Hellzapoppin’, Heide Goody and Iain Grant

Sometimes I think back on the first book I read by Iain Grant and Heide Goody. I had just seen a tweet that John Scalzi had shared about a contest for writers interested in working on a collaborative novel. I wish now that I’d saved it because I can’t remember what it was about those hundred or so characters that piqued my interest. I felt compelled to click through and find out more though, and it led to a life changing novel writing experience for me. 

I’ve been writing books for many years, but learning to trust writers I’ve (still) never met was both a challenge and discovery of one of my true passions. I don’t just like to write – I want to collaborate. I love taking ideas generated by a bunch of half-crazy people and helpin71myanzzgzlg to turn them into something beautiful. Goody and Grant are, I suspect, a lot like me in that respect. They don’t shy away from the complications of writing books together, and what I discovered reading that first book was that they have a real gift for it. 

Of course, back then, I was lounging around in a coffee shop in London, soaking up my time as an ex-pat and grasping every opportunity that flew within reach. I was exploring a country and culture just different enough from my own that it felt like tripping into a mirror image. I was comfortable. I had spare time. I could consume caffeine with zero consequences. It was another time. 

Reading this latest installment of the Clovenhoof books took a lot longer. I mostly had to skim, juggling my phone while my all of a sudden loathes nursing baby flailed around, trying to smack it out of my hands. There was zero lounging involved, let me tell you. It was more like a full contact sport – how many pages could I get through before a tiny but surprisingly strong arm knocked it out of reach? (Somewhere between half a page and six, in case you were curious.)

As a result, it took me longer to get into this volume. I wasn’t convinced I was going to like it as much as I had the earlier books until I was about a third of the way in. Once I understood where these new characters stood (and had more than fourteen seconds to read about them), I was hooked. I found myself trying to unwind where Grant began and Goody stopped, but it was seamless, just as their earlier books have been. 

I have to say that there’s something odd about visiting authors I read before I was a mother. I haven’t had much opportunity to do it, but with the few sequels I’ve gotten to since June, I find myself comparing the before and after experience. It was much different, being a reader before parenthood. Even at my busiest, in comparison to my life now, it seems like I had loads of time to lay around getting lost in a good book. It was a luxury I’m not sure I fully appreciated. I can’t get lost anymore. I can only dip in and out of a book like a kid learning to hold her breath underwater.

It has made reading even more of a necessity. My world has, at least temporarily, shrunk, and books – both new and familiar – make me giddily part of the wider world. Every day, my son and I read every one of his books (I’m guessing he has thirty or so in his budding collection), and then we move on to the library books. We fill our days with words, and it’s amazing to me that he seems to love it as much as I do. 

Even as he grows to appreciate his books more, the amount of time I have to read my own shrinks, and I cling to every flailing opportunity. I’ve come a long way since I first discovered Goody and Grant, and I suspect I still have a ways to go yet. I’m glad every now and again, I can grab one of their books and know I have a good laugh and a bit of nostalgia waiting for me.

The Hidden Canyon: A River Journey, Edward Abbey and John Blaustein

Over the Christmas holiday, I had the supreme pleasure to read not one but THREE books, all of them gifts I bought for other people that I then stole back while family members were cuddling the baby. The most luxurious of these was The Hidden Canyon because it’s such a large, unwieldy book. It would have been nearly impossible to get through without the help of many hands. It’s not even available for Kindle, with good reason – a huge part of the reading experience comes from Blaustein’s photographs, taken over many years on trips down the Grand Canyon. The book simply couldn’t exist without those images.

Reading it immediately transported me back to my own trip down the Colorado in 2008. In my life, there has been nothing that compares to the experience I had rafting down the Grand Canyon for three weeks. Having a child changed my life by magnitudes, but I was expecting that. People have babies. It’s a thing that’s done, and it is unquestionably one of the best things I’ve ever experienced, but being a parent connects to me to, well, just about everything. I’m part of a web of humanity, past, present, and future, and I feel that connection to other people in ways I had only dreamed of. Rafting through the Canyon, on the other hand, exposed me the natural order, and to a primal version of myself that I never even imagined existed.

