March 22, 2013

At Grandma’s House

The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat—
That’s the poem’s real name, not The Duel.
Duels come with pistols, rapiers at best.
This cat and dog, they ate each other up!
(The poem is all that’s left of them.)
Grandma’d read it to me even after I could read it for myself.
I’d grab The Family Book of Best Loved Poems
from beneath the taped-up dictionary she let me use for Scrabble
and thumb to the very spot.

Speaking of Scrabble… We’d play at night with the grown ups,
but my favorite was Chinese checkers in the afternoon.
Slide the traps, loose the marbles ‘cross the tablecloth.
I’d skip this board all day, one star point
to another, if you’d let me, but potatoes
wait in the kitchen.

Speaking of potatoes… I got to cream them.
Shove the beaters into mated slots, mash the button,
and wow! Vibrations shimmy up my arm
in humming aggravation. I could giggle if the job weren’t so serious.
Below me in that bowl lie potatoes, milk, and butter.
It’s up to me to make the magic with a flick of my wrist.

Speaking of magic… I’m no believer, but
at Grandma’s house time slowed down (I swear it), a clock tick
every second. Beaters spun; marbles hopped.
Pages turned ‘neath oily fingers.
Grandma could spell any word you never heard of.
At Grandma’s house we didn’t grow old. No matter
how tall I rose, how low she hunched,
we were no older than
the gingham dog and the calico cat.

January 26, 2013

Mix Tape to the Universe

  • Wake Up by Arcade Fire
  • Time to Pretend by MGMT
  • This Tornado Loves You by Neko Case
  • True Colors by Cyndi Lauper
  • Journey of the Featherless by Cloud Cult
  • Everlong by Foo Fighters
  • Handle Bars by The Flobots
  • Awake My Soul by Mumford & Sons
  • The Crane Wife 1, 2 & 3 by The Decemberists
  • Life Less Ordinary by Carbon Leaf
  • Mornin’ Dove by Robinella and the CC Stringband
  • Sons & Daughters by The Decemberists
  • No One Said It Would be Easy by Cloud Cult

Go to list on Spotify

The last time I made an actual mix tape was in college. It was for my boyfriend, David, a tall, reserved graphic design student who eventually married me even though I exposed the control top section of my control top pantyhose during a fretfully awkward fall in a parking garage on our second date. (Guess the mix tape did its job!) I don’t remember all the songs. (One was Teardrops by The Proclaimers, which I still adore.) I bet many were songs he already knew–songs we listened to together or even songs by artists he had brought into my life. But I still made the tape because I wanted him to have those songs in that order with a play list hand-scrawled by me. It was a spliced-together offering that shared something about me, or about him and me at that moment, although at the time I was young enough not to grasp how the moment would keep changing.

Anyway, I’ve been pondering how at any given moment or spell of life certain songs and artists just thrum louder to me. They fit. They aren’t (necessarily) all in the same genre or even the same mood. They are simply songs that zap a line to my heart so directly right then that I can’t help but choose them over and again–in my car, as I wash the dishes, whenever I remember how much better music makes a day and then actually turn some on. I’ve come to think of this ever-changing group of “fitting” songs as my mix tape to the universe.

And because I’m a dork, I’ve decided to actually ‘solidify’ my current “tape,” or rather, make a list of what would be on the tape if I still had a way to make one. I made the list thirteen songs long, which is about how long I remember tapes being. (Technically this list has fifteen songs, but I’m cheating and counting three of them together even though they make up two separate tracks on their actual album. I feel better having admitted that.)

It pains me a bit to post this list without notes of explanation. But it’s probably better that way and less tedious for you (if you’ve actually read this far). If you want to know why a certain song is on it, feel free to ask. All I’ll say right now, though, is that I only allowed myself to include two bands/albums more than once–Cloud Cult’s Feel Good Ghosts and The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife, and that’s because I’d be lying if I didn’t. Also, none of the songs are new releases or terribly obscure. (I’ve never been a groundbreaker of musical taste.)

So check it out if you feel like it, and let me know what you’d put on your mix tape to the universe at the moment.

Here’s a link to the playlist on Spotify in case you didn’t notice the one above.*

I’ll mail an actual CD of this current Mix Tape to the Universe to the first thirteen people who request one.** *** It would be fun for me and surprisingly old school at this point, so let me know if you want to play along…
_________________________________________________

*If you don’t use Spotify or if this link doesn’t work for you (it didn’t work on David’s iPhone, for example), I apologize. Spotify is the easiest way I know to share music, but I don’t know a lot about it yet.
**Do thirteen people even read this blog?
***I’m sorry I can’t make an actual mix tape. I’m not even sure I still have a way to play the ones I received years ago, the ones that must be stashed somewhere in this house, which is sad now that I think about it. Sorry to be such a downer, way down here at the bottom of the post.

