Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 Reading Recap

999 Challenge:
Read 9 books in each of 9 categories during 2009

Done! (And I’m definitely done with this volume of reading!)

My list follows, including ratings. Click the link to read my review. Click the book’s image (most are included at the end of this post) to peruse it on Amazon. Brief comments about every book can be found on my Challenge thread at LibraryThing.

•Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman (****) (See review)
•Direct Red by Gabriel Weston (****) (See review)
•Homer's Odyssey by Gwen Cooper (****) (See review)
•Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (*****)
•Lucky Girl by Mei-Ling Hopgood (***) See review)
•Spiced by Dalia Jurgensen (***) (See review)
•Stitches by David Small (*****)
•The Lives Our Mothers Leave Us by Patti Davis (****) (See review)
•The Mighty Queens of Freeville by Amy Dickinson (***) (See review)

•Child of My Heart by Alice McDermott (****)
•Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (****) (See review)
•Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (*****) (See review)
•Ravens by George Dawes Green (****) (See review)
•Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead (****)
•The Girl She Used to Be by David Cristofano (****) (See review)
•The Long Fall by Walter Mosley (***) (See review)
•The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister (*****) (See review)
•The Visibles by Sara Shepard (***) (See review)

Reading Globally
•84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (****)
•A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve (****) (See review)
•Coraline by Neil Gaiman (***)
•Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery (***) (See review)
•Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea (****) (See review)
•Off the Tourist Trail ed. by Dorling Kindersley (*****) (See review)
•Small Kingdoms by Anastasia Hobbet (****) (See review)
•The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan (****) (See review)
•The Spare Room by Helen Garner (*****) (See review)

Banned/Challenged/Taboo-Topic Books
•And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell (*****) (See review)
•Cut by Patricia McCormick (****)
•Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation by Olivia Judson (*****) (See review)
•Guys are Waffles, Girls are Spaghetti by Chad Eastham (***) (See review)
•My Little Red Book ed. by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff (****) (See review)
•The Blue Notebook by James Levine (****) (See review)
•The Call of the Wild by Jack London (****)
•The Color Purple by Alice Walker (****)
•The Last Bridge by Teri Coyne (****) (See review)

Laughing Out Loud
•Border Songs by Jim Lynch (*****) (See review)
•I Did It His Way by Johnny Hart (****) (See review)
•Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen (***) (See review)
•New Tricks by David Rosenfelt (***) (See review)
•Notes From the Underwire by Quinn Cummings (*****) (See review)
•On the Money: The Economy in Cartoons ed. by Robert Mankoff (*****) (See review)
•Really, You've Done Enough by Sarah Walker (***) (See review)
•The Family Man by Elinor Lipman (****) (See review)
•The McSweeney's Joke Book of Book Jokes (*****) (See review)

Looooong Books
•A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith Rakoff (***) (See review)
•American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld (****)
•Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (*****) (See review)
•Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (*****)
•Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (***)
•Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (*****)
•Something Happened by Joseph Heller (****) (See review)
•The Help by Kathryn Stockett (*****) (See review)
•Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann (****)

Artist Dates
•ABC3D by Marion Bataille (****)
•Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics by Ina Garten (*****)
•Bellevue Literary Review (Fall 2009) ed. by Danielle Ofri (****)
•Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal (*****) (See review)
•Fodor's Italy 2009 (*****) (See review)
•Lonely Planet Bluelist 2008 (****) (See review)
•Martha Stewart's Cupcakes ed. by Martha Stewart Living (****)
•Momofuku by David Chang (*****) (See review)
•The Other Side by Istvan Banyai (***) (See review)

•Conquering Fear by Harold Kushner (****) (See review)
•Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer (****) (See review)
•How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman (****)
•In Cheap We Trust by Lauren Weber (*****) (See review)
•Listening to Prozac by Peter D. Kramer (****)
•Methland by Nick Reding (****) (See review)
•Summer World by Bernd Heinrich (****) (See review)
•The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra (***)
•You Were Always Mom's Favorite! by Deborah Tannen (***) (See review)

Wild Card
•Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville (***) (See review)
•Bird in Hand by Christina Baker Kline (***) (See review)
•Change the World for Ten Bucks: Small Actions x Lots of People = Big Change (**) (See review)
•Freaky Monday by Mary Rodgers and Heather Hach (***) (See review)
•How Not to Look Old by Charla Krupp (***)
•Sink Reflections by Marla Cilley (****)
•The Miles Between by Mary Pearson (****) (See review)
•The Truth About Middle Managers by Paul Osterman (**) (See review)
•When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (****) (See review)

