Jennifer Astle

October 16, 2009

Book Review: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

coverWe all have that author.  That author who has shaped our perceptions of fiction (or non-fiction, perhaps), for whom we have spent many hours ignoring the outside world while we fully wrap ourselves in the pages, and allow ourselves to be swept away for two, four, eight, twelve hours at a time, and before we’ve discovered what we must, MUST know about the book, it’s dinner time, and a hungry partner gives a forlorn look like “you love that book more than me.”  For me, Margaret Atwood is that author.

When The Handmaid’s Tale was handed to me by a favorite teacher, I had no idea the journey I would be on, for Atwood’s has been the voice that followed me through the years, a decade really, feeding my overactive imagination, resurrecting the hurt child in me, and shaping me into a feminist long before any university professors got a hold of me.

I picked up The Year of the Flood a week ago, and set it down yesterday.  If I could somehow quit working, I could have made much shorter work of reading the book, but such is life.  I did however wait until my husband was out of town on business, so I could give the book the attention it truly deserves, hours of reading, uninterrupted. I settle into Atwood books much the same way one settles into a warm bath.  I slide into each page with care, slowly absorbing the imagery she spins with her pen, sometimes re-reading to ensure the tiniest of detail is unearthed.

The Year of the Flood took me by surprise.  For the first hundred or so pages, I suspected that it was either a prologue or an epilogue to Oryx and Crake, which I read a few years ago.  Had I read it more recently, and my short term memory not been so shoddy, I would have grasped this connection from the very first page.  Now I have more reading to do (or re-reading, rather).  Either way, I would have been wrong, since The Year of the Flood is happening concurrently with Oryx and Crake.  It takes a supremely talented author to tell the same story twice, without it being the same story.  Some (including myself) are even linking the two to The Handmaid’s Tale.

True, all three are dystopic, sociological works at their roots, each depicting a world radically different from the one we live in, but not so radical that it doesn’t seem to be a minute away.  My argument for the connectedness of the The Handmaid’s Tale to the Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood is subtle, and I acknowledge that there is a possibility that I might be grasping at straws.  “Glenn” is a character in the later two, while we are introduced to “Ofglen” as a minor character in The Handmaid’s Tale.  Is the woman, Ofglen of Glenn, the character who brings them all to where they find themselves after the flood?  Is The Handmaid’s Tale really taking place after nearly all of humanity has been destroyed by the flood?  Is this story that of humanity reorganizing itself after the events of Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood? Perhaps not, but I won’t restrict my imagination from running away with me.  That’s the beauty of great fiction.

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August 5, 2009

Book Review: It Sucked and Then I Cried by Heather B. Armstrong

it-sucked-and-then-i-cried-armstrongIf you read Dooce.com, then you are familiar with Heather Armstrong and her deeply sarcastic, somewhat sardonic sense of humor.  Armstrong regularly pumps out wit faster than MacDonald’s pumps out Big Macs, often amusing many, and enraging the odd wing nut.

At her blog, she talks about life the way we only wish we could; all of this after clearly expressing that she is exerting extreme restraint after getting fired for blogging about her boss and pissing off a few Mormons.  Before blogging was even a commonly used term, someone gave the girl a laptop, a wireless Internet connection and a way with words, and for that us sarcasm-aholics are grateful.  To put it plainly, she’s as funny as I wish I was.  Even her ridiculously excessive use of caps lock can’t make her less funny.

So, when I got my hands on a copy of It Sucked and Then I Cried I knew I had to read it.  Even though the subject matter is of absolutely no interest to me (I’m not a baby person), I couldn’t put it down.  This, I think, is the true testament of an excellent writer; the ability to make even calculus sound riveting. From her blog Armstrong writes of the book;

A few weeks ago when my publisher sent me several copies of my book in its final incarnation, I opened the box very slowly while Leta sat on a stool at the counter next to me. She was terribly excited because she thought it was a present from Santa Claus, and I assured her it was EVEN BETTER THAN THAT. Because look! It was a book I had written about her! Called It Sucked and then I Cried! HA HA! GET IT? GET IT? YOUR THERAPIST IS GOING TO LOVE ME! (Source).

Even when I got to the part about the dreaded evil episiotomy, I kept right on reading, because it really does take a lot of comedic talent to make that sound funny.  Her narrative of her pregnancy and the months following is honest, and you feel like you are riding the same see-saw of emotions she describes; wavering between extreme satisfaction and frustration.  You get a sense of what the pressure is really like, what people are really thinking, and how far they are willing to go to be better.  These more intense moments are nicely punctuated by letters to her daughter, Leta, in which she continues her sarcastic style, but is assertive about her deep love for the child and moments of sincere love for Leta’s father, that made me want to hug my husband.

