Books Read in November

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“The Best American Short Stories- 2014” edited by Jennifer Egan

As with any “best of” or “top ten” list—or any prize for that matter—the authority of an anthology like this one stands in direct contradiction to its essential arbitrariness.

I think this is one of the few issues where I read every single story. I love being able to read the story then flip to the back and read where the inspiration for the story came from. The quality of the stories is, outstanding—which I guess is to be expected in a collection claiming to the Best of the year. Each one either grabbed me instantly or lured me into its world. As Jennifer Egan states, the stories in this year’s collection explore “the wider world at this specific point in time.” Reading them left me feeling more deeply connect to that larger world.

What I learned: How much I love love love short stories.

“Congratulations, by the way” by George Saunders

Now, one useful thing you can do with old people, in addition to borrowing money from them or getting them to do one of their old-time “dances” so you can watch while laughing is ask, “Looking back, what do you regret?”

Chances are, you’ve already read bits and pieces from this slim book. Quotes from Saunders’ convocation address at Syracuse University quickly began floating around the web. I think it is well worth it to read the entire speech. More than once. And probably many, many times throughout our lives. We can never be reminded enough that kindness matters.

This book should be required reading for humanity. In these times of anonymous, ugly venom being spewed behind the cloak of a keyboard, of “news” shows that race each other to the lowest common denominator of civility, of politics that rarely show respect much less civility or kindness, of kids cyber-bullying each other because they feel empowered to post, tweet or text nasty stuff they would never say to a person’s face a reminder of the importance of kindness—the absolute necessity of kindness—is more important than ever.

Thank you, Mr. Saunders for the reminder.

What I learned: Kindness matters.

“The Shining Girls” a novel by Lauren Beukes

He clenches the orange plastic pony in the pocket of his sports coat.

At first glance, it seems like such a innocuous first sentence.but there is something disturbing as well. As soon as we learn who is clenching the toy pony, it is downright chilling. Harper Curtis is the man with the pony in his pocket. He has stumbled upon a Depression era house that allows him to travel through time, killing young women, who he calls “Shining Girls.” They are girls that have certain aura visible to Harper, an aura that lures him into their lives in order to snuff that light and life out of them. He collects objects from each victim, killing them in different decades, leaving a trail of clues that makes no sense if you are unaware of his secret. One girl, Kirby Mazrachi, one of his Shining Girls, ends up not dying after harper’s gruesome attack on her. Determined to piece together the puzzle of who tried to kill her, Kirby sets out on a quest to find answers, having no idea what exactly she is stepping into.

Seriously—a page turner. The premise is so unique and her characters are so rich that I just could not put this one down.

What I learned: A premise only takes you so far. The story needs rich characters and rich writing which this one definitely has.

“Broken Monsters” a novel by Lauren Beukes

The body. The-body-the-body-the-body, she thinks.

Detective Gabriella Versado is a single mom working in Detroit. This latest murder is grisly even for her city: half boy, half deer, somehow fused together. More strange combinations of bodies start cropping up. Her boss wants answers, as does the mayor not to mention the people of Detroit. And Gabriella is tasked with finding those answers.

Her teenage daughter, Layla, heavily influenced by her daring friend, embarks on a dangerous on-line connection with a possible sexual predator.

Jonno, a freelance journalist, still reeling from his latest heartbreak, is watching his career go up in flames around him. Desperate, he dives into the middle of these gruesome murders, determined to get the scoop.

Then there’s TK, a homeless man, wanting only to provide for his family, finds himself on the trail of the monster terrorizing his city.

Each of their stories are woven together to reveal a larger story of broken dreams, broken spirits, broken hopes all contained with a broken city.

Another one that I could not put down. Beukes is able to weave compelling plot lines with richly textured characters.

What I learned: Don’t be afraid to have many characters but make sure they all have a purpose and that each one is unique.

Books Read in September/October

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“Rainey Royal” a novel by Dylan Landis

The patron saint against temptation sits straight-backed in an Italian convent as if mortised into her chair, and she is dead, dead, dead.

I fell in love with Dylan Landis’ writing when I read her novel-in-stories, “Normal People Don’t Live Like This.” So, I was thrilled when I heard one of those characters would be taking center stage in her own novel. I had the pub date written in my calendar for months and went out and bought it that day.

It didn’t disappoint. Rainey Royal is a lush yet brittle, hard yet soft, brutal yet vulnerable teenage girl learning how to be an artist and a woman amidst the ruins of her adolescent life: her mother abandoned them, her father’s best friend has a creepy obsession with her and her father is a narcissistic musician.

This line brilliantly sums up Rainey’s relationship with her father, Howard:

“Howard’s attention is like the sun. Too much burns the edges of her leaves, yet the atmosphere is thin without it.”

This is not your average coming-of-age story. Rainy is too complex to be reduced to such a cliché genre. Throughout the pages I wanted to look away but just could not as Rainey veered down one dangerous path or another. I also wanted to alternately slap her and hug her.

I think I read through Rainey’s story too fast, eager to find out how she fares, hungry for Landis’ mesmerizing prose. This is one I will go back to, reading slowly, savoring each luscious sentence, every tender and brutal scene.

