TLA preparation

I've been working on my TLA (Texas Library Association) panel presentation. It's been fun re-visiting my work with a cultural diverse angle to it - rather than the usual historical one. It's also been a good exercise to assemble relevant literature into one concise collection. I've been collecting books on the Soviet times under Stalin for years now. I love my books.

When I look at the clutter of my life - I could probably get rid of most of it. I'd just keep the books and my rocks (okay, and those masterpieces my kids created).

I'm nervous and excited about TLA. I mean, I'm actually getting to go way down to Texas to talk about MY book. And I get to meet and mingle with real authors. It's going to be an adventure, that's for sure. My oldest daughter is traveling with me and we are going by bus (her idea) so that we see can actually see all the USA we pass - a 36 hour trip.

Now Reading

Last night I finished off Greg Fishbone's first book, Septina Nash and the Penquins of Doom. His baby daughter is going to have a most delightful, crazy, insane, childhood. From Miss Snoqualmie, the math teacher, to Lieutenant Morse, the RCMP constable, the book travels all over the place (and I'm not just speaking geographically).

It's a fun book - and I admit - I'm not used to reading 'fun' books. I'm used to reading heavy, sad books full of deep insights and character development. This took me a bit to get into - serious adult that I am - but I'm sure a grade five kid - most likely a boy - would gobble this up. And I loved the drawings!

But now I'm back to the heavy stuff ... The Whisperers by Orlando Figes ... seven hundred pages of Soviet terror. I'm halfway through it and will need some more fiction to break it up. Ilse Koehn's Mischling, Second Degree was recommended to me. It was published back in 1977, but I've managed to get a used copy and will dig into another serious, heavy piece of historical fiction. Variety is the spice of life.

Having a pile of books beside my bed waiting to be read, feels as good as money in the bank. It promises a future filled with great travel, new friends and constant adventure.

The 'Un'ordinary

I love weekends. It's the luxury of time, of being able to sleep in - just a little - of being able to have a second cup of coffee, of seeing sunlight stream through the still quiet house. Of course, if every day were a weekend day, I'd take all this for granted. The coffee, the time, the sunlight, ... why, it would all be ordinary. So here's another sip of coffee to the weekend and to the 'un'ordinary.

Ordinary is plain. Nobody wants to be ordinary. Everybody wants to be special - to be like a weekend - appreciated, enjoyed and indulged. I think childhood belongs to the 'weekend' part of life. Childhood goes slowly and is full of sensory detail - full of dust sparkling in slanted sunlight, full of tastes and smells more beautiful than morning coffee, and full of long moments of time.

Of course, long moments can also be full of loneliness and fear. But what about all those ordinary moments that go by so fast we don't even remember them? Decades of lost moments, sometimes.

This post is dedicated to weekends and to the unordinary moments that stay in our mind's eye - to remember - like childhood.

Word of the day: ordinary
... of common quality, rank, or ability
(from Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary)

Reading, Walking and Rewriting

I finished Anita Daher's book, Spider's Song, this week. Great book - lots of vivid north Canadian geography, teenage angst, blog writing, plus a surprise twist in the plot. But I knew it'd be a good book because my 15 year old had already given it a thumb's up and she's a busy girl who will only spend her time with good books. (That's what she told me.) I enjoyed the inscription at the beginning (which I reread at the end). I like re-visiting the beginning of a book after I've finished reading.

I'm not getting nearly as much reading done as I'd like. The extreme, tedious stretch of cold weather is causing my eyelids to droop sooner than usual once I hit my warm, cozy bed. Either that or my mug of Sleepytime tea is just way too effective. Or, possibly, my four hour daily walk is getting harder on my aging body. (Am I getting older? No! Just my body, but not me. No!)

Now I must focus on revisions to my WIP (a sequel to The Kulak's Daughter) - tentative title is "East Prussian Princess". It's about a place that no longer exists - East Prussia - and happens in the 1930s when Hitler is ascending in Germany. Yes, it's sort of about my mom. It continues from where the KD ends. She went from Stalin to Hitler. At least she ended up here in Canada - where we'll hopefully never let crazy people have too much power. Politics is important stuff. We must pay attention.

The Class of 2k9 is still accepting applications for YA and MG novelists debuting in 2009. Click here for more info and/or an application.

Exciting Mail

I got a letter from Germany last week. It was from one of my mom's cousins. It'd been more than seventy years since my mom and her had contact. Both women's fathers were shot in 1937 during Stalin's Great Terror. Adam Kuehn was my grandmother's youngest brother. He was born in 1909, in the village of Federofka, just like the rest of my mom's family.

