So as not to spoil any surprises, I’m not going to reveal which books they were, but I’ve been reading many fine books lately, and I’ll mention a few of the stand-outs.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—I love books set in foreign places, and while most of this hefty novel is set in the United States, it’s seen through the eyes of a Nigerian expatriate. It does make you think about race and the consequences of privilege.
The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos by Deborah Heiligman, illustrated by LeUyen Pham—This is a picture book biography about a boy who grew up to become a famous and influential mathematician. I am glad there are books like this one in the world.
Cat Girl’s Day Off by Kimberly Pauley—Like the next book on this list, this fun novel has voice in spades. Truly original and oh, so funny! What if your superpower was the ability to talk to cats?
Chronal Engine by Greg Leitich Smith—Time travel and dinosaurs, what’s not to like? What takes this book over the top is the laugh out loud humor. Consider this passage:
They only leave two toe marks, because they hold the one off the ground.
The switchblade one. The one that could disembowel you and leave your intestines on the outside so they could eat you at their convenience while you watched.
I didn’t say this aloud, though, because sometimes you don’t have to tell everyone everything.
I sure hope there’s a sequel.
Isa Does It: Amazingly Easy, Wildly Delicious Vegan Recipes for Every Day of the Week by Isa Chandra Moskowitz—Yes, it’s a cookbook, by the author of the classic Veganomicon. I am vegetarian, my eldest daughter is vegan, and a couple small and medium sized relatives have severe food allergies, cutting out whole categories of foods. This cookbook is easy enough for even me to follow (I’m easily distracted), and the recipes are indeed as yummy as promised.
Just One Evil Act by Elizabeth George—I listened to this one at the gym and while doing housework, which insured that I did both, otherwise, I would neglect everything. If you read mysteries, you should read Elizabeth George.
As gatherings go, the Surrey International Writers’ Conference is a big one for me. It’s my favourite weekend of the year but it’s also my biggest challenge.
Approximately 600 people fill the ballroom for keynote addresses and calorie-laden meals, crowd into conference rooms for their choice of seventy-two workshops given by fifty-eight writing professions, and cram into elevators to get between the two.
It’s exhilarating, rejuvenating, motivating and terrifying! Why? Because I’m claustrophobic. Oh, not wildly so, but moderately, and the challenge is to keep myself under control so I can absorb all the benefits of the annual October weekend.
Many writers claim to be introverts, so I’m not alone in my reluctance to mix, mingle and schmooze with strangers. A lot of us would prefer to hunker down and write in solitude. That’s okay for a while. I get my best writing done in the quietness of my office, and I can learn a lot online about the craft and the publishing industry. But there are limitations to living in cyberspace, and eventually there comes a time when I have to make a choice – stay there and let my fears direct me, or take a deep breath and move out into the real world. Without making an effort to push past my reservations, I would miss out on unique opportunities for building my writing skills, getting personal exposure to writing professionals, and making new friends in the writing community.
So how do I do it? When it comes to conferences, how do I make the outer me do what the inner me resists?
1. First, I plan ahead and arrange to attend with a good friend so there will be someone else there who understands my limitations. Plus it’s just plain more fun sharing the conference experience.
2. I register online from the comfort of home (the SiWC website is familiar territory and thus isn’t intimidating).
3. I make advance reservations in the host hotel so I can slip up to my room any time I need a break from the horde.
4. When I make my hotel reservations I request a lower floor so I know if I can’t deal with the elevators at any time, I will be able to walk up and down the stairs.
5. I prepare my pitch material thoroughly at home, and then leave extra time before any agent/editor appointments so I’m not rushed. That helps minimize anxiety. (It’s not a bad idea to forego these appointments at a first conference.)
6. I try to be early for workshops to get a seat on the aisle or near the back so I can slip out easily if the crowding overwhelms me. Others might choose a seat at the front where they can’t see the crowded room behind them. It’s a personal thing. :)
7. Beforehand I connect informally with some of the event organizers and presenters via Twitter, Facebook and blogs, and after the event, I make a point of seeking them out to thank them. It helps to establish familiar relationships and build a sense of community, both of which contribute to expanding my comfort zone.
What works for me won’t necessarily work for everyone who has a problem with crowds and enclosed spaces. Panic attacks are no fun, but neither is being captive to a fear of them. I’m fortunate that if I emotionally prepare myself and stay alert to potential situations, I can often avert a meltdown. (And when in doubt, I resort to a lot of prayer and a little Ativan!)
Carol J. Garvin is a writer who blogs about writing, spirituality, nature, and other topics. More about her experience at this year's Surrey Conference can be found here.
Author Nancy Bo Flood is the editor.
And then there is the matter of how our feelings about books change over time. I struggled through Babbitt as a high-schooler, but I've reread it voluntarily as an adult, and like it much better now. Some books I started out liking, but have grown to love upon subsequent rereads.
And then there are the books that lose something upon rereading. The main character who seemed so romantic is just annoying now. The fantasy world that once fascinated has become a bit of a yawn. Previously unnoticed racist subtext oozes to the surface.
