Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Reading Year in Review: Six Faves from 2011

This has not been the most stellar year for reading. Much has happened in this booklover's life: two moves, two deaths, packing and unpacking — and the revelation of a grand library in a new home.

I pretty much stopped paying attention to what I was reading, and I apologize to myself and to you, my Faithful Reader. I hope to do better by you this year.

Despite my best efforts, I did encounter a few really good books this year.  Here are some, in no particular order:
  • The Gift of Fear — Just because we can't articulate that which makes us fearful doesn't mean we should ignore those signs. Intuition is more important than all of the "common sense" in the world (though the latter should not be ignored, either). Just ask Gavin de Becker.
  • Dracula — This classic stands the test of time. Everyone takes away something interesting from this timeless tale.  Mine was the understanding that much of modern vampire lore began with Bram Stoker's novel.
  • 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America — I never wrote a review because "OMG I LOVED THIS BOOK" doesn't quite articulate how this book eerily foresees a future being constructed in today's real world. Unsettling rather than hysterical, it still amused me. 
  • The Map of Time — I am a sucker for a good time-travel book, and this is one. It went places I didn't expect, and I loved every minute. You will, too.
  • Cutting for Stone — Gorgeous, sweeping, touching, stunning, moving... It's a must-read if you have eyeballs.
  • Little Princes — I can't remember the last time I really, really liked an author the way I liked Conor Grennan.  His authenticity and honesty was amazing, and I so enjoyed joining him on his "accidental" journey.

I didn't include Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children because I am not past the "I LOVELOVELOVED THIS BOOK" (note the annoying all-caps) and I want to wait until the sequel this year of A Discovery of Witches. (I know, what am I thinking?!)

So, what were some of your fave books this year?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

And Then Came Ginger

I have two words for you: Ginger Galore.
With a face like that, what else is there to write?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

NaNoWriMo: On the Other Side

November was a crazy month that included a lingering sinus infection, a major multi-day holiday, a friend's wedding, weird weather and my attempt at writing a novel.

Guess which one I liked the most? (No, you wise acres, not the sinus infection!)

National Novel Writing Month was an experience that reinforced what most productive writers understand: don't wait for "inspiration" — create it.  Every day, as I sit at the computer for work, I dredge up material for the assorted projects. Not everything that comes out of my brain and fingers is award-winning.  Some days are better than others. Some days I'm on fire and others I just show up and type materials that are "good enough." Some days the words are stellar and others it's just enough to get the job done.

The difference between a good day and a bad day: on a bad day, I don't even show up.  And that, my friends, is the definition of failure.

I'm not saying every bit of junk we produce needs to see the light of day.  In fact, I don't intend to show my "novel" to more than one or two souls.  However, I followed the objectives of the project established by NaNoWriMo and managed to succeed. I created a document totaling 50, 202 words between November 1-30.


Well, why not?

On November 1, I scratched my head and wondered exactly what in the world I was going to write — until I remembered: The Foreigner!  Well, I didn't remember it by name, but I remembered the play description. The play is about a shy man who pretends to not know English on a cruise full of English-speaking people.  What other situations can create opportunities for people to share information, confess, reveal or otherwise communicate?

I came up with one. It involved The Cowboy.

Not every word was stellar.  In fact, much of it probably was contrived, and possibly impossible to read.  The chapters that feature The Cowboy, however, were ingenious, if I dare say so myself.  There may be a story in there somewhere, or bits of one, or even a short story that can be edited and re-purposed.  Maybe. I won't make any promises.  I wrote many, many pages of words, and some of those words (beyond articles and conjunctions) may be of use at some point in the future. But really, I don't care. What I do care is that I know I can do something like that, possibly even better, in the future. All it takes is the precious commodity of time — which, for the story burning in me is a small price to pay.

Thanks, NaNoWriMo.  If I can pull it off again next year, maybe I'll even come up with a story and outline in October.

And the rest of you: what are you waiting for? You can wait until next November — or you can start now to warm up for the next one. I think I'll choose the latter.  Let me know which you choose.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Precious Gift, The Gift of Fear

You know when your skin prickles and you just know something isn't right?  That is instinct, something most of us ignore if we think it will cause us embarrassment.

Gavin de Becker will convince you to react otherwise in his brilliant book, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence.

For de Becker, instinct is the gathering of data we cannot articulate but simply understand.  If a voice comes from a location a person should not logically be traveling, if the gesture or tone of voice doesn't comfort us as it should, if the offer for help seems too forceful — our minds won't explain it to us, but upon reflection, it all makes sense.

Equally important is knowing the difference between what should cause fear and how we invoke it in ourselves.  Being petrified that you're in an empty parking lot is a waste of fear if there is no real threat.  Using your spidey-senses to listen for the unexpected footsteps, however, is a good way to determine a true threat and use your fear only if needed.

The author earned my trust early on in his book as he revealed his own background in security and safety.  Just because presidents, military, national security and celebrities trust him doesn't make him enough of a reliable resource.  What he says, how he says it and how he determines the danger of a situation seems sane, reasonable and thoughtful.

He takes a look at many different threats people could face: in the workplace, at home, from strangers and those familiar.  He offers indicators, tips on what to look for to help assess the real threat.  Someone writes a thousand fan letters: weird, but maybe not threatening.  I know, isn't "weird" already threatening?  Not necessarily.  If you feel threatened, always consult a professional — but let this professional help you determine if you need to consult a professional.

