Category Archives: Friends

My end of 2015 homework

This end of the year assessment is an interesting one for me. I started doing this six years ago, at Jamey’s prompting and now it’s one of my favorite ways to wrap up each year.

In the past, I often haven’t wanted the year to end and I’ve been anxious about the coming year.  The last few years have been really tricky and challenging, so I’ve been eager to start fresh. I feel really calm about 2016, even though my upcoming birthday is almost simultaneous with the beginning of both a month of Mercury Retrograde and a Jupiter Retrograde (which is going to be interesting, I understand from reading my horoscope).

All that is to say that while I haven’t achieved everything I’d hoped to achieve this year (see: the last item on the list), I’m still satisfied with my year. A friend asked me tonight what my resolutions are for 2016 and I realized that my only resolution is to continue doing what I’m doing and, in some cases, more of it.

1) I learned a lot about blogging and even met a lot of amazing bloggers. I just didn’t blog. If you count *this* post, I only updated three times this year, which is the total number of posts I published in December 2014. It wasn’t intentional and I felt really bad about it at first. And then I just stopped, posting and feeling bad. I decided to do it again when it felt right, when I had a better sense of what I wanted the blog to be in the future. And, in the meantime, I Tweeted a ton. It started to feel like poetry to me, the opportunity to quickly be creative within a rigid structure (limited characters). I hope to use Goodreads more regularly in 2016, because I would like to continue writing my fun, crazy subjective book reviews. I read a lot of great books this year.

2) My once-temporary apartment became permanent. At the beginning of 2015, I thought I’d be moving for the 3rd time since 2013 and I was pretty miserable about it. I’d fallen in love with my place and my neighborhood.

I’ve made a cozy, impermanent, perfect little home here for myself and while I’ll probably have to move again soon, I know now that I absolutely love Mid City…

I went so far as to look at a ton of apartments and while none of them was right, I thought I’d have to pick one. And then, on my birthday, a reprieve. It was pretty amazing timing. Since then, I’ve finally settled in completely, hanging mirrors, hooks and cork boards, buying a bookcase and filling it up with books that had been in storage for a year. I downsized to a smaller storage unit and while the majority of my books are still there, I’m now “all in” on my place.

3) My mission to cook more and eat healthier continued. If you need proof, my Twitter feed is evidence. It’s filled with food photos, love letters to cast iron skillets, longing notes about breadboxes. I became ravenous for avocados and beets, two foods almost unknown to my diet previously. Cooking and preparing meals became my main form of entertainment as well as a resolution for better health. A good friend moved last year and gave me a bunch of her kitchen stuff and I endeavored to use it. When the sweet amazing couple who I bought bread from every week at the market left town, the baker taught me how to make bread. Suddenly, I was baking my own bread every week, bringing a loaf (pic below) to every gathering of friends and taking serious pleasure from feeding the people I care about. There’s nothing like it.

Another friend visited early in the year, scoped the contents of my fridge and said, kinda judgey and suspicious, “What’s up with all the green stuff in your fridge?” I was thrilled. And so here you go, a pic of my fridge from a few days ago, way more green than earlier in the year. To round out the photos, a  “skinny cheesecake parfait” (mine is made with minced cranberries instead of strawberries) I just made with the mixer I got for Christmas.

4) I jettisoned broken things or any experience or relationship that didn’t work for me anymore. Including a job that was making me miserable. A grudge that kept me from walking into a place I’d once loved. I lovingly laid to rest painful “what-ifs” about past relationships. And the real biggie – I worked on giving up habits that weren’t serving me or were actively hurting me.

5) I challenged myself to do things that made me anxious or uncomfortable. Liiike, a friend gave me a VIP pass for Jazz Fest and I used it to go see Lenny Kravitz by myself – which is terrifying because I have trouble with crowds. Gotta say, the VIP access was huge in making it possible, but it was definitely still a challenge.

An editor of an amazing publication expressed interest in my writing and I sent work not once, but twice. I talked myself through a mid-flight panic attack. I binged the first 5 seasons of The Walking Dead and then read the comics and started watching every week, even though I’m a total wuss and almost never watch scary stuff. After years of being intrigued by this show, I just dove in and became a huge fan. Instead of letting panic or anxiety control my decisions, I let the things I loved, or wanted to love, guide me.

6) I focused on the people I was with and/or what I was doing at any given time. Meaning, my cell phone was in my bag or turned screen-down when I was hanging out or taking a meeting. I left the phone in the other room a lot. I gave myself permission not to answer if I was writing or decompressing. But I also returned calls more regularly and enjoyed Skype sessions with folks I love who are far away. I was thoughtful about how I spent my time, and with whom. And I was lucky enough to witness so many of my friends and colleagues achieve wonderful success this year, to be fully present when it happened.

7) I traveled even more this year. A 36-hour whirlwind of a trip to Portland for ValenTango (where I also got to visit with my brother). Atlanta for work and for dancing. Then, New York kept coming up (Anne and Hiro’s joint gallery show, their NYC debut!, a new tango friend who offered to host me). I haven’t been for years and in the past, I would’ve been practical and skipped it, but this year, I gave myself a trip to NYC as a present. I had an amazing time dancing and catching up with Anne and basically living at Google’s offices for the first day and a half (the cafeteria exceeds every legend you might’ve heard). I made new friends while I was there and had a random adventure going to see Karl Ove Knausgard at The Strand with one of them. I longed to go to NYC, so I made it happen. And it was fantastic.

8) (cont’d) Travel Pt II. I made a pilgrimage to a Tennessee mountaintop with Peauxdunque and on the way, stopped by Memphis to catch up with Jamey.

And then another whirlwind tango trip – this one 23 hours in Dallas to dance, catch up with great friends and celebrate the holidays.

9) Speaking of tango. For the second year, I assisted with the New Orleans Tango Festival, which has become, for me personally, a tango family reunion every year. More and more, I appreciate catching up with friends I might not get to see but once a year (if that) and to measure my growth against the last time we danced together. Check out this recap video (you can even see me about 27 seconds in):

And this year was even more special because of the time I got to spend with the ladies of La Bailonga Tango (+ Giovanni Parra), a Colombian tango band that came to Nola for the Festival. We had so much behind-the-scenes fun: getting them to their radio and tv appearances and trying to communicate in both English and Spanish (and oddly, French, which kept popping out when I tried to speak Spanish). I will treasure the experience!

We started working on 2016 very soon after this year’s festival was finished and I’m excited to do it again.

10) I threw myself into a new job, a new career. One that I really, really love. No matter how exhausting and challenging the day is, I end each one entirely satisfied by the opportunity to use my exceptionally diverse job history and my creativity while learning new things, every day. This job is bringing me balance and stability, but even so it’s also forcing me to face my struggle with change head-on. What is this job, you ask? I work at the library. It kinda seems like the obvious path for me, in hindsight.

11) (cont’d – this is worth 2 spots) So obvious that I was probably running from it. I realized that I was afraid of at least two things: a stable 9-5 career and also doing something I loved for a living. What if working at the library ruined what has always been my safe haven, my happy place? (This is the “don’t work at your favorite restaurant” theory). And, the biggie, what if career satisfaction removed all of my motivation to write? Luckily…

12) I wrote with more dedication and playfulness than ever before. For most of the year, I woke up a few hours early in order to write before work! I’d estimate that 2/3rds of the year, I went out of my way and made time for writing. Thanks to several months playing around with a novel about zombies (during the miserable job) and once again to NaNoWriMo in November, I looked forward to my writing sessions. I was light-hearted in a way I haven’t been in a long, long time.

