Annual Reading Wrap-up: Books Read in 2013

2 Jan

As always, my list of books read cover-to-cover from the previous year. If I also listed the books I’ve read parts of (or not completely) we’d all be here for awhile. I ended up reading the same number of books as 2012 (23). And again, far less than the 36 I read in 2011. My goal for 2014 is to read at least 30 books — not too difficult, as long as I don’t get distracted. 

This year I decided to see how many young adult and middle grade (MG/YA) books I read (13) — or over half my list. This makes sense since I was focusing on YA most extensively because I’m writing in that genre at the moment. 

Considering the total number of books I read, my non-fiction numbers were average (6). I am a big fan of non-fiction and read a number of them, but clearly not cover-to-cover. Out of my thirty book goal for this year, I’d like at least 7 to be non-fiction novels (one more than this year).

The category with the fewest number of books is adult fiction. I would like to increase those numbers a bit this year. Then again, categories can be confusing. Eleanor and Park, for instance, was marketed as adult in Australia, but young adult here. Same with The Book Thief. I only read three adult novels (not counting the previous two I just mentioned).

So without further ado, here are the books I read: 

  1. Ship Breaker (YA) – Paolo Bacigalupi
  2. How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead – Ariel Gore
  3. Miss Lonelyhearts – Nathaniel West
  4. One – Dan Zadra & Kobi Yamada (re-read)
  5. Being Peace – Thich Nhat Hanh (re-read)
  6. the education of jay baker (YA) – Jay Clark
  7. Proxy (YA) – Alex London
  8. Being Henry David (YA) – Cal Armistead
  9. How to Be Good – Nick Hornby
  10. Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (YA) – Benjamin Alire Saenz  (re-read)
  11. Dr. Bird’s Advice to Sad Poets (YA) – Evan Roskos
  12. Refuse to Choose – Barbara Sher
  13. So Hard to Say (YA) – Alex Sanchez
  14. The Hunt (YA) – Andrew Fukuda
  15. Raven Girl (MG/YA?) – Audrey Niffenegger
  16. Eleanor and Park (YA) – Rainbow Rowell
  17. two boys kissing (YA) – David Levithan
  18. Heft – Liz Moore
  19. The Book Whisperer – Donalyn Miller
  20. The Book Thief (YA) – Markus Zusak (re-read)
  21. The Night Gardener (MG) – Jonathan Auxier
  22. Drama High – Michael Sokolove
  23. Making the American Body – Jonathan Black

How many did  you read?


2013 Writing Goals Met

26 Dec

Last year I wrote a list of projects I wanted to write or finish writing for this year. I kept that document stuck on my Google Drive and forgot about it. Seriously. I had no recollection that I even wrote the thing. So you could imagine my delight when I opened it and realized I had accomplished every single one of my writing goals for the year. It wasn’t a huge list, but it really amazes me that I kept to it. It almost feels like I was subconsciously working on completing the list throughout the year.

Here is my list:

1. Rewrite Roosevelt Arnold

2. Rewrite Denny Denton

3. Finish Paranoid as a play

4. Write concentration camp short story

This year I am going to write another list of writing goals I want to accomplish next year. But I’m also going to add some non-writing goals for myself. Hopefully, my brain will subconsciously work towards those goals even when I’ve consciously forgotten about them. It may or may not work, but I’ll know in a year. So why not give it a go?

On Truthfulness

28 Nov

I am increasingly convinced that any art that matters answers one question with a resounding yes: Is it truthful?

If your work is truthful to yourself and your world, it is not trash. It is important. It matters. That is what art is. That’s why it’s oftentimes painful: it’s truth.

