Review of “Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs”

Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs-Review

Author introduces his yet-to-be-conceived grandchild to the world

(Blogger’s Note: Dear Friends, the review that follows appeared in my hometown newspaper yesterday. I appreciate not only Doug Rieder’s generosity, but also his sincere attempt to understand and communicate my book’s purpose and audience. I also thank Erie writer and photographer Mary Birdsong for her great cover photograph, thoughtful advice, and support.)

By DOUG RIEDER, Erie Times-News
Contributing writer

“Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs, And Other Wonders Before Your Time”

By John Coleman

Shamatha House, 201 pages, $11 paperback

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This photograph of my daughter Elena in 2006 accompanies the review.

Over the course of his new book of essays, “Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs,” John Coleman often stops to smell the roses, and he’s got a pretty good nose for it.

You’d expect as much from Coleman, pastor of Erie’s Abiding Hope Lutheran Church. But this is no preacher consoling his flock, nor one communing with a higher power. The word “God,” in fact, is rarely used.

No, Coleman addresses each of these 11 short essays to someone who doesn’t exist yet — or at least didn’t at the time of his writing. That someone turns out to be his grandson, Cole, born to his daughter, Elena, and her husband, Matt, on Nov. 30, 2013.

Coleman explains all this on the back cover, but inside the book, Cole isn’t Cole yet, but a mysterious, magical being filled with promise and potential.

“I’m aware of the sun, the trees, the longing cardinal and the possibility of you,” Coleman writes from his stilt-cabin retreat in the woods at Mount Saint Benedict.

“While you’re still a dream, I feel like talking to you. … What I have to say will feel more like floating a canoe down a creek than running rapids.”

He suggests optimal times for his grandchild to read his jottings: On bad days, “read a few notes.” On good days, don’t bother. “And on your worst days, turn to these words: Before you were born, your grandfather sat up in the trees and loved you ahead of time.”

That’s typical of Coleman, a gentle soul guided by other gentle souls: Gandhi, Kahlil Gibran, Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh and Erie’s Sister Joan Chittister.

As he promises, Coleman writes of life’s everyday occurrences, his “floating canoes” –Harriet the squirrel, the dogs and cats of his Shenley Drive neighborhood, disturbing newspaper headlines, family history, mini-essays on the Elephant Man and the Gettysburg Address, the changing face of Erie and the coming — but mostly going — of favorite coffeehouses and writing haunts like Moonsense and Aromas.

His life is full to bursting. His wife, Kathy, really does raise monarch butterflies, but also assembles furniture out of town and crews aboard the U.S. Brig Niagara. In one essay, she departs on a three-week Niagara sail. Coleman bristles over her absence but notes that her time aboard ship has given her a “longer fuse.”

At the time of this writing, the Colemans are parents of teenagers — 15-year-old Micah and 17-year-old Elena. They bring joy into his life: “I miss giving you shoulder rides,” Coleman tells his son. “I miss that, too,” says Micah. “But I can’t do that anymore. I’d crush you.”

At times, he must hold his tongue with them.

“Many lessons people have to teach themselves,” he writes.

It took Coleman a year to write “Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs” and seven years of “intermittent slashing away,” as he wrote me in a letter. He did it in coffeehouses and in cabins on stilts, but he also did it within time zones that created themselves: waiting rooms, hospital rooms, the World of Music basement as Micah hammered away at his drum lessons.

Coleman’s main conceit is that he’s writing to a grandbaby that’s not even a glimmer yet, but of course, he’s not really — he’s writing to us. There’s a sweetness to these observations, mundane as they might be, and a comfort to turn back to them.

“I suppose this is why I’ve written to you so much about the commonplace,” Coleman writes near the end. “Leaves going red, a squirrel laughing at a dog, a dad playing catch with his son, a husband taking a walk with his wife: I’ve no right to ask for more.”

But where the book starts Thoreau-like at a cabin in the woods, it ends with the running of at least one set of dangerous rapids: troubling news about Elena.

“She has a story to tell you,” Coleman writes. “She’ll sit you down and fill you in when you’re ready; only she can decide on the right time.”

Developments like this help ground “Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs.” Coleman has a wide, gentle streak, yes, but he’s as fully immersed in life’s stickiness and unpleasantries as the rest of us.

Happily, the town’s got a lot more coffeehouses now — Hortons and the omnipresent Starbucks — for him to duck into and open his writing journal.

DOUG RIEDER is the former editor of the book page.

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So Long to an Expired Dream

Some dreams sting to give up. Some principles need a whipping to change.

I’ve been writing nearly every day for over twenty-five years. Before that I was an English major, publishing my first short story in a decent literary magazine in 1984, my senior year of college. A master’s in creative writing from Johns Hopkins followed. I’ve said many times that I learned more in three half-hour individual sessions with John Barth and a couple of manuscript reviews from Doris Grumbach than I did all the rest of that expensive year.

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The afternoon editor James Olney called to accept my sequence of poems about Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, felt like a breakthrough–years ago!

With essentially a graduate degree in fiction writing in hand, I moved back to Erie, Pennsylvania, with wife Kathy and promptly started writing poems and teaching college composition. 1985-1989 was a productive stretch. In my study at home I’ve got a box full of journals, rags, and newspapers containing one of my essays here, a poem or two there. I was on track for getting a poetry collection out within five years.

