Happy 2016

Today is a day, like any other. Yet it feels like it holds more power. It’s the day we flip the calendar. All those fresh squares stretch out before us, beckoning us to do something meaningful. It’s a reminder that the one thing we can’t get more of is time.

Looking ahead to 2016, the empty spaces are daunting. Although I want to do something to honor the clean slate, I don’t want to do it just because it feels momentous. So I probably won’t be dying my hair pink or bungee jumping any time soon.

In years past, this feeling has driven me to try new things because everyone else is doing it. I see others having great success, and I think I’m missing out. (Publishing articles on the listicle sites comes to mind.) Though more often than not, I convince myself not to chart a new course because I think it couldn’t possibly lead anywhere.

But I realized something important while I was flipping through my 2016 FDNY calendar. (I kid! Or not.) Many of the people I admire for doing really cool and exciting things started with the notion that no one else would be interested. Yet they were brave enough to do it anyway. And their work ends up resonating with people because, I think, they are passionate about it. Gav over at Zen Pencils comes to mind. He creates comic strips around quotes from historic figures, like TR’s “Man in the Arena” speech. At first he wondered if anyone would enjoy these comics as much as he did. The answer: a LOT of people!

All of that is to say, I’ve decided to change the focus of this blog. I’m ready to explore different topics on a deeper level. Some of you might find it interesting and exciting (I hope so!) and some might not. I might be hearing my own voice echo through the empty chambers of Chez Blog. That’s okay.

Sometimes you have to be willing to leave something familiar behind in order to make room for something new. Maybe it’s not the bravery of Rey fighting the Dark Side, but I’m ready to give it a go. (Anyone else seen The Force Awakens!?)

Hope to see you next Friday. Happy New Year! 

The One with the Grave Robber

When writers are looking for story ideas, it is often suggested they “write what they know.” I think there is a lot of value to this advice, but it’s also kind of limiting. Sometimes I don’t know anything about a character or a setting or a topic, and it’s my curiosity that drives me to learn more.

So I’d like to preface the introduction to my newest short story by saying that I have no hands-on experience with grave robbing.

I became interested in grave robbing (I mean, as much as one can be interested in grave robbing without going to jail) about a year ago when I listened to a podcast about the Doctors’ Riot.

In the late 1700s, medical colleges needed cadavers for educational dissection, but there were no legal means for obtaining them. This led to some unorthodox dealings in the acquiring of bodies, and brought New York to a fever pitch in 1788.

I started digging around (pun intended) and I wondered about a character who could make a living (pun intended again) by stealing dead bodies.

I invite you to head over to the Valparaiso Fiction Review to read my short story “The Resurrectionist.” Here is an excerpt:

Carob Mott kept watch on the almshouse across Hudson Street. He’d been waiting for the better part of two days for the signal. Sometimes he’d pace, but mainly he sat on a neighboring stoop, not daring to take his eyes off the second-story window for longer than a passing carriage.

His son knew he often forgot to eat when he pursued a lead, so the boy brought food and drink from the tavern a few blocks away and relieved Carob when he could no longer keep his eyes open. For the most part though, Carob was on his own.

As the sky turned violet, a second candle was placed on the sill. Carob calmly strode across the street and lifted the latch on the gate leading to the rear of the house.

peterwarrenhouse

Greenwich Village, 18th Century., Manhattan City

As if to prove that history is never really over, two crypts were discovered in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park recently. The bodies that Carob Mott had planned to dig up are still there…

Thanks for reading!

Friday Five (Or More)

Some happy links and cool clips for you this week!

Gifts with Meaning: Nicholas Kristof, who wrote Half the Sky, offers his annual holiday gift guide, “the chance to recommend presents more meaningful than a tie or sweater.”

How “treat yourself” became the marketing mantra of the 21st century. (Who can stop themselves from reading an article when Michel Foucault is mentioned in the first paragraph?)

68 Inspiring Writing Tips from 9 Great Writers. My fave? Have the guts to cut. Thank you, Mr. Vonnegut.

Still in need of book recommendations for holiday gifts? My suggestions are here, but check out Book Page’s Top 25 Books of 2015 for more ideas.

Former opinion columnist and food writer for The New York Times, Mark Bittman explains Why I Quit My Dream Job.

I finally saw Inside Out. Did you enjoy it as much as I did?

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

My Trailblazer Nominee

Today I am pleased as punch to be a guest over at Patti’s Pilot Fish blog.  Patti created the Trailblazers Award to “highlight people who can offer guidance and solutions to complex problems.” I love that idea!

Patti has been posting nominations for the award and today she has graciously allowed me to add one of my favorite people to the list. I’ll give you a hint…my nominee is a woman who has expanded our knowledge of our closest living relatives and changed the way we see them and ourselves.

To find out who I nominated (and view a charming video), head over to Patti’s Pilot Fish blog.

This is the fourth in a series of articles about forward thinkers who are helping to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. These remarkable people are helping to define the future direction of their community, country, and even our global society.   To read more about the Pilot Fish Trailblazer Awards and the previous nominees Dr. Fred Sanger, Paolo Soleri, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, click on the embedded links.

Do you have a nominee for the Trailblazer Award? Leave a comment on my post at Patti’s blog. See you there!

Sixth 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.

