Kristan Hoffman - Writing Dreams Into Reality
Wed Aug 6 2014

LIKE NO OTHER by Una LaMarche

Please note: My “Reading Reflections” are not reviews. They are simply my thoughts in response to certain passages.

Like No Other As part of We Heart YA, I recently joined a diversity-focused YA book club, with the goal of putting my money where my mouth is and further supporting #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Our first selection was LIKE NO OTHER, a modern-day Romeo & Juliet story set in Brooklyn, featuring a Hasidic Jewish girl and a West Indian boy. The book resonated deeply with me, due to my own experiences with interracial relationships, and due to what was going on while I was reading. You can learn more about the book and its elements of diversity in this Q&A with author Una LaMarche.

Everything that this child is starts right now. The country, the city, the neighborhood, the block, the house — every detail of where babies are born begins to set their path in life, begins to shape them into who they’ll be. A newborn doesn’t choose its family, its race, its religion, its gender, or even its name. So much is already decided. So much is already written.

This quote is loaded. It could spawn a whole post by itself. It makes me think about all the paths that were laid out before me, all the balls set into motion, long before I was born. And before my parents were born. Before my friends were born. Before my own children will be born.

It also reminds me of the idealistic notion that everyone is equal. In terms of inherent value, that’s true. But in terms of equal footing, equal playing field? Unfortunately not. That’s why the idea of privilege is such a hot topic lately.

I am ashamed that my selfishness has caused me to miss a moment I’ll never get back — even if it also created a moment I’ll never forget.

This is the double-edged sword of selfishness. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, sometimes it’s both.

If left to her own devices, Devorah would never be anybody but herself. It would never even occur to her. Other people put on disguises every single day — brand-name clothes to make them seem cooler than they are, makeup to cover up their flaws, personas carefully cultivated to make them more popular — but Devorah never does. She is always, almost helplessly, genuine. And that is endearing as hell.

I strive to be this kind of person. Natural, genuine. It’s not as easy as one might think. There are a million voices, a thousand pressures. Magazines, marketing, trends. All trying to sell you something, shift your perceptions, change your priorities. It’s hard to tune out and listen only to yourself. (Especially when self, as mentioned earlier, is actually formed by a lot of factors that are outside your control.)

She’s trapped by too few choices, while I feel trapped by too many. It’s too bad we can’t share some choices and even it out.

This is the double-edged sword of choices. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad, sometimes they’re both.

“It’s easier for you. You can pass back and forth. I’m afraid that if I leave, I won’t ever be welcome home again. And I don’t hate it, you know?” Her chin trembles as tears fill her rain-cloud eyes. “My family is everything to me, and there’s so much I love… I want to be able to have both. You and them.”

This is the double-edged sword of family. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, sometimes it’s both.

Okay, that’s probably getting old.

It’s true, though. Most things in life aren’t black or white. They’re black, and white, and every shade of gray in between.

I have to take control and make a choice. But there is no choice that will bring all of my fragmented soul together. No matter what I decide… part of me will be forever lost.

A rock and a hard place. A game without a winner. (Which is subtly, but significantly, different from a game without a loser.) I’ve been there before. I’ll probably be there again. Is this what adulthood means? It’s not fun.

“She was my mother, and I felt her sadness like it was my own.”

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Mon Jan 27 2014

IF ONLY by Geri Halliwell

Please note: My “Reading Reflections” are not reviews. They are simply my thoughts in response to certain passages.

If OnlyIn the 6th grade, I heard “Wannabe” on the car radio and asked my mom to turn it up. The lyrics were inane, and yet they also spoke to me on some strange level. I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want. So tell me what you want, what you really really want. I really really really wanna zig-a-zig-ah! By the end of middle school, my best friend Aisha and I were firmly entrenched in Girl Power. We knew every Spice Girls song by heart (even the B-sides) and we sang them (divvying up the parts) while walking home from school, working at my parents’ office, and playing Nintendo.

Over the years, the Spice Girls changed and matured in many ways — as did I. But in reading Geri Halliwell’s book, I was reminded of how much I’m still that girl striving to reach her dreams. And maybe I always will be.

I drew a lot of comfort from these wannabe musters in dance studios and theater foyers because I knew that I wasn’t alone. If my dream was fruitless and foolish, then a lot of other people had the same problem. We couldn’t all be wrong. (118)

Sometimes it seems like everyone I know wants to be a writer. And sometimes that scares me — like how am I supposed to stand out among this crowd?

But then I remember:

1) Publishing is not a zero-sum game. There’s plenty of pie for everyone.

2) These people are my people. They get me. We’re all dreaming the same dreams, and with each other’s help, we can achieve them.

3) I live in a bubble of my own making. All I need to do is step outside of it — talk to people who have no idea what “pantsing” is or how advances work — and I’ll realize that most people want nothing to do with writing books. Bless them.

(Now if only more people were interested in reading books…)

Not all of my grand plans ended in complete disaster. Each time I seemed to make just enough forward momentum to feel that I was still heading in the right direction. It wasn’t so much a case of one step forward and two steps back. More of treading water and hoping the current would take me where I wanted to go. (125)

I think this is just what progress feels like. An endless road — until suddenly you arrive.

