Literary Event: Megan Whalen Turner in Conversation with Shannon Hale

Join Megan Whalen Turner, author of the New York Times bestselling Queen’s Thief series, and Shannon Hale, author of Kind of a Big Deal in conversation virtually on April 8th at 5:30pm.

Turner’s long-awaited Return of The Thief marks the conclusion of a twenty-years-in-the-making story of thief Eugenides. Hale has published over 30 books including the fantasy novels The Goose Girl and Book of a Thousand Days.

This event, hosted by Changing Hands Bookstore, has free admission tickets plus ticket and book bundles that are still available! For more information, and to register for this event, visit the Changing Hands Bookstore site here.


Location: Online

Date: Thursday, April 8th, 2021

Time: 5:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.

Price of Ticket: Free (with optional book and ticket bundle available)

4 Books Turning the Big 5-0 in 2021

Birthdays are a funny thing. As I turn fifty this month, I realize that half a century is a big deal, and not just for people! As the years go by, books come and books go—but the really great ones stick around. So, to celebrate my birthday, I look to some novels and books that have truly stood the test of the time.


Our Bodies, Ourselves—Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, Judy Norsigian. In 1969, some women met at an Emmanuel College conference to discuss women and their bodies. From this gathering grew a group that eventually formed a collective that left nothing off the table when it came to women, their bodies, their sexuality, and even reproductive rights. “Women and Their Bodies,” a 193 page pamphlet, was published in 1970 and in 1971 was renamed Our Bodies Ourselves to reaffirm the ownership that women need to take in regards to their physical selves.

Several other niche editions have appeared as well, tackling menopause and pregnancy and birth. It has been updated every three to four years, but unfortunately due to some financial pressure the group’s last edition was in 2011. However, the information and spirit of Our Bodies Ourselves still holds on strong!


Go Ask AliceAnonymous. Promoted as a real-life account of a teenage girl’s disturbing foray into the world of drugs, the authorship of Go Ask Alice has been called into question for quite some time. It has been suggested that the book is actually the combined efforts of several authors and not a true account at all.

Be that as it may, that does not negate the powerful story of “Alice,” who is never named in the novel, as she descends into a life of drugs and sexual abuse. Go Ask Alice is a cautionary tale that—despite its age—still holds up today, as proven by the 50th anniversary edition that was published in late December.


That Was Then, This Is NowS. E. Hinton. While novelist Hinton is best known for The Outsiders, you cannot discuss groundbreaking young adult fiction without including That Was Then, This Is Now.

Set in what would be referred to now as the same “universe” as The Outsiders, the novel features some of the same characters, but focuses mainly on two close friends, Mark and Bryon. As a coming of age story, it explores the inevitable growth and tensions that come with being not only being a teenager, but the specific challenges of the 1960s.


The ExorcistWilliam Peter Blatty. Terrifying then, terrifying now, Blatty’s novel continues to define the horror genre with its disturbing imagery and details.

The novel explores themes of religion, faith, and death through the story of Regan, an 11-year-old who suffers possession at the hand of a demon. Her shocking journey is laid out graphically, and ultimately becomes a battle of good versus evil and a test of faith. The Exorcist has not only held up as a novel but it spawned a critically acclaimed film, and a recent television series.


Good books are like a fine wine, they only get better with age, so give one of these oldie-but-goodies a try!

Book Review

Paris for One & Other Stories

Publisher: Penguin Random House LLC
Genre: Fiction, Short Stories
Pages: 274
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 3/5 stars

Summary

Jojo Moyes, best known for her novel Me Before You and the film by the same name, waxes optimistic in Paris for One, a collection of nine short stories all told from the female perspective. Offering up relatable and recognizable female characters in the midst of change, Paris for One takes the reader on journeys of self-discovery, relationships gone wrong (and right), and the life-changing power of a pair of Louboutins.

Thoughts

Worn out from life in quarantine, and never ending political and civil strife, Paris for One is part female empowerment, part escapism, and could be just the distraction you have been looking for. I am a sucker for anything Parisian, and impulsively tossed this book into my online shopping cart without even bothering to read the reviews. My instincts ended up being right on, as this collection is a series of delightful, breezy reads that will help take the edge off a tough week of scrolling through social media and wondering where we all went wrong. 

