Writers Who Read: Pamela DiFrancesco

The Writers Who Read series continues today with Pamela DiFrancesco.

Who are you?
My name is Pamela DiFrancesco. I’m a writer of fiction who has been published in literary magazines such as The New Ohio Review and Monkeybicycle. The Devils That Have Come to Stay is my first novel. I’m also a social justice activist, working mainly these days in the queer community, though in the past I’ve done things like help organize relief efforts after Superstorm Sandy, and volunteer in a radical publisher’s office. And I’m a bookseller at New York City’s legendary Strand Books.

What are three beloved books you first read before the age of 12?
The Velveteen Rabbit, The Cat Who Went to Heaven, and Bunnicula. As you can see, I loved animal stories.

What is one book you are always recommending to friends and family (and maybe the local barista) as an adult?
Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen. As someone who has studied post-modern literature quite a bit, this very non-traditional book appeals to those sensibilities. But, since it was written by Cohen, you can read just for the pleasure and beauty on every page. For example, the line “ordinary eternal machinery like the grinding of stars” occurs on several pages, and it’s just one of Cohen’s many stunning similes and uses of poetic language.

What is your book kryptonite–those unique elements in a book, beyond just great writing and three-dimensional characters, that make you unable to resist reading?
I love books that very skillfully disassemble the traditional process. Samuel Beckett is a favorite because he manages to do away with elements like plot and character motivation, and still write brilliant, funny, heartbreaking prose that keeps you engaged for hundreds of pages. Now, if done poorly, this approach can really, really fail. But the masters of it are what gets my literary heart beating the fastest.

What is your ideal time and place to read?
As a 14-year New Yorker, the subway is where I get my best reading done. I know the book I’m reading is a winner when it makes me miss my stop.

Which books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
I’d say Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell taught me that the genres can be worked in in a masterful manner that transcends them, which is something I’ve been experimenting with in my writing ever since. Lolita taught me that every last letter counts (though Nabokov had synesthesia that made him see every letter as a color, so he really had an unfair advantage in that respect). Everything is Illuminated helped me learn that different points of view can greatly enhance a story.

How do you balance reading and writing in your life?
I don’t think you can have one without the other. Careful reading, in my opinion is a prerequisite for being a good writer. There are writers who say they never read, and this reminds me of the old stories about people who locked children alone in a room hoping that if they weren’t taught any human language, they would learn the language of God. So much of writing comes from what’s come before it, tradition and lineage, and being aware of what’s out there already in the world.

Choose your penned poison: ebook, physical book, or audio book?
Physical books are my favorite. The smell, the margins to write in (and, if it’s a used book, reading the previous owner’s marginalia), the feel of the pages between your fingers–these are things e-books will never be able to replicate.

Do you consciously plan your future reading–i.e., set book goals, keep a TBR list, participate in book challenges or book clubs? Why or why not?
I was mainly a fiction reader my entire life, so now I try to alternate fiction and non-fiction titles. As a bookseller, I have a huge queue of recommended books and books I’ve bought cheaply waiting for me to get to them. Sometimes something will come along that completely jumps the queue, though. So the extent of my planning is the ever-growing pile of books on my desk.

What are you reading now?
I just finished A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews, a wonderful book about a rebellious Mennonite girl who has had half of her family flee the stifling town they live in. I’m in the middle of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami.

Check out Pamela’s novel, The Devils That Have Come to Stay. You can also find out more about her on Twitter (@DiFantastico) or her website.

Rom-Com Review: Matters of Life and Dating

128px-Romanticfilm_svgAlong with compiling Netflix lists of the best streaming romances with Jenny Vinyl, I’m starting to write longer reviews of movies on this site. With a lot of screenwriting tips and tricks increasingly being used by novelists, watching rom-coms is a great way to learn about telling a romantic story in any form.

But really, who needs an excuse to watch some awkward fumbling, snappy dialogue, and grand gestures? For this I’ll be focusing mostly on films languishing in my Netflix Instant queue, with the occasional newer release.

First up: Matters of Life and Dating, a 2007 Lifetime film starring Ricki Lake as a single woman trying to negotiate being a breast cancer survivor and her love life. The story is based on the life of Linda Dackman, the cancer survivor and author of the memoir Up Front who helped pen the script. Many shows featuring cancer patients and survivors feature older, often married characters or teens with the illness. I was drawn to the unique premise of a thirty-something woman facing cancer and a mastectomy and the effect it had on her dating life: her sexuality, her feelings of attractiveness, her fears of being alone.

What lessons did the film teach me about writing romance? Here are three:

Lesson One: Watch How You Punish Your Heroine
The movie opens with Linda (Lake) breaking up with her kind, stable boyfriend because she wants to be “free”–only to soon learn from a doctor that she has breast cancer and needs surgery. Although I’m wary of films that show women making perfectly valid decisions for themselves, then seeming to have something horrible happen to them, Linda later questions what she did, or didn’t, do to deserve the diagnosis. This showed me not only the guilt that can occur as a survivor, but lessened the feeling that Linda was punished for making the reasonable choice to break up with her boyfriend.

