30 January 2010


The American Library Association awards--The Newbery and Printz, among others--were announced almost two weeks ago. I'm proud of myself this year: not only had I heard of the Newbery winner, I had already bought and read it!

To my shame, however, I had never heard of the novel that won the Printz award. Didn't even know Libba Bray had written a new book, to be honest. It really drove home how much I miss by not being able to browse the tables at American bookstores on a regular basis.

I've had a lot of time to read over the past week, so I'm caught up now. Writing about Going Bovine presents quite a challenge: I don't want to tell you about the book so much as I want you to read it, so I can talk about it with you. I don't want to have to be careful about spoilers--though I will, just for you--and it's hard to relate the plot or discuss the philosophy of the book without talking about the ending.

Going Bovine relates the travels of Cameron Smith, a teenager dying of Mad Cow disease. It's one of the most beautifully constructed novels I've read in a while, setting out its influences--Don Quixote and Norse sagas and Road Runner cartoons and our awful cultural priorities, which too often place physical and emotional safety above all other considerations--and then letting them all play into Cameron's quest to find the man who might be able to cure him.

According to her bio, the author is--like me--a Preacher's Kid (though I prefer "Theological Offspring"). I'm dying to know what her father thinks of the novel. The book is definitely a philosophical novel, but the book's philsophy doesn't much bother with the idea of God (though it does feature a guardian angel). Through his travels, Cameron learns that no one is in charge of the universe. He also learns that the only way to deal with the danger and uncertainty of life is to embrace it: to take huge risks that might not pay off; to try hard new things at which you might suck; to love people you might lose.

I can't tell you how much I love this approach to life. I also can't tell you how hard I find it to live by. The past two years of my life have been full of transitions. While most of them have had tremendous upsides (helloooo, London! Hello meat pies and teatime and volunteering with teens and four-hour lunches and writing whenever I want!), most of them have also involved great losses. Dealing with the losses makes it really hard to embrace the gains: it's all too easy to imagine that I might lose those someday, too. Sometimes I need a novel-length reminder that it really is better to have loved and lost, that trying and failing is better than not trying and never knowing.

P.S.You should also really read the author's blog post about "the call," which includes a paragraph detailing all of my worst fears of a writing career, and confirmation that sometimes it all works out:
Still in disbelief, I stared at a picture of The Ramones. When I first moved to New York with dreams of being a writer, I used to see Joey Ramone walking around the East Village. I had concocted a whole fantasy in which he was sort of my secret saint, a good luck charm. Anytime I saw him, I’d assume it was going to be a good day. It was one of those beliefs I made up to keep myself going while I worked in publishing for $16,000 a year and had to cover the hole in the bottom of my shoe with duct tape because I couldn’t afford new shoes (no joke) and encountered rejection after rejection for my writing. Sometimes the rejections were form rejections, the we-won’t-even-consider-you kiss-offs. Sometimes they were brutal and snide and damaging, and then I would wish for the dismissive ones. On more than one occasion, I was told that my work was “weird” and “too much.” And now, many years later, I’d just gotten a phone call about possibly the weirdest, too much-iest thing I’d ever written, a book straight from my soul with detours through my heart and head, all my armor left on the floor, and a group of people I respect so much called and said, “Hey, you know your super weird book? Well, thank you for that.” The photo of the Ramones got fuzzier and fuzzier because the tears had come. Tears of joy. Gratitude. Validation.

23 January 2010

Two Timeses

The New York Times and the Times of London share some of my obsessions!

First, from the NYTimes, an article on why (and why not) authors and publishers might give away e-books. I might not have noticed it, except the accompanying picture is of Maureen Johnson, whose book Suite Scarlett I downloaded (for free!) over Christmas and am currently reading. Quoth Maureen, '“If they go into a store, they are going to see 4,000 books with Robert Pattinson’s face on it,” she added, referring to movie-tie-in versions of Ms. Meyer’s “Twilight” series. “Then my book will be buried under them.”'

(By the way, I have another reason to love the Kindle: when the Printz Awards were announced last week and, to my shame, I had not read the winner or any of the honor books, I was able to download Going Bovine and Tales of the Madman Underground directly. Instead of ordering through amazon.co.uk and waiting 3-6 weeks for them to arrive from the US. Yay!)

Meanwhile, the Times of London would like me to know that I am not the only person shivering away in a Victorian house.

