Month: November 2013

27 Nov 2013

what’s working with writing

I’m pretty sure writer’s block is not a thing, but anxiety definitely is. Thought-consuming, brain-addling creative anxiety.

My Bad Brain. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott calls it KFKD, the radio station blasting in your ear reminding you how awful you are. I get that, yes I do, but I think my own breed of anxiety has grown even more insidious. My Good Brain says, “hey, here’s a shred of an idea.” My Bad Brain shows up almost instantly. “Well, if you use that idea, then XXX won’t work and it will be too YYY and then you might want to save that for ZZZ and you’d have to XYZ before you ABC so you might as well not.” Before an idea can exist, much less a word show up on a page, Bad Brain shuts the whole operation down.

A few years ago, I had a significant relationship revelation. I don’t remember the context of our conflict, but I remember feeling so upset that after years and years of being together, things were not getting easier. We were having the same arguments we had when we were 19, 21, 25. I wanted him to do something, to be something. He’d say he was doing that something. I’d say he wasn’t: maybe he thought he was doing that something, but he needed to do it differently, or better. He’d get upset because, from his perspective, I was calling him a liar. This kind of argument never gets resolved. It stays with you for days, that simmering post-argument angst, until it explodes again at some later point with a different “something.”

Later, alone, I worked myself up back into tears. I wanted him to treat me a certain way. He didn’t want to. He obviously didn’t want to because if he wanted to, he would have ABC’d or XYZ’d.

From somewhere in my stressed out, over-scheduled, grad school brain, a single, clarifying question appeared and completely shut me up.

What if you are wrong?

What if you are wrong about him. What if every awful thing you think he thinks about you is wrong. What if you think he isn’t trying, but you are wrong. How would your life be different if everything nasty you thought about yourself, that you believed about your body, your talent, your relationships, your future… what if it was all wrong?

I’m devoting significant attention to shutting up my Bad Brain when it comes to writing. I’m supposing that anything that keeps me from writing down words is Bad Brain. I am supposing that anything Bad Brain could be wrong. Even if Bad Brain is logical or persuasive, that does not mean Bad Brain is right.

This is a surprisingly powerful tool, and maybe the secret to finding a new way to write. It takes the focus off Everything That May Go Wrong with writing and puts it on the things that appear to be working. Even if they are small things. Even if they aren’t important things. Because maybe they aren’t small and maybe they are important. Maybe I’m wrong.

Things That Are Working With Writing

1. Doing really weird things with index cards.

2. Noise-cancelling headphones (50 dollars on Woot!).

3. Going slow. Stopping if things feel forced or wrong.

4. Books, blogs, and podcasts about storycraft.

5. Some strange writing things that are dangerously close to plagiarism, but aren’t really plagiarism.

6. Waking up at 5:30. Exactly thirty minutes of Skyrim with coffee, then only-writing until it’s time to leave for work.

7. A cappella albums on Spotify.

8. Getting into the story every day, lest your story start to feel like a strange, foreign place you don’t want to be.

9. Not shoveling audiobooks, podcasts, and TV shows into my ears 24/7. More like 18/7. Or maybe 21, on a bad day.

10. Saving up for a new laptop. With luck, I will have enough pennies before my current laptop cracks into two pieces.

23 Nov 2013

read – reading – to read

Just read…

Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers and Saints. I read Boxers last weekend. As soon as I finished, I began kicking myself for leaving Saints at work. I am not particularly skilled at talking about graphic novels. When I read a work like Boxers and Saints, I tend to turn the final page and just feel pretty stupefied, unsure of how to comprehend what just happened. However, I am glad I did read them because I traversed out to Harvard Square to see Gene Luen Yang and M.T. Anderson chat, and if I hadn’t read them, I would not have appreciated their discourse as much as I did. I mean, I probably still would have liked it a lot since there are probably not two more charming and brilliant people who could have a chat together, but yeah, it helped.

