Black Bottle Man

Standard

Black Bottle Man

Black Bottle Man by Craig Russell
Great Plains Teen Fiction, 2010; 176 pages
Gold Medal, Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards, Young Adult Fantasy/ Sci-Fi, 2011

What do you do when your two childless aunts sell their souls to become pregnant? According to Black Bottle Man, you cut a deal with the devil and spend the next eighty years trying to find a champion who can beat him at his own game.

In 1927, Rembrandt is only ten years old when his loving Canadian farm family tears itself apart over his aunts’ dabbling in black magic. Determined to save the two women’s souls, Rembrandt, his Pa, and his Uncle Thompson cut a deal with the Black Bottle Man, Satan’s rather uninspiring earthly persona. The deal requires them to never spend more than twelve days in any one place until they either find a champion to defeat him, or die. Pa and Uncle Thompson only make it for a few years on the road. The rest is up to Rembrandt and the magic he’s learned to do using hobo signs.

If that description doesn’t tempt you, well, it didn’t really tempt me, either. Craig Russell contacted me last year, wanting to send me a review copy, and at first I think I didn’t answer. (Sorry!) He tried again a few months later, sending along an outstanding review from a blogger I usually agree with, so I cautiously agreed to give it a read.

Thank you, Craig, for persisting. This story is wild, ridiculous, serious fun.

Black Bottle Man’s structure easily draws the reader into the culture of hobo freighthopping. It moves with the speed of a train, jumping between Rembrandt’s Dust Bowl-era travels and a “present” time in 2007, while throwing in the points of view of other characters along the way. Russell’s prose is crisp and effective. He has a knack for finding just the right image to quickly wrap a reader into a scene. His characters are a blend of ordinary and outlandish, and the balance between the two is just right.

Best of all, Russell has given us a story that works at every level. Black Bottle Man is a romp, and if you want to leave it at that, it will let you. But scratch the surface just a little, and layers of new meaning begin to emerge. Rembrandt’s two aunts literally sell their souls for a magic bottle that will give them babies; it’s hard not to read that as a metaphor for modern technologies like IVF. It’s also hard to resist the unrepentant Aunt Annie’s claim that her sin was worth it, to have her strong, good daughter. But the aunts’ souls are still worth saving, and it is only through the intercession and sacrifice of others that such a feat is possible. Rembrandt’s hobo signs are part of a very incarnational magic. Each word, or sign, brings its meaning into being; for example, the sign for fish makes actual fish appear. These signs are a kind of sacrament, a visible sign of grace. The story drips with symbolism, some explicit and some more subtle, and I suspect there is even more that I will uncover in subsequent readings. Black Bottle Man is the very best kind of Catholic fiction: it weaves a Catholic worldview into the fabric of its being, creating a story that is resplendent with grace without ever needing to preach.

Black Bottle Man is marketed as “teen fiction,” and it is a book I would happily give to a teenager. But I think that moniker might also be holding it back from reaching an adult audience, who can enjoy it just as much.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Advertisements

The Immigrant

Standard

The Immigrant

I stumbled across a gem on Netflix this week: The Immigrant, a 2013 film from director James Gray that I had never heard of. I gave it a chance because Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix are both actors I trust to deliver good performances. They did not disappoint, though Cotillard’s character is more consistent than Phoenix’s. But the film also provided a visual feast of cinematography, plus something I never dared to hope for: a story laced with Catholic-flavored themes of forgiveness.

Set in New York in 1921, The Immigrant stars Cotillard as Ewa Cybulska, a young Polish Catholic woman who has fled war and famine to come to the United States with her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan). At Ellis Island, Magda is taken into quarantine for tuberculosis, while Ewa is labeled likely to become a ward of the state and tagged for deportation. Bruno Weiss (Phoenix), who claims to be from the Travelers’ Aid Society, bribes the officials to set her free; then, through a mixture of kindness and coercion, he leads her into the burlesque show where he serves as impresario and the prostitution ring where he serves as pimp. It’s evident early on that Bruno has fallen in love with her, but that does not stop him from selling her on the streets. Ewa goes along with the scheme because she must raise a large sum of money to pay the bribes that will free her sister from the immigration detention center—money she cannot earn legally because she has no legal status in the United States.

