Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review of Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott

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Review of Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott

During the 1990s and early 2000s, my critique group loved Anne Lamott and read all her books and discussed them and laughed together at her humor. After that, she fell off my radar, though I still reread Bird by Bird (her book on writing) periodically. (I own two copies. Yeah, I misplaced my first one and couldn’t live without it, so I had to buy another.)

A few months ago, Lamott made an appearance at a nearby arts center, and my friend Linda emailed the critique group and suggested we go. So, Judy and Linda and I got to see her in person for the very first time. And I bought Almost Everything, her latest book.

Linda, Judy, and me

Authors Linda Carlblom, Judy Robertson, and me

The appearance was a week after Lamott’s 65th birthday and a week before her wedding (her first wedding!), a time of great transition for her. She whined a little and philosophized a lot. She told stories about her recent life and also recapped her whole life story. We left there feeling thoroughly entertained.

A few weeks later I settled in to read Almost Everything. After not reading any of her books written since 2005, I expected to be wowed. It’s her eighteenth book, consisting of twelve chapters on different topics. (She’s also written seven novels.)

Almost Everything

But by the time I was three-quarters of the way through the book, I was getting nervous. I expected great wisdom, but what I found was familiar stories from her old books. And you know what? This is a skinny book, only 198 pages. (Plan B, which came out in 2005, was 320.)

Thankfully, I found some of what I was looking for in the final two chapters.

Chapter 11 is about food. Here are a couple of paragraphs that resonated with me:

There is the $66 billion American diet industry whispering sweet nothings everywhere you turn. There is your family’s jealousy or mortification about your body. There is our own dispirited stance toward ourselves, designed to protect us and advance our potential. There are also the convincing voices of mindfulness, coaching us to eat slowly and to savor taste and texture bite by bite; but to be blunt, this isn’t going to happen. While I am not advocating for the school of Shovel and Stuff, to sit chewing so methodically starts to argue a wasted life.

Maybe some of us can try to eat a bit more healthfully, and walk a bit more, or wheelchair dance, and make sure to wear pants that do not hurt our stomachs or our feelings. Drinking more water is the solution to many problems. Doing a three-minute meditation every day may change your life: It is the gateway drug to slowing down. Naps are nice, too.

Chapter 12 is titled “Famblies.” Here is the opening:

If the earth is forgiveness school, family is your postdoctoral fellowship. Family is hard hard hard, a crucible. Think Salem witch trials, or Senator Joseph McCarthy and House Un-American Activities Committee, great pain from which great transformation arises. The family is the crucible in which these strange entities called identities are formed, who we are and aren’t but agreed to be. Even in what might pass as a good family, every member is consigned a number of roles intended to keep the boat of the family afloat, which because of the ship’s rats—genetics, bad behavior, and mental illness—is not as easy as it sounds. It’s the hardest work we do, forgiving our circumstances, our families, and ourselves. Parenting is hard, and so is old age. And every single teenager is hard—even twelve-year-old Jesus drove his folks crazy. (And no word at all on the high school years; like Obama.) Babies are hard. In-laws are hard. And forgiveness is hardest of all.

I was given the role of perfect child at an early age. . .

And she goes on to describe her childhood, and how it shaped the woman she became.

If you’ve never read any of Anne Lamott’s nonfiction, you could read this one book, and it would be representative of her entire body of work. Almost Everything: Notes on Hope is not a bad book, but it recycles a lot of old material.

On the basis of my disappointment with this book, I decided that from now on I’ll borrow Lamott’s books from the library.

Then a supermarket in my neighborhood held a going-out-of-business sale, and I scored a copy of her previous book, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy for $1.50. (Isn’t that a great title, by the way?)

 

Review of Animals I Have Killed by Lauren K Carlson

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Review of Animals I Have Killed by Lauren K Carlson

Some poets write for themselves. Others long to share their verses. I fall in the second group.

When I started writing poetry a few years ago, the poems were often responses to online challenges, so I posted them on my blog, where they would be available to the online poetry challenge community. I was thrilled when I was selected as a featured poet for NaPoWriMo, because visits to my blog spiked. It’s gratifying when people want to read what you’ve written.

Submitting single poems or groups of poems to various publications is a tedious undertaking, which I have tried on numerous occasions with no success as of yet.

I follow the contest listings in Poets and Writers magazine, and when I realized I have enough decent poems to put together a chapbook (a small collection of poems by a single poet), I began entering chapbook contests. So far I’ve lost four. Shortly after I entered the fifth, Animals I Have Killed arrived at my house. I’d forgotten that the entry fee for the Comstock Review chapbook contest included a copy of the winning book.

 

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I read Animals I Have Killed with great interest. This is the work that beat me out, that the judges deemed better than all the rest of the entries.

Lauren K Carlson is a poet, teaching artist, and spiritual director in rural Minnesota. Nature and hunting and farm life and the sacred run through her poems. The title poem is a litany of animals that were killed on purpose, or by accident, or slaughtered for food. One line asks, “do the goats we take to the butcher count,” and the cover art is a silhouette of a goat with the cuts of meat mapped out. I was delighted to discover that one of the poems in the chapbook was her response to a prompt in The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop by Diane Lockward, which I am currently working through.

