Friday, December 28, 2007
Hooray! My router must be working. So I'd better get these November books in before December is over.
SWITCHING TIME/Richard Baer/B+: Written by a psychiatrist, detailing the true story of a patient who suffered multiple personality disorder. I picked it up for personal reasons and I'm glad I read it for those same personal reasons. If you're interested in how fractured the human mind can become trying to protect itself, this is a fascinating book.
ONE GOOD TURN/Kate Atkinson/A-: A follow-up to CASE HISTORIES, this book features former private detective Jackson Brodie, now rich and retired. He's followed his girlfriend to Edinburgh for a theater festival and runs straight into criminal activity. Beautifully written and a whole host of fascinating characters and motivations, this book delivers a compelling story and a resolution I didn't see coming.
MOCKINGBIRD/Charles Shields/A: The biography of Nelle Harper Lee, highly recommended for anyone who loved TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Lee has become famously reclusive as she's aged, but this book pulls together her public statements and the private papers of others to give a fascinating portrait of the writer. It can't answer the question everyone has--Why did she not write another book?--but it gives enough clues and facts to provide an interesting theory.
MESSENGER OF TRUTH/Jacqueline Winspear/B+: I didn't like this 4th book in the Maisie Dobbs series nearly as well as the previous 3. Still a great period piece (Britain in the early 1930s) and with a good mystery at its core, but Winspear resorted to some tricks that I can't stand. Like having Maisie think that she knows what happened, but hiding it from the reader. In my book, that's false tension and it weakens any story.
A MONSTROUS REGIMENT OF WOMEN/Laurie R. King/A+: My re-reading of this book right after the previous Maisie Dobbs reinforced how much I love Mary Russell. This is my favorite of the Russell/Holmes series, in which Mary has to confront her feelings for Sherlock Holmes while also dealing with a charismatic female spiritualist and the possible murders that have occurred in her inner circle. King is a master at hinting and letting the reader feel the latent tension and attraction between Holmes and Russell. Love, love, love this book.
LIFE IN THE YEAR 1000/Danny Danziger/A: A wonderful book about life in England at the turn of the last millennium. It's structured around the Julian work calender, going month by month to give an overview of medieval life in English villages and towns just before the Norman invasion. Written for a general audience, I recommend it for anyone with an interest in history.
THE POE SHADOW/Matthew Pearl/A-: Surprisingly, I went ahead and read this after my disappointment with his first book, THE DANTE CLUB. Even more surprisingly, this book was far and away better than the first. Quentin Clark, a Baltimore attorney and admirer of Edgar Allan Poe, is shocked by the poet's death in his city. He's also convinced there's more to that death than meets the eye. He risks his career, his friends, and his engagement to find out the truth behind Poe's death as well as the truth behind Poe's creation of his most memorable character, Auguste Dupin.
AFRICAN WOMEN/Mark Mathabone/A-: Mathabone writes stirringly about the lives of his grandmother, mother, and sister in apartheid South Africa. From the indignities of being bought by husbands to the struggles of mothers to keep their children alive and safe, this is a wonderful book about the difficulties so many women in the world face today. Made me feel both blessed and guilty--and desirous of helping other women.
THE MAN EATERS OF TSAVO/J.H. Patterson/B: Written a hundred years ago by the colonel detailed to British East Africa (now Kenya) to oversee the completion of the Uganda railroad. During this time, dozens of Indian workers were killed by two lions in a short stretch of the railway near Tsavo. Patterson recounts the attempts to hunt down the lions, including the famous story of Charles Ryall's sitting up all night in a railway car only to be carried away and killed by one of the lions. The book also includes Patterson's memories of hunting other African animals, liberally sprinkled with photos. An interesting look at another time and different mores--and it was hard for me to accept the enthusiastic accounts of killing animals for no reason other than sport.
Saturday, December 08, 2007
I've been shut out of blogger for a week. I could see my blog, but I couldn't get into the dashboard to post anything new. My husband fixed it last night when he returned from Boston. He says we need a new router. I'll take his word for it. I'm just glad to be back.
And yes, I finished. The month, the challenge, the first draft . . . history :)
Words written in November: 41,879
Average word count per day: 1396
Not quite my goal of 1500 per day, but not bad considering it took me 18 months to write the first 30,000 words of the novel and only 1 month to write 41,000. And, what makes me most proud, I wrote every single day. Sure, I had my 76 word days--but I still wrote something.
This doesn't mean I'm quite ready to start sending out the manuscript. There are quite a few scenes that need to be written in earlier spots, since I tend to change things as I write and the people and situations as I near the end aren't always what I started with in the beginning. But it's wonderful to have a structure to work with.
What did I learn from this experience?
1. That writer's block isn't always a case of writing something wrong and needing to rethink my direction. Sometimes, writer's block is just laziness (or inertia, as I prefer to think of it.) The hardest part of overcoming inertia is the initial effort. Then, with each day, momentum gathers and starts to take on a life of its own. That doesn't mean that day 30 was any easier than day 1, but that I had an energy on day 30 that I didn't have day 1.
2. That I am just not a serious outliner. I have friends that swear by their outlines. Not me. Not to leave the impression that I'm a complete freeform sort of writer. I always (almost always, I have one story now that's giving me fits) know my endings before I begin. I know where I'm headed and I know five or six high points along the way. But trying to fill in the blanks between those kills the joy for me. I've done it--I even did it for this book--but what I wrote bears only a passing resemblance to that outline. My mind is set free by the actual act of writing. Any amount of dreaming beforehand is not as powerful, for me, as what my mind does when I start to put my people in situations. That's when my imagination kicks in and I do my best thinking.
3. That sheer force of will can accomplish the same thing as inspiration. Don't wait for the muse--go out and wrestle her to the ground.
4. That I can do anything if I set my mind to it.
So now it's time to set my mind to the second draft. Wish me luck!
Friday, November 30, 2007
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Yesterday's word count: 1625
Total word count: 36,673
Today's outline: return to Rooks End and beginning of wrap-up
I so want to reach at least 40,000 by Friday night. Let's see, that means I need to write 3327 words in three days. I'll pass that if I hit 1500 each day. All right, there's my goal for this final push--4500 words or bust!
Monday, November 26, 2007
Sunday, November 25, 2007
Saturday, November 24, 2007
Total word count: 32,880
Tomorrow's outline: we'll see
Friday, November 23, 2007
Thursday, November 22, 2007
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Monday, November 19, 2007
Sunday, November 18, 2007
Saturday, November 17, 2007
Friday, November 16, 2007
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Total word count: 22,847
Tomorrow's outline: confronts Owain, begins to piece together the truth
Woo-hoo! Halfway through November and I'm right where I need to be to reach 45,000 words by the 30th. That is, if I don't finisht the story before then--I only have four chapters to go!
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Monday, November 12, 2007
Total word count: 17,014
Tomorrow's outline: Okay, here's the deal. My 397 words today were the general outline for my remaining chapters. As it stands at this (very tentative) moment, there will be 23 chapters. I'm just starting chapter 18. That's 6 chapters to write. In a nice twist, that's how many chapters I've written so far in November. So I stand a good shot of finishing this book by midnight November 30.
Given that I don't continue to write only a few hundred words a day. But I'm not going to feel guilty. I'm not. Or at least I'm going to use guilt as a motivator--believe me, I wouldn't have typed 100 words yesterday if I didn't know I had to post it in my room.
Stay tuned . . .
Sunday, November 11, 2007
Saturday, November 10, 2007
Friday, November 09, 2007
Thursday, November 08, 2007
Wednesday, November 07, 2007
So how am I doing one week into my November challenge?
Let's do the numbers.
According to my daily goal of 1500 words, I should be at 10,500 words after seven days. Check--and a little more :)
Although I'm not doing NaNoWriMo, I wanted to know how close I am to keeping up with their daily goal of 1657 words. At that rate, the total after seven days is 11,599. Awfully close.
Which means, as long as I keep it up, I'll have between 45,000 and 50,000 words by midnight on November 30.
Lots of those words are, frankly, rotten. But hey! I can't fix them until I actually write them. (A friend told me that was very profound, so I thought I'd share.) And at least I'm not stuck in the same place like I was for months.
Overall, there's one day in particular I'm proud of in this last week. Yesterday.
Why, you may ask? After all, it was my lowest word count day by far, less than 1200 words.
But yesterday was also my hardest day of the week, both physically and mentally. I only had 426 words written by 8:00 last night. I figured I wouldn't worry about it, but then I went ahead, sat down, and wrote a good 700 more words.
That's what I'm proud of--that I didn't quit when I wanted to. That I showed up.
On Sports Night, a great comedic show by Aaron Sorkin, Casey is in love with Dana, who has just broken off her engagement. All his friends want to know what Casey's plan is to win her.
"I show up," he says. "And then I see what happens."
That's it? they want to know. That's not a plan. But at the end of the episode, he'd gotten where he wanted. How?
"I showed up," he said.
So that's my plan.
I'll show up.
And I'll see what happens.
Tuesday, November 06, 2007
Monday, November 05, 2007
Sunday, November 04, 2007
Saturday, November 03, 2007
Friday, November 02, 2007
Thursday, November 01, 2007
Trying something new, an easier way to indicate how I felt about a book. I'll give each book a letter grade. (Hey, I said it was new, I didn't claim it was original!)
