Books -- reading and writing.
Home, cooking, the weather.
And whatever connections I can make between these chapters of my life.

Friday, July 30, 2010

My Little Town

Great to be back in New Jersey for a while, especially today when the temperature is 82, the humidity is about zero, the clouds are high and puffy, and the birds are singing.

So now that you've got the picture, here's what I want to tell you about living in this small town. It's not that I have anything against city dwelling. In fact, I'd hate living too far away from city civilization as I know it. So North Jersey, as we're known here, is a perfect spot to spend the summer, especially this summer. On the train line to NYC, plus there are still a few places where Everybody Knows Your Name.

Like the library where I worked. Make that libraries. I popped into my public library to do a little research this morning and discovered my former backdoor neighbor is now the children's librarian. 500 children's tags lined the front shelves, each one representing a young reader enrolled in the summer reading program. How can we possibly consider cutting funding to libraries? This one was packed with readers!

A lot of my former work colleagues are still there and of course I couldn't resist sharing that this July has been one of my favorite months ever. So many new, wonderful things!

They already have me signed up to do an Author Visit when Scholastic publishes my book. I warned them not to bake the cookies just yet. Book birthing can take a while.

Then off to the deli for a Turkey Sloppy Joe, a treat known only to New Jerseyans. If you don't know this sandwich, click here for pictures and history. And no, there is no ground beef or fork involved.

As I crossed the Post Office Plaza, one of my outstanding, most favorite library volunteers from my 10 years at Kent Place School, in the next town over, waved. She just happened to be driving by and we promised to meet for coffee and a catch-up very soon.

My former next-door neighbor joined me as we crossed the library walkway. Her two boys, all grown up now, remembered my dog Barley. How he used to eat grass in the backyard. That's the kind of thing that would stick with a 4-year-old, isn't it?

Did I say this is a small town? Does a population of 20,000 qualify or is it the feeling you get when crossing Main Street? All the strollers, the shoppers walking home, the recognizable police officer directing traffic turning left out of Kings Supermarket. Flags flying, flowers in boxes, sun shining.

Enjoy your weekend, wherever you are.

Related post: A Bright September Day

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Summer Suppers

One thing I love about living in New Jersey all summer long is our local Farmers Markets. Each little burg has one. I can hit Madison on Thursday, Chatham on Saturday and the biggest of all, Summit on Sunday mornings. Jersey corn and tomatoes, fresh fish from "down the shore" and even chocolate pastries that remind me of Paris, sort of. The good food never stops!

A recent, delightful dinner at the home of my old Baltimore friends inspired me to cook a grilled vegetable, feta and orzo salad a la Barefoot Contessa. That same friend also made a yummy corn salad that night. Her corn was Maryland, possibly Eastern Shore, and was as good as our Silver Queen here in New Jersey.

For even more on our local markets, check out Kitchen Goddess Lee Hilton's Spoon and Ink food blog. She, too, has a terrific corn salad recipe to share.

Serving salads for supper in the summer (wow, check that alliteration) is what my other Kitchen Goddess friend Ivy calls her "cool plates." Except she says Coooool Plates and makes them sound very special. When really it was just too hot to cook! (Which it totally is this summer.)

Then again, anything my friend Ivy or my friend Lee cooks is very special.

So pull out a good book and find a shady spot. Then buy some local produce, make your family a cooool plate, and enjoy the summer!

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Good Blog...

My turn over at the Southern Writers Blog. Click here to get there. The optional topic this time was setting so I had a chance to use my friend Julie's shoes. If that doesn't get you over there, how about the picture...

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Help: The Movie

Yes, I had a few problems with the book, and you can read my comments and those of a few friends who grew up with me during that era on this blogpost about the book. One of the most telling comments I've heard, from an amazing writer whose new book about the era I truly admire? If nothing else, The Help's bestseller status has opened up a dialog on the topic that didn't exist before.
I'd second that.

But still, it's pretty exciting having a movie made right up the road a piece from my hometown (Why is it we consider the place we grew up and spent our formative years, no matter where we wander, as our hometown? There's even been a slight debate going on in our family about where your Facebook hometown should be, and we've come down solidly on the side of where we lived as kids, the place we have strongest and best memories. But that's another story..)

So from what I understand, the movie of The Help is being filmed mostly in Greenwood, Mississippi. There's a terrific independent bookstore right in the middle of town, Turnrow Books, and if you want to follow the news, follow their blog for frequent updates.