Enter the inevitable third party of their love triangle, Bruno’s cousin, a stage magician named Emil (Jeremy Renner). He offers Ewa the opportunity to escape her life of degradation, but Ewa cannot leave her sister behind.

To this point, the film is a well-crafted drama, a period piece that manages to be both intimate and grand, leaving nothing of the topless burlesques to the imagination yet handling the prostitution scenes with unusual subtlety and discretion. James Gray knows how to use a single touch to evoke more emotional depth than a graphic sex scene ever could. The plot hiccups occasionally, with a few scenes that are too contrived, but on the whole the script provides a worthy vehicle for its excellent cast.

But then—

The turning point comes when Ewa decides to return to church. She attends Mass, praying to Mary for help for both herself and her sister, then stays to go to confession afterward. Bruno eavesdrops to hear her sins, including the priest’s admonition that she must leave the man who is misusing her. From this point forward, there were so many ways for the plot to go wrong—so many easy clichés the writers could have chosen. Instead, The Immigrant does the hard work of being genuine. It resists clichés, as well as the all-too-prevalent temptation to graft modern ideologies onto stories about the past. Ewa and Bruno are granted the rare dignity of being allowed to be true to themselves. The final scenes are nothing short of beautiful. I can hardly remember a better cinematic expression of genuine love—yet not even so much as a kiss is exchanged.

In reading through a few of the secular reviews of The Immigrant, I cannot help but notice that there is virtually no mention of the film’s emphasis on love and mercy. The immigrant experience in America, Gray’s talent for evoking emotion, and the plot’s occasional missteps seem to have gotten all the ink. But to this reviewer, The Immigrant was not only a treat for my eyes, but for my soul.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Cinder Allia Named to Catholic Reads “Best of 2017”

Standard

Best-of-2017

 

Catholic Reads released their favorite books of 2017, and my newest novel, Cinder Alliafinished in a tie with Jane Lebak’s An Arrow in Flight for the top fantasy novel of the year! Congratulations to Jane and all the other winners. And if you haven’t read Cinder Allia yet, what are you waiting for?

In honor of this award, the Kindle Edition of Cinder Allia is now available for $0.99, but only until the end of 2017!

Here’s what Catholic Reads has to say:

Cinder Allia by Karen Ullo serves readers a fun, creative Cinderella story. Ullo’s plot, full of character twists, competent crafty villains, and cowardly heroes kept me thumbing my Kindle page after page. Her plot of political intrigue, quests for love, and restoration of a kingdom progresses through a cast of diverse characters who all struggle with their loyalty to their true selves. Ullo has captured my imagination and has written many excellent unforgettable scenes with vivid imagery and dialogue, humor, and an exciting plot worth reading again and again. The literary treasure and the incredible intrigue it contains are well worth the read.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Longfellow’s Christmas Peace

Standard

 

1863_harpers (1)

“A Christmas Furlough” by Thomas Nast, from the January 3, 1863 edition of Harper’s

‘Tis the season of “Peace on earth, good will to men.” And yet, the guns still blast through war-torn lands engulfed in genocide; they blast through concert halls, schoolyards, and churchyards, dousing sanctuaries with blood, while the newest “Cold War” percolates threats of mass destruction. “Peace on earth, good will to men,” is the song that heralds the birth of the Christ, but it also ushers in the flight to Egypt, the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, and ultimately, the crucifixion. Whatever the peace of Christmas is, it is not an end to earthly violence.

Like you, I wish it were.

