Wednesday Wonders on a Thursday: Two Books With True Endings

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If you want to find a good read, go to a writing conference. 

Writers, I have learned, are jittery about their own books. As often as not, we struggle to tell you what our books are about or why we fell in love with our own stories enough to spend days, months, and years writing them. But as soon as someone starts talking about books we love written by OTHER people, the conversation around the dinner table wakes up.

I keep a notebook or the Evernote app close by at writing events, so when the book lists start flying, I can write down all the titles and then later find my best reads of the year. Sometimes, these books are old treasures that I missed like Catherine Called Birdy and The Midwife’s Apprentice.

When these came out in the 1990s, I was busy with other life experiences like my time in Germany, so I missed Karen Cushman’s tales of the Middle Ages. I am grateful my writing friends paid attention back then.

Both of these middle grade works of historical fiction pulled me into the time period. I could tell that Catherine Called Birdy was Cushman’s first tale. The plot wandered a little in the weeds of history while The Midwife’s Apprentice felt tighter with a story line that wove through in a way that CCB sometimes did not. I see why it won the Newbery Medal.

But CCB, the Newbery Honor book, spoke to me this last week. In it, a girl struggled against her limiting circumstances and the arranged marriage awaiting her. I wanted her to be able to run away on a crusade, become a script-writing monk like her older brother, or even to be able to marry Perkins the goat herder.

Maybe as a young teen, I believed these as possible happy endings for a young lady like Catherine.

As a grown up, I recognize those as impossible options for a young woman living in the feudal society of the time.

In any case, I loved how Cushman brought Catherine to a realistic but hopeful resolution at the end. The character found peace and a way to stay true to herself by the end in spite of the oppressive rules of her society.

Many thanks once more to my writing friends for the joy of two good books, one after the other.

May you find your own selves in the midst of whatever lifts you up or holds you in place-

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P.S. The biggest trouble with posting late comes when the next week swings around and you’ve already missed it. Getting behind on a weekly post is like waiting until the next night to do the dishes. It gets so much easier to let the pots and plates slide the night after when you’ve done the washing up before cooking and then face more washing up.

All of that is to say that I’ll get my wonders back on Wednesdays next week. Honest.

Wednesday Wonders: The Garden Gift of Forty

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When I was a teenager, working in the garden numbed my brain with boredom. I could not understand how my mother spent hours and days pulling weeds and clipping dead branches. I loved the beauty of the place and went to the roses to talk to her often, but I could only do the work for a few minutes before running off to bike 30 miles, pace the floor, drive to the beach, or anything else besides working with plants.

Life has changed me. 

My latest read is by Cameron Diaz and Sandra Bark. In The Longevity Book: The Science of Aging, the Biology of Strength, and the Privilege of Time, Diaz talks of how to embrace each age you are in as you live it. I’ve only made it a few chapters through the book but already see the beauty in this approach to growing older.

I think gardens may be one of the gifts of forty.

Soon after I entered this decade, I  began enjoying the time I spend outside with the flora. I worry less about having a perfect looking place and enjoy more the experience of being outside and touching the dirt. Pulling weeds and moving earth heals me when my soul aches, and the work gets me outside when I need to move from too many hours with a book or in a basement level classroom. To make it even better, my six year old dances around me, playing his games and talking to the neighbors as they walk their dogs by our home.

When I was a teen the heaven of my imagination would have been filled with action. Now I think my vision of it would be much more like Eden.

The newfound garden joy also gives me hope for the decades to come. I can no longer run as fast as I did in my twenties. In fact my hip now tells me not to run at all most days. I haven’t given up on running altogether–I still am working to heal.

But who knows what new gift I will find as I grow older?

Gardens may be just the start of the party. 

May you find joy in every age-

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Wednesday Wonders: Where to Find a Good Read

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I have two places to find books when I want to know what to read next. It was strange to me that in those two separate places I found first Moriarty and then Holmes, two books I adored.

