Archive for the ‘Books and writing’ Category

Under a desert sky, avid readers, aspiring writers, small presses, independent publishers, and other enthusiasts of the written word gathered on the Mall at the University of Arizona campus for the Tucson Festival of Books this past weekend. The five-year-old Festival drew over 100,000 people with free admission, free parking, and an impressive lineup. This year, authors such as Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, Brokeback Mountain), Jodi Picoult (Songs of the Humpback Whale, Sing You Home), Chang-Rae Lee (Native Speaker), and Luis Alberto Urrea (Devil’s Highway, Queen of America) were featured in panels that strived to appeal to a wide variety of literary interests.


Festival goers walk the Mall at the University of Arizona.

“Every genre will be represented,” said Bill Viner, chairman of the Festival. The extensive program, featuring over 300 presentations and 450 authors over 2 days, attested to this commitment. Panels, workshops and presentations were offered in poetry, nuestras raices, and multi-genre (fiction covering more than one genre), as well as memoir, children/teen, mystery, romance, sci-fi/fantasy and literature. Apropos to the saguaro-dotted setting, the Western National Parks Association celebrated its 75th anniversary with an exhibit at Science City, an area of the festival dedicated exclusively to the sciences.

Panels addressing recent events in Tucson were included, too: “Remembering January 8” (the date of the 2011 shooting in Tucson) featuring Daniel Hernandez, credited with saving Congresswoman Gabby Gifford’s life that day; and “¡Ban This!”, a literary journal conceived in reaction to the 2012 controversial ban on Mexican American studies in the Tucson Unified School District, which resulted in the banning of five books written by Latino authors.

Families were a common theme, with panels covering the many ways in which familial relationships form the core of contemporary and historical stories. Books about Arizona history or settings added local color. The festival offered live entertainment at various stages, the sounds of which occasionally competed with the presentations occurring in outdoor tents; at times, I had to strain to hear the wise and funny words of legendary independent filmmaker and novelist John Sayles over the riffs of a nearby rock band.

Although a storm system brought chilly weather and light rain on Saturday, that didn’t deter festival goers, who arrived prepared with rain gear. “I am always impressed by the number of people who participate in the Festival, and how well it’s organized,” said Kristen Metzger, panel moderator and program director at Tucson’s Reid Park Zoo. “The Tucson community loves it.” The sun finally came out on Sunday, bringing a bright end to Tucson’s biggest literary event.

The Tucson Festival of Books occurs each year in spring on the University of Arizona at Tucson campus. Since its launch in 2009, the Festival has contributed $700,000 to local literacy organizations. Recordings from the Festival can be viewed at www.booktv.org.


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We love books for different reasons. We might love the language and imagery they evoke (God of Small Things) or be blown away by the pathos or moxie of a specific character (Lisbeth Salander). We become lost in the world the author creates (Harry Potter) or exposes (Thank You For Smoking).

Here is a selected list of books I’ve read recently and why, as a reader, I enjoyed them and why, as a writer, I found them instructive. We writers can learn much from authors that we adore. It behooves the beginning writer to seek out books that perform handily what we in our own work strive to accomplish. What books have you read recently that have moved you? I especially want to hear about books by women writers; we don’t hear enough about them in the mainstream media. Share your favorites in the comments below.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler. This novel is laugh-out-loud funny, quite an achievement considering there isn’t anything innately humorous going on: only humans, their fuck-ups and foibles, and the love that, despite it all, we feel for each other—in this story, the love among friends in particular. Fowler’s magnificent wry and earthy voice enlivens this pleasantly meandering tale, which uses the work of Jane Austen and book club meetings as an organizing principle (design principle, in the words of John Truby). The story is told in the third-person plural voice; the book club itself is the omniscient narrator.

Bitter in the Mouth book coverBitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong. A sumptuous, inventive novel. The main character suffers from synesthesia: she tastes words. This curious affliction, adeptly conveyed by the author, sets the stage for a complex and deeply satisfying family drama. Truong is positively masterful with language, deft with character. And the story will make you sit up and keep reading for hours: this beautifully written novel is rich with surprises.