Of course, stories wouldn’t be interesting without the main characters being somewhat flawed and encountering difficulty and challenges. I think it’s about timing, and more importantly, what comes before the difficulty. Is it the heroine getting in trouble as a result of character traits, actions, or beliefs that she’s working on–or just something like showing perfectly-reasonable agency?

Lesson Two: If You Want to Be Stylistically Quirky, Do It From the Start
As Linda faces the news, surgery, and recovery, the script interjects interviews with various characters–her friends, boss, even Linda herself. This usually makes for a more interesting movie, but starting nearly seven minutes into the film, it was jolting. Seven minutes may not seem very long, but in our short-attention-span culture, introducing a new style at that point felt strange. I would’ve liked to see the film start with an interview, or at least introduce one only a couple minutes in.

Lesson Three: You’ve Got to Have Friends (That People Like)
Matters of Life and Dating has warmth and humor, much of it due to the supporting characters, particularly Linda’s best friend, Carla (Rachael Harris), and her “cancer friend” Nicole (Holly Robinson Peete). Ricki Lake, in the lead role, felt wooden at first, her witty comebacks not as tight as Harris’s or emotional as Peete’s. Having a great supporting cast made the movie more enjoyable, especially as I adjusted to Lake’s more no-nonsense delivery (which I did come to appreciate).

So does it work? As a romance, Matters mostly delivers. You’ll spot the hero when he appears, maybe because he’s got the looks and the funny lines and they don’t get along at first. They’ll end up together, of course, but it’s almost like an afterthought because the real meat of the story is in Linda’s fumbling love life post-surgery and pre-HEA. She’s nervous to be naked. She jumps into the arms of an ex only to discover he’s disturbed by her surgery. She gets back with the kind boyfriend at the beginning because she’s afraid of being sick and alone. Most of Linda’s processing of her cancer and the changes in her body are seen within her discussions with friends, and maybe because of those actresses’ strengths, those scenes felt more emotional than the final romance.

Be warned that there’s a lot of alcohol in this film. Somebody’s always drinking something from a large, beautiful glass. I suspect the alcohol-to-scene ratio in this movie is something like 1:2. I got buzzed from watching.

So tune it on for the story, stay for the friendship and feels, and try not to get drunk in the process.

Writers Who Read: Laura Madeline

The Writers Who Read series continues this week with Laura Madeline Wiseman.mugshot2014

Who are you?
I’m an avid long-distance cyclist and train for big rides like RAGBRAI year round. I tend a vegetable garden in the summer. I have three cats and a dog.

I am also the author of the collaborative book of short stories The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters: Ten Tales with artist Lauren Rinaldi, just released from Les Femmes Folles Books. I teach English and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

What are three beloved books you first read before the age of 12?
The Laura Ingalls Wilder series, The Grimm Fairy Tales, and all the Dr. Seuss books. I also especially loved A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson.

What is one book you are always recommending to friends and family (and maybe the local barista) as an adult?
I adore books by Ann Patchett. I recently read This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, but my favorites are Truth & Beauty and State of Wonder. Since I’m such a glutton for books and because I read so many, I usually go on recommendations cycles.  I recommend one book to everyone for awhile and then move on to the next. It was Quiet by Susan Cain. Then it was State of Wonder. Right now, it’s Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.

What is your book kryptonite–those unique elements in a book, beyond just great writing and three-dimensional characters, that make you unable to resist reading?
I adore strong female characters.

What is your ideal time and place to read?
Over the last few years, I’ve developed a deep love of reading while riding trains or while driving. I read Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park first while driving from Kentucky to Nebraska last summer, returning from a reading I gave at Firefly Farms. I also like to read in bed, print or audio books. I read all of The Hunger Games and the Divergent series at night, the stories of Katniss and Tris underscored by the oceanic purr of cars on the road, the wind in the humid night trees, and lowing of owls. I’ve also read my fare share of books at my desk, for teaching prep, research, and for creative inspiration.

TenTales_coverWhich books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
For The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters, I know that Margaret Atwood was a huge influence, because I’ve been reading her fabulous stories for years, but also because I have several of her short story collections like Bluebeard’s Egg and Other Stories and Dancing Girls.

How do you balance reading and writing in your life?
I write reviews of books that I adore. That gives me the opportunity to really read a few books really well. I read for inspiration. There’s something about reading poetry that jump-starts my creative muse and enables me to begin writing. Even if I lose a few hours in the wondrous world an author has created and never get that feeling and inspiration to write, I always feel it was time well spent. How else would I have ever have read Elizabeth Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, Jeannette Walls, Annie Proulx, Octavia Butler, Mary Karr, and Jesmyn Ward? Sometimes, when a book grabs you, you have to let it grab and hold on until the last page.

Choose your preferred book form: ebook, physical book, or audio book?
I haven’t yet read an ebook, but I do like the Poetry app created by The Poetry Foundation. I prefer physical books for research, work, and teaching and audio books for travel and night reading. The first book that got me hooked on audio books was Jim Dale’s performance of all the characters in the Harry Potter series. I’ve also recently fell in love with Scott Westerfeld’s Uglie series, Julianna Baggott’s Pure, and Laurie Halse Anderson’s books like Wintergirls—all read on audio. There’s something deliciously fun about in sinking into the abyss of YA and kid books.