What I learned: To let your character make bad, shitty, scary choices. in fact, I think I will pin BSS above my computer to remind me of that.

“Jennifer, Gwyneth & Me- the Pursuit of happiness, One Celebrity at a Time” by Rachel Bertsche

The simple act of preparing to be Jennifer Aniston is hard work.

The premise is simple: in an effort to get all areas of her life together, Bertsche decides to emulate the seemingly flawless lives of certain celebrities. From Jennifer Aniston for her body, to Sarah Jessica Parker for her style, Bertsche attempts to glean what habits, tips and tricks she can fit into her own life, career, marriage and budget to live a more perfect and happy life. But is perfection all it’s cracked up to be? Does it even exist?

I’m a fan of Bertsche’s social experiments. I really enjoyed her previous book about making friends after you are out of school. I admire her tenacity in sticking with these projects she sets out for herself and the realistic results of her efforts.

What I learned: Not every thing works for every body. We really have to find our own way in the world and find what works for us.

“Afterworlds” a YA novel by Scott Westerfeld

The most important email that Darcy Patel eve wrote was three paragraphs long.

This is actually, literally, two books in one. And I loved both of them. They combined two of my favorite subjects: writing and YA fantasy.

Darcy Patel writes a book in a month (a la NaNoWriMo). She is still in high school when the book is accepted for publication. She convinces her parents to let her move to NYC for three years to make a go of this writing thing.

The second book is the YA fantasy that Darcy wrote. Her character, Lizzie, survives a terrorist attack in an airport and in doing so, finds herself able to cross over to the Afterworld filled with lost souls, ghosts and evil entities with all the responsibilities and dangers that entails.

The chapters alternate between Darcy and Lizzie. We see Darcy learn to navigate the world of YA publishing, book tours, publicity and the actual hard work of writing and editing a book on a deadline. We also see Lizzie learning to navigate an entirely different world than the one she inhabits as well as the world she does inhabit where she is now a pseudo-celebrity since surviving such a brutal terrorist attack.

Totally worth the 600 pages it took to read these compelling stories.

What I learned: I felt like he really had fun with this book, weaving the structure and stories together. That’s what I intend to do in my current YA WIP- having fun with the story and structure.

“May I Be happy- A memoir of Love, Yoga, and Changing my Mind” by Cyndi Lee

There’s something wrong with my knees.

For anyone who has struggled with their body, body image, self-esteem, this lovely and intimate memoir will be guide on your own journey to self-acceptance. Lee is a well-known, international yoga teacher but I don’t think her struggle with her own inner critic and struggle with her body image was well known.

It seems incongruent that a woman famous for practicing yoga was also a war with her body and the mean, critical voice in her head. I find it incredibly brave of her to share her story.

Lee shares the raw details of how her inner voice demanded perfection, demands that were slowly crushing her. Not only do we hear her journey of discovery and striving for acceptance but she also shares experiences of teaching classes as a yoga teacher which I loved (as a student and teacher myself).

After closing the book I realized that I not only had seeds to help sow my own path of self-acceptance but I had many seeds that I could plant in to the yoga classes I teach.

What I learned: That we all have those shaming voices inside us and the only way to silence them is to hear them.

“Men Explain Things to Me” essays by Rebecca Solnit

I still don’t know why Sallie and I bothered to go to that party in the forest slope above Aspen.

In this title essay, Solnit looks at the phenomenon of how men so often wrongly assume they know things and that women don’t. It sounds fairly simple but she explores the real complexities of such a view and how it silences women, and how even if they do speak up, they are not heard.

Each essay takes the reader into topics we may think we are familiar with like marriage equality or violence against women but in Solnit’s wise and skilled hands, the territory becomes disturbingly unfamiliar. And that’s what a great essay or any writing does- it crack open our own preconceived notions about the world and offers us a glimpse of something different.

Should be required reading for all.

What I learned: In the United States there is a rape every 6.2 seconds. Let that statistic soak in.

Checking in with my Writing Intentions

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I typed up my writing intentions at the beginning of the year.

It reads:

My writing life will continue to flourish in 2014 by showing up daily to my creativity and writing; being comfortable with not always knowing what comes next; allowing myself to play; giving myself permission to succeed or fail; being presnt to and grateful for the process.

It has sat on my meditation altar all year. Some days I read it; many days passed when I did not. But it was always there. Always present.

Somehow, some way the energy of that intention seeped into my consciousness and has manifested in me actually sitting down five days a week to write.

I finally committed and bought Mac Freedom which allows me to disable my internet access for up to eight hours. Creating that little bubble of distraction-free time has resulted in several thousand new words in the last three weeks. Today, I upped my minimum daily quota from 500 to 750 words.

I can always write more than the minimum but if I skip a day I must make it up the next session.

By showing up each day to my WIP, not only are the pages stacking up , but all of the things I intended at the beginning of the year are happening:

I am showing up daily.

I am getting much more comfortable with not knowing what comes next. Most mornings I sit down and wonder what happens next. That used to keep me from sitting at my computer at all.

