Susan’s Best Reads of 2019

I don’t read as much as I wish I could; I just don’t have time at the moment. It doesn’t help that I wind up with sometimes 600 page books in my hands, and those take longer.  I never know what I’ll read next, and I read a bunch of good ones last year. Here are some of my favorites:

One of the two best books I read this year, I’ve already blogged about: Creativity, Inc, by Ed Catmull, was amazing. Not just a history of Pixar films, it’s also the best darned, most entertaining book on business and employee management you will read. Pixar is a 5-star company for a reason.

The second of my Best Reads this year is The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James.  From approximately 1898 to 1912, a serial killer traversed the US by train – coming through New Haven’s Union Station on the way – with an MO of bludgeoning his victims with the back of an axe. Because of communications at the time, few people were able to connect the murders. James painstakingly, with the utmost detail, traces the dozens of murders and examines them, deciding if they were likely by the same killer or not, and why. He traces the paths through the states and the seasons, chasing the trail to a man who was most likely the killer. By the time he’s done, you are convinced and amazed. I could not stop reading this book. I read it while waiting for the school bus. I read it while cooking. I would have read it in the shower if I could have. If you love a mystery, if you love history, if you love crime stories, this book is a must.

I’m only 30 years late in reading Neuromancer, the Hugo-winning cyberpunk novel by William Gibson. I can see why it is held as one of the greatest novels of our time. Gibson predicts and writes about today’s modern computers and internet and gaming – long before they existed. The scenarios he describes are both familiar and futuristic at the same time. While not only visionary, it’s written in  a flawless style and with realistic, interesting characters. If you loved Ready Player One or The Matrix (which has to have been influenced by this book), you will love Neuromancer.

If you’re aware of social and racial issues, I strongly recommend Survival Math, by Mitchell S. Jackson. A professor of writing, in achingly beautiful prose worthy of Martin Luther King Jr., with the voice of a preacher without being preachy, Johnson breaks down the issues faced in his own family, examining how he came to where he is, how racism played into it without even being visible, and how despite all the odds, it’s possible to thrive. He covers harsh topics without flinching. The book is brilliant, spellbinding, and a superb read from a voice that soars with truth.

Far more than I expected, I loved Total Recall, an older door-stop of a biography on Arnold Schwarzenegger. From his birth in a tiny town in Austria (which still has only 2500 people) to his divorce from Maria Shriver, Arnold is witty and candid and down to Earth. No matter what you think of his politics or his movies or his personal life, this book may be older, but it was highly entertaining. His best friend just died in September of this year.

Not my favorite, but worth mentioning because of its local importance, is Frog Hollow  by Susan Campbell. Campbell, a former reporter with the Hartford Courant, digs into the history of the notorious Frog Hollow section of Hartford, and through tireless research shows the former glory of the neighborhood as not only an important area in Colonial times, but once a major manufacturing center (in 1898, Pope automotive made half the cars in the US). I was hoping for a deep sociologic dissection of the issues, but instead Campbell gives us an upbeat view from street level about the good aspects of Hartford and the people who live there, not just the doom and gloom of ad-selling news clips.

Last but not least, I’ll throw in a kid’s series you probably missed; with 18 years between my last two kids, I certainly did, but my youngest is so hooked on the British easy reader series Urgency Emergency! by Dosh Archer, I wound up buying most of them. The series is so witty and enjoyable you don’t mind reading them over and over again. Doctor Glenda, Nurse Percy, and the Pengamedics, in predictable melodrama, assist the maladies of Humpty Dumpty, The Big Bad Wolf, the Itsy Bitsy Spider, and many more. They are a delight. The library has several of the stories; be sure to read them all!

NaNo Boosters

November is NaNoWriMo month! 

If you’ve never heard of it, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, a time when thousands of hopeful writers spend every possible minute banging out  the novel they’ve always wanted to write. Those who finish a 50,000 word novel in thirty days receive a certificate of completion, and little booster badges to keep going.

