Archive for February, 2014

The Serendipity of Selecting Books, or How Do You Pick a Book to Read?

In the February 22 “By the Book” section of the New York Times Book Review Alice Hoffman gave this answer to the question: What book are you most eagerly anticipating this year? A novel I know nothing about that I happen to stumble upon, as I did once upon a time searching through my mother’s bookcase. That’s still the best reading experience: falling in love with a book I meet by accident.

                                                                                                                            

I used to go along the library shelf and pick books by title, color, something else about the spine that caught my eye This method introduced me to authors I never would have found otherwise. I would read a piece of the flap or the first sentence or two to see if I potentially would like the book, but for the most part, those books were a surprise. I’ve never been one of those people who has to finish a book I start, so I wasn’t in danger of investing  time in something I didn’t like.

For a few years, I worked in the children’s department of our public library. As the head librarian valued my knowledge of YA books and respected my ideas, it was a great job. Until she resigned. The new head of the department was a nightmare and I soon left, too. I avoided the library and started buying books. Suddenly I was pickier. Now I would be wasting money if I didn’t finish a book.

Although I may have still done some shelf-selecting, I tended to read authors I knew I liked or tried books from reviews. The reviews proved less than satisfactory; I might have been okay with these selections if I was getting them from the library, but when I shelled out dollars and used space on my dwindling bookshelves, I became more critical and often never finished a volume.

For a number of years, I belonged to a book club which provided me with books and titles I never would have read without the suggestion of the group. Not all of these were great (The Celestine Prophecy) and some of them weren’t worth reading (Bridges of Madison County.) Overall, though, I was introduced to new titles and authors, until the group disbanded when more people wanted to discuss work and vacations than the content of the books.

During this past summer, I attended a writing retreat on Long Island. One of the instructors read a piece from a Colum McCann novel. It was beautiful. I wanted to read that book, not one of his recent ones, but I didn’t remember the title. Old Firehouse Books, my local independent bookstore, carried only TransAtlantic and Let the Great World Spin. Although my nemesis had finally been let go, and the library was a safe place again, I was out of the habit of going there.

One day in the fall we were at The Tattered Cover on Broadway in Denver. Truth be told, I prefer the LoDo location, but that day it was easier to access the main branch. I scanned the new titles but nothing looked like a sure thing, something I wanted to sink a large chunk of an afternoon’s salary into. As we were leaving, I remembered my desire to read Colum McCann. Like many bookstores, The Tattered Cover has added used books to its shelves, making its name more accurate. I found McCann on the shelf and pulled a book off, paid for it, and later that night started reading. It was lyrical, but it wasn’t what I expected. Many pages in, I turned back to the cover. Somehow I’d pulled The Mother of All Sorrows off the shelf, a book by Richard McCann, not Colum. Serendipity and a surprise book. Probably not something I would have picked to read on my own and an author I hadn’d heard of.

I’d made another serendipitous selection related to that trip to New York. Even though I’d brought a book with me to read on the plane, I like to browse airport bookstores. A friend had suggested In the Night Circus as a reading selection for my trip, but even though it was on the shelf, the pull of the unknown made me select another title, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, a German bestseller. I hadn’t read a book in translation in awhile, the title sounded somewhat intriguing, and the first sentence or two worked, so I bought that instead. I don’t believe I know anyone else who has read this story full of magical realism set in a another culture.

Cognate questions: How do you find books? Have your ever found a book by accident?

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Muse in a Drabble

While looking through my files, I happened across copies of stories in journals I didn’t remember had been accepted! Not a bad problem to face. One of the finds was a drabble that appeared in The Boston Literary Magazine, Summer 2007. And just for the sake of interest, I include the comment the editor made in her acceptance email: We really loved The Muse Effect and want to include it in our summer issue, which we will be pulling together next week. It was masterful, with such a satisfying ending.

Certainly you might not call it “masterful” but I hope you find it amusing.