1. My Mother’s Kindle

A while back, my six-year-old dropped my electronic book. This is what I read with most nights. I love the way I can lay in bed and flip through the books if I need to or play solitaire on occasion. The light turns off on its own when I drift off into sleep, saving me the trouble of turning one off or burning up flashlight batteries.

My generous mother gave me her old device after the dropping disaster, and now I have a library of someone else’s books at my finger tips. Some of them are odd things her book club assigned. Others are wonderful treasures I might never have found without her Kindle’s help.

Recently, I fell into a delightful story called The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty (no relation to the fictional character).

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In this story, a thirty-something woman chaperones a young starlet named Louise Brooks to New York City in 1922. The chaperone has trouble with Louise but is also on a secret mission of her own to discover her past.

The book covers so much of the era in a compelling storyline that drew me in and revealed secrets I didn’t even suspect in the character’s lives. (This makes it a challenge to write about since I wouldn’t want to spoil any of those surprises for you.) Most of all I admired the way the characters stood up to the social norms of the day or found ways around them rather than conforming. Their rebellions didn’t always work out, but I sure cheered them on through all the pages and the ending came out reasonably well for them all.

2. My Booklist

Whenever someone tells me of a book they read and loved, I whip out my phone and write it into my Evernote program. Then when I am at the library, desperate for my next book to curl around, I pull up the list and request it or track it down on the shelves.

This is how I found The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, or On the Segregation of the Queen by Laurie R. King.

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If you like Sherlock Holmes, you may well love this one like I did. King took the years of Holmes’ beekeeping retirement and turned them into an apprenticeship of a the young woman protagonist who matches him in wit and intelligence. I am ready to request that next book in this series just as soon as I make it further on my booklist.

I only have one thing to change about this system of finding books: I need to write the names of those who recommend the books next to the titles so I can thank them and, of course, talk about the book.

I’ve forgotten who recommended King’s excellent work so now I can’t do that. I’ve even made the mistake of gushing at someone about my latest find when she was the one who told me about it in the first place. Sheesh!

May you find great books wherever you go-

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Epic Fail Part Two: Believe it Or Not Failure Isn’t (Always) Someone Else’s Fault

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As promised after the Super Bowl Sadness, I looked into people who have made mistakes and bounced back. When I googled and asked others about this I found three interesting things:

1. Lots of people have made mistakes.

2. No one wants to talk about their own mistakes.

3. It’s much easier to think even our heroes were unrecognized — that they were unfairly rejected — than it is to think about how many times they had to sweat it out and improve to get good at what they were doing.

When I asked others face to face about famous people who recovered from big mistakes, several people paused, looked at me, and then said something like:

“Well, I’ve made lots of mistakes, but I don’t want you writing about me.”

Then I often learned of the writers or artists they know who were rejected over and over again until someone finally saw their greatness.

But, I kept thinking to myself, if that’s totally true and the writer or artist changed nothing about her/his work, then the people who rejected Harry Potter, Mickey Mouse and Jaws are the ones who made the mistakes, not Rawling, Disney, or Spielberg.

What’s worse, the rejectors had no redemption. They never recovered from their mistakes because the other organizations who saw the greatness made all the money.

What bothers me most is the idea that your stuff is either good enough, or it’s not. Either the world sees you’re already great or it does not. In this view, there is no room for the reworking a book, a drawing or a movie until it’s even better.

I”m still pondering this and what it means for my own work. But for today I will tell you of one successful artist who made mistakes, learned from them, worked hard to make corrections and went on to become a name you all know. I read of his failure in A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant life of Robert “Believe it or Not “Ripley by Neal Thompson.

Robert LeRoy Ripley got his first job as a cartoonist in San Francisco with a respected newspaper when he was a young man. Soon after, he was fired from his dream job because his work was not good enough for the publication.

Rather than rail against his fate or go back to the small town he was raised in to live out his days doing work he did not love, Ripley started taking drawing lessons and studying other cartoonists. He kept the lessons and study up even after he got his next dream job and worked ridiculously hard long hours to improve his skills.

Ripley did not resent his firing. He knew he needed to get better and put all his energy into doing just that.

