Saturday, May 29, 2010

What Gets Me (And Publishing) Excited

I could spend today talking about all of the amazing, wonderful things I learned about publishing at BEA this week, but the truth is, Janet Reid is doing a far better job of saying everything I would say on her own blog (here!).

This was my second year going to BEA. A year ago, I did not have a blog or Twitter account, and I didn't really know many other people in the industry. While my biggest fear in life is still "networking," I think I was in better shape this year. That said, this year's BEA, like last year's, remained what I wanted it to be for me: the literary equivalent of Supermarket Sweep. 

Books I didn't even care to read were thrown into my tote bags, and some of them I don't even remember picking up. It was amazing. Of course, some books got me more excited than others. "Buzzworthy Books," if you will. So here are my Top 5 books that not only am I personally excited about, but the publishing industry is excited about too.

1) The Passage by Justin Cronin. Good lord were they hyping this book! Sadly, I was not able to get a copy because I'm fairly certain they ran out within ten seconds. It's yet another vampire book, but it's one that reminds us that vampires do not, nor should they ever, sparkle. Post-apocalyptic, gritty, and destined to be a bestseller! In fact, I think it is already.

2) Room by Emma Donoghue. I'm very excited to read this book. Told from the perspective of five-year-old, Jack, Room is about being forced to live in captivity, and thinking of it as home. Of course, to Jack's mom, it's a prison from which she thinks she cannot ever escape. But more than that, it's about the bond between a mother and son. I hope it's not too premature to say that I think this book might do for mothers and sons what The Road did for fathers and sons.

3) The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale. An absurdest "memoir" of an evolved chimpanzee named Bruno who falls in love, and shares a detailed intimate moment, with his human caretaker, Lydia. That should pretty much explain it all.

4) The D.U.F.F. by Kody Keplinger. You can accuse me of being biased, since Kody is a friend of the blog, but I am definitely not the only one excited about this book. It was a featured title on the "Buzzworthy YA" panel and her editor's praise could not have been any higher or more genuine. The D.U.F.F. is about Bianca, the "Designated Ugly Fat Friend," who begins a relationship with the hot and popular, Wesley. It's realistic fiction that might be so real it's raw, which I think is something sorely missing in YA lately. 

5) Matched by Allie Condie. This is another title I, unfortunately, could not snag at BEA, but I look forward to buying it. It was described in a way that reminded me of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishigur. That is, a seemingly Utopian world that turns out to be anything but. In Matched, teenage Cassia looks forward to getting matched to her "perfect guy," only to have her Matching Ceremony act as the catalyst in discovering her world is not what it appears to be. 

What's exciting to me about each of these titles deals is that they deal more with human nature than they do with plot. Yes, The Passage will rely heavily on events and action, but like with any dystopian novel, what will make it interesting is how the characters struggle to survive. To me, this only proves that publishing is not a lost cause. At its heart, it still wants, needs, and gets excited about stories. Throw a vampire in there. Add a world-turned-upside-down. Or maybe just set it in a high school, letting the natural drama surrounding that world project your characters forward. In any case, remember it's the story that matters, not the gimmick.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Goodbye Melinda

Even in the midst of BEA, I present to you your regularly scheduled story time! Today's comes from Claude Nougat, who has worked in banking, publishing, marketing, and higher education. She has written romance novels and childrens book in Italian, and narrative nonfiction in English. She is currently finishing a novel called Memory Island that takes place in Italy. Go check out her blog, where she shares her loves (politics, art, books, and food) and dislikes (economics, statistics, and conventional wisdom).

The short story she is sharing with us today is called Goodbye Melinda, which is about an American girl who gets lost in an Italian prison. Hope you enjoy it.

Goodbye Melinda
By Claude Nougat

‘Stupid! Sei stupida!’

He screamed and slapped me hard. I’ll never forget the first time he hit me. I thought I was going to die. Then I got used to it. If only I could float away and forget it all. Be somewhere else – back home in America, in my parents’ garden by the lake, watching the sun go down, trying to catch that famous last flash of green light, something I have never been able to do. With all the hitting and the pain, I couldn’t float away into blessed oblivion. I couldn’t pretend I was somewhere else. Here I was – incredibly, unaccountably – locked up in a stinking Italian jail. My gaoler, a big dark man with a bristling black beard and a nasty grin towered over me but I hardly saw him anymore. My eyes kept tearing up and he wouldn’t let me wipe them.

‘You’re so stupid!’ Then, back to the questioning: ‘Don’t you remember him? Bongo, your sweet little friend from Gabon? He was there with you in your house when Melinda died…’

I shook my head. As far as I could remember, he wasn’t.

‘You’re lying!’ the man roared. ‘Everyone has seen you with Bongo, you work together in the same bar at night, you drink together, you do drugs together, you make love together…Do you want me to go on?’

I shook my head. Of course, I knew Bongo, the gentle “nero” as they called him here in Florence. He was a student like all of us; I was into Renaissance art, he was into modern architecture, we had met at the language course: we both needed our Italian spruced up – in fact, that’s why he and I were here. I knew him like I knew so many others – so what?

‘Have you lost your tongue?’ the man roared, ‘You drive me crazy! How can you deny the evidence? The neighbours saw the four of you come back to your house around midnight. Dancing and singing in the street, screaming your heads off – you didn’t care if you woke up the whole neighbourhood. Other people go to work in the morning, but you rich kids never do…’

I shrugged.

