Thursday, August 18, 2011

Book Review: FROM BEDSIDE by Fred Goldstein

Sometimes teachers end up learning the greatest lessons from their students.
FROM BEDSIDE by Fred Goldstein is the embodiment of that dynamic.
A 29 year old high school English teacher in Cherry Hill, NJ, bored to tears with the state curriculum and second-guessing his career choice, Goldstein finds inspiration in  Steven Estep, a 7th grade student with an easy smile and sharp sense of humor.
Steven, recently diagnosed with bone cancer, is quickly bed ridden.  Goldstein volunteers academic and moral support, beginning a journey to provide Steven the best and most exciting education possible, recruiting help from the director of the CIA, Bill Bradley, Julius Erving, Mike Schmidt and a host of other high profile individuals.
But this story isn't about the fundraisers, the publicity; it's about a courageous thirteen year old boy who quickly becomes an adult, and a young teacher who also must grow up fast.
This teacher was my teacher.  Mr. Fred Goldstein taught me 7th grade English at Beck Middle School in Cherry Hill, NJ.  He was humble and funny and witty and smart and he didn't yell at me when I accidentally spilled my baseball cards on his floor.  He taught me to love books and to write with a purpose.  He taught me to think for myself, to challenge authors and debates classmates.  And years later, he tutored me for the SAT.  He was everything you could ask for in a teacher, and everything I wanted to become.
Reading about his work with Steven -- the strides he made in Steven's life, and most importantly the impact Steven had on him -- made for a truly magical book.  Which, as an English teacher, is about the greatest gift you can give.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Pull of Gravity Book Review

Nick Gardner's father just walked out on him--and he's still walking, all the way to New York City to lose weight.  And Nick's best friend, Scooter (a.k.a. The Scoot), is dying of progeria.  Scooter's wish: to return to his estranged father a signed copy of Of Mice and Men.
Enter Jaycee Amato, a female, a good-looking one at that, and braver than Nick.  Jaycee's wish: get out of town.  It'll work for Nick. What follows is a road-trip to satisfy Scooter final wish.
The Pull of Gravity by Gae Polisner is more than satisfying.  The tension and humor in Nick's voice, Scooter's innocence, Jaycee's longing . . . it stays with you long after you've put it down, which is an important quality of any novel, but especially for a coming-of-age story that is as bold as its characters. Polisner's unflinching look at friendship in the face of illness is to be admired.  I, for one, will never forget it.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Review of Scary Scene from BOOKLIST

A Scary Scene in a Scary Movie. Blackstone, Matt (Author) Jul 2011. 256 p. Farrar, hardcover, $16.99. (9780374364212).
Life is an endless high-wire act for 14-year-old obsessive-compulsive Rene. He can’t step on cracks. The coins he picks up must be lucky ones. He has got to wear the correct number of rubber bands around his wrists. Closing his locker is impossible without tapping it three times with his pinkie. Slipups result in any number of doomsday fantasies, from humiliation to disease to outright murder. Then he befriends Gio, an unconventional classmate who has his own vocabulary (“b’noodles” means awesome) and takes the nervous Rene on an unannounced seat-of-their-pants road trip to New York City. The feedback loops of worry—perhaps unavoidably—can be a bit maddening, but Blackstone keeps things fresh with insight and wit. He is also skilled at creating fully realized adult characters: both Rene’s loudmouthed father and depressed English teacher are achingly real and believably troubled. This debut might suffer from competition with other similarly themed titles, but it’s still pretty darn b’noodles. — Daniel Kraus

Monday, July 18, 2011

Review from School Library Journal

Thankful for this wonderful review from School Library Journal...
BLACKSTONE, Matt. A Scary Scene in a Scary Movie. 256p. CIP. Farrar. 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-374-36421-2. LC 2010021743.  Gr 6-10- Rene has no friends, but his compulsive rituals keep him occupied, ensuring his prevention of all disasters for himself and the universe at large. At almost 14, his life at school is spent observing the Devilblackcoats, the Bigbulletholes, the Smartypants, Cutters, Likegirls, and the Angels. Fitting in with none of the groups and liking the Angels but invisible to them, Rene decides that Gio could be his first friend as he witnesses him being kind to the unfortunately named teacher, Richard Head. Rene reports that his own mother thinks he’s nuts since, “I washed my hands until they were red and raw, talked to myself in public, ran away from anything numbered thirteen, smelled my hands more than forty times per day, ate my animal crackers in a specific order, and made creepy smiley faces out of napkins–even when I didn’t want to. " As Rene connects with both Mr. Head and Gio, his life is turned upside down. His highly unusual, practically unique voice and character have charm and humor and yet are clearly not in the normal range. At one point, without consulting the girl, he decides in his own head to offer marriage, plans the wedding, and then finds himself tripped up by never getting an opportune moment to mention any hint to her. Quirky and surprisingly upbeat, it’s Rene’s voice laughing at himself and yet taking his needs seriously that will lure readers into his head and into his heart.    –Carol A. Edwards, Denver Public Library, CO

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Bookanista Review: Something Like Hope