The Muse Effect
C.A. Cole

Avalon cover


      He’d never wanted to be anyone’s muse. That much was clear, but there was something about the elixir of his skin that made her want to strum her guitar and experiment with lyrics.

“Why don’t you want to be my muse?” she asked in the hollow of the night, Roxy Music in the  background. She swirled her third Ramos Gin Fizz.

“Why should I? Too much responsibility. I don’t want to be attached to anyone. Find someone else.”     He hung up.

Didn’t matter. His very existence ignited her soul, inspired rhythm, inspired rhyme.
No way could he shirk that fate.

From Boston Literary Magazine July 2007
What or who is your muse? Does it change with different stories? If you lose your muse, how do you recover?
And in case you want to listen, since music has a muse-like quality for many,  here is a youtube recording of Avalon:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpA_5a0miWk

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For Hannah, on Her Birthday

Today is my best friend from high school’s birthday. We weren’t in touch for many years, but we are once again. I believe I sent her a copy of this poem, but since then her house burned down, she moved numerous times, and possibly she forgot about this completely. Now that I’m looking at the published version, in Orphic Lute I remember being a little upset because part of what I considered both a dedication and part of the title was left off.  i am going to restore it here.

Hannah Dancing
                                     (for Bob)

He wanted to send her a rose
just one rose
to remind her of the bouquet
from ten years ago.
The feeling was there,
muted,
but there.

He’d love other women,
loved one now,
yet her buzzing,
the way she tossed her shortened locks,
that green myopic tease,
how she said, “Hello, Bob,”
brought a shadow
jolting back.

It wasn’t only that she was the first.
He’d cared more about the second girl,
written Lori a song;
Lori of the burning hair,
Lori of the sixty months,
Lori he’d loved and left.

He told his present love,
“All I felt
for Hannah and Lori–
I feel more than that for you–
but I can’t shake those images,

those silver bangle bracelet
images of her dancing,
raising her arms in the humid moonlight,
her breasts swaying in the night wind,
those images
imbedded in my mind
of Hannah dancing.

Although I can’t find a definitive history, Orphic Lute was published for almost 50 years, possibly until the time of the dominance of the Internet.

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New DANGER for Writers!

Recently a friend wrote a blog about plotting vs. pantsing; it appears there is a new “danger” and meaning related to pantsing.

For some time people at my place of employment have been talking about the need to not sit for extended periods of time. I’ve heard hints of this in the popular press, too, and I am a participant in a long-term, nationwide study that asks a question about how many hours a day you SIT. If this anti-sitting  research pans out, it appears  writers are at risk for ailments not associated with writing in the past. Diabetes. Heart disease. Obesity and probably other ailments as well. Much of the research appears to have come from Australia, with interest shown by many other health care professionals.

Probably most of us think, “Oh, I walk for a half hour a day, or ride my bike for two hours, or exercise on the weekend,” but what this research is saying is that that is not enough and what we need to do is stop sitting for extended periods of time. Exactly what constitutes an “extended” period of time I do not currently know, nor do I know how much time you have to stand up and move around to counteract the effects. Does standing and walking down the stairs to pour coffee provide enough of a break when you’ve been sitting for three hours editing a manuscript? Probably not.

2/20/12 UPDATE: It looks like this could be even more of a concern for older writers. Younger writers turn into older writers on a daily basis, so it most likely is best to establish new habits NOW.

The best advice at the moment might be to set a timer and get up and stretch every hour or so. Dance. If you’re at home, vacuum, run down to the basement to fold the wash, walk to the store. If you can find a place to use your laptop while standing, do that for part of the day. If you’re at writing group, stand up and discuss the writing for at least five minutes of every hour. Just don’t sit in your seat staring at the screen for hours at a time.

This cutting edge research gives new meaning to the word pantser, but unfortunately, it applies to plotters, too!!