His quest for improvement sometimes bordered on obsession, and I’m hoping to avoid manic no sleep sort of behavior. Still, I admire Ripley’s focus and determination in the face of his own deficiencies.

This encourages me much more than the stories of needless rejection because the amount of effort I put into getting better is under my control.

I’d also like to think those mistaken rejectors might have gotten better and gone on to recognize the next great person who knocked at the door. I’m that kind of optimist.

To finish this up today, I’ll leave you with Ira Glass who says the hardest part about beginning is allowing yourself to crank out enough stinky material until you get better, knowing all along that what you’re making smells like the fish those guys at Pike Place Market fling into the air. In other words, put in the time making mistakes.

Ivan the Gorilla Was Right After All: How Success Can Sneak Up On You

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In looking back over the past year on my blog, I’ve noticed something that surprised me and made my writing heart happy.

I posted The One and Only Ivan and a Measure of Peace after reading a kid lit book based on his life. The One and Only Ivan is a fictional story about a gorilla based on a true story of an animal I saw as a child in the Tacoma B&I. Katherine Applegate’s story sunk deep into my heart, and I published my review feeling like it was one of my best. No one commented or seemed to notice.

I paused for a bit like I do when I get crickets and then kept writing.

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It took me a while to notice, but over the last year and a half Ivan has gotten more hits than any other post. People have viewed it 151 times. Ivan has gotten more views than the nostalgic pictures of Auburn High before the wrecking balls came through this past summer in My Doomed High School (74).

It doesn’t always take this long for others to notice posts I’ve poured my heart into. The Triple Amputation School of Beauty got noticed around the world quite quickly but still does not have as many views as Ivan.

And, honestly, I have no idea why people have been drawn to my posts. The interest in Ivan may have nothing to do with how well I wrote it. Maybe clickers are drawn to the book by an interest Applegate or maybe they just love gorillas. But a little slice of joy lights up inside me whenever I notice that people are still looking at my words about a story that captured me.

In case you want the graphics, here’s the full review of 2014 including a map of the places in the world where people could be reading about a gorilla who once lived in Tacoma, a condemned high school, or a brave woman who lives life to the fullest.

Click here to see the complete report.

I wish you all found memories of your time in 2014 and the years that came before. This year I learned sometimes it takes a while for people to notice when you’ve done your best work.

Besides. Those stats reminded me that even if people never noticed and even if they were only looking for a book review, I would still be glad I wrote about the inestimable Ivan. May you all keep doing whatever it is that brings you slices of joy whether you get crickets or clicks.

D*@# you, John Green: An Open Letter About THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

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Warning: The open letter is full of spoilers. If you haven’t read the book, be warned.

Dear John Green,

Darn you. Darn you for writing a book that made me cry out loud.

Darn you for writing a book that kept my behind stuck in the chair on a day off when I should have been cleaning, so when the neighbor came over to give me his garden fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, he had to look away from the sight of my entryway.

Darn you for writing the things about the Battle and the Fight against cancer which is a part of our own bodies. I have been thinking those things since my dad died “when the cancer, which was made of him, finally stopped his heart, which was also made of him.” I could not find the words that you did through Hazel.

Darn you for writing a book so true that now I must miss Hazel and Augustus, too.

Darn you for your brilliance, courage and humanity that you are able to use so well.

Darn you for getting me to care so much about a story that my heart aches.

Darn you. Having this as a library book won’t be enough. I’ll need to buy it.

And darn you for becoming so deservedly popular that you don’t answer your mail. Not even from your mother. If I sent this to you directly, it would only end up in a slush pile like Van Houten’s. Darn you for that, too.

In reality, you can substitute ‘thank’ for all the ‘darns’ in this letter. But, honestly, as I stood stunned in my kitchen after Augustus died, I first thought, “D*#% you.” You left a scar with this book, Mr. Green. It’s not a scar I regret having. I like my choice to read your book. But that scar is deep, and it is still tender.

