Saturday Reads: January 28, 2012

Young Woman Reading by Hermann Jean Joseph RichirThe Guardian has an interesting blog post on “The Future of Books, Today.” Neil Gaiman, interviewed for the piece, says he thinks “traditional publishing” has five or “maybe 10 years … But that isn’t going to mean fewer books. There’ll be a lot more books—people will just find them differently.”

Also, London’s City University is now offering an MA in crime writing.

Pamela Paul weighs in on the 50th anniversary of A Wrinkle in Time in the New York Times.

Flavorwire has a list of the ten most dangerous novels of all time. I know Stephen King has expressed regret over writing Rage, but I did not realize he had asked his publisher to take it out of print. I also liked their list of the “10 Most Iconic Accessories of Famous Writers” and their list of “10 Legendary Bad Girls of Literature.”

This is so funny. The last Top Ten Tuesday was open topic, and Mandy of Adventures in Borkdom had the same idea (here is my post). We appear to have some overlap.

 

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Top Ten Books of 2011

Top Ten Tuesday

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday—how appropriate! What are my top ten books of 2011. Note: Not all of these books were published in 2011, but I read all of them in 2011.

  1. Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly (review): This part-contemporary YA novel/part time-travel story awakened an interest in the French Revolution that I previously did not have (I know, right?). I loved the musical aspect and had a lot of fun discussing this book with students who chose to read it for their summer reading selection. I wish Amadé Malherbeau were real!
  2. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (review): Jacob Jankowski is my BFF. I loved this story more than I thought I would. I didn’t think I’d like the circus aspect at all, but I found it fascinating.
  3. On Writing by Stephen King (review): This book is the best, most practical book about writing I’ve ever read, and its advice has already proven invaluable.
  4. The Songcatcher by Sharyn McCrumb (review): I love the idea of handing a song down from generation to generation, and as a family historian, I found that aspect of the novel particularly appealing. Sharyn McCrumb writers about her own ancestors in this novel.
  5. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (review): Stories about the Lost Generation are interesting. I loved this take on what happened in Paris told more from Hadley Hemingway’s point of view than Ernest Hemingway’s (for a change).
  6. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (review): This book was comical and completely engaging. I can’t wait for the sequel. I giggle every time I think of the Welsh teenagers trying to rap.
  7. The Secret History by Donna Tartt (review): I will never turn my back on a Classics major again. They are scary people.
  8. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (review): I laughed all the way through this while still feeling empathy for Junior. Alexie is a gifted storyteller.
  9. Passion by Jude Morgan (review): I loved this novel of the lives of the Romantic poets Byron, Shelley, and Keats told through the eyes of the women who loved them. Mary Shelley comes across as fascinating and sympathetic, and Caroline Lamb was downright engaging.
  10. The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry (review): As the mother of two children on the autism spectrum, this novel about an adult with Asperger’s was fascinating. I also liked the cooking aspect and learned a truly good recipe for brownies.

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Writing Dreams

رو به سردي

The weather here has been absolutely gross for three days. I’m glad today, though it looks cloudy, at least doesn’t look like rain. I have been wanting to get out and take a walk with my husband, but I don’t really even want to go outside in this weather.

I had a strange writing dream last night. I haven’t been doing much work on my NaNoWriMo novel since December started, and one reason for that is that I have a major plot hole that introduces implausibility. It sounds really strange to say that in a novel in which Shakespeare and Jane Austen are brought forward into the current time that I can’t figure out how to get them identification and passports without having them resort to shady fake documents (and how do they even know people who can make fake documents that fool authorities? or how do they even have money to pay for them?). It’s really bugging me. Man, in historical fiction, you can move people around so easily. They can stowaway on a ship or even book passage legally, and no one glares at their ID for five minutes to determine whether they might be carrying fake identification and could be a terrorist.

At any rate, last night I had a writer dream. I was at NCTE. I saw lots of my friends there, but I was also being followed by some shadowy folks like a bad spy movie. English teachers are classical spies, right? Anyway, out of the blue, Stephen King and Joe Hill (who is Stephen King’s son) showed up at my hotel room with printed copies of my NaNo book covered in blue ink. I have no idea how they got my ms, but they had clearly spent some time critiquing it well. Joe Hill told me it was pretty good, but about 1/3 of it was crap (which is pretty much my own estimate). Stephen King nodded vigorously to indicate he agreed with his son’s assessment. I was thrilled that Joe Hill thought 2/3 of my novel was something I could work with, and I couldn’t wait to read their suggestions on how to fix the 1/3 that wasn’t. They were like my perfect deus ex machinas or something like that. I wish a real writer would jump in solve my ms problems instead of dream Stephen King (who was hard of hearing in my dream) and dream Joe Hill. I was so shocked and happy that they had come to help me with my book.

