Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Burning Kansas by Sara Paretsky

This month for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club I'm writing about Sara Paretsky's Bleeding Kansas.

I have a bit of a thing for V.I. Warshawski, and to tell the truth I have a bit of a thing for her creator, Sara Paretsky, too. I'm a member of Sisters in Crime, a group Paretsky founded, and I've heard her speak in person. All of this increased my admiration for Paretsky and her work.

So when I heard that she had written a new novel - not a mystery and not starring Warshawski - I was intrigued. Especially because it's set in Kansas. Hey, I lived in Kansas for 11 years. Now she really had my attention. (Paretsky grew up in Kansas, too.)

So I bought the book for my dad (also a Paretsky/Warshawski fan) as a thank you gift for driving to Inconvenient, Illinois to pick up my girls' new bike and saving us $150 in shipping costs.

Naturally, I read the book before gifting it. What, you don't do that? Oh. Well, I do. Just as naturally, he already owned the book and had really enjoyed it.

Which is good, because I was sort of "meh" about it.  Paretsky is a wonderful writer.  I just had trouble connecting with any of the characters in this novel, by which I mean that I didn't really like anybody.  Perhaps I was in a crabby mood that week.  But by page 200 I was caught up enough in the story that I barely minded that I didn't care very much about the characters.  Parts of the novel read a bit heavy, like a massive information dump.  Fortunately, the history was pretty interesting and I enjoyed it.  (Reading Gilead: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson prepped me by giving me background on the anti-slavery politics of Civil War-era Kansas.)

So, to conclude: if you like history, you might check this out.  If you're interested in pioneers and settlers and the history of slavery in our country, you might find this interesting.  If you'd like a picture of non-cookie-cutter politics in America's heartland today, you might check this out.  But if you're a Paretsky/Warshawski fan looking for the sort of hard-boiled Chicago P.I. page turner we're both used to, well, you won't really find that here.

(Note: this novel was new in 2008. I'm a little behind. And the Amazon reviews are humorously mixed.)

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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Wheel of Time

If I were going to review Towers of Midnight - which I'm not - this is what I'd say:
  • Sanderson continues to do a very good job with the imposing task he was given.
  • It's a good book, a compelling read, a solid installment in the series.
  • It's nice to see the characters finally maturing, accomplishing things, working together, and getting along.
  • However, there's perhaps a bit too much of that. I like it, but it seems a bit too pat to me.  Jordan didn't write characters standing around camp fires singing Lean On Me very often. His characters were frequently unreasonable.  And these are still his characters . . . still, we had to work toward the ending eventually and this is satisfying.
  • Sanderson is working very quickly and effectively, keeping up with his own projects while making deadlines on The Wheel of Time stuff too.  But . . . his prose lacks a little something that Jordan's had.  I like the way Sanderson brings pieces together, ties up loose ends, and gets things done.  I don't mind an occasional typo.  But the split infinitives and clunky grammar wore on me in this book, especially when an educated person was speaking in an otherwise rather highbrow fashion.  Minor complaint but not insignificant, to me.
  • Finally, I'd rather laugh with Mat than at him, wish the author had dialed that back a bit.
But all that's if I were going to review the book.  And I'm not going to do that.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Writers Write

Here is the sentence I worked on - in my head - for an hour last night while awake with a sick child.

"As it turned out, Tuesday morning’s breakfast buffet at the Sugar Maple B&B was far more deadly than usual, though it took quite a while for anyone to notice."

I'm still waffling about the first bit and keep taking it out then putting it back in. They're unnecessary words. So they should go. But I like the tone and voice they suggest.

Obviously I tend toward verbosity.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Reading and Cooking

Over the past week or two I've read:
Like mother, like daughter!
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
  • March by by Geraldine Brooks
  • The Heretic's Daughter by by Kathleen Kent
  • Sanctuary of Outcasts by by Neil White
  • Proven Guilty by Jim Butcher
  • probably a couple more I've forgotten,
  • like Case Histories by Kate Atkinson,
  • and gotten ahead on my Newsweeks.
This one, too.

One of Ellie's all time favorite dishes is pearled couscous and she's always thrilled to help prepare it. Also served with this meal: Greek salad, spanakopita, and roasted chicken and potatoes seasoned with basil and rosemary. (I didn't make the spanakopita from scratch; that would have cut too far into my reading time!)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

This week for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club I've chosen The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

"Sarahlynn - See what you think? Carol"

Perhaps every other book club in America has read this novel sometime in the past two years, but neither of mine did. I'd never heard the title until my mother-in-law passed the paperback to me. We're both avid readers, but our tastes don't always overlap (hooray Diana Gabaldon!) so I wasn't sure what to expect. And I waited about a year before picking it up.

Then I really really enjoyed it.

As a fledgling writer who never seems to get quite as much writing accomplished as I set out to do, I was touched by the author's story. Mary Ann Shaffer wrote for years and years and years, probably her whole life. She belonged to writer's groups and researched and wrote diligently. But she never finished a book to her satisfaction until this one, which she sold when she was 74 years old. She died before the final requested rewrite, and her niece - also an author - finished the project. Both of their names appear on the cover.