Something Like HopeSOMETHING LIKE HOPE isn't an ordinary book and it isn't about ordinary people.  The protagonist, Shavonne, isn't ordinary (a 17 year old mother in juvenille prison), neither is her newest shrink (crass, comedic, lonely) and neither is his name (Mr. Delpopolo).  Her guard is neither ordinary nor fair (Ms. Choi taunts Shavonne so she'll snap and Ms. Choi has reason to beat her).  Her baby doesn't belong to her, her face is battered and bloody, and her deranged roommate is now obsessed with geese.  Shavonne's future may be bleak, but she--like this book--is extraordinary.
Shawn Goodman's novel starts with Shavonne, trapped in her cell, after stealing her teacher's sandwich and then elbowing her in the face.  Shavonne is already in deep trouble, has been for awhile, when she's forced to explain her most recent crime.  Enter Mr. Delpopolo, a man with plenty of his own problems.
What follows is unflinching look at the flaws in a juvenile justice system that grants far too much power to guards and not enough support to its inmates.  Shavonne may be not perfect--often times, admittedly, she' s violent, selfish, and uncaring--but she's real and raw and forgiving and unforgettable.
As a high school teacher with more than a few former students locked up at some point in their teenage years, I found this to be a truly fascinating read.  I can't wait to share it with my students next year.

Monday, June 27, 2011

A FEW QUIRKS by Stasia Ward Kehoe

AUDITION author Stasia Ward Kehoe stops by to share her own quirks.  Rene, from A SCARY SCENE IN SCARY MOVIE, isn't alone:
If you, like me, grew up as a performer, you are likely to have accumulated a bunch of obsessive little habits by the time you reach some form of adulthood.  You pick up classic rules of superstition, like dancers wishing luck backstage with the word “merde” (It’s French for, uh…maybe just look it up!), and never saying the title of “the Scottish Play” (By Shakespeare…you can ask Google or Bing, if you’re so inclined) aloud in a theatre for fear of dire consequences.  And you are inspired to create pre-performance rituals of your own. I suppose you can say I have been thoroughly schooled in anxiety-growing techniques since childhood. Here for your enjoyment are some of my current quirks, both personal and writerly.
1.       I keep a two-dollar bill in my wallet.  Have for decades.  I got the bill on a date with my then-boyfriend (now husband).  We were touring Monticello and they gave them out as change.   Many years later, I discovered he kept his, too! Are we matched or what (or maybe it’s dangerous have two such compulsive people in one house)?
2.       I find the number 13 to be lucky and it always bums me out that there are no 13th floors in hotels.  Maybe I’m just contrary.
3.       I talk too fast (especially when I’m nervous) so, before I embark on any public speaking engagement, I eat a Werther’s Original caramel in the odd belief that this will somehow slow me down.  (I seem to have quite a collection of food fetishes.  See #2, below.)
1.       I wake up around 4:30 every morning (I do not need an alarm clock for this—just happens) and jot down a few lines about my writing plans for the day.  Then I try to go back to sleep.
2.       I believe I write better if I have a small dish of bittersweet chocolate chips and unsalted peanuts on my desk.  When the writing is going poorly, the dish is empty before noon.  If I’m on a roll, the chocolate can sit there for a week.
3.       I never allow myself to write the words “the end” on a manuscript until I really believe I’ve finished telling the story.  Sometimes it is years before those words are entered into a document.
On a serious note, despite the sleep deprivation, chocolate weight-gain, and so on, I try to remember to be grateful for my habits because they make me who I am and, I hope, in some strange way, enable me to be a more thoughtful, more compassionate person and writer.
Thanks, Matt, for inviting me to post today, for your terrific debut novel, and for bringing this conversation about OCD and anxiety out into the “movie spotlight.”
Stasia Ward Kehoe’s debut YA novel, AUDITION, will be published by Viking on 10-13-11.  Visit her online at

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

POSSESSION author Elana Johnson: Me and My Routines

PossessionPOSSESSION author, Elana Johnson, drops in to explain the importance of her routines:
In A SCARY SCENE IN A SCARY MOVIE, Rene won't move if the time adds up to 13 (8:41 is bad luck because 8 +4 +1=13), he sniffs his hands when he's nervous, he jumps over cracks in the concrete, and follows the same routes to and from school.
Well, I am one of the most routinized people ever. I like to do things the same way, every time, and it does make me a bit frazzled if things happen out of order, or too fast. The best example is my morning routine. I do the same things, in the same sequence, every working day.
If my husband calls and needs me to bring him something, it throws me all off. If I have to wake my daughter up later than normal, I’m totally discombobulated. I may forget to brush my teeth, because if it’s not done right after I shower (while I check my email for the first time that day), it might not get done.
Sad, but true.
I’ve forgotten to pack a lunch because I didn’t do it as soon as I came downstairs. I’ve been late because I have to take the same route to work, even though it’s packed (and I mean, PACKED) with construction.
What can I say? I like routine. I like the comfort of knowing what comes next, and how long that activity is going to take. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I have my morning routine down to about 45 minutes from rolling out of bed to rolling down the driveway.
Do you have any routines that you follow religiously? Maybe we can get together and compare…

