Saturday, December 29, 2012

Dare Me by Megan Abbott: A Review

Dare MeDare Me by Megan Abbott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a brilliant though nearly indescribable book. (There is simply no good way to explain how a book about cheerleaders and murder can be lyrical and beautiful, but it is.)

This is the story of the friendship between Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy, two high school cheerleaders at the top of their game. But when a new coach is hired to lead them, the delicate pyramid of power is disrupted, and the consequences are deadly.

I loved this book. The writing is gorgeous. It is visceral and magical and raw. Abbott perfectly captures the evils of adolescent self-absorption and cruelty in these characters in pitch-perfect prose.

I keep describing this to friends as the literary equivalent of the film "Heathers," but it's so much better even than that.

Read this!

Monday, December 17, 2012

For the Sisters and Brothers

My first reaction to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday was as a mother. Outrage and fear and pure agonizing sorrow have settled somewhere in the depths of my marrow over the last few days. But my next reaction comes as someone who at a very young age lost two siblings. This is for the surviving brothers and sisters.

When I was ten years old, my mother gave birth to twin girls: Jillian and Miranda. They were unplanned and unexpected as well. (In 1979, doctors did not routinely conduct ultrasounds, and so when my mother went into labor a month early and Jillian was born, the doctor was baffled at her small size until he realized she had a twin still waiting to be born.) And so, ready or not, our family of four grew quickly into a family of six.

The twins were premature, and they were born in a rural hospital that did not have the sophisticated NICU wards of today's facilities. They were in the hospital for an entire month before they were allowed to come home. However, despite the lack of access to neonatal specialists, they seemed to have made it past the initial hurdles of being born too small (just about 3 and 4 pounds each respectively). And their lives felt like gifts.

Soon, however, it became evident that they had health issues that transcended their being born prematurely. The phrase I remember being used again and again by the doctors was "failure to thrive." This meant they did not eat, and they did not grow, and they did not develop as they should. By the following summer, they were both very ill. They had respiratory issues, cardiac issues, and something called "lactic acidosis" which rendered them in a constant state of pain.

We spent the entire summer commuting between our home and a larger hospital an hour away. The doctors were mystified, and could offer us little hope. And when Jillian passed away that June, we all feared for her identical twin's fate.

But I was eleven then, and I believed in the power of magical thinking. I believed that if I prayed hard enough, if I bargained with God, if I promised any number of little girl promises, that Miranda would survive. And so when she died that August, I was devastated. I was angry with the universe. I was angry with God. And I felt utterly powerless. (I can only imagine what my mother and father felt. And as a mother now, I wonder at the grace with which they handled this theft. I know now, this was their gift to me and my younger sister and I am so, so grateful.)

When school started again, I channeled this frustration and sorrow into writing. I wrote the story of this loss again and again and again. (I believe sometimes that I am still writing that story with every novel I write.)

Writing gave me control. It put me in charge in a situation where no one was in charge. It empowered me. And it conjured them; it brought them back, at least in my imagination.

On Saturday, I wrote 9,000 words. I turned off the television and (when I wasn't hugging my own daughters) I wrote. And wrote. I was manic. Mad even, pounding out a story that had nothing to do with the reality of what happened in Connecticut on Friday. I was eleven years old again, trying desperately to create a world in which children do not die. In which little girls will not grow up without their sisters.

All I have, all I have ever had, are my words, but now they seem to fail me. Because I don't know how to make sense of this, how to get control over this. In my family's case, our loss was tragic but explainable. Illness, sickness, is a fact of life. It is not evil, it just is.

But what happened on Friday did not have to happen. It did not have to happen. And I cannot fathom the sense of injustice these families must feel.

I know the grief of losing a sibling. I know the sorrow of a life cut short. The anguish of stolen promises. And I write this for the brothers and sisters, for the children who will always wonder what their lives would be like if the world were a kinder place.

I wish I had words that could undo their pain. But I could write a million words and none of them could lessen this overwhelming sadness. These are futile incantations, evidence only of our ultimate powerlessness in this sorrowful aftermath.

And so it is with humility that I offer this to the sisters and brothers of the twenty children lost on Friday. I know this, because I am evidence of this:

You will grow up. You will become important, intelligent, and sensitive people. You will fall in love, you will feel joy and happiness again. And you will carry the memory of your siblings in the deepest parts of your huge hearts and in your beautiful smiles.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

"Done"

So NaNoWriMo just ended. For the entire month of November I religiously awoke at 6 a.m. and wrote until I had 2000 words. This year, I cheated a little, starting out with 20,000 words instead of none. But I wrote the requisite 50,000 (plus an additional 10,000) during the month of November. And today, I wrote the 89,015th word and came to the book's (first) end.

I am "done." But what does that mean? This book, in its current form, is for my eyes only. No one, but me, will ever read these pages. It is, despite that (first) final sentence and sentiment, still very much a work-in-progress. It is not done by any stretch of the imagination.

But the only way to manage a novel for me is in phases. And each phase has a finish line. This is the first.

Here is what "done" means for me at this stage:

For two or so months now, I have submerged myself into the murky depths of this story. I have, whether I felt like it or not, entered the lives of these characters and made them struggle and suffer. I have watched them make mistakes, love each other, hate each other. I have written scenes that were just dreadful and left them wriggling there on the page like severed worms. I have written descriptions that weren't quite right but would do, for now. I have lost control of the story and then reined it back in. I have explored and scavenged and imagined and then re-imagined these characters' lives. I spent a week writing the most tantric climax in the history of climaxes...seriously, it went on and on and on...wondering the entire time if anyone would ever, ever believe it. And then, on the other side of that storm, I struggled to make the ending not feel like a rushed afterthought but rather a culmination -- of everything that came before it -- as a good ending should be.

Writing first drafts is thrilling and frustrating, exhilarating and exhausting. One day I feel brilliant, and the next day I feel like a fraud. The result is usually an odd combination of pitch-perfect prose and unbelievable plot twists. Character who are as vivid and real as my own family members until they open their mouths and all the cliches spew out. There are amazing insights and themes bubbling to the surface and dull, unoriginal thoughts as well. It is terrible and wonderful and not even close to done.

I know that for the next nine months or so I will turn this draft upside down and inside out. Characters will change or disappear entirely. Sentences will be dissected and entire paragraphs excised.

But the story has a (first) beginning a (first) middle and a (first) end. The first draft is "done."

And now I nap.

Monday, December 03, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: A Review

The Perks of Being a WallflowerThe Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3 1/2 stars. I think I would have really enjoyed this book as a young teen. The voice of Charlie, the ninth grade narrator, is authentic and sweet. His self-awareness and naivete make for a truly endearing character. He is a "troubled" kid who is seeing a psychiatrist for some fairly ambiguous problems, a loner who finds friendship and acceptance in a small group of older teens. There were a lot of complex issues explored (domestic violence as it pertains to teens, sexual abuse, homosexuality, and suicide), but it didn't ever feel over-the-top.

With all that said, I didn't feel as attached to his friends, Patrick and Sam, as I wanted to be. I think I would have felt the intensity of his feelings if the entire triumvirate were more fully fleshed out. The other issue I found problematic was the epistolary device. The novel is told in a series of letters to an unidentified character. I kept waiting for the identity of the recipient to be revealed, and it just doesn't happen.

My Favorite Books of 2012


One of my resolutions this year was to read 100 books. And while I'm pretty sure I am not likely to reach this lofty goal, I have read more than a book a week this year, many of them books published in 2012.

Here are my favorites.

Some of them will likely populate a zillion "Best Of" lists, but there are a few buried treasures here as well. (These are listed in no particular order.)

The Guardians: An Elegy
Girlchild: A Novel
The Age of Miracles
The Salt God's Daughter
The Yellow Birds
The Odds
Outside the Lines 
Beautiful Ruins
The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving 
The Fault in Our Stars

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan: A Review

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreMr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This one had me at "24-Hour Bookstore" :) And, indeed, the magic of this book lies in this namesake bookstore itself.

