Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Glass Castle

Ever since I was a child, I immersed myself in stories about people who rose above harsh and seemingly hopeless circumstances. Books such as The Contender and Manchild in the Promised Land drew my attention. With determination, spirit, and hard work, I realized, you could rise out of the worst possible environment, and do something constructive with your life. Such is the case, also, with the book I recently finished, The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls. The author tells the story of her young life, one that was filled with adventure along with poverty and parental neglect. At the beginning of the book, Jeannette, age three, is cooking hot dogs and is burned so severely that she needs hospitalization and a skin graft. While recovering, her father grabs her from the "sterile" hospital so that she'll be "safe" at home. This is a telling way to start her memoir. Although Jeannette Walls portrays her parents not with bitterness but with compassion, readers cannot help but judge their "fitness" as parents. On the one hand, the children learned self-reliance and coping skills; on the other hand, the parents didn't feed or clothe them or take care of them, and were often selfish and put their needs above those of their children. It's hard not to judge them, although Jeannette presents their good qualities, too, such as their resourcefulness and love of adventure. But the children, including Jeannette, paid a high price, and suffered tremendously. Unfed, Jeannette would find discarded food in the trash cans at school to assuage her hunger. Her parents were blazing nonconformists who barely managed to support their four children, who were often starving, cold, and dirty, and had to learn while very young to fend for themselves. Her mother was an artist and writer who didn't earn much money and her father, who showed brilliance at times, had a severe drinking problem--both took a great toll on the entire family. In fact, later in the book the parents, Rex and Rose Mary, both "excitement addicts", actually choose to be homeless and live on the streets, even though they could live in their Phoenix house, or sell land or possessions for cash. Odd choice. In this stranger-than-fiction story, Jeannette and her sisters, Lori and Maureen, and her brother, Brian, struggle not just to grow up in the usual sense, but also try to cope with a threadbare existence and two parents who are more interested in adventure than providing care or security for their children. Forever restless, they move to Phoenix, Arizona, then to Welch, West Virginia, and eventually to the city of opportunity, New York. A true survivor, Jeannette even manages to help the rest of her siblings. Jeannette Wall's honesty is incredible as she tells the painful yet fascinating and inspirational story of her past.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Conversation with Kate Jacobs


I can't believe my luck!  Best-selling writers tend to be extremely busy people, so I'm very grateful that Kate Jacobs, author of The Friday Night Knitting Club and Comfort Food, took the time to do this interview with me via email right before the release of her new book, Knit Two.

1) Kate, my first question is which blog post title do you prefer,
A Conversation with Kate Jacobs, or An Interview with Kate Jacobs?  Or something else altogether?

KJ: Whatever works for you, Susan! Either title is just right.

(As you can see, I chose the first title, because Kate Jacobs is remarkably personable.  I felt as if we really did have a conversation, because her emails to me were so warm and friendly.)

2) Were you influenced by any particular (women) writers as a child? 

KJ: Well, I certainly loved to read! But I’m not sure I was influenced so much in writing style as in my awareness of the world and of ideas. That’s the great magic of books. Now I was a library kid growing up – I’m from a small town and there often wasn’t even a bookstore in town. And my mother is a big reader and we would often go together. When I was a little girl, I adored Anne of Green Gables – though that’s rather a prerequisite for a Canadian girlhood – and I also vividly remember a novel called From Anna by Jean Little. I essentially read everything I could get my hands on and continued doing that as a I got older, devouring everything from dramas to thrillers to Westerns to literary fiction. When I was an older teen, the novel that just hit me was So Big by Edna Ferber and to this day I often reflect on that novel, with its themes about the nature of success and the importance of creativity.

3) Are you on a writing schedule?  Do you write every day?

KJ: I intentionally do not write every day. My overall process is that I write, and then I recharge. So I prefer to go through periods where I’m thinking and absorbing and reading and being social, and then go through stretches of time where I stay in and wear pajamas and am just focused on the story all the time. I write in bursts. That said, I am always working on a story even if I’m not always doing that work at the computer. Also, I tend to write early in the morning or late at night, blocks of time when the house is quiet and I won’t be distracted. I love distractions! If my deadline is looming, I will definitely be sorting laundry or baking. It’s some combination of procrastination and stress relief.

4) Do you drink coffee or tea while writing? (As a tea guzzler, I had to ask this!)

