Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Confessions of a (secret?) Tiger Mom

Maybe you’ve heard of the controversial book by Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. It came out earlier this year and outraged lots of American women who were suddenly aware of and defensive about their supposedly permissive/pathetic parenting style. Bits and pieces of the book fluttered around the internet so I thought I knew all about it—how the uber-controlling Asian professor mother had her poor kids practicing violin five hours a day, and how she once made her daughters redo their homemade birthday cards because she knew they could do a better job than the lazily scribbled junk they’d given her. Sheesh. Take a chill pill, lady, was what I thought. And then I sighed a superior sigh and clapped myself metaphorically on the back.

Until I actually read the book. It was a Christmas present from my brother, and I won’t attempt to figure out the motivation behind that. I picked it up after Christmas dinner and could hardly put it down. Yes, the woman does go to the extreme sometimes. (Extreme may be putting it mildly. Chua once forbade her daughter from going to the bathroom until she got a violin piece she was working on just right.) But overall I found myself nodding along as I read.

The book is surprisingly funny. Chua knows when she’s going overboard, but she just can’t seem to stop herself. She has high standards for her daughters and one of her main goals is to demand that they live up to those standards. Failure truly isn’t an option. When the family gets a dog, Chua tries to apply the same strict Chinese mothering techniques on it. In one scene when she and her husband are arguing about the level of tension in the household (due to Chua’s constant pressure on the kids), she accuses him of not having any dreams for their daughters, or for Coco. He bursts out laughing.

But Chua presses on. She believes that pretty much anything can be accomplished with hard work. Lots of hard work. Nothing is fun when you first start out. You have to practice. And what kid wants to practice? An American parent tends to throw up her hands at the first sign of struggle, while a Chinese mother doubles down. For her, giving in is basically telling the kid that you don’t believe he can do it.

A lot of the stuff in the book made me cringe. Some—because it really is kind of wacky, the lengths the Chua will go in her quest. (She takes one daughter out of school early because what she’s doing in class seems sort of pointless and this way she can get in some extra violin practice.) But mostly because I could see myself in Chua too. I’m not saying I’m a Tiger Mother (or, geez, maybe I am and this was the point my brother was trying to make) but because I understand the fierce love she has for her children—to want them to be successful and brilliant and great at everything they do. And while Chua doesn’t seem to care about this, I would also add: happy and socially well-adjusted to the list.

How do you accomplish it? Is it even possible for a parent to manipulate these outcomes? If not, is it a worthy goal to strive for anyway? Who knows, but it’s a relief to see other parents struggling with the same battles (on a somewhat grander scale). Tiger Mother is a book-long, guilt-infused confession. People had asked Chua how she came to have such accomplished, talented children, and she gave them the behind the scenes story. Those daughters aren’t brilliant, musical prodigies. They’re hard workers.

Really, really hard workers.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Still a Wonderful Life

It’s funny how you can watch the same movie a zillion times and still find yourself caught up in it. Last night when my family sat down for our annual watching of It’s a Wonderful Life, I was choked up right on schedule.

In the first minute when one of the little kids prays: “please help my daddy,” I was fighting off tears.

(I’m assuming everyone on the planet knows the gist of this story—an angel visits suicidal George Bailey and shows him what the world would be like if he had never been born.)

Annually, I gasp when Mr. Gower, the grief-stricken druggist, boxes George’s ears. I root for George to leave town and follow his dreams. I tear up when he realizes he loves Mary and won't be going anywhere. I bite my nails when goofball Uncle Billy misplaces the eight thousand dollars. I wince when George loses his temper with his kids on Christmas Eve.

And I cheer when he finds Zuzu’s petals in his pocket and runs around Bedford Falls like a lunatic shouting “Yay!”

It’s a great movie. When our kids were little, my husband and I used to force them to watch it with us. We still tease our daughter for her reaction when she was four years old. At the end, as everyone praises George, and Harry gives his toast—“to my big brother George, the richest man in town”—our daughter remarked: “but what about that old guy in the wheelchair?”

Here’s the thing about watching a movie a zillion times: you notice details you didn't catch the first few times around. Like how brother Harry pleads with his parents to let him drink gin at his graduation party. (They say no.) And how Mr. Potter calls the poor people in town "riff raff" and “garlic eaters.”

