Everything is Everything-Review by Marc Schuster

Reviews

Throughout Everything is Everything, poet Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz demonstrates that she is a master of juxtaposition. Take, for example, “L’Chaim,” in which Aptowicz seamlessly blends images of David Foster Wallace’s suicide, dancing the Hora at a Jewish wedding, and attempting to recall how to do an Irish jig. The effect of this commingling is nothing short of astounding: after the narrator of the poem learns of the author’s suicide, she is summoned to represent her Irish heritage by performing a jig she doesn’t exactly know how to do. The result, of course, is a dance that bears a striking similarity to that of the hanged author–bottom half whipping the floor, “furious as a seizure,” while the top half remains “frozen, immobile, paralyzed.” But the parallel demands further examination, as it implies that we are all, in some way, dying as we appear to celebrate, committing small suicides as we force ourselves to go through the received motions of daily life. Is there anything more than preserving the culture of our ancestors, the poem all but demands?

As it turns out, there is, as Aptowicz also proves throughout the volume that she has a sterling sense of humor. Among the subjects she touches on in her poetry are crack-addicted squirrels, her fascination with dachshunds, the Loch Ness Monster, and insults that only work if you are a presidential trivia buff. The poem that really got me, however, is titled “Every Winter, People Think My Boyfriend is Elvis Costello.” Here, Aptowicz ponders the essence of identity, the fecklessness of celebrity, and the age-old question: “Would Elvis Costello really be wearing an Elvis Costello t-shirt?”

As strong as Aptowicz’s poems are on the printed page, she is first and foremost a performance poet, so the best way to get a sense of what she’s up to is to see her live. If this isn’t a possibility, there’s always catching her performances online at http://www.aptowicz.com/poet.htm (be sure to scroll down!). Funny, smart, and a little macabre, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz speaks eloquently and expertly for a generation raised on trivia, tabloid journalism, and black coffee.

Marc Schuster is the author of The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl.

Read more reviews of books from small and independent presses at Small Press Reviews.

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA Interviews MARIE LAMBA

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Repost from Michael A Ventrella’s blog

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing Young Adult author Marie Lamba today. Marie is the author of the humorous young adult novel WHAT I MEANT…, which Publisher’s Weekly has dubbed “an impressive debut.” She has two more novels which will be coming out soon. In addition to her fiction writing, Marie has written and published more than 100 articles, including features in national magazines such as Garden Design, Your Home, and Sports International. Her most recent piece, “Plotting a Novel Group,” appears in the February 2008 issue of Writer’s Digest. Her web page iswww.marielamba.com.

MARIE LAMBA: Hi Michael. Thank you for having me on your blog.

VENTRELLA: Marie, what is it that makes a novel a Young Adult novel?

LAMBA: To me, a young adult novel is categorized primarily by the age of the main character. Since readers read about characters older than themselves, if you have a 13-year-old protagonist, you’ve just written a middle reader (not a YA), and will have mostly elementary school aged readers. Also, content figures in. Sometimes the content is not right for the YA market. But these days, almost anything goes for YA readers. The edgier the better, though you may just be banned by schools…which usually reaps great press and even better sales, interestingly enough.

VENTRELLA: You keep a pretty active blog. Do you think this is necessary to help promote your work?

LAMBA: My site helps me promote my work every single day. I’ve heard people say that if you don’t update your blog at least 3 times a week, then don’t bother having one. I heartily disagree. Sometimes it’s not about getting a huge number of subscribers, but about having a presence, and being able to be found in various ways.

While my blog may seem really active, I sometimes post as rarely as once a month. I just don’t think there’s a point in posting unless I really have something to say. Yet the site is dynamic and gets a fair number of hits everyday because I’ve got a lot going on there. In addition to offering updates about my work, essays on writing, and book reviews, I’ve made it function as my website,www.marielamba.com. So folks are going there to find out about my appearances, to read my bio, to read excerpts from my books, etc. And with links to my Twitter feed, there is always something new to see.