As someone who is, and shall stay childless, and deeply skeptical of the Cult of Children, I wasn’t sure what I was getting into with this read, but Heather Armstrong delivers more than just babies.  I highly recommend it to anyone who loves children, hates children, or is having or thinking of having a child.

July 24, 2009

Book Review: The Angel’s Game By Carlos Ruiz Zafon

51nBUKGP-YL._SL500_AA240_I picked up The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon last week after a colleague recommended it, and settled in, somewhat skeptically, to give a new writer (by new, I mean one I had not read previously) a fair shot.  It had been described to me as a dark mystery by a writer who Stephen King recently raved about.  And as one of King’s Constant Readers, I trust his word more than I’d trust that of any clergyman.

I was not disappointed.

Zafon brought me down the familiar road of writers writing about writing, and into early 1900’s Barcelona and the life of David Martin.  Martin is a young boy working at a local paper, The Voice of Industry.  His early writing career is bestowed upon him by a young, charismatic benefactor who has a soft spot for the budding storyteller.

Later in his career, Martin enjoys enormous success writing trashy horror stories for an even trashier publication, run by sleazy publishers.  Writing under a pseudonym, Martin begins to dream about writing under his own name, and thus enjoying his success in his own right, a dream that his already successful (although a horrible writer) benefactor shares.  Thus begins Martin’s descent into darkness as a mysterious French publisher makes him an offer worth his soul.

On the surface, this is a typical story based on the competing notions of good and evil, light and dark, God and The Devil.  Zafon constructs the story in such a way that, beyond the title, there is little mention of God, and yet, one feels that there is an omnipotent force pulling the strings in the lives of David and those who are acquainted with him.  Yet, it is much more than that.  It steps further, leaving the reader questioning who is “good” and who is “evil”, and if in fact, they aren’t one and the same.

Underneath, if you look closely through the eyes of a young, struggling writer, you see a play on the insecurities of a writer who can gain thousands of readers under a ghost name (more than one, in fact), and yet cannot sell a single copy under his own.  It plays directly into the notion of literary publication being tantamount to immortality, shows exactly how desperate a writer can get, and delves into both the magic and consequence of a writer’s craft.  Much the same way that King attributes a power of their own to his characters, Zafon brings Martin, and what he writes to life.

When I closed the cover and replaced the sleeve I was left with two resounding thoughts; 1) Would I sell my soul to be published? and 2) I must visit Barcelona, and remember to bring a pen.

May 5, 2009

Book Review: The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

almostmoonWriters are very aware of this thing called a hook.  The hook, in reference to literary agents is the line you use to, well, hook them in your query letter.  That’s not the only time the hook comes into play.  It is generally accepted that a writer, once they actually have a book in print, have only won half the battle; the other half being hooking the reader.  It is also generally accepted that a writer has only sixty or so pages in which to do so.

Most books use every last inch of those sixty pages to build toward the books theme and story line, gradually sucking the reader into the remaining three hundred or so pages by getting them invested in the story during those first critical chapters.  Very rarely does a writer manage to hook me in the first page, let alone the very first sentence.  Alice Sebold takes the prize for the most intriguing opening to a book I have ever had the pleasure to read.

“When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.”

Eleven words. That’s all.  Brief, succinct, and brilliant. Why did she kill her own mother?  And for that matter, why did it come so easily?  These are the very soul shaking questions the reader is left with as (s)he makes her way through the rest of the page, and inevitably, the entire novel.

Although, soul shaking is nothing new for Sebold.  Whatever source of personal anguish/professional insight she has brought to the literary table, Sebold has tapped into that je ne sais quoi, that certain something.

I knew this to be true when I read Sebold’s first book, Lucky.  Believe it or not, it was required reading for a seminar course in research methods during my last semester of my undergraduate year.  Despite the fact that I was putting the finishing touches on my thesis, and was just barely glancing at other required readings, I gave Lucky a shot.  The course focused on ethnography, and the book, I knew, was a memoir about Sebold’s rape while in college. I’ll tell you, as writer, it takes a solid brass set to spill your personal demons on the pages in the manner Sebold did and not have to be swept up off the floor afterwards.