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

My quirks, my "things," my obsessions

OCD is a frightening condition, characterized by obsessive routines (compulsions) and thoughts, often referred to as "magical thinking."   It affects roughly 5 million Americans at some point in their lifetime.
It's distracting.  It's  real.  It's serious.  And very scary, especially for teenagers, for it's in those teenage years that the symptoms of OCD first appear.
But what's universal about OCD is that we all have our quirks, our "things," our obsessions that we cling to for comfort.  Over the next four weeks, I'll be  hosting discussions on both the universality of OCD, as well as the seriousness of the actual disorder.  I'd love to hear about your own quirks, your "things," your obsessions that drive you (and your loved ones?) bananas.
It's only right that I go first.
I'm an avid sports fan.  Born in a suburb near Philadelphia, I'm hopelessly in love the Phillies, Eagles, Flyers, and Sixers.  I have a long and sordid history of bizarre behavior when it comes to rooting for my team on TV.   If my team falls behind, I change seats on the couch.  Or change my snack from tortilla chips to pretzels.  Or switch from water to juice.  Or change t-shirts.  Or lay down on the floor, as long as there's a rug there (gotta draw the line somewhere).
If my team is ahead, I like to stick to what's working: the certain snack, the winning beverage, the lucky seat.  I avoid boastful phrases like "we got this," "it's over," for fear that the tide will shift.  Not until the game is over--really over, after the final buzzer/bell/pitch/whistle/horn--will I rejoice.
Luckily for me (and my wife), I've gotten better.  The years have mellowed out my sports craze.  But every now and then, usually in the playoffs, when the game gets tight, I play the mental game: the seat, the chips, the t-shirt . . . it all becomes a factor.  If only the Phillies would appreciate all the work that goes into their playoff victories!!!
Outside of the sports world, I'm a huge fan of blue Precise V7 pens, I enjoy a morning workout, I usually park in the same spot at school, and I'm a sucker for the same breakfast: an "everything" bagel with butter.
The good news--and what separates these idiosyncrasies (or, yes, compulsive tendencies) from the serious disorder--is that my life will go on if I can't find my favorite pen or the bagel store is closed or I overslept my morning alarm, and if someone takes my parking spot, I don't hike up the stairs to hunt down the driver and demand that he immediately move his car or else I'll crack him with a knuckle sandwich.
But some people do.  They don't use the term "knuckle sandwich" because it's old and corny and sounds like something only my grandpa would say, but they do stress out and panic if things aren't just so.  And they do this every waking second of the day.
The sad thing is that even though everyone has their quirks, their "things," their obsessions, very few people talk about them, so people with the actual disorder think they've completely lost their mind, which is scary for anyone, but especially for teens, for whom identity is so critical and confusing and fragile.
If you'd like to share your own quirks, please comment or feel free to reach me via the contact link above if you'd like to guest post.
Hopefully, these features over the next month will highlight the idiosyncrasies that we all share, and lessen the stigma (and fear) that OCD sufferers feel on a daily basis.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Publishers Weekly Review!

 I am thrilled and grateful for this Publishers Weekly review:
"Blackstone makes a bold and idiosyncratic debut with this boisterous novel about a 14-year-old boy with obsessive-compulsive disorder. The author effectively renders the messy, noisy interior world of Rene Fowler, who lives alone with his single mother and struggles to not just survive but enjoy the chaos of high school. Rene is wedded to his routines and his habits (perpetually smelling his left hand, wearing rubber bands on his wrists, not moving if the time adds up to 13--8:32 or 5:44, for example), and relying on his Batman cape for security. He also has a serious crush, red-haired Ariel, his 'angel,' and a new friend--a 'freakishly tall,' social butterfly, Gio. When Rene's long-estranged and boorish father returns home, Gio and Rene run away to Manhattan, where they come across Ariel, and their paradise/nightmare adventure there takes up the last third of the book. Rene's honest, often humorous voice is as compelling as it is exhausting. Blackstone succeeds in creating a singular teenager who happens to have OCD; readers will emerge with a close understanding of the mind and heart of someone with this disorder."   Ages 12–up. (July)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Bookanista Thursday: Bad Taste in Boys

Bad Taste in Boys

It’s no secret that zombies are cool.  Super cool.  Like Justin Bieber.  Blue jeans.  Peanut M & M’s.  And Britney Spears back when she was cool.

But to Kate Grable, a high school biology smartypants, zombies aren’t so cool.  They stink.  Really, they do: their breath smell like rotten beef.

They bite.  They barf.  They take a chunk out of her lip.  They infect her family.  They ruin her school.

And that’s just where the fun starts, as Kate tries to unravel a medicinal mystery and breath life back into a team of beef-smelling, beefy football players.  Aaron Kingsman, quarterback and object of Kate's desires, aligns with her (the consolation prize to the whole zombie thing), as the two of them seek to remedy the sordid situation at their school.

Carrie Harris' BAD TASTE IN BOYS is a compulsively readable story with a host of super cool zombies--sorry, Kate, but they are pretty cool--and a strong supporting cast, including the suave Aaron and Kate's dopey brother.  But the best part, the best part, is Kate's quick witted sarcasm, which starts on page 1, setting a nice balance of comedy and horror.

For summer laughs and chills, reserve your copy today.

Release date: July 12th.


While you're here, check out other Bookanista reviews:

Elana Johnson marvels at Moonglass

Christine Fonseca raves about It’s Raining Cupcakes

Shelli Johannes-Wells chats with Pure and The Summer of Firsts & Lasts author Terra McEvaoy

LiLa Roecker and Carrie Harris have a passion for Possession

Beth Revis admires the audiobook of Anansi Boys

Carolina Valdez Miller is giddy over Moonglass – with giveaway

Megan Miranda swoons over Strings Attached

Shana Silver delves into Divergent

Sarah Frances Hardy gabs about Gossip from the Girls Room

Stasia Ward Kehoe glories in a guestanista review of The Rendering

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Book Review: LIKE MANDARIN by Kirsten Hubbard

