1968 Was a Hell of a Year

smithsonian 1968 hell year
The January-February issue of Smithsonian is a must read. Whether you lived through it or not, you will learn something new on every page. (Well, maybe not the ads at the back!) Many people living through turbulent times experience some segment of the turmoil so deeply that it changes them forever, but I’d venture to say few grasp the whole.
And if you were a child in ’68—or not even born yet—you definitely need to read this. The year still reverberates through our lives, and this issue of Smithsonian is a vivid panorama of the times.

smithsonian contents 1968
The grief and anger surrounding the Vietnam war are made clear, from the war itself to the riots during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Popular culture is highlighted: the Beach Boys and the Beatles in India and teen sensation Frankie Lymon. It was a year of protesting the Miss America Pageant, and getting the first pictures of earth from outer space. What Martin Luther King, Jr. was doing days before his assassination, and the legacy of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination—it’s all there. It was a year of violence, but also of innovation as the groundwork was laid for personal computers and the internet.

Issues of street violence to threats of world hunger made 1968 a year of fear and anger. Read all about it!

What’s So Funny?

whats so funny new yorker january
As you’ve probably gathered by now, I’m a fan of The New Yorker magazine. I like their covers. I like their cartoons. And I especially enjoy “Shouts & Murmurs.”  This particular issue has one that totally cracked me up.


whats so funny shakespeare
It is a parody of a modern-day interview with Shakespeare. It purports to be newly discovered quotes from interviews with the Bard when he was promoting his work. Shakespeare says things such as, “I hate getting notes from theater owners. They’re always, like, Romeo and Juliet shouldn’t die and stuff. I thought that was a cool ending. I don’t know.” I’d recommend getting this issue for that article alone.


whats so funny new yorker
This week’s “Shouts & Murmurs” takes on the current issue of the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea. It is unabashedly making fun of Trump, and if you are a fan of the president, you would think it insulting rather than humorous. But If you are a Trump supporter, you probably wouldn’t be reading The New Yorker much anyway.


whats so funny usa north korea
But as a writer, it is worth reading regardless because it is a good example of what some—lots of?—people find funny.


Wikipedia lists 23 genres of comedy in this format:


whats so funny forms humor
Consider the various forms of comedy. What do you find funny? And would any of them enhance your writing?

Creative Nonfiction = Literary Nonfiction = Narrative Nonfiction

naked drunk writing adair lara
I bought this book recently because I’ve enrolled in Creative Nonfiction, a class that begins later this month at the VMFA Studio School. I haven’t taken a writing class in years, but why not?


Once upon a time I took a class with a title something like “Writing Memoir Using Fiction Techniques.” It was a great class. And now there is a whole genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives written to entertain. There’s quite a good Wikipedia essay about it, and/or you can check out www.creativenonfiction.org.


Once I started thinking about it, I realized how much of my pleasure reading is some version of creative nonfiction.


Dean King is a Richmond writer who is a master of the form. He brings history to life, whether he’s writing about a shipwreck off the coast of Africa in 1815 or the legendary American Hatfields and McCoys.


Three of my other favorites are Bill Bryson, Charles Panati, and Mary Roach.


Charles panati books
Each is an educator in his or her own fashion. Panati gathers fascinating bits and pieces, often organized around quirky themes.


mary roach books
Mary Roach researches current themes and issues, including their historical roots and cross-cultural connections. And she’s humorous!


bill bryson books
Bill Bryson varies between historical research (e.g., Mother Tongue) and personal experience (e.g., A Walk in the Woods).


And then there are the personal adventure stories. The first of these I read was Woodswoman by Anne LaBastille about living alone in the Adirondacks, isolated by winter.
woodswoman anne lebastille
The next creative nonfiction book on my agenda will probably be Wild (2013) by Cheryl Strayed. Obviously, I don’t jump on the lists of just published books! But I expect a thrilling read.
wild cheryl strayed
Bottom line: Creative nonfiction can be as varied as fiction. And why not try writing a genre I so enjoy reading? I’ll keep you posted.