Yesterday I visited my mom and shared this lost cousin's letter with her. It was another way to connect the dots of a picture messed up by time, geography, war and politics. We'll write back and share our information and photos. And in this way cousin Lilli's family will be able to put together the puzzle of the past on their side of the ocean.

I'm interested in these facts and family connections. But what touches me the most is not the facts, but the smells, the tears, and the little details that litter the musty trails of this past.

All of these connections wouldn't have been possible without the internet. And I have to thank one person in particular for letting me recreate my mom's childhood. Don Miller has been so important in my research. He led the tour when I went over there in 2004. He's done so much for the relatives of the families who were lost to communism and he's continuing to help those still recovering from communism's impact. It's a mess over there.

Don Miller is building a home for destitute widows in Pulin, Ukraine. My mom might be one of these women if hadn't been for my grandfather's effort to get his children out of the country.

Remembering Dogs

It's been a year since my good old dog, Tip, passed away and I think I'll rearrange things here and give him a smaller presence on this blog. His forget-me-nots in the garden (by the fence which he so loved to mess up) will bloom in the spring. I want to say that his departure from my life helped me understand what my character, Olga, was going through when she had to leave her dog behind after the family was exiled to Yaya, Siberia. My mom remembers her family dog, Mopsi, and how he chased their wagon when they returned from exile. It's these kind of details that go straight to my sentimental heart.

It was interesting ... I read an earlier draft of my book to my daughter's grade six class, soon after my trip to Ukraine back in 2004. One of the boys asked whether I found Olga's dog while I was over there. (More than seventy years had passed!) But I didn't tell him this, I just said, no, I never found her dog, but I found other dogs - orphans - all over the streets of Zhitomir. They often hung out near the back doors of restaurants, hoping for table scraps. Back in 2004, there was no humane society - no place for orphaned dogs.

One dog was often at the gas station where we regularly filled up. Filling up there was a big procedure. We'd have to get out of the van and wait around for half an hour. I think it was a propane-fueled van. This dog was so docile - so eager to please. He'd have made somebody a great pet.

In the small villages, outside of Zhitomir, many houses had a dog tied to a short chains near the door. A chained dog is not a friendly dog. I wouldn't want to be a mail carrier out there.

So now I look forward to spring and Tip's perennials. While in Ukraine, we followed a trail of perennials. They were the clues to the past lives of my grandparents and other family members.

The Class of 2k9

I'm happy to announce that The Class of 2k9 is now accepting applications for membership. Having been part of The Class of 2k8 until mid January, I'm excited to not idle out in the playground for long. The bell's ringing and any middle grade or young adult novelists debuting in 2009 are encouraged to apply. Please email for an application form.

Why become part of a marketing collective? Writing a book and getting it published is hard work. Getting it noticed in the big ocean of books, is just as hard. Together we'll learn, we'll grow and we'll make a bigger, more awesome splash. (Check out the class of 2k8, if you don't believe me.)

Besides, it's so much fun meeting other authors who come from all over North America and have the same goals, thrills and issues with that first debut novel.

Don't be shy. I promise, you won't regret it!

The Gulag

Twelve facts* about the Soviet Gulag.
1. The word gulag is an acronym. It comes from the words "Glavnoe upravlenie lagerie" meaning Main Camp Administration.
2. Over 30,000 camp units were registered.
3. The Gulag - as a system of labour - was officially dissolved on January 25, 1960. It continued on a smaller scale until 1987.
4. The Gulag included: labour camps, punishment camps, transit camps, criminal and political camps, women's camps and children's camps.
5. In 1929, Stalin's secret police began to take over the control of these camps. (Previously they'd been under judicial rule.)
6. Best estimates indicate 28.7 million people passed through the Gulag system. (According to Anne Applebaum).
7. The Gulag was part of Stalin's economic plan - forced labour to build industry. (Gold, coal, ore, lumber, uranium, the White Sea Canal, train track expansion, etc.)
8. Gulag victims were arrested not for specific crimes but for their potential crimes as an 'enemy' of the Soviet state.
9. Gulag victims died of hunger, cold, work, disease & hopelessness. Total death statistics are unavailable.
10. Corpses were stacked up during the winter for a mass burial when the ground thawed.
11. The West has yet to realize the extent of human rights abuses committed in the USSR.12. The Memorial Society was created in the former Soviet Union to remember the Gulag's victims.

* facts
These facts are not certain. The cold, hard facts may never be known.

Here's a link to a photo site of the gulag.

One more fact: My mom was in the Gulag system twice. Once, in winter of 1930/1, as an eleven year daughter of a kulak and then again in 1945 as a German prisoner of war. She came to Canada and wanted to forget and now here I am, trying to make her remember.

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