Saturday, December 28, 2013

Book Review: A Dance with Dragons

A Dance with Dragons is the fifth book of the series. I reviewed the last two here and here. The last one was a bit slow and this one was a bit slower, but I still enjoyed it and can't wait for the next book.

I've read some pretty hilarious and spot-on criticisms of this book, mostly that nothing happens. While this book doesn't need to be as long as it is (there are some excruciatingly elaborate descriptions of traveling through grass, snow, and river), there is a lot happening here. A new villain emerges (so much worse than Joffrey), Cercei must deal with her imprisonment, and new sides in the battle gather strength.

Some of the chapters read like filler, but it could be reasonably called character development. Martin is setting the stage here, moving the cyvasse pieces around the board, and getting us ready for the next installment.

HBO will begin airing the next season at the beginning of 2014.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Spirit of Christmas - Skipping the Gifts

For several years now, my family has decided to donate to charity in lieu of gifts to each other. We have given to Unicef, Heifer, CharityWater, to name a few. Helping someone on the other side of the world to become self-reliant feels better to me than receiving a bunch of things I really don't need. (And it saves on standing in the exchange line on December 26th.) It's much more consistent with the Christmas spirit.

This year, I've chosen OxFam. Their letter to me this year pointed out that they don't waste money on gimmicks like address labels and I appreciate that. Charitynavigator.org shows they spend 78.9% of their budget on program expenses and their company president makes a salary of $327,192. (I can't stand charity CEOs who make millions.) I recommend checking out your charity here before donating. You can even look at their list of top-rated charities if you need ideas.

Here's OxFam's mission statement: Oxfam America is a global organization working to right the wrongs of poverty, hunger, and injustice. We save lives, develop long-term solutions to poverty, and campaign for social change. As one of 17 members of the international Oxfam confederation, we work with people in more than 90 countries to create lasting solutions.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Made in America Holiday Shopping

This is the third year in a row I've decided that my holiday gifts should be made in America. I have noticed it getting easier as businesses seem to be catching on to the demand. There are quite a few blogs with lists compiled for American made products.

What makes it easier for me is that I only buy for my friends kids and my boyfriend. It is also getting easier to find affordable US made toys, but I'm still finding it so hard to find cute kids clothes at reasonable prices.

I think the best option I've found is etsy.com, which is full of handmade gifts by artisans across the country. (There are also some that are international, so make sure you check their location.)

For great mix and match basics, check out the closing sale at BasicBrilliance.

There's a specific section for American made clothes at CWDKids.

Take advantage of Cyber Monday sales and buy American.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Nano - The End

If there had been one more day in the month (like I thought there were) I would have finished with 9,501 words. While that means I didn't meet my goal, it's also nothing to sneeze at. When I add the 10,000 words I started with, that's almost a third of a complete novel. I call that success.

Realistically, I won't be adding to the word count this month because I'll be busy with the holidays. Like the last two years, I'll be scouring the internet for American-made gift ideas and I'll be sharing what I find.

I'll get back to a writing routine in January.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Book Review: Daughter's Keeper

This is the third book I've read by Ayelet Waldman and it is probably my favorite. It also happens to be the first of the three that she wrote, although she has also penned a series of mystery novels I have not read.

Daughter's Keeper is told in multiple third person narration, which is an extremely effective way of getting the reader to become emotionally attached not only to the main character Olivia, but also her mother, Elaine. We are even forced to sympathize with the boyfriend who gets Olivia involved and arrested for his illegal activities. We find ourselves understanding Elaine's fiancee's inability to support her.

Waldman is expert at her depiction of the complicated mother/daughter relationship. Every interaction between Olivia and Elaine is thick with their history of built up resentment and guilt, an intense love that can often overwhelm and feel burdensome, the competing desires to please and to hurt complicating every moment.

I particularly enjoyed the glimpse into the world of mandatory minimums. Waldman uses her real life experience as a public defense attorney to serve as the backdrop for this story. Olivia is a fictional example of all the real people failed by our justice system's disastrous war on drugs.

I'm excited to see that Waldman will be releasing her fourth novel, Love and Treasure, in April. I have already added it to my Amazon wish list.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Nano - Week Three

So you may notice I never did a blog for week two. My parents came for a visit and I took the week off from writing. And I never did that research. And I broke one of my Nano rules and started reading a novel: Daughter's Keeper by Ayelet Waldman. It's good.

But it's okay. Because, although I didn't add to the word count, I did spend that time thinking about my story and when I sat down to write yesterday, I knocked out 930 words. Now, that does not meet my self-imposed daily quota, but they were good words. And when I read over what I'd written last week, I could see what I had. The distance was good for me.

So I have written 7,931 words in the first twenty days. In the next eleven days, I plan to set aside writing time every day, but I'm still not putting pressure on myself to meet a certain word count. I'm satisfied with the progress I'm making.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Long Thaw - Preorder Now!