The novel opens with Clay, an unemployed website techie, who finds himself working the late shift at an all-night bookstore in San Francisco. But this is no ordinary bookstore. The shelves are stocked not with ordinary books but bound puzzles (of sorts), and the "customers" aren't customers at all. I won't go into the details so as not to spoil anything. Suffice it to say, that while this book is a clever page-turner that follows Clay on his quest to uncover the secrets of a mysterious book and the underground society dedicated to its preservation and the cracking of its code, it is also an interesting commentary on the place of books in a digital age and the unique possibilities of how this chasm might be bridged.

The only disappointment for me was the rapid-fire ending, as well as the slight let down I felt when the riddle was solved (so much build up, it would have been nearly impossible to fulfill whatever expectations I had). But this book is really fun, and very, very clever.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers: A Review

The Yellow BirdsThe Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4 1/2 stars. Wow. There is imagery in this small novel about an Iraq war vet that may never leave my memory.

However, anyone looking for a linear "war story" shouldn't bother. This book is messy and complex, even in its simplicity. But it somehow manages to both capture the experience in a hypnotic, poetic, rumination rather than a traditional narrative. This book is chaotic, achingly visceral, and tremendously lyrical in its rendering of war and its aftermath.

I fell in love with THE THINGS THEY CARRIED by Tim O'Brien when I was a student. This novel does what O'Brien did for Vietnam for the war in Iraq. It is no wonder it was nominated for a National Book Award. Gorgeous.

Monday, November 05, 2012

On Hope (Four Years Later)

I'm not entirely sure how it is possible that four years have passed since President Obama was first elected. Already, the memories of that Tuesday have faded for the girls. Only Kicky vaguely recalls being awakened from sleep to hear Obama give his acceptance speech with his wife and two little girls at his side. And neither of them remembers that cold day in January when we watched the inauguration on TV while their dad braved the frigid temperatures and unbelievable crowds on the Mall. Obama's daughters have grown, and so have ours. Four years is a long time in the life of a child, but not so long in the life of a man. And especially a man with such a big job to do.

I don't know what will happen tomorrow. No one really does. Because no matter what any polls suggest right now, uncertainty is the only certainty. What I do know is this: four years ago, everything was in turmoil. Everything was precarious. The housing market had crashed, the economy had crashed, people were despairing everywhere. Obama offered hope, and while the ascension from those seemingly bottomless depths has been slow, the climb has been a steady one. And it is hope that sustained us.

This campaign has been endless and ugly. I truly fear for the future. I fear a backsliding, an undoing of all the good that has been done. I worry about my rights as a woman and the rights of my daughters to govern their own bodies and to love whomever it is they choose to love. I worry about the earth's health, and the health of all the people on it. I need hope that our movement as a country, as people, will be forward.

Below is the letter I wrote to the girls so they might never forget the importance of that historic moment. And lest I ever forget the pride, the excitement, and, most importantly, the hope I felt for my country that day just over four years ago:

January 19, 2009

Dear Kicky and Esmée,

I just put you down to sleep after a long day off from work and school. Your Daddy is at the theatre at one of the inauguration events, and I am here, listening to the sounds of the house as you fall asleep.

I know you both understand what is happening tomorrow, though I also know you are too little still to understand how very important this day is. Your father and I debated for a long time about whether or not we should take you down to the Mall to witness the swearing in of our 44th president, Mr. Barack Obama. And it was with a heavy heart, and more than a little hesitation, that I finally told your father to accept the ticket that had been offered to him and made the decision that we girls would stay home to watch Obama address this nation as President for the very first time.

On the news, the streets that we drive every day are filled with people. There is a line trailing two blocks long out of Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street. The Mall is crawling with people who will sleep in the cold all night just to be closer to him tomorrow. Esmée, when you go to school on Wednesday, you will be only blocks away from where the Obama girls eat and play and sleep. People have traveled here (our home, the place where we live!) from all over this country, all over this world, just to take part in this moment in history.

I can’t help but worry that I am depriving you of an experience of a lifetime, that some day I may truly wish I had risked the crowds and suffered the cold with you, so that you could also be a part of history. That this will be one of my big regrets. We live so close. We could almost walk. But I only want you warm and safe. And as your mommy, that trumps everything, right?

What I need to remind myself is that you are a part of this moment in history. You, my two bright eyed, curly-haired angels, are Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream realized. You too are products of the civil rights struggle which has ultimately led to this moment. You too are proof that this world can change.

Your grandfather, who passed away before you were born, was a young man back when Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus. Around the same time he was one of the first black lifeguards at an all white east coast beach. When he proposed to your Nonna (and she said yes) it was with the understanding that they might both lose their jobs. That their love for each other would threaten friendships and family ties. They risked everything to be together. And the result was more than twenty-five years of marriage, your Auntie B, and your Daddy.

And, thankfully, their courage, and the courage of countless others was not in vain. By the time your father and I fell in love, the world had shifted on its axis. Changed.

Now, when I look around your classrooms at the myriad of colors (at the faces in all their beautiful shades of brown and peach and cream), my heart thrills at your curiosity about each others' differences and your simultaneous ability to transcend them. You are dumbfounded by our fascination with this, can’t understand why a brown-skinned man in the White House is such an anomaly. You are seemingly incapable of prejudice. Racial bias is, at least for now, a bitter relic of your ancestors’ pasts.

Tomorrow, we will watch our future unfold on TV, safe and warm inside. You may or may not remember the details of this day, but I will try to remember them for you.

Whether we are there or not, you are a part of history, little ones. You are the proof. Yes we can, he says. And I believe -- I have to believe for you -- he is telling the truth.

On this day and every day, I love you…to the bottom of the ocean and back to the top,

Mommy

Thursday, October 25, 2012

On Envy

Envy is bad. I tell my girls all the time what an ugly thing it is. It's petty. It's selfish. And more than anything it shows a lack of self-confidence, a fundamental chip in one's armor. To envy is to admit that someone else has something you don't have, and worse, can't. Then why, as a writer, do I find myself feeling so damned bitter so much of the damned time? Why am I even ashamed a little to write this post?

Maybe it's just that it's that time of the year. It's fall, when all of the publishers' biggest hitters come to bat; it's also when all the major book awards are given out, seemingly to the same handful of people.  (I'm sorry, but if I have to read another essay about Junot Diaz's genius, I might shoot myself.) All of this seeming to prove that, contrary to what some argue, there is a limited amount of love for writers. And some of them hog it all up. We are, whether we like it or not, engaged in a competitive sport: competing for attention, review space, prizes.

I am "friends" with a lot of writers on Facebook, and in real life many of them are, indeed, friends. And I can honestly say that it is not envy but happiness I feel when one of them is on a roll. I have squealed with delight at their publishing news, their good reviews. And I'll be the first one to spread the word. But for some of those I've never met face to face (or met and didn't really like all that much) I find myself sighing and wishing their good fortune was my own. That I were able to post fifteen different glowing reviews of my latest book, transcriptions of the gushing interviews, photos of the magazine spreads.

Envy makes me feel self-righteous (another ugly trait). I am the hardest working girl in the book business, I tell myself. I'm under-appreciated. They'll miss me when I'm gone.  -- all of which makes me feel better for about thirty seconds. And then I feel sick. Self-loathing almost always follows a good flirtation with envy. It's like drinking too much. You know it's bad, that tomorrow you'll feel awful, but still you indulge.

But the worst part is that it's paralyzing. When I am feeling this way, I am incapable of putting pen to paper. Everything I write sounds like shit. I second guess every word, every metaphor, everything. Envy makes me a bad writer and worse, a hypocrite. I don't ever want my daughters to begrudge anyone anything, or to feel that they are lesser people for simple lack of recognition.

And so I am vowing right now to put a kibosh on the envy. I'm going to hide those Facebook posts so I won't even be tempted. I'm going to let it go. Because I am the hardest working girl in the book business, and now it's time to get back to work.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

All About Lu-Lu by Jonathan Evison: A Review

All About LuluAll About Lulu by Jonathan Evison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3 1/2 stars. What I loved about The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, I also loved about this, Evison's first, novel: the quirky characters, the humor, and, ultimately, the underlying sense of sorrow and less. It did feel more muted in this freshman effort though...Evison has clearly grown as a writer.

