Friday, December 31, 2010

2011: Reading Life and the Goon Squad

Time is the Goon Squad and you can't escape. It's inexorable movement forward is captured by Jennifer Egan with excellent writing, humor, and a variety of styles including a Power Point chapter presentation. Each chapter's little stories ultimately link characters, places, and life itself. The main backdrop is the music industry, and in it Bennie Salazar fights to remain valid. Sasha, his young assistant, journeys through the book stealing possessions and our hearts. From New York to San Francisco, Naples, and Africa, characters interlock, live, love, and manage to survive. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan enthralled me.

From The Great Santini to Prince of Tides to Beach Music, Pat Conroy's lyrical prose with a southern lilt made me a fan. Now with My Reading Life, he shares his love of books, reading, libraries, and words. Whether it's Gone With the Wind or Charles Dickens, Conroy's passion for books and his enthusiasm for other writers is infectious. His anecdotes are humorous and touching, as his skill as a writer kept me turning the pages. I received this book as a Christmas gift, and cherish it as such.
P.127 "I selected all my books for the possibility of some flare of candles along the road toward illumination or enchantment."
P.140 in regards to a beloved bookstore (now sadly closed): "It was once a home of thirty thousand books, a village of lost souls who once held citizenship in a princely city of ideas where the bright glimmer of the English language formed a great wall before the assembled forces of chaos."
p. 304 "Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid forms, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear."
Pat Conroy's thinking appears effortless on the page.
Begin 2011 with these two book recommendations and you are on the road to discovery. Time is the goon squad. Use it wisely.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Onward to 2011

Final hurrah on the 2010 Christmas season. Texas Santa stayed warm by the fireplace
Handpainted ornament, from a good friend, is only one of many cherished memories on the tree

A German ornament highlights many travel memories

Nutcracker sentry guarded the entryway. Maybe he should have been watching over cookie consumption in the kitchen.

Winnie the Pooh will be heading back to the attic for another year.
Finale: Christmas poem by me
Dismantle Christmas
slam attic door on
Baby Jesus, Santa, & joy
Open mailbox to bills

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas

"Oh my, it's fruitcake weather!" (from Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory) In our case, it's time for mini-pecan pies. This recipe was handed down from my mother. Fairly easy to bake, these treats are a hit at home or the office.
Hunting Santa is a new addition this year. He was wrapped and tucked into Ray's mid-December carry bag. Figured his deer lease trailer could use some decorating. Ray got a laugh out of it, and now Santa hangs on our tree. Guess he's guarding the presents.

"The stockings were hung by the chimney with care ..." (The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore). We have stockings and also Mr. & Mrs. Santa Claus. I love these two. They come out of the original sent box that's taped and glued and disintegrating. But I patch because it has my mother's writing on the tag, and she delighted in Christmas so much.

Penguins guard our front door and keep out the winter cold. "And the Grinch, with his grinch feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling; How could it be so?"
"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas ... perhaps...means a little bit more!"

Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men
Merry Christmas.
As Tiny Tim observed, "God Bless us, every one." (A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Take the Lead

I peruse the Wall Street Journal for the small columns, tucked into back corners of the paper, that feature noted authors. In the matter of word craft, these gems offer wonderful ideas plus great writing. This Sunday (12/19/10), author John McPhee discussed writing leads and he captured the notion of "wading around in your notes, getting nowhere." You lack structure and your piece is a mess.

"Writing a successful lead can illuminate the problem for you and cause you to see the piece whole." Indeed, with the lead, you can build the structure, frame it in, and start spackling.

"A lead should not be cheap, flashy, meretricious, blaring: After a tremendous fanfare of verbal trumpets, a mouse comes out of a hole, blinking." I've been guilty of too much promise, and then not enough oomph. The lead shouldn't promise too much. Too much teasing sets up the reader for disappointment.

"A lead is good not because it dances, fires cannons or whistles like a train, but because it is absolute to what follows."

I wanted to share these key column points with my writer and reader friends. I hope it helps everyone to take the lead in good journalism, prose, and even in that Christmas or New Year letter still to be written.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Mitten Mirth

Once upon a time, not so long ago, the Winter Olympics were held in Vancouver, Canada. Ray and Joanne watched enthralled as skiers hurtled down mountains, snowboarders leaped and twirled, and skaters danced on ice. Joanne commented to Ray, "I love those red mittens everyone is wearing. They are so cute." Indeed, the Maple leaf gloves were the hot commodity in Vancouver. Oprah managed to give some away to an audience.

