Summer Book Reviews

This past spring, I read so many books I had to split the reviews up into 2 posts. Summer? Let’s just say that the state of my reading list reflects how summer went for me. But THAT’S OK. Summer is the season of beach reads and page turners and “guilty pleasures,” so I certainly won’t feel guilty about how many books I did or did not read.

(I should note that there are 2 other books not included here that I tried to read, but I abandoned them both around the 50-page mark. Life’s just too short for books you aren’t diggin’, friends.)

Desert Notes by Barry Lopez

Desert Notes by Barry Lopez

After driving to Washington desert country this spring, I decided to finally, FINALLY pick up this book. Lopez is like some sort of demigod among nature writers, and any environmentally minded lit major beams at the very mention of Desert Notes. I’m actually rather surprised I never read it in college, given the number of professors I had who were in love with Western American literature. Apparently I needed a trip to the desert to be in the right state of mind to pick this one up. (A good book is not only good based on its own merits, but based on where you are in your own life, as well.)

And after all that lead-up, the book was… good? A very different read for me. Objectively beautiful writing. There’s no plot to speak of; it’s the power of words and descriptions that draws you in, dreamy and wandering. While this type of writing may not be my typical cup of tea, it’s still good to branch out and see what other genres have to offer. It inspired me to write a short, weird little travelogue — you never know what may inspire future work. And now I would REALLY like to go check out the Alvord desert, the desert that inspired this book.

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard

While browsing Austin Kleon’s blog, I found this snippet he wrote about Leonard: “His books are my reset button, where I turn when I’ve stalled out and I’m bored with my books, and I just want something awesome that won’t annoy the shit out of me or leave me hanging.” I felt the need for a reading reset, so I decided to give Kleon’s method a shot. And I have to say, it pretty much did the trick — this was just a plain ol’ fun book. Good dialogue, likable characters, simple prose that drives the plot forward. Many people would classify this as a “junk food” book, but at the end of the day, it’s pretty damn good writing.

My only qualm — the whole time I was reading, I couldn’t get the movie version out of my head. I haven’t seen Get Shorty in a LONG TIME — yet with each line I read, there were John Travolta and Gene Hackman, delivering all the dialogue. Which is not the WORST thing in the world, but I like to form my own visions of book characters. Next Leonard book I pick up, I’m going to choose one where I haven’t seen the movie.

California by Edan Lepucki

California by Edan Lepucki

Oh man. This book. I have feelings about this book.

I was one of the many people who pre-ordered this much-hyped book after Stephen Colbert promoted it on his show. I ordered it for two reasons: 1) any boost for independent bookstores is awesome, and I wanted to be a part of that (I chose to order from Parnassus Books, myself); and 2) the book itself actually sounded totally up my ally. Dystopian speculative fiction set in California? Yes, please!

California starts out strong enough — Lepucki has an interesting writing style, fairly straightforward but with the occasional poetics thrown in for good measure. She did a good job depicting the relationship between Cal and Frida, the young husband and wife at the center of the book — their relationship is far from perfect, but it is believable. And then… things started to turn a little south. As it nears the finale, the book begins to suffer from “showing vs. telling” (one of my biggest writing pet peeves), but I was willing to look past that to see where it went. It IS an intriguing plot line — I flew through the whole thing pretty quickly.

But the ending. Oh god, I HATED the ending. I can’t remember the last time I actively disliked a book ending so much. I finished and may have actually said out loud, “THAT’S IT?” I won’t spoil anything here, because that would just be lame — but if anyone else out there has read this book, I’m very curious to hear other’s reactions.

All that said — I would still be interested to read a second book from Lepucki. This one had a bit of “first novel” syndrome about it, but she’s clearly a talented writer.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

Speaking of Parnassus Books — a friend of mine recently went to Nashville, and I told her she should visit this bookstore. Tara, bless her, DID stop in, and while she was there texted me: “Which Ann Patchett books should I buy?” You see, novelist Ann Patchett co-founded Parnassus Books. I had to confess that I had not read any Patchett, but that This is the Story of a Happy Marriage was well-reviewed on Goodreads. After this shameful exchange, I decided I should remedy this and picked up the book myself.

I can now retroactively recommend this book with 100% confidence. Patchett is primarily a fiction writer, but for years she earned her bread-and-butter by writing nonfiction magazine articles. She selected and organized the best of those articles for This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, while also writing two new stories for the compilation — one about writing called “The Getaway Car” (highly recommended for all you writer folk out there), and another story about the birth of Parnassus Books. The other articles focus on marriage, divorce, dogs, re-marriage, family, friendship. If these seem like broad themes — well, yes, they are, but Patchett writes about them with such specificity that they seem new. She’s an incredibly talented writer, and beyond that? She just seems like a nice person. You finish a story and think, “Why are Ann Patchett and I not friends? We’d be great friends.” I’ll definitely be picking up more of her work.

(Can I mention, too, how much I adore that book cover? Great design, that.)

