In My End Is My Beginning

Georgia. From the Greek, the feminine form of George, a word meaning “a tiller of soil” or “farmer.” The name fits seeing as how the state is filled from border to shore with farmland. But while some folks settle in and work the earth, more often than not, it’s a place people pass through or end up marooned in by some sad twist of fate. Think about it…

Gladys Knight got here on a midnight train, leaving sunny California to return with her man in his shame and failure (whoo whoo!)

The brokenhearted Marshall Tucker Band arrived on a Southbound, one that took them to the place where “the train runs outta track.”

It’s the place where innocent men are hung because of backwoods Southern lawyers, where good men settle down with their hard lovin’ girls, where it’s easy to think it’s raining all over the world.

Seems like no one who comes here is very happy about it (except Ray Charles who made a fortune singing about moonlight through the pines, but let’s not bring him into it.)

Like many, I’m a sojourner in the thirteenth colony, brought here against my wishes. I’d lived in Georgia once before when I attended Valdosta State University, where I earned two bachelor’s degrees and hooked me a husband. But when I lost my teaching job and scatted on back to sunny Florida, my adopted home state, I was glad to shake the red clay from my feet. Little did I know that less than a decade later, I’d be back and settled in a city much farther north—Atlanta, the pit of the peach state.

This sprawling metroplex, now known as “The Hollywood of the South,” was established in 1837 as the end of the Western & Atlantic railroad line. Unlike other capitals, it’s not on a river or a coast, a locale easily accessed by waterway. It’s tucked firmly, stubbornly some might say, in the right breast pocket of the state. And though six or seven major roads can get you here these days, don’t count on any of them being faster than that original train. Oh, and it’s original given name? Terminus, which means “final point” or “end.” How fitting. (Thanks to The Walking Dead for that little factoid.)

So yes, it’s safe to say I’m not head-over-heels in love with this place. I miss the ocean and fresh seafood, saw palmettos and mangroves, eating oranges straight off the tree and the taste of homemade Key Lime Pie. I miss endless green golf courses and hidden freshwater springs and manatees. I even miss anoles.

It’s not just creature comforts I’m kvetching about either. For the first time in my life, I’m six hours away from my family, which left me feeling adrift and isolated at first. But I’m starting to understand the value of that kind of distance.

Before I left home, there were many things to which the answers seemed sure. Why? Because I lived in an echo chamber, surrounded by people who looked, thought, and acted like I did. Consensus doesn’t call for much in the way of soul searching. Here in Atlanta, however, I’m away from kin and have had to build a larger social circle to compensate. Sharing space and time with a more diverse group of people has proven to be one of the greatest blessings (and causes for growth) I’ve ever experienced.

For the first time in my nearly 40 years on this earth, I listen more than I talk. I have sat wide-eared with people I’ve grown to love and value, and they’ve revealed so much. They told me how they grieve over tributes to the Confederacy in town squares or carved into Stone Mountain. To them, the latter is a blight on an amazing creation of God, and each statue, plaque, or obelisk reminds them that racism’s roots run deep in the state we all call home.

As a lover of all things historical, I once argued that such monuments should be left unmolested in order to preserve history (and avoid repeating it). However, knowing that these objects cause others pain, seeing it writ large on the faces of fellow image bearers of God, compelled me to revise my opinion.

That unsettling revelation led me on a paper pilgrimage, and I read books like Blood At the Root: A Racial Cleansing In America by Patrick Phillips, White Awake by Daniel Hill, The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege by Ken Wytsma, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, March by John Lewis, and Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson. With each volume, I’ve been challenged, forced either to defend or amend things I once thought settled, and while it can be challenging, it’s been well worth it. The work has reframed my understanding of the legal system in America, helped me see the ways we confuse patriotism and nationalism, and broadened my view on immigration and belonging.

The distance has also required me to look at my faith with fresh eyes. For too long, I went along with what I’d been taught, and while there’s nothing theologically amiss about the doctrine I grew up with, it never felt fully mine. I had never been obliged to step up and own it. Being here allowed me not only to find a place I can call my own for the first time; it also drove me to the Bible and theology texts of all shapes and sizes. The process has shown me the shocking scope of things I didn’t know, and that is cause for both great humility and expectation.

When my the pastor says, “I ask you, Christian, what do you believe?” I stand with my brothers and sisters and say….

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

I recite it and know in a way beyond words that what I believe is true. That it is solid. That it will hold. That it will never be found wanting. That’s well worth a little geographical discomfort.

