Friday, February 21, 2014

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

The Cuckoo’s Calling
by Robert Galbraith
(aka J.K. Rowling)

I started this book on CD in my car driving back and forth to work then ended up buying it on my kindle that weekend to finish.  That ought to tell you something.

The main story line is not all that unique in the world of mysteries. A veteran of the most recent war, Cormoran Strike, has become a private detective and is hired by the brother of a former friend to investigate the suspicious death of his sister, a supermodel living in the glitzy world of high fashion who plunged from her balcony one winter night. The police have ruled it suicide but the brother is positive it is not.

Cormoran Strike is at once a traditional gumshoe, a veteran of war trying to make his way on limited finances, and also rather modern. He lost his leg in the army and he is, somewhat unusual for a private detective, not self-destructive.

What sets this book apart is the writing. It was noted when The Cuckoo’s Calling first came out that the story was so well crafted that it hardly seemed like a first novel. As we eventually found out, it wasn’t. The writing is masterful and that is part of what makes this novel so enjoyable.

The scene is set immediately with broad strokes in the first paragraph.

“. . . the watchers filled the waiting time by snapping the white canvas tent in the middle of the road, the entrance to the tall red-brick apartment block behind it, and the balcony on the top floor from which the body had fallen.”

At other times, the author seems to zoom in on what Strike is doing in detail, cataloguing each move, so that it takes paragraphs to search a few handbags. This is done very deliberately.

It is a quiet book with a gumshoe tracking down leads methodically. The strengths are in the characterization and the smooth writing that draws you on through the story.  It’s not a cozy mystery but it’s not a pulse pounding thriller either.  It’s a solid mystery in a rather traditional style with a modern setting.

She wraps things up so neatly too. We aren’t even left wondering about Strike’s leg, we know he is finally getting the help that he needs.

I thoroughly enjoyed this mystery and look forward to the next one.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Manage Your Day-To-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind

Manage Your Day-To-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind
Edited by Jocelyn K. Glei

My husband gave me a book for Christmas that he heard about on the Chiot's Run organic blog, Manage YourDay-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your CreativeMind. It's a collection of essays on the topic, edited by Jocelyn K. Glei. I’ve been reading a bit of it every day.

Just as the title suggests, the articles in this book focus on building a good routine, and focusing while using creativity to your advantage in the workplace, or building your creativity in any area of your life. They are short and easy to digest. There are some great reminders and good information.

Just the simple admonishment to do the thing that is most important first in your day instead of trying to get all the other little things out of the way first, is so obvious and yet counter to my typical thinking. I tend to think that if I get things tidied up or cleaned in the house first, then I’ll be better able to concentrate, but then something always seems to come up and the creative work keeps getting pushed aside. It really has profound implications for all areas of my life – my work, my child and my writing.

The article on Harnessing the Power of Frequency by Gretchen Rubin really spoke to the heart of my writing dilemma. It helped me to realize that the key to my writing productivity is going to be writing smaller amounts more frequently.  There is just no other way in my current schedule to make room for writing.

Building Renewal into Your Workday by Tony Schwartz was a good reminder too. My boss is always saying that we are given vacations and breaks for a reason. If you don’t take them then you are doing yourself a disservice and you will become less productive over time.

The article on multitasking, Banishing Multitasking from Our Repertoire by Christian Jarrett, really echoed my thinking. I’ve been hearing that multitasking is counterproductive for a long time but he put it in a different light that I appreciated by explaining that there’s really no such thing as multitasking, just switching between tasks really fast.  However, there’s always some lag as your brain switches gears and you do the tasks you are switching between more slowly than if you had just focused on one to begin with.

