Category: Reading

Audiobooks are the best

I finally had to get a smartphone last summer. I’d resisted for years. I hate the idea that gadgets are now controlling our lives, and I actively try to resist the internet’s intrusion into mine. I had a little texter phone for five or six years and it was great.

Then, the day before I left for a multi-month trip to Canada, my dad found out my phone “might not work” there. I don’t know the technical details, but the gist was I wouldn’t know if it would work until I got there. I was traveling to Newfoundland alone, so this was sort of a problem. Before I knew it, my mom was explaining phone cases to me and showing me how to use the plain black one I got. My poor texter was stuffed in the glove compartment and I was on the road with my new device.

Of course, the devices themselves aren’t all bad…for the most part. It’s true they’ll track your every move by default, unless you adjust the settings (or at least they allow you to think you’re adjusting the settings). But there are aspects of the phone that I’m really enjoying. I’ve downloaded a couple of exercise apps that are fun to use and might get me to work out more.

My favorite is the audiobooks. With Overdrive or Hoopla, you can check out audiobooks (or ebooks) from your local library. I was skeptical at first, but now I love it. There is something fundamentally satisfying about being read to. It frees you up to do other things at the same time—cook, clean, etc. all those annoying chores that would otherwise feel like time badly spent, but which now feel worthwhile because you’re reading at the same time. Also, it doesn’t strain your eyes. I am concerned about my nearsightedness getting worse as I age, mostly because I stare at computer screens so much. My job usually involves looking at a computer, and then I look at the computer even more when I write. So reading paperbacks worries me. The audiobook solves that. Another thing: I used to hate the slowness of the CD audiobooks, which I sometimes listened to on car trips, but with the smartphone audiobooks, you can increase the speed to 1.25, 1.5, or even 2 to use your time more efficiently.

Of course, the benefits are only worth it as long as you don’t get addicted to the phone. I didn’t download an email app, so I won’t be tempted to check my email all the time. For the same reason, I haven’t downloaded any social media apps. I recently read an interesting/disturbing article about how smartphones are actually designed to be addicting. It’s not that surprising, really; it makes commercial sense, and commercial activity is the highest value in American society.

It’s getting harder and harder not to have a smartphone these days, but always remember to protect your humanity and your real life. Resist tech companies’ efforts to make you into an obedient screen addict—use your smartphone as a tool, not an end in itself.

Pale Hearts reviewed in Compulsive Reader

I am thrilled to share Compulsive Reader’s review of PALE HEARTS.  Reviewer Ruth Latta had many kind things to say about the book.  She also took the time to write in detail about some individual stories. The stories she focused on were somewhat different than the ones that occupied the greatest part of my attention, and it was refreshing to see the book through someone else’s eyes.

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I particularly appreciated the assessment that “the fifteen thought-provoking stories in Pale Hearts are both literature and entertainment.”  I’m starting to realize that I sit right in the middle of the great supposed “literary” and “genre” divide.  I love Melville, Flaubert, and Faulkner.  I also love Stephen King and Michael Crichton.  I find a lot of so-called literary fiction pretentious and boring, while many great genre fiction books are overlooked by the literary world.  Some of my favorite contemporary authors, like Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, and Donna Tartt, are people who don’t fit neatly into genre/literary distinctions.  I hope I can achieve that balance in my own work.

How to be productive as a writer

Don’t wait for inspiration.

There will never be a perfect time to write. We’re all busy, stressed, and tired; these seem to be the default conditions for about 90% of life. Moments of inspiration are rare. If you rely on them, you won’t finish anything. It’s better to work steadily, even when you don’t feel like it. Often the feeling of being “uninspired” is actually procrastination in disguise. If you push through the first twenty minutes or so of drudgery, you will start to enjoy the work.

Set a daily goal.

This gives you something to work toward. Many writers aim for a certain word count or amount of time. Meeting the goal forces you to be productive.  It also gives you a reason to feel accomplished at the end of the day.

Block the internet.

The internet is a pernicious influence. After writing for “a while,” I’m often tempted to spend “five minutes” checking email. Five minutes is never five minutes. Checking email leads to clicking on a blog update or visiting an online sale. Soon this becomes reading “just one” article, which ends up being more like five or six. Few among us can resist the internet once that enticing browser window is open. Save yourself by investing in an internet-blocking app. Freedom is a good option. Alternatively, back away from the computer and write longhand.

