Monthly Archives: September 2013

Copenhagen

We spent this past weekend in Copenhagen, and I absolutely loved it.

Bird statue

Bird statue, Copenhagen

I had wanted to go to Copenhagen for years. In fact, I found a note in my iPhone from January 2010 reminding myself to tell Al about an Oprah episode I had seen in which Oprah reveals that the people of Copenhagen are some of the happiest people in the world. (And if Oprah says it, you know it’s true, right?) After visiting Copenhagen this weekend, I see what Oprah was talking about. Copenhagen works so well, it’s off-putting. Everyone is tall and attractive; everyone bikes to work along picturesque canals lined with pastel buildings; everyone gets off work at 4 pm and goes to hang out with their families, eat hot dogs, drink beer, and stroll along the promenades dotting the city; everyone lives in stylish yet cozy apartments; there’s no litter; children play by themselves in public parks; the buses come on time; the food is good; people are polite; no one so much as jaywalks.

Hard to take a photo in Copenhagen without someone biking through it.

Hard to take a photo in Copenhagen without someone biking through it.

After spending a weekend in such an idyllic place, I started to wonder about the inevitable seething, dark underbelly that’s lurking under the perfect exterior. There has to be something, right? There has to be some dark force threatening to tear the fabric of Danish society apart, because otherwise, the Danes have got it made. They’ve figured the whole society thing out! The only downside to Copenhagen is that everything is brutally expensive. But, you know, we were just there for a weekend, so we decided not to worry about it too much and just enjoy what Copenhagen had to offer.

Copenhagen

Al and I don’t like to over-program our sightseeing, but Copenhagen is a small city and it’s relatively easy to see a lot of stuff. We walked around and saw Nyhavn, the cutesy, slightly cheesy waterfront area where Hans Christian Andersen used to live; Christianshavn, the leafy neighborhood bordering Christiania, the self-proclaimed “free state” in the middle of Copenhagen; the Latin Quarter; the Stroget (or “Stroll”), the fancy-schmancy pedestrian shopping area in the heart of town; hipstery Vesterbro; Slotsholmen; Tivoli, the old-timey amusement park in the middle of the city; and a bunch of other areas. We also made time for plenty of eating and drinking, a bit of running, and lots of walking.

Nyhavn

Nyhavn

Canal tour

Canal tour

Christiania

Christiania

The old stock exchange - the tower is intertwined dragon tails

The old stock exchange – the tower is intertwined dragon tails

One of the things that struck me most about Copenhagen is the attention to design. There’s a healthy mix of the old and grand and the new and sleek in Copenhagen’s city architecture. And  within their buildings, the Danes manage to conjure up a feeling of coziness and warmth while keeping things simple and streamlined. According to my Lonely Planet Guide, “The Danes love all things hygge, loosely translated as ‘cozy,’ but encompassing everything from flickering candles to bonhomie.” Turns out, I also love all things hygge, so I felt right at home in Copenhagen. Fairy lights and candles as far as the eye can see! The city won even more points with me when I noticed that bars and restaurants, many of which have outdoor seating, don’t just put out heat lamps, but also BLANKETS, so patrons can wrap themselves up while enjoying a beverage outside. SO COZY.

Mesteren & Laerlingen - cozy bar!

Mesteren & Laerlingen – cozy hipster bar!

I think my favorite sight in Copenhagen was the Royal Library, which is stunningly beautiful and so clean that I wondered if it was actually a working library or just a really large movie set of some sort. Coming from a country in which most public libraries smell like pee, I couldn’t believe how beautiful and peaceful the Royal Library was. To be fair, Al claimed he saw some guy shaving his face with an electric razor in one of the reading areas, but if that’s the most outrageous behavior that takes place in a public library, I still think Denmark’s doing pretty well.

Entrance, Royal Library

Entrance, Royal Library

Information desk, Royal Library

Information desk, Royal Library

Al’s favorite part of the weekend was that everyone thought he was Danish. People would speak Danish to him every time and he loved it.