I think my brain picked them because even though I haven’t read a lot of their work, I think highly of them as writers because I know a lot about their process. Of course, I learned about King’s through On Writing, and Joe Hill has discussed his on his blog. Plus Joe Hill is very opinionated on Twitter, and if he thinks something’s crap, he calls it out as crap—precisely why I felt his assessment of my book was actually high praise. In real life? I’m not sure either of them would like my book. It doesn’t seem like their thing. But they were both as nice as they could be in my dream.

Creative Commons License photo credit: seyed mostafa zamani

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WWW Wednesdays: December 14, 2011

WWW WednesdaysTo play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…

  • What are you currently reading?
  • What did you recently finish reading?
  • What do you think you’ll read next?

I am currently reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s YA novel Catalyst. It was, incidentally, mentioned in the most recent book I read by Sherman Alexie: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It’s one of Junior Spirit’s favorite books. I also recently read Looking for Alaska by John Green. You can read my reviews of these books here and here. John Green will be in Atlanta next month, and I think my daughter wants to go see him. I have also finished Stephen King’s novel Misery since I last checked in with WWW Wednesdays. My review of that book can be found here.

I am not totally sure what I’ll read next. It’ll be something from this list. I have a lot of those books already, many on my Kindle, and it seems about time for a Kindle book.

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Misery, Stephen King

You’ve probably seen the film based on Stephen King’s novel Misery, even if you haven’t read the book, so you probably know the story: writer Paul Sheldon is kidnapped after nearly dying in a car accident and tortured by insane former nurse Annie Wilkes, who is his number one fan. Incredulous that Paul has written a novel she considers crass, she forces him to burn it and write Misery, the romance-novel heroine he killed off in his last book Misery’s Child, back into being in Misery’s Return. Paul undergoes the worst sorts of physical and psychological terror as he writes what ironically is certainly the best Misery novel he’s written.

I saw the movie when it came out, and having read the book now, about twenty years later, it seems as if the movie adhered fairly closely to the plot of the book. Kathy Bates was brilliant as Annie, and having seen the movie first, of course I pictured her in the role as I read. Annie Wilkes may be completely insane, but putting on my writer glasses, I can see she was a gift of a character for King. She is possibly the most frightening villain I’ve read precisely because of the realness of her character. On the one hand, she’s a completely psychotic serial killer who first murdered almost an entire family at the age of eleven; on the other hand, she can’t stand cursing, lying, or smoking. She uses lame expletives like “cockadoodie brat” and admonishes Paul for wanting a cigarette even as she contemplates murdering him. My husband says he thinks King is wary of people who don’t curse, that somehow, those people are a little unhinged.

One of the things King says in On Writing is that folks ask him why he writes the kinds of stories he writes, and his response is that he doesn’t have a choice. You have to wonder what kind of a place a novel like Misery came from. I always kind of enjoy books about writers. My NaNoWriMo novel is such a book. I’m not sure why, but that sort of window into the creative process is always interesting to me. I like to see fictional writers flying away on their keyboards, sweating through writer’s block, and triumphantly finishing a novel. It’s kind of weird to read books about writing, I guess, and now that you pin me down, I’m hard pressed to name another book like this that I’ve read.

One reason I read this novel (finally) was that King mentioned both the book and the character Annie Wilkes (and he clearly thought Annie was more interesting than Paul Sheldon) several times in On Writing, and I was struck with the desire to see what it was all about. It is fairly gruesome, but I think most people picking up a Stephen King book know what they’re in for without needing to be warned. The book is quick-paced and starts off right in the middle of the action. It’s a great on-the-edge-of-your-seat read.

Rating: ★★★★★

Full disclosure: I obtained this book from PaperBackSwap.

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WWW Wednesdays: December 7, 2011

WWW WednesdaysTo play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…

  • What are you currently reading?
  • What did you recently finish reading?
  • What do you think you’ll read next?

Wow, I haven’t played along with WWW Wednesdays in a long time.

I am currently reading several books. The main one is Misery by Stephen King. I have seen the movie, and I thought Kathy Bates was brilliant in the role of Annie Wilkes. I had never read the book, and I admit that reading King’s memoir On Writing is what prompted me to finally pick it up. I am enjoying it a hell of a lot. I’m also still dipping into The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I can totally see why it won the Pulitzer for nonfiction. It’s not just an interesting subject; it’s well written. I tried reading Anna Karenina on DailyLit, but I finally had to admit I wasn’t into it when I had a huge backlog of unread book installments and no desire to even open them. I have to just say it: I’m not into the Russians. I have tried them and tried them, several times, and I have given them a fair shake. I think it’s time to give up trying to be cultured. I picked up Madame Bovary instead, and while it hasn’t grabbed me yet, I will give it more than two installments. I guess I’m also still reading As You Like It when I think about it.