This is the story of Will Miller, vegetarian son of bodybuilding and meat-eating Will Miller, Sr. Overestimated his whole life, he is wracked with a sense of unfulfilled promise. Enter Lu-Lu. After Will's mother dies, and Will Sr. remarries, his new step-sister, Lu-Lu, enters his life and suddenly gives him a true sense of purpose.

However, over time Lu-Lu begins to change, pulling farther and farther away from Will. His longing for her, and the pain of her evasion is acute.

The book was sort of like a cross between a John Irving novel (with its colorful cast of misfits) and Endless Love by Scott Spencer (unrequited teenaged love at its best). The twist at the end was a little predictable, but overall it was a fun and engaging read.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

It's Like Pulling Teeth

My girls, while sharing many, many similarities do exhibit one stark and striking difference: the way in which they handle a loose tooth.

Esmee is one of those kids who just leaves it alone. The roots start to dissolve, the tooth gets wiggly, and she waits. And waits, and waits. Until the thing is spinning around, hanging by a thread, disrupting her speaking and eating. And then, just when I don't think I can even stand to look at her adorable face anymore (disfigured as it is by this dangling tooth), she gives it the one little tug that sets it free. I suspect she'll be one of those teenagers that leaves her zits alone too. That never waits by the phone for a boy to call. I am in awe of her patience, her nearly zen-like stoicism, the way she just lets the chips fall as they may. Maybe because I have never, ever shared that type of restraint, that magical self-control. And neither has her sister.

When Kicky was about seven years old, we had a party at our house. It was mostly guys. We ordered a Wrestlemania event on pay-per-view (don't ask), and barbequed. The kids were amped up. They both love an audience, and this was a captive one. At this point Kicky had lost several teeth, including one of her top front ones. The other one was just starting to wiggle. But for whatever reason, she became convinced that she was going to lose the tooth that night. And over the course of the next several hours she made it happen. Blame it on the testosterone, or the spectacle that is Wrestlemania, but the girl was determined. And with the next body-slam, she yanked that tooth out by the roots and held it up, in all its bloody glory for us to see. Her pride. Her prize.

I like to think of her as pro-active, of one who takes initiative, of a girl who knows what she wants and isn't afraid to go get it. Like me. (I remember distinctly kneeling on the pedestal sink for hours, face pressed against the mirror, as I wriggled and wriggled my own teeth prematurely from their own comfortable sockets.) But what I'm finding is that this personality trait Kicky and I share is a positive attribute in some circumstances, but not so great in others. (I see ravaged blemishes, and nights spent lamenting the silent phone in her teenaged future, and it breaks my heart.)

Soliciting her father's help.

















And as for me?

I have been working on the new book now for over a month. And it's been agonizing. I write 5000 words, delete 5000 words. I create a character and then wipe them off the face of my fictional universe. I think I know where I'm going and then I'm lost, up to my knees in proverbial verbal quicksand. I wake up every morning wondering what will go wrong next. The last book didn't give me grief like this. It was easy, breezy. I dare say it wrote itself...seriously, I showed up to do the typing but the story emerged without resistance.

This one, though? It's that just-barely loose tooth. It's not ready. It would probably benefit from Esmee's graceful forbearance. I admire the writers who languish, who wait months, years, for the story to come. For the patient ones. But I'm like a seven year old at a Wrestlemania party, and I am dying to yank that sucker out by the roots. No guts, no glory...right, Kick?

Saturday, October 06, 2012

The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter: A Review

The Financial Lives of the PoetsThe Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved Beautiful Ruins (one of my favorite books of the summer), and Walter's backlist (thus far) does not disappoint.

This book should be depressing, but it's not. Who would have thought that a book set during the country's descent into The Great Recession could be laugh-out-loud funny? I was pretty skeptical.

Matt (our hero) is a former business reporter who gave up his job to pursue his dream of creating a website dedicated to business news given in poetic form (poetfolio.com). However, the website never got off the ground, and after returning to his job, the economy bottomed out and he was laid off. The housing market also crashed, and jobless, he was talked into filing for forbearance. We meet Matt, our hero, six days before he will lose his house if he is unable to come up with a $31,000 balloon payment (and with $9,400 to his name). In addition to these dire financial straits, his wife has begun an online flirtation with an old flame. On the precipice of homelessness, financial ruin, and losing his wife to a guy named Chuck, Matt goes out to the 7-11 one night for milk and meets his destiny...in the form of two drug dealers.

I'll let you experience the rest of this one on your own. You'll be glad you did.

While Beautiful Ruins had greater depth...this novel is equally riveting and heart-breaking and funny. Walter's characters are just terrific.

Friday, October 05, 2012

On How I Wish I Could Write Funny

I have a pretty good sense of humor. I crack jokes. I'm fairly quick witted. But when it comes to writing, I can't write funny to save my life.

I know some people don't read me, because my subject matter is almost always serious. I like the underbelly of things. I tend to dig into the deep dark places and set up camp there. I get it; my books are not beachy sort of reads. And yet other people are drawn to those dark recesses, moths flirting with flames.

But I love humorous writing, and I really wish I could do it well without sacrificing the larger intent of my work. Maybe it's because I've been reading a couple of those sorts of books lately -- the first being The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison (you can see my review here). It's brilliant in its ability to both make you laugh and crush your heart at the same time. So too, am I finding The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter. On the surface, it's about a guy who has lost his job and is about to lose both his house and his wife. Pretty grim stuff. But it's hysterical. I have seriously guffawed in public over this book.

I want to write that kind of book someday. I want to write "The Little Miss Sunshine" of books.

I don't know whether I am articulating this because I have any intention of doing it NOW...in this book, the one with the bridges and the taxidermied animals and the hurricane. Or if it's just some vague goal.

After the big changes I recently began to implement, my book is shrinking. I am losing thousands of words a day even as it begins to really gel together. Do you know what that feels like? It feels like crap. It feels like the opposite of progress. And then this drunk female reporter shows up the other day, and I don't know whether she belongs in this book or not. But she's funny. She's really funny, and I wonder if she deserves any of these new words.

With every novel I try to challenge myself in some way (whether in terms of point of view, or plot, or style). But I just don't know if this is the book where I write funny or not.

What do you think?

Monday, October 01, 2012

First Drafts and Other Dirty Little Secrets

The other day I read something about an author who is allowing readers to watch her novel-writing process via Google Docs. That's one ballsy lady, I thought. I could never imagine allowing anyone access to my false starts, my flailing, my failures. My first drafts are ugly little things. Really, truly homely. Every single one of them begins like an awkward adolescent with bad skin and bad posture and a bad haircut. You, the reader, don't see them until they've somehow survived that awkward phase and bloomed into the pretty and smart things they were destined to be.

I kind of love the illusion that my novels come out fully formed, my prose lovely, and my characters fleshy and real. But this illusion is a dangerous thing as well, because it says to beginning writers that first drafts are something to be ashamed of. That they are something that writer's shouldn't talk about, shouldn't share, shouldn't even become too attached to.

I am a teacher as well as a writer, and I feel as though I am constantly trying to relay the notion that writing is a process -- and even that one should stand back and look at entire books as just part of the larger process of making a writing life. But that's a hard point to drive home, when what I typically offer of my own work is what's on the pages of already published novels. They aren't the crappy paragraphs riddled with cliches and flat characters. They aren't the rambling pages of exposition, of stilted dialogue, of clumsy descriptions.

So...while I am not yet ready to bare all, (boy, the Queen would have loved me), I am willing to share a bit of the clunky business of drafting a novel. That was part of the whole point of this blog to begin with, wasn't it?

Anyway...as of October 1, 2012 (that's today), here is where I am with my novel. I changed my mind about something huge. I had to nix my 86 year old agoraphobe. She just doesn't belong in this book. Every morning for two weeks I have woken up at 4 a.m. wracking my brain my as to why I couldn't seem to decided what was going to happen next. (I sort of ran out of steam after the first 10,000 words...and started wondering if maybe this whole thing was just another terrible idea.) And then it dawned on me that all that fear and anxiety she was feeling, that need to closet herself away really belongs to my narrator's mother instead.

A few days ago, I began to hear this strangely hypnotic voice that, I think, will open the book as a sort of prologue...but keeping it means losing the old lady. I have no choice.

