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?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Bodies of Water

Today is a strange day. For the last few months I have been getting up early every single morning and laboring over the revision of my newest novel, and tomorrow I won't have to. I sent my "finished" draft off to my editor this morning.

This novel, Bodies of Water, was one of those easy ones to draft. In August the story came to me as a gift while I was hunkered down during Hurricane Irene in Western Mass. It is based loosely on a family story I had never heard before last summer when, stuck inside during the storm, my mother's cousin shared it with me. I stayed up all night, listening to the wind and drafting scenes in my head. Over the next several months it consumed me, obsessed me. And so I started it as a NaNoWriMo project on November 1st, wrote furiously to the end, and sent off the first draft to my editor on February 14th. Just three months from beginning to end.

But man, has it been a misery to revise. The characters have eluded me at every turn. The structure gave me headaches. There were mornings when I would rather have done anything than to hang out with those people again. Family or not.

It amazes me how different the process is for every novel. The first draft of Grace took over a full year to complete, but the revisions came easily. Two Rivers took five years to write and nearly two years to revise. I wrote This Glittering World in six weeks. And just when I feel like I'm getting a hang of this novel writing thing, I realize I still have so much to learn. What I do know, is that novels do not write themselves. Writers write them. And whether on the front end or the back end, it takes time.

And I'm also pretty sure that tomorrow when I get up I'm going to miss having my morning coffee with Eva and Billie.

Monday, May 28, 2012

A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash: A Review

A Land More Kind Than Home: A NovelA Land More Kind Than Home: A Novel by Wiley Cash

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love debut novels. There is nothing quite as exciting as hearing a literary voice for the first time, particularly if it is fresh and vibrant and new. Of course there are the inevitable one-hit wonder books that seem to suck everything the author has from them. Or the debuts that garner so much acclaim that their authors' sophomore attempts inevitably pale in comparison. But then there are the books like this one.

A Land More Kind Than Home tells the story of a young boy whose innocent curiosity sets into motion a series of devastating events. We watch these events unfold through Jess's eyes, as well as via the town midwife and sheriff. The writing is pure and sweet, the story is one I haven't read before, and the characters were vivid and memorable. There were some issues with pacing and focus, I think, but overall there was something terrifically exciting about this novel. And I suspect that Wiley Cash will be back again with more.

Excellent storytelling, and just so much promise here.

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In One Person by John Irving: A Review

I am an active member of goodreads, and I started thinking that I should be posting the reviews I write here as well. So here you are:

In One PersonIn One Person by John Irving

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the questions I am asked most frequently at readings is who my favorite authors are. And my answer always (always!) enthusiastically includes John Irving. A Prayer for Owen Meany and The World According to Garp rank high on my Top Ten of All Time Favorites list. And so it is with a heavy heart that I write this review.

In One Person has all the ingredients of a classic Irving novel: "sexual suspects," boarding schools, wrestlers, an absent father, Irving's acrobatic prose and impeccable comedic timing, the Dickensian span of the narrator's life. (There are even some "bears" near the end of the'll see when you read it.) But somehow, for me, the ingredients do not make a satisfying meal in the end. It's a souffle that should taste great, but isn't cooked all the way through and falls, hopelessly flat in the dish.

Here is the problem; I have read almost every John Irving novel. I know his tricks. And I could anticipate every single one in this novel. Nothing in this book surprised me. Not one thing. Owen Meany's success is grounded in the potency of the disparate elements coming together in the end. All that basketball practice! It was brilliant. But it ruins the wrestling maneuver in In One Person I know exactly how important that duck-hold will be in the end. This happens repeatedly throughout the novel: foreshadowing that calls such attention to itself (for readers of Irving's previous work anyway), that you can't help but to anticipate that which it foreshadows. I felt like one magician watching another magician perform. John Irving's own novels ruined this novel for me.

