Thursday, September 30, 2010

What I'm Reading Now: Blackout

Oh, Connie Willis. Only you could make me laugh by referring to a much-maligned dance dress as "The Yellow Peril."  (The dress is passed from wearer to wearer by WWII female ambulance drivers who still scramble to look fetching despite no new frocks for the duration. They also have an ambulance dubbed Bela Lugosi.)

Blackout is stuffed---and I do mean that---with fascinating details of England during WWII. The book is huge, following the exploits of multiple historians as they time-travel back into the past, witnessing and ultimately getting sucked inside the chaos of The Blitz and the stolid British response to it; the desperately improvised civilian small boat rescue of stranded soldiers from Dunkirk to Dover; the air raid shelters peopled by both knitting biddies and Shakespearean actors; the rampages of measles-infected, parentless, prank-playing young evacuees; the frantic deployment of fake rubber tank units which must be blown up by hand in the middle of foggy fields with snorting bulls in them; and the endless terror of whistling V-1 rocket attacks, incendiary bombs, and the looming pall of threatened German invasion.

Does that sound confusing? It is. Does it sound fascinating? It is. Connie Willis is a master at making you realize that life is made up of unpredictable moments, all of which add up, person by person, to the sweep of history as we know it. Time travel seems ordinary by comparison.

P.S. Just to let you know, I normally avoid novels that are really the first half of a VLB (Very Long Book.) Nothing makes me madder than realizing 4/5 of the way into a terrific story that it can't possibly end in time and sure enough.... %^&*! ...on the last page are the dreaded words "to be continued." Especially if the "continued" is for longer than, say, two weeks. People, I don't care how great your story is, my brain cannot hold details that long. Publishers Weekly refers to readers such as myself as "allergic to cliffhangers."

Thankfully, Connie Willis and her publishers admitted at the outset that this was indeed a single VLB split in two. And they set the release dates of the two halves close together. Thus, I deliberately held off reading Blackout until this month because the second half, All Clear, is due out next month. (Essentially, I compressed time and travelled right through the intervening days of hanging off the cliff. Clever, right?)

For more, here's the review of Blackout in the Washington Post from March.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Clutter's not clutter when you display it, right?

This summer, I ordered a 3' by 5' pinboard for my office. It seemed gigantic when it arrived.

But I'm filling it up.

Yes, I am.

Ooh, shiny. 

Friday, September 24, 2010

Poetry Friday: Getting the Girl

Getting the Girl
Getting the Girl

I always have to think awhile after closing a Zusak book. He socks me so hard in the gut it's hard to formulate a coherent "review" of the experience.

Getting the Girl is a continuation of the story of the Wolfe brothers begun in Fighting Ruben Wolfe. (My review here.) Zusak writes close to the bone, exposing the marrow of what love is---between a boy and a girl, and between brothers. It's also about Cameron defining himself, as he is ripped away from all the safe places he used to hide, including his identity as Ruben's inferior brother.

And once again, Zusak takes artistic risks within his story, risks which could've easily gone horribly awry. This time, he includes Cameron's stumbling and raw words as he puts who he is on paper, foreshadowing this almost mute boy's emergence as a writer/poet. These sections work, thank God, because Zusak doesn't try to underwrite them. He lets Cameron be over-the-top and angsty and "poetical" so his words read like the rough drafts of poetry before it's shaped by time and practice. They sound wincingly authentic, of the sort you'd want to hide if only they didn't demand such attention for their pure gutsy-ness and flashes of stabbingly accurate emotional insight.

The Charcoal Sky
Sometimes you go to the wrong place, but the right way comes and finds you. It might make you trip over it or speak to it. Or it might come to you when a day is stripped apart by night and ask you to take its hand and forget this wrong place, this illusion where you stand. 
I think of the mess in my mind and the girl who walked through it to stand before me and let her voice come close.

The rest of Getting the Girl is unflinching, too, as no one "gets" anyone. Instead, we wrestle with the dual meaning of "get": 1) to obtain or take and 2) to understand. When we love someone, which is it?

