Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Club Dead by Charlaine Harris

Club Dead (Sookie Stackhouse, Book 3) Club Dead by Charlaine Harris

My review

rating: 2 of 5 stars
Of the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris, Club Dead (Book 3) was definitely better than Living Dead in Dallas (Book 2), but lacked the believable (or semi-believable) plot of Dead Until Dark (Book 1). Instead of action sequence after action sequence, Harris slows down the pace and lets Sookie think about her surroundings and what she wants: Does she want Bill or Eric or Alcide? Sometimes Harris has her thinking about people and consequences way after I thought was appropriate, but Harris usually never left anything out -- which was good. However, she failed to let us readers know WHY Bill left Sookie for Lorena in the first place and if he was even upset that Sookie staked her (a pitfall of 1st person point of view). But this is explained within the first pages of Book 4. I can tell that Harris doesn't like Bill much -- she's making him more and more flat and gives Alcide and Eric all of the juicy lines. (Eric: "You are speaking of my future lover. Be more respectful.") Alcide comes across as a real person, through Harris's very clear details, but Sookie forgets about him as soon as he's out of sight.

Sookie was less annoying, but she is so stubborn that she doesn't want anyone to give her anything, yet she's hoping Bill will give her a present or money (yet she doesn't want to be a kept woman). Talk about sending mixed messages. Sookie is coming from a lower class background and is very insecure financially. I'd like to see more of her insecurity explored in the next book. I also couldn't buy into all of the book's violence, which is getting too much for me. How many beatings (and a rape) can this girl take? I hope this trend ends soon. But at least the violence broke up the boring setting of the bar and the situation of the girl getting ready to go out on the town. Sookie's outfits are dated and Harris seems to think that Sarah McLaughlin's "Good Enough" has a beat -- no, it doesn't. It's weird -- some parts of the book are very authentic, such as the food (biscuits, gravy, furniture), but the clothing descriptions seem off to me. Women usually don't wear formal cocktail dresses to a night club -- that's the domain of beaded tanks and leather skirts.But Harris is funny -- even more funny than in Book 1. I especially liked Sookie mentioning her "vampire cleaning crew" which made me think of Sandra Boynton's "Birthday Monsters" (I guess you have to have kids to get this one).

The ludricrous plot of the computer vampire directory that's in Bill's possession felt forced and contrived, but it made it possible for the reader to know more about Weres. I'm so tired of Bubba and so relieved that Alan Ball never considered using him in the HBO Series. I also wished Harris would trust her reader's intelligence and stop repeating facts that we should know about Sookie (i.e. her telepathy, her not going to college, her Word-of-the-Day obsession). I suppose the author must balance repeating old information vs. valuing the memories of loyal readers, but Harris could have done a better job.

On the plus side, Club Dead was a fast read and I didn't get bored like I did with Living Dead in Dallas. Harris is a strong writer when she wants to be and I hope that the rest of the series will be worth my time. At least it'll tide me over till "True Blood" returns in June.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Storyteller's Open Mic Night

Storyteller's, an independent bookstore owned by Dr. Drew Bridges in Wake Forest, NC had its first Open Mic night tonight (Fri. 12/12). I organized it along with Drew's and Megan Cutter's help. It was a brilliant success! We had 14 readers who read memoir, flash fiction and poetry. Everyone had a great time. Stay tuned for more Storyteller's Open Mics.

Here are a few photos of Tim, Dave, Megan and Barton.

Pedestal Magazine Poetry Reading Event

Last Sunday, December 7th, John Amen, founder and editor of The Pedestal Magazine, organized a poetry workshop with the NC Poetry Society and a reading that included 10 NC poets. My son Daniel and I attended and I read with the group. Here are a few pictures Daniel took of John Amen, me and Jaki Shelton Green, our new Piedmont Poet Laureate. This event was held at Market St. Books in Chapel Hill's Southern Village - it was all about poetry, selling our books, networking, food, drink and fellowship! What fun on a Sunday afternoon!

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Living Dead in Dallas (Sookie Stackhouse, Book 2) Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris

My review

rating: 2 of 5 stars
I was glad to start "Living Dead in Dallas" as I was in the middle of "True Blood" on HBO since the series introduced many characters in Book 2 who will also become regulars in True Blood's Season 2. Creator Alan Ball has also mentioned that Season 2 will take a lot of inspiration from "Dead in Dallas," but I hope he improves on the novel.

The novel opens with Sookie finding the dead Lafayette in Andy Bellfleur's patrol car. She then has an encounter with the maenad (Marianne Forrester in the show) and then she and Bill head to Dallas to help Stan the Dallas vampire chief find his missing nestmate. Here in Dallas we meet the Fellowship of the Sun -- which I believe will be an important antagonist in Season 2. Sookie gets beat up a lot from beginning to end and after she and Bill survive two lovers' fights she helps Andy find who killed Lafayette. She kisses Eric the vampire and likes it and Bill doesn't seem to be all that jealous. This novel is full of plotholes (now, really, Bill doesn't know how he's related to the Bellefleurs and he hasn't looked at the family Bible since he's been living in Bon Temps?)and swift summaries -- like Harris knew she was going to go back and elaborate on her scenes, but never did. Perhaps she was bored with them and needed filler. Most of the cat and mouse scenes in Dallas reminded me of a Nancy Drew mystery and I couldn't finish this book long after I started it. But after Sookie and Bill leave Dallas the action picks up. In fact whenever Eric, Sookie and Bill are in a scene together (pick Eric/Sookie or Bill/Sookie) the writing is full of energy and is extremely enjoyable to read. Why can't all of the book be this way?

As some of the other reviewers have stated, I found Sookie very annoying in this book because she's written like a selfish bimbo. She is looking to pick a fight with Bill and seems to totally forget he's a vampire - Hello?!