Like MandarinI couldn't wait for this splendid Bookanista Thursday to come.  Couldn't wait to tell the world (listen up, world) why LIKE MANDARIN is an unforgettable book, one I'll be handing over to my students once Spring Break ends (easy now, Break, don't end too soon) and those 9th graders trudge down the halls, knowing very well what's to come.
LIKE MANDARIN'S Grace Carpenter, like the 14 year olds in my school, knows what's to come--and she isn't such a fan.  Washokey, Wyoming doesn't offer much in the way of excitement, nor does her family, whose biggest pride and joy is pageantry. Grace, bookish and bored, sleepwalks around her sleepy town until Mandarin Ramey--dangerous, pretty, promiscuous--inexplicably chooses her as a tutor.   What follows is an unforgettable journey of discovery, love, and loss between two unlikely friends.
The characters are skillfully drawn, the plot is well-paced, and the story couldn't be more REAL.  Whether you're from the badlands of Wyoming or the boogie-down Bronx, every teenager can relate to wanting to be someone else.  In LIKE MANDARIN, Grace actually gets that chance, but how fragile it is.  How fleeting the opportunity.  How strange and perfect and frustrating Mandarin proves to be.  How difficult and enchanting and wonderful it is to be like Mandarin.
And what a pleasure it is to read this wonderful book.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bookanista Review: THE HATE LIST

Hate ListColumbine.  That's where you have to start, for the premise is all too real: a high school outcast, bullied for far too long, bursts into the hallways shooting everyone who pissed him off.
The protagonist of THE HATE LIST is Valerie Leftman, whose boyfriend Nick killed six Garvin High classmates.  Valerie never shot anyone herself but she and Nick kept a detailed list of all the kids she hated and wished dead.  Nick went after them first.
Columbine high school was the scene of every parent's worst nightmare, as more than a dozen people were gunned down.  But this didn't just happen at Columbine.  It happened in other schools, other colleges, other crowded places.  It almost happened in many more.
No matter where it happens, things forever change.  Violence, even the fear of violence, changes everything.  And that's the point of THE HATE LIST.  For Valerie, it meant a stay at the psychiatric ward, months on suicide watch and as a criminal suspect, years of therapy, and a family blown apart.  For Valerie's surviving classmates, it meant post-traumatic stress, various procedures to fix broken limbs--and for one student, plastic surgery to fix a shattered face.  Oh, and endless hatred towards Valerie, for it was Valerie, after all, who made the list.
What makes this book so important is that Jennifer Brown reminds readers that the people who commit these heinous crimes aren't inherently evil, and the shooters' friends aren't necessarily to blame.  Valerie isn't a monster, though her dad isn't quite sure.  And Nick, for all his anger, was a kid who needed help, a kid who was bullied beyond belief, a kid who got high one morning and simply lost his mind.
THE HATE LIST isn't just a story of destruction; it's a story of survival--Valerie's survival, her parents' attempt to save their marriage, Valerie's classmates trying to go on with their lives.  It's a frightening story because of the horrific murder that happened that one fateful morning, but it's even more frightening because it's real.  This really happens.
But never has this story been told from the shooter's (and his girlfriend's) perspective.  Jennifer Brown has written a beautifully layered story with grace and honesty.  Go read this book, then lend it to every teen you know.

The writing community lost a star yesterday, as Lisa Wolson passed away. Wolson, who published under the name L.K. Madigan, will be sorely missed.  Our thoughts and prayers go out to her family.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

