Books Read June – December

Yep. I totally slacked off in this area of my blog. If I don’t write my reflection immediately, then they start stacking up and I see the stack and think, “Ugh, not really interested in tackling that right now.” And I continue to read so the stack gets bigger and… well, you see where I’m going with this.  I end up not posting any of the books I’ve read for months. I’ll try and do better next year.

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“May We Be Forgiven” a novel by A.M. Homes

Do you want my recipe for disaster?

I was smack in the middle of reading this when I heard that Homes had won the Women’s Prize for Fiction and all I could think was how deserving she and this novel are. It’s a huge (480 pages), rollicking, darkly funny, touching  story that sucks you in and never lets you go. In the first fourteen pages there is a car accident, adultery and murder. It’s hard to even attempt to briefly describe this novel.  It involves sibling rivalry, coveting your brother’s wife and the disastrous consequences that follow, leaving Harry Silver, historian and Nixon scholar, suddenly parenting his nephew and niece, both of whom are away at boarding school. As he maneuvers his way through this new world, he encounters an array of characters that expose Harry’s longing for connections as he builds a family of choice rather than purely biology. This novel explores redemption, forgiveness and what it means to be a modern family, much more complex than the one we see on the TV sitcom by the same name.

“The Spectacular Now” a YA novel by Tim Tharp

So, it’s a little before ten a.m. and I’m just starting to get a good buzz going.

I wanted to see the movie but I absolutely must read the book before I see the movie. It’s kind of a rule for me. So, I ran out, bought the book and pretty much devoured it in a day and a half. Once again, this novel has the thing that always reels me: a strong , engaging voice. It is then complemented by a strong and engaging story. I cared about these characters even if I didn’t like them at times. Sutter, a boy with a pretty major drinking problem thinks he sets out to save Aimee, a shy loner girl but in the end finds that he may have had that all wrong.

What I learned: To let my characters screw up. Seriously. The more bad choices they make, the juicier the story.

“The Woman Upstairs” a novel by Claire Messud

How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know.

The reviews I read of this novel intrigued me but it was when I read the first page that I knew I had to read it. The whole being a perpetual “good girl” versus the yearnings to be an Artist really hit home with me. Instead of following her dream of becoming a Great Artist, Nora Eldridge is living the compromised life of a school teacher, dutiful daughter, reliable friend and nice neighbor always on the edges of life. When a new student, Reza Shahid enters her classroom she becomes friends with his parents, Skandar a charming Lebanese professor and Sirena who is everything Nora once dreamed of being including a successful artist. She is lured deeper into their family after Reza is attacked at school by bullies. She soon finds herself drawn to all three of Shahids in different ways, cracking opening her world in startling and unexpected ways.

What I learned: To use those things that annoy, enrage or infuriate me. Give them to my characters and it’s  away to explore them.

“Nine Inches” stories by Tom Perotta

The first time Lt. Finnegan pulled me over, I actually thought he was a pretty decent guy.

I love short stories and when I writer I like publishes a collection I am on it. Each one feels like a perfectly contained world, a perfectly contained moment in a life. The essential moment. There’s no questioning why this story, why now? I swear that the first line of each story is a lesson in what first lines should do: establish character and conflict. Each one immediately drew me in. Love this collection.

What I learned: To really nail that first sentence.

“Love in the Time of Global Warming” a YA novel by Francesca Lia Block

The building has gold columns and a massive doorway, a mural depicting Giants, with bodies sticking out of their mouths like limp cigarettes.

The beautiful cover art first drew me in, then the title then the premise: Pen has lost everything in the Earth Shaker that destroyed Los Angeles. Yep,  another dystopian type YA but with some fantasy thrown in. As she ventures out into what is left of the world she knew to find her family, her journey mirrors that of Ulysses. I never read Ulysses but based on the little I do know, I could see the echoes and threads that tie the two stories  together. Beautifully captivating.

What I learned: Use what you are passionate about in your stories.

“Still Writing- The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life” by Dani Shapiro

I have been writing all my life…In my notebooks, I escaped an unhappy and lonely childhood. I tried to make sense of myself. I had no intention of becoming a writer. I didn’t know that becoming a writer was possible. Still, writing was what saved me. It presented me with a window into the infinite. It allowed me to create order out of chaos.

I followed the release date of this one for months and months, counting down the days until it would be available I read Shapiro’s blog and it almost always feels like she is talking directly to me. The book is the same. It’s like she pulled up a chair, served us both some tea and proceeded to tell me everything she knows about the writing life and process, two subjects I can never read enough about.  I devoured it pretty fast and know that this will be a book that I turn to again and again, an intimate companion on this creative path.

What I learned: So much. I’m sure that I will underline more and new pieces each time I read it. Here is one of my favorites from the first reading: “The writer’s life require courage, patience, empathy, openness. It requires the ability to be alone with oneself. Gentle with oneself. To be disciplined, and at the same time, take risks.”

“Help Thanks Wow- the Three Essential Prayers” by Anne Lamott

I do not know much about God and prayer, but I have come to believe, over the past twenty-five years, that there’s something to be said about keeping prayer simple.

I admit it. I’m an Anne Lamott groupie. She could write her grocery list on a napkin and I’d want to read it. Whether she’s writing about God, prayer, parenting or writing, it feels like the two of us are hunkered down for a nice long , deep conversation.  I love how she makes everything so relatable. So available. I love how she revels in our humanness, our beauty and flaws. I always feel like hearing from someone whose been in the trenches and has come back to tell me it’s all okay.

What I Learned: The title says it all: there are 3 essential prayers.

