Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Power of a Good Book (and Google)

So far this year I've read 30 books. This may seem like a lot, but in the good natured competition I have going with my husband and my dear friend Lea, I'm in last place.

I've always adored books. As a child, before I was literate, I would carry my books around "reading" out loud to myself, making up stories to go with the illustrations.

For a couple of my elementary school years, we lived in an old apartment building next to a massive stone library in Phoenixville, PA. This is where my passion for books was truly nurtured. On hot sticky days of summer vacation, I would escape to the library's children's section which took up the entirety of its cool, damp basement. Some days I would check out the maximum, which was ten books, take them home and start reading immediately. I'd return them all the next day in exchange for a new stack.

I rarely ventured into the upstairs of the library, the boring adult part. It smelled different up there, dry and musty, and the aged wooden floor boards creaked, no matter how hard you tried to be quiet. When I did accompany my mom (who also loves to read and has always encouraged my passion for books, ) I would stare up in awe at the incredibly tall shelves. There were so many books in there. And someday, I would be a grown up and I could read all of them! I'll never accomplish that, but I'd think that young me would at least be proud of the effort I've put forth!

One of my many cluttered bookshelves
So obviously I read a lot of books. I usually have two or three going at a time, typically a fiction, a non-fiction and an audio book. I like to read from all genres and subjects.

Some books affect me more than others. What I treasure most is a novel whose story and characters pull me in so that I hate to put the book down and am still thinking and feeling about it days or weeks after finishing it. A few books that have done this for me: The Lovely Bones, The Time Traveler's Wife, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

If a book doesn't keep my interest, if it puts me to sleep or I just plain struggle with it, I quit. This is a new habit for me in the past few years. I used to push myself to finish any book I started, but I've realized that my time is too valuable to waste on any task I don't enjoy. Plus, there are countless amazing books out there waiting to be read! Not every book is for every person. Sometimes, the phase of life I'm in has an effect on how I interpret what I read.

Recently I've experienced something in my reading life that I hadn't noticed before. I've read a couple of novels that have made me feel just plain yucky. The one I'm reading right now is doing exactly that. Every time I pick it up, I shudder because I dread the detailed horribleness that awaits me. While reading in bed the other night, I turned to my husband and announced firmly "I do not like this book," and proceeded to explain why. He replied "Actually, it sounds like that's a very well written book," and I've realized he's right. The subject matter is dark, the story is sad and depressing, I find the narrator pathetic and unlikable. The fact that the author can invoke all of these emotions in me is impressive! ( I'm intentionally not naming the book or author here because I don't want to give you any pre-conceived opinions about it in the event that you stumble across it!)

I have a friend who is a writer, her first memoir was published a couple years ago. She's told me about reading her Amazon reviews early on and one particular woman who hated the book so much that she wrote a long scathing review about how terrible it was. My friend said at first it pissed her off but then she realized she would rather have someone have such a visceral reaction to her book than to just read it and say "Meh." My friend is right. Often as a writer, I've been afraid that what I'm writing might offend someone. Sometimes before I publish a blog post I torture myself with "What ifs." I've realized that if the words I write trigger any emotion in a reader, that's a good thing.

Earlier this month I read Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. Her books always make me feel uncomfortable. The stories are super compelling but contain terrifying subjects. I always feel torn between wanting to stop reading yet needing to know what happens next! After I posted my review of that books on GoodReads, a couple of my friends commented they feel the same way about her writing. It's such an interesting concept to me, that here we are reading these books that disturb us yet we can't resist! That's such great writing!

I don't think I'll spoil anything here when I tell you that the story line in Sharp Objects is about some young girls who go missing from their neighborhood. ( I won't give you any more details!) While I was reading this book, following the stories of these fictional girls, I was transported back to the summer of 1998. I was living in the small town where I'd graduated high school and was on break from the community college I attended there. Suddenly one day, the town was covered with flyers for a missing 8 year old girl who had disappeared one evening.

All I had to do was Google the town name + the year + "missing girl" and there in front of me was her smiling red headed self from the missing posters. That image has been burnt into my brain for years, even though I couldn't remember her name. Good samaritans volunteered to help the police and search and rescue, combing the land for signs of her. It was all anyone talked about. Surely she would turn up somewhere, we all repeated, hoping that saying it enough would make it true. Two weeks later, the girl's body was found in the local landfill and the entire town grieved. I'll just say she had been killed by a neighbor and leave it at that. But we all knew the gory details that were in the town's weekly newspaper.

I was nineteen at the time and I had not witnessed anything such as this before. I attended the funeral, even though I never knew the little girl or her family. I felt compelled to be there, as did most of the town it seemed. It was the first of many instances in which I become fixated on stories of crisis, especially if it hits close to home. This is the reason I've stopped watching television news. I empathize so much with families affected by crisis that it drains me and I have a hard time focusing on anything else. The Newton shootings, the recent riots in Baltimore, these events get my attention and I have to shut it out. Otherwise I grieve for the victims and all the families involved. I grieve for how after each tragedy our world will never be the same as it was before.

And so while I was reading Sharp Objects, the summer of 1998 came flooding back to me, even though I hadn't thought of it in years. And then I felt guilty that I hadn't thought of that poor girl for so long. I'm sure her family thinks of her every day. And even though I knew the girls in the book were fictional, they felt so real to me. When I finished the book, I closed the cover, set it on my desk and then went to the bathroom because I thought I might throw up.


That's a good book, isn't it?

Monday, May 4, 2015

So What Have We Learned? A to Z Reflections

My reflection in The Bean in Chicago Jan. 2015

This is the third year I've participated in the A to Z Blogging Challenge and my easiest to complete by far. The challenge came at a good time for me this year. I think I'm in a groove with my writing that I haven't quite found before. I like doing this challenge because it shows me that I can write every day. Like most writers I know, I struggle to carve out time in my daily life for writing. Posting daily, and seeing the list of thousands of other participants who are doing it as well, inspires me and motivates me to write more. I think a daily post is not something I could maintain long term but I still write every day and hope to post at least twice a week.

I spent the month of April blogging about what I believe to be the most valuable lessons I've learned in my life so far. Let's take a look at the full list:

Anything can happen.
Breakfast is important.
Crisis is sometimes needed to facilitate change.
I need to have dogs in my life.
Expectations are bullshit.
I wouldn't be who I am without my friends.
Practicing gratitude improves quality of life
Finding humor in difficult situations makes them bearable.
Ice cream makes everything better.
One woman's junk is another's treasure.
Kindness is a cycle, dole it out and you will receive it.
Things always look better in the light of day.
Marriage is different for everyone.
It's okay to say no.
Sometimes, I just need to go outside.
It's important to re-evaluate your priorities from time to time.
If you hate your job, you should quit it.
Returning is not the same as never having left.
It's totally okay to be a woman who likes sex.
Try new things.
Trust The Universe.
Eat vegetables.
Write things down.
Find your own xanadu.
Don't yell at people.
Have a zest for life.

Looking at that list makes me proud of myself! Not only did I write every day but I was able to look at some of the most crucial events of my life, find meaning in them and put it into words to share with others. That's pretty impressive, if I do say so myself!

One of the things I love most about doing this challenge is that it connects me with likeminded folks who connect with my posts and respond to me. This month I've gotten blog comments, personal emails, and text messages from people who relate to my experiences and enjoy my writing. That fills my heart with joy because after all, this is why I write. I'd like to say a huge heartfelt thank you to everyone who read my posts in April. Your support and feedback makes me a better writer and human being.