Archive | Books

Powell’s Books (aka Heaven)

Powell's BooksWe just got back from our big family vacation for the year up in the northwest.

We visited my dad in Idaho, camped in eastern Washington, moved to the mountains for a couple days camping in the forest, then to Spokane to visit with friends, and finally, Portland to visit my sister and her family. The night we arrived, she arranged for a babysitter and we had a little double date in downtown Portland. It’s been years since we went out with our sweeties.

After dinner, my brother-in-law suggested we walk over to Powell’s Books. Of course I’ve heard of this books store, but when we finally arrived I had just one question: How have I never been here before?

Seriously. This place is amazing. It took me half an hour to get through the entry. Books, books, so many books! I’ve never seen anything like it. New books, used books, old books, new releases. At a certain point, I decided that the building might actually be enchanted because I couldn’t find an end. It just kept going and going.

Anyhow, in two fantastic weeks of friends and family, this was actually my favorite part, and while it’s good to be home, I’m a little sad that I can’t go back to Powell’s Books today.

If you’re a fan of books and ever have the chance, you really MUST check it out.

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Old Longings and New Homes

Old longingsFor my birthday, a friend gave me a copy of “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” by Rebecca Solnit. The title seemed appropriate, as this is a friend I used to get lost with all the time. We’ve happened upon glaciers in Canada, explored the Mojave desert by moonlight, and wondered through Berkeley on mushrooms. We’re good at getting lost.

Normally, I’m not really into books that just kind of explore ideas without plot or purpose, but this one is so beautifully written that I made it all the way through, underlining several passages along the way.

In one section of the book, she talks about “strays and captives,” people who are far from home, with every intention of returning from where they’re from. She writes about the “stunning reversal” that often happens when, at some point, “they came to be at home and what they had longed for became remote, alien, unwanted.” She goes on:

For some, perhaps there was a moment when they realized that the old longings had become little more than habit and that they were not yearning to go home but had been home for some time…

I’ve been thinking about this in terms of stories and how to end them. So many stories are about people with old longings trying to find something or get somewhere, only to realize that what they really needed was right in front of them all along. It’s a satisfying ending.

The transformation of longing into recognition makes for good story because of the suffering that comes between the two. We try to get home, or go back, or find the love lost, but striving only brings suffering. When we let go and recognize that we are home, or that we have what we need, the suffering ends.

This is not true just for story either. It’s something to consider in our lives: the things we hang on to cause suffering. And maybe that’s why it rings so true in fiction.

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Tidying Up My Bookshelf

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying UpI recently finished “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” I picked it up on a whim, and totally dug it. Since finishing it, I have given away two giant trash bags of stuff from my closet, and donated four grocery bags full of books to the library. And that’s only the fist two steps of five. And keep in mind, I gave away a lot of stuff before we started packing for the move. I was shocked to learn I had so much more to get rid of.

The tidying prescribed in this book starts with clothes, then books, then on to the rest of the things in your life: paper, miscellaneous stuff, and sentimental items.

I thought books would be harder to sort through, honestly. I mean, I love books. I have totally valid reasons for keeping as many as I do, and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to get rid of any. But, as instructed, I placed all my books in a pile in the living room, and then picked up each one to hold it and decide if it brought me joy. I was surprised by which books I kept. As it turns out, books I’m keeping to read “some day” don’t bring me any joy. I actually found that I resented those books, and even just having them around made me feel sour. So I’m donating them.

On the flip side, there were some books, like “Moby Dick” and “Jitterbug Perfume,” that I love. Just having them on my shelf makes me happy. I will probably never read them again, but it brings me joy to see them there.

Having completed those two big steps, I’m on to sorting all the paperwork in my life. I expect this will also be pretty cathartic. If you’re looking to lighten the load of stuff in your life, check this book out. It’s a quick read, and totally worth it.

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After The Half Marathon

half marathon
As you know, I recently ran my first half marathon.

Turns out, I’m actually pretty good at distance running. I enjoy it. In fact, I don’t really start to enjoy running until about the third mile. If someone had told me, back in high school, when they made us run that terrible ten-minute mile bullshit, that I would always hate the first mile, but love the eighth, I would have thought they were crazy.

And yet, here I am.

The thing is, I think I’m doing it wrong. Maybe it’s my form, or maybe I need to cross-train to build up my support muscles or something. All I know is that right around mile 13 my knees started hurting. I kept running until the finish line, but two days after the half marathon I could barely walk, my knees hurt so bad. They’re still hurting ten days after the race.

This is simply unacceptable. I already signed up for a full marathon in August, which I fully intend to run, so I made an appointment with a running coach. It’s a two-hour thing on Friday, and it’s $150, which hurts a little all on its own, but I’m justifying it with the fact that I would spend more than that on a gym membership (over the next three months), so it balances out. Running is free.

In fact, by that logic, I’ve already saved that much by running the neighborhood instead of joining a gym.

Anyhow, the only way I can possibly tie this to my writing is that I haven’t had any time to listen to my books on tape over the last ten days. Usually I listen while I run (which is pretty much the perfect way to spend an hour or three).

I can’t wait to get back out there.