My second novel, A Long Thaw, is now available to pre-order on Amazon! It will be released January 16th.

Cousins Abby and Juliet were born into one big, close family. But when Juliet's parents divorce, it tears the family apart and sends the girls in very different directions.

Juliet grows up too quickly, forced to be responsible for her younger sisters as well as an alcoholic, single mother. Abby grows up a pampered, sheltered only child.

As women, they try to mend the rift and come to terms with the way their shared history connects them, in spite of the years apart.

Told in alternating narrative, A Long Thaw explores how the two women are shaped by the traumas and triumphs of childhood. It's a story about the power of secrets and the unbreakable bonds of family.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Nano - Week One

So I got it in my head that 1,000 words a day was a good target. Seven days later, I have 7,000 words which feels great, but the story is coming out very dialogue driven - like a skeleton that will need to be filled in later with the flesh and guts and meat of the story.

Also this week, I had to read through the proofs for A Long Thaw (which my publisher is releasing in January) and it confirmed for me that the heart of a good story is in the narrative.

So in the interest of finding a balance, I'm releasing myself from the pressure of daily word count requirements. I'm going to spend the next week doing research and letting it all ruminate so I can figure out who my characters are at a more reasonable speed. Anyone can write 50,000 word in thirty days. Making them words someone will want to read is trickier.

I'm not quitting Nano. For me the best thing about it is that I've made time to write every day, and I will continue to do that. I'm going to spend the next week writing more the way I typically do and then I'll compare at the end.

How's your Nano experience going?

Friday, November 1, 2013

NaNoWriMo 2013!

For those of you who don't know what NaNoWriMo is, check out this post from the first year I participated. Let's just say, it's going to be a busy month of writing.

Like the last time I did this, I'm not following the rules. I'm starting with a novel I've already begun and I'm not worried about getting exactly 50,000 words in 30 days. For me, the object is to get writing. Last time, I got a little over 11,000 words. If I can double that this time, I'll be psyched.

To that end, I'm changing a few of my habits this month.
  • Skipping the news: I'm kind of obsessive about this, so it is going to free up a lot of my time, but it's also going to be really hard. I'm alerting all those close to me that I'm going to need an email or phone call if some huge news event happens. I already don't have cable so I got all my news off the internet.
  • Pajamas all day: Okay, not every day, but some days. I'm kicking off day one in my yoga pants... that I slept in.
  • Easy dinners: I don't pretend to be a fancy cook, but this month I'm going even more bare bones. No cutting meat or chopping veggies. If the recipe requires more than 20 minutes of prep, I'll save it for December. 
  • No more reading: I finished my last book and review for the blog last night. 
That's a good list to start. I just reactivated my account at nanowrimo.org and may have to limit the time I spend there. They have forums and twitter links and pep talks and notices for local events. It's like Facebook for writing nerds. You can connect with me there- I'm Katie78.

So if I write fewer blogs this month, it's because I'm busy writing my next novel.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Book Review: Brave New World

After writing my last review of 1984, I was inspired to reread Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. In this futuristic fantasy, one that predated Orwell's, we find a gentler way for a government to maintain order. In this society, happiness is maintained through social conditioning and pleasant distraction. No one needs to be tortured or imprisoned. On the rare occasion that a person refuses to conform, they are simply sent away to live on an island.

I think the links between Huxley and Orwell are fascinating. In 1917, Orwell was a 14-year-old student in Huxley's French class. In 1932, Brave New World was published to lackluster critical reviews. In 1949, Orwell published 1984 and received a letter from his former teacher.

Essentially, Huxley writes this letter to say that his own fictional future is a better prediction than Orwell's:
"My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World."
For the most part, I agree. I think both authors imagine governments that waste their energy trying to exert absolute control over the population. They differ in their methods - in 1984, it's force; in Brave New World, it's drugs and brainwashing - but the two books have an awful lot in common.

Both worlds are obsessed with "orthodoxy". Both see overproduction as a problem to maintaining necessary class division. (Orwell solves this problem with perpetual war; Huxley with consumerism.) Both dismantle families and any sort of close human relationships. Both discourage any time spent on one's own. Time is filled with community activities. Books and historical records are destroyed.

Actually, it seems to me that 1984 is simply an earlier evolutionary stage than Brave New World. Force is necessary as long as people can still remember being raised in families. Once those relationships have been forgotten, the pleasant distractions of Brave New World are all they need. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Book Review: 1984

"The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already."
                                                                                             -Winston Smith

George Orwell's futuristic (at the time) novel about a totalitarian government feels especially relevant in today's political climate where our president keeps secret "kill lists" and has claimed the right to indefinitely detain or assassinate American citizens without due process. When people describe these things as "Orwellian", they aren't far off.

