Saturday, January 28, 2012

Take this Job

Happy to announce that I am already making headway on one of my resolutions this year: Number Two, “earn money.” The job also met all of my criteria (there was no running around like a maniac or catering to needy people or leaving my house or changing out of my bathrobe). A friend of mine who heard about my plight to earn money and who runs a freelance editorial business, asked me if I’d like a job proofreading an article. Oh, I could so do that, I thought (picturing myself in my bathrobe reading an interesting article). I got the bathrobe-wearing part right. The interesting part, not so much. (Although, I will stress here that what my friend does for living is pretty interesting) It was the actual article that stumped me. Apparently it was written for a scientific journal on a topic that had something do with engineering? Or computers? Or maybe math? I know it may seem strange that I don’t know what the subject was of an article I “read.” But there you have it. I wish I could quote a line or two to give you a taste of it but I’m afraid I might choose something in the engineering and/or computer and/or math field that would give away the possibly ground-breaking analysis.

Here’s what I did get out of this job: 1. a new appreciation for the English language and wonderment that I could catch punctuation and grammatical errors even though I literally had no idea what I was reading; 2. a little bit of money.

The money, I’m not scoffing at. It was the first money I’ve earned in four years. The check’s displayed on the refrigerator now so I can daydream about the possibilities for spending it. Take the hubby out for lunch? Buy a couple of books? Get half my hair colored? Deposit it in son’s college account to chip away at the new car sized bill? Ah, the possibilities are endless.

Earning money (no matter how paltry a sum) after such a long time does feel good and it got me thinking about other ways I’ve made money over the years.

My very first job was working at this restaurant in the mall called York’s Steakhouse. The manager tried me out in several different positions—as a hostess, on the line dumping salad dressing on salads, and finally at the meat station, where at last I found my true calling. The restaurant was set up so customers would take a tray, give their order to the order-taker, then make their way down a line getting the components of their meal until they made it to the end and paid. The meat station was last and most important because the person running it had to call out steak orders to the cooks but if the customer had ordered chicken, the meat person had to pull whole chickens off the rotating heated rack and cut them in half in one swoop of a knife cut. It was crucial that this was done in one swoop, the manger told me, and I had to practice with the knife, slicing down between the bones on the chicken’s back so it would fall into two equal hunks. Turns out I had a talent for this. Also I had a good French accent; strange because I never took French and also strange that the restaurant made the meat person call out orders in French. I don’t remember any phrases except for something like “sala-ma-jay,” which means allegedly, “in the dining room.”

I still think of my time at York Steakhouse fondly, by which I mean that I do not think of it fondly. It set me on a track of other fun restaurant jobs:

1. a two-week stint at a bad pizza place (I put my two-weeks' notice in on the first day.)
2. a two-year stint at another of those food tray restaurants, Ponderosa, where I did every job at one time or another except operate the dishwasher (Girls weren’t allowed).
3. a dismal run at Perkins, a job I still have nightmares about (In the dream the sociopathic hostess continually seats customers in my section and I can’t get water out to them fast enough. That was the rule: give customers water.) At Perkins I learned that the after-church evangelical crowd is very big on handing out religious tracts instead of actual money as tips; how GENEROUS of them!
4. a crazy summer at TGI Fridays where I ran around in a short skirt and collected flair for my suspenders. (One skill I learned at Fridays that has stuck with me: how to balance four large beverage glasses in the palm of one hand.)

I’m happy to report that my job history includes more than food service. I also worked at a bookstore; manned the jewelry counter at a department store (Odd, because I really don’t like jewelry.); and worked as a legal secretary at a law office before the use of computers was widespread (I remember typing out forms in triplicate on a typewriter, bottles of different colored “white” out at the ready.)

Some cool jobs:

1. editorial intern at Memphis Magazine (I got to fact-check the article on the 100 Prominent Memphians. For that I spoke to Al Green. And the school superintendent who later became the mayor who later, apparently, went insane. Also Fred Smith (the guy who started Fed-ex)'s secretary.
2. managing editor at Memphis State’s literary magazine. (I got to read a lot of bad writing submissions and send out form rejection letters. Ah, Karma.)
3. English teacher at a public high school (Go Kirby Wildcats!!) and English teacher at an all-girls college prep school (go lady Hutchisons!) and teacher of gifted and talented students at an awesome performing arts school in Lexington, Kentucky. (This was such a great job and such a great place, I probably never would’ve left, except we moved.)