Christmas peace is deeper than a lack of violence—though I have not yet learned to call what is deeper, “better.” This is the challenge Christmas presents to me—to all of us—because the peace of Christmas “surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). The peace of Christmas is simply the presence of faith.

 

“Christmas Bells”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
(1807-1882)
Written on Christmas Day, 1863,
after his son had been severely wounded in the Civil War

I HEARD the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

You can read the full story behind the poem here.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

The Totally Feminine Genius Generations Book Club

Standard

TFG-Trademark-Logo-300x215

Virtue Works Media founder Cathy Gilmore has created a fantastic book club designed to bring generations of women and girls together over warm drinks and great stories. The Totally Feminine Genius Generations Books Club is completely free: no sign up, no credit cards, and you can do it on your own schedule. What Cathy provides is a list of fantastic books for different age groups and a working list of questions centered around virtue to aid in the discussion. And of course, my latest novel,  Cinder Allia is at the top of the list! Check it out!

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Black Friday Sale on Cinder Allia!

Standard

For the first time ever, my fairy tale novel, Cinder Allia, is going on sale! Now through  November 27 only, you can purchase the eBook for just 99 cents on all major eBook outlets (regular $3.99), and the paperback on Amazon for only $11.65 (regular $13.99).

Hurry, because after Nov. 27, the eBook will be temporarily removed from the market to migrate to a new distributor!

cinder allia

Cinder Allia has spent eight years living under her stepmother’s brutal thumb, wrongly punished for having caused her mother’s death. She lives for the day when the prince will grant her justice; but her fairy godmother shatters her hope with the news that the prince has died in battle. Allia escapes in search of her own happy ending, but her journey draws her into the turbulent waters of war and politics in a kingdom where the prince’s death has left chaos and division.
Cinder Allia turns a traditional fairy tale upside down and weaves it into an epic filled with espionage, treason, magic, and romance. What happens when the damsel in distress must save not only herself, but her kingdom? What price is she willing to pay for justice? And can a woman who has lost her prince ever find true love?
Surrounded by a cast that includes gallant knights, turncoat revolutionaries, a crippled prince who lives in hiding, a priest who is also a spy, and the man whose love Allia longs for most—her father—Cinder Allia is an unforgettable story about hope, courage, and the healing power of pain.

“Karen Ullo’s literary talent is captivating and thought-provoking, using symbolism and mystery to explore what keeps human beings in touch with the divine.” – Kaye Park Hinckley, author of A Hunger in the Heart and Birds of a Feather

“Ullo manages to take the mold and brick of legend and build a more than substantial work of art…. The story is completely familiar, yet completely new.” – Jonas Perez, author of Finibus

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Against Productivity

Standard

nanowrimo

It’s November, and in writing circles, that means it’s NaNoWriMo (the rather awkward acronym for National Novel Writing Month.) As you probably already know, NaNoWriMo is an annual challenge to write an entire novel in 30 days—or at least, to get 50,000 words on paper, even if that might not be quite The End. Every year, people ask me, “Are you doing NaNoWriMo?”, and every year I answer, “No. I’m a tortoise, not a hare.” Then I try my best to cheer on all the speed-writers, because if writing a lousy novel in 30 days is your path to eventually distilling out a worthwhile manuscript, then go for it! I certainly know people for whom this process has proven fruitful, and I’m a firm believer in doing whatever works.

But there’s a fundamental problem with the idea that a writer’s progress can be measured by a word count, which is, of course, that a word count by itself imposes nothing in the way of quality control. “I wrote 20,000 words this week!” sounds like a great accomplishment, and if it represents a flurry of true inspiration or the end of a period of literary sloth, then it is. But those carefully enumerated words, by mere fact of their existence, do not always represent progress—nor do they always indicate that a writer has really overcome his or her tendency toward laziness. Sloth is an insidious sin that comes in many forms, of which the tendency to sit back and do nothing is only the most obvious. Sloth can also manifest itself as a laziness of artistry, and in this, the ideal of “productivity” plays right into the devil’s crafty hand.