Since then, Sebold has continued to impress with The Lovely Bones, which I hear is being made into a movie.  Success then, for a writer, must mean having your words made into images.  The Almost Moon could just as easily be brought to film.  I, however, wouldn’t watch it.  I wouldn’t want to ruin that feeling of urgency I had while reading it, that intense desire to get to the next page, to get more information, to find out what happens to Helen, the murderous daughter.  That single brilliant line simply can not be transfered to the screen without losing the magic.

So read it.  But be ready to devote twenty four hours to following Helen in the twenty four hours after killing her mother, and all of the baggage, rage, sympathy, and stoic resiliance the book will bring you.

April 14, 2009

Glitch, My Ass

I might be a little late to join the discussion of the epic fail on the part of Amazon, but I am joining the discussion none the less.  Think of it this way; I needed a day or two to wrap my head around why, in the 21st Century, Amazon (a product of said century) would begin to act like a tiny Christian bookstore in a small Texas town?  For those of you who haven’t heard, or don’t understand what the big fuss is about, let me clarify.

Amazon has recently removed sales rankings from books that they deem “adult”.  As a result these books will not appear as frequently (if at all) in related searches, or display how well they are doing in sales.  The problem is, the books that are being stripped of their sales rankings relate primarily to homosexual issues, queer theory, and don’t forget, the evil feminism, while books by the likes of Tucker Max, chauvinist extraordinaire (you have to be good at what you do, I suppose), are allowed to remain in the regular search and sales rankings.

Pardon me, but what the fuck?

I’m not a big fan of censorship in general.  My mother raised me in a censorship-free home.  This doesn’t mean that I was raised with a get out of jail free card, but it does mean that I was encouraged to think for myself, ask questions, and form opinions based on what I knew, not what I thought.  The only time I can ever remember my mother denying me the right to watch or read something was when I expressed an interest in Clockwork Orange…when I was twelve.  I can’t say I blame her.

But, back to this epic fail by Amazon.  They are defending their actions by saying that this is a glitch.  Let me clarify what this means for you in Public Relations speak; “We were subversively trying to marginalize books by the LBGT and feminist communities, and we really didn’t think that anyone would notice, because who reads books by gay and women writers? And then we got caught.  So as not to offend what we now realize is a large portion of our base, we’re saying it was a glitch. Please believe us!”

Others (including myself) aren’t taking the bait.  Jessica Valenti of Feministing.com, an author whose books were stripped of their rankings, quotes her editor who communicated with Amazon about the issue;

Basically he said that amazon has been experimenting with the way they dole out content specifically so that people who are searching Harry Potter or whatever won’t run into links to products that might be offensive.

I ask this of Amazon; what if I find Harry Potter offensive, or Tucker Max, or any of the books about “curing” homosexuality in your kids?  I still have to look at those search results.  Here’s my trick…if I find it offensive, I don’t click on the fucking link.  Or better yet, I click on the link so I can learn the perspectives of those who offend me so I am better able to make clear and succinct arguments about it.  It’s called not living with your head up your own ass. Why is this such a difficult concept to grasp?

But changing the collective conciousness of an America who encourages young women to wear purity rings and promise their virginity in a mock marriage to their fathers is not a task I feel I can accomplish in my lifetime.  The question still remains what Amazon’s intent was.  What did Amazon hope to accomplish by creating it’s very own dark room behind the curtains for certain books?  From Deanna Zandt;

What kinds of books received this “adult” label? Erotica with gay themes (but not heterosexual themes), rape survivor advocacy and rape culture criticism, and feminist missives were among those suddenly labeled adult material. Soft-core hetero porn (such as Playboy centerfold calendars), hetero-themed sex toys and anti-gay screeds were left untouched. Let the maelstrom begin.

Yes, let’s. As someone who has probably spent somewhere in the vicinity of thousands of dollars on Amazon, I am outraged that my money is paying for the salaries of those who specifically chose to exclude LBGT and feminist books while leaving Playboy centerfolds untouched (so to speak).  I’m not saying censor Playboy, or Max, or any of the other books on the site.  Leave them all alone.  Presumably, if we are an intelligent society we can grasp the horrors of finding a book we may not like for personal/political/homophobic/religious reasons in our search results, can’t we?  Remember the old adage; don’t judge a book by it’s cover.

This all boils down to one thing; the dehumazining of the homosexual (and to some extent, female) writer.  Both life and the publishing industry are difficult enough for straight people, let alone gay people and feminists searching for their voice, and readership in the literary world and Amazon simply decided this literature didn’t count.  It’s sick, and it’s sad, and yes, I feel very strongly about this issue.

