Untitled, Siegfried Sassoon

This has been a tough week, so I’m just going to leave this poem here. I’m reading it once for every friend or family member of mine currently going through hard times, and it will be a comfort to know so many more eyes will see it. Hopefully, it will bring some small comfort to others who need it as well.

Untitled

When I’m alone’ – the words tripped off his tongue
As though to be alone were nothing strange.
‘When I was young,’ he said; ‘when I was young . . .’

I thought of age, and loneliness, and change.
I thought how strange we grow when we’re alone,
And how unlike the selves that meet, and talk,
And blow the candles out, and say good-night.

Alone . . . The word is life endured and known.
It is the stillness where our spirits walk
And all but inmost faith is overthrown.

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line, Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

Am I really writing a post about the mystery novel Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas recently penned about the characters in one of my all-time favorite shows? Why, yes. Yes I am. It’s basically legitimized fanfic, and I happily shelled out 6.99 for my chance to spend a few more hours in Neptune, post-movie madness a month ago. Maybe I should be embarrassed about this. Some people have certainly told me I should be, but what’s the point? Why should I fight my love of all things Veronica Mars? Why should I pretend I don’t like fanfic when sometimes it’s the absolute best thing ever? I still remember the reams of paper my best friend and her sister used to print out fic written about Ghostbusters. That was back before the internet was a thing, at least for me; I honestly had no idea where they were getting these stories, and I didn’t care. All I knew was that for the low, low price of nothing, we could stay up late reading new adventures with our favorite characters.

Today, of course, the world of fanfic is a bigger deal. The internet has made it possible for anyone with an idea to not only pen as many stories as they want about characters and worlds created by others, but to share them easily with an ever-expanding audience. I happen to think that’s wonderful. I know many people – even some of my favorite authors – look down on fic, or call it unoriginal and derivative, but I see it as an opportunity for people who might never have written a word to share in a feeling of creation.

Writing a story is empowering. When I finish a book, when I’ve pulled it all together and had that internal click that tells me I’m done, it’s the best feeling in the world. I’ve gotten it writing original characters, other people’s characters, essays, dramas, poetry (you name it, I’ve probably given it a shot), and each time is special. I would never want to rob another person of that feeling. I would never want to tell another person that what they write or read is bad, or wrong, or shameful, even though it’s not always easy to own up to what I like best. I’m sure my perspective has been at least in part shaped by the fact that of my three closest friends, one reads mainly fanfic, one, the biographies of politicians and humanitarians, and one, romance novels; my father likes history best and my mother, genre novels and children’s books.

I grew up surrounded by people who said yes to reading in any and every format. There were no restrictions about what I could or couldn’t read, no talk about what was “appropriate” reading material. All around me were true book lovers, people who understood that what made a book “good” was the reader’s pleasure in the experience. So when I tell you that The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line was good, I mean it was a joy to steal minutes out of my day to read it. I fell back into a world I’ve loved since the very first episode of the show aired (I still vividly remember being terrified and intrigued by one of the flashbacks on that show that night). Back then, my friend and I had a standing date to watch it; conveniently, it came on right after Gilmore Girls, so we would pour ourselves bowls of Cocoa Puffs for dinner (I know I’m old because that sounds like an awful supper to me now, but at the time, it was perfection) and settle in for two glorious hours.

Of course, it’s important to recognize that Rob Thomas isn’t exactly borrowing these characters. He made them, and brought them to life, and was instrumental in bringing them back to fans years after cancellation, but he didn’t do it alone. The characters have been shaped by the actors and by the history of the show (undoubtedly built by a team of talented writers). He has been a guiding force in that world though, and his love for both the people he’s worked with and the characters he helped to create is always evident. He also has a gift for creating compelling mysteries, a skill I’m studying closely as I work on my own project. I genuinely have no idea how his characters read to someone unfamiliar with the series, but for fans – new or old – to Neptune, this book is a giant hug from him to you.

Writing the Cozy Mystery, Nancy J Cohen

Tomorrow, I’m flying to San Diego to host a bridal shower for my sister-in-law. Consequently, this week has been spilt between keeping up my word count for Camp NaNo, editing November’s NaNo novel, and double-checking that all the details for the party are in order. I’m not the best party planner, and it turns out, it’s much harder to organize an event I have to fly to. I’ve been leaning heavily on the advice of the friend who planned my shower years ago; she seems to do such things effortlessly, and with her help, I’m only minimally freaked out about playing host to twenty women I don’t know (and one who I very much want to feel pampered for a day).

Between word sprints and remembering to pack ribbon for decorating favors, I really haven’t had much time for reading. Fortunately, Cohen’s guide, which I’ve had in my queue since February, is a blessedly brief book. (Of course, I highlighted about forty percent of it, since my mother and I are teaming up to write a mystery this summer, which essentially guarantees I’ll have to reread practically the whole thing when I move into productivity for that project…)

I’ve been writing fiction for a long time, and part of me felt silly reading a book like this, but I’m also the kind of person who thrives on directions. I love guidelines, and prompts, and advice about how to set up pre-book-writing data. Cohen’s book was perfect for this. She’s concise, informative, and has years of experience in the genre to back up her suggestions. It was written to target writers new to both the genre and to fiction in general, but I didn’t feel condescended to; instead, it was like having a cup of tea with someone who has already gone on a vacation I’m planning to take. Sure, I can imagine my packing list, the best hikes, and where to eat while I’m there, but it’s still nice to pick the brain of someone who’s made the trip already.

