Gumption, Offerman


We listened to this book while driving on our spring trip. Offerman gives a bit of history of 21 people who have the "gumption" to shake things up in our American history - and it's probably not the list you would imagine. It's a combination history, political commentary, and enough of his own history to make it almost autobiographical.

Ideas: 1. Choosing 21 people who have had an impact on you and the world around you is a great format for your own self exploration. 2. With regards to autobiographical writing, breaking your life into chapters of the people who you admire(d) or made waves in your world is a pretty interesting perspective. 3. While Offerman gets a bit repetitve on his political commentary, he does it in a style that is clearly himself speaking his mind with splashes of humor. Humor and passion mean you're probably writing about what matters.

Oliver Twist, Dickens


We had been talking about reading a "classic" when I happened to see on the shelf at Anne's parent's house an old copy of Oliver Twist. I carefully took it from the shelf and opened it. Inside, someone had written:
Now, not only is it a classic, but a piece of family history.

Everyone knows the story of Oliver Twist, or at least, everyone knows the famous line:

Oliver Twist is partly a social-political commentary on the treatment of the poor and orphans in workhouses. He does a brilliant job of painting a rather brutal picture. The other part of this book is a tale of a pure heart that remains pure in spite of many horrible trials and the rewards that come to staying pure... possibly a moral lesson Dickens wanted to impart. The world may be a nasty place, but if you stay good and honest, you will be rewarded and the wicked will be punished.

Dickens has a very florid way of writing. Most of his sentences are long enough to be entire chapters. That coupled with the English of 180 years ago (published 1838) makes the book a challenge to read at times. Still, the story of good and evil compels you to turn the page wondering how things will go.

This copy of the book has lost its last few pages. I laughed. Luckily, we have the internet. The book is now "public domain" meaning free copies in PDF form are just a few clicks away. I just had to make sure I knew what happened to all the characters.

Notes: 1. DETAILS! Years from now, people may not know what a certain job title entails or article of clothing looks like. If you describe it within the tale, these time-stamped details will be preserved forever. 2. The struggle between good and evil is always a good story line. 3. Write about something that matters to you. Weaving your message through the story.

Eats Shoots and Leaves, Truss


I had heard of this book when I saw it on the shelf at a friend's house, but didn't really know what to expect. It was funny and had lots of factoids about the history of the varies punctuation marks in the English language repertoire. We got a nice refresher on the things we already knew and learned a couple of things along the way.

Reminders: 1. Don't be too nuts about punctuation. Let and editor do his/her job. 2. There are differences between British and American proper grammatical choices. What is proper also changes over time; sometimes, very short amounts of time. Develop a style that is intelligent and understandable. 3. Having someone read your writing aloud should point out where punctuation is needed. If they read your writing with a different interpretation than you meant, check your punctuation.

The Good Samaritan Strikes Again, McManus


This book is a series of stories held together by the humorous manner the author tells the tales. It's a simple read with a punch line at the end of each chapter-story.

Just a note: When I went to find a jpeg to use in this post, the first thing to pop up was a Christian book store selling this book. McManus may or may not be Christian. This book has nothing to do with religion.

Thoughts: 1. Many people want to write their autobiography and get caught up with dates and details that don't necessarily contribute to a story about living. McManus' way of writing, episodes or individual stories, in no particular time order is a great technique to highlight important times in life and not bore your reader with the three, 10, 20 years of normal life you had... just skip that part, give the stories that matter. 2. Humor is not crucial, but it's fun. 3. Using some core characters throughout all of your stories helps tie the entire book together with an almost-novel feel.

Sail, Patterson & Roughan


We finished this book in just a couple of days. It was a super easy read and it was entertaining. Anne "yelled" at the book like one does at a TV when the characters are doing the obviously wrong thing, and for me, there was a major no-way-José in the plot, but, ya know, it's fiction.

Writer points: 1. These chapters were SHORT! There was a lot of blank page in this book making the hardback book look big, but the reality was space and quick reading. Good? Bad? Neither, just a reminder that entertaining your audience does not have to come with density. 2. Just because something could not possibly happen is no reason not to make it a key part of your story! Go big or go home. 3. This reminds me of the Evanovich book in that we have a very successful writer who knows how to write for a given audience. This is not a bad thing, it's just different than writing for some other purpose. This is pure "entertainment for this audience" writing.

