Friday, March 29, 2013

Book Review: "Modoc" by Ralph Helfer

This book is so much more than "just" an animal book, or even a book about the relationship between animals and humans. This is a book about friendship at a deeper level than most people will ever experience love. Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant that Ever Lived, by Ralph Helfer, is transcendent. There are circuses and wild adventures- so wild that at times I had to stop and remind myself that yes, this is all true- and the reader will ultimately be whipped through a range of eviscerating emotions, but at the deepest core of the story is the simple, and profound, connection between two beings, two souls- a boy and his elephant, an elephant and her boy. I read Modoc many years ago and yet I still carry the story with me. I am reminded of it whenever I encounter something sublime, something perfect and unexplainable, because after reading Modoc's tale I know that the impossible is possible and the mysteries of the world do not have to be understood, but, rather, simply appreciated.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Racing and Writing

"The smell of burned rubber"- it sounds so cliche. Until you actually smell it. And hear the roar reverberating into the vast space between the straight away and the sky. And feel the tension singing through the air, creating a live wire that connects the driver to the engine to the stands and up to you. It buzzes behind your ears and slows your breath and prickles your skin. It stops your heart for a half-beat.

And these are the sensations I experienced from only watching the Honda Grande Prix Indy Race. I can only imagine what I'm going to feel when I write one of the characters for my next book into the driver's seat. THAT is going to be incredible......

Friday, March 22, 2013

Book Review: "The Last Viking"

I live in Florida. I complain of being cold when it's 75 degrees and sunny outside. I'm that annoying, whiny person sitting next to you in the car who is constantly turning the AC off when you're not looking. So maybe this is why I love non-fiction books about explorers who test the limits of human survival. Books such as Endurance and In the Heart of the Sea mesmerize me- how could those people stare cannibalism in the face and keep going while I can barely contain my anger at being stuck on the interstate in afternoon traffic? It's incredible....

Stephen Bown's The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen is just such a book to make me wonder at the sheer willpower of the human spirit. What impresses me so much about Amundsen is not just the fact that he was the first man to reach both the north and the south pole, but that he simply made a decision to do so- and then did it. His vision, tenacity and commitment to near-impossible dreams is awe-inspiring. Yet The Last Viking is not written as an inspirational tome, just as Amundsen did not see him self as an inspirational person. It is written in a frank, vivid style and let's you make up your own mind as to your opinion of Amundsen's character. Many saw him as a hero; many also saw him as a villain. Undoubtedly, though, he was a pioneer and Bown's account of his life is well-worth reading.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Music and Writing

It's hell week for my students. By this, I mean that my sophomore English students are writing their very first research paper and entering into a whole new world of sleeplessness and stress....

But this got me thinking about the music that I used to listen to when I was their age and having to write research papers for school. I clearly remember that Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine always factored somewhere into my late night, coffee-fueled, high school and undergraduate forays into academic writing.

Then I started thinking about creative writing, and novel writing in particular. Because when it comes to totally immersing myself into another world, into another character's head- their desires and choices and mistakes and lives- I can't listen to anything with words. It's too distracting. I need something both instrumental and lyrical, something that lulls me along the writing journey, but doesn't remind me that I am still sitting at a keyboard, trying to tame ideas into words. For some reason, soundtracks seem to always enter into the picture. I cannot count the times that Phillip Glass' cyclical composition for The Hours has been my ferryman across the river to the next land.....

So, my fellow writers, here is the question I pose for you: what is your music of choice for writing? What helps you dream and helps you create?

Please leave a comment and share.....

Friday, March 15, 2013

Review: "The Wettest County in the World" by Matt Bondurant

Admittedly, this novel is not for the faint of heart when it comes to depictions of violence and desperation, but the prose of The Wettest County in the World is some of the finest I've ever read. The story of moonshine, blockade runners and murder is engaging (and the basis for the recent movie Lawless), but it was the descriptions of the characters' transcendence that really took my breath away. There are moments in this book that rival the writing of Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. A true gem in the rough, The Wettest County in the World should not be overlooked.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Elusive Notebook and Writing

I know it is out there somewhere: eight and half by eleven, only half an inch thick, wide ruled, hard cover, spiral, with a pocket for all the scraps of napkins, receipts, tickets, important memos and other idea-scrawled detritus that must be collected and kept safe. Somewhere out there, is the elusive notebook that I need to buy before this next novel takes too much shape, breathes too many breaths and runs away from me without having been coaxed down into words.

