My Favorite Book

Those are big words. Can you really have just one favorite book? Maybe not, but John Crowley’s Little, Big has been my favorite for the longest – since I was about sixteen, when an aunt gifted it to me with unnatural intuition as to what I’d enjoy.

I decided to read it again, with attention as to why I like so much. The book’s so well-worn, I figured this read, I’d sink in the final dagger and mark it up – underling and bracketing sentences and passages I especially like (and want to emulate).

There’s lots of words I don’t know in this book, despite multiple readings. That probably doesn’t speak well for my powers of perception or follow-through. I’m circling every word I don’t know; I’m on page 75 and up to 20 words: amanuensis, biomorphic, cafe royale, campagna, chesterfield, corpuscular, gymnosophists, inexorably ( I kinda knew this one), infundibular, intaglie, maquerau, mullioned, phthisically, plangency, plinths, prolegomena, rustication, sclerotic, stringcourses, tattersall. Feel free to weigh in on how many of those you know, smarty-pants.

On page 8, there’s a sentence 260 words long. It’s a list; to break it into smaller parts would have broken the momentum and its meaning.. The more I pay attention to the fiction I’m reading, the more I think that, perhaps, the rules of grammar are made to be broken; the only ones who follow them are the uninitiated. How else can all of these authors be getting away with it?

Little, Big is an example of magical realism. It won the World Fantasy Award in 1982, the year I was born. But it’s not the dragon-and-fairy kind of fantasy, with heroes and villains. It’s set in the real world, with occasional visits from another, smaller, bigger fantastical world: “I mean by this that the other world is composed of a series of concentric rings, which as one penetrates deeper into the other world, grow larger. The further in you go, the bigger it gets. Each perimeter of this series of concentricities encloses a larger world within, until, at the center point, it is infinite.”

I found science to be like that, which is one thing I liked about it (my degree is in Biology). You could learn a list of all the mammals (the outer ring), then their anatomies (going in makes it more complex), and if you take it to the cellular level, that’s a huge amount of detail. Start talking atoms, sub-atomic particles, and energy, and you’ve hit the infinite.

Little, Big plays with these layers in a fantastical way. I like my facts spiced with fiction – heavier on the fiction side, really, like a carrot cake; we all know it’s mostly cake. But tell me it’s good for me; tell me a story.

“He knew he would have to believe in order to go where she had been; knew that, if he believed, he could go there even if it didn’t exist, if it was make-believe.” Isn’t that what reading is?

What books have remained your favorites for years (decades?), never loosing their charm from one read to the next? Tell me a story I’ll want to believe.

Here Be Dragons

Here Be Dragons

Dragons make everything better. Fairy tales, New Year’s celebrations, yoga. Real dragons, of course, would be a major downer, but dragons aren’t real (are they?) They’re fire-breathing, treasure-hoarding, flying magical creatures of our imagination. They might consume a fair maiden or two, but look what they give in return – great stories.

My son and I are reading Michael Hague’s Book of Dragons right now. Most of the stories are familiar – Smaug from The Hobbit, Eustace in C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawntreader, St. George and the Dragon. If you’ve never seen Michael Hague’s illustrations, look him up – the pictures alone make one of his books worth reading.

It’s a good time for dragons. The Chinese New Year, on January 22nd, features dragon dances for good luck. And I’ll be doing my own dragon dance this Thursday.

I teach gentle yoga every Tuesday, but I also substitute in other classes. This week, I get to teach a Vinyasa Flow class, which I haven’t taught in awhile. I’m pretty excited, and I’m going with my favorite yoga sequence of all time: the dragon sequence.

You can find several variations online, but I like the one my first teacher used. That was ten years ago, and I’m likely misremembering it, so the version below is an amalgamation of her sequence and my preferences. Once you get the hang it, it’s a full-body stretch, workout, moving meditation, and the only yoga flow I know that tells a story.

Here’s how my version goes:

  • The dragon sleeps (chair pose with prayer hands)
  • The dragon awakes (mountain pose)
  • The dragon crouches (lizard pose)
  • The dragon looks out its cave (lizard pose with bent elbows, look to sides)
  • The dragon stretches its wing (twist with arm up)
  • The dragon breathes fire (high lunge with cactus arms and lion’s breath)
  • The dragon flies (Warrior III)
  • The dragon waves its tail (3-legged dog and scorpion dog)
  • The dragon shows its belly (wild thing)
  • The dragon flies around the world (move through goddess pose to frame opposite foot)
  • The dragon sleeps (chair pose with prayer hands)

Here’s a video, totally different than what I described

You can then cry mercy or move through the whole sequence again in reverse, landing back asleep in your cave. It’s a challenging sequence, but I love imagining myself as a yoga dragon.