I prefer everything about the show to the books, so far, but I like the books for the background information since the show throw's so much information at you to digest right away. All I can say, is Harris is a good writer, not a great writer, and she gave Alan Ball plenty to work with.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Dorianne Laux

This fall semester I took Dorianne Laux's MFA (Master of Fine Arts) poetry class at NC State. Yesterday was our final class and we met at Dorianne's home to recite memorized poetry. I think the only way you can really know a poem is through recitation. I recited Yusef Komunyakaa's poem, "Facing It." We also heard Walt Whitman, Mary Oliver, Pablo Neruda, Wallace Stevens and more. Throughout the semester I learned so much from Dorianne about other poets and styles, as well as from my very smart classmates.

Monday, December 01, 2008

I Did It!: I wrote a novel in 30 days through NaNoWriMo

Last month I took on the challenge of writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. My friend Beth has done 5 of them! She was my inspiration to sign up for this NaNoWriMo this year. The 10th annual National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo for short, starts every Nov 1st and ends midnight Nov 30th. You're supposed to not have done too much research before starting your book and you need to keep up a good pace of 1,667 words a day (that's 50,000 into 30). I was very inconsistent in my daily word count, but did write almost every day. I believe I skipped 4 days out of the entire month. I was most productive this last week since I have my in-laws with us so they could occupy my kids and I had an entire Wednesday to work on my novel. In fact, I started this week with a mere 27,000 words, knowing that I had to have 50,000 by Nov 30th.

Whew! All I can say is that keeping the daily word count, no matter how small, is the key to success. I also loved all of Chris Baty's (the NaNoWriMo's) emails and the supportive emails coming from my Raleigh-Durham WriMo Region. I never attended an official write-in because of the lack of time, but I still read everyone's email and advice. It was all good.

Now I just have to revise my raw (very raw) book. But at least I have something to work with! If you've ever wanted or dreamed of writing a novel, please consider doing NaNoWriMo next year!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Meet the New Piedmont Poet Laureate: Jaki Shelton Green

On Saturday November 15th at the NC Writers' Conference in RTP, the Raleigh Arts Commission, the Durham Arts Council and the Orange County Arts Commission revealed the 2009-2010 Piedmont Poet Laureate, Jaki Shelton Green. Jaki is famous for her personal poems, most recently compiled in Breath of a Song. Jaki teaches creative writing to marginalized populations such as the homeless, the newly literate, the incarcerated, and the writer-as-survivor. In 2003 she received the North Carolina Award in Literature. Here's the link to a story about Jaki's new role.
I got to know Jaki when I served on the board of Carolina Wren Press. I sold many of Jaki's books at her Breath of a Song launch in 2005. If you don't her, she's warm, funny and dedicated to her craft. I can't think of a better poet to represent Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.
After he read this blog posting, Thomas Pearce, reporter for the Daily Tar Heel, wrote this piece on Jaki's new position this week.

The Glass Castle Review

The Glass Castle: A Memoir The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Glass Castle is a book whose images and characters you'll have trouble getting out of your head. Jeannette Walls's has said in her interviews that she had to face the demon, which was telling people about her poverty-stricken childhood. Her parents moved her family around a lot when she was under 10 to avoid the landlord and the bill collectors. Sometimes the children went without food and these kids were never supervised. She feared that once her New York friends found out about where she came from they'd leave her at worst, or laugh at her at best. Neither fear materialized. The Glass Castle stayed on the New York Times Bestseller List for a year and her book encouraged her readers to tell her about their difficult childhoods. There'll soon be a Glass Castle movie.

To me, the "Glass Castle" represented her parents, Rex and Rose Mary's, lost potential. Rex was brilliant in math and science, but was an alcoholic and Rose Mary could have made a living as a artist, but she lacked discipline. Rose Mary told the kids that they'll learn from their mistakes, but they never did. At one point, they even owned a house outright, but still moved anyway to face more poverty.

Jeannette had to survive being tossed out of a car, a dark, bumpy ride in the back of a U-Haul, bullies, explosions, child molesters and cockroach attacks. And there's more. I can't imagine having to live without running water for seven years or hearing your mother saying it's OK to eat maggotty-ham.

The amazing thing is that Jeannette's early experiences made her stronger and she still loved her parents despite everything they put her through. One of the sweetest moments of the book was her dad giving her $950 to finish school.

Please read this book even if you don't normally read memoirs. You'll find a true example of unconditional love and forgiveness.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

The NaNoWriMo Handbook

No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Chris Baty

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a great book to bolster your courage if you are attempting "National Novel Writing Month" in November. I've had this book on my bookshelf for a couple of years and finally pulled it out. After reading as much as I could (Chris Baty tells readers not to skip ahead to the "Week 2" before you start your novel) I believe I have the faith and stamina to pump out a 50,000-word tome. Baty also includes sidebars about where to go to write your work, shares his experiences and those of other winners and also (this was interesting for me) mothers and fathers share their experiences on how they managed writing with their young children during the month. A great resource!

I'm now at the 16,000+ mark on my novel and pray that Baty gives me more inspriation in Week 3~ This is hard but I will kill the chicken!

View all my reviews.

Kill the Chicken

This post is also at Christine Kane's blog. Christine Kane is a singer/songwriter and creativity coach.

Whenever I hear the word “chicken” I suddenly think of doing something I’m afraid to do. I think of my doubts and insecurities. I think about looking stupid. But I’m a writer and I’m always insecure, always trying new things, always pushing my writing skills and jumping before I’m truly ready. So, what does a reasonable person do? I kill the chicken. Yes, I kill the chicken of doubts, realize my value, and conjure up the faith I have in myself.

When I first became a serious writer, I was so enthusiastic and happy to be out of my old career I wasn’t afraid of anything. I placed my efforts in the right spots, I made up business cards, and I started a writing group. But the more invested I became in my work, the more I felt the presence of the deadly chicken. I’ve decided my chicken likes to come out during a full moon and when I have a deadline.

