What I’ve been reading: Summer version

What’s been going on lately? Well, it’s a rather unimpressive litany of failing to exercise regularly, struggling with revision, work, a brief (but wondrous) trip to Rome, summer. Sometimes the world feels like it’s falling apart (or maybe that’s just what Donald Trump would have us believe), but I’m constantly reminded that there’s always beauty and—thank goodness—books. Here’s what I’ve been reading, listed in no particular order!

Middle Grade and YA

Ink and Bone (The Great Library) by Rachel Caine – This was an amazing series opener with real thrills and provocative questions set in a very compelling world (Thank you, Linda Perez at Albany Middle School for telling me about this one!). Basically, power is concentrated in libraries, who use mystical means to control reading materials—and therefore people. From initial exalted principles the Great Library has festered into a den of corruption. Thrust into appalling danger, a diverse and appealing group of librarians-in-training try to survive war, betrayal, and each other. Loved this, and have already gulped up the recently released sequel, Paper and Fire.

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff – I admit to initial trepidation because the story is put together through various comms and IMs, redacted reports, ships logs, and so on, and usually I prefer the illusion created by “traditional narrative” (insofar as such a thing actually exists). But I was wrong to resist. This was incredibly fun and speedy. Space disaster, conspiracy, love, and valor.

Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung – Funny and heartwarming tale of a Korean American girl’s rather unexpected discoveries about her family. There are a lot of crazy, snort-laugh moments (of course, it’s Mike Jung!) but incredible feeling as well. Such a great middle grade—and I must mention the launch party was amazing.

The Wrinkled Crown by Anne Nesbet – I’ve loved all of Anne’s books for their magical imagination, deep sensitivity, and delightful world-building. This story, about a girl who builds a musical instrument, setting in motion a chain of life-changing events, is not to be missed. Friendship, music, and loveliness.

Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee – In 1906 San Francisco, Mercy Wong is determined to make a better life for herself and her family. Irresistible blend of pluck and big-heartedness. I’m in awe of people who write historicals, especially those that feel immediate and you-are-there real. Stacey Lee does it again. Yay, Stacey!

The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye – Dueling magicians in an alternate Tsarist Russia. Lots of lovely illusions, gowns, and confections. Very stunning, from another awesome Bay Area writer. This was an immediate bestseller, and it’s easy to see why: suspense, magic, a headstrong heroine, and yummiest boys!

Shadow Magic by Joshua Khan – A boy on the run finds friends and purpose in a kingdom of dark magic. Super fun middle grade, with spookiness and a giant bat!

Adult(ish)

How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell – A huge delight and an extremely comforting book. Montaigne lived through harrowing times (religious wars between Catholics and Protestants) that brought out the worst in humanity. Somehow he kept his equanimity and wrote his Essais. Bakewell is fantastic at making Montaigne feel vital and modern.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout – reminded me strongly of Alice Munro, in that it’s absolutely gripping even though it seems like not much is happening. Terrible things are hinted at, but curiously, not much is revealed (making the couple of details that are remembered starkly horrifying). She has that magic touch of being able to say profound things about life in beautifully limpid, naturalistic language.

The Past by Tessa Hadley – I became a fan of Hadley’s through her stories in the New Yorker. She has such a beautiful prose style, coupled with clear-eyed insight about people—women’s lives in particular. Without a lot of fanfare, she hones in on the moments that in retrospect are huge turning points. This story, about siblings and others gathering at their family’s country house for one last summer before selling it, is near perfect.

Career of Evil by JK Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith – Another murder mystery in the Cormoran Strike series. Perfectly entertaining and fine, except that it’s hard not to see her strengths and faults thrown into relief. For me, I guess the disappointment has been in realizing that she has great imagination, but rather limited (or maybe old-fashioned) ideas. Still, I anticipate reading more of these.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin – In a land battered by geologic activity, some have the ability to control the earth. Strikingly original, with a narrative that jumps in time and POV (with a twist). I picked this up after reading an interview with Jemisin in the Guardian. It’s stuck with me long after I finished it. (Needless to say, I will be reading the sequel, The Obelisk Gate.)

The Terracotta Bride by Zen Cho – This was a short, and I’m so glad I took a chance on it. A hilariously deadpan and imaginative vision of the afterlife that lingers in the mind.

The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin –
Of course I had to read the finale of this epic vampire trilogy! We finally get the backstory of what went down in that Bolivian jungle so many years ago. Zero’s narrative felt a tiny bit underwhelming after the grand craziness of before. But I’ve loved the scale and sweep of this series. All in all, a mindblowing achievement.