In “East Coker” the second of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, he closes with the following stanza.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

And that’s precisely what I’m doing. I am “still and still moving / Into another intensity / For a further union, a deeper communion.” Georgia, despite being the last place I wanted to live, became the place where I needed to be. What I saw as an end was actually my beginning.

Once again, Eliot says it better in “East Coker” than I ever could:

To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
    You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
    You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
    You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
    You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

In this place, this state and time, I have learned that what I “do not know is the only thing [I] know.” Here in this strange, broken, and somehow beautiful territory, I have become a farmer of sorts, one who turns over the soil of her own heart, removing weeds that hinder growth, sowing good seed, and watering it in faith.

Yeah, Georgia ain’t much, but it’s home.

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The Wonder of Words

Of all the wise aphorisms and sayings in Poor Richard’s Almanack, my favorite is, “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.” These days, I don’t have much time to squander, so I make the most of the free minutes I do have. If I’m not slaving away over a laptop, helping with homework, doing chores, or cheering at a little league game, I’m reading or trying my best to come up with an idea for an article.

But one of the few things I do allow myself is a glance at Prufrock News, which shows up in my inbox each weekday morning. It is a newsletter on books, arts, and philosophy. Usually, it contains 10 to 14 links to various topics, and more often than not, I read (or at least scan) them all. (By the way, it’s free. You can sign up here.) Well, a week or three back, I came across a book review that sounded interesting, so I clicked on through to the other side and started to read.

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To my delight, I discovered something so much better than a simple review.  The author–who I will not name for reasons you will see later–wrote sharp and witty prose. The sentence structure was fresh and engaging, the opinion honest and fair. It had me laughing and nodding along in agreement throughout. And this wasn’t an essay, a poem, or even a short story. It was a book review! There are hundreds of thousands of them on the internet, and that number is growing by the second. However, most of them are, shall we say, lacking. Go check your average review on Goodreads, and you’ll see something like this:

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Not so with the review I read. It was erudite and entertaining from beginning to end. So much so, in fact, that I did a little digging, found out where the author worked, and wrote him/her an email to say thanks and to gush briefly about how much I enjoyed the piece. Believe you me, I hesitated a bit before doing so. I mean, I’m not the type to hang around backstage doors (except for that one time I waited for Paul Simon), and I’m not an autograph hound (despite what the pyramid of signed baseballs on my bookshelves say). But I felt duty-bound as a fellow wordsmith to contact this author, compelled even. So I screwed my courage to the sticking place, wrote the email, and after about nineteen rounds of editing, took a deep breath and hit “Send.”

Imagine my surprise when a reply showed up in my inbox five hours later.

The author thanked me for my kind and encouraging words, and then he/she hit me with this:

I particularly appreciate your comments as this has been a difficult week—my mother passed away very suddenly and unexpectedly on Monday, aged only 68. At such times, a friendly email from a reader is like a gentle hand on one’s back, reminding one that life goes on and that laughter is an important part of it.

Flabbergasted, I re-read the brief note several times and sent back a reply to let the author know that I also experienced a loss recently and to say that he/she was in my prayers. That’s where it stopped. I’ve heard nothing back since, and I don’t need to.

However, weeks later, I’m still thinking about that exchange and what we both would have missed out on had it not occurred.

The writer of Hebrews tells us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (13:2). And, in some strange way, I feel like this is exactly what happened in our brief sharing of words. Despite my need to squeeze time dry and use every precious minute to keep up with my hectic workaday life, that day, something in me said, “Don’t be afraid. And whatever you do, don’t waste this moment.”

I could have used the fifteen minutes it took for me to write, edit, and send my message some other way. Knocking some tiny item off my to-do list perhaps or getting ahead on a monthly task for the magazine. But time that’s spent prudently isn’t always spent wisely. That’s why I’m glad to have used that quarter of an hour the way I did. Those minutes weren’t wasted because they were spent helping someone. And while the author and I might not be close in the traditional sense, for those few moments, we were. I was able to help him/her at a difficult time, and it’s humbling and astonishing to be used by God in such a way.

Proverbs 16:24 says, “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” I’m inclined to believe that’s true—for the hearer as well as the speaker. 

What about you, dear reader? Have you ever felt something tugging at you, telling you to do something that made little sense at the time? I’d love to hear about your moment in the comment section below!

The Books of 2014

Another year and another reading challenge have passed, and while I didn’t spend as much time between the covers of books as I would have liked, I’m happy to say I made my goal.