I also felt like the characters lacked realistic emotional responses. The book is about sex, for God's sake. About relationships. But even the AIDS epidemic's appearance late in the novel failed to elicit much of anything from our narrator. I wanted to feel the heartache that I felt when Garp loses his son. I wanted to be thrilled in the way I was at the end of Owen Meany. I wanted that Irving magic. But instead, I saw through all the smoke and mirrors, and it just made me feel sad.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The New Procrastination Destination

I love Pinterest. And I have used it for quite some time now as a virtual version of the notebooks and binders I keep all over my house: as a place to collect and keep images of decorating ideas, DIY projects, recipes, and pretty things. But then the other day my friend (and fellow novelist), Miranda, gave me the idea of using Pinterest as a way to collect images which inspire or are inspired by my works-in-progress.

Bad idea.

I have spent hours -- and I mean HOURS -- gathering images, pinning, and organizing. I made one board for the novel I'm revising, and one for the project I just started. I have probably spent more time pinning than writing in the last few days. But they're beautiful! They evoke the mood of each piece...and represent the settings and characters as well. I'd almost be happy to just  keep pinning away and forget the novels altogether...just kidding.

I think my fascination stems from a very real need to make my fictional worlds as tangible and concrete as I can. And somehow, finding photos helps to solidify the hazier things. To sharpen the edges. If only in my own mind. I have found the same to be true when I've made trailers, and I can imagine that's what it would feel like to adapt a novel to film as well. It's like a waking dream of the novel.

So for you writers out's a new way to put off the work of writing while still having all the fun of living inside your imagination. Pinterest: Station Procrastination.

Friday, May 11, 2012

On Bullying

Bullying is on my mind (and has been on my mind a lot) lately. My most recent novel, Grace, is, at its heart, a novel about bullying. Trevor, one of the main characters, is relentlessly and brutally bullied by two kids at his school. The novel is dedicated to eighteen boys who ultimately killed themselves after being bullied for either being gay (or perceived as gay) by their tormentors. As a mother, it's an issue I care about immensely. As a human being, it is behavior that mystifies and shames me.

And now, Mitt Romney. I cannot begin to express how much the latest revelations (accusations) and his subsequent dismissals and denials  infuriate me. I am usually a relatively private person when it comes to my politics, but something about all of this is bringing out the angry mama bear inside of me.

At a recent book club I was asked, point blank, if I was writing from experience when I wrote about Trevor. "Were you ever bullied?" the woman asked, with genuine interest and concern. I shrugged the question off and suggested that writers always draw from their experiences to a certain extent and said something to the effect that I had been teased (as all kids are teased) as a teenager. And then I went home and wondered why I felt this need to downplay and deny.

Bullies deny. Clearly, Mitt Romney is engaged in some fairly serious selectivity when it comes to his prep school day recollections. But what about the victims? The ones who survive anyway?

When I was in the eighth grade I went through a rapid transformation from one of the shortest kids in my class, to one of the tallest (without gaining a single pound). I also got braces and had to stop wearing my contact lenses because of an allergic reaction they were giving me. I also got the smart idea that it was time to cut my hair (which had always been long and curly...and my real pride when it came to how I looked). I was also a good student. The cumulative effect of all of this was that I went from being a cute kid to an awkward, homely, gangly, "brown-nosing" teenager. For a while, however, my confidence remained intact. I asked the most popular boy in school to the eighth grade graduation dance, and remarkably he agreed. But then, at the dance, he got up to go to the bathroom and never came back. The next day he asked my best girlfriend to "go" with him. And I was crushed.

My freshman year was abysmal. I was teased for having "poodle hair." I was pushed in the lunch line. During track practice someone stole my sweatpants and threw them up into a tree. Boys were unkind and girls were worse. It was only because parents who loved me and a strong core group of girlfriends who never abandoned me that I made it through that year. But there were times when I didn't think I would. The yearbook photo that year was the one you see below. (And, as though to add insult to injury, there was a flaw on the yearbook page which made it look like a worm had crawled across my face.)