Other things that happened this week? I have researched Nascar, taxidermy, and bridges. So much about bridges. And yesterday, I finally got my opening chapter written. What if a boy is sent to live with his agoraphobic mom for two weeks while his amputee Dad and uncle drive to Daytona after winning a ride in the pace car? We'll see. And I'll keep you posted. Here.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison: A Review

The Revised Fundamentals of CaregivingThe Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Last night while I was lying in bed finishing this book (which I had initially recommended to my husband), I shook my head and said, "Nope. You shouldn't read this one." "Why?" he asked. "It will break your heart," I said. "In half."

THE REVISED FUNDAMENTALS OF CAREGIVING (which is one of the best titles ever in the history of titles) is the story of Benjamin Benjamin, a man who has suffered an unthinkable tragedy and, in the wake of the disaster, is charged with caring for a young man named Trevor who suffers from Muscular Dystrophy. A real light-hearted beach read, right?

But surprisingly, Evison is able to bring humor to this story of two men who find hope in each other. I found myself laughing long before it made me cry.

It's a road trip novel filled with colorful characters. It's got a little love story too. Some of the action felt a little over-the-top (car chases, lots of physical comedy), but I forgive these small weaknesses because by the end of the novel I truly cared about both Ben and Trevor. And it broke my heart. In half. Luckily, unlike my husband, I enjoy that sort of thing.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Breathing Water: A Retrospective

1999 was an amazing year. At the end of my life, I still suspect I will look back at that year with equal parts wonder, nostalgia, and pride. I got married in 1999. I turned 30. I received a $10,000 grant from the Sherwood Anderson Foundation immediately after being laid off from the job I had entering airline award rules into a database for a website that no longer exists. And my first novel, Breathing Water, was published.

Breathing Water was not really my first novel. It was actually my third. In college I wrote a book called Tygers and Berries: A Modern Inferno (don't ask, please don't ask). In graduate school I wrote a novel which ultimately became Paper Rain. (You can see the post about this one here.) But Breathing Water was the first novel to be published, to find a real audience. And I was over the moon.

I remember going to our local Barnes and Noble and seeing a stack of them on the front table and almost passing out. I wish there was a word for that feeling, but there just isn't.

My publisher didn't send me on tour, but I fashioned a tour myself, traveling around Vermont with my Dad, visiting all of the local bookstores where I happily sat signing books for anyone who would have me.


Me at my very first book signing.

I remember feeling both thrilled and exposed by the novel. Knowing that there were five thousand copies (!) out there in the world was both exciting and terrifying. What would people think? Of Effie (who was so very much like me at the time). Of my writing? What if people hated it? What if it was all a fluke, or worse some cruel sort of joke?

Then when the review came out in The New York Times, I was pretty sure I was on the fast track to literary fame and fortune. (My grandfather posted copies of the review all over my hometown in Vermont -- including on the bulletin board at the boat access area at the pond which serves as inspiration for Lake Gormlaith. He also purchased a dozen copies which he distributed to all of the local libraries, slipping a copy of the review inside each one.)

Who would have known that just five years later, Breathing Water, as well as my second and third novels would be out of print? That I'd be working as an admin assistant at an IT company. That I would be so busy with two babies I barely had time to think, never mind to write. And that when I finally did manage to finish my fourth novel, no one in the world would want it. That I was damaged goods. Having three novels out of print made me an untouchable in publishing, though no one would admit that was the reason for rejection.

The grant money was long gone (as well as money from the NEA which allowed me to finish Two Rivers). Breathing Water had been remaindered, that luminous blue cover labeled with Discounted stickers wherever books were sold. All those gifts from 1999 were gone. Though luckily, the husband stuck.

It felt like a death. Of course, the grief was smaller, the sorrow just a sliver of true sorrow. But it truly felt like a dream had died.

The years that followed were difficult, though filled with so many other blisses: my daughters, a cross-country move/adventure, many years of teaching, and more writing. Because while the dream of fame and fortune (of further publication even) might have been dead on the vine, the need to write was not. And the simple act of writing, of working and creating was what drove me. I had to trust that if I continued to write my heart on the page that someday someone would love those pages back.

Of course, most of you know the rest of the story. Two Rivers finally found its home with Kensington (as did the the subsequent four novels). And even better, Kensington bought my backlist and has systematically revived them - one by one, year by year, ending with the re-release of Breathing Water. Today.

Today is the first day in a decade that every single one of my books is in print. And while nothing compares to that moment when I stood looking at my books perched on the front table at Barnes and Noble for the first time, this feeling comes pretty damn close.

Monday, September 24, 2012

When One Idea Usurps Another

Here's what happened:

I wrote the first thirty pages of a new book. I listened as the characters started to tell me their stories. I got excited about them. They started to breathe. I came up with a title. I even made a Pinterest page where I gathered images to inspire. And then I signed a contract with my publisher for three new books...this would be the first.

But then we went to Vermont (where the novel is set), and the voices got softer. Farther away instead of closer. I was looking everywhere for the story, but it was playing an elaborate game of hide-n-seek with me. Still, I didn't fret. I enjoyed time away from writing and with my family. I read lots and lots of wonderful books. I walked in the woods. I basked in the sun. I ate a lot. I looked at the pond.

Then, one day as we were driving into town from our camp, I saw a trailer that I had never noticed before, spray-painted: NO TRESPASSING, NONE! GAURD [sic] DOGS 24 7. That's right. Someone spray-painted their house in order to keep trespassers out. There were also signs nailed to the trees by the house, bearing the same warnings (but in fluorescent orange instead of white Rustoleum). What also happened during our trip back east was that we went to visit family in Massachusetts and went on a tour of Emily Dickinson's house. I started thinking about agoraphobia and the solace of home, the safety of home. The sanctity of home. Contributing to this, we had a minor mishap with our rental house (our old house in Maryland) which got me thinking a lot about privacy and property and home ownership. This summer we also lost my grandmother, which both muddied and clarified all sorts of things. Anyway, all of a sudden there were new voices whispering in my ear, saying, Listen to my story.

We came back from Vermont and determined to return to the original idea. I figured I'd been on vacation, so maybe these characters had too. But to no avail. It's kind of like love...you can't make someone love you back. And Rain and Vivi are playing hard to get. Or maybe they're just letting these new characters have this dance.

So what next? Next I listen. I listen to R.J. as he tells me about his obsession with bridges. I listen to Sylvie as she describes her life confined inside her 500 square foot home. I wait for the hurricane that is creeping up the coast.

And then when this song is over, I'll go back to the corner where I hope the others are sitting patiently waiting and I'll see if they are ready to dance.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Salt God's Daughter by Ilie Ruby: A Review

The Salt God's DaughterThe Salt God's Daughter by Ilie Ruby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ruby's THE SALT GOD'S DAUGHTER reads like an extended dream, this novel unlike anything else I've ever read. This story is written in a language somewhere between poetry and prose, about a world somewhere between reality and fantasy, and the characters somehow between human and mythological.

The story of three generations of women, it is also about motherhood and nature and the cruelties of humankind. Set in southern California primarily in 1970s and 1980s, most of the novel is dedicated to Ruth, the daughter of a bohemian mother who fails her daughters at seemingly every turn. But it also offers us Naida, Ruth's daughter. I found Naida to be the most endearing character, and my heart ached for her as she struggled to free herself from her own heredity and history.

It took me forever to read this simply because I wanted to linger over certain sentences. The lyricism reminded me in many ways of WE, THE ANIMALS by Justin Torres; the prose was so lush and rich.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: A Review

The Art of FieldingThe Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here is further evidence (as if I needed it) that I need to relinquish my stubborn reluctance to pick up certain books.

The Art of Fielding, despite being about baseball (i.e. the slowest, most boring sport in the universe) and college boys (also some of the slowest and most boring things in the universe), was exactly the kind of novel that I love.

Henry Skrimshander begins his promising career as a shortstop at Westish College under the tutelage of classmate Mike Schwartz, but one ill-fated throw shatters his zen-like composure on the field and threatens his entire future. The novel follows Henry and Mike as well as the small college's president, Guert Affenlight and his prodigal son of a daughter, Pelly.

