by Abigail Fellin
“The best books, they don’t talk about things you never thought about before. They talk about things you’d always thought about, but that you didn’t think anyone else had thought about. You read them, and suddenly you’re a little less alone in this world.”
When I first picked this book up at Barnes & Noble, I was intrigued by the image of kids chilling in a field, staring at the sky on the cover. Who are they? What is their story? And why are they all staring at the sky? Basically, I judged this book by the cover and decided I liked it instantly, giving the story high expectations to live up to.
Spoiler alert: It did.
We All Looked Up follows the story of four high school seniors as they realize it is not graduation they need to worry about, but the end of the world. An asteroid, affectionately called Ardor, is set to hit Earth in 8 weeks, ending life as they know it. This gives them two months to really live.
While this sounds like it could just be another apocalyptic story filled with high school drama and teen angst, it is so much more than that. Wallach takes stereotypes—the jock, the slut, the slacker, and the nerd—and turns them into three dimensional characters with insecurities, desires, and fears. The characters quickly change from stock characters to relatable people that readers can easily find a bit of themselves in. While multiple point of view stories can become a volley of going back and forth between different stories, Wallach does an excellent job of weaving the change of POVs together in way that makes the story seem continuous without giving all the characters the same monotonous tone.
This story is not without its shortcomings. Although Wallach was able to create multidimensional characters, he does fall into the trope of having a lopsided love triangle—unfortunately, an overused device in books. Despite this flaw (that sadly spans the length of the book), this novel is still a great read that leads readers to ponder philosophical questions on existentialism.
We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach could have crashed and burned like the Ardor is set to crash into the Earth, however it takes on big questions in a non-cheesy, cliché way that intrigues readers from the first page.
by Abigail Fellin
We Could Have Been Happy Here, MG Press, can be found online on Amazon and in local bookstores.
A thick fog sat on top of the lake. The misting of rain throughout the day had turned into a drizzle as the sun set. It was the first true fall night in Storm Lake, Iowa, as Iowa writer Keith Lesmeister visited Buena Vista University to read pieces from his new book, We Could Have Been Happy Here, a collection of short stories all based in the Midwest. Keith Lesmeister is originally from Cedar Falls, Iowa, but currently lives in Decorah and teaches at Northeast Iowa Community College. He has been published more than 30 times over the last five years, with his first short story, “Looney Bin” being published in Midwestern Gothic in 2012.
The classroom quickly filled up with students, faculty, and a few community members, and Keith started by telling the audience he did not always plan to be a writer. He explained how he was originally a jock and it wasn’t until his late twenties that he started writing. He shared a couple stories of family and Midwest life and then began reading from his book. After reading the first half of “We Could Have Been Happy Here,” Keith answered some questions from the audience involving how he began writing, where he draws his inspiration from, and his experience with publication before bookending the event with another excerpt from “Today Call Me Lou.” Afterwards, a few students lined up at the front of the room to purchase copies of his book and to talk with him a few minutes.
The next morning, I had the privilege of being able to give him a tour of the campus. After seeing the sites and spending time looking at literary journals in the library, we found our way to an office suite where we sat on a surprisingly comfortable tan couch, and I was able to ask him some questions. A transcript of that conversation is below.
Abigail Fellin: Why do you write about the Midwest?
Keith Lesmeister: In part, it’s because of what I mentioned last night in that it’s where I’m from, it’s where I grew up, it’s what I know well, the location certainly, but also the people. There’s a certain practical pragmatic part of this too, which is I don’t want to travel to someplace to get a feel for that location to write about it authentically; but it doesn’t take much for me to travel around the rural northeast Iowa landscape and take in the sight and sounds and the smells, and I can render that authentically in my work. Not just because I’m from here, but I’ve grown up here and it’s just kind of part of who I am.
What’s your favorite part about the Midwest?
