Monday, June 30, 2008

The Wire

Which we are down to.

Folks, tomorrow is our July 1st deadline. It's our last day to pull ourselves together.

I'm a little bit frantic over here. I got caught up in a work project this weekend and didn't take care of some major creative writing business I thought I would. HOWEVER. I am still going to kick my butt to make the deadline. I've decided that "July 1" means "before I go into work tomorrow" and not "midnight" (in case that helps anyone with a couple extra hours).

Is anyone still with me? I know a couple of you are, at least.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

If you love me, watch this video.

No judging, just watching.

And no, this is not just a July 1st deadline procrastinatory mechanism.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Wakai Writer's Celebrate Reading Pick: TESTAMENT OF YOUTH by Very Brittain

Today we welcome Wakai Writer as our Celebrate Reading Guest Blogger.

About the Guest Blogger: Wakai Writer is a twenty-one year old college student and writer. One of his first memories is of reading a Disney book about Goofy, and he apparently started writing in the 1st grade—or at least so claims a ring-bound story with his name on its hand-drawn cover. Nowadays he reads mostly to satisfy the whims of English professors and writes high fantasy to satisfy his inner dreamer. He's also in the midst of surviving his second publishing internship and his first taste of life in New York City.


I started reading Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain almost at random, because I was skating through a class on World War I Literature without doing most of the reading (I like to call it triage), and I thought I should try to get through at least one of the longer works that had been assigned. It was thick, it was memoir, it was difficult to find, and it was heinously expensive when I did find it. I did not begin it with great enthusiasm.

I was quickly shocked, however, to find that not only did I enjoy it, but that in almost every section I found a passage that seemed like it had been written for me to read at exactly the moment I read it. The book is the memoir of a woman who began World War I as an idealistic student at Oxford and ended it a jaded war nurse in London with a heart broken by fate more times than it seems anyone could endure. It is a story of high drama and romance that the best plotter in the world could envy, and to top it all off it comes couched in language that makes me drool as a writer. I never doggy-ear pages (I've always considered it disrespectful to books), but I doggy-eared six in Testament of Youth because there were that many quotes that I wanted to be able to go back and re-read at a moment's notice.

But I didn't love the book for its drama, its romance, or its incredible writing. I loved it because I saw in Vera Brittain a person separated from me by generation, nationality, and gender who had nevertheless gone through many of the same emotional struggles that I was going through, and who years later was able to write candidly about them without an ounce of despondency because she had refused to let them define her life. I have never felt so linked to someone so different from me. Her strength became my strength, and her wisdom, bought at such a high price, has been invaluable to me. At its heart, Testament of Youth is a book about surviving devastating change, and it is the best on the subject I have ever come across.

I wish I could say how it has changed my life, but I just finished it a matter of weeks ago, and I'm only slowly beginning to apprehend what reading it has done for me. The best I can say now is that it was an unlooked for source of hope during some of my darkest hours, awoke in me an interest in non-fiction that had been sleeping for years, and restored beyond all expectation my faith in books assigned by English professors.

How did I end up on the cover of that romance novel?

Thanks, Booksquare, for the link to this very important Onion article.

"Can't a brawny, brooding man ride his stallion slowly through the fresh-smelling air of a misty forest at dawn and think ruefully back to his tender childhood that seems to him now to exist in another world entirely—without having to constantly look over his perfectly sculpted shoulders?"

Saturday Morning Indie Rock Moment

Today we're going to be celebrating Rachael Yamagata, who emailed her fan base yesterday (I got the email twice, funny) to announce she's FINALLY recording her second album!! Some of us have been nervously waiting since 2004.

Here's my favorite from her first album, Happenstance. The whole dang album is good, though. It's one of those special albums you have trouble picking the best moment of.

Worn Me Down

Happy Saturday!

Friday, June 27, 2008

Froog's Celebrate Reading Pick: THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS by Kennethe Grahame

Today, we welcome Froog as Celebrate Reading Guest Blogger.

About the Guest Blogger: Froog in his time has flirted with careers as an academic, a schoolteacher, a lawyer, a TV producer and a beachcomber, but was comprehensively spurned by each of them in turn. He is a recovering teetotaller who now lives in Beijing, where he maintains his poverty by writing a cult blog about his misadventures in the city's bars and music clubs. There is a possibility that he may grow up one day, but for now he is rather enjoying letting his inner child run the show.


Darn, this is a tough challenge our Moonie has set us! It seems invidious, impossible to choose just one book to celebrate from a lifetime's reading.

I'd already reviewed a couple of my special favourites over on The BookBook - LIFE IN A SCOTCH SITTING-ROOM, Vol. 2 by Ivor Cutler and THE THIRD POLICEMAN by Flann O'Brien - so I felt I ought to omit them from consideration here.

I've always had a weakness for the 19th classics, and so was sorely tempted to go for one of those - but a little daunted, too, somewhat constrained by a sense of unworthiness. If you really pin me down on what I think is the best book ever written, I have to say ANNA KARENINA; but I don't think I could begin to do it justice. I considered also some of the other great books from that period - and from that period of my life, my most prolific spell of reading, my last years at high school - MADAME BOVARY, SCARLET & BLACK, THERESE RAQUIN, A SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION, CRIME & PUNISHMENT, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, PRIDE & PREJUDICE. Prior to that, I'd had a brief, intense love affair with Melville and Conrad (I dreamed of running away to sea, until I discovered there were no tall ships any more): BILLY BUDD, MOBY DICK, LORD JIM, NOSTROMO, THE SECRET AGENT. Then there were the American greats that I mostly discovered just a bit later: THE GREAT GATSBY, AS I LAY DYING, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. And then there were all those more contemporary, more oddball, more risqué bestsellers, many known to me for years only as unfathomable titles from my elder brother's bookshelf: ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE, ON THE ROAD, JONATHAN LIVINGSTONE SEAGULL, CATCH-22 (JES has done that one for us now - thanks), LOLITA (god, I hope someone chooses to review LOLITA!), PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, SLAUGHTERHOUSE 5.

I even contemplated, as more obscure possibilities, a couple of books that I'd loved using in class when I was, briefly, a schoolteacher in the early years of my working life, two of the greatest adventure novels ever written: ROGUE MALE by Geoffrey Household and THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE by B. Traven.

And the 'big three' I was focusing on for a long time - three books that really stimulated me with their ideas, haunted me with their bleakness, turned on its head my conception of what a novel could be - were CAT'S CRADLE, NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, and THE TRIAL.

But you know what? They're all a bit serious, aren't they? Maybe even a bit pretentious? And I'm sure if MR repeats her 'Celebrate Reading' festival once or twice a year from now on, before too long somebody else will cover all of these.

First thoughts are usually best. When MR approached me to ask if I wanted to contribute to this series a month ago, my initial response was, "Oh, I suppose I could do THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS." So be it.

I can't now recall if this was part of the brief MR gave us, but most contributors so far seem to have chosen something that had a big impact on their life, and most particularly on their development as a reader. I'm going way back here. THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS was the first proper book (other than picturebooks and learn-to-read primers) that I can remember my mother reading to me. Though I can't distinctly recollect the very first time I heard it, it was already a familiar story that I was demanding to have read to me again by the time I was 4 or 5 years old. By the time I was 7 or 8 it had become one of the first proper books that I read for myself. It is almost certainly the book that I have re-read most often. It is one of the few books - the only children's book, I think - that I continue to re-read to this day, once every few years or so.

It is also one of the few books from that distant era of my life that I have jealously preserved (although, alas, it is now in storage with a friend; I don't have it here with me in China, and I'm missing it). Even in my childhood, there was a hallowed air of antiquity about this volume: it was a soft-cover paperback of at least '50s vintage, perhaps considerably earlier (I rather suspect, but can't now verify, that it was in fact a '30s edition from my mother's own childhood), the pages yellowed and slightly musty-smelling, desiccated and crisp to the touch. The feel of that book in my hands, and all the memories of home and family and childhood tied up in it are much of the reason that I love it so.

It is some time since I last read it, and I'm not able to consult it now to refresh my memory. I suppose I've never really read it critically, but more for the nostalgia-wallow it induces. I can't really say if it is especially well-written, or if it is a particularly good children's book. It is, however, an undeniably captivating story, one which has stood the test of time (gosh, this year is the centenary!). There is suspense and adventure and plenty of broad humour and the quirky charm of anthropmorphized animals; but it is also a surprisingly adult story: these are adult characters in an adult world, dealing with very adult problems (addictive behaviour, debt, criminal charges, lost children). Children, I always felt, made very dull and irritating protagonists for children's stories; this was much more satisfying.

Above all, the book is - and this, of course, is a prime interest of our beloved Moonrat - the most marvellous celebration of friendship. (Indeed, cynics may carp at the closeness of the affection between Ratty and Mole, suggesting that it smacks of a romantic or sexual attachment; and at least one stage version I've seen transforms the houseproud Mole into a female character, to play up on that tension more openly.) Toad is really not a very nice character: he's pompous, vain, deceitful, undisciplined. Although he does have his more winning qualities - a certain buffoonish charm, a childlike innocence, an acute vulnerability - that earn him endless forgiveness from his long-suffering associates, it's rather difficult to comprehend how they became friends. Yet friends they are, and however much the irresponsible Toad strains that friendship, they loyally stand by him. It is the most touching and inspiring template of male camaraderie I've ever encountered (though the central relationship between Ratty and Mole is a purer, less morally challenging representation of the ideal).

