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?

 

Day 11 of 30 Days of Writing: Write Yourself Alive!

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It’s a sad day.

I’m always a little stunned when I find myself so stunned at the loss of a celebrity. Obviously, I didn’t know him personally, but it felt like I did. Actors and comedians, especially of Robin William’s caliber, do that. They welcome you into the sphere of their being.

Watching Robin Williams do an interview was a spectacle in stream-of-consciousness let loose on the world. I’d sit there mesmerized, wondering what he would possibly say or do next.

His passion and energy radiated off the screen—whether TV or movie.

These days, with social media such an intricate part of our lives, we come together in our mourning. In our grief. Finding solace in photos and quotes shared, in heartfelt pieces written in the moment, proving again that stories unite us.

That we are indeed made of stories.

Robin Williams was a tapestry of stories that swirled around inside him, stories that he was generous enough to share with us.

It’s Day 11 of this writing challenge and while I haven’t posted here every day, I have managed to write something every damn day. I read the posts others are sharing and I am humbled and energized as I ride the wave the waves of words being created, being shared.

This challenge, our words, our stories?

This is how we fan our own little sparks of madness.

Day 6 of 30 Days of Writing: Write Yourself Alive!

Photo: NASA Goddard space Flight Center via Flickr

Photo: NASA Goddard space Flight Center via Flickr

Well, I did it. I managed to write every day, even while on vacation.

Yay!

I shared a bed with my daughter so I’d wake up before her, slide my two notebooks out of my bag and I’d write my morning pages for about 15 minutes. Then I set a timer for another 15 minutes, and wrote from the POV of one of the characters in my current WIP using a prompt from Judy Reeves‘ “A Writer’s Book of Days.” (I have both editions!) This morning I even sketched the floor plan of a character’ study.

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The good thing about these write-every-damn-day-no-matter-what challenges is that they give me some momentum. I often compare it to a rocket ship. It takes so much energy to launch a rocket into space but once it’s there, it’s there.

Showing up every day no matter what keeps my writing life orbiting—around and through me.

Day 3 of 30 Days of Writing: Write Yourself Alive!

Super short check-in today.

One of the things I am loving about this challenge is the sense of freedom I have when I wake up in the morning. I know exactly what I am going to do. I don’t have to decide if i should eat first or meditate or check my email or Facebook or write.

I don’t have to decide because the decision has been made: write. Writing comes first.

This morning I did my Morning Pages then I wrote for 15 minutes from a prompt that helped me gain some insight into one of my characters.

And I’m done. it’s not a lot but it is something. Showing up today to my writing, no matter the quality or quantity of the words, makes it easier to show up tomorrow and the next day, and the next…

Day 2 of 30 Days of Writing: Write Yourself Alive!

Day 2 success. No computer before I wrote (major accomplishment!)

Morning pages.

Wrote a scene for WIP.

Freewrite on this soul card.

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Her naked body, carved into soft curves of purple dust fro,m the stars and earth. Shadows and valleys revealing h strength and beauty. As she gazes up, her neck arched into a “V”, her face disappears then reappears off to the side. An amused smile softly spreads across her lips. Her eyes looking toward her body, her face surrounded by a fan of feathery inkblots. A headdress for a warrior who knows she is not her body. A warrior who knows that her body is a lush, beautiful creation, created and designed specifically for her. She occasionally needs a different perspective, to see her body from an unattached angle. Unattached to the usual feelings of disappointment and shame. Once there, she is amazed that she is ever anything but amazed at the beauty of her body. At the beauty of this place her soul calls Home. 

I’m going out of town for a few days so we’ll see how it goes. Probably no posting here but I hope to at least get in my morning pages and a 15-minute writing practice prompt each day.

Day 1 of 30 Days of Writing: Write Yourself Alive!

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I have mixed feelings about these kinds of challenges.

Mostly I love them.

I love the energy behind the intention.

I love being surrounded by like-minded and like-spirited people on similar journeys.

I love being challenged by a challenge.

What I don’t love is not following through on the challenge.

Then it becomes just another thing I failed at. Another thing I said I’d do and then don’t do.

But here we are at Day 1. So, how did it go?

Well, I started last night by downloading a trial version of Mac Freedom so I could block the internet because the habit of checking my email and Facebook first thing is so ingrained that I didn’t trust myself to just ignore it until I wrote for the day.

My plan was to set it the night before to block the internet until noon but the maximum amount of hours allowed is 8, so that didn’t work.

I woke up to my sleeping computer and pretty much avoided even glancing in its direction as I sat at my desk and wrote my Morning Pages. I could actually feel the computer behind me whining, “Hey, what about me?”

Then I had a yoga class and a feedback class to attend. I decided to skip the one in between and brought my notebook with me to the studio where I hunkered down on the couch for an hour or so to write. I wrote a scene for my WIP and started a new piece for elephant journal.

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Success!

Not gonna get all cocky here since it is only the first day. But I have to say that I really liked starting the day without the internet. I didn’t even go online until after noon. If nothing else comes of this challenge except I break that particular habit, it will be so worth it.