This is not a self-defense book, but a rational look at human behavior.  Based on his experiences, de Becker asks certain questions and analyzes behavior to help clients go beyond fear and into the situation itself.  Is the "stalker" really a threat, or a nuisance?  How can you best determine that and end the situation?  Will a restraining order do more harm than good to deter the abusive spouse?  Most importantly, should someone really be afraid in a situation?  Is what they perceive a threat really dangerous?

I strongly recommend this book.  I plan to get extra copies of this book and share it with pretty much everyone I know, men and women.  Anyone can find themselves threatened and in danger, and the more people who know what to look for and how to reasonably respond, the better.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Century Ago, A World Ago

Ninety-three years ago today, the Great War ended.  It was a brutal war in ways we never imagined.  We found and used techniques and technology that changed the fundamental application and understanding of "war."

Barbed wire, mustard gas, foxholes, trench warfare, machine guns, shell shock, the Lost Generation, no man's land — thanks to what we now call World War I, all of these are part of our lexicon.  Every nation was appalled, sickened and saddened by that which we had wrought: mass casualties, mass destruction, world war.

Think about that phrase for a moment: world war.  It didn't exist before the 20th century.

In the wake of the Great War, the World War, the War to End All Wars, nations tried to come together to prevent another.  They established international organizations to address issues and concerns globally, to embrace pacifism, to bring about peace in our time.  With the Treaty of Versailles, they thought they would keep it from happening again.

We all know how that worked out.

World War I officially ended with a cease fire scheduled for 11 a.m. November 11, 1918.  We began by recognizing Armistice Day, then evolving it into Veterans Day, for all who serve.

Nearly a century later, we rely still on those who have and will give all.  "Thanks" isn't enough, but I hope it will do until we can give them what they really deserve: no reason to take up arms.

The fields in Flanders, Belgium, where the earth was churned by battle and burial of the casualties of war, were covered in poppies.  John McCrae wrote this memorable poem after presiding over a friend's funeral.

In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
         In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

Monday, November 7, 2011

In November, Go NaNoWriMo!

It may be folly, but I have taken on a new task: writing a novel.

I'm under no illusion that my will be good, or even readable.  I hope to learn something from it, and maybe even come up with a character or short story or two that can be salvaged.  But I am keeping even those hopes modest.

This is all part of a national movement to get people writing, National Novel Writing Month (affectionately knows as NaNoWriMo).  The stated goal:finishing a 50,000 word-novel by November 30.  Some people worry about finishing their novel, some worry about a word count.  Frankly, I just worry that I'll have something worth my time by the end of the month.

Thankfully, I'm not alone in my quest.  I have suckered a few other people in, and they also have modest hopes.  One is a novelist who wants to start a new story.  Another is a self-proclaimed "non-writer" who has stories in her head.  Still another wants to give it a try because it sounds like fun.  The last in this motley crew is working on something in her head but hasn't gotten anything on paper yet.

And whose brilliant idea was this?  Well, I was the one to rally the troops.  To be fair, I wouldn't have considered it had another writer not suggested it, but in the end, it's all my fault.  I took up the baton and started running.  Amazing how often the folks who are ready to grab the baton are those I would never have expected — but who make for fantastic partners.  So far, I even met another new (to me) writer whose sense of humor makes me laugh, especially since I would never have said it as well as he (whatever "it" is: horror, King Arthur, psychotics).

I nearly forgot to offer a summary of the story!  Here it is: it's about someone who must listen.  The main character is dying.  Sheis told if she listens to people who need to "unburden" themselves, she will benefit.  She has a choice: listen or not. You'd think it would be easy, but how easy is it to really listen when you are yourself in need of an ear?

My goal: 2,000 words a day through the month of November (taking an occasional day off for, say, Thanksgiving or a friend's anniversary or wedding) (not the same friend).  So far, I'm on track: I've written one good chapter, one mediocre chapter, one awful one and one that I'm afraid to re-read because I liked it as I wrote it. Total so far: 11,972 words — not bad for a poet who tries to keep her work at a single page.

I'll let you know how it's going.  And if you want, give it a try.  Sure, you're a week behind, but has that ever stopped you? Er, don't answer that.  Just... give it a shot, and let me know how you're faring.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

All Hallow's Read: The Votes are In!

I declare All Hallow's Read a success.

Every single person who received a poem loved the idea and planned to read it tonight.  (I recommended reading it with the light on, then realized they'd have to kind of do that anyway.)

It was our first Halloween in our new house, and we had a few dozen trick-or-treaters.  They didn't start out as early as I thought, but I forgot that we are at the back of the neighborhood.  It takes folks longer to get to us.

I was crazy-generous with the candy, but that's what happens when there are nine bags of candy to give away.  (Can anyone say, "Eating ourselves into proper winter padding?")

And everyone, even those who may be too young to read by themselves, got a poem.  (Hey, Mom and Dad can read, and decide if it is something to be read to them now or later.)

So, we'll do it again next year.  Thanks again for the suggestion, Neil Gaiman!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Hallowe'en, All Hallow's Read 2011

Happy Halloween!  Happy All Hallow's Read!  Here is the poem I will share with my neighborhood trick-or-treaters — by one of my favorite poets.  Enjoy!

The Little Ghost

I KNEW her for a little ghost
That in my garden walked;
The wall is high -- higher than most --
And the green gate was locked.

And yet I did not think of that
Till after she was gone --
I knew her by the broad white hat,
All ruffled, she had on.

By the dear ruffles round her feet,
By her small hands that hung
In their lace mitts, austere and sweet,
Her gown's white folds among.

I watched to see if she would stay,
What she would do -- and oh!
She looked as if she liked the way
I let my garden grow!