What did you read over the summer? Any delicious guilty-pleasure reads? I’ve kicked off my fall reading list with Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, so I think the next season is off to a good start…

Spring Book Reviews: Part 2

OH HAI! This is a tad bit late. Part 1 went up two weeks ago, and I meant to have Part 2 done the following week… but, well, the last book took longer to finish than anticipated. That’s one downside to the Kindle — even with that little percentage bar, it’s harder to judge your reading progress than it is with an actual, physical book staring you in the face.

But! Without further ado. The rest of the books I read this spring…

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of Miracles

Honestly, I’d never heard of this book and never would have picked it up if it weren’t for Lauren’s Better In Real Life Reading List. She asked people to participate in book reviews/discussions, and The Age of Miracles was my assigned book (just like school! But without the tests and drama). I’m definitely glad I read it — it was thought provoking and fairly well-written. But let me warn you, this book put me in a DEEP FUNK. If I may quote myself… (Is it weird if I quote myself? Whatever.)

It’s fitting that the book brings up those uncomfortable middle-school feelings, because they tie in well with the main theme: the haunting passage of time. How quickly it goes by, how cruel and unrelenting it is. Time spares no one and nothing and makes you realize that, ultimately, you are alone in the world. If that all sounds depressing… well, yeah actually, this book was a bit depressing. I kept waiting for the uplifting twist, the silver-lining ending… and it never really arrived. This book has loneliness and fatalism at its core.

Seriously, NO SILVER LINING here. You’ve been warned. If you’d like to read ALL MY THOUGHTS on this book, pop on over to Better In Real Life to see the full discussion.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

The Once and Future King

You guys… I feel so much guilt over this one. I seriously considered not including it here, because I’m ashamed by what I’m about to say.

This book is a titan — a classic of the genre. It’s influenced so, so many writers, and many consider it to be the best fantasy novel ever written. I use the title to make puns all the time — “Oh yes, that’s our Once and Future Garage” — but my dirty little secret? I’d never actually read it. So I figured, you know, if I’m invoking this book to make bad jokes, I should actually read the thing.

And I… didn’t like it. I tried, really I did — I went well past Nancy Pearl’s 50-page rule — but I kept running into 2 problems: 1) I couldn’t get the Disney version of The Sword in the Stone out of my head, and 2) I don’t really like White’s writing style. He goes on for ten pages about the rules and techniques of jousting, and all I could think was Oh my god I don’t care about jousting I don’t care about this stupid knight please get to the stupid story.

But I wanted to stick it out. I figured if I could just get through Part One, maybe it would pick up, maybe I’d get into it… but I finally had to give up. I was skimming entire sections just to try and get to “the good part.” Eventually, I realized that “the good part” would never come for me — The Once and Future King and I were not meant to be. Pour one out, move on. (I still reserve the right to reference the title in my bad puns, though.)

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Windup Girl

A while back, a coworker and I were exchanging book recommendations. MaddAddam had just come out, so I enthusiastically recommended that series. With equal fervor, my coworker recommended this book (while also suggesting a nerdy-girls book club at work — YES, PLEASE).

And now I’ve finally gotten around to reading it! And general consensus — definitely glad I did. The Windup Girl is set in Bangkok, in a future world where horrible blights and crazy pesticide-resistant beetles have destroyed global agriculture. Most countries have fallen into chaos and famine, but the Thai Kingdom remains, self-sufficient and sealed off from the outside world. The book follows a cast of characters — some intent on Thailand’s continued independence, some who would like Thailand to open up trade with the outside world. Conflict ensues.

The world building drew me into this book — Bacigalupi does a fantastic job painting this futuristic society, where calories are currency and an ice cube is considered a huge waste of energy — but the characters didn’t quite do it for me. Each chapter is told from a different point of view (there are, if memory serves, five rotating narrators), and this switching made it a harder for me to get into the story. And our titular character, Emiko the Windup Girl… well, I had issues. She’s “New People”, a humanoid sex slave designed to serve without question. And that ingrained desire to serve makes for a weird main character. She remains passive as horrible, terrible things happen to her, and when she DOES act, she regrets it afterwards and constantly apologizes for her actions. I wanted her to stand up for herself, take charge, leave all the assholes behind who kept hurting her — but that wasn’t the character. Which annoyed me, because I wanted her to be that way. At the end of the day, I did enjoy the book — but I felt like I could have enjoyed it more. Which is an odd experience.

That’s a wrap for spring! And next we have summer… oh, summer reading. The most wonderful reading season there is (why else would everyone and their mom put out summer reading lists?). What will you be reading in a sunny hammock, while sipping on a beer and kicking off your sandals? I haven’t quite decided on my list yet, so I’m quite eager for suggestions.

Spring Book Reviews: Part 1

IT IS TIME! For a recap of the books I read this spring. I normally try to do a seasonal recap all in one post, but as I was writing this one, I realized it was getting looooong. I don’t feel like I did a ton of reading this past spring, but maybe I did? Or maybe I just have more thoughts than usual. Whatever the reason — here is Part 1. Part 2 shall be revealed next week.

Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology by Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton

Lost Cat

As I read this book, one word kept popping into my head: charming. Which, I have to say, doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement for a book, but in this case it is. This book follows the exploits of Tibia and Fibula, brother and sister cats living with their humans in San Francisco. At the story’s start, Caroline Paul crashes an experimental plane, an accident that results in a lot of broken bones and time spent at home with the cats. And then one day during her recovery… Tibby disappears.

He comes back. And I’m not ruining anything by telling you that! The book follows Caroline’s exploits as she tries to figure out where Tibby went to, and more importantly (to her) why he would even leave in the first place.

This is definitely a book that requires a hard copy. MacNaughton‘s illustrations add SO MUCH wimsy and delight to the story – I’d go so far as to say the story isn’t complete without them. Seriously, don’t even THINK about buying an e-ink version.

Now, it goes without saying that this book is pretty much only for crazy cat people (like myself). BUT. I would also say that it’s a good read for someone who loves a crazy cat person and wants to understand the depth of the crazy. It’s a really loving portrayal of the relationships we form with our pets and the value of animal companionship.

I’m Starved for You and Choke Collar by Margaret Atwood

ImStarvedforYOu ChokeCollar

So… you all know I love me some Margaret Atwood. When I found out she was writing a Kindle Singles series? SIGN ME UP. The series is called Positron, and it’s set in a seemingly lovely but actually horrifying dystopian future (so, you know, par the course for her). I eagerly read the first installment, “I’m Starved for You”… and wasn’t completely hooked. But I was intrigued enough to pick up the second, “Choke Collar.” And after that… I felt done. No need to pick up the third.

I think part of my problem with these is the format itself: serials. I’m slowly learning that it may not be the story format for me. Once I get into a story, I want to dive in — the inherent breaks that come with serials stall me. I had the same issue with Chuck Wendig’s “The Forever Endeavor” (found in the lovely Fireside magazine). Loved the premise, was super intrigued — but couldn’t keep up the momentum. If it’s ever collected into one volume that I can read in one chunk, sign me up.

Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon

Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

You’ve probably heard of Austin Kleon — he’s a bit of a golden boy these says. Rightly so, I’d argue. I was a big fan of his first book, Steal Like an Artist, so was super eager to pick this one up. Show Your Work! completes the cycle set forth in Steal Like an Artist — you’re influenced by others, you “steal” from them, and in turn you should share your work and your influences so others can discover and steal, too.

For me, personally, Steal Like an Artist was the more valuable book — it had more insights that seemed directly applicable to me. But I’d definitely recommend this new one, too. The thing that struck me most about it is how it advocates for generosity — not something often talked about in creative circles. No one is an island (despite the prevalent myth of the lone creative genius), so we might as well play nice and share our enthusiasm with one another.

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

When I traveled to Stockholm and Copenhagen with my friend Hen, she raved about this book. She said I had to read it, especially after traveling to Viking lands. It took me a couple months after our trip to pick it up, but I finally did.

Considering that I was a history minor in college, I’m kind of surprised I don’t read more historical fiction. That may change after reading this book. It’s set in England, during the Viking raids of 800’s, and follows the story of an English boy who’s taken in by Vikings. I really enjoyed learning more about this time period (which I previously knew very little about), and it encouraged me to do my own research outside of the book itself. And I have to say — Cornwell did his homework. The book has just enough detail to make you really feel this time period. (One reoccurring thought: SO DIRTY.)

All that said — I felt like the book was a bit bloated. By the last 100 pages, I was just ready to be done with it (never a good sign). And the main character Uhtred didn’t totally do it for me. He wasn’t a Mary Sue… but at times he felt dangerously close. The Last Kingdom is the first book in a seven-book series, and I’m still undecided if I’ll pick up the rest.

That’s a wrap for Part 1! As I work on getting Part 2 together… Have you read any of these? Your thoughts? What have you been reading lately? My reading list needs an injection of fresh material, so I’m eager for recommendations.

Winter Book Reviews

Ok ok, so technically we still have four more weeks of winter, technically I’m early with a “Winter Book Recap.” But! Since I’m currently reading my own book, and March is right around the corner, I figure now is the appropriate time to take a look back at the books that helped me slog through winter.

1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Androids This may sound odd, but I read this book not based on its own merit, but because of the other works it’s influenced. Blade Runner is the obvious correlation here, but Janelle Monáe has said in interviews that it’s a big influence on her work, too. I was curious about a book that could inspire so many, across so many genres.

And you know what? This was a really, really good book. Simple and straightforward prose, but a complex idea: what does it mean to be human? This is where science fiction really shines: creating an other-worldly scenario to tackle all-too-human questions. I’m laughing right now reading the quote on that cover — “a kind of pulp-fiction Kafka” — because it’s totally true. This is pulp fiction in the best sense — a fun, action-packed read that still makes you think.

Did it have its issues? Sure. The pacing seemed a little off in parts, and the female characters aren’t the most well-developed. But all in all I’m definitely glad I read it, and definitely understand why it’s considered a classic in the genre.

2. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse Five

I have a confession to make: up until this book, I had never read any Kurt Vonnegut. I’m not entirely sure how that’s possible, considering that I practically lived in my college’s English department. And confession time isn’t over yet: I’ve been somewhat avoiding Vonnegut. He seemed like another White Dude Writer whom you’re Supposed to Read. But then Slaughterhouse-Five was on sale for less than a latte, so I scooped it up. And now I’m kicking myself for not reading Vonnegut sooner, because my first thought upon finishing this book was, “I wish I were back in college so I could discuss this with fellow English nerds.”

This book, man. It was so good. SO GOOD. I don’t know what I expected from Vonnegut, but it wasn’t this — simplistic prose, a sci-fi angle, a keen eye for just-right details. (How did I not know Vonnegut is considered a science fiction writer? WHERE HAVE I BEEN?). But most of all, I love that this book doesn’t leave any answers. It is both fatalistic and hopeful, dismally sad and darkly comedic. And Billy Pilgrim — was he really abducted by aliens? Did the skull fracture break his brain? Is he suffering from horrible PTSD and these are his coping mechanisms? The answer to all these questions is “yes” — they can all be true, all at the same time, just as they can all not be true. As a writer, I’m definitely going to need to re-read this book to study how Vonnegut does it.

3. The Explorer by James Smythe

The Explorer

Nope, sorry. This book was a “not for me.” I heard about it on Chuck Wendig’s blog, and it sounded right up my alley:

Cormac Easton is the first journalist to travel to space. The crew he’s with all die, and he’s left alone, slowly dying. Unless, of course, he can find out how to stop it…

Awesome! Sign me up! But somehow this book… bored me. I’m not even sure how that’s possible. But to me, it was slow and boring. I followed Nancy Pearl’s advice on this one and put it down after about 100 pages. It has a LOT of good reviews, though, so clearly others enjoyed it. Maybe you would, too? Let me know, I’d be curious to hear others’ thoughts.

4. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

Writing

I already talked about my adoration for this book — but it does bear repeating. This is an AMAZING book for all you writers out there. The chapters are short, easily digested in any time increment you may have. Goldberg is at once encouraging in a maternal sort of way, and matter-of-fact in a no-bullshit way. It’s a mix that shouldn’t work, but totally does.

One part that struck me in particular — in the last chapter, she talks about how it feels to finish a book. The combined exhilaration and letdown. The joy and the loneliness. I had just finished my first draft, and the words struck home. This woman gets it, guys. Whatever “it” is. Seriously, if you write at all, check this book out.

5. The Cormorant by Chuck Wendig

Cormorant

This book! And it’s ah-maz-ing cover. I had been looking forward to this book ever since I finished book two of the Miriam Black series. This one involves a road trip down to the Florida Keys. Which, I have to say — Wendig does a great job describing. You can practically taste the Keys. Now I want to go and snorkel and drink rum and eat fresh fish caught by a cormorant.

Without getting spoilery, I’ll just say — there were a lot of returning characters that I didn’t expect to show up, and I was pleased they did. One qualm, however — there were times when Wendig referenced characters or events from the previous book, and I couldn’t for the life of me remember exactly who they were or what they had done. It didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the overall book in any way, but a little more “catching the reader up” would have been nice.

I was surprised at the gut reaction I had to reading the last page — it was a (surprisingly) emotional ending with a character you’ve really come to care for. Miriam shows a LOT of personal growth in this book — more so than we’ve previously seen. She confronts difficult relationships and doesn’t find easy answers. All in all, it felt like a good direction for the character to go in. Also, the set up for the next book? SUPER intriguing. I’m in.

6. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Alexie

The members of my writing group were shocked — shocked! — when they learned I hadn’t read any Sherman Alexie. So seeing as he’s speaking at the upcoming AWP conference  (which I’m attending wheeee!), I figured now was a good time. The Absolutely True Diary is technically a young adults book, but I’m here to tell you that it is totally enjoyable as an adult. It’s a quick read, but it never feels like you’re being talked down to (as some poorly written YA books can do). The narrator, Junior, is a Native American kid who leaves his reservation to attend the adjacent “white” school. In many ways, this book seems to be a love song to the reservation that Junior knows he MUST leave for his own good — yet it still breaks his heart to do so.

It amused and saddened me to think that there are a lot of schools that ban this book. This is, on the whole, a pretty innocent book — it tackles some BIG complex issues, yes, but Junior is a good kid. He does well in school, he works hard, he loves his friends and family. He is actively trying to create a better life for himself. Those seem like good messages for young adults. But the fact that he *gasps* mentions masturbation makes the book unfit for young eyes. Come on, America. Let’s pull it together here, ok?

Winter always seems like such a cozy time for reading. What books did YOU pick up? Anything I should add to my own list?

The Monsters Are Alright

“What’s happening on this page?”

“That…. alien. Is talking to Calvin.”

“Is Calvin in jail?”

“Well… yes, he’s in jail.”

“… is that caterpillar dead?”

“Uh, no, I think it’s just resting.”

You don’t realize how un-kid-friendly your house is until you have kids over. Then you look around and say, “Huh. Nothing here is child appropriate.” But desperate times call for desperate measures. When our goddaughter Kara came to visit, I searched our bookshelves for a book — any book — that might work for a 4-year-old.

