Saturday, February 28, 2009

On My Book Shelf

I have a tendency to buy books in stacks, whether shopping in a brick-and-mortar store or online. I can't eat just one potato chip; I can't buy just one book. I love spreading them all out around me, looking at the covers, reading the front flap, stacking them and rearranging them, anticipating starting each one. This week the results of my latest shopping spree arrived and it felt like Christmas. Now they are lovingly stacked on my night table, waiting for me to finish the last book (Executive Privilege by Phillip Margolin) on my winter reading list The books I'm looking forward to reading as spring slowly --ever so slowly!-- arrives are:

The Associate by John Grisham
Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin
How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer
An Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor
From the Heart: Seven Rules to Live By by Robin Roberts
Knit Two by Kate Jacobs

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'd like to get started.

Monday, February 23, 2009

And the Pulitzer Goes To....

My friend Gisele is probably the most well-read person I know. She is one of those people that writers love– she’ll actually go into a bookstore, pick up a hardcover book by someone she has never read before, peruse the front matter, and if she likes it, she’ll buy it. Go, Gisele! She regularly orders the Amazon.com recommendations just because they sound interesting. Again, we love you, Gisele!

But recently, this wonderful, literate, adventuresome reader fell into the dark pit of Pulitzer Prize Winners, sucked in by a book club that reads only Pulitzers. I have to give her credit; she stayed with it longer than I would have. She stayed with it longer than I thought she would have, and I have great admiration for her determination. It began with tentative comments, “It’s hard to find a book I enjoy” and escalated to “These Pulitzer books are brutal!” and finally, “Why is it so hard to find a Pulitzer book I can actually read? Who chooses these things anyway? How can a book win a Pulitzer Prize when it’s unreadable?”

I think that's an excellent question. Shouldn't the first requirement for a book-- prize-winning or not-- be that it's, well, readable?

This is not to say that there have not been some wonderful reads among the Pulitzer Prize winners over the past half century or so: Gone With the Wind, Lonesome Dove, Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Tales of the South Pacific, The Color Purple to name just a few. These books prove that a novel can be engaging, evocative, tell an actual story and still be important. A book doesn’t have to be incomprehensible to win a prize. A book can, in fact, do what it’s supposed to do– inform, transform and entertain (yes, that dirty word–entertain!)the reader and do it so extraordinarily well that it is recognized for excellence by the literary community. So I guess the real question is, why can't more of them do that?

If you’d like to join Gisele in her Pulitzer struggles, here, in absolutely no particular order, are my personal top recommendations:

The Road
March
Lonesome Dove
The Color Purple
To Kill a Mockingbird
Advise and Consent
Tales of the South Pacific
Grapes of Wrath
Gone With the Wind
The Good Earth

For a more complete list, you can go to www.pulitzer.org

Friday, February 20, 2009

Ten Thousand Hours

Years ago I gave a speech to a writers’ group on the secrets of success in which the recurring theme was “And then you work really, really hard.” Know your material, and work really, really hard. Do your research, and then work really, really hard. Develop your skills, and then work really, really hard. Know your market– and work really, really hard. Seek out opportunity– and then work really, really hard.

There was a reason for my fixation on the subject of hard work. At the time of the speech, I was a working writer who had not been out of contract (in other words, I published steadily) for over ten years. I was tired of people telling me how lucky I was. I worked fourteen hours a day, without sick leave, holidays,vacation time or a pension plan, to be so lucky. In my experience, there was no such thing as luck. There was preparation (being good at your job) and then there was extraordinary hard work.

Imagine my surprise (and delight) to find my theory validated fifteen years later in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Outliers. Gladwell posits that the fluke of success we attribute to legends like Bill Gates and The Beatles is really just a matter of preparation/opportunity combined with hard work. According to Gladwell, the one difference between equally talented people who achieve success and those who don’t is not just that the successful ones work harder; they work much, much harder. In fact, the magic number across the board seems to be ten thousand hours.

Well, what do you know about that? Ten thousand hours of really, really hard work was exactly what I had under my belt at the time I gave my speech on the secrets of success.