Right now, here's what I know. The movie has been cast. The director, Tate Taylor, is a friend of the author and a Mississippi native. They are scoping out the area for authentic accents and locales. (I know this because my most authentic friends have been interviewed, and they still talk just like all of us homegrown Mississippians started out talking before our accents got bastardized!)

Here's what the Turnrow Books blog says about the cast:

For those fans of the book dying to know who will play whom, we've heard a bit of casting: Emma Stone (Zombieland, Superbad) will play Skeeter, Viola Davis (an Oscar nominee for Doubt) will play Aibileen, Bryce Dallas Howard (the upcoming third Twilight movie, Eclipse) will play Hilly, and Octavia Spencer, who toured and read with Stockett during her initial book tour, is rumored to be playing Minny.

I think most of this has now been verified by DreamWorks.
Stay tuned for updates.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Words, words, words

I do love words, their derivation and usage- and mis-use!
This word-of-the-day is one I've never heard, read, used or even remotely known about. Contumely?

Now I'm thinking of a word that made me smile on a recent cab ride to the airport. With a very loquacious driver. He told me every detail of his 17-year-old daughter's life, including how he was teaching her to drive. He was the better person to teach her because his wife was such a backside driver. That's what he said: backside driver. Now I just love that!

Can't you totally see a character in a book misusing Backseat Driver like that?? He was a great guy, so entertaining. I wanted to write down everything he said.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Quote of the Day

(My grandmother's version was a tad different...)

"If you can't say something nice about somebody, say the bad stuff really fast."
Mary's mom on In Plain Sight, season finale.

Monday, July 19, 2010

No-Nos for Writers

And while I'm on the subject of so-called rules...
click on over to Kirby Larson's great post on what bugs her in kids' books and this one on what makes a good children's novel.

I just copied them both, printed and plan to post them in a place where I'll read as I write!

Great reminders.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Rules for Writers

Here's a good one from Janet Fitch. Of course, you might think there are no rules for writers, but truly, you'd be wrong. This book blog from the LA Times also links to the "rules" Elmore Leonard came up with a while back. I agree with Fitch's thoughts more than I did Leonard's...

Her rule about clichés struck a scary chord:

When you’re writing, anything you’ve ever heard or read before is a cliché. They can be combinations of words: Cold sweat. Fire-engine red, or phrases: on the same page, level playing field, or metaphors: big as a house. So quiet you could hear a pin drop. Sometimes things themselves are cliches: fuzzy dice, pink flamingo lawn ornaments, long blonde hair. Just keep asking yourself, “Honestly, have I ever seen this before?” Even if Shakespeare wrote it, or Virginia Woolf, it’s a cliché.

You’re a writer and you have to invent it from scratch, all by yourself. That’s why writing is a lot of work, and demands unflinching honesty.

Whew. That is a lot of hard work, a tall order to fill (whoops! Cliche police!) . And I wonder if, in writing for kids, although equally hard, you might be able to get away with a few clichés. Fuzzy dice? How many kids have heard of that one? And really, pink flamingo lawn ornaments?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Farther vs. Further

Truly, I do know the difference. But maybe Southerners use them more interchangeably than others, and guess what- thankfully, there are those with more credibility than I who've decided it doesn't matter- that they've come to be so confused and exchanged that it's now acceptable just to give up on the differences.

Like this blog entry, from The Word Blog. citing several dictionary entries.

The OED says that farther is usually reserved for use as the comparative of far (ie. measureable distance) while further is applied to figurative, unmeasurable distances or extents like time or metaphorical distance.

CanOx says that farther is simply a variant spelling of further.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage speculates that farther will become less and less common until further becomes the universally applied term.

The Chicago Manual of Style supports the distinction of meaning as set out in the above definitions.

And Merriam-Webster’s also agrees with the above definitions.

But maybe I'll go with Fowler, stick to further, and be done with it. Just the other day in an interview, John Grisham used further when he meant up the road a piece, and nobody batted an eye. Oh, wait, he's from the South.

So, is it a Southern thing, a new convention, or just plain incorrect grammar?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Author Interview

You can learn a lot about writing from author interviews like this. Especially if you've read and reviewed the book carefully. Rita Williams-Garcia's novel for young readers really intrigued me. Historical fiction at its very best. So to read how she used her research to fill in the pieces, just enough to give the book its flavor yet not overwhelm, check that great post over at Story Sleuths, which is a blog worth following if you've ever wondered just how writers put their thoughts together.