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. As a hardcore introvert, I really enjoyed this book. And while I’m not sure extroverts in general would want to read this book, I also thought it was a really interesting application of personality theory; Cain explores introversion in various business, educational, and social settings. It’s really quite fascinating, and she makes a good argument for how introverts are treated in general and provides useful tips to help both the introverted and extroverted level the playing field.

Currently reading…

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland. I like reading Curtis Sittenfeld’s books, but I’m not sure if I actually like Curtis Sittenfeld’s books. I like her writing. I like that she writes female characters and pays attention, and respect, to her character’s childhoods, teenage years, and young adulthoods. However, I haven’t really read a Sittenfeld that I finished and said, “Yes, that was a fine, fine book.” Maybe The Man of My Dreams, but it’s been years and years since I’ve read it so maybe I would have a different opinion now. Anyway, I am going to have to muscle to finish this before my audiobook expires, but I am really motivated because Favorite Roommate gave it the following review on Goodreads: “I am completely unable to give this a rating right now, because the action the protagonist takes at the end is resonating negatively with me, and I think I would rate it for my feelings rather than merit itself.” WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN THAT IS SO AWFUL?? I am almost more invested in this book now. That is probably strange.

Martin W. Sandler’s Imprisoned and Abigail Haas’s Dangerous Girls. These two are brought to you from the department of Required Reading. I am glad to see a book for a young audience about Japanese internment, mostly because I had no idea this happened until I was in college and felt a little deceived by my public education. However, so far, I am almost completely distracted by the atrocious page-turns in this big, shiny book. There’s only so many times you can interrupt sentences with giant double-page spreads on completely different topics, Sandler. Dangerous Girls, on the other hand, has me flipping pages without any qualms whatsoever. It’s a YA crime novel – did the protagonist kill her best friend? If it wasn’t her, then was it her two-timing boyfriend? The creepy stalker? The smarmy, rich Dutch boy who bought the girls drinks all night at the bar? It’s very wtf is going on, a little Gone-Girlsy.

Up Next…

Losing It and Catherine Reef’s The Bronte Sisters. Well, the thing about Required Reading is that it begets more Required Reading. I should probably read these two next, just because I gotta. I had Losing It on my TBR shelf and The Bronte Sisters looks pretty accessible so I won’t complain too much.

George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords. Once I finish up Sisterland I will be in the market for a new audiobook. And while I’ve halted my Game of Thrones madness for a few months now, I just… I just… I don’t know. I might be tired of staving it off. Maybe. I don’t know. It’s the freaking holidays, I’m feeling indulgent. I feel like it might be this or Harry Potter. So let’s just not talk about it.

19 Nov 2013

carbs, bad girls, and crying at your desk

Cybils 2013 is in full swing, so it’s about time I give you a little nonfiction update, hmm? I have been reading madly! I am almost done.

(Lies. Lies.

Lies lies lies lies lies)

My failings aside, here are some nominees I have read so far this Cybils season.

Longtime readers know I am a big fan of a good food book. I count Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food as a life-changing read, and when considering this year’s Salt Sugar and Fat, I wished heartily I learned what I know about food and eating when I was a teen. David Kessler’s Your Food is Fooling You is a book that delivers that Eat Real Foods message directly to a younger audience. This book is a primer in appetite management, preaches the avoidance of processed foods, and advocates that teens should take charge of their own health in order to start living healthier happier lives now. Powerful, important stuff. Some of Kessler’s advice seemed a little unrealistic for teens; what teen is able (or willing) to skip a party because somebody might order a pizza? I can’t even do that very often and I’m 28. I also found the text to be a bit dry – I think Pollan does a much better job at drawing out the story in In Defense of Food. I would probably hand Pollan’s book to a teen before this one.

Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple are mother and daughter. Together with illustrator Rebecca Guay, they capture the morally ambiguous lives of a few dozen “bad girls” of history in Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves & Other Female Villains. Short biographies are fun – they give you a quick taste of a person’s historical context, their personal history, and then a bit on why they became famous – or in this case, notorious. I thought the short-form biography was particularly suited for this collection – so many of these questionable ladies were known only for their crimes, and so many of those crimes were just purported. Not too many primary sources about Samson & Delilah. Guay’s illustrations beef up the text, and comic spreads starring Yolen and Stemple tackle the important questions of “did she really do it?” and “even if she did, was she justified?” Not enough information here to write a term paper, but enough to give a taste of the challenges women have faced throughout history.