13) I published. A short short story in Like a Girl pre-show supplement. A short piece of advice. More author profiles and book pieces for 225 Magazine. Several small business profiles for Gambit Weekly. An essay in the Scars Anthology. This last one is closely tied to #14 below…

14) I “appeared” more times this year than in the previous three years combined. I hadn’t read my work publicly for about 5 years before that, so this was huge.

A lot of the opportunities I had this year were because Maurice and I were promoting Scars locally. I’ve been so thrilled to share the experience with him and to be included in such a fabulous anthology. It was inspiring to get a tiny taste of what it’s like to publish and promote your work.

I got to have a book release at Garden District Bookshop, where I used to work, to share a stage with authors Jami Attenberg and MO Walsh at the Louisiana Book Festival and then to “work” at Octavia Books alongside authors Claudia Gray and Wayne Curtis for Small Business Saturday

After these experiences – I’m even more determined now.

15) I didn’t finish the novel by the end of the year, like I hoped I would. But I will finish it. After years of working on this novel and trying to put it aside and move on, I finally *know* that I will finish it, soon.

The best analogy I’ve ever heard about writing a novel is that it’s like building a boat in the middle of the ocean, no land in sight. I’ve spent more than 10 years with mirages of land or no hope of ever seeing it again. And now, there, not too far away, I see land ahead. I know where I’m going and that the journey is almost over.

A friend posted today about “done lists,” vs. “to-do lists.” I like that idea a lot. It immediately resonated. I think that’s what I’ve been doing these last few years. A list to remind myself of everything I’ve done, since it can be so easy to forget the sea of never-ending to-dos.

Can you see why I’m satisfied with 2015? It’s been pretty amazing. 2016 is gonna be even more so, I can feel it. Happy New Year, y’all.

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Filed under art, book news, Community Events & Forums, freelance work, Friends, Louisiana, Media, music, musing, NaNoWriMo, New Orleans, tango, writing updates

2014 Q4 Reading Report

Oh goodness, is this Reading Report overdue. I meant to post this early in January,  but here it is the end of the month and this is my first post of 2015. Ah well, better late than never, right? I read some great books during the last quarter of 2014, as you’ll see below. And I also tweeted about some of my reading as I read, so you’ll get some bonus photos, to make up for being so late.

October

My Sister’s Keeper, Jodi Picoult – I listened to the audiobook on the long drive from Philadelphia to Atlanta at the tail end of the Residency Road Trip. One of the most surprising things about this book, considering how sad the premise is, was that it was easy to get engrossed in the story behind the sadness. It was interesting on a legal, moral, emotional and very human level. I cared deeply about the characters, even when they were being totally annoying or foolish. It felt like a play that came alive in my car as I drove, which was really helpful considering I was on the road for over twelve hours.

Me Before You, Jojo Moyes – Bought this at a sale at my hometown library. I was aware of it from how well it sold at the bookstore while I was working there, but I didn’t really know what it’s about before I started reading. It’s an incredibly grim subject matter (especially considering the book I read previous to this one), but it’s not a story that’s grimly told. Somehow, the book manages to have the blithe lightness of a romantic comedy, while very intelligently and responsibly addressing a controversial, highly charged subject. I flew through the pages, and got really invested in how things turned out.

Lean Mean 13, Janet Evanovich – I listened to the audio of this one on my way back to Nola from Georgia. I think this is the perfect way to engage with the Stephanie Plum books. I’d started to get impatient with the silliness and formulaic quality of them while reading them, but those very qualities make them such perfect stories to listen to while on the road. Not too distracting, but very entertaining. They keep me great company in the car. The lady who reads the books for the audio is very good as well.

Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay – Coming back from the residency, I was such a happy dork picking up all of the books the library was holding for me, especially when it came to this one. I’d been looking forward to reading it for months and it didn’t disappoint. Roxane Gay’s novel An Untamed State is beautiful and brutal and she brings those qualities to bear on these essays, which are also funny and silly and insightful and so, so unerringly smart. She’s one of my new favorite writers.

The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith – Was very eager to read this one after reading the first Cormoran Strike novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling. I wanted to listen to the audio, like I had for the first, but it was unavailable, so I had to be content with old-fashioned reading, which was nice in its way, of course. I just soaked up this second mystery and the dynamic between Cormoran and his assistant Robin Ellacott. Once more, I was a tiny bit disappointed with the quick and tidy wrap up at the end — both endings have felt a bit easy and unfinished. But the journey to get there was delightful.

Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman – Read the ReReading post here.

House Proud, Valorie Hart – I introduced Valorie, a friend of mine from tango, during her talk at the Louisiana Book Festival last year. As preparation for that, I pored over this beautiful design book featuring Louisiana homes, including Valorie’s own home with her late husband Alberto Paz.

November

Gates of Thread and Stone, Lori M. Lee – If I remember correctly, I learned about this one on Goodreads, in a discussion about The Queen of the Tearling and Kiss of Deception Once more, a fantasy Y/A novel, really engrossing and interesting, the first of a series (why do I keep doing this to myself? At least the sequel to this one comes out relatively soon – in March). It reminded me a bit of the books by the German author Kai Meyer, which is a really good thing.

Seven Daughters and Seven Sons, Barbara Cohen & Bahija Lovejoy – Read the ReReading post here.

Sammy Keyes and the Killer Cruise, Wendelin van Draanen – I love these books, love Sammy Keyes and her friends and their hijinks. She’s really grown up in the last several books, finally discovering the identity of her father and having an adventure with him during the titular cruise of this book. While grabbing the link above, I realized another book in the series is already out – and it’s the last one! I’m looking forward to reading it and a bit sad I won’t be reading any more new adventures, but I have a suspicion that she’ll be in a good place by the time we say goodbye.

Yes Please, Amy Poehler – I knew I was going to love this book just from the table of contents. “Say Whatever You Like,” “Do Whatever You Want” and “Be Whoever You Are” happen to make fantastic mantras. Anyway, this book was, of course, hilarious, but also very insightful and inspiring. After writing about the day she was born, Amy Poehler recommends everyone go ask their parents about the day they were born, which made me realize I don’t think I’ve ever heard the story of the day I was born. Just one of many brainstorms and moments of inspiration.

Dark Places, Gillian Flynn – Whew, boy, this book in INtense, just like Flynn’s other books. Unlikeable women who are utterly human (and sometimes monstrous in such human ways) are Flynn’s specialty. It’s a lot to ingest and I usually need a break between books, but I stand in awe of this women’s storytelling ability. I always feel a little creeped out looking at her author photo – she looks so sweet and normal, to write such breathtakingly dark and weighty books. Of all writers, she’s probably the one I’d both want to have coffee with *and* avoid in dark alleys. Just goes to show you can’t judge a book by its cover or an author by her photo. 🙂

Worn Stories, Emily Spivak – This was a pretty cool book. Dozens of essays about articles of clothing and what they represent to the writers/wearers of the clothing. With pictures! It was an accidental find and I was curious. I thought I’d flip through, read a handful and then move on, but I ended up reading every last word. Some were twee and light, but most were (surprisingly, to me) interesting and impactful. It started out as a blog, before it was a book, and the blog continues.

December

Prelude to Bruise, Saeed Jones – I used to be a poet, once upon a time. Sometimes, I still find myself moved by poetry more than almost anything else. These days, while I may read a handful of poems occasionally, I almost never finish an entire book of poetry. I forget, each time, how emotionally weighty poetry tends to be. So I look at a slim volume and I’m like, “Oh, I’ll zip right through this!” But I don’t. I linger and dwell, sometimes for years and never finish a book. So, this is probably the first book of poetry I’ve finished in a long time. I “zipped through,” even though I felt like his poems were eviscerating me with razor wire. But I couldn’t stop. True to form, I obsessed over the lines and words, sometimes getting hung up for a few days before going back and moving on. [You’ll note I tweeted about picking this book up at the end of October, but I didn’t finish it till December.] I had a deadline to finish – this book was requested by multiple people at the library – and I couldn’t bear to return the book without reading it all.