Notable Off-Challenge Reads
•Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals by Christopher Payne (*****) (See review)
•Drive by Daniel Pink (****) (See review)
•Love, Loss, and What I Wore by Ilene Beckerman (****)
•Thin Places by Mary DeMuth (****) (See review)

*My 2009 Top 10* (in alphabetical order)
Border Songs by Jim Lynch
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Stitches by David Small
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
The McSweeney's Joke Book of Book Jokes ed. by McSweeney’s
The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

Next Post: 2010 Reading Preview
Soon-ish Post: What I Learned While Reading in 2009

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Six-Word Resolutions

From the Leonard Lopate Show and Smith Magazine (the group behind the books of six-word memoirs) came a segment about six-word resolutions. Before I was even five minutes into the 35-minute podcast (audio here), and before I’d thought about my own resolutions, I heard one that stuck:

This year, I’m only saying yes. (quin browne)
It’s like in good improvisation, where the actors always say Yes to one another. Not a literal Yes of dialogue or action, but a creative Yes -- an agreement to openness, to be in the moment; that whatever is offered from one is accepted, responded to, built upon by the other. Yes moves improvisation forward; resistance kills it.

It reminds me of a quote on my refrigerator:

Accept what people offer. Drink their milkshakes. Take their love. (Wally Lamb)
Yes, thank you.

Yes, let’s veer off our practiced scripts and improvise life a little in 2010.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Recently, the final step in an online form required me to type the answer to this Captcha:

What is the first word in the phrase "gadux usu lihab cutagu ofuza"?
Feeling like I’d stumbled into an anagram from NPR’s Sunday Puzzle, I searched for an English word hidden amid the letters and spaces. When I was unsuccessful after a minute, I wondered if I was over-thinking the matter. Wasn’t a “word” simply one or more letters, grouped together?

I entered “gadux” and the website was happy.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Minute a Day

I'd felt creatively flat and had recently returned to the wellspring -- Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way and its twin practices of Morning Pages and Artist Dates. So I was interested to see that Cameron has sliced her material in a new and accessible way in The Artist's Way Every Day, a collection of daily excerpts about the creative process. Might there be magic in her tiny inspirations, ingested every day?

I opened the book to that day's entry, November 14:

So often in a creative career, the magic that is required is quite simply the courage to go on. Singers must sing their scales. Actors must learn their monologues. Writers like myself must spend time at the keys. We would like a break in the weather. We would like a break, period, but the breaks, if they come, will not come today. Today is about keeping on.

I marked that page to make it easy to find later, and I’ve marked half a dozen more pages since then. Highly recommended to inspire -- and ground :) -- anyone in creative pursuit.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

O! Canada

Curiosities noted during a recent visit to British Columbia:

(Left) Ye olde Gastown neighborhood of Vancouver, where the lamps are powered by ... CFLs!

(Right) Sharps (needles) disposal box in the ladies' room of Victoria's luxurious Empress Hotel ... a sign that self-injected therapies have expanded 'way beyond occasional insulin.

(Left) Self-explanatory from a church in Nanaimo -- and a concept I could get behind.

(Right) Again from Nanaimo, and I think I know what they mean.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Brush With Celebrity (Accommodations)

My husband's childhood home in Iowa was full-up with family over Thanksgiving, plus a cat I'm allergic to, so we checked into the tiny town's motel. At the registration desk, I noticed a framed photo of the owner and her family with Barack Obama. I knew he'd campaigned here before the 2008 primary -- last year, I'd walked past the main-street storefront that housed a fitness center and someone had pointed to the treadmill he'd worked out on -- but the overnight accommodations hadn't occurred to me.

I asked about the photo and my question launched her spiel. He'd stayed there. Room 200. His advance team had called about accommoda- tions, and after answering a few questions she'd said, "I don’t think you know how small we are, what kind of place this is." They said, "Oh, we know." In the end, they'd taken 18 rooms. The next morning, she'd made his breakfast herself. She's good with omelettes but he'd wanted three eggs, over medium. It took seven eggs before she'd managed three over medium.

My husband and I exchanged glances. “Is Room 200 available?”

Saturday, November 21, 2009

I Want That Book!

