Entries in The Game is Afoot (30)


Top Ten Favorite Books

For today’s Scavenger Hunt topic, three separate commenters asked for a list of my favorite books: Pezmama, Dedee, and the prodigiously talented Jen at A2eatwrite. A list of my Top 100 would have been easier. But top ten is what was requested, so top ten is what I give you, along with a few comments.

But first, a caveat: of course the scriptures are my favorite reading material. But I put them outside the bounds of this list, the way I put chocolate outside of the bounds of candy.

Also, I didn’t rank these. That would be just too hard, and somewhat pointless besides. So just pretend they're all tied for first place.

Soldier of the Great War, by Mark Helprin
Mark Helprin is the most gifted living American writer (his photo graces this post). This book, told as an old Italian man’s memoir of his experiences in World War I, is lyrical, funny, spellbinding, and uplifting. The writing is breathtaking (and I don't mean that in the Seinfeldian sense).

The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
Eco is the most gifted living European writer. I love all of his writing, fiction and non-fiction, but The Name of the Rose is my favorite. It’s so brilliant; just thinking of it makes me want to re-read it. Again.

The Diamond in the Window, by Jane Langton
This is my favorite kids’ book of all time, bar none. I first checked it out at the Woodland Public Library when I was ten. We moved roughly once every two years after that, and I judged every new library by whether they had a copy of this book or not. I’ve bought countless copies and lent or given them away, because I believe every ten-year-old should read it. Jane Langton writes funny mysteries and has published many other children's books, but none comes close to the genius of this one.

Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
I’ve written elsewhere about my deep love for this book. I’ve read it probably 20 times. For a long time when I was single, I’d just pick up this trusty novel when I was pining for a little vicarious romance.

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
I have been a serious Tolkien geek from age ten onwards. We’re talking: teaching myself to write Cirthish runes and speak Elvish. That level of geekdom. I went to a panel discussion on Tolkien at the World Fantasy Convention last weekend and felt entirely validated in my lifelong devotion. High adventure, vivid characters both good and evil, timeless themes of the struggle for agency and the power of love and friendship: it just doesn’t get any better than Tolkien.

The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan
I love a good allegory, and this is one of the original great ones. It tells the story of Christian, an everyman character, who travels from his home in the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, having many harrowing adventures along the way. It is no accident that our first boy and our first girl are named after characters in the book.

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Somehow I wasn’t required to read this in high school, so I didn’t pick it up for the first time until I was nearly 30. I’ve made up for lost time; this is another favorite re-read. There is no better father in all of literature than Atticus Finch.

Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin
Yes, Helprin is that good: he has two books in my Top Ten. This book made me fall in love with New York City long before I ever moved there. It reads like a historical novel (except for the fabulous magic). So gorgeous.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
Published in 2004, this is the most recently written book on my list. Clarke evokes a unique and heady atmosphere in its pages, the perfect mix of English gothic and alternate history fantasy. The amazing footnotes are not to be missed.

Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner
I love all the Stegner I’ve ever read, but this is my favorite for very personal reasons. It’s just lovely.

So there it is! How many of them have you read?

And stay tuned until later in the month, when I reveal my ten least favorite books of all time.


Vegetable Story

The other day, my kind and very accomplished (yet non-blogging) friend Melissa wrote in a comment (and I cut and paste), "Luisa, is there any topic about which you cannot write? You, like Isaac Asimov, could have a blog in every section of the Dewey Decimal system."

Well, that is high praise indeed, and of course I let it go straight to my head for a bit. However, it is with great relief that today I step down from that lofty and precarious pedestal. You see, today's Scavenger Hunt question, posed by Dedee (who really should chat with the aforementioned Melissa, as they are both talented violinists), concerns the Veggie Tales.

Dedee fired off three Veggie Tale questions in quick succession:

"Which Veggie Tales is the best to date?"
"On a related note, which Silly Song is the best?"
"Have you heard of Veggie Tales?"

She then kindly let me off the hook, allowing me to combine the three if need be.

I can only answer the third question with any authority; I know virtually nothing about the Veggie Tales. My kids are familiar with them, as we have close friends who are ardent fans, but I've never seen an episode or heard a Silly Song.

