Book Review

7 Books I Want to Read Again

Whenever I finish one book, I often find myself with the delicious dilemma of choosing which one will be the next taken off my shelves. But my to-read list has grown longer than my to-do list. (Darn you, Goodreads!)

So, why would I reread books? Sometimes I want to slow the insatiable desire for new, better, more and hang out with the familiar. Like sitting with an old friend and reminiscing for a while.

Also, books change as we change. As we gain more life experiences and have more years on this planet, our perspective changes. I admit—I didn’t like Pride and Prejudice when I read it in high school. Now, it’s one of my favorites. (Though, I think I’d have to live a long, long time to change my original opinion of Moby Dick. *cough*)

There are some books I reread and realize that I missed the point the first time around. Maybe I was distracted by life’s little intrusions. Maybe I was skimming. (Note to self: Don’t skim! Why bother!?)

Here are seven books on my TBRR* list:

*To Be ReRead

All Creatures Great and SmallAll Creatures Great and Small, by James HerriotMy copy is yellowed and the cover is torn (see photo), but I’m not getting rid of it. As a country veterinarian in 1930s Yorkshire, Herriot’s patients ranged from dogs and cats to pigs and cows. He wove his animal tales (pun intended), while painting a beautiful portrait of the windswept moors and the hardy, hardworking farmers. I remember his stories as warm, but not sappy; insightful, but not preachy.

 

58345The Awakening, by Kate Chopin. When I read this novel in college, I’d learned that the story shocked readers when it was published in 1899. I thought Kate Chopin was prescient, imagining what female marital infidelity would look like. But now I wonder: Was the book ahead of its time or was it shockingly contemporary? Just because it wasn’t discussed openly doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening. A good book to reread in this Snapchat, swipe left, share everything age we live in.

 

386187Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt.  There is practically a law that says you must read this book before you visit Savannah, Georgia. And so I did. And it was terrific. And to a large extent that is my memory of the plot. So when a friend read it and recounted the escapades of the Lady Chablis, the eccentric drag queen, I realized it’s time to be enamored all over again.

 

 

The Alchemist, by Paulo CoelhoThe Alchemist, by Paolo Coelho. I can’t remember what happened to my copy. Maybe I loaned it to a friend or donated it in one of my intense yearly bookshelf purges. Two weeks ago, I was browsing at a stoop sale (the urban version of a yard sale) and my eyes landed on this book. I was about to walk away (do I really need another book!?!) when the seller handed it to me and said, “No charge.” It feels like the universe wants me to read this one again.

 

 

A Walk in the WoodsA Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson. This was my introduction to Bill Bryson’s writing, and now I’m a Bryson completist. His curmudgeonly, wry tone always leaves me in good spirits. It’s been at least 15 years since I last read this one, and I still have the book on my shelf.

 

 

 

to kill a mockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Because I refused to read Go Set a Watchman.

 

 

 

 

The Getaway Car, by Ann PatchettThe Getaway Car, by Ann Patchett. This slim volume of writing encouragement is only available as a Kindle Single, but it’s worth downloading the app, if you don’t already have it. (And it’s a reasonably priced $2.51 at last check). Lately I’ve needed a writerly pick-me-up. The long, sometimes soul-crunching process can make me question moving forward with a story.  To that, Ann Patchett says:

 

“Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.”

 

Do you reread books? Which ones? 

Coming next time: an interview with Bethany Ball, author of What to Do About the Solomons! 

BEFORE YOU GO

  1. This fall, I’ll be teaching my most popular class at The Loft Literary Center called Back to Basics: Creative Writing Techniques, starting September 20. The Loft Literary Center

I’ll let you know when registration opens.

2. As I mentioned in my last post, I’ll be moving over to WordPress.org in the next month or two. The move requires all of you to resubscribe over at the new URL. So frustrating, but I don’t know a way to transfer subscriptions. (If you do, please let me know!)  I want to keep you informed about the move and the new writing courses I’m developing. I’ve started a newsletter. I’d love it if you’d sign up. As a thank-you, I’m offering my short editing checklistThis is one of the checklists I use when editing fiction writing. Thanks so much for your support! 

Have a great weekend, everyone!

 

Author Interview: Jill Santopolo, The Light We Lost

The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo is one of the novels I was most looking forward to reading this year. It did not disappoint! Weeks after finishing, I am still thinking about the main characters, Gabe and Lucy, and the larger implications of “following your passion.”