The LBGT community has theory and history, and they have more than earned their right to a collective literature about their lives and struggles.  Imagine for a moment if Amazon decided to declare all books about Black History or by black authors inappropriate?  Of course, then it would be a mistake too, wouldn’t it?

This little book burning party by Amazon has caused me to realize that, at least until this issue is fully rectified, and an apology is issued to the LGBT and feminist communities, I can no longer continue to patronize Amazon.  Over the years I have ordered many books, electronics, and other items from the site, and these humble dollars will now go elsewhere.  I urge you to do the same.

Below I have included a list courtesy of Jezebel, of books that have and have not been stripped of their sales rankings.  Decide for yourself what message Amazon was trying to send.

Books Stripped Of Amazon Sales Rankings:
Wetlands
Ellen DeGeneres: A Biography
Outing Yourself: How To Come Out As Lesbian Or Gay To Your Family, Friends, And Co-Workers
Gay Life And Culture: A World History
Homosexuality And Civilization
The Way Out: The Gay Man’s Guide to Freedom No Matter if You’re in Denial, Closeted, Half In, Half Out, Just Out or Been Around the Block
The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World
Coming Out Of Shame: Transforming Gay And Lesbian Lives
The Gay And Lesbian Self-Esteem Book
Heather Has Two Mommies
Dude, You’re A Fag: Masculinity And Sexuality In High School
Sexing The Body: Gender Politics And The Construction Of Sexuality
Chelsea Handler’s My Horizontal Life: A Collection Of One Night Stands
Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown
Full Frontal Feminism by Feministing’s Jessica Valenti
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
For Yourself: The Fulfillment Of Female Sexuality
Queer Theory: An Introduction
Out In Theory: The Emergence Of Gay And Lesbian Anthropology
Diary Of A Drag Queen
The Rise And Fall of Gay Culture
A Memoir Of No One In Particular
Apples And Oranges: My Journey To Sexual Identity
Bi Lives: Bisexual Women Tell Their Stories
Bisexual Women In The 21st Century
Lesbian, Gay, And Bisexual Identities Over The Lifespan: Psychological Perspectives
Social Services For Gay And Lesbian Couples
The Lesbian Parenting Book: A Guide To Creating Families And Raising Children
The Truth Is…My Life In Love And Music by Melissa Etheridge
Nasty: My Family And Other Glamorous Varmints by Simon Doonan
The Praeger Book Of Transsexuality: Changing Gender to Match Mindset (Sex, Love, and Psychology)
True Selves: Understanding Transsexualism—For Families, Friends, Coworkers, and Helping Professionals
GenderQueer: Voices From Beyond The Sexual Binary
Girl Meets Girl: A Dating Survival Guide
The Art Of Meeting Women: A Guide For Gay Women
The Mayor Of Castro Street: The Life And Times Of Harvey Milk
Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life In America
Women, Gays, And The Constitution: The Grounds for Feminism and Gay Rights in Culture and Law
Identity And The Case For Gay Rights: Race, Gender, Religion as Analogies
Gay America: Struggle For Equality (YA)
Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer
Men Who Rape: The Psychology Of The Offender
Gay Day: The Golden Age of the Christopher Street Parade 1974-1983
Gay And Lesbian Washington, DC
Created Equal: Why Gay Rights Matter To America
Stone Butch Blues: A Novel
Sexual Rhetoric: Media Perspectives on Sexuality, Gender, and Identity
Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940
Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965
Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities
Odd Girls And Twilight Lovers
Band Fags
Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink Or Blue
Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, And The Rest Of Us
Queering The Popular Pitch
Homosexuality In Greece And Rome: A Sourcebook Of Basic Documents
Greek Homosexuality
Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World
Between Men: English Literature And Male Homosexual Desires
She’s Not There: A Life In Two Genders
Live Through This: On Creativity And Self-Destruction
My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, or Something Else Entirely

