Head over to Medium to check out my latest article: “3 Historical Novels to Read in 2021.”
Happy Reading and Happy New Year!
Head over to Medium to check out my latest article: “3 Historical Novels to Read in 2021.”
Happy Reading and Happy New Year!
|WOW. Give Angie Kim all of the awards. Miracle Creek is filling the gaping hole in my heart left by To Kill a Mockingbird (after realizing how problematic the “great American novel” was in so, so many ways).|
Miracle Creek is one of the best books I have ever read. It has all of the perks of a mystery – having me staying up way past my bedtime because I can’t put it down – with all of the power and import of literature.
As far as I am concerned, this is required reading. I know it’s early, but Miracle Creek deserves to be on every “New Canon”/”New Classics” reading list. READ IT NOW (or later but SOON)!
– Goodreads Review from June 14, 2019
|This is quite a remarkable book! Before starting it, I was skeptical about whether or not it was for me. I’m not a celebrity gossip junkie and, while I used to love reading historical fiction, lately I have found myself more interested in books addressing contemporary issues. But the celebrity aspect of the story gives it thematic depth. We all choose to repress and emphasize various parts of our identities, but those in the spotlight have to do so to an even greater extent if they want to be in control of their own narrative – and their own careers. And the historical element is made relevant as it is interwoven with a second story unfolding in modern day.|
– Goodreads review from July 23, 2019
|When I bought this book, I thought it was the latest installment in the Dublin Murder Squad series, so I was a little disappointed when I realized my mistake. Somehow, though, it’s even better. Part of my love for the story may have come from the fact that I read it while recovering from surgery, so I could relate to Toby’s foggy headedness and frustration at how his own situation changed. But I think the main thing that made it better than her other books – which I really, really like but haven’t love-loved since In the Woods – was the voice. French is great at writing from the POV of detectives, but they generally aren’t, you know, funny people. The Witch Elm made me laugh out loud so many times – very unexpected for a mystery novel. I had no idea French was so funny. Plus, it takes on big issues: ableism, privilege, empathy, toxic masculinity. It’s kind of an important piece of capital-“L” Literature while still being a page-turning murder mystery. Brava, Tana French!|
– Goodreads review from June 29, 2019
The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon
➡︎ Read my review here.
March (trilogy) by John Robert Lewis
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
➡︎ Read my review here.
The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
➡︎ Read my review here.
On the Come Up by Angie Thomas
Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America by Ibi Zoboi, editor
➡︎ Read my review here.
To Kill a Mockingbird: A Graphic Novel by Fred Fordham (adapted from the original by Harper Lee)
➡︎ Read my review here.
Recursion by Blake Crouch
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
➡︎ Read my review here.
At the end of every year, I like to reflect on all of the wonderful books I have read over the past 365 or so days and highlight the standouts.
This is my fifth annual Great Reads post – apparently the only blog post I can reliably hold myself to doing each year.
I use Goodreads to set a personal reading challenge each year, and I can’t recommend the site enough for fellow readers and writers.
Check out my Goodreads author profile here.
I’m excited to share that I exceeded my 2018 reading goal of 33 books.
The 37 books I read this year include a lot of young adult novels, a few graphic novels, some classics, a little nonfiction, and a lot of contemporary fiction.
(I used to set my goal at 50 books each year, but it was very difficult to reach and pushed me to read shorter books just for the sake of my book count instead of reading what I actually wanted. In 2017, I set my goal at 32 – my age at the time – and have increased my goal by one book each year. Since this change, I have not only been able to read what I wanted, but I have also exceeded my goal every year.)
I really liked most of the books I read this year, but when I reviewed my Goodreads ratings, I was surprised to see that I was stingy with my five-star ratings. I only gave out two five-star ratings this year: one to Angie Thomas for The Hate U Give and one to J. K. Rowling for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
This is really interesting!
It might seem like the only thing these two books have in common is the fact that they are YA novels, but I’ve come to realize that they have a lot more in common than that.
Thematically, they are both about a very specific type of coming-of-age: having the courage to stand up to authority and do what what you know is right, no matter the consequences.