The story is sprawling in scope and crawling with quirky characters in the way that John Irving and Michael Chabon's novels are. (It did, at times, echo A Prayer for Owen Meany just a little too closely – though Irving himself endorsed the novel with a dust jacket blurb, so apparently he was okay with the similarities, so why shouldn't I be?)

It wasn't perfect, and the end wasn't the home run (ha ha) that I hoped for, but it was fun and I will definitely read Harbach's sophomore effort.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty: A Review

The ChaperoneThe Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3 1/2 stars.

The premise of this novel is terrific: the story of one summer in the life of silent film star Louise Brooks and her chaperone, Cora. Cora is a likeable and compelling character. An orphan who has made a life for herself in Wichita, she is seeking answers to the questions of her parentage and early years and embraces an opportunity to return to New York City as a chaperone to a fifteen year old Louise Brooks who has been invited to study dance there for the summer.

I thoroughly enjoyed the story of the summer these two very different women spent together -- Cora seeking her past, and Louise chasing her future. Moriarty does a fabulous job of rendering these two characters and painting New York City in the twenties; I was absolutely captivated by both the characters and the setting.

However, I felt like narrative didn't have anywhere to go after this pivotal summer, and Moriarty winds up leading us through the subsequent years in these women's lives at breakneck speed, summarizing the consequences of this turning point in each of their lives in a way that made me feel distanced from each of them. I think Moriarty strives to make this a story about Cora's search for identity, but ultimately the ending feels too pat, and a bit contrived.

Still, the prose is lovely and the characters and setting are magical at times. Definitely worth the read.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker: A Review

The Age of MiraclesThe Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this novel primarily because of the buzz but also because it is set in San Diego where Walker grew up(and where I now live).

The Age of Miracles follows Julia, a young girl on the cusp of adolescence in a world on the cusp of collapse. Julia's San Diego looks a lot like mine except for the one small detail that her earth has suddenly started to turn more slowly: days swelling by minutes at first and then by hours, circadian rhythms interrupted by pervasive daylight and, alternately, agonizingly long stretches of darkness.

The premise of time somehow slowing has tremendous literary potential...from the obvious plot possibilities to metaphor, and I believe the best moments in this novel are when Julia
ponders the larger and more esoteric implications of "the slowing": "From then on, we all had little more time to decide what not to do. And who knows how fast a second-guess can travel. Who has ever measured the exact speed of regret?"

It is, by turns a coming of age story, a love story, and the story of a family, all set against an incredibly innovative dystopian backdrop.

My only complaint is that the set-up makes the end nearly impossible to pull off without tremendous tragedy or an improbable solution. Walker does a fine job, but not perfect, and I felt just the tiniest bit disappointed.(Though I honestly have no idea how she could have made it any better.)

Overall, I really, really enjoyed this and think it would have an enormous YA appeal as well.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: A Review

Beautiful RuinsBeautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a beautiful, crazy story. Set alternately in 1962 Italy, current-day Hollywood, Idaho and Edinburgh, and following the lives of an Italian inn keeper, an American actress, a Hollywood producer, an aspiring screenwriter, and a has-been (maybe a never-was) musician, Beautiful Ruins is just that...the story of gorgeous ruined lives.

In 1962, Pasquale Tursi is twenty-two, having returned to his village to run his father's hotel. While he dreams of enticing American tourists to this remote cove, the tiny village is in reality the destination of no one. Until one day when Dee Moray, a beautiful American actress arrives. She is in Italy filming "Cleopatra" with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, but has fallen ill.

What unfolds from this opening chapter is an intricate study of choice and fate, and of how desire informs both. "This is a love story...But really what isn't?" The characters Walter has created are hungry, desirous, wanting creatures (as are we all). And this book languishes in this human yearning.

I was absolutely captivated by these intertwined stories which lead, ultimately, to one of the most beautiful, lyrical final chapters I have ever read.

It is reminiscent of nothing...entirely original. A new favorite. Read this book. Read this book!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: A Review

Gone GirlGone Girl by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3 1/2 - 4 stars.

Nick's wife, Amy, goes missing. Nick looks very, very suspicious. Beyond that, I'm not going to say a word about the plot for fear of giving anything away.

I should say though that I was frustrated for the first half of this novel. I griped about it on Facebook and to anyone who'd listen. I didn't like Nick or Amy. I actually didn't care that she'd disappeared, and figured he'd probably get exactly what he deserved. I also thought I had everything figured out. But boy, was I wrong. Thank God. After the 200 page mark or so, it gets really good. It's twisty and turny and surprising and fun. (I did suspect the twist...but not enough for it to feel anti-climactic. Vague enough??)

A light, fun summer beach read. I can see its broad appeal.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

WRITER

For the past two years I have participated in the Steele Canyon High School's annual job fair. My friend is the college guidance counselor there, and she makes terrific efforts to see that a variety of occupations are represented. And I must admit, it tickles me to see the folding table set up with the WRITER sign affixed to the front. (I usually sit next to another mutual friend of ours who is an ARTIST.)


When the bell rings, the kids all flock to the various tables (especially the ones with the flashy displays -- MEDICINE, MARKETING, MILITARY). It's hard not to feel insecure sitting with my little stack of books and xeroxed handout with helpful links to writer's websites and MFA programs. My ARTIST friend usually entices the kids with some sort of collaborative art project to participate in at her table. Plus, she has an easel, and art!

I am always pleasantly surprised by how many students come to me -- especially when they could be learning about the rewards of being a DENTIST! A PARALEGAL! A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL! But the ones who arrive with their clipboards and questions are earnest and enthusiastic as they read from their notes:

1. How did you become a writer?

The first one is easy. Though this is where I usually lose a lot of kids. "I went to college, studied English, went to graduate school for two years, went to graduate school again. Yes, four years of graduate school." Is that required? "No. Actually many writers don't go to school at all." (And I must admit this wins some of them back.) "I wrote books. I got lots of rejections. I got an agent. I got my first book published." And so on.

2. What do you like most about being a writer?

The second question is also easy. "I get to wear pajamas to work every day. I'm home with my children. I love what I do. I get paid to make stuff up." Which, inevitably leads to:

3. Can you actually make a living as a writer?

Hmmm. Must tread lightly here. I look at their eager faces. I know exactly what they're thinking. Because I was one of them once. They are thinking E.L. James, Stephanie Meyer, Stephen King. Imagining world tours, signing books before adoring masses.  A country home with a writing studio in some elaborate garden filled with impossible flora and fauna. Money, travel. Money.

And so I say, "It takes a while." The truth.

A few duck away, head to FINANCE, I imagine. But the remaining cluster and nod knowingly.

"It's hard, I say. "You have to be prepared to do a lot of odd jobs to support your writing." I list the jobs I've had:

Waitress
Retail (high end and low end)
Telemarketer
Ticket Sales
School of Fisheries Archivist
Temp (Real Estate, Air Conditioning, Bio-tech)
Secretary for a Tyrannical Architect
Admin Assistant (for a software developer, for an IT firm)
Free-lance child's muralist
Teacher (of grown-ups, of undergrads)

Their eyes widen in disbelief.

"You have to be brave," I say. And I suddenly envision myself not as WRITER but as WARRIOR. "You don't get health insurance. You don't even get a regular paycheck."

A few more silently slip away. Those who remain, the quiet girl with the glasses, the shy kid with acne and a beaming smile, look at me both intrigued and terrified.  

But now? they ask, hopeful.

"Now I write. Full-time. And I wouldn't trade any of those jobs, those struggling years, the uncertainty and fear, for anything." Because I am a WRITER. And there aren't that many of us who can say that and mean it.

A few months ago, I submitted a proposal to my publisher for a new novel. As a WRITER, you never know from one contract to the next what will happen next.  If this might be the end. It's both awful and thrilling, but mostly awful. As I waited, I counted my marketable skills -- which I really only need a couple of fingers to count. It's times like these that I have to remind myself (the pajamas! being home with my kids! making stuff up! doing what I love!) Because it's all precarious.