8th Grade
9th Grade
Over time, I ditched the braces and glasses and grew my hair back out. My confidence returned. I even began to balk at my former self-- as though that girl (the one who felt such tremendous self-loathing) were someone else. I separated myself from the experience. What I didn't realize, however, during this awful time was how this year set me up for future relationships.

Because in college, I found myself a nice bully and dated him for nearly five years. While my exterior had a new paint job, I was a crumbling house inside. And he knew that. He knew how to find every weak support beam. Every broken step, every loose floorboard. It took a very long time before I was able to leave, and I know that even twenty years later, there are still cracks in the plaster.

I have never written about this. And I think it's because while bullies are able to forget their transgressions, victims of bullies simply wish they could. It was agonizing for me to scan and post this photo. A tiny part of me is still haunted by that year. It's easier to dismiss and deny for both perpetrators and victims. There is a tremendous amount of shame that comes along with being victimized by cruelty. And that shame seems never to go away.

Of course, I am a grown-up now. I have a healthy and happy marriage. I'm independent and confident. As they say, things do (always, always) get better. But I am also a mother of two young girls. And I am terrified for them. I know that while so much has changed, so much remains the same. Children are cruel creatures. And parents are often scared and ineffectual protectors. The effects of bullying can be immediate and tragic (resulting in suicide) or long-term and insidious. Shattered children sometimes become shattered adults. So what are we telling our children if we elect a man who dismisses bullying as "harmless"? And what are we telling ourselves?

Thursday, May 10, 2012


For the first time in my writing life, I am working on two novels simultaneously. I am revising my most recent novel, Bodies of Water, while starting a new novel. Normally, this is not my protocol. I've always felt a sort of obligation to finish what I started before moving onto the next project, but with the end of my contract, I am overwhelmed by a strange urgency to have things firmly in place for the next book.

What this has created for me is an odd schizophrenia. I get up early and work on Bodies for about an hour. (an hour of revising is about all I can endure.) Then I shift gears and work on the opening chapter of the new book. What this means is that I have become a dual resident of early 60s suburban Boston and a traveling midway in 1970s New England. It seems like this would be difficult, but I'm actually finding thematic threads that make the transition pretty easy. I don't know why I have resisted this literary multi-tasking in the past. It seems to be working.

I just finished reading Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett (her memoir about her relationship with Lucy Grealy, author of Autobiography of a Face). She talks about how different they were in their work ethics. Lucy was all avoidance, always waiting until the deadline was nearing (or passed) while she herself was an "ant." I absolutely identify with this. I feel very much a writing ant. One little step at a time...maybe two at a time now.

I think the sense of urgency I've been feeling creatively is also because the school year is coming to an end, and in just a month I won't have the luxury of 6 hour days to get my work done. The girls will be home for the summer, and I feel like I owe it to them to be present. They will be going to theatre camp and visiting family in Flagstaff, but my dream is that Bodies will be finished, the new book will have gathered momentum. I would like to spend more time at the beach this summer. Take advantage of the city more. And then we have Vermont, of course.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Where the Wild Things Are

This week the world lost two iconic artists: Adam Yauch (MCA) of the Beastie Boys and children's author, Maurice Sendak. And all week, I have felt strangely and overwhelmingly melancholy.

I started college at the University of Vermont in the fall of 1987. I brought two posters with me; one was a life size photo of Mikhail Baryshnikov, and the other was an illustration from Where the Wild Things Are. My musical tastes were pretty much limited to what I could find on the radio and The Talking Heads (whom I had discovered at summer arts camp). I had grown up an hour and a half away from UVM in a small town in northeastern Vermont, and most of my suitemates had also come from small towns all over the state, except for L. from Poughkeepsie, NY. She was Korean-American but spoke French. She dressed all in black, and liked the Sex Pistols and the Smiths.  Her friends were New York City punks who crashed our suite, living in the common area for weeks (even months at a time), smoking Turkish cigarettes. They did drugs and shoplifted and loitered. I was afraid of them and fascinated by them. L. was naughty but also terribly sweet. She introduced me to Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and  The Beastie Boys.

