Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Status Update

What's happening now is I'm trying to write a synopsis of the novel. It's a 500-word description of everything that happens, focusing on the seven anchor scenes or the Hero's Journey or whatever.

Let me just say that next time I try to write a novel (I hope I'm going to do it again), I'll write this dastardly little document first. There will be one main character (not two, like I have now), and that main character will zip through her story, hitting every blasted one of these seven anchor scenes. It will be completely satisfying, and the whole thing will work.

There will be high stakes that I plot ahead of time. I won't find myself, for instance, standing in the gym with a colleague during recess duty trying to identify the villain after I've already written a hundred pages.

Because retro-fitting that villain was hard.

Writing the synopsis is also hard, okay?
The little paragraphs are dis-jointy.
It feels like I should have two different synopses.
I found another template that I think would work better for multiple characters.
Maybe I should start the synopsis over?
The doubt is creeping in while I write, like, one sentence per hour.
But doubtLESS, I'll have to re-write that one sentence a million times.

Luckily, this situation led me to the comfort of my blog. Maybe the blog will revive now that the novel is mostly done? That would please me. I hope that's what happens.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Best of 2017: Audio

This is it for book lists of 2017! The other book lists from this year and previous years are HERE. I listened to 14 audiobooks this year, fewer than I typically hear. I think the reason for that is my increasing interest in podcasts. In any case, I'm picking three audiobooks that shine in that format. Here they are in alphabetical order by author.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, narrated by Dominic Hoffman.
This is a collection of interconnected stories beginning with two half-sisters in 18th-century Ghana, unknown to one another and with vastly different fates. Each story moves a generation ahead from the boarding of the slave ships on the Gold Coast to present-day America. It's a hugely ambitious exploration of the legacy of slavery and perceptions of blackness. I'll be thinking about this for a long, long time. And, I'm amazed that the author was 26 years old. I'm having a few qualms about recommending the audiobook because it is hard to track the characters through these stories; however, I did like Hoffman's matter-of-fact delivery and the richness of his voice. There's a family tree on Wikipedia that would solve the character problem.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, read by the author.
These are engaging and sobering stories of The Daily Show host's growing up in South Africa during and after apartheid. Topics range from petty larceny to church-going to Noah's complicated relationship with his white father. Noah's mother becomes the throughline here, with the book beginning and ending with tributes to her strength.  I always love a book read by the author, and Noah's narration is excellent - funny, heartfelt, and brisk. It's also helpful to hear the stories, as so many words appear in various languages of South Africa - Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans - all of which he speaks. 

The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney, narrated by Mia Barron
Several of my friends have told me they didn't like this book, but I found it to be rather addicting. I had to know what happened to each of the characters, minor and major, as soon as possible. I'm really curious about how Sweeney put this together. There's so much backstory and "telling," but still the plot really moves. All loose ends resolved at the end in surprising ways. Barron's narration felt non-judgemental and curious in its own right. 

Here are the other audiobooks I listened to this year:
  • Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, narrated by Scott Brick. An excellent choice for a family road trip.
  • A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan, narrated by Julia Whelan. This was on my list of favorite fiction this year, and Julia Whelan has narrated several books I've enjoyed.
  • I Found You by Lisa Jewell, narrated by Helen Duff. I loved this mystery, but there was something off about the recording. Read it on paper.
  • Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz, narrated by Colleen Werthmann. I like the premise, but it's just too long.
  • Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall. I had to listen on 1.5 speed to get through it. There's just too much going on.
  • The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty, narrated by Heather Wilds. I love listening to Moriarty's books. This one centers on a quirky family, their secrets, and finding personal peace.
  • Small Admissions by Amy Poeppel, narrated by Carly Robins. A delightful story about a young woman's accidental foray into private school admissions. Funny, poignant, filled with (sadly) realistic portrayals of top-tier parents.
  • Maybe in Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid, narrated by Julia Whelan. I loved this Sliding Doors-style dual love story in which we're left to ponder whether life is "meant to be" or "what we make it."
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, narrated by Bahni Turpin. On my favorite YA list. A really impressive novel of activism and coming-of-age.
  • The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware, narrated by Imogen Church. A total trip. The audio kept me sublimely entertained while I painted my son's bedroom.
  • Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin, narrated by Karen White. The narration enhances the humor, especially of Rachel, one of four protagonists.
And that's it for book lists of 2017! I'm planning another post about my reading goals for 2018. I've got them, that's for sure!