Books NOT Stripped Of Amazon Sales Rankings
Fear Of Flying
Belligerence and Debauchery: The Tucker Max Stories
The Complete A**hole’s Guide To Handling Chicks
Lesbian Couples: A Guide To Creating Healthy Relationships
Cunt: A Declaration of Independence Expanded and Updated Second Edition
How To Be A Happy Lesbian, A Coming Out Guide
Ron Jeremy: The Hardest Working Man In Showbiz
Traci Lords: Underneath It All
I’m With The Band: Confessions Of A Groupie
Emma And Meesha My Boy: A Two Mom Story
Boy Meets Boy (YA)
How To Be A Super Hot Woman
The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Amazing Sex
Female Chauvinist Pigs
Getting Off: Pornography And the End Of Masculinity
A Parent’s Guide To Preventing Homosexuality
Gay Children, Straight Parents: A Plan For Family Healing
Confessions of a Video Vixen
The Vixen Diaries
Candy Girl: A Year In The Life Of An Unlikely Stripper by Diablo Cody
A Stripper’s Tail: Confessions Of A Vegas Stripper
Seduce Me! What Women Really Want
The Professional Bachelor Dating Guide: How To Exploit Her Inner Psycho
Playboy: The Complete Centerfolds
Super Beauties: Nude And Natural
Male Nude Photography: Lance And Beau
Hot Cougar Sex: Steamy Encounters With Younger Men
Exercising The Penis: How to Make Your Most Prized Organ Bigger, Harder & Healthier
Whore
The Anarchist Cookbook
Hot Luxury Girls: Best Of Sugar Posh Beauties

And to illustrate…

This book is okay; Gay Children, Straight Parents – A Plan for Family Healing

This book; not so okay; Ellen Degeneres – A Biography

This book gets the Amazon grade; A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality

While this one is stripped down; Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities

This book is totally acceptable; The Complete Asshole’s Guide to Handling Chicks (yes, really)

While this book is very, very naughty and god forbid a child even see the title; Gay America – A Struggle for Equality

Have I made my point?

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April 3, 2009

Enough with this Eat, Pray, Love Crap

eatpraylove2Does anyone else cringe when they hear the term “chick lit”?  I always thought it was a term that was thrown around in book reviews to define material written by and for women, but behold, “chick lit” is an entire genre, like horror, that agents and publishers recognize. And, it just won’t go away.  Take Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert for example. Despite the book being published in 2006, it seems to still be lurking in the media, and setting the standard by which all women writers are being compared.

Now, I can’t say I have read the book anymore than I can say I read Confessions of a Shopaholic, beyond of course what Amazon was kind enough to provide me as a preview, and the few minutes I spent leafing through the pages in a book store before moving on to The God Delusion.  Needless to say, a woman’s memoirs about finding herself that starts with the line “I wish Giovanni would kiss me” is unlikely to captivate me the same way that Orwell captured me with his construction of a futuristic society in which the bourgeoisie worship an organization called The Party.

This brings me to another point.  When reading an article about gendered choices in literature, I was shocked to learn that men are actually impressed by women who read Orwell and the like. You know, because wrapping our vaginas brains around a complex political movement marked by submission and rebellion, is like, totally out of our reach…unless someone is going to bring up chocolate.  Which Orwell does, so I guess that’s why I read it.  Not because it is an iconic piece of literature and remarkably timeless in its representation of political fundamentalism (oh, shit I forgot, I am supposed to be talking about shoes).

So this brings me back to chick lit and Elizabeth Gilbert’s quest to get over her failed marriage, and her sense of being lost in life.  Here is my official position; if your life and your travels were that interesting, they wouldn’t be marketed as the bible of chick lit, they would be marketed as a memoir of an interesting life.  Show of hands, how many men have read Eat, Pray, Love?

*insert sound of crickets chirping*

So why is it that the industry finds this type of writing so appealing?  Obviously there is a market for it, or else agents and editors would be tearing the Gilberts of the world down to their heels and hashing it all out on #queryfail.  I can see it now “OMG, another query about her divorce and how she got over it, shut up already! #queryfail”.  Or maybe that is just wishful thinking on my part.

Of course it is no secret that many a woman have written under a nom de plume, or pseudonym (ahem, J.K. Rowling) to draw attention away from the fact that they are women and gain respect in the literary world before anyone looks up their skirts and realizes that they have an inkwell instead of a pen hidden up there.  Unless, of course, they are writing about “women stuff” like pining over 20 something Italian guys as a means to finding oneself.  Then girly names like Elizabeth can be plastered all over the cover like a rogue noodle that broke free from the covers font.

Now, before anyone jumps on me and says women publish literature other than chick lit, just look at Stephanie Meyer and Twilight, I ask you to pause for a moment.  ‘Cause there’s nothing darker than vegetarian vampires that blow sparkles out of their asses.  Stephen King look out, you have some competition (*snorts*).