But I read all that later, after I'd finished the book and needed to know more about who wrote it. The book itself - the story, the writing, the characters, the style - grabbed me and made me not want to finish.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a novel told in letters between an immediately post-World-War-II English author and her friends. Right off the bat, this is not a subject that causes my breath to quicken (except, perhaps, in hasty retreat).

But the main character, Juliet Ashton, has a voice I simply adored. I want to be her friend. I want her to be alive and real today so that I can be her pen pal. I'll even learn to respond to letters, I promise!

The novel tells the story of the German occupation of the British Channel Islands (between England and France) during the Second World War. No, but really. The history just provides fascinating snippets scattered along the way of the real stories, all of which were far more personal.  Individual growth, relationship building, priority setting, and even a mystery.

I have no idea how Shaffer and Barrows managed to write about such sad, indescribably painful, terrible things without making light of them but while still keeping a bright, funny tone to the novel. That feat alone was masterful. While some of the letters were extremely hard to read, I always ended up laughing somewhere along the way. And since there are no chapters, just a series of letters, naturally I read straight through to the end. It's a quick read.

Carol, I enjoyed this one very much; thank you for encouraging me to read it!


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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

This month for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club I'm discussing Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.

I first learned about this novel in book club.  We were listing our all time favorite novels and one reader mentioned this one, then chose it for our next read.  Because of my impressions of the woman who selected the book and the context in which we were discussing it, I assumed Olive Kitteridge was an older novel, perhaps something she'd read in college.  I thought it would have a prominent religious message.  I thought it would be quiet and probably a little conservative or at least conventional.

None of those assumptions proved accurate.

Olive Kitteridge is a novel, though it doesn't seem like one.  It's actually a volume of short stories, many of which are completely unrelated to each other.  Quite a few of the characters show up only in one story and then are gone from the book forever.  This breaks all the rules of good story-telling.  But it works for this narrative, and the one consistent thread is Olive herself.  

She appears in every story, either as a main character - as when her husband is the narrator - or merely as someone who walks through the room in which someone else's story unfolds.

This works in large part because of the author's skill, but also because of Olive herself, who is complicated, fascinating, and nothing at all like I expected her to be. (The series of stories ends up telling one larger story about Olive's life, which makes it feel like a novel, in the end.)

Are you intrigued yet?  I hope you are.  Because I loved this book and want you to go read it too so we can talk about it.

(And after that, perhaps you can point me to a good grammar tutorial on using an awkward word like "assumptions.")

P.S. "Elizabeth Strout’s most recent work, Olive Kitteridge, a novel in stories, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was a New York Times Bestseller. She is the author of two previous novels, Abide With Me, a national bestseller, and Amy and Isabelle, also a New York Times Bestseller."

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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Gotham Writers' Workshop

I'm just finishing up a fabulous workshop on freelance writing at Gotham. Online courses work great with my current schedule. This is what I used for my class bio:

I'm a writer living in St. Louis, Missouri with my husband, our two young daughters, and a snoring pug. When I'm not writing I'm usually reading (everything from Elizabeth Strout to Richard K. Morgan, which is to say: everything), engaging in terribly wholesome family activities, eating, or running.

For ten years I worked in medical publishing but now I stay home and play Uno. For fun I write fiction and narrative nonfiction. (I've published a few short stories and essays and have written four practice novels that no one will ever see.)

For money I do freelance work - both marketing and editorial - for my former employer. But I'd like to do more freelance writing in addition to freelance editorial work.

I recently finished reading WRITER MAMA by Christina Katz, which energized me to start the career transition. I'm looking forward to this class!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Sudden Country by Karen Fisher

This month for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club I'm discussing A SUDDEN COUNTRY: A Novel by Karen Fisher.

First let me just say that A SUDDEN COUNTRY is the author's first novel and was a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist.  Seriously.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I was reading this book and it was making me crabby.  Now I've finished.  In fact, I finished the novel quite quickly, as I raced to the end to see how the two main story lines would resolve.  (More on those in a moment.)

First a bit on why the book annoyed me so much as I read it.  I called it "Madame Bovary on the Oregon Trail" and it's helpful to note that I didn't have a blast reading Flaubert's masterpiece, either.  I spent the first half of A Sudden Country talking aloud to the female main character, Lucy.  "Don't do it, don't do it, don't do it. You idiot. You'll ruin everything. Seriously, don't do it.  Fine, do it.  Die if you want; lose your children, whatever. See if I care."

The characters in the novel are nuanced and flawed.  I mean, really flawed.  And that's good and all, but it's hard to like any of them.  Hard life, hard people, occasionally making stupid choices possibly to just because they can.  So rarely do they have significant choices to make.  Anyway.

Sentence fragments.  I was annoyed by them throughout.  But my least favorite thing about the writing was my friend Jeanne's favorite part, so it's obviously a matter of taste.  Jeanne loved the way the story unfolded slowly, with a sense of mystery.  It drove me crazy.  I thought the vague, dreamlike, and occasionally misleading language drew attention to itself and took me out of the story.  I spent the first few chapters doing math, trying to figure out how Lucy and Israel had all these kids when they'd only been married 4 years, then guessing which kids came from which previous marriages.