DARK STAR SAFARI/Paul Theroux/B+: The writer, who taught in Africa during the 60s, makes a trip from Cairo to the South African Cape, almost entirely by land. He took buses and taxis and hitched rides in trucks. He was shot at by bandits in northern Kenya, went part of the way by river with a drug runner in Malawi, and visited the places he'd lived and worked. Only one thing kept this book from being an A for me--his superior attitude to the angels of mercy and charity groups that abound in Africa. I think he makes valid points about their usefulness or lack thereof, but he doesn't offer any alternatives so I tended to roll my eyes when he went off on that tangent.
THE BEEKEEPER'S APPRENTICE/Laurie R. King/A: A book club book that I recommended. The first in the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series. 14-year-old Mary literally stumbles over the great (and retired) detective while walking the Sussex downs one day. She ends up Holmes' student, then assistant, then partner. There are several cases in the book that weave together into an overall story of revenge and trust. Obviously I love it or I'd never have suggested it to my friends.
HEART-SHAPED BOX/Joe Hill/B: Hill is actually the son of Stephen King and, in his father's footsteps, his first novel is supernatural horror (though the horror is mostly psychological in nature.) The book opens when an aging rock star buys a haunted suit on the internet. But it seems he was targeted for this particular ghost. It took me a good 50 or 60 pages to get into it, but then it moves right along and I was surprised and pleased by the character development. A good vacation read.
THE GOOD HUSBAND OF ZEBRA DRIVE/Andrew Taylor/B: Another Mma Ramotse book, about the traditionally-built African woman with her own detective agency in Botswana. I read these books for the pleasure of a quiet hour--not a lot happens, but it's always fun to spend a little time with the characters.
THE MEANING OF NIGHT/Michael Cox/C+: I wanted to like this book. It's set in Victorian England, it's got secret births and mistaken identities and true love and betrayal. Unfortunately, the structure and style made it hard to read. It opens with a murder, goes along chronologically for a few chapters, and then the bulk of the book is one long series of what happened in the past to bring this about. But I finished it, so that's something.
E=MC2/David Bodanis/A-: Our couples' book club book, "a biography of the world's most famous equation". The best review I can give this book is simple: it helped me understand what the equation means. That's no mean feat for a science idiot like me. Bodanis is a great writer of science for the masses--I especially liked the stories of people he included.
DARK ASSASSIN/Anne Perry/B: Although I once bought everything Anne Perry wrote, in recent years I've confined myself to borrowing them from the library. In this latest in the Monk series, William Monk is back in the police force as part of the River Police. His first serious case involves tunnels being dug for the new London sewers and a young woman who may or may not have jumped to her death. Perry is great at Victorian atmosphere, but her plots and characters have seemed to stagnate a little.
THE DANTE CLUB/Matthew Pearl/C-: Another book that had a great story buried somewhere beneath the layers of too many words and too much self-consciousness. The Dante Club is a group of Boston poets and publishers who are committed to the first American translation of Dante's The Inferno. But the publication is imperiled when a series of gruesome killings begin in Boston, mirroring the torments of Dante's Hell. The club rushes to discover the killer before Dante is completely corrupted. The author is a Dante scholar, and I think that ruined the book. Too much information, too little pacing, too slow moving.
NOCTURNES/John Connolly/A-: A book of short stories from a new-to-me author. I picked it up because it was October and the stories were spooky. I loved the variety of his settings and characters, from witches in an English village after WWI to a contemporary serial killer. I loved his style, I loved his subjects and the way he wrote about them, and I will definitely pick up his novels.
NOBODY DON'T LOVE NOBODY/Stacey Bess/B: Book club for tonight. Bess taught for 7 years at the School With No Name in Salt Lake City, a school for children in the Family Shelter. Her book talks about the children and their experiences. Moving, makes you think, didn't quite go all the way for me. Bess tended to repeat herself too often and I felt like saying, "I'll be more inclined to serve if you quit telling me that I should!"
Total word count: see above for Not November yet
Today's outline: Annest's confrontation with Hugh--doubts about Ivo--Hugh warns her of danger--does she want someone else to die in her place again--Hugh knows what she can do
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Novemeber, as you may or may not know, is National Novel Writing Month. It's a big deal in writerly circles, or at least it's been heard of. The object of NaNoWriMo is simple--to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. That breaks down to 1657 words per day.
I'm not participating in NaNoWriMo. For several reasons, none of which matter here. But I am taking the point of the challenge to heart. And what, you ask, is the point of the challenge?
I've been working on the same novel for more than a year. The short story that is sprang from was written two years ago. I have beautifully written and rewritten the first 100 pages dozens of times. But I've never gotten further.
And I have to get further. Because I have a whole trilogy I want to tell, and I'm ready to outline the next two books, and I can't write them until I write the first.
So here comes November.
1. I will write 1500 words a day. (That will give me 45,000 words at the end of the month, enough to either finish or come very close to finishing the novel.)
2. I will only write new words and new scenes. I am not allowed to touch the first 100 pages. No matter how much still needs to be fixed or added or deleted. Those 100 pages will just have to wait until November is over.
3. I don't think there is a 3 . . . Wait a minute, I've got it. I will post here every day my word count from the day before and a simple outline for that day's writing.
How about it? Want to help keep me on track and see if I can finally finish off this book?
I attended another concert last weekend, with another child. As opposed to Blaqk Audio, this performer is one a few more people have heard of. In fact, so many people have heard of her that some tickets in some cities were selling for 2000 dollars apiece.
Actually, Hannah Montana is the alter ego of Miley Cyrus, daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus of Achy-Breaky Heart fame. Disney Channel launched her to fame this last year in her own television series where Miley is a regular 14-year-old girl in school, and only a few people know that she's also world-famous pop star Hannah Montana. Now, of course, has come the album and tour.
First, the concert was in lieu of throwing my daughter a party for her 9th birthday next month. And in lieu of several presents.
Second, I am not telling you how much I paid for tickets. It's none of your business. (Although, to preserve my dignity, I will tell you I paid considerably--way considerably--less than top price.)
Third, I enjoyed myself. Does this mean I have no standards? Or, as I prefer to believe, does it mean that I'm capable of finding pleasure in almost any situation?
My oldest son asked me which concert I liked better--Blaqk Audio or Hannah Montana.
On the side of Hannah Montana--I got an actual seat to sit in. And I brought a book to read during intermisison.
On the side of Blaqk Audio--way more interesting people to watch. Everyone at Hannah Montaha looked pretty much like everyone else. Lots of moms of a certain age, lots of pre-teen girls who shrieked a lot, and an occasional father who was the very definition of longsuffering. There were no fishnets, no corsets, no persons-of-uncertain-gender.
Honestly, where is that Mother of the Year award?
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Saturday, October 13, 2007
THE EIGHT/Katherine Neville: a fun airplane sort of read, which worked out well as I was on more than my fair share of airplanes going to and from Kenya. It's one of those ancient secrets/conspiracy books that I assumed was inspired by Da Vinci Code. But I stood corrected after looking at the original publication date--1985. So now I assume it was reprinted and repackaged to take advantage of the Da Vinci Code furor. It traces the history of Charlemagne's magic chess set that apparently gives the holder of creation. Or something like that. I skipped the technical parts. It's told in two time periods: 1970s New York and Algeria and 1790s France. Other than that, I can't remember a lot of details. It passed the time pleasurably, which was its sole purpose.
THE RUINS/Scott Smith: also a fun trip book. I picked this one up because it's set in the Mayan jungles outside Cancun. Having just been there, I thought I'd enjoy it. I did. It's a horror book, but an understated kind of horror. Four American friends wind up on a day trip into the jungle to find a German tourist's brother who's gone missing from an archaelogical site. After encountering hostile local farmers, they stumble onto the site--only to find out the farmers are now armed and will not let them leave. There's no sign at first of the archaelogists, just a hillside covered with a strange vine that grows bloodred flowers and a big gaping hole that descends into the old mind. So what's the first thing they do? That's right, they go down into the big gaping hole. Creey and atmospheric, maybe don't read this right before going to Cancun.
AFRICAN DIARY/Bill Bryson: my favorite travel writer wrote a very short book about Kenya for CARE International. I can only hope he'll return to Africa at some point and write a longer book. His trademark wit and self-deprecating humor are leavened with touching accounts of Nairobi's Kibera slums and the Dadaab refugee camp near Mombasa. I loved it.
A SHORT HISTORY OF TRACTORS IN UKRANIAN/Marina Lewycka: From a professional review (because it says it better than I can): "In this comic first novel, two estranged sisters living in England discover that their addled elderly father, a Ukrainian war refugee and expert on tractors, is planning to marry a young, enormous-breasted woman who sees his modest pension as her ticket to capitalist comfort. The sisters put aside their differences, and embark on a spirited campaign to save him from boil-in-the-bag dinners, slovenly housekeeping, and such extravagant purchases as a broken-down Rolls-Royce. In the midst of these machinations—which include long-winded letters to solicitors, venomous gossip, and all-out spying—Lewycka stealthily reveals how the depredations of the past century dictate what a family can bear."