Words are words, and the last time I checked the area between my belly button and my knees had very little to do with my choices of reading material or writing topics (excluding feminist literature of course, which is much different than wanting Giovanni to kiss you).  Women frequently write from the perspectives of men, and vice versa, with astonishing insight.  This begs the question; do we really need an entire genre of “Oh my god, I found myself in Jimmy Choo?” or are we creating it by filing it under the vagina niche and calling it a day.  You know, so men won’t have to make the mistake of picking up a book written by a woman for a woman while perusing the aisles of their local book store…because there is an entire section segregated off where women can confide in each other about yoga, having babies, being married, getting divorced, and shopping; all of the important life lessons a girl must learn.

This is my call to women writers; stop publishing this Eat, Pray, Love crap, and find a voice based on your writing talents, not on the chance that you got an X instead of a Y in your chromosome make up.

Update: Apparently my writing is worth plagiarizing without credit.  Check it out here, and feel free to let them know how us bloggers love link backs.

March 23, 2009

Remembering Ron MacDonald

id2171For many the name Ronald MacDonald might conjur images of a red-haired clown who peddles french fries and cheesburgers.  In my case, it conjurs images of a red-haired teacher who peddled the English language and literature.  Ron MacDonald was one of my most memorable teachers in high school.

He had a huge bookcase in his classroom, filled with books that he lent out liberally to students.  Once I approached him to apologize for being late in returning one particular novel, and he (somewhat jokingly, I imagine) repsonded with “You know, stealing books shouldn’t be criminal.”

Once he called me after class and I was certain I was in trouble (probably pushing the envelop for what was considered acceptable in young literature, I have a bit of a dark streak when it comes to fiction).  Instead, he handed me a well used copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the epic books of my youth.  Although I was always a reader, he became sort of a book pusher, constantly suggesting books I might find interesting.  He also gave me The Giver, which I read cover to cover in one afternoon flat and still remember with alarming clarity (those gray eyes…).

He was an old scotsman I believe, and had a bright red face (that most of us I suspect, attributed to his drinking).  He had a handle bar mustache and a habit of getting food lodged in there, but he would stand in front of the class room and teach us as though we all wanted to grow up to be literary masters.  He took little notice of students who took little notice of him,  but those who expressed an interest in literature were nurtured and constantly supplied with books.

Sadly, he passed away while I was still in university.  Living a life of a bachelor, I like to imagine that he was in fact, married to his books.  To this day, I can look at my bookshelf and see volumes that were passed from his hands to mine and think fondly of all that he taught me.

Update:  Says Beth Button, a classmate of mine and a relative of Mr. MacDonald’s;

He came up in conversation recently. Ronnie was a pretty close family member. Notorious for being eccentric and also for buying every single christmas present in a theme each year. I think if I had known him now, I would have appreciated him so much more than I did as a kid.

A bachelor who died without a will or any real indication of what he wanted. Instead of the traditional funeral, we all gathered at another family member’s house in a circle, with his tobacco pipe, and passed the pipe around as family members had an opportunity to tell a story or share thoughts. In it’s own way it was quite beautiful.

Of course then there was drinking.

March 22, 2009

Weekend Reading: Writer’s Block and My Overflowing Bookshelf

procrastination-main_fullWriter’s Block.  That terrible, ever-lurking antithesis to “the flow” of which writers speak is a very real thing.  To someone who does not write extensively, it may seem easy to cast the notion off as silly, and inextricably linked to ego, but in reality, it can interupt a writer’s work and frustrate the bejesus out of them.  Flow, on the other hand, is that glorious pace a writer can find where the words seem to come from the fingers (or pen) first and the mind later.  It’s a constant race to keep up with yourself before the next moment flutters out of your mind like a butterfly and is lost forever.  This can last four hours before the writer is broken from the trance and brought back to the reality of dinner that must be made, day jobs that must be worked, and bills that must be paid.

I don’t know what other writer’s do when they experience Writer’s Block.  I’ve found sites for writing prompts and ideas, but ultimately a prompt that says “write about a red ball” is unlikely to shake me out of reality, and back into that dream world that writers create for themselves.  Someone once told me to keep my head above the clouds.  My immediate reaction was that it was mis-phrased; it should have read keep your head out of the clouds.  I didn’t understand properly then what was meant by that, but I do now.  Above the clouds is where creativity flows, and sometimes it is impossible not to come down, into the clouds,  and subsequently back into reality where there is traffic, phones ringing, appointments, and all of the mundane practices that make up this thing we call life.

