Category Archives: Favorite 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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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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Long Live the Editor!

Over the past week, I’ve spent a good chunk of time reading a 300-page manuscript for my writers’ group. The novel is a work in progress for sure, flowing well in some places, meandering in others (in fact, I just made a note to cut Chapter 10 all together). But this is precisely the point of having others read your work; often they can see what you cannot. This is why all writers need editors.

Not all writers agree with this. I’ve perused a fair number of literary agents’ blogs and submission guidelines, and have picked up on a common message: Do not send your first draft. Or even your third. I’ve also heard that many agents and publishers dread the month of January, since it routinely brings with it an onslaught of slapdash National Novel Writing Month manuscripts.*

Editing an English language documentBut what about those writers who have “outgrown” editors? There are a number of authors who have attained enough popularity and status as to make them almost untouchable. For instance, while I can’t know the intimate details of Stephen King’s writing process, the epic length of his books points in the direction of “less is more” when it comes to editing**. Stephen King is big money. If he tells his publisher not to change a word, his publisher won’t change a letter.

Tom Wolfe is another one. For years, I’ve heard what a great writer he is, and his sales numbers appear to reflect that popular opinion. However, when I picked up I Am Charlotte Simmons a while back, I was surprised by his dull characters and rambling narrative***. Worst of all, Wolfe’s then 70-something-year-old voice repeatedly bled through the narrative of this story about college kids (my favorite was when he explained the drinking game of “quarters”, which he set off with quotation marks each time). I barely made it through 100 of the 800-page book before I set it aside, shaking my head and thinking, “This is what happens when a writer gets too big for an editor.”

While I shrugged off Wolfe’s novel, I was crushed to have a similar realization about an author I actually really like, an author who I have in fact praised more than once on this very blog. Wally Lamb’s first novel, She’s Come Undone, is everything I aspire to in my own writing: Sometimes distressing but always compelling. Redemptive, but not in a Hollywood ending sort of way. Genuine. As is standard practice with a first novel, I imagine that his publisher had him work very closely with an editor on this book, and to great effect.

But a spot on Oprah’s book club and a few bestsellers later, that editor was noticeably absent in Lamb’s most recent novel, We Are Water, which examines a number of touchy subjects including gay marriage, interracial love, and sexual abuse. I will say this: the characters are complex and many layered, and the storyline is intriguing and topical. But the dialogue feels forced and unnatural, at times more like a series of speeches being delivered to the reader than a conversation between two people. In clear violation of the golden rule of writing – Show, Don’t Tell – most of the back-story is delivered in the form of monologues that go on for pages and pages without a single scene or exchange. The opening chapter is a stilted Q&A session between an awkward journalist and an elderly artist, neither of who are significant characters in the book. And don’t get me started on the overuse of ellipses to signify that someone is about to have a flashback…

It’s heartbreaking when a good book goes bad. We Are Water had so much potential, but left to his own devices, Lamb failed to transform his characters into real people and their stories into real lives.

Everyone needs an editor. Period.

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*I wonder if November – the month when all the NaNoWriMo’s are hard at work – is actually the best time of year to submit.

** This is not to talk smack about Stephen King, who is actually a pretty darn good writer when he puts his mind to it.

*** To Wolfe’s credit (or his editor’s), his grammar and sentence structure are beyond reproach.

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It All Starts with a Good Idea

I’ve just returned from a visit to London, the land of winding cobblestone streets, tea and biscuits, and dimly lit, creaky-staired pubs with twelve different lagers on tap. It is a place of centuries old, half-bombed out churches standing alongside modern glass facades and Wi-Fi-enabled phone booths. It is the home of outdoor markets that bustle even in the dead of winter, of bangers and mash and beans on toast.

Oh, and Harry Potter, of course.

I’ve read the Harry Potter books and watched the films more times than I can count. I’ve quoted the wise Professor Dumbledore on multiple occasions, and have referenced both Patronuses and Dementors in casual conversation. Without question, I am a fan.

I couldn't help myself.

Looking over my shoulder for nosy Muggles.

But while I was well aware of the global phenomenon that is Harry Potter, the scale of the thing didn’t really hit me until I visited Harry Potterland, which is housed in an enormous warehouse-type structure just outside of London and is actually called The Making of Harry Potter.

I spent nearly four hours on the self-guided tour, which featured full-scale sets from the films, original costumes, literally thousands of props, behind the scenes footage of how certain special effects were achieved, and a gallery of magical creatures ranging from Acromantulas (giant spiders) to Thestrals (scaly winged horses), not to mention what may be the largest gift shop of its kind. While the collection was impressive beyond my expectations, the thing that struck me the most were the quotes from the author herself, J.K. Rowling, well-placed throughout the museum. Her name was all over that place.

Most writers are thrilled to be published at all, and those whose books are turned into movies are probably grateful to get a Based on the novel by credit. Writers are not film stars, or the lead singer in the band. They are not talk show hosts, or YouTube sensations. Writers are not often in the public eye, but exist behind the scenes, and spend most of their time alone with their laptops, surrounded by dirty coffee cups.

