Ranée

Favorite(s)

I’m a lifelong lover of books and music, having been massively influenced by both since I was a child, so this post contains a list of my seven favorite books and—as an homage to one of them—my top five all-time favorite recording artists.

Favorite Books

Listed in chronological order according to when I read them.

The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe (whom my father claims is some distant family relative of ours) is one of the first authors with whom I became enamored; he is also responsible for getting me hooked on supernatural literature. As a teenager, I devoured his stories of horror: “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and others. I also repeatedly read a number of Poe’s grimmer poems. What I admired most about his work was the artful way he generated suspense, the shocking turns he incorporated, and his lyrical style. Poe, to me, wasn’t just a master of the horrific but also rhythm, rhyme, and repetition of sounds (both assonance and alliteration). He will forever occupy a significant portion of my rather morbid heart.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

This book about a pathetic record store owner and self-described arsehole obsessed with making top-five lists, penned by a music-loving writer and critic has been among my all-time faves since I first read it back in college. Hornby’s debut novel reads like an Elvis Costello song (note: the title is an Elvis Costello song and Mr. Declan McManus also happens to be one of my favorite recording artists). I’ve never been able to find out whether or not Hornby purposely chose the title because of the song or whether, just being the music writer and lover that he is, he decided (like Costello) that the double meaning of the term high fidelity was incredibly appropriate (and clever) for his debut novel. Maybe it was a little of both. If I ever get the chance to interview or chat with Hornby, I’ll be sure to ask him. What makes this book one of my favorites, however, isn’t just its references to music or the fact that it was obviously written by a music lover who’d seen more than his share of know-it-all music snobs, but because Hornby is so frank about the awkwardness and absurdity so often inherent in relationships, his flawed and quirky characters are entirely believable, and his chronicle of Rob’s ridiculous romantic entanglements is really funny.

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

I treasure this tale of magic and the sacred feminine based on the Arthurian legends. Morgaine is without a doubt one of my favorite literary heroines, right alongside Lisbeth Salander (two very different but equally strong women, in my view). When I read this book, Avalon also represented something that I’d sorely lacked for most of my youth—a community of genuinely supportive women. This beautifully woven tale gave me hope that I’d eventually find my own place within one.

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

I know I probably shouldn’t list this book among my favorites without also including Bram Stoker’s Dracula on that list, but, well, King’s updated version of the Dracula story is frankly scarier than the original. In fact, it’s the scariest book I’ve ever read. I like my vampires creepy and terrifying and, like his predecessor and obvious influence, Count Orlok, the original film version of Kurt Barlow certainly fits the criteria.

The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy

When I was introduced to Duffy’s poems in an Irish lit class in graduate school, it was love at first read. By turns, bawdy, brash, and beautiful, Duffy’s style is one that I admire above many others. Her words, imagery, and subject matter felt so raw and real to me, and when I read The World’s Wife, a collection of poems about famous literary, mythical, and historical women (reimagined and written from their points of view), I identified with so many of them. Duffy herself is one of my favorite writers.

Mama Day by Gloria Naylor

Mama Day is another book I discovered in grad school, this one thanks to my advisor (and one of my real-life heroes) Teresa Washington. I suppose that aside from African American lit, this book also falls into the genre of “magical realism.” It’s also something of a love story. Those elements of the book along with its incorporation of the sacred feminine are certainly partly why I love it so. Another reason is Naylor’s brilliant storytelling and creative narrative choices. Parts of the story are told from the points of view of two of the main characters, Coco and George, and written in first person as they talk to/about one other and their relationship. Some elements are a beautiful lesson in history and culture. Other sections are a third-person narrative focusing on the title character of Miranda “Mama” Day and other residents of Willow Springs, which, like its most famous denizen, Sapphira Wade, belongs to no one but itself and its people. This is one book that I will never tire of re-reading because of its richness, and I laugh and cry every time I enter the world of Willow Springs.

Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés

This book is on my list because of how much it has meant in terms of my personal and spiritual growth. Reading this book awakened something that had been buried and brutalized within my soul, and it inspired me to reclaim and nurture that part of myself—to heal so that I might become whole.

Favorite Recording Artists

My favorite musicians

In true High Fidelity fashion, here are my desert-island, all-time, top favorite recording artists, in alphabetical order:

  • Tori Amos
  • David Bowie
  • Elvis Costello
  • Queen
  • Lou Reed (and The Velvet Underground sans Nico)

Satisfyingly soulful and strange, Tori Amos was a big part of my formative years and although Sarah McLachlan, U2, and Garbage were just as much so, it’s Tori’s music that’s stood the test of time for me. Most of the music that I loved by those other singers and bands were their earlier songs and records, whereas I’d rank albums like 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk and 2017’s Native Invader right up there alongside Tori’s first three. Quite a number of her songs have inspired post titles on this blog.

