My Little Free Library

You might recall that back in December we installed a Little Free Library in front of our house. To say it has been a successful and positive addition to the neighborhood would be an understatement. I love my LFL and really enjoy keeping it stocked and seeing how the neighborhood interacts with it.

I first learned of Little Free Libraries in 2014 and thought, I want one of those! Not only is the concept AMAZEBALLS but my neighborhood could really use some culture and interaction between people. Gah. I thought having one would make our street a better place to live. I thought maybe it would give me a chance to find out that I had something in common with the people around me. Because while we got along well with our next-door neighbors and across-the-street neighbors, there was pretty much no one else there whom we talked to or appeared to have anything in common with — or frankly, ever saw.

The bigger problem was that it wasn’t the right place for us to be living. We’d been there almost 13 years but hadn’t really been happy there for a long time. With no other kids in the area near our kids’ ages, with few adults in the area close to our age, with an hour-long commute each way each day, and with its being the suburbs (not our groove), we decided it would take more than a cute little house full of books to fix things. So we moved, and the LFL project got put off.

Fast forward to now. We live in a home that’s big enough, in the city, close to where we work and go to school, and have lots of neighbors we love with amazing kids who play with our kids. This is, for us, a happier place. So at the end of last year, we put up a Little Free Library, which my husband built.

It’s shaped like a tiny house — painted blue, because that’s one of my favorite colors — and has a roof painted and shaped like an open book. The doorknob is also shaped like a book, which he created on his 3D printer. The whole thing is so charming. And people come by often, sometimes more than once a week.

***

Whenever I see someone stopping at the LFL, I come out to say hello. If I’ve never met them before, I tell them I’m the steward and ask what they like to read. And often they thank me for putting the LFL up and say that it’s been such a great addition to the neighborhood.

That’s all I’ve wanted, really — to make a positive contribution to my community. To get literature into more people’s hands. To make it easy for them to have the occasion to read more books. To put more books in front of people so they say, “Why not?” instead of “Maybe later.” I really think that society is better off when people have more good books to read — and read them.

Countless studies have shown that one of the best ways to cultivate empathy is to read fiction, and lots of it, from a young age. Connecting with a protagonist who isn’t like yourself and caring what happens to that character? That’s empathy. That’s what it looks like, that’s where it can start. And wow, do we ever need more empathy in the world — which sometimes feels like a giant raging dumpster fire, doesn’t it? I admit it’s hard to handle the firehose blast of bad news out there, especially right now. Things are sucking. But as this wonderful post from Heather over at Becoming Cliche reminds us, sometimes in addition to the political activism we engage in, what we have to do to combat the Big Ugly is to cultivate the Small Beautiful, over and over again, in concert with lots of other people, until that Beauty radiates outward and cleanses the rest with its light.

***

I tend to rotate the stock for my LFL about once a week or so. So where do the books come from? A variety of places! Some of them are donated to me by authors and editors who are friends of mine, which is awesome! (By the way, authors who might be reading this, I’m happy to put your book in there if you want to send it to me. Leave me a note in the comments and I’ll get back to you.) I also have approximately more books than should be allowed by law in my own personal collection. And since I’ve been told only one room in our house may be an actual private library, I have to confine my books to what will fit on the shelves lining the walls in there, so…

I’m always acquiring new books, which means I have to let go of some of them from time to time. And whenever I end up with duplicates, the duplicates go to the LFL. And when our kids outgrow their books and want to pass them on? Boom, LFL. And when our library at school withdraws books and gives the withdrawn copies away, I go and reclaim as many as I can and share those with the LFL. And two of my colleagues — actually my kids’ own first-grade teachers — recently cleaned out their classroom libraries and gave me a carload of books for very young readers! (Thank you, Dana and Jenny!!!) Sometimes other colleagues and friends bring me books they’re happy to donate, too.

And one of the appeals of the LFL is that it’s a community project, really: the neighbors add books to it as well. They started doing this immediately. I’m so grateful for that and love it; the whole reason I wanted to start a Little Free Library was for the engagement. I love that the people here love my little book house.

So what’s in it? All kinds of things — lots of genres and lots of categories! I have noticed that children’s books are very popular, so I have them in all age ranges. MG and YA tend to get snapped up. Also most popular is adult fiction in all genres, especially mysteries, science fiction, and fantasy. We have poetry in there, a few plays, some books in other languages, and nonfiction. I have noticed that nonfiction doesn’t move quite as well as other stuff, so when that doesn’t get picked up for really long stretches of time, I tend to take it out and save it for later or sometimes donate it elsewhere. Now and then we even have a magazine or two in there.