I Love Your Guts: Part 3

I found another homie.  He was more cooperative than the first one.  Better company.  Made me smile, and laugh.  He was a YA novel about a teen with OCD and the friend who tutors him in the art of playing it cool.  I called him A SCARY SCENE IN A SCARY MOVIE.  He was good to me.  Never hurt me.  Sold quickly.
(My homie is male because I’m male and the protagonist is male, and at the time I wasn’t yet engaged or married and knew pretty much nothing about women, but feel free to assign whichever gender you please to your homie.)
He made life easier for a bit.  Helped me buy a ring.  Made teaching more fun.  Made a few students think I was O.D. cool (an overdose of cool).  Gave me something to talk about:
Me: “I’m getting a book published.”
Casual Friend: “Wow, that’s awesome!  Congratulations! What kind of book?”
M: “Young adult.”
CF: “You mean, like, for teenagers?”
M: “Yup.”
CF: “Oooh, you could teach it to your kids.  Oooh, maybe it’ll be another Harry Potter.  Ooooh, or Twilight!  I just bought, like, twenty copies of Twilight for my nephews and nieces.  I love Twilight—well, I don’t really love Twilight, but I had to see what everyone was talking about.  I bought the whole set and read them all in, like, a day!  I didn’t even get up—didn’t even pee—until I finished, like, two books.  Then I peed, but I didn’t eat until I finished the whole series.  Yeah, I rock.  I did the same thing for Harry Potter.  Ooooh, is your book about magic?”
M: “Nope.”
CF: “Vampires?”
M: “Nope.”
CF: “Oh . . . will your book will be a bestseller?  You should have it showcased in, like, every Barnes & Noble store in America.  Will it be?  Is Oprah gonna put it on her book club?  OMG! I’m so excited and I just can’t hide it and—oh, you should get on the Today Show with Matt Lauer. Your name’s Matt so it shouldn’t be a problem.  Plus you have the same haircut, LOL.  I heard Twilight sold in like a catrillion countries.  When’s your first book signing in Greenland?”
To people outside of publishing, it’s all or nothing: bestseller or bust.
We all know there are plenty of outrageously talented writers with books that sell reasonably well, but rock stars are few and far-between and, as Haterade guzzlers know, they all smell like bowling shoes and have buckteeth and nose hairs the length of a fire hose—except for Bookanistas because they're kind and friendly and some live in Utah, where everyone seems peachy and peaceful. Actually, anyone outside of New York City seems about as non-threatening as Mr. Met.
The point is that it can be intimidating to tell people about your book because, to some, at least those who be drinkin’ the Haterade, unless you’re on Oprah you’re a failure, which doesn’t make you want to tell anyone about your book but you have to because if you don’t tell anyone then nobody will buy it and you’ll go back to square one: you and your worst fears.
(My worst fear: A mountain of rejection letters piled so high on my desk that if I breath or cough or sigh with enough gusto the entire mountain will collapse on me like an avalanche and crush me and cover me in my own rejections and failures and nobody will hear me scream and I’ll die a slow and painful death, which newspapers will find fascinating and therefore report, on the front page in big bold lettering, “MAN DIES OF FAILURE; NOT HEART FAILURE, JUST FAILURE”—but since nobody reads newspapers anymore, nobody will hear about it until Comedy Central gets its hands on the story and Steven Colbert proclaims, with a wag of the finger, “Nation, I thought Bill O’Reilly was a loser, a real Loserasaurus [audience cheers]. . . I did, I really did, but then, Nation, [Colbert chuckles], but then I heard of Matt Blackstone,” as the audience, howling like hyenas, chants his name instead of mine: “Ste-ven. Ste-ven, Ste-ven . . .”)
I.  A Doggy Dog World
None of us start out writing YA books for the money (well, some of us, but nobody likes them very much).  We write them because we can—or think we can, which is a good enough start.  We write them because we have a message, an idea, an experience that’ll eat us alive if we don’t sit down and share it.  We write them because we’re bored, because American Idol ain’t what it used to be (Clay Aikens don’t just grow on trees you know) and there ain’t much to keep up with the Kardashians.   We write them because it’s a great excuse not to do clean the bathroom.  We write them because it’s hard, sometimes nearly impossible but not entirely impossible so we keep going and can’t stop because on good days we make ourselves laugh and smile and curse the day we were born and yell, “I LOVE YOUR GUTS” because we love and hate it so f—ing much.
But then there’s the business end, and if you’re anything like me, you majored in English and called the business school “The Evil Empire” and sang the Star Wars theme every time you passed it on campus (Dun, Dun, Dun, DunDuDun, DunDuDun)—and now you’re suddenly an entrepreneur, a traveling salesman, the CEO of your book, your brand, your name.  And though Blackstone only goes back two generations—my great uncle wanted to be an actor, liked the sound of Blackstone, and just went with it—it’s still my name and my wife’s name and I don’t want to muck it up quite yet.
The point is that we got into this for reasons other than money but, as my little cousin once said, “We live in a doggy, dog world.”  Book sales matter, and because they do, the questions come in rapid fire: “Do you have a marketing plan business cards platform radio television advertisements?  Do you have a short term long term term in the middle I guess you could call it a medium term marking plan rights contract e-book royalties kindle kindle kindle kindle kindle?”
Yes, you’ll want to kick and scream and long for the Star Wars song, the hippy days, the money-ain’t-a-thang mentality.  Yes, you’ll want shout in your best British accent: “This is rubbish!  We don’t ask marketing execs to write books!  Foncy that, though!  LOLing right now.  Absolutely lolling!”  And yes, you’ll want to throw a public tantrum so wildly ridiculous your toddlers will touch their chin and say, in unison, “Well that wasn’t very mature now, was it?  Are you finished yet, [Mr./Ms./Mrs.] Pouty Pants?”
You should be.
It’s in your best interest to sell copies, if not for the money than for the reasons you started writing in the first place—no, not the absence of Clay Aiken; you had a message, remember?  An idea, an experience that you wanted to share with the world.  If it wasn’t worth writing you wouldn’t have busted your ass to finish.
Seven months ago my wife brought me home two self-marketing books from the library.  Such a practical gift!  They made great pillows.  And lovely decoration.  Oh, and a perfect stepstool to reach the Red Hot Blues tortilla chips in the top drawer.
I tried to get into them—the books, I mean.  I think I even read a few pages.  I definitely drooled on page two.  I remember because I asked my wife, queen of stain removal, how to “erase the drool at the bottom of the page two.”
But I’ve changed.  Really, I have.  Since then, I’ve read the whole book.  Okay, half—but it’s O.D. long! It’s over 500 pages and reads like a textbook, but I’ll get there.  Really, I will.
We’ll all get there.  We may have different time zones and day jobs and differing levels of appreciation for Star Wars (truth be told, I like the theme song more than the movies).  We may have different schedules and styles and dorky whiney dances (and fake accents) when things don’t go our way.  But we’ll all get there.
Even if our first homie isn’t as agreeable as our second.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I Love Your Guts: Part 2

