Now Go Read: Beyond Borges

A writer worth reading for a lifetime, Borges still shouldn’t be your only stop on the Latin American reading circuit.

Sometimes when Latin American literature comes up as one of my areas of research in a casual setting, I hear things like, “Oh, so you read Borges, right?” 

Don’t get me wrong: Borges is great–and important. So of course I read Borges. In fact, I studied in the very building at UT-Austin where he once gave lectures as a guest.)

But there are important literary horizons beyond Borges in Latin America, even in Argentina itself. If I had it my way, I’d beam any eager readers straight into one of my comparative literature classes, but in the absence of Star Trek technology, I’ll settle for putting you on the track of a fabulous series of articles that introduce readers to important Argentinian writers (beyond Borges).

These features from The Argentina Independent showcase about a dozen Argentine fiction writers and poets such as Rodolfo Walsh, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Ernesto Sabato, Roberto Arlt, and (my personal favorite as well as one of the subjects of my current dissertation) Silvina Ocampo. A few of my own thoughts about her here.

The essays give a biographical overview as well as a bit of soci0-historical context, but their best traits are the enticing bits of literary history. Here’s a passage from the feature on Macedonio Fernández:

Wrestling earnestly with the question, “How can we commit ourselves to love whilst facing the certainty of death?” the novel concerns itself with the idea of non-existence. A collection of characters, including the president, the gentleman who does not exist, the lover, and the author, gather at an estancia called ‘La novela’ where they are to be instructed in the art of non-being.

Subtitled ‘The first good novel’ and unabashedly described by the author as “the best novel since both it and the world began”, ‘Museo de la novela de la Eterna’ was written alongside a collection of intentionally bad writing titled ‘Adriana Buenos Aires’ and subtitled ‘The last bad novel’.

Together the two novels represent an extended experiment in writing, a museum of possible literatures, and secured Macedonio’s reputation as a writers’ writer.

Want to go beyond Borges? There’s one idea of where to start. Now go read.


A book might be as welcome as a blue sky for some prison readers.

It’s a rare thing, maybe, for an author to celebrate her book being locked up. But in this case, going to lock-up means being freed to find a new audience–and getting my book into the Michigan Reformatory library.

I stumbled across the fabulous and quirky Prison Reviews by Curtis Dawkins, who writes for BULL Men’s Fiction. I loved the stories that lead into the reviews–which sometimes have to do with his experience in prison, sometimes not–and Curtis is a smart and uncompromising critic. 

I had my publisher send The Knife and the Butterfly in hopes of getting a prison review, and Curtis rocked my world last week by writing a review of the novel that is fabulous and unlikely in equal parts. A taste of the unlikely:

Surprises are like those scared animals—you have to surprise them by hiding your desire to catch them. You have to wait patiently for them to wiggle through an unseen crack while your mind drifts to dinner. Your hand is cramped from holding the binder twine tied around the stake propping open the oak barrel and your hungover, trap-builder buddy is snoring under a tractor out back. If the critters know you’re waiting, they’re gone, and it might be a coon’s age before they show their anxious faces in those parts again.

And a taste of the fabulous: 

That’s why this book is important. “Important” may be a term used too often in blurbs and reviews (it should only be used when the book could truly save lives), but it’s one I don’t think I’ve used in a review before. It’s easy to see these abrasive youngsters dying on the news and dismiss them as somehow deserving of their bloody death. But, as The Knife and the Butterfly makes clear, they have grandmothers and little sisters who love and will miss them—Regina and Meemaw are two of the most touching characters I’ve read about in a long time. The gang-bangers only want what everyone else wants. They only want to leave their mark on the world—in this case that mark takes the form of tagging the buildings and boxcars in Houston with spray-paint, which serves as a perfect metaphor for the transitory nature of all of our marks.