And I decided not to even mention how this is my first blog post since October. Oh, wait…

October 2, 2012

No Place Like Home

Emmabeth doesn’t understand why Dorothy ditched Munchkinland. She certainly wouldn’t have. If a cyclone drops you in a town full of dwarves with flowers on their heads, why skip away before you even finish your lollipop? Especially when a snarly, green witch is after you.

Every morning, as soon as daddy shuts his door and his keyboard starts a’clicking, Emmabeth drops her toast and runs to the bay window. She dreams onto the world beyond until daddy yells she should get dressed. Today it’s drizzling, which makes her work even harder.

There are goldfinches at the feeder, even though Daddy hasn’t filled it. She makes their tree into a sprawling Munchkin lodge, gives the Thompson’s roof Twizzlers for shingles, and overflows the birdbath with frosty blue. All around, the lawns gleam with rounded drops of dew.

And then up the sidewalk she comes—Mommy, not in a gown of foamy pink, but in homemade tie dye, just like before she died. Emmabeth closes her eyes and imagines Daddy beside her at the window, almost crying, as they wait.

Thunk.

Emmabeth opens her eyes to find the window cracked. Her marvels blur through splintered glass before they fade. She leans close and sees a goldfinch, limp on the ground. A scream tears her throat. She is emptied. There is no sound now except footsteps rushing down the hall and then a sigh as Daddy kneels and lifts his fingers to the glass.

______

Above is a flash story I entered in the first Lascaux Flash contest. It is inspired by a photograph prompt provided by the magazine. I was not selected as the winner or a finalist, and after reading the editors’ post about the winning entries, I think the great weakness of my piece is probably that it is more of a vignette than a story. I thought I’d share it here anyway, though, because let’s face it, I’ve been horrible at posting content lately! It is my first attempt at flash fiction, and I look forward to reading the stories that the judges selected so I can learn more about the form.

Here is a link to my piece as it appears on the site.

September 6, 2012

The Last Book I Loved

Well now. It’s been a few months since I’ve posted here. I haven’t even written the final follow up for my challenge that ended back in May. In short, I am an abysmal blogger. But, even so, I’m choosing to blog on, and since I don’t have time to write anything at the moment, I thought I’d share something I’ve already written.

A few months ago, my friend Bill suggested that we both submit pieces to The Rumpus for a series they were doing called The Last Book I Loved. I wrote a little something and submitted it only to be swiftly (but encouragingly) rejected. Since I can’t think of another home for a piece like this, I thought I’d share it here.

So here I am, sharing it.

_____________

Making my home in the Bible Belt as I do, I fear perhaps I’ll hear a twang of guilt deep in my ear as I declare that the last book I loved was Lamb by Christopher Moore. I don’t hear one though, not even a fading vibration. All I hear is keys clicking as I type.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal is, as you would expect, a tale of Jesus’s life related to us by one who walked with him. But what makes Biff’s gospel stand out is that an angel of God holes him up in a cheap motel room and forces him to write it right before our eyes. Also, Biff knows Jesus better than those other guys. He’s no mere disciple. He’s the lifelong friend, the brother from another mother, the wise-cracking sidekick with heart. And through Biff, we finally learn what happens during the missing years–after Jesus visits Jerusalem as a child and before he begins the final stretch that ends on Easter. These are the years when Jesus and Biff travel east seeking the path and find plenty of, umm, opportunity alongside it.

So, here goes. I love Lamb because it slaps three buttons. One, Biff is the real deal, as far as protagonists go. Two, the story makes me laugh every second minute and it makes my heart hurt, in equal measure. Three, Biff’s words unfold a tale I learned by heart many years ago in a way I could never have expected.

I love Biff not only because he’s smart and naughty, but because he represents. He’s a skeptical believer like me. I’m a Christian, albeit an exceedingly liberal one, which doesn’t count if you ask some people. Yet I’ve never believed with zeal. I make a willful choice toward broad belief, despite myself, more because of hope and love than certainty. Biff goes along with Joshua, begrudgingly and against his judgment, because he loves Joshua. (By the way, Joshua is the name Jesus uses in the book.) It’s simple. Biff’s faith is made of nothing but love for a friend, yet it’s the strongest thing in the book, other than Joshua’s will, and the most poignant. Plus, Biff scores a lot and discovers all sorts of important stuff like gravity and evolution. And he invents sarcasm. So, you know, he’s something else.