Rooms, Lauren Oliver – Another of my favorite writers, though she’s so fast that I can’t really keep up. This is an adult novel from her, a gothic family story that reminded me of both The Family Fang and Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, my favorite play. The way Arcadia uses various portions of the house and estate, as well as time, really echoed here, in Rooms.

The Art of Asking, Amanda Palmer – Oooh, this book was really important for me to read. I found myself sweating and trembling occasionally as I read it. Why is asking so freaking difficult? Why is owning your right to be and ask for what you want and need so hard? I am so very different from Amanda Palmer – in personality and demeanor and comfort zones, but I admire her so much and it turns out that she has been battling a fight that I’ve struggled with a long time. Need to re-read this every year, or maybe every six months.

Doing the Devil’s Work, Bill Loehfelm – Review forthcoming in 225 Magazine.

Fearless Fourteen, Janet Evanovich – Listened to the audio on my trip to Atlanta to visit my parents for Christmas. It was perfect company, made the trip go smoothly (it’s always rough counting on the radio between Mobile and Montgomery).

My Sunshine Away, MO Walsh – Review forthcoming in 225 Magazine.

So that wraps up 2014. I read some really awesome books in 2014 (A little over a hundred! Roughly, 22 nonfiction books and 74 fiction, plus some other stuff.) In this first month of 2015, I’ve already read a six-book series, a screenplay and two books of essays, all really good stuff, so stay tuned for 2015’s Q1 Reading Report in early April.

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My end of 2014 homework

This is the fifth time I’ve wrapped up the year with some homework, originally assigned by Jamey in 2010. This is my chance, as the year winds down, to reflect on the past and plot the future, to remind myself everything that’s happened and everything I’ve achieved. It’s become my favorite new year tradition.

The 14 Struggles and Successes of 2014

1. I re-read. This time last year, the Re-Reading Project was a scribbled note at the back of my journal. After deciding to re-read 12 influential titles (all originally read before the age of 16), I stuck with it and, throughout the year, I re-read 21 books and 10 friends joined me, writing essays about books that are important to them. I didn’t finish my planned book for December, the only title from the original 12 that wasn’t re-read this year. However, I consider the Project a smashing success because of all of the amazing experiences I’ve had re-reading and all of the tremendous guest essays. Plus, as I suspected, re-reading pushed me to read more. Last year, I read 67 books and this year, I’ve read over 100. And it looks like I’m going to continue it next year, with a different handful of titles.

2. I moved for the second time in six months. This time, I moved to a brand new part of town. I’d always said (and thought) that I hated Mid City, because I inevitably got lost around here and I have a great sense of direction. From day one living here, I stopped getting lost and started finding my way in multiple senses. I’ve made a cozy, impermanent, perfect little home here for myself and while I’ll probably have to move again soon, I know now that I absolutely love Mid City and it’s been an invaluable lesson.

3. I applied for writing residencies and submitted my work like it was a full time job. Because it was, for the first time, my main job. I even got all organized and efficient about it, too.  (I gave up my t.v. in this second move and hardly missed it, I was so busy reading and writing).

4. I ate and cooked healthier. This has been a slow process, several years in the making, but I had a few conversations last year with tango dancers about juicing and hypoglycemia that pretty much pulled everything together for me. I read a few books that blew my mind. And I started eliminating as much sugar and processed food from my diet as I could on a limited budget and without the energy and time to change everything completely. It started with small changes (no sugar in coffee, especially the sugary iced coffees I love) that grew into bigger changes (lots more veggies, mindful of “sugary” fruits, more nuts and grains). I’m now a regular at the closest farmer’s market to my house, I make most of my meals at home and I’ve noticed that cutting down my sugar intake has made me taste and enjoy food so much more. So when I do eat some sugar, it’s a real treat. Sometimes, it’s hard and I really have to make sure I eat small meals/snacks regularly or I crash badly (but this was always true, I just didn’t know how to manage it). The end result is I’m healthier than I’ve maybe ever been and I’m still working to be healthier.

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5. I read the first chapter of my memoir at Peauxdunque’s  second Yeah, You Write, alongside amazing writers.

6. I assisted with the organizing of the New Orleans Tango Festival, which was an exceptional, educational, entertaining experience. I got to meet, dance with and just hang out with so many incredibly talented dancers. Next year’s festival is already gearing up and I am so excited, even though it’s still six months away! Opportunities like this one really helped make me a better dancer this year.

7. I traveled a lot this year. I went twice to D.C. and got to dance at two different milongas. I spent more time in Atlanta and got to take lessons with teachers there. I danced in Philadelphia and in the middle of nowhere on a airfield. I even spent more time in Baton Rouge. While all of the trips weren’t necessarily motivated by tango, I managed to dance wherever I went. All of this travel, while related to the turmoil of this year in many ways, reminded me how much I really love visiting different cities, the openness it brings to my life. I want to make travel a priority in the future. Until D.C., I hadn’t flown in a few years and I haven’t been out of the country since 2007, so I think that’s gotta change soon.

8. I attended an artists residency, Soaring Gardens. I wrote about this quite a bit on the blog, so I’ll keep this one short. Except to say that my month staying at Soaring Gardens with the artist Anne Canfield was everything I needed and utterly transformative.

9. I “lost” NaNoWriMo. This year’s novel was a silly and fun murder mystery that came to me while I was in Pennsylvania. I was excited to write it, but it never came together. I only wrote a few thousand words on that project, but I’ll never consider this NaNoWriMo (or any other) a failure. I always learn something trying to write 50,000 words in a single month. This is why I totally won this year: during November, I started waking up at 6 or 6:30 a.m. to write for a half hour, 40 minutes, an hour, before work. I wrote over 10,000 new words on the memoir. I kicked ass during those early morning writing sessions, getting more done in an hour than I’ve gotten done in whole days set aside to write. What’s even better is that I’m still writing for an hour most mornings.

10. I finally got meditation. Meditation has always been something I understand would be good for me, but it’s been a recipe to fail in the past. I meditated a little, though not formally, while at the residency. Mostly, I journaled like crazy and spent a lot of time in my own head, sitting still outside. In November, while I was *not writing* my murder mystery for NaNoWriMo, I also completed a meditation challenge. It finally clicked for me this go-round and I had a breakthrough about what meditation looks/feels like and how it can help me.

11. I worked on my novel again and while it’s still unfinished (those pesky last 30 pages of the third draft are killer), it’s in very good shape. Meanwhile, I’ve made some great progress with the memoir this year. I blogged more than I have in a long time and published a few reviews and interviews. And, a short essay I wrote will be published in an anthology. I’m looking forward to seeing all of my work in a tangible form that can be shared.

12. I asked for help. I’m not good at this or, I haven’t been in the past. It was very, very hard, but when it looked like I wouldn’t be able to go to the residency, instead of giving up, I launched a GoFundMe campaign. I was utterly blown away by the generosity and support I received. Even when people couldn’t donate anything or much, their notes of encouragement bolstered me. Beyond the fundraising campaign, I’ve received so much help this year (financial, emotional, physical) and after I decided to stop being a basket case about it, I started to accept it as graciously as I could, because everything this year would have been harder or impossible without the help I received.