And did you catch a glimpse of that human skull on Mr. Potter’s desk?

I once read a review of the movie that said the story is really about the frustration and resentment involved when people realize that their childhood dreams will never come true. I used to see it this way too. I mean who doesn’t feel George’s pain as year after year he sacrifices his own plans and instead helps out his father, and then his brother, and then his town?

He watches doofy "HeeHaw" Sam Wainwright make it big in the city. Younger brother Harry becomes a football star and a war hero, while George stays behind in “crummy little” Bedford Falls.

It’s all so unfair. George is such a good guy. You really want him to get what he deserves. The fancy education. The opportunity to travel the world. A house that’s not drafty. Furs and jewelry for his wife Mary.

But that review is wrong.

The next time you watch the movie, pay close attention to the scene where Mr. Potter offers George his dream job. The silver skull gleams on the desk and a picture of Mr. Potter glares down from the wall, but for the moment Mr. Potter is all smiley, offering George a cigar and promising him everything his heart desires: more money than he can dream of (Twenty thousand dollars a year, instead of two thousand), the chance to travel to New York City and Europe, the ability to buy his lovely wife anything she wants.

All George has to do is shut down the Building and Loan, his family business.

You can see George considering the offer, calculating the enormous sum of money and picturing Mary in furs—just like Sam Wainwright’s wife. He shakes Mr. Potter’s hand and suddenly he freezes.

I wonder every year when I watch this part, what IS it that George feels when he touches Mr. Potter’s hand? Because at that moment, George lets go and wipes his own hand on his coat and angrily says no to everything.

Mr. Potter is greed and power and cruelty personified. Making a deal with him would be like selling your soul to the devil. And nothing is worth that, George instinctively realizes.

The message at the end of the movie, that George had a wonderful life because he made a real difference in the lives of others, is simple and practically a cliché, but at the same time it’s so easy to forget. Especially at this time of year when we are bombarded with messages to buy and spend and want want want.

So stop focusing on the fact that half of the stuff in your house is broken and you never had a chance to take a trip to Rome and once upon a time you dreamed you'd make a million dollars.

Instead, remember this: the town you live in isn’t crummy. A problem that can be solved with money is no problem at all.

And there are people who love you, who will willingly sit with you in your drafty den to watch a movie you’ve all seen a million times.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Here's the Thing

Winter in Columbus (also the tail end of fall and most of spring) is relentlessly bleak and gray. I heard somewhere that we have fewer sunny days than Seattle. I don’t know if this is true, but I wouldn’t doubt it. For the past few years, to keep my mind off the interminable dreariness, I’ve thrown myself into various time-consuming projects. Painting all the trim in the house was one fun project. And by fun I mean that it was not fun. Last year I practiced with our town’s women’s rowing team. Yeah. That was “fun,” too. The year before that I signed up for a watercolor class through the local parks and rec. This endeavor stretched the boundaries of the word fun too.

Let me preface this by saying I am not what anyone would call artistic. Unless you count having the ability to doodle a cube. But I was hoping I could learn. I had this thought that using another part of my creative brain would help with a book project I was working on. I obediently bought the prerequisite art supplies, nearly busting my budget on the paper alone. Side note: art is way more expensive than writing is.

It didn’t turn out how I expected. My vision of watercolor was kind of impressionistic and Monet-ish. The class turned out it be more of a study in paint-by-number. The teacher would show us a picture and we were supposed to copy it on our own paper and then color it in. He didn’t explain how to blend paints. I know. I know. How hard can that be? But somehow everything I mixed turned into various shades of gray. This became a metaphor for that winter. And my life.

That was the last time I tried to “do” art. It still intrigues me though. I have a good friend who is an artist and we’ve talked about how similar the creative process is, whether you’re working with fabrics (as she does) or with words (as I try to do). There is that little difference in expense mentioned above, but otherwise our feelings about creativity and the discipline involved are the same.

