Objects de Art

Art, literature, and other cultural things.

Writing Away

Summer is officially upon us which for many means vacation time. I have been fortunate enough to have had travel as a continued opportunity in my life. My first international trip was to Greece when I was 9-months old; the most recent to China in 2007. In college I was able to participate in study abroad in England and Spain. One thing that all this travel has instilled in me is a love travel journals. I always keep a travel journal, even on domestic trips, because I like to capture those moments in ink and paper.

Even if you are not a  natural writer, travel journals are a way to remember beyond photographs what the experience felt, smelled, and tasted like. For those interested in starting to journal your travels, I highly recommend Writing Away by Livinia Spalding. It is an inspirational text that works as a wonderful guide for finding your voice. In the coming weeks I will be posting excerpts from my own travel journals.

If you find yourself taking a stay-cation and want to explore the world through other writers’ experiences, I can recommend the following travel literature (both fiction and non-fiction):

The Odyssey Homer

Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift

Thomas Jefferson Travels Thomas Jefferson

A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland Samuel Johnston

Empire of the Czar Marquis de Custine

Roughing It Mark Twain

Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes Robert Louis Stevenson

Bitter Lemons Lawrence Durrell

Travels Michael Crichton

Under the Tuscan Sun Frances Mayes

The Motorcycle Diaries Che Guevara

Slow Boat to China Gavin Young

On the Road Jack Kerouac

And I’ll end this list with a little plug for The Best Women’s Travel Writing series. All the books in the series are wonderful; check out Vol. 8 or the forthcoming 9 for offerings from yours truly.

Happy reading!

XO

A

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Professor Porn: Dan Brown

So you call yourself well-read? That’s okay. I do, too. Then I talk to people who write or work in academia or pretty much anyone, and I realize that I am not even close to well-read, despite the fact that I read all the time. I am a glimmer of well-read.

Part of writing is not just reading, but what you read. Books you’ve never heard of are being buzzed about in the literary journals and websites. Never mind that you can’t buy them anywhere in your West Texas town (but you can buy every celebrity book known to man). And so you track down those books online, trying to purchase them from independent book sellers so as not to feed to corporate machine. They arrive. They are wondrous. You journal about them. You makes notes. You write an entire story inspired by a single sentence.

When I follow this process, I find the reward of reading to be exceptional. Words like craft, voice, and style resonate.

That being said, sometimes I just want to a one-night stand, junk food pig-out reading experience. One that, when I reach the end, I am fine that I’m done and fine that I read it, but not much more. There is a fix for this type of craving. And his name is Dan Brown.

Yes, folks, I read Dan Brown. Or, to be more precise, I read Robert Langdon.

Whatever controversies Brown’s work may cause, whatever backlash he may get from the literary community, Dan Brown knows how to throw down his story. Sure, his characters are so flat that Flat Stanley looks well-developed, and fact-checking things about works of art and buildings isn’t always his strong point. But his pacing and ability suck the reader in to the conflicting worlds of science and religion through the lens of art is impressive. Having just finished Inferno, I can’t say that the story was my favorite (Angels and Demons still holds that honor), but it was fine and it gave me the fix I needed. See, it’s not the conspiracy theories and secret societies I come for: it’s the professor as hero fantasy of Robert Langdon.

Robert Langdon, my friends, is not just A professor. He is THE professor in an epic sense of the word. A lecturer from Harvard who famously wears tweed and loafers, he’s like a casting notice for a Harvard-set movie. He writes books on obscure topics yet still manages to have fans. His renown is, in fact, so great that not only do museum curators metaphorically drop their panties when he turns up, showering him with VIP tours and private access, freaking governments call him up because the world will end if someone doesn’t look at this painting.

If Fifty Shades of Grey is mommy porn, then Dan Brown is professor porn.

I can’t speak for people who work on the academic side of science or math, but I would guess that they have this life-saving feeling. They are experts on subjects that directly impact life. For us English folks, passionate as we are, there isn’t much of a chance the government is going to pull us in for a top secret think tank on “The Wasteland,” (we wouldn’t be able to agree on anything anyway). Robert Langdon is the fantasy that being an expert in a humanities/fine arts topic can be important in life or death situations.

Let’s look at his strengths, shall we? He’s a master on symbols in religion, history, and literature. He can recall details without notes or outlines. Most important, due to his swimming I would guess, he has the impressive ability to impart his vast array of knowledge while running for his life (or it least walking at a brisk pace). These are not super powers. No, no. These are super PROFESSOR powers. Good professors can quote without books, be specific with few notes. They can prowl the classroom or even answer in depth questions while walking to class.

Robert Langdon is our Superman.

And his weakness? Claustrophobia from a childhood accident similar to the one that left Bruce Wayne with a fear of bats. Granted, usually there is some sort of scientific thing involved in Langdon’s race to decode, but most of the time there is an attractive woman or convenient expert nearby to explain.