With record levels of poverty and wage stagnation, America has made greater gains in wealth than any other country. Meanwhile we are in secret wars in around 100 countries. Passages in 1984 that explain the use of perpetual warfare to maintain class division and inequality were especially dog-eared:
"The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labor. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent. Even when weapons of war are not actually destroyed, their manufacture is still a convenient way of expending labor power without producing anything that can be consumed... In principal the war effort is always so planned as to eat up any surplus that might exist after meeting the bare needs of the population."
By the third section of the book, Orwell pushes from cautionary tale into an extreme that doesn't seem to relate to our current problems. The Party maintains power for it's own sake and expends so much of it's energy to degrade and cause pain in order to control even the thoughts of the citizenry. I feel like the people in power may not care whether we are in pain, but that our pain is not their main goal. They're bound to have more free time to enjoy their power if the masses are distracted by cable and overwork.

Which reminds me of the following comparison between 1984 and A Brave New World:

Perhaps it is a mix.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Book Review: Before I Go To Sleep

The premise of this book hooked me: a woman has experienced a trauma that results in her memory being wiped out on a daily basis. Christine wakes every morning to a stranger in her bed who tells her he is her husband who has been caring for her since her accident. He shows her photos and gives her a tour of her house, then leaves for work

Eventually, Christine begins seeing a doctor in secret, writing down her daily experiences in the hopes of recovering her memory. As she reads her journal each day, she begins to find inconsistencies in the stories her husband tells her. Is he lying to her? And, if so, why?

If you're looking for a plot-driven, suspense- this might be a good choice. The plot twist at the end was something I did not see coming and I had that great moment where a book gives goosebumps on the scalp.

However, if you enjoy character-driven fiction where you connect with a story- this is not it. Perhaps by virtue of her condition, you never even get to know the main character. She doesn't remember who she is and is in a constant primal state of fear and confusion. She trusts no one and neither does the reader. None of the characters are people you understand or root for, including Christine.

In the end, I was disappointed by this read and probably would not recommend it.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Book Review: A Feast for Crows

A Feast for Crows is the fourth book in George R. R. Martin's series of novels that the HBO television series Game of Thrones is based on. Though this is not a genre I typically read, I was a huge fan of the last book, A Storm of Swords, which I reviewed here.

This installment was a bit slower. If it had been my first introduction to these characters, I might have been bored - but since I already love them, I was willing to follow them on long voyages across the sea, through the woods, and down icy mountainsides. If I had one complaint, it would be that there were so many Cersei chapters. While none of Martin's characters are wholly good or wholly bad, Cersei remains wholly unlikeable.

What I realized in this book is that Martin is a feminist. All his female characters are powerful women confronting a society that isn't ready for them to be leaders. The women are all challenging traditional gender roles- some are learning to swordfight like knights and others are trying to change the laws of inheritance so they can rule kingdoms on their own.

The next book, A Dance with Dragons, will be available in October. If you can't wait, it's already available on Kindle.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Book Review: Sunflower

It's hard for me to believe this is Cass McMain's first book. It's beautiful in it's simplicity. If you're looking for a fast-paced thriller, this isn't the book for you. If you're looking for meaty characters with regular problems, a quiet drama that will stick with you long after you put the book down, look no further.

In Sunflower, McMain has created characters who feel like real people; Michael and Jess could live next door. The story is made more vivid by the details of the area in New Mexico where they live. The dialogue is so realistic that you don't mind when it seems like what they're discussing is inconsequential. It's enjoyable just to be a fly on the wall. Of course, the brilliance of this book is that there are no inconsequential conversations. Even the most seemingly simple misunderstanding can lead to catastrophe and what isn't said - the hurt feelings, guilt, pride - weighs just as heavily.

In one scene, McMain writes: "If Jess had gone to him then, and put her arms around him, he'd have collapsed into her and told her everything. . . And then maybe everything would have turned out differently." But she doesn't, and the reader watches helplessly as this couple continues to fail each other, no matter how good their intentions.

In a matter of weeks, their contented life unravels in a series of almost mundane problems: a stressful work schedule, the pressure of someone else's expectations, a missed phone call, an argument with a delivery driver, the heart attack of an unfriendly neighbor, the decision to take in a stray cat. Things skid further and further off track and when they're righted, everything has changed.

Sunflower is a book about identity and shows that sometimes it is only when life gets hard that we find out who we are.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Monsoon Season: Interview

I only just found this interview that I gave to Cass McMain at the beginning of the summer. She asked some great questions and I got to talk about many of my favorite writing topics: genre debates, sexism, how to create characters, blogging, etc.

Cass claims to have a hard time coming up with blog ideas, but her response to Cosmo's "How to Drive Your Man Wild" was absolute genius:
"I should email him. At work. With messages about how I just got finished “touching myself” and thinking about how I can’t wait for him to ____ his ____ for me. Blank his blank? Oh, I get it: that’s code for I can’t wait for him to lose his job. (Maybe I can leave group messages for everyone at his office. I want your ___ in my ____. Then his boss can send it back filled in: I want your resignation letter in my in basket right now.)"
I am currently rereading Cass's debut novel, Sunflower, and thoroughly enjoying it. The review will be my next blog post.