Moyes seems fully aware that sometimes all you need is a little mental escape. She fills her stories with relatable, “every woman” type characters—which excuses her a little for placing some of them in pretty predictable situations. An excellent example of this comes in the form of the titular story where Englishwoman Nell’s failed Parisian getaway turns surprisingly into just what the doctor ordered for her overly stable existence. It’s a familiar theme, but who hasn’t dreamed of throwing caution to the wind, boarding that flight, and facing adventure head on with a brooding Frenchman on a scooter?

Another playful entry is the sweet and funny “Christmas List,” where a day of shopping leads to something you just can’t buy—a change in attitude. Neither story pushes the envelope in the genre, but they made me smile, and just because they are familiar doesn’t make them any less fun!  

Wisely though, Moyes does switch gears by adding a little drama and introspection into the collection with “Bird in the Hand” and “Love in the Afternoon.” Exploring the complexities of married life, these stories ground the collection from flying off into a Parisian cotton candy cloud filled sky. In both, Moyes reminds us that sometimes things do happen for a reason, and the grass may not be greener on the other side when it comes to life and love.

Moyes’s writing style is straightforward and uncomplicated, which makes this the perfect easy read for a lazy Sunday afternoon…or Monday through Saturday given the current state of the world! While these aren’t stories you will be pondering days later, it’s clear that they weren’t meant to be. So curl up in your favorite chair with Paris for One and indulge yourself with a few life-changing fantasies. My guess is you deserve just that! 

Survival of the Wordiest: My Month of NaNoWriMo

50,000 words in 30 days. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), the ultimate writer’s challenge, runs from November 1st through November 30th and is not for the faint of heart. So, why would I, and thousands others, commit to such a lofty goal?

For starters, there is a huge sense of accomplishment in hammering out what could have taken you months or years in just thirty twenty-four hour periods. It is an effective way to start that project you have been meaning to get to for however long, and—if I am being completely honest—you can rack up some serious bragging rights! 

Yet, NaNoWriMo is not about creating a perfectly polished publishable piece of prose (try saying that five times fast) in 30 days. No, this is about getting that “shitty first draft” (thank you Anne Lamott for that bit of priceless advice) out of your head and onto paper, Google Doc, Word Doc, Scrivener, papyrus scroll, or whatever system works for you. Your NaNoWriMo project is simply the shell of what will, hopefully, become your novel. 

Before one begins NaNoWriMo you may want to identify what category of writer you fall into. Are you a Planner, a Pantser, or a Plantser? 

The Planner is one that does just that: plans. They create detailed  lists, outlines, character sketches, mind maps, world charts, and the like. They are going in armed with as much information that they can have about their novel. A Planner could work for a month or more before NaNoWriMo even begins to achieve their best possible result. Their novel idea might have been knocking around in their brain long before they decided to join the challenge.

The Pantser is one that literally “flies by the seat of their pants.” This is the writer that is pretty much winging it. They have an idea of what they want to write about, but generally have not outlined anything or delved much into character or plot. They are making it up as they go, and following whatever road presents itself to them in the process.

The Plantser, as you might have guessed, is the union of a Planner and a Pantser. It is the best of both types, and involves some outlining or mind mapping, but not so much that there isn’t a little room for spontaneity. 

I am of the Pantser variety and what is known in the Nano world as a “rebel.” My project was not a novel, but a collection of short stories that I have been dreaming about for three years now. Since it doesn’t fall under the novel category, I join the rebel ranks which include nonfiction writers and purveyors of poetry. My first love will always be the short story, and also as a creative nonfiction writer I wear the rebel badge proudly.

While I do not profess to be much of a planner, that doesn’t mean I didn’t do my share of preparation before November 1st. Here are a few of the tricks I employed during the month to keep the creative juices flowing, and the stress level relatively manageable. 

Support System

I warned my family. Many times. This was too big a project to go it alone, and I needed my husband and daughter to understand that I had to write a minimum of 1,667 words per day to reach the goal. In the end they were my accountability partners, cheerleaders, and figurative punching bags when things got tough and I needed to vent!  

Adding to my corner of the writing ring, I enrolled in a class here at ASU designed specifically for NaNoWriMo participants. Starting in October, the class was centered around one goal and one goal only—to get you to 50,000 words. Among the tools and assignments was the craft book, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, motivational videos, taped lectures, and required word count screen shot submissions for extra accountability. A strong writing community grew out of this class—and while I was often too busy to actively socialize, I got some great advice and motivation out of my classmates.

