"With the certitude of a true believer, Vellya Paapen had assured the twins that there was no such thing in the world as a black cat. He said that there were only black, cat-shaped holes in the universe."
-- Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

What I Read: The First 10 (and a half) Books of 2013

I love to read, and these days I really have no excuse not to be reading.  I don't have a specific weekly or monthly goal-- if I do that, I tend to get obsessed with the goal and lose sight of the reading, choosing shorter books or speeding through things too quickly-- but I do have an overall goal to read 50 books this year and even that, now that I think about it, seems kind of low.  BUT... I would like to be more busy with other things in the coming months as well, such as my writing.  I have my novel draft to finish (and then SO MUCH MORE work to do on it after that point) and there are still several other ideas waiting patiently in my head (and in my journal) for their time to shine.  I can't read ALL the time, sadly. 

Also, I am a slow reader.  I am a good reader-- competent-- but I just read slowly.  I read parts over and over and think about everything.  In fact (and few know this about me) I read silently at pretty much the same speed that I read out loud because I "hear" the book in my head as I go, just as if I were saying the words.  That's why difficult-to-pronounce names trip me up.  Other people say, "Just skip it," or "Just pick something to say and move on," but I can't.  I try to get it right every time.  I remember one book in particular where this was a problem.  In The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, one of the main characters was named Rosaleen.  And I never knew (still don’t) if I should be pronouncing it ROSE-aleen or ROZ-aleen.  I kept trying to choose one, make it not matter, but I couldn't.  Every single time her name came up, my brain considered both pronunciations before moving on.  (That's a very good book, by the way.)

Usually I don't mind my slow reading.  While it would sometimes be nice to get through assigned texts faster, the things I read for pleasure or value I enjoy taking my time with.  Some of my friends re-read books over and over.  I know at least three people who routinely re-read the Harry Potter series; one of them even does it once a summer.  (At my speed, that would be physically impossible for me unless I literally did nothing else.)  I have other friends who re-read a book the moment they finish it because it was so good or because they want to "catch things they missed the first time around".  Considering all the stacks and stacks of books I have waiting, this seems like a terrible waste of time, but for me it is also unnecessary.  My close and careful perusal of books imprints most of the images and content on my mind.  I am always baffled to talk to someone about a book we have both just finished and learn they do not remember a detail that stood out so clearly to me. 

My well-worn teacher copy.
Of course there are a few books that I have re-read:  Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, because I absolutely love it. (If nothing else, you must read the story about Bill Forrester and Helen Loomis and the lime-vanilla ice which begins on page 140.)  And Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte because I loved it in college (and still do despite the 100-page tangent right before the end).  And, of course, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. Due to teaching it aloud for thirteen years to every single one of my 7th grade English classes, I have now read that book 43 times.  (I have the first page memorized.) 

And there are other books I want to re-read:  The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, which I loved but cannot remember at all.  There is a quote from that book at the top of this blog and, strangely, that is the only piece of the story I have retained.  Also Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, which I remember loving in high school, and Life of Pi by Yann Martel, which made a huge impact on me.  (I'm still not convinced I want to see the movie though, despite its recognition at the Oscars.)  But it is hard to pick up something I have already read, even if I don't remember it, when there are so many unread stories waiting in the wings.  Sometimes I cheat and recommend a book to my husband so that I can re-experience it through his comments and conversations.  But he's reading the Game of Thrones series now, so... I have to wait like 3,000 more pages before I can suggest another book to him.  (Sigh.)

But I digress.  What I really wanted to do was to share the first ten (and a half) books that I read this year.  So here they are:

1.  Texas Poetry Calendar 2012, edited by Scott Wiggerman and Cindy Huyser

I actually read this one last year, mostly.  My husband and I like to take turns reading the weekly poems aloud, but we got behind over the holidays and didn’t finish until early January.  It was especially fun reading the month of September because one of my poems was published there.  Here it is. 

Enchanted Rock in September:  A Tritina
by Carie Juettner

Sandals grip the dusty smooth surface of the stone
and a bead of sweat trickles down as I make my way up
and up and up beneath the sweltering heat of the sun’s power.