A few months ago, I interviewed Cass about publication of her first book.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Book Review: To Kill a Mockingbird

This book was enjoyable the second time, but I couldn't help thinking it would never have been published in today's market. The trial isn't even mentioned until about seventy-five pages in. Until then, everything is background helping to create the picture of the innocent childhood the trial interrupts with its sobering reality of a racist community. The first quarter of the book reads like children's literature, full of descriptions of childhood games, punishments for sassing adults, building snowmen, fantastical stories created about the reclusive neighbor.

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird was one of two books I was assigned in high school with female authors. The other was Pride and Prejudice. What struck me most on this reread was what a heavy burden falls on these two books to represent the entirety of women's experience in the world: a British lady from the 1800s and an eight-year-old American girl in the 1930s. These were the books I was given in the 1990's; these were the same books assigned a generation before.

Is it any wonder why boys grow up unable to associate female authors with universally relevant writing? Girls grow up reading a majority of male authors, required to find and discuss universal themes. Boys are very rarely asked to do this.

And are we to believe that nothing of value has been written since 1960? Are we frozen in a time that was unapologetic in its sexism? Will these be the same books assigned to children in a hundred years?

I'd love to hear what other books people were assigned in school, especially younger readers. Is this changing?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Book Review: The Falls

This is the first Joyce Carol Oates novel I've read and I enjoyed it. The Falls is a sweeping multi-generational, family saga that starts in the fifties and ends in the late seventies. Narrated in third person, it is told in alternating perspective. There are really two main characters: first, Ariah who is tragically widowed on her honeymoon at Niagara Falls and then, much later, her son Royall who finds himself sifting through the secretive past on wich his mother built their life.

At heart, the dysfunctional family story is very relatable, but the plot is refreshingly original as are the flawed, eccentric characters. An interesting part of the story is that the reader feels complicit in the keeping of Ariah's secrets. We know the truth before the other characters do. In fact, some of them never know the full story, as they wouldn't in real life. Only the reader, able to see from each character's perspective, sees the complete picture.

There is an improbable scene at the midpoint of the book (between Royall and the "woman in black") which is jarring because of the previous believability of the story. But if you can get past this, the resolution is satisfying.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

How to Celebrate the Fourth (Without Being "Patriotic")

 Patriotism has always been an uncomfortable thing to me. I'm happy to be an American and I appreciate the (unearned) advantages that come from my citizenship. But I don't feel pride or superiority from it and I think patriotism can be dangerous when it cultivates these things- just as religion can be.

There's a lot going on in the world right now that makes me feel discouraged and disappointed in my government, if not my country. The war against a woman's right to control her body. The fact that our president acts outside international laws he suggests other countries should comply with. That people like Bradley Manning are punished for exposing war crimes while the war criminals have immunity. Fracking. Climate change. Monsanto. The list goes on. And on.

So here's a list of five reasons to celebrate this Fourth of July, in spite of the above:

1. Celebrate one thing in this country where we're making progress. Example: the SCOTUS decision on marriage equality.
               It's about time and hopefully the next step is prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, something that is still, shockingly, legal in a majority of states.

2. Differentiate between love of  country and love of government.
               Americans are often criticized for apathy, but I don't believe people don't care. If they're anything like me, they care - they just don't know where to start.

3. Be hopeful.
               There are rumblings of democratic protest happening - with Occupy and the citizens filibuster in Texas recently and with the movement for marriage equality.

4. Have gratitude.
               America is part of the privileged 1%, globally. There are still protections for the most vulnerable among us - safety nets that don't exist in other parts of the world.

5. Make it about food and friends.
              It doesn't have to be political to enjoy some burgers and good conversation with your favorite people. And it's an excuse for sparklers, which is pretty awesome.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Book Review: A Storm of Swords

Okay, so I never read fantasy. Like, never. I mean, I read The Hobbit in the sixth grade because it was required. Since then, nothing. As you know if you've read the reviews on this blog, I gravitate toward relatable, character-driven, contemporary fiction.

But I got hooked on the HBO series for Game of Thrones. I watched the first two seasons on Netflix and then I suffered through the Facebook updates of people watching the third season. But I don't have HBO. So I decided to read the third book instead.

It amuses me to listen to debates about whether George R.R. Martin is a "good" writer. This seems to mean very different things to different people and readability (as evidenced by popularity and awesome sales) isn't always enough. I wonder if some people put the writing down specifically because of its broad appeal. The fact that it's accessible to a majority means it can't be "good". For these readers, a book is only "good" when indecipherable to most.