I am a notebook-writer. While, yes, I am up to date on the 21st century (I can tweet! I can face-space! I can even blog, right?!), there is still something delicious about putting pen to paper and watching the ink flow, feeling the cramp in your hand as your body tries to keep up with your mind, and then flinging the pen down, hearing the finality at the end of the thought. Maybe it's about conquering the blank space, maybe it's about giving birth to ideas, maybe it's just nostalgia. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I write out my manuscripts by hand. I type away on my tiny laptop, same as the rest of you. But I still need that notebook. I need it for the glimpses of scenes, the edges of characters, the half-formed ideas that linger in the twilight between imagination and the formality of Times New Roman. The notebook is the nebulae for everything that will eventually be printed on the page, and that is why it is so essential.

And I need to find it soon.....

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Review: Sam Kean's "The Disappearing Spoon"

I kid you not, this book made me love science. And for an English/Humanities major who managed to never take a physics class, only kinda sorta understood what was going on biology and was completely lost in the wilderness when it came to chemistry- that's saying something.

So how did Sam Kean do it? How did he make The Disappearing Spoon and (his more recent work) The Violinist's Thumb books that I not only devoured, but also re-read and managed to sneak into my high school English lessons? He focused on the story. While the science is all there, and accurate and brilliant, it's the stories behind the science that make these books so captivating. Kean recounts fascinating anecdotes, and tales of love and betrayal, but also introduces moral questions to the reader regarding science, ethics and our relationships to these larger themes due to our very existence in the world. And he does it all in an entertaining, story-telling style that keeps the pages turning.

If you only ever read one book about science during your entire lifetime, I highly recommend that it be written by Sam Kean.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Bodies in Motion and Writing

I like to move when I think.

When I was a kid, living out in the middle of nowhere, I would ride my rust-chewed bike in an endless loop around the wild edge of our property, pedaling furiously to the sound of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" blaring from my foam-padded headphones. I would clip my black Sony Walkman onto my jeans (yep, I was that cool....) and disappear inside my head. I would create stories: detailed soap-opera dramas populated with characters as real to me as my family and friends and live in their world while the ground rushed beneath me. The movement helped me to dream.

Since then, I have always done my best creative thinking while in motion. On swings, boats, roller coasters, airplanes, trains, escalators, elevators, even just taking the dogs for a walk- the best ideas come to me not while I am sitting in tranquil repose, but rather when the energy sparking in my mind is shared by the energy radiating from my body. And don't forget about driving. The plot for The Hunter, the Hunted and the Thief developed fully on a desolate stretch of coastal highway between Wilmington and Hilton Head Island, and without the many back road road trips down 301 between Jacksonville and St. Pete my second book would not even exist.

There probably is some scientific, mathematical formula for the relationship between movement and creativity, but all I know is that it works. How about it, fellow writers? Any thoughts on the subject? I'd love to hear....

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Review of "Let's Pretend This Never Happened"

I mostly read serious books. Last month, I read an entire book all about salt. (Titled Salt by Mark Kurlanksy- my students now think I have even less of a life than they thought I had in the first place, but honestly, it was a really good book!) Usually, if a novel is old, the author dead, and the title on some mandatory college reading list from the 1950's, then I'm excited about it. I love Faulkner and Steinbeck and Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I love Of Human Bondage, The Wings of the Dove, Sister Carrie and other such novels that make most people want to step in front of a speeding semi-truck rather than read to the second chapter. But hey, I love more recent novels, too. I've read every single book that Cormac McCarthy has ever written....

I guess what I'm trying to say is that when I read, I'm not looking to laugh. And then I picked up Jenny Lawson's Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir. And I almost peed my pants. I became that person who is sitting alone at Starbuck's, laughing her ass off by herself and making the people sitting around her very uncomfortable. From the taxidermied animals, to the dysfunctional, but well-meaning, family anecdotes, to the most awkward high school experiences ever: this book will literally have you laughing so hard you'll cry. Not for the faint of heart or easily offended, but if you appreciate dark humor spiced with a tell-it-like-it-is tone and a wicked knack for classic storytelling, then this novel will be right up your alley.

 In short, this is the funniest book I have ever read. Seriously.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Pumping Gas and Writing

It's 6:30 in the morning, cold and dark, and I'm half awake, putting gas in my car before going to work. When I'm back on the road, I start to wonder what most people think about while getting gas before dawn. Coffee? Sleep? Work? The meaning of life? Most likely, people are not thinking about anything because it is SIX THIRTY IN THE MORNING......
What was the crazy writer thinking about?
Would the main character from my latest novel have chosen regular fuel or the super plus.
That, my friends, is what being a writer is really all about.