Past prickly pear cacti and one lone puddle of water, I power
through the ache in my legs, pushing harder and harder against the stone,
trying to imagine how it felt centuries ago, to look up

and see, in the distance, above all the trees, filling up
the horizon, this spectacular view—this vision of power
and endurance—this natural wonder of stone.

It fuels my awe for this stone, rising up out of the landscape, full of magic, of power.

While the 2012 calendars are gone (as is 2012 itself), I believe there are still a few of the 2013 calendars for sale.  Check out the Dos Gatos Press website to snatch one up.  If you do, you’ll find a haiku by me on the week of Halloween.

2.  Let’s Pretend This Never Happened:  A Mostly True Memoir, by Jenny Lawson

This book cracked me up from cover to cover.  If you’re not sure if you want to read it, just check out Jenny’s blog.  She’s crazy in all the right ways.


3.  We the Living, by Ayn Rand

I borrowed this powerful novel from my husband’s boss’s wife at the team holiday party.  She willingly lent it to me, but said jokingly (?) that if she didn’t get it back she would hunt me down.  Then she spent the rest of the evening mimicking the paperboy from Better Off Dead.  “TWO DOLLARS!!!” Just my luck, while in my possession the cover of her book severed itself from the spine.  I made careful repairs and wrote a long note of apology before sending it back to her.  Mark still has a job, so… I guess all is good.

4.  Help! For Writers, by Roy Clark

My only real complaint about this book is the exclamation point in the title.  Otherwise it was quite helpful.  Better suited to nonfiction writers than fiction, but there were still lots of great tips and suggestions that I have used in my work.

5.  Traces of Forgotten Places:  An Artist’s Thirty-Year Exploration and Celebrations of Texas as It Was, by Don Collins

My dad gave this book to me for Christmas because he liked the drawings in it of old barns and houses and farm equipment across the state.  He loves that kind of thing.  Plus, some of the buildings are places we have seen together (such as the railroad depot in Quanah, Texas, shown below).  The images are really neat, and some of Collins’ descriptions of the places are amusing. 


6.  The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman        
I read this one for my book club.  Although the history that the story was based on interested me (the mass suicide of Jewish rebels at Masada in 73CE) I was not a fan of the book itself.

7.  Jane-Emily, by Patricia Clapp
Great little story!  To see my full review of it on Goodreads, click here. 


8.  The Stranger, by Albert Camus

I grabbed this book at Half Priced after reading the following paragraph in the article “Reading With a Writer’s Eye” by Tania Casselle in the 2013 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market: 

The Understory [by Pamela Erens] has an ominous tone which builds turn-the-page tension.  Erens had already pared the writing in revisions, but during her final draft, she read Camus’ The Stranger.  ‘It’s a very short book, with a creepy sense of omission—what’s being left out.’ Reading that made her trim back even more.”

Upon finishing the book, I was unsatisfied with it, not really understanding its power and timelessness, but after some good conversations with fellow readers and some time to look back on it, it is beginning to grow on me.  However, I still don't understand the cover.

8 ½.  A Stolen Life, by Jaycee Dugard

Jaycee Dugard is the woman who was abducted in California when she was eleven years old and then forced to live in a backyard and endure unending abuse for eighteen years before she was recued and reunited with her family.  This book is her memoir.  I picked it up because, at first glance, I thought the structure of it might help me with my own book, but after the first 70 pages or so, I couldn’t read it anymore.  I ended up skimming through the book and reading the “happy” ending.  Jaycee is an amazing example of endurance and strength and I am glad she had the courage to write down her story in such detail.  I just didn’t have the guts to read it all.


9.  Picnic, Lightning, by Billy Collins
Loved this.  I read it slowly, never more than two poems in a day.  So many of them seemed to fit my mood or thoughts so perfectly and often they inspired me to jot down some verses.  Probably my favorite moment in reading it was finding out the source for the title of the book and the poem, on page 24, of the same name.  The poem begins with a quote from Lolita.  “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three.”