The articles are organized into sections on ROUTINE, FINDING FOCUS IN A DISTRACTE WORLD, TAMING YOUR TOOLS, and SHARPENING YOUR CREATIVE MIND from a multitude of authors. Honestly, there is so much in the short articles in this little book that it took me a while to digest it and I’m sure I’ll be returning to it again. I highly recommend it.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Benediction by Kent Haruf

By Kent Haruf

I just finished reading the novel Benediction by Kent Haruf.  My initial reaction is mixed.
I chose this book because the subject matter, life and death, have been on my mind a lot lately. The first week of December, on a Tuesday night, I got the call that a dear friend and surrogate grandmother had passed away. Wednesday morning I received an email that my uncle had passed. Finally, my father has stage five terminal cancer, though he is doing fairly well at the moment. You would think that would make me run from the story of a father dying of terminal cancer but all of this drew me toward it.

I’ve done a lot of writing considering all of this and I’m still looking for answers. I am the youngest of five at age thirty-nine. At this point in my life, I feel less certain about whether our consciousness survives after death. I was once secure in my faith and beliefs but now I’m not so certain.
There were a couple scenes in Benediction that hit me hard and really moved me.

Dad Lewis has just been told he is dying of cancer, and it’s going to happen quickly. His wife, Mary, is wearing herself out taking care of him all alone and she passes out. When he gets down on the floor beside her, scared for her, I cried. The prose is sparse and honest.
He got down on his knees beside her and felt her head. She felt hot. He pulled her toward him and slid his arms under her, propping her up against the couch. Can you hear me? I got to call somebody. I’ll be right back. She made no sign. Is that all right with you if I leave a minute? I’m coming right back. He hurried out to the kitchen and called the emergency number at the hospital. Then he returned and got down on the floor again and held her and talked to her softly and kissed her cheek and brushed back her damp white hair and patted her arm and waited.

Another scene was when the preacher gets up in front of the church and tells the congregation that Christ’s sermon about turning the other cheek wasn’t just a metaphor but something that we need to live even in these turbulent times.  The majority of the congregation don’t take that so well.
But then he was abruptly halted. Someone out in the congregation was talking. Are you crazy? You must be insane! A man’s voice. Deep-throated. Angry. Loud. Coming from over on the west side of the sanctuary near the windows. What’s wrong with you? Are you out of your mind?

Now, this was only the second book that I’ve read from the modern era that did not use quotes to set off dialogue. It wasn’t totally foreign to me but to be honest I wasn’t aware that there were a number of authors doing this.
I thought the lack of quotation marks was difficult to follow at first in Benediction but I was soon okay with it. It gave the book an internal and even timeless feeling, as if looking at events that happened through frosted glass.

I wondered why someone would choose not to use quote marks to delineate dialogue so I did a quick search online and found an article from Lionel Shriver on the Wall Street Journal. Apparently a number of modern authors, including James Frey, Kent Heruf and Cormac McCarthy are popularizing the trend.
Shriver contends “By putting the onus on the reader to determine which lines are spoken and which not, the quoteless fad feeds the widespread conviction that popular fiction is fun while literature is arduous.”

I also came upon a discussion by authors on this topic that pointed me to an interview Cormac McCarthy had done with Oprah some years ago in which he said that, “If you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate.”
Here’s one of my prime problems with it. I have no problem reading dialect and dialogue without quotation marks. I’m a very fast reader and can adapt. However, I know people that cannot read dialect at all, can’t read Mark Twain. Their brains simply don’t translate the written word into sound in their head. Writing is about communicating. Anything that gets between the reader and the story inhibits that communication. Now, I know that not every book is for every reader but my goal as a writer is to make things more understandable, not to obfuscate.

I asked my writer’s group about this last night. One of the group said that a good story will not be brought down by poor grammar or punctuation. Another member said she wouldn’t be able to get past the first few pages. Yet another threw something on the floor in disgust and said that it was sheer laziness on the author’s part.
I think I’ll continue to use quotation marks in writing dialogue but I won’t reject a book right away if the author doesn’t use them.