Of the 40 books I read, 16 were consumed via unabridged audiobook. I say that counts due to the insane amount of time I spend in the car getting to work and back again. And I can honestly say that there is something lovely about a well-done audiobook. For instance, I might never have gotten through the entirety of Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child in hardback form. The thing is an absolute doorstop! But the narrator of the audiobook did a lovely job presenting quotes from Julia’s letters and books in that familiar, loopy voice, which made me feel like I was getting it from the horse’s mouth. (On a related note: I’m currently listening to Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury on audiobook, and it’s a totally different experience than reading it in print. The lyrical element of his prose really comes through when you hear it!)

So, of the books I consumed in 2014, here are my top ten. Rather than do a straight list, I thought I’d create some categories and let you decide for yourself which, if any, you might like to peruse!

Best Fiction: Joyland by Stephen King

King really tells a great story. Joyland is just that. With its well-drawn characters and interesting plot, it carried me along and kept me in the car a lot longer than I should have been some days. He injects just enough horror to give this book zing without overpowering the narrative he established (a la Revival). Highly recommended.

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Best Non-Fiction: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson

I love learning about history–especially things that I knew little to nothing about before I started reading. There were so many amazing people that made the Chicago World’s Fair possible, and it brought about so many inventions and innovations that it’s beyond belief. Did you know it spawned the Pledge of Allegiance? That it made the Ferris Wheel possible? Plus, you get a little history on one of America’s first serial killers in this gem. A fun read!

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Best Christian Work: Yawning At Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying by Drew Dyck

I read a lot…and I mean A LOT of Christian books for my job. With many of them, I scan a few chapters to see if the author might be a good fit for the magazine. Others I disregard outright because the material is trite, totally overdone, or terribly pedantic. Drew Dyck’s work is none of those. He takes a topic that has been discussed before (the awesome majesty of God) and makes readers consider it from an entirely different point of view.

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Most Overrated: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Okay, I may be the only person who read this book and didn’t enjoy much of it at all. I liked several of the characters (especially Hobie) and the emphasis on Dutch masterpieces like The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritus. But much of the book felt ponderous to me, too full of itself and overburdened by melodrama. Characters like Boris felt more stock than unique, and while it was a solid book, I hardly felt it was worth the effusive praise heaped on it by many critics.

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Most Underrated: The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game by Edward Achorn

There are a lot of books about baseball. Player bios, books about certain franchises, books about the history of the game, statistical reference books, instruction manuals, the list goes on and on. This one is very niche; it tells the story of the 1883 pennant fight between the St. Louis Browns and Philadelphia Athletics and the many colorful men who helped create the game we all know and love. If you like baseball, read it. If you like history books, read it. If you like biographies, well…you know what to do.

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Most Surprising: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

Someone recommended this book to me a long time ago, and I never got around to reading it until I found a copy of it on audiobook in my local library. It’s a fun read to be sure, a quirky blend of literary nerdiness, wit, and surreal science fiction. Essentially, people can walk into copies of their favorite books and interact with the characters, but if you enter the original text, be careful! You can actually change the plot! Think The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy meets a fun whodunnit.

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One I’d Recommend to Others: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

We all know Robert Galbraith is really J.K. Rowling…and that this woman can write! Seriously, anyone who can create an entire magical universe like Harry Potter and then turn around and write a pretty amazing character study (A Casual Vacancy) as well as a piece of hard-boiled detective fiction like this one is an author who’s worth reading. The first in this series (The Cuckoo’s Calling) was also a great read.

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One I’d Beg Others Not to Read: The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

Thank goodness I only paid $1.99 for this on Kindle. The cover is great and the idea is solid, but I don’t have many nice things to say beyond that. The rules of the magical universe are left largely unexplained, the characters are very one-dimensional, and the plot is uneven. It was a good idea poorly executed, which is a real shame. A good editor could really have made something of this.

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One That Should Be Turned Into A Movie: Dr. Sleep by Stephen King

Yeah, King made the list twice. So what? 🙂 This is the sequel to The Shining, which I had to re-read before embarking on this book. It was fun to see how Danny and the other characters turned out, to see what kind of gifts the kid really had and how he put them to good use. It was a great read on its own, but when you pair it with the first work, everything comes full circle rather nicely. A little strange (it is King after all), but the booga-booga factor on this one is great. Super creepy in all the right ways. And it would translate into a great film with the right director and cast. 

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One I Wish I’d Written: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resiliance, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

Apparently everyone and their drunk uncle has read this book, but I just now got around to it. And let me tell you, I am never going to complain about my life again. You want to talk about challenges, pain, suffering, and trials? Louis Zamperini experienced them all and came through it all. The man hit bottom, met Christ, and crawled out of a PTSD-induced hole I can’t even imagine, and become a true servant of God. And now his life is ours to learn from. I wish I could have met him in person before he passed.