Other key elements of the book's lasting hold on me are: the idyllic picture of rural life, and particularly of a life of leisure on the river ("There is nothing - absolutely NOTHING - half so much fun as simply messing-about in boats," as the Water Rat famously says; I did not learn the overwhelming truth of this adage until I discovered the joys of punting as an undergraduate at Oxford years later); the stark counterpoint of the scary darkness in other areas of life (the depiction of The Wild Wood is utterly, ravishingly terrifying to a small child); the poignancy of a lost world of innocence (I didn't realise this until much later, but the ease and tranquility of the life shown on the riverbank is found also in much of Edwardian literature: it's hard now not to bridle at the naivety of such carefree idylls, not to sense the latent tragedy of the looming World War somewhere between the lines); the finely balanced tension between the allure of a life of travel and adventure on 'the open road' (most powerfully seen in the episode where Ratty meets The Wayfarer, a vagabond sea rat who briefly seduces him with his glamorous tales of world travel) and the comforting familiarity of home (the 'Dulce Domum' chapter, where Mole finally returns to his own house after a long absence, regularly used to make me cry, and probably still would); and, of course, the greatest picnic scene in literature (with the comprehensive list of foods provided rendered stream-of-consciousness style as a single, irresistible word).

I worry, though, if this is perhaps too much of a "man's book". All of the main characters are men. Indeed, all of the main characters are lifelong bachelors. We do get a few glimpses of the cosy domesticity of wife and family as an alternate ideal, but our heroes seem quite happy as they are. Theirs is a world almost entirely without responsibilities, a world of pure leisure. That is certainly the key to the book's fascination for me; but I do get a little concerned sometimes as to how much this may have influenced - corrupted - the course of my adult life. Here I am, approaching middle age still a bachelor, and - despite occasional pangs of dissatisfaction with this status - the dominant obsession of my life is always wondering when I'll be able to get out on the river again.

A micro-anecdote to close. Around the time I first came to know this book - the age of 3 or 4, I guess - there was a 'Wild Wood' which my mother would often take me to for a walk. The wood seemed huge and dark and threatening, and I wouldn't have dared to set foot in it alone. Accompanied by Mum or Dad, I could contain my fear, play with it, savour it. That was a big expedition for me back then. The wood was miles away, across an endless field of corn that stood higher than my head. I returned to that spot ten years ago, for the first time since my childhood. The cornfield, of course, was of a fairly regular size, not limitless as the Russian steppes; and it grew only waist-high, at most. The 'Wild Wood' that had overwhelmed my senses as a small boy was a simple copse of only half a dozen or so trees. The world is so very different when you're 3ft tall.

And yes, I'm still waiting for my t-shirt, MR.

WHAT a day.

Phew.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Linda's Celebrate Reading Pick: BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN by Glendon Swarthout



Today, we welcome Linda as Celebrate Reading Guest Blogger.

About the Guest Blogger: By day, Linda's an uptight and proper Ivory Tower type, churning out numbers about folks suffering from physical and psychiatric disorders. At night, she morphs into lovable mom and wife, plays with her two children, hangs with the hubby. Until darkness falls and the house stills. Then, she writes. Newly addicted to writing, she just really finished her first novel and is currently noodling with #2 and #3. Her micro-fiction was recently published in Six Sentences: Volume 1 and she blogs at LEFTBRAINWRITE on the intersection of the mind and writing.

In that place the wind prevailed. There was always sound. The throat of the canyon was hoarse with wind. It heaved through pines…

Even now, these spare opening sentences sear my memory. The paperback is tattered, sun-faded, bound with a thick rubber band, the top right corners sepia-stained and rounded from flipping. Short cross-hatches march across the inside front cover, one line for each of the 84 times I've read this book, most of those readings more than 30 years ago.

It was 1973, the beginning of forced desegregation. I was eleven and miserable. It didn't help I was awkward, shy, and, with my nose always in some book, too smart for my own good. And fat. No one likes fat now, and then was no different. Glasses clinched the deal. There was plenty of reading time traveling in the rattle-trap school bus that carted me to the sixth grade center on the lesser side of Raleigh. Mrs. Soul, my first black teacher, had a small but diverse in-room library. There, I stumbled on this small masterpiece, what became a compass for navigating that tumultuous year.

The story is simplistic, though the telling is not: affluent families ship their adolescent boys to toughen up at an Arizona dude ranch ('Send us a boy – we'll send you a cowboy!'). Our six heroes arrive, packing their neuroses: John Cotton, the savior-like leader; Lawrence Teft III, skinny, tall, with a criminal penchant for locks; Gerald Goodenow, sensitive bead artist; Stephen Lally, older borderline psychotic brother to Billy, thumb sucker and pillow-hugger; and Sammy Shecker, who eats away his problems.

At Box Canyon Camp for Boys, Darwinian practices sort each camper into his rightful tribe. Ill-equipped to succeed, the six boys settle at the totem's bottom, the tribe known as the Bedwetters. Days, they endure the scornful jeers of their campmates; at night, they burrow deep in sleeping bags, transistor radios pulsing through the dark. Then, one day they witness the brutal thinning of free-ranging buffalo. Traumatized, the Bedwetters rally. Toting rifle and taxidermied bison head, they steal from camp in a hot-wired truck on a quest to save the majestic beasts.

The story remains timeless. Beautifully-written, told in flashback using quirky prose, the story has taught me much about structure and character, description and word choice, inspiring me to be more audacious in my own work:

O twayne me a twim,
where the ffubalo gym,
where the rede and the telopen zoom;
where nebber is nat,
a conframitous rat-tat-tat…


Beyond the gorgeous writing, I resonated with these misfits – how could I not? It is a 'yes' book of the highest order, the quintessential anti anti-hero story. Because my peers deemed me 'weird' and marked me for hell because I didn't go to church – a dangerous proposition in the Bible Belt – I definitely related to rebellion. Thanks to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and The New Testament, though, I was also an avowed pacifist and the boundaries seemed blurred between taking a stand and taking a fall. So, philosophy in place, the bus bullies on the bus continued to steal my lunch money, break my glasses, taunt me to tears – and I let them.

Until the last day of school. Maybe it was the heat; I believe it was the vision of John Cotton driving the truck over the cliff, fist raised in triumph as the freed buffalo charged across the plain. The bus approached my stop, and something snapped. As Todd B, my fiercest tormentor, rose to give me a parting 'happy summer' smack in the face, I turned to him and calmly drove my knee into the space between his legs.

I was free.

Just like the buffalo. And the Bedwetters.

(Thank you, Moonrat, for your geniosity in running this Celebrate Reading book-a-thon and allowing me to pontificate on one of my beloved books. And thanks to all the wonderful writers who've shared their favorites; each post's a perfect, delicious, sin-free treat).

3/4 Point Update

Hi kids.

Remember our July 1 writing goals?

I'm checking in because we have 5 more days.

Report, please. Who's on track?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Josephine Damian's Celebrate Reading Pick: THE THORN BIRDS by Colleen McCullough

Today, we welcome Josephine Damian as our Celebrate Reading Guest Blogger.

About the Guest Blogger: Josephine Damian is published in lurid noir and hard-boiled short fiction. Her WIP, A STUDY IN FEAR, is a psychological suspense thriller. She's also a grad student writing a thesis on the neuro-biological basis of psychopathy and in December 2008 she'll earn a master's in Criminal Forensics Studies: Behavioral Analysis.


First, thank you Moonrat, my huckleberry friend, for letting me sit in today and guest blog. I hope you’re making progress on that writing project.

I was first published at the age of thirteen. By the time I got to high school I was not only spending my allowance on bestsellers, but reading them with an eye to learn exactly what elements make a book a commercial success. In 1977, when a novel by an obscure Australian author, Colleen McCullough, leapt to the top of the bestseller lists, I had to buy it.



Reading The Thorn Birds as a teenager taught me an important, early lesson as a writer: force your main character into making a complex and difficult choice - a choice with huge and dire consequences whichever way they chose. Besides creating high drama and inner conflict, this allows the reader to become more engaged with the character because the reader puts him or herself in the same position and asks: What would I do if I were forced to make such a choice?

This book opens with such a choice. Older, wealthy widow and ranch owner, Mary Carson, the original “cougar,” lusts after her young and handsome local priest, Father Ralph de Bricassart. His poise, intellect and charm are clearly wasted in this rural Aussie outback setting. Sensing not just his weakness when it comes to matters of the flesh, but his incredible ambition to escape from the confines of his exile in an obscure post, Mary decides to give the priest a choice: one that will damn him to hell.

Mary’s brother Paddy, his wife and many children are the lawful heirs to Mary’s ranch and considerable fortune. Her first will rightly bequeaths everything to them. Aware that her days on earth are numbered, Mary decides to have a second will drawn up, one that invalidates her first. In this second will, she bequeaths the bulk of her estate to the Catholic Church, but under the control of Father Ralph, thus giving him the clout to demand a seat of power in the Vatican – his life’s ambition. Mary doesn’t completely cut out her brother and his family in this second will, it provides a modest income for them as caretakers of the ranch (Mary knew Ralph’s choice might have been easier if Paddy and his family were to be left destitute and homeless).

On the night Mary dies, this second will is delivered to Father Ralph along with a taunting letter from his diabolical benefactor: He can do the right thing and tear up this second will and let the first will stand. By transferring Mary’s estate to her brother and his family, Father Ralph will seal his own fate - a wasted life lived in desolate, small-town exile. In other words: his own idea of hell on earth. Complicating Ralph’s choice is his genuine fondness for Paddy Cleary’s family, especially his young daughter, Meggie. Or the priest can produce this second, valid will and claim Mary’s fortune for himself and his church: basically steal Mary’s fortune away from her true heirs. A sin if ever there was one.