Swordtail fish and the Neutrality of Death

13 Aug

I have always had a hard time wrapping my head around the concept that Nature knows  neither good or bad. But instead, those are concepts creating by humans, and largely for humans. It seemed to me that a gazelle, eating in the brush, minding its own business moments before suddenly running for its life from a pack of lions was bad. Worse would be the gazelle still half alive as the lions are ripping its guts out. That whole scenario seemed bad to me (it didn’t seem good, that’s for sure. And it didn’t even seem neutral). Partly because I love a good underdog story and that one doesn’t have that feel good moment. But also because the whole act seems ruthless. Come on, lions, don’t you know you’re being ruthless? 

But they don’t. And this morning, while asleep, a thought stirred me awake: swordtail fish. My example concerns itself with the small freshwater swordtail fish. I’m choosing swordtail fish because they are one of the few species of freshwater fish that doesn’t lay eggs. Instead, the mother carries around a belly full of babies that are born live and swimming. So we have momma swordtail fish who doesn’t have a care in the world, and gives birth. Now we have our little swimming baby swordtail fish, and we’re watching them and saying things like, “Aw. So small. So cute,” when suddenly here comes momma swordtail and eats her little baby right up. You stand there shocked for a second, and then you think, “That bitch just ate her baby.” What’s worse? She continues to eat her babies as she gives birth. Why the hell not? It’s easy food, and you wonder how such a stupid species can survive (answer: aquariums!). But now more to the point of the example: the mother has no concept of bad here. In fact, it’s doubtful she even knows they’re her own babies. But even if she did? She doesn’t care. She can’t care. She knows not the word nor the action. Her care stops the minute the baby is born and even before that she is largely only eating and surviving for her own desires (which is as it should be, because without her desire the babies wouldn’t have a chance of being born in the first place). The momma swordtail fish has made me see that theory that Nature knows neither good nor bad.

Now I want to switch to the babies. Humans don’t eat their young. Of course we have larger brains capable of understanding the usefulness of care. But this is because it’s an evolutionary advantage for us. Not because it’s good–in our narrowly defined contemporary view. (Trust me, we’d be eating our babies if it meant our survival as a species–though we can all agree that lucky it doesn’t–and no species, that I know of anyway, ever consciously eats its own young.) Human babies take nine months of care and our species typically has one baby in that length of time. It would be to our disadvantage to eat our young–even if you only account from an evolutionary standpoint. But female swordtails? They have many babies–often upwards of even nine or ten–and can have birth every month. So the mom eats a few? No big loss because that species has adapted to having the majority of the young being eaten by larger fish. That’s why they have so many. And it doesn’t stop at swordtail fish, so don’t think they’re the stupid species in the fish world. All fish have many babies, and if not live birth, then hundreds of eggs. Why hundreds? Because half will probably be eaten while still in the egg. How’s that for a life? You’re just minding your business, growing in your own little egg before you start being eaten alive by stomach acid (full disclosure: I have no idea if fish have stomach acid). I was also being facetious with that example, got to lighten the mood somehow.

Anyway, all this would be unremarkable without the explicit tie-in to the concept of death. I’ve been struggling with that concept for the past few months. It feels extremely selfish to me. Death, that is. I know that logically it is a necessity. But that doesn’t mean it feels good (there’s that word again) to lose someone close to you. But death really is neither good or bad. Death just is. It surrounds us and every other animal and plant in the world. Death is the natural state of things–just ask any baby swordfish who might have ten seconds of life before being gone. The earth, the world, is neither at a gain or loss when that baby swordtail fish dies, because the pattern of life and death will continue. Those baby swordtail fish, or goldfish, or salmon, or angelfish, are just part of a natural pattern. 


Humans and that pattern:

I think the most comforting words on the subject of death come from Robert Pirsig’s introduction of the 10th Anniversary edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. We spend four hundred pages reading about Bob and his son Chris on a cross-country motorcycle trip only to find out that some twenty years later Chris is murdered outside of a monastery in San Francisco (this is revealed in the introduction). Well, what shit, I thought. How is the world just? It’s not. But perhaps we see things too selfishly as a species? Robert said that his son is still with us–just no longer in the body of Chris (which is how we identified with him). But he still manifests himself in memories–more than can be said of baby swordtail fish. But more comforting than fleeting memories is that Chris is still with us, because he’s part of a that pattern. I think that word does this whole issue justice. Life is a pattern of birth and death. Some of us go way too soon for other’s likings. But we all go. And we’re all born. That pattern continues and that should be our comfort. Chris is one patch in a quilted blanket that is forever growing–that patch will always be there, and that patch is neither different or bad from any other patch that will be added. My patch will be there, along with yours.

