Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown: A Review

The Weird SistersThe Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Weird Sisters is the story of the three Andreas sisters -- Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia (daughters of a Shakespearean scholar father). The novel opens with each sister facing the shared crisis of their mother's diagnosis of breast cancer and their own respective predicaments as well. The eldest, Rose, is torn between following her fiance to England or staying home to care for her mother. Bean has lost her job in New York for embezzling from her employer. And Cordy, the wayward gypsy of the family, is pregnant (not a spoiler...this news comes early). And so the three sisters find themselves living together again at their parents' home in Barnwell, OH. But rather than finding easy comfort and solace there, they are instead forced to face their fears, their demons, and their uncertain futures.

Told in the first person plural, it reminded me a bit of Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides, but this narrator is somehow (and strangely) the voice of all three sisters, and, as a result, the voice of none of them at all. At first, I had difficulty because this narrative stance defied all those rules of point of view that have been hammered into my head over the years. Initially, it felt a bit self-conscious, but after I grew accustomed to it, it was less distracting. I must admit, I kept waiting for each of them to gain their own voice (as in a first person narration) by the end of the novel, but the collective narrator remains.

Regardless. There are so many wonderful things about this novel:

First, there is Barnwell itself. It's a perfect little town; it reminded me in so many ways of my own hometown (as well as my own fictional Quimby and Two Rivers). I could live there.

This is also a book for book lovers. Their father is a fountain spouting Shakespearean quotes. The library, the library! And a three book-toting girls. (Of the three sisters, I do think I liked Cordelia best, and found myself most invested in her, but the other sisters were both beautifully flawed and somehow still likeable.)

Lastly, the writing was lovely and often funny. This book was cozy. I really, really loved it.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Taking Stock

My birthday is Saturday, and birthdays for me have always meant taking stock. Every year around this time, since I was a kid, I have felt a strange compulsion to conduct a sort of inventory of those things I've accomplished, as well as examine the empty shelves waiting to be filled. As I get older, the shelves get fuller, but as a result, the empty spaces seem more prominent in contrast.

Since last June 23, I finished Grace (and set her free) as well as wrote a new book (which I'm still sitting on in my little nest). I also conceived and sketched out the next book, though I haven't gotten a contract for it yet. I managed to help get the girls through one more year without broken bones or cavities. I had an art show of my photography, gave Mikaela a new gypsy-inspired bedroom, taught some classes. I quit drinking (!)...and didn't have a single drink through my entire 42nd year (and didn't really miss it all that much). I read 51 books. I celebrated my twelfth wedding anniversary. I saw a doctor and got a clean bill of health, and I got one haircut.

I didn't exercise. I didn't write that children's book I keep talking about.I didn't pay off a single credit card or student loan. I didn't get the garage cleaned out. I didn't eat any healthier. And I didn't see the dentist. I didn't spend as much time with the girls doing fun things as I wanted to. And my hair is back to being style-less and unruly.

I've got a checklist, lots of stuff I still hope to do. Places to go. The kind of person I want to be. And I, the glass half-full girl I am, suspect 43 will be a very good year.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

On Quieting the Voices in My Head

I feel like I'm in a strange place lately with my writing and trying hard to simply focus on getting the work done. Since my last draft of Bodies of Water, I have simultaneously received glowing praise from some folks whose opinions really matter, and some extremely unkind criticism from someone whose assessments I thought did. I am having difficulty reading and revising the latest draft without hearing those words that crushed me. They have changed the way I feel about my own work. It is crippling me as I head into what I hope is the final draft. It's amazing how much louder criticism speaks than praise, regardless of who is offering it.

I have a friend who is going through the submission process right now who also continues to get conflicting messages about her novel (which I have read, which is wonderful)and is grappling with whether or not to make significant changes (to the characters, to the plot) in order to sell the book. I feel strongly (and have told her so) that she needs to stay true to her original intent, to maintain her artistic integrity at all costs. Easy advice to give. Not such an easy pill to swallow myself.