How shall I discuss the humor of this book and the pathos? Much of the humor is pure raunch, which, while it rarely offends me, often annoys when delivered poorly or in the wrong spot. I have no problem laughing at Lamb, however, which is extraordinary considering that the life of Christ seems the exact inappropriate spot to insert lewdness. Perhaps the humor works because it isn’t meant to demean or shock. It’s there because the characters really are horny, funny boys–boys I might have kissed in school (had I gotten out more). Then I turn the page, and Biff’s giant heart presses on my tear ducts. He’s a child carrying a lamb for sacrifice at Passover. He’s carried it all the way through the temple, but in the end, he can’t do it. He can’t betray the ignorant animal. He turns to his father for rescue, ashamed, and now I see that he is real. A person with a bleeding heart. A friend.

And it helps to hear the gospel from a friend–not that Lamb means to help me hear Jesus the way some churches hope I’ll hear Jesus. Praise the Lord. But, even so, Lamb raises the tale around me–of the carpenter’s son, awaited messenger of salvation–fleshes it up with funny, tormented, hopeful, and heartsick people whom I see more clearly now that they’ve been separated from their verses on the onion skin. Magnificent fiction, outright and with fearless pretense, Lamb’s reach is real.

So, I hope you understand why I love Lamb by Christopher Moore. If you don’t, I’m sorry for your time wasted and wish you luck in the future. If you do get it, though–why I love the book–then maybe you’ll stop reading this and start reading Lamb for yourself.

Anyway, I’m done now, so you can’t keep reading here.

______________

I wrote another post about Lamb last year during my Year of Reading at Your Mercy. I should probably stop talking about it now.

June 25, 2012

Round Fifteen–A Tail of Eva & Mommy

Here lies a post about the last book I read for my Year of Reading at Your Mercy. (Better late than never. At least, that’s a phrase I’m hoping you will buy.) This book was last but not least, because it was Eva’s pick and the only book I read aloud with someone else. We finished it the last day of my birth month, May 31, and I love how fate worked so that I started the challenge with David and ended it with Eva.

One thing you should know. Eva adores mermaids. More than fairies and, as things stand right now, about equal with ninjas/power rangers. (Here’s a post about our trip to the beach last fall which might have foreshadowed her current yen.)

Eva’s school had a book fair last spring, and she chose her pick from among the tables and cases full of shiny, new books and marginally related yet eye-catching, kid-dazzling merchandise. It is The Tail of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler. It came in a gift set with its sequel (and a shell necklace!). The story follows a girl—you guessed it, Emily Windsnap—who discovers a startling secret about herself when she attends her first swim lesson. (Think hard here and I bet you can come up with a few good guesses about what the secret is.) Afterwards, a whole new world opens to her, but it comes with knowledge that has the potential to either ruin her family or save it.

Eva loved this book before we even breathed word one. Her enthusiasm only waned a small moment when she realized it wasn’t a book with pictures on every page. She recovered quickly.

Eva doesn’t read chapter books on her own yet, so I did ninety-five percent of the reading. Also, the story is intended for kids in fourth or fifth grade or thereabouts, not for kindergarteners. The protagonist, Emily Windsnap, is a seventh grader herself. But Eva was dead set on it being her pick for the challenge, and I thought it only fair to honor that. Of course, I might have had to squelch her enthusiasm had she chosen, say, Fight Club. (The first rule of swim club—no one talks about swim club. Sorry I couldn’t resist.)

Eva followed the story really well, even though she had to concentrate harder than usual to keep up. I sometimes reminded her to ask questions if she didn’t understand a word or something, and she would usually speak up. We’d read a few chapters every other night or so, and she never lost interest, always wanted to keep going past bedtime. Soon enough, she started making predictions about the characters, especially about who or what Mr. Beeston, the antagonist, really was. (Eva delights in villains. She calls the bad cards in Uno—the skips and reverses and draw-twos—villains and relishes wielding them with squinty eyes.) She was convinced that Mr. Beeston had killed the real lighthouse keeper, had “put on his skin,” and was pretending to be him, although that’s much more sinister than Kessler actually takes the story.

As far as covering new ground for Eva goes, we discussed the concept of illegal marriage—after all, did you know mermaids are imprisoned for loving humans? Imprisoned for life. (This discussion was pretty timely, considering the abysmal law just passed in our neighboring state of North Carolina.) Eva was also confused as to why people would live on a boat, like Emily and her mom do. Below is a list of some of the words Eva asked about. (At times, I was obsessive enough to jot them down. What can I say? I’m a nerd.) I know she won’t remember all of them off the bat, but they’re coins in the fountain, right?

