Best of the Year

Taking a few minutes out of being a busy entrepreneurial executive at the hubby’s consulting biz to share my reading stats for 2018.  I finished 84 books — I read more than that, but I’ve made a separate list on Goodreads for “DNFs” (that means “did not finish,” for the uninitiated). I don’t rate those and I don’t include them on my list of what I’ve actually read.

I’m an avid audiobook fan and that led to my favorite discovery of 2018, Percival Everett. First I heard “The Appropriation of Culture” on Selected Shorts. Then, soon after, Levar Burton read “Graham Greene” on his wonderful podcast. After that, I went to the library and picked up a couple of Everett’s short story collections. I love his unique ability to combine a world-weary realism with an underlying sense of serenity. His stories feel kind of Buddhist in their world view.

Also “The Appropriation of Culture” manages to say some really important, insightful things about race while being freaking hilarious. Find it in his 2004 collection, Damned If I Do.

141202Besides Percival Everett, Levar Burton has featured works by Charlie Jane Anders, Octavia Butler and Daniel Wallace, among others. Burton’s podcast is a delight if you enjoy audiobooks. First there’s the creamy-smooth goodness of Levar Burton’s voice, but it’s also a wonderful forum for underrepresented authors. Many of the stories he’s chosen are by women and/or authors of color. It’s a fun way to discover authors who haven’t gotten as much exposure as they should have.

814-kplvc6lAnother great fiction discovery was Mick Herron. He’s been around for a while, but I finally picked up the first book in his “Slow Horses/Slough House” series and loved it. The Slow Horses are failed British intelligence agents. They’ve all done something egregiously wrong, but not quite criminal. Still, they know too much to be allowed back into ordinary society, so why not make use of them. The sad-sack screw-ups are relegated to Slough House (Slough House=slow horses, get it?!?!), where they are meant to shuffle papers and enter data until the end of time. They’re presided over by gruff, shambling, slobby Jackson Lamb, who may not be as washed up as he keeps trying to pretend to be.

And of course, they do NOT stay behind those desks and enter that data. They inevitably get drawn into various high-stakes adventures, which they botch up stupendously before generally getting their sh*t together in the final few chapters. It’s like Johnny English as written by Graham Greene (meaning the British novelist, not the Native American actor mentioned in the Percival Everett story cited above). Far less introspective than Percival Everett, but loads of fun to read. If you like a good caper story, especially of the “gang that couldn’t shoot straight” variety, read these.

Ironically, one of the worst novels I read this year was also by Mick Herron. Called This Is What Happened, it was an utterly unconvincing dystopian tale blended with the now tiresomely familiar twisty domestic thriller genre. Skip this one and read the entire Slough House series instead.

downloadAs for nonfiction, I read so many, many fascinating perspective-altering books this year, it kind of exhausted me. I highly recommend Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush. This book takes all the talk of climate change and brings it down to the personal level. Rush interviews people whose entire neighborhoods are now underwater and destined to stay there. She examines the faulty assumptions over the last fifty years that have made flooding even worse in places like New Jersey and New Orleans. It will definitely make you reconsider retiring to the seaside, I can tell you that.

9780252082122Another life-changing read was Goodbye iSlave by Jack Qiu. This under-noticed treatise is a bit dry at times but has so much important to tell us. Qiu writes about the morally questionable nature of our mobile device addiction — the slave labor that mines the materials, the toxic workplaces where people who are virtual prisoners assemble the things, the rising pile of toxic trash that comes from throwing all this crap away after just a couple of years. His book offers some possible solutions to the problems presented within the text, including the FairPhone, a repairable mobile device. I wanted so badly to get one after reading this book, but looks like they aren’t even available in the USA.

Last but not least, I read a lot more poetry than I have in years. Possibly this was because I was managing the poetry collection at the grouchy old-school library I last worked at. (You know the kind of library I mean: where the librarians all sit on stools behind a high desk, reading their own books and hoping you will go away and not ask them that question you’re about to ask. It was not a good fit.)

