Tag Archives: books

How to Love a Poem

  • Read it. Out loud.
  • Love the obvious parts. Underline them.
  • Read it again. Out loud.
  • Read it each evening before bed, like a meditation.
  • Lean on the obvious parts to bring out the obscured, the subtle, and the mysterious.
  • Underline those parts, too.
  • Enjoy finding something new each time you re-visit the rhythm, spaces, and text.
  • Delight in discovering the complexities within those obvious parts you loved at first.

And that is how to love a poem, or anything.

A poem by Jack Gilbert from his book The Great Fires. It means something different, and more, to me each time I read it.

Highlights and Interstices

We think of lifetimes as mostly the exceptional

and sorrows. Marriage we remember as the children,

vacations, and emergencies. The uncommon parts.

But the best is often when nothing is happening.

The way a mother picks up the child almost without

noticing and carries her across Waller Street

while talking with the other woman. What if she

could keep all of that? Our lives happen between

the memorable. I have lost two thousand habitual

breakfasts with Michiko. What I miss most about

her is that commonplace I can no longer remember.

Five Must-Read Blogs


Young Adult Fiction – YA, to those of us in the know – is all the rage right now. With Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay recently released and following in the age group-transcending footsteps of Harry Potter and Twilight, everyone seems to agree that it’s okay for a grown-up to read a kid’s book. Even the New York Times Book Review concedes that adults – even smart, literary adults – need have no shame about enjoying YA.

What a relief.

As someone who has been reading YA books for quite a while (I started when I was about ten and I haven’t stopped yet), I’m glad that my reading habits are finally on trend. I’m very much enjoying watching some of the most talented storytellers in the publishing business get the rockstar treatment.

Sometimes, I can’t get enough of my favorite authors between the covers of their books. Fortunately, many authors write wonderful blogs. Here are five of my favorite blogs by YA authors. These are a must-read if you are interested in YA fiction, want to learn more about how to be a fiction writer, or simply love reading the musings of interesting folks.

  1. Kristin Cashore, author of the best-sellers Graceling and Fire (Graceling), blogs about everything from the fun – trapeze lessons – to the political – gay rights – at This Is My Secret. Her blog is always thought-provoking and has, I’ll admit, sometimes even moved me to tears.
  2. Maggie Steifvater’s newest book Linger (the follow-up to the wonderful Shiver) debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List this summer. Read her blog The World According to Maggie for funny, inspiring, and PRACTICAL advice on how to draft, revise, write a query letter, and, most importantly, make the time to be creative.
  3. Laurie Halse Anderson’s writing is powerful and haunting – from her YA fiction like Wintergirls
    to her historical thrillers like Fever 1793. And her blog Mad Woman in the Forest is pure inspiration. It is a community of writers with Anderson herself at the helm, equal parts teacher and cheerleader. In August, Anderson encouraged her readers to join her in a month-long challenge to write for fifteen minutes each day. If you have a writing project that’s stalled or you’d like to jump start your creativity, I highly recommend partaking. The challenge can happen any time at all – just start with Day 1.
  4. You know Sarah Dessen for her best-selling books such as The Truth About Forever and Along for the Ride. But do you know Sarah Dessen? Her blog is a personal and funny account of motherhood, writing, and life. She doesn’t sugar coat or pretend that she doesn’t watch TV. In fact, she’s a very vocal fan of Friday Night Lights. Like I said, she’s real. And I love her for that.
  5. John Green is the author of several books including Looking for Alaska and the co-author (with David Levithan) of the recent Will Grayson, Will Grayson And he happens to have the funniest and smartest vlog (that’s video blog to you) in the world. John and his brother Hank – the “nerd fighters” – roam the world making stream of consciousness videos “to decrease the overall worldwide level of suck.” They also post videos to their  vlogbrothers YouTube channel.

It is important to have heroes and mentors, and the writers listed above are a few of mine. I hope you all know – or know of – people who are doing something that you aspire to do, perhaps a few steps (or, in my case, a few hundred steps) ahead of you. Seek out people who inspire you to be better at whatever you aim to do – whether it’s writing a book, running a faster race, baking a cake, or standing up for your beliefs.

Book Notes: Looking for Alaska

After finishing John Green’s book Looking for Alaska, that’s still what I’m doing. Alaska promises to be a deeply interesting character, but the reader never gets to be in her experience enough to know her. The idea of her – and of finding out her secrets and truths – kept me turning pages but, in the end, she is the mystery that can not be solved. Not by the reader, and not by the characters who are similarly intrigued by her.

