Archive for family

Reading List 2014

Two things that make me crazy happy are lists and reading. I’ve kept track of every book I’ve read since 1992, and when I tell people that, they sometimes look at me like I’ve been uptight for a very long time, to which I say, damn straight. This virgo be rockin it!

I set the goal every year to read fifty-two books, or a book a week. I was short this past year, but I still say it’s more than I would have if I hadn’t kept track. (Plus, my sister and I are still working through the Stephen King novels which are looooong. Maybe I should keep track of page numbers as well and then come up with a formula for how many pages the average book is and divide by that? Or maybe I should just call it good. My father said to the Flanagan women something to the effect, “you love to put too much pressure on everything,” to which we say, damn straight.)

Reading List 2014:
One Night, David Nicholls
Cell, Stephen King
What is Amazing, Heather Christle
Fear and What Follows, Timothy Parrish
Reconstructing Amelia, Kimberly McCreight
Undressing the Moon, T. Greenwood
From a Buick 8, Stephen King
Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
Crapalachia, Scott McClanahan
The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
Domesticated Wild Things, Xhenet Aliu
The Hymn of the Black Terrific, Kiki Petrosino
Mermaid, Eileen Cronin
Last Word, Jonathan Blum
Red Moon, Benjamin Percy
Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Maria Semple
An Untamed State, Roxane Gay
The Promise, Ann Weisgarber
In Cold Blood, Truman Capote
Story Engineering, Larry Brooks
The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing, Mayra Calvani & Anne Edwards
The Butterfly Lady, Danny M. Hoey Jr.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers
Firestarter, Stephen King
Attachments, Rainbow Rowell
Big Brother, Lionel Shriver
The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle*
Dirty Love, Andre Dubus III
Mr. Mercedes, Stephen King
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
Tampa, Alissa Nutting
Intuitive Eating, Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch
By Light We Knew Our Names, Anne Valente
Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay
The Eye of the Dragon, Stephen King
A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning, Lemony Snicket
Leaving the Pink House, Ladette Randolph
The Tommyknockers, Stephen King
The Giver, Lois Lowry
Quiet, Susan Cain
Beyond the Horizon, Ryan Ireland
Revival, Stephen King
Bossypants, Tina Fey
The Year of Perfect Happiness, Becky Adnot-Haynes
Dad is Fat, Jim Gaffigan
The Talisman, Stephen King and Peter Straub

*I also read a shit-ton of Magic Tree House books and Bad Kitty with my six-year-old, but I don’t usually count kid books on the list. I counted The Very Hungry Caterpillar because my sister, Mom, and I are also reading the Amazon Top 100 books together and probably putting too much pressure on ourselves to get it done. My mom actually had this at their house to read to Cora, so when I found it, I called Kelly and read it to her over the phone (audio books count) so she could cross it off as well. Her critical review? “That caterpillar sounds super hungover.”

Happy Thanksgiving

This is how the Irish give thanks and celebrate just about every holiday. Hope you all have a great day!

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Ready, set, read

As I’m sure I’ve talked about here before, my sister and I have been reading through all of Stephen King’s novels. Every time we talk, we bring up what we’re reading now, or what we plan on reading next, or we just go over the damn list again and talk about the books we’ve already talked about. We are lovers of lists and order and goals and reading so we are pretty much in heaven about all this.

We’ve heard great things about Revival, the newest one out, and through a flurry of texts decided we’d wait and start it together over Thanksgiving. I told her I had this vision of us on the sofa cuddled under quilts by the fire, and Dad in the corner says, “Ladies, start your kindles!” She texted back, “Vrooooommm!”

Yet another reason I love my sister, books, and the holidays.

The holiday plan

My sister’s husband loves to make fun of the Flanagan women for constantly asking “What’s the plan?” We do love to have a plan, and especially at the holidays when things are in a consumer/sugar/happiness/family frenzy, we like to get a jump start on the plan the night before, usually when Doug’s standing at the door in his coat with the keys in his hand, trying to get away from us. I was watching a podcast of the news the other morning and had to take a screen shot of Lester Holt discussing the Flanagan holidays:

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Whatever your plan and whatever your holiday, I hope you have a great rest of the year.

Kelly’s top ten list

After I posted about our top ten lists, Kelly wrote an email so long it had three lists within it–her original list, possible additions to the list, and the list of books she still needs to read from my list. I did not lie when I said we were a family of listmakers. She also wanted me to post her list here, partly so she and I have an identifiable original list on record.

