Why We Read: To Have Fun

Sometimes I don’t want a deep, thought-provoking read. Sometimes I don’t want to be challenged or need to research historical background. I just want to open the cover and enjoy.

Also, the onset of warmer weather encourages me to pick lighter subject matter. Sweeping epics like All the Light We Cannot See and Station Eleven feel stout, like a hearty bowl of stew. Good for curling up under a blanket on a winter’s day when the sun sets at 4:30. In the summer, I tend to gravitate toward the literary equivalent of flip-flops.

I recently read two books that were just plain fun. Just because these novels are entertaining doesn’t mean they don’t have well-rounded characters and an engaging plot. These books won’t ask a lot of you. They probably won’t change your worldview or evoke sympathy for others’ plights. You might not think about the characters long after you close the cover, but they will put a smile on your face.

16071745Someday, Someday, Maybe, by Lauren Graham

If you want to get yourself geared up for The Gilmore Girls episodes later this year, this will do the trick. Someday, Someday, Maybe feels like Bridget Jones meets The Gilmore Girls. It’s a new adult story of young Franny trying to land her first real gig as an actress in 1995 NYC. (A thinly veiled autobiography of Lauren Graham’s experience?) There’s plenty of witty banter, clever lines, and twenty-something angst.

We know how things are going to turn out for Franny, and in that respect, there isn’t much surprising about the story itself. There are no twists, turns or dark dealings. It’s a straight-forward tale about a time in our lives when we’re unsure of what is supposed to happen next, when all of life feels like a secret and we don’t know quite which way is up.  I listened to this as an audio book, which was the right call. Lauren Graham reads the story, and she’s perfect of course.

13538873Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

Let me say that I have an unnatural attachment to novels about bookstores and libraries. I enjoyed The Storied Life of AJ Fikry and The Little Paris Bookshop. So I had a feeling I would like Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, but I didn’t know how much!

There is a secret society, high-tech whiz kids, special fonts (yes, I said fonts), and a budding romance. The story is always moving forward, weaving an interesting group of twenty-somethings that circulate around the main character, Clay. I think it’s safe to say that Clay has a lot of “just right” connections—far more than I had at his age—which all fall into place perfectly. He knows how to get his friends on board to help him solve the curious situation he finds himself in since he started working at Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore.

Robin Sloan did a nice job of describing these disparate worlds—the high tech Google cohort and the secret society members who surround themselves in ancient texts clad in flowing black robes. If you pick up a “carbon-based copy” (as Alice in A Window Opens calls paper books), you’re in for a fun treat: the cover glows in the dark!


I’d like to recommend one more read centering around twenty-somethings, though maybe not as light-hearted as the books mentioned above. It’s a short story by yours truly, published this week at The Cortland Review. “A Seductive Shortcut” is a modern retelling of an Aaron Copland composition. It takes place at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and, yes, an Elvis tribute artist makes an appearance. I hope you enjoy it!

It was two a.m. They’d been up for nearly twenty-four hours. Married for four. Yet they stood at the edge of the lake, unable to tear themselves away and go into the hotel where one of those fancy high roller-rooms was waiting for them. Brian had booked it a few days ago when he’d had an inkling of this plan.

Can you recommend any fun reads?

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Free-for-All Friday

We’ve all read headlines like this: “Late-night snacks are bad for your brain.” “A new study shows pizza is the most addictive food.” “Drinking a glass of wine is just as good as spending an hour at the gym.” These soundbites are on morning television, in magazines of every subject matter, and clogging your FB feed. They’re even scrolling across the little television screens installed in the elevators of my office building.

We know, deep down, that drinking a glass of wine is not the same as an hour at the gym. Why do media outlets report untrue or incomplete information as science? Since apparently it is unrealistic to expect them to curate scientific studies  with integrity, we have to start by opening the conversation.

Just prefacing a soundbite with “a new study shows…” should not cut it.  I encourage you to watch this clip from John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight. (It’s HBO, so it’s a bit sassy and irreverent. Watch the volume.)  Dumbing down the science to an attention-grabbing, and often incorrect, headline is doing us all a big disservice.

 

On a lighter note, has anyone tried this new app called Hyperlapse from Instagram? It allows you to take time lapse videos. Of course the sample clip with the dog digging in the sand made me smile.

Here is an app I can recommend: SkyView. The app uses your phone’s camera to superimpose the constellations on the night sky. It knows where you are in the world and, based on the date and time, knows what stars will be visible in your area. Point your camera toward the sky and hover over a star. The app will tell you the name of the star, the constellation or asterism, and the type of star. I’ve been loving it!

I am a closet blueberry muffin addict. This recipe from Joy the Baker is one of the best.