For me, it was in one of the first chapters of A Storm of Swords, when a low-speed sailboat chase had me on the edge of my seat, that it occurred to me that I was in the hands of a "good" writer. Martin's technique of killing off lead characters isn't a risk most writers are willing to take and it definitely ups the stakes. I also love the fact that these characters are so complicated. Morality is murky here and virtue often does not achieve external reward - much like in real life. Perhaps that realism is why I'm able to enjoy a book about dragons and magic. The fantasy elements are superficial; at its root, this is a story about people, relationships, and human nature.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Interview: Cass McMain

Cass McMain is a friend I've made by participating in the writer's website, authonomy.com. First, I knew her as a thoughtful critiquer- she will only give advice if you beg for it. She loves to read and is one of the few reviewers on the site who will read not just the first chapter or chapters, but the whole thing. She is very gentle with writers and will not offer opinion or criticism - even spelling errors! - unless the writer is sure they're ready to hear it.

It was after her read of Monsoon Season that I tracked down her story, Sunflower, which remains one of my favorite books on the site. I was absolutely thrilled to hear that it was going to be published. The following is an interview with Cass.

When you write, do you have an idea of where the story is going? Do you know how it ends? And, if you think you know, does it ever change?
    Well, yes and no. I try to know where I’m going. Generally speaking, I’d say I know the street but not the address. Sometimes it’s more like I know the city but not the street! The end of Sunflower was something of a surprise to me; I had initially expected a far less happy ending.
How long did it take to write Sunflower? Is this your first novel?
    It took me a year to write Sunflower, and yes, it was my first novel.
Have you become more confident with your work since joining authonomy, getting more feedback, and ultimately finding a publisher? Did you send out query letters or did they track you down?
    I’ve waffled back and forth between feeling confident to feeling totally dismayed. Authonomy has been a blessing and a curse. But yes, some of the feedback I had there was very meaningful. Ultimately, that was how I found a publisher, so I think it’s been well worth the trip. I didn’t have the courage to send query letters, but representatives of Holland House spotted my work on Authonomy.
What does being a published author mean to you?
    Oh, that’s a hard one to answer. I had my career jerked out from under me and it’s about broken my heart. Being able to point to something I did that wasn’t a total failure may help me get over some of the despair I’ve been mired in for the last several years. Then, too, it may not. That’s a depressing answer; I’m sorry.
What else are you working on?
    I’m writing a book about a dog. I had neighbors with a dog who barked all night. I usually lie in bed at night and think of things I’d like to write about. Finding that my thoughts were entirely focused on the barking that had become my life, naturally a barking dog entered my writing. But of course, the book became about much more than that. See? The dog told me where the street was, but I had to look for the address. I’m homing in on the finer details now.
 Cass is also a reluctant blogger. Her recent post on the mind numbing customer service of your average call center had me nodding and laughing along.

Sunflower will be available this month.

Friday, May 24, 2013

One-sided Catfight

I have agreed with Jennifer Weiner in the past. When she draws attention to the focus on male writers in literary criticism and the dismissal of women writers of commercial fiction, she's right. But I part ways with her when she goes after women writers who have achieved literary success.

She attacks Claire Massud for defending unlikeable characters, imagining that she has made a personal attack against Weiner and writers of likeable characters. Similarly, she imagines a personal attack in Lena Dunham's comments about her own reading preferences. Dunham said she didn’t care for “airport chick-lit” featuring “a cartoon woman’s torso on the front or a stroller with a diamond on it.” Wiener's response was to assume Dunham was referring to books like hers and to argue that she couldn't find any books with the exact cover Dunham had described. Um, right, because she was not specifically targeting one author, unlike Weiner who very specifically targets authors all the time, like Jennifer Eagan who won a Pulitzer for writing what I thought was the best book I've read in years.

I understand Weiner's frustration with the predominantly male staff of literary critics who overlook commercial fiction, especially when it's written by a woman. But she's out of line when she attacks women writers who have gained critical success. And it's really hypocritical when she frames these attacks around the need for women writers to support each other.

It goes both ways. 




Thursday, May 9, 2013

What's so Great about Gatsby?

After a really slow start, a story did emerge. Unfortunately, there is not one likeable character in the entire thing. I did not root for Gatsby to get the vapid girl. I did not care when the other vapid girl died. I didn't ever figure out what the narrator wanted.

Why is this a classic? Were there so few stories available in the twenties that this one seemed original? Did they have editors back then? I am aware that it's very arrogant of me to think my edits could improve a classic, but really - they don't have to be my edits. There are whole scenes that have nothing to do with the plot.  The dialogue is awful. Anyone's edits would do.

The plan was to see the new movie on Friday. I read a review that said the adaptation was not done well and the movie makes the characters seem superficial and that many scenes come across as tangents. That sounds like a spot-on adaptation to me.

Are you someone who loved this book? Come on, what am I missing?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Reading Gatsby

I'm currently rereading The Great Gatsby. I read it in high school, but I don't remember anything much beyond the fact that I liked it. I was one of those rare students that actually read all of the assigned books, and I liked most of them. (Just not Moby Dick.)