I’ve noticed that many characters in YA books have some connection to the arts, either as writers, or as artists or musicians. The main character in Gayle Forman’s beautifully written novel If I Stay, for example, is a cello player who is in love with a rock singer. Jessica Martinez’s new novel Virtuosity is about a cello player too, a prodigy pushed to perform by her driven mother. There’s a conflicted artist in Kirsten Hubbard’s travel adventure, love story Wanderlove. And an artist obsessed with Salavador Dali in Tom Leveen’s new book Zero (Release date: April 2012).

I read Zero over the weekend and it got me thinking a lot about art and music. The main character Zero has a totally original, distinctive voice that grabs the reader from the very first page. “Here’s the thing…” is how she starts most of her commentary. She’s got a major inferiority complex about her art, mostly because she was denied a scholarship to a prestigious art school. Now she’s stuck going to a local community college and taking an art class led by a new-agey flake painter. Zero’s also hobbled by her messed up home-life—Dad who drinks too much, Mom who enables him, and their explosive nightly fights. Art is an escape. And so is the punk music scene in Phoenix, which is where Zero meets Mike, the cool mysterious-eyed drummer in a band on the verge.

The book easily transcends the angsty teen drama genre. There’s quirky Salvador Dali quotes at the beginning of each chapter, such as “the difference between the Surrealists and me is that I am a Surrealist.” And funny/spot-on dysfunctional dialogue between Zero and her parents. And a love scene that has got to be one of THE most heartbreaking and awkward scenes ever written. It ranks right up there with John Green’s Looking for Alaska (which I won’t get into now. Let’s just say it’s a little too painfully real and therefore one of the reasons the book tends to get removed from school library shelves.) But my favorite parts were when Zero and Mike talk about art.

At one point Zero says: “I really want to sell a painting someday. I mean, I’d do it anyway. But I just—I don’t think I’ll believe I’m any good until someone I don’t know hands over a couple of bucks for something I did. Is that wrong, do you think?”

And Mike takes her hand and says, “No, I don’t. It’s fair. As long as you’re having fun.”

That’s the point, right? That you enjoy what you do, whether it’s art, music, writing, or whatever. Here’s the thing, in a gray season of impending-but-not-looking-so-impending book deals, it was just the bit of inspirational wisdom I needed to hear.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Second Guest Blog from a Teen Reader. Warning: This Blog Involves Quantum Physics

But don’t worry, you’ll be fine even if for some reason you are not a scientist (but just for some context, you may want to check out this video since it will blow your mind in the most educational way possible). Anyway I am applying to Yale early action this year because I’d rather get rejected than never know if I could have made it, but it’s now eating away at my psyche in the weirdest way imaginable.

Yale accepts 2000 people per year, out of 27000 applicants. 27000! (if you could capitalize numbers to indicate yelling, I would have there). And I literally cannot stop myself from fantasizing about what I’ll do when I learn that I’m accepted even though it statistically cannot happen. 6000 people apply early action to Yale (like me); I don’t know how many are accepted, but a lot of them are deferred to have their application reread with the regular decision applicants. It’s a second chance that takes 4 months to evaluate and is practically guaranteed to happen to me. I think I am qualified to go to Yale, but just think of how good I have to be to get accepted early action: Yale reads my application and is SO confident that I’m in the top 7% that they’re not even going to wait to see the other 21000 applications before they say yes. How could that possibly happen?! Yet, I just can’t stop imagining myself getting accepted in 5 days.

So now that I’ve done the interview, I have lost literally all control over what happens to my application. I’ve basically bought myself a lottery ticket with decent chances, but as far as I’m concerned, my chances are just weighted randomness. And because, in the system that is my sphere of existence, no physical law governs whether or not I get accepted, it is truly random. It’s like if Schrodinger’s cat were reading Yale applications: if the cat lives, the application is accepted, and if it dies, the application is rejected. The acceptance/rejection letter is a quantum superposition of both accept and reject simultaneously (deferral isn’t included in this because deferral will always lead to either an accept or a reject). I am both a future Yale student and not a future Yale student at the same time, and I will be both until I observe the letter and collapse its wave function into either accept or reject. If I get rejected, the moment before it occurs will be the closest I ever come to being a Yale undergrad as I will have been in the superposition of acceptance right before the rejection.