I also realized that they both follow the Hero’s Journey fairly closely. As a fantasy hero, Harry Potter follows the journey rather obviously, but Starr Carter’s growth as a character can be plotted on a Hero’s Journey diagram with an even better fit than Potter’s.
On a personal level, these books also have in common the facts that I have read them multiple times and that I have taught them to my high school students. Neither of these books received a five-star rating from me upon my first read. Each time I reread the books, I picked up on more of the authors’ craft and fell more and more in love with the stories and how they are told.
This is significant because I typically don’t reread books. I usually only reread a book if I am teaching it. With so many books on my To Read list, who has the time to read something they’ve already read before?
But this year’s Great Reads reflection has brought my attention to the value of rereading. In the future, I hope to give more of my four-star books a second go. I am a book hoarder, so they are already in my possession. I just have to make it a priority.
If I love the book even more, then it was well worth my time. If I don’t, then maybe it’s time to let it go by passing the book along to a friend or donating it to a local free library.
Here’s to another year of great reads for all of us!
I’m so excited to write my fourth annual Great Reads post. I’m so excited, in fact, that I’m not even going to apologize for not writing enough content for the blog. (It’s been so long since I’ve updated this website that WordPress didn’t remember my log-in credentials. Worse, it’s been so long since I’ve even visited my own website that Google Chrome couldn’t auto-complete the URL…)
To be clear, the idea of this post is to list the top books that I read in 2017. Not all of them were actually published in 2017.
Before I begin, I have to give a big shout out to the Book of the Month club, which helped diversify my reading list. (Last year’s list was, regrettably, brought to you by all white male authors. Great books all the same, but I was ashamed that I couldn’t amplify any other voices.) Beyond adding women writers and writers of color, BOTM has helped me balance my 2017 reading list with contemporary authors, so this year’s list does feature a lot more new books than my previous lists have.
I joined Book of the Month in November 2016, and it’s been so much fun reading their selections this year. Fifteen of the thirty-nine books I’ve read this year were from BOTM, and six out of my nine top books listed here (including all of the top 5!) were from BOTM. My subscription was the best gift I have ever given myself. (If you’d like to check it out for yourself, use my referral link to get your first book for $9.99 plus a free tote bag.)
So here they are, folks: the nine books that earned a five-star rating from me on Goodreads this year along with the short reviews I wrote for each of them. Check ’em out.
|I expected to not like this book based on the premise, but I love magical realism, so I gave it a shot as my October Book of the Month pick. I’m so glad I took a chance on it – it’s easily one of my favorite books of all time. It was one of those books that you start reading really fast until you get close to the end, and then you start dragging it out just because you don’t want the dream to end! For me, the initial hook was the To Kill a Mockingbird allusions, but the characters quickly took hold of me and carried the narrative from there. I loved the structure; it was a unique way of letting the story unfold but not gimmicky in any way. Even though it’s classified as adult fiction, I can see a lot of my students loving this book as much as I do. I’m so impressed that this is a debut novel and can’t wait to read more of Lang’s work in the future.|
One of the biggest questions I had before reading this book was whether or not it could be classified as YA. But like the neopagan mythology Gaiman calls back to once again with his Triple Goddess from The Sandman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is neither YA nor not-YA. It just is. Most of the story is narrated from a child’s POV, and I think many of my teenage students would appreciate it, but I agree with other reviewers that the reader who will get the most out of the story is the one with nostalgia for childhood lost.
It’s a short, quick read with a dreamlike – at times, nightmarish – quality that feels expansive while you are immersed in it but slips away as soon as you set it aside to return to reality.