Honestly, after reading the ending, I set down the book and thought, what the hell was that? The ending really just didn’t seem consistent with the rest of the book to me. I’m going to have to puzzle on it for a while longer, but I did enjoy the book. It was about life. Death is part of that too. I didn’t find any answers, but I did enjoy the time spent on it.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity

The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity
By Julia Cameron with Mark Bryan

I first bought a copy of The Artist’s Way in my early twenties and read through it but it didn’t really speak to me. I certainly didn’t use the book the way it was intended.

Nearly a decade ago, when I was starting to seriously write, I took the book off my shelf and opened it again.  I didn’t remember it but as I browsed through it, it occurred to me that I could do this as a course, since I couldn’t afford to take any writing courses at the time.

I started reading one chapter every Sunday night. I wrote the three longhand morning pages every day. (Did I mention I was out of work, single and had no children? Way too much time on my hands.) As suggested, I picked the exercises at the end of the chapter that appealed to me most, or that I most resisted, and wrote them out. I had to get creative with the artist dates because I didn’t have money to do anything that would require it.

I would now say that this is one of the three books that changed my life the most. It opened me up to writing in a way that nothing ever had. It taught me a lot about myself. It also got me writing every single day.  It was a wonderful experience.

I’m looking forward to starting this again with the group I’ll be teaching at our library in Corning starting January 9th. Hopefully it will help me get writing daily once more.

As I’ve begun reading again, I’ve already found certain passages leaping off the page at me. Different things than the last time I worked through it, I think.

The “basic tools” are the morning pages, the written exercises at the end of the chapter and the artist date. The morning pages are three pages of long hand writing done in the morning to let go of the worries and burdens for the day. I think of them as writing meditation.  You just write everything you are thinking down as fast as you can.  It usually takes me about 20 minutes. I guess it depends on how big your writing is, how big your paper is and how fast you write.

The exercises are very short and directly relate to the subject of the chapter that week. It may be as simple as making a list. This is where I definitely learned some things about myself. For example, some of the exercises deal with giving yourself a sense of permission to be creative or artistic by uncovering the messages that you received at some point that you can’t or shouldn’t. I ended up remembering all the positive messages that encouraged me over the years. That was very helpful for me.

One of the great things about this book is that it is not just for “artists” but rather for anyone who wants to be more creative in their thinking. Every aspect of your life can benefit from a more creative approach – work, parenting, partnering . . .

This isn’t just a book, it’s a workshop in a book.  Give yourself the gift of discovering your creative self through this book.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty - short story and movie

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
By James Thurber

An ineffectual dreamer or someone with a rich imagination enlivening his day? 

"We only live once, Sergeant,” said Mitty, with his faint, fleeting smile. “Or do we?” He poured another brandy and tossed it off.

The way I had heard people speak of this story, I thought it must be a novel. Then I received the book and found 32 pages with large type and double spacing.  I pasted it into Microsoft Word and found a word count of 2,083.  It reads so quickly, you wouldn’t even think it was that long.

Pssst… you can read it here -> The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber

The story opens with Mitty imagining that he is a Commander on a ship breaking through ice, only to be rudely awakened to his wife demanding he slow down because he’s driving too fast.

“You were up to fifty-five,” she said. “You know I don’t like to go more than forty. You were up to fifty-five.”

Walter drops his wife at her hair appointment and she admonishes him to buy some overshoes and wear his gloves.

As he drives past a hospital, Mitty is drawn into an operating room drama in his head. Parking the car doesn’t go so well in that frame of mind.

He manages the errands his wife sent him on then ends up sitting in chair, off on another adventure, where his wife finds him. They set out but she leaves him standing outside a store where he finds himself facing a firing squad.

I’ve heard it said that the average man lives one life but the man who reads lives many.  In this story, Walter is writing his own stories. The problem is that it interferes with living his own life.

No one can live all the things they thought about becoming as a kid. The sad part may be that he may not have gotten to do anything at all in his life.