Do you have any Little Free Libraries in your neighborhood? Tell us about them in the comments!

 

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Monday Earworm: Duran Duran

I just got back last night from what’s probably my favorite writing conference, DFWCon, held annually in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Today has been a long and lovely day of sending my manuscript off to agents who requested it during my pitch sessions. (Yay! Let’s hope that goes well!)

The first time my friend Sarah and I went to DFWCon together, we had a particularly entertaining time singing along to this song on the drive back to Houston, so for nostalgia’s sake, please enjoy this Duran Duran video.

And like many music videos of its era, it will probably cause you to think about how much social consciousness has evolved in the decades since it came out. And that’s probably a good thing.

Feel free to share your reflections in the comments section below.

Monday Earworm: The Scorpions (again)

Back at the end of August last year, Hurricane Harvey really did a number on the Gulf Coast. And in Houston, where I live, the devastation was widespread and long-lasting; our city got a lot of attention because it’s so big, but many other communities in this region were even more ravaged than we were. And here we are, the next summer, and a lot of people whose homes were flooded have either just started moving back into their renovated houses or are still displaced.

But as Houston has demonstrated time and again, we are nothing if not resilient. We need mind-bogglingly massive updates to our enormous infrastructure and a much, much more competent state government, but until we get those, we at least have our attitude. After Harvey, my Monday Earworm was “Rock You Like A Hurricane” by The Scorpions.

To kick off the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season last week, I’m restarting the Monday Earworm series again with another really excellent Scorpions song. Although the connotation in the song is really different from how I feel about my city, and especially about its ridiculous weather for half the year and its current unreasonable heat wave, dear Houston, there’s no one like you.

 

So, What’s Been Happening, And What Comes Next

I hope you all enjoyed my Poem-A-Day series this year for National Poetry Month! I loved curating it and am already working on next year’s series. (In case you missed the poems from this April, though, click here to begin with the 1st and then follow the links at the bottoms of the pages to read them all.)

And then what came after National Poetry Month? May, also known as National Stress Out About Grades Month, or the Month of AP Exams and (in Texas, at least) Finals and More Grading Than Ought To Be Allowed By The Laws Of Human Decency. (Yes, I’ve heard the adorable arguments about assigning fewer papers so I’ll have fewer papers to grade. Doesn’t seem to help. Funny that.) At any rate, May is universally stressful for teachers here, and, well, that’s where things are with my day job. But I’m getting close to the end of all of that, because summer. I have, at the time of this post, 29 essay tests, 7 screenplays, and 29 in-class writing assignments left to grade before my final exam on Friday morning.

I can do this.

I think I can do this.

At any rate, it’s a finite problem. The semester always ends.

And once it does, I’ll be back to posting here on the blog. Not every day, dear readers. But the Monday Earworms, which seem to be popular, will probably come back, and there’ll be more substantive posts here and there as well. Maybe some poetry — maybe even some of my poetry.

What else is taking up my writing time these days? Thank you for asking.

Look for a new book of poems to be out later this year. (That’s Priority One at the moment, due to my editor in probably fewer weeks than it seems like.)

I’m also shopping around a high fantasy novel that’s the first of a trilogy.

For those of you who loved Finis. — and I’m so happy and grateful to those of you who have sent me emails and tweets and letters and marvelously illustrated cards about how much you’re still enjoying it! — there’s another story set in that world, currently in revisions. (Want to know whom it’s about? Think wolves. I’m really excited about this one!) Finis. is now also available at a new venue where you can purchase it as an ebook, or even read it for free: click here for the Myth Machine experience.

And because I just don’t have enough to do, I’m developing a textbook for the AP Gothic Literature class I’ve been teaching for the last quite-a-number-of-years.

Finally, as if that weren’t enough, I’m about a third of the way into writing a brand-new standalone novel. This one doesn’t have a working title yet, but imagine a Steampunk-flavored ghost story which includes political intrigue and romance, and you might get a little idea of what’s coming. Wouldn’t it be amazing if I had that manuscript ready to send out this time next year?

Yes. Yes, it would. We shall see.