To give you an idea of how much we like having lists of record, an anecdote: since 2001 Kelly has kept a list of the appetizers we’ve served on Christmas Eve for an annual family food competition called Pupu Night that actually dates back to the seventies. Kelly took over hosting in 2001 so that’s why we now have an organized list, and I am more jealous than I should be that she is the one in possession of the official Christmas Notebook with all the lists. Kelly lives in California but spends a great deal of time in Dayton, so there is always the fear The Notebook will be in the wrong place when she needs it, and even Kelly isn’t willing to fly with it all the time, say, even in July, in case she wants to look up whether we’ll be making Grandma Flanagan’s triangles this year or whether it’s Grandma Gracie’s sausage squares (I won’t get into the list voting that happened in 2009 to put grandfathered-in pupus on a bi-annual rotation, but trust me, it’s fascinating). I on the other hand am almost always home, usually in my yoga pants eating some kind of cheese and trying to write. I was finally able to convince her she should let me keep The Notebook at my house, but only after I got a safe. So if you break into my house hoping to find something in that safe all you’ll get is the instruction manual for the safe and the Christmas Notebook full of lists. Have at it.

But for now, her list as it stands today, in no particular order:

The Stand, Stephen King
The Usual Mistakes, Erin Flanagan
The Kindness of Strangers, Katrina Kittle
The Girl Who Played With Fire, Steig Larsson
Bag of Bones/Under the Dome, Stephen King
The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold
No Second Chance, Harlan Coben
One for the Money, Janet Evanovich
Case Histories, Kate Atkinson
The Mystery of the Clock Tower, Nancy Drew

My guess is there will be much debate about what books we’ll swap out in the next update. Ah, another reason to look forward to the holidays!

A family of listmakers

A few years ago, my sister and I decided to exchange a list of our top ten favorite books of all time. We tried to set some parameters–you couldn’t put anything on the list because you thought you should, ie, smarty pants books; they could be special for different reasons not just because they were well written–but really we just had to go with our guts and pick the books that felt momumental to us personally when we read them or in retrospect. We vowed then we’d read each other’s lists and are almost there. Not too long ago I finished The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (which was a total sneak because Kelly couldn’t decide between that and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and she knew I’d have to read the first before the second). The last I read on her list was The Mystery of the Old Clock, the first in the Nancy Drew series (I should be glad she didn’t pick the thirty-seventh).

Here’s what made my top ten in no particular order:

The Stand, Stephen King
A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving
I Know Some Things, ed. Lorrie Moore
She’s Come Undone, Wally Lamb
The Giant’s House, Elizabeth McCracken
The Bright Forever, Lee Martin
Blonde, Joyce Carol Oates
Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver

Sometimes I look at that list and can’t believe the hard cuts I had to make. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, The Half-Known World by Robert Boswell, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I’m convinced I’m going to see Curtis Sittenfeld at a coffee shop one day and tell her she’s on my list and it’s totally going to be that Ross Geller/Isabella Rosselini “it’s laminated” moment on Friends, only Curtis, I don’t want to sleep with you, just talk about US magazine and how we’re still recovering from Kathy Griffin’s divorce.

Overall, exchanging the lists was super fun, and I’ve definitely read things I wouldn’t have otherwise. My whole family and a few friends ended up getting in on the action and it was fun to see how we were represented by our reading. Kelly loves thrillers; so does my dad. Mom and I tend toward literary fiction but she has more classics. I like darker books; while I’ve gotten to read Nancy Drew, poor Kelly had to be emotionally beat down by Joyce Carol Oates.

What would make your list, and why? And how would you decide the parameters?

Potatoes and optimism

Two years ago my dad decided he’d try a new way to grow potatoes. He built six-inch high sides on a three-foot by three-foot box, planted a few cut potatoes, covered them in dirt, then waited. When they started to sprout up he added another slat to make it twelve inches high. And then another and another until he ended up with a box three feet high.

He was so excited about these potatoes he could hardly stand it. I can imagine him distracted during the day, thinking about the harvest. Baked potatoes, potato soup, potato medallions cooked on the big green egg, bleu cheese potato salad. Through out the summer my sister and I would get regular updates–where he was on the slats, how many vines were poking through. Most conversations with him would start with, “How are the potatoes looking?”

When harvest finally came, he started at the bottom, removing slats and digging through the dirt. “What the hell?” he would have said, with the customary upturn of his voice on the double-“L”. No potatoes. He took off another slat. Nothing. And another. Nada. The harvest ended up being six potatoes, the largest not much bigger than a quarter.