I'd just read about David Chang’s process of opening Ko -- which seats just 12 diners and is the third New York City restaurant featured in his terrific memoir/cookbook, Momofuku -- and had loved the following:

There are things we say in the kitchen, a codified lexicon, that explain some of the kitchen mentality at Ko. “Make it soigné” means make it right and make it perfect. [...] ... said with a slight tilt of the head or a leading tone, means take this thing and cook it right, cook it the best way you know how. Our dishes often evolve from having an amazing ingredient arrive in the kitchen and a cook “making it nice.”
I was still under the spell of it when I visited a book design blog and found echoes of making it nice on the small scale in Cecilia Sorochin’s post about her approach to book design:

As a boutique book design studio we craft each book carefully, dedicating the time that each book needs without rushing into random ideas.
And then I saw her walk the talk -- making something perfect from an amazing ingredient -- in a post about the layout and typography of an upcoming children’s poetry book.

I want that book!

Monday, November 16, 2009

30 Covers in 30 Days

I’m not participating in National Novel Writing Month this year, but what a treat to click on my blogroll and discover that Chris Papasadero from Fwis Cover Design is! -- in his own way. His variation: Design 30 book covers in 30 days, each based on a novel synopsis posted by a participating wrimo.

The goal here is to challenge myself like you writers; I believe the criteria for selecting whose book gets a cover designed by yours truly consists of a very elegant-and-complicated-but-totally-fair algorithm developed by the NaNoWriMo team. [...] I am going to be as experimental as I can with them for my own selfish artistic edification...
These covers are currently grouped together as the most recent entries on his blog (from the top down through the wrestlers on the cover of The Business). Click on a cover to read his notes and professional designers’ comments. (Talk about putting hastily created work under the bright lights!)

Or you can browse the 30 Covers, 30 Days forum at nanowrimo. See a list of links to the covers in the first post of this thread; then find links to each novel's synopsis and read wrimos’ comments in the individual thread devoted to each cover.

Like most participants, Chris is behind and trying to catch up … it’s a 30-day marathon after all, not necessarily 30 separate sprints :)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Something Worth Knowing More About

I know that terrific story seeds are right here, out in the open areas of daily life. And that for me the best ones -- in the premise of this blog -- are in the specifics, the fine details that resonate.

So I liked this passage from Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer's new nonfiction book about factory farming:

[Male layer chickens] serve no function.* Which is why all male layers -- half of all the layer chickens born in the United States, more than 250 million chicks a year -- are destroyed.

Destroyed? That seems like a word worth knowing more about.
I love when that happens! The world goes on ahead while a writer’s mind stays fixed on some detail. The skill is in noticing the fixation, and capturing it instead of running to catch up with the world.

* From Foer: “You probably thought that chickens were chickens. But
for the past half a century, there have actually been two kinds of chickens --
broilers and layers -- each with distinct genetics. [...] Layers make eggs. [...]
Broilers make flesh.” (Therefore: male layers serve no function.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Another Way to Go

From my pre-vacation post:

I’m dreading the packing part -- the tediousness of choosing and preparing everything, the discouragement that I tend to pack heavy.
So what was my reaction when this guy swooped in and sat next to me at the airport gate?

Envy! And astonishment. And delight.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Vacation Reading

I’m planning a vacation and, as usual, I’m dreading the packing part -- the tediousness of choosing and preparing everything, the discouragement that I tend to pack heavy. Hate it...

...except in one area: vacation reading! There, I make multiple passes through the to-be-read books on my shelves and I frankly don’t care if I pack twice as many books as I’ll read.

A dozen books remain in my 999 Challenge, five of which will probably make it into my suitcase:

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The Charm School by Nelson DeMille
The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

Of course, I’m still debating about a few more...

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Why Me Lord?

“Why are you picking me…” time after time as taxi driver to this disagreeable woman?!

Edited to add:
CHEERS to Steve Hartman for developing a terrific
narrative arc in this video!

JEERS to CBS for labeling it with a spoiler title :(

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Monday, August 31, 2009

What a Ride!