Do you consciously plan your future reading–i.e., set book goals, keep a TBR list, participate in book challenges or book clubs? Why or why not?
I have a shelf and a drawer of books to read, usually books I’ve picked up from recent readings and conferences. When I’m doing research, I do assign myself a reading list and work through that list until I’ve come to find out what I hoped to know. For example, when I began creating and sequencing The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters, I reread every short story collection on my shelf in order to gather a sense of how other authors organized their stories, how tightly bound each story was to the one that proceeded it or followed it, and what made for a provocative collection of fiction. Because The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters is also a collaborative book and illustrated by an artist, I also went through my shelves and made a rereading list of all the books that combined art with words, including children’s books like Where the Wild Things Are, The Lorax, and Anne Sexton’s Grimm Fairy Tale retelling Transformation. I always feel like such created lists and goals offer me the opportunity to study what has been done before, to give me the sense of what might yet be possible.

What are you reading now?
Right now, I’m reading Cat Dixon’s Too Heavy to Carry, two books by Kristina Marie Darling, the yet-to-be release sequel to Kathleen Glassburn’s dime novel A New Plateau, and Alyse Knorr’s chapbook Alternatives.

Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of more than a dozen books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her books are American Galactic (Martian Lit Books, 2014), Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014), Queen of the Platform (Anaphora Literary Press, 2013), and Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012). Her dime novel is The Bottle Opener (Red Dashboard, 2014). With artist Sally Deskins, her collaborative book is Intimates and Fools (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014). Her most recent book is the collaborative collection of short stories The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters: Ten Tales (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2015) with artist Lauren Rinaldi. She holds a doctorate from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and has received an Academy of American Poets Award, a Mari Sandoz/Prairie Schooner Award, and the Wurlitzer Foundation Fellowship. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Margie, Mid-American Review, and Feminist Studies. Currently, she teaches English and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Twitter: @DrMadWiseman
Website: http://www.lauramadelinewiseman.com


Writers Who Read: Most Romantic Stories

imageLike on the Halloween post on the scariest stories ever written, I asked the authors participating in the Writers Who Read interview series a question: What’s the most romantic story you’ve read? Here are their answers, from Austen to an experimental science fiction story to Gift of the Magi.

Anna Schumacher, author of End Times
The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
The Gift of the Magi is so romantic it makes me physically ache. It’s a Christmas story, so apologies for the holiday non-synchronicity, but it’s about being in love, and giving gifts, and making a holiday really romantic and special for your partner, so I think it’s still appropriate for Valentine’s Day.

The story is about a young married couple, Jim and Della, who are basically broke. Between them, they have only two prized possessions: Jim’s gold pocket watch, which has been passed down in his family for generations, and Della’s beautiful long hair, which falls almost to her knees. On Christmas eve, with virtually no money to their names, Jim and Della go on separate hunts for the perfect gifts for one another. I’m honestly not going to re-tell the story, since it’s only six short pages and you can read it in a free PDF with a very pretty font right here, but I can pretty much guarantee that those six pages will make you cry. It’s a simple, gorgeous story about the lengths people will go to for love, and it conveys the often-cloying message that no matter how poor you are, you’re rich if you have love in a way that feels fresh, human, and open-hearted (even if you’re reading it for the 50th time, like I just did).

This story makes me want to find my husband, give him a big kiss and hug, and tell him how much I love him. I hope it has the same effect on you and the people you love!

Pamela DiFrancesco, author of The Devils That Have Come to Stay
“Without Colors” by Italo Calvino
The most romantic story I’ve ever read is “Without Colors” in Italo Calvino’s collection of short stories, Cosmicomics. The collection is very literary and experimental sci-fi, and in the particular story I’m referring to, the protagonist meets and falls in love with a girl in a time before the atmosphere has formed on the earth, and everything is shades of grey. They chase each other through this grey landscape, but as the atmosphere forms, she is frightened and hides away in a crevice, leaving him alone in a world that is vastly more beautiful, without her. It’s heartbreaking, and really contrasts the euphoria and colors of infatuation with those in a vibrant world.


Laura with Eleanor & Park author Rainbow Rowell at a signing.

Laura with Eleanor & Park author Rainbow Rowell at a signing.

Laura Madeline Wiseman, author of Drink and other poetry collections
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Last summer, I made a cross-country road trip and a few weeks before I left, I got into the virtual queue for several books I hoped would be ready to download from my local library before my departure date. One of the books was Eleanor & Park, a book that later won the Nebraska Book Award for YA fiction. It was sultry. I started my drives before dawn and ended them well after the glooming, making rest stops at interstate rest areas where I sweated with the engine off and the windows down or sweated as the AC blew hot air, unable to cool in park. But in that swelter, I listened to Rowell’s sweet, poignant love story. Eleanor & Park was this island of cool and delight, the thing that kept me on the road, through the lifting landscape of mountains, the flats of prairie, the slick of moisture and fog on black pavement. I adored it so much that I added it to my book order and taught it last fall in my writing class because it was a story of love, a story set in Omaha, just an hour north of where my students went to school and a place from which many of them hailed, but also because it was written in sparse, evocative prose, a narrative that offered a chance to explore issues of gender, race, and class, against a larger story of love.