Who is going to watch Doctor Thorne? Yes, please. It’s a three-part miniseries from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes based on an Anthony Trollope novel. Ian McShane has a small role.

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

Nature Calls: Honeybees

When my mom bought her hummingbird feeder, she envisioned spending mornings watching the charming dynamos flit about. But within hours the feeder was swarmed by bees. Hundreds of them. Not only did the hummingbirds stay away, but so did most of the other birds. She tried several bee deterrents like painting the feeder a different color and using olive oil, but the bees never got that memo so they keep coming. At her wit’s end she said, “If I could just find that hive…” Of course she wouldn’t do anything untoward, but I suggested that we look on the bright side. Honeybee populations are in sharp decline. Maybe she’s doing a community service.

I’d heard the bad news about honeybees, but I didn’t know why or what that really meant, so  I did a bit of digging.

Starting in 2006, honeybee populations have dropped about 30-50 percent. (Natural die-off is usually between 5-10 percent, which is a regenerative rate.) Why is this a big deal? The US Department of Agriculture reports that honeybee pollination is responsible for $15 billion in crops each year, including apples, citrus fruits, asparagus, and soybeans. More than one-third of the food you eat is a direct result of the hardworking bees!

And almond crops are completely dependent on them.During growing season, the state of California brings in 1.4 million honeybee colonies to do their thing for the almond trees.

The really curious thing about the decline is that there are no dead bees in the hive, just the queen and a fraction of the usual worker bees. First, let’s take a look at the structure of a hive.

There are three types of honeybees (Apis mellifera) in each hive.

The Queen:

* Her job is to lay as many eggs as possible to produce the next generation.

* She lives between 1 and 4 years.

* If she dies, the workers will produce a substance called “royal jelly” and feed it to another worker, which enables her to become a fertile queen. How they choose which worker to become queen is a mystery. (Side note: I have seen “royal jelly” hailed as a magic elixir in products from skin care to herbal supplements. Now that I know what that is…I’ll pass.)

Honeybee

Honeybee ourside her hive. Creative Commons License  Brad Smith

 

The Workers:

* Workers are all females and can number between 40,000-60,000 in a strong hive. They can travel up to five miles to collect enough pollen.

* They perform a multitude of tasks including: tending to the queen, feeding larvae, feeding drones, ripening nectar (which turns into honey), and collecting pollen.

* A worker will die if she stings. She has a barbed stinger that is left behind after stinging.

 

 

The Drones:

* Drones are all males and they have no stingers. Their sole responsibility is fertilization.

* Each hive has a few hundred drones.

 

Why are hives in hexagon shape?

Honeycombs are comprised of tightly packed hexagons (six-sides) where nectar is stored until it can ripen into honey. The hexagon walls are made of beeswax. It takes 8 oz of honey to make 1 oz of beeswax. The hexagon shape, more than triangles or squares, maximizes the little storage containers that can fit into the hive while requiring the least amount of beeswax.

Hive

Hive. Creative Commons License Irene Florez

 

So what could be happening to the worker honeybees?

Some think the die-off is a direct result of chemicals sprayed on crops. Residue from 150 different types of pesticides have been found in bee hives. It may be the aggregate of how these chemicals react with the others. A study in the journal Nature found that worker bees were 2-3 times more likely to die while away from the hive because these chemicals messed with their homing abilities to find their way back. On the bright side…

Did you know bees can dance?

You may do the Macarena, but worker honeybees do the Waggle Dance. They do it to tell the others where to find the pollen.

 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

 

 

 

 

Authorial Intrusion: Pantser vs. Plotter

Plotter |ˈplätər| noun: 1. Someone who makes plans; a writer who maps out her story before she begins. 2. A sensible, logical person.

Pantser |pants*er| noun: 1. A person who works by the seat of her pants, esp. a writer. 2. Said person who writes dozens, maybe hundreds, of pages only to delete them. 3. Someone who will, in the wee small hours of the morning, weep into her computer keyboard because she realizes this %^&@ story is boring, the characters have no purpose, and the plot is going nowhere.

 

I confess. I am a pantser. I know. I can hear all you plotters out there. Life is easier when you’re a plotter. If you’re a plotter, the story would have a road map, a rough outline. You can avoid writing your characters into a metaphorical corner, where the only way out is to dump hundreds (yes, hundreds) of pages. When you’re stuck, you can go back to your outline and get unstuck. You know What Happens Next. I know all this. It’s exactly what I tell my writing students.

Yet something kept me from writing an outline. In the first flush of excitement for a new story, I don’t want to pull momentum away from development.  I like having the spark of an idea and exploring, seeing what the story is about, who the characters are. It unfolds for me as it appears on the page. There’s something magical in that.

