Sunday, November 25, 2012

Started reading Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg and have been instructed thus:

Note to Reader 
This book is designed not only for you to read but to drench you in the writing process and in your life of memory. Too often we take notes on writing, we think about writing but never do it. I want you to walk into the heart of the storm, written words dripping off hair, eyelids, hanging from hands.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Writer Reflects... Post-Sandy

Hurricane Sandy hit my family home and neighborhood desperately hard. Personally, we lost a lot - the replaceable (cars, home damage) to the irreplaceable (all of our home movies with my late father in them).

In the days following the clean-up, my sister and my uncle both made an effort to salvage some things very dear to me: my baby album with countless photos and my journals.

Yesterday, after a beautiful and truly heartfelt Thanksgiving meal together, I took home some of the journals. The pages are corroded and stink of ocean and mildew, but are still legible. One journal details the year before my father's accident, when I was a fairly carefree college student "partying it up with friends in the city" (by which I mean, debating philosophy in Starbucks and going to lit readings). Another detailed the Year of Terror, when my father was struck down by a speeding car and paralyzed. Page after page reveals conversations we had with him and each other, fights with the negligent nursing staff, and utter turmoil - a family torn apart. Each new entry begins with a dated hospital visitor sticker from the days and nights we spent, without sleep or comfort, by his side.

Also recovered was a journal exclusively full of poetry I had written since 2007. Another item that would have been devastating to lose. In it, I chronicled all of the major upheaval in my life, the joys and the triumphs. I spent the morning typing them all up to save them and discard of the ruined treasure.

Thankful for what we have not lost, and will never lose, I turn to the blank page... and write.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Anne Lamott on The Colbert Report

Love her. Love him. Perfect interview from 2008 that I just found...

Sunday, September 23, 2012

In a few weeks, I will be in Italy, my favorite place in the world.  I had the extreme fortune of interning at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice six years ago. With southern Italian blood running through my veins, a year and a half of Italian language study under my belt, and a wealth of curiosity and excitement in my heart, I set off... and had one of the best summers of my life. I lived in Venice but saw Verona, Ravenna, Florence, Rome, Naples, Pompeii and Sorrento. I spoke to Italians in their own language day in and day out. I ate like a queen and came home trimmer because of the quality of their food and the hot walks in the Italian sun. And I promptly began dreaming (both asleep and awake) of my return for the next six years.

Now that it is nearly upon me, I can hardly contain my excitement. And you know me when I get excited - I hit the library and bookstore hard. Here's what will keep me busy over the next month as I prepare and then travel:

Got any other suggestions for me? I'm primarily interested in Venice and Rome.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Book Review: If on a winter's night a traveler

Over the past two years, since I've been back in New York, I've had the great fortune to reconnect with alumni from the fellowship program I participated in while in college. Talk about a great group of folks - they are intellectual, fun, and awesome! We recently set up a book club and it has been a blast.  Last month, the book choice was If on a winter's night a traveler (or Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore in one of the most beautiful languages in the world) by Italo Calvino.

Years ago, I tried to read If on a winter's night a traveler because it's on one of those Top 100 Novel lists. I didn't get far and didn't give it much of a chance before giving up.  This time, I had to see it through in order to be loyal to my fellow book club readers, so I did. And I really enjoyed it! It was unlike anything I had ever read before or am likely to ever read again.  I held my review of it until we had our meeting and discussion because I knew that my friends would have great thoughts to contribute.  And they did.

Anything I write about this book is likely to be a spoiler, so I'm just going to share the synopsis listed on

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler is a marvel of ingenuity, an experimental text that looks longingly back to the great age of narration--"when time no longer seemed stopped and did not yet seem to have exploded." [...] The Reader buys a fashionable new book, which opens with an exhortation: "Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade." Alas, after 30 or so pages, he discovers that his copy is corrupted, and consists of nothing but the first section, over and over. Returning to the bookshop, he discovers the volume, which he thought was by Calvino, is actually by the Polish writer Bazakbal. Given the choice between the two, he goes for the Pole, as does the Other Reader, Ludmilla. But this copy turns out to be by yet another writer, as does the next, and the next.  
The real Calvino intersperses 10 different pastiches--stories of menace, spies, mystery, premonition--with explorations of how and why we read, make meanings, and get our bearings or fail to.

