack of cards and addressed envelopes. Mr. Gray was a successful businessman; the couple had many friends, family members, and business associates. After lunch, Mrs. Gray took a nap. Līvija ate the sandwich she’d brought from home. Then she scrubbed sinks, toilets, and the claw-foot tub–quiet work that wouldn’t disturb her employer’s rest.

Līvija had done all of these tasks at Mrs. Gray’s house the day before yesterday in preparation for the holiday dinner. The Grays’ house had been spotless when Līvija finished work. This morning when she arrived, it looked like a band of slovenly adolescents had thrown a party. Wine glasses left on the floor by chairs, on window sills, and on the piano. Overflowing ashtrays scattered around the room. Crumpled paper cocktail napkins everywhere. Vomit in the wastebasket in the laundry room.

Was it only yesterday Līvija and her family had celebrated their first Thanksgiving in America? It was their second harvest celebration. They’d had their traditional Latvian autumn festival in October. There was much to be thankful for. Two days of giving thanks seemed appropriate. Her housemate, Mr. Timma’s company, gave free turkeys to their employees every year. All the housemates contributed to the rest of the feast. Four capable women worked together, with Dzintra helping, made for a cheerful cooking bee Thanksgiving morning.

Absent-mindedly Līvija hummed, “Oh, Christmas Tree.” She sang in the Latvian choir. Tomorrow would be an equally busy day. The perfectionist choir director insisted on yet another rehearsal, even though it was a holiday weekend and the Christmas concert was nearly a month away. There’d be no Saturday morning Latvian school for the children, but they’d have their own rehearsal of the nativity play and the songs they’d sing at the Children’s Christmas celebration in less than ten days. Dzintra sang in the children’s choirs and was one of the angels in the nativity scene; she’d wear the angel costume Līvija’s mother, Zenta, had sewed for her adored granddaughter.

A harsh whir and crunch of tires skidding on ice startled Līvija. A thud.

Something struck her back. As she went down, she threw out her hands to break her fall but sprawled onto the snowy sidewalk anyway. A heavy body landed on top of her, knocking the air out of her lungs. She gasped.


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“Sculptor’s Block,” A Short Story

         The block of red granite loomed in his mind the way it loomed in his studio. It even showed up in his dreams. He admired the thing, which glittered subtly with inclusions of quartz and mica. It frightened him a little, too. No doubt he should have chosen a smaller chunk of stone for his first project in granite. It was an unforgiving material, dulling chisels, and even diamond-bladed saws. However, once he’d seen it, he was consumed with the lust to possess, with dreams of grandeur. He’d carve it into his magnum opus.

For days after the delivery, he’d spent hours with the stone, studying it, patting its rough surface. How would he transform it? The stone demanded a worthy subject. He thought of the sculptors who’d come before him: Praxiteles, Michelangelo, Rodin. And he started to sweat. He knew that he could never be the genius those men had been. He comforted himself with the thought that he didn’t have to be a genius; he didn’t even want to be a genius. He’d be content to be a damned good sculptor of his own time. Make a name for himself that his son could be proud of.

Michelangelo had seen an angel inside a block of marble and carved until he set it free. Much as the sculptor looked, he couldn’t see anything trapped in his block of granite. Zeus wasn’t there. Neither was Thor. Not even Sitting Bull.

Then on a divorced-dad Saturday, with his son at the zoo, they’d stood at the rail of the bear enclosure and both stared open-mouthed at a Kodiak. He’d found his subject. Carving it like that, sitting on its haunches, immense paws dangling on a vast furry belly, he could make it almost life-sized.

Back at the studio he sawed, hammered, ground. Splinters of granite flew like drops of sweat. He forgot to eat. He forgot to sleep. Only the stone mattered.

It wasn’t like working with marble, alabaster or soapstone. Somehow he couldn’t get the details right. The ears didn’t look right. The snout was all wrong. Worst of all was the fur. How could you make such a hard stone look like soft fur?

He sawed. He hammered. He ground. More dust and granite splinters flew. When at last he stepped back, he realized that the block of stone was no longer large enough to make a life-size adult bear. Well, all right, maybe he’d sculpt a half-grown cub. Cubs were cute. People liked cubs. A cub would probably sell better than an adult bear.

There was always something to change, something to improve. As the stone shrank, his ambition shrank with it. He chipped away. A wolf was a noble animal. He’d carve a wolf. No. A fox. No. A rabbit with droopy ears.

In the end, all his labors brought forth was a mouse. By no means perfect. Of course not. But, Japanese netsuke artists notwithstanding, he’d be damned if he’d carve a bug.