Reviewers on Amazon were split between loving the writing style (sentence fragments, partial explanations, imagery-rich details short on clarity) and hating having to read certain sections more than once to figure out what was going on.  I found myself somewhere in the middle.  Sometimes the style worked for me, sometimes it annoyed me.  The author's comment on this issue: "this novel took over ten years, and most of it was written very late at night, by a tired person. So if you find it dreamlike and hypnotic, that’s probably why. I advise reading it under the same circumstances."

I get that!  Enough with the criticism already.

One of the greatest strengths of the novel is the amount of historical detail the author includes "effortlessly."  I'm not usually a huge fan of reading history and require massive doses of personal narrative to make the lessons go down.  (To this day, almost everything I know about ancient Egypt came from a children's novel my mom brought to distract me when I was home sick.)  But at times in A Sudden Country I found the historical anecdotes (daily life on the Oregon Trail) more compelling than story.  The author did a really really good job with her research and with writing it into the story in such a way that it was enjoyable rather than pedantic or distracting.

And then there's the story arc itself.  I love the ending, though I know many people hated it.  I think Lucy's story arc ended just perfectly.  Everything was not wrapped up in a neat little bow, but her life never really was particularly tidy (unlike her home or her campsite).  The other main point of view character and story arc . . . dropped.  Something was building, building, building, I was excited to see how it came out, and then - poof!  Done, over, kaput without ever reaching a conclusion.  Without ever reaching a confrontation, a destination, anything.  It just failed.  This frustrated me.  Doesn't it break all the rules to cut off the story like that without any sort of resolution?  But the more distance I have from the book, the happier I am with the author's choice to handle the story the way she did.

I read a book club version of the novel, and it included an interview with the author as well as a reader's guide bound into the paperback.  You know how sometimes there's one tiny thing someone says or does that jumps out at you and bothers you so much it colors everything else you know about them and their work?  (Tom Cruise's religion, Orson Scott Card's politics, David Hasselhoff's habit of wearing his shirts unbuttoned)  There were two of these such moments in the author interview, and they nearly spoiled the whole reading experience for me.  Now that I've done a bit more research, I suspect that either the author's tone didn't come across perfectly in the interview, or it was edited unsympathetically.  (Note this interview is much more humble and likable, IMO.)

"The road to publication was as rough, believe me, as the journey I was writing about."  I would have laughed at that line at a writer's workshop, but not so much immediately after finishing an engrossing and emotional read.  Really?!  Your search for an agent endangered the lives of your children every day?  You had to leave behind every thing you held most dear?  Sheesh.  I know it's hard to get published, but that's a little Rumpelstiltskin.

This review is far too critical. I'm so glad I read this book. I think you should read it too. It's very good. And educational. Wait! Stop! I mean that in a good way.

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Monday, May 17, 2010

What I Want to Write

I haven't been writing much about writing lately. And that's because . . . I haven't been writing much lately. I've been freelancing more lately. Like, for money. That's important, and it takes up a lot of the time I used to spend writing creatively. (And blogging.)

It's really really hard to keep up with: raising kids, running a household, menu planning (and shopping and preparing healthy food), keeping active, freelancing during "free" time, AND creative writing.

It can be done, of course. In fact, I've done it! (Although when I'm writing busily I often let exercise and eating-in slide a little bit.) So the real reason I haven't been writing as much lately must be something else.

I believe it's because I'm still trying to figure out what to write. Write what you read! goes the standard advice. Well, I like to read lots of stuff. I've tried to write what I read, and even some stuff I don't read as much of for variety.

And after much effort I've determined that it's a real struggle for me to write
children's lit
sci fi and fantasy
and . . . mysteries. I've worked the longest at writing mysteries! I've studied really hard! I've practiced! I've loved reading these all my life! I'm an active member of Sisters in Crime! And maybe one day I'll write a mystery that I think is good enough to share with others.

But in the meantime, where the writing feels most real and most natural and most fun and most exiting is when I'm writing something a lot like . . .

Literary fiction or maybe book club fiction ("commercial fiction," I suppose, though I don't really tend to see the two as such distinctly different genres as some do). So: commercial literary fiction. I think I have drool on my chin. Upmarket fiction.

But the derision!
The pretension!
What unpublished writer could claim to be writing a book like that?!

Those books, the ones that might have stamps from prestigious awards on their covers, the ones with thought-provoking readers' guides, the ones that "use too many words" (as determined by a writer friend of mine who's all about pace and urgency and cutting out all "unnecessary" description) those are the books that really touch me, that really get me excited, that make me think:

I want to do that!

And so. I live. I experience. I feel. I read. I think. I practice. I write.

And someday, hopefully, I'll have a novel I'm proud to show others.

(Image from

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Nothing to Read Here

I read a book intending to review it for the May meeting of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. I decided against writing the review, though.

You know what everyone's mother says about if you can't say anything nice . . . ?

Well, that's not the case here. It's more like I'd be damning the book with faint praise.

And since I didn't have a really strong reaction to the book either way I'm simply not going to review it.

So I could dust off an old review, like this one of Percival the Plain Little Caterpillar.

Or I could review another book I've read recently, like Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls or Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Stout.