I am allowing myself to play with words, to follow threads of story and plot to see where they lead.

I am free to succeed and/or fail. I think fear of both used to keep me away from the page.

I am present to the ebb and flow of the process, knowing that some days the words may be crap, other days they may flow.

And, lastly, I have become incredibly grateful for the whole process. Grateful for the time and tools. Grateful for the process of showing up and doing the work. Grateful for all the ways that creative energy I generate then spills into other parts of my life, enriching and nourishing them in ways I hadn’t expected.

Reaping the Rewards of Freedom

Freedom

Who knew that freedom could be bought for only $10?

I did, actually. I just resisted it.

I’m talking about Mac Freedom, a program I downloaded that blocks the internet and increases my writing productivity.

I think I resisted it because I saw it as a crutch. As a sign of weakness. I thought I should (always a dangerous word) be able to ignore the lure of Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and the millions of other distractions that are literally at my fingertips all on my own. Then I would feel such guilt that I wasn’t able to do so.

So I tried a free trial of Mac Freedom and was stunned at how well it worked for me. I think “life-changing” is what I tweeted the first day.

Freedom tweet

Here’s how it works: I pick an amount of time (up to 480 minutes) that the internet will be disabled for. Once it’s set, I sit there at my computer and write until I hit my quota for the day. To start with, it’s been at least 500 words. That usually takes me about 45 minutes.

What I love about it is that it makes me focus. I found that as soon as I hit a part of my story where I was stuck or didn’t know what came next, I’d immediately click on my Firefox window. Not for any purpose like research—just for distraction from the uncomfortable feeling of not knowing what came next in my story.

I’m aware that I could easily pick up my iPhone and do the same thing, but I don’t. There’s a certain sacred bubble around my allotted writing time now that I honor. I stay in the room, as Ron Carlson says.

Since I’ve started using Freedom, I have written 7493 words on my current WIP.

The best ten bucks I have spent.

Seriously. The best.

How about you? Do you use an internet blocking program? How do you stay productive and focused. Feel free to share your tips in the comments. 

Books Read in August

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“California” a novel by Edan Lepucki

On the map, their destination had been a stretch of green, as if they would be living on a golf course.

Yet another yummy novel to feed my post-apocalyptic genre obsession. In a frighteningly realistic future, Lepucki imagines a world wrecked by climate change, income inequality and flu. Cal and Frida have fled a collapsing Los Angeles for the isolation of the wilderness where they squat in a house left by neighbors who apparently committed suicide. They live off the land with only each other for company.

They rely on visits from loner, August, who brings news of the area along with goods to trade. When Frida becomes pregnant, they decide to venture past their boundaries to the nearest settlement, hoping for a place and community in which to be a family. But the possibility of security comes at price, a price they are not sure they are willing to pay.

We learn about Frida and Cal’s past and how that past may eventually catch up with them. While the premise is intriguing, unlike other dystopian stories I’ve read, there is a lot more focus on the characters.

The whole story hit a little too close to home with the thought of college students revolting over the sky-rocketing costs of tuition and the huge gap between the wealthy and the rest of the people, a gap that basically contributes to the downfall of society as we know it.

What I learned: To stay close to the characters in order to ground a dystopian vision of the future.

“Accidents of Marriage” a novel by Randy Susan Meyers

Maddy ran her tongue over her teeth, imagining the bitter taste of a crumbling tablet of Xanax.

Ah…where to start with this gem of novel? Well, the first sentence, right? How can you not be intrigued? I was and continued to be intrigued throughout the whole messy story of Maddy and Ben’s complicated marriage and its effects on their three children.

Like Robin Black’s “Life Drawing,” we are given an intimate look at a struggling marriage between two beautifully flawed people. Ben has a temper. A real temper that results in ugly speech and the throwing of objects, leaving his family walking on eggshells much of the time, never knowing what might set him off. It would be so easy to dislike him— I should say to only dislike him—but Meyers gives us a complete view of an imperfect man, husband and father.

When Ben’s temper causes a life-changing accident, the entire family is left to pick up the pieces. Alternating from the POV of Maddy, Ben and their teenage daughter, Emma we get an insider’s look at an average family in crisis.

This one kept me up at night.

What I learned: To allow your characters their flaws.

“Quarantine- book One, The Loners” a YA novel by Lex Thomas

Someone must have bitten off her nose.

My thirteen-year-old niece gave me this to read so that she could have somebody to talk to about it. She thought it would be right up my alley, and it was.

She described it as a cross between “The Hunger Games” and “Lord of the Flies.” That pretty much sums it up.

A huge explosion devastates McKinley High school. Not only that, but apparently all of the students have virus that is deadly to adults. All of the teachers die and the kids are left on their own, quarantined and completely cut off from the outside world expect for bi-weekly food drops.

Cliques mutate into gangs, lines are drawn as deadly power struggles ensue. David and his younger brother Will try to stick together but find they are fighting alone against the whole school. Can they survive on their own?

It is a dark and very violent novel that looks at what happens when kids are isolated and left to survive on their own.

What I learned: That I skim over the really violent parts so I wonder how necessary they are. Could more be implied rather than vividly described?