In the first pages of the book, narrator Miles leaves his home for boarding school. He seeks “the great perhaps,” and is determined to leave behind the boredom of his life and re-invent himself. Then, almost as if he wishes them into existence, the first people he encounters are his roommate Chip (nicknamed the Colonel) and his friend Alaska Young. Alaska and the Colonel are both unlike any of the boring and rule-abiding kids Miles knew back home. They are brilliant, articulate, irreverent, impulsive, and borderline dangerous. They induct Miles into a life of forbidden cigarettes, drinking, and pranks. Miles holds on tight and rides along on their reckless adventures. Never the instigator, always the willing and curious participant, Miles is ever aware that he is acting a part, willing himself to be the person – confident, articulate, experienced – that he always wanted to be.

Miles’ infatuation with his new life springs, at heart, from his immediate and consuming infatuation with Alaska herself. Beautiful and articulate, mysterious and mercurial, Alaska embodies the epitome of teenage angst. She’s a storm pulling everyone into her center. Miles – and, it seems, every other boy in their acquaintance – can’t help but be obsessed by her. But, Alaska is more than just an object to be fantasized about. The bravado and recklessness are a carefully constructed facade, hiding grief, fear, guilt, and sadness. Alaska’s life is bookended by tragedies, and as the book unfolds so, too, do the details about the depth of her depression.

Well, some of the details, anyway. It’s clear that Alaska never allows even the people who love her most to know and understand her. Perhaps her secretiveness is a function of her depression or guilt, or perhaps she intuits that the mystery is what keeps them – these lovesick boys – attending to her, enabling and justifying the risks she takes with such abandon. Green’s observations seem to deal with the intrinsic nature of love – that loving is not the same as understanding – and about the complexity of a teenager’s inner world. Or, perhaps, he is simply saying that he, too, understands the allure of mystery. He certainly weaves it well, covers it with cigarette smoke and hormonal overtures, and then withholds the satisfaction of an answer. When the mystery, itself, is the object of infatuation, the answer can never bring satisfaction, anyway, just disappointment.

Trolling the book reviews, I often hear about a new book that I want to read and, sometimes, upon further investigation, I find that the author has written previous books that I also want to read. If those previous books are already in paperback, or are available at the library, or for any number of other reasons are easier to get my hands on, I read those first. And so, I often read an older work of an author’s even though the present work is the work that is getting the buzz (or acclaim, or warm fuzzies, or whatever you want to call the general book love that some books receive when they get out in the world). For example, I read Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies before reading Leviathan, and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793 before Wintergirls. On the one hand, this means that I get to read the books in chronological order, which I enjoy for the sake of seeing the through-lines in a body of work. I also like to see how authors change and grow. The downside is that I also like to read a book as it’s hot off the press, so that I can be part of conversations about the book as they evolve. If I put off reading a new book, chances are that I won’t get to it while it’s still new. By the time I’m ready to talk about it, the rest of the book folks have moved on.

I came to Looking for Alaska along a similar route. I was – and still am – eager to read John Green’s new book Will Grayson, Will Grayson (co-written with David Levithan, of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist fame). But when my friend Sara suggested we read Looking for Alaska together, of course I agreed. (I’m a sucker for a book club, even it only has two people.) Green wrote Looking for Alaska two years ago. Now I’m even more eager to read Will Grayson, Will Grayson, though I have to admit that my eagerness has as much to do with enjoying Green’s writing as it does with my continued fascination with Alaska. I’m hoping that reading Green’s later work will help me understand what Alaska meant to say, if indeed she had anything to say at all.

Olé to You Nonetheless

I’ve already written (here and here) on this blog that I enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. I resisted reading it for so long – it just seemed so everywhere, so trendy, so Oprah – but, when I finally did, I found out why readers of all types (yes, though, mostly women) love it. My life is not like Elizabeth Gilbert’s… yet, it is. Reading her story made me think deeply about my own life, about love, about our expectations for ourselves and each other.

And, here she is again, making me think (darn her!). Oh, yes, and inspiring me, too. On her website, Gilbert posted this Ted talk she gave last year about creative genius and where she thinks it comes from. And, you know, my life is not like Elizabeth Gilbert’s, with its awards and accolades. Yet, it is. There is much overlap in any creative life – much to hope for, much to fear.

The speech is funny and inspiring, a morsel of encouragement for a fledgeling, just-trying-to-make-a-go creative type like me to tuck away for a day when the harvest is low. She really gets going toward the end. Here’s my favorite bit:

“If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cock-eyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment through your efforts, then olé. And if not, do your dance anyhow. And olé to you nonetheless. I believe this and I feel like we must teach it. Olé to you nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”

And, if you’re interested in watching the whole thing:

YA Beach Reads

My friend Peter asked me to submit a new list for his site Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations. I like Peter, I like Flashlight Worthy, and I like making lists, so I didn’t have to think too long before I said yes.