Another consequence of quantum mechanics (that has no proof at all even among scientists but has been speculated by theoretical physicists because it is technically “possible”) is that instead of something being in the quantum superposition of two states when a random event is about to occur, the universe actually splits into two separate, parallel, and otherwise identical universes where one outcome occurs in the first universe, and the other outcome occurs in the second. This process of universe-splitting is painless and totally unnoticeable but may provide drastically different universes as a result. For example, imagine flipping a coin and wagering your life-savings on it landing heads. In the universe where the coin lands heads, you become wealthy, but in the universe where the coin lands tails, you lose everything. This gives me some comfort, however, because when I nervously open my letter from Yale and see a rejection, I know that in another universe, my heart isn’t dropping into my stomach with disappointment, but with excitement. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that I’m lucky enough to be the version of me experiencing the success, but the acceptance is out there. It may just be a mere universe away.

Where am I going with all this quantum weirdness? I was talking to my friend today and he was talking about how his older brother applied to MIT early action last year. His brother was checking his email one day last December and saw the letter from MIT. He knew it was his acceptance/rejection letter and he didn’t open it. He simply looked at the subject line in his inbox and then chose not to click it – every day, for two months. What it really came down to was this: why did he do the things that he did? Is it for some sort of outside recognition or because he actually wants to do it? If he got accepted to MIT, it wouldn’t somehow make him a different person than if he was rejected. So anyway, I’m not going to tell you whether or not he ended up getting accepted, because it just doesn’t matter.

Friday, December 9, 2011

What Color is Rue?

This morning children’s book editor Harold Underdown posted a link to an article about the movie casting of Hunger Games. Apparently new movie posters have come out with one picturing the darling character Rue played by an African American actress. The article went on to catalog the various responses to the casting, which ranged from surprise about the character’s race to disbelief. For the record the book clearly describes Rue as having “dark brown skin and brown eyes.”

But I hadn’t clearly registered this. And I wondered what that meant about me. I posed the question to my kids at breakfast, who had both read the book and loved it. Neither one had pictured Rue as an African American, and my son went on to say that he hadn’t pictured her at all.

Which opened up a discussion of how we imagine characters’ looks. For example, none of us could describe Katniss, the main character, but now with the movie coming out, we all imagine her looking like the actress they’ve cast to play her. How important are characters’ looks anyway? I know when I write a book I have a picture in mind of what the characters look like, but I don’t spend much time describing their physical attributes. 

A character is not going to walk around thinking, “I am white and I have brown hair and blue eyes.” Some writers fall back on the cliché of the character passing by a mirror and noting his reflection. Or you could have one character remarking about another character’s physical attributes. But here you risk sounding like a romance novel. Exhibit A: Bella in Twilight constantly remarking about how Edward looks like a supermodel. With his auburn hair and his soft golden eyes and the marble planes of his chest.

Looks are important in movies but maybe they’re not so important in books with much of the description left for the reader to fill in for himself. Which my son pointed out, for him, was “a default white character.”

This led to another discussion. Is it okay that the default character is a white character? Probably not, for all the non-white readers in the world. I think I might understand how they feel. Notice I said in the above paragraph that the reader is left to fill in for himself. I fell back on the default male sex. The use of he to refer to both men and women has always bugged me. Yeah, it’s awkward to say he or she. And sure, everyone knows that when you say he, you really mean both he and she anyway. “And you can’t say she,” said my son.

He explained that whenever he comes across she in place of the understood he or she, it pulls him out of the narrative. He doesn’t like it. Well, I suppose he wouldn’t. Since he’s a he.

Language is more powerful than we realize in shaping how we view the world and ourselves. People might joke about political correctness, saying firefighter instead of fireman, for example. But I think that was a worthy change. As a woman when I read he, I picture a man. When I hear the word mankind, I imagine a default group of men.

Maybe what’s really going on here is unless a character’s description is pointed out again and again, like Edward’s chiseled abs, most of us are going to picture a version of ourselves. But it would be nice to have other pictures to picture once in a while. A she here and there thrown into a textbook. A black character who is simply black because that is what she is. Like Rue.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

How to Promote Your Brand and Raise Your Klout

You may have clicked on this blogpost thinking I knew something about marketing strategies. Or maybe you’re just a friend of a friend of mine on Facebook. Or you’re my mother. Hi Mom! By now you’re growing disappointed. Because you’re starting to suspect I don’t know much about marketing strategies.