Ray, chatting with a distributor in Canada, said to Joy, "We're enjoying your Olympics and my wife loves those mittens." Joy said, "I'll try to get her a pair." Ray said, "That's not necessary," but Joy insisted and persisted. However, the kingdom was bare and alas, no mittens were to be found. We exchanged "Thanks, anyway" emails and thought nothing more about it.
Winter changed to spring which lasted one day in Texas. Then summer temperatures prevailed and Joanne floated in the pool, thoughts of winter, snow, and mittens - all a vague memory. There's always one final heat blast in September, and then one cool night rain that ends pool season. Nippy air, sweatshirt weather, and crisp brown leaves drifted and clogged the pool drain. Frost on the pumpkin, the north wind blew, and Christmas lights were strung.
Ray arrived home from work on December 14th (a warm balmy day) with a yellow padded envelope from Canada. "What to my wondering eyes should appear, but"... MITTENS. Red Olympic mittens with the maple leaf logo. So warm, so soft, such a surprise and treat.

Joy had persisted and when new mittens were issued for the Christmas season, she thought of me - that crazy American who shared in Canada's Olympic glory and admired the bright warm gloves. I was overwhelmed by her generosity, and now await a blizzard.
Thus, our tale ends. A thoughtful present, global friendship (well, okay Texas/Canada), and the spirit of giving and receiving.
Thanks & Merry Christmas

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Assault Ads Everywhere

WSJ Marketplace, December 13, 2010 headline : Marketers Test Ads in E-Books. What? You've got to be kidding me, and yet, I'm not shocked. If there's money to be made somewhere, anywhere, then advertisers will fill a slot. Supposedly, it's not like ads will just pop up randomly as you read. Instead, there will be prescribed placement on the endsheets - no doubt very discreet and tasteful. Until people absolutely say, "No. Stop. We refuse the product," insidious advertising shall prevail.
Christmastime brings out the urgency of advertising. We've been assaulted by sale ads since Halloween. The fate of the economy rests on American consumers, and maybe we are protesting a bit by not opening the wallets quite so wide. Actually, I'm not against advertising per se. It serves a purpose in the message delivery system. I'm against much of the timing. I don't need that extra ad sticker slapped on my newspaper, obliterating top headlines. I certainly don't think I need an ad scrolling along an e-book page as I read Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Much of reading is escape. Please don't let the real world intrude. What do you think?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Cue the Ice Skating Music

What have I been doing with my time? Didn't finish NaNo - too busy listening to my Dad snore during Thanksgiving. We had so much fun - hung out, saw movies, visited, laughed, and ate plenty. Now it's Christmas season and I rejoice in the decorations, the baking, the whole idea of Christmas. My mother loved the season and I think that's something I inherited from her.

My husband's a good sport and has a bit of National Lampoon Christmas in his soul. We have lights out front AND lights out back. Hey, those are the ones we see and they reflect off the pool. Thanks, Ray - awesome job!
Yeah, fake tree. Got tired of sneezing every year. The fake tree sheds too, so we have the joy of needles. But it's pre-lit and I love putting our individual decorations on it. So many memories - trips, gifts, and past Christmases. Truly a joy to view.

Found this snowman head in Granbury and couldn't resist. Kinda cracks me up - so goofy, so joyful. Cue music from A Charlie Brown Christmas by Vince Guaraldi Trio - timeless and smooth. Christmas Time is Here or Skating, Hark the Herald Angels Sing..............the list goes on. Current tunes - gotta love Baby, It's Cold Outside from the Glee soundtrack - I love Kurt's voice.

Nifty story. My aunt's been giving me Byer's Choice carolers for many years. However, last year was the "last" time. BUT, my father saw that there was a special edition caroler in honor of the North Wales Library - 100th anniversary. Well, that's OUR library - I grew up there, going weekly, reading voraciously. Special Christmas treat - my father presented me, my sister, and sister-in-law with the unique librarian - - signed by Mr. Byer himself. Wow!!!! That's the thing about Christmas - the little stories, the memories, and the love.
Bask in the season. Reflect. Enjoy. No worries.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Immortal, Indeed

Quick book review today. I'll be honest I don't read much non-fiction. It's not deliberate, but my pile of choices aren't filled with biographies, history, or science. However, a friend left The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for me to peruse. And wow, it's quite a story.

The author, Rebecca Skloot, was bored with college science until a professor spoke about the HeLa cells and the amazing medical research being done with these cells. Skloot perked up at the story (or actually, lack thereof) behind the cells. A poor black woman in the South in the 1950s, Henrietta Lacks, knew after the birth of her last child that something was seriously wrong with her. However, medical treatment was not easy to receive. She finally went to the doctor, who treated blacks for Johns Hopkins. He discovered a serious tumor on her cevix. The cancer spread rapidly and Ms.Lacks succumbed quickly. However, before she died, cells were collected and labeled. These cells divided prolifically. They did not die in a petri dish. As they grew and grew, they became a test tube business in the United States and abroad. The cells were used for research on cancers and numerous other diseases. For scientists, it was a goldmine.

