Sunday, December 29, 2013

Favorite Films, 2013

Wow. What a great year for movies. For the past couple of weeks, I've been squeezing in many of the Fall Oscar-run releases, and I've been deliberating over my list of the year with the nagging feeling that I'm forgetting something from earlier in 2013. I'm including my favorite movies of the year and some others from prior years that I finally got around to. My main criteria is probably still visceral (I want to be moved and transported), but I'm finding that more and more, I appreciate a film that shows me something new. So I'm including an Honorable Mention section, for those films that perhaps didn't hit homeruns but are must-sees for one reason or another.

My 5 Favorite Films of 2013:

Inside Llewyn Davis

A week or so in the life of a struggling folk singer, circa 1961, and one of the most intriguing portraits of an artist I've ever seen. Great performances by Oscar Isaac and John Goodman and like any Coen brothers film, lots of enigma and comedy. Loved, loved, loved.

12 Years a Slave

Honestly, I hadn't planned on seeing this. I didn't think it would offer anything new on its subject, and I thought it would be extremely depressing. I'm so glad I changed my mind. Beautifully filmed, the depth of a saga, outstanding performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o but really, if Michael Fassbender doesn't win an Oscar for his role as a disturbed and cruel slave-owner, it will be a crime. He commanded every scene he was in and was just amazing. And the screenplay, which is based on a memoir, does indeed offer a unique look at the time period. Simply a great film.

The Hunt

While it may be true that you'd be hard-pressed to find a movie with Mads Mikkelsen I wouldn't like, this year's offering is outstanding. Mikkelsen plays a passive teacher struggling to retain his son's custody. When a child accuses him, the entire town begins to turn against him. I loved the mood of this film, the dark shadows and the way it felt that each person was like a spinning top--just one push and they could turn animalistic and destructive. The fear behind all anger. Mikkelsen's character was frustrating and Hamlet-esque, and the movie seemed to imply that in being this way, he may have brought it all on himself. Suspenseful, provocative, and highly entertaining.

Before Midnight

OK, lets start at the beginning. Did you see Before Sunrise (1995)? What about Before Sunset (2004)? If your answer is no, then you have some work to do. The former was the story of two strangers who meet in Paris and fall in love. The second, the story of their reunion almost a decade later. This latest installment catches up with Jesse and Celine another nine years later. They are middle-aged and taking a trip to Greece, where we watch them rehash their now-long-term relationship and decide on a future course. One of the best, truest marital arguments I've ever seen, and a mesmerizing portrait of the couple who have remained engaging for twenty years. You will only be sad that you may have to wait nine years for another.

All is Lost

A man on a boat, alone. Problems ensue. Man fights, time and again, to survive. Take it as an allegory of each man's final, solo journey or as a primer on how to keep your communication devices dry and working properly. Either way, this film grabs you from the first frames and never lets go. Robert Redford is seventy-seven years old but honestly, this role would challenge a man of any age. He is amazing and you won't be able to look away, even though he speaks maybe four or five sentences the entire film. Gripping, from start to end, and plenty to think about when you get home. I keep returning to this one, replaying parts in my mind and finding greater depths.

Honorable Mentions (Subtitle: Films I liked very much for one reason or another but I felt missed the mark on something else):

Philomena - A nuanced performance from Judy Dench, who creates one of the more memorable characters of the year. A bit connect-the-dot in other ways but still, had me crying throughout and pretty much any time I talked about it afterwards. Good stuff.

Blue Jasmine - Woody Allen's latest offering, entertaining throughout but notable for the remarkable performance by Cate Blanchett. A very good movie that left me frustrated because it could have been better.

Her - I include this on the list because it will be one of the more original films you see this year. Solid performances, visually fun and really clever. I enjoyed it but I wonder about staying power. I just saw it yesterday and already feel like it's slipping away.

American Hustle - Entertaining, with standout performances and some fantastic scenes but sluggish throughout the middle, at least for me. Original and funny.

Nebraska - Elderly man and son take a road trip to pick up a cash prize that doesn't exist and along the way, find out much about each other. I loved the way this was filmed--patiently, and in black-and-white, but I was never 100% invested. Some great moments, though.

Stories We Tell - A woman's exploration of her family, especially her mother, through stories and memories. She ends up uncovering a huge secret and tracing the reverberations it makes, once revealed.

Side Effects - I'll be the first to admit that this film got a little silly towards the end but it was so, so entertaining until then. Underrated, I thought.

Other Stuff, Other Years:

The Kid with the Bike (2011) - A coming-of-age film about a boy who is abandoned by his father but saved from an orphanage on weekends by a hairdresser he meets by chance.

Craigslist Joe (2012) - Documentary about a young man who decides to spend a year living on the kindness of strangers, via Craigslist. Fascinating look at society, humanity.

Pina (2011) - A movie I'm not sure I fully understood but could not stop watching. All about dance, in tribute to a German choreographer.

Footnote (2011) - Father and son Talmudic scholars competing for an important prize. But really, a story about relationships and family.

The Flat (2011) - Another documentary about unearthing family secrets; this one follows a grandson's search for the truth about his grandparents, who emigrated from Germany to Israel before WWII.

Through a Glass Darkly (1961) - A Bergman classic about a family reuniting to splinter apart. Includes a crazy sister and an evil spider.

Mud (2012) - Matthew McConaughey's much-lauded role as a fugitive serving as mentor to two young boys in the bayou.