The Light We Lost, by Jill SantopoloMe Before You
meets One Day in this devastatingly romantic debut novel about the enduring power of first love with a shocking, unforgettable ending. A Love Story for a new generation.

He was the first person to inspire her, to move her, to truly understand her. Was he meant to be the last?

Lucy is faced with a life-altering choice. But before she can make her decision, she must start her story—their story—at the very beginning.

I reached out to Jill and she so kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her novel and the writing life. What a thrill to have her here today!


JC: What was your starting point for The Light We Lost? Did you come to this story with the main character, Lucy, in mind? Was it one particular scene? How did you build from there?

JS: The starting point for The Light We Lost was actually an emotional one. I’d just gone through a terrible break-up—the sort that turns your entire life and your entire future upside down—and I was trying to figure out a way to handle all of those emotions. The way I ended up doing it was writing vignettes about another woman who was going through a different break-up than I was. Lucy’s story is not my story, but the emotions she experiences—the anger, the sorrow, the hurt, the betrayal, the love, the hope, the regret—all of those were feelings I was experiencing and that’s where this book started.

JC: Certainly one important theme of the book is light—from carrying a torch to illuminating secrets. For me, another important theme emerged—the choice between trailblazing one’s passion and following a more traditional path. Lucy and Gabe determine that it’s difficult to have two trailblazers in one relationship. They would sort of cancel each other out. Can you speak to this a bit? Was this your initial intention or did it develop while you were writing?

JS: I didn’t initially write the book with that point in mind, but I did know that I wanted Lucy’s career to be important to her, and I wanted her, in the end, not to compromise it for any of the men she was with. I think, especially living in New York City with so many ambitious, driven people, it’s easy to end up in a situation in which one person would have to compromise their career for the success of their partner’s, and I wanted to explore that—and what it means for women, particularly, to make these kinds of choices.

JC: I found Lucy’s emotions to be so rich—layered and complex. Sometimes she was managing conflicting emotions and trying to reconcile the gap between the two. This was made even more poignant because the story spans about fifteen years as we move from Lucy’s college days through marriage, parenthood, and career. Do you have any suggestions for writers about how to create a protagonist with this kind of far-reaching emotional depth? 

JS: Thank you for that! I’m so glad you felt connected to Lucy emotionally. I think the best way to write characters that feel emotionally deep and multi-layered is to create character who, themselves, seem three-dimensional and multi-layered on the page. I always say that when I know a character I’m writing well, I can predict what that character would do in any given situation—I know what makes that character tick, what motivates them, scares them, frustrates them, and what they need to be happy. Once you can do that, I think the emotions just fall into place.

JC: Expanding a bit on the question above, I loved how you were able to create well-rounded characters of the two important men in Lucy’s life—Gabe and Darren. Neither man is all or nothing. Both are supportive but also limiting for her in different ways. So many writers find it challenging to develop supporting characters with such nuance. Can you share how you developed these characters so they didn’t feel like cardboard cut-outs?

JS: I think in the same way that I got to know Lucy, I got to know both men, figuring out what was important to them and what motivated their decisions and actions. Once I did that, the characters started to feel real. And their relationships with Lucy started to feel real, too. I knew from the start that I didn’t want either of them to be perfect, and I wanted to leave room for readers to think about the complexities of love and relationships, not just in The Light We Lost, but in their own lives, too. In creating Darren and Gabe, I wanted to make sure that they each fulfilled a certain need that Lucy had, but that neither of them fulfilled all of her needs and desires.

JC: I’m always interested in learning how other writers protect their time. How do you carve out time to write with all of your other commitments?

JS: This is always the struggle, isn’t it. I’ve found two tricks that help me get writing done: One is literally scheduling writing time in my calendar like any other plan, and then not “canceling” it when something else comes along, and the other is giving myself word count targets each day or each week that I make myself hit, even if it means waking up early or staying up late or writing on the subway as I’m traveling somewhere else. I basically make myself accountable to myself and don’t want to let myself down.

The Light We Lost is available through Amazon, B&NIndieBound or your favorite bookstore near you!


Jill SantopoloJill Santopolo received a BA in English literature from Columbia University and an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s the author of The Light We Lost, an epic love story that will be published in 29 languages in more than a hundred countries across the globe, as well as three children’s and young-adult series–The Sparkle Spa, The Alec Flint Mysteries, and the Follow Your Heart books–and works as the editorial director of Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers group. An adjunct professor in The New School’s MFA program, Jill travels the world to speak about writing and storytelling. She lives in New York City. You can visit her online at www.jillsantopolo.com or follow her on Twitter @jillsantopolo. 


