Sunday, February 28, 2016

Surprise visit to the National Steinbeck Center

I'm currently on vacation. Literary destinations weren't a priority when planing this trip (shocking, I know), but I often have a knack for stumbling upon them.

After visiting friends in Los Angeles we headed north on the Pacific Coast Highway and stopped in Marina, CA for a couple days. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that The National Steinbeck Center is just down the road in Salinas, where John Steinbeck was born and raised. I visited the Center earlier today--February 27th--which also happens to be Steinbeck's birthday. He was born in 1902.

I'd like to read more Steinbeck. I've only read The Pearl and The Moon is Down.  I think I started Cannery Row once upon a time, but didn't finish it. Today's visit certainly motivated me to read more Steinbeck.

The National Steinbeck Center is a wonderful museum and although I don't have time to write a detailed overview of the exhibits, I wanted to share some pictures of my visit with you.
The front entrance.
Posing with the man.
Happy Birthday John Steinbeck ~ everybody eat some cake!
Diary of Dust Bowl migrant Lou Wagner. Apparently I am one of the few Americans of a certain age who did not read The Grapes of Wrath in high school. It is on my reading plan for 2016. Have you read it? Did you love it or hate it?
The camper Steinbeck traveled in with his poodle, Charley. Later immortalized in Travels with Charlie.
Their living space in the trailer. There's an Underwood travel typewriter on the table.
Steinbeck's passport from when he traveled to Russia in the 60s.
Re-creation of Steinbeck's writing hut and desk,
A picture of a picture of Steinbeck's desk.
Selfie with The Pearl, which I read (and loved) in 8th grade.
In 1962 Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The house where John Steinbeck was born and grew up is about three blocks from the Center. It is now a restaurant.

Visit the National Steinbeck Center online at
National Steinbeck Center
One Main Street
Salinas, CA 93901

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

First US Edition 1940

This was my fourth Agatha Christie novel and one that I knew I "should" read and wanted to read because several friends list it among their all-time favorite books. I read it this month for my Whodunit mystery/thriller book group which chose it as our book for February. It's also on both the Mystery Writers of America's Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time list (#10) and on the Crime Writers' Association Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list (#19).

It read it while sick in bed and loved every minute of it. I haven't been so gripped by a novel in ages.  I now associate this novel with having curative powers over the common cold.

And Then There Were None was first published in 1939 and it still reads fresh. The premise of the book is that ten people are invited to a private island for a holiday and shortly after they arrive are murdered off, one by one,  in ways that are in line with the old nursery rhyme "Ten Little Indians."

Who is killing them and why? Who will be next and how? This is murder made fun and for good reason. When reading murder mysteries I've often felt guilty about "enjoying" death/murder. Not in this case. Sweet justice.

While researching the background on this novel I was surprised to find it was first published in the UK with the title Ten Little Niggers (after the British version of the rhyme). The Wikipedia page on this novel lists the non-English foreign edition titles used for this novel, which is rather fascinating. I wonder if the title corresponds to the rhyme in each country or is simply a literal translation of the original title. Personally, I like the connotation of And Then There Were None: it's as if symbolically all the nasty types in the world have been swept away.

Cover of first UK 1939 edition by Stephen Bellman with original title (source)

Everyone in book group agreed this was the best mystery we've read so far. Highly recommend!  I hope to catch the new BBC adaptation of the novel that premiers in the US on March 13 & 14, 2016 on Lifetime.

This one totally counts towards #ReadMyOwnDamnedBooks challenge.

Other Christie novels I've read:
Murder on the Orient Express
The Body in the Library
Hallowe'en Party

Sunday, February 14, 2016

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

As a former bookseller I was aware of A Prayer for Owen Meany's block-buster bestseller status and know John Irving is a much-loved author due not only this novel, but to some of his others such as The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules (and their movie adaptations). Late last year I saw A Prayer for Owen Meany on a list of inspirational novels. I wanted to read something inspirational, so I put it on my TBR shortlist. There's also a psychological reward for me in reading a chunckster at the beginning of the year and this tome weighs in at 627 pages.

I enjoyed the novel and have a feeling it's one that I'll grow fonder of over time, especially as I talk with others about it. The novel opens in the summer of 1953 and ends in the late 1980s. It's a family saga, a coming of age story, a window into the world of an exclusive private prep school,  a sociological study of how one group of draft-aged people dealt with Vietnam, how TV changed not only daily life but the world, American politics, and a slew of other things. One of my favorite characters is Hester--her treatment by her two older brothers and parents while growing up makes the rise of the feminist movement in the 60s & 70s seem not only logical but oh-so-desperately necessary.

Upon finishing the novel, however, I was left with the unsettling feeling of having been manipulated in a rather heavy-handed way. I know exactly when that feeling started. For those of you who haven't read it this is a potential spoiler: it was the scene where one of the characters throws something through a window to reestablish another character's faith. I didn't believe anything about that scene. Not what the characters did, not how they reacted, nothing. After that scene, which is toward the end of the book, the story became a little too tidy for me, yet at the same time there is some of the best tension and suspense that I've read in a long time. It was exciting to be both critical and sucked in at the same time. I admire Irving's skill at weaving together the various storylines throughout the entire 600+ pages and how he tidied up (most) things at the end.