It’s true. But I promise I’m working on it. Marketing a book is a hot topic right now. Speakers talk it up at writing conferences. Twitter’s abuzz with strategies. Worthwhile ideas. As well as jokey ones. I don’t know if this is a new trend or if I just wasn’t aware of it before. Probably a little of both. What I’m hearing is that publishing house publicity departments have been cut to the bone so authors are being asked to do more and more of their own promotion. This is supposed to happen before the first book comes out. Get yourself OUT THERE, they say. Create a media presence; a brand. Network with other writers and bloggers and people like teachers and librarians who can potentially talk up your book.

It also doesn’t help that the book industry’s in a state of flux. The old method of a traditional publishing house printing up books and distributing them to libraries and bookstores is fading or at least it’s getting crowded out by Amazon and E-books. More writers are ditching the traditional houses altogether and self-publishing. It sounds easier on the surface than trying to snag the attention of an agent and/or editor. But is it, really? Just because you’ve thrown an e-book out on the inter tubes doesn’t mean an audience is going to find it.

So for the moment I’m still slogging down the traditional path, and I am dutifully following the bits of marketing advice I’ve picked up along the way. I’m facebooking and twittering and blogging. I’m passing out my card, this cutsy thing my husband put together when he was bored. 500 for 5 bucks. I’ve got a ton of them. Anyone want one? And the other day a writer friend of mine signed me up on this site called Klout so I could figure out what the strength of my web presence is.

It’s a 12. I’m guessing that's low.

The trouble is I’ve got no book to hawk. So there’s nothing there there. I was telling this to my husband and he said that shouldn’t stop me. Marketing can work wonders. Look at Paris Hilton, he said. Or the Kardashians.

But I said, bleh. I want to talk about Annie Dillard (author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and An American Childhood) I’m reading her book The Writing Life and it’s so absorbing. All nuts and bolts and thoughts on craft. There was no Twitter or Facebook or Blogging in the late 80’s when Annie wrote this book, so she doesn’t spend time discussing that stuff. But I suspect that she doesn’t spend much time on it now either. Okay, I just checked. She has an official website. She’s not on Twitter. She has a Facebook author page with no pic. She doesn’t appear to blog.

Not sure what I’m trying to say here except there is a difference between a writer like Annie Dillard and someone like Paris Hilton (She’s “written” three books, in case you were wondering) who's content to be a brand. Like a purse. Or a shoe. Or a box of tissue.

I just checked the Klout site. Not surprisingly, Paris Hilton has an 80. And somehow, my score went up to 13.23. Paris, watch out. I am gaining on you.

(I am not Paris Hilton.)

(Or Annie Dillard.)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Long Live Bookstores!

You’ve probably heard that bookstores are on the verge of going the way of the dodo. Someday we’ll be telling our grandkids about them. You see, there were these places that had shelves filled with books. And the books were made out of paper… The other day I was at a thrift shop with my kids. They simply could not get over the existence of typewriters. How do those keys work exactly? And what’s with the ribbon? Also they were enamored by the dialing phones. So, wait, you have to stick your finger in the hole and drag it all the way around? Geez. That would suck if your phone number had a bunch of 9s and 0s.

My husband and I felt like dinosaurs.

Yes, it’s true, children, bookstores used to be all the rage. And the bigger the store the better. When I lived in Memphis in the early ’90’s there were three warehoused-sized bookstores within a two-mile radius. That doesn’t count the local bookstore the chains were copying, the one I worked at when I was in grad school, Davis Kidd. (Now it’s called Booksellers at Laurelwood.) The first time I walked into that place I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. The. Biggest. Bookstore. I. Had. Ever. Seen. 100,000 books. Comfy chairs. Cool artsy posters on the wall. It was The place to hang out.