Holy Motors (2012) - A film that defies explanation but which contains one of the best scenes EVER. I include it here, mostly for my own pleasure.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Favorite Reads, 2013 Edition

I read fifty-six books in 2013, a good number for me and really, sort of hard to believe because it certainly doesn’t feel like I average a book a week. For sure, lots of these were read in batches, during a vacation or at times when I was avoiding writing. In 2013, I made a concerted effort to read more short story collections, a decision which is happily reflected in my year-end list with the inclusion of not one or two but three collections. What constitutes a favorite? That’s simple: a book that amazes and stays with me. The easy choices were the ones that immediately came to mind. Some I had forgotten a little but they flooded back, full of detail and feeling. As always, this list includes MY favorite reads of 2013 and not only books published within the calendar year. I’ve included the publication year, in case that’s of interest. And so, without further ado, the best 12 things I read this year, in no particular order:

Benediction by Kent Haruf (2013)
If you read several reviews by people who love Haruf’s writing, you may notice a repeating element: we fans are fervent as cult-members, not always sure how he accomplishes his effects or retains his quiet power over us. Benediction is the last in Haruf’s Holt, Colorado, trilogy and although it can be read alone, I’d strongly advise that you eventually get around to the first two: Plainsong and Eventide. This story centers around a elderly denizen as he lives his final months. Memories flood back; family and friends gather. What can I say? Haruf is one of my favorite writers and you just have to read this book. I wrote more about it here.

Erasure by Percival Everett (2001)
Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is a critically celebrated author having a hard time selling his latest manuscript. His family is fractured, by his father’s suicide several years back and his mother’s failing health, and by his own inability to face things. Frustrated by the success of a novel he considers offensive drivel, he updates his own manuscript to surprising effect. Erasure is a sharp satire and yet, touching and deeply moving. It’s about family and race and much, much more, and it’s one of the more unique things I read this year.

John Adams by David McCullough (2001)
This book took up a substantial chunk of my summer because after I read its 600+ pages, Jason and I watched the HBO miniseries (which was very good). The breadth and depth of this book are impressive and yet, McCullough writes in an engaging and insightful way. It reminded me of my love for history books, especially those that delve into the social, cultural, and personal. (Following this read with McCullough’s 1776 reminded me that I do not enjoy as much those focusing on military/war.) John Adams is an amazing accomplishment that will enrich your understanding of America’s beginnings and help you to personify those wacky founding fathers.

Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell (1969)
This is the story of Mr. Bridge, a family man, a businessman, a father. He lives a typical mid-twentieth-century American existence. The novel tells the story of his life in impressionistic vignettes. These glimpses of Mr. Bridge build and build, revealing secrets and fleshing him out until we have, at the end, a fuller picture of his character. I loved this book. I compared the style to the paintings of Chuck Close (read more here) but you can also think of those photos that are broken down into pixels, and every pixel is actually another photograph, when you look close. I was riveted by this book and I also read its companion, Mrs. Bridge, but thought this one much better. And if you’re interested, there was a movie made, a dubious attempt that fell short but was noteworthy for the incredible performance by Joanne Woodward.

This Close by Jessica Francis Kane (2013)

A superb story collection with the connecting theme of human estrangement. We can all get “this close” to understanding each other, but probably not more. I loved the mood of these stories, I loved their interconnecting elements, I loved the characters. I blabbed on and on about it here.


The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (2008)
I’ve had this book on my shelf for a long time. I knew that lots and lots of people loved it but I’d usually be put off by its length. I’m so glad I picked it up this year. The novel does what the title says, it tells about the life of Edgar Sawtelle, a mute born to dog-breeders in rural Wisconsin. You don’t have to be a dog person, I wouldn’t think, to appreciate the descriptions of the family’s life with these animals, any more than you have to be a Shakespeare buff to appreciate the allusions to Hamlet. Hamlet, you say? Dogs? Trust me, this is a fabulous read. And Oprah and Tom Hanks are working on a film version, so get your copy before you have to get one with a movie tie-in cover.
Assorted Fire Events by David Means (2000)
A bracing, powerful collection of stories. Means examines the less-than-pleasant aspects of the human condition with an unflinching gaze and yet, a poetic soul. Full of masterful writing and images I couldn’t release. Perhaps a less optimistic viewpoint than what I’m usually drawn to and yet, this is partly why I was so impressed by its effect on me. I explain in more detail here.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (2013)

You know, I had just read Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall when I picked this up. Both books deal with educated East-coasters involved in art. Really. They both do. So when I realized that Messud’s main character was a schoolteacher but also the frustrated artist of dioramas, and that for much of the novel, she’d be waxing on about art and her experiences in a shared studio with an artist who was building a life-size, modern-day Wonderland installation…well, I thought maybe I’d better pick it up some other time. But despite the high-minded musings, The Woman Upstairs snuck up on me. It’s sly and evocative, with building suspense and much to sink your teeth into. While reading it, I thought a lot about the film Notes from a Scandal; this, too, is the story of delusion and unnatural attachment. It will make you think about many things, including art and its many manifestations, and it will surprise and confound you.
Ramadan Sky by Nichola Hunter (2013)

Vic is a young woman who has just arrived in Jakarta to teach English. It’s the type of job perhaps normally undertaken by slightly younger adventurers; we know from the start that Vic is atypical in this and other ways. She’s an outsider. She is outspoken and decisive and although surprised by the mores of her new surroundings, she doesn't become flustered or defeated. She meets Fajar, a local young man who floats from job to job with little thought beyond the day-to-day. The resulting relationship is the glue of this novella, a romantic entanglement unlike any I’ve read before, full of surprises and humanity. The story is told from both point of views and also that of Fajar’s on-again-off-again fiancée. A unique, poetically-written story that is about culture and expectation as much as it is about personal responsibility and connection. The characters have stayed with me and I find myself wanting to read it again.