BEFORE YOU GO

  1. If you’ve ever wanted to take an online writing course but weren’t sure which cThe Loft Literary Centerourse was right for you, check out the Summer Sampler at The Loft Literary Center.

Over four weeks, you will get a taste of several online classes, hosted by different teachers (including yours truly!) in different genres. I’ll be teaching a three-day session on descriptive writing. The cost is only $80 (a steal, really), and the program starts June 5. Registration is open now. 

2. Some big changes are going to be happening around these parts, including a new look and more online writing courses. What is scariest for me is moving to a new URL. I’ll be packing up my WordPress.COM bags and heading over to WordPress.ORG. I’ve been here for over seven years! But it’s time to take the plunge. I want to keep you informed when the time comes, so I’ve started a newsletter. I’ll be sharing writing tips, discounts on future class offerings and updates on how the new site is going. I’d love it if you’d sign up. As a thank-you, I’m offering my short editing checklistThis is one of the checklists I use when editing fiction writing. Thanks so much for your support! 

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Seven Books I Can’t Wait to Read

The stacks of books on my nightstand grow ever taller, but here are a few books I just can’t wait to read.

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng.  Well, thank goodness for this. Celeste Ng’s new book will be out in September. It’s so far away, the cover image isn’t even ready yet, but what a gem to look forward to this fall. The book explores “the weight of long-held secrets, the nature of belonging, the ferocious pull of motherhood—and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.”

 

9780316154727_p0_v3_s192x300Theft by Finding, by David Sedaris. I’m a David Sedaris completist. Even if this turns out to be a list of food he ate, I will read it. And it will be hilarious. This collection will be out in May. Mark your calendar.

 

 

 

 

 

30107561Perfect Little World, by Kevin Wilson. In his new novel, Wilson introduces us to Isabelle Poole, a pregnant teen who agrees to raise her child in an experimental collective called The Infinite Family. I enjoyed Wilson’s quirky style and compassionate voice in his debut novel, The Family Fang.

 

 

 

 

30268062Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. It’s his debut novel, but George Saunders’s achievements in nonfiction are many. The story is about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the beginning of the Civil War. And, as if this doesn’t sound interesting enough, there are ghosts!

 

 

31941884The Light We Lost, by Jill Santopolo. The Light We Lost is described as One Day meets Me Before You with an unforgettable ending. I’m fortunate to have an advance reader’s copy of this novel, set to release in May.

 

 

 

 

32616120Difficult Women, by Roxane Gay. I can’t think of an American writer whose work is more relevant and more poignant right now. Difficult Women is a collection of short stories all centered around—you guessed it— “difficult” women.

 

 

 

 

29974618The Mothers, by Brit Bennett. A number of you have had great things to say about this novel: the lovely, lyrical prose, the way the story unfolds over the course of a decade, the implications of living with the decisions made by our younger selves. Really looking forward to this one.

 

 

If you’re wondering, like I am, how you’re going to get through the stack of books on your list, check out Nina Badzin’s six tips for How to Read More Books This Year.

What books are you looking forward to reading? I’m always looking for recommendations. 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

Seventh Annual Great Books to Give…and Get

Books make great gifts. If you’ve got a long list of people to buy for this holiday season and no idea what to get them, here are a few suggestions from books I enjoyed this year.

 

A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik BlackmanFor the curmudgeon in your life: A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Blackman. A charming book about a sourpuss who will win your heart! The author, Fredrik Blackman, has the ability to take serious subjects (death, suicide, OCD) and relate them in such a matter-of-fact way that they are not off-putting or used for shock value. Backman treats the issues and the characters with kindness. I was rooting for Ove from page one. A Man Called Ove redefines family and shows us the power of connection. I’m looking forward to reading other novels by Fredrik Blackman. Any suggestions on which one to pick up next?

 

The Gentleman, by Forrest LeoFor anyone who likes P.G. Wodehouse sprinkled with a little Noel Coward: The Gentleman, by Forrest Leo. Even if you’re not familiar with Wodehouse’s Jeeves books, just know that this one is a fun, hilarious farce. The basic premise: Lionel Savage, a poet and once-wealthy nobleman, finds himself short on cash and decides to marry Vivien Lancaster for her money. A few months into his marriage, he is disenchanted with Vivien and horrified to learn the poetry muse has left him…so he makes a deal with the devil. His ever-vigilant butler, Simmons, is there to help Lionel extricate himself from the steady stream of problems he creates.

