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.
Each is an educator in his or her own fashion. Panati gathers fascinating bits and pieces, often organized around quirky themes.
Mary Roach researches current themes and issues, including their historical roots and cross-cultural connections. And she’s humorous!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 love with his baritone voice
Believes what he says
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’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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
Slang varies by occupation. I have dictionary of carnival slang, for example, as well as several dealing with war.
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.
What’s your newest dictionary? And why do you still have it?
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.
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.
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.
And Ursula Le Guin counts! She was a favorite during my science fiction phase.
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.
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).
This is like a hardbound comic book, so quite a fast read. Is this different from a graphic novel? (Kindle references comiXology. Who knew?)
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.
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?
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.
Bottom line: Revisit some version of fantasy in 2018. Whether classic or modern, dipping into an alternate world broadens one’s thinking.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines addiction as “the need or strong desire to do or to have something, or a very strong liking for something.” By this definition, aren’t we all book addicts? So what’s wrong with that?
According to the Wikipedia definition, addiction is a brain disorder characterized by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli, despite adverse consequences. So that isn’t sounding so good.
But it gets worse! Dictionary.com says addiction is “the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming… to an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.”
To determine the state of your reading health, answer these 30 simple yes-or-no questions.
The VL Book Addiction Assessment Questionnaire
1) Do friends and/or family often tell you that you read too much?
2) Do you have books in every room of your house?
3) Do you read more than ten (10) hours a day?
4) Are books the biggest line-item in your budget after mortgage payment?
5) Are you looking for a bigger house because you have no more space for books where you live now?
6) Have you ever hung a bookshelf from the ceiling of a room which has no available floor/wall space—such as a bathroom or pantry?
7) Have you resorted to steel girders to support the weight of your books?
8) Are your pets showing signs of jealousy?For example, does your cat pee on your books? Does your dog eat your books? Does your pet lie on your book or e-reader and bite you when you try to remove him/her?
9) Does your spouse, partner, or roommate ever hide your book or electronic reader?
10) Has your significant other ever deleted the Kindle app from all your electronic devices?
11) Has your partner ever ripped the last 10 pages from your book and refused to return them till you have engaged in conversation for at least 30 minutes?
12) Do you travel with two suitcases, the bigger one solely for books?
13) Do you own both a Kindle and a Nook so you don’t risk missing an e-book by an author who isn’t traditionally published?
14) Do you sleep with your electronic reader?
15) Do you have four or more stacks of books on the floor beside your favorite chair?
16) Have you ever bought the same book three times?
17) Do you have cards for five or more libraries?
18) Would you pass on the opera, symphony, theater, museum, or Antiques Roadshow in favor of a used book sale?
19) If you’re in a doctor’s waiting room and discover you have only one book, do you experience increased blood pressure, shortness of breath, and/or tremors?
20) Have you ever pawned a family heirloom to buy a book?
21) Have you ever stolen a book?
22) Do you have nightmares about being stranded on a desert island with no books?
23) Do you have more than ten water-damaged books from reading in the bathtub?
24) Did your spouse cite “book abandonment” in filing for divorce?
25) Have you ever taken a cut in pay and/or changed jobs so you would have more reading time 9:00-5:00?
26) Would you rather read than eat?
27) Have you ever been fired for reading on the job?
28) Have you ever been fined for driving while reading?
29) Have you married someone based on the size of his/her book collection?
30) Would you trade your first born child for books?
If you answered yes to one of these questions, take care. Taper off on your book buying and reading before it’s too late.
If you answered yes to two or more of these questions, seek help immediately! Consider therapy, possibly residential rehab, to break your habit before it breaks you.
One last thing: If you know any symptoms of book addiction not covered by these questions, please notify me so that the assessment instrument can be updated and improved.
I’ll start by confessing that I did less of it than I planned! Between walking miles every day (literally), consuming enough wine, cheese, and desserts to pack on five pounds, and napping on the bus between cities, the time just flew by. On the other hand, I did promise a report, so here it is.