The fantasy of his type of knowledge saving the world is tempting. Who knows? Perhaps someday I will get a call that begins,

“Is this Professor Amber Kelly-Anderson? The president needs you to explain Beowulf using a video game boss fight analogy. But you must hurry! The fate of the world is in your hands!”

 

 

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Cowboys and Elephants

Today marks the publication of the sixth and final post on Literary Cowboys for Ploughshares . I talk Star Wars, Firefly, Cowboy Bebop, and much more.

“The Myth of the Literary Cowboy, Part 6: Save a Horse, Write a (Space) Cowboy”

In the coming months I’ll continue to write for Ploughshares on all things lovely and literary.

 

sidebar-summer2013

Also out this week is the summer 2013 issue of Brain, Child featuring my essay, “The Elephant Maker.” It’s available on some news stands and online here.

 

XO

A

Categories: Get Smart, Objects de Art, The Little People and Furry Friends, Write On | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Atwood on Audience

With two days until my Atwood experience, I am basking in her wisdom.

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Five Things that Rocked May 19-25

  1. I’ve been looking a great deal at blog design for inspiration and come across a number of fab destinations. My current obsession is with A Beautiful MessSo many fantastic ideas.
  2. Lucky me was published twice on Cinefilles this week. Check out my review of Star Trek Into Darkness and my retrospective on Cleopatra.
  3. Next week, aside from basking the glory of Margaret Atwood, I’m getting my second tattoo. While looking for the perfect font, I found this fantastic piece about why a mother got a tattoo with her daughter.
  4. It was also my week on The Baraza where I share my favorite graduation themed pop culture moments.
  5. On The Review Review, this article on Twitter Fiction had me thinking and working on my brevity.

XO

A

Categories: Feed the Belly, Get Smart, Let Me Entertain You, Life and Other Nonsense, Objects de Art, Write On | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Diving into Atwood: A Beginner Reading List

File:The Year of the Flood-cover-1stEd-HC.jpegA friend recently asked me how to get started reading Margaret Atwood. My head was immediately swimming with a million directives. However, to avoid overwhelming a prospective reader, I’ve come up with a selection of Atwood works for those wishing to dip their toes in the wonder of her writing.

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale–By far her most famous novel, it still feel incredibly relevant today. It’s a good indicator of some of her themes and techniques.
  2. The Blind Assassin–Find out why here.
  3. Alias Grace–Based on an actual events, Atwood skillful takes us inside the mind of a convicted killer, looking at themes that apply to a number of women.
  4. Oryx and Crake/ The Year of the Flood–These are technically the first two books of a trilogy, but they can be read solo or out of order. But hurry up if you want to be done in time for the final book, MaddAddam, to be released next September
  5. Good Bones and Simple Murders–This collection of short works combines two of her previous publications into a strong, wildly varied collection. “Gertrude Talks Back” is a particular favorite.
  6. Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing–Atwood’s book on the art of writing is useful while still reflecting her unique style.
  7. The Positron Series–Atwood openly embraces technology, as evidenced by this fun ebook series.

Happy reading!

A

Categories: Objects de Art | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Five Things that Rocked May 12-18

1. I wrote this post about The Blind Assassin. I got this tweet in reply. Swoon.

2. My Wromance (writing romance) A.J. Kandathil wrote about the Five Pillars of Place using Park and Rec on Ploughshares. ‘Cause that’s how she rolls ( awesome, that’s how she rolls).

3. While you are on the  Ploughshares blog, take a gander at the piece I wrote about Cowboy Poetry. You should read it. It’s okay, you can click now. This list will wait.

4. The Office aired its final episode. I cried. I’ll write about it next week. In the meantime, rewatch The Office or watch it for the first time. Either way, win-win-win. In the meantime, enjoy this:

5. Two of my favorite shows growing up were Designing Women and The Golden Girls. This article reminds me why I loved Dorothy and may be like her in about thirty years.

XO

A

Categories: Get Smart, Let Me Entertain You, Life and Other Nonsense, Objects de Art, Write On | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Guide to Cowboy Poetry

The fifth part in my series on Literary Cowboys is live on Ploughshares today. Mosey on over and give it a look-see.

“The Myth of the Literary Cowboy, Part 5: Cowboy Poetry”

Categories: Get Smart, Objects de Art, Write On | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

My Love Affair with The Blind Assassin

Before I fell in love with Margaret Atwood, I fell in love, as readers often do, with one of her books.

Perhaps as an American female writer I should be more enamored with Joyce Carol Oates, but I just can’t help myself. Our (one-sided) romance took root in the autumn of 2000. Newly graduated from college, I meandered into a Santa Monica bookstore in one of those rare moods where I had no purpose other than to wander through the world of literature, seeing what caught my eye. At the front of the store was the display of New Releases. There were other works there, but the cover art of this particular book called to me.