For the last four years I have been concentrating solely on writing. For the record, I did make some money selling a handful of short stories. Gratifying, but very little in the ultimate scheme of things. (Just did the calculation and it works out to roughly 400 dollars a year over 12 years.)

Not much but it sure beats stabbing chickens.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The First Annual Jody-intz Awards

Today the American Library Association announced this year’s award-winning books for children and young adults. The ALA held a very exciting ceremony for writers and librarians, and I followed along with them on Twitter and watched the podcast of the event while occasionally drifting into pleasant daydreams where I get that call in the morning (someday in the future when I actually have a published book) from the ALA committee. You may have heard of these awards: the Caldecott Medal, for the most distinguished picture book; the Newbery for the best children’s book (which is typically defined as a book written for readers aged 8 to 12); and the Printz, for the best novel written for young adults. Because I write for young adults and love to read books written for young adults, the Printz is the award I’m most interested in.

While I was waiting for the winner to be announced (and/or falling into lala, coveted-medal-on-my-book-cover, fantasy land) I started making a list of the awards I’d give if anyone at the ALA ever asked me for my opinion.

So here it is, without further ado, the first annual Jody-intz Awards (and at the end, I’ll tell you which book actually won the Printz.):

  1. Best Page-Turner. This award goes to the book I read in one long sitting/walking from room to room with it because I could not bear to put it down for one second and then stayed up half the night to finish it. Drum Roll. Ashes by Ilsa Bick, the addictive and heart-stopping tale of an allegedly dying girl who goes on a camping trip when an electromagnetic pulse pulses the world, kills most of humanity, and turns the remainder into flesh-eating zombies. This book is also a runner up for the Biggest Cliff-hanger/Oh Crud, Now I Have to Wait for the Sequel Award. Also receives an honorable mention for Book That Most Inspires You To Hoard Canned Goods. Warning: Clear out your schedule before turning to the first page.
  2. Coolest Premise. The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler. Two teens living in the olden days of 1995 log online and discover their Facebook pages fifteen years in the future. What else is there to say about that? A very cool idea that I wish I’d thought of. (P.S. The book lives up to the hype too.)
  3. Most Original Voice. I read a ton of YA books so it’s surprising when I come across a voice I’ve never heard before. The winner in this category is Brooklyn, Burning by Steve Brezenoff. The main character is a kid called Kid who tells the story of a warehouse fire in Brooklyn and the growing relationship with a kid named Scout. Oh, and by the way, the reader never learns the genders of either Kid or Scout.
  4. Best Teen Love Story—A three-way tie between Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard, and If I Stay by Gayle Forman. If you love love stories and either hated Twilight and crave an alternative or loved Twilight and crave an alternative, read any of these. Or all of these. Sigh.
  5. Best World I’d Love to Fall Into. Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. This book could be a runner up in the Best Love Story category too, now that I think about it. The setting is a remote island where every year killer horses rise up out of the sea and the townspeople risk their lives to race them. This is one of those old-fashioned books that takes its time, developing the cast of complicated and quirky characters and building the intricate plot. When I knew I was coming to the end, I read slower so I could stay in the fully realized, luscious world just a little bit longer.
  6. I guess I should follow up this award with one for World I Wouldn’t Want to Fall Into. And this honor easily goes to Ashfall, by Mike Mullin. Yeah, let’s just say it’s a bleak landscape after the super volcano hidden under Yellowstone erupts and destroys most of the country. (Runner up in the page turners and canned good categories too.)
  7. New Writer to Watch. This is a tie between Jennifer Castle, author of the beautifully written novel The Beginning of After, about a girl coping in the year after her parents die (note: it is NOT as dark as it sounds), and Emily M. Danforth, author of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, about a girl coping with her realization that she is a lesbian (note: it is not as dark as it sounds). Because both writers know how to tell a really good story and I can't wait to see what books they write next.
  8. Awesome Series. There are so many to pick from in this category because, if you’ve spent any time perusing the YA section in your local bookstore (which I hope you do), series are very big these days. The award goes to Ally Condie’s Matched series, a thought-provoking, dystopian story of a girl growing up in what seems to be a perfect world. The sequel, Crossed, accomplishes what all writers of successful series dream of: it ups the ante while at the same time carrying through everything loyal readers of the first book loved.
  9. Writer I Wish I Could Be. Another tie. First, Sara Zarr, author of this year’s moving and brilliant How To Save a Life (and for her entire body of work –Story of a Girl and Sweethearts and Once Was Lost—all I can say is I bow down to her talent. Ditto to Lauren Myracle for her moving and brilliant novel (that should have won a National Book Award!) Shine. (Love her other novels too, especially Peace, Love, and Baby Ducks and had the great honor of meeting Lauren at a book signing. Full disclosure: a picture of the two of us is my screen-saver on my cellphone.)
  10. Novel That Changed the Way I View the World. Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley. The story of a boy in a small dying town whose brother goes missing, and a disturbed kid obsessed with the Book of Enoch, and the appearance of the thought to be extinct Lazarus bird. You might just discover the meaning of life in this one.

