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Archive for the ‘Good Reads’ Category

One of the joys of reading a good book or watching a good movie is that of surrender. When I open to the page where I last left off or the theater lights go dim, I breathe to myself (hopefully not out loud), “take me.”

Take me into some neighborhood I’ve only passed by; let me smell their food, hear their music and experience the love, joy and anger that is so essentially human, but through the heart of another culture. Or take me to another land so I may breathe their icy cold into my lungs or feel the heat upon me that breeds crimes of passion. Take me to the stark loneliness of outer space to be in awe of galaxies; to live inside the utter loyalty and devotion of a scout dog in the Vietnam War and see through her eyes.

Take me where creatures walk among us who look like you and me but harbor lives beyond our imaginings. Tease me with unexpected twists and discovery of villainy or delusion. Speak to me in ways that make me work a little to understand the subtleties of another tongue, or variations of my own from another place and time.

Take me where I may know the deepest and most heartbreaking love, be outraged and demand justice, or laugh because sometimes life is just funny.

But whatever you do, be well-written with characters that ring true to the very end (but can still surprise me) and where I can get lost in your world without hesitation. I am ready to surrender.

Take me.

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There are just periods when one cannot find the time – or brain – to post. Really, I’m kind of still in one of those, but I guess I had to share my love of books – and this amazing haul – with you book lovers out there. Today was day #1 of the annual Hunterdon County Library Book Sale. And below is what I brought home, limited only by the fact that I literally could not carry any more. (Though the library folks said they’d be happy to help me get more to my car. 🙂

This year, I went with a list – some MG/YA (since I continue to write children’s books, I always want to read the good stuff out there): a goodly bunch of fiction titles; and a selection from a list my friend had recently sent me from Buzzfeed entitled 37 Books with Plot Twists that Will Blow Your Mind. Hey, that sounded promising, so I perused the list, eliminated those I’d already read, and added those of interest to my library sale list. Now I was ready to go!

Amazingly, I actually found 6 from my list – The Westing Game – Ellen Raskin and Savvy – Ingrid Law (both MG/YA); The Thirteenth Tale – Diane Setterfield; Fingersmith – Sarah Waters; and The Queen of the Night – Alexander Chee from the “plot twist” list. While I couldn’t find others from the Buzzfeed group, I did find alternative books by a couple of the authors, so picked upThe City of Falling Angels – John Berendt, in place of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and The Infinite Plan – Isabel Allende, in place of The House of the Spirits – a chance to check out new authors.

And then there were these that I just happened upon – The Silent Boy by Lois Lowry because The Giver and Gathering Blue were excellent; Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver because she’s one of my favorite authors; I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak because The Book Thief is one of my favorite all-time books and I promised myself I’d read something else of his and try not to compare; Forever – Pete Hamill because I love the premise and he’s an excellent writer; Morality for Beautiful Girls – Alexander McCall Smith as I love his #1 Ladies Detective Agency series; The Perks of Being A Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky (MG) – just wanted to read it;  same for Evermore – Alyson Noel (YA) and Ape House by Sara Gruen.

And then, The Art of Racing in the Rain –  Garth Stein, recommended highly to me years ago by my dearest friend, since passed over; Pushing the Bear – A Novel of the Trail of Tears – Diane Glancy, because I know this will touch me deeply; and Louise Penny’s Still Life in excellent condition, a wee gift to my own town’s small local library for their shelves (I had to borrow the copy I’d read from the county library). And there you have it.

The two big questions: where will I put them all? and what will I read first after I finish the wonderful book I’m already reading? The first is a minor problem but solvable; the second – just a delicious conundrum. I wish you all happy reading – it is truly one of the riches in our lives.

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Serene is sure a feeling that can escape us when we’ve got a lot on our plate. And lately, this photo is what’s been bringing me back to some semblance of serene.

Beautiful orcas in a sea of calm. I feel like perhaps they are dreaming. Diving, resting and just breathing in the night air. The last few weeks have been far too busy with one thing or another and although I know – we all do – that from time to time, it’s just how life is, I found myself longing for a touch of the serenity I see in this photo. I found myself wishing I could weave among them as kin where they would welcome me, not be afraid, and just share with me whatever they know and feel in the moment captured above.