And then, finally, I heard back. An offer for three more books. And so now, joy of joys, I have the promise of three more years of writing, three more books made with beautiful paper and gorgeous covers. Three more years where I can work in my jammies, volunteer at my girls' school (and be here when they get home), to set up shop in the land of make believe, and do what I love to do. And I can breathe again, counting not marketable skills but lucky stars that I get to do what I do for a living. For my life.

And I hope that's enough to keep at least a few of those high school kids from wandering off toward INVESTMENT BANKING or, God forbid, POLITICS.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Good Wife by Stewart O'Nan: A Review

The Good WifeThe Good Wife by Stewart O'Nan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I love Stewart O'Nan's work. He is the master of the quotidian, the champion of the ordinary, though this was not my favorite of his novels.

This is, quite simply, the story of Patty, a woman whose husband makes a stupid decision and winds up in prison for twenty five years. Pregnant at the time of his arrest, she spends the next two decades waiting for him, and we follow her through the appeals and prison visits, financial strife and dashed hopes as she waits for him to come home.

I have found that listening to a novel on CD creates a unique intimacy between reader and text. And I found myself slipping easily into Patty's life, as though I were there with here through the twenty-five years she waits for her husband to get out of prison.

Perhaps it was because I am familiar with O'Nan's work (Wish You Were Here, for example), but I did not expect the riveting plot line that some readers missed. My complaints were rather with Patty and how little I understood her dedication to her husband (feeling that her allegiance to him came simply out of pride and resignation rather than something more potent and meaningful). I was also troubled by her relationship with her son. I was confounded by her lack of sympathy and compassion for him as he grows up in these troubled circumstances.

However, I did feel like O'Nan, once again, authentically and beautifully paints the portrait of a working class family.

Monday, July 09, 2012

This Bright River by Patrick Somerville: A Review

This Bright River: A NovelThis Bright River: A Novel by Patrick Somerville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a wild weird ride this book is.

This Bright River tells the respective stories of Ben (a sort of hapless guy who has returned home to Wisconsin after a brief stint in prison) and Lauren (a haunted woman who is also returning to her home town) as well as what happens when they come together. It's all prefaced by a prologue (which you may have heard about here -- though don't read this unless you've finished the book) which hooked me initially and then plagued me throughout (thank God it all comes together at the end).

More than anything I loved the structure of the novel. It, like the river of its title, is meandering, at times still and contemplative, and other times violent.

I was happily confused for much of the novel...content to just keep moving. And, again, the end clarifies almost every question I had. The others I may just have to email Ben about :)

P.S. Here is an amazing trailer for the novel.
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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown: A Review

The Weird SistersThe Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Weird Sisters is the story of the three Andreas sisters -- Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia (daughters of a Shakespearean scholar father). The novel opens with each sister facing the shared crisis of their mother's diagnosis of breast cancer and their own respective predicaments as well. The eldest, Rose, is torn between following her fiance to England or staying home to care for her mother. Bean has lost her job in New York for embezzling from her employer. And Cordy, the wayward gypsy of the family, is pregnant (not a spoiler...this news comes early). And so the three sisters find themselves living together again at their parents' home in Barnwell, OH. But rather than finding easy comfort and solace there, they are instead forced to face their fears, their demons, and their uncertain futures.

Told in the first person plural, it reminded me a bit of Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides, but this narrator is somehow (and strangely) the voice of all three sisters, and, as a result, the voice of none of them at all. At first, I had difficulty because this narrative stance defied all those rules of point of view that have been hammered into my head over the years. Initially, it felt a bit self-conscious, but after I grew accustomed to it, it was less distracting. I must admit, I kept waiting for each of them to gain their own voice (as in a first person narration) by the end of the novel, but the collective narrator remains.

Regardless. There are so many wonderful things about this novel:

First, there is Barnwell itself. It's a perfect little town; it reminded me in so many ways of my own hometown (as well as my own fictional Quimby and Two Rivers). I could live there.

This is also a book for book lovers. Their father is a fountain spouting Shakespearean quotes. The library, the library! And a three book-toting girls. (Of the three sisters, I do think I liked Cordelia best, and found myself most invested in her, but the other sisters were both beautifully flawed and somehow still likeable.)

Lastly, the writing was lovely and often funny. This book was cozy. I really, really loved it.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Taking Stock

My birthday is Saturday, and birthdays for me have always meant taking stock. Every year around this time, since I was a kid, I have felt a strange compulsion to conduct a sort of inventory of those things I've accomplished, as well as examine the empty shelves waiting to be filled. As I get older, the shelves get fuller, but as a result, the empty spaces seem more prominent in contrast.

Since last June 23, I finished Grace (and set her free) as well as wrote a new book (which I'm still sitting on in my little nest). I also conceived and sketched out the next book, though I haven't gotten a contract for it yet. I managed to help get the girls through one more year without broken bones or cavities. I had an art show of my photography, gave Mikaela a new gypsy-inspired bedroom, taught some classes. I quit drinking (!)...and didn't have a single drink through my entire 42nd year (and didn't really miss it all that much). I read 51 books. I celebrated my twelfth wedding anniversary. I saw a doctor and got a clean bill of health, and I got one haircut.

I didn't exercise. I didn't write that children's book I keep talking about.I didn't pay off a single credit card or student loan. I didn't get the garage cleaned out. I didn't eat any healthier. And I didn't see the dentist. I didn't spend as much time with the girls doing fun things as I wanted to. And my hair is back to being style-less and unruly.

I've got a checklist, lots of stuff I still hope to do. Places to go. The kind of person I want to be. And I, the glass half-full girl I am, suspect 43 will be a very good year.




Wednesday, June 20, 2012

On Quieting the Voices in My Head

I feel like I'm in a strange place lately with my writing and trying hard to simply focus on getting the work done. Since my last draft of Bodies of Water, I have simultaneously received glowing praise from some folks whose opinions really matter, and some extremely unkind criticism from someone whose assessments I thought did. I am having difficulty reading and revising the latest draft without hearing those words that crushed me. They have changed the way I feel about my own work. It is crippling me as I head into what I hope is the final draft. It's amazing how much louder criticism speaks than praise, regardless of who is offering it.

I have a friend who is going through the submission process right now who also continues to get conflicting messages about her novel (which I have read, which is wonderful)and is grappling with whether or not to make significant changes (to the characters, to the plot) in order to sell the book. I feel strongly (and have told her so) that she needs to stay true to her original intent, to maintain her artistic integrity at all costs. Easy advice to give. Not such an easy pill to swallow myself.

The reality of being a published novelist, is that suddenly other people's voices are in your head - whether it's that idiot reviewer on goodreads or amazon who gives you one star (though they wish they could give zero stars) or an editor who doesn't deem your work worthy of publication. And like some odd ventriloquist act, those voices can begin mimicking your own, as though they are coming from inside you instead of outside.

This is not to say that criticism is always wrong, or that you shouldn't ever listen. My editor's critiques are almost always exactly what I need to hear. But learning how to filter the helpful from the harmful, the valid from the valueless, is a struggle. I feel like so much of my time is spent now quieting those voices. Trying hard to listen to my own. For my friend, whose work is brilliant and beautiful and true, I wish you the necessary silence to listen to your own voice. And for me...I will try to do the same.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Carry the One by Carol Anshaw: A Review

Carry the OneCarry the One by Carol Anshaw
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don't know why this book took so long for me to read. It's only 253 pages...but it felt, somehow, epic (though not necessarily in a positive way). The premise was what drew me in (along with the very loud buzz): a carload of people coming home from a wedding strike a young girl and kill her. The novel then follows the driver and passengers as they navigate their lives following this tragedy. The writing is strong, the characters were interesting, but it somehow failed to fully engage me. I think the primary issue was that there were simply too many characters. There just wasn't time to really invest in any one of their stories. As a result, I felt somehow disconnected from their sorrow and regret. I would have appreciated the novel more had it been Alice's story (a woman who uses her art to explore and exorcise her guilt). And I really, really did not like the last scene.

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Thursday, June 14, 2012

The (Sand) Bucket List of Summer 2012

Maybe it's time I start taking a cue from my ten year old for a change. Last night she asked if she could use the computer to work on her list. I grumbled something about the ink cartridge being low and warning her about the general malaise my computer seems to be exhibiting lately, and then relinquished it to her. (Frankly, I was just grateful that this particular project -- she's always doing some sort of project -- didn't include digging into our recycling or glue). And so she disappeared inside my office...and came out about a half hour later with a freaking masterpiece!!