10.  2013 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, edited by Scott Francis

My mom gave me this hefty volume for Christmas and I finally took the dive into its pages this month.  There is a lot more helpful advice in there than I realized.  Not only have I found contests and magazines that seem like a good fit for my work, but many of the articles are valuable as well.  I especially liked “Ten Writing Pitfalls and How to Beat Them” by I.J. Schecter and “Reading With a Writer’s Eye” by Tania Casselle.  Teachers, the latter one would also make a great text to use in the classroom.

Whew! First ten are done!  Stay tuned for the next ten.  If you’d like to see what’s on my reading list, click here.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Amtrak Diaries

Riding the rails is nothing like flying.  And that’s exactly what I liked about it.

Last weekend, my husband and I drove to Richardson to visit my family.  On Sunday, I decided I wanted to stick around a few more days, so I sent the hubby and the labradeer back to Austin and bought an Amtrak ticket to get me home on Wednesday.

I've been curious about Amtrak for a while.  I was seduced by the romance of the train experience and intrigued by the prospect of reading or writing or sleeping or doing anything during the trip besides driving in traffic on I35.  When I found out how much it cost-- $28 one way-- I was even more interested.  With Southwest flights now at $92 (gone are the days of the $39 get-a-ways) and the cost to fill my gas tank more than $30, it seemed stupid NOT to take the train.  Even when I found out that the trip was over seven hours long, I still wasn't discouraged.  (I was a little CONFUSED... I mean it only takes about four hours by car and trains are supposed to be fast, right?  More on that later.)  But I just considered that time a gift and fantasized about all the writing I would get done, all the books I could read.

So I did it.  All in all, it was a pleasant experience, (and thankfully nothing like my train experience in Peru).  There were set-backs, there were delays, there were unexpected surprises, but DESPITE all that, I still very much enjoyed riding the train.  The best part of the whole thing was the lack of drama.  It was SO AWESOME not to have to deal with the TSA, I don’t even know where to begin.  There were no metal detectors.  There were no plastic bins in which to place your belt and car keys and ziplock baggie of toothpaste and shampoo.  No one badgered me about the sack of food or the bottle of water I carried on board.  I never once had to take off my shoes.  [If you are reading this right now and thinking, "That's not safe!  How do they know people weren't carrying guns?!  You could have had a bomb in your shoe!  I for one APPRECIATE the protection from terrorism that the TSA provides!" then by all means, keep flying.  Keep getting to the airport two hours early in case the security lines are ridiculously long.  Keep stressing out over whether or not Chapstick is considered a liquid.  Keep allowing a rubber-gloved employee to pat down the back of your head because your BOBBY PIN showed up suspiciously in the body scanner.  Have fun with that.] 

I'm not trying to say I will never fly again or that I will cease doing the white-knuckle drive up I35.  I will.  And there are definitely downsides to riding the train, such as the length of the trip and the fact that I can't bring my dog with me.  (It’s a pity, because he would love it.)  All I'm saying is that it was nice to be reminded of what the world was like before we all went crazy and started accusing everyone and their grandmother of being a terrorist. 

Plus, the people I was traveling with were awesome too.  Even when things were not going according to plan, even when situations arose which were less than ideal, I only ever saw ONE person get crosswise about it and complain.  Everyone else was calm, patient, and friendly.  I can't remember the last time I struck up a conversation with a stranger in an airport, and if I'm flying alone and need to use the restroom, I lug my rolling carry-on into the bathroom with me and park it in the tiny stall rather than leave it "unattended", fearful from those constant reminders on the loudspeaker.  But in the Fort Worth train station everyone was sociable.  I had real, personal, friendly conversations with at least seven different people, none of whom had met each other before that day.  I left my bags with someone, twice, while I went to the bathroom.  Instead of hugging our belongings tight and tapping our feet restlessly and avoiding eye contact and stressing over how to board and when to line up, we sprawled out in our seats, eating, journaling, knitting, sharing, trusting that we'd hear the boarding announcement when it was made or help each other out if need be.  It was lovely.