Happily, it will serve as an excellent planner for our venture into unknown territory. My mother and I have actually written a few novels together, but we never do much plotting in advance. Instead, we’ve always treated it as almost a surprise – one person writes a chapter and sends it along, then the next person adds one, and so on – eventually, we meander into the meat of the story and resolve all of the loose ends we’ve littered along the way. It’s a surprisingly fun way to write, but not necessarily the best tactic for a mystery. I suspect a little planning beforehand will save us a lot of headaches later, and even after this initial reading of Cohen’s book, we’ve already created a joint Google doc and started filling it with ideas (and let’s be honest – I also took my twenty percent discount from NaNo and finally purchased Scrivener because an org nerd like me should not be without such a program any longer).

Now, if only I could have been as satisfied with the resources I found for planning that shower…

 

For more about Nancy Cohen, go here.

The Way of the Happy Woman: Living the Best Year of Your Life, Sara Avant Stover

There are some books I read that I feel an immediate affinity for. I have to admit, this wasn’t one of them. It’s the second of the books my sister-in-law gifted me in January (Homebody Yoga being the first), and I’d put in on the shelf and forgotten about it until last week. I was looking for my Moosewood cookbook, and since I have limited storage space, I keep cookbooks next to the unread pile; as I was squatting there trying to ignore how incredibly dirty the rug had gotten, I had time to scan through quite a few titles when I came across this one.

I didn’t remember immediately where it had come from, but it seemed fortuitous. I’m halfway through a couple of novels but have been too busy to sink fully into their stories, and I wanted to take a break and try to regroup. Also, truth be told, 2014 has been a rough year (especially after ’13, which proved to be very lucky indeed) and it seemed important to pick up a book that might  help to realign my priorities. 

That being said, this is the kind of book that reminds me of people who love to hug. I have many dear friends who are huggers, but it isn’t an exaggeration to say I can count on one hand the people I like to hug, and on another, the people I’m willing to hug but would prefer to nod at politely from a distance to express my love. For the record, that hypothetical second-hand includes my very best friends in the world and most of my relatives; hugging, for me, in no way correlates to how much I care for a person, but I think it does say something about who I am as a person. And as a person, I don’t really like touching. Or touchy feely moments. Or books that encourage me to explore my feelings, even if they do so in a well-educated, thorough, and academically interesting way. Which this book does.

Stover is a fantastic writer, and she apparently also leads wonderful workshops based on the ideas she presents in The Way of the Happy Woman. I enjoyed the book and spent most of the time reading it in a meditative posture (as opposed to slung across the couch), which is a win in itself. I even found myself taking notes as I read, and when I looked back at them, I was amazed by how much I absorbed even though her style wasn’t quite a hit for me. To me, that’s a testament to how well-considered this material is and how relevant it is to my life. Even though I couldn’t help but giggle when she talked about the connection between menstrual cycles and the moon (yes, when I hear the word “menses,” I mutate into a twelve-year-old boy), I was able to get past the elements that didn’t work for me and be reminded of how important it is to disconnect from outside expectations in order to reconnect with myself on the physical, emotional, and spiritual level.

One of the ways I’ve been doing this is by choosing to go for a run every day of Lent. Over the last few months, my body has felt more and more out of whack, and nothing I did seemed to bring it back in line. I was having trouble sleeping, eating well, and my exercise routines – usually a source of deep comfort – felt stymied. I needed a change, and although I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my normal workouts completely, I decided to add a minimum of ten minutes of running a day. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but just knowing that I have to get changed and go out for a quick jog has reignited a sense of joy in the activity and motivated me to push harder and go further almost every time. I’ve come back faster than I’ve ever been before and more appreciative of the meditative time compressed into a short, intense workout.

After I finished the book, I decided to take up another daily practice. It seemed like I’d been making excuses about my brain feeling fried more recently, and while I’ve been doing a lot of writing I’m happy with, I can’t completely ignore an edge of creative burnout. I needed to try something new, if only so I could come back to writing with a fuller appreciation, so I went out and bought a new sketch pad, a pencil, and a set of cheap charcoals. I decided that everyday, I would reread one of my favorite poems and spend at least twenty minutes thinking about it and drawing something in relation to the piece.

I didn’t decide on this because I’m secretly a brilliant illustrator. I have very little experience in this area, truth be told, but in college, I took an art class that changed my perspective on the subject completely. For the first few weeks of class, I really struggled. The room was full of amazing artists, and all I could try to do was imitate, poorly, the work I saw happening around me. The only happiness I found was in our take-home assignments, which we did with charcoal in used books. I carried that dirty hardcover with me everywhere, and for the first time, I felt like there might be a spark of the artist in me. I give enormous credit to my professor because after she noticed this, she sat down and engaged me in a conversation about the problems I was having. I was embarrassed to admit what an amateur I was, but I knew it must be obvious from the work I produced. She didn’t care about that at all; instead, she asked me what I loved most. “Words,” I said. “Then that is where you art begins,” she told me.

I have never forgotten that moment, the freedom she granted me with that conversation, and in Stover’s book, it was that theme I came back to again and again. Her philosophy isn’t about perfection, or filling every day with lists of things to create superficial success; it was about reclaiming the parts of ourselves that bring us joy and a sense of peace. For me, all it took was deleting Facebook and Twitter from my phone, and suddenly, I had plenty of time to both run and draw. I stopped checking my email right after waking up and found out I had nearly thirty minutes every day to stretch while my husband got ready for work. I even forced myself to give up making calls for a week, and I realized that the long conversations I have on the phone are actually enriching my life, not detracting from it. I don’t know if these small adjustments will be enough to turn around what I don’t have control over this year, but they’re a place to start.

For more about Sara Avant Stover, go here.