Nobody likes waiting.  Not at the grocery store or doctor’s office or subway platform or CVS pharmacy where it takes fifty-three minutes to reach the front and hear, “Sorry, sir, but your spouse isn’t covered under your plan; you’ll have to call your insurance provider,” who puts you on hold for thirty-seven minutes before you’re finally able to explain—and, on cue, the call is dropped.
You grind your teeth and check to see if they spelled her name right.
“We have her name as Janie,” the pharmacist says.  “J-A-N-I-E.”
“Her name’s Jamie!  Janie’s not even a name!”
“Well that’s what the doctor has here: Janie.  J-A-N-I-E.”
“But, the handwriting—”
“Sir, it was typed.”
“Sir, calm down.”
I.  The Wait
You get close to a manuscript.  It’s your blood and sweat and tears and time—all that time!—and if you’re lucky, you’ll finish a few drafts and become even closer.  You’ll become friends.  Not friends of friends or Facebook friends or John McCain’s “(my) friends,” but friends.  Real friends.  Friends as tight as family.  Homies—yup, you and your manuscript become homies.
You know deep down, really deep down (if you dug long enough to reach China) that your homie is only a Microsoft Word file, a stack of paper filled with words, words that make a book—not even a book, almost a book, but it’s your baby, your friend, your homie and though you don’t have a history of ascribing love and friendship to inanimate objects, you can’t help but feel sad and scared and apologetic when you mail it out because you’re tossing your baby into the wild, into the ocean, into a wild, oceanic mission all by himself and suddenly you understand why in Cast Away Tom Hanks screamed “I’M SORRY WILSON! I’M SORRY!  WILSON I’M SORRY!”  when the current carried his volleyball away.  You take back all the times you’ve mocked that scene when punting a basketball out of your little brother’s reach—“I’M SORRY SPALDING, I’M SO SORRY”—but you don’t feel bad for all the times you got that scene confused with Titanic, when Kate Winslet gasps for the rescue crew to “come back . . . come back . . .” because each and every time you send out your story, you want to quote both scenes and say to your precious characters, “I’m sorry, come back.  I’m sorry if they don’t like you as much as I do.  Come back, please.  I’m sorry, come back.”
And all that’s left is The Wait.  Worse than the DMV, for the line doesn’t end: it stretches down the aisles, into the streets, into your living room; it eats into your mornings, nibbles on your afternoons, swallows your evenings.  If you mailed your query letters, it’s an endless date with a mailbox that dumps you every afternoon.  If you emailed your materials, it’s a battle of self-control that you lose, lose, lose, because the more you hit refresh the worse you feel but you have to check because maybe this will be the day and you want your night to be a good one and the only way this will happen is if the email comes through but you won’t know if it came through unless you check, refresh, check, refresh, refresh.  You realize that refresh is a terrible word, a truly terrible word to describe what you’re going through because you feel a lot of things, but none of them are refreshment.
You hate yourself for throwing your characters into the wild.  (Refresh.)  You hate that they’re all alone and buried in a pile of slush.  (Refresh.)  You picture them slashed and bloody and shredded into a million little pieces.  (Refresh.)  You feel bad for James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, for getting spanked by Oprah on national television but you envy him now.  (Refresh.)  You hate the word "refresh" and hate that you’ve been a sucker for it all your life: soda, slurpies, Gatorade, frozen lemonade—all them tasty but none of them nearly as refreshing as a glass of water.  (Refresh).
But all you can do is wait, which feels like the cable company putting you on hold with Kenny G. for hours into days into weeks into months into years.  The baby who you’ve created and nurtured is all alone at sea and all you hear is Kenny G, which rhymes but isn’t the least bit soothing—because you, too, are all alone.  You can’t tell people your book is on submission because if it doesn’t sell then everyone knows about it.  Knows you put yourself out into the world and said, “Hey, world, it’s me, _____ (insert name) of _____ (insert home address), I’m here and I've got lots of good ideas and I want you to like me” to which the world said, “No.”  Or more specifically, “We’ve already decided who we’ll like in the upcoming year and you aren’t it” or “We don’t like you but who knows, someone with really bad taste might” or the very worst, which shakes you to your core: “How ironic! We liked someone similar to you last week!  Same ideas, same story—crazy, huh?  Good luck finding a home!”
II. Another Homie
This happened to me.  All of it.  I didn’t call my manuscript “Wilson,” but it was my buddy.  My homie.  My pride.  My joy.  Plus, it was about me:  You All in the Kool-Aid but You Don’t Know the Flavor was a memoir about my Teach for America experience, from the boot camp of summer Institute to the streets of West Baltimore; from political corruption ($50 million was stolen from the city budget) to crumbling schools (my principal at Frederick Douglass High School changed students’ grades, graduation was a fraud—things got so bad that HBO spent a year in our school filming Hard Times at Douglass High).
So I was invested.  I hunted down former students on Facebook.  I queried agents, lots of them, all of them, recycled enough rejection envelopes to stop global warming, got hooked and strung out on Gmail Refresh, and a few months later I signed with an agent.  In Like Flynn, right?  The Wait a thing of the past?  After three months of revision and three rounds of submission all I had to show for it was a note from my agent that said there was nothing more to do.
Cue the grieving process: the wish to rewind the clock and keep “Wilson” stored safe and sound in a filing cabinet.  The urge to never again compose another sentence.  To quit and hide and join a monastery or the traveling circus or the Blue Man Group.  To change identities: vote for the Tea Party, wear sweater vests, use the words “sublime” and “balmy,” wear a fake nose and mustache and glasses, drive a sublime sports car, cover my face in sunblock and carry an umbrella even in balmy weather.
Cue the prayer to eliminate Facebook.  The disappearance of Mark Zuckerberg.  The impulse to change my name to John Grisham or Stephanie Meyer or even Rudyard Kipling so that when students ask how the book is going I can say, as only a Mr. Foncy Ponts would, “Oh just marvelous, darling, just marvelous.  The Muse, though fickle, fancies me I suppose!”
Cue the hermit crab.  The cave dweller.  The mole.  Cue hypochondria. Aversions.  Phobias.  Fear of Barnes & Noble.  Fear of Katherine Barnes, Barney Gumble, Nobel Energy, all the noble men in history.
Cue denial.  Dreams of book signings.  Parties.  Schmoozing with Larry King.
Cue acceptance.  Longer conversations.  Crawling out of a cave.
Cue clarity: Kool-Aid made me a better writer.  A more confident one.  I can write 80,000 words. I know my butt, however sweaty it gets, can stay seated.  I know I can finish, whether others like the final product or not.
Cue forgiveness: other people have the right to their opinions but that doesn’t mean they’re right; maybe they're like the dopey pharmacists who can’t admit that Janie is a typo and not a name, but you won’t know unless you keep writing.  Keep creating.  Keep calm.  Keep telling your butt that you don’t care about its feelings.  Keep networking; they'll push you and guide you and be there at the finish line.  Keep avoiding beverages (and people) that aren’t refreshing.  Keep growing characters in your cave.
Keep lookin’ for your next homie.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Bookanista Review: Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You