She bent above my favourite mint
With conscious garden grace,
She smiled and smiled -- there was no hint
Of sadness in her face.

She held her gown on either side
To let her slippers show,
And up the walk she went with pride,
The way great ladies go.

And where the wall is built in new
And is of ivy bare
She paused -- then opened and passed through
A gate that once was there.

by Edna St Vincent Millay

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Cisco and Khan

Thank you to everyone who has been so kind and understanding during this trying month.  I am so sorry to say that both of my cats, Khan and Cisco, fell ill and died from complications of cancer.

Khan died October 5.

Cisco died October 17.

Soon I'll share some wonderful memories and photos of my loving cats.

However, for now, I must simply thank you for your generosity and support during this sad time.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Cisco News: It Gets Better

This morning, I woke up to a cat who seemed to be in a much better mood than he was the evening before.

In the light of day, Cisco wanted me to pet him while he ate a few bites of his crunchy food from his own dish, then witness his use of his litterbox.

I have never been so pleased to feed a feline then watch him crouched in a box, concentrating on his own urination.

I didn't have to crack open the Pedialyte (unflavored).  There was no need to whip out the Gerber's beef with gravy baby food again.  (Does one heat it up for a cat?  Does it improve the smell?)  I didn't need to pester the nurses at the hospital again to find out just how much liquified baby food a 13.9-pound cat should eat at a single sitting.

Cisco was eating, and that was enough for me.

He also was quite a character: he hopped up on "his" chair and demanded to be petted in a very loud voice.  Now, I'm a sucker for that kind of thing anyway, so when a sick cat says, "Pet me," who am I to argue?

He is not out of the woods yet.  He has to continue to eat and drink (and keep both down), and his intestines need to keep doing their thing (so to speak).

Plus, there's the whole pending urinalysis results (and more delicious drugs if there is an infection).

Heaven forbid, this rally may be temporary.

However, he ate for me this morning, and that has made my world so much better.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Feeding and The Force

For those keeping score at home, Cisco has returned from the hospital.  Because he is not eating on his own, I must hand-feed him.

Anyone with a cat has read between the lines: "I'm mixing baby food and water and squeezing it from a syringe between Cisco's tightly clenched jaws into his unwilling, possibly un-swallowing mouth."

I have been more or less successful: most of what I feed him has gone into his mouth and, presumably, down his throat.  I am wearing some, as is the pillow on the chair where we were seated, but that's a small price to pay.  He is "eating."  That keeps him out of the hospital, for the time being.

As long as we keep it up and he gets back to eating and drinking on his own sometime soon,  we will achieve our goal.  Otherwise, he will wind up with something else shaved on his body and yet another poke with a needle. No one wants that, least of all my feline heart.

I'm going into the bedroom, where he currently is ensconced, and I'll finish one of the books I'm reading.  I think we'll both like the company.

Here's to everyone staying out of the hospital for a while.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Passing the Time at the Clinic

I spent last night at the emergency vet office again.  This time, it was my dark-haired beauty, Cisco, who was in need.  I know the dark makes everything more sinister, but sometimes we cannot wait until the light of day to determine if the sunrise will banish the shadows.

I don't take books or magazines with me on these trips.  (Alas, David and I have gained too much experience lately to permit us to make this decision.)  I carry my cat, my credit card and enough patience to try to make it through the wait.  David carries me.  I can't wonder if my cat will be coming home or not: if a trip to the vet is needed at 2:30 a.m., rarely does the patient come right back home.

During those long hours, when the wonderful nocturnal lab techs are demystifying the bleeding, or vomiting, or apparent pain (why don't cats issue ticker-tapes from their heads that translate their complaints from cat to human?) — during those long, short hours I rely on the kindness of strangers' magazines.  

As we sat in the small, private waiting room, in relatively — okay, nothing personal, clinic, but — uncomfortable chairs, I found myself in Afghanistan.  Thanks to National Geographic, I looked in the eyes of a woman whose husband cut off her nose as other men held her down.  Her crime? She ran to a friend's for safety the last time he beat her nearly senseless.

Cisco doesn't like strangers, especially in a vet's office, and I heard him through the whitewashed walls, weakly arguing in his distinctive flat voice, Really, I am better n — wait, what do you think you're doing with THAT?  Without a second thought, I moved closer to the wall through which I heard him.  I saw photos of a woman deep in labor standing on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, in full burqa, waiting for her husband to find a working vehicle to continue their drive to the hospital.

Cisco's radiograph (when did they stop calling them x-rays?) showed one kidney larger than the other, and to confirm that  it wasn't just a trick of light or positioning, they were going to re-shoot it.   In the reception area, a large dog's toenails clicked on the linoleum as his owner's voice explained his plight.  I read about a 21-year-old woman imprisoned because she could not care for her husband to whom she was married when she was 12 and he was a 70-year-old paralytic.

The vet poked her head into the room: we hadn't been forgotten, she assured us, but they're waiting for his blood panel, and he is resting quietly.  (I hadn't heard him for a while, so I could concur.) I read the caption of photos describing a woman brave enough to remove the burqa and drive a car.

Cisco has what look like stones in his bladder: maybe they're blocking or passing through his urethra? In the reception area, I heard a few more canine patients: did dogs self-destruct at night?  Cisco's annoyed exclamations cut through the distant din: he was not pleased that someone was touching him.  I moved on to Vanity Fair, which burst at the seams with bizarre, lofty ads for Gucci, Prada and other luxury items out of my universe.