Ms.Skloot continued her studies in science, but kept returning to this story. She began to dig deeper and to interview the Lacks family. As she uncovered facts about Henrietta, she was able to share the woman's story, and the family began to trust her and the discoveries. It wasn't a question of money or glory, the point of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is dignity. There was a real person, a patient who died, but gave life to thousands of people thanks to life-saving research and discovered medicines.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a phenomenal read. Well researched and extremely well written, it draws you in to the mystery, the characters, and documents a life of a woman - Henrietta Lacks, the real person behind the HeLa cells.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Philly (suburbs) Fall Frolic

In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you (Leo Tolstoy) I did plenty of that in North Wales, PA for Thanksgiving at my Dad's. No work, lots of putzing, plenty of laughs, tons of food, and some observations. I didn't write much, but words churn in my brain and material will erupt from my time with family and friends.

Goethe wrote One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.
Employ thy time well, if thou meanest to get leisure. I think Ben Franklin's goal was to rock on my father's front porch and watch the leaves swirl like snow.

Look up, look down, seek that surprise splash of color.

Bushes are at eye level and trap leaves. Stand still and listen for the rustle, inhale the fragrant evergreen, revel in the crisp air, and then contemplate a cup of cocoa. Winter bleakness knocks at the door. We're not answering ...yet.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Turkey Tales

Just when you think there's nothing prettier than tulips in spring or crepe myrtles in summer, along come mums in the fall. This was given to me in October for my birthday and it's the gift that keeps giving (Thanks, Ann). Fall - I love the crisp air, frosty mornings, and a sweatshirt (Purple - TCU - that's a fave).

Not thankful for leaves in the pool. They clog up the basket and ultimately cause agitation - for the pump and for Ray.

Artsy shot. I need to remember this description as my heroine strolls in her backyard, pensive, regretting her past. The dying leaves represent so much ... Tell me - too dramatic?

Crazy red holly berries. I'm not sure if any birds eat them or if they are poisonous. Either way, we have a bounty this year, which could mean an extra cold winter. I'm ready with a stack of books. Like a squirrel with nuts, I store reading material. You just never know when you could get iced. (it's Texas)

I'm grateful for words, books, friends and family, faithful blog readers, my future agent and editor (I know you are out there). Thanks to Ray for his support.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Tea Time Temptations

Go often to the house of thy friend, for weeds soon choke up the unused pavement. Fortunately the path is clear as one enters my friend Linda's home, and last Sunday she entertained a group of seven with a tea. Yummy desserts lingered in the corner.
Fabulous presentation harkened back to olden days. I thought of Jane Austen and all of the etiquette involved in her novels. Plus, there are plenty of books about tea service and teatime snacks. However, sometimes you have to step back from the books and wing it. Our good friend Kearny, in town from Cincinnati, has no fear in the kitchen. Cucumber sandwiches projected a Texas flair with a sourcream ranch style filler. Don't have this ingredient? Try that.

We sampled everything Saturday night while slicing, dicing, and laughing. Kearny ended up soaking the baguettes in olive oil to moisten them for the pesto sauce, mozzarella, and tomato topping. I like to think that the cooks and servants from historical novels also enjoyed tea preparation -sneaking tastes and stuffing goodies in apron pockets for later.

"Oh dear," said Kearny as she pursed her lips in review of the table. I followed Linda's example per her first place setting. It worked for me. "Oh you lefties," K exclaimed. She rearranged water glasses, knife rests, etc for the "proper" table ta-da factor. (This shall be a humorous anecdote in an upcoming story. I've taken notes.)

Finally, I extrapolated from tea to an Agatha Christie moment. As we gathered in the parlor, had a crime been committed? Poke the fire and ponder the day. Review the cast of characters. Tales abound.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Spanish Influence

The Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University offers a delightful atmosphere for learning more about Spanish art. It was a lovely Saturday and we strolled the grounds first, enjoying band music wafting in from the nearby stadium, clear blue skies, and solemn brick buildings harboring culture and scholarship
A hint of fall and a really cool face sculpture best admired from a distance
Pristine grounds and powerful bronze artwork

This was a quiet piece worthy of contemplation

Inside we were treated to pieces from the Meadows vast collection as well as works on loan from the Prado in Spain. Religious art is not necessarily my favorite - too many flayings, banishments, and anguish - but I can appreciate the stories these pieces tell of the times and beliefs. One of the great masters, El Greco, is featured and Pentecost is striking. Vivid colors, figures in motion, emotions aswirl - he captured divine holiness.
Visit the Meadows for more artistic stories, feel the power, and surrender in awe.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Sound of Writing

WSJ 10/30-31 - "When Stephen Sondheim writes, he looks at a blank wall." This brilliant composer apparently has a fabulous view of New York city, but he turns his back, picks up a yellow legal pad, and stares. From a blank pad and black walled view grew West Side Story, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, and A Little Night Music.