The reality of being a published novelist, is that suddenly other people's voices are in your head - whether it's that idiot reviewer on goodreads or amazon who gives you one star (though they wish they could give zero stars) or an editor who doesn't deem your work worthy of publication. And like some odd ventriloquist act, those voices can begin mimicking your own, as though they are coming from inside you instead of outside.

This is not to say that criticism is always wrong, or that you shouldn't ever listen. My editor's critiques are almost always exactly what I need to hear. But learning how to filter the helpful from the harmful, the valid from the valueless, is a struggle. I feel like so much of my time is spent now quieting those voices. Trying hard to listen to my own. For my friend, whose work is brilliant and beautiful and true, I wish you the necessary silence to listen to your own voice. And for me...I will try to do the same.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Carry the One by Carol Anshaw: A Review

Carry the OneCarry the One by Carol Anshaw
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don't know why this book took so long for me to read. It's only 253 pages...but it felt, somehow, epic (though not necessarily in a positive way). The premise was what drew me in (along with the very loud buzz): a carload of people coming home from a wedding strike a young girl and kill her. The novel then follows the driver and passengers as they navigate their lives following this tragedy. The writing is strong, the characters were interesting, but it somehow failed to fully engage me. I think the primary issue was that there were simply too many characters. There just wasn't time to really invest in any one of their stories. As a result, I felt somehow disconnected from their sorrow and regret. I would have appreciated the novel more had it been Alice's story (a woman who uses her art to explore and exorcise her guilt). And I really, really did not like the last scene.

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Thursday, June 14, 2012

The (Sand) Bucket List of Summer 2012

Maybe it's time I start taking a cue from my ten year old for a change. Last night she asked if she could use the computer to work on her list. I grumbled something about the ink cartridge being low and warning her about the general malaise my computer seems to be exhibiting lately, and then relinquished it to her. (Frankly, I was just grateful that this particular project -- she's always doing some sort of project -- didn't include digging into our recycling or glue). And so she disappeared inside my office...and came out about a half hour later with a freaking masterpiece!!

Excerpted from her summer "bucket list":
  • Read 20 books.
  • Put at least 20 videos on youtube channel. 
  • Make something new.
  • Try five new foods.
  • Make money
  • Sell lemonade.
  • Flash mob. [I'm imagining this going down at our cabin where we spend most of the summer.]
  • Go in the boat.
  • Catch a fish.
  • Sleep in the treehouse.
  • Swim in 10 feet deep water in the pond.
  • Stay up until 6 a.m.
  • Beat Dad at bad mitten [sic]
  • Have parties.
How awesome is that?? So here's my riff on this:
  • Read 20 books.
  • Write 20 blog posts.
  • Make a new book!
  • Cook five new foods.
  • Don't worry about money.
  • Squeeze life's lemons.
  • Dance more. Sit less. Sing out loud.
  • Take the girls out in the boat.
  • Cook the fish? 
  • Sleep in the tree house??
  • Swim with the girls every day.
  • Get up at 6 a.m.
  • Beat Patrick at badminton.
  • Throw parties!
With my students, I am always harping on the necessity of setting goals and making self-imposed deadlines. As a writer, I warn, it's rare that anyone cares when (or even if) you finish a project...and so it's important that you care. I didn't realize that this has rubbed off on the girls, but apparently it has. But what their take on all of this teaches me, is that goals don't always need to be about work...but should also include play and fun.

And, in case you're interested...Esmee had quite a list herself. On her list? Do 20 cartwheels, touch the bottom of the pond, and climb a tree!

Your turn.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


I am beginning to wonder if there is some sort of physiological shift that is triggered at the last day of school -- the result of endorphin-like chemicals released from some yet-to-be-discovered gland. Because even though I have not been in school as a student now in over fifteen years, the giddiness of the first day of summer is undeniable.

This week has been one of organized chaos. There's no other way to explain it. Dance recitals and dress rehearsals, book and writing events, field trips, and teaching on top of all the other busy-ness of our lives. Perhaps the end of school is just a sigh. Just my body being able to take a breath. But I am overwhelmed by it. All that marvelous possibility of 84 days (yes, Kicky counted) without the usual obligations.

