Dec 12, 2014

Inheriting Characteristics

While sitting at a stop light a few days ago, I had my elbow resting on the console, opening and closing my very sore and tired right hand. It is something that has become nearly automatic as my focus has been directed toward regaining as much mobility as quickly as possible. As I was sitting there, opening and closing, another image came to mind, one of my dad.

My dad is quite possibly the hardest working person I know. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, he taught school, coached a myriad of sports and ran a construction company. He often, mindlessly, opened and closed his right hand as well, trying to loosen the soreness that gathered during the manual labor that was building a residence for someone.

Photo credit Wayne Decker (featuring his hands)
At the same time, he has a quality of compassion, a gentleness even that often had him performing these body breaking tasks for people at severely discounted prices in order to provide assistance. While camping and fishing, he happened to take a picture that reflects this clearly.

I started thinking about tendencies that we pick up without realizing we do. I mirror my dad in many ways often, my husband inherited his mother's ability to carry on a conversation with anyone. I see glimpses of stubbornness in my son and daughters which I know they picked up from me, though none of them have it manifest in quite the same way.

Fitting that they are stubbornly unique in their stubbornness.

As much as we would like to proclaim ourselves individuals, unique entities that roam through this world with a plan of our very own, we can never separate ourselves from being the people who came before us.

Chances are decent, if you take a step back and think about it, you too have mannerisms like certain family members. Their presence may surprised you at times as well.

But if we have this, wouldn't it make sense that characters should as well. This isn't the sort of thing that needs to be told to the reader necessarily, but something that should be woven in, something that makes the character have depth by tying them in to the lives that were lived before and with. It may manifest as mine did, in a subconscious movement, or it could be a saying that has latched on to the deepest regions of a character's mind that only shows when all efforts to restrain are forfeited.

We hear all the time that our characters need to be real. I'm of the firm opinion that realness comes from giving them history, and what better history is there to draw from than their own familial tendencies.

What mannerisms and nuances have you inherited? Which characters have you loved that have a strong familial thread woven into their character tapestry? 

Dec 10, 2014

Tasha's Best Books of 2014 (part two)

Yesterday, I shared five of my favorite books on Thinking Through Our Fingers. I grouped them together as they all had an element or feeling of magic, and they felt like they should all be friends. But I couldn't let the year go out without spotlighting three other books that came out this year, each of which is powerful, beautifully written and deserving of attention.

The Art of Falling by Kathryn Craft
One wrong step could send her over the edge.

All Penny has ever wanted to do is dance—and when that chance is taken from her, it pushes her to the brink of despair, from which she might never return. When she wakes up after a traumatic fall, bruised and battered but miraculously alive, Penny must confront the memories that have haunted her for years, using her love of movement to pick up the pieces of her shattered life.

Kathryn Craft’s lyrical debut novel is a masterful portrayal of a young woman trying to come to terms with her body and the artistic world that has repeatedly rejected her. The Art of Falling expresses the beauty of movement, the stasis of despair, and the unlimited possibilities that come with a new beginning. 

This book had such a powerful impact on me. I'm not a dancer at all, but the character, the struggles she had, the complexity of understanding who she was when she fell and how that could align with who she could be, not to mention the struggles she felt in trying to fit in a world where she didn't quite fit in. I loved the writing, but really felt that Penny was a form of me. Her journey led me to think about ways to improve on my own.

Chasing the Sun: A Novel by Natalia Sylvester 

Andres suspects his wife has left him—again. Then he learns that the unthinkable has happened: she’s been kidnapped. Too much time and too many secrets have come between Andres and Marabela, but now that she’s gone, he’ll do anything to get her back. Or will he?

As Marabela slips farther away, Andres must decide whether they still have something worth fighting for, and exactly what he’ll give up to bring her home. And unfortunately, the decision isn’t entirely up to him, or up to the private mediator who moves into the family home to negotiate with the terrorists holding Marabela. Andres struggles to maintain the illusion of control while simultaneously scrambling to collect his wife’s ransom, tending to the needs of his two young children, and reconnecting with an old friend who may hold the key to his past and his wife’s future.

Set in Lima, Peru, in a time of civil and political unrest, this evocative page-turner is a perfect marriage of domestic drama and suspense.

