Get a Life…

I wrote a guest post for the Criminal Element blog about where my fascination with obituaries comes from and I thought it would be fun to share it HERE.

They’re also doing a sweepstakes for a free copy of my book, THE GOOD BYLINE!

R.I.P. (Read in Peace)

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An Obituary for My Modesty

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If we are friends in real life and/or on any social media, you probably know by now that I’ve written a novel. You know this because I’ve talked and/or posted about it a lot. (Sorry – contractual obligation of the job.)

What you may or may not know is that the main character in my book is obsessed with obituaries. She reads the obits from eight different newspapers every day, culling through each one looking for the illuminating details of a life well lived. For Riley, this is a way to live vicariously through other people because she isn’t exactly setting the world on fire herself. And for me, the writer, the obituary page is the perfect place to find potential victims— it is a murder mystery after all.

So I end up spending a lot of time thinking about obituaries. I read books about obituaries, I subscribe to obituary websites, I cruise obituary message boards (yes, they exist!), and of course, I read the obituaries from multiple sources. If it sounds morbid to you, you’re reading the wrong obits. A well-written obituary is about life in all its fullness. And perhaps most importantly, what can be learned from that life.

However, I have noticed an unusual side effect from all of this obituary-thought. When it comes time to say goodbye to something in my life – even if it’s just a thing or something conceptual – I start thinking in obit terms. For example, my favorite white Moto leggings that recently came out of the dryer covered in a mysterious blue ink – they are dead to me now. Do these once beloved pants not deserve a final farewell? Or what about the blue and green melamine plates that I’ve had since my children were little. I recently had to euthanize them (read: chuck them in the trash because I’m pretty sure they were giving off toxic fumes), but I mourned their passing because in their non-toxic heyday they were a part of the fabric of our lives.

Be honest with me: Have you ever taken a moment of reflection upon saying goodbye to something that isn’t, strictly speaking, alive? Of course you have! You’re not made of stone! A cherished stuffed polar bear that got lost in your last move? Your new Betsey Johnson heels that the puppy chewed up? Your favorite ratty old Tri Delta Triple Play T-shirt that your spouse cut up and now uses to clean the windows on his car? Or even something less tangible like your teenage metabolism. I don’t know a soul over the age of 35 who doesn’t mourn the passing of that.

I guess it sounds a little weird and maybe it’s just because I have obituaries on the brain, but as I prepare to say goodbye to a part of myself that I must let go, I’ve decided to give it a proper send off. I’m talking about my modesty. (And no, not that kind of modesty – that kind died during childbirth. I mean seriously, there were 14 people in the room.) I’m talking about my Midwestern, aw-shucks, bragging-is-verboten sensibility that one must stomp out in the month leading up to one’s debut book launch.

This may seem kind of specific, but my writer friends out there will understand. And so will my salespeople friends. And so will anyone who has ever had try to market anything. Self-promotion can feel super douchey, but it is a necessary evil. And to be fair, it really isn’t so much “evil” as it is “business,” which to an artist can seem like the same thing— but that’s a subject for another post.

Jill Orr’s sense of modesty, dead at 43.

Jill Orr’s sense of modesty grew organically out of her midwestern roots, fueled by her mother’s inability to accept praise and her father’s habit of taking at least partial credit for “all the good stuff.” Being a terribly average child, Jill’s sense of modesty was infrequently tested. One notable exception occurred when she won an elementary school contest to guess the weight of a giant pumpkin. The prize was the great pumpkin itself, and all modesty flew out the window as she proudly displayed the spoils of her superior guesswork on her front porch. The universe, in the form of teenage vandals who came by two nights later and smashed the pumpkin to smithereens, taught Jill’s modesty the importance of staying firmly in place.

In her teenage years, Jill’s modesty was influenced by the typical adolescent features of social anxiety, acne, and a habit of taking herself far too seriously. This toxic combination brought her modesty to the edge of self-doubt, but a wealth of good friends, some mild academic success, and good old fashioned aging, pulled it back where it belonged— that sweet spot between timidity and arrogance.

Eventually Jill settled in mid-Missouri where modesty is prized almost above all else, and it is here where she honed phrases like, “It’s not that big of a deal,” and started telling people the sales price of clothing they complimented her on, “It was only like $14.99 on sale!” There was one unfortunate moment in 1997, when while at a party Jill was talking about this particular sensibility and meant to say the word “self-deprecating” but what she actually said was “self-defecating.” It took her years to attempt the phrase in public again.