An experience like that (and I have been on other rafting trips that were a lark, a bit of good fun, an easy way to spend a week) strips away the pretense of character. That illusion I presented to the world? Gone. The very real isolation and danger of such a journey took so much effort that it didn’t leave me any energy to mess around. I was who I was, for better or worse – at times better, and others, worse.

A part of me never wanted it to end. I didn’t want to leave behind the deepest part of the canyon. I had a little tribe of people, including my future husband, father-in-law and sister-in-law, who were good company. Everywhere we went, beauty badgered us. Mysteries waited to be uncovered. My body even eventually  hardened to the elements (our trip took place during the last week of March and the first two weeks of April, so bitter cold, and eventually unseasonable heat were a factor), and my fear got real comfortable living right on the surface.

Looking back, I was deeply ignorant of just how dangerous the experience was, which is probably as it should be. When I opened up this book and dove in to Abbey’s experiences on the same river, it was as though no time had passed. Names I thought I had forgotten surged to the surface. Campsites reemerged from foggy memory banks. Rapids that had terrified me were scarcely mentioned, and rapids that demolished him, I remember with fondness.

The book was recommended to me by a good friend who had been on the trip with me, and I purchased it for my father-in-law, or the man with the golden ticket. He was one of the last people to “win” a trip on this river from the waiting list he had been on for twenty years (the system changed to a lottery the very next year). I still remember exactly where I was when he called my (not yet) husband to invite him on the trip. When the phone was handed over, and I heard him ask me if I wanted to join a crew of sixteen (all of whom were much more experienced than me), I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t research. I didn’t ask if it was safe. I just said yes.

After reading about Abbey’s trip, I was reminded of that exuberant yes. Of jumping headlong into an experience that would change me forever without a moment’s regret. I was terrified  for so much of that three weeks, and yet I know I would say yes again in a heartbeat. I suppose it’s not so different from having a child after all – filthy clothes, questionable hygiene, unmitigated laughter and gibbering terror – although without a doubt, down in the canyon, there is a much deeper quiet to be found.

Yes Please, Amy Poehler

Welcome to 2016! I’m not going to crack any jokes about making or breaking resolutions a week in as it’s been years since I’ve even considered making some of my own, and honestly, the only other thing I can think of right now is that we’re now officially in Election year, and the whole political circus is going to be amped up to eleven until November. Just thinking about it is making me tired, so instead of dwelling on the questionable success of new starts and uncontrollable windbaggery, let’s break open that bag of emergency marshmallows (what? You don’t have an emergency bag of marshmallows?!) and make some reading-escape appropriate cocoa.

20910157Now, that we’ve settled in, I have to admit I’ve been on a little break from novels the last two months. During November, I was doing my own new-mom adaptation of National Novel Writing Month, where, instead of writing a completely impossible 50,000 words, I was trying to finish the first draft of the cozy mystery started last summer. Spoiler alert: I failed. I did get five chapters written, which was certainly better than nothing, but I had to extend my deadline to December 31 (which fortunately, I was able to meet). 

The whole endeavor was surprisingly difficult even though I was only eight chapters from the end. It was also much harder than any of the years I’ve done a traditional NANO novel, probably because I care more about this book than I do the crazy stories I’ve written in great speed in the past. On top of that, I care more about my son than I do about deadlines, which is both wonderful and challenging. On the one hand, writing makes me feel like a million bucks – on the other, well, I’m not the first parent to struggle with this particular problem.

But I digress. I was talking about my break from novels, not lamenting the existence Hermione Granger’s time-turner. I like to take a break from fiction when I’m doing a lot of my own writing. It clears my head and allows me to focus on working through those ideas rather than procrastinating with another writer’s story. Obviously, I can’t just give up reading though, so I often find myself a little niche to explore. This time around, it has been comediennes. 

