Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My favorite Christmas movies

I adore Christmas movies, but other than "Elf", I didn't see many on British TV this year. Not even The Muppet Christmas Carol! I just don't feel ready for Christmas.

So I figured I'd take this opportunity to reminisce a bit, play on You Tube, and share my list of favorite Christmas movies. I've always wanted to do a Christmas-movie marathon, but somehow I'm not sure anyone else shares a similar love of romantic comedies, dramas and children's movies. I'd love to see what your favorites are in the comments!

While You Were Sleeping

My second favorite romantic comedy ever (my first favorite is "When Harry Met Sally", which is unfortunately more of a New Year's movie, not a Christmas one). It's set in beautiful Chicago, it has snow, a cute and cheerful Sandra Bullock, lots of humor and (very important for a romantic comedy) I never once feel squirmy and tempted to write the studio complaining about their misogyny. Plus Peter and Jack's family completely reminds me of the family I married into.

Little Women

OK, I'm not sure many people would think of it as a Christmas movie, but it's got Christmas scenes, lots of snow, and a generous and loving family (and it's that last bit that really makes me think of Christmas).

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Every year I listen to the music (this year I listened while making latkes. Both the Jews and the Christians would probably be angry about that one!). My sister and I used to imitate the Peanuts' dances:

And every time I hear that passage from Luke, I hear Linus reciting it in one of my favorite TV moments ever. It gives me chills and somehow never feels didactic, more magical.

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

Phil has added a few comedies onto my list. Perhaps this movie gets a little closer to the truth than all my romanticized versions of Christmas.

The Christmas Story

This is Phil's family's favorite. Phil's dad is Ralphie and his Uncle is Randy. It's like the producers watched them grow up.

Christmas Eve on Sesame Street

The best Christmas movie ever. Ever. It makes me laugh, it makes me teary eyed, it perfectly captures the magic of Christmas. I realize it looks a little dated, but I'm so sad it is never shown on TV anymore. But you can watch the whole thing on YouTube! The below clip is the beginning, where you can see all the characters (including Mr Hooper!) ice skating, that incredible little skater with Big Bird, and the characters rolling Oscar across the ice rink and down the stairs.

I hope everyone has a merry holiday season. I'm taking a bit of a break myself, and will see you all again in January. Take care.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Cheese! Adverts you won't see in the US

So pleased to share a year-end installment in my adverts you won't see in the US series. The two previous ads (Salmon Fish Fingers and Corsodyl Mint Mouthwash) would have never made it to US TVs because of their sexual content (outright nudity with the mouthwash!). In this Boursin cheese ad the actors are fully clothed. However, it's the ad's sadistic humor that would keep it off US airwaves. Oh, and celebrating a total love of cheese--not sure many Americans would get that either! Enjoy!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Wrapping up a year and a semester

Today is the final day of my first semester in my Writing for Young People course.

It's really quite amazing. I love looking backwards at life when it's turned out well. At the beginning of September, I blogged about all my anxieties upon starting school. It's such an incredible feeling to report, several months in, my lunch money has not been stolen once. I've also made friends, thoroughly enjoyed my classes, wrote more than I imagined I could, been challenged, and been successful. How often in life can one say all that? I feel so blessed in this unexpected life journey.

And how is my writing? Because, at the end of the day, that's why I embarked on this course, right? Right.

Well, I've learned a ton. I've learned I can write for different age groups. I've learned I love writing picture books. I've learned what I tend to be good at (setting, voice) and what I'm not so good at (plot, passive characters). I've learned I can generate a whole new character, setting and plot. A new story every week, if need be. That comforts a lot of fears. I have more than one book inside me.

I still have one major fear fluttering about my brain. Everything's moving way too fast. Can I possibly have a publishable manuscript ready by next September? Will I actually be happy with it? Will anyone else be? Deep breath. Exhale. Okay, moving on...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bright, fun and sparkly... until I mess it up

How do you start a novel?

