Tag Archives: reading habits

DIY MFA: Text #4, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

The fourth book in my DIY MFA is Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The book wasn’t received well when it was published, so I didn’t know what to expect from my reading. I can only say now that I loved reading this book, and loved seeing the world through Janie’s eyes. This book and its characters have fastened themselves to my mind. In this post, I’ve chosen to discuss three of the many aspects that beg exploration: the beginning of the book, Janie’s character arc, and Hurston’s beautiful language. As I examine these aspects of the classic novel, I’m always thinking about how to apply what I’m learning to my current work-in-progress, and to my writing in general.

Hurston creates profound sympathy for Janie from the first page. The story begins as Janie  walks a gauntlet of prying, gossiping neighbors. Out loud, they talk gleefully about how she’s fallen in the world. “She ain’t even worth talking after,” one neighbor says, as they continue to discuss nothing else. “She sits high, but she looks low.” Janie earns the reader’s sympathy by enduring her neighbor’s stinging hostility; she more than endures. She walks by without withering, without stopping to solicit the neighbors’ good opinions. She sails by, with the grace and confidence of a woman who deserves admiration, but doesn’t need it. In just a few short paragraphs, Hurston tells us much about this character, and also allies us readers with her.

Getting readers to be on the main character’s side is something that Cheryl Klein has talked about in her book Second Sight (and also in this post on her blog). Klein says the author can make a character sympathetic by showing unlikable characters mistreating him or her. Klein discusses this strategy via Harry Potter (as is her way). She writes, “What happens is basic literary math: We dislike the Dursleys, and the Dursleys dislike Harry, so we automatically like Harry.” Janie couldn’t be more different from Harry Potter, but the same strategy works in both cases. If it can work in these two texts, it can certainly work in mine.

Hurston seeds the introductory pages with elements that pulled me instantly into the story. There is, as I’ve said, the friction with the neighbors. We also learn almost immediately that there has been a death, but don’t yet know who has passed away. Then, we hear about a man named Tea Cake, and we know only that he’s younger than Janie, that the neighbors didn’t approve of him, and that they assume that he has been an instrument of her downfall. Death, envy, and sex – what could be more titillating?

Janie’s arc from a person who lives according to society’s values to someone who lives by her own is a compelling and beautiful one. It’s not only that Janie has an unconventional love affair, or that she finds her voice. It’s what she says, it’s that she learns to say what is in her heart. For example, when Tea Cake asks her whether she regrets leaving her secure and affluent life to be with him, Janie says, “If you kin see the light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all. Ah wuz fumblin’ round and God opened de door.” Earlier in the story, Janie resigns herself to a separateness of her outer and inner worlds. Such an emotional speech is only possible for her later in her life, when she feels whole.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a coming of middle-age story. There are many stories like this, about the older and wiser woman who, after spending her youth doing what society expects, sloughs of external obligations and begins to live for herself. I, an almost middle-aged white woman in the Pacific Northwest, relate deeply to Janie’s journey, though we share little else in common.

The beauty of this book is its language. Hurston writes with two distinct styles: the narrative voice and the dialogue. Both are rich with rhythm and metaphor. The narrative voice contains some of the Southern vernacular, but it’s in the dialogue that the characters and setting come to life. Hurston uses open vowels and dropped consonants, writing phonetically to make the dialect accessible to readers. Even though I’m not familiar with the dialect at all, within a few pages I felt at home in it.

Here’s an example that shows both narrative voice and dialogue. In this scene, Janie and her second husband Joe are having one of the fights that erodes their affection.

“You sho love to tell me whut to do, but Ah can’t tell you nothin’ Ah see!”

“Dat’s ’cause you need telling’,” he rejoined hotly. “It would be pitiful if Ah didn’t. Somebody got to think for women and chillun and cows. I god, they show don’t think for theirselves.”

“Ah knows uh few things, and womenfolks thinks sometimes too!”

“Aw naw they don’t. They just think they’s thinkin’. When Ah see one thing Ah understands ten. You see ten things and don’t understand one.”

Time and scenes like that put Janie to thinking about the inside state of her marriage. Time came when she fought back with her tongue as best she could, but it didn’t do her any good. It just made Joe do more. He wanted her submission and he’d keep on fighting until he felt he had it.

So gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush. The spirit of the marriage left her bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom again.

– Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes  Were Watching God

In a recent SCBWI workshop on dialogue, Lin Oliver advised writers only to attempt regional dialogue if they really know it and can comfortably keep it going throughout the whole book. Hurston writes the dialect precisely and consistently; it’s the tongue of her childhood.

My current work-in-progress Nana’s Bikini has several characters who speak with a heavy Italian accent. I’m struggling with consistency, and with how to convey their accents at all. Oliver’s advice is to indicate the dialect with key words or phrases, rather than try to carry the dialect through to the end. I’ll have to go back to my manuscript, and think carefully about how to do this. What could the key words be? What is the best way to write the Italian accent phonetically? Once I decide these answers, I have to make sure I carry that through from beginning to end.

This book was a gift to me as a writer and a reader, and I’m grateful for my DIY MFA for prompting me to read it. Thank goodness, too, for Alice Walker, considered by many to be responsible for rekindling interest in Hurston. In 1975, Walker wrote an article for MS. Magazine called “Looking for Zora” about her trip to Hurston’s final hometown to find her burial site and to speak with those who knew her. It’s a wonderful read about Alice Walker paying tribute to her hero, her adopted ancestor.

To read previous entries in my DIY MFA series:

DIY MFA: Text #1, Bluets by Maggie Nelson

Bluets by Maggie Nelson
Several weeks ago, I wrote that I would pursue a DIY MFA degree, awarded to me by me, a quilt of texts that I want to read (or re-read), specifically in order to grow in my work as a writer, or at the very least to keep me warm this winter. The books that I chose were either recommended to me as exemplary examples of fiction writing, or they are well-regarded examples of the genres of fiction that I am currently writing (young adult fiction and short stories for adults).

The first text I read is Bluets by Maggie Nelson. It was an unusual choice for me, as the book is not like anything that I’m attempting to write, or even like anything that I would normally read, but it came with high praise. However, while still reading the first couple of pages, I regretted picking up the book and was grateful that it was short, so I wouldn’t have to suffer for too long.

My feelings about this books are very different now.

The text soon grabbed me, immersed me in the peculiar mind of an author in pursuit of a singular subject: the color blue. Although Maggie Nelson does not write much about herself, each word she writes, each section she chooses, points vividly to the person herself, to the writer, and to the act of writing.

Which leads me to the first question about this book: What is it? I’ve tried to describe it and struggled. For lack of a better word, I call each piece a “section,” but only because it sounds more literary than “chunk.” There are 240 of them. It’s hard to say whether they are poems, vignettes, research items, or simply ephemera. They are a mix of all of these, I suppose, collected with a blue thread stitched throughout, though the blue is more or less visible in these sections, and some feel more or less connected to the sections around them.

Each individual section is beautiful, yet it is the collection of them that is important. The book, though slim, feels like a work many years in the making. To sift through books, movies, life, and the world in search of meaningful tidbits and stories is hard enough, but to search for stories that relate to or evoke the color blue is another thing entirely. The nature of this collection suggests the writer as an obsessive person. And, it also suggests that there is something about the nature of writing that fosters (or requires) obsessiveness.

One type of section that appears throughout the book are sentiments addressed to a “you,” a former lover. In one of my favorite sections, she writes:

177. Perhaps it is becoming clearer why I felt no romance when you told me that you carried my last letter with you, everywhere you went, for months on end, unopened. This may have served some purpose for you, but whatever it was, surely it bore little resemblance to mine. I never aimed to give you a talisman, an empty vessel to flood with whatever longing, dread, or sorrow happened to be the day’s mood. I wrote it because I had something to say to you.

Nelson writes several sections that acknowledge the difficulty of pursuing such a project. She refers to failed attempts to gain interest for her work among scholars and grant committees. And then, at the end, rather than feeling satisfied with her final product, she says she feels surprised about how small the finished project is, “an anemia,” she writes, “that seems to stand in direct proportion to my zeal.”

Nelson’s choice, the specific choice to write about the world through the color blue, reminds me that there is an immense power in the particular. It’s a great paradox in literature, that the more the writer succeeds in expressing the specific, unique details of her experience, of her story, the more universal and affecting her story will be to the reader. That is the true beauty of this text, that Maggie Nelson has managed to depict all the world, not in a grain of sand, but in a color.