In my too-careful life, I’m sometimes drawn to a contrasting philosophy*:
Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, martini in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming, “Woohoo! what a ride!”
I don’t know when Senator Ted Kennedy embraced this philosophy -- maybe after his three brothers arrived at their graves with bodies hardly broken in much less used up -- but I liked Ted Jr.’s remarks along these lines at his father’s funeral last Saturday:
...Ted Kennedy the statesman, the master of the legislative process and bipartisan compromise, workhorse of the Senate, beacon of social justice and protector of the people [...] The storyteller, the lover of costume parties, a practical joker, the accomplished painter. He was a lover of everything French: cheese, wine, and women. He was a mountain climber, navigator, skipper, tactician, airplane pilot, rodeo rider, ski jumper, dog lover, and all around adventurer.
And I loved this line:
Our family vacations left us all injured and exhausted.
There’s so much life in a philosophy like that.

* author unknown; variously attributed on the Internet

Friday, August 21, 2009

David Sedaris, meet Quinn Cummings

I often write book reviews and link to them in a sidebar on the left here -- an individual link if the book is a new release, or bundled in the “See more reviews” if it’s been out awhile. But a new book written by someone who’s been in my Blogroll for my blog’s whole existence? -- that deserves a post!

I loved young Quinn Cummings in the '70s film, The Goodbye Girl, and now that we've grown closer in age (!) I devour her woman-next-door blog, The QC Report. So I'm thrilled with the release of her book of essays, Notes from the Underwire.

Outside, the cover’s image of a woohoo-ing woman on a runaway roller-coaster (pulled from Maidenform’s 1950-60s I Dreamed I … ad campaign*) is prophetic. Because inside, Cummings writes hilariously about her unruly roles as woman, mother, homeowner, pet rescuer … and a few essays about Hollywood. There are touching pieces, too -- when she’s 14 and her mother is diagnosed with lymphoma; when she’s 18 and the early days of AIDS have already claimed a quarter of the men in her neighborhood, prompting her to volunteer on a national support hotline.

Ah, I always want more! -- am glad I have a portion of her blog's archives still ahead of me.

* A little more about Maidenform’s campaign is available here.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Great Month for Ad-Men Fans!

I admit to still catching the occasional rerun of the ‘60s TV sitcom Bewitched, and to being happy that the late-‘80s drama thirtysomething is finally being released this month on DVD.

Combine those series into AMC-TV’s retro-‘60s drama, Mad Men, and you’ll find me over the moon at tomorrow night’s Season 3 premiere. For a full immersion, I’m going to add an ad agency-based book -- either Peter Mayle’s memoir-ish Up the Agency, or Joshua Ferris’s workplace satire, Then We Came to the End.

Friday, July 31, 2009


Via The Elegant Variation comes a referral to Curious Expeditions’ Librophiliac Love Letter. The page is graphics-intensive and loads slowly. But then, its “Compendium of Beautiful Libraries” rewards your patience one hundredfold.

(Left) One of my favorites: Real Gabinete Portugues De Leitura Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

(Right) The most intriguing: Hereford Cathedral Chained Library, Hereford, England

Monday, July 27, 2009

Some Fun Now

From the Foreword:
As she would say, "We had such fun!"
From the Introduction:
Those early years in France were among the best of my life. [...I...] had such fun that I hardly stopped moving long enough to catch my breath.
I wasn't even to the official first page of Julia Child's My Life in France yesterday before those and two more passages poured pure joy onto the page. "Joy" isn’t my dominant impression of Julia Child; "serious" fits better.

"Serious" describes me, too. So maybe it took all those references to fun to prepare me this morning for Jill and Kevin's wedding video (audio alert).

It'll either annoy you or bring you to tears. Me? Tears. (of joy!)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Making God Laugh

The joke goes: “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.”

Even if you’re The Pope?

Benedict XVI left on Monday for a two-week vacation in a chalet in the Italian Alps. He fell Thursday night and broke his wrist, and had surgery on Friday to repair it and apply a cast that he’ll wear for a month.

The biggest impact?
…giving up writing by hand, which he had planned to spend much of his time doing during his traditional summer vacation.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Boss by Any Other Name

Intrigued by workplaces, I tend to mine discussions and articles for nuggets that resonate, especially regarding generations or sites outside my own experience.

This, for example, from MSN/CareerBuilder's recent 10 Worst Work Habits:

Using your supervisor's first name […is] common in many industries.
Merely "common"?

The only time I've addressed a boss by anything other than a first name was as a teenage babysitter. (Now, bosses' bosses -- that's a different story and helps me to get into the mindset. Even when promoted to report to a former boss's boss, changing the reference was like growing into adulthood and trying to call my parents' friends by their first names.)

So of course, now I'm interested in finding a workplace where first names aren't allowed, or creating a character in a normal workplace who doesn't allow it...