  • slithered
  • corridor
  • unease
  • history
  • tweak
  • crept
  • navigating
  • chattering
  • claptrap
  • trident
  • glint
  • identical
  • recoil
  • accuse
  • forsaken

How did I like the book? Well, I loved reading it with Eva. I loved hearing her laugh when something silly happened or fret when things weren’t looking particularly safe for Emily. I loved when she’d bring it up out of the blue, exclaiming to her daddy, random stuff about the plot like, “The poison was in the donuts!” She made the book into a game at the pool one day. I had to be Emily and she was Shona, Emily’s best friend, a life-long mermaid, and therefore more authentic in Eva’s eyes. (David had to be Mr. Beeston and chase us with his eyes closed.) As much as I loved reading this book with Eva, though, it isn’t one of those children’s books I would have kept reading on my own. Emily’s problems were too easily fixed for my taste, and some of the minor characters were too vague or too “stock.” But I don’t think the book was meant for my eyes, and I’m glad I got to follow along anyway.

I love how Kessler describes things. She can use the most unusual words, and the effect is somewhat disorienting at times, which works wonders for making you feel like a fish out of water, or in this case a girl-cum-mermaid, new to the water. (Drats! I just spoiled it didn’t I? You weren’t sure about the secret.) Here’s the first passage that charmed me. Emily tells us,

“The water reminded me of those advertisements where they pour a ton of melted chocolate into a bar. Warm, and silky smooth. I felt as if I were melting with it as we swam.”

I’ve never read water like this before. Warm and seeping chocolate. Water probably would feel different to a mermaid, and now I think I’d like a tail too. Just for a little while.

And I would swim far, far down and deep with Eva wiggling right beside me.

June 5, 2012

Round Fourteen—Library’s Daughter

Some of my coworkers at the library heard more about my Year of Reading at Your Mercy than they wanted to—more than anyone else except perhaps David, who has no choice but to hear me since he signed a paper eleven years ago saying that he would. Having to wait until the second to last round to ask for my coworkers’ book picks was hard, but at last the caterpillar told me to ask them, my wonderful comrades in library land, and I did.

As you can guess, they are book lovers like me. I think they liked being asked, but some of them had a hard time settling on one book. My boss went to her office and filled a notepad page, front and back. Then she went over the items on the list with me, one by one. I hadn’t the heart to make her settle on one, so when it came time to draw, I chose the one about which she spoke most glowingly.

I know these people well.* We spend our time together surrounded by books. So, I cherish each of their picks because it represents a narrowing down, a single light among many that these book-encompassed friends could have plucked for me. And together all their picks are like a string of lanterns.

Anyway… On with the post.

The Elusive Penny, whom I only see once a week now that she’s been promoted, chose The Color Purple by Alice Walker. She’s picked it for me twice now, once as a coworker and once as a Facebook friend. She wants me to read it because of how it’s written, because she knows I’ll eat it up as a reader and as a writer. (I’ve seen the movie several times and love it, but it’s one of those books I’ve never gotten around to.)

My boss, Libby, chose Measle and the Wrathmonk by Ian Ogilvy (among many others that couldn’t go into the pot, as I mention above). She is famous in local library land for her storytimes, so she’s knows a good kids’ book when she reads it.

When I asked Wanda, she had no trouble coming up with several titles off the top of her head. When I asked her to narrow it down to one, she chose Bootlegger’s Daughter by Margaret Maron, the first one that had come to her mind.

Bill is one of our floating library assistants (isn’t that a great job title?), which means he fills in around the system as needed. He asked if he could contribute a title as a coworker since he’d just read a book he knew I’d love—Fool by Christopher Moore. (I wonder why he thought I’d like it?) How could I resist such a request?

Catherine didn’t waste time when I asked her. The first sentence out of her mouth was something like, “I love the Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan.” So I chucked The Lightning Thief into the drawing on her behalf.

Heather, whom I tracked down like a ninja (in my Facebook feed) even though she abandoned us last fall (because she was there when I started this thing, dang it!) wants me to read Lee Smith’s Oral History. I adore Fair and Tender Ladies, so I knew I’d take her up on this pick whether during the challenge or after.

I didn’t ask Willard this time since he’s already played along, and Emily is still getting back to me… Emily?

David drew a title for me a few days before my birthday, and it turns out I got to read Wanda’s pick—Bootlegger’s Daughter. Actually, I listened to the audiobook this time. I haven’t listened to a novel in years but found out that I like being to be read to. (Of course, I had to miss my usual podcasts for several days, which always makes me sad.)

