Sunday, January 27, 2008

Sunday Salon: Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott

This afternoon I decided to reread Anne Lamott's writing classic, Bird by Bird. Even though I've already read this book more than once, I'm already one-fifth of the way through.

If you haven't read this book, and you are anyone who seeks to pursue writing -- from the college student grinding out essays to even the most seasoned of wordsmiths -- I highly recommend getting a copy. I'd say it's right on par with one of my most favorite writing books of all time, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

Bird by Bird is just as enjoyable to read as it is informative. Lamott has a unique way of sharing with the reader the basics of good writing while blending it with her own personal stories and a solid dose of wit.

Lamott expertly whittles down the craft that has been a part of her life for decades. She then compresses that advice into neatly understandable packages that we can carry with us into our own writing lives, long after we close the covers of the book. However, this isn't one of those books you will want to pass on without a care, for you will find yourself returning to its sage advice again and again.

Sunday Salon: gods in Alabama, by Joshilyn Jackson

Yesterday I finished southern writer Joshilyn Jackson's gods in Alabama. It was a fast-flowing novel that I would qualify as a great read for the beach or for the interminable waits at the airport, or to pass the time during air travel.

Hailing from Alabama myself (although I haven't lived there since my parents whisked us off to Florida when I was 12 or 13), I was intrigued by the title. The book crooked its little finger at me and beckoned. I was on an afternoon stroll through the Pentagon City shopping Center in Arlington, VA. I was largely bored and ducked into one of those cheesy types of stores featuring a mishmash of everything from Washington DC souvenirs to scores of newspapers and mass market novels by the likes of John Grisham. Then, there it was, at first glance looking like a Thelma and Louise kind of story sans Thelma, reminding me of the wayward southern belle character played by Melanie Griffith in Crazy in Alabama. I dig a story set in the devious backdrop of the unpredictable South, my home stompin' grounds, seasoned just right, with a dash of mystery, murder and romance thrown in.

When Arlene Fleet headed off to college in Chicago, she made three promises to God: She would never again lie, she would stop fornicating with every boy who crossed her path, and she'd never, ever go back to her tiny hometown of Possett, Alabama (the "fourth rack of Hell"). All God had to do in exchange was to make sure the body of high school quarterback Jim Beverly was never found.

Ten years later, Arlene has kept her promises, but an old school-mate has recently turned up asking questions. And now Arlene's African American beau has given her a tough ultimatum: introduce him to her family, or he's gone. As she prepares to confront guilt, discrimination, and a decade of deception, Arlene is about to discover just how far she will go to find redemption - and love.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Consuming Words Like Some People Eat Chocolate

When I read, I have a hard time getting through books as quickly as I'd prefer. My reading speed has always been fairly swift. However, I'm completely infatuated with words. To me, a word is a vibrant gem that injects reality into the pages at hand. It is a building block, creating and strengthening human understanding across the diversity that is life. Without the right combination, a novel could not convey the story the author hopes to tell.

Words… the smallest and simplest of things. Yet, they have the power to enact large-scale change and influence emotions, to forge relationships between strangers and enhance communication -- sometimes in the form of stories passed down through the ages, the likes of which continue to color our world, deeply ingrained within the hearts and souls of the inhabitants of its societies, despite strife and transformation. Without the gift of words, delicately strung together in romantic ballads, or heavily cemented into the legal documents that structure our governments, our world would be chaotic and meaningless.

So, as I feel their vibrations upon my lips and the way a smoothly crafted sentence stirs my spirit, I can't help but wish to pluck each one from where it rests and drop it into my repertoire.

My usual practice is to keep a highlighter or felt-tipped pen handy and mark the words that really jump out at me. Then, I try to remember to go back through the book and gather the words into a list (I'm not always successful at completing this task). I write down the jargon that I'm not familiar with to later look up, as well as even more common words that I would enjoy using in my own writing, because they inspire me. My best intentions are to store these all in a large notebook, so that these words can be my source for writing prompts later on, and then to insert them all, over time, into my daily writing practice; but, so far, this is more of a "wouldn't that be nice" kind of idea that makes me feel cozy to contemplate.

I try not to let my passion for consuming words onto themselves detract from my enjoyment of the entire story, and the only ways to make this so are the highlighting and underlining I already mentioned, as well as jotting words (and sometimes uniquely put-together phrases) down in a small notebook I carry with me, or typing them into my iPhone's Notes application when all else fails. So I'm good at being the curator of the words I love, but, so far, I haven't found a viable way to organize them into one useful database or similar system. I did use the Web 2.0-style site, Wordie, for a while, but even that didn't seem to be fully featured enough to meet my needs. Does anyone else share this malady? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this or suggestions.

I've always entertained a courtship with words -- accompanying my dad in his tasks on our Alabama farm, as I scribbled entire notebooks full of elementary poems as a kid, winning first-place in the school spelling bee in ninth grade, continuing to be an insatiable reader, and finally, achieving my goal to attain the military occupational specialty of print journalist in my service to the Army.

