What’s onYour Shelf? I’ve Got “In the Pond”

I’m reading the books that I’m clearing off my shelves, preparatory to making more room in the office. This week I finished In the Pond by Ha Jin.

It reminded me of a family event. Years ago, at the high school graduation party of her daughter, my cousin lifted the three-tier, professionally decorated cake off the table to show it to her guests. In a sequence of moves that would put a Melissa McCarthy movie to shame, my cousin slipped on something, her foot shot forward, and her arms jerked up. The cake separated from the plate and summersaulted high into the air before the horrified gaze of all the guests, doing a beautiful swan dive straight into the retired, but still usable, chamber pot.

Somebody went out for donuts.

The story of Shao Bin, as Ha Jin writes it in In the Pond, is like that. A self-educated scholar and self-taught artist who works at a fertilizer plant in China, Shao Bin feels deeply wronged—and his wife deeply disappointed—when he is not assigned a bigger apartment for his growing family. Instead, only the party cadre “earn” larger spaces. Shao Bin—everyone—knows that the apartments are not allocated by need, as party rules dictate, but by party alliances, kickbacks, and bribes. He takes action, drawing a cartoon mocking the party leaders, which the local newspaper publishes.

This maneuver sets off a cascading series of events in which things can only go from bad to worse. Shao Bin applies for other jobs and is accepted for one, but the fertilizer factory party chairmen refuse to let him go because they don’t want the other workers to know that Shao Bin is qualified for such a good position. Bin applies to college and is accepted, but the factory party chairs refuse to let him attend because he is needed to draw propaganda at the plant. (And with slogans like “Utilize Methane; Turn Waste into Treasure,” who can blame them?)

Shao Bin challenges the leaders at every opportunity, breaking up meetings, writing letters of complaint, drawing cartoons and even graffiti to protest the actions against him. In time, the leaders at the factory find a solution for their troublesome worker, but it comes at a price—and it’s not exactly what he expects.

Winner of the National Book Award in 1999 for Waiting, Ha Jin paints a picture of life in a provincial Chinese town, with its depictions of the pettiness of the officials and their scheming to maintain status, that feels very true to life. And I had to root for Shao Bin, who takes up his narrow calligrapher’s brush to confront the powerful party leadership, with repercussions that reach far past his home town and the Harvest Fertilizer Plant. This book is dark and funny, even as you see the cake take off into the air and know that it can’t land anyplace good.

Kay: What’s onYour Shelf? I’ve Got American History

In honor of the American Independence Day, and while I recuperate from surgery and read and relocate the books on my shelves, I’m taking a look at a couple of volumes of American Colonial history. I haven’t read these since I was a graduate student, when they were required for my degree, but it wasn’t a hardship opening them again.

That’s because I like history, I like old stuff, and I like stories. And let’s face it—the story of the American Revolution is a good one, and the ideas that the colonialists brought to the political discourse are thrilling. The values and principles the colonialists debated and ultimately went to war for have been battered in recent times, but to imagine that people sat around the dinner table and read Patrick Henry’s speech in the newspaper (the “give me liberty or give me death” one) or the words of John Adams (“Let justice be done though the heavens should fall”) just makes me glow. Talk about stakes! They could not have been higher. Continue reading

Kay: What’s onYour Shelf? I’ve Got “Save Me the Plums”

One of the most famous of the Gourmet covers, which many readers hated

I’m in a long-term project to read and give away all the books on my office shelves and then move out the shelves. It’s been interesting so far, since I bought these books over a long period of time, and my tastes and interests have changed. Or in some cases, I was in an airport, and I needed something, and whatever I chose seemed to be my best bet at the time.