Cisco's blood panel was mostly normal, but his white blood cell count was off the charts. Maybe the stones they saw in his bladder...? Only in VF could the rich be so poor: Sean Parker, whom Justin Timberlake portrayed in The Social Network, in real life couldn't be the way Aaron Sorkin portrayed him (though the interview presented a very similar character).

Finally, the vet could diagnose no further without the ultrasound technicians due in the clinic later that morning. Later that morning?  I was grateful there were no clocks in the room. I prefer the passing of time be marked by the number of Travel and Leisure magazines David consumes.  My pile was hefty enough, but I didn't look, couldn't look.  All I wanted was to stroke and comfort my now-quiet cat while the receptionist processed the estimate into a contract.

I didn't see Cisco in the glass-front oxygen box that faced the door, which was the best visual clue of the night.  I turned the corner and there he was, with the other less-urgent patients.  He looked at me as only an unhappy, sick cat can.  Thanks, lady, his eyes seemed to say, and his sharp, scolding cry made me smile.  When the door opened, I practically crawled into his cage and he let me stroke his warm fur, all the while complaining vociferously.  "I know, I know," I told him, "I am sorry."

I wriggled out of my t-shirt and slipped it under his head in the cage, gently interrupting the nurse: "I know I may never see it again, but I want him to have it — I want him to be able to smell me in his cage."  I know he will: his hypersensitive schnozz has gotten us into enough adventures to assure me it can, and hopefully will, be with him.

I kept the high-beams on as we drove home, catching the silhouette of the deer family in a neighbor's yard as we turned the corner to our own dark driveway.  I always slow to a crawl when we approach the park, their home: this is their time, their space.  I should not be here.
I should be in bed with my husband rolling over on his side of the bed, Cisco shifting from time to time and displacing my legs on "my" side of the bed.  Instead, the house will be eerily quiet, the room surprisingly cold, and I will be fitfully sleeping until the vet calls with what I hope is good news.

The day outside my window is a glorious, sunny day. In a different universe, I'd be in the mountains, taking in fresh air and wandering along the trails. David and I would stop at Spelunker's for a burger (him) and a strawberry shortcake (me), and when we got home, we'd see Cisco waiting for us as he reclined against the pillows on the bed.  But it is not this day, where I keep my cell phone inches from my hand, trying to give the doctors another half- hour, another hour, before I call. No news is good news, right?  Life is exquisite when it is reduced to the size of a 13.9-pound cat.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Banned Books Week: What's the Big Deal?

Every year, the American Library Association reminds us that freedom is not free by holding Banned Books Week.  And every year, I get the same questions: What's the big deal?  Books aren't really banned, they're just challenged — and shouldn't I have the right to tell my kids what they can read?

Well, here's the thing: parents have the right to tell their own children what they can read.  However, they do not have the right to tell other people's children, including me and mine, what they can read.

I was among the more fortunate children: my parents didn't curtail my reading.  I showed my folks what I had checked out from the library; in the off-chance they weren't around or available when I got home, the books were stacked on my nightstand in my bedroom.  They were books, for heaven's sake, and everyone loves books, right?

That doesn't mean I didn't make my parents uncomfortable with what I read.  When I asked Dad about a phrase in Sonnets from the Portuguese that included the phrase "pregnant lips," he gravely suggested I was too young to read it — which translated to "Dad the engineer doesn't want to discuss poetical lips."  I was six, and I was learning to judge what was the best resources for research.

This understanding that some language was "hot" made the reading of Very Special People a little confusing a couple of years later.  One set of conjoined twins was described as having separate upper bodies but sharing a lower body.  I knew about lungs, intestines and anus, but penis?  Whether I had heard that word before (during Mom's "facts of life" discussions) was immaterial: I had never seen it written.  It seemed rather "lip"-y in nature, so I went straight to the dictionary.

Try reading the definition of any word when you haven't a clue as to what it is. 

That definition included another word I couldn't understand, whose definition was equally puzzling, which led to another definition... I surrendered, extrapolating from the sentence enough information I needed to move on.

However, I did encounter a book I didn't understand — and when Mom saw it on my stack of library books, she wondered aloud if it was a little "old" for me.  I told her I didn't know, and we left it at that.  I found the first few pages tedious and terribly boring, so I returned it rather quickly.  The title? Helter Skelter. I was eleven.

In short, I read anything I wanted.  I read all of the exciting, titillating books girls my age were read, swapping amongst each other.  My friend Carole remembers the same list, her copies fat and swollen from repeated droppings in the pool, where she and her friends shared and read them.

Whether I should have read Audrey RoseThe Reincarnation of Peter ProudSybilGo Ask AliceForever or Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret isn't the real question.  (If it was, the answer is unequivocally "yes.")  The question is: who should have decided what I should read?

I always respect a parent's wishes regarding their children's exposure to books, music and movies.  However, they're not my parents.  They're not my kids' parents.  They have no right to tell anyone but their own children what they may consume.

Library funds are so limited, the broad array of books once found in the library already is dwindling.  Don't use that to control your own children's — and, inevitably, everyone else's children's — reading material.  Go with your family to the library, help them choose, and steer them away from books like And Tango Makes ThreeThe Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things. That is your perogative.

Just don't decide for me what those things are, and I won't do that for you.

Happy Banned Books Week, people.  Choose your reading materials, and read something that might or might not be objectionable.  Be your own judge.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Fall for the Book: Conor Grennan

When Conor Grennan tells his audience that his actions were not heroic, that anyone could and would have done them, he honestly believes that.  His explanation makes sense.

All it takes are baby steps.

