Friday, July 25, 2014

Best Books of July

Here are the best books that I read this month (so far). As always, the summaries and covers come from Goodreads; the reviews are mine.

Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout

In a voice more powerful and compassionate than ever before, New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Strout binds together thirteen rich, luminous narratives into a book with the heft of a novel, through the presence of one larger-than-life, unforgettable character: Olive Kitteridge. 
At the edge of the continent, Crosby, Maine, may seem like nowhere, but seen through this brilliant writer’s eyes, it’s in essence the whole world, and the lives that are lived there are filled with all of the grand human drama–desire, despair, jealousy, hope, and love.

At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town and in the world at large, but she doesn’t always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance; a former student who has lost the will to live; Olive’s own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse.

As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life–sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition–its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires.

Review: This collection of linked short stories centers around Olive Kitteridge, a retired math teacher and mother of a grown son. The stories examine Olive from every angle. She is the main character in some of them and briefly mentioned in others, but they all show the impact that one woman can have in a small town.

Olive is a complex and fascinating character. She is big, loud, blunt, and opinionated. She is self-centered, abusive, judgmental, unkind, and manipulative. She refuses to apologize for her mistakes. She eavesdrops and talks behind people's backs. Many of her students were afraid of her. She is independent, strong, funny, and in control. She is amazingly perceptive and willing to help anyone who needs it. She loves her husband and son fiercely. She is a very realistic human being.

Like most short story collections, I did get bored with a few of the stories. I also felt like a few of them went over my head. The author was saying something deep that I wasn't quite getting. However, the majority of the stories are brilliant. This book is entertaining and beautifully written. 

The stand-out stories for me are "Pharmacy," "A Little Burst," "A Different Road," "Ship In A Bottle," and "Security."

In "Pharmacy," Olive's husband develops a crush on the plain and unassuming (and complete opposite of Olive) young woman who works for him in his pharmacy.

In "A Little Burst," Olive's only son gets married to a woman who Olive does not like, and she finds small ways to make the woman's life difficult.

In "A Different Road," Olive and her husband are held hostage in a hospital bathroom by a gunman, but the argument that they have while trapped in the bathroom is the most traumatizing part of the experience. I love the humor in this story. It's tied with "Security" as my favorite in the collection.

In "Ship In A Bottle," an eleven-year-old girl knows where her older sister (one of Olive's former students) has gone, but she doesn't tell her crazy mother.

In "Security," Olive goes to visit her son for the first time in years and ends up causing trouble in the airport security line.

I have to warn you that many of the stories in this collection are depressing. The characters' emotions are raw and realistic. But, if you don't mind that, this is a great collection.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas – John Boyne

Berlin 1942 
When Bruno returns home from school one day, he discovers that his belongings are being packed in crates. His father has received a promotion and the family must move from their home to a new house far far away, where there is no one to play with and nothing to do. A tall fence running alongside stretches as far as the eye can see and cuts him off from the strange people he can see in the distance. 
But Bruno longs to be an explorer and decides that there must be more to this desolate new place than meets the eye. While exploring his new environment, he meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different to his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences.

Review: Well, that was depressing.

I've read enough WWII novels to know that they don't usually have happy endings, but this one blindsided me. Possibly because it was in the young adult section of the bookstore, and the endings of young adult books are usually more hopeful. Maybe I missed it, but I couldn't find much hope in this.

This book is about nine-year-old Bruno. His family moves from Berlin to "Out-With," and he makes friends with a boy who lives on the other side of a big fence.

Depending on how you look at it, this book could have a lot to criticize. Is it historically accurate? No. Are the child characters realistic? No. Are there believability problems? Yes, tons of them (such as the hole in the unpatrolled fence). Is there English wordplay that wouldn't translate to German? Yes, tons of it. Is the writing style unusual? Yes. Is the author heavy-handed with delivering his message? Yes.