Happy reading and happy summer everyone!

Rome!

It’s a long story, but I ended up taking the kids to Rome last week by myself, and it was great.

Really, I should have been doing more of this all along (I say that without having looked recently at my bank balance – it’s not the sort of thing I can easily afford, but oh well). It actually wasn’t that hard to travel by myself with two kids. We didn’t push ourselves, but each day we had adventures. And I think it helped that we stayed just in Rome for the week. We didn’t feel pressured to see everything in just a couple days (which is impossible anyway). Instead, we relaxed, and got to feel that we were Romans for a week.

One of the movies I loved last year was The Great Beauty (I bought the soundtrack and listen to it constantly for writing music), which is set in Rome. I thought that this guy at the Capitoline is the river god that Tony Servilio sat next to in the movie poster, but now I’m not so sure…

IMG_1015

Anyway, the Capitoline is one of my favorite museums. You can’t beat the view over the Forum, and it’s not that crowded. Plus, this …

IMG_1008

I remember studying this statue of Constantine in art history. It’s so amazing it’s just sitting out there in the courtyard. But that’s what I love about Rome, there’s something incredible around every corner, no big deal.

IMG_1073

IMG_1072

When I was in Rome a million years ago, I missed getting in to see the Pantheon because it had just closed. On this trip, we not only went inside, but then had lunch across from it, staying for a good couple hours. (It was hot, and the cafe had this amazing mist machine… heaven!)

I had a wonderful class on the Romantic poets in college, but somehow I didn’t realize the huge influence Italy had on them. The Keats Shelley house is right by the Spanish Steps.

IMG_1024

The kids were troupers, only sometimes complaining of all the museum-going. (The Vatican museum was especially challenging. It was simply packed, to the point where we felt we were just pushed along by crowds of people all with the aim of getting to Sistine Chapel, where we stood miserably crushed together feeling like we were in a cattle pen.) But of course, the Vatican has things like this:

IMG_1035

My one stroke of genius was that each kid could have a day to choose what we did and decide things. For her day, Simone wanted the beach. We took the train north (this was fun: a little challenge involving the tickets, the destination, even finding what platform we should be at—and we had to run for the train and made it just in time). Santa Marinella was a little beach town about an hour away. Just gorgeous. We spent the afternoon dozing under an umbrella, reading and people-watching.

IMG_1098

We’re back now, and the whole trip feels a little bit like a dream. My hope was that while I was there I’d gain a different perspective on things, and possibly uncork some new ideas. I did have some thoughts and vague inklings of new stories. But even if nothing results in terms of stories or manuscripts, it was good to do. Now back to normal life!

Books I’ve read lately

I feel guilt in so many ways, it’s rather pathetic that one of my profoundest guilts is that I read so many books and never post about them. This list doesn’t include a host of recent reads, but it is at least a first step!

The Vacationers, by Emma Straub
I started this, fittingly enough, in an airport. It’s an incredibly enjoyable read about a family of New Yorkers (plus friends, lovers, etc.) on a two-week vacation in Mallorca. Settled into the world’s most glorious vacation house, they work out their fates in a setting of primal beauty, their interactions observed with a sharp but compassionate humor that reminded me strongly of Meg Wolitzer. Incredible descriptions of food; this book is almost impossible to read without craving ham.

The Blackthorn Key, by Kevin Sands
A middle-grade novel about alchemy and derring-do set in mid-Seventeenth Century London. I loved how this book convinced me of its time period and setting without creating any distance with the characters or language. It’s full of puzzles and clues, danger, plots, and a very touching friendship. Highly recommended!

A Court of Thorns and Roses, by Sarah J. Maas
Sarah J. Maas is incredibly successful with YA fantasy, and though her books aren’t exactly my cup of tea, she’s hard to put down. I admire her storytelling, though I admit, I have a hard time with books where all the guys are hot, and where the girl somehow performs amazing feats against adversaries who should by all rights crush her immediately. Right there, you can see that I am totally missing the point! Sexy fairies!

Gold Fame Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins
Apocalyptic, literary, compelling, and beautifully written (gorgeous, gorgeous), but in the end, hard to warm to. I should have loved it, as it’s all about the desert and water and crazy, damaged people.

