Entries in My Humble Opinion (26)


The Long and Winding Road: The Best of 2012

My adorable baby girl ringing in the New Year (on NYC time)

2012 was perhaps the biggest year of change of my life. I had a novel published and had another accepted for publication; I got hired to collaborate on a video game. I spoke at conferences, English classes, and signings. I moved with our large family across the continent to a very different but wonderful new life. As I look out my window at the palm trees and sunny skies beyond my balcony, I marvel at how different this day is from 1 January 2012.

Let's get to the lists. 

Favorite Books Read or Re-read:

(I didn't rank books written by close friends, many of which were excellent.)

1) 11/22/63, by Stephen King

2) Flora's Fury, by Ysabeau Wilce

3) Pope Joan, by Donna Woolfolk

4) Acceptable Loss, by Anne Perry

5) A Short Stay in Hell, by Steven Peck

6) The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

7) The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

8) The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin

9) Tuesdays at the Castle, by Jessica Day George

10) French Kids Eat Everything, by Karen Le Billon

Most Disappointing (not Worst) Book of the Year:

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Best Music Purchased:

Ralph Vaughan Williams: On Christmas Day: Folk-Songs and Folk-Carols

Morten Lauridsen: Lux aeterna

Great Big Sea: XX

Gary Clark, Jr.: "When My Train Pulls In"

The Black Keys: "Little Black Submarines"

Favorite Movies Seen:

1) Moonrise Kingdom

2) Skyfall

3) Argo

4) Hitchcock

5) Life of Pi

6) The Dark Knight Rises

7) The Hobbit

8) Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

9) Brave

10) Frankenweenie

Best Meals Eaten:

Per Se, NYC

Jean-Georges, NYC

Patina, LA

Brenda's French Soul Food, San Francisco

Chez Panisse Café, Berkeley

Luscious Dumplings, Monrovia

Roscoe's Chicken & Waffles, Pasadena

Yarn of the Year: madelinetosh 80/10/10 MCN in the Grenadine colorway

Rose of the Year: Cramoisi Supérieur


Here's to 2013 being fabulous! Happy New Year, everybody.


Creation and Consumption

This is the first post ever wrote on this blog, originally published on 6 September 2006. I am hard at work on some deadline-driven writing at the moment, so I thought I'd repost this for those of you who haven't been with me from the very beginning.

If you look up "consume" in the dictionary, you’ll find that most of its definitions are negative ones—besides "to eat or ingest" there is "to waste or squander; to absorb or engross; to ravage or totally destroy." (The American Heritage Dictionary, third edition) However, we are named "consumers" by the media so often these days that the word no longer holds a negative connotation for us.

I find this desensitization to be a dangerous one, because I believe our society has led itself into an unhealthy imbalance as it has increasingly focused on the act of consuming. We are here on the earth to begin to learn how to become creators, not consumers.

The survival instinct of consuming requires no further honing or development on our part. Yet we seem to spend more time consuming or finding ways to be able to consume more. It is vital to our mental, emotional, spiritual—and perhaps economic—health that we find a way to balance the act of consuming with the act of creating in our daily lives.

Almost any type of work, from gardening to lawyering, can be a creative activity if we choose to make it so. When we clean the house, we create order. When we read a book, we recreate for ourselves the world the author has already created. When we exercise, we create new muscles and blood vessels. When we take care of children or parents or neighbors, we create bonds of love.

For me, creativity is part of the process of living a rich life. Hugh Nibley wrote, “Who then is to judge what is good, true, and beautiful? You are. Plato says it is...by anamnesis, the act of recalling what we have seen somewhere before...We recognize what is lovely because we have seen it somewhere else, and as we walk through the world, we are constantly on the watch for it with a kind of nostalgia, so that when we see an object or a person that pleases us, it is like recognizing an old friend; it hits us in the solar plexus, and we need no measuring or lecturing to tell us that it is indeed quite perfect. It is something we have long been looking for, something we have seen in another world, a memory of how things should be." (Hugh Nibley, Approaching Zion)

Mark Helprin wrote, “One lives for a very short time, and life is incomparably precious. To live has much less to do with the senses or with ambition than with the asking of questions that never have been surely answered. To ask and then to answer these questions as far as one can, one needs above all a priceless and taxing involvement with truth and beauty. These are uncommonly plentiful in music and painting, in nature itself, in the sciences, in history, and in one's life as it unfolds—if one labors and dares to see them.” (Mark Helprin, “The Canon Under Siege”)

Our minds are like muscles, which atrophy and become flabby if not used. Exercise has holistic benefits, which flow to other areas of our lives. As we begin to flex our creativity, we will find ourselves more able to deal with challenges which confront us, more adept at critical thinking and problem solving; better equipped to make informed decisions; increasingly able to form our own opinions; more disciplined. We will spend less of our time in idle consumption.


A Crack in Everything: The Best of 2011

This time last year, I characterized 2010 as my most difficult year ever.  2011 was much better: still hard, but with lots of good stuff, too. I don't regret the trials I've experienced over the past two years. Looking back, I am reminded of those lines from Leonard Cohen's "Anthem": "There is a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in." I've been blessed with many glimpses of light in past months, which means I have to be grateful for those cracks, right?