19 January 2010

Q: So, what happens if I just go ahead and stick these banana muffins in the oven...

...even though I accidentally doubled the number of eggs (and didn't change anything else)?

A: I get delicious muffins with a light texture and a smooth, teeny-tiny crumb.

And to think there was a time I would have declared the muffins ruined and thrown the batter away.

There's some kind of life lesson here about creative risk-taking, but I think I'll just leave that alone and be happy I know a way to make my banana bread recipe work better as muffins.

18 January 2010

January 2010 is still January.

I've written before about the challenges of London winters. The sun comes up late, and goes down early. Sometimes the clouds are so thick it never seems to show up at all. Many of the tasks of ordinary life--running errands, getting exercise, eating something besides ready-meals--seem twice as hard in January as in June.

Adding to this is that the two rooms in the flat in which I am theoretically the most productive--the kitchen and the study--face the space between our house and the next, and become markedly colder and darker as the year does. Check out last February's view from my desk:

For the most part, this year has been a lot easier than last, thanks to the coping strategies I learned from having been through it before. I check the sunrise/sunset times every day, and make a point to appreciate that each day is three minutes longer than the day before. (Yes, 7:55-16:25 is a short day. But three weeks ago we were at 8:05-15:50.) If the weather is sunny, I know that it is vitally important to do whatever I have to do outside the house between 11-2, when the sun is high enough to be seen above the buildings. (I also know how important it is to invent something to do outside in the sun, even if I don't have actual errands to run.) I make a conscious effort to do things after four p.m., even if it is dark outside and I feel as though the day is over.

Unfortunately, I also moved my workspace out of my study and onto the couch in the reception room. The reception room gets a lot more sun, which is good. But my study is now a paper-filled black hole that I never want to go back to, which is bad. Worst of all, because I relax and work in the same place, I'm relaxing waaay too much and not getting much work done!

So, New Year's Resolution #2: Make my home office into a place I want to be.

This is going to be among my tougher resolutions, because tidying things up scares the crap out of me. For the most part, I'm not messy because I don't put things away. I'm messy because I get new paper, and I don't know where it should go. All of the available space is filled with old paper, and to make room I'd have to go through all of the old paper. Can I throw out the old manuscripts covered with notes from my critique group? How about this info from when I first joined the Junior League? And maybe I can't actually get rid of any of it, and all of this paper is just going to stay here piled up, and I've just discovered something important that I thought I sent in months ago, and my chest is getting tight, and oh, hey! The Gilmore Girls is on! I think I'll make myself a cup of mint tea and a crumpet and go back to the living room.

And I have a terrible time sticking to organizational systems, so even looking at a work area well-tidied holds early glints of anxiety. I know I'm going to have to go through it all again, sooner than I'd like.

As with all the other elements of January survival, I can get through it, because I know why it's important. Soon the sun will reach the study windows, and I'll have a chance to clean the patio, and I'll want my desk to be usable so I can sit and write the Great American Teen Novel and enjoy the March-April view:

15 January 2010

Am I contributing to the downfall of literature as we know it?

So, way back when I got an iPod Nano for my birthday and learned the joys of watching downloaded TV on a 2 1/2-inch screen, I asked myself: did this mean I also wanted a Kindle? Or was I more committed to the book as an object than that?

My husband answered that question for me with my Christmas gift. And the answer is: both. The Kindle is amazing and I'm so lucky to own one--and I'm not giving up my extensive library of books for anything. I'll even keep adding to it: there are some books that I'm going to want to physically own, even if I can read them another way.

Now, the next question: Does that make me a pawn in Amazon's evil empire?

Farhad Manjoo is worried it might. Pointing out that electronic delivery of books involves a host of licensing and other copyright/rights management issues, Manjoo writes:
But the Kindle's restrictions are more worrying than those associated with the iPhone, the iPod, and other gizmos. For one thing, if you objected to the iTunes Store's policies, there was always another way to legally buy music for your iPod—you could buy CDs (from Amazon, perhaps) and rip the tracks to MP3. That's not an option for books; there's no easy way to turn dead trees into electrons.