To which I can only add--this was a remarkably surprising and touching book, as well as laugh out loud funny.
THE ROTH TRILOGY/Andrew Taylor: Okay, I only read the first two of this trilogy in September, I finished the third this month. But I'm putting them together--deal with it. The unusual thing about this trilogy is that the books are in reverse chronological order, each one revealing more of the layers that underly what comes later. Each book can be read on its own, but there's a beauty and bittersweet harmony to reading them in the order intended. In THE FOUR LAST THINGS, set in 1990s London, a little girl is kidnapped. Her mother, a new Anglican priest, thinks the kidnapping is aimed at her and the controversy over ordaining women. But her husband has stories from his childhood he's never told her, and the truth is far more complicated. The second book, JUDGMENT OF STRANGERS, is set more than 20 years earlier, in a small village where the parish priest, David Byfield, remarries, setting in motion events he cannot predict and may not be able to live with. The third book, OFFICES OF THE DEAD, is set ten years before that and gives us a view of David Byfield's first marriage through the eyes of his first wife's best friend. Through each book there's a secondary thread about a late-Victorian priest who may or may not have been mad, who may or may not have been a religious and social radical, who may or may not have killed himself, and who definitely wrote very odd poetry. Highly recommended.
THE WHITE MAASAI/Corinne Hoffman: bought in Kenya, the true story of a Swiss-German woman who came to Kenya on holiday and ended up marrying a Maasai warrior and living in the bush for several years. Very intriguing, but my overwhelming thought through the whole book was: "Did you hit your head on something? Have you completely lost your mind?" But then, I'm not a big believer in destiny-changing, world-shattering love at first sight. I think it's always nice to back up attraction with, I don't know, speaking the same language.
A few others, mostly continuations of various serious I love:
TOOTH AND NAIL/Ian Rankin
GLASS HOUSES/Jane Haddam
JAR CITY/Arnaldur Indridason
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
What did I do to earn this award you ask? I stepped way out of my comfort zone. I did something I never expected to do. I threw myself heart and soul (or at least bodily) into a teenage experience.
I took my 14-year-old to a Blaqk Audio concert.
And not just any concert. This wasn’t assigned seating, civilized ushers sort of concert. This was a downtown Salt Lake, dance club, cram onto the floor as close to the stage as humanly possible concert.
How did this happen? First, my son asked. Which might not mean anything, except he’s a great son. Fabulous grades, good attitude, easiest teenage boy in the world to get along with. Doesn’t break curfew, doesn’t lie, doesn’t sneak out. He makes it hard to say no to. Not that I haven’t said no before. But the second part of this I can only blame myself for—I didn’t check if my husband would be in town. I planned to send dad and son off to the concert.
But no such luck. Dad was in Boston. Which meant mom got to go. (And leave the 11-year-old babysitting—don’t call social services—my neighbors and friends were on high alert for any possible problems!)
So off Son 1 and I went. First, we drove for 45 minutes. Then we parked and walked a block and half to the club through streets that made me a little leery. Then we joined the line that snaked around outside and waited for 45 minutes until they opened the doors. It really is a decent club. It’s not like I let him drag me into a den of drugs and drinking. It’s a non-alcoholic dance club, you generally have to be 18 to get in but they make exceptions for their “all ages” shows, in which those under 18 can get in with a parent.
(But I must say that none of this meant they knew how to clean their bathrooms. We stood near the men’s room while waiting to buy him a sweatshirt, and the smell was enough to convince me that I could hold it until I got home.)
About 8:30, when we’d been inside 15 minutes, I realized that the 8:00 and 9:45 times printed on the tickets didn’t indicate the time during which the band would be playing. It indicated the time the doors would open, and what time they would take the stage. I had a bad moment or two when I realized I had another hour to stand around and wait before the music started, but I made the best of it. I found a convenient pillar on the side of the room, which gave me a good view of my son ten feet away in the crowd, and turned to contemplation. And there was a lot to contemplate.
Wardrobe, for one. I was extremely glad, standing in line outside, that I hadn’t decided to wear my denim mini-skirt, black leggings, and leopard print ballet flats. How embarrassing would it have been to show up in the same outfit the woman in front of me was wearing?
I have never seen so much black, so many pairs of fishnet stockings, and so many people that filled me with the great motherly urge to push their hair out of their face and say, “Let me see your eyes!” I also saw a girl wearing an actual corset. I know about corsets, having made two of them. Mine, however, are worn on Halloween, and always with something beneath them other than skin. This one, not so much.
I imagined Tim Gunn standing by me for a while. He hosts his own “Guide to Style” on Bravo and I could dream many the many comments he’d have made, along with the shrieks of purely visceral horror. The band was actually the best-dressed there—white shirts, ties, dress pants and vests. Wasn’t wild about their hair, but at least they weren’t wearing eyeliner.
The good news for me? I really like Blaqk Audio’s music. I’m listening to their album right now, in fact. It didn’t hurt that they’ve only released one album, which meant they were through playing in an hour. Although I’m not much of a crowd person (the reason I took the pillar against the wall was so that I wouldn’t embarrass my son by having a panic attack) but I really enjoy performance of almost any sort. There’s something vibrant about live performances, the energy and enthusiasm of both the performers and the crowd. I enjoyed myself much more than I expected to.
There was only thing that bothered me for the first half of the concert—I couldn’t figure out who the keyboard player reminded me of. You know how annoying that is, running over everyone you’ve ever met or seen in your head trying to make a match. And then, my blog to the rescue!
Victoria Beckham. Dye his haircut platinum blonde and put him in six-inch heels and he’d have been the spitting image.
All in all, I’m resting on my mothering laurels this week.
Feel free to send my award.
Monday, September 24, 2007
Our Tsavo West leopard. I think he's aiming for a starring role on Animal Planet.
7. The wildebeest migration. Every year, between about September and November, more than a million wildebeest migrate in a big circle through the Serengeti plains. They cross from Tanzania in the south into the Maasai Mara, eat every blade of grass in their way, and then wander back home. (As a side note--apparently wildebeests can live between 15-20 years, so some of them having been doing this migration for a long time. You'd think they'd have it better organized by the fifteeneth or sixteenth time.)
You see, wildebeests are not incredibly smart. They're also not incredibly beautiful, but that's another topic. Wildebeests will congregate at one side of the river they plan to cross and then mill around. For hours. While more and more wildebeests arrive from behind until eventually I kept expecting that one would just shoved in. What usually happens is that a zebra goes first. I don't know why. But once the first set of hooves hits the water, it's like an electric shock to the rest. They just go crazy, streaming into and over the river as quicky as they can.
And quickly is a good idea. There are crocodiles in them there waters. It's a good bet that some of those wildebeests are going to get crocced (as I endearingly heard it called.) So what do the tourists do? We sit around in our cars for hours, watching the milling wildebeests, wishing we could get out of the safari vehicle and shove one into the river ourselves, and then we find ourselves cheering when a croc takes one down. There's something about sitting in the sun for two hours (especially when one requires a restroom) that makes one quite bloodthirsty.
Not that there was any blood to see. Mostly what we saw of the crocodiles were the enormous and sudden explosions of water that marked one snatching a wildebeest out of the line. We did see one dead wildebeest floating downstream (our driver said that crocs will kill a bunch and let them float away then track down their bodies to eat later--it's emergency preparedness is what it is.)
But the vast majority of wildebeests made it across. There were a couple small ones that got lost, coming up farther south on the shore than their comrades and not able to figure out a way to join the rest. And then there were a bunch who, once they reached the other side, jumped back into the river AND SWAM BACK THE WAY THEY CAME! Honestly, it's hard not to think of them as stupid when they do that. I mean, they just survived a dangerous crossing. Now they're tempting fate (and crocodiles) by doing it again?
It was an amazing sight. None more so than the moment when it just stopped. As suddenly as it had begun, the line broke and the remaining tens of thousands of wildebeests on our side of the river went back to milling around. Personally, I think they just forgot what they were doing. Who knows how long it took them to remember. For ourselves, we had seen our crossing.
And I really, really needed a restroom.
Friday, September 14, 2007
THE SPARROW/Mary Doria Russell: A re-read for book club. I've reviewed this here before, so will only say that, after re-reading, it's still one of my favorite books ever.
A WALK IN THE WOODS/Bill Bryson: More funny travel writing. In this book, Bryson decides to hike the Appalachian trail. From worrying about bears to the joys of finding a shower after days on the trail, this book almost--I stress, almost--made me want to hike the trail. But then I remembered that any exertion beyond yoga is not for me, not to mention camping anywhere except a luxury tent in the Masai Mara. So when the (temporary) urge hits me to experience the great outdoors, I'll just pick up this book again.
RUINS OF GORLAN/THE BURNING BRIDGE/THE ICE-BOUND LAND/John Flanagan: My oldest son got me into the Ranger's Apprentice series, of which these are the first three books. Will is a castle ward until he turns 15 and is apprenticed to a ranger named Holt. Rangers in this world remind me a lot of Rangers in Tolkien's world: just think of Aragorn's many skills when we first meet him as Strider. But the story is interesting in its own right, from the first book's evil warlord coming out of banishment to the second book's sacrificial stand that saves the kingdom at the expense of Will's freedom to the third book's search for Will and the king's daughter.