The NaNoWriMo website itself ended up being a terrific source of support with national and local “write ins” and badges that you could earn for completing tasks like writing for seven, 14, and 21 days straight, among others. Their website became that one constantly open tab so I could enter my word count (even if it was just a couple of hundred words) quickly and easily. I can’t tell you how satisfying it was to see those numbers creep up each time I logged a session. 

Music to My Ears (and writing fingers) 

A couple of weeks prior to the start of NaNoWriMo, I read that having some writing rituals could help put writers in the best possible and creative headspace. This was nothing new to me, but one ritual in particular stood out as being especially helpful: music. Normally, when I write for a class I use the Rainy Mood website to create some nice background noise, but several sources recommended creating playlists to match the mood and tone of the novel. Since I was writing a collection of short stories, I ended up tweaking this idea and coming up with several playlists. Interview with a witch story? I listened to a lot of Stevie Nicks, and instrumentals. Coming of age story with a mother/daughter duo and a John Hughes obsession? The Pretty in Pink, Breakfast Club, and Sixteen Candles soundtracks became my muses. 

What Light Over Yonder Window Breaks

To bring a little ambience and atmosphere to my writing sessions, I added the element of fire. I started burning scented candles to help bring a little atmosphere to all those hours I spent bent over the laptop. There was something very soothing when, in the midst of some major writer’s block, I could breathe deeply and get a whiff of ocean air, vanilla toffee, or cafe fresco. Did it help the block? Not necessarily, but it did keep me from pitching my laptop out the window. 

Timing is Everything

When creating a writing schedule, I had every intention of writing first thing in the morning to begin my day. But you know what they say about the best laid plans. My writing schedule ended up being as pantsy as my process. When I discussed how difficult it was to write 1,667 words in one sitting (particularly when you have no outline, or other details to work off of) to my instructor, she recommended chunking.

This was one of many “aha!” moments during the month, and something I was already doing with my college coursework. Splitting up my writing sessions ended up being my savior. I would shoot for two sessions of 800 words, but often I would write bits and pieces throughout the day. In this regard, my obsessive rule of having a pen and notebook available at all times was on point. I was constantly jotting down bits of dialogue, action, setting and character details. And when I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about it. My family swears I didn’t hear a word they said for the whole month!

The Finish Line

Yes, I made it. On day 30 with just hours left in the challenge, I finished at 50,120 words, which broke down into five short stories. Was it worth it? Yes. Despite the days that I struggled to get to that 1,667 words. Despite not knowing what my characters were doing or saying, or where the story was headed. Even those days where I was just so mentally exhausted from life stuff (being a student, wife, mother, and employee) that I just couldn’t fathom writing one sentence—much less hundreds of words—it was worth it. Knowing that I was completing work that would have taken far longer to write in such a short period of time kept me going. 

So, What Now?

Just because November 30th has come and gone, and just because I won NaNoWriMo doesn’t mean it is over. Yes, I wrote over 50,000 words. But they are some of the messiest words ever to grace my Google Drive, and that is because I heeded all the advice and did not edit anything while I was writing. I. Just. Had. To. Get. The. Words. Down. So, I know I am going to look back at the work, scratch my head, and ponder “What the heck was I thinking?”

The real work of hard editing is ahead of me. I wrote drunk for thirty days and now I soberly have to edit (thank you Hemingway). But, to quote another writer, Jodi Picoult, “You can’t edit a blank page.” You also can’t submit blank pages to a publisher, an agent, or a literary magazine.

Would I do it again?

In a word? Yes. While the process was demanding, it was extremely motivating. NaNoWriMo took over my life for 30 days, and it was exactly the kick-in-the-pants that I needed to make strong progress on a three year-old idea.

There are a couple of things I would do differently. Although I am a Pantser, I would conjure up some more story ideas prior to NaNoWriMo’s start. It was tricky to both brainstorm and write in such a short amount of time. While I did like splitting up the writing, I would try to do more of it in the morning hours—evenings became difficult for me to write after long days of classes, work, and family responsibilities. I can see myself planning an extra hour in the morning to get a jump start. Other than that I am definitely on board for next year, and I even have a new collection in mind. 

Are you a NaNoWriMo writer? What was your experience? And if not, would you consider taking the challenge and losing yourself in wordsmithing for a month?

Write on!

