Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Writing About Reading: Multi-book recap

The worst thing about being sick is that it just zaps all of your energy, creative or otherwise. As a result, the most writing I've done lately has been lists: "tissues. robitussin. cough drops." When your hacking and sneezing becomes a topic of conversation at the office, you know you've been sick awhile. The last month has been miserable for that. Fortunately, I have been able to keep up with my reading. And there's been quite a bit of it, too.

Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown

The tagline on the hot pink cover says it all : Before there was Sex & the City, there was [this book]. My mother suggested I read it after a conversation we'd had about old New York and books that mentioned old telephone exchanges and prices for things. I decided to check it out, as I have a soft spot for such nostalgic things. I was not only surprised by how much I enjoyed it, but how much of it was still viable all of these years later. The sections on dieting, makeup, fashion and the office were amusingly out of date, her observations and advice about men and dating were largely as fresh as I imagine they were when the book was first released. I'm certain it was the Down with Love of its day. Moreover, I liked Brown's overall tone. She was very direct, didn't promise to have all the answers to everything or even that reading her book would be a magic bullet to transform your life. Her attitude was "this worked for me. It could work for you, too." That, combined with the insistence that if a person wants anything (a career, a man, a car, a fur coat) they can't sit back waiting for it and complain that they're not getting it. It was nice to read a self-help book that offered actual advice, and not trying to sell their "nine steps" to the world in order to make them rich and famous.

Little Children by Tom Perrotta

This is a book that will be in the running for my personal book of the year. There are varieties of storytelling that amaze me - one in a positive way, the other in a not-so-positive. When an author has a potentially fascinating story to tell - one filled with the promise of excitement, and it collapses into a dull mess like a flan in a cupboard, I'm amazed at how it all got away from whomever was creating it out of air. On the other hand, when I run across something like this book, which takes fairly ordinary events in a small suburban community and turns it into something so riveting it actually pained me to stop reading, I am pleasantly surprised. I'd read Election and enjoyed it more than I was expecting to, but it did not prepare me for this. Perrotta also was successful in creating rich inner lives for all of his characters while using the third person, something I sometimes have difficulty with. It's not a small cast of characters, either. Some of them are barely around for the length of a chapter, but you feel as though you have some intimate knowledge of them when its time to shift focus to the next scene. More than anything, though, it's truly his turns of phrase that I am in awe of. He must have been visited by the line fairy while he was writing this, because nearly every chapter has some really great ones folded into the story.

I have 3 more books to report as of today, but I'm going to pause this entry here and post it, as I want to break things up a bit (and get to sleep).
Coming up: Relic, Something Borrowed, and Here is New York


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

And now, for a brief political message

Today is Blog for Choice day, as well as Oscar nominations day:

Blog for Choice Day - January 22, 2007

To those who know me, I've made my thoughts pretty clear on the matter in the past, but I shall reiterate: I believe religion has a place in a house of worship, not the House of Representatives (or Congress, etc). Though I am a rabid agnostic, I believe in everyone's right to believe, as everyone has the right to choose what course their life takes. Also, every truly religious person (and not just posturing lunatics) I've known has shared the viewpoint of live and let live, and that's what choice is all about. It goes beyond the ability to make reproductive choices, too, in my opinion - it's the ability to (for better or worse) write, say, think, vote, or eat what you desire. That choice is not a free ride, though, nor should it be - it's about owning these choices (even bad ones) and learning to make good ones. Protecting anyone from their choices or preventing a person or child from making any is not how an intelligent, responsible being is creative. Freedom of choice is just that - the freedom to make all choices. It's not shielding and blocking them from doing things that you think are immoral, imprudent or fattening, but educating them in the most objective manner possible and allowing them to find their own way.

It's not a popular line of thinking - the masses become so difficult to control when they're thinking for themselves and all, but I just wish there was a movement to encourage people to do just that - think for themselves. It's bigger than choosing to abort or not to abort, at least to me. It's about being guaranteed the freedom to always think for yourself. Which is why I'm proud to be pro-choice.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Live from New York

I did something crazy last night. Maybe not that crazy, but it's definitely exciting.

I joined my first blog network.

I heard about Metaxu when its first birthday party was mentioned on Galleycat during the paralyzingly slow week between Christmas and New Year's. Since I had the time to do more than my usual scroll & scan, I poked around to see just what it was, and since then I've been happily reading all sorts of things whenever I have a free moment and have already visited all of my other usual stops along the internets. I have no idea if this means more people will read this or not (one can only hope), but it will certainly encourage me to write in here more, at least for the time being.

And speaking of writing more, I'm wondering if perhaps giving myself short-term assignments will help me increase my output. For example: I have three short stories I'm working on, two of which are fanfiction. I'd like to finish them sometime soon, but my brain hasn't been terribly cooperative lately. I used to bristle at the idea of making myself write a certain thing at a certain time, but the last few attempts to focus on one plot/storyline while I was on the train or had a limited amount of time to work on something really were positive, so it may be time to try to impliment this change on a regular basis. I've managed to incorporate 3-4 hours of exercise into my life each week, so perhaps utilizing this same discipline will allow me to work in 3-4 (or more!) hours of writing. I hope.