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Marion Bataille’s ABC3D is a book of the alphabet -- done pop-up style in red, white, and black ... and one mirror.

The design is clever, though he uses only about 12 concepts and repeats several of them across different letters. But what is extraordinary is how he surprises the reader with similarities among letters (E/F, sure; but wait until you get to O/P/Q/R!) -- and within letters (there's a mini-me in G!). He makes me want to learn about typography and alphabet history.

Watch a video of the book (audio alert) below. Note: It shows the entire book (in a little over a minute) but, in my opinion, doesn't "spoil" it. I watched the video and immediately put the book on hold at my library. And I still may get my own copy!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

What Goes Around...

I bought peonies ($8) and a quart of strawberries ($5.50) this morning at the farmer’s market.

“Thirteen-fifty,” the purveyor said.

I handed her fifteen dollars and she gave me a dollar and fifty cents.

I hesitated. “On second thought, I’ll take another quart of strawberries.” I gave her a twenty-dollar bill and, smiling at the circularity, said, “And here’s your fifty cents back.”

She made change for my twenty and smiled right back. “And here’s your fifteen dollars!”

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Superbug Slapdown

Headline in a newsletter I received yesterday:
[The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists] Backs Legislation To Curb Antimicrobial Resistance
Take that, bacteria! viruses! fungi!

Finally -- some fines or jail-time for microorganisms that insist on surviving via evolutionary mutation!

(It is a serious problem; the House bill seeks funding for a public-health plan to better monitor, treat, and prevent infections by drug-resistant bugs.)

Monday, May 25, 2009

Too Much Tension!

A couple missteps early on, then a growing confidence...

...and a big finish!

Susan Boyle moves on to the May 30 (Saturday) finals of Britain's Got Talent 2009.

(And I take some time to figure out this video's narrative tensions ... and map their numerous sensory manifestations in my body!)

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Reading Lessons

I read more to learn than to be entertained (learning = entertainment!) and two recent novels have lessons I'm still thinking about.

One is Kathryn Stockett's phenomenal debut, The Help. Narrated from 1962 Mississippi by two black domestics (the "household help") and a young white aspiring writer -- all of whom see things differently than the people around them -- it's about race, class status, gender roles, friendship, and the definitions of family. It's full of emotion, film-quality imagery, palpable suspense ... with subplots so seamlessly woven that I only noticed when they intersected and it became apparent how perfectly they'd been set up. The novel is compelling -- and even life-changing, if the fictional editor's advice about writing is extended to a metaphor for living:
"Don't waste your time on the obvious things. Write about what disturbs you, particularly if it bothers no one else."
And so these three narrators -- and author Kathryn Stockett -- did.

Another is also a terrific fiction debut, Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone. It's the story of Marion Praise Stone, born in 1954 Ethiopia of Sister Mary Joseph Praise (an Indian Carmelite nun) and Thomas Stone (an exceptional British surgeon), and (temporarily conjoined) twin to brother, Shiva Praise Stone.

Set mostly in and around a mission hospital in the capital city of Addis Ababa, the first hundred pages are riveting and the next 400 are fascinating, tender, and funny explorations of family, immigration, politics, loyalty, and the practice of medicine and surgery. With something to keep in mind when struggling in difficult work:
I grew up and I found my purpose and it was to become a physician. […] I chose the specialty of surgery because of Matron, that steady presence during my boyhood and adolescence. "What is the hardest thing you can possibly do?" she said when I went to her for advice on the darkest day of the first half of my life.

I squirmed. How easily Matron probed the gap between ambition and expediency. "Why must I do what is hardest?"

"Because, Marion, you are an instrument of God. Don’t leave the instrument sitting in its case, my son. Play! Leave no part of your instrument unexplored. Why settle for 'Three Blind Mice' when you can play the 'Gloria'?"

[…] I was temperamentally better suited to a cognitive discipline, to an introspective field -- internal medicine, or perhaps psychiatry. The sight of the operating theater made me sweat. The idea of holding a scalpel caused coils to form in my belly. (It still does.) Surgery was the most difficult thing I could imagine.
For more (no spoilers), see my comments in LibraryThing's Reading Globally Africa Theme Read. And NPR has a nice podcast of Abraham Verghese reading one of my favorite passages -- the descriptive, touching, and very funny performance of a vasectomy. Which brings to mind another takeaway from Cutting for Stone: Verghese's entreaty that healthcare personnel return to the bedside -- and remember the presence of the actual patient there, instead of industrial medicine’s increasing emphasis on patient as data in a computer -- a la:
Q: "What treatment in an emergency is administered by ear?"
A: (See the comments)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

What Kind of Writer Are You?