Practicing The Craft: 4 Books to Help You Become a Better Writer

As NaNoWriMo comes to a close for another year, many writers are celebrating their 50,000 word successes. What does it take to keep going for a full 30 days of writing 1,667 words per day? A little inspiration, motivation, and a lot of perspiration. Many, yours truly included, have turned to craft books this year to get a little nudge, and learn more about what it takes to create a great story.

For those seeking some inspiration and deeper knowledge about their craft, here are four books specifically written to do just that. These authors will lend support, motivate, teach technique, and at times be that friend over your shoulder whispering “you can do this!” It is never too early to get the jump on next year’s NaNoWriMo challenge!


On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft—Stephen King. You will see King’s book On Writing in just about every list that has anything to do with advice for creative writers. The dedication page sums up the tone of the book as King quotes Miguel de Cervantes, “honesty’s the best policy.” King sets the reader up for a no-holds barred look at the craft of writing. Part memoir, part instruction manual on how to write well, King is unflinching with details on his own personal journey and the demons that have accompanied him. His writing advice is similarly honest, and he uses examples from well-known authors to make his points. My favorite piece of advice is one that you have probably heard (but honestly, I don’t think a writer can hear enough) is, “read a lot and write a lot.” Despite what writers desperately want to believe, King claims there is no shortcut. On Writing is a humorous and honest look at what goes on behind the scenes.


Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative WriterEdited by Bret Anthony Johnston. With acclaimed authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and Tom Robbins, Naming the World has some serious writer power. Broken up into sections to tackle such topics as getting started, dialogue, character, point of view and tone, this book unleashes the advice of many different writers coming from a variety of genres. At the end of each short piece is a writing exercise to practice what you may have just learned—and let’s just say that my copy is highlighted and annotated to death.


Thrill Me: Essays on FictionBenjamin Percy. With a biting sense of humor, Benjamin Percy implores writers to do what he was advised to as an emerging wordsmith: “Thrill me.” Through a series of well-curated examples including literature, film and television, Percy breaks down the finer aspects of writing. Through the examination of such topics as activating setting, using lyricism to create beautiful literary music, and creating the perfect balance of peaks and valleys to pace a story, Percy can help you fine tune that work that just isn’t, well, working.


Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and LifeAnne Lamott. If you only read one section out of Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, let it be “shitty first drafts.” Particularly helpful for the perfectionist in all of us, Lamott begs writers to shed their inhibitions and just get it down on paper. She gives permission to play without fear of consequence (or later editing)—because playing is where the really great work happens! Through personal experiences, she guides the writer through various stages of writing a story including the shitty first draft, but goes deeper into the psyche. By offering thoughts on writing groups, finding your own voice, and even the ugly green-headed monster, jealousy, she tackles what goes on in the mind of a creator. Lamott also addresses creative nonfiction writers, and Bird by Bird doles out some serious inspiration and craft advice, with a dash of humor.


So…what are you waiting for? Grab a book or two, and start hammering away at your next great story or essay. As Jodi Picoult says, “You can’t edit a blank page!” Happy reading and writing!

Book Review

The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices

Publisher: HarperOne
Genre: Nonfiction, Spiritual, Self-Help
Pages: 224
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

Could walking your dog be a spiritual experience? Is it possible to turn your yoga or Crossfit class into a community? Can reverently reading the Harry Potter books or watching your favorite movie transform your life?

According to Casper Ter Kuile it can, and will. In The Power of Ritual, Harvard Divinity School Fellow Ter Kuile discusses why people have often flocked to religion for ritual, purpose, and community. Yet, with an increasing number of people listing themselves as “nones,” how can one find rituals and traditions to sustain, nurture, and fortify themselves? Ter Kuile explores how everyday activities such as eating, walking, showering, watching a movie, reading, and gathering are all powerful rituals that can heal and energize. From exercise and connection with nature to tech sabbaths, he provides ways to turn the ordinary into a transcendent experience.

Thoughts

There is a strong vein of religion and theology running throughout The Power of Ritual, which is understandable considering the topic of spirituality. For some, spirituality does look like what most of us visualize— going to church and participating in the corresponding rituals. This book, however, is not necessarily for those people. This instruction manual is for the “nones,” those without a dedicated denomination, who are remixing their lives by taking from the old and adding in the new.  