Check out the whole review. And while you are at it, think about sending Curtis a book yourself. He has a wish list of books he’d like to read and review, but he is also open to surprises, as seen above. All books get a second life in the Michigan Reformatory library for use by other inmates. Notice that books must be sent directly by the publisher or a vender and must be new.

Now Go Write: style in the sentence

To help YOU go write today, I’ll share my number 1, go-to method of getting my style muscles in condition.

There is something to be said for having a shock-proof shit detector that can be turned “off” for the purposes of drafting. That is, an editor you can shut up long enough to get the words on the page.

I’ve already hoorayed over the triumph of finishing a draft (just the first of many, mind you) of novel #3 and managing to crank out 200,000 words in a year with a focus on plot.·

But in all that FAST writing, I had a recurring fear that I was steadily killing my inner stylist. Was I losing the art of the well-turned sentence? Had I become deaf to the music of language in favor of the blunter instruments of plot twists, drama, and suspense? Would I ever write another paragraph that, even if it took me an hour, had all the harmony and cohesion that are missing in our world?

As a reward for finishing the draft and because, let’s face it, my style muscles have gotten a little weak, I’m taking a break from story and plot and returning to my first love: the sentence. Here’s a lovely demonstration of why it matters to take time with the sentence:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.  

(Gary Provost, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing. Mentor, 1985)

There are countless books of writng prompts and exercises out there, but I always come back to my favorite approach: starting with sentences I admire in books I’m reading. Try it! Here’s how:

Find a paragraph of prose you admire. Write it out longhand just to get the feel of those amazing words coming out of your own pen (on loan). Notice the joints within and between sentences, how they fit together and flow.

Now write your own paragraph (on whatever subject you choose), modeling each sentence exactly on the paragraph you admire. Try to stick to your model; the idea is to pay attention to how writing moves at the sentence level—and to get infected by gorgeous prose. Here’s an example:

Gil Adamson’s opening sentence in her novel The Outlander: “It was night, and dogs came through the trees, unleashed and howling.”

Ashley’s sentence: It was noon, and salmon arced up out of the stream, rainbowed and gleaming.

What’s awesome about this prompt, which I shared with here? You can use it over and over, so it’s a perfect building block for a writing ritual. Best of all, you can surprise yourself into a twist in your narrative.


Literary Laboring

An illustration of

A day late, and a bad joke too many, but for labor day… I was thinking about fictional depictions of childbirth. Not motherhood, mind you, but proper labor. I think this is something most of us mothers would rather leave out of our fiction, but I’m curious if there are brave folks out there that I’m missing.

If there are, tell me who! What are they writing about labor?

The only in-depth labor scene I can think of is at the beginning of The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. (Irrelevant note: I tried to read this once, at eighteen, and couldn’t get into it. Then about a decade passed and I moved to Bloomington, Indiana–where part of the novel is set, albeit in an earlier time–and I moved closer to mommyhood myself. The second time I finished it.)

Anyway, here’s a bit from the opening of The Stone Diaries:

“What she feels is more like a shift in the floor of her chest, rising at first, and then an abrupt drop, a squeezing like an accordion held sideways… She breathes rapidly, blinking as the pain wraps a series of heavy bands around her abdomen. Down there, buried in the lapped folds of flesh, she feels herself invaded. A tidal wade, a flood.”

Happy Labor Day!


Not matches, but good companions.

Today’s post offers a review of ANNEXED·by Sharon Dogar and suggests pairing it with NO CRYSTAL STAIR by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

(Note: this is part of my “If I were a librarian” fantasy in which I would always have ideas for the next great book to hand to a reader.)

Pair ANNEXED by Sharon Dogar with NO CRYSTAL STAIR by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

I read Anne Frank’s diary several times as a preteen, but Sharon Dogar offers something new here with a book that imagines what life in the annex–and after–might have been like for Peter van Pels. I loved how Dogar showed the evolution of their relationship, especially how she got inside what it might have been like to be forced together in a way, to know that this might be the only chance at love. Apparently there has been some fuss about Dogar sexualizing Anne Frank, but I think that objection has more to do with what people don’t want to think about teens–and their own children–than to do with any inconsistencies between Dogar’s portrayal and the Anne of the diaries. For more, please read my post, “Teens are (sexual) people, too.

