Book Thoughts: Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow

Working in a public library as I do, I’m often reminded of how much has already been written. Occasionally I look around at the shelves full of books and think “It’s all been done already. We can all stop writing now.”  But I’m happy to report I’m consistently proved wrong.

For instance: Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow. A werewolf novel written entirely in verse. Epic verse isn’t new, of course. And werewolf novels are everywhere right now. But a combination of the two? I couldn’t not read it, figuring it couldn’t be mediocre; it had to be completely terrible or really, really good.

I count the book a success on all counts. It works as a novel, with engaging characters and an intriguing plot. There’s love and life and death and power plays and vengeance, and confused characters muddling through life caught up in it all. And it works as poetry, the choice of words and meter striking the place in you where poetry strikes, and still keeping the story flowing.  Example: “At night he lies down on the benches and contemplates/ the deception of starlight, long dead suns making small lights/ almost bright enough to guide the way.”

Barlow gets the balance right, sacrificing neither the fiction nor the poetry aspect in the cause of the other.

Is it obvious how much I liked this book? It’s so nice to come across something fresh, a reminder that we humans are endlessly creative. And it’s nice to see a writer following his own vision and making it work. I’m thinking of all of those writing conferences where authors are asking what editors are looking for at the moment, and nobody ever answers “Werewolf poetry.”

I have one warning for the squeamish. Though not gratuitous because it does serve the story, some of the violence is quite graphic.


I used to pride myself on having a large vocabulary. I know words such as noesis, after all. I even know and use some words you only find in the most unabridged of dictionaries. Stoit, for example, means to move in a staggering fashion, like Captain Jack Sparrow in those pirate movies. When I was a kid, I always aced vocabulary tests in school.

Then one day, I was walking with a friend and pointed out the lovely violets in someone’s yard. She corrected me, letting me know the plant was creeping myrtle. Since I have a brown thumb, I’m not great on plant names. The more I thought about it, the more I realized there are whole subject areas of vocabulary in which I’m deficient: plants, cooking, knitting.  What does al dente mean anyway? What are you doing when you braise something? Is a purl a little bead you fasten into your scarf?

One of the most generally known rules of good writing is “be specific.” Don’t say “tree.” Say “juniper” or “thorny locust.”  How can I be a good writer if I don’t know the difference between violets and creeping myrtle?

It turns out other writers have the same problem, this lack of an omniscient vocabulary. Nobody knows everything about every subject. That’s where research comes in. If I want to have one of my characters knitting and speaking knowledgably of the process, I don’t have to have the knowledge already stored in my brain. I can read knitting magazines, books and blogs, and talk to one of the 1,000 people I know who do knit in order to lay some nifty terminology into my story.

Writer’s Digest has a whole series of books dealing with need-to-know information in different areas. Need to poison one of your characters, but don’t know much about poisons? Serita Stevens will help you out with the Book of Poisons: A Guide for Writers.  Want to get your legal vocabulary straight for a courtroom scene? Try Order in the Court: A Writer’s Guide to the Legal System by David S. Mullally. Not clear on the difference between an abrasion and a contusion? You may want to browse Body Trauma: A Writer’s Guide to Wounds and Injuries by David W. Page.


Creeping Myrtle:

The Right Book at the Right Time

A friend recently shared the information that her daughter had been assigned to read the book Beloved by Toni Morrison for a high school class last spring. The daughter struggled through the text, disliking it all the way through.

Beloved is one of my favorite works of literature. But I first read it in my early thirties, after my children were born. Would I have understood the book at age 16? Parts, I think. Would I have liked it? I’m not sure, but I think not. I came upon the book at the right time in my life, after I’d had enough life experience to be haunted by some true regrets.

Thinking back, I can recall books I’ve read in years past that left me shaking my head in bewilderment. Crime and Punishment comes to mind. I wonder if I should re-read it now. Maybe I’d get it in some fundamental way I didn’t before. Or maybe not.

I did read, enjoy, and understand many “adult-level” books in my adolescence. So I’ve put very few restrictions on what my kids read.  I think they’ll either be ready for a book or they won’t and they’ll figure it out for themselves. Maybe there are hundreds of teens out there who do appreciate Beloved. Maybe there are even some who appreciate Crime and Punishment.

I remember the first true grown-up book I read and enjoyed. It was A Tale of Two Cities. But I had started to read it twice before I finally finished it on the third go.

My 11-year-old son just finished reading the Harry Potter series. When he was younger, we read the first couple of books to him, but he lost interest even as the rest of us in the family were avidly reading and discussing the series. He’d say “I don’t see what the big deal is. I don’t think they’re interesting.”

