Books as Traveling Companions

Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors so when the time came to choose a traveling companion for a trip to Arizona, I chose her words. Her novel Animal Dreams takes place in Arizona and her descriptions became the perfect background music.

Arizona canyonsI read this description while on the plane and couldn’t wait to get out there:

“The canyon walls rose straight up on either side of us, ranging from sunset orange to deep rust, mottled with purple. The sandstone had been carved by ice ages and polished by desert eons of sandpaper winds.”

canyon wall

Once I finally stood near the canyon walls, I made sure to notice the colors threading their way through the rock and all the layers representing centuries of creation.

After hiking up a steep path, ancient cliff dwellings came into view. From down below, the dwellings couldn’t be seen at all. They blended in with the canyon to the point of invisibility. Everyone figured they built their homes that way for protection against potential enemies. Later, I read this passage and saw the cliff dwellings all over again but in a different way:

“The walls were shaped to face the curved hole in the cliff, and the building blocks were cut from the same red rock that served as their foundation. I thought of what Loyd had told me about Pueblo architecture, whose object was to build a structure the earth could embrace.”

cliff dwellings

Tucked away in a crevice between the cliffs where sunlight acted as a calendar, petroglyphs told their own tales. They spoke of the people who lived there high above the ground, of hunting parties, and of women with Princess Leia hairdos.

petroglyphs

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Kingsolver describes petroglyphs as a record of progress through the generations:

“There were antelope, snakes, and ducks in a line like a carnival shooting gallery. And humans: oddly turtle-shaped, with their arms out and fingers splayed as if in surrender or utter surprise. The petroglyphs added in recent centuries showed more svelte, self-assured men riding horses. The march of human progress seemed mainly a matter of getting over that initial shock of being here.”

Now that I’m back home, I can revisit the red rock canyons any time with a turn of the page.

(And the Twitter goat club will be happy to hear there’s a goat in Animal Dreams.)

Related Post:
Writer…Uninterrupted – during Vacation

Do you choose novels based on setting? Have you ever taken a favorite author along on vacation? 

Snowbound Reading through the Decades

snowWhen the snow is up past your knees and you can’t open the door, then all you can do is stay in and read. That’s why I love the snow.

I’ve been wandering through the decades with a chronological short story collection and I’m stuck in the 1950s for now. The collection begins with a story published in 1915 and goes up to the end of the century. I’ve seen farming communities replaced by city life. Writing styles have become more rushed. Now I’m stuck in suburbia surrounded by themes of society’s expectations and restrictions. I’m looking forward to the 60s.

My favorite story from the 1930-50 era is “Resurrection of a Life” by William Saroyan, published in 1935. The character remembers being a newspaper boy in 1917, roaming the streets, shouting disastrous headlines. It beautifully shows what that might do to a young boy. Not only does he see the coldness of the city, but he repeats and sells stories of war.

“There he is suddenly in the street, running, and it is 1917, shouting the most recent crimes of man, extra, extra, ten thousand huns killed, himself alive, inhaling, exhaling, ten thousand, ten thousand, all the ugly buildings solid, all the streets solid, the city unmoved by the crime, ten thousand, windows opening, doors opening, and the people of the city smiling about it, good, good, ten thousand, ten thousand of them killed. Johnny, get your gun, and another trainload of boys in uniforms, going away, torn from home, from the roots of life, their tragic smiling, and the broken hearts, all things in the world broken.”

DSC01831_2We see and feel the city, the people bustling by, and the boy there in the middle of it all. While others think of war as abstract, he breaks it down to individuals. He sees their faces caught up in something large and monstrous. Toward the end, he still manages to find beauty in it all:

“And all that I know is that we are somehow alive, all of us, in the light, making shadows, the sun overhead, space all around us, inhaling, exhaling, the face and form of man everywhere, pleasure and pain, sanity and madness, over and over again, war and no war, and peace and no peace, the earth solid and unaware of us, unaware of our cities, our dreams, unaware of this love I have for life.”

Sometimes I take a break to read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. It’s a great one so far.

Are you snowbound or enjoying the sunshine? What have you been reading lately?