It's a good thing I don't have more to write for today. Tomorrow's post topic (put forth by three separate commenters) requires much thought and deliberation. Plus, you know, there's that novel I'm writing. Forward, pressing forward....


10 Steps to a Best-Seller

Today's NaBloPoMo Scavenger Hunt topic comes from the ever-gracious Anne Bradshaw. What is it, she wonders, that makes a book a best-seller?

Is it content, or is it marketing?

Ahh, grasshoppers. The answer to the (literally) million-dollar question is: Yes.

The other answer is: Sometimes, one or the other.

But you knew that, right?

This morning I emailed a close friend of mine who works in Big Publishing to get her take on the question; she absolutely confirmed my instincts, nearly word for word.

Sometimes we see a book on the best-seller list, and we wonder, Why? How?

I think it is important to ask those questions thoughtfully and not disdainfully. Here's what my friend wrote in her answer this morning: "Lots of times when a book is a huge hit and I don't get it, I think to myself, clearly there is something about this--writing, premise, information, voice, characters--something that is speaking to people. Even if I can't figure out what it is."

Amen. A best-seller sells well because the writer has somehow made a connection with a large group of the population. Don't begrudge it.

I believe it is very bad writing karma to disrespect the best-sellers, and I'll tell you why. Those books are revenue generators for the publishers, and without those big names selling books in every airport and Wal-Mart from here to Timbuktu, there would be. No. Cash. To finance more modest projects, like those you and I hope to have published someday. So next time you feel tempted to sneer at Danielle Steele or Robert Jordan or Jack Canfield, remember that discretion is the better part of valor. And also: what goes around, comes around.

That said, here are the Ten Steps you need to follow if you'd like to have your own best-seller:

1) Write a mind-blowingly good book.

2) I mean it. Write the very best book you can. Take a course, or join a critique group, if that kind of thing works for you. And see the story through to the end. Trust me: five brilliant chapters do not a finished product make.

3) If you are not adept at line editing (and even if you are), hire a Grammar Fascista™ or Fascisto™. You need at least one more pair of eyes to go over your stuff to make sure that your form is as perfect as your content. Trust me: agents and editors care about spelling and grammar--more than you'll ever know. They are the gatekeepers to the Holy Land of Publishing; if you don't get past them, you'll be forever on the outside.

4) Do meticulous research to find five agents who will be such a great fit for you and your work that they will weep with joy upon reading your query/synopsis/manuscript, then call you immediately afterward with a fat contract in hand.

5) Write a synopsis that highlights the brilliance of your book and a query letter that shows what an interesting, hard-working, affable, sane, and easy-to-get-along-with person you are.

6) Send the appropriate packages (you'll know EXACTLY what they want, since you've done the meticulous research required in step 4) to all five. In this case, five is NOT 'right out.'

7) In the many months you will wait to hear back from any of those fine, but beleaguered souls, repeat steps 1 through 6. Several times, if possible.

8) When the perfect agent calls, telling you that s/he's already shopped your manuscript around and has competing offers from a couple of different publishing houses, make sure to call your lawyer to ensure you get the very best deal you can. If you don't have one, you may use mine. He's spendy, but worth every penny. Drop those lawyer prejudices. Lawyers exist to promote and defend the rights of their clients. In this case, that means you.

9) Be willing to do your part in marketing your book. Visit your cousins in Kansas or your aunt in New Hampshire and set up signings and/or readings at the local bookstores there. Set up a professional-looking website and a cre8Buzz page so that your fans can have access to more of you. Make sure that you display to your agent the requisite enthusiasm for these chores; it will go a long way towards helping him/her convince the editor (who must then convince the publishing house's sales force) that you mean business. If you're on board, they'll be on board. Then get out there and work it, baby, work it. And hopefully the sales force will, too.

10) Be gracious in your success; be as kind and as generous as you can to fans, other writers, publishing staff, and reviewers (even if they trash your work). Acknowledge the help and support of family, friends, editors, agents, and anyone else who has helped you along the way. Do what you can to give back to the wonderful community that has gotten you this far. And savor the moment; you have earned it!

