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.

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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.

Lady Laureates

So in case you’ve been under a rock the past week (OR maybe blissed out on some tropical island without wi-fi, that sounds better), there’s big nerdy literary news: Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Let’s all say it together: CONGRATS, ALICE! In my head, she and fellow Canadian writer Margaret Atwood celebrated with some wine and poutine.

Munro’s win made me curious about the other women writers who’ve won a Nobel… and, well, the list is depressingly short. 13, out of the 110 prizes awarded since 1901. And please don’t anyone say, “Well, that’s because women didn’t used to write back in the day” because that’s just not true. What is true is that many people didn’t think women wrote “serious” literature — a charming little misogynistic misconception that still exists to this day.

Now, I admit, I am part of the problem; I haven’t read most of the women Nobel laureates. But I’d like to remedy that (Toni Morrison has been added to my reading list) — and I’d also like to recommend books from the women laureates I have read.

Alice Munro – Runaway

The new kid on the block! And yeah, she’s earned it in my book, based 100% on the power of one short story. “Silence” (one of the shorts in Runaway) tells the story of a mother whose young-adult daughter suddenly cuts contact with her. And never explains why. If that sounds simple… well, I guess it is, in a way. But it’s also incredibly powerful. The pain and confusion and conflicting emotions in this story are so, so real. It’s haunted me for years — and any writer who can create a story with that much impact is a-ok by me.

Doris Lessing – The Fifth Child

I will warn you, if you ever plan on having children, don’t read this book. This is an absolutely horrifying tale of a woman whose fifth child is… well, no one’s really sure. Is he demonic? Is he some weird missing link? Is he truly human? One thing’s for sure: Ben’s parents can’t truly love him — but since he’s their child, they can’t truly abandon him either. The book asks some really tough questions and doesn’t leave you with any comfortable answers.

Um, PS? If you need another reason to read Lessing’s work? This, right here:

Nadine GordimerMy Son’s Story

Gordimer is a white South African, and in My Son’s Story she pulls off a pretty tough feat: writing from the perspective of a black South African boy during apartheid. Near the start of the book, the boy discovers his father is having an affair with a white activist — cue conflict. Interestingly though, the father never came across as the bad guy — at least to me. There’s more than one secret life being led in this book. At its core, it’s about deception, and all the different ways it can manifest. I thought Gordimer did a fantastic job handling such a delicate subject (and would be interested to hear what others think, if y’all have read this one).

Ok guys, time to pay it forward — if you’ve read some of the other lady laureates, let me know where to start!