And most brilliantly, even though the book is a slim, short read, and we may think we already know we can't truly "have" another person, Zusak takes us on a long, slow walk through the conflicting desires that make it so difficult to let go of that need, so we can, like Cameron, chose how to love with open eyes.

Poetry Friday is hosted today by Karen Edmisten at The Blog With the Shockingly Clever Title

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

How to talk about story

I posted this link on Facebook, but it's worth a cross-post here.

Two teachers write letters to each other about the books they are reading---and model for their students how to talk about story. Wow.

P.S. It's my book, Letters From Rapunzel, that they're discussing. I'm bowled over by this.

P.P.S. One more thing, because other than this, I'm mute with gratitude and have little to blog about today. Here are the new author photos I mentioned. Author Sonya Sones took them as part of the pro track offerings at the SCBWI Conference in L.A. She has a beautiful knack of making a person feel utterly comfortable in front of the camera. Thank you, Sonya!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Shutters Open

A camera phone is a useful tool for me as a writer. Mostly because I tend to have it bouncing around in my pocket, whereas a regular camera is usually at home, its shutter carefully closed, on my dresser. I use mine

. . . to take pictures of books that I might want to read/buy/investigate further

This one, of course, goes in the
Operation Yes/fun improv ideas pile

. . . to save bits of interesting language

Old-timey advertisement at Cracker Barrel.
I zoomed in because . . .

. . . the "Tally-ho horn" made me laugh.
One of my characters might need a tally-ho horn one day.

. . . to provide writing inspiration

Come on, isn't "bring 'em back alive" a pertinent reminder
not to overwork your revision? Or to go out there and nab
a great story in the first place?

. . . to marvel at how things in my books are essential to people's daily lives

That's right. Banana pudding (featured in Operation Yes)
is so popular and valued that there is a whole DAY devoted to it.

 . . . to record critical details, such as who I am.

Okay, I cheated. This photo was actually taken by Sonya Sones.
She was doing dozens of author photos at the SCBWI LA conference
and wanted to make sure the right photo got sent to the right name and face later.
But the principle stands. More on my new author photo tomorrow.

What writerly things do you use your camera for?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Poetry Friday: You might have missed

You might have missed this quote from Franz Kafka, via Kurt Scaletta on Facebook:

We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. - Franz Kafka

You might have missed this glorious poem at Francisco Stork's journal, which he posted on an ordinary Tuesday in June.


Do not worry that your love’s beauty
Will dazzle me,
Blind me,
Keep me
From my daily bread.

Do not worry that the bursting
Notes of your anvil
Will stun me to dead stillness.

Taken together, this quote and this poem, make me believe that each book, each poem is a chance to die . . . and rise, living again.

Don't miss that chance.

Poetry Friday is hosted today at Wild Rose Reader

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Taking Action

My sister-in-law, Shannon Lewis, sent me this picture of her sixth-grade class. Guess what they're holding up?

Letters to a soldier in Iraq!

Yup. They're reading Operation Yes together and taking action. They plan to do more. I love it.

Also, Shannon must have a karmic connection to this book because

1) She's done improv with her students before (Natalie, they're digging the new suggestions from your wonderful teacher's guide.)

2) She says "I have always done push-ups in my class because we do this activity called roundtable and I am not supposed to talk. For each time I do, push ups." Go, Shannon!

3) She's had a beat-up old couch in her class for FIVE YEARS.

Finally, did you all see the editorial in USA TODAY from Michelle Obama and Jill Biden? It's called "The Troops Need Us."

As a country, we have come a long way in how we support our veterans and military families. In our travels to base communities from Fort Bragg to Camp Pendleton, we have seen employers creating innovative programs to support military families, classrooms adopting deployed units, faith communities providing prayers and support, and countless other acts of kindness.
Yet there is still more work to be done.
Our military families are strong, resilient and proud to serve their country.
Nonetheless, they don't always feel that the rest of the country is part of the war effort. We've met National Guard families who feel isolated because they are the only members of their communities experiencing the deployment of a loved one. We've heard from military kids who struggle in school while their parents are deployed.
Remarkably, these same families still find time to serve their communities every day. They are troops who come home from a long deployment and coach Little League or mentor a child. They are children who tutor their younger siblings, and spouses who balance their families with jobs, school, community service — or all of the above. They are wounded warriors, survivors and veterans who continue to give so much to our country.
[...] That's why we're challenging every sector of American society to support and engage our military families. You don't have to come from a military family, have a base in your community, or be an expert in military issues to make a difference. Every American can do something.