Anyway, here are my highlights of the past year.

Best Books Read:

This year, I’ve decided to rank only books I read for the first time (no re-reads, as in years past). I’m also only ranking books by writers whom I don’t know personally.

1. The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson

2. A Dance with Dragons, By George R. R. Martin

3. Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, by Wendy Watson Nelson

4. Pathfinder, by Orson Scott Card

5. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua

6. Matched, by Ally Condie

7. The Healing Spell, by Kimberley Griffiths Little

8. Little Elvises, by Tim Hallinan

9. Sweater Quest, by Adrienne Martini

10. Save the Cat!, by Blake Snyder

Now I’ll list some outstanding books written by people I do know.  These are in no particular order—but they’re all worth your time.

Band of Sisters, by Annette Lyon

Keep Mama Dead, by S. James Nelson

I Don’t Want to Kill You, by Dan Wells

Not My Type, by Melanie Jacobson

The Scorch Trials, by James Dashner

Pumpkin Roll, by Josi Kilpack

Variant, by Rob Wells

Special Mention: Unwound, by Lee Ann Setzer—This book isn’t published yet. Lee Ann is in my critique group, so I got the immense privilege of reading this YA historical fantasy a few weeks ago. What. A. Joy.  Definitely one of the best books I read this year. My prediction: Lee Ann is the next Shannon Hale. Remember, you read it here first.

Best Music Purchased:

1. “Noisy Birds” (and so many other fantastic tracks), by Fictionist

1. “The Bird Song” (and the rest of the new record), by The Wailin’ Jennys

1. “Born on a New Day,” by The King’s Singers

4. “Sweet Bells” by Kate Rusby

5. “This Little Light of Mine,” by The Lower Lights

6. “You’re My Best Friend,” by The Once

7. “Baby We Were Young,” by The Dirty Guv’nahs

Best Movies Seen (I am wayyyy behind on movie viewing right now):

1. Jane Eyre

2. Midnight in Paris

3. Harry Potter 7.2

4. Super 8

5. Moneyball

6. The Help

7. Cowboys and Aliens

8. The Adjustment Bureau

9. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Most Disappointing Movie:


2011 Movies on my To See List (See? Wayyy behind):

We Bought a Zoo


The Adventures of Tintin

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Kung Fu Panda 2

Queen to Play

The Tree of Life

Dream House

Yarn of the Year: Blue Moon Fiber Arts Woobu in the Ravenscroft colorway

Best Meals Eaten:

1. Private party at the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, London

2. Craft, NYC

3. Maze, NYC

4. Thanksgiving Dinner, Cold Spring, NY

5. Em’s, Salt Lake City, UT

6. Café Cluny, NYC

7. Bernard’s Inn, Ridgefield, CT

8. Keens Steakhouse, NYC

9. Shake Shack, Citifield, Queens, NY

10. Valley, Garrison, NY

Best Theatre of the Year:

MusicalHugh Jackman: Back on Broadway—DIVINE.

PlayThe Mountaintop, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett—TRANSCENDENT.

ConcertGreat Big Sea—AGAIN and ALWAYS.


2009 Favorites

In case you are interested, here is my Best of 2006 list, here is my Best of 2007 list, and here is my Best of 2008 list.

We had dinner with our friend Trevor a few days ago.  As we got caught up with one another, he mentioned that he was currently at work on his soon-to-be-released "Best of the Decade" list.  This Bear of Very Little Brain is not so ambitious.  It's all I can do to record and recall what I've read, seen, and otherwise experienced in the past twelve months.  I'll leave the decade retrospectives to smarter people (like John Scalzi and Trevor).  Following is what I thought was most memorable about 2009.

Best Books (Read or Re-Read):

1. M. Catherine Thomas, Selected Writings
2. Allegra Goodman, Kaaterskill Falls
3. Ysabeau Wilce, Flora Segunda
4. Larry Brooks, Story Structure Demystified
5. Janet Soskice, The Sisters of Sinai
6. Jeannette Walls, Half Broke Horses
7. Tahmaseb/Vance, The Geek Girl's Guide to Cheerleading
8. Herve This, Molecular Gastronomy
9. Kathryn Stockett, The Help
10. Neal Stephenson, Anathem

Worst Book of the Year: Nick McDonnell's An Expensive Education

Best Eating Experiences:

1. L'Abbaye des Vaux de Cernay
2. Chez Papa
3. Cafe Angelina
4. Every other meal we ate in France
5. JoJo
6. Shake Shack
7. Dovetail
8. London gastropub, the name of which escapes me
9. eighty-one
10. Ouest

Top Movies Seen (I haven't seen very many):

Food, Inc.
Star Trek
Where the Wild Things Are
Sherlock Holmes
Julie & Julia

Worst Movie of the Year: Year One (Please, oh please may I have that 97 minutes back?)