Beer Money, Freeman


This is the first book we have decided can't be finished. We read 37 pages out of 178. This Australian writer is obviously a fan of mysteries and beer, but lacks the fundamentals in descriptive writing and character development. The only thing he is compelled to describe are the street names of the path his detective takes to each destination. Street names do very little for anyone especially those of us who do not know that city.

Lesson reminders: 1. Describe everything... let an editor remove that which is boring and redundant. 2. There must be enough character development for the reader to know why a character would behave a certain way contrary to the way he was described on the previous page. There are a multitude of good reasons for characters to behave oddly... give me at least one of those reasons! 3. Accept brutally honest editing. Invite it from someone who knows your genre and someone who knows nothing of your location, etc. Let them highlight the holes... then fill the holes with details details details! We want to wonder about the actual mystery, not why your character hit another for seemingly no reason.

It kills me to not finish a book...  so there is a good chance I will read it secretly and update this post if there is any reason to do so :-)

The Other Wes Moore, Moore


This book is one of my all-time favorite topics... The FACT that there are moments in our lives, turning points where we each choose our future paths far in advance of those paths, far before we are mature enough to even understand this... The FACT that the people around us influence us in positive and negative ways that we may not even realize because we are not mature enough to decode those messages...  The FACT that luck, or God, or whatever fates you believe in plays a role in our lives beyond our control. This fate or luck or God starts with our birth. Everyone is born a tiny perfect baby, but we are each placed in a location and time and amongst care givers and society who IMMEDIATELY play a role on our entire future lives.

This book is written by one Wes Moore after finding out a man of the same age from the same childhood background in the same rough Baltimore neighborhoods is now in prison for life. What turning points were there? What opportunities, encouragements, influences shaped their paths... As young children, we don't have control. As we grow older and find our voices, we have been shaped by the messages in youth. Sometimes we see the direction we are going and try to go on a different path, sometimes someone gives us a kick in the rear. At what point are our lives truly our own? Some people never make it to true freedom and adult autonomy because of the choices and pushes they received they even understood what paths were available. This book shows this without saying a young person shouldn't be held responsible or that we should pity a criminal, but rather the problems and responsibilities of our criminal-breeding-society are deeper than simple responsibility of the perpetrator.

I am a firm believer that as an aware mature adult, one must realize their own responsibility and find the best path for yourself. This is a story that shows that some never make it to maturity to realize these things until it is too late... literally, too late. One Wes Moore found his way to a life of choices, the other wove his way to a life in prison. Both young men tried at times and were lazy at other times. Both young men were rebellious and angry. Both young men had mamas who witnessed and weeped. Both are intelligent and insightful. It's not merely, one was lucky and one not. It was tiny path differences. It's surrounding influences and tough love and support or pulls in a momentarily easier path at different tiny moments.

There are a hundred other stories and social messages and themes woven in this book like that of young women getting pregnant constantly and grandmothers raising a houseful of her sons' children. But this book is not about tackling every social problem, but merely telling a story of two people initially born into the same world who diverged into completely different directions because that's just how the cards were played.

Writer thoughts: 1. This is another book written with a duality that I love. The author told his own story in first person and the story of the other Wes in third which helped keep the stories straight. 2. Wes Moore claims he is not a writer, but his style begs to differ. He's very descriptive in a way that allows the outsider (white female reader, me) to almost see places I can't even imagine. 3. Character development is key in this story. The author manages to show the good and the ugly in all the key characters. Every real person has positives and negatives. To be believable characters, we, as readers, must see this.

A Boy from C-11, Ronglien


My grandmother grew up in the orphanage or Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children. Mr. Harvey Ronglien wrote this book because he had grown up there and has since created the museum for this historical place

Mr. Ronglien is not a writer by trade, but a person with a story and perspective to tell. Every human being on this planet has a story and specific perspective and therefor, I encourage anyone who wants to be heard to tell their story. Children who grew up alongside may have had the same or vastly different experiences or interpretations of events because we all are different people even in the same set of circumstances. Mr. Ronglien, in fact, addresses this very thing. He says he has gotten both criticism and praise for being too hard or too easy on the institution. For anyone with a contrasting story, I say, WRITE YOUR OWN STORY! It is important to simply listen in cases like this. Don't compare or judge your own story against his. He is one person with one personality who grew up in one time. Just listen. If you can manage to simply listen, you'll learn something.