Author Interview: Charissa Stastny

CStastnyCharissa Stastny, author of the Bending Willow Trilogy, made it through the snow to visit from Idaho today. Charissa is a great friend and blogging buddy. Her third novel, Hands of Mercy, has just been released so she deserves lots of chocolate and cheers.

Thanks for visiting so we could talk about your novels and finding the time to write and market a trilogy.

The new book covers look great. What was it like working with your daughter on them? How did she go about creating them?

When she came to me and told me she wanted to update my covers, I was super surprised. She works for an architect, so I didn’t know she could do the graphic art type work, but she found an awesome model for Suvi that fit my specifications and showed me her idea and I was blown away with excitement! It’s been fun working together, although hard too because we live in different states and have to do things long distance or wait until we visit each other.

Suvi goes through a lot of internal and external struggles. As the mother of young daughters, was it difficult for you to put her in those situations?

Suvi is like my child, but I knew as an author I had to torture her in order for her to shine. Real life tortures us in unique ways as well. I tell my kids all the time that God doesn’t keep them safe from every harmful or hurtful thing in the world; but He’s there to help, comfort and guide us through hard times. How we react to our challenges reveals who we really are and what we can become. An easy life makes for boring, shallow people.

2-SecretKeepers_ebookRGB_2You mentioned the missionary character who travels to Guatemala is based on your brother. What did he think of the Eyes of Light novel?

I hope he liked it. I know he read it, but he’s as quiet as I am and we don’t gush out our dreams or compliments to each other. Since most of the missionary moments are from his letters, he better have liked it or I’m not giving him a birthday present this year.

I know you like to work on multiple WIPs at one time. How many are you working on now and how different are they?

3-HandsOfMercy_ebookRGB_2I’ve got about six stories started, but I’ve been focused on editing/revising this Bending Willow Trilogy lately. I go between books – either finishing Book 3, editing book 1, making a trailer for book 2, etc (depending on what I feel like doing each day). It’s fun.

How do you find the time to work on so many different novels? What’s your writing routine like?

My routine is very sporadic. I write every day, but depending on my day job or activities for my kids, doctor appointments, etc, my time at the computer changes. My goal is to become more regimented with my writing time, but so far I’ve been more like Doug from the movie Up. “Squirrel!” I’m easily sidetracked.

Any other writing or marketing advice you’d like to share?

At the last writing conference I attended, author Jennifer Nielsen who wrote the False Prince series, said “book writing is a mental illness.” I’m definitely insane. My advice (like so many other authors out there) is to write because you love it, not because you expect to make a six-digit salary. I love the process of writing and revising. I also love the process of designing my own books and making them marketable. Whether or not I ever become rich off my books, I’ll keep writing because, like I said above, I have the writing disease bad and can’t seem to stop myself. If you are okay with that upfront (being mentally diseased), then welcome to the writing world. Let me offer you a straitjacket.

You can connect with Charissa through her blog Joy in the Moments, Twitter, or Facebook.

Click each book cover for a description. The Bending Willow Trilogy is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords.

Gone Dreaming

gone clamminIt’s officially the offseason here on Cape Cod. Houses are boarded up and the beach is turning into a wasteland of blowing sand.

It must be liberating to put up a sign like this while going off to pursue a dream. I’ve never gone clamming so my sign would have to say something like “Gone Dreaming.”

There’s never enough time for writing or dreaming. In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway describes trying to write in cafés while ignoring anyone who interrupts him. He makes himself unpresentable by wearing old clothes and growing his hair out so that he won’t be tempted to visit friends. I’ve been doing that for years now and it hasn’t helped.

Sometimes we have to be hermits. We have to go off and dream, even while other people are around, so that we can come up with different ways of looking at the world.

The only drawback is that you end up missing everyone. I’ve missed you all. I kept thinking I’d reappear earlier, but then life would get in the way and I’d have to disappear before reappearing. And I’m not even a magician.

I’m still dreaming. After revising for most of the year, I’m in the querying stage. So we’ll see. My hope is that, like all of us, this book will only get better with age.

Whenever I start thinking it might be done or close to it, I’m reminded of this quote by Paul Gardner:

“A painting is never finished – it simply stops in interesting places.”

