Answering Five Questions about Writing

I’m over on the new and improved Capital City Writers Association blog today answering questions about writing and I’d love to have you join me there!

Capture

 

Click here to read more and if you’re in the Lansing area tomorrow evening head on over to the Eastwood Schuler Books & Music off Lake Lansing Road for my workshop on making the most of your first five pages (Wednesday, June 1, 7:00-8:30pm).

 

 

Merry-Go-Round…and Round…and Round…and Round…

I know some of you are already gridlocked in holiday traffic (I-75 North, I’m looking at you) so you’ll enjoy distracting yourself from the utter contempt and frustration you are currently feeling for your fellow man by scrolling through colorful pictures of carousels. At least those painted animals are going somewhere, eh?

The Detroit Zoo has a great carousel full of awesome animals to ride…

But I prefer the wetland creatures and cool tones of the Detroit Riverwalk carousel…

 

Now, strictly speaking, I have never seen a sea serpent or mermaid in the Great Lakes…

But then, I haven’t seen everything there is to see…

I thought for sure this was an old carousel because it just had a been-here-since-1915 feel to it, but the Cullen Family Carousel was actually handcrafted in this century. Read all about it here.

And enjoy your Memorial Day Weekend, taking some time out to remember and be thankful for the fallen soldiers throughout the history of this nation who sacrificed their own lives that liberty might live.

Amazing Apes (and Drills and Macaques)

 

One of the downsides of a big zoo with large exhibits is that you can often walk by and see absolutely nothing but grass, rocks, and trees. It’s great for the animals, who have lots of room to roam and easy ways of getting away from people, but it can be frustrating for zoo visitors. Beyond a glimpse of a far-off polar bear and a sleeping black bear, we saw no bears, despite there being four exhibits featuring bears. We also saw very little of the napping tiger and napping lions, though we have lions and tigers at Potter Park Zoo in Lansing, so that’s no big deal.

What we don’t have is gorillas.

The last time I was at the Detroit Zoo, the gorillas were nowhere to be seen. This time around, we got a great view of two gorillas, a drill, and two species of macaques.

We also saw some very active chimpanzees, though from further away and while we were en route to the polar bear exhibit, which we were rather exited about, so we didn’t linger long and I took no pictures.

While Zach and I were dog tired by the end of the day, the boy loved the zoo (despite the fact that there were no snow leopards, his favorite animal). And one of his favorite parts is coming up next…

Detroit Zoo Land Lubbers

We spent nearly six hours at the Detroit Zoo and saw most of the animals. Here are a few quadrupeds we especially enjoyed watching (and a couple bipedal marsupials thrown in for good measure).

To really do the zoo justice, get there right when it opens and plan for a long day and tired feet at the end. More pictures to come tomorrow!

Under the Blue at the Detroit Zoo

Two of the biggest draws of the Detroit Zoo are the polar bear/seal exhibit and the new Polk Penguin Center, both of which feature underwater views of exhibit residents.

We were a bit bummed that the polar bears weren’t swimming while we were there, but we got some great views of the silly seals and swift penguins.

A One-Man Border Patrol

Better watch out, Canada.

Actually, those killer moves aren’t directed at you.

I believe the boy was controlling the fountain, using both mind and fist.

And anyway, he’s a very nice boy.

More pictures of our awesome three-day trip to Detroit in the coming days.

Detroit Riverwalk

These were taken on the Detroit Riverwalk just outside of the Renaissance Center, where we stayed on the 53rd floor.

Renaissance Center, Detroit, MI

 

Upon Rediscovering a Childhood Favorite

By far, I buy and read real, physical, printed books over and above ebooks. And I love buying them at real, physical, brick-and-mortar stores. I especially love finding old used books at cramped and charming used bookstores.

Now, with all those caveats out of the way, here’s what I love about Amazon.com:

Way back when I was kid, I checked this book out of the old Bay City Library on Center Road about a hundred times.