Do you start at page one and just write until the story is completely told? Or do you put off writing for months and instead develop characters, brainstorm plot twists and create an outline? I've done both, and made both work for me, but neither technique was without its faults.

Good news? I've got a new idea.* It's bright and fun and sparkles in the light. I told my tutor about my new idea, convinced she would knock some sense into me and tell me to put it into a drawer. Instead, she loved it. Even better? I brought two pieces of it into workshop and my fellow students loved it. All very exciting. My tutor told me to keep working on it over the holidays and to see how it went.

But here's the thing... it's so bright and fun and sparkly... I really don't want to mess it up.

Over the years, and especially in this past semester, I've realized plot is a big weakness of mine. I'm so scared of not having it that I tend to have it in abundance, to shove it down all my characters' throats and mold them to my plot's will. That doesn't work so well. So, while my new idea already has a premise and an ending, I'd like to develop the rest of the plot through my character. I keep telling myself it needs to be organic.

But how does one DO organic? Isn't it just supposed to come naturally?

I feel like I'm at the beginning of a labyrinth. Just by walking forward, choosing to take only left turns, I'm making decisions. Even if I leave bread crumbs in my path, will I ever be able to totally erase the decisions I make?

My inclination at the moment is to write some more scenes and to see where they take me. Even though the efficient part of my brain dies a little bit every time I say that.

But all of this being said, I'm happy with my bright, fun and sparkly idea. I've waited a long time to get it. Now I just have to make the most of it.

Any advice?

* No, I won't share my idea publicly. Why? The writing process. Also I don't like feeling like an idiot when ideas blow up in my face.

Monday, December 14, 2009

5 Best Books of 2009

A lot of the blogs I read are doing summations for 2009 (The Book Smugglers have invented a whole holiday and ad campaign for their Smugglivus!). Not wanting to be alone, I have decided to share my five favorite books of 2009.

Why only five? Well, five were easy. There were five books that right away jumped out at me as some of the absolute best books I've ever read. Spots six, seven, eight, etc. started to get contentious.

So I bring you, in the order I read them, the Critically-Yours BEST BOOKS OF 2009:

1. THE POISONWOOD BIBLE by Barbara Kingsolver
I know, I know, I had NEVER read THE POISONWOOD BIBLE before!!!

I've read one of Kingsolver's other books (which shall remain nameless) and it was... *shrug*... okay. So even though I kept hearing that I must read PB, I never really got around to it. I had to embark on a novel with three narrators to finally read PB as homework (PB has five narrators). And I was absolutely blown away. This was pre-blog days, so I didn't blog about it. But suffice to say I was in France in spring while I was reading it and had to force myself to leave the hotel room.

I'm not sure what I can say to do the book justice, but I felt as if I was in Africa. I completely cared for each of the characters and actively wanted to follow their journeys. I learned something about African history and politics. Because of Kingsolver's religious and political themes, I felt like shouting "Amen!" at the end of every chapter. And even now that I have finished it, I feel like I still carry a bit of it in my heart. How is that for loving a book?

2. CRACKED UP TO BE by Courtney Summers

Excerpt from my blog review in August:
Like SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson (one of my other favorites), CRACKED UP TO BE is about the horrors of high school and reveals the mystery of what happened at the end. But I found CRACKED UP TO BE surprisingly more complex, more real. SPEAK, for all its terror, has a clearer resolution. And SPEAK is about one horrific event, not so much all the games children play every day in school just to survive.

Click here for my blog's full review.


From my Goodreads review: What is the meaning of life? Jeremy Fink and his best friend Lizzy are determined to find out in time for Jeremy's thirteenth birthday. Jeremy's dad intended to tell him on this special day, but instead died in a car accident, leaving only a locked box with four keyholes and no keys. JEREMY FINK AND THE MEANING OF LIFE is a beautiful book about friendship and family, but also all the random ways we are connected with the rest of humanity, even in a chaotic and sometimes frightening city like New York. This is a book one should buy, read, re-read, and then buy for your fifty closest friends. An absolute treasure.