It’s the same for novels. Maybe they’re only done when they’re published, but even then, are they really? Each reader brings something different to a book. So then, it’s continually recreated with each reading. That’s part of the magic. As the winds pick up around here, I’m looking forward to the magic of books.

book magic

How’s everything going with you? Have you read any great books lately?

Author Interview: Kourtney Heintz

sixtraincoverJust in time for Valentine’s Day, Kourtney Heintz is stopping by to talk about her novel, The Six Train to Wisconsin.

Six Train is such a classic love story. Did you set out to write a novel like that or is that how it evolved?  

Thank you Sheila! It was very intentional. I wanted to write a love story I could relate to. No idealized hero and heroine who live happily ever after. For me finding someone isn’t the journey. Staying together, growing into each other, and dealing with the times you aren’t connecting – that’s what love is about. I wanted to write about people who have good intentions and sometimes make bad choices. I wanted to play with all the gray in relationships and capture what it’s really like to find love and to keep it.

Where did the idea for your novel come from?

The telepathy aspect came from thinking about how great it would be to read someone’s mind and realizing how much more complicated a relationship would become.

The central core of the story is about what you would do for the person you love. What a husband will do for his wife and what she will do for him. The book begins with Oliver as the caregiver and Kai as the care needer – this came from my experience with a back injury. I wanted to take all that pain and use it for something. To tell the story of what it is like to be on both sides of an injury – the caregiver and the care needer.

Do you think telepathy is possible?

Believing in the unbelievables is my tag line on my blog and my website. And I do. I think it’s all possible. I’ve had lots of woo-woo experiences and know people who also had them. I think there is so much beyond our five senses. I’ve never met a telepath, but I like to live in a world where that is possible.

I couldn’t help thinking that the colorful aunt in your novel sounded like Grandma H. What does she think of that character?

She is actually a bit from Grandma H’s sister, Julia, who always wore floral and paisley print dresses when I was a kid.

Unfortunately, we may never know. Grandma H is a niche reader. She only reads non-fiction. Specifically biographies or autobiographies. Usually of president’s wives or movie stars. So she hasn’t read the book. She did buy two copies though, so she is very supportive. 🙂

What made you decide to go the indie route?

I spent one and a half years pitching agents at conferences and sending out queries. I received a good amount of full manuscript requests and personalized rejections. Even got a revise and resubmit two-page editorial style letter from my dream agent at my dream agency. But we had a different vision for the opening and it didn’t work out.

Most of my feedback centered around great writing, but not sure how to sell it. That told me this was a book that might do best in the indie market. I also had a very specific vision for this book down to the cover and the formatting of the chapters. I felt like this was something I needed to bring to market myself.

IMG_0891Kourtney Heintz resides in Connecticut with her warrior lapdog, Emerson, her supportive parents and three quirky golden retrievers. She dreams of one day owning a log cabin on Butternut Lake. Years of working on Wall Street provided the perfect backdrop for her imagination to run amuck at night, imagining a world where out-of-control telepathy and buried secrets collide. 

Her debut novel, The Six Train to Wisconsin, is a 2014 EPIC Ebook Awards Finalist, a 2013 USA Best Book Awards Finalist and a 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Semifinalist.

You can connect with Kourtney through her blog, Facebook, or Twitter.

Where to buy: The Six Train to Wisconsin can be purchased through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, or iTunes.

Author Interview: Britt Skrabanek

Britt Skrabanek and Downtown MilwaukeeI’m excited to introduce Britt Skrabanek, author of Beneath the Satin Gloves and Everything’s Not Bigger. Thank you for trudging through the snow to visit and for bringing Aphrodite and Hazel, your cat editing team. I’m sure they’ll help keep us warm while we talk. 

I loved your descriptions of Berlin in Beneath the Satin Gloves. Have you lived there?

