Category: | Books

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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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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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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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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Red Shirts

As you know, this is not a blog where I review books, but if you’ve been following very long you also know that I just can’t help but share the news if I find I book I totally dig.

red shritsI just finished reading “Red Shirts,” by John Scalzi, and it was awesome. I laughed out loud. A lot. Without giving anything away, I’ll tell you it’s a play on the Star Trek series. The title is a shout out to the lowest ranking crew members – the ones who wear red shirts and always get killed off first thing. That’s all I’ll say except this – if you liked Star Trek, or any sci-fi TV show for that matter, you should read this book.

And now I’m desperately trying to finish “If on a Winters Night a Traveler,” which is kind of the opposite of “Red Shirts.” The book club I am excited to say I am now a part of is meeting this Saturday night to discuss it. It is clearly a very clever novel, told by a real master (Italo Calvino), but it is not an easy read. He jumps from first person to second to third in the course of one paragraph, and it totally works, which I bow down too, but the plot is a little convoluted. I will do my best to wrap it up in the next few days, but the task would be a lot easier if I hadn’t just downloaded “Wool” on my Kindle.

“Wool” is not a difficult read. It sucks you in and whisks you along on a strange, futuristic sci-fi tale. And it calls to me. As I’m getting into bed and I look at Calvino’s book laying next to my Kindle and I think “I need to finish this before Saturday, but…” and then I pick up the Kindle.

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Books, Wonderful Books!

On Monday a writer friend of mine was in town, visiting from West Virgina. We were in the Masters program at USC together, and she has since moved and found herself a pretty kick ass job as a magazine editor. When she called to say she was coming to town, we both agreed it was a great excuse to have lunch and waste a few hours wondering the isles of our favorite books store.

We are both in love with Skylight Books on Vermont. It’s such a great bookstore. When she lived in town we used to go to readings there together. I don’t think I’ve been since she left, but I do go back to to shop – only these days I go to buy birthday presents, usually for small children. I put on my virtual blinders, fix my gaze on the cement floor, and charge straight back to the kid’s section, because as soon as I look up, it’s over.

I learned that one the hard way. I went there once with the little guy in tow, just as he was learning to walk, and I got sucked into the new fiction section. It was ugly. I was that mom – the one who lets her kid wander around pulling books off shelves. At one point, in a half-hearted attempt to keep him under control,  I was holding the back of his pants with one hand and reading the back of new novel with the other, as he slid and whined on the floor, trying to get away. So yeah, since then, I go with a mission, and don’t allow myself to get distracted.

Except on Monday, I went in the middle of the day, sans kiddos, and just dove right in. I find the entire Wild Girlsshop exceptional, but left to meander, I always end up in the new fiction section. And since I’m nearing the end of this draft of the novel, I took some time focus in on debut fiction. I found three different titles, all by first time novelists, that seem like they have the same sensibilities as my book. In the acknowledgements I culled the names of their agents and have added them to my list of people to investigate. I managed to buy just one, a book called “Wild Girls.” I can’t wait to start reading it.

The whole afternoon just reminded me why I write.

I love books. I just love them.

Did you know there’s a whole book on salt? It’s called “Salt: A World History.” I mean, really, is there nothing books can’t teach me? Worlds long past, worlds that will never exist, miniscule worlds that exist in the cracks of everyday life. Fiction, non-fiction, literary, trashy. I just love them.

It was a wonderful afternoon. I have to remember, the next time I’m feeling frustrated or tired, that an hour at Skylight can change my whole perspective and remind me why I do what I do.

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Las Gracias de Dona Diabla

Congratulations to my father-in-law, who just published his first book.

 

It’s titled “Las Gracias de Dona Diabla.” There was a huge launch party in Quito, Ecuador, last weekend. I couldn’t make it, but I hear it was a big success.

My Spanish, as of yet, isn’t quite good enough that I can actually read the book, but if yours is, I suggest you track down a copy. He’s a great story teller.

Felicidades, Juancho!

 

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Pillars of Eternity

I’ve been reading this book, “Pillars of the Earth,” for what feels like forever. It’s quite long, and even though the author (Follett) can sometimes digress extensively into the details of church construction, it is a damn good story.
The thing is, I feel like it’s actually three books in one. The story starts off with one set of characters, and adds more and more, jumping perspectives with ease. Then, about 300 pages in, the focus shifts to more minor characters and some of the ones I loved the most are killed off. Then the story changes locations entirely, taking me into a whole other world. (I’m trying not to give anything away, because it really is a fun read.)

At this point (and I still have several hundred pages to go), I don’t even really need to know any of the events that happened in the first half of the book. I seem to be reading a whole other story.

So I wonder, will he bring it back to the opening scene at the end? Or was there some other reason that he decided not to make this into a trilogy? It would seem, from a marketing perspective, that selling the story as a trilogy would have made both Follet and his publishers a lot of money.

Take the Hunger Games for example. Trilogy. Delicious. Totally could have been one long book. I assume that the reason it’s not a trilogy is because the publisher knew I’d fork over the dough for each one, after loving the first installment so much.

As an author, it’s got me thinking. How does one know if they have a trilogy on their hands, or just one really long book? Is it an artistic choice? Or a marketing thing? Anyone out there have any perspective on this one?

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Best Books of 2011?

I read a lot. I believe it’s part of a writer’s job, so much so that I consider sitting around reading a legitimate day of work (when I don’t have actual deadlines pending).

At the end of 2011 I was swamped in a lot of ways and looking for some good, light reading fare, so I picked up “Fun and Games.” It’s a mystery/thriller/hollywood story, and it was just what I was looking for. But then I went and bought book 2 in the series and frankly, it sucks. I tore through the Hunger Games trilogy, mostly because all the cool kids are doing it, and I actually thought they were great. Again, not historically brilliant prose, but a damn good story.

So then I was stumped. On a recommendation from a semi-nerdy friend I picked up “How to survive in a science fiction universe.” I totally respect it for the ingenuity and creativity, but when I was half way through and couldn’t tell what it was really about, I gave up. Same with “Let the great world spin,” which I’ve been told I should give another shot, because it’s amazing. I loved the writing, but the story just didn’t grab me.

Right now I’m reading “The Wedding Gift,” which also frankly sucks, but it was $1 on my kindle. You get what you pay for I guess.

Anyhow, I could go on, but if you want to know what I’ve been reading you can just scroll down and check out the little book shelf in the right hand column there. I generally keep it well updated.

What I really want now is advice on what to read next. I got 2 Amazon gift cards for Christmas (big thanks to my favorite client and my wonderful in-laws), and they are burning a hole in my pocket. I’m done with the delicious junk for the time being. Instead I’m looking for something really engrossing. Something stunning. Something that will make me sit up way too late tonight reading because I simply cannot put it down.

I trolled a few Best Of lists from 2011 and here are my top contenders.

The Sense of An Ending

June Bug

Salvage the Bones

The Auslander

A Visit From the Goon Squad (I want to hope that this is Princess Bride reference…?)

The Tiger’s Wife

The Marriage Plot

I’m thinking about just working my way down the list, but I’d love to hear from anyone out there who has actually read one or more of them.

Or what was your favorite book of 2011, and why will I love it? Seduce me.

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