Thursday, February 19, 2009

Curled Up With a Good Book

It's cold and gray out most days and when it's like that all I feel like doing is making soup and crawling under a quilt with a cup of tea and a good book. And I've been lucky this winter--my husband gave me three books for Christmas. So, without further ado, here's what I've been enjoying in 2009 . . .

Stewart O'Nan's Songs for the Missing. This takes a tough subject (an 18 year-old girl disappears on her way to work) but O'Nan handles it with grace--the narrators include her parents and younger sister as well as her friends. Each one has such a clear voice that they really allowed me to inhabit his fictional town. Beautifully done.

Kathleen Flinn's The Sharper the Knife, The Less You Cry. I loved this memoir of a year in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu Cooking School. She writes with honesty and humor. She also removes the glamour of cooking schools!

Tasha Alexander's A Poisoned Season. I loved the first book in this "series" And Only to Deceive, and this one did not disappoint. The mystery is smart (almost as smart as the main character) and the details of the time are spot on. A thoroughly enjoyable trip to London.

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows', The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I'd heard about this book, but had no idea what to expect. It's wonderful. Delightful. Poignant. Plus, you'll find out about some WWII history I'd never known. It's told in letters which are by turns funny, sweet and heartbreaking.

And just last night I started Wally Lamb's, The Hour I First Believed. Now, I'm only 20 or 30 pages in, but even as I was falling asleep I kept wanting to read one more page. And then another. And when I was at the gym this morning I'd catch myself thinking, ooh, when I get home I can read more of that book. As a writer, it's fascinating to see how he weaves in flashback and backstory without my even noticing. And as a reader, I just want to turn the page.

I can't say enough good things about all of these books--I highly, highly, highly recommend them.

So, what're you reading?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A Hard Anniversary

A year ago tonight, I wrote this post. The outpouring of support from friends near and far was amazing, and it continued to flow in, as I talked about in this post.

Today marks the first anniversary of the City Hall shootings and it's still hard to fathom that they happened here, where I live, to people I knew. The following is a piece I submitted to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which they ran as a letter to the editor.

Two years ago, when Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Ownby were discovered here in Kirkwood, we, as a community grappled with how it could have happened right here in our own backyard. Michael Devlin became the face of the bogeyman, that danger in our midst we never suspected or saw. I remember shivering when my oldest son, away at college in Ohio, mentioned that of course he knew who “Devo” was—everyone did. The story brought the national media to town, and I thought, well, there it is, Kirkwood’s 15 minutes of fame.

I wondered how many times I’d seen Shawn over the years and hadn’t known it. And I worried about what else I was blind to, what else I wasn’t seeing.

And then one year ago, gunshots fired into the heart of my town, and we gathered, in stunned shock, to mourn, to hold close, to ask why. We lit candles, and held up flags, and bought buttons and yard signs to show our unity. We answered questions from friends and family who called from far away to ask if we were okay (not really, but we said yes), if we knew any of the victims (most likely, yes), and how this could have happened (no one knew how to answer that one).

Once again, we tried to make sense of a danger we hadn’t foreseen. And we beat ourselves up at how we could have missed the signs, the clues, the warnings.

After the national media folks left, with their trucks and lights and cameras, winter ambled on. Community meetings began as we tried to answer the hardest questions, as we tried to speak from our hearts, and as we tried to understand one another.

Finally, spring arrived, bringing with it rain and an election and Mike Swoboda’s emotional return. We went back to our routines, stopping at odd moments to gasp at the realization of what had transpired in our own town, at our City Hall which could have come right out of central casting.

Soon, summer was here, and as I walked my dog in the mornings, down streets named for presidents, I wondered if it was just my imagination that made it seem as though there were more people out, that front porches were more popular, and that strangers were friendlier, kinder, more open.

I wished Matt Lauer or Katie Couric would come see my town now, in all its summer green and warmth. I wanted them to see the real Kirkwood, the one that welcomed me eighteen years ago when I moved here and nurtured and protected my sons as they grew up.

And while that won’t happen, other things have and will. There continue to be community meetings. A fundraiser brought in an outpouring of donations and dollars for the families of those killed in the rampage. People seem to wave and smile more.

And as we come to the first year anniversary of the shootings, I wonder what the next year will bring. I hope we’ll continue reaching out and trying to understand one another. I hope we’ll be more patient and less rushed. I hope more neighbors will spend time in their front yards and come to appreciate even more the friendliness of front porch steps. I hope we’ll expect the best from ourselves and give the benefit of the doubt to others.

That would be the best legacy of all. Ken Yost, Mike Lynch, Connie Carr, Mike Swoboda, and Officers Biggs and Ballman loved Kirkwood and worked hard to make it a better community. In honoring them, we shouldn’t accept any less from ourselves.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Writers in their own words-GCC

I don't know about you, but when it's cold and dreary out and heading to a warm beach is not in the cards, often the next best thing is to crawl under the covers and into a book. Carolyn Jewel's Scandal will heat you up!

The earl of Banallt is no stranger to scandal. But when he meets Sophie Evans, the young wife of a fellow libertine, even he is shocked by his reaction. This unconventional and intelligent woman proves to be far more than an amusing distraction-- she threatens to drive him to distraction. Unlike the women who usually fall at Banallt's feet, and into his bed, Sophie refuses to be seduced. And soon Banallt desires her more than ever-- and for more than an illicit affair.

Years later, the widowed Sophie is free, and Banallt is determined to win the woman he still loves. Unfortunately, she doesn't believe his declaration of love and chivalrous offer of marriage-- her heart has already been broken by her scoundrel of a husband. And yet, Sophie is tempted to indulge in the torrid affair she's always fantasized about. Caught between her logical mind and her long-denied desire, Sophie must thwart Banallt's seduction-- or risk being consumed by the one man she should avoid at all costs...

Sherry Thomas, author of Delicious, calls it "An intense, beautiful love story and a most rewarding read." And Kathe Robin of Romantic Times says, "Jewel grabs you at the first word and never lets go."

Now, let's hear from Carolyn in her own words . . .

1.) How did you come up with the idea for this book? Are you more driven by plot or by character?
I came up with a vague idea about two character that eventually turned into this book. I am definitely a character driven writer. There is no point (for me -- many other writers are completely different on this), in spending a lot of time plotting. I have a general notion of what will happen but this changes dramatically as I write and discover my characters.

2.) Who's your favorite character in this book and why?
Banallt, the hero, for having the balls to fundamentally change himself. No wait – Sophie, the heroine for seeing past her prejudices.

3.) What's your writing process/writing environment like?
Chaotic as to both. More than one writer has told me they find my process to be frightening. I am a pantser (A seat of the pants writer) with just enough structure to make me seem normal until I get in there with the machete and cut, rearrange, restructure, rewrite and re-create my mess of a story until, suddenly, it's no longer a mess.

4.) What's your favorite part of writing?

5.) What's the best piece of advice you've ever gotten about writing?
Just start over.