‘You slut! You come to Italy to have a good time, all you think of is your own sweet pleasure, but, let me tell you, it’s over. Over, do you hear me? Over!’ he screamed. ‘Melinda is dead, and if it isn’t Bongo’s fault, then it’s yours! Is that what you want? We’ll slap the murder charge on you!’

He stopped, out of breath and then added in a raucous voice: ‘you know what? I am beginning to think that poor Bongo had nothing to do with it! Melinda was your roommate, she was your friend. You knew her. Murders always happen among people who know each other well. You were the one with every reason to kill her!’

I shuddered, and opened my mouth to tell him it was nonsense. But nothing came out. It was too difficult to explain. Melinda was my roommate, sure, but we weren’t friends. She was sweet but fat and homely. I am thin and I like smart clothes. She was too English, too narrow-minded, too stuck to be my friend. We really had nothing in common and nothing to say to each other. But I didn’t actively dislike her. She was a convenient roommate. She paid her part of the rent, she kept the kitchen clean, she was discrete. We went out together not because we were friends. It was because of the men. I met a lot of people at the bar and so did Bongo. He was helpful. He was willing to come along when I wasn’t sure I wanted to date a particular guy. He’d pair up with Melinda. It was convenient. I think he liked her English peach and cream look.

That evening we had made a foursome with Giacomo, an Italian I had just met. Good looking, lots of dark, curly hair, a ring in his ear that made him look like a pirate of the Caribbean. But there was something ominous about him - like a hidden secret and I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the night with him. When we got home, he produced grass, we smoked the four of us in the kitchen of our old rented house. With thick walls and tight-shutting windows, we needn’t fear any intrusion, and that was nice and relaxing. Then something happened next door, in Melinda’s room.

‘Don’t pretend you don’t remember, because I know you do!" yelled the man. "Let’s go over this one more time. And this is the last time: my patience is at an end! At the end of the evening, Melinda went to her room, didn’t she?’

He shook me repeating in a scream: ‘didn’t she?’

I nodded. She did.

‘Who went in with her?’

I shook my head. Giacomo was with me and so was Bongo. At least I think so but I was tired of telling him. I had said it all before.

‘It was Bongo, the “nero” kid who followed her in? Wasn’t it? Come on, you know he did. What’s stopping you?’

I don’t know what’s stopping me. I just can’t remember. May be Bongo went in, and Giacomo and I stayed behind in the kitchen, smoking away. I just don’t remember. But why would Bongo ever murder Melinda? He liked her so much. Who could have done it? I wish I knew. It’s frightening not to know. Was it Giacomo? But he had only just met Melinda, he hardly knew her, or did he? There was this darkness about him, that look of repressed violence – perhaps he cultivated it to impress females. In a way, he had succeeded with me: I thought him interesting, but he scared me. I didn’t trust him. I don’t know why.

My gaoler stared at me in silence, disgust showing in his face. ‘You know, sometimes I think you kids get so bored in life that you’re ready to try anything to get a high," he said. "And when drugs won’t do it, a good murder will, with blood everywhere. Do you have any idea at all how repulsive all this is?’

I thought he was going to hit me again but he didn’t. He stomped out, banging the door shut. I was one again alone in my cell. I watched the sun go down through the bars until it was totally dark, and I thought of the sun back home. There was no flash of green light. There never is.

The next day was a repeat. And the next one, and the next after. How many days? I lost count. I never had any answers. The more they asked, the more I was confused. And afraid. Who knows who had done it? Bongo, the one with the fat, jolly smile? Giacomo, with his dark, brooding eyes? Could it have been me? That was scary. If I was capable of killing Melinda and couldn’t remember a thing, what kind of a person was I?

One day, after a long, long time the door opened and someone who wasn’t my gaoler stepped in. A big man.

My father!

I ran up to him and sobbed, crying my heart out. He took me in his strong arms and looked at me intensely with his soft blue eyes: I felt like his little girl again. My life had come apart. Surely he had the answer, didn’t he? It couldn’t have been me. No it couldn’t, he said, I shouldn’t worry. He was very firm on that point, he knew who it was. Bongo of course, who else? Not the Italian, but the boy from Gabon. The African. That was obvious, couldn’t I see it? I shook my head. And then my father lost his patience, just like the gaoler.

‘You’re stupid!’ he yelled, ‘Why can’t you remember who went into that room with Melinda?’

Bongo, of course, who else?

Maybe so. I agreed because he was my father. And I was immediately rewarded. Peace descended on me. I knew I was safe.

Together at last, my father and I sat in my cell and watched the sun go down in silence. Between the bars. This time I caught a ray of green light, just before it sank below the Tuscan hills.

Much later – fifteen years later – I sought out Bongo in Florence when he came out of jail after serving his sentence. He had grown fat but I recognized his warm dimpled smile immediately. We had espresso at the bar near the Duomo where we used to work. Suddenly, he leaned forward across the table and, speaking softly, he thanked me profusely for the million dollars my father had given him. He was now a rich man – a happy man. There was only one thing he regretted: Melinda.

Monday, May 24, 2010

I Just Had the Strangest Dream

Don't worry. I'm not going to give anything away.