Here is the Abstract for one of the original articles from European Endocrinology:

‘Too Much Sitting’ and Metabolic Risk – Has Modern Technology Caught Up with Us?
David W Dunstan,1–5 Genevieve N Healy,1,3 Takemi Sugiyama3 and Neville Owen3

Abstract
Recent epidemiological evidence suggests that prolonged sitting (sedentary behaviour: time spent in behaviours that have very low energy expenditure, such as television viewing and desk-bound work) has deleterious cardiovascular and metabolic correlates, which are present even among adults who meet physical activity and health guidelines. Further advances in communication technology and other labour-saving innovations make it likely that the ubiquitous opportunities for sedentary behaviour that currently exist will become even more prevalent in the future. We present evidence that sedentary behaviour (too much sitting) is an important stand-alone component of the physical activity and health equation, particularly in relation to cardio-metabolic risk, and discuss whether it is now time to consider public health and clinical guidelines on reducing prolonged sitting time that are in addition to those promoting regular participation in physical activity.

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On Finding Old Writings: Lost Love Poems

887299_391205761023088_140069575_o-1One of my writing friends polled those of us in our writing group about a piece she’d found on her computer. She didn’t think she’d written it, but none of us claimed it, either. Coming across published pieces you’d forgotten about is equally disconcerting. I’d completely forgotten about this particular piece which was published in Poetic Justice.

“Ice-god”

Dream with me…
we will meet
in winnowing moonrays
silent as distant suns.
You place your fingers on my cheek,
small cool touch,
needlepoint of starlight.
Your eyes like cloudless nights,
moonless wind,
like frost
freeze
my soul
into endless dreams
of you
looking away…

I did remember this next one since I often think of it when I’m picking berries. It was published in another little journal, The Yellow Butterfly.

Wild Berries

Stooping among brambles
I envision you holding women
for I know there have been many.
With each searing thorn
I wonder if you pause,
remember me

your first you said
and love you said

and like a bitter berry
curse the men
who’ve held me since.

(photo credit: Kathyrn Taylor, Feb 2014. Used with permission.)

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Is a Unique Setting Necessary to the Goodness of a Novel?

Maybe there are two kinds of posts, those that are opinion and those that require research. The second could also include opinion, of course. After reading a comment by Saytchyn (see comment to previous post) that didn’t actually make it into the comments section for some reason, I decided to write separately about my thoughts on the ten characteristics of a First Class Novel.

What she said was that what met the criteria was subjective, and of course it is, but it also seems as if at least a few of the categories might have more objective measures. For one, transporting us to “unlikely cultures or times” seems as it can be objectively determined, although I’m not clear on the qualifier, “unlikely.” The reader should know if a book is set in a culture, country, or time in which they have never participated. Yes, few of us alive have been to a time prior to 1914. Does that give all historical fiction a point in the 1st class category? The book that Saytchyn mentions, The Bone Key by Sarah Monette, is set in England. If the reader has never traveled to London, does this qualify it as an “unlikely culture”? What if you have visited? What about an English reader living in London? Are they likely to think less of the book if they are familiar with the setting?

Here is the list of the first ten adult fiction books I have listed on Goodreads. Not sure why they are in the particular order they are, maybe by date I rated them? I’ll give a quick assessment of whether or not they meet the culture/country/times criteria.

1. Dancer (Colum McCann)–set in Russia and the world of dance   YES

2. Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole)–New Orleans of the 1960s. Setting marginally meets the criteria but possibly the characters make it an “unlikely” culture.   Yes

3. Let The Right One In (John Ajvide Lindqvist)–Sweden world of vampires. YES

4. Mother of Sorrows (Richard McCann)–suburban Eastern US, 1950s or 60s.This would seem like a no for anyone over 40.  No.

5. Chang and Eng (Darin Strauss)–mid-1800 world of Siamese Twins in the US. YES

6. Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes)–contemporary and mid-1900 England.  A very little bit, but how different in England from the US?  not really

7. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (Peter Hodges) mid 20th century mid-American small town.  No, at least if you’re over 25.