Miss Mabel’s School for Girls, Katie Cross

I have been getting ready to start writing a new book, and in the process, I’ve been doing a lot of research on an issue close to my heart – that of representation in fiction. At this point, I’ve read probably hundreds of articles about what that means to different people, and I’ve come to this conclusion. While my view of the word is necessarily influenced by how I look and the experiences I’ve had, my ability to write a range of diverse, realistic characters is only limited by my desire to empathize, to imagine life outside of my own skin. If I want to read more stories about blind mermaids, and Indonesian girls who climb magic beanstalks, and sixty year old asexual men winning knitting bees, then I have to write characters like that.  If I want more novels that celebrate the fact that being different is normal, because it is normal, I have to make sure my work reflects that too.

There’s nothing – and everything – special about having a sister who’s an alcoholic, or juggling sole custody of children from two different marriages, or not hitting puberty until three years after your friends have. It’s lucky to be conventionally beautiful, but it’s just as special to know that the people who love you think your big nose and hairy knuckles and flat bangs are perfect. Personally, I love how weathered my hands look after years spent rafting without quite enough sunscreen, because when I look at them, a part of me remembers how strong I feel out on the river, and yet, I’ve never thought about the hands of the characters I write.

I haven’t paid enough attention to the schedule a character might have for shaving, or what it could mean for one to buy something as simple as a deodorant intended for the opposite gender. I haven’t considered the types of food each of them might eat, or whether their skin is so dry it must be rubbed with oil after every shower – what it could mean to have parents of different races, or a family so big, no secret can survive in it. I certainly hadn’t considered what it would be like to read a fantasy novel where the only men in the story are a chauffeur, a priest who’s heard but not seen, and a beloved, absent father. When I picked up Cross’ book, I wasn’t expecting to start thinking about the power dynamics of a situation – a family, a school, and a government – filled only with women. I don’t know whether she planned it that way when she sat down to start writing Miss Mabel’s either, but regardless of whether it was a conscious decision or an incidental one, I was fascinated by the result.

Although the story and genre are very different, this book reminded me of watching the first season of Orange is the New Black. If you’re not familiar with the show, it takes place inside a women’s prison, and it does a brilliant job of creating a novel cast of female characters. It was special for me to find a show like that, and a book like this, because one of the things I personally long for in fiction is representation of interesting women. It’s not the only thing I want to read or watch, but when I find myself immersed in a story about women – not just a woman, but a community of women – I feel a part of something larger than myself. The United States, especially, is a culture defined more by individualism than the larger group, so I don’t often acknowledge or appreciate the influence women have on me, but when I have a reminder thrust upon me, the desire to do so bubbles up.

Cross manages to create a world where men exist alongside women, but are not the focus of the story. Much of the novel takes place inside a school for girls, where the teachers are exclusively women, but in addition to that construct, our protagonist, Bianca, is also deeply tied to her mother and grandmother, and the government of the country they live in is matriarchal. Nothing about this feels forced or intended as a slight to men; it’s simply the natural expression of this particular woman’s journey for justice and revenge.

I ended up spending almost as much time  thinking about my own perceptions of the world Cross has created as I did reading the book, and in doing so, loosened some important ideas for myself about what I’m searching for in my own writing, and in the books I read. I want more novels like this, stories in genres I already love with an unexpected twist of truth.

 

For more about Katie Cross, go here.

The Day the Saucers Came, Neil Gaiman

The Day the Saucers Came
That Day, the saucers landed. Hundreds of them, golden,
Silent, coming down from the sky like great snowflakes,
And the people of Earth stood and
stared as they descended,
Waiting, dry-mouthed, to find out what waited inside for us
And none of us knowing if we would be here tomorrow
But you didn’t notice because

That day, the day the saucers came, by some coincidence,
Was the day that the graves gave up their dead
And the zombies pushed up through soft earth
or erupted, shambling and dull-eyed, unstoppable,
Came towards us, the living, and we screamed and ran,
But you did not notice this because

On the saucer day, which was zombie day, it was
Ragnarok also, and the television screens showed us
A ship built of dead-men’s nails, a serpent, a wolf,
All bigger than the mind could hold,
and the cameraman could
Not get far enough away, and then the Gods came out
But you did not see them coming because

On the saucer-zombie-battling-gods
day the floodgates broke
And each of us was engulfed by genies and sprites
Offering us wishes and wonders and eternities
And charm and cleverness and true
brave hearts and pots of gold
While giants feefofummed across
the land and killer bees,
But you had no idea of any of this because

That day, the saucer day, the zombie day
The Ragnarok and fairies day,
the day the great winds came
And snows and the cities turned to crystal, the day
All plants died, plastics dissolved, the day the
Computers turned, the screens telling
us we would obey, the day
Angels, drunk and muddled, stumbled from the bars,
And all the bells of London were sounded, the day
Animals spoke to us in Assyrian, the Yeti day,
The fluttering capes and arrival of
the Time Machine day,
You didn’t notice any of this because
you were sitting in your room, not doing anything
not even reading, not really, just
looking at your telephone,
wondering if I was going to call.

A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to hear Neil Gaiman read this poem aloud. I had read it myself, years ago, and I never really liked it. I felt the same way about it that I did most of his short stories and about his graphic novels – they were well-written, but not meant for the likes of me.

When I heard him read it though, a piece of me came alive. I was captivated by the rhythm of his lines, the imagery he so deftly invokes, and the absolutely stunning ending. A poem is nothing without its ending, and this one is just exceptional. I found a video of Gaiman reading it for you because, really, his voice is magical and it makes the piece that much more lovely. I recommend listening to it once without watching the video, and then once with, because the person who made it did a fun job putting the piece together.