The Illicit Happiness of Other People by Joseph Manu (2013)
Thoma lives with his mother and father in Madras amongst Catholics, evangelicals and Hindus. Three years before, his charismatic brother, a cartoonist, committed suicide, an event that his father can’t move beyond. Thoma’s mother despises her husband, often to comedic effect, and Thoma is afraid, confused, and directionless. This novel was funny and read at times like a mystery, as the truth of the brother’s suicide is fleshed out through the comics he left behind, his relationships, and Thoma’s own recollections. Overriding everything is the thought that the actual truth may be nothing more than a story everyone’s agreed upon, and that the same could be said about actual happiness. A wonderful read.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2000)
Believe it or not, this was the first novel I’ve ever read by Michael Chabon, and if it hadn’t been recommended by a friend, I may never have picked it up. It’s the story of two Jewish cousins who immigrate into the US before World War II and become important figures in the Golden Age of the comics industry (think early superheroes, stuff like that). Nothing about that would have appealed to me, probably, and yet there is nothing this book doesn’t do. As I writer, I was overwhelmed and maybe a bit depressed while reading because THERE IS NOTHING THIS BOOK DOESN’T DO. Think of something you like about a book, any book. Memorable characters? Great story? Historical interest? Layers and layers of meaning? I’m telling you, THERE IS NOTHING THIS BOOK DOESN’T DO. It is fabulous. I went back to read Chabon’s first novel to assure myself that he wasn’t always, in fact, a superhero himself. He wasn’t. Although even at the beginning, he was very, very good.

This is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila (2013)

This story collection is set in Hawaii and it offers up a local’s perceptions of the sights, sounds and culture. Kahakauwila offers us a rare view into the juxtaposition of native traditions and modern, mainland life, and how this conflict manifests in both individual families and society at large. Her characters are unpolished and true and I loved the fresh and unusual situations she placed them in. A beautifully written exploration of human relationships amidst a setting that might not be the paradise it seems from outside.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Music in the Creative Process

The last three times I went out running, my iPod has served up “Sweet Home Alabama” as part of its shuffle. There’s no rhyme or reason to this, only sheer mathematics, which is certainly no specialty of mine. So I won’t try to analyze anything like probability. But I will say that every time the opening strains of the song start up, the same set of associations runs through my mind. I think about a guest post I did for a blog when my novel, The Qualities of Wood, came out in ebook last year, and I think about one of the final scenes in the book, when my character Vivian is chugging beer and singing along at a small town fair/festival. Because I might just know a thing or two about that.

The blog is called "The Undercover Soundtrack" and its creator, Roz Morris, describes the thought behind it:

“The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process—special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment.”

As I start to gear up for my novel’s print release in June (YAY!), I thought it would be fun to share a few of my favorite interviews, articles and guest posts so far. In case you missed them the first time around. The piece I wrote for Roz would certainly fit the bill. Setting plays a big role in anything I write, and I’m always mining for sensory detail. Sights, smells, sounds. Music surrounds us—in our houses, our cars and now, it’s pumped out in mall parking lots. How does all of this have anything to do with Lynyrd Skynyrd??? You’ll have to read the article to find out:

And by the way, don’t just read mine. If you scroll to the bottom, you’ll find a complete list of authors who have submitted pieces, as well as a list of the musicians mentioned. The posts are quite interesting and may just lead you to a new book or a new song.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What's Left Behind

The Flat is a documentary from 2012. The filmmaker, Arnon Goldfinger, along with the rest of his family, enters his grandparents’ flat in Tel Aviv with the aim of clearing it out after his grandmother’s death at the age of 98. His grandparents were Zionists who left Germany prior to World War II and settled in Israel. The historical element of the film is interesting. He uncovers an unlikely friendship between his grandparents and a high-ranking Nazi and begins to question the sequence of events. But the personal aspects struck me as well. Goldfinger interviews his mother, his siblings, his cousins, and nobody seems to know much of anything about his grandparents. Where they were born, what his grandfather did for a living. And shockingly, what ever happened to his maternal grandmother, who remained in Germany. When he presses his mother for reasons, she only says that she never asked her parents about anything, and that she doesn’t know why. Goldfinger says “The third generation is asking questions. The second generation didn’t ask questions.”

We can all probably relate to this. Often, it isn’t until our elders are gone that we develop an interest in knowing them.

Goldfinger’s grandmother was a bit of a hoarder. Closets are full; cupboards are packed. They find boxes of gloves and jewelry, countless shoes, hats, letters dating back to the 1930s when they first arrived in Israel. In an attic crawlspace, Goldfinger brings down a stack of suitcases that reaches almost to the ceiling. One discouraging part of the film came when a “book expert” callously went through the grandparents’ cherished collection, most of which were in German. “Nobody reads these,” he said, gesturing to a row of Shakespeare. “Balzac? Nobody reads that anymore.” He threw the books into boxes and down from the higher shelves, dust rising in clouds.

I’m not much of a hoarder myself. I tend to throw most things away and yet, to see those books treated that way, to watch their belongings carried out in countless garbage bags—it was a bit depressing.

Can a life be pieced together by the flotsam remaining after someone has gone? It relates to my last blog post, when I talked about the things I have from my grandparents; it relates to The Qualities of Wood, in which the very same thing happens—third generation enlisted to go through an ancestor’s house and belongings. What would someone be able to tell about you by what you’ve chosen to keep? Are there things you have kept secret, items you’ve hidden, topics you’ve never discussed?

I highly recommend The Flat, which is about the human ability to create reality as much as it’s about anything else.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Practical Gift-Giving

When I graduated from high school, my grandmother gave me a set of china. Plates, smaller plates, serving dishes, sugar and creamer set, gravy boat—the whole kit and caboodle. They’d been having a promotion at her grocery store. For every certain amount of money spent on groceries, you’d get stamps, which you could then save to purchase items in the set. Buying only for my grandpa and herself, I realize now it must have taken some time for her to get enough for the set. Maybe she could have paid for some items if she didn’t have enough in stamps.