Or I could just take a month off. I've chosen to do the latter. I'll also include a list of the books one of my book clubs has discussed:

The Tender Land by Kathleen Finneran (memoir)
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (graphic memoir)
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Night by Elie Wiesel (memoir)
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Birds of America: Stories by Lorrie Moore (short stories)
House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah (memoir)
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Dangerous Life of Altar Boys by Chris Fuhrman
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Bearing Witness by Michael A. Kahn
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott
Lamb by Christopher Moore
August: Osage County by Tracy Letts (play)
Blue Shoe by Anne Lamott
Him Her Him Again the End of Him by Patricia Marx
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris (memoir/essays)
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
The Women by Clare Luce Booth (play)

The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers
Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey by Alison Weir
Lipstick Jungle by Candace Bushnell
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Going Away Shoes by Jill McCorkle (short stories)
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan
A Sudden Country by Karen Fisher

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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Cougar Club by Susan McBride

This month for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club I'm reviewing THE COUGAR CLUB by Susan McBride (HarperCollins/Avon) as is Staci of Life in the Thumb.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that my husband, Paul, is two years and nine months younger than I am.  Does that make me a cougar?  I don't think so.  But I will admit that what feels like no big deal in our 30's felt a little more significant when we were 22 and 19.  Also, my best friend is four years older than her husband.  And my sister is a whopping five months older than hers.  So you decide: are we a Cougar Club?

McBride took some heat for the title of her new book even before it was published.  Apparently, some people find the term "cougar" to describe an older woman dating a younger man offensive.  McBride - married to a man eleven years younger than she - has a wonderful sense of humor about the whole thing.

THE COUGAR CLUB begins a new series about three best friends in their mid-40's, each of whom is making a fresh start of some kind and has a connection to a younger man.

The two best things about this book, in my opinion, are the fact that it's set in St. Louis (woo hoo!) and the characters.  They are - as always in McBride's books - so real that they outlive the pages of the novel.  I have recently realized that I'm 35.  It's not the number that's freaking me out (although, of course it's the number that's freaking me out) but also every little bump, lump, and spot I see on my skin.  I really really really want to go visit dermatologist Dr. Elise Randolph.  I think, "Oh, she's just over at MoBap. I wonder if she can fit me in this month?"  Then I remember: she's a fictional character.  Besides, I'm sure she's all booked up and it would be a little awkward anyway with all the details I know about her private life.

Last year I reviewed the first book in St. Louis author Susan McBride's last series, The Debs (Young Adult, Random House). I thought the writing good and I cared about the characters, though the style was a bit opulent and name-droppy for me.

The same is true here, to some extent.  There's far less name dropping in The Cougar Club than in The Debs, and the names the characters drop are much more my style (Krups coffee maker? Yes, please!).

I love the premise of the series.  I love the quotes from the characters between chapters.  And I love the enduring, loyal friendships between three grown women.

Also, I am really excited for a local author made good; Random House was so invested in this new series that they promoted the book, gave it a great cover, and even printed the trade paperback with spot gloss.  But enough industry talk.

On to the criticism.  I had a hard time loving one of the main characters in the novel (Carla Moss, news anchor).  And and hearing all the characters' ongoing concerns about aging, I found myself panicking about my own slow demise.  (This latter might be a good thing. I've worn sunscreen every day since completing the book. Oh how I wish I hadn't spent my college summers lifeguarding and getting so tan.)

The plot didn't move along quite the way I wanted it to.  This book felt like an introduction to the characters we'll learn more about in the next installment.  Here they are, here's what's going on in their lives, now hang on for book two.

I like McBride's writing and while The Cougar Club wasn't perfect, it drew me in.  I'll be sipping cocktails at Brio, waiting for the next novel in the series.

Here's a blog post from the author discussing reactions to her book. Definitely check it out, because there are two cute videos of the author.

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Friday, March 19, 2010

The End of Publishing? (Cool Video)

For my Facebook pals: The End of Publishing.

Busy Weekend Ahead

I made a trip to Kinko's in preparation for a serious editing phase.

Hey, Mom, look what I did!

(My mom doesn't read my blog. Usually. I just mean that I think it looks cool to see four rough draft novels printed and bound for editing work. Of course I'd kill fewer trees if I could do all my editing on-screen. Alas. But at least I can read tiny type: two sheets per page, double-sided.)

My workspace:

Monday, March 8, 2010

Writing Process

A few years ago, I attended the Summer Writer's Institute in Creative Nonfiction at Washington University.  It was a fabulous experience: motivational, encouraging, friendship-forming, and very educational.  In addition to being a writer of beautiful prose, Kathleen Finneran is one of the best teachers - and editors - I've ever had.

Every night, she gave the class a short writing assignment.  They were a lot of fun, but best of all was receiving feedback on my writing every single day!  "You are a natural essayist," she wrote on one of my pieces toward the end of the program.  Until she said that, I had no idea that what I was writing were personal essays.  This opened up a whole new world for me.

Recently I saw a call for submissions posted on a blog I follow.

It sparked an idea in me that I developed in the shower one morning.

Still dripping, I ran to the computer and typed up a quick draft.

Over the next few days I read the samples linked from the website and I realized that I'd gone in a different direction.

So I sat down with my essay and - over the next two drafts - cleaned up the prose, pared it back, and tweaked it to fit more with what the editor was looking for.

Then, shortly after midnight on the deadline, I submitted my essay.

I woke at 6:00 the next morning to find my rejection letter waiting for me - quickest rejection ever!

But it was a nice one, which I certainly appreciate.

It reads, in part:

Thank you for your submission for [redacted].