Amy Poehler’s book was a recommended read after I finished Mindy Kaling’s, although it was a far different experience. Poehler is a much more serious person than I realized, and her book certainly reflects that. Unlike Tina Fey or Kaling, her focus is less on a laugh out loud read (although I did) than it is a grittier look at her own experiences. She hasn’t sugar-coated her past failures here. She’s done some things that certainly don’t endear her, but her response to those choices, and her perspective as an older comic and woman were powerful and worthy of respect. 

This is a woman who has worked incredibly hard and has lived a fascinating, if challenging life. She hasn’t done everything perfectly, but that’s shaped her comedy and made her, in my opinion, more worthy of her success. It was passages such as this one that touched me deeply and made this book special:

The hardest day in Haiti for me was when we visited a few orphanages. Some of these places were doing the best they could. Others had a long way to go. Jane’s colleague Noah and I saw babies living in cribs that looked like cages. A little boy named Woosley jumped into Noah’s arms and wouldn’t let go. He was desperate for attachment, and men were especially scarce. Woosley held on to Noah like a bramble. We were filled with anxiety because we knew we would have to say good-bye. Noah had to drop him back off at his crowded room, and Woosley hung on and started to get upset. He finally got down and faced a corner as he cried. It was the loneliest thing I have ever seen. A teacher went to him, but it barely comforted him.

Those kids needed so much holding. Kisses and hugs and clothes and parents. They needed everything. The enormity of what they needed was so intense. We ended up talking in the street with Jane, and crying. Jane was agitated and passionate. She talked about all the work left to do and all the small changes that can improve children’s lives. I was once again moved by her ability to steer into the curve. Jane was a big-wave rider. She didn’t make the mistake that most of us make, which is to close our eyes and hope the waves will go away or miss us or hit someone else. She dove in, headfirst. That night, I read the deeply calm and at times sneakily funny Pema Chödrön, one my favorite writers: “There are no promises. Look deeply at joy and sorrow, at laughing and crying, at hoping and fearing, at all that lives and dies. What truly heals is gratitude and tenderness.” Pema reminded me to practice tonglen, which is this meditation breathing exercise where you breathe in all the pain and breathe out nothing but love. It felt like the opposite of what I had been doing for a year. I felt one tiny molecule in the bottom of my heart feel better. (loc 3224)

The House in the Night, Susan Swanson and Beth Krommes

Christmas Eve is my favorite day of the year. It’s not that it’s always the best night of the year. Sometimes the din of gift giving is too loud, or the candlelight service fails to move me with its unusual silence. Sometimes I’m just in a foul mood because, well, that can happen regardless of how much we wished it didn’t on days meant to be special. Nevertheless, come December, I find myself looking forward to this day.

911mhxjpizlMaybe it’s because one of my favorite books as a child was Christmas in Noisy Village. My grandmother’s copy was purchased from a library sale long before I was born, and it was in pretty bad shape when I first got my hands on it. The book hasn’t borne the intervening years well, and the pages now are yellow and torn, but when I pick it up, I’m overcome again by its magic.

Much of that story takes place on Christmas Eve, and I always found that to be wonderfully special. It held all the magic of Christmas without the focus on gifts, which, even as a child, often felt anticlimactic. The excitement of Christmas isn’t really in the accumulation, but in the anticipation, the breathless wonder of dark, starry nights.

It’s that same wonder I see every night when we read our son The House in the Night. The text of the story is sweet and simple, but the art is so special that all three of us feel a powerful connection to the story. There’s one page in particular that my son loves with such passion that he grabs the book (which usually falls on the floor, because six month old fingers don’t have the strength to lift such large board books) and proceeds to have a whole conversation with the moon. The rest of the book has pictures I love even more, but he goes back to that page again and again with such joy that I feel overwhelmed by such pure pleasure. 

It’s that kind of happiness I wish all of you today. Many of us have a moment, a favorite passage or illustration, that we go back to for comfort and joy. It’s one of the incredible gifts of reading, in my opinion, to discover those little treasures – those Christmas Eve moments that are familiar and yet delight us anew every time – and today, in the rush of celebrating (or not – this feeling isn’t limited to the holiday spirit!), I hope you have time to pause and remember the rush of joy such a passage brings. Maybe you can look it up and reread it, maybe you can’t, but either way, allow the knowledge of its existence to make today just a little bit brighter.