4. I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith

Excerpt from my blog review in October:
Readers often say they want the next Little Women or the next Harry Potter or the next Jane Eyre. But I think what they really want is a book that can recreate the feeling of reading one of those novels. A book that will keep you reading past dinner, late into the night, without once looking at the clock. A book that will have you laughing out loud, gasping, and re-reading passages just to recreate certain exact moments. A book that once you finish it, you want to run out into the night and buy a copy of your own to keep forever. I CAPTURE THE CASTLE is such a book. And I am beyond annoyed that it was published first in 1949 and I have only heard of it now. Had I read this book in middle school or high school, I know I would have carried it through my life, recreated its scenes in my head, reread it until all its pages were falling out. But luckily I have discovered it now, and I still have the rest of my life to reread it often.

Click here for my blog's full review.

And... drumroll please... number 5. The inspiration for this whole post because I just finished it a few days ago and I think I'm having withdrawal symptoms!!!

5. THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz

Somehow this book was an international bestseller, but I had never heard of it. I was book browsing in a Bath market when a friend pointed it out to me. The bookseller nodded in agreement and said, "Your friend is right, that book's amazing." Well, being the cheapskate I am, I promptly reserved it at the library.

THE SHADOW OF THE WIND begins in 1945 Barcelona in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books with a book that so moves ten-year-old Daniel that he refuses to sell it. Rumors of a faceless man calling himself the devil and burning every copy of the book inspire Daniel to do whatever it takes to protect the novel. Along the way he falls in love, befriends a homeless man who is a former political prisoner, and unravels the mystery behind the book, the devil, and its author.

From the moment I read the first sentence to the moment when I read the last (and then Phil sneezed, so I had to read the last paragraph all over again), I was transfixed by this book. The language is poetic and gripping; I could not believe I was reading a novel in translation. My friend, who is fluent in Spanish, says the original is even better. Its premise makes it the perfect novel for a book lover. It also has a Dickensian plot, with twists and turns and numerous fascinating characters. Wow.

It is interesting to look over this list of my five favorites. All of them, with the exception of THE SHADOW OF THE WIND, are character studies, not plotty (know what I mean? I think plotty is my new favorite word). They're all coming of age stories. Actually, they're all coming of age stories where the characters choose their journey, to some extent, except CRACKED UP. And I profess to love fantasy, but none of these novels are. Some have gothic or magical elements (SHADOW, PB) and surprising coincidences (JEREMY FINK), but none are unexplained. They're also serious novels, though definitely with laugh out loud moments. I think I'm developing a profile for my perfect book--and I'm wondering if it says something about the type of books I want to write, too! We'll see!!!

What are your favorites for 2009? I'm serious, give it a try. This was a fun exercise!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Even fantasies need real world problems

As part of my MA in Writing for Young People, I've been reading ghost stories and analyzing how they work. As a kid, I remember the scariest stories were those told around a campfire or at sleepovers. The final line was always something like: "And the murder happened in this very house."

Now obviously there's no way to recreate that effect in widely published literature, unless you happen to stumble across a novel set in your home town. So what can writers do to help us relate to ghost stories, to feel as if they could've happened in our own house and we might be the next victim?

In my reading, one of the ah-ha moments for me was that the main character needs to have a real world problem. This problem needs to be something the reader can relate to and sympathize with because then readers can believe this story could happen to them, too, no matter how unbelievable its ghostly premise.

I wrote an earlier blog post about the book BOG CHILD by Siobhan Dowd. One of the reasons I loved it so much was because of the main character, Fergus. Fergus has a brother in prison for helping the IRA and the IRA is pressuring Fergus to also join to show his support. Readers might not be able to relate to that, but they can relate to Dowd’s larger themes of peer pressure, family expectations and wanting to be a hero.