Whichever choice he makes, he’s damned. Remember, he’s not the villain. He’s at heart a decent, loving, yet flawed and complex character – ambition is his greatest strength as well as his greatest weakness. The choice he makes does not come easy.

In a character–defining moment, Ralph produces the second will and ensures his future at the Vatican, thus damning the rightful heirs, the Cleary clan, to a modest, working-class life. But what price does Father Ralph pay for his choice to pursue his ambition? What conflicts, what consequences for all the players ensue as a result of this choice? At the end, when Ralph looks back, did he do the right thing? Was it worth it?

Wanting to find out is what kept a teenaged aspiring author, along and millions of others turning the pages, and helped put this novel at the top of the bestseller lists.

At the end of 2007, thirty years after reading The Thorn Birds, I looked back at all the book I’d read that year and picked what I thought was the best of the bunch. You can read that post here.

In this book, the character is also faced with a dire choice. Yet, unlike Father Ralph, this book’s main character waits until the end of the novel to make her choice; the conflict stems from her weighing one awful option over the other. In the end, for better or worse, she makes her decision.

Either option: a choice made early followed by the consequences, or spending a novel weighing the consequences of making this choice or that choice makes for compelling story telling.

So, writers, in your books have you forced your character to make a damned-if-they-do-damned-if-they-don’t choice? Have you made your character chose between the rock and the hard place?

The Big Read (MeMe-ish)

I stole this from Jill, who posted her version today. It's pretty in keeping with Celebrate Reading Month.

Looking at the draft of this post, I am freakishly intimidated by my own list. Let me explain that when I was a sophomore in high school I decided to spend my summer break reading everything famous to impress my future English teacher (yeah, not only was I a nerd, I was a major brown-noser). So many of these books I really read under false pretenses and not necessarily for enjoyment.

The Big Read, an initiative by the National Endowment for the Arts, has estimated that the average adult has only read 6 of the top 100 books they've printed. How do you do?

1) Look at the list and bold those you have read.
2) Italicize those you intend to read.
3) Underline the books you LOVE. [I can't figure out how to underline in blogger, and also, I tend to like almost everything, so this would get awful loaded. I've taken a pass on #3.]

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

6 The Bible [many parts... does that count?]
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell

9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller

14 Complete Works of Shakespeare [I haven't read all of them, but I can recite some of them in chunks and one of them in particular. Cf Mrs. Miller.]
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger

20 Middlemarch - George Eliot [Precie, you got two back-to-back hits, here.]
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald

23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll

30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34 Emma - Jane Austen

35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini

38 Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown

43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan

52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth [I will probably never read this because it's so long. Does anyone advise me otherwise?]
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov

63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold

65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie

70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett

74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill
75 Ulysses - James Joyce [Again. Not gonna happen.]
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro

85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte's Web - EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo


To be honest, I will probably never read any of the books on here I haven't read unless I have really specific reasons to pick them up. I only read new fiction these days (keeping abreast of the market!) or nonfiction (for content!) and am woefully lazy about "classics."

The one exception is POSSESSION, which I have wanted to read for a long, long time, but keep buying and misplacing.

Thoughts?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Precie's Celebrate Reading Pick: MIDDLEMARCH by George Eliot

Today, we welcome Precie as our Celebrate Reading Guest Blogger.

About the Guest Blogger: Precie...is.

Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae folded in her hand.
--Middlemarch, George Eliot


Selecting a book for this was MUCH more difficult than I expected. Reading what other guests have written made it even more difficult...Should I write about THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE, which made me weep for days and which tacitly granted me permission to write freely? Should I choose THE LOLITA EFFECT, which I think should be required reading for everyone?

Ultimately, I chose what might seem to be a no-brainer if you know me: MIDDLEMARCH by George Eliot (Marian Evans).

I hear the groans and sighs. But wait. Don't go. My personal history with MIDDLEMARCH isn't like other guests' experiences with their books. I didn't like MIDDLEMARCH the first time I read it either. It was a class assignment, and it was dull. I didn't finish it. Truth be told, I probably didn't even read 1/3rd of it...but I managed to fake my way through the class well. I didn't like it the second time I read it either. Again, boring and far too long. I'm pretty sure I did slog through the whole thing that second time.

And here is why I chose to write about MIDDLEMARCH. Because by the time I finished graduate school, it was, by far, my favorite novel. Like a couple who moves slowly from casual acquaintance to abiding devotion, my reading of MIDDLEMARCH has been an evolving, ever-deepening relationship. At first, I simply didn't connect with the words or the characters. NOW the ascetic, self-effacing, idealistic Dorothea, who comes to realize in the end that she is, after all, human with her own needs and desires, is perhaps my most favorite literary heroine. NOW I sympathize with Dr. Lydgate, whose own professional idealism gets dragged down by his personal affections, his pretty wife's materialism, his own weaknesses. But my mention of these characters is a little misleading...one of the most magnificent aspects of MIDDLEMARCH is its intricate and expert depiction not just of individuals but o! f a social community as a living organism. The characters are interrelated in ways that aren't always clear, and yet that subtle interconnection is part of the point.

Moreover, MIDDLEMARCH grapples with many issues close to my heart: the intertwining of the personal and political, the role of women in society, social responsibility, some of the pitfalls of capitalism, the struggle between love and duty. (I saw that yawn! I'll stop. I'm almost done anyway.}

So, no, MIDDLEMARCH isn't exciting. There's no adventure, only a little intrigue, and, if I remember correctly, just one death. But there is brilliantly fine attention to the web of character within society. And delicate beauty. And love.

And an end that I kind of hope might someday be a fitting epigram on my tombstone (it's already on my Facebook profile):

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

morning phone call with Momrat

[YT dials]

[Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring-]

Momrat: Hello?

YT: Hi, Ma.

Momrat: Oh, hi. I'm at work right now, so I can't talk.

YT: I know. I called for a reason, though. Listen, [Momrat's favorite author of mine] is going to be [media venue] at [upcoming particular date and time] and I thought you'd be interested.

Momrat: Oh! Yes! That's great.

YT: Good, I'm glad.

Momrat: But the thing is, I'm thinking about work right now so I'll never remember the details. Can you hang up and call me back and leave a message?

YT: Sure, no problem.

[YT hangs up, redials.]

[Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring--]

Momrat: Hello?

YT: Ma.

Momrat: Moonrat, I'm at work right now. I can't talk.

YT: Ma. I was calling you back to leave you the details on your voicemail.

Momrat: What details?

YT: About the--

Momrat: Oh right, the book talk. Sorry. Ok, try again.

YT: Ok. Bye.

[hangs up, redials]

[Ring, Ring, Ri-]

Momrat: Hello?

YT: Ma.

Momrat: Oops. I wasn't supposed to answer.

YT: That's right.

Momrat: Sorry. Ok, try again.

YT: Bye, Ma.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Jaye Wells's Celebrate Reading Pick: FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury

Today, we welcome Jaye Wells as our Celebrate Reading Guest Blogger.

About the Guest Blogger: Jaye Wells is a stubborn Aries with a penchant for tomfoolery and a love of all things arcane and weird. Her debut novel, Red-Headed Stepchild, is slated for an April 2009 release from Orbit US & UK. Also, her short story, “Red Life,” will appear in Weirdly II, an anthology from Wild Child Publishing which will be published on June 24. Some people call her work urban fantasy. She calls it Crypt Lit.


Thanks to Moonrat for inviting me to join in on this celebration of old friends. The only problem with it is: How does one choose a favorite out of hundreds?

I sat down and tried to remember every book I’ve ever read. Good luck, right? What happened instead is nostalgic walk through the influential books of my life. The “Choose Your Own Adventure” books and Chronicles of Narnia of my elementary days. The romance novels I discovered at my aunt’s house at the age of 13. My love affair with the vampire Lestat in high school and college. The time I came to terms with the idea it was okay to love Dorothea Benton Frank and Bret Easton Ellis equally. Then there was the book that introduced me to urban fantasy, Kim Harrison’s Dead Witch Walking.

These memories are as real and cherished as those of my childhood pals and college confidantes. How could I choose?

But I kept coming back to one book.

High school reading does one of two things to people. It either cements their love of the written word or turns them off books for life. Thankfully, I fell into the former group.

As a side note, I have to admit one stumble. Like Moonrat, I was person chosen in my junior year to tackle The Sound and the Fury. Let’s just say the term “stream of consciousness” still makes me break out in hives.

But I did love a lot of the books I was assigned. Animal Farm, which I read totally innocent of the political parable—that all came later in class discussion. To me it was a heartbreaking story about the death of a horse. A Tale of Two Cities still remains a favorite, as does The Odyssey and everything Mark Twain.

But a man by the name of Ray Bradbury wrote the book that haunted me, challenged me, and inspired me.

When my teacher assigned Fahrenheit 451, I was skeptical. Science fiction? Dystopian themes? No thanks. But I soon changed my tune to “yes, please.”

Looking back, I suppose it’s not surprising that a book featuring a hero who hoards books and risks his life for them would appeal to a future author. Bradbury has sworn up and down this book isn’t about censorship, but to me—back then and today—that’s exactly what it’s about. But it’s also about rebellion. And heroism. And hope.

Before Hannibal Lector’s silent lambs, Bradbury introduced us to another Clarisse. She was an outcast, a rebel, and she changed the course of one man’s life by asking questions no one else dared. Is it any surprise this book appealed to my rebellious teenaged soul?

