The last time I tried to do NaNoWriMo …

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… I basically crashed and burned. It was last year, November 2015. I started out fairly well, as far as my word count and trying to do some amount of writing every day. I started writing the second book in what I’m hoping will be a three-book series. I had been trying to write the first book in said series from late March through October, with sidesteps to put together and publish (at least in ebook format) my collection of poems, and the kind of delays that one encounters when one also has a family and a full-time job. To do National Novel Writing Month “correctly,” the writer can do all kinds of planning before November, but no actual writing until November 1. So, I put aside my work-in-progress and started writing the follow-up. At the end of November 2015, I had two incomplete novels instead of only one!

What happened last year was basically the same thing that happens to me every November: I had several days when I was seriously depressed. Don’t get me wrong: depression can hit me any day or week of the year, in any kind of weather, with no regard for whatever else I might have had planned. But for many years, perhaps as far back as my teenage years, November has been my most difficult month.

The following paragraphs are what I posted on Facebook (where I’d also been posting updates about my NaNoWriMo efforts) on November 22, 2015.

If you don’t like to think about depression, just skip this one.

I had planned to go to a write-in yesterday afternoon at the library, to try to add a few thousand more words to my November work-in-progress (for National Novel Writing Month). A lot of the morning and early afternoon, I was roped into trying to fix Ryan’s laptop — which had frozen Friday night, but had also just been returned to us Thursday before last with a brand new hard drive. Seriously, EIGHT DAYS after getting it back, it has some DIFFERENT but still MAJOR problem that makes it unusable??? And I don’t know a lot about fixing computers, and no matter what I tried it didn’t work.

A little before 2pm, instead of getting in the shower, I got into bed. (I was still in my pajamas.) Before long, I was crying. I cried off and on for the rest of the afternoon and evening. I got a headache that wouldn’t quit, and my eyes were sore. Much like last Sunday, not only was I too depressed to write, I was too depressed to read. I watched some Hallmark Channel in between bouts of crying. Later, the four of us watched an episode of The Middle, but I quickly started to feel sick. I felt sweat all over me — my arms were resting on the table, and the table was noticeably DAMP under my arms, it was wild. I tried hard not to vomit, but it didn’t work. I’ve continued to be intermittently nauseated since then, but only threw up the one time, thank God.

So, the headache. It’s only the last couple hours that it seems to be gone. The headache and my busy crazy mind kept me up most of the night. I didn’t go to sleep until between 10 and 11, but I was awake again by 1230am, and slept little from then until 630 or 7am. I ate a little, drank some water, took Tylenol for my headache, and read this old novel I had read as a teenager and just recently figured out the title and author again. I couldn’t sleep, but at least I could read.

I recently started reading the new book by Jenny Lawson, Furiously Happy: a Funny Book about Horrible Things. I won’t finish it soon: it is due back to the library today, but since I am *still* in my pajamas, it might be slightly overdue. Anyway, Lawson is mostly very funny, but a lot of the book (based on my understanding of it, and the little I read) is about her experiences with depression and other mental illnesses. There’s one sentence in the Author’s Note that particularly struck me: “Imagine having a disease so overwhelming that your mind causes you to want to murder yourself.”

If you want to read that last sentence again, please feel free.

And yet, so many of us also feel ashamed, a sense of personal weakness and failure, and hopelessness. I’m not supposed to be writing any of this, right? I’m not supposed to admit that I feel like garbage sometimes, that 30 years after I spent a couple of months in a psychiatric hospital, I *still* think sometimes about hurting myself, and wonder if I have the strength to go on.

And November is THE WORST. The idea that I would try to write a novel during November, when really, any day that I shower and get out of the house should count as a damn victory in my personal battle of life, is basically a fantasy goal that is doomed to fail. (The only time I didn’t have episodes of Seasonal Affective Disorder during November was when I lived in Arizona. I might win NaNoWriMo someday if I live in AZ again.) I’ve accepted that, and I don’t plan to write today. I will keep writing, but not to that November deadline. I just can’t deal.

Ryan’s laptop. I don’t know. It ain’t happening today.

Today. Today, Jeff and I have been married for 18 years. We were supposed to have some kid-free time today, to probably go out to dinner, maybe watch a movie. Did I mention that I’m writing this in bed, and that I haven’t showered all weekend?!? Jeff has been so helpful and sympathetic since my mood went south yesterday. I know I’m not easy to live with a lot of the time, and yet he keeps me around. He’s also encouraged the boys to behave themselves, and not add to my stress level, and they’ve mostly complied. For these things, I am thankful.

I hope your weekend has been better than mine. I hope tomorrow will be better for me, too. I hope I can sleep tonight. I’m looking forward to the long Thanksgiving weekend … and soon after that, to the end of another November.

Happy holiday week. May you all have reasons to smile. If you can’t think of any, then you might want to read some Jenny Lawson.