13. I survived. Historically, I have not managed change well. 2014 was full of transitions, a constantly shifting field. Most of it was positive. Several changes were incredibly sad. Good, bad, positive, sad, it was a lot. I moved for the second time in six months and spent the whole year uncertain how long I’d stay, not just in my apartment, but in New Orleans itself. I fell in love and while the relationship didn’t work out, it changed everything. I wrote my first poem in almost a decade and started journaling hardcore again. I attended two funerals, the first of my life, and I worked hard to support people I cared about through their grief. I freelanced and took on a new role as a salesperson, but I didn’t work on a single movie, though I considered positions on two huge films. My sister’s second son was born, as were the children of friends in the tango community. Three of my friends’ 12 year old sons are now taller than me (no matter how much I grow as a person, I’m just not physically getting any taller). Friends graduated, got married, changed jobs, left town. This year, I struggled to survive all of the changes. Next year, I look forward to thriving. I have ideas and dreams and I’m working on making them plans and realities.

14. I put my writing first. While I’ve never actually given up my writing or stopped completely, I’ve let jobs, relationships, living situations, etc. structure my life and then I fit my writing in between whatever else seemed like a bigger priority at the time. This was the year, for better or for worse, that I decided that my writing, my own goals and plans, had to establish the structure of my life and everything else needs to support my writing. It was really messy and difficult, but I know it was a lesson worth learning. Where I live, who I love and spend time with, what I do to make money, none of this can change who I am: a writer. So all my decisions from now on are going to be made with that in the forefront.

2013 was a rough year and 2014 was, if anything, even rougher. But in the midst of the struggle, as Maurice recently reminded me, is the sublime. I’m ending 2014 stronger than I started it, confident and determined. I’m ready to let go of 2014 and very excited for 2015.

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Filed under Atlanta, Baton Rouge, family, food, freelance work, Friends, musing, NaNoWriMo, New Orleans, tango, The Re-Reading Project, The Residency Road Trip, travel

The Re-Reading Project: The Book I Couldn’t Re-Read

This time last year, I had a small sheet of paper taped into the back of my journal with a list of twelve books jotted out. My plan was to re-read one of these twelve books each month in 2014 and write about the experience, what I remembered from my original readings and what I discovered reading them now. I’d first read almost all of these books before I was 16 (when I moved to Louisiana) and while I’d read most of them only one time, I counted them all as favorite, influential books.

In January, I quickly fell in love with the project and read 9 kids’ books. I was in the middle of moving for the second time in six months, so I think I was a little nostalgic for childhood and a semblance of stability. It was a lot of fun, in the middle of chaos.

February found me in my new home and brought me company in the project: my friend Maurice re-read an influential book of his own and wrote a guest post. I re-read a Japanese fantasy translated into English.

March brought a guest post from my sister Aimee, re-reading an author she introduced me to and who I would re-read later in the year, as well as a post of my own about re-reading a speculative anthropological romance novel.

As April opened, I re-read a gothic romance while on a train to visit my new love and my friend Missy re-read a philosophical horror novel I’d never read by an author who also wrote a series of books I almost re-read this year.

In May, I confessed to my history as a reader of romance novels and I re-read my first “real” romance novel, by a writer I’ve never read again, and then re-read a romance by a writer whose mysteries I still read, conflicted though I may be about enjoying them.

June saw me at my love’s house, re-reading a young adult trilogy by an author who disappeared for ten years and then became wildly popular again as two of her series were made into t.v. shows. My friend Mary re-read folk tales right around the same time her book of poetry inspired by folk tales was published.

July brought me heartache, but I pushed on and re-read a horror novel by the author my sister introduced me to at age ten and my friend Noel re-read another horror novel by a more famous horror novelist.

August took me back to school, re-reading three books I was assigned as a student, one of which I hated and one of which I loved, and I got on the road for the Residency Road Trip. Blogger Lisa re-read another canonical tome that impacted her.

September was an oasis of calm, of thinking, reading and writing and I re-read a speculative science thriller and my friend James re-read a magical realistic family saga by an author who died this year.

In October, I returned to “real life” and New Orleans, wrapping up the Residency Road Trip and settling back in. I struggled to re-read the book I’d originally scheduled for October and at the last minute changed it to a magical realistic romantic tale as my Peauxdunque cohort Emily re-read a romantic Civil War saga.

During November, I conducted my own private NaNoWriMo and happily re-read an adventure tale based on an ancient Iraqi folktale while another Peauxdunque cohort, Joi, re-read a gothic horror novel about suburbia and family (not written by Gillian Flynn).

December finds me in a familiar place – swimming through chaos and uncertainty. My friend Rachel re-read a satirical science fiction novel and I struggled, once more, to re-read the book I’d originally scheduled for October: a fantasy novel published in 1992 by an author who has switched to writing mysteries. (If you can guess what the book is from that description, let me know.) I’ve always remembered this book as one of my favorites, though I might’ve only read it once (it’s recorded in 1996, when I was 14, but I find it hard to believe I only read it one time). I was excited to re-read this book all year long – it was one of the first titles that went on my list. Several times, as I read other books, I thought of this book. There’s an artist protagonist, so I thought it would be perfect after living with an artist for a month at the residency. But, as I dove in, the book never really caught my attention. I was fifty pages in when I started again this month, so I had a head start and I still couldn’t get invested. It finally got a bit more interesting when I passed the 100 page mark last night, but I’m a firm believer that there is a time for every book in a person’s life. And I finally had to admit that I’m just not meant to re-read this book this year. Maybe next year.

This year, I re-read and wrote about 21 books (rather than the 12 I’d originally intended) and my friends wrote 10 fabulous guest essays about books they re-read. Interesting stats: of the ten guests, eight are women and two are men. Even more interesting: I’ve only read 2.5 of the 10 books my guests re-read (the .5 is for Mary’s folk takes because while I didn’t read her edition, I’ve probably read most of the stories), though I have started reading, but never finished, half of them. I didn’t assign any of the titles my guests picked, though we did discuss them in advance and I sometimes scheduled them according to what I was re-reading (Noel in July most notably).

It turns out that the Re-Reading Project is going to continue, with a new slate of books and in a different form. Let me know if you’re interested in re-reading and writing about your experience and stay tuned. In the meantime, you can use this post as an index (or scavenger hunt, if you prefer) for all of the essays for the 2014 Re-Reading Project. 

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The Re-Reading Project Guest Post: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.

Spoiler alert: If you have not read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and you will be disappointed if I give away the ending, that’s just tough because the book was written 35 years ago and you should have read it by now.

If I’m honest, I only chose to re-read Douglas Adam‘s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (or The Guide as it will now be referenced) because it’s short. At the moment, my life is timetabled into so many compartments (work, email, sleep, work, not writing, reading articles posted on Facebook, looking at videos of cats on the internet, email, sleep) that adding even the most pleasurable of activities needs a flow-chart, Venn diagram, spreadsheet, and series of calendar apps just to formulate if I have time to finish a task such as reading a book.

Yet, this is a very worthy project, and Emilie does not take “I don’t have time to read” as an excuse. So, I cleared the chocolate wrappers, budget reports, and file folders containing single receipts from 2007 off the desk of my day job. I told my colleagues not to bother me. “Please turn down the Christmas music”, “No I don’t want to come to the office party”, “I don’t have time for mulled wine, mince pies, and discussions about how Cindy in Accounts really shouldn’t wear her hair like that.” I was doing something important. I was organising my time so I’d know if I had time to re-read a book. Not a moment for office frivolity.