KJ: I do enjoy a good cup of tea. I just love a nice cup of English Breakfast with a little lactose-free milk and sugar. Or homemade iced tea; that’s great. And a cookie tucked in somewhere. However, my real secret is that I love bubbles. Carbonation, to be precise. So I drink a lot of sparkling water and -- my big vice – nice, cold glasses of Pepsi. (My husband is a Coke drinker, btw.) I try to limit my soda in general, so no pop for me if I’m not typing. But the last few weeks of working on a book are just long, long hours and I exist in an endless Pepsi haze. It’s both glorious and awful – delicious but too much sugar and caffeine all at once.

(Kate, I've recently discovered lemon-flavored San Pellegrino, Limonata. It's transcendent!)

5) Do you listen to music, or prefer silence while writing?

KJ: Both – but not at the same time. I typically prefer to work in silence because I can concentrate. It’s especially nice when my dog Baxter snoozes under my desk and so I can just hear his little breaths. However, there are moments when the characters and I need a little buoying up -- it could be a sad scene or I could just feel frustrated with the story. And so I’ll put on some perky instrumental background music.

6) What advice do you have for aspiring writers, especially women?

KJ: Believe in yourself. Ignore the naysayers. Keep at it. Tell the stories you feel you want to tell and are driven to tell. And just keep putting one word after another on the page. That’s the only way you’ll finish your manuscript!

7) You lived in NY for ten years.  I grew up in NY, and feel as if you captured something very real about NY life and the cozy yarn shop which becomes an oasis for these women.  Did you enjoy living in NY?  Which experiences did you most enjoy?  What did you dislike about NY?

KJ: Well, initially I hated New York! Too busy and too loud. Overall, it was a big change from growing up in Canada. But then, once I’d made friends, I really began to get a sense of home. That was important. And after awhile I simply couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. I didn’t always enjoy living in a small apartment, especially once I got married and my husband moved in with all of his boxes. What did I love? The restaurants. The people. The access to indie movies. The noise. I never sleep so well now as when I hear sirens and traffic, which is funny because that’s what drove me insane when I had first arrived. Of course, life is full of surprises, and change is always around the corner. I thought I’d never leave the city and now I live in southern California (because of my husband’s work). And you know what? I like warm weather. I like the people. And I love having my own washer and dryer which we were never able to have in our Manhattan apartment. So every experience has pluses and minuses.

8) Your new book, Knit Two, is coming out on Nov. 25, a sequel to The Friday Night Knitting Club. Was it harder or easier to write the sequel? 

KJ: Different. Just different. Writing is always hard and it can also be wonderful. On the one hand, it was a joy to return to the characters of The Friday Night Knitting Club – to Dakota and Catherine and Anita and so on. On the other hand, I had to stay true to who they were – the past experiences, how they looked, etc – and that requires a certain discipline. But, without question, I loved writing Knit Two. I intentionally made it soothing and upbeat, because I wanted to balance out some of the emotion from FNKC, and also because it just felt right. I am so excited to share this novel with readers; I can’t wait to go out on book tour in Dec. and Jan.!

And I can't wait to read Knit Two! Thank you so much for doing this interview, Kate! 

Comments are welcomed.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

This Blog is Rated. . .

Here's the official rating for Suko's Notebook.
You can even get your own blog rated.
It's fun, and takes but a few moments.
You might be surprised!

Update, August 2010: I tried this rating system again, and received a PG-13 rating. A few days later, I got another G rating. Next I tried a different rater, and received an NC-17. In other words, they are not reliable. :)

Monday, November 17, 2008


When my eleven-year-old daughter first received the book Twilight as a gift, I wasn't sure if I wanted her to read it. I'd heard it was "creepy", full of vampires, and thought it might frighten her and lead to nightmares. Or what if she wanted to make herself look like a vampire--or should I say vampiress--after reading the book? I've seen people on TV who've had their teeth sharpened into fangs in order to achieve the vampire look. Honestly, I didn't know if the book was a good idea. However, many of her friends (who don't resemble vampires) loved the book and were reading others in the series, and my daughter was eager to read it. As a parent, it's terrific when your child expresses an eager interest in reading--as long as she's not reading total garbage. Similar to the Harry Potter books, young readers (and others) absolutely devour the books in the series. Twilight is the first book in this bestselling series by author Stephenie Meyer. I haven't read the book but my daughter has read all four books in the Twilight Saga.
  1. Twilight (2005)
  2. New Moon (2006)
  3. Eclipse (2007)
  4. Breaking Dawn (2008)
Many fans already know that part of Midnight Sun, Edward's version of Twilight, was illegally posted on the internet and has been virally distributed without Stephenie Meyer's knowledge or permission, which greatly upset the author. Stephenie Meyer has now posted a partial draft for readers on her website.

