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Archive for December, 2008

Books Read in December

“Breakfast of Champions” a novel by Kurt Vonnegut
I think this is the first novel I’ve read by him unless I read “Slaughterhouse-Five” in high school. Wasn’t that one all the reading lists? This was my latest book club pick. The first night  picked it up I read about thirty pages. When I got back to a few days later I couldn’t pick up the thread of the story so I flipped back a few pages. Still couldn’t. A few more. Nope. I had to start over. I found myself trying too hard to figure it out. It felt like one of those pictures that you’re supposed to relax and look through somehow and this amazing 3-D image will be revealed. Well. I can never ever see them. Ever. But with this book I kind of relaxed my focus and just settled in for the ride and that worked. At our book club the consensus was fairly unanimous. Quirky. Weird. Hard to follow. But once we started talking, a new perspective and appreciation emerged. I’ll never be a die-hard fan but I like reading books that pull me out of my comfort zone. It’s good for me the writer, me the reader and me the person.

“Iodine” a novel by Haven Kimmel
Dark, disturbing, gothic, rich with archetypes and psychology. This was not an easy read. There are so many layers to Trace Covington’s personality. What was real and what imagined became a very fine, blurry line. The novel explores a young woman’s brutal and bizarre childhood as it is revealed in bits and pieces of dreams and journal entries. She is a brilliant student, which helps hide the fact that she is seriously disturbed emotionally and possibly mentally. When she falls in love with her literature professor their love story seems to help sew the fragments of herself together until his secrets emerge, causing her to confront her own. I wasn’t always clear about what was imagined and what truly happened but I also wasn’t bothered that I didn’t always know either. The voice, as well as the story itself is incredibly hypnotizing.

“The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” a novel by David Wroblewski
I have to admit that this book didn’t make it onto my to-be read list even after all the hype over the summer, and even after Oprah picked it as her latest selection.  Part of it was petty jealousy that a first time author who spent ten years writing this book was graced by the Oprah Midas touch. Another part was that a book about dogs didn’t exactly appeal to me. I like dogs. I like cats. But I don’t feel that magical connection to them like some people. Then my book club selected it to read so I succumbed and bought it. I had a hard time getting into it. Maybe I was distracted but I didn’t feel a pull to pick up and continue reading it. Finally two people from my book club said they had read it over the summer and they couldn’t put it down. So I started over and they were right. He tells a great story. One of the things I admire most is his sense of place: the woods, the barn, the seasons. The chapters from the point of view of the dog were not gimmicky as I feared. And Edgar is such a unique character: a mute boy with this special connection to dogs. I found the information of breeding dogs actually quite interesting. The book is over five hundred pages and part of me feels that he shoe-horned everything he might ever want to possibly write about someday into this one book. Then. Then I get to the end. Now I won’t spoil it but I will say that I had to read it twice to make sure what I thought happened is what actually happened. And I think it is. And I was disappointed. And a little annoyed. After all that. Really? That’s how it had to end? I’m really curious to hear what he has to say about the ending. Maybe it will help me see it a new light. Maybe not.

“The Penderwicks on Gardam street” a YA novel by Jeanne Birdsall
I read this for our mother/daughter book club, which meets tonight. My daughter is in the living room trying to finish it before we leave; she got caught up in another book this month. It was a quick, cleansing read. Exactly the kind of book I would’ve been drawn to as a kid: a family of four daughters each with their own interest and talent whether it’s animals, writing or science. The only problem I had was that I figured out very, very early on how it was going to play out and I was right.

“The Year of Fog” a novel by Michelle Richmond
This was a mesmerizing story. A story I couldn’t put down. It’s the story of a six year-old who goes missing on a foggy beach in San Francisco. It’s the story of the search for her, of the guilt that Abby Mason, the girl’s father’s fiancée feels every single minute of every dingle day that passes and the girl is not found.

I love the way Richmond weaves this incredible story with information and history of memory and photography.