To me, no show has ever fully embraced the concept of "the journey, not the destination, matters," more than Lost. You didn't need to have seen the finale to pick up on that. Not to sound too much like Jacob, but life is not about the situation you're in, but rather how and why you handle that situation the way you do. Lost was a show of ideas and of human nature. It was never, ever, a show about "hey, what's this crazy island?" Those who are arguing over the ending or still questioning "what's it all mean?" will probably never be satisfied, and, sadly, those people completely missed the point of the show. I think it'll be a long time before television audiences are ready to put up with such a concept again, so for that reason, I am sad to see Lost go. 

Moving on.

The end of the most novelistic show on television got me thinking of the most outrageous, satisfying, beautiful, or completely infuriating endings to novels we've read. Reactions to book endings usually don't have blogs or message boards devoted to them, so feel free to geek out in the comments.

For me, my favorite last line might be (I'm predictable, I know), "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody," from, of course, The Catcher in the Rye. I'm also partial to the entire last paragraph of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon (which I mentioned before here).

As for "infuriating endings," I think I'm guilty of naysaying. That said, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows made me a little mad. First, for people who did die and people who should've died but didn't. Second, for the "tra la la" epilogue. I've heard JK Rowling talk about the book, and I understand why she did it, but when I read it I admit to making my "seriously?" face.

What is your favorite, or least favorite, ending or last line to a book? (Rule: Respect the "spoiler alert" code of not being a ruiner! Thanks.)

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Perks of Being Patient

Disclaimer: This post is going to be entirely about The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. There are no spoilers, but I'm just warning those who may not have read it in case they get bored. But if you haven't read it, read the below post anyway, and then go read the book!

If any of you follow me on Twitter, you might have seen my multiple exclamation point tweet yesterday regarding the news that my favorite book EVER, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, is finally being made into a movie. I've mentioned my love of this book before (here, for example), but I think most people my age (especially you bookish types!) can remember reading it when it came out and thinking "finally somebody gets me!"

It seemed like such a small book at the time. Not many other people from my high school had read it (except for the select few who were forced to hear me rave about it). It wasn't until I went to college that I met people who had the same reaction to it that I had, and I realized what an effect it had on my generation. Since it still pops up on "banned books" lists, I assume (and hope!) that it's having that same effect on the next generation of insecure teens. The news of the movie finally being made, eleven years after its original publication, only confirms its continuing impact on young readers.

Since 1999, I've read Perks eight more times. As an older teen, I found I could relate to different characters in the book too, not just the main character, Charlie, anymore. In my early twenties, I felt more nostalgia when I re-read it, and now in my late twenties, I just want to give everybody a hug and tell them "don't worry, it all gets better!" Still, even after the many changes I've been through in my own life, I can still find ways to relate to the awkward, depressed, insecure, and ever-lovable Charlie.

News about the movie can be found here. Some obvious gripes: The inevitable "movie tie-in re-release," which you might remember from this post, I dislike. Also, I think Hermione (*ahem* Emma Watson) will make a good Sam, but I would've preferred someone more like Kristin Stewart, only younger and better. And yes, the kid playing Charlie sort of looks the part, but he's eighteen, and will only be older by the time they start filming. It's only a three-year age difference, but in teen years, that difference is huge, especially when playing a fifteen-year-old who already looks young for his age. But, then I think of Luke Perry on 90210, or the entire cast of Gossip Girl, and suddenly things don't seem so bad.

The one major perk for me, and everyone else, it seems, is that the author, Stephen Chbosky, is both writing and directing the film, which means it stands a chance of staying true to the book. It also means there's way less of a chance of "Nick and Norah-ing" it and making a great book terrible.

Some more obvious perks:
People will start talking about the book again!
Gen(whatever I am)-ers who were maybe just old enough to miss it the 1st time will read it for the first time!
Popularity of "non-paranormal" YA novels is reawakened!
1990s nostalgia sky-rockets and I can start wearing snap bracelets again! (OK, I'm getting ahead of myself, and a little out of control.)

Joking aside, there is something to be said for growing up in the '90s and I'm so happy that I did. Sure, every generation thinks theirs is "the best," but the '90s were as close to the '60s as us "children of boomers" were going to get. Even I was a little too young to fully appreciate it, since my teens also bled into the early '00s, but it's the decade that resonates most with me when I think of my own "coming of age" and The Perks of Being a Wallflower captured that perfectly for me at an age when I needed it most. There is no way the movie will live up to the book for me, but I still cannot wait to see it.

Thanks for bearing with me and my ode. 140 characters was just not enough space to talk about how excited I am that this book is back in my life. (Not that it ever left.)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Wind

I'm very excited to bring you some YA today (and not just YA, but the paranormal kind!). Today's story is an excerpt of the first chapter of Wind by Cynthia Watson. In it, the main character Mary deals with her father's death, her broken mother, an alcoholic brother, and a younger sister named Kevin who has recently given herself a goth makeover. Mary loses all hope until, after meeting an Italian exchange, she is "dropped down a rabbit hole of angels, demons and inexplicable mystic occurrences."

Cynthia has just started the second book in her saga, Sand. She lives in Barrie, Ontario with her cocker spaniel, Symon, and five rescued cats. Go check out more of her writing on her blog, which has an amazing gothic-style background, here.