One summer in college I studied abroad in a sleepy town near Stuttgart, then my husband and I traveled to Berlin a few years after that. People were surprised we were only going to Berlin for ten days and blatantly encouraged us to do the usual tourist fail. You know the one – trying to squeeze in the entire continent of Europe, never stopping to absorb the experience. That’s not our thing at all, so we scooped up an apartment in former East Berlin and lived there for a bit. I had started Beneath the Satin Gloves right before we left, so being there fueled my creativity. Berlin is not a pretty city in the usual sense, but her scars and stories, the way she not only survived but evolved, is insanely beautiful to me.

Beneath the Satin Gloves coverYou also described a restless night and powerful dreams perfectly. Do you sleepwalk or wake up in strange locations like the closet often?

The intensity of my dreams has been a gift and a curse throughout my life. The gift being the creative inspiration. The curse being the bruises. Of course there are some memorable sleepwalking stories, like waking up in closets or the time I sprinted across our loft in Dallas, blanket in tow as my cape. My husband chucked a pillow at me, I woke up in a crouched fighting position, bewildered and buried underneath a blanket, then I laughed my ass off. Now I don’t really have any episodes. Yoga, meditation, and a tiny bedroom with nowhere to run are real lifesavers.

Using your blanket as a cape sounds like fun, but it would be scary to suddenly wake up like that. Beneath the Satin Gloves also mentions the possibility of past lives. Do you believe in past lives?

And, this is where I freak people out. That is, if they’re still reading after the sleepwalking reveal from earlier. To the outsider I’m a skeptical person, but I love the romanticism of past lives. To think that our natural tendencies, skills, and talents aren’t just learned but instilled from another life we once lead is a fascinating concept to chew on. For as long as I can remember I’ve been obsessed with spies, which is not a girly thing (so I’ve been told). In addition, I have these strange survival reflexes. One time I almost hit my husband over the head with a dinner tray when he came in through the front door and I thought he was on the balcony. I didn’t think twice about protecting us at all costs, even if that meant sacrificing a dinner tray. In other words, please don’t ever sneak up on me.

What do you love about the time period shown in your novel?

I’ve been a World War II junkie all of my life, since I first read The Diary of Anne Frank, a story that really resonated with me when I was a young girl about her age, and also a writer. Being a hippie at heart, my fascination with WWII often confuses people I meet. However my interest in this war doesn’t revolve around the militaristic aspect, but the human one. It was a turning point in history, when the world became a much smaller place, when atrocities and destruction almost overshadowed our existence. The stories of bravery and unity during this time continue to astound me. And on a lighter note, 1940s music and fashion are exquisite in my eyes. This was the final era before advertising and technology invaded, but somehow the world was in sync, looking dapper and swaying to jazzy tunes. Despite the war, I feel it was an eloquently sensual time.

It’s great that you were able to work that music into the novel with Alina as a lounge singer and a spy. One part that made me smile was your reference to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” What are some of your other favorite movies?

I was always a fan of Jessica Rabbit, which is why Alina takes after her so much. Looks and smarts…lethal combination. When she said: “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.” Yeah, that’s a brilliant line. As much as I love books, I’ve equally been captivated by films. Perhaps it’s the Southern California girl in me or the passion my dad always had for films, but I just love them and feel they have impacted me greatly as a writer. In the WWII genre, and a big influence on Beneath the Satin Gloves, I would have to say Shining Through with Melanie Griffith and Michael Douglas. And on the foreign front, Black Book, a dutch film about a lounge singing spy. I can go on and on, but Lost in Translation is probably one of my favorite movies ever. I can watch it over and over without getting tired of it. Otherwise anything by Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, or Cameron Crowe. Also, Audrey Hepburn movies make me obscenely happy.

 Everything's Not Bigger coverYour second book, Everythings Not Bigger, takes place in Texas and Prague. What gave you the idea for that novel?

Um, my life. Just kidding, I was never in the witness protection…or was I? Everything’s Not Bigger is a huge departure from my first book, and possibly the only modern day novel I will ever write. My second book, rather than a form of entertainment, was more like therapy for me. Though I spent most of my life as a California girl, I was born in Texas and visited family there every year until eventually living in Dallas for seven years. I’m half Czech, my grandmother was from there, and that’s where my unpronounceable last name stems from. For Jaye in Everything’s Not Bigger, she is a young woman who gets caught up in a bad situation and ends up in the witness protection program. She struggles to find herself, to piece her life back together. Ditching the fabricated life she’s trying to lead by venturing off to Prague is how she returns to herself. No matter where our lives take us, I strongly believe it is important to remember where we came from. Our roots are vital during self-exploration and if we acknowledge our pasts instead of conveniently sweeping them under a rug, we can grow into better versions of ourselves.