This book set in Portugal just got better and better. Each chapter is a story, and each story switches to a different POV character while the other characters fade into secondary or supporting roles. In the course of the book, each character gets richer and richer. It’s a fascinating look at a town as a whole, experienced by its citizens. Often the stories/lives seem to be downers, but in the end, it’s more upbeat than I expected! And as I said when I started it, the writing is excellent throughout. I recommend it as a story read, but also as an example of how to put together a novel in an atypical structure.
Sedella: The Story of a Spanish Village
Sedella, on the other hand, just didn’t grab me. The description drew me in, tracing a Spanish town from pre-history to the present, with a mixture of historical/anthropological information and a fictional story line. In this instance, the structure didn’t work for me, going back and forth between the fact and the fiction. I soon found myself skimming the facts and skipping to the story line. In the end, I put it aside altogether in favor of the second novel set in Spain.
Bueno: A Love Story Set in Spain
Bueno: A Love Story set in Spain by Christy Esmahan is delightful. The “hero” is Harvey Jones, an American and novice headmaster of a private school in Spain, the Cantabria American School. Although there’s no hint of a love interest in the first half of the book, it drew me in immediately. Harvey is full of good intentions but he’s on his own in a strange place where he knows nothing of the politics among the teachers, the Board members, the parents, and his mentor. The priorities of the president of the Board, largely responsible for hiring him, are not shared by the teachers and parents.
Harvey has come to Spain in part to be closer to his brother, recently deceased, who was killed in a terrorist attack while living there. He’s taking classes in Spanish to improve the Texas version he arrived with. His nemeses take advantage of that and start calling him “Cinco” because when the J in Jones is silent, as it is in Spanish, it becomes the verbal slur “sin cojones.”
This is Book 1 in the Cantabria American School series and I fully intend to find Book 2! But when shall I get back to Don Quixote and Tales From the Alhambra? I acquired them abroad and haven’t really started either!
Tomorrow is National Read a Book Day (annually on Sept. 6). Unlike National Book Lovers Day (August 9), this fun holiday is for everyone.
National Read a Book Day is a relatively new unofficial holiday, and its origins are murky. First celebrated around 2010, it was probably started by a librarian, perhaps to encourage children to read. But then again, it could have been any bibliophile wanting to encourage and celebrate reading.
In any event, it’s a a day to enjoy reading, to read with children, to donate a book to a children’s school library, or throw a book reading party—whatever takes your fancy.
The main goal is to encourage reading—fiction, non-fiction, poetry, history, memoir—either physical books or e-books.
In the spirit of the holiday, any book reading counts. You might continue a book in progress, reread a favorite passage from a previous book, or dip into a collection of short stories.
If you aren’t a fast reader but want to read an entire book, go for Dr. Seuss or Beatrix Potter—or any good children’s book. If you don’t have one on your shelves, try any library or bookstore.
But if you really like a challenge, follow the tips from Business Insider and read a book a day everyday!
Last Saturday, August 19, was World Picture Day—and I missed it! But it’s never to late to recall a good idea.
Those of us who have taken writing workshops know the value of pictures as writing prompts. I’ve been on the receiving end and the giving end of postcards, photos, or paintings as the stimulus for stories. Several of my published stories started with such prompts, including Naked Truth, Love Me Tender, and Pictures Not Displayed (forthcoming).
Whole books have been published for the specific purpose of prompting stories. There’s a lot to be said for using such a book for daily—or at least regular—writing exercises, some of which turn into scenes in longer pieces or books. They can add a plot twist that surprises the reader.
Books that aren’t necessarily intended as writing prompts can nevertheless be great resources.
Each picture should lead to a full story, including—at the minimum—who, what, when, where, and why. Never underestimate the importance of why. Rorschach cards are used to elicit such stories for diagnostic purposes. And as with the Rorschach cards, the good writer will consider what led up to the picture, what will happen now, and what is the protagonist thinking and feeling.
But beyond looking at pictures, you should take pictures. This is often easy, given the availability of cell phones with a photo capability. Keeping an eye out for photo opps makes you more sensitive to details of your surroundings—from the color of flowers to found art—to capturing people’s emotions in the moment. Your own pictures are as useful for material as any others. Go for it.