And maybe that’s what the ALA committee was thinking when they awarded it this year’s Printz Award.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Odd Pairings of Life and Art

Reading the book What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty while simultaneously spending a week in a household of young children, got me thinking about how an experience in your life can bleed into a book you happen to be reading at the time (and vice versa).

When my husband and I were newlyweds, we took a 20-hour road trip from Memphis (where we lived) to Connecticut (where I’d grown up). To while away some of those 20 hours, we listened to a book on tape, the lurid, teen cult classic, Flowers in the Attic by V. C. Andrews. (Quick rundown: mother hides her four children in the attic of her ancestral home because her father is unaware of and would be upset about their existence. In order to win back his favor and inherit his millions, the mother must keep her children a secret. This deception goes on for several years and the children slowly wither away/are possibly poisoned by sugar donuts, while discovering forbidden romance—with… each other.) It’s a page-turner, to put it mildly. It also feels extremely claustrophobic to read (listen to) this book while riding in a car for 20 hours. To this day, long car trips and illicit sibling relationships are linked together in my mind.

I had a similar experience reading Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I was supposed to teach the book to my eleventh grade AP English class one fall so I took it with me on a beach vacation to Destin, Florida. While hubby read fun mysteries/thrillers, I sat sprawled on my beach chair, sweating profusely in the 95-degree heat, reading about the luckless Joad family’s trek through Dust Bowl America. I could feel their pain (the freaking HEAT! the never-ending perspiration!) and at the same time was crushed by overwhelming guilt. The Joad family was struggling for survival—brutalized by unfair labor practices, starving (eating DIRT) and losing faith in humanity; I was lounging on a beach chair, sipping cokes, and occasionally striding into the ocean to cool off. Sheesh, have I ever felt so keenly the unfairness of life?

When my daughter was born and my world shrunk to an endless loop of nursing sessions and diaper-changings and children’s television, I picked up the book The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, hoping to counteract my brain’s creeping descent into sleep-deprived mush. I remember sitting on the couch, infant daughter squirming in arms/latched onto my breast, while my three-year old son prattled nearby. Book propped against me daughter’s body, I was totally caught up in figuring out what the solution was to the 1950’s pampered/bored/Valium-popping housewife’s “problem that has no name.”

Turns out the solution is a job. Hmm. Who knew?

(The Joad family struggles.)

(I park myself in a beach chair and read about their struggles.)