Top Music Downloads:

1. The Avett Brothers, "I and Love and You"
2. Great Big Sea, "When I'm Up"
3. Eddie Vedder, "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away"
4. Sting, "The Snow It Melts the Soonest"
5. Straight No Chaser, "The Twelve Days of Christmas"

Greatest Personal Accomplishments:

1. Planning, catering, and cheerleading our family's three-week trip to France
2. Helping friends in need
3. Breaking down a few genealogical brick walls on some of my family's lines
4. Not literally bursting with pride while watching my sons perform
5. Giving two successful lecture series on Family History and Temple Work
6. Producing some rocking-fun Sharing Times in Primary
7. Getting my short stories "Fugue" and "Truck Stop" published
8. Perservering in the novel submission process
9. Getting on the Clapotis bandwagon with great results
10. Making a successful Pandoro from scratch

It was a quiet but lovely year.  I feel like I'm slowly but surely achieving better balance in the various aspects of my life.  I have big plans for 2010, mostly having to do with more structure and consistency in my daily routines.  Here's to the year ahead!


Define "great."

"The real Brahms…is nothing more than a sentimental voluptuary…the most wanton of composers…his wantonness is that of a great baby…rather tiresomely addicted to dressing himself up as Handel or Beethoven and making a prolonged and intolerable noise.” —George Bernard Shaw, in The World, 21 June 1893

“The final business of art is not with ‘impressions’….The man who can convey an impression of what he has heard is listened to only until that other man comes who has both the impression and the knowledge. We want not ‘impressionists’ but ‘expressionists,’ men who can say what they mean because they know what they have heard. In art we want the same. We want…still more that the artist should be at pains to give us of his knowledge, and we want not always the scratches and blotches and misty suggestions of the ‘impressionist’ drawings…” —Unsigned Review: “The Impressionists and the ‘Values’ of Nature,” in Artist, 1 May 1883

“[In Moby Dick,] the idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed. Our author must be henceforth numbered in the company of the incorrigibles who occasionally tantalize us with indications of genius, while they constantly summon us to endure monstrosities, carelessnesses, and other such harassing manifestations of bad taste as daring or disordered ingenuity can devise....” —Henry F. Chorley, in London Athenaeum, October 25 1851

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of conversations about the quest to write the Great Mormon Novel. Will there ever be one? If so, will it be literary fiction? Will it be speculative fiction, which, as I wrote here, is a genre in which LDS writers feel especially at home? Or will it defy categorization, as great art often does until the critics and marketers catch up?

The first quote at the top of this post comes from the book The Lexicon of Musical Invective, by Nicholas Slonimsky, which presents scathing reviews of every significant classical music composer from Beethoven onward—all written by prominent reviewers who were the composers’ contemporaries. Chopin, Debussy, Gershwin, and many others whom we now revere as geniuses were often held in utter contempt by arbiters of taste of their day (note: this makes for highly entertaining reading).

As all three quotes above show (and the emphases are mine), this critical short-sightedness is not limited to reviews of music. Often the consuming public needs the perspective that the passage of time affords to recognize artistic genius, whatever the medium.

When Orson Whitney called upon the shades of Milton and Shakespeare to spur his people on to greatness, those worthies had already been dead for 200 years. He wielded their names with authority.  History had already given them the stamp of ultimate approval: greatness.

Today, more writers than ever are creating the best stories they possibly can and getting published in one form or another. Is it possible to identify true artistic genius when a work is comparatively new, or do we need to let it age for a while? What are we to do in the meantime? How do you define “great” when it comes to art that is being produced in our lifetime?

Personally, I’m not sure I’m worried about “great” right now. As far as books go, what I want is a thumping good read with characters who feel true and complex, plots that that arc in satisfying fashion, and stories that are imbued with what I call “surprising inevitability.” By this I mean that I can’t necessarily predict what will happen (or, more importantly, how it will happen). But when I reach the last page, I’ll know that the story had to turn out in just this way and no other. (As it happens, this is precisely the kind of books I’m trying to write.)

I’ve read two books recently that exactly fit these criteria. Bound on Earth, by Angela Hallstrom, caught my attention when it won the Whitney Award for Best Novel by a New Author this year. Judges, I concur. Bound on Earth is a series of interconnected narratives told by characters who feel real and familiar. Hallstrom’s writing is graceful and spare, and her expositional judgment is keen.  Highly recommended.

I gather as I scan the reviews that the press has not been kind to Shannon Hale’s The Actor and the Housewife. I, however, liked this book very much. Pregnant LDS mother Becky Jack meets her favorite movie star under highly unlikely circumstances. Said star finds himself drawn to Becky and her quirky charm, and the two become best friends. Yes, the premise is a fantastic one, but story feels true and believable.  I easily identified and sympathized with the main character and her family. The book's chatty, confessional style served as a skillful counterpoint to what is ultimately a tale of heartbreak.  I literally laughed (many, many times) and cried (at least twice, with more wellings here and there) while reading it—and Ms. Hale, that doesn’t happen very often.

Another plug for both Hallstrom and Hale: they have written mainstream books with well-drawn and three-dimensional LDS protagonists. It’s one of my dearest dreams to see interesting and complex Mormon characters become as familiar to the general public as those of other faiths and cultures. These writers have made a great beginning toward realizing this dream; I hope to follow in their footsteps someday very soon.