Other thoughts and resources:

 

Continuing Education


I’ve been thinking about an MFA a lot lately, and not just because it’s something that I can’t have. Since moving to Portland, I frequently daydream about creative writing programs because I’m struggling to build my community. In New York, I knew people who would read my work, critique it, and support it. Here in Portland, I barely know any kind of people, much less writerly people. I’m building a local community slowly, brick by brick. But it’d sure be a lot easier with an MFA program.

Another reason that I think about an MFA more often these days is that, as I become more serious about my writing, I become more aware of what I do not know, and hungrier to expand my knowledge of writer’s craft. Always a voracious reader, now I’m reading with heightened attention to the writer’s choices. And, while I consider myself well read, there are major gaps in my reading experience. An MFA would help me fill those gaps, certainly. But, in this, too, I’m going to have to go it alone, at least for now.

So, I’m putting together a syllabus. It’s a work in progress. I call it Shannon’s DIY MFA, the beginner knitting project of the literary world. Despite the dropped stitches, I think it has a certain homemade charm.

My syllabus could use a little rounding out, and I’d like it to have at least twelve books. It could probably use a little male-ness for comparison’s sake (though, with all the syllabi that have suffered a lack of female-ness, I’d much rather have this problem). It’s a hodge-podge of a few books that I’ve always wanted to read, plus a few books I think I should read, plus one book (Austen’s) that I would like to read again, with the writing central in my mind.

Poetry
Poems, by Elizabeth Bishop
Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman

Short Stories
Bluets, by Maggie Nelson
Boysgirls, by Katie Farris
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, by ZZ Packer

Novels
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

 

 

The Quiet Books

I Capture the Castle by Dodie SmithHow delicious it can be to pick up a book without any expectations. No rave reviews or weeks on the bestseller list setting up high expectations. No preview for the upcoming movie playing in my head.

I knew nothing about I Capture the Castle before I read it. I don’t even know why I bought it, except that I liked the title (I’m a sucker for titles). The cover art on my edition of the book, unlike the romantic scene on this book, wasn’t the slightest bit appealing, nor did it reveal anything about the story. But I did pick it up, and within the first pages I was lost in the beautiful ruins of an old English castle with the most wonderful narrator, teenaged optimist Cassandra Mortmain.

Cassandra lives with her family in dire poverty, in the crumbling, cold remains of a castle. Yet Cassandra is far from depressed. Her romantic and rosy view on life stems from her love of her family, her love of the castle, her love of words, and her bright intellect. The book is her journal, which she keeps so that she can improve her writing, and in which she is constantly seeking to capture these fleeting moments of her life, and to set down on the page the exact ways in which they happened. She also sets down her own responses to life, which are sometimes funny or touching, and always interesting.

Cassandra’s older sister Rose does not accept their poverty so lightly and, when two wealthy American brothers move into their town, Rose is determined to marry one of them.  While Cassandra can’t stand the girls who are always talking about finding a man to marry (she mentions her annoyance with the fictional Bennett sisters, which is humorous because she and Rose remind me of Eliza and Jane Bennett), she understands that such a marriage could make her sister happy – and that it could, even, improve the situation for them all – and so she decides to help. As she is pulled deeper into her sister’s plans, Cassandra’s own feelings develop with a power and intensity that surprises even her. She tastes for the first time the sweetness of love, the bitterness of disappointment and heartache. All the while, her voice rings with honesty, and Cassandra continues to take great pleasure in the world around her, particularly in those simple childhood pleasures that are already colored by the knowledge that they are almost at an end for her. This is the start of growing up.

I loved this book, and felt drawn to pick it up anytime I didn’t have it in hand. Granted, there were no scenes of high action. There were only two kisses described throughout, and these very chaste. It was set in a quiet place, narrated by a quiet girl who mostly did quiet things. This was a quiet book, and it made a huge impression on me nonetheless.

A friend of mine wrote a manuscript that we workshopped in our critique group. It was a lovely book about a young girl whose family is broken, a girl who has very few people on whom she can rely. Yet the story is full of light and hopefulness. The main character, through her generosity, her loving acts, and her humor, pulls a makeshift family around her. Even though my friend already had one novel published, her agent wouldn’t send this book around, saying the story was “too quiet.”