I suppose the way I wrote this blog isn’t very comforting. And I know that none of this is groundbreaking, and probably all things you’ve heard before. But I think knowing that pattern exists has helped me, and the only way that pattern works to its full effect is knowing that death just is–as far as nature is concerned; it’s a part of life. So it built a pattern to account for the losses–not even because the pattern is inherently good, but because it’s necessary. Though I would like to think that Nature, in all her supreme knowledge, knows a good thing when it sees it. I’ll get into that in the next blog.


[P.S. I woke up early to write this after not a lot of sleep. I may notice it makes absolutely no sense and amend or delete at will.]

Late Night? Or Early Morning?

26 Jan

It’s 5:46 am as I look up at the clock. I’ve pretty much been up since 4. I couldn’t sleep. My relationship with sleep this week has been bizarre to say the least. The first three days of the week had me in bed and sleeping around 9-9:30 every night. Not even reading. Sleeping. Sans even a sleeping pill. This is quite extra-ordinary as normally I can’t even get into bed before ten and then another hour to sleep. Then the past two days I have been falling asleep late and not being able to sleep in. Yesterday I was up at 5 am.

So I thought I’d take advantage of my wakefulness and do a bit of writing. I’m on faux deadlines remember!

1. I’m writing a spec TV script (done and due by Feb. 28 – this deadline actually exists. My one and only.)

2. Finishing my Denny Denton story (first draft due by Feb. 12 – my birthday!)

3. Revise (re-vision) my novella and submit (add to make it a novel? …maybe. Due by March 15th. I just made that deadline up now.)

I also want to squeeze in a new short story at some point, finish my full-length play, write a 10 minute play, get back to work on my non-fiction piece, write a crazy cool YA novel idea I have, and work on turning one of my screenplays into a MG boys book. Shit, son. Best quit my job and get to writing.

Well, not yet, actually.

However, does Hollywood beckon me again?

…Er, yes. And the beckoning gets louder each passing winter day.


2012 Book Wrap-Up

5 Jan

Ah, as always I’m a little late. A little behind the curve. A few minutes after the bell. “Mr. Olson, why are you always late to class?” a student has asked me more than once. But at least I’m only four days late. And who says I’m late anyway? Okay, onto topic…

The following is my 2012 reading review. In 2011, I read 36 novels. Let’s see if I beat that last year. [Note: An asterisk means I particularly liked that title and hopefully convey a slice of why. Side note: Did you know the word is “asterisk” – like ‘risk’ and ‘ass.’ Seriously, I thought it was astrick. That is how I’ve pronounced it my entire life and no one has ever said anything. I feel pathetic, but on the positive, one learn something new…]