What are you working on now?

The Bra Game, a throwback American romp which takes place in Chicago during 1954. I love buying vintage fashion and made an incredible discovery after purchasing a handbag here in Milwaukee a couple of years ago. Hidden in the folds of the interior were two baseball tickets from 1954 and a voting receipt with a shopping list on the back that read: chocolate, fly swatter, shoes, film, loan. For a history lover like myself, this was comparable to opening a treasure chest. My imagination went into overdrive, picturing three distinct women who might have owned the handbag during that time. Because of the baseball tickets, I decided these women would have played in the All American Girls Baseball League during WWII and the story would follow their lives after the league disintegrated, when the boys came home and the women were expected to return to making pies and babies. Call this one a deeper, sexier A League of Their Own. (Shameless plug…The Bra Game releases Spring 2014.)

I’m already excited to read it. What made you decide to go the indie route?

You know, I tried the traditional route for a bit with Beneath the Satin Gloves. I came close to landing a big-time agent in New York, but then he tossed me aside. After countless rejections I pretty much said…to hell with this! The indie author movement was on the rise and I felt like it was the right fit for me. Is it hard work to market yourself and pave your own way? You bet your ass it is. But to have complete artistic control, to provide an organic work of fiction, whether it be imperfect or swimming against the mainstream, is something I am proud to be a part of. Am I making a living as an indie? No, not yet. But I have hope that one day I will.

Any other advice for writers out there?

Do it for the love. Nobody else will ever feel the way that you do about your words. Not your best friend, not your spouse, not your mom. Know that you are a writer if you write, not just when you finish a book or get paid for it. And know that there is no pot of gold at the end of the writing rainbow, whether you put one book out there, or a hundred. As long as you stick with your true passion for writing, you’ll be just fine. I’ll say it again. Do it for the love.

Connect with Britt through her blog A Physical Perspective, Facebook, or Twitter.

Favorite Summer Reads

summer garden

My favorite summer reads aren’t exactly beach reads, maybe because I never did make it to the beach to read this summer. Each one made me think of the world in different ways. That’s usually all I look for in a book: to think beyond myself, to become a character I’d normally never be while learning something along the way.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver is such a wonderful book for all those reasons and the gorgeous writing tops it off. The sub-plot of a marriage winds its way through a larger environmental story while both can be seen as stories of denial. Flight Behavior shows that denial is something humans excel at, even in the face of repeated weather disasters, while sympathizing with the characters for living and surviving in a time and place where nothing is stable or sure. The novel also shows how far removed something like climate change can be. Priorities like family and enough money for food are too overwhelming to look beyond and see what’s happening in the larger world. But then, if those larger world problems continue to be ignored, they will become personal and this novel shows that too.

The Seneca Scourge by Carrie Rubin is a fun, fast-paced novel that puts the reader right into the hurried shoes of a physician at a hospital. The medical perspective gave me a newfound respect for all that doctors and nurses go through on a daily basis. Add to that a mysterious pandemic and a doctor who shows up along with it, and the pages really start turning. Carrie Rubin does an excellent job of showing the mystery surrounding Casper with scattered instances of strange behavior. The science fiction twist added even more excitement to the story. My mind started spinning with all the possibilities. By the end, the characters had become friends that I didn’t want to leave. Of course, Carrie Rubin’s blog (The Write Transition) is a favorite too.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – Every once in a while, I’ll pick up a book based purely on the title and will try not to hear anything about it before reading it. That’s what I did with this one. If I had known it was about kids with cancer, I probably wouldn’t have read it. But I loved it. I loved the philosophical discussions about life, love, and the universe. I loved the characters, their quirkiness, and their honesty. This book will make anyone laugh and cry (sometimes at the same time), just like life.

What are some of your favorite summer reads?