|It’s difficult for me to review this book because it is so great that anything I write about it will feel lame by comparison. I expected to like this novel because of all the science – specifically, the interplay between cosmology and poetry – and I did love all of the scientific and historical interludes, but what really blew me away was how much heart the characters had. The main characters, yes, but even the minor characters, who still get to have their story heard no matter how few pages we meet them for. It would be easy for this love story to feel cheesy or sappy, but it was so earnest that I never questioned it. Beautiful stuff. My new favorite YA novel.|
|There is something brilliant about the language here – wholly unique and yet completely ordinary at the same time, just like the story itself. The narrative is at once timely and timeless, and the book’s multiple identities couldn’t be more appropriate for a story of migration. I was unprepared for the supernatural turn, but it was a pleasant surprise because I love speculative fiction. I highly recommend Exit West for any reader who doesn’t mind a little magic in their realism.|
|I had so much fun nerding out with this one. Dark Matter has just the right amount of suspense, science, and heart. I can’t say too much more without spoilers.|
|This was exactly what I was looking for. I don’t normally read crime fiction, but I was trying to find a solid series that would hook me like a good TV procedural while still having the depth and texture of literary writing. I binge-read the first installment in a weekend, and though I feel a bit icky claiming a book this dark is “amazing” with my five-star review, I was literally amazed at what French accomplished. I can’t wait to devour the series; I hope she can keep this up.|
|This was such a perfectly written story. Loved it.
Note – I feel I should elaborate now since I wrote such a sparse review of this one initially. I’m a late-comer to the Neil Gaiman party – just started reading his work three years ago – and I’m still playing catch-up. The Graveyard Book was my first introduction to Gaiman’s writing for middle grade/young adult readers, and it was such a treat. At least once per trimester, I cry in front of my students during sustained silent reading (SSR), and this was the Fall 2017 Made-Ms.-Trout-Cry book. The closest analogy I can make – though I am loathe to do it – is to Harry Potter but with the heart and magic of the entire series condensed into one volume. On the one hand, a part of me wished Gaiman had stretched out the narrative, so we could spend more time with Nobody “Bod” Owens, but there is such a gorgeous simplicity to the way Gaiman leaves so many of his stories open ended. It makes it impossible for him to disappoint me.
|Such a great book! Coraline is technically middle grade, but due to the creepiness, some kids might want to wait until they are young adults to read it. As an adult, I loved it! It’s really only the brevity and inclusion of illustrations that make it middle grade. Gaiman uses great words for young people building their vocabulary, but like a pro, he uses them sparingly so they can learn their meaning in context without getting lost as to what is going on in the book. I plan on buying a few copies for my classroom. It will make a great choice book for fall literature circles!|
|I can see why so many people have given this book lower reviews. The characters felt realistic but were not always likable – it was hard to want to relate to them. And the plot was not conventionally driven. There were plenty of opportunities for conflict between characters, but the narrative largely skipped over all that to resonate in the quiet internal conflicts within each character. It’s not a long book, and it doesn’t come to a firm – or necessarily satisfying – conclusion.
And yet, there’s something remarkable about this book. The narrative voice is luscious and lyric without being overwrought. The momentum is incredible, alternating points of view and skipping through time with each chapter to focus on set-piece moments that define each character’s experience. It was funny but serious at the same time, making me cringe, laugh, reflect, and keep turning the pages until – just like that – it was over.Many thanks to BOTM for the recommendation and for the opportunity to read a gorgeous early release of Lucky You. This is Erika Carter’s debut novel, and I can’t wait to read what she publishes next. Note – I had a couple random people comment on my Goodreads review about how Lucky You did not deserve the rating and praise I had given it, so I had to add: “I would agree that this is not a ‘five-star’ book if five stars means it’s one of the best and most important works out there, but we aren’t defining the literary canon here. Goodreads defines five stars as ‘I really liked it,’ and since I really enjoyed reading this book, it earned five stars from this reader.”
Several wonderful books that I gave four-star ratings in 2017 almost got honorable mentions here, but since this year’s list features more books than any of my previous Great Reads posts, I thought I’d let these nine awesome novels bask in their five-star glory without any end-of-the-year amendments.
That’s right – every one of my top nine books is a novel. Apparently, I only read two nonfiction books and three graphic novels this year – no books of poetry, plays, or even short story or essay collections. Oops! I guess they got pushed down by all of the YA novels I added to my never ending To Read list…
Good thing there’s always 2018 – feel free to comment with recommendations.
Happy Reading in the New Year!