NaNo started back in 1999 as a support group for a bunch of friends. Today, it’s grown into a massive non-profit organization with more than 150,000 participants. More than 400,000 people finished their novels. 

Sounds great, doesn’t it? More than 250 NaNo novels have been picked up by publishers.

Two hundred fifty, out of hundreds of thousands. And that’s part of the problem. NaNo focuses on speed and word count, not quality. They encourage you to write schlock – don’t think too long, don’t get locked up, let the ideas flow. Git’r done. People finish their novel and can’t wait to send it off to a publisher. And the publisher will see the line “I just finished my novel for NaNoWriMo…” and immediately the manuscript will hit the trash can.  

Why? Because in many ways, NaNo is a pat on the back, nothing more. A writer – someone who is dead-set on writing, knows the craft – doesn’t need a dedicated month to write or stickers to keep them going. Writers write. That’s what they do. Nothing stops them. NaNo makes it a game for those who wish to be writers, but often don’t know what to do. There is no accountability for content – you could type “This is my novel” 13,000 times. Finishing a manuscript, typing The End, is only the start of a writer’s job. It’s shaping the clay before the sculpting, putting the pencil sketch onto your canvas before the paint. Every manuscript – every, save a very few elite writers (and I’m not talking rich or popular ones) – is garbage at the rough draft.

Every.  One.

Every novel must be edited, rewritten, checked, rechecked, spellchecked, polished, and inconsistencies and logic errors ironed out. Plot holes must be sewn shut. Grammar – please, oh please – must be fixed. No manuscript  goes to an agent or publisher on the rough draft. Most writers doesn’t even let their beta readers – those friends whose opinions they trust – read their rough draft. You might slap that story together in 30 days, but the editing and rewrites are more likely to take months. And even when you’ve edited it twelve times, made the corrections of six beta readers, run it through grammar and spell check, there will still be some error that everything has still missed. 

You want to write? Write. A writer burns with passion. A writer wants their work to be the best it possibly can, not rush production for a certificate of completion. Quality is the key that will open doors. Read everything that you can lay your eyes on. Learn format. Learn editing. If you have a question, check it on the internet. Check your facts – if you aren’t sure an African Swallow can carry a coconut, look it up.  Cross-reference to make sure your source is correct. Author Naomi Wolf – a respected writer with several influential best-sellers to her name – was caught red-handed when she realized in the middle of a radio interview that her interpretation of relevant material was completely wrong. The publisher then pulled the published book. ALWAYS do your research.  Anyone who has the seen the movie My Cousin Vinny is well aware that a 1964 Buick Skylark was not available with positraction, a tiny fact that would escape most people but proved hugely important in the legal case of the film. Facts matter.

And when you do finish your manuscript, with or without NaNoWriMo to keep you focused, and you think you’ve got something good, check out these books on writing to help you polish it into a sure-fire winner! 

Strunk and White: The Elements of Style
The Writers Digest Writing Clinic  
From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction
Writing and Publishing Your Book 
Writing the Blockbuster Novel 
The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells
How to Self Publish Your Book
Just Write: Creating Unforgettable Fiction
Sol Stein’s Reference Book for Writers   

Cheshire Library also has a Writer’s Group that meets monthly (run by yours truly), check our Events Calendar for Cat Tales Writers Group and join us!

Book Review: Creativity, Inc

 

Every once in a while you come across a book you would never attempt to read but for some stupid reason you do, and you are so thankful you did. This is one of those times.

While researching material on writing, I came across a recommendation for a book, and I kind of scratched my head. This was a book on business, and there was just no way I would read a book on business – my eyes would glaze in the first page, the same way they do if someone is talking actuarial tables or student loan forms. What could such a book have to do with writing? It just so happened the library had a copy I was able to grab. And that book, despite being a couple of years old (2014), is the best book I have read so far this year.