Back to NaNoWriMo I go, in search of my own best-seller....


Global Climate Change

The lovely and talented Dedee suggested that I write about global warming today. Another lighthearted and uplifting post written by the woman who ruined chocolate for you--say "Hallelujah," friends! You're in for a treat.

A better term for the phenomenon popularly called 'global warming' is 'global climate change,' since climatic effects are expected to grow more extreme (meaning that some places might get colder).

I am ill-equipped to address this topic properly; I'm tired, and I have a novel to write. (I don't mean to sound whiny, Dedee. This is a subject near and dear to my heart, and I was grateful that you asked. Really: thank you.)

I will tell you this, though. I believe, after much research over many years, that 1) global climate change IS a real problem; 2) that it HAS been caused in large part by people living in industrialized countries; and 3) that we DO have power--at least for a very short time RIGHT NOW--to do something to reverse the situation before more disaster strikes.

I also believe that I'm not going to change anyone's mind about this issue. But you should know that even President Bush's head science advisor and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, John Marburger, stated in a recent interview with the BBC that global warming is a very real threat.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), co-winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, is a great resource for those wanting to educate themselves. RealClimate.org is another thoughtful site putting good science out in readable fashion.

I have to say, I don't understand why taking care of the earth is not a higher priority for people of my faith; I don't understand why the majority of LDS Americans still support a president who has undermined environmental policy at every turn.

I believe that God has given us everything we have, asking that we show our love for Him by valuing His gifts and taking good care of them. We're not doing that.

"In the name of 'progress' and 'growth,' we have plundered our planet and despoiled our environment....Many of our environmental problems arise from the fact that our society has become obsessed with materialism...this reflects a misinterpretation by conventional Judeo-Christian philosophers of God's injunction to Adam about subduing the earth....The reason we are in trouble ecologically is because of our inability to see ourselves as a part of nature. We have not seen ourselves for what we are: part of the web of life and part of the biological community; a portion of an incredibly complex ecological system; and intimately a part of the total environment. The serious ecological problems which face us have as their basis a disordered spirituality." --A. B. Morrison, "Our Deteriorating Environment," Ensign, Aug. 1971, 64

I've read two books in recent months written by Christians very concerned about ecology: Pollution and the Death of Man, by Francis Schaeffer, and Serve God, Save the Planet, by J. Matthew Sleeth. These two men show very plainly that taking care of the earth is clearly outlined in the Bible as the responsibility of humankind.

People of other faiths agree:

"The earth we inherit is in danger; the skies and the seas, the forests and the rivers, the soil and the air, are in peril. And with them humankind itself is threatened. As earth's fullness has been our blessing, so its pollution now becomes our curse. As the wonder of nature's integrity has been our delight, so the horror of nature's disintegration now becomes our sorrow."--Rabbi Alexander Schindler, President, Union of American Hebrew Congregations

"In the Koran, God said that He created nature in a balance or mizam, and that it is mankind's responsibility to maintain this fragile equilibrium," says Richmond-based Islamic leader Dr. Imad Damaj. "We cannot maintain it by blaming each other, but must do so by working together." (quote from the Chesapeake Climate Action Network)

"Despite significant variations among the different Buddhist traditions that have evolved over its 2,500 year journey throughout Asia and now in the West, Buddhists see the world as conjoined on four levels: existentially, morally, cosmologically, and ontologically....Although the Buddhist doctrines of karma and rebirth link together all forms of sentient existence in a moral continuum, Buddhist ethics focus on human agency and its consequences. The inclusion of plants and animals in Buddhist soteriological schemes may be important philosophically because it attributes inherent value to nonhuman forms of life. Nonetheless, humans have been the primary agents in creating the present ecological crisis and will bear the major responsibility in solving it." --"Buddhism and Ecology: Challenge and Promise," Donald K. Swearer, Harvard University