In his terrific restaurant memoir, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, Anthony Bourdain describes several types of cooks:

You’ve got your Artists: the annoying, high-maintenance minority. [...] so ethereal and perfect that delusions of grandeur are tolerated.
Then there are the Exiles: people who just can’t make it in any other business, could never survive a nine-to-five job, wear a tie or blend in with civilized society -- and their comrades, the Refugees, [...] for whom cooking is preferable [to other work].
Finally, there are the Mercenaries: people who do it for cash and do it well. Cooks who, though they have little love or natural proclivity for cuisine, do it at a high level because they are paid well to do it -- and because they are professionals.
I see, in those descriptions, several types of writers. The literary Artists whose originality and perfection stop my breath and force me to endure beats of despair until I accept that such will never be me. The Exiles (whom I don't understand) and the Refugees (whom I'm currently aligned with, although reconsidering). But overall, being a practical person at heart (with an enormous love of literature) and good at execution, I am, I suppose, a Mercenary.

Cooking is a craft, I like to think, and a good cook is a craftsman -- not an artist. There’s nothing wrong with that [...] Practicing your craft in expert fashion is noble, honorable and satisfying. And I’ll generally take a stand-up mercenary who takes pride in his professionalism over an artist any day. When I hear “artist,” I think of someone who doesn’t think it necessary to show up [...]. More often than not artists’ efforts [...] are geared more [to themselves...] than satisfying the great majority of dinner customers.
What kind of writer are you?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Two years ago, it was cell-phone salesman Paul Potts.

Now last Saturday, it’s Susan Boyle, unemployed and dreaming to dream.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Cover (back)Story

I like behind-the-story stories -- seeing the moment that sparks an idea, seeing an accumulation of moments that combine into new meaning … and then seeing what story evolved from the inspiration. (Hence the link to M. J. Rose’s Backstory in my blogroll.)

And from the opposite end, I like seeing how a finished story is reflected in a title and book cover. I haven’t discovered a source for titles yet, but did enjoy Barnes & Noble Studio's (caution: audio alert) short-lived video-interview series, Cover Story, and its discussion thread.

And now I’m over the moon about a blog on book covers by the graphic-design firm, Fwis. It’s admittedly focused on the visual art, but literary and publishing details do pop up in the comment threads or by following the links to designers’ websites. Go. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hints of Unreliability

In his New Yorker review of John Wray’s Lowboy, a novel acclaimed for its evocation of schizophrenia, James Wood examines the details that lead readers to believe in a narrator’s unreliable point of view:

In standard third-person narration, a tiny slippage often suffices to alert us to a character’s fiction-making. For instance, if I were describing the New York subway, in the third person, from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old boy, and I wrote, “The doors closed after ten seconds and the station fell away,” […it] would be unexceptionable. If, however, I wrote, “The doors closed after exactly ten seconds and the station fell resignedly away,” the two adverbs might stiffen the reader’s posture. Who is this boy, for whom exactitude is so maniacally important, yet who also sees the world so lyrically? And if I wrote, “The train fit into the tunnel perfectly,” or “He decided to get out at Columbus Circle. To his surprise it happened very simply,” the reader would sense a world of mental difficulty, in which trains may not always fit properly into tunnels and a teen-age boy may not always negotiate the exiting of a train.
Wood has engaged me into accepting this fiction, and such a character, by the time he excerpts a passage from the novel:

The train pulled into the next station and the car began to fill with halfdead people. That’s the tiredness, thought Lowboy. They want to curl up on the ground and go to sleep. He yawned at them as they came in, showing them his teeth, and some of them yawned back.
Psychologists say that empathy increases the contagiousness of yawns. I must say, I’m yawning.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Believe Nothing, Laugh Often...

…when you view this overview of book publishing, created by the Digital Marketing Team at Macmillan:

Sunday, March 22, 2009


After last year’s trauma, it’s good news now: the Norfolk Botanical Garden’s (NBG) pair of American Bald Eagles have welcomed their first and second hatchlings!