Still, the most powerful part of Annexed for me comes in Part II, which imagines Peter’s experience in the camps. The narration is choked with numb despair, but it is beautiful and gripping.

Finally, a word about shyness: I appreciated how Dogar captured Peter’s personality and worldview, how she gave him a powerful, distinct voice in spite of his difficulty expressing himself to others. The narrative pulses with his will–and his right–to live. 

A minor issue: The only gripe I had was with the chapter headings (e.g. “Peter Dreams of Lisa,” “Peter Is in Love with Anne”). They seemed unnecessary and intrusive, but perhaps that wouldn’t be the case in a paper book rather than in audio; the reader’s eyes might fly right past these markers. Speaking of: I listened to Annexed on audiobook, and it’s wonderfully produced with a large cast. Usually I don’t like “performed” audiobooks, but here it works.

Why ANNEXED is a good pairing for NO CRYSTAL STAIR, which I reviewed here: NO CRYSTAL STAIR also draws on real-life documents to tell a story of struggle, although it’s a quieter, less dramatic narrative (the life story of influential Harlem bookseller Lewis Michaux). Readers who are fascinated by fiction inspired by real events will love NO CRYSTAL STAIR, which draws on and weaves in actual documents from Michaux’s life. This weaving of fact and fiction is more subtle in Annexed, but the dynamic is similar.

The Look into the Coffin (not a feel-good story)

Marilyn Monroe’s casket, before she was put inside. I think I would have been more comforted by the site of an empty casket than an open one with a loved one inside.

For me, death is the hardest chapter to bear in the story of a life.

Recently, my brother asked me to share some good memories about my grandmother, who passed on the fourth of July after a long struggle with cancer that clouded the end of a life of caring and connectedness. I told him I wasn’t ready yet. And I’m not; I still feel too raw to skip back to the joyful parts.

I know that time will come, a time when I can celebrate and remember without the bitter bite of loss. It’s happened with each important death in my life, and I anticipated it as I sat in the funeral. I kept my eyes open and looking up, up. Partly because I was trying to cry less and some liar told me this might help. Partly because upward is, for me, the direction of gratitude.

Even if I don’t feel grateful, I can still put myself in position for it. I can remind myself that I will, eventually, appreciateher peaceful death, a death with my grandfather and father at hand. She opened her one good eye to the world, blinked, and turned her head toward the man she lived with and loved for more than sixty years.

There were no more breaths.

I wish I had let that be my last image of my grandmother. There was so much to hold onto: her awareness of the moment of passing, her connection to two men she loved, her release to the heaven everyone in the room anticipated for her.

Instead, at the funeral, I looked into the coffin.

I’m always sorry. I always tell myself, “This time around, I’m really, really not going to look.” And I always, always look.

I don’t know what we expect from the open coffin. What closure can denying decay for the duration of a funeral service really give us? Maybe it is part of what some people need. For me, it’s an obstacle to closure. That frozen, flattened look–the features pressed into place by someone who never saw the person in life–it lodges in me, a dark seed that tells a story that competes with the one I want to tell for my loved one, the one that will let me remember the real life.

The look into the coffin begins a story of deception, of denial, of delay. A lie: I’m just sleeping here for a while. The truth of death is less eloquent: gone, gone, gone. A stuttering that finally resolves into silence.

For far more eloquent thoughts on death than mine, click here.

10 Blog Posts You Shouldn’t Miss

I reader recently emailed me to ask about the most-read articles on this blog. (Thanks for your question, Christy!) Here are the ten most popular posts, in reverse order to maximize suspense.