A DEATH, from Wind
By Cynthia Watson

My father died in the middle of the night, while I was sleeping, but the call came in the early morning—those calls often do.  I watched from my bed as the snow started to fall.  A few light flakes at first, in the blue-black darkness, then sharp gusts of wind pushing the swirls to their final resting place on the barren lawn behind my house.   

All around the silent neighborhood, lights gradually came on, like fireflies signalling to each other that the day had begun.  The naked branches of the trees already looked like heavy, white arms.  I glanced over at my younger sister, Kevin—my long-limbed nemesis—entangled in sheets, exposing her pyjamas with the sushi pattern; pink shrimps, black tuna rolls and yellow Tamago shapes, scattered on white flannel. Her face seemed pale and unnatural looking against her dyed, jet-black hair. She was a natural redhead, like me, but hated being so. I couldn’t blame her.  I had been through all the usual teasing and survived, but Kevin was different—stronger willed—she was determined not to endure a similar fate.  After all, she endured having a boy’s name; she had even embraced it.  In Gaelic it means, beautiful at birth and she was.

The ringing phone jolted me.  I reached out into the cool January air from under the vast folds of my puffy duvet.

“Hello?”  I rested the icy plastic on my cheek.

“Flynn?”

“Jack?  What time is it?” I said, clearing my throat noisily.

“Flynn, Dad’s gone.”

“Gone where?”  I saw on the alarm clock that it was not yet six o’clock.

Jack hesitated for several seconds—a bad sign—I’d never known him to be at a loss for words; he was a lawyer.

“Flynn, Dad’s dead.”  His voice was flat, and unsympathetic; it contained no trace of sorrow.

“Listen to me Flynn, don’t tell Mom.  I’ll be right over.  Let me do it, okay?”

This can’t be happening.  I must still be dreaming and I’ll wake up and everything will be fine, I thought.  The doctor said Dad would recover, that Dad’s youth and previous good health were on his side.

“Flynn, are you still there?”

“Yes, Jack.”

I looked down and saw that I was twisting the end of the white sheet into a funnel shape, like a thin crescent roll.  My fingers were shaking manically. Jack continued, “I’m coming right over, okay?”

“Yes Jack,” I answered mechanically.

Angel, our gray and white cat, looked over at me from the end of the large bed, as I struggled to hang up the phone, the slits of his pea-green eyes narrowing as he studied me.

“Angel?”  I gazed back at him for a moment.

I almost expected him to answer, maybe saying, I’m so sorry for your loss Flynn, so very sorry.  I liked him; he was kind to me too.  Instead, he opened his tiny, pink mouth to yawn, but nothing came out, as though he didn’t have the right words to comfort me, not even a meow.  He looked over at the window, then closed his eyes into tiny slits, looking like an urban Sphinx.  His head hung down slightly in silent meditation; his cat-thoughts known only himself.

I stepped out of the bed and padded to the mirror perched on top of the cherry wood dresser.  I hoped against hope this was happening to someone else, but it was my familiar reflection that I saw in the mirror.  

This time, however, I saw my father in my face—blue-green eyes, auburn hair, heart shaped face, Roman nose.  My white flannel nightgown hung to the floor like a shroud.  My small shoulders were already hunching under the weight of newly-found grief.

The snow fell.  My father was gone.

It was at that moment, in my peripheral vision, I thought I saw someone or something in the hallway behind me; an indistinct, dark outline.  Letting out a startled sigh, I turned quickly, my heart pounding, but there was no one there.  I continued to stare into the stillness, then decided my eyes were playing tricks on me—my griever’s eyes.

I sat back down on the bed.  The unthinkable had happened.  I couldn’t take it in.  My father was dead and would not come back.  I curled up into a fetal position.  I wanted to cry—felt I should be crying—but couldn’t and I was grateful for that small mercy.  I wasn’t ready to let go; I had to keep it together for my mother and sister.  There was such an enormous emptiness inside me, like a deep well.  Dark, hollow, echoing, no end in sight.

They say God takes away what’s dearest to our hearts, so that we won’t take things for granted.  At that moment, I knew this to be true.

They also say that when God takes something away, He gives back something else.

But, what?

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Books Within

Have you ever wished you could read a book that was only created within the context of another book, movie, or TV show? Personally, I would love to read Hogwarts: A History so I can be as smart as Hermione, or get lost in Leo Gursky's The History of Love from Nicole Krauss' real novel of the same name. And is it possible to pre-order Castle's next thriller?

Mostly, I think nothing would make me happier than seeing the children's pop-up detective book, Little Gumshoe, by the brilliant Emerson Cod (from the dearly departed Pushing Daisies) in bookstores.

There are many more that I'm not mentioning, so you tell me - what fake novel would you love to read in real life?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Hey Check Out My New Banner!

Isn't it lovely? It was made by the fabulous Lady Glamis, who you may know from The Literary Lab. Or maybe you know her from her own blog, The Innocent Flower or her photography site, Glam's Photography. She's everywhere! And she's fantasticly talented. (Huge, huge thanks go out to her for making this awesome banner for me!)

I also changed up the theme a little to better match the banner, but I appreciate any and all feedback on how to make Glass Cases look its best. (I'm good with knowing which paragraphs should be in which order, but color schemes? Not so much.)  