Because he is not a writer but a man with a story, there are moments when I wish he had elaborated a bit more. He will make a comment which may make perfect sense to someone who had lived there at that time, but to the removed reader, we are sort of left hanging. That's ok... at least he wrote SOMETHING for us and generations to come to at least have a snapshot of this time and place that no longer exists.

Notes to writer self: 1. Have someone who knows NOTHING about your subject read your writing and highlight points that need more info/explanation. 2. You can never be too descriptive! Seriously!!!!  This seems to be a point I make every time I write these. Tell me every detail. Maybe you feel that you would bore your reader because you know that stuff, but I do not and neither does anyone my age or beyond. Details, colors, smells, textures, sounds make the space real. 3. Write your story... people will feel touched by being able to relate to the similarities and they will also feel that their world is broadened by seeing a different life than their own. All of us have a story to tell. Tell it if you feel so inclined!

A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, Bird


I expected this to be an account of a woman who LIVED in the Rocky Mountains... This is actually a series of letters that the author wrote and sent to her sister as she touristed the Rocky Mountains at a time when the area was quite third world compared to her home in England. Because of her outsider's perspective, we see things much the way you and I would through a looking glass of our quite comfortable life in 2018.

Writers notes: 1. Remember when I said you can't be TOO descriptive? Well, maybe you can... or rather, she repeats things and uses similar descriptions repeatedly... but, because these are letters and assumed to have been sent, I suppose you wouldn't always remember what exact wording and wouldn't be at an edit stage anywhere along the line.... leading to 2. Letters? BE DESCRIPTIVE. Dates locations, people, mundane, feelings, you name it... tell it all. Someone, somewhere, sometime will be fascinated. 3. Dig in and don't be afraid of new people and places. Collect stories all over and share them!

The Phantom Tollbooth, Juster


I have been looking for a copy of this book and couldn't find one until we visited my parents' home where there were two copies. This is a favorite from my childhood written in a punny, clever, and intelligent way that can entertain adults just as well as the audience of young people in which it is intended.

Thoughts: 1. Classic formats never go out of style. This one is the classic grand mission with episodes of challenges. The hero with his assistant sidekicks proves to be clever and valiantly but not arrogantly. 2. A theme of any kind can become the point of the story if done consistently enough. 3. Most books for young people have valid adult-level reminders.

Killing Lincoln, O'Reilly and Dugard


We had a LONG drive home so we chose this one because it would be dense and take up about 8 hours. It definitely lived up to those expectations.
Bill O'Reilly read the book. Therefor, he emphasized phrases and words exactly the way he wanted his book to be read (there are pros and cons to this as you can probably imagine). I like books like this because they tell a STORY. I'm not looking at this version as the end-all-bible of this historical time, but a look and feel of the time and people that surrounded this event. He writes and presents Lincoln's assassination as a novelist would if the novelist were creating these characters and setting this scene. There are details about daily life that are not necessary to the plot but that create a picture of the day. I had never considered the idea of daily horse renting (like a car rental today), but of course, that makes perfect sense. Boarding houses and brothels were not just visited like hotels, but sometimes lived in for longer periods. I know that seems perfectly reasonable, but descriptions of these practices woven into the details of the characters added an element that I miss sitting in a history classroom that merely preaches dates and names. These elements make the scene real and fantasy at the same time and that makes it fascinating to me. I learned a hell of a lot about the time period and activities surrounding Lincoln's assassination... even with the realization that historians and writers write to their own beliefs which may or may not be precisely true, I learned a ton.

Notes: 1. You absolutely can not paint the picture of the time the story is set too vividly! Give all the details you possibly can. 2. Approximately 150 years ago was NOT THAT LONG AGO... and yet this story sounds like it was written on a different planet. History is fascinating if you tell the story completely. 3. Two weeks can be written about as if it were fifty years. Depending on the story, the timeline of the book can really help propel the point of the story.

Zip, Montgomery


We listened to this book on our 12 hour drive home. We chose this audio book because it looked light hearted and it was fairly short. Our other choice was "Killing Lincoln" which we figured needed a little balance. We knew NOTHING else about the book.
As we listened, it was obvious this book was written for younger readers and because the way the sentences were formed, written a few decades ago. Then we heard the phrase "fagged out." We literally turned and looked at each other. Anne said we'd have to look that one up. (I did look it up and it appears to have been used from 1833 to mean exhausted or pooped out as we might say today.) Later, the cook was written with a very colorful voice and called out about a "nigger baby." After listening to the 2 hour audio book, I decided it must have been written about the turn of the century but possibly as late as 1930. Anne looked up the title on her phone and found that it was written in 1912. I'm searching today to see if I was right about this being written for kids as a chapter-book reader, but I'm finding nothing. At any rate, that's how it reads. It's cute enough and the language of 1912 made interesting listening.