“They were watching, out there past men’s knowing, where stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.”
~ Cormac McCarthy

But this period of so much going on has had its up-side, too.  I have been on a real reading tear, loving diving into one book after another, middle grade, adult, picture books, no matter. Perhaps these books have all given me the respite I needed, new places to go, people to know, situations that grabbed my attention and heightened sensation. What a rich world books bring us.

OK, change of plans. I’ll sit on an outcropping of rocks next to the orcas, they with their dreams, me with my book, one in spirit under a full moon. Join me?

 

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FoggyMorning

Nature XXVII, Autumn

The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry’s cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.
The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I’ll put a trinket on.

~ By Emily Dickinson

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applebars-squaresdone-small2It’s no revelation to say that routine can be a real buzzkill. And that can be true in any area of our lives. And yet, many of us are confined by the strictures of work, family, chores, etc. A fair amount of our scheduled days is necessarily and simply unavoidably routinized.

But what about some of that other time? I have been noticing lately how much of certain nights is all packaged up ever-so-neatly around the TV. Very American, yes? Truly I am not all that into TV the way I realize a lot of people are, but still … I have my favorites that I like to catch. However, I will find myself parked there, watching something relatively inane that has been sandwiched in between some things I really like. Why am I watching it?

I decided to take a harder look at what I’m watching and … decided to skip a bunch of it. Dumping the telly for a good book. Yeah, I remember that. Sunday afternoon I came home from a picnic with the plan of baking something – had all the ingredients already on the counter and everything. (Ergo the photos you see.) But I wasn’t feeling it, so did some other things, yet was still aware of he clock ticking. Who starts baking after 7 p.m. with work looming on Monday? Well, I guess that was me.

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The dry and other basic ingredients are gathered; the butter and egg at room temperature. Ready to start.

And that’s what made me think of/remember the importance of mixing it up. Even on the small stuff. Was there really anything so pressing on TV? Did I feel like watching the Netflix movie that was waiting? No and no. Why not go ahead and bake even if it’s getting late? Who cares how long it takes? (It was cooled off by 10:00 p.m. – Double Apple Bars. Yum.)

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The apples are pared and cubed. There are 2 cups of apples to about 1-1/2 cups of batter. Very apple-y.
I gave my favorite Macouns a try in this recipe.

We all get so comfortable doing what we’re used to. I’m at the point where I really need to mix it up more – need to feel inspired, have fun, try some new things, go back to some old ones I haven’t done in a while. I don’t know that I’ve actually been bored, but I do know that I have, in too many ways, succumbed to routines. How about you?

I just got a funny image of Bugs Bunny. “What’s up, doc?” he always said. What’s up? Well, I don’t know – what say we go find out.

applebars-squaresdone2

They taste like apple pie in a bar – moist, spicy and full of apple flavor. The pecans are yummy as an addition.

 

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We all know that reading has incalculable benefits of every kind. And although it seemed so obvious when I read an article about fiction readers having more empathy, it never had occurred to me that way.

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It makes perfect sense that as we read about the experiences and feelings of others, putting ourselves into their shoes, we consider these things from an entirely different perspective. But now science is bearing out that each time we’ve opened a book of fiction we have been learning to understand and empathize with others in real life from when we first began to read.

Scientists have determined these results through studying the effects of reading on the brain through MRIs, polls, surveys and experiments. And when the book is more challenging, it helps us become smarter as well as more empathetic.

An example comes to mind. Some time ago I read Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. Hannibal Lecter was a monster with no conscience and terrified many a reader of this novel. Later on I picked up the “prequel”, if you will, of this book, Red Dragon. What truly blew my mind about this book is that Harris, in describing the cruel childhood of Hannibal Lecter, actually made me feel understanding and empathy towards him. No small feat, but a comment on the power of the well-written word to do just what science is now proving – reading fiction engenders empathy towards others, even in as extreme a case as this one, and this was a character of fiction. The implications of how this translates to the real world are immense.

So all you readers and writers of fiction – forge on. You are making the world a better place.

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While I have been rather remiss in blogging, at least I have been reading. Life can pull us in many directions, and some take our blogging time. So be it.