Well, its tough to pinpoint any one thing I like more than the other, but I guess for me personally, I like the open spaces. For example, Nebraska is as vast as a landscape as you could ever see. They call Montana Big Sky, but North Dakota or South Dakota or Nebraska could just as easily be called Big Sky. I have a friend that refers to that vast sort of expanse, and the way that big sky is as the Iowa Ocean. I’ve always liked that term. So I like the open spaces. It terrifies some people, it doesn’t terrify me at all. The other thing to, again for me personally, I like small towns. And I like small town ethos. I like the character of the people, the intentionality of community. If, for example, you go to the grocery store in a small town whether you are going for $200 worth of groceries or a gallon of milk, you’re probably going to be there for like 30 minutes, at least. Because you’re going to end up talking to everybody, for better and for worse. The other thing is that I can walk everywhere in Decorah. I walk from the very south edge of town to the very north edge of town in an hour. It’s about two and half miles. There’s something really great about that.
What is some advice you would have for young aspiring writers?
I would say don’t stop writing, read as much as you can, adopt habits and stick to them, and be resistant. When you’re going to get a lot of critique and criticism, you just have to have the confidence to keep going, the self-discipline to keep going, the unrelenting sort of attitude of ‘I’m going to get this finished.’ And just, keep reading, keep writing.
Do you ever struggle with writing?
All the time. Every single day. It is honestly something that I have never felt a kind of mastery for. Like every project is new, every short story is a different short story than the one before, so to say that writing them is like anything else you do, or any other story of the story before that is simply not the case. Every story is like starting some brand new all over again. Of course it’s built on the same ideas, the same language but yeah, I struggle with it all the time. I’m just as fearful and insecure and self-doubting as ever before. Even with the book out, but that’s just being part of a writer, learning to manage and deal with those insecurities and self-doubts and persisting in the face of those things.
What is the most challenging and most rewarding part of publishing your book?
I don’t know if there is a challenging part other than the process of going through all the edits with the editors. In terms of rewarding, think of how much great television is there is out there, how many great movies there are, how many great books there are. People have all of these wonderful options. You can hang out with your friends, you can sit and drink coffee and watch a television show. And then I hear about people who have taken the time to read my book, and its immediately sort of flattering to me, and I’m always surprised to hear when people engage with the book because there are so many other great things they could be doing with their time. So the fact that anybody takes the time to read it is a wonderful thing, and on some level maybe the most rewarding is hearing from readers who engaged with the book at a very deep and personal level.
Do you have a favorite book?
That’s a tough one. Let me just point out some individual stories and authors who helped shape my early writings. I would say “White Angel” by Michael Cunningham, “You’re Ugly Too” by Lorrie Moore, and Charlie Baxter’s “Gryphon.” Those were some of my early influences. I could name those and maybe even a dozen more whose stories and story writers who’ve shaped my early writings and have continued to shape me as a writer today.
After the interview ended, another student I took him to lunch, and then had the opportunity to speak with him in one of our classes. Experiences like these are both educational and fun for students who want to interact with people who are currently involved in the publishing and writing world, and are a great aspect of the experience students at Buena Vista get to have. I’d like to thank Keith for coming here and sharing some of his work with me, giving his time to talk to classes here on campus, and connecting with our literary citizenship initiative on campus.
by Emily Wedell
Page After Page: Discover the Confidence & Passion You Need to Start Writing & Keep Writing by Heather Sellers is a short guide on how writers (or anyone, really) can fine-tune their writing habits. A successful poet and author herself, Sellers has written and published memoirs, children’s books, and countless short stories. Page After Page was published in 2005, which was after her collection of short stories was published. The main objective Sellers had in mind while working on this book was how to get people started on writing, and how to encourage them to continue to write. Each chapter addresses a slightly different aspect of developing yourself as a writer, from engaging with other authors, to defeating the infamous “writer’s block,” to dealing with rejection. Sellers uses many personal experiences and examples, as well as a few exercises at the end of each section for the reader (or the writer who happens to be reading) to try. While the advice Sellers gives seems geared towards budding writers who wish to practice creative writing, her exercises can help any writer further develop their skills.
There were a few parts in particular that I liked. First, the chapters are short, focused, and each discuss a specific topic (though they are all interconnected). The exercises Sellers gives at the end of each chapter may at first sound trite or irrelevant, but any writing will help develop a writer’s voice and help that individual get into the practice of writing. Next, Sellers encourages aspiring authors to write whenever and wherever, and even goes as far as to take a night off and sit and write. She explains that writers should be outlaws: free to write whenever, wherever, and to do as they please, because inspiration can come from anywhere and everywhere. As nice as this sounds, restraints such as jobs, responsibilities, and time usually prohibit taking writing time to oneself, but Sellers still encourages writers to try it, for a break and to see how much progress that writer can make with this method.
