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Susan Meissner Tells the Backstory of “A Fall of Marigolds” (and a Giveaway)

February 11, 2014

Congratulations to Jessica McCann for winning a copy of “A Fall of Marigolds!”

All of you book-lovers will be happy — I have another book review and giveaway today! And there’s one next week too! I just love book-realease season!  I am pleased to welcome Susan Meissner with her new novel,  A Fall of Marigolds

A Fall of Marigolds is about two women who live a century apart, both of whom suffered great loss. What ties them together is a beautifully woven scarf with marigolds on it. Like the scarf, I thought of this book as a beautifully woven tale. But I’ll let Susan tell you more about it.

A-Fall-of-MarigoldsWhat is A Fall of Marigolds about?
The book is about two women who never meet as they are separated by a century. One woman, Taryn, is a 9/11 widow and single mother who is about to mark the tenth anniversary of her husband’s passing. The other is a nurse, Clara, who witnessed the tragic death of the man she loved in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in Manhattan in 1911.In her sorrow, Clara imposes on herself an exile of sorts; she takes a post at the hospital on Ellis Island so that she can hover in an in-between place while she wrestles with her grief. She meets an immigrant who wears the scarf of the wife he lost crossing the Atlantic, a scarf patterned in marigolds.

The scarf becomes emblematic of the beauty and risk inherent in loving people, and it eventually finds it way to Taryn one hundred years later on the morning a plane crashes into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The story is about the resiliency of love, and the notion that the weight of the world is made more bearable because of it, even though it exposes us to the risk of loss.

Tell us where the idea for A Fall of Marigolds came from.
I’ve long been a history junkie, especially with regard to historical events that involve ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances. A couple years ago I viewed a documentary by author and filmmaker Lorie Conway called Forgotten Ellis Island; a hauntingly poignant exposé on the section of Ellis Island no one really has heard much about; its hospital. The two man-made islands that make up the hospital buildings haven’t been used in decades and are falling into ruins, a sad predicament the documentary aptly addresses.The documentary’s images of the rooms where the sick of a hundred nations waited to be made well stayed with me.

I knew there were a thousand stories pressed into those walls of immigrants who were just a stone’s throw from a new life in America. They were so close they could almost taste it. But unless they could be cured of whatever disease they’d arrived with, they would never set foot on her shores. Ellis Island hospital was the ultimate in-between place – it lay between what was and what could be. A great place to set a story.

Why a scarf of marigolds? What is their significance? 
Marigolds aren’t like most other flowers. They aren’t beautiful and fragrant. You don’t see them in bridal bouquets or prom corsages or funeral sprays. They don’t come in gentle colors like pink and lavender and baby blue. Marigolds are hearty, pungent and brassy. They are able to bloom in the autumn months, well past the point when many other flowers can’t. In that respect, I see marigolds as being symbolic of the strength of the human spirit to risk loving again after loss. Because, face it. We live in a messy world. Yet it’s the only one we’ve got. We either love here or we don’t. The title of the book has a sort of double-meaning. Both the historical and contemporary story take place primarily in the autumn.

Secondarily, when Clara sees the scarf for the first time, dangling from an immigrant’s shoulders as he enters the hospital building, she sees the floral pattern in the threads, notes how similar they are to the flames she saw in the fire that changed everything for her, and she describes the cascading blooms woven into the scarf as “a fall of marigolds.”

What led you to dovetail the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 with 9/11? 
When I first began pulling at story threads, my first instinct was to tell a story about an immigrant struggling to remain hopeful as an unwilling patient at Ellis Island hospital. But the more I toyed with whose story this was, the more I saw instead a young nurse, posting herself to a place where every disease known and unknown showed up. It was a place like no other; a waiting place – a place where the dozens of languages spoken added to the unnatural homelessness of it. Why was she here? Why did she choose this post? Why did she refuse to get on the ferry on Saturday nights to reconnect with the real world? What kind of person would send herself to Ellis not just to work, but to live? Someone who needed a place to hover suspended. I knew something catastrophic had to happen to her to make her run to Ellis for cover.

As I began researching possible scenarios, I came across the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which up until 9/11 was arguably the worst urban disaster to befall Manhattan. There were similarities between that fire and 9/11, including the tragic fact that many trapped workers jumped to their deaths rather than perish in the flames. For every person lost in disasters such as these, there is always his or her individual story, and the stories of those who loved them. I wanted to imagine two of those stories.