All he planned to do was volunteer at a Nepalese orphanage: baby step.  After that, it was only one step to helping these children find a safe home.

When a parent came to claim her sons, it was a step to help her become reacquainted with them and help her find the resources to feed and clothe them in the city.

That led to the question: were they all really orphans?  Next step: find out whose parents are alive.

When children became "lost," it was only a step to try to find them. 

Just baby steps.  Putting one foot in front of the other.  In fact, he noted, "This book has one message: there is nothing extraordinary about the person I was going into this."

It's a truth I hold very dear: you don't have to be a hero to do heroic things.  You just have to do them.

Of course, had Conor told me clouds were gummi bears, I'd have believed him.  His self-deprecating approach to everything, his willingness to show his failures and foibles, made him someone I could trust.

I met him first on the pages of his memoir, Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal.  He was funny, charming and utterly trustworthy.  Anyone who confesses to having been petrified of an orphanage full of children gets my vote. 

At the 2011 Fall for the Book Festival, he was exactly the same.  He pointed to the title of his book, the cover of which reached 12 feet high on the screen behind him on stage, and confessed, "I wouldn't read this book."

(I concur: I began reading it only because it was Fairfax County Public Library's 2011 selection for the community reading program, "All Fairfax Reads" — and the author was going to be at the book festival.  I am so glad I did.)

He also confessed that he doesn't trust those darned Canadians after being told by some of those countrymen that he didn't really need to read the guide books (which wrote of Nepal as a pretty dangerous country in the midst of a civil war).

He confessed that he signed up to volunteer at the orphanage because it made him look less self-absorbed.  Plus, it was a great way to impress women, which was "a pretty low bar."

In other words, he wasn't special.  Quite the opposite.

And yet, this man helped save at least 50 trafficked children in Nepal from slavery, starvation, abandonment and almost certain death by creating a home for them.  He created a non-profit organization to fund his efforts.

And he trekked through the mountains of Nepal searching for the parents of the children in his care.

He's right: you don't have to be a hero to be heroic.  And he took lots and lots of baby steps.

Meet Conor on the pages of his memoir.  (A portion of the proceeds fund Next Generation Nepal, his organization.)  Then see if you can't take a baby step of your own for something that matters to you.  If a guy intent on impressing chicks can wind up helping save children on the other side of the world, just think what you can do in your own neighborhood.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fall for the Book: Abraham Verghese

First of all, if you're in a book club, Abraham Verghese salutes you: it was you who made his debut novel a success.

"Book clubs made this book happen," he flatly stated during his appearance at the 2011 Fall for the Book Festival.  It was the widespread reading by those very book clubs that propelled Cutting for Stone onto the New York Times bestseller list, he freely admitted.

Myself I know it was more than that.  Cutting for Stone is a thoughtful, sensitive, thought-provoking book — which started out as a glimmer of a story to an exhausted, nearly burned-out physician treating HAV/AIDS patients in a small town in Tennessee. 

"All I knew is that there was a beautiful South Indian nun who gives birth to twins," he said.

He needed to take a break from his medical practice.  He had written two books already, both non-fiction, My Own Country and The Tennis Partner.  He had an idea for a story, and he wanted — no, needed to try his hand at fiction.

When his application to the Iowa Writers' Workshop was accepted, he found himself in the writing community he needed.  Once a week he spent time as a doctor with AIDS patients in a nearby hospital; the rest of the time, he was writing fiction, reading, recharging.

He admired Émile Zola, whose novels weren't "about" Paris, but "of Paris." He wanted to create "that atmosphere, that verisimilitude" in his novel.

His readers will agree: he succeeded.

The story spans the lives of two generations and takes place primarily in Addis Ababa.  First, there are the professionals who wind up at Missing hospital: doctors and nuns who administer more than just medicine and the people who help them provide this service. It's the shocking arrival of unexpected twins that sends everyone's lives into a direction other than they would have anticipated.

The characters in his novel are complex, interesting and surprisingly likeable.  Even the general whose actions affect Missing's obstetrician so profoundly is one to be respected.  When I asked Verghese if there were any characters he didn't like in his story, his response was immediate: "No.  If I hadn't liked them, I would have cut them."

His respect for fiction is unequivocal, so his foray into it makes sense.  "I have no patience for people who do not read fiction," he stated flatly.  "Uncle Tom's Cabin ended slavery."  Books speak to readers, he insisted.  "That's what is so magical about books: they speak to each of us differently."

Verghese's novel spoke to me of a rich life outside of the boundaries I know.  Cutting for Stone took an exotic "other" and turned it into a familiar location: of people, of situations, of life and love.

I am almost afraid to talk about it because I approached it without knowing anything about the story.  All I knew was that Verghese would be at the 2011 Fall for the Book Festival, and that my friend Pat found it one of the best books she had read in years.

What I will tell you instead is how books affected the author.  "I read Lolita when I was nine.  I read Lady Chatterley's Lover when I was ten.  When I came across a book titled Of Human Bondage when I was eleven," he paused as the audience laughed, "I discovered it was not at all what I anticipated."

And therein lies the magic.

I strongly recommend Cutting for Stone — and don't be surprised if you wind up purchasing multiple copies for friends and family.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Name That Seat on National Punctuation Day!

On National Punctuation Day, let's salute Portland, Oregon's sense of whimsy.

Scattered around TriMet's Yamhill platform are seats like this: question marks, exclamation points, semi-colons, commas — all properly used.

Look around you at all of the ways punctuation helps us understand what is being communicated.  And take a minute to appreciate art as Portland has used it — and think of how you can do the same in your world.