Thoughts about writing: 1. Each chapter can be its own story. In this case together they created no particular climax but writing each chapter as if it were its own story is a valid technique that can be used with many genres. 2. Keep your characters consistent. The cat in this story broke the rules in chapter 2. You heard me. I just critiqued the way someone wrote in the voice of a cat. Chapter one claimed she was a quiet patient listener. Chapter two turned her into a nosy talkative busy body. Nope. We can't have that sort of inconsistency! Haha :-) 3. All writing will eventually show its date and that in itself makes writing interesting. Some day, some one might read my stories and laugh or stare not knowing what on earth I meant by this simple every day phrase. I sort of like that idea. The language of the day paints a picture of the time.

Kennedy's Last Days, O'Reilly


Another audio book while on the road chosen because history is interesting.
Not necessarily Bill O'Reilly fans, we listened to this book because we know he is a good history-storyteller. He didn't disappoint. There were many details about the era that I didn't know and hadn't even thought about. He was thorough with the details of the assassination, even the parts that often spark fevers with the conspiracy theorists. The story was told to allow the listener the opportunity to think for themselves... and even be a little angry at a lot of people who seemed to have dropped the ball that lead to a series of events ending in Kennedy's assassination.

Writing considerations: 1. One can tell a story, a whole story, without inserting your particular opinion. Particularly in historical writing, this can be very appealing to readers. 2. One can share negative details about a person or character without making them an ogre. If you want your character to be real, they have to have positives and negatives. 3. Paint a picture of the time the story is set with mundane details... People forget what those times were like and are fascinated to be taken back in time.

The Glory of Green, Christie


This is book three of a series, but I'm not convinced we missed much by only reading the final book of the series. This book involves a natural disaster and the recovery that happens in a small nearly blown away town.
About writing: 1. The book was set in Louisiana, but I didn't really FEEL like I was in Louisiana. Louisiana has a definite flavor, feel, color, smell, sound. It's important to set a stage that your reader FEELS. Add details that flavor the setting. 2. The theme of the book does not have to beat the reader over the head. Christie did a nice job of layering faith and Christian kindness as a broad concept of love without beating the audience with the Bible. 3. Humor opened every chapter of the book with an excerpt from the local paper. Breaks are nice.

It's a Long Story, Nelson


We listened to this on Audio book read by Christopher Ryan Grant (great reader!).

Willie Nelson is a story teller, poet, song-writer. I am not surprised at all about how well some parts of this book read. There were moments that I thought, if you tried to put that in a fictional story, no one would believe it and toss out the book. Life is funny and crazy and often nuttier than fiction.

One negative, that I wan't totally surprised about: There were bits that were, in my opinion, OBVIOUSLY inserted by a heavy handed editor. They just didn't sound like the storyteller from the chapter before.

I look up to people who see the beauty in other artists. If this book is a true reflection of the man, I am truly a fan. Whether you care for his music or story, he speaks so highly of every musician around him. He is inspired and cares for people around him. There are people who are threatens by the talents of others and feel that everything is a competition. Willie Nelson is not in competition with his fellow musician - he is in love with them all.... and for that, I am a newly inspired fan.

Writer's notes: 1. Use an important point or conflict in history with flashes back in time that build the person in the main conflict. 2. Your story is yours to tell and it is interesting without dragging others in... tell your side. The audience is smart enough to know that this story is only one side and that's fine. 3. As in any art, be inspired and find the beauty in others' work!

Seriously... I'm Kidding, DeGeneres


We are on the road and listened to this book on audio driving through West Texas to Arizona. Ellen read her own book and therefor gave all of her comedic inflections along with a few bonus audio bits. If you like Ellen, you'll enjoy her book and that's about all there is to say. It's simple, somewhat personal and humorous.

Writer thoughts: 1. be yourself! 2. Don't be afraid to laugh at yourself and don't be afraid of silly jokes and puns. 3. Be yourself... really. Preach your heart, it will likely encourage others just knowing they aren't alone.