We change, and the world around us changes, so there's no wonder our feelings about books change. If I did rate books, they would probably not carry a single number, but a graph of numbers, charting my rising and falling assessment over time.
It brings home to me like nothing else how subjective ratings can be, how personal our responses to books are sometimes.
I’m writing to you since God quit listening a long time ago. I want to ask you a question. What are you afraid of? This is what scares me:
1. Cockroaches that fly like small bats
2. First day of school, second day of school, third day of …
3. Fat tornadoes in a yellow sky
4. Losing Ganny
5. The banshee in the woods coming for Ganny
6. The word “illegal” and a new law about being “illegal” in Alabama called HB 56
7. Kids who ask me: “What are you anyhow? White or Mexican? Boy or girl?”
8. Brown recluse spiders
9. Other stuff too
I read 2 books this week. It’s summer and there’s nothing else to do. They were on sale for 25 cents at the library since they are old books.
THE BFG by Roald Dahl & ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET by Judy Blume –
The 2 books gave me two ideas:
IDEA #1. Vulcan, I hope you come down off Red Mountain and visit me the way the BFG (Big Friendly Giant) visited Sophie and took her back to Giant Land.
IDEA #2. Vulcan, I’m going to talk to you in letters the way Margaret talked to God.
A sixth grader in Birmingham, Alabama
P.S. I’m writing to you on an old typewriter I found at MISSION POSSIBLE where we buy our clothes. Poppa got it for me since he said typing is an important skill. He left for Florida a few months ago where he won’t look so illegal. It’s illegal to look illegal in Birmingham now, which means looking Mexican or something else, but I guess you know all about that since you can see everything from up there. PLEASE COME DOWN OFF RED MOUNTAIN AND VISIT ME. I live at 1620 29th Court South next to the fire station.
* * *
Millie-Graciella took a match out of the box and struck it to catch her letter to Vulcan on fire. It took three tries. The sparks danced inside the tiny charcoal grill outside their apartment next to the fire station where you could sometimes hear the 9-1-1 calls coming in over the loudspeaker with callers crying about their emergencies. Soon the yellow flames licked the letter into blue and black smoke, smoldering inside the coals they’d used for last night’s carne-asada.
Vulcan, the world’s biggest cast iron statue, stood atop Red Mountain in Birmingham waiting for Millie-Graciella’s letter to reach him. How did she know that? Don’t ask. She just knew it. She knew the smoke would carry her words up to him on Red Mountain and reach his big, listening ears.
Inside her family’s tiny apartment, Millie-Graciella’s grandmother, whom they called, “Ganny,” was dying slowly in a metal hospital bed to the tune of Good Morning America. But was Ganny truly dying? It was hard to tell. Mrs. Vickie, the hospice lady-with-the-moustache was inside with her giving Ganny a lavender sponge bath. Mrs. Vickie was part church lady/hospice lady. Momma said ladies like her came when folks got sick and families needed extra help and that they should be grateful to her.
But Millie-Graciella wasn’t grateful to her, not a minute.
“Millie-Graciella, are you out there playing with fire again?” called Mrs. Vickie, the hospice-lady-with-the-moustache, her voice like dusty sandpaper.
“Sure smells like smoke to me. It’s 100 degrees today. You trying to make it hotter than it already is setting things on fire, child?”
“No ma’am,” Millie-Graciella lied again. (Sometimes lying felt great.)
“We talked about y’all kids being sweet yesterday. Come in here a minute. I want to talk to you.”
“I’m real busy at the moment. I’ll have to get back to you on that one.”
“Excuse me, lady. There’s no call to be ugly. Your little brother is as sweet as the day is long.”
Ha! What did Mrs. Vickie know? When her annoying little brother, Romero, wasn’t all up in Millie-Graciella’s business, spying on her, looking through her things, he was building Lego kingdoms and collecting things, like odd headlines that he put into a scrapbook such as: “STOLEN PENGUIN RETURNED TO ZOO” and “TEN-YEAR-OLD FINDS BEAR IN KITCHEN EATING OREOS.” Millie-Graciella had to admit they were pretty good headlines, but she would never tell him that. He had a big enough head as it was with everybody loving on him all the time like he was the King of France or England or some place like that.
Ganny’s old cat, Daisy, pawed at the smoke traveling up to Vulcan. Millie-Graciella scratched Daisy’s ears, which made Daisy drool a little. She was the droolingest cat when you scratched her ears just right. Millie-Graciella looked toward the woods behind the apartment complex. All was quiet, which meant the banshee was still sleeping. She thought of how she first heard the piercing wail of a banshee in the loblolly pines just last week. How did she know it was a banshee? Because all Irish families had them, and she was part Irish, and a banshee cried when someone was dying, slow or fast. Millie-Graciella was part Mexican too, and banshees also visited Mexican families, only in Mexico, they called it the “weeping woman” or the official name: La Llorona. Millie-Graciella had read that in a book. So was it La Llorona or a banshee or a mix of both coming for Ganny? Could Vulcan hear it too? Yes, he could. He just pretended like he couldn’t by standing so awful still up there, but he was listening.
