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Monthly Archives: December 2015

My Year in Books: What I Read in 2015

My Year in Books:  What I Read in 2015

Recently I was visited by the book fairy. At first, I didn’t realize it was the book fairy. I thought I had gotten drunk and ordered books online then forgotten about them. But no, a quick look at my account proved I hadn’t ordered Writing Great Books for Young Adults or Our Family Outing: A Memoir of Coming Out and Coming Through. These books just magically appeared on my doorstep the other day.  It must have been the book fairy, working her magic through Amazon.com. Or, perhaps it was a sign that 2016 is going to be a good year for reading.

2015 has certainly been a good year for reading. I finally started using Goodreads for real, which has been super helpful for remembering what I’ve read and what I want to read.  It’s also a good place to gush or vent about books, sort of like having an Internet book club.

According to Goodreads, I’ve read fifty-two books this year — an average of one per week. What have I been reading?  Well, since I write books for young people, I try to read plenty of YA and middle-grade to get a sense of what’s out there. (Plus they’re just fun to read).  And reading thrillers is a great way to study plotting and how to write with suspense. (Plus they’re just fun to read.) This year I also read some (but maybe not enough?) literary fiction, and I rounded things out with a hefty does of nonfiction.

My books from the book fairy, under the tree.

My books from the book fairy, under the tree.

So here is my year in books, with special notes next to those I particularly did (and did not) enjoy. Oh, and as it turns out, Our Family Outing was actually ordered for me by a friend, not left by the book fairy after all. But Writing Great Books for Young Adults is still a mystery. Was it a gift or was it magic? Is it a sign? Will it be a good read? Only time will tell…

 

It Was a Very Good Year for Reading, or, The Books I Read in 2015

     LITERARY FICTION:  11.5

The Alchemist’s Daughter by Katharine McMahon

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (didn’t finish so this counts as a half)

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Find Me by Laura van den Berg DO NOT RECOMMEND How can a book with such a cool premise be so boring? I don’t know, but van den Berg manages to turn an apocalypse into a snooze fest.  So disappointing.

The First Bad Man by Miranda July HIGHLY RECOMMEND So weirdly sexual, so strangely heartfelt. July takes her usual type of protagonist — a lonely, neurotic, middle-aged woman — and gives her a disgusting and aggressive young roommate. This book is not for everyone, but it was definitely for me.

A House Made of Stars by Tawnysha Greene

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert HIGHLY RECOMMEND How can a historical fiction novel about an old maid who studies moss be a page-turner? I don’t know, but Elizabeth Gilbert manages to make it so. Completely compelling and beautifully written.

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

Miranda July, author of The First Bad Man, has a message for you for 2016. photo credit.

Miranda July, author of The First Bad Man, has a message for you for 2016. photo credit.

     THRILLERS: 10

The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh RECOMMEND Creepy and suspenseful murder mystery set in an ominous small town in the Ozarks.

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter (Note:  The first half especially is suspenseful as heck, but it is not for the faint at heart – it gets pretty darn gruesome.  Trigger warnings out the wazoo.)

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight

Don’t Breathe a Word by Jennifer McMahon

Promise Not to Tell by Jennifer McMahon RECOMMEND I read a lot of Jennifer McMahon books this year, as you can tell.  Even when they are sort of silly, I enjoy her stuff immensely because she mixes murder mystery suspense with supernatural spookiness in a way that is evocative and hard-to-sleep creepy. This one was probably the most suspenseful and had the least ridiculous ending. In a small town a girl is murdered… perhaps by the ghost of a girl who was murdered there thirty years before?

Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

In a Dark Dark Wood by Ruth Ware DO NOT RECOMMEND Wanted to like this one, but the characters were dumb and the plot was even dumber. The big reveal at the end caused me to groan and hurl the book across the room. About a “hen party” (what the British call bachelorette parties) that turns deadly.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith Wanted to enjoy this hardboiled mystery by J.K. Rawling, and I sort of got into it for a while, but then it didn’t quite hold my attention, and I ended up skimming the second half just to find out what happened.

 

 

     YA/MG: 14.5

Far Far Away by Tom McNeal

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu (didn’t finish so this counts as a half)

Flora and Ulysses by Kate Dicamillo

The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart

The Truth Commission by Susan Juby

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jen Han

Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead

The Lying Game by Sara Shepard

Never Have I Ever by Sara Shepard

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor RECOMMEND Beautifully written fantasy with a kick-ass, blue-haired protagonist and a wild otherworld of dangerous angels.  I don’t usually get into YA fantasy like this, but I was totally into this one.  I tried to read the sequel, though, and I couldn’t get into it.

Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillio

The Chosen One by Carol Williams RECOMMEND Thirteen-year-old Kyra lives in a polygamist society and has to escape before she is forced to marry her sixty-year-old uncle who already has six wives.  Whoa is right.  Go get this book now.

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     NONFICTION: 16 (5 of which were books about writing)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert HIGHLY RECOMMEND I hate Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast, but boy can she write a book.  This one looks at the life of a fascinating and complicated man, Eustace Conway, who dresses in the skins of the animals he’s killed and eaten (and tries to convince everyone else to do the same.)  The really fascinating part, though, is the psychology behind Estace’s failed relationships with girlfriends and his own father.

The Short Tragic Life of Robert Peace:  A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs HIGHLY RECOMMEND Oh so heartbreaking! So very, very heartbreaking!  Will give you much to think about as far as the stew of poverty, race, and class in America.  Written by his roommate at Yale, this is the true story of brilliant and charismatic Robert who grew up poor and black, managed to work his way to Yale, but then returned to his old neighborhood where he dealt drugs and was murdered in 2011 at the age of 30.   This is the only book in years that has moved me to tears.

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace (only read half the essays so it counts as a half)

Smash Cut: A Memoir of Howard & Art & the ’70s & the ’80s by Brad Gooch

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (didn’t finish so counts as a half)

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham (This book is forgettable, yet pretty hilarious and enjoyable while you’re reading it.)

Queen of Fall by Sonja Livingston

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

Missoula:  Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer (This book is long and full of trigger-warnings, but an important book, I think.)

Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin HIGHLY RECOMMEND I would recommend this book for anyone:  man or woman, whether you’ve given birth or plan to or not.  Through individual stories as well as research and decades of midwifery experience, Gaskin shows that once birthing was taken out of the home, out of the control of woman, and put under the control of hospitals and doctors (and men), things changed, and not for the better.  This book gave me new understanding and appreciation of the mind-body connection and what women’s bodies are capable of doing, and it pretty much convinced me that if/when I have a baby, I want to do it at home.

Lust & Wonder: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs

     Books on the Craft of Writing:

Save the Cat:  The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder

Writing Irresistible Kid Lit:  The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction For Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers by Mary Kole HIGHLY RECOMMEND I’ve said this before, but this book is SO GOOD and I’d recommend it even if you’re writing for adults.  Lots of good stuff in here that I hadn’t read in other writing books.

Steering the Craft by Ursula K. LeGuin

Keep It Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction by Lee Gutkind

You Can’t Make this Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Nonfiction — From Memoir to Literary Fiction and Everything In Between by Lee Gutkind

Jump into a good book this year! (Photo by my brother, Deven Langston)

Jump into a good book this year! (Photo by my brother, Deven Langston)

Christmas Goblins & Getting Feedback

Christmas Goblins & Getting Feedback

My favorite Christmas story as a child was a Finnish folktale no one has ever heard of called Christmas with the Goblins.

On Christmas Eve, The Yule Goat arrives at the home of Fredrik and Lotta and tells them they won’t be getting as many presents this year. The children pitch greedy hissy-fits, and so, as punishment, the Yule Goat sends them to the cold, dark forest to spend Christmas with the goblins.

It’s super awesome, and a few years ago, my mom decided to turn it into a musical.

My mom is also super awesome.

She wrote the play and all the songs, and the result is adorably fun. It’s like How the Grinch Stole Christmas meets Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, with some church pageantry and vaudeville thrown in for good measure.

The Yule Goat. (From Treasured Tales of Christmas by Deborah Apy.)

The Yule Goat. (From Treasured Tales of Christmas by Deborah Apy.)  I’ve written about this story before, see here.

Over the weekend, my husband and I went to Richmond to see the first ever staged reading of Christmas with the Goblins by Margie Langston.

My mom was a little nervous about the performance. As the playwright, she had to take a back seat while the director decided how to stage the show… and there were some artistic choices my mom did not totally agree with. Not to mention that the cast only had four rehearsals.  It was a staged reading (which means the actors can carry their scripts), but even so, things were pretty rough. The musicians were still figuring out the songs, and the actors were unsure of their blocking. Plus, they had been unable to find a boy to play Fredrick, so he was being played by a teenage girl who had seemingly grown several inches overnight.

And then, when we arrived at the theater, we learned that one of the leads had called in sick at the last minute, so the director was going to have to do her part. Ah, the joys of live theater!

Before the performance, my mom got up and said a few words about how the play had come together. First she had brainstormed ideas (with me!) two years ago. As she wrote, she received feedback from her playwrights forum, and last year they did a table reading. One of the songs was also performed in their showcase of new works.