Plotting uses a different part of the brain. It’s like fitting puzzle pieces together or playing a game of Tetris. It requires focus and planning. Plotting feels like someone asking me what I want for dinner next Tuesday.

Some authors are devoted plotters. John Grisham: “I’ve learned that the more time I spend on the outline, the easier the book is to write.”   Katherine Anne Porter: “If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last line, my last paragraph, my last page first.” And this is what J.K. Rowling calls her “basic plot outline.” I’m starting to get hives.

jk-rowlings-phoenix-plot-outline

J.K. Rowling’s outline for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, chapters 13-24

But I understand that you can’t write a series of books as complex as Harry Potter without keeping track of the subplots and characters’ relationships to each other, and I also get that suspense/thrillers like the ones Grisham writes need to have a certain plot progression. Outlines help with both of those things.

A few months ago, I gave it a shot. I had come to a point in my novel in progress that I needed to know how the main conflict was going to play out so I could start leading my characters there. I went old school and did the whole Roman numeral style thing with little indentations and everything. It was a long, tedious mess. If the characters could come to life from the page, even they would complain how bored they were.

Fast forward to last week. I had to write a novel synopsis for a workshop I’ll be attending this summer. I wrote a paragraph and a (muse/bolt of lightning/demi-god) gave me some inspiration to keep writing. Before I knew it, I was writing an outline. But it didn’t look like an outline, it was a stream-of-consciousness, free-form paragraph that went on for a page.

It needs some tinkering and a change of focus, but now I have a much better idea of where the story is going and how to get my characters from point A to point B. Dare I say it, I am now officially a plotter.

Let me know if you outline. I’d love some suggestions. 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

The Loft A little plug: I’ll be teaching my popular creative writing class this summer through The Loft Literary Center, beginning June 15. It’s eight weeks, all online.

 

 

 

Why We Read: To Recognize Ourselves

Literature is an unbreakable bridge…When readers recognize themselves in a writer’s work, you’ve built this unbreakable bridge [between the writer and reader] that is a spiritual connection. ~Cheryl Strayed

The best stories, the most memorable stories, are the ones in which I develop a connection with the main character. I know when this begins to happen because I find myself (gasp) underlining sentences and, if I don’t have a pen handy, turning the corners of pages.

What is this connection? Connection can be a fanciful, dreamy term. Connection, in real life or in the pages of a good book, is recognition. It’s identifying with someone. It’s more than just a clever line or an unusual situation, which is why I rarely find recognition in genre stories where the focus is on the uniqueness of the character’s circumstances, rather than character himself. I can imagine how terrifying it would be to find myself stranded on Mars, but I never saw myself in Mark Watney.

That’s not to say that a character’s personality or circumstances should mirror my own. Recognition doesn’t need to come in the literary equivalent of a mini-me. In fact, the most poignant moments are when I see glimpses of myself in characters vastly different from me. Lily Bart in The House of Mirth. Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Eilis Lacey in Brooklyn. Mary Sutter in My Name Is Mary Sutter. These characters have lives that are nothing like mine, yet I feel that connection.

Seldon pushed his hat back and took a side glance at her. “Success—what is success? I shall be interested to have your definition.”

“Success?” She [Lily Bart] hesitated. “Why, to get as much out of life as one can, I suppose. It’s a relative quality after all.”

The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

I found that recognition most recently in Alice Pearse in A Window Openswho is desperately trying to find a work/life balance. This is from Lorraine’s review at Enchanted Prose:

Alice, though, is an optimistic soul, so when she/“employee #305” enters her minimalist, impersonal white workplace she translates “stark” into “elegant.” Keep in mind she’s also an independent soul…who is determined to succeed. Fear of failure, a potent yet misguided motivator.

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Alice feels personal, familiar. And I feel validated and acknowledged. I am seen, even though I may be alone in the room. I think this is what we mean when we say that we really like a character, and why it’s so difficult to continue reading a story with unlikeable characters.

I’m currently reading a novel with multiple alternating points of view. One of the characters, Willa, is instantly recognizable to me. The other points of view character, not so much. That’s not to say they aren’t wonderfully written characters—dynamic and interesting—just that I don’t have that special connection. I spend a lot of those chapters hoping that I’ll be getting back to Willa soon. I think this may often be the case in multiple point of view stories. The characters are in direct competition with each other for the reader’s attention. Readers may not get enough “page time” with any one character to develop this deep connection. Or they don’t like one of the point of view characters.

That deep recognition doesn’t happen in every book. It can be a bit elusive like chasing the Loch Ness monster, but when it does, it feels like that unbreakable bridge.

 

 

Have you had  that deep recognition with any characters?

Have a great weekend, everyone!