ByTheLight-FathersSmile-AWalker2As I am beginning a new book – chosen from among the many that sit on my shelves waiting to be read – I remember exactly why I picked it up at the big book sale awhile back. I’d read a short story titled am i blue? by Alice Walker over 20 years ago in a magazine. It was about a horse in a meadow alone, bored, betrayed. The meadow was outside a home where Walker was living, and her experience of Blue told me volumes about her appreciation of the hearts and souls of animals. This story was later banned, I found, by the California School Board in 1994, as was, of course, The Color Purple, by all those who feel they know best what you and I should read and think. (You can read am i blue? and some commentary on the The Westcoast Post blog.)

At some point later in time, I came across this (now very famous) quote by Alice Walker, “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.” And though it was not a period in my life when I had the time to read novels, I simply liked her even more.

Fast forward to a few years ago, and I came upon her novel, By the Light of My Father’s Smile. How could I not pick up a book with a title like that?  Knowing that, if nothing else, she and I shared something so important in common – a respect for, and appreciation of, animals.

LayItOnMyHeart-APneuman2I’m looking forward to starting this novel by Alice Walker, but admittedly, my heart is still half living with Charmaine Peake in Kentucky. I just finished Lay it on my Heart by Angela Pneuman, a novel about a 13 year-old girl whose father is, or believes himself to be, a prophet. Living in a small town crammed with churches of every faith possible, where one third of all the men are preachers or studying to be one, Charmaine and her mother Phoebe have been barely getting by in the year while her father has gone to the Holy Land, instructing them to live by their faith alone. This is a coming of age story where Charmaine must come to grips with all that is implied in having the father described, a mother who has felt compelled to honor his wishes, and a growing awareness that perhaps she isn’t and cannot be the holy and God-fearing person that has always been expected of her.

Charmaine’s relationship with her mother is best-described as that beginning struggle for independence, yet she feels constrained by her father’s beliefs of how she should behave as defined by the Old Testament and her desire to please him. Charmaine makes her own way in this story slowly, finding hypocrisies and truths all along the way. She grows to find friendship where she would have least expected it and a willingness to look at life in a way she would have never thought possible. The characters and relationships in this novel are very well-defined, so much so, that you are almost unaware at times of the truly impoverished state she and her mother are forced to live in because of her father’s choices. My one criticism of this book, even though I understand why they’re there, is the seemingly never-ending quotations from the Bible in the first third to half. I have no doubt that this is indeed the reality for the population written about (especially since the author is from Kentucky), but it often felt excessive, and made me wonder should I continue on. I’m glad I did, and I’m still digesting it all. Alice may have to wait just a wee bit.

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I can hardly believe t’s been a week already since I’ve returned from the 2-day children’s book conference in Princeton. I know I’m not alone when I say I come home exhausted, exhilarated, optimistic, grateful, exhausted, happy, enriched, hopeful, challenged, and oh .. did I mention exhausted?

ExhaustedWoman-AntonioGuillem2

Jumping into my standard 40+ hour work week the very next day does not leave a lot of time for reflecting on all that transpired, reviewing materials, notes from critiques, etc. But numerous thoughts and conclusions were ribboning through my mind on and off all week long, even while I looked forward to this weekend to catch up on some rest and start seriously considering where I was going with children’s books.

And a direction became clear. One of the big attractions of the New Jersey SCBWI Conference is that we offer “one-on-ones” to both writers and illustrators. This is often the focal point of the weekend for those writers who wish a detailed critique from agents and/or editors on their children’s books and illustrators who can have art directors review their portfolios. This year, I went full steam ahead and booked two agent critiques for my middle grade novel and one editor critique for a picture book I’m working on. Of the three critiques, one was so incredibly helpful, I was just thrilled.

In the past I have submitted manuscripts that were as finished and polished as I could get them. They’d been looked at by my critique partners, gone through numerous revisions, and perhaps even been seen at previous conferences. This year was different. The picture book is in the very early stages of development and I sought some insight  and direction. The novel had once been a picture book, and through a number of professional critiques had moved through the chapter book phase to its true calling, middle grade. But I had questions, and I wanted to hear an agent’s opinion.