I felt my chicken roost when I was halfway through writing my thesis and my deadline was coming in three days. I had to write at least 50 more pages and add to my research. I’d been getting a total of ten hours of sleep in two days. My thesis advisor wanted more depth and I had to deliver, or else. The chicken told me, “So, Alice, it’s okay if you don’t finish. You need your sleep. You can finish your thesis later. If you don’t finish you won’t have all of this horrible stress.” And I really wanted to stop and take it easy. But if you stop and take it easy, you won’t get anything done and you won’t be anything! I couldn’t walk away from my thesis writing after all of my prior work! I did a few sit-ups, stretched my legs, and pushed through the chicken to get my thesis completed.

Same thing happened when I had a freelance assignment. I couldn’t get my words to work. I kept hitting the blank screen of white death. I heard that chicken. So I went to bed at 11pm, and got up a few hours later to finish my writing. Maybe I fooled my chicken my taking a short nap and recharging, but I didn’t hear from her again.

I coach emerging writers and so many of them make excuses to not get their writing done. They know writing is hard and revealing, plus who wants to do something painful when they can watch The Office or clean their bathtub? They tell me, “It’s too overwhelming and why try, anyway? Who’d want to read my work?” I say to them: Take it one step at a time. Set some time aside, say fifteen minutes and write. The next day revise what you wrote the day before. Keep adding to your writing time and you’ll see. You’ll see. Above all, I tell my clients to take themselves seriously as writers. If they don’t take themselves seriously, no one will.

So the next time you feel doubts creeping up and that old voice inside of your head is telling you to drop a creative project, please kill the chicken. You’re bigger than her anyway.



Sunday, November 02, 2008

True Blood Book Review

Dead Until Dark (Sookie Stackhouse, Book 1) Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
I'm now a big fan of HBO's True Blood - in fact, I look forward to the repeats! But the first episode of True Blood didn’t hook me until Vampire Bill presented at the night meeting of the Descendants of the Glorious Dead (Episode 5). Poor Bill Compton, make a vampire only when he was trying to find a safe haven after the Civil War ended. When I found out that True Blood was first the Sookie Stackhouse series, I got the first book in the series right away. It's told from Sookie's point of view and she's a likeable voice -- intelligent, a little corny and very brave.I got the book with the "True Blood" photo on it and it's a lot better than the original cover.

If you’re familiar with the HBO Series, then I’d recommend reading Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse “Southern Vampire Mystery Series.” Harris is a competent writer, although she’s no Alan Ball, the series’ writer and creator. What I mean by that is that Ball uses clever foreshadowing, objects as emotional connections (Sookie’s grieves over Gran’s death by slowly eating her pecan pie and Bill grieves over his human loss by throwing an antique toaster into the fire), and fine characterizations to give as much weight to this series as it can hold. Both the book and series have humor, but the series’ humor is definitely dark without being silly. Without Ball’s fine touch, True Blood would descend into a cheesy drama found on Fox that probably would have last 3 shows. But to her credit, Harris sustains a very quick pace throughout the book, never slowing down too long for personal reflection or to smell the flowers. Her Sookie is a character who is quick to anger, na├»ve, and assumes the worst in her boyfriend Bill. Sookie (the book is told in first person) has to tell the reader exactly what she’s wearing – one of the dangers of using first person, but at least she doesn’t look in mirrors all of the time. Because of its fast pace, Sookie doesn’t have a chance to grieve over Gran’s death and minor characters aren’t given the chance to develop like they do in the show. Sadly, Jason, Arlene, Rene, Sam and especially Lafayette are one-note characters. Andy Bellfleur, surprisingly, is fairly well-drawn and we know more about him in the book than in the show. Perhaps Tara makes an appearance further in the series, but she’s nonexistent here. Dead Until Dark is sometimes serious and sometimes goofy, but always entertaining. I couldn’t put it down and finished it within a week as I worked on other reading and writing projects. That said, I loved Harris’s characterization of Bill and his love scenes with Sookie were well-written. They were neither quick and pat or X-rated, ala Anne Rice. She writes this line using a strong sensory image as Bill and Sookie are about to consummate their relationship, “My hands began to rub his arms helplessly. Strangely, I thought of a pan of caramels my grandmother had put on the stove for a candy recipe, and I thought of the melted, warm sweet goldenness of them.” Bill’s phrasing is just like in the series — he sounds both old fashioned and modern, depending upon the situation. When Arlene’s kids find out he doesn’t give Sookie flowers, he tells them, “I must mend my ways.”

I’d like to read more of Harris’s vampire series, one because I like Sookie’s voice, and two, because I now care about the characters, which is more a result of the show True Blood than this book.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Memory Keeper's Daughter

The Memory Keeper's Daughter The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
Like many of you, I saw The Memory Keeper's Daughter on Lifetime back in April -- I knew the basic plotline that a doctor in the 1960s delivers his own twins and he sends one of them away because she has Down Syndrome. Well, the movie truly touched me and I was a heap of tears when my husband came home from work that night. I can still even remember the images of Norah burning the photos after David's death, Caroline fighting for Phoebe in the Board of Education hall and the final reunion. Usually books are better than the movie version, but not in this case. The book felt too heavy in some places and too light in others. Kim Edwards went overboard with describing sycamore trees and hands, but she didn't spend enough time with Paul after he learns he has a twin sister. Edwards places far too much emphasis on David's turning point (p.17) when he chooses to give Phoebe away ("The silence was so deep and encompassing that he felt himself floating to a new height, some point above this room and then beyond, where he was one with the snow and where this scene in the room was something unfolding in a different life"). Could a dead baby really cause this much guilt? Could Norah have lied to David about birth control and had another baby? Could Norah have dug up Phoebe's "grave" on Dr. Bentley's property. (by the way, did Dr. Bentley know the secret?)