In Twilight, seventeen-year-old Isabella "Bella" Swan moves from Phoenix, Arizona, to Forks, Washington, and discovers that her life is in jeopardy when she falls in love with a vampire, Edward Cullen. On Nov. 21, 2008, Twilight the movie is coming out. Here's the movie trailer. It stars Kristen Stewart (as Bella Swan), Robert Pattinson (as Edward Cullen), and many others. We're going to the midnight showing on opening night.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Last Lecture

"I lectured about the joy of life, about how much I appreciated life, even with so little of my own left. I talked abut honesty, integrity, gratitude, and other things I hold dear. And I tried very hard not to be boring."
~ Introduction to The Last Lecture,
Randy Pausch (Oct. 23, 1960 - July 25, 2008)
Unlike many lectures, this book is anything but boring. With but a few months left to live, Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch gave his last lecture at the university on Sept. 18, 2007 before a full auditorium. In his lecture entitled, "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams," Pausch talked about the lessons he learned, and gave advice on how to achieve goals and dreams, and the importance of helping others to reach theirs. He decided to also put his stories into a book of fifty-three "lectures", for the family he'd soon leave behind, and the world at large.

I've just finished reading The Last Lecture, coauthored by Jeffrey Zaslow, a very touching book about the lecture by Randy Pausch, professor of computer science, human computer interaction and design; he co-founded Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center, and was the creator of the Alice interactive computing program, used by students worldwide. Randy Pausch lost his life to pancreatic cancer at the age of 47, leaving behind his wife, Jai, and three young children. In his lecture, he talks a lot about the importance of his childhood dreams. I do not wish to spoil the book by telling you about each and every dream, but I will mention something notable from his childhood. As a teenager, he wanted to paint on the walls in his room, and his parents allowed him to express his creativity in this way. I mentioned this to my 11-year-old daughter, and asked her if she wanted to paint anything on her walls. Did she ever! The rainbow shown below was her first wall painting, and she's also added a couple of animals and is currently working on a tree. She loves painting on her walls! I think her room looks more unique with these paintings.

The filmed lecture and book are a way
for Randy's children, Chloe, Logan, and Dylan, who are now without their father, to "grow up" with him. For the rest of us, it's an inspiring book about living your best life.

You can listen to Randy Pausch's last lecture here. More than 37,000 Americans each year are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. My good friend Gayle-Robin lost her brother, Alan, to pancreatic cancer. This post is dedicated to Alan, who was a wonderful brother, uncle, and friend. For more information about pancreatic cancer, please visit The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Secret Life of Bees, the Movie

Like many others, I loved the bestselling book The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, and headed to the theater with high hopes; I must say that the movie surpassed my expectations. The movie trailer is good, but doesn't do the movie justice, doesn't foretell the power of this must-see drama. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.

Without giving too much away, here's a synopsis. The movie is set in the south in 1964, when the the Civil Rights Act was passed, and a year before the Voting Rights Act became law. Lily, a girl of 14, is tormented by the fact that she accidentally shot her mother as a toddler. Lily develops a strange, puzzling affinity for bees. Her father is abusive towards her, while the black housekeeper, Rosaleen, is a mother figure to Lily. One day, Lily accompanies Rosaleen into town, because Rosaleen wants to register to vote. (Forty-four years later, we've elected an African American president--finally.) Racist white men confront them and beat Rosaleen viciously. Rosaleen is also arrested, and held in custody at the medical ward of the local jail. Outraged, Lily goes to the jail to free her friend. Lily and Rosaleen decide to "run away" and leave Lily's father's house. They chance upon a store in a small town, which sells jars of honey (with intriguing labels) from the Boatwright sisters. Lily and Rosaleen journey to Tiburon, South Carolina to meet the Boatwrights and end up living with them. Here, Lily begins to unravel the mysteries that enshroud her deceased mother.

