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!

What’s Happening at Cheshire Library in November

There’s so much going on at CPL this month: two concerts, special programs honoring our veterans, a new Homeschool meetup, the big Fall Book Sale, and so much more!  Check out our Event Calendar for the full roster, here are some highlights:

Play & Learn

Saturday, November 2, 2019, 10:00-11:00am

Our new drop-in play group for children and their caregivers! Explore interactive and sensory activities, encouraging the development of early literacy skills.  We will have lots of movement, songs, and a short storytime during the last 20 minutes of the program. Recommended for ages 2 to 5 years old.  Younger and older siblings are also welcome to attend. No registration required.

College Financial Aid Seminar

Saturday, November 2, 2019, 2:00 – 3:30pm

Jennifer Philips’ seminar, “Simplifying the Financial Aid Process, “ will provide parents and students with tips on securing the best possible financial aid package from the college of their choice. Jennifer will describe the best student loans, grants and scholarships available, explain the critical financial aid forms and deadlines and the various components of a financial aid offer. Registration is required.

United States Coast Guard Dixieland Jazz Band

Sunday, November 3, 2019, 2:00 – 4:00pm

Performing classic jazz, blues, and rags with a “New Orleans” flavor. The Dixieland Jazz Band has entertained audiences across America and around the world.  Please join us for a very special concert! No registration required.

Author Talk – Formation: A Woman’s Memoir of Stepping Out of Line

Monday, November 4, 2019, 6:30 – 8:00pm

Ryan Dostie never imagined herself on the front lines of a war halfway around the world. But then a conversation with an Army recruiter in her high-school cafeteria changes the course of her life. Hired as a linguist, she quickly has to find a space for herself in the testosterone-filled world of the Army barracks, and has been holding her own until the unthinkable happens: she is attacked by a fellow soldier. Join us as the author discusses her powerful book. Registration is required.

Veterans’ Writing Group

Tuesday, November 5, 2019, 6:30 – 8:00pm

Join us for a short film and a panel discussion with members of the Veterans’ Writing Group. The Russell Library Veterans’ Writing Group has been meeting and writing stories of their incredible experiences for several years, which will be published by En Route Publishing this year. Come get a sneak peak of this fascinating book, and listen to true stories from veterans from all branches of service. Registration is required.

Veterans Day Concert with the Cheshire Community Band

Sunday, November 10, 2019, 2:00 – 4:00pm

The Cheshire Community Band will perform a variety of selections including historical and patriotic numbers in celebration of Veterans Day. No registration required.

Veterans Day Movie: They Shall Not Grow Old 

Tuesday, November 12, 2019, 6:00 – 8:00pm

On the centenary of the end of the First World War, experience the Great War as never before. Using state-of-the-art technology and materials from the BBC and Imperial War Museum, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson allows the story of World War I to be told by the men who were there. Life on the front is explored through the voices of the soldiers, who discuss their feelings about the conflict, the food they ate, the friends they made and their dreams of the future. Registration is required.

Homeschool Meetup (all ages)

Wednesday, November 3, 2019, 11:00am – 12:00pm

Meet other local families who are educating their children and teens at home while sharing tips, ideas, and educational materials. Toys and sensory play will be available for young children and crafts will be provided for older children and teens. Please register each child or teen separately.

Medicare Supplement and Advantage: Q & A

Thursday, November 14, 2019, 1:00 – 3:00pm

Staff from the Western Connecticut Area Agency on Aging will present this seminar and provide vital information about Medicare, Medicare Supplement and Medicare Advantage.  Their mission is to provide the information and assistance necessary for consumers to understand their rights, receive benefits to which they are entitled and make informed choices about health insurance concerns. Registration is required.

A Night with Georgia O’Keeffe ~ Craft night

Thursday, November 14, 2019, 6:30 – 8:00pm

Join us for a short film on the life of Georgia O’Keeffe and then create your own work of art in her style. All materials will be provided. Registration is required for this adult (18+)  program.

“Are You In Your Right Mind?” – A Joyce Saltman Workshop

Monday, November 18, 2019, 1:00 – 2:30pm

Interactive and fun, this lecture will explore individual differences through left-brain/right brain research, in an effort to understand and appreciate these differences in ourselves and others. Joyce Saltman is a professor Emeritus of Special Education at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven and a former Cheshire resident. Her experience in the areas of education, therapy, and comedy has provided an outstanding background for her research on The Therapeutic Value of Laughter. Registration is required.

Fall Book Sale!

Thursday, November 21  – Sunday, November 24, 2019

Bargains galore at the big Fall Book Sale! Browse more than 15,000 books of every possible genre. Stock up on audiobooks and DVDs. You never know what treasures you’ll find. Book sale hours:

  • Wednesday, November 20, 6:30-8:00pm (Preview Night for Friends’ Members only)
  • Thursday, November 21, 9:00am – 8:00pm
  • Friday, November 22, 9:00am – 4:30pm
  • Saturday, November 23, 9:00am – 4:30pm
  • Sunday, November 24, 12:00 – 3:00pm

Mysteries of St. Peter’s Basilica

Tuesday, November 26, 2019, 6:30 – 8:00pm

Did you know that St. Peter’s church at the Vatican has hidden geometry pinpointing certain locations? Robert Kerson will discuss this fascinating mystery. Learn details of the current basilica few people are aware of. Registration is required.

Books Over Coffee

Wednesday, November 27, 2019, 12:00 – 1:30pm

On the last Wednesday of every month from 12-1:30p we’ll meet in the Loft to discuss the selected title. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is our November selection. Books are available in print,  audio, & ebook format. You bring your lunch, we’ll provide the coffee and tea. Registration is required.