Elvis Costello, aka Declan McManus, aka Napoleon Dynamite, is the only one of my top five I’ve actually seen in concert (I didn’t really get out much when I was younger, OK?). He’s a masterful, witty lyricist and wordsmith, sharp with a turn of phrase, genius with his use of the double entendre, and fantastic on guitar. I’m a bigger fan of his earlier, grittier work on albums like My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, and Armed Forces, but I’m also impressed with his ability to effortlessly shift between music genres, particularly stuff that I wouldn’t have thought a fit for him (see albums like Secret, Profane, & Sugarcane and his work with Burt Bacharach). I appreciate genre-shattering musicians just as much as I do authors.

I suppose the other three on my list are sort of a testament to my love affair with glam rock, which began in earnest when I saw Todd Haynes’ film Velvet Goldmine, but I don’t just love those guys because of their glam records and personae. I love them because they’re weird and wonderful.

Lou Reed was the primary songwriter behind The Velvet Underground, one of the most influential bands in modern rock. To me, he was also its heart. I think one of the reasons I so love Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry is that it reminds me of Lou Reed’s songwriting. He was a poet too, a fellow freak and survivor, and a damn fine guitar player.

Speaking of freaks . . . yes, I loved the oft alien, always androgynous David Bowie for his weirdness too. But, like my other favorites, I also adored him for his musical talents, especially the risks that he took musically and his production work.

Bowie certainly had style and flair but so did Freddie Mercury, who is one of the main reasons that Queen makes my list. I called him “The Voice” because I was simply in awe of that man’s vocal range and talent. To me, he is far and away the most amazing vocalist in all of rock; no one else even comes close. I also couldn’t help but dig the fact that he was often so in-your-face and over-the-top when performing. Freddie isn’t the only reason I love Queen, though. I’m also a huge fan of Brian May’s guitar playing and the band was brilliant in the way that they melded genres and pulled off stuff that I’m sure the people working behind the scenes with them thought would never work.

Hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know a little more about me. I know you have your own favorite books, writers, and music-makers and I’d love for you to share them in the comments.

On Writing

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)

Anxiety and focus issues are some serious super creeps known to plague writers. If you’re haunted by such ghouls, then you may find yourself spending a lot of time staring at the horror that is a blank page or screen or over-preparing for the battle instead of heeding the call to action (i.e., getting caught up in things like researching, outlining, or character sketches instead of writing the actual story). You might sit down to write and have every intention of doing so, but some nasty little troll has other ideas and you end up chasing it in an endless time loop of distractions like checking social media, texting a friend, surfing the web, or drawing pictures that have nothing to do with your writing project. If any of that sounds familiar, then I empathize, fellow ink-slinger, because, unfortunately, I know all too well what’s it like to battle those Big Bads. Here are a few tips I’ve collated from my own experience in the fight.

Break It Up

If you struggle to stay focused (and I wouldn’t be shocked if the majority of people do given that the average attention span is a matter of seconds), then try building in more shorter writing intervals with breaks in between instead of fewer extended sessions.  If your goal is to write a certain number of words or pages per day, you certainly don’t have to write them all in one go.  Breaks will allow your brain to hit the reset button and hopefully you’ll be able to approach a project with renewed focus. If your brain is rested, it can also come up with fresh ideas.

Go Dark

If you’ve been staring at a blank page or screen, then try going dark. Turn off the computer screen and type away, even if you’re just banging out a string of nonsense letters, or close your eyes, pick up your pen, and do some automatic writing (ie, writing whatever comes into your mind). This is a fantastic way of unlocking your subconscious mind and letting it roam free as well as experimenting with letting go period. I realize that for someone with anxiety, that may sound terrifying; you need structure, you have to have a plan! There’s nothing wrong with an outline or plan, but you have to allow at least some room for flexibility because the creative process is by its very nature free-flowing. Start by trying just a few minutes of being like water; see how it goes. You might be surprised by what comes up when you do. I’ve found that this tactic often leads to some of my best ideas/work.

Daydream

If you’re losing interest in what you’re working on, then instead of forcing yourself to plow away at it, why not embrace the boredom? Boredom actually sparks creativity, so go ahead: imagine a place or that you’re some other person and let your mind wander, do a “what if?” exercise, or write in your journal. Sometimes distraction can actually be a good thing.

Get Reacquainted With Your Muse

Maybe you’re stuck for ideas because you’ve lost sight of your purpose. What was it that inspired you to write this project in the first place? Thinking about that, reminding yourself how you feel about that person/place/thing and why you wanted to write about it might be just the thing to spark renewed interest.

Work on Something Else

If you’re stuck sorting things out with a particular project or have lost interest, then work on something else for a while. It’s OK to take a break (as long as it’s not permanent or you don’t completely trash what you’ve been working on). Working on something different will get your creativity going again and might just help you figure out where to pick up the thread with your other project.

These are just a few ideas to try if you get stuck. Ultimately, you’ll need to explore what’s driving your anxiety or focus issues in the first place. What’s the root cause? Once you figure that out, you have a responsibility to yourself to take the necessary steps to manage it. If you can’t do that on your own, that’s OK; Buffy was the Slayer and she had a Watcher (well, two at one point) and the Scooby Gang helping her fight the Big Bad every week. We’re not superheroes, so we’ll likely need a lot more back-up to win the fight.