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Okay folks, there you have it. Ten books I read this year and thought I’d pass on. Tell me what books you loved this year and if you think I’d enjoy them. I’m always looking for something new and — if you’ll pardon the pun — novel to read.

One Bookworm’s “Rotten Apples”

Okay, it’s been forever since I did a book blog, but I swear I have a good excuse. I’m working to fill two roles at work (Content/Copy Editor and Managing Editor of the magazine), buying a house, and joining The Southern Order of Storytellers. Add health concerns and family issues into the mix, and I’ve been one heckabusy gal!

However, this one sounded like a fun (and comparatively short) book blog, so here we go. The lovely folks at The Broke and the Bookish want to know our shameful little secrets, our private penchants, and our otherwise bizarre bibliophilic behaviors. So, ladies and gents, I give you my Top Ten Bookish Confessions!

1. I sometimes fall asleep while reading in the bathtub and drop my book in the water—This has happened more times than I care to admit (though never with my Kindle thank goodness!) The most memorable victims were my first copy of Dracula, a friend’s copy of Black Beauty (which I replaced), and Moby Dick (which I found deliciously ironic.)

2. Until the fourth book, I scoffed at the Harry Potter series—However, when Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out, I was in college studying to be an English teacher. I was taking a class in middle school literature and recognized I would have to know something about what my future students were reading. So I checked out the first book from the library and fell promptly in love. So much so, in fact, that I picked up my copy of book seven at midnight wearing my house colors! Ravenclaw rocks!!!

3. I sometimes skip words when I’m reading really exciting scenes just to see what happens—Granted, I always force myself to go back once I recognize that I’m doing it, but it’s still sad to find yourself skimming glorious words. I remember gliding over a certain chapter in The Scarlet Pimpernel just to see if Marguerite would make it to Sir Percy Blakeney in time.

4. I’ve always wanted to name a kid “Atticus”—No lie! I’ve admire the noble protagonist of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird so much that I’ve almost thought about about adopting a boy just to name him Nathaniel Atticus Hughes. The first name, naturally, is borrowed from another great love of my life, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

5. I utterly loathe James Joyce’s Ulysses—I can’t remember if I’ve ever admitted this before, but it’s true. I’m a confirmed connoussuer of literature who loves obscure books and chose to read Anna Karenina at the beach one summer, but I’m at a loss when it comes to why this book qualified as “The Best Book of All Time” in some circles.

6. I sometimes judge books by their covers—At times, when I don’t have a particular book in mind to read (which is rare), I actually roam the hallways of a bookstore just looking at covers. If it looks interesting or does something novel (HA! Pun!), I read the back matter. If that’s worth the cost, I usually buy and read it. That’s how I discovered books like Knick Knack Paddy Whack by Ardal O’Hanlon and Night of the Avenging Blowfish: A Novel of Covert Operations, Love, and Luncheon Meat by John Welter.

7. I get high on “old book smell”—When I travel home to Jacksonville, I try my darndest to stop in and shop at Chamblin Book Mine. The place is a gloriously messy place, a group of buildings and rooms cobbled together and stuffed to the rafters with used, new, and rare books. It’s a beautiful fire hazard I’d take pride in going up in like some nerdy Viking. I’ve gone in there and lost hours at a time as I search through stacks looking for books to fill the shopping bags I just traded in. Seriously, if I had just a little less dignity, I’d roll on the floor like a dog does when he finds something he likes.

8. I buy books I know I will likely never read—There’s something about empty bookshelves that unnerves me. I want them filled with colorful spines galore, titles that just beg people to take them off the shelves and give them a go. Also, I like it when people come into the house and remark about how many books I have. I guess it’s the same way a hunter feels about putting the heads of his kills on the wall over the mantelpiece.

9. I firmly believe the movie is NEVER better than the book—Let me put it to you this way, I was the ONLY person who walked out of the Jim Caviezel version, for lack of a better term, spittin’ mad. Everyone else loved it, and all I could think about was how the ending ruined the overall theme of revenge and made it too “neat.”

10. I once tricked my students into turning on one another like rabid dogs to get them to read literatureNothing was off limits when I was in the classroom. If it would get “non-readers” to open the book, I was game. To get them interested in The Crucible, I set up a scenario where one half of the class was going to get in trouble for something the other half did. They flipped on each other like mid-level mobsters. I also once filled a cauldron with hot water and dry ice and impersonated a witch to teach Macbeth and made my students write papers entirely in Newspeak to prove that language matters. It was doubleplusgood.

