Saturday, February 14, 2015

How to Avoid Making Art (Creativity Book)

Oh My!.... Oh MY!.... OH MY! ....How to Avoid Making Art (or Anything Else You Enjoy) was written by Julia Cameron – like the Julia Cameron of The Artist Way fame– and illustrated by her sister Elizabeth Cameron. Do not let the deceptively cute pictures fool you; this is a book that will have you taking a hard look at your procrastination issues. Page after page I saw myself. I laughed. I wanted to scream. I buried my face in a nearby pillow and wanted to hide. This is a book that I need by my reading/sometimes writing chair, so that I will catch myself in the act of avoiding making art.

A quick personal story: in early winter I took a fiction writing class through a MOOC. The first assignment was to start keeping a journal. How hard could that be? I’ve kept journals in the past. I absolutely couldn’t do it and ended up not finishing the course. Recently, I discovered that I had taken out a book from the Library on book making so that I could hand-make a book to use to write a journal. That was the moment I knew I had avoidance issues.

How to Avoid Making Art has been in  print over ten years, so I assume there must be at least some people as wacky as I am out there. Let's all keep on reading the book and making art.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

At the Bottom of Everything (Novel)

I love when Our Lady of Serendipity finds me a good book. While I waited for a few books that I had reserved to come into the library, I looked for a short, recently published novel to tide me over. What I found was At the Bottom of Everything by Ben Dolnick, an author whose books I hadn’t read before. I loved the voice of the first-person narrator: the humor, the inner conflict, the perspective on life. Some of the details felt intimate. I liked how e-mails were used to bring in other voices to the novel. I enjoyed the storyline, which took me from the familiar world of childhood to a life that had taken a tragic turn and from the American suburbs to a cave in India.

Briefly, Adam befriends the socially awkward but intelligent Thomas. “I liked being the kid who cracked Thomas Pell; it was like having learned to communicate with an owl.” They become best friends. While Adam evolves into a typical teenage boy, Thomas remains unsure and awkward. In order to test their limits, the boys decide to engage in some minor hijinks involving Thomas’s dad’s car. Unfortunately one of their outings goes tragically wrong and indirectly results in the death of a young woman. No one finds out about their role in the accident. The boys end their friendship shortly after that and grew apart. “Thomas and I, who’d seen each other naked at the aquatic center, who’d woken up a hundred times on side-by-side mattresses, who shared a secret more serious than any married couple…now we were awkward together.” Ten years later, Adam is trying to find his way in the world with varying success. Meanwhile Thomas drops out of college after having a breakdown. While Adam has been able to put the accident behind him, Thomas is consumed by the guilt. When Thomas disappears in India, his parents turn to Adam to find him. How far will Adam go to find the man who was once his best friend?

At the Bottom of Everything was a special treat for me because it does a nice job of developing characters. I would like to read Dolnick’s earlier books to see more of his character development.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Etta and Otto and Russell and James (Novel)

Etta Gloria Kinnick of Deerdale farm. 83 years old in August.
Otto Vogel. Husband. Soldier/Farmer. (Living)
Russell Palmer. Friend, Farmer/Explorer. (Living)
As Etta walks across Canada in order to see the ocean, she carries a note in her pocket to remind herself of who she is and who she has loved.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper is a beautiful little story. If the novel were a painting, I would say that in just a few strokes it shows the essence of the subject. In just a few words, with simple language, with just a few key scenes, Hooper describes the essence of the friendships, loves, loses, and war experiences of the characters.

The plotlines of Etta and Otto and Russell and James cover two major time periods: the 1930s/early 1940s and the present day. In the early time period, we learn about the families of  Etta, Otto, and Russell. As a young boy, Russell makes himself part of the large Vogel household and becomes Otto's friend. When their teacher becomes sick, Etta takes over and forms a friendship with the boys, who are the same age as she is. When Otto goes to war, Etta and Otto exchange letters and fall in love. When the school closes because of lack of pupils, Etta takes factory work and waits for Otto to return. In the meantime, Russell becomes a farmer, acquiring some of the untended farms. In the present day, Etta leaves Otto a note saying that she is going to go in search of the water, which Otto realizes is over three thousand kilometers away. As Etta waited for Otto, he now waits for her. In time he begins to make paper mach—ź animals that he plans to give her when she comes back. Both Etta and Otto becomes celebrities of sorts: Etta for her trip, Otto for her art. As for James, one really needs to read the book to quite understand.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a book that you need to feel with your heart as much as read with your head. After I finished reading the novel, scenes kept on flashing into my consciousness. I saw dozens of scenes, each so perfect and filled with meaning, with heart. I feel blessed to have read the book.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

War for the Oaks (Urban Fantasy Novel)

Fairies. Friendship. The Magic of Rock and Roll.

I found War for the Oaks by Emma Bull on a list of Science Fiction and Fantasy books to cheer one up. Even though the book is almost three decades old, it still warmed my heart. Who couldn’t love a book where one of the romantic characters is a fairy that turns into a dog? Yes, the novel has a bit of sex, but the scenes are sweet and touching. While it has some sad parts, friendship triumphs in the end. Yup, I felt better after reading it.