But Clarisse isn’t the focus of the book. She’s merely one catalyst for Guy Montag’s transformation from book burner to fugitive to vagabond. And I’m not afraid to admit that I developed a crush on him. Or perhaps, in hindsight, it wasn’t really a crush, but a passion for what he represented.

But the book isn’t all about heroism. Bradbury paints a grim future as a backdrop for Montag’s transformation. An old woman martyring herself before men with flamethrowers can destroy her books. Mechanical dogs chasing down a man for the hungry eyes of sheep masquerading as people. The roar of unmanned jets as they wipe out entire cities. Without a doubt, this is a cautionary tale, and a powerful one, at that.

Overall, I suppose Fahrenheit 451 isn’t exactly what one would call a “happy story.” But, in the end, it is a hopeful one.

Or am I the only one who’s fantasized about life as a highly literate vagabond who roams the countryside sharing stories?

Hopefully I'll get famous someday.

And the reason why that would benefit the world is this. Someday someone needs to publish my diaries. They are true pieces of work. God, what a weirdo I have been.

My parents are in the process of moving to a new house and I went over a couple of weekends ago to help them pack stuff up. In the process, out came many boxes that had been put into storage many years ago and never thought of again. In one of these boxes was a diary I kept the year I was 17. It's a 400-page notebook, and every millimeter of every page, both sides, is full of stuff.

Here are some samples, taken at random, so you can see what a weirdo I was. (Nb use of the past tense.) The best part about this is everything is so out of context that I have no idea what crises I was referring to. Brace yourself.

Beset by confusion and feelings of overwhelm...Should be asleep. Overwhelmed not so much by things to do but by opportunities wasted. Hours I could have filled but instead forgot, or slept through. Dollars I ate away with food I didn't really want and knew would make me fat. Also the knowledge of all the futilities yet to come.


How did my mother not kill me?

Can't dont know what to do certain of bringing down ruin on self & others just ARGH is only something could have happened to have made this easier but I think the easiness factor of the situation has reached a parabolic vertex. The worst part about the whole thing is I can't even isolate what I want, never mind dissect it.


[Lots of mixed sciences. I imagine this was referring to a crush on someone because I can't figure out what else I could be talking about.]

Furthermore, it is plastered full of pictures, memorabilia, poetry I used to write, and other add-in pages. It's pretty amazing.

I was a compulsive diarist. This particular diary is only one of many I kept before I went to college. Is anyone else like this?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

WrittenWyrdd's Celebrate Reading Pick: MOON OF THREE RINGS by Andre Norton

Today, we welcome Written Wyrdd as our Celebrate Reading Guest Blogger.

About the Guest Blogger: Written Wyrdd has had a varied career and now considers her real job to be writing, although it doesn't pay the bills. It is the color of her parachute, however. Cats, friends and family, reading and writing are pretty much the entire agenda these days.


“Science fiction is the literature of ideas.” Pamela Sargent

Moonrat has honored me by asking me to write an article for her blog about a favorite book and explain what it did for me. I took that to mean what book impacted me the most, which is a difficult thing to quantify generally, all books having their own unique contribution to my inner landscape. So, instead of combing my hazy memory of a few thousand reads over forty-some years, I decided that the most impact (otherwise known as mental scarring to you well-balanced souls out there) was from the book which set my feet upon the speculative fiction path.

I was in grade school when I discovered my passion for science fiction and fantasy. I remember it was a Saturday, and the day was sunny with a light wind, the temperature in the low 70s. And I was going to spend my weekly allowance on a book I’d seen the night before in the grocery store book rack and just had to have: Moon of Three Rings, by Andre Norton, for exactly one dollar, with tax. I’d never seen anything like that cover, a strange woman in an exotic costume and some strange beastie at her feet; and the back matter enthralled me with talk of intergalactic traders and sorcery.

The plot is this: A galactic trade ship lands on a planet called Yiktor, one of the crew (Krip Vorlund) winds up in a muddle, and, to save his life, a sorceress named Maelen places his mind into the body of a beast which is part of her circus act. The rest of the story is about preventing the takeover of the planet Yiktor and trying to get a replacement body for Krip to inhabit, then get him back home to his ship.

By today’s standard’s the book is simplistic YA and not even true science fiction due to the fantasy elements; but it riveted me then. Simply put, Moon of Three Rings opened my eyes and imagination to possibilities. Children do tend to develop their imaginations by extrapolating upon what they’ve been exposed to; and until I read Moon of Three Rings, I hadn’t read anything that exposed me to the concept of outer space, magic or off-Earth settings besides the occasional Disney movie or cartoon. My world expanded: Nothing was impossible, and anything was possible because of this genre.

Yes, ladies and gents, from that moment I was enthralled with fantasy and science fiction, and snapped up every Andre Norton book I could find at the local library as well as Herbert, Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov, Bullfinch, Homer, Ovid, and many another pulp or classical author. If it had elements of fantasy, it was something I’d read.

The big question, though, is why. Why did this book—this genre—grab me so? What made and still makes it attractive? What need does speculative fiction fill? Well, I wasn’t a particularly happy child. I had a loving parent, got good grades and did what was expected of me, but I had some problems. My parents were divorced, we moved a lot, and I had difficulty making friends because I was insecure, painfully shy and was one of those hypersensitive kids that are terrified of new situations. Not a great combination, and no surprise that I preferred living in books.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in this. No child grows up without feeling some pangs. But to the painfully shy and introverted grade-schooler me, reading speculative fiction became my salvation, my brand of escapism to a place where I fit in. Speculative fiction allowed me to see myself as someone more capable, more bold and brave, more exciting—simply more of whatever I happened to want or need at the moment. I could try on adventure roles like other pre-teens try on clothing. I already lived in my imagination, but now, instead of the really bad horse stories I’d create and write badly, I started plotting out stories of me as a powerful female spy in a future galactic federation, or as a spaceship captain, or as a mage. I pretended I lived on worlds with any number of strange and alien beings, where miraculous technologies functioned or where magic ruled.

Science fiction and fantasy empower the imagination. The magic of What If and the potential in the asking of open-ended questions is what makes speculative fiction great. It’s utterly malleable, subject only to the skill of the writer and her imagination to make it live and breathe.

Reading Moon of Three Rings brought me that joy of discovery, and it was because of this single book that I eventually began to write seriously. The rest might not be history, but writing really has formed the larger frame of my life. I’ve been writing ever since. (And yes, my first serious story really was a Mary Sue with me as a galactic spy with super powers. I still plan to write that some day.)

100 Year Anniversary of the Publication of Anne of Green Gables

Lucy Maud Montgomery (according to her diary) first held a finished copy of Anne in her hands on June 20, 1908.

As one of at least two women who fell in love with Gilbert Blythe as children and who still think that somehow they might eventually find him, I would like to take this moment to appreciate Lucy, and Anne.

Thanks, Book Inq, for the tip.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Merry Monteleone's Celebrate Reading Pick: A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Betty Smith

Today, we welcome Merry Monteleone as our Celebrate Reading Month Guest Blogger.

About the Guest Blogger: Merry Monteleone recently completed her first middle grade novel. She lives in the Chicagoland area where she is raising three children, four if you count the husband type person, and one lovely dog.


A Roundabout Review of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for Moonie

Where to begin? First, I was so reticent to post a review of the book that’s most impacted me that I did my own little version, instead paying homage to my favorite author, to avoid an actual decision. But, as Moonie asked, and I’ve gotten more than a little from being part of her ratty pack, I found that I had to play.

The thing is, I can’t tell you that this is my favorite book or even the one that’s had the most impact. I think the answer to those questions lies in your state of mind at the time. It would be like picking a favorite taste or smell, or child if you’ve got ‘em... great literature, passable literature, hell, even swill occasionally has its moments – it speaks to you at the right time, in the right terms, with the most profound message... or maybe it just makes you laugh. Yes, I’m still trying to get out of it.

I originally thought, “It’s got to be Shakespeare” – Shakespeare’s particularly special to me, because it was so impressive, only the intellectual elite should be able to master it... the first time we read Shakespeare it was Romeo and Juliet in my Eighth grade year, and I got it... I liked it... how the hell did that happen? It’s the first time I realized how easy words came to me, how much I savored the varied meanings and history behind phrases – it’s also the first I realized that I was a word geek... so are you, own the weirdness... wear it like a badge.

But it couldn’t be Shakespeare because it’s not the same as fiction. It’s meant to be savored on stage, in company, with others. It’s best dissected en masse, rehashed and revisited in classroom settings, and watched on screen or in person. But it’s not as enjoyable as a solitary pursuit – at least not for me...

Then another book came to mind. One I read about fifteen or sixteen years ago, called Salt Creek. I don’t even remember the author’s name now and I couldn’t find it by googling, and I tried. It was just a little paperback I picked up somewhere and read on my breaks when I was waiting tables, and I don’t think I even liked it that much... the fact that I don’t particularly remember should say it’s not the one with the most impact... but then, it had some of the best, most quotable lines, it just tickled me... there was a scene where the character was in his father’s office. His father was a professor, and the character was waiting there alone, getting ready to tell his dad that his girlfriend was pregnant and they were getting married. Profound scene, but the only thing I remember about it is the character (whose name even escapes me) opened his father’s desk drawer and saw a moon pie sitting there and said, “The professor is wise. The professor eats moon pies. Moon pies make you wise.”

I don’t know what it is about the twisted logic that extreme young angsty stress will give you, but I quoted that line forever – no one knew what the hell I was talking about, but I swear if there was a café press back then, I’d have had a tee shirt that said, “Moon pies make you wise”. Fifteen years later, I remember the line – Impact.