But at any rate, I got to read a lot of poetry. And what lingers with me now is Gabriel, the heartbreaking masterpiece of loss by Edward Hirsch. Published several years ago, this long poem/short book is a father’s elegy for the death of his beautiful, baffling, troubled son. Gabriel died at the age of 22, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, it was many days before Hirsch was able to find out what had become of his son and learn where the body had been taken. Truly, it is every parent’s worst nightmare turned into art. The poem will especially resonate with anyone who has a child struggling, as Gabriel did, with mental illness and developmental disorders.

Hirsch with Gabriel in happier times

And those are my most memorable books from 2018. Sorry if it’s a heavy list, but it was a heavy year.

Happy reading to all of you in 2019!

 

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A Time to Rest

sabbatical-mug-300x260The word “sabbatical” comes from the same root as the word “sabbath.” Sabbatical means “of the sabbath,” and Sabbath means “rest.” Which is what I am going to be doing for at least the remainder of this year, possibly longer.

I’ve been writing stories since I could hold a pen. Really. My mom had some stories I wrote at the age of maybe ten, all about Ollie the Elephant and my imaginary friend Paula. (Not to be confused with the later real-life friend also known as Paula.) For decades, I wrote nonfiction in the form of newspaper and magazine articles and press releases for WORK and I wrote fiction for FUN.

Around ten years ago, I decided to get serious about fiction. I just wanted to see if I could finish a full-length novel. I did. Then I wanted to see if I could sell it to a big-name publisher. I didn’t. Then I decided it would be nice even to sell it to a small publisher. I did. But the experience with the small publisher was disillusioning to say the least — three changes of editor in the course of editing, a last-minute publication date that allowed no advance time for promotion and a poor job of promoting it once it was published. I started a second book and pitched it to a very big-name publisher  when they held a writing contest. As originally written, the book was a spy adventure with a touch of romance called The Capri Caper. An editor at Very Big Name Publishing took a liking and convinced me to take the characters out of that plot and turn it into a steamy romance. I did. After months of round-the-clock writing and revising to their specifications, Very Big Name Publisher ultimately rejected the novel anyway and I wound up going back to the less-than-satisfying small publisher for an even less satisfying editorial experience than I’d had the first time around.

Then the self-publishing wave hit. I decided it might be cool to get my rights to both books back, get new editors, new book covers and do my own promo. It was fun. The books actually made a bit of money this time. One even made the Amazon Best-Seller List for a little while.

Since that time, about three years ago now, I’ve written and published a couple of short stories and contributed to a cookbook. I’ve started at least three different “chick lit” style novels and failed to complete any of them.

Meanwhile, my nonfiction writing career has picked up enormously in the last year — I’ve been writing half of every issue of a local glossy mag that gets distributed in a major newspaper. I’ve also done a fair amount of PR work for a couple of local clients.

And for the last year, I’ve been struggling to help my son, Dr. Sheldon Cooper as he is called on this blog, transition to adulthood. It is going very so-so at this point. He is still a good kid, still mostly happy, BUT…. And the list of “buts” keeps growing: he rejected offers from two very good local colleges for a major he seemed very sure about in favor of going to community college. Once there he changed his major four times in the first semester until a counselor pretty much ordered him to put down “General Studies” and his father ordered him to not change it again at all if he wants us to continue footing the bill. He has drifted away from a lot of  hobbies he had in high school and refuses to consider even a minor in Music, his one area of true giftedness that could help pay his tuition in the form of scholarships, not to mention leading to a fulfilling career in something he loves and at which he excels. He’s developed a serious and unexpected case of stage fright.

Frankly, life with Dr. Cooper has ever been a roller coaster, but it’s always a worry when the car takes a downhill turn, as it seems to be doing this year. I foresee another season wherein I spend almost every free minute getting him organized, boosting his spirits, cheering him out of his dark moments. A season filled with visits to doctors, counselors, coaches, psychologists, acupuncturists, even priests, trying to get him to Focus! Cheer up! Have confidence! It is an exhausting, time-consuming place to be and it is a place I come back to with him every few years. Many parents of special needs kids or kids with developmental challenges know this place as “Holland,” from the Emily Perle Kingsley essay “Welcome to Holland.” And indeed, Holland is not a bad place to be. But we wouldn’t want to, say, let him take the wrong train entirely and wind up leaving Holland for Outer Slobovia or something even less appealing.