I enjoyed reading it, but in the end, decided not to choose it for publication.

It was one of the best submissions I received, though, and I encourage you to submit it elsewhere.
I'll take that.  And one of the most important characteristics of a writer, I'm told, is the ability to be motivated by rejection.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

 This week for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club I'm discussing The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.

Satrapi is only five years older than me. The Complete Persepolis is her memoir, a coming of age story. When she writes about her childhood it's the time of my own childhood and she mentions some of the political events and important people I remember seeing on the news during those days. But with one big difference.

Marjane Satrapi is Iranian and she's writing about her life in Iran (and, later, Vienna).

One day she was a secular ten-year-old student in a co-educational French school in Tehran. The next day she was attending an all girls school, wearing a veil, and spending part of each school day beating herself in solidarity with the martyrs.

The story follows young Marjane from the early days of the Islamic Revolution to her decision to leave home as a twenty-five year-old woman.

The author is an artist, and has written her story in comic book style: a graphic memoir. I don't tend to pick up graphic novels or memoirs as I have this idea that I don't like them. But I'm always appreciative when a book club encourages me to stretch outside of my comfort zone and I really enjoyed this book (as I did Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, another book club read).

Satrapi's combination of a few well-chosen words alongside "deceptively simple" pictures (for so I've seen them described everywhere this book is reviewed) somehow manages to say more than many hundreds of pages of dense text might have conveyed.

The Complete Persepolis is really two books published in one volume: Persepolis and Persepolis 2, both originally written in French. I'm glad to have read both volumes - indeed I was unsure where one stopped and the next started so I read the book through in one late-night gulp - but I enjoyed the first one more.

Persepolis is about the fascinating events of the Islamic Revolution and what it was like to be a child in a particular sort of family in that environment, experiencing things far beyond my own childhood experiences and eventually normalizing them.

Persepolis 2 is the story of Satrapi's years away from Iran, in high school in Europe, followed by her early adult years back in Iran. In Persepolis 2 I was less caught up by the historic events sweeping up the main character and far more frustrated by her self-destructive choices.

The two pieces together form a cohesive whole, transitioning the main character from a child drawn along by her circumstances to an adolescent struggling to control her own life and finally to an adult managing her world with confidence.

I learned a lot from this book, but not in such a way that I felt like I was learning; it was always the story that drew me onward. And in today's world - with Iran part of the "axis of evil" and a presumptive 2012 presidential candidate calling for the U.S. to declare war on Iran - I feel just a little bit more informed about this ancient country and her complex people.

Highly recommended.

From an interview with the author:
"When you are also very young, it’s so difficult all the time justifying yourself because of your nationality. A simple question that for everyone is a one-word answer to “Where do you come from?” -- “I am French.” For an Iranian, it’s a one-hour explanation: “I am Iranian but, I am Iranian but…”

How do you answer that question now, as opposed to when you were young?

When you are young you hate to answer that question. Well, today I just say “I am Iranian,” and they say “You are Iranian?” and I say “Yes, it is a fact, I am Iranian. I was born there, I have black hair. Yes, I am an Iranian person, what can I do?” Since writing the book, nobody can tell me “Give me some explanation.” I think now my explanation is just “Read the book and you’ll see.” This book has permitted me not to talk so much anymore. People have read the book so they see what my situation is.

So you’ve been in France for a long time now. Do you feel you can call it home in any way?

I can live fifty years in France and my affection will always be with Iran. I always say that if I were a man I might say that Iran is my mother and France is my wife. My mother, whether she’s crazy or not, I would die for her, no matter what she is my mother. She is me and I am her. My wife I can cheat on with another woman, I can leave her, I can also love her and make her children, I can do all of that but it’s not like with my mother. But nowhere is my home any more. I will never have any home any more. Having lived what I have lived, I can never see the future. It’s a big difference when someone has to leave their country."

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Literary Ghosts

If you're like me, then you were pretty disillusioned when you learned that many (prolific and) famous bestselling authors don't write their own books.  Instead, they are corporate-managed brands.  But what was once an open secret (acknowledged but not advertised, easy to miss if you weren't looking) is now just open without the secret part:
Literary Ghosts
by Miriam

The subject of ghostwriting seems to be in the air right now. The recent New York Times profile of James Patterson pulled back the curtains on something that was a fairly open secret within the industry: Of the 620 books (give or take) that Mr. Patterson publishes every year, most are collaborations in the loosest term of the word. As Andrew Crofts points out in his rather passionate defense of the practice, if it’s not the oldest profession, ghostwriting has certainly been around since writing utensils began to be used to make literature instead of just grocery lists.

So let's talk about it. On one hand, I see how secretly ghost-written novels are good for the people involved: editors, agents, and authors.  An author might not earn a lot of money from a novel, especially if the author is new, with a small press, just building a fan base, or otherwise not writing best-sellers.  (Even best selling novels don't always make the authors rich.)  The average advance for a novel is something like $3000, I believe.  And there's no guarantee of earning out the advance and racking up significant income via royalties.  With a ghost writer's contract, an author earns a flat fee for service.  S/he might not become wealthy, but has some guaranteed income.  Sweet.

The author whose name is on the cover but didn't do the writing probably receives something, too.  Even sweeter.