Excerpted from her summer "bucket list":
  • Read 20 books.
  • Put at least 20 videos on youtube channel. 
  • Make something new.
  • Try five new foods.
  • Make money
  • Sell lemonade.
  • Flash mob. [I'm imagining this going down at our cabin where we spend most of the summer.]
  • Go in the boat.
  • Catch a fish.
  • Sleep in the treehouse.
  • Swim in 10 feet deep water in the pond.
  • Stay up until 6 a.m.
  • Beat Dad at bad mitten [sic]
  • Have parties.
How awesome is that?? So here's my riff on this:
  • Read 20 books.
  • Write 20 blog posts.
  • Make a new book!
  • Cook five new foods.
  • Don't worry about money.
  • Squeeze life's lemons.
  • Dance more. Sit less. Sing out loud.
  • Take the girls out in the boat.
  • Cook the fish? 
  • Sleep in the tree house??
  • Swim with the girls every day.
  • Get up at 6 a.m.
  • Beat Patrick at badminton.
  • Throw parties!
With my students, I am always harping on the necessity of setting goals and making self-imposed deadlines. As a writer, I warn, it's rare that anyone cares when (or even if) you finish a project...and so it's important that you care. I didn't realize that this has rubbed off on the girls, but apparently it has. But what their take on all of this teaches me, is that goals don't always need to be about work...but should also include play and fun.

And, in case you're interested...Esmee had quite a list herself. On her list? Do 20 cartwheels, touch the bottom of the pond, and climb a tree!

Your turn.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Summerland

I am beginning to wonder if there is some sort of physiological shift that is triggered at the last day of school -- the result of endorphin-like chemicals released from some yet-to-be-discovered gland. Because even though I have not been in school as a student now in over fifteen years, the giddiness of the first day of summer is undeniable.

This week has been one of organized chaos. There's no other way to explain it. Dance recitals and dress rehearsals, book and writing events, field trips, and teaching on top of all the other busy-ness of our lives. Perhaps the end of school is just a sigh. Just my body being able to take a breath. But I am overwhelmed by it. All that marvelous possibility of 84 days (yes, Kicky counted) without the usual obligations.

Not that there isn't significant work ahead. I just got the notes on the latest draft of Bodies of Water back from my editor yesterday. They're not extensive, but they will require digging in again. I also really, really hope to proceed with the next novel. There will be summer camps for the girls (Junior Theatre and ballet), a drive across the country (and back), an online class to teach, some editing jobs, etc...

But right now, it's 9:00 a.m., and the girls are still asleep. The house is quiet. I don't have to pack lunches or find parking at drop-off. I don't have to force the girls to sit down with homework this afternoon while trying to get Kicky's hair wrestled into an acceptable ballet bun. I don't have to recall fourth grade math or check second grade spelling. And as much as I love volunteering, I don't need to prep art lessons or plan anything. When I think about summer, I almost feel like it's a place rather than a time. A crazy awesome island where none of the regular rules apply.

Today I think we'll go to the library and sign up for the summer reading program (remember those??!!), load up on books, look through the cookbooks and find the most decadent summer foods to make, and maybe watch a movie. I'm thinking something along the lines of Aquamarine or Judy Moody's Not Bummer Summer. My two most favorite kids' summer flicks.

What about you? What will you do with your first day in Summerland?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Vee, a Short Story

About once a decade I write a short story. Today, one of them was published at Numero Cinq Magazine (which you should all be reading, by the way). This is the only story I've ever presented at a reading that made me cry. With that...

Vee.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Collector

Last night, Patrick and I had a rare night out. For those of you who don't know him, Patrick is the Executive Director of a non-profit literacy organization by day, but by night he is very involved in a number of local arts organizations: sitting on boards, directing and producing and curating art stuff all over the city. (Really, it's a sort of Clark Kent situation.) Anyway, his latest endeavor has been bringing The Collector, a multi-media puppetry performance piece by Animal Cracker Conspiracy (directed by Lisa Berger), to San Diego. Last night was the world premier at 3rdSpace, a fabulous artist club/gallery/performance/work-space in University Heights. I went with an open mind...not having seen puppetry of any sort since the kids were little. (I've always found puppets a bit creepy.) But The Collector was fabulous. Definitely creepy, but also quite beautiful. It primarily explores our obsession with objects as well as our relationship to these objects (how they define us, how they can destroy us). However, it's not only about consumerism, but also about possession. (For anyone who has read Grace, you know that this is a thematic thread that runs throughout the novel. I'm fascinated by our need to own, to accumulate, possess, to keep things: objects, people, memories.) There's also a monkey CEO, ominous old fashioned cameras, a bird-lady shaman, and incredible sound created by Margaret Noble. Go see it!!

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The End of The World As I Know It (Or, School's Almost Out for Summer)

At this time of the year, I typically find myself experiencing something between excited anticipation and the stunning realization that I have only one week left before I have to switch gears from being a full-time writer to being a full-time parent. I love both jobs, don't get me wrong. But it's kind of like being a librarian who becomes a rock star, or maybe a jackhammer operator. Seriously. As a full-time writer, I work for myself. I sit around in my quiet house in my house-clothes (as opposed to what I put on for the rare forays into the real world). I poke around on the internet (and in my cupboards), tap out a few thousand words, and then settle into the hammock with a book (research) for the rest of the day. As a full-time parent, the house is not quiet. It is loud. My little people are bickering all the time. I get dressed, because they want to go places. Lots of places. If I get to the computer at all, it's so jammed up from Webkinz-related activity I couldn't write if I wanted to. The hammock is still there...but it nearly drags to the ground with three people in it. And reading? Can you read, I mean research, when there are monkeys climbing all over you? Monkeys who want to go to the beach, out for ice cream, shopping??? Good news is, both job descriptions share a few key duties: 1. Play all day. 2. Call it "work." 3. Take care of people (characters) when they get hurt, when they feel sad. 4. Go to the library a lot. 5. Worry endlessly. 6. Love tremendously. And compensation for both is usually in joy rather than exorbitant paychecks. Here comes summer.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Name a Character in My Next Novel!

One week from today (Sunday, June 10th), I will be participating in San Diego Writers, Ink's Blazing Laptops Writing Marathon. It is a fundraising event for SDWI, where I regularly teach creative writing classes. The event lasts all day (9 hours), but due to a certain ballet dancer's recital, I will only be able to perform a half-marathon. Regardless, please consider pledging. It supports a great cause. It's easy (just click here!). And best of all, the person who makes the highest pledge will get to name a character in my next novel!!

Saturday, June 02, 2012

The Sand Castle by Rita Mae Brown: A Review

The Sand Castle (Runnymede, #4)The Sand Castle by Rita Mae Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This tiny little book almost read like a play to me. I loved the characters (sisters Juts and Wheezie), and I also really liked the seven year old narrator, Nickel. Not much happens: a late summer trip to the eastern shore of Maryland where the two sisters build a sand castle with Nickel and her cousin whose mother has recently passed away. But I'm not sure it really had the satisfying arc of even a novella. It felt more like a sliver from something much larger. And, indeed, I understand these characters appear in other of Brown's novels. I'll have to see if I can track some of the down...because these characters were really wonderful.

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A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano: A Review

A Good Hard Look: A NovelA Good Hard Look: A Novel by Ann Napolitano

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This follows the intersecting lives of southern writer, Flannery O'Connor, and a cast of Napolitano's fictional creations. Set in small town Georgia, the novel opens and closes with the riotous cacophony of O'Connor's famous peacocks. In between are the stories of three families. There is a great tragedy about 2/3 of the way through, and then a lengthy (though ultimately satisfying) resolution. The pacing felt a little too languid for me...but it's a book about the south, and so I suppose that's okay.

My only other complaint was that I felt like I didn't get enough of Flannery O'Connor. She was present, of course, throughout the novel, but she wasn't nearly as vivid as I suspect Napolitano meant for her to be. I had difficulty understanding why Melvin found her so compelling that he was willing to risk so much for her companionship. I did, however, find the characterization of Lona to be flawless. Her desire and longing were palpable and painful.  