But J.K. Rowling has not only made a household name for herself, she has built an empire. She managed to not only have her books published, but to negotiate her way into the production of the films, of the museum, video games, amusement park rides, fan websites, and billions of dollars worth of merchandising. She is either a genius or mind-blowingly lucky, and probably both.

The first book was published in 1995, and the first film was released in 2001. In 2014, Forbes estimated the Harry Potter brand to be worth over $15 billion, and J.K. Rowling’s personal fortune at over $1 billion. And to think, this all started 20 years ago when Rowling had a good idea for a character whilst on a train ride to London.

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Thank You, Books

I can be a bit of a curmudgeon around the holidays. As much as I would like to blame the PTSD from my days of working retail at Christmas, most of my holiday-based anxiety is of my own creation: pairing my general intolerance for shopping with the self-induced pressure to find the “perfect gift” is asking for trouble. But when it comes to Thanksgiving, I am fully on board. I love everything about Thanksgiving, from the kick-off cocktails to the requisite crisp, after-dinner walk to make room for dessert. And although the cynic in me can’t help but raise an eyebrow at a nationally designated day of thanks, I do appreciate the nudge to, well…appreciate. So in the spirit of the holiday – and in the theme of this here blog – I have listed below just a few of the many, many books for which I am thankful:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I enjoyed this version almost as much as the original.

Now With Zombies!

I first read Pride and Prejudice whilst studying at the University of Swansea in Wales. I was 20 years old, far from home for the first time in my life, and – despite being three years into an English degree – totally intimidated by many of the classic works of the language. Pride and Prejudice was not assigned reading for a class, but rather a recommendation from my friend Emma, who proclaimed it as not only “a good laugh” but also as one of the smartest books she’d ever read. And she was right.

From Jane Austen, I learned to appreciate wit, social commentary, and early 1800s feminism. I also learned that I was perhaps more intelligent than I’d previously believed. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice at least a half a dozen times, and choke up every time Mr. Darcy says to Elizabeth: “Much as I respect them, I believe I thought only of you.” I am such a sap.

Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut

galapagos-vonnegut-kurtI was introduced to Kurt Vonnegut by way of my father’s bookshelf. Vonnegut taught me about satire and how to find truth in the absurd. With literary tongue in cheek, he reveals the darkest parts of the human mind, yet his writing never despairs of hope. He also demonstrates the indisputably powerful punch of the well-placed short sentence: “And so on.”

I have read and loved many of Vonnegut’s books, however it was Galapagos that inspired me to seek out that living diorama of evolution for myself. For my 40th birthday, I crossed off the item in the top spot of my Things To Do Before I Die list: Visit the Galapagos Islands.

She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb

She's Come UndoneAt the risk of being over-dramatic, this book changed my life.  While the cringe-inducing coming of age story is at times almost too painful to read, it feels 100% genuine throughout. The central character is complicated – her behavior sympathetic and abhorrent in turns – and her journey leads the reader to a wholly satisfying conclusion.

I am in awe of Wally Lamb’s beautiful, flawed heroine, but I am indebted to She’s Come Undone for inspiring me to start writing again after a very long, very dry spell. Read all about it in this blog post from last Spring.

The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

hppmeab05-w813I’ve probably lost a certain amount of credibility by including this on my list, but I’m willing to risk it. I wish these books had come out when I was a kid, because that’s really the only way I could love them more. Okay, so they are a tad formulaic in structure, but they have all of the elements of a compelling story: an underdog to root for, mysteries to solve, good vs. evil, and of course, magic. Who doesn’t want to be magical? Rowling is not only a master of world building, but also of long-haul plot development: her clear vision for her characters and storyline allowed her early on to plant the subtle seeds that germinate into major plot points in the later books. As a fellow writer, I am damn impressed.

I have reread this series more times than I can count, and have a special love for the audiobook versions, which for me are like aural comfort food. When I am anxious or unsettled, or can’t get to sleep, I can nearly always find calm in narrator Jim Dale’s soothing voice.

Road Trip, Party of One by Lisa Thomson (that’s me!). Unpublished.

BookQuestionMarkMy early attempts at novel writing were not unlike my attempts to quit smoking: I started off full of inspiration and determination, but within days or weeks – and often after a couple of drinks – I’d stumble off the wagon. My plot lines, like my will power, were too thin to carry a story for more than a dozen pages.

I finally quit smoking at age 24, but it was another few years before I was struck with the inspiration for my first completed novel. I was listening to the R.E.M. song Night Sleeper on my pre-iPod portable music device whilst on my way home from a long day at work when an intriguing character popped into my head: a misanthropic shift worker in his late 20s, cut off from all family and friends, almost without hope. Almost. He was both my alter ego and my cautionary tale. I was hooked.

Although this novel isn’t likely to make it out of the figurative box in the back of the closet, I will always be grateful for it. Through my experience of developing this story over a somewhat turbulent four year period, I learned that with a little inspiration and a lot of determination, I could create a whole new world. I wasn’t a failure as a writer; I simply hadn’t yet found the right story.

 

 

 

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