 

 

Before the Fall, by Noah HawleyFor those who want a page-turner: Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley.  A small plane crashes off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard and only two survive: a down-on-his-luck painter and a boy, the son of a wealthy television network executive. Did the plane crash by chance? Or was there something more sinister at work? It’s difficult to say too much about the plot without giving away any surprises. The author did a solid job of dropping hints so that you are sure any number of characters could have been responsible for the plane crash. The story alternates between each character’s point of view so you can see how desperate each person is to hold onto the ideas he or she values most. Sometimes it was downright frustrating and agonizing to witness the lengths to which some characters were willing to twist a tragedy into their own personal gain. A great page-turner!

 

Lab Girl, by Hope JahrenFor those who love to dig in the dirt or read about people who do: Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. After reading Lab Girl, I will never look at trees the same way again. Respected scientist Hope Jahren gave me a new appreciation of these silent but knowing inhabitants of our planet. She has dedicated her professional (and one could argue her personal) life to furthering our understanding of the flora that is crucial to life as we know it. But this book isn’t all about trees. It’s also about Jahren’s life as a scientist, which can be a difficult road for a woman leading her own lab. I liked the structure of this memoir—personal reflections interspersed with informative science. Jahren does a lovely job of putting words to her emotions as in this one memorable passage: “I navigated the confusing and unstable path of being what you are while knowing it’s more than people want to see.” While this memoir is ostensibly about the path to becoming a scientist, it’s really about finding your tribe (even if that is only one other person), perseverance, and following your curiosity—universal desires to which many of us can relate.

 

Atlas ObscuraFor those who have wanderlust in the weird: Atlas Obscura, by Joshua Foer, Ella Morton, Dylan Thuras. “Inspiring equal parts wonder and wanderlust, Atlas Obscura celebrates over 600 of the strangest and most curious places in the world.” Yes, please! This book revels in the weird, the unexpected, the overlooked, the hidden, and the mysterious. From the dazzling glowworm caves in New Zealand to eccentric bone museums in Italy, every page expands your sense of how strange and marvelous the world really is.Just flipping through this book was a delight. The compelling descriptions! The illustrations! The photos! The charts! I’m using a lot of exclamation points because this book is that cool! I can’t think of a better gift for a creative person to be inspired.

 

Becoming Wise, by Krista TippettFor those who want a grounded and fiercely hopeful vision of humanity: Becoming Wise, by Krista Tippett. Krista Tippett is an accomplished conversationalist. She has interviewed the most extraordinary voices examining the great questions of meaning for our time, but her gift is knowing how to listen and expand the dialogue. From conversations with Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales to poet Naomi Shihab Nye to Nobel physicist Frank Wilczek, she aims to meet the world where it really is, and then to make it better.I came away from this book with a feeling of resilience and redemption, two words that seem to define her perspective. The book, like her podcast, is a master class in living in the 21st century. And if you haven’t yet listened to Krista Tippett’s podcast, “On Being,” do yourself a favor and go through the archives now.

 

Stories of Your Life, by Ted ChiangFor those who like character-driven science fiction: Stories of Your Life, by Ted Chiang. Disclaimer: I’m not an avid science fiction reader, but I loved this collection of short stories for the way Ted Chiang is able to use science to explore deeper questions about human nature. He asks the question every good writer (and perhaps scientist) asks: what if… What if men built a tower from earth to heaven—and broke through to heaven’s other side? What if we discovered that the fundamentals of mathematics were arbitrary and inconsistent? What if exposure to an alien language forever changed our perception of time? And as with any good story, the answers are never cut and dried. I was often left wondering about the phrase “perception is reality.”  One of the stories is the basis for the new movie “Arrival.”

 

Siracusa, by Delia EphronFor those who demand compelling, if not entirely likable characters: Siracusa, by Delia Ephron. Siracusa is the story of what happens to two couples on vacation in Italy. By the end of their short stay, events have occurred which will change their relationships forever—but maybe not in the way that you might expect.  Delia Ephron does a marvelous job in drawing well-rounded and believable characters. The four main characters (with each chapter alternating in first person among them) are crafted with precision. Their flaws and blind spots are apparent immediately. I feel I know them better than they know themselves. Have you ever felt conflicted about a novel even months after finishing it? I found it difficult to root for any of the  characters, mired as they were in their own shameless self-contemplation (and often self-congratulation). The very fact that I wanted to finish the book despite not finding any redeeming qualities in the characters is a testament to Delia Ephron’s skill as a writer. I’d be very interested to hear if you feel the same about Finn, Taylor, Lizzie, and Michael.