Mrs. Vicki poked her head out of the ragged screen-door, “Millie-Graciella, are you going to come in here or am I going to have to come after you? Now I’m going to close this door because I’m letting the air out, but I want you in here, madam. This minute. We need to have words.”
“Yeah, you’d better get in here to have words,” Romero shouted, “Or I’m calling Mom at the Post Office to tell her you’re not listening. Again.”
Words? Hmmm. Millie-Graciella weighed her options studying the old air conditioner stuck in the window that sounded like it was crying in the Alabama sun of August. Why should she listen to a do-gooder lady with a moustache and a nosy little brother? Besides, she hated being inside when she could be outside. She didn’t care how hot it was. Anything was better than an apartment where the doors and windows didn’t fit right and cockroaches with black wings flew over your head to picnic in the kitchen, and where her pretty grandmother, Ganny, was forgetting her face more each day, because everybody said she was dying. Nope, come to think of it, Millie-Graciella did not want to have “words” with anyone.
She pushed her short hair off her forehead into sweaty spikes, her letter to Vulcan burning up into bits of ash. Daisy watched it all and yawned. Would they come outside and get her? Romero had been inside watching television with Ganny all morning. He wore corrective glasses that kept his brown eyes from crossing and looking at each other instead out at the world. Everyday, he built Lego kingdoms near Ganny that nobody could touch or he’d FREAK OUT, but his so-called “masterpieces” crowded up the place, and stray Lego pieces stabbed your bare feet if you weren’t careful. Sometimes, Millie-Graciella forgot to be careful. Sometimes, she was plain mean. Sometimes, it felt great to be mean too, in addition to lying.
“Millie-Graciella, I’m calling you!” Mrs. Vicki knocked on the window.
“Yeah, we’re calling you!” Romero’s face appeared under Mrs. Vicki’s.
Millie-Graciella took that as her cue to run. She hopped over Daisy and took off down the apartment steps and raced across the hot asphalt toward the woods to pick blackberries to put on her Ganny’s Cream of Wheat. It was a good time to pick blackberries. The banshee in the woods was still sleeping, and blackberries sprinkled on Cream of Wheat still tasted good to Ganny. She could hear Mrs. Vicki calling after her.
Millie-Graciella! You get back here!
No thanks. Running toward the woods she thought of the sign on the door to ED’S PET WORLD on 18th Street. The sign said: “BE NICE OR GO AWAY.” Ed sold “exotic and domestic pets.” She wondered sometimes if that sign was meant for her. “BE NICE OR GO AWAY.” She could have said the same thing to the governor of Alabama or to the hospice-lady-with-the moustache, too, but most of all she could have said it to the banshee in the woods: “BE NICE OR GO AWAY.” But it didn’t seem to Millie-Graciella that the governor, Mrs. Vicki, and especially not the banshee had any intention of going anywhere. And for that matter, neither did Vulcan, god of the forge, the giant statue that kept watch over Birmingham, his spear pointed to the sky. In fact, Millie-Graciella saw it this way in terms of everybody wanting something:
1. The governor of Alabama WANTED people like Millie-Graciella’s father to go far away back to places like Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Argentina or wherever it was they came from.
2. Mrs. Vickie, the hospice-lady-with-the-moustache WANTED Millie-Graciella to be “sweet” every single second of the day and not fool with fire.
3. The banshee WANTED to take her beautiful grandmother away, plain and simple, to the underworld. It didn’t care about sweet or nice.
4. The Bug Man, who killed insects in the apartment complex, WANTED the cockroaches and brown recluse spiders to go away, but they kept coming back no matter how many times he aimed his poison at them and fired.
5. And Vulcan WANTED to keep standing up there on Red Mountain, day after day, listening to all the wishes and whispers of Birmingham. But what did he do about all those wishes and whispers? Nothing. That’s what. A big fat nothing. So far.
Sorry, I got carried away there. Anyway, the snow also gave me a poem--the first draft of a poem, anyway.
In other news, this post by Sean Williams on Janni Simner's blog was much appreciated. He writes: "It’s a natural law that careers go up and down. When I started out, up was the only way my career could go. Now, it could go either way ..." I liked it because I remember expecting, before I published, that I would struggle for a long time but once I "broke through," I would keep moving upward, steadily. I thought every success would be followed by a bigger success. I think many writers expect this, without even articulating it, because it seems so commonsensical: you work hard and you're patient, then you get the reward, right? Nobody talks about how sometimes the reward falls and breaks, or how the next reward may be farther away than expected. But a downturn is not necessarily permanent, either. A setback doesn't mean that a career is over--especially in a business that's changing so quickly. There are ways and genres of publishing now that weren't viable even six or seven years ago.
The only certainty is change.
It's cute, but the writer in me can't help asking what if the story went in another direction. What if this is the first hour of a very long flight, and the woman says no instead of yes? I could write the story of that flight in dozens of different ways.
That's where I get a lot of my story ideas: by asking what if an incident went the other way. What if these people took a different road, what if they chose this instead of that, went here instead of there?