[And now, back to the present day, when I remember that my blog doesn’t have enough photos. Here’s the profile picture that accompanies that Facebook post. It is me with my late cat Mia, taken an incredibly long time ago, but even though Mia’s been gone over two years now, I still haven’t wanted to change my FB photo.]

marie-and-mia

This year, my only goal for NaNoWriMo is to finish a mostly coherent draft of that ever-changing first novel. I’m only counting my “new” words, but instead of 50K, I only need to write 15-20K. I’m currently at 6578, and I’m off from work tomorrow, and the marathon write-in is the day after that. Tomorrow, I’m going to get my existing scenes in order, and make a short list/outline of the scenes I need to write to finish a solid draft.

But also, you might be wondering, how is my mood? It seems strange to say, but … and I don’t want to say it too loud … it’s not too bad. Actually, for November, it’s been pretty great — knock on wood! The first couple days of the month were kind of blue, but other than that, it’s been okay. (I will not talk about the election, and other signs that the apocalypse might be coming sooner than we thought. Sometimes, having an entertaining fictional world as a retreat is a real blessing!) I’m not sure why it’s been easier this year — though probably our above-average temperatures have played some part in it — but mostly I want to enjoy it, and be as productive as my mood lets me be.

Onward, and maybe upward!

Help me support a worthy cause

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[TL;DR: I’m donating a portion of the sales of my poetry book, from now through the end of the year, to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. There’s more info about them, and links, in the post below. My ebook is only 99 cents, a small amount for most people, and the more copies I sell, the more money I can donate! Whether you get ebooks from Amazon, Apple’s iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, or Smashwords, just click here, and then choose the link to your preferred vendor from that page. Thank you!]

Part of the description for my poetry collection (titled, appropriately enough, Happenings, Heartbeats, and Mental Breakdowns) states that the book might bring comfort to people who have suffered from depression or another mental illness. This is because I’ve struggled with depression since I was about ten years old, and I’ve been in counseling off and on since I was twelve. A lot of my poems have dark undertones, and explore the shadowy places that will be familiar to many people who have battled depression. Some of them include signs of hope and light, but there are a couple that really don’t. Still, I remember that quote from the movie Shadowlands: “We read to know we are not alone.” One takeaway from even my darkest poems is this: if you’ve ever felt hopeless, if you’ve experienced despair, if you’ve lost someone you loved and thought the grief would swallow you whole, You Are Not Alone. I have been where you are, and there are many others who have been there, too, and might be there today.

The second takeaway: I am still here. Some days I want to give up, and other days, I can’t even GET up. But a little time passes, I gather as much strength as I can (and I probably grab some caffeine and/or chocolate), and I face another day. I am alive, I am employed, I have a family, and I’m still (albeit intermittently) pursuing my goal of becoming a better writer.

It’s true that novels generally sell better than short stories. I don’t have numbers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if story collections, in turn, sell better than poetry. Yet I can’t help thinking, my poetry collection is pretty good, and there are potential readers out there who would enjoy the book, and see themselves reflected in some of the poems. And a few days ago, I had this idea: instead of only promoting my book, I could “pay it forward.”

Happenings new ebook blue (1)

From now through the end of this year, I’ll donate 25% of the net sales of my poetry book to a non-profit organization that helps people who have depression or a similar mental illness. I am leaning toward the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, which I had heard of, but I honestly didn’t know anything about them. When I started looking at their website, the thing that impressed me first was reading this statement on their “About DBSA” page, in the section about what makes them different from other mental health-related non-profits:

Peer-led: More than half of the DBSA staff and board members live with a mood disorder and all DBSA support groups are facilitated by peers
And I thought, Wait a second … a lot of the people running the organization and employed there are fighting the same battles as the people seeking help. Hmmm. As I continued clicking around, I found a Media Kit, and an information sheet about the current president of DBSA, Allen Doederlein. He is introduced with this:
Allen Doederlein has been president of DBSA since 2011, an executive with the organization since 2009. Doederlein first experienced a mood disorder at age 17, the third generation of his family to do so.

My father told me that he had his own “nervous breakdowns” at ages thirteen and seventeen. He was diagnosed as manic-depressive (i.e. bipolar) during or soon after that second breakdown, circa 1959. He had some number of shock treatments during that time period, long before I was born. When I was a teenager myself, already struggling with depression, it sometimes felt like I had two different fathers: my “regular” dad (to be clear, I wouldn’t really call him “normal” even then), and my “manic” dad. It wasn’t just his behavior that changed, or the fact that he wouldn’t stop talking; even his voice was different. Anyway, supporting an organization that focuses on depression and bipolar disorder would honor my dad’s memory, and help others with the same condition, as well as people with depression.

The other thing that pointed me toward DBSA is their high ratings on Charity Navigator (four out of four stars, overall score of 93.83 out of 100) and on GuideStar, which identifies DBSA as a “Platinum-level” organization. These rankings have convinced me that not only is this a legitimate non-profit organization, but it’s committed to doing good, to helping people who desperately need it. They stress the importance of the “lived experience” of people living with mood disorders, as well as a commitment to helping the family members of people battling these illnesses.

My book is very reasonably priced, and from now until the end of the year, I’ll give 25% of my net profits to a worthy non-profit — probably DBSA. (You know, unless there’s some terrible news about them between now and the end of the year, courtesy of WikiLeaks or an old Access Hollywood recording … please Lord, don’t let anything like that happen!) With this one link, you’ll find a landing page to choose your preferred ebook vendor, and click through to buy Happenings, Heartbeats, and Mental Breakdowns. If you want a print version, that’s only available through Amazon — again, same link. If you want to buy a signed copy directly from me, please email me at lightedlakepress (at) gmail (dot) com to find out more!