Most books we own don’t even contain pictures. Want some Hemingway, kid? Maybe a little Malcolm X, or some dystopian science fiction? We got that! And then I saw it, on the bottom shelf of the last bookcase — The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book.

Growing up, my sister and I bickered over who got the comics section of the newspaper, and the first strip I always read was Calvin and Hobbes. I loved that duo — I loved how weird Calvin was, how brave he was, how outrageous he was. But mostly I loved his crazy imagination: Spaceman Spiff, the dinosaurs, the fact that his stuffed tiger was 100% real. I was often gifted the compilations (Lazy Sunday has a note written in my sister’s childhood handwriting: “Merry Christmas, Laura!”) and after finishing each book, I’d always vow to be more like Calvin — fortunately for my parents, a vow I never acted on.

I knew the text would be a bit too advanced for Kara — but the pictures! The pictures would be great. So I pulled the book off the shelf and took it into the living room.

calvinandhobbes

She loved it. The full-page drawings grabbed her attention and held it firm. But flipping through the pages, I soon recalled something about Calvin and Hobbes — something I’d forgotten from my days of reading it on the regular. Do any of you remember how dark this strip can be? Monsters and aliens trying to kill Calvin, fanged dinosaurs eating helpless dinosaurs, weird demigods of the underworld destroying villages. I had forgotten all this until Kara stopped at nearly every drawing and said, “Is that a monster?”

Now. Kara is a very sweet little girl. A sweet, imaginative little girl who remembers freakin’ everything. Seriously, NOTHING slips past this kid. Both a blessing and a curse. I was worried that if I explained all these monsters to her, she’d go home and be convinced they were waiting for her, lurking under the bed.

“Well, here Calvin is pretending…” I asked her if she ever played pretend. “This monster is in Calvin’s imagination — he’s playing pretend.” Kara would nod; we turned the page.

After a while, I noticed a trend. “Where’s the next monster?” she’d say. “No, not this page. Where’s a monster?”

Suddenly I realized — Kara wasn’t afraid of the monsters. She was seeking them out. She wanted the monsters. She wanted the slightly dark, slightly scary, 100% awesome monsters.

So often we’re afraid to let kids see anything scary. But they know what’s up. They know there’s darkness in the world. And sometimes, that’s alright. We’re all drawn to the dark, to the macabre — otherwise Sherlock Holmes, The Walking Dead, and 50 shades of vampire wouldn’t be so popular. We don’t want fairy tales and star dust. No, strike that — we want the real fairy tales, where the Fae play tricks and steal your children and return to their dark world hidden just behind the veil. We want to go to the place on the map marked “Here Be Dragons” and peer into the abyss, returning home to tell the tale.

At the end of the day, we want the good guys to win — we want good to prevail. But the monsters are alright. They keep things interesting.

Why We Write

Have you ever read something so perfect, so true to your being, that you had to stop and immediately read it again?

I’m currently reading Writing Down the Bones, and oh — what a joy this book is. A fellow writer recommended it to me, and I’m going to turn right around and recommend it to others. And I’m not even finished with it yet! But there have already been enough gems to prove its worth.

One chapter struck me in particular: “The Power of Details.” I finished that short chapter, and immediately flipped back and re-read it. And then I wanted to go show it to all the writers I know, shove it under their noses and say, “Here here, read this!” I’ve quoted almost all of it here. I apologize for doing so, for putting such a long quote here — but it’s all so good and true that I couldn’t cut much. It speaks to me as a writer, beautifully and accurately answers to the question, “Why do we write?”

Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical. We live and die, age beautifully or full of wrinkles. We wake in the morning, buy yellow cheese, and hope we have enough money to pay for it. At the same instant we have these magnificent hearts that pump through all sorrow and all winters and we are alive on the earth. We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived. Let it be known, the earth passed before us. Our details are important. Otherwise, if they are not, we can drop a bomb and it doesn’t matter.

Yad Vashem, a memorial for the Holocaust, is in Jerusalem. It has a whole library that catalogs the names of the six million martyrs. Not only did the library have their names, it also had where they lived, were born, anything that could be found out about them. These people existed and they mattered. Yad Vashem, as a matter of fact, actually means “memorial to the name.” It was not nameless masses that were slaughtered; they were human beings.

…..

We have lived; our moments are important. This is what it is to be a writer: to be the carrier of details that make up history, to care about the orange booths in the coffee shop in Owatonna.

Recording the details of our lives is a stance against bombs with their mass ability to kill, against too much speed and efficiency. A writer must say yes to life, to all of life: the water glasses, the Kemp’s half-and-half, the ketchup on the counter. It is not a writer’s task to say, “It is dumb to live in a small town or to eat in a cafe when you can eat macrobiotic at home.” Our task is to say holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist — the real truth of who we are: several pounds overweight, the gray, cold street outside, the Christmas tinsel in the showcase, the Jewish writer in the orange booth across from her blond friend who has black children. We must become writers who accept things as they are, come to love the details, and step forward with a yes on our lips so there can be no more noes in the world, noes that invalidate life and stop these details from continuing.

— Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within

Holy yes to life. Holy yes to all of that.

So now I’ll ask you, fellow writers — why do you write? This, for me, is it.

Favorites: A 2013 Recap

Every time I look at my favorites list from 2003, it makes me smile. It’s like a time capsule, a little slice of who I was at a certain time, in a certain place. I want more of those time capsules — so I’m picking the tradition back up. Plus, ya know, ’tis the season.

I’m using the same categories we chose in 2003 — I am a fan of consistency, after all. So here they are, then. A 2013 recap, ten years (!!!) after the first.

Favorite Movies

No doubt about it — Gravity gets top prize. Hands down, my favorite movie of the year. Because holy shitballs this movie was amazing. From the “how did they do that?” visuals to the powerful, INTENSE story. I have some friends who’ve criticized the movie for not being realistic enough. “Well, that was just too coincidental, that XY and Z happened.” But to me, this movie was a parable — a classic hero’s journey, told through a modern lens. And as that, it’s just about perfect.

Runner up? The World’s End. British comedians, creepy robots, epic bar-hopping — what more do you need? This movie cleverly incorporates themes such as addiction, sobriety, and the pains of growing up, all under the guise of an alien caper. It was by far my favorite of the Cornetto Trilogy.

Favorite Books

Considering that I devoured the entire MaddAddam trilogy in about two months — um, yeah, those take the cake. But top of the list would be Oryx and Crake. As I said in my review, I loved Snowman as a narrator, and I love the slow reveal of the entire book, the gradual build-up and creeping horror. Plus, for our anniversary Byron got me this:

Signed first edition of Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.

Signed first edition. Boom. So, duh. Favorite.

Other memorable reads? The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Civilwarland in Bad Decline (depressing as hell, but it sticks with you). And in the “I can’t remember if I read this in 2013 or the end of 2012, but I’m counting it anyway” category — Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig.

Favorite Music

Musically, one lady dominated my year: Janelle Monáe . “Q.U.E.E.N.” was my jam pretty much all year long. Plus, she put on an ah-maz-ing show, complete with crazy crowd-surfing.

Janelle Monae in concert.

If you haven’t checked out her entire album, The Electric Lady, do it now. Full-on fantastic from start to finish.

Favorite Moments

Paddle boarding in Hawaii. Neil Gaiman’s reading. Beating a 10-minute mile while running. Weirdly, all the yard work we did this summer (someday the novelty will wear off, but it hasn’t yet).

Oh, and DUH! Attending Margaret Atwood’s reading — and getting up the courage to ask her a question.

Atwoodreading

Big nerdy moment, ladies and gents. Big nerdy moment.

Favorite Food

I love that this was a category we decided to include in 2003. Priorities? We got ’em.

I’ve recently rediscovered English muffins. They’re pretty damn tasty. Have you had one recently? Highly recommended.

This summer I became obsessed with the Lil’ Bean Burger from Zippy’s Giant Burgers. It is cheesy and saucy and oh why yes I had one for dinner last night.

Soft pretzels. Always soft pretzels.

These pork tacos. WITH the pickled onions. If you have a slow cooker, make this now. NOW. WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?

And… I guess that about wraps up my year. We’re ending on tacos, folks. It seems appropriate.

(What WILL be a favorite of the year — finishing the first draft of my book. Which is progressing. 11,000 words written in the past month. It is so close I can taste it. 15 more days. 15 more days.)

The Case for the Physical Bookstore

I want to start this post out with a disclaimer: I purchase a lot of random crap off Amazon. Shampoo, vacuum filters, plant caddies. And yes, the occasional book. Most often an e-book for my Kindle — an Amazon product I love and adore. It’s small and lightweight and easy to take on the bus. Plus, I can get free library books without leaving my house. SWEET.

I put this disclaimer out there because a lot of writers and readers have rather, erm, passionate views about Amazon. People think it’s either the devil or the Second Coming. Me? I enjoy it as a consumer. I don’t have a ton of opinions on it as a writer, other than the fact that I find some of the publishing work they’re doing to be interesting (and some, perhaps, questionable).

Amazon has another thing going for it: it means I never have to step foot in a store during the holiday season. Crowds tend to stress me out — Christmas crowds? NO THANK YOU. The fact that I can now do ALL my Christmas shop without taking the cat off my lap is a Godsend.

However — this past Saturday, I had to venture out of the house to a physical bookstore. Barnes & Noble, to be specific, the one just a mile away from our house. I had a particular book I wanted to purchase as a gift, and I knew Barnes & Noble had it there at a good price. So I put on my big-girl pants and braved the crazies. And once I was there I figured, well, may as well check some other Christmas shopping off the list. I love gifting books — particularly to kids. I’m totally a pusher, I like to get them hooked on the whole reading habit.

Gifts for the little kids were easy. Then came the challenge — a book for a 13-year-old girl. A 13-year-old girl who happens to be a voracious reader. Which, is great! But it also means that she has read practically everything I can think of. It makes buying a book for her — a book she hopefully hasn’t read — difficult.