As a first novel, The Memory Keeper is pretty good, but there were some plot holes. My book club and I were wondering why didn't David not tell Norah they had twins -- why say anything at all? She didn't know she was carrying twins and she didn't remember much of the birth. Also, I found it so false that Norah couldn't find Paul in Europe after David died -- come on, now! and Paul didn't seem as affected that he just lost his dad.

Edwards uses 3rd person point of view with 4 viewpoints: David, Norah, Caroline and Paul. David is by far the most complex and well-drawn. He does evolve as a character and realizes all of the wrong he did, when he thought he was doing right. Also, Edwards did a very nice job of characterizing Phoebe and not making her a stereotype, although she did say she was chubby quite a few times.

Many times the novel took turns that no one could predict and there were places where the characters could have committed suicide (Norah with the car exhaust, Paul with the train, David with the cliff), but nothing horrible happened. I also felt the plotline of Rosemary and Jack was superflous -- the movie cut them out entirely, as they did with Doro and Leo.

This is a memorable read and an excellent book club book when you discuss it with enthusiastic people! 3 out of 4 stars.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Reading with the Kakalak Poets and Artists

Last Saturday, 10/18, I brought my family to the Kakalak Reading in Greensboro in the Barnes & Noble in the Friendly Shopping Center. Over 50 people showed up and it was great fun finally meeting Richard Allen Taylor, one of the co-editors who had told me earlier this year that my poem, "Domestic Duties" had been selected for the 2008 Anthology. Poets read their contribution in the book and artists presented their work.
My son, Daniel, (he's 6) took over 40 photographs of the event and here's a good one he took of me reading my poem.
Richard and his team have one last reading in Charleston, SC at the Blue Bicycle Book Shop on King Street on Nov. 1st -- wish I could go, but it's too far. I'll be in Charleston in January, though, researching a story I'm doing for Sandlapper magazine.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

West End Poets Weekend

Here I am performing my poetry last Saturday
(Oct. 11) at the West End Poets Weekend Festival in Carrboro, NC. I performed with Joanna Catherine Scott, Maureen Sherbondy and David Need. Thank you so much to Allie Hansen and Kim Andrews, from the Carrboro Rec and Parks Dept, who made the Festival happen. We performed at the DSI Theater in the Carr Mill Complex off of Weaver Street. It was the first time I had been there and it was a great space!

Hope to come back to the Festival next year!

Alice Workshops

Here I am giving a presentation on "How to Be a Perfect Workshop Leader (or perfect workshop participant) a few weeks ago at my Coffee & Contacts: Power Networking for Women group in N. Raleigh. We meet at the Stone Wolf Coffee Shop in the Health Trax Center off of Six Forks Rd.
I spoke on the planning, PR, registration, presentation and follow-up skills needed to conduct a perfect workshop, as well as how to make yourself an invaluable workshop participant. Number one thing? Get to the workshop on time!!

I'll do more of these workshops either in November or in the spring for different groups. Stay tuned!

The Shack Book Review

The Shack The Shack by William P. Young

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
My favorite nun, Sister Mary Margaret Weber, recommended this book to me and then the very next day there was a story about William P. Young and his book in our paper, the News and Observer. Sister Mary Margaret and I work together on programs for her center: A Place for Women to Gather and on Monday she held a book discussion about The Shack. What I took away from this book was the idea of forgiveness. God tells Mac, the main character, that he needs to forgive his daughter's murderer, but not forget what he did. I liked this, since this concept still makes the wrongdoer accountable. Another idea that I gleaned from this book was the idea of relationship and the absence of hierarchy. God wants to have a relationship with us -- it's not one-sided. Lyn, one woman in the group said, "It's like chips and salsa in a Mexican restaurant: you don't ask for them, but they are always there. And when you eat them all, the server brings you more." This is a great analogy describing God's love and presence. Another idea that I will carry away is the notion of God's image. I guess I don't have an image of God. To me, he or she is like the Force in Star Wars -- a Spirit, always moving, kind, caring, forgiving, creative and with a strong sense of humor. But to others who have a strong sense of God's or Jesus's image, The Shack may shock you a little bit.

Young says some smart things in the book when he discusses the evil in the world and how it emerged from man's independence after the Garden of Eden. We also learn that evil, as well as good, is subjective.

I was curious about this book since it was first a self-published book and as an editor, I wanted to see if it was "ready for prime time." I'd say mostly. The middle part of the book could have bit cut down and the campsite scenes needed to be scenes so we were there in the moment. Instead, they were told in summaries.

Read this book to affirm your beliefs or to learn a different spiritual point of view -- you'll be glad you did.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Zero Degrees at First Light Review (Poetry Book)

Zero Degrees at First Light Zero Degrees at First Light by Christine, Potter

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
Every poem in Christine Potter’s first book of poetry, Zero Degrees at First Light, contains some form of light or some object that is fused with light from the moon to windows to chandeliers. Her poems evoke nature, music, family, a 200-year old house and high school teaching. She also has a gift with sounds, especially ending vowels. All of her chosen poems evoke her world and we see the magic in each of the small moments she creates with craft and care. Her skills lie in her remarkable first lines, which then take her leading narrative into fresh paths and angles that the reader is not expecting. She strikes a mostly serious tone in her poems, but then flashes of her humor are evident her two sonnets, one about the closing of her favorite sushi restaurant: "On the Closing of Ichi-Riki, Nyack, NY (Where I Have Eaten for Twenty Years" and the other about teaching 9th graders: "On Teaching Romeo and Juliet for the Sixteenth & Final Time."

For instance, in the poem, “To My Husband, Who Dreamed of Tidal Waves as His Father Was Dying” starts off with

I think of your father born, instead,
in a hospital I have never visited: bright high windows,

Then the poem moves in another direction as old age is likened to a sunset, and not to waves and we discover, “Everything but light lies.”