My personal adventures have been relatively tame: parasailing in the Bahamas, zip-lining in Costa Rica, draping an anaconda around my shoulders in the Amazon rainforest. (FYI: Anaconda poop bleaches clothing.) But I’ve always enjoyed vicarious adventures—women’s adventures.
This started when I was in elementary school. I read the adventures of Ruth Fielding in a series of books owned by my paternal aunt.
Although the settings of these thirty books seemed like ancient history (published 1913-1934), I loved kind-hearted, curious, brave, adventuresome Ruth.
When I was somewhat older, I discovered Cherry Ames: Student Nurse.
The medical aspects of this series (27 books) fascinated me. But more important was the heroine, whose kind heart led her into dangerous situations that her sharp wits got her out of. I gave my Cherry Ames books to my older granddaughter a few years ago, but alas, her interests are more in the fantasy/horror genre. Oh, well.
As you may have gathered by now, for me, there is no expiration date on adventure.
Beryl Markham’s incredible book is set in the earliest years of flight, and being a bush pilot in Africa. The writing is lyrical, the scenes compelling.
When I was involved in a vicarious love affair with Alaska (I’ve never been there), I read book after book set there, and through a rather circuitous route, came across Woodswoman.
When one thinks New York, the first thing to come to mind is not wilderness. And yet the North Country has winters suitable for training military for the Arctic, and parts of the Adirondacks truly are isolated—and virtually inaccessible in winter. Anne LaBastille living alone, frozen in for the winter, with a jerry-rigged outdoor shower, is plenty adventurous.
My longest term adventure was a two-week float-and-paddle rafting trip down the Colorado River. I mostly floated. Side-canyon hikes were strenuous and attending to one’s bodily needs was a challenge. But the most exciting part was the white-water rapids. I went bow-riding over thirty-foot drops! (Bow-riding is sitting on the front of the raft, holding onto a rope.)
So it’s no wonder I love Writing Down the River. Over one summer, fifteen talented women writers rafted down the Colorado. Their contributions to this book reflect their successes and failures, joys and fears. They take you there! (And, BTW, the photographs are gorgeous.)
Bottom line: Find your adventure—personal or vicarious—and pursue it.
Once upon a time, I worked with Dr. Joyce Dyer at Hiram College. We were just solidifying the writing program and making it more prominent within the curriculum. Joyce was a great choice to head those efforts, for she is a stellar colleague and widely admired teacher. But that’s not why I am writing about her today.
Joyce Dyer has a flair for drawing on her own life and making it bigger—relevant, compelling reading.
In a Tangled Wood: An Alzheimer’s Journey is a rare, powerful memoir of a mother and daughter in the world of Alzheimer’s. It is humorous, painful, and wise. Joyce doesn’t shy away from the struggle, but this book contains a surprising wealth of joy as well.
Sociology of time and place permeate two of her books. The titles say it all: Goosetown: Reconstructing an Akron Neighborhood and Gum-Dipped: A Daughter Remembers Rubber Town. The former, in particular, is a case study in writing memoir based on the earliest years of one’s life. How can those memories be recovered? Those times revisited? Anyone interested in writing—or simply reading—memoir should check out these books.
The keen eye and talent for the telling detail that characterize her own work enabled her to edit two volumes of essays that are prime reading for anyone interested in writing, women’s writing, women’s history, or life in general!
Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Women Writers is particularly poignant for me. Being firmly rooted in the hills of eastern Kentucky and southeastern Ohio, Appalachian voices and places permeate many of my short stories and one (as yet unpublished) novel.
And now I have the pleasure of starting From Curlers to Chainsaws: Women and Their Machines. Published just last year, this is a new acquisition, an anthology I expect to enjoy reading and to shelve for reference. Bill Roorbach’s cover comment says it beautifully: “From Curlers to Chainsaws makes stops along the way to visit prosthetics, lawnmowers, typewriters, vibrators, washing machines, and on and on, from traditional women’s gear to equipment we’re all using now, praise be… a book of women’s voices so clear and diverse and funny and heartbreakingly individual that you hurry from one to the next…” I can hardly wait!