Tanya Selvaratnam, author of The Big Lie
The Malady of Death by Marguerite Duras
Marguerite Duras’s The Malady of Death is one of the most anti-romantic, sexually charged stories I’ve ever read. A man offers to pay a woman to stay with him by the sea so he can experience love. Although she is not a prostitute, she accepts. The story is told in a second-person narrative with the man as “you” and the woman as “she,” and by the end the “she” strips the “you” down in more ways than one.

Jenny Vinyl's Austen flask--a boon to any bookshelf.

Jenny Vinyl’s Austen flask–a boon to any bookshelf.

Jenny Vinyl
Persuasion by Jane Austen
The most romantic story I’ve ever read will probably always be Persuasion.  Jane Austen’s tale has no meet-cutes, awful first impressions, or friends slowly discovering they’re made for each other.  Rather, it is the story of what happens long after the lovers have parted.  The romance has been requited and has ended.  Time has passed.  Anne and Captain Wentworth are older, wiser, settled.  Readers won’t mistake the regrets and quiet longings for the feverishness of new love, but the romance is there, deeper, tested, and true.  Anne still loves Wentworth; there is nothing fleeting about her feelings, which have endured even as she’s held little hope.  When they are suddenly and unexpectedly thrown into each other’s company again after eight years, their interactions are as butterfly-making as first loves — more so, because the stakes are higher.  We know that Anne and Wentworth belong together; they only parted because of the good, but misguided, intentions of Anne’s friend.  As a bonus, Wentworth’s letter to Anne is among the most romantic love letters in all literature: “You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever.”  Swoon!

Rebecca Brooks, author of romance Above All
Tana French’s In the Woods
I know, this is a mystery not a romance, and (spoiler) it doesn’t even have a HEA—all of which should make it a terrible choice. But I love how French messes with genre expectations on every page. The developing relationship between Irish detectives Cassie and Rob is so compelling, heartbreaking, and real, it’s impossible not to be swept away by the intensity of their friendship-turned-more. I don’t think I’ve ever rooted so hard for a couple to get together, or been so pissed off when one of them inevitably screws it up. I was seriously invested in this relationship from beginning to end.

100 Years of SolitudeMaureen O’Leary, author of How to Be Manly
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I was seventeen in my first year of college, arrived at the jungle of UC Santa Cruz via the concrete and green lawns of suburban mid-eighties Northern California. My love education to that point had been informed by John Hughes movies with their one-liners and worship of pink satin, school dances soundtracked by Huey Lewis and the News, and adult warnings to “not get the engine started in the first place.”  In the dorms, people poked at one another in rooms that smelled like dirty socks, using one another politely and bloodlessly, as you would ask someone for a tissue or a piece of gum. In this sterile moment, a professor assigned us to read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

I read the whole thing in two days, and in one of the final scenes came to this: “It was a fierce fight, a battle to the death, but it seemed to be without violence because it consisted of distorted attacks and ghostly evasions, slow, cautious, solemn, so that during it all there was time for the petunias to bloom and for Gaston to forget about his aviator’s dream in the next room, as if they were two enemy lovers seeking reconciliation at the bottom of an aquarium.”

This was when I learned that nothing less would be possible.

Amanda Gale, author of the Meredith series 
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
My answer would have to be A Tale of Two Cities. Sydney Carton is so in love with Lucie Manette that he makes the greatest sacrifice of all for her by taking her husband’s place at the guillotine. By doing so without her knowledge, he ensures that she will not bear the burden of making that choice and also that he will not live to receive any recognition or thanks. Most important, though, is the fact that this sacrifice makes him feel that his life was meaningful. He’s spent a lifetime feeling lost and broken; with this act of love, he is redeemed, and he goes to his death confident with the knowledge that he has made Lucie (his “light”) happy.

Amy reading Persuasion.

Amy reading Persuasion.

Amy Kathleen Ryan, author of the Sky Chasers trilogy
Persuasion by Jane Austen
I was in my almost mid-thirties, and I hadn’t met my husband yet. I’d more or less resolved that I was going to have to be happy without romantic love, and without a family of my own. I had just sold my first novel, and was working on the next, so I was able to imagine a pretty cool future for myself as a single woman, working as a writer, and dedicating myself to my career. But if I’m honest, I was still pretty bummed out about being alone. Then I discovered Persuasion, by Jane Austen, about a single woman who is getting a bit long in the tooth. (Twenty-eight and unmarried! Perish the thought!) The heroine, Anne, is a quiet sort of person, and though her family is populated by silly people, she has a good head on her shoulders. Her long lost love, a man she’d refused to marry back when she thought she’d get a lot of offers, comes back into the neighborhood, and his presence is by turns agonizing for her and titillating. She is forced daily to confront her profound regret at being persuaded not to marry him because of his poor station in life. The quiet way their love rekindles is one of the most moving depictions I’ve ever read of romantic love, and it made me feel hopeful about second chances. Not long after I read that book, I met the love of my life and married him, and now I’ve got three beautiful daughters. Just like Anne, I got another chance when it seemed too late.