Overall, Seller’s book Page After Page offers lots of helpful advice about multiple different aspects or topics concerning writing. Even though some of her tips may not be entirely possible for one to practice due to prior responsibilities, the best advice she offers to aspiring writers is to simply write. She stresses that in order to succeed, writers must be dedicated and devote time to their craft. Her advice is useful for students, teachers, professional writers, or anyone who wishes to write.
Review by Soulinda Somvong
Writing Blockbuster Plots is written by Martha Alderson. She is known as the Plot Whisperer for her books on plot and for winning an award on the blog she manages, The Plot Whisperer, which has been awarded top honors by Writer’s Digest from 2009 to 2015.
Writing Blockbuster Plots was published in March 31, 2016, the book is divided into parts: Plot Planner and Scene Tracker. Both parts provide step-by-step instructions on how to maximize the impact of your scenes and strips the confusion out of the plotting process.
The book helped me tell the differences between scene and summary. Alderson states that a scene shows the action, while summary tells. Each scene has a tiny plot structure of its own, beginning with a goal or desire, followed by some sort of conflict and tension, and ending with an unanswered question or a cliff-hanger, something that makes the reader want to continue reading.
Summary is a place to rest; I can use summary to compress time when appropriate. The use of summary is helpful in moving quickly, so that I can focus on creating scenes to show the moments that are more important to my plot.
By the end of these book reader will be able to:
Review by Sarah Nicholson
Mare Barrow has a terrible life. Her brothers are conscripted into the never-ending war for the King of Norta and by her next birthday she will be too. Poor, desperate, and willing to do anything to keep her family alive, Mare sets out to steal enough to buy her freedom, but fate has other plans. The world is divided between the Silvers and the Reds. Those with Silver blood have abilities; stealth, metal manipulation, the ability to invade the minds of others, incredible strength, able to heal immediately, Silvers are as beautiful as they are deadly and they rule everything. Those with Red blood, are plain. There are servants and cannon fodder for the Silver’s never-ending war with the neighboring Lakelanders.
Mare is a Red. Mare can control electricity. Mare should not exist. When the Queen finds out about Mare’s extraordinary talents she is launched into the den of the people she hates the most. Now forced to hide her Red blood at all costs, or risk her family’s safety from the wrath of the Queen, Mari must fight not only for her own freedom, but for all the Reds.
Thus begins the first of four books in the Red Queen Series by Victoria Aveyard. This young adult fantasy novel has everything that makes the genre popular-- conflicts, love interests, cliff hangers, and plot twists that keep make you want to devour all the novels as fast as they come out. Aveyard has even included two novellas in the series, Queen Song and Steel Scars. These latest installments that show backstories for two of the series minor characters and tide fans over until the final book in the series comes out. While novella’s serve as nice supplements between the larger books they also provide a good opportunity for authors. When you start writing a world building series, like the Red Queen, you have to consider the back stories of every character, even if you know that information will never make it into the main novel of series. All that work, never seeing the light of day can be a tragedy, so novellas offer the perfect win-win for author and audience. Queen Song follows the story of the Queen Coriane, the first queen of King Tiberias, and her short reign in Norta. Steels Scars likewise follows the backstory of Captain Farley, a leader in the Red resistance. Both stories give us details we would otherwise be forced to speculate on. The novellas let us understand the decisions of the characters in the main series better and give us hope for better outcomes in the present situations, by viewing the past.
The Red Queen series is a full-fledged fantasy that both readers and aspiring writers can enjoy and learn world-building technique from. The last book of the quartet is due out in 2018. Current reading order for the series is Red Queen, Glass Sword, Cruel Crown (physical print of both novella’s), King’s Cage.
Review by Jaleesa Bucheli
Not like your usual writing guidebook, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life allows readers to learn about writing, what comes with it and most importantly, life. Anne Lamott uses her experiences in writing that followed her throughout her life and transforms it into a guide to the writer’s world for her readers. For anyone who writes or wants to write, she makes it clear that there is only one choice available, commitment to the process of writing. Anne Lamott says, "The real payoff is the writing itself, that a day when you have gotten your work done is a good day, that total dedication is the point". Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life was originally published in New York, 1994 by Pantheon Books and with it came great success.