Not that there isn't significant work ahead. I just got the notes on the latest draft of Bodies of Water back from my editor yesterday. They're not extensive, but they will require digging in again. I also really, really hope to proceed with the next novel. There will be summer camps for the girls (Junior Theatre and ballet), a drive across the country (and back), an online class to teach, some editing jobs, etc...

But right now, it's 9:00 a.m., and the girls are still asleep. The house is quiet. I don't have to pack lunches or find parking at drop-off. I don't have to force the girls to sit down with homework this afternoon while trying to get Kicky's hair wrestled into an acceptable ballet bun. I don't have to recall fourth grade math or check second grade spelling. And as much as I love volunteering, I don't need to prep art lessons or plan anything. When I think about summer, I almost feel like it's a place rather than a time. A crazy awesome island where none of the regular rules apply.

Today I think we'll go to the library and sign up for the summer reading program (remember those??!!), load up on books, look through the cookbooks and find the most decadent summer foods to make, and maybe watch a movie. I'm thinking something along the lines of Aquamarine or Judy Moody's Not Bummer Summer. My two most favorite kids' summer flicks.

What about you? What will you do with your first day in Summerland?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Vee, a Short Story

About once a decade I write a short story. Today, one of them was published at Numero Cinq Magazine (which you should all be reading, by the way). This is the only story I've ever presented at a reading that made me cry. With that...


Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Collector

Last night, Patrick and I had a rare night out. For those of you who don't know him, Patrick is the Executive Director of a non-profit literacy organization by day, but by night he is very involved in a number of local arts organizations: sitting on boards, directing and producing and curating art stuff all over the city. (Really, it's a sort of Clark Kent situation.) Anyway, his latest endeavor has been bringing The Collector, a multi-media puppetry performance piece by Animal Cracker Conspiracy (directed by Lisa Berger), to San Diego. Last night was the world premier at 3rdSpace, a fabulous artist club/gallery/performance/work-space in University Heights. I went with an open mind...not having seen puppetry of any sort since the kids were little. (I've always found puppets a bit creepy.) But The Collector was fabulous. Definitely creepy, but also quite beautiful. It primarily explores our obsession with objects as well as our relationship to these objects (how they define us, how they can destroy us). However, it's not only about consumerism, but also about possession. (For anyone who has read Grace, you know that this is a thematic thread that runs throughout the novel. I'm fascinated by our need to own, to accumulate, possess, to keep things: objects, people, memories.) There's also a monkey CEO, ominous old fashioned cameras, a bird-lady shaman, and incredible sound created by Margaret Noble. Go see it!!

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The End of The World As I Know It (Or, School's Almost Out for Summer)

At this time of the year, I typically find myself experiencing something between excited anticipation and the stunning realization that I have only one week left before I have to switch gears from being a full-time writer to being a full-time parent. I love both jobs, don't get me wrong. But it's kind of like being a librarian who becomes a rock star, or maybe a jackhammer operator. Seriously. As a full-time writer, I work for myself. I sit around in my quiet house in my house-clothes (as opposed to what I put on for the rare forays into the real world). I poke around on the internet (and in my cupboards), tap out a few thousand words, and then settle into the hammock with a book (research) for the rest of the day. As a full-time parent, the house is not quiet. It is loud. My little people are bickering all the time. I get dressed, because they want to go places. Lots of places. If I get to the computer at all, it's so jammed up from Webkinz-related activity I couldn't write if I wanted to. The hammock is still there...but it nearly drags to the ground with three people in it. And reading? Can you read, I mean research, when there are monkeys climbing all over you? Monkeys who want to go to the beach, out for ice cream, shopping??? Good news is, both job descriptions share a few key duties: 1. Play all day. 2. Call it "work." 3. Take care of people (characters) when they get hurt, when they feel sad. 4. Go to the library a lot. 5. Worry endlessly. 6. Love tremendously. And compensation for both is usually in joy rather than exorbitant paychecks. Here comes summer.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Name a Character in My Next Novel!

One week from today (Sunday, June 10th), I will be participating in San Diego Writers, Ink's Blazing Laptops Writing Marathon. It is a fundraising event for SDWI, where I regularly teach creative writing classes. The event lasts all day (9 hours), but due to a certain ballet dancer's recital, I will only be able to perform a half-marathon. Regardless, please consider pledging. It supports a great cause. It's easy (just click here!). And best of all, the person who makes the highest pledge will get to name a character in my next novel!!

