Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year

From My Family to Yours- Have a Healthy and Happy New Year!

Click here

Sandra's Notable Nonfiction Books of 2008

Here's my list of the best nonfiction reads of 2008:

I haven't had so much fun with a book in years. A Short History of Nearly Everything should be required reading for all students. Bryson managed to do something that no science teacher I ever had did- he illuminated the stories and personalities behind the great scientific discoveries showing how these discoveries were often the results of accidents of opportunity. I listened to this on audio and then had to buy the book. It's one I'll be returning to often.

How had I managed to live this long without reading David McCullough until this year? What a wonderful history of the pivotal year in American history. I read it with the same excitement as a thriller, unable to put the book down even knowing the outcome. The addition of letters from ordinary soldiers as well as those of the great generals makes this truly an American experience.

Okay, I'll admit it, I'm a history geek. Years ago, I had this great idea of reading a biography of every American president. I made it to James Madison (that's #4 for the presidentially challenged). I read Douglas Southall Freeman's biography of George Washington which was extensive to say the least but lacked a clear sense of the man. Joseph Ellis's, His Excellency George Washington, filled in a lot of the shadows of who George Washington was. It's a very readable biography of a man who believed in duty and honor even when he doubted his abilities. I actually found myself tearing up when he died. He was truly the only man to become our first President.

I was a debater throughout my high school years. I believe strongly in the use of analysis and reason and I have been appalled by their decline in our culture. This book shows how our mass culture has dumbed down the dialog on almost every issue that matters.

Even though I didn't finish the book (I still have about 50 pages to go) I've decided to add this one to my list. Hot, Flat and Crowded is an excellent book for illustrating the dangers that await us if we continue consuming the earth's resources as we do now. Often there was so much focus on the catastrophe awaiting us that I was left feeling bleak. This bleakness is one of the big failings of the book along with a lack of clear ideas of what we could realistically do now . Hopefully the world is finally headed in the right direction towards curbing our collective appetites.

I read this book more as a memoir by a writer about her love affair with books instead of a how to book. Francine Prose is a passionate reader who is able to get at the heart of what captures a writer about the written word. I have drifted slowly through a book entranced by a sentence, pausing and returning to that sentence again and again. At a time when we rush or multi-task through activities; it's a pleasure to read a book that asks you to linger and savor the experience.

Reading How Fiction Works is equivalent to a great literature and writing workshop rolled into one. I've copied so many quotes that I've practically re-written the book. It's a valuable addition to any writer's library.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sandra's List of Notable and Not-So-Notable Fiction of 2008

It's the last day of the year and I find myself thinking back over the books I read in 2008. Why should The New York Times or The Washington Post have all the fun? I thought I'd jump in to include my list of the best and most disappointing reads of the year.

The Best:

Add Image

Richard Price is fast becoming one of my favorite writers. I've known of him for years and I've had this mental note to read him. It wasn't until I heard him in an interview talk about this book and of writing in general that I decided to pick the book up from the library. He is one of best writers of dialog out there. What I love most about this novel is Price's ability to paint life in all it's complexity and simplicity. There are no easy sides in this rich mural of urban life.

Another novel by Richard Price. The characters are so strong and real. I felt this nagging sense that I just "knew" these people. I loved the theme of nostalgia and how often the past we remember doesn't belong to us at all but is collective movement. Plus Richard Price is able to write with honesty and clarity about characters of different races, sexes, and ages in a way that I've seldom seen in other writers.

This one was a wonderful surprise for me. I read a small review in The New York Times that intrigued me and picked it up the next day at the library. Hannah Tinti writes with the sensibility of Charles Dickens, except that in The Good Thief her main character, Ren is able to maintain a child's sense of wonder and trust throughout the journey into the shadow of his new life outside of the orphanage.

Growing up, I was an avid reader but I must admit that John Steinbeck left me cold. I read The Grapes of Wrath in high school and found myself slogging through it. Of Mice and Men left me warmer but I wasn't eager to read any more Steinbeck. I think I started East of Eden around the same time but never managed to finish it. This time around I read it for a book group and could not put it down. It turns out that East of Eden was Steinbeck's favorite book and I can understand why. It reads like love letter to the Salinas Valley. It is a wonderful example of how words from the pen of a master can be transformed into art.

The Disappointing:

I really wanted to like this book. I read a review in The New York Times and I was intrigued but the book left me frustrated. I struggled with the passivity of the main character. First person is tough but when filled with pages and pages of a character who doesn't quite know why they've made the choices they've made it can be unbearable. The last section of the book which mirrors the presidency of George Bush did not work for me at all; it felt forced and repetitive.