Here's a bit of my take on the novel.

Rita Williams-Garcia’s knowledge of the period is extensive. Her ability to describe this remarkable time and place (1968 Oakland, California) so that young readers understand the circumstances surrounding the Black Panthers and the American political climate is pitch perfect. Her child-friendly references— from President Kennedy to Cassius Clay to Mighty Mouse— make the story wondrous. This is historical fiction at its very best.

You can read more of what I had to say by following this link to my review in the Christian Science Monitor or to Joyce Moyer Hostetter's blog about history and how the stories are told.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What to Read Now?

As if I didn't have a stack of books waiting for me...
But these Independent Bookstore best-selling lists always have something that surprises me.
For example, Elegance of the Hedgehog? Still hanging in there? (sitting by my bedside, awaiting completion. Oh, dear!)

Here's the latest trade paperback list, which is all I need for summer reading:

1. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson, Vintage
2. The Girl Who Played With Fire, by Stieg Larsson, Vintage
3. Little Bee, by Chris Cleave, S&S
4. Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese, Vintage
5. Tinkers, by Paul Harding, Bellevue Literary Press
6. That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo, Vintage
7. The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, Harper
8. Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann, Random House
9. A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick, Algonquin
10. South of Broad, by Pat Conroy, Dial
11. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery, Europa Editions
12. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford, Ballantine
13. Sarah's Key, by Tatiana De Rosnay, St. Martin's Griffin
14. Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, Random House
15. Last Night in Twisted River, by John Irving, Ballantine
20. An Echo in the Bone, by Diana Gabaldon, Bantam
Gabaldon's bestselling Outlander novel is now available in paperback.

1. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, Penguin
2. Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers, Vintage
3. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, by Rhoda Janzen, Holt
4. Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson, David Oliver Relin, Penguin
5. Food Rules, by Michael Pollan, Penguin
6. Half the Sky, by Nicholas D. Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn, Vintage
7. Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder, Random House
8. Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew B. Crawford, Penguin
9. Manhood for Amateurs, by Michael Chabon, Harper Perennial
10. The Lost City of Z, by David Grann, Vintage
11. The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, Scribner
12. The Road to Serfdom, by Friedrich A.Von Hayek, University of Chicago Press
13. Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea, by Chelsea Handler, Simon Spotlight
14. The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, Penguin
15. The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Random House
17. I'm Down: A Memoir, by Mishna Wolff, St. Martin's Griffin
Wolff's winning memoir of her father, a white man who truly believed he was black.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


This site is the greatest! And what a name: Bookshelf Porn... for people who "heart" bookshelves. I heart books. But bookshelves are fun, too.

In the past few days I've visited shelves filled with books written in French, carefully organized and actually read by the owner. A brand new library, all gifts- a tiny baby's board books, not yet read- but soon! A real live library, the kind you check books out of and I'm never far away from, shelves of metal, filled to overflowing.

But nothing remotely resembling these foldaway bookshelves...

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Life Imitating Art? Or at least the beauty and order of it?

"This is kind of like life. Life is all about balance. Then you just have to step back and take it all in."

Leslie Davis Guccione, on the occasion of rearranging my corner cupboard for the third time. A masterful job that we had stepped back to admire.

I'd removed some of the blue, left all of the silver on one shelf, had the creamer and sugar bowl off kilter. She fixed it.

Leslie also has an amazing ability to look at my writing this way.

It's good to have friends who can put your Stuff in perspective, isn't it?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Write What You Know?

When dreaming up a big July 4th parade and celebration scene, all I had to do was shut my eyes and visualize the town I've lived in and out of for a long time.

And it is way north of the Mason Dixon line.

Although the fiction I write takes place in the South, this little 'burg is in New Jersey. Sometimes living here felt like a throwback to the 1950s, a place kids safely walked to town and parents sat on front steps or back decks gossiping and laughing. My friend Kay and I walked our dogs all over, on every side street and leafy playground. I worked in the public library on Main Street where I met all the quirky residents and observed their reading habits (but my lips are still sealed).

I knew what my town looked like.