My poetry book is available through Overdrive!

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For many devoted readers of ebooks, the only thing better than being able to purchase an ebook and download it to their device almost instantaneously, is being able to borrow an ebook from their local library, for free, and download it immediately to their device. Books in any format can be expensive, and sometimes it’s harder to justify buying an ebook because you don’t have an actual physical thing. (Or maybe that’s my age talking. And also, who am I kidding? Pretty much everything is expensive. Life is expensive, dammit.)

As a lifelong fan of libraries, and as a librarian, it was always my goal to have my book available to library users. I’m thrilled to tell you that the ebook of my poetry collection, Happenings, Heartbeats, and Mental Breakdowns, is now available to libraries through Overdrive! You can see more information right here.

If your local library provides access to ebooks using Overdrive, please consider letting them know about my book and asking if they’ll purchase it for the library’s ebook collection. I think it only costs them a few dollars. (Even better for you, Dear Reader, is that it costs you nothing!) Thank you very much!

As always, happy reading!

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In which I count the ways I love the Book Fight! podcast

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Okay, I admit, I’m not really “counting.” This is just a list of reasons, in no particular order, that Book Fight! is my favorite podcast.

It’s about books, reading, writing, and other book-adjacent topics. But, its hosts are comfortable following all kinds of tangents to almost anywhere. (This second part is not for everyone, but I myself am totally on board with the tangents.)

Speaking of the hosts, their names are Mike Ingram and Tom McAllister. The first thing I love about them, as hosts, is that while they have occasional guests, there are never guest hosts. The only episodes that featured only Tom or only Mike were the AWP bonus episodes, the one year that Tom went to the AWP Conference and Mike stayed back in Philadelphia. I appreciate that level of commitment, where they’ll sometimes record two or three episodes in advance if one of them is going to be out of town, so listeners will always have both of them on the show.

The whole atmosphere of the show is very relaxed. The two guys have been friends for at least ten years, I think, having met when they both attended the highly-respected Iowa Writers’ Workshop. They usually record in Tom’s basement (aka “the Book Fight! Basement”), and often drink beer while they record. They swear a lot, so if you’re offended by mature language, this show is NOT for you. In many episodes, one of them will make a questionable comment, followed by the statement, “We’ll probably just cut that,” or, “Might want to edit that out.” I have no idea how often they actually DO edit things out, but considering the amount of stuff they say they’ll cut but never do, I’m guessing that almost all of it stays in. So they say a lot of goofy or potentially offensive things, but they’re very self-aware and often poke fun at themselves as well as one another.

Other common occurrences to listen for:

The skillful transition from one segment or topic to another, which is immediately made less impressive because they still can’t resist calling attention to what a good transition it was;

The mispronunciation of many words and names, which they usually apologize for and try to correct, but even after that they might still get it wrong, but you forgive them because it’s endearing and you know they don’t mean any harm — except maybe with the name Coetzee because that was sort of a running gag of its own;

Mentions of their ongoing “feud” with Hobart magazine (which I’m pretty sure is a joke), and their strong dislike for Narrative magazine (which is definitely not a joke);

Tom’s tendency in the earlier episodes to say he was “on the Tweeters” when he talked about Twitter;

Reminders that Mike is from The South, even though he has no southern accent at all;

All the times that Tom uses the words “rage” or “enraged,” which unfortunately DOES paint him as “the Angry One” even though he dislikes that moniker;

All the times that Mike uses the word “delightful,” sometimes paired with a hearty and genuine laugh, which unfortunately adds to the perception that Tom is “the Angry One”;

Mentions of Tom’s wife, who sounds like a glorious and kind person who has the patience of a saint;

Mike talking about his bad memory, and corresponding evidence to support that statement — for example, the fact that they’ve done a ton of episodes, and Mike is the one who edits them, but he usually forgets if it’s the rating or recommendation that comes first, as well as who is supposed to rate first;

and last but certainly not least, mentions of Matthew Quick, aka “Q,” and references to his novel The Silver Linings Playbook (including the extra-long special episode where Mike and Tom discussed and dissected the book, and explored Tom’s frustration with the book’s success).

 

The thing that really hooked me on Book Fight! was the way it made me laugh — specifically, this exchange from the episode Writers Ask: Take This Job and Shove It:

T: This question is from Mike P. — not you, Mike P.

M: I wonder if “P” stands for “Pterodactyl.”

T: (laughs) Mike Pterodactyl. He’s the last of his kind.

M: Do you think that, if you have a name where the first letter is silent, do you still abbreviate it as that letter?

T: Like Mike Pt., or would it be Mike T.?

M: So if you knew a guy named Mike Pterodactyl —

T: (laughing)

M: — and somebody said like, “Hey, Mike P.!” I feel like you might be like, “Wait, wait, who are they talking about?”

T: Mike Pterodactyl. Ah —

M: Although I guess if your last name was Pterodactyl, people would probably just not shorten it, cuz that’s an awesome last name.