My eighteen-year-old self thought it a strange but nice gift. I didn’t even have my own set of Tupperware yet, and I didn’t plan on hosting any elaborate dinner parties in the near future. But the china has been with me ever since. My husband and I have moved many times in the twenty years we’ve been together, and those heavy boxes always came along, from apartment to condo to house, up elevators and stairs, into storage and back out again. And I have to say, it’s always been a matter of pride, that china. When I was a younger adult, it made me feel like a legitimate grown-up, someone who really could start an adult life and settle into it. I still love the pattern, which seems to suit me. Whether it’s long-term familiarity or a matter of taste, I don’t know.
The china gets used maybe once a year. Holidays, usually Thanksgiving or Christmas. But I have a baking dish that is put into use much more frequently. It’s a simple, clear-glass Pyrex dish, also from my grandmother. She gave it to me in the last years of her life, when she started shedding things she knew she wouldn’t use. It had a sticker on it, an address label she’d put on so that she could find her dish when she attended potlucks at her church or mobile home community center. That sticker pained me a little every time I saw it and when it finally wore off, that pained me too. But I still think of her every time I use it.

I have her old crock pot, a behemoth with only three settings, decorated with pictures of floating vegetables on a white background. My sister has a new crockpot with a timer and complicated dials, but this one has always served my purposes. I have a single-serve teapot with a cup that fits on the top like a lid. I have a set of plastic cutting boards that my grandpa bought at the hardware store he liked to visit almost daily. I think my siblings also got these for Christmas one year. Another gift I thought was a little strange at the time but guess what? Still have them, still use them almost daily. I have a silver-plated ice bucket that my grandma was given when she worked as nurse for the doctor who was also my physician when I was a kid. I’d been keeping the bucket in a cupboard but realized when thinking about this piece that I should put it out somewhere.

These useful gifts ensure that I think about my grandparents several times a week. They knew that a good cutting board would outlast a bottle of perfume or probably, a new sweater.  My grandma took a certain pride in her own cherished items—crystal, china, etc., yet never took her eye from the practical, from what it takes to run a household over a number of years. Whether you move it from place to place or not. I’m starting to think about this as my kids get closer to heading out on their own. And I will probably be guilty of giving them things that raise eyebrows but linger in their cupboards and drawers. At least I hope so.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Life or Art?

At a dance show last weekend, one of the pieces listed a few outside sources as inspiration. One was a story about Marcel Proust and a friend, who had quarreled over life and art: specifically, about whether an artist should be out and about, living life, or sequestered and dedicating himself to the craft. You can guess which side of the argument Proust, one of history’s most famous recluses, took. I can also imagine the friend’s parting thoughts as he huffed out: “You want to be alone? See if I ever visit you again!” I didn’t keep the playbill and was unable to find the specifics for this story, but that was the gist of it.
This always comes up, doesn’t it? What an artist should and shouldn’t be doing. Modern manifestations include various articles about how much social media time is too much for a writer, the classification given to some “celebrity authors”—those jetsetters who never turn down a conference or speaking engagement, warnings about the necessity to get your ass in the chair and write, every day, lest the cogs of your creative engine rust up and jam.

But it also brings to mind the oft-repeated instruction: “Write what you know.” How are you supposed to know about anything if you’re not living? Proust had a lot of opinions about a lot of things, most of them seemingly catered, as opinions are, to his own life. One of his common themes was that suffering is the root of all great art. He extolled the virtues of suffering and advised that when it comes, you should give yourself over to it completely. Distilling sorrow was like an exercise to him:
"When we endeavour to extract the general qualities from our sorrow and to write about it, we are somewhat consoled...Thinking in terms of generalities and writing comprise for the writer a healthful and indispensable function, the fulfilling of which brings happiness, as do for a man of a physical type exercise, sweating and the bath."
Suffering put you in touch with yourself, he argued, and made death seem like a release. And most importantly, it fueled the very best art.

“Works of art, like artesian wells, mount higher in proportion as the suffering has more deeply pierced the heart.”

What do you think? Does a writer need to suffer to write something great, or is empathy enough? How narrow would your writing be if you only wrote of your own experiences? Would it be enough? Where do you find your best inspiration—inside yourself, out in the world, or some combination of both?

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Bee Humble

I’ve been sequestered in my house for the past couple of months, determined to finish a collection of stories I’ve been working on for, well, probably a couple of years now. Or more. Who knows. I’ve been writing them off and on (more off than on), and was relying on inspiration rather than a strict schedule or preplanned outline. They are stories based on a simple premise—that archetypal human stories can present in unexpected ways. Maybe the “Boy Meets Girl,” story refers to two girls, or maybe the boy is already married to someone else. Stuff like that. The stories quickly began to shape themselves around three families and their circles. Then it turned out that so-and-so in story two actually knew the girl in story six, and so that became a thing, the interrelatedness. And at some point, maybe when I had ten or eleven of these pieces, I realized there needed to be some direction, some aim (didn’t there?), so I began to map out where I’d take it, just a few stories at a time. Still waiting for inspiration, for a scene to occur to me, some vivid moment from the life of anyone in the cast, past or present—didn’t matter.
Life intervenes, doesn’t it? Even though I began writing these stories to escape the pressures of writing a novel, the process started to take on the same flavor. I decided enough was enough, I needed to get the thing done, inspiration or not. So that’s where I’ve been for a couple of months and yesterday, I finished the first draft. I emphasize: first draft, because some of these latter stories felt forced and I worry that I began to take them on a novel-like progression that was not my original intention. I’ll be very interested to pick it up in a month or so and see if it’s cohesive or whether it’s happily not.