We don’t live in a time of quiet books. Many of the most popular YA books take place in a time of post-apocalyptic intensity, feature superhuman heroes, and deal with questions of life and death. And I like those books. But, I also like the quiet ones. As a child, I adored Anne of Green Gables (and all the other books by L. M. Montgomery). I sobbed over Where the Red Fern Grows. I read the Little House books, the Boxcar Children books. Without these books, the landscape of my reading life would have been barren. It makes me sad to think that today’s children might be missing out on some of these quieter stories.

Quiet books whisper in our ears, touching our hearts, suggesting new ways of looking at our own very plain and quiet worlds. Let’s make room for the quiet books on our shelves, and listen closely to what they have to say.

 

Book Notes: The Rough-Face Girl

The Rough-Face Girl by Rafe Martin

Usually I don’t post about picture books, but this is one that I’ve been reading a lot at Winnie’s request, and I’m finding it very thought-provoking.

The Rough-Face Girl by Rafe Martin, with illustrations by David Shannon (surprisingly beautiful illustrations, I might add), is the Algonquin Indian version of Cinderella, if we’re to believe the author’s note. The bare bones of the story are similar to Cinderella. There are three sisters, the elder two mean and selfish, and the youngest one pure and good. The mean ones torture and taunt the younger and make her do all the work. They are all competing for the affections of one man, but in this case that man is not a prince but a mysterious Invisible Being.

The differences are what make this book so interesting. First of all, it’s the older sisters who are beautiful, not the youngest. Her ugliness makes her a target for taunts and jeers, not just from her sisters but from her fellow villagers, as well. The sisters demand that their father give them the finest dresses, and they march off to marry the Invisible Being, just as the ugly step-sisters do in the familiar Disney movie. But, in The Rough-Face Girl, no fairy godmother arrives to dress the left-behind sister in a beautiful gown and send her off to be admired by all. Instead, the Rough-Face Girl goes to her father to ask for a new dress, necklace, and moccasins  (another big difference: in this story, while the youngest sister does allow the sisters to take advantage of her, she also goes after what she wants). Since he has just outfitted her selfish sisters, the father says that he has nothing to give her. So, the Rough-Face Girl has to rely on her own resourcefulness, dressing herself in an odd wardrobe made of bark and broken shells.

Unlike the Cinderella character, the Rough-Face Girl does not receive universal adoration when she sets out. She, rather, meets with discouragement and insults. But she keeps going. Because the Rough-Face Girl is not simply eager to go to a party. She has a mission of sorts. She knows that she is special; she alone sees the face of the Invisible Being in the beauty of nature all around her.

When the Invisible Being and his wise sister finally meet the Rough-Face Girl, they see at once that she is beautiful. But it is clearly not her face or clothes that impresses them. It is the beauty of her heart. They admire her for who she is and what she does, not for what she looks like.

I enjoy the mystical elements of the book. The fact, for instance, that the Invisible Being seems to be everywhere, deeply connected to the wonder of the natural world. After hundreds of readings (and I’m not exaggerating), I’m still not sure whether the Invisible Being is a god, and the Rough-Face Girl is showing what true faith looks like, or whether he is a man and the Rough-Face Girl is showing the reader what true love looks like. What I found most enjoyable – and refreshing – about this book is that the main character does not rely on her face, figure, or fashion to get by. She uses creativity, determination, love, and faith, and she perseveres even when those around her show nothing but disdain. This is certainly not your typical fairy tale, when the girl at the heart of it all derives her self-worth from nothing other than her self. Not typical, but certainly worthwhile.

No Vacancy

My mind is more crowded than the heated pool at the Forks Motel.

Five months ago, I challenged myself to a week-long reading deprivation, inspired by Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. Perhaps a week does not seem to you like a long time to go without reading, but for someone like me who begins to hyperventilate if she’s got free time and no reading material, it seems interminable. Anticipating a week without reading – no magazines, no books, no blogs, no catalogues – is like trying to imagine getting through a week without talking. As in, not impossible to do, but darn difficult. And I couldn’t figure out what the value was. Reading’s a good thing. Right?

Reading is something I take for granted. If I’m eating a meal at home alone, I read. If I’m up early, I read. If the babe is taking an extra long nap, I read. At night, I read. (Sometimes all night.) Reading is a crutch, so I don’t have to think about how I spend my time, or figure out whether there is something more important for me to be doing.