Al, looking Danish

Al, looking Danish

We stayed at the very Danish (and very reasonably priced) Wake Up Copenhagen, which was on the water and a not-terrible walk from all of the main attractions in town. It was also right next to the Central Station, which made getting in and out of town really convenient.

View from our room at Wake Up Copenhagen

View from our room at Wake Up Copenhagen

Our favorite meal was probably brunch at Bastionen & Loeven, a hidden-away cottage-style restaurant with views onto peaceful green gardens and water. We also had good meals at Pate-Pate and Madklubben Grill Tivoli, which was right in the middle of the Tivoli amusement park/gardens. After dinner, we walked outside and stumbled onto a big band concert. We stayed a while and watched a bunch of cute Danish people swing dance. It was pretty charming.

Brunch at Bastionen & Loeven

Brunch at Bastionen & Loeven

So, all in all, we loved Copenhagen. I told Al that I want to learn Danish and move there, so I can ride around on a bicycle with a basket and eat smoked salmon and walk along the canals every day. This probably won’t happen. But a girl can dream.

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Book review Monday: Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter

Warning: This book review contains (minor) spoilers. Proceed with caution.

A few weeks ago, my Kindle broke. This was an emergency of epic proportions, as I rely on my Kindle to get me through even the shortest moments of boredom: standing in line, riding the bus, waiting for my coffee to filter, lulls in conversation with Al — you get the idea. When it broke, I was in Edinburgh, and, in an odd coincidence, I had also broken my iPhone screen that day and had to go to the mall to get it fixed, so I popped into the mall’s bookstore and stocked up on paperbacks to tide me over until I could get my Kindle fixed. Now, I’m happy to report, I have a new Kindle, and I finished the paperbacks I bought to fill the gap.

One of these paperbacks was Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter. I picked it up in the store without knowing anything about it, mostly because I liked the cover, which shows a 1960s-ish looking couple gazing toward (if not directly at) each other, backed by a seaside cliff dotted with little houses. So, you know, I judged a book by its cover.

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The verdict? I liked it. It was a quick, fun read, but there was emotional power behind it. Walter pulls together several interconnected narratives, taking place at different points in time, to weave a complex story about regret, love, and ambition. The emotional heart of the story lies with Dee Moray, a young American actress who, in 1962, while an extra on the set of Cleopatra, falls pregnant but is told she is dying. Thinking she has little time left, she travels from Rome to Porto Vergogna, a tiny, ramshackle Italian town just outside of Cinque Terre. There, she stays in the Hotel Adequate View, which is overseen by the shy and dreamy Pasquale Tursi. Theirs is not a love story, necessarily — they both have other complications in their lives that prevent a traditional romance from taking place — but their relationship, while short, is meaningful, and creates ripples that stretch fifty years into the future, when they finally meet again.

There are other characters in the book who play a role in Dee and Pasquale’s story, and who are living out their own complicated stories of love and loss, as well. There’s Claire, the “executive assistant” to Michael Deane, a coldhearted and eccentric Hollywood filmmaker. There’s Shane, an unsuccessful but ambitious screenwriter who’s determined to make an epic film about the Donner Party called “Donner!”. There’s Pat, Dee Moray’s grown son, who struggles with addiction. And there are other characters, some of whom enter in one part of the story and reemerge in surprising ways later on. The book, while light and fast-paced, is not an ephemeral beach read; it has something deeper to say about the choices the characters make and the lasting effects of those actions.

One of the things I enjoyed most about Beautiful Ruins, though, was a brief interview with the author, Jess Walter, in the back of the book. In it, Walter talks about his writing process. And if there’s one thing I love, as a writer, it’s reading about other writers’ processes and understanding how they think about character, plot, pacing, and all of the other elements that make a story click. Walter has a lot of interesting things to say about writing, and the specific details of how he came to write this particular novel, but one of the things I found most interesting were his remarks on the importance of character in a story or a novel. The interviewer asked him what he thought the difference was between embarking on writing a short story versus a novel. Walter replied:

The embarking is always the same. Early to the desk. Fingers on the home keys. Coffee and a giant cookie. I don’t usually know where I’m going until I get some pages. I have a thousand ideas for stories but I tend not to know much about them when I start, even whether it’s a story or a novel. … Then I just write, figure out who these people are, why they’re doing what they’re doing. I think character is elemental; if you pay attention to the people, you’ll get the action right. 

I love a lot about this answer (including the bit about the coffee and the giant cookie), but the thing I found most helpful was his comment about figuring out characters’ motivations before building action. I had never thought about it that way before, but it makes perfect sense. Characters in a story, like people in real life, act the way they do because of something. People don’t just do things or say things; there are reasons behind every action. Those reasons might be totally bonkers or self-defeating or evil, but they exist, and it’s important, as a writer, to understand what they are. When I first read this interview with Walter, I was finishing up a short story that I was pretty pleased with. But then I looked back on it and started to wonder about one of the characters’ motivations. Why is she doing that? I wondered. Why would she behave that way? That line of inquiry opened up a whole new window onto my story and allowed me to add depth and realism to it — it even ended up changing what happened in the end, because once I understood why the characters were doing what they were doing, I could more easily imagine how the action between them would progress. I’m grateful to Jess Walter for this extremely helpful tidbit; even though it may seem obvious, it’s something that I had never considered before while writing a story or a novel.

On that note, I need to finish editing the aforementioned story and ship it off to various publications in the hopes that someone will publish it. Thank you, Jess Walter, for the inspiration!

 

 

Ebbs and flows

In my writing, I’ve noticed, I go through periods of high energy and periods of low energy — ebbs and flows.

There are weeks in which I wake up every day hungry to write, with ten different projects bubbling away, and not enough time in the day to get everything done. Those are the best weeks.

But there are also weeks in which I wake up every day and search for any excuse not to write. I have to read this blog first, or drink this cup of coffee, or go to the grocery store, or go swimming. Oh, and I definitely need to pluck my eyebrows before I can even think of sitting down to work. Eventually, I run out of stupid ways to procrastinate and am forced to reckon with the blank computer screen. Getting words onto the page is like pulling fingernails and the hours tick by slowly. Those are the worst weeks.

The past few weeks, I’m happy to report, have been a high-energy period. I’m revising a manuscript of a novel, I’ve finished a short story, I took a stab at sketch comedy writing (challenging!), and I’m cooking up ideas for new things all the time. I’ve gotten up every day this week excited to get writing. I love that feeling.

The blahs can be tough.

The blahs can be tough.

But the life of a writer, like any other job, has its moments of difficulty and boredom, and sometimes those moments stretch on into weeks, even months. Last month, for instance, when I was waiting for a few trusted friends to get back to me with their comments on my manuscript, I felt stuck, unmotivated. I couldn’t work on the manuscript without hearing my readers’ comments. I had started a short story but didn’t like where it was going. I didn’t really feel like blogging. None of the books I was reading were inspiring. I felt… blah. The blahs, by the way, are kryptonite to creativity. When you’re not feeling inspired by anything you’re reading or watching or thinking, it’s hard to drum up good material. But the thing is, you have to push through the blahs, as blah-y and treacherous as they are, and keep forcing yourself to write. Even when you feel like you have nothing to say. Even when you hate everything you’re writing. Even when you’re bored by yourself.

The good news is, if you force yourself to push through the down periods, you’ll eventually come out on the other side. This game is cyclical, you see. There are highs and lows. After a low period, eventually, you’ll once again find yourself with things to say and not enough hours in the day to get everything on paper. This is a relief, because it’s a reminder that the blahs are conquerable. The only way they can stick around forever is if you give into them and stop writing.

So — don’t stop writing.

Mental health

Since quitting my job as an attorney, my life has improved a lot. I know I’ve said this before, and I’m sure my fellow lawyers are sick to death of hearing it, but I’m going to say it again. I now can do all the things I used to want to do but didn’t always have time for: knitting, sewing, exercise, cooking, binge-watching entire television series, making art, folding my laundry, and so on. I feel extremely lucky because I know a lot of people aren’t able to indulge their hobbies and interests.

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I’ve also found, since quitting my job, that partaking in a variety of activities every day (rather than just doing one thing, day in and day out), regardless of what I’m actually doing, has in itself improved my mental health. Life is more interesting for me when I’m doing a bunch of different things. Today, for example, I went to the gym, wrote, went to the fabric store, wrote some more, talked to my mom in California on Google chat, got my eyebrows waxed, planned dinner, and knit. Tomorrow, I think I’ll write, swim, write some more, sew, and knit. Compare this to my life as a lawyer, when on a typical day I’d go to the gym, go to the office, come home, watch TV, and go to bed, and you start to see what I’m talking about.

There are certain constants in my days, of course. Exercise. Writing. Tea. These are my Essentials, the things I need to do or have regularly to feel normal and healthy. After my basic physiological demands (eating and sleeping and so on), exercise comes in near the top of the list. When I don’t work out, I feel crappy, inside and out. After that, I must write. This professional writing business isn’t for wimps. You have to actually do it — constantly — to make things happen. Plus, I love writing. If I didn’t write, I wouldn’t really be me. And yes, I need tea. Tea features prominently in the equation.

What else? Making things. I’ve talked about this before, but one of the biggest differences between my life now and my life before I quit my job is that now, every single day, I’m able to be creative. My work requires me to create and then, in my downtime, I make things.

Another Essential: reading. I can’t imagine what I’d do at night without a book to read. My Kindle broke recently and the same day, I rushed to the bookstore to stock up on paperbacks, as if preparing for a coming bookpocalypse. Priorities, you understand.

What about people? Do I need people in my life every day? Yes, but maybe not in the way you’d think. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve slid more and more into the Introvert side of the Extrovert-Introvert divide on the Myers-Briggs scale. This means, practically, that I don’t need that much face-to-face human contact every day to feel happy, which is why working at home in my little writing cocoon suits me so well. But I do need some contact, whether that means reading and responding to emails from my friends, seeing my husband for dinner, or talking to my parents on Skype. No woman is an island. But do I miss the hum of an office buzzing with human activity? Hell to the no.

So, that’s about it. I need to be physically active, creative, tea’d up, surrounded by books, and not completely isolated from other humans. How about you? What are the things that make you feel normal? How do you balance your hobbies with work and life? I recommend thinking about your Essentials, making a list, checking it twice, and then making the top one or two or three on that list a daily priority. It works wonders.

 

Book review Monday: The Passage, by Justin Cronin

Generally, I like to use Book Review Monday to help spread the word about great books that are worth your time. But sometimes, I need to use this space as a public service announcement, to warn you off of books that have received positive reviews or lots of hype but are, in my opinion, crap. Today is one of those times. Brace yourselves.

The Passage, by Justin Cronin, was billed as a thrilling, sprawling vampire novel and received positive reviews from such respected publications as The Washington Post and The New York Times, among others. But I disliked it so much, I couldn’t even finish it. Let me emphasize that for me, to not finish a book is a rare thing. I struggle through books that I feel lukewarm about all the time. But my policy, since discovering at age eleven that I wasn’t obligated to read all of the Sunday comics, including the ones I hated (looking at you, For Better or For Worse), is that I shouldn’t feel bad about abandoning ship on a book, movie, or TV show that I’m not enjoying. Life is too short, right? To be fair, I made it 67% of the way through The Passage before calling it quits, so no one can say I didn’t give it a fair shake.

passage

Here were my issues with this book, in convenient list format.

1. It’s derivative. No, like, really derivative.

I don’t throw around the word “derivative,” because when you think about it, everything created by a human being is in some sense derivative of some earlier work. But The Passage goes beyond “derivative” and lands firmly in “blatant rip-off” territory. Cronin has put together a poorly rendered copy of plot points and themes from Stephen King’s The Stand and Salem’s Lot, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and a number of other better written books. Even the reviewer from The Washington Post, Ron Charles, concedes this point, writing:

Imagine Michael Crichton crossbreeding Stephen King’s “The Stand” and “Salem’s Lot” in that lab at Jurassic Park, with rich infusions of Robert McCammon’s “Swan Song,” “Battlestar Galactica” and even Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” A pastiche? Please — Cronin is trading derivatives so fast and furious he should be regulated by the SEC. But who cares? It’s alive!

That last sentence is where I part ways with Mr. Charles. This book is not alive. It’s so boring and unimaginative as to be dead on the table. If I wanted to read a well-rendered and chilling vampire novel, I’d read Salem’s Lot. If I wanted a futuristic, post-apocalyptic vision of the world, I’d read The Stand or Cloud Atlas. If I wanted a boring supernatural saga with a strong but sexy female lead, I’d watch Battlestar Galactica (except I wouldn’t, because Battlestar Galactica sucks).

Let’s talk about how badly Cronin rips off The Stand, in particular, in case you’re not convinced yet. Here are the main elements Cronin lifted wholesale from Stephen King’s masterpiece:

  • Government-created super virus with fun nickname kills everyone in America and the rest of the world;
  • Survivors of virus experience dreams of forces of good and/or evil as embodied by a good woman and an evil man;
  • Survivors escape to the Western United States, including Colorado and Las Vegas, of all places; and
  • Elderly African-American woman, aged 108, delivers homespun wisdom.

When one considers these elements together with the fact that The Passage is a vampire novel (because we don’t have enough of those already!), one starts to wonder if there is anything original in this book at all.

2. The historical details, including the characters’ vernacular, are bizarre and inconsistent.

The book opens in 2018, when the US government is testing the vampire super virus on death row prisoners (as you do) and then fast forwards 100 years, after the experiment has inevitably gone awry and vampires are roaming the Earth. The story’s Mother Abigail clone, Ida “Auntie” Jaxon, is now 108 years old. That means she was eight years old in 2018, which would mean she was born in 2010. We learn that she’s from Philadelphia. Okay. So first question: how many babies born in 2010 are named Ida? More importantly, how many babies born in 2010 who grew up in urban Philly would say things like the following:

“Folks call me Auntie, on account of I never could have no children of my own, and I guess that suits me fine.”

“There were other trains, I do believe.”

“I’d been sick myself so it scared me about out my skin when she told me this.”

AND SO ON. Let’s give Cronin the benefit of the doubt and assume that Ida somehow picked up her old-timey, vaguely Southern vernacular from her parents. Even with a generous reckoning, assuming Ida’s mother gave birth to her when she was forty, her mother would have been born in 1970. What person born in 1970s Philadelphia says stuff like “I do believe” and “suits me fine?” It’s like Cronin got so caught up in recreating King’s Mother Abigail, who was supposed to have been born in Nebraska at the end of the 19th century, that he lifted her patterns of speech and transplanted them onto the character of Ida for no other reason than that they are both elderly black women.

Another inexplicable and weird vernacular thing I noticed: instead of using normal curse words, the characters say “Flyers!”. This is never explained.

I only have one question: WHY?

3. The dialogue is painful.

Just trust me on this one.

4. The plot is repetitive and boring.

The characters nearly get killed by vampires — but barely squeak by! — every. single. chapter. There are also long, plodding descriptions of where the characters are walking and what, exactly, they are thinking about as they walk. The characters are so dull as to be forgettable, and I found myself rooting for them to all be eaten by vampires. Also, did I mention this book is a million pages long?

*****

Perhaps alone, each of these issues would have been surmountable. But together, they added up to a book that I couldn’t truck with, and thus The Passage has been relegated to the proverbial dustheap of my Kindle. Have you read The Passage? Did you like it? I’m curious to hear if other people were as bothered by it as I was. If you haven’t read it, save yourself some time and pick up The Stand instead. You’re welcome.