Why I Fight, J Adams Oaks

First, a word of disclosure. This particular Oaks is my husband’s second cousin. We think. We’re nearly certain about it, in fact. He could be a first cousin once removed. At the very least, I’ve definitely met him at a family reunion; at the time, his precise connection to my mother-in-law didn’t come up in conversation (which is surprising, given how much her family enjoys discussing genealogy). As the product of two only children, I have given the technicalities of cousin-hood very little thought, and the only reason I mention it is because I feel it’s important to highlight any hint of author bias I might have when discussing a book.

That being said, I suspect I’m a lot more biased about authors I’ve been reading for years than I am about one who is, at best, tangentially “related” to me. Also, if you really wanted bias-free reviews, you would only have to read a small sampling of my posts to know you’re in the wrong place. I am nothing if not opinionated about books…

The funny thing is, I actually put off reading this one for a long time because I thought it was a biography. I have no idea where I got that idea. Sometimes at those reunions, I’m so exhausted by the end of the day, I only half-listen to the conversations around me; when that happens, I fill in the blanks with complete gibberish that I hopefully never get asked about. I’m about ninety percent certain that’s what happened here. The other ten percent is reserved for the possibility that another family member – one who hadn’t read the book but was trying to be encouraging – inadvertently gave me some false information. (My money’s on the gibberish theory, for the record.)

So, yes. I’m not a huge fan of biographies. I’ve only managed to read five or six in my entire life, and I was afraid that I would start J’s book and find that I couldn’t finish it. In my mind, that was the most disastrous thing I could do, because inevitably I would run into him again, and then how would I play it off? I can be exceptionally awkward when forced to lie, and what usually comes out instead is an ugly and blunt form of the truth. (You cannot even imagine the train wrecks I have endured when epically failing to lie.) In writing my character for Ten to One, however, I have started to do some research on bare knuckle boxing and the gambling that surrounds those fights. It occurred to me about a month ago that Why I Fight might be a great resource, so I girded myself and leapt in.

As it turns out, it is a great resource, but it’s not a biography. I managed about two years of avoidance for nothing! Instead, it was a fast-paced YA/MG novel that I suspect could have great appeal for young readers who are struggling to find an appealing book. I don’t often find stories like that, and I’m always incredibly excited to be able to recommend one.

Honestly, I can write a ten page list of books that are great for kids who love to read, but it’s much more difficult to narrow down the titles that can hold the attention of a child being forced to do it. I think one of our base desires is that we want other people to love the things we love; unfortunately, that just isn’t possible, and reading is often ruined for children (and adults) because those of us who are passionate about books have a hard time understanding where they’re coming from.

The thing is, I’ve met plenty of people who don’t like to read (for a variety of reasons), but I don’t recall ever meeting anyone who doesn’t like stories. Some people prefer to get them from video games or movies, in the news or at the water cooler. They may prefer an auditory experience, or they may find themselves transported more easily into another world when they can take part in shaping the narrative.

Personally, I like the privacy of the written word. I take great joy in soaking in the nuance of language, and I don’t have to struggle to create a world in my own head. Both nurture and nature were on my side there though. I never had to struggle to learn how to read, and I always had plenty of books available to me. My parents modeled a love of reading, and they encouraged me to read anything I wanted. I have such positive associations with books that it makes complete sense I would grow up to be a reader.

Every person in the world doesn’t have to be like me in order to enjoy the occasional great book though. The trouble is, for many non-readers, books have often been thrown at them haphazardly without a side note of “Hey! This is a great book, but let me know what you think – if it’s not your thing, we can keep looking.” Many school librarians have told me this is especially problematic in their line of work; once children start falling behind on reading comprehension, books become the enemy. The thing that breaks my heart is that they miss out on stories that could mean so much to them – books that probably won’t be assigned on any curriculum, but which capture a cathartic experience.

Why I Fight probably won’t end up on many summer reading lists, and that’s a shame because it’s a wonderful read. Its hero is passionate, and violent, and optimistic in his struggle against isolation and invisibility. It’s the kind of story I find myself wanting to give to kids who think there’s nothing for them in books.