It's nice to be right every now and then.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What Writers Read

What do writers read? Well, if you’re me the answer is-- not nearly enough!

As I write this we are six weeks in to 2009 and so far this year I’ve read books on neuroscience and dog training, behavioral psychology and marketing-- and behavioral psychology as it pertains to marketing!--sociology and economics. I’ve read two memoirs, one futuristic fantasy, one horror, one speculative fiction, two mysteries, two suspense/thrillers and one book of poetry.

Before the year is out I will have read biographies, women’s fiction, a great deal of “literature” (thanks to a relentless book club that keeps trying to improve me), some Southern fiction, a travel book or two, adventure, a multitude of best sellers, self-help and (thanks again, book club!) at least one Pulitzer Prize winner. And I still will not have read all of the books I should have, certainly not as many as I want to.

I consider reading a part of my job. I have my favorites, of course, and I do listen to a lot of the commercial best-sellers on audio, but I need to know what other people are reading, and what other people are writing, in order to do my job as a writer well. In one of my recent beginner-writer workshops I read off a list of the year’s top twenty-five best sellers--hardcover and soft, fiction and non--and asked participants for a show of hands for each book they’d read. I was stunned at how few of them had read more than ten percent of the books on the list. How can you expect to write books if you don’t read them?

Reading is not only my job, it my joy. Every book I open is filled with promise and expectation. It could change my life. It could take me places I’ve never been before, or make me see the places I have been in a new light. It could make me a better person. How can you not read?

So today’s question is: What are you reading?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Books I Remember

Okay, I know. The average person would have published this list two months ago. However, the trouble with being a writer is that sometimes you have to, well, write. So even though I’m a little behind in looking back, here is my list, in order of preference, of the top five favorite books I loved in 2008.
1)The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
It’s been a long time since I read a book so exquisitely crafted. It did everything it promised to do and it did it flawlessly. There were times when I had to actually check the copyright date to make certain this wasn’t a reprint of a little-known classic, so well did this modern author master the Gothic genre. Now this is what I call a novel!
2) These is My Words: the Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine by Nancy Turner
I know the tale occasionally lapsed into melodrama, but that was part of its charm. I was absolutely captivated by the character of Sarah, and I wanted her story to be true. There were times, in fact, when I was almost convinced it was. Well done. Extremely well done.
3) Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult
This is a perfect example of why it pays to occasionally check out a book or a genre you wouldn’t ordinarily read. This was my first book by Jodi Picoult and I couldn’t put it down. I looked forward to getting back to it. I was involved with the characters and I enjoyed their worlds. I thought the religious subtext was cleverly done. Of course I figured out a few of the plot points before I should have, but who cares? I was thoroughly entertained. Who can ask for more?
4) My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor
By now everyone has heard about the neuroscientist who documented her own stroke. But this book is so much more than a handbook for stroke victims. It’s simply the most fascinating account of how the brain works that I’ve ever read. It made me question how much of what we call the ‘soul’ is, in fact, neurochemical. It astonished me with its account of how closely a state of transcendental meditation resembles a simple shut-down of a functional portion of the brain. And I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the fact that the author’s description of her perception of the world as the left side of her brain lost function was almost exactly now, to the best of our knowledge, animals see and conceptualize the world, too. Absolutely fascinating.
5) The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
Another book written by a dog? And the hero is a race car driver?? I almost didn’t fall for this one, until a friend– who never recommends books– e-mailed to say she had stayed up all night reading it and that it was the best book she had read all year. I did not stay up all night reading it, but I was sufficiently impressed to recommend this one to my book club. When Enzo (the dog) said, “what you manifest is before you”, I knew this was no ordinary dog book.

So there you have it! Having paid homage to the books I’ve loved in the past, I can now move on with a clear conscience to books I’m loving right now. One note about this list, though. In looking over it, I realize to my shock that three out of my top five favorite books from last year were actually selections from my book club. In my book club, I am known for whining and complaining about the selections (“Oh God, not another book about Afghanistan!” I have been heard to moan loudly at least once a year) so this is fairly remarkable. Surely this is a fluke. It couldn’t possibly happen again.
On the other hand, we haven’t gotten our reading list for 2009 yet...