Thursday, March 31, 2011

King Lear - A Cautionary Tale for the Aging?

King Lear allotting his kingdom to his daughters by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1872
I admit it.  I haven’t read any Shakespeare since college, and that was (deep breath) nearly 20 years ago.  I’ve read a good deal of The Bard in my time, but, somehow, King Lear escaped my attention.  Book Phantom has remedied that.  When I began the play, I confess, the language was challenging.  I had to relearn how to read good Will.  I found it helpful to read aloud, because Shakespeare just sounds so darn good.  This exercise took me back to eleventh grade English in high school.  My teacher, Ms. Thomason, god bless her, had great taste in literature.  I give her full credit for instilling an appreciation of respectable reading.  Anyway, whenever we read plays aloud in class, Ms. Thomason almost always chose me to read the lead female parts.  That year I was Hedda Gabler, Medea, Antigone, and Lady Macbeth.  Either I was the only kid in class who could halfway read aloud, or Ms. T was trying to keep me from chatting up my neighbor across the aisle.  Nonetheless, I loved every minute of it, and this experience served me well when I read King Lear.
            Of all Shakespeare’s plays I could have chosen, why did I choose Lear?  Perhaps it’s because I am the youngest of three sisters, and I related to Cordelia.  Also, it seems so many books and movies reference Lear (A Thousand Acres comes to mind), and I needed to know more.  I was not disappointed – the word craft, the drama, the villains, the heroes, the tragedy – all timeless. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

April Reading List – Fun with Shakespeare

"My library was dukedom large enough."  - William Shakespeare, The Tempest 
I’m not really sure why I got a sudden yen to read Shakespeare.  Perhaps it’s because Eleanor Brown’s new novel, The Weird Sisters, is on my Spring to-read list.  Maybe it’s because I haven’t read any Shakespeare since college.  Whatever the reason, this month I’m getting my Bard on with selections that include Lear, Greer, and a few things weird.

New Release:  The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown.  Three sisters return to their childhood home to be with their mother who’s dying of cancer, and their academic father who speaks in Shakespearean verse.  The names of the daughters?  Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia, of course.
Classic:  King Lear by well, you know who.  Three sisters compete for the affections of their aging father, the king.  Lear bequeaths his kingdom to his two eldest and silver-tongued daughters, whom he perceives love him most.  The third daughter, who loves him but refuses to flatter him, is cast out with no dowry.  Lear’s poor choice is the undoing of the whole family, as well as the state of Britain. 
Nonfiction:   Shakespeare’s Wife by Germaine Greer.  A controversial history that defends Shakespeare’s estranged wife, Ann Hathaway.  The link is to a YouTube lecture by Greer, who is quite funny in her scholarly way.
Juvenile:  Stage Fright on a Summer’s Night by Mary Pope Osborne.  My son is all about the Magic Tree House books right now.  What better way to introduce him to Shakespeare?
Inspiration:  Shakespeare’s Wordcraft by Scott Kaiser.  An outline of conventions and language devices in Shakespeare’s verse.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Room of My Own

As promised, I am posting pictures of my renovated Junk Room.  It is now my office/writing/reading space.  Remember this ghastly photo?


Big improvement, n'est pas?  My desk is now auspiciously placed diagonally from the entrance.  I have a new, more comfy chair with cushioning, and I can spin in it until I'm dizzy.  The Hub built a bulletin board and tons of shelves.  I am surrounded by literary goodness: books, book posters, photos of readers, and writing tools galore.  

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Ten Lessons for Writers Inspired by American Literary Greats

American Writers at Home by J.D. McClatchy (with photos by Erica Lennard) is my Pick of the List this month.  It’s a collection of biographical vignettes, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Because I read this book cover-to-cover and in minute detail, I noticed patterns in work habits across the twenty-one legendary writers featured within.  Below is a list of Ten Lessons for aspiring writers I compiled based on facts from McClatchy’s biographies.  I included fun examples from the book to show successful (and not-so-successful) behaviors among Great American Writers.

  1. Most excuses for not writing are weak. 
After her husband’s death, Kate Chopin ran his general store, raised six (count ’em, six) children, had an affair with a local planter, had parties and played cards, studied Huxley and Darwin, and still found time to write her short stories and The Awakening. Kate Chopin, spinning in her grave, thinks all of your excuses for not writing are lame.  An aging Ralph Waldo Emerson continued to lecture even though his memory was gone.  When he caught pneumonia, he insisted on dressing each morning and going to his study.  He died a week later.  So, what’s your excuse?  Full-time job? Family?  Laziness?  If you want to write, you’ll find a way.

