Books -- reading and writing.
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And whatever connections I can make between these chapters of my life.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Answers from an Editor

I'm so glad to see Brooklyn Arden (AKA Cheryl Klein) has taken to blogging again. I missed her there for a while. And her latest post, a Q&A with some of her readers, includes this terrific thought, in answer to a question about what makes a "starred review" book stand out from a run-of-the-mill story? Cheryl's answer-

I think people tend to buy books for their plots, but love them for their characters, writing, and ideas.

So there's just no escaping that devil PLOT, is there...


Related post: The Challenge of Plotting

Monday, March 29, 2010

quote for the day...

Something to think about as March wind goes out like a lion:

"Imagination is the highest kite you can fly." -
Lauren Bacall

Friday, March 26, 2010

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Help: All You Wanted to Know

Having grown up in mostly the same time/same place--or pretty close to it-- as the characters in the runaway best seller THE HELP, I'm continually asked what I think of the novel. Now that more and more Book Groups are discussing the book, I'm asked even more. When the movie is out, I'm sure I'll take up my role as explainer of the truth of the times. This was a role I accepted when I left the South and moved to Massachusetts in the late 60s, when the Civil Rights Movement was at its most divisive. Back then, I continually defended and sometimes even trashed my home state. Then when I finally figured that everybody's home state had its own set of problems, I let go of some of my negative energy and went with the flow. But now with the publication of The Help (which I truly enjoyed on many levels), I'm back to answering questions. So if you've found this blog post on a search and are looking for answers, you've come to the right place.

In a recent chat session with some Mississippi women, past and present residents that I know and love, we all had strong and slightly different takes on the book. I'll share a few here. These are not necessarily my own opinions, FYI:


The character Hilly was totally false to me. I never knew any debutante, high school sorority sister, or Junior League member in Mississippi who would be so concerned with Blacks using a different bathroom that they would act as Hilly did. Her actions just did not fit the typical Southern women I have known. I think it ruined the book for me because I thought there had to be a better, more realistic way to create the needed tension. I HAVE known mean people who have created trouble for others for no apparent reason other than meanness, so that was realistic to me. But Hilly working for Black people to go to separate bathrooms in the homes where they worked, and some of her other actions, didn't ring true to me. If anything, the girls I knew who would have been activists would have been pro integration!
Now, wouldn't it be interesting if someone interviewed the author and SHE knew some Southern woman who was obsessed as Hilly was------

(Another friend spoke up:)
I agree with you about Hilly. I just wanted to slap her!!

(We focused a lot on Hilly:)
Hilly seems way too much. I'd forgotten the way she campaigned about the toilets. I can't imagine anyone doing that.

(And another:)
I liked the maids a whole lot better than I liked those tacky White People..
I think there were probably people of our grandmother and mother's generation who acted like Hilly, rather than anybody I knew, our age or Hilly's age. But you have to remember that older generation was raised by parents who remembered, vividly, slavery and the Civil War, if only via stories their own grandparents told. Times did change for us all, didn't they.

(Still more:)
I felt that the story was good and told from a different "slant."
However, the characters were stereotypical and the story told almost as another gratuitous Mississippi bashing. By doing so, she trivialized the message. If it has made us look deeper at our past history and relationships, then it has served a purpose. It was good entertainment, but Stockett was in over her head. Rather than a "chick book" for book clubs, it could have been an outstanding piece of literature. The sad thing is that people from other parts of the country will read this book as a documentary instead of fiction. Poor Mississippi. The state is like that proverbial blade of grass that gets mowed down every time it sticks its head up.

(And this from another:)
I will say, I am glad that I read the book. I won't say that I thought it was as glorious, wise and poignant as those who critiqued the book on its dust jacket.I feel that perhaps most of Stockett's characters were over-stated.... the good ones were TOO good, the bad ones were TOO
bad...I could have used more subtlety...I personally find it hard to believe that a female, (even though formally educated) in the deep south in 1962 could have been that aware. Hindsight and knowledge and history and facts and research have been necessary for most of us to become aware of that unique time.. We were so protected.

(In conclusion:)
One of the interesting parts of the book for me is the way it's produced a cultural dialog about our racial past in the South. It was a very compelling book to me, a gutsy book. Those first person voices are very powerful.

Yes, a cultural dialog for sure, even among old friends.

And these comments, from a Book Group discussion a friend in Baltimore (made up of a few Southerners and a few who aren't) related to me:
Most of the group enjoyed the book on some level. Some thought it was merely entertaining, some thought it was enlightening. The greatest difference of opinion seemed to be regarding how the characters were depicted. Generally, most thought that the black women were well developed and interesting characters, although some felt that in real life, they would have been too afraid to speak up as they did in the book. Many thought the white women seemed unrealistic and stereotypical and more shallow and uniformed than college graduates would have been.. I thought this was interesting, given the fact that the book was written by a white woman, who should have had a better understanding of other white women than the black women she so beautifully portrayed.

Most of the group applauded the author's portrayal of the relationships between the black women and the white children they raised and how these relationships can be affected by outside forces. They were more critical of the depiction of the relationships between Skeeter and her friends and Skeeter and her mother, feeling that they were less believable.

Those of us who listened to it liked it even better -- the audiobook is very well done. I played a few excerpts for the group so that others could hear the different voices.

Here are two reviews that might help Book Groups' discussions. Be sure to read the comments at the end of the California Literary Review!

MS Magazine Review
California Literary Review (review by an African American reviewer)

And lastly, click here for Kathryn Stockett, in her own words.


Monday, March 22, 2010

Friday, March 19, 2010

Cathleen Schine

Reading her newest book and discovering her blog. AND a new (to me) word: SLEEP BLOGGING.

The Three Weissmanns of Westport surprised me, and I really like that. It almost failed my "three chapters and done" test, although I did love the writing right from the get-go. But the story seemed humdrum, and it was a library book... but something made me keep reading, and I'm so happy I did. The writing just delighted me.

Near the end of Chapter 3, daughters and mother discuss their new situation:

"The Joad family is more like it," said Anne.
And she could envision them clearly, their mattresses lashed to the roof of the jalopy, making their trek along the dusty roads...But she was mollified now, smiling at the thought, for "jalopy" was a word she had always loved.


The book offered so many unexpected turns. A story of the "infinite sky of elderly divorce," it's also about relationships- adult siblings, women, new friends, old cousins. New and old places, New York, suburbs. Death and near-death, old lives and new ones, both with secrets.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Happy St. Paddy's Day!

Just for fun, here's an article I wrote a couple of St. Patrick's Days ago. And good memories, with recipe, from a special dinner with friends (not to mention a very special birthday- Happy Birthday, Kate!).

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Maybe My Favorite Writing Blog

How did I not know about Gail Carson Levine's blog? I've actually met this author of so many great kids' books. Right after she published Ella Enchanted, she spent a day at at my school, and she was terrific. But her blog was off my radar till I followed a tip from inkygirl.com - which by the way has lots of excellent leads to follow, and some really funny writing cartoons available for bloggers-- like this one:




But I digress.
Gail Carson Levine's blog brims with carefully thought-out advice, writing prompts, examples. In a recent post about dialog, she answered a commenter's question, used examples from her own work-in-progress, and shared some very good prompts. Here's a bit of what she says about "white space" on the page:

You can achieve comforting white space with short paragraphs, a good technique when a character is alone. But when two or more characters are together, there’s a more important reason for them to talk than mere white space. It’s relationships. Put two people together, even briefly, even strangers, and there’s a relationship.

Most of her posts are answers to questions posed by her blog readers. So hurry on over there if you've got a serious writing question. If she hasn't already addressed the issue, maybe you'll be lucky and get some really great advice.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Quitting Before Finishing

When I was a kid, we had rules in our family like you don't quit piano lessons, don't turn on the TV till you've finished the homework, and don't toss anything out that might still have a few good uses left. In other words, Finish What You Start.

When I was 20-something I had a rule that, once started, I always finished a book. No matter how boring or poorly written. Now I have a different rule about books. Although by and large, I don't really get into a book with the intention of giving up, I'm perfectly happy to close it if the beginning chapters don't interest me. Occasionally I read for a while, find my interest waning and give the book the Page 69 Test. If it fails that, and no one is requiring me to finish, the book is history.

I also feel that way about writing and bad wine. No reason to devote too much time to either if they just aren't working.

Here's an essay with writer Varian Johnson, about his writing process. I totally understand how this feels:
I’ve found that if I still love a story after three chapters, I’ll stick with it. If not, it goes to the big recycle bin in the sky.

Amen to that.

My friend Sue Laneve once cautioned me to explore many options before starting a new writing project, trying them all out before delving into one. Once chosen, it's going to require a lot of energy. Why write past 3 chapters if it's just not working? Is this quitting too soon? Maybe 3 chapters is enough to at least put it in the drawer for a while.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Olive Kitteridge, at last

How could I have missed this book? Actually, the truth is, I didn't. I bought a paperback copy after hearing all my reading friends rave. But the print font was so darn tiny! It sat, neglected, by my bedside for many weeks. Then I needed a book to take along on an airplane trip and eyesight be damned! Olive Kitteridge it was.

And I loved everything about it. Now I'm foisting it on all my friends. My houseguest, Julie, stranded here when they closed the Baltimore airport, read it in two sittings. When my college pals gathered in Atlanta, all had our own strong opinions on The Help and shared them. We decided we needed another book, equally discussable. Olive Kitteridge got the nod.

I've been thinking a lot about believable heroines. Main characters you relate to from the beginning chapters of a novel. Even unappealing characters, if given a redeeming quality, can become someone who makes you continue to turn pages. Blake Snyder talks about this in Save the Cat!, his book on writing. A "save the cat" moment occurs when even the most unlikable point-of-view character does something to redeem himself, to make herself sympathetic to readers. I think Olive might be a bit like that. Elizabeth Strout does a terrific job of making Olive appealing despite her obvious foibles. At first, she's not particularly likable. But she displays humanity and vulnerability. So despite her being occasionally bothersome, frequently grumpy, way too opinionated, Olive has small moments of kindness and vulnerability, and we like her. Or, at least, are drawn to her.

Every time a friend comments on the book, she starts with the wedding chapter. Poor Olive Kitteridge! Dressed in that horrid mother-of-the-groom get-up. Hiding in a bedroom, eavesdropping, overcome, a true case of the vapors (were she Southern).

The book takes form in non-linear chapters,narratives linked by one character. Almost short stories, actually. In each chapter, we see another side of Olive. All the same character, ever changing. Just a really good book. And here's a link to a terrific NPR interview with the author, which includes a bit of the book read by the writer.
(Here's his description of Olive:
Strout’s big, blunt heroine and the book’s namesake, Olive Kitteridge, is tough, wounded, wounding. Big blunt heroine! How true.)


Related post: Save the Cat!

Monday, March 8, 2010

How To Design a Book Cover?

I just love this. A blog that shows us exactly how book covers are designed. I especially love the Eiffel Tower bit!

I don't even know these books but now I'm dying to find out more. Guess that's what it's all about! Thanks to my friend Anne for sharing it on Facebook.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Writing Music

Of course, I don't mean writing music. I haven't attempted that since my middle school buddy Beverly and I sat at my piano and pounded out chords to bad verse. But the idea of listening to music while writing, music to write by, is something I'm trying to get my head around. I need quiet spaces for writing.

But if you know Eric Puchner's writing and especially if you are into 80s music, check out this piece on the New York Times blog, on writing his just-published novel, Model Home.

Since my stack of To Be Read Books is taller than a small child, the librarian in me had to return Model Homes to the library yesterday. It was "overdue and others are waiting." But I'll try to get back to it as soon as my book tower shrinks. 80s California might not be my thing, but the writing was terrific and I was smiling a lot as I read. All good things to say about a book.

And in honor of the recent holiday (remember Valentine's Day?), I'll quote a small portion of Puchner's blog entry's song list . You need to click on over to read the rest.

Girlfriend, the Modern Lovers. This is a night of cuddling in the backseat, talking about what to name the kids you’ll have together some day. It’s the precise antithesis of “Pacific Coast Highway,” by Sonic Youth. This song was originally recorded in the 1970s, but I’m including it here because it was rereleased on vinyl in 1986, when I was 16, and played a large part of my first year behind the wheel.






Friday, March 5, 2010

The Postmistress

THE POSTMISTRESS has a look about it that makes you want to pick it up and read it. Great cover!

I saw the recommendation by Kathryn Stockett, prominently displayed right there on front, hard to miss, and she's "telling everyone I know to read" this thought-provoking novel. I heard an interview with Sarah Blake on NPR. (Click on that link and you can read an excerpt from the book and listen to the interview). The story's set during World War II. Letters play an important role. Everything I love. Everything about it made me want to read The Postmistress.

So I guess my expectations were a tad too high. It was a good book, not a great one.

Iris James is postmaster of a small town on Cape Cod. From her window to the town, she observes the evolving world around her: a young doctor's wife struggling with her husband's decision, the stranger in town, the fear.

Then there's the parallel story of a young American war correspondent, a protegee of Edward R. Murrow. She broadcasts from London and eventually from a train car carrying refugees. The events unfolding around her make Frankie Bard re-examine so much of what she thought was true.

"This is how a war knocks down the regular, steady life we set up against the wolf at the door. Because the wolf is not hunger, it is accident- the horrible, fatal mistake of turning left to go to the nearer tube station, rather than right to take the long way around."

Sarah Blake takes a time in our history that we don't often read about- the run-up to the war-- and weaves the events into a mostly good story. Yes, there were times when the plot seemed contrived, but there's a lot to ponder and discuss after reading this novel. I see it becoming a huge Book Group selection.

But the thing I love- maybe even more than the occasionally formulaic and ponderous writing - is learning about the research the writer did. Transcripts of radio broadcasts, interviews with war journalists, a decade of Life Magazines, old movies. The book book her eight years to write.

At the end of the novel, Frankie admits she has bet her career on advice she was given when she started: "You told a story by letting the small things speak."

Great advice for any writer or journalist.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Quote for the Day

"In America, history never dies - it's reborn as "tourism." -Joyce Carol Oates

(Thanks to my friend Denis Gaston for this one! And check out his blog post about the new Tampa Museum of Art. Since he knows what he's talking about, I'm trusting him on this one.)

Monday, March 1, 2010

Goodbye in Robot

I'm big on setting in fiction, especially in books for kids. I think it adds a necessary element, grounds characters in an interesting place. I like reading books set in places I've lived or am at least familiar with. Plus I'm reading a lot of YA books for some reason. I have one assigned review, one I chose because I'm working with the writer, and this one because I'd heard so much about it.

So for many reasons, I couldn't wait to read Natalie Standiford's HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT.

And I loved it. Yes, it helped that my former home- Baltimore- is the setting, and since Natalie Standiford grew up there, she's nailed the city. The bookstore/ bar, the neighborhoods, even a high-rise apartment building filled with bluehairs (where I just happened to live for a couple of months, sans blue hair, many years ago). Even Morgan & Millard's drugstore/coffee shop, the first strip shopping center in America (1896), makes an appearance.

Using the late-night radio show as a device to move the story along and help us understand the characters was pure genius. What a teen-friendly way to write. Loved their on-air names: Kreplax and his Future People! What an oddball.

The story will appeal to kids, and this novel deserved its Cybil-finalist award. Two high school kids, mostly midfits, find each other. Ho-hum, you might think. Now that's been done before. But these two are so appealing, so unusual, that nothing you know about out-of-it high schoolers applies. Robot Girl and Ghost Boy (their radio names) defy all stereotypes.

It's a love story, a family saga, a tragedy, a mystery, a story filled with hope. One of my favorite Young Adult books of the year. I'm still scratching my head a bit over exactly what constitutes a Cybil Award-winning book, but don't we do that each year with all the awards? Some we love, some we hate. Some we feel don't deserve any acclaim at all. Criteria, like personal taste, seem to change with each year's new committee, and there's no changing that.

But HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT is a book kids will love, their parents will be happy to read, teachers will approve. It spans a very large reading area, wide appeal. Truly well-written, truly fun to read. All good!




Related posts: Baltimore
Cybils Finalists