Underworld, by Don DeLillo
I don’t know why I picked this up. (Well, I do know, but the reasons are complicated and involve hard-to-articulate dislike for David Foster Wallace. I will stop there.) But it really is amazing. It is big and stuffed, and filled with things that feel like digressions (the Texas Highway Killer! OMG!) but actually are intrinsic, because they all fit together into American life. Before Underworld, I sometimes found DeLillo chilly. But the people in this book feel absolutely human and vital. And the baseball game prologue. That alone. Wow.

The latest news from revision land

Photo of coffee brewing by Karl Fredrickson

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged lately, despite my best intentions. And suddenly it’s April. April is indeed the “cruellest month” to quote T.S. Eliot—but not for the reasons given in The Wasteland. It’s because, after I’ve spent months luxuriating in the newness, the beginningness of a fresh year, April comes as such a shock: holy crap, the year’s already one quarter over.

Where has the time gone?

First, I’ve been slowly but steadily plugging away on The Shadow Clock. Ari, my editor, sent me her notes at the end of November, and I spent December and January trying to strengthen the story and make everyone’s motivations clearer. The distressing problem with books set in a magical world where heists and thievery are prominent is that everything must also make logical sense. Go figure! At any rate, I’m writing a new draft now. But February and March are always impossible months for me—things like taxes or my daughter’s birthday can take whole weekends out of play, and then I’m left with the tiny scraps at night when I’m propping my eyelids open or the slug-brained times at 5 in the morning when I’m trying to jolt myself awake with coffee.

Maybe at some future point I’ll write more about how I’m approaching the revision. But the short version is—resist, panic, drag feet, then take a deep breath and crack it open. One of the biggest things I can do for a successful revision is not rail against my situation. Yes, I’m busy, and my job and home life mean I can’t spend as much time on it as I’d like. So what? My novel notes file is full of lectures to myself about how it doesn’t matter a bit how I feel. Stop paying attention to feelings about the work and simply do the work!

On the subject of being busy (and illustrating my incorrigible tendency to overcommit), I’ve been consulting for Write the World, a global student writing community. I first met the Write the World group back in November of last year when I was a judge for their novel writing competition. I was so impressed by the quality of the student entries, and so intrigued by their mission and community, I asked if there was a way I could continue to be involved. What I find so great about this site is the emphasis it places on getting constructive feedback and revising as part of the writing process. I can’t help but think if I had learned to embrace revision earlier, I might have had a much smoother journey. Write the World offers writing prompts and monthly competitions. If you have high school age kids or know teachers who would be interested in sharing this with their students, please check them out.

In January I made a list of writing goals for the year; one of them was to write and submit four short stories to literary journals (I am nothing if not crazy aggressive in my goals). Well, I have one written and submitted so far. This is a huge accomplishment for me. When I was in my MFA program, I struggled with short stories. I kept feeling like I was doing them wrong. I didn’t get them. And of course I was so thin-skinned about rejection, I gave up immediately if a piece didn’t get accepted. During the past few years, I’ve been so focused on novels, I’d kind of forgotten all about short stories. But there was something about this idea that I kept returning to. It was something I really wanted to write, and I knew it was a short story, and not some other form. So now it’s out there, hopefully finding a home. Be well and spread your wings, little short story!

Cover of Deep Singh Blue by Ranbir Singh SidhuSpeaking of my MFA program … one of the talented writers I met there was Ranbir Singh Sidhu, who’s just written a great novel called Deep Singh Blue. I had the chance to review Deep Singh Blue for the literary journal Your Impossible Voice. That review has just appeared, and Ranbir’s book has just come out. It really is a gorgeous, funny, tragic coming-of-age story. Plus, it has an only-in-California hot tub scene. Definitely worth checking out.

Here it is on IndieBound. And you can read more on Ranbir’s blog. Though be warned, he lives an utterly enviable lifestyle. If I chuck it all and move to Crete, you’ll know who to blame!

 

Awesome coffee photo by Karl Fredrickson from Unsplash.com.

Upcoming events

I’ll be speaking at the California Writers Club, Mt. Diablo Branch, on May 14 at a banquet to honor young writers for the club’s 2016 Young Writers Contest.  My talk is going to be about “Turning Ideas Into Stories.”

Later this summer, I’ll be at the Mendocino Writers Conference, August 4-6. I’m so excited about this, as I love Mendocino, and I’m really looking forward to meeting some of the other writers who will be there.

 

 

The haunting of the gaps

Photo of winter road by Jon Ottosson

Photo by Jon Ottosson

I was going through old notes for a story and found this piece I’d saved. I find it has an eerie resonance that keeps me thinking about it.