Apart from this book, Lamott is the author of seven novels including All New People, Joe Jones, Blue Shoe, etc. She is also known for her best selling books of nonfiction, Operating Instructions and Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son, and Bird by Bird.
This book is a great read because it is not like your ordinary instruction manual book to writing, instead, they’re stories which allows readers to relate to the writer and her journey to writing and the obstacles she had to overcome. Readers build an understanding of the writing world. We are lead to know that sometimes it is hard, you don’t always get what you expect, things don’t always go as planned, but regardless one should never give up and should continue writing if that is what you love to do. This is what Lamott tries to explain throughout her book, Bird by Bird.
One thing that I enjoyed about this reading is the example that the author gives on one of her published works about her father’s diagnosis with brain cancer. Her father had advised her to turn this tragedy into a story. He told her to pay attention and to take notes, and eventually these writings became short stories that later became published a year after her father’s death. With this example, Lamott demonstrates that although she had her first ever publication, it was not all happiness and success. She still had a lot of work to do, and she explains her journey with her continued writing. Anne Lamott is a serious writer, but at the same time she is honest and puts a piece of herself in each writing which allows her work to become real.
by Claudia Martinez
Now Write! Mysteries: Suspense, Crime, Thriller, and Other Mystery Fiction Exercises from Today’s Best Writer and Teachers was edited by Sherry Ellis and Laurie Lamson. The book was published in 2011 by Penguin Group Inc. Sherry Ellis edited the Now Write! Series. Laurie Lamson is a writer, a filmmaker, and book editor. Lamson has edited the Now Write! Screenwriting with Sherry Ellis as well as this book. The overall purpose of this book is to be able to help writers through the process of writing a mystery book or story. Each chapter is composed of sections. And in every section there is an exercise that the reader could do and get some ideas.
In addition, the different sections have personal experiences of different authors that provide insight on why an activity could be so important to the writing process. One example is the first chapter has a section dedicated to research. The author describes the importance of research and makes it relatable by giving his own experience. When I read the section on research I thought it would have been boring or uninteresting because it is not fun or amusing. But I personally found the different experiences to be very enjoyable.
Stephen Schwartz is the author in this particular section. He had mentioned that he was able to convince all of his professors to let him do research on the Navajo reservations, which allowed him to miss two whole weeks of college. His road trip to gather information was titled research but he realized that it was something that he could enjoy doing. When the author gave this experience it made a difference and truly showed how it could be fun and interesting but also never forgetting its importance.
I believe that others, like students or teachers, would be able to enjoy the book because it is not just some manual that just gives you steps. It provides a different perspective on the writing process and it is also specific towards mysteries. It also provides exercises that could really help the juices flow for a writer.
by Cole Hackbarth
In 2005, Bison Books published Ted Kooser’s guidebook The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets. In this “manual”, Ted Kooser offers advice to everyone on how to create, write, and possibly publish poems of their own. Ted Kooser has been writing poetry for almost fifty years, during that time he has published twelve collections of poetry, has been named the Poet Laureate of the United States, and is currently a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
When writing this guidebook, Kooser wanted to offer practical advice to poets of different skills and styles in the hopes of improving them. The guidebook consists of twelve chapters, with each chapter discussing the steps to take when writing a poem, and also other various aspects involved with writing poetry. Within each chapter, Kooser provides some of his own poems as examples when trying to teach the reader a lesson. Kooser also supplies other contemporary poems from other poets, as well as a few older poems from poets like Emily Dickinson included.
I myself am not much of a poet, but Kooser wrote this guidebook in a way that even I could understand by keeping technical poetry language to a minimum, and then providing a practical example to help readers understand. An example of this can be seen on page 47, when Kooser says that the form of a poem is comparable to a package of ham. The poem can be seen as the entire package, with the words and messages being the ham cubes, and the form being the container. Kooser tries to send the message that the important pieces of the poem are the ham cubes. Each chapter is very much like this, and Kooser is successful with each example he provides. Another thing I enjoyed about Kooser is how friendly and realistic he sounded in this guidebook, On page 49 he is honest and says how a sestina”is a whole hell of a lot of work”, and I definitely appreciate this honesty.