So I will put aside much of my self again and make one last push to try and help him acquire the confidence, the optimism, and the social skills he will need to succeed at an independent life without me someday. I will fit that around the newspaper, magazine  and PR writing that pays so much better than novel writing now (although ironically it was the opposite just three years ago). I will fit it around that stuff because it’s what I do. The Boy Who Was Autistic eventually graduated from a mainstream private high school with a 3.6 GPA and a bright future. I believe he can still find that future, but he needs a few more years of coaxing and coaching and maybe even a little hand-holding to do so.

But the coaxing and coaching of Dr. Cooper takes a lot of time and mental energy away from things like novel-writing. And then there are all the market changes in the novel-writing world. Self-publishing was fun, but I’m pretty burnt out on the whole phenomenon now. The market is flooded with new self-pubbed authors who have no professional background whatsoever in writing or editing and just hope to hit it rich “like that 50 Shades writer.” Unfortunately, the market is definitely not flooded with an equal influx of new readers, leading to entire sets of full-length books being sold for as little as $0.99. You can see, then, why novel-writing isn’t even on the back burner for me right now. It’s in the freezer, cats and kitties. A freezer in the basement. In the back. And the stairs to the basement are missing.

The bottom line, cats and kitties, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now is: no new chick noir novel in 2015. Probably not in 2016 either. Even if I get back to novel writing at some point in the future, I suspect it won’t be chick lit. Maybe it will be horror or steampunk or my old first love, science fiction. Maybe it will be a weepy women’s novel or an edgy action thriller. There’s a good chance it will be something for kids or teens, since I’m reading and enjoying more and more of that stuff these days.  But all that is in the vague future. Right now, the focus is on Dr. Cooper and my freelance business.

There will probably be book review posts in the future, and there may be some short stories and another cookbook contribution coming in the next year, but I don’t see a novel coming soon. And trying to pretend I even want to write another one right now has become another thing just making me tired and stressing me out. And so this post: a confession and an acclamation: Lynn Reynolds the novelist is on sabbatical.

The White Man’s Burden Just Never Stops

white-mans-problems.w250Funniest quote about books this week  (or possibly ever) has to go to Michael Wolff of USA Today. . .

In a recent article, Wolff bemoans the fate of middle-aged white guy Kevin Morris who, despite being a successful entertainment lawyer, couldn’t get a book contract with a mainstream publisher. The article goes on at length to talk about what a hard thing it is to be a white guy in the entertainment industry these days (?!) and how little entertainment is geared toward such folk.

Because you know, Jack Reacher, Tom Clancy, Liam Neeson, Duck Dynasty, football  — apparently none of that counts. Although if those things are not for middle-aged men, I can’t imagine who they’re actually for.

And if you’re grousing about wanting a more literary level to your middle-aged white guy entertainment, what about Updike, Cheever, Jonathan Franzen, and almost any freaking short story published in The New Yorker? What about the hundreds of years of accumulated writing and work that has already been written by and aimed at middle-aged white guys? I guess Mr. Wolff has already read all of that.

Now I have no idea of the quality of Kevin Morris’ writing. I haven’t read his book yet. And I have to confess that as a non-middle-aged-white-man, it’s not at the top of my list. My quibble is not with the quality of his writing, the state of entertainment for middle-aged men, or his feeling of being marginalized.

In fact, I applaud Morris for doing what so many other successful writers of all ages and colors (myself included) are now doing — self-publishing his collection of stories, White Man’s Problems. My quibble is not with Morris at all, but rather with this truly priceless line, found near the end of Michael Wolff’s bafflingly outraged column about this book:

“Amazon’s legion of self-published authors is perhaps just more evidence of our infinitely fractured culture. Too many stories is just another sign of a broken world.”

That’s right, the same columnist complaining about the lack of representation for middle-aged white men in literature and praising the brilliance of Kevin Morris’ self-published book is the same columnist suggesting it’s a BAD THING that absolutely anyone can now self-publish a collection of short stories whenever they so desire.

Wait, what?

Telling more stories is bad? The fact that human beings have stories to tell and new ways to share them is a BAD THING?! A sign of a broken world?