There aren’t many books that display the quirks, temperament and history of all the central characters in its first two sentences: “The day my sister, Gillian, decided to pronounce her name with a hard G was, coincidentally, the same day my mother returned, early and alone, from her honeymoon.  Neither of these things surprised me.”
Then again, from the lengthy title—SOMEDAY THIS PAIN WILL BE USEFUL TO YOU—to the spare cover and equally spare prose, this book is anything but ordinary.  Ditto for James Sveck, an eighteen year old protagonist who refuses to report for his freshman year at Brown University.
Not defer, simply not go.
Instead, he plans to head out to Kansas, purchase a house on the cheap and live a quiet life.  (The more I think about it, as I stare at my rent check made out to a Manhattan landlord, James may be on to something.  Mental note: pack bags overnight, buy ten dozen bagels, tell wife we’re going on a road trip, tell school that I won the national Teacher-of-the-Year award and that President Obama wants to honor me at a state dinner in Kansas—a very long state dinner, with many courses—and maybe he’ll invite me to the White House to shoot hoops and tell him all about Bronx high schools and he’ll be so impressed that he’ll appoint me czar of education, czar of baseball, czar of book writing, czar of . . .)
We all have fantasies; some of them are clean, and some are twisted and dangerous—and funny.  Exhibit A: James explains that one of the plaques outside his dad Upper East Side apartment reads, “IN MEMORY OF HOWARD MORRIS SHULEVITZ, BLOCK PRESIDENT 1980-1993.  HE LOVED THIS BLOCK.  I thought about throwing myself out our living room window so that I would land the sidewalk in front of the tree well.  I would get my own plaque then, beside Howard’s: JAMES DUNFOUR SVECK, SECOND BLOCK PRESIDENT, 1985-1997.  HE LOVED THIS BLOCK TOO.”
Though everyone around James isn’t exactly centered, James is the furthest out there, teetering on the border between quirky and ill.  His shrink tries to bring him back from the periphery, but James is a worthy competitor, matching her every question with one of his own: Why doesn’t she keep any novels in her office?  Why does she keep saying “I see?”  Why does everyone think he’s having a breakdown?  What is his sexuality? Why does ordering pasta instead of steak makes him unmanly?  Why is it such a big deal to post fake profiles on male dating sites and then go meet up with them, people he knows from work, and in so many words yell, Surprise, colleague, it’s me, James—you know, from the art gallery!
Yes, James will make you squirm.  But you won’t be able to look away.  He’s a superbly drawn character in a brilliantly conceived book.  You’ll pity him, admire him, and want to befriend him.  You simply won’t be able to take your eyes off James Svek, which is a good thing because you’ll be seeing a whole lot of him.  The movie is due out this year.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

