Life’s latrine dumped itself on us this year. The bad and the ugly gave good love a workout. But love never tires; it’s the heat of life; it rises; it removes obstacles and illuminates hope. And that’s all the philosophizing this gal can do on the last day of the year because I’ve got more important things to talk about— like books.
My reading list for 2020 capped at 55 this year. It could’ve been 56, but one novel failed me. The premise stoked curiosity long enough for me to get a third of the way through, but then my mind said, this story will never captivate you. It is now one of three books I have been unable to finish. It’s true— I am as patient and persistent with reading as I am with writing— so yes— the book was a slog.
A reader on Instagram set a goal to read 100 books during 2020 and met her goal last Friday. Woohoo! That’s not me. My only goal for reading is the pleasurable expansion of my heart and mind. Because I love to talk about the books I read (my first serious blog was dedicated to book reviews), I’ve often tried participating in book clubs. But I don’t enjoy being maneuvered into reading books I’m not ready to read yet. The order of the books in my TBR pile continually gets reshuffled because either the book I just finished stirred interest for a particular kind of story, or the Universe has introduced a book that must be read ASAP. I think this is called reading by the muse.
In hindsight, my 2020 Reading Muse appears to have had an agenda— to push me toward the turning point in my writing.
Turning Point— the event that launches the climax; it is the moment in story when it becomes abundantly clear, to the protagonist and the reader, that the end is inevitable.
Does this mean the end of my writing life is near? N-O. No. The books below have shown me how to take my writing to the next level and illuminated the next phase of my journey.
Yes, Palahniuk. Again. To discover the not gory details of my obsession with this writer’s memoir on craft, you’re welcome to read I’ve Been Kidnapped by Chuck Palahniuk. Here’s the short of it. This memoir opened my mind to read and write with a sharper eye. It is this new point of view that has led me to tap into the following discoveries.
The Henry Huggins Series by Beverly Cleary
One pleasant outcome of being stuck in New York while my granddaughter is in Illinois is our virtual Storytime. We meet every Sunday and Wednesday night, just five-year-old Charlize and me. First, she updates me on the drama of her life— like how she married Sonic the Hedgehog; they now have 29 children— then we get to the current story. Since April, we’ve read fifteen Chapter Books. We started with Henry and his dog Ribsy because it was one of the series I reread as a kid.
If you’ve been following my journey, you know one of the biggest obstacles for me is to stop keeping the reader at a distance. My editor keeps saying, But what’s her visceral reaction? Let Us IN! So, you can imagine how gobsmacked I was to find Beverly Cleary— now 104 years old— did it on every page and made it look like no big deal. Cleary’s no-big-deal-delivery of Henry’s inner emotional life is exactly what brought my attention to it. Part of me wants to reread every book I’ve ever read just to appreciate the inner life of the characters more. The rest of me is simply happy my understanding of what it means to write viscerally has grown enough for me to put it into practice.
I was motivated to read Slave Play after listening to episode 109 of the Black & Highly Dangerous podcast featuring an interview with dramaturg Martine Kei Green-Rogers, a professor at SUNY-New Paltz. I was hooked after the first character description and eager to turn the page by the time I read them all:
Kaneisha— a dark, black woman unafraid of what she knows she wants; 28
Jim— a white man and inheritor of more than he knows how to handle; 35
Phillip— a mulatto who still has to learn his color; 30
Alana— a white woman who wants more than the world sees fit to give her; 36
Dustin— a white man but the lowest type of white— dingy, an off-White; 28
Gary— a dark, black man whose life has been lived with the full trauma of his color; 27
Teá— a mulatto who is studied in her black and her white; 26
Patricia— a light brown woman who knows many lives; 30
Slave Play is an unsettling assault on every principle and moral you once thought you had a handle on. The First Act is so intense and offensive you might want to put it down. I needed a break after getting through it. But I promise the Second and Third act make the offensive First Act worth the struggle. And from a writer’s perspective the Second and Third Acts show how necessary the First Act is— it is the key to the story’s inevitable turns. The premise: “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy. A radical therapy designed to help black partners reengage intimately with white partners from whom they no longer receive sexual pleasure.”
I’ve read a LOT of plays. But no play has ever shown me how vital it is to have the Conversation. The Conversation is the only way to heal friction within and between races, genders, and cultures. My manuscript doesn’t deal with the same content of this work of art, but this work of art has shown me how to get down and dirty with emotional conflict.
The Girl in White Gloves by Kerri Maher
When an historical fiction novel stirs a desire to read more on the subject of the story, you know it’s a gem. Kerri Maher’s novel is such a book. As a former actress, I adored Grace Kelly’s beauty, talent and her air of mystery. But it was her determination to live an independent life as an artist that most captured my heart. The way Maher conveys Grace’s artistic struggle was another excellent example of how to place the inner emotional life of the character on the page. It also revived my interest in reading historical fiction.
Ribbons of Scarlet by Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, Laura Kamoie, E. Knight, Sophie Perinot, and Heather Webb
An anthology written by six historical fiction authors that exposes the passion and courage of seven unforgettable women of the French Revolution. I couldn’t stop thinking about the plight of our country when I read this passage…
Marianne, as we named our national goddess of liberty, stalks above France like a scarlet specter, the blood of the innocent trailing from her red gown, no longer a lady of liberty but a lady of terror. In her wake, insolence and crime rage furiously together and the people bow down in mindless homage and abject fear. My vast and beautiful city has become gorged with blood and rotten with lies, wildly applauding the foul murders that are supposed to be necessary for its safety.
I will never again read historical fiction without examining the impact of the events on the page against what is happening in the present thanks to these fearless women of the French Revolution. This connection was the primer for the next two Turning Point books.
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
Confession: I may love Gilbert’s memoir even more than Palahniuk’s. Exactly how Big Magic was able to circumvent the hold Consider This had on me will become clear if you read Big Magic’s Magic. The nitty-gritty— reading this book cleared a path for Trust to enter my writing life. It’s in its infancy but Trust is in for the long haul just like me. Nitty-gritty’s side-affect…
You’ll start to notice all kinds of signs pointing you to the idea. Everything you see and touch and do will remind you of the idea. The idea will wake you up at night and distract you from your everyday routine. The idea will not leave you alone until it has your fullest attention.
The Paris Secret by Natasha Lester
Do you ever have to force yourself to put down a book? Every day with The Paris Secret, historical fiction set in WW2, was such a day for me. I wasn’t just curious, I was obsessed with figuring out the mystery behind the presence of the priceless Christian Dior gowns that were hanging in Kat Jourdan’s grandmother’s cottage, as well as figuring out the true identity of Marguax Jourdan. Every time I thought I’d unraveled or came close to unraveling the truth, another puzzle piece would arrive and hurl me back into the unknown. To complicate matters, all along the way the personal and professional stakes for the characters continued to rise and be squeezed by the danger of the what was going on in the war. If this book doesn’t turn you into an historical fiction fan, nothing will. The Paris Secret solidified my love for the genre. It’s a story that honors the courageous women of history who fought for freedom; it’s an inspiration for women of the present to keep on keeping on, and encouragement for daughters everywhere to believe in themselves and their dreams. And for writer me…
I’ve fallen so deeply in love with history, Big Magic sent me an idea I can’t stop thinking about. I’ve already opened a file and started research. Is that crazy or what!?! I haven’t even written a novel compelling enough to catch the eye of an agent, yet a path is being clear for my future writing life. Yowza! I guess 2020 wasn’t a total bust after all.
Happy New Year, friends, readers and voyeurs! May the BEST of this year, be the worst of 2021!