(Plus, I’m sorry, but have you SEEN the Young Adult section of a bookstore recently? Vampires. ALL VAMPIRES. Which I have nothing against, in theory, but what if you’re not into vampires? WHAT THEN?)

As I stood there dumbfounded, staring at the Young Adult books before me, a Barnes & Noble employee came up.

“Can I help you find anything?” she said.

Now, my usual response to this question is, “I’m just browsing.” It’s my automatic setting, the default. But this time, I said, “Well, actually… I’m looking for a gift…”

I told the woman my dilemma. She cocked her head to one side, thought for a moment, then said, “Well, let me show you one of my favorites…”

She pulled a book — a very hidden book — off one of the packed shelves. Every Day by David Levithan. I hadn’t heard of it, and told the woman so. “I used to be a middle school and high school librarian,” she explained. “I bought six copies of this book for the school, and it was always checked out. The kids loved it. Kids who didn’t even read, they wanted to talk to me about it.”

She proceeded to describe the book — a brief synopsis of the plot, a bit about the writing style, what a great ending it has. And you could tell how much this woman loved this book. It was special to her — we all have a book like that, don’t we?

So when the employee finished her little speech, I said, “Sold. I bet she’ll really like this one.”

“Make sure you read it, too,” she said. “It really is a great book.”

I left the bookstore buoyant, confident in my purchase and excited about my new discovery. And I realized: an experience like this could never happen on Amazon. Not in a million years. Yes, Amazon has its whole Recommendations system. But let’s be honest — it’s not that great. It doesn’t come CLOSE to a real-live-flesh-and-blood human explaining to you why this is their favorite book. You don’t get the excitement — you don’t get the nuance. You don’t get the connection to another person who also loves books. And that’s really the special thing, the important thing, about a physical bookstore. It brings us book nerds together — and hopefully snags a few new ones in the process.

I’m not going to be abandoning my Amazon purchases — it has its place, its can’t-be-denied convenience. But if you have some Christmas shopping still to do, I’d recommend popping into a bookstore. You never know what book you might find.

Fall Book Recap

Here it is, your seasonal recap — the books I read this past fall. I wish I was more excited about this list, you guys. But for the most part, my fall reading list consisted of books I was REALLY excited about… but made me feel like this:

The exception to that is, of course, MaddAddam, which I reviewed early early this fall. But the rest… well, you’ll see. NONE of them are bad books. But none of them really did it for me.

1. Fireside Magazine

Cover of Fireside Magazine

Well see, here we are, starting out with another exception. I read Issues 4 and 5 of Fireside Magazine, and both were actually really enjoyable. Each issue consists of a couple pieces of flash fiction, a few short stories, and then a section of a serial novella from Chuck Wendig. Not gonna lie — I originally signed up for Fireside because of that Wendig series, but there have been some other really good pieces in there, too. I’ve never really been one for flash fiction, but there are some in there which show me that genre’s potential (“The Filigreed Cage” by Krystal Claxton stands out). Each issue only takes about 20 minutes to read, so I’d definitely recommend it for fellow bus commuters.

2. Wool

Cover of Wool by Hugh Howey

I’d heard SO MUCH GOOD about Hugh Howey’s Wool. Plus, he’s a self-publishing success story! So, you know, that’s cool. But Wool failed to grab me. It’s a post-apocalyptic romp, which I’m normally down for… but for whatever reason, the premise of this one (humans living in an underground silo, unable to go outside) didn’t do it for me. Or maybe it was the characters? I realized after I finished that I didn’t really care about any of them. Which made it hard for me to want to read more.

Now, admittedly, I only read Wool Part #1, which was Howey’s original short story before he continued the series and compiled it into one book. But if Part 1 didn’t grab me… why should I go onto Part 2? Am I missing out? Anyone read the rest of these? I’d be curious to hear opinions.

3. In the Garden of Beasts

Cover of In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson.

Ugh, this one… this one had been on my reading list for a long time. I was pretty damn excited to read it. I loved Larson’s The Devil in the White City, and In the Garden of Beasts sounded like a total winner. It follows the story of William E. Dodd — the American ambassador to pre-war Nazi Germany — and his family as they navigate the political waters of 1933 Berlin. Sounds fascinating, right? RIGHT?

Well. This book was boring. The Dodds are duds. The narrative perspective switches between Dodd and his adult daughter, Martha. I didn’t find either one particular likable or interesting, and questioned why Larson chose them as the pivot for his book. Plus, Larson had this annoying habit of Foreshadowing. With a capital F. All throughout the book, he hinted at some MAJOR event to come. At the characters who would die horrific deaths, at the horrible turning point that would be a defining moment of Germany history. He hints at the climax SO MUCH that by the time you get there, you think… that’s it? THAT’s what you were going on and on about? And I mean, the climax of the book IS a Big Deal historical event… so the fact that it’s a letdown? That tells you something about this book.