What are your favorite dragons tails?

The Vegetable Revolution Resolution

“Gotta eat yo vegetables, eat yo vegetables” – Broccoli Brothers

The Broccoli Brothers said it all. Vegetables are good for you, tasty, necessary, and in my house, in need of a revolution.

Last night, we lost power about 8pm. When I was woken by the four-year-old at 3am, it was still out. As I tried to get him back to sleep, visions of a life without power danced in my head.

It was New Year’s Eve – time for big changes. What if some nutjob had knocked out the whole power grid, Fight Club style, and we’d be without power from here on out? Was I ready?

I like where I live, but it’s not good for growing food – the soil is too sandy, a little bit salty. We’ll have to move.

Also, I need to learn how to grow food.

Good thing I’m reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It’s the story of how she and her family spent a year eating only locally grown and sustainably produced foods, livin la vida locavore. It’s not exactly a how-to book for subsisting off the land, more of an inspiration to try. She describes harvesting asparagus spears so sweet and tender, it’s a revelation. Me, I want to grow a leafy green – probably kale; we like kale chips.

But more importantly, I want to eat more vegetables. Even and especially ones I’ve never tried before.

Last night, my husband declared his New Years resolution to eat more vegetables. And without a competing resolution of my own, I jumped aboard the veggie van.

We were at a friend’s house, built in the 1700s, surrounded by reminders of a past without much meat or fast foods. I’d been walking with the lady of the old house, talking about recipes and foods – searching for that new meal that would wow a 4-year-old and a foodie alike. Maybe it could be found at Trader Joe’s, or maybe it could be found at a Tienda Mexicana.

I got that idea after reading all of David Cecelski’s NC food articles. Cecelski’s visited Hispanic restaurants and grocery stores (and grocery store/restuarants) across the state’s coast, and he made them sound so…so…so…delicious. I, too, want to eat goat and cactus. No one’s even offered it to me before, and to think – it’s right here in my state, just a language barrier away.

There are bound to be unexplored vegetables in the Hispanic grocery. Or the Asian grocery. Or anywhere I haven’t looked before. Maybe, in my backyard. Maybe, in your backyard. Let the Vegetable Revolution begin. Party on, Broccoli Brothers, and Happy New Year!

Writing with Kids

I just finished Writer Mama by Christina Katz, a how-to for moms launching their writing careers. It was more targeted at nonfiction writers, but the layout was enjoyable, and the author has some good advice: make time to write, somehow, anyhow.


Well, my next book is Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I love Barbara Kingsolver. And there, under her name on the cover, are the names of two co-authors: her husband and daughter. What if writing was a family endeavor?

Last month, I wrote a short story with my 6-year-old son, The Legos in the Cupboard. My writers group, Carteret Writers, was looking for responses to novels from 1982. My son and I had recently read the Indian in the Cupboard together, so we decided to create a spin-off with a Lego vehicle he had recently constructed (and of which he was extremely proud).

If you can’t find time to write without kids interrupting, and all else fails, there’s always writing WITH kids. I enjoyed every minute of it, and now the 4-year-old has his own story, too (inspired by his Lego jet). The 6-year-old has another story planned, and me? I’ll take it.

Holocaust Books

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” ~ George R.R. Martin

Thanks, Game of Thrones. I can almost hear the TV show’s theme song playing in my head right now.

The experience of walking in another person’s shoes is one of the primary appeals of reading (or writing). You can be a circus performer, a detective, a Navy SEAL – anything at all. And in doing so, you develop empathy for those characters.

I just finished a holocaust book. That’s my broad term for historical fiction set in the 1940s and concerned with WWII. Since I read a lot of historical fiction, and WWII is one of the most popular settings for this genre, I’ve read quite a few holocaust books.

I try to limit myself to one or two a year, though I usually end up going over. I’ll pick up a book, think this looks good, then be surprised later to realize it’s set during WWII. Again. They sneak onto my bookshelf like they’re targeting me.

So why fight it?