Bootlegger’s Daughter is marvelous. It’s a triple-murder mystery set in small-town North Carolina, and its deeply and authentically entrenched southern voice and sense of humor remind me of Eudora Welty. The protagonist, Deborah Knott, is a strong woman, the kind I’ve been aching for lately. Her strength isn’t physical. It doesn’t rely on domination. Her strength is that she’s brave and smart and trustworthy and she follows her own nose. Her weakness is her father, an infamous “former” bootlegger, who hasn’t spoken to her since she declared herself as candidate for judge.

This novel treads effortlessly among serious subjects like racism, sexism, and prejudice against homosexuals while at the same time weaving an easy tone throughout the story that lets the reader accept all the many and varied locals as real live flawed but wonderful people who live in a lovely and messed up world, just like we do.

And boy does Maron hit small-town life in the South spot on. I’ve never lived this exact life myself, but I’ve visited it enough to know it when I see it. There are so many scenes that breath life into this novel, but one I love in particular is a funeral scene. I kept thinking, I’ve been in this receiving line before!

Another scene I love is one that could have been cut from the novel, in terms of what it adds to the plot. It takes place while the protagonist, Deborah, is waiting for another character to show up for a clandestine meeting. I’m glad this scene made the cut. It is an homage to merry-go-rounds and to the childhoods they call back from memory.

In closing, I’ll say the narrator of the audiobook, C.J. Critt, does a wonderful job. I found one voice (Gayle’s) somewhat overdone and misfit to the age of the character, but other than that, I think having the novel read to me by Critt was one of the reasons it felt so alive.

So, thanks to Wanda for a great pick and to all my other fellow book movers who have encouraged me on down the challenge road. Library Power Go!

The Color PurpleMeasle and the WrathmonkFoolThe Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #1)Oral History

*(Except for Catherine. She’s new, but I feel like I know her anyway. Two patrons have asked if we are sisters.)

I bought the audiobook of Bootlegger’s Daughter and listened to it on my iPhone.

June 4, 2012

Round Thirteen—Fate’s a Jungle

You could say this whole challenge has been an exercise in playing what is dealt, but this time, I actually tempted fate. For round thirteen, I asked fate to tell me what to read, and it obliged.

A few weeks ago David drew fate out of the caterpillar. The next morning, I went about my day as usual, waiting for the first mention of a book. David and Eva left for school and work, and after a fifteen-minute lie down, I did the breakfast dishes and cleaned the kitchen. (My life is glamorous. You have to admit.) As usual, I opened Instacast and started up a podcast to keep me company. That morning, I decided to catch the tail end of an episode of The Functional Nerds that I had started the night before.

Then it happened. One of the hosts, Patrick Hester, said he was writing a series of graphic novel reviews for Kirkus, and he mentioned the graphic novels based on Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files.*

Fate had spoken. (Did you know fate speaks through the voice of a geek-scene podcaster from Denver?)

So, I looked up the first graphic novel in the Dresden universe and tracked it down at the library branch nearest my house. I picked it up on the way to work the next day and finished it the day after that. I was lucky again. A short read had landed in my lap, so I had hope of finishing my challenge on time. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I’d hoped I would.

Welcome to the Jungle by Jim Butcher is a fast read which serves to introduce other graphic novels in the Dresden universe. The artwork tugged me in right away, and I enjoyed the setting. Harry Dresden is a wizard P.I., and in this story, he’s called to help solve a murder at Lincoln Park Zoo. I honeymooned at a zoo (yes, really, and at Legoland), so the story had me from the start on that count. (A soulful but misunderstood gorilla will get me every time.) Harry Dresden made me laugh too, which I appreciate.

On the whole, though, I didn’t feel this one. I’ve read several graphic novels, although I’m relatively new to them, so perhaps I don’t have enough experience to know what I’m talking about. It bothers me, though, that Harry Dresden constantly narrates what’s happening on page even as the illustrations are showing us the same thing. I haven’t read the Dresden character in novel form, but I assume he usually narrates directly to the reader like this. I bet it works well in prose, but it felt redundant to me in a graphic novel. It kept me distant from his character by wasting space.

That was the biggest hurdle to my enjoyment, but two other things bother me in a more minor way. First, while I really like the artwork, Dresden looks much more serious than he sounds. He is a funny man, but he scowls a lot here, like one of those brooding men on book jackets. (He is beautiful, though. I liked looking at him, and I’m willing to consider that perhaps if I already knew the character as complexly as some of Butcher’s loyal readers do, I wouldn’t stumble here.)