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Reading Like a Writer

Read like a writerFor a long time I thought reading like a writer meant simply reading a lot. That’s part of it. However, while reading is critical for writers, passively absorbing stories isn’t enough. To really read like a writer, you have to stop trusting writers.

Used to be that when people asked what I thought of a book, I would say “it was pretty good.” Sometimes it was “really good” or sometimes “meh,” but generally I was satisfied with anything that told a good story. I was reading like a reader.

Once I started writing, I grew more a little more critical. I started noticing loose ends of a story line, or particularly beautiful prose. But it wasn’t until I started reading unpublished work that I actually developed the ability to read like a writer.

As I mentioned in a previous post, reading submissions for a literary journal was a great way to get started, but I have read my share of stories for workshops as well. Preparing to give informed feedback meant being diligent, looking for all the little things I had learned in school, from split infinitives all the way up to story structure.

After years of reading unpublished work with this mindset, the practice has started to spill over into all the reading I do. After countless seminars and panels, I’ve started to realize that authors are (gasp) just people, and they don’t always get it right.

In some ways this sucks, because my threshold for a good read has gone way up. These days, to get lost in a book, it has to have everything right. So nowadays, when I say a book was great, what I mean is: it was so good that I forgot all about being a writer and just fell into it. Very few books hit that mark.

The next challenge is to bring that kind of eye to my own work. My understanding is that it’s not really possible unless you take some time away from your work, so step one is to finish the draft. Step two will be to put it in a drawer and forget about it for a while. Then I can come back to it and attempt to bring my most critical eye.

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Books, Books, and 13.1 Miles

13.1 milesIt was a big weekend for me.

Saturday was my birthday. Then Sunday I got up really, (stupidly) early to run my first 13.1 miles at the Disneyland Tinkerbell half marathon. After that it was nap time, and Mother’s Day celebrations. How lucky am I?

The last week also brought an influx of books.

First off, I like to listen to audio books when I run. About three miles into my 13.1 miles on Sunday I finished “State of Wonder,” by Ann Patchett, and started “A Tale for the Time Being,” by Ruth Ozeki. If you listen to audio books (and if you live in LA, you really should – it will totally change your outlook on traffic), check out the free app called Hoopla. It’s like Audible, but supported by public libraries. It can be a tad unreliable on the playback unless you download the book to your device. So do that. It’s great. And it’s saving me a ton of money.

Second, everyone knows I love books, so I got a couple of great ones as gifts. One I’m almost done with already. It’s called “Born to Run,” by Christopher McDougall. If you’re a runner, you’ve probably already read it, but if you haven’t, check it out – absolutely fascinating. The other is called “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” by Rebecca Solnit. It’s next up.

Third, I ordered myself 16 books from Amazon as a birthday gift to myself. If you follow along, you know I’m working on a novel with a biracial main character. She’s half-black in an all-white town. So I need to know a lot more about what it means to be the only girl of color. I intend to dive into the research on this one. I’m going to read everything I can get my hands on about what it’s like to be a young black woman. I did a bunch of googling, reading reviews and chat boards about books that capture the black experience in America today. I’m feeling pretty intimidated about getting it right, and I may yet bail if I don’t think I can do it justice, but a good friend of mine has encouraged me to “be brave,” and write the story as it has evolved. I have a lot of reading to do.

And today is a good day to start, since my knees are wrecked from running 13.1 miles, and I’m laid up. I’m alternating between ice packs and epsom salts baths, but one thing is clear, if I’m going to make my goal of running a marathon before I turn 40, I need to start doing some cross training.

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Reverse Engineering a Novel

When I started my novel, my thesis advisor suggested I check out a book called Winter’s Bone. This was back before it was a movie with the impeccable Jennifer Lawrence staring as the main character, Ree. (Yes, I’ve been working on this novel for a long time, shut up.)

It is a stunning book, stark and bleak with a young woman at the center who somehow brings a warm spot to the prose and makes you turn page after page. I have gone back to it many times to see how the writer, Daniel Woodrell, handled certain pivotal moments, but this weekend I began re-reading it, start to finish, to look at how it works as a whole. It’s pretty fucking amazing.

Chapter 1 is five pages. It introduces all the characters and paints the setting. By the end of page 14, the Sheriff has come to tell her that her dad put the family home up as collateral to post bail and if he doesn’t show up for his court date, the family will lose the house. “I’ll find him,” she says.

Then we’re off. It’s only 193 pages. It doesn’t need any more. I’m about half way through, marking up the margins with notes and thinking about story structure.

My story is different, of course, but there are some similarities, and it’s interesting to think about how I might use what I’m learning from Woodrell’s minor masterpiece to help shape my own attempt at art.

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Reading as a Parent

Girl Reading

My girl loves to read. Imagine my pride. I find her reading in bed late at night. I find her reading on the playground when I pick her up at school. She actually won a reading trophy at the beginning of the school year for reading half a million words over the summer, and she wasn’t even trying.

Okay, okay, I’ll stop bragging and get to the point. While I love how much she reads, I sometimes worry about what she reads.