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Writing about Reading

One of my goals for this year (notice how I'm avoiding the "r" word) is to read more. Between 3-4 books a month, at least. All across genres, and maybe some more nonfiction, if I can find things that appeal to me. (Please leave any recommendations for consideration in the comments). Since I was starting this big initiative where I'd even keep track of what I was reading in some place somewhere (like here).

In terms of reading, 2006 was a great year. I ran across some things that I consider to be classics, and aside from those, there were some things I just really, really loved. Reading Like A Writer (one of the best writing-related books I've ever, ever read.). Motherless Brooklyn. To Kill a Mockingbird. Strangers in Paradise (I finished Pocket Book #3 right after New Year's, and am running out of excuses as to why I shouldn't run out RIGHT RIGHT NOW and get #4). Those were simply the best of the best - I know there were quite a few others that were up there as well, and several that I didn't think much of, and therefore will not mention. And it ended well, too - the last book I finished in 2006 was The Ghost at the Table, which I recommend to all and sundry - it was a really compelling narrative, and even though I wasn't completely thrilled with the ending, I admired the way that the author got me there, and how all of the minutiae of the days leading up into this Thanksgiving dinner and all of the tension that was riding just beneath the surface was so engrossing.

I wanted the first read of 2007 to grab me as much. I had a few titles up for consideration, all of which will get read soon. I decided to go about what to read democratically - I'd sample a portion of each, and whichever held more of my attention would be the winner. To be honest, I completely expected this winner to have been More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin (more on her in a minute). I'd read Home Cooking a few years ago and loved it (it's a terrific collection of recipes and essays about food). Instead, More Home Cooking came in a fairly distant second to a book that Abby, my friend and YA Librarian Extraordinaire thrust into my hands before Christmas and practically demanded I read immediately: Just Listen by Sarah Dessen.

I was a bit dubious. Although I frequently read and enjoy many YA titles, many of the ones I'd read recently were disappointing. The description of the heroine and the things she was to encounter sounded like the writer aimed for Season 1 Veronica Mars (minus the whodunit murder plot), but missed and landed in a big pile of after school special. Oh, how wrong I was. 10 pages in, I was intrigued. 20 pages in, I was interested. Since I got to spend a week on my parents' couch whilst down with NYC's latest virus, I sped through this one fairly quickly. It was enjoyable enough, I suppose. I was honestly disappointed by a few things , mainly how they'd spent all this time building up certain characters as important only to have her fade out in the end. I also grow weary of protagonists (particularly female ones) that either dissolve into tears or run away at the first sign of any kind of a confrontation, and Annabel, our narrator, sadly fell into the latter category. I could sympathize with her plight, I just found myself constantly longing for her to grow a pair, and perhaps TALK instead of, ahem, just listen and/or internalize everything. There were a few other plot elements I found kind of cheesy and cloying, but since it was YA, I let it slide. On the whole it was a good read, and were I a few years younger, I might have enjoyed it a bit more. I didn't want to stop reading it at any point, though, which I consider to be a positive thing. I've been told that Dessen has written better, and I believe it. There were many elements that she got right by not overdoing it, and I thought she had a really nice flair for description that is usually absent from many YA novels.

I moved on to More Home Cooking next, eager to see what Colwin had in store for her sequel, published posthumously (she died in 1992, I believe from a heart attack). I found it to be very different from Home Cooking, but I'm not sure if it's because her style changed, or because I did. I read the first volume around Christmas of 1999, when I was just beginning to get into food writing. Amanda Hesser was publishing her weekly "Food Diary" in The New York Times Magazine, which I read faithfully every week, and I hadn't yet discovered things like Chowhound or Real Simple or any of the other many food-related things I read and enjoy now. I'd have to revisit Home Cooking to be positively certain, but it felt to me that she spent as much time complaining about how things have changed in the way people eat as she did sharing experiences and recipes. I can understand her umbrage at people who don't/won't bake their own bread or make their own chicken stock, but after awhile, it was hard to not roll my eyes when she started in about that again. I've also been spending a great deal of time watching what and how I eat, and a large quantity of the recipes in More Home Cooking involve adding an ENTIRE stick of butter (after, of course, Colwin had spent a few lines denigrating those who dared to put their health or waistline before what might taste better and moaning about how It Just Wasn't This Way Years Ago.) After awhile, it grew as tiresome as her first book was exciting to me.

Up next I have Helen Gurley Brown's immortal Sex & the Single Girl, recommended to me by my mother during a conversation about my love of old New York nostalgia. It's cute so far, and it's always fun to see where things might have been so completely shocking when a book was released (as I did when I read Jacqueline Suzanne's Valley of the Dolls). I also have some cookbooks, a rather embarrassing book I'd rather not talk about, and EB White's Here is New York out from the library.

Now I'm off to solve that immortal dilemma; it's sunday: writing, reading, or chores? We'll see how it goes.