Creativity, Inc. is written by Ed Catmull,  who was part of the driving force behind Pixar Studios, the film company known for making ground-breaking and award-winning (and record-breaking, with more than 14 Billion dollars in revenue) animated films, such as Toy Story, Monsters,Inc, A Bug’s Life, and more. When Pixar and Disney merged in 2006, he applied his same priciples to the flagging animation department at Disney, who hadn’t had a hit in 16 years. Disney shot right back up with films like Wall-E, Cars, Incredibles, Coco, Brave, etc. To read this book is to relive the last 30 years of animated film making. If it’s not a walk down memory lane for your childhood, it is a reminder of all the wonderful films you saw with your children. If you haven’t enjoyed any of them, run and grab one today. 

What is Catmull’s secret? Of course a strong bottom line is what investors want, and Catmull agrees, but he refuses to allow the creativity of the artists to be stymied in any way. There are no superstars – not even preferred parking. Everyone from the janitor to the lunch lady to the writer is allowed equal – respected – input. Employees are encouraged to do what it takes to keep happy and relaxed, because happy employees are productive employees. They are encouraged to take time for classes offered at work – art, archery, whatever. If they are producing a film in Africa, a team of writers and artists will take a field trip to Africa and experience what they are trying to portray. Films, from first idea pitch to final cut – are brought up for constant, honest review, where the ensemble team toss ideas off each other about the work, good or bad, and the film may take a twist for the better from it. Every artist is respected every step of the way. Written into the contracts is a proviso that if a film reaches a certain amount of return, a portion of that is given to the employees as a bonus.

Needless to say, Pixar and Disney Animation staff are  happy to go to work. 

So, how did that all relate to writing?

Remember that movies start as stories. Someone has to write them before they can be filmed. By keeping an atmosphere that encourages creativity, no matter how odd (come on – talking cars? Emotions? Bugs? A rat who likes to cook? ), by immersing yourself in a creative environment, by learning to take constructive criticism without imploding, you become a better writer. A writer needs feedback as they develop ideas, as they write the ideas, as they polish their ideas into a final copy.  

This book was a joy to read. Grab it, read it, whether you’re looking for a business model to follow, as a manager looking to improve productivity, as an artist looking for appreciation, as a movie person wanting to know more about Pixar and Disney films. It’s all there. 

Be amazed at the process, and then check out one of the masterpieces Catmull’s presided over. Wall-E, Coco and Up are perfect for adults!

The Incredibles   –  Ratatouille  –  Cars  –  Shorts Finding Dory  –  Wall-E   

Inside Out –  Brave  –  Monsters, Inc  –  Toy Story  –  Coco  –  Up

Unusual Sports Movies

There are only two days a year when no major sports games are held: the day before baseball’s Major League All-Star Game, and the day after.  On every other day of the year, a major sporting event occurs somewhere in the country. Indeed, there are only 26 days a year when the PGA is not on tour, 51 days without tennis, and 95 days without a NASCAR event. Many sport seasons overlap – baseball ends long after football starts, basketball begins during football, and hockey runs long after baseball starts.

I’m not a huge sports fan. Sure, I grew up watching Wide World of Sports, but our family sport was Indy car racing, and if you practice that, police get annoyed. I earned an inter-dorm basketball championship shirt in college, but that was because we won three games by default, and yes, I watch two full weeks of the Olympics each time.

But for some unknown reason, I do like movies about sports. And there are a plethora of really good ones. Every sport has a loyal following, and some sports are more of a specialty than others (there aren’t many mainstream martial arts films beyond The Karate Kid,  and when I thought of skiing movies and thought of The Other Side of the Mountain (yeah, I’m old) and Eddie the Eagle real skiers have movies no one in the average  theater knows of), but no matter what the sport, there’s at least one film about it (Cool Runnings not withstanding).

