Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 - Not a Stellar Year, Actually

Last night I sat down to do my annual year-end review of my reading accomplishments, and the first thing that popped into my head was, "Wow, this was kind of a 'blah' year." I didn't read as much as I did the year before, for one thing, and for another, much of what I read didn't really give me much satisfaction. Having made that cheery assessment, here are my picks for my selected categories.

Best Discoveries - In some ways, this was a non-fiction year for me. I read three non-fiction books (well, ok, I'm not finished with one yet), which is more than usual. Two of those nonfiction books - actually, the first book I read during the year and this last one - are what I am considering to be the best books I just "happened onto" this year: The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs , and The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum.

Saddest Disappointment - The Serpent Never Sleeps by Scott O'Dell. I had such high hopes this was going to be great historical fiction, but honestly, it just felt flat to me.

Favorite Classic - One of the high points of my reading year was going back and re-reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. For years, I've been telling myself it's one of my absolute favorites, but I had a sneaking suspicion that maybe I was falling prey to "books were better in the good ol' days when I was a teen" thinking - but, nope. It really is one of my absolute favorites.

Favorite Love Story - That would have to be The Witch of Blackbird Pond, too. I read a couple of other romantic novels (The Chataine's Guardian by Robin Hardy, and Harper's Bride by Alexis Harrington), but neither one really made my heart go flutter.

Favorite Historical Fiction - Same song, third verse. The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Although...the real winner of this category is actually Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. It's the only book I read all year that I couldn't put down.

Greatest Reading Accomplishment - I finally read The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnon Rawlings! I don't know why I got so bogged down in it. I also feel that making it all the way through Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott was a real show of perseverance (or stubbornness....).

Biggest Failure - Blood Reaction by D.L. Atha. I'm just a scaredy-cat.

Favorite Re-Read - I bet you're thinking The Witch.... nope, this one was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling. I kind of skipped around in it some, but I eventually pieced it all together, so I'm counting it.

Once Is Enough (Books I Probably Won't Ever Read Again) - That could be several on this year's list, but the one that would top the list, I guess, is Page from a Tennessee Journal by Francine Thomas Howard.

Books I Thought Would Be Amazing But Were Just So-So - I really enjoyed The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner, so I expected the sequel, The Silver Blade, would also be a good read. It was all right, but just all right.

Books I Thought Wouldn't Be Much But Were Actually Good Stuff - I was pleasantly surprised by two books this year. First, The Year of Living Biblically had more depth than I had expected (I thought it would be a collection of cheap jokes about religion), and secondly, I actually enjoyed The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (although I had to take a HUGE dose of suspension of disbelief with it).

Books I Plan to Read - I didn't read ANY of the books I planned to read in 2011. Total failure. I'm not even making a list this year. I have a box of books I gave myself for Christmas (ha) that I hope I will get to read in the coming year, but who knows? I just hope to have a better year with my reading, both in terms of doing more of it, and in terms of reading more books that will excite and inspire me. I need it.

Friday, December 30, 2011

I Do Love a Good Academic Study

One of the scenes in my book takes place at a Christmas party, and I always felt a little unsure that I had portrayed the scene in historically correct fashion. I knew from a basic Google search that Christmas as we know it didn't really start to take shape until the 1820s, which is the time frame for my story. However, those changes started in the big northeastern cities, so I'm sure it would have taken awhile for them to filter down to the South (specifically Nashville). So...what was Christmas like in the South in 1823?

To help me in my research, I found a book called The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum. I found what I needed for my story relatively quickly (and I'm not going to go into what that was in this post - you'll just have to wait and read the book someday, ha ha), but I became fascinated by the book and decided to read the whole thing.

What I find intriguing about this book is that it shows how an institution we take so much for granted -- Christmas -- was once completely different, and in fact, was created to be the way it is now, for specific purposes to benefit the higher classes in society. Nissenbaum makes a pretty convincing argument for his thesis, that Christmas was overhauled to go from the "season of misrule" to being a home-centered, child-centered, commercial holiday to reduce the threat of harm to property and the annoyance of the ways the lower classes celebrated the season. Most of what we think of as time-honored Christmas traditions apparently came about as part of this campaign.

I love to think about how different our world was only 200 years ago. At the turn of the 19th century, people were apparently quite rowdy! Celebrations of Christmas had for centuries been more like our Halloween, in which groups of people (usually young men, apparently, and specifically, servants or working class people) came to the homes of the landowners and demanded (through wassail songs) food and drink, with a veiled threat if none was forthcoming. ("Now bring us a figgy pudding," anyone?) Nissenbaum recounts some examples of how the tradition carried over into the "New Country." As the economics of American society changed and people were no longer "attached" to specific landowners, Christmas wassailing evolved into a tradition of bands of young, lower-class men roaming the streets, drinking and making as much noise as possible. Of course, "respectable" middle-class/upper-class people like Clement Clark Moore and John Pintard saw this as a threat, and thus began the move to re-invent Christmas.

I won't detail everything I've learned from Nissenbaum's book, but let me just say every night as I'm reading I have an "ah-ha!" moment. One of the most entertaining has to do with the reason my husband and I (both of us teachers) are getting a Christmas break. Apparently, young scholars (male, of course, since girls didn't go to school) had a practice of "barring out" the schoolmaster during the Christmas season - yes, they literally nailed themselves into the schoolroom and kept the schoolmaster out so they could have a period of several days in which they partied in the schoolhouse. Nissenbaum doesn't say that's why we have Christmas vacations from school, but it doesn't take a huge leap of speculation to say someone, somewhere, decided "Why fight it? Let's just suspend school for a couple of weeks during the Christmas season." 

I love that kind of stuff!

Monday, December 26, 2011

My Best Christmas Gifts

(Has it really been nearly a month since my last post? December has whizzed past in a blur of papers to grade, gifts to find and wrap, concerts and parties to attend, food to cook - finally, Christmas is over and I have time to sit and catch my breath.)

I guess it's not easy to find gifts for me. When asked what I wanted for Christmas, all I could think of that I really wanted was a little stainless steel pot to warm the milk for my faux coffee (oh, and a gift card to get books for my Kindle, ha ha). But my husband didn't think that would be quite enough. I did get my little  saucepan, but he also gave me two other items that are tops on my list of "favorite gifts" - an 8G flash drive and a laptop fan/chiller. Why do I think these are such great gifts? Because it means he's encouraging me to keep writing.

When I opened the flash drive, he said, "You can use it for just your books - don't put anything else on it, just your books." What's great about that is that at this point, I only have ONE book to put on it. There is a substantial bit of a first draft for another, and ideas and bits and pieces of others, but I've never really organized them. By giving me this flash drive, he's telling me to get professional about this writing thing.

He couldn't know this, of course, but his gift came at the perfect time. I've decided to forget about querying my "non-commercial" novel at this point. Instead, I'm going to focus on writing more, and when I have three or four that are ready to go, I'm going to publish them myself. Ann Turnbull sent me a link to a blog by writer Catherine Czerkawska, which had a post entitled, "Some Thoughts About Literary Agents" that was quite enlightening and encouraging (as were the comments to the post). As one of the commenters (Linda Gillard) said,
What I learned from that experience (which threw me out into the professional wilderness for years) was that the book was/is my property. It had its own identity and integrity and it still had that, even if no one wanted to publish it (and no one did.)
It's a little frightening to think of walking out on the tightrope without the security of someone to "validate" the integrity of my story, but it's also exciting and empowering. Now I can get back to why I like to write in the first place - discovering the characters, playing with plot, doing the research - instead of worrying those first 10 pages and the query letter to death in hopes they'll stand out of the slushpile. I'm going to go back and fix the first scene of my finished novel so it suits me. I had tickered with it, trying to follow the advice of agent blogs to make it "grab" readers right away, and I felt that I was trying to cram a foot into a pointy-toed pump when it really belonged in a moccasin. No more of that. I will trust myself. As another commenter said,
I say, the hell with fear. Let's just take a deep breath and dive in. Let's create the change we want to see.
A good way to end one year, and start another, don't you think?