Join a writing group.

Even disciplined individuals benefit from having other people involved in the writing process. Writing groups provide valuable feedback, and they hold you accountable when your productivity starts to flag. This is especially important in periods of personal difficulty, when life events threaten to derail your writing. I went through a challenging time last year when I was in real danger of not writing a word. Instead, though I wrote badly and with great pain, I continued to produce new chapters of my novel—simply because my writing group required these chapters for meetings.

Be selfish with your time.

Writing takes time, and time is in short supply. Most writers have other responsibilities that come first, usually working and/or being a parent. With all the “real” things you have to do, it’s hard to justify spending some of your time alone, creating a document of questionable value that may or may not get published. It may seem like you “should” do the laundry first, or clean the house, or socialize. These things are important.  However, if you always put writing last, it will never get done. If you really want to finish your story/essay/book, you must take the time to do it. No one is going to give it to you. Lock yourself away for an hour in a place where you won’t be disturbed. Ask yourself how you’ll feel a year from now if you don’t progress on this project. If the thought of not finishing your story/essay/book doesn’t bother you, then maybe it’s not worth it. But if the idea of not finishing makes you feel sad or disappointed, then you owe it to yourself. The laundry can wait.

Out and About With Pale Hearts

It’s been a fun first month for Pale HeartsMy first reading was at Trident Booksellers in Boston.  The atmosphere in this bookstore is especially nice because they have a cafe, so reading attendees can relax with a glass of wine or a snack.  Although I had a cold, I forged through and had a great time.  I’m so grateful to all the enthusiastic people who came!

Next up was a book signing at Richards Memorial Library in North Attleboro.  I was there as part of their Local Authors Fair.  It was wonderful to meet other authors from the area and see their books.

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In other news, Pale Hearts is now available at Norton Public Library.  Richards Memorial Library will also be adding a copy to their collection.  I was so excited to see my book right in the middle of Norton’s new books shelf.

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It’s great to see Pale Hearts listed in the library catalogs.  (Also, how fitting that Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” comes up as a related result!)  If your library is part of the SAILS network in Massachusetts, you can request Pale Hearts.  But you’ll have to wait–the book is currently checked out!

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Dispatch from book launch

Pale Hearts is out in the world! The books are printed, orders have shipped, and my first book signing went wonderfully yesterday.

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I’m so grateful to the readers who stopped by!  I was impressed to hear that someone already read the entire book on Kindle.  Thank you for taking the time out of your busy lives to say hello, and thanks especially for buying the book.  I am truly appreciative.

My next event is on November 7, when I’ll be reading at Trident Booksellers in Boston (7 pm).  I’m looking forward to it!

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In other great news, Pale Hearts made it to the shelves of Harvard Library!  I’m very thankful for and excited about this development.

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Putting a few copies on my personal shelf realized a lifelong dream.

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Halloween Stories

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With Halloween a few weeks away, it’s the perfect time to read some creepy short stories. Here are some of my favorites:

The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs – A haunted monkey’s paw gives this family whatever they wish for…with a twist.

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates – A creepy guy shows up at her house. What should Connie do?

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor – A family road trip goes horribly wrong.

The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe – A murderer is haunted by guilt.

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson – A seemingly normal small town turns out to have a dark secret.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman – A confined woman descends into madness.

The Adventure of the Speckled Band by Arthur Conan Doyle – A woman’s twin sister dies under sudden and suspicious circumstances.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle – A mysterious beast causes some suspicious deaths. This one’s actually a novel, but I had to include it because it’s so terrifying.

My new story collection, PALE HEARTS (now out in Kindle and paperback), has a few stories that are Halloween-worthy.  In “The Grechtzoar,” Jimmy has to hunt the dangerous monster that  killed his best friend.  In “Unhanding,” John’s hand is stolen by an imposter.  Mysterious disappearances, vacant houses, and a possible kidney haunting round out the generally creepy atmosphere.  Check out my new events page to attend an upcoming reading!

Pale Hearts is available October 4th!