Okay, on to the pick. My mood today says, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. You’re going to love this: I first heard the title watching Bugs Bunny – don’t ever say cartoons don’t teach you anything. In my sophomore year of high school, I ran across an old battered copy in the school library and checked it out. I can remember looking at the title on the spine and thinking, “Oh, yeah, Bugs Bunny...” – Own your weirdness, I say!

Anyway, I stood there in the isle of our tiny, cramped little library and opened up to the first page. This is what I read:

Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn’t fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in summer.

Eureka! Holy hell, there’s another word geek and she wrote a book just for me! I took it home and devoured it. Francie Nolan and her little spot on the fire escape, with her nose in a book or dragging rags and rubage down to the junkie. Her whole family just entranced me and the wide sweeping drama of her life unfolded for me, foreign yet familiar, poignant and full of sorrow... with hope.

I took this book out of our library no less than three times that year before deciding I needed my own copy. One I could dog ear (yes, I’m terrible that way with my own books). One I could underline my favorite lines in or highlight or write notes in the margin... So I ordered a hardcover copy all my own from Waldenbooks and I paid for it with my lunch money, which usually went for such essentials as cigarettes and the big cookies in the lunchroom.

I’ve read it, probably three or four times since buying it, though not in a long time now. It was sitting up on my good bookshelf, with my leather bounds and classics. Surprisingly enough, when I took it down to gather the quote for you all I realized something odd about my copy. I never did highlight a passage or bend a page – I think I had too much reverence for the whole to pick just one line....

It’s a good book, a fantastic story, and one I would recommend anytime to anyone. But I still can’t pick one that’s most impacted or is my very favorite... the idea almost seems like blasphemy to all the others, or maybe it’s just too final. Like making a decision as to my most favorite means closing the door and allowing that I’ll never hope to read a new work as profoundly moving to my senses.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Book Roast

I want to take a special moment today to draw your attention (if you haven't already seen it!) to Chris Eldin's new blog, Book Roast. The goals of the blog are as follows:

1) to give readers a day of unfettered virtual access to published authors
2) to offer published authors a single go-to for online publicity

Chris first told me about her plan to launch this blog a couple of weeks ago, and I have to say that as an editor I am very pleased. Especially as the book sales world is changing, print review venues are closing, and brick-and-mortar stores are hosting fewer events, editors and publicists at publishing companies are launching all sorts of last-ditch efforts to get internet attention for their books. It is, however, difficult to figure out whether sites target the right readership. (Check out Brian's very cogent post about online publicity--he has some great advice for published and aspiring authors to think about.)

To have a single go-to site like Book Roast, where readers can go in fandom and where authors will hopefully soon compete for placement, is the small press dream.

Book Roast is in its inception phase, meaning it needs to draw in some collective awareness from readers and writers. If you're a lit fan, check out the site from time to time to see who's up, and consider linking to it to help drive awareness. Audience participation will step up the quantity and quality of discussions--the more the merrier. If you're a published author, consider dropping by--your post there will be google hits on your name (and the more authors drop by, as we bloggers know, the higher your google ranking will go up).

Thanks, Chris, for this rather selfless idea on your part (I know it's been a lot of work!). I can't wait to see how your project grows.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Jessica Faust's Celebrate Reading Pick: TATTERHOOD AND OTHER TALES by Elizabeth Johnston Phelps

Today we welcome Jessica Faust as our Celebrate Reading Guest Blogger.

About the Guest Blogger: After more than five years as an editor with both Berkley and Macmillan Jessica decided she wanted to be the one making all the decisions and started BookEnds, a literary agency focusing primarily on adult fiction and nonfiction. In addition to representing a number of fabulous authors, Jessica also maintains the BookEnds blog where she does her best to unravel the mysteries of publishing.


When I was asked to write about one book, one book that has meant something to me, it took me a few hours to actually reply as to whether or not I would do it. Could I actually come up with one book that has impacted my life enough to talk about it in a blog post?

Well I agreed to the blog before having the book. And I thought really hard about it. I thought of all the books I’ve read in my life, those I read as a child and those I’ve read as a publishing professional and there are so many that stick out in my mind as being wonderfully amazing books. In the end though, I think it’s the books I read as a child that have had the most impact. It was those books that really shaped my love of reading and allowed me to fall in love with the written word. What’s interesting is that while I read primarily commercial books now, the books I read and loved most as a child were classics—Laura Ingalls Wilder, Anne of Green Gables and The Little Princess (I think Cindy Pon already did a terrific job of talking about this book).

And then it came to me. And it should have been so easy. It was the book that has been sitting beside my bed for the last thirty years. It has traveled with me from my childhood bedroom to the college dorm, numerous Brooklyn apartments and now my home in New Jersey and with each move this book has remained in the coveted spot beside my bed. Even though I haven’t opened it in years, it sits there, waiting to soothe me and warm my heart when I need it.

It’s an obscure book so for many of you I’m sure this will be the first introduction to Tatterhood and Other Tales by Elizabeth Johnston Phelps. The book was given to me by a close family friend and includes her personalized inscription in the cover. When she gave it to me I knew she was hoping to inspire me with it’s feminist teachings, but I doubt she had any idea what an impact it would have.

Tatterhood is a collection of folk tales from around the world all featuring heroines (to quote Amazon), “of extraordinary courage, wit and achievement.” What I so obviously loved about this book was that it featured women. I loved my female role models. They were Jo from Little Women, Sara Crewe from The Little Princess, Betsy from the Besty, Tacy, Tib books, and of course Laura Ingalls. Ironically all of these women were writers. More importantly to me though was the fact that all of these fictional woman were strong willed, had a voice in the world and none were blonde (said partially tongue in cheek). Tatterhood was a collection of these stories. Tatterhood took all of the beloved fairy tales we grew up on and turned them on their ears. The women were always the heroes, saving the men with their strength, their wisdom and never their beauty. They had so much more to rely on and showed me, and still show me today, how wonderful it is to be a woman.

What I also love about this book is that it opened the world for me. One of my favorites was a Japanese story. I got to see not only women as heroes, but also different cultures and traditions.

I can’t say enough about Tatterhood and what a great and fun read it is. For anyone with a daughter, niece, or granddaughter I highly recommend it and for anyone who loves fairy tales. Pick up this amazing story collection.

Thanks Moonrat for this great opportunity!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Brian's Celebrate Reading Pick: KIT'S WILDERNESS by David Almond

Today, we welcome Brian as our Celebrate Reading Guest Blogger.

About the Guest Blogger: Brian has just finished his MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis on fiction. During the day, he work in book publicity, writing press materials and promoting his authors.


You spend three years on the business end of MFA writing classes, an onslaught of lessons on style, technique and craft. Character development, theme, pacing, atmosphere, concrete detail, significant detail, psychological distance, temporal distance... All this and you choke on a critical mass of Jamaica Kincaid and Sherman Alexie and Jonathan Lethem and John Gardner and Allan Gurganus, a steady diet that threatens both to nourish and engulf. Add to this your efforts to distill all of this knowledge, now blendering around your brain with gale-force power, into your own writing: mimicking methods but assimilating them as your own, nodding your head at writing that has moved you while trying to assert your own voice, your own sesquipedalian presence. The day comes when you graduate with the nagging realization that you have no recollection of what happened those three years you eschewed friends and family and jettisoned reason in favor of creating a 350 page doorstop, also known as your thesis novel.

And then, you pick up KIT'S WILDERNESS by David Almond. A thin book with short paragraphs, what you mistake for a respite from all of the above. But you're wrong. This is the book that hits you hardest than all the rest. This is the book that blows everything else away. Because while you spent your time as Dr. Frankenstein, cobbling together that which you wish to give life, this book is Igor, throwing the massive toggle switch that pummels your hastily-stitched construct with fifty million volts of power.

KIT'S WILDERNESS bridges synapses and connects the dots and parts clouds to reveal a heavenly choir singing in glorious soprano, "The moron finally gets it!" You understand what Professor Whatsis meant when she said, "Never waste a single word." Almond doesn't. Every syllable, every sigil colludes and collides to propel the story forward. You're finally thunderstruck by Professor Whosit's lecture on significant detail as you watch Almond throw words to a page with a wrestler's determination, saying to himself, "You are all my bitches now!," and marshalling them to tie everything—from what the main character is studying in school to ancient family history to an off-hand remark by a tertiary character—into the novel's central themes. Everything sits on the page to serve the novel. No exceptions. Professor Whosit's mantra—There are no accidents in writing—which had long since banished itself to the cacophony of lectures in the outer reaches of the brain now tattoos itself indelibly on the back of your eyelids. Now removed from the maelstrom of learning, you can actually begin to appreciate, recognize the lessons in action, and you can indulge in something rare and wonderful: awe.

And you think to yourself: should I really be changed by a book at 37? Isn't this supposed to happen earlier? Aren't most people forever altered by a text at a young age, be it the scruffy-haired rebel with a dog-eared copy of Salinger in his hip pocket or the bright faced, pony-tailed girl writing her first short story very neatly between thick blue lines after setting down her copy of Paddington? Other books have surely changed your life. But maybe the best ones are when you realize it. When you acknowledge it. When there's still time to let it mean something.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Jill Myles's Celebrate Reading Pick: INTO THE WILDERNESS by Sara Donati

Today, we welcome Jill Myles as Celebrate Reading Month Guest Blogger.