8. A Dangerous Woman Mary McGarry Morris –20th century small town.  No, again, if you are over 25.

9. Nobody’s Fool  and Straight Man Richard Russo–upstate New York, small town, 2oth century and college town in the Eastern Us.  No.

10. A Patchwork Planet (Anne Tyler)–20th century Baltimore. Again, not really.

What does this short analysis say? That I like books with a change in culture/time/country, but it isn’t  necessary for me to think a book first class. I know from that sampling that my love of Sense of an Ending was driven by the beautiful writing. The last five were related to the characters. Overall, for me, although a unique, interesting, or foreign setting adds to my assessment of a book, it’s not strictly necessary for me to call a book First Class.

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Name a “First Class” Novel

Recently Donald Maass published an article,The New Class System, about his take on the world of publishing in Writer Unboxed. In it he listed classes of novels. I am creating a checklist of his First Class Novel points. My first impression was that few novels would fit in this category, and of course, it probably isn’t necessary for all good novels to meet every point.

Here’s the list, taken from his post:

1. Memorable Characters
a. singular destiny
b. likeable
c. self-aware
2. Unique Premise
3. Instantly “real” story world
4. Gripping plots
a. gripping even when slow
5. Gorgeous writing
6. Surprising themes
a.which are challenging
b. change us or see the world in a different way
7. Break rules
8. Transport us to a different culture or time
9. Teach things we knew little or nothing about.
10. Overall “utterly unique”

For my first attempt at “rating” a book I thought I’d have to use something I’d read in the last year, but when I looked at my bookshelf, I realized I have other candidates. For my first attempt at analyzing a book, I am going to use Lambs of God by Marele Day.

1. Memorable characters. Yes, although I can’t, off the top of my head, name any of the nuns or the priest.They are likeable, although they have varying degrees of self-awareness. And yes, at least two of the main characters, including the antagonist, Father Ignatius, have singular destinies.

2. The premise: a group of nuns live isolated in a forgotten monastery have their new traditions and routines interrupted when a man (Father Ignatius) appears with orders to close their sanctuary. I’ve never read a book with this outlandish premise before, and it is hard to see how anyone else could propose it.

3. Story world immediately real. Yes.

4. Plots that grip. I read it quite awhile ago and plot is not usually a major factor for me, nor are nuns the characters I’d put at the top of my interesting traits/occupations list. Glancing at the book now, I’d say it takes a little (p. 5) to actually get into. I suspect it is mostly slow but still entertaining and interesting.

5. Gorgeous prose. This is another characteristic that I’d have to reread to accurately access. I found this novel hilarious and think comic novels can get away with a different level of good prose.

6. Themes: To definitely decide, reread, but probably yes, although obviously not memorable enough I can spout them now.

7. Breaks rules. Again, this is hard to access since I’m not sure what rules are being spoken to, but yes, a book with one male character set in an isolated spot probably breaks many rules.

8. Cultures and times. My recollection from an interview is that the author made up most of the Catholicism for this novel, but it fits due to the cutoff nature of the group. So in the world of fantasy, yes an unlikely culture.

9. Teaches things. I did have to look up the geography since the author is Australian and I was curious as to the setting. I was also curious as well as the accuracy of the theology. Although I may not have learned much about either in the book itself, the book could be considered a vehicle for learning.

10. Utterly unique. My initial thought was, “Yes, this is unique,” but on reflection, I think it could fit into a genre of science fiction/fantasy–isolated outpost. It might have some similarity to Lord of the Flies, (William Golding) and possibly The Sparrow  (Mary Doria Russell.)

I guess I’m calling it as having at least six attributes of the First Class Novel, with three unknown due to the necessity of rereading. The last is a draw since I would have said yes, utterly unique, but on second thought, it does share characteristics with some other stories.

Overall score: 6+

I would love to hear YOUR ideas of First Class Novels and how they rate using this system.

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