  1. Routine breeds discipline. 
Washington Irving always sipped coffee or tea when writing in the early morning hours.  Hemingway sat at his desk at 8 o’clock and wrote all morning during his productive Key West years.  Hawthorne wrote four hours each day in his study but took summers off to read and enjoy the outdoors.  Faulkner worked from seven until two every day.  Twain went to his study at 11 A.M. and worked until supper.  He often played billiards to flesh out ideas and untangle revisions.  Edith Wharton always wrote in bed.  Melville rose at eight and fed his cow a pumpkin before breakfasting and setting to work in his study.  He arranged for a member of the household to knock on his door at 2 P.M. to pull him from his writing.  Eudora Welty also preferred to work mornings, saying, “I wake up ready to go, and I try to use that morning energy and freshness.”  Whether early bird or night owl, hatching ideas requires the discipline of routine.  Create a writing schedule and stick with it.

  1. When writing inspiration strikes, don’t delay. 
Louisa May Alcott’s term for her inspiration was “the vortex”, and when she was in the vortex, she’d work up to 14 hours per day.  In this manner, she completed one chapter of Little Women each day.  When inspiration strikes, run with it.  Do not put it off for any reason.  Sit down at the desk and let the vortex sweep you away.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Writers' Rooms - Paul Green Cabin

I've been reading the book American Writers at Home by J.D. McClatchy with photos by Erica Lennard.  It looks like a coffee-table book, but McClatchy's writing is so readable that I find myself with this huge folio across my lap for stretches at a time reading about the likes of Emily Dickinson, Washington Irving, and Ernest Hemingway.  Inspired by this reading, the Book Phantom took a field trip to the writing space of dramatist Paul Green, who won the 1927 Pulitzer for Drama for In Abraham's Bosom (he also wrote the outdoor drama The Lost Colony which still runs in Manteo, NC).  I got to spend a sunny day in the Botanical Gardens in beautiful Chapel Hill where Green's cabin has been relocated.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Spring Reading Thing 2011

I just found a reading challenge called Spring Reading Thing 2011.  Here's a list of things I'll be reading between March 20th and June 20th:
  • Swamplandia by Karen Russell
  • The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown
  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  • A Light in August by William Faulkner
This is a little peek into what my book lists will look like over the next few months.  These titles will likely springboard into other reading inspired by whatever crazy is going on in my life.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Room Inspired Bookmark

Today I’m going to release my copy of Room by Emma Donoghue into the librosphere.  On page 85, the author describes the garden shed that Old Nick, the kidnapper, transformed into Ma's prison.  I made this bookmark from a paint chip I collected during my junk-room-to-home-office renovation.  Eerily, the hue is called Garden Shed.  I typed parts of the description on the front.  On the back, I made reference to the title and author, as well as the eggshell snake that Jack made and kept under the bed.  It was a fill-in-the-blanks operation, my little homage to Donoghue’s story.  I plan on placing the book (bookmarked at page 85, of course) somewhere an unsuspecting reader can find it.  I think I’ll leave it in some sort of room – a rest room, or maybe a dressing room in a store.  If you find it and make your way to the Book Phantom, please leave a comment!

Front side

Back side

Friday, March 11, 2011

Review of Room by Emma Donoghue

I have to give Donoghue credit.  Telling a story from the point of view of a five year old boy is one of the more unique twists I’ve read, particularly when the boy has lived his life entirely in a 12 x 12 garden shed he calls Room.  His mother was kidnapped at age 19 by Old Nick and kept in Room for seven years, during which time she gave birth to Jack.  The story opens on Jack’s fifth birthday.  It appears to be a normal day at home for a preschooler and his mom, but we soon find that the duo are kept behind a security coded door which can only be opened by their captor.  Jack hides in the wardrobe on the nights Old Nick “visits” with Ma.
            The story unfolds with a risky escape and the aftermath of freedom in the world Outside.  In spite of the disturbing subject, Jack’s narration filters the haunting bits through young eyes.  His attention is ever flitting toward his childish interests rather than his mother’s suffering, which makes the harsh scenario tolerable.  Sometimes his voice made me think I was reading a dark and perverse Junie B. Jones – like some tragic offspring of Cormac McCarthy and Barbara Park.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Book Phantom Strikes Again

Today, my library copy of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is due.  I will return it, as I await a copy of my very own from Amazon.  As you know, I like to sneak little mementos into books I release back out into the librosphere (tee-hee).  Here is what I made for The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet:

It’s a bookmark which I crafted with my own two little hands, sort of like those Artist Trading Cards people like to exchange.  It's a trifle, but I hope it brightens someone’s day.  Perhaps it will prompt that random reader to ask, “Hey, where’d this come from?” or “What kind of loony would make such a thing?” 