Secondly, the main female presence, Will, comes across blank to me…a hot-but-brainy-looking-and-yet-still-ditzy blank, which is just plain irksome. (Maybe she’ll improve in future stories… Is she in future stories?)

One of the hard parts of this challenge has been being honest with my opinions. As a writer, even an unpublished and unknown one, I don’t like to be openly critical of other writers’ work. Criticism is necessary, of course, but as a fellow writer, I feel it is a stab in the back, even if what I’m saying is more like a poke on the shoulder. Yet for the purposes of this challenge, I’ve told myself to be honest but diplomatic. In the future, I doubt I’ll blog much about books I don’t adore in some way, but I couldn’t find a way through this Year of Reading (and blogging) at Your Mercy that didn’t involve writing something critical. I will hope for no hard feelings if by some wild chance Jim Butcher reads this post one day. (I feel silly just typing that.) He’s earned plenty of padding in the form of adoring fans. Trust me. I work at a library. He is a loved man.

Speaking of the library. Next up, I got to ask my coworkers! And I’ll post about it tomorrow.

*Patrick actually mentioned The Game of Thrones graphic novel first, but for the purposes of the challenge, I decided to count that one as already read. I’ve read the novel and watched the series so recently that even though the graphic novel is a new adaptation, I think it would feel like a re-read. I do want to read the graphic novel, though. It is gorgeous.

I checked Welcome to the Jungle out from the Knox County Public Library.

May 31, 2012

Round Twelve…In which I’m all wound up.

Let me preface this post by squealing and jumping up and down.

For pick twelve in my Year of Reading at Your Mercy I got to shoot the electronic breeze with people whose words I have read and whose voices issue from the tiny speaker at the bottom of my iPhone on a weekly basis. I asked some of the writers and podcasters in my life for their book picks. And most of them actually answered!

More squealing now. Not as much jumping. It didn’t go so well last time.

A little over a month ago, in response to the fact that my challenge was drawing to an end and I still had way too many books to read and posts to write, I started contacting writers and podcasters I follow even though I hadn’t yet drawn that group for the challenge. I figured it couldn’t hurt to get a head start. Within two days, everyone who was going to respond to me had responded, and I was smiling full-time.

With needless trepidation, I asked my question to nine wonderful writers and podcasters. Six of them responded.

Mary Robinette Kowal from Writing Excuses told me I should read The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Actually, her pick came in via the mailbox at the end of our driveway back in February, during her amazingly fun postal challenge, LetterMo. I was secretly thrilled by her pick. (Shh, I thought. I was in the throes of that book back when I started this whole thing. Maybe I’ll get to finish now!)

Lani Diane Rich from StoryWonk emailed me back almost immediately. Squee! She told me to read Sunshine by Robin McKinley or The Spirit Ring by Lois McMaster Bujold. Since I’ve read (and loved) Sunshine, I put The Spirit Ring in the drawing even though it wasn’t Lani’s first pick. (I already know that Bujold makes my reader heart swoon, so trust me, I didn’t cry about it.) Lani also suggested some nonfiction titles to try—Bonk by Mary Roach and Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, but since she listed those second, I put fiction on the hotseat.

John Anealio from The Functional Nerds said I should try The Greyfriar (Vampire Empire #1) by Clay and Susan Griffith. This series has been calling to me ever since, whenever I see one of its books on the shelf at the library. Grey is a word that reels me in. (More so than gray.) Plus, I imagine John Anealio singing about the skeptical man in goggles on the cover. (David K.—Robbie’s dad—if you’re reading this, I think you’d enjoy Anealio’s Christmas song, Batman Smells, A Rebuttal.)

Mur Lafferty of I Should Be Writing wanted me to read Sunshine by Robin McKinley too. Wow, that book scored two recommendations in one shot. As I mention above, I couldn’t put it in the drawing since I’ve read it, but I want to list it here since it’s a great read (vampires, cinnamon rolls & tattoos, oh my…) and since Mighty Mur and Lani Diane Rich both picked it. (I could have asked Mur for another pick, but that felt like bothering to me, so I didn’t do it.)

Lev Grossman emailed me back to ask if it would be cheating for me to tell him the last book I had read and loved. Well, since it was Lev Grossman, I found a way to justify it to myself and answered him with Lamb by Christopher Moore. He then offered up A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh, which he says is “an under-sung masterpiece of dark, social comedy.” I think you could have squeezed my heart after that and it would have turned to a handful of dazzle dust.

Keep in mind that much of this correspondence took place within half an hour of me having to leave my house for Dr. Who Wednesday with Honor. Poor Honor. She had to put up with my silly, squeaking smile and it wasn’t even related to Christopher Eccleston as usual. (By the way, we’ve just gotten to the David Tennant bits. It’s hard, you know. The switching part.)