Memory is not unlike a photograph with multiple exposures. One event is layered on top of another, so that it is impossible to distinguish between the details of the two. The older we get, the more multiple-exposure memories we have. Temporal relationships become elastic. As the years progress and we experience more and more, the mini-narratives that make up our lives are distorted, corrupted, so that every one of us is left with a false history, a self-created fiction about the lives we have led.

I admire the pace of this well- plotted novel that seems to emanate from the characters and not a plot driven outline the author had in mind all along. I learned that it’s not only important to have a burning question that leads the reader to turn each and every page such as will the little girl be found but it’s just as important to have questions beneath questions: what happens if she is found? What happens if she isn’t?

“A Better Angel” short stories by Chris Adrian
This may be my surprise favorite book of the year. I found it on the new books shelf of our local library. Hadn’t heard anything about it but liked the cover: a collaged angel illustration. The stories are stunning. Once I got to the third (chilling) story I realized I had heard of him. The story, “Stab” was in the “Best American Mystery Stories”. The stories blend some amazing writing with medical mysteries as well as spiritual ones. Echoes of 9-11 reverberate throughout the collection in odd and uniquely compelling ways. The author is a pediatrician as well as a divinity student (not to mention a successful writer). The main thing I am taking away from this collection is to really just delve into what you find fascinating about the world you live in and slice it open to share it in your writing. The things that fascinate Adrian appear in the stories over and over: children, illness, 9-11, regret, death, mourning. I’ll have to go out and buy a copy since this is going on my permanent bookshelf. (Oh and two of the stories got honorable mentions in 2007 BASS edited by Stephen King.)

“Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him” a novel by Danielle Ganek
First of all- great title. It is actually the title of a painting that becomes the center of a bidding war after the fifty-something, “emerging” artist is run over by a cab on the night of his opening. Mia, the gallerina finds herself at the center of all the hubbub surrounding his death and sudden fame as an artist. This was a fun romp through a world unknown to me- the New York and International art scene- as Mia sheds one artistic identify and finds her true one as well as her true love.

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Some Link Love

Here are some interesting links (that I found thanks to Leah) to inspire you as you head into the weekend.

• Break through writer’s block here

This looks like so much fun. I think I’ll play with it after I write today. Would make great homemade gifts for the holidays.

• A pep talk to just do it.

• An interview with the designer of the Obama logo.

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Becca asks: So, how about you? Do you find that physical activity inspires your creativity? What’s works best for you – walking, running, dancing, kickboxing? How do you get in touch with your body, and use that awareness to inform your writing? How do you keep your body and mind in balance?

The mind body connection has always fascinated me. For those who don’t believe that such a thing exists, I ask if you have ever been afraid? That rush of adrenaline that floods your body comes from a thought that you are in danger. Or perhaps you’ve been turned on by an erotic story or movie. Mind, body- it’s all connected. So as a writer who uses her mind, I’m always looking for ways to tune into my body and use it to help my creative process.

First, I need to exercise. Moving my hand across a piece of paper or the keyboard does not qualify as aerobic activity. I work out about five days a week. Sometimes four, maybe six. It’s part of what I consider my triad of health. Exercise connects me with my body, writing with my mind, yoga and mediation with my spirit. If I let go of one, I lose focus. Lose my emotional balance. If I don’t move my body it starts to feel sluggish which leads to my mind feeling sluggish which leads to very few words getting onto paper. In the winter, exercise is especially important. It keeps the winter blues at bay.

Most mornings I do a twenty minute yoga routine that ends with a five minute meditation. I don’t belong to a gym. I have lots of tapes that I rotate that incorporate aerobics and weight training for about fifty minutes each. I always end up feeling clear headed and energized, two valuable assets to the creative process. I also walk, jog, ride my bike in the summer, shovel snow in the winter. It’s no longer a chore to make myself do it. I’ve been doing this for two years now. Even when I go on vacation I find a way to workout.

I also get a massage every other week. It’s a luxury that I made room for in the new budget that I set up once the economy tanked. It’s relaxing, balancing and often ideas for characters and stories drift to me as I lay there.