By combining my website with my blog, people stumble onto it while doing the weirdest searches. Like when looking for the menu of Nat’s Pizza. And then they see that my novel has a scene set there. Then they click on my link to buy my Doylestown-based novel. All because of a blog post that tagged Nat’s Pizza in it, if that makes sense?

VENTRELLA: Should unpublished authors have a blog?

LAMBA: Absolutely. It’s a great way to start establishing yourself and your voice. Everything from the color scheme you use to the tone of your bio can help create a feel for who you are. Have a page on your blog with short excerpts of your work, but don’t give away too much material there. Just enough for a taste.

If you really want to be savvy, then you could use your site for things such as book reviews and editor and publisher interviews, which would make your name familiar to the “powers that be.”

VENTRELLA: What can an author do to make their blog stand out among the many out there?

LAMBA: I think it goes back to your voice. Who you are should come through in the tone of your writing, and what you choose to highlight. Then, of course, you need to connect with your audience. That’s where bringing your site to the attention of an organization can help. For example, after I wrote a post about plotting, I saw on a children’s writing message board that I belong to that there was some recent discussion about plotting. I immediately commented there, providing my link to my post.

VENTRELLA: You also make extensive use of Twitter. How can you make your tweets stand out when there are so many people on Twitter? And do you think this is an efficient use of your time?

LAMBA: You know, Twitter is so quick that it isn’t the time suck that sites like Facebook seem to be. At least not for me. Here’s the trick though: when you post there, make it under 40 characters so that you can easily be retweeted to others. Also, try to always provide a link, whether it is to a relevant blog post or a Facebook invite to an event. Links are always too long, so go towww.bitly.com, paste the link there, and you’ll get a shorter link that you can use. And don’t always make your tweets about you. Highlight the accomplishments of others. It’s fun to do, plus I think it’s just good karma.

As for making your tweets stand out, I definitely avoid the whole “I’m getting a cup of coffee now” variety of posts. Again, I only go on there when I have something to say or I really want to respond to someone. I think then people will pay more attention to you. You aren’t the annoying talker everyone wishes would go away. And I try not to follow just anyone or anything. My list is made up of people I know, and of publishers, editors, librarians, media, authors. In short (in the spirit of Twitter), folks who might actually care to hear what I have to say.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? (Do you outline heavily, create character backgrounds first, come up with the basic concept and run with it, etc.?)

LAMBA: Good question. It’s evolving. For my past few novels, I knew my final scene. I had my opening dialogue. And then I was off! Kind of like knowing I’m driving to California, and therefore start heading west, but without a map. I do get to the end eventually. The fun thing about this method is the unexpected twists and turns. The not-so-fun thing is cleaning up the mess that I’ve created, trying to make it more direct and cohesive. It can take a long time.

With my current novel, I’m trying to be more organized. I’ve plotted it out, and now I’m in the outlining stage. Then I’ll start writing. I’m hoping that this will help me write faster. My last novel DRAWN (which is now out on submission), took over a year and a half to write. I want to be much more productive than that.

VENTRELLA: What are you doing in your fiction that no one else is doing? What makes your book different and exciting?

LAMBA: I think, again, it comes down to voice. I’m the only person with my point of view and my humor, and that flavors the plot and the characters. With WHAT I MEANT… (Random House YA), the book’s cast of bi-racial characters mirrors my own family’s blend of Italian-American and Asian-Indian personalities. Because WHAT I MEANT… has a mixed race protagonist, yet it is a mainstream story not focused on race, it became a standout in the field.

VENTRELLA: Have you received any surprising results from your writing?

LAMBA: It is always touching to have readers contact me saying that they identified with the characters and that WHAT I MEANT… is their favorite book. One girl even said that she never cries at anything, yet she found herself bawling at the end of my novel because it touched her. That was humbling.

On a funny note, an ex-boyfriend from high school assumed that one of the guy characters in the novel was named after him. He wasn’t.

VENTRELLA: You do a lot of personal appearances to promote your books. What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing these? How do you organize them?

