A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT by Norman Maclean

Norman Maclean’s autobiographical novella is surprisingly suspenseful and laugh-out-loud funny. I never expected to write such a statement when I first decided to read A River Runs Through It.

The film is one of my favorites. I’ve seen it so many times the DVD is worn out. Because I was aware of the humor and tragedy of life that lay within the pages of the novel before I started to read, suspense was the last element of storytelling I expected to encounter. The suspense is driven by Maclean’s brazen humor and the combination allows A River Runs Through It to flow in soul-wrenching harmony.

Riveting storytelling is grounded in details and Maclean’s selection and communication is masterful. His descriptions are often ethereal and transport you to a meditative state in one line, then slam you into reality in the next.

If you have never seen a bear going over the mountain, you have not seen the deed
reduced to its essentials. A bear leaves the earth like a bolt of lightening retrieving
itself and making its thunder backwards.
 

A River Runs Through It shows us a family of distinctly different people who respect each other’s space enough to agree to disagree and love each other regardless.

You can love completely without complete understanding.

This may sound like an easy task, but if you have ever attempted to write a novel or short story you know delivering the goods is no ice cream social. All character actions must link to intention and every intention needs motivation with resonance, otherwise the reader doesn’t care. Craft books often suggest a light touch when revealing intention, motivation and theme. Maclean is not subtle. His younger self, who narrates the novella, is blatant about what he wants and what he fails to accomplish. His ability to expose his regrets endears us to him. His journey to unravel the mystery of his brother’s life becomes our own, along with the lessons learned.

The underlying power of A River Runs Through It is wrapped up in Maclean’s wisdom about living. I don’t know whether his insight is due to the fact that he didn’t write this novella until he was in his seventies, or because the rhythm and wonders of life were second nature to him as a result of learning to fly fish before he was old enough to master cursive writing, or because his father was a Presbyterian minister. But the why doesn’t matter.

As in all great storytelling what reverberates are the zingers of truth; the sentences we return to again and again for their beauty and enlightenment. A River Runs Through It is packed with such gems. It is more than a novella it is a reference for life.

Step into the rapids of life with A River Runs Through It.


MORE ROOM IN A BROKEN HEART: The True Adventures of Carly Simon by Stephen Davis

My life as an actress allowed me to sing in a number of shows, but I would never label myself a singer. I was raised on The Grand Ole Opry and coveted Patsy Kline’s vocals until I heard Stevie Nicks and Carly Simon. But I’m not a factoid junkie. I never followed or sought out what the press wrote about any of the singers I loved. How their music affected me emotionally was all that mattered; their songs were my poetry. So my mind was an open canvas for Stephen Davis’s biography of Carly Simon.

Music’s accessibility is greater than ever. We buy, stream and watch our favorite music videos on Youtube. The ease with which we connect with our favorite musicians may lead us to believe the process that takes them from unknown to star is no big deal—a total misconception. The competition is stiff. The detours and roadblocks presented on Carly Simon’s journey to popularity shocked me, especially after I discovered she came from a family with “connections”. Simon’s biography proves that patience and persistence are the backbone to success. Her journey also chronicles the fickle reality of fame, and shows the only way to endure the highs and lows in any career is to stay true and connected to your heart.

If you make a record that’s true to yourself, and you love the work, it can’t be a flop. It can only sell poorly.

The biography is titled, More Room in a Broken Heart, but heart is exactly what is missing within its pages. Once Carly’s career takes off each chapter is more of the same, a detailed account of the songs, producers and musicians that were associated with each album with a bit about her personal life thrown in. The research required to present such a thorough accounting is impressive, but I found much of the material skim-able.

I thought my unrest with the material had to do with my preference for autobiographies or memoirs because the information is coming straight from the source. I also considered my frustration might be related to the fact that Carly Simon is a musician and not an actress or a writer, two professions close to home. But one of my favorite memoirs is The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin, which is all about chess and Tai Chi Chuan.

My favorite parts of Stephen Davis’s book were the chapters that delved into the personal lives of Carly Simon and James Taylor. I found their personal struggles and fears that collided and irritated fascinating and I wanted more. When Davis showed how these two individuals conflicts and personal growth lead to the music I was enthralled. Unfortunately, the bulk of the book is written the other way around—these are the songs, the albums, and oh yeah, this is what was going on in Carly’s life.