I’ll be recovering from surgery for a while, so this is a great time to catch up on my reading. The book I just finished is the new release Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl, a memoir of the time she spent as editor of  Gourmet magazine (she also had been the restaurant critic for The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times). As a former small magazine and newspaper editor myself, I was particularly interested in this one. Continue reading

Nancy: Revisiting Story Brain

This week, I’m sorry to say, I’m a bit overwhelmed and a bit under the weather. While I don’t have the energy or mental focus to write a new blog post, I thought I’d share this one that I wrote two years ago, in which I discuss how stories mold our minds and attitudes, and can ultimately change the world.

How Story Shapes Our Brains

How long did the last fiction book you finished stick with you? What about the romance or mystery or classic you read over and over again as a teen? How about the books your parents read to you before you were old enough to read on your own? Turns out, the fiction we read might just be making us more engaged, empathetic humans according to researchers studying the brain through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). We’ve known this for a while now.

In a New York Times article published more than five years ago, Annie Murphy Paul reported: “The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated…Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.” Wow, heady stuff, you authors out there. Continue reading

Nancy: Some Love for Women’s Fiction

This past Saturday was Women’s Fiction Day! Don’t worry if you didn’t know and missed it. The celebration doesn’t have to be limited to one day. And if you’re wondering what, exactly, makes fiction women’s fiction and why does it need its own celebration, that’s okay, too. So let’s talk a bit about this often misunderstood and sometimes undervalued segment of the fiction market.

Most visitors to our blog are romance readers. Makes sense, as we 8LW ladies are romance writers. While a few of our followers are die-hard, romance-only readers (and we love you!), many read across a wide swath of fiction. Bonus points if the other-genre fiction has strong female characters with fully-developed inner lives and emotional journeys. If the female characters’ emotional journeys are the central storyline, what you have in front of you is women’s fiction.

Women’s fiction can be written, read, and enjoyed by people of any gender. (Yes, even straight, cis-gendered men can write women’s fiction). The stories can include mystery, suspense, adventure, intrigue, and romance! Some stories include a lot of those elements, and that’s fine. It’s still women’s fiction, as long as the very core story is about a woman’s emotional journey.

If you’re thinking, that’s an awfully big tent, you’re right. Continue reading

Jilly: Picking Your Brains on Audiobooks

Do you listen to audiobooks? What do you like or dislike about them?

I adore fiction, but my medium of choice is the written word. Dead tree or e-book, either works for me. I just love the way reading loads a story directly from the page into my brain, allowing me to imagine and interpret the author’s words in the way that’s most personally powerful to me.

I enjoy visual media like movies, TV, and the theater, but I’d choose a book over any of them, any day. My subconscious clearly wants to be the sole interpreter of the story. I guess it’s no surprise that I’ve never even thought of listening to an audiobook.

That may have to change. I’m planning to publish my debut novel, The Seeds of Power, later this year, followed by other stories in the same world and series. I’ll start with e-books and print, but then I think I should add audiobooks. Partly because people who know more than I say that audio is a fast-growing sector, less crowded and thus offering more discoverability to a new author. Mostly, if I’m honest, because it would be something new to learn and I think it would be cool 😉 . Continue reading

Elizabeth: Summer Reading Bingo

When I was a kid, summer meant the end of school and the beginning of warm afternoons spent at the local branch library.  While I kind of missed school (yeah, I was *that* kid), I loved the time I got to spend in the library, a converted house just a few blocks away.

I thought the librarian, Ms. Cook, had the best job ever and was thrilled when I was finally allowed to read books from the grown-up section.  While some kids had to be forced to read, I wasn’t one of them.  Rather than trying to get me to read, my parents were more likely to be telling me to “put down that book and go outside and play.”  When I did go outside, I could often be found nestled up in the tree in the front yard – reading a book, of course.

One of my favorite parts of summer-at-the-library was the annual reading challenge.  It was intended to be a way to encourage non-readers to read but I – being just the slightest bit competitive – loved seeing my reading log filled with gold stars as I read my way through book after book.

Those summer days spent in the library may be long gone, but that doesn’t mean an end to summer reading challenges. Continue reading