And once we got on the train?  Maybe I shouldn't even mention the comfortable seats and the ample leg room and the handy electrical outlets and the footrest and the fact that I had an empty seat next to me the whole way.  It just seems mean.  But it’s true.  And I was allowed to get up and walk around whenever I chose to do so and no one EVER asked me to put my tray table away.

Oh, and the view was nice too.

And I was able to make phone calls.

And there were five bathrooms just in my car.


It's not all tray tables and footrests. 

Like I said, though, there are downsides.  The schedule was not ideal. My ticket said departure time was 11:50AM from Union Station in Dallas and arrival time was 7:30PM in Austin.  That’s already a LONG trip, but I was up for it.  Still it didn’t go exactly as I thought it would.

My Time Table (A.K.A. The Reason Why the Trip Takes Seven Hours, or in My Case, Ten)
10:38AM - Board DART metro rail to go downtown to Union Station in Dallas.
11:15AM - Arrive at Union Station, find out the tracks between Dallas and Fort Worth are under construction so a bus will take me to Fort Worth to get on the train.
11:50AM - Bus leaves for Fort Worth.
12:30PM - Arrive at Fort Worth station to find that the train does not leave until 3:10.  Sit down and make friends for two and a half hours.
2:50PM – Boarding begins (quick process, no security checks, barely even glanced at my ID).
3:15PM - Train starts moving, making only a couple of brief stops at Temple and… somewhere else.  I can't remember.
6:40PM - While passing through Round Rock, an announcement is made that we will arrive in Austin in 35 minutes, earlier than our scheduled arrival time.  (Yea!)
7:05PM – When we are in north Austin, an announcement is made that Amtrak shares the tracks with Union Pacific and due to a Union Pacific freight train delay we will have to stop and wait about 25-30 minutes for a freight to pass.  (Boo.)
8:15PM - After an hour and ten minutes of sitting on the tracks, we start moving again.
8:30PM - Arrive at the Austin station an hour late.

Boarding in Fort Worth, 3:00PM
(Again, everyone was patient about the delays and I for one did not mind them, seeing as how I had good books and no place to be.  However, it was somewhat frustrating to be SO CLOSE to home when the delay occurred.)

Now comes the part when I assault a stranger.

Don't mess with me, old man.

Probably the best part of the trip for me was meeting the other travelers.  Following are some journal entries from my layover in Fort Worth and my first few minutes on the train.

1:10PM –
I am sitting in the Fort Worth train station waiting for my train to Austin.  My company includes a woman who has six kids.  She has homeschooled five of them; one chose to attend public high school.  She is knitting a purple hat.  She tells me that her seventeen-year-old son writes novels.  He likes to swing on a swingset while listening to music to get his ideas. 
There is also a girl in her twenties sitting across from me who is returning to Austin after being in a hospital for a week.  She was doing a clinical drug trial for the disease P.O.T.S. (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome) which is a condition that makes the heart beat like it is running a marathon and causes those afflicted to pass out often.  She said the syndrome is not recognized by the FDA, and their only drug to treat it is in danger of being taken off the market.  The girl has only had the disease for two years.  She was attending Texas State in San Marcos, getting her degree in kinesiology when she got sick.  She had to quit school and now lives with her mom in Austin because her condition is debilitating.  She can be fine one day and then bedridden the next.  She’s very sweet.  I worry for her because she's traveling alone, but everyone is being kind to her and one woman is being very motherly, helping with her bags, etc. 
The old man to the left of me with bad teeth is a delivery man, though I didn't hear what he delivers, and he lives in Indiana.  He has a seat cover that he puts in his chair.  He says it has magnets in it and helps with circulation.  He has special shoes with magnets in them too and he says they have really helped his diabetes.  When I mention that they should have a Starbucks in this place because they would make a lot of money, he says, "Do you know what's worse than coffee?" which I thought was a funny response to my desire for coffee.  Then he proceeds to tell me a couple of stories about traveling in Canada.  In one, his bus broke down on the side of the road and he walked for hours in -20 degrees.  In another one, he was with some Russians in a diner and didn't want coffee.  They offered him “postum” which is, according to him, “the worst drink in the world”.  Apparently it was terrible and made him almost vomit on the spot.  (I looked it up on Wikipedia.  It is a roasted grain beverage that was offered as a healthy alternative to coffee.  A 1910 ad shows it being advertised for children.)