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Best of 2017: Nonfiction

I read 16 works of nonfiction this year. I'm pretty picky about nonfiction, so they were all pretty darn good. I do have five favorites, listed here in alphabetical order.

Back and Forth: Using an Editor's Mindset to Improve Student Writing by Lee Heffernan
I usually don't include professional texts for teachers in my list, but this year I can't help it because this book is a fave for sure. It's a book about how to position yourself as a teacher in writer's workshop for maximum engagement, revision, success, and pride in writing. Along the way, there are relatable tips for forging an excellent classroom community and a sense of authenticity. I love this book. If you're a literacy educator at any level, you will too.

You'll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein
Hilarious and on-the-nose essays from the writer and producer of The Amy Schumer Show. Topics range from the questionable fashion choices of middle school to the curious phenomenon of never feeling quite good enough. I felt like Klein was my pal, just another 40-something (Okay, I'm ALMOST 40) who wants to both do their best and also be cool.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
I loved this funny, charming, and true meditation on running and writing. Murakami captures how I feel about these two pursuits and also about most of the other things I do: it's a mix of compulsion and curiosity. There's always the next thing, and it's both a pleasure and responsibility to carry on. Shef read this one, too, and he also liked it.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
This is a collection of deeply affecting poetry, so yes, I'm cheating in the genre department. Rankine writes short poems depicting everyday moments in the speaker's life as a black woman. The aggression she bears piles up and each page feels heavier. Longer poems had my white jaw dropping, but they shouldn't have. I should be more aware and active.

Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin
I loved this examination of habits - formation, motivation, keeping, breaking, catching, encouraging, enjoying. The conversational style appealed to me, and I also learned a lot about myself. Most stunning and obvious: not everyone is like me. In fact, most people aren't.

And here are the other ten titles! Need a different book list? HERE you go!

  • Blind Spot: The Hidden Biases of Good People - by Mahzarin Benaji and Anthony Greenwald
  • Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher - Carrie Fisher's fast, funny memoir about living a crazy life while trying her best. 
  • On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting by Thomas Guskey - It turns out I'm not doing everything right when it comes to assigning grades. Lots to think about.
  • Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham - A middle-grade graphic novel about girl friendships.
  • Running with the Buffaloes by Chris Lear - I loved this inside look at a successful college running team, its iconic coach, and a deserving national champ.
  • Whereas by Layli Long Soldier - Long Soldier morphs clauses of treaties and conveys through wordplay, syntax, and metaphor her own experiences of displacement.
  • The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History by Joseph Marshall This is a wonderful compilation of stories and collective memories about the Oglala Lakota leader and legend.
  • Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall - I liked parts of this book quite a lot, but overall, there was just too much going on.
  • Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton - Sometimes, I felt annoyed because it seemed manipulative, and sometimes I cried because I found it so honest and moving.
  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah - Engaging and sobering stories of The Daily Show Host's growing up in South Africa during and after apartheid.
  • The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin - I tore through this detailed guide to her Four Tendencies framework - a study of how people respond to expectations.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Best of 2017: Middle Grade and YA

I only read 11 middle grade and YA titles this year! I can't believe it. I think I was distracted by contemporary women's fiction. In any case, there were some great ones among those 11. I'm listing my favorite three in alphabetical order by author.

Pax by Sara Pennypacker
This became an all-class read for our sixth graders, and we love it. Peter's dad is off to fight in the war and makes Peter leave Pax, the pet fox who has been his only friend since his mother's death, on the edge of the woods. The pain of separation sears both the boy and his fox, whom we follow in alternating chapters. Peter quickly realizes he's made a mistake and runs away in search of Pax. Pax relies for the first time on instinct in his own quest for survival. This book has some emotional takeaways including, "People should tell the truth about what war costs." This could be enjoyed by readers in grade 5 and up. Fair warning: it's quite sad.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
I'm sure everyone has this mega best-seller on their lists. In my opinion, it holds up to the hype.  Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter is in the passenger seat when her childhood friend Khalil is pulled over by the police officer who murders him. Suddenly, Starr's life - already complicated by the code-switching required to fit in at her nearly all-white private high school AND in her nearly all-black neighborhood - becomes even more difficult to navigate. How loudly should she speak? To whom, when, and with what consequences? This one is for teens - 7th grade and up, I'd say. 