In our meeting, over glasses of Italian wine and plates of antipasto, we explored what we loved about the novel. Someone commented on the way that the author spends so much time and attention on the experience of "The Reader" in a way that authors generally do not. Someone else said some of the most powerful and beautiful sentences in the novel made him want to go out and write himself. There was also talk around how each book that the characters try to finish breaks off at the climax, and how that can actually be a good thing, like leaving a party when it's at the best it will ever be instead of waiting for that great feeling to pass and leaving when it has already become dull. "It will never again be as great as it is right now." A powerful meditation on the present, which I find interesting because it counters my tendencies to live in either the past or future. Actually, quite Buddhist if you think about it.

We also had a couple of people who disliked the book intensely. "I hate to see a facile writer, which Calvino clearly is, produce something like this." Those of us who liked the book quickly stepped up to its defense. "It feels like something the writer produced after a long successful career, as a meditation on his career and the process of "producing" art like it is just another commodity."  A quick Google search on a smartphone revealed this to be true - the novel was written in 1979, six years before Calvino's death.

As I reflect on this book club meeting where we shared our thoughts, ideas and theories, it is as if we had become characters in the novel ourselves, chasing down the story and trying to hold it in our hands, perhaps completely missing the point in the meantime.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Books on Writing

I have recently become a big fan of Brain Pickings, and while poking around, I found this awesome article from January: New Year's Resolution Reading List: 9 Books on Reading and Writing

I love these book suggestions. I've read The Elements of Style (though not Maira Kalman's illustrated version - that would have been much more interesting), Bird by Bird and Zen in the Art of Writing, and they were great. While reading the last two, I would suddenly have urges to throw the books down and run off to write. That's a rare feeling to come over me from reading, but it happened, and it's a testament to not only how useful the books are, but how inspiring. They make you feel like you really can create something of meaning, value and beauty, and you just want to run off and do it!

I would also recommend Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Great stuff.

What's your favorite book on writing?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Weighing Risk and Reward

I've been a silent admirer of Stu's work for a while, and had to share this gem of a blog post when I read it. He highlights what makes a successful athlete in the Olympics and what makes a successful writer. They are not one and the same:
We don’t want to play things that safe as writers. We’re aiming to produce something beautiful and spectacular, and that is only possible when we also free ourselves up to the possibility of producing something not very good. Because the alternative is trying to write with our inner editor on full, and that simply doesn’t work well.
Risk-taking is something I'm working on in all aspects of life, because it's the only way to break through to greatness and new potential. What risks have you taken lately?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Book Review: Oryx and Crake

After finishing The Handmaid's Tale, I polled my Facebook friends for what to read next by Margaret Atwood.  I got 3 votes for The Robber Bride, 2 for Alias Grace, 2 for Cat's Eye and 2 for Oryx and Crake. After reading the descriptions and seeing what was instantly available for my Kindle via the library, I settled on Oryx and Crake.

Wow.  I haven't enjoyed a book this much in a while.  It's similar to The Handmaid's Tale because it portrays a dystopia that feels like it could quite easily happen in real life, which freaks you out as a reader, but there the similarities end. In the former, we glimpse a terrifying world where misogynist agenda gets taken too far. In Oryx and Crake, the world we enter highlights what can happen if humanity takes it upon itself to use our advanced science and technology to "play God."

The novel opens with Snowman, who is, as far as he knows, the last remaining member of the human race. He cares for the Children of Crake, a new humanoid species, but is ultimately alone in his humanness and his memory of what came before.  Snowman, who was once called Jimmy, shows us how the world got to this state through a series of flashbacks beginning in his childhood, when he met his best friend, Crake, who would change the world like never before. He also shares his first encounters with Oryx, the love of his life who also has a role to play.