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For more about Neil Gaiman, go on over here.

A Skeleton in the Family, Leigh Perry

When my mother was visiting a few weeks ago, she brought a novel she’d picked up at Boskone, a cozy mystery that was perfect for reading under the nap blanket she had made me last Christmas. (Yes, I have a nap blanket. What can I say? I appreciates naps and all things nap-adjacent.) It’s been grey almost every day for far too long now without the rain we really need, and while I love wet weather, I’m much less fond of the general air of gloominess that has settled over us here.

The perfect remedy for such weather, and for the air of melancholy that descends on our entire household after too many days without sunshine, is a book like Perry’s. It’s sweet, funny, and has a hint of the supernatural without going all sparkly vampire on me. Not that I mind vampires, sparkly or otherwise; I’m in favor of all manner of monster being converted into friend, ally, and when appropriate, love interest. (Of course, in this case, her “monster” is a skeleton, and I was the one falling in love with him.) Perry’s book, in fact, hit a couple of sweet spots for me, including a protagonist who’s a single mother with a realistic(ally good) relationship with her adolescent daughter, several relationships between said protagonist and men that weren’t romantic, a quirky friendship between a woman and her supernaturally reanimated skeleton buddy, and a sisterly dynamic that was both tense and loving  (in other words, completely believable).

After I finished the book, I was thinking about all of these characters, and about how hopeful I was that Perry would write another book about them, and I realized the reason I’m drawn to series’ like The Dresden Files or Sookie Stackhouse is my obsession with lovable characters. Even in my own writing, I’m never nearly as interested in the plot as I am the motivation behind a character’s actions, or the connections people build when put under pressure. That isn’t to say a well thought-out plot is a waste – not at all – but it’s less important to me than the people who are driving the story.

When it comes down to it, I will always come back to an author who writes characters who have been altered by the Velveteen Rabbit affect – the people on the page who have been lugged around and played with until they spring up, animated by the love of those who have created them. Those are characters I can engage with, who I can think about long after I’ve put a book away on the shelf. As a reader, it’s important to me to find stories that are motivated by the people in them rather than books that could almost be myth – an important story, but with any number of people substituted in on a whim with the same results.

This isn’t true for everyone, and I’m glad of that. I would hate to walk into a library and know that every single book on the shelf was exactly what I think I want. It wouldn’t allow for any growth as a critical reader or as a person. It’s wonderful to find a great read totally outside of what I already love, of course, but there will also always be a place in my heart for novels that fit into my heart from the first few pages. Those are the books that get me through long winters, and sleepless nights, and sunny afternoons by the shore. Authors like Perry will always be the ones I search for on a whim in little bookstores because I know I’ll find comfort in their stories and friends in the characters they write. They will be good company no matter the season, and that is not a gift to be taken lightly.

For more about Leigh Perry, head over here.

Satan’s Short, Heide Goody and Iain Grant

Well, the wait is finally over, and I can say I came in second place in Ten to One! Thank you so much to everyone who supported me and sent votes my way on Facebook. I’m very happy I no longer have to beg votes from family, friends, and strangers, but that won’t keep me from pimping the book itself when it comes out in the fall! It’s a fun read, and I’m really proud of what we’ve put together…which doesn’t mean it doesn’t still need plenty of editing, but that’s okay. I actually enjoy the editing process. I mean, who doesn’t prefer to start with raw material rather than an empty page?!

At any rate, I needed a palate cleanser after last week, and I was finding it difficult to get into anything long. My mother was visiting from New Hampshire, my husband was sick, and my brain was still half in grieving mode from Young Widower. The rest of me was trying very hard not to think about that final round of voting for Ten to One. It turns out, not thinking about something requires nearly as much energy as thinking about it does! Funny how that works, isn’t it?

It seemed fortuitous, somehow, that in the midst of all that not thinking and not working (because between my mum’s visit and playing nurse, there was zero actual work happening), Goody and Grant’s collection of shorts about Clovenhoof was released on Amazon. It was a year ago, in March, that I sent off my audition packet to Grant, and only slightly less than a year ago that I decided I wanted to read his work before I got really excited about the possibility of being invited to join the project.

I read Clovenhoof in a Starbucks in London, and it killed me. I didn’t think its follow-up, Pigeonwings, could possibly hold a candle to it, and then I loved it just as much. Goody and Grant are just dynamite writers, and now that the contest element of Ten to One is over, I can rave about them without worrying about whether it’s a conflict of interest! Instead, I can just be thrilled that they decided to write a few more stories in this universe and then only charge me a dollar for the pleasure of reading them.

Honestly. It’s March – the one month a year that has neither the benefit of a three-day weekend to break up the monotony of the work week, nor the redeeming quality of long lazy summer days (unless you live in the southern hemisphere, in which case, August is your March, so save this series until you need it). This is the perfect time to curl up with unrelentingly funny books. They may not change the dreary weather or help you kick that inevitable St Patrick’s Day hangover (even if you don’t drink, I have to imagine corned beef and cabbage takes time to recover from), but they will bring much-needed light to this slow month. And hey! Since I’ve already read them all, I’m open to suggestions in the comments for other novels that might perk March up for me. Sure, I have a huge stack of books I should be reading, but none of them really screams “escape.” I’d be grateful to hear about your favorite winter break reads…

Young Widower: A Memoir, John W Evans

I first heard about Katie Evans’ death in a nail salon. It was a Wednesday morning in November. I know this because my friend’s children are both at preschool on Wednesdays, and every few months, we  treat ourselves to the early bird special at Capri Spa. We’d been talking about Halloween, and about how last year her sons, who I have known since birth, knocked so timidly on the door. On a normal day, they would have bounded into our house and immediately climbed the stairs to compare how similar, and different, our mirror-image homes were.