We sat, and I watched Nana bow her head to pray for us. Then we ate, not talking, and I was happy for the quiet. Nobody in my family made any sense. Ma wore this gold cross on a chain but never went to church. Her and Fever and Spade all said their Jesuses and Christs like they was cusswords. And now, the first time anybody was talking God stuff, I was getting hollered at. Nothing was ever just said. It was either shouting or quiet. As I chewed, I got to thinking maybe I wasn’t really related to a single one of them. Only problem was we all had the same pasty white skin, leaf green eyes, and scraggly black hair. But how could I feel so different on my insides? I didn’t want to holler at anybody. I didn’t want to be hateful. I just wanted people to be happy, maybe smile sometimes, you know? And I didn’t want to be alone, like everybody else wanted to be. I was so scared of being left on my own, but right then, feeling so peeved and confused, I just kept staring at the kitchen window, picturing busting out, running as fast and as far as I could. (p 24)


For more about J Adams Oaks, go here.

Mandy, Julie Edwards

Three things you should know about this book before continuing: 

1. Julie Edwards, author of Mandy, is actually Julie Andrews, the beautiful snowflake I have adored ever since I first watched The Sound of Music; I was probably three of four years old. My love for her has never waned. Interestingly enough, I didn’t realize they were one and the same until today, when I glanced at the back cover of the book. 

2. In the first few weeks of my freshman year of college, I met a new friend who remains, to this day, the only other person I’ve ever known to have read this book. Incidentally, she also loved it and we were inseparable for a long time after that discovery.

and 3. If you have ever read this book and felt anything but blissful adoration for it, I don’t want to hear about it. I would like to live out the rest of my life believing that the only people who have ever read it loved it as much as I do. 

I will admit that reading it as an adult was a different experience. I remembered the story quite well (an orphan girl discovers an abandoned cottage in the forest and restores the little house and gardens herself), but I had forgotten how slight a book it is. It’s certainly not the subtlest story, even when taking into account the audience it was written for (elementary aged-children) – not that I expected it to be – but in my mind, it had taken on a legendary quality. Before I reread it, I could recall no flaws. It was iconic and beloved, and I would throw down with anyone claiming otherwise.

Now that I’ve read it more recently, I will probably leave the gauntlet untossed. I can say with certainty that this is not an “everybody ” book. It’s a lovely story for a young reader, and it’s a book that let me live out a lot of important ideas around loneliness and self-reliance when I was a child; I will always cherish it for that reason.

We all have stories like this – the ones that found us when we needed them most. I have different books for different stages of my life, and as I’ve gotten older, I would like to think the quality of my choices has improved, but when it comes right down to it, it doesn’t really matter. Special books are not always brilliant. Brilliant books are not always special. The book that made a difference to me might be, like this, one  you’ve never heard of. You may sleep with a copy of a book I hate by your bed every night. That’s fine. It just serves to illustrate the beauty of having, essentially, an infinite number of books in existence.

We’re all allowed to have our favorites, our guilty pleasures, our cathartic cries. We’re allowed to love badly written books alongside classics. We’re even allowed to love books that no one else cares about, and to get a little choked up when we open the cover and see our names, badly written (and possibly…uh…misspelled) carefully printed in blue ballpoint pen…

The Borrowers, Mary Norton

Whenever I head “home” to visit my family, I always find myself sucked into their bookshelves. It’s not that I don’t bring my own books to read (during one memorable visit, I read eight Sookie Stackhouse novels on the sly); it’s that every room in my parents’ house is filled with books refusing to be ignored.

The rooms my brother and I used to call our own? Now, an office and a guest room, both lined with shelves fairly trembling under the weight of what I like to call “hobby” books, but are in actuality my parents’ professional tools (in my mother’s case, theology and grassroots politics, in my father’s, theatre, music, and biographies). In the upstairs hallway, the shelves are mostly  poetry, plays, and extremely well-loved children’s books. In the living room, it’s the classics and beautifully crafted research books, while the sun porch is overflow for a hodgepodge of left-overs. Even the dining room has become home to my old childhood bookcase, filled, at Christmas time, with our most beloved holiday books, and the rest of the year, with my dad’s massive Shakespeare collection.

It’s impossible not to get distracted in a house like that. I also find that while I don’t have a lot of free time while I’m here, I do have many pockets of fifteen-minute windows when I’m just…waiting. Inevitably, over the course of my stay, I pull out a book or three in every room of the house, and when I find myself stranded with too little time to do anything useful and too much to just stare blankly out the window, I’ll pick one of them up.

This week, I’ve been mostly pawing through old books from my childhood. There is just something so dear about the worn covers and the places where I folded pages down or spilled (yes, I am terrible to books). The first one I pulled out after I arrived was The Borrowers. I must have read this fifteen times when I was a kid (although somehow, I never realized it had sequels – go figure), and last summer, I went to see the Miyazaki film based on it (The Secret World of Arrietty) which tickled my desire to reread it when next I had the chance.