4. A Fraction of the Whole

FractionoftheWhole

This is the one I almost abandoned. It came HIGHLY recommended from a friend, a friend who’s reading taste I very much trust… but again, it didn’t do it for me (are you catching a theme with these books?). A Fraction of the Whole is written by Steve Toltz (and I just realized…how can I not think of this?), and it follows the story of a father and son in Australia. Both of them are certifiably nuts — and for me, not in a good way. They’re over-the-top introspective, they ramble, they fancy themselves philosophers. The book’s plot itself was somewhat intriguing — but I just couldn’t get behind these characters. I found them eccentric at best, infuriating at worst.

After I finished the book, I looked at some Goodreads reviews, and a lot of people mentioned how funny the book was. Like, “laugh out loud” funny. Which… I didn’t get. At all. So I’m wondering what I’m missing? Is it just ME? Again, if you’ve read this one, I’d be curious to hear…

5. The Paris Wife

Cover of The Paris Wife.

The Paris Wife was a confounding read. For the first half of the book, I couldn’t figure out if I liked it or not — and yet I kept turning pages. I didn’t dislike it. But there was something I couldn’t put my finger on, something that rubbed me the wrong way. And then it clicked: I didn’t really like the narrator, Hadley Richardson Hemingway. I found her annoying. Passive. She watched the action around her, rather than being the protagonist of her own novel. Which I’m not sure is a valid criticism of the book — after all, it’s possible that Hadley was submissive and passive in real life. But every time she said, “I felt it was my duty to support Hem, no matter what” or “As a mother, I finally felt fulfilled,” I wanted to smack her.

It was also an odd read because my sympathies alternated between the two main characters, Hadley and Ernest. Now, obviously, Ernest Hemingway did a lot of shitty things to this woman, numero uno definitely being cheating on her and then marrying his mistress. But there were times early in their marriage when I found myself sympathizing with him rather than her. When he needs to go off and write, she pouts. When he needs to travel to Istanbul to report on the conflict there, she throws a temper tantrum. As a writer, this behavior would drive me up a wallBut perhaps if you’re not a creative type, it’s easier to understand where Hadley was coming from.

6. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Cover of What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

Ok, this one! This one I was SO EXCITED TO READ. It’s about running! It’s about writing! It’s about the intersection between running and writing! All things I find super interesting. But after I’d read the first 50 pages or so… meh, I dunno. I felt like it could have been shorter. Edited down a bit. And here’s the thing — it’s not a long book! Only 180 pages. But it just felt to me that Murakami was somewhat stretching the material. He’s obviously an excellent writer, and I’d be interested to read more of his books, but this one didn’t reach me quite the way I expected it to.

Still, there were some really good nuggets in there. Such as this:

No matter how mundane some action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative act.

And this:

Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life–and for me, for writing as well.

What did you read this fall? What are you reading now? I’m currently on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — and man, am I excited to talk about that one in the next recap…

Book, Abandoned

I have a confession to make. Something that I feel more guilty about than I probably should: I’m forcing myself to finish a book that I’m not really all that into.

This book — A Fraction of the Whole. It came highly recommended from a friend whose reading instinct I trust (she also happens to be a fabulous writer). But this one… it just ain’t doin’ it for me. I don’t find the storyline all that interesting, or the characters all that compelling. It’s well written… but in my opinion, could’ve used a lot more editing. And the thing that’s really killing me? I knew pretty early on that I wasn’t liking this book that much. But based on the recommendation, I feel compelled to finish it.

Now, I know this seems a weird thing to feel guilty about. But I’ve wasted too many years forcing myself to finish books I didn’t enjoy. I think this is a leftover habit from college — when you’re a creative writing major, you read a lot of books. Not all of them are to your taste, but they’re all written by Important Authors. So you read them. You finish them. It’s the literary equivalent of vegetables; they’re good for you, damn it.

But then I read this quote from librarian Nancy Pearl:

Nobody is going to get any points in heaven by slogging their way through a book they aren’t enjoying but think they ought to read.

Something clicked. The guilt of not finishing a book? Vanished. I realized how silly it was to painfully slog through what is supposed to be an enjoyable habit. These days, I try to follow Pearl’s “rule of 50”:

 I live by what I call ‘the rule of fifty,’ which acknowledges that time is short and the world of books is immense. If you’re fifty years old or younger, give every book about fifty pages before you decide to commit yourself to reading it, or give it up. If you’re over fifty, which is when time gets even shorter, subtract your age from 100. The result is the number of pages you should read before deciding.

50 pages. If I’ve read that much and am still not liking a book, I put it aside and deem it “not for me.”

However, it seems a lot of readers don’t have this mindset. Have you seen The Psychology of Book Abandonment infographic put together by Goodreads? 38% of people will finish a book no matter what. Once they start, they’re in it to win it. Also interesting: about 27% percent said they abandon books 50-100 pages in, based on Pearl’s “rule of 50”.

am going to finish A Fraction of the Whole — both because my friend said the ending blew her mind, and because by now I’ve already read 400 pages of the damn thing. I can’t quit now. But, ironically, I will probably still feel guilty about not quitting.

What’s your “quitter” philosophy when it comes to reading? Do you stick it out until the end, or do you abandon with glee?

ETA: Last night after I wrote this up, I read a little further in A Fraction of the Whole… and hit the BOOM part I think my friend was talking about. Makes me happier that I decided to stick this one out.