None of that bothered me because I didn't see this book as historical fiction. It is a modern-day fable. Like many fables, it is told from a third-person omniscient viewpoint, so there is distance between the reader and the characters. The reader is a helpless observer, just like Bruno is a helpless observer. Like many fables, there is wordplay and repetition and simplistic language. The moral is made very clear: no group of people is better than any other group of people. By using English wordplay, not being historically accurate, and not using the name of the camp, the author shows that the message applies to the entire world and not just to Nazi Germany. People are being treated inhumanely all over the world, even today.

This is not historical fiction. This is a work of art. In my opinion, the best artwork is controversial and makes people think. Successful artwork sparks passionate responses. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas does that. I love the juxtaposition between Bruno's innocence and the horrors being committed on the other side of the fence. Other people will disagree, but I think that this book is a brilliant work of art.

Eleanor & Park – Rainbow Rowell

Two misfits. 
One extraordinary love. 
Eleanor... Red hair, wrong clothes. Standing behind him until he turns his head. Lying beside him until he wakes up. Making everyone else seem drabber and flatter and never good enough...Eleanor.

Park... He knows she'll love a song before he plays it for her. He laughs at her jokes before she ever gets to the punch line. There's a place on his chest, just below his throat, that makes her want to keep promises...Park.

Set over the course of one school year, this is the story of two star-crossed sixteen-year-olds—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.

Review: This book is adorable. Eleanor is the new girl in school, and the first person who she meets is a boy named Park. What follows is probably one of the most realistic teen romances that I have ever read.

Neither of these characters is perfect. Their bodies aren't perfect, their minds aren't perfect, their lives aren't perfect, and their romance isn't perfect. They are both awkward and unsure of themselves. They have misunderstandings because neither of them are great at communicating. Neither of them have much experience with romance. Sometimes the relationship moves quickly, and at other times it's painfully slow. The romance is realistic and handled well by the author.

If I had to find things to criticize, Eleanor's stepfather was stereotypical, and I never really understood what her mother saw in him. The constant point-of-view switches were slightly distracting. I loved seeing the romance from each characters' point-of-view, but I wish that the sections were longer so that there was less switching back and forth. 

I really enjoyed this book. I'm glad that I randomly stumbled across it in the bookstore.


All The Things = 21 books.

I’m currently reading: It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini.

Friday, July 18, 2014

What Are Writing Conferences Really Like?

The first word that comes to mind is “exhausting.” The second is “expensive.” The third is “awesome.”

What is a writing conference, and where can I find one?

A writing conference is an event that is usually put on by a university, a group of universities, or some kind of organization for writers. They usually last about three days and consist of classes, lectures, events, readings, and panels about writing and publishing. These things are often referred to as “sessions.” There are sometimes agents and editors there to hear pitches and do critiques. The best place to find a conference is probably Google. I found conferences in my area by Googling “writing conferences in Colorado.”

Where are conferences usually held?

University campuses, convention centers, and hotels seem to be very common.

I found a conference. How do I know if it’s a good one?

Look at the schedule. There should be a schedule of events and sessions on the conference’s website. If there are a bunch of sessions on the schedule that interest you, then it’s probably a good one. If there are only a few that interest you, then it’s probably not worth the money to attend.

What happens at a conference?

First, you check in and usually get a goodie bag and a name tag. Make sure you get there early because you sometimes have to wait in line to check in. Then, you follow the schedule. There are usually a lot of sessions happening at once, so before you get to the conference, read the schedule and pick which ones you want to attend. You most likely won’t be able to go to everything. Sessions usually last between 30 and 60 minutes each. Be aware that sessions occasionally run over their allotted time, and you might have to rush to your next session. If you have time before or during the conference, it might be helpful to find the rooms where all of your sessions are held so that you don’t make yourself more late by getting lost.

Most of your time will be spent sitting in sessions. Be prepared to sit until your butt is numb. It’s surprising how exhausting it can be to sit and take notes all day. Conferences usually start early in the morning (between 6 and 8 am) and go until the afternoon (between 4 and 7 pm).

What should I bring to the conference?