I started out with The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen Carter. I loved the premise of the story and the writing was vivid. He gives his readers a marvelous view of the upper black middle class but the mystery as it unraveled left me cold. Undaunted I bought New England White. A minor character from the first novel becomes one of the main characters in this novel. Once again vivid writing, upper black middle class life and another frigid mystery (unfortunately this one went on far too long and could have done with some major editing towards the end).

Then while listening to an interview on NPR with the author, I thought maybe this time it will be different. I felt like the woman going back out with the same boyfriend for the third time. I raced to the library and picked up The Palace Council and there was vivid writing- check; upper black middle class society- check; and another mystery that fell flat- check.

This was one of those insider reads. For a writer who spends way too much time with kids, I often fantasize about a world where writers pal around with one another sitting in cafes or bars for hours talking about writing. It was fun to drift inside the world of publishing, agents and the media. What writer hasn't daydreamed of conquering the top of the bestseller list and becoming a media darling? Grub offered much in the way of inside elbow in the rib and wink-wink insider gags but unfortunately the characters never made it beyond the initial character sketch stage for me.

Beginner's Greek was not a book I would have picked up on my own. I tend to avoid the pastel romance-like books. But every magazine, newspaper or NPR segment insisted that this was one of the most amazing books of the year. I was sold. I picked it up and read it in a couple of days. I raced through it because I kept hoping it would have to get better. I even checked online to make certain there wasn't another book by the same title out there that everyone was raving about. Sadly this was not the case. Thin plotting, bland lifeless characters and a convenient death by lightning kept me wondering how this baby wound up the critics' darling.

So these are my hits and misses of 2008. What were the books that kept you reading or made you want to throw the book out the nearest window?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Snow Day!!

So the Snow Dance was performed. The night clothes were worn backwards and inside out. The spoons were placed under the pillows. Book bags were packed waiting near the door (it's very important not to tempt the bringers of the snow day). Then we went to bed and waited.

The first to wake up, I turned on the outside lights- no snow. I called the school and we had an official snow day. Could it technically be considered a snow day without snow? No way. So we waited.


it started.

Two hours later it looked like this:

It was an officially sanctioned SNOW DAY!! And then they could do this:

We were blanketed under a foot of snow. The kids spent their snow day sledding with reddened cheeks and filled with the belief that night clothes, a dance, and spoons under pillows could create this kind of magic.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Today's Trivia Question

Q.) What do you call a group of turkeys?

A.) A "rafter".

Now that Thanksgiving has passed, these ladies seem quite relaxed as they root around our yard.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Help Me Pick a Tree

The man who built our house originally had this idea of starting a Christmas Tree Farm. He put the trees in but never got around to selling them. The women who owned the house before us took out about 40 trees but we're still pine tree heavy. Since moving here in 2003, we've been thinning out the herd during Christmas.

Last year Yuri chose a tree so big it hardly fit through the door. He said, "It didn't look that big outside." So this year, I'd rather not compete with Radio City, I've set my sights on three trees. Here they are:

Contestant #1: It's the tree in the middle I have my eye on. It's not tall but it's full and bushy.

Contestant #2: I'm partial to this one since it's in an area which needs to be thinned out near our garden. Plus it's a Blue Spruce which is my favorite.

Contestant #3: This tree is towards the back of the house where it's absence wouldn't ruin the landscape and it's your traditional Christmassy tree.

Let me know which one you like and I'll keep you posted and show a photo of it once it's in the house and decorated.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

5 a Day Keeps the Manuscript in Play

Sorry for the bad rhyme but I'm trying to write with a toddler on my arm telling me what keys to press.

I've had a revelation, well more like a smack yourself on the forehead moment. Hey, why not give myself a writing quota of 5 pages a day. That's about 1500 words (more or less). During NANO I'm able to hit this mark pretty steadily but once December arrives I kind of squeeze the writing in where I can. On some days I've only managed a paragraph.

I know there's a woman out there who wrote a sentence each day (and would sometimes work up to a paragraph) and she eventually published her book years after starting it. Graham Greene followed a 500 a word regimen and he was incredibly prolific. I need more of a push or else the thread of emotions in a particular scene disappears from me.

I don't know why I didn't do this sooner. The idea has been playing around the edges of my thought process for a while but I've avoided it in the same way the revolutionary idea of eating less to lose weight fills the future dieter with dread.