Pretty sneaky, sis!  Feel free to enjoy it yourself...

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

March Reading List - Defining Your Space

While February’s reading list was about finding one’s direction, March’s reading list is about defining one’s space.  This selection of topic was inspired by my inability to knuckle down and work on my manuscript.  My energy was stagnant from constantly reworking my story in my head.  To get the energy moving again, I looked thoughtfully toward my home office, which is my creative space.

Here is a picture of my home office, and what I perceive to be wrong with it.  (I’m a bit of an amateur Feng Shui enthusiast, and I applied principles of this art to the space.)
The primary problem was that the office was in the bedroom in the first place.  Although my bedroom is large enough to easily accommodate my desk, it is not the ideal place for it.  Every morning when I wake up, the desk taunts me, telling me to get to work (not always a bad thing).  Every night when I put my head to the pillow, I worry that my word counts weren’t enough to get me through twenty more chapters by summer.  The pressure just shut me down completely.  It is no longer an inviting place to sit and create.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Writer’s Map Fraught with Peril

Inspired by my reading list this month, I made a map to illustrate my writing angst.  (Click on it to enlarge):

Anybody been here?
As you can see, the most direct path to the Shangri-la of Creative Genius is through the Hardwork Hills and the mountainous (or should I say monotonous?) Revision Range.  This path is rigorous and challenging – one needs a lot of stamina to stay on the trail. 
            Most writers, I would guess, take alternate routes due to responsibilities, diversions, and frustrations from false starts.  Such scenic routes eventually intersect with the Road to Revision, a crossroads where we choose to stay on the current well-worn path of our lives or turn back onto the bumpy, dirty road of our creativity. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Ten Boredom Busters inspired by T.S. Spivet

1.      Play a rousing game of Boggle.
2.      Get a Cheeseburger Happy Meal and critique the crappiness of the toy inside.
3.      Compose a tune on a slide whistle.
4.      Make a placemat with your family tree on it.
5.      Take photographs of random things you pass on the road.
6.      Try to guess what’s in Gracie’s dish she calls “the Next Best Thing” and make up a recipe for it.
7.      Make Aunt Doretta’s cocktail, The Coyote Toyte, and see if you can drink it with “a sensational  degree of regularity”.
8.      Watch old cowboy movies.
9.      Read a comic strip and create a fifth panel for it.
10.  Drink spiked eggnog and make a hullabaloo with badminton rackets.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Book Club Recipe – T.S. Spivet’s Honey Nut Cheerios Bars

Poor T.S. Spivet – his brother died, his Father doesn’t understand him, his mother is self-absorbed.  I wish I could make it better for him – give him a cookie and a hug to make everything alright again.  His favorite food is Honey Nut Cheerios with which he says he has an almost “philosophical obsession”:
            A dry bowl of cereal has a way of calling you.  I doused the Cheerios with milk and dove headlong into the delicious world of tiny crunchy doughnuts.  When I was done, I performed my favorite part of the ritual: the drinking of the leftover milk that had become lightly infused with sweet strains of honey, as if a magical honey cow had dispensed her milk right into my bowl.”        
-          from The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet

T.S. made me think about how I haven’t made any homemade goodies for my kids in a while (I think the last treat I made was at Christmas).  In order to feel I’m at least a smidge more nurturing than Dr. Clair, I decided to make some tasty (and easy) Honey Nut Cheerio Bars.  Here’s the recipe:

½ cup honey (or Karo syrup if you don’t mind corn syrup)
½ cup sugar
½ cup peanut butter (if you use crunchy, you can omit the almonds)
½ cup almonds
5 cups Honey Nut Cheerios

Grease a 13 x 9” pan with cooking spray or butter.  (I line my pan with foil, then spray it with cooking spray).  Put honey and sugar into a large saucepan, stirring and bringing to a boil.  Add peanut butter, and stir until melted.  Remove from heat.  Pour in HN Cheerios and almonds, and stir until the nuts and cereal are completely coated.  Spoon mixture into greased pan, patting it down until nice and even.  Allow to cool for 15 minutes.  Cut into bars.  (If you used a foil liner, lift foil out of pan and cut.  The foil method makes for cleaner and easier cutting.)

Serve to kids (or your book club) alongside a large glass of cold milk so they get that yummy magical honey cow taste.

Friday, March 4, 2011

"No Direction in Life" Book List

This is my complete February Reading List - sorry to post so late.  Check out my March Reading List which I plan to post by March 8th.