THE WATER'S LOVELY/Ruth Rendell: I love everything she writes, under this name or that of Barbara Vine. In this psychological suspense stand-alone, the Sealand family is at the heart of the twists and turns. Did Heather Sealand drown her stepfather, Guy, twenty years ago? Is it her sister's responsibility to let Heather's fiance know what might have happened? Beyond the main tension, there are wonderful subplots and secondary characters, full of their own wishes and plans and romantic entanglements. The surprises of this book continue to the very last page.
ECLIPSE/Stephenie Meyer: The third in the TWILIGHT series. Bella is finishing up her senior year, drawing closer to the deadline she's given herself for being changed into a vampire. Edward is still demanding she marry him before he'll change her. And Jacob Black, her werewolf friend, wants more than friendship. Throw in a psychotic vampire still on her trail and a supsicious father, and Bella's got all the trouble she can deal with. Lots of people didn't like this book. Me, I'm willing to overlook flaws for a writer/series that can pull me so thoroughly into another world and make me feel like I'm a teenager in love again.
THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING/Joan Didion: The title refers to the first year after the death of Didion's husband. She talks about grief and mourning (and the difference between the two), as well as the nature of marriage and the power of information and the limits of our control. I recommend this highly to anyone who's lost someone they love. Though Didion keeps her own experience veiled to a degree, she provides an opening for others to recognize the commonality of grief.
THE MEMORY-KEEPER'S DAUGHTER/Kim Edwards: This was a book that never quite got off the ground for me. The premise is intriguing (a doctor in the 1960s delivers his own twins on a stormy night and, when he realizes the girl has Down's Syndrome, sends her away and tells his wife she died.) The girl is raised by the nurse who took her and the story goes back and forth between the two families. I didn't really feel that anything happened, however, that it was just a very long character study that occurs over decades. Not my type of story.
GENTLEMEN AND PLAYERS/Joanne Harris: A wonderful British novel about St. Oswald's, a fictional boys' school, and the mysterious newcomer who wants to bring it down forever. Only Roy Straitley, a teacher of the old school and dedicated Classicist, can stop the destruction. This was my first novel by Harris, but it won't be my last. Told in alternating chapters by Straitley and the school's mysterious enemy, we learn as we go the motive behind the mischief. But is the enemy who you think it is? I'll admit that I was wrong--and happily so, since I love a writer who can surprise me.
THE YOUNG MASTER/Sheldon Novick: A biography of Henry James in his early years. Beginning with his family and ending with the publicaiton of PORTRAIT OF A LADY, this biography is easier to read than most of James's novels :) Not a book I'd have picked up for fun, but my birthmother did her doctoral thesis on THE GOLDEN BOWL and this book belonged to her.
Thursday, September 13, 2007
But I'm even less of one when in a strange city.
Two weeks ago today, I was in New York City with my 8-year-old daughter. We were on our way to Kenya to visit my parents and had a 12-hour layover. She wanted to see the Museum of Natural History. So off we went in a taxi.
The museum was great (except for our heavy carry-on baggage we had with us--I didn't see the bag check on the ground floor of the museum until we were leaving.) We even stepped across the street so we could say we had been in Central Park. I even took pictures, something I generally leave to my husband. (As I've discovered, though, taking the pictures means I don't have to be in the pictures.)
Then we took a taxi back to JFK airport. By this time, the allergies I'd left home with were in full swing, my shoulders were aching from carrying my bag around, and we still had two 8-hours flights in front of us before we made it to Nairobi. Long story short, I fell asleep in the back of the taxi.
The good news is that I woke up on my own shortly before reaching JFK. I mean, I can't think of too many things more humiliating than drooling all over a cab driver who's trying to wake me up. So I woke up, pulled myself together, and that's when I discovered that my cab driver liked to talk. Poor man, he'd been stuck with me and a child for the last hour. I'm sure there were many things he would have liked to say, but he had to confine himself to the essentials as we drove into the airport.
"Do you kmow the worst part of driving a cab in New York?"
"What?" (I'm not only introverted, I'm not terribly original in conversation.)
"No public bathrooms."
So there you have it. If you're like me, you're now pondering just what might be under the drivers' seats in those yellow cabs.
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Not just any first day of school. It's the one I've been waiting for four more than fourteen years now. The one that took all four of my children, delivered them into the hands of their teachers, and won't bring them home until afternoon.
No more toddlers. No more preschool. No more kindergarten that gets out at noon.
Today, my baby started 1st grade.
As I told my 14-year-old last night: "It's totally worth getting old for the payoff of having you all grow up as well."
No, I didn't cry today. Only once has school brought me to tears. (Yes, it was that cliched day when my oldest child started kindergarten. In my defense, I was 7 months pregnant, we'd just moved states, my husband had a new job, and we were living my parents while we built a house.) I love school. I love schedules and early bedtimes and the excitement of hearing about new teachers and new friends.
And I love the solitude.
Excuse me while I go revel. And possibly dance. It's going to be a good year.
Wednesday, August 08, 2007
I'M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF/Bill Bryson: Not exactly a travel book, but a collection of columns Bryson wrote for a London newspaper upon moving back to the U.S. after twenty years in England. He takes on everything from the different vocabulary needed for going to the hardware store to the love affair Americans have with their cars to the unique holiday that is Thanksgiving. Like everything Bryson writes, hysterically funny. He could make me laugh if he wrote the Yellow Pages.
THE HONOURABLE SCHOOLBOY/John le Carre: I had quite a thing for le Carre's spy novels years ago. I've recently rediscovered him and am enjoying filling in some of the blanks in his work. This novel deals with a British irregular spy who's called back into service to help Britain recover from a devasatating defection. Demoralized and led by George Smiley, the British service has a plan to snatch an important asset out of China. Set in the last days of the Vietnam War, from the killing fields of Cambodia to bustling Hong Kong, Jerry Westerby finds himself caught between his assignment and his instincts. If you like spy novels in the slightest, John le Carre is the best.
LIRAEL and ABHORSEN/Garth Nix: The final two in the Sabriel trilogy. Sixteen years after the events in Sabriel, evil is on the move again. Lirael, a daughter of the seers known as the Clayr, doesn't have the gift of sight. But it seems she might have other gifts in compensation. When she is forced to leave the glacier home of the Clayr, Lirael can't imagine how far her travels will take her or the path that has chosen her. ABHORSEN continues immediately where LIRAEL ends, so it's a good thing we had both books in the house so I could read them straight through.
I CAPTURE THE CASTLE/Dodie Smith: An oldie, written post WWII, set post WWI, about a charmingly poor British family--writer father who hasn't worked for years, former artist-model stepmother, schoolboy brother, and two sisters who are just at the age to be thinking of their seemingly non-existent futures. But fate intervenes, in the form of two young American men, and it appears all will be well in fairytale ending. But not everything goes as planned. The true charm of this novel is the narrator, the younger sister, who captures the reader from the moment she opens the story sitting with her feet in the kitchen sink.
EVERYTHING'S EVENTUAL/Stephen King/short stories
NIGHT TRAIN TO MEMPHIS/Elizabeth Peters/one of my favorite mystery re-reads
THE WARRIOR HEIR/Cinda Williams Chima/YA fantasy
HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE/JK Rowling/re-read of book six in anticipation of . . .
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS/JK Rowling/this needs a post of its own
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
Loved the Order of the Phoenix film.
Am re-reading Half-Blood Prince.
And on Saturday, it will all be over.
Yes, I am a geek. No, I don't care.
Here are my thoughts and predictions on Book 7, trying to fill my hours before I can wait in line for the midnight release of the book.
Dumbledore: Alive or Dead?
Dead. Definitely dead. But not entirely gone. No, I don’t believe he’ll be Gandalf, rising into a new life. He’ll be more like Obi-Wan, providing moments of help along the way. How will he do it? I expect to see Dumbledore’s help through one of his 3 “P”s: portrait, pensieve, and/or phoenix.
Snape: Good or Evil?
Good. Not that he and Harry will ever share a summer cottage together (as Dumbledore said, “Some wounds go too deep for the healing”), but Severus Snape was not a Death Eater in disguise rejoicing at the opportunityto kill Dumbledore. Like Harry, I am Dumbledore’s man through and through. Unlike Harry, I don’t have a personal history of abuse from Snape, so I am free to see the clues to Snape’s behavior. His Unbreakable Vow with Narcissa Malfoy was not his first. Why did Dumbledore always trust Snape? Not merely because he has to believe the best in everyone. No, I believe when Snape left the Death Eaters (over Voldemort’s hunt for Lily Potter) that Dumbledore placed Snape under an Unbreakable Vow to follow his orders. It’s the only explanation I can see that explains Dumbledore’s unwavering trust. Dumbledore trusted Snape. That’s good enough for me.
Harry: Horcrux or Not?