Personal preference aside, More Room in a Broken Heart is a wonderful reference for any Carly Simon and James Taylor fan, or anyone intrigued by the mystery man behind You’re So Vain. An eye opening read.

Treat yourself to More Room in a Broken Heart: The True Adventures of Carly Simon.


FIVE DAYS by Douglas Kennedy

Intimate.

Five Days is one of the most intimate novels I have ever read. My word choice has nothing to do with the love affair contained within.

Like Woolf, Bannville and Cunningham, Douglas Kennedy pries open the lockbox that holds the protagonist’s deepest secrets, and in so doing, forces us to confront our own.

…what happens when, over the years, you’ve forced yourself to play a role that you privately know runs contrary to your true nature; when the mask you’ve worn for so long no longer fits and begins to hang lopsidedly, and you fear people are going to finally glimpse the scared part of you that you have so assiduously kept out of view?

Thus begins Laura’s journey.

I was instantly captivated and yet, frustrated with the lack of action. I shrugged it off as a natural response after just coming off of NOS4A2 by Joe Hill. But Laura’s unrest irritated like the itch of chicken pox and when I couldn’t set the book down, I had to ask why?

Kennedy’s rendition of Laura is equivalent to a portrait by Rembrandt. His selection of light and dark, the execution of detail, the juxtaposition of desire and obligation demands our attention.

Yes, Laura is at the bottom of unhappiness and she bemoans her situation, but her sadness doesn’t define her. She is compassionate and tolerant of other people’s weaknesses, even when she has no patience with herself. In order to salvage a marriage, which was a mistake from the start, she transformed herself into the family lifeguard, the one person who is never able to enjoy the water.

And there it is—the intimacy. As Laura separates herself from the cement of her life and explores the probability of change, Kennedy captures the loneliness and sense of failure that has crept into our society, even though we rail about how everyone knows everyone else’s business.

Loneliness is an aspect of ourselves no one wants to talk about—the cancer of our time—something so personal it’s impossible to face without fingering our own culpability. Fortunately, Douglas Kennedy has drawn a heroine with courage enough to face the truth and move through it.

Will Schwalbe, author of The End of Your Life Book Club says, Five Days is “A brilliant meditation on regret, fidelity, family, and second chances.”  No finer blurb could’ve been written.

Delve into the intimacy of Five Days.


SNOOPY’S Guide to the Writing Life edited by Barnaby Conrad and Monte Schulz

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t love the characters created by Charles M. Schulz? If there is I don’t want to know them. Sure, some strips are funnier than others, but I’d wager that the strips that don’t make you laugh today would crack you up tomorrow. That was Schulz’s magic; his uncanny ability to zero in on the highs and lows of life. You can never outgrow Peanuts because eventually every character—from Charlie Brown to Pig Pen—reflects a moment of our own evolution.

When I was a kid I couldn’t get enough of Schroeder. His reverence for the great classical composers and his innate skill fueled my dream of becoming a professional flutist. In time I discovered a musician’s life was not for me. To excel in any profession requires passion, patience and persistence: enter Snoopy.

No matter where you are in your journey as a writer, SNOOPY’S Guide to the Writing Life will help you celebrate your accomplishments, recharge your battery and take the sting out of rejection.

What I love the most about the Snoopy strips on writing is Snoopy’s unwavering faith in his own abilities. Sure, he often rewrites based on outside input.

You should write a self-help book…a story about pirates…a biblical novel.

But deep down he knows what works and what doesn’t.

I think this is going to need a little editing…my hero is a terrible bore.

Each time Snoopy tosses away “his little darlings” to face another blank page, I uncover my own courage to do the same.

As Snoopy says, good writing is hard work. When writers get in manuscript trouble they often turn to books on craft. Craft books and conference workshops have often been a boon for me. But one of my favorite parts of writer conferences are the Key Note speeches because the Key Note doesn’t dwell on the “how to,” they focus on the love behind the process. Key Note speeches reconnect us with what inspired us to go to the page in the first place.

SNOOPY’S Guide is a Key Note you can turn to again and again. In addition to the wisdom of the world’s cutest and bravest beagle you’ll find insights from bestselling writers like Sue Grafton, Elizabeth George and Elmore Leonard. You’ll never be at a loss for inspiration again.

Laugh and write on with SNOOPY’S Guide to the Writing Life.


NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

Remember Bullwinkle’s hat trick?

Hey Rocky. Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat. Nothing up my sleeve. Presto. (A rhino appears) Don’t know my own strength.

I love that gag. The moment is unbelievably funny because we know Bullwinkle is a doofus. When the unbelievable proves to be true we’re mesmerized. Our fascination with horror works the same way. When a writer with a well-packed Toolbox offers up the impossible as real, we can’t turn away. Joe Hill is such an author.

Not a horror fan? Get over it. NOS4A2 is so beyond horror-in-a-can, religious non-fiction fans will uncover latent urges to scream, “Don’t be stupid. Don’t go alone. Don’t go in there!” Of course, heroes and heroines never listen, and Hill’s Victoria McQueen may be at the top of Horror’s Daredevil List—another way this particular genre gets ahold of us. Horror makes us confront our fears, acknowledge our cowardice and remember, when we’re broken we discover our true strength.

Readers gravitate to flawed characters and NOS4A2 is riddled with people who know they’ve screwed up their lives and the lives of the people they love. Their self-awareness and their struggle to make amends endear them to us. Horror flicks are full of two-dimensional, stock characters, but none show up under Hill’s deft hand. Every character, even if dispensable, has roots. Whether we like them or hate them, their loss is felt and our investment in the story grows.

In an interview with Writer’s Digest, Joe Hill said, “In some ways, NOS4A2 is my rewrite of It.”

An element of Christine also presents in this haunting tale that explores the healing power and danger of imaginative worlds that can’t possibly exist. But Hill paints them with such assurance, all we can do is widen our suspension of disbelief and follow. Occasionally, we may question the goings on like FBI agent Tabitha Hutter.

I don’t—I can’t—understand this. I’m trying, Vic, but I just can’t make sense of it.

Then seconds later we’re all in. When a story sings, we don’t understand in our heads, only in our hearts—where the world of fiction becomes real.

Take a haunting ride in Joe Hill’s NOS4A2.


BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott

I believe in signs just like Mos Def’s character in 16 Blocks. The Universe sends signs to guide us from the time we are born. We miss out on a lot of signs when we’re young because we’re busy screaming for attention, or struggling against the flow of life. But once we reach a certain age, which is different for everyone, the signs offered to us are unavoidable. The ones we need the most are the ones we listen to because they fall on our heads like Chicken Little’s sky. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird cracked open my skull.

I was loading my tote with essentials for a two-hour train trip to New York City: cell, money, gloss, lotion, pens, paper, highlighters and books. I finished In One Person the night before so I snatched up Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs from one of my TBR piles and Bird by Bird fell out of another. I bought Lamott’s book on writing three years ago and never even took a gander. So why did it fall? The time was ripe.

I opened Bird by Bird as the train rolled out of the station. By the time I returned home, in the early hours of the next morning, I felt less alone, more grounded in purpose and eager to tackle the next phase of rewrites on my WIP.

Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up.

We need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here—and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.

Nuggets like these remind us to trust ourselves. We are all uniquely formed with a specific point of view that needs to be shared. The passions that connect us with other people in the flesh do not need to be hidden on the page. Our passions need to be plumbed. When we dig deep enough what we write will find its audience.

Anne Lamott recognizes our need to acknowledge who we are, encourages us to share our truth and gives those of us who need it, permission to take all the time we need to grow into ourselves and find our voice.

Bird by Bird is one of the best gifts I have ever given to myself. Not reading it for three years is the bonus. A month ago I reread the latest draft of my WIP. While the second half holds promise, the opening needs a funeral. As an acting coach and an Alexander teacher, I remind my students that the end of one thing is the beginning of the next. Trusting this natural segue eliminates false starts, forced emotions and leads to a natural, vulnerable truth. I know this and yet, the thought of beginning my novel again, made me wonder if a lobotomy might be a better choice at this juncture in time.

Then Bird by Bird fell out of my TBR pile.

If you want to get to know your characters, you have to hang out with them long enough to see beyond all the things they are not.

Is there any better way to say, “kill your darlings to make way for the truth”? Thanks Anne Lamott. Thank you for inspiring the writer in all of us.

Unleash your passion with Bird by Bird.


IN ONE PERSON by John Irving

John Irving’s novels are compasses of truth that illuminate our individual paths to enlightenment.

Part of my awakening this time around stems from rereading A Prayer For Owen Meany only a few months ago. Reading about Owen is not essential for you to appreciate Billy Abbott’s tale, but writers may find this particular order a fascinating study into Irving’s writing.

Narrators Johnny Wheelwright and Billy Abbott are core opposites and yet, they share similar roots. They were born out of wedlock and learned next to nothing about their biological father from their mother. A grandparent and stepfather were significant role models. And both boys were educated within the confines of a private school in a small New England town, where community theatre played a large part in their lives. But what they share is less important than the personal issues of identity these characters wrestle with.

We are who we are, aren’t we?

Who characters are and what they are willing, or not willing to stand for is a major theme in Irving’s work, and one of the reason I never grow tired of his stories. He draws me into worlds of deeply flawed individuals whose quirks and obsessions appear foreign. Then, in the end I realize the sentiments of the main character are my own; or maybe they have become my own.

Gender issues are a common struggle today. Fortunately, John Irving has turned on the light. Through the life of one particular bisexual man, In One Person will dare you to be a better person. Open your heart and expand your definition of tolerance with John Irving’s thirteenth novel.


SHARP OBJECTS by Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn’s stories beckon readers the way a bottle of vodka calls an alcoholic.  It’s impossible to read just one book, chapter or sentence. I don’t know what I will do after I finish Dark Places—set up a calendar and mark off the days until her next release, I guess.

An author’s debut often reveals only the bud of style, a wisp of the signature themes that will be tattooed upon future pages and a voice fresh from the cocoon. Flynn’s Sharp Objects is not such a debut. Gillian Flynn sprung into the literary world like Athena out of Zeus’s head, fully formed and ready for battle.

At first the edginess of Sharp Objects stood in such contrast to Gone Girl, without the author’s name on the covers I would’ve sworn the books were written by two different writers. But once immersed I recognized the exquisite execution of certain shared elements: the need for characters to manipulate, the eavesdropping quality of dialogue, and how characters say what people in real life only say when they think no one else is listening.

Sharp Objects is all about what reporter Camille Preaker does not want to know when she returns to her hometown to follow a murder investigation. Flynn’s ability to thrust a damaged character back into the belly of the beast and increase the voltage is a prime example of no fear writing.

The payoff for the reader is sleepless nights from either staying up to finish or an inability to fall asleep once all the gruesome details are consumed.

Gillian Flynn’s debut exposes more than the behavioral inbreeding of small town life and the unhealthy hold some parents have over their children. She leaves her characters raw, desperate and wondering, always wondering whether they have or will choose wisely.

Prepare to protect your heart from Sharp Objects.


BY NIGHTFALL by Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham scores again with By Nightfall. I don’t know how he’s able to read my mind, or tap into the love and pain of my heart, but he does it book after book. Each one of his characters is a manifestation of some aspect of my personality.

He owns the secret of how to connect through words. Cunningham’s novels are not action-packed, yet readers are driven to turn the page to uncover how his characters will cope with the turmoil of their lives. If you’re a writer and struggle with character development, look no further—Cunningham will show you the way.

The observations and realizations his characters make reflect a universal truth we may not speak of, but recognize without question. His characters explore darkness, but hope reverberates. His themes spark tension unlike any plot point. And no author captures the nuances and energy of New York better. If you’ve never fallen into Cunningham, take the plunge. By Nightfall you’ll be a fan.


ON WRITING: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned writer this memoir was written for you.

In an age when the publishing market changes on a daily basis, it’s easy to get sidetracked by social media networks and blindsided by craft books that promise to enhance everything from your understanding of plot to honing the ever important logline.

A writer can have a meltdown just trying to determine which blogs or books will best serve him. And if, like me, your journey to publication has yet to reach fruition, you may often feel bogged down by the weight of finishing the manuscript—especially when you’ve moved beyond the first few drafts. If either of these states drag you into despair save yourself with a shot of Stephen King’s On Writing.

It’s a no-nonsense book filled with humor, heart, honesty and the best writing advice around. From honoring The Element’s of Style’s rule, “Omit needless words,” to King’s own mantra, “Write a lot and read a lot,” we learn how this prolific writer evolved and still thrives through his love of story.

King’s passion for writing is undeniable and contagious. I’d wager On Writing has sparked more writers to return to the page than any other craft book.

You can enjoy it in print where you can highlight and take notes, or you can listen to King’s narration of the audio version. I’ve done both and will continue to do so because there is nothing better than a good story.

Write On and Write Strong with On Writing.


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