One of the many interesting rituals that Ter Kuile outlines within this book is the concept of a Tech Sabbath. Closely aligned with the Jewish tradition of Sabbath, his tech version involves shutting down digitally for a 24-hour period. Friday at sundown he stows away his phone and laptop, refusing to engage with them until Saturday at sundown. For a lot of us, this would require massive amounts of willpower, and even Ter Kuile admits to slip-ups now and again. Still, the clarity he receives from this practice (every week!) more than makes up for any type of FOMO, and he uses the time to journal, read, and reflect. 

If this seems too daunting a prospect, not to worry. I found his other suggestions to be far more manageable, and most of the time the activities are ones you already engaged in. All that is required to make an ordinary activity a “ritual” is to put intention behind it. This is something he discusses at length when it comes to building community, connecting to nature, and even watching a film. As one of the founders of the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast, Ter Kuile specializes in making a movie night a revelatory and ritualistic experience.

The Power of Ritual easily mixes in history and theology discussions with pop culture references to make the reading enjoyable without getting too mystic or preachy. It really is about turning what you are already doing into a tradition, ritual, or sacred experience. There are some action items on how to get started, and a framework for prayer (it may look a little different than you think!). Pilgrimages are discussed at length, changing my perspective on what that actually looks like. Spoiler: you don’t have to travel across the globe to complete one, just as far as your door!

I, myself, was surprised at how many rituals I am already engaged in. From my morning journaling to decompressing in the shower, Ter Kuile’s theories ring true. This book will certainly cause you to reflect on those activities, and help you reframe how you participate in them. I did balk at his suggestion to think about your own death. While I am not one to shy away from the eventuality of death, I am just a little apprehensive about telling myself “I might die today.” That statement’s purpose is to remind you (and yes, there’s an app for that) to be grateful for your life and the gifts you have. But I am still not sure I can, on a daily basis, tell myself this.

At this moment, many have found their spiritual practices being curtailed. The pandemic and all the uncertainty it brings has restricted many of the social gatherings, pilgrimages, exercise routines, and religious rituals. Yet, perhaps by utilizing some of the ideas set forth in The Power of Ritual, you may be able to bring some harmony and tradition back into your life!


Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review. 

Short and Spooky: 4 Horror Anthologies To “Fall” For

“The Spooky Season”

Every October a craving begins for pumpkin spice-flavored anything, sweet tooths start aching, and harmless orange fruit becomes the bearer of terrifying and toothless grins. The yearning for a good scare also grows as full as a harvest moon as we flock to haunted houses and corn mazes, or even to Netflix to give us that shot of fear-based adrenaline. Another surefire way to create some chills is simply turning to some classic horror stories—and there are a plethora of short story anthologies to get your spine tingling and your heart racing. In this classic selection of oldies-but-goodies, there will be aches (but not the sweet tooth kind), the bittersweet taste of revenge, mad men, and weird women a-plenty. Enjoy, but be sure to read with the lights on.


Norman Bates has nothing on some of these psychos…

Psychos—Robert Bloch. Not to be confused with Bloch’s classic Psycho, this collection centers around madness and its many forms. Whether it comes under the guise of a seemingly benign object with murderous intention, the most intense road rage on record, a meticulously planned revenge plot on a drunk driver, or a “oops” of an autopsy, these stories will genuinely freak you out. A notable tale from this anthology is “Grandpa’s Head” by Lawrence Watt-Evans, which will make you rethink the pasts of every single person in your family, even the most innocent-seeming! 


These ladies were ahead of their time…

Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Groundbreaking Female Writers (1852-1923). More recently published, yet by no means modern, Weird Women is a collection from the female perspective. Compiling work from such greats as Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, these stories are beautiful, bold, and brooding. From ghostly little girls in locked rooms, unrequited wishes coming true through dreamscapes, and the beauty of wistaria (the old-fashioned spelling) covering sinister deeds, these tales are all supernaturally stunning. The stories are helpfully annotated to bridge the gap in some vernacular differences as well. If you appreciate lush writing, descriptive details, and the suspense of a slow burn, you will love this collection.


A little naughty, not nice…

I Shudder at Your Touch: 22 Tales of Sex and Horror. For those who like a little risque with their risk, I Shudder at Your Touch features distinguished writers such as Stephen King and Clive Barker. With such disturbing topics as devilish weight loss programs, a not-so-little mermaid, a yearning for youth gone dark, and perverse revenge on an ex-lover, these stories spice things up more than that latte at Starbucks. A notable tale here is “Keeping House” by Michael Blumlein, with a creepy look at a woman’s descent into madness. If you like “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, you will be sufficiently spooked by Blumlein’s story. There is also a follow up edition, Shudder Again.


The indisputable king of macabre…

Everything’s Eventual: 14 Dark Tales—Stephen King. No list of short story anthologies would be complete without one from the king of horror, Stephen King. Everything’s Eventual is a collection featuring what you would expect from King—the unexpected. A lunch date gone gruesomely wrong, wish fulfillment for a quarter, and a traveling salesman debating his own self-inflicted untimely death, this is one diverse batch of dark tales indeed. Notable stories are “1408,” which explores just how creepy a hotel room can be, and “The Man in the Black Suit,” which is King’s nod to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” Incidentally “1408” was adapted into a decent film starring John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson.


So, curl up with your favorite blanket and a pumpkin spiced latte, turn the lights down low, and give yourself the willies. Just don’t blame me when you lie awake in the dark wondering what those strange sounds are!

The Creative Spark: 4 Books to Help You Find It and Use It!

During this unprecedented time of social distancing and embracing your inner homebody (I refuse to call it “isolation”), a lot of people are finding outlets for their energy. Through exercise, cooking, meditation, reading, writing, and crafting, people are exploring different facets of their personalities.

It goes without saying that this is a perfect time to explore your creativity—and put it to good use! 

Just like your biceps or hamstrings, your creative muscles needs to be exercised…and frequently. But what if you never really used it? Or can’t find it? Or think you have lost it like a sock in the dryer? Luckily, there are some terrific books and creative guides to help you along the way.

From full on narratives about the creative process to journals that push you to jump out of your comfort zone, there are books for every type of creative. You don’t have to be writing the next great American novel, or painting your way to Van Gogh-esque fame to be creative. You may just want to play with watercolors, pen a poem, or learn some new photography tricks. Or maybe you want to discover what creativity means to you and how you can incorporate it into your everyday life! 

No matter where you are on your creative journey, the following four books are exceedingly helpful in getting those juices flowing. Whenever I have needed a nudge (or a cattle prodding!), they have certainly done the trick! 


The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity—Julia Cameron. Let’s start with what I consider one of the gold standards when it comes to unblocking creativity. Julia Cameron’s workbook/guide has been recommended by many creative individuals, and for good reason—it is a tough, no holds-barred look at creative blocks and how to remove them. Through a series of weekly exercises and reflections, Cameron walks you down, through, over, and under the path to removing obstacles to your creativity. Be warned that this book is a marathon (it is a 12 week program) and not a sprint, so be sure you have some time devoted to really doing the work. It’s like a cheaper version of psychoanalysis!

Also, don’t be put off by the word “spiritual.” Cameron is sensitive to peoples’ beliefs and encourages you just to get in touch with whatever or whoever your spiritual guide happens to be. My biggest takeaway from the exercises, something that I do everyday, are the morning pages. Less focused than journaling, morning pages are essentially a three page brain dump. You just write whatever you are thinking about without judgement, and without editing. They clear your mind of clutter and position you for more creative thinking. And they work! 


Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear—Elizabeth Gilbert. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love memoir has been an inspiration for those searching for more meaning and purpose in their lives. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear focuses on the creative side of purpose, how to work with your ideas, and dealing with the fear that just may be paralyzing you. Loaded with lots of personal anecdotes and advice, this book works for anyone who is venturing onto a new creative path, trying to rekindle an old project, or cultivate a new idea.

Particularly inspiring is Gilbert’s letter to fear, where she explains that it is allowed to tag along, but with the caveat that she and creativity are the ones driving the car! One important takeaway is not to sit too long on that good idea. It will not stick around forever, and may present itself to someone else who will take action upon it. Sound like rubbish? Ok, but how many times have you said, “I thought of that first!”?


The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion—Elle Luna. Discover the difference between a job, a career, and a calling with Elle Luna’s The Crossroads of Should and Must. Digging deep to help you discover what you really want, Luna’s book is part narrative, and part memoir, with some exercises thrown in.

The book is particularly useful in identifying obstacles and addressing them (those pesky fears again!). Those who feel a creative calling but aren’t sure how to define or act on it will find this book particularly inspiring. The actual physical book is a joy to read as it resembles a board book with thick cover, numerous illustrations, and varied formatting.