GIVEAWAY: I have one copy of A Fall of Marigolds to give to one lucky reader. To be entered to win, leave a comment telling me what was the best book you read in 2013. The giveaway closes Friday, February 14 at 5 pm Pacific time. 

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of A Fall of Marigolds to review for this blog post.  All opinions are my own and I only endorse books that I am proud to recommend to others.

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A Few Thoughts on Philip Seymour Hoffman, Addiction and True Tragedy

February 4, 2014

Last weekend Bryan asked me to join him watching a movie – Synecdche, New York, written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. This movie tells the story of a troubled New York playwright who is obsessed with his own mortality and sets out to construct a massive play that he hopes will give meaning to his life. Now I’m not a fan of Kaufman’s movies, so this one wasn’t high on my priority list of films to see. But I decided to give it a chance for one reason only: Philip Seymour Hoffman.

I finished the movie with the same opinion of Charlie Kaufman as I did before starting Synecdche. But there was one opinion I had that was confirmed by this trippy film. Hoffman – who played the lead in Synecdche, New York - was nothing short of brilliant.

Hoffman was one of the greatest actors I’ve ever watched, embodying his characters so much that it was almost eerie. Just like in Synecdche, he brought immense talent and realism to the screen that you actually forget it is Hoffman playing a character at all.

*****

I was shocked when I heard about Hoffman’s death this past Sunday. I am devastated when I think about the talent that is lost and his children who are left without a father. And I’m haunted thinking about the manner in which he died and the demons that must have plagued his life so deeply.

But more than the sadness, I’ve been almost speechless at the comments people are writing throughout the Interwebs — how Hoffman chose drugs over his life, that he was selfish and wanted to die.

Addiction is a scary, all-consuming beast. Drug addiction, alcoholism, gambling, sex addiction, shoplifting, smoking, over-eating, over-spending … taken to the extreme, these are all addictions that can be as dangerous as shooting heroin.

People don’t set out to become addicts. It’s not a career objective that’s written at the top of a resume. Addiction is a way of life that becomes almost inescapable.

It saddens me that people pass judgment about Hoffman’s life (and so many others) without for a minute thinking about how much pain (physical and emotional) he must have been in at the time he died.

I personally cannot go a day without a cup of coffee or two Excedrin because otherwise I will be overtaken by a horrible caffeine-withdrawal headache. Do you think I’d like to stop consuming caffeine? Absolutely! But you know what happens? The headache takes over and all I want is relief from pain.

Now I’m just talking about caffeine, a legal substance. Can you imagine the physical pain a heroin addict is in? I, for one, cannot. And I’d be willing to bet that a lot of the other people on the Interwebs passing judgment about Hoffman’s choices cannot imagine it either.

*****

I am glad we watched Synecdche, New York the week before Hoffman died. I think it would be too heartbreaking to watch now, mainly to see Hoffman play such a sad and lonely man, trudging through a very difficult life, full of utter pain. More to the point, it would be too difficult for me to watch Hoffman portray not just another amazing character, but himself on screen.

hoffman quote

Meet the Jenn Crowell of “Etched On Me” (And Win a Book)

February 3, 2014

Congratulations to Melissa Crytzer Fry for winning a copy of ETCHED ON ME! 

I am excited to welcome Jenn Crowell to the blog today. Her latest novel, Etched on Me, had me on the edge of my seat and I could not stop until I finished the story.

etched-on-me-659x1024Etched on Me tells the story of Lesley Holloway, a 16-year-old girl who ran away from home after spending years enduring sexual abuse by her father. Although she is doing her best to survive and ends up in a prestigious London prep school, few people know that she’s secretly cutting herself as a coping mechanism … until the day she goes too far and ends up in the hospital. Lesley spends the next two years in and out of psychiatric facilities, where she overcomes her traumatic memories and finds the support of a surrogate family.

Eventually completing university and earning her degree, she is a social services success story. You would think the story would end there. But nope! Lesley finds herself unexpectedly pregnant in her early twenties. And despite the overwhelming odds she has overcome, the same team that saved her as an adolescent will now question whether Lesley is fit to be a mother.