(At least, that’s what I’m hoping/assuming!)

The way I figured it, people fell into three major categories. Those who have little ambition, achieve nothing and complain about what a rough deal they get. Those who are comfortable with their lives and feel no need to rise… And finally, there are people like me — restless dreamers. (160)

Okay, there are probably more than just those 3 categories, but I definitely know people in the first and third groups. And personally, I think the world needs more people in the second.

“You do know what your girl power is, don’t you?”

“It’s tapping into your inner resources to help you achieve your goals. If a girl has brains and femininity and most importantly inner strength and determination then, my dears, she has a very deadly weapon.” (179)

I think this is what the new wave of feminism is about. We’re not telling girls, you have to be this or that. We’re telling girls, you don’t have to be anything. You can be this. Or that. Or this and that. Whatever you want. Whatever makes you you.

And most importantly, we’re not defining a girl’s value through her looks. Or her career. No one thing should define a woman. (Or anyone.) It’s a total package kind of equation.

I’d like to be able to tell them that it all comes down to talent, but that’s not true. And I’d like to be able to say that perseverance inevitably pays off, but that’s not true either.

Nor is it about luck, or lottery tickets. You could be the most talented, most dedicated, luckiest wannabe in the world and still not succeed. In reality, it’s all of these things mixed into a cocktail that is never made the same way twice. (384)

And that, my friends, is the truth. There is no secret recipe. There are only the various ingredients, and your willingness to try combining them time and time again.

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Wed Oct 9 2013

FANGIRL by Rainbow Rowell

Please note: My “Reading Reflections” are not reviews. They are simply my thoughts in response to certain passages.

Fangirl

There is no way for me to fit all of my memories and feelings about college into the confines of a blog post. But somehow, author Rainbow Rowell has managed to capture them — my emotions, my experiences — within the pages of her latest novel, FANGIRL.

The tiny dorm rooms. The kind but intimidating professors. The musty, maze-like library. The snowy walks between classes. Seeing different sides of people you thought you knew. Faltering as a writer. Growing as a writer. Falling in love. Making your own home. Living up to other people’s expectations. Learning how to be okay with not living up to them.

All that, and so much more. Rainbow Rowell is now 3-for-3 for me, which means I’ll read pretty much anything/everything she writes from here on out. (Her other two books are ELEANOR & PARK and ATTACHMENTS, in case you were wondering. Which you should be.) I guess you could call me a… fangirl?

(Sorry, I had to.)

“I don’t want to kiss a stranger,” Cath would answer. “I’m not interested in lips out of context.”

Neither am I. Never really have been, for some reason.

Oh, there is a boldness inside me, and sometimes she imagines what it would be like to have “hooked up” with someone. Or to be single in her 20s and dating around. But at the end of the day, that boldness is best served — is happiest — in my stories. She likes adventure without consequences, which doesn’t exist in real life, but is beautifully abundant through fiction.

“How do you not like the internet? That’s like saying, ‘I don’t like things that are convenient. And easy. I don’t like having access to all of mankind’s recorded discoveries at my fingertips. I don’t like light. And knowledge.'”

On the one hand: SO TRUE.

On the other hand: The internet is evil. It’s such a distraction. And such a dangerous distraction, because it distracts you by pretending to be useful. One second you’re researching a “small” and “quick” detail for your story — an hour later, you’ve got a dozen different tabs open, ranging from Wikipedia to the latest controversial think-piece to (let’s be honest) Twitter.

So, I love the internet. But I hate it at the same time.

“I’m afraid,” Professor Piper said, “afraid that you’re never going to discover what you’re truly capable of. That you won’t get to see — that I won’t get to see — any of the wonder that’s inside of you.”

I think that’s what we all fear. Isn’t it?

On a related note — but detouring away from the context of FANGIRL — I don’t care for the one-size-fits-all definition of “seeing the wonder” that our society encourages. In other words, fame & fortune. That is not the only way that wonder can be recognized or valued. And yet that seems to be what we’re telling people matters most. If you’re not spectacular, you’re nothing.

Except that isn’t true at all.

This wasn’t good, but it was something. Cath could always change it later. That was the beauty in stacking up words — they got cheaper, the more you had of them. It would feel good to come back and cut this when she’d worked her way to something better.

Oh words. Words words words. I’ve got to try and remember that you are free. Free to use, free to be bad, free to delete later. Free, and not to be feared.

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Mon Aug 12 2013

OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout

Please note: My “Reading Reflections” are not reviews. They are simply my thoughts in response to certain passages.

Olive KitteridgeDuring our recent safari, I actually created a new summertime reading memory of my own, one that I think will be a favorite for years to come. Thanks to digital library lending, I had pre-loaded OLIVE KITTERIDGE onto my iPad, and each day during our afternoon siestas, I would lie on the cot in my tent, or sit outside under the shade of a mopane tree, and enjoy a story or two.