After seven hours and thirty-two minutes of focused analytics and statistical analysis, I came to the conclusion that I would indeed have time to read the book…if I held all calls, cancelled my appointment with the chiropodist, and cracked on with it.

Realising that I had left my copy of The Guide in a box in my father’s closet in a house on a different continent, I opted to download the Kindle version. The beauty of this platform is that it doesn’t waste time with silly things like page numbers. Instead, it gets straight to the point and tells you how long you can plan on reading.

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Three hours and thirty-nine minutes later, I was quite happy that Emilie is a tough task master and forced me to make time for a novel I’d already read. Twenty-six years after the first reading, the book seemed to change slightly from science fiction to a handy list of contemporary technology. Back then, it was sci-fi and every piece of it was weird, wonderful, and completely fictitious. Reading it in 2014, Adams seem like a fortune teller, able to foresee gadgets of the future:

[…] he also had a device which looked rather like a largish electronic calculator. This had about a hundred tiny flat press-buttons and a screen about four inches square on which any one of a million ‘pages’ could be summoned at a moment’s notice.

 “And you are not,” said Fook, leaning anxiously forward, “a greater analyst than the Googleplex Star Thinker […] which can calculate the trajectory of every single dust particle throughout a five-week Dangrabad Beta sand blizzard.”

And of course, we currently have the infinite probability drive…don’t we?

Actually, the deeper revelation I had while re-reading this book was not about the miracle prophecies – as most science fiction will get lucky and predict something if it sits on a bookshelf long enough – but it made me realise how miserable my life has become. This realisation was completely unfathomable when I first read the book as a sixteen year old living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1988 – ten years after the story was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4, nine years after it was first published into a book, and six time zones away from where it was written.

I am no longer a high school student with a future ahead of me and enough free time to read a book while swinging softly on a hammock in my parent’s back garden. Instead, I sit at a dreary desk on an even drearier winter’s afternoon, sun down at 4 pm, cheap tinsel lining the cubicles, and the soft seasonal tunes of Bob Geldoff insulting an entire continent playing in the background. As I re-read the pages in which the Vogons vaporize the Earth to make way for an intergalactic motorway, I realise that if this were to happen in ‘real life’—while I might be a bit unnerved and discombobulated—I don’t think the personal distress would last for long. Granted, if the Earth were vaporised and I was on it, I wouldn’t be much of anything. But, let’s say I was rescued by a passing spaceship and I cast my eyes down at the dark space where the Earth (and that infernal desk to which I was chained) used to be, I can’t imagine I’d feel much at all. Or, maybe—like Arthur Dent—it would be too much to take in.

England no longer existed. He’d got that – somehow he’d got it. He tried again. America, he thought, has gone. He couldn’t grasp it. He decided to start smaller again. New York has gone. No reaction. He’d never seriously believed it existed anyway. The dollar, he though, has sunk for ever. Slight tremor there. Every Bogart movie has been wiped, he said to himself, and that gave him a nasty knock. McDonald’s, he thought. There is no longer any such thing as a McDonald’s hamburger.

He passed out.

As a teenager reading The Guide, I thought I was irreverent, interesting, and terribly witty. I thought I would grow up to be a maverick author who plays by her own rules, and I would be lavished in kudos, awards, and cash for recognition of writing a society-changing novel. The reality is very different. It’s the end of 2014, I live in Dundee, Scotland; I’m middle-aged and any notion of actualising anything less than mundane disappeared long ago.

How similar my life is to that of Arthur Dent – pre-destruction of the Earth – is what first struck me about the book: wandering through existence, not taking in the grandeur of the Universe, an unrewarding adult life obstructed my view. Of Arthur, The Guide states, “He worked in local radio, which he always used to tell his friends was a lot more interesting than they probably thought.” I, on the other hand, work in fundraising, which no one thinks is interesting. Because it isn’t. Arthur, upon being picked up by an inter-stellar ship in infinite probability drive, is most concerned with finding a cup of tea, and he spends much of the story allowing the plot to unfold around him. I can imagine that, if placed in a similar situation, I would become preoccupied with finding a cup of coffee.

Arthur blinked at the screens and felt he was missing something important. Suddenly he reaslised what it was.

“Is there any tea on this spaceship?” he asked.

Other than stumbling upon the manufacturing of Earth 2.0, Arthur’s presence is of no consequence. Towards the end, he finally becomes important as he is the last surviving member of the human race who was on Earth moments before its destruction. He has stamped upon his brain an imprint which will answer the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Yet, there is a giant hole in this argument, for there is another member of the human race on board that ship, Trillian. So, despite a last minute attempt to make Arthur relevant, he is – actually – quite inconsequential.

As a kid, I saw Arthur Dent as a character who was swept away, but still acted heroically in the face of it all—a bit like a Doctor Who companion. As an adult I have come to the realisation that Arthur Dent is much more ignoble, an object to follow so that a story can be revealed. If we were to compare him to a 70s film, he would be neither Smokey nor the Bandit; he’d be the car, an important device but not one that’s terribly interesting.

A re-reading of The Guide has helped me to realise that unless you’re one of a small host of famous do-gooders like Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Maryam Mirakhani, or Amy Poehler, your life is fairly inconsequential. We are all Arthur Dent; our very existence happened at the odds of 7887602006 to 1, and despite the great fortune that we even exist, we do nothing with our lives. Instead, we are pulled haphazardly through the universe unable to completely grasp the vastness of it all.

The second thing I noticed about re-reading The Guide is how much the satire is a dig at being British; something I most certainly would have not “gotten” as a 16 year old American. Now, with over a decade of living in Britain stamped on my passport, I can see the subtle Britishness of the book. And I mean real British. None of that Downton Abbey drivel.* The Guide is “two up two down”, “Tetley Tea and Penguins”, “Rule Britannia”, “spending your Costa del Sol holiday searching for a Greggs” kind of British.

Yes, as a teenager I recognised the deeper satire within the novel, the sentiments that are so very British few teenage Americans would recognize their context. However, there was one thing I did pick up from The Guide as a teenager. Something that has seeped into my subconsciousness. This book taught me the structure of funny. It’s the simple rhythm of the long game. No quick crack falls. It’s the set-up then the punch. Here’s how it works: profound, profound, profound, mundanely simple.

I have carried this rhythm with me throughout life. The ability to find the mundane within the outrageous. The knack for ending a list of the wondrous with the banal. The chance to shut down amazement in lieu of boredom. This book has taught me that being a combination of Arthur Dent and Marvin is okay, because if it’s satire you’re not miserable, you’re just witty.

With a microsecond pause, and a finely calculated micromodulation of pitch and timbre – nothing you could actually take offence at – Marvin managed to convey his utter contempt and horror at all things human.

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Meta author photo

Rachel Marsh blogs about being a creative writing teacher and writer at www.rachelmarsh.co.uk, where pretends to be upbeat and completely ignores the fact that she works a day job. At heart Rachel is a truly miserable individual and she blames it all on Douglas Adams.

 *Editor’s  Note: Emilie would like to stress that she doesn’t think Downton Abbey is drivel, even if she was a bit disappointed with one particular plot twist. You know which one.

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The Re-Reading Project Guest Post: Flowers in the Attic

It is so appropriate to color hope yellow, like that sun we seldom saw. And as I begin to copy from the old memorandum journals that I kept for so long, a title comes as if inspired. Open the Window and Stand in the Sunshine. Yet, I hesitate to name our story that. For I think of us more as flowers in the attic. Paper flowers. Born so brightly colored, and fading duller through all those long, grim, dreary, nightmarish days when we were held prisoners of hope, and kept captive by green. But we were never to color even one of our paper blossoms yellow.

