Monday, March 31, 2014

Book Report Monday: The Help

Title: The Help

Author: Kathryn Stockett

Genre: Fiction

Synopsis: Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.

Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.

Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody's business, but she can't mind her tongue, so she's lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed. (from Goodreads)

Why did I pick it up?: I've had this on my bookshelf for four years. I had heard mixed reviews and wasn't sure if I would like it, but I vowed to read books I had before buying too many more.

My Review: I was surprised by how much I liked The Help since I'd been avoiding it for so long. The story was interesting and accessible. Each of the narrators had a unique voice and struggle. While I wanted Skeeter to interview the maids, I was scared for all of them and understood why they were hesitant. Perhaps the scariest thing is that the novel is set in 1962 and one of Skeeter's friends is pushing for segregated bathrooms inside white homes that employ colored help. 1962 does not feel very long ago, but it should seem impossible that maids could have been forced to use a separate bathroom than their white employers in our recent history. Unfortunately, it's not unrealistic.

Aside from the obvious racial tensions in the story, The Help is about three women struggling with their identities and independence.

Skeeter begins waking up when she returns from college and finds a new maid has replaced the one who helped raise her. It's a profound loss and brings a new focus to the community and friends she's always known. Something is wrong with life in Jackson and Skeeter wonders why she's the only one who notices. Until she realizes she isn't the only one, though she may be the only white one to care about the relationship between whites and blacks.

Aibileen has spent her life raising white children who love her until they reach a particular age and start to treat her like the help. Her own son, died and left her questioning why she continues to work hard for people who will never be friends or family. Skeeter's return is the nudge Aibileen needs to take charge and try to make a difference. Along the way she realizes she has talents other than cleaning and child-rearing.

Minny has always kept a barricade between her and her employers, convinced that none of the white folks will ever be her friend. When she gets her new job, cooking and cleaning for a childless couple who don't even host parties, she finds herself bored. Eventually she grows curious about the woman who hired her and who, against all the odds, Minny cares about. Her employer however has bizarre habits that have Minny ready to quit no matter how much she needs the money.

Now I just need to watch the movie and compare.

My Recommendation: It's a bestseller for a reason, I think most readers will enjoy this. Of course, it's targeted toward women.

For Next Time: The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

All About Balance

We hear a lot of advice on balance. It's supposed to be found everywhere in our lives from our diets to our checkbooks, but achieving it is rarely as easy as it sounds.

Once during a yoga class the woman next to me could not maintain tree pose. She'd have it for a second but then she'd tremble and stumble precariously until both feet were on the mat. After failing a few times, she huffed loudly and our yoga instructor addressed her with the zen attitude you'd expect. "Some days it's harder to find our balance than others. Try not to get frustrated. I know you can do this pose, but it might not work for your body today." 

I personally have experienced days where balancing poses seem impossible, though the day before I felt like I could have held them for hours. I think what my yoga instructor said applies not only to our physical body but to all aspects of one's self.

As a writer, mathematician, yogi, runner, homebody, lover of the outdoors, knitter, reader, dog mom, fan of silence, and music enthusiast finding a comfortable, steady equilibrium can be an intense act of juggling that frequently ends in bruises and tears.

Fortunately, my day job keeps my analytically minded needs met while writing and reading allow me an outlet for my creativity. Unfortunately, all of those activities keep my body stationary which drives me crazy. I need exercise or I'll wind up in my crankypants grumbling at the dog for doing things like wanting to be pet or panting loudly.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King recommends that writers make a point of being active. He takes a regular 4 mile walk to clear his head and work through troublesome plot points. Walking is definitely a great thing for a writer. No matter how frustrated I am at the start of a walk, after half a mile or so I feel better and it's easier to figure things out. Like Stephen King I live in New England and despite my love for watching falling snow and curling up with a cup of hot cocoa I'm not walking 4 miles in the middle of a polar vortex.

Lucky for me, I love my yoga and that can be done in the warmth of my living room anytime. I try to practice every morning. That means I usually do it at least four days a week. Four days is generally enough to keep me satisfied and the crankypants safely tucked away.

No matter how much we plan and work on it, there will always be times when we feel off balance. The important thing to remember while we wobble through the day is that finding that balance isn't a final goal that will ever be complete. It's a constant work in progress.