"A lyric doesn't have very many words in it, so every line is like a scene in a play," he said, " and that means every word is like a passage of dialogue." He relies on Roget's Thesaurus and Clement Wood's rhyming dictionary.

I enjoyed this article because it made me think about word usage. He says that "words that are spelled differently but sound the same engage the ear more than rhyming words. Words using hard consonants such as k or p are useful for underscoring rage or resolve.

As I write dialogue, I do re-read my words out loud. This helps cut clunky, awkward phrasing. Indeed it's imperative to use words and sounds to convey the depths of character emotion.

Mr.Sondheim says he's learned to silence his inner critic and to not "just throw your pencil down."
"Isn't it rich ..." (from Send in the Clowns/A Little Night Music)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

NaNo Filler

In a recent Wall Street Journal essay Block That Adjective!, Alexander McCall Smith discussed overuse of adjectives. He conjectured that creative writing courses are a good idea except when they aren't. He discussed overwriting - writing a mountain out of a molehill and using far too many words to make a point.

Well, obviously, he has not written during November, i.e. National Novel Writing Month, where to reach the 50,000 word goal in a mere 30 days involves an excruciating amount of adjectives, adverbs, and cliches. Trust me, scene descriptions can go on forever. Pour a cup of coffee - you live through the beans being picked.

McCall Smith protests the temptation to overindulge in words, "like a chocolate box with multiple layers." Good analogy, but in NaNo - bring on the nougats, cremes, and fruit flavors.

He clamors for conciseness. He desires sparing use of metaphor. What?

Is he insane? No, wait, NaNo writers are insane and we are abusing the English language with flowery prose. We are not letting our reader use his imagination. Oh well. Mr.McCall Smith blames Roget's thesaurus and demands it be put away.

NO, Sir - absolutely not until December 1st. At that time, I shall re-peruse your essay, re-read my work, and begin to pluck useless adjectives from the path of meaning.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Post Series Blues

October 31st - attended Game 4 of the World Series in Arlington, Texas. (Took tons of pics - hence this bonus blog) Part of history for the Texas Rangers. Two hours before game time, the stadium concourse was packed with people. Throngs of fans in red and blue stood in line for souvenirs, beer, and food. The excitement was palpable, the air electric. I admit I'm a whiner when it's 100 degrees at 9 pm (in July) and sweat trickles behind my knees. Ugh. I believe in the seventh inning stretch and leave at that juncture. However, this was the freakin' World Series. I was prepared to stay until they called up Ray to pitch at 3 am, if necessary.
Somehow the concept of Claws and Antlers became a prevailing theme for the Rangers. They clawed their way into the series, and their speed (i.e. fleet of foot deer) helped at some serious scoring time. Plus it's the American way to transform anything into a hideous t-shirt.

No matter what, Rangers Ballpark in Arlington is a superb sports venue. It's pretty, classic, and very fan friendly (despite Texas summers). Ray and I are halfway through baseball park visits, and the Ballpark is worthy of top five ranking. Its sister is Camden Yards in Baltimore - very cool. Wrigley Field is still beyond description. I loved old Shea Stadium, and Ray had a ton of fun at the old Milwaukee home. We've not been to the holy grail of Fenway. Old Yankees - eh...concrete history.........We weren't mega-impressed.

Big flags - always impressive. I'll give credit to Texas for its distinctive flag. Simple and yet truly memorable.

My grandmother (Julia Crowther) loved her Phillies and Mike Schmidt. We'd visit on a Sunday and she'd be listening to a game - old school. So, I guess baseball is in my blood, especially being married to Ray. The Rangers were very exciting - so many stories, so many ups and downs. When you looked at the crowds - their enthusiasm, their commitment to history - you felt chills and had to root for the home team, eat Cracker Jack, buy some peanuts, and bask in the glow.
P.S. The Giants won and they were worthy contenders. Known as the Misfits, they were wacky characters with great pitching, bats at the right time, and a darn smart coach. As Ron Washington, Ranger's coach sorta said, "So goes baseball."