Best of the Best

Ten films are on almost every Best Sports Movie list available. They’re grade-A movies that can make even the non-sportsman cheer for the underdog:
Hoop DreamsField of Dreams   / Moneyball  /  Bull Durham  /  Rocky   Rudy  /  Caddyshack   / 
Raging Bull  /  Tin Cup  /   Million Dollar Baby

Wider World of Sports

Yes, you say, but three of those are boxing movies. I’m a competitive swimmer. Then check out The Swimmer, with Burt Lancaster. If you want a top-rated movie for a sport without a weekday TV contract, try:

Golf: Caddyshack (no matter what list you look at, golfers insist this is THE best golf movie, but check out Tin Cup or The Legend of Bagger Vance for something more serious).
Tennis: Borg vs. McEnroe Battle of the Sexes
RunningJericho Mile, Chariots of Fire   

Skiing: Deep and Light
Martial Arts: Drunken Master II (Jackie Chan)
Auto racing: Days of Thunder,  Rush

Soccer: Pele: Birth of a Legend, Bend it Like Beckham
Billiards: The Hustler
Ice Skating: The Cutting Edge,  Ice Castles I, Tonya

Hockey:  Miracle, Slap Shot, Mystery Alaska
Surfing: Soul Surfer, Blue Crush

Horseracing: Seabiscuit
Weightlifting: Pumping Iron (the absolute classic!)
Rodeo: The Electric Horseman 8 Seconds  

Killer Roller Skating: Rollerball Whip It
Dodgeball: Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story  
Apocalyptic ManhuntingThe Running Man,  The Hunger Games

Always Broom for One More

And Quidditch? Yes, that crazy game from Harry Potter is a real modern-day Muggle sport. Quidditch was first played on the campus of Middlebury College in 2005, with actual world championships (but no flying on the brooms), and there is still a push to make Quidditch an Olympic sport. Or you can follow Connecticut Quidditch teams at Yale, UConn, or Quinnipiac to watch live action on the pitch.  (Yes, I’m serious. My daughter’s team ranked 22nd in the world).

Don’t pay those exorbitant stadium prices or suffer through repetitive commercials! Grab your beer or bottled water, your popcorn or your Ball Park Frank, and cheer for your favorite sport with one of these awesome sports films!

Hometown Famous

Whether you’ve lived here a short time or half a century, Cheshire can seem like a sleepy, quiet little town, without much going for it beyond being close to most of the state’s highways. Settled in 1694 as part of Wallingford, Cheshire broke away to become a separate town in 1780 – eight years before Connecticut would ratify the Constitution to become the fifth state of a brand-new nation. Between the Grange Fair, Strawberry Festival, and the annual Memorial Day Parade, sometimes it feels like we haven’t changed much since then. We’re a small town that doesn’t attract a lot of attention.

Or do we? Little Cheshire seems to be a hotbed for creating artists, writers, actors, athletes, celebrities, and more.

If you read the signs as you pass in and out of town, you’ll know that we’re the “Bedding Plant Capital of Connecticut” – our multiple large farms and greenhouses grow and distribute flower-bed plants to stores and markets throughout the state. You’ve probably passed by the Foote House on West Main Street – Samuel Foote was the 28th Governor of Connecticut, born the year Cheshire became a town. In 1823, Amos B. Alcott, born in Wolcott, became a teacher in Cheshire – his daughter Louisa May would go on to find greater fame.

Yeah, yeah, but those aren’t people *I* would know.

Then let’s look at some of our locals and graduates whose names are known not just in town. You have certainly heard of some of them! I know I’ve gone to school with a few, or their siblings.

     – as well as several scientists and economists and inventors. With such a rich, diverse list of accomplished graduates and residents, remember to support educational opportunities in town, especially arts and sports! Even if all you do is look at a school art show, or check a book out from the library.  Take an art class. Take a writing class. Check out the wide range of programs at the library or Adult Education. It’s never too late to start. You never know when the next star will appear!

If I’ve missed you, I apologize, our space is limited, and there are MULTITUDE of artists and authors in Cheshire!