After I finished Etched on Me, I had so many questions for author Jenn Crowell. She was nice enough to take the time to answer a few of them for us today.

1. What inspired you to write Etched on Me? You mention in the book jacket a girl by the name of Fran Lyon; what does she have to do with this story?
I had originally intended the book to be solely about (two of the book’s characters) Gloria and Jascha’s relationship and their adoption from Russia. But in 2007, I read a UK news article about Fran Lyon, and that all changed.

Fran was a 22-year-old young woman, very bright and successful, who’d overcome a past history of sexual abuse and self-harm as a teenager. Now happily pregnant, she faced the removal of her baby into foster care at birth, even though her treating psychiatrist had given her a clean bill of mental health, because social services didn’t trust her to parent.

As a new mother and recovered self-harmer myself, I was shocked by this story and knew that I just had to write a similar fictionalized account of a young pregnant woman’s struggle.

2. How has being a mother affected your writing?
I think Joyce Maynard described it best when she said that, since becoming a mother, she had “much more important things to say and much less time in which to say them.” I can definitely vouch for that statement!

Motherhood has made me a far more passionate and mindful writer – I’m much more conscientious about what I’m putting out into the world and whether it’s full of enough beauty and utility to justify its existence.

3. What do you hope readers will take away from Etched on Me?
Two related things: a greater awareness of the very real discrimination that mothers with mental illness face, and the ability to put a human and relatable face on those women – whom it’s so easy to marginalize and dismiss as just “crazy” others – thanks to taking the emotional journey with Lesley.

4. What are some of your favorite books and the authors that inspire you?
Margaret Atwood is my literary heroine; reading The Handmaid’s Tale at the age of fourteen was an absolute revelation in terms of my growth as a writer. A few others I love: Kazuo Ishiguro, Amy Bloom, and Clare Allan. I’m a serious sucker for YA dystopian novels, too.

GIVEAWAY: I have one copy of Etched on Me to give to one lucky reader. To be entered to win, leave a comment telling me what you’re currently reading or what book you recommend I read next. The giveaway closes Friday, February 7 at 5 pm Pacific time. 

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of Etched on Me to review for this blog post.  All opinions are my own and I only endorse books that I am proud to recommend to others.

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How to Pick an Editor (Or Don’t Ask Your Father to Proofread Your Essay)

January 29, 2014

The other night I was thinking about my father and the influence he’s had on my writing. My dad is a great writer and a superior editor. When people ask me if he’s helped me on my writing journey, my answer always comes back to a childhood story I’m going to share with you here.

The summer before I entered 8th grade, I had to select a classic piece of literature to read and then write the dreaded summer book report. I chose Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Ever the under-achiever I was in those days, I selected Alice mainly because I was already familiar with the Disney animated classic and I was looking for something easy. I read the book and then followed my teacher’s directions to write the book report, which was essentially to write a summary of the book.

My father was always concerned about me getting the best grades possible. So he insisted on reading all my papers and editing them with his signature red pen. My former colleagues who also had the pleasure of working with my dad are quite familiar with said pen and know this habit has not changed over the years.

Needless to say, he took that red plan and marked the heck out of poor Alice and my attempt to analyze her wonderland.

“You can’t just summarize the book.” dad explained. “You need to pick three situation in the book and write about those.”

I thought what dad said was the all-powerful truth, and as a result, I did exactly what he said. After all who was I to argue with my esteemed father with a PhD and career in higher education? (Okay really, who was I to argue with my father?) So without questioning him, I rewrote the book report doing exactly what he said to do.

The thing was though, in my gut, I did question what he said. I knew that was not what my teacher wanted.

I turned in the assignment and waited with anticipation for the essay to be returned. What was given back to me was not what I expected. My teacher told me the essay was well-written, but not what she asked us to write. She asked for a summary of the book, not a synopsis of three plot points.

Ah hah! I thought. Dad was (gasp) wrong! I was the one who was right all along. I went home, dug out my old book report, turned that in to the teacher, and received an “A” on the assignment.

The Alice in Wonderland assignment taught me my first lesson in writing: go with your gut when you have something to say. It may not be the popular choice, or what others think you should write. But if you hear a voice deep down that tells you to write what’s in your heart, then listen to that voice.