On Halloween though, they hid behind their mother, and their father took pictures of them shyly accepting the gluten-free candy I had specifically picked to meet their family’s needs. This year though, they brought friends. They knocked loudly, and before I’d even reached the door, they were already shouting their trick-or-treats. They were firemen, bold and laughing and hungry. The boys’ grandparents stood by, and the father of their friends helped his youngest tuck a Fun size bag of M&Ms into a plastic jack-o-lantern.

I’d never met their little friends before, not officially. During the summer, I’d talked to the four of them while standing on a bench looking over the fence into their yard. I would keep an eye on the grill while they held up boats and trucks, and tried to make their splashes in the water table reach me.  Halloween was the first time I’d actually met John Evans though, and in the rush of holiday excitement, it was a passing hello. I had the impression later that he was tall, and that his kids were cute, and knew that he and his wife lived only a few blocks away. My friend confirmed all this, and we laughed about how this year, I’d forgotten to buy any Halloween candy at all, so she’d snuck some to me while the boys were distracted.

Then we went back to reading our magazines, and a few minutes passed before she mentioned that John was a writer, and that he had a book coming out in the winter. I suspect my response was non-committal.  People often talk to me about their writer friends. Some of them are published and some aren’t. Occasionally, I’ll read a friend’s, or a friend of a friend’s work; it depends on the book, the availability, my schedule. She mentioned that he was a poet, but that this new book was a memoir. “It’s about his wife,” she said, “and how she was killed by a bear in the Carpathian mountains.”

So there it was. Out in the open, this intimate detail about a man I only knew as “tall.” Fortunately, one of my friend’s great gifts is to project both sympathy and optimism in the same breath. There was nothing sordid or gossipy about her tone; his history was conveyed in a way I’ve come to think of as uniquely Utah. She was born and raised there, and although I’ve never been, I imagine it as a place where people wander around comfortably wearing their hearts on their sleeves, offering to all a blend of midwestern frankness and a more western laissez-faire attitude. Live and let live. I’m from New England though, and even after all these years on the left coast, I haven’t completely adjusted to such openness. I’m used to half-whispered conversations accompanied by guilt for letting slip anything tenuously labelled “private.”

Of course, this story isn’t private, in that he’s written a book detailing both the event itself and the first year of grief following it, but it felt that way, that first time I heard about it. The sun was shining, and we had coffee and issues of Real Simple and People on hand. The story felt somehow separate from the book, and when it came time to read it, my friend’s voice was often in the back of my mind. It was a comfort to have her there. This wasn’t just a stranger’s reflection about violent death and being widowed at thirty – that would be painful enough – no, this was a man I’d met, however briefly, who had witnessed and recovered (such that one can recover) from a terrible sadness. Whatever grief is his to carry, he has a family, and friends, and children whose names I’ve often heard mentioned with great affection.

When I opened the book for the first time, I wasn’t fully prepared for John’s eloquence or how the story would be magnified when related in his own words. I was with my husband in a doctor’s office. It was the day after my birthday, and he was waiting to have a sprained ankle looked at. We were very early for his appointment, because I have a hard time not being very early, and he loves me enough to go with it. Surrounded by strangers, I tried to cry discreetly. I tried to ignore the combination of raw, poetic story-telling, and my friend’s voice in my ear, Halloween, and my husband’s arm brushing mine. I didn’t want John’s story to seem at all familiar, because if it did, it would mean the anxieties that sometimes overwhelm me might not just be figments of an overactive imagination but potentialities.

In the weeks that followed, as I tried to absorb as best I could the grief and shame and regret and healing he had written about, I began to notice how many jokes people told about bears. Every off-handed comment had me on edge. Years removed from his initial grief, I found myself wondering if it had bothered him, if he’d found a way to accept such things the way I’ve seen survivors of fatal car crashes accept the sound of screeching tires. I found myself wanting to say something, to somehow put a stop to casual jests, but of course, I didn’t. I couldn’t, not without sounding like a lunatic.

Instead, I funneled all of my energy into the character I’ve been writing for Ten to One, a young widow whose closest friends have dangerous ties to Romania. What were the odds, I wondered, that things I’d barely considered before the past year – the death of a spouse, a country I’ve never visited – what was the likelihood they would appear here, in this book, written by a nice man from down the street? Maybe certain books cross our paths when we need them, or maybe it’s a coincidence. I don’t know. All I can say for sure is that as I struggled to write fictitious death and survival so far removed from the reality of such circumstances, I read this one sentence over and over again:

In order to participate in the world, it must be tamed and made reasonable, and when it is not tame and reasonable, the world still requires participation. (p 77)

I copied that sentence at the top of every page so that as I was writing, and stripping things away, and trying to convince a paper girl to not just live in the face of death, but to re-engage with the world around her, I would remember that such a thing was not just possible but paramount. That the weeping and gnashing of teeth and pretending to be fine, the nostalgia and forgetting, the sleeping too much or not enough, with friends or alone – it was all at least partially true. Having a life after terrible loss was possible – as possible as disappearing under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or retreating from it all. The world still requires participation though, even when it cannot be tamed, and yet for those times when life is bitter and unreasonable, there are stories like John’s – books that accept the ugliness of both death and survival and remind us to be grateful and angry and preciously alive.

For more about John Evans, go here.

The Keeping Quilt, Patricia Polacco

This is the third week in a row I’m posting about a book related to my family, but if you’d like to hear the other excuses for why I’m posting about a children’s book instead of the stunning memoir I’ll be talking about next week…? Of course you would.