Salt to the SeaFor those who want to feel the full weight of the human spirit: Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys.  I devoured this novel in two days. As with Between Shades of Gray, Sepetys brings to light a little known event of WWII. This story covers the evacuation of refugees and soldiers as the Russians close in on Germany’s eastern front. Salt to the Sea alternates in very short chapters between four teens: a Polish refugee, a Lithuanian nurse, a Prussian soldier who deserted the German army, and a German sailor devoted to the Reich to the bitter end. Each one carries a secret of something that cannot be undone. They crowd onto the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship scheduled to take them to safety–or so they think. If you loved All the Light We Cannot See, you’ll love Salt to the Sea.This review is a bit sneaky because the book has not published yet. I was lucky enough to have an advance reader copy, so put this on your list for February 2016!

Big MagicFor those who have lost their their creative spark: Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people have this book on their “Best of…” lists this year. Elizabeth Gilbert asks you to trust and respect your creative self, to tend it as you would a garden. I loved her definition of creativity: living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear. This isn’t a how to book. You won’t find exercises to reconnect with your creativity as in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, but you will find a manifesto on how to be brave in the face of your fear (by accepting it rather than trying to rid yourself of it). The title isn’t a metaphor, Gilbert believes that creative energy is indeed magic. Big Magic is a good reminder to explore innovation and live the magic.

Storied Life of AJ FikryFor those who want to read a book about…books:The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin.  I’m a sucker for novels about bookstores and bookstore owners, and A.J. Fikry is my favorite to date. A sign hanging above A.J.’s bookstore reads “No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World.” I wanted to pack my bags and move to Alice Island. While I loved the bookstore and island setting, the characters are the most memorable part of the story. Even the minor characters, are endearing and charming, and they feel like people you might know. A marvelous read!

Better than beforeFor those who want to be…Better Than Before, by Gretchen Rubin. Good habits are the key to making positive changes in your life, says Rubin. But starting and keeping those habits can feel like a Sisyphean task. This book has a lot of solid, helpful suggestions for staying with your habits. The most important thing, she says, is to work within your personality. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. To that end, I loved her “four tendencies” framework. How you approach expectations sets the stage for how you will incorporate a new habit. We fall into one of the following categories: upholder, obliger, questioner, and rebel. It took me less than two minutes to figure out that I’m an upholder. (Didn’t even need to take the quiz!)

Station ElevenFor those who want to be afraid–very afraid: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. It was difficult reading this novel on the subway during my commutes. Emily St. John Mandel so realistically captured the spread of the Georgian flu and the resulting devastation, I found myself worried about being in such close proximity to other people.

The story weaves expertly back and forth in time from before the flu that wiped out 99 percent of human life to Year Twenty, after the world has changed so dramatically that the remaining people are thrown back to the Middle Ages — no electricity, no cars, no Internet, no industry of any kind. Cities have been reduced to settlements and bands of travelers. Aside from the intrigue of the familiar but “otherworldliness” of Station Eleven, I love that this story remains focused on the characters and their perseverance through it all.

Art of StillnessFor those who need to unplug: The Art of Stillness, by Pico Iyer. When I saw Pico Iyer at the Brooklyn Book Festival, he was asked if there was a common theme running through his work. He answered immediately that he tries to “reconcile hopefulness with realism.” That theme threads its way through this slim volume as well. Maybe it’s a bit counterintuitive for a travel writer like Pico Iyer to recommend staying put, but he believes we should give ourselves permission to be still, even for a few minutes. He explores the lives of people who have incorporated stillness and offers their examples to guide readers to put down the phone and turn off the TV. It’s a break we crave.

lafayetteFor those who are light-hearted history buffs:  Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, by Sarah Vowell. Sarah Vowell is to American history what Bill Bryson is to thru-hiking. Wry, funny, and irreverent, her spot-on observations make what seems like a dry subject supremely interesting. “Here she dives into the tale of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French aristocrat who, as a glory-hungry teen, crossed an ocean to join a revolution in a land he’d never before visited.” Even Sarah Vowell’s digressions, which can be long, are fun.

The VacationersFor those who want to escape into a (different) family drama: The Vacationers, by Emma Straub. The Posts and their friends are off for two weeks in Mallorca. (I mean, yes please!) It should be the vacation of a lifetime — Franny and Jim are celebrating their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, Sylvia is off to Brown in the fall — except things are not going well for anyone. But when seven people stay in a cottage for fourteen days secrets and old hurts are going to bubble to the surface. Last year I recommended Emma Straub’s debut Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures and this one doesn’t disappoint either. One caveat: The opening pages are a bit slow, and I found myself wanting the Posts to get on the plane and to Mallorca. But if you stick with it, you’ll be rewarded!

Girl on the TrainFor those who want a thriller with a female protagonist: The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. Let’s just get it out there. This book has been compared, favorably and unfavorably, to that other psychological thriller Gone Girl. In The Girl on the Train, we are treated to a little more introspection and character growth than I think is typical of suspense novels, which made the story even richer for me. I imagine, though, for suspense genre junkies, this might have been annoying — we are in the main character’s head a lot while she’s processing what has happened and what her next move will be. For me, it all worked. And, yes, this one is being made into a movie with Emily Blunt and Mr. Jennifer Aniston.

Beautiful ruinsFor those who love film or Italy or Richard Burton… Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter. This book is so…delicious! The story spans decades and winds through a marvelous cast of characters. We move from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to the Ligurian coast to Hollywood to the Donner Party (really!) and get fantastic descriptions like the one of past-his-prime film producer Michael Deane, who has had so much plastic surgery he looks like a “lacquered elf.” It’s inventive and interesting, and if you listen to it as an audiobook, as I did, you’ll be treated to a wonderful narrator who expertly tackles the voices for all of these characters and their accents.

Looking for more Great Books to Give and Get? Check out the previous lists: 2014, 2013201220112010

What are some of your favorite books from 2015? Share in comments.