“Divergent” a YA novel by Veronica Roth

There is one mirror in my house.

Once I heard that this was going to be a movie starring Shailene Woodley (who is apparently the queen of YA novel screen adaptations), I knew I had to read it first. Because I always have to read the book first. It’s a rule. I loved “The Hunger Games” and this is along the same lines: dystopian future set in Chicago. But the premise of this story really intrigued me: society is divided into factions defined by specific values. That premise dovetails nicely with the action of the story. I never felt like I was being lectured. The troy kept me turning the pages long after I should’ve turned out the light. In fact, when I got to the end I had no idea it was the end. There were pages of interviews  and book club guides that I assumed was still part of the story. It definitely leaves you wanting to go right out and grab the next in the series. Which I got for my daughter for Christmas and she opened it, looked at me and smiled, “So this is really more for you , isn’t it?” Guilty as changed.

What I learned: That an intriguing premise can be a good foundation but the characters and story are what keep you turning the pages.

“Writing is My Drink- A Writer’s Story of Finding he Voice (and a Guide to How You Can Too) by Theo Pauline Nestor

Two competing forces have dominated my life: a great need to please others and an equally powerful desire for expression,  a tumbleweed that has grown in mass and velocity with the passing years.

I love writing books that share the writer’s experience as well as prompts to get us writing ourselves and this does exactly that. Her voice is authentic and engaging. Reminds of Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” which is high praise, indeed.

What I learned: The only way to find your writer’s voice is to, you  know, actually write.

“Tapestry of Fortunes” a novel by Elizabeth Berg

When I was growing up, my mother’s best friend was a woman named Cosmina Mandruleanu.

In this new novel, Berg does what she does best- giving us access to the intimate side of women’s friendships. Cecelia Ross is a motivational speaker who can dish out advice but has a hard time taking it herself even when she feels stuck in her life. The death of her best friend has left her lost and drifting. Once she makes a decision to down-size her life she is lifted out of her stagnation and into the company of three new friends, all with their own secrets and quests to undertake.

What I learned: Each character must want something, that yearning then informs their actions which creates the plot.

“This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage” by Ann Patchett

The tricky thing about being a writer, or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living.

When I first saw this book on the table at the bookstore, I thought it was novel and I was going to put it on my Christmas list. I love Ann Patchett. Then when I saw it was essays and that the first one was about writing, I bought it right then and there. Whether she is writing about being a writer, opening a bookstore in the digital age or a family pet, Patchett writes with a warmth and clarity that is impossible to resist. When I finished reading the piece about her dog dying I was crying and called my own Izzy to snuggle with me on the couch.

What I learned: That the arrangements of essays creates its own meaning. If these had been arranged in a different order, in could have been a completely different book.

 

 

Shopping for the Bibliophile in your Life

Aside

Cross-posted from The Livingston Post:

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I scoured the web and found some delightful gifts for the bibliophile on your holiday list this year. Or maybe for yourself.

1. Cafe Press has a wide range of items from coffee mugs to t-shirts to bags to jewelry.

2. Found this sweet bracelet on Etsy.

3. Perfume that smells like books.

4. Keep your feet warm and cozy as you read this winter with these cute bookworm socks.

5. Out of Print has your favorite books on clothing, jewelry, notecards and more.

6.  A novel way to cover your laptop.

7. A book-scented candle.

8. Wearable literature from Storiarts.

9. For the book lover who loans her books here’s an elegant way to leave her mark with a Library Embosser.

10. Vintage library card ornaments.

11. These Jane Austen bandages would make a great stocking stuffer.

12. Magnetic Poetry kit for book lovers.

13. This Book Clock is cool but really, who keeps track of time when they are reading?

14. Plates shaped like books? Sure, why not?

15. Another stocking stuffer idea: the literary version of Mad Libs.

16. Get an original painting of your ideal bookshelf consisting of up to your 10 favorite books.

17. A Virginia Woolf plush doll to inspire as you write and/or keep you company as you read.

18. Purses made from recycled vintage books.

19. Bouquets of paper flowers created from vintage books. No watering necessary.

20. If all else fails, they will always appreciate a gift card to their favorite bookstore.

How about you? What literary gifts are on your list to give or receive this year? Feel free to share in the comments below.

Five on Friday

1. I heart short stories, reading them and writing them. Four short story writers discuss this often under-appreciated form.

2. A beautiful conversation with Natalie Goldberg on the practice of writing, sitting, painting and living.

3. 7 myths about creativity.

4. Ira Glass on the secret of success in creative work, and not in the usual interview format.

5. A lovely reflection on the art of vulnerability from Dani Shapiro.

Quotable Tuesday

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Slowing down was the theme of the “Write Into Yoga” class I taught this week. This is the perfect time of year to pause and take time to slow down as we rush around trying to make the holidays perfect for everyone around us with shopping, baking, wrapping and the countless other events that pull at us. But beyond the holidays, “being busy” has become a badge of honor. It’s ego-driven. Proof of how important we are. How valuable. How would it feel if you admitted that you weren’t all that busy? Would you feel less than? I invite you to choose one tiny area of your life where you can slow down. Maybe you eat more slowly. It is suggested that we chew our food 20-30 times. I know I don’t do that. But it’s better for weight loss and digestion. Maybe you take time to really listen to somebody or your Self. Or you drive slower. Or take five minutes in the morning to sip a cup of tea by candlelight or meditate before you head off into your day. Find a small pocket of time that you can claim for yourself and slow down and savor that moment, for each moment is precious and deserves to be appreciated. Feel free to share your expereince of slowing down in the comments. I love hearing from you.