Then one day around his 11th birthday (the same age as the main character at the beginning of the story), he was looking for something to do, having used his allowed computer time for the day. He spotted Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone lying out on top of the bookcase and picked it up. Two hours later, he looked up and told me “This book is better than I remembered.”

He proceeded to read all seven books straight through. He’d become ready for them.

I think what I’ve figured out is that not only should you not judge a book by its cover. You possibly shouldn’t even judge it by your first reading of it. True, there are many honestly terrible books out there. But sometimes a book I don’t like right off may deserve a second look.

Book List: The Moon

On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 landed on the moon. In honor of the event’s 40th anniversary this month, I’m providing a list of moon-related reading.  I have steered away from general astronomy books, and confined myself to books about the earth’s moon. Otherwise, the list would go on forever. In the fiction books, the moon is either the setting or a significant force within the story. Many of the non-fiction titles are self-explanatory. I don’t feel the need to expound.

Enjoy your lunar reading odyssey.

Book List: The Moon


Back to the Moon
Homer H. Hickam
Techno-thriller about the hijacking of a moon-bound space shuttle, written by NASA engineer and author of  the memoir Rocket Boys. Published in 2000.

Bouncing Off the Moon
David Gerrold
Three young brothers deal with their parents’ divorce by moving to the moon, only to become embroiled in corporate intrigue and conspiracies.  2002.

The First Men in the Moon
H.G. Wells
Classic Wells, published in 1901. But if you think this is the first published story set on the moon, scroll on down the list.

Have Spacesuit – Will Travel
Robert Heinlein
Classic Heinlein first published in 1958. Space adventure story aimed at younger readers. What boy wouldn’t want to win his own spacesuit and take a trip to the moon?

Inconstant Moon Trilogy:
Inconstant Moon
Fall Girl
Exit Strategy
Piers Askegren
More corporate intrigue on the moon. These are newer books, all published since 2005.

Lunar Descent
Alan M. Steele
Factory work is factory work, even on the moon. 1991.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Robert A. Heinlein
Three books in one about revolution brewing in the lunar colonies of the future. 1966.

The Moon Pool
Abraham Merritt
Magic portal activated by moonbeams. Published in 1919.

Peter Nevsky and the True Story of the Russian Moon Landing: a Novel
John Calvin Batchelor
Historical fiction about the space race, written from a cosmonaut’s point of view. 1996

J.R.R. Tolkein
Written in 1925, published in 1998. (As a writer, this makes me all kinds of impatient.) In his quest to be real again, a dog searches the moon and elsewhere for the wizard who turned him into a toy.

Voyages to the Moon and the Sun
Cyrano de Bergerac
Yes, *that* Cyrano de Bergerac, from the 17th century.


Apollo: the Epic Journey to the Moon
David West Reynolds

Apollo: the Race to the Moon
Charles A. Murray

Apollo 11: the NASA Mission Reports, Compiled from the NASA Archives
Published in three volumes 1999-2001.

Apollo 13
Jim Lovell
The moon landing that didn’t happen and how three astronauts survived disaster. 2006

The Big Splat, or, How Our Moon Came to Be
Dana Mackenzie

Destination Moon: the Apollo Missions in the Astronauts’ Own Words
Rod Pyle      2007

Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Space Flight
David A. Mindell    2008

Firefly Moon Observer’s Guide
Peter Grego
It *is* an astronomy book, but focused solely on our moon.  2004

First Man: the Life of Neil A. Armstrong
James R. Hansen
Biography.  2006

The First Men on the Moon: the Story of Apollo 11
David M. Harland

Five Billion Vodka Bottles to the Moon: Tales of a Soviet Scientist
I.S. Shklovskii

Fly Me to the Moon: an Insider’s Guide to the New Science of Space Travel
Edward Belbruno

The Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America’s Space Race
Eugene Cernan
Memoir by the commander of the final manned moon mission, recounting his years with NASA.  2000

Magnificent Desolation
Buzz Aldrin
Memoir by one of the Apollo 11 astronauts.  2009

A Man on the Moon: the Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts
Andrew Chaikin

The Man Who Ran the Moon: James E. Webb, NASA, and the Secret History of Project Apollo
Piers Bizony
The politics of aerospace.  2007

Many Moons: the Myth and Magic, Fact and Fantasy of our Nearest Heavenly Body
Diana Brueton

Men from Earth
Buzz Aldrin
From one of the astronauts who went there. 1989

Moonlore: Myths and Folklore from Around the World
Gwydion O’Hara

Moon Shot: the Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon
Alan B. Shepard
Another astronaut scoops. 1994