And now, she explained, seeing the play on stage and hearing the actors interpret her words: this would help her refine Christmas with the Goblins even more. She would see what resonated with the audience, what lines fell flat, what parts needed more finesse. And that’s when it occurred to me how brave my mom was for putting her unpolished work on display for everyone to see.

The goblin king and his troll queen. Plus Fredrik and Lotta. (From Treasured Tales of Christmas by Deborah Apy.)

The goblin king and his troll queen. Plus Fredrik and Lotta. (From Treasured Tales of Christmas by Deborah Apy.)

 

Getting feedback is crucial for any writer, whether it’s through a playwright’s forum or a fiction workshop or a trusted friend. It can be scary to submit your imperfect drafts for critique, but finding out what works and what doesn’t is oh-so important.  Revising based on feedback can turn a mediocre piece of writing into a great one. Of course, when you workshop something with a writing group, only a handful of people will see it. And here was my mom, watching anxiously as the theater seats filled. Her unpolished work was going to be seen by a crowd.

Luckily, the crowd loved it. They loved the hauntingly beautiful opening number, “Winter is Long,” and the creepy-catchy ditty “Goblins Will Get You (if you Don’t Watch Out).” They loved the Yule Goat, the goblin King Mundus, and the troll Queen Neldegard. They loved Kuka, the Littlest Goblin, and her jaunty jig.

I loved it, too, but being a writer myself, I noticed some weak spots, and I mentally prepared a few notes to give to my mom. I knew she was planning on doing a revision based on the feedback she received from this performance.

As the cast took their final bow, a little boy sitting behind us exclaimed, “that was awesome!” My mom turned around. “What did you like best?” she asked him. “Who was your favorite character?” He clammed up and wouldn’t say anything else, but the feedback from him was clear: it was awesome.

Goblins

To watch the first 15 minutes of the staged reading, click here.

 

P.S. If you know of a theater group who would be interested in staging Christmas with the Goblins next holiday season, please contact me, and I’ll put you in touch with my mom. Seriously, it’s an amazingly fun musical, and it’s only going to be better by next year!

Look Towards the Sun and Ask Yourself: How Do You Feel?

Look Towards the Sun and Ask Yourself:  How Do You Feel?

It’s not really a secret that at some point in the nearish future, my husband and I would like to have kids. When my mom told me I was too skinny to get pregnant, I didn’t pay much attention, but when my friend Degra, who is a Certified Professional Midwife, said it might be a good idea for me to gain a few pounds, I took her seriously.

It’s very strange to be intentionally trying to gain weight. I started swallowing a spoonful of coconut oil every morning like medicine, eating before bedtime, and grocery shopping on a mission for fat, buying piles of avocados, walnuts, olives, full-fat yogurt, and cheese.

Degra also told me to keep a food journal for two weeks so she can see my daily calorie-intake and make sure I’m getting good nutrition. She sent me a page from The Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby & Child Care about a diet that parents should start following before conception. I find this diet to be so insane, I have taken to doing dramatic readings of it for my friends:

“Four tablespoons of butter…” I say, pausing dramatically, “daily.”

“At least one egg daily, preferably from pastured chickens, with,” and here I look everyone in the eye for greater emphasis, “as many additional yolks as possible.”

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The diet also includes liver, daily beef (always consumed with the fat), bone broth, daily lard, and lacto-fermented beverages. The picture of the front cover of the book shows two sweet-looking children playing with barnyard animals… Yeah, because their parents are eating all of the barnyard animals and their by-products!

“You should make bone broth,” Degra told me over the phone the other day. “Preferably with venison.”

“Look, Degra,” I said, “I’m going to be honest with you. I’m not going to do that. I’m just not going to make bone broth.” I wouldn’t even know how to go about obtaining deer bones, much less how to turn them into an edible soup.

But, I can do the food journal, and for the past week I’ve been writing down everything I eat. Knowing that I’m going to write everything down makes me more conscious of what I’m eating and has perhaps been making me  a little bit healthier. Do I really want to write down that I ate two cookies as a snack? Maybe I’ll have yogurt with walnuts and honey instead.

The diet for producing healthy babies.

The diet for producing healthy babies.

The other day I got the app Track Your Happiness, which sends me text messages at random times each day and asks me how I’m feeling. I answer a few questions, and the information is not only used in scientific research about happiness, but over time I can  notice patterns about my own happiness and what factors are associated with it.