Bonus Poem: Charlie C Petch

I hope you all enjoyed this year’s Poem-A-Day series in honor of National Poetry Month. I know it isn’t still April, but one poem caught my attention after all the poems had been curated for this year, and I really wanted to share it now rather than wait till next year because it is so relevant now. In truth, it has always been relevant, and frankly, I’m not under any optimistic delusion that it won’t still be a year from now — sadly.

In case you didn’t see John Scalzi’s blog today, he discussed in excellent detail some of the ugliness surrounding the nonsensical “incel” garbage movement. If you’re not sure what that means, go click on that link to his blog. It won’t take long to read, it’s funny, and it summarizes some of the problem rather well. (There’s also a good bazinga at the end.)

It’s useful to note that the poem I’m sharing with you today is directly related to the recent Toronto murders-by-vehicle, which was a result of an “incel” pudknocker getting his panties in a wad believing, erroneously, that the world had wronged him.

Thanks so much to poet Charlie C Petch for the use of this poem.

***

Forward & Reverse 9/30

The day after
toxic masculinity
turned a Toronto/Tkaronto rental van
into an automatic weapon
to kill women with
I was afraid to walk faster
than the man ahead of me
of the men who spilled from
bars to pat my dog
afraid for her when she
didn’t want their hands
clawing at her
helping themselves to her body
“is it a girl” they say “she looks like a girl”
she looks at me why she looks at me stop
and because they are each a cocked gun
I say that she is and smile and walk away
aware we are always moving targets
who are only allowed to not smile
in death
.
The day before
toxic masculinity
turned a Toronto/Tkaronto rental van
into an automatic weapon
to kill women with
I was afraid to walk faster
than the man ahead of me
of the men who spilled from
bars to pat my dog
afraid for her when she
didn’t want their hands
clawing at her
helping themselves to her body
“is it a girl” they say “she looks like a girl”
she looks at me why she looks at me stop
and because they are each a cocked gun
I say that she is and smile and walk away
aware we are always moving targets
who are only allowed to not smile
in death

***

Charlie C Petch is an award winning playwright, spoken word artist, haiku deathmaster, host and musical saw player. Petch is touring two spoken word theatre pieces, their multimedia piece “Daughter Of Geppetto” and their vaudeville play “Mel Malarkey Gets the Bum’s Rush” which got “Best of 2017” from Electric City Magazine for the radio play accompanying album “Odes & Acts.” They have published books with WordPress and LyricalMyrical and poems with Descant, The Toronto Quarterly, Matrix, and Oratorealis journals. Petch is the creative director of “Hot Damn It’s A Queer Slam,” a multi-city touring poetry slam series.
Find out more at www.charliecpetch.com.

Poem-A-Day: Stan Crawford

For our last day of National Poetry Month, I’m featuring a piece by Stan Crawford, whom I met years ago in a poetry workshop and whom I now see around town at poetry events every once in a while. He’s a very kind and interesting person, and it’s always fun to hear him read his work. In particular I admire his blend of accessibility and intellectualism and his subtle sense of humor.

Stan is very much a Houston poet, as this piece which refers to Ken Lay (of Enron infamy) will hint at. The devastating impact of the Enron debacle on Houston probably can’t be overstated. Even though it was nearly twenty years ago, we haven’t forgotten about it, or its perpetrators, or about the crimes which radiated from their choices.

***

After Reading in San Francisco About the Death of Ken Lay, and Consulting Orwell and Balzac

I scrutinize my morning face,
all folds and puffs.
Hair slack, gray-streaked,
random as straw.
A balcony of skin beneath each eye.

At fifty we have the face we deserve.
I too must be guilty of something.

Near Embarcadero a homeless man
with dreadlocks tangled as CIA plots
defies the signs that forbid feeding pigeons
and scatters his scraps of illicit bread.

Disheveled panhandlers and skateboard punks
hang on Haight Street and litter the park
with detritus of undertow
drenched in gold light.

Behind every great fortune, a crime.
A prison placed near the golden gate.
Sour inextricable from sweet
inside the chambers of our grapefruit hearts.

***

Stan Crawford is an attorney and poet who lives in the Houston Heights with his wife Dawn and their menagerie of pets. His poetry collection Resisting Gravity (Lamar University Literary Press) was selected as a Finalist by the Texas Institute of Letters for its First Book of Poetry Award in 2017.  

Poem-A-Day: A. E. Stallings

I recently saw this poem and it just knocked me out. The author, A. E. Stallings, generously allowed me to share it with you here.