A sweet day to you all, and I will see you in the new year!

Cry Wolf, Patricia Briggs

December is such a busy time that I have had far less time to read than I would like. I love to curl up in front of the fireplace with a great read, the Christmas tree joyfully lit up when the sky is dark so early. There’s really nothing cozier than the perfect book paired with a cup of tea and a plate of freshly baked cookies when my toes are toasty and warm. Of course, this year, we aren’t using the fireplace because exploring little people don’t yet understand the concept of “hot,” and I have to keep an eye on the tree lest it be mauled by over-excited little hands. We do spend a lot of time reading in front of it, but the books are small and hard, and they feature a lot of farm animals and rhyming. I’m not complaining. It’s a wonderful way to spend Advent. It’s just not quite as intellectually stimulating as some books on my to-read shelf (oh Sonia Sotomayor, I swear I’ll get to your life story eventually!).

Life being what it is, I’m going to talk instead about a series I read during the first few months of our son’s life. I kept a list of everything I read during parental leave on my computer since I knew I was far too sleep deprived to remember (and feel the deserved sense of accomplishment) how many books I got through. It’s been interesting to go back and look through it, remembering how hot the summer was, and just how many hours I was awake every day. During that time, I obviously wasn’t seeking out any life changing reads. I wanted light and fun, and because I was so devastated when I finished reading all of Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, I was over the moon to discover her Alpha and Omega follow-up.

I don’t think I even took a breath from one series to the next. The Alpha and Omega books take place in the same world and feature a character I’d gotten to know in the original series, so it was easy to dive right in. I burned through my phone battery every night reading while holding a sleeping or nursing baby in my arms, and it was totally worth it. In my mind, it was the best of both worlds – sweet cuddles and a popcorn read – and there’s little else a book loving new mom can ask for. 

Of course, Mercy Thompson and I were so tight that I couldn’t bring myself to love the Alpha and Omega series quite as much, even though it was as well written and compelling. I loved the world, and I liked Briggs’ new protagonist, Anna, very much. It was just too soon for me to form a bestie bond with her. Of course, that didn’t stop me from devouring all four books in the series as quickly as I could download them onto my phone. When I think of all the books languishing in my kindle app right now, I feel just a hint of nostalgia for those days when our son slept so much of the day away…but just a hint, because that transition from “fourth trimester sleep confused little person” to “hey! the night is for sleeping little person” is a truly blessed gift. And hey, the long grey days of the new year are just around the corner – plenty of time to curl up under a blanket and read a luxurious page and a half before attending to more pressing things!

Happy Thanksgiving!

I have to admit, even though it’s well documented on this very site that Thanksgiving is not my favorite holiday, I really appreciate that it falls on a Thursday every year. With my posting schedule, it means I get a bit of a break, and as much as I love writing reviews, it always feels good to have a little vacation from the ordinary. This year, for the first time in nearly a decade, I’m not at home for the holiday, so it’s especially busy. Nevertheless, with my reduced posting this fall, I didn’t want to leave you completely bereft, so I’m sharing this poem. The holiday season is often a time for seeing old friends, and this piece reminds me of the fragile, exquisite nature of friendships that last over time and distance.

A happy holiday to those of you celebrating today. Take a few minutes to yourself amid whatever chaos and food and drama might surround you. Allow yourself to be grateful for all the things that have gone right this year, and try to set down some of your burdens and grief. Think hard on those who have less, and remind yourself, whatever your traditions may be, to be thankful for the people who touch your heart, even if they exist only in the pages of a book or in a memory…

About Friends, Brian Jones

The good thing about friends
is not having to finish sentences.

I sat a whole summer afternoon with my friend once
on a river bank, bashing heels on the baked mud
and watching the small chunks slide into the water
and listening to them – plop plop plop.
He said, ‘I like the twigs when they…you know…
like that.’ I said, ‘There’s that branch…’
We both said, ‘Mmmm’. The river flowed and flowed
and there were lots of butterflies, that afternoon.