Having done so, I can say with greater confidence that, although I adore Miyazaki’s work, the movie is not as enjoyable as the book. One thing I did notice coming back to the text was that the pacing for both was surprisingly similar; when I was at the theatre, I felt like it was dragging a bit, but when I pulled out the novel, I realized it’s just one of those stories from another era of children’s fiction. The pace is slower, and the setting is lavished upon. It actually makes for a beautiful adaptation to a visual art form, but the story didn’t translate quite as well (or perhaps that had something to do with it going from British book to Japanese script to American script – something may have been lost in this game of Telephone).

The story embraced me immediately. It brought me back to this warm, happy ball of childhood when a house had so much potential for mystery and exploration. The Borrowers were as real as could be to me again, at least for a few minutes (at which point, the reality of setting the table and checking on dinner returned).

It was a charming fireplace, made by Arrietty’s grandfather, with a cogwheel from the stables, part of an old ciderpress. The spokes of the cogwheel stood out in starry rays, and the fire itself nestled in the center. Above there was a chimney-piece made from a small brass funnel, inverted. This, at one time, belonged to an oil lamp which matched it, and which stood, in the old days, on the hall table upstairs. An arrangement of pipes, from the spout of the funnel, carried fumes into the kitchen flues above. The fire was laid with matchsticks and fed with assorted slack and, as it burned up, the iron would become hot, and Homily would simmer soup on the spokes in a silver thimble, and Arrietty would broil nuts. How cozy those winter evenings could be. Arrietty, her great book on her knees, sometimes read aloud; Pod at his last (he was a shoemaker, and made button-boots out of kid gloves – now, alas, only for his family); and Homily, quiet at last, with her knitting. (pg 20)

There is a quality to books like this that inspire so much ingenuity. As a child, I would read the descriptions of the Borrowers’ home with rapt fascination. When I finished, I would try to build houses like theirs myself (ostensibly for my dolls, but since I didn’t care much for the dolls themselves, they were almost permanently boxed while I constructed). This was less about the plot to me than about the world that could be created. I was fascinated by the repurposing of materials to create something special – a skill that came in handy when I taught preschool and had a limited budget.

As much as I love books that are being written for young people now, I can’t help but be a little nostalgic for the novels of my youth (which were, incidentally, of my parents’ youth as well). They might not have been the most riveting adventures, but they straddled the line between reality and make-believe in a way I find utterly charming and nearly impossible to reproduce.

City of Bones (part the second), Cassandra Clare

This isn’t going to be a completely spoiler-filled post, but as a person who hates to be ruined for a book  I haven’t read, I feel obliged to warn you that it crosses into spoiler territory. I won’t tell you what happens (past a few plot points in the first two or three chapters), but I do want to talk about some of the emotional choices made by the protagonist, and if that will ruin a book you potentially want to read, stop here.

* * *

If you’re still with me, I’m going to assume you’ve read the book/don’t mind spoilers/don’t plan to read it, and I’ll dive right in to what I see as the greatest disappointment to an otherwise enjoyable fantasy adventure. The protagonist, Clary Fray, is a fifteen year old girl and the daughter of a widow. At the beginning of the book, it is well-established that she has a tempestuous relationship with her mother. The exchanges we see between them are limited to heated arguments and misunderstandings – a relatively believable situation that I’m sure many people can relate to. Within the first few chapters, Clary’s mother disappears under violent circumstances, and the rest of the plot is put into motion. Clary, unsure whether he mother is even still alive, is determined to rescue her.

With what resources would a fifteen year old girl go about this? This is an urban fantasy, so we know the police will not be involved (not when they would immediately contact social services and remove Clary from any further investigation). No, Clary – with absolutely no information besides a panicked phone call from her mother, disconnected moments after she tells her daughter to stay away from their apartment at all costs; a second call to the closest thing she has to a father figure, who tells her to never to contact him again; and the appearance of a beautiful, seemingly magical (and broodingly handsome) boy she met one night earlier – decides she’s going to find her (potentially alive but certainly in terrible danger) mother herself.

I actually wouldn’t have a problem with this if it weren’t for what followed. I have no difficulty suspending my disbelief in the possibility of a teenager succeeding whether countless other adults with more experience have failed (and died). I was raised on a steady diet of books just like this with protagonists even younger, facing even greater odd. It’s exhilarating to tout the talents of young people – their ingenuity, bravery, and occasional ignorance of the shades of grey existing between moral absolutes. Books like that inspire hope and batter at the idea that children are less capable, when really, it is only that they have less experience to temper their natural abilities.