Harry is a horcrux, unbeknownst to both him and Voldemort. The scar is the representation. (We all know that Avada Kedavra doesn’t leave a mark—the scar is a symbol of Voldemort’s unwitting transfer of part of his soul to Harry the night he tried to kill him.) When I first finished Book 6 and thought of this, I was devastated, believing that Harry would have to die to destroy the piece of Voldemort’s soul within him. Now I don’t think so. Both the ring and the diary—the two horcruxes that have been destroyed thus far—continue to exist, albeit in broken or blank form. Harry is a horcrux. He will have to destroy the piece of Voldemort within him. When he does, I predict that he won’t die—but he will lose his magic. That’s the great sacrifice. Harry will choose to give up the power behind his happiest memory—the moment Hagrid told him he was a wizard.
Who Is RAB?
The easier answer of all: Regulus Black. (Quite possibly Regulus Alphard Black, the middle name being found on the Black family tapestry at 12 Grimmauld Place.) How did he find the locket horcrux? I don’t know, but I think it was Kreacher who helped him retrieve it—maybe drinking that horrible potion that weakened Dumbledore is what sent Kreacher over the edge once and for all. And the real locket is almost certainly the one referred to in Book 5 as being in the Black family home. Is it still there? If not, than Harry will have to look to Kreacher and/or Mundugus to locate it.
People/Items/Oddities we’ll see again
Peter Pettigrew. He owes Harry a life debt. We’ll see the payoff in Book 7.
The arch where Sirius died. (Yes, Sirius too is definitely dead.) But the arch will return and may even provide Harry a means to see Sirius once more.
Bellatrix Lestrange. Neville isn’t finished with her yet. (And yes, it will be Neville who faces Bellatrix. As much as Harry wants her for what she did to Sirius, Neville wants her more. This one is Neville’s fight.)
Dumbledore’s famous “gleam of triumph”. When Voldemort used Harry’s blood to regenerate in Book 4, Dumbledore obviously thought that critically important. The power of blood, the power of Lily’s love . . . this is one I don’t have a prediction for. I don’t know how it will help Harry. But it will.
JK Rowling said while writing Book 7 that she had given a reprieve to a character she thought would die and killed two others she hadn’t previously planned on.
Who got the reprieve? I think it’s Snape.
Who got the axe? Hmm, this one is harder because there are so many vulnerable people. I hate the thought of it being Arthur or Molly Weasley, though it’s probable that at least one of them will die. Lupin is in the line of fire. Another teacher, a student . . . let’s face it, with Dumbledore’s death Rowling proved that no one is safe. I will go out on my hopeful limb and predict that the charmed circle (once three, now four) will survive: Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Ginny.
Rowling has said that she wrote the final chapter of Book 7 years ago and that it’s a wrap-up, a look into the future that tells everyone’s fate after the war. Here are my predictions:
Ron and Hermione marry (well, this one isn’t really hard—they’re obviously meant for each other. Rowling couldn’t be much clearer if they walked around with flashing neon lights proclaiming "Ron and Hermione Forever".) They will have a bunch of kids with lots and lots of bushy red hair.
Neville and Luna marry: this one is more wishful than supported by evidence, but I just love the thought of the children these two would produce. Believers in nargyls and the Rotfang Conspiracy, but not able to remember what those are from moment to moment :)
Hermione becomes the first Muggle-born Minister of Magic
Neville teaches Herbology at Hogwarts
Fred and George grow rich on Weasley Wizarding Wheezes
Harry marries Ginny, lives long and happily with her in the family he always wanted, and (this one is out on the shakiest of limbs) becomes Headmaster of Hogwarts in spite of the fact that he can no longer do magic
In the end, only Jo Rowling knows for certain the details of what happens, how, and why. But there is one certainty. If I were a gambling woman, I'd bet on it.
For seven books, it's been a fight between good and evil. Though the costs are high, good will triumph. Between Luke and Anakin, the emperor was killed. Thanks to both Frodo and Gollum, the ring was destroyed. No matter how twisting and painful the path, Harry defeats Voldemort.
I can't wait.
1. Chichen Itza and Tulum: We had a personal tour guide for these two Mayan ruins. Helaman was recommended to us by friends and we loved every minute of our long day with him. No taking kids on a big tour bus--we traveled in a 15-person van that let everybody sit where nobody else could touch them. Helaman has been a tour guide for more than 20 years and he made the sites much more interesting than they might have been. Okay, he couldn't do anything about the heat (and really, what were those ancient Maya thinking building in a steaming hot jungle?) But his stories were fascinating, his sense of history and culture was impeccable, and he had lots of fun with the kids. After Chichen Itza, we lunched at a wonderful buffet restaurant (you'd never have suspected the beautiful courtyard and restaurant from the building's facade) and then it was off to Tulum. This was a Mayan port, protected by a coral reef. There was only one way in and out of the reef, and apparently the Maya watched the Spanish and Portugese wreck ship after ship on it for more than twenty years. Tulum definitely wins for best setting of ancient ruins--not quite so claustrophobic as the jungle.
2. Hilton Iguana Club: My two youngest adored this for-kids-only program. They spent two full days learning to golf and touring the hotel (including the presidential suite) and doing a treasure hunt and playing with water balloons and painting shirts and gathering sea shells to make a picture frame . . . we'd only planned to put them in for one day, but they had so much fun they insisted on going back. (Honestly, it was their idea. It had nothing at all to do with the fact that with them safely looked after I could spend hours lying by the pool reading without interruption.)
3. Dolphins: We swam with the dolphins while the youngest watched and my husband took pictures. It was spectacular. I can't begin to tell you how much I enjoyed it. We were in a group of six, me and my three kids and two teenage girls, and we got to spend time with the dolphins swimming around us and through our group, petting them and feeling their incredibly smooth skin. We got to feed them and kiss them and do the foot-push (where you lay in a deadman's float and the dolphin pushes at your feet and sends you skimming across the water.) I'm so glad I did it. I'm not much of a get-in-the-water person, but this was one of the highlights of my life.
4. Food and beverages delivered right to your poolside cabana. Need I say more?
5. Eating as a family. This doesn't happen often with my husband's work schedule. We enjoyed each other immensely, from teenager to 1st-grader. Those are the moments for which we go on vacation . . . those memories of laughter and jokes and funny faces that help us get through the day to day stuff of life.
1. Xcaret: We wanted to enjoy this ecological park. We really did. It's a cool concept--lots of native flora and fauna, beaches, a reproduction Mayan village, an evening show. But it was just not our day. We did enjoy the underground river, though it took our youngest a while to relax in his life jacket and realize he wasn't in imminent danger of drowning. (I mostly floated on my back through these caverns while he rode on top of my stomach.) But things went rapidly downhill from there. The park is huge and spread out and it was virtually impossible to follow the paths to where you wanted to go. (I think they're like Hogwarts castle, with the constantly-changing staircases.) We missed our first dolphin appointment because there were two dolphin pools (but only one was on the map--apparently you don't need to speak Spanish to get around, you need to be telepathic.) It was miserably hot and humid and there was no way on earth we were going to stick around until late that night when the bus would return. So we took a taxi home and made a vow--Never Break the Sabbath Day Again.
2. Taxis: I'm not sure I really mean for this to be under bad. More under, hmmm, adventurous? Dangerous? Take your life in your hands? Every single taxi we rode in went like this: Driver in driver's seat; dad in front passenger seat with daughter on his lap; two big boys and mom in the back with little boy on mom's lap. No question of seat belts. Some drivers were more adventurous than others. But hey! We're here, aren't we? And frankly, after having been in Kenya last summer, I can confidently state that these were not the most dangerous roads we've been on.
3. Coming home: Always the worst part of a trip. There's the long hours of waiting at airports and flights and wishing you could just apparate wherever you wanted. Then there's laundry. Lots and lots of laundry. And housecleaning. And cooking. And, you know, little things like having to make your own bed. And knowing that the vacation long looked forward to is now in the past.
We'll just have to start planning our next one.
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
But only the good ones.
I just can't be bothered to write about the books I didn't think were great. I'll list titles at the end . . . because who knows what might grab someone else.
HONEYMOON IN PURDAH by Alison Wearing: Wearing is a Canadian woman who wants to visit Iran. Since it's the only place in the world she can't imagine traveling as a woman alone, she drags along her male roommate and, with a fake marriage license, the two of them spend several months in Iran as a honeymooning couple. This book made me wish I were that brave. They cross the border on a bus from Turkey and spend most of their time in small towns. They meet wonderful people who practically drag them off the streets to feed and house them. Wearing talks about the experience of being muffled in robes and veils and the religious strictures that the government imposes--but also talks about the corruption and tyranny of the last shah's regime. Mostly, I was left with a wonderful impression of the people and culture of Iran, so much more than we get in our news segments. Highly recommended.
THE KITE RUNNER by Khaled Hosseini: My sister-in-law gave me this for my birthday and I'm so glad she did! About a boy's childhood in Afghanistan during the last days of the monarchy, through his exile with his father to the United States when the Russians took over, and about his moving return trip during the Taliban regime to try and rescue an orphaned boy in Kabul. It is a gritty novel, it is not easy to read, but I found it well worth it. Though there is evil in this book, there is also good and forgiveness and beauty. I'm about to start Hosseini's second novel.
NIGHT by Eli Wiesel: For book club. "A slim volume of terrifying power"--that's what it says on the cover. It's true. A book I think everyone should read at least once, about Wiesel's time in concentration camps as a teenage boy. I'm going to give it to my fourteen-year-old to read this year, since Wiesel was just a little older than he was when the Jews of his town were rounded up.