So I suppose I should get on with it and let you know which book I ended up reading. David did the drawing for me once again, and out came The Windup Girl! I know it stinks of fixing, but look, I’m not that kind of person. (I experience way too much guilt for someone who could count on one hand the number of times she’s been to a Catholic church service.) I am, however, a lucky person. I got to correspond with some of my most beloved writers and podcasters, and I got to finish reading a book rather than starting from scratch. Trust me, I probably wouldn’t have finished the challenge in time otherwise.

Since this post is so long already, I won’t say much about The Windup Girl. I love it…although it’s one of those books that thrives on unease. It’s a dystopian novel set in a future Bangkok. The city and the world in which it tentatively stands strong are fearful and paranoid, on the reel back from a near-past environmental collapse. The title character, Emiko, is a New Person (a Windup), a genetically modified woman produced for a life of genteel service. She has been abandoned by her original owner and is stranded among a people hostile to her kind, her only option to take work as an indentured novelty sex object at a night club.

The world of The Windup Girl feels heartless and hopeless, yet so many of it’s characters have aching hearts and are driven by some kind of hope. The book sits you smack up close to a slew of complex people you’re never sure about but whom you root for, for the most part, as if they’re friends. These people and this world are so complexly real, I sometimes wonder if Paolo Bacigalupi is a visitor from the future. Yet I hope the future goes another way. I think I’d rather live on Deep Space Nine than in The Kingdom in this book.

Strangely, though, both futures include an ex-pat bar owner with dubious morals. (What future doesn’t?) But I doubt Quark will ever face the same fate as Bacigalupi’s Raleigh. I hope not anyway. I like Quark.

SunshineThe Spirit RingThe Greyfriar (Vampire Empire, #1)A Handful of Dust

I checked out The Windup Girl from the Knox County Public Library. I also recommend Ship Breaker, Bacigalupi’s YA novel, which I asked my book club to read last year. It’s set in the same kind of world as The Windup Girl, but it turns out more outwardly hopeful.

May 30, 2012

Church=The Power of Habit

The eleventh read in my Year of Reading at Your Mercy was The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I polled people from my church this time, and this book was my friend Amy’s pick. (It’s a pretty big title at the library right now, and it’s pretty rare that I’m actually reading something trending at the moment. I was in for a week or so, and no one has to know why! Oh, wait…)

I can see why this book fascinates so many readers. Duhigg examines how people, institutions, and movements form habits and how they change them. My favorite kernel is the part that deals with personal habits, in which Duhigg breaks down how the brain develops habits and cravings and why they have such a hold over behavior. I have since become more thoughtful about my own habits, in some situations at least. But not when mysterious savories and sweets are offered up in the break room at work. (Recently we’ve had homemade tabouleh and maple/bacon cupcakes, so you know, I face tremendous difficulties.)

In another section, Duhigg uses the story of Rhode Island Hospital to demonstrate how bad institutional habits can lead to toxic environments. At this hospital, habitually accepted poor working relationships between doctors and nurses culminated in a rash of horrible medical mistakes. After reading this story, it’s plain to see how haphazard workplace conventions can morph into routines that are treated like policy, even when those routines are harmful to the institution and the people it serves. Another story that proves this point is that of the 1987 King’s Cross fire in the London Underground. This story is perhaps the most appalling example of how habits formed without forethought can lead to institutional breakdown in moments when it’s most important to have a well-reasoned plan in place.

In a completely different vein, the book demonstrates how retail giants like Target track our spending habits in order to gain dominion over the choices we make. I confess. I make it sound more sinister than Duhigg does. While I don’t intellectually mind the fact the Target sends me coupons for things it knows I buy, this section of the book gives me the heebie jeebies, even though the science involved is fun and interesting. I feel a bit hunted, cornered, duped, even though I never use any of the coupons Target sends me. (I’m a habitual coupon forgetter, or perhaps I should say I have failed to form appropriate couponing habits.) David and I have been talking a lot about the negative side of our consumption-worshiping society lately, and this section of the book stirred all those emotions right up into my chest.

As the book moves on, Duhigg moves farther and farther away from the realm of personal habit, which is so concisely related at the beginning, into the habits of movements and subcultures. The main example he uses here is the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, started by Rosa Parks. While the events and people that Duhigg discusses in this section are compelling and inspiring, I think he loses the thread here. I’m not sure I follow exactly how the power of this movement relates to the power of habit laid out so neatly earlier on in the book. It feels like he’s trying to force material into his thesis, and, at least for me, it doesn’t work. I kept reading, though, despite this unravelling, for the story of the boycott itself.