So, please be aware, if I pass on one of my already read books to you there's a 99 percent chance it will marred by hastily scratched marginalia that only means something to me, and cherished words lovingly handpicked and stored away for a rainy-day writing session.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Oracle Night, by Paul Auster

Today I began reading Oracle Night, by Paul Auster. So far, it promises to be an intriguing story, peppered with "eerie premonitions and bewildering events." The book centers around 34-year-old novelist Sidney Orr from New York City, who is recovering from a near-fatal illness. During one of many strolls Orr takes, as he seeks to regain a hold on his life, he encounters a curious stationery shop where he purchases a blank blue notebook. That seemingly harmless small act is what sets into motion every event that follows.

This is the fourth book I've read by Paul Auster. He is quite a prolific writer, and I enjoy his style. I recently read his short memoir, Hand to Mouth. I've also read In the Country of Last Things and I Thought My Father Was God, a compilation of true and compelling stories submitted by ordinary people, taken from a National Public Radio (NPR) segment, The National Story Project, that Auster hosted a few years ago.

Follow-up on Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants was a very riveting read that, one night, even kept me, the early-to-bed person, up until 1 a.m., because I could not find a point at which it was easy to set the book aside.
I enjoyed Gruen's sharp and well selected, detailed descriptions of circus life, with a good dosage of circus lingo -- words I had never heard before, to add realism to the story.

Water for Elephants contained a satisfying mix of multi-layered characters. Some of them surprised me -- at first, gritty on the outside, but as they evolved, slowly displaying the humanity that lay beneath their exteriors -- as with Kinko the dwarf, later revealed to be named Walter (because only his friends could call him that).

And, since I'm not very biblically versed, I didn't understand the references to Jacob in the story and how that fit in with the Bible. I felt I missed some significance that would have added to my understanding of the story. There was some correlation with the religious story of the man known as Jacob, which Sara Gruen mentioned at the end of the book. Luckily, I did some sleuthing, consulting some book discussions on Amazon and found that even people familiar with the Bible missed what that was about. Sara kindly explained the cryptic issue in a comment within the discussion, saying:

There are anagrams, both exact and phonetic:
Catherine Hale=Leah, Marlena L'Arche=Rachel, Alan Bunkel (Uncle Al)=Uncle Laban. There is the flat rock, the dream, the animal husbandry for Uncle Laban. Jacob and Rachel (Marlena) leave with Uncle Al's (Uncle Laban's) best livestock, Jacob must do an additional seven years of animal husbandry in order to be with Marlena, he breaks his hip, etc. Some of his children's names are the same as well.

Lastly, since I wish to publish my own novel one day, I made a mental note that, should I ever do so, I will also employ the present-tense style Gruen used throughout the book. I believe this gives the story a sense of immediacy that brings the reader directly into the midst of the unfolding of events.

Also, see my previous post about Water for Elephants.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

"I worked on circuses for nearly seven years, and if that isn't fodder for conversation, I don't know what is." So says the narrator of Water for Elephants, 90-something-year-old Jacob Jankowski, about his experiences in a travelling circus called The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.

I began Gruen's New York Times bestselling novel this morning. I'm reading it simultaneously alongside I Thought My Father Was God.

I borrowed the following summary from the novel's Wikipedia entry...

The story is told as a series of memories by Jankowski, a ninety-three-year-old man who lives in a nursing home.

As the memories begin, Jacob Jankowski is twenty-three years old and preparing for his final exams as a Cornell University veterinary student when he receives the news that his parents were killed in a car accident. Jacob’s father was a veterinarian and Jacob had planned to join his practice. Jacob further discovers his parents were deeply in debt, because his kind-hearted father treated animals even when their owners weren’t able to pay. With his plans in chaos, Jacob has a breakdown and leaves school just short of completing his final exams for graduation. In the dark of night, he wanders aimlessly, and then jumps on the first train he sees, which turns out to be a circus train. When the tyrannical owner of the outfit, "Uncle Al," learns of Jacob's training as a vet, he hires him to care for the circus animals.

The novel chronicles Jacob’s experiences as he learns the hierarchy of circus life, picks up the lingo of its laborers and performers, and gains an understanding of the brutalities inherent in this clandestine society. Along, the way, as he struggles to maintain his moral compass in a sea of recklessness, he falls in love...

P.S... If you enjoy stories centered around the theme of circus life, or just memoirs in general, you should check out Mary R. Wise's book, Girl Clown. Mary is a Maryland author I met during a kick-off event for this year's NaNoWriMo in Columbia, MD. In addition to being an interesting and warm-hearted individual with a great blog, this former "girl clown" can write up a storm.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

I Thought My Father Was God, NPR Stories

I'm now on page 68 of I Thought My Father Was God, a collection of writings from NPR's National Story Project (ran from 2000 to 2001 on NPR).

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Sunday Salon: The Master, by Colm Toibin

Today I completed The Master, by Colm Toibin. Another reader and friend of mine, Toni, recently lent it to me for my copy of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love.

I must say, that, because of the sheer volume of decisive prose that one must traverse when reading this novel, I am glad to be finished. It is truly well-written, but I am ready for the next novel adventure.

My friend said that, for her, this book felt very similar to the experience of reading Tolstoy.