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham
Dennis Ouyang struggles to find himself amidst the expectations of his parents and friends. His exacting father wants him to be a doctor, a gastroenterologist. But after his dad dies and Dennis falters in school, he's unsure of what his path forward could be. Enter four angels come to life from a greeting card. The angels bully him back on track and away from the video games. Can his supportive study group and his angels help him find a trajectory that meets his own expectations? Can he marry his love of gaming with an academic future? This is a heartfelt graphic novel for teens. 

Here are the other eight titles! Need a different book list? Here's a link to all of them.

  • Lowriders in Space by Cathy Camper - A celebration of lowrider culture in graphic novel form, if a little light on plot details and character development.
  • Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham - A realistic story about girl friendships.
  • Restart by Gordon Korman - Class-A bully Chase Ambrose gets a fresh start via amnesia. 
  • Listen, Slowly by Thanha Lai - The rich and layered story of an American middle schooler's trip with her grandmother to Viet Nam.
  • The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall - A moving story based on the real-life artist James Hampton and his piece, The Throne of the Third Heaven. 
  • Short by Holly Goldberg Sloan - An enjoyable read about Julia Marks, a girl who needs something in her life and accidentally finds Munchkinland.
  • Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier - I love Telgemeier, but this was my least favorite of hers.
  • The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon - Loved the characters, didn't buy the premise.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Best of 2017: Fiction

Well, I thought about not recapping the year's reading. After all, I've been thinking about almost nothing but my own novel for the last several months, and I can barely type other sentences. All of the synapses are clogged with novel parts. 

Nevertheless and regardless of compromised brain function, I did read 54 books this year. And by my official count, 28 of those books were works of adult fiction, many in my own genre of contemporary women's fiction. So I figured, let's just go for it. Here are my favorite five works of adult fiction in alphabetical order by author:

A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan
Alice Pearse, a 38-year-old part-time books editor and mother of three, finds herself in need of a higher paying job. Enter Scroll, a company with a vision of chic reading lounges stocked with e-book downloads and "carbon-based" first editions and "originals." Alice is recruited to curate the book selection - a dream job! - and promptly loses her hold on life, falling into swirling pit of corporate expectations mixed with family expectations, marital expectations, flagging friendships, and children morphing into their next stages without her noticing. 

I mean, this is my life, and it's nice to laugh at it a little bit. Well-done and emotionally en pointe.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
The story of two refugees, Nadia and Saeed, who escape their embattled homeland through magical doors. The portals deliver them to new dangers and obstacles, even as they escape the shellings and gunfire. Hamid intersperses vignettes of other displaced people, illustrating that "[w]e are all migrants through time." This is both ultimately of-the-moment and timeless. It's really something.

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
30-year-old Ruth gets dumped in the worst way - her fiancé says they're packing to move to a new apartment, and then it turns out only Ruth is moving while he shacks up with someone else. At the same time, Ruth's mother summons her home to help care for her father whose Alzheimer's is progressing. Goodbye, Vitamin is told in the diary entries she writes during the year she's there, working with one of her dad's grad students to sweetly simulate his teaching career (it's been terminated) and reconnecting with her mom and brother. Everyone's memories of each other are faded and unreliable. But everyone cares about each other so much. This is quirky, fresh, and lovely.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
I read Ng's sophomore effort in a single day. I love her. This novel chronicles the life of Mia Warren, an unconventional mother and brilliant artist who promises her daughter stability in Shaker Heights, OH, after a childhood on the road. Pearl, the daughter, settles into their new community, becoming enmeshed in the Richardson family, a seemingly perfect household helmed by Elena, a reporter for the local paper. When another Shaker Heights family engages in a court battle to adopt a Chinese-American baby, Mia and Elena come down on opposing sides, and Elena becomes determined to unearth the mysteries of Mia's past. This is a fabulous family drama.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter
A fascinating, unconventional family portrait written in verse and starring a crow as a physical stand-in for grief. This belongs with Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation in the "like nothing I've ever read" category. The mother has died, and the boys and the father - they have to carry on, crow or no crow.