Friday, January 13, 2012

92 Books and 2 Resolutions

Last year one of my New Year’s resolutions was to record every book I read. In my family we’re BIG on resolutions. We’ve been celebrating New Year’s with the same good friends for the past 12 years, and every year we go around the room, kids included now that they’re older, and share them with each other. The most organized among us, cheerful Deb, writes everything down and then holds us to our promises the next year. The secret of success, I’ve learned, is to keep the resolutions measurable and not too lofty. One year, for example, I resolved to wash my face every night. In fairness I was a young harried mom at the time and that lame goal actually seemed like a stretch. (For the record, I did it.)
This year I have two resolutions. Deb has recorded them, of course, but I’d like my faithful blog readers to hold me to them as well.
1. No more blathery (whiney) talk about book deals (My husband’s suggestion after reading this, and this, and this. Enough, he said. Write about other stuff.) Okay. Okay. I promise. Unless I actually get a book deal. And then all bets are off, sweetie.
2. Earn money. (Also my husband’s suggestion.) The trouble is I’m not qualified for many jobs, unless you count waiting tables or teaching high school English (which, interestingly enough, are suspiciously similar jobs). For the moment I’m holding out for the kind of job where you don’t have to run around like a maniac, catering cheerfully to needy customers/students. Or leave your house. Or change out of your bathrobe before 3 pm. Anyone who has a position that fits this bill, please let me know.
Anyway, last year I dutifully recorded every book I read (not including the books I started and did not finish). I’ll list them mainly for my own amusement, in the order that I read them, with a note on genre and links for those I reviewed in case you’re looking for a good read for you (or for a teen in your life).
1. The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst, adult fiction
2. Waves by Susan Casey, adult nonfiction
3. New Boy by Julian Houston, YA historical fiction
4. Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine, middle grade fiction (won the 2010 National Book Award and deservedly so)
5. Summer at Tiffany by Marjorie Hart, adult memoir
6. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner (also deservedly so)
7. What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell, YA historical fiction
8. If I Stay by Gayle Forman, YA fiction
9. Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead, YA paranormal romance
10. Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver, YA fiction
11. Across the Universe by Beth Revis, YA Sci-Fi
12. Vampire Academy 2—Frostbite by Richelle Mead, YA paranormal
13. War of Art by Steven Pressfield, non-fiction inspirational writing how-to
14. Vampire Academy 3—Shadow Kiss by Richelle Mead, YA paranormal
15. Vampire Academy 4—Blood Promise (yes. I was hooked on these)
16. Vampire Academy 5—Spirit Bound (ditto)
17. Vampire Academy 6—Last Sacrifice (sigh)
18. Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, YA fiction
19. The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer, adult historical fiction
20. Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, YA fiction
21. Unless It Moves the Human Heart by Roger Rosenblatt, inspirational non-fiction about writing and teaching
22. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, adult fiction
23. Bruiser by Neil Shusterman, YA fiction
24. The Splendor Falls by Rosemary Clement-Wells, YA paranormal romance
25. Where She Went, by Gayle Forman, YA fiction (sequel to If I Stay)
26. The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett, adult fiction
27. Faithful by Janet Fox, YA romance
28. Impossible by Nancy Werlin, YA fiction
29. Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Sarah Cohen and David Leviathan, YA fiction
30. Stay by Deb Caletti, YA fiction
31. Everlost by Neil Shusterman, YA fiction
32. Delirium by Lauren Oliver, YA dystopian
33. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, adult historical fiction
34. Lark by Tracey Porter, YA fiction
35. Forgotten by Cat Patrick, YA paranormal
36. On Beauty by Zadie Smith, adult fiction
37. The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt, middle grade fiction
38. Shine by Lauren Myracle, YA fiction
39. Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell, adult memoir
40. Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins, adult fiction
41. The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, YA fiction
42. Tiger’s Curse by Colleen Houck, YA paranormal romance
43. The Beginning of After by Jennifer Castle, YA fiction
44. Dark Inside by Jeyn Roberts, YA dystopian
45. Possessed by Gretchen McNeil, YA paranormal
46. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen, adult memoir
47. Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, YA fiction
48. Fury by Elizabeth Miles, YA paranormal
49. This Is Not the Story You Think It Is by Laura Munson, adult memoir
50. Ashfall by Mike Mullin, YA dystopian
51. We’ll Always Have Summer by Jenny Han, YA fiction
52. Crossed by Ally Condie, YA dystopian
53. How To Save a Life by Sara Zarr, YA fiction
54. The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory, adult historical fiction
55. Perfect by Ellen Hopkins, YA fiction
56. The Space Between the Trees by Katie Williams, YA fiction
57. My Teenage Beating Heart by CK Kelly Martin, YA paranormal
58. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, adult fiction
59. Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma, YA paranormal
60. Brooklyn Burning by Steve Brezenoff, YA fiction
61. Juliet Immortal by Stacey Jay, YA paranormal
62. The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin, YA paranormal
63. All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin, YA fiction
64. Bluefish by Pat Schmatz, middle grade fiction
65. Dark Souls by Paula Morris, YA paranormal
66. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, adult historical fiction
67. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart, YA fiction
68. Ashes by Ilsa Bick, YA dystopian
69. Two Way Street by Lauren Barnholdt, YA romance
70. Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, adult biography
71. The Help by Kathryn Stockett, adult historical fiction
72. Virtuosity by Jessica Martinez, YA fiction
73. Reasons To Be Happy by Katrina Kittle, YA fiction
74. The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, YA fiction
75. The Shack by William P. Young, adult fiction
76. Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu, middle grade fiction
77. Incarnate by Jodi Meadows, YA fiction
78. Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard, YA fiction
79. After the Snow by SD Crockett, YA dystopian
80. Someone Else’s Life by Katie Dale, YA fiction
81. The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman, YA paranormal
82. Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley, YA fiction
83. Fracture by Megan Miranda, YA paranormal
84. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, adult non-fiction
85. Breaking Beautiful by Jennifer Shaw Wolf, YA fiction
86. The Night She Disappeared by April Henry, YA fiction
87. The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth, YA fiction
88. Cinder by Marissa Meyer, YA sci fi
89. The Dark of the Moon by Tracy Barrett, YA fiction
90. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, adult writing how-to
91. Zero by Tom Leveen, YA fiction
92. The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, adult memoir

