Category Archives: Books

Ignorance is Bliss

When I was a preteen, I consumed music fan magazines like a hungry dog: Teen Beat, Tiger Beat, Smash Hits, Star Hits, and my favorite, Bop. I absorbed every detail about the men of my dreams (first and foremost Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran), memorized their birth dates and favorite colors, their parents’ and siblings’ names, and childhood pets. I read every interview I could get my hands on, desperate to know these guys inside and out. To truly understand them.*

As a teenager, I grew out of these school girl crushes and learned that the more I knew about my favorite musicians, often the less appealing they were and in turn, the less appealing their work. This was reinforced several years ago when I saw Jack White of the White Stripes at the Nashville airport baggage claim. I watched from across the carousel as an enthusiastic fan approached him, CD and pen in hand. I couldn’t hear their exchange but the body language was clear: the fan was asking for an autograph and Jack White was totally blowing him off. Sure, it must get tiring to have people come up to you all the time, and Jack White was probably not in the mood to chat. But if he had just signed the damn CD, the whole exchange could have been over in about thirty seconds. Instead, he spent several minutes rebuffing the fan, who ultimately gave up and walked away, clearly dejected. And I thought, You arrogant bastard, Jack White. Without your fans, you wouldn’t even be Jack White.

SalingerWhen it comes to literature, learning more about an author’s life can shed light on his or her work, open you up to a whole new understanding and appreciation. For instance, this past weekend I watched the documentary Salinger, and it was eye opening to learn how much Salinger had been affected by the atrocities he witnessed in World War II. A bell went off in my head when one of the interviewees spoke of how he had channeled this trauma into the character of Seymour Glass, who first appears in the short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”. Spoiler alert: After spending what appears to be a pleasant afternoon at the beach, Seymour quite suddenly commits suicide, an event that both intrigued and confused my teenage mind when I first read the story. But of course it makes sense now—Seymour was suffering from PTSD.

The Salinger documentary also revealed some less than wholesome facts about the famous literary recluse. He liked his women (err, girls really) young. At the age of thirty, he befriended a fourteen year old girl on a beach and for reasons completely beyond my comprehension, her parents allowed them not only to correspond but to actually travel together. The girl in question (now a woman in her seventies) avows that he never laid a hand on her, but come on. That’s creepy, right? Apparently Salinger stuck to eighteen-year-olds from then on. In fact, there was a series of eighteen-year-olds, whom he dated and unceremoniously dumped, until he was in his sixties. Um, ew.

Salinger was also purportedly a moody, self-absorbed narcissist. Okay, so maybe that’s not exactly rare when it comes to artists. But how many artists lock themselves in their writing bunkers and forbid their spouses and children from disturbing them no matter the reason, for days on end?

As scores of former friends and lovers recounted his temperamental nature, antisocial behavior, and neglect and sometimes abuse of the people who loved him, I was starting to wish that I hadn’t hit play on the documentary. As a teenager, The Catcher in the Rye was my favorite book. I related to Holden Caufield’s jaded view of the world, his inability to fit in, and his yearning for something genuine. Holden was flawed, but there was innocence in him, loneliness. Salinger is said to have channeled a lot of his own nature into Holden, so maybe he too struggled to fit in with society, to live a genuine life. But I don’t like to think that Holden—or his creator—grew up to be a talented yet temperamental jerk.


* I cringe at the memory of my idealistic/delusional youth.

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We Hate it When Our Friends Become Successful

2014Morrissey_0306192014While Morrissey’s lyrics have never been what I would consider cheerful or optimistic, his songs about heartache and longing still resonate with the lost teenager inside of me. Judging by his song title “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”, it appears that his more than 30-year career and loyal fan base has inspired resentment and jealousy among his fellows.* Yet I wonder how anyone could possibly begrudge a friend’s success, that is if he or she really cares about that friend.

Which begs the question: Are these people really your friends?

A very dear friend of mine—someone I have known since way back when I was still a lost teenager listening to Smiths cassette tapes on my Walkman—just published her third book, a graphic memoir about trying to connect with the Japanese half of her family. Last week, I attended her standing-room-only reading at a popular Haight Street bookstore before she headed out for her multi-city book tour.

I have never been published. I do not have an agent. I have spent the last three years writing a novel that may never make it into print. So, am I envious of my friend’s success?

Yes and no.

Sure, I would love to have my book published. I would love to have a second and third book published. I would be both thrilled and terrified to read from my work in front of an eager audience.

the-more-i-ignore-him

Couldn’t resist this one.

But I do not feel even a drop of resentment toward my friend for achieving these things. I witnessed first hand the many years that my friend has practiced her craft: her drawing, her writing, and her storytelling. I have watched her quick pencil sketches and stripped down text transform into this beautiful book that I can now pull off of the shelf and hold in my hands. I saw how hard she worked to get her first book deal, and know well that she worked just at hard to get her second and third.