Read This Book!

meatballs people gary sotomeatballs people gary soto
It’s a fast, pithy read. The book is small enough to carry virtually anywhere: 6” x 4” x 3/8” and 141 pp. and every one of those pages has a lot of white space.


read book meatballs people gary soto
According to Soto, “[Proverbs] don’t take effort to read. They are not riddles or cagey games, but do require an ‘aha’ moment.” Here are some of his proverbs I especially like.


If you plant a garden
Get ready to weed
You become corrupt
In increments
In love with his baritone voice
The politician
Believes what he says
A backbone
Is more useful
Than a wishbone
As Soto so aptly observed in his preface to this book, “Also, proverbs, in all languages and over the centuries, are quips that speak of our human nature.”


Gary Soto is of Mexican-American heritage. His work has taken him from the fields of the San Joaquin Valley to his literary life in Berkeley, California. He taught at the University of California, Berkeley and at University of California, Riverside. You can read about his awards and achievements in Wikipedia and visit his website at garysoto.com.


gary soto 2001 national book festival
Gary Soto’s literary oeuvre is as varied as it is extensive, including 14 poetry collections, 21 books for children/young adults, a series of children’s picture books in Spanish and English featuring a cat named Chato, 8 memoirs, 1 play, 2 films, and 4 edited volumes.


gary soto meatballs people
Meatballs for the People: Proverbs to Chew On (Red Hen Press, 2017) can be found in the poetry section.


“You can always spot bright people. They are reading a book.” Gary Soto.

This Just In!

American Dictionary of the English Language front cover
American Dictionary of the English Language
As many of you know, I collect dictionaries. This facsimile edition of the first American Dictionary of the English Language arrived yesterday and I’ve been enjoying it for hours. Who would have thought there could be 58 definitions of pass?
Portrait of Noah Webster, creator of Dictionary of American English
Noah Webster
According to the preface, Webster was being urged to compile such a volume as early as 1783. He was too busy to even think about it till 1801. The work became ever more ambitious, as you can see from the title page.
American Dictionary of the English Language title page
American Dictionary of the English Language
And the rest is history. Webster’s became almost synonymous with dictionary. He predated the Oxford English Dictionary (1933) by more than a hundred years, and I would claim his scholarship (including historical roots and literary examples) inspired those involved in the OED.
A Dictionary of South African English, title page
A Dictionary of South African English
According to Webster, new locations and new governments require the standardization of modified English. Hence, you can also find dictionaries of Australian English, Indian English, etc.
We are not using Webster’s 1828 dictionary today because—ta da!—language evolves. You heard it here first—unless you read Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.
The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson, book cover
The Mother Tongue
The evolution of language comes not only from changing political needs, but also from science, art, technological advances, etc. While some of these changes primarily affect relatively narrow bands of society, others are more pervasive. Based on the sheer variety of offerings, I would argue that slang is one of the most changeable aspects of language, both universal and specialized.
two dictionaries
Mob Speak and Knickers in a Twist
Slang varies by occupation. I have dictionary of carnival slang, for example, as well as several dealing with war.
War Slang by Paul Dickson, cover of dictionary
War Slang
And of course language varies by time period and sub-culture.
Much as I love them, I’m afraid hard-copy dictionaries are becoming extinct. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary claims to be the best available. Given the rapidity of language evolution, online is probably the only way to keep up.
The Oxford American Dictionary and Language Guide front cover
The Oxford American Dictionary and Language Guide
What’s your newest dictionary? And why do you still have it?

Armchair Tourism Made Easy!

Great books have been set in every state—and the District of Columbia—and there are numerous sites out there that will tell you what they are. I’ve chosen three recent ones and summarized them for you here.