And here are the rest of this year's titles:

  • You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott - An unputdownable psychological thriller centered on an elite gymnast, her parents, her coaches, and their collective ambition.
  • Rich and Pretty by Ruman Alam - The writing intrigues
  • Jurassic Park by Michael Chrichton - Our pick for our family road trip. Excellent for this purpose.
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi - A hugely ambitious exploration of the legacy of slavery and perceptions of blackness.
  • The One that Got Away by Leigh Himes - It took me awhile to care about the characters, but then I did.
  • Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson - Highly enjoyable with a great premise.
  • I Found You by Lisa Jewell - A missing husband, a man with no memory, and a mystery buried for 20 years. Page-turning goodness.
  • Wedding Night by Sophie Kinsella - So delightfully frothy, I couldn't stop. 
  • Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz - I got invested in Portia, an admissions officer at Princeton with stunted relationship skills, but the book was just too long. 
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee - Impressive in scope. Everyone loves it but me.
  • I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh - A satisfying thriller with an especially malevolent villian. After a major twist in the middle, I couldn't put it down.
  • The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty - A quirky family, their secrets, and finding peace.
  • Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty - Triplets in their early thirties come to terms with themselves, their mistakes, and each other.
  • Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh - The writing is superb; the sentiment is exhausting
  • The Cruellest Month by Louise Penny - These mysteries have so much heart. I love the series.
  • Small Admissions by Amy Poeppel - A delightful story about a young woman's accidental foray into private school admissions. 
  • The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid - An addicting old-Hollywood tale. Perfect vacation reading.
  • Maybe in Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid - I loved this Sliding Doors-style dual love story in which we're left to ponder whether life is "meant to be" or "what we make it."
  • One True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid - So light and lovely that the improbable premise didn't bug me.
  • Startup by Doree Shafrir - Men, women, drinking, smoking, and the crazy culture at tech startups. I didn't like any of the characters, but I was invested in the story.
  • The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney - It's about the "black sheep," the legacy of sibling rivalries and loyalties, and the destructive potency of unearned money. 
  • The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware - Classic locked-room mystery aboard an elegant yacht in the Norwegian fjords. 
  • Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin - An utterly readable, funny, warm-hearted story about identity and redemption.

Okay, I'm glad I did that. Past book lists are HERE. I'm going to list my favorites in other genres in the coming days! 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Fit the Box, Fit the Mold

Usually, there are three weeks of school between Thanksgiving and Winter Break. I think this is a true fact.

This year, there are four weeks between those two temporal landmarks.

So, it's not the end of the world, obviously, but it's different and harder, and I'm going to need some kind of mantra to get through. Maybe something like, "Calmly swimming along."

That's just my first draft.

To keep things interesting, it's Secret Gingerbread Person time at school. Gingerbread Person is just Secret Santa without the Christianity.

Some of my work pals are like, "I don't need the stress of Secret Gingerbread Person," and they're not participating. I'm usually bah-humbug, so I totally get the impulse.

But me?

I need the distraction of Secret Gingerbread Person. Little moments of delight in these dreary December days? I think, yes. We had to write a little note with suggestions for our assigned Gingerbread, and I told mine that I like stickers and pens and pencils.

It's true that's what I like, but I don't really care what I get. I'll take anything.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Swim Parent 101

I'm not really qualified to write Swim Parenting 101 because I just started being a swim parent this past summer. However, I am a fast and engaged learner, and I'm really only planning to share one tip.

The tip is to purchase a stadium chair with a nice pad for the seat. You know what I'm talking about? It's this:

When you're a swim parent, you sit for hours in bleacher seats with no lumbar support. After just one hour, your whole body starts to hurt; and if you're at an especially sophisticated (interminable) meet, you're going to be there for five or six hours more, and then maybe again the next day for the same amount of time. Not only is it nice to support your back, but it's also nice to keep your bum cushioned.

I actually ordered the chair pictured above while sitting at one such meet. It's glorious, and now I bring mine to other events like hockey games, and pretty soon, to track meets. It's true I'm the only parent at hockey games with a cushioned stadium seat, but I get lots of compliments from the grandparents in attendance. It reminds me of my old lady swim suit, which also drew compliments from those thirty or forty years my senior.

But, anyway, the chair at the hockey games. In addition to providing back support, your butt doesn't get cold because you've provided a nice foam barrier between it and the icy metal.