During my reading deprivation, I filled my time with other activities: knitting, thinking, writing letters, sleeping, going for walks. It was refreshing to change my routines; I hadn’t realized how staid they’d become. But, there was another, more surprising, outcome of my reading deprivation. My imagination – no longer populated with the worlds and characters of another writer’s creation – went into overdrive, creating worlds and stories of its own. Walking down the street, thinking about nothing in particular, I found myself suddenly struck by images, stories, characters, and memories. I scribbled away, filling pages of my notebook.

I count this as one of the more important lessons I’ve ever learned about my writing (even though it might seem embarrassingly obvious): that there must be space for it, in my schedule and in my creative mind. When I spend all my free time reading, not only do I not have the time to write, I don’t have the energy for it. I might as well hang a “No Vacancy” sign in my brain. My mental real estate is so taken up with thinking about the stories that other writers have created that I do not have the creative juice left to craft my own.

In these too-short lives of too-finite days, choosing to do one thing is always not choosing to do another. What do I really want? What will I be known for? Much as I love books, I don’t want to be known for being a really good reader. I want to be known for having the strength to attend to my own dreams and tell my own stories. I think of my friends who inspire me daily with their dedication and focus: Tara, who has given up countless evenings of relaxing or socializing to realize her dream of being an actor and comedian; Simone, who sacrifices so much of her own time and resources to nurture her non-profit organization; Julie, who schedules the rest of her life around her wonderful writing. They – and many others who are out there living their dreams – remind me that sacrifice is always the way, and there’s isn’t any other. My big dreams will never be more than that until I  make a habit of choosing to make them real. As one of my first steps, I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this November and, if I want that to be successful, I’ll have to choose writing, many times, over many other activities, even when I’d rather not. Especially then.

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.

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.

Dust Off Your Intuition

Some people know what needs to be done. They go forward confidently, not second-guessing their choices, actions, behaviors, or motives. They don’t vacillate wildly between items on the menu, outfits to wear, or names for their children. They might not claim to know the best way, but they know their way, and they proceed decisively and competently.

I am not one of those people.

For example, when I married the dude, I couldn’t decide whether or not to change my last name. My mother acted like it was a no brainer. Why wouldn’t I? My friends looked at my a little funny. Why would I? I read articles and essays about the history of women taking men’s names. I noticed everywhere which women had and which women hadn’t, trying to discern which club I most wanted to join. In the end, I made no decision at all. I did not change my name, but I do – sometimes – use my married name. I do this more or less willy-nilly, as I do many things.

Becoming a parent exacerbated the problem many times over. Before giving my kid Tylenol, I had to read three different books so I could get a handle on what the experts advise. When it came time for solid food, I spent countless hours trolling sites about baby food. Should I follow a prescribed method of slowly introducing mild foods? Or, should I follow a more organic, child-led philosophy? Should we wear sunscreen? Should I go back to work? Should we leave Brooklyn? Should I let Winnie wear pink? How will we stay connected as a couple? Does this bathing suit look awful on me?

For decisions great and small, I found myself turning to “experts” – writers of blogs and books who are peddling their philosophies on every topic under the sun to wishy-washy types like myself. There are so many resources out there – a great, wide, Internet-sized sea of resources! – that it’s hard not to defer to expert opinions. Parents, in particular, are under so much pressure to do things right that we often seek advice from those who claim to have the answers. This kind of dependence on expert advice, I’ve found, is habit-forming. When I did my week of reading deprivation, there were many times when I caught myself reaching for a parenting book or turning on my computer to consult WebMD. Surely it didn’t count as reading if I just needed a little guidance. Right?

I decided that even my well-intentioned (and, I thought, much-needed) searches for advice were off-limits during the reading deprivation. I would have to seek guidance elsewhere. Surprisingly, I found this guidance in a little-known but intelligent person named me. Turns out, I have these qualities called intellect, intuition, and reason. Imagine! Plus, I actually know myself, my family, and our circumstances better than anyone else. So, as it turns out, I usually land on decisions that suit us and don’t feel so much like we’re following someone else’s recipe for life.

So even now that the reading deprivation is over, I’m trying to break my dependence on consulting the experts. One bonus of thinking for myself is that it’s a lot quicker than trolling Google, so I have more time on my hands (time to change my mind later if I want). Plus, if I really, really, really can’t figure something out I have this other awesome thing I can use: Moms (between the kind I got the old-fashioned way, and the two I acquired later on, I’ve got plenty). They were doling out advice centuries before anyone knew of WebMD. They know some good stuff, and they feel real happy when I ask them to share.