The Steal Like an Artist Journal: A Notebook for Creative Kleptomaniacs—Austin Kleon. For journal fans, The Steal Like an Artist Journal takes the concept of writing prompts a few steps further. Created by “writer who draws” Austin Kleon, you can expect suggestions like “make a mixtape for someone who doesn’t know you.” Steal Like an Artist is part journal, part sketchbook, and always interesting. Kleon encourages you to take your creativity outside your space to complete some of the entries. It is a very literal version of “stepping outside your circle.”

For example, one entry has you choose a color, visit a bookstore and write down the first ten titles you see with that color. Kleon’s twist on the traditional prompted journal forces you to use your creativity in different ways. For those looking for something other than a blank journal page, this may be the right fit.


Now go forth, find and use your creativity!

Book Review

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Publisher: Ecco
Genre: Contemporary, LGBTQ+
Pages: 242
Format: Paperback
Buy Local 
My Rating: 3/5 Stars

Summary

In Exciting Times, Ava, Dublin born and bred, finds herself in Hong Kong teaching English to elementary school students while searching for happiness. When petulant roommates threaten to destroy her sanity, Julian, a wealthy financier, offers her the chance to live a much swankier life than her teacher salary can afford. More companions than romantic partners, they enter into an undefined relationship that Ava continually struggles to decipher and maneuver. When Julian goes out of town for work, Ava meets Edith, a Hong Kong lawyer. Edith upsets the strange balance, leading Ava to question her whole relationship with Julian and ultimately her own identity.

Thoughts

With a title like Exciting Times, I had page-turning high hopes, but overall the novel didn’t necessarily live up to the hype for me. I found myself frustrated with its central group of characters (although that could have been Dolan’s intent). I did agree with the back cover’s assessment of Ava having a cold personality—which is evident in some of her interactions with students and colleagues. However, I did not find Julian all that “witty”; his indifference and callousness with Ava is deflating. The appearance of Edith, the Hong Kong lawyer with whom Ava becomes fixated, gives the novel some drama, as she delivers where Julian cannot in terms of affection and commitment. For me however, the love triangle never quite takes off in a way that is very satisfying. 

Dolan’s use of the characters’ careers as plot devices is fascinating. Her dive into the world of finance through Julian’s career was interesting to the point that I actually had to look up certain industry jargon. The peek into Ava’s career teaching grammar to Hong Kong children is also a fun aspect of the novel. This could have a lot to do with the fact that I am studying to be an English teacher, however the little “lessons” that Dolan interweaves into Ava’s inner monologues nicely punctuate certain scenes. 

Dolan’s commentary on social class is also interesting, as the reader vividly experiences Ava’s struggle with fitting into Julian’s crowd of friends and colleagues. Their differences are not just financial, and Ava is made painfully aware of this during the course of their relationship. Anyone who has dated outside their tax bracket will find her dilemma relatable.

Ava deals with these insecurities and doubts by engaging in a quirky habit of composing text and email messages that she never intends to send. She reveals her true feelings through these “drafts” and they make for some of the more humorous areas of the novel. Dolan makes the choice to use an “accidental” transmission of one of the messages as a plot device, and it is effective in revealing Julian’s continued indifference. 

The novel spends a lot of time inside Ava’s head, as she battles her own good judgement to leave what is ultimately a toxic, unfulfilling relationship. Ava’s opportunity for growth, I believe, was stunted despite all of her rumination, and when the novel concludes, she hadn’t really learned much about herself.


Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette: Book-to-Film Adaptation

“People like you must create. If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society” – Paul Jellinek, Where’d You Go, Bernadette

In Maria Semple’s novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Bernadette Fox is a menace, both to herself and society. A lost soul, she finds a unique solution to rediscovering her creativity and the family whom she’s been neglecting by literally running away to Antarctica. As a woman right about Bernadette’s age, I am drawn to books and films that portray the protagonist in the throes of a breakdown or midlife crisis. It is highly satisfying to follow along on a character’s journey of self-discovery, and Where’d You Go, Bernadette is no exception. As an architectural-genius-gone-recluse after several setbacks, I thoroughly enjoyed her path to enlightenment. 

