Book Review – Mom at Last

Here’s a copy of a book review I posted on Amazon and Goodreads. I’m also interviewing Sharon Simons, author of Mom at Last, later this month and posting that interview here as part of her WOW! Women On Writing Blog Tour. I’ll be setting up the interview soon and would love some comments and ideas for questions about the book, the writing process or what it’s like to finally be a mom at last.

Review for Mom at Last: How I Never Gave Up on Becoming a Mother

I’m not a mom, but still found plenty to identify with in Sharon Simons’s Mom at Last: How I Never Gave Up on Becoming a Mother. Whether because of failed first marriages or wasted time with boyfriends whose true motives and motivations don’t become clear until months into a relationship, many readers will find it easy to understand how Simons reached her late thirties without finding the husband — and future father — of her dreams. She’s fortunate enough to discover both in Rick, a surgeon who already had kids of his own, but was willing to give fatherhood another try for her sake. As it turns out, finding her prince was the easiest step on her long road to motherhood. Simons endures three in-vitro fertilization procedures, a miscarriage that almost kills her in both body and spirit, an almost-laughably bad Big Brothers/Big Sisters experience, and a harrowing journey to Siberia before finally becoming a Mom at Last, and I think many women will see some of their own lives in the path she took to get there.SharonAuthorPic

More Things to Be Thankful for in 2013

In a continuation of my post on extending my thirty days of thankfulness into the new year, here are a few more reasons to give thanks.

Friends_titlesI am thankful for my friends. Since I moved away from my family to attend graduate school in 1997, an ever-changing cast of characters has become my second family. And though the names in the credits have changed over the years depending on my location and theirs, there are more than a few I could call any day for solace and shenanigans that would put sitcom script writers to shame.

I am thankful for books. Books offered a window into the wider world beyond my tiny northeast Arkansas town. They also gave me fodder for the longest-lasting and best independent study course I will ever have. The self-selected syllabus included core texts like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Little House on the Prairie series early on and has since expanded to encompass everything from Jude Deveraux romance novels to the brilliant nonfiction 150px-Among_the_Thugsof Bill Buford.

I am thankful for the American education system. That might be a rare and unexpected assertion from a former K-12 teacher, but it is true. To be sure, the American education system has its flaws, and its far from fair and equal. However, it did equip me with the tools and desire to earn a degree from one of the best-respected universities in the country and go on to work at one of the largest daily newspapers in the nation. And my sister did as well or better, earning a medical degree and completing a residency in the heart of the Research Triangle. Not bad considering neither of our parents even earned their eighth grade diplomas.

Promoting Books on Pinterest

Here’s a link to my latest article in WOW! Women On Writing about how authors and others in the publishing industry are using Pinterest to promote their work. Now, all I need to do is write my own prose to pin.

Confessions of a Book Hoarder

According to a 2011 survey, the average Briton has 80 books on their shelves they have never read. Of those 80 titles, 70 percent have never been opened, with 40 percent of survey respondents admitting their copies of classics like Pride and Prejudice and The Hobbit are just for looks and will probably gather dust until the day they disintegrate. That is, unless that book jacket for Jane Eyre is cleverly concealing a copy of Confessions of a Shopaholic.

But Brits aren’t the only readers with confessions to make. I, too, have many unread titles on my shelves, some of which have made multiple moves with me. So, this fall, I’ve resolved to read only the books I already own, review them on Goodreads, and offer them up for exchange on book swapping websites. That means I’m not making any trips to the bookstore for new titles. I’m even taking the library card out of my wallet.

My reward for this virtuous act of word recycling will be a clear conscience and, hopefully, an even clearer set of shelves to fill with fresh fodder in the new year.

If you’d like to join me in this endeavour, send me a friend request through Goodreads. I’ll accept because, frankly, I need all the encouragement I can get.

I’d Love to Meet That Deadline, but I’ve Got to Bake Some Cupcakes

My best friend and I recently attended book tour events by two very different authors whose presentations had a surprising number of factors in common. They also made me wonder whether I should learn to bake my own high-end cupcakes, force myself to write a book a year, start developing a monologue for a future book tour or wake up at 4 o’clock every morning to try accomplishing all those things at once.

The two authors, Alexander McCall Smith and Jennifer Weiner, both write fiction that appeals mostly to women, but that’s where the surface similarities end. McCall Smith is best known for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series which stars “Mma Ramotswe, the endearing, engaging, simply irresistible proprietress of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, the first and only detective agency in Botswana.” Weiner is famous for novels with plucky and plump protagonists who, she says, often “are a lot like me and have an ex boyfriend a lot like Satan.” In contrast, Satan doesn’t come into play in McCall Smith’s novels, which feature protagonists that seem to bear no resemblance to the 60-something Scotsman who created them.

That said, both seem to see their fictional characters as living, breathing people, and it comes through in their work.

During his presentation, McCall Smith frequently amused himself as much as he did his audience while recalling the exploits of six-year-old Bertie, a bilingual, saxophone-playing prodigy who is the constant victim of his pushy mother’s aspirations in the author’s 44 Scotland Street series.