All the workers were hip and brilliant and quirky, each one an expert in his or her area, so the history alcove was manned by a PhD student in history. And the math section was shelved by a math genius. The religion and philosophy guy gave me a tour on my first day of work. He waved his arm at the bibles then walked me around the alcove. Religious texts, world religions, philosophy, new age, satanic beliefs. “The bible thumpers end up back to back with the atheists,” he pointed out with a smirk. “And over here are the books on ESP. Funny, no one ever asks where this section is…” I cracked up and he stared at me like I was a flake. I was working on my MFA in poetry at the time so I was kind of a flake. Come to think of it, maybe I still am.

The section I was in charge of was romance. Since I only worked part-time, it was a good genre for me. Not much upkeep except making sure the rows of bodice rippers stayed in alphabetical order. The other clerks knew I hated romance novels and took every opportunity to mock me and my charges. One time the accomplished literary fiction guy led a customer my way. “She wants a recommendation, Jody,” he said, “from your romance section. I told her you were a total fan.”

I ignored that and asked the customer in my most polite, salesperson tone: “Would you like a book about a beautiful woman and a man who’s really handsome but kind of mean to her and they have all sorts of issues and then they realize they really love each other?”

“Oh, yes!” said the woman. “That sounds like a good one.”

With all the smart-aleck clerks looking on, I waved my hand at the entire romance section. “There it is,” I said. They probably should’ve fired me for that. In addition to being kind of flaky, I was snarky back then too.

Davis Kidd had an information desk in the middle of the store. We got the strangest questions at that desk:

“What’s a good place to eat Mexican food?”

“Um, I don’t know. But I’ll show you our selection of Mexican cookbooks.”

Or “Where can I buy white gloves?”

“Um.” I tried to show the customer the fashion and style books but she waved me off. No, she didn’t want a book about gloves, she wanted to know where to buy actual white gloves.

“Ma’am,” I said, “I have no idea. Maybe Macys?”

She glared at me then pointed at the sign over the desk. “That says information,” she said.

“Information for the store,” I told her. “Not information about life in general.”

I probably should’ve gotten fired for that too.

We weren’t allowed to read while we were on the clock. I guess that goes without saying. But sometimes I snuck away and hid in an alcove and read anyway. The fiction guy usually caught me but he was always nice about it. I bought tons of books the couple of years I worked at Davis Kidd. Many of them line the shelves in our house today, all alphabetized, of course, and by genre, just like in the store. My family used to tease me about that, but hey! It makes it easier to find what you’re looking for.

I don’t want bookstores to go away. I heard the author Ann Patchett talking on NPR a few weeks ago about Parnassus, the bookstore she just opened in Nashville. The big question was why she was taking such a risk—opening a bookstore, in this economy, when people aren’t even sure that books are going to be around much longer. Ann said while it’s true that the big bookstore model might not work anymore, she’s betting that there is still a market for smaller ones. Maybe things had gone a little over the top with cafés and selling non-book stuff like candles and expensive pens and designer purses.

She’s probably right. And I hope she’s right about her new bookstore. Because shouldn’t there still be a place where people who love to read can browse alongside other people who love to read? Where you can ask for information about whatever thoughts pop into your head? And where an old woman picking out a new bible has to brush past a biker flipping through a copy of The Anarchists Cookbook?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Red Riding Hood, Tattoos, and Other Gifts of Charity

Saturday my family volunteered to help out at a Christmas party for underprivileged kids. It was a nice party. Holiday songs played. A Santa sat up on the stage so kids could sit on him. There was food and crafts and games. My daughter and I decorated kids with tattoos. Turns out this was kind of stressful. Some of the tattoos didn’t latch on properly. Only half the candy cane stuck. Or one of the elf arms got lopped off. The kids didn’t typically like a wet, cold sponge pressed on the back of their hands. Or on their cheeks. Or for one kid, smack dab in the middle of his forehead, which ended up sparking a momentary trend in snowman tattoo placement.

My husband and I had gone out to buy gifts the week before. His company sponsored the party, and his office had contributed donations, but it was up to us to purchase the items on the wish list. The little girl we’d drawn wished for a coat and gloves. Also a “doll baby.” That’s the way she wrote it, and I don’t know why but it killed me, that wording. We weren’t allowed to spend too much money (to make things fair, the organizers said) so there were elements of resourcefulness and planning involved. How could we afford to get the coat AND the doll baby without going over the limit? We managed, though, and I was hoping to watch the little girl open the presents, but we didn’t get to stay for the gift opening. It was just as well. I think the organizers wanted the gifts to seem like they’d come from Santa. Instead of from well-meaning, over-blessed, seasonal do-gooders.