Elizabeth Strout’s writing was dense and delicious. For some reason I hadn’t expected this book to be so … small-town, and yet universally relatable. Strout really transported me to this place, made me care about these people. And in telling me their stories, she taught me about myself.

She also inspired me to reconnect with my love of writing short fiction. Reading this book planted a kernel of creative energy that I’ve been doing my best to nurture and grow.

Here are a few of the lines I loved.

You get used to things, he thinks, without getting used to things.

He had thought more and more how provincial New Yorkers were, and how they didn’t know it.

Hope was a cancer inside him. He didn’t want it; he did not want it. He could not bear these shoots of tender green hope springing up within him any longer.

You couldn’t make yourself stop feeling a certain way, no matter what the other person did. You had to just wait. Eventually the feeling went away because others came along. Or sometimes it didn’t go away but got squeezed into something tiny, and hung like a piece of tinsel in the back of your mind.

Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as “big bursts” and “little bursts.” Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous, unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well: a friendly clerk at Bradlee’s, let’s say, or the waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows how you like your coffee.

The appetites of the body were private battles.

Lives get knit together like bones, and fractures might not heal.

“All these lives,” she said. “All the stories we never know.”

I think that’s the essence of why I love to read and write. Because I want to know everyone’s stories. Whether people tell me, or I make them up myself.

Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology.

I wish this was more true of myself. I’ve made a conscious effort in recent years to be more confident, less concerned with others’ opinions. And I’ve made big strides. But I think I can go even further.

“‘Don’t be scared of your hunger. If you’re scared of your hunger, you’ll just be one more ninny like everyone else.’”

I don’t remember the context of this line, but I believe it’s about passion. About taking that leap of faith, trusting in yourself, your gut instincts. There are all sorts of reasons to take (or not take) certain paths in life, but I think fear is probably the worst reason.

Everyone thinks they know everything, and no one knows a damn thing.

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Mon Jun 11 2012

SILVER SPARROW by Tayari Jones

Please note: My “Reading Reflections” are not reviews. They are simply my thoughts in response to certain passages.

Silver SparrowSILVER SPARROW was my book club’s most recent selection. I knew nothing about it going in, which sometimes I think is the best way to read a book. This isn’t a feel-good story, so it’s hard to be like, “Omg I loved this!!” But I did really enjoy the writing, and I was impressed by the complexity of the characters and their actions.

She is gifted with language and is able to layer difficult details in such a way that the result is smooth as water. She is a magician who can make the whole world feel like a dizzy illusion. The truth is a coin she pulls from behind your ear. (5)

To me, this is what good writing does. It gifts you with impossibilities that are at once both dazzling and familiar. An unexpected and perfect analogy, a lovely turn of phrase. Images and ideas that were hiding inside you, revealed by someone else’s words. All as silky and natural as the wind. If that’s not magic, then I don’t know what is.

When did I first discover that although I was an only child, my father was not my father and mine alone? I really can’t say. It’s something that I’ve known for as long as I’ve known that I had a father. (6)

My father wasn’t a bigamist like the one in SILVER SPARROW, but he did have a wife and two daughters before my mother and me. I can’t remember being told, but I also can’t remember a time that I didn’t know. (I do remember thinking as a young girl that Phoenix, where my half-sisters lived, was just the name of the apartment complex with dark red awnings down the street from us.)

In spite of all the differences between the family in SILVER SPARROW and ours, I found it fascinating to glimpse into the mental and emotional headspace of the daughter who didn’t get her father full-time. Did my half-sisters resent me the way Dana resented Chaurisse? Did they also long to know me? Would we have been friends? And how do these complex, contradictory feelings compare to the ones that “normal” siblings have?

Whether or not I ever get the answers to these questions, it’s thinking about them that makes me grow. That’s the point and the power of fiction, after all.

(Note: Whatever issues there were in the past, my impression is that our family has done a good job working through them, especially in the past decade or so. I credit my middle half-sister in particular for opening the dialogue between everyone and pushing us all to become closer.)

(Also: She actually reads this blog. Hiiiiiii.)

This was what it was to have a friend, someone who knew exactly who you were and didn’t blame you for it. (75)

This is why people love dogs. (And cats, I guess. Although I suspect that sometimes cats DO blame us for our faults…)

But seriously, if I look at my longtime friends, this is definitely a defining trait of those relationships. And that kind of acceptance is so… essential, so priceless, so healing.

On the other hand, if I look at the friendships that have failed in my life, I can see now that they lacked this. I was blamed for who I am. But the more important thing for me to reflect upon is, Did I blame them for who they were?

And now, a few great lines to close us out:

“Love is a maze. Once you get in it, you’re pretty much trapped. Maybe you manage to claw your way out, but then what have you accomplished?” (116)

“You got to learn how to listen sideways to what people are saying to get at what they really mean.” (260)

The truth is a strange thing. Like pornography, you know it when you see it. (303)

“Just because you were ignorant doesn’t make you innocent.” (327)

People say, that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But they are wrong. What doesn’t kill you, doesn’t kill you. That’s all you get. Sometimes, you just have to hope that’s enough. (340)

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