A Prayer for Owen Meany is my first read for the Reading New England Challenge. The novel is set primarily in New Hampshire with some scenes in Vermont as well as Boston and Arizona. John Irving is a  New Hampshire native who now lives in Toronto, Canada. New Hampshire and the time period is captured in both general and specific ways. Here's a specific:
Overall, I'm glad to have read this book and plan on holding on to my copy for a potential re-read some years from now. I'm a beginning writer of fiction and the way Irving takes his time developing characters was instructional. My first drafts tend to be on the thin side and many writing coaches advise to write fat, edit thin. I'm not comparing my first drafts to the finished product of a master novelist, but reading this novel has encouraged me write a bit fatter.

A final word
I've been pondering this novel for several days now and was hung up on the idea of it being labeled an "Inspirational novel." That strong feeling of having been manipulated made me feel anything but inspired. As I've been flipping through it and re-reading passages that I tagged, I find myself hooked on these words from Owen Meany:
These words by themselves might be inspiring, but within the context of this novel they are truly inspiring to me. OMG, and I just got the name Owen Meany . . .  Own Meaning, perhaps?

If you've read A Prayer for Owen Meany did you find it inspirational? All novels attempt to manipulate our feelings, but did you feel overly manipulated, too? What novels have been inspirational for you?

Monday, February 1, 2016

Memoirs: Love Them or Hate Them? Why We Write About Ourselves.

Memoirs. Love them or hate them?

If you love them you'll definitely want to check out this book. If you hate  also may want to check this one out as it might help you appreciate memoirs (or, I suppose, it may solidify your hatred. Que sera, sera).
From the publisher: Everything an aspiring memoirist needs to know, in one readable volume, a follow-up to the acclaimed writers’ handbook Why We Write

For the many amateurs and professionals who write about themselves—bloggers, journal-keepers, aspiring essayists, and memoirists—this book offers inspiration, encouragement, and pithy, practical advice. Twenty of America’s bestselling memoirists share their innermost thoughts and hard-earned tips with veteran author Meredith Maran, revealing what drives them to tell their personal stories, and the nuts and bolts of how they do it. Speaking frankly about issues ranging from turning oneself into an authentic, compelling character to exposing hard truths, these successful authors disclose what keeps them going, what gets in their way, and what they love most—and least—about writing about themselves.
Although the publisher's blurb above is aimed toward writers, this book will also be of interest to readers of memoirs and an excellent resource for book groups that read memoirs.

When looking at a collection of essays featuring various writers, I tend to focus in on and enjoy those chapters by (or about) authors I already know and love. What was exciting for me about this book is that I was turned on to writers I haven't read or, in some cases, hadn't yet heard of.

There are twenty writers featured:
  1. Ishmael Beah
  2. Kate Christensen
  3. Pearl Cleage
  4. Pat Conroy
  5. Kelly Corrigan
  6. Edwidge Danticat
  7. Meghan Daum
  8. Nick Flynn
  9. A. M. Homes
  10. Sue Monk Kidd
  11. Anne Lamott
  12. Sandra Tsing Loh
  13. James McBride
  14. Dani Shapiro
  15. David Sheff
  16. Darin Strauss
  17. Cheryl Strayed
  18. Ayelet Waldman
  19. Jesmyn Ward
  20. Edmund White
Each chapter follows this format:
  • An opening quote from the writer's work
  • A short intro to the writer
  • A text box listing the writer's vitals (birthday, home, family, social media, etc)
  • A text box listing his or her collected works
  • Then comes the meat: the writer starts off by answering the question, "Why I write about myself"and takes of from there for a few or more pages, writing about their writing experience
  • The chapter ends with a bullet pointed list of advice for memoir writers
I really dig this format. It gives the reader a well-rounded and consistent introduction to each writer and then lets the writer say what he or she wants to say. I now want to read everything that all twenty writers wrote (Been there, done that only in the case of Pat Conroy). I must admit that there are some popular memoirs written by a few of these writers that I avoided because they were so popular. (Yes, I'm one of those readers who sometimes avoids popular books. When I eventually read them I tend to enjoy the hell out of them.) I will keep this book in my reference section. It will be helpful to re-read a writer's chapter either before or after I read their memoir. It certainly encouraged me to press on with my own memoir writing.

In a book filled with helpful advice and great insights on just about every page, here are two that resonated with me:
  • Favorite quote from an writer I'm familiar with: "Memoirs hurt people. Secrets hurt people. The question to ask yourself is, if you tell your story, will it do enough good to make it worth hurting people?" ~ Pat Conroy
  • Favorite quote from a writer I haven't yet read: "I firmly believe that there are things we already know and spend a lot of time resisting. You can try, but the amount of energy you spend trying not to know what you already know will be exhausting." ~ A.M. Homes

Title: Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature
Author: Meredith Maran (ed)
Publisher: Plume/Penguin Random House
Release date: January 26, 2016
Source: Advance reader copy from the publisher

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