If you know me, you’ve heard me say that I read my childhood, rather than lived it. I started binge reading at 9. Books were brought to the dinner table, on family outings, and on car rides, where I read until I puked from the motion sickness. Benjamin Franklin is (falsely) credited with saying, “Beer is proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy,” but I say books are the real proof of a divine being.

My interests were varied. I loved stories about families living in “olden times” (Little House on the Prairie, The Witch of Blackbird Pond), graduated quickly to racier subject matter like Teens With Issues – I read Go Ask Alice before I was old enough to know that neither pot or acid cause drug overdoses. I was always especially drawn to both tragic characters (any female in a Bronte novel) and heroic ones (Pippi Longstocking, anything about Amelia Earhart). Reading was the perfect escape for a kid who was herself not the most adventurous.

My first encounter with Flowers in the Attic had me thinking it was going to be scary, as it was in the horror section. I had seen a classmate hiding it in a textbook, clearly unable to put it down. And that cover. Originally, you’d open the house cutout to reveal four creepy children, beautiful, with platinum hair and bright blue eyes rimmed with red, and a ghastly lady looming over them like a malevolent cloud. With a quick perusal of chapter titles like The Wrath of God, I was sold, even if I was kind of scared of that photo and possibly any kind of horror in general. My friends who had snuck the book off their moms’ bookshelves promised all kinds of messed up stuff going on in this book. Spoiler: there’s incest! I suspect I devoured it in one long sitting that included hiding it under the covers and losing a night’s sleep.

When Emilie told me about her Re-Reading Project, I immediately knew I had to pick it up again. It’s been decades since I first read it, but I read it over and over again throughout my adolescence and later teen years, so I always recalled it having all of the elements I love most in a good book: religious fanaticism, discovery of dark family secrets, forbidden love, starvation, general suffering, adolescent ennui, arsenic (any romantic poison), kick-ass female heroines (bonus that the main character was my age).

I dove right back in and lo and behold, I found myself unable put it down. And this is while on break from reading Dark Places, people! Here I had thought everything was so profound in this book only because I had been a teenager when I was so obsessed with it, but damned if I wasn’t again drawn in, crying in all the right places. After seeing the recent movie treatment on Lifetime (and recalling the horrible “tragedy” of a movie that came out years ago where Kristy Swanson, aka the original Buffy, played our heroine), I might have lost a little faith, but really, these movies fail to capture what is special about the book. Seems they can’t make up their mind whether to go full camp or full-on dramatic treatment. So, as a sidenote, I implore film and TV to just leave FITA alone. Unless you’re a genius.

I immediately recognized that so many phrases and images have stayed with me:

The Dresden Dolls (when the band came out, I wondered if they named themselves after the book and this is partially true).

-Singing to myself Dance Ballerina Dance while enduring many an endless ballet class.

-Whenever I see the colors red and purple, I think of Carrie because these are her favorite colors.

-The lines from when Grandmother comes in to discover Christopher staring at Cathy nekkid.

-I’ll always wish I could throw a Christmas party as grand as the Foxworths’.

-I’ll never look at powdered donuts without thinking they could mask the taste of arsenic pretty well.

-The image of that swan bed.

-Corey playing the banjo and writing depressing lyrics at the age of 7.

It certainly left a lasting impression on my developing mind (and made me appreciate my mom oh-so-much more!)

As a writer, I can’t help but notice the writing is pretty tight, the vocabulary is rich (surely it expanded my vocabulary), and VC Andrews uses adequate metaphors (not the most complex) and what may be obvious, but forgivable, foreshadowing.  There’s a trustworthy narrator who has enough distance from the subject matter. The author avoids sentimentality (barely, but just enough), quite a feat given the circumstances. Of course no one can deny her storytelling prowess.

As VC Andrews says herself, “I think I tell a whopping good story. And I don’t drift away from it a great deal into descriptive material. When I read, if a book doesn’t hold my interest about what’s going to happen next, I put it down and don’t finish it. So I’m not going to let anybody put one of my books down and not finish it. My stuff is a very fast read.”

Agreed.

I wondered, too, just who is the intended audience, keeping in mind, it was a best seller back in the day.  Bored housewives? (I swear, this is not the Fifty Shades of Grey of the 1980s. The writing is far superior.) Horror fans? Those seeking a modern day Wuthering Heights? All of the above?

My thoughts on character during this read primarily had to do with Corinne, the mother who locks her children in the attic of her ancestral home after she’s left a “penniless” widow. As a kid reading this, I just dismissed her as a bad person, and now that I’m closer to the mom’s age than the childrens’, I wanted to give her much more consideration. I wondered at first if she might be portrayed a bit two-dimensionally, a stock evil character? As a teenager, I was pretty disgusted with her weakness; the idea of a woman that wouldn’t just woman-up and go to work to support her family, but now I wondered if I might be more sympathetic to her “handicap” as a pampered housewife and mother, a grown woman of privilege. Not really.

She’s actually a master manipulator of the worst kind. “Oh but you are heartless and ungrateful children!” she laments after she comes back after long time away, during which, the kids had starved and the grandmother drugged/tarred Cathy. She’s a manipulator and even gets her Oedipal son to forgive her after that and agree that it’s she who is having a difficult time in life.

I again felt that familiar thrill when Cathy repeatedly stands up to her and in the end, demands that she take dying Corey to the hospital. I never underestimate the allowance for a strong female character. Corinne still pissed me off as a less righteous modern day feminist. Check.

I also found myself thinking, would kids these days possibly not mind being locked up with access to wifi and games (because surely Corinne would have supplied them with all of these modern necessities)? I think when I read it for the first time, I might have thought it wasn’t so bad—they had all these books and toys and treasures and Cathy could dance in the attic. On their first Christmas, Corinne had brought them a TV (impressive that the young teens were hyper aware they needed to not let the twins become idiot box addicts). I was similarly impressed when Chris tells Cathy they must go about life pursuing their dreams (becoming a doctor, dancing); force twins to learn how to read and discover their own talents.

I’m not going to dwell so much on incest here (shocking, I know), other than to say that it comes about organically and similar to how I felt reading it when I was younger, I empathized with the kids and felt they were forced into a completely perverted situation as adolescents. I don’t find it titillating, nor disgusting. I think more people concentrate on that being the biggest deal in the book, completely overlooking the fact that you can’t get more disgusting and depraved than locking away four healthy children in a room for 3 years and 4 months and then slowly killing them off. We’ve got a close first person POV, so that makes it even more profoundly disturbing. Incest, big whoop, a bigger deal when I read it the first time. VC Andrews is hardly the first novelist to write about incest, of course. There’s been incest galore ever since the Bible.

Throughout this read and after finishing, I still find myself haunted by the idea of leaving any creature that is dependent on you, no less children, alone to survive locked up, imprisoned with a caretaker that you know is a monster. To slowly die a horrible death. The sheer horror of that. What is almost inconceivable is given an unflinching treatment with adequate restraint (that is, not sensationalist, nor salacious).

The problem is, despite my love for it, the fact that this novel develops into a series (that I similarly devoured, but now have no desire to do so) does kind of cheapen everything as it devolves into more sensationalist subject matter. Not to mention all of the books that her ghostwriters put out. All of them are formulaic. All of them involve incestuous families with big secrets. The families are either extremely wealthy or extremely poor and there’s aspiration to attain riches (which happens thanks to the cliché long-lost rich relative).

One final observation: Flowers in the Attic is described on the cover of new editions simply as a “tale of forbidden romance.” Forbidden, is putting it mildly and this book is definitely not a romance novel! More like, a tale of tragic neglect and its resulting perverted consequences. To be honest, who needs any kind of statement like that on the cover of a best-selling novel (that was published decades ago)?