Reason 1. Books are my first love. Quilting is my second. The quilt below is maybe the fourteenth quilt I’ve finished. Most of them have been baby quilts; a few have been for friends. This is a picture of the one I was working on when I read The Keeping Quilt for the first time in January. It’s for our friends’ baby, due next month.

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Photographing quilts is not one of my hobbies. I’m not good at it, and I apologize.

When I first started hand quilting, I learned mostly from my mother and my best friend’s mother, and we did a lot of the work in community. I don’t even remember the names of some of the women who helped me tie my first quilt, but I do remember the experience of sitting together in someone’s kitchen working and talking together. Years later, I do about half of my sewing on my own while watching television and about half at project nights (organized by the couple who will receive the quilt pictured above). I love having a quilt to work on anytime (especially in the winter…or when I want to watch a season of some show without feeling profoundly guilty about it), but when I get to bring one over to their house and sit around with friends, it recaptures the experience I had when I first took up the hobby. This beautiful little book captures that feeling for me perfectly.

Reason 2. The Olympics. I know – everyone hates the winter Olympics. Everyone who doesn’t hate the winter Olympics is boycotting them. I realize that most people consider the summer Olympics to be a big deal and the winter Olympics to be a nuisance that bumps their favorite shows for a month, but I like them. I’m actually an Olympics fanatic, and although a part of me really wanted to boycott Sochi as well, I just couldn’t do it (I decided to donate some money to Lambda Legal instead). Conscience somewhat appeased, I hunkered down and watched a brain numbing amount of sport. It didn’t leave a lot of time for reading…or my own workouts come to think of it. Oh well. Two more years until I can justify eating this much popcorn while watching super-fit people compete again.

It did allow for plenty of quilting though, and I even invented my own sport – speed binding! Turns out, I won first place, but instead of a medal, I got incredibly sore thumbs and wrists, and a pain in my back that has not yet receded. The most exciting speed binding related injury was accidentally jabbing a straight pin all the way into my shin. It hurt a lot more coming out than going in, let me tell you. (Surprisingly, this book doesn’t mention anything about bleeding onto the fabric or having to purchase wrists braces; this is how I know it’s at least partially fiction!)

Reason 3. The book I’m reading right now is excellent, but it’s also exceptionally sad. I can’t speed through it, I can’t read it late at night, I can’t even read it when I’m alone in the house. It requires a particular mindset that just isn’t conducive to my usual style of reading. It’s worth it, but yeah. It means this week, you’re forced to accept a smaller offering in its place.

The Keeping Quilt makes me tear up too, but in a less “I’m devastated forever” sort of way. It’s a simple story about several generations of women in one family and how this quilt ties them all together (if you appreciated that inadvertent quilting joke, A+ for you this week). The illustrations are just glorious as well, and reading the book makes me excited about quilting every time I pick it up. I think it would be impossible for me not to love a book that manages to do that…

 

For more about Patricia Polacco, go here.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, Alan Bradley

When I was visiting my family in January, I gave my brother (as a belated Christmas gift) a kindle loaded up with books from my Amazon library. After flipping through the titles, he noticed that I had the Flavia DeLuce series, and he got excited because the newest one was due to be released the following Tuesday. He asked if I thought I would buy it, and I told him not to fear – it was pre-ordered and would be waiting for him come 12:01am. What I was thinking then though, and what I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since is that I can never remember, in all my life, reading the same book as my brother.

I’m sure there has been overlap that I’m not aware of. If I looked back through books we both had to read in school for instance, or considered books our parents purchased which we pulled off the shelves for our own enjoyment, I’m sure there would be a few. Also, I could count the books we read aloud as a family at dinner, but I don’t because that was an entirely unique experience (not “unique” as in no one else has ever done it, but rather, a unique opportunity  for our parents to share books mainly of their choosing with us).

The thing is, I can’t recall a single instance of us discussing a book that we both read, loved, and were a little giddy over. It just hasn’t happened before, which is a little weird considering how much we both like to read. The thing is, this was an awesome discovery. I loved how his face lit up when he realized he could read the rest of the series, and for me, it felt like Christmas morning to be able to talk to him about the books without having to explain the premise or justify exactly why they were fantastic.

It was a little surreal, actually, and the end result was that I really savored this latest installment. I wanted to prolong that feeling of kinship, and in doing so, I was drawn into the struggle, in this book especially, between Flavia and her sisters. The tension, the pull between them, and the love that exists just beneath a troubled surface becomes increasingly more central to the Flavia’s story.

Bradley has managed a remarkable feat. He has transitioned his series from a couple of excellent one-off murder mysteries into an even more compelling long game. He’s set it up for a change of scene perfectly in the upcoming book without wasting this gem of a novel meant to bridge Flavia’s youthful adventures and her increasingly high stakes education abroad. And he’s managed to do so while writing books that two people with almost zero literary overlap both love. Now that I think about, I suspect witchcraft might be involved…

“What are we going to do, Dogger?”

It seemed a reasonable question. After all he had been through, surely Dogger knew something of hopeless situations.

“We shall wait upon tomorrow,” he said.

“But— what if tomorrow is worse than today?”

“Then we shall wait upon the day after tomorrow.”

“And so forth?” I asked.

“And so forth,” Dogger said.

It was comforting to have an answer, even one I didn’t understand. (loc 3515)

For more about Alan Bradley, head here.