With every New Year, I like to call out my favorite books that I read the previous year. (Find my 2014 list here and 2015 list here.) This year, I am compiling another top books list for 2016, but this time, there is one clear standout and a handful of honorable mentions.
Again, the idea is to list the top books that I read in 2016. Most of what I read was not actually published in 2016. All the books on this list received five-star “it was amazing” ratings from me on Goodreads. The runners-up are listed in the order in which I read them, not any kind of ranking.
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
I never ended up writing a review about this book, though I had intended to as soon as I recovered from the reading experience. The problem with reviewing House of Leaves is that any formal consideration of the book lends itself to dissertation-level thoughts that would have to be expressed in dissertation length to do it any justice. It took me years of trying to start House of Leaves before I finally committed and gave up my winter break to it. And by it, I mean madness. To read this book is to question your own sanity. It changed my idea of what literature is/does while avoiding gimmick with flawless execution.
My Goodreads review: “A fun book – great read for a Presidential Election year.”
I don’t know if I would have felt the same sentiment had I read the book in December instead of February, but I’m going to let the comment stand.
My Goodreads review: “So good!”
If you’ve read Michael Pollan’s work before, you must read Cooked. It’s a wonderful exploration of food culture that will challenge you to take your relationship to food to the next level. If you haven’t read Michael Pollan’s work, I don’t know that this is the best place to start. Check out some of his earlier work first, but keep Cooked on your to-read list.
My Goodreads review: “Though each of the six novellas could stand alone, I really enjoyed reading them together as a collection. I had to take breaks to read other books between the novellas because there is a decent amount of recapitulation in each one, but I loved having all of them together in sequence. Harrison is one of my heroes, and I’m glad that we can still learn so much from him through his writing.”
My Goodreads review: “Anyone with a stake in the American educational system—so, all Americans but especially educators, educational policy makers, parents, and advocates—should read this book. People who haven’t read a lot of pedagogy might find the writing a bit dry, but it’s the best written (and least bogged down in jargon, abstraction, and vagueness) book on education that I’ve ever read, so if you have had to read a lot of pedagogy, The Knowledge Deficit will be a page turner! I want to hand it out to every teacher, administrator, and politician I know.”
My Goodreads review: “After ‘really liking but not quite loving’ most of the volumes of this series, I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed the way Gaiman closed his story. I look forward to rereading the series and have a feeling I’ll appreciate it even more with additional passes.”
If you’re a reader of graphic novels, then I’m sure you’ve already read The Sandman, but if you aren’t, it’s time to check the Dream King out. I was never “into comic books” until the used book store in Ames moved away from downtown and a new comic book store moved in. I wanted to support my Main Street bookstore, even if most of their books are illustrated. For me, The Sandman was a gateway into a whole new type of storytelling. I highly recommend to anyone who likes good literature but isn’t “into comic books” yet.
My Goodreads review: “Listen: You might not like this book if you have a problem with illustrations of assholes and wide open beavers. The assholes look something like this: *. You’ll have to read the book to see the rest of the illustrations. You might like this book if you have chemicals in your brain that make you like Vonnegut, his illustrations, his characters, and his dark humor. And you might like the way he gives the plot away in Chapter 1 and defines useful terms like legume for the reader. You might like that this book prominently features Kilgore Trout.
“And so on.”
My Goodreads review: “A wonderful collection, mostly short stories with a few narrative poems here and there. As in any collection, there were a few pieces that I didn’t enjoy as much, but there were many more great ones.
“I really enjoyed Gaiman’s introduction, which includes a brief note on each of the pieces. You can certainly appreciate the ‘disturbances’ without any backstory, but as I writer, I always love reading notes like these.”
What’s missing from this list? Authors who aren’t white men! I do make sure to include women writers and writers-of-color in each year’s reading list, but this year none of the ones I chose made it to five-star status. Looking forward to 2017, I’m planning to devote a lot more of my reading time to these underrepresented authors with the hope that I’ll be able to feature them in next year’s New Year post. Feel free to shoot me any recommendations you might have.