Cavedweller by Dorothy Allison. No one does heartbreak better than Dorothy Allison. Here, the heartbreak is between women and their men; and mothers and fathers and their daughters. Allison is superlative at revealing the emotion of characters, and her wisdom about the human condition knocked me over on almost every page. Her characters are electrically charged with passion, not a dull or poorly developed one in the house.

A Cupboard Full of Coats book coverA Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvette Edwards. A unique narrative that breaks many writing-workshop rules but nonetheless drew me in with its powerful voice and kept me glued to the pages until the shocking and poignant end. Written in plain, urgent language, with a narrative line that moves between the past and the present. It’s about coping with long-buried tragedy and the vagaries of love.

Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen. Two sides of New York City—high-society glamour and gritty poverty—are adroitly depicted in this contemporary story of two sisters. The complexities of the relationship between Bridget and her rich and famous sister Meghan, as well as Meghan’s husband and teenage son, drive the story. A solid family drama set against the vibrant backdrop of New York, which is really its own superbly developed character.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Exotic setting—the Brazilian Amazon—and a whirlwind plot plays a significant role in this book, as they did in her masterpiece Bel Canto. Patchett’s prose is as lovely as ever. I didn’t realize how skillfully plotted this book was until I got to the end, at which time I turned back to the first chapter and reread it and marveled at how brilliantly it’s all set up. Many readers can’t get pack the protracted midsection of the novel, when Marina Singh is stranded in Manaus. Keep reading past that to when Marina finally finds the elusive Dr. Swenson. It’s worth it.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. This book has been widely lauded; not much I can say about it that hasn’t been said before. Simply put, it’s brilliantly researched and powerfully told. Skloot’s book explores, through the story of one black woman and her family, the history and legacy of racism against African-Americans and lays bare the persistence, pervasiveness, and insidiousness of racism—from the perspective of a middle-class white woman. Want to deepen your perspective about racism against African-Americans even further? Listen to this discussion about the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the “fatal condition” of being a black man.

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Night of Writing Dangerously

The Night of Writing Dangerously, Julia Morgan Ballroom in San Francisco

On a cold and rainy Sunday night in November, under the soft light of cut-glass globe chandeliers and the watchful eye of an owl on the mantel, two hundred plus writers scribble on notepads and tap away on computers. Jazz music slinks through the room, interspersed occasionally with an upbeat dose of electronica or a melody from the Muppets. Every so often, the clarion ring of a bell sounds, and the writers look up from their laptops and notepads to clap and cheer. They’ve braved rain, delayed flights, and seasonal colds to attend the Night of Writing Dangerously at the Julia Morgan ballroom in San Francisco, a spirited extravaganza best described as part writing-fest, part community-builder, and part fundraiser (individuals must raise at least $250 to attend). The ring of the bell celebrates another scribe who has written 50,000 words, the audacious goal of writers who participate in National Novel Writing Month, or, as it’s fondly known, NaNoWriMo.

Writers come to the NOWD in swanky dress reminiscent of an earlier era. To fuel writers for the 7-hour writing marathon, lots of treats are on hand: drinks, cookies, donuts, and candy – lots of candy. “The candy buffet always attracts a lot of people,” jokes Sarah Mackey of the Office of Letters and Light, the tiny but mighty Berkeley nonprofit organization that puts on National Novel Writing Month in November and ScriptFrenzy in April, in addition to the Young Writers Program in the schools and other writing programs throughout the year.

This year’s NaNoWriMo is bittersweet. At the end of 2011, executive director Chris Baty, who started NaNoWriMo in 1999, steps down from the Office of Letters and Light to pursue full-time writing. Asked how he is experiencing this final Night of Writing Dangerously, the articulate and affable Baty seems almost at a loss for words. “I was always caught up with the administrative tasks,” he says. “I’m finally getting a chance to step back and see the impact that this has had on people. It’s overwhelming.”

The impact of NaNoWriMo on the world of writing is profound and widespread. This year, 300,000 writers worldwide participate in the month-long endeavor to write a 50,000-word novel. Writers have flown in from Southern California, Atlanta, Kansas City, Pennsylvania, and even Canada to attend the Night of Writing Dangerously; a contingent from Edmonton filled an entire table. One dedicated writer came from Stockholm, Sweden. Birgitta Persson, 64, loves the idea of supporting a program that gets people to write. “I think it’s fantastic,” she said, gesturing to the room full of writers, “that people can work together to accomplish something like this.” In Sweden, Persson explains, most money for arts and culture projects are funded by the state. Persson says she will take the energy of the NOWD with her and look at what similar programs can be started in her home country.