When I have Writer’s Block, I read.  I’m always reading something, and in fact, I can hardly remember a period of time where I wasn’t completely absorbed in one book or another.  For the year I wrote literally nothing, I was completely wrapped up in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, a seven book monolith that makes The Stand look like a Sunday paper.

This may explain the current state of my bookshelf.  I’ve rationalized my Writer’s Block down to a few things, including the fact that I have my first short story making its rounds in literary magazines and contests, and somewhere deep inside me I am waiting for judgement/affirmation.  The second cause is related to research.  My book-in-progress is deeply rooted in religion, mythology,  psychology, and to some extent, sociology.  At 20,000 words I simply hit a point where the idea was no longer enough, I needed background knowledge to keep the train chugging along.

So, for a little change, I am offering my weekend reading list.

1984 by George Orwell

Until now, I hadn’t read this book.  Not only did I know that I must read it because it is a classic, but the subject matter interests me greatly.  I can hardly put it down and it has been dominating my reading for the last week. I plan to finish the last 30 or so pages today.  While reading it I have to constantly remind myself that it was written in 1949, and renew my admiration for Orwell’s construction of a future society.  As a sociologist at heart, this book is fascinating.

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

I found Sebold during a seminar course on Ethnography in my undergraduate degree.  Our professor assigned Lucky, a biographical account of her rape while attending college.  The Lovely Bones was her next book, which also took me in.  I expect The Almost Moon to live up to my expectations of Sebold’s ability to capture me.

2009 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market

Otherwise known as the bible.  I am going through this volume painstakingly, absorbing all of the information about the publishing industry I can cram into my 26 year old brain.  What are agents, publishers, and editors telling me?  How can I use it in the future?  I know that I can break down countless boundaries if I am prepared, and I intend to be.

The Lilith Monographs Vol. I: Immaculata by Joshua Seraphim

This is directly related to my book, in which the main character is Lilith, or rather my version of her.

Lilith: The First Eve by Siegmund Hurwitz

See above.

Glimmer Train Spring 2009 Issue 70

Glimmer Train is the first literary magazine I have subscribed to.  The first issue arrived in my mailbox on Friday and since then it has been waiting patiently underneath 1984, waiting to be picked up next.  I’m reading it partly to learn what other writer’s are selling, to compare as objectively as I can, the quality of the work therein versus my own, and to absorb great literature from the future authors of classics that will come about in my life time.  As my writing income grows, so too will my collection of literary magazines.  For those who do not subscribe, I highly recommend it.

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

This is a slow read for me.  I can only keep my attention focused on congressional history and legislative process for so long.  I also feel this is a necessary read.  Obama is an eloquent and moving writer, and knowing full well that he will become known as one of the great thinkers of our time, I am compelled to read through the political jargon to hear the message behind it.

Defending the Damned by Kevin Davis

This was recommended to me by a friend who works in the legal system in the United Kingdom.  It focuses on a public defender in Chicago, named Marijane Placek, a “snakeskin boot-wearing, Shakespeare quoting nonconformist.”  Needless to say, she knows my taste.

What’s on yours?

March 12, 2009

The Great #QueryFail Debate

fail281

I sold my soul signed up for a Twitter account this morning.  I have resisted the beast until now.  I wanted to have a look at the phenomenon that is #queryfail.  A handful of literary agents, editors, and other industry “insiders” have been sharing reasons why query letters get rejected.  The query mistakes range from bizarre to simply ignorant (both equally unacceptable). #QueryFail Day on Twitter is the creation of Colleen Lindsay.  This is what she has to say about #queryfail;

Today is #Queryfail Day on Twitter, the first of what will probably become a monthly or semi-monthly experience. What is #Queryfail Day, you ask? * rubs hands together gleefully * A group of online agents, book editors and periodicals acquisition editors are posting about their queries in real time. The idea is to educate people about what exactly it is in a query that made us stop reading and say “Not for me.” We’re being very careful not to include personal identifiers of any kind. The idea isn’t to mock or be intentionally cruel, but to educate.