  1. *Amusing Ourselves to Death – Neil Postman (Honest cultural criticism by a sharp-witted man. What’s not to love?)
  2. The Forest for the Trees – Betsy Lermer (writing/publishing book)
  3. Tuesdays with Morrie – Mitch Albom (I read this book once every few years.)
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  5. Every You, Every Me – David Levithan
  6. *Eating Animals – Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything has a story. Some things we remain willfully ignorant of. Perhaps it’s time we give a new narrative to our relationship with food.)
  7. *Don’t Let Me Go – J.H. Trumble (My friend’s first published novel. Strong characters. Intriguing relationships. And did I mention she was my friend? Of course I loved this book.)
  8. *Vast Fields of Ordinary – Nick Bird (Took me three days to read. I ate it up.)
  9. Perfect 10 – Laura Wetterson (Though it’s not published, it’s a book. And I read it. And I really liked it. The story was so unique in terms of gay protagonists/stories. I hope one day it finds a home.)
  10. The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho (Another book I read when the mood strikes, even though I don’t agree with most of it, I find it thought-provoking.  And it’s a quick read.)
  11. *The Elegance of the Hedgehog –  Muriel Barbery (I couldn’t stop talking about this book for two months after I read it. I didn’t even understand half of it. Well, maybe more than that. But it took pretentious to another level. And yet, it did so with perfect grace and believability in the main character. Want to read Barbery’s first book now.)
  12. Gone, Gone, Gone – Hannah Moskowitz
  13. *Fobbit – David Abrams (What a great year for friends to have their debut novels published. This book is compared to Catch-22 and M.A.S.H. and it’s not far off. A strong, quirky debut from a genuinely nice guy. I believe this book will be around for a while.)
  14. *Dante and Aristotle Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Benjamin Alire Såenz (Okay. Like Vast Fields of Ordinary, I ate this up. Seriously. One and a half days and the book was read. I had such a curiosity driving me through this story – and I felt so connected to these characters/their struggles were/are mine. And it ended beautifully. And I can only hope my life parallels the ending of this book with the two characters.)
  15. Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes – Chris Crutcher (Read this twice this year.)
  16. The Pigman – Paul Zindel
  17. Get a Life, Not a Job – Paula Caligiuri (Of course the title alone got me. Who doesn’t want a life? And it was at the Portland State Uni bookstore. If it’s good enough for PSU it’s good enough for me.)
  18. *Indian Creek Chronicles – Pete Fromm (I like the candidness and the horror and beauty of the outdoors.)
  19. *Quiet: The Power of Introverts – Susan Cain (One of my nonfiction books for the year. I really dug the science that is happening with introverts. And of course I could relate. And learn. And feel more confident with my personal leanings.)
  20. The Mindful Writer – Dinty W. Moore (Buddhism + writing = right up my alley.)
  21. *The End of Education – Neil Postman (I love this man. Going to read more of his books this year.)
  22. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (Longest book of the year. And I’m not a long book fan, but this one had me. Very well done. Cried like a baby towards the end. Cried. Like a baby.)

To wrap-up: I read a miserable 22 books last year (a decrease of 14 books from 2011!!). However, there are a few reasons for this. The largest being that my writing output increased 100% from the year before. I rewrote an entire novel from scratch over the summer (=100s of hours). I wrote and revised a fairly lengthy short story. I wrote the last quarter of my novella. I wrote 30,000 words in my teen comedy novel. I wrote 50 pages in my full-length stage play. So due to my writing output, I read less. I find that’s usually the case. Whenever I’m really involved in my own writing, I have a hard time reading other books seriously. And instead, when not writing, will do more visual activities like watch TV/movies, play online, or will do more physical things like hike, gym, walk, or cook and clean. As much as I love words, language, ideas, I can’t be overloaded with them. I need that balance. So a good reason for such a decline. However, this being said, I hope to read at least 30 books this year. I also only included novels I finished in my list. I read many novels and stopped half-way (more or less) through. Those were left off. And if I end up finishing any of them, they will find themselves on the list this year.

How’d you do in your reading life last year? And writers, do you read less/more or the same when writing?

Trying to get all self-reflectivey on you

30 Dec

I thought I’d use this end-of-the-year opportunity to reflect on this past year. To learn from it, to grow from it. Reading Laura’s blog gave me the idea of answering some questions. I took the questions from I tried to keep this beneficial and therefore it ended up more serious than I perhaps would’ve liked it to be.

This takes me back to my old Myspace days! Here we go!