Because it’s summer, Peter is highlighting lists of books that make great beach reads. Like anyone else who adores reading, I don’t want to read bad books, regardless of where I am. So, a beach read must be a wonderfully entertaining, well-written book. For most people, a beach read is not something you want to work very hard at – for example, I would never choose to bring my copy of The Divine Comedy along with me to the beach. (Others might disagree with me, but my beach read would never contain footnotes!)

Not surprisingly, I chose my books from among the enormously inclusive YA genre. (Have you met me? That’s pretty much what I read these days.) The books are not fluff, though, not at all. They are smart, sometimes even serious (two are about what happens after we die), and all entertaining. I’d take them to the beach – or anywhere else – in a heartbeat.

Check out my list of 7 Beach Reads You Can Grab Off Your T(w)een’s Shelf, and then check out the rest of the Beach Reads book recommendations at Flashlight Worthy.

Book Notes: The Forest of Hands and Teeth


I was so ready to love this book. Has a plot ever been written more tailor-made for my personal enjoyment? A village with mysterious history is operated by a group of strictly religious women called Sisters, who make the rules for everything from marriages and births to punishments and deaths. Only one girl thinks to question their authority, daring to love her heart’s desire and aching to see what lies beyond the fences that surround the village. Of course, one thing for certain exists beyond the fences: zombies, people who contracted an infection that killed them, then brought them back to a hellish sort of shadow-existence. These zombies stink of death and moan with their need to consume the flesh of the living.

Yes, yes, and yes!! I got my hands on this book and cleared my reading agenda for a couple of days. I was ready to be gripped and pulled in to the story. But, I wasn’t. I kept waiting for the story to step it up. Plenty of things happened: the village is breached by the undead, the main character Mary escapes down a mysterious path with a few survivors. But, I kept having the feeling that the real story had more to do with what had happened before. How did the Sisters establish control of the village? Why did they tell the villagers that they were alone in the world? Why did they mercilessly destroy evidence of human life outside the fences?

Ryan hints at these questions, and more. The hints got tiresome, as did Mary’s constant warring with herself and wondering what to do. The writing felt redundant, almost like its sole purpose was to introduce the concepts and hook the reader for the sequel. In fact, it read like a too-long preview for the second book.

I was struggling to articulate my feelings about this to my sister. I kept saying, “She has a story to tell, but she’s saving it… She just needs to put it out there and write THE story.” Then, I read an article by NY Times film critic A.O. Scott  about movie sequels.  Scott writes, “…such forestalling and foreshadowing was annoying, as if we were being conned into future ticket purchases rather than given our money’s worth.” I realized that this was precisely the issue. I’ve been feeling this way about books – yes, and movies and tv shows, too – that I just want my money’s worth. I don’t mean that I want to put an actual dollar amount on my experience, but I want the creators to honor the contract between writer and reader (or viewer). I settle in for the story; I’m ready to be entertained. To then be given a story that is basically nothing more than hints and questions is like the ultimate, most aggravating, bait-and-switch.

It reminds me of  a quote from Annie Dillard that I used to have on my classroom wall when I was teaching writing to fifth graders. Dillard says:

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now.

It’s a lesson for any writer to keep in mind. Don’t squirrel away the good stuff, saving it for later or holding it like a carrot so your audience will follow along. They won’t (or, I won’t, anyway). But, tell me a good story and, sister, I’m yours for life. Or, should I say, I’m yours for undead.

Book Notes: Next to Mexico

About a decade ago, my friend Tara took me to see a one-woman play called Lylice, written and performed by Jen Nails at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. I couldn’t get enough of Lylice. I saw the show four more times over the course of the next year. And it never, ever got old. Jen nailed – ha! – her performance of this precocious middle-schooler. Did I mention that the play has a musical number? If Jen didn’t charm me with the cupcakes Lylice served, she completely won me over with her song “Susan B. Anthony/Freud,” in which she sings, “Dear Mr. Freud, I know your name / I heard you are a genius / But Mr. Freud, I’ll tell you something / I don’t want a penis / I don’t want to hear / any more about puberty and phalluses / and you know where you can shove / your psychoanalysis.” (Go to the bottom of the post to hear the whole hilarious song.)