In that same blog post, I also mentioned DREADFUL SORRY by Kathryn Reiss. The funny thing about this book is that the main character's problem is very weird and supernatural--she's the reincarnation of a woman with a short and tragic life who wants to make amends. But Reiss makes Molly's problem entirely believable. The woman drowned, so Molly is terrified of water. When confronted with water, Molly is inundated with nightmares and visions. This phobia plays out in Molly’s every day world. She won’t graduate unless she passes her school’s swim test, she’s taunted by her classmates, and physically exhausted from countless sleepless nights.

So even though paranormal novels are filled with ghosts and werewolves and whatever other fantastical plot elements, I think these writers need to work hard to make their characters believable.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A childhood without Shel Silverstein?

Do you remember Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout?

If your answer to that question was: "She would not take the garbage out!" then you grew up with the children's writer Shel Silverstein. My classmates and I used to memorize Silverstein's poems, pass his books around like they were the holy grail, scream lines from them across the playground.

Shel Silverstein is the author American classics like THE GIVING TREE, WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS and A LIGHT IN THE ATTIC. His stories and poetry are wacky and funny, but also sweet and even thought-provoking. I used to teach persuasive writing by asking my secondary school students to write thesis-statements about THE GIVING TREE.

So imagine my shock (even horror) to learn that Brits did not grow up with Shel Silverstein. Most Brits have never even heard of Shel Silverstein.

In my own very small way, I tried to remedy that earlier this month when my class discussed children's poetry. My classmates brought in several wonderful examples, including Robert Louis Stevenson's A CHILD'S GARDEN OF VERSES; T.S Eliot's "Macavity-The Mystery Cat" and Roald Dahl's REVOLTING RHYMES (Do take note of the ages of the poems we shared; our class discussed the severe lack of modern poetry published, especially for children). Our teacher shared CURTAINS by Matt Harvey, which I thoroughly enjoyed (if you follow the link, you can watch him read it aloud!).

I couldn't limit myself to just one, so I bought in two Shel Silverstein's poems: "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out" (follow the link to see the poem is its entirety) and "Hug O' War" (see below):

I will not play at tug o' war
I'd rather play at hug o' war,
Where everyone hugs
Instead of tugs
Where everyone giggles
And rolls on the rug,
Where everyone kisses
And everyone grins
And everyone cuddles
And everyone wins.

"Hug O' War" is borrowed from Where the Sidewalk Ends: the poems & drawings of Shel Silverstein, published by Harper & Row Junior Books, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10022. Copyright © 1974 by Evil Eye Music, Inc.


Monday, December 7, 2009

Holiday recipes: cranberry applesauce

As someone who loves food and cooking, when the holidays approach I get twitchy. I dream of Christmas cookies, thick soups and homemade applesauce. So, given that it's a chilly, rainy British day, I figure I'll share one of my favorite holiday recipes:

Cranberry Applesauce

Serves 4 as a side dish

½ cup sugar
4 medium apples, peeled and cored
1½ cup fresh or frozen cranberries (doesn’t make any difference)
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger (fresh is nice, but not necessary)
½ teaspoon grated lemon peel (right… I just use a splash of concentrated lemon juice)

  1. In a large saucepan, heat sugar and 2 tablespoons water over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Stir occasionally.
  2. Stir in apples, and cover and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally
  3. Stir in cranberries for 5 minutes (cranberries should begin to pop)
  4. Cover and cook 5 minutes more, until apples are mushy
  5. Add spices and lemon, cook and stir 5 more minutes
  6. Remove from heat and mash with a potato masher or the back of a spoon to your desired consistency
The recipe is courtesy of my Aunt Janet--thank you! I won't tell how many times during the winter months (it might be more than once a week) I end up making this dish. Phil swears it tastes like pie filling, I love its tartness. Its festive red color makes it perfect for Thanksgiving, Christmas and various holiday potlucks. It's also cheap and easy to make. It goes well with turkey, chicken, latkes, and can also be a snack, breakfast, or an ice cream topping.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The best ghost stories out there?

About a month ago, I asked for suggestions for good ghost stories. For my MA in Writing for Young People, I'm working on an essay about plotting ghost stories. I was overrun with suggestions (but in a good way!).