The Giver Series: Learning from Fictional Societies

The GiverThank you to Milka for recommending The Giver series by Lois Lowry. I enjoyed The Giver so much that I launched into the next three: Gathering BlueMessenger, and Son. All four young adult novels are short, easy reads so they’re great for those of us most likely to fall behind on reading challenges.

Different communities are described in each book and it’s fun to compare them with each other, and then with our own society. The Giver shows a futuristic society that at first seems perfect. There are no wars. There’s no such thing as pollution, poverty, or hunger. Everyone rides bicycles to get anywhere within the community and there’s never any reason to leave.

But the characters never make any choices, which leads to having no real emotions, including love. A council decides everything: a person’s future career, spouse, children, meals. Individualism is discouraged. They think they’re content, but they’ve never known anything else.

Gathering Blue is then a surprise because the community is completely different. It’s a rougher place, with people living in huts and squabbling over territory. People act more on instinct or their own desires. They occupy themselves mostly with finding food through farming or hunting, though there is never enough food. Possibly because of this, they think nothing of ostracizing those with physical deformities, leaving them to die.

Messenger shows another, more balanced society. This one is based on welcoming outsiders, people who had to escape other places. Everyone finds a way to contribute to the community and it feels more like a family.

Then someone called the Trademaster appears. He has things people have never seen before, materialistic things, and they begin to trade the best part of themselves for those things. Materialism makes them more individualistic and they begin to worry that, with all the outsiders coming in, there won’t be enough resources for everyone. They vote to build a wall around the community. Outsiders are turned away. They don’t notice the connection between the Trademaster and the changes in their society.

Son ties everything up, with characters appearing from all three books like long lost friends. My favorites were The Giver and Messenger, mostly because of the unique communities but also because I loved Matty, the main character in Messenger.

Speaking of communities, I’m thankful for the friends I’ve found here. Milka (who recommended these books to me) has two great blogs: Perfecting Motherhood, a humorous look at parenthood with reviews of adult and children’s books, and a nature photography site where she finds beauty everywhere.

What do you think a perfect community would be like? Can we learn from fictional societies like these?

Still Dreaming

I grew up dreaming of the possibility of a better world. My mom worked on John F. Kennedy’s campaign as a teenager. I wasn’t born yet when Kennedy was shot, but the thought of it brings tears to my eyes.

At a time when others turned inward, my mom went on dreaming. Years ago, when plans came up to build a sewage tunnel from Boston to Cape Cod Bay, we went to the beaches and collected signatures against it. The sewage tunnel didn’t make sense to us. Why spend $3.58 billion constructing a tunnel to dump partially treated sewage farther away when that money could be spent fully treating the sewage in Boston Harbor? The tunnel would point toward Stellwagen Bank, a feeding ground for endangered whales. Even though the Cape Cod group that rose up against it gathered thousands of signatures, the tunnel was constructed.

There were so many people against it. We thought for sure we would stop it. My mom went on to fight more environmental battles, but I gave up on politics after that. I started writing articles for newspapers and magazines, hoping that every once in a while, one might make a difference. I have no idea if any of them did.

I’m still dreaming. My novel, Ocean Echoes, centers on the ocean and characters who try to make a difference. More than anything else, I hope it’s a fun adventure story. When it’s published, a percentage of any profit will go toward organizations working to protect the world’s oceans for future generations. I know groups like Oceana and The Ocean Conservancy make a difference. By supporting them, maybe I can make a difference too.

“Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” – John F. Kennedy

Are you a dreamer? What do you dream of?

Hibernation, reading, and reading challenges

It’s tempting to join in on the craziness of the 50/50 Challenge, but I’m not so sure I’m really that crazy. Accepting the challenge would mean trying to watch 50 movies and read 50 books by the end of this year. Since there are only 10 months left to go, that’s five books every month. I just don’t think I could read that many books and still pay attention to them.

It might be possible if I lived in Alaska  or some other arctic place. As it is though, I’ve hardly made a dent in my winter reading list. I blame that on the lack of snow and snow days so far. Now it seems as if spring is on the way. Trees are blooming (well, maybe just one tree is blooming so far but I did take this picture yesterday). If I’m not going to be able to hibernate, I just might need some sort of a challenge to read as many books as possible.