T: It sounds like a gumshoe’s name: Detective Mike Pterodactyl, swooping in.

M: (Laughs.) Sorry to derail the question. Sorry, Mike.

T: No, that’s actually, he didn’t ask a question, it just says “From Mike P.” Do with it what you will.

M: Just talk about my name.

T: No, Mike P. has kind of a sad question, actually. Prepare yourself.

(Mike P. recently lost his job as an adjunct teacher at “Giant State University.”)

T: So there was a school at a Giant where there was a creative writing class taught by a pterodactyl … this sounds amazing.

(Tom and Mike go on to discuss the cons of being an adjunct in academia instead of a regular member of the teaching staff.)

T: With no job security, no insurance … the fact that you can lose your job two days before the semester [starts], like the pterodactyl did.

What starts as an amusing, off-the-cuff comment from Mike, is then woven into a more serious conversation about the difficulties of adjunct positions in universities. When I first heard this episode, I was one of those people who still couldn’t tell which voice was Mike and which was Tom, but it didn’t matter: once I’d been introduced to Mike Pterodactyl, I was all in on Book Fight!

In my opinion, one of the funniest episodes ever is Episode 50, the 2013 Christmas Spectacular, where they discuss a slightly Christmas-themed romance novella by Lori Foster, and the book The Christmas Wedding by James Patterson and Some Other Guy. (The holiday episodes always feature two books.) I’m not sure how many times I’ve listened to it, but there are parts of it that still make me laugh out loud. “That’s just Gabby!” “She’s a menace!” I also love the “sex montage” in the romance novella, where according to Mike and Tom, there’s a sort of “camera” that pans from one bedroom to the next, where we get bits of conversation, before each of the couples start having sex. (Truthfully, any time the guys tackle a romance novel, the results are delightful.)

A few of my other favorites:

Spring of Spite: Richard Yates, “Oh Joseph, I’m So Tired” — The discussion of the story is solid, and Mike and Tom both enjoyed reading it, but my favorite part of the episode is the story Mike found on Reddit, about the guy with all the pies. Priceless!

Episode 95: Elissa Washuta, “Consumption” — This episode might hold the record for Greatest Number of Minutes Into the Episode Before the Book/Essay/Story is Finally Introduced. Tom has a novel coming out in the not-too-distant-future-we-hope, and a couple days before they recorded this episode, his publisher told him to come up with a different title for the book. The guys feel bad about short-changing the essay, which they both liked, but the Epic Title Discussion just couldn’t be contained.

Writers Ask: Here Comes Your 19th Nervous Breakdown — This is another one I’ve listened to so many times I’ve lost count. Mike is feeling down in the dumps, as the novel he’s been writing for a significant amount of time just isn’t coming together. Even though he has reservations about National Novel Writing Month (though Tom has a stronger dislike for it, as documented in the Writers Ask episode NaNoWriMoNoNo), Mike is considering whether he should actually participate in it, to give himself time and distance from his troublesome writing project, and force him to think about something completely different. The trip into the NaNoWriMo forums is hysterical, resulting in an idea for a book called “Jerk Ghost,” as well as questions like, “Do you think all the characters are just named after third-rate sodas?” and, “Are the answers that this person is insane and they’re experiencing a psychotic break?” This ep also shows a less angry side of Tom, who says at one point, “I’m trying to comfort you here!” Good job, Tom!

Actually, all of the episodes that feature NaNoWriMo provide some laughs, so just go to bookfightpod.com and search for “nanowrimo” to track them down. (The 2015 episodes are slightly less funny because Tom’s feelings about the enterprise have mellowed, but they still include wacky questions from the forums.)

Fall of Failure #8: Brian Oliu and the Psychology of Failure — Sometimes, the guys do tackle bigger subjects and have substantive, thought-provoking conversations. Their exploration here of the “psychology of failure” is a great example.

One last point that is minor for some people, but I feel it needs to be said: the file size for each episode is ALWAYS REASONABLE. There are times when I want to download an episode of some other podcast, and it’s like 80 or even 100 MB for maybe an hour-long show, or even less than that. If you see an episode of Book Fight! that tips 40 MB, you can be sure you’re getting over an hour of Mike and Tom doing their thing.

In the weeks since I decided to write a blog post documenting my endless affection for Book Fight!, I’ve realized there’s one thing that’s still missing from my life that would definitely have come in handy: an episode index! Their website is great, and the search function works, but if I were independently wealthy and had a chunk of time to devote to a project with limited real-world value that would bring me many hours of contentment and laughter, I would totally start compiling that index.

But for now, this is one affectionately counted round in the books.

(Ready? Click one of the links above, buckle up, and listen to the award-winning Book Fight! podcast!)

Writing, or reading? Can I do both, maybe?