Most Sincerely,

Karrie

A Review: The Carpet People by Terry Pratchett

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The Carpet People

Terry Pratchett is a name I’ve heard over the years but not someone I had read before. When I saw that one of my  favorite writers Neil Gaiman had worked with Pratchett, I decided to check him out. The Carpet People caught my eye and so I brought it home from the library — first as the audio read by Tony Robinson and then checking out the book when I could not listen fast enough. The illustrations by the author were a marvelous bonus to the print version. 

I loved his language. As we listened and drove to Lake Tipsoo, Robinson read: “The carpet was big. But the carpet was…everything. It didn’t count. It was too big to have a size. But the High Gate Land was small enough to be really huge.” And the High Gate Land turns out to be a penny.

I adored the idea of teensy tiny people living in the carpet at the mercy of Fray which, as far as I can tell, is what happens when we beyond giants step on a section of carpet.

In an author’s note, Pratchett says that the “book has two authors, they were both the same person.” He originally wrote it when he was seventeen and then revised it considerably at 43. I’m intrigued by how well he did at 17 and then how far he’s come since then.

Bits flew off in different directions and, at times, I noticed the fact that the first author was only 17. It made me want to see how his writing develops and check into this Discworld business. I’m betting I’ll be impressed and may need to find another reader to do the English accents that my inner reading voice so often falters on when I look at the print version.

 

Classics for Four Year Old Granddaughters

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My friend Jill asked me this weekend what reading classics I would recommend for her and her soon-to-be four granddaughter. It was a delightfully difficult question to answer. Here are all of my ideas.

Kid Classics Everyone Seems to Know

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown (The language in this is amazing. I read that one of the reasons it works so well and is so soothing involves the use of the vowels created in the back of your throat. Ms. Brown is  a wonder.)

The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss (It is a joy to learn this book as the parent reader. After a time, you can start zipping through the language and the repetition, feeling a little like your tongue is skipping. I especially like the question at the end about asking the mother. “What would you do if your mother asked you?” Quinton always has to ponder this a bit.)

Anything by Eric Carle. (Kieran and I especially liked The Grouchy Ladybug. Quinton loves The Hungry Caterpillar.)

Skippyjon Jones series by Judy Schachner (Although the boys never got hooked on these, I adore this cat and think Jill’s granddaughter might, too.)

My Special Recommendation for Girls

The Paper Bag Princess by Munch with art by Marchenko. (This book is a delightful twist on the rescue a female from the dragon scenario — the heroine does her own brilliant rescuing. I’m pretty sure I enjoyed this more than the boys, but they appreciate my sound effects for the dragon’s actions.)

My Family’s Lesser Known Classics

If You Were My Bunny by Kate McMullan (This one is good if you like to sing. The different animals have new lyrics for old lullabies.)

The Little Critter series by Mercer Meyer (Little Critter is a wonder with his trips to the grandparents, experiences with a messy room and, my husband’s favorite: Just Go to Bed.)

One Day, Two Dragons by Lynne Bertrand (An elegant tale of two dragons off to get shots to protect them against things like scale rot and dragon breath.)

Click Clack Moo by Doreen Cronin (Again, the language rolls off your tongue as you read it. The cows and ducks triumph with words also spices up the plot.)

And, finally, our all time favorite if you only let us have one children’s book forever because you were a cruel overlord or something: 

Four Pups and a Worm by Eric Seltzer (I don’t know many people who have read this one but I adore it. Seltzer has a rhythm that creates an easy flow to the words and an adorable concept. The repeating words helped Kieran learn to read and I see the beginnings of this with Quinton, too.)

“If a pet frog sounds like fun, would 3 cats and a slug lend you one? Never. No. Never. They’re just not that clever. Call four pups and a worm! They lend frogs!”

I’m hoping Jill will check these out from one of my favorite places on the surface of this planet: the library. Then she can chose her favorite or favorites to give her girl. Whatever she does, I’m thrilled she asked me. Tripping through the books in my mind was a blast that beat the trousers off of all that blowing up of explosives I heard last night.