I recently finished a re-read of Sense and Sensibility read by Juliet Stevenson. I highly recommend her Naxos audio book readings of Austen’s works. I think the only one she didn’t record for them was Pride and Prejudice. Stevenson is a brilliant reader. I also recently finished Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson, who consistently writes amazing books for teens that are straight out of the Judy Blume School of writing about what young people are really like and what they care about. I discovered that Laurie Halse Anderson creates playlists for her books, so given that I love creating Spotify lists, I went ahead and put her playlists in Spotify (at least all the songs that were available). Here is her playlist for Twisted. Naturally, you need to have Spotify to listen. Here are my reviews for Sense and Sensibility and Twisted.

The next book I read will be either Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, John Green’s Looking for Alaska, or Laurie Halse Anderson’s Catalyst. I am in a YA mood right now (probably because I just went to NCTE). I also really, really want to read Divergent by Veronica Roth soon, but I don’t have it, and neither does my school library. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was recently challenged here in my home state of Georgia. My daughter, however, says I should start with Looking for Alaska, but that I’d better be prepared to cry. I think I will probably read that one first just because she wants me to and so we can talk about it.

So, what are you reading?

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Sunday Salon: The Shelf Awareness Interview

Still Life with Plato

No, Shelf Awareness isn’t interviewing me, but I love to read their author interviews, and they always ask the same questions (at least in my limited observation). They’re fun questions, too. So should Shelf Awareness ever want to interview me, they can simply copy and paste.

On your nightstand now:

I actually have a stack of books against the wall more than a pile on the nightstand. In my stack are Misery by Stephen King, a few Sharyn McCrumbs I want to get to, Tea with Jane Austen, Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier, The Widow’s War by Sally Gunning, Moloka’i by Alan Brennert, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, and A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly, among other books I dip into occasionally.

Favorite book when you were a child:

When I was in the third grade, it was Superfudge by Judy Blume because Mrs. Elliott read it to us, and it was impossible to check out of the library for months afterward. I also loved The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner. When I was a little older, Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume.

Your top five authors:

  1. J. K. Rowling: Her books are pure, imaginative escapism, and I am grateful for all the time I’ve spent at Hogwarts.
  2. Jane Austen: She is my literary comfort food. I can always turn to her for a good read.
  3. William Shakespeare: Unqualified genius and master of the English language.
  4. F. Scott Fitzgerald: Beautiful turns of phrase and poetic writing. I admit his place here rests on one book—The Great Gatsby.
  5. Barbara Kingsolver: I so enjoyed The Poisonwood Bible, and The Bean Trees is one of the few books I’ve read in one sitting.

I should note that list fluctuates, but it’s true for today.

Book you’ve faked reading:

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. I’ve still never finished it. I read the Cliff’s Notes for a test in American Realism and Naturalism in college, and I earned a B on it. If I’d read it, I could probably have earned an A, but that’s the way it is.

Book you’re an evangelist for:

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I think everyone should read it, even if they don’t think they’re interested in Africa. What Kingsolver did with that book amazes me, and it’s the kind of writing I aspire to.

Book you’ve bought for the cover:

I’ve talked about this before, but I bought Alice Hoffman’s Blackbird House because I liked the cover, and it didn’t pay off. However, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield and The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, both of which I bought for their covers, paid off beautifully.

Book that changed your life:

This is a hard one, but I’m going with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I never get tired of that book. It helped me look at my own beliefs and made me question what I would do if I were Atticus. Would I have the guts to do the right thing in the face of so much prejudice and opposition in the town, especially knowing I was licked before I began? The reason that Atticus is such a hero is that he did all this and so few people would.

Favorite line from a book:

The last page of The Great Gatsby is beautiful:

And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there, brooding on the unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run raster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

I never tired of The Great Gatsby, and that page contains so much gorgeous writing.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Oh, surely the Harry Potter series. The wonder and waiting for the plot to unfold was one of the best reading experiences of my life.

The Sunday Salon

Creative Commons License photo credit: chefranden

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On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King

Stephen King’s guide for writers, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is the best book on writing well that I’ve ever read, and as an English teacher, I have had my hands on all kinds of writing advice. King’s memoir begins with what he calls his C.V.: the story of how he became a writer. The middle section of the book contains King’s advice for writers, including everything from how to start to how to find an agent. It’s practical, no-nonsense advice. The final section chronicles King’s near-fatal accident and how he recovered and was able to write again.