·    New Release : The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, by Reif Larsen; Penguin Press 2009.  What better way to find my direction than by reading a book about a boy cartographer?
·    Classic: Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift; The Easton Press, 1976.  This was the only book that T.S.’s great-great-great grandfather read other than the bible.
·    Nonfiction: You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, by Katherine Harmon, Princeton Architectural Press, October 1, 2003.  T.S. mapped his personal geographies from how to climb a mountain to shake hands with God, to the flow of dinner conversation at home, to his top-nine favorite movies and their thematic relationships.  A great way to discover my own personal geography.
·    Juvenile: S is for Smithsonian: American’s Museum Alphabet, by Marie and Roland Smith, Illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen; Sleeping Bear Press, 2010.  T.S. is going to the Smithsonian to receive the Baird Award.  I thought this alphabet book would be too easy for my seven- and nine-year olds, but I soon found that even I had a lot to learn from the informative text.  Fascinating stuff.
·    Self-improvement:  Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, by Peter Turchi; Trinity University Press, 2004.  Turchi, a writer, uses the extended metaphor of writing as mapping the world of story. 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

What to Read? Part 3: How to Make a Reading List

Last post, I introduced the Reader’s Formula for Selecting Books.  It looked like this:

Values ((Assets + x) – (Desires + y) – Liabilities – Requirements) = Optimal Reading List

This post, I am going to give an example from my reading life to demonstrate how to use this formula.  The first part of the formula is “values”, which I said are variable.  They determine what experiences we deem important or not, and influence our judgment and behaviors.  For simplicity, and to avoid sounding like a Sociology 101 text, I call this “life acting upon us”, because essentially, our life circumstances give rise to our values.
            So, what do I value these days?  What filter is life applying to me to influence which experiences I let in and which ones I release?  Lately, I have been feeling adrift, directionless.  After two years of working regularly to revise my manuscript, I find myself ready to give up on the project.  My mind resists quitting, but my behaviors tell me I already have.  I can’t make myself work on it anymore, yet nothing has replaced this piece of work in my mind.  No new ideas.  No desire to do anything else.  I am adrift on a plain of apathy.  How to find my way?
            I decide to read to take my mind off my failure.  I browse the stacks in the library, hoping to be inspired by something.  My eye lands upon the cover of a book, featured by the library staff.  It is called The Selected Works by T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen.  I have seen this book many times, and although intrigued by it, I never took it home.  This particular day, feeling lost and in need of a map to navigate my professional aspirations, I thought, “What better way to reorient myself than to read a book about a boy cartographer?”  If being lost was what life was giving me, then finding my way was what I valued.  Therefore, in my reader’s formula, v = Finding my way.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

What to Read? Part 2: The Reader’s Formula

In my last post, I likened finding good books to dating, and I promised to share my process for choosing what to read next.  Consider me a matchmaker who helps “bind” books and readers (sorry for that).  In order to find a satisfying partner for a literary love affair, one needs some method of selection from a multitude of promising candidates – sort of like the method mathematician John Nash (whose life was depicted in A Beautiful Mind) developed for choosing which women he and his pals should pick up in a bar. (Keep in mind, I’m no schizophrenic supergenius, this isn’t anything like game theory, and we are just talking about books here lest anyone is confused and thinks they landed on an Internet dating site).
First, the reader must have a list of things he/she is looking for in a book, and the reader must consider his/her own limitations.  Here is what I know about my reading preferences as well as the constraints that work against me:
  1. I want to read the best new releases when they come out instead of getting on the library’s wait list, but I can only afford one, maybe two hardcovers a month (my limitations are urgency and money).  I don’t have a lot of time to research (another limitation), so I will read reviews of only the newest – say, those released within the last three to six months. 
  2. I don’t want to neglect the Classics because a well-rounded reader should make an effort to read what is timeless (if for no other reason than to appreciate references to these works in other literature).  I suppose the genealogist in me compels me to read Classics – I think we have better perspective of the present if we know what came before.  Mark Twain put it so aptly:  “‘Classic.’  A book which people praise and don’t read.”  (Ironic that Twain’s books are now classics, and I still haven’t read one.)
  3. I like reading nonfiction as much as fiction.  Learning for the sake of learning is a value to me, and I’d like to be informed by more than just watching the evening news (which I avoid) or searching Wikipedia (to which I’m addicted).
  4. My children are a priority, and I like to read the books they’re reading and preview things I think they’ll enjoy.  Children’s literature and YA are a couple of my favorite genres because the necessary read time is usually minimal. 
  5. I am a writer, and need to read books that inspire and educate me so I’m more productive, creative, and efficient.  This type of reading might fall under self-improvement, career, or inspirational, and it helps us contribute our own verses to the world.   These materials are most directly related to real-life action.  For example, I might be reading Blogging for Dummies right now, which leads me to write a blog.