LAMBA: The main advantage is making a personal connection with a reader. If someone meets you and enjoys talking with you, they’ll also remember you and feel a connection to your writing. This is really how books are sold: one reader at a time. I love meeting people, and appearances take me away from my isolated little writing spot and out into the real world. All good. The disadvantage? I can’t think of a single one. I’m careful to pick and choose where and when I go so it doesn’t take away from my writing time.

Events happen many ways. Sometimes booksellers or conferences or teachers contact me. Sometimes I get in touch with them if I have a specific event idea. And I have done presentations to hundreds and hundreds of scouts. I also have to mention that I’m a proud member of the Philly Liars Club, a collection of 13 authors who basically lie for a living. Together we stage a slew of oddball events, and have a blast.

VENTRELLA: Let’s discuss the publishing business a bit. With self-publishing and e-books becoming more prominent, how do you think this will change the demand and market for new writers?

LAMBA: I really think that self-publishing and e-books represent a revolution in publishing, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1460’s when old Guttenberg came onto the scene with his printing press, displacing those hard-working monks and their illuminated manuscripts. Documents at that time show that people didn’t realize the magnitude or ramifications of what was going on. Quite simply, the change was so huge that they couldn’t envision the implications.

And so it goes with us. We speculate, but we can barely foresee what all these huge changes mean. I say look to the music industry, to prevalent iPods and the dearly departed record stores. And be cautious. Will books on paper no longer exist? Will bookstores and libraries disappear? Will publishers become obsolete? The only thing I know for sure is that no matter what form content will take, someone will have to write it.

Cling to that, writers and future writers. We are not replaceable.

VENTRELLA: Do you think the stigma of being self-published will continue? Do you think it’s deserved?

LAMBA: Some self-published books are brilliant. Others are painful and shouldn’t see the light of day. Books that are horribly written and barely edited definitely ruin the reputation of others out there, sadly.

I do think that as distribution of self-published novels improves, and more established authors step into this arena, that this stigma will fade. I mean, what does an author like Stephen King really need a publisher for? Couldn’t someone of that stature just put books out into the stratosphere by himself by self-publishing? J.A. Konrath has started to do it with some success, though he still also goes the traditional route.

VENTRELLA: Who are your favorite authors? Why?

LAMBA: Anne Tyler for her beautiful imagery and quirky characters. T.H. White for his epic storytelling, sense of grandeur, and sense of humor. Audrey Niffeneger for her amazing plotting abilities. Sarah Dessen for her touching and real YA voice.

VENTRELLA: What’s the biggest mistake you see aspiring writers make?

LAMBA: Not taking the time to polish their work, and really learn their craft. Writers need to work so hard to improve everything they do. Established authors are always struggling to polish, to edit. They value pointed criticism, and vigorously revise. When I see someone with talent refusing to do this type of work to polish their manuscript, or not absorbing decent criticism, I know that they are limiting themselves, and that’s a shame.

VENTRELLA: What advice can you offer that you wish someone had offered you?

LAMBA: Writing is not only an art, it’s a business. And sometimes in this business really nasty crap will happen to you. In fact, expect it. Your novel, no matter how important it is to you, is just a commodity in the business world. Be as businesslike as you can, while protecting the sensitive artist within. And write another book. And another. And another.

VENTRELLA: And what’s next? What can we look forward to seeing from you?

LAMBA: My YA paranormal DRAWN (excerpt on my blog/website) is under consideration right now. It’s about a teen artist who moves to England in search of a normal life. But then she starts channeling one very hot ghost through her drawings. Not normal at all.

And right now I’m working on a novel for adults: When an Italian grandmother shares old fashioned recipes for sauces and for a happy life, her three granddaughters test the ingredients in fresh ways, cooking up a surprising blend of spice, passion, trouble and true love.

That pretty much sums it up! Thanks, again, for having me here.

Think globally; Act locally: Looking for a regional book community

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By Jerry Waxler

When I was a teenager in Philadelphia in the early 60’s, I rode the subway to center city on weekends. My destination generally involved books. I regularly visited Leary’s Book Store, one of the oldest, largest used book stores in the country. Walking through the door way, peering reverentially at the shelves, I felt like I was entering a cathedral. Then I walked up the Parkway to the main branch of the Free Library, a palace of literary pleasure. After my 18th birthday, I moved west for my college and hippie years. When I returned to Pennsylvania, I moved to Bucks County and disengaged from the city.