ASKING FOR THE MOON by Reginald Hill: I've become a big fan of Hill's mystery novels with Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe. This is a collection of short stories featuring the pair, from their first encounter on the police force to their last adventure, some thirty years in the future when an astronaut is murdered during a moon landing. For Dalziel and Pascoe fans.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN IN HARRY POTTER 7? by Emerson Spartz: This is a collection of essays from the most well-known Harry Pottery website at mugglenet.com. With chapters like "Horcruxes", "Is Dumbledore Really Dead", and "Snape: Good or Evil", the book is a fun warm-up to the big even next week. Even contains a chart at the end with all the major and minor characters listed and giving odds of which of them will die. The only certainty they offer is this: It's a book about good and evil. Evil will not win. Voldemort will die. Everything else is up for grabs. I can't wait!
THE REBECCA NOTEBOOK by Daphne du Maurier: A volume of du Maurier's essays, including sketches of her childhood cousins, the boys for whom J.M. Barrie wrote Peter Pan; a remembrance of her father, actor Gerald du Maurier; and her love for the house she called Manderley in REBECCA. Also, as the title indicates, is a collection of her notes for REBECCA, the original outline for the novel, and the original opening she wrote. You can see how things changed as she wrote the novel and she gives background on the writing of it. A definite read for fans of du Maurier.
SABRIEL by Garth Nix: Straight from my 11-year-old's hands to mine. This first in a fantasy trilogy was recommended for my son by a friend of mine who's never steered me wrong before. (Thanks, Kate!) Sabriel's father has gone missing in the Old Kingdom, a place of magic and evil across a crumbling boundary wall from Sabriel's school. Now she must take up the tools of his trade: seven bells that have the power to control the dead and send them through the series of gates that will banish them completely from the human world. Necromancers and frozen princes and bewitched cats and a teenage girl trying to help her father--this book had it all.
OUT OF AFRICA by Karen Blixen: Took me right back to Kenya from the first paragraph. A wonderful picture of colonial East Africa after WWI. Maybe not as good for someone who hasn't been there, but having bought this book in the very sitting room of the house that was Karen Blixen's, I loved it.
SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson: For book club. Loved it. Powerful YA novel about a girl who's just starting high school under a cloud and gradually stops speaking. Melinda wants to vanish, but she's got an art teacher who keeps trying to get her to make a tree. A devastatingly accurate picture of high school power structures and the sufferings of the individual. I liked it so much that I bought another one of Anderson's, CATALYST, about a senior girl who's life is falling apart--from the fire at a neighbor's house to her rejection from the only college she applied to. Definite reads for my daughter when she gets older.
IN A SUNBURNED COUNTRY by Bill Bryson: The travel writer takes on Australia this time. How could you not love a book with this paragraph on just the third page? "This is a country that loses a prime minister and that is so vast and empty that a band of amateur enthusiasts could conceivably set off the world's first non-governmental atomic bomb on its mainland and almost four years would pass before anyone noticed. Clearly this is a place worth getting to know." He travels to every major city in Australia (there aren't many) and into the interior and along the empty coasts. He made me want to see it all, not just Sydney. Even though, as he says, "There are more things in Australia that will kill you than anywhere else."
Those that I read but don't particularly feel like talking about at length . . .
CONFESSIONS OF GEORGIA NICHOLSON by Louise Rennison
THE CUP OF GHOSTS by Paul Doherty
CONFESSIONS OF A TEEN SLEUTH by Chelsea Cain
Sigh. I was hoping this plan would cut down on my wordiness about what I read. That didn't work out. Face it, I'm a complete and utter bore when it comes to books :)
Friday, July 06, 2007
Apparently, I am a cheater. Fine, apparently my pre-justification of anthologies was not sufficient. I can live with that. And yes, I did count as one two books that are separate. I am suitably chastened. I'm also still a bit punch-drunk from the post-travel exhaustion haze and have decided that's a good state in which to do a new list. (I like lists when I'm having a hard time writing anything because they give a nice structure. Also why I like mystery novels.)
I call it 7 Books I Will Never Read Again and Wish I Hadn't Read in the First Place.
1. AS I LAY DYING by William Faulkner: Not a Faulkner fan. Or a Hemingway fan. Or a fan of much American literature of that period. This is the only book in my junior-year honors English class that I did not finish but instead resorted to Cliff Notes. Boring. Depressing. And hard to follow.
2. MOBY DICK by Herman Melville: I did actually read this one through for that same honors English class. Even the chapters on sperm oil and blubber. But again, not my type of ocean novel. (Do I have a type of ocean novel? Now I'm wondering. I suppose if I did it would involve a pirate an awful lot like Jack Sparrow or Will Turner.) Oddly, one of my favorite novels of the last few years is AHAB'S WIFE by Sena Jeter Naslund. Naslund takes a character who never appears in MOBY DICK and writes a fascinating novel that actually made me interested in Ahab as a person. No small feat.
3. THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV by Fyodor Dosteovsky: I read this because I love his novel CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. So I thought I'd like this one. I didn't. I have decided if I ever have a fit of Russian novel-reading insanity in the future, I will just re-read CRIME AND PUNISHMENT.
4. RED AZALEA by Anchee Min: We chose this for book club because it was on a library reading list and "it sounds interesting". It wasn't. About a young woman in China during the Cultural Revolution, I quickly tired of the in-depth discussion of her sexual affairs, with both men and women, and found the prose very hard going. Maybe it was the translation. But no translation could help the fact that I didn't like the girl at all. Which made me feel guilty, since the author was the girl in question. Fine. I admire her pluck and survival. I did not enjoy her recounting of her life. The first of only two book club books I haven't read to the end.
5. THE RED TENT by some woman I don't remember and I don't care enough to look up her name : The second book club book I didn't finish. We've decided "red" in the title is a sure killer for us. A great concept--telling the story of Jacob's daughter, Dinah, and her twelve brothers from her point of view--but poorly executed in my opinion. I thought Dinah was obnoxious and whiny and, although I'm hard to offend, about the time the sheep made an immoral appearance, I was out of there.
6. THE MURDER STONE by Charles Todd: I feel guilty about this one, because Charles Todd writes a great mystery series set in post-WWI England featuring an inspector haunted by the trenches. But it's a miracle I ever got to know and love Ian Rutledge, because this was the first Todd book I read and it's awful. Another one of those "sounds great" books that doesn't live up to its jacket copy. Its a standalone mystery with wooden characters, stilted dialogue, leaps of emotional logic that left me dizzy and an ending that I just flat-out could not believe. And it violates one of the great rules of mystery novels--it raises a critical question that's not only not answered, it's not even considered again. Fortunately, Inspector Rutledge is much more satisfying. I think Todd should stick to the series.
7. There are so many that could fill this last spot--probably most of them read in my teenage years and most of them so mercifully buried in my mind that I can't even recall titles. (Though it surely included titles along the line of HER DEADLY SECRET or LORD HAMILTON'S LOVER or YOU CHOOSE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT IN THIS DARK AND ROMANTIC TEENAGE ROMANCE.) But in honor of Harry Potter month, I'll go with the last book in a long-running YA series which I've blogged about before: THE SONS OF DESTINY by Darren Shan. The worst ending of a series I've ever read. I wish I had quit reading halfway through. It has so scarred me that I've been having nightmares this last week about reading the last Harry Potter book and hating it because it had nothing to do with what came before. But I trust Jo Rowling, my heart is in her hands, and I predict that HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS will help heal my series-ending wounds.
The family vacation to Cancun is history.
And can I just say, I didn't realize how bad a reputation I have for blithely ditching my children and going places alone until my own father emailed me from Kenya and said, "Who are you leaving the kids with?" Although my maternal qualities may be underdeveloped, this was one occasion where the entire family was present. For eight days. In adjoining hotel rooms. Meals, swimming, shopping, buses, bathrooms, airplanes . . . there we were, all six of us.
No wonder I'm so tired.
Traveling: My biggest worry was my youngest. Yes, he's almost six. No, he doesn't always act like it. And nothing makes me stress more than having a child melt down in public. As he's also prone to motion sickness (he's thrown up twice in the car in the last two months--thank you, Angie, for the bucket you gave me for my birthday), I was alert for any sign of trouble on the flight down. But he was a star. I tell you, give that kid a puzzle book or maze book, a pen, and he'll keep himself occupied for hours. Literally. Bless you, Highlights for Children :)
Hotel: We stayed at the Hilton Spa and Golf Resort on the south end of Cancun's hotel zone. The golfing might as well have been on another planet (honestly, who wants to golf in the full sun with 95% humidity?) but my husband and I did take advantage of a massage at the spa. Yes, we have a rough life. No, I do not apologize for it. The Hilton was beautiful, fabulous staff, great free breakfast every morning (there are perks to my husband's travel, one of which is that hotel chains throw themselves at him because he spends so much company money over the course of a year), and a the nicest pool I've ever seen. And I have seen some--Hawaii, Aruba, Dubai, Oman. The Cancun Hilton beats them all. It gradually descends to the beach in a series of rectangular shallow pools that cascade over blue tile steps (lots of fun to clamber up and down) until it gets to the half-circle shaped infinity pool. There's also a self-contained and very large children's pool that doesn't get deeper than two feet. Perfect for putting the two youngest in and not worrying. There's also a pool bar (which we took more advantage of than you would expect from a family that doesn't drink alcohol) and dozens of thatch-roofed cabanas with comfy lounge chairs underneath. The kicker of it all--the place never seemed to fill up. Certainly not the pool area, which was much quieter than our neighborhood pool ever is.