It’s from “The Couch” series in the New York Times. “A Tale of Two Twins,” by Galit Atlas, the story of Noah, who as a boy was obsessed with death and obituaries and who—it turns out—had a dead sibling with his same name born a few years before he was, whom his parents covered up.

We all have our phantoms. But as the psychoanalysts Maria Torok and Nicholas Abraham once wrote, ‘what haunts us are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.’ They were referring to intergenerational secrets and unprocessed experiences that very often don’t have a voice or an image associated with them but loom in our minds nonetheless. We carry emotional material that belongs to our parents and grandparents, retaining losses of theirs that they never fully articulated. We feel these traumas even if we don’t consciously know them. Old family secrets live inside us.

This feels so true. A secret, even if it isn’t yours, takes up emotional space. It can be sensed and felt. As I write, I try to imagine the invisible secrets and gaps that haunt my characters.

2015 in review

Photo of fireworks

Photo by Kazuend from Unsplash


 
As I finished writing this, I just found out that my wonderful friend Cynthia Jaynes Omololu passed away this morning in her sleep after living in style and with spirit for more than a year and a half with stage 4 cancer. I can’t even begin to list the ways that I’m grateful to her or how deeply this news affects me. What a reminder to go forth and live with the time we have remaining!

Every year I try to look back on highlights and progress. Here are some of the things that made 2015 memorable.

Writing
I’m proud that I finished the draft of The Shadow Clock, started the revision for it, began other writing projects, and even finished the first short story that I’ve written in ages, all while working, commuting, and being a mom.

It’s getting tougher, though. I find I cannot stay up at night to write like I used to. My sleep patterns have changed and I’m often far too tired now after work. Or if I stay up I cannot then get to sleep. So 2016 will be a challenge as I tweak my process and schedules and try to be relentlessly disciplined. I have so much more I want to write, and it is up to me to do it.

Lovely writer friends’ book launches
I’m eternally grateful to have such wonderful writer friends. I was lucky enough to get out to a few launch parties and celebrate them:

I know I’m forgetting people or leaving them off. So please forgive me!

Elena Ferrante
I was enthralled by Elena Ferrante from the very first pages of My Brilliant Friend. I read all four books through late summer, by the soccer fields, on the train to work, lugging around paper copies and constantly dog-earing favorite pages or marking up favorite passages.

I often feel American literary fiction works very hard to convince that it’s important, and it often announces this ambition through style. It’s relentlessly written.

So I love the directness, the brusqueness, the rawness of Ferrante. With such humble material – a friendship between two poor girls – there is no place to hide. I thought about cooking and how (as I’ve heard multiple times) it takes real skill to make a dish of simple ingredients. I think it’s hard to write so naturally and honestly about real life.

There was so much I related to in the struggle to be free and self-determined, a female artist and mother. But beyond that, I especially loved how the struggle to escape the past is rendered so physically – how fathers and mothers are there almost as monsters inside their children. How a pair of shoes can have such meaning. How two dolls from childhood can cause shivers. Absolutely masterful.

Music
Uh, this was year I probably listened to the most Drake I ever have. Really, I just gave up and listened to Drake constantly. He was always there, so what could I do?! But I’m somehow disappointed or feel lazy. I feel the need to branch out more, musically. Just tons of pop/rap, I’ve given up on … I don’t even know what to call it, “alternative”? Haven’t listened to rock in forever. I listened to familiar stuff because I was working and needed not to think. Perhaps my avoidance of “difficulty” is why I resisted Kendrick Lamar’s ambition on To Pimp a Butterfly and found myself singing along to Fetty Wap instead.

There was some late happiness on the classical front. I heard “The Bells of St. Genevieve” by Martin Marais for the first time randomly on the radio and loved it. Also, I am super excited to be following this Spotify playlist: “Peaceful Choral Music by Living Composers” – aside from the music, I love the oddly specific title. And it is exactly as advertised, so yay!

And a last minute discovery coming at the close of the year. I loved the gorgeous choral work “I Lie,” which I encountered first on the soundtrack to The Great Beauty. Then what joy to discover that the composer, David Lang, also was responsible for the score to Youth, another beautiful Sorrentino movie, and that he wrote the gorgeous “Simple Song #3” for the film. I predict I’ll listen to much more David Lang in 2016.