Walking is another activity that untangles the knots in my mind. If I feel stuck in a story I often go for a walk, not to exercise my body but to stimulate my brain. The even rhythm allows things to settle and ideas rise to the surface. At the very least I come back energized and re-focused.

Dance is something that I am feeling drawn to lately. I once had a childhood friend who told me I sounded like an elephant as we all did the locomotion in her basement. And one charming boyfriend in college took it upon himself to “teach” me how to dance. Up until that point I had pretty much enjoyed myself out there but in his eyes I apparently lacked a certain rhythm, not that I was Elaine or anything from Seinfeld but he sure made me feel like it. Anyway, I have this urge now to take ballet in order to feel graceful in my body. Or perhaps ballroom dancing with my husband.

Exploring other art forms is nourishment for the art form you practice. I took singing lessons once. I always told myself I couldn’t sing and I thought that getting in touch with my physical voice might help with my writing voice. It did. To me dance is all about being totally in the moment and unselfconscious. How could that not help my writing? This dancing seed was planted back when I read Twyla Tharp’s book “The Creative Habit”. She is a dancer and choreographer but the book can be applied to any art form or creative process.

Sleep is critical to my overall well-being. I naturally sleep eight to nine hours a night. Seven is pushing it. Six and it’s nap time.

The last way I stay in touch with my body and use it in my writing is by becoming aware of bodily sensations that come up with strong emotions. Writing about being afraid or nervous keeps it pretty abstract. It grounds a scene for me to focus on what the character feels in her body and to do that I need to be aware of what I feel in my own body. Do I twist my ring when I am nervous? Rub the back of my neck when uncomfortable? Being on the lookout for these sensations also helps me ride out the wave of emotion. It takes me out of my head and all the stories I tell myself and into the moment, into my body.

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“Not Buying It- My Year Without Shopping” by Judith Levine
Considering the current state of the economy this was a very timely book to read. Levine and her partner set out on a year of buying only the necessities. The question of course becomes what is a necessity. Q-tips? Wine? A particular brand of socks? Bread, yes. Packaged cookies, no. Many issues arise as she records month by month their experience of being outside our consumer centered society. How do they have a social life without meeting friends for dinner or a movie or even a cup of coffee? They often meet for picnics. Does it count if a friend offers to pay their way? They learn to get creative in gift giving. They explore free entertainment. It’s an intriguing look into our spending habits and what happens when we break away from those habits. It’s made me pause over my purchases, giving rise to the old question of needs versus wants as well as the impact a particular purchase has on the planet. A thought-provoking read that I highly recommend.

“Prescription for a Superior Existence” a novel by Josh Emmons
This intriguing novel explores the lengths of self-improvement we go to in the never- ending quest for a better quality of life. Jack Smith is trapped in a vicious cycle of work, alcohol, pain killers and pornography when he is fired from his job and falls in love with the daughter of PASE’s founder. PASE is an up and coming new religion in California that claims to teach the Prescription for a Superior Existence. As Jack becomes more deeply involved his initial assumptions are tested and re-tested. At the spiritual training center Jack is surprised to find a sense of community but nothing and nobody is what they appear to be. Are he and the group headed for group transcendence or something more sinister? Read it to find out.

“More Than It Hurts You” a novel by Darin Strauss
I couldn’t read these 400 pages fast enough over Thanksgiving. It tells a disturbing story of a woman’s love for her husband and son and the desperate measures she will go to in order to create her ideal family life. The story revolves around Josh and Dori Goldin and their baby Zack who is rushed to the hospital by his mother. There they meet Dr. Darlene Stokes who becomes suspicious that Dori may be a case of Munchausen by proxy, a rare diagnosis where a mother intentionally harms her baby. The pace of the novel is just right. The omniscient narrator gives us the perfect distance and allows us to see the lives of many characters including Dr. Stokes’ early life with her mother as well as the father who abandoned them. The heart of the story centers on Josh as he watches his life crumble all around him. He is determined to fight for his family and has a staunch faith in his wife that is slowly eroded over the course of this heartbreaking, riveting novel.

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