Through a happy coincidence, I recently re-met Jen at my friend Randi’s daughter’s birthday party (thank goodness my friends know such awesome people). Jen told me that she’d written a book featuring Lylice, and she kindly offered to send it to me when I told her about my passion for children’s and young adult literature. I eagerly awaited the book, as much for the thrill of reading a book written by someone I actually knew as for the chance to hear more from Lylice, who I’d come to think of as a friend of mine.

At the beginning of Jen’s book Next to Mexico, Lylice has just found out that she will skip fifth grade and go straight to the 6th grade, which means leaving her beloved elementary school and going on to middle school. Lylice’s intellect and uniqueness (it’s not often you find an eleven-year-old who is as comfortable with political demonstrations as Lylice is) label her an oddity among her peers, and she’s a lonely kid despite her many interests. Then, she meets a new student named Mexico. The two girls form a bond as Lylice helps Mexico with her homework, Mexico introduces Lylice to home-cooked mexican food, and together they plot to save the arts program at school. The joy that the two girls find in their friendship speaks movingly to the mooring and healing that friendship can give us. I especially love the fact that none of the characters in the book is simple. The mean, popular girl turns out to be deeply sympathetic. The boy who Lylice has a crush on might not be worth all the trouble. And, even Lylice is not as simple or as good as she at first seems to be. When she thinks that something she wants is within her grasp, she finds that she is able to hurt her friend to get it. But true friends don’t just share laughter and good times. They make mistakes, and they forgive.

Lylice has shades of other beloved literary characters. She’s a little Anne of Green Gables, with her extraordinary intellect and her stubborn refusal to conform to society’s expectations of what girls should be or want. She’s a little bit Ramona B., with her tendency to talk too much when she’s nervous or excited. She also reminds me of Jenny Han’s Shug, with her honesty and emotional vulnerability. In the end, though, Lylice’s humor and voice are all her own.

I adored this book. Nails has portrayed her characters – both children and adults – in a funny, realistic way and written a beautiful story about the power of friendship. It would make a great addition to my Books for Strong Girls in Middle School list over at Flashlight Worthy. And, when I write the second installment of the list, I’ll make sure it’s there.

Check out Lylice’s awesome song!

01 Susan B. Anthony_Freud

Internet 1, Shannon 0

After just a day or two of my reading deprivation, I had learned something that, really, came as no surprise. I learned that the Internet wants to take me down.

The Internet was not interested in my week of reading deprivation, and it would not be ignored. The Internet slipped me a rufi, stuck me in the trunk of its car, and dropped me out in the middle of the desert, where I woke up hours later, groggy and confused.

Here’s what happened: I’d read an email from a friend that happened to contain a link. A harmless, friendly little link. Something like, “Hey, here’s this recipe that you might like.” Or, “Here’s an article that’s right up your alley.” And, I’d be all, “Oh, that’s so nice!” Click. And, then, the blackout.

One little click, and then I’m looking at a recipe that actually lives on someone’s cute little cooking blog. So, then, of course, I have to read the whole article about homemade health cookies or how to roast mushrooms. And, then, I see the related posts. So I check those out, too. Or, my eyes happen to scan those clever comments and I end up delving into someone else’s blog so I can see her slightly different approach to fungi. Or, perhaps the blog reminds me of another recipe that I then need to go hunting for…

You get the idea. Perhaps you’ve even visited the blackness of this particular trunk.

The Internet is not evil. Neither are books, or news radio, or papers, or magazines. The reading deprivation is not about judging the quality your reading. It’s about re-claiming your time. And, for me, it’s about becoming aware of my own habits and how they sabotage my productivity on a daily basis. I’m going to start reading again today, and I’m looking forward to delving back into my stack. At the same time, I’m determined to do a better job of safeguarding my work time. Even from friendly little links like this one.

I know you’re out there Internet, and it’s true you’ve got an approachable vibe and an easy smile. But, I’m not answering your calls anymore. I’ll be the one doing the dialing.

Lists, Lists, Lists

It’s hard to imagine life without lists. On any given day, I have to manage several different aspects of my life: my home, my work, my friendships, and Winnie’s needs. Making lists of all my to-do’s helps me make sure I get it all done without having to wander around muttering to myself:  “A loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter…” (**See below**)

My notebook is full of lists. Lists of groceries and chores. Lists of letters to write, lists of ideas for blog posts, story concepts, phone calls to make, gifts to buy.  I love crossing off the items on my lists, and am not even above writing something on a list that I’ve already done only so that I can then draw a line through it. It’s a way of tricking my mind (not too hard to do, it turns out) into thinking that I’ve gotten started.