Of a Fire on the Moon
Norman Mailer

The Once and Future Moon
Paul D. Spudis
A geologist explains what we have learned about the moon, and explains why he thinks we should go back to increase our knowledge.  1998

Patrick Moore On the Moon
Patrick Moore

Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age
Matthew Brzezinski

Rocket Man: Astronaut Pete Conrad’s Incredible Ride to the Moon and Beyond
Nancy Conrad
Biography.  2005

The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York
Matthew Goodman
I haven’t read this book, but I’m thinking with a title like that I’m going to have to.  2008

Welcome to the Moon!: 12 Lunar Expeditions for Small Telescopes
Robert Bruce Kelsey

What if the Moon Didn’t Exist
Neil F. Comin
Now there’s an interesting question.  1995

Book Thoughts: Payback by Margaret Atwood

I knew that, in addition to her mind-blowing fiction, Margaret Atwood also writes some pretty decent poetry.  And now I come across her non-fiction book, Payback (Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth.)

The book is as thought-provoking as I assumed anything by Atwood would be. (Okay, that sounds a little too  much like “How much wood would a woodchuck…) The book has nothing to do with managing your finances and everything  to do with examining the meanings and origins of the concept of debt.  What do we owe each other and why do we think we owe it? 

Of particular interest to fiction writers will be chapter three: Debt as Plot, which made me think that there aren’t even four basic plots. Perhaps there’s only one, and it is debt. Who owes what to whom, how did they get into that debt and how are they going to get out of it? She begins the chapter by saying “Without memory there is no debt. Put another way: without story there is no debt.”

She goes on to examine the story of debt in various works of literature, her rather obvious starting point being Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Some whopper of a debt there. She also discusses A Christmas Carol, Vanity Fair and, a less obvious choice, Wuthering Heights. Think that last title is about romance and affairs of the heart? Well, Atwood would have us know that the heart keeps a balance sheet.  Then too, Heathcliff uses financial debt to control those around him. 

After reading Payback I find myself examining many of my assumptions about life and human relationships. I also find myself reading fiction with a new eye. Want to  unravel the plot? Follow the debt.

Fish Trees

It’s spring and the fish trees are in bloom. Other people call them Bradford pear trees, I now know, after asking a friend who is versed in horticultural matters. You can’t help noticing them, of course. Beautiful white flowers, planted everywhere, and a distinctive fishy smell to the blooms. Without knowing the formal name, I had to call them something, so I’ve always referred to them as fish trees. My kids picked up on that, and fish trees they will always be in our family discussions.

We also use sprinkle cheese in our house.  My daughter coined this term for the grated parmesan stuff in a can. Another family I know calls the same food feet cheese, because the mother thinks it smells bad.

I’ve always been fascinated by those apocryphal stories of twins who invent their own secret languages. I know there’s been debate about whether this has ever really happened, and if so, to what extent.  My personal experience tells me that wherever two or more people are gathered together for any length of extended contact, at least a few privately used words and phrases will spring into being. As my son once pithily observed, “Every word is a made-up word.”

Amazing and flexible thing, language. It can be so personalized and so universalized at the same time. I started thinking about this because I noticed the first fish tree blooms the same day I read that the final volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English will be published this year. This dictionary, according to the publishers, “seeks to document the varieties of English that are not found everywhere in the United States–those words, pronunciations, and phrases that vary from one region to another, that we learn at home rather than at school, or that are part of our oral rather than our written culture.”  

Big news for language geeks. I can’t wait to lose a few hours over it at the library.

Book List: Coffee and Tea

While we’re trying to get used to the clock change getting us up an hour earlier in the morning, this might be a good time to indulge in some caffeinated reading.  To that purpose, a list of books about coffee and or tea, or set in coffee/tea shops:


The Art of Making Tea: an Album of Recipes, Portraits, and Other Rituals
Elizabeth Jones Hanley

Teahouse of the Almighty: Poems
Patricia Smith 

Graphic Novel:

The Haunted Tea-Cosy: a Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion for Christmas
Edward Gorey (Note: I love this book, and Edward Gorey in general. If you have a dark sense of humor and you celebrate Christmas, you should remember this book come December.)