The poem ends on the image of stars, “silent as new ice and perfect, perfect –”

She also believes in the circuitous nature of time and she interprets time effectively in her poem, "Developing Prints, Age 13"

when I'm twenty-two, I will meet you on a commuter train
and you will be married to a bullfigter and tell me
that giving birth feels like having your heart pulled out.

As a reader we're in the present and then we're whisked away to the future, so we possess a fuller picture of the speaker's emotional journey.

She also jumps around in the time in the poem, "Chintz Couch":

Years later, in antique stores, I will find couches
like the one we cast off, but they will be strangers
who whisper the ends of stories I can't imagine,
prayers with the wrong words, from strange religions.

Another example of her time folding is in "Sleeping in an Empty House"

We don't know yet the chimney leaks creosote behind the walls,
how the wiring, too, could lose us this place.
We haven't seen the single, perfect beam, half-covered with bark

I look forward to reading more of Christine Potter's poetry complete with her pitch perfect ear and boundless imagination.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ahab's Wife Book Review

Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-gazer: A Novel (P.S.) Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-gazer: A Novel by Sena Jeter Naslund


rating: 4 of 5 stars
Ever since I glanced at Raleigh's News and Observer book review on Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund, I knew I needed to read this book. In fact, I didn't want to read that review too closely for fear of a spoiler. About four months ago, someone came up to me and suggested my book club should read Ahab's Wife -- I thought that's a great idea, not realizing that the book was 666 pages. But, I finished the book just in time for leading my book club and felt every second of reading Ahab's Wife was time well-spent.

I enjoyed joining Una's journey of discovering her spiritual destiny, while she ponders the questions of nature vs. Christianity. The book also throws us into the life of a whaling ship (for a cabin boy and cook, not a regular sailor), a lighthouse keeper, a castaway/cannibal, and a well-to-do Nantucket lady. Naslund is an expert writer and every word and sentence has been finely crafted. She is also a poet and she makes use of her skills with her words. (Una says her first word was "s" for sad: "the letter looks like and sounds like a snake, and s begins both sad and snake.") She also likens the curl of wave, which looks like a "c", which also reminds her a cave. Both waves and caves are symbols of male and female parts in the book. Naslund is clever and subtle with her themes and symbolism and doesn't mash the readers' brains in with the stuff like William Golding did in Lord of the Flies. She also uses hands as a symbol of creation, which is important for both writing and knitting (both skills Una succeeds at). Hands also characterize Captain Ahab (his are hard and rough) and Kit (soft and feminine).

My favorite parts of the book occur before we lose Ahab (doesn't everyone know what happened in Moby-Dick?) when we meet Giles Bonebright and Kit Sparrow -- two young men who take Fresnal light measurements for Una's uncle, who is the kind lighthouse keeper near New Bedford who stands in for Una's father. Una is sixteen and falls in love with Giles, although she is intrigued by Kit's creative thinking and imagination. She follows them both aboard the whaler, Sussex, disguised as a cabin boy. I felt these two characters, along with Ahab, to a lesser extent, lept off of the page and I could see them as real people. Una, Giles and Kit all have lost their fathers at an early age and grew up close to their mothers. Giles and Kit (her first husband) teach Una how to love and prepare her for Captain Ahab, as well as Ishmael (her 2nd & 3rd "husbands" -- she actually doesn't legally marry any of them).

Death surrounds Una, but she's a survivor and doesn't let trauma take away her joy. We know straight away that her first born and mother die within days of each other and so we're plunged into her adventurous life after page 13. After her mother's death, the narrative drags until we meet Kit and Giles and then the narrative drags again between Ahab's vists to Nantucket. Some of the book could have been paired down to let's say, 400 pages, without destroying any of the themes or plot. Naslund likes to riff on spirituality and the meaning of life, which did become weighty for me, and there was a sense that Una was a female Forrest Gump who stumbles into all of the important happenings of the time while meeting key people such as Frederick Douglass, Margaret Fuller, Emerson, Thoreau and Maria Mitchell. However, Naslund did such a fantastic job of letting us into Una's sharp mind, I didn't let extra passages on her spiritual awakening get to me.

The novel made me think how much Una's life was directed by men and how would have been normal in the 1830s-1850s. Also, Naslund is very realistic about communications and how hard it was to reach someone and how arduous travel could be (her mother freezes to death after her buggy turns upside down on the coldest day of the year.)But in this day and age, how much of our choices are made by men? Our fathers may help us get into a college, help us with an apartment/job, or we may follow a boyfriend to another city. I was relieved that at the end of the novel, Una is using her own skills as a writer and is not caring for everyone else at the expense of her own needs. A very modern concept, perhaps, but Naslund makes us believe Una is a modern, Victorian woman.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Into the Wild Review

Into the Wild Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book is a fine companion to the 2007 Sean Penn movie. After seeing the film, I wanted to know what made Chris McCandless tick and what made him so angry. As a mother, I can't even imagine my son going off and not telling us where he was for two years. And then when he's found, he'd dead. What a horrible thing to have happened to Walt and Billie McCandless, Chris's parents. Through Krakauker's fine details of the landscape of Chris's travels, his interviews with those that knew Chris and his descriptions of other bold and tragic adventurers, we gain a clear context of what made Chris escape his late 20th century life in favor of being alone in the Alaskan wild.

Not only does Krakauer tell us why men must risk all to climb mountains and venture into the wilderness, he shows his vulnerability through his own personal narrative. When he was 23, he was determined to climb Skikine Ice Cap in Alaska -- alone. He made it, but it humbled him. From these experiences, he's the perfect author to understand Chris and give readers an idea of who Chris McCandless was. From this book, I know he was stubborn, arrogant, loyal, super smart, entrepreneurial and highly ethical. The people he briefly met on the road fondly remember him and feel that Chris positively touched their lives. He marched to his own beat. I made up my mind that Chris was born in the wrong century and just couldn't fit into postmodern America. My sentiments were echoed in the book by Andy Horowitz, one of Chris's close high school friends.