1:30PM –
The seat to the right of me keeps filling and emptying again.  It is the seat closest to the door which keeps opening to let in the cold wind.  We (my new friends and I) are unsure if it is the temperature which keeps driving people away, or us.  A man approaches and asks if the seat is taken.  We say no and laugh, which unsettles him.  I tell him, "People don't stay long," and explain that we don't know if it is the cold or us.  He smiles and sits down.  Two minutes later the door opens.  He turns, gets my attention, and says pointedly, "I can tell you... it's NOT you."  :)

1:50PM –
The delivery man next to me says, "Do you know anyone who can interpret dreams?"  I say no, I used to have a book, but... He says, "I've been having the dumbest recurring dream."  So of course I ask what it is.  He says, "I keep dreaming I'm a muffler."  I say, "A muffler?  Like... on a car?"  He nods and says it's the stupidest thing but he has the dream over and over.  I venture, "Well, you do travel a lot.  Maybe..." But he shakes his head, says he's had the dream for years, before the traveling.  I am trying to think of something else to say when he says, "And I keep waking up EXHAUSTED!"  And that's when I punched him right in the shoulder.  Yep, I punched an old man who I had only known for half an hour.  I probably shouldn't have done that, but he seemed to enjoy it.  When he finished laughing, he went on to tell me that in his job people always want to tell jokes, but everyone tells a dirty joke and that's not his thing.  So he started listening to a radio show that ended every program with a joke, a clean one that they could say on the air.  He would listen to the show, hear the joke, then turn off his radio and say it over and over and over to himself and every time he said it, he would tweak it just a little until it was his own.  Then he'd go to make a delivery and the moment he got there, he wouldn't let the other person get a word in edgewise, he'd just launch right into his jokes.  He'd tell them one after another until the job was done and he was gone.  And that's how he figured out how to keep from having to listen to tasteless jokes all day.  I like this guy.  He reminds me of my grandpa. 

2:25PM –
A small child, maybe 4 or 5, is playing patty-cake with her big sister and singing, "That's the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I LIKE it, uh-huh, uh-huh" a la KC & the Sunshine Band.

2:35PM –
The train is here, but they are not boarding yet.  There is a man next to me from Bastrop who is taking the train because he can't fly because he had cataract surgery last week.  He said it was amazing and now he can't wait to do the other eye.  He said during the surgery he got to see a great laser light show behind his eyelid.  I asked him if it hurt and he said after a couple of Xanax before hand you don't care about anything.  His wife is a teacher and ever since he retired at age 55, he has been substitute teaching.  (It sounds like he is a good sub because he worked over 100 days in the same school last year.)  He said the very first day of subbing he was in a sixth grade math class and at lunch he called his wife and told her, "They do not pay you enough."

All aboard.

3:19PM – Just got on the train.  Nice comfy seat, tray, handy electrical outlets, unbelievable leg room, footrest, and no one in the seat next to me.  Woo hoo!  We are starting to move.

3:37PM - oooOOOooo!  Just found my SECOND footrest!

3:40PM - Announcement about dinner reservations.  Options are... vegetarian noodle bowl for $16.00 (!!!), half a roasted chicken for $16.75, pork ribs for $19.00, or steak for... (missed the price, but I bet it was more than $19.00).  I think I will stick to my peanut butter sandwiches and apples and goldfish crackers.

3:42PM – The gentle rocking of the train is quite soothing.  I will have to fight being lulled to sleep.

3:43PM - Hmm... very hard to write on moving train.  Signing off.

Arriving in Austin, 8:30PM

[Note:  I never learned the names of any of my travel-buddies and I never gave them mine.  But if one of my train friends is reading this blog, I’m the girl in the red scarf who wasn’t wearing an eye patch.  You know what I mean…  Email me!]