"Hinduism and Jainism offer unique resources for the creation of an earth ethic. The variegated theologies of Hinduism suggest that the earth can be seen as a manifestation of the goddess (Devi) and that she must be treated with respect; that the five elements hold great power; that simple living might serve as a model for the development of sustainable economies; and that the concept of Dharma can be reinterpreted from an earth-friendly perspective. The biocosmology of Jainism presents a worldview that stresses the interrelatedness of life-forms. Its attendant nonviolent ethic might easily be extended to embrace an earth ethics. Both traditions include a strong emphasis on asceticism that might discourage some adherents from placing too much value on earthly concerns, but, as we have seen, Hinduism and Jainism both contain concepts that can lead to the enhancement of core human-earth relations." --"Hinduism, Jainism, and Ecology," Christopher Key Chapple, Loyola Marymount University

There's so much more to write; this topic is overwhelmingly huge. I could spend months on it alone and not exhaust the nuances of the issue: aspects of the problem; evidence from all over the planet; ethics; solutions both societal and individual. But I have the proverbial miles to go before I sleep, so I'll quit now. Thanks for your patience.


Every Child is Different

Today's topic comes from the brilliant Bub and Pie. She said she'd been trying to write a post about the fact that children are not all the same, but hadn't been successful, so why didn't I give it a go?


Bub and Pie consistently produces posts full of THE most insightful observations on children, parenting, literature, and life. Often I'll finish reading her daily offering and wonder how on earth she did it. She is a Bear of Very Big Brain. So if she feels frustrated by a topic, I'm betting my chances of success in the endeavor are roughly slim to none.

But rules are rules, especially when they are self-imposed. The NaBloPoMo Scavenger Hunt must go on.

I have five kids, so take it from me: each child is unique. Each is motivated by different things; each has his or her own challenges. Right now, for example, we're trying to potty train Daniel. He's happy to go in the toilet when we ask him to, but he hasn't yet progressed to self-initiation.

Always before, I've had a baby around to give the training child a concrete contrast. I could say, "James is a baby. He wears diapers. But you're a big boy; you wear big boy underwear and go in the potty." Somehow this ploy isn't nearly as effective when the baby I reference belongs to a neighbor and not to our household.

The prospect of being able to sport Superman, Batman, or Spiderman underwear doesn't motivate Daniel in the least. Promising a reward of a gummi shark is slightly more effective, but only when he's hungry.

I've always been a fan of letting kids train themselves when they are old enough, but Daniel is almost three and a half. My timetable is looking better all the time. Today Daniel has been walking around with no pants on at all. So far we've had success, but we're going to have to leave the house at some point, and it's cold out. We'll see how it goes.

I've taught my older four kids to read. Each one has approached breaking the code in a slightly different way, though I've used the same system for each. Hope is a visual learner; Tess is much more auditory. James looked for systems and patterns in the ways words were constructed; Christian relied on memorization. The amazing thing is that they all have strengths and weaknesses, but they all were able to figure out how to do it, and how to do it well. The older three are all reading far above grade level, and Tess is making great progress.

It's a rule in our house that every kid has to learn how to play the piano well enough to play the hymns at church; that's our minimum requirement. (We don't have paid pianists or organists, or paid clergy, for that matter, at our church; all the members take turn pitching in to help where and when they can.)

So once each child is reading well, they start piano lessons. Christian has been taking lessons for almost seven years; James for four, and Hope for two (Tess will start in January). They've all had the same great teacher who has used the same instruction books with them; they all practice for roughly the same amount of time each day. But if I were to put out a song that all of them could play with ease, then leave the room, I could tell which one sat down at the piano just by listening. They each have a different touch, an individual default of expression. Their very different personalities come out in their music, making the song as individual as a fingerprint.

(I should add here that Christian can play the hymns well, and regularly accompanies the singing at church meetings. The tricky twist is that once you can play hymns, you're good enough to play a lot of other cool stuff, too, and the begging to quit ceases almost completely.)

I love that my kids all have strong and distinct personalities. It never gets dull around here, I can promise you that. It's a fine line to walk between valuing their individual strengths and pigeonholing them; I try to remain open to change and growth and surprising new developments with them all, because I don't ever want them to feel trapped under the weight of my expectations.