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Here’s a three-minute overview of my past nine months of writing (or trying to write) fiction — specifically, a romance novel. First, start with the germ of an idea, and “pants” through several chapters. Realize there isn’t enough conflict, change some things, and start over with basically the same characters but different circumstances. Work on that in fits and starts through spring and summer, deepening the conflicts and doing more planning and plotting, but staying flexible enough to follow inspiration when it sidesteps the original ideas. As November approaches, resolve to do NaNoWriMo, starting fresh on what will eventually be book two of this series. Manage to battle back against the usual November depression, and stagger through the regular family/work/life responsibilities, and write over 25,000 words on this second book, while still watching a decent number of holiday movies on Hallmark Channel (for which I am usually a huge sucker), and preparing to participate in the local author fair by finishing the print copy of my poetry book and ordering 35 copies. Realize during NaNoWriMo that it’s almost impossible for me to write love scenes (i.e. sex scenes) without feeling like a goofball, and that I also can’t write them with any amount of speed. So, the need to write intimate, sexy scenes in my romance novel definitely lowered my final word count. Idea number three: write a much shorter piece, unrelated to the two novels, that’s meant to be erotica, to see if I can actually do it (har har) and get past the sense that I’m a total dweeb and have no business writing sexy stuff.

And that’s pretty much where I’m at. Why do I feel like I need to include sex scenes in the novels when I find them so difficult to write? Because it’s true that romance sells, and fairly clean romance can also sell really well, but I have a sense (and I have no idea if it’s true, I could be completely wrong) that readers of steamier fare are more likely to take a chance on an unknown author, if the book cover and description hook them, and if the price is low. So, I have two romance novels that are somewhere around halfway done (the final books should be between 50K and 60K words), and a shorter story that’s currently over 8,000 words. Sometimes, the scenes and dialogue come easily, and other times, I can barely get anything out. Today, I went back to the first book, and after skimming through the last section I had written, and allowing myself to be distracted by Spotify as I tried to find music to suit my writing mood, I managed to add 208 words to that first novel, before deciding to write a new blog post, taking stock of my writing status. (I was also interrupted by my older son, who asked for help with questions about The Scarlet Letter. He is in tenth grade, and I haven’t read The Scarlet Letter since I was in tenth grade, so I had to review the chapter in order to help him out because I only remember the basics about the main characters, and very few details about the plot. Anyway, interruption added to distraction.)

The other thing that’s got me sidetracked from writing, is that I desperately wish I were reading more. I bought three new romance novels last week at a used book store, then yesterday, I bought three from the Chandler Booktique at TSCPL, then checked out four more! I’m currently reading a library book, and there are two others (one novel, one story anthology) that I’ve already renewed once but haven’t started reading. (I’ve also received a handful of mostly-older Harlequins through Bookmooch. I’m desperately trying to get my hands on the small batch of romances I read as a teen that have stayed in my mind all these years.) I would love to take a day, or even a weekend, and really lose myself in these books. If I pick one up and read a few chapters, and find that I haven’t lost myself, then maybe I could just put that one aside as a DNF (did not finish) and move along to something that fills me with happy. (I also have a few LibraryThing Early Reviewers books to read, the third just arriving this past week. Two are nonfiction, and the newest one is a novel that’s NOT romance. And I’ve been reading romance and erotica almost exclusively, along with books about writing and self-publishing, because that’s been my focus all these months.)

 

Library books on the left, newly acquired books on the right. (Plus a bit of bookcase in the back. Heaven help me.)

Library books on the left, newly acquired books on the right. (Plus a bit of a bookcase in the back of the picture. Heaven help me.)

Could I take one week to not think about writing, but just read as much as I can, get a few of the library books out of the way — either read and enjoyed, or started and rejected without guilt — and then hopefully jump back into working on that first romance novel with a fresh perspective, and without the distraction of all the library books I want to read? Can I just forgive myself for doing what I most want to do for a little while, if that thing is reading?

But then there’s that voice that says I need to keep writing, because I started this tiny publishing company dammit, and I need to actually get to the end of one of these projects — at least one, for crying out loud, because I can’t actually publish anything until it’s complete — then make a first pass at editing to clean up plot detours that ended up going a different way, and anything else that’s not coherent, so it’s good enough to send to an editor. I know I need to treat my business like a business, if I’m ever going to have a prayer of growing it.

Project for holiday downtime: maybe move this blog to WordPress?

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Since I started a (very very small) publishing company a few months ago, published my book of poetry, and have been working on writing novels (two in progress, zero finished so far), and have been learning more about self-publishing, I really need to reinvigorate this blog. I cleaned up a few things a couple months ago, but there’s still a lot to do, and I’m thinking it’s about time I switched from Blogger to WordPress. The guys who do The Self-Publishing Podcast (which I discovered when I found their book, Write. Publish. Repeat, at the library) have talked a bit about “digital sharecropping,” I think they called it, and the importance of having your own space on the internet. As long as I’m on Blogger, I’m basically at the mercy of Google. Like millions of other people, I love many things about Google, but the idea of controlling my own space is very appealing. My business, and my writing career, is still in its fledgling state, and will be for some months to come (but not years — please, Lord, let it be months and not years!), but I want it to grow and succeed. Getting a “real” web host, making the blog a bit more “professional,” and posting more often — even if it’s only short updates like this one — are reasonable steps I can take, and should take, toward gradually growing my business.

All that said, if you try to visit this blog again in the next few weeks and it’s messed up or temporarily missing, I’m probably trying to move it to a new host and a new template and running into technical difficulties … because that’s usually what I do. Wish me luck.
© All the parts of my life 2008-2015.