Saturday, June 02, 2012

The Sand Castle by Rita Mae Brown: A Review

The Sand Castle (Runnymede, #4)The Sand Castle by Rita Mae Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This tiny little book almost read like a play to me. I loved the characters (sisters Juts and Wheezie), and I also really liked the seven year old narrator, Nickel. Not much happens: a late summer trip to the eastern shore of Maryland where the two sisters build a sand castle with Nickel and her cousin whose mother has recently passed away. But I'm not sure it really had the satisfying arc of even a novella. It felt more like a sliver from something much larger. And, indeed, I understand these characters appear in other of Brown's novels. I'll have to see if I can track some of the down...because these characters were really wonderful.

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A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano: A Review

A Good Hard Look: A NovelA Good Hard Look: A Novel by Ann Napolitano

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This follows the intersecting lives of southern writer, Flannery O'Connor, and a cast of Napolitano's fictional creations. Set in small town Georgia, the novel opens and closes with the riotous cacophony of O'Connor's famous peacocks. In between are the stories of three families. There is a great tragedy about 2/3 of the way through, and then a lengthy (though ultimately satisfying) resolution. The pacing felt a little too languid for me...but it's a book about the south, and so I suppose that's okay.

My only other complaint was that I felt like I didn't get enough of Flannery O'Connor. She was present, of course, throughout the novel, but she wasn't nearly as vivid as I suspect Napolitano meant for her to be. I had difficulty understanding why Melvin found her so compelling that he was willing to risk so much for her companionship. I did, however, find the characterization of Lona to be flawless. Her desire and longing were palpable and painful.  

Above all else, Napolitano's writing is beautiful. If it weren't a library book, I would have marked many, many passages throughout that were simply perfect.

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Oprah and Me

I just found out yesterday that Oprah is reviving her now several years defunct Book Club. And the moment I saw the post on a friend's Facebook page, I felt overcome by a very old and powerful feeling.

You need to understand one thing at the outset: Oprah and I go way back. It was over a decade ago, back when I was fresh out of graduate school, living in a one bedroom apartment at the beach in San Diego, that our story begins.

I had written a novel as my thesis at the University of Washington called Paper Rain. It was my first novel, and I just knew that it was going to catapult me to literary fame and fortune. I found the contact names and addresses for nearly a hundred editors and agents, and I wrote to them. All of them. And some of them wrote back.  But none of them wanted my novel. After months and months (and so much wasted postage), I sadly gathered these missives into a binder which I titled, Paper Rain on My Parade.

Having once believed that Paper Rain would put me in the company of the literary greats I admired (and maybe even into a bigger apartment), I now suspected that it was more likely that nobody but my family would ever read it (and that I'd be writing at my kitchen counter for the rest of my life). And so I made a few hand-made copies. I printed the pages on beautiful paper, which I tore at the edges. I bound them with jute. I autographed them. And then I gave them away. But I kept one, and this is the one I sent to Ms. Winfrey. This was our first correspondence.

I sent it unsolicited with a letter lauding the brilliance of not only my novel, but also my lasagna. (Remember, back then, her book club met over dinner at the author's home.) I actually wrote something to the effect of "I don't have a table" -- which I didn't -- "but I have plenty of dishes.") I did not include an SASE (Why bother? She'd want to keep this treasure wouldn't she?) And then I waited.

Months passed, no phone call. No announcement on my TV in that wonderful whooping voice she reserved for announcing her Book Club picks. But then one day, miracle of miracles, she wrote back! (Or rather, her producers -- or maybe the unpaid intern who opened her mail -- did. And she also sent back my lovingly hand-crafted novel, despite the lack of postage paid.)

I had been heart-broken by my myriad rejections from agents and editors ("just not for me," "we do not feel strongly enough about this project,"  and my favorite "we publish only biographies of opera singers."). And now this. Et tu, Oprah? Et tu?