Black Coffee: A Hercule Poirot Novel
Agatha Christie

Coffee, Tea or Murder: A Murder She Wrote Mystery
Donald Bain

Coffee to Die For: A Professor Teodora Morelli Mystery
Linda French

Decaffeinated Corpse
Cleo Coyle

Espresso Shot
Cleo Coyle

French Pressed
Cleo Coyle

Irish Coffee
Ralph McInerny

Latte Trouble
Cleo Coyle

One Coffee With
Margaret Maron  (note: I didn’t leave words out of the title)

Tea Shop Mystery Series
Laura Childs

Other Fiction:

Coffee and Kung Fu
Karen Brichoux

Coffee in the Morning
Roz Denny

Coffee Rings: Three Women, One Tragic Event
Yvonne Lehman

The Coffee Trader: A Novel
David Liss

Confessions of a Triple Shot Betty
Jody Elizabeth Gehrmen

Barti Kirchner

Fresh-Brewed Love: Four Novellas Share a Cup of Kindness With a Dollop of Romance

High Tea
Sandra Harper

Stupid and Contagious
Caprice Crane

The Teahouse on Mulberry Street
Sharon Owens

The Teahouse Fire
Ellis Avery

The Various Flavors of Coffee
Anthony Capella 


The Art of Tea-Leaf Reading
Jan Struthers

Cappuccino/Espresso: The Book of Beverages
Christie Katon

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Coffee and Tea
Travis Arndorfer

Confessions of a Coffee Bean: The Complete Guide to Coffee Cuisine
Marie Nadine Antol

Eat Tea: A New Approach to Flavoring Contemporary and Traditional Dishes
Joann Pruess

The Empire of Tea: The Remarkable History of the Plant That Took Over the World
Alan MacFarlane

God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee
Micheale Weissman

The Gospel According to Starbucks: Living With a Grande Passion
Leonard I. Sweet

The Green Tea Book: The Science-Backed “Miracle Cure”
Lester A. Mitscher

Green Tea: 50 Hot Drinks, Cool Quenchers, and Sweet and Savory Treats
Mary Lou Heiss

The Harney and Sons Guide to Tea
Michael Harney

Healing Herbal Teas: A Complete Guide to Making Delicious, Healthful Beverages
Brigitte Mars

A History of the World in Six Glasses
Tom Standage

Home Coffee Roasting: Romance and Revival
Kenneth Davids

How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else
Michael Gill

Start and Run a Coffee Bar
Thomas Matzen

The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide
Mary Lou Heiss

Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, From Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee
Bee Wilson

Tea: Addiction, Exploitation and Empire
Roy Moxham

The Tea Ceremony
Sen-O Tenaka

Tea Cup Reading: A Quick and Easy Guide to Tasseography
Sasha Fenton

Tea Cup Tales: The Art of Reading Tea Leaves
Margaret McWhorter

Tea: The Drink That Changed the World
Laura C. Martin

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace – One School at a Time
Greg Mortenson

Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World
Mark Pendergrast


Drink in the words and enjoy! 




Book thoughts: How having a stroke is like going to school

Note: This isn’t a review. It’s a summary of some random thoughts I had while reading.

I began reading My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor after watching the author’s speech on TED . Taylor is a brain scientist who experienced a stroke at the age of 37.

I’ve never been in the hospital with a stroke. So why did her experience seem so familiar as I read about it? The answer revealed itself with this sentence: “I wanted my doctors to focus on how my brain was working rather than on whether it worked according to their criteria or timetable.”

Aha! It was much like having a kid in school, I realized. Substitute a few words and you have a sentenced uttered by some parent somewhere at least once every day, especially if that parent has been through the IEP process.

“I wanted the educators to focus on how my child’s brain was learning rather than on whether it learned according to their criteria or timetable.”

I may have uttered those exact words. I know I’ve said something at least very close. 

There’s also this sentence from the book: “My ability to cognate was erroneously assessed by how quickly I could recall information, rather than by how my mind strategized to recover the information it held.” 

Familiarer and familiarer.

Taylor credits many thoughtful healthcare professionals who offered her real assistance and compassion. Nevertheless, it’s clear they were working within a strong institutional culture that made it difficult to operate outside the proverbial box. Likewise with teachers. Most of the ones I’ve known are great individuals, working within a strong institutional culture that allows teaching to a narrow range of learning styles and not much more.

We parents are asking them to meet our children’s needs, while the boss – the institutional culture – is requesting them to get the children to meet the needs of the system. This is why left-handers used to have to be cured. They smudged the paper too much; it caused problems with institutional efficiency. 

In the chapter titled What I Needed the Most, the list again seems like one that should be sent to educators as well as those working with stroke survivors. For instance: “I needed the people around me to believe in the plasticity of my brain and its ability to grow, learn, and recover.”

Some of the other needs she mentions – love, encouragement, dreams – are things we all need. May we all grow, learn and recover from our lives’ traumas if we remember to supply these to each other.

I encourage everyone to watch the talk on TED, even if you don’t read the book. It’s got good information on stroke, things we all should know. But it’s more about life and love and compassion, things we all should know as well.