Clearly, Mrs. Lewis and her sixth-graders are doing something. Mrs. Obama, Mrs. Biden, I wish you'd send them a thumbs-up or something.

Read more of the editorial here.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester

In my post from Monday, I also left out that I did some satisfying reading over the summer. At ALA, Barbara O'Connor came to find me during my signing of Operation Yes, and since I couldn't leave to come to her booth, she kindly brought and signed for me an ARC of her latest novel, The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester. Here we are together (looking somewhat color-coordinated, I must say):

I immediately devoured the ARC in June and posted my initial thoughts on Goodreads, but now that the actual novel is available for sale, THIS is the time to tell you all to go read it!

First of all, isn't that an eye-catching cover? Love it! But just wait until you read the story. I think Barbara's books are hard to write about because so much of their appeal has to do with her vigorous use of language, and the quiet accumulation of detail which soaks in almost unnoticed but results in a feeling of having dived down deep into another world.  This is how I tried, on Goodreads, to capture the saturated goodness of The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester:

I loved how she built the novel around key sounds---of the passing train, the "fantastic secret's" bumpy arrival, the captured frog's throaty calls, the irritated housekeeper's carping (reminiscent of the faceless adults in Charlie Brown), the one-way conversations with the ill grandfather, the recurring verbal battles between the boys and the lone girl---and many more subtle acoustic details that give the book the wondrous feeling that you are underwater where sounds are magnified.

What's funny is that I didn't even notice the acoustic emphasis until I finished reading and was in the middle of trying to analyse the story. It was like being clued in to a magician's trick. Ohhhhhh. So that's it! Except with each book, Barbara O'Connor seems to conjure up a fresh and intriguing "it."

Go trap your own copy and tell me what you think her "fantastic secret" to writing book after great book is. I wanna know!

For a detailed review (more articulate than mine), see Fizzwhizzing Flushbunker.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Dear Blog . . .

I've never been a fan of letters that begin "Sorry I haven't written in so long..."

After reading Deborah Heiligman's delightful Charles and Emma, I realize why.  Those two lovebirds often wrote each other several times a day.

A long time is relative.

But I understand why people feel a need to excuse their silence. I feel the same about this blog. In hindsight, I should've put up a sign in my absence that said: BUSY WRITING AND LIVING. Or perhaps pulled out a few of my old posts to entertain you. But I trust all of you have been BUSY WRITING AND LIVING as well. (Or whatever you do that makes you happy.)

I posted about three of the major events of my summer: the ALA Convention here in D.C., my week at Shakespeare Camp, and my jaunt to the SCBWI Conference in L.A.

I left out my peaceful and productive writing retreat on Lake Champlain (organized by the dynamos Kate Messner and Marjorie Light) during which I found the way back to a revision of my long-wrestled-with YA novel, HOLLOW. (Still under revision, by the way, with a tentative due date of mid-October and one of the main reasons for my blog silence.)

Lake Champlain, NY

I left out the agony/joy of drafting an entirely new middle-grade novel before the ALA convention, which is now sitting, a quiet mess, on my desk, patiently waiting for me to attend to it after the HOLLOW revision is due.

I left out my trip to New Mexico to visit my daughter, Rebecca, who was working at the National Laboratory in Los Alamos. (She was doing particle physics research as an intern. Her project involved sound-proofing a detection instrument. And she did a spot of writing for the Lab's internal newsletter.)

I left out making root beer float cupcakes. Picking up my golf clubs again. Finally seeing the precision drama of the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Getting a new author picture made. Swooning in the stifling heat of Wolf Trap National Park to hear Lyle Lovett. Celebrating twenty-six years of marriage. Discovering I like iced coffee. Painting my toenails every color from Russian Navy to Diva of Geneva.

Each of those might have been a blog post. Sometimes, I hoard my words. I don't exactly know why.