Because these books are, inevitably, depressing. Even the more light-hearted ones, with romance and happy endings, can’t lipstick the pig. The truth of the Holocaust is ugly. And every WWII book takes me back, mentally, to the Holocaust.

Which is hard, but it’s also complex, interesting, and deeply moving. The one I just finished, The Women in the Castle, is a good example. It follows the intersecting lives of several women in post-WWII Germany and asks the question: When do you stand up for what’s right, and when do you stay silent?

One character finds the greatest regret of her life in staying silent while children are taken away to be killed. Another finds her greatest regret in speaking out against her friend’s ex-Nazi fiancee, thereby ruining her friend’s chance at happiness. In both cases, speaking out or staying silent would probably not have made a difference. But in a quote from the book: “It doesn’t matter that the outcome would have been the same. It would have made a difference to her.”

The author, Jessica Shattuck, has a hand with metaphors. I wish I had a list of every one she wrote in this book. Here’s one example: “If she had taught her boys one thing, it was silence – they could navigate its shoals and currents like born sailors. And in its open waters they met one another – three ships blinking across the darkness, communicating without language, enough to say, I know you, we come from the same country.”

Here are two other WWII novel recommendations I recently gave to a librarian (excuse me, circulation technician, and yes – I’m obnoxious enough to offer reading suggestions to librarians).

Try walking in someone else’s shoes, such as the ones in the picture above, taken from Jewish children entering the Aushwitz concentration camp. Warning: they will be uncomfortable.

Photo by William Warby on Unsplash

If you are of a literary bent

If you are of a literary bent…

Which I’m not.

I mean, I like to read. A lot. An unnatural and unhealthy amount.

But literary? No.

Nerdy. Bookish. Dorky.

Something more like that.

Which is why it’s no big surprise that I’ve never read a literary journal. Until now.

The feature article in this month’s Main Street Rag, a literary magazine out of my native NC, sums it up nicely – if you want to succeed as a writer, it helps to help other writers. Or, in more cliched terms, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Social networking; rubbing elbows. You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours. Put your money where you mouth is.

Which is why I bought my first literary journal, to put my money where my mouth is. If I want to be included in such publications, I should read one.

The good thing about a collection of poems and short stories is that if you don’t like the one you’re reading, there will be another coming up in a few pages you’ll like better. Kind of like phases in young children: the throwing-food phase replaced by the showing-food phase. It’s always changing.

As it applies to this literary journal, it was all the good-table-manners phase (please, let that be a phase).

My favorite poem was Absence Makes the Heart Grow by Jeanne Julian, about all the things you do when your significant other leaves and you have the house ALL TO YOURSELF.

The best of the prose, if you ask me, is Robert Perchan’s pieces on run-ins with the law. I’d read whatever else he feels like writing. And it’s his quote that titles this blog post, “…if you are of a literary bent.” Are you?

Trash talk

My friend watches a YouTube channel, Northern Mudlarks, with a Scottish mother-daughter team who hunt for (dubious) treasure along riverbanks and other shores. They find mud, reliably, and tiny pieces of the past that they analyze for value and meaning. Could that pot shard be from a moonshine jug? Could that pipe have traveled across the ocean? What kind of bone is that, sepia-toned, carved, and polished into a button? Was it from a greatcoat, or did it grace the small of a woman’s back, rendering her helpless in her own toilette?

Speaking of toilets, January’s Our State Magazine, a monthly publication devoted to all things North Carolinan, includes an excellent article by T. Edward Nickens titled “Talking Trash.” Mr. Nickens seems to crank out good articles as easily some people (me) make excuses as to why they can’t write good articles. In “Talking Trash,” he considers the humble derelict trash pit, a remnant of country homes before trash service, landfills, and familiarity with the horrors of chemical leaching.

He describes walking the woods, looking casually for these treasure troves and the invaluable pieces he finds there – a tin pan, a holy pail, a motionless motor. Also, sometimes, toilets. It’s like mudlarking, he says, and he can’t help but imagine the stories behind the objects he finds and what the previous owners would say if they knew of his interest.

My grandparents had a trash pit. It came with a house and land they bought near Winston Salem. I loved that house. I loved that trash pit. I poked around in it, bringing home an Old Spice aftershave bottle I found – the white kind with red writing (is there any other kind?). It looked so interesting, so old.

