Review: Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez

February 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

For whatever reason, in the past year and a half or so I’ve read a few fiction books that have loose ties with the Dominican Republic and/or the Trujillo era. It hasn’t really been on purpose, but these books have given me a window into a time period and a world I knew nothing about before I read them–which is a characteristic of great fiction, in my little world.

Some thoughts:

All of the books I’ve read on the Dominican Republic so far are worthwhile endeavors, but I’m reviewing this book first because I think it’s the most accessible on the subject, and also because I feel it’s another subtle way I can pester encourage you to try reading more young adult fiction (expect a full diatribe on the subject sometime in the future).

The reason I like this book is because it focuses on the downfall of the Trujillo through the eyes of a twelve year old girl, and does so honestly–as a moody pre-teen, Anita is mostly self-absorbed at the beginning of the book and has little inkling of the revolution that is going on around her. I think that too many books that center around a national crisis tend to make kids more into adults than can be realistically expected; kids are still kids unless something affects them personally.

But the way Anita handles the serious scariness of the anarchy that unfolds kept me yelling “don’t go out there!” and “no! look out!” at the inanimate pages of the book until the story reached its ending (also realistic).

Pick it up if:

  • you want a fast, high-quality fiction read
  • you want to learn more about a fascinating time in Dominican history
  • you want a fine introduction to a talented author (I’ll definitely be checking out more Julia Alvarez)

Shelve it if:

  • you’ve just read the Diary of Anne Frank (seriously, we can only handle so much sadness at once, okay?)
  • you aren’t in the mood for a nail-biter

Education and Creativity

February 3, 2011 § 1 Comment

This guy.

When my husband called me over to his computer and said, ‘hey, come check out this cool video’, I cringed inside, expecting to see yet another zany commercial for Japanese noodles or the seventeenth installment of a Youtube meme. Instead, he showed me this TED talk about education and creativity.

Besides the fact that there’s an amusing British guy in it, it’s also a very engaging talk about how educations all over the world undervalue creativity and, in fact, tend to drain it out of kids before they get very far. As a teacher and a writer, the whole theme’s really stuck with me since I’ve seen it. How can we encourage kids to stay creative throughout their schooling years, even in a system that doesn’t always support that kind of thinking?

I’d love for you to watch the video and hear your thoughts. Aaaaaaand go.

A Bit of Good News

February 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

Well, the November Chapbook Challenge winner was announced today over at the Poetic Asides blog. Exciting stuff! Even though I didn’t win, my manuscript was listed in the top seven finalists (out of 120 total entries).

The winning manuscript, written by Uma Gowrishankar, seems really amazing. I’ll have to dig around to see if she has anything else published.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll stop over to check out a few of her ethereal poems and to support a great blog.

Dabbling in Dewey: the 400’s

February 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

So, what will you find if you stumble into the 400’s section of your local library? Well, pretty much just language books. But there’s more to it than meets the eye. I’ve highlighted a few winners here today, but here are a few other specific topics you’ll find:

  • Cross-language dictionaries (English to Spanish, Spanish to Arabic, etc.)
  • ASL (American Sign Language) books
  • Grammar and writing guides
  • Materials about “dead” languages like Latin and Hellenic (depending on the size of your library)
  • Miscellaneous word fun

Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors (Bill Bryson)

Sometimes, when I’m writing, odd reference questions come up: is it indexes or indices? Should I capitalize ‘hollandaise sauce’? It’s times like this I appreciate Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors. I found it in my library’s 400’s section, but in reality it’s more of a reference book–sort of a cross between an almanac, dictionary, and citation guide zeroed in for the needs of all types of writers (and readers who enjoy nerding out to grammar and similar pursuits).

More info here.

You Say Tomato (R.W. Jackson)

I admit: there’s a miniature linguist living in my head. Every time I pronounce a peculiar-looking word, the little linguist raises her eyebrows and says, “Are you saying that right? Are you sure?”

Maybe I’m just insane. Oh well. But this book was a fun read for me, and taught me the correct pronunciation for several dubious words, including maraschino (it’s not what you think!). A fun read.

More info here.

Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds (Michael Quinion)

This book is like Mythbusters for words. Plenty of people have probably heard folktales that surround the supposed origins of their favorite words and phrases (hot dogs, anyone?), but are they true? You’ll play detective alongside Michael Quinion and get to the bottom of the false stories about our favorite words (and learn some cool tidbits in the process.)

More info here.

Review: The Invention of Hugo Cabret

January 30, 2011 § 3 Comments

Look at this and tell me you still don't want to read. LOOK at it.