My review of The Happiest People in the World by Brock Clarke

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For the record: I received this book (an actual hardcover book!) for review from Algonquin Books, through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. This does not affect the content of my review, but since I truly did love the book, I’m incredibly thankful to have a “real” copy and not just an ARC.

I’ve delayed this review so long, I hardly know where to begin. So, I will begin at the beginning. The novel contains eight parts, with a total of 67 chapters. The lengths of the parts are wildly uneven: Part one contains chapter 1, which is only four pages long. It doesn’t quite function as a prologue, exactly, but sort of as a smoky glimpse of things to come. I use the word “smoky” to mean the scene is literally smoky. The first page of the book contains the sentence, “The smoke was so thick the moose head was barely able to see the people it was intended to spy on.” From the book’s jacket, the reader learns that the novel will include a cartoonist from Denmark — home of “the happiest people in the world” (except for that guy Hamlet, who I seem to recall was super unhappy) — and some CIA agents, and a high school principal in a small town in upstate New York, plus the principal’s wife. We know there are CIA agents, so the mention of spying right on the first page isn’t wholly unexpected.

Part two begins with chapter 2, in which we meet the aforementioned Danish cartoonist. The timing of my reading of this book was very strange. I got the book in October, but didn’t actually read it until early January. Only a few days after the attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, I found myself reading about a similar kind of situation in a fictitious newspaper in Denmark. I had waited too long to start reading the book, but ended up reading it almost simultaneously with current real-world events. In the novel, the reason the cartoonist draws a controversial cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad is quite mundane: his boss tells him to draw one. The reason the boss tells him to draw the cartoon is really a slap in the face for anyone who believes in freedom of expression: the editor hates his job, but the newspaper had been “owned and run by his family for almost two centuries. Quitting the paper would be like quitting his family” (p. 14). He realizes that if the paper prints a controversial cartoon, the backlash will require him to close up shop, and he’ll no longer be stuck in this job that he hates. (Selfish bastard.)

The newspaper offices are attacked, and the cartoonist’s house is burned down. The cartoonist is declared dead, but in reality, he’s alive and being protected by the CIA. After a couple few years of being shuttled here and there, the Danish cartoonist is given a new identity, Henry Larsen of Sweden. His CIA handler, a woman nicknamed Locs, travels with him to the US, then puts him on a bus to a little town in upstate New York called Broomeville. We learn that Locs used to live in Broomeville, and had an affair with the junior-senior high school principal, Matty. Although he had loved Locs, he’d broken it off with her and remained with his wife, Ellen, and their son, Kurt. Before bringing Henry to America, Locs got in contact with Matty, told him that she’d joined the CIA after their affair ended, and asked him if he had a job available for the man under her protection. Matty agrees to hire Henry Larsen as the school’s guidance counselor.

The novel’s plot is fairly complicated, and there are a number of quirky characters, but I felt most of the central characters were fleshed out and interesting. Although the details of the plot were far-fetched and improbable, the characters’ actions and emotions rang true. Locs still misses Matty, still loves him, although their affair ended seven years before. Ellen is still hurt by Matty’s betrayal, and when she hears someone else refer to him as “Matthew,” the name only Locs called him, she’s instantly suspicious. Their son Kurt, now a teenager, is intrigued by Henry, and curious about his sudden appearance in Broomeville, but also tells him impulsively when they first meet, “‘I’m definitely going to be needing your guidance counseling’” (p.77).

I found Brock Clarke’s writing to be propulsive. The book I read right before this one was a novella — I think it was less than 100 pages — and it took me about ten days to finish it. Then I started The Happiest People in the World, and I tore through it in three days. I thought the premise was interesting, and the first couple of chapters pulled me in quickly. In chapter 5, when Locs calls Matty to tell him she’s with the CIA and ask if he can give Henry a job, this paragraph appears:

“Fair enough,” Matty said, and immediately he wished he hadn’t. She had once accused him of saying that — “fair enough” — way too often and in response to things that weren’t fair enough at all, and then they’d gotten into a fight about it, his gist being, did she have to be such a bitch, and her gist being, she wouldn’t have to be such a bitch if he didn’t say “fair enough” all the time. (pp. 26-27)

I read that, laughed out loud, then walked to the other room and read the paragraph to my husband. From that point, I was all in on this novel. I liked the main characters, the secondary characters were pretty entertaining, the plot kept me guessing, but the thing I enjoyed most about the book was that tone, that voice, which could be funny, or serious, or sometimes both at the same time. The all-over-the-place feeling reminded me of my response to the novel A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz, which I read in 2011 and love love loved; this is the first time another novel reminded me of Toltz’s book. (That title links to my post about the book, in case wacky happenings are your thing.)

Here’s an extreme example, in which Ellen is driving Henry to the school in the snow, a ride that takes approximately one minute. If you like this, then you should definitely give this book a try.