Up until now she was into age appropriate books (see the cover the Goddess Girls series in the photo above – totally made for a third grader) and really stupidly popular books like Harry Potter. I never read past the first Harry Potter, but I saw the movies and talked with friends who read it and was comfortable that I knew what kind of story she was getting.

I always told myself that I would stay ahead of her reading. That is, I always figured I would read books before her to make sure that they were appropriate, but she just reads so much, I can’t keep up. Or, I guess I could, but then I wouldn’t have time to read the books I want to read (see my bookshelf in the column on the right there and you’ll get why our tastes don’t completely align just yet, oh, and while you’re at it, look me up on Goodreads, we can be buddies).

Anyhow, this all came to a head last night when my daughter decided to pick the first book in a 4-book series titled Uglies. It’s for grades 7 and up. She’s in third.

Here’s a snippet from the Amazon page:

Playing on every teen’s passionate desire to look as good as everybody else, Scott Westerfeld projects a future world in which a compulsory operation at sixteen wipes out physical differences and makes everyone pretty by conforming to an ideal standard of beauty. The “New Pretties” are then free to play and party, while the younger “Uglies” look on enviously and spend the time before their own transformations in plotting mischievous tricks against their elders.

Clearly, it’s about image. I assume it has a message about image being only skin deep, and doing a bit of homework, I got hints of Hunger Games in that it sounds like a rebellion is coming, but the theme definitely taps into some of my fears about raising a girl in Los Angeles, an insanely image-conscious place.

So I dropped what I was reading to read ahead of her. I got through about sixty pages last night. It’s a good read. I told her she could start it today after school, so I’m going to try to get a little more ahead of her, and then keep reading after she’s asleep, but this whole staying-ahead-of-her thing is proving to be so much more challenging than I thought it would be.

Does anyone else have this problem? I want to encourage her to read, and I’m not afraid of adult topics, I just don’t want her in over her head without having anyone to talk to about what she’s reading. Maybe there are book clubs she could join?

If anyone has any thoughts on this one, I would sure appreciate some input.

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Writing Goals for 2015

xmas walk
I am so excited for 2015, mostly because 2014 sucked – culminating in a broken wrist that had me out of commission for almost a month. Well, out of commission is relative. The truth is, I already had a week of vacation time planned for Christmas, so I was able to rest the hand and not type, but there were cookies to bake and ornaments to make. My whole family rented a house on the coast in Oregon so we could spend the week together – the photo above is from a walk we took on Christmas morning, during a break in the rain. It was so beautiful.

We didn’t do much for New Years Eve. I had to work, and it’s impossible to get a babysitter, so really, Christmas week was the big deal this year. I’m hoping it marks a turning point, away from the sucky suckness that was 2014 and into the wonderful world of 2015, gravid with potential.

I usually do resolutions, but this year I’m lowering expectations. I have only one goal for this year and it is to revive my writer’s notebook. I used to be so good about jotting down ideas and observations. Any line I stood in was an opportunity for a character study. I wrote about the way light hit different scenes and the nuances of unusual smells. Anything. It’s been years since I did this on a daily basis, and I truly believe it is critical for a writer. So that is my one resolution.

Of course, I also hope to finish “The Feathered Tale of Tallulah Jones” and finally start sending it off to agents. In my wildest dreams I also complete a rough draft of the new novel, the one I have all outlined. Then there’s the blog. All while working full time, raising two kids, and you know, spending the occasional bit of time with my guy.

As usual, I am overcommitting.

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Best Neighbors Ever

My neighbors moved out last weekend. They were the best neighbors ever and I miss them terribly already. It’s hard to say how this development will affect the dynamics of our block. You see – we have (had?) the coolest block in LA.

Celeste was six months old when we moved in and there were no other kids, but in the six years since then seven other kids have been born onto our tiny cul-de-sac. We call Celeste the Sheriff, as she makes sure the other kids stay in line. We meet up at the end of the street each night and the parents hang out while the kids ride scooters and bikes, or draw with chalk. It’s an awesome way to end the day. But now the number of kids has been reduced by two.

And since I always brings things back to the writing with this blog, it’s worth noting that the mom of that household is also my soon-to-be publisher. Elisa published a book about New Mexico a couple years ago. It’s not your usual travel guide, but instead outlines the cultural things you’ll see when you visit – things that you won’t find in a traditional where-to-eat-sleep-and-stuff-your-face guide. Like bolo ties and coyote fences. Well, as soon as she mentioned to me that she wanted to do California next, but in two books – north and south, I pretty much pestered her until she agreed to let me write Northern California, which she did, on the condition that Southern California would come out first.

Originally slated to come out late 2012, the Southern California edition was slightly delayed by the birth of their second child and the aforementioned moving, but I believe it’s at the printers and should be coming to a store near you soon.

And Northern California is close on its heels. We still have some photography that needs to be done, but the manuscript is complete. Frankly, I don’t care when it comes out. It was so much fun to write, and it’s not like Northern California is going anywhere. I sincerely hope there is a book tour for that one. It will be a great excuse to go spend some time with old friends.

In the meantime I will gaze wistfully from our kitchen window at the empty parking spot across the street. They will be missed.

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