And the editors get to deal with a vetted, professional ghost writer who's used to turning in a specific product at a specific time and who won't require a lot of hand-holding.  Fabulous.

But . . .

Don't you feel a little tricked?  Cheated?  I think putting "James Patterson" (and no other name) on the cover of a novel written by someone other than James Patterson (Or Dick Francis or Nora Roberts, or whomever) hurts the publishing industry.  I think it trains readers to shop by brand, to seek out templated reading material, to be risk averse.  Wouldn't it be nicer if we readers were willing to pick up books by authors we'd never heard of but were published by reputable houses and blurbed by authors whose work we enjoy?

Of course, Patterson is a special case in many ways.  He works very hard to be and stay where he is, even if his hard work is more executive than literary.  From the NYT article (link above):
"TO MAINTAIN HIS frenetic pace of production, Patterson now uses co-authors for nearly all of his books. He is part executive producer, part head writer, setting out the vision for each book or series and then ensuring that his writers stay the course."

"The way it usually works, Patterson will write a detailed outline — sometimes as long as 50 pages, triple-spaced — and one of his co-authors will draft the chapters for him to read, revise and, when necessary, rewrite. When he’s first starting to work with a new collaborator, a book will typically require numerous drafts. Over time, the process invariably becomes more efficient. Patterson pays his co-authors out of his own pocket. On the adult side, his collaborators work directly and exclusively with Patterson. On the Y.A. side, they sometimes work with Patterson’s young-adult editor, who decides when pages are ready to be passed along to Patterson."
I once met a ghost writer who told a story of a talk he gave to school children.  "Do you know R.L Stein?" one young fan asked.

"One of them," the author replied.  The child was crushed.  Later I heard a story of a ghost writer sitting on his couch watching on TV as an author was awarded for a novel he - the ghost-writer - had written.

So, what do you think?  Does this practice bother you?  Or is all fair in love, war, and best-seller lists?  And is it different if the "co-author" is acknowledged on the book jacket (e.g. Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark)?

Edited to add: What about authors who write using pen names (Mark Twain)?  Co-authors who use a single pen name or use a mishmash of their real names (P.J. Tracy)?  Are those instances fine but would feel weird if not acknowledged on the dust jacket with an author photo?  And what about "authors" who are pure corporate inventions to unite a series of related books by different ghost writers (Carolyn Keene of Nancy Drew fame, Franklin W. Dixon of The Hardy Boys, etc.)?

Is all of this different now than it was thirty years ago?  Today we live in a world where celebrity is the most valuable commodity and we feel entitled to know nearly everything about the lives and work of the people who move and entertain us.

Monday, February 15, 2010


These are the 4th Olympic Games since I started blogging. And as usual, I can't wait to get back to watching!

We ate dinner at a restaurant tonight. (After what we spent to "fix" Paul's car, a few extra dollars and calories seemed inconsequential.) Adjoining the dining room was a bar area with several large televisions, all tuned to sports channels. And none tuned to The Olympics! All over the blogosphere people are complaining about how exceedingly boring the opening ceremonies are.

So jaded!

Or maybe it's just me; I'm a mutant freak.

But, man, I love the Olympics. I watch every moment I can, every two years.

Today I watched the U.S. Women's Hockey Team batter China while jogging "four miles" on my trampoline.  (The Wii grossly overestimates distance, but makes me feel good at the same time.)  The girls were so inspired that they jumped on for two quick sprints each after my workout.  They love to see their faces on the leader board (they're each other's only competition at the "3 minute" level) and to call out the names of the Miis they recognize along the course.  "There's Grandma! I'm gonna catch up to Grandpa!"

And it's not an Olympic sport, but the girls have really been having fun Wii bowling lately, too.  Who says video games are bad for children?!  Not a parent cooped up inside with two young children on a snowy day, methinks.

A friend called yesterday.  "Are you watching short track?"

Of course I was.

"I bet you really got choked up at Celski's story, huh?"

Not really.  She knows that I get emotional about the Olympics and she likes to poke at me.  I appreciate that.  But it's not the human interest stories that get me all verklempt, it's the sport, baby.  It's the competition, the pushing at the boundaries of endurance, the successes and failures on the track, the slope, the ice, the mat, the course, the pool.

The Canadian women's hockey team decimated Slovakia 18-0 in their first day of competition.  The hometown crowd cheered mightily for their beloved champions.  Then the Slovakians skated off the ice and the stadium gave them a standing ovationThat made me teary.

The Chinese team the American women clobbered 12-1 yesterday?  Sure, they suffered a decisive defeat.  But it wasn't a rout.  Toward the end of the match, one of the Chinese athletes scored the team's first goal.  She pumped her stick in the air and they all screamed in triumph.  All the way to the last bell, the entire team worked hard.  They didn't give up.  They were competing at the Olympics! and that is, in itself, a victory.

On the other end of the spectrum, I could watch Apollo Ono's first 1500 heat over and over and over all day.  (The semi-final and A final not so much.)  He's cool, he's relaxed, and then, BAM, out of nowhere he's going twice as fast as everyone else.