I loved, loved, loved this book.

It kept me entertained for hours.

It taught me how to draw dogs.

It helped develop in me a love of the simple things — long walks, the seasons, and dumb (in the King James sense of the word) creatures.

It made me want to be an artist.

The only problem was, I couldn’t remember the name of the book (could it really be as simple as Dogs???) or the author/illustrator. When I checked it out of the library, I just knew where on the shelves it was. I never looked it up. And now that gorgeous, quaint library branch has been replaced by a much larger (and much more personality-less) new building. So though I’d been thinking about this book for years, wishing I could remember what it was called so I might find it again, somewhere, I wasn’t sure where to start. There are a lot of books on dogs and it was kind of difficult to describe.

It’s essentially the artist’s story of wanting to find his family’s next dog as his oldest hunting got so feeble he couldn’t do much anymore. As he considers which breed might be best, he paints them and mentions their merits and tells amusing stories.

Then suddenly I thought to myself, if I just had enough patience, I could click through every page of dog books on Amazon and somehow I would have to find it sooner or later. So I searched for “dogs, painting” in Books on Amazon. Then I clicked on the subcategory Dogs. And guess what I saw:

It was the second result in nearly 200!

Apparently I’m not the only fan of Poortvliet’s work (aside: no wonder I couldn’t remember the artist’s name) as the book enjoys 100% five-star reviews, and his other books are equally well-loved. I was surprised to see a publication date of 1996, a full ten years after my guess, as I was sure I’d been obsessed with it long before I was 16. But a look inside confirmed I had been more right than wrong. The edition on Amazon was a 1996 reprinting. The original had been published in 1983, just in time for it to settle comfortably into its spot on the shelf in the East Branch of the Bay City Library system and wait for me to get about as old as my son is now, venture up to the grown-up nonfiction shelves, and discover it.

I ordered a copy immediately and waited with great anticipation for it to arrive, which it did today. (Sunday delivery, what is the world coming to?)

When we got home from church I started flipping through it with my son, who wanted me to read him the notes on every page. (I think he asked me to do it because they are in cursive?) I immediately recognized every page, including some drawings and paintings I had outright copied as a child as I was practicing.

There was and is something about Poorvliet’s representation of the world — realistic, gentle, and with a sense of humor that doesn’t overwhelm — that I find irresistible. I like that in a time when modern art was being touted he continued to focus on realism and sweet illustrations. In fact, I was surprised (though perhaps I shouldn’t have been) to find that his most famous work, The Gnomes, was the basis for an animated series I also loved around the same time as I was checking Dogs out of the library: The World of David the Gnome. Does anyone else remember this?

I was sorry when I looked Poorvliet up for this post to find that he died in his early sixties in 1995, which I suppose is why they reissued the book in 1996.

At any rate, I’m happy as can be to have it now (and to not have to return it to the library in a month). It’s a volume I’ll keep at the ready for relaxed perusal with a cup of tea.

Why We Read Sad Books

Gracious, it’s been May for four days already! Where is my life going? Oh, that’s right–I’m reading it away. From my 9-5 (oh, and it’s catalog time too), to beta reads for fellow writers in my two writing groups, to a freelance editing gig and a work-for-hire writing job, plus making slow but satisfying progress on my own manuscript, I’m awfully busy looking at, creating, deleting, and moving around words. This includes words I’m encountering for the first time as I attempt to learn German. Ich Heiβe Erin. Ich komme aus Michigan. Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch.

I’ve also started reading a couple new “real” books–you know, with covers and everything–after finishing up Spill Simmer Falter Wither (lovely and sad) and Lolita (anti-lovely and sad and twisted and I’m still not sure I’ve got a handle on what I think of it…).

I’m still very much in the beginnings of these long books, but it’s been a while since I read a memoir (Nafisi’s is one I’ve been wanting to read for years) and Ruth Ozeki’s book is very different/unique, especially when it comes to the contrast in the two voices. One of the beta reads I did last month was also extremely unique and played with time and even the form of the main characters as they transformed from boys and girls to a bear, an eagle, a fawn, and a sage plant.