A Monk, A Little Person, and a Crazed Fan Walk Into a Bar…

This week’s Top Ten List from The Broke and the Bookish didn’t sound hard at first glance, but every time I started to pick one, I remembered I’d already used the character in a previous “best of” post. (Many of them were “literary crushes“.) For this one, I tried going to books I loved and selecting the second bananas, the third wheels, and those often overlooked in favor of the leading men and their ladies. However, sometimes I failed and went for one of the more obvious choices because they were too good to pass up!

Top Ten Favorite Characters

1. Tom Bombadil (The Lord of the Rings)Though he only appears in three chapters and is briefly mentioned by characters in a few others, I’ve always had a soft spot for the old “moss gatherer.” After all, he speaks in stress-timed seven beat lines, refers to himself in third person, and can sing trees to sleep. So old he claims to have seen “the first raindrop and the first acorn,” he is one of those characters like the Entwives who is destined for obscurity. As Tolkien put it, “Even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).”
 

2. Bast (The Kingkiller Chronicle)—I still don’t know exactly how I feel about Bast. I know that he honors Kvothe and that he wants him to come back to himself. It’s the “why” question that’s bugging me. He’s Fae, after all, and he might have something up his magical sleeve. Still, he’s beautiful, mysterious, fiercely protective, and impish in a way that is utterly irresistible. If you haven’t read the first two books in this series, for the love of pete, get started!

3. Pearl (The Scarlet Letter)—How can you not love a character who is, until the last few chapters, a symbol rather than a real person? Yes, until Dimmesdale claims her as his child and dies on the scaffold where he should have been when the novel opened, she is the living embodiment of the scarlet letter Hester wears on her breast. Mercurial, merciless, and (at times) creepy, she never leaves a reader wanting for action.

4. Prior Phillip (Pillars of the Earth)—I know he’s not a “minor” character in this work, but compared to Jack Jackson, Aliena, and Tom Builder, he has a lot less screen time. Phillip is such a moral character that he sometimes frustrates what should be simple, but his motive of restoring Kingsbridge is so laudable, I sometimes found myself less frustrated with him than I might have been otherwise. Even when he did something I didn’t agree with, I knew it was never done out of malice. That’s hard to pull off in a character….especially in a work this dense and complicated. Industrious, clever, and not above a political play when it helps the people he loves, Phillip is quite the engaging monk.
 
5. Tyrion Lannister (The Song of Ice and Fire)—If you’re watching the TV series on HBO or are currently reading the series, kindly skip over this one as there will be some spoilers. Go on, shoo……. Okay, folks. He’s a little person in a world that is built on and run by strength, yet he survives and somehow manages to be near the seat of power at all times! Seriously, he shot his own father in the stomach with a crossbow while he was on the toilet!! How’s that for cutthroat!? As the books have gone on, he has become one of the most dynamic characters, sliding from creepy evil to almost neutral bordering on good. I have a feeling that he’ll still be on the board when this epic series comes to an end in two more books.
 
6. Marvin the Paranoid Android (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)—Chronically depressed and bored because he has “a brain the size of a planet,” Marvin is one of the characters in Douglas Adams’ universe that isn’t always in the center of the action. However, we’d miss him if he weren’t there. I’ve only read the first book in the series, but I adored him in it. How can you not love something that so intelligent that even the most complex task is no match for him and everyone who tries to access his brain ends up suicidal!?  
 
7. The Wife of Bath (The Canterbury Tales)—Chaucer’s lady was way ahead of her time. Running her own fabric weaving business and on the hunt for husband number five on this famous pilgrimage to Beckett’s shrine, the lovely Wife of Bath knows how to tell a good tale and flirt up a storm with any and all available men on the journey with her. She’s one of the reasons I’m sad Chaucer never got the chance to finish this masterwork; we only get one of her stories and no hint as to which man she might have bagged before they returned to London.
 
8. Frau Totenkinder (Fables)—Again, if you haven’t read this series, break open your piggie banks and go get as many of the trade paperbacks as you can! In this series, fairy tale characters are real and have been pushed out of the Homelands by the Adversary. Snow White, Rose Red, and every other character you can think of call New York City (and a small farm in rural New York) home. It’s clever, creative, and amazing because Bill Willingham and his team of writers and artists manage to take stories you know and turn them on their ear. For instance, Prince Charming is the same guy from all three fairy tales (he has married Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella), and don’t get me started on Jack (the amalgamation of all “Jack” stories like Jack and Jill, Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack Frost, etc. He’s a totally awesome trickster figure.) But on to the sinister Frau Totenkinder. She’s the leader of the magicians in Fabletown and, like Jack, is an amalgamated character who represents many of the unnamed witches in the tales and legends. She looks like an old lady, frail and weak, but the truth is she is one of if not the most powerful characters to escape from the Homelands. She’s not all sunshine and Gummy Bears though; you can’t always trust her!
 