Food: My 8-year-old daughter's biggest fear about going to Mexico was that she would have to eat Mexican food. Hers are not adventurous taste buds. But in addition to the aforementioned breakfast (which included fresh fruit and a chocolate fountain--does breakfast get better?) we had wonderful meals, even outside the fairly enclosed element of the hotel. My favorite was the buffet near Chichen Itza. Everything from seafood paella to grilled tilapia. (And lots of fresh bread and spaghetti for the younger kids.) We also ate at places like Planet Hollywood and the Rainforest Cafe. Cancun is, after all, a big tourist town. But my favorite meal was at the beachfront Hilton restaurant called Mitachi. While the kids ate room service pizza (and the youngest broke a plate in the room which his 14-year-old brother had to clean up), my husband and I enjoyed Coconut shrimp Barbados style and warm rolls and New York filet and Chilean sea bass. With personal chocolate souffles to finish us off. Good thing the kids were with us so we couldn't eat like that every night.
Enough for today. Did I mention I still have mono? Had the blood test right before the trip and not only do I still have the active virus, I have it at the same level I had it in December. So apparently I haven't been lazy enough. I'm working to perfect that.
But one last tidbit for this entry: Our youngest boy learned a new favorite word in Mexico. He likes how it makes people laugh when he says it with just the right intonation and impish grin. We've trained him to use it as an answer.
Question: How was Mexico, youngest child?
Youngest child: Tequila!
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
A recent discussion on DorothyL centered on a character from David Skibbins' Tarot Card mysteries. Warren Ritter is a former radical who doesn't want to be found by the government, and he's also bipolar. I haven't read the books yet, but apparently, in Warren's attempts to stay lost and be able to move easily around, he only owns 7 books at a time. This prompted a discussion on what 7 books DorothyL members would choose if they were in a similar position.
Some could not participate at all, finding the thought of only 7 books physically painful. Others thought it was cheating to include anthologies. I do not agree. After all, if the theory is to have 7 physical books that you can pick up and put in a backpack in one minute, than I can have as many books crammed into one physical volume as I can find, as long as I'm willing to bear the weight of the pack :)
Here's the 7 I would choose today. I don't guarantee I would choose the same 7 tomorrow. After all, you never know when a new book is going to come along and knock you senseless with its brilliance. (And for my purposes, I will not include scriptures. That takes us too dangerously into personal spiritual territory, which I would prefer to keep private.) Otherwise, these books are all single volumes that I have on my bookshelves at this moment.
1. THE COMPLETE WORKS OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: What's to add? Poetry, tragedy, comedy, history, characters . . . He'll never be equalled. Nor will his language.
2. THE COMPLETE NOVELS OF JANE AUSTEN: Another automatic for me. My daughter is named for two Jane Austen heroines. I could re-read her novels ad infinitum.
3. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Gandalf, Faramir, Eowyn . . . I read this again every few years and I never get bored. Even though I have large portions of it memorized (particualrly anything to do with Eowyn), I would want these books forever.
4. GAUDY NIGHT by Dorothy L. Sayers: The Golden Age creator of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, Sayers' best book (in my opinion) is this one. Harriet returns to her Oxford college to find a poison-pen at work. There isn't a single murder in this book, but it can't be beat for atmosphere, tension, philosophical questions on marriage, women's careers, academic integrity, and ethics. Plus Peter and his Harriet finally confront their relationship head-on.
5. FALCON AT THE PORTAL/HE SHALL THUNDER IN THE SKY by Elizabeth Peters: Okay, I'm cheating slightly here. These are two volumes. If necessary, I will pull the covers off and restitch by hand into one volume. You can't read one without the other. The highpoint of the Amelia Peabody Egyptian mysteries, these are set just before and during WWI and find Ramses doing undercover intelligence work for the British while Nefret tries to sort out her romantic life. I literally threw FALCON AT THE PORTAL at the wall when I finished reading it at 2:00 a.m. because I knew I would have to wait a whole year to read the next one.
6. DAUGHTER OF THE FOREST by Juliet Marillier: I love all Marillier's historical fantasies, but if I had to pick just one to keep, it would her first. Based on the fairy tale of the wicked stepmother who turns her stepsons into swans and the little sister who has to save them by making shirts of nettles without speaking. Marillier bases the story in Ireland of the 8th or 9th century and weaves a wonderful fantasy that's grounded in our own history. I simply love it and Sorcha will forever be my favorite of Marillier's characters.
7. THE BROTHERS OF GWYNEDD QUARTET by Edith Pargeter: Better known for her Brother Cadfael medieval mysteries (written under the name Ellis Peters), Pargeter also wrote fabulous historical novels. I was torn between this volume and Sharon Kay Penman's HERE BE DRAGONS, but had to come down on the side of these four novels in one volume. They follow the life of Llwellyn, the last true prince of Wales. This is a book that, when I put it down, I thought, "If this isn't how it really happened, it should have." I conceived a lasting admiration of Llewellyn and the Welsh, and a lasting resentment of Edward I in these books. I cry every time I reach the end, it doesn't matter that I know what's coming.
This is not an easy exercise. Try it. Assuming you'd still have access to libraries, what 7 books could you not bear to part with, that you simply must be able to lay your hands on whenever you like? Already I'm thinking of dozens I left off this list: ENDER'S GAME, POSSESSION, MIDDLEMARCH, JANE EYRE and VILLETTE, volumes of English poetry, HARRY POTTER in all its storytelling glory . . . and now I'm getting a headache just thinking about it. I think I'll go walk the length of my many bookshelves and appreciate the hundreds of books I own.
Friday, June 15, 2007
My dearest writing friend in the world, Ginger Churchill, has her first book available for pre-order at Amazon. Carmen's Sticky Scab runs the length and width of a child's imagination when she gets a scab: from blood to sharks to little boys wanting a taste. If you don't think it's for you grown-ups, you're probably right. But read it to a child and wait for the laughter.
I know, it's a long and unwieldy link. I know there's a way to condense it in my posts. But I have yet to understand the process, try as I might.
And can I just say--there's nothing better than typing in your friend's name to Amazon and having her book come up!
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
THE DISORDERLY KNIGHTS/ PAWN IN FRANKINCENSE/THE RINGED CASTLE/CHECKMATE by Dorothy Dunnett: The remainder of the Lymond chronicles, begun last month. Set in the 16th-century, these four books bounce around the world from Malta to France to the Muslim coast of Africa to Greece to Constantinople to Russia and include such historical figures as the Knights Grand Cross of St. John and Ivan the Terrible. But my favorite locales are England and Lymond's home ground of Scotland, and my favorite characters are the entirely fictional. Francis Crawford of Lymond really grew on me, especially through PAWN IN FRANKINCENSE and he meets his female match in Philippa Somerville, who makes her first appearance in the earliest book as a 10-year-old English border girl who despises the Scotsman whom her parents are helping. By the time she's a 16-year-old walking knowingly into the Sultan's harem in order to rescue Lymond's child, I knew she was the only girl for Lymond. These books are packed with literary allusions and historical details and dozens of characters and more plot than you can shake a stick at--but it's Lymond and Philippa who made this series live for me. I didn't always like Lymond or agree with his actions, but he wormed his way into my mind and heart until, when I put down the last book, I knew that he and Philippa would live forever in my imagination. Not many characters do that.
THE HANGING GARDEN by Ian Rankin: Edinburgh DI John Rebus is investigating the case of a possible Nazi officer who ordered the deaths of an entire French town. Is the college professor Rebus is investigating the former officer? If he is, what responsibility should he bear for a war crime committed fifty years ago? And what about the mixed motives of those who either want to expose him or conceal him? In the midst of this comes personal tragedy as Rebus's daughter is struck by a hit and run driver. Throw in two (or three) gangs fighting for supremacy in Edinburgh and a missing Bosnian prostitute and there's a lot going on. The gang aspect wasn't my favorite part of this book, but I enjoyed seeing Rebus as a father and his musings on the possible war criminal.
THE BURNING GIRL by Mark Billingham: Twenty years after a man was imprisoned for setting fire to a teenage girl, someone emerges to claim they imprisoned the wrong man. Another gangster book (I feel quite hip on my British gangs now!) but the multiple POVs and the twisting of the old case with the new kept it interesting. But I did hit a major problem near the end of the book, in an action taken by Inspector Tom Thorne. It turned off a lot of my sympathy and tainted the character for me. So I'm not sure quite how I feel about this book as a whole.