Because I could go on and on and on about how fantastic this book is, I’m going to try and limit myself to 200 words on the subject. Here’s what you need to know: this book is completely innovative and hard to classify. It’s a graphic novel, but it’s not structured like any comic or graphic novel I’ve ever seen. It’s a children’s book, but on par with the highest quality adult books I’ve read. It’s thick as a door-stopper, but a fast read. It’s a mystery, but it’s also great as a piece of historical fiction. And best of all, it has magicians and a robot (technically an automata). I’d love to tell you more about the plot, but the only real way to describe it without going into a confusing diatribe is to just read it.  A quick set-up of the beginning, just for you who need more to go on: Hugo Cabret is an orphan living in a Paris train station in the late 1930’s or early 40’s. He keeps mostly to himself, trying to figure out the mysterious automata his father had been working to repair before his death. It’s only when Hugo gets tangled up with the train station’s toy shop owner (and his young niece??) that the mystery begins to take shape, and in the process, Hugo uncovers a history bigger than he ever imagined.

And it looks like I went over my word count. Totally worth it.

P.S.: Above image found here.

Bulletin Board Inspiration

January 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

The source of inspiration that caused me to create this, I've since forgotten.

Need something to post on your bulletin board to keep you motivated, or just inspired? Here’s a great post I dug up that’s really instilling a sense of whimsy and wonder in me this week:

75 Super Quotes About Creativity (from The Abundance Blog)

And a few personal faves:

“When we engage in what we are naturally suited to do, our work takes on the quality of play and it is play that stimulates creativity.” –  Linda Naiman

“You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.” — Jack London

“To be creative means to be in love with life. You can be creative only if you love life enough that you want to enhance its beauty, you want to bring a little more music to it, a little more poetry to it, a little more dance to it.” –Osho

What quotes do you turn to for a pick-me-up?

What I Know So Far (About Writing)

January 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

One of the most useful things about blogging that I’ve found is that it has the ability to organize thoughts that would float around, uncorraled, without a central space to put them in. I think it allows me to report my own knowledge and experiences, without having to operate under the guise of Extreme Expert. With that in mind, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned about writing so far, in the interest of organization and to hopefully make a conversation about writing with y’all out there.

1. Open up. There’s a line from a poem I love (from this book) that goes show us what you don’t want anyone to see. I think that with any kind of writing, it’s scary to think about putting the most vulnerable, hypocritical, human part of ourselves out there for the world to see, but I know it’s the only way to write an honest reflection of myself and the world I live in. More and more I’m realizing that the most effective pieces of writing show a keen awareness for moments that are small and often overlooked. It’s those incredibly individual touches that make an author authentic and worth reading.

2. Put your own spin on it. What can be said that will get people’s attention—and keep it there? What I’ve put for tip #1 seems to help a lot, but just putting it down isn’t enough–it has to be a unique take on your subject of choice, not just another endless, emotional rant. I think as a beginning writer, it’s easy to feel insecure that what I have to say isn’t really that important, so it’s easy to hide behind the big, velvet curtain of cliché and hope it will be enough. It never is. So I have to step outside into the sunshine, take a risk, and think for myself.

3. Have a goal. Broad goals (like the ones I posted about here) are helpful, but sometimes thinking small will do the trick, too. I get through the day’s allotted writing time faster if I set even the tiniest goal, even a simple or silly one, like: I will write this whole page without using the the phrase ‘gravy boat’. Seriously! Anything that takes my mind off of bigger, scarier things (what if this is all bad? what if I never finish this story?) and makes writing seem easy and fun improves my mood–and hopefully my writing.

4. Buy or decorate a journal and keep it nearby.Writing every day can be tough. Most days, I force myself to push through it, avoid Facebook, and use the ‘gravy boat’ trick. But there are days, every once and awhile, even when I am trying my hardest, nothing comes. I used to just give up and storm off. Which was (not surprisingly) not very productive. Now, I keep a journal near my desk. When I’m feel like I’m about to throw something, I grab the journal and write in it. It doesn’t even matter what it’s about, really. Even if I don’t get very far on the piece I’m working on, at least I’m spending the time writing. Then, the next day, I come back with a clean slate and start over.

5. Go do something else. Even though I try to write every day, doing the same thing over and over can get boring. Especially since Google is constantly wearing away at my ability to concentrate. So I write a little bit, then go outside and lay under the picnic table and count ants. Or (when I’m feeling dirt averse) read a book that’s completely different from the stuff I normally read. Or I call my mom. I just do something to shake life up a bit. New experiences keep us sharp, right?

So, that’s it. Nothing new or profound, but it’s what works for me. What do you do to stay on track?

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