But it’s more difficult than it sounds. I have a really hard time answering how I’m feeling on a scale of Very Good to Very Bad. I feel neutral, I always think at first. I’m neither happy nor sad. But then I start thinking, well, shouldn’t I be feeling good? I have my health and my husband. I have a cute apartment with a spiral staircase. The sun is shining and the sky is blue. I get to spend part of my day working on writing. Aren’t I grateful for all of these things? Yes, I am, I just don’t take the time to think about it. I don’t know.  Maybe I’m happier than I think.

Even though I find the text messages difficult to answer and somewhat obnoxious, they are making me more aware of my feelings.  They are reminding me to stop each day and take note of what’s going on inside of me.

I was talking to my friend Chris the other day, and he was telling me about a religion in which practitioners must look to the sun four times a day as a way (at least this is what it seems like to me) to orient themselves on the earth, to clear their minds, to be aware of the present moment.

I think that’s what both the happiness tracker and the food journal have the potential of doing for me. Now that I’m writing down my food, I can be more aware of what I’m putting in my body and more appreciative that I have delicious, healthy foods to eat. And now that my phone is asking me how I feel four times a day, I can notice my moment-to-moment emotions and be more aware of all I have to be grateful for.  Maybe what it takes to be happy is taking the time to notice all the things you have to be happy about.

Cross Country Trip 111

 

As for gaining weight… we’ll see how that goes. After three days of doing shots of coconut oil in the morning and putting butter on everything, I was feeling sick and lethargic. I was doing too much too fast. So I’ve gone back to my normal eating habits, but I’m trying to add a little extra each day — an extra bite here, an extra snack there, 2% yogurt instead of nonfat.  Baby steps, Eva. Baby steps. Look towards the sun and ask yourself: how do you feel?

A Time to Wait, Prepare, and Make Pinatas

A Time to Wait, Prepare, and Make Pinatas

When I was a kid, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas stretched, becoming vast and magical and seemingly endless. Each day my brother or I opened a paper window on the Advent calendar to reveal a tiny square of the hidden picture. We wrapped gifts and stared at the presents collecting under the tree, the anticipation almost too much to bear. The days were cold and dark but lit by twinkling lights and the flame of our Advent candles on the dining room table; when we lit the pink one, I knew we were getting close to Christmas.

In middle school Spanish class, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas were always the most fun. This was when we left gifts for our Secret Santas under the waist-high Christmas tree in the corner of the basement classroom. A popular gift to both give and receive was a one-pound peppermint stick, bought at the drugstore for eighty-nine cents. We’d suck on them during class then wrap the sticky end in plastic to save for later.

Senora Carper, our crazy, red-lipstick-wearing Spanish teacher taught us to sing Christmas songs in Spanish: “Noche de Paz,” “Cascabelles,” “Rodolfo, el Reno de la Nariz Roja” along with traditional Mexican carols. She then told us to “grab our microphones” (the giant peppermint sticks) and follow her. We trooped through the halls, serenading the rest of the school.

This was also the time when we made piñatas in Spanish class. Every day we added another layer of soggy newspaper to our individual pinatas. On the last day before Christmas break, we had a piñata party in the basement classroom. Each person brought their piñata, painted and decorated, to Senora Carper at the front of the room. She would then slam the piñata with all of her might against the edge of her desk. If it didn’t break, we received an A. I guess this was her way of taking attendance. If you had added a layer every day since Thanksgiving, your piñata wouldn’t break, and Senora Carper would hang it from the ceiling to display for the rest of the year.

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I like to turn my Halloween decorations into Christmas decorations.

It’s funny to look back on this as an adult, now that the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas seems to fly by. Only four weeks! That’s practically nothing. People (myself sometimes included) get stressed at the prospect of decorating and gift-buying in such a short amount of time.

But time is what you make of it, and thirty days can go fast or slow — it’s up to you. I want to slow things down and appreciate  these dark, magical days. Open each one slowly and admire the picture that’s been revealed.

Although I’m no longer a practicing Catholic, I still enjoy having an Advent calendar because it reminds me to slow down and enjoy the holidays. Advent is a time of expectant waiting and preparation, which seems appropriate for where I am right now. I am waiting to hear back from agents. I am waiting to take the next step in my writing career, and in life. Instead of getting antsy and impatient, I want to to enjoy this time — this building of excitement, this time to prepare.

I’m trying to keep myself busy with new projects. It’s not easy to sit down at my computer each day when I have two finished manuscripts just gathering dust. But I’m trying to keep writing, keep adding a new layer each day. So when I receive a hard blow (like then one I received when I lost my agent), I will remain strong and unbreakable. And my work will be put on display.

Photo of me and my husband from Thanksgiving, taken by my brother, Deven Langston.

Photo of me and my husband from Thanksgiving, taken by my brother, Deven James Langston.