Meanwhile, here’s what’s likely happening inside the third egg as that chick completes incubation and begins to emerge. One of the coolest aspects of all this is that, though the eggs were laid over a span of seven days last month, the eagles delayed incubation of any until all had been laid, which “[slowed] early embryo development, helping to compress the time between hatch dates” and eliminate any feeding advantage that the earliest hatchling gets.

View the goings-on at the nest over the spring and summer via NBG’s Eagle Nest-cam, linked in my blogroll.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What Kind of Writer Are You?

Take a look at today's issue of PW Daily, an e-newsletter from Publishers Weekly ... scroll down to the final item, "Picture of the Day."

In the photo, which writer are you?

Are you holding up your work proudly or keeping it half hidden -- too modest, too cool, too afraid -- or not even showing it at all?

I'm probably the woman in the second row, third from the left. I'm not happy about that.

But I can learn from my friend, Denise -- who showed up this morning bearing her latest published piece like she was headed for that front row. Congratulations! -- D, your enthusiasm is inspiring!

Monday, March 16, 2009

For Public Consumption

Illinois law now requires first-time offenders convicted of drunk driving to install a device and prove sobriety before starting the car (and then re-prove it periodically during the trip).

Warm up your writing by describing your character going through the motions of starting the car in private ... and then jump to a scene where a boss or dream-date unexpectedly demands a ride.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Books as Artist Date

Take the curious and meaningful moments of a life, assign a keyword to each, then organize them alphabetically by keyword -- encyclopedia-style. The result is Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s thoroughly original memoir, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. A few of her clever and tender observations run several pages, most are a paragraph, some a mere sentence. Here’s one:

I love any kind of cream sauce. My mother hates cream sauce but craved it when she was pregnant with me.
Notice where your thoughts go ... to the contradiction and coincidence? To yourself and your own mother? That's Rosenthal at work, turning her ordinary life into something universal and creatively engaging. Reading the book felt to me like an Artist Date -- a little playdate that fills my mind with imagery and energy -- companion creative tool to Morning Pages, both of which Julia Cameron presents in The Artist's Way.

Maybe I’m unique with books as Artist Dates; I'm still experimenting to discover what makes one vs not one. In the process, I've tagged some possibilities from my library. I'm eager to find more.

Whatever, the Encyclopedia has engaged me, and my muse is eager to start listing and categorizing in a sheer sense of play.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Story Workshop

Who'd have thought the New Yorker published horror stories?

Yet James Salter's excellent, "Last Night," from the November 18, 2002 issue, nearly qualifies. Read it here -- or listen online, where the 20-minute story is introduced by writer Thomas McGuane and Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman, and then followed by a discussion of the story's subtext and set-ups, which in my reading made the surprises well-earned.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Virtual Mentors III

I wouldn't have thought today's quote was necessarily true, thus its intrigue. But the reference to readers in the final sentence, a la "If a tree falls in a forest... ," clinches it.

From Flannery O’Connor's Mystery and Manners:

When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Virtual Mentors II

Today's quote comes from an online workshop I took years ago with author and writing coach Gloria Kempton. It's not a recommendation to write toward a market, but rather an insight into the psychology of reading:

The trick to creating great characters is to make the character as much like the reader as possible so that there's immediate identification -- while at the same time making the character different enough so as to make the reader curious to find out more, since unconsciously he really knows he's reading about himself.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Virtual Mentors

Upcoming: a few writing-related favorites from my quotes file, posted one a day to facilitate composting.

Today's, from The Paris Review interview with the late Christopher Isherwood, speaks to turning a real person into a fictional character:

When you’re writing a book, you ask yourself: What is it that so intrigues me about this person -- be it good or bad, that’s neither here nor there, art knows nothing of such words.

Having discovered what it is you really consider to be the essence of the interest you feel in this person, you then set about heightening it. […] trying to create a fiction character that is quintessentially what you see as interesting in the individual, without all the contradictions that are inseparable from [the] human being, aspects that don't seem exciting or marvelous or beautiful. The last thing you're trying to do is get an overall picture of somebody, since then you'd end up with nothing.

Good things grow from details...

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Surf Ballroom

Snapped a few years ago during a trip to Iowa, this photo shows where Buddy Holly (“That’ll Be the Day”), J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson (“Chantilly Lace”) and Ritchie Valens (“La Bamba”) performed just before boarding a tiny plane 50 years ago, the day the music died.

Forgo literal death for now, and consider something abstract or figurative that you watched die. Can you point to a physical place where it happened?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


I’ve blogged previously about The Oxford Project which, through photographs and interviews with the residents of tiny Oxford, Iowa, provides confirming evidence that everybody has an interesting life story.