As for the Opening Ceremony, sure the parade drags a bit sometimes but it's fun with good company.  ("Good company" does not include Bob Costas being sarcastic and giving unqualified fashion commentary. Sidenote: I'm a huge Mary Carillo fan!)  And the show itself - thoughtfully included after the parade so the athletes could sit and watch - was breathtaking.  If I started every day of my life listening to kd lang sing Hallelujah, I think I'd be a better, happier person.  (Seriously, go listen. Tell me if you don't feel inspired to go run, write, invent, hug, love, give, be. And while you're there, check out the Define Canada slam. Brilliant.)

I love Canada.  I love Canadians!  Thanks to all the organizers, volunteers, athletes, and sponsors for a great show.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Writer's To Do List

Within the next few weeks I'll complete a freelance project I've been working on for a long time. I'm looking forward to spending more time with my own writing!

I also get to spend two nights away next month at a spiritual retreat with no children, no husband, no television, no internet, and enforced silence.  I won't even bring a book to read.  (For me, books are a bigger distraction than family, television, and the internet combined.)  But I'll have my laptop.

In preparation I listed all of my current projects so that I can begin to prioritize them.  Please excuse the working titles:

Writer’s To Do List 2010
  1. finish Poirot excerpts and assemble Blue Screen of Death
  2. re-read Blue Screen of Death, add tension to each page (remove remaining “just” and “was” excesses)
  3. finish Sands Through the Hourglass (two scenes)
  4. read and tidy Sands Through the Hourglass
  5. read Wyoming the Witch
  6. revise and edit “A Date in the Life of Gillian MacCrae”
  7. submit “A Date in the Life of Gillian MacCrae” 
  8. draft essay for the Becoming anthology 
  9. polish “Camp Fires
  10. submit “Camp Fires
  11. edit “Mountain View
  12. write “Stranger”
  13. rerewrite “Party” 
  14. work on picture books for kids (flesh out current drafts)
  15. read The Really Good Guy
  16. finish, revise, edit The Really Good Guy
  17. edit “Wonder Woman”
  18. Outline Flowers (my exciting new project for this year's NaNoWriMo)

Essays, short stories, novels.  Outlines, notes, first drafts, second drafts, nearly-final drafts.  Various genres.  Various styles.  No matter what I feel like working on each day, I've got a project that matches!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Writer Mama by Christina Katz

This month for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club I'm discussing Writer Mama: How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids by Christina Katz.

My sister sent me this book for my birthday last fall, and I was appropriately grateful.  Such a cool-sounding book.  And such a thoughtful gift!  In fact, it's exactly the kind of book I want to have but never get around to reading.

Indeed, this was the case.  For four months, the book gathered dust on my bedside table.  It was on top, right near the front, impossible to miss.  I reached over it to select a new novel from the stack behind.

Then I decided to take the plunge.  I'll review it!  I thought.  I have a deadline!  Now I have to read it, and fast.

In this, too, I failed.  I could not read the book quickly.  But that's because I'm learning so much on every page.  I've always wanted to be a writer.  I've struggled to build a professional identity in the in-between spaces I can scrounge together with very young children at home.  I've wanted to do so much more.  But I didn't know what exactly, and I didn't know how.  Until now.

I was concerned at the beginning of the book, when the author explained how to use a search engine to find things on the internet.  But the pace immediately picked up and soon I knew the difference between "fillers" and "articles," when to query with an idea and when to submit a completed piece, how to take manageable little steps right now to meet long term goals later.

And the truth is that basic stuff is important.  Sure, most people know how to use Google.  And I already know how to read and follow submission guidelines.  But it wasn't so long ago that I didn't know anything about submission guidelines (that they existed, where to find them, what certain code phrases indicate).  Writer Mama makes the industry accessible to a newbie without spending too much time on the basics for the more experienced writer.

The author does a good job addressing moms of kids of all ages, not just napping infants or older, independent players.  And her advice is realistic.  She doesn't recommend plopping kids in front of the TV all morning, but she does acknowledge that a video can be a special treat for a child when her work-at-home mama faces a tight deadline.  She acknowledges - and suggests coping strategies for - the inevitability that some people won't see a writing mama's job as being a "real" job requiring disicpline, professionalism, and regular hours.  And she points out that we're often hardest on ourselves in this regard.

I had a hard time starting this book.  I had a hard time reading as quickly as I wanted to read.  And I had a hard time finishing in time.  (I like to finish a book a few days before I review it to allow time for the sediment to settle in my brain.)  In fact, I didn't finish at all.  But I'm almost done; I'll finish tomorrow.  With this book, I can't skim quickly over the surface of the text; I'm learning something new on almost every page.  I'm highlighting; I'm making notes.

And it's taking a lot of will power to keep reading and learning at a steady pace.  Writer Mama is broken up into 23 chapters, each of which ends with an "Exercise."  Every time I come to an Exercise, I want to stop and do it immediately.  Not yet!  I remind myself, sticking a flag on the page and pushing on, knowing that the minute I read the last page I'll be starting over at the beginning with the first exercise.

And once I've completed the exercises - each of which seems totally manageable, non-overwhelming, fun and exciting, actually - I'll have several pieces written and queries sent off to editors.  I'll be well on my way from wanting to be a professional writer to actually being a professional writer.

This book is teaching me how to do something I've always wanted to do, but never knew if I could do, let alone how to get started, how to build a business, how to make it work.

Motivational.  Educational.  Interesting.  Useful.  And, did I mention, motivational?