Thanks in advance for your input & have a good weekend!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Second Chance

Before we get things started today, some news. While I no longer offer manuscript critiques, writers of YA, middle grade, early reader, or picture books can find comfort in the arms of the ever-amazing (and co-founder of imaginary band Oh, the Humanities!) Tracy Marchini. Tracy recently left Curtis Brown after four years of working in the children's department. She is also a YA and MG writer herself, so she definitely knows her stuff. More info on Tracy's critique guidelines can be found HERE.

And now, story time. The title of this memoir excerpt, Second Chance, is just a coincidence, but you might remember our featured writer, Melissa Mendelson from her previous appearance on Glass Cases in which she shared her fiction. 

Melissa started writing in 2002 as a reporter for the Suffolk County newspaper, and began freelancing two years later. Since then, she's self-published two prose poetry collections, Silent Dreams and Tears of Sand, and has been published on the websites, WildSound, Author's Den and Associated Content. I am very excited that Melissa has returned to Glass Cases with some nonfiction and I hope you enjoy it too!

Second Chance
By Melissa R. Mendelson 
       
The days of my past are left in darkness.  No longer will I allow myself to be chased by what I cannot change.  That girl is long gone, and the ones that left their scar behind are no more.  And I have become the woman I am today.

But I remember those days.  My childhood remains were left shattered along the corridors of Birch Lane, where I found no acceptance, and as my family moved far upstate did I find no place to call my own.  And as the long years of childhood gave in to the lost days of youth did I wander, struggling to understand myself, but there was no one to turn to.  And the road of my life cut me so deep, and those that saw me as weak dug their claws in, tearing me from mind to heart.  And it took forever to lay the past to rest, but I still remember.  How could I ever forget?

My pain could hardly be silenced, and the ink flowed dark across the pages of poetry.  And only then could my heart breathe, but my soul still cried.  And comfort was sought and found in food, but I could not eat away at my depression.  I had to find another way.

And the men of my life were not the white knights that I struggled to find, and they were far from saints.  Their mind games left me broken, and their cruel touch twisted around a web that held me prisoner.  But I broke free five years ago, and no more will my door remain open to them.  But it took me forever to get here.

The days of school were often long, and my sentence was nearly over.  But the rides on the school bus were hell, and sanctuary was far from home.  Battles waited to be waged between my brothers and I, and responsibilities would weigh down upon my shoulders.  Dinner had to be made, dishes to be done, and helping my younger siblings with their homework had to be completed before the night came to an end, and tomorrow would be another day like today.  And my only sanctuary lied within a notebook filled with words that I could not say, emotions denied from release, but the writing kept me alive.

My father worked every single day, supporting my family, and my mother raised her six kids.  But the burden of such a large family was too much at times, and finances were strained.  And tension turned into bitter arguments and slamming doors, but in the end, we pulled together.  And over time, our bonds grew strong, but back then, they were not there for me to talk to.  I had to grow up on my own.

The trials of my life have become my definition, and my struggles have molded my writing.  And from the roots of dark poetry did the creativity flourish, and my pen turned to the short stories.  And as I continued to struggle to stand, struggle to know myself did my soul pour forth across the page, fueling a fire within that threatened to be extinguished, and God knows how hard I have fallen many times.  But through faith did I find the strength to stand and push forward, but those were the longest years of my life.

I’ve lived a large portion of my life alone, and the fingers of depression threatened to tear me in half.  The need for life, the hope for love was a cold wind blowing through the corridors of my soul, and my heart bled.  And as time went on, I fell deeper and deeper into the black, struggling to find a hand to grab onto, but I would not stand on my own for many more years to come.  But someone knew of my pain, and she saved my life.

It was 1997.  My high school days came to an end on a hot June of 1996, and now my time was spent lost at Orange Community.  The man at my side did not carry my best intentions at heart, and he was another tale woven into a web of lies and cruelty.  And life at home was still filled with tension, but no more were battles waged between siblings.  War grew between my parents and me.

“What are you doing with your life?  Where are you going?  Writing is a hobby not a career.  Pull your head out of the clouds.  Start being realistic.  Why don’t you marry him?  Your mother is a housewife.  There’s nothing wrong with that, and you’ll be taken care of.  What are you going to do with your life?”

There was no escape.  I was failing most of my classes, and the writing had crawled to a halt.  And arguments waited to commence every time I walked through that door, and the walls of my room were closing in.  And I needed to leave, but where would I go?  What would I do?

It was cold tonight, and the ground beneath my feet was hard.  Laughter rustled through the trees, and beer cans were tossed into the grass.  And sweet smoke lifted up to the air, and feet dangled over a wooden, rocky bridge.  And the essence of nature drifted across the wilderness of Greenwood Lake, and for a moment, I found peace.

“Why don’t you join us?”  I shook my head.  “Everyone is having a good time but you.”  I looked at my boyfriend.  “How about a beer?”

“No thanks.”  Our eyes held each other.  “I know what you want,” I thought, “but you’ll be disappointed.”  A sigh escaped my lips.  “How long will we be out here tonight?  It’s getting late.”

“We’ll head back soon.”  With that said, he walked away.

I can’t live life like this.  I can’t spend my days trying to figure out what to do with myself and then come home to deal with my parents.  I can’t hang out in the woods every other night while his friends get high.  This isn’t what I wanted for myself, and I’ll be damned to become a housewife.  I know I can do better than that, but how do I get there?

