Book Review

How Natalie Goldberg Turned Me Into a Thief

People say TV and video games are bad influences, but it was a book that made me a criminal.

[This story was originally posted on my previous blog, The Black Cat Diaries, on March 4, 2013.]

How Natalie Goldberg Turned Me Into a Thief

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Books can be bad influences.

Today I bought Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg.  This book became famous for its inspiration to writers back in the 80s. After hearing it praised by several friends, I finally decided to see what the fuss was about.  Between errands, I popped into Barnes & Noble and picked it up. Then I stopped to grab a quick lunch.  But my quick lunch quickly became a slow leisurely meal as I dived into Goldberg’s book and found no desire to resurface.

From the very first page, I could not put it down. I suddenly felt like I was having lunch with an old friend, one who is really good at writing and really into Zen and who only came to lunch so that she could sit me down and tell me she believes in me and wants to give me a magical gift that will solve all my problems.  (Don’t you love friends/books like that?)  I wanted to linger in that taco shop all day and read all 200 pages, but I had more errands to run, so I ran.

My next stop was the car wash.  Not the drive-through kind, the hand-wash kind.  But not the hand-wash-it-yourself kind, the kind where you pay someone to hand-wash it for you. Specifically, I wanted the dog hair vacuumed out of the backseat before company arrives this weekend.

I drove to the car wash in an altered mental state.  I couldn’t stop thinking about Goldberg’s book.  In particular, I was contemplating her theory of writing as meditation.  I was concentrating so hard on this thought that I entered the car wash through the exit.  Whoops!  When I got myself turned around, I learned it would cost $25 to clean my car inside and out.  Somewhere in the back of my cloudy brain that sounded high to me, but… I was in a rush and decided that I certainly didn’t want to clean the car myself, so I nodded.

Besides, I still wasn’t REALLY thinking about car washes at all.  I was thinking about the part of the book that said, “Too many writers have written great books and gone insane or alcoholic or killed themselves.  This process teaches us about sanity.  We are trying to become sane along with our poems and stories.”  I tried to remain sane as I got out of the car and handed the keys to the attendant.  When he handed me a ticket in return, I (thinking about how nice it would be to write a book and not want to kill myself) said, “What do I do with this?  Put it on my dashboard?”  He said, “No, you keep it.”  So I put the ticket in my pocket, floated through the building to the outdoor waiting area, and sat down at a picnic table.

For the next forty-five minutes, I completely lost myself in Writing Down the Bones—reading, underlining, jotting notes.  Before I knew it, a man was calling out, “Honda Civic?”  I waved.  He walked over, handed me my keys, then turned and pointed across the parking lot to my car.  I became vaguely aware that I should tip him.  In my wallet, I had only a twenty and a five, so—what the heck—I handed him the five.  Then I moved to my car, still gliding in the pleasant haze of Goldberg’s words.  I got in, pulled out onto the road, and, realizing I was in heavy traffic, snapped out of my reading-induced fog.

traffic_lightAt the first stoplight, I thought, “Oh my gosh!  It’s 4:30!?  I still have to buy groceries and make dinner!”

At the second stoplight, I looked in the backseat and thought, “Wow, there is still a LOT of dog hair back there!  That stinks!  I’ll have to clean it myself after all!”

At the third stoplight, I thought, “I tipped that guy five bucks.  That means that was a $30 car wash.  And they didn’t even do a good job.  I wonder if I should go back and complain.”

At the fourth stoplight, I thought, “HOLY CRAP!  I DID NOT PAY FOR MY CAR WASH!!!”

Yep, it’s true.  A guy handed me a ticket, I sat down at a picnic table and read a book, a guy handed me my keys, and I left.  The assumption here is that I skipped a step somewhere.  I was probably supposed to hand that ticket to someone inside the building who would then have asked me to give them money.  But I didn’t.  The only money I paid was the $5 tip.

You can judge me all you want, but I didn’t go back.  I was already halfway to HEB in rush hour traffic, and I didn’t feel like driving all the way back just to say, “Hi, I forgot to pay you, so here’s the money.  And by the way, you totally need to clean my car again.”  I do feel bad, but I am hoping the universe will forgive me for this one.

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My new bookmark

Anyway, though I may be lacking in morals, this story is not.

Moral #1:  The key to stealing something and getting away with it is a complete and total cluelessness, combined with a flighty, head-in-the-clouds attitude.  In short, ignorance = confidence, and if you act confident, no one will stop you.

Moral #2Writing Down the Bones is such a good book it can turn you into a criminal.  Thanks, Natalie Goldberg.  You owe the nice guys at the car wash $25.

Carie’s Lists: The Best Books I Read in 2016

Happy New Year!

I’m thrilled to welcome 2017 into our lives. Overall, 2016 was EXHAUSTING, but I did read some good books.