I Love your Guts: Part 1

I love writing.  Can’t get enough.  Gulp it down like Mr. Owl in that old tootsie pop ad [How many licks does it take to get to the tootsie roll center of a tootsie pop?]: One, Tahooo, Three.
It’s just that publishing thing that isn’t quite as tasty: there are very few winners and they all smell like bowling shoes and have buckteeth and nose hairs the length of a fire hose.  Oh, and they’re freakishly lucky and don’t write well. They stink.
I. Haterade
hate reading stories about getting published.  Most of them are like Saturday afternoon infomercials, for RoboGym or Insta Cut, where the host, always an overcaffeinated young lad with white teeth and a wide smile oozing with satisfaction, swears by the results and gushes about how easy it is and how it’ll blast the Old You into smithereens and how it’s such a swell deal (but wait, call now and you’ll also receive this bookmark, a $200 value, for free).
hate the description of The Big Day; the day they knew they made it; the day the world stood still because everyone and their mama dropped to their knees, in shock and awe, pledging allegiance to a new generation of writers dipped in awesomeness.  It’s a story a high school freshman would tell: “I was walking to the mailbox because, you know, that’s what I do everyday because, like, sometimes I get important mail, but you never know which day you’ll get important mail and which day you’ll get junk mail.  So, in other words, it was a regular day.  Little did I know that on that day . . .  on that day . . . well, it wasn’t regular day.  At all.  LOL!  When I turned the key, I noticed, like, right away, that the mailbox had an envelope in it, a tall envelope, so I knew something was up—well, I didn’t really know but I had this feeling, like the way a wolf—you know, a wolf, like in the woods—senses danger.  But it wasn’t danger that I sensed, it was . . . OMG! OMG!  My body, like, stopped working.  You know what, honestly, I could feel myself changing.  Transforming.  Metamorphing, or whatever, into something different.  Like a wolf.  A werewolf!  Like Taylor Lautner!  OMG!”
hate the promises.  The money-back guarantees.  The certainty in an uncertain world.
hate the audience.  Their applause.  Their longing.
Most of all, I hate that I long, too.  Wishing I had an agent.  A book contract.  A manuscript to edit.  An acceptance letter, however corny the story, to open and read and frame, instead of a mountain of rejection letters piled so high on my desk that if I breath or cough or sigh with enough gusto the entire mountain will collapse on me like an avalanche and crush me and cover me in my own rejections and failures and nobody will hear me scream and I’ll die a slow and painful death, which newspapers will find fascinating and therefore report, on the front page in big bold lettering, “MAN DIES OF FAILURE; NOT HEART FAILURE, JUST FAILURE”—but since nobody reads newspapers anymore, nobody will hear about it until Comedy Central gets its hands on the story and Steven Colbert proclaims, with a wag of the finger, “Nation, I thought Bill O’Reilly was a loser, a real Loserasaurus [audience cheers]. . . I did, I really did, but then, Nation, [Colbert chuckles], but then I heard of Matt Blackstone,” as the audience, howling like hyenas, chants his name instead of mine: “Ste-ven. Ste-ven, Ste-ven . . .”
II. Mr. Foncy Ponts
After now, after years of rejection and rooms full of high-pitched “sorry, good luck” letters, now that I’m about to be published, with another book on the way, I’ve realized something else: I hate talking about it.
It makes me irritable, itchy, like red ants are crawling up my thigh.  I don’t recognize my voice; no matter what I say, I sound fancy—no, foncy—like I have a British accent, play a smashing game of Polo, and eat only “mixed greens”—only with a salad fork.
I tell myself, “Self, yeah you, you’re not British; tell them the truth: your favorite food is hot dogs, you own one pair of jeans, suffer (sometimes for weeks) from writer’s block, you pick your nose, waste more time than you’d like to admit, and you feel guilty buying Mexican Turkey at the store because it’s expensive and you don’t think you deserve it.”
For a long time, I didn’t know why I was so hesitant and downright strange when it came to self-promotion.  I thought I was camera shy, but if my subway videos taught me anything, it’s that I don’t mind acting the fool in front of a camcorder.
I figured maybe I didn’t want to make others jealous.  My mom, the model of humility, taught me never to be haughty, never to rub it in.  Whenever I imitated Nelson from The Simpsons by yelling “HA! HA!” at my brother when I got better grades, or he spilled orange juice on the floor, my mom threatened to wash my mouth out with soap.  It was a good lesson, and I never ate soap (my brother ironically did).  Nobody likes a bragger, a boaster, an elitist (why do you think presidential candidates, with their Harvard Law degrees, swig Budweiser the year before an election?).
I think, though, like most issues related to writing, it was fear.  Fear that if I talked about it, then it would go away.  The gift would be gone.  All of it—the advance, the agent, the accolades—would vanish.  An irrational superstition, yes, but a very real fear based on a very real fact: nothing is permanent—not even Oprah, or love, especially on The Bachelor. It’s a lesson deeply embedded in the mind of every athlete: one day you’re on top, and the next—be it a bum knee, a torn shoulder, a bad trade—you’re in the next Sports Illustrated’s Where Are They Now issue, sporting a McDonald’s visor, flipping burgers with the only strong wrist you got left.  Ever wonder why athletes don’t wash their socks and eat the same exact meal with same exact portions at the same exact time while listening to the same exact song before every game?  Well, this is why.
(Sports fanatics, who live vicariously through their heroes, are just as superstitious and afraid, which is why they refuse to declare victory until the final out/whistle/bell/horn so that they’re not personal responsible for putting the kybosh on their team.)
It’s crazy, I know, but ask most writers and they’ll tell you the same thing: they’re lucky, they know it, and they try really f—ing hard not to f— it up.  And I tried, for the first six months after getting a book deal, not to f— it up.  I avoided chat forums on Twitter, didn’t tell my colleagues about my book, and heavens no did I tell my students.  For one, I didn’t like sounding like Mr. Foncy Ponts; but most importantly, I was afraid.  Afraid of flipping burgers.  Afraid I’d lose it all.
But if sports have taught us anything, it’s that you can’t win by playing not to lose.  You can’t kill the clock for an entire quarter and hope the other team doesn’t catch up.  You have to keep moving down the field.  You have to crawl out of your little writing cave and tell people about your book.  You don’t have to brag—and you certainly don’t need to pull a Mark Zuckerburg in The Social Network and make business cards that read I’m CEO, bitch—but if you believe in your book, its characters and its story, then tell people about it.  Start a blog.  Introduce yourself, whoever you are: if you’re goofy, wear your goofy hat and dance, dance, dance; if you’re serious, lament about the economy; if you’re a teacher, you better learn to laugh, man—and if you get a really good quote from a really quirky 9th grader, write about it, whether that’s in a blog or in your next book. (And if the haters soak you in Haterade, it means you’re on to something.)
I’m no expert (if you’re looking for one, pick up a copy of Steven Kings’s On Writing, or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird; they’re great books by great people who write much better than I ever will), but if you’re curious about what it takes to navigate the cruel publishing world, or wonder how many times I quit writing (One, Tahoo, Three…) but kept going, or just wanna laugh at a newbie writer who doesn’t eat mixed greens and is thankful he didn’t drown in his own failures, follow this writing series, I LOVE YOUR GUTS.