I fell in love with the cover of this book first, but the writing soon made me forget about it. The premise is so unique, and the tension it creates just there is perfect, but Sylvester isn't satisfied with that amount of story. She weaves in backstory, incredible side characters, descriptions of a place I've never been to but felt like I could identify with all while encouraging me to think what I would do in the situation. This was different than I expected, and I loved it more because of that.

One Plus One by Jojo Moyes 

Suppose your life sucks. A lot. Your husband has done a vanishing act, your teenage stepson is being bullied and your math whiz daughter has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you can’t afford to pay for. That’s Jess’s life in a nutshell—until an unexpected knight-in-shining-armor offers to rescue them. Only Jess’s knight turns out to be Geeky Ed, the obnoxious tech millionaire whose vacation home she happens to clean. But Ed has big problems of his own, and driving the dysfunctional family to the Math Olympiad feels like his first unselfish act in ages . . . maybe ever.

This the third Moyes books I've read, and each time, I marvel at the way she can capture characterization and voice in the midst of a plot that isn't earth-shattering. I loved these people, rooted for them, face-palmed when they did something stupid and really wanted them over for dinner (maybe not the dog). Time and again Moyes delivers on books that I'm not sure will work, and they do brilliantly.

What have been your favorite reads of 2014? Any you are anticipating in the new year?

Dec 8, 2014

Grounded and Well-Rounded?

If you have been on the internet at all, you will know that there is this comparison game that is running amok. Some of the strongest versions of it manifest themselves as the "Mommy Wars", but to exclude men from this is a bit narrow minded. We want women to be business oriented, have a thriving career, maintain a perfect house decorated in the latest Pottery Barn decor, and raise musical/athletic/scholarly artists who provide community service. Men are supposed to have jobs that challenge them as well, let them be in charge of things of significance but come home as energetic and compassionate people who help make dinner, play catch with the kids, whisk them up for story time and tucking into bed. Don't forget that homework gets accomplished during this time with joyful and eager expressions.

All the while, each member in this idealistic family smile and cheerfully engage in conversation and obedient behavior. 

Image Source
But being that well-rounded doesn't happen. In teaching high school students, I see them trying to achieve all of this - after all, that's what college is all about, right? They are exhausted, their parents are exhausted. Somehow, in an effort to be everything every article on the internet says we are to be, we have a society of frantic people trying to fit everything in via last minute efforts of accomplishment, most of which don't present themselves with equal satisfaction. 

More often than not, the things, the people, we care about most are the ones who become the hill bearing the weight of our well-roundedness. And if we make it to the top, if we can balance that stone there, in front of us is another stone, another hill, another person we are supposed to be. 

What if, instead, we as a society took a step back and became grounded in the things where we have a natural aptitude, the things that bring us joy, the things that let us have deeper, more meaningful relationships with the people we love? 

For example, I'm deficient in the talents that have a more of a domestic nature. I'm a pretty decent cook, a less decent baker. I deep clean well, clutter clean sporadically. I'm a devoted friend, but get burned out quickly during this season of never-ending mix and mingles. 

Yes, there are other things I could be good at, but where I'm at, right now, fills the necessary cups of self-worth, and fill my days with work I feel to be productive and beneficial. 

I challenge you to take an inventory of your life for just a minute. 

* How are your personal relationships? If they could be improved, how so? What would you cut to do that?

* How satisfied are you with the work you do right now that fills your 9-5 time? Is it something you see being equally satisfying five years down the road? If not, what can you do now to change that and what plans are necessary for the future? 

* Does each day pass by in a frantic pace? Is this caused by your choices or determined by others who impact you daily? 

* At the end of each day, do you reflect on what you accomplished and feel satisfied? Do you feel like the harder you work, the further behind you get? How could you change that?

I can't answer all of these in a manner that is satisfactory for where I want to be. But compared to where I was even a year ago, I'm getting closer. And I think that's the key - to keep moving toward a goal, a dream, a life that is nearer to what we hope for. 

How have you filtered unrealistic expectations from your own life? What techniques have you learned to hang on to those dreams when life doesn't seem to have the same plan?