What do you need to stay balanced?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Book Report Monday: A Discovery of Witches

Title: A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy #1)

Author: Deborah Harkness

Genre: Fantasy

Synopsis: Deep in the stacks of Oxford's Bodleian Library, young scholar Diana Bishop unwittingly calls up a bewitched alchemical manuscript in the course of her research. Descended from an old and distinguished line of witches, Diana wants nothing to do with sorcery; so after a furtive glance and a few notes, she banishes the book to the stacks. But her discovery sets a fantastical underworld stirring, and a horde of daemons, witches, and vampires soon descends upon the library. Diana has stumbled upon a coveted treasure lost for centuries-and she is the only creature who can break its spell. (from Goodreads)

Why Did I Pick it Up?: When this first came out, I kept picking it up in bookstores and putting it down again. I don't know why I continuously do this flirtatious back and forth with some books. It's not as though the book will be different next time. More recently during a discussion of the Outlander series, someone suggested that I read A Discovery of Witches and so I added it to my list.

My Review: I couldn't believe I wanted so long to read this. It's exactly my kind of story. Set in present day Oxford, the three types of non-human creatures are all after Diana Bishop and the book she accidentally got her hands on. Vampires can walk in sunlight and blend with humans easily, daemons who are intuitive and generally a bit crazy, and witches who can work magic through spells. The three species are not fond of each other. In fact, there are rules about fraternizing between the groups. Diana, who considers herself to be a historian and not a witch at all, struggles with her place among the creatures who all want to know about the book. All she wants is to be left out of it, but her curiosity is piqued. Soon she too wonders how she got a hold of the book and why the creatures are so interested in an ancient book about alchemy.

After an encounter at the library, Diana befriends Matthew, a handsome scientist and vampire. He does his best to protect Diana while the number of creatures lingering in Oxford swells. And I did my best to root for them. C'mon they met in the library, that's like every other romantic dream I have.

I found Diana easy to relate with, maybe it was all the yoga she does. Her reason for shunning magic is based on her parents' deaths. They were murdered because of their abilities when Diana was seven. As much as I felt frustrated with her disregard for her witch identity, I understood. I just wouldn't be able to resist doing magic if I could.

A Discovery of Witches is in my opinion a tale of self discovery and self acceptance more so than it is about magic and vampires. I've already read the second book in the series and I'm impatiently awaiting the third, which will be published this summer.

This reminded me of Katherine Howe's The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

My Recommendation: I'll repeat why it was recommended to me, fans of the Outlander series would like this, as would anyone looking for a book that contains vampires but not teenagers. 

For Next Time: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Friday, March 21, 2014

A New Season, An Anniversary, and a Bit of Wisdom

Happy Spring! I was prepared for an anticlimactic equinox since I'm so far north but yesterday and today have been warm and sunny in Massachusetts. I do love the snow-it was part of the reason I relocated to New England-but I cannot contain my excitement to shed the layers and feel less like the little brother in A Christmas Story every time I walk the dog.

I've missed being outside. Every chance I've had to be out on a warmer day, I've taken. Walking to the grocery store and hiking with friends have been great but when those days are followed by a week of single digit temperatures it's saddening to pull those layers back on. And not just because I can't put my arms down.

This weekend also marks my first full year in Massachusetts. (Insert comment about time flying here)
All my worldly possessions barely fit into the truck. P.S. Thanks Julie.

 It's been a great twelve months. I read a lot of books, ran three 5Ks and one 4 mile race, and had a year's worth of good times. Looking through the pictures on my phone though it looks like my dog slept a lot and I ate a massive amount of oatmeal. Seriously, why don't I ever take pictures of people?

Clearly, I find my dog and my breakfast to be respectively cute and delicious and therefore must document each of them as often as possible. My friends on snapchat can attest to this.

I'm sure many of them wonder if there's more to Monica's life than oats and a furry companion. Hopefully I never have to choose between the two.

Just kidding, I'd take my Cody any day, just look at that face, but I'd be sad at breakfast.

He does things like this all the time. Can you blame me for all the pics?

My grandmother use to say, you can't really know someone until you've known them through all four seasons. I thought this was not only to be taken literally since you will be familiar with a person after a year, but also because you need to know someone through their own seasons of emotional highs and lows. In a year, you're bound to experience bad news and tough times and we don't really know one another until we share the ups and the downs. Perhaps the same thing is true for places? If it is, then I suppose it's safe to say I'm here to stay.