 

Why do we like to be scared? – the psychology of horror

As Halloween quickly approaches, I find myself dipping deeper into the pool of horror films, books and media that always seems to be present, any time of year you go looking for them. I didn’t come to love horror organically, as an over anxious child and teen I was somehow drawn to true crime documentaries, sneaking peeks at the coverage of the OJ Simpson trial, and staying up late to watch E! “Murders of Hollywood”. My first experience with horror movies was staying up in my friends living room, her German Shepard was half blocking my view of The Ring on VHS, which was particularly ironic. So why do we seek out things that scare us, instead of those that comfort us?

The easy answer is : We like to be safe. If we expose ourselves to things that scare us in a safe environment, it’s like going on a roller coaster. Your endorphins spike, your heart rate races, but in two minutes it’s over, you’re back on solid ground. I’d rather know how horrible the world can be so I can prepared for what actually goes bump in the night.

The Horror of It All is a memoir from the front lines of the industry that dissects the hugely popular genre of scary movies.

Horror movies and novels are much the same. People chose entertainment because they want to be affected. You choose a romance novel because you want to feel the giddy rush of love, you choose action because you want to feel excitement. Horror is another sensation driven genre. You want to experience the rush with none of the consequences of the situation, which lets you enjoy the sensation and adrenaline spike. Quoted from a 2004 paper in the Journal of Medical Psychology by Dr. Glen Walters “the three primary factors that make horror films alluring are tension (generated by suspense, mystery, terror, shock, and gore), relevance (that may relate to personal relevance, cultural meaningfulness, the fear of death, etc.), and (somewhat paradoxically given the second factor) unreal-ism.”(Walters, 2004)

So if you’re like me and looking for a thrill (while at the same time being wrapped up in a blanket fort for safety) then you’ve come to the right place for some recommendations. All of the things I recommend are available for checkout at the Cheshire Public Library, so let’s tuck in to my favorite genre:

hereditary_xlg.jpgHereditary  – When Ellen, the matriarch of the Graham family, passes away, her daughter’s family begins to unravel cryptic and increasingly terrifying secrets about their ancestry. The more they discover, the more they find themselves trying to outrun the sinister fate they seem to have inherited. Making his feature debut, writer-director Ari Aster unleashes a nightmare vision of a domestic breakdown that exhibits the craft and precision of a nascent auteur, transforming a familial tragedy into something ominous and deeply disquieting, and pushing the horror movie into chilling new terrain with its shattering portrait of heritage gone to hell.

This movie is fantastic, Ari Aster is a master of portraying agony in a way I haven’t seen in any other movie thus far. His characters experience the broadest range of emotion, and each scene is raw and beautifully acted. It’s really a treat to watch, both for the performances, and the scares. Prepare to have expectations subverted with this movie, Ari Aster is one to watch as a newcomer to the horror genre, and A24 is producing some outstanding content as well. If you haven’t seen it yet, treat yourself to Hereditary, as well as his newest film, Midsommar.

The Stand – The Stand takes place in a post-apocalyptic world triggered by the breakdown of society following the release of a biological weapon. The weapon is a virulent strain of influenza that decimates the population. It follows a few key characters across the United States, attempting to survive and make peace with the people they’ve become after the world has ended. It has elements of horror, elements of suspense, and in my opinion it’s one of the best post apocalyptic fiction novels ever written. Above all else though, it’s a thoughtful, well paced book. (One can’t have a list of horror titles and not mention King at least once, if not multiple times – The Tommyknockers, Salem’s Lot, The Shining…) The characters feel real and well flushed out, and the antagonist is ominous without becoming comic. It’s my go-to summer read, and I keep a paperback copy in my car at all times, so I can dip back in whenever the mood strikes, which is often.

I saw Gone Girl  before I had read the book (I know, the cardinal sin) and I had no context going into it. Gone girl? Sounds like a witty comedy about a girl who’s traveling cross country! I was very wrong. I had no idea about the twists (which I will keep to myself) and I had no idea what a treat I’d be in for when I read the book. They both play off each-other beautifully, and the book is written with punch and one liners that stick with you. The cool girl speech (look it up) is worth the price of the paperback alone. You should definitely treat yourself to this book, as well as Gillian Flynn’s two other titles Dark Places and Sharp Objects.

If you’re looking for something with real world ties, look no further than the masterpiece that is I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by the late Michelle McNamara. McNamara devoted a larger part of her life to sitting up in her daughters old playroom, surrounded by stuffed animals and tracking who would be come to known as the Golden State Killer. Sure she had a day job, but she also somehow convinced retired detectives from the case to send over boxes of case files. She went over phone records, emails, connected leads to perps, and made some of the most important headway the case had seen since it’s beginning in 1976. The case had been unsolved for ten years, and just recently closed with the arrest of a 73 year old Joseph Deangelo, a retired policeman. The book is well written, well researched, and fascinating if you want to know more about detective work, but never had the stomach to do it yourself. You feel yourself dissecting the facts along with Michelle, and the fact that she died before the case was solved makes the ending all the more poignant. It’s definitely worth the read, especially if you’re a fan of true crime and cases being solved.

Dipping into horror as a person with a chronically small comfort zone is more than just a little ironic. It’s taken me twenty five years to accept that strange part of myself, as a small portion of a largely complex whole. As an artist, a writer, and a creative, I find the darkness just as interesting as the light. Luckily, there are plenty of people who agree with me, and the horror genre is booming. Last summer, horror films accounted for 10% of cinema visits by moviegoers under 30-years-old. I’ll support any genre that encourages its artists and producers to push boundaries and visuals, and luckily, horror is doing just that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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