Lately, I’ve been writing lists of books.  You can find a long-ish but ever-growing list of books that I want to read here. I also love writing lists of books that I have already read. I have published several of these at Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations. Making lists lets me share some of my favorite books with a group of folks beyond my immediate circle of reading buddies.  It’s also a valuable exercise for me.  Making lists gives me a chance to reflect on books I’ve enjoyed, forcing me to pinpoint what exactly it is that I like about them, and drawing lines between books that are similar for a variety of reasons.

I recently published a list that was particularly fun for me to make: Pairs of Titles to Entertain (and Educate) Your Curious Toddler. The list includes five pairs of children’s books. For each pair, I started with a beloved fiction picture book and matched it with a complementary non-fiction text.  It was a very teacherly thing to do, I admit. Winnie inspired me one day when she was looking at the book Monarch Butterfly by Gail Gibbons, and pulled out Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar Pop-Up Book to look at right next to it. She literally looked back and forth between the two texts, obviously making connections between the two. I thought a lot about that, and how Winnie is really at the perfect age for non-fiction because of her intense curiosity about the world. Many people have a deeply ingrained preference for fiction.  Somewhere along the way, we learned to think of non-fiction as learning (groan) and fiction as entertaining. Win doesn’t have any of those prejudices, though. It’s a great quality, one on which I’m determined to capitalize.

Check the list out if you are so inclined. Just because I’m not reading this week doesn’t mean you can’t.

**Note: I recently found this video of the original Sesame Street cartoon that I referenced in this post. (Did you get it? Did you? If you were born in the late 70s, you probably did.) I remember this cartoon so well. Okay, so not as well as I’d thought because I remembered the words a little differently. But, for anyone interested in a trip down Nostalgia Lane:

Declaring a Reading Embargo

Books on deck: My TBR ("to be read") stack

Books on deck: My TBR ("to be read") stack

A while ago, I read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. In Cameron’s 12-week “course,” she gives a variety of assignments in order to inspire and unblock the artist within. During week four, one of the assignments is a week of reading deprivation.

When I first read about this task, I was startled. A little angry, even. Is nothing sacred? I’m trying to give up things that are bad for me – things like processed foods and television and too much beer. Can’t we all agree that reading does not fall into that category? Can’t we leave a woman her books?

I’ll admit it: I panicked. I’m the kind of person who gets cranky if I somehow find myself without reading material for the 40-minute subway ride to Manhattan. I wondered what I would possibly do for the length of a week without the comfort of books to fill my free time.

Then I deconstructed that thought: I have free time. Precious little of it. And it was filled. With reading.

Cameron writes in The Artist’s Way, “For most blocked creatives, reading is an addiction. We gobble the words of others rather than digest our own thoughts and feelings, rather than cook up something of our own.” Her words made utter sense to me, especially in light of the panic I was feeling. I realized that I felt panicky and angry because I had come to depend on reading. Reading is easy. Reading requires little of me. Reading entertains me and makes me happy but, in truth, it doesn’t bring me any closer to achieving my own creative goals.

So, I actually did it. I spent a week not reading. It was really hard for me, but astonishing and wonderful at the same time. When I stopped reading I was shocked by the almost overwhelming amount of time that was suddenly available. Without reading, I wrote and slept a lot more than usual. I also did a lot more of what I can only describe as letting my mind be quiet. It felt restful, the way it feels when you finally turn off a noisy radio or close the window on a busy street. Only after the noise is gone do you realize what a headache it was giving you.

Now, about a year later, I’m up for it again. Like anyone readying for a deprivation, I went ahead and let myself binge over the last couple of days. Starting today, and for the next week, I will not be reading books, magazines, newspapers, blogs, or catalogues. (I know – who reads catalogues?  Sadly, I often pick one up “while the water boils,” and find myself still standing there an hour later, closely examining the subtle differences between styles of jeans that I have no intention of buying.)  I will read emails, yes, but only once each day; no more of this steady dribble of communication.  In the spirit of this little experiment, I will even give up (gasp!) NPR. You heard me.

When I am not reading, I might sleep, write, listen to music, journal, exercise, and knit. I’d love to organize my files, which I have been a messy and definitively un-romantic presence in my bedroom for the past five years. I’d like to go through my clothes and give away anything I haven’t worn lately. Perhaps I’ll even update Win’s much neglected baby blog.

I’m excited about the possibilities. I’m a bit nervous, though not like I was the first time. This time, I’m actually looking forward to the enforced de-tox, the deep cleanse. I’m pretty sure that the next Sarah Dessen novel will still be on my nightstand when this deprivation is through. And, just maybe, I’ll be a little closer to finally writing my own.