I first thought there was a sad thing about friends
when we met twenty years later.
We both talked hundreds of sentences,
taking care to finish all we said,
and explain it all very carefully,
as if we’d been discovered in places
we should not be, and were somehow ashamed.

I understood then what the river meant by flowing.

Why Not Me, Mindy Kaling

A general assumption about confidence is that women, particularly young women, will have very little of it, and girls will have zero of it. Just the attitude alone makes me sad: “We have to help our girls and teach them to be confident.” Well, guess what, young girls. You aren’t damsels in distress. You aren’t hostages to the words of your peers. You aren’t the victims that even your well-meaning teachers and advocates think you are. 

We just assume boys will be confident, like how your parents assume you will brush your teeth every morning without checking in on you in the bathroom. With girls, that assumption flies out the window. Suddenly, your parents are standing in the bathroom with you, watching you brush your teeth with encouraging, worried expressions on their faces. Sweetheart, you can do it! We know it’s hard to brush your teeth! We love you! Which must make girls think, Yikes. Is brushing your teeth a really hard and scary thing to do? I thought it was just putting toothpaste on a toothbrush. 

I get worried that telling girls how difficult it is to be confident implies a tacit expectation that girls won’t be able to do it. The good news is that, as a country, we are all about telling girls to be confident. It’s our new national pastime. Every day I see Twitter posts, Instagram campaigns, and hashtags that say things like “We Will!” or “Girls Can!” or “Me Must, I Too!” on them. I think widespread, online displays of female self-confidence are good for people, especially men, to see. I just sometimes get the sneaking suspicion that corporations are co-opting “girl confidence” language to rally girls into buying body wash. Be careful. (p. 223)

I’m sure not everyone loves Mindy Kaling as much as I do. Her comedy is aimed very much at my generation (the earliest years of the Millennials – those who occasionally try to sneak by on Gen X cred), and it’s especially appealing to women (or so I have gathered from talking to my husband and several of his friends). I’ve come to accept this as the way of comedy. It tends to be polarizing, alienating, or ignored by those outside the target audience. Of course, there are exceptions. (A notable “current” exception is Parks and Rec, a show enjoyed by myself, my parents, and the teenagers I work with – it doesn’t get much more all-encompassing.) 

By and large though, comedy is a personal genre. A comedian or a bit is either hilarious to you, or it’s not based on age, gender, background, and life experiences. For me, Mindy Kaling, both as a writer and an actress, is on point. Her first book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, was happily consumed on audiobook on long runs, and I often found myself laughing out loud as I panted up and down hills during race prep. 

Her second book, on the other hand, is much more serious. She has clearly grown in her understanding of both herself and the industry, and although people often pigeonhole her into the characters she’s played, this book is an in-depth look at how hard she works to be successful. (Spoiler alert: having a television show in which you star AND do a huge amount of writing means every day is eighteen to twenty hours long, and it leaves very little time for a social life. It sounded like Hollywood’s version of bootcamp, and I had no desire to switch places with her whatsoever!) She keeps her sense of humor though, and this time around, when I laughed, it was often out of sympathy and understanding. 

Sure, her job is a far cry from what I do, but there are moments that resonated deeply for me. Her relationship with her family, her joy in doing what she loves professionally, and a wonderful work community buoys her through day to day experiences that might otherwise be untenable. Kaling may be famous, but her celebrity comes with a heavy price, one that many of us non-famous folks understand. Pursuing a passionate life’s work doesn’t come with short cuts or lucky breaks – it’s exhausting in a way that’s rewarding not only for the end result, but for the love of doing it. If out of that struggle comes success, it’s a privilege, not a right. 

This is a difficult lesson to stomach. We all want to feel that our commitment and particular talents are enough to give us a step up on the path, but the truth is, our best work can go unrecognized. Even if we do catch a break, many projects will still fail. All we can hope for is that the experiences motivate us to keep chipping away and to have fun while we’re doing it. Kaling’s experiences were a breath of fresh air for me in this department. Perseverance is crucial – it’s not enough to be talented or to have great ideas – for true magic to happen, the work has to get done.