Tag Archives: books

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.

Sarah Dessen: Writing the Real Girl

The Truth About Forever by Sarah DessenIf you’ve spent any time among the Young Adult fiction shelves at your local library or bookstore, you’ve most likely heard of Sarah Dessen. It’s hard to miss the work of this prolific writer. Two of her books – Someone Like You and That Summer – were turned into the movie How to Deal starring Mandy Moore. By most anyone’s measure, she’s developed a very successful writing career for herself.

I’ve only read a few of her books so far, but I can already see why she’s got such a good thing going. For one thing (and in my mind, this is the Most Important Thing), Dessen writes well-developed characters who hum with life. In The Truth About Forever, the hairs on my arm stood up when Dessen describes the character of Macy’s fierce, loving, controlling mother. The anger! I had to put the book down for a minute because I was having flashbacks. (Note to Sarah: When did you meet my mother?)

Dessen also has a knack for locating her stories in the exact, most heart-rending crux of a character’s struggle. The moment just before something big, something life-altering, happens. Whether they are grieving, confused, withdrawn, or anxious, her main characters are also smart, funny, and kind. And they have at least one other thing in common: they’re trying to be real. This struggle to go from perfect girl to real girl was especially apparent in The Truth About Forever. Macy continually subverts her own desires, avoids confrontation, hides her true feelings, and even tries to grieve for her father in a way that pleases those around her. Turns out, those aren’t easy habits to break. There’s something appealing about doing what someone tells you to do; when things go awry, the risk is not your own. Ultimately, though, if Macy wants to own her life – surprises, joys, complications, failures, and all – she has to learn how to look inside and figure out what she needs. Then, she has to ask for it.

Three cheers for an author who writes about smart girls who deal with realistic problems. One more cheer for an author who can make a darn entertaining book out of it. Okay, and one more for stories in which the smart, real girl gets her romance on! (Hmm… number one best thing about being a writer = the ability to make the world work exactly as you think it should.) Sarah Dessen’s books are like awesome beach reads for the thinking girl. As they say in her native North Carolina, that dog’ll hunt.

Kristin Cashore, You Should Be My Friend

cashore_fireI know that one usually doesn’t go around lobbying for friends, but I have a compelling case to make.

You might not know this, Kristin, but you have been wooing me with your blog. After I read Graceling, I looked you up on the Internet because, well, that’s the first thing I do when I want to know more. And I happened upon your blog, where you proved to be witty and funny. Oh, so funny! Your blog makes me laugh. More surprising, though, sometimes your blog makes me cry. Especially when you post about how much you love the planet. And this post here. Oh, that one made me weep.

Hmm, I thought. Witty and funny and passionate and sensitive. A good combo. You blogged about books, and recommended some of your favorites. I picked up many of those, and your recommendations were wonderful! It’s a true friend, indeed, who puts books like this into my hands.

But, then, Kristin, oh then. Once you had piqued my interest, you started to blog about Buffy. And, Kristin, I was watching Buffy, too. For a while there, we were watching the same episodes. (I knew this because you would refer to your burgeoning love for a certain blonde vampire. My love, too, burgeoned.)

Just when it seems that all of this might have been a coincidence, that perhaps lots of people are reading YA and watching Buffy and loving Spike… then you write about watching the Olympics, and how much you love the Morgan Freeman Visa commercial with Dan Jansen.  And, you know.  It’s not that I’m saying that thousands of people aren’t watching the Olympics and weeping at that commercial right along with us.  I’m just saying that you should be my friend.  We could talk about books and drink tea and watch figure skating.

And, by the way, I’ll be looking for a character who bears a resemblance to Stephane Lambiel in your upcoming books.  He has a very princely quality, eh?

For any of you who don’t know, Kristin Cashore is the author of Graceling and its companion book Fire, both of which have won numerous awards and been listed on the NYT bestseller list.  She blogs at This Is My Secret.

Book Notes: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
The Newbery Awards were announced just a couple of weeks ago, and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
by Jacqueline Kelly was named as a Newbery Honor book. I’d already intended to read it, despite the fact that there is nary a mention of vampires, secret anarchist districts, or, even, romance.  However, it is a Young Adult book, it’s historical fiction (set in one of my favorite time periods – just on the cusp of the 20th century), and the protagonist is a girl.  So, it had a lot going for it in terms of my ARE (Anticipated Reading Enjoyment and – yes! – I just made up that silly acronym).

Turns out there was a bit of romance, just not the kind of romance I’d grown accustomed to reading about in YA novels.  Eleven-year-old Calpurnia – Callie – falls in love plenty in this book.  She falls in love with micro-organisms.  She falls in love with grasshoppers.  With a plant called hairy vetch.  With the whole natural world, in fact.  And Callie falls in love with her grandfather.

It’s this romance, between granddaughter and grandfather, that is so moving, and reminds me that we find what we need in unexpected places, but we do find it.  In her grandfather, an eccentric, intimidating recluse, Callie finds a much-needed teacher.  He opens her eyes to the scientific method and to the wonders around her.  He gives her the controversial book The Origin of Species by a scientist named Charles Darwin.  Callie’s grandfather has lived enough of his own life to see her for who she is, without needing her to fulfill his expectations of her.

Even though she is only eleven, Callie chafes against the constraints placed on girls of her time and, particularly, in her socially important family.  Why should she, and not her brothers, have to spend precious hours learning to cook and knit and sew, when there are discoveries to be made with microscope and net?  Why should she face the prospect of “coming out,” being shopped around to potential husbands just so she can have a life like her mother has, when she has a mind that longs to puzzle over scientific questions at the University?  And, while she has plenty of cause to revolt against the constraints, she feels conflicted because she also loves the instruments of her constraint – loves her mother, loves her home.

In the end, the book seems to me to be about discoveries.  Callie lives in a time in which the many important discoveries were an exciting indication of progress and industry.  She and her Grandaddy make plenty of discoveries of their own, some scientific and some personal.  And Callie’s family – in particular, her mother – is on the verge of discovering Callie, just as I did.  Discovering the smart, confused, frustrated, angry, and jubilant girl that she is was a joy for me.  Callie is about as “real girl” as it gets.

If I were still teaching 5th grade, I’d read this book to my class.  Since I’m not, I’ll simply recommend it for girls in 5th grade or older.  Plus, it’d be a really nice addition to my recommendations for mother-daughter book clubs on Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations.

This post also appears on the Girls Leadership Institute Blog.