Carlson’s poems are unrhymed and utilize various forms. One is formatted unusually, and I wasn’t quite sure how to read it, due to how the lines were broken and staggered. Maybe that’s what she intended—having readers read snippets in different orders and get more than one meaning from the poem.

Two poems especially resonated with me. “The Week Before,” about a visit to a friend with terminal cancer, made me cry. And “The Lesson” is about a woman observing her son with his grandfather. They are carving together, and the lesson the grandfather teaches the little boy is internalized by the mother on a metaphysical level.

I enjoyed this chapbook. It’s a good read and I look forward to reading more of Carlson’s poetry in the future. The book also gives me hope that maybe my poems will be published one day.

 

Review of 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost

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Review of 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost

I bought this book because writing instructor extraordinaire Margie Lawson recommended it.

My edition was printed in 1985, and the book examples used in 100 Ways are old. (Fortunately, so am I, and I remember the buzz those books earned at the time.) It was also in the baby days of personal computers, when very few writers owned one, and most everyone wrote their rough drafts by hand and their better drafts on a typewriter.

Gary Provost wrote articles for Writers Digest and 22 books, fiction and nonfiction. He passed away in 1995.

100 Ways is divided into nine chapters which are further divided into 5 to 12 short topics. For example, Chapter 7, “11 Ways to Make People Like What You Write,” is broken into these topics:

  1. Make Yourself Likeable100 ways to improve your writing
  2. Write About People
  3. Show Your Opinion
  4. Obey Your Own Rules
  5. Use Anecdotes
  6. Use Examples
  7. Name Your Sources
  8. Provide Useful Information
  9. Use Quotations
  10. Use Quotes
  11. Create a Strong Title

The entire book is 158 pages long.

Although most of the information in this book is pretty basic, veterans could benefit from reviewing some of the material, such as common errors to avoid, cutting unnecessary words, and a self-editing checklist. Or how about this advice:

How do you know when you have finished? Look at the last sentence and ask yourself, “What does the reader lose if you cross it out?” If the answer is “nothing” or “I don’t know,” then cross it out. Do the same thing with the next to last sentence, and so forth. When you get to the sentence you must have, read it out loud. Is it a good closing sentence? Does it sound final? Is it pleasant to the ear? Does it leave the reader in the mood you intended? If so, you are done. If not, rewrite it so that it does. Then stop writing.

If you’re a beginning writer and you’re looking for a book that covers the basics, this is a good choice. I have over 40 books on writing, and 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing does not spark joy for me. I would give it to you, but my dog chewed the corners. (He liked it just fine.)

Creative Juice #124

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Creative Juice #124

Great ideas to get your creative mojo going this weekend.

  1. Two quilt shows.
  2. Cuba in photographs.
  3. Beautiful paintings and drawings by David Harrison.
  4. Lovely tangles.
  5. Paper creatures.
  6. I don’t understand all these artsy apps, but they’re cool.
  7. Reading aloud to older children is beneficial, too.
  8. The stuff at thrift stores just keeps getting better.
  9. Stephen King takes a stand in favor of book reviews in the local newspaper, and his fans support him—and subscribe to the newspaper.
  10. Design trends for 2019.
  11. Photos of forest fauna in Finland.
  12. When life gives you snow, make a snow sculpture.

Review of Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham

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Review of Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham

I actually read this book twenty years ago—and remembered nothing from it. But it was full of my underlining and border notes in my handwriting, so I definitely read it.

The late Jack Bickham wrote 75 novels (two of which were made into films) and six books on the craft of fiction. He understands how to write a story.

Yet, as I was rereading this book over the course of more than a year, I found myself resisting much of what Bickham expounds. For example, Bickham says every scene must end with a disaster. I rejected that idea, because many of my scenes don’t and I couldn’t picture what would have to happen to follow that convention.

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Then I read Children of Blood and Bone. Every scene in Children of Blood and Bone ends with a crisis. (Except maybe one.) And I couldn’t put CoB&B down. The pacing was so fast. The problems were so compelling.

So I began to take Scene and Structure more seriously.

Some of the terms in S&S I’d seen before, but I thought they meant something different. For example, I thought a scene goal was the author’s goal for the scene. It’s actually the viewpoint character’s goal for the scene. I suppose I would have known that if I’d majored in creative writing in college instead of music education.

Here are some points I learned from Scene and Structure:

  • Moment by moment, transactions occur in your scene that involve this progression: stimulus, internalization, response. A cause and effect relationship exists between the stimulus and the response. The response should make sense as a reaction to the stimulus. If the response would confuse the reader, an explanation is necessary; this occurs while the character processes the stimulus during the internalization phase.
  • At the beginning of the story, the main character must state a goal. The reader unconsciously forms a story question: i.e. will the character achieve his goal?
  • At the beginning of each scene, the viewpoint character states a short-term goal related to the story goal, and the reader again formulates a scene question about its attainment. The next element of the scene is conflict. In order to keep the reader engaged, the scene must end with a disaster.
  • Each scene disaster is followed by sequel (sometimes with a connecting transition) in which the character processes what’s just happened. Sequel consists of emotion, thought, decision (creation of the next scene’s goal), and action, which launches the next scene.