The rule is 5 day, no excuses- except with a doctor's note. For the writers out there who read my blog, do you set up quotas for your writing? And for the non-writers have you established quotas in your life? Please tell.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Who Needs Preschool Right Now?

This little guy will be three in February and I am utterly ambivalent about sending him off to preschool. Maybe it's because we really can't afford the extra cost right now. Or because I've gone through preschool anxiety twice already and another go-round doesn't thrill me. It could also be because he's my last baby and I'm not ready to give him up to the school day schedule just yet.

When I lived in NYC this wasn't a choice it was mandatory. To even get your child enrolled in a good school you had to prove they'd gone through pre-preschool programs. I knew people who hired consultants just to get them through the application process. Living in the country, I don't feel the same kind of urgency. There are times when I worry he might need a more formal education but then according to an unbiased assessment (okay well not completely unbiased) I realize he's mastered key areas of toddler development, for example:

Socialization: comfortably eases his way through social situations with key phrases like "It's my turn," "That's mine," and "He did it."

Natural Sciences: can distinguish between deer, cow, dog, goose, and bear poop.

Technology: can program cellphones to respond in Spanish and uninstall important software

Psychology: performed extensive stress and behavioral experiments with canine and rodent subjects ( sorry Kisses and Ralphie)

Anatomy: able to name body parts at appropriate and inappropriate moments

Improvisation: taken to mixing in phrases like "Oh, Dang It," "Oh Maaan!," and "Never mind" into his speech

These are just a selected handful of his skills. So do you think he needs preschool right now? I'm thinking he's ready to skip straight to college.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Brrrrrr.... It's Cold Out There!

Tonight my Weatherbug is showing 17 degrees with a windchill of 1 degree. Yes that's right folks, 1 degree. In my book it's still fall. I can handle the 30s this time of year but when wind chill enters the conversation, I'm ready to pull the covers over my head.

Wake me in the spring!

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Time Has Come

I can easily point the finger of blame at my mother. When I was four she enrolled me in the Weekly Reader Book Club. Two brand new books a month arrived addressed to me. I can still remember the first two, Danny the Dinosaur and Sammy the Seal by Syd Hoff. I digested these books until I knew every line. Two new books found a space on my bookshelf every month. By the time I reached first grade, I had more books than the library in my classroom.

I had a library card too but during the financially shaky NYC of the 70's libraries were closed more often than they were open (my neighborhood library was open twice a week for three hours while I was in school). Plus I found it difficult to return those books when I was finished. What if I needed to re-read it on some rainy Saturday? I liked being able to keep my books close at hand.

When my reading level expanded beyond Weekly Reader's ability to keep me entertained, I acquired books on my own. After school, when my friends raced to the nearest bodega for sodas, chips and candy I headed to the Hallmark store on 207th Street to raid their Penguin classics or the quarter bin at the used bookstore on Broadway.

Over the years I lost the ability to keep up with my acquisitions. There were books I had to have- the ones I raced to the store to get as soon as they were unpacked from their boxes. Then there were the books I'd get around to reading someday. Added to this were gifts and those left sitting out on stoops, just waiting for a new home. Oh, and I shouldn't forget the books I bought on a whim pulled in by a provocative title or cover or because it was really old and covered with dust. As a writer any new addition can be justified, after all- writers must read.

Now after purchasing three new bookshelves for our fiction collection (which doesn't include the books that are still at my mother's house) I realize the time has come to cull this massive collection. Some books I can never imagine living without like anything by Jane Austen or Tolstoy. It's the books I vaguely recall reading but can't remember a single detail about that may have to find another home. Of course, I'll have to give them another read through before I make the final determination. Those that do not make it will have to be sent off to fill up another addict's collection.

Already I'm imagining the new spaces on the shelves ready for new acquisitions. I fear there may be no hope for me.

Monday, December 1, 2008


I started November confident of reaching beyond 50,000 words, receiving my NANO winner icon, and a completed scratchy rough first draft. None of these goals came to fruition.

Looking back it's easy to see where I went wrong. I should have put everything but the writing on hold- no laundry, no cleaning, no cooking (30 days of take out), hours of DVDs for my toddler, no trips to the library or playground or soccer practices,no hikes, etc. Anything that brought me away from the keyboard should have ceased. I would have reached my goals but the cost would have been too high.