I think that other people would enjoy this book because it is a book that everybody can pick up and understand. The tone of the book is friendly, one that shows that poetry isn’t as threatening as people think it is. I certainly recommend it, and hope that other people decide to give this guidebook the same chance I did.
By Chase Harrison
It is fitting that Stephen King’s On Writing begins with a preface describing a band that he performs in: the art of music is a generally more personal art than almost any other medium, and this prelude sets up an intimate and wide ranging exploration of the world around King that created the world within his voluminous body of work.
Part autobiography and part manual for writers, On Writing is written with the same attention to detail, wry sense of humor, and casual attitude towards the harrowing that marks King’s other works, but in this more personal and casual environment it is fascinating to find how much of his writing persona is found in his own life.
The autobiographical portion of the book focuses on King’s relationship with the world of literature, starting with his youthful obsession with horror comic books, cascading through his early days of writing Carrie while working as a high school teacher, and following his ongoing success through to present day. In a classic bit of King intrigue, there is a running, subtle thread underneath much of this portion of the book: King’s alcoholism. In between passages about his rising success and his thoughts about his individual works there are passing references to the fact that his memories of this period are foggy because of how drunk he was for much of that period (in a moment of sad comedy, he notes that he quite likes Cujo, despite the fact that he has no recollection of writing it). It is a thrilling account of the pre-internet process of becoming a famous author, with all the anachronisms and surreal moments that come with that setting, and is a great addition to the Stephen King canon in its own right.
The second half of the book is a typically opinionated account of what Stephen King considers to be good writing. The most important passage of the book unfolds when King undergoes an analysis of each of the elements of a book and notes what he likes to see and what he would rather avoid from those elements. Though his descriptions of his enjoyment are enjoyable, it’s more fun (and more educational) when he rips into specific authors and narrative and rhetorical devices that he hates. This is followed by a number of musings on the nature of writing, finishing with a gorgeous passage about the location of his desk, summing up perfectly the balance between art and the artist in unexpectedly saccharine prose from King.
On Writing displays the many sides that make up of Stephen King: excellent writer, broken and reformed man, avid consumer of all media, and overall a mind that is among the best of the 20th century. If your goal is to become a master of suspense, you may be disappointed, but if you want to become a better writer and a better person, you can’t do much better than On Writing.
by Joanna Isimbi
The Help is a 2011 film directed and written by Tate Taylor, and adapted from Kathryn Stockett's 2009 novel of the same name. The film and novel describe the story of young white woman and aspiring journalist Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan. The story focuses on her relationship with two black house cleaners, Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson, during the Civil Rights era in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi. In an attempt to become a journalist and writer, Skeeter decides to write a book from the point of view of the house cleaners referred to as "the help”. I think that The Help is a safe film about a volatile subject. Describing the story of how African-American house cleaners in the South viewed their employers, the film is equally the story of how they empowered a young white woman to write a best-seller about them.
The Help is an exhilarating, funny, hopeful and courageous film that deals with great human values without ever falling into sadness. Several films have dealt with the subject and I believe that The Help is one of the best. Its strength lies in the characters: the good Aibileen and Minny, as well as Skeety, Celia and the infamous Hilly, leave an unforgettable picture. Certainly, I have to agree that The Help is not always consistent and sometimes goes astray in clichés, but it also knows how to tackle these at the right time. People say that a big change sometimes starts with a murmur. With The Help, we realize what the subtlety of racism was at this period of history and how it is crazy that those women trusted the women with their children but refused to share the same toilet!
I believe that different people no matter their age, race or gender would enjoy this movie because it is about everyone. The movie teaches us about race relations, respect and love. The spectator puts himself or herself in the shoes of these women in uniform, invisible and humiliated on a daily basis, but find the strength to survive! They also remind us that love can conquer everything else. One of the character, Aibileen Clark has a very strong relationship with the girl she looks after and she often tells her that no matter what “she is kind. She is beautiful. She is important”. This shows that no matter what color, race or gender you are, you are important. I have watched the movie and it had worthwhile content, was funny, and heartwarming, all at the same time. I think that it would be of interest to anyone because the story teaches good lessons of acceptance, camaraderie and perseverance. The movie is unquestionably not about hate but about love.