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Meaningful Lyrics

"You wear nothing but you wear it so well."
-- Dave Matthews. (Crash Into Me)

This is my goal. This is what I try to do every time I put my fingertips to the keyboard.

Sell Art Online

Monday, January 11, 2010

Who Am I?

"What kind of books do you write?" a friend asked me at dinner the other night. It's a good question, and one I didn't know how to answer.

"I'm still figuring that out," is really as close as I can get.

My short stories have all been sort of literary (except for the few that I've written and published under a pseudonym).

And my novels, well, I've written a mystery (but I can't really fit it perfectly into a sub-genre like "cozy"), a mainstream/literary novel (the type of book one might find with a book club discussion guide in the back), a middle grade novel with slight elements of fantasy, and an erotic romance.

So far the style that feels most natural to me is a sort of mainstream fiction voice.

But I read in a lot of genres so I thought I'd give several different styles a try before settling down, as it were. (And who knows? I might never settle on just one style.)

For the last month I've written no fiction at all - though of course I've thought about writing quite a bit and frequently draft little pieces in my mind as I go about my day.

For the last month I've been seriously concentrating on reading.

Over the past few weeks I've read: Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson (fantasy), Laurell K. Hamilton (totally different kind of fantasy), Robin Hobb (yet another style of fantasy), Sara Paretsky (hard-boiled mystery), and Patricia Cornwell (thriller), just for fun. I'm currently reading Jill McCorkle (literary short stories) and Kathryn Stockett (historical fiction) for book club meetings next week. And I have the latest Diana Gabaldon (historical fiction? romance? fantasy?) all queued up and ready to go after that. I also have a stack as tall as my bedside table and a shelf on a bookcase at the foot of my bed that are the rest of my "to be read" pile. And that's just books I own or currently have checked out from the library!

Even more than I'm a writer, I'm a reader.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

This month for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club, I'm discussing The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson.

I lived in a town with an independent bookstore.  If you needed to own a book, The Book Bag was happy to order it for you.  I hadn't yet become accustomed to the destination bookstore experience and I well knew the importance of supporting small local businesses over national chain stores.  So I'd never visited the new threat in the next town.

But my boyfriend's mother did.

One day she brought home a paperback with a silly cover and dropped it on my lap.  "They were giving this away for free as some kind of promotion over at that new Barnes & Noble.  I don't read this crap, I told the cashier, but my son's girlfriend reads everything."

More true than untrue.  I immediate dove in.  "Feh. Blatant Tolkien knock-off," I thought after reading the first few chapters.  Well, I liked Tolkien, so I kept reading.  And, suddenly, it wasn't a Tolkien knock-off after all.  It was something quite new and different and compelling.  The giveaway was the first half of Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World and I bought the full book so that I could finish it.

I also bought, borrowed, or begged each of the next books in Jordan's Wheel of Time series until I caught up to the author - then on his sixth series novel - and began anxiously awaiting new titles as they were published.  The series has its ups and downs - there are some sagging books in the middle where I feel Jordan has introduced too many characters, has too many balls in the air, and concentrates too hard on keeping them all up and spinning to actually move the plot forward or resolve any of the loose ends.

Then he died.

I was saddened by the author's death, of course.  And I also was concerned about the rest of the series.  I'd been reading it for more than a decade, since I was in college.  Many thousands of pages, some reread several times.  I wanted to know how everything turned out.

Several weeks later, I read an announcement: the series would be completed by a young author named Brandon Sanderson.  I immediately looked him up, read what he had to say about taking on the challenge of finishing a series started by another author.  An author with particularly enthusiastic and demanding fan base.  Then I picked up a few of Sanderson's books and started reading.

I enjoyed the books, but Sanderson has a strong style of his own, and it's different from Jordan's.

When the newest Wheel of Time book came out this fall, I immediately bought it in hardback.  Then I left it sitting on my nightstand for a couple of months.  I was scared to read it, or to read anything about it.  I cared too much for the series.  "Maybe I should just wait until it's all done (two more books after this one) and read the summary online," I thought.  "That way I'll know what happened in the end - Jordan summarized the ending and closed the character arcs before he died - without having someone else's voice change the characters for me."

Then I was chatting with a friend who has very strong opinions and shares them freely.  (A little like me, no?)  He's also a big Wheel of Time fan.  "Have you read the new book?" I asked.

"I got it from the library and I stayed up until 6:00 the next morning reading," he said.  "Stuff really happens in this book."

"Really?  It's good?"

"It's good," he assured me.

I stopped waited for Christmas vacation and started reading immediately.  He was right.  The book is good.  Stuff happens.  The plot advances.  Character and story arcs close.  Tension builds.  Best of all, the style, the characters, the world itself, all of the important stuff still "feels" like Robert Jordan to me.

Very occasionally I could hear Sanderson's voice (he is fond of opening sentences with a "However," construction).  But those moments just served to remind me of what a great job he was doing with Jordan's story, telling it as the creator himself might have done.

I've read lots of fan fiction online, and none of it has ever satisfied me.  It feels . . . forced when a fan manipulates someone else's characters to do what the fan would like them to do, and the imitation of style is never convincing to me.  I have no idea how Sanderson managed to take on this huge challenge and succeed so mightily.

But he did it, and I can't wait for the last two books.

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