And also be careful about who you chose as your editor! Needless to say, that was the last essay my dad proofread for me.

alice in wonderland

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Photo credit: juliemeynard via Creative Commons

How I De-cluttered My Life in the New Year

January 17, 2014

I like simplicity. I’m not the type of person who needs tons of stuff and things in my life. Clutter makes me feel anxious. And I’m not just talking about physical clutter; mental clutter is also a big anxiety-provoker for me. So when the calendar changed to 2014, I decided to take time to de-clutter my life a bit.

I am constantly getting rid of old clothes and books (I have a donation bag in the car at all times so if I see a drop-off location, I dump the stuff). So I focused my efforts on the “lesser-known” things that cause clutter, digital clutter being a big one. Some of the changes I made are easy things, but make a world of difference. I thought I’d share my techniques with you in case you’re feeling the need to simplify your life too.

This photo has nothing to do with the content of this post. I just liked the simplicity of the lone pinecone

I like the simplicity of the lone pinecone.

Recipe Files – Many of the recipes I use are now pinned to my Pinterest boards or stored on this blog’s Recipe page. But before the days of everything being online, I kept my recipes in a big recipe binder or I used cookbooks. I took out the VERY big recipe binder and started tossing all the recipes I didn’t like or realistically will never make. It was a lot of paper! Now the binder is better organized with the recipes I actually use. I also donated a lot of cookbooks I don’t use. I hated to do it, but there’s no point in keeping one cookbook if you only use one recipe in it. Either tear out the recipe page and keep that, or find the recipe online.

Internet Bookmarks – It was ridiculous how many sites I bookmarked. I went through the sites and did three things. First, I deleted the sites I no longer needed. Second, for the articles I wanted to keep (because I may use them for reference for future writing), I added them to my Delicious feed. Delicious is a great way to store articles (and post your own). Third, I reorganized the bookmarks I did keep and my toolbar so I can better find what I need.

Delete Blogs – I read a lot of blogs. Like a lot – more than 200. I have them all in my Feedly account, which is like the now-debunked Google Reader. As I was reading the blogs, there were always those that I would only skim or skip altogether. So one day (while watching TV is a great time to do this), I went through all of the blogs and deleted the ones I don’t read. It was liberating! And now when I go to read my blogs over the weekend, my stream of posts isn’t as overwhelming.

Facebook and Email Clutter – I don’t know about all of you, but I’m getting so sick and tired of what’s showing up on my Facebook feed. I used to love Facebook to connect with people, see pictures, and have conversations. Now it seems like it’s just Buzzfeed articles and memes. I have no time for this crap! So I went through an un-liked so many pages. And if you don’t want to unlike pages, you can also go to the page and select “hide from newsfeed.” I also unsubscribed from a slew of email newsletters to keep my email inbox less overwhelming.

Cell Phone, Cable and Phone – I HIGHLY encourage you to review your bills often because chances are, those sneaky bastard cable and service companies are charging you way more than what you need. I found out that I was being charged for the option to call internationally and all these fancy features on my landline. I reduced the phone plan to the bare minimum since the landline is rarely used (in fact, we are thinking of dumping it altogether).

The cell phone is another BIG one. We were being charged for this ridiculous amount of data that we’ve never even come close to using. I downsized the data plan, which saved us a big chunk of money. And honestly, we don’t even use the current allotment.

Finally, we are making the move to dump the cable, which will save an obscene amount of money. We opted for a Roku with Netflix and HuluPlus subscriptions. I am SO excited for this change!

Pantry, Fridge and Freezer – I tossed a lot of old food. It was so nice to go through the kitchen and get rid of stuff taking up space. And I’m not talking about rotten apples. I mean the condiment jars that are beyond the expiration date. Or the boxes upon boxes of teas I will never use (I give this stuff to my sister who loves tea). The stuff that I froze thinking one day I will use it, and now is way passed it’s prime.

Computer Documents – I finally emptied the trash on my MacBook, and either archived all documents or deleted them entirely. I also transferred a lot of stuff to Google Drive in order to free up hard drive space and keep documents safe that I didn’t want to lose.

So that’s what I’ve done so far and it feels SO liberating! I need to do other things – like go through old photo albums, organize pictures, and organize my hard files. But I’m happy with the work I’ve done so far and feel like 2014 is off to a great start!

How do you de-clutter your life? Did you get rid of any unwanted stuff lately?

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