Art
I got out to only a few shows in 2015, but loved Keith Haring “The Political Line” at the de Young, as well as the show on Turner, “Painting Set Free.” Both made me see anew.

I can’t wait for the new downtown BAM/PFA to open in Berkeley. And it will be wonderful to have SF MOMA back again. Hoping that 2016 is filled with art and museum-going.

Film
It was yet another year of low-level moviegoing. Here are a few favorites.

  • Creed: Just when I think I cannot be a bigger Michael B. Jordan fan, Creed comes along. Jordan and director Ryan Coogler blew me away with Fruitvale Station last year and made me cry. Creed made me smile. And Sylvester Stallone is great in this!
  • Mistress America: This was absolutely lovely. Greta Gerwig is fantastic.
  • Youth: Saw this at the very close of the year and so far it is staying with me. May we all have careers as long-lived and varied as Michael Caine’s!

Life and the rest
Kids are growing, soccer abounds. Grant continues to press forward on multiple creative projects, leaving me in awe. Our dog is still handsome and yet something of a pain. I would like to drink less red wine and go back to cross-fit (2015 was a year of alarming sedentary-ness). But perhaps most of all I hope to get enough sleep and reflect positive energy back into the world.

Happy 2016 to all!

November, NaNoWriMo, and feeding the imagination

A still life by Willem Claeszoon Heda on TheSwedishParrot.com

Willem Claeszoon Heda – Nature morte à la tourte aux mûres

November’s almost over. Today I’m out in my chilly home office, trying to write a little bit, but not expecting to make a major surge in word count. And that’s okay.

I love NaNoWriMo. But the truth is, I’ve never succeeded in making it to 50,000 words in November. Partly, it’s just a really bad month for me at work. One of our clients has a huge event at the beginning of December, and somehow an extra couple hours here and there takes all my available writing time. In November, if I’m getting up at 4:45 am to work, it’s for the client, not for a story. It’s also a key time for soccer. We had games all over the place, including my daughter’s State Cup weekend in Ripon, California (out by Manteca, in case you’re wondering).

But even with everything else swirling around, I managed to make progress on a story I’ve wanted to work on forever. And that makes me very, very happy. So even though my NaNo always starts with a focus on a big word goal, I always end the month appreciating how much even small bits of writing can have a big impact.

There’s another reason, I never make it to 50,000 words. November always reminds me that rest is important in writing, just as much as activity. This time of year I always think my main duty is to lay in mulch for my imagination—feed it with sleep and walks and daydreams. If November and Day of the Dead is a time when the barrier between worlds thins, I try to take advantage of it.

It’s also the month of gratitude. I’ve written before about how I try to visualize my muse, Bell, and ask her for help. But I also try to repay the favor, maybe especially in November when I ask so much of her. As much as I love to receive the surprising things she brings me, I also try to make lists of what I want to give her. Here’s one from my notebook:

Things I would give to Bell as thanks for working in my subconscious: midnight suppers like Dutch natures mortes: oysters, silver, crystal goblets, lemons, figs dusted with sugar, cheese stinking under thin crusts of rind. Tapestries on the wall, chairs of old and bloodied lineage. A room full of air plants and curling orchids suspended from glass centerpieces. The smell of the dark room, the mysterious photographer. Vampires with good manners. Vampires with bad manners. French gardens for masqued balls and English gardens for kissing the wrong person in. Modernist homes of California. Sea cliffs. Vineyards in autumn, leaves like golden flames traced over the hills. Even the trip to Ripon, the silvery bleached color of trees in the Central Valley in winter, all the shades of brown and gray.

Happy end of November, all!

I’m judging a novel competition for Write the World!

I’ve just been so impressed by Write the World–an online community of young writers. Every month there’s a new writing competition, complete with prompts, advice, peer reviews, and guest judges. In the spirit of National Novel Writing Month, Write the World is holding a novel writing competition, and I have the honor of being their guest judge! I’m working through the final entries right now. In the meantime, here’s my Q&A in which I try to dispense writing advice!

NaNoWriMo kickoff party at Albany Library!

East Bay friends! Are you getting ready for National Novel Writing Month? Come to this fantastic event at the Albany Library for fun, swag, and motivation with yours truly and mon mari, Grant Faulkner, head of National Novel Writing Month. Let’s write novels in November!

Wednesday, October 28 at 6 pm
Event details at Eventbrite.

nanwrimo

NaNoWriMo kickoff at Albany Library 10/28

NaNoWriMo kickoff at Albany Library October 28, 2015