There are kind of a lot of YA nonfiction books about the Holocaust. Last year I read His Name was Raoul Wallenberg by Louise Borden and Beyond Courage by Doreen Rappaport. This year, I have read Neal Bascomb’s The Nazi Hunters, and now Leon Leyson’s  The Boy on the Wooden Box. This is Leon’s memoir, published after his death in early 2013. Leyson was a child when the Nazis invaded Poland. He survived with some of his family members at the grace of Oskar Schindler. And you know what? I read all those other books. I read The Diary of Anne Frank and Night. I read The Boy on the Wooden Box and just cried. Leyson’s story is astonishing, the writing just right for a younger audience, and, man… you just read it and wish that you could have known him. His attitude, from childhood to his death, is just something else. I didn’t go into this book expecting to love yet another Holocaust book, but I was won over.

(And crying at my desk at work. Highly professional.)

16 Nov 2013

bits and bobs

  • This autumn is my reward for surviving the rest of the year. The weather has been ridiculously mild – everywhere I go in this dang city, the trees are bright orange, the grass still green, and the sky blue blue blue. Since September, my parents have visited and my  sister visited TWICE. The Boy’s parents are coming after Thanksgiving. I’m in the groove of my new schedule and new neighborhood. I’m adjusting to our smaller space. Things feel good.
  • I probably owe some of this newly found equilibrium to those old fashioned mood-improving standbys – food and exercise. In September, we got ourselves a gym membership. It’s been over a year since we’ve had gym access. I was pretty persistent in running as much as I could last year, but the winter months – oh, the winter months. I have some warm-ish running clothes, but if it’s below freezing and there is 6 inches of packed snow and ice on all the sidewalks… yeah, I don’t run. I’ve been having some intermittent foot troubles while running so I decided to switch out my little New Balance minimal running slippers for something hardier. I got fitted at the running store across the street from my library, and you know what? If paying a monthly fee for a gym membership doesn’t motivate me to exercise more, then paying over 100 dollars for a pair of shoes will. I decided to kick it into gear – five workouts a week, bring my gym clothes to work, the whole mess. I’ve gone from run/walking 30 minutes on the treadmill to run/walking 60. I’m trying to up my pace from glacial to just-pretty-slow. I’ve put 50 miles on my new sneaks already. Word.
  • Hey, here’s a thing I learned recently – if I’m not cooking dinner most nights of the week, I’m probably grumpy. I’m not sure if this is a “home-cooked dinner improves mood” situation or a “lack of home-cooked dinner is a sign that you are in a bad mood,” but I’m arguing for the former. I checked out this new cookbook based entirely on the title – Keepers – and that delicious looking pot pie. I made three or four recipes from the book to good ends and added Ex-pat Fried Rice to the regular rotation. I don’t know. Life is just better when there’s warm food around.