Monday, September 19, 2011

2011 Fall for the Book: I'm Ready!

There are some great authors scheduled for this year's Fall for the Book in Fairfax (and beyond).

I have two words for you: Stephen King.

Two more: Amy Tan.

Actually, that's not even my immediate reading list.

Every year, the festival has many great authors, and I have to pick and choose which events I can attend.  For this year's festival, I plan to attend the events featuring Abraham Verghese (Cutting for Stone, the author's first novel) and Conor Grennan (Little Princes, a memoir). 

I already read Natasha Tretheway's 2007 Pultizer Prize-winning poetry collection, Native Guard, multiple times, and it is in my library collection.  (If I don't excavate my copy this weekend, I shall be purchasing another copy for her to autograph at her reading next week.)

Needless to say, I have read books by the "headliners."

My first exposure to 2011's Fairfax Award-winner Amy Tan was The Joy Luck Club, which was touching yet sweeping.  I followed up with every single one of her books, saving the latest (Saving Fish from Drowning) for when I settled into my new library.  (Had someone told me it would take nearly a year after packing away most of my books, I wouldn't have waited.)

Equally imprisoned in my storage unit was dozens of books by the festival's 2011 Mason Award-winner.  I won't list every Stephen King novel I have read, but let's just say I wore a cross for a year when I was in junior high because 'Salem's Lot scared me so much.  (We don't discuss the 1979 TV movie.)

Take a look at this year's event schedule and let me know what you think I should see — or what you'd like to see.  Am I missing your favorite author, or an undiscovered gem?  Tell me!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

National Punctuation Day: Are You Ready?

How do you plan to celebrate National Punctuation Day September 24?

Will you make sure to use punctuation properly all day?  Will you correct inaccurate punctuation practiced by others?  Will you send around a sentence and ask friends and family to properly punctuate it?

Or will you write an ode to poetry?

I challenge you to write a punctuation poem.  Anything you want, however you want.  The only rule: send your poem(s) to me.  I will gladly publish any and all punctuation poems.  I'll even publish them anonymously, if you prefer.

All submissions will win a book of poetry.

Well, what are you waiting for?  Go write a punctuation poem!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Warning: Comparative Religion Course Badly Disguised as a Novel

Jeffrey Small's debut novel, The Breath of God, was heralded as a "novel of suspense" and likened to the work of popular novelist Dan Brown.  I was very excited and couldn't wait to crack the spine.  Once I got in, however, I found a far different book than I anticipated — and not as enjoyable.

Grant Matthews encounters a 2,000-year-old text that reveals what Jesus Christ did during his two decades of action accounted for in the Holy Bible.  Before he can unpack his bags, a Southern preacher with ambition decides to debunk Matthews' prematurely and unintentionally published revelations.  However, technology fails him and he must travel east again to find the original documents, following Kinley and the surreptitious clues he leaves with a few different people around the world.  Only he's not alone, and this self-proclaimed "servant of God" will stop at nothing to protect his religion — and his church.

Of course, Small threw in a brilliant teacher; a romance with an unbelievably smart, resourceful and supportive woman; and lots of long lectures on three major world religions to give readers a boring, tedious Dan Brown novel.

If Small's purpose was to provide us with a book on comparative religion, we would have been better served with a series of essays, rather than essays disguised as a novel.

The book starts out slow, methodical — in a word, tedious.  The "secret" is revealed in such a subtle way I had to re-read a revealing chapter just to find it, and the explanation as to why the secret is so white-hot is woven into multiple chapters, diluting the excitement of the discovery. All dialog is too pitch-perfect, too tautly woven to be conversation: there is no casual conversation if everything is wrought with Meaning. And that's just the construction of the novel.

Let's move onto characters, my personal litmus test.  Everyone is constructed of flimsy beige cardboard with no complexity or depth.  The bad guys are wicked beyond imagination, shallow and easily distracted by something shiny — and way, way too successful.  The good guys are practically wearing white and riding up on Shadowfax with a banner declaring their purity, blindly bungling along without a clue to their imminent danger.  Random facts are included in dialog and character development to offer: Grant's folly of youth is blown out of proportion, Kristin's youthful trauma was too tautly played, Kinley's omnipotence is heralded by too many people. Police experts are too stupid to find a single computer program their investigators should have found as easily as Grant accidenntally did (at a Pivotal Moment in the Story).  And the unbelievable relative ease Grant finds at the end of the story was insulting to every character that had gone before.

Finally, the action: it was too slow in the beginning, too cumbersome in the middle, too disjointed near the end — and the multiple surprise endings weren't just surprises, but totally unexpected in a bad way.  "I didn't see that coming" is good if the author didn't seem to hide it just so he could spring it on the reader at the Opportune Moment.  I wanted to pitch the book across the room.

I do not recommend this book.

However, if you read it and enjoyed it, then let me know what you liked about it.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Discovering a Shirley Jackson Award Winner

I have become a fan of short-story collections.  I have enjoyed the works of John Connelly, not enjoyed the works of Kelly Link — then I encountered Tunneling to the Center of the Earth.  Please stop what you are doing (yes, reading this review) and go purchase a copy, read it and return to this review.


Holy cow.  This begs not only the question of who thinks of this kind of stuff, but how can someone make the telling of it so right?

Like with other collections, the first story had a wow-factor of 11.  The idea of a "professional" grandparent is intriguing, and a business that would be really pretty win-win for all parties involved.

If that's where Kevin Wilson left it, I'd be impressed.  No, it's where he goes with "Grand Stand-Ins" that haunts me now, weeks after my first encounter with it.