She was the only one, who understood me.  She knew I was drowning, and nobody would save me.  My parents figured I would sink or swim, and my boyfriend hoped for me to stay within his arms.  And I was struggling for air, and I needed to be saved.  And she heard my prayer.

But as plans were put into motion to bring me home to her, death stepped in, and before I could say good-bye, my grandmother, Lillian Cohen was gone.  My depression left me cold, and all those tears shed during sleepless nights refused to flow as I stood beside her grave.  And she was gone, and nobody was there to save me.  I was left to my demise.

A whistle rang through the kitchen, and steam escaped into the air.  Water boiled, and tea bags were dipped gently into mugs.  And a light shined over the table, where I sat, and my eyes were filled with nothing.  I could feel nothing.

My aunt slowly sat before me.  Her eyes studied me for a long moment.  She slowly passed a mug over to me, and she watched me start to drink it.  Her own fingers curled around her hot mug, but she did not drink from it.  Instead, her mind boiled with thought, choosing her words carefully.

“She was making plans for you to come and live with her and your grandfather.”  She saw surprise register in me.  “She knew what was going on.”  Her eyes held mine.  “She didn’t understand how your parents never saw how depressed you were, and they weren’t saving you.  So she would do it.”  Her eyes fell down into the mug.  “But she got sick.”  She was silent for a moment.  “It’s your choice.  If you choose to fulfill her plans, I will help you.  I will talk to your grandfather and make sure it is alright with him, if you come and stay with him.  It won’t be easy, and I hope you know that.”  I slowly nodded.  “Good because I’m not going to let you slack off.  If you come here and go to Nassau Community, I expect you to do your homework, get good grades, and make something of your life.”  I nodded again.  “She would not and will not want to see you waste your life.  Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“So, what’s your decision?”

I did not expect this.  I was angry at my mother for never calling her back, never visiting, but I heard the regret in her voice as she cried and spoke her farewells in the I.C.U.  I was angry at my father for not letting me get to the hospital sooner to say my good-byes, and when I finally saw her, she was already gone.  But I could not let my anger rule my decision.

And what was I leaving behind?  My life was broken.  I did not love him, and I knew that.  Home life was stressing me to the point of breaking, and my parents did not understand me.  I needed to leave, and this was my ticket.  And if I left, what would wait for me ahead?

“Yes.”  My eyes rose up toward my Aunt Sheila, and I tried to smile.  “I want to do it.”  She nodded and smiled.  “I want to live,” I thought, “and make her proud.”

It’s now August.  My grandfather agreed to have me come and live with him, and my aunt watched me like a hawk.  My cousin and I would slam heads off and on, but she was dealing with loss too.  And my grandmother was very close to her heart, and her home was my cousin’s home as well.

But now the time to start over has begun, and the past has been left behind.  And no more would I look back or regret what I should have or should not have done, and the hands of depression fell away.  And I was given a second chance, a silver lining in the heart of darkness, and I would not be who I am today, if not for my family.  I would not have made it here, and I know I still have a long way to go, undo mistakes done afterward.  But I am far from finished, and the writing has given wings to my dreams that no longer remain silent.

Monday, May 10, 2010

What Writers Can Learn from Betty White

On Saturday night, through the sheer power of a Facebook group, 88-year-old actress, Betty White, hosted Saturday Night Live. I loved Betty as Sue Ann on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and as Rose (the original Charlotte) on The Golden Girls (the original Sex and the City). Betty White has worked consistently since then, but for some reason, from a time I can't exactly pinpoint, she has become a geriatric equivalent of a rock star. 

Sure, the golden gals had long ago reached Cher and Gaga status in the gay community, but when did Betty Mania take over the rest of the world? It wasn't from her work on various David E. Kelley shows, was it? Her appearances on Ellen where she swore all the time? Perhaps it was her role as Ryan Reynold's grandmother in The Proposal. Or was it that awesome Snickers commercial? 

My point is, she wasn't resurrected from obscurity. She didn't have to become a parody of herself (a la Shatner) in order to get noticed again. She didn't dance alongside "stars" or get lost in the jungle with Heidi & Spencer. All she did, as an actress, was keep acting. And she's more popular now than she's ever been throughout her six (!) decade career.

There's a lesson to be learned here. 

In fact, there are several things writers can learn from Betty White:
  • Don't take yourself too seriously.
  • Surprise your audience and your peers, but, more importantly, surprise yourself.
  • Stay humble.
  • Don't let others tell you when your time is up. The next great series or pivotal novel can be just around the corner, even if you've already had a storied career.
  • Stay true to yourself and your style, but remember to stay relevant to the times.
  • Being classy, funny, and genuinely nice is timeless.
Remember these lessons and perhaps, someday, you will be able to say the literary equivalent of "Jay-Z is here, so stick around. We'll be right back!"

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Scorched

Today's story is one of escape. It's an excerpt from a memoir our featured writer, Amye Barrese Archer, who apparently had a lot to escape from. Scorched: A Memoir About Going Down in Flames tells the story of her first marriage to, as Amye describes him, "an agoraphobic panic sufferer who eventually became an alcoholic," who almost destroyed them both. (Sounds fun, right?)

Amye Barrese Archer is a graduate student working towards her MFA in Creative Writing. She has written poetry, short stories, and "many truths on bathroom walls."  Her work has appeared in PANK, Twins, The Ampersand Review, The Battered Suitcase, and Oak Bend Review. Her chapbook, "No One Ever Looks Up" was published by Pudding House Press in 2007. Amye has three-year-old twin daughters, and shares her life with her (new and vastly improved!) husband, Tim. To read more by and about Amye, check out her blog.