At school on show and tell day, I was carrying my “antique bottle” when one of the maintenance men saw me and made clear that my treasure was not a historical artifact, but rather, the kind of aftershave he used daily. His laugh was crushing.

But he was right; that wasn’t a treasure. Or, was it?

What item might you stumble upon in the woods or an old trash pit? What story could lie behind it? Whose life would be changed by your discovery? What story could that aftershave bottle tell? There’s treasure there, of the best kind.

An Inspiring Chick

I’m a sucker for sweet southern writing – the kind that glorifies grandmothers, reminisces about time gone by (even if it was just yesterday), and speaks to the heart in a secret language I’ve never quite learned, despite all the time spent listening. Perhaps reading Emily Carter’s blog, A Chicks View, will finally imbue me with the ability to speak this native tongue. If not, it was still time well spent. She writes beautifully, and if you get the chance to hear her read her work, it will bring you to tears. She shared this gem at one of our meetings recently, and it’s priceless. You’ve been warned and hopefully, inspired.

Photo courtesy of Emily Carter

Good Wives, Warriors, and Myths

What do these three things have in common? A book – two books, really, and they’re both amazing.

Is it the illustrations, done in fantabulistic detail and psychedelic color? Yes.

Is it the sparse, visually invocative writing, just enough to make each creature come alive? Yes.

But most importantly, it’s the flipping fun.

Good Wives and Warriors (a collaboration between two female artists) have created illustrations for everyone from Crabtree & Evelyn to Johnnie Walker. Myth Match is their flip-book of mythological creatures. They have a more encyclopediac version, too, perfect for when the blurbs in Myth Match leave you wanting more, but the flip-page book is more fun. In Myth Match, the reader can either align the corresponding pages to show a mythological creature (Kraken, Phoenix, Encantado, Griffin…)


Mis-align the front and back of the being to make an entirely new creation:




The possibilities are (almost) endless. And so is the writing inspiration.

What would that creature do? What stories would surround it?

This book inspired a story of mine, Immortal Medusae, about Encantados (river dolphins that change into humans). But that, by far, is not the only story hiding between these pages – perhaps you’ll find another. If so, please share it with me.

Or, enjoy their coloring pages of the Plant, Protist, and Fungi Kingdoms, and become a good wife or warrior yourself.

the Complete Handbook of Novel Writing

This book has soup spilled on it, sand between the covers, sprinkles of rain, and a lovely pattern of (my) dirty fingerprints along the edges. Clearly, it is a good book. Unfortunately, it’s also a library book.

So, I ordered another copy to return to the library.

But then, our Carteret Writers group hosted a book exchange Christmas party (it was loads of fun – I got a book of Christmas Stories by North Carolina Writers that I’ll start next). The book I ordered online to give, the fabulous A Historian’s Coast by David Cecelski, didn’t come in time, so the lucky gift recipient got the Complete Handbook of Novel Writing instead. I think she’ll enjoy it.

The value in this book is that each chapter is written by a different author, sharing their expertise on character development, showing not telling, romance writing, publishing, and all other facets of writing. You name it; it’s here.

I often think of writing as a perfect-or-nothing enterprise, but if there’s one thing this book taught me, it’s that bad writing can lead to good writing, that any writing is progress, and that it can take hours (days, years) of trying, re-writing, scrapping 100 pages, changing your point-of-view, giving up, re-starting, and just plain work to get a story finished. Some of that process happens in your head, but a lot more of it has to happen on the page.

Elizabeth George sums it up with “I wish I had known back then that a mastery of process would lead to a product. Then I probably wouldn’t have found it so frightening to write.”

That was the overarching theme of this book – persevere. Don’t give up. Put in the work and time. And if you love it, that will bring you joy (and perhaps even a paycheck).

And since, as Elizabeth George also says, “Only when I write do I feel whole and at peace,” it’s worth the missteps, go-nowhere stories, rejections, and learning process, if it means getting to do what you love.

Or, in the words of Chuck Palahniuk, “Do you use the writing process as your ongoing excuse to keep exploring the world, meeting people and learning things? If you can do that, then the writing itself will be its own payoff and reward.”

Writing is fun. Writers are fun. The things we write about interest us and teach us. How wonderful.

Most importantly, it showed me how other writers write – not in one smooth, well-organized flash of glory, but in tedious re-writes, uncertainty – one step forward, two steps back. They all do that, and yet they all do it differently. There is no one right way.

And THAT was inspiring.