So I was feeling quite proud of myself yesterday, patting myself on the back for those shower-less days, the declined social invitations, the ignored temptations. Yes, maybe there had been setbacks, like being a half-hour late to pick up a certain someone at his soccer practice (who then said: I figured you were working on your book). I couldn’t read anything lengthy and towards the end, I wasn’t sleeping well. But I did it! The world stretched out before me, a new leaf. So many projects to be tackled now, so much to do. I decided to take the dogs on an extra long walk. They had spent many long hours with me while I toiled, never complaining. I put on their harnesses and hooked them to the double-lead leash.

Anyone who’s ever seen me walking these dogs knows the reason why there are harnesses. The dogs do not walk, they jog, and they do not wait for me. The effect is something like being hooked to a dog sled. So we’re walking (briskly) through the neighborhood towards our little lake. I take an unusual turn because someone has their huge German Shepherd at the lake and in general, I avoid contact with other dogs. Because, uh, my dogs will bark and lunge. They are in most respects, entirely naughty. We are just turning around a corner onto a busier street when I notice, suddenly, they we have stumbled into a swarm of bees. Long story shorter: me running, full speed, for two blocks, with bees following. Stop once to try and dislodge two bees from one dog’s hindquarter. Some screaming (mine), more running, until I’m completely out of breath and there are no more bees in my hair or the dogs’ fur. I actually ran into a friend shortly thereafter who, thankfully, had headphones on during her jog and did not hear or see my manic run.

The point, hammered home: you should never be too proud of yourself, or nature will conspire to teach you humility. Best to get back to work on something new. But maybe first I’ll take just one little day off and do something indoors.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Writer's Holy Days

November is National Novel Writing Month or, for those in the know, NaNoWriMo. The month-long challenge that began in 1999 with 21 novelists has evolved to a much larger production; lots and lots of writers log in and attempt to finish a complete novel (or at least, 50,000 words) during November. At the NaNoWriMo site (, you can sign up and update your word count, socialize and commiserate with other writers, even read samples of what everyone else is doing.

But what I like best about this month of writer-mania is that whether you’re participating or not, everyone is talking about it. Which means, everyone is talking about writing. And for thirty days, it’s like the best club ever. Or it’s like Ramadan, or Lent, this group undertaking. And like those religious periods, it permeates your life whether you’re doing what you think you should be doing, or what you’d like to be doing, or not. Maybe you’ve jumped in with both feet, notebooks and outlines primed, ready to belt out that complete novel. Maybe you’re working on something, but can only manage 15,000 words over the course of the month. Maybe you’re not writing right now at all, but you’re thinking about it. Hearing other writer’s stories, challenges, and triumphs can only be encouraging. I like to hear about what everyone is writing and how they’re doing along the way. I like to remind myself that so many writers are out there, quietly plugging away, usually without notice.

I have participated in past years, and will be this year, sort of. Autumn tends to be a productive time for me anyway, so I’ve been working on that story collection, the one I keep saying I’m almost finished with. Well, I really am almost finished now, aiming for the end of October. In November, I’d like to get started on notes for the next thing, a novel of BIG IDEAS I’ve been ruminating over in a very dark corner of my mind. So I may not, technically, be writing in November (according to the NaNoWriMo requirements), but I’ll be in it with everyone who is. Rooting you on, feeling your joy and pain.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Why I Blame the Irish for Halloween

I was feeling badly about feeling badly about this time of year. Specifically: Autumn, and even more specifically, what has become the month-long build-up to everyone’s second favorite holiday, Halloween. Because I’ve never been a big fan of Halloween. Sure, when I was a kid we had a great carnival at my school, complete with games where you could win cheap toys, a booth for face-painting, and a haunted house manned by the upper grades. It’s the costume part that bothered me. After we graduated past the plastic mask and gown phase of our very young years, during which I was often whatever my brother had been the year before (case in point: Speed Racer), we were left to our own devices when it came to Halloween costumes. You had to find something around the house. There were the standards—hobo, witch, “lady” (which basically involved a dress, socks for breasts and makeup)—and if you were more creative, maybe a cat or a cowgirl. I never really liked donning another identity, though, always found it more embarrassing than fun or liberating. I did enjoy the pillowcase full of candy which, back then, we were allowed to eat however quickly we wanted.

Fast forward: adulthood and then my own parenthood. You’d think that perhaps my heart would have warmed for the holiday but really, it hasn’t. I have found many of our own kids’ costumes, especially when they were very little, completely adorable, and yet, the parties and trick-or-treating with all the sweets and parading around—I don’t know, just not my thing. As they grew older, our kids would start discussing and often, stressing about their costumes way in advance of the date. And it's California--it's almost always too warm for whatever costume they've chosen. Afterwards, there are negotiations and downright sabotage (on my part) in regards to the obscene amount of candy they obtain. Because people nowadays hand out insane portions, not the bite-size candy bars we used to get. But that’s another rant.

I did some reading about the history of Halloween, hoping it might get me in the mood. I had the general gist of it: ancient harvest celebrations merged with Christianity’s All Souls’ Day. This is true. The origins of the holiday date back to a Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced sow-in). About 2000 years ago, in the area that is modern-day Ireland. The celebration was for the new year, which began November 1, and to mark the transition from summer to winter. They believed that during this transition, ghosts returned to earth and it was a good time for the Celtic priests to divine the future.  Costumes were worn for protection from ghosts, and pranks and games were played.

And then yes, Christianity came and blended in. In 1000 A.D., All Souls’ Day was moved to November 2 in what is widely believed to be a Christian coup to replace the Celtic traditions with church-sanctioned ones.

Halloween made the jump from old world to new but by the middle of the 19th century, it wasn’t widely celebrated in America. Not until the immigrant infusion of the late part of the century, especially the millions of Irish fleeing the potato famine, did Halloween become an American institution. Again, the Irish. Any parent with school-age children knows that now, ghouls and monsters have been replaced with superheroes and celebrities, that trick-or-treating is all about the treating and not really the tricking. Borrowing from European practices, things like superstitions and the wearing of costumes have been appropriated and made into the huge consumer spectacle we have today. 