In this way, Henry learned several things.That once Americans were out of the cold and in their trucks, they did not like to get back out into the cold, even if it meant making the inside of their trucks as cold as the outside; that American weathermen liked to refer to snow as “the white stuff”; that American sports talk radio announcers liked to say about something, “There’s no doubt about it,” before then expressing their many doubts about it; that American political commentators liked to preface their comments by saying, “No offense,” before then saying something offensive (the political commentator on the radio had said to whomever he was talking to, “No offense, but you have to be the stupidest human being on the planet”); that Americans were very impatient people with very short attention spans; that Americans believed as long as they were inside their trucks they were invisible, and that as long as they smoked cigarettes inside their trucks they would not then smell like cigarettes once they exited their trucks, and that in general Americans thought their trucks were magic; that while Europeans tended to think of Americans as people who liked to drive incredibly long distances in their pickup trucks, in fact Americans liked to drive incredibly short distances in their pickup trucks as well. These were the lessons Henry learned about Americans during his first minute in Ellen’s truck, and not once was he forced to reconsider them during all his days in Broomeville. (p. 92)

These are over-generalizations, of course, but there’s some amount of truth to them, in that everything in the paragraph sounds familiar to me. I’ve never driven a pickup truck, but I really do like my car, and most Americans seem to be quite fond of their motor vehicles. Meteorologists really do use the term “the white stuff” in areas of the country that get snowfall. Talk radio … well, no offense, but I think Clarke’s got the gist of it. If you can’t stand this paragraph, the book is probably not for you, although as I said, this is one of the more extreme examples. But, if you read it and thought, “Yes, I want more!” then you’ve come to the right place.

I loved taking the crazy journeys Clarke maps out in this novel. I was interested in his previous novel because of its unusual title, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, but hadn’t actually read it. Now that I’ve read The Happiest People twice, I decided to purchase that earlier book for my ereader. I don’t think I’ll be disappointed.

© All the parts of my life 2008-2015.

My favorite books of 2014

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This was a slightly disappointing reading year, in that I only read about 35 books. Part of this is because I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November and didn’t read much of anything as I tried to focus on writing. I also didn’t listen to as many audiobooks this year as I usually do, choosing more often to listen to podcasts. Still, I did read some very good stuff, and wanted to do a top ten list to make sure those books I enjoyed but didn’t review would get a little end-of-year attention.

1. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
This memoir by Roz Chast is the first graphic memoir/novel/anything that I’ve ever read. I bought the brand-new hardcover after hearing about it on the Slate Audio Book Club podcast. Listening to Dan Kois and Hanna Rosin reading a section in the voices of Roz’s parents, I was overcome with laughter, and also, having grown up in my own hoarders-like situation, I knew there would be parts I could relate to. This book is hysterically funny, at times heartbreaking, completely honest, and full of awesome. Everyone should read it.

2. Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky
In a year when I didn’t blog as much as I would have liked, and didn’t review as many books as I’d hoped to (in both cases, I realize that’s the same story as EVERY year, but I digress), I did post a review of this amazing debut novel by David Connerley Nahm. I skimmed through several best-of-the-year roundups online, and didn’t see this novel on any of them. WHY DO I HAVE TO SAY THIS AGAIN?? GO FIND THIS BOOK AND READ IT!!

3. Station Eleven
This is the fourth book by Emily St. John Mandel, and her breakout. I was lucky to be one of the first to get it from my local library, and I read the whole thing in one day, during the October Read-a-thon. It’s post-apocalyptic and literary, with both smarts and heart, and unlike the Nahm book, it actually DID make many best-of-the-year lists, deservedly so. Count me on the bandwagon.

4. Can’t and Won’t
Lydia Davis has become a favorite of mine, and this one, her latest collection of stories (some short, and some short-short), was a solid effort. A handful of the pieces didn’t do it for me, but overall, this book was a joy. Like Ancient Oceans, this is one I initially got from the library, and then bought my own copy because I liked it so much. I now have most of Davis’s books, and really I should just plan to buy the new ones as they come out because I can’t imagine not liking them.

5. The Days of Abandonment
This was the first book I read by elusive Italian author Elena Ferrante. I bought it at the library book sale a few years ago, and finally read it because of the World Cup of Literature event hosted by Three Percent. It was blisteringly angry, and also maybe a little crazy. I bought into it, and I loved it. I bought another Ferrante book soon after finishing this one, so definitely plan to read more of her.

6. Bluets
Like the Ferrante novel, this book by Maggie Nelson sat on my bedside table for a LOOONG TIIIIME, while I hoped to write a review or at least post some of the passages I liked best. (As usual, I didn’t get to it.) It’s hard to say whether this book is prose, or prose poetry, or something else I don’t have a name for. It consists of over 100 passages and short paragraphs, all numbered, all growing from thoughts about the color blue — thus the title. This book isn’t for everyone: there are F-bombs in it, and sexually graphic moments, and you might wonder if Nelson has them in there merely to shock the reader or to make some point that’s not entirely clear. But good heavens, a lot of the sections in the book are SO BEAUTIFUL, so finely-crafted and moving, I don’t even care about the comparatively small number that mention screwing and sodomy and what-have-you. I’d really like to read more by Nelson, and look forward to hearing what she’ll do next.