Writers Who Read: Michalle Gould

The Writers Who Read series continues this week with author Michalle Gould.authorphoto

Who are you?
I have been writing and publishing poetry for a long time and received my MFA in 2001 but am just now publishing my first book of poetry.  The oldest poems in the book date all the way back to 1999!  Many of the poems relate – although in a way that tries to deal with the broader issues relating to religion generally – to my exploration of Orthodox Judaism back in my early to mid twenties, which motivated a move to Manhattan in the summer of 2001 after receiving my MFA.  However, that lifestyle was ultimately unsustainable for me, so many of the other poems relate to my experiences trying to figure out what to do afterward, how to retreat gracefully from a world I still cared about and how to find other sources of meaning for myself personally and in my work.

What are three beloved books you first read before the age of 12?
The Witch of Blackbird Pond (Elizabeth George Speare), A Swiftly Tilting Planet (Madeleine L’Engle), and either Where the Red Fern Grows (Wilson Rawls) or Jacob Have I Loved (Katherine Paterson).  The last two I love for  such different reasons that I can’t choose between them!  In general, probably like many writers and passionate readers, I was drawn to stories about outsiders.

What is one book you are always recommending to friends and family (and maybe the local barista) as an adult?
Immortality, by Milan Kundera, and correspondingly his book of essays on writing “Testaments Betrayed.”  I love his focus on issues of privacy and threats to privacy, which have only grown more and more relevant in our own social media obsessed society.

What is your book kryptonite–those unique elements in a book, beyond just great writing and three-dimensional characters, that make you unable to resist reading?
I love twins, poetic/lyrical language, and a good (rather than contrived) surprise/twist.

What is your ideal time and place to read?
Late afternoon, on my couch, used to be my favorite when I had a more flexible schedule but now that I work 9-5 again it’s in bed before going to sleep.

resurrection_cover43014Which books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
For poetry, I am more drawn to specific poems/poets than individual books.  I would say Eliot, Lucille Clifton, D.H. Lawrence, Zbigniew Herbert. For fiction: Anything by Kundera, Woolf, or generally the British modernist writers between 1900-1950.

How do you balance reading and writing in your life?
Not well enough!  When I was younger it didn’t really matter but I’ve slowly become a person who finds it hard to read fiction while I am writing it.  I also find it harder to write poetry and fiction at the same time, which never used to trouble me (not literally the same time, but within the same temporal space).

Choose your preferred book form: ebook, physical book, or audio book?
Physical book by far.  I don’t mind ebooks but I still like the tangible feeling of turning the pages and also being able to take notes by hand when I am researching a piece.

Do you consciously plan your future reading–i.e., set book goals, keep a TBR list, participate in book challenges or book clubs? Why or why not?
Not really because then it feels like an obligation rather than something I do out of an authentic desire to experience the material.  I do record books after I read them though just to have a reference of what I’ve read that year.

You can find out more about Michalle at her website or Twitter. You can also check out Resurrection Party: Poems at Silver Birch Press or Amazon.

Writers Who Read: Rita Arens

The Writers Who Read series continues this week with Rita Arens.RitaArensBlueCropTwitter

Who are you?
My name is Rita Arens, and I live in Kansas City, Missouri. I’m the author of the contemporary young adult novel THE OBVIOUS GAME and I edited a parenting anthology, SLEEP IS FOR THE WEAK and co-edited a food writing anthology, ROOTS: Where Food Come From and Where It Takes Us. I’m the deputy editor at BlogHer.com and I write the blog Surrender, Dorothy. I’m married and have one daughter.

What are three beloved books you first read before the age of 12?

What is one book you are always recommending to friends and family (and maybe the local barista) as an adult?
CATCH-22, though I realize it’s an acquired taste.

What is your book kryptonite–those unique elements in a book, beyond just great writing and three-dimensional characters, that make you unable to resist reading?
I have an odd affection for unreliable narrators, though I don’t write them myself.

What is your ideal time and place to read?
I’ll read anywhere, any time, but I really like reading outside in a hammock in the early evening.

Which books have had the biggest influence on your writing?TheObviousGame.v8.1-Finalsm

How do you balance reading and writing in your life?
I read more when I’m writing less and vice versa, though I do tend to read about a book a week either way. Reading constantly makes my writing better.

Choose your preferred book form: ebook, physical book, or audio book?
I read ebooks faster, but I still do love holding a physical book.

Do you consciously plan your future reading–i.e., set book goals, keep a TBR list, participate in book challenges or book clubs? Why or why not?
I’m very active on Goodreads and had a reading challenge for myself for 70 books in 2014, mostly just to see if I hit that naturally. I wasn’t pushing to achieve it. I’m in one book club at the moment with like-minded friends. I get tons of industry newsletters and have a lot of authors whom I follow, so I’m constantly adding to my TBR list and my library hold list. I do all that because I like to keep up with my favorite authors and because I like to try out different types of stories and TBR lists help me achieve that variety.

What are you reading now?
Right now I’m reading LITTLE BROTHER for my book club, SCARLET with my 10-year-old daughter, and I just started EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU from my TBR list. And I have a hankering to reread PET SEMETARY and WOOL just because they’ve both crossed my thoughts lately.


You can find out more about Rita on her website, Twitter (@ritaarens), or Goodreads. You can also check out her novel The Obvious Game, and the anthologies Sleep is for the Weak and Roots.