What kids want to have it pointed out to them that they’re needy? I remember going to the bank with my mother when I was seven years old. In the lobby there was a display of what seemed like hundreds of dolls. Each one was dressed up in a different outfit. A lacy ball gown. A hula skirt. Flowery nightshirt and bathrobe. It took a long inspection for me to realize it was the same doll wearing different clothes. I stared at them longingly while my mother went about her banking business then I asked her if I could have one and she told me they were for the needy. I’m not sure I understood what that meant except that I couldn’t have a doll. And I didn’t understand it later when that Christmas, I DID get one of the dolls, the one dressed like Little Red Riding Hood. That was the year my father died and my mother was instantly a young single mother with three kids under the age of seven. Maybe she hadn’t realized we were needy either.

I was having flashbacks of Red Riding Hood when I was carefully pressing tattoos on little kids’ cheeks and they would flounce off to grin at themselves in the mirror and I would pray the tattoo wouldn’t peel off while their parents smiled wearily and didn't look me in the eye.

A few weeks ago I read the book Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. It’s a true story about a guy named Paul Farmer, a Harvard doctor who volunteers most of his time at a clinic he started in Haiti.

The book is alternately depressing and inspiring. It’s depressing because there is so much need in the world, and these needy people are ordinary people just like any other people who for the most part are forgotten and ignored and suffering and sometimes dying because no one is helping them. And it’s inspiring because Paul Farmer, one ordinary but clearly brilliant and caring man, is doing everything he can to save them. And then it’s depressing again because you read this book, or at least I did, thinking what the heck is wrong with me, sitting around worrying about inane meaningless stuff like stupid book deals when there are real people right now out there in the world starving and sick and in pain?

And what did I do with this realization? I took a few hours to shop for a coat and stick snowflake tattoos on kids’ faces. Not sure how much of a difference that made in the ultimate scheme of life. Or who knows. I really liked my Red Riding Hood doll. It was clear to me when I opened it the Christmas I was seven that it was the best doll from the bank lobby display. I don’t know who donated it, who sewed the darling jumper and cape and hood. It was a small thing but it meant something to me, a needy little girl who didn’t know she was needy.

Friday, December 2, 2011

On Black Holes and Alleged Book Deals

I don’t understand Quantum Mechanics. Lately my son’s been giving the family mini lessons at the dinner table but the bits and pieces that I manage to grasp fall away shortly after the meal is eaten. My mind is a sieve for stuff like science and math. Blame this on a history of scary and/or uninspiring nuns and a dash of an inferiority complex back when I was in high school (cough cough) over twenty years ago.

My son patiently and excitedly explains his latest insights in what I assume is a perfectly understandable manner. But what I hear sounds like this: “particles…light….Einstein said….so force will…something something….a dead cat…” Then he gives up and directs the rest of the conversation to his father.

But every once in a while a concept seeps in. I hate to say this, because it will make me seem very self-centered, but it’s usually a concept that relates to, well, ME. So here’s the background info—and if you’ve been following this blog even sporadically, you can probably guess what I’m about to say next—I’m waiting but pretending I’m not waiting for news about a potential book deal. This WAITING is slowly driving me mad. Every day I wake up not thinking about it while actually thinking about it. I go about my morning viscerally shoving it out of my mind and mentally patting myself on the back about my cheery upbeat attitude as I make breakfast and pack lunches. Then it’s down to my cave of an office to fire up the stuttering/near broken lap top to further not think about it. I do this by writing another blog. And doodling around in my journal. I make up projects. Writing exercises. And rereading snippets of inspirational writing books. Why don’t I just start another novel? But Christmas is only a few weeks away! There’s no point! These are just a few of my fun mental battles.