  • One of the best things about library work is the variety of daily tasks and projects. When I worked part-time on the public library floor, Monday could be a storytime and a book list, Tuesday setting up a mobile laptop lab and weeding the YA fiction, Wednesday cutting out paper animals for hours followed by breaking up a fight between two 13-year-olds, and so on and so forth. Even though I am a Behind the Scenes librarian now, I am still regularly surprised by what I’m asked to do. We had a new branch opening recently, so we did a lot of stuff this summer to get ready – deciding which books to bring over from the old branch, ordering new books, unpacking the new books and shelving them, etc. One day, I was asked to select two picturebooks to offer as a give-away for the opening day festivities. I’m not sure many people can have the pleasure of buying 700 picturebooks at once. And then I got to SEE all 700 picturebooks, on a cart! Beautiful! Oh, my job. (I picked Emily Gravett’s Again! and Peter Brown’s Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, for the curious)
  • Have I mentioned that The Boy is in a band? I probably haven’t because I kind of hate his band. Not because I give two shits about whether or not The Boy is staying out in all hours of the night, hanging out with delinquent band types. No, I hate his band because the delinquent band-types he hangs out with are a bunch of 20-something male drama queens who regularly miss practice, storm out of rooms during arguments, and start Facebook flame wars. All of which The Boy wants my opinion on. And my opinion is “Your band sucks. You need a new band.” Anyway, despite the fact they are basically dysfunctional, the band persists. If they are playing on a weekend night somewhere that has easy access to public transportation, I try to go. This fall, I’ve watched them play to a nearly empty bar in Somerville, almost ruin a performance at an outdoor music festival in JP, and entertain the attendees of a snowboarding film festival in a swanky downtown hotel. Also, I stayed up way past my bedtime to watch him sit in with a Rolling Stones cover band.
  • Other than that? Reviewing is keeping me busy. Cybils books are keeping me busy. I started painting my nails this year, my back porch kittens found adoptive homes, I spend a lot of time sitting on my new couch playing Skyrim or reading or just hanging out with The Boy and The Peach. This is the life I made for myself. This is it. Hello.
14 Nov 2013

put a bird on it

Do you have stories that haunt you? Do you find yourself reading book after book about some topic you find completely obscure and nowhere near up your alley?

I’ve probably posted about this before, but it’s one of those weird human phenomena that that just tickles me. I am 95% positive my mother will never climb Everett or K2, would never pick up a book called My Life Climbing Mountains. Nevertheless, she finds herself reading mountain climbing books. Crazy!

I’ve wondered if I have one of these. Most of the weird repeating topics in my reading life are my own, weird doing.

And then I met the Ivory Billed Woodpecker.


As all barely interesting stories do, this story begins in grad school. I was assigned Phillip Hoose’s The Race to Save the Lord God Bird. A good IBWO primer.

A month later, I picked up John Corey Whaley’s Where Things Come Back. Suspicions rising…

This fall, the dang bird started showing up every which where. The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt. The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. I didn’t read the latter, but that’s TWO woodpeckers on the National Book Award short lists this year. Strange indeed.


Maybe it’s just birds in general? Maybe once one is exposed to one distinct bird, other birds become more noticeable? James Audubon too, for that matter. I learned a little about him in Race to Save the Lord God Bird, then read what felt like an ode to him in Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now. When his name popped up in Sugar Man Swamp, we were old pals. That book is like, bird city.

Perusing my Read shelf on Goodreads reminded me that I’ve also read Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets this year. Does one bird count? Even if he’s a pigeon? And imaginary? I also read Phillip Hoose’s Moonbird last winter. I would recommend this title to bird sympathizers, yes, but I don’t think it necessarily counts for this particular purpose, because A) It’s nonfiction and B) It was Required Reading for last year’s Cybils award. It lacks kismet.

Perhaps it is possible that I am trying to invent myself a reading quirk? Maybe. Stranger things have happened. I tend to my reading life like other tend to homes, careers, families, children, massively multi-player online role-playing games, stamp collections, fantasy sports leagues, classic cars. I find pleasure in my reading life. I find value in my reading life.  I often ascribe meaning to the books I read that really has nothing to do with that book. And yeah, sometimes, I’m downright weird about it.

Now excuse me, I’m going to make like a hipster and buy this night-light for my apartment.


11 Nov 2013

a hundred

Last weekend, I finished my 100th book of 2013 – The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb. One hundred! Every year I challenge myself to finishing 100 books, so now I am done. Consider this blog shut down until 2014. Closed for hibernation.

Oh, I am just kidding. Contrary to popular opinion, I actually have things I’d like to post about between now and January 1. And remember when I made a huge stinking deal about not reading for a week? Yeah, it’s not like I’m going to stop at 100. Heck, I had to read like 104 to convince Goodreads I’d met my goal of 100 since I re-read Game of Thrones so many damn times.