The problem for me is not the idea of a girl with zero resources facing down a brutal villain in a world she barely understands; it’s not even that Clary is distracted by her position in a love triangle (oh, if only I had a nickel for every love triangle I – or anyone I knew – faced at fifteen…I would have, maybe, seven cents…). Those are both standard for the genre. No, the two things I find unbelievable are 1. how little consideration any plan of attack is given (by all means, token adult, allow these teenagers to throw themselves into incredibly dangerous situations without the slightest protest or backup plan) and 2. how very little time is given to the relationship between Clary and her mother after the disappearance.

The first point annoys me, but knowing how brilliantly sneaky real teenagers are at getting away with far less dangerous plans they have their hearts set on, I can cut the plot a little slack. I would like to believe that the gorgeous but also well-trained man-child Clary meets in the first chapter would have spent some time studying strategy during his life-long tutoring to become a demon-hunter, but, you know, hormones, or something. The guys I knew at fifteen, well, they were incredibly smart, but they often seemed clueless about manipulation and planning. Only those on the extreme ends of the spectrum (uber-geeks and jocks) spent much time considering strategy on any level. My female friends, on the other hand, strategized about everything; often, it felt like living inside a critical game Risk. So sure, I can buy that Jace would barrel headlong into dire situations, and perhaps that Clary would follow him in that embarrassing way that most of us, regardless of gender, can remember doing from time to time when feeling both smitten and emotionally vulnerable. I get it. I don’t love it, but I understand.

The element I cannot reconcile, however, is the relationship (or lack thereof) between Clary and her mother, Jocelyn. They fight, sure. We are made to understand the Clary feels intimidated by her mother’s beauty and talent, and that they maintain a relatively distant relationship with each other. We never learn enough about Jocelyn from her own perspective to understand this, and Clary’s feelings are so scattered that it’s impossible to get a solid read on their history from her.

Surprisingly, I don’t doubt that she loves her mother, despite their difficult relationship, but I never get the feeling that she needs her. Clary spends a few sentences worth of time right after the disappearance crying over it, and then we never get another moment of genuine grief or acknowledgement about what it would mean for her if her mother was dead. We see some anger, and we see her steadfastly pushing forward to find Jocelyn, but it mostly feels robotic. Clary’s more energized by the pain inflicted on the boy she’s known for a week than she is by what has happened to the woman who raised her.

Even that could be legitimate if I were certain Clary and Jocelyn had only a cursory relationship with each other, but that’s never made clear. Honestly, I know people who hate their mothers who still would be deeply affected by a situation like this, if only because, regardless of the relationship, the bond between parent and child has a tremendous capacity for both joy and pain. The rarest thing to evolve in a family is true indifference. Indifference masking disappointment, frustration, abuse or abandonment? Certainly. But complete apathy? It may happen, but I personally haven’t witnessed it. And regardless of the potential for indifference, that isn’t what’s insinuated in the book. The author wants us to believe that Clary and her mother are…something to each other. Maybe she doesn’t even know what they’re meant to be or what their history is, and as a result, as a reader, I got increasingly frustrated.

If it were my mother, who admittedly, I’m very close to, who had gone missing and was potentially dead, the rage, despair, and fear I felt would eclipse everything else. If I had moments of relief or rest, they would be followed closely by unbearable anguish. I would be thinking of heroics, revenge, and my own future, in that order. If a cute boy happened to appear to help me, great. Maybe after we saved my mother, I would have time to appreciate that fact. Maybe, in a moment of terrible loneliness, I would even choose to bury the pain and (given age-appropriate conditions) make out with said boy; after which, I would feel incredibly guilty that I had allowed myself to do such a thing when my mother was in mortal danger.

There is just so much potential for angst and savior complexes here, and it goes completely unmined! This kind of story was made for character-building agony! I don’t understand how a writer who came up through the ranks of fan fiction could possibly miss the opportunity to torture her characters. There’s no doubt in my mind that the resolution would be much more satisfying if Clary had suffered more along the way. Clare sets up an interesting premise, and she creates a vivid world for her characters to play in, but ultimately, I needed her to commit to the pain.

City of Bones (part the first), Cassandra Clare

I never do this, but I have to admit I picked up City of Bones because there’s a movie version being released at the end of August and my friend wants us to go see it. We’ve gone to see a handful of films together that were inspired by books we’ve both enjoyed, and I look forward to seeing this one with her. I already know it will involve about three pounds of candy and one of those tubs of popcorn that could be shared comfortably with eight; we will undoubtedly leave the theatre shaky and slightly sick, and it will be marvelous.