If a burning desire to tell your story and the ability to share it with anyone is a sign of disaster and brokenness, I guess it’s clearly been one long downhill slide since the first caveman picked up his brush. And frankly, if more people wanting to tell stories is a sign of a broken world, then I’d be happy to live in one that’s crumbling to pieces.

Rant done. Thanks for the laugh, USA Today.

A Great Man Passes

Leo Bretholz

“Bitterness destroys the person who is bitter…. You cannot feel bitter. You must feel determined.” ~ Leo Bretholz

Leo Bretholz died last night. He was 93 years old, so it should come as no surprise. That he lived this long to spread his message about the horrors of the Holocaust is miraculous in itself. Many obituaries will rightly talk about the great contribution he made as a living historian, tirelessly visiting schools to educate young people about the Nazi genocide and about the Resistance movement in which he played a crucial part. Right to the last day of his life, he was still working  to see that justice would continue to be done in memory of the millions who perished at the hands of the Nazis. In fact, he had been scheduled to testify today before the Maryland House of Delegates, urging them to support a reparations bill that was directed at a French rail company contracted to construct a new portion of the state’s light rail line. I hope the world recognizes the great work he did to raise awareness about the dangers of racism, nationalism, all of those -isms that say “Our -ism is better than yours. Your -ism should not even exist.”

A lot of much better writers than me are going to talk about his midnight swim across the River Sauer to escape Austria as it fell to the Nazis. They will talk about his daring escape from a cattle car bound for Auschwitz, his great friendship with the nuns who helped nurse him back to health, and his work with the Compagnons de France, the Jewish Resistance Group.

I will talk instead about the good humor and patience of a man who worked at a bookstore over thirty years ago. Unfortunately for him, and fortunately for me, the bookstore was right around the corner from the restaurant where my mother worked. I was in my early teens, I think, but she didn’t like to leave me at home alone all day. Sometimes she’d send me down the street to the delightful Sobus family, a stereotypical Catholic family of about ten kids. There was always music and noise and good food there, but she didn’t like to take advantage of them, so on other occasions, she’d tell me to come down to work with her and “go find something to do in the neighborhood.”

What I found to do was pester Leo.

I suppose the first few times the chubby girl with thick glasses and weird hair showed up, he wondered if I was shoplifting. But I always found some bargain book to buy and he must have been able to sense a fellow lover of the written word. He began to chat with me each time I came into the store. I told him I thought I might like to be a writer someday, and he said he was thinking about writing a book too. He recommended books for me, introducing me to the wonderful epics of Leon Uris in particular and to many works of history and poetry. After I read Mila 18, Uris’ tale of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Leo began to tell me his own story of survival.

I was, and still am, in awe of him.

He was always kind to me, always had time to talk to me. My mom came into the store to drag me home one day, apologizing profusely, but he brushed it off and told her I was no trouble. To Mom and me, he was just a nice man who worked around the corner from her. Only gradually did we discover what a huge force he was in raising awareness about the Holocaust. Eventually, my mother moved on to another job and so did Leo. I don’t really remember which of them left first, but I know that we lost touch for many years.

In the summer of 2001, my husband and I moved our family a fair distance from Baltimore, where I’d met Leo so long ago. Mom came along. She was retired now and slowing down a bit, so we moved her into an in-law apartment in our home. One day a couple of years later, we were at the local library when Mom saw a poster.

“Look, it’s Leo!” she cried.

The poster announced a talk and book signing by Leo Bretholz, author of Leap Into Darkness. It was a memoir. “He finally wrote his book!”

We decided to go to his talk. We thought it was important to support him, because sometimes book signings aren’t that well attended. (I hadn’t written any books of my own yet, but I’d heard about book signings where no one buys and everyone just wants to know where the bathroom is.) But Leo had spent decades sharing his story with so many people, and taking time to listen to their own stories, no matter how small. So we needn’t have worried about attendance at his signing. It was standing room only, and the line to purchase his book and have it signed was an impressive sight. We waited until almost everyone had gone, because Mom couldn’t really stand for long periods anymore–all those years on her feet as a waitress had taken their toll. Now remember what a busy life this man had lived, and all the important things that had happened to him, and the fact that he hadn’t seen my mother and I in nearly two decades.