And "The Shooting Man" may not have been a total surprise, but — again — it's where the story travels after it leaves my imagination that rocks my world.  

Not to brag, but I have a pretty twisted mind, having grown up on Stephen King and book after book of hauntings and spirits and the like.  I have scared myself awake from a dead sleep more times than my husband cares to count, and I have kept myself awake in total fear more than once.  And yet, Kevin Wilson surprises me in the best way possible.

Every single story is unique, every single story is different — and yet, every single story enchants, startles, frightens, unsettles... whatever path Wilson intends it to take, that's where it goes.  

I, for one, will follow him wherever he leads, including his new novel, The Family Fang.

By the way, if you need just one more push: Tunneling to the Center of the Earth won a 2009 Shirley Jackson Award.  

Alright, if you're still reading, I appreciate your dedication, but I release you from those bonds.  Go get this book.  However, you must tell me what you thought.  Okay?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Can Happiness Be Taught?

Do we need to be taught to be happy?  Children, usually not — but adults... We need some help in that area, Gretchen Rubin decided one day.  She saw a harried woman with a child, and no one looked happy.  She wanted to change that in her own life.

And, with the help of a publisher and marketing department, she turned it into a movement: The Happiness Project.  It comes to you with daily quotes, a book, a daily blog (maintained by the author herself!) and a whole lot of discussion.  Making a mint off the idea that she should be nicer to her family may not have been her original intention, but I am sure it made her happy.

From this writing, you may think me a skeptic — and you would be wrong.  I fell for this idea: hook, line and sinker.  I didn't think I needed to be happier for any particular reason, but the idea intrigued me.  Walking by the stack of books in the bookstore, I wondered to myself exactly what one does to make herself sing in the morning and clean her closets.  So I checked it out from the library.  (Some skeptical habits are hard to shake.)

It started out strong, and was interesting.  Everyone needs to get out her/his own mindset from time to time, reassess and become the person s/he wants to be.  Happiness is a mindset, and I have consciously re-set my happiness dial from time to time.  It can be done.  But a lifestyle re-set?  Rubin sets out to do that very thing for an entire year, breaking up her evolution into month-size bites.  The book was as much a how-to as a memoir of a year in the life.

I was with her, lock, stock and barrel — until April.  

You see, she launched her blog in March — and she used content from it rather liberally beginning in April.  Until then, what she wrote was personal, interesting, self-revealing.  Afterward, however, she turned to the studio audience for their reaction — too often for my taste.  If I wanted to know what random, unnamed strangers thought, I'd have found my own resources.  

My interest started to wane around summer, when she spent a month reading sad memoirs and biographies.  She explained how it wasn't to laud her great, easy life over another's short, sad one, but that's exactly how it felt.

Her repetition was tedious. She established in January that she had fabulous, involved in-laws who live around the corner (and who, as Jews, alleviated the pressure of "which family gets Christmas this year"); a patient, loving husband with Hepatitis C; supportive parents; and young, brilliant, beautiful daughters.  I got it early on.  

She liberally quoted famous and obscure authors, which made her sound just this side of know-it-all, at least in the beginning.  By July, I wondered if she had an original thought in her head.

By September, I was scanning chapters, skipping the blog excerpts, looking for "interesting parts."  

That might have been me reading too much too soon, not pacing myself properly for that type of book.  Fast-moving fiction can be swallowed nearly whole; instructional memoirs, maybe not so quickly.

Add with that the fact that her life already was completely off the charts: as a Yale alumna and successful lawyer who clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor who happens to be the wife of a successful laywer-cum-private equity investor, with a home on Manhattan's Upper East Side.  

Let's leave out the influential parents on both sides and apparent wealth for at least a couple of generations, because we know those things do not guarantee happiness.  It's the ability to do what we want that makes us swoon with envy.  (I wonder if the publishing house took that into consideration before publishing the irony of a happiness book by someone with that bio.)

In the end, I took away a couple of great ideas, such as, "If you aren't going to do something about what you're complaining about, STFU" (which wasn't even her idea) and starting a children's literature reading group (which was). I might find my own Truths and Commandments, and hers (and her reading public) offer a good place to start.  I am continuing to make a conscious effort to be positive (which I started before reading Rubin's book).  I will try to get to sleep earlier.  I'll get rid of that which I don't need (which may be easy, what with all of my recent unpacking).  It's a worthwhile read.

If asked, I'd recommend reading the book, but read it critically.  Take what interests you with a liberal grain of salt and cheerfully discard that which doesn't apply to you.  It's what Gretchen would want you to do.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Books Without Borders

I have seen the future without Borders, and it is Target.

And it makes me wish to weep.

David and I stopped by Borders the other day to indulge yet again (and to say "hello" to our future shelves).  We had a stack of goods we literally could not carry without each others' help.  Between coffee table books on music and guitars, a Jackie Chan video, Game of Thrones, The Anubis Gates, another Flavia mystery novel and a few novels and DVDs that will be gifts, our arms were full.

While we were there, I could not find some of the more recently published books, but I suspect most of the newer items had been snatched up quickly.  There was a biography I had tried for the better part of a year to pick up at the bookstore, but was again unsuccessful.

Today I encountered a book trailer that made me want to race out and purchase said book (thanks to Harper Collins Canada).  I knew I wasn't going to risk another encounter at Borders so soon — it's too exhausting to see such a loved bookstore in such disarray and disrepair.  I was going to Target, anyway, so figured I'd try my luck there.