King’s best advice, from the venerable Strunk & White, is to “omit needless words.” Especially helpful are King’s demonstrations of how he does that in his own writing. I have already found myself applying his advice as I am drafting my NaNo novel. Interestingly, I am not a tremendous fan of King’s books. I grew up with a healthy respect for him as a writer because my parents always had his books around, and I could always find them in the bookstore, grocery store, or library whenever I wanted. I read a few of them when I was in high school, but I have not picked up his writing since that time. Reading this book has just about convinced me I have to pick up Misery. I’ve seen the movie, but I have never read the book. Annie Wilkes sounds like an interesting character to read. However, this is not to say I have ever thought he wasn’t a good writer, and to be honest, whether I think that or Harold Bloom thinks that (he doesn’t, by the way, but Neil Gaiman does) doesn’t matter much because a lot of people like his books. He’s doing something right. For what it’s worth, I think Harold Bloom is a sexist, barmy old fart.

King’s advice to read a lot and write a lot if you want to be a writer is the soundest, most succinct advice I’ve ever read. I know my writing has improved by bounds since I began reviewing books in this blog because I have read more. This year, I plan to finish 50 books, which will probably be the most books I’ve ever read in a year. Reading is studying and researching the craft, and I recognized myself in King’s description of that moment a writer has when she has realized for the first time that she could write better than a published writer she has read. I am also writing a lot more. I wrote over 2,000 words in my NaNo novel yesterday, and that really wasn’t even all I wrote that day. I write something every day. Last year, I couldn’t finish, and the year before that, writing even the daily 1,667 was difficult. It’s easier now. Not to say it’s easy, but it’s easier. I have to attribute that to the reading and writing I’ve done this year. If I could add anything to King’s advice, I’d recommend reflecting in writing on the books you read, whether it’s a blog or a reading journal. I find that thinking about the reading in that way is a bit like tinkering under the hood. You learn more about how others use words and how paragraphs fit together. Just reading is enough, but the reflection helps you process what you’ve read.

I didn’t expect this book to be so personal. It’s very clear that King is deeply in love with his wife, and given the length of their marriage, it’s refreshing and encouraging. He respects her opinion and views her as his partner in every sense. I have to admit I did tear up near the end as I read about his fear that he would die as a result of his injuries and how his wife helped him start writing again. I know she is very much in his shadow. I did try to read a book she wrote when I was in high school, but I didn’t get far, and I just haven’t picked up anything else.

On Writing is readable and direct as well as entertaining and informative. If you harbor any secret desires to be a writer, this book is an essential part of your collection, and dipping into it again every once in a while as a refresher is a good idea.

And now I really need to turn to my own writing, if you’ll excuse me.

Rating: ★★★★★

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NaNoWriMo Day #1

let's type

Day one, 2,255 words written. I am not sure how many times I stopped myself from writing an adverb (thank you, Stephen King). I think I did a pretty good job conveying personality in other ways. So far, I am really happy with it. I can’t remember the last time I was this excited about something I wrote. I like having a really loose idea of what’s going to happen and then letting whatever happens, happen. What surprised me the most was how effortless it was. It just pretty much came out, boom. I think the fact that I have been doing a lot of writing in general, especially on this blog, has helped me with flow. I tell my students this kind of thing all the time, but it’s great to see it’s actually true.

Meanwhile, I’m flying through Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft so fast that I think I could be done with it tomorrow. Probably the best book I’ve read on creative writing.

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R.I.P. Check-In

Bicycle

Some time this week, I should finish my 44th book, which puts me in a good position to meet my goal of reading 50 books this year. As Halloween draws to a close, I’m happy to say I also finished the R.I.P. Challenge. I read four books: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (review), The Secret History by Donna Tartt (review), The Ballad of Tom Dooley by Sharyn McCrumb (review), Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman (review), and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (review).

At this point, I plan to focus on writing my NaNoWriMo book, which isn’t to say I won’t be reading (I certainly will), but it may impact my choices somewhat. I don’t plan to pick up anything difficult, heavy, or long this month. Meanwhile, I’ve been tearing through Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, which has some great common sense advice. I am feeling sort of grateful for my experience as an English teacher. At least grammar and conventions aren’t a hurdle. I loved King’s advice to pick up a copy of Warriner’s Grammar. Best grammar text series ever.

I am really excited to start writing tomorrow.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Ian Sane

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