7. My Life in Middlemarch
This book by Rebecca Mead is part memoir, part biography of George Eliot, and part literary criticism/appreciation of Eliot’s novel Middlemarch. As a huge fan of Middlemarch, I was eager to read this book, and it didn’t disappoint. It brought me to tears several times. My only problem with it is that it’s the kind of book I would have wanted to write, and Mead has already written it, dammit. Since she’s British, and read Middlemarch far earlier in life than I did, she clearly had an advantage over me anyway, so I forgive her, and truly appreciate her work. Moreover, she brought attention to Middlemarch, and that makes me very happy.

8. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened
Confession: I listened to Jenny Lawson’s “mostly true memoir” on audio, very early in 2014, and haven’t revisited it. But when I looked at the list of books I read during the year, and saw this title, all I could think of was how incredibly funny it was — I mean laughed-till-I-cried, might-need-my-inhaler, almost-wetting-my-pants, loud-guffaws-in-public kind of funny. Anything that makes me laugh that hard is always worth my time. If you like funny books and you don’t mind one that includes at least 85 occurrences of the word “vagina,” give this one a shot.

9. Home Leave
I got an ARC of Brittani Sonnenberg’s debut novel from LibraryThing, so I’ve already written a review of it, and don’t need to say much more. I really admired all the different perspectives, and the variety of styles, that Sonnenberg used to tell this story. That willingness to experiment helps her to stand out from the crowd.

10. Bury Me in My Jersey
This one is a memoir by Tom McAllister, a writer who also co-hosts my favorite podcast, Book Fight! Because I love the podcast, I was probably predisposed to enjoy the book. Moreover, since it’s a memoir, and I know Tom’s voice from the podcast, I could “hear” him narrating as I read it. A big part of the book is about Tom’s adolescence and young adulthood in and around Philadelphia, and specifically his family’s devotion to the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Tom’s experiences in Eagles fandom, and the loss of his father to cancer when Tom was only 20, are woven together into a mosaic of love for both family and a wider community (in this case, both fellow Eagles fans and Philly itself), and of grief at losing his dad when he still badly needed his dad’s guidance and encouragement. I’ve learned a decent amount about basketball and baseball from my husband and sons, but I still know almost nothing about football, and I’m happy to remain in ignorance. And yet, I enjoyed this book very much. It doesn’t matter if you have an interest in football, or in any kind of “fandom,” or if you’ve lost a loved one too soon, or like to read about father-son relationships, or you’ve considered writing as your vocation but don’t see how you could ever actually do it — there is something in McAllister’s book for all of these readers. And if you’re like me, and you’ve listened to enough episodes of the Book Fight! podcast that you can tell which voice is Tom’s and which is Mike’s, then you should definitely read Tom’s book. Like, stop reading this now and go find a copy!

Cheers to discovering some excellent books in 2014, and let’s hope 2015 is full of fantastic reading!

© All the parts of my life 2008-2015.

Top Ten Tuesday: Top ten books I want to reread

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(Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.)

Most of my November writing will be for NaNoWriMo, but I saw this topic today and had to join in. Links are to my reviews or to “appreciation” posts about the books mentioned.

The Stand — Stephen King
I read this when I was about 19 or 20 years old, and I remember loving it. I also loved the mini-series that aired a few years later. While I re-watched the mini-series a couple of times, I don’t think I’ve ever reread the book. It’s been over 20 years, and I still have it, so I really should find the time to revisit it.

The Madness of a Seduced Woman — Susan Fromberg Schaeffer
A co-worker lent me a copy of this book was I was about 17. Not only did I love it, but Schaeffer became one of my favorite novelists. I’ve read her book The Injured Party at least four times, but I’ve never reread this one. Since it was the first one I read by her — and yes, I have my own copy now — I’d love to read it again.

The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors — Michele Young-Stone
Another one I loved to pieces. I recently got a digital ARC of Michele Young-Stone’s next novel, and it makes me want to experience The Handbook all over again.

Middlemarch — George Eliot
Because I’ve only listened to the audiobook three times, and that’s not nearly enough!

The Passage — Justin Cronin
I bought and read this when it first came out, and then I reread it two years ago before reading the second book in the trilogy, The Twelve. I’m planning to read BOTH of them again when we get close to the release date for the third book — which is sometime in 2015, but not soon enough for me!

Tinkers — Paul Harding
I read this three or four years ago. I thought the writing was beautiful, but I didn’t truly appreciate it. When I read Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky last month, it reminded me of Tinkers. I think I’d get more out of this if I read it a second time.

My Cousin Rachel — Daphne du Maurier
This one is a similar situation to the Schaeffer book: I read My Cousin Rachel first, enjoyed it, and then went on to buy and read a bunch more books by Daphne du Maurier. (I actually own a pile by her that I haven’t read yet — she wrote A LOT of books!) Since it was my first du Maurier, and it was so long ago, I’d like to go back to it.

King Dork — Frank Portman
This is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read — laugh-so-hard-my-stomach-hurts kind of funny.

Florida — Christine Schutt
This book mesmerized me. I’ve since read two other novels by Schutt, and one story collection, and they were all good, but they didn’t infect me the way Florida did.

Appetites: Why Women Want — Caroline Knapp
I’ve struggled with my addictive tendencies, and still do too much emotional overeating. This book touched me deeply, and I probably should have read it again before now.

© All the parts of my life 2008-2015.