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keep it simple, stupid

it’s new year’s eve!  huzzah!  for all the writers out there who celebrate tomorrow’s holiday, with resolutions and whatnot, i give you this quick fictionaut interview with jane smiley, sprinkled with advice for people who plan on writing more in 2011.

and if you don’t celebrate january 1 because you find calendars & the accompanying promises-to-self to be so much contrived nonsense, i have something for you, too: another quick interview, with patrick somerville (a great former instructor of mine) on why short story collections can still kick ass.

don’t know about you, but it’s almost noon where i am.  let’s get drunk.

Borne back ceaselessly into the past (or, What I Read: 2010)

Year-end best-of lists are always confined to that year, but that’s not how most of us read. If you’re like me (read: poor), you won’t catch up with 2010 until it’s in paperback—and there are so many other books to catch up on, besides. So my year-end lists are never about the year that’s ending; they’re mostly about me. Isn’t that always the way?

Here are 20 great books I read this year.

All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays by George Orwell (2008)
I’ll quote myself: “Orwell is so damn smart that reading him makes me feel smarter, and everything he writes about—dirty postcards, Tolstoy’s hatred of Shakespeare, the disappointment of T.S. Eliot’s later work, and of course, socialism—is made fascinating and important.”

The Complete Peanuts: 1950 to 1952 by Charles M. Schulz (2004)
Before Snoopy (or even Linus) could talk, before the characters were shilling for Hallmark and MetLife, long before the introduction of the life-sucking Peppermint Patty, Peanuts was maybe at its funniest: a frequently absurd examination of the adult neuroses of four- and five-year-olds.

Good ol' Charlie Brown

Read more »

Tricks for Getting Words on the Page

Being out of school and having to create my own writing deadlines are big challenges for me. I tried Jess Walter’s cookie trick, but it turns out I’m quite happy eating the cookie without writing anything—and I’d rather sleep in no matter how good the cookie tastes.

I do have other tricks and tips about how to get writing done: I belong to a weekly critique group; I schedule writing time in my calendar; I get automatic writing prompts via email; and I’m participating in a year long challenge which involves checking in online every Sunday. None of them work as well as I would like them to.

Setting time aside for writing isn’t enough. I’m a great procrastinator, so I can easily use all that time—at home or in a coffee shop—for checking email and Facebook, or cruising my favorite time-wasting websites. The challenge and my critique group keep writing on my “to do” list and constantly on my mind, but posting “0 pages” on a Sunday or not having any pages done when my group meets still happen fairly often. Read more »

The Pig of Happiness

Shira’s post below reminded me of a story by Shawn Vestal, called The Pig of Happiness, which is one of the best short shorts I’ve ever read. It starts like this:

The story is called The Pig of Happiness and you’ve read it out loud for days now, it seems, when the only thing that will make baby calm down are the pictures of these pale pigs and your voice describing the way that one of them decides to be happy and spread happiness into the world like a neutral-colored paste sneaking from the leghole of an improperly sealed diaper.”

The story continues for another four paragraphs. Short shorts seem to almost always require surprise at the end, some kind of hard turn that makes the reader want to go right back to the beginning to read again. And again. Vestal’s has that, sort of, but the big shift is actually much more gradual. The story takes on weight and context line by line, the narrator becoming kind of disturbing as the piece goes on and he’s sort of torturing his kid. It’s also hilarious, not only regarding being a parent, but in the way it comments on stories themselves or how we sometimes talk or think about them as writers. Like any good short short, “The Pig of Happiness” is striking because of how much ground it covers in such a small space. And when I get to the end, I always think, How did we get here? thrilled that the story has done so much and landed so far from where I thought it would or could possibly go, and all in under 400 words.

Board Book Bonanza

Today's Most Chosen Book

Today, instead of doing deep thinking about writing and reading, I spent the early morning finishing Pride and Prejudice, which is such a fun read. Then, instead of formulating interesting things to write about it, I spent the morning reading board books to a 14-month-old with whom I am staying over my winter break.

Since board books are on my mind, I thought I’d write a few notes about them, let you know which are best from a genuine baby’s point of view.