There is no set amount of time that a writer must spend to craft a worthy novel. Newly-minted Nobel laureate Kasuo Ishiguro wrote Remains of the Day in four weeks—pretty much like doing NaNoWriMo. Stephen King has said that his first drafts, even of his longest novels, never take more than three months. On the other hand, Donna Tartt spent a decade writing The Goldfinch. Markus Zusak spent three years on The Book Thief. All of these are living writers working within the modern publishing industry. Clearly, in the race between hares and tortoises, the answer is that both can win.

Speed is not a writer’s enemy. But sloppiness is, and while good writing can happen quickly, sloppiness is more often the result of rushing than of careful slowness. Very few of us are Ishiguro.

The modern world has a tendency to want to quantify every aspect of existence. We trust numbers; we have been brainwashed to believe that numbers never lie. Two plus two is always four. Four is always more than two. Mathematical proof is final. Progress must move toward the right on the number line, not the left. In the case of something as ephemeral as a story—a genuinely un-quantifiable entity—we nevertheless seek comfort in whatever numbers we can attach to it. Word count. Copies issued. Copies sold. Dollars earned. See, we tell ourselves, progress is still numbers. Progress is visible. Progress moves forward.

And yet, for the writer, real progress often moves backwards. It is far better to cut the unnecessary scene, no matter how finely-wrought, than to foist it upon the reader. If problems in chapter one prevent you from writing chapter twelve, then it is far better to fix chapter one than to pound resolutely forward, knowing that you are building on a cracked foundation. Above all people, the fiction writer—whose calling is to probe the mysterious depths of humankind—ought to know that numbers can lie, that loss can be counted as gain, that paradox is our natural human state. And yet, we often allow the culture of consumerism to bully even novelists into believing that “productivity” must be our standard. Set up the assembly line. Push the words through. Next novel, please, or you’re fired.

Of course, novelists who are working under contract deadlines really must conform to these standards. However, I suspect that very few of the almost 400,000 people who participated in NaNoWriMo in 2016 had a contract to satisfy. Imagine if, instead of setting themselves a goal to write 50,000 words in a month, each and every one of those 400,000 people set the goal to write one masterpiece in a lifetime—one work of art that each individual would be proud to leave behind as a legacy to the world. Then imagine a whole community dedicated to supporting them the way NaNoWriMo tries to support its participants. What might our writing culture be like then?

What if, instead of asking each other, How many words did you write this week?, writers asked each other questions like, What did your characters teach you this week? What did you learn about your own artistic process? What did you write that required courage, whether because of its content or because you stepped out into new waters of style, genre, vocabulary? What difficult choice did you make concerning either content or craft? What beauty did you create? What love did you show? What empathy did you practice? These are the true hallmarks of progress for the fiction writer: that he or she exhibits dedication to the art and craft of storytelling, and that he or she nurtures a love for fiction’s subject, which is always humankind. Without this progress, a writer’s word count is meaningless—as will be the story those words contain.

Productivity is an idol that can lead to sloppiness and blind us to our real goals, not only as writers but in virtually any area of life. However, I cannot close without acknowledging that it has an equal, opposite idol: perfectionism. For many of us, there is a powerful temptation never to be satisfied—to do the opposite of rushing through sloppy work, and continue revising endlessly long after the work is done. It would be a noble thing if every writer set out to create one masterpiece in a lifetime, but rarely will the current project become that masterpiece. Humility is the only remedy for both of these extremes: humility to submit ourselves to become instruments of God’s creation; humility to look only at what is best for the work, not what is best for its creator’s pride; humility to acknowledge the limits of our own skill, to push them, but also to know when they are reached, and we have produced the best work we are capable of making. Then, and only then, should tortoises and hares alike be ready to cross the finish line and write, “The End.”

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.