So maybe instead of 50, I’ll wimp out and try for 30 books by the end of the year. Then I might at least have a chance. I’m a slow reader. I like to try to absorb the words and really experience the book. Sometimes if a sentence strikes me enough, I’ll even copy it into a notebook along with the author and book title (yes I know that’s a geeky thing to do). Here are some of the books I’d like to read soon – hopefully by the fire during a spring snowstorm:

11/22/63 by Stephen King
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Seventh Heaven by Alice Hoffman
London: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

and many more…

Are you doing any book reading challenges this year? What books will you be reading?

Oh – and in case you’re crazy enough to join the 50/50 Challenge, here’s the link:
http://www.fiftyfifty.me/2011/12/introduction.html

A Few Favorite Books and Why I Love Them

Melk Benedictine Abbey Library

Image via Wikipedia

“The love of learning, the sequestered nooks / And all the sweet serenity of books.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.”  
– Jorge Luis Borges

Libraries are filled with endless possibilities. Whenever I walk into one, I wish I could read every book. Yet no matter how many books I manage to read, my list of all-time favorites has stayed pretty much the same for a while now. Here’s the list so far:

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
The Stand by Stephen King
Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
Contact by Carl Sagan
Ireland: A Novel by Frank Delaney
Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card
The Given Day: A Novel by Dennis Lehane
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Even though they’re fiction, I’ve learned something from all of these books. Others have been entertaining to read but it’s always a little disappointing to me if I feel like I haven’t learned anything by the end of a book, whether it’s something about a certain time period or the universe or people or even myself.

I love books that pay attention to language and the sound of language. One of the pleasures of reading is to stumble on a perfect sentence or paragraph that illuminates everything. The Grapes of Wrath and All the King’s Men are full of phrases like that. They’re masterpieces and I’m in awe of the authors every time I read those books. Cannery Row is much shorter but it’s still a masterpiece. I love the descriptions of people, from the very first paragraph on.

Maybe I’m a little obsessed with the apocalypse, but Earth Abides is a book that helped me learn more about myself. Different traditions or customs slip away in the post-apocalyptic world, and I was surprised at how upset I’d get whenever the characters let that happen. Then I’d catch myself and wonder why it was so upsetting. It made me realize how ingrained a culture can become. The Stand is also about the apocalypse but its greatness is more in the way the characters are described.

I love Contact for everything it says about the universe and people. Ireland: A Novel weaves history and myths into an already interesting story and the storyteller character is perfect. Pastwatch shows the effects history has on people while imagining a different world if only some events could be revisited and corrected. The Given Day: A Novel describes the time period after World War I so well that I felt like I lived through it with the characters. The descriptions of the Great Molasses Flood alone are worth the read.

People seem to either love or hate A Confederacy of Dunces. I thought it was one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Everyone in this book is a true character and I love how they all affect each other in different ways.

What are some of your favorites and what kinds of things do you look for in a favorite book?

My characters aren’t me – really

A few months ago, the joy I felt after hearing a short story of mine would be published faded into what can only be called dread after realizing my family and friends might assume the character was actually me.

There were some similarities. The story opens with a sleepless night because of a snoring dog and husband (though the dog is really much more of a snorer than anyone else). Hopefully there aren’t too many other similarities, especially since I was trying to show how not to be.

In real life, I’m lucky enough to know a lot of characters. It might be tempting, but I wouldn’t turn a person I know into a character. I’d rather write character profiles, figure out the reasons why a character might do something, and watch that character come to life. Especially in a novel, characters need to live a more exciting life than most of us do. That’s why we like to read about them.

The fun of writing is in creating. It’s much more exciting to think up a character than it is to use everything from real life. I like to sprinkle a few real-life details in just for my own entertainment, but it’s still fiction. If some overall human truths are able to seep in, that can make the story better, but it’s still fiction.

Still, the more you say, “It’s fiction,” the more it sounds like maybe it’s not. So then writers have to learn not to care what anyone might think of their stories. Easier said than done, I know.