In short, I have seen my friend work her ass off to achieve her success.

As I watched her read from her new book in front of the packed room, I felt a swell of pride and privilege to know such an amazing person. Congratulations on all of your success, Mari!


*Or perhaps he just got rich and bitchy.

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Readers vs. Writers

The Reader

The Reader by Dorothy F. Newland

I workshopped my novel through my writers’ group for over a year – revising as I went – before handing over a fresh draft to my first pool of beta readers. And with one exception, my beta readers were just that: readers, not writers.

When it comes to critiquing a story, writers can spot a “missed opportunity” a mile away, and can always point to at least three things they would do differently. If given the chance, a passionate writers’ group could tear the works of Hemingway, Dickens, Austen, even Shakespeare to pieces.

But readers – at least the ones I roped in for this round of reviews – appear to take more of a 30,000 foot approach to novel critiques, and I’ve found it both illuminating and entertaining how different the feedback has been from these two groups.*

For instance, my writers’ group expressed concerns about the believably of the relationship between two of the central characters. Pam and Keith are so different from one another, with completely different backgrounds. What drew them together? What kept them together?

However, when I asked my beta readers if Pam and Keith’s relationship felt genuine and believable, the answer was a unanimous yes. One reader said, “I’ve met too many seemingly mismatched couples to think this is unbelievable or uncommon.“

On the other hand, while my writers’ group praised my ability to create distinct voices and personalities for each of my four central characters, my beta readers were less sure about this accomplishment, and several commented that they could hear my voice coming through the characters. It is important to note that, with one exception, my beta readers are close friends and family. My writers’ group members are not. One friend summed it up this way: “I think I know you too well to be able to answer this question.” Fair enough.

Last week, I saved a copy of my novel, this one entitled Small Legends V4. And one of the first items on my list of revisions is a common comment among both the writers and the readers: “The ending was very satisfying, but it was all resolved a little too quickly.”

Clearly I have some work to do. Time to get back down to business.

 


*In fairness to my writers’ group, they did read the novel a few chapters at a time over the period of a year, so it does make sense that they would focus more on the nooks and crannies than the overall story.

 

 

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Even The Meanest Human Beings in the World Need Books

My middle school years were fraught with uncomfortable hormone changes and psychological torment from other girls. During the first week of sixth grade, a girl I’d never met before called me a slut. “What are you looking at, Slut?” she sneered.

I didn’t actually know what a slut was, but understood that it must be something very bad. When I got home from school, I looked the word up in the dictionary and was even more confused. I’d never kissed a boy. I’d never even held hands with one. Why was this girl calling me a slut?

rude-tweenFor weeks, I avoided the girl and yet she always seemed to find me. “What, are you scared of me, Slut?” she taunted. 

Eventually, she grew tired of me and presumably found someone new to torture. But this was just the first of many utterly perplexing and completely devastating incidents of girl-on-girl emotional violence. So I would have never predicted that, 30 years later, I’d write a book for ‘Tween girls, who are very possibly the meanest human beings in the world.

But even the meanest human beings in the world need books.

While I’m certain I tried my hand at the Mean Card more than once during this terrible age, mostly I read books and listened to music and wrote bad poetry about how mean everyone was. I’d outgrown Judy Blume but wasn’t yet ready for J.D. Salinger. At the time, what I enjoyed most of all was a good mystery with coming-of-age characters and enough of an “adult” theme to keep it interesting. And this is what I endeavor to achieve in my ‘Tween book.

My ‘Tween book started off as a National Novel Writing Month exercise two years ago, and has been collecting dust ever since.  Last week, I decided to pull it out and get down to work. I mean, I should do something productive while I wait for my beta readers’ feedback on my grown-up novel, right?

And to kick it off right, I’ve included below a short excerpt for all the ‘Tween novel lovers out there. Or perhaps just for those of you who are kind enough to indulge me.

 


 

The smoke was so thick that Molly pulled her shirt up over her nose and mouth. She looked over at Lauren to see that she had done the same. They squinted at one another, their eyes burning from the smoke, but they didn’t stop running, even when they heard the sirens coming up behind them. First the fire truck then the engine sped past them, and they ran even faster into the gray haze. By the time they’d covered the three additional blocks to Molly’s street, the firefighters were already directing thick streams of water at the burning house.

“It’s Mrs. O’Reilly’s house!” Molly called out, at once excited and relieved. Her own home was safe. For now.

“Do you think it’ll catch the other houses on fire too?” Lauren asked through her t-shirt.

Molly’s was four houses over from Mrs. O’Reilly’s, and it seemed unlikely that the flames would travel that far, but Molly still felt a pit of worry in her stomach. What if the firefighters weren’t able to contain the fire? What if it spread and ate up every house on the block? Everything that she had known her whole life would be gone, just like that.