In my reading, I’ve been far afield–Japan, Iran, the Pacific Northwest, New Hampshire, Ireland, and within a 400 year old Ojibwe legend. But in my writing, I have been enclosed–in a small cabin, in a small boat, on an isolated lake, with my main character focused on one point in time, one memory she must unravel. Is that why I’m interested in traveling far and wide in my choices of books to read? Were I writing a sprawling story right now, would I be reading something that was more contained, more restrictive?

Through the magic of Facebook memories (you know, those old posts that pop up and bid you share them once more) I saw this morning a photo I took of my not-quite-two-year-old son in a spring puddle. The trees in the photo are at least a week ahead of where the trees are now during our cold and rainy spring. The trees outside my office window are still tentative, still holding back, still a bit suspicious that winter may have one last punch to throw. They don’t know that the weatherman predicts temps in the 70s next week. They just know that right now, they’re still shivering.

When we’re feeling held tight or held back in life (by life?), we sometimes let our imaginations take us to all the new places we can’t quite reach. For some, that’s why they read at all–to travel to someplace new and be someone else for a while. I’m not sure I have ever had that exact feeling when choosing what to read next–I think I’d like to spend some time as a pedophile or I think I’d like to be a social outcast with a dog that brutally attacks other dogs while their owners look on, horrified. That’s Lolita and Spill Simmer Falter Wither. I didn’t choose to read those books because I wanted to be those people in those places. I chose Lolita because it was a classic I hadn’t yet read and I was curious about it since I knew it was controversial. I chose Spill Simmer Falter Wither because I heard the author, Sara Baume, interviewed on NPR while I was dropping my son off at school. It was a paragraph she read on air that made me buy the book immediately upon returning home, simply because I wanted to “listen” to her voice more.

In both cases, I knew enough to know these books would be downers. Already I know that Ozeki’s and Nafisi’s books could be downers. In Ozeki’s, the teenage diary writer alludes to the fact that she won’t be around long, hinting at suicide, and its clear that the diary washing up in the Pacific NW where Ruth finds it hints at the Fukushima disaster after the tsunami. In Nafisi’s, every one of these women is repressed, oppressed, or persecuted, prisoners of a regime that restricts them in every way possible. It cannot end all bright and happy and rainbows. At best it will be bittersweet. (No spoilers in the comments if you’ve already read it, please.)

So why do we read books like this? (And I realize not everyone does, but I do…Why?)

Maybe it’s because we know what it’s like to wait for a summer that is slow in coming, to look at bare trees, knowing they will leaf out sooner or later–they must, they always have–but with the knowledge there is nothing we can do to make it happen on our own timeline.

Maybe it’s because the fluffy book we read for an escape ends neatly, and what we really need is for someone else to acknowledge that life can be painful and beautiful and inexplicable all at the same time–and that it doesn’t always have a happy ending.

Maybe it’s because our most enduring feelings are those of loss, regret, confusion, and anger–those things we cannot reconcile with how we feel the world ought to be: peaceful, whole, healthy, loving.

Maybe it’s because we live in the in-between time, the already-but-not-yet, somewhere in the middle of the story of creation, fall, and redemption.

Deep down we know all things will be made right. We just wish it was now. And so we read books that acknowledge that longing, that grapple with all those unanswerable questions, that show us the darkness–but that also present to us at least one character who endures, who makes it through the long night, who lives on illuminated by a ray of hope.

I like sad books and sad movies. I like happy ones too. But there’s something about the ones that cause you pain that lasts in my memory while the happy ones fade quickly away.

What about you? Do you want your books to be a pure escape? Or do you like a little (or a lot) of reality thrown in, even if it’s a harsh reality? What’s the saddest book you’ve read? Would you recommend it to others? Why or why not?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.