About the Guest Blogger: Jill Myles was a mythology nerd as a child and never quite grew out of it. As a result, she writes funny paranormal fiction for Pocket Books and has two books coming out in 2009. Sex Starved is the tale of a nerd-turned-succubus, and is not quite as lurid as it sounds (sorry!). As for Jill herself, she spends her days writing content for a payroll software, avoiding small talk, and writing like a mad writing thing. She lives in Texas with two cats that steal the blankets, and a husband that does the same.


When Moonrat asked me to participate in this, I had no idea what book I'd write about.

There's the books from my childhood that I adored: D'Aulaires' Norse Myths with the gods and monsters that Bulfinch's never quite covered and the lurid, amazing pictures that stuck in my mind for decades. Or maybe Where the Red Fern Grows. I don't remember why I adored this book so much as a child, only that it made me bawl like a baby after even the 50th reading. Or Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey, the first SF Grrl book. Or Clan of the Cave Bear, the series that started me on my love for all things romance.

But the book that inspired me to write was an entirely different sort of book than what I normally read, and I thought I'd talk about it here. This was a book that took some of the classic rules of a story and ignored them. This was a book that took beautiful, literary language and melded it with a classic love story and made the entire thing readable. When I finished reading it, I felt numb. It had absolutely blown my mind and I wanted to write something just like it. This is the book, that if I only had to take one with me on a desert island and read for the next twenty years, I would take this one.

The book is Into the Wilderness, by Sara Donati.

At first glance, I admit, it sounds a bit cheesy. Donati breaks a few of the rules of 'taste' in fiction by borrowing some of her characters from Last of the Mohicans. The movie, not the book. I know. I thought the same thing. Not only that, but there's a chapter that's an entire tongue-in-cheek homage to Diana Gabaldon and her series. Beyond that, the book is a massive doorstopper at 876 pages of very small type. It's enough to make a reader run away.

But I bought a copy anyhow, in a fit of boredom. And devoured the entire book.

I thought the characters in this were masterfully done. From the very first line of the novel, I knew what I was in for:

Elizabeth Middleton, twenty-nine years old and unmarried, overly educated and excessively rational, knowing right from wrong and fancy from fact, woke in a nest of marten and fox pelts to the sight of an eagle circling overhead, and saw at once that it could not be far to Paradise.


The story is that of Elizabeth Middleton. She's come from a rather staid upbringing in England to the wild of the New York territory in 1792. She arrives in the town of Paradise, where her father is a judge, with the intention to set up school. However, her father has decided that she should marry the local doctor and big-time land owner. Elizabeth wants nothing to do with him, and instead finds herself fascinated by the Mahicans that live on the mountain and Nathaniel Bonner, the son of Hawkeye (from the literary classic). While some of the characters are borrowed from that other story, Donati doesn't beat you over the head with it and you soon forget that she 'borrowed' because the characters are so alive on the page.

The main character, Elizabeth, has a wonderful voice. She's serene without being boring, competent without being obnoxious, and knows her own mind despite everyone's attempts to tell her otherwise. She's a spinster and she's not ashamed of it, she misquotes the Bible to suit her own purposes, and she railroads her father into getting her own way. It's through Elizabeth's eyes that we experience the adventure, and Donati's choice in narrator is perfect, as the pragmatic (and sometimes amusing) outsider learns about the town from watching the actions of others.

The setting, to me, was as much of a character as any of the main protagonists. Paradise, the town that the story is set in, is meticulously detailed down to each cabin and its occupants. It sits on the edge of the great wilderness itself, and from the wildlife to the snow on the mountains, I sincerely felt as I read that I had been transported to frontier America.

I wanted to point out the language in the book, the lyrical way that Donati chooses her phrases. That was one of the big things that drew me to this story and sucked me in so hard. Yet when I flip through it, I find sentences that are beautifully written, but wouldn't do the story justice out of context. So I can't quote more here, but I'd encourage everyone to read a chapter or two and see for themselves.

I could get into a big long spiel as to why I loved this book, but when I closed it for the first time, I truly felt dumbstruck. Writers are constantly told to write a short novel. We are told not to mess around in other people's universes or we'll piss off the readers. Yet Donati does both, and she did both so well that it made me want to weep with envy. It was when I read this book that I thought that maybe following all the rules was not necessarily the right way to do things.

And it made me realize that one didn't have to follow them rigidly in order to write a compelling novel.

So I don't have a massive, mind-blowing moment of realization to share with the group or a book epiphany. Just a novel that rocked me to the core when I was reading it, and when I closed it, I wanted more. Better yet, I wanted to write something just like it. I didn't, mind you, but when people ask me what inspired me to write, I point at my copy of this novel (which is now held together with duct-tape from multiple reads). It's not the perfect novel for everyone, of course.

But it's pretty darn perfect to me.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Nathan Bransford's Celebrate Reading Pick: THE CAT IN THE HAT by Dr. Seuss

Today, we welcome Nathan Bransford as our Celebrate Reading Guest Blogger.

About the Guest Blogger: Nathan Bransford is a literary agent with the San Francisco office of Curtis Brown Ltd., a New York based agency that has been representing writers since 1914. Among his diverse interests are literary fiction, mysteries and suspense, historical fiction, narrative nonfiction, business, history, sports, politics, current events, young adult fiction, and science fiction.


Thanks very much to Moonrat for the opportunity to pontificate on an important book. What important book, you say? Um...

Here's the thing about picking a book we all should celebrate. I have chosen a career in which I am devoting myself to books, and so I badly want to point to one book and say THAT book was the one that started it all. And yet which book is the one that most impacted me along the way? Was it the first I remember? (THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD). The first chapter book I successfully read? (THE SILVER SWORD). The first classic? (OLIVER TWIST). My favorite as a slightly older child? (HARRY'S MAD). The longest? (BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM). The shortest? (THE GIVING TREE). My favorite as a slightly older older child? (MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN)

What about in high school when I started seeing that there were things happening beneath the surface in books that I never even realized (THE SOUND AND THE FURY), that there were funnier books out there than I ever imagined (HITCHHIKERS GUIDE TO THE GALAXY), and books that were so expansive and incredible I could barely fathom that they were ever written in the first place (MOBY DICK).

I AGONIZED over what book to choose (THE WIFE OF MARTIN GUERRE? KAVALIER AND CLAY? ATONEMENT?), and yes, I'm sending Moonrat the psychiatry bills.

Oh, did you think I was finished talking about which books I considered picking? Genre blast: historical fiction (JOHNNY TREMAINE, MY BROTHER SAM IS DEAD, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST), fantasy (THE ELFSTONES OF SHANNARA, PAWN OF PROPHECY), and books about which college student Nathan wrote weighty papers (ULYSSES, THE GRAPES OF WRATH).

So. What book did I pick after all of this? THE CAT IN THE HAT.

When I was four years old, this book blew. my. mind. Heck, I'm 27 and this book still blows my mind.

Let's examine the setup. You have a couple of kids whose parents have left. You have a badass cat, wearing a hat, whose SOLE PURPOSE IN LIFE is to entertain these poor children. And then you have a pissy goldfish. People. Does it get any better than that? From that point on the book could have written itself, but then it just goes and gets better. The cat brings two of the creepiest characters in the history of literature along with him -- Thing One and Thing Two. Their purpose? Unclear.

So basically, the cat entertains the kids, Thing One and Thing Two proceed to be extremely creepy, Cat and Things make a mess, kids get nervous, the Cat cleans it up before the parents come home. A great time is had by everyone but the goldfish.

You know how long it took Dr. Seuss to write the THE CAT IN THE HAT, which uses only 236 words? A year and a half. And I believe it. It's as perfect a distillation of setup, plot, complication, climax and resolution as you'll see on the page.

There are so many books that have moved me in my life, but THE CAT IN THE HAT embodies why it's so much fun to read books. Take an interesting setup, add some compelling characters, transport people to a new world and envelop them in unique language, and with a dash of genius you have a book that stays with people the rest of their lives.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Saturday, June 14, 2008

eeps

I timed my essays wrong and managed to post Gemellen's and Pacatrue's this afternoon. Sorry to both of you!! They're both awesome posts so please scroll down and read both.

Apologies.

Pacatrue's Celebrate Reading Pick: THE MANUSCRIPT FOUND IN SARAGOSSA by Jan Potocki

Today, we welcome Pacatrue as our Celebrate Reading Month Guest Blogger.

About the Guest Blogger: Pacatrue's favorite movie remains Airplane! What else does anyone need to know? He currently lives in Hawaii, a fact that happens to be true, but is only put in there to make people envious. He also spends his days bathing in Nutella and collecting fat royalty checks for his 12 previously published best sellers -- both facts that are completely false, but put in here to make the bio a suitable length.


It's probably fitting that there is no deininitive version of the novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by author Jan Potocki. It was originally written in French by its Polish author, but there is no single text remaining in French or Polish. Moreover, it was published at least twice by the author and he kept writing it anyway after the second publication. In the end, this novel is just a big mass of wriggling, writhing life that Potocki sort of wound some frame story twine around to make it look seemly, but the string wrapping just won't keep the novel from bursting forth wherever it can. Even the frame story has a frame story. No really.

The narrative holding the work together is that of Alphonse van Woorden, a new officer in the Walloon Guards, who is traveling through the Sierra Morena of Spain in the early 18th century to take up his first post. His guide, Mosquito, however, vanishes and Aphonse soon finds himself being seduced by two Moorish princesses in a haunted roadside inn just after midnight -- before waking up at the foot of a gallows with a hanged, rotting corpse on either side of him. Naturally, van Woorden goes straight back to the inn for a little more haunting. I mean, he's male and a few corpses never kept a guy from pursuing a possible threesome.