The idea inspired a movie in 1947 starring Danny Kaye and this year a new movie starring Ben Stiller will come out on Christmas Day. It’s only loosely related to the book.  The short story portrays someone who dreams his way through life, making his boring everyday life more interesting. The movie seems to ask the question – what if Walter Mitty didn’t remain an ineffectual dreamer? What if he finally fulfilled his desire for action and adventure?
The movie, set to come out Christmas day, looks amazing. My husband and I are eager to see it. Read the story.  Then go see the movie and find out what someone imagined for Walter Mitty.  

Friday, November 22, 2013

In Search of Gentle Death by Richard N. Cote

In Search of Gentle Death
by Richard N. Cote
This is a profoundly difficult topic but one that has been brought to my attention several times this year so when I saw this book, I wanted to read it and share it with others. 

Who knows what death will bring?  Is there existence when the body dies?  Is the energy that holds this collection of atoms together simply absorbed back into the Universe or does the consciousness survive?  Are we reborn to this Earth or to another existence, another plane, altogether?  Some believe there is a heaven where we go to live on, much like we lived here, though under more peaceful circumstances, while others believe something is across the threshold but don’t know what. 

“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;”

Hamlet, William Shakespeare

Different beliefs give people differing views of whether they have a say in when their life ends.  This book contends that the choice, whatever it is and for whatever reason it is held, should be up to the individual. 

The history of the movement is portrayed through short biographies of the people involved, showing how and why they have come to this view. 

The Preface begins “Life has an expiration date.  That we cannot change.  Longevity, on the other hand, increases each year… Unfortunately, the same technology has also prolonged the time it takes us to die – and agonizing pain and loss of autonomy often come with protracted, lingering death.”

The first chapter of the book shares the story of the author’s friend and minister George Exoo and the book continues on with a chapter each devoted to different founders of the movement. 

This book is dense, with nearly 400 pages plus appendices.  It’s difficult to give you the flavor in a short review, but it is also very well written and easy to read.  There is a depth of information and food for thought. 

Whatever side of the debate you fall on, I recommend it to anyone who has an interest in the topic.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman


The Ocean at the End of the Lane
by Neil Gaiman
I listened to Neil Gaiman read this book some weeks ago on audio CD and it was brilliant! The other day I received the hard copy so I could write this review and stared at it in shock.  This is a very small book, but it certainly didn’t seem that way when I listened to it.  (Okay, then I listened to it again.) It’s only 178 pages, probably somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 words.
That seems particularly appropriate as we are in the midst of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) where the goal is to write 50,000 words in one month. Here is an example of something of that length.  It makes me wonder how many words were in the first draft, whether it was longer and edited down or shorter and added to in the rewriting and editing phase. Yes, I’m still getting over my shock.  It does not read like such a small book.  It is very much a big book.
The story begins with the narrator returning to visit his childhood home on the day of a funeral.
“I had done my duty in the morning, spoken the words I was meant to speak, and I meant them as I spoke them…”
I don’t think the author ever directly tells us who the funeral is for. I surmised that it was for the father but we never really know for certain.
Then we move back into the main part of the story, a remembrance of things past, when the narrator was but a little boy of seven or so. The vocabulary is somewhat advanced for the age of the main protagonist but perhaps not for a bookish child, as we find out right off.
“… the lady at the bakery said that they had never put a book on a birthday cake before, that mostly for boys it was footballs or spaceships. I was their first book.”
When no other children arrive for the party, he goes upstairs to read his new set of Narnia books.

It is is not exactly what I would call a horror book though there are horrors, all the more sinister and horrible for how close to home they are. It reminds me most of the Madeleine L’Engle fantasy books I read in my middle school years, though a bit more adult. The good witches come in threes, just like the three witches in A Wind in the Door.
The setting is so well realized – the author never overdoes the details but each detail adds to the suburban/rural setting with a large yard and garden, perhaps a bit overgrown, goldenrod and heather growing where they please, and a small farm down the lane.
It’s the perfect tale for a cold fall day or a dark winter’s night. It’s a fairy tale and a bit of a horror story and all too real in places. When you get to the end, you might just find yourself going back and reading it again, like I did.