"No luck" doesn't quite describe it.

There was room for for 12 books in the young adult "section."  Three slots were taken up by the first Harry Potter novel.  The top row was all Rick Riordian novels.  The rest of the collection was composed of whatever teen vampire romances are hot to teens.

I wanted to cry.

I knew I'd miss Borders, but I didn't realize the vast wasteland that awaited me.

It is in part my own fault.  I have a thing about Barnes & Noble: I don't like paying for a "club" discount.  I'm not a member of those big box warehouse stores for that very reason (well, that, and  refusing to buy a vat of mayonnaise I'l never finish, if only because I can't reach the bottom of the 10-gallon barrel to finish it off).  Paying what is a comparatively paltry sum to receive reasonable discounts shouldn't rub me the wrong way, but it does.

I'll be a member of a free discount club to the end of time, and they are free to mine my purchasing history for their marketing programs; it's only fair to help them sell me what I may (or may not) need.  For that information alone I deserve a discount, and I'm glad to take it at what seems like no additional cost to me.  (I am not foolish enough to think anything is truly free.)  However, to pay for that same "privilege" offends me.  Both I and the company in question will benefit, them more so because they can use my data to further their sales, market to their customers and determine their inventory.  I just want to buy at the "member" discount without having to pay for it up front.

However, if Target makes me weep over books again, I might give up bookstores altogether.  Amazon serves me well, gives me recommendations, sells to me at a reasonable price and delivers it at lightning-quick speed — and I can shop in my underpants.  (Sorry for the visual — and no, pouring bleach in your eyes will not help.)  I love my library and have been voraciously consuming those books at an alarming rate.  I just want to hand a book I love to a friend, who then can love it, too — and the library frowns on that.

I cannot go cold turkey, so I'll still hit up my thrift stores and used bookstores, which are my true passion.  However, as it stands, sparkling new bookstores may be a thing of the past.

Hopefully Barnes & Noble will come around to my way of thinking, especially since the competition is shrinking (for the time being).  If not, I'll have to totally change my book buying habits which, while a benefit to my wallet, will take its toll on my bookish soul. 

Tell me: what are you doing for your books these days, now that the Age of Borders is waning?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Book Review: At Home

I would follow Bill Bryson anywhere. I already have.  I have been with him on the Appalachian Trail, into the universe, across America, through England and all the way Down Under. He does not fail to delight readers — even when he stays home.

In At Home, the furthest he goes is to the roof.

Bryson literally strolls through his home in a quiet English hamlet, pondering who has come before (and literally how many there are still there, in body if not in spirit) and how they created the space around them.

Many students of history know the kitchen was often separate from the rest of the house, but how it evolved from a sure-fire death trap to today's modern amenities is worth the trip alone. In the kitchen, Bryson considers food and ponders why we eat what we eat — and who in their right mind would think [fill in the blank here] was a good idea for the plate? From wheat to corn, from meat to dairy, from spices to grain, Bryson ponders what we eat, and how it came to be on our plate, rather than in a bog, blowing in the breeze, or hoofing it in a wild pasture.

Another fascinating room is the, ahem, boudoir. It's not nearly as tantilizing as one would expect. It's more so. Honestly, from women's rights to privacy, from where people to slept to how they did (or didn't) sleep, and with whom — if you didn't think about it before, you can't help but ponder it now.

Nothing is too small: from salt to bedbugs, from lighting (inside and out) to laundry, from wheat to bread. In Bryson's hands, nothing can be small: why are salt and pepper the most popular condiments? Where and how did modern archaeology begin? Where did servants sleep? How could people navigate roads, or even the inside of their house, with a single tallow candle?

In contrast, nothing is too big: take the Crystal Palace Exposition, where glass is king and the toilets were nearly as popular as the rest of the expo. Even the entire English vicar situation is easily understood, and we walk away grateful for the Church of England, landowners and country parishes.

Bryson's deft touch makes every single chapter of this non-fiction tome delightful, educational, thoughtful, shocking, mournful, interesting, respectful, bawdy and just plain fun. Please, please read it — and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

All Hallow's Read: Are You In?

I really like Neil Gaiman.  Not only is he a great author (American Gods, Neverwhere, Stardust, to mention a few),  he comes up with other good ideas, too — like All Hallow's Read.

Instead of giving out candy on Halloween, Gaiman suggested giving out scary books, and encouraging people to read.

How quickly can I say, "I'm in!"?

Now, to be fair, it's not going to be easy.  There are plenty of people who don't like Halloween, or who associate the wrong spirit with it.  Plus — perish the thought — some people don't like scary books or stories.  (I know, crazy, but they're out there.)

So, how will I encourage it in my new neighborhood?

First of all, I won't go cold turkey on the candy.  I'd hate to be known as "that house that doesn't give out candy."  I certainly don't want to get mixed up with the house that gives out toothbrushes, or political pamphlets.  (Darn the American election system for putting elections so close to Halloween — though, to be honest, it really is a similar activity: getting dressed up and pretending to be someone else...)

Maybe I'll just start with a poem, a single sheet of paper.  Maybe a limerick, or a sonnet?  There are plenty of good ones out there, or I could write my own.  Start a series of poems, collect the entire set... I could have some fun with this!

Halloween will bring out David's inner spook-tacular decorating, so the porch will be scary.  I'll hand out a poem with candy, which also can be scary.  Then we'll see if anyone else joins us next year.  (And if you don't like my ideas, check out Darla Moore's ideas in the Columbus Public Schools Examiner, to see if one of them tickles your fancy.)

So, who else is in?