The schedule, food, water, comfortable clothes, comfortable shoes, a jacket, a way to take notes, medication (for headaches and backaches from uncomfortable chairs), money, and a backpack to carry everything. Bring business cards or bookmarks if you’re a published author with a book to sell.

How much does it cost?    

Some conferences offer a discount to students with a high school or college ID. You can attend those conferences for as little as $15. Some conferences offer scholarships so that you can go for free (if you win the scholarship). You can sometimes save money if you register early. The price often goes up as you get closer to the conference date. Some conferences offer discounts if you are a member of the organization that is sponsoring/hosting the conference. In my experience, most conferences cost between $100 and $400. There are often books for sale, so if you’re a book hoarder like me, bring money for books. Some conferences will feed you, but be prepared to pay extra for it.

Pitches/critiques/workshops/master classes/contests/special events?

Most conferences offer additional experiences that you can pay for, if you’re interested. You could pitch your manuscript to an agent, have it critiqued by an editor, participate in a workshop, attend special classes, enter your writing in a contest, or have dinner with a well-known author. These things usually cost extra. The cost varies a lot, so check the conference website. You probably have to sign up early for these special events because they fill up fast.

Are conferences worth it?

In my experience, yes. You meet a lot of interesting people and learn a lot. It’s like a mini version of going to college for writing, but you don’t have any homework, and it doesn’t take years.

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Lesson In Being Realistic From “The Simpsons’”

First, we’ve just had our 1000th hit on this blog. I know that some of those are referrer spam, but I’m excited anyway. Thank you for reading.


One of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons’ is “Diatribe of a Mad Housewife.” In that episode, Homer buys an ambulance, and Marge meets an author named Esmé Delacroix during an author reading at a bookstore. While listening to the reading, Marge decides that she could write a romance novel, even though she’s never attempted to write one before. During the Q&A after the reading, Marge asks Esmé, “If I write a book, will they tell me when it comes out?” Esmé’s response is, “Well, they should.”

Marge missed one of the most difficult steps in the writing process: actually finding someone to publish your work.

For the last few years, I’ve been working as an editor for a literary journal and an anthology. One of the best things that learning to be an editor has taught me is how to be realistic about publishing. It can be insanely difficult to get your work published. I know that new writers hear this all the time, but I don’t think they fully grasp the meaning of “insanely difficult.”

Here’s an example. We finished editing our anthology a few months ago. The anthology received nearly 400 submissions from authors all over the world. Do you know how many of those submissions we’re publishing? Twenty-seven. That’s it. Twenty-seven out of nearly 400. It’s not because we only got twenty-seven good submissions. We received hundreds of good submissions, and we spent a lot of time discussing them before we decided which ones to accept and which ones to reject. We’re publishing those twenty-seven submissions because they’re well-written and represent the theme of the anthology. We had to reject a lot of great submissions because they just didn’t fit with the theme of the anthology.

Over the last few years, I’ve learned that getting your writing published is about talent and luck. Yes, you have to be a good writer, but you also have to find an editor/publisher/company/journal/anthology that’s publishing the kind of stuff that you write. The twenty-seven writers who will be published in our anthology are all extremely talented, but they were also lucky enough to stumble across the submission guidelines for an anthology that was looking for the kind of stuff that they write.

Many rejection letters contain some version of the phrase, “Thank you for submitting, but this piece isn’t what we’re looking for right now.” That’s not a lie or a platitude. Your piece really isn’t what they’re looking for right now. That’s where the “insanely difficult” comes in. It can be hard to know what they’re looking for, even if you’re familiar with the type of work that they publish. All you can really do is submit and hope that you get lucky.

In “Diatribe of a Mad Housewife,” Marge did get lucky. Her novel was published and sold a lot of copies, despite getting horrible reviews. Publishing in real life isn’t quite that simple.     

Friday, July 4, 2014

Pictures From Kentucky

A few weeks ago, I posted that I took some pictures of my trip to Kentucky. Here they are. I spent most of my time on the Spalding University campus, so the pictures are of buildings on or around the campus.