However. First things first. I refuse to go to such a movie without first reading the source material. It just bothers me. Maybe film geeks can do it, but my heart belongs to the written word, and I could never skip this integral step. I have to create my own version of the characters before Hollywood comes along and superimposes its ideas over mine.

That being said, I’m about halfway through the book and it actually feels like it was tailor-made to become a movie. I know this series has been around for a while (since 2007, according to Wikipedia), and I also know it’s massively popular, especially with its targeted young adult audience, but so far, it’s not hitting quite the right buttons for me.

I find this particularly surprising because by all accounts, it should fit right into my guilty pleasure niche (YA urban fantasy). The biggest challenge I’m having (and perhaps this is because I’d already seen a  trailer for the movie before I started reading the book) is that the descriptive prose feels custom-made for adaptation. The plot is engaging, and I enjoy the characters, but it lacks the depth I was expecting (and which I often find in this genre). I keep wondering if Clare’s goal all along was to have this brought to the screen, and if so, she’s done an excellent job. This book was made to be seen rather than read. The setting is lush, the costumes highly visual, and the story, while interesting, is simple enough to be highly translatable to that medium.

Of course, this is also her first novel, and I’m willing to give a lot of leeway for firsts. Also, I’m a member in good standing of the “any book that gets kids to read” club. If City of Bones appeals to young readers (it does, and I completely understand why, even at the halfway point), then it’s okay with me that it isn’t perfect. I read so many books as a child and teenager (and let’s be honest, adult) that I wouldn’t even want to admit to; I completely understand the appeal of a book that’s imperfect but also compelling.

I’m curious to see where she goes from the point I’m at, and whether she’ll be able to create a scenario where I feel compelled to pick up the next book (before the inevitable second movie, that is). I hope she manages it because a part of me would really like to see how her writing evolves. She has to earn it though. The never-ending siege of books to be read is poised to push me away from the series if it doesn’t up its game in the next two hundred or so pages…


For more about Cassandra Clare, head here.

Forgetfulness, Billy Collins (But mostly, I want to hear from you)


The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

This has been a strange week in terms of posts. I don’t want to completely deprive you of beautiful writing today, but I also need a fair amount of space for the following information, so luxuriate in Billy Collins for a few more minutes, and when you’re done, move on to the topic below.

* * *

For the last year, I’ve been getting a number of requests from authors to read and review books, both self- and traditionally published. My response when I manage to write back (and yes, I know I have an embarrassingly poor track record returning emails of this nature) is that I’m not accepting requests  at this time. The bottom line is that I simply don’t have time to read every book sent to me, and I don’t want to make false promises when it comes to something so important – and for every author who contacts me, I recognize that it’s of critical importance to reach a wider audience.

Creating art and sharing it with the world is a vulnerable, difficult task. It takes courage and perseverance, and artists face a lot of rejection in the process. One of the reasons I choose not to send a canned response to the people asking for my help is that I hate being another No. While I can’t change my policy about accepting unsolicited books to review (and due to other commitments on my time, I really can’t), I would like to give authors the opportunity to signal boost their books here from time to time. Since I’m going on vacation and helping a friend move at the end of July, I decided that might be a good time to give this a try. If it goes well, I’ll do it again in six months; if it doesn’t, well, at least we tried.

If you’re interested in participating, please read the guidelines below. If you want to take part in this experiment, you must follow these directions. I used to teach preschool, and my least favorite job (in a line of work that included projectile vomiting and children coughing directly into my mouth) was sending reminders or being forced to make exceptions for parents who couldn’t follow instructions. It made me rageful. I don’t enjoy that feeling, so I’ll be completely honest – if you don’t follow the guidelines, your book won’t be included. I realize it sounds harsh, but I don’t have infinite hours to spend correcting other people’s work. If I’d wanted to do that, I would have stayed in teaching. That being said, I know you can do this – I have faith in you!

Still with me? Read on:

1. You must be the author of the book you’re submitting. Additionally, it must be within your power to provide me with the information I’ll be asking for below without fear of copyright infringement.

2. The book must have a publication date between April and December 2013.

3. You must send the information requested below to booksjadore@gmail.com by 5pm (17:00) Pacific Daylight Time SUNDAY, JULY 14.