In 2002 I became serious about improving my writing and began to look for classes and groups. I attended the Philadelphia Writers Conference, an annual event that attracts writers to Independence Mall. And I attended author appearances at the Free Library. But I thought it was just me who was discovering the city. When I picked up my first copy of Philadelphia Stories Journal a few years ago in the Doylestown Bookshop,  I began to wonder if the city was regaining its place as a cultural center.

A regional focus for book people might seem to run against the tide, since most authors are looking for customers without borders, hoping to capture attention from some of the hundreds of millions of people who cruise the internet. But I’ve begun to wonder if we have become so global we have forgotten the “acres of diamonds in our own back yard,” an expression made famous by the founder of Philadelphia’s Temple University. With so many writers and readers gathered in this area, perhaps we’re missing opportunities to help each other grow.

According to marketing guru Chris Anderson, the internet could play a crucial role in such a regional niche. In his book “The Long Tail” Anderson spells out a revolution in the way sales can now be directed in all sorts of imaginative ways. Taking advantage of this idea, we could be celebrating and promoting our community of book people with more reviews and opportunities for authors to reach readers. We could turn the Philadelphia area into a launching pad, an incubator in which we nurture our collective creative passion.

With publishers cutting their marketing budgets to the vanishing point, it’s not surprising that many author appearances are locals. For example, a group of local writers has created the Philly Liars Club to host book signing parties at bookstores, sometimes with a dozen authors swarming to create a critical mass for readers who want to meet writers.

And what about publishers? The first time I thought of regional publishing was in the 1980’s when a friend from Seattle told me about a group of mystery writers who had developed a Seattle writing scene. The second time I thought of it was when I met author Susan Muaddi Darraj at a Philadelphia Stories writers conference. The protagonists in her book of short stories, “The Inheritance of Exile,” grew up in south Philadelphia. One character walked across the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. I knew the exact location. Muaddi Darraj was giving me a regional buzz. Philadelphia Stories, in addition to publishing a literary journal and running conferences, also has a book division that recently published “Broad Street,” by Christine Weiser. The protagonist of the novel plays in a band in Philadelphia.

And nonfiction books present another area of opportunity. If you are writing a memoir about a region, it might make sense to sell your memoir to your community. The same is true for authors who are advocating for local causes and looking for volunteers or donors, or who offer a service and are looking for clients.

I’m not sure how to turn this speculation into a reality, but I suspect such a community might already exist, and I just don’t know about it. Perhaps all we need to do is gather the information and use the internet to band together, sharing regional buzz to develop our writing, publishing, and reading community.

What do you think? What have you done or seen that brings regional writers together with readers? Please leave your own comments about how a regional focus has or could work for you.

Jerry Waxler is Vice President of the Philadelphia Writers Conference and a memoir teacher. He blogs at www.memorywritersnetwork.com/blog.

Small Kingdoms – Review by Marc Schuster

Reviews

Small Kingdoms by Anastasia Hobbet explores the complicated relationship between the Western world and the Middle East along lines of class, race, culture, and religion by following the interconnected lives of four characters living in Kuwait during the period between the Gulf wars. Needless to say, the issues Hobbet touches upon throughout the novel are big–human rights, war, and faith, to name just a few–but she keeps the issues manageable and real for the reader by examining them on a human scale. Each of her four main characters offers a unique perspective on their shared world. That this world also happens to be our world makes Small Kingdoms all the more compelling, and all the more significant.