War for the Oaks is set in, what at the time the novel was written, modern-day Minneapolis. Eddi is going through young-adult angst because she is breaking up with both her band and her boyfriend. Walking home alone at night, she is accosted by two good fairies, who have recruited her to be their human representative in a little squabble between the fairies of darkness and the fairies of light. It turns out that having a human on the battlefield will allow the normally immortal fairies to actually die. But, the battle is awhile off, so in the meantime Eddi needs a protector from the fairies of darkness and a new band so that she can pay the bills. Eddi learns a lot about fairies and about herself.

At first I was put off by the writing style of War for the Oaks. The author seemed to be trying too hard. But, from the very beginning, I loved the characters. The phouka, Eddi’s fairy dog/human protector, is funny, lovable, and vulnerable. Carla, Eddi’s friend and a member of the band, is the friend that we all wish we had. Willy, an upper-class fairy, is sexy, sometimes obnoxious, and sympathetic. And, the list goes on. This is definitely a triumph of friendship novel.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Happiness Advantage (Self-Help/Business Book)


Most self-help authors don’t bother to mention the fact that they did not actually steal a police car. But for Shawn Achor that personal fact becomes a vivid teaching point. His stories and metaphors make The Happiness Advantage memorable. His life experiences and academic credentials make the book credible. On top of that, The Happiness Advantage is very, very practical.

I have evidently been reading articles by Achor for years – O Magazine, Success, Live Happy – but, I did not really pay attention to him until I recently watched an episode of Super Soul Sunday. To me the idea of happiness seemed like so much fluff. Achor has a way of making us look at happiness in a new way, as a key ingredient to our personal and professional success. His credential are impressive. He has practical experience. He worked as a proctor in the dorms at Yale for twelve years and has consulted all over the world. Yet, he also has a degree from Yale and can draw on scientific studies associated with happiness. He has a knack for creating vivid images, describing such principles as “The Tetris Effect” and the “Zorro Circle.” In The Happiness Advantage he also gives easy to follow steps that we can take to be happier.

It is so easy to read self-help book after self-help book, feeling good for a time and changing nothing in or lives. The Happiness Advantage is filled with great ideas, but it is just another book unless the ideas are integrated into our daily lives. I think The Happiness Advantage, well, has an advantage over other books because it is so memorable.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The White Magic Five and Dime (Mystery)

I needed a break from all the power struggles and politics (Imaginer’s series) that I had been reading about lately. A trip to the New Book section at my local library netted me a fun and well-crafted novel, The White Magic Five and Dime by Steve Hockensmith with Lisa Falco. In some ways it reads like the breezy, guilty pleasures mysteries that I have come to love, yet The White Magic Five and Dime is a bit more. A solid backstory is woven into the book, giving perspective to the characters and their motives. Also woven into the story is a sarcastic interpretation of Tarot cards.

Briefly, Alanis, a very successful telemarketer, learns that her estranged mother is dead, actually murdered. The mother has left her some money, a car, and The White Magic Five and Dime, out of which her mother had been giving Tarot readings. Alanis takes some time off from work to go to the small town near Sedona where her mother lived and to settle matters. Despite her feelings towards her mother, Alanis feels compelled to solve the mystery of her mother’s murder. She finds plenty of suspects, including people whom her mother had conned and her mother’s teenage housemate, Clarice. In order to catch the murderer, Alanis decides to pose as a Tarot reader herself, which requires her to actually learn about the Tarot. Luckily, she finds an informative book, Miss Chance’s Infinite Road’s to Knowing.

The plotline involves more than a woman solving a murder. Slowly we learn why and how Alanis and her mother became estranged. As Alanis reads the Tarot cards and interacts with the townsfolks, we see a gentler side to the snarky, cynical Alanis. Near the end of the novel, Alanis wonders whether her mother gave her the money and store as a gift of kindness or as a long-con, an ultimate revenge. The ending has some wonderful little twists, and, of course, foreshadows new novels in the series. I may have found a new series to love.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Paw and Order (Mystery Novel)

When I fall in love with a series, I am disappointed when I finish a book in it and say that “I liked it a lot.” I expected more from Spencer Quinn’s Paw and Order, the seventh book in the Chet and Bernie Series. (See my reactions to The Sound and the FurryA Fistful of CollarsThe Dog Who Knew Too Much and To Fetch a Thief.)  I enjoyed the fact that the novel branched out from the earlier books. The setting is Washington D.C., and the mystery to be solved involves politics and has some international intrigue. I liked that the climax of the plot did not follow the same formula as some of the earlier books. I’m glad that Quinn turned his attention to the relationship between Suzy and Bernie. Some of my favorite moments were when Chet professes his love for Suzy, but at the same time resents giving up the “shotgun seat.”

What I did not like about Paw and Order is that it did not totally feel like a Chet and Bernie book. (I will allow that the year since I read the last novel may have clouded my memory a bit.) Chet is not an integral part of solving the mystery. While the story is told from his point of view, I felt that it could have happened without him. And, the story contained too many instances where Chet is hyper and Bernie tells him to calm down. While Bernie has always been a very macho character, he seemed much more violent than I remembered him. He has been known to have a soft side, but it didn’t seem to come out until almost the end of the novel.

I’m not giving up on Chet and Bernie (and Suzy). Paw and Order was still a good story. But, my anticipation for the next novel is not as high as it has been in the past.