I almost feel at this point I could write a thesis as to the literary merit of this book, but for the sake of this fun project, I’ll end here. It would be too easy to dismiss Flowers in the Attic as a melodramatic read suitable for those seeking out scandalous entertainment. Did people similarly dismiss classic gothic novels like Madame Bovary and Wuthering Heights (surely this one gave VC some inspiration)? I’m glad I gave it a “second” (or rather, tenth) chance.

Joi and FITA

Joi Brozek lives, reads and writes in New Orleans. With this re-reading of Flowers in the Attic, she’s made the stunning discovery that she’s been chasing a VC Andrews novel her entire writing life. With this in mind, she returns to the beast of a book she’s been unsuccessfully trying to finish for the past decade.

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The Re-Reading Project Guest Post: Cold Mountain

“Though Inman could not recall whether Swimmer had told him what else might be involved in reaching that healing realm, Cold Mountain nevertheless soared in his mind as a place where all his scattered forces might gather. Inman did not consider himself to be superstitious person, but he did believe that there is a world invisible to us. He no longer thought of that world as heaven, nor did he still think that we get to go there when we die. Those teachings had been burned away. But he could not abide by a universe composed only of what he could see, especially when it was so frequently foul. So he held to the idea of another world, a better place, and he figured he might as well consider Cold Mountain to be the location of it as anywhere.”

Cold Mountain found me precisely at the moment I needed it. I was twenty-one and immersed in the toughest academic year of my life, at Oxford’s Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. For most American students, the Oxford tutorial system is a nerve-wracking gauntlet, and I was no exception. Producing weekly essays on Chaucer or 13th century mystics consumed my life, and my tutors never tired of reminding me that I was but a pale newbie to the long, long tradition of letters.

Chill rain soaked bustling Cornmarket Street the October day I ducked into the curved, high-columned building that houses Waterstone’s. I’d come to buy a specific translation of Beowulf, a much more traditional version than the one I was in love with—Seamus Heaney’s brilliant, personal encounter with that brutal classic of Olde English. Heaney had brought his Northern Irish heartbreak to bear on the old work, making it new. For the endless term paper I was writing on Heaney’s translation, I’d been urged to get a more “straight-arrow” version for comparison. At the time, I saw this advice as an effort to dampen my rhapsodic enthusiasm for Heaney’s diction (“But he chose word-hoard, don’t you see how radical that is?”), so the assignment had me feeling stymied.

As a treat for capitulating to authority, I wandered into the fiction section, gravitating toward the writers I’d recently been craving. Heaney’s work had me longing for the flinty storytellers of my own country. My homesickness surprised me—I didn’t long for the people back home, for American products, or for Nashville’s familiar city streets. My thoughts roamed instead to ridgetops, cricket chatter, muddy hillsides, country songs, and my grandparents’ peeling front porch. So when I settled onto the floor of the fiction aisle, I pulled down a copy of Cold Mountain.

Charles Frazier’s first novel was still somewhat new and had won the National Book Award. I knew it was set in the lower Blue Ridge. As a teenager, I had traveled there on road trips with my aunt, the mountains signaling to me, for the first time, that my young writer’s imagination was welcome somewhere. This was a powerful discovery—one I did not have words for at the time. The feeling in my chest was good, full of promise, but also dense and toughening, like a shovel striking dark, rich soil. I was thrilled, but kept quiet about it. Even now, the Blue Ridge remains the place that sets my imagination working like no other—a sanctuary, where I go to write whenever I can.

I also knew that Cold Mountain is a loose retelling of Homer’s Odyssey set during the Civil War. Inman, the male protagonist, walks away from his army hospital bed, and the nightmare of battle, to risk a long dangerous trek home to Cold Mountain. As Inman wanders this brutal landscape (or as he understates it, the “feverish world”), Cold Mountain remains his only vision of possible respite. Back home, Ada is fighting for her own survival, learning to farm the land she inherited from her high-minded minister father. Wrestling the land as well as her own “thistleish” manner, Ada’s struggle concerns the lonesome cost of discovering one’s true usefulness.

“Standing thick in the rows and towering over the vegetables were weeds that Ada could not name and had neither the energy nor the heart to fight. Beyond the failed garden stretched the old cornfield, now grown up shoulder high in poke and sumac. Above the fields and pastures, the mountains were just becoming visible as the morning fog burned away. Their pale outlines stood at the horizon, more like the ghosts of mountains than the actual things.”

I slipped the book back onto the shelf and floated outside into the English rain, my imagination roving. The next week, in another bookstore, I took a break from Beowulf research and read the second chapter. Again, I returned it to the shelf. To be clear, any restraint I now have in the ways of book buying came years after this era of my life. When I flew home that spring, I had to buy an extra suitcase to lug home the books I’d accumulated. Why I didn’t buy Cold Mountain—why I read it one chapter at a time throughout the school year, in corner chairs and cafes of numerous bookstores around Oxford—has remained mysterious to me. It’s a memory I’m fond of recalling but had never examined.

The secrets of homeland, my own place in a tradition—that’s what the novel gave me the first time. I was becoming a fiction writer and just beginning to embrace my southern identity. I won’t take these comparisons too far. The Oxford system is tough, but I wasn’t at war. Apprenticeship as a writer takes unreasonable exertion and commitment, but I wasn’t plowing earth for my bodily survival. Still, Frazier’s novel seemed to touch on these matters in a way that writers sometimes need most—contact with the heart of the imagination. Or maybe not the heart—maybe the far periphery, like the shadowed tree line where thick forest meets clearing. Then and now, Cold Mountain meets my imagination at the crepuscular edge of dreamstate, where writers do their best work.

Cold Mountain reached me in that place, and maybe I wanted to keep it there. Perhaps that’s why I kept slipping it back onto the shelf. As a student, I tried my best with all those rigorous critical studies of European classics. But I needed something secret, too. It’s a reading habit I’ve retained. I’m nearly always reading a book I won’t mention to anyone, like a secret ingredient added to my days.

Approaching Cold Mountain now, it’s lost none of its power to enchant. Proceeding at its own pace, it resists any kind of hurry. The book insists that you enter its world on its own terms, leaving behind the stride of the contemporary world. Its mountain landscape is laden with secret coves, gorges, and narrow footpaths, and Inman’s episodes of dark misadventure feel conjured from wafting mists. Homer’s mythic power shines through, made new in ways I’m sure Heaney and his word-hoard would’ve approved.

This time through, Inman and Ada’s decisions resonated more personally for me. At twenty-one, I couldn’t understand their losses, or their fear, because I hadn’t yet lost anything or anyone that truly mattered to me. Even in the face of dire privation and brutality, Inman and Ada try to choose kindness where they can. They keep going in the face of loss, one foot in front of the other.

When I reread Cold Mountain, my copy was crisp, and binding crackled when I opened it. Shortly after I returned to the states, I bought that pristine hardcover, and up it went, onto my shelves where I could think of it fondly whenever I saw it. I’d think not only of Inman and Ada, but also of those stolen hours in corners of Oxford’s bookstores and the furtive pleasure of recognizing my turf. By then, I was headed down my own road—not the scholarly path, but one much messier and closer to the bone. After long foreign travels, I’d come home a fiction writer and a southerner. Cold Mountain will always play a pivotal role in the story of that grand adventure.

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Photo on 9-15-14 at 4.54 PM

Emily Choate has held writer’s residencies at Vermont Studio Center, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and ISLAND (Institute for Sustainable Living, Art, and Natural Design). A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program, her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Florida ReviewChapter 16YemasseeNashville Scene, and elsewhere. She lives in Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.