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Gabby & Uno exhausted from 2016

My goal this year was to read at least 50 books and no more than 75. (Read this post to find out why my reading goal had a cap.) I achieved my goal, reading a total of 66 books. (Goodreads claims I only read 53, but that’s because a couple of the books I read aren’t on Goodreads, and because I don’t re-rate the ones I re-read, but I do re-count them in my official book journal.)

Here are some of my favorites:

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The Best Books I Read in 2016

Best New Book in a Series: The Creeping Shadow (Lockwood & Co. #4) by Jonathan Stroud

I can’t say enough good things about the Lockwood & Co. series. I LOVE these books. They made my best books list last year too. I love the setting. I love the plot twists. I love the humor and the horror. I love the characters so much that I miss them terribly the moment the book ends. I also love-hate the cliffhanger endings. The Creeping Shadow left off with a BIG reveal and now I’m pining for book 5.

Best Middle Grade Novel (and Strangest Idea for a Story Ever): The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

Steve’s baby brother is sick. Very sick. And wasps, one of the many things Steve is afraid of, have taken up residence in a nest outside his house. But the wasp queen comes to Steve in his dreams and says they can fix the baby. They can make everything better. They’re there to help. But are they really? What is the price of their help? And why has no one ever seen this type of wasp before? And who is the odd man who sells knives from his van?

This is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read (or listened to, on audio book). It kept me intrigued until the very end and genuinely scared me at times. Great horror novel for young readers.

Best YA Novel: Tie between The Walls Around Us and Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma

I just saw that Nova Ren Suma has a new book coming out in 2017. It is currently untitled and there are zero details about it on Goodreads, but I marked it as “to read” because if it’s anything like The Walls Around Us or Imaginary Girls, it will be amazing. Read about why I love her work here.

Best YA Novel with LGBTQ Characters: Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Funny. Touching. Sexy. Heart-wrenching. Adorable. Real. You don’t have to identify as LGBTQ to relate to Simon’s story. Anyone who’s ever fallen in love in high school will see themselves in this book.

Best Middle Grade Novel with LGBTQ Characters: George by Alex Gino

George is a fourth grade girl in a boy’s body, but no one knows her secret. When her class reads Charlotte’s Web, George falls in love with the beautiful spider and wants to play her in the school’s performance of the book. She knows she’s the best person for the part. There’s only one problem– boys can’t try out for the role of Charlotte, and everyone thinks George is a boy. With the help of a trusted friend, George finds a way to show the world who she really is.

This is a sweet story, and an important one.

Best Graphic Novel: Ms. Marvel: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson

Ok, the whole truth? This is the only graphic novel I read this year. But this charming origin story of a Muslim girl in New Jersey who becomes a superhero was so good that it made me want to read more.

Funniest Book: Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

Last June, Jenny Lawson was the keynote speaker at the Writers’ League of Texas Agents and Editors Conference, and I got to meet her when she signed my copy of this book of hilarious essays. It was so amazing to hear her speak and to get a hug from her. I can’t explain why I waited six months to read her book. Maybe I was worried it could never live up to her first book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. Or maybe it’s because I knew how much I would love it and wanted to savor it. Who knows. All I know is that I’m glad I waited because this book was just as funny and relatable as her first one, and it was the best book to read during the wonderful/stressful/joyous/exhausting weeks of the holidays. I laughed out loud (literally– I cackled) so much while reading this book, but I also learned a lot about what it’s like to struggle with mental illness. If you are a fan of irreverent humor and/or want to read multiple stories involving Jenny Lawson’s “lady garden,” go get this book today.

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Me & Jenny at #WLT2016. It’s blurry because we’re both a bit tipsy. (That’s how that works.)

Saddest Book: Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez

This is a good book, but it is a dark book, and you should know that going in. Ashley Hope Perez is a brilliant writer and an incredible teacher. I took a workshop with her at The Writing Barn last January, and I left full of energy and inspiration. Her powerful story of love and loss and racism and abuse set in east Texas in 1937 received a Printz Honor in 2016. If you read it, you’ll understand why.

Best Poetry Collection: Language of Crossing by Liza Wolff-Francis

It’s hard for me to choose favorites among books of poetry. They’re all so unique and personal. My tastes change from day to day, sometimes from moment to moment, depending on my mood. But Liza Wolff-Francis’s chapbook about the US/Mexico border spoke to me on a deep level. She puts into words the struggles of the Mexican immigrants and gives voice to the horrors they face. This is a small, but powerful collection of poems.

Best Re-Read: Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

This year, I finally decided to re-read the Harry Potter series. I listened to all seven books, back to back, and I’m so glad I did. I thoroughly enjoyed reliving this series that meant so much to me, my family, and my students. Here are my thoughts about tagging along on Harry’s adventures a second time.

Story That Stayed With Me the Longest: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

This year, I finally read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and I loved it. Shirley Jackson is a masterful storyteller. It’s hard to talk about this novel without giving anything, so I’m just going to say, go read it. It’s short and surprising and unique and will linger in your thoughts for weeks after reading it.

Most Surprising Book to Make This List: Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies from Outer Space and the Subsequent Assault of the Equally Evil Lunchroom Zombie Nerds by Dav Pilkey

There was a consistently empty shelf in the elementary school library where I used to work labeled “Captain Underpants.” It was empty because the books were always checked out. The kids loved them, coveted them, sometimes fought over them. I knew nothing about them except that they looked silly and most adults I knew rolled their eyes when they mentioned them. I’d never read one. Then, over Thanksgiving, my family celebrated my niece’s sixth birthday and she squealed with glee when she opened a box full of Captain Underpants books. Later, after turkey and pie and more pie and birthday cake, when I had taken up permanent residence on the couch, I picked up one of the books and read it. And now I get why kids like these books so much. It was funny! More than once I laughed out loud at the clever puns and silly scenarios. It’s fast-moving and action-packed, and there are cartoons and drawings scattered throughout. I was quite pleasantly surprised. It’s not like I’m going to go out and read the whole series, but I definitely understand why the books are hits with kids and won’t be rolling my eyes about them anymore.

 * * *

This year, I’m not setting a reading goal. I don’t need to. I love to read, and I love letting books pile up. I love making lists of novels I *must* read and then finding new stories that catch my eye before I can finish the old ones. I look forward to whatever books 2017 has in store for me. Let a new year of reading begin. :)

What was the best book YOU read in 2016?

Thoughts Upon Rereading Harry Potter

 

All of my Harry Potter books, including Quidditch Through the Ages, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and The Tales of Beedle the Bard.

All of my Harry Potter books, including Quidditch Through the Ages, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and The Tales of Beedle the Bard.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone came out in 1997, but I didn’t hear of it until 1999. That was my first year of teaching. I was twenty-two years old, fresh out of college, and just beginning my lifelong relationship with young adult books. I’d read The Outsiders and The Giver and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and some more, but I didn’t know then that the start of my teaching career would coincide with an explosion of young adult literature. I didn’t know Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak was about to be published, couldn’t fathom the volumes and volumes of YA and MG novels I would have on my classroom shelves by the end of my teaching career, and had no idea that a seventh grader was about to introduce me to a character who would make a huge impact on me, my family, and the world.

The student’s name was Kelli, and the character’s name was Harry.

I read the first Harry Potter book reluctantly. No, let me rephrase that. I opened the first book reluctantly. It didn’t sound like something I would be interested in. A little boy who was a wizard? But Kelli spoke so highly of it (she was already reading the third book in the series) and I wanted to connect with my students, so I decided to try book one. For her.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone grabbed me from the very first page, and by the time I arrived in Diagon Alley, I was hooked. SO hooked, in fact, that I told my whole family they should read the book too, with as much enthusiasm as Kelli had used to convince me.

Every member of my family, from my niece to my dad, read the Harry Potter series. By the fourth book, most of us were picking it up on opening day. By the fifth book, I was driving to bookstores at midnight for the release party.

I’m obviously not alone in my feelings about this series. Nearly all my friends love the books. What sets me apart is that, until recently, I only read them once.

Most of my fellow Harry Potter fans have read the series at least twice. Some have read it multiple times. A couple of them reread it every summer. This befuddles me. I rarely reread books, because I’m not a particularly fast reader and there are so many titles I haven’t read lining my shelves. I usually can’t convince myself to reread a single book, let alone a seven-volume series.

But over the past couple of years, I’ve been tempted. After all, it’s been so long now since Kelli first introduced me to Harry—17 years, in fact. The age Harry was when the series ended. I’ve seen the movies of course, but that’s just more reason to reread, being able to delight in all of the details left out of the big screen versions. So I decided just to reread the first one, my favorite. And I chose to listen to it on audio book.

I checked out Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone from the library in February, and less than an hour into Jim Dale’s delightful narration of the boy who lived, I knew I’d be listening to the whole series. From February to August, I went straight through Harry Potter #1-7, reuniting with every character, reliving every adventure, and revisiting every corner of Hogwarts, and I’m so glad I did.

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Thoughts Upon Rereading Harry Potter (via audio book)

[SPOILER ALERT! If you’ve somehow gone this long without reading Harry Potter or at least seeing the movies, STOP! Go instead to the closest library or bookstore to pick up a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.]

* Jim Dale does an amazing job of narrating these novels. I love the voices he gives to Hagrid and Dumbledore and McGonagall, and, well, most of the other characters too. One thing was funny though. Mr. Dale didn’t pronounce the T at the end of Voldemort for the first three books, making me think I’d been wrong all along when saying it. Then suddenly in the fourth book, he added the T, so I thought I’d been right after all. But THEN I found this article about the pronunciation of the dark lord’s name, and now I think we should all just go back to referring to him as He Who Must Not Be Named.

* On this read-through, I noticed that none of the professors at Hogwarts are married or have any children. Further proof that it’s very difficult to devote your life to teaching while also raising a family.

* I can’t remember how I pictured Severus Snape before I saw Alan Rickman play him.

* I’m done watching the movies. I only ever tolerated them before, but now I will no longer idly sit in front of one on a Saturday afternoon. I want the words and the words alone to stay with me. Watching the movies makes me forget more than I remember, and I want every little detail to stick.

* Some things I had forgotten: The ghost professor of History of Magic, who died at Hogwarts but continued to teach; How little Dumbledore was in the first two books (yet how much he pervades the story even when Harry rarely sees him); How scary the cave lake/potion/horcrux scene was in The Half Blood Prince.

* What I loved even more this time: Ginny. What a strong, outspoken, independent, funny young woman. I missed her so much in book 7; Lee Jordan’s quiddich commentary (which was even better on audio); Dumbledore’s Army.

* I loved the fact that this time in book 4 when Dumbledore described finding a room filled with chamber pots when he was looking for a restroom, I knew it was foreshadowing the Room of Requirement in book 5. :)

* On this read-through, SPEW (The Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare) made me uncomfortable. Hermione’s heart was in the right place regarding house elves, but the way she went about trying to force freedoms onto them didn’t seem right.

* I still hate Umbridge more than I ever hated Voldemort. I actually yelled out loud at her once while listening to book 5 in my car.

* I have a list of questions ready to ask my friends and loved ones if I ever suspect them of being imposters using polyjuice potion.

* It was no easier listening to Dumbledore’s death and funeral than it was reading it in print. :(

* Let’s talk about The Deathly Hallows. Strangely enough, the last book in the series is the one I remembered the least. And, upon rereading the series, it was also the one I liked the least. The beginning is great. The scene about “the seven Potters” is still one of my favorites. I love how everyone starts changing clothes out in the open and Harry’s embarrassed at how immodest they’re being with his body. The scene that comes next, when they’re all flying and trying to escape the Death Eaters, is awesome too—so intense and heartbreaking. (I hated it when Hedwig died.) The end of the book is also great. Neville’s a badass, and Harry sacrifices himself with his parents’ spirits by his side, only to survive again, and then he has that magical talk with Dumbledore in “King’s Cross,” ending with one of my all-time favorite quotes from his extraordinary headmaster: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” But the middle, ugh! The middle is a long, boring, repetitive slog through forests of indecision with a bunch of wand confusion thrown in for good measure. All they do is argue and apparate. I missed Hogwarts! I missed Ginny and Hagrid and Professor McGonagall and the Weasley twins. I can only figure that the first time through I read the book so fast, in such excitement to see how it ended, that I didn’t notice how bored I was through most of it.

* Lastly, I’m still a little disappointed that my prediction about Harry didn’t come true. In July of 2003, when I was reading the newly-released Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I wrote in my journal, “Prediction: When Harry graduates from Hogwarts, he will become the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher.” I thought it was so perfect. He was a natural teacher, as evidenced by his lessons in the DA, and he was obviously skilled and knowledgeable about combating the dark arts. And since Hogwarts couldn’t keep a Defense teacher more than a year, I thought Harry would defeat Voldemort, break whatever curse was on the job, and become the best professor Hogwarts had ever seen. But he didn’t. And I’m still kind of sad about that.

Photos from the midnight release party at BookPeople for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in July 2007. Left = a person dressed up as a moving portrait. Center = me clutching my copy of book 7. (Side note: I still have that t-shirt. I wore it yesterday.) Right = the Voldemort dunking booth. Step right up and dunk the dark lord!

Photos from the midnight release party at BookPeople for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in July 2007. Left = a person dressed up as a moving portrait. Center = me clutching my copy of book 7. (Side note: I still have that t-shirt. I wore it yesterday.) Right = the Voldemort dunking booth. Step right up and dunk the dark lord!

In conclusion…

I still love these stories. (Even the last one.) I owe Kelli for introducing me to them. I don’t know if I’ll ever reread the whole series again or not, but I suspect I’ll pick up the first one from time to time and rediscover the magical world along with Harry.

As for the new book? I don’t have strong feelings about the existence of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I haven’t read it. I might someday. I might not. This post isn’t about that book. It’s about the world of Harry Potter as I first experienced it. That’s the world I love.