 

The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer AckermanFor the nature lover: The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman. After reading this book, you’ll never use the term “bird brain” again—unless you’re using it as a compliment!  There’s the Clark’s nutcracker, a bird that can hide as many as 30,000 seeds over dozens of square miles and remember where it put them several months later, and the New Caledonian crow, the chimpanzee of the bird world, that makes its own tools. While some birds may not have traditional “book smarts,” they have “street smarts” in that they are able to negotiate complex social networks. They deceive and manipulate. They eavesdrop. They display a strong sense of fairness. They give gifts. They share. They summon witnesses to the death of a peer. All of these cool and interesting facts would have just floated by me if it were not for Jennifer Ackerman’s excellent storytelling abilities. She writes about avian intelligence in a clear, conversational style that kept me engaged to the last page.

 

Looking for more Great Books to Give and Get? Check out the previous lists: 20152014, 2013201220112010

What are some of your favorite books from 2016? Share in comments. 

The Dreaded B-word: Backstory

A few weeks ago, I attended a seminar given by author and story consultant Lisa Cron. You may know her from her popular column at Writer Unboxed, her TEDx Talk, or her book Wired for Story

Her approach to writing fiction is a bit unconventional. She says that everything we have been taught about writing is wrong. (A bold statement!) “The conventions of writing—voice, structure, drama, plot, all of it—are the handmaiden of story…” In other words, focus on the story first and worry about crafting beautiful metaphors later.

But even those diligently outlining their plot with the Hero’s Journey firmly in mind may still forget the critical questions. Stories are not “a bunch of things that happen.” As she reminded us over and over, your story hinges on what those things mean to your protagonist.

Most authors (I’m looking at myself here!) get well into their novels and hit a wall. It’s usually because the events of the story are not connected to the decisions the protagonist makes. Lisa wants you to set aside your outline and stop filling out that character questionnaire. Instead, know your protagonist.

She suggests you ask yourself these five questions before page one:

1.What is yStory Geniusour point? Why do you care about it?  (Not, what is your theme? Let’s get rid of the word theme, she advises.)

There is something you want readers to take away from your story, something with implications for human nature. It may sound a bit cliche at first (It’s better to have loved and lost…), but that’s okay. This is just something to ground you in why you’re writing this story in the first place. Answering this question and returning to it will help you through the difficult times when you want to throw in the towel.

2.What does your character enter the story wanting? What would need to happen for your protagonist to get what she wants and be happy?  Whether or not the character is right about what would her happy or cannot articulate it (for example, a child), there is something she thinks would solve all her problems.

Here, the more specific the better. Winning the lottery is not specific. Picture, in detail, what that would look like for your character. Now you know what getting it would mean to her.

3. What is the misbelief that is holding your character back? This was a big one for me. This smells like the dreaded B-word: backstory. Backstory is the kiss of death, right? Wrong, Lisa says! Often the thing your character thinks is protecting her is actually hurting her. Dig to find the origin of this misbelief. Where did it come from, and why does she believe it?

It is key to understand your character’s misbeliefs as they relate to the problems she is going to face. Pinpointing this in detail will give the reader a sense of urgency and something to be curious about.

4. What is the plot problem that will force your character to struggle with this misbelief? The story problem “grows, escalates, and complicates.” Does this story problem have the power to force the protagonist to face her misbelief?

Most characters will struggle mightily to hold onto their misbelief. It is what has protected them all these years—until now, that is.

5. What is your protagonist’s a-ha moment? This is where the story makes its point. (See question 1, above.) It can come before your character has to do that really hard thing, right in the middle, or just after.

Maybe your protagonist gets what she wants, maybe she doesn’t, but readers can only care if they know what it means to her.
The huge payoff of attending Lisa’s talk was overcoming my apprehension about backstory. (That would be my misbelief!) But, as she pointed out, your protagonist had a life before page one. She didn’t step out of a bubble and into the framework of the novel. To disregard what came before eliminates what made her her. This post just scrapes the surface of Lisa’s new book Story Genius

If you feel stuck and need some guidance in generating story ideas, please consider signing up for my new online class The Writer’s Muse: Explorations in Creativity. This class will be a mini writing retreat with inspirational exercises to help you move through the world as a writer and cultivate your curiosity in a friendly environment. Hope to see you there! 

As a writer or a reader, how do you feel about backstory?

Have a great weekend, everyone!