 

 

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Soaring Gardens Thank You Notes

So, in my last update from Soaring Gardens, I alluded to another surprise for the contributors of my GoFundMe campaign, as well as a handful of folks who have just generally helped me out lately. On my last two days at the residency, I walked around the house and the grounds, staging photos of thank you notes, which I think you’ll all enjoy seeing. This is my way of saying that y’all were there with me at the residency, that I was thinking of you and appreciative of your financial help, as well as all your support and encouragement over the last many weeks. I accidentally left off one of the contributors, so I’ll add a special surprise for her at the end.

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Amanda, I forgot to stage a thank you note photo for you at the residency, so here’s one from Philadelphia. And, as a bonus, I’m going to email you a photo from Soaring Gardens that I never posted here, something I think you’ll enjoy.

Pumpkin, gourds and corn from the orchard, at Anne's house in Philly.

Pumpkin, gourds and corn from the orchard on our last day together in Laceyville, now at Anne’s house in Philly.

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Filed under coolness, family, Friends, The Residency Road Trip, travel, writing updates

The Residency Road Trip Leg Two: Atlanta and the road to Soaring Gardens

So, at the end of the Leg One post, I had just arrived in Atlanta and was anticipating my time there, catching up with family, old friends and the ATL tango community. And just as I suspected (and hoped), it was a very full week.

I spent a lot of time with my parents, including the evening of their anniversary. Since I don’t have a t.v. in New Orleans, visiting my folks always includes lots of t.v. watching: my favorites like Falling Skies and So You Think You Can Dance, shows my parents love like Rizzoli and Isles and Who Do You Think You Are?, as well as new shows we checked out, like Legends. It was a lot of t.v., but we also prepped for my journey to Soaring Gardens. It almost felt like they were sending me off to camp, at times. When I was home, I also worked on a freelance story, wrapping that up and a few other tasks, before I left for the residency.

And I read. Fahrenheit 451 for the Re-Reading Project, which scarred me for a few days. It was hard not to look at everything around me through that lens. And when I was done, I picked up an ARC of a fat fantasy novel that doesn’t come out till next April. I thought, because it was such a dense story, that I’d sip at it slowly throughout my residency month. Instead, I gulped it down in about 36 hours, reading the first 100 pages in maybe about 24 hours and 300+ in less than 8 hours. It was so good – look for it in the 3rd Quarter Reading Report next month.

You're free, Rocco!

You’re free, Rocco!

I caught up with an old friend I hadn’t seen for ten years at one of my favorite hometown restaurants. He wanted to know all about the residency and the memoir and it was very cool talking about it with a friend from my young adulthood. I celebrated the 12th birthday of one of my oldest friend’s sons, to whom I’m bit of an auntie or godmother. I spoiled his dinner with ice cream, helped him set his pet turtle free at the neighborhood park, had dinner with his family and took him to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a blast from my own past. It was quite a day.

And I tango’d three nights with the ATL community. When I first arrived, I saw that the *only* milonga during my stay was on my last night, which I’d planned to spend with my parents, so I reached out to folks I knew and got the skinny on classes and a house party, hosted by a friend who used to live in Baton Rouge. So I had the opportunity to take classes with two different sets of ATL instructors (Clint y Shelley on Monday and Angel y April on Wednesday), which was a phenomenal experience. And then I enjoyed a relaxed tango house party on Friday. It’s too bad I missed the milonga on Sunday, but I loved my week of ATL tango.

I set out for the next leg of my trip early in the morning on Labor Day, so early it was pretty much still night. Even so, it took me so long to get to Philadelphia! I had fine weather, but I stopped a lot and drove slowly most of the way, listening to a long audio book as I went. I’ve made this drive before, or at least most of it (I’ve gone as far as D.C., years ago), and it was pretty terrain, wildly different than my usual drives.

No rest stop adventures this time around, but I had a nice stop at a Cracker Barrel in Virginia for a late lunch and a long, good talk with a friend while I ate. And then I arrived at the home of my residency housemate, the artist Anne Canfield. This sweet lady and her husband fed me and put me up for the evening in their gorgeous home. I was swooning over the art and the books and the house itself most of the time I was there (even in my sleep). I could’ve stayed there a month!

The next day, Anne and I ran a few errands and set off for Soaring Gardens, a few hours from Philadelphia. On the way, we stopped for lunch at a super efficient and bizarre (to me) cross between a rest stop and convenience mall right off the highway. Where I had a Philly cheesesteak sandwich for lunch. I’d almost forgotten!

Yum!

Yum!

This last few hours of the journey felt a bit like a roller coaster, what with all the curvaceous, mountainous highway and all the other drivers going 15-20 miles over the speed limit and my super heavy car. It was some of the most breathtaking scenery I’ve ever seen, so that almost made up for the constant fear of driving off the road down the side of a mountain.

And then we were in farmland, traversing narrow drives through acres of corn and fruit trees and small ponds by the road. Until suddenly, we turned onto a drive and there was Soaring Gardens.

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Filed under Atlanta, family, Friends, tango, The Residency Road Trip, travel

Anniversary August and my GoFundMe campaign

August is ridiculous with birthdays (soooo many people I love!) and anniversaries–marriage anniversaries (my parents, my sister and her husband) as well as two of my personal milestone anniversaries.

Seven years ago (7!) I moved to New Orleans. I’ve now been in Nola as long as I lived in Baton Rouge. Maybe I suffer from the seven year itch, because I was desperate to leave BR in 2007 and with all of the shakeups in my life recently, I’ve been wondering if I need to be elsewhere for a little while. More on that in a minute.

Three years ago, I went to my first tango class and started my journey as a tango dancer. Because the community of tango dancers worldwide is fairly small and they tend to travel a lot, tango has actually increased my desire to travel to new and favorite places. To dance with new communities and return to those I enjoy: Chicago, Atlanta and now D.C.

Which brings me to my GoFundMe campaign, which I launched about a week ago. I’ve been offered a place at Soaring Gardens, an artists’ residency in rural Pennsylvania. I get to live and write in this house for a month and I’m raising money to fund the trip. I’ll be working on new chapters of my memoir, Tango Face, named after the essay I wrote about the cabaceo, which won the 2012 Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Awards in the essay category. The memoir is about what learning tango has been teaching me about myself and my relationships. The way people have been responding to what I’ve written so far has been very gratifying and has pushed me to continue.

Every year, I make my best attempt at 50,000 words during the month of November for NaNoWriMo, so I know I can write lots of new material in a month, especially since I’ll be removed from the distractions of my everyday life. Including my tango community, which is bittersweet. While I’ll miss dancing with them, it’s been really cool how supportive and encouraging they’ve been.

In fact, all of my communities have been extremely supportive through this process. I’m very grateful and inspired by all of you!

Be on the lookout for a NolaFemmes post soon about New Orleans-specific places and things I’ll miss while I’m gone.

On Sunday the 17th, at the 2-week mark of the GoFundMe campaign, I’m having a goodbye party and fundraiser celebration. It will be at Pelican Bay on Elysian Fields, starting at 2 p.m.

And the GoFundMe campaign will officially wrap up on Wednesday the 20th, one week from today. So, if you have $5 or $10 to donate, please do. Every single contributor will be named in the acknowledgements of the memoir when it’s published *and* I have secret lagniappe gifts to thank everybody. Plus, I’m planning a special Bragging On post just for contributors to share how talented and wonderful all of you are.

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Filed under bragging on, freelance work, Friends, musing, New Orleans, tango, travel, writing updates