The book contains around 100 stories told to van Woorden over 66 days. Some of the stories are followed only for a page or two; others, such as the story of the Gypsy Chief, are continued for so long that their protagonists rival Alphonse for importance. The stories are not provided in a simple series: story 1, story 2, story 3, etc. You can get frame stories within frame stories within frame stories within frame stories, and that's not quite enough levels in a couple instances. Potocki, our author, makes fun of this when he has one of his own characters interrupt the Gypsy Chief at one point to make notes before contunuing.

The key is that people's lives don't just make good stories; the stories they hear also change who they are, become a part of them. The stories we hear become part of the story we create for ourselves.

This might sounds like some sort of confusing mass, but somehow it's not. It's as if, when we meet someone and ask "how ya doing?", they actually stopped to tell us and we had time to listen. Or like sitting in a check-out line and knowing who all these people around you are as real people, knowing bits about where they came from, what they want, and what's in their way.

Of course, some of these people are hateful; others charming. Virtually all are misguided in some way. But they all have their own stories. In Saragossa, we've got Christians, Muslims, Jews, demons, ghosts, atheists, mathematicians, kaballists, the sheik if an all powerful secret clan hidden in the Spanish mountains for 300 years, the grandaughter of Montezuma, Spanish nobility, sycophants, and bizarre paternal philosophy after bizarre paternal philosophy, and it all just cycles and changes and evolves.

This work came to me simply on a recommendation from my wife, I believe due to her Polish/French heritage. I finally gave it a try and loved it. While there is a movie version from the 60s of the book, and a recent stage adaptation put on in Chicago, this is quintessentially a piece of art that demands the book form. Only a sliver of it can be captured in a 2-3 hour time frame. It's a work that you live in for a couple of weeks. I can imagine a writer taking ideas from this work and re-imagining them as a writing career -- at least, I've myself ended up in a library for several days reading about Mexcan historical legends as a result. I also never had wanted to visit Spain before reading the book; now it's in the top 10 list.

Oddly, most places I want to visit are because of something I've read. This essay was almost about the book Mutiny on the Bounty, and I still want to see Tahiti one day. Another contender for this essay was a book of Norse Myths I've carried around since I was 9. Yes, I want to see Norway as well.

Please, no one write an essay about an amazing novel set in the world of mortuary. I don't want to find myself dying to take a tour of the nation's funeral parlors. Pun not intended, but pun intentionally remains.

Gemellen's Celebrate Reading Pick: THE VINTAGE BOOOK OF CONTEMPORARY POETRY

Today, we welcome Gemellen as our Celebrate Reading Guest Blogger.

About the Guest Blogger: Gemellen is a struggling (with her self-esteem) writer type who lives in Chicago & works in arts administration. She enjoys long walks on the beach, but only in winter.


I loathe the “what’s your favorite book?” question. Even with (& probably because of) the ‘ole dusty MFA, I feel like such a dumb reader. I don’t believe I can speak intelligently about literature. Much like, even though I’ve been playing the piano since I was four, I could never, ever teach anyone how to do it.

I’ve got friends who catalog favorite books in various ways – special bookshelves, excel spreadsheets, journals written in only the finest inks. And then there’s me, perpetually trying to figure out my “process.” Which is to say: I always want to read with a highlighter & journal beside me, so as to capture that which steals my breath. But then I start reading several books at once – different topics & genres. And so, do I combine my thoughts into the one journal or do I make two? Or ten? And if I write in this particularly gorgeous leather bound book I found at Barnes & Noble, will I utterly destroy it with my fine point Sharpie? Grr. Give up. Focus on shiny objects. Distractions, you know, life. Oh, how I want to read deeper & wider.

Hobbies: pacing & lamenting.

So I’m searching around the apartment for some literary thing that changed my life. But here’s the deal: things change my life all the time. Oh my god, that psychological biography of Vincent van Gogh (Stranger on the Earth) totally changed my life. And back when I was sleeping on a friend’s futon during Boston’s blizzard of 1994, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast utterly altered my dreams. Once I read the entirety of Jane Eyre out loud & in a British accent (I’m from Arkansas, by the way). And several years after college, when it was my turn to choose in book club, it was Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham. (People dropped out of the club after this.)

Seems to me that where you are in life dictates how a book makes you feel, & even more so, helps you live. But what’s that one book? So as I was perusing the shelves in our third floor Chicago apartment, all dusty & crammed & a little out of order, I kept going back to something I’m a little embarrassed by: The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, edited by J.D. McClatchy, c. 1990.

Oh how I wanted to pick Auden’s Letters from Iceland. James Baldwin’s Another Country. Kevin Brockmeier’s Things That Fall From The Sky. I would seem cool! Right? Wholly hip & well-read. But then I wanted to focus on a certain book that truly, madly, deeply changed my life. And, Dear Reader, it’s this yellow contemporary anthology of poetry. Forget that in grad school we were told to read much deeper than anthologies – full manuscripts by poets were the true overture to their work. Anthologies are just the Hondas of literature, right? But Hondas hug the road well. They’re reliable. Get good gas mileage.

The story goes that I was wandering around an Arkansas mall, biding my time before a movie started, when I stepped into a Brentano’s Bookstore. It was 1991 & I had taken a leave of absence from college – all confused about life & its direction. I was bored with the magazine section, & didn’t have the patience for fiction on that day. So poetry, maybe. Back then, chain bookstores were known for having really limited poetry sections with only the most known names: Robert Frost or T.S. Eliot or Maya Angelou. (Unfortunately, this is still kind of true – I mean ten copies of Billy Collins’ and/or Mary Oliver’s latest works? Wait. Sorry. Soapbox.) Anyway, there was this anthology that caught my eye so I flipped through & stopped. I flipped again & stopped. I stopped & started. Which is to say: to give a sudden, involuntary jerk, jump, or twitch, as from a shock of surprise.

Who was this Theodore Roethke?

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

(“The Waking”)

This Elizabeth Bishop?

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

(“One Art”)

This Sylvia Plath?


Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

(“Lady Lazarus”)

And there began my trajectory away from music school & toward creative writing school. This is the book that went with me everywhere. The book that made me cry on the afternoon it was lost (& later found). The book from which I quoted in long letters to friends (pre-internet, you know). “Dear So-&-So who has no interest in poetry, can you even believe this Mark Strand?”

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

(“Eating Poetry”)

Saturday Morning Indie Rock Moment

Today, we have Ingram Hill covering Chris Brown's "With You."

Thanks, Dan, for the link. It did indeed bring a smile :)

Happy Saturday!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Editorial Anonymous's Celebrate Reading Pick: VOYAGE TO THE BUNNY PLANET by Rosemary Wells

Today, we welcome Editorial Anonymous as our Celebrate Reading Month Guest Blogger.

About the Guest Blogger: Editorial Anonymous is a children's book editor who blogs about the publishing industry and takes questions from readers. Turn-ons include long walks in bookstores, quiet evenings at home with good lighting, and really childish senses of humor.


It’s easy to see this set of three stories as being as much for adults as for children, and I know many adults who love it dearly. If you’re unfamiliar with these stories, each starts with a ‘bad day’ part (a child trapped in interminable math lessons; flattened by cousins; held down for a doctor’s shot, etc etc) which is then followed by a ‘Bunny Planet’ part, where we see “the day that should have been” (time with mom in the garden and the kitchen, cooking tomato soup; time with dad in a cozy lighthouse while the storm is safe outside; time with oneself in a protected glade).

The ‘Bunny Planet’ parts are a chance for adults and children alike to reflect on the small things that build happiness. They are the comfort and the charm of these books.

But I’d like to talk about how meaningful the ‘bad day’ parts are.

Children don’t get to choose how they spend most of their days; the trips they take; the food they eat; the people they live with. The things that go wrong in these stories are, I think, apt to be trivialized by many adults, because many adults have forgotten what it’s like to have very few choices.

Do you remember how much better every single one of your days became when you got to decide what to do with them? Most adults don’t. Most adults think the jobs they go to are roughly equivalent to school, because it is something they have to do, and they have to deal with bullies and jerks, too—and hey! they have to work eight hours, whereas their kids only have to be in school for 6 or 7, and there’s recess! and, like, no commute!

There are a bunch of reasons why an adult’s workday is not equivalent, and quite a bit better than a kids’ school day, though, and good writers for children will remember these things.

1. I don’t care how many bullies and jerks you have to deal with—you know how. You know how to respond to them, or how to ignore them. Kids don’t. The rough side of social experience can and does make children wretched, sometimes on a daily basis.

2. I don’t care how traffic- or flasher-filled your commute is, if you don’t think a school bus is worse, try imagining getting on the same uncomfortable subway car every day, but it’s not full of strangers. It’s full of people who know you and generally have mixed feelings about you. Some of them are hostile towards you, and the rest have limited social skills—including your friends, and you.

3. I don’t care that you have to have a job, and can’t get out of that. There is an enormous hit to your morale that you are not taking because it’s still up to you whether you have to go to this job or not. Kids get no say at all in which school they go to, whether they get to (or have to) change schools, whether they take a sick day or vacation if they’re feeling burnt out.


Powerlessness is hard, and demoralizing. Kids know this. Most of them manage to be pretty darn cheerful anyway, because powerlessness is all they’ve ever known. But don’t be dismissive of it. It is exactly this aspect of children’s lives that makes small problems feel like calamities, and that attracts children to stories that feature orphans and magical powers and heck, even choose-your-own-adventure.