Reader’s Digest sought to identify the most iconic book set in every state. They note that “Literature is often a source of state pride, with a vast array of novels set in and around each of the great 50 states. With this list, you can tour the entire country—without leaving home.” These iconic book choices are indicated in the following list by RD.
Business Insider scoured the internet and surveyed colleagues to round up the most famous book that takes place in each state in America. Their choices are indicated by BI.
Travel & Leisure compiled a list of the best books based in every state and DC. They “selected the best books based in every state by looking for titles that almost use their state as another character. The setting is so deeply entwined with theses texts, the story couldn’t even exist in another place or time. In the listings below, their choices are designated by TL.
to kill a mockingbird harper lee
Alabama: RD, BI, TL all chose To Kill a Mocking Bird, Harper Lee.


Alaska: RD, BI, TL all chose Into the Wild, Jon Krakaur


jon krakauer into the wild
Arizona: RD = Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy; BI = The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver; TL = Here and Gone, Haylen Beck


Arkansas: RD & TL = I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou; BI = A Painted House, John Grisham


California: RD & BI = East of Eden, John Steinbeck; TL = Big Sur, Jack Kerouac


stephen king the shining
Colorado: RD, BI, TL all chose The Shining, Stephen King
Connecticut: RD = The Stepford Wives, Ira LevinBI = Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates; TL = White Fur, Jardine Libaire


Delaware: RD = Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk; BI  = The Saint of Lost Things, Christopher Castellani; TL = A Light in the Storm: The Civil War Diary of Amelia Martin, Karen Hesse
Florida: RD = Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston; BI = To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway; TL = Because of Winn-Dixie, Kate DiCamillo


gone with the wind margaret mitchell
Georgia: RD, BI, TL all chose Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell


Hawaii: RD & TL = The Descendants, Kaui Hart Hemmings; BI = Hawaii, James Mitchner


Idaho: RD = The Stand, Stephen King; BI = Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson; TL = The Sheep Queen, Thomas Savage


Illinois: BI & TL = The Jungle, Upton Sinclair; RD = Divergent, Veronica Roth


Indiana: RD = The Fault in Our Stars, John Green; BI = The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington; TL = All the Bright Places, Jennifer Niven


Iowa: RD & BI = A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley; LT = The Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller


Kansas: RD & BI = The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum; TL = In Cold Blood, Truman Capote


Kentucky: BI & TL = Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe; RD = Beloved, Toni Morrison


Louisiana: RD & BI = Interview With the Vampire, Anne Rice; TL = The Awakening, Kate Chopin


Maine: RD & BI = Carrie, Stephen King; TL = The Cider House Rules, John Irving


Maryland: RD = Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Ann Brashares; BI = Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Anne Tyler; TL = The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler


Massachusetts: RD & BI = Walden, Henry David Thoreau; TL = The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne


Michigan: RD = Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides; BI = The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides; TL = Once Upon a River, Bonnie Jo Campbell


Minnesota: RD & BI = Main Street, Sinclair Lewis; TL = On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura Ingalls Wilder


Mississippi: RD = The Help, Kathryn Stockett; BI = The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner; TL = Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Mildred D. Taylor


Missouri: RD & BI = The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain; TL = The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain


a river runs trhough it norman maclean
Montana: RD, BI, TL all chose A River Runs Through It and other stories, Norman Maclean


Nebraska: RD & TL = Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell; BI = My Antonia, Willa Cather


fear and loathing in las vegas
Nevada: RD, BI, TL all chose Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson


New Hampshire: RD & BI = The Hotel New Hampshire, John Irving; TL = Frindle, Andrew Clements


New Jersey: RD = Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Judy Blume; BI = Drown, Junot Diaz; TL = The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz


New Mexico: RD = Brave New World, Aldous Huxley; BI = Red Sky at Morning, Richard Bradford; TL = The Green Sea Glass, Ellen Klages


New York: RD & BI = The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald; TL = A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith


North Carolina: RD & BI = A Walk to Remember, Nicholas Sparks; TL = The Notebook, Nicholas Sparks


North Dakota: RD & BI =The Round House, Louise Erdrich; TL = Beyond the Bedroom Wall, Larry Woiwode


Ohio: RD = Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Small Town Ohio Life, Sherwood Anderson; BI = The Broom of the System, David Foster Wallace; TL = Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng


Oklahoma: RD = The Outsiders, S. E. Hinton; BI = Paradise, Toni Morrison; TL = The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck


Oregon: RD = Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, Cheryl Strayed; BI = One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey; TL = The Jump-Off Creek, Molly Gloss


Pennsylvania: RD & BI = The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold; TL = Maniac Magee, Jerry Spinelli


Rhode Island: RD = She’s Come Undone, Wally Lamb; BI = My Sister’s Keeper, Jodi Picoult; TL = The Witches of Eastwick, John Updike


South Carolina: RD = Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison; BI = The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd; TL = The Summer Girls, Mary Alice Monroe


South Dakota: RD = Little Town on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder; BI = A Long Way From Home, Tom Brokaw; TL = The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, Ann Weisgarber


Tennessee: RD & BI = The Client, John Grisham; TL = The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris


Texas: RD & BI = No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy; TL = Holes, Louise Sachar


Utah: BI & TL = The 19th Wife, David Ebershoff; RD = Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer


Vermont: RD & BI = Pollyanna, Eleanor H. Porter; TL =  All the Best People, Sonja Yoerg


Virginia: BI & TL = Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Patterson; RD = Flowers in the Attic, V. C. Andrews


Washington: RD & BI = Twilight, Stephenie Meyer; TL = Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson


Washington, DC: BI = The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown; TL = Lost in the City, Edward P. Jones; RD did not list DC


West Virginia: RD = Freedom, Jonathan Franzen;  BI = Shiloh, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor; TL = The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls


Wisconsin: RD = The Deep End of the Ocean, Jacquelyn Mitchard; BI = Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder; TL = A Reliable Wife, Robert Goolrick


Wyoming: RD & BI = The Laramie Project, Moisés Kaufman and Members of the Tectonic Theater Project; TL = Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx
armchair tourism made easy
So, what say you? Are these the books you would choose for your state(s)?

Hanahaki and Other Useful Diseases

Hanahaki useful diseases
Hanahaki comes from two Japanese words: hana, which means flower, and hakimasu, which means to throw up. It is a fictitious disease in which the victim coughs up flower petals when suffering from unrequited love. The most common version is when the victim’s lungs fill with flowers and roots grow in the respiratory system. The victim chokes on blood and petals and dies.


Hanahaki useful diseases
In another version, the flowers are surgically removed. The surgery also removes the victim’s feelings of love and s/he can no longer love the person they once loved. Sometimes this also removes the ability to ever love again.


My 13-year-old granddaughter came across hanahaki disease while researching possible diseases for a book she and her friends are writing. Need I say the book is fantasy fiction? She also enjoys special effects makeup, and one evening created three generations suffering from hanahaki disease—me, her mother, and herself.


Hanahaki useful diseases
In researching hanahaki disease, I discovered a whole world of disease and disaster that I was previously unaware of. Wikipedia has 40 pages of fictional diseases in literature, film, TV, video games, and role-playing games, everything from the Andromeda Strain to Cooties.
stephen king
Fictional diseases is probably not the first association you have for Stephen King, but he has created his share, including the superflu in The Stand, the Ripley in Dreamcatcher, and the pulse in Cell. Authors from Edgar Allan Poe to J.K. Rowling have invented fictional diseases. Why not you?
Getting started is easy. If nothing comes to mind immediately, go to seventhsanctum.com and use the Disease Generator.  You can get 25 disease names in an instant.
Hanahaki diseases
And if nothing appeals to you—not ancestral heart or zombie’s malignant lunacy, not seeping sweat or torture itch—just push the button for more diseases.