In addition to tracking my books read and books-I-want-to-read on Goodreads, last year I made a Pinterest board to track them as well, and I’m doing it again this year. Check out my Books Read in 2016 board here and my Books to Read in 2017 board here.
Happy Reading in 2017!
Last year, I called out the top five books I read in 2014. This year, I am compiling another top books list for 2015, but I’ve thrown in a little twist by selecting a top book in several categories.
Again, the idea is to list the top books that I read in 2015. None of them were actually published in 2015.
Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut
As I mentioned in my Goodreads review, I often claim to prefer novels to short stories, but Vonnegut is a master of both. Look no further if you’d like to see just how large a story can be communicated in just a few words.
Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates
I wrote a six-paragraph review of this one for Goodreads, so I’m just going to share a tiny piece of it here: “It’s blow-your-mind good.”
Find the rest of the review here.
Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit
by Alison Hawthorne Deming
Each chapter of this book is an essay exploring a different connection between humans and non-human animals with great insight and expertly precise language, and though there is lamentation, there is also hope.
Read the rest of my review here.
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
(The Restored Edition edited by Seán Hemingway)
Here’s another one that I waxed poetic about in my Goodreads review. Here’s a link if you’re interested in my ramblings.
Soul External: Rediscovering the Great Blue Heron
by Steve Semken
Placing the soul externally is not difficult. Just figure out how and where.
This is the future of nature writing at the intersection of fantasy, myth lore, natural history, personal essay, philosophy, and even theology. It’s pastiche with several quotations celebrating the authors that have influenced Steve the most—from Edward Abbey to Robert Wolf—as well as full-color illustrations and typography by Andrew Driscoll and poetic text formatting that often had me wondering: what is this book I’m reading? Beautiful is what it is. It’s the kind of book that you won’t ever see as a mass market paperback. It’s far too precious for that. It’s a gift to all those who can’t live without wildness.
Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America
by Taylor Brorby and Stefanie Brook Trout, editors
I know it’s probably gauche to include my own book on my annual “Tops” list two years in a row. If you’d read Fracture, you’d know why it deserves to make this list, but you haven’t because it’s not out yet! Don’t take my word for it. Ask those who have gotten a sneak peak at the collection, like Mary Evelyn Tucker who says, “This stunning collection of essays, poems, and fiction is gripping and illuminating. […] Indeed, no where else has such a gifted group of writers been assembled for a clarion call to awakening for our future generations.” Preorder your copy here.
I faced a few dilemmas in coming up with this list.
The first, though these really aren’t in any particular order, is that I really wanted a “Best Graphic Novel” or “Best Sequential Art” category, but I really couldn’t decide. I’ve dabbled in four different series this year, and Neil Gaiman easily wins with the Sandman, but which volume? Number 5, A Game of You? Or #6, Fables and Reflections? I’m really not that concerned about it, but I wanted to acknowledge that I did, in fact, read enough comic books to warrant a subcategory here, but my indecision won out again.
On the other hand, I didn’t read enough poetry collections in 2015 to really have a “Best Book of Poetry” category. This year, my poetry mostly came in small doses: in anthologies, literary journals, and online. So with that in mind and looking toward the future, one of my 2016 goals is to read more poetry, starting with the two books on my to-read shelf. Then I’ll have to go out and actually buy more poetry, which I should be doing anyway.
Likewise, I really didn’t read much Murakami in 2015. How tragic! There’s another 2016 goal: must read more Murakami.
So what were the best books you read in 2015?
Are you attending AWP 2015 in Minneapolis?
Please stop by the Ice Cube Press booth at the book fair, Exhibit Space 119. Also, consider checking out the following featured events.
AWP Festival of Language 2015
Brit’s Pub Vault, 1110 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
The seventh annual celebration of language and literary arts will feature established and emerging writers in three sets of rapid-fire readings with over 60 participants reading for a maximum of five minutes each.
The festival starts at 4:00 and ends at 11:00. I’ll be reading in the 8:30-10:30 set.
Prairie Gold Contributor Signings
Ice Cube Press Exhibit Space 119
Two Prairie Gold contributors, Matthew Fogarty and Sarah Turner, will sign books at the Ice Cube Press booth, Exhibit Space 119.