Everyone faces forces in life that they cannot control. But many adults forget just how many choices they get to make every day. If you’re writing for children, you don’t get to forget this: most kids’ favorite thing to imagine is steering their own lives.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

hot

This afternoon, I walked into the office kitchen to find our cleaning guy, who was taking a nap with his head in the freezer.

tutorial

I've recently had a request from a reader on a post with some guidelines for becoming an Editorial Ass.

I originally began this blog with the idea that it would be a home of solace for other Editorial Asses who were bumbling along like me, in the metaphorical dungeon of the publishing castle, where the air is dank, the pickings are slim, and sometimes it's hard to tell whether it's day or night. Since that time, though, I magically ascended to... shall we say, metaphorical scullery maid of the publishing castle? And then I met a lot of other interesting people who weren't Asses but thought Asses were interesting for a number of different reasons, and the blog started to go in a different direction.

That said!! I have LOTS of advice for Asses, aspiring Asses, and recovering Asses, and you all know how I love to give out advice and unsolicited opinions. I would like to renew my commitment to others like myself now. We haven't got much in terms of nickles to rub together, but we can at least all rub together our two cents. I want publishing to be a pay-it-forward industry.

With the end of the college year and the beginning of the job search rush, the time is ripe for this post, and I wanted to let that patient reader know that I am working on a tutorial, which I hope to post on Monday morning. So Asses and recovering Asses, do drop me a note with your cautionary tales, lessons, morals, woes, gripes, and happy ascension stories. I will oh-so-happily incorporate them into my tutorial, with credit or without as directed. Aspiring Asses, direct your fellows here. I hope we'll have a lot to share.

JES's Celebrate Reading Pick: CATCH-22 by Joseph Heller

Today, we welcome JES as our Celebrate Reading Month Guest Blogger.

Guest Blogger bio: JES (John E. Simpson) is a database analyst living in Florida with his wife and two cats. He's published six books (a mystery and five reference books on Internet technology) and is grappling with the third draft of a new novel, Merry-Go-Round. John maintains a blog, Running After My Hat. This is the fourth blog he's started since 1999; maybe this one will keep. :)


For two weeks in that summer of 1963, the book (when not being read) lay on the table next to my Dad's favorite reading chair. The cover was predominantly blue, on a white background. In the foreground danced a cartoonish, oddly fractured silhouette in red of what appeared to be a policeman or soldier.

Even before I had a chance to heft it in my 12-year-old hands, I somehow sensed the book might come to mean something more to me than most of the books -- mostly historical fiction ("A Landmark Book"), joke books and such -- which I'd read to that point. Why? Because Dad was so caught up in it. He read a lot, but seldom got really gripped by a book. And I couldn't remember, ever, his laughing out loud at mere words on a page. (I had heard him laugh sometimes while flipping through a paperback of photographs of statues, mostly naked, for which Dean Martin had supplied "funny" captions, mostly racy. But with all the pictures, to my seventh-grade snob's mind it didn't really count as a book.) The same was true on the next page he read. And the page after that... The spine of that (to me) fat hardback seemed stitched together not with string but with Dad's soft chuckles, his wry shakes of the head.

I wondered: what kind of book was this? Even the title made no sense: CATCH-22. It sounded vaguely onomatopoeic, like the clattering of the ratchets in one of Dad's wrenches. And the title? Forget it. It meant nothing.

One afternoon before it had to go back to the library, I picked it up. With a furtive glance over my shoulder and with great care not to lose Dad's bookmarked page, I began to read:

"It was love at first sight.

"The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

"Yossarian was in the hospital with a pain in his liver that fell just short of being jaundice. The doctors were puzzled by the fact that it wasn't quite jaundice. If it became jaundice they could treat it. If it didn't become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. But this just being short of jaundice all the time confused them..."

Again: What kind of book WAS this? It wasn't anything like the Landmark Books, or TOM SAWYER, or any one (let alone all) of the Tom Swift, Jr. tales. It wasn't anything like anything I'd read before. Who was this Yossarian? (And what the heck kind of name was that, anyway?) Who was the chaplain? How could a man fall in love with a man, let alone madly? (Okay, I was a little naive.) And that third paragraph made my head spin, but in an oddly pleasurable way -- the way the first bite of a wad of cotton candy buzzed and popped on the roof of my mouth.

I read a few more pages, thrilled. And then I put the book back on the table.

But it stayed in my mind, you bet, and when Dad finished it I asked if I could read it myself. He said sure. I just had to carry it up the street to our small-town public library (just a couple of blocks away), hand the book to the lady behind the counter, and -- giving her my library card -- tell her I wanted to renew it in my name.

What a shock was in store for me: the librarian wouldn't let me borrow the book. It came from the "adult" section, and to the adult section it would return, until the next adult showed up and handed over the secret adulthood-confirming credentials and passwords. In the meantime, she noticed that I'd taken out numerous books by Roy Chapman Andrews and Quentin Reynolds; perhaps I'd like this new Landmark Book...?

I was mortified. But for one of the few times in my life, I didn't keep the mortification to myself. I told my parents, who had noticed my empty-handed return to the house.

My parents weren't college-educated -- Dad was a mechanic, Mom a secretary -- but they were smart and, and (at some level they possibly couldn't or certainly wouldn't have verbalized) they knew just what kind of kids they wanted their kids to be.

At least one phone call to the library followed, out of my earshot. Perhaps a special visit ensued as well, without me. But suddenly, I had this wonderful thing in my hand -- an adult library card. I was a nerdy James Bond, granted a license to read -- regardless of a book's arbitrary library shelving.

By now, you know what book I first borrowed from the Forbidden Lode.

CATCH-22 and I have woven paths through each other's world maybe a dozen times since then. During those four decades I have grown accustomed (almost) to meeting people who never "got" it, and sometimes I've been in the position of actively defending it in one respect or another.

(A common complaint is along the lines of, "It's just too hard to read something that never stops laughing." I tell these people that if they haven't read at least through Chapter 39, "The Eternal City," they really can't say that about CATCH-22. There are many not-quite-funny moments earlier, but "The Eternal City" is Heller's chapter-long interlude saying, "Hey, you, yes YOU! Wake up! You think this is FUNNY, damn it?")

A favorite CATCH-22 moment occurred when I was teaching high-school English in the '70s. We had to teach some works from The Canon, of course, but the department made room for teachers' "pet" titles as well. Luckily, I taught juniors, and the focus for juniors -- that year, at that high school -- was American Lit.

I stood in the book room, looking at the shelves of paperbacks and trying to get excited about any of them.

No way, no freaking way, was I going to teach CATCHER IN THE RYE. Almost every other junior-level teacher for ten years had chosen CATCHER as their out-there title, and the books themselves showed it: graffiti was all over the inside pages, pages fluttered to the floor when you picked one up and thumbed through it. As though symbolically, the once blood-red covers were now dull, their edges gray and fuzzed, and they were held in place with Scotch tape.

I never did find out who in the department had ordered CATCH-22, but obviously no one in the school had ever taught it. The paperbacks were pristine (you could have shaved with their covers). And my mind boiled with the possibility of doing for at least one 16-year-old what Joseph Heller (and my parents) had done for me: blown wide-open my understanding of what a book could do.

So this, then, was my early-adulthood CATCH-22 story:

It was third period, one of my English 3A classes, and we were discussing the book. Suddenly one student, whose first name was Louise, literally stood up at her desk. Understand that this was 1976, and Louise was a 15- or 16-year-old honors student in a wealthy suburban high school who had probably never before simply stood up at her seat, gripping the edge of the desktop with white-knuckled fingers, interrupting a teacher with anything, much less remonstration and outrage. Of course, she'd never read anything like CATCH-22, either.

"Mr. Simpson," Louise said, her voice straining, the veins in her neck and forehead throbbing, "I have no idea what you are trying to do to us but I will figure it out IF IT TAKES ME ALL YEAR!"

(That memory still makes me laugh.)

Fast-forward to spring, 1997. By now I am long gone from New Jersey and comfortably, as much as possible for someone accustomed to four seasons a year, ensconced in North Florida. I've re-read CATCH-22 several times by now, but haven't taught school in 20 years. Now I'm a computer programmer, who's written and published one book (a mystery). And I'm trying to figure out this whole writing thing.

To that end, Toni (The Missus) -- at the time, a grad creative-writing student at Florida State -- and I have formed a writer's group with a few friends. ALL of us are trying to figure out this whole writing thing.

This spring, one of these people -- our friend Andrea -- is named a panelist for an upcoming special conference, several days long, co-sponsored by the FSU English and History departments. "War Stories," it will be called. And it will revolve not around the panelists or indeed anyone else, but around three very special guests whose experiences with war (and stories) are vast and incredible: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.; William Styron; and Joseph Heller.

So Andrea says to Toni, "I have two tickets to a cocktail reception and dinner with the three of them. Would you like to come with me?"

Toni looks at Andrea like she's nuts. "Are you kidding?" she says. "The nicest favor you could do for me is invite JOHN. Joseph Heller is GOD to John!"

Long story short (I'll write this up at length sometime, on some other occasion and in some other venue): yeah, I met Heller. He busted out laughing at the story of the about-to-have-his-mind-blown 12-year-old all those years ago. He was a true gentleman and a real charmer, and funny as hell. (In my memory, it is his soft laughter which stitches the evening together.)

And that night Heller, Vonnegut, and Styron sat up late drinking, and closed the bar at the hotel where they stayed during the conference... after spending a hilarious, thought-provoking, entirely instantaneous four hours at a table with no one but Andrea, Toni, and me.

CATCH-22: for me, love at first sight indeed.