My long-anticipated short story collection will be available for sale on Amazon exactly one week from today!  The collection includes 15 stories: some that appeared only in print, a few online favorites, and 5 all-new, never-before-published stories.  In this book, I explore the idea of crime, from the newsworthy (arson, kidnapping) to the everyday (lies, betrayal).  You’ll read about a young girl who poisons her best friend, a college student who steals a classmate’s ring, and a journalist who contacts the girl she once bullied.  What causes these ordinary people to make such bad decisions?  You’ll have to read the book to find out!

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Recommended reading

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Photo credit: Morguefile

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane

This haunting, gorgeous novel revolves around two plot lines. Elderly Ruth hears a tiger sneaking into her home at night. Then a mysterious woman shows up to help Ruth around the house, supposedly sent by the government. The novel’s realism is subtly undermined by Ruth’s fantasies, memories, and personality quirks. As Ruth tries to uncover the truth about the tiger and the government helper, the novel becomes surprisingly suspenseful, while still lavishing attention to language and setting. This is such a stunning book, it’s hard to believe it’s McFarlane’s first.

Nine Inches by Tom Perrotta

As a person of small town origin, I loved seeing the suburban milieu treated as a serious subject in this story collection. Perrotta’s examination of suburban life is simultaneously entertaining and arresting. Especially of note were the title story (a masterclass in the perfect last sentence) and “Senior Season.” “Senior Season” dealt with the life of a high school football player who suffers from a concussion. The subject might seem ripe for satire or cliché, but Perrotta treated it with gravity and generosity.

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

The more I read this book (this was my fourth or fifth read), the more I’m impressed by its perfect plot construction. A rich dinosaur enthusiast hires some scientists to figure out how to clone dinosaurs. He plans to create an island zoo/amusement park that will feature several extinct species.  Experts are brought in to assess the park’s safety for the public, and things go horribly awry. Readers of “literary” fiction might be tempted dismiss this novel as a simple thriller, but it’s so much more than that. Although the plot involves a cool sci-fi concept, it is mainly driven by individual characters’ personality traits and ambitions (in other words, what you’re taught to write in every fiction class: character-driven plot). Also impressive is Crichton’s world-building. A lesser writer might have just had some generic dinosaurs and left it at that. Crichton imagines several different dinosaur species in great detail, describing not only their appearance, but also their behaviors and movements. These traits, in turn, affect parts of the plot, in such a strong way that the dinosaurs almost function as characters.

How to be Both by Ali Smith

This novel has two sections, each with an unusual narrator. The first is a grammar-obsessed sixteen-year-old whose mother has passed away. The second is a fourteenth-century artist. The writing style is original and surprising, almost experimental in sections. Yet Smith’s playful style doesn’t detract from the emotional content of the novel, as sometimes happens in books that focus a lot of attention on language. The jacket copy compared Smith to Woolf, which is sort of a lofty comparison. But after I finished the novel, I felt that Smith had lived up to it.

Badly drawn scenes from famous novels

Guess the books in the comments.  Make your English teacher proud.

  1. It seems like this book is pretty much everyone’s favorite classic.

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2.  Sleeping is actually super interesting, if you think about it in depth.

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3.  A bromance gone wrongDrawing of person in a tree, another person on the ground, next to river

4.  This has to be the worst suicide plan in all of literature.Drawing of two people sledding into a tree

5.  College BFFs gone wrong

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6.  A man vs. nature tale where you kind of end up sympathizing with naturePicture of whale crashing into ship

Recommended reading: The Privileges by Jonathan Dee

Picture of book coverThis novel examines the ambitions of Adam and Cynthia Morey, who ascend from the middle class into the realm of the wealthy–thanks, in no small part, to Adam’s adventures in insider trading.  The Moreys are narcissistic, shallow, and materialistic, but somehow compelling in their shameless grand devotion to vice. Yet the characters never become caricatures.  Despite all their flaws, the Moreys remain loyal to each other as a family.  Adam and Cynthia both have opportunities to cheat on each other, but choose not to.  Cynthia is a caring mother, not only to her own children but also to her daughter’s troubled best friend.   (I found these to be surprisingly touching developments; dysfunction is in vogue as a literary subject, and it was nice to read about a fictional family that actually stays together.)  The Privileges is at once entertaining, unsettling, and beautifully written, making for an enjoyable and memorable read.