During her talk, Weiner responded to a question about her first fictional protagonist, Cannie, by saying that “she definitely has a future,” and that future depends much on where the author’s own life journey leads.

Both are incredibly prolific.

Including her first novel, released in 2001, Weiner’s published 12 books and collaborated on countless other projects between book tours and birthing babies. Weiner has 11 events on her schedule this month alone, including the one where I saw her in the Saint Louis area. I’m not sure when she finds time to write, but I’m pretty positive she cranks out copy a lot faster than I can.

McCall Smith, a retired medical law professor, has penned more than 50 books since his first, published in 1978. That’s better than a book a year. And McCall Smith’s latest promotional tour has six stops in seven days in October. I know rock bands with members in their 20s who can’t keep that pace.

Both treat their readers with respect.

Each author answered questions they must have heard hundreds of times before with a quick wit that made their responses funny and fresh. Weiner even referred one reader with a question on how to write her own novel to a section on her website that conveniently breaks the process into 10 stages, the first two being “The Unhappy Childhood” and “The Miserable Love Life.” Clearly, she’d been asked the question before, but she didn’t mind answering it again or sharing her insights with readers who might never make it to one of her events.

Both were incredibly engaging.

I went to these events expecting a reading, a signing session and maybe an audience Q and A. What each author offered was a full-on, laugh-out-loud monologue that simultaneously explained their popularity as writers and made me want to friend them on Facebook. I’d like to be able to say the two writers were equally engaging, but Weiner dropped the F-bomb in an upscale mall store at least twice and provided gourmet red velvet cupcakes. Given that, McCall Smith just couldn’t compete.

Books and Teachers – They Change Lives

Almost anything can be a source of inspiration. Although the subject may seem simplistic to some, I believe a writer can bring any topic to life if they write about it from the heart. A reader can sense that heart behind a piece, even if the subject doesn’t appeal. And true magic happens when a writer’s heart speaks to a reader’s heart at just the right moment in time. For writer and Spokane Indian Sherman Alexie, that moment came when he picked up Ezra Jack Keats’s “The Snowy Day,” a beautifully simple story about a young boy exploring during the first snowfall of the season.

“It was the first time I looked at a book and saw a brown, black, beige character — a character who resembled me physically and resembled me spiritually, in all his gorgeous loneliness and splendid isolation,” Alexie said when accepting the National Book Award for young people’s literature for “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”

Like Alexie, I remember a similar moment of connection with a set of fictional characters. Although I was a voracious reader long before my incredible high school English teacher, Anna Belle Akers, recommended Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club,” that recommendation was a turning point in my life as a reader, writer and student. It was the first time I really sensed a teacher viewed me as an individual and — almost — an intellectual equal. It was also the first time a writer and her fictional characters seemed to be speaking directly to me.

As a writer working on several non-fiction projects and just beginning the first draft of a children’s book, I can only dream of creating that heart-to-heart connection with readers some day. As a teacher, I aspire every day to be as inspirational as that high school English teacher who was insightful and courageous enough to recommend a book featuring concubines and opium overdoses to a high school kid who would one day become a writer and teacher herself.

Southerners – We Can’t Win a War, But We Can Write

This weekend marked Harper Lee’s birth 86 years ago and I could think of no better occasion than the birthday of one of the most celebrated and famously un-prolific Southern writers to return to blogging after a long absence. In fact, it was watching a recent documentary on Lee that brought a question to mind. What makes some Southerners* such darn good writers? Upon reflection, I settled on five factors I believe contribute to the quality of Southern prose.

1. Southerners, almost without exception, have chips on their shoulders.  The reasons for this are many, varied, and depend on the particular Southerner. Some of the most obvious are that the South lost the Civil War and — both literally and figuratively — has never been able to recover. Another is that when people who aren’t familiar with the region think of it, vivid imagery from novels like Deliverance spring to mind. That 1970 book penned by Southerner James Dickey portrayed Georgia mountain folk as “toothless sociopaths” in the words or one New York Times article, and showed that — when necessary — even Southern city boys could become sociopaths, albeit with better teeth. And, though people who are familiar with the South know not every trip to the backwoods ends in peril, we have to admit some do.

2. Southerners are their own antagonists. Historically, we’ve seemed to sabotage our own progress on almost every front. I believe this is true economically, socially and racially. As just one example, we are the group that has lived and worked side-by-side with African Americans for the longest period of our shared histories. Slave owners were perhaps the best known and most prolific “race mixers.” But rather than parlaying that rocky history into solidarity after all these years, the South is still viewed as the region with the thorniest race relations. This self-sabotage is perhaps best illustrated in William Faulkner’s novel Absalom! Absalom! And, for those without the patience for Faulkner’s prose, the sentiment can probably best be expressed by the quote from the Pogo comic strip, notably set in the Okefenokee Swamp: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

3. Southerners are natural storytellers. Not much happens in small Southern towns, so the storytellers among us learn early and often to embellish even the most everyday occurrences. For example, I know one ophiophobic Arkansan who can stretch a story about a backyard run in with a snake into an amusing hour-long yarn. This particular lady is such a storyteller that her own husband didn’t believe her when she called him from a hospital emergency room to report she’d had a heart attack. This factor helps explain why Southerners have written some of the most entertaining memoirs, including The Liar’s Club and All Over But the Shoutin’. It also makes a fair case that these tomes may not exactly qualify as nonfiction by the textbook definition of the term.