So, when they announced a film version starring Cate Blanchett in the titular role, I was cautiously optimistic. In truth, I would probably pay to watch Blanchett read the back of a cereal box, but I had my reservations about this particular book-to-film adaptation. As Semple’s novel is largely a collection of emails, letters, and police reports, I was unsure how writer and director Richard Linklater would translate that to the screen. In addition, the novel’s success is credited to the strong, multi-dimensional characters. As it turns out, I had some cause for concern. Be warned, there are spoilers ahead!


Blanchett rose beautifully to the challenge of portraying the quirky, vulnerable, and misguided genius Bernadette Fox. For me, Blanchett was Bernadette—with huge, dark sunglasses and a scarf draped over her hair, she was the epitome of the reclusive genius. She wears all of Bernadette’s absentmindedness, and eccentricities as portrayed in the novel as easily as she dons her rubber rain boots and fishing vest. 

Some of Blanchett’s best scenes, in my opinion, are the ones in which she composes frantic emails to Manjula, the identity thief posing as a Delhi personal assistant. The filmmakers make the wise decision to have Bernadette use voice to text email to communicate her exhaustive requests while she plods about her decrepit home making the odd repair, and sopping up rain from the constant roof leaks. The witty, and mostly manic, monologues from the novel surrounding planning her daughter Balakrishna’s (Bee) gift trip to Antarctica are hilarious. Most telling are the verbal detours that Bernadette takes in the form of tirades about Seattle and the gnats (otherwise known as the other parents). These rants, to a non-existent Manjula, reveal so much about Bernadette’s insecurities, paranoia, and anti-social behavior.

It is that true-to-the-novel attitude that works in telling Bernadette’s story. A fine example comes in the form of the video essay: after a chance meeting with a fan of her architectural work, Bernadette discovers a biographical video essay to commemorate one of her biggest accomplishments and heartbreaks, the Twenty Mile House. Done documentary-style, the video gives the audience a much-needed glimpse into Bernadette’s architectural past, offering an explanation as to why she has chosen to hide herself, and her talent, away. At one point in the film, the video and Elgin’s real-time discussion with a shrink about Bernadette’s self-destructive behavior toggle back and forth—this editing choice makes his concern for Bernadette all the more believable.

With Blanchett’s larger-than-life Bernadette, the other characters of the novel get short-changed, in my opinion. Bernadette’s husband, Elgin, played authentically by Billy Crudup, gets a bit of a makeover. In the novel, he is a self-absorbed Microsoft workaholic with little time for Bernadette and her shenanigans. His frustration leads to an affair with his assistant, Soo-Lin, who in the film is relegated to just being overly involved. The filmmakers choose to present him as more kindhearted and loyal, which works for the movie’s happy ending. 

Emma Nelson as Bee has some important scenes which establish the mother-daughter bond that is so evident in the novel. Unfortunately, in the movie, that bond manifests itself as mostly defending Bernadette’s actions. The two actresses however, are at their best when driving through the rain singing along to “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper. Bernadette’s love and affection for Bee is clear here, and evokes enough vulnerability to balance out her quirky recluse persona. She again taps into this vulnerability when the two lock eyes during Bee’s school performance. I found those scenes to be more affecting than the film’s parting, in which Bernadette’s letter to Bee from the novel becomes a voicemail message—Bernadette rambles into the telephone receiver as Elgin and Bee look on. While the reunion is sweet, I much preferred the novel’s ending that features Bernadette’s letter filled with hope, love, and the promise of a new future for all three of them.

A pivotal character that is far more prominent in the novel is Audrey Griffin, the gnat from Galer Street School which Bee attends. Played by Kristen Wiig, Audrey, like Elgin, is a little more palatable in the film than in the novel. The thorn in Bernadette’s anti-social side, Wiig provides the film with some standout moments from the novel including the injured foot, and the no trespassing billboard. Wiig does a good job of balancing out Audrey’s detestable personality with a vulnerability that comes through in an important moment during the escape. After Bernadette jumps out of her bathroom window, she and Audrey patch up their differences in a revealing and funny way that I preferred to the novel’s. Add the backdrop of Audrey’s filthy home thanks to the mudslide (as funny on film as it is in the novel) and you have a great scene between two confused women.


Overall, as a film about a woman rediscovering herself, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a success, in my opinion. It is wildly funny, and touching where it counts—thanks mainly to the strong lead performances, particularly Blanchett’s. Where the novel surpasses the film is in its development of the supporting characters and their contributions to the story. As you often see with a book-to-film adaptation, the novel offers more depth than its movie counterpart. Not a runaway hit, but still good fun.