So do I like Halloween more, having read about its origins? Not really. But here’s a nice little video to get you in the mood, in case you do. The history of Halloween, in a minute:

Monday, September 30, 2013

To Edit or Not to Edit...

“I don’t strike out much. I write on... I do one draft. I do the editing in my head first. I very seldom change paragraphs and things around. I’ve heard that it’s very useful for people who do move things about to have a computer, but it wouldn’t suit me because I just write on.”
That quote is from Muriel Spark—-prolific, English author of biographies and novels, a great Dame who died in 2006 at the age of 88. What an organized mind she must have had to be able to edit before setting pencil to paper! She also maintained a stubborn writing process. She did all of her writing with specific pencils in notebooks she ordered specially from an Edinburgh stationer. If only we could all have such willpower and confidence.
I attended the Southern California Writers Conference this month, where I gave a workshop on editing. Not the kind you do in your head but the other kind. I like the setting of a workshop because it allows me to share ideas but I always come away with information for myself too. Writers have many different methods, unique strengths and weaknesses, and processes that range from disciplined to haphazard. But we were in agreement about the difficulties of editing. How do you gain the subjectivity you need to be ruthless with your own work? Where do you begin in the process, when the task seems so daunting? How can you cut big swaths of your most evocative and heartfelt scribbles?
I have no definite answers. It helps me to separate tasks and keep the writing far from the editing. During the process of writing, it often feels like I’m repeating the same imagery, the same phrases. It’s difficult to ascertain things like pace and progress. So I’m always pleased during a re-read when it seems to make any sense at all. Sometimes, I’m even very, very happy when I read for the first time. But that’s delusional and probably means I need to put it away for several months while I regain my grip on reality, right? Just this morning, I re-read something I wrote and while it had some glimmers of hope, I was apparently having a real issue with verb tense that day. She had done this or that, while he did it, and I felt the need to review some basic rules of grammar.
Not a good day for editing, today. Best to “write on.” Save the scrutiny for another day and just keep going.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Who Do You Think You Are?

There’s a song being played on the “Hits” pop station I’m forced to listen to when my kids are along for the ride (almost always). It’s called “American Girl” and it’s sung by Bonnie McKee. The opening lyrics include this:
“We talked about our dreams and how we would show ‘em all,”
and it got me thinking about John Adams and the American Revolution (as these things do), and I wondered which “’em” McKee’s talking about. Who did a California-born white girl who attended a private school in Seattle and had her first recording contract at age 16 have to “show” anyway, and where did she get this antagonistic attitude? Obviously, in the case of Adams and his revolutionary counterparts, the initial “’em” was England, dominator and unfair taxer of tea, and later, “’em” would be France, the Netherlands—anyone who needed to be showed that we were, in fact, a country and perhaps an eventual power to be reckoned with.*

Later in "American Girl," McKee sings about “taking over the world”—again, I’m unclear exactly how she means this but I’m pretty sure it has to do with money and the Billboard charts. Are we all born with a chip on our shoulder, this distinctly American, underdog persona that manifests as a need to prove worth or dominance? This seems to be a common complaint by non-Americans, our sense of entitlement. Does it help to think that it comes from an insecure place?
I’ve also been watching several episodes of a new show called “Who Do You Think You Are?” An overt yet well-made advertisement for, each hour-long episode follows a celebrity as they discover information about their family tree. Because of my own experiences with searching for family, I’m always interested in this kind of stuff. I like the personal stories, like when Christina Applegate cleared up some family lore about her paternal grandmother and was able to share it with her father, who never knew his mother. But the more historical angles are interesting too, if you can stomach Cindy Crawford being a descendant of Charlemagne.

Several of the celebrities are motivated by a desire to find out something about themselves, some genealogical trace of their own characteristics, some explanation of their talents or inclinations. Kelly Clarkson’s great-great-great grandfather was a Union soldier who survived prison camp and eventually became a senator and she was certain that she inherited a tendency toward “standing up for what she believed” from him. Coming from a family of non-artists, actor Jim Parsons was ecstatic to find a grandfather (six or seven greats back) who was an architect to King Louis XV.

Can we credit non-tangibles to heredity, things like work ethic or artistic leanings? How true are certain stereotypes about nationalities? Are these feelings taught or genetically inherited? I really have no idea, but it's interesting to think about. And I’ve got a strong feeling John Adams would have something to say about it (after talking to Thomas Jefferson, no doubt).

*By way of explanation, I’m currently watching the 8-hour HBO miniseries on Adams and read the biography for my book club. So I pretty much have an Adams lens (WWAD) on everything right now.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Favorite Books on Editing: Mine and Yours

"I have been correcting the proofs of my poems. In the morning, after hard work, I took a comma out of one sentence…. In the afternoon I put it back again.”                – Oscar Wilde

I’ve been preparing material for a workshop on editing for the Southern California Writers' Conference (9/20/13-9/22/13, space still available here), and so, I’ve been doing some thinking and reading on the topic. Over the summer I finally got around to reading Stephen King’s On Writing, a well-respected if untraditional primer which is every bit as good as you’ve heard, and I've been rereading some favorites. All of this poking into the workman side of writing coincided with the arrival of a critique of one of my novels from a respected author; in a general sense, then, editing has been on my mind and recently, how it may or may not need to be applied to the work in question.

Editing is an acquired taste. Beginning writers are appalled by the very thought of it but after time, you learn to welcome and even look forward to the process. Your pedantic, word-loving self should appreciate taking a fine tooth comb to syntactic constructions and your English-major-study-of fiction self might relish all the talk of character development and thematic progression. Who you need to check at the door is your sensitive self. The one who tears up over lovely phrases and heartfelt projections, the one who clings, white-knuckled, to a side story that has nothing whatever to do with the central story because of time spent on research or deep thought or self-congratulation.

This is where workshops, books and advice come in handy. It helps to know we’re all in this together, doesn’t it? One thing I’d love to do in the workshop is share a list of resources. A few of my go-to guides are:

Revising Fiction by David Madden
The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White
Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster

...and several more, which you will have to attend the workshop to hear! I'd love if my fellow writers could comment and share your favorite books on writing and/or editing. What books have helped you along the way?  Is there a single guide on writing you couldn't live without? 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Teagan White reviews The Qualities of Wood

After Betty Gardiner dies, she leaves behind her country house for her family. Nowell, her grandson, first moves in then soon after his wife, Vivian. The day Vivian moves in, a teen girl dies in their backyard and even though the death is ruled an accident, she is still skeptical. After the unusual behavior of her neighbors, she becomes suspicious. As the story moves on, Vivian starts to become aware of the town’s secrets.
                The Qualities of Wood by Mary Vensel White is a very well-thought-out story. The pages flow through the chapters brilliantly. You don’t even realize when you’re done with a section. The setting flips through past and present which also helps you learn more about the characters’ personalities.
                This book lets every reader picture it in a unique way. It lets you do this through its descriptions and great vocabulary. For example:
                “As Nowell tugged her towards the house, she glanced back over her shoulder at the high, swaying grass which was quickly becoming invisible, still whispering in the wind and crackling again under her feet.”
                You might not think you know what’s going to happen but you can’t be certain until the very last chapter. The Qualities of Wood is a great book. I don’t see why you wouldn’t read it.
Teagan White is eleven years old and when he isn't reading great books, he likes to play soccer and baseball, practice piano and guitar, and play video games. His sister has previously reviewed this book here, and his other two siblings still haven't read it!

Thursday, August 22, 2013


I've been working on a story collection for a while. It began as a few vivid scenes I wanted to work out and grew, as scenes sometimes do, into something larger that included more and more people. I began to think about these scenes as a collection of scenes. How would they fit and work together? What would it all mean? Does it need to mean anything?
I decided to read more short story collections this year. As many writers do, I had started with this form and I used to read quite a lot short fiction. But in recent years, I haven't. I wanted to amend that, noticing especially how the collections were constructed and linked and paying attention also to structure, style, stuff like that.

 My first choice,  This Close by Jessica Francis Kane, was a fabulous start. These stories were right up my alley--evocative and character-rich, poking and prodding into those unspoken, sensitive aspects of being human. And the form of the stories was along the lines of what I'm doing with my collection: content dictates size and shape. A "story" can be pages long, or just a few paragraphs. As for the link between stories, the collection concerns itself with the connection and chasms between people, the ways they can come "this close" to true communion but fall short. I loved this one, and I talked more about it here.

Megan Mayhew Bergman lives on a Vermont farm with a menagerie of animals, and her stories all include some type of bird or beast. But Birds of a Lesser Paradise is bound together by something deeper; Bergman seems to be examining the ways that the natural world shape human behavior and the conflicted relationship we sometimes share with the animal kingdom. I found these stories touching and immediate, the writing assured and insightful. Also, Bergman maintains a very personable blog here.

One of my favorite books of 2012 was Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins, so I was excited to see a collection of stories follow. We Live in Water is peopled with outcasts and broken characters, the "fringe" people Walter's been known to write about at other times. If the stories have any cohesiveness, I suppose it's a general feeling of hopelessness, an army of lost men (because all the main characters are men) who have failed in some way and have no way to redemption. Sound depressing? Well, it was. It's true that I tend to reside in the "glass half full" camp but I just didn't find much to grasp onto in these stories--no way to empathize, no enjoyment, and in the end, the weight of the overall outlook was just too crushing.

When I feel a bit disappointed with myself for not enjoying Walter's stories, I remind myself that I loved Assorted Fire Events by David Means, which isn't exactly a feel-good-walk-through-the-park collection either. And yet, I loved it. In short: Means' writing will change the way you look at stories and writing in general. To say I loved this collection is the understatement of the year. It is brilliant, and I wrote more about it here.

Writers take note: Rebecca Lee's Bobcat and Other Stories was years in the making. You may find this comforting or discomfiting, depending where you are with your own writing. Lee, a self-confessed "glacially slow" writer (interview: here) includes stories in this collection that were written over a long period of time and as such, probably don't have an intended thematic or structural glue. But Lee is a gifted observer and careful wordsmith; her stories have the feel of polished stone. There are moments of great insight and surprise, and characters you'll remember after finishing. She too deals in human congress, private and public, in a slightly more formal way. Some may find these stories a bit too academic for taste, but they are certainly well-formed and a pleasure to read.

I read Kristiana Kahakauwila's This is Paradise while in Hawaii, the "paradise" of which she writes, and this may have added to my enjoyment of it. Honestly, one of the strengths of the collection is the way Kahakauwila evokes time and place, so I have to think I would have loved it no matter where I read it. Her Hawaii is a crossroads between past and present, reality and lore, American and Hawaiian culture. Like Lee's Bobcat, the stories of This is Paradise are longer, more traditional if you will. Kahakauwila's collection is just six stories, long enough to settle in and get acquainted, long enough to really set the scene with details and nuances. I sometimes think the highest compliment I can pay a writer is that I read their work slowly, and this is certainly the case with This is Paradise. Each story was vivid and sensory, and each one surprised me in some way. I read the whole thing very slowly, wanting to stop and savor each story at its completion.

