Monthly Archives: November 2019

Letters from an Astrophysicist

Do you ever wonder what kinds of letters a famous person gets? Do you ever wonder what kinds of responses they give?

Neil DeGrasse Tyson provides a little snapshot into the celebrity mail world in his latest book, Letters from an Astrophysicist.

The book is broken up by themes, covering topics ranging from UFOs to parenting, faith and belief to life and death, and hate mail. It also includes some more editorial pieces by Tyson reflecting on events such as earning his PhD and witnessing 9/11. The book contains a selection of letters received (for some longer letters, a synopsis is provided instead of the full text) along with Tyson’s response.

In addition to a snapshot at the kinds of questions people ask him, it also provides a snapshot into who he is. Tyson’s responses are honest, if a little sassy at times, and challenge the writers to think critically. Though he shares his opinions and knowledge, he does not tell people what to think or believe.

Writing this kind of book, I think, can be a vulnerable move. People can easily read through the letters and responses and find something to attack–Tyson’s lack of religion, his blunt responses to some questions, his skepticism. But sharing unedited responses to honest questions by fans (or at least only mildly edited; if you were really trying to present yourself as something other than you are, you could certainly change a few things) brings a degree of humanity to someone who could easily seem to be simply an unattainable celebrity figure.

Full of wit and enough sass to make me smile, I enjoyed reading this sampling of Tyson’s mail. And some of the questions and answers were thought provoking.

The final countdown

As we start the last week of November, I’m ahead of where I need to be on my daily count to complete my story.

However, I’ve found I’m running out of steam, and out of ideas. I feel like I’ve exhausted my source of pet peeves and weird stories (though I was just recently reminded of one, that little can probably get some good words out of).

As I’ve been writing, I’ve found myself a little torn about what I include. After all, this story is supposed to be taking place in hell. Can there really be kind little old ladies? But, I’m not going to worry too much about it right now. For now, it’s just for my own personal enjoyment and decompression. I can worry about the flack I might get for it much later down the road.

As I’m ahead of where I need to be, I’m finding myself thinking a lot about the end. Some of my stories have simply ended. Some have been pulling teeth just trying to get to the 50,000 goal. Since I’m not behind, I have the luxury of thinking ahead a little. I think I know how it’ll end, I’ve been mulling it over for a while. And if so, I think it’ll be fun, and funny.

So for now, it’s about finding the steam to power through another 7,000 or so more words, until I get to writing the end.

The Clockmaker’s Daughter

Sometimes authors take several stories and weave them together. It takes skill to do this well, and not every story succeeds. But I knew Kate Morton would do it well, because so far, I haven’t run into any stories she hasn’t told well.

This story is almost more about a house than anything else. The house belonged to an artist, but tragedy seems to follow the house throughout the years. When Elodie Winslow discovers the house, mysteries abound. A woman was murdered and the family diamond stolen in 1862; a girl drowns in the river years later, when the house has become a girls school.

Elodie discovers her own family has ties to the house, as well. Her great uncle spent time as a child at the house during World War II, and her mother, a famous musician that died tragically young, visited the house as well. Working as an archivist, Elodie is used to digging for answers, and suddenly she’s obsessed with uncovering the true history about the house–and the true history of her own family, too.

The story is told from alternating viewpoints and time eras, which could have been confusing, but Morton does a good job of keeping each sub story in its own section. Elodie’s story and the story of Birdie, a woman present in 1862 when the first tragedy struck, weave through it all, until the final chapters bring all the threads together.

It’s definitely a book you want to read on it’s own, so you keep all the stories together. And while at times you might start to wonder how it’s all related, just keep reading. It all makes sense in the end.

Morton’s story is one of intrigue and compelling characters. Definitely worth reading.

NaNoWriMo: Halfway

We’ve passed the halfway point in NaNoWriMo, and I’ve managed to keep on track pretty much every day (or make it up the next day if I miss it by a little).