Best Winter Romances on Netflix Instant

This is a joint post with the lovely Jenny Vinyl.


Winter: nights are long, dark, and cold.  When all you want is to wrap up in your Snuggie (™) and hibernate, these winter-esque romances will warm your heart even when the rest of you is shivering.  But be warned: like winter, many of these are a little more dark. To help with the shivering darkness, we’ve suggested some hot steaming drinks to enjoy while you swoon.

2 Autumns, 3 Winters
In this movie, people turn to the camera in the middle of the scene and start commenting on what’s happening. It’s French, so I expected some artsy-fartsy stuff like that. Talking heads also narrate, though they are out of the action and a little less jarring.  Two of the romantic leads, Arman (Vincent Macaigne) and Amelie (Maud Wyler), literally bump into each other in their meet-cute.  But while this is a romantic movie, the stories of Arman and Amelie and their friends deal with some heavy issues having to do with violence and medical emergencies, including a mugging and attempted kidnapping, knifing, stroke, and depression.  Small moments, with lots of diversions and digressions, make up this film, which isn’t action-packed.  Rather, the characters and their lives are illuminated with little vignettes that are sweet and sad.  As the title would suggest, the film contains plenty of winter scenes and also features a chalet with snowy woods and mountains.  There are lots of winter coats, heavy sweaters, and girly, chunky scarves on both men and women.  If 2 Autumns, 3 Winters is a little too dreamy and philosophical for your taste, just focus on Arman’s hair, which combines a bald spot and comb-over with long-ish locks in the most epic way possible.

Drink: Pair this with mulled wine — warm, yet sophisticated, just like this foreign-language film, and will get you just tipsy enough that you can still read the subtitles.

Chalet Girl
Kim (Felicity Jones) is a champion skateboarder who lost her mother in a car crash and is now, with her father, in reduced circumstances, if not financial straits.  While she’s taking care of her apparently inept and unemployed father, she lands a short-term job at a posh ski chalet in the Alps being a “chalet girl” for a rich family with a cute-but-engaged son, Johnny (Ed Westwick).  During her few months in the Alps, she meets some cool people, including real-life snowboarding champion Tara Dakides, and grows close to Johnny through her chalet girl duties, and a series of mishaps.  She also has time to teach herself snowboarding, which she has a natural knack for, with some local friendly ski bums.  Unfortunately, any time she tries to do a big jump, she flashes back to the accident and chokes.  Though something of a rags-to-riches tale, this fun little film presents class issues in a more realistic way than I’ve seen portrayed in other rom-coms just aiming to take advantage of a mismatched class couple.  Plus, there’s no prince charming rescue here: Kim determines her own life, including entering a snowboarding contest with a hefty grand prize.  Be sure to watch through the credits for some fun outtakes.

Drink:  Curl up with a spiked hot chocolate for lots of scenes of young debauchery and ski bunny outfits amidst a background of snow-covered mountains.

The Giant Mechanical Man
The Giant Mechanical Man is one of the smartest romances I’ve seen in a while, and definitely has the most likeable leads I’ve encountered in some time. Tim (Chris Messina of The Mindy Project) and Janice (Jenna Fisher from The Office) play two lost and lonely thirtysomethings, unable to fit in with the people around them–who all seem concerned with cars and shallow conversation and upward mobility. Janice is a laid off temp worker who gets a job at the zoo, where she meets Tim, who’s just started working in sanitation. She doesn’t know it, but he’s also the giant mechanical man she’s seen around town–a performance artist in silver makeup and stilts who “makes people feel less lonely.” I’ve had a strange fear of stilts for years, but I still love that quirky addition to the story and Messina’s character, and the opportunity it presents to show the bleak and beautiful winter cityscape. The supporting actors are also great, playing characters that are sometimes unlikeable but nevertheless three-dimensional. And Tim and Janice are emotionally relatable, their difficulties and dialogue feeling achingly real. I rooted for them hard…and was breathless to see the moment that Janice realizes who Tim really is.

Drink: Serve with well-steeped black tea with just a touch of honey to counteract the bitterness. Sip with a side of pie.

Ice Castles
Ice Castles, a remake of a 1970s tearjerker of the same name, follows figure skater Lexi (played by real-life top women’s skater Taylor Firth) as she rises to fame in the skating world. Unfortunately, coached by the tough, controlling Marcus (Henry Czerny), Lexi’s increasing success means her distance and eventual breakup from her steady hockey player boyfriend, Nick (Rob Mayes). The acting of the two leads, Firth and Mayes, feels sweet and genuine here–which is pretty incredible given that Firth has no other acting credits (or so says IMDB), and the other movie I’ve seen Mayes in, John Dies at the End, is about as different from this film as whole milk is to a shot of tequila. In a strange plot twist near the last third of the movie, Lexi has an accident rendering her blind which felt like her “punishment” for her troubles with Nick–despite those troubles stemming from her honestly struggling to handle her fame versus becoming conceited and dismissive. The accident does bring Lexi and Nick back together, though, as he helps her learn to skate without sight. The end hits a nice note of triumph and romance that brings the feels even with the earlier script wobbliness.

Drink: Serve with a wholesome cup of hot apple cidar mixed with your salty tears.