I wrote over 46,000 words, about 128 pages but I did not finish my manuscript. But it's not all bad. I'm farther along than I was at the start of November. I now have more than 33 scenes in what is becoming to resemble an actual story. I've come too far to turn back now.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Life Lesson- Toilets and Cell Phones Don't Mix

I can't even blame the toddler for this freak accident. Yesterday while 'using the facilities', I pulled up my pants as I flushed the toilet. My cell phone with remarkable accuracy flipped right into the flushing toilet. Thanks to the amazing technological advances that have shrunk the average cell phone, the sucker just slid through and is now in our septic system.

Instead of writing yesterday, I spent the day trying to get a new phone from Verizon which had some kind of system brouhaha (which doesn't fill me with a lot of confidence about their technical capabilities). I still don't have a cell phone.

I don't use my phone much. I don't even have numbers programmed in it. I barely know how to use it but I like the security and convenience of it. I like being able to order pizza while I'm on the road. And I'm convinced that the moment I don't have my phone my car will be forced off a deserted road by a band of rabid deer and I'll be trapped unable to call for help.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly or NANO Update: Day 22

Life is proving to be a carnival ride. I don't mean those gentle rides which leave you feeling giddy. Think back to that monster ride which left you nauseous, terrified and throwing up in a trash can in front of hundreds of spectators cheering you on. This is me now. But hope is not lost (or I could be suffering from delusions).

The Good

I'm still writing. I haven't accepted defeat. My story is still chugging along and I'm finding new strength and vitality in a story I've been working on for more than a year. YEAH!

The Bad

I'm behind. I need a little more than 20,000 words right now if I have any hope of being a winner. In past years, I've never been this far behind. I'm usually a day away from my goal. I wasn't even this far behind my unsuccessful year. How could this have happened?

The Ugly

I did the math. Without going into excruciating detail of the mathematical formula, I need to write at least 9 pages a day from now until the end of the month. This is no easy task given the realities of my upcoming week. Once again, I ponder the intelligence of choosing the month of November for NANO. (Yes, I'm turning on Chris Baty in my desperation) How about nice calm March? As a NANO participant I would cheer the extra day.

I might even have to give up the notion of actually completing the story by the end of the month. I can see my ending, I just don't know how many steps it's going to take me to get there. Will I be Moses who never enters the promised land?

I'm hoping I can escape to Borders today and knock out 10 pages but that might not be in the cards. Right now I'm huddled in my office with Kisses the Wonder Dog. Snow flurries swhirl outside and the temperature hovers in the low 20's. I want to go back to bed or lay in a vegetative heap watching John Hughes movies but then do I really want Lee Van Cleef finding my sorry ass on the couch. If I'm going down, I'd rather do it with butt to chair typing like a demon.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

In Praise of Crowded Places

I can write almost anywhere. I'm not one of those writers that requires silence or the comfort of the familiar. I have an office in my house but I find that the moment I go inside all hell breaks loose. I tend to roam all over the house with my laptop these days (thankfully my youngest has ended his rivalry with my computer realizing there is room in my heart for the both of them). No matter where I roam, I find home is where the interruptions are and I find myself itching to get out into the world.

Today I had one of my most productive days. I escaped to our locals Borders Books bringing along my trusty laptop. I love working in busy settings. When I decided to become serious about writing, I found this wonderful restaurant on Broadway and Mercer Streets in NYC. The food was tolerable, the service was slow but no one seemed to care if I sat there by the window for hours writing and watching people.

Soon VG's closed (due to the food and bad service no doubt). I continued to write where I could- subway, taxi's, park bench, etc, but these felt too temporary. Then I found my writing home when I stepped inside Pat's Jazz Bar in Chelsea.

A good PR person might have described it as an "intimate venue" which is the polite term for a classic "hole in the wall". Pat's had the best live music in the city. It was the place where musicians would come from gigs at more established clubs to jam into the wee hours of the morning. Pat's was more than just my NYC version of Cheers it was my writing studio.

When I'd find myself in that writing zone, Ralph, the manager, would know and make certain I was left alone. He'd tell people to wait until the book hit the stores. What can be better than this kind of support when you're a youngster in your 20s. People were interested in what I was writing and took my opinions seriously. I don't believe I've had better conversations on writing, literature, music, art and culture than in that place. Often those conversations would spill over into breakfast at the Chelsea Diner.

Borders is no Pat's but I'm able to write. Jen makes the best Caramel Lattes (she's definitely getting a heartfelt thanks in my book) and she always gives me an extra helping of caramel. The table by the window is always empty just waiting for me. I plug in my computer, sip my latte, write, and watch humanity pass around me. Sometimes they even play some good music that brings me back to my days at Pat's.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

NANO Update- Day 13

Thirteen days into NANO finds me far behind my word count goal.