ADogsPurpose-WBruceCameron2The good news is that one agent confirmed my story is unique and not on the market, and she really liked the concept. The not-surprising news is I have a lot of work ahead of me, as in, now I have to write the rest of the book! This agent really paid attention when looking at my synopsis and the first 15 pages of my manuscript, and offered solid advice. I also came armed with lots of questions, and the ensuing discussion helped to highlight areas I need to focus on, existing concepts I might change to improve it, etc. So for that critique alone, the conference was worth it.

Am I writing today? Not yet. But I am making a plan on how I’m going to get this book written. One aspect of the plan is what I read. You know how you sometimes buy a book but when you get it, you know it’s not the time to read it and temporarily shelve it? The book I need to read right now is pictured here, A Dog’s Purpose.  It was recommended to me at least 4 years ago by the CSR of one of the major printers I work with in my capacity as a graphic designer. As little time as she and I had to chat beyond the work-related, she highly recommended this book for me, and said she knew I’d love it on every level. I know the timing is now perfect and reading it will also enrich the story I’m writing.

More on the conference here …

 

 

 

 

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“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.”

― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Statue-ChildReading

With the annual New Jersey Society of Children’s Books Writers and illustrators (NJ SCBWI) June Conference on the horizon one has to think – there is something so amazing about so many individuals all streaming into one location from all over the country for a single purpose – to share, to learn and to grow in the one thing that unites us all – children’s books. We meet old friends and make some new, share and see amazing illustration, and have the opportunity to sit in workshops and at lunch tables, not just with our peers, but with editors and agents from some of the finest publishing companies and agencies in the U.S. Cheers to us all!

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This little phrase is bandied about all over the place nowadays; it’s on mugs, tee shirts, posters and more. And like so many sayings that become pop sensations, there is an undeniable element of truth in it.

Grass-JanMocnak2

I was reading, (kind of re-reading and reflecting on, actually), Deepak Chopra’s small volume titled The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, which are, according to Chopra, really the same as the Seven Spiritual Laws of Life. In the chapter about the fourth spiritual law, the Law of Least Effort, he writes about how easily we can fulfill our desires by learning, as nature can exemplify, how to do less and accomplish more. There are three little lessons within this law, and the one that reflects this post’s title is the one I am currently pondering.

The idea is to accept people, events, and situations exactly as they are in this very moment, versus what we would like them to be. Sounds so easy, but it’s not always the case. So much of our unhappiness comes from our disappointment and frustration that people and situations are not what we’d hoped, expected and/or planned. Think about it. We did something nice and so-and-so didn’t even have the courtesy to thank us, or didn’t thank us enough, soon enough, or whatever. We planned so carefully for a party and it rained. In addition to that, some people didn’t show up, and they never called or texted, etc. And we become miserable. The variations are endless, and of course, run the gamut from day-to-day occurrences to life-changing events.

7SpiritualLaws-DChopra2Life is filled with all kinds of disappointments and we have a choice to accept them and let them go … or not. When we don’t, and we grab on like the proverbial dog on a bone? we become yet more miserable. We can make ourselves crazy. This accepting of “It is what is is” seems to me to be a lifelong lesson, to be learned again and again in different circumstances and at different levels of awareness. While expending less energy on what isn’t or what might have been, we gain so much more for other things.

Chopra makes analogies with nature, such as fish – they just swim, or grass – it just grows. Imagine if grass worried if it would be mowed or chewed on by cows or destroyed by weed killer. It doesn’t — it just grows. We can do that, too. Accept this exact moment as it is. It’s not to say we can’t intend for things to be different in the future, but right now? It is what it is.

It can be easy. Or a worthwhile challenge. Or the ruin of our day. Our pick.

 

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This past weekend was the wonderful, huge, annual library sale that I go to every year, and below you see my haul.

EmptyShelves-Bowl-KayPat2

What? You don’t see any books? That’s because I never got there. Being under the weather for a few days, plus it was raining non-stop, I knew my best bet was to stay home and feel better. I missed the excitement of just being around the thousands of books, and certainly the traditional follow-up lunch with my friend in which we go over our multitude of finds, but in the end, I am hardly bookless.