Above all else, Napolitano's writing is beautiful. If it weren't a library book, I would have marked many, many passages throughout that were simply perfect.





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Oprah and Me

I just found out yesterday that Oprah is reviving her now several years defunct Book Club. And the moment I saw the post on a friend's Facebook page, I felt overcome by a very old and powerful feeling.

You need to understand one thing at the outset: Oprah and I go way back. It was over a decade ago, back when I was fresh out of graduate school, living in a one bedroom apartment at the beach in San Diego, that our story begins.

I had written a novel as my thesis at the University of Washington called Paper Rain. It was my first novel, and I just knew that it was going to catapult me to literary fame and fortune. I found the contact names and addresses for nearly a hundred editors and agents, and I wrote to them. All of them. And some of them wrote back.  But none of them wanted my novel. After months and months (and so much wasted postage), I sadly gathered these missives into a binder which I titled, Paper Rain on My Parade.

Having once believed that Paper Rain would put me in the company of the literary greats I admired (and maybe even into a bigger apartment), I now suspected that it was more likely that nobody but my family would ever read it (and that I'd be writing at my kitchen counter for the rest of my life). And so I made a few hand-made copies. I printed the pages on beautiful paper, which I tore at the edges. I bound them with jute. I autographed them. And then I gave them away. But I kept one, and this is the one I sent to Ms. Winfrey. This was our first correspondence.


I sent it unsolicited with a letter lauding the brilliance of not only my novel, but also my lasagna. (Remember, back then, her book club met over dinner at the author's home.) I actually wrote something to the effect of "I don't have a table" -- which I didn't -- "but I have plenty of dishes.") I did not include an SASE (Why bother? She'd want to keep this treasure wouldn't she?) And then I waited.

Months passed, no phone call. No announcement on my TV in that wonderful whooping voice she reserved for announcing her Book Club picks. But then one day, miracle of miracles, she wrote back! (Or rather, her producers -- or maybe the unpaid intern who opened her mail -- did. And she also sent back my lovingly hand-crafted novel, despite the lack of postage paid.)

I had been heart-broken by my myriad rejections from agents and editors ("just not for me," "we do not feel strongly enough about this project,"  and my favorite "we publish only biographies of opera singers."). And now this. Et tu, Oprah? Et tu?

But always tenacious and hopeful, I persisted. And eventually, all that hard work paid off. I got an agent (though she also couldn't sell Paper Rain), wrote another book, published some books, won some grants, and all the while there was Oprah. Oprah was picking a book a month at that point. Books that were about to go out of print. Books by authors like me. There wasn't a single person I talked to who didn't say, "You should send your book to Oprah." Though I couldn't bear to tell them that I already had.

Then there was what I like to think of as the 6-Degrees-to-Oprah phenomena. Someone I knew knew someone who went to her gym in Chicago. Maybe she could just slip a copy of Nearer Than the Sky onto her treadmill? And then there was our friend who went on Oprah for Dr. Phil's therapy boot camp...maybe he could just hand her the paperback of Undressing the Moon? (Forget that he was there to deal with his own emotional issues. What about my book??!!) Of course, neither friend went through with it. But then -- serendipity! My friend's friend WORKED for Oprah. Specifically for her Book Club. And she did pass along my work, all three novels, and I waited for the call that would change my life.

But then came along two men who would change my life forever: Jonathan Franzen and James Frey. (And yes, I still hold a grudge.)

First Jonathan Franzen, when honored with Oprah's coveted seal of approval, poo-pooed her and her low-brow audience. I'm certain you remember this? I do, because after this, the Book Club came to a nearly screeching halt. And then she started only picking books by dead authors. (I was pretty certain I was really out of the running now.) But then a few years later she chose A Million Little Pieces. And the author, James Frey, was alive! But alas, his not-so-true, true-to-life true story became another thorn in Oprah's side, and she returned to her reliable dead authors again. And we all know what happened after that. 

Since then, I've gotten a table, and those dishes I was so proud of have long since been donated to Goodwill. I have also written five more novels...though none of them have yet thrust me into those literary realms I once dreamed of. I have moved from that little apartment, though I do miss it sometimes. We could hear the ocean from our bedroom window and the mourning doves perched in a tree outside. It is with fondness now that I recollect hammering away at the keyboard at the tiny kitchen counter where I worked. Because I was writing, and that is what I love most to do.

I've also long since given up the silly notion that literary fame and fortune should always come quickly. I have accepted that I am a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race kind of writer. I am grateful for my struggles. And I am even more grateful for the longevity of my career. With or without Oprah, I will keep writing books until the day I die.

But Oprah's Book Club is back. And I know exactly what that feeling is...the one creeping up my back as I type. It's that jingly feeling you get when you've got a plastic cup full of nickels at the slot machine, the scritch-scratch of your nail as it scrapes away the gold foil from a tear-off ticket. It's possibility. And there isn't anything in the world better than that for a writer...or for anyone...than this. She's going to make the careers of some very fortunate authors. And for the rest of us...well, we'll just keep writing and dreaming.

Friday, June 01, 2012

One Year Later

For some reason, I just revisited the blog post that I made exactly a year ago. It is stunning to me that I didn't even know the characters in Bodies of Water at this point. I hadn't dreamed a single scene. And I find it most surprising of all, that "the new project" ultimately became a love story.

From June 1, 2011:

On New Projects
So I am in that weird place in the novel-writing process where I am actually almost "done." Meaning...on June 1st I will send it to my editor and then, hopefully, have little more than some tinkering to do before it goes into print. There's still work to be done, but I can finally start to entertain the ideas for the next book.

I'm not one of those people who can work on more than one thing at a time. I am totally a totally monogamous sort of writer. But at this stage of the game, I am like a new divorcée, just waiting for the divorce papers to be finalized. There have been flirtations, of course....little notes jotted into my notebook, nights spent thinking about the new book instead of the one I'm with, but I have remained faithful. But now that the end is near, I have that itchy thrill of what will be next. New.

Starting a new project for me is so similar to falling in love. I seriously get butterflies in my stomach just thinking about all the possibilities. It keeps me up at night. I obsess. It's all I can think about. Everything I see and hear makes me think about it. My whole world revolves around it.

So here's to June 1st and new projects and falling in love. Again. 

And so on this June 1st, I begin a new affair, though this is no love story this time. I can tell you that there's a traveling carnival, some really bad people, some really good people, and a twelve year old girl named Rainy.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

My Summer Reading List

Summer reading lists have been popping up all over the internet; everyone seems to have an opinion about what we should be reading at the beach, in our hammocks, or in our lawn chairs this summer. And I have noticed that these lists really don't differ from each other very much. It seems the same handful of books seem to be hogging up everybody's imagination. And so I thought I'd make my own reading list...with a few of these favorites and few of my own. I have actually done this for years...since I was just a little girl. The beginning of summer has always signaled to me the beginning of long book-filled days. I distinctly remember the sense of wonder and excitement at getting the summer reading lists from school and then searching the shelves of the basement children's room at the library to find them.

And so, for what it's worth, here is what I will be reading and why:

Beautiful Ruins
Set in 1962 and the current day in Italy and Hollywood. How can I resist?

Gone Girl
Choosing to believe the hype.

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving











Road trip novel. And look at that cover!!
The Starboard Sea: A Novel

Rich waspy kids in the late 80s.

 Where the Line Bleeds
This is the first novel written by the author of Salvage the Bones, my favorite book of the past year.

The Great Northern Express: A Writer's Journey Home
Howard is a family friend and always, always good for an engaging read.

Carry the One
I've had this one on hold at the library for months, and it finally came in. It's been so long I can't even remember what it's about.

Autobiography of a Face
I just finished Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett about her friendship with this fellow writer, Lucy Grealy.

A Good Hard Look: A Novel
A fictional account of Flannery OConnor's life after leaving New York to live in her hometown in Georgia.

The Sand Castle (Runnymede, #4)
This was accidentally shelved with the Judy Blume books in the kids' section at the library...I can only assume I was meant to find it.


I should also add 1Q84 to my list, because I promised my friend, Tricia, I'd try...what's another 946 pages?