Saturday, January 7, 2012

What I Forgot

A million years ago when I was a stay-at-home bleary-eyed mother of pre-schoolers, running on fumes, my head filled with their never-ending chatter, my house cluttered with naked, tangled-haired barbies and matchbox cars and pointy legoes and Play Doh matted in the rug, my wise friend Deb told me something that has stayed with me ever since: the days are long and the years are short.

Back then that resonated with me because oh my lord the days were long. Crack of dawn you’d hear the little chirpy voices and then it was a seemingly endless go go go of diaper changing and making meals and cleaning up meals and swiping noodle-y-o’s off faces and packing diaper bags and managing car seats and bath times and story times. When you’re in that mode, there is nothing but the present moment. It is simply you and them until they finally collapse in their beds (or, who are we kidding here?—probably they’re in your bed) and you get the weirdly quiet, messy house to yourself for a couple of hours so you can hopefully recharge for the next day.

But all of that—what was once MY LIFE—slid away with the years and the second part of the statement, the years are short, gained new meaning. Because man oh man that’s true too. The little girl who changed her clothes twenty million times a day and who freaked out about standing up with her pre-school class for “graduation” is now a fashionable high schooler with no qualms about performing on stage. The little boy obsessed with modes of transportation and insects and medieval weaponry is about to graduate and (ahem, proud braggy mom alert) attend Yale next fall.

I don’t know how I forgot the other stuff—the sippy cups and the coloring books and the tub toy foam letters, but it all came back last week when I went out of town to help a good friend. Long story, but the gist is I was plopped into a household with young children and it was like I’d time-traveled into my old life. At the same time I was reading a great book that punctuated the whole experience, What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty.

The gist of that is the main character Alice wakes up after an accident and realizes that she can’t remember the last ten years of her life. Ten years ago she was pregnant with her first child and crazy in love with her husband Nick and caught up in renovating their dream house. Now she’s shocked to find that she’s the mother of three children, the dream house is finished and beautiful, and she and Nick are in the midst of a nasty divorce. Once Alice was a laid back, kind of flaky, sweet young woman and now she’s surrounded by middle aged people who apparently view her as a driven, Tiger Mommish, uber-volunteer obsessed with going to the gym. Her life is so different from what she had envisioned and somehow she’s lost herself along the way. Or maybe she’s just grown up.

So there I was, chasing after pre-schoolers and swiping up drink spills and watching videos (Cars Two. I give it two thumbs up) and combing barbie hair and playing "train" and helping with homework (an hour a day for kindergartners seems excessive to me) and cutting fruit into small, less chokable chunks and answering questions (the big ones: What is your middle name? Why?) and then, later, when the kids were asleep, I’d sneak off into my room and read What Alice Forgot. It took me all week because I could only manage a few chapters before nodding off.

It was a weird experience. I’m back in my present life now where I can go to the bathroom without announcing it to the household and nobody needs to be reminded not to suck on a marker or dump a bottle of lotion on the dog. Older son is off driving around with friends. Daughter is practicing cello in her room. Amazing husband who held down the fort while I was gone is in the kitchen making dinner so I can “get some writing in.”

Time is passing before my eyes. Once there were stickers pasted on the furniture and apple juice stains on the carpet and there were days I didn’t think I could manage another moment. But I did manage it. I just wish there were more moments when I realized that it all would disappear.

There’s a video of my daughter’s pre-school graduation. She was so afraid to go up on stage with her class. I don’t know why. She had practiced all the songs. She had the little graduation cap. But that night she refused to leave my lap. The teacher smiled sympathetically and said something like, "there’s always one kid…" And I remember thinking, yeah, but why does it have to be my kid? The video is excruciating to watch. It’s my little girl terrified and clinging to me and looking younger and more darling than I knew at the time. I can hardly focus on her though because all I see is Me, impatient and rolling my eyes and trying to pry her away. "Just go up there," that me whispers into her ear. "You can do it." The me watching, though, wants to smack my old self. She’s so sweet and cute, I wish I could tell her. Don’t you see it? Let her sit on your lap, you idiot. Hold her close. Don’t let her go away.