When we stood to have him sign my mother’s copy of the book, he paused and stared at us for a long time.

“I know you,” he said to my mother. And then: “Cathy?”

They embraced and we reminisced for a little while, wishing him good luck with his book. I told Leo I hadn’t written any books yet, but he assured me I still had time to get started.

And so I went home and I did.

He had that kind of effect on people.

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Chuck Wendig: Amazon Is Not Your Friend

The snow has stopped

 

Still waiting for that Spring Thaw to give me the energy boost I need. Or at least to put an end to the snow blindness I’m experiencing from weeks of looking out the window and seeing nothing but the frozen freakin’ tundra.

 

Meanwhile, here’s an excellent post from the talented author and self-publishing guru, Chuck Wendig. All about why you should NOT make the mistake of letting Amazon become the only game in town–whether you’re an author or a  reader. Enjoy!

 

Diversify Your Publishing: Why Amazon’s ACX Royalty Change Matters

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Slow Writing – Or, When Did Writing Stop Being About Writing?

just-printed-1408010-mI couldn’t help but notice Terri Ponce’s blog today. Terri is burnt out and has decided to take an extended break from writing. I say good for her. As many of you know, I’ve been struggling with the latest “chick noir” novel. I definitely have a big problem with “been there, done that” thinking and this would be my third contemporary women’s fiction with romantic elements, so no wonder it’s seeming unexciting to me. But there’s more going on with the slow progress on The Monaco Mission.

Like Terri, I’m burnt out too. But not so much on writing. I thought I was burnt out on writing up until a couple of weeks ago, when I was reading an extended discussion on one of my online critique groups about pricing strategies for selling the most books at the iBookstore. That’s when I realized what’s really got me burnt out.

I’m not burnt out on writing, I’m burnt out on all the peripheral pressures – the well-meaning writing friends who post daily word counts and page counts on FB & Twitter; the constant discussion of sales figures; all the posts about pricing, advertising, and marketing strategies on various writing loops. I remember when most of the discussion on those loops was about plotting, dialogue, and comparisons of favorite writers and their styles. These days, it seems like hardly anyone in the writing world talks about actual writing anymore. Writing is just “content” to be generated as rapidly as possible, posted for quick consumption, and then instantly forgotten.

Add to that the new paradigm that says we have to churn out two or three or more books per year in order to get any significant income at all from all these $1.99 books we’re producing. Hence the increasing pressure to produce so many words or pages a day, and the suggestion that you’re a slacker if you don’t.  All this can really kill your enthusiasm for writing.

But I think it’s the brave new world of publishing that’s the real issue, not the actual writing. After about a year of feeling too burnt out to write, I’m just now learning to separate what I now call “Publishing Burn Out” from my feelings about actual writing. And what I’ve remembered is that before I was published, I wasn’t thinking at all about daily word or page counts – I was just thinking about a story I wanted to tell. Sometimes I didn’t write A WORD all day, sometimes I would spend the day cutting pictures out of a magazine to represent characters or story settings. But that was part of telling the story too. Unfortunately, creative exercises like that tend to go by the wayside if all you’re thinking about is speed. And along with them goes all the fun, too.

I applaud Terri’s decision to take an extended break and slow down. I think creative writing should be just that — creative. And if that means slowing down in order to actually think about what you’re writing, so be it.

Neil Gaiman’s Eight Rules for Writing

So I was going to write a blog about writing today, but I was busy writing. And then when I checked Pinterest this evening, I found that a friend had posted a link to this. Perfect.

English writer Neil Gaiman. Taken at the 2007 ...

Breathing Fiction

Neil Gaiman is without a doubt one of the most imaginative writers on the market today, so when he comes out with writing rules, you want to do exactly as he says.  I love that his suggestions are not really “secrets”, but rather no-nonsense approaches to writing, with the first rule being to sit down and do it.

Check out all of Neil Gaiman’s Eight Rules for Writing below, then tell us your favorite one:

Neil Gaiman 8 Rules for Writing

And to make it easy, the rules in text format:

  1. Write
  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
  3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
  4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
  5. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or…

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