4. In your email, please include:

– The TITLE and GENRE of the book

– The PUBLICATION DATE of the book (if it is being published traditionally, please include the PUBLISHER as well)

– A THREE SENTENCE SUMMARY of the book (no vulgar language or grammatical errors please)

– Additionally, you are welcome (but not required) to send an image of the book cover if you have one. I also strongly recommend that you include a link if you have a website with more information about your book.

To be clear, what should be included in your email is asked for above. I don’t need a cover letter,  resume, or excerpt of the book. Also, do me a favor and skip the formatting craziness (for example, please don’t capitalize entire words the way I have above). As my biology teacher once told me, “I don’t give extra points for glitter.” (This was just after I handed in a gigantic poster diagramming my assigned cell – it happened to be sperm – decorated with six different colors of sparkly puff paint.)

If you have any questions, please ask them in the Comments so that the answers may be referenced by others as needed. I look forward to sharing your books at the end of the month!

Bonus Tuesday post!

I try not to inundate you with non-book review news here at Books j’adore. I realize it can get tedious to be bombarded by requests to sponsor, share, and vote for people online, and I enjoy knowing that so many readers come here twice a week to get a book fix without having to look at ads or buy anything. I love writing for you, and I love hearing from literary nerds all over the world.

Ten To One Image squashedThat being said, I don’t get paid or compensated for this in any way. To make a living, I have a slew of  other writing gigs I mostly don’t talk about here (unless I’m under deadline and it affects how much I get to read). At the moment though, voting has just started for a collaborative novel I’ve been working on and it would mean so much to me if you would lend me (and the project) some (non-financial) support.

Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up. (Five points if you can guess that movie reference.) In February, I followed a lead for a project run by Iain Grant (co-author of a wonderful book I reviewed called Clovenhoof and editor at Pigeon Park Press). The idea for the novel, entitled Ten to One, was that the book would open with ten writers, each with his or her own character. After every chapter concluded, the text would be posted, voted on, and the character with the fewest votes would be written out in the following chapter.

The audition process that followed the acceptance of my resume was grueling, but also incredibly exhilarating. Of course, it didn’t help that my computer died halfway through the process and I was frantically writing scenes, character sketches, and story arcs on my phone, but even so, I was desperate to get in. I have never wanted a job so badly in my life, and when I found out I had secured one of the ten spots over Memorial Day weekend, I flipped out. Since then, the ten of us (seven writers in England, two in the US, and one in Brazil) have been shaping the first chapter (yes, we already have a much larger outline for the rest of the book, but it takes a remarkable amount of dialogue to come to a consensus about each step along the way) and writing our scenes for Chapter 1.

That first chapter is now up for voting (most easily through Facebook here, but I believe also through the newsletter, which you can sign up for here). It would be wonderful if you took the poll (and although I love the other writers on this project, I have to say) to vote for me. If you go to either of those links, you can, and hopefully will, read all the sections of the chapter. The book is going to be so much fun. Oh, and just a head’s up – it’s a little salty; a few characters, like mine, use rough language, and there is some violence, although nothing too graphic. If you read all the pieces and decide to vote for another character, I won’t hold it against you (much). I’m having a blast working with these guys, and I’m happy to report that every writer will continue to be a part of the editing team even after they’ve been voted off.

Here’s what I’ll say about it before I go back to writing about books for you. Ten to One is a job, but it also feels like an amazing class where my brain is constantly exploding with exciting new knowledge, and as a bonus, I get paid to do it. I desperately want to move on to the next round and continue being a part of this incredible experience. Your votes will help me do that and will be greatly appreciated.

Thank you so much for being a part of this crazy journey with me.

EDIT: If you want to vote for me, pick NELL in the polls (section 1.2). I realized that might be a piece of crucial information I left out there…

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (part the second), Jonas Jonasson

I finished this book last week just before heading out for the holiday weekend, and I have been wracking my brain for something brilliant to add to my post from the 1st. Usually, when I finish a book, I feel differently about it than I did partway through, or I’ve had some revelation either for or against it. I’ve waited eagerly for five days, and nothing has come to me.

The only thing I know for certain that I didn’t a week ago is that I’m going to give this book to my brother when I see him at the end of the month. I think he’ll enjoy both Jonasson’s subtle humor and the fact that more than half the book is political historical fiction. I’m guessing he already knows more about the actual events related in the novel than I did (for example! I learned how North and South Korea were created! Ditto on East and West Germany! Also, how President Roosevelt died!). He’s always been the kind of political junkie who bothers to find out how current events are connected in the past (wow – just typing that made me simultaneously yawn and feel guilty for my own ignorance).