GREGOR AND THE CODE OF CLAW by Suzanne Collins: The fifth and last in the Gregor the Overlander YA series. Beneath New York City lies a civilization of humans who are about to launch a possibly endgame war against the rats. 12-year-old Gregor is The Warrior of their prophecies, but the last prophecy doesn't look too good for him. My favorite scenes were the code breaking, where Gregor's sister Lizzie comes into her own. The final confrontation between Gregor and the giant white rat known as The Bane is suitably impressive. My only complaint with this book is that I didn't feel the series is completely ended. I wanted more of an ending than the one I got. Hopefully this means that at some point Collins will revisit the Underland.
THE PORTRAIT by Iain Pears: A uniquely structured book, the artist narrator speaks directly to the subject of his latest portrait. As the conversation unfolds, we learn that the artist and his sitter have known each other for years, that the sitter is an art critic, the artist has fled London within the last few years for self-imposed exile in a French fishing village, and slowly we begin to piece together their shared history and the motive behind this portrait. I wouldn't want to read too many books in this structure, but it worked beautifully, in that I was considerably surprised by several of the revelations even when I thought I had them figured out.
KNOTS AND CROSSES by Ian Rankin: KNOTS AND CROSSES introduces John Rebus as a divorced dad of an 11-year-old, brother to a possibly shady stage illusionist, and detective in the confusing case of dead girls who have, as far as the police can tell, absolutely nothing in common. This is my third Rebus book and the first one about which I can say,wholeheartedly--I loved it! It was my kind of story--intricate, with lots of details that twist around and fit in eventually, a killer with a most interesting motive, a clue that took my breath away when I realized what it meant, and a detective whom I could understand if not always agree with. I'm so happy, because now I have all these other Rebus books to explore :)
SLEEPYHEAD by Mark Billingham: If KNOTS AND CROSSES made me like John Rebus more, I'm afraid this book made me like Inspector Tom Thorne less. I was iffy about him after reading THE BURNING GIRL, but no longer. Now I just don't like him at all. And I think I might know why--near the end of the book, he thinks about the fact that he doesn't care why killers do what they do. Motive does not interest him. Motive, however, interests me enormously. I think his attitude permeated the book, so that it was more a game of police vs. killer, and less an exploration of human beings and how things can go terribly wrong in our heads and our relationships. I doubt I'll read more Billingham.
Friday, May 18, 2007
THE GAME OF KINGS/QUEEN'S PLAY by Dorothy Dunnett: The first two in the Lymond Chronicles, historical fiction at its adventurous, sword-fighting, politicking, religious squabbling, bawdy best. Francis Crawford of Lymond is the younger son of a noble Scots family. Five years ago, he was revealed as an English spy and banished from Scotland. Now he's come home. Is it to wreak havoc or redeem his name? It's not always easy to tell and Lymond is a very hard protagonist to pin down. The first book gave me fits getting used to the style and prose. But it wrapped up in a most satisfying way and the second book was just as good, when Lymond goes to France to help protect his 7-year-old queen, Mary, from assassination attempts. Set in the turbulent mid-1500s, these books are a marvelous treasure for anyone who enjoys historical fiction.
CLOUD OF UNKNOWING by Thomas Cook: Another stunning novel by Cook. When his nephew drowns, David Sears watches his sister come undone by the tragedy. Diana helped care for their schizophrenic father when they were children and with her son's death her own mental stability is called into question. She's convinced her husband helped kill their son and becomes obsessed with researching ancient ritual killings. Gradually she begins to believe that the earth is a living entity who could tell her the truth about her son's death. When Diana begins to threaten his own family, David must decide what to do. A powerful examination of the power of blood and family myth--as well as the love of siblings for one another.
HOUSE ON THE STRAND by Daphne du Maurier: One of the few du Maurier books I missed as a teenager. Dick Young has been lent his friend's Cornwall house for free. All his friend, Magnus, asks of him is to participate in a little science experiment. But there's nothing little about it--when Dick drinks from the flask left him by Magnus, he's transported back in time to the same valley in the 14th century. The story alternates between the present and the past, with Dick growing increasingly addicted to the people whose stories he is watching in the past. A sudden death underlines the danger of mixing times, but Dick cannot stop until he knows the end of the story.
UNLESS by Carol Shields: A Pulitzer Prize winner, Shields' final novel before her death is about Reta Winters, a quite companion, mother, translator, and writer in Canada whose life is turned upside down when her oldest daughter, Norah, drops out of university to sit on a Toronto street corner with a sign that reads simply "Goodness." Reta looks to literature and her own writing to try and make sense of it all. Is Norah troubled by the silencing of women throughout history? Can one love both the world as a whole and the individuals in it? Is silence simply a choice that Norah is free to make? A quiet but intriguing novel. Not precisely my usual fare, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
THE ROBBER BRIDE by Margaret Atwood: Another fabulous Canadian woman author, Atwood delivers a book about three fascinating women who would never have been friends if not for the one thing they have in common--the destructive power of a woman called Zenia. She wrought disaster in each of their lives, one after the other, and then died. At her funeral, they rejoiced. But five years later, in a Toronto restaurant, Zenia comes back from the supposed dead. We get the story of each woman in turn, as Zenia trails poison through their lives, all the time wondering what she's up to now and who she plans to hurt next. Beautifully plotted, intricately written, dazzlingly characterized. Loved it.
DISSOLUTION by C.J. Sansom: First novel in a Tudor mystery series, featuring lawyer Matthew Shardlake who works for Lord Cromwell. One year after Anne Boleyn's execution, King Henry VIII has turned to threats veiled as persuasion to complete his dissolution of the Catholic monastaries in England. When a royal commissioner is found beheaded at Scarnsea Monastery, Matthew Shardlake is sent to discover the killer and complete the monastery's surrender to the crown. Shardlake uncovers evidence of sexual impropriety, embezzlement, and treason, but two more deaths lead him to believe there is more to Scarnsea than a simple religious motive. Anne's death on Tower Green casts a shadow even here, and Shardlake has to cope not only with murder but the destruction of his own beliefs.
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
Writing is hard.
I know this shouldn't come as a revelation--I've been doing this seriously for four years. I've had my share of exhaustion and despair over editing and rewriting and plotting and the sheer labor of thinking what to do next when an editor says, "I liked it but not well enough to take it on."
But my current project is by far the hardest thing I've ever done. Does that mean I'm growing as a writer? Or that isn't the project for me and I should move on? Or that I'm merely tired from months of mono and my body and mind are using all its energy to getting better? I don't know. All I know is that some days stubbornness is all I have to call upon--"I will write one page before I fold laundry. I will write one page before I make dinner." (And you know it's got to be bad when I'm thinking of laundry and cooking as better alternatives!)
I came across a quote from Orson Scott Card's HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY and it struck home with me: "You have to be willing to change anything during the creation phase; only that way can you make the story be true to yourself. There's nothing sacred about your original idea--it was just the starting point . . . So the story is nothing like what you first thought it would be. But so what? It's better--richer, deeper, truer--than that original idea. The idea did its work: It got you thinking."
And that, in a cliched nutshell, is the story of my new book. It started as a craft writing assignment in my online group--"Show a preternaturally gifted child." Then it became a short story that was a quarterfinalist in Writers of the Future. The story was in first-person. When I came to start the book, I picked up where I'd left off in the story and wrote it in 3rd person (being a fan of multiple viewpoints as I am.) I wrote a hundred pages like that, then went back and rewrote the story in 3rd person which turned into the first three chapters. And then I stalled. I knew the important events. I knew where the story ended--I just couldn't make myself write it. Following my friend, Ginger's, wise counsel that writer's block is just your mind's way of telling you that you're headed the wrong way, I stopped writing and started thinking. I read a lot. I fell in love with a new TV show on BBC America (Robin Hood). I let my mind wander.
And then I started over again.
I'm back in first-person. It's hard, I've never done it before for a book-length work, but it's right. I got three chapters in and stalled again. And then I realized--she was meeting her love interest too late. So I moved that forward by four chapters. And the wrong person died in the early chapters--I killed someone else. I've stuck to the single idea that has driven all of this time and effort--a 16-year-old girl in 12th century England whose ability to read minds men of two countries would kill to possess--but everything else is negotiable. I took Card's advice and let my story twist itself into its own form. And it's already a better book.
Now if I can just finish it!
As for the kindness: I've mentioned DorothyL, the listserv for mystery lovers. I've posted on there from time to time, but I finally got up the nerve last week to post some reservations I'd had about a book and author. Ian Rankin is extremely popular and his books sell extremely well, but the one I'd picked up in the middle of the series left me a bit underwhelmed. So I asked on DorothyL if I'd just picked the wrong book to start with and whether I should give him another try.
Sandra Ruttan emailed me almost at once, asking me to send her a list of my favorite authors and what I enjoy in mysteries. Then she went to a bookstore (in Canada), bought me a different Rankin to try as well as book by Mark Billingham. And she's sending them to me.
Can you believe it?! Who knew that I would find such kindness by merely asking a question.
In any case, on Sandra's blog today she talks about how to excite people into reading books. It's a wonderful piece and I'm going to challenge myself to do what she did so graciously: Next time someone asks me about a book to read, I won't just reflexively offer my personal favorites. I'll take the time to understand what they love and search out a specific book for them. For readers, there's nothing better than discovering a new author. I want to give that to my friends and family. Here's hoping you'll do the same!