Happy Friday!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

An Evening with Alice Hoffman

On February 25th Alice Hoffman made an appearance at Newtonville Books, conveniently accessible to me via the subway. It's important to note that in June of 2009, I headed to Long Island to attend one of her signings for The Story Sisters. I had never been to Long Island and had printed directions from MapQuest. Turned out that was a mistake. I was in traffic for hours. I was in the Lincoln Tunnel forever. The directions estimated 2.5 hours and even though I had taken the day off from work and left at 3pm for a 7pm signing, I didn't arrive until 8:30. The signing was over and Alice Hoffman was gone. I bought one of the signed copies and left. Since then I've read more of her novels and my admiration has at least doubled. You can imagine how determined I was to actually meet her this time.

I arrived with time to snag a seat in the center and purchase her latest book, The Museum of Extraordinary Things. Newtonville Books is a cool bookstore. I know all bookstores are cool, right? But check out their check out counter filled with books.

I could feel energy dancing through me, but I managed to stay still and not draw unwanted attention. Thanks yoga. The first thing she talked about was her life as a writer. As much as I love her books, I didn't know much about her personal life or how her writing career began. It's generally reassuring to hear wildly successful authors talk about writing. Their habits and methods are so similar to my own that it's a validation that I'm not on the completely wrong track, as I frequently fear I might be. She described her feelings when she starts a new project saying, "I can't write this. I don't know who that writer was that wrote all those other novels under my name but it can't have been me." While it's not exactly reassuring that writers never lose their doubt, it is a comfort that they write their way through it. If they can, maybe I can too. She talked about having writer's block and how she never expected to write a book like The Dovekeepers or The Museum of Extraordinary Things. She read from the book and answered questions.

The book I'm currently writing has involved a lot of research and I asked her how she approached her research for The Dovekeepers, which is set in Masada in 70. She said it was overwhelming at first, but eventually she realized that she only needed to know what her characters knew and so that helped her target her research area. As there isn't a lot of information about women's lives during that time, she found other ways to answer her questions. For example, nomadic tribes making bread in the desert today without any modern technology probably isn't all that different from making bread in the desert almost 2,000 years ago.

Finally, it was book signing time. I was getting my chance to speak to her privately. I had so many things I wanted to say and ask, didn't I? I must have lost most of them while waiting in line. The only ones I could remember seemed foolish. I managed to tell her that I loved all of her novels and she seemed flattered and a bit surprised, maybe because I was much younger than most of the people there. I thought afterwards I'd remember a million questions to ask her, but I didn't. Turns out the words she gives us in her books are enough for me.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Book Report Monday: Gold by Chris Cleave

Title: Gold

Author: Chris Cleave

Genre: Fiction

Synopsis: If your dreams pull you in one direction and your heart in another, which should you follow? This is the question that haunts Kate Meadows, a world champion athlete whose eight-year-old daughter Sophie is battling a recurrence of childhood leukemia just as Kate is about to compete for her last chance at an Olympic gold medal. For years, Kate has sacrificed everything for her family and watched her best friend and closest rival, Zoe Castle, conquer the world stage. Kate has never won gold and will have to go through Zoe - who has everything to lose - to get it. Now her child is facing a life-threatening illness, and the stakes are higher than ever. How can she do what is right for her daughter without abandoning all of her dreams?

(from Goodreads)

Why did I pick it up?: I read Little Bee by Chris Cleave several years ago and immediately put him on my "Must Read Everything By These Authors" list.

My Review: Gold is a different kind of book than Cleave's prior Incendiary and Little Bee, both of which were shorter, first person narratives dealing with issues that are not only political but deeply heart wrenching. Gold focuses on Olympic athletes, not quite on the same level as terrorism, which is at the core of Incendiary. Still the writing is solid and the conflict is clear even if it's not a global hot topic.

After years of training and competing together Zoe and Kate have become friends in addition to being rivals. It's a tough place to be with no middle ground, particularly when only one of them can go to the Olympics. Meanwhile Zoe continues her downward spiral of self destruction and Kate juggles her career with her family life as her daughter has a recurrence of cancer. Sophie, the little girl struggling with leukemia, is obsessed with Star Wars and I enjoyed all the references.

Since the  main characters are elite cyclists preparing for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, I felt that I learned a lot about Olympic athletes and cycling especially. Don't be deterred if you're not interested in those topics. It was never forced or boring, rather the educational tidbits wove in and out of the story naturally. I appreciated that.

I read this before the Winter Olympics in Socchi and whenever I heard about athletes who shared coaches and training facilities competing against each other, I remembered Zoe and Kate.

My Recommendation: Do you know someone who keeps telling you to read Jodi Piccoult's latest Tearjerker? Give them this. Also anyone into cycling should check it out.

For Next Week: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Friday, March 14, 2014

Finally Friday and I Took a Trip to New York

Don't you love these shoes?