Also, the protagonist, 100-year-old Allan Karlsson, reminds me of my father’s father. Even though he lived until I was twenty, I never felt like I understood him very well. He was quiet and patient and diligent (three words that have only ever been applied to my person by those who don’t know me well). He’s in the background of so many memories from my childhood – meticulously tending his lawn, making sure the badminton net was set up when we came to visit, caring for the dog – and in all those years, I can’t think of a single time when he was unpleasant. He never raised his voice; instead, when he was annoyed, he would throw us a wink and with a secret smile, simply disappear for the next few hours.

My brother adored him. I suspect he loved that there was one person in our family he could spend time with who wouldn’t demand conversation. When the two of them were together, they could work in silence with perfect contentment. After reading The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, I can actually comprehend the benefit of that. I also better understand the value of being the type of person who relaxes in the face antagonism, who shrugs off the decrees of others and goes right on doing what needs to be done anyway.

Of course, that will never be me. I will forever take after my stubborn, loud-mouthed, arrives everywhere 30 minutes early grandfather. I’m much more like the people who come into Karlsson’s life and are constantly teased for their brash idiocy. Fortunately, the world needs all sorts of people in order to tell its stories…

Now, on a somewhat unrelated note, I had already decided I wanted to share the (rather long) passage below, and I’m still going to even though it doesn’t have anything to do with what I’ve ended up discussing. It’s a lovely example of Jonasson’s work and a better indicator than I am for whether you’ll enjoy his novel as much as I have.

To provide a bit of context, this story is told, not by Allan, but by a new acquaintance of his over dinner with friends. Bosse is sharing the history behind his possession of several pallets worth of “damaged” Bibles, and how he had ended up reading one of the copies from cover to cover in order to find a single misprint:

Then one evening he reached the last chapter, and then the last page, the last verse.
And there it was! That unforgivable and unfathomable misprint that had caused the owner of the books to order them to be pulped.

Now Bosse handed a copy to each of them sitting round the table, and they thumbed through to the very last verse, and one by one burst out laughing.

Bosse was happy enough to find the misprint. He had no interest in finding out how it got there. He had satisfied his curiosity, and in the process had read his first book since his schooldays, and even got a bit religious while he was at it. Not that Bosse allowed God to have any opinion about Bellringer Farm’s business enterprise, nor did he allow the Lord to be present when he filed his tax return, but – in other respects – Bosse now placed his life in the hands of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And surely none of them would worry about the fact that he set up his stall at markets on Saturdays and sold bibles with a tiny misprint in them? (‘Only ninety-nine crowns each! Jesus! What a bargain!’) 

But if Bosse had cared, and if, against all odds, he had managed to get to the bottom of it, then after what he had told his friends, he would have continued:

A typesetter in a Rotterdam suburb had been through a personal crisis. Several years earlier, he had been recruited by Jehovah’s Witnesses but they had thrown him out when he discovered, and questioned rather too loudly, the fact that the congregation had predicted the return of Jesus on no less than fourteen occasions between 1799 and 1980 – and sensationally managed to get it wrong all fourteen times.

Upon which, the typesetter had joined the Pentecostal Church; he liked their teachings about the Last Judgment, he could embrace the idea of God’s final victory over evil, the return of Jesus (without their actually naming a date) and how most of the people from the typesetter’s childhood, including his own father, would burn in hell.

But this new congregation sent him packing too. A whole month’s collections had gone astray while in the care of the typesetter. He had sworn by all that was holy that the disappearance had nothing to do with him. Besides, shouldn’t Christians forgive? And what choice did he have when his car broke down and he needed a new one to keep his job? 

As bitter as bile, the typesetter started the layout for that day’s jobs, which ironically happened to consist of printing two thousand bibles! And besides, it was an order from Sweden where as far as the typesetter knew, his father still lived after having abandoned his family when the typesetter was six years old.

With tears in his eyes, the typesetter set the text of chapter upon chapter. When he came to the very last chapter – the Book of Revelation – he just lost it. How could Jesus ever want to come back to Earth? Here where Evil had once and for all conquered Good, so what was the point of anything? And the Bible… It was just a joke! 

So it came about that the typesetter with the shattered nerves made a little addition to the very last verse in the very last chapter in the Swedish bible that was just about to be printed. The typesetter didn’t remember much of his father’s tongue, but he could at least recall a nursery rhyme that was well suited in the context. Thus the bible’s last two verses, plus the typesetter’s extra verse, were printed as: 

20. He who testifies to these things says, Surely I am coming quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus! 21. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen. 22. And they all lived happily ever after. (p 198)


For more about Jonas Jonasson, his site is here.