 

 

Scat: A Review

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Title: SCAT

Author: Carl Hiassen

Narrated By: Ed Asner

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (hardcover); Listening Library (audio CD)

Publication Date: January 27, 2009

Length: 371 pages; 9 hours and 17 minutes

Genre: Eco-fiction; humorous; mystery; realistic fiction

Source: Checked out from library

Completed: October 7, 2013

POV: Third Person

Grade Level: 4-12

Age: 9-12

Memorable: Humorous and memorable character descriptions. Beginning scene with Mrs. Starch that defines the main characters.

One line summary: When his stern biology teacher disappears in the Florida Black Vine Swamp, Nick Waters discovers he and his friend Marta may need to rescue the teacher and the swamp from a greedy oil company.

Review:

I had read and listened to this book before but longed to sink into a well-told tale again on my drives to work without having to suffer through trying out a book that might not work for me. My October has been a full of classes, meetings and kid’s appointments. I needed a sure thing to help me relax and remembered loving SCAT before.

The opening scene once again impressed me with its power and with Hiassen’s ability to craft a scene. Ed Asner did a bang up job of reading, and I felt drawn into the moment when the slouching kid named Smoke shocks the class after taking a few too many jibes from his biology teacher Mrs. Starch. After I picked up my fourteen year old, we listened to it again in awe, admiring both Hiassen’s writing and Asner’s reading.

I especially liked Hiassen’s first line: “The day before Mrs. Starch vanished, her third-period biology students trudged silently, as always, into the classroom.” The author tucked in a sliver of doom before launching into what at first seemed like an everyday classroom event.

The scene that followed painted a picture that made me wonder if Smoke might actually do something to Mrs. Starch, making her disappearance in the Black Vine Swamp all the more intriguing.

I also admired Hiassen’s expertly woven information. The mystery came to a head with Nick in a tree and the bad guy wandering lost in the swamp he plotted to destroy. The writer neatly turned a few of the readers’ assumptions upside down.

The subplot with Nick’s father and the war in Iraq somehow works even though I felt it was stretched at the end. I wondered if Hiassen, too, fell in love with his story and wasn’t quite ready to leave it.

At times, I also felt Scat took environmentalism to an extreme with references to ecological activism that bordered on violence, but I couldn’t help feeling sympathetic to the idea of saving Florida wetlands and the vulnerable wildlife that live there. Besides, it is difficult to get in a knot over silly bad guys with pliers on their lips or the potential destruction of a company due to “panther poop.”

Overall, Scat was a good read that made my commute ever so much better for about a week.

Esperanza Rising: A Review

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Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan has everything I love in a novel. It has gorgeous imagery and historical interest that hooked me into what happened in the world we live in along with a plot that kept me turning pages.

The vivid descriptions of both the ranch where Esperanza spent her early years and the California farm scenes in the 1920’s pulled me into the characters’ world.

I also learned that the U.S. immigration officials in the 20’s and 30’s often deported US citizens if they tried to strike for better conditions. The growers had power with the government officials. Perhaps because I have seen too much, I was not surprised about this. I was, however, surprised about the numbers of workers who faced deportation. Ryan says in an author’s note that ‘at least 450,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans’ were sent to Mexico (often because they ‘looked’ Mexican) from 1929-1935 in an effort to improve the unemployment problems in the U.S. at the time. The job outlook did not improve.

My only complaint in  the story itself was Esperanza’s young love interest Miguel. He felt a little too perfect. I could wish a few flaws on him to make him feel more human.

While reading the story of Esperanza, I also remembered something about myself as a reader. I need the lyrical language to get myself into a book, and then I will skim that beautiful language mercilessly in order to find out ‘what happens next’ like some sort of super plot junkie. That’s again why I often do better with the audio books if I want to soak up all of what the author has to say, but I do love it when the plot keeps me going enough to move quickly.

To sum it up once more: Esperanza Rising is an eye opener with beautiful language, lovable characters and a plot that pulled me through. If you liked Ryan’s previous books or others such as Moon Over Manifest by Vanderpool, you can pick up a copy of Esperanza Rising, too, and know it will keep your thoughts in its pages after you finish.