Hanahaki diseases
Once you have a name, you need to develop the disease, starting with disease type (childhood/common/rare) and moving on to cause (bacteria, virus, parasite, fungus, imbalance of bodily humors, etc.). You need to consider transmission (airborne, body fluids, food or water, touch, etc.) and virulence (how likely a person is to catch the disease after coming into contact with it). How long is the incubation period? A person could be showing symptoms and become infectious almost instantaneously or it could take years. What are the symptoms of this disease? Is it treatable and/or curable? And last but not least, how do people react when they encounter someone with this disease?
Feel free to use symptoms from real diseases, past or present. For example, cholera, dysentery, small pox, consumption, syphilis, the Black Plague, etc. BTW, the Black Plague is a zoonotic disease, meaning it moves from animals to humans—as in bird flue or swine flu.


fictional diseases
The more realistic your story line, the more realistic your disease should be. For inspiration, check out Inverse Culture.


Bottom line: Consider the advantages of deadly diseases. As long as people fear death, they will push protagonists to the edge, and that’s a good thing.


New Genre for the New Year

new genre new year maas

I was about to start this blog by talking about how I’ve never been a big fan of fantasy—but then realized I should say more truthfully that I’ve not been reading fantasy recently.


new genre new year lang book spines
I went through a period some decades ago when I read fairytales. I sought out the non-Disney versions—for example, Cinderella in which the wicked stepsisters cut off their toes or heels in order to try to fit into the glass slipper. Do fairytales count? YES! If you google “fantasy” (besides fantasy football) you’ll get links to science fiction, speculative fiction, fairytales, anime, science fantasy, legend, and horror, animation, myth, manga, cartoon, etc.
new genre new year alices adventures wonderland through looking glass
Fantasy is a genre of fiction set in a fictional universe, often—but not always—without any locations, events, or people referencing the real world. Its roots are in oral traditions, which then developed into literature and drama. There was a time when my husband and I read aloud to each other from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, sometimes laughing so hard we could hardly read.


new genre new year ursula le gun
And Ursula Le Guin counts! She was a favorite during my science fiction phase.


new genre new year harry potter
More recently, I really didn’t appreciate Harry Potter, though recommended by my daughter and granddaughters. (I know: shocking!) However, during a recent visit, these same granddaughters (now 13 and 10) gave me new recommendations.


new genre new year wings books
The younger one has read all ten volumes of  Wings of Fire. This is her favorite series. Dragons are big time. But she also recommends Monstress by Marjorie Liu (author) and Sana Takeda (illustrator).
new genre new year monstress
This is like a hardbound comic book, so quite a fast read. Is this different from a graphic novel? (Kindle references comiXology. Who knew?)


new genre new year
The books in this series are set in 1900s Asia and tells the story of a teenage girl who struggles to survive the trauma of war. She shares a mysterious psychic link with an enormously powerful monster. Both the girl and the monster are transformed by this connection.
new genre new year sara maas throne glass
The 13-year-old’s absolute favorite author is Sarah J. Maas. Maas is a NYT best-selling author of the Thrown of Glass series. In this series, a beautiful young assassin is the protagonist. She’s a bit like a female James Bond in terms of abilities that border on superpowers. She has a tragic past that garners sympathy, beauty and honor that make her appealing, a temper and murders to make her flawed. Maas uses great visual imagery. And the stories involve mysteries of the dark powers and lost magic. Throw in an arch enemy and two love interests, and what’s not to like?


new genre new year maas
mass new genre new year
She currently has 3 books in a second series and at least the beginning of a third series. Catwoman: Soulstealer (DC icon series) is due out in August of this year.


new genre new year catwoman sarah maas
Bottom line: Revisit some version of fantasy in 2018. Whether classic or modern, dipping into an alternate world broadens one’s thinking.