What’s On My Bookshelf: Part 1

I’ve been indulging myself lately with two new books. Because I’m just beginning to work on my third novel, I’ve been trying to focus more on writing than reading, but wouldn’t you know that life has other distractions in mind? But because these books are so unforgettable, I must share them with you. I’ll share one today and the other one in a follow-up post.

If you like Greek mythology and you can’t get enough of The Iliad, you must read Song of Achilles by first-time novelist Madeline Miller. No doubt, she makes creative use of her education (degrees in Latin and Greek from Brown University) but her imagination is the true vehicle for this book. You’ll be swept away.

I simply loved Miller’s portrayal of all the major characters — not just Achilles but others such as egotistical Agamemnon and Thetis, the smothering mother-goddess figure. This is a love story but it’s not between Paris and the abducted Helen; it’s between Achilles and his boyhood friend Patroclus, who lends his point of view to the novel. Completing the triangle is the endearing character of Briseis, Achilles’ war trophy. The climax of the book occurs when Agamemnon demands her for himself.

You know how the story ends so I won’t recap The Iliad, but the vivid characters and emotions make this book as enjoyable as any modern novel. And the subject of hubris will never go out of vogue; perhaps the time is right to take a new look at the consequences of excessive pride.

This book was recommended by my neurologist, a brilliant man who finds the art of reading literature oddly complementary to his day job. Perhaps he enjoys letting the right side of his brain take the wheel for a while? And on that subject, stay tuned for Part 2 of “What’s On My Bookshelf.”

So…what’s on your bookshelf?




Let Your Fingers Do the Walking

Whenever I hold readings of Naked and Hungry, it never fails. Someone always asks me just where I found the name “Bermadean,” which is the name of an African pygmy goat in my book. Believe it or not, I always say, I let my fingers do the walking.

Desperate for a name for the goat, I happened upon on old phone book. As soon as I saw the name “Bermadean” my search was over. I can’t speak for the inadvertent donor, but for me the name conjured up the perfect touch of  Southern quirkiness. Done!

It goes without saying that the fiction writer shouldn’t lift both first and last names from a single person but you can cobble together some rather memorable combinations. Try pairing a first name such as Maxine with a last name such as Brown or Thomas. Need something more exotic? Change the spelling to Maxzine and add a last name such as Thorvelder or Fortenberry and you suddenly have a completely different character on your hands.

The phone book is also a great source of inspiration for story ideas in general. What do you imagine a woman who spells her first name Maxzine is like? I see an officious receptionist who insists that everyone signs in before being helped. What do you think? And what does a man with a last name of Bobo endure? How many schoolyard bullies did he encounter? And what is a family like who lives on Running Cedar Drive? I see them going in separate directions from the moment they wake up.

Drawing upon the tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Charles Dickens, you can also use last names to plant clues. What would the last name of Brickhouse imply? Someone who is solid and perhaps a bit staid. How about Fairweather? Friendly but changeable. For me, the name Scattergood conjures up the image of a disorganized do-gooder, perhaps known for random acts of compassion.

It can also be fun to use irony. Imagine that someone named Maryann Bakewell is a terrible cook. What if she can’t even make a sandwich? What if a family who is forced to sell their farm and move to the city ends up in a neighborhood called Meadowcroft? And what if a love-starved spinster has lived all her life on Amoretto Way?

Not only does the phone book offer a handy resource for a writer, I find it to be very entertaining. My own is dog-eared with notes and flags, just waiting to breathe life into my latest work. Let your fingers do the walking and you’ll see that the phone book is an instant cure for writer’s block. And the best part? It’s perfectly free.

Fans of Bermadean will be glad to know she reappears in my sequel, Born Again, Dead Again, which is coming to a bookstore near you in September 2013.

When is Teacher Appreciation Day? Every Day!

Upon of learning of the 80th birthday of one of my favorite junior high school teachers, I was curious to learn if there is a national Teacher Appreciation Day. After all, the breadth and depth of national holidays astounds: Sweet Potato Day, Umbrella Day, Hug a G.I. day, there’s even a Peanut Butter Day. To my relief, (please excuse my ignorance), there is indeed a day of celebration for teachers; this year it will be May 8. 

But as I reflect, I wonder if one day is enough? I firmly believe that the teachers I know—my own, my friends and my colleagues at UNC-Chapel Hill—should be honored every day. The gifts they give are the most enduring because of their ability to see the potential in young people and to spark within us a lifelong path of learning. My soon to-be-80 language arts-social studies teacher is special because of his passion for ideas.

Yes, we memorized facts; yes, we diagrammed sentences (ugh); and yes, we wrote papers (thank you), but the knowledge I retained was more profound than that. In his classroom, we were free to talk about ideas previously reserved for adults: politics, death, love, betrayal, even teen pregnancy and addiction. In fact, the examination of ideas was required. Our reading list was edgy, especially for the times: Death be Not Proud, Flowers for Algernon, and Watership Down. But my teacher was brave and he knew that the value of exposing young people to ideas far outweighed the risk.

To be clear, teachers aren’t perfect; they would be the first to decry such a label. They are human and within that scope lies the full range of virtues and foibles. But because of their life’s work, the best of them have a nobility that no other profession can match. I think of another great educator, a man for whom I was fortunate enough to write a speech or two for in my time, the teacher-governor, James B. Hunt. He was fond of quoting that old axiom that goes: “You never stand so high as when you stoop to help a child.”

So here is to my beloved junior high teacher and all the great ones who followed him. Without their influence, and with no disrespect to farmers and truckers, it is safe to say that a great many of us would indeed be sitting at home naked and hungry.