Scene and Structure covers much more related to writing the novel, including suggestions on how to create a master plot for your book, and an appendix of excerpts of published novels illustrating some of the concepts introduced in S&S.

scene and structure

This was not an easy book to read. I often had to read sections over and over to understand them. I don’t know if my confusion was the fault of the author or of my own limited intelligence. However, I will be reading this book again, and filtering my manuscript-in-progress through all the bullet points listed. I would recommend Scene and Structure for authors who are not satisfied with their own work but don’t know what’s wrong with it: you may have structural deficiencies.

Guest Post and Book Giveaway: A Tuba Christmas by Helen Wilbur – Illustrated by Mary Uhles

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A wonderful gift idea for your musically-inclined youngster! And a glimpse into the illustrator’s process.

This article by Kathy Temean previously appeared on Writing and Illustrating.

Writing and Illustrating

Author Helen Wilbur has new picture book titled, A TUBA CHRISTMAS, illustrated by Mary Uhles. It’s now available in bookstores. Raakhee has agreed to share a book with one lucky winner. All you have to do to get in the running is to leave a comment. Reblog, tweet, or talk about it on Facebook with a link and you will get additional chances to win. Just let me know the other things you do to share the good news, so I can put in the right amount of tickets in my basket for you.

Sharing on Facebook, Twitter, reblogging really helps spread the word for a new book. Thanks for helping Helen and Mary!

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

With a family that loves music as much as hers does, it was only a matter of time before it was Ava’s turn to pick out an instrument. Her mother plays the piano, her…

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Review of Devotions by Mary Oliver

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Review of Devotions by Mary Oliver

I’ve often heard people mention Mary Oliver as one of their favorite poets. I’ve always felt I had a distant connection to her since she was on staff at Bennington College when my oldest daughter was a student there.

I’ve occasionally read some of her poems, and I decided I needed one of her books. I chose Devotions because it is a collection that spans her lifetime, with selections from her first book (published in 1963 when she was 28 years old) through her most recent (2015).

The book is arranged in reverse chronological order, starting with the newer poems and ending with the oldest. The more recent work is polished and smooth, a delight to read out loud or silently. As I made my way toward the end, the poems seemed rawer, though no less delightful or skillful. Many poems made me stop to savor the images and emotions; some of the older poems required a second or third reading for me to understand.

 

Oliver was born on September 10, 1935. She grew up in Ohio and started writing poetry when she was 14 years old. Her collection American Primitive won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984. Her New and Selected Poems (1992) won the National Book Award. She and her partner of more than 40 years, photographer Molly Malone Cook, lived much of their life together (before Cook’s passing) in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Oliver now lives in Florida.

A daily walker, Oliver most frequently writes about nature, but also about God and about the human experience.

Devotions

Five poems in this book especially spoke to me.

“Six Recognitions of the Lord” describes six diverse times of meditation. Nature appears repeatedly, as God’s creation is an avenue that draws Oliver’s heart to God. But she also acknowledges the Spirit of God within her, and the darkness of distance from God.

Six Recognitions of the Lord (excerpt)
by Mary Oliver

2.
Lord God, mercy is in your hands, pour
me a little. And tenderness too. My
need is great. Beauty walks so freely
and with such gentleness. Impatience puts
a halter on my face and I run away over
the green fields wanting your voice, your
tenderness, but having to do with only
the sweet grasses of the fields against
my body. When I first found you I was
filled with light, now the darkness grows
and it is filled with crooked things, bitter
and weak, each one bearing my name.

Oliver is a master of word choice. In the poem “Some Herons,” she uses the characterizations of preacher and poet to differentiate between two birds when she could have used simply blue and white. Hunched in the white gown of his wings so accurately paints the heron’s position. The description of the water as if it were fabric makes me nod with recognition. Splashed upward, in a small, quick flower, by the life beneath it is so much more vivid than, say, “the surface was disturbed by the fish below.” His skirts up around his knees makes me smile as I picture the blue heron’s awkward landing. And I can see the white heron’s annoyed expression.

In her poem “A Meeting,” she never uses the words deer, doe, or fawn, yet, from the description of the vigorous licking the mother gives her offspring, the reader knows what species just gave birth in the forest swamp, though Oliver calls the creatures woman and child.

In “Music Lessons,” Oliver describes a time that the teacher took the piano bench and played while the student listened; how the teacher became the music and how the student became aware of music’s transformative power.

I love this rejection of the bustle of twenty-first-century existence:

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The Old Poets of China
by Mary Oliver

Wherever I am, the world comes after me.
It offers me its busyness. It does not believe
that I do not want it. Now I understand
why the old poets of China went so far and high
into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.

Hmm. This reminds me of the bird in “Some Herons” which was referred to as an old Chinese poet.

Devotions: the Selected Poems of Mary Oliver is filled with beauty, with fresh air, with lyrical appreciation, with uplifting meditations, and also with pain, doubt, and questions. Oliver is one of the greatest American poets, and I am happy to have this volume in my collection.