But further, it suggests that people are complex characters in their interesting stories.* Consider this quote from a 75-year-old man named Darrel:

We lost one of our daughters to cancer two years ago. I still talk to [her] every day. She had a great sense of humor. Always did, even as a little girl. The loss of a child is about as bad as it gets. The last thing [she] said before she died was, “I love you, Dad.”
Darrel’s comments break your heart, yes? In a novel, he’d be a 100%-sympathetic character. But in real life, a few pages earlier in the book, we saw another side of him (and that daughter) through the words of a 35-year-old woman named Robin:

I met Karen when I worked at a theatre in Amana [Iowa]. A week later, we went on our first date. When I told my mom, I think she cried, but in front of me, all she said was that she was disappointed. Mom told my brother Ben, “You need to hate the sin, not the sinner.” My grandfather Darrel and I don’t talk.

*aha: maybe the complex part begets the interesting part?

Friday, January 9, 2009

Abundance -- Proving Itself

OMG, see??

I just blogged about (re-)establishing a trust in abundance:

I'm stingy with pleasures, including books, saving them up instead of gobbling them up. But by giving myself permission (a mandate, really) to savor a bunch of books, I had opportunity after opportunity to notice that each time I finished one, another (two others? ten?) appeared in its place.

I no sooner posted that, then finished the lush Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics -- than I stumbled onto this thread about unique fictional narrators … and a dozen new books that call to me.

Sideways points of view* intrigue me; I love the twist of perspective that inspires a fresh look.


*Yes, they’re easy to overdo. Witness Dan Wiencek’s satirical “Thirteen Writing Prompts” in the hilarious McSweeney's Joke Book of Book Jokes:

Write a scene showing a man and a woman arguing over the man’s friendship with a former girlfriend. Do not mention the girlfriend, the man, the woman, or the argument.
A husband and wife are meeting in a restaurant to finalize the terms of their impending divorce. Write the scene from the point of view of a busboy snorting cocaine in the restroom.

Still … aren’t you tempted to try? :)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

2009 Reading Preview

How, you’ve asked, did my 2008 reading challenge change me?

A couple ways come to mind, the first being that I learned how to (duh) read a lot. Not to read fast, mind you; I’m still slow, I sub-vocalize. But yet to read a lot. Mostly, I reallocated evenings to reading instead of wishing there was something good to watch on TV. By finding minutes to read whenever I waited in a line or for an appointment. And especially by paying attention -- if I wasn’t making progress in a book, I learned to eliminate distractions and dig in deeper until the pages took hold. If they didn’t (no time for that! either in the Challenge or in life), Plan C was to ease up by alternating the book with another, more engaging read … or finally by cutting bait altogether and abandoning the book to a pile for the Friends of the Library sale.

Second, I learned to trust in abundance. I'm stingy with pleasures, including books, saving them up instead of gobbling them up. But by giving myself permission (a mandate, really) to savor a bunch of books, I had opportunity after opportunity to notice that each time I finished one, another (two others? ten?) appeared in its place. (Ah, abundance: so many lessons still there for me. It was, after all, the stimulus for beginning this blog two years ago.)

Good changes!

And yet.

All that reading diverted me from my family ... friends ... homekeeping ... this blog. And my writing. For a year, I spent no time in the energy of my favorite magazines -- New Scientist’s curiosity, Martha Stewart Living’s lush images, O Magazine’s fun. While meantime, the deep immersion in long works (especially novels) explored ideas rather than incited them. My imagination turned dusty, a rare idea blowing through like tumbleweed.

Only recently have I felt a hint of humidity returning. Part of it must be a satisfaction at finally having read some of the books that are basics in literature or popular culture (Alice in Wonderland, for God’s sake!). Part of it is probably the year’s accumulation of some very good reading that is starting to compost. Whatever, a bit of it escaped in a little creative burp while I was in the driver’s seat on a road trip over Thanksgiving … and I suddenly connected the premises of two of my (languishing) writing projects and merged them into something new. Huh!

I have no better transition into this year’s reading than to simply admit I’ve taken on the 999 Challenge. Not for the volume of reading this time, but because organizing and list-making are forms of play to me. Heck, it was fun just to gather the Challenge books that I already own onto this separate shelf.

How about you? Any readerly learnings from 2008? Any solid or semi-solid plans for 2009?