North & South
This BBC miniseries, based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s 19th-century novel, appears dark and dreary.  Margaret (Daniela Denby-Ashe) and her family are forced to move from the idyllic south to the industrial north, where life is dependant on the manufacturing industry.  Everything is overcast and dirty, and Margaret is stoic, but unhappy.  The family befriends Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage), an owner of one of the cotton mills, though Margaret dislikes him for being gruff and mean, as well as too focused on money and status.  As Margaret slowly begins to understand her new town and the people in it, she grows to see beauty in unexpected places and to correct some of her own misunderstandings and assumptions.  Fans of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy will enjoy the relationship between Margaret and Mr. Thornton, though they are far from being Pride and Prejudice knockoffs.  The series is infused with observations on class, gender, and consumerism, and the two leads bear that out.  Mr. Thornton’s smoldering, brooding appeal is hard-earned by work and socioeconomic sufferings; Margaret is social justice-minded and often outspoken in her attempts to understand and befriend the mill workers.  Their friendship, even when adversarial, is marked by the kinds of misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and quiet longings that make hearts swoon.

Drink:  Pair North and South with bleak black coffee; stir in some sugar after Margaret meets Thornton.

While You Were Sleeping
This one will likely be a rewatch, but like an old warm afghan, While You Were Sleeping is worth snuggling up and watching again. In the 1995 film, Lucy (Sandra Bullock) gets a chance to save the life of the man she’s in love with from afar, Peter (Peter Gallagher), when he falls on the train tracks. He winds up in a coma, and through a series of misunderstandings that could only happen in a rom-com, his family comes to believe Lucy is Peter’s fiancé. And they’re overjoyed, welcoming the lonely Lucy into their world. But then enters Peter’s brother, Jack (Bill Pullman), who’s suspicious of Lucy even as he finds himself increasingly draw to her. Set around Christmas and the icy January after, it’s got enough of a big, loud family and belly laughs to keep you warm–not to mention the unexpected romance between Lucy and Jack, which Bill Pullman manages to inject with a surprising sexiness. Rewatch to at least remind yourself that sometimes it can be good to slip on the ice.

Drink: Serve with hot cocoa laced with peppermint schappes–warm and comforting, with a kick of something unexpected.

Writers Who Read: Kristi Belcamino

The Writers Who Read series continues this week with writer Kristi Belcamino.profile pic2013

Who are you?
Kristi Belcamino is a writer, photographer, and Italian mama who also bakes a tasty biscotti.

In her former life, as an award-winning crime reporter at newspapers in California, she flew over Big Sur in an FA-18 jet with the Blue Angels, raced a Dodge Viper at Laguna Seca, watched autopsies, and conversed with serial killers.

During her decade covering crime, Belcamino wrote and reported about many high-profile cases including the Laci Peterson murder and Chandra Levy’s disappearance. And because of her police sources, she was one of the first reporters in the country to learn that the passengers on Flight 93 had fought back on 9/11. She has appeared on Inside Edition and local cable television shows. Her work has appeared in such prominent publications as the Miami Herald, San Jose Mercury News, and Chicago Tribune.

Her first novel, BLESSED ARE THE DEAD, was inspired by Belcamino’s dealings on her crime beat with a serial killer who police and FBI agents linked to the kidnapping and murders of little girls.

What are three beloved books you first read before the age of 12?
The Secret of the Seven Crows by Wylie Folk St. John
This is Paris by M. Lasek
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

What is one book you are always recommending to friends and family (and maybe the local barista) as an adult?
Peace Like A River by Leif Enger

What is your book kryptonite–those unique elements in a book, beyond just great writing and three-dimensional characters, that make you unable to resist reading?
I like books that show light shining in a dark world.

What is your ideal time and place to read?
In bed at night.

hiresBADcover (1)Which books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
Lisa Unger’s writing, Hemingway, Ian Fleming

How do you balance reading and writing in your life?
I write from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.

Choose your preferred book form: ebook, physical book, or audio book?
Physical book

Do you consciously plan your future reading–i.e., set book goals, keep a TBR list, participate in book challenges or book clubs? Why or why not?
No, but I always have a stack of books on my nightstand waiting to be read. A book doesn’t go on any of my bookshelves until it is read.

What are you reading now?
Graduation Day by Joelle Charbonneau

You can find out more about Kristi on her website, Twitter (@kristibelcamino), or Facebook, and you can check out BLESSED ARE THE DEAD at these booksellers:

Barnes & Nobles

2015 Book Non-resolutions

Along with my writing and personal resolutions for the year, I’ve thought about what I want to read in 2015. Although, because often I feel guilt or pressure to read certain books, I’m trying to not commit to any book challenges to keep the joy in my reading. Trying.

Still trying.

But there are definitely specific genres, authors, and books I’d like to read this year, and I’m including them below. I’m calling them book non-resolutions, to allow myself slack if I don’t read any of these and instead just read some erotic noir Ghostbusters fanfic or whatever.

Here’s where I’d like my reading to go in 2015:

More Classic Female Authors, More Contemporary Men
Last year 71% of the books I read were penned by women. Though I love supporting women authors, I’d prefer to read closer to a 50/50 author split between genders (or at least 40/60 one way or another). I’ve noticed most of the male authors I read are classic or literary fic guys, and most of the women are contemporary. I’d like to shake that up a bit and read more contemporary male authors, and then more classic female writers. (Edith Wharton, I’m looking at you.)