While reading I felt two connections to Chris: he graduated from high school 4 years before I did from Woodson HS (I went to Robinson Secondary, about 6 miles away) and we both grew up in Annandale, VA, about 5 miles from each other. I, too, found NOVA a stifling place and couldn't wait to flee from it the first chance I got. Like Chris, I never went back after graduating from Virginia Tech. We were also both competitive runners and I understand what makes someone good at long distance running: sheer will and raw determination. Chris had these in great quantities.

Yes, he didn't go to Alaska prepared, but he did survive for 111 days using his wits and living off of the land. Although it cost him his family and his life, McCandless lived his dreams and I believe he found redemption at the very end of his life. This books amply provides more of the answers and background information for fans of the film version.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

The Short Fall From Grace


My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars

This review was mentioned in Fran Moreland Johns's posting of "Old Words, New Words" in The Red Room

Stewart Florsheim is bold and brave in his poetry collection, "The Short Fall From Grace." His memoir poetry flings itself into the topics of family turmoil (witnessed between his mother and father), coming of age sex, and a near escape from a pedophile -- Florsheim flaunts his vulnerabilities and I applaud him for this. So many poets and writers only want to reveal bits and pieces of their inner lives and experiences, which leaves their work sounding false.

Growing up in New York City, Florsheim is the son of German/Jewish refugees. His father was a butcher and his mother frequently lashed out at her husband, condemning his simple tastes and quiet nature, calling him "stupid" to his face. Besides Florsheim's ventures into his past, he also masters the ekphrastic poem, joining such notables as John Keats, W.H. Auden, William Carlos Willams who also wrote poems based on art. In his interpretations of classic and early 20th century art, his subjects come alive, so we feel these characters jump out of their oil paints. My favorite poems were these art poems, including "The Jewish Bride" (based on the same name as Rembrandt's painting, 1667) and "The Best Bread in Montparnasse" (after the painting Le Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe, by Manet, 1863). He choses paintings that involve relationships between men and women, which build upon the narrative's conflict and complexity.

He references events and themes in several poems. For instance, when he was 5 he tells us that he decided to stop eating and he mother would parade his naked body around in front of her neighbors to show them how much he resembled a concentration camp victim. To make sure he fattened up, she would mix egg yolks into his chocolate milk. This incident is mentioned in five of his poems: "Thirst," "Rappel," "Survival," "December, 1999," and "Retribution."

There's also humor woven in with the hurt of a little boy lost, which make these poems accessible to readers. Florsheim is a master of the narrative form, especially in his art poems. I'll close with a few lines from the poem "Unseen," which speak about a truth of human nature:

We are compelled by what we can't see
so that we might be surprised
by the things we already know --

The one thought we prey upon,
not unlike the way a bat stalks a grasshopper,
swoops down, then misses.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Tomato Girl Review

Tomato Girl Tomato Girl by Jayne Pupek

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Jayne Pupek's "Tomato Girl" was a book I couldn't put down. Well-paced, funny, and authentic with vulnerable and memorable characters, Pupek throws the proverbial rocks at her protagonist, 11-year-old Ellie Sanders throughout the book -- Ellie's troubles never seem to relent, except when she lets them go at the end. Beginning in a circular fashion with her mentally ill mother("a lily caught in a hurricane was how Daddy described Mama. If we calmed the winds around her, she would be fine") having a breakdown at the outdoor food market in town, Ellie recounts the events that led to her father leaving the family with "The Tomato Girl" a 17-year-old, fragile epileptic incest survivor. Then Pupek rushes furiously to the end where Ellie is taken into foster care and is told to let go of her troubles by Clara, a clairvoyant who saves Ellie's spiritual soul.

The heart of the book takes place during Holy Week. Ellie's pregnant mother, Julia, falls down the cellar steps trying to retrieve an onion (Ellie believes this is her fault because she wanted to rush to her dad's store and pick out a new Easter chick instead of getting her mother that onion). Rupert Sanders manages the general store in town and has gotten close to Tess, the tomato girl, who sells him her produce. After Julia falls, Rupert has Tess come home with him (to help out his wife), which leads to tragedy for everyone involved. Ellie is now caught in the hurricane of her father's creation, as she struggles to help her mother, compete for her father's love with Tess, and witness her mother attack Tess and her father, both verbally and physically. She manages to hold on because of her two constants: Jellybean her baby chick and Mary Roberts, her know-it-all best friend, but these two don't remain by her side as the narrative unfolds.

I loved how Pupek named all of her chapters: "Market Day," "Bad Letters," "Spoon,"The Gun," which allowed some clever foreshadowing. Pupek is also a poet and her taut verbal skills shine throughout the novel, especially when she uses analogies ("She (Julia) buys cabbages as twisted as a man's fist. Red radishes the size of a doll's heart.")without ever going overboard. Her images are grounded in the real world so I always could picture myself in the scene with smells, tastes and texture.

"Tomato Girl" is sad, yet hopeful and is the book that should have been "The Secret Life of Bees". It's one of the best books I've read all year and I'm rooting for it to be a big hit.I'm writing a much longer review on "Tomato Girl" for The Pedestal Magazine's August issue, please stay tuned.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Kindred (Bluestreak  Black Women Writers) Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

