Tuesday, December 29, 2015

BestReads 2015 - What I Read and Remembered

I didn't get to read as much as I wanted to this year, and there were several "bombs" - books which fell short of my expectations. But there were a few that stood out.

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

This was one of those books I grabbed on impulse, began reading, thought I might not finish...and ended up enjoying.  The time period is turn-of-the-century New York, and there is plenty of detail to feast on, from the seedy back passages and whorehouses of the city, to the jangling and peculiar excitement of a circus on Coney Island, to the claustrophic and appalling conditions of the Blackwell Island’s Asylum for the Criminally Insane.

The characters are richly drawn and seemed so disparate that I wondered how Parry would manage to thread them together. Sylvan (AKA Dogboy) is a "night soil man" who discovers an infant in a privy and chooses to keep it. Alphie finds herself in the Insane Asylum for no reason which she can fathom. The teenaged sword swallower Belle, one of two sisters who flees Coney Island after a fire burns down the theatre and kills their mother, has lost the ability to speak. Odile is desperately searching for her sister in the city among the theatres, brothels and opium dens that proliferated during the period.

One of my shortcomings as a reader is that I tend to become disgruntled with books which are built on coincidences and neatly tied plot resolutions. But The Church of Marvels was so richly textured that I happily went along for the ride this time, and there were plenty of twists and turns which I never saw coming.

Neurotribes: the Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman

This is a comprehensive history of the condition which is now referred to as autism, or the autism spectrum, as well as providing biographical sketches of those who may or may not have been "on the continuum" (Henry Cavendish, Nicola Tesla), modern case studies, and chronicling the lives of two notable researchers - Hans Aspberger and Leo Kanner.

Silberman makes the case that the recent spike in diagnoses, far from being the result of any one contemporary factor, is actually dawning recognition that the autism spectrum embraces those from the "lower functioning" scale all the way up to the "brilliant but eccentric".  Autism as a diagnosis allows for the provision of education and services tailored for a person's particular needs, to help them to realize their potential, but to lump them all together under one label makes no more sense than saying that all "neurotypicals" (the non-autistic population) think and act the same. There's a saying "if you've met one autistic child - well, you've met one autistic child". Neurotribes highlights the contributions made by both the well-known autistics (Tesla, Temple Grandin, James Durbin, ) and those unknown engineers, ham radio operators and innovators who have helped to push the world forward in their own way.

This is by no means an easy read. Silberman writes at length about Aspberger and Kanner as well as other researchers. Some chapters tend to be rather dry, especially if one isn't interested in clinical studies. The section which discusses the once-accepted ideas of sterilization, abortion and euthanization of the mentally ill I found wrenching. And while Silberman includes discussions and sketches of autistics on the lower end of the cognitive scale (as well as the difficulties of parents and families), his main spotlight is on those with the less debilitating forms.

If there is one message, it is this:  we need to accommodate, and appreciate, neurological differences.

Everyone has a place in this world.

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

I read this some time ago, and I'm re-reading it now. (It's still 2015 so I say it qualifies.) At almost 1000 pages it won't be everyone's cup of tea. It's a massive, semi-autobiographical tale of an escaped Australian bank robber and drug addict who ends up in Bombay. He settles into a slum, opens a small clinic, is arrested, tortured, even does a short stint as a Bollywood agent. Everything is in here; philosphical musings, intricate detail, larger-than-life characters, ridiculous set-ups, romance, mob bosses, a dancing bear...it feels like a mash-up of Hunter S. Thompson, Crime and Punishment, and the Sopranos. If even a third of this novel is true, than Roberts has led a charmed and somewhat delirious life.

I wonder where he is now?

Timeless by Kamoinge

This is sort of a cheat - it's a photo book, and I only got time to flip through it quickly. But I'd love to buy a copy some day. Close to 300 photos taken in NYC, suburban America and Africa. Portraits, landscapes and "shutter moments" capturing people doing everyday things. The photographs are by a collective of African-American photographers called Kamoinge, founded in 1963.