9. Colonel Christopher Brandon (Sense and Sensibility)—This awesome character is the epitome of both words in the book’s title. He is practical, good at solving problems, and tactful, but his heart is sensitive to the needs of others. (Though I wouldn’t cast him as a member of the cult of sensibility that Marianne belongs to). Unlike the cad John Willoughby or the daffy Edward Ferrars, he’s a force for good and an altogether perfect gentleman of means and substance. It’s always so lovely to see him get what he wants in the end…though why he would want Marianne has always been beyond me. 
 
10. Annie Wilkes (Misery)—Again, not a ancillary character by any means, but when her name popped up, I had to go with her. I mean, really, who hasn’t wanted to grab an author and cut off his foot for killing off a favorite character? Seriously! There’s something so marvelously wacky about Annie Wilkes–she’s prim and proper and hates all the “cockadoodie” words in Sheldon’s new novel, but she has no trouble whatsoever in running a state trooper over with a lawnmower. That’s a real dichotomy to have in one character. Evil and weird is always such a winning combination!
 
***I will gladly pay anyone who can tell me why some of my blog posts go all single spaced and italicized without me telling them to. It really gets on my last nerve….that and the fact I STILL haven’t won a Freshly Pressed Award!***

Feeling Fine and Bloggy

Do you dream of being rich and famous? Do you want your name to be known all over the world? Do you want people to hang on your every word and fall at your feet?

Image from paxtonholley's flickr account.

Well, writing a book blog is not a way to fulfill all those narcissistic desires. However, it is darned fun to do, and you have the chance to meet with folks who geek out over books as badly as you do. You swap recommendations like you once did Garbage Pail Kid cards, discover authors you might never have had the privilege of reading otherwise, and you’re compelled to spend time even more time in bookstores and combing your own shelves looking for unique books to up your blogging cred.

This week, the geniuses at The Broke & The Bookish thought outside the box and asked us to list our Top Ten Tips For New Book Bloggers. I’ve only been posting book blog posts for a few months, but here are some tips and tricks I’ve picked up in that short stretch of time.

1. Use Goodreads—I had an account on this page for a long time before I really put it to good use. Now, I can’t imagine how I ever kept track of my reading habits without it. If you’re like me, you skim a book in the store but don’t have the money to buy it, so you put it down and promptly forget the author and/or title. With Goodreads, you can put it on your “to read” list (which can be sub-categorized into lists you design). Download the free app, and you can add books instantly using information or by scanning bar codes with your smart phone. When the time comes for a new list or selecting a new read, you’ve got plenty to choose from. There’s also a reading challenge you can enter and a bevy of widgets to use on your blog!

2. Incorporate images, videos, and photos—Books are about words, sure, but when it comes to blogs, sometimes a few visuals can go a long way and help your words be more engaging. For instance, one book list I did recently was about books you’d recommend to people who say they don’t like to read. Rather than pick ten books, I chose one central theme—my husband (who doesn’t like to read). Being a good sport, he was willing to pose for photographs to go along with the blog, which made it fun for me to write and for my readers to see. I highly recommend an account on Photobucket or a similar site to keep your photos and images safe and orderly. Three great blogs that do this almost exclusively with Microsoft Paint are Hyperbole and a Half, Fathertrek and Live, Nerd, Repeat. I laughed so hard at Hyperbole and a Half’s post “The Year Kenny Loggins Ruined Christmas” I almost hyperventilated.

3. With lists, always write a short paragraph about each work—Whenever I do my top ten lists like this one, I always try to give my half dozen readers more than a sentence or two. If you recommend a book and only tell people, “It was really good. I enjoyed it so much!”, you’re not really giving them much to go on. Tell them about the engaging characters, the airtight plot, or the highlights that made it enjoyable (or awful) for you. Authors only make money if folks read their work, so I make sure to tell people about books I stumble across that are worth the read by showing why I enjoyed them.

4. Read book blogs others have written for ideas—Not only do you find great books to read, but you can also can borrow other bloggers’ ideas for your own future book posts. For instance, I’m always inspired by the posts I read over on Never Done It That Way Before and The Warden’s Walk. As a teacher, I lived by the C.A.S.E. model (Copy And Steal Everything). You don’t always have to spend all your energy dreaming up new ideas; use that time to craft your own version of theirs. Trust me, they’ll take yours and return the favor in kind.