So far, I'm about three chapters into Gatsby, and, frankly, I'm bored. Snooty people putting on airs, having affairs, getting drunk and throwing parties. Ho-hum. Most of what I choose to read these days is set in the present, so I wonder if part of my inability to relate is that this is set in the 20s.

But, I liked this when I read it in high school, when I had even less in common with these people. Is it possible that I was actually more open minded back then? Am I getting stuck in my ways?

I have a ways to go before I finish the book. It could get interesting any page now. Fingers crossed.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Book Review: The Inheritance of Loss

I have read books that sacrifice plot for character or character for plot, but this is the first book I've ever read that sacrifices both for setting. Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss is beautifully written, full of vivid descriptions from the Himalayas to the streets of New York City. To say it moves slowly would be generous,. The story doesn't really start until the last fifty pages or so. The only character I had any fondness for was the dog and there's no resolution to her story.

I only purchased this book because it won the Man Booker Prize in 2006. I only finished it because of a Goodreads review that said it had one of the best endings she'd ever read. I am boggled on both points. Basically, this author spent 350 pages meticulously describing an empty room.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Sex in Literary Fiction 4

Here's my last example for this discussion:

"Have you been good?" she asked me.
I nodded. This would help. "I've been very good," I answered chastely.
She smiled and shrugged out of her utilitarian underwear. For some reason, when making love to my wife, I liked to retreat to a little boy persona and often came within ten seconds whenever she started cooing that I was a "good boy." "Good boy," she would whisper, as I thrust and pumped on top of her (or behind her, or underneath; Elaine was as cheerful as a cheerleader about assuming whatever position I wanted). 'Good boy," she would murmur into my hair. "Good boy." And she would sigh and draw a finger down my back.
"I want to be a good boy, I want to be a good boy. Which was true, which was all I'd ever wanted.
"Help me to be good," I would beg her. "Please, please, help me-" And then blast; it was over.
But tonight, after she'd sat astride me for all of five minutes, I considered attempting to fake it- did she really have to know?- and then to my surprise I sputtered out a small orgasm; satisfied, my wife climbed off me. She and I made love like the sexual revolution had never happened; my satisfaction supported her sense of herself as a woman, and even if only one of us came (that would be me), we could usually both go to sleep content. 
That's a scene from Laura Grodstein's A Friend of the Family. I'm impressed that a woman can so believably write this scene as a male narrator. I think this scene is great for the added dimension it gives of this control-freak narrator and the submissive dynamic he plays in bed which is the opposite of how his relationship with his wife plays out through the rest of the book. It's telling too, that his wife gets reassurance from his climax and neither one of them is concerned about hers. This is reflective of his character, and foreboding for their marriage.

The thing about each of these scenes that separates them from erotica is that they're not designed to titillate. It's fine if they do, but that isn't their purpose. Whatever graphic details exist are there for believability. These scenes give us a deeper understanding of who these characters are, and when a novel's main focus is the romantic relationship between two people, the sex is an essential part.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Sex in Literary Fiction 3

This topic has become a series, I guess. I wanted to include a female narrator. Here's a passage from Sue Miller's The Senator's Wife:

"Upstairs they stand on opposite sides of the bed and move quickly out of their clothes. Meri crawls across the coverlet to Nathan. She lies down on her side, looking up at him, opening her knees as he reaches for her.
The air from the open window is cool, but Nathan's body is warm, he radiates heat. He's hard, and she reaches down to help him, to shift him into place. She feels a kind of relief as he enters her. This is what she wants. This is the way she feels honest with him, safe. Here, she thinks. Yes. As he begins to move in her, she whispers it: "Yes. Yes!"
They make love quickly, fueled by his urgency, and when he comes, Nathan cries out so loudly that Meri can imagine someone on the sidewalk below stopping, listening under the darkening trees." 
This time we have a couple of newlyweds and despite the somewhat titillating language, there's so much more than sex here. It's such a great example of the advice every writer has drilled into them: "SHOW; don't tell." It could take pages for Miller to tell us what she has in just three paragraphs. Coupled with the revelation from a few pages before, that Meri thinks they're an unlikely pair that ended up together because of the sex, this scene provides something necessary. To leave it out, or "fade to black", would be a cop out.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Sex in Literary Fiction 2

In my last blog, I promised an example of a sex scene from a literary novel that I think is done well. Here's an excerpt from Michael Cunningham's By Nightfall:
"He puts his lips to her left nipple, flicks it with his tongue. She murmurs. It's become singular, his mouth on her breast and her response to it, the exhaled murmur, the miniature seizure he can feel along her body, as if she can't quite believe that this, this, is happening again. He has a hard-on now. He can't always tell, he doesn't really care, when he's excited on his own and when he's excited because she is. She clutches his back, she can't reach his ass anymore, he loves it that she likes his ass. He circles her stiffening nipple with his tongue-tip, taps the other one lightly with a finger. Tonight it will be mainly about getting her off. This often happens, has for years--it reveals its form, on any given night (when did they last fuck anyplace but at night, in bed?), usually decided up front, by who kisses whom. This one's for her, then. That's the sexiness of it."
The scene goes on. It's actually about three pages towards the very beginning of the story and I think it does a great job of establishing who these characters are and their relationship to each other. There is a routine to their passion, but you the sense that the intimacy is no less enjoyable for the familiarity. It will be important later for the reader to understand the intricacies of this long-married couple's love for one another and Cunningham has found a way to encapsulate it in three pages, right from the beginning. I think he manages to be graphic without being gratuitous.