It was the staggering figure of Mrs. O’Reilly herself that snapped Molly out of these thoughts. Mrs. O’Reilly was dressed in the same blue housecoat she’d worn as long as Molly could remember, but she looked madder than Molly had ever seen her before. Her hair was wild, and singed in places. Her face and neck were streaked with soot, and one of her bare feet was bleeding. Molly wondered if she’d barely made it out of the house alive.

Mrs. O’Reilly yelled something toward the house but her words were swallowed up by all of the commotion. Molly inched closer, cupping her ear and listening hard. Then she heard it.

“Burn! Let it burn!” Mrs. O’Reilly shouted, but the firefighters weren’t paying any attention to her. Until she rushed toward the burning building, and then one of the firefighters blocked her path, but she fought against him, still shouting. It took two firefighters to hold her back, and then two police officers took over, forcing her into the back of a patrol car. She fought them the whole way.

Lauren’s eyes were wide despite the smoke. “I think she’s lost her marbles.”

“I don’t think she had many left to begin with,” Molly said. Mrs. O’Reilly had always been odd and unfriendly, and without being told Molly knew it was best to keep clear of her. Of all the houses on their block, Mrs. O’Reilly’s was the only one Molly had never set foot in.

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Just Hit Send

For more than a year, I’ve workshopped the third draft of my novel through my biweekly writers’ group. At long last, we’ve come to the very last chapter. I am both excited and a little nervous. Whether a novel’s end is happy or sad or somewhere in between, the most important thing is that it is satisfying. Many a time, I’ve torn through a great book only to be disappointed when the ending comes up short, leaving key issues unresolved. Even worse is when the final chapters tie everything up into a tidy little unrealistic and uninspired package. And I do not want my novel’s ending to fall into either of these categories.

send-buttonI’ve spent the past several weeks fiddling around with the last few paragraphs of my final chapter. Tweaking a word here or there, and then putting it back. Alternately congratulating myself for my cleverness and questioning whether the members of my writing group will even understand the ending.

Of course, one of my main goals in joining my writers’ group was to get constructive feedback on my novel – both what is working and what is not. And if my novel’s current ending doesn’t work, the group will help me to identify the trouble spots and then I can improve them. Simple as that.

But I so desperately want them to love it! And this is why I have yet to hit the Send button that will thrust my final chapter out into the waiting inboxes of my writers’ group.

UndoIn the past week alone, two friends/soon-to-be beta readers have asked when my full manuscript will be available, and each time, I felt a little stab of panic. I explained that I’d planned to read through the manuscript again before sending it out, but clearly I am trying to buy some more time. I want my novel to be as good as it can be before my beta readers take it on. I want it to be DONE.

But that’s the point: it’s a work in progress. It won’t be done until it’s in print. And even then, a book is never really done. I recall several years ago attending a reading by the author Melissa Bank, who admitted that even as she reads passages from her novels on book tours, she nearly always changes or omits a word or two. Even as she is reading her book aloud, she is still editing it!

As writers, our work is never done. At some point, though, we must move on to the next unfinished project.

And it’s time for me to just hit Send. Woosh!

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Books for Everyone! (Well, Not *Everyone*)

The first Little Free Library popped up in my neighborhood about a year ago. It looked like a deluxe birdhouse topped with wooden bunny ears. How adorable! I thought. When I peeked inside, I saw that the contents were largely children’s books or the kind of bestseller that I can’t often swallow. Still, I liked the idea of the Little Free Library. What a cute vessel for book exchange!

Recently a second book-filled birdhouse appeared just up the street from me, this one crowned by an open-mouthed blue bird. 

Later when I got home to my WiFi, I visited littlefreelibrary.org to get the scoop. The non-profit organization’s mission statement is declared on the home page: “To promote literacy and the love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide and to build a sense of community as we share skills, creativity and wisdom across generations.” 

A worthy cause, no doubt. Who doesn’t want to promote literacy*?

I clicked on the World Location Map and saw that these little birdhouses are popping up across Northern America, with a smattering in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Upon closer inspection, however, I noticed that the Little Free Libraries are located almost entirely in middle-class and affluent neighborhoods; places where literacy is already promoted in high-performing schools and most of the population can afford to buy their own books. Here’s the catch: while the organization provides tips and tricks for setting up and maintaining your Little Free Library — and sells a number of do-it-yourself kits — it is up to the individual to invest the time and money into the effort. Of course, most low income people can’t afford to buy books, let alone cough up $150 for the basic birdhouse kit.

The net effect? Free books for everyone, except those who really need them.

As much as I adore these little birdhouses, if the goal is truly to promote literacy, we will all benefit if those of us who can afford to buy books do so at our neighborhood bookstores**, and then after reading them, donate them to a local under-resourced library or to organizations that directly support literacy programs.

(Stepping down off of my soapbox. For now).


* With the exception of several unnamed countries that ban women from reading, driving, speaking in public, showing their ankles…you get the idea.

** Shout out to Walden Pond Books in Oakland!

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