Image from http://aptdesignonline.com

5. Write honest reviews for the books you read— When it comes to book reviews, honesty is indeed the best policy. I can say with 99.9999999999999% certainty that no one is paying you for your writing. Therefore, if you didn’t enjoy a book, tell your fellow readers why. You could save them some heartache and cash! For instance, everyone I knew waxed poetic about Eragon, comparing it to Lord of the Rings (not even close) and other fantasy classics. I was sorely disappointed by Mr. Paolini’s work, and I was out the cost of a hardback book because no one was willing to be frank. If more folks who disliked it had come out, and folks who had been on the fence had been more honest, I could have saved myself the time and trouble of reading it.

6. Vary your diet—Writing a book blog is a great way to make you read outside your “comfort zone.” If you tend to read only fiction, use the blog as a reason to explore memoirs or even something like graphic novels. You can choose books that are on the same topic you enjoy but that explore it from a new angle. For instance, if you normally love CSI-type fiction, you could broaden your horizons and go for the classics (Sherlock Holmes) or non-fiction (Stiff: Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach). Biographies about famous criminals, detectives, and mysteries are also great.

Image from goodreads.com

7. Explore the edges—You don’t just have to write about books. You can explore anything and everything beautiful and bookish. For instance, maybe you want to talk about great places to sit and enjoy a book in your area. You can do a how-to blog that teaches readers how to make handmade bookmarks. You can write profiles about your favorite local bookshops or even local authors. I highly recommend the blog For the Love of Bookshops if you’re looking for a good place to start. You can even write reviews of films based on books you’ve read.

8. Write consistently—One thing that’s great about The Broke & The Bookish meme “Top Ten Tuesdays” is that it happens each and every week. That means I’m guaranteed a writing topic at least once a week. Typically, I get at least one new follower or reader per book blog, and every little bit of notoriety helps. I don’t have to exhaust my brain thinking of a topic, only the books I want to put on that list. If I can’t think of anything, I do skip that week or make up my own, but doing these posts has compelled me to blog more consistently, and not just about books.

9. Don’t give away too much in your reviews!—Yeah, I know this contradicts what I told you back at number three on this list, but there’s a slight difference. I once had a professor who said that a book is like a virtuous girl; it doesn’t give everything up on the first date. He also advised that an essay (or, in this case, a blog) should be like a girl’s skirt—long enough to fully cover the topic but also short enough to be interesting. (He really isn’t a creeper. These two quotes weren’t so odd when they were in context.) Suffice it to say, you shouldn’t rob your readers of their fun by telling them too much before they read the book. I know how you feel; you’re excited and want someone to talk to about this amazing read. You’ll just have to wait. Telling someone about the plot twist in the middle (even if you don’t tell what it is) robs them of the surprise. Sometimes, the moment when a book slaps you in the face like is the best part.

Image from http://blogs.edweek.org

10. You have a personality. Use it!—Sure, you’re writing about things that other people have penned, but there’s no caveat that says you can exercise your writing chops when you’re talking about books. I try to write in such a way that my voice comes through. What I say is important, but how I say it is also key. People like people who are like them, so finding new word nerd friends and devoted followers means you have to show them the goods. If you’re humorous, let that come through. If you have a great vocab, use it to your advantage. Teach people, engage them on a personal level. You’ll find that you are also a writer who is worth reading. Who knows? Someone may be blogging about one of your books one day!

Joey Chesnut Ain’t Got Nothing On Me!

This book blog topic makes me want to cry a little because, well, I rarely have the time to do it anymore. Yes, yes–adulthood can truly stink up the joint sometimes. The big blue meanies over at The Broke & The Bookish have asked us to share our list of “The Top Ten Books to Read in a Day.”

There is something wonderful about staying in your pajamas all day long, curled up under a cozy blanket (which is even better when the rain is pouring down outside), getting lost in the pages of a book with a mug of tea or hot cocoa steaming on the bedside table. Here are ten books that I remember completing in a day (or just a tad over), and you can see by reading over it that I’m not choosy when it comes to gorging myself on words like it’s some literary variation on the Nathan’s International Hot Dog Eating Contest!

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins—I did read this one over the better part of an afternoon and evening. It’s quite simply the best book of the trilogy. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that had they trimmed Mockingjay and tagged it onto the back of this one, the entire series would have been much better for it. Full of action, drama, and true surprises, this is one book I can’t wait to see make the transition to film!

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig—I am embarrassed to say I read this book. (In fact, I guiltily gobbled it and two or three other books in the series down like a binge eater, crying in shame and shoveling it down at the same time.) My only excuse was that I was going through a Scarlet Pimpernel kick at the time, and this book provided access to the world in an obtuse sort of way. I mean, Sir Percy was an ancillary character in the first book. Essentially, this is chick romance/action at it’s best and worst, and until an intervention took place, I was entrenched in it.

The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 1) by Lemony Snicket—I’m not ashamed to have read this book, or any of the twelve others in the series. If you’ve not read the Lemony Snicket books, you’re really missing out. Daniel Handler has a wicked sense of humor, and his knack for storytelling is off the charts. This was “kid” fiction written with adults in mind. The books were fun to collect, like little pocket-sized crime novels with uneven pages and old-school illustrations. Just fun, fun reads. My friends and I used to wait until the new ones came out and host parties where we’d take turns reading using Tim Curry’s voice from the audiobooks (which are FABULOUS if you’ve never heard them.)
 
Frankenstein: Prodigal Son by Dean Koontz—The series took a weird turn or two that I wasn’t expecting, and I wasn’t totally thrilled with the ending. However, the first book in the Frankenstein series by Dean Koontz was fabulous! It totally changed up the monster narrative we all know and love. The “creature” renames himself Deucalion and devotes his long (if not eternal) life to destroying the master who built him and who is, several hundred years later, as power hungry and maniacal as ever. Set in New Orleans with two wise-cracking cops, this was a fun and wild read I tore through in one day on a particularly long car trip. 
 
Common Sense by Thomas Paine—I don’t know about you, but if I’d read this work sooner in my life, I might have been much better off. It is truly an amazing work, one that riled a sleeping collection of colonies and made them a national force. It’s an example of great writing as well as how words are indeed more powerful than the sword. Paine is really an uncredited founding father, and you’d do yourself a favor reading the work where amazing quotes like this reside:
 
“Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.”
 
Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar—My graphic novel inclusion for this list is an alternate-universe three-issue series that explored a simple idea—what if Superman’s capsule had landed on a collective farm in Soviet Russia instead of the Heartland of America? What would have been different in the DC universe (and the world at large) if he fought not for “truth, justice, and the American way” but “as the Champion of the common worker who fights a never-ending battle for Stalin, socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact.” A fascinating read with great art and a tight narrative.
 
Cry to Heaven by Anne Rice—I read this when I was living on my own in a crappy efficient apartment during my first semester in college. I curled up in my Murphy Bed and read until the sun came up. I was so fascinated with the concept of the Italian opera starts know as the castrati that I did hours of research (the old fashioned way—with books, a card catalog, stacks, and microfiche!! There were fewer academic wimps back in the day.) I wrote my ENG 1101 research paper on them and argued that they had played a larger role in the development of Italian opera than had previously been recognized. My professor said it was a welcome change from the papers on legalizing pot, gun control, and animal testing.
 
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern—I was hooked by this one and read it in just a shade over a day. There was something magical about it, something otherworldly that just sucked me in. I was like the circus devotees, and I wanted to spend my life finding it and spending time within it. Morgenstern may not be the best writer in the world, but she’s a darned good one who isn’t afraid to color outside the lines to create compelling characters and an engaging story that, despite being impossible, makes you wish it was altogether real.
 
Passing by Nella Larsen—I read this one in grad school and loved it. We were supposed to read it over a two week period, dividing it in half, but I couldn’t wait. This one tells the story of Clare and Irene, two African American girls who were friends but lost touch after Clare’s father died. She went on to live with her two white aunts who let her “pass” for while and marry a white man who also happens to be a raving racist. Irene lives in Harlem and is committed to fighting for the cause of equality. The books is wonderfully ambiguous and lets readers interpret the actions in whatever way they choose. I wouldn’t want to rob you of the joy of it by telling you what I thought. Go pick it up!
 
The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicles, Day 1) by Patrick Rothfuss—I’m putting this here. It took me longer than a day because it comes in just a bit under 700 pages in length. I’m a very quick reader, but even I had to take a break and sleep a little rather than risk choking myself on this tome. If you enjoy fantasy novels, I cannot recommend this one highly enough. I shot through it and book two, The Wise Man’s Fear, in under a week and regretted it terribly because I now have to wait until 2013 to see how the story ends. Rothfuss places readers in a world that is both recognizable and altogether foreign and crafts a tight plot free of holes. Kvothe for President in 2012. That’s all I have to say about that. 🙂
 
**For the record, I have no clue why the font on this post went “straight to plaid” as they said in Spaceballs—single spaced and italicized. What I do know is that I’m too lazy to do what it takes to fix it.** 
 
How about you all? What books did you indulge in for a full twenty-four hours? Is there a book you’ve been wanting to lock yourself in an attic with dripping candles and an apple to read?