My review

On the surface, "Kindred" by Octavia E. Butler is a fantasy thriller, but it's so much more than that. It's an examination of gender, power struggles, race, history and socioeconomic divides. This book is also a memoir -- Dana resembles young Octavia. Both Dana and Octavia's fathers died before they knew him, both worked in menial jobs and both grew up in Southern California. As usual, Butler creates a strong, yet sensitive heroine that readers can root for. Dana is a modern day intellectual black woman who is a writer and she is married to another writer, who happens to be white. On her 26th birthday, she time travels back to 1815 to save Rufus, her white ancestor from drowning. As the story progresses, she returns to this era for over a year in her time, but over the span of 21 years in their time. In every visit she faces more danger and increasing violence. Butler doesn't lecture the reader about the psychological effects of slavery on both blacks and whites, but we discover how slavery leaves mental/physical scars on master and slave. She also examines through her first person narrative and characters how black women had to negotiate a space in this culture in order to survive. All of her characters are complicated and I think this is one of Butler's strengths in all of her fiction. Her plot is tight and suspenseful and she doesn't over foreshadow -- she gives just enough dread for you not to stop reading. The only quibble I had with the book was that there was too much unattributed dialogue between Dana and her husband Kevin at the beginning of the book. We didn't see these characters talk or experience their actions -- it was just straight expository dialogue. However, the writing got a lot stronger twenty-five pages later. Butler's short, imagistic descriptions and Dana's thoughts made me quickly forget about the shaky beginning. I also loved the ending which I won't give away. After you've read this book check out "Parable of the Sower" and "Parable of the Talents."

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Lots of New Workshops for Summer and Fall

I've just posted several new workshops I'm offering in fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry for July through October. Please check them out! Three of them are taking place at the NEW Storyteller's Bookstore in downtown Wake Forest, which has its local opening this Friday, July 18th, starting at 2pm.

Where Does A Story Come From? A Fiction Workshop
Location: At the NEW Storyteller's Book Store100 E. Roosevelt AveWake Forest, NC 27587
Cost: $30
Time: Sunday July 27th 2–4:30pm
One of the hardest jobs for a writer is coming up with story ideas that are believable and that hold the writer's interest. Sometimes writers come up with great ideas, but then have trouble fleshing them out. In this workshop taught by experienced workshop leader, Alice Osborn (www.aliceosborn.com) , we'll tap the powers of your imagination, observation and memory so that you'll leave the workshop with the beginnings of at least one story and the beginnings of many more possible threads. All writing levels are welcome.
To register, please call Storyteller's Book Store at 919-554-9146

Creative Journaling to Find Your Inner Child
Location: Unity Church of the Triangle, Downtown Raleigh, corner of Person and Hargett Streets,Choir Room
Cost: $20
Time: Tues. Aug. 5th 7-9 pm
Active journaling will help you become more mindful of the world around you and will bring you closer to the Divine and to your Inner Child. Through journaling, you'll build self-awareness and compassion, and feel closer with the child you once were. All writers at all experiences are welcome to join us. Please bring a notebook and your favorite pen.
To register, please email Alice at www.aliceosborn.com

Sharing Your Life Story
Location: At the NEW Storyteller's Book Store100 E. Roosevelt AveWake Forest, NC 27587
Cost: $30
Time: Sunday, Aug. 17th 2-4:30pm
We all have a life story inside of us, but many times we feel that what we've experienced is not relevant or important. In this workshop, you'll learn how you can harness the power of your stories for future generations and that what you've learned over a lifetime is a treasure that must be shared! In class writing exercises and feedback from Alice will help you generate memorable prose and you'll also learn techniques to keep up your writing practice after the class concludes. All levels are welcome.
To register, please call Storyteller's Book Store at 919-554-9146

Writing Poetry from the Inside Out
Location: At the NEW Storyteller's Book Store100 E. Roosevelt AveWake Forest, NC 27587
Time: Tues. Aug. 26th and Tues. Sept. 2nd 7-9 pm
Register by calling 919-554-9146
Cost: $35
Writing poetry can help connect with the Divine as it helps us center ourselves within the world around us. Poetry allows us to heal, reflect and meditate and in this workshop, we will explore several classic and contemporary poets who write about the sacred and nurture the present moment in their language and imagery. We will also find poems within us through Alice's guided writing exercises and by listening to our inner voice. All writing levels are encouraged to attend.
To register, please call Storyteller's Book Store at 919-554-9146

Journaling From the Inside Out
Location: A Place for Women to Gather, North Raleigh8380 Six Forks Road, Suite 201Raleigh, North Carolina 27615Phone: 919-846-3601
Cost: $45
Time: Sat. Sept. 6th 9:30 am-12:30pm
Active journaling will help you become more mindful of the world around you and will bring you closer with the Divine. Through journaling you'll build self-awareness and compassion vital traits for any kind of writer!

All writers at all experiences are welcome to join us. Please bring a notebook and your favorite pen. Light refreshments will be served.

Please register at 846-3601

Write with Confidence — How to Consciously Communicate with Clarity and Conciseness
Location: Cameron Village Library1930 Clark AveRaleigh, NC 27605
Time: Monday, Sept. 8th 6:30-8pm
Cost: FREE This is a not-to-miss seminar for small business owners who spend a great deal of time communicating with the public and with clients. In this 90-minute seminar, you'll learn how to position your tone and topic towards your audience and how to create memorable copy for your website/blog/newsletter. You'll also receive a quick grammar refresher and revision review to ensure that your writing includes focus and precision.

Make A Living As a Writer with Alice Osborn and Sharon McCormick
Location: Bishop's House, Duke Campus, Rm 102 Durham, NC
Cost: $75
Time: Sat. Sept. 20th from 1-4pm
Can writers make a living? Sure they can! In this seminar, Sharon and Alice will walk you through the details of making a career as a writer. (and what to do while you're waiting for that at big writing break!)

Writing Poetry from the Inside Out with Alice Osborn and Jane Andrews
Location: A Place for Women to Gather, North Raleigh8380 Six Forks Rd., Suite 201Raleigh, NC 27615
Time: Wed. Oct. 22/Oct. 27 7-9 pm
Cost: $45 for 2 sessions or $25 for 1 session
Writing poetry can help connect with the Divine as it helps us center ourselves within the world around us. St. Thomas Aquinas said, "All knowledge begins in sensations." Poetry allows us to heal, reflect and meditate and in this workshop, we will explore poems rich in sensory experience that will invite your readers to participate not only with their imagination, but also with their hands, nose, mouth and ear. All writing levels are encouraged to attend.
Register by calling A Place for Women to Gather at 846-3601. All checks made payable to "A Place for Women to Gather."