Perhaps it was because the image reminded me of LA Confidential, one of my favorite films. Or it might have been the title–The Blind Assassin. Already so intriguing, particularly juxtaposed with an image that seemed completely disconnected. The book found its way into my hands. Rather than reading the jacket, I flipped to the first page:

The bridge

Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”

I shut the book and bought it. In that single sentence, she had me. Although I knew Atwood’s name from The Hand Maid’s Tale, I had never read the book and knew almost nothing about her. I bought a non-discounted hardcover book based on three things: the title, the chapter title, and the first sentence.

While the title is intriguing (how does one become a sightless political murderer?), the other two were what harkened to my wallet. Here was a decidedly adult text that used chapter headings instead of numbers. It automatically gave the text, to me, an almost fairytale quality. It reminded me of books I had read as a kid that were completely engaging, so much so that I lost track of hours and weeks because I was captivated by this world. There again was that promise.

The first sentence is, without question, simple. In that is the beauty. We have a simple subject (Laura) and a simple verb (drove). Atwood establishes a rough time period (sometime around a modern war–one might guess World War II at the earliest), a point of view, and a mystery. Notice that Laura’s car did not drive off the bridge. It did not swerve or fall. She “drove” it. That indicates intent. Did Laura drive off of a bridge on purpose? Is the time period, ten days after the conclusion of a war, significant?

The answer to both is yes. The why to both takes roughly 500 beautifully rendered pages to fully grasp.

The Blind Assassin is on that short list I mentioned last week of life changing books. It is as if Atwood took everything I love, shattered it into pieces, and constructed a narrative mosaic that displays flashes of the familiar in ways I could never have imagined. The use of newspaper entries, flashback, nesting, and somehow even science fiction to tell a historical romance should not work. And yet it does. After reading more of her work, the themes and style are decidedly Atwood; I’m rereading Cat’s Eye right now and feel bits of Iris in Elaine, even though they are different characters.

Beyond the beauty of the prose and the stellar storytelling, the novel has sentimental ties. It is one of the last books my grandfather read before his sight was too far gone. Although set in Canada, coming from Michigan, he responded to the time period and sense of place. After reading it he couldn’t wait to sit down at our weekly dinner to discuss it with me. But it was more than just the WWII period that engaged him: I think he felt connected to Iris as he counted down the years of his life. I remember him needing his handkerchief to dab at the tears as he recounted in gasping chuckles one of his favorite sections–Iris reading graffiti in bathroom stalls. He never admitted that he did it himself, but his reaction tells me he did.

One of my grandfather’s habits that I have acquired is signing the front of books. When he finished a book, be it the Bible or Harry Potter, he would initial (or sign) and date the inside cover. It was his mark, his way of remember what he read. For me it has been a way to connect with him after he died. Many of his books came to my keeping. When I  begin them, I can see those letter and numbers telling me when he held the pages. Eventually, I sign my name under his. For all that I love technology, I doubt I can ever completely give up the actual book, if just because it would mean giving up my books as documents of those I’ve known and loved and the books we’ve shared. (It’s a rule, by the way, that if you borrow a book from me, you have to sign and date inside the front cover. Don’t like it? Don’t borrow my books.)

When I teach Atwood in my classroom, I usually do “Happy Endings” because it is in our textbook, although recently we also looked at “Backdropp Addresses Cowboy” as part of post-colonialism. “Happy Endings” concludes with this thought: “True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with. That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what. Now try How and Why.” Atwood addresses our fixations on beginnings and endings without focusing on the meat of the subject. My favorite line from The Blind Assassin mirrors this thought in even more poetic terms:

“The living bird is not its labeled bones.”

As a writer, I try to keep that in mind. The skeleton of the story can be the same as ten thousand others. It is the living bird that we strive to capture with our words if only to show that it not just brittle remains with labels.

Thus, I take no hesitation in naming The Blind Assassin as my favorite book. That copy I bought out of college (that I couldn’t really afford) with my grandfather’s signature is priceless to me, as priceless as the story inside.

Categories: Objects de Art, Write On | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Five Things that Rocked May 5-11

  1. A blog I’ve just discovered, interesting literature, wrote a thoughtful post on Fitzgerald and the underrated This Side of Paradise. Aside from a brief outline of the writer, it is full of fun tidbits, like he was the first person to use wicked with a positive connotation. Learn something new every day, right?
  2. Ashley Wells is doing a fantastic series on women and horses. Topics have included warrior women, Betty Draper and horses, and an interview with the author of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls.
  3. Aaron Gilbreath launched a Kickstarter campaign for his upcoming book, Crowded, about life in confined spaces. It’s worth checking out just for the insightful reading material he provides. Find the link to the campaign the blog post linked above.
  4. On The Baraza, Katie Shaw gave some songs to motivate students through those long hours of studying for finals. I provided a companion piece for professors to sustain them through the long hours of grading.
  5. Finally, in honor of Mother’s Day, take a gander at Book Riot’s “Fictional Mother Whose Parenting Books Would Rock.” I’d preorder all three. What about you?

XO

A

Categories: Get Smart, Let Me Entertain You, Life and Other Nonsense, Objects de Art, Write On | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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