What Manjoo misses here--to my shock, frankly--is that there is a way to get content out of dead trees: you just read the book on paper. His concerns are absolutely valid for media that require some sort of electronic conversion. I don't have a DVD player, so if I want to (legally) watch a movie when I want to watch it, I'm entirely limited by what's available on iTunes or my cable provider's on-demand network; I can't just buy the disc (or check it out of the library) and stare at it. I can do exactly that with a book. And I'm not sooooo in love with my Kindle that, if a book I want to read isn't available in that format, I'll give up on reading it.

There are two things that thrill me about the Kindle: 1) I can bring along a suitcase full of books when I travel, without having to lug an actual suitcase full of books; and 2) I can read new, hardcover books when they come out, even if I don't actually want to have to find space for when I'm done reading them.

Plus, it's already saved my Cool Aunt cred once. When my whole family went to central Kansas this winter for my grandma's birthday party, we piled my niece and nephew into the two cars for the 3-hour drive from Kansas City without much attention to what gear was where. As a result, my eight-year-old niece ended up in the car that did _not_ have her books--or anything else to pass the time--in it. And she was sharing the back seat with her Aunt Kathryne, who had a sore throat and was in no shape to read aloud, or even chat much.

As Bertie Wooster would say, it was but the work of a moment with me to download Frindle onto my new device and pass it over. Not only did Julia take to the book without a word of complaint, but oh my giddy aunt, the joy when she realized she was reading a real live chapter book--not an easy reader--all by herself will probably be my biggest thrill for a while.

Two things, however, really bother me about the Kindle: 1) It might break, and probably will wear out someday; and 2) I have to watch the battery. Both of those things are the opposite of what's good about books.

The experience of reading on a Kindle differs from reading a book in a couple of significant ways. For one--as my niece discovered--you can't glean the kind of information about what you're reading from the Kindle screen as you can from a physical book. (In my niece's case, this was a good thing: if I'd handed her a paperback of Frindle, she might have gotten freaked out by its chapter-book-ness and not tried to read it alone.)

For another, you can't flip to the end and read the last page to make sure everything turns out all right. This has been a long habit of mine: I like being able to concentrate on the story without actually worrying about the characters.

But I couldn't do that with The Little Stranger. I just had to stay up late and finish it. And the ending was far more creepy and satisfying that way than it would have been if I had flipped to the last page. I am so impressed with the effect that I'm using all my willpower not to flip to the end of The Help, which I'm reading in paper copy (thanks, Mom!).

I'll be interested to see what happens with e-books and e-publishing over the next few years. After all, I've been through six different formats for listening to music in my lifetime (seven if you count "being in the same room with someone playing an instrument"), but books have always been books. I hope that the Kindle and the Sony e-Reader and whatever else they come up with will live happily alongside the wall of bookcases in my living room.

13 January 2010

This would be a lot easier if it were actually the 1890s.

The plumber, in between valiant efforts to find the part that would fix the boiler and give me back my heat and hot water, has been laughing at my attempts to think of my frigid flat as a London Adventure: "You know Dickens died a long time ago, right?"

The fact is, I'd be perfectly happy to go back to the late 19th century, when my house was built to deal with lack of steam heat because radiators hadn't been invented yet. If there were still a fireplace in the bedroom... if the fireplace in the living room produced more heat than decorative light... if bed warmers were still a standard household appliance; if my everyday clothes still included yards of wool and layers upon layer of crinoline: if only I lived in the world this house was built for. Granted, I'd be breathing soot and confined, by my sex, to the home, but at least I'd be warm there!

As it is, I'm wearing three layers of clothes and spending most of my time under a thick afghan, engaged in the very ladylike Victorian pursuit of embroidery. And drinking hot tea. Lots and lots of hot tea.

Anyone have other keeping-warm ideas? My landlady suggested making a dinner that required lots of prep work and a 250-degree (centigrade) oven, but I shudder at the idea of washing the cookpots and roasting pan in cold water.

New Year's Resolutions

Last year I resolved not to make any resolutions. That turned out to be effective--I didn't break a single one!--but not much fun. The truth is, I like making resolutions. I like the planning of it, and the dreaming, and the list-making.

This year I have only a few, and this blog is one of them.

I'll post as often as I feel like it. I'll talk about what I'm reading, watching, or listening to; I'll post any new insights about the writing life (anyone interested in my old insights can find them in the archives of The Longstockings, a blog you're probably already reading anyway); I'll tell you about life in England and travels further afield.

In short, I'll write you a letter every so often. I look forward to hearing back from you!