4. Southerners can’t eat all the time. The next best thing is thinking — and writing about — food. Food permeates Southern literature like the scent of baking fruitcake and evergreen  runs through every sentence of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.” And there’s not much to envy about Maya’ Angelou’s early life except the food. This mouth-watering passage from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is enough to make vegans crave a butter-soaked cathead biscuit with ham:

“On Sunday mornings Momma served a breakfast that was geared to hold us quiet from 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. She fried thick pink slabs of home-cured ham and poured grease over sliced red tomatoes. Eggs over easy, fried potatoes and onions, yellow hominy and a crisp perch fried so hard we would pop them in our mouths and chew bones, fins and all. Her cathead biscuits were at least three inches in diameter and two inches thick. The trick to eating catheads was to get the butter on them before they got cold—then they were delicious. When, unluckily, they were allowed to get cool, they tended to a gooeyness, not unlike a wad of tired gum.”

5. Interesting dialects lend themselves to great dialogue. Thanks to mass media, American language is becoming depressingly homogeneous. Readers crave well-crafted exceptions to that rule. Dialogue that effectively reflects the unique ways people speak in a particular part of the world sings with authenticity. I would also argue that dialect-infused dialogue is one of the reasons so many native New Yorkers are great writers, as illustrated by the fact three of the 10 writers on this best-of list are from the South while three called New York City home. Here’s just one of many examples of dialect from To Kill a Mockingbird. Drop me a line if you need a translation.

“Not the same chiffarobe you busted up?’ asked Atticus.
The witness smiled. ‘Naw, suh, another one. Most as tall as the room. So I done what she told me, an’ I was just reachin’ when the next thing I knows she – she’d grabbed me round the legs, grabbed me round th’ legs, Mr. Finch. She scared me so bad I hopped down an’ turned the chair over – that was the only thing, only furniture ‘sturbed in that room, Mr. Finch, when I left it. I swear it ‘fore God.’”

—————

* I do not consider myself one of these great Southern writers, but I did enjoy crafting this post and reading about writing. I have included additional links below:

http://www.ket.org/livingbywords/roots/thesouth.htm

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wiley-cash/11-greatest-southern-nove_b_1429546.html#s875021&title=Salvage_the_Bones

http://www.clarke.public.lib.ga.us/pathfinders/southernauthors/swriters.html

http://blog.sfgate.com/richmond/2009/08/30/the-10-best-southern-novels-of-all-time/

If a Post is Published in the Forest

As some of you may know, I recently started this blog to share my thoughts on writing, the media industry, teaching and life in general. But I came across some statistics that make me wonder, if a post is published in the forest, and no one is around to read it …

According to the most recent comprehensive study of our reading habits by the National Endowment for the Arts, 43 percent of adults did not read a book for pleasure in 2002. If you look at  U.S. Census data, there were about 215  million adults in the U.S. that year. Doing the math, that means an astounding 92.7 million Americans over 18 did not read a single book for enjoyment in that year — not one. The 2002 statistics marked a 7 percent decline from 1992, the last time the NEA surveyed reading habits. If those trends have persisted over the last decade, that would mean nearly half the adult population will not read a book for enjoyment this year.

Now take into account that the number of print books published in the U.S. rose by 5 percent from 2009 to 2010, an increase of more than 14,000 new titles. Non-traditional publishing more than doubled its number of published titles from 1,033,065 in 2009 to 2,776,260 in 2010, the most-recent year for which numbers are available. “These books, marketed almost exclusively on the web, are largely on-demand titles produced by reprint houses specializing in public domain works and by presses catering to self-publishers and ‘micro-niche’ publications,” according to Bowker, which tracks the publishing industry for publishers, booksellers and libraries.

So, if frighteningly close to half of U.S. adults don’t read for fun these days,  who is reading all these books? Why, other authors, of course.

The blog clearinghouse Technorati.com currently has 1,295,372 blogs in its directory. Of those, 16,846 fall into the site’s BOOKS category. That’s just one indication that the people who do read books are clearly reading, and writing about their hobby, at a pretty furious rate. Add to those the number of blogs about writing and those that, like this one, mention writing, reading or books occasionally. I would venture to say these blogs indicate that a growing number of avid readers are writers as well.

This essay from The New York Times Book Review* touches on some of these topics, but some other reading I have been doing seems to indicate the brief romance between blogging and books might be morphing from a passionate affair into an established marriage or, worse, an incestuous morass that has a growing number of writers competing for the same, shrinking reading public. That thought leads me to the following questions  I would like to put out there for all you readers and writers. Please pass them on to others who might offer some insight:

How many blogs do you read daily?

Do you have a blog?

How many of you bloggers have written, are writing, or are thinking about writing a book?

How does your blogging relate to those book projects?

.Hopefully, this dispatch will make a sound.

* This New York Times essay cites the same NEA study, but uses some interesting new math to highlight its findings.