Thursday, September 20, 2007

Great Reads...New and Old

Had a great time at the conference last weekend. (Waves to all my new friends.) One of my favorite questions came up: What books do you recommend? I rattled off a few, but that's a tough one since I have so many.

First, you might browse older blog entries as I'm usually soapboxing about some novel or other. And check back often, because it's a favorite topic.

New (to me) books, read this year, that I'd recommend:

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. Non-fiction, non-religious musings about a life of faith. If I lived in Portland I'd be Donald's friend.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. If you get past the Oprah backlash, the book is a standout on its own merit. Crazy family, an impending holiday. Chip is my favorite (slacker) character.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. A throwback to the gothic tradition about a mysterious, bestselling author and the woman who researches her past.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon. A twisty tale involving a (fictional) displaced Jewish community in Alaska, their mafia-esque religious leaders, a chess genius and possible Messiah, and the shlumpy detective navigating a murder in a low-rent motel. Chabon's writing is sheer genius, and this one sent me to re-read another of his books, Wonder Boys, which is my favorite read of the year so far.

The Painted Veil by William S. Maugham. Saw the movie (gorgeous), read the book. I usually don't roll in that order, but you gotta do what you gotta do. Kudos to the always fantastic Edward Norton for championing the script. For the book, I enjoyed the deeper insights into Kitty's flighty character and the surprising emphasis on her spiritual journey (less pronounced in the film.)

Shopgirl by Steve Martin. Rewatched the movie, reread the book. Who knew King Tut could carry off such a dreamy yet spare literary style?

About a Boy by Nick Hornby. Again, for me a reverse order on the book/film scenario (a disturbing trend???), but a pleasant one. Enjoyed his writing style, the bare honesty of a narcissistic man adrift and the awkward boy who grounds him. Plus, you have to love that mother.

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer. A collection of short stories held together by themes of race and place in society. If you read the first one "Brownies," you'll follow her all the way through.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson. Hilarious memoir of a kid coming of age in consumer-happy 1950s.

Twilight of the Superheroes
by Deborah Eisenberg. If this hadn't been required for a class, I probably wouldn't have gotten past the comic cover. It just doesn't look like a book I'd read (which goes to show you about the whole judge/cover thing), but the opening story is a knockout. She takes a group of twentysomethings dealing with post 9-11 connections in New York City, and does a fresh take on the definitions of family and friendship. I'll read more of her work, which for me is a good test of if I really like an author or not.

Some of my all time favorites:

Plainsong by Kent Haruf
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
The Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
Beloved by Toni Morrison

Right now I'm reading Thereafter Johnnie by Carolivia Herron -- a difficult book, but so well written it's worth the trip.

That's all for now...I'm sure as soon as I sign off I'll think of more...

What about you? Any recent reads you'd recommend?

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Fish, Water and Writers

Hi all. I'm in preparations for an upcoming writers conference here in my area. It's hosted by the North Texas Christian Writers and they're bringing in a slew of authors to teach on different tracks in the writing world. Songwriting, non-fiction, and (my favorite) fiction will all be discussed. The conference emphasizes the craft of writing, versus the I'm-so-ready-to-make-a-sale-I-might-die end, which I respect. Focusing on honing craft first makes the quest for publication sooooo much better.

I'm presenting several talks -- one called "Nuts and Bolts for Rank Beginners" -- which reminds me of a traditional Texas A&M yell after a bad football call. Imagine an entire stadium (or, at least the loud half) chanting, "Nuts and bolts, nuts and bolts, we got ________!" But that's probably inappropriate in this forum, and not at all related to the actual session. The talk covers priorities, goal setting, approaching the marketplace, and publication.

Other presentations include "Exploding the Moment: Write Now!" where we'll do some hands-on writing exercises. I'm busting out freewriting prompts and a little gadget I like to call the Wheel of Fortune (a brainstorming technique.) Then there's "The Art of Rewriting" which is one of my favorites. We'll talk about the process of revisions -- that exquisitely painful yet wonderful love/hate/love rollercoaster. I'm also presenting on "Inspired Writing for a Mainstream Marketplace" which will be interesting, considering the audience. I've spoken to Christian groups before, but by main professional field is the literary or mainstream marketplace. I'm wondering if I'll be a bit fish out of watery, or if this group will catch my vision of writing towards an inclusive audience while remaining authentic to yourself and your worldview. Should prompt some discussion, at least.

As for me, I'm not interested in reading about perfect characters making perfect choices in a perfect life -- because that's not only unrealistic, but unbiblical. Case in point: David the anointed King seducing married Bathsheba. Peter cutting a guy's ear off for Jesus. Abraham the liar -- "No really, Sarah's my sister, yeah, yeah,that's right, my sister, not my wife, you can have her, just don't kill me!" Plus, the entire catalog of other misfits who helped carve the crazy path that is a life in faith.

So, given such precedence, I'm hoping the attendees of NTCWC won't mind that I write about broken people doing crooked things, whose common bond (like most of us) is the need for a second chance. In fact, I bet deep down, they might relate.

I'm off to prepare, but maybe you can help. If you wanted to be a writer, what sort of nuts and bolts question (nothing too silly to ask) would you want answered?