Months later he was still shaking his head. “Every old farmer’s had this problem at some point,” he said. “All vines, no potatoes.”

This year he went back to planting them in a ground, and when Cora was there this summer, she was all set to help him harvest. On the way to the garden they came through the living room with a five-gallon bucket, because as Dad said, “we’re optimistic.”

And with good reason. They were just getting going when this picture was taken.

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Not too shabby for an old farmer and his new helper. Not too bad for a guy burned on the last go-round.

Sometimes the old way is the best way. Sometimes you have to worry less about the harvest and just enjoy the story.

Ten pounds of shit in an eight-pound bag

One of my favorite nuggets of writing wisdom comes from my dad. He always accuses the women in my family of trying to shove ten pounds of shit in an eight-pound bag. It applies to almost everything: putting together a to-do list for the day with more than you can accomplish in a week, carrying in all the groceries at once rather than making two or three trips (which might be quicker), decorating a Christmas tree, ordering Chinese food, packing shoes for a three day trip, and on and on and on.

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(pic from mitchieville.com)

I tell this to my students every semester: give your stories too much in the beginning. Put ten pounds of shit in that eight-pound bag. Why give a character one thing that’s wrong when you could give him four? Why have one story line when you can have three? The more, the better, I say, because it’s easier to weed out the storyline or conflict that’s not working than it is to try and go back and add one in, or to have only the one that could end up going nowhere, leaving you with an empty bag. I also think the more you have going on, the more likely you are to reach new levels of complication in your story, which lead to new insights and understanding and dimension.

My advice: put ten pounds of shit in that eight-pound bag and see what grows.

Notes on “Dog People”

I finished a first draft of “Dog People” about a year before I got pregnant. I thought I had a good handle on what it might be like to be a new mom, but when I read the draft about a year after Cora was born, I knew I’d missed the mark. The story was mushy and gray–being a mother is joyful, but hard too–and I’d failed to really capture how alive that contradiction is every moment, of wanting to simultaneously hold your baby and walk away, to go back to work and never leave the house. I’d never lived with such contradiction before in my life.

Looking back on the first draft, there were a few things I still liked: I’ve always been a fan of stories where two unrelated characters are thrown together, like a dog groomer and a new mom. I liked that I knew the ending had to push past Margie getting back in the house to some form of resolution with Jim, even though the earlier option for how that happened wasn’t very good. When I went back to revise, I really listened to the story and let the ending arise from the details I’d given myself to work with. Robert Boswell writes in The Half-Known World, one of my favorite books about writing, about how, when you get stuck in a story, the best thing to do is go back and read carefully, paying attention to the clues you’ve given yourself.

One of my favorite things about the final story is a small detail about the knitting needles. I wrote, “For the rest of her life, the sound of knitting needles clacking together will be a sound Margie associates with Katherine, a sound she will recognize out of context and always know.” When my daughter was a baby, sometimes in her sleep she would push her binky out of her mouth and it would clatter to the hardwood floor. If her father and I were in the living room we’d both pause, frozen, and wait for the coming wail. Sometimes Cora would wake up and sometimes not, but the sound of that binky hitting the floor is a sound I’d recognize anywhere. Unswept oak, an Avent pacifier. It’s a sound that struck terror in my heart and could wake me from a bone-weary sleep, but is also one of the most nostalgic sounds of my life.

Cora finally gave up her binkies when she was three. I told her if she left them in the bottom of her Christmas sock, Santa would take them and distribute them to needy babies around the world, and in return, she’d get a Dora kitchen. She thought it was a shifty deal at best but agreed to the terms, and sure enough, the fat man held up his end of the bargain. She never looked back or complained, although she did want reassurance for the first few nights that Santa had in fact passed them on and it hadn’t been for nothing.

A few weeks later, she found a rogue binky in her room and came running downstairs. “Mommy, Mommy, Santa missed one!” I told her thank you and said I’d mail it to him right away so he could take care of it. She stared at it a moment before nodding resolutely and heading back upstairs to play. I wanted to give her back the binkies; I wanted her to let them go. That’s what was missing from the first draft.

Official publication day!

I dedicated It’s Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories to Kelly Hansen, an awesome sister and avid reader. She has taught me a lot about life and humor and timing and grace and friendship, and I hope all of those lessons are in the book in ample supply.

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Copies for sale at Amazon, UNP, Barnes and Noble and elsewhere both in paperback and electronic formats.