10. Five reasons NOT to self-publish your novel as an e-book. My tough-love advice for the eager-to-be-published.

9. The shit detector with on-off switch.  Slight modifications to Hemingway’s adage result in handy gift-giving advice for writers.

8. YA saves, but not like you think. A post responding to the second Gurdon article in the summer of 2011 (Remember? “AAAAAH! YA IS SO SCARY AND DARK!”) and the responding rallying cry of “YA saves.” Basically about the difference between parent-vision and teen-vision and what matters most for the YA audience.

7. Scrivener and me. A little shout-out for the program that is (STILL!) rocking my world. Coming soon… a post on organizing blog tours using Scrivener.

6. The Dropout Story. I am quite possibly the world’s nerdiest high-school dropout.

5. Teens are (sexual) people, too. No surprise here… Sex always gets folks reading! One of my favorite posts on why I think sexuality has a place in books for teens… and why anybody who cares for a teen also ought to be thinking about the fact that sex–in some way–is in that teen’s life.

4. How to Accidentally Make Ten Gallons of Soup. I can’t help but think that these 1,000s of hits are from folks (cafeteria cooks?) actually interested in making 10 gallons of soup. Otherwise… are my mistakes really that compelling?

3. Stakeouts, Knives, Graffiti, and More. The truth about researching The Knife and the Butterfly.

2. Borges on visiting America. Tiny post with a Borges quote and a photo of the English building where he taught (and I attended classes) at The University of Texas at Austin.

1. Review of Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Last Night I Sang to the Monster. This was the first book review I wrote after receiving a contract for What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly.

Enjoyed digging through the archives? You can use the tags on any post to see more on the topic. Also, check out the “search” function hanging out at the top of the page.

Finishing a draft: the moment before the drop

I’m ready for the drop into revision…

For me a first draft is like that impossibly slow climb to the top of a roller coaster… a roller coaster from hell that keeps getting higher and higher so that you spend WEEKS thinking, I’m almost there… I’m just scenes away… I’m almost there… a few more clicks and clacks…

But… it doesn’t go on forever. I have finally finished a rough draft of novel #3, which has been on my heart and mind for years and has been on my desk for the past ten months. For me, that last word of the first draft is only the beginning, the moment before the drop on the roller coaster. It’s exhilerating and terrifying.

 is a beast, weighing in at over 170,000 words. (All those words will not, I assure you, survive into the final version.) Now the manuscript is in the hands of my most-trusted beta reader, and I pray she will wield all her numerous swords–Blade of Efficiency, Exwordilur, Scenecutter, Adverbbiter, Enemy of Infodump, Bane of Flashbacks, and Claritybringer are some of the weapons in her arsenal–to help me hack off the unnecessary limbs of my monster and uncover the leaner, meaner badass of a book within.

And that’s how I see a draft: it’s not the book, it’s what I’m going to build the book out of. The material is rough as hell, but it’ll do for a start. It’ll more than·do, I hope.

In fact, as someone who once obsessed over the placement of every modifier, I see roughness as a sign of progress. I surprised myself with this project by learning to put plot first. I might have overwritten (okay, I definitely did), but I wrote faster than I ever have before, cranking out over 200,000 words in a year.

Working fast and rough means I’m learning the difference between drafting and writing. The former is when I put words on the page toward the story I want to tell. The later is when my words take on a life of their own. I’m putting my inner bitch of an editor in her place (for the record, that is in a dark closet with duct tape over her mouth). Soon she’ll have her day.

Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame has said, “if you love your first draft, it probably sucks.” This is precisely the kind of unhelpful remark that can be crippling and panic-inducing for a writer. Loving a first draft doesn’t mean that you think you’re done or that it’s perfect. God, no. It means you see what it wants to become, and if you don’t love that, what the hell is the point of taking the plunge for it?

I’m not afraid to say it: I love my first draft enough to fight to make it a novel.

