A Book I Love. #TBT

Each Thursday in honor of #TBT, I am going to feature a book that I truly love, that helped shape me as a writer, as a woman, as a human.

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This book saved me. I read it when I was a new mother myself. It was before I had found my circle of other mom friends. I was far from family, my husband was often on the road for his job so it was just me and the girls. Her daily reflections sustained me through the dark times when I was exhausted, had no idea what I was doing and felt incredibly alone and lonely. It wasn’t a sugar-coated version of motherhood. It wasn’t the Hallmark version. It was real. It was honest.

Exhausted, she leans over the bassinet as her son wakes up from his nap and thinks, with great hostility, “Oh, God, he’s raising his loathsome reptilian head again.”

I laughed out loud, I cried and found solace in her words. Here was another mom going through the same joys, the same shit, the same despair, day after day. She gave me permission to not enjoy every single aspect of motherhood even though it would go by so fast. By being herself, she gave me permission to be more of myself.

 “We had another bad night. We finally slept for two hours t 7:00 AM. What a joke. I feel like thin glass, like I might crack.”

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List: Top 5 Books that Illuminated my Writing Path.

I love lists so each Saturday my plan is to share a list of some sort,                                    covering a range of topics

five books

These are the top five books that started me on the writing path and that I turn to again and again.

  1. “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg. This is the absolute first book that offered me a glimmer of recognition that perhaps I could write. Actually, that I must write.
  2. “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott She helped and continues to help me loosen the grip of perfectionism by taking it word by word, allowing myself to write shitty first drafts and writing what I can see through a 1-inch picture frame.
  3. “Ron Carlson Writes a Story” by Ron Carlson As he takes us meticulously through his process of writing one particular short story, Carlson reminds of the importance of doing the work, of staying in the room even when—especially when—I want leave.
  4. “The Writer’s Portable Mentor” by Priscilla Long This is a book about process and craft but it goes deep into all the layers of craft far beyond character, plot and setting. Never fails to get my pen moving again.
  5. “Still Writing” by Dani Shapiro I have read this gem at least three times, maybe four and am currently reading it each morning as I eat my breakfast and drink tea at my desk before plunging into my own writing. Her honest reflection of the writing life comforts me as I continue to show up to the page and to my own writing life.

What books illuminate the writer in you? Please share in the comments!

A Book I Love. #TBT

Each Thursday in honor of #TBT, I feature a book that I truly love, that helped shape me as a writer, as a woman, as a human.

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“Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life” by Anne Lamott became my writing bible for a while. Her simple advice, her passion, her authentic, messy real self appealed to me on a deep level. She wasn’t afraid to admit to the hard parts of writing. She didn’t pretend that she sat down easily everyday as the words just flowed from her fingertips from some muse on high. In fact, the only muse she endorsed was the work. Showing up was the muse. To this day, I still use her advice: one-inch picture frame to write the next scene, shitty first drafts to write the thing at all and taking it all one word at a time.

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.

 

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.