In the years that followed, Jill’s modesty found a perfect home alongside her husband Jimmy, who has never accepted a compliment without immediately discounting it. Some of his favorite refrains are, “If Jill ever sobers up, she’ll probably leave me!” – a two pronged denigration – and, when talking about his golf game, “I’d have to improve to get to terrible.”

Jill’s sense of modesty was alive and well until it encountered an opposing force that proved too much: promotion of her debut novel. It is incumbent upon all authors, particularly first time authors with no celebrity, to “get the word out” about their upcoming books. This can take the form of, among other things, too-frequent Facebook posts, notifying people of personal appearances, alerts that your novel is now available for pre-order, and asking for reviews on Goodreads. It also involves showcasing only the good, never the bad, which flies in the face of everything modesty stands for.

In the end, Jill’s sense of modesty succumbed to self-promotion one month before her novel’s release. It is survived by loquacity, excitability, neuroticism, and militant optimism –which incidentally, Jill’s author friends say, are exactly what it takes to survive your first book launch.


Don’t Hate the Playa; Hate the Game: A Series in Three Parts

This is the first in my three-part series, Don’t Hate the Playa; Hate the Game (alternatively titled, What’s With All the Judgy-Judgy?). In this series I will explore the many ways that narrow-minded people try to make others feel small so they can feel superior.

Specifically, I will examine the self-righteous judgments some people make based on three factors: the books you read; whether or not you stay home with your kids; and finally, the amount of food you choose to snarf down on any given day. I have found people to be especially judgmental of others where these three things are concerned.

Today’s installment is about the odious practice of book snobbery.

I think there is a special place in hell for book snobs. I don’t mean people who happen to enjoy well-written, thoughtful, literary fiction. That is fine. Great. Good for them. I’m talking about people who make judgments about what sort of person you are based on what you read. For instance, there are those who assume if you read Jackie Collins, or Stephanie Meyer, or John Grisham, that you are somehow intellectually inferior to people who read Dave Eggers, Joan Didion, or Michael Chabon. Or worse yet, that Jackie Collins, or Stephanie Meyer, or John Grisham themselves are intellectually inferior to the Dave Eggers, Joan Didions, or Michael Chabons of the world. Which they may be. Or they may not be. But the fact that they choose to write plot-driven books about sexy vampires or lawyers, as opposed to the rich interior life of tortured souls, does not reflect on their intellectual status.

Some people read to learn more about the world around them; others read to escape it. Most of us like the advantages that both literary and commercial fiction have to offer. Neither has the moral high ground. The people who read nothing but gut-wrenching, tear-jerking, soul-crushing stories about genocide are no deeper, no more cerebral, no smarter than those who read about shoe sales. Reading is, like any other art form, completely subjective and should remain in a judgment-free zone.

Even more upsetting is when people inside the publishing industry proliferate these kind of snarky attitudes. As an aspiring author, I read a lot about the world of publishing and frankly, I am shocked that an industry faced with such an uncertain vicissitude would engage in such petty in-fighting. I read articles everyday about how this author or that book critic discounts the efforts of writers who choose to write “chick lit” or “mommy lit.” (The genre titles themselves are misogynistic and patronizing, but that is another post.) Critics say the same about  people who write mystery, horror, sci-fi, YA, etc. These critics suggest that authors who write books to entertain, and who are perhaps less focused on craft, are somehow “less than” those who write to enlighten the human condition with a precise and stalwart dedication to language. This kind of blatant snobbism is gross. It diminishes peoples experience of books – which is something the publishing industry can scarcely afford right now.

It would seem that people in the business of writing and selling books ought to stick together during this tumultuous time in the industry’s long history. It would seem that We, the Book People, in order to form a more perfect union between those of us who write books and those of us who read them, should establish literary justice, insure bookish tranquility, provide for the common imagination, promote the generally well-read, and secure the literary blessings of freedom to ourselves and our book-choices.

Reading is reading, folks. No matter what book you choose to pick up, it beats the hell out of playing Super Mario Bros. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

 

Next post on 5/15: Working Moms vs. Moms Who Say at Home: You Pays Your Money, You Takes Your Chances.

 

 

 


Book Review: A Good American

For this week’s entry, I am posting my review of Alex George’s new novel, A Good American. Alex is a friend and a fellow-Columbian (Missouri not South America) and has hit it out of the park with this book. Released just two weeks ago, A Good American has already garnered a lot of attention. It was chosen by Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com as a Best Book of the Month for February 2012, #1 Indiebound pick for February, and the No.1 Read to Pick Up for February by O Magazine. After reading the book, it is easy to see why. Alex was gracious enough to sit down with me for a short author Q & A which follows the review below. I hope you enjoy!

Book Review: A Good American by Alex George

Alex George has lived in Columbia, MO, for the past nine years. Born and raised in England, George moved to the States with his family in 2003 and worked as an attorney by day, and a writer by earlier-in-the-day. The result is his U.S. debut novel, A Good American. Like the characters in his book, George simultaneously feels great love and respect for his new country (he recently became a naturalized citizen) and a profound longing for the place he has always called home. It is this internal struggle, along with George’s enormous talent for lush, evocative prose that makes him the perfect person to tell this story of the Meisenheimer family; a story of how people become family and places become home.

A Good American begins in 1904 with the journey of Frederick and Jette, a young couple desperately in love and pregnant-out-wedlock, as they leave their homeland of Germany to start a new life in America. The couple leaves secretly aboard a ship that takes them across the Atlantic to New Orleans. (Jette says of their destination, “New York, New Orleans, what’s the difference? They’re both New.”) Upon arrival, Frederick is instantly bewitched by the strange, avant-garde sounds he hears coming out of a small Jazz club he wanders past. Already a music lover, Frederick immediately attaches to this new music, with all of its soulful, syncopated wonder, and it becomes the first of many things he loves about his new country.

Jette, who is by now Frederick’s wife, is not quite as keen to immerse herself in American culture as is her husband. When the couple eventually ends up in the fictional town of Beatrice, MO, she is relieved to be in a place populated largely with German immigrants. It is here that the Meisenheimer’s family plants its roots and here that the first of many generations grows and blooms.

The story is told by James, Frederick’s grandson, who proves a reliable narrator, guiding us through the family’s history – from long before he was born until present day when we learn (at the same time he does) that his family conspired for decades to keep a dark secret from him. Heartbroken and shaken, James must integrate this new information into what he has always believed about his family, forcing him to see everything -including himself- in an entirely new light.

George’s A Good American ambles through the 20th century in a melodious, mellifluent way – much like the Jazz music Frederick so loves. It draws readers in with the unique, funny, and sometimes tragic experiences of this family. At times, the story was reminiscent to me of Forrest Gump in the charming way it sets the fictional lives of his characters against real life events like World Wars I and II, The Vietnam War, the assignation of JFK, and the ubiquitous racial tensions present in so much of this time period.

Themes of complex familial relationships, duty, honor, resiliency, and love repeatedly emerge throughout the book, new and fresh with each generation’s story. It is impossible not to feel connected to this family and be invested in their outcome. In a way, their story is the story of all American families. If most of us were to search our family trees, we would surely find our own Fredericks and Jettes; people who came to this country in search of a new home, a better life. No family’s history is without moments of unadulterated happiness or soul-shattering despair, so it is for the Meisenheimers, but George’s story – beautifully written and deftly told, is sure to strike a familiar chord with many readers who will relate to the epic tale of family and their journey to become good Americans.

 

Author Q & A With Alex George:

JO: Is there any one thing you hope people will take away from reading your book?

 

AG: What I wanted to do with this book was tell a really good story – a big, complex story people could get lost in. I wanted to pull the reader in and make a connection with them. I think that is what good story telling is all about.

JO: Was writing this book based on your own experiences as an immigrant?

AG: In a way. I think everybody who moves to another country experiences a certain degree of ambivalence. The way I processed that in my head, I suppose, was to embody those feeling within these characters. Frederick is the part of me that wholly embraced America, and Jette is the part of me that was more cautious and homesick.

JO: You weave in real historical events into the fictional lives of your characters. Why did you choose to do that? 

AG: I found you couldn’t really tell a story that spans a century of American history and pretend that the real world wan’t going on. Plus, it was fun. I enjoyed including Harry Truman – obviously he was from Missouri and he did play the piano, so it was a natural fit.

JO: How has living in Columbia affected your experience as an author?

AG: This is an amazing town. We have lots and lots of talented writers here – and it is great. The biggest support for me is to live in place where this stuff is valued and appreciated.

JO: What are you working on now?

AG: I’m working on a new novel set in Maine in the 1970’s and 80’s. It is inspired very obliquely by the book Man on a Wire by Philippe Petit. It’s about friendship, gravity, punk, and the power of dreams.


Book Review: The Ruins of Us

When I’m not driving the kids around in my sweet minivan or trying to get “that smell” out of the carpet, I freelance for a local magazine called, Columbia Home. For the upcoming issue, the magazine asked if I would write a book review of The Ruins of Us , by Keija Parssinen. I enjoyed the book so much, I wanted to share my review here in case you, like me, love nothing more than plopping down on the couch and losing yourself in a good story.

The author, Keija Parssinen, is a lovely young woman of enormous talent and was gracious enough to give me a few minutes of her time for a short interview. I think you will find the story of her background and how it gave way to her book is nearly as interesting as the book itself. And if you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe National Geographic. They just chose The Ruins of Us as their January book of the month.

Book Review: The Ruins of Us, Keija Parssinen. Harper Perennial.

Keija Parssinen’s captivating debut novel, The Ruins of Us, explores the universal themes of love, betrayal, and resiliency set against the backdrop of modern Saudi Arabian culture.

American-born Rosalie Al-Baylani lives a comfortable life in Saudi Arabia. She loves her husband, adores her children, and has grown accustomed to being a wife and a mother in the country she has been fascinated with since she was a girl. But Rosalie’s life is shattered when she learns that her husband of 25 years, the wealthy and powerful Saudi, Abdullah Al-Baylani, has taken a second wife and kept it secret from her for the past two years.

A heavy curtain of heartbreak, bitterness, and isolation falls over the Al-Baylani family as they struggle to make sense of their new reality. Taking a second wife is a man’s legal right in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but Rosalie always thought her Abdullah far too modern and far too devoted to do such a thing. While Rosalie is incapacitated from grief, and Abdullah from denial, the couple’s 16 year old son, Faisal, seeks comfort in a Muslim fundamentalist group with controversial, even violent, ideologies. This gripping story follows Rosalie as she struggles with fear, country, and conscience to make the heart-wrenching choices that will determine her fate and that of her family.

Parssinen, who grew up as a third generation expatriate in Saudi Arabia, deftly reveals the intricate, and at times messy, emotional lives of her characters, while providing an education on the culture and mores of contemporary Saudi life. Her rich, evocative prose is part love-letter to the land where she was born, and part critical study of its complexities. Through Parssinen’s skillful exposition, the reader becomes intimately acquainted with the character’s most profound and visceral desires, particularly in the case of Rosalie, Faisal, and the finely drawn Dan. However, as the story rises to its harrowing climax – and readers turn pages faster and faster -they might just find that, much like the characters themselves, they are unsure of what they want to happen next.

There is so much to love about this book. There is the intriguing story, the graceful language, the authentically flawed characters – but one fact stands out among the rest: the only thing black and white about this novel is the ink and paper upon which it’s printed. You will find yourself thinking about The Ruins of Us long after you put it down. So be sure to pick it up. (It comes out today and you can find it in your local bookstore or online at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, or

Author Q&A with Keija Parssinen

Q: You, like Rosalie, spent much of your childhood living in Saudi Arabia while your father worked for an oil company. How did your background influence this novel?

A: When I started writing the book, it was a way to travel back to Saudi in my mind. I left when my parents moved us back to the US when I was 12. When you leave Saudi Arabia, they take your visa and you are not allowed to go back. So, in a way, it’s really like your home is taken away from you, physically anyway. I think I felt I was being robed of memories. But in writing the book, I did a ton of research and in 2008 since my Dad was living there again, I was allowed to travel back. I stayed with Saudi friends in Khobar and got to experience life with Saudi family and really study the city – what it looked like, the colors, the sound of the traffic. It was fantastic.

Q: What were you hoping readers would gain from reading this book?

A: I hope they enjoy it, first and foremost. But also, I think the book is an honest look at how cultures clash and why. At its heart, I hope it does convey my belief that the human emotional makeup is universal. Our cultural elements may influence and get in the way of our relationships, but we all experience the same emotions regardless of where we come from.

Q: Faisal, Rosalie and Abdullah’s teenage son, becomes involved in a jihadist group. How did you decide to write this plotline into the story of this family?

A: The reality is I couldn’t write about Saudi Arabia in 2005 (when I began writing the book) without addressing the radical mindset of some Saudis. The anger and confusion of 9/11 was still very fresh in my mind, and I was trying to puzzle through why someone would think that way. I learned from Sam Chang, the director of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, that the purpose of fiction is to ask, not answer, questions. So in writing this book I was asking, ‘How would a group of young men who believe America is occupying and in some cases ruining their country act and react in certain situations? And also, ‘What if a man takes a second wife? Is it OK? Is it ever justifiable?’ I read a lot of materials by Arab writers and Saudi writers offering opinions. I learned a lot. In some ways, it destroyed the warm-fuzzy memories I had from my childhood. But I gained so much insight as well.

Keija Parssinen earned a degree in English literature from Princeton University and received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she held a Truman Capote Fellowship and a Teaching-Writing Fellowship. For The Ruins of Us, her first novel, she received a Michener-Copernicus Award.