31 October 2014

In Preparation for NaNoWriMo

Well, it's been a few years, but I've decided to take another stab at NaNoWriMo. I think I'm in a better place to achieve success this time: I've got better discipline, more stability work-wise, and, perhaps best of all, the Sensory Deprivation Closet. I've been able to pretty consistently churn out work when I can isolate myself from distraction in the SDC, and I think I'll be able to hit, or even exceed, my quota most days.

I say most days, because with the Plaza Lighting Ceremony this month there are probably going to be two or three days when I work 16+ hours at a stretch and have no time to write. I have to make up for the shortfalls while I can.

I am, by nature, a pantser - that is, I fly by the seat of my pants when writing. I'll start with characters, and relationships, and go from there. This time, however, I have a lot more fleshed out plot. There's still some fuzzy areas but, all things considered, they are considerably fewer than anything else I've started.

Go figure.

Either way, I expect it to be a wild ride, and hopefully a good one.

30 October 2014

Like No Other by Una LaMarche

Where to begin? I just read Una LaMarche’s Like No Other, and I still can’t quite wrap my brain around it. It was touching and warm, exploring cultures (Hasidic Judaism in particular) that were completely foreign to me. It was intense and passionate, seeing the first flowering of teenage love.

Like No Other may have had one of best meet-cutes I've seen in a long, long while: trapped on an elevator during a hurricane, Devorah does her best to avoid Jaxon, the boy she's trapped with, but the attraction between them is instant.

Like No Other is seeing a lot of praise for the diversity of its characters, and it's well-deserved: both Devorah's Hasidic faith and Jaxon's race (he's of West Indian extraction) inform their characters without defining them. Both come from an area of Brooklyn which has historically had racial tensions (I had to look up the Crown Heights Riot - I'm not from New York), but both are so drawn to each other that they're willing to do whatever they have to if it means they can be together.

And they have to do a lot. Lie. Skip school and work. Avoid the overly-pious brother-in-law.

As was inevitable, shit hits the fan. People find out. And what happens from there was absolutely harrowing - but, ultimately, redeeming.

I had a total brain fart when I sat down to write this - I couldn't remember Devorah's name for the life of me! Embarrassing, right? But as I googled to remind myself, I came across the Goodreads reviews page.

A lot of people talked about Devorah's struggle: to find the balance between her faith, her upbringing, and her heart. The reviews I skimmed were all over the place on their feelings on the matter, but all seemed to think that Devorah went through a lot more than Jaxon.

I disagree. Maybe it's because I'm male, but I thought Jaxon had just as much to struggle against. You can see it every time he sees people looking at him. Every time he casually mentions the stereotypes he comes up against. The fact that, when he first meets Devorah, he's convinced she's terrified of him - not because he's a boy, but because of the color of his skin.

Jaxon's struggle is quieter than Devorah's, but it's no less important. Devorah has to learn if she can follow her heart, even when her family, her religion, her upbringing are all telling her not to. Jaxon has to learn if he can follow his, when society has painted a very unfavorable picture of him for being who he is.

Like No Other was a beautiful book. We Need Diverse Books and this one was excellent.

29 October 2014

2011 Gundlach Bundschu Mountain Cuvee

Oh, man. I'd been saving this bottle for when I wanted something truly delicious, and that day came a few nights ago.

I had a small taste of this wine some weeks ago at a tasting of wines from Gundlach Bundschu; it was my favorite that night.

It was the same beautiful ruby color I remembered, with a round, perfectly proportioned body. It had heft to it, but it was still light enough not to be overbearing.

It had cherry and raspberry notes again, but this time I also picked up some herbal notes in the nose, too. It definitely didn't have as long to breathe this time. I was probably a little impatient with it.

The taste had more of a black cherry flavor than I remembered. My initial tasting revealed hints of candied fruit peel, but this time it had deeper, drier fruit, and the tannins were more robust, especially on my first glass. It did mellow as I hit my second glass, and that lovely balance returned.

There was a bit of slate on the finish, something I didn't remember at all, but it cleaned the palate nicely and left me wanting more.

28 October 2014

YA is Here to Save Us

There have been quite a few articles lately about the relative merits of reading young adult (and other children's) literature, not only for their intended audience but also as adults. One recent article, which examined the phenomenon of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series, even had the temerity to refer to Harry Potter "notoriously" being embraced by adult readers, a reference to an earlier article on Slate which basically had the same thesis.

I'm not here to argue about literary merit...though I am unable to resist the temptation to point out that it seems YA is totally fine as long as it's several decades old. When was the last time someone complained about people reading Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird?

I'd rather talk about what YA literature can do for us. And, more particularly, what it did - and continues to do - for me.

I suspect everyone looks back on their teenage years and imagines themselves to be atypical. I certainly feel that way. I was nerdy, overweight, suffering from a pretty righteous bout of major depressive disorder, and so heavily medicated there were times when I was practically a zombie. In all my teenage years I can only remember one instance where I had a hormone-fueled teenage freak-out. One. For the most part my emotions were pretty muted. It meant that I sailed through high school more or less aloof from teenage drama.

I was so spaced I didn't even realize I'd had my first crush until a few years after the fact.

Why does this matter? Because one of the beautiful things about reading is that it can take us not only to places and times we've never been, but also to places and times we've been before - under different circumstances.

Reading YA has let me remember what it was like to be a teenager, but more than that, it's let me vicariously experience so many things that I missed out on myself. Underage drinking. Partying. High school sweethearts.

Not always the healthiest of pursuits, but ones I nonetheless regret never experiencing. Sometimes I feel like I didn't grow up, I just grew old. But YA allows me to engage that part of myself which is still a teenager at heart.

This is about more than just me, though. Studies have shown that reading Harry Potter teaches kids empathy. What could be more important than that?

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this whole argument is the assumption people make that their own aesthetics are more important than others. Not just that adult aesthetics are better than kids', but that adults reading "important" literature have better taste than those reading YA.

What complete and utter bullshit.

Reading is a personal activity and no one, NO ONE, has the right to tell me or anyone else what to read.

They can suggest, they can recommend. I'm glad to hear recommendations. But I will read what I want to read, what I need to read, and no one is going to stop me.

27 October 2014

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

I don’t recall where I heard about Scott Westerfeld’s Afterworlds, but somehow or another I did, and I read it.

It was a much longer book than I was expecting. It shouldn’t have come as such a surprise to me. After all, it was billed as two books in one. I didn’t realize that was meant literally.

Afterworlds tells the story of Darcy Patel, a debut YA author about to move to New York to write. She sold her NaNoWriMo novel for a six-figure advance and wants to make a go of writing as a career.

Alternating chapters with Darcy’s story is her...well, story. AFTERWORLDS is the name of Darcy’s novel, a paranormal romance about girl named Lizzie who gains the ability to shift herself into the afterlife, where she becomes a psychopomp, a living guide for the souls of the dead. And encounters Yamaraj, the Hindu death god, here reimagined as a hot 17-year-old fellow psychopomp, "for purposes of YA hotness," which is perhaps the best phrase ever.

At times, I had difficulty getting into Afterworlds. The alternating chapters were frustrating when I was heavily invested in one story or the other - I wanted to keep going and kept getting pulled in the other direction - and yet, that same frustration somehow perfectly captured both characters’ longings. Darcy was desperate to get her edits done, to get her ending perfect, to be successful. Lizzie was equally desperate in AFTERWORLDS: to be with Yamaraj, to figure out just what she was supposed to be, to learn how to control her new powers.

At first, I had a hard time connecting with Lizzie. There was something very uncanny about knowing that Lizzie was a creation of Darcy. I had no problem connecting with Darcy. But that added layer of remove made it a lot harder with Lizzie. As time went by I did get invested. But it took more time. It’s interesting to me that it should be that way. I wonder if others had similar experiences.

Afterworlds did an amazing job showcasing Darcy’s heritage without being in-your-face or over the top. It informed her but didn’t define her. She was aware of being part of it, and yet aware that she was also removed from it, and she wanted to do it justice. Being half-Persian myself, I understand what it is to be drawn to a culture that you're immersed in and yet not really a part of. And the need to honor that culture, especially to others.

I was surprised just how much I liked Afterworlds, when all was said and done. It really hit me in places I wasn’t expecting. And despite my usual avoidance of Paranormal Romance as a genre, I really wanted to know what was going to happen in the sequel to AFTERWORLDS. I wanted to know what was going to happen to Lizzie and Yama. Then I remembered that Darcy was just a character, her novel was a meta-novel, and realized just how thoroughly down the rabbit hole Scott Westerfeld had sucked me.

I didn't think he could pull it off, but he totally did.

26 October 2014

Palazzo Della Torre 2008

This bottle was a gift. It was the giver’s go-to wine for any night of the week. After tasting it, I can see why.

The wine was a beautiful blood-red color. It had a nose full of herbal, minty notes, but there was something else there, too. Almost chocolatey.

It had a clean, light mouthfeel, with a bit of crispness to it. All of which belied its robust taste.

It was utterly dark and smoky on my palate. It reminded me of applewood-smoked meats. There was spice to it, too. My mind went to paprika.

At first I couldn’t detect any fruit at all. But then hints of raisin began to shine through.

The tannins were in perfect harmony with the acidity, the lightness of the body in stark contrast to the dark flavors. This was an intense, complex wine. I was truly surprised. And I want more!

25 October 2014

Update: Sensory Deprivation Closet

Those of you who follow the blog may recall I converted a corner of my walk-in closet into a small Sensory Deprivation Chamber like Jandy Nelson used to write I'll Give You The Sun. (Original post here)

I've been using it for nearly a week now. WOW! What a difference it has made in my writing.

Now, I can't speak to quality yet, as it's all work in progress and I don't go back and look at things (unless I absolutely have to, like to remind myself what I've done). But it's been so easy to write - the words have flowed so freely - that I feel certain it's going to be good. I've written more (and in less time) than ever before. And that's just in the first week!

I feel certain this is going to help me with NaNoWriMo. The only thing is: now I have a hard time writing anywhere else.

The Sensory Deprivation Closet is free of distractions and interruptions (especially if I turn off my WiFi). Nowhere else is quite like it.

I hope good things are going to come of it. I feel sure they will.

24 October 2014

Orin Swift Mercury Head 2012

I’d been aware of this Cabernet for some time, but this was my first time tasting it. I shared it with two of my friends who enjoy wine as much as I do.

It was a stunningly rich garnet color in the glass (we enjoyed it out of Riedel Sommelier’s Collection Bordeaux glasses).

The nose was a surprise to me. Very spicy and very vegetal. I got a huge hit of cauliflower, something I can’t remember ever smelling (or at least, identifying) in a wine before. But it wasn’t off-putting, even though I don’t like cauliflower. It was enticing.

The taste was full of herbal, vegetal notes. It was green but good. The tannins were quite structured, giving the wine more heft than I think it would have otherwise had, and the acidity didn’t seem so high until the back of the sip (but before the finish), when I puckered up quite a bit.

Delicious and well-made like everything else I’ve had from Orin Swift, it was still less exciting to me than Papillon, Orin Swift’s Bordeaux blend. Mercury Head had some extremes that, while invigorating to experience in this pure-varietal wine, would have been smoothed out a bit in a blend.

23 October 2014

Viña Robles 2010 Suendero

A friend shared a bottle of this me at a recent get-together, and it might be one of my new favorite Paso Robles wines.

It was a lovely plum color, with a medium body. The nose was full of cherries and oak, or it might have tended closer to cedar.

This might be a weird tasting note. But as soon as I took the first sip, I thought: Blueberry Pop-Tarts. A big hit of blueberry flavor, but a little bit of candy, too. And just a hint of char. The tannins were way in the back but gave it some bite on the finish.

What an interesting wine. It was so different from any other Paso Robles bottle I’ve ever had (granted, less than ten, perhaps even less than five), but it was lovely, and incredibly fun to drink.

22 October 2014

Sensory Deprivation Closet

Woo! I am not caught up...on book "reflections." I didn't realize how deep my backlog was until I decided it was time to eliminate it.

My backlog of bottles is only three deep. That's a much more manageable number. So, for good or ill, time to share some thoughts.

In interviews about her book I'll Give You The Sun, Jandy Nelson talks about the sensory deprivation tank she wrote in - essentially, a dark room with a noise machine going (not a full tank), and the only light source the screen of her computer. I'm doing NaNoWriMo next month (good god, it's only 9 days away!) and so decided to try it for myself.

The only room in my apartment that gets suitably dark is my walk-in closet, so I cleared out a corner of it to write in. I don't have a noise machine, just an app on my iPhone, but I pretty much always write with music so I am unsure if I should stick with music or use the app.

I don't really make Playlists for my stories. Rather, there are artists that generally speak to me and inspire me for that particular story. The story I'm writing for NaNo is deeply connected to my love of Pink Floyd. So I'll probably be listening to them on repeat. It helps that their new album comes out in November, too. YEA!

The last two nights, I wrote in the Sensory Deprivation Closet as well, just to sort of give it a test run, but I wrote on my current WIP. I don't know if it did anything special for me...yet. But if nothing else, I was able to avoid distractions. I even turned off my Wifi so I could avoid the temptation of the Internet.

Ultimately, I think it's going to help. And if I can get to the place Jandy Nelson describes - where the light of the screen becomes a window into the world of the story - so much the better.

In the immortal words of Liz Lemon: I want to go to there.

21 October 2014

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

This book intrigued me since it was on the list of most-challenged books. I can see why. It deals with a lot of themes that prudish people would rather people not think about: alcoholism, racism, poverty, a candid and hilarious examination of hormonal adolescence. I wasn’t sure what to expect going in, but it was an absorbing, brutally honest book.

Diary follows Arnold Spirit, Jr. (aka Junior), a teenager living on the Spokane Indian Reservation, who decides to attend the public school outside the Reservation (aka the school for white kids) after being assigned the same math textbook as his mother was thirty years ago.

While it could be an easy, typical fish-out-of-water story, the truth is much, much deeper. Junior isn’t just a fish out of water. His own community brands him a traitor. His best friend turns on him. And his new classmates aren’t much nicer.

Alexie gives Junior a keen and unflattering insight into his world. He knows how messed up his life is, but he finds the things he loves in it, as well. He sees how the white kids at his new school have things so much better than him - and yet can have troubles all their own. He learns that if he lets people in, he can find unexpected connections.

Diary is very tactful and honest in the way it handles race relations. No one felt like a stereotype. The white people didn’t act like saviors for Arnold: he had to save himself. The white savior is one of the most tired tropes in literature, and I was glad Diary avoided it. It also stayed well clear of any Noble Savage tropes, thank god.

Instead, it was brutally honest. Alcohol plays a big part in the story of Junior’s life. As does poverty. But through it all burns a fierce hope. It’s that hope for the future that made Junior so compelling to follow.

I really liked this book. I read the whole thing in a day. It was funny, touching, thought provoking, and very fulfilling.

20 October 2014

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

I’ll cut to the chase: Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar is getting a lot of hype. Was it worth it, to me?

Well, yes and no.

Belzhar takes place at The Wooden Barn, a school for “highly intelligent, emotionally fragile” teens. Jam (short for Jamaica) has been sent there to help her overcome her severe, debilitating depression after her boyfriend, Reeve, dies.

Belzhar captured the fog of depression, and the loneliness of being a teenager, quite beautifully. The voice was delightful, funny and heartbreaking.

Jam gets assigned to Special Topics in English, a class of hand-picked students, to study Sylvia Plath. The class studies Plath’s Bell Jar and is assigned to write in a special journal twice a week.

What quickly becomes apparent is that the journals are more than they seem, and that the class selection - and the reading - are linked. Each of Jam’s classmates are trapped in grief of some kind. And the journals are their way out.

I loved the characters in Belzhar. All were unique, quirky, immensely interesting, and they felt like reflections of people I knew back in high school.


The big twist of Belzhar was that Jam’s boyfriend didn’t actually die. She wasn’t even dating him. She had concocted this fantasy life about him and then when faced with reality, she couldn’t handle it - and “killed him” in her mind. Then went around telling people her boyfriend had died.

It seemed to me she experienced a psychotic break. And when she realizes how she twisted reality, she’s ashamed - worried that her grief pales in comparison to her classmates, who were dealing with lost siblings or destroyed home lives or being confined to a wheelchair.

Part of me was angry at her for blowing everything so out of proportion. I felt betrayed - just as she feared.

But mental illness is a complicated thing, and it’s portrayed compassionately in Belzhar. Not only was I able to forgive Jam, but her friends were, too.

Belzhar was a complicated novel. No wonder it’s getting so much hype. It’s at once intensely personal and intensely...well, literary. It strikes a good balance. And though it made me angry at times, it was ultimately rewarding.

19 October 2014

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

I’d been hearing about Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist for a long time, but I finally got around to reading it.

Much has been said - and written - about this book. It seems to ignite passions, both for and against, all over the place. But it has definitely touched a chord with millions of people all over the world.

Having read it, I think it’s likely that a big part of a person’s reaction to the book comes from their state of mind when they read it.

The Alchemist follows Santiago, a shepherd from Andalusia, Spain, who dreams of a treasure in the pyramids and is encouraged to go in search of it, to fulfill his own Personal Legend. He crosses the sea, apprentices with a crystal merchant, joins a caravan across the Sahara, and eventually meets up with the titular alchemist. Along the way, Santiago learns how to connect with people, with the world, with the divine, whatever shape that takes. He faces obstacles but realizes giving in to them will ultimately leave him unfulfilled.

I’ve been working on a couple of projects lately, ones I’m very passionate about. Whether they’re what I was “meant to do” - my own Personal Legend - I couldn’t say. But I’ve been working towards them, some of them for months and others for years, and it’s certainly frustrating to meet opposition to them. Sometimes you just need to be reminded not to give up. The Alchemist gave me that reminder.

To be honest, it wasn’t my favorite book. It was light on narrative, heavy on allegory, and not exactly fulfilling. But it was helpful, whimsical, and short, which means I was able to get through it quickly.

It hasn’t earned a place on my shelf, but it was worth the read.

18 October 2014

Wide Awake by David Levithan

I’d heard about David Levithan quite a bit, but this was the first of his books I read. I picked it because it (a) sounded interesting and (b) was available without a wait from the library.

Wide Awake takes place in a near-future when America has elected its first gay Jewish president, and the forces of the status quo fight to steal the election. Rather than following the politicians and backroom dealers, though, it follows Duncan, a young gay Jew, his boyfriend Jimmy, and their friends and fellow volunteers for the Stein campaign.

There’s no skirting around the fact that Wide Awake was tremendously issue-driven. It unapologetically imagines an America that hit rock bottom - through war-mongering, through financial policies that favored the extremely wealthy, through intolerance - and then was revitalized by progressive policies. Levithan is careful to create new parties, new ideologies to avoid vilifying any current persons or parties, but it’s not hard to figure out what he’s referring to.

[Note: I seriously just tried to put the word “villainizing” in there instead of vilifying. Like three times, before I realized what I was doing wrong.]

In relying on such an obvious allegory, I think Wide Awake lost something. It held me at a distance even while trying to draw me in. I liked the main characters, but I didn’t love them. I liked the story it was unfolding, but I didn’t love it.

Many of the twists and turns came and went, and I was left with a feeling of So what?

It’s very strange for me to feel so conflicted about a book. On the one hand, I think I didn’t actually like it. But on the other hand, I thought it was an important book with, ultimately, an important Message to it.

Maybe that’s the real problem: the Message was handed to me. I wasn’t allowed to figure it out for myself.

Wide Awake was definitely worth reading. It was well written, and it had some really nice moments. But I don’t know. Something about it just didn’t do it for me.

I’m still going to check out more David Levithan, because he’s highly regarded and I’m pretty sure I’m going to like most of his stuff.

17 October 2014

2011 Luciano Sandrone Barbera d'Alba

I’ve been exploring the world of Italian wines as much as I can. I was at my friend’s birthday dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant when I selected this bottle to share.

The wine was a deep crimson, as best I could tell with the mood lighting, with a robust, heavy body. It had a nose full of toffee and leathery notes. Maybe even hints of chocolate.

It was very round on the tongue, very lush, with oaky and earthy notes. My first tasting note said there was very little fruit in it. But NO! After a few seconds on the tongue, it opened up to surprise me with a big hit of blackberry flavors.

It was still super-dry, with a lot of acidity, especially on the lingering finish. But all in all, it was a lovely, adventuresome wine.

16 October 2014

An Interlude for Tea

One of the highlights of the Northwest Tea Festival was Michael and Emeric Harney sharing this gem of a video during their presentation on Tea Through the Generations. It features John Harney, founder of Harney & Sons, talking tea with America's tea luminary James Norwood Pratt.

15 October 2014

Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

I read this book after seeing it mentioned in an article by Adam Silvera, who said he read it twice in six months. I can see why. I read the whole thing in two days, and I’ve reread my favorite parts several times in the days since.

Aristotle & Dante follows Ari (Aristotle) Mendoza, a 16-year-old Mexican-American living in El Paso, Texas, as he forms a friendship - his first real friendship - with Dante Quintana.

Ari is a quiet boy, suffocating in his own silence, and his family’s. His older brother is in jail, and his mother and father never talk about him, acting like he doesn’t exist. Ari doesn’t know why; all he has are vague memories (or perhaps dreams) of his brother, and how much he loved him.

Dante is the opposite of quiet. He wears his heart on his sleeve, he laughs, he cries, he has no censor. He says what he thinks. And something in him cracks Ari’s shell. Slowly but surely, Ari starts talking. To Dante, to his family, to himself.

Aristotle & Dante captures so beautifully what it’s like growing up. It includes entries Ari makes in his journal, as well as letters exchanged between Ari and Dante when Dante is in Chicago. If anything, those letters and entries are even more honest: Dante opens up to Ari about things he’s never said aloud, and Ari opens up to himself on paper, even if he doesn’t understand himself.

It’s inevitable that something has to break through the silence. The growing relationship between Ari and Dante wasn’t a surprise to me as a reader, and it wasn’t a surprise to Dante, or to their families. But it was a surprise to Ari. And Ari’s long journey toward self-acceptance is at the heart of the story. It wasn’t bold, it wasn’t dangerous - well, I guess it was a little dangerous - but its true steps were taken in the quiet spaces, in the silence, as Ari learned to listen to himself.

I read the final pages over and over and over again. The ending was so beautiful, it left me feeling whole and healed in a way I didn’t even know I needed to be.

Aristotle & Dante was a beautiful, breathtaking novel, and it’s earned a place on my shelf next to many of my other favorites. I got it from the library (as is pretty much usual) and then ordered a copy of my own when I realized I couldn’t live without it.

14 October 2014

100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith


That’s what comes to mind when I reflect on Andrew Smith’s latest, 100 Sideways Miles.

Frequent readers of my blog (all ten of you) will know how much I love Andrew Smith. I loved Grasshopper Jungle and I LOVE LOVE LOVED Winger, so much that its ending still haunts me.

So, naturally, I was excited for this new release, but when it came out I actually saved it to read on my flight to Seattle (in honor of Ryan Dean’s trip to Seattle in Winger.)

Finn Easton is a 16-year-old epileptic living in southern California. He developed epilepsy due to injuries he sustained when a dead horse fell out of the sky and killed his mother. The horse was on its way to a knackery.

Finn’s seizures manifest in an explosion of consciousness, when all the words run out of him and he experiences the universe at a truly primal level. It’s these moments that the novel was, to me, most transcendent. Because even while Finn didn’t have words, he still had his feelings, and his experiences were stirring and poignant.

Like Ryan Dean in Winger and Austin in Grasshopper Jungle, Finn has a beautifully unique way of seeing the world: he has a cosmic perspective, viewing the passage of time instead as the passage of the Earth in its orbit around the sun, at 20 (sideways) miles a second. Somehow, he’s just absolutely perfect. In all his blessed madness, Finn is so breathtakingly real. He can still see the world as a beautiful and mysterious place. He can still see possibilities.

Finn’s best friend is Cade Hernandez, and he’s perfectly rendered as that guy we all know: the one whose personality is so powerful, so magnetic, that the world seems to revolve around him. Finn is the novel’s heart, but Cade is the novel’s funny bone. His antics delighted and astounded me.

Last comes Julia Bishop, Finn’s girlfriend. Smith takes us from Finn’s first smitten instant through the gradual formation of Finn and Julia’s relationship, and captures that first love so perfectly.

I realize I’ve talked almost exclusively about the characters. And that’s okay. The characters are what make this novel so compelling. That’s not to say there isn’t a plot.

Finn’s father is a famous writer, whose most successful book, The Lazarus Door, borrows more elements of Finn’s life than he’s comfortable with: his name, his scar, his eyes (he’s heterocromatic). Finn can’t be sure he’s not just a character his father dreamed up.

Andrew Smith strikes a very deep chord about growing up, because we are all of us living our parents’ stories, until we learn how to break out and write our own endings. And it takes a trip to his college of choice (alongside Cade) to figure that out.

I’ll be frank. Having read Winger, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. But 100 Sideways Miles was heartwarming and tender and, above all, happy. I can’t say how grateful I was for that.

The closest I can come to describing what it felt like to read 100 Sideways Miles is what it was like the first time I listened to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon all the way through. It was stirring, thrilling, intense, utterly unique, and full of deep, deep truth.

I can’t wait for Smith’s next book, The Alex Crow, which comes out in 2015. Maybe I can score an advanced reader’s copy...don’t know how, but I’m going to try!

13 October 2014

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

What a beautiful, poignant read. I just can’t get over how intense it was.

I’d had my eye on this book ever since I read the description. The fact that it was about twins caught my eye, given my own manuscript also features twins - though mine are identical, whereas Noah and Jude (or NoahandJude) are brother-and-sister.

I’ll Give You the Sun takes place in two juxtaposed timeframes: Noah narrating from ages 13-14, and Jude narrating at age sixteen, after tragedy has damaged their family seemingly beyond repair.

It’s hard to write about the book without giving away the twists and turns, the betrayals large and small that make up the tapestry of Noah and Jude’s lives. When we first see Noah and Jude, Noah is incredibly alive, vibrant, painting pictures in his head and seeing the world through breathtaking metaphor. Jude is more withdrawn, more normal, and is the clear favorite of their father (and grandmother), while Noah’s art draws their mother’s attention - much to Jude’s dismay.

Fast forward three years, and everything has changed. Jude is living Noah’s dream going to a prestigious art school, while Noah has become normal - not just normal, but hollow, a shell of himself.

How Jude and Noah put themselves back together is the heart of the story.

God, it’s so hard to talk about this. I want to say so much but I don’t know how without ruining everything.

What shocked me, even as I read it, was the intensity of Noah and Jude’s feelings. Noah, perhaps, more so than Jude. Noah’s narration was full of the kind of metaphor that you expect from people on LSD, but instead of the terror of a drug trip, Noah showed us the wonder of a teenager who hadn’t yet lost his innocence, who hadn’t had his dreams and imagination trampled under the harsh boot of reality.

Jude was by no means boring, though. She was more mature - her chapters happened at age 16, after all - but she showed us how life had changed her, punished her, forced her to protect herself from being hurt further, in often strange ways. She was obsessed with her Grandmother’s “Bible,” a collection of folk remedies and new-age wisdom that led her to leave seeds in people’s pants when they weren’t looking (for protection) and walk around with onions in her sweater.

I don’t remember a contemporary story that ever made my heart pound so continuously. It felt like a thriller, at times, as I rushed ahead to learn what had happened to break Noah and Jude apart. It hurt, so exquisitely, as I learned the reasons why.

And every tiny reconciliation just felt like another dagger when things took a turn for the worse.

I finished I’ll Give You the Sun in a single 24-hour period (over about 5 sittings), and the next morning I woke up and read the ending again, because I loved it so much. I had a pretty heavy dose of story panic - Jandy Nelson touched on a lot of the same things I do in my story - but a few days’ time let the panic recede, and reminded me that my story was different and that only I could tell it.

I can only hope I tell it as well as Jandy Nelson told the story of NoahandJude.

12 October 2014

Playing Catch-Up

I've had a tremendous backlog of books and bottles, so instead of my every-other day approach (or every third-day) I've been posting a book or a bottle every day. I'm down to 6 now, which will carry me through the rest of this week, but I like to take it easy on Sundays.

Instead, I'm drinking some Bai Hao Oolong (several steepings of it, in fact) and enjoying Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist. This book has been on my radar for a long time, but I finally have the chance to actually read it. Yea.

After that, Meg Wolitzer's Belzhar. And then who knows what the library will have in store for me after.

Meanwhile, I'm focused on writing at least 5000 words a week on my new novel, and it's taking shape - though, unsurprisingly, a different shape than I had in mind when I started out. There's some perfectly crappy bits in there, and some really nice ones, too. I hope the nice bits make it through edits. I know, I know, kill your babies/darlings. But sometimes I want them to survive!

I also have neglected my just-for-me all-crap story while I was on vacation, so I should definitely update it this Tuesday. I try to do a chapter every Tuesday, just to write something that's totally awful and only for me. It makes me feel good. I need that sometimes, especially the days when I think everything I make is crap!

Well, enough banter I guess. I think I'm having wine with friends tonight. We'll see.

11 October 2014

Mayu 2013 Pedro Ximénez

Now this was an interesting wine. At first I thought Pedro Ximénez was the name of the producer, but no: it's the name of the grape varietal. It's a Spanish grape that is normally used to produce Sherry.

This particular bottle comes from Chile's Elqui Valley. It's my first experience with this grape and this region.

Mayu's 2013 was a pale straw color, and packed a big mouthful of acidity right off the bat. I could smell it even before I tasted it. There was a ton of citrus juice and grapefruit peel in the nose.

It was, as I expected, extremely tart, but also steely. There was no oak that I could detect, though there were some herbal notes, like fresh mint. It was a bit sharp, actually.

Overall, it was a potent, powerful white, though a bit off balance. I do not have enough experience with this grape to know how it ages. Perhaps it would balance out after a year in its bottle. If I get more, I will age some and find out.

10 October 2014

Chanan 2011

I was so excited for this Chilean red. But then I opened it, and poured myself a glass, and took a sniff.

It had hints of wet dog, and a bit of sulfur.

Usually this is a sign of either TCA (cork taint) or brett (brettanomyces), both of which will spoil a wine. I wasn’t sure which, though, and I’d already bought it, so I thought: What the hell?

The taste had hints of blueberry and licorice...that were soundly overpowered by the taste of tar, tire, and, more than anything, dirty arcade tokens.

Ultimately, I wasn’t sure what had spoiled it. The acrid taste of coins made me think TCA, but the scent of sulfur made me think brett.

I wish I had saved it to take back to my wine store, because they are wine geeks too and love to try and figure out where things went bad. If I have another bad bottle I will definitely save it.

09 October 2014

Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern

I first read about Say What You Will in an Entertainment Weekly article highlighting important YA books coming out this year. I can certainly see what they meant.

Say tells the story of Amy, a girl born with cerebral palsy, and Matthew, a boy with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and their quirky friendship that blossoms into romance. It’s a beautiful story, and it’s so great to see disability portrayed so realistically and compassionately. It’s rare to see emotional disability given equal weight with physical disability, but Say shows the toll that OCD takes on Matthew, and how it isolates him just as much as Amy’s cerebral palsy.

Say was very compellingly written in third person, with chapters from both Amy and Matthew’s points of view, and even, at times, chains of emails, which gave it an epistolary feel. Amy and Matthew were both well-drawn, likable protagonists, sad and honest and funny. Watching them come out of their shells was a joy. In the mistakes they made, both with themselves and with each other, they were no different than any other teenagers. Heartbreakingly so.

But the more I think about Say, the more it rubs me the wrong way. Don’t get me wrong - I really did love it - but there were times it made me angry. It felt like, at times, both Amy and Matthew were trying to fix each other. It didn’t really work - it is my experience that you can never fix anyone besides yourself - but I didn’t feel like Amy and Matthew really learned that lesson about each other.

That’s the only real complaint I had about the book. It was still brilliant. It still brought something most of us aren’t all that comfortable with - people with disabilities - into the spotlight and made me see them it a new way. Growing up, I wasn’t around many people my age with disabilities. I had two cousins (actually, one cousin twice removed, plus her husband) with cerebral palsy, but I only saw them once a year. I remember being as fascinated and scared of them as Matthew is of Amy.

Say What You Will was touching and brave, and I’m so glad I read it. Despite my own beefs with it, I really did enjoy it, and would recommend it to anyone.

08 October 2014

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Oh my. This was sooooo much fun to read.

I came across this novel in an Entertainment Weekly article (or was it an interview with Rainbow Rowell about this very book?). It just sounded amazing.

In Fangirl, Cath - short for Cather - goes off to college, with her twin sister Wren. It’s their first time living apart, since they don’t share rooms, and both Cath and Wren have to find their identities apart from each other for the first time. Mostly by Wren’s choice. Cath is far more codependent.

Cath has to navigate college, her first serious relationship, her aspirations as a creative writing major, and her obsession with Simon Snow (an analogue/parody of Harry Potter). Cath writes fanfiction for Simon Snow - some of the most popular fanfics, in fact, with hits in the tens of thousands. She’s set up as the definitive fanfic writer for Simon Snow - at least for Simon Snow slash-fic, with Simon paired with Baz, his archnemesis in the book. Clearly a nod at those who pair Harry and Draco Malfoy in fanfics.

There’s so much I want to talk about. First, Cath and Wren’s father, who suffers from a pretty severe case of manic disorder. Rowell treats him with such compassion - showing how he struggles to live his life, how Cath (and Wren) worry about him, and how he knows the burden he places on them. At one point, Cath wants to come back home and take care of him.

His answer: “I couldn’t live with myself if you did.”

It was just heartbreaking. Frequent (purely hypothetical) readers of this blog will know that I have my own experience with mood disorders, both personally and from my immediate and extended family. And Rowell perfectly captured the guilt that goes with the disorder. There’s nothing worse than the feeling you’re dragging the people that you love down with you.

Next, Cath’s boys. First, there’s Nick, who seems to be a perfect match for her: a fellow writer, an artiste, and he’s so in sync with Cath it’s thrilling to read about them working together. Then there’s Levi, who Cath thinks is her roommate’s boyfriend, though that’s not actually the case. The chase between Levi and Cath is so much fun to watch. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that Cath and Levi’s relationship is the one that ultimately bears fruit - Levi is on the cover, after all - though there are certainly bumps on the road. Cath and Levi’s first night together, when she reads an entire book aloud to him, was one of the most pure and romantic scenes I’ve read in a while. I don’t know why it should be. It just really tugged my heartstrings.

Then there’s Wren. Cath and Wren have to find a new balance in their lives. Wren wants to be her own person, but Cath isn’t so ready to face the world. Both of them make poor choices at times. They hurt each other. Seeing them find a new way to be is beautiful and harrowing.

Last, there’s Simon Snow, the greatest presence in Cath’s life. I’ve never had much interest in fanfiction, but after reading Fangirl I understand the allure. Cath loves disappearing in Simon’s world; she’s more comfortable there than in the real world. The war between that world, whatever worlds Cath might dream up on her own, and the real world is where the most interesting conflicts occur.

I absolutely adored Fangirl, so much so that after I read it from the library I went and bought a copy for myself to keep. It’s got such a perfect voice in it. I can’t believe it took me a year to get around to it.

07 October 2014

Victoria, BC

I went on a trip to Victoria, BC with my closest friends the past two days, and we had a blast seeing the city. We had high tea at the St. James Bay Inn; we went to Russell Books and got lost looking at all the used books; we got lots of Maple Cookies; we went to Craigdarroch Castle; and we got to tour the Parliament Building, which is a bit of a misnomer since it houses the BC Legislature and not the Parliament.

It was fascinating to tour a government building of a different country. The Canadian parliamentary system is similar to our own, and yet quite different. The division between the majority party and the Opposition is a lot clearer: they sit on opposite sides of the room, like way opposite, so they can shout at each other or jeer during one another's speeches - which they did.

I didn't realize that there is no separation of executive and legislative powers in the Canadian system. The Premier of BC is simply the leader of the majority party, and is a member of the Parliament itself.

I just barely missed seeing the opening of the current session, which started with a 15-gun salute and the reading of the Speech from the Throne. It occurred 45 minutes before we pulled into the harbor.

I can't wait for my next trip to Victoria. But more than that, I have even more desire to go to Washington, DC. I've never gotten to go, and I desperately want to.

06 October 2014

Jovino Pinot Gris 2013

Along with Jovino's 2012 Pinot Noir, I also got to try their 2013 Pinot Gris.

It was a darker straw color than I was expecting, leaning almost toward gold. The nose was floral, perfume-y, with a few hints of dried fruit hiding in there, too.

It had a creamy, fatty mouthfeel, which was much heavier than I was expecting. It was dry, though there were hints of citrus zest, and caramel on the back end of a loooooong finish.

This was my very first Oregon Pinot Gris, and I am going to seek more out in the future. It was delightful.

Tea Fest: Day 2

The second day of Tea Festival started off with a presentation from Michael and Emeric Harney on Tea Through the Generations. It focused on the progression of tea in the Harney & Sons line, which also reflected changing ideas about tea for America as a whole.

Some 50ish years ago, people were drinking plain old Gunpowder Green or Orange Pekoe. As Michael Harney and his generation of tea blenders came to the fore, they introduced single-varietal teas, cultivating blends from particular sites, such as New Vithanakanya in Ceylon. And now, with the millenials' desire for flavored teas, new blends that combine fine teas with high-quality blending ingredients have become popular.

Aside from the excellent presentation, I made my way though the booths I missed yesterday, revisited a few favorites, and did a focused tasting of three teas from Silk Road: a green, an oolong, and a black, steeped in traditional gaiwans. It was a delightful tasting.

This is my third year of Tea Festival, and it was my favorite yet. It just keeps getting better.

I can't wait for next year!

04 October 2014

Tea Fest: Day 1

Today was Day 1 of the Northwest Tea Festival. This is my third year attending, and as always, the highlight of Day 1 was the keynote address by James Norwood Pratt, America's tea luminary. This year he talked about what tea can teach us: how it can be an island of calm in a world that is full of fear and uncertainty; how it brings friends together; how, with even the slightest bit of curiosity, tea can reveal the world to us.

As always, the imminently quotable Mr. Pratt furnished some new amazing tea sayings:

When you think about it, tea is liquid sunshine.

There is no luxury more affordable than tea.

There is no mood-altering substance more benign than tea.

Tea comes from somewhere else, and it takes us somewhere else.

This was quite possibly Norwood's best speech to date.

Other amazing things at the Tea Festival:

A workshop on moist and delicious scones.

A tasting of fine Oolongs.

Hanging out with Michael and Emeric Harney of Harney & Sons, who will be giving a speech on Tea Through the Generations tomorrow.

Stocking up on tea from many of my favorite tea places, including the aforementioned Harney & Sons, Perennial, and Afternoon to Remember.

Tasting as much as I could handle before the caffeine overwhelmed me.

There's still plenty more to experience tomorrow.

03 October 2014

Jovino Pinot Noir 2012 (Willamette Valley)

My wine club selected two Oregon wines for the month. Both were from Jovino, a winemaker in the Willamette Valley.

Jovino’s Pinot Noir had a light, airy body with a lovely garnet hue. It was lighter by far than most Sonoma Pinots I’ve had, closer to Burgundy.

It had a herbal nose, full of fennel and spice, but it was surprisingly fruity on the tongue, with bold raspberry flavors. The tannins were nice and supple, not chewy, and it showed surprising balance for such a young wine.

I’ll have to find more!

02 October 2014

Northwest Tea Festival

Today I head to Seattle for the annual Northwest Tea Festival in Seattle, Washington.

Yes, there IS such a thing. And yes, it is every bit as awesome as it sounds.

The festival has tastings, workshops (such as how to make moist and delicious scones, which is the best. workshop. ever.), and talks by tea luminaries like Steven Smith, Michael and Emeric Harney, and the godfather of the American Tea Renaissance, James Norwood Pratt.

So, while I'm there, blog posts may be sporadic. Just a heads-up.

I'm off!

01 October 2014

The Endless River (Part 2)

Ermahgerd! The site is up.


You can hear samples and see what the box is going to look like.

I can't wait for November!

Actually, I can, because Tea Fest is this weekend. But then after that: NOVEMBER.