1. What did I learn? (skills, knowledge, insights, etc.)

I can’t say I really learned anything new. But rather, put what I knew into practice and then gained some insight on that process. Things like sticking with something – even if you hate it with every fiber of your soul – can actually provide you with tremendous insight. I also put into practice the concept of taking care of myself. It’s easy to think you are, or say you will, but harder to actually take steps to do so and stick with them. This seems to have been a year of perseverance.

2. What did I accomplish? A list of my wins and achievements.

Well, my mind is wrapped up in writing. So, I rewrote my first novel (essentially from scratch). I finished my novella (first draft) that I have been working on here and there for the past few years. This fall I finished a short story I started last Christmas. I am also devilishly near finishing my third novel (first draft), after many years of false starts and putting it in the drawer.

A few non-writing achievements: graduated with my masters degree in May (3.96 GPA what the hell is that about?). I traveled to new places (always a goal). I stuck with my teaching job even though my flight response was strong. I think that’s an achievement. I also hit the gym a lot. Even though it doesn’t show.

I also learned throughout the year. I always like learning new things.

3. What would I have done differently? Why?

Hmm. Tough question. I really can’t think of anything I would have done differently. I am pretty satisfied with the decisions I made this past year.

4. What did I complete or release? What still feels incomplete to me?

One of my goals is to be more emotionally mature. So that still feels incomplete. I also am still trying to find myself (aren’t we all?). That still feels incomplete. I’m trying to not let the responses of others direct or guide my life so much. Basically, my whole life feels incomplete – but this is not something special to 2012.

I completed novels (see above). I released lots of things. Old things. Feathers in the air, flowers everywhere. Shit like that. 😉

5. What were the most significant events of the year past? List the top three.

1. Finishing my first year of teaching
2. Switching schools
3. Taking steps to take care of myself. 🙂

6. What did I do right? What do I feel especially good about?

Ugh. This is getting redundant. How about I tell you a fill-in-the-blank story:

Once there was a ___________, and he/she/it found itself outside an old couple’s window. The old couple were always ____________ but on this day they were _____________. So the ______________ decided it would throw _______________ at their window to _____________ the shit out of them. The purpose was simply to _________________ because their life had grown _________________________. The end.

Good job. Wasn’t that fun? Moving on…

7. What was my greatest contribution?

Getting out of bed. Reading. Thinking. Asking students questions. Putting on great plays that make students feel good about themselves.

8. What were the fun things I did? What were the not-so-fun?

Putting on plays
Watching interesting films
Working out
Staying up late
Hiking at midnight

Putting on plays
Working out
Staying up late

9. What were my biggest challenges/roadblocks/difficulties?

Feeling stuck, feeling stressed 24/7. I can’t seem to get away from this job. Even on break I stress about what the hell I’m going to teach them when we get back. I feel like I am not living my own life, but rather trying to please others. To sum it up: others are my constant roadblocks.

10. How am I different this year than last?

I’d like to say I have more wisdom. That I’m more mature. That I’m more responsible – and I am – and it sucks. I’d like to say that I have a better grasp on life, but that’d be a lie. I am different in that I am not the same but I can’t really measure the growth. It’s like being around someone everyday as they die. You don’t notice the changes because you’re too close. They’re subtle changes as death takes over. But someone who comes every three months is likely to notice drastic changes to that person. That’s me. Maybe I’m different, but I can’t even remember myself last year, and I’m too close.

11. For what am I particularly grateful?

My family. My friends. That there’s still nature. That Obama and Tester won. That I get to travel. That I can afford a decent lifestyle. That I can write. That I’m healthy.

The following I’ll probably do. But seems more of a private thing. I thought I’d share. Happy New Year. May it be a positive year in the growth of you.

Consider listing all the things in your life of which you’d like to let go–anything you no longer want. Give thanks for what they’ve brought you in terms of learning and usefulness and then burn the list. It’s a symbolic gesture to help you release the old and be open to the new. The next step is to list what you DO want–experiences, knowledge, material things, relationships, healings, whatever.

In doing this, you’ll be using the principle of vacuum– releasing what you don’t want and embracing what you do.