More Horror and Dark Fantasy
I’ve loved reading supernatural horror from my early teen years when I discovered Stephen King and then mainlined Dean Koontz. I’d love to read more of the scary stuff this year, like King’s Joylandmore Graham JoyceKraken, and Horrorstör, because if a ghost story set in an Ikea-like building isn’t the best premise ever, I don’t know what is. I’m set to read House of Leaves and Hell House for book club, too. I’m already on my way here, as right now I’m reading Muriel Gray’s Furnace.

Big Romance Authors I’ve Missed–Especially Historical Romance
I read a lot of romance last year, but it was my first year really binging on it, and I focused mostly on contemporary since this is what I write. I’m embarrassed as a romance author to admit some of the historical romance I haven’t read yet, like Georgette Heyer or Sarah MacLean, who I’ve heard time and time again write fantastic books. I’m at the beginning of a Courtney Milan, and she’s another historical author I’d like to read more. I also need to read contemporary from Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Nora Roberts, and Julie James. I also want to read A Bollywood Affair and a Susan Kearsley novel, because I keep hearing amazing things about both.

Other Books That Bring the Swoon
In 2015 I also want to read more literary and commercial fiction not classified as romance that’s reportedly still romantic, like Lydia Netzer’s How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky (much recommended by Jenny Vinyl), Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park (on the nightstand) and her upcoming Carry On, and Crazy Rich Asians.

Parenting Books
I’m quite bad at reading about kids or parenting in my downtime–I’d almost always prefer to read about dragons over babies–but as a special needs parent I recognize I should read a bit more than I do, especially about the experience of people with autism. I’d like to read the ebook of Look Me in the Eye that I bought on sale too many months ago, plus check out Why I Jump and delve into Far From the Tree.

Writing Books
I really enjoy writing craft books, and would like to read a few awesome ones in 2015. I’m tentatively thinking of Syd Field’s Screenplay, K.M. Weiland’s annotated Jane Eyre, and maybe Making a Literary Life, which more than one of the Writers Who Read have enjoyed. Any suggestions from writers out there? I’ve noticed there are a lot of strong opinions on writing books in particular.

What kind of books do you want to read this year?

Writers Who Read: Andi Cumbo-Floyd

The Writers Who Read series continues this week with author Andi Cumbo-Floyd.Andi

Who are you?
I’m a writer, editor, writing teacher, and farmer who loves to sew, take slow walks, and enjoy my dear friends and family.  My husband and I run a small farm in rural Virginia, where we raise goats, chickens, cats, and dogs for the fun of them.  When I’m not playing with Great Pyrenees, I write books about the history and legacy of slavery, edit work for clients in a variety of genres, and coach writers at various stages of their writing journeys.

What are three beloved books you first read before the age of 12?
The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis – That book reminded me – still does – that magic is real.

Double Spell by Janet Lunn – I don’t know why this book stuck with me, but it was only a couple of years ago that someone here online helped me find the title.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle – Oh, Mrs. Whatsit and Charles Wallace – sometimes I think they are two parts of my personality.

What is one book you are always recommending to friends and family (and maybe the local barista) as an adult?
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud.  Love the honesty of the book. Love that it’s about a woman in early middle age.

What is your book kryptonite–those unique elements in a book, beyond just great writing and three-dimensional characters, that make you unable to resist reading?
I am a total sucker for any book that involves myths and history – The Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness is a good example.  I also love any story that involves fairy tales or groups of people – particularly women – living in community, as in Toni Morrison’s Paradise.

What is your ideal time and place to read?
I have two – the bathtub in midmorning after I’ve finished the first few hours of work.  Then, at night, in bed before I fall asleep.

book coverFinalWhich books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
I’d say Lamott’s Traveling Mercies because I so appreciate her honesty, her vulnerability, and her humor.  But then my style is more lyrical, I think, so books like On Looking by Lia Purpura and Seasons of the Body by Brenda Miller are big influences.

How do you balance reading and writing in your life?
I think I must be reading in order to write well, so I try to read 100 pages a day of anything – books, blog posts, magazines – and write 1,000 words.  That seems to be a ratio I can fit in most days, and it gives me a goal for each day so that I choose a book instead of my phone.

Choose your preferred book form: ebook, physical book, or audio book?
I read all three, but I definitely prefer print books.  I love to see them, feel them, smell them.  But I almost always have an audio book in the car, too.

Do you consciously plan your future reading–i.e., set book goals, keep a TBR list, participate in book challenges or book clubs? Why or why not?
In the past, I have done all of those things, but now, I mostly just read what comes to hand next.  I do have a reading goal for each year – 2014 was 50 books, and I was just short – and I track that on Goodreads.  Sometimes I put books I want to read there, too, but mostly, yeah, it’s what I hear about and then sticks that I move to when I need a new book.

What are you reading now?
I’m in the final third of Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, and I’m loving it. An introvert myself, the book affirms something central about who I am in the world.

Andi Cumbo-Floyd is a writer, editor, and writing coach. She blogs most days at andilit.com, and you can find her on Facebook and Twitter, too.

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