My reading and writing this past month has been extremely fruitful, and I feel I've learned a lot about what it takes to tell a good ghost story. In the coming weeks I'm hoping to post more of my thoughts on this genre. But I wanted to start by sharing my two favorite finds from my reading (both authors whom I had never heard of!):

DREADFUL SORRY by Kathryn Reiss

"Ever since she can remember, seventeen-year-old Molly has been plagued by the same terrifying nightmare and an almost overwhelming fear of water. After almost drowning at a pool party, she flees to the safety of her father’s house for the summer. But Molly’s problems only intensify as she stumbles onto a series of strange connections linking herself to a girl who lived in that Cliffside house nearly a century before. Then the eerie coincidences start to form a dangerous pattern, and Molly finds herself haunted by visions that feel more like memories--memories of a time before she was even born!" (summary from Reiss' website)

Reiss breaks many of the traditional ghost story rules, yet I never stopped turning pages. When I reached the end, I sat on the couch and held the book for several minutes, desperately wishing there was a sequel, or perhaps even a trilogy. This is my first time reading Reiss; I must seek out some of her other books.

BOG CHILD by Siobhan Dowd

"Digging for peat in the mountain with his Uncle Tally, Fergus finds the body of a child, and it looks as if she’s been murdered. As Fergus tries to make sense of the mad world around him – his brother on hunger-strike in prison, his growing feelings for Cora, his parents arguing over the Troubles, and him in it up to the neck, blackmailed into smuggling mysterious packages across the border – a little voice comes to him in his dreams, and the mystery of the bog child unfurls." (summary taken from Dowd's website)

Technically I'm not sure I'd classify BOG CHILD as a ghost story. It's not scary (at least, not in a supernatural way) and Fergus is not literally haunted. However, he is consumed by dreams of a long dead child. And besides, it's really really good, so it had plenty to teach me.

I hope you'll give both books (and authors) a read. Do let me know if you enjoy them as much as I did.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

NaNoWriMo Round-up

Well, it's now December, which for many of my writing friends means the end of NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated, the fabulously acronymed NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. In the month of November, new and experienced writers band together to challenge each other to write an entire novel of 50,000 words.

For several years I've wished to participate. I consider myself a slow and dreadful plotter, so I've often wondered if NaNo would free my creativity. However, because of personal concerns (being sick the entirety of October) and being immersed in several other writing projects, this year I couldn't commit. Yet I have actively followed other writers through their NaNoWriMo pursuits. The month seems to inevitably teach writers a lot about themselves and their writing process, whether they complete the 50K challenge or not.

So I wanted to take the opportunity on the blog to do a NaNo round-up of sorts and share several fascinating blog posts with you, written by those who finished NaNo and those who did not.

Children's author Anna Staniszewski completed NaNo, though she blogs about how the real win is improving your writing habits.

Joanna Smith also completed NaNo, writing a total of over 90,000 words! But her blog post is a honest and heartfelt description of how she feels she failed at NaNo. It's also a thoughtful discussion of the writing process and what she learned about her manuscripts and herself from NaNo.

Maggie Stiefvater (author of the NY Times bestselling SHIVER) shares a Dear John Letter to NaNo on her blog. Not only is the post hysterical, it's a fascinating analysis of Maggie's process and why NaNo doesn't work for her.

Author Keren David (WHEN I WAS JOE is coming out this January!) also didn't complete NaNo. Her blog post explains why she stopped and is an interesting description of her writing process and also of a published author's writing demands.

What about the rest of you? Did you or didn't you NaNo? Are you happy with the results? What are your plans for NEXT November?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Best British Adverts for Noughties

I would be remiss if I didn't share this fabulous Guardian collection of the best adverts of the noughties, including the hysterical John West Salmon Ad and the strangely captivating Cadbury Gorilla. Oh, and I do love many of the PG Tips ads (very British, though I'm not sure I fully get them). Enjoy!