But that's just my opinion. What do you think?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Sex in Literary Fiction

I recently read an article about how difficult it is to find quality sex scenes depicted in literary fiction. The argument is that the absence feels pretty conspicuous in a genre that prides itself on laying bare the internal mysteries of character. The author of the article suggests the lack may come down to simple embarrassment, in light of things like the annual Bad Sex Review, run by Britain's Literary Review.

As a writer myself, I'd say there are two main concerns when writing sex into my story. The first is: What will my family and friends think? As much as sex is a big part of human experience, it still doesn't get discussed in realistic terms even in some of our closest relationships. This is what makes it such great territory for a writer to reveal intimate parts of their character's nature, but it remains taboo. When I sent my dad a copy of my first novel, Monsoon Season, I blacked out all the naughty bits and in the margin I wrote: "REDACTED."

The second major concern for writers including sex in our books is: Is it gratuitous? We've all heard that "sex sells" and we don't want to be seen as using sex to transform an otherwise uninteresting story into a page-turner. Frankly, many of us don't want our work dismissed as a Fifty Shades knock off when we're trying to write something of literary value. But the "fade to black" approach can feel a bit cowardly.

It's a tricky balance. I notice when it's done well and think Michael Cunningham, Sue Miller and Lauren Grodstein get it right. Perhaps I will locate some of their well-written passages for my next blog.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Book Review: Losing Charlotte

In Losing Charlotte, a family deals with the sudden loss of the eldest daughter after she has given birth to twins. In the months that follow, the family tries to adjust. The typically unshakeable father takes to bed, the mother begins planning an elaborate memorial that seems to mark Charlotte's childhood, and the younger sister travels from Kentucky to NYC to help  her brother-in-law care for newborns.

Younger sister, Knox, finds herself plunged into a domestic life she has tried hard to avoid. She suspects her actions are out of guilt, for not being a "good sister." As Knox wrestles with what that means, we get glimpses of their complicated relationship- simultaneously passionately close and, at times, frustratingly distant. Knox tries to understand who her sister was and what she'd thought of their relationship. At the same time, she's trying to figure out who she will become without her sister to measure herself against.

This story does not gloss over grief and end with a tidy, happy resolution. There is truth here and the pain is palpable. You get the sense that these are real people who will deal with the reality of this loss for the rest of their lives.

In an author interview, Heather Clay says she is inspired by: "Anything about that family ache, about what’s unsaid, misunderstood, the simple and tragic passage of time... " That's what she gives her readers with this book.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Recipe: Pad See Ew

Years ago in New Hampshire, my friend Kim introduced me to Thai food. I fell in love with something they just called "Pan Fried Noodles" and when the restaurant went out of business, it took me years to locate the dish that was the equivalent in other Thai restaurants: Pad See Ew.

It's really tricky to recreate this delicious recipe in you own kitchen because the "dark soy sauce" isn't typically sold in American grocery stores. You need to go to an Asian market and find some "Kecap Manis", which is the key to the special sweet flavor of Pad See Ew.

I went to Lee Lee's International Supermarket. I read that "light soy sauce" is just the same as the regular soy sauce that's easily found at your local Safeway, but I wasn't taking any chances and picked up some of that as well. Google turned up a bunch of recipes, each slightly different. This is the one I used: http://rachelcooksthai.com/pad-see-ew-2/


Saturday, March 2, 2013

Book Review: String Bridge

Jessica Bell's novel String Bridge tells the story of Melody, who gave up her life as a musician when she had her daughter with her music promoter husband. At first, it hadn't even felt like a sacrifice, but as Tessa turns three, Melody begins to feel like she has lost an essential part of her identity. The dual role of wife and mother is no longer feeling enough.

Add to that doubts about her husband's fidelity and job stress and you have the recipe for an unhappy life. And Melody can't trust her emotions because she's worried that she may have inherited bipolar disorder from her mother who was diagnosed at around the same age.

Bell does a good job describing Melody's conflicting emotions and her memories of a difficult childhood with a mentally ill parent. There are some tangents here and the ending seemed unnecessarily dramatic, but it's a compelling story that may resonate with women trying to define themselves beyond motherhood.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Book Review: Maine

As someone who grew up in an Irish Catholic family on the East coast, J. Courtney Sullivan's novel Maine felt awfully familiar. Something about the cover and the book's popularity made me expect a much lighter sort of "beach read", but I was pleasantly surprised to find a complicated, multi-generational family saga instead.