Here is a sampling for your reading pain/pleasure;

ChristianPubTip: It’s a handwritten manuscript with a note that says this is the only copy they have.#queryfail

danielliterary: Asks me how to go about submitting? Uh. If u have my email address, then u obviously
have my web site address with my guidelines #queryfail

danielliterary: Say you don’t know how to paste the first five pages of your manuscript into your email?
Please get your 3-year-old to teach you. #queryfail

angelajames: ONE sentence about the book. I don’t need to know your life history. I need to know about
the book. #queryfail

angelajames: “passion raging between two characters will burn right off the page” makes me think your
book is going to be overwritten #queryfail

Colleen_Lindsay: A headshot embedded into body of query email. #queryfail

Colleen_Lindsay: @bookavore I just delete all queries that come in addressed to Dear Sir, To Whom It
May Concern or Dear Agent. #queryfail

danielliterary: Call yourself a “published author” when what you really mean is “self-published”?
#queryfail

bostonbookgirl: Including a creepy photo of you clearly taken about 20 years ago? You have just taken
your first step on the road to #queryfail

Colleen_Lindsay: Three paragraphs, no plot, no hook, and lots of “me, me, me, look how wonderful I
am!” – #queryfail.

mattwagner: “My proposal is a work in progress.” Sorry, please finish your proposal before querying,
#queryfail

danielliterary: Addresses me “Dear Sir/Madam…”? #queryfail

I deliberately excluded the #queryfails for the BDSM photo included with the letter, the mothers who want to educate their daughters about pimps, and the con-men who are finally ready to tell their stories.  Self-explanatory.

I, like others, am incredibly interested in this debate.  Netta at WordWebbing.com had this to say;

I couldn’t help but wonder if this is what is done in public, what the hell goes on in private? But then, it’s private and I don’t have to know. I also wondered if these agents, who took time out of a busy day to skewer the hapless writer, ever took the time to contact the writer and tell them, in private and in a professional way, just what it was that made the query fail. Feel me?

I feel you.  Rejection is important.  It’s more important than succeeding, because succeeding doesn’t really teach you anything.  You already knew how to do it in the first place.  I can see where there would be concern over the feelings of some poor hapless writer venturing into the mysterious world of Getting Published. That said, not every writer (ahem) follows Twitter, so the personal contact offering constructive criticisms (to the honest mistakes, not the con-men and crazies) would be useful.  I would venture to guess though, that not every literary agent has the time to write a personalized assessment of my crappy query letter.  They have more bad query letters to read you know.

As a whole I think we have become too sensitive to rejection and failure.  No, I don’t like failure.  I’m not a complete idiot.  But, I learn from my mistakes and hopefully refrain from making them again.  No, I don’t want to be another hilarious #queryfail tweet, but I do want to know how NOT to write a query letter, so I learn from the mistakes of others. It seems that this would be common sense to most, but common sense seems to be about as common as horse-drawn buggies these days (see: Pimps for Dummies #queryfail).

Still, some are up in arms about the snarkiness that can come along with some of the fails, but honestly, they seem to deserve it.  Besides, telling an agent or an editor that they’re doing it wrong would be like telling God she built the universe wrong, and that, I suspect, would land you in the #queryfail pile.

March 8, 2009

Weekend Reading: First Edition

Oh yes, they did.

Oh yes, they did.

Put on the coffee maker and settle in for a little Sunday reading.  For the very first edition of Weekend Reading I have collected the top stories on all things book related.  Enjoy!

Jezebel asks; “Is Someone’s Bookshelf a Dating Dealbreaker?”  Have you ever found yourself second guessing the character of your date after catching a glance of a bookshelf that contained Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader, back issues of Maxim, and Maddox’s Alphabet of Manliness?  Me too.

Of course, if none of your dates are working out, you can always read The Man Plan: Drive Men Wild, Not Away.  Once again, Jezebel asks; do we really need another MAN-ual on the market? (Hint: The answer starts with “N” and ends with “O”).

Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger can now join the ranks of media-made celebrities who have been offered book deals.  Sully’s been offered $2.5 Million (what recession?) to pen two books.  No word yet whether the books will discuss how to safely crash a plane, or how to be a humble hero.

Do you tweet?  Neither do I, but apparently I should have been.  HarperCollins’ new imprint called “It Books” is publishing Twitter Wit, a collection of funny tweets from twits on Twitter.

Barnes & Noble is jumping on the Internet bandwagon with it’s acquisition of E-book retailer, Fictionwise.  If you’re into that whole corporate merger kind of thing.

Update: Check out this book, Les Tribulations d’une Caissière (The Tribulations of a Checkout Girl), featured on Jez. Anna Sam is a college grad who was unable to land a job in publishing after graduation.  As a result, she went to work in the supermarket where she had worked part-time while studying.  In her book she recounts the numerous stresses a cashier (or anyone working in the service industry) has to face.  As someone who has extensive experience with the service industry (coat hangers thrown at my head, etc.), this book is hope that consumers might just pull their heads out of their…wallets.

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