Homebody Yoga, Jay Fields

During the two weeks of January that weren’t a polar apocalypse, I was on the east coast visiting some friends and family. (It turns out I really don’t miss winter, although the one snow day I got was nice.) While I was with my brother and sister-in-law, they (but mostly she) gave me a slim volume called Homebody Yoga: 28 Days to Bring You Home to Your Body & To a Life Led with Purpose for my birthday. It was the only book I got while I was there (I may have purchased five novels at the great secondhand bookshop that’s also a wine bar) that I didn’t have my parents ship back to me. Instead, I tucked it in my carry-on and read it on and off for the rest of the trip.

Now, Julia is the person, years ago now, who first introduced me to yoga. She badgered me to try it enough times that I actually learned to love it (oh, how I loathed it at the start!). She’s been a constant source of knowledge and encouragement to me and has managed to spread her love of yoga to my whole family.

If you had told me a decade ago that such a thing could happen, I wouldn’t have believed you, but sure enough, yoga has inextricably become a part of our lives. I think my favorite class was the one where my parents, my brother’s in-laws, and my sixth grade teacher were all practicing under Julia’s patient tutelage. It was surreal and excellent at the same time.

At any rate, when she recommends a book to me, I trust her. She understands what I’m looking for uncannily well; she has never once recommended one (on yoga or any other subject) that I haven’t loved. Homebody Yoga was no exception. This book, which essentially began with a reference to the poem by Derek Walcott below, was an absolute perfect find for my birthday month.

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life. 

During February, I like to spend time reflecting on my year and considering what I can do over the next eleven months to improve my life from the inside out. I enjoy unlocking little pieces of myself that have been undernourished or ignored, and this book offered the perfect opportunity for a month of reflection.

Fields’ book is so much more than a “how-to” for home practice though. As a writer, she’s insightful (without being smarmy), as well as warm and funny and thought-provoking. Her guidance is intuitive for both the novice and the expert, and every page had me ready to jump up and get on my mat.

Part of me wanted to wait until February 1st to crack the cover, but ultimately, I couldn’t wait. I had to do a full read-through before I officially “started” my twenty-eight days. I’m glad I did. This is a book that bears rereading. Like a good poem (or yoga pose), her advice resonates a little differently with me each day. The time I’m spending with this book and my mat has become a refuge, and Fields, my companion on a very strange, and necessary, journey.

 

For more about Jay Fields, head here.

Sanctum (Guards of the Shadowlands, Book One), Sarah Fine

Mercy is not a right. Mercy is a gift from one to another. It can’t be earned. (p 368).

Sometimes, a book is just perfect. I don’t mean in the “it’s a classic for the ages and every generation should read and analyze it,” but in the “this speaks to my soul” sort of way. Sanctum is one of those books. I came across the first chapter by chance on Amazon and decided to get it since it was on sale, and then the rest of the novel ended up being off-the-rails awesome.

Fine wove her story around redemption and friendship, depression, suicide, hell, history – all without losing her sense of humor (not an easy task considering some of the subject matter she took on). The book broke my heart a couple of times too, and when I was done with it, I couldn’t stop thinking about the people I know who struggle with debilitating mental health issues. Novels that tackle the idea of teen suicide with such frank honesty gut me, and this one, despite being a fantasy novel instead of straight fiction, was right on point.

It was a book about healing, about using newfound strength to protect and to offer mercy, and about what it looks like not to be able to find that strength. No judgement there either, but rather an acceptance that healing is complicated, and messy, and sometimes incomplete. It’s a painful and  difficult idea for us to accept, and it’s rare for an author to capture the experience of living through it – from both the perspective of the person who feels hopeless and of the one who feels helpless – so well.

Fine also created a fantastical world that was horrifying while containing a kernel of truth that was inescapable. Her underworld felt like such a true place – a horrible, soul-sucking, and brilliant setting for this novel – that I’m almost disappointed that we might not get to see as much of it in the next book. That being said, she nailed the pacing and wrap-up of this first book in her series, and I can’t wait to read the next one.

For more about Sarah Fine, go here.

Choices, Tess Gallagher

Choices
I go to the mountain side
of the house to cut saplings,
and clear a view to snow
on the mountain. But when I look up,
saw in hand, I see a nest clutched in
most branches.
I don’t cut that one.
I don’t cut the others either.
Suddenly, in every tree,
an unseen nest
where a mountain
would be.

You’re pretty lucky this poem is speaking to me right now because otherwise this entire post was going to be about Last-Minute Meetings: 101 Ready-to-Go Games and Lessons for Busy Youth Leaders, by Todd Outcalt. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but, well, that’s what I’m reading today, and it isn’t exactly Tolstoy.  I am just so desperate to figure out how to engage the teenagers I work with in some honest, ridiculous fun that I’ve pulled out the books my husband used with middle schoolers. Outcalt’s was simply at the top of the stack, and I’ve already dog-eared quite a few pages of ideas in the category of “maybe they won’t hate me if I try this.”

The thing is though, when I was a teenager, I really had to be in the right mood for absurd fun (as an adult, I’ll take it whenever I can get it), and if I wasn’t in the mood for it, I would feel a little betrayed – as though the adults around me didn’t respect the struggle I was going through – whether it be about school, work, friends, guys, or family. I worry now that because I’m so concerned about how little time these kids have to relax, I’m going about this all wrong. I wonder just how clueless I seem to them when I try to give them a break from the very real and exhausting struggles they face every day.

When I was reading Gallagher’s poem, I was struck by how  apropos the imagery was for this situation. Sometimes I’m just gobsmacked by the enormity nestled in these teenagers. I used to see it when I taught preschool too – in an unguarded look or the unexpected pause – all of a sudden I could see the intricacy that is personhood.