Books Read May-July

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“Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” a novel by Maria Semple

The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says, “What’s most important is for you to understand it’s not your fault.”

This is the first book I read on my Nook. At first, I had trouble sticking with it. I thought it was the structure of the novel—multiple forms of communication from emails to memos to emergency room bills among different different characters. But now I think it was more about getting used to reading on a screen for an extended amount of time instead of just scanning—my usual MO for anything on a screen.

The unique structure in the beginning gives the reader access not only to the various characters but their relationships as well. It also serves as a nice echo for later in the book.

Bee Branch is a smart 15-year-old who has been promised a trip to Alaska for good grades. She plans on collecting this gift in spite of her mother, Bernadette’s, agoraphobia and general odd behavior that could be seen as bordering on a breakdown. When Bernadette disappears, Bee refuses to believe the worst and sets out to piece together all the information and clues she can get her hands on to try and understand her terribly misunderstood mother, along the way uncovering a secret past her mother has been hiding.

This story tugged at my heart and also made me laugh out loud— a perfect combination that reveals the complexity of our familial relationships with a tender yet light touch, making it a perfect summer read.

What I learned: To not be afraid to play with structure and to be funny even in a “literary” movel.

“Ashes to Ashes” a YA novel by Melissa Walker

I wake up with a jerk, not certain what startled me.

Callie is your average teenager, in love with her boyfriend, lost her mom, lives with her fairly strict dad, has a best friend. She loses it all in an instant in a tragic accident. Instead of finding herself in some beautiful version of Heaven being greeted by her long lost mom, Callie finds herself in what is called the Prism. It’s kind of a stop gap before Heaven. A place where souls go to haunt their loved ones. But haunting doesn’t mean what Callie has always been taught. No ghosts rattling chains, scaring people on earth. At least, it’s not supposed to be that. It’s supposed to be a time of bringing peace to your loved ones, helping them to let you go. Once that happens, Callie is free to let go and move on as well. But when Callie falls in with the wrong crowd of ghosts, she is faced with some hard decisions that threaten the lives of her loved ones as well as her own existence.

What I learned: The details are crucial for creating a world whether it is realistic or fantasy.

“I Can’t Complain” (all too) personal essays by Elinor Lipman

I came late to the essay-writing genre, when various magazine and newspaper editors asked me to expound on a particular topic and I felt it was not only polite but also a good deadline discipline to say yes.

These charming essays offer readers of her fiction or new readers a delightful insight into Lipman’s life. Topics range from parents, children and marriage, sex ed to “Sex and the City”, to the writing life, life and death. They feel like she drew the curtain back so we could all take a peek at the life of a writer behind her fiction. It made me want to start writing my own collection of essays.

What I learned: That our own lives are a rich bounty of material waiting to be mined if only we look carefully.

“Stitches- A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair” by Anne Lamott

It can be too sad here.

indeed it can.

Anne Lamott began writing these little gems of wisdom and comfort in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings. As always, her raw, vulnerable, honest, gracious perspective brings comfort to me as she questions how we stay connected and balance when so much evil and such catastrophes befall our world.

What I learned: No matter where I am at in my life, there are the words of Anne Lamott to guide and comfort me.

“Drunk Mom” a memoir by Jowita Bydlowska

One evening I find a baggie of cocaine.

And that is one of the more benign things that happen in this riveting and disturbing memoir.

After three years of sobriety, Jowita Bydlowska finds herself enjoying champagne- lots and lots of champagne. Suddenly, her sobriety is out the window and she is immersed in the downward spiral of addiction with the lies to others and herself and skewed logic that it comes with. Reading this was harrowing. She was young mother of a young son and even that couldn’t make her stop drinking. Her bad choice after bad choice just made me cringe. But her raw honesty as she exposes the dark underbelly of addiction was inspiring.

What I learned: That you just never ever know what anyone else is truly going through.

“Life Drawing” a novel by Robin Black

In the days leading up to my husband Owen’s death, he visited Alison’s house every afternoon.

Confession: Robin Black is my latest writer crush. You know, that writer you want to write like, the one that you’ll read anything they write—even a grocery list. I first discovered her through her short story collection “If I Loved You I would Tell You This.” I was so very bummed when I learned that was her only book and have been waiting for her next one. I had the pub date for “Life Drawing” written on my calendar and bought it that day.

It tells the story of a long marriage between Gus and Owen, a painter and writer. She reveal the complexities of marriage with such compassionate precision that it left me breathless at times.

My favorite lines:

There are often two conversations going on in a marriage. The one that you’re having and the one you’re not. Sometimes you don’t even know when the second, silent one has begun.

I loved the intimate, behind-the scenes look at a marriage after betrayal as well as the dynamics between two artists living, working, creating (perhaps competing?) together.

It was one of those books that I wanted to race to the end to see what happens but also I wanted to slow down and savor every scene and sentence, never wanting it to end.

What I learned: To observe and write from that place of compassionate precision.