There's not much else I can say without spoiling the novel for anyone, but suffice it to say that I couldn't put it down, which is actually kind of rare for me. The characters and the world they live in were both fascinating, and the ethical and philosophical implications are mind-blowing.  I could probably read it again and uncover things I missed the first time.

I was sad for the novel to end (another rarity) and was overjoyed to find that it is the first in a trilogy. I had had no idea, having heard so much about Oryx and Crake, but never about the second book, The Year of the Flood, or the fact that Margaret Atwood is working on a third.  Can't wait!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Farewell Nora Ephron

The lovely Nora Ephron passed away. Coincidentally, I was reading one of her books when it happened: I Remember Nothing.  I first found Nora through a used bookstore, where I picked up I Feel Bad About My Neck for $1. I really enjoyed it, and I was about halfway through I Remember Nothing when I learned that she had passed away.

If you were online that day, you probably saw the outpouring of tributes and love people had for Nora. She is best known for writing iconic romantic comedies like "When Harry Met Sally" and "Sleepless in Seattle."  Her books are short, fun and worth reading.  I recommend you give them a shot.  (You might also watch her Charlie Rose interview.)  It was very sad to finish I Remember Nothing today, after her passing, since she ends it by talking about aging, going to the funerals of friends, anticipating her own mortality, and even concluding with the following short chapters: "What I Won't Miss" and "What I Will Miss."

Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.

*Note: Austin readers should not miss "I'll Have What She's Having - A Nora Ephron Tribute Bash" at BookWoman in July.

Monday, June 25, 2012

It's the End of the World As We Know It: Dystopian Fiction

Raise your hand if you like dystopian fiction!  (Or raise your hand if you know what dystopian fiction is!)*
The utopia and its offshoot, the dystopia, are genres of literature that explore social and political structures. Utopian fiction is the creation of an ideal world, or utopia, as the setting for a novel. Dystopian fiction is the opposite: creation of a nightmare world, or dystopia. Many novels combine both, often as a metaphor for the different directions humanity can take in its choices, ending up with one of two possible futures. Both utopias and dystopias are commonly found in science fiction and other speculative fiction genres, and arguably are by definition a type of speculative fiction. 
Source: Wikipedia
I don't know that I would consider it one of my favorite genres, but I have read and enjoyed a few of its most popular pieces.  1984 was so good, I was depressed for a few days after finishing it.  Fahrenheit 451 was good too.  I could not get past 50 pages of The Hunger Games.  I didn't get far with War of the Worlds either.  I do love Stephen King's The Stand (The mini-series, that is.  Hey, full disclosure.  It's over 1k pages.)

Most recently: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.  In a nutshell: it's a truly excellent novel that portrays a 'nightmare world' where women are used as commodities for what they can provide - housework and babies, mostly.  Men have wives, but then they also have "Martha"s for cooking and cleaning, and "Handmaids" for bearing children. As you can imagine, these women are kept under close surveillance and not allowed much (any) freedom.

The protagonist, who is called "Offred" ("Of Fred," the man she is assigned to), lets us into this world from the perspective of someone who remembers the time before, a time much like today.  We don't even learn her name from the time before because, after all, she no longer has an identity outside of childbearing.

The novel is thought-provoking and disturbing.  I have to admit that while I was reading, it occurred to me that these archetypes already exist in our society: the Wife, the Daughter, the Martha, the Handmaid, the "Jezebel."  Atwood has simply personified them, but they exist today as social constructs and roles many women fight hard to fit into, to avoid, or both.

I enjoyed this novel so much that I began reading Oryx and Crake, another of Margaret Atwood's novels that, as one fellow reader put it, has "that same futuristic, the world is going to hell in a hand-basket tone to it."

What's your favorite nightmare world?  Novel, graphic novel, comic, film?

*Check out this very cool infographic from Goodreads on dystopian fiction.