The Beastie Boys' music represented, for me anyway, a safe rebellion. They were a hardcore punk band that got radio airtime. Their music was loud and fast, but it was also wonderfully silly. The appeal that the Beastie Boys had for me was the same that I'd found in Max from Where the Wild Things Are. Max was a naughty boy who got sent to bed without supper. And without leaving his room, he was able to travel "in and out of weeks, and almost over a where the wild things are." And better still, after being crowned king of all wild things, he was still able to go home where he found his supper waiting for him.

When I was a little girl, I loved Where the Wild Things Are. It was probably my favorite book. Inexplicably, I identified with Max. I was not a naughty child. I was, actually, quite the opposite. I did well in school. I rarely "made mischief," and I don't recall ever getting sent to bed without supper. But the allure of that bedroom that turned into a forest and the possibility of running away to a place where big-footed monsters gnashed their terrible teeth was one I was mesmerized by.

It was that first year at UVM that I decided that I wanted to be a writer. Not a journalist, not an English teacher, but a writer. I gobbled up the short stories assigned to me in my creative writing classes. I scribbled poems and crafted my own stories. And when things started to go badly in my real life, I sought refuge in the fictional landscapes I created.

I was Max. 

In my writing I could be bad. I could be naughty. I could go places I was too afraid to go in real life: scary places inhabited by the terrible creations of a vivid imagination. But the beauty of writing was that I was still the one in charge of all these wild things, and I could also "tame them with the magic trick of  staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once." And best of all, after all was said and done, I could return to my room (my dorm room and later my tiny apartment and now, my office) where all of the comforts of home awaited.

Music and writing have always offered an opportunity to imagine other lives without leaving the safety of my home. (It's no coincidence that the antagonist in my first novel was named Max. Or that the cat that purrs at my feet is named Max as well.) And so I mourn the loss of these two men. Adam Yauch's death was tragic, untimely. I'm certain there was so much more music to be made. Maurice Sendak, on the other hand, was an old man who had lived a full, rich life. He found literary success and happiness with a partner of nearly fifty years, but in his final interview with Terry Gross, he suggested that his lack of faith made this dying business just a little bit harder than for believers.

And so with a heavy heart, I thank you, Mr. Yauch and Mr. Sendak. I hope that wherever you are, there's a wild rumpus of funky monkeys, and that after all is said and done, your supper's waiting for you....

and it's still hot.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Why I Write

I recently gave the keynote speech at the Central California Writers' Conference in Oakhurst, CA (near the incredibly beautiful Yosemite), and I have been asked by one of the writers in attendance to post a portion of it here. 

The focus of my speech was on why writing (both the process and the product) matter. I emphasized the importance of knowing why it is that you write, what drives you and/or a particular project.

Here is my answer:

I write because I love language. I love the way that words trip and tumble across my tongue. I love the subtleties of it, the nuances, the power. I write because writing makes me happy in a way that nothing else does. I write because it allows me to tell enormous lies. But I also write to tell the truths I am too afraid to say out loud.

I write to entertain myself; I write to entertain others.

I write because I have deadlines. But I would write even if no one cared whether I finished anything ever again or not.

I write because it’s the one thing I am good at. I write because when I don’t, I feel antsy and sad.

I write for my family, to preserve our history. I write to prove that I was here. That I lived in this world and felt things and loved things, that I experienced joy, that I despaired. I write for my children. And for the children they might one day have.

I write because I have stories to tell, even if I don’t know what they are until I put my fingers on the keyboard. I write to teach, sometimes. But mostly, I write to learn. There is still so much I don’t understand.

I write to make people laugh, and I write so that I will not cry. I write because I have no choice. I write to survive. I write to save others, and I write to save myself.

Now it’s your turn. Think about it. Ask yourself.