I plan to keep up with my short fiction reading. At this point, I can't draw any conclusions about how modern story collections are constructed other than to say they are as varied and rewarding as novels, each with its own character and form. I'm happy to hear your recommendations for other collections I should try.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Love of Your Life

Recently, I found a story I wrote some time ago. It’s a sketch really, an idea barely fleshed out, something to pass the time. A young women finds herself the contestant on a television dating show, a premise which doesn’t seem particularly exciting or innovative after the deluge of reality programming over the past decade or so. This writing predates most of it, although obviously not American Idol, which is mentioned, or The Dating Game, or even This is Your Life. I also found it an interesting piece because Julie and her brother could be early manifestations of two characters I eventually spent much time on—middle-aged Gina and her younger brother, Ian, in a novel called Fortress for One. Anyway, here’s the short story, mostly rough but I think, with some smooth parts. (And wouldn’t The Love of Your Life would make a great play?…)

                “What the hell, Junior?” Julie climbed into the car and glared.

                “Juju,” Junior said calmly. “Breathe.”

                “I said two-thirty!”

                “They won’t start without you.” He grinned, crooked teeth gleaming, coffee-colored eyes like a dog that won’t leave.

                She sighed. Her little brother.

                …Twelve days ago, she got the call…

                “Is this Julie Renate Sandoval?”


And her thoughts went immediately to St. Theresa’s Parochial, where they always used full names. The nuns had loved Junior, of course; behind their backs he called them The Monochrome Despots.

                “This is The Love of Your Life,” the man said. “We’d like to put you on.”

                “Oh,” Julie said.

                “You’re aware of the application,” he asked, “submitted by your coworker, Jeannie Mackeroy?”

                It all came raining down. A bottle of wine after work, Jeannie’s assurances, Junior’s jokes. Her brother said Julie’s best shot at happiness was serial monogamy, each chapter ending with a bubble bath and a new hairstyle. Jeannie told him they couldn’t all be queens. And now it was happening.

                Junior dropped her backstage. Long hallways and a scurrying guide. Up front, the set was a huge, carpeted kidney bean.

                “How are you, Julie?” Lance Corazon, the host. His eyes were beautiful and strangely unkind.

                “Alright,” she mumbled.

                He pulled her elbow, twirled her around. “Audience, are you ready to help Julie find The Love of Her Life?”

                “Yes!” they shouted.

                Lance beamed. “Julie, you’ll be placed in The Chastity Room. Finalists have been chosen by our computer, based on compatibility scores, DNA testing and input from your friends and family.”

                Julie sat on a plump red couch. When the doors to The Chastity Room opened, sawdust stretched before her. She squinted in the half-light of a vast room.

                “Over here,” a man on a barstool called.

                Randy was a computer technician who liked to ride mechanical bulls. He had thinning blonde hair and colorless lips.

                “Where are the cameras?” Julie asked.

                “You can’t see them.”

                “Wow,” she said. “This is awkward.”

                Suddenly, a voice boomed: Please refrain from such comments. Unproductive. During the simulated date, avoid mentioning the simulation.

                “Sorry,” she whispered.

                Randy shrugged.

                Again, the voice: We’d like to interject a Conversation Starter, based on relevant information from your dating past.

                Randy scooted to the edge of his seat. Julie wasn’t sure if he was The Love of Her Life. Maybe at first everyone found The Love of Their Life reminiscent of a flaccid sea creature.

                Your Conversation Starter comes from Julie’s college boyfriend, Brad Kanwin. Brad says Julie was awkward in social situations, often making inappropriate sounds or jokes.

                She remembered Brad, of course. Junior called him Big Top PeeWee, because of his large head and small penis, although she’d been unnecessarily cruel in that regard.

                “The last I heard of Brad Kanwin,” she said, “his hand became paralyzed and he went blind.” She laughed alone, wondering if the joke was inappropriate. Randy pressed a buzzer underneath the bar.

                Her second date wore red sneakers, a “People are People” t-shirt and a loosened, narrow tie. Immediately, Julie used her 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover pass to prematurely end their simulated Italian restaurant date. Maybe she’d be finished in time to catch American Idol with Junior, she thought as she left.

                Date number three. At the bottom of a flight of stairs, Reuben Straverskey stood near a gondola and a gurgling canal.

                “Reuben—what the hell?”

                “I didn’t know it was you,” he said.

                Julie had been lusting after Reuben for months; only Jeannie knew. They all worked at the same bank.

                With a push from the gondolier, they were on their way. Again, the cameras were out of sight.

                “So, did they find those checks on Friday?” she asked.

                Reuben licked his fingertips and smoothed his eyebrows, a strange and regular habit that only now struck her as completely ridiculous. “Naw,” he said. “Gunderson was beyond lunacy, the drama king.”

                She shifted her weight and the boat dipped. “Is it weird, being here?”

                “I don’t know.”

                The voice: Please refrain from talking about your reactions to being on the show. Irrelevant.

                “I thought you had a girlfriend,” she whispered.

                Please refrain from whispering. Futile.

                They rode in silence. Julie thought: If I was watching this episode, I’d turn it off. And she suddenly realized that Reuben was too goofy to be considered, that her comments to Jeannie only helped to pass time at work and that Reuben, although hysterical behind the bank counter, wasn’t as stimulating on a simulated canal. Besides, what would Junior call him?

                The gondola hit shore at The Love of Your Life. Julie wondered how long she’d been floating. Lance helped her out of the boat, which then glided away with Reuben still onboard.

                Above, a screen flashed details from her life: Favorite Movie – Urban Cowboy; High School Music Choice – New Wave; Career Aspiration – Head Teller. At the top, one word blinked continuously: UNMATCHABLE.

                Julie stepped down from the giant kidney and saw him immediately. Tall and handsome, a mouth full of crooked teeth. “Junior,” she said. “You’re still here.”
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka