Friday, October 16, 2015

An Open Letter to Our Cat

Dear Margot,

First, allow me to welcome you to the family.  I know it's been two and a half months since you've joined us, but we've been pretty busy, so you'll forgive my lateness.  We're a pretty fun group -- if your definition of fun is staying home, living a sedentary life of reading and watching tv and eating, with only brief bursts of energy that propel us off our posteriors and into equally brief moments of sociability -- but you're a cat, so that seems like a good fit.  The smallest member of the family (yourself excluded) has more frequent (and intense) bursts of activity (and sociability), but we figure she'll outgrow that.

We may have gotten off on the wrong foot in terms of your understanding of the contract of expected behavior, so this seems like a good time to break down the rules and expectations for living in this house.

1.  You have a litter box.  Use it.  Great news!  You've already got this one down.  No problems here.  Keep it that way if you know what's good for you, er, I mean, GOOD JOB!

2.  Chew nothing but your kibble and cat toys.  We've had a little run-in on this one already, haven't we?  My fault for not explaining the terms of your contract, sooner, I suppose.  So let me break it down for you.  You are adorable.  You are soft and fluffy and have big eyes and ears that you use to your advantage.  Nevertheless, there are not enough cute head butts and purrs in your repertoire to make up for destroying my MacBook charger.  Silky ears and twitchy tails do not keep my laptop running.  Keep those pointy little fangs to yourself, and we'll get along just fine.  And on a related note...

3.  DON'T BITE.  Not me.  Not anybody.  But especially not me.  Perhaps this one requires a little history.  You probably don't remember this far back (nearly three months ago), but you were rescued from certain death by a dear friend.  Together, she and I took one look at your tiny, flea-covered body and suited up for battle.  We knew we couldn't use any chemicals on such a young kitten, and so we spent the better part of a day picking hundreds of fleas off your squirmy, little self.  Did you catch that?  We picked them off by hand.  I'm not asking for much in return.  Just a little gratitude.  Ever heard that chestnut, "Don't bite the hand that feeds you?"  Didn't think so.  Well, it also applies to the hand that feeds and picks fleas off you by hand so as not to poison your baby body with chemicals.  You're welcome.

4.  Don't destroy my furniture/curtains/child's toys/etc.  Remember that story about how I picked fleas off you by hand?  How I provided you with a home full of food and warmth and a dog covered in cords/kitten toys?  Yeah, keep that in mind every time you get the urge to scratch the sofa or cling to the footboard of my bed using only your rear claws and killer balance.  Though I will say I appreciate your self-control in waiting at least two days before removing every one of the claw caps I so carefully applied.  It shows you have some self-control.  Or a sense of humor.

5.  Keep doing that thing where you sit on my chest and purr so loudly it can be heard across the room.  That's really working for me.  Especially when you combine it with the half-shut eyes and occasional chin or nose lick.  Keep up the good work.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

That's Perfectly Normal

I have never been normal (an admission that is shocking to exactly no one.)  When I was a small child, my family moved.  A lot.  Whether it was school (when I was even in an actual brick-and-mortar school) or church or ballet class, I was generally the odd man out.  Children are not known for their immediate acceptance of the new and/or different, and I was both of those things on a regular basis.

In junior high, I stepped up my weirdo game when I developed a skin condition that prevented me from getting any sun exposure.  Did I mention that we lived in Myrtle Beach at the time?  The land of sand, surf, and swimming pools is not exactly the ideal spot for a budding heliophobe (look it up, people, I did.)  There I was at the ripe old age of thirteen and no longer allowed to go swimming or to the water park.  I couldn't even play kickball in PE (admittedly, not a great loss.)

In addition to these relatively minor physical limitations, I also set about making sure I was viewed as a complete weirdo by deciding to make my life a never-ending Anne of Green Gable cosplay.  (No, there will be no pictures of that in my post.)  While I did attend an ultra-conservative Christian school at the time (you know, the kind where it's a big secret that girls have knees and shoulders), I still didn't exactly blend in with my petticoats and lace-up boots.  But the pretending got me through, and I regret nothing.

One of out two ain't bad.  Right? Anyone?

I managed.  Though I continued to get less normal, especially health-wise.  Mumps at eighteen?  Absolutely. (And yes, I had been vaccinated.  See? I told you I was weird.) Chronic sinus issues that ended up in surgery?  Why not?  By the age of twenty-five, I was in less than stellar physical condition and was diagnosed with systemic Lupus and Sjogren's Syndrome shortly before I got married. I had required corrective lenses since I was twelve, but would have to wear glasses for the rest of my life because of the severe dry eye.  (I would also never be far from my artificial tears bottle.)  I was easily tired and often in pain.  Still it was comforting having a diagnosis.  (And I'd given up on the 19th century garb by then, so that was a bonus.)

Fast forward to two and a half years ago.  I was married with a small child, and I'd never felt worse.  Enter a new diagnosis: Celiac Disease.  What is that, you ask?  Well, the short version is that my gut doesn't like gluten.  No, it actually hates gluten.  Like get-those-kids-off-my-lawn-before-I-call-the-cops kind of hates gluten.  And every time I ate it, my intestines would call the cops, and the party was definitely over.  It got ugly.

Just for fun, try going a day without any gluten.  Trying going a meal.  It's tougher than you think.  Then, just to make things super-challenging, try to go a meal without eating anything that has even touched gluten.

And that's my life.

So here's the thing.  There's good and bad about always being that kid.  It definitely made me into a bit of a non-conformist.  I don't want to like the same things as everybody else.  And I don't feel the need to adjust my opinions/tastes/etc. to match those of the prevailing crowd.  Being an introvert, however, I do tire quickly of any attention my differences might draw (19th century cosplay notwithstanding. It's about forced differences.)

I like to be normal. (Not to be confused with conventional.)

I revel in routine.  It is a point of pride that I have lived in my house for nine years.  (A record for me by quite a few years.)  My little girl came home from the hospital to this house and knows no other home.  She went to the same preschool for three years and (I hope) will go to the same elementary school all the way through.  We have Taco Tuesday.  Every Tuesday.  We are incredibly boring.  And I LOVE it.

Kiddo and I started baking together when she was still in diapers.  One of my favorite videos is of her attempting to add chocolate chips to cookies only to miss the bowl entirely and dump them on the floor.  (Not included in the video is how sick the Big Dog got from eating just one of those tiny chocolate chips, but I digress.)  Every special occasion in our home included a heaping plate of my pan-fried chicken.  And my fried chicken fingers were a favorite at gatherings and parties.  I had a specialty.

But all of this ended with my Celiac diagnosis.  Our love of trying out trendy, high-end(ish) restaurants?  Over.  Baking anything we want in the cookbook with my assistant?  Over.  Having dinner with friends in restaurants and their homes?  Really over.  Being able to blend into invisibility at group functions that involve food?  So over.

Much like the condition that kept me from sun exposure in the land of the sun, Celiac keeps me from food in a time of my life when food is central to most social interactions.  When you have a severe food allergy or sensitivity, you become a problem to be solved, an inconvenience to be overcome.  Well-intentioned and kind people flock to your aid, only to be hurt and abashed (and sometimes flat-out offended) by your unwillingness to risk your health and sanity on their "gluten-free" offerings.  It's messy.

Still, I treasure routine and sameness.  Normalcy.  Celiac may have killed my love for cooking and baking much like my sun issue ended my enjoyment of swimming.  But there are bright spots that I treasure.

I found a way (through MUCH experimentation) to make gluten-free fried chicken and pan gravy that is comparable to my old glory.

There are a few restaurants where I can safely eat, but far better is the gluten-free restaurant in Asheville, Posana, where I can order anything I want off the menu.  Until that choice is taken away from you, there is just no way to appreciate how intoxicating that freedom really is.  Bread? Biscuits? Cheesecake?  It's all safe.  And in a gluten-free establishment there is no worry about cross-contamination.  It is, in a word, glorious.

The worst part of all of this (for me) is how it affects Kiddo.  While I understand that I can't protect her from everything, I desperately want for her to have the option to be normal.  I want her to have the same bedroom year after year.  I want her to know the same friends for as long as she chooses.  I want her to go to birthday parties and sleepovers and not to have to say, "I can't eat that, do that, etc." And most important to me, I never want my limitations and weirdnesses to affect her (an impossible dream, I know.)  If she wants to grow up to be a rebel, a non-conformist woman with a bit of an exhibitionist streak, so be it.  I just never want that label, that burden, placed on her shoulders by me.

So these are some of the things I treasure:

My little cookie-cutter house that looks exactly like at least three other houses in our neighborhood.

My church, where I've attended for nearly seven years, where the people and the place are beautifully familiar, and where Kiddo feels safe and loved.

My gloriously boring little family.

Taco Tuesday.

Kiddo's gymnastics class where all her little friends from preschool go.

Knowing my way around, not one, but two towns.

Having a specific doctor for every illness, having our dry cleaner, after-church restaurant, dentist, etc.

Friends that I've known and loved for nearly my entire adult life.

Some of these things may seem trivial, but I've made this sameness, this routine a priority for my own happiness and sanity.  I've made sacrifices for it, and I'm going to revel in it for as long as it lasts.

**My original intention when I started this particular post was to also talk about the beautiful normalcy that General Mills has given back to me with the addition of their gluten-free Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios (my go-to childhood breakfast.)  Since that time, however, General Mills has issued a recall on nearly two million boxes of Cheerios, due to incorrect labeling of "Gluten Free" on boxes that weren't.  When we're talking about people's trust and health, that kind of mistake is inexcusable. When the gluten-free boxes were released, Twitter was lit up with Celiac patients celebrating this bit of old-school normalcy (and safety) in their lives.  We could finally have something other than Chex for breakfast (don't get me wrong, I love Chex.)  Here was a cereal that wasn't a special variation on the gluten-filled version.  This cereal could be purchased in any grocery store and for the same price as other General Mills cereals.  And now we're told that General Mills was extremely careless with the health of its customers.  It's disappointing in a way that is difficult to articulate. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

It's My Birthday And I'll Buy If I Want To

It's actually the day before my birthday, and it's a good time to be me (mostly). Last night was dinner with a few dear friends, courtesy of my husband, The Grill Master.  There was even GF red velvet cake from Coffee to a Tea.  So much cream cheese frosting goodness, and the first red velvet cake I've had since my Celiac diagnosis.  YUM!

I may or may not have had a piece of this for lunch today.

Tonight, it's off to Asheville, just the three of us, at my favorite GF restaurant, Posana.  Until you've been diagnosed with a severe food allergy/sensitivity, it is difficult to understand the glorious freedom of going to a restaurant where everything on the menu is safe to eat.  It's intoxicating.

But I didn't write to make you jealous of my dining option.  This entry is meant, instead, to make you jealous of my Amazon book order.  (Isn't that more important, anyway?) I made the dizzying decision to spend a chunk of my birthday money on one big book order.  I hadn't placed such a large book order since grad school, and never solely for books I wanted to read.  I was practically drunk on the choices.  And the best news?  I got a B&N gift card from a dear friend, which means I get to do an abbreviated version of that order AGAIN very soon.

So here are the soon-to-be latest additions to my TBR:

Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff

I only ordered two new releases, and this is one of them.  Long listed for the National Book Award, this book already has so much buzz, and I can't wait to read it.

The Angel on My Chest, Leslie Pietrzyk

There was no way I was not [pre] ordering this book.  It doesn't come out for a few days yet, but this new release was written by my thesis advisor/faculty mentor from grad school.  I've read some of the stories from this collection previously, and they are amazing.  Can't wait to get this one.

White Teeth, Zadie Smith

Strangely, the only Zadie Smith book I've never read is her first.  Really looking forward to reading what the 24 year old Smith had to say.

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz

Sad and embarrassed to admit that the only place I've read Diaz is on social media.  Starting with his Pulitzer Prizer winner.

Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion

Joan Didion + fiction.  Can't go wrong.  How have I not read this before?

The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr

Okay, so I lied.  Three new releases.  (I forgot about this one somehow.)  Anyway, so excited about this book.  I am so obsessed with Mary Karr's memoirs.  Lit was mind-blowing, and Liars' Club was gutting.  This is definitely going to be a worthwhile (and instructive) read.

Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood

I'm finally going to get to start the Maddaddam Trilogy! I adore Margaret Atwood, despite being woefully under read in her books.  Handmaid's Tale, Blind Assassin, and Alias Grace were impossible to put down, though, so I'm thinking this trilogy will also be right up my very dystopian alley.

Call the Midwife, Jennifer Worth

I am the world's biggest Call the Midwife fan (the tv show), so I cannot wait to start reading the first of Jennifer Worth's three books about her time as a midwife in East London.  I'm admittedly a little late to this particular book party, but I'll be all caught up in no time.


I started this post this morning while I was sipping tea in my jammies.  It's now going on eleven o'clock at night, and my jammies have reappeared.  Dinner at Posana was amazing (but that's a whole post of its own), and to make the night perfect, six of my eight ordered books were waiting on my porch when I got home from Asheville.  I had my own private unboxing on the bed, taking pictures of my new pretties.

Just look at those lovely virgin spines and crease-free covers.  Be still my heart

So now that you are gagging on all the saccharine-y goodness that is my perfect birthday weekend (well minus the monsoon weather that kept me from hitting the Asheville bookstores -- so sad), I suppose I will wrap up this post.  Look at this way:  At least it wasn't a rant!  And I'll be back to my grumpy self in no time.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Banned Books Week and My High Horse

I wouldn't exactly call it a trend, though it's certainly been getting some press lately.  No, I've seen it for years.  To be honest, I've probably participated in it, though it was many years ago when I was a very different person.  In the circles I ran in, it was the way things were done.  There were angry whispers, shaken heads, hands thrown up in despair.  It was the end of the world.

Except it wasn't.  And people are still declaring the end of all things decent twenty, thirty years later. (And let's be real, this is a practice that has a much, much older history than my childhood.) What is this epidemic am I referring to?  The idea that we mere humans cannot withstand exposure to (and heaven forbid exploration of) beliefs, opinions, or lifestyles that differ from our own and that we need to weed out the problematic content.

Everywhere I look, there are people in a frenzied scramble to control/erase/hide all ideas that do not align with their personal worldview.  Parents are challenging library books, students are denouncing college courses or book assignments, citizens are protesting against whole ethnic/religious groups.  Somehow, in a country supposedly founded on ideals of free thought/speech and separation of church of state, we as a nation have decided that those rights only belong to the select few who think a certain way.

It's not a new problem.  It's not a problem that's going anywhere.  What disturbs me most, though, is the number of people who are basing these protests and challenges on their personal Christian beliefs.  

That show/movie/book shouldn't be allowed because there are gay people in it.  

That book doesn't belong in the school library because it's about Muslims.  

You know what news stories I'm talking about.  You've seen them too.

Now I know what the people who make these statements would say to me.  They would aim all their righteous indignation in my direction and insist that in addition to eternal damnation, I am risking tramping all over their right to freedom of religion.  That it's their right to believe those things are wrong/evil/whatever.

To which I would say, Exactly.

You have a right to believe anything you want.  You can believe it's wrong for a woman to leave the house or have a job or a blog where she rants incoherently while a large dog breathes down her neck and a kitten claws at her legs. (Too specific?)

What you don't have the right to do is to decide what others believe, or for that matter to decide what other are exposed to.  You don't want your kid to read/watch/see anything related to homosexuality?  Well, good luck with that.  But hey, it's your right to attempt it anyway.

But stop blaming it on Christianity.

Somehow, in the Bible Belt at least (where I live), it has become accepted that if you call yourself a Christian, you are automatically aligned with the ultra-conservative, ban-it-if-we-don't-believe-it crowd.  People I encounter and who know I call myself a Christian, feel I'd be psyched to hear about how some book should be eliminated from their kids' school for scatological humor.  (Yeah, they REALLY don't know me very well.)  It is assumed that I share their outrage over television/movie/book content.

So, here's the thing.  My God is bigger and more powerful and more full of love than anything I can imagine.  My God does not need my defense.  If he is too weak for questions and doubts and people with differing opinions, different religions, then he wouldn't be much of a God, would he?  I have read nothing in Scripture that suggests we were put on this earth to police anyone's behavior but our own.

If you feel morally conflicted about a television program?  Don't watch it.  Don't let your kids watch it.  If you cannot in good conscience read that book assigned for that new course?  Then let the professor know.  He or she will either make other arrangements for you, or they won't.  Suck it up and take the consequences.

But here's where you must draw the line: Don't insist that everyone else should adhere to your personal convictions.

That's it.  It's that simple.  You should absolutely follow the way you feel God is leading/convicting you.  What you should not do, is demand that everyone else is being led the same way and they just missed it.


And yet, I'm not finished.  Because I haven't alienated enough people, I'm going to take it one step further and encourage you to read that book about someone different from you.  Did I mention that my God is not threatened by the infinite variety of human beliefs?  He won't be contaminated by you reading about and trying to understand more about people of other faiths.  Regardless of your feelings/beliefs on homosexuality, reading/learning about people who are gay is only going to help you understand other people.

Because that's what we're talking about here.  Beneath all the labels -- Muslims, gays, minorities, Democrats (GASP!) -- we're still just talking about people.  And here's the thing:  Most people are trying to do the best they can with what they were given.  Yes, even that jerk who drives all the way to the end of the entrance ramp and then wants you to let him into standstill traffic like his time is more valuable than everyone else's.  (Grrr.)  Even that guy is probably not setting out to ruin your day, destroy your belief system, or bring down the American family.  (Well, maybe that guy is, but NOT Syrian refugees looking for asylum, or that professor teaching the class on different perspectives of 9/11, or that writer who published a picture book about gay penguins -- how have I not read that book yet?)

So, here's the challenge.  Read outside of your comfort zone (you'll notice I didn't say, "outside your conscience.")  Learn about people and beliefs and ideas that are different than your own.  And most importantly, don't be afraid.  God isn't frightened by a memoir about being a lesbian raised in a funeral home.  And Christians are not (or at least shouldn't be) a people of fear.

And that's my Banned Books Week Shout-out/Rant.  You may now go about your normal lives and not post annoying things in the comments.

(Note/Freebie: Seriously, if I hear one more news story about some ridiculous book or class challenge from the state of South Carolina, I'm going to start claiming one of the many other places I've lived as my "home state.")

Monday, September 28, 2015

Writing Less, Grading More

Remember back at the beginning of the semester when I couldn't wait for all the writing time I would have on my day's off from teaching, you know, while Kiddo was in school?  Wasn't that ADORABLE?  I am nearly thirty-eight years old, and yet I somehow didn't see the schedule onslaught coming.  Tuesdays and Thursday are my "off days," my days with no scheduled classes.  So what am I doing besides writing on those two, long, glorious days?  Let's see...

Every single doctor's appointment that I ever have has to be on Tuesday or Thursday because my school schedule interferes on the other days.  Thursday morning/afternoons I spend helping out in Kiddo's classroom at school.  Every Thursday.  I thought the whole idea was for me to get a break from kids.  (Wasn't that an adorable assumption, as well?)  One Thursday a month, I get to go to a literary lunch at school, which is nice, but it's also me not writing.  Either way, both events end with me hauling ass to Kiddo's school to be first in car line (a separate post in itself) so that we can go to gymnastics (my own baptism by fire in the uncharted waters --for me-- of forced conversation with mom strangers.)

So that leaves the occasional Tuesday when I don't have anything scheduled.  (Every other Tuesday, I am interrupted by the cleaners, but that's a bit of a first world problem, isn't it?  Well, let's be honest, this whole rant is.)  Tomorrow should be an unscheduled Tuesday (mostly), but I kind of want to cry when I think about the rest of the week, about all the writing I'm not doing.  Oh well, I'll figure it out, you know, about the time the semester ends.

Anyway, the above is why I've disappeared from blogging much lately.  It's difficult for me to even collect my thoughts enough to put words down for a quick update.  I'm afraid my rare profound thought/comment is reserved for my students (they're probably still waiting for me to come up with something.)  School is going relatively well.  Freshmen are still freshmen, and I still could really use a scheduled nap.

On the good, good news front.  I got a cold a couple of weeks ago!  How is that good news, you ask? Well, the good news is that I got a regular old run-of-the-mill cold that remained exactly that, ran it's course, and then went about it's merry way infecting all I came into contact with.  It did not turn into bronchitis or pneumonia.  There were no ambulances or steroids or stern lectures about staying hydrated.  Just a cold that my immune system (and lungs) dealt with in a very routine way.  It was just so incredibly normal and mundane and like everybody else.  As far as colds go, it was nice.

On the best news ever front, fall break is coming, and I'm off while Kiddo has to slog away at kindergarten.  I am determined to get something done besides reading/grading papers during the break (and I don't mean housework/organization projects!).

Must. Write.

This picture has nothing to do with my post.  Just including it because it's Kiddo's, and it's awesome.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Out of Sorts Launch Team - Sarah Bessey

Last Wednesday was a bad day.  Actually, last week was a bad week.  I'm not going to break down every gory detail, but let's just say it was one of those weeks that we all have and would like to pretend don't happen.  But it did, and Wednesday was exceptionally bad.  Like lemon juice on a paper cut bad.  

Before I slip into some serious hyperbole, however, let me tell you something GOOD that happened on Wednesday.  I got an email saying that I was on the launch team for Sarah Bessey's upcoming book, Out of Sorts!!!!  What does this mean, you ask?  Well, let me tell you.  I get to read Out of Sorts NOW instead of having to wait until the release date, November 3.  As I read (and after), I will be posting and tweeting and talking about and promoting this amazing book every chance I get, and I am honored by this opportunity.  In addition, all of the launch team folks (from all over the world) have a secret group page on Facebook (secret probably isn't the right word, but it just sounded so important and mysterious) where we can chat and share and just generally soak up all the good vibes of fellow Bessey readers.  So all in all, a great deal and a much-needed positive in an otherwise horrible week.

So your next question: Who is Sarah Bessey, and why should I care?  If you know me even distantly, or have read my blog, you have probably heard me talk about Sarah Bessey's first book Jesus Feminist, a book so amazing I read it twice, and I can already tell that Out of Sorts will definitely require re-reading.  Sarah Bessey is a Canadian author who grew up in church, took a step or two away from organized religion, then came back with a changed perspective.  She writes about all the questions and doubts that make so many evangelical fundamentalists uncomfortable.  She doesn't shy away from uncomfortable; in fact, she rejoices in it.  Her first book was full of joy and insight and humor, and at just past the halfway mark in the new title, I would have to say that #2 is following the same pattern.  

I will be writing more (and in more depth) about this book both here and in my various social media accounts.  But for now, more time writing means less time reading this amazing book.  So I'm going to back to it!

Saturday, September 5, 2015

What I'm Reading and What You Should Read NOW (plus TBR)

So it's been a busy reading season lately.  I don't know if it's all the books I picked up at Wonder Book in Frederick or all the BookTube I've been watching or what, but I've been plowing through the titles in August/early September.  I've already talked about some of my favorites here.  But I've managed to squeeze in several more since that post, with one standout in particular, but first:

The Reader, Bernhard Schlink

I'll admit that this was not on my must-read list, but I found it at Wonder Book (a bargain) and decided to pick it up. It was not at all what I expected.  Actually, I don't really know what I expected, but this was a fascinating look at an entire nation's ability/struggle to deal with national sins and personal culpability.  So many more thoughts were swirling in my brain after I finished this, so many more questions -- in my accounting a sign of an excellent book. 

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

This was a local used book store find.  I was excited to read it as I'd heard so many good things, and everything about this book seemed to line up with my taste.  I wanted to love this book.  But I didn't. I didn't hate it.  But it felt like a bit of a slog to get through it.  Something about the shuffled narrative (which I usually love) just didn't work for me in this book.  The way details are doled out in seemingly random doses aggravated more than intrigued me. Much of the book is written from the limited perspective of very small children, but rather than trusting the reader the to see beyond their childish understanding, we are given sections that explain; we're told how everyone feels.  I was awash in so many human emotions that it nearly drowned out the narrative.  Maybe if I had read this one in another time and place, I would have loved it.  But alas, I read it this year, this season, and I just didn't.

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Cue the music.  Cue the gushing.  Just finished this book last night, and I cannot say enough good things about it.  Toni Morrison's blurb on the front, "This is required reading," is not hyperbole.  I have never read or encountered in other media a more honest and powerful discussion of what it means to be black in America.  I cannot imagine how anyone could read this book and remain unchanged or unaffected.  This is one of those books that after the last sentence I felt like I needed to immediately read it again with highlighter and notebook to catch all the things I missed the first time.  Read this and you will be moved and convicted and changed.  I guarantee it.  Just read this book.

My current read is Jonathan Franzen's Purity, the fiction new release with all the buzz right now.  It is a monster doorstop kind of book, so I'll be reading it for a while, but here is a glimpse at my TBR books-in-waiting:

Note the assemblage masterpiece courtesy of Kiddo and an entire roll of scotch tape.

So lots of good stuff taunting me from my dresser.  Of course, there are also piles of lessons to plan, papers to grade, and writing to be done, so it may be a while before I get to some of these.  Maybe I can even make my Wonder Book haul last me though the end of the year? Or not.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Battered and Bleeding and Slightly Sleep-Deprived

Here I sit, bleeding and sore and slightly on edge.  Were first day classes so terrible, you ask?  No, I just live with a ten week old kitten.

When Kiddo was a toddler, I carefully avoided terms like "Terrible Twos" when referring to the challenges of parenting/disciplining a small, strong-willed person.  Kids are what you tell them they are, I said.  Don't label them, I said.  Well, you know what? When it comes to cats, I say, label away, because if there is a kitten version of the Terrible Twos," Margot is the poster child, er, kitten.  Much like a kid who will nuzzle into your neck and say, "I wuv you," only to hold their breath and scream minutes later, Margot, or Kitten Murderface, (as she will henceforth be known) has brief moments of cuddles and purrs and closed eyes and adoring licks surrounded by a full day (and night!) of insanity. I have been stalked, bitten, clawed, attacked, and climbed.  At this exact moment, I am sitting in front of my laptop covered in a thick, doubled over blanket to protect my legs and mid-section from her claws.  (She attempted earlier to climb onto the chair/desk using only my flesh for purchase.)  I know that much like with children this stage shall pass, but meanwhile my extremities are starting to look like a crowded road atlas, and I'm considering purchasing stock in Band-Aids and Neosporin.  Good times.

On a less painful note, the first day of classes was terrific! Well, mostly.  Any of the parts that weren't were my mostly own fault at least.  The week got off to a rocky start, though.  On Thursday last week, my husband was rear-ended on his way home from work, and we realized that we would need a rental car this week when our brake lights suddenly stopped working.  So of course, Sunday night, K.M. (short for Kitten Murderface, of course) decided to get her wild on from about midnight on, and when we shut her out of the bedroom, she aired her grievances by rattling the door and howling ALL NIGHT LONG.  Because nothing improves a long, stressful day quite like having endured a night of no sleep.  So yesterday morning found me, chauffeuring both Kiddo and Hubby and trying desperately to maintain consciousness.

So you know what wakes you up and gets you moving on a morning like that?  Hash browns.  It's true! Hash browns and caffeine-laced tea from my favorite fast food chain.  Really, it's a little known scientific fact that grease and salt and sugar and caffeine mix together perfectly in those flaky, little briquettes to make the ideal formula for alertness and clarity.  Or at least that was my excuse.  My delicious excuse.

Fast forward to my first class, Freshman Comp!  It was a full-house of ladies on their very first day of college.  They were sweet and nervous and over-confident in turn, but mostly charming and engaged. I held their collective hands, and the endured their sleep-deprived instructor.

For when we go over the grading portion of the syllabus.

The hours in between classes were filled with a desperate search for a spray bottle.  Our household spray bottle of nearly twenty years (a real family heirloom), spritzer of misbehaving cats and little girl bedhead alike broke under suspicious circumstances over the weekend, and who knew finding a replacement for our old friend would be so challenging.  Seriously,  I went from one end of town to the other and back again (it's not a very big town, at least) before finding what I needed (three spray bottles, so I can spray KM in every room in the house.)

By the time I returned to school for my other class the loss of sleep was starting to catch up with me.  Also, this was the new class, the one I'd never taught before.  So, very uncharacteristically for me, I was a little jittery, dare I say, nervous.  My slight edginess was not improved by the appearance of two adult students (one of whom was much older than I.)  No idea why that rattled me, but it did.  The good/awesome/excellent/so-cool news is that I have two students from my Young Writers' Workshop days!  I had no idea that these two ladies had decided to attend my school, and it was so lovely and rewarding to see them as mature sophomores ready to work hard.  Unfortunately, this was the class where I struggled a bit.  I felt scattered and unfocused, and I'm pretty sure half the stuff I said didn't make sense.  Everybody nodded when I made eye-contact, though, so we're going to pretend that they weren't just humoring me.  But I'm pretty sure they were humoring me.

Of course, the best part of my day (aside from all the extra-podcast listening time I got with so much driving) was coming home to dinner, made and ready to eat courtesy of SuperDad/Husband.  It was Taco Night, despite not being a Tuesday, and I scarfed everything down in between grunts of gratitude.  Best of all, SuperHusband sensed that what I really needed after Kiddo was down was to hide alone in our room with my book, tv, and smartphone.  It was a good way to end the day.  Last night there was more sleeping and less kitten mayhem.  Fingers crossed that it happens again tonight, and that tomorrow I will be able to speak in complete sentences during creative writing.

So that was first day of Fall 2015 (for me).  Kiddo is a full-on pro at the whole kindergarten thing now, and I plan to follow her example of nonchalance.  (Like when I nonchalantly tried to walk into the wrong classroom on my way back from the bathroom.  I totally meant to do that.)  On an unrelated note, I'm telling myself that I scored cool-points with a creative writing student because I knew about Wattpad.  Never heard of it?  Well, you can't all be as cool and smooth as me.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Kindergarten, Blessed Kindergarten

We are nearly through the first week of kindergarten.  One more early morning until I can tell my alarm clock where it can stick that beep.  And no, six thirty won't ever get any easier.  I worked for years at a job that required me to be up between 5:45 and six, and it NEVER was anything less than a soul-sucking drag.  But I digress.

On Tuesday morning, we embarked on that new journey of kindergarten (and new for me, public school kindergarten.)  After five and a half years of being at Kiddo's constant beck and call, I am a free woman every weekday between 7:30 and 2:45.  And it is glorious.  Next week, my school starts back, and I'll be teaching three days a week, but that'll be great, too.  I can still eat my lunch in peace and quiet, and nobody will ask me why my shoes are that color red or whether or not they will be allowed to watch TV next Thursday at 4:15.  (Admittedly, freshmen questions aren't always a vast improvement, but at least they won't be touching me while they ask.)  It's a grand time to be alive.

Now before you write me off as the worst parent ever, no wait, just go ahead and write me off because if you don't get this, then you either don't have kids, or we are very different people who may never completely understand one another.  (That's okay.  Just don't touch me.)  Back to my K-5 narrative...

Kiddo was so massively excited about Tuesday, that I've been considering sedation for the past two weeks (for one of us, not saying which.)  So Tuesday morning dawned bright and bouncy and with new clothes and shoes.  We managed to get out the door with everything (including Kiddo) and made it to the madhouse that is first day at an elementary school.  EVERYONE was walking their kids inside, and the halls were like a VR simulation of a salmon swimming upstream.  The thought of my petite five year old finding her way through that madness every morning gave me the vapors, and I pushed the thought to the back of my mind.

In the classroom, the parentals instantly ceased to exist as Kiddo marched in and up to her teacher like a boss.  I don't think she acknowledged us once after she crossed the classroom threshold.  She's awesome like that.  We hightailed it (well, a squeeze between a million people version of hightailing it) out of there and on with our days.  There were no tears on anyone's part, and I got so much done on my first day of school that I should probably get some kind of award or something.  Maybe a statue on the front lawn.  Or a song.  Yeah, write me a song and make it sound like Billy Joel.

After navigating the carline, I managed to pick-up my newly-minted kindergartener and head to Barnes & Noble for her post-first-day-of-school treat.  Sometime between eight o'clock and the moment when she lugged her new tote bag to the car, Kiddo had morphed into this kindergarten old-hand who spoke of her day's activities with a jaded nonchalance.  She has started using terms like "first bell" and lamenting too-short recess breaks.  Dinner conversations will never be the same.

This morning was a bit different than Tuesday morning.  Yes, I still had everything out and ready to go the night before (this is a necessity for non-morning people like me.)  But Kiddo dragged and dallied, and I nearly lost my mind.  (I didn't even manage to get a picture of her in her adorable new school dress.) But you know what?  She and her daddy still walked out that door at 7:22, and I was alone with my Earl Grey and laptop from that point on.  Ah the life of the introverted mom of a school-aged child.  (And no one is touching me till at least 2:45!)

All joking and rejoicing aside, however, this hasn't been a simple journey/decision.  I never attended public school, and in fact, didn't even attend a kind of brick-and-mortar school half of the time.  I knew we didn't want to homeschool, but beyond that we were a bit at sea regarding the where-do-we-send-her question.  There was the more liberal side of me that was leaning toward the whole public-schools-won't-improve-if-we-don't-send-our-kids-there argument, but then there was the less attractive side of me whispering, "She's smart.  She's reading already.  She's advanced.  Send her to private for a better education."  Of course, money played into the decision as well.  Do we make the massive financial sacrifice that is tuition, or do we send her to public so that we can afford things like dance/music/art lessons and a new car sometime in the next thirteen years?

We debated/prayed over these questions for a long time.  Ultimately, however, we decided to go with our local, zoned-for public school.  Kiddo's education is extremely important to us.  We both went to college, and I went to grad school, and we have similar ambitions for her.  But. And it's a big but.  We also want other things for her.  We want her to know that she's special, yes, but never to think she's better.  We want her to value diversity and equality.  We want her to learn kindness and tolerance.  Not that you can't learn those things when you're homeschooled or attend private school, but in our relatively small circle, school seems like the best place (or at least one of the first places) to encounter people who look and think differently than you.  As tempting as it is to protect and shelter our precious girl, it is imperative to us (and especially meaningful to me) that I stay focused on our primary goal: preparing Kiddo to live and function without us.  That is our job as parents.  It's not a pretty or a particularly happy thought, but it remains true.  One day, we won't be here to take her to church or read her books or help her navigate the world and its bureaucracy (incidentally, I totally had to look up how to spell that word.  I just couldn't get it right.)  She might as well jump right in and start learning how to manage now while we're still here to help.

 So that's our first day of school experience.  No tears from anyone.  All smiles.  Now it's time for me to get back to work on lesson plans and trying to stay awake.  Six-thirty is killing me, and the old Earl of Grey isn't holding up his end of the caffeine bargain.  Until next time.

Edit/clarification: This is a post about our personal decision/thoughts regarding school.  It is not meant to reflect on anyone else's choices for their children/families.  We're all just doing what we think is best for our particular child/family.  Unless you're sending your kid to Nazi Dictator Day School, I'm not judging your choices.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

What I'm Reading: 1st Day of Kindergarten Edition

Today is the day -- the day I've waited five and a half years for: KINDERGARTEN!  Yes, folks, we made it.  And I am totally rocking staying awake and staying in my chair working.  (Mostly, anyway.)  But enough about school; I'll write more on that once we've made it through an entire day.  Instead, let's talk about BOOKS!

I've been reading so many good books lately.  And really much of this is due to some really amazing suggestions from one of my favorite podcasts, All the Books, a Book Riot podcast.  They cover everything from literary fiction to YA to memoir to romance, so regardless of your reading habits, they've got you covered.  Here are some of my favorite recent reads:

Saint Maize, by Jami Attenberg

I am so in love with this book.  It's difficult to put my finger on why I loved it so much, but I just didn't want the story to end.  Great female protagonist who is beautifully flawed, set in one of my favorite time periods/places to read about, and the story is revealed though various "historical documents" (such as diaries, news clippings, interviews), which is a conceit that I love.  Can't say enough good things about this one.

The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma

This one has made the Man Booker long list, and it's obvious why.  Though it is set in modern Nigeria, something about this story feels almost fable-like, and I loved the voice of the narrator.  While this is a tragic story of family love and loss, I never felt depressed or manipulated.  Just a really beautiful story.

Music for Wartime, by Rebecca Makkai

This is probably the best short story collection I've read in a year or two.  Could not put this down.  Never have I read such an eclectic group of stories that maintain such unity of theme. These were beautiful (and sometimes heartbreaking) stories with just the right amount of whimsy thrown in (mini-Bach crawling out of a piano, anyone?) for the perfect balance.  Read this even if you don't usually like short stories.  Actually, read this especially if you don't like short stories.  It just may change how you feel about short fiction.

In the Country, by Mia Alvar

This is what I'm reading right now, and so far I'm loving it.  I've read some comparisons of this to Jhumpa Lahiri's short fiction, and while I hesitate to label her book as the Filipina version of Lahiri, I will admit to parallels in theme and style.  This is a collection about being in the margins, an outsider, sometimes even in the main character's own country.  The settings are modern and recognizable and the characters are real and surprising.  Can't wait to finish this one.

So, that's all I've got for today.  Of course, I've been reading lots of other stuff, but these are the current standouts.  Now back to lesson plans and reveling in the perfect silence of my house.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Margot the Magnificent!

I can't believe it's been seven months since we lost our sweet Abby Tabby.  I can't believe I went so long without a cat in the house.  It was unnatural.  I may not have grown up with cats (Mom and I were both terribly allergic.  I grew out of it; she didn't.), but I have had at least one (and up to 3 -- insanity) feline(s) in my home since 1997.  First there was Sophie (or more appropriately, Satan).  Then there was Murray (my love), then Abby, then precious Hobson (or Hobbes depending on who you ask).  When Abby died, I was torn between grieving a pet of sixteen years and longing to fill that empty cat-shaped spot in the house.  We attempted to remedy the catless situation back in February when we adopted Oscar.  Sadly, poor Oscar was too troubled (and vicious) for a home with a small child.  It was a heartbreaking decision, but Oscar had to go.

But enough with all the sad stuff.  Because we have a new family member, and this little stinker is here to stay.  Meet Margot!

This little ball of fluff and teeth and purrs is around nine weeks old and was approximately six weeks when we brought her home.  I had been reconsidering my ban on adopting a kitten (usually preferring to rescue an adult cat) because of the size of our beast/dog, Sam.  My hope was that if the kitten grew up with a giant dog, she wouldn't know any different and they could be friends, but more on that in a minute.  A friend had recently rescued a tiny 4 to 5 week old kitten abandoned in a parking lot and had put the call out on Facebook.  The pictures were too cute/pitiful to ignore, and I decided to meet the little orphan.  She was tinier than I expected and had more fleas than any living creature should have to endure, but I was hooked.

The next step was to de-flea the poor baby, and my friend and I rallied for the seven hour ordeal.  (Incidentally, excellent friend-bonding time, elbow deep in flea-filled water, holding a struggling kitten together.  Seriously, it was like months of actual friend time compressed into a day!)  I'll save you the gory details of picking off hundreds of fleas and instead give you this:

And this:

Sweet little Margot (named after a character, Margot Tenenbaum, from my all-time favorite movie, The Royal Tenenbaums) was a real trooper through all the de-fleaing torture, and a few days later she came home to a very excited five year old and an extremely sniffy dog.  She has since adjusted quite nicely to this slightly askew family, and has morphed into a hilarious, fluffy little dictator/clown who runs the house between cuddles.  The dog does little more than annoy her, except for when she's stalking/attacking his cords, which she loves, and her favorite pastime is listening to Kiddo read.  There is no in-between for Margot Kitten, and she is either the Queen of Cuddles, purring and stretching and squeezing her eyes shut tight, or she is Kitten Murderface, wielder of razor claws and microscopically pointy teeth that she clamps down with abandon.  There is much running and hiding and stalking and booty shaking and attacking and flipping and chasing and back arching and purring and head butting and nibbling and swatting and hissing and sniffing and every other kitten good thing there is.

And through it all, Sam remains impassive:

Just a slight size disparity.  Nothing insurmountable. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Mommy Doesn't Feel Like Crying

So many things to write about, so little time.  What an excellent problem to have!  It's been a crazy few weeks, and a few even crazier ones are ahead, but I'm feeling positive.  Why this sudden burst of rose-tinted perspective, you ask?  Because of two things on the near horizon: #1 Classes will be starting back in less that two weeks for me, which means lots of teaching and writing.  I can hardly wait.  #2 KINDERGARTEN BEGINS IN LESS THAN A WEEK!  (I'm sorry.  Was I shouting?)  Seriously folks, I'm going to sucker punch the next well-meaning head tilter who speaks to me in the third person: "How is Mommy handling kindergarten coming up?  I bet she wants to cry."  Just stop.  The only crying I feel coming on is for joy at all the extra time that is opening up for writing and work.  Also, my sweet little, high-energy, chatterbox will have a new outlet for all her high-energy chattering.  Hallelujah for silence.  Quiet, how I have missed you.  Think I'm terrible yet?  Too bad.  This mama is ready for kindergarten (both literally and figuratively) and proud of it.

In upcoming blogs? (If I can ever get these freaking lesson plans done.)  Our new family member, Margot.  (A kitten.  NOT a baby.)  My annual pilgrimage to Frederick (and of course, Wonder Book.  Can't wait to tell you about one of my super-cool finds.)  My current favorite reads (there have been some doozies, let me tell you.)  And an update on how the first days of school (Kiddo's and mine) turned out.  In the meantime, talk amongst yourselves....I'll give you a topic: Parliamentary Procedure -- Aye? or Nay?

Random pic of me attempting to work with help from the Big Dog.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Go Set a Watchman - My Thoughts

Oh the media feeding frenzy that has been the release of Harper Lee's "new" book.  So many articles and podcasts and social media debates, and yet I still looked forward to the book's arrival on my doorstep, July 14th.  Multiple friends have asked me for my thoughts/opinions on the book.  I finished reading it last week, but I've been trying to let it all settle in my mind, make sure that my thoughts are actually mine and not the opinions of some well-read journalist, academic, or blogger.  There has been so much controversy over the backstory/origins of this book and its murky "discovery" by Lee's lawyer, a lack of clarity that hasn't been improved by the publisher, Harper Collins, that I think people were caught off guard when the book was at least as controversial as the release itself.  I will not be attempting to untangle the moral ambiguities of Go Set a Watchman's publication.  I was ambivalent about the book's history before it's release, and reading it did little to settle my stomach.  What I can do is tell you my thoughts after reading the book all the way through, but I must warn you that there will be spoilers.  (The book isn't super-plot driven, so spoilers may be a bit of an overstatement.)

First let me me say that I really love To Kill a Mockingbird, though after reading a lot of articles and rants about the new book, I realize that I must not be as in love with it as a lot of readers are.  There is so much anger out there about Lee's portrayal of some beloved characters, but for some reason, I just never felt like the characters in question were infallible.  I heard a podcaster yesterday say that To Kill a Mockingbird was a book about how white people think about racism and civil rights, and I think that's accurate.  Though I haven't heard or read much of anything from black readers on either book, I'm guessing that their feelings toward Atticus Finch (in the original book) are far more complicated than those of the average white reader.  Yes, Atticus works tirelessly to defend a black man on rape charges in pre-civil rights Alabama.  But throughout TKAM runs this idea of a helpless black community.  Atticus is their white savior.  Without him, they are defenseless, and it is clear that gratitude and devotion are required in return.  While Atticus does nothing wrong, per se, in TKAM, the tone of the book infantilizes the black characters, indeed the entire black population of Maycomb.   The reader is left less with a sense of Atticus' defense of equal rights for all than with a portrait of a man helping the helpless.  

Before you, dear reader, begin your adamant defense of the original Atticus Finch, please hold on.  Yes, legally speaking, African American's were mostly helpless in the face of a corrupt system at the time and place of the story.  Frequently, the only way a black person could be saved from an unfair trial or lynching was if a white person spoke up.  I am merely suggesting that being willing to do the right thing in defending a man unjustly accused of rape is simply that, the right thing to do.  It doesn't make you an activist, and certainly doesn't preclude you from being a racist.  So, I guess what I'm saying is that the revelation about Atticus Finch in GSAW (SPOILERS) didn't wreck me the way it seemed to so many people.  Maybe Atticus Finch really was originally a racist.  Maybe not.  What I do know is that the more complicated, deeply flawed Atticus seems far more believable for that time and place than the paragon-man-ahead-of-his-time Atticus that we read about TKAM.  

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's move on to another big picture question about GSAW, which is: How should I read it?  This book is supposed to be Lee's earlier incarnation (a first draft as it were) of TKAM.  Her editor supposedly read it and told her close but not cigar.  She followed the advice to move the story back twenty years and try again.  The result is the story we read in TKAM.  So do I read GSAW as a first draft?  Is this just an interesting look at the stages of writing?  That alone would be enough to make me read it -- getting a chance to see Lee's process, the evolution of a book.

Another option is to read GSAW as if it were published back when it was written in the sixties.  Certainly, many of the ideas put forward in this book would have been controversial, even revolutionary, back then.  The idea of a young, white woman championing the rights of black people in the deep South would have been surprising to say the least.  From this more distant perspective, the book becomes more of a study of racism in America, or at least, a study of white people confronting racism.  And it is chilling how so many of the arguments used by Atticus and his other essentially white supremacist colleagues can still be heard today (Confederate flag debate, anyone?).  There is no way you can read GSAW and not find yourself re-examing the status quo and your own prejudices.

What you can't do with this book is read it as a straight up "sequel" to TKAM.  This is in no way a sequel.  Without the input of Harper Lee herself (which we're unlikely to get), we'll never know if she decided to change Atticus' personality when she did the re-write or whether she really saw the TKAM Atticus as becoming this pompous bigot.  Without the added clarification of Harper Lee interviews, we cannot make any assumptions of sequel-hood.

I know this post is spiraling out of control lengthwise, but I have two more things to talk about with regards to GSAW.  The first is the racist content.  There's just way to get around the final message of the book, which seems to be that racists are people too.  This is a very dangerous message, and I find it far more disturbing that a woman who has been lauded for decades for her racially progressive novel wrote these thoughts down and tried to get them published fifty years ago than I do that fictional character, Atticus Finch, was once in the KKK.  Throughout the book, black people are infantilized to an absurd degree, even by the supposedly liberal protagonist.  While in a way this all makes the book more believable for its time period, the final thought the reader is left with is that Scout was somehow at fault for being angry with her bigoted loved ones, the suggestion that open-mindedness means giving equal-time in your head to racist drivel.  This is really troubling stuff to read, and I was left far more unsettled by the conclusion than any other part of the novel (even the brief domestic violence that is also portrayed as an okay thing to do to calm an hysterical woman.)

Paragraph after paragraph and I still haven't "reviewed" the book.  I did attempt the read the book for its own merits and tried not to place it side-by-side with Lee's classic original.  This was extremely difficult, but here's what I found.  Not much happens in GSAW.  This is not a book with much of a plot.  There are pages and pages and pages of arguments, ping-pong dialogue, with the venom flying back and forth sometimes at breakneck pace.  If only the book were paced a bit more quickly.  While some of the dialogue and Scout's personal asides were funny/entertaining mostly this is just Scout getting angry and nostalgic in turn for a couple hundred pages.  And that's about as compelling as it sounds.  Maycomb is still its own character in the novel, and I love that.  Scout is still irrepressible and smart.  Also great.  Everyone else seems inconsistently and a little vaguely drawn.  Of course, all of this would be about right for a first draft.  

Overall, I would have to say, I think Go Set a Watchman is important, and I'm glad I read it.  Do I like the way Harper Collins portrayed it as some long-lost sequel?  No.  Do I think it should have been published while she was still living? No.  Have I already loaned out my copy?  Yes.  Am I loving all the debate and discussion online about A BOOK?  Absolutely.  Go check it out for yourself.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Things That Are Making Me Happy

In lieu of another rant on what's making me grumpy today (and there's plenty), here are some of the things that are making me happy (in between the grumpiness):

My little workspace

Yes, that's my dog.  Yes, he looks like a rug.  Ha, ha.  Never heard that before.

While I do sometimes pine for my bigger desk upstairs (if you could see my other desk, you'd get that pun), I am so grateful for my sweet, little workspace that's been squeezed into the guest room.  I can be near Kiddo while still being tucked away.  And that makes me happy.

Weird Stories

This book opens with a story about a woman who dresses us as Bigfoot so people can "hunt" her.  And that kind of weirdness makes me happy.  Also, I met Ms. van den Berg when she came to Converse a few years ago (okay, more than a few years ago), and she was talented and gracious. Somehow this book sat on my shelf, untouched until now.  (Blame grad school.)  Anyway, I read her latest, Find Me, earlier this year and COULD NOT put it down.  Really enjoying her short stories as well.

Perler Beads

Kiddo has discovered the magic of placing tiny little beads on a tiny little pegboard and then melting them to smithereens with an iron (I do that part, obvs.)  While all those itty-bitty holes do make my scalp crawl just a bit (that's a thing, actually, called trypophobia.  Don't Google it.  The images are terrifying), I'm loving the free work time I get while she carefully makes two-dimensional cats and turtles.  

Book Riot Podcasts and YouTube Videos

Okay, I'm pretty sure I mentioned this in an earlier post, but I am just so obsessed with my new bookish "friends."  I've also found at least one other bookish YouTuber that I'm enjoying called, "climbthestacks."  Check them all out!

Gluten-Free Truffles

L to R: Lemon Heaven, Triple Mocha, Hazelnut Gianduia, and Chai Something-I-Can't-Remember

The days of Godiva boxes for Valentine's Day may have ended with my Celiac diagnosis, but the chocolate goodness is back (and actually MUCH better) at The Chocolate Fetish in downtown Asheville.  Such a beautiful shop, with helpful staff, and a really lovely selection of GF truffles!  Yum!

And last, but not LEAST...

My Tiny Empty Picture Frame

No, I haven't lost my mind.  Well, maybe I have, but this isn't evidence of it.

I believe I mentioned in a previous post that I am reading Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird.  If you've read this amazing book on the writing craft, you'll know why I now have an itty-bitty picture frame on my desk.  If not, drop everything and go read it.  I'm not doing the work for you!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Tease, or Tarantino Writes a Novel

Like many readers, I enjoy suspense.  More than anything, I want to be so wrapped up in a story that I neglect household chores and family members.  Page numbers should be a shocking revelation (as in "I can't believe I just read 100 pages.  I wonder if dinner is now cooked to cinders?" NOT "Just 80 more pages to the end.  I can do this.")  The conflict in question doesn't have to be big, just compelling.  There doesn't need to be a hipster glasses-wearing zombie lurking outside your favorite dive bar hoping to get his last sip of IPA from you...the hard way.  (Though somebody please write that.)  But I do have to wonder what is going to happen next and give some cares about how this affects the characters in the story.  (Turns out the zombie was actually hopped up on caffeine from his previous victim, an espresso drinker, and gets impatient, moving on to a vintage clothing store where he manages to find the perfect ironic plaid western shirt for his next Zombies Anonymous meeting.  "People are friends, not food.")

But seriously, I'm all about some surprising but inevitable endings, and I can hang with perspective shifts with the best of them, but here's the thing:  I (and I imagine most readers) have a limit.  Remember that terrible show, Lost?  I didn't watch it.  Well, that's not entirely true.  My husband insisted that I was missing out, and so I relented and watched the last season and half.  (I'll never get those hours back, unfortunately.)  One of the most irritating parts of the show (and that's really saying something) was that on the rare occasion that something mildly interesting was happening on screen, the writers would laugh maniacally (in my head, anyway) and switch to some scene with two lovestruck people staring into each other's eyes, while looking inexplicably well-groomed (except for the three grains of sand stuck to their prominent cheekbones because, you know, realism.)  It wasn't so much about building suspense as it was just pissing me off.  Here's what you could be watching....PSYCH, just kidding.  Back to Love in the Time of Smoke Monsters.  So, why, with such a fine example of poor pacing and annoying cliffhanger music (Psycho meets Jaws meets the Law & Order musical gavel bang) readily available on streaming would you write a book that utilizes these same devices?

I've run into a string of these books lately.  Two, in particular spring to mind, and interestingly they're both dystopian/speculative fiction.  J, by Howard Jacobson, follows several characters through their sad and narrow lives in a mysteriously altered England (I think?).  I was really excited about this one.  The description was just bizarre enough (a guy who always held two fingers over his mouth when saying a word with the letter "J" in it, a post-event world--not necessarily an apocalypse--in trouble, characters with murky pasts) to lure me in, but the execution of Jacobson's concept (SPOILER ALERT) of living in the aftermath of a second Jewish holocaust was oblique at best and completely mostly opaque.

Here's the thing: if you do decide to use a shifting perspective, to dole out information like you're rationing food for wartime, you'd better have one hell of a revelation at the end.  Like a Luke, I am your father, he's been dead the whole time, Keyser Soze kind of revelation.  You can't leave your reader in total murkiness once you've built up that much suspense.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm fine with ambiguous endings.  What I'm not fine with is making it clear that the narrator has the answers, had some sort of revelation, but instead hands you a your-simple-little-reader mind-couldn't-handle-it kind of vagueness.

Which leads me to Area X, (Jeff Vandermeer) a mysterious place, a mysterious trilogy.  There was so much bizarre creepiness, delightfully icky and disturbing detail.  It was a book about unraveling the mystery of Area X.  It's a sprawling narrative with lots of characters, lots of time covered, and a whole lot of different perspectives.  It's dystopian, speculative, sci-fi with literary fiction level writing.  So why did I have to drag myself through the last 150 pages?  Because the explanation (at least as much as ever gets resolved in the book anyway) is strung out between so many different journal entries, interior monologues, and angry dialogues that stop and start the action too many times to count.  Yes, dear writer, we get it: You know the answers.  We don't.  But you don't need to keep slapping us in the head with this fact.

All this complaining and now I have to admit that this sort of dividing up the narrative to increase the suspense thing can actually work.  Enter All the Light We Cannot See, the latest Pulitzer winner for fiction.  (Anthony Doerr)  This guy does the shortest, quickest little chapter/perspective shifts I've just about ever seen.  So why does it work?

For one, he limits the number of people he follows.  While there are a few forays into the minds of some less central characters, Doerr focuses the majority of his chapters on the two main characters, flipping back and forth between their lives sometimes after only the briefest of snapshots.  But you don't have so many of those moments where you're suddenly taken completely out of the story to follow a seemingly unrelated character.

Another thing that makes his book work is narrative structure.  Within his date-stamped sections, he follows along fairly chronologically, so that each little tidbit furthers the action and the plot.  The reader may be shifting perspectives, but ultimately it reads more like a shift in camera angles than a fade to a different scene, especially as the conflict escalates.  Though admittedly, the quick back-and-forth of his structure took a few chapters to relax into the rhythm, ultimately the braiding of perspective felt organic, as we learned how these two characters' lives came to intersect so briefly.

Which leads me to my last point.  There needs to be a reason for doling out information in such a piece-by-piece way.  Doerr needed to show his characters in a parallel fashion so that the moment when they all converge makes sense and is powerful.  While with Jacobson and Vandermeer, it just felt like they were either figuring it out as they went along, making up backstory as needed, or just enjoyed teasing the reader with tidbits of useful (or not) information.

So, the moral of the story? I hated Lost.  Like really hated it.  Like can't understand why everyone is so freaking in love with JJ Abrams kind of hated it.  Also, don't watch Lost.

Promises, promises.