As a first this year, I’ve actually attended write-ins with some other writers in the area. It’s incredible what a little bit of accountability can do for a person. Sitting writing with others is fun and motivating, and it doesn’t hurt that I’m competitive, so a 15-minute sprint to see who can write the most is exactly what I need to get the words flowing.

I decided this year to write a story I’ve been mulling over for a little while, called Hell’s Bookstore. I didn’t really do a whole lot of planning for this month. I basically just had a list of things I wanted to include (mostly drawn from real-life experiences, I do work in a bookstore, after all), and I’ve just been writing them in. Honestly, there’s not even an overarching plot, more like a collection of anecdotes from the bookselling life. Everything from silly questions to mixed up book titles, irrationally upset customers to sassy responses.

And yet it’s been very fun to write, and cathartic, too. I can’t lie, it’s a lot of making fun of things people say and do in the bookstore. But, when in the service industry, one has to cope however they can. And if this book were ever to see the light of day, it would be dedicated to all my fellow booksellers and retail workers.

Flying by the seat of my pants has been an interesting change of pace from all my latest projects. Everything else has been pretty well planned. Most of the time when I sit down to write this month, I’ve got no idea what’s going to come out. And yet somehow I’ve made it past the halfway point.

I’m not sure what exactly it is about November that just somehow makes it possible for me to stick with a project, but I’m always glad of it. Now if I can just find a way to carry it over into the rest of the year.

The Clan of the Cave Bear

Slowly but surely, I’m making my way through all the books I bought over the summer (let’s not talk about all the books I’ve bought since then…).

Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series has been popular for a long time, but was one I didn’t know a whole lot about until I started it.

Clan of the Cave Bears, first in the series, starts with a young girl alone in the wilderness. When she’s found by a traveling clan in search of a new cave, the medicine woman fights to keep her.

Ayla must learn an entirely new way of life if she’s going to have a chance at staying with the clan. Even after years of living with them, Ayla finds in hard to adhere to some of the rules and regulations. But if she doesn’t fit in, she runs the risk of being cast out, and if she’s cast out, how can she survive alone?

While the book was good, I found it very slow. The cave people don’t use a spoken language, so there’s less dialogue than might be expected. A lot of the book is internal monologue and action, but I found myself feeling like the story wasn’t moving quite fast enough. It was also challenging to disengage from our modern society and not only drop into the world of the ice age, but also not cringe at the idea of young women (girls by today’s standards), being married and bearing children.

I’ll confess that I started the second book in this series, but gave up because it just seemed to be moving even slower, and I’ve got a lot of books calling my name.

While the curiosity still remains to know the rest of Ayla’s story, it’s not so overwhelming as to enable me to power through the series. I can see how it may be a sweeping saga, and it’s era is certainly unique, but, now is not the time for me to get in to it, I guess. Maybe I’ll give it another try later.

Starting fresh

I don’t know if it’s that I know tons of other people are doing the same thing during the month of November, or if it’s just sort of become a habit that’s hard to break, but National Novel Writing Month in November seems to be the constant kick in the pants I need to get writing.

I wish it would last through the rest of the year, but maybe being refreshed every November will someday lead to a more consistent writing schedule throughout the year. After all, I’ve been able to keep it up for a few months throughout the last few years…

This year I decided to finally write the satire fiction about an employee working in a bookstore. Except the bookstore has a unique service policy–be sassy, snarky, sarcastic, and irritate as many customers as possible.

This gives me a wealth of ideas to draw from when I’m feeling stuck, all I have to do is think of my own day at work, and I’m bound to come up with something. It’s a great outlet for all the responses I have to swallow to customer questions and comments like, “where’s the nonfiction section?” And “I’m looking for a book.”‘

My bookstore employees also get to do all the things people assume we do in my store–like make up prices, hide political books we don’t agree with, decide how to categorize books, and create company policy.

Right now, the story is basically a collection of made-up anecdotes, snapshots from a day in the life. I’ll be honest, it doesn’t have a huge overarching plot. And while it kind of bugs me, because who’s gonna want to read a whole novel like that? I’m also just letting it go. I’m writing. I’m having fun with it. It’s engaging me and helping me feel grounded and connected. And it’s pushing me to get involved a little in the local writing community.