By setting the novel in Kuwait–a borderland, if ever there was one–Hobbet provides her narrative with the perfect venue for intercultural exchange. Here, underpaid servants from Pakistan, India, and the Philippines labor silently and without complaint beneath the watchful eyes of their Kuwaiti employers. At the same time, the Americans who visit the nation on business or for humanitarian reasons eye the Kuwaitis with equal parts fascination and suspicion. Given this mix of cultures and their attendant quirks, everyone in the novel (including the Kuwaitis) is a stranger in a strange land, and by allowing her characters to grope almost blindly through the mysterious terrain of this land, Hobbet allows her readers to do the same thing. That is, she gives us a chance to learn, to explore, to grow with her characters. She gives us the world of the Middle East and all of its attendant complications through eyes not yet prejudiced by what author George Saunders describes as the “braindead megaphone” that is the modern media.

Perhaps the most accessible character to American readers will be Kit Ferguson, a mother of two who finds herself in Kuwait when her husband takes a job there. Initially stymied by what she perceives as an entirely foreign culture, Kit reluctantly reaches out to those around her–to servants, to Kuwaiti neighbors, to the wives of other American businessmen–and, in so doing, forges a strong sense of her own place in the larger world.

“It’s something I have to work against. You know?” Kit muses about two-thirds of the way through the novel; “Staying small when the world is so big… I get all walled in at home with the kids. The world shrinks down around me–here or back in the states, and I lose my perspective.” In this passage, Kit reveals the ultimate struggle of the novel, for the cost of staying small and walled in turns out to be greater than any of the major characters can imagine, as a young servant girl is literally being held prisoner in the home right next door to Kit’s villa. For Kit and her neighbor Mufeeda to have any influence on the world around them, they must look beyond the walls of their own small lives and work together to ensure the young servant’s safety. They must, in essence, become aware of the world around them in order to live in it more fully.

As with Mehrdad Balali’s Houri, Small Kingdoms is an important novel that sheds light not just on life in the Middle East but also on what it means to be human, to be engaged in the world at large. It takes big issues and examines them on a human scale. That Hobbet pulls this trick off while also giving us a gripping, multi-layered narrative only underscores her gifts as a writer. Both moving and intelligent, Small Kingdoms is nothing short of amazing.

Read more reviews of books from small and independent presses at Small Press Reviews.

Michelle Wittle On Taking Back Proper Grammar

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

I know my grammar is bad. I change tenses sometimes even in the same sentence. There are common words that still confuse me. I even wonder how I passed my grammar course in college. But there is one thing I do know.

The word “AND” is a conjunction. Actually, “and” is called a coordinating conjunction meaning it connects two or more sentences of equal structures in a sentence(Understanding English Grammar, Kolln and Funk, 388). My best friends at Strunk and White say basically the same thing about coordinating conjunctions (coordinating conjunctions join two similar grammatical structures together in the same sentence Elements of Style, 91). Basically it means there are two similar structures in the same sentence and these are linked by the coordinating connection.  Here is a very basic example taken from Kolln and Funk:  Tim and Mary went to the baseball game. In the sentence there are two subjects (which are the same grammatical structure) connected by the word “and.”

I bring this all up today because I fear for our sentences. Somewhere along the line, someone got it in his or her head to start a sentence with “and” is perfectly acceptable. In most of the research into why this is happening, people are blaming emails, facebook, and twitter. I can see blaming them for poor spelling; however, I would not say they are to blame for this “and” thing.  I don’t know why it has started but I know it needs to stop.

I don’t understand the reasoning for beginning a sentence with “and.” Are people looking to be the next e.e. cummings? Do people not understand the function of a conjunction? When did “and” become an article verses a conjunction?

When I see “and” starting a sentence it is like seeing an all I can eat sundae buffet; I don’t know where to start or what to pick, but I know it’s all getting destroyed.

Using “and” to start a sentence leads to sentence fragments (another one of my grammar pet peeves I will discuss in my next blog). Sentence fragments dumb down any writing. I understand in dialogue sentence fragments can have a purpose. No one really speaks in complete thoughts.  But outside of dialogue, there is no justifying a sentence fragment. Okay, I hear the argument about setting a narrator’s tone, but let’s save the argument for the other blog.

The bottom line is do not use “and” to start a sentence. I don’t care if people are willing to accept the use of it, we can’t accept it. We are better than this!