Catch Fogarty from 12:00-1:30 and Turner from 4:30-6:00.
Prairie Gold Reading and Celebration of Midwestern Writing
Subtext Books, 165 Western Ave N, St. Paul
Readings from contributors to Prairie Gold, a collection of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that delves into the nuances of Midwestern identity. The event starts at 6:30 and ends at 9:00. Here’s the line-up:
(H/T to John Linstrom for finding links to everyone’s author pages.)
Prairie Gold Editor Signings
Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment Exhibit Space 1314
All three Prairie Gold contributors, Lance M. Sacknoff, Xavier Cavazos, and I, Stefanie Brook Trout, will sign books from 10:00-11:00 a.m. at the Flyway/Iowa State MFA program table, Exhibit Space 1314.
Also, Taylor Brorby and I will be spreading the word throughout the conference:
We are still taking submissions for Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America. The deadline for submissions is June 1.
Thursday, January 29, 2015, at 7:00 pm
Hearst Center for the Arts, 304 W Seerley Boulevard
Fellow Prairie Gold editor Lance M. Sacknoff and I will be traveling up to Cedar Falls on Thursday to discuss writing and publishing with the Craft of Fiction students at University of Northern Iowa.
That evening, we will read as part of the Final Thursday Reading Series at the Hearst Center for the Arts, followed by a Q&A and book signing.
Friday, January 30, 2015, at 5:00 pm
Englert Theatre, 221 E Washington Street
Fellow Fracture editor Taylor Brorby and I will be joining other artists for Beyond the Anthropocene, an exhibit and opening reception exploring “the illusory boundary between what is ‘natural’ and what is ‘man-made.'” Showcasing the work of three photographers, one musician, and five writers, the exhibit is part of the University of Iowa’s Obermann Humanities Symposium, “Energy Cultures in the Age of the Anthropocene,” March 5-7, 2015.
More details on our January reading here.
Info about the March symposium here.
Inspired by the lovely blog Pints And Cupcakes, I wanted to look back at the books I read in 2014 and call out a few of my favorites. P&C‘s Chloe Clark listed her top 15, but I’m just going to pick five because I don’t think I read nearly as many books as she did in 2014.
To be clear, the idea is to list the top books that I read in 2014. Only a few of them were actually published in 2014.
Several wonderful books almost made the Top Five, but these were the ones that made me feel the most.
I’m looking forward to doing this again next year, maybe even with a longer list, though for the first time in several years I won’t be setting an annual goal.
I love Goodreads – absolutely adore it – and I’ve participated in their annual reading challenge since 2011. It’s a fun way to hold myself accountable for spending as much time reading as I both should and want to without making it feel like work. It’s always so much easier to find a new show to binge watch on Netflix, but you have to rein that in somehow.
Inevitably, at the end of the year, I was always scrambling to get my hands on shorter reads – novellas, poetry collections, graphic novels, chapbooks, you get the idea – or else finishing books I’ve partially read for some reason or another in order to meet my goal, which is fine because that stuff is good to read too, but this past year I really didn’t want to do that again. I just didn’t feel like it, and I’m a strong believer in doing what you feel like when it comes to reading.
I wonder if there isn’t another way to do a reading challenge that goes beyond books. I love books – I really can’t overstate that enough. But this year, I’ve been trying to read more literary journals, magazines, news, blogs, etc., and I’ve also been doing a lot of editing – reading other people’s work over and over again (and I guess reading my own work over and over again as well) – and this type of reading matters too, even though I can’t log it into my Goodreads.
My older sister, who is a middle school teacher and uses this strategy with her students, suggested (several years ago, in fact, when I first mentioned my impulse to read shorter novels rather than undertake weighty tomes because of the impending Goodreads deadline) that I go by a page count goal instead, which is a smart and perfectly reasonable suggestion, but I don’t want to have to add tally marks to a scrap of paper every time I read something. (Is there an app for this? Or can someone please develop one? Thanks!)