Pat the Bunny, by Dorothy Kunhardt, which was first published in 1940, and Peek-a-Who? by Nina Laden, which I believe to be quite cutting edge, are both appealing for the mirror portion of their plots. This baby likes to kiss her reflection so there are ample lip marks on the reflective surfaces. Besides, Pat the Bunny has many other fun interactive pages including playing peek-a-boo with Paul and reading Judy’s book about a bunny. And of course, you get to pat the furry bunny. Read more »

A few days to go for 2010 books

With the end of 2010 approaching, I’m frantically trying to finish up a few last minute books so that I can add them to my reading totals for this year. This is the fifth year I’ve both set goals for yearly reading and tracked my progress, and it looks to be the fourth year running that I’ll fall short of hitting the number of books I set out to read (but only the second year I’ll miss my goal of total pages). Assuming I finish the three books I’ve been working on, I’ll finish 2010 with 42 unique books: 10 books shy of my goal of a book each week. (As a bit of an obsessive rereader, I won’t count a book twice if I happen to read it twice in one year, which I did with some of my thesis books. Instead, I usually plan my rereads so that they fall in successive calendar years for the sole purpose of being able to count them twice on my list. There are three books I currently have on hold for this exact reason. Obsessive much?)

My pages goal was maybe even more ambitious, coming in at 20,000 pages. I’m anticipating missing this by around 1500 or so. According to the fancy spreadsheet I set up way back in the day, this is still something around a 93% success rate, which I figure is a high 3.5 at worst, so I’m trying not to feel too poorly about this.

Read more »

Foodie Fanaticism

Maybe it’s because the new year is coming, and with it, the annual diet.  Maybe it’s because of all the Christmas cookies.  Maybe it’s because I just finished reading Jeffrey Steingarten’s The Man Who Ate Everything and started in on the collected letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto.  Whatever it is, I can’t stop thinking about food.

Okay.  I’m a bit of a culinary maniac anyway.  It comes and it goes.  Sometimes, the best way I can think to spend a day is cooking.  Morning till night, oven on, stove top glowing.  Other days I eat nothing that requires more than a microwave.  Maybe I’m a culinary manic-depressive.  Who the heck knows.  But right now, it’s mania.

Of course it is.  It’s the holidays.

But all holiday treats aside, I think the main reason for my foodie fanaticism is the amount of time I’ve been spending with my new favorite food writer, Jeffrey Steingarten (even after finishing the book, I keep revisiting certain essays).  He was already my favorite judge on Iron Chef America (I’m pretty sure the man has made Bobby Flay cry, if only on the inside) and now he might be my favorite nonfiction writer in general.  Though I must admit, I don’t read a lot of nonfiction; I prefer fictional worlds to the real one.  But when I think about it, I realize that most of the nonfiction I read, creative or otherwise, has to do with food. Read more »

Mix ‘n’ Match Motifs

I don’t know if, for a prompt, you’ve ever googled anything like “motif generator” or “story prompts.” There is a fairly interesting one here, but I never feel too competent in cyberpunk pirate histories, even when I feel like I can get a handle on the theme (such as “love-against-the-odds solitude story”).

I’d given up with the google searches. I figured that I would just continue to write about folk beliefs and aliens, how a cheap Australian Chardonnay will sub for bourbon when you’re broke but still want that oak flavor, when to kill a cockroach and when to let it slide.

But then Netflix approached me. They wanted to know my preferences so they could better my recommendations list. Have you ever seen the Netflix Preferences list? They ask if you want a stoner movie that has monkeys, or a rogue bicycle cop movie. Totally refreshing.

I’m pasting the list after the Read More, so you, too, can mix baseball with assassination or horse racing with demons and come up with a decent story to sift through.
Read more »

the “x” in x-mas

it’s christmas eve!  huzzah!  for everyone who celebrates tomorrow’s holiday, i wish you the happiest & merriest of days – via this excellent james brown song: “let’s make christmas mean something this year.”

and if you don’t celebrate december 25 because you doubt there’s even a deity, let alone one born on that day, there’s something for you, too: on the wsj blog of all places, ricky gervais explains why he’s an atheist, and then also took questions.

happy holidays, ya’all.

Figures and News of the Book World

Publishers Weekly reported on the Association of American Publishers sales figures earlier this month. As expected, e-books increased the most and grew 171.3% during the year’s first ten months. Downloadable audio books also increased while physical audio books were down. Higher Ed and University Press were up, all other sectors down.

It will be interesting to see what Google eBooks will do for next year’s figures. Launched on December 6th, the market news sites are already fluttering with predictions for what will happen to the e-reader and e-book markets because of Google’s huge inventory. My favorite quote is from another Publishers Weekly article, where Gartner researcher Allen Weiner says:

The stage is now set for a high-powered battle, one that will separate the true contenders from pretenders.

I love action-movie talk in literary circumstances.

And then since it is almost Christmas time, here’s an upbeat story from NPR reporting that things may not be as bad for the independent bookstores as we thought they were.

Happy Holidays!

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