Scrivener Fall-out (NOT a falling out)

I know that this

Anybody who’s remotely paying attention should know that I love Scrivener. I’m near evangelical about its virtues for everything from novel-writing to blog-touring to academic blah organizing. (Yes, my academic blahs need to be organized.)

But there’s something that happens to me when I write in Scrivener. It’s so easy to start a new file that I end up with a file for every little bit of half-way coherent prose (I’m talking new files for single sentences, folks). Things get so fragmented that I feel like I need a vacuum cleaner to gather it all together again.

What I actually did was to resort to old-fashioned paper, as I explained here. Below are just a few of the zillions of little bits that I needed to place or discard, which was somehow too complicated on the screen. I kept shifting around stuff I really just needed to trash.

Just a little of the mess I made.

The paper solution is working out okay to get me through the end of a draft for novel #3, but I’m thinking… there must be a better way. Not a better way than Scrivener (impossible!), but a better way to use·Scrivener for novel work.·

The problem is that I write stuff before I have a clear sense of organization, not just of the novel itself but even of my writing of the novel. Perhaps the key is to start with better folders for slotting files I’m not ready to use in the MS yet.

I think my problem is that I put too much starter material into Scrivener when I should limit myself to just what is going into the MS. Part of this I blame on Scrivener’s awesomeness, which includes handy places to append PDF and image files. That seemed very cool when I had hardly written anything and was hiding behind my research, but now that the MS itself has hundreds of files, those extra sixty down in research are just making me feel all the more encumbered. 

For more ideas on how to handle planning and writing in Scrivener, check out this great post, which floats the idea of doing planning in Evernote and reserving Scrivener for “actual” writing. 

I may try that for novel #4.

A Journey toward (real) food

Food Not Bombs logo.

The husband and I just finished reading Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, and it has sparked lots of good conversation about our priorities for the food we put onto our–and our son’s–plate. That’s a conversation that started before we left for Paris and evolved as we witnessed how a different culture can have a very dramatically different relationship to foods, which is something that Pollan talks about quite a bit.

(You can click through my “What the French Know about Food” posts here, here, and here.)

In Defense of Food isn’t doctine-y at all, although in a few places Pollan waxes a bit too poetical for my taste about his garden and being part of an ecosystem (for me, my garden = cheap, clean veggies, pure and simple). And it taught me things about how food policy gets made in the U.S. that I’m really glad to know as a consumer and a parent. At the end of the day, now I know that we need to trust our own sense of what’s right with food over anything the FDA or the American Heart Association says. 

Pollan brings home the need for common sense over “expert” recommendations through his strangely moving chronicle of the rise of the low-fat movement in official dietary recommendations. Or maybe it was just moving for me because it made me think back to my childhood. My parents–striving to “do right” and follow the best recommendations–always bought low-fat everything. At the time, I don’t think it ever occurred to any of us that (a) we were eating a lot more artificial or modified foods because of this or that (b) we were eating a lot more sugar and carbohydrates in products from which fat had been subtracted. 

And that brings us to the main point of Pollan’s book, which probably should have been the first thing I mentioned: what is meant by the title. When Pollan writes about defending “food,” what he means is the notion that the food we buy and eat should be comprised of a combination of recognizable ingredients, not engineered “food products” (Read: convenience foods, chain restaurant menu items, and anything that has ingredients you can’t pronounce).

Another great food book, The End of Overeating, illustrates in detail how these food products are different from actual food. The main difference is that, rather than being designed to satisfy, food products are designed to lead to more cravings. Whereas The End of Overeating focuses more on the engineering of specific foods, In Defense of Food looks a bit more at industry trends like marketing different foods to different members of the family and encouraging the notion that even at home, everyone should cook (read: microwave pre-package food substance) their own thing.

In our home, as we try to teach Liam to be a diverse eater while still giving him opportunities to enjoy the occasional treat, I am realizing that parenting a healthy eater really means learning to be a healthier eater myself. 

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