Maybe I’ll set a 2015 Goodreads Reading Challenge in a few months, but for now my goal for 2015 is simply to read a lot and not just books.
Are you on Goodreads too? Do you want to connect on Goodreads? Add me as a friend or follow me as a fan here.
I am beyond thrilled to announce that I am working with Taylor Brorby on a new Ice Cube Press anthology, Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America.
Taylor and I are currently seeking new writing that considers the implications of fracking. Submissions are open until June 1, 2015.
Guidelines on the publisher’s website.
It’s October now. Leaves are changing, the temperature is cooling, my wind chime is getting noisier. At the same time, there have been developments in my personal and professional life. Here are some updates from the latter:
I’m honored to have had not just one, not even two, but three pieces published in the October 2014 issue of Festival Writer. Check out the issue here and then click on my name to view all three of my contributions. These pieces tend to resist easy genre classification. This is how I would describe them:
“Baconer” is a prose poem (with formatting) about factory farming, from the perspective of a pig in a CAFO. Please note that this poem uses plenty of profanity and unpleasant imagery. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it, but I think it’s important to know what you’re getting into.
“First Beard” is a nonfiction vignette about my dad, and “Performance Review” is micro fiction. They are so short, I better not say anything else about them (Spoilers!) except that I hope you enjoy reading them.
As mentioned in a previous post, our Midwestern book tour of Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland will include two October events: one at the Rozz-Tox in Rock Island, Illinois, (Quad Cites area) on October 9 and one at Prairie Lights in Iowa City on October 16. Details:
Our Quad Cities reading will feature fiction by T.C. Jones and Barbara Harroun as well as poetry by Esteban Colon, Salvatore Marici, and Ryan Collins. Part of the Midwest Writing Center’s SPECTRA Reading Series, the event will also include readings by featured poets Lauren Haldeman and Erin Keane. Check out the Facebook event page for more details.
Our Iowa City reading will feature nonfiction by Will Jennings and Meghan Brown, fiction by Barbara Harroun, and poetry by Salvatore Marici. Check out the event page for more details.
Since I switched from teaching English 150/250 at Iowa State University to my current position as a communications research assistant at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture (also at ISU), I have been involved in a lot of cool multimedia projects. My job includes writing news releases and articles, updating the Center’s website, managing our social media, publication design, and video production. That last piece is such new and exciting territory for me, and I’m thrilled to share the final version of “STRIPS the Movie” (not the official title), a 13-minute video on the conservation practice of prairie strips that was four months in the making. It premiered at the 2014 Extension Energy and Environment conference in Ames and was followed by a Q & A with the researchers. Now that the feature documentary is done, we are in the process of using the extra interview footage to make a series of video shorts that will, among other things, help introduce a broader audience to the STRIPS project.
Our Goodreads Giveaway is still going on. Five free copies of Prairie Gold are up for grabs! The contest closes October 31. Details here.
If you already own the book and are on Goodreads, please take a moment to add it to your shelf, which you can do here. It helps us out when, after reading the book, our fans take the time to rate it, review it, and vote for it on relevant lists. (Contributors: Goodreads recommends that authors write a brief note on the inspiration for the piece in lieu of a review.)
Also, as part of having a book out, I’ve converted my personal Goodreads page into an author profile. It’s the same as before but with a few extra features, like the ability to have “fans” in addition to friends. I only have two fans so far! If you are on Goodreads and a fan of my work, please visit my author profile to make it official. (Lance needs more fans too. Here’s his author profile.)
I have lots of other exciting news I’d love to share, but I’m going to keep my beak buttoned for just a little while longer until details are finalized. So that’s all for now. Thanks for reading!
Last week, Pints And Cupcakes posted a delightful interview with my good friend, fellow writer, and trusted reader Tony Quick. (Read it here. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Done? Okay, let’s proceed.)
Tony said some brilliant things in that interview, right? (Especially that part where he calls me “a remarkable writer who [he’s] convinced will become a future favorite to scores of readers when she makes her debut”–that was especially insightful, no?)
