Getting Rid of those Pesky Spots

As I sit here writing this, I see that it is snowing. Again. I mean, come on. I feel like I’m living in Narnia. Which brings me to my topic this week: book reviews.

I work as a children’s book reviewer. I’ve heard various comments from authors when I tell them what I do. “Be nice,” says one. “Do you even read the book?” says another. “Must take you about fifteen minutes, right?” says the third.

None of these statements is true. I am not nice, since “nice” doesn’t help a person decide if they should spend their hard-earned money to buy the book; rather, I am honest. I read the book. Instead of fifteen minutes, it’s an average of nine hours, plus reading time.

I’ll use a picture book as an example, since how hard can it be to review a picture book, right?

I first read the book (which is usually in the form of an F&G, “folded and gathered”—it’s the picture book without a binding) to establish an overall, ingenuous idea of the story. Then I read it again…and again…and again… I study the typeface; is it effective, does it change, if so, why, where is it placed on the page and does that work? I look at the illustrations; their medium, their placement on the page—does that encourage the page turn, do they respect the gutter, does it balance with the type, does white space come into play? Next I look at the two together. Is the overall design of each page—illustration and text—well thought out with successful execution? Now I look at the content of the illustrations. Do they mirror the text or do they add another layer? Perhaps they even tell their own story, and does this work? Finally, trim size. What size and shape is the overall book? A story of a journey, for example, is usually most successful as a landscape format. My finished review can only be a little more than two hundred words and must follow a specific format. I must get in the plot summary, its successful or unsuccessful execution and why, and a recommendation or not.

My advice to writers who have received a review from a professional reviewer that they are unhappy with—read it very closely. Within the limitations of a word count, the reviewer is trying to tell you something. Those spots that prickle your skin with indignation—take them as critique.

By someone who cares.

 

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The Energies of Arizona: A Ghost Story

I knew about the energy vortexes that Sedona, Arizona is famous for since I was immersed in that world when I was a practicing massage therapist. I even taught the Energetic Foundations course at the Connecticut Center for Massage Therapy. But in recent years, I have disengaged from those heady days of crystals and whatnot. So as far as energy vortexes went, I was keeping a neutral mind when Richie and I headed to Arizona for our vacation this year.

Our B&B wasn’t quite ready for us, so we drove to Cathedral Rock, a hiking site and also a purported energy vortex. We began to hike the short, steep trail up the slippery red rock. When the trail turned into a chimney-like crevice, I decided that was enough. We picked another, flatter trail that wound through the scrub at the base of the formation. As we walked further into the rocks, I started to feel…well…good. It wasn’t just the peace of silence and natural beauty; I’ve got plenty of that at home. And it wasn’t just being away from winter, because it was a spitting rainy day in the 50’s. No, what I felt was almost maternal. As if I was being held as a cherished part of the whole.

To make sure I wasn’t making it up, I cast my mind back to hiking in Ghost Ranch last year. The landscape was similar, a place of red rocks and vast distances, but, there, while awed by the beauty, I also remembered feeling distinctly intimidated by this immense physical reminder of my own insignificance.

In Sedona, I woke up the following morning in our private B&B room to the cozy sound of the little coffee maker dripping away. When the coffee was done, Richie brought me a cup and we sat in bed, sipping in companionable silence. “What time did you start the coffee?” I asked, glad for this luxury.

A pause. “I thought you started the coffee,” he said.

* * *

A few days later we drove down to Bisbee, a town at the other, southern end of Arizona. Bisbee is known for its funky arts culture and people assured me I would love it. As we entered Bisbee, a former copper mining town built into a canyon, I felt a growing sense of apprehension. I assumed it was just a bit of claustrophobia because of the steep canyon walls that surround the town. We found our motel and I had a nice glass of whiskey and started to feel more relaxed. We walked around town. I didn’t like it. From the mountains riddled with mine tunnels to the junk shops to the graying hippie population, everything spoke of willful disconnection and the exploitation that is both its cause and result.

Later, back home in Massachusetts, I Goggled Bisbee. To my surprise, I discovered that just about every hotel and public building purports to be haunted. Apparently decades of murdered miners, suicidal prostitutes, and other violent death had left its mark. Was it this uneasy energy I had felt so strongly while I was there?

Some people like ghostly things. I don’t like uneasy ghostly things, but I don’t mind comfortable ghostly things, and a thoughtful ghost who starts the coffee maker in the morning? Well, that’s a ghost I can live with.


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It’s a Big Country, or Those Pink Plastic Flamingos are Looking Real Good Now

I just got back from Arizona where it was both a pleasure and a relief to hike without snowshoes, pat green plants and feel the sun on my bare skin. The severity of this winter in Massachusetts was grinding and I didn’t even realize how beaten down (and weird) I was becoming until Richie and I left it. After a few days of hiking in the stupendously gorgeous red rocks of Sedona, my paranoia about what Mother Nature was planning to inflict next dissolved and my sense of confidence, not to mention perspective, reinstated itself.

We watched hummingbirds flit amongst the cacti and, at an outdoor café, laughed when magpie stole a packet of sugar off a table, then ate it in the nearby tree with sparrows scarfing up the leavings. I picked up a lemon that was on the sidewalk. A lemon! On the sidewalk! Fallen from a tree, just growing there!

Naturally, after a few days of this Eden, my thoughts turned to the people who winter down here—snowbirds, the ones we hardy New Englanders like to scoff at.

I scoff no more. Now I think they’re onto something. And what’s more, I’m starting to think that RV’ers are also onto something. We stopped at Whitewater Draw, a spot in the desert near Bisbee where Sandhill cranes gather. Next to the oasis,  a sign at a dirt parking lot informed us we could camp there for free for up to three days. A few RV’s were already parked. How cool is that? You drive your home around the country, park places, plant out the pink flamingoes and lawn chairs, watch the cranes come and go in the sunrise and sunset.

I remember talking to Dario Pegoretti at an early NAHBS when we were both taking breaks, and we jokingly planned a commune in New Mexico with all our frame-building friends. The idea still appeals to me, only now it would be RV’s. We could all drive around in our RV’s, park together in a wagon-train circle, ride bikes (for the cyclists), have a writing prompt session or two (for the writers) and generally have a ducky time avoiding winter.

What do you think? Am I just getting old or is this a ReVolution?

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