So we’ll see what we end up with in three weeks. It may never see the light of day. It may just be a little something I share with other retail workers for a laugh. Maybe someday it’ll be published and popular.

Either way, the process doesn’t have to be perfect, just creative.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Sometimes after a book takes a long time to get through, you’ve just gotta jump in and read something fast and fun.

Maria Semple’s Where’s You Go, Bernadette, was exactly that.

When her daughter claims a family trip to Antarctica as a reward for perfect grades, Bernadette starts to unravel. She hates leaving the house, hates other people, and just knows she’ll be seasick the entire cruise. Bernadette–once a well-known name in architecture–has been living in Seattle with her family, trying to move on from a painful past, but things finally start to catch up with her.

When Bernadette disappears, her daughter had to piece together correspondence and documents to try to find out what happened to her mother and where she went.

This book was such a light, fun read. Bernadette’s shenanigans and sass are so relatable and at the heart of it all, the message of finding yourself in unlikely places.

Semple uses letters, documents, emails, and first person narrative to weave her story together, collecting insight into the characters and their thoughts. All the while, despite the real and heavy issues, you find yourself laughing and relating to the characters (and living vicariously through them, perhaps).

I highly recommend this book if you’re looking for something fun and fast. It’s a little bit drama, little bit adventure, and all comedy.

The Starless Sea

Every now and then, you stumble upon a book that just grabs your attention.

Erin Morgenstern’s new book, The Starless Sea, was one such book. Filled with books and doors and keys, it was a unique sort of read that piques your curiosity from the very beginning.

The story begins with with a big helping of allegorical foreshadowing before introducing us to Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a young college student who discovers a random book that contains a story of his childhood. Desperate to find out how anyone knew about it, he plays detective and follows a series of clues that lead him to an underground world and a secret society dedicated to protecting stories. But is Zachary there to protect the library, or destroy it?

As he meets new people involved in the society, Zachary realizes things aren’t quite what they seem. Time is of the essence and it’s running out.

Morgenstern’s book is a little bit different. Told with a mixture of stories from books mentioned in the book and third person narrative, she weaves a layered story full of love, intrigue, and impossible things.

I’ll admit, a little way into the book I started to wonder if the book was going to be as good as I thought. The seemingly random snippets of stories seemed distracting, until the story really got going. But once I got into the story, I started getting invested. As clues started dropping, I wanted so bad to piece the story together, but with all the moving pieces, it was enjoyable to just enjoy the story’s unfolding.

The Starless Sea hits shelves today. If you enjoy fantasy, libraries, intrigue, and just plain fun, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Do you ever hear about a book that’s required reading for a class, and wonder what’s the deal with it?

That’s exactly what I thought about Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, so when the chance came to snag a copy, I moved it to the top of my reading list.

The book follows the story of a man and his son, out on a motorcycle trip across the country. While you get the sense that is supposed to be a time of bonding for them, the man (who I don’t think is ever named, but we’re going told it’s a kind of biography, so I guess it’s Pirsig himself) leads the reader down a philosophical path.

He’s remembering and telling the story of Phaedrus, a young college professor he knew who went a bit insane studying philosophy and “quality.” The narrator is at the same time also trying to make sense of these ideas, using motorcycle maintenance and technology in general as lenses to look at them.

Though an interesting story, I found this book incredibly tough to read, and even harder to understand. I suppose it makes more sense if you’ve taken or are taking a philosophy class. But all I could think was, “this is a book about a man who went insane thinking about philosophy, and it’s also trying to teach me philosophy…”

I suppose maybe for most people, philosophy just isn’t something you take up as a hobby. I think for me specifically, if I wanted more, I’d take a class. I’m not sure Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Machiavelli, or any of the others would make a lot of sense to me on my own. And while it is an interesting subject matter, I’m not chomping at the bit to get into more philosophy.

In short, an interesting book, but not one I’d read again on my own for fun. I’ll leave the reading to the students.