We are all fine here, Guterson

~ Abby

We chose this book for the fact that it was short and what we thought would be a quick read. We needed a book to read before we hit the road. It was indeed a quick read. The main character Julia is a woman who has and continues to make questionable decisions. And then tragedy strikes her. I am guessing that the tragedy part of the story is absolute real life - she has a good many details and feelings to share. The rest could be her own story or a gathering of others. Whatever the case, the author gives us a story that proves that suffering is universal. It doesn't matter how a person comes to the situation, heartbreak is heartbreak. The story line of poor-life-choices was lighthearted and a bit silly, but when it came to the tragedy, I heard my own reading voice change as I knew exactly what she was saying.

Keep in mind: 1. Every tale that is part of the fabric of your life will resonate with others. Tell it. If it doesn't ring for some, those people have the opportunity to see another part of life. 2. No need to over complicate a story. This was a blast through straight forward story. The author could possibly have elaborated on every detail, but the tale is there and the feelings were expressed. 3. Just write! 

Chocolat, Harris


We needed a somewhat shorter book that might be easy to read for this final week at home. We finished it this morning, and we leave on our Southwest tour tomorrow. We chose well!

Chocolat was made into a movie. Neither of us has seen the movie, but now we hope to grab it at the library the next time we see it on the shelf. This book has very specific characters, archetypes. Only a couple of the characters seems to evolve, and that's fine. There is one scene that I do not believe. There is no lead up to it and I never got the sense that these characters would do what they did. I won't spoil it by saying any more. I will say that I'm not talking about anything the priest did. While he seemed to flip flop and contradict occasionally, his battles made me believe these switches and even his eventual over-the-top folly was completely in character to me.

The main theme in this book is standing up for yourself and owning your actions. If you don't, we see what happens. If you do, we see the rewards for those characters.

Take-aways: 1. If you have a theme, preach it! Harris didn't let up on this theme with anyone, and the theme really held the story together in an enjoyable way. 2. If you know food, sing it! Descriptions of good food are almost as delicious as the actual food. We got hungry reading some of these pages...  there might be drool marks left for the next reader. 3. I am a fan of the dual point of view action she employs. I even appreciated the different font of the chapter titles to let you know who the narrator of the chapter was to be. I have thought about using something like this for my project with Anne... This book uses this technique successfully - inspiring.

Between Two Fires, Buehlman


This book is set in 1348 France, amidst the worst of the plague. I have read this book in the past because I know this author and supported his kickstarter a few years back and read the book as soon as I received it. I decided it was one I would like Anne to know, so I read it to her.

I sing Medieval music. There is a Medieval manuscript known as the Cantigas de Santa Maria compiled or written in about 1250 in Spain. This manuscript is a huge collection of stories and songs about the miracles that Santa Maria performed for her believers. Knowing many of these stories and then reading this book, I see this book NOT as "horror" as it is classified, but a collection of explanations about how the plague went down. Buehlman writes the story using many techniques that I recognize in Medieval storytelling. Some people say these Cantiga stories are funny or fantastical. I do not believe the tellers of these stories were trying to be funny. I, personally, think these tellers thought they were telling it exactly the way they saw it or could explain it. And Buehlman does a good job of creating scenes that in my opinion echo those same fantastical explanations.

I have a particular love of any story where a male and female heroic duo do NOT become a romantic couple at the end. This is one of those stories and if you read the story, you will know why bringing these two together would be a bad idea...  but there is a greatly developed true love that shapes both of these main characters. This is my favorite aspect of this story.

Writing thoughts: 1. Using specific historic details like battles, locations, and clothing adds reality to the time you have set. 2. Let a character evolve like crazy. 3. There were only a couple of times when we wondered WHY the author wrote the scene a certain way...  why did the characters do that? Watch out for those moments. Don't make your readers give you a pass... the scene should work or the description should elaborate away the questions.

Civil War Letters, Various


We just read some letters from during the Civil War to and from Anne's blood relations. They mention war happenings as well as civilian life near Staunton, VA. Lots of names and places are named and both true and found-to-be-untrue news is shared. At least half of the letters hope for this awful war to be over. Many mention the enemy Yankees. It is a verbal snapshot of a place and time complete with morals and proper standards of the time that is quickly becoming more and more alien to our modern minds.

Notes: 1. Always date your letters! You never know what future person will be reading your thoughts. 2. Be descriptive because if your letters manage to survive 150 years, future people will enjoy any imagery you shared. 3. Use your BEST handwriting! Holy hell is it hard enough to decipher these letters...  and they are written with lovely script especially given the locations some of them were physically written (ON a war march).