Overall, I’m glad to have read The Power of Habit despite the qualm I mention above. You should read it too, just to find out how much Target knows about you or why toothpaste tastes minty fresh. The book is bursting with stories about how people and organizations make, break, and use habits—many more than I have mentioned here. It’s fascinating.

Several other people from my church also recommended books to me for pick eleven:

Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg, picked by my friend Paul
Life of the Beloved by Henri J.M. Nouwen, picked by my friend Rev. Leslie
The Scarecrow and His Servant by Philip Pullman, picked my friend David
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, picked by my friend and fellow soprano, Judy

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of LifeLife of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular WorldThe Scarecrow and His ServantA Prayer for Owen Meany

I find a silly satisfaction in the fact that people from my church picked books with these words collectively in their titles: power, nonviolent, life, beloved, servant, prayer.

Ah, brothers and sisters… Do I hear angels singing now? No, that’s the theme to the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. Eva and Netflix are in collusion to drive me mad.

Since The Power of Habit is so popular at the library, I had to buy it for my Kindle. In all truthfulness, though, I adore reading on my Kindle.

May 29, 2012

Enchantment

As I posted centuries ago, Facebook told me to read Enchantment by Orson Scott Card for the tenth book in my Year of Reading at Your Mercy. Actually, it was my friend Barbara speaking to me through Facebook—but I suppose you didn’t need me to clarify that it wasn’t Mark Zuckerberg himself.

I finished Enchantment several weeks ago. This is the second novel I’ve read by Orson Scott Card. Ender’s Game is special to me, and I can see now, from reading Enchantment, that Card has a gift for using fiction to make readers consider ideas even as they are immersed in story.

I enjoyed Enchantment. It’s a Sleeping Beauty remake (or spin off of sorts, involving time travel!) told through the perspective of the prince character. Fairy Tale princes are usually such boring, stalwart heroes, but Ivan, our hero in this story, is a breathing, running, argumentative, proud, kind, bold and fearful boy growing into a man. I also love the villain—and, as in most fairy tales, she’s a true villain, never mind how much we know about her victimized youth. Her name is Baba Yaga and her game is ruling the world. She has no fear, complete faith in her power, and her only desire is domination. She’s mad scientist and cackling hag rolled into Genghis Khan. With a collection of eyeballs and a vengeful (but funny!) bear-god at her beckon call.

My favorite thing about the story is the scene near the beginning when Ivan first discovers the sleeping beauty—a forest scene with leaves whirling inside a sudden, hidden chasm, in which danger and desire mingle perfectly. Ivan doesn’t take action during this scene. He’s compelled by fear, uncertainty, and disbelief to run away home, where his parents are preparing to leave Soviet-ruled Ukraine for upstate New York. But what happens here haunts Ivan’s heart and mind as he grows older. It also haunts the reader. The scene is so stirring you can’t wait to get back to it. And you know, just as surely as Ivan does, that you’re going back.

I adored certain parts of Enchantment, but like most books, it has flaws. Even though, a few paragraphs above this one, I admire Card’s ability to blend reflection and storytelling, the story is bogged down at times by its own intellect. Card uses these characters to contrast the life of an academic with worldy, work-a-day life. His characters confront religious identity, cultural blinders, and the power of belief and disbelief to make or break a cause, or in this case, to break gods. And on top of all that, the story examines the impacts of societal freedom. Ivan is born in the Soviet Union and comes of age in America, so through him, we gain perspective on two expressions of “free” society. But even so, while, I love a good, meaty conversation—and while I love much of the introspection and discussion in this book—I don’t always want to have a meaty conversation with the novel I’m reading. At least not when Baba Yaga’s around and I keep looking over my shoulder and wondering why everyone else feels so contemplative.

I also have a hard time with how easily Baba Yaga is defeated. I know that last sentence is a spoiler, but this is a fairy tale, after all, so you probably could have guessed the villain isn’t going to be allowed to dominate the world. The thing is, Card writes Baba Yaga so successfully, as such a force, that her defeat leaves me flat. I bet a satisfying defeat is a hard thing to write for a satisfying villain. I must remember this as a writer, but I’ll probably forget.

Now then, I will end by saying how glad I am to have read Enchantment—as a reader who loves fairy tale adaptations and as a writer who aims to write thoughtful fantasy herself. This book offers up on both fronts.

And wow… I want to stand on the rim of that chasm again, to feel the leaves whirling and writhing at my feet, to look across, with fear and wonder, at the impossible. It gives me chills.

I checked out Enchantment from the Knox County Public Library.