Technically, Maine takes place over a couple months in the summer when the Kelleher family vacations together in their beach home. But through the voices of this ensemble cast of characters, we read about their journey as a family, beginning with the matriarch in her youth.

We get the story from four perspectives: Alice, daughter Kathleen, daughter-in-law Anne Marie and Kathleen's adult daughter Maggie. All the characters are flawed, and perhaps the most deeply flawed is Alice. The past that torments her is hidden from those around her and all they see is her apparent ambivalence about motherhood. Kathleen, the black sheep of the family, discovers that a lifetime of trying to be her mother's opposite has sent nearly the same message to her daughter. Maggie is unexpectedly pregnant and wrestles with the decisions she must make for her future while trying not to echo the mistakes of the past.

This is character driven fiction- which is my favorite. Each character has their own story to tell which informs the broader story, the portrait of the Kellehers.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Monsoon Season: New Review

The following review for my book can be found on the Literary Inklings website:

Riley is a Massachusetts girl fresh from college when she boldly moves across the country to Arizona, separating herself from her family in an attempt to find her own footing in life. Amid the fervid unrestraint of Tucson’s monsoon season she meets Ben, and the two discover a comfortable life together. They live simply and love passionately until Ben’s spasmodic and unpredictable temper pushes Riley to a place from which she refuses to return. Stricken by the sting of his abuse, Riley once again separates herself from the life she knows and leaves her unstable Tucson world for home and family in New England. But allowing a love to die, she discovers, – even an illogical, rampant young love – isn’t made any easier by walking away. As she comes to grips with the consequences of her choices and learns to reestablish her life, a tragedy close to home will shake her world anew. With determination, and with the help of her true friends and family, Riley will have to learn how to weather a monsoon season of her very own.

Katie O’Rourke’s debut novel reads in a wonderfully unique way; her lyrical prose and the unstructured path of her story make Monsoon Season a refreshing journey through the art of literature. I found myself absorbed in the unfolding drama of Riley and Ben’s tumultuous relationship, guided through the quickly shifting scenes and perspectives with ease. O’Rourke doesn’t tie the novel’s narrative down to one format; some scenes play out in Riley’s voice, others in Ben’s, while others still are seen from the perspectives of the people around them. Such an exploration of the mode of novel-writing could have distracted readers, but O’Rourke is so strong in her ability, so confident in her direction, that the story only gains momentum from it. I had no difficulty in following along; on the contrary, I felt connected to the unique flow of the novel. Monsoon Season’s structure contributes, in a way, to the emotional upheaval and resolute determination Riley feels in escaping a potentially disastrous situation. In Riley the reader finds a very strong-willed and companionable protagonist, a girl at once relatable and admirable. Ben, on the other hand, must suffer the results of his own mistakes, and the reader feels the ebb and sway of the impossible connection he and Riley share.

What would have been a consistently compelling story between Riley and Ben is extended into something a bit fuller, a bit richer, when O’Rourke pulls back from their lives to examine the situations of those around them. Riley’s parents and siblings and their relationships are explored in a way that temporarily leaves a romantic drama behind to touch on the poignancy of family. Ben’s mother is given focus as she herself deals with the aftermath of an abusive marriage and the fear of its genetic inheritance. Donna, Riley’s friend and roommate in Tucson, explores her young life and burgeoning romance. Laura and Jack, Riley’s childhood friends, discover how unexpectedly life can bring joy and sorrow, love and loss. O’Rourke handles every separate thread in such an assured way, and with such a lovely use of language, that the story glides evenly, allowing the reader to experience seemingly everything at once. Monsoon Season will effectively entertain the reader, touch their heart, and leave them reflecting on our intense vulnerability in life and our ability to overcome it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Book Review: Red Hook Road

I read and enjoyed Ayelet Waldman's last book Love and Other Impossible Pursuits (which was later made into a movie with Natalie Portman). The only problem I had with that book was a bit of trouble liking the flawed main character. (Don't get me wrong; I like complicated MC's, but I struggled with this one.)

I did not have that problem with Red Hook Road. The chapters alternate character's perspectives, which I love. (I wrote Monsoon Season that way.) The story is told in omniscient, actually, so while each chapter focuses on a different character, there's quite a bit of head-hopping within each chapter. I'm pretty sure my writing professors would say she broke some "rules", but I'd say this is a good example that a good writer can ignore all the rules she wants.

The plot sounds a bit morbid: in the first chapter, a bride and groom die in a car wreck on their way to the reception. As the story unfolds, the two very different families try to figure out how to relate to one another, while wondering whether they really have to. It's blue collar vs. white collar; out-of-towner vs, local; stoic vs. emotional. But in the end, their grief unites them and the love for family is a common thread.

I'm happy to see Waldman has another book, Daughter's Keeper, which I'll read very soon.