Dec 5, 2014

Two Roads

In the early 2000's, I was getting close to finishing my Bachelor's degree, I was looking at graduate schools. I wanted a PhD (I even know what my dissertation would be on). I had miscarried nearly a year before, and all evidence seemed to suggest it would be a while before I had the chance to carry again. I started my last fall semester, taking a pretty intense course load, and found out I was pregnant.

We had a scare again when I was involved in a car accident, but the ultrasound after confirmed what my previous pregnancy never did - a heartbeat.

There are a few times in my life when such relief has washed over me, and as such brought me to tears.

Six weeks before I finished my Bachelor's degree, I held my 8 lbs 13 oz son in my arms and whatever love I previously thought was maxed out amplified by at least ten. Maybe a hundred.

I still considered graduate school, but my husband was chasing some dreams of his, and my son was less than pleasant from the hours of 10 pm and 3 am and it all became too much. So I put ideas of graduate school on the back burner.

Two years later, a gorgeous redheaded girl came into our lives, weighing exactly as much as her brother. She had some scary complications for the first little bit (her first APGAR was a two for heartbeat only), but she overcame them quickly and I was the mother of a toddler and an infant.

Two years after that, when I was six months pregnant with my third, I enrolled back in school, not to get the degree or work on the dissertation, but to follow the promptings of a higher power that it was important I get the necessary education to teach high school English. Three months later, the youngest joined our family twelve days before she was due and weighing exactly two pounds less.

The burner on which I placed my PhD kept moving back as the burners of life increased. Soon, my metaphorical stove was so big that keeping everything from burning, or not cooking at all, became obviously unfeasible.

Recently, I learned that what I thought was my plan for the future isn't - at least not the way I envisioned it. I have a Master's, but it isn't one that will let me get into the program I want. For that to happen, I'd have to get another Master's. Then a PhD.

So two weeks ago, I took a grand look at what was in store for me, and I realized, at the bare minimum, I'm at least fifteen years off from chasing that dream. I could probably pursue it now, but when I go home, I see three dreams that need help with homework, that are pursuing some awesome goals of their own, three dreams that I prayed for and that make me happy every day.

The funny thing about dreams is we rarely discuss the situation when two dreams are conflicting. When we have to look at two great ideas and have to decide. Not everyone is going to make the same choice I did, but I choose my kids, my family.

I may never get that PhD. It is something I've had to admit to myself, something I'm working on internalizing. But chasing the dream of publication can coincide with helping my children chase their dreams, and when I'm being really honest with myself, I truly can't think of a better way to chase a dream than with my family.

When have you had to make a choice between two great dreams? Which way did you go? What are your plans for the other?

Dec 3, 2014

Book Review: Attachments

As the weather gets cooler and the daily activities shift more inside, it tends to be the time when people move toward books. 

While this book was written in 2011, it just showed up on my radar earlier this year. I read Eleanor and Park, and loved it tremendously, and then several agents, editors and authors who I follow started complimenting this book. For me, that usually equates a buy. 

The format of this novel is unique. The premise is that Lincoln is hired to filter through emails caught by the filter set up to make sure people are using the company resources appropriately. It takes place in the late 1990's and as such, companies were cautious about the technology and the way their employees use it. Casual conversations were often caught by the filter and Lincoln soon finds himself reading personal conversations between two women, Beth and Jennifer. He knows he should flag them, knows that they aren't using the technology for company purposes, but he gets drawn in to their stories. 

Rowell shows all conversations between Beth and Jennifer as the actual email messages. 

He feels a connection with these women, due in part to the loneliness he feels in his own life. He lives with his mom, repeatedly gets lectured regarding his patheticness by his sister, and the girl he loved isn't in his life anymore. Reading these emails is the catalyst that starts encouraging him to break out of the depressing funk. But things get tricky when Lincoln starts to fall in love with Beth, based exclusively on emails he has read that she doesn't know he read.

Rainbow Rowell has the ability to make readers fall in love with characters fast. I was completely surprised at how quickly I felt the plight of Jennifer, Beth and Lincoln. They all have qualities that are undesirable, and that, I'm certain, contributes to the reason they feel so real. 

So far, that's two for two books by Rowell that I have loved. 

*content warning for language - I thought it fit in with the characters, but might be offensive to some readers.

Have you read anything by Rainbow Rowell? Any other books written in a different format than regular prose?