Having worked with Tony on Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, presented on an AWP panel titled “Writing About Nature in an Unnatural World” with him, and exchanged countless pages back and forth with Mr. Quick, I figured that he would have a lot more to say about how the environment factors into his writing if I asked, and I was right!
So here’s a mini-interview for you. I call it “Two More Q’s with Tony Quick.”
Beyond its role in establishing a backdrop for the story’s setting, place plays an integral part in my fiction because it inevitably feeds into character development. With all due respect to the idea of the self-made man (or woman), much of who we become as people happens to be influenced by where we’re from. So many factors: our values and assumptions, our careers, our hobbies, how we approach challenges, and so many other aspects of our personality are impacted by our reaction against or adherence to the standards of our surroundings.
Here’s an extreme example that almost borders the absurd but happens to illustrate the point pretty well. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and the Christopher Nolan movie Inception are both reverse-heist stories where the characters have to sneak into a fortified space and plant an object rather than steal it. Frodo, as a character raised in the leisurely shire and naïve to the nuance of Middle Earth, has an entirely different approach to his mission than Dom Cobb, a man who lives and works in a world of corporate espionage, mistrust, and various stages of unreality.
Their missions are different, of course, but they have similar end goals and the choices Frodo makes on the way to Mordor (This Gollum guy seems trustworthy) are different from those that Cobb makes during his journey into Fischer’s mind (You think I should tell my teammates my subconscious might try to kill them? Psh). That’s due in large part to how they’ve been colored by the fictional worlds they inhabit.
Another example that comes to mind is the difference between Michael Corleone from Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather and Luke Skywalker of Star Wars. Both stories concern the legacy that sons inherit from their fathers. Michael Corleone initially reacts against the criminal world of violence and vendettas his father Vito inhabits but he’s a man raised in an post-WWII Italian enclave taught to put family above all else. When the call comes, he takes on his father’s role as patriarch. Luke, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a great Jedi. That original goal is supplanted when he realizes his father is the Sith lord, Darth Vader, a high-ranking member of the empire that Luke has been raised to loathe and fear.
When I craft my own characters, I do my best to contemplate how their environment might color their perceptions and influence their course of action as they move through worlds I’ve created. More often than not, those details will never be explicitly mentioned in the text but actively thinking through those particulars before and during the writing process helps impact my understanding of how my characters operate and who these people actually are.
Urban landscapes feature prominently in my fiction because they offer so many opportunities to bring diverse people into the same arena to clash and cooperate. Cities create crucibles where characters from various cultural, ethnic, and economic backdrops can rub elbows. People who might never interact otherwise are drawn into conversations and conflicts by virtue of inhabiting the same space and that’s an exciting prospect to me.
Baltimore was really the only place Scarecrow and Locust could have taken place. The Patapsco River’s presence for various plot reasons that I won’t delve into here and the proximity to the nation’s capital provided an important reason to have a private military corporation installed there but beyond all that, Baltimore’s economic situation lends itself towards the theme I was going for in the novel.
So many areas in Baltimore appear downright post-apocalyptic and much of that has to do with neglect. Just recently, there have been reports of “food deserts” in the city where grocery stores have moved to more lucrative locations, leaving those without vehicles and the elderly without access to food. That’s not science fiction.
Scarecrow and Locust required a great deal of research and I learned a great deal about the famines in Ireland, Bengal, and Ethiopia. I was surprised most at the part government corruption, outright malice, or inaction played in worsening the impact of starvation on these populations. That’s not science fiction, either.
I’ve always been adamant that my fiction shouldn’t serve as a makeshift soapbox but when I’m writing I do consider how the arrangement of certain elements will impact the reader. The choice to write about Baltimore is an attempt to shine a slight light on real problems that exist in our world through a speculative filter. Maybe if I’m fortunate, my readers will lend a bit more thought to the people who often end up forgotten in the margins.
So there you have it, folks. Aren’t you glad I asked?
Make sure to visit Tony’s website at tonyquick.com, where you can read his bio and check out all the other cool things Tony’s been up to. Also, if you were following instructions, you would have already checked out Pints And Cupcakes, but if you haven’t yet, now is the time to make it right.