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Journaling Your Memoir Class at Sertoma Arts Center

Here are more pictures from our Sertoma Journaning Class -- July 9-July 30th 2008!

Last night the first session of my "Journaling Your Memoir" class met at Sertoma Arts Center from 7-9 pm. The Arts Center is adjacent to Shelley Lake, near the intersection of Leadmine and Millbrook Roads in N Raleigh. We had a lot of people show -- 7 women and 1 very brave man, James. James just decided to take my class that day when he called me up to see how he could get his writing together. Go James!

The class read a short memoir of 750 words to get a feel for what a memoir is supposed to look and feel like and then we did several writing exercises. In between these exercises I provided some guided instruction on the craft of memoir. I also provided caramel oatmeal squares. I always provide some sort of yummy treat at all of my workshops and book clubs.

Speaking of which, my next book club meets Fri. July 25th at 10am at Cameron Village Library. Our book this time is Kindred by Octavia Butler. My book club, the Wonderland Book Club, is now on Meet Up and Good Reads after heeding the advice of several of my Web 2.0 friends.

Till next time!


Monday, July 07, 2008

Natalie Goldberg's Latest Creation

Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg

My review

As a fan of Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, I want to read her latest "how-to" book. I own the audio version of this title, but would like to experience the updated print version. A review from this month's The Writer (Aug 2008) wasn't too positive, so I'll need to judge "Old Friend" for myself.

I'd like to use this book as inspiration for my upcoming "Journaling Your Memoir" class I'm teaching Wed. at the Sertoma Arts Center in Raleigh off of Millbrook/Leadmine at Shelley Lake. The class runs 4 sessions in July, so there'll be plenty of time to use some Natalie.

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The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
Although Hosseini's images and characterizations were beautiful and mesmerizing of Afghanistan, I didn't like Amir (the main character). I thought he was selfish and weak and not much of a hero. There were some contrived plot elements, too, and Hosseini was very heavy-handed with his themes of redemption and loss. However, besides these flaws, Hosseini didn't mess up the book's ending. I did get a copy of A Thousand Splendid Suns and look forward to seeing if it's a better book than this one.

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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Sylvia Plath's novel was deceptively fun to read, despite the heavy themes of death and depression. So many of her character's experiences (really her alter-ego) echo the experiences I've faced and that many young women face today. That's amazing, considering that this book was set in 1953! Now I want to get all of Plath's poetry books.

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Storyteller's Book Shop in Wake Forest

Tonight I attended Neeley Bridges's CD launch party at Drew Bridges Storyteller's Book Shop in downtown Wake Forest, which will be officially opened to the public on Fri. July 18th. Drew is Neeley's dad and she is a singer/songwriter/actress in NYC. She sounded beautiful -- think Norah Jones's style of jazz and blues. Her local band was also very pitch perfect.

A few days ago I helped shelve Drew's poetry and historical fiction and it was so much fun being part of something before it opens to the world. Drew has invited me to offer creative writing workshops at his store, so stayed tuned!

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

It's April!

I have to say spring isn't my favorite season of the year. For one, it's still cold, there's pollen (Ah choo!) and it's tax season. My hubby is a CPA and what that means is that I don't see him weeknights and weekends for about 6 weeks. Weeknights aren't so bad, but I have to make sure there's enough activity for my son Daniel on weekends. On Sat we head to the Y and Sun is church. Mornings are fine, but around 5pm, things get slippery. Last weekend was OK; Easter weekend was hard -- I got a speeding ticket after the N&O ran a quote on me saying that I don't like folks who go too fast -- how ironic! Here it is the article that ran last Thurs. 3/27: www.newsobserver.com/news/growth/traffic/gas/story/1014639.html
Last week I also found out that I need to find a new teaching post for next year. So I'm applying for different freelance jobs and even turning down jobs that would be too much work. I'm trying to find that delicate balance between work and home so both don't suffer and my error margin is slim! Most of all, I need a job that allows me to write and still teach workshops, because life's not worth it otherwise!
My 5-year-old son, Daniel, took this picture of me working on my husband's computer. He's good, isn't he? I'm wearing my "writing costume". Blue REI fleece jacket, long sleeve shirt and you can't see them, but they're black fleece Patagonia apres ski pants. My NCSU water bottle koozie is also in the background -- can't leave home without it!
more soon,

Monday, March 03, 2008

It's a New Year!

Yes, I know it's been a while since I blogged -- I've been busy! Trying to finish my first semester of teaching, preparing the house of the new baby, Christmas stuff, etc! Well, Baby Erin arrived on time Christmas Eve and I finally had a chance to relax in the hospital while my whole family stayed in my house. My son Daniel couldn't have been more thrilled to be a big brother and he's still thrilled 2 months later. His schoolwork and focus in kindergarten have even improved!

I returned to work at Raleigh Charter a month ago, when Erin was 6 weeks old. It wasn't too hard, actually since I drop her off around 9 and pick her up at 4pm everyday. During my leave I managed to get in some writing and I sent work off -- I just received word that the Kakalak 2008 Poetry Anthology accected my poem, "Domestic Duties" which was a poem I wrote while I was in Iowa last summer. Yay!!

I'm also facilitating a poetry teleconference this Thurs 3/6 from 8-9pm for http://www.reenchantplanetearth.com/. Should be a good time -- my students who want extra credit may join in, too.

I'm one of the poetry judges for the Wake County Libraries Teen Poetry Contest and I'm giving a free poetry workshop at the West Regional Library in Cary Tues. April 22nd -- more details to follow!!

This week I'm staying wonderfully busy and I'm so glad I had the morning off to write this and send out work!