I still have books from last year’s venture; friends share books all the time; I have bookshelves stuffed with selections I’ve yet to read or would happily read again; and … the local library is in a decent walking distance from my home. I am living in a very book-rich world.

AllTheLight-ADoerr2Not to mention, I am still living in the world of Anthony Doerr, Pulitzer Prize winning author of  All the Light We Cannot See. Yesterday, before I closed-up shop for the day on my work, I read a bit online about him and his other books, and watched a video of how he came to write this phenomenal book. I also looked at photographs of Saint Malo, the walled city on the coast of Brittany, bombed practically beyond recognition at the end of World War II, and an important location for much of the story. Doerr wanted to write a different tale about the war, and much like the outstanding author of The Book Thief, Markus Zusak, he certainly has done that. I am at times brought to tears at the beauty of Doerr’s use of words, and am moved by the story he tells.

As I approach the end of the book, I am deeply saddened by what has happened to one of the characters, but am holding out hope for the others. Soon I will be returning this novel to my local library, never knowing if my next book will be in the stacks, sitting in the $1.00 shelves at the front desk, or waiting for me here at home. I don’t own a kindle, and don’t read online. I thoroughly enjoy the weight of a book in my hands, the smell of paper and ink, the turning of the pages, and the placing of a bookmark where I’ll begin again as soon as I’m able.

We who love to read are a lucky lot, are we not?

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If you had asked me 5 or 6 years ago if I liked historical fiction, my answer would have been “Meh.”

Sadly, I was effectively turned off to all things history as a child, when my first learning experiences labeled “History” were nothing more than an endless dry and boring series of names, dates, places and events to be absorbed and later regurgitated on tests. In retrospect, our teachers had to cover 7 or 8 different subjects daily, so what were chances that any of them would be a real history buff and would teach us history with great enthusiasm and insight? Apparently, pretty slim.

KiteRunner-KHosseiniIt wasn’t until college when I had an exceptional professor who taught Contemporary Civilization in the context of art, (I was at an art school), and for the first time someone teaching history had neurons in my brain firing rapidly. History suddenly came alive! Unfortunately, at that point, I had very little mental framework in my brain to hang it on. But I started to take an interest in the subject.

What really kicked my interest into high gear has happened in more recent years when I would come across a novel set in a particular place and time period, so rich and textured, that I wanted to learn more. One of those books was The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and it sent me flying to the internet to learn about the Afghani people and what was transpiring in Afghanistan during the time this novel took place. I cannot recall the country of Afghanistan mentioned once in history or geography in my childhood education, but now, here was a piece of fascinating history.

ShanghaiGirle-LSee2The two novels that recently afforded me that desire to delve into history were those by author Lisa See, Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy.The first novel begins when Shanghai was known as the Paris of Asia, and sisters May and Pearl were  “beautiful girls”, models. With their father having lost all their money, the sisters, with their mother, must flee Shanghai as the Japanese invade China. The sisters were forced to emigrate to the United States in arranged marriages. From their interment on Angel’s Island to creating lives for themselves and their families in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, we follow the complex relationship of Pearl and May and Pearl’s daughter, Joy.

In Dreams of Joy, Joy, now in college and angry at her family’s deception and distraught over one family member’s suicide, secretly runs away to China to find her true father. Her studies have convinced her that Communism is the best of all systems, and she is determined to start her own life, although  DreamsOfJoy-LSee2she is soon to be profoundly discouraged and isolated. Pearl leaves the states to search for her daughter, encountering endless roadblocks along the way. The backdrop of much of the novel is the time under Chairman Mao and The Great Leap Forward, a time of alleged progress in which a famine took the lives of millions of Chinese people. (From Wikipedia – “The Great Leap ended in catastrophe, resulting in tens of millions of deaths, estimated from 18 million to 32.5 or 45 million. Historian Frank Dikotter asserts that “coercion, terror, and systematic violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward” and it “motivated one of the most deadly mass killings of human history”.)

Lisa See writes about family and relationships and this alone would have held my attention, but told against the backdrop of both China and the United States in times of political change and turmoil of every kind, I searched to know more. My knowledge of history is still spotty, but through the pages of beautifully written historical novels, I continue to learn. It seems history stands at my back door, always with a hand raised, always ready to knock.

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