Toward the end of that period, Kathy and I bought a house, she gave birth to our daughter Elena, and I had a nervous breakdown. I muscled through panic attacks and depression, popped Xanax only when desperate, taught my classes, and kept on writing, this time nonfiction. I wanted nothing more than peace, so that’s what I wrote about.

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Groovy cover, customers eh.

Questions from Your Cosmic Dance came out in 1997 (Hazelden), The Unexpected Teachings of Jesus in 2002 (Jossey-Bass). An agent sold the first book, for which I received a $6000 advance. In the course of finding an agent for the second, I connected with an acquisitions editor who thought my proposal sounded promising. The publisher advanced me $4000. I consider both books the work of a young writer—hardworking, persistent, competent. Sales were modest, which is a euphemism for disappointing.

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In “Publishers Weekly,” I received a scorching unsigned review from a schmutz who didn’t take the trouble to understand the intended audience. The book got buried–not that I’m bitter.

I kept at it, though, squeezing in an hour every morning smithing a couple hundred words about something. When sixty minutes weren’t there, I’d do thirty—whatever. I have a couple of manuscripts at various levels of blah; with a ton of effort and a sturdy attention span, I might be able to get them into publishable shape. Another manuscript, which I’ve entitled Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren, is a proofread away from something I’d ask a reader to pay for.

I won’t whine about the process of trying to find a publisher for this book, which I genuinely believe would be appreciated by the audience for whom it’s intended. I’ll only mention that an agent gave it a go and waved the white flag; meanwhile, I occasionally felt like I was selling the book’s soul and my own in the process.

So the book sat. I wrote some more. Years passed. M. Somerset Maugham said, “Writing is the supreme solace,” but maybe that’s if you’ve got readers. I’m fifty-one now and gravitate toward Sylvia Plath’s thinking: “Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.” Thousands of my words sit cobbled together in files and on hard drives and now in clouds, having moved from the solace of composition to the stink of storage. Though I say this myself, I’m not a crap writer. I’m not great either. But I’m decent enough for my work to land in somebody’s hands. A few weeks ago I wondered if I would labor morning after morning, year after year, making chairs and stacking them in a barn for nobody to ever sit on. How dumb is that?

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Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry. Go ahead, call her lazy for self-publishing! (Credit: Wikipedia)

Why have I let my word-furniture pile up for so long? Because of a dream and a stubborn standard. The literary milieu I was brought up in dismissed writers who self-published. Serious writers never paid reading fees and never sent material to what was referred to as a vanity press. Even though Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and Walt Whitman had their own work printed and sold, I’ve always considered not getting into print through traditional gatekeepers (i.e. agents or editors) an admission that I’m really not talented or, worse, ignorant of my own mediocrity.

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The indie-published Charles Dickens with a fierce wind at his back. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Sue Grafton articulates what is still a prevailing attitude, particularly among writers who have reached the Promised Land: “Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall. Don’t get me started. Oops . . . you already did.” After indie-authors threw a few well-deserved haymakers at Grafton, she apologized: “It’s clear to me now that indie writers have taken more than their fair share of hard knocks and that you are actually changing the face of publishing. Who knew?! This is a whole new thrust for publication that apparently everyone has been aware of except yours truly.”

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Sue Grafton (Credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe the detective novelist’s mea culpa is sincere, but it tastes bitter to this clock-is-ticking writer who doesn’t believe in short cuts either. It’s hip and intelligent to be an indie-filmmaker, but lazy and bumbling to be an indie-writer? My tipping point came a month ago when a small press rejected a manuscript eighteen months after I’d submitted it. Here was the deal: send the manuscript, a check for $25.00 (the no-reading-fee rule is slipping), and a CD with the manuscript on it. A month later my dollars were in the press’s bank account, and the waiting began. Two follow up e-mails and a letter, tic toc. At last a recently hired submissions editor returned everything I’d sent along with a complimentary book, ironically a collection published by the family of a poet whose life ended prematurely. The rejection letter—like most writers of my generation, I’ve got a fat file of them—didn’t acknowledge his boss’s using what I’d submitted as a doorstop, but he did let me in on a secret: “We receive far more submissions than we can possibly comment on or publish.” No lit, Sherlock. I’ve also had an essay with a sharp online journal since March, this after a general e-mail to authors stating the editors’ hope to have news on submissions in a month or so. It’s been “5 months, 21 days,” the handy submissions manager just now told me. At least this journal is saying something. Many agents, publishers, and editors state with an occasional apology that writers can feel free to submit, but they should simply accept silence as rejection. I trust that folks in the publishing world are overburdened and underpaid, but no response is rude. No, thanks might irk a few writers, but at least the door gets closed.

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“$9.99 for as many books as you can fit into a hand basket”–the destination of many printed books. Is print on demand really slummy?

Basta! A Napper’s Companion started in April of 2013 in part because of frustration at shabby professional treatment and a desire to connect with readers who might enjoy my work. Through this blog I’ve found gladness in sharing, which is the right word, since I’m happily tapping away at this keyboard gratis.

With luck, in a month or so, I hope to have Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren available on Kindle. After that I’ll indie-publish a paperback edition—I’m whipped but still can’t bring myself to say self-publish. Let me indulge my denial a little longer. We’ll see what happens down the road.

My blog is “in celebration of napping . . . and all sane practices.” I’m saying so long to an expired dream for sanity’s sake. It’s time get my word-chairs out of the barn and put them around tables and on front porches, where people can relax on them and disappear into a book.