This film celebrates love, and its power to transform lives in astonishing ways. Brilliant performances by the female leads--Dakota Fanning (as Lily), Jennifer Hudson (as Rosaleen), Alicia Keys (as June), Queen Latifah (as August), and Sophie Okonedo (as May)--make this movie exceptional, academy-award winning material. These strong, positive women are wonderful in their roles. They don't play empty-headed sex objects but women with strength, courage, independence, and kindness. We need more movie roles like this for women! While the actresses may steal the show, the acting by Paul Bettany (as T. Ray), Nate Parker (as Neil), and Tristan Wilds (as Zach) is also excellent. The Secret Life of Bees is both heartrending and uplifting, as a movie and as a book.

Monday, November 3, 2008

To the Lighthouse

After reading some lighter fiction, I decided to delve into something deeper, a novel by Virginia Woolf. I located the tattered copy from my school days and took a deep breath. Here is another phenomenal book by Virginia Woolf. Published in 1927, To the Lighthouse broke new ground and Virginia Woolf emerged as the chief figure of modernism--and perhaps feminism--in England.

The book begins as Mrs. Ramsay, mother to eight children, speaks to her youngest child, James, age six, about his wish to go to the Lighthouse on the following day:

"Yes, of course, if it's fine tomorrow," said Mrs. Ramsay. "But you'll have to be up with the lark", she added. To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled, the expedition bound to take place, and the wonder to which he looked forward to, for years and years it seemed, was, after a night's darkness and a day's sail, within touch. ~To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

However, Mr. Ramsay, as well as Charles Tansley, soon shatter the boy's hopes by saying that it will rain the next day, and that a trip to the Lighthouse is out of the question, which upsets both James and his devoted mother greatly. The setting for the story begins at the summer house at the Isle of the Skye during the summer, where the Ramsays entertain numerous friends in addition to their large family. Mrs. Ramsay tries to soothe the boy by saying that the weather may be fine, because she has a far greater understanding of her sensitive, gifted child than either her husband or his friend. Keenly aware of the beauty and brevity of childhood, she wants her children to be happy and hopeful, to be filled with light, in a world with ample darkness. The novel focuses on the intensity of childhood emotions, and accentuates the impermanence of adult relationships and the transient nature of everything. The issue of the trip to the Lighthouse is brought up time and time again in the first section of To the Lighthouse, The Window, in which through repetition and stream-of-consciousness writing (Virginia Woolf's trademark style), the interior monologues of various characters are presented, seizing fleeting moods, feelings, thoughts, and insecurities, and the transient nature of things and relationships, giving permanence to these moments in the book, making them immortal--which seems to have been the author's goal. Like our own thoughts, which are often repetitious (and dare I say dull at times), the characters seem to tire of their own cyclical thoughts. At other times, their disjointed thoughts are featured. Virginia Woolf captures the dual reality of thought in To The Lighthouse, thought which is alternatively repetitive and disconnected. (Think about your own thinking--isn't it also this way?)

Just as in the story the painter Lily Briscoe tries to capture beautiful Mrs. Ramsay in a painting (although Lily is scoffed at, and the male belief was that women could neither paint nor write) the book attempts to make the impermanent permanent, and portrays these fleeting moments brilliantly, especially those between husband and wife. This is Virginia's Woolf's most autobiographical novel, and her husband, Leonard Woolf, called it a masterpiece. Virginia Woolf broke from tradition in this three part book, a novel in which there's not much action or dialogue, but instead much thought, about the ordinary as well as about time and the fleeting nature of life. One of the book's main themes is the ubiquity of transience. Is there an antidote for this often disturbing transience? Virginia Woolf suggests to women that while family and human relationships are important (although difficult sometimes), creative work may hold the key--meaningful work that will engage and may even outlive us. In this way, transience may be transcended to some degree.

You can read all three sections of To The Lighthouse online, compliments of Project Gutenberg Australia. To the Lighthouse was made into a TV movie released in 1983, which stars Rosemary Harris, Michael Gough, Suzanne Bertish, and Kenneth Branagh.

1/30/10 Update: For another review of To The Lighthouse, please visit Absorbed in Words.

Some of the books featured here were given to me free of charge by authors, publishers, and agents. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.


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