Scorched: A Memoir About Going Down in Flames
By Amye Barrese Archer 

What the fuck is that smell?  

I flick my eyes open and stare at the low white ceiling.  Something smells bad. Something smells bad enough to have jolted me from a dead sleep in the middle of the night.  I look to my left, no one is there.  I am alone.  It's a horrible stench, like the time I put tinfoil in the microwave, or the time I singed my hair with the curling iron.  Oh my God, something is burning.   The house is on fire.  I slide from the warm bed and begin the frantic search for my pants.  I can't sleep with pants on, they are too confining, a preference that is coming back to haunt me.                  

"Bob!"  I am yelling from the bedroom.  I find my pants rolled in a ball under the bed.  I can barely breathe the smell is so bad.  "BOB!"  I'm screaming now.  We live in a basement apartment with only one exit.  Poor planning on my part, my father trained me better than that.  My bedroom door is right next to the front door.   I stand in the doorway of my bedroom with two options:  if I turn left, I'm outside safe and unharmed. If I turn right, I enter the kitchen, dining room, and living room, all in one huge living space.  But there's no exit down there, it’s a dead end.  My whole body wants to go left and run to safety – fuck everyone else.  It’s a flight or fight moment, and I always knew I would pick flight.  I turn left and start to climb the stairs when my conscience gets the better of me.  You have to save him, he is your fiancée after all.

As I make my way down the hallway, the smell grows stronger. I'm yelling for him but he doesn't answer.  I feel like I should be breathing heavily so I am, but there’s no reason to.  There is no smoke, just an eerie fog, and I can't find a fire.  I reach the end of the hallway and stop, knowing the problem, the source, lies somewhere in that vast open space before me.  Should I stop, drop, and roll?  When exactly am I supposed to start doing that?  I remember a fireman in fourth grade, maybe fifth, drilling it into our heads: stop, drop, and roll.  But when?  Now?  After I’m on fire?   As a precaution, I drop to the floor and roll like a bumpy log into the main room of the apartment.  The floor is cool to the touch and my thin black hair becomes overtaken by static electricity.

The whole place is dark.   In this subterranean apartment we are not privy to any kind of natural light.  Everything is artificial.  I climb to my knees and feel for the light switch on the wall.   Within seconds everything is illuminated like a furniture showroom.  I scan the room but I cannot find the suspected plume of smoke, the bright orange and yellow flames, or the charred source of this horrible smell.  I see Bob, my twenty-seven year old fiancée, lying lifeless on the floor.   His blond hair fans out on the deep blue carpet.  I run over to him and shake him violently like he's already a corpse or a very heavy ragdoll.

"Bob!"  I yell right in his face.

His eyes open and he looks at me wildly, like I'm the last person he expects to see.

"Bob!  What's that smell?!"  I ask.

"What?"  he's groggy.

"What the fuck is that smell?!"  I demand.

"Oh.  The couch."

"What about the couch?"  I turn my head and look behind me. There is my brand new couch with a hole the size of a meteor burned right through it.  It looks like a missile went straight through the middle, or that someone who was on fire decided to sit down and watch Judge Judy. 

"What the fuck happened?!"  I scream.  I am never cool under pressure.  I have a history of becoming hysterical at the slightest bit of danger.  This is one of those times.

"What?"  Bob asks like this is no biggie.

"What did you do?!"  I'm crying now. 

"I fell asleep with a cigarette."

"Jesus fucking Christ, Bob!  You could have killed all of us!"  The cats are nowhere to be found.  They're probably hiding from the smell, although it has permeated every inch of the house.

"Oh come on," he says. "Stop being a fucking drama queen."

"A drama queen?" 

"You heard me."

"You were drunk, weren't you?"  I look around for the wine bottle, the gallon jug of PA Lake Country Red I know I will find.   I also know it will be almost empty.

"No,"  he says with an unconvincing chuckle.

"How much did you drink?"  I’m growing angrier as I speak, a heat is building in my toes and working its way upward.  The panic has given away to rage.

"Not much,"  He says shrugging his shoulders.

"How much?"  I ask again through clenched teeth.  I want to punch him in the face and knock his crooked teeth right down the back of his throat.  I want to grab his perfectly rounded head and smash it like a ripe pumpkin off the slate fireplace behind him, but I can't.  I know how irrational he gets when he's drunk and I know he will call the cops if I touch him.  But it’s so tempting.  The smirk, the smell of wine on his breath, and then there’s my couch.  My burned up fucking couch.

"I don't know. Look, it’s fine.   Go back to sleep,"  Bob says and sits on the couch, the other one, the only one now, and lights a smoke.  I walk over to the burned couch.  The air around it is still warm and thick with that smell.

"It's not fine!  This couch cost me a lot of money!  Are you a fucking moron?!"  I start to cry. I'm upset over the destruction of my couch, but there’s an element of defeat in there, too.  I know this is huge.   There is a sense of finality in the air surrounding us.  I sit on the floor, put my head in my hands, and start to weep.

"Oh, here we go!"  Bob yells to an invisible audience.    "Listen, Amye, it's not a big deal.  I'm fine, by the way. Not that you give a shit." 