It’s both frightening and beautiful to have that moment of insight, of seeing how similar a person is to a thunderstorm, or a rogue wave, or a bird’s nest. When I experience it, I feel even less equipped to help than I did when all I saw was the flash and dance that is both toddler and teen. It makes me wonder if it’s even remotely possible to bring them a little joy while playing a game where everybody has to hop like a frog or try to hit sopping wet sponges with wiffleball bats. I don’t know. I keep reading and asking and trying because I think it’s important, even though the answer always seems to recede at the same pace I move toward it.

The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World, Marti Olsen Laney

About a month after my husband and I started dating, he gave me, half-jokingly, a copy of The Geek Handbook: User Guide and Documentation for the Geek in Your Life, by Mikki Halpin. I read the whole thing that night, and the next day, I assured him I was surprisingly well-suited for geek care. Many of my closest friends are geeks from all over the spectrum (coding, gaming, fanning, etc), and I had plenty of experience with what those relationships can require.

A few months later, I was able to return the favor when his sister recommended The Introvert Advantage. If his Handbook was meant to prepare me for what loving a software engineer and life long tinkerer would entail, this book was what he needed to fully understand an introvert who came from a family of introverts! Of course, he’s one too, so you’d think neither of us would  require such a guide for proper tending . You’d be wrong.

After I read it for the first time, he and I talked a lot about the basic premise of the book (that introverts become re-energized by spending time alone, or in reflection, or by stepping back). On some level, I think I had always known this to be true, but since we had this conversation I have come back to think on it many times. Six years later, I’ve recommended this book to so many people, I’ve lost count. I’ve reread it myself three times, and I still can’t get over how much of a difference it’s made to me.

I recently pulled the book out again after talking to one of my best friends about a new relationship in her life. I’m one of those introverts who’s drawn to the energy and charisma of extroverts, and this friend is a shining example of that. She is a dynamic, energetic, brilliant woman who can easily function on five hours a sleep a night. She isn’t phased by the idea of having twelve weekends in a row booked by travel, weddings, and lunch dates; in fact, when Hurricane Sandy hit New York and she was forced to stay home for a few days, she longed to be back at the office, jumping in on meetings and taking clients out for drinks.

I’ll be honest – just thinking about her life makes me tired – yet we’ve been best friends for over twenty years. Although she lives three thousand miles away, we talk several times a week, and recently, our conversations have come around to the idea of stress on the relationships between extroverts and introverts.

Without knowing it, couples enter into relationships wearing their own temperament spectacles. Our lenses are ground from our genes, physiology, upbringing, emotional history, social class, education, and friends. Each lens has a precise prescription, so each view is true and accurate for that particular person. But only for that person. What is very important for a healthy relationship is to realize that you are looking at life through your spectacles. If we think that our view is the right view, then we have struggles in our relationships. (loc 1692)

This is one of those ideas that seems obvious on paper, but in reality, people constantly struggle to communicate a unique view of the world to others and get incredibly frustrated when they’re misunderstood. Although that particular passage comes from a chapter on romantic relationships, for me, the idea is a guide for all of my relationships.

For example, I come from a rather unusual situation – I grew up in a family of introverts. Maybe it should have been obvious to the four us before I read this book, but it wasn’t. I had always thought introverted equaled shy and quiet, and that didn’t really fit. When I realized what introversion truly was, my entire life made so much more sense! My family’s temperaments are especially tied to the odd way we approach activities like vacations or parties or visiting friends. On the one hand, we want to do it all because we’re curious, friendly people; on the other, we often are irritable about those same things because we subconsciously anticipate the enormous energy drain we’ll have from participating.

In one section of the book where Laney discusses working with introverted children, she mentions that being in a car can be stressful, and to counteract the overwhelming feeling of being physically close to others, a child could use headphones, a book, or a physical barrier (like pillows) to offer some level of protection from the stimulation. Growing up, my brother and I each had a Walkman to listen to whenever we got in the car. My father called it “plugging in,” but in actuality, I think we were unplugging. I even remember that my favorite vehicle as a child was our Colt Vista Wagon, which had two rows of back seats; my brother would sit in the first row and I would sit on the opposite side in the far back – this gave both of us physical and mental space that I realize now was crucial.

Introverted children show their need for physical contact in many ways. Like all children, they can enjoy being held or hugged. At other times, when they feel overstimulated, they may require distance. “He’s touching my leg,” they might whine in the car if they are tired. In a group, they often like to be at the back, front, or edge of the pack, rather than in the center….Introverts feel drained by having their physical space intruded upon. It takes energy for them to be around people even if they are not interacting with them. This is very hard for extroverts to grasp since space is not an issue for them. Cozying up doesn’t require energy. (loc 1997)

Even as an adult, I require a lot of personal space. I  prefer to stand on subways and to put as many seats as possible between me and other moviegoers in a theatre. It’s not that I can’t be close to other people; I just prefer to have a little separation. Friends often tease me about how I don’t like to give hugs ( I really don’t) or squish in with them on the couch, and it used to bother me. Now, I just shrug and agree. It’s part of my deal, and I don’t have to be ashamed of it.

I fully believe that the world would grind to a halt without its extroverts. (Fortunately, about seventy-five percent of the population identify as extroverts, so there’s little fear of a shortage.) Without my best friend, I’m pretty sure my wedding never could have happened – not to mention school dances I wouldn’t have attended, people I never would have met, and midnight adventures that would have gone un…ventured! After basically imprinting this book on my soul, I’m comfortable enough to know what it takes to be the happiest, healthiest introvert I can be. It’s  made me love and appreciate extroverts like her so much more (not to mention allowing me to help beloved introverts get some much-needed peace and quiet!). It’s rare to find a book that can so completely redefine a person, but for me, The Introvert Advantage is absolutely it.

For more about Marti Olsen Laney, go here.