In an environment where some writers may feel a tension between wanting to give voice to a marginalized perspective and not having the right to assume that perspective, Stallings’ poem creates a space for empathy and understanding and compassion and guilt without being heavy-handed. On a more technical note, I’m impressed by the poet’s use of rhyme and meter to create the even but not even, symmetrical but somehow “listing,” feeling of riding waves on the ocean.

Below the poem, find the poet’s own commentary on it. This poem first appeared in Literary Matters, and it later appeared in Women’s Voices for Change along with Stallings’ commentary.

***

Empathy

My love, I’m grateful tonight
Our listing bed isn’t a raft
Precariously adrift
As we dodge the coast-guard light,

And clasp hold of a girl and a boy.
I’m glad that we didn’t wake
Our kids in the thin hours, to take
Not a thing, not a favorite toy,

And we didn’t hand over our cash
To one of the smuggling rackets,
That we didn’t buy cheap lifejackets
No better than bright orange trash

And less buoyant. I’m glad that the dark
Above us, is not deeply twinned
Beneath us, and moiled with wind,
And we don’t scan the sky for a mark,

Any mark, that demarcates a shore
As the dinghy starts taking on water.
I’m glad that our six-year old daughter,
Who can’t swim, is a foot off the floor

In the bottom bunk, and our son
With his broken arm’s high and dry,
That the ceiling is not seeping sky,
With our journey but hardly begun.

Empathy isn’t generous,
It’s selfish. It’s not being nice
To say I would pay any price
Not to be those who’d die to be us.

***

“I am trying to remember exactly when I wrote this—it seems to have been published in September of 2015 but must have been written in the summer. My son did indeed have a broken arm, and my daughter was a six-year old who was fearless on the beach but with little in the way of swimming skills. The civil war in Syria was starting to become more visible in Athens—there had been a number of people, mainly families camped and protesting in the main square, Syntagma, until the police whisked them off one night. My husband is a journalist and had gone on Coast Guard patrols in the Eastern Aegean as these flimsy dinghies started coming in greater numbers. He had interviewed people who had been in the water for hours. (In one case, a woman had managed to save a baby, but not another child, who slipped her grasp.) That famous photo of the drowned toddler (Alan Kurdi) was shared widely in September of that year, but that was only one image, and this poem would have been written before that, I believe. Local news and social media sites often showed images of the drowned—kids my own kids’ ages, in similar clothes.

“By January of 2016, an average of ten people a day were drowning—again, often children, with one day seeing thirty-nine deaths. And of course not everyone was even found or declared missing. That was after this poem was written, but this sense that children were drowning in the same water we swam in haunted me all summer, the sense of the Aegean as dangerous and full of death as well as wine-dark or Santorini blue, and that the same element that caressed my children pulled others under. I had dreams about making that crossing. It was maybe that heightened sense of vigilance and danger you just have as a parent of young children, the way you can’t avoid reading terrible news stories about mishaps and accidents.

“But I did not want to write from the point of view of people undergoing this—that felt false to me; in a way I felt it was unimaginable and I wanted to keep that sense—and I wanted to engage with the very difficulty of writing about it. Empathy is derived from the Greek, of course, but it has almost the opposite meaning in Modern Greek to its English denotation—to feel in or towards someone and thus perhaps to feel against them. (The English word is itself a relatively recent coinage, with a pseudo-Greek lineage out of the German translation—before that, I suppose we had only “sympathy”—to feel or suffer “with” someone.) The poem was written relatively quickly, and I wanted to make sure in revision not to smooth the rough edges, the odd off-rhyme or rhythmic off-kilterness. I don’t normally end a poem so flatly, on such a bald statement, but I wanted that gambit here. And I wanted the poem to be published and distributed quickly—it spoke to the moment—which was why I was very glad it was taken by the (then-new) online magazine, Literary Matters.”

—  A. E. Stallings

***

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia, and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (University of Evansville 1999), winner of the Richard Wilbur Award, Hapax (TriQuarterly 2000), and Olives (TriQuarterly 2012), as wells as verse translations of Hesiod’s Works and Days (Penguin Classics 2018) and Lucretius’s The Nature of Things (Penguin Classics 2009). A new book of poetry, Like, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux Press in the fall. Stallings is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, and is a teacher beloved of students all over the world. Visit her website and order her most recent book here.