“This is so much bigger than that, Bob.”

“What?”

“It’s about respect.  I spent my whole savings account on the furniture for this apartment, and you just destroyed it, like it didn’t even matter to you.”

This apartment is cold and damp and way too big for us.  It is the basement, a dungeon, inhabited by myself, Bob, and three cats: Mr. Lionel Richie, Lucy Lennon, and Neo, who would later become Patrick Swayze.  It was my idea to move here.  We were living in a small efficiency apartment across town.  Everything was going so well.  It was our first apartment together, so there was something romantic about it.   It was tiny and we were living on top of one another, but it was quaint and easy to clean.  But here, in this underground cavern, the energy is sour.  This house belongs to an aunt and uncle of mine who went through such a nasty divorce that restraining orders and gunshots were used as methods of mediation instead of lawyers.  Now it's our turn to wallow in the bad mojo.   I didn’t have a good feeling about this apartment from the start, but we had to move here.  I had inherited some cats, and our old place wouldn't allow them to live there. 

The first thing I did when I moved in, to make up for the wide gaping space, was buy my living room set.  Somehow a ragged old futon I had been dragging around with me since college wasn't going to cut it anymore.  I was working at a local television station making about nine dollars an hour, so this living room set, this one with the two couches and three tables, cost me almost all of my savings, nine-hundred dollars.  These couches were the nicest things in the apartment.    And now they’re ruined.

"What happened?  How did this happen?" I ask as I sit down on the ledge of the fireplace.  I am trying to calm my voice, calm my nerves, but my hands are still trembling.    I know Bob doesn't remember what happened, but I ask anyway.  Not because I'm a moron who can't understand the cause and effect of falling asleep with a cigarette, but because I want to fight.  It's three-fifteen in the morning, according to the green clock on the microwave, and I want to fight so bad I'm actually salivating.  I want him to end this nightmare our lives have turned into.

"I told you,"  he slurs.  He's still out of it.  He's sitting on the couch with his bare feet on the floor and a Newport hanging from between his chapped lips.   He's wearing his flannel pajama bottoms and a shirt with a picture of the original Nintendo controller on it.  Under the controller are white letters that say "Old Skool".  His blond hair hangs down to his shoulders and he hasn't shaved in about two weeks.  Six years ago I would have said this was hot; now, it’s just sad.

"I know how it happened, asshole. I'm asking you how could you let it happen. How could you, an adult, allow yourself to fall asleep with a cigarette and almost burn the house down killing me and everyone else in the upstairs apartments?"  The sarcasm is pouring from my mouth like vomit.

"Get off my back, okay?"  He stands up, pushes his cigarette into the ceramic bowl we use as an ashtray, and starts walking down the hall towards the bedroom.  I follow him.    Only he's not going to the bedroom, he's going into the long hallway, but instead of taking a left into the bedroom, he's going right into his computer room, because it's only three a.m., and his night is just getting started.  I follow him into the small computer room, the one that has been declared his.  The wine bottle is on the desk.  More than half empty as I predicted.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Fun With Lists!

Friends of the blog know that sometimes I like to make lists. (See: Things to Avoid and Non-literary Characters.) I make lists in my real life too. Pros v. Cons lists, Things to Do lists, Amazon Wish Lists, and I only evaluate my "favorite" of anything in the form of a Top 5 List.

So, it should come as no surprise that I love Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations, a site devoted to presenting you with the best books for pretty much any occasion or reason. I particularly enjoyed the recent "Most Challenged Books of 2009" list, in which three of my favorite books appear - The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird. (I should say that with books, I do not have a Top 5 List, but rather I break them up into multiple Top 5 lists based on genre, nostalgia, cultural relevance, etc. Yes, I have issues.)

Anyway, Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations has inspired me to create a new list, but unlike the professional list-makers, I won't be focusing so much on "the best" as I will on "my favorites." So, I present the Top 5 Books I Find Flashlight Worthy:

1) Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H. P. Lovecraft. This is a huge book. Not one to travel with or take on the subway. But it is the perfect book to curl up with under a sheet in the dark and scare the pants off yourself! H.P. Lovecraft did literary horror first, and arguably the best (funny how that usually works out, isn't it?).


2) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Yes, it is one of my favorites, as I mentioned above, but I assure you I'm not being biased. This book still works for the purposes of this list. The creepy mystery behind Boo Radley is certainly flashlight worthy, but there are also the many layers behind the plot and characters to unravel in the dark.

3) In the Woods by Tana French. Like Mockingbird, this book has multiple layers of mystery going on. (See also: The Likeness). Not only does French offer a page-turning whodunit, but she also slowly reveals an eerie mystery within the main character.

4) Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. OK, this one seems obvious, but with a combination of nostalgia and a self-explanatory title, I defy you to find me a more flashlight worthy book. If you haven't read this since childhood, go revisit. Or, read it in a pillow fort with your own kids. I used to be convinced that the girl with the ribbon around her neck was one of my sister's friends (because she said she was), so I can no longer think of this book without thinking of how much my childhood was traumatized by it.

5) Pretty much anything by Stephen King. Seriously. There's a reason Joey Tribbiani keeps his copy of The Shining in the freezer.

What do you all think? As you can see, I went with mystery and horror when I think of flashlight worthy books, but I guess that doesn't always have to be the case. What are some of your favorite books to read in the dark?