Finishing the novel by the end of the month feels like a Herculean task right now when it is quarter to ten and my two year old is still running strong.

I just brewed a hot beverage and I plan on making an attempt to finish Scene 30 tonight. Wish me luck.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Another Soccer Loss and A Lesson Learned

My son George is a member of the Minisink Valley Green Thunder Travel Soccer team and they've yet to win a game. Last season was their first as a team and they were bowled over by larger more experienced opponents. No matter how many goals the other teams scored on them Green Thunder kept trying and learning. It's been a great experience to watch a group of children improve with each game.

Yesterday's game was tough. The other team was rough. The last time they met a girl from the other side punched my son in the stomach. The officiating left much to be desired. The toughest blow on the kids occurred when the referee did not call a goal made by Green Thunder. The goalie grabbed the ball but missed and our team did what they were taught and followed through on another attempt. Members of the other team raced into the goal trying to stop the point. One member of the other team (not the goalie) used his hands to knock the ball out of the goal. No goal. No hand-ball penalty. The wind was knocked out of our team.

One bad call after another left the kids feeling like there was no way they could win even though the score was 1-0. George was kicked in the hip and was uncharacteristically slow to get up. When he did, he was hurting. His teammates saw their chance of coming away with at least one score fading. His coach took him off the field and he iced the injury. He had tears in his eyes but he also had his jaw firmly set. I could feel the electricity of determination coming from him. He went back in the game and scored our team's only goal.

Despite being down and injured, I've watched my son's constant determination. He keeps trying no matter what. Even after playing in the worst weather conditions or against teams displaying poor sportsmanship he enjoys what he's doing, playing even after the whistle has blown and the players head home. It makes me think of writing.

Everyday I start out with these high hopes- today will be the day where I can go in the zone and pour those words on the page. Reality usually intrudes and my writing these days can only be described as being in a continual state of interruption. It would be easy to set it aside and decide to write when life cooperates but then like Georgie, I set my jaw (a trait inherited from my grandmother) and I think if I can at least get a page then I'll still be in the game. Like my son, I'm out there enjoying the thrill of the game.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

NANO Update- Day 8

I've added a little word count widget on my blog so everyone can see just how far away from my goal I am.

The election was incredibly distracting. I tried to forge ahead but those damn polls just kept pulling me in. Even the day after the election, I was too deep in euphoria and exhaustion (from following the longest campaign in history) and could only write in dribbles and drabbles. I left my poor characters trapped in Scene 28 which went on horribly long, even they were pleading with me to wrap it up.

Yesterday, I was intent on finishing that scene and now it's done (cue music and confetti). Now I can push on to the next scene.

FAQ: Are your scenes chapters?

Thanks for that interesting question. Right now during the bumpy draft I have to say no. During the editing process some scenes will turn into full stand-alone chapters and others will disappear or combine with other scenes to create chapters.

Today looks like a busy one. My son has a soccer game (keep your fingers crossed for their first win against a team that was pretty rough on them the last time they met. My son actually had grass in his mouth at the end of that game- Ouch!) and then there will be the usual attempt to to clean the house and corral the children.

My original plan was to write a scene a day which can be accomplished if I flee the scene right now with my laptop and power cord and check into the nearest motel for the rest of the month. I'm hoping for a real come behind victory on November 1st.

Here's a picture of my reward:
I know my simple reward should be the satisfaction of a completed goal but I really really want these! Hey, what can I say, I'm a product of the instant gratification generation.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Yes We Did!!

There is joy in our household today as we behold the next President of the United States. It was a hard-fought campaign and the nation spoke giving Barack Obama 52.4% of the popular vote (according to NPR) and 349 electoral votes (Missouri and North Carolina are still too close to call).

I tried to stay relaxed last night. I had every intention of finishing my scene but election fever hit hard. Instead of writing I found myself obsessively checking electoral maps on- Foxnews, ABC (who hands down had the best), NPR, MSNBC, and CBS. Even after Pennsylvania and Ohio were called for Obama I was still obsessively tracking Florida (the shadow of 2000 still haunting me). Even as the networks were declaring his victory and McCain conceding I was tallying up numbers- will they call Florida? What about Virginia or Indiana or Missouri? Always coming back to Florida again.

It wasn't until Barack Obama's victory speech that I allowed myself to believe that it really happened. It was one of the best victory speeches I've heard. Instead of basking in his success he charged the entire American electorate to roll of their sleeves and begin the hard work of building a new America. I'm ready to report for duty Mr. President!