Then it’s time for yoga and further not thinking about It That Shall Not Be Named. Maybe it will happen today is the thought that burbles up during my mediation. Which I quickly tamp down until it’s time for lunch! And more writing in the office. But I’m out of my pajamas now, so I’ve got that going for me. I know, I’ll enter a writing contest. I’ll write a poem. No. I must get the heck out of the house. I simply can’t sit one more second in front of my computer blinking at my empty email box.
I haul myself to the library. To the post office. To the grocery store. My metaphorical hands are pressed against my ears. I’m not thinking about it. I’m not thinking about it. Because if I DO think about it, what I think is: it’s not going to happen today. And there isn’t much of a leap to get to the next step: It’s not going to happen ever.

But at this point you may be thinking: Wait. Wasn’t she talking about Quantum Mechanics?

Don’t worry. I didn’t forget. So it has something to do with black holes. Apparently, (and forgive me if I get any of this wrong; it’s really really likely that I will.) if you are heading toward a black hole, you will, at a certain point, cross the black hole threshold and fall into it. BUT if someone is watching you fall into a black hole, he won’t ever see you cross over. From his vantage point, you just keep getting closer and closer. Forever. There was more to my son’s explanation and now that I think about it, this may not have anything to do with Quantum Mechanics. I had stopped taking information in and was simply picturing myself slipping closer and closer to a black hole. But the black hole in my mind was the %&#*%^ book deal.

It seems that there is an actual scientific reason why time has slowed down and collapsed in on itself and I am seemingly no closer to reaching my goals than I have ever been.

Whew. So that’s a relief.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Why I Won't Write a Bad Review

Someone asked me the other day if I LOVE every book I read. They noticed that all of the book reviews I do are so gushingly positive. Yes, that’s true. But what I haven’t been mentioning is that for every book I blog about, there are a good four or five others that I don’t review. I read a lot of books. And sadly, most of what I read isn’t that great. These unreviewed books seem to fall into two categories, each kind of depressing to me as an aspiring writer.

1. Simply bad. These are the ones that I question how in the world they ever got published. They’re over-written and/or poorly written. The characters are stereotypical, cardboard cutouts. The plots are plots I’ve seen before. Predictable. Boring. The English major in me has an extremely hard time closing a book without finishing it. But this year I have done that several times, ignoring the accompanying twinges of guilt.

2. Decent but “meh.” Somehow these books depress me even more than the badly written ones. There’s nothing wrong with them. They just lack something. Heart, maybe. I heard an editor talk about this once at a conference. She said she could work with an author who had issues with plot or characterization or even grammatical problems. But if the “heart” wasn’t in the book, there was nothing she could do to save it. Heart is one of those elements that’s hard to explain, but you know it when you feel it. A character’s voice that immediately resonates with you. Maybe the story meanders or nothing much happens but somehow you want to keep reading anyway. Finish a book like that and it’s still tugging at you. Meh books disappear the second you put them down. I feel sad about those books. Somebody worked on them. Somebody loved them. And yet my only reaction in the end is: Yeah. Whatever.

I used to review books for a regional magazine. The editor made it clear that my job was to promote authors from that region. This meant no bad reviews. If I truly didn’t like the book, he said, I could simply write up a summary of it. That was fine with me. Until I came to a book that was so terrible I could barely plow through it. I don’t want to get into a big discussion here about self-published books, but this one took the stereotypical self-published prize. I read the whole damn thing out of some sense of obligation. (The magazine didn’t pay me for writing reviews. The payment was a copy of the book.) I tried to write up a summary. I really did. But every sentence veered into snarky territory and then I started worrying about my name being on top of that review. What if someone bought the book because of me? I just couldn’t go through with it.

When the owner of the children’s bookstore Cover to Cover asked me to review advanced copies of young adult books for her, remembering that previous experience, I made the deal that I would send her a short review of every book she gave me but only blog about the ones I really liked. I have nothing against literary critics. I appreciate their analyses of books—both the positive and negative. You’re not going to get better if you don’t have someone pointing out areas of weakness or plot holes or whatever. But being a writer, I understand what goes into creating a book, and I’m not going to spend my time or energy crafting a negative response to someone’s precious manuscript, no matter how crappy I think it is.

So for whatever it’s worth, if I review a book on this site, you can rest assured that it’s pretty darned good. (just my opinion, of course) I’m not getting paid. I don’t know any of the writers. And I have no reason to plug them. Except that something about the book stood out to me and I hope it might appeal to you as well.