I had a client meeting in New York City this week and couldn't resist getting new shoes from ModCloth to mark the occasion.

I rode the train from Boston, and as we made our way south I saw lakes, beaches, and less and less snow. Trains have always been productive places for me. I can write, work and read without worrying about anything else that needs to get done. Other passengers act like blinders to distractions and keep me focused. This trip was no exception, though I couldn't write the whole time. I had to review notes and prepare for my meeting.

I love traveling, but traveling as a vegan can be a challenge. Traveling as a whole foods, organic, health nut, vegan can be impossible. Usually, I pack a lot of food with me, but New York City is full of options and I had a list of places near my hotel that I wanted try. First, after getting off the train I stopped at Terri. They have ready-made salads, wraps, baked goods and juices without additives. I grabbed their Lady in Red juice for breakfast the next day. The ingredients are beets, pineapple, carrots, and oranges. Nothing else. I took that and my Kale Superfood Salad back to my hotel.


When I got there, I was instantly confused.

The lobby is ultra modern and I couldn't locate the front desk. People were all over, just hanging out. Carrying drinks from the bar. Everything is grey, white and black. I now have a better understanding of Katniss's experience when she goes to the Capitol for the first time.

Front Desk

Far more like a night club than a hotel, but I found my way after a few minutes of wandering around. Of course once I found it, it seemed obvious. You know, sometimes when you enter a new setting nothing makes sense at first? I'm sure it's not me who experiences that disorientation but I still felt like a bumpkin for not figuring it out.

Between the frustration of locating the front desk and walking through the city with my bags, I was more than ready for dinner. The salad and juice were both delicious. Terri has a wide selection of vegan baked goods. I even saw a vegan, gluten-free cupcake, but I had packed my last chocolate chip cookie from a homemade batch and didn't try any of their desserts.

The meeting went well, I won't bore you with the details. Afterwards, everyone left for the airport. I was the only one from my company taking the train and was free to walk around the city and enjoy the warm day. It was 65 degrees and sunny. New York is more crowded than Boston, but the real difference to me isn't noticeable until I look up. Boston has few skyscrapers, and the tallest one is only 60 stories. In New York that's nothing. Looking up has an overwhelming dizzying effect. It's astounding to me when I think about what we're capable of creating. Even with the weirdos in Times Square dressed up like superheros and speaking to me in Spanish, I kind of didn't want to leave the crowds or sunshine and I definitely wanted to stay for the 65 degrees!

Until my feet started to object to all my walking in cute shoes, then I was ready to head home. I grabbed dinner at The Loving Hut for the train ride. I had been looking forward to it, but was disappointed. It was tofu, rice and vegetables in their chile pasilla sauce. Pretty standard vegan take out, but the tofu was uncooked and hadn't been marinated. I would expect that from a conventional restaurant offering one or two vegan options, but not from a vegan restaurant in Manhattan.

The journey home was dedicated to writing since my brain would melt if I tried to work more. All around it was a productive trip, but it did make my week feel longer than usual so I'm especially happy it's Friday and it's Pi Day!

Don't forget to enjoy some pie to celebrate.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Fact Facing, Overcoming Doubt, and the Truth about Writer's Block

Writers are a sensitive bunch and some days I feel like I'm the most sensitive one. Not that I'm always doubting myself. It comes in bursts of moroseness. The confidence and pride also comes and those are the best times. Those are the times when I tie up my manuscript in a pretty word document and send it off to family and friends. There's still fear that they won't like it, but I know none of my nearest and dearest would be mean even if they thought it was dreadful.

That's how I felt when I sent my YA Fantasy to a few friends and two of my sisters (also considered friends). I was prepared for lukewarm reactions though I hoped they'd enjoy it. What I wasn't prepared for was for some of them to not read it at all. I sent it to nine people and four of them didn't read it. The worst part was, two of the ones who didn't read it were my sisters. Years ago, someone had told me not to send my sisters copies because they wouldn't read it. I had more faith in my sisters than that, of course they'd read it! They're my sisters. It's been almost two years since I sent them that manuscript and neither one of them has read it.

I've asked them why. They both say they want to. They intend to read it soon. They're going to start it tonight. They want to read it with their kids. There's no end to the promises but there's been no clue as to why they won't read it. 