The string of small boroughs on the Midtown Direct train line to NYC melt into each other so that you can drive from Summit to Chatham to Madison to Morristown and find great restaurants with good bread, an overly-sufficient number of banks and nail salons, and enough quaintness to go around. Flags always fly and flowers fill the tasteful pots outside storefronts. Just a great place to imagine any number of characters drifting through the neighborhoods.

So when I needed an Independence Day parade, even though the setting might be 1964 Mississippi, yesterday's annual Fireman's Parade and Fireworks Display in Chatham, New Jersey filled the bill quite nicely.

Preparation starts on the day before the parade, with the reserving of seats... And nobody bothers them.

Float-building begins early.
Since Washington probably slept here (not on this particular float, but in our town), the Chatham Historical Society recreated the scene nicely:

I have more pictures of the fireman on their trucks, the Scouts, the swim teams, the marching bands. But I'll leave that to your imagination. Hope you are celebrating wherever you are reading this. July 4th is a great holiday, filled with possibility, hot dogs, flags, swimming parties, birthday cakes decorated with blueberries and strawberries. Happy Birthday USA!

Related post:
A Beautiful September Day

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Happy July 4th!

On this weekend of picnicking and sharing fried chicken and pimento cheese and whatever else strikes your fancy, this quote by one of my favorite food writers strikes my fancy:

"Southerners can't stand to eat alone. If we're going to cook a mess of greens we want to eat them with a mess of people." --Julia Reed

Related post: Julia Reed and Me

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Healing Spell

I've been thinking a lot about Louisiana lately. Haven't we all? Growing up in Mississippi, I often visited New Orleans and southern Louisiana with my family. Later, my daughter lived there, married a native, and we visited even more. Once New Orleans speaks to you, it doesn't shut up.

When I was a working school librarian, in at least five schools over my career (hey, what can I tell you? We moved a lot...), I tried to help teachers find relevant books to share with their students. A big part of a school librarian's job is to match books with kid readers. Maybe that's the most satisfying thing we do. And it's something I can't let go of as a writer and a book reviewer. I keep thinking about whether what I'm reading and writing would appeal to actual kids, would help them understand the world, would entertain them, introduce a place they might not know. All those good things.

I especially love it when a book helps readers make sense of what's going on in the larger community. What better way to do that than through a good story.

That's why Kimberley Griffiths Little's new novel touched me so.

The Healing Spell centers around young Livie and her family who live in what we always thought of as Cajun country. Her father makes his living fishing. Her relationship with her mother has always been strained. Livie is what was once called a tomboy-- she likes fishing with her daddy a lot better than she likes shopping for Sunday School shoes with her mama. When an accident sends her mother into a coma, her dad insists on bringing her home, hoping for a miracle recovery. The entire family is impacted, but especially Livie who fears she was somehow responsible.

There's a lot for young readers to wrap their minds around in this novel. The magical realism near the end presents a good talking point that an adult might want to explore, or perhaps that kids will accept with the thrill of a shiver up their spines.

Kimberley Griffiths Little has done an amazing job making her characters believable. They are complicated and confused. Just like a lot of real kids we all know and love. Livie's guilt, her relationship with her sisters, her love for her dad, her ambiguous feelings for the aunt who moves in to help and sets the family off kilter-- all great characters, well done.

But truly the amazing thing about this story is the setting, the Louisiana it evokes. There's a little bit of voodoo magic, there's music and dancing, there's the swamp. After reading The Healing Spell, you understand how wrecking this one very important part of our environment will change so many lives.

Right now over at A Good Blog is Hard to Find, where I congregate with a whole bunch of really excellent southern writers, the optional blog topic is setting. A lot has been said by greater authorities than I on the topic of setting as character, and I really can't add much to that subject except to say how true it is.

But I like the way Man Martin ended his blog post over there last week:

I’m thinking of a line from C S Lewis or somebody that a fish does not believe in water until it’s pulled out of it. Lewis meant to suggest by analogy the existence of God, but I wanted to apply it to the concept of setting, that setting is not only background, but foreground, above-ground, and underground. That it envelopes, surrounds, and infuses us.

That's exactly how I feel about this new middle grade/ young YA novel: the setting surrounds, envelopes and infuses. Which brings me right back to how important, right now, this book should be to teachers and librarians trying to help their readers make sense of southern Louisiana, the Gulf Coast, life in a fisherman's family.

And what an unexpected treat- it has one of the best trailers I've ever seen in a book for young readers. Great music, well done. Check it out: