Friday, January 30, 2009

Poetry Friday

A poem for the wordsmiths out there:

The Death of Allegory
by Billy Collins

I am wondering what became of all those tall abstractions
that used to pose, robed and statuesque, in paintings
and parade about on the pages of the Renaissance
displaying their capital letters like license plates.

Read the rest of this visual poem here.

I find this line particularly memorable:
The Valley of Forgiveness is lined with condominiums

The Roundup is hosted at Adventures in Daily Living.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Dream Teams Part 1

What do Beatles songs, Kung Fu, and McCoy Tyner have in common?

passion + highly-honed skills + freedom to explore = combustion of creative energy

Let me explain.

Like most DVDs these days, Forbidden Kingdom comes with short features about the making of the movie. (Incidentally, a movie starring Jet Li and Jackie Chan is a ginormous deal. Think De Niro and Pacino in a movie in which they interact frequently with each other doing their actorly thing. "You talking to me?" "Hoo ah!")

(Yes, I tend to form nebulous stream-of-consciousness type connections that make no sense to most sane people.)

Back to topic at hand (and prone to wandering off subject.)

One of the features is called Dream Team. The producer and director fall over themselves trying to express their joy in getting not only these two Kung Fu superstars,
but also the top kung fu choreographer and cinematographer, to work together.

What sends my spine tingling was the process they described: how the choreographer would come up with initial ideas, which Jet and Jackie would try, and the cinematographer or
assistant choereographers may suggest changes or additions. They'd keep doing this until they're happy with the results.

Can you imagine the creative energy? Wouldn't you want to be a part of it? I do!

Just imagine the thrill of engaging in a process like that, where highly-skilled and highly-experienced people get together to create. Nobody knows the outcome and nobody has a monopoly on how the process goes, but everyone has to trust that their ideas and efforts will intersect with those of their fellow creators, resulting in something magical.

Tomorrow I'll tell you about McCoy Tyner and Beatles how any of this is relevant to a blog about writing.

[jazz trio by Flickrzen; kung fu by anna_T; Beatles by pinkisawayoflife. All pictures found on Flikr, Creative Commons.]

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Things that make me go "Whee!": review of The Maze of Bones, Book 1 of 39 Clues

Maze of Bones, Book 1 of 39 Clues
by Rick Riordan

Middle grade fiction

Reading The Maze of Bones reminds me of watching Raiders of the Lost Ark: romping through one gleeful and heart-stopping adventure after another, knowing full well villains will appear just when the heroes figure out something important, but knowing just as well things will turn out for the good guys.

Many of you are familiar with this new venture by Scholastic, which combines a book series with interactive games and card-collecting. I don't know if the idea had anything to do with enticing reluctant boy readers, but the results sure looks like it may do just that.

The publisher is planning a series of ten books written by different authors, to be brought out every three months. The author of the first book, Rick Riordan, is the architect of the series, mapping out plotlines and characters.

The premise: Amy and Dan Cahill, of the most powerful family in history ever, embark on a world-wide treasure/clue hunt, competing with other Cahill teams, whose trustworthiness is unknown. The survival of our entire civilization will depend on the outcome of this quest (nobody can complain that the stakes aren't high enough!) Without fame or money, and not even old enough to buy plane tickets, Amy and Dan have to rely on their combined intelligence and loyalty, with occasional help from adults or storkes of luck to outwit their opponents.

These adventures take them to famous places all over the world, such as the Louvre in Paris (move over, Da Vinci Code) and the Philadelphia Museum, some of which get blown up.

I am excited about these books, even though interactive online games and card-collecting aren't my thing. As an educator, I love it that the books touch on history and geography and art and general knowledge. I love it that being knowledgable is portrayed as something very good; cool even. As a parent, I love how the sibilings care the world for each other, even though they are annoyed no end by each other.

But I know that kids are not going read to learn. They read to be part of an adventure, to solve mysteries, to laugh at funny things that happen, especially to nasty adults.

Maze of Bones provides all that. And if the other books match the writing and pace and fun of this first one, then I hope this venture will take off.


Monday, January 26, 2009

Caldecott and Newberry 2009

These much anticipated medal winners are announced today. Read about the winner and finalists of the Newberry here and the Caldecott here.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Poetry Friday

Inaugurations do strange things to people. They stir up hope, open hearts, and increase empathy.

Still Here
by Langston Hughes

I been scared and battered.
My hopes the wind done scattered.
Snow has friz me,
Sun has baked me,

Looks like between 'em they done
Tried to make me

Stop laughin', stop lovin', stop livin'--
But I don't care!
I'm still here!

Head on over to Laura Salas for the roundup.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Book Review: Masterpiece

Written by Elise Broach

Boys and their dogs we know about, but a boy and his beetle best friend? Marvin the beetle doesn't even get to talk to James the boy, yet they understand each other instinctively.

In perhaps a tribute to The Mouse Named Wolf, Masterpiece describes how an animal living in a human household helps out the humans. Like Dick King Smith's book, Masterpiece explores the power of art and friendship, but it goes bigger to include an international art heist and a child's sense of security and confidence.

Yes, a book about bugs will have your standard bug jokes, so let's get them out of the way:
  • Sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite (yes)
  • Oh what a tangled web we weave (yes, but qualified as a spider joke.)
The overall tone of the book is light-hearted, except for the moments describing James's thoughts and feelings about his mother, a irritable woman whose shrewdness in business opportunities overshadows her affection for her son. In a reassuring gesture, (for which I am glad, since some early middle graders still feel strong ties to their mothers and may not want to think of them as nasty human beings) the author restores some of her humanity at the end.

Marvin is an adventurous, self-aware bug who lives with a loving family with strong values. His easy life of foraging after meal times (especially under the baby's high chair), swimming in a bottle cap, and hitching rides on the vacuum cleaner for picnics in the solarium is interrupted by the sudden discovery of his gift of drawing. Before he knows it, he's learning about Durer the artist, involved in an elaborate scheme to find art thieves, and deciding how much risk he should take. His solo adventure of accompanying the stolen art work takes him to empty hotel lobbies, phone calls to people with foreign-sounding names, and a burglary.

IN the midst of the adventures, readers have to deal, as Marvin as to, with questions of justice and courage and forgiveness, and what it means to do right by the people who matter.

Because of its art subject matter, Masterpiece will likely be compared to another MG mystery, Chasing Vermeer. One reviewer calls Masterpiece more evidence-driven, and I agree, because that was my main beef with Vermeer. I enjoyed the writing in Vermeer but have my heart touched a little more in Masterpiece. The friendship between Marvin and James will be one I'll remember for a long time.

Boy and dog: so yesterday.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Check out some contests

A fellow writer, Cheryl, collected some information on contests and scholarships for writers. Go check it out.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


This inauguration has been a huge day, in so many ways. But as someone who loves music and words, can I say how thrilled I am that a poet (whatever you think of the poem itself) and musicians were included in this historical event?

Watch and listen to Yo-Yo Ma and gang here, and read the transcript of the poem here.

44 words

"A new era!" many cry, filled with hope

for change.

But to pin all hopes on one man
asks too much.

Take it as another step
in the path
started long ago
and continued
not by one man
but by all who care.

Melissa has a collection of posts and pictures posted on various blogs to commemorate this historical inauguration day. If you wish to participate, write a post using 44 words and include a picture, then leave you link.

Thanks to TadMack at Finding Wonderland and Cloudscome at A Wrung Sponge for the info.
(Cloudscome: your post brought tears to my eyes. Thanks.)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Silent E

PBS is bringing back an old friend, The Electric Company, from the 70s! Yay!

The people of Malaysia, an ex-British colony, speak English, albeit one sprinkled with local idioms informed by the Malaysian language and various Chinese and Indian dialects. But as I was growing up, my young country was still establishing itself as an independent sovereignty and cutting ties to its colonial past. School curriculum reflected that goal and the medium of instruction went from English in many of the schools to the national language, Bahasa Malaysia. Text books were translated, teachers had to brush up on their Bahasa, and the teaching of English took a back seat.

Watching TV and listening to music became an avenue to learn English. (Pop songs weren't exactly the best way to learn English. I remember my mother correcting us when we belted "But she don't care!" or when I happily proclaimed, "There's a kind of rush, all over the world, tonight...")

But The Electric Company was great! My cousins and I looked forward to watching the program every Saturday when I was a middle-schooler. I still remember the sketch in which a man relaxing in a TUB suddenly found himself stuck in a giant toothpaste-like TUBE because the evil Silent-E just paid him a visit.

I hope this new version of my old friend will become just as beloved by the current youngsters.

The Electric Company-y-y-y!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Book Review: Waiting for Normal

Waiting for Normal
by Leslie Connor
Middle Grade Fiction

As soon as I met Addie, the protagonist of this book, I liked her. Her Mommers is complaining and being unreasonable about the trailer home they are moving into but Addie is noticing that hey, the steps leading up to the trailer are very sturdy, and the kitchen is sized perfectly for a 6th-grader, and by golly, she is a 6th grader, how perfect!

In this one small detail, we know that this is a girl who digs through the junk that life dishes out and finds gems, even if they are plastic gems. She loves her stepfather and two step sisters and longs to have a normal life with them yet feels a loyalty toward her indulgent and undisciplined mother. Addie takes her lot in stride, taking care of herself when Mommers stays away for days, leaving no money and hardly any food. And even when Mommers is around, it's Addie who does the cooking and cleaning and laundry for the two of them. She does all the work without complaining.

Until Mommers' ongoing shenanigans eventually cause
enough resentment that Addie refuses to wash a pan her mother promised to take care of but never did. That sets off the Huge Event, where all the problems converge.

Despite Mommers' negligence, Addie isn't left completely alone, she has her neighbors at the minimart, a cranky grandfather, and a concerned stepfather. It seems there is an
effort to include a representative from the groups most prejudiced against: for their sexuality, weight, and race.The effort just seems a little too conscientious and obvious.

On a similar vein, (of conscientious efforts) I don't know if the Horrible Illness and Subsequent Death are necessary. I've heard young readers talk about how the "important" books all seem to have someone die in them.

But these are minor complaints toward a story that, despite the dramatic elements, doesn't go overboard with the tearing of garments and the gnashing of teeth. The author doesn't spell out Addie's reactions and emotions, but gives us just enough so that we get it. It's watching a scene unfold from a distance without a talk-show host jabbing a mic into people's faces and asking them how the current events make them feel, and without the swelling of strings in the background. It's quiet and moving.

The writing is aimed at middle graders but there are big issues--such as
abandonment, what doing the right thing means, relationships between adults--that some young readers may want to find out more and parents should be aware of.

A thoughtful, optimistic, and tender story.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Just Go!

Years ago, I was humming and hawing at a piano improvisation class, feeling awkward and embarrassed by my lack of ability. Why did my improvisations sound so wooden, so predictable, so unsophisticated
? Inside me, I screamed: I know music, I do! I can play these horrendously difficult pieces! I've performed here and sung there! Ask me questions about history and theory and composers! I'll prove to you I am a real musician!

My usually patient professor decided I was talking and explaining too much, so this not-quite 5 foot, mild-mannered woman in her 70s said, softly but with steel in her voice, "Just Go!"

I obeyed.

I wish I can report that that was my turning point, that my improvisation immediately sounded polished and sure because I dared to free my inner improviser. Nope. Till today, piano improvisation, the way I want to do it, remains elusive.

But, that moment has given me countless kicks on my behind to Just Go!

Like now. I've put off wrapping up my thoughts on the subject of fear because I want the the last post to be punchy and profound. But the comment from Douglas Florian in one of my "fear" posts reminded me of Dr. S.

So I'm going to forget about punchy and profound and just say what I need to say. (Great, now I have that John Mayer song stuck in my head!)

All right, here goes.

My biggest fears about writing:

  • don't have talent
  • don't have anything worthwhile to say
I am not exactly the best judge when it comes to my talent and the worthiness of what I have to say. But I have to trust that

  • my share of experiences is no less worth examining than those of other writers,
  • whatever talent I have is enough for what I have to do.
That's it. Not quite the profound thoughts that I hoped to have, but what I really, truly believe. Just like the way I've figured out that I'm no Van Cliburn, but my very own combination of talent and training and desire are perfect for the kind of music-making I've had the privilege to enjoy.

(Florian, by the way, has a new book out soon and if it's anything like his previous ones, I definitely recommend it)

Friday, January 16, 2009

They say it couldn't be done

I was going to have completed my series of posts on the subject of fear before sharing this but since I haven't finished writing it and it's Poetry Friday, I'll start with the poem first.

It Couldn't Be Done
by Edgar Albert Guest

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done
But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he tried.

The rest of the poem can be found here.

I don't know that if I buckle in with a bit of a grin and start to sing as I tackle the thing I will succeed. But sure seems like the right attitude.

Happy Friday and enjoy more poetry over at Karen Edmisten's.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I think I'll call it a perk

Two supremely embarrassing thing happened to me today. Until now, the most embarrassing moment in my life took place when I was 12.

I was in 6th grade. My uniform felt tight, but since I had only a few more months to go before moving from primary to secondary school, where the uniform would change, my mother and I thought it made no sense to buy a new set just for those last few months.


One day, the seams on the left side of my pinafore ripped. Just like that. In front of the whole class. I had to walk around all day holding my arm tight to my side and ignoring all the comments and jokes that followed me.

One of today's event is worse than even that. And maybe I'll be able to talk about it 30 years from now. In the meantime, I think I'll include it in one of my stories.

(80% of embarrassing things that happen to my characters actually happened to me. I'll let my readers figure out which ones are made up.)

(Photo by jimmywayne22 from Creative Commons.)

Monday, January 12, 2009


I haven't kept on top of the cleaning of dishes and papers over the weekend and have spent most of the morning just cleaning and clearing up. Feels good for the soul.

My mind has been cluttered lately as well, with my current close-to- but refuse-to-be-finished middle grade novel, my all-but-stalled YA work-in-progress, school choice for my children, and a few other life things. Wish I can reach in with my vacuum cleaner and detergent and filing cabinets.

Maybe this calls for some free writing.

(Photo by Sashalar at Creative Commons.)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

20 in 2009 : The Last Good Day

The Last Good Day
by Peter Blauner

About 13 years ago, I was getting ready to attend a summer session at Carnegie Mellon University (any Dalcroze Eurhythmics fans out there?) and packed along two novels to read on the plane. One was The Poet by Michael Connelly and the other, The Intruder by Peter Blauner.

They kept me up so late the first few nights that I would get to class with my mind still in the stories and so sleepy by 1 p.m. that piano improvisation classes became even more of a headache-inducing time that usual.

In the last year or so, most of the books I've read were MG or YA books, either to learn about the market or to study for craft. Over the Christmas break, I decided I would read a book, just for the sake of losing myself in a good tale.

The Last Good Day was that book. And it kept me riveted. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), I couldn't turn off my writer brain. Blauner is such a masterful creator of recognizable yet not stock characters, I can't help but get drawn into their complicated lives. It was pretty clear who he wanted his readers to believe to be the villain, but I didn't mind. I wasn't reading the book to pit my sleuthing powers against the book. I was reading it to enjoy and feel. And I did.

A headless body washing up the shore, a town with more intricately-related lives than a tangled jump rope, and personal and racial prejudices all come into play in this book set a few weeks post 9/11. So many of the things we think about when the lights are off at night--forgiveness, relationships with the few people we love most fiercely, our own courage/cowardice--are in here. I don't know why there is still the perception that writers of genre fiction don't give us glimpses into our lives.

I am now eyeing Slow Motion Riot for my next Blauner treat.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

20 in 2009

I am taking part in the 20 in 2009 challenge, where participants read 20 books this year. It's not a difficult challenge for someone who loves ot read anyway.

Thanks to Fiddler at A Habit of Reading for the link.

Book Review: Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy

Here it is, the first book I'll be reviewing for my 20 in 2009 challenge.

Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy

by Wendelin Van Draanen

Quite a few of the Middle-grade series mysteries are so plot-focused that character development and language seem to be on auto pilot. And perhaps that's the nature of a mystery series. Readers don't want to savor the language or delve deep into the psyche of the characters, they just want to turn the page to find out who dun it.

But important as it is, plot alone doesn't keep me reading.
I want to know how the characters feel and think--besides just about solving the crime. I seek to make connections, find beauty, and be surprised by truth presented in a new way in any book I read, thrillers, mystery, literary.

In my mind, the Sammy Keyes mystery series stand out. The plots are interesting, as expected, as are the sub-plots. But more important is that Sammy is a fully-fleshed, likable, growing character.
It's no wonder these books have either won the Edgar award or been finalists.

In The Sisters of Mercy, we even get a glimpse of many of the secondary characters. The author doesn't waste a lot of ink to describe each one, but what she chooses to highlight does a great job in showing us who these people are.

My middle-grade novel has a strong mystery element. I've even gone so far as to call it a mystery in a contest I entered. But I'm not sure if I wish to align my book with the all-plot mysteries. But as I wrote in an earlier review of Chasing Vermeer, perhaps a book doesn't need to be all-plot to be considered a mystery. Chasing Vermeer isn't, and while the Sammy Keyes books is more like a traditional mystery, they have a lot more than just plot. It's a mystery with heart and soul and flesh.

Friday, January 9, 2009


In my post yesterday, I chose to leave out what I'm about to post today. It felt too close to home, but I've changed my mind. Here it is.

We can do everything humanly possible--drive carefully, avoid dangerous places, eat healthily--and still not be able to ward off life's most fearful moments. The times in my life when I've felt the most afraid, most helplessly afraid, came out of of the blue.

A strange lump on my husband's leg led to several frightful moments, the worst of which was when, with a fever of 106, he looked at me with no recognition in eyes and told the nurse he didn't know who I was. Moments later, he was whisked to the ICU. I sat, overwhelmed by the fury of activities surrounding him, the questions, and mostly by his gaze. The man I was going to spend my life with did not know who I was. Even when the pulmonologist braced me for the possible bad news, it was still that look that haunted me.

Six years later, I felt the same lost-in-a-blackhole fear as I watched my 5-week old poked and prodded with needles and subjected to a battery of tests. Nobody gave us a straight answer to our questions. I still have the image of her lying tiny and still, swaddled in a contraption that kept her from moving as she got her CT scan.

My post yesterday left off at the conclusion that all fears boil down the fear that I do not have what it takes. The conclusion was incomplete.

There are times when I will not have what it takes. Can't help it. I'm human. But I have lived through two such experiences and emerged on the other side. Grace: that's what got me through. What I know now, conceptually and experiencially, is that when I come to the end of my own capabilities to face fear, it may not be the end of the story.

By the way, both my beloved survived and are healthy, laughing, and grabbing life with both hands.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

What do you fear?

I fear driving in big cities; steep ski slopes; cocktail parties; incurable, unexplained, chronic diseases.

I fear being stuck and lost in the woods / ocean; attacked in the dark when I'm alone.

I fear that everyone else knows my achievements and talents are mediocre.

I fear losing my family; having no friends; being misunderstood.

These seem like a random collection of situations, but they're basically three types of fear:
  • fear of pain and suffering--car crashes, diseases, hurting
  • fear of humiliation
  • fear of being alone, unaccepted and unloved.
And when I look at the basis of these three types, I realize they boil down to only this: I fear I don't have what it takes.

What can I do? I am fallible, I have weaknesses and blindspots, I am limited.

So then, what? Give up? Accept that I can't handle what life dishes out and drift along? Some days, the option seems enticing, but human beings are wired with perseverance, hope, and perhaps even a dash of extravagant optimism. So I face some fears headlong and remove myself from others.

I've driven in downtown Chicago, Kuala Lumpur, Dublin, and Melbourne (the last three using stick shift and on the other side of the road), shedding pounds in sweat.

I've picked myself up from crashing into tree stumps on my skis and being knocked over by poma lifts; falling for the first four days of a ski trip and finally skiing on the fifth.

At cocktail parties, I used to position myself behind punch bowls to avoid making small talk with strangers and have now progressed to asking people about themselves so I don't have to talk.

I am taking a self-defense class and avoid dark, unknown places (and woods and deep oceans.)

I show my love to my family and friends and hope they know that I do.

I keep doing what I do: write, play the piano, compose, sing, cook, think in the most honest and passionate way I can, and deliberately and persistently push aside thoughts of what others may think of my efforts.

Bottom line is, I believe my fear is here to stay, and may even be merited. But I have to face it by whatever ways I can. Some days, I will cower, other days, I may find courage somewhere.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Why on earth would anyone start off a new year thinking about fear? After all,

new year=hope for all things good,

But wait.
  1. Fear is not all bad.
  2. Fear, the bad portion, is such a huge preventor of good things that we need to face it first.
Why isn't fear all bad? It prevents us from doing things that can have dire consequences. Fear of not having enough money for retirement prevents me from splurging on Milan or Paris vacations or outfitting the house with marble floors and copper trims. Fear of ending up with a broken body prevents me from bungee-jumping. Fear of bad health prevents me from eating croissants and chocolate pear tarts everyday.

You can always say that it's the desire (positive) for a secure future / health / wellness and not fear (negative) that is the reason. Perhaps. But I have a sneaky suspicion that we don't like to think of fear as a main emotion because it seems to primal. We prefer to think that we're civilized, thinking beings, not Neanderthals. But fear, whatever we think of it, is part of the equation, a significant part.

But let's get to the part that I think we can all agree on: that fear stops us from achieving our best.

Top on the list: fear of failure. Every time I sit down to write, I fear I'll come up with nothing but drivel, that it'll be derivative and shallow, that my writing is nothing but an ongoing exercise in navel-gazing. I may as well stop now and fold some laundry. At least something useful will be achieved.

Writers aren't the only ones who face this nagging, stubborn terrier-dog-with-its-teeth-on-a-shoe fear, of course. Anyone who does any work at all faces it, from the professors and carpenters to the first grader who tries a new sport. Some feel it much more acutely than others, and it seems to me the ones who care, the ones who are passionate are the ones who feel it the most.

Many writers I know care about their work. They have a deep desire to pursue their art and craft. They believe in it deeply. And they are the ones who must face their fear of failure daily.

Yet we write. We refuse to let go of the shoe. We're bigger than the terrier. We prevail.

Do we do this because it is fundamentally human to persevere? Or is it our passion that pushes us through? Are there ways to overcome fear once and for all? Or do we start every day at the same place in our position facing our fears? When we succumb, are we weakened for our next bout of tussle?

I don't know that answers exist. But I'd really like to know what form your fear of failure takes and how you've dealt with it.

Tomorrow, I'll explore the idea that all fears have one basis. Maybe.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Topics for the new year

A year has gone by; mistakes were made, experiments failed, and roads not taken.

But as we flip over the calendar, our eyes focus on the future, our minds on possibilities. A new year: I can smell the optimism in the air.

I will start off this year on this blog by exploring the topics of fear, habits, and excellence, topics I've been mulling over, not specifically for writing per se, but whose relevance is significant.

Hope you'll check back as I explore some of these ideas.

(Broken pencil by Finance Image Library, winding road by Matthew McVickar, filtering hopes by Paras from Creative Commons.)

Cybils Finalists

For those of you who love kid lit and have been waiting for the finalists of the Cybils award, wait no longer.

I have read some of the books and can't wait to get my hands on the others.

Thank you, Cybil panelists!