At first, I didn't think much about it. Four of my friends enjoyed it and some even provided comments. I was busy working on another story. After a year though, it got to me. The doubt crept in and planted itself firmly in the part of myself I call on to write. Every time I sat down to work, I questioned my actions. "Why should I write books even my own sisters won't read?" Even my own sisters won't read. Even my own sisters won't read. The words formed an anti-mantra that would not stop until I closed my laptop and lost myself in a cup full of tea and a book full of another writer's words. A writer who's siblings undoubtedly read what they wrote.

I still wrote but less and less. The words came haltingly and I had no confidence or faith in them. I pitied my story that it fell into my hands rather than into the hands of someone who could tell it. People asked about my writing (though my sisters never did) and I just shook my head and said, "It's slow going." Slow was generous. All my time "working" was spent tweaking sentences I'd already written or refreshing my Facebook news feed. My book was progressing at the speed of sloth.

I felt ashamed, stupid, and a little angry. During the summer I tried to force a timeline to finish a first draft of my stagnant book, but I couldn't do it. I didn't want to do it. Far from bringing me joy, I was miserable at the thought of typing nonsense for no reason.

Everything is relative
In February, I visited my family in Florida. One night when just the two of us were driving back from Universal, my mother asked how my writing was going. I was honest. "It's not. I don't see the point of it," I said and explained how my confidence had been worn away. She was not pleased. I should mention that my mother has become an irritatingly agreeable person, so this was unexpected. "I thought you were stronger than that," she told me and she didn't stop there. My mom laid the truth out flat. If I wanted to write, I had to be tougher. Lots of people won't read my books and some people that do might passionately loathe them and post about it on the Internet. Yes, it hurts knowing that important people seem not to care about my writing, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't care about my writing anymore. As much as it sucked to hear it, I had to admit she had a point. 

A few days after, my friend Ashley, who did read my book, asked about the first book I ever wrote which had been shelved before anyone read it all the way through. A while ago, I had told her about the premise and now she wanted to read it. It was perfect timing. I gave that dusty, old manuscript a quick edit and sent it to her and my mom. The following day, I picked up the project I'd been ignoring and have been working on it every day. I stay up writing until I have no words left and my dog is grumbling for a walk. My thoughts drift to what the characters say if they were cramped into a crowded subway car with me on my way to work. I've received concerned looks from other passengers when I laugh out loud at their responses in my head. Maybe that makes me crazy, but don't feel crazy. I feel like I'm back.

With my mom enjoying a Butterbeer at the Three Broomsticks

I believe now that it was a form of writer's block. I thought writer's block was not knowing what to write about, which sounds terrible enough, but not being able to write even with ideas pounding away inside of me was a different kind of horror. Block seems innocent compared to what I experienced. I had the Hoover Dam of writer's block. I wasn't depressed or miserable except for when I tried to write. I distracted myself with other hobbies and my friends, but I wasn't completely me during that time and I'm 100% me now. Only now I don't care if no one reads my book. I'm just happy to be writing and relieving the pressure that's been building up internally for so long.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Book Report Monday: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Author: Neil Gaiman

Genre: Fantasy

Synopsis: Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

(from Goodreads)

Why did I pick it up?:  If you don't know that I heart Neil Gaiman, well now you know.

Doesn't the cover remind you of Imaginary Girls

Favorite Line: "Books are safer than other people anyway."

I'm sure there were other gems but I only made note of that one.

My Review: Gaiman delivers another fantastic adventure. My only complaint is that it was so short. It wasn't too short though. The story was complete and I didn't need more, but I wanted more. I wanted to know more about Lettie and her mysterious past. Along with her mother and grandmother, Lettie Hempstock knows about the magical world and the creatures that sneak across the border separating it from our world. Lettie is far wiser and tougher than her physical appearance would lead people to believe. She protects the young protagonist who is pulled into the dark happenings when a dead man is found in his family's car. As a 7-year old boy, he looks up to Lettie who is older than he is and who has such a no-nonsense way of explaining the magical that can't help but be believed.

Childhood memories often seem surreal to us as adults. Partially do to the fact that we didn't fully understand what was happening at the time. However, time also has a way of erasing some events and highlighting others in our memories. I've confused realities of childhood with dreams I had as a child. What do you mean there was never a tornado at the playground?!

I've had arguments with my sisters over which one of us slammed their hand in the station wagon door or left a hot dog to burn on the stove. Each of us swearing we had done it as if time had fossilized the painful, embarrassing moment into a prized artifact we'd all like to claim. This book will leave you wondering what events you've excavated poorly or perhaps buried altogether.

My Recommendation: Perfect for any fantasy or magical realism fan. I personally think this would be a fabulous rainy day and pot of tea book.

For Next Time: Gold by Chris Cleave