It’s actually been a few years since I had to put in any real, concerted effort to get to 100. Grad school will do that to a person. Serving on awards committees and writing professional reviews will do that to a person. It’s not much of a challenge anymore.

But I’m reluctant to tinker with the number. I like reading 100 books a year, but it never feels like “not enough” reading. If anything, I sometimes wish I could read some longer, intense books without feeling the constant pressure to move forward. Once, I seriously considered giving myself a “reverse quota” – only reading 50 books in the year. But then I think about allllll the books in the wide wide world that I will never get to read if I don’t read more more more more and then I want to read 200 a year.

I will probably just stick with one hundred. It feels substantial. It’s doable. It’s round. It’s high enough to keep me from slacking off and low enough so I’m never frantic. It’s nice. It’s familiar. I’ve been doing it for years. I’ll probably do it again.

I love reading about how other people read, so I’m looking forward to reading about everyone’s 2014 reading goals in the coming months. If I think of anything more creative than “I’ll just read 100,” I will let you know.

05 Nov 2013

the ones you don’t get to read, part deux

I am a bit of a reading voyeur/exhibitionist.

This is news to nobody.

I enjoyed reading Janssen’s post last week about books she gave up on.

Ah. How interesting. I have plenty of friends who just can’t give up on books! They balk at the very suggestion that instead of wasting their time on a book the so obviously do not enjoy, they might, you know, not read that book. Heck, I even have friends who read entire bad SERIES! I’m not here to slam your reading habits, though. I only rarely give up on books myself, but I try to reserve the desperate-reading-slog for books I have another incentive to finish.

Just Read What You Want.

Anyway. While I don’t have enough DNF books in my recent memory to share them with you, I do have an ABUNDANCE of unread books from my main source of non-reading bad habits: the good old, Check-out, Don’t Read, Return dance. Otherwise known as The Ones That Got Away. Or, One Librarian’s Quest to Singlehandedly and Artificially Boost Her Library’s Circ Stats, One Book At A Time.

Anyway, these books, I didn’t get to read. Allow me to exhibition them for you.


The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

Hot summer title buzz. We ordered and reordered this one. My new-found fantasy radar dinged. I placed it on hold.

… I wondered why it was so huge and heavy looking. I think my Favorite Roommate texted me to lament over the ridiculous family tree printed on the inside cover.

Basically, I did not accept the challenge. Wimpy wimp wimp.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

This one was huge and heavy looking, too, but OH how I wanted to read it. I did. I read the first few pages and my heart sighed. Remind me to tell you about how much I love Elizabeth Gilbert. Go ahead, judge away, you cannot halt my affections. Her writing just sings to me. And I was so sad to have to return it.

Just One Day by Gayle Forman

Look guys. I don’t want to give up on reading Gayle Forman, but if you knew how many times I have checked out her books without reading them, your head would spin. I don’t know why! Maybe I need to apply the good old Bring One Book While You Are Trapped on an Airplane technique. Or try audio, which is actually a similar tactic. “You are going to LISTEN to this book while you DO THE DISHES and there’s NOTHING YOU CAN DO TO AVOID IT.” Force-reading. Yeah, THAT’S fun…

The Yonahlossee Riding Camps for Girls by Anton DiSclafani

I got an inkling that I wanted to read a lot of summer camp books this summer, since I love summer camp books. This adult fic book popped up right around that same time, so I was excited.

Then the summer got away from me. Ah well.

I am questioning the validity of this post. Does anyone actually want to read why I *didn’t* read a random set of books? Am I making a valuable contribution to… anything? I’m afraid I’m too far into this post to worry about that now. I must trudge forth.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

Another Hot Summer Book that languished, ignored, on my shelf.

Gorgeous by Paul Rudnick

And a Hot Summer YA Book that I let go to pasture, as well. It feels worse when my unread books are light and fluffy. It would have taken me one Saturday morning to finish this one. ONE Saturday morning! What was I doing for all of those Saturdays? Statistically speaking, playing Skyrim. Shame shame shame.