That's all for now. I've got places to go and people to see. I wish you all a HAPPY NEW YEAR. May it be healthy and peaceful. Links below to a few other BestRead 2015 posts. Made your own list? Drop a comment and share it with us!

-John Wiswell's Bathroom Monologues
-Cat Russell
-Katherine Hajer
-Kat Clay
-Elephant's Child
-Marc Nash

-Janice Hardy

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Writer's Wish List For 2016 - Starting With Best Creative Writing Software

The only Spider that I could possible love.

There are plenty of free options out there for authors, but if you don't mind investing a little cold hard cash - maybe as a late Christmas gift to yourself - here's a rundown by Top10Reviews of the best creative writing software. I love this site because it uses multiple side-by-side comparisons. The Gold award goes to WriteItNow5 at a reasonable $69.95.

Love to drink coffee or wine while writing? Need a gift for that member of the family that's impossible to buy for? Check out Amazing Clubs. They offer a wide selection of choices ranging from Hot Sauce Of the Month to Bacon to Dog Treats.

Beauty, horsepower and fair MPG. What's not to love about the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider? To save weight, the chassis is made entirely of carbon fiber. Acceleration is 0-60mph in 4.1 seconds. Price tag? Not so bad - starting at $63,900. Your kid doesn't REALLY want to go to college anyway. Arrive in style at your next book signing...

The Royal Epoch manual typewriter is currently sold out at Urban Outfitters, which just goes to show that many of us still stick with the old fashioned way of doing things when it comes to writing. But whether you're looking for a refurbished classic or a more modern version of the venerable typewriter, you can find it here at myTypewriter.com. They also sell manuals, replacement ribbons and gifts such as typewriter key cuff links.

If you really want to splurge on something like a fountain pen or a fine leather business bag or folio, you can find them at Levenger. (Of course, it's also fun to just browse if you can't afford $150 for a pen.)

I make my own paperweights by collecting rocks and painting them to look like animals. But for those with more discerning taste and a slightly heavier wallet, check out some of the gorgeous art glass paperweights at ArtfulHome.

Glass paperweight by Eric Bailey

I hope that all of you are enjoying the holidays and I wish all a happy, peaceful New Year.


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Fiction University: 7 Keys to Irresistible Plots (Link)

Worthwhile read - a simple and effect way to remember the essential elements necessary for a story/novel. (Difficult but possible with flash fiction as well, BTW. You just have to weigh each and every word that you use in establishing things like setting, character flaws, conflicts, etc.)

Fiction University: 7 Keys to Irresistible Plots: By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton Part of the How They Do It Series. Anything that helps with plotting is welcomed with open arms ...

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

2016 Penn State THON - Use the Hashtag ‪#‎6abcFTK‬ and Help Fund the Cause!

Photo taken during the pep rally held during the 2007 w:Penn State Dance Marathon in the w:Bryce Jordan Center, University Park, PA.

"THON" is the largest student-run charity event in the world.  The Penn State University IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, shortened to THON, raises money for pediatric cancer. It was started in 1973 and in its first year, more than $2,000 was raised, with 39 couples dancing for 30 hours straight. In 1977 the Four Diamonds Fund was chosen as the recipient of marathon proceeds. Money is used to fund pediatric cancer research, treatment costs, and the  Pediatric Cancer Pavilion at the Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

The actual marathon takes place the third week in February every year. Although it began as a competition with points for style and periodic breaks, Dance Marathon is now a no-sitting, no-sleeping marathon. Dancers are expected to remain awake and on their feet all weekend!

Fund raising has already begun and YOU CAN DONATE while sitting at your computer, staring at your phone, waiting in line......

Use the hashtag #6abcFTK on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to share why you take action for THON and 6abc will donate $1 for each post ‪#‎ForTheKids‬

@6abc has partnered with @Ford to each donate $1 per post using ! Share what you "take action for"! 

Please take just a second to tweet or share. Every dollar makes a difference. Thank you!