But always tenacious and hopeful, I persisted. And eventually, all that hard work paid off. I got an agent (though she also couldn't sell Paper Rain), wrote another book, published some books, won some grants, and all the while there was Oprah. Oprah was picking a book a month at that point. Books that were about to go out of print. Books by authors like me. There wasn't a single person I talked to who didn't say, "You should send your book to Oprah." Though I couldn't bear to tell them that I already had.

Then there was what I like to think of as the 6-Degrees-to-Oprah phenomena. Someone I knew knew someone who went to her gym in Chicago. Maybe she could just slip a copy of Nearer Than the Sky onto her treadmill? And then there was our friend who went on Oprah for Dr. Phil's therapy boot camp...maybe he could just hand her the paperback of Undressing the Moon? (Forget that he was there to deal with his own emotional issues. What about my book??!!) Of course, neither friend went through with it. But then -- serendipity! My friend's friend WORKED for Oprah. Specifically for her Book Club. And she did pass along my work, all three novels, and I waited for the call that would change my life.

But then came along two men who would change my life forever: Jonathan Franzen and James Frey. (And yes, I still hold a grudge.)

First Jonathan Franzen, when honored with Oprah's coveted seal of approval, poo-pooed her and her low-brow audience. I'm certain you remember this? I do, because after this, the Book Club came to a nearly screeching halt. And then she started only picking books by dead authors. (I was pretty certain I was really out of the running now.) But then a few years later she chose A Million Little Pieces. And the author, James Frey, was alive! But alas, his not-so-true, true-to-life true story became another thorn in Oprah's side, and she returned to her reliable dead authors again. And we all know what happened after that. 

Since then, I've gotten a table, and those dishes I was so proud of have long since been donated to Goodwill. I have also written five more novels...though none of them have yet thrust me into those literary realms I once dreamed of. I have moved from that little apartment, though I do miss it sometimes. We could hear the ocean from our bedroom window and the mourning doves perched in a tree outside. It is with fondness now that I recollect hammering away at the keyboard at the tiny kitchen counter where I worked. Because I was writing, and that is what I love most to do.

I've also long since given up the silly notion that literary fame and fortune should always come quickly. I have accepted that I am a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race kind of writer. I am grateful for my struggles. And I am even more grateful for the longevity of my career. With or without Oprah, I will keep writing books until the day I die.

But Oprah's Book Club is back. And I know exactly what that feeling is...the one creeping up my back as I type. It's that jingly feeling you get when you've got a plastic cup full of nickels at the slot machine, the scritch-scratch of your nail as it scrapes away the gold foil from a tear-off ticket. It's possibility. And there isn't anything in the world better than that for a writer...or for anyone...than this. She's going to make the careers of some very fortunate authors. And for the rest of us...well, we'll just keep writing and dreaming.

Friday, June 01, 2012

One Year Later

For some reason, I just revisited the blog post that I made exactly a year ago. It is stunning to me that I didn't even know the characters in Bodies of Water at this point. I hadn't dreamed a single scene. And I find it most surprising of all, that "the new project" ultimately became a love story.

From June 1, 2011:

On New Projects
So I am in that weird place in the novel-writing process where I am actually almost "done." Meaning...on June 1st I will send it to my editor and then, hopefully, have little more than some tinkering to do before it goes into print. There's still work to be done, but I can finally start to entertain the ideas for the next book.

I'm not one of those people who can work on more than one thing at a time. I am totally a totally monogamous sort of writer. But at this stage of the game, I am like a new divorcée, just waiting for the divorce papers to be finalized. There have been flirtations, of course....little notes jotted into my notebook, nights spent thinking about the new book instead of the one I'm with, but I have remained faithful. But now that the end is near, I have that itchy thrill of what will be next. New.

Starting a new project for me is so similar to falling in love. I seriously get butterflies in my stomach just thinking about all the possibilities. It keeps me up at night. I obsess. It's all I can think about. Everything I see and hear makes me think about it. My whole world revolves around it.

So here's to June 1st and new projects and falling in love. Again. 

And so on this June 1st, I begin a new affair, though this is no love story this time. I can tell you that there's a traveling carnival, some really bad people, some really good people, and a twelve year old girl named Rainy.