Happy 4th of July!

I took these pictures in October when I was visiting a friend in Sydney. On a weekly basis, they had some of the best fireworks displays I have ever seen, and I never got sick of watching them explode above me while I drank extremely overpriced cocktails (way to give NY and LA a run for its money in that department, Sydney!).
Sydney, Australia Oct 2012


IMG_6862The 4th of July has long been my favorite holiday, not because I’m particularly patriotic, although I’m grateful for certain freedoms I have as an American (and I believe in fighting for the inalienable rights all citizens should have, which in my mind, is as patriotic as it gets), but because the day requires no gifts or special planning. Invite some friends to bring food to throw on the grill, eat s’mores (or my dad’s favorite “dessert” – strawberries and blueberries with whipped cream – to which I say, no chocolate, no dice), and watch kids try not to blow off a hand or start a forest fire while lighting illegal fireworks. I don’t have to dress up or remember to call anybody…in fact, the biggest decision I plan to make today is whether to walk to the fireworks or risk the hell of holiday parking.

I’ll be back on Monday – try not to get into too much trouble while I’m gone!


The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (part the first), Jonas Jonasson

I started reading this book last week during my mother’s visit, and I was probably thirty-five pages in when I stopped and asked her if she read a lot of Swedish authors. She told me she hadn’t (and claimed it wasn’t at all because she was Norwegian); she wondered why I had asked such a question, and I said I was having a little trouble getting into Jonasson’s book. I felt, I told her, the same way I did when I tried to read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – everyone told me it was great, but I couldn’t get further than the first sixty pages. The style was just so…reserved.

I was struggling with the same issue when it came to this book. I liked the protagonist well enough that I was going to plow onward, but it made me wonder if these two books were a reflection of a larger element of modern Swedish literature. Was it common to feel removed from both the action and the characters in an almost clinical way?  My mother considered  this for a moment and then said, “Do you remember the joke your grandmother used to tell? ‘How can you tell an extroverted Swede? When he shakes your hand, he’s looking at your shoes rather than his own.'” I remembered. “Well,” she waved her hand, “there you go then.”

I had to think about that. We happened to be at a red light at the time, and my mother had plenty more to say about my question, including the pearls of wisdom, “maybe you should do some research,” but let’s be honest – no. It’s 150 thousand degrees here. I’m still wearing sleep shorts at eleven o’clock every morning. There will be no research. It’s too hot for me to spend an afternoon trying to decide how legitimate articles I find on the internet might be.

I did go to the trouble of asking three friends from Sweden whether they thought this was a trend or just a coincidence, but apparently, none of them read. Well, they read, but they mostly read fiction in Swedish, which sparked another topic of interest – is it possible that the translation to English could have so altered the style of the original text? Is it particularly difficult to translate certain idioms or cultural norms from one language to another? I’ve read plenty of books translated from French, Spanish, and Portuguese, and they seem emotionally compatible with what I expect from many American writers (although writers from other English-speaking countries don’t always resonate in quite the same way for me).

When I’ve read Russian writers, I’ve also been told there is some flattening of what the original text says. In college, I took a course on Russian fiction, and the star of the class was an exceptionally annoying – and insightful – student from Moscow who took over each and every class to lecture us about the problems with the translations we were reading. I sort of enjoyed the text myself, but I could understand where she was coming from – we were reading things into the stories that were not there (and missing things that were) because of the translation. By the end of semester, I felt like I was beginning to recognize some of the subtleties found in the best translations, but many of the writers still sounded oddly similar.

I imagine this is what happens when English books are translated around the world as well. The nuance of the language and the author’s intent are obscured by cultural concepts we can’t even find the words for. Possibly, translators who are intimately familiar with more than one language and culture eventually stop noticing the massive gulf  between them, and we end up with books translated accurately, and even beautifully, but without an eye to the exquisite detail – that essence connecting the human experience.

Despite that, I’m glad I’ve held on with this book because 150 pages in, I don’t mind its unfamiliar grasp. The story is absolutely compelling (enough so that I ignored Game Night to keep reading), and Jonasson’s sense of humor appeals to my Scandinavian sensibilities (“as opposed to,” my mother says, “your Italian melodrama roots?” Yes. As opposed to them.) Now if I could just fill the bathtub with ice, I’d have the perfect place to finish this unintentional foray into linguistics…


For more about Jonas Jonasson, go here.