For Bay Area residents Penny Edwards and Katina Johnson, both second-year NOWD attendees, the comfort of being around other writers is what draws them to NaNoWriMo. “Whether you’re a seasoned writer or beginning writer,” says Johnson, “the struggles are the same.” Both speak of the incredible energy found in a room full of people writing at the same time, an energy that NaNoWriMo has harnessed with eye-opening results. Sunday’s fundraiser brought in $50,000 for the nonprofit, funds that will go to the Young Writers Program in Bay Area schools. Baty explains that 50% of the Office of Letters and Light’s budget comes from individual fundraisers, so NaNoWriMo and the NOWD are their biggest fundraising events of the year.

Chris Baty chats with writer Katina Johnson

Office of Letters and Light executive director Chris Baty chats with writer Katina Johnson.

But raising money seems to be the last thing on Chris Baty’s mind as he circulates through the ballroom, taking time to talk to nearly each and every attendee, humbly asking for their advice as he prepares to embark on his own novel writing adventure. “We never make time for our own creative endeavors,” says Baty, who has devoted the past twelve years of his life to helping others achieve their novel-writing dreams. Writing a novel requires a tremendous degree of commitment, stamina, and faith, and the act of doing so opens the mind to even more creative possibilities. Baty has learned that anyone who wins NaNoWriMo – who reaches the 50,000 word goal – is left with a deep sense of satisfaction. “People are able to say, now that I’ve done this, what else is in me? What other amazing things can I accomplish?” That is the true intangible value of NaNoWriMo. It enables individuals to realize and celebrate the massive creative potential that exists in us all.

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Best-selling novelist Monique Truong, author of The Book of Salt and Bitter in the Mouth, will be the headliner at a literary evening at California College of the Arts on Saturday, November 5 from 4-6 PM.

The Brooklyn-based Truong, whose latest book has just been published in paperback, has received numerous literary honors, including the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, the Stonewall Book Award-Barbara Gittings Literature Award, and the Association for Asian American Studies Poetry/Prose Award. Her novels have topped the favorites lists of New York Times, the Village Voice, Barnes & Noble and others.

Monique is an alumna of the Hedgebrook Writers in Residence Program. Hedgebrook is the only writers’ colony in the country exclusively devoted to women. A select forty writers are awarded fully-funded residencies each year, chosen from a competitive international pool of applicants. Hedgebrook is committed to promoting women’s voices. The event is sponsored by the Hedgebrook Alumnae Leadership Council: Bay Area as a fundraiser for Hedgebrook.

Saturday, November 5 from 4-6 PM
Writers’ Studio, California College of The Arts
195 De Haro Street, San Francisco
$10-20 suggested donation

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After reading Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry’s (thebookdoctors.com) Essential Guide to Getting Published, I was more than a bit daunted and overwhelmed.

But yesterday I attended the Book Doctors’ 4-hour publishing workshop at Stanford – a live presentation of much of the information in the book, enlivened by the vibrant personalities of Arielle and David. Their candid yet always kind presentation uplifted and inspired me, a first-time novelist just entering into the fray. Rare and treasured are the speakers who can present boatloads of information with such passionate wit, clear-eyed wisdom, and profound sincerity, as Arielle and David did.

The workshop is just that: a participatory event where speakers and listeners work in unison to get the most out of their precious time together. About an hour was devoted to hearing pitches from the audience and providing instant feedback. I was duly impressed. Arielle and David cut to the chase and did not sugar-coat, pointing out what was good and what needed work, but always with the utmost respect and care.

At the Book Doctors’ workshop, not only do you get possibly the most valuable and specific advice about publishing you will ever receive as an unpublished writer, you will also be entertained. Arielle and David, a husband-wife team, work flawlessly in concert to instruct and keep their audience engaged and amused. Their expert advice is liberally seasoned with stories, because – as any good writer knows – the magic is in the details, and the fun is not in the facts but in the tales of the lives of real people. Isaac Bashevis Singer said that writing must not only instruct and enlighten, but entertain. The Book Doctors do just that.

If you missed Arielle and David this time around, don’t fret: they’ll be back at Litquake in October. Check their website for their full schedule of events.

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Imagine, all in the same room, the following distinct and memorable voices: Ruth Forman, Elmaz Abinader, Faith Adiele, M. Evelina Galang, Staceyann Chin, ZZ Packer, David Mura, Diem Jones, Junot Diaz, and Willie Perdomo. Imagine the energy generated by such talented and passionate writers, and you’ll have a good idea of what took place last night in Berkeley. This formidable lineup of award-winning, nationally recognized poets, memorists, fiction writers, and performers commanded the stage at Berkeley City College for the Voices of Our Nation (VONA) faculty reading, which occurs during VONA’s annual summer writing workshop for writers of color.

Moving across the Bay this year, from the private enclave of University of San Francisco to the downtown campus of Berkeley City College, seemed like a “leveling” for the program as a whole, a term emcee Marc Bamuthi Joseph used to describe the evening’s event, which was free, open to the public, and wildly inspiring for the listeners and speakers alike. VONA attendees and alumni made up a good portion of the audience. I myself was invited by a writer friend and a six-year VONA alum.

The college’s auditorium was filled with the raucous, celebratory energy of writers. For me, the following bits of literary magic resonated most deeply: the inimitable precision of the poetry of Ruth Forman. The miraculous eye for detail of Elmaz Abinader. The powerhouse performance of Staceyann Chin. The wry truth-telling of ZZ Packer. The honest eloquence of Willie Perdomo. And the chance to hear Junot Diaz read “shitty first draft” work.

If you’re a writer or a reader, an admirer of truth-telling and a fan of passionate discourse, and you’re not familiar with VONA, check out their site at www.voicesatvona.org, and mark your calendar for next summer’s faculty reading.

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cover of House ArrestHouse Arrest (2011, Red Hen Press) is a truly original and compelling novel, full of courage and complexity. First-time author Ellen Meeropol gives us a diverse cast of sensitive characters with rich, storied lives that are unfurled slowly, almost delicately, as the novel progresses.

Emily Klein, an agency nurse in Springfield, Massachusetts, provides care to home-bound patients, who help fill the painful void left by Emily’s parents. When the novel opens, Emily has been assigned a new patient, Pippa Glenning, a young runaway from the South in her second pregnancy who is under house arrest, awaiting trial for the tragic and mysterious death of her first baby. Pippa is the youngest member of the House of Isis, a spiritual family group that worships the goddess Isis.

Despite their differences, Pippa and Emily reluctantly become friends, and Pippa dares to ask Emily for help. Because she is pregnant, it is Pippa’s responsibility to dance in an upcoming ritual – the same ritual during which, one year earlier, Pippa’s first child accidentally died. But the house arrest monitor makes Pippa’s participation in this midnight ritual impossible. While Pippa is beginning to question the ties of the House of Isis family group, which is breaking down under the strain of the recent tragedy, she is nonetheless dedicated to her goddess, Isis, and determined to dance. Will Emily help Pippa, risking her own job in the process?

Meeropol is a skilled, subtle writer. Each of her characters, even minor ones like Gina, Emily’s friend and co-worker, and Sam, the ex-husband of Emily’s cousin and roommate, is so well-drawn, so human, they come to life vividly on the page. The home-care visits and Emily’s interactions with her patients sing with authenticity.

Meeropol describes the various settings of the story in a masterful way. From the snowy rhododendron grove where the Isis ritual is held to Emily’s bleak childhood home in Maine, rich sensory detail conveys haunting emotions, in language that manages to be both elegant and economical.

Political intrigue is woven in delicious bits throughout the story: the mystery of Emily’s parents and her estrangement from her family in Maine, why Pippa left her family in Georgia